Lux Interna’s latest release, There is Light in the Body, There is Blood in the Sun, was certainly ambitious in scope, presenting the idea that humans and stars are bound by mutual qualities, all products of the same universe. Combined with the religious studies of member Joshua Ian Levy, and the musical journey of Kathryn Mary, questions of inspiration are elicited. Graciously, the two have gone to great lengths to talk about five songs that have so heavily impacted their lives and careers.
Hank Williams – Alone and Forsaken
It could easily have been a mopey, maudlin exercise of self-pity. But with Alone and Forsaken, Hank gave us a song that exposes the secret pact between private and universal pain: sorrow lives and breathes in this song as a truth, as a material fact rather than an emotion. I’ve never read a word about how this song came to be written. And in a way, I don’t want to; my imagination is quite sure of its own account. Hank sits alone. He’s in one of those ubiquitous motels that scar the skin of every American highway and dress down the night in the garish glow of neon. Bouquets of cigarette butts spill out of a cheap plastic ashtray; there’s a bottle of bourbon on the table and a Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer. His hand moves across his notebook as he hunts for letters to spell out the spirit that wells up inside him. The alcohol hasn’t been enough to numb his body; he can still feel the presence moving inside him, black, thick and formless as molasses. But in the moment he transposes spirit into words, he’s more than himself, more than a discrete body with its lonely burden of blood and breath. One man’s pain fuses with everyman’s pain. It’s mystical – there’s a transfiguration, a real Tabor moment. Hank disappears and there sits a saint, a stand in son of man whose inflection of the word “forsaken” echoes the cry of “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani!” Or at least, that’s how I hear it.
On a personal level, Hank was one of the voices that led me back to the music I grew up with, and rejected for a time. I remember the first time I really listened to him, really heard him. I guess the set and setting were perfect — It was like hearing one of his songs, from within one of his songs. Sixteen, thrown out of my parents’ house and down to my last few dollars, I was up late watching TV in a motel room that by all rights should have been condemned by the public health authorities. I was drinking terribly bad beer and working my way through a pack of filterless Lucky Strikes. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recall the name of the movie I was half-heartedly watching, nor do I think I’ve ever tried. All I remember was that it revolved around two down-on-their-luck characters that inhabited a dismal world of sepia and middle American desperation. But the music! That’s what grabbed me. The thin worn and world-weary timbre of Hank’s croon, strange, wild and yet deeply human, pierced me straight through. And it haunts me to this day.
Joy Division – New Dawn Fades
I got seriously into music when I was pretty young. I saved my babysitting money when I was in middle school to buy tapes at Home of the Hits, my favorite record store in Buffalo, NY. Most of my early teen years I spent listening to punk. Already at age 13 I knew that the world was a pretty messed up place, and I was mad about it. I wanted to be loud and angsty, and I wanted my music and style to show just how much I disapproved of it all.
Joy Division appeared on my musical horizon when I was about 15, and its hard for me to describe just how much of an impact this band had on me. When I heard “Unknown Pleasures” for the first time, I was at a stage when I was getting more into the subculture scene, but I was simultaneously feeling like I really didn’t fit into any scene at all. Ian Curtis’ voice resonated with me like no other artist had before. He conveyed such a range of emotions, from raw and unhinged to numb, sounding almost automatic at times. He was responding to a world that I knew. To me, it sounded like he understood.
“New Dawn Fades” has always been my favorite track on the album. It was on infinite repeat on my bedroom stereo for years, and listening to it now, its effect still hasn’t worn off.
The Cure – Hanging Garden
Pornography is a brilliantly dark album. How dark? Well this track was deemed the most radio friendly of the album! And indeed, amazingly, beneath the thick stygian skin of this song lurks the pop sensibilities that have always marked the Cure’s best writing. But that doesn’t soften any of the violence that animates this track. “The Hanging Garden” is emblematic of what struck me so forcefully when I discovered the Cure’s music at the tender age of thirteen. The world that these early Cure albums created felt so insular to me. I remember listening to Pornography and feeling like there was nothing outside of this sound, these notes and textures. And I suppose that their music really did serve as a second skin between myself and the world that I was increasingly feeling so ill at ease in. (Please don’t let the somewhat cliché image of an angst-ridden teenanger listening to the Cure mute your appreciation of the energy of this song!))
Three songs into Pornography, “The Hanging Garden” felt so massive, so tidal: a song that could fill up and transform the space of my small, mundane bedroom into a strange and exotic sonic landscape. Not all of Robert Smith’s lyrics have aged well for me, but in songs like this, I’m still impressed by his grasp on the materiality of language. The simple fourfold, mantra-like repetition of “fall, fall, fall, fall” is at once descriptive and imperative – and the weight of the words plummet like stone.
