Arthur Brown in interview
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Arthur Brown in interview
Mike Thorne: You don’t behave like a grand old man of rock+roll. Do people treat you that way?
Arthur Brown: It depends what society I’m in at the time. Most people seem to know Fire and the God of Hellfire so to that extent, wherever I go, if anybody happens to tell anybody else who’s not just off the ground it’s the God of Hellfire, then it all starts up. I think in musical circles now I have more respect that I used to have, which is odd. In other circles, because of the visual image and everything, I’m viewed with a great deal of curiosity. So it allows me to be whatever I like, really.
Has Fire remained a looming presence, impossible to get away from?
[Arthur contributed an extensive rap to the new version of his classic song on Thorne’s The Contessa’s Party CD]
Yes, it has actually, although I have managed to get away from it several times. You know my second band, Kingdom Come, which recorded three albums. We didn’t do any of the old material at all–none of the Crazy World material, but it keeps coming back with successive audience generations. So, whatever I happen to be doing at the time–like now I’m doing a lot of acoustic stuff– Fire is still there on TV–a looming presence. Actually, except for the few years after its initial success I’ve really not wanted to be away from it. I enjoy singing it.
When we first came out with it, it was very shocking to people because they hadn’t had that kind of song as a popular song, and that album was probably the first pop one to analyze good and evil. And so a lot of people were disturbed by it. People would kick our equipment downstairs and beat us up and all of that stuff. What was strange was coming back in ‘94 and doing a tour here and finding that everybody knew the words, and they were all singing it as if it was like a nice little Sunday tea shop song and also going into big stores and finding it on their Musak tapes. Very strange, really, and to that extent it obviously can’t have the same effect as it did when it first came out.
You mentioned the good and evil elements. These seem to be mirrored today in the heavy metal and goth departments.
I think actually they did take a lot from it. I find it strange lately because, obviously, in that band I didn’t have a guitar. It was organ, brass and strings. [the bass line was played by Vincent Crane on the organ pedals]. Certainly, what I found interesting about the heavy metal stuff was that a lot of the people who’d come up through the hippie scene (and through those sorts of bands when that dissolved because of too much media attention causing it to go up its own arse), those lyrics appeared in the heavy metal scene. It was the same thing of questing, they’d taken it as dualistic–good versus evil. And then you have all the big masked figures, all of that stuff. To that extent it didn’t develop terribly subtly. But it was still there and some good material came out of it. People like Bruce Dickinson [Iron Maiden] will say they borrowed a lot from the bands I had. And I was surprised to find that out, because you do something and just go on. You don’t necessarily expect anything will come of it beyond enjoying performing it.
Do you think it is possible, in contemporary surroundings, to write something as shocking now as Fire was then?
Well, I think when Prodigy came out they were shocking to the people. Some of the things they did were unnecessary, I thought, and misguided. There was a fair amount that was shocking. But the problem is that today the shocking element lasts about two weeks because there’s just total overexposure. It also depends what there is behind it. Is it actually saying something or is it just shocking and fashionably so? And Marilyn Manson, well, some of the things he says are very shocking. Some of the things the Sex Pistols do are very shocking, but, as to whether they believe it, that’s another question. I find the really shocking things come from a great depth and overturn things just by being what they are. They are not necessarily aimed at being shocking. When we started, although that became part of the ethos of what we did, we didn’t start out to be shocking. It was just how we were.
It seems that an artist’s job is to look over the edge and report back, although that way lies craziness…
Yeah, I think that, as a job, it’s not bad, is it–getting paid for looking at the edge. But sometimes you fall over the edge and some of us never come back. Syd Barrett and all of those people. The latest I believe is Adam Ant (although that may be a tax dodge scheme; I don’t know; who does?) For me I find that going beyond all the boundaries is what I’m interested in and finding what there is there. Is there something there? What are the boundaries? They’re all in our mind. Is there something beyond the mind? That is the real question that’s shocking. And, if you find it, how are you shocked by it? The mind is shocked by it, doesn’t like it, although maybe the heart finds it very comfortable.
Is this boundary a moving target? Is it in a different place for you now than it was thirty years ago?
Well, it’s funny looking over some of my earlier interviews. I can see that I’ve moved a long way down the line. Where it’s coming now it’s more and more day-by-day, moment-to-moment that the horizon is… Let’s consider a true psychedelic cult, or a shaman. What happens is you get a vision, but then bringing that vision into your life is a totally different thing. There are people who, even without psychedelics, have reached an extraordinary high level of spiritual evolvement and, yet, as far as their daily life goes, they’re just beginning. So, yes, the horizon has shifted. I am no longer looking for anything. It’s all there.
