Severed+Said John Touchton on why night evokes art, creating music through the subconscious, and his new album on Not Not Fun

Photo: Rebecca Rose

Since 2014, a handful of deep, otherworldly synth transmissions emanating from Floridian mystic Severed+Said have carved an exciting niche within the fervent, if underrated, independent music outposts of the Sunshine State. Across four releases, Jacksonville’s John Touchton composes sounds that draw inspiration from the ritualistic undertones of creation, performance, and consumption. The latest Severed+Said cassette, Incorporeality — released last month via Los Angeles’s legendary Not Not Fun — is a collection of pulsing, hypnotic songs that stands as his strongest work within a stellar discography.

John and I discuss the influences of mysticism on his work, the fertile, under the radar music scenes throughout Florida, and the impact of mood on the creation and experience of music. At the end of the interview, check out a playlist compiled by Severed+Said, featuring fellow Florida artists, label mates, and friends connected through Touchton’s travels and tours around the country.

What have you been up to between the release of Occlusions (2015) and now? Were you impacted by Hurricane Irma last year?

I’ve been concentrating on my personal life. I’ve been staying busy with writing and recording music, but I specifically decided to withdraw from playing much live last year. It’s important for me to share my work with people in a live environment, but I wanted to dedicate some time to my personal relationships. I married my partner and we took some time to travel together. I’ve also been studying human anatomy and physiology. But, consistently, I ritualistically stay involved in Severed+Said. It’s a therapeutic catharsis. It helps me to cope with modern existence. As far as Irma goes, yes we were affected by the hurricane. I live near the St. John’s river so we experienced flooding and massive power outages A giant oak tree fell on my car. If anything, it evoked more of a reverence for the dispassionate ways of nature. I was less upset about the damages to my car than I was inspired by the destructive forces of the universe. Fortunately for us, North Florida was less affected than, say, Puerto Rico, but it was still a humbling experience. Though, it was actually quite beautiful to roam the neighborhood amidst the aftermath of the storm. Ancient trees were put to rest and modern luxuries, temporarily suspended. I did, however, manage to work on new synth patches for future songs by battery power, some of which are currently in the works.

Can you discuss the origins of Severed+Said? What inspired you to pursue these sounds and themes over these four releases?

The instrumentation came from my interests in manipulating guitar through various effects pedals. I feel it was a natural progression from seeking to further control and manipulate guitar through pedals to exploring synthesizers. The sounds of Severed+Said just progressed from learning the gear to understanding and getting it all to work together. After that, the music came quite natural. But the themes behind Severed+Said are less technical. I’ve always been inspired by certain motifs; whether from film, literature, philosophy, or music, I always thought that I was using these inspirations to inform what the music was going to be about. After releasing Occlusions, however, I realized that I was less in control than I thought. I started to understand that it wasn’t my intentions informing what the music was about. Instead, it became clear to me that the music was actually more of a message from my subconscious to my conscious. In affect, the song writing process acts as a conduit for learning more about myself or hopefully our collective experience of reality. Occlusions showed me that the truth was behind the veil of intention. Now I try to let go of control when it comes to themes regarding Severed+Said and let the music speak to me. Through synchronistic messages or heavy contemplation, hopefully more concrete concepts begin to emerge from the work. Maybe I’ll have key words for song titles or album titles, but over time the music actually, in turn, ends up informing me. I’m looking forward to gaining a better understanding of “Incorporeality” as this process unfolds.

In this interview with Delayed Gratification, you said, “The first track, “Occluded,” is an interesting word that implies being unable to see what’s right in front of you. You can be occluded from the truth.” The new album’s title is Incorporeality, and ‘incorporeal’ means no physical or material existence. How did you decide on the title, and how does that meaning relate to how you approached the writing and recording of the album?

The album title for Incorporeality came after I had recorded the material, as did the album title for Occlusions. Language is, of course, a technological device for communication, but words can provide meaning for profound, intangible concepts. Being an instrumental project, I’ve always relied on the album and song titles to imbue meaning into the sounds of Severed+Said. The word, incorporeality, came to me while reading about the secret rituals of various mysticisms throughout history. Some modern interpretations understand many of these rituals to be allegorical of the evolution of human consciousness and what was our gradual awareness of the self. Furthermore, some postulate that our deepening material awareness has made us less acquainted with our subconscious.

