“I embrace the dark on a personal level, but in my work, if anything, I’m actually shining a light on it.”
Brian Lustmord is a veteran and creator of what has come to be called dark ambient music, now inspiring a new generation of followers. Although his sonic style is reliable, his newest album The Word As Power (out on Blackest Ever Black) is his first to focus on the human voice. He taps collaborators ranging from Maynard James Keenan to Jarboe to chant, call, and throat-sing atop his deep, processed samples covering the void. The ritualistic incantations on the record became a main subject of inquiry in my review, especially as I investigated the album’s cover.
The Word As Power is completely wordless, but get Lustmord talking about it and he’ll reveal a wealth of ideas buried beneath the surface. Everything about the album — from the track titles, to the album cover, to the sounds themselves — is cryptic, encoded, purposefully vague, and tantalizing, especially considering all of its references to the occult, the apocalypse, and the study of language itself. In this interview, we talk to Lustmord about some of the ideas that shaped the creation of this album and his multimedia work TRINITY, getting one step closer to unraveling the cipher.
You’ve been making albums for more than 30 years. What’s changed about your recording process for The Word As Power? You’re working with vocal collaborators here, is that any different than working with someone like Robert Rich or King Buzzo?
Not really. The way I’m working now is the way I’ve been working for at least 10, 12 years, which is all-digital. You know, before I had a shitload of rackmount gear; well, in the beginning I didn’t have anything, but I developed having a load of equipment, and then gradually it all went into the Mac and all the software. So for the last at least 10 years, 12 years it’s been all software-based. Virtual instruments (you know, I hate that term virtual) and stuff. So the actual technique is one I’ve been using for quite a few years. But as far as conceptually, how I was working with people, again, it doesn’t really change. The actual creative process (without trying to sound pretentious) is pretty much the same when you’re working with people. Of course the key is finding the right people, people who are on the same wavelength and speak the same language. You know, in that case it’s very transparent and it’s very smooth because you’re talking in the same arguments, in a sense. You know what you’re talking about. The feel, you know?
Because obviously a lot of these concepts, the kind of stuff I do, it doesn’t translate very well. It’s funny because it’s kind of abstract you know, the sounds. So when somebody understands what you’re trying to do sound-wise, or not so much sound-wise but conceptually, it’s kind of really straightforward. Of course, the problem is when you’re working with people who don’t get what the fuck you’re talking about, which is one reason you don’t work with those people. [Laughs]
Well I gather that you’re personal friends with some of your collaborators on this record, and you’ve worked with Maynard [James Keenan] on Puscifer and some of Tool’s more recent stuff. Did you have melodies set down beforehand or did the vocalists bring stuff to the table?
Well it was his idea to perform on something. Yeah I gave him the melodies pretty much and he just pretty much followed what I gave him. There’s also, well, with someone like Maynard, he’s a good example, you know, when you know somebody, it’s not tricky, but you have to be aware that you might have a relationship with these people and they’re friends and it’s all very casual and friendly, but having someone like that on your record, it’s actually worth something, you know. It has actual value. So you have to be really careful that you’re not taking advantage of that you know? Because it’s supposed to be a friendship thing and he offered to do a vocal, well if he, well, first of all, it’s my fucking album, so I’m giving him the melody [laughs], but if he did the melody then it becomes a bit more complicated as far as, you know, then it becomes more of a songwriting thing. Which is not a problem, but it’s best to keep clear of all that stuff and keep it friendly. Does that make sense?
Definitely. You’ve been playing live a little more, do you have any plans to bring vocalists to live performances?
Uh well, I’d like to, I don’t have any firm plans. I would like to, the only tricky thing, well, first of all, I wouldn’t get everybody in the same place anyway, but also I wouldn’t want to do the album live. I’d like to do a version of the album live. Because my usual show is huge screens and high-definition projection and stuff, it’d be nice to do something really intimate with no visuals, just low light and just have the voice, maybe in a church or something, somewhere with a nice vibe and nice acoustics. The only trick of doing it with a vocalist is when I do a live show I just get on a plane with a backpack and you know, turn up. When you’re bringing a vocalist, because I live in L.A. And the vocalists live in other parts of the world, now you’re talking it’s actually quite expensive to get a bunch of people flying to one place, so that makes it a little bit tricky. But it’s something we’ve been talking about and it’s possible. No firm plans, but I would like to. Like most things in life the boring details are how you find out something like that.
I sense some possible processed vocals deep in the mix. How much of this album consists in some form of vocal sound? Does the content or source of your samples play as important a role in your semantic/conceptual structure as the titles and the cover?