It already is what it is. So, I’m not looking for something, I’m not trying to become something. I’m not wanting to find somebody to tell me how I should be. I think you do start that way. There appear to be so many people around you who know what it is you’re looking for. You’re looking for something and you go like-oh, look at the way that one sings. That happened in a lot of the psychedelic bands. They explored all sorts of things and a lot of the people who were tripping or encountering drugs for the first time, they looked in that era to the bands to find directions. No longer is that the case, I don’t think it is at all.
The real trick for the artist is to follow the experience with the communication of it, although that way lurks self-indulgence…
Yeah, yeah, or the not searching with the communication so that… you know there’s Orghast In Persepolis, a book [by Ted Hughes] about actors and the search for the perfect actor and the perfect singer. And what it is when you have no concept, you’re on stage with no concept. You don’t have an idea of how it’s supposed to be. You don’t aim to do it in a certain way, it just comes out. You’re no longer there, except in a way in which there’s a perception of quality and there’s a perception of truth, I think. Not even morality. It’s truth, and if what you’re about to come out with goes against that perception, then this sort of internal regulator comes. You can fully improvise in keeping with your spirit, whatever is in there, the mind reflects the spirit and self-vetoes, if you like. It’s rather like having a caring, intelligent, kindly George Bush…
You seem to describe yourself as a conduit, reminiscent of one composer’s [Michael Tippett’s] observation that he didn’t make the music, it was just out there to be found….
I think you can take it even a step further than that, to where there’s no division between you and the music at that moment of perfect performance. There just isn’t. Whereas this quality veto may come in at times, it’s not like you’re thinking about that at all or feeling like there’s something come through. You are it at that moment! There’s no division between you, the music, the audience, the time, the night. There’s a presence, which encompasses all of that. It encompasses the audience, the performer, the music. And when you get into that space, time disappears and all there is, really, left is happiness, bliss, joy. And it may encompass all sorts of shadows from the point of view of your looking at it and analyzing it. But, in itself, it is purely what it is. It is joyful. It’s there.
To go from the sublime to the ridiculous. You were one of the very first people to use a drum machine. Is this completely at odds with the spiritual plane you have just described?
Well, yeah, it was an odd thing, really. I’d always loved synthesizers from very early on and did a lot of experimentation with them. The Crazy World had the first sampling noise generator used on stage, made by WEM [standing for Watkins Electric Music]. It had six sounds in it. One was an air raid siren, and I always loved that. And so I felt the technology was now part of nature. You can’t separate out them; they’re the same thing. The point is to develop machinery that is organic. So, at that stage of development, we tried things like using old brain monitor machines and feeding them out through music and everything. They weren’t subtle enough at that time, but then there was the drum machine. And, so the concept for the band, Kingdom Come in its third life was: okay, we’ll start with that, synthesize the guitar and bass, and we’ll make it the equivalent of a string quartet where each instrument has equal value. To a certain extent we achieved it. We did things like taking a triangle shape and moving that up and down the fret board of the guitar, and those were the notes that were played, rather than doing by a normal musical thing.
I remember one case where the Dalai Lama was doing a presentation. They had a break for coffee and this guy who was a laborer came up and said, “Well, all these people are chatting away and you and I have nothing to talk about.” And, the Dalai Lama said, “Why is that?” He said, “Well, you believe in the eternal spirit, and I believe in eternal matter,” The Dalai Lama said, “What you call eternal matter, I call eternal spirit.” And, it’s the same thing; there’s no barrier between machinery and spirituality. It’s the motivation that counts, the intention. Gradually, as with the Internet, what started out as one signal going from one place to be received (rather like old fashioned marketing). Now we’ve got the Internet, and we can send out as many signals as we like to be received by as many people as you like. I think that has opened up the relevance of technology to spirituality. Once you get involved in spirituality, the idea of centralized power, political control doesn’t hold, and the idea that there are an infinite number of localized units, self-operant, self-knowing, self-guiding, flowing in. ‘The Force’ is totally compatible with having machines that play music.
What I see is that methods are slowly getting more and more subtle, and I see the potential for music being made by brain waves and feeling. At a certain point, there will be music made purely by presence, and then it’ll be a totally different kind altogether. The rhythm still will be body rhythm; there are soul rhythms and there are spirit rhythms, as well as body rhythms, but here on the earth we are listening through the ear. It is the body. So those kinds of rhythms and the beats of the heart will still be around. A lot of the rhythms are just reflecting the proportions of our limbs, fingers and hands. So what is the proportion of the capacity of sight to spirit, for instance? That’s another kind of music. So, that’s quite a long way distant, but, you know, Pythagoras considered all that and effected music quite radically. So, I don’t see technology as being divorced from spirituality, not at all.