But, at the same time, I was studying human anatomy and physiology in a scientific light, which contrasted with these concepts in a befitting way. On one hand I was reading about meditation, dreams, and astral projection. On the other hand, I was studying about organic matter, the central nervous system, and the cellular activities of the body. My new understanding of the body in tandem with what I had been reading about consciousness evoked the idea that to be absent from the body is almost a return to our inner selves. From this, I gathered that the meditative, or even somewhat transcendent, state I experience when I can really get lost in the music is a way of reaching back to a higher level of self: a borderline between consciousness and subconsciousness. And when you bridge the gap between these two levels of being, ideas and meaning can flow through the medium. Through dreams, subconscious thought, art, or, in this case, music, maybe we can experience an incorporeal state even if only for the duration of the set, before the house lights bring us back to reality; it’s, essentially, a temporary escape from the anxieties of being human.

It’s interesting to think about your readings of mysticism and rituals, and parallel that with the act of creating music for recording or live performance. From a listener’s perspective, nighttime or dawn and dusk seem the most appropriate times for experiencing your sounds. Do you have a particular mindset, time of day, or setting required for working on Severed+Said material?

I think that mood is an important aspect of listening to music. At night, sounds really come alive. Dusk and dawn are perfect times for a contemplative drive while listening to your favorite cassette. Mood and atmosphere are also important, if not more so, for creating music. But most importantly, for me, to flourish creatively is my state of mind. Whether I’m practicing my set or working on new material, it’s important for me to ritualize the process. Sometimes this means having a contemplative daydream before I work with new sounds, or maybe I will take a walk. Reading also helps to put me in a creative mood. I also enjoy the combination of coffee and marijuana while working. The introspection provided by the flower combined with jolt of caffeine gets gears spinning in a weird way that focuses me. With the creative process and recording for Occlusions, I was enjoying a lot of wine, as any creative Dionysian can appreciate. All of these things can help to ritualize the process. Sometimes I’ll even dedicate a performance to something abstract, whether I’m all alone or sharing in a live environment. If I have anxiety about something or if someone dear to me is experiencing a dark time, I like to make a sort of offering through music. I don’t know if it has any real effect on anything, but it helps me, personally, to exorcize the feelings associated with these kinds of things. I feel that this is part of the catharsis behind creating something.

I’ve only visited Florida a pair of times, both of which were visits to the theme parks near Orlando. Listening to your music, I get a sense of a darkness beneath the happy-go-lucky vibe of Disney and beach tourism. Was it your intention, or merely coincidence, that your music gives an outsider a gloomy, dark, yet enticing view of the Sunshine State?

Florida is an ecological paradise. The springs here are beautiful and there are some great beaches. Our ancient, moss-bearing trees can be hypnotic in the haze of summer. But yes, I believe there is a darkness that exists beneath Florida’s majesty. The state was once inhabited by an array of native cultures who were intentionally wiped out of existence. I think the kind of negative energy associated with genocide and cultural displacement lives on and takes new forms. Violence, poverty, and drug addiction are huge problems here. Floridian politicians are often found to be corrupt and self-serving. For instance, Governor Rick Scott was found to have family ties with drug testing companies after he tried to pass a law requiring mandatory drug testing for food stamp recipients: a process that would have proven more expensive than just distributing food stamps without the drug testing.

Of course this is only one recent example of the level of political corruption here. Developers have been destroying Florida’s natural ecosystem for decades, compromising the purity of our water. People have been fighting to keep the Sabal Trail Pipeline out of Florida to prevent further damage to the ecosystem. This has been an ongoing process with ups and downs. Of course, this kind of corruption isn’t unique to Florida. But to answer your question, no, it’s not my intention to interpret this through Severed+Said. That doesn’t mean, however, that these concepts are not somehow channeled through the music. As I said, there is a lot of unconscious meaning imbued into the songs. If the music sounds dark, maybe it is because of the darkness around me. More than anything, however, my intention with the music is to create something mysterious that deepens the more you listen. And if it causes the listener to look deeper into it or if it evokes a concept unique to their perspective, then maybe I’m doing something right.

I found another project you were involved in, Ascetic, with a split cassette on Florida label Rainbow Pyramid. It featured a quieter, meditative sound compared to that of Severed+Said. Do you continue to record under that moniker, or was that a one-off project?

