The collaborative LP Devil, Repent! by James Joys and Peter Devlin is a fascinating one — at times, difficult to listen to, but ultimately it’s a fine electronic translation of human erring and the industrial. It’s an ensnaring affair, which is the sort of quality that begs for the upheaval of