“When people were writing early music, and particularly choral music, they had an understanding that they were actually affecting the universe around them through what they were doing. We’ve lost that because music is, as you say, background fucking noise. It’s there all the time. We don’t have a sense of the sacred. And our path to the sacred is defined in a very profound sense by music.”
Apologies, dear Lurkers, for the slight delay in the series. My computer’s hard drive died. Now it has been replaced, and my 2006 Macbook Pro rises from the ashes like a glorious black phoenix, spreading grim incineration in its wake. Onwards!
Amebix is power music, driven by drone, a subterranean river of rhythm hammered out on an open string. Stig’s bone-breaking chug and the Baron’s rumbling basslines work in tandem, now weaving around one another to build tension, now uniting for a crushing release. Blending this insistent low-end attack with ringing power-chord choruses, early Amebix moved the body in a way that only Discharge and The Stooges had anticipated. Their potency hasn’t diminished over time — just blast ‘Sonic Mass Part II’ and try not to punch a wall or mosh in your living room.
But Amebix isn’t just powerful music — it’s also music about power. While songs like ‘Largactyl’ and ‘I.C.B.M.’ condemn the brutally coercive apparatuses of state, capital and monotheist religion, tracks like ‘The Power Remains’ and ‘Arise’ glory in an indomitable strength that shatters all such shackles. And on Sonic Mass, Amebix delve more deeply into matters of magickal and divine power than ever before.
In this installment, Rob and I start by talking about Crass’s profound influence on Amebix, then dig deeper into his ideas about instinctual songwriting and the metaphysical character of music itself. If you have just started reading, you might also want to check out Part II, where we discuss some of the texts and traditions informing Amebix, and Part I, where we geek out about classic bands from Joe Cocker to Joy Division.
I’m curious about how you related to the music of Crass when Amebix was starting. Obviously they were a huge influence on the anarcho-punk scene you were a part of, and you were on a Crass Records comp, and they were a part of this transition from punk into something very serious and dark. But on the other hand I feel like Amebix has a completely different set of concerns, is politically quite different, and whereas Crass had this aesthetic of strident, clattering noise, Amebix was this very focused, powerful music. So what did you think about Crass at the time, and how has it influenced you?
My initial exposure to Crass came from a guy called Ally who was in a special school in Tavistock where we were growing up. They were kids from inner city areas, particularly London, and they were sort of like Borstal prisoners. So these kids would be allowed out into the town at the weekends, and he turned us on to Crass with The Feeding of the 5,000. I loved the sparseness of it, the dualism, the very black-and-white imagery of it.
At the time I was working as a freelance journalist, just a kid doing a column in a local newspaper, and that gave me a little scope to go see bands as they arrived on the local scene. So I’d go into Plymouth and see things like UK Subs, Stiff Little Fingers, The Members and The Cockney Rejects.
Myself and my brother Stig were recording some material and we put together a demo tape with six songs on it, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to go down and do a report on the Crass gig coming up in Plymouth, so I’ll take the cassette with me.” And I gave it to them after the show.
What really struck me about Crass was not just the confrontational lyricism and the very stripped-down musical form, but also the presence they had on stage, and that’s what really left an impact with me and informed us on a very deep level. What they had going for them — and I don’t know whether they were consciously doing this or not — was almost a Nazi, Nuremberg-rally style presence on stage. You knew this thing was extraordinarily powerful. And it was quite ambivalent at that stage: Even at that time they were attracting skinheads to the audience, and we had trouble at the gig in Plymouth. Because skinheads would look at [Crass] and go “Yeah!” They would understand it, they understood the message of red and black and these fucking flags and the militaristic uniforms and the staccato drums and all the rest of that stuff. So yeah, Crass had a very Nazi look to them, they had a very powerful thing.
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always found interesting — philosophically and aesthetically, anarchy and fascism are really intertwined at the roots in a lot of ways.
Oh, yeah, I think you’re quite right where that’s concerned.