But Pythagoras was dealing with precise measurements and linear concepts. In music, things can go creatively wrong and get runny at the edges. Do you see technology helping such processes?
Yes, I think it must. The idea of organic chips on dogs is perhaps disgusting in one way, but it shows the way things are going. Viewed from an objective point of view, the earth is an engine. It has heat at the center, cold at the sides, motion that produces energy, and energy that produces organic growth. Without organic growth and life, there’d be nothing. So, I think that once the mind is open to where matter is not seen as anything different from consciousness, then there are no boundaries. Some modern scientists propose that technology is bound to become organic, and there’s no way out. If what’s governing the structure of any machine is consciousness rather than bits of iron, then already we’re not saying, “I’m a being that thinks and is conscious, and that’s a lump of inert rubbish.” We’re saying we’re actually both part of the same consciousness. The more that that becomes accepted, the more that the machines will change to mirror that. One can see that slowly happening already.
There’s a dialectic between man and machine which can be one sided. There seems to be much contemporary music where the machine is the master……
Yes, and to that extent, as we’re progressing – and things are going a lot faster than they used to – we do have to be careful what mediums we use. We’re a society that likes to take things and very quickly use them. Take the Native American tradition: In lots of those tribes they had to look down seven generations at the possible changes that any new thing would introduce. Only if it seemed to be totally harmless down the whole of those seven generations (as far as they were able to tell) would it be introduced. Well, now we look at whether it’s going to harm anybody in a year because then we can avoid legal costs!
There are various problems with digital sound, which are probably going to become more prevalent, and people are going to become more aware of them. There are a lot of things we have been doing with technology that have been very damaging, so it’s a thing we have to consider. Is our desire for obtaining new things very quickly really something we would like to override? Our sense of what is right for our physical bodies and for our minds? I think, in the long run, it isn’t.
The use of technology can become a political issue, raising the issues of social control against which you fought in the sixties. Do you see contemporary parallels?
In the Sixties you could probably say that, whilst the music did have effects on society, and quite a strong overturning effect on some of the ideas and presuppositions. And, therefore, people like Ronald Reagan wanted to suppress it. At that time, they were not using music to support politics. Now they do, and that’s a different deal. There’s not politics over here and music and some kind of spiritualism opposed to it. The politicians have co-opted the music. So, to that extent it is different now. To the extent that centralized politics such as we have will always use whatever they can to maintain the status quo, then it’s in trouble.
I think it was Aldous Huxley, in one of his introductions, (it might have been Brave New World) who said, “It’s without doubt (and this was written about 1930) that in the future governments will control their populations through sex, the media and drugs.”
Huxley was so accurate that one has to wonder how was it possible for him to see that, and it must have been terribly obvious. He was a brilliant man, but it must have been obvious. You look at it now: that’s what’s happening. So the real factor, as it always has been in a way, comes down to personal choice. Do you use your music and your machinery as a means of joining in the status quo, whether it’s a psychedelic drug or political anarchy, or do you use it from a place that is outside all of that? If you do, you’re no longer part of that centralized control. The media itself has been manipulated since as soon as a trend occurs that is popular with young people – and now with older people because they are buying a lot of records – the centralized record companies and medias co-opt it. It no longer has the effect that it was originally designed to have, which comes from a totally materialistic look at society.
An articulate Frenchman once commented slightly condescendingly that the bourgeoisie would adopt and therefore neutralize any radical idea. What crosses your mind when you hear Fire being used in a television commercial?
It’s ambiguous and ambivalent because on the one hand the music is what it is and, even if it is used in a commercial, it is still what it is. On the other hand, the intention of the commercial is to use it and, to that extent, that’s not what it originally was. So, what I’ve come to think about it is that it introduces my music to a whole load of kids who are between the ages of five and eighteen, no matter what the context of it is. They don’t really care about Boo the King, or whatever. They enjoy the music and the visual. They may then say to their parents, ‘What is Boo the King?’ But when they hear it, that’s not what they worry about at all. They are concerned with Boo the King by association with the music, which is why they put that music in there. The parents of these children were around when it was created, so there is already a nice association for them. So, to that extent it is a manipulative move; but to the extent that the music is always only what it is, then I am very grateful that I have a whole generation of fans that I’ve never played to – two generations actually. It’s going into their homes and into their hearts. The bad side of it is that everything changes into its opposite.