Well there’s a lot of electronics, actually very little electronics but I manipulate audio a lot. But a lot of the sounds you hear on the album that don’t sound like vocals are actually derived from vocals, you know, like drones and pulses and stuff. To use a technical term, I fuck around with them a whole lot. I make them sound like something else. Yes, there are actually quite a lot of vocal-derived sounds. Not all, not by a longshot, but there’s a lot of textures and hits and drones and pulses that are actually taken from some of the vocal takes or the outtakes or some vocals are done specifically with sampling in mind.
So TRINITY is this idea of, grammatically it’s not that good but, it’s an archetype of itself. It’s a thing that had never existed before. Suddenly, when Trinity was tested there was this huge mushroom cloud. Ever since then, we don’t think about it anymore, but ever since then we’ve all been living in the shadow of that cloud, because now we can destroy ourselves, and re-destroy ourselves.
I’ve read some past interviews and I’ve heard —
Must be true then! [laughs]
Well I don’t know, maybe things have changed! So I’ve heard that you’re an atheist, but it seem like you have a pretty rich metaphysics. Is spirituality important to you and your music or do you just like it for its trappings and its power?
It’s not important to me personally. I’m an atheist, a kind of hardcore atheist I guess. I mention it when people ask but I don’t preach (pardon the pun). I don’t go around telling people they should be atheists. It’s none of my business. The same way I respect other people’s religious views as long as they don’t try to impose it on me. I don’t have any need for spirituality or anything like that. I was born a skeptic and I became quite cynical later on, which is not necessarily a good trait but I’m very much a cynic and I think being cynical is a really healthy thing in life, you know?
But as far as spirituality, a lot of things interest me, a really broad range of things interest me and spirituality is one of them. I like the why of it, why people need it and how they behave with it, and especially in the musical sense. There’s a rich history of music, early music, ritual music of different types, all the way up to Gregorian chant or Voodoo music, Tibetan stuff, Middle Eastern; I mean a lot of great music has that focus of spirituality, its focus on belief in the church or belief in gods or deep gods and demons and that’s really interesting, that focus, that energy. Which of course you don’t get with regular music. But even the blues, that’s from that spirituality.
One of the taglines on the press releases for this album is that it’s kind of ritual music but without the dogma, because I think ritual is actually a really important part of life whether we like it or not. But personally, I hate dogma. I really fucking hate dogma. I have a really sensitive bullshit detector. And also you know my “worldview,” if you wish, is more like a cosmic reality. I’m really interested in our sense of place, because the universe we live in is obviously huge. We’re incapable of comprehending the scale of things. I think that’s really interesting. And our place in this vast space, it’s pretty meaningless really, and I find that quite interesting. But you know, there’s a lot of things going on, you know, life the universe, everything, it’s quite interesting! Speaking as an atheist I don’t believe in an afterlife. Well, maybe there is an afterlife, I don’t think there is, but I don’t know and it’s kind of pointless for me to talk about it because I don’t know. Either way it’s really interesting.
Yeah, I get that sense on The Word As Power. I talked a little in the review about feeling dwarfed by the vastness of the sounds.
Ah ha, well, thank you, because one of the senses I was trying to convey in it was the scale of stuff, you know? For one person it might be a godhead or for another it might be the sheer scale in the cosmic sense. There is a central, bigger thought in my work: perspective. I think it’s really important for me personally to actually stand back and get some perspective on where we are in all this. The world doesn’t revolve around me as an individual, it doesn’t revolve around us as a race or us as a planet. It just doesn’t. You might not like that, you might want to believe it or come up with reasons why it is, but I don’t think it is. And I think that’s interesting. What’s wrong with that? Death in itself is interesting. Like the question here, sticking on a cosmic thing, is there other life in the universe? If there is, that’s amazing. If there isn’t, that’s equally amazing.
Sure, and so many are afraid to face that. I noticed that at least two of the song titles reference The Lesser Key of Solomon and a number of sacred and esoteric works show up in the cover —
You’ve been reading all the small print haven’t you! [laughs]
Yeah, that’s a pretty intricate cover illustration [artwork by Simon Fowler].
Don’t you just love some of the really small print you can’t read at all? I like that. I put so much work into the text knowing that you couldn’t read the damn thing. That’s half the fun. It’s all in there, but you might not be able to get it.
Do you have a personal connection to magic and the occult? What other books have influenced your musical work?