So your interest in the Crass stage presence, that was an interest in the power of the image and performance?
It was their combining two ideas, image and music, being able to bring these two things together which are both very forceful. That flipped a switch for me. Particularly growing up with a military background, I had an understanding of that. It could’ve been fairly ambivalent.
Did Amebix ever get misinterpreted in that way?
No, I don’t think so… We got mobbed by skinheads on a couple occasions, but they came to destroy the gigs. One incident I do remember quite fondly was gigging at a squat in Milan, in 1983 I think, and some skins came into that and started mouthing off in front of the stage. One tried to jump up on the stage, and Stig was just not having any of it. He just launched his guitar into this guy’s face. Blood and teeth everywhere. And they didn’t fuck with us. It was kind of good, really!
Well, sure! Was there violence at Amebix gigs? Because to me, this is insanely violent music, on a fundamental level.
There wasn’t that much, but rare incidences. There was organized violence by skinheads when we played in the Malvern Hills between England and Wales. We had skinheads coming in en force with baseball bats, with instructions to smash the gig up. The audience was thrashed pretty heavily. We were actually escorted out of the town by the police.
Oh god, that sucks…
Yeah, but that’s just how it was back then.
Who were you gigging with back then?
I can’t remember… Well, actually, I tell you what — Ian Glasper, who writes for Terrorizer Magazine, he was there at the time. And I think he was playing with his band, but I can’t remember what his band was, unfortunately!
So, as you rightly pointed out, Crass juxtaposed anarchic music with fascistic aesthetics, and I actually think this was pretty typical of the early anarcho-punk scene as a whole. Discharge, for one, saw themselves as resisting all sorts of power and control, yet produced this crushing, rigorously disciplined riffage. There was an ambivalence to it. In contrast, Amebix really embraced power on every level–in music, text, and image. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the concept of power as you have worked it through your music?
It’s been a central motif, and I’m fairly self-conscious about the fact that the path with Amebix has been about this idea of self-empowerment, almost shaking people up a bit — “You can do this! You can do this!” — and giving them their own fucking power back. That was a lot of the impetus behind what we were trying to do… Maybe it comes from a lack of self-power at certain times in our lives, not necessarily when we were growing up in Devon but very much in Bristol. This idea of being homeless and without food and without money, and having to make decisions about where your life is going at that time. Through desperation, these things come out.
I’ve always been a forceful person, I’ve always been prepared to fight against the things that appeared to be wrong to me in my life, and music was one way of doing that. It’s one way of channeling that emotional response, which is “No to all that fucking bullshit” or “We must survive, we must get this stuff out there, we must do something with the energy and power that we have when we are young.” And I think that was a focal point.
I suppose in a way you were simply channeling to create your music — you’ve talked a lot about the sort of subconscious immediacy to what you were doing — but at the same time were there any ways you were trying consciously to build up power in the music itself? To create music that has this visceral, physical push, and exerts a force in the world?
Well, the thing is that we were to all intents and purposes musically illiterate, and we didn’t have an understanding in the same way that other people do. And thankfully I still don’t. There’s a naivety about what we did, and in a very real sense what we still do, apart from Roy — who’s a real musician. It’s the most important part of that. When we were writing music and I was writing lyrics, it wasn’t in order to sound like someone else or make this happen or that happen, it was just making sounds that led you into a certain area. It was very much an emotional response to what we were doing. I’d be playing a bassline along with Stig and it wouldn’t be about “this should go to that,” but “if this bassline goes this way and the guitar sounds like that, how does it make you feel inside?” We would talk about music in the sense of “what color is this?” It’s not trippy-dippy-hippy shit — we were trying to create very powerful structures through feeling alone.
So, in a way, was that allowing you to get away from the conventions of rock and pop structures?
Very much, but unless you go right out on a limb you’re still limited to a fairly standard thing: verse, chorus, middle eight. So I guess we were going with that, trying to write instinctual music that would fall into a pop vein as well. But it wasn’t coming from knowledge, it was coming from instinct.