Ascetic was a project I did for a few years. It started as just a side project that allowed me to learn the synthesizers I was getting into. At the time, I had been getting deep into unconventional guitar work and, as I said, the effects pedals lead to synthesizers. At one point, Alyssa Silva started doing vocals for Ascetic. We lived together at the time, so she was exposed to the music I was working on on a daily basis and, therefore, knew the material. We did the split on Rainbow Pyramid then moved to Northern California for a little while. We got to play some really fun shows in the Bay Area, specifically at this venue, Life Changing Ministries, a d.i.y. community space where they had shows on a regular basis. After moving back to Florida we started working on recording new material, but we never finished it and eventually laid Ascetic to rest. It was around this time that I had been venturing into writing music solo. So the end of Ascetic was the beginning of Severed+Said.

With Popnihil, Rainbow Pyramid, and I’m sure countless other labels, I’m catching a glimpse of some of the underground/DIY sounds coming out of Florida. Even with these two labels, it’s as vast and as varied as anything you’ll hear in L.A. or New York. The internet, without a doubt, connects us better than before, but without venues or a group of people, a real scene cannot thrive. Where do you see yourself in your community in Jacksonville, and do you stay active and connected with other cities in Florida?

I’ve been trying to tell people for years that something is brewing in the Floridian music scene. We have a lot of creative people here, but it’s difficult to tour out of Florida because of its geographic location. So many Floridian artists often go under the radar nationally, while cultivating and thriving within the confines of the Sunshine State. As far as Jacksonville goes, it’s kind of a drinking city that loves heavy metal. There are a lot of talented and creative people here, though. Some of my friends who lie low here actually have more of a presence in the national and international arts and music community. I do try to keep experimental music alive here by facilitating shows for artists I know who are on tour. Even that is difficult, because the majority of venues are just rock bars, so it can be problematic curating something like an ambient/experimental/noise show. I did, however, recently curate the Jacksonville pre-show for Miami’s International Noise Conference. I was able to secure an art gallery for the venue, so these things are possible. We also have a great historic movie theatre here, called Sun-Ray Cinema. They are open to booking musical artists if they can schedule around their calendar. Last year they even launched their inaugural Sleeping Giant Fest, a film and music festival that they are doing every year now. In 2017 Xiu Xiu performed their Twin Peaks cover set during the festival. And Hexa performed a live score to the photography of David Lynch, one of only ten or so performances of this collaboration. Severed+Said even performed too. They also got SUNN O))) a couple of years ago, which was amazing. They are the only band that ever induced me into having visual hallucinations without the use of substances.

And when possible, Sun-Ray has been open to working with me and a few others to bring some great d.i.y. touring artists through, including Kevin Greenspon (Los Angeles) and Darsombra (Baltimore). As far as connectedness in Florida, yes, there is a thriving network of musicians throughout Florida and we all collaborate to help touring artists find shows from city to city. It’s possible for an artist to book an entire circuit just within Florida. In fact, Severed+Said and Proud Father (New Orleans) did a Florida tour together back in 2016. And every year for the last 15 years, Rat Bastard has been putting together the International Noise Conference in Miami, which serves as a noise pilgrimage for people from all over the world, but mainly draws from within Florida. It’s a free event so it’s less of a gig, and more of a five-day party where artists can connect and be exposed to new music.

How did you get involved with your local DIY music community? How long have you been playing shows, for S+S or other projects, and what drew you to underground, underappreciated sounds and scenes?

It was a gradual process. I was introduced to the underground music scene probably 12 years ago when I first attended a show at “The Pit,” a d.i.y. venue here in Jacksonville that is no longer around. There was a handful of people who ran the building. They would have movie nights, often projecting film; they also did shows there. I remember the first pre-international noise conference I ever witnessed back in 2004 or 2005. It was crazy. Maybe 20 artist played from all over. It was a free show, but through donations they raised plenty of funds for out-of-town artists. The space also hosted touring bands on a weekly basis. It was where I first realized that there was an entire network of artists and musicians all working together to share their work. It was a fresh breath of air, compared to what I had been exposed to before. There were no ticket pre-sales, booking agents, or even promoters, in the traditional sense. There was an organic reciprocation happening: networks of artists sharing contacts and helping each other with shows. Once I started booking my own regional/national tours, about 10 years or so ago, I began to become aware of the interconnectedness between artists all over the country. At this point, I can’t meet a new artist that doesn’t know at least one person that I’ve worked with in the past. I’ve kept in touch with some people over the years who I really only see once every few years, but we are as old friends when we can reunite. The beautiful aspect of meeting someone who thrives in the underground art/music scene is that the first few barriers that normally exist between two strangers are almost nonexistent. I think that interconnectedness is what has kept me involved for the last decade or so. But as far as S+S goes, I started in 2014. I was performing live before I had recorded anything. The first recording, Crying In Dreams was more like a recording of ideas, rather than full songs. It all just evolved from there.