You mentioned that in the sixties, one of the givens was that music was anti-establishment. The establishment had its own music from Frank Sinatra downwards. Now, music is very much seen as establishment, and embraces rock stars. Do you think that there might be another layer of music in sight which could be genuinely alternative in the old sense, now that our own generation has, for the most part, capitulated? Or do you think it has all closed down?
One exciting possibility is that it could be a revolution in a totally different kind of way – in terms of if you get something like the PlayStation on kids’ games. For $120 you can get a four-track studio capable of recording live. Obviously, the potential is to record with children from anywhere in the world and have them on one track, but there are kids who are not just pressing the buttons: they are playing instruments and some of the electronics and recording their own stuff.
In a way, under the influence of all sorts of stuff in the Sixties, what we aimed for was the end of the corporate control and the point where anybody could make music, and we are now getting towards that. In the Sixties you had to go to a record company because they were the ones who owned the studios. In those days it was the only place you could record, by and large. Now it’s getting to the point where people can record on their own equipment, in their own homes. Maybe it will return to more local things, like Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and then music will be locally available. As to what that will do to an overall industry, maybe we’re in for a change there, as well, to where some locales will become famous worldwide just by word of mouth. That kind of communication over the Internet, and because of the fact that selling is a lot cheaper, means you won’t have to sell many albums to actually exist.
But it also may come to the point where what’s accepted – if you take away a centralized authority, image, hierarchy – then perhaps the idea of one job, one career as being definitive, disappears as well. You don’t have to make your money as a musician, it’s no longer viewed as a great thing. Doing some music, doing house painting. After all, on their islands of Bali – they go out and do their day’s job and then come back and play for each other in the evening. The music reflects a very synergistic attitude to life, to the rhythms of our daily lives and the way we think about the world do form the music. If you go to African music, they will tell you it is very hard for a western person to obtain the same sort of feel because, from a very young age, [Africans have had] to join different groups – a hunting group or the boys-only group – and each of those has a timetable. So the whole of their life interlocks in this cyclical way, and that’s where they get their rhythms interlocking. Now, our society doesn’t work quite like that.
It sounds as if we’re the victims of our own professionalism.
I think that’s right and maybe that’s, you know, specialization. It’s all right, but maybe that’s not what’s going to happen in the future. This kind of making of music, the small scale, ‘small cells’ like your Stereo Society approach, allows a different kind of music. Small cells are a revolt against totally hierarchical and centralized existence or business forms. The fact that they have created means of dissemination and communication means that they will continue to be used. So, it is not like the mass media have not produced anything of value – they have. The two just have to come together.
How do you see yourself fitting into such a new world order?
This is at its stage when all of those things are just beginning, and things change quite rapidly. For instance, about two years ago I had decided that I was going to put all my stuff up on the Net and just take donations as spiritual people do when they are wandering around giving sad songs. But then I got involved with a lady with two children, and I needed money a little more rapidly than that. Also, I was originally going to have a house with one room, and I thought I would give all the rest of my money away for people to build other rooms where they could live. But suddenly, when you have a wife and children, that changes again. And, so, at the moment, it looks like I’m going sign a record deal which will allow me to maintain a great deal of self-sustenance, self-promotion. It will be more towards the old record labels’ approach of actually fostering artists and stuff. I’m the only major artist they’ll have, if I may be called a major artist – the only out-and-out artist they have at the moment. We’ll see how it all develops.
The Internet is a very large tool, which will gain more and more prominence. At the moment, everyone is feeling their way with it. But I think the kinds of thinking that come with it are different from the thinking the old school of business still holds to. So, there will be a big change in that, and how I will fit in with that—who knows. I feel that it’s worth exploring because there are so many limitations in the old way, so I’ll be involved with that.
As for the kinds of music I’m making, one of the things I’m doing at the moment is developing a one-man show, which will just have tapes and noises and whatever else I might do with guitar playing and visuals. It’s real drama, not just a lecture or anything. I see that as another way to explore the link between theater and song and technology. To me, there isn’t such a thing as techno-music and orthodox music or acoustic music: it’s all music and it’s all part of the stream of music. I’ll be bringing in all sorts of different sounds, different instruments, acoustic, electronics, and who knows what will happen in the next twenty years – so much has happened in the last twenty. The Internet itself is a powerful public thing, so it is hard to tell.