That’s kind of two questions there I guess. Going back to what you were saying I have a whole wide range of interests you know. Most things in life, you live life and you grow up and you’re subjected to a lot of stuff — culturally, literature, film, art, just worldviews, politics. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s hidden away. The hidden stuff is equally interesting. So yeah, I’ve read up on the occult. Crowley is pretty boring actually but there are some really interesting ideas in there. Some if it is actually nuts; though, I would say some of the Bible is nuts. That sounded wrong. There are all sorts of interpretations of things and in some of them there’s a common thread sometimes, and it just interests me to know more about different things and to come to a conclusion yourself rather than accept just one thing that’s given to you. So I have read a lot of stuff about the occult, Kenneth Grant in particular more so than anybody else, because he’s quite good at disclosing some of the secrets. On a philosophical level it’s quite interesting but on a practical level, like I said I’m an atheist and I’m a skeptic so I don’t believe any of it. But yeah, a lot of things interest me, and literature in general has been a great influence on my work (among many other things). There’s no specific author or specific books but I read a lot so obviously that’s going to filter it’s way through.
I don’t have any need for spirituality or anything like that. I was born a skeptic and I became quite cynical later on, which is not necessarily a good trait but I’m very much a cynic and I think being cynical is a really healthy thing in life, you know?
Is the last title,”Y Gair,” a reference to Byron?
Oh the last one? Oh,”Y Gair,” it’s Welsh. It means “the word.” Might as well have some Welsh in there.
Ahh. So moving forward on that cover illustration, I haven’t quite cracked it yet.
That’s good! Hopefully you never will.
That’d be more exciting for me. But I find it really interesting that it focuses so much on language in light of the album’s total absence of lyrics. Do you conceive of these wordless vocals as having a kind of language? Or are they more an attempt to exit semantics and meaning?
It’s a good question and the answer is somewhere in between. It depends on the mood and the context. In all my albums, well, in most of my albums apart from the very early ones, when I was, if you’ll pardon the pun, still trying to find a voice, what I try to do is create a place, you know, take you somewhere, and then keep you there and bring you back again. That place, for me it’s not a specific place but there are a lot of ideas in there. On this album in particular more than the others, it’s more overt. All my albums have these meaning and ideas behind them, but they’re not plastered all over the sleeve. But the idea is that the place is specific to you as a listener. Different people go to different places, and for some reason most people go to dark places. I think that reflects more on them than it does on me, to be honest with you [laughs].
But on this one I wanted it to be a vocal album but it was very deliberately with no lyrics. I thought for a while about that because I wanted to convey so many ideas in the sleeve and in the text on the sleeve but at the same time it was important to me not to give too much away. I just like to give a little cipher there or a few clues there and some people will go and figure it all out, and some people will go on a completely wrong track. It doesn’t matter, the thing is it’s a journey. So I kind of debated with myself for not including the text either, but the reason there’s no lyrics is because I didn’t want it to be tied down to specific interpretations when you’re listening to it. And I also wanted that when you listen to it, you were hearing somebody singing, and you weren’t, if you were German or Icelandic or Bengali or whatever you would hear the same thing. It would be a foreign language to everybody. There’s this whole Babel thing in it, too. So it’s a two-fold thing: not wanting to tie it down with specifics because it’s very important to me that it’s more of a trigger for your own though processes, and secondly, because I didn’t want it tied to one language.
Because another thing I tried to do, I mean I don’t always succeed but what I try to do with my albums is I try to create something that’s timeless, you know, that is not of this time. So that in 10 years, hopefully maybe in 50 years, it still sounds kind of different from anything else. And you can’t say this album is made in the year so-and-so or that decade or whatever.
It’s interesting that you mention timelessness because it seems like there’s a sort of pre-Babel, pre-confusion of tongues feeling to listening to its sort of pure vocal, and there are also a lot of references to the apocalypse too in the sleeve, so it’s sort of an Alpha and Omega.
Oh, exactly. I think Alpha and Omega are actually hidden away in there somewhere.
I’ll have to keep my eye out.
[Laughs] I’m pretty sure there is, yeah. I mean also, the running joke is my music is often referred to as dark, but for me it’s a very primal thing. It’s deliberately primal, and it comes from a very primal place. I don’t know if people associate that with darkness. I embrace the darkness, in that sense. By dark I don’t mean like negative, but the dark is traditionally a scary place to be. You have the campfire and everything else is dark and you don’t go there. You don’t go into the dark, you don’t go in the cellar, you don’t go in a cave, you don’t explore the psyche, or you don’t confront your own darker side. And I’m not talking about evil as such. But the dark is interesting.
A lot of narratives suggest that you have to go through the dark to experience ascension.
Yeah and I mean, sticking with the dark thing, I embrace the dark on a personal level, but in my work, if anything, I’m actually shining a light on it.