In terms of a narrative, “The Hanging Garden” remains resolutely oblique; the text doubles in on itself in duplicity, enigmatic in its evocation of an imaginary marvel built by a legendarily insane king: it paints an impressionistic image of a perverse palatial wonder deep within the walls of a city that has served as a symbolic marker for oppression in the vision of countless poets and prophets. We are ushered into foreign territories. Smith’s laconic imagery merges and blurs human and animal; the voice of the narrator speaks from beneath the mask of Nebuchadnezzar as he crawls on all fours. As the song unfolds, fur, teeth, and claws emerge from beneath the glacial sheets of flanged guitar; detuned drums pound out a battery of night and fever-visions; the hollow bassline is at once mechanistic and feral in its pitiless rhythm.
Today, many years from when I first was struck by this album, much of this once-unknown territory is now well-mapped. The songs are familiar friends, filled with the scent of days long-past and fears overcome. However, from time to time, upon a chance listen, I’m still able to stumble upon terra incognita in the sonic landscapes of this album: shadowy corners, mirages, and strange hinterlands awaiting discovery – an uncanny sense of the known melting into the unexpected. It’s in this magical transformation of the familiar into the foreign, that I can re-experience that the excitement I felt when I realized music’s power to envelop and transfigure even our most mundane spaces.
Horsepower – Praying Arm Lane
16 Horsepower caught my attention when I was going to graduate school in Europe. Spending so much time abroad somehow turned my musical interests back towards the States, and I became obsessed with the dark Americana sound. David Eugene Edward’s work took up a good size portion of my playlist for the 5 years I was living overseas.
I don’t remember when I heard “Praying Arm Lane” off of Secret South for the first time, but it’s one of those tracks that makes me stop what I’m doing every time I hear it. It’s an epic love song that just speaks for itself. The simplicity and profundity of the lyrics touch me deeply.
Murder – Help The Dead
Kathryn: We came across this song in the summer of 2010 when we were struggling to cope with the untimely death of a lifelong friend and member of Lux Interna. It seemed to touch on the wide spectrum of feelings I was working through, and somehow allowed me begin the initial steps of trying to make sense of a senseless loss. Lines such as, “Feed the dead. We still need to nurture their skin and their bones,” and “Tell the dead it’s all as they left it and we still have days,” put into words what I was incapable of articulating.
At the time, it was impossible to imagine a way forward for Lux Interna without Kevin. He would often tell Joshua, “You’re the Lennon to my McCartney,” and it was true. Kevin and Joshua had worked together musically since the beginning. He had been a part of Joshua’s earlier project, Dead Angel Collection, and his signature piano and hammer dulcimer parts appeared on every song we created as Lux Interna. But that last line stayed in my mind in the weeks and months that followed… ‘we still have days.’ We decided to continue Lux Interna to honor Kevin’s spirit. Our last album, “There is Light in the Body, There is Blood in the Sun,” is dedicated to his memory.
Joshua: This is the one song I’ve picked that isn’t rooted back into my youth. In fact, I might easily never have heard Murder’s “Help the Dead.” Or I might have heard it and not connected with it. But a chance encounter with this song in the aftermath of the tragic and unexpected death of a beloved friend and bandmate brought the brittle beauty of this homage to the last things home. Death – like love – is one of the powerful forces that shapes and defines us. It fills and empties worlds. It is immense. And due to this sheer immensity, I imagine artists have been responding to it for as long as art has existed. In this sense – and also like love – it’s damn hard to treat this subject in a way that reveals something new, that breathes with a new spirit. Somehow Murder managed to do this for me.
The title “Help the Dead,” at least to my mind, hints at prayer, ritual – something sacral. And indeed the song seems to be constructed with an almost sacred sense of care: a house for the spirits of those who have passed on – but are hardly gone – to inhabit. The chords ring out, clean as bone, the silence between them intoning absence. But there is levity here too – perhaps even a hint of humor. The range of emotions touched on is stunning: the song is equal parts a threadbare articulation of loss, a hymn to the strange absurdity of life, and an evocation of the soft, silent lights of hope that can unexpectedly arise out the most abysmal depths of our personal nights. And hanging in the background is a hint that the most absurd idea of all might just ring true in the end: death may not be the end. But no easy answers are given; the tension is left unresolved.
I’m grateful to this song. In some strange way, it was there for me, ringing out into the silence left in the wake of an immense loss. A song cannot of course fill the silence of death; it can however keep us singing into that silence. As Jacob Bellens intones: “tell the dead, not everything ends with the ultimate breath.” But I suspect that it’s we who – though we keenly know this through our pain – must be listen closely. And in this sense, although the piece is entitled “Help the Dead,” it is very much a help to the living who are left to try to make sense of death.