Photo: Rebecca Rose

I’ve seen a few videos of full sets from your last bout of touring. Digital hardware allows solo acts to recreate as much as possible from the recording, but it appears you work with a lot of analog gear in a live setting. How do you approach recreating recorded material for live performances?

I’m actually not recreating anything in a live setting. The music I write is written to be performed live, so what I end up recording is the live performance. This is an approach that I adhere to as Severed+Said, with the exception of two collaborative tracks I’ve done for recordings only. One was for a comp on Atrocious Symphonies, a label based out of Madrid. The other is a new track on “Incorporeality,” called “Communion.” There is a grand piano in the studio we recorded in, so I asked my partner, Rebecca, to play keys, while I played guitar and Jeremiah, my friend who recorded all four S+S albums, played the melodica. I wanted to have one track on this album that could only be played live if the three of us were in the same room. For everything else I’ve done as S+S, I start by trying out new sounds and piecing them together over time. Then I’ll begin performing them live to see what I like or don’t like. In this, the songs continually evolve in a live setting until they are recorded, and even after. Of course there are limitations as to what I can do, but I like working around limitations. And without using any midi syncing, it keeps the songs vulnerable to mistakes, which I also like. There is something thrilling about performing Severed+Said live, because it could all go wrong if I trigger something out of time. I’ve learned how to work around this, of course, but it’s still possible.

This is your second release with Not Not Fun, and you spoke earlier to relationships with local Florida labels. What qualities do you look for in a label when you get ready to write an album or plan a release? How did you and Britt make the connection for your two NNF releases?

I don’t ever plan on writing an album or planning a release. The process is kind of reversed. The songs I write come from experimenting with sounds and seeing how they fit together. Over time, a body of work emerges from this process and then I record. If I like the recording and everything fits together, I’ll share it with friends and labels that I’m in touch with. This is essentially how it worked with the two Not Not Fun releases with Britt. I initially was in touch with Britt about doing a release for Ascetic. We were recording the material we had been working on since the Rainbow Pyramid release, but we never finished it. As I said, toward the end of Ascetic, I had already begun working on solo material. After releasing Crying In Dreams with Popnihil, I sent it to Britt and told him I was working on some new material. When I finished recording Occlusions, I sent it to him. He was really encouraging and so we did the release. As far as label qualities, I guess I look for diversity in a label. I don’t think Severed+Said fits into one specific genre, so I feel it fits best with diverse labels. I guess the only other quality I look for would be that the people who run the label make music, too.

After the recent release of Incorporeality, what’s next for you in 2018 and beyond?

I’m not sure. I don’t like to plan too far ahead. I look forward to learning more about myself and developing through music. I hope to work more with others in the future. I have a few collaborative projects in the works. I also intend to perform Incorporeality abroad before moving on to something new. But eventually that will be the case. I’d like to share the new album live before it runs its course. I’m already working on new material. I like to keep things moving.

Severed+Said Playlist

• Night Foundation - Lumonics
• Omebi - Road to Xanth
• Secret Boyfriend - Chocolat
• Voice Hoist - Fast’r’han u
• Haves & Thirds - Open Your Eyes Til the Day you Die
• Proud Father - Kutsu Shizen
• Deterritory - Esperando
• Fjsh Wjfe - Crying At Parties
• Bernard Herman - Plastic Flowers
• Robedoor - Lower Life
• Virgin Flower - Shadow People
• Other Body - Imperial Cloud
• Craow - HD-R5
• Xerome - C Eel Foot
• Profligate - Vixen
• Sand Circles - Motor City
• Complejo Alfa - Wax Society
• Godafoss - Electro Convulsive Therapy
• Auscultation - Black Window
• Litanic Mask - Kabuki

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