One of the things that really changed things for me when I came to Skye, and it’s almost like a loss of innocence which I really regret, was learning chords. It was an awful thing, an absolute tragedy! Because then I started to hear music completely differently. I would hear the way that a bassline went, or a guitar went. And before that I had this almost completely innocent approach to it, where I just heard the music as a sound. A whole load of stuff went in and it either found its place or it didn’t, and I didn’t intellectualize it and say “this is made up of these components, and this is a bridge, and this is a chorus.” And when I didn’t have that understanding, music was so much more of a treasure.
OK, so I think I now get what you mean when you talk about this. Because a lot of bands say, “Oh, we were punks, we didn’t know how to play, we just knew three or four chords.” But you’re talking about something more than that rawness and naive authenticity. When people don’t have a technical understanding of music, as you didn’t, they hear it all as one thing, all as a unity. We almost never get to hear music that actually works like that, musicians attempting to reproduce that phenomenon of pure and undifferentiated sound. But it seems like Amebix actually was that, at least at the beginning: People who heard music only as that primal unity and simply attempted to reproduce it, to let it flow back out of their fingers and voices.
The other day I was going through Christmas decorations here and found a box of my old tapes, and found one I used to listen to a lot by the Rustavi Choir, from Georgia.
Oh, that stuff is really cool!
Oh yeah… you hear the influences on people like Dead Can Dance. I love things like Claudio Monteverdi and his Vespers. So I love early music, and particularly this kind of choral thing. It has the same depth as bands like Joy Division, in particular. There’s a sense of wonder, a sense of awe. You’re looking into this abyss.
And it was a time when there was wonder at sound itself, when it wasn’t this thing we were surrounded by, this constant patter permeating our lives. I imagine the attitude of people making early polyphony, and the attitude you’ve talked about — this interest in its oneness, in its singularity — are probably very similar.
I think that what we’re hitting on is the fact that music is actually magick.
I agree 100%. Would you like to elaborate on that?
Well, this is what I think. All matter is made up of vibrational frequencies, and if you understand the vibration of matter and you manage to capture that in music, you actually do change things by changing the vibrational level of everything around you. When people were writing early music, and particularly choral music, they had an understanding that they were actually affecting the universe around them through what they were doing. We’ve lost that because music is, as you say, background fucking noise. It’s there all the time. We don’t have a sense of the sacred. And our path to the sacred is defined in a very profound sense by music.
Yes. It’s magick, not as this mystic, abstract idea, but as the most physical, the most concrete thing there is.
Absolutely. It’s unquestionable. It’s not an ephemeral idea, it’s something you can demonstrate.
It’s just force, actual force.
It changes people. I went into a place called Pleskin Abbey, the oldest monastic community in Scotland, where the monks all live and work and do their stuff. I’m not predisposed towards one religious idea or another, but I’m very interested in the cycle of their lives. They allow people to go in and listen to them when they’re doing the offices of matins or vespers, and we heard their daily Gregorian chant. It’s profoundly affecting. You know something is happening in the atmosphere of the room. These things work.
Yes. I’ve been thinking about this stuff so much. I studied philosophy in college and I’ve been really influenced by Nietzsche. For him, the will to power is what underlies matter, what constitutes it. Even what is sitting still is really motion and force. And to me, that’s what music is doing…
Crystallizing an idea?
Well, it can do that in a way that talks directly to the body. It’s coming from a place prior to ideas.
Absolutely, you have a visceral response to it. It’s almost like you don’t have a choice?
I guess we can say that we are the instrument being played, at times.
Yes, and I think the musician should be a conduit — he should be played and playing.
This is it. Without me being too much up my own ass about this, this is what I really always have felt about my approach to music. It’s never been about “I want to sound like someone else” or “I wanna do this or that” or “I wanna make a song this long or that long.” It’s been about “What does this feel like?” The primary connection always has to be at a gut level.