Can you talk a little about the TRINITY project, formerly with Biosphere, and how it relates to your conceptual framework?
The TRINITY thing is really interesting, symbolically, and what was going on. It’s two-fold how it got started. I live out here by choice because I love California and the Southwest and the desert. So me and my wife, we try to get out there into the desert as often as we can. We go and 4-wheel drive, disappear into the middle of nowhere. I’d been over in New Mexico, about 10, no maybe 15, 20 years ago, and visited Los Alamos where Trinity happened (site of the first nuclear weapons test). The first test happened in New Mexico and there were a whole bunch done in Nevada, in I think Area 53, it’s near Area 51, the whole area. Anyway, me and my wife had always wanted to go there on, you know, like a tourist trip, and it’s really hard to get there because it’s dangerous and it’s very secure.
So to cut a long story short, the subject of nuclear weapons always interested me. It’s fascinating that we did all that stuff, when you read up on the history. It’s just nuts. And my friends at Unsound, I worked quite a few times with them. They’re the ones who commissioned TRINITY . My friend Mat and Gosia, who are the main people behind Unsound, were here in the states working, and they took some time off and were driving through New Mexico. I was suggesting that they go check out Los Alamos, that whole area, because it’s a great part of the country. And I was giving them some background on Los Alamos and Trinity and all that kind of stuff and a few weeks later they call me back up after they got back home to Poland and said, “Well, actually, we have an idea.” I was obviously very knowledgeable and very interested in that subject and that would make a really good subject, and they suggested commissioning a collaboration based on that project. And then Biosphere was brought in because a lot of the funding was Norwegian so somebody had to be Norwegian [laughs]. But also, it also made sense, on paper it made perfect sense that in theory we should complement each other well. So we spent a week in Santa Fe, we actually spent a week recording there. We actually went to some of the really dangerous radioactive areas and did some on-location recordings there. From those recordings we created this 45-50 minute, it depends on the show, piece, about the whole Trinity thing.
Trinity is really interesting on many different levels. At the time, it was the most expensive project ever. In the 1940s, over a billion dollars. It was the equivalent to building the American car industry from scratch within two years.
There’s also, well, with someone like Maynard, he’s a good example… You have to be aware that you might have a relationship with these people and they’re friends and it’s all very casual and friendly, but having someone like that on your record, it’s actually worth something, you know. It has actual value. So you have to be really careful that you’re not taking advantage of that.
In total secrecy, with nobody knowing about it. From an engineering point of view it’s amazing how the managed to do that. From a physics point of view, it was amazing what they did. They really pushed physics much further than anybody thought it could go, and that was done very quickly. There are some really interesting books about this, I mean it’s really interesting what was achieved by a few people very quickly, in secrecy on top of that. We’ve always been able to destroy ourselves to some degree with you know, dams that collapse or spreading viruses or just wars. We’ve always been capable of inflicting damage on ourselves, but that was the first time we had deliberately built something that once it was built, everything changed. Now we can just literally flip a switch. That’s kind of mind-boggling, you know?
And also, nobody wanted to make this thing, but this was the height of the second World War and they knew that once it got out (it was kept secret for quite a while) that it was in theory possible, and probably quite likely this could be done, they knew everyone was trying to do it. The Russians were trying to do it, the Japanese were trying to do it, the British were doing it and passing on all their information to America. Nobody wanted Germany to have it first because nobody knew what they would do. So nobody wanted to make this thing, because they knew everything was going to get fucked up. But they knew it was inevitable. Somebody was going to make it.
So TRINITY is this idea of, grammatically it’s not that good but, it’s an archetype of itself. It’s a thing that had never existed before. Suddenly, when Trinity was tested there was this huge mushroom cloud. Ever since then, we don’t think about it anymore, but ever since then we’ve all been living in the shadow of that cloud, because now we can destroy ourselves, and re-destroy ourselves. We’re all of the age where we grew up with this. A few decades ago people didn’t grow up with this. This was completely ridiculous. No one would think that is possible. But everything changed that day, that’s what’s so fascinating about it. We have some pointing at us right now. Baltimore [my location — MP] for sure will have some pointing at it; L.A. will have a shitload pointed at it. It’s possible, you know? So anyway, I find this really fascinating. That’s the short version, by the way.
One last question: I see your work Stalker with Robert Rich as a close parallel in your catalog to the sonics of The Word As Power. As a Tarkovsky fanatic, I have to know: if you found yourself in the Zone, would you enter the final room that grants your innermost wish? What desire would you like to see fulfilled, if any?
Well I would absolutely go in the room, but I wouldn’t tell you what I was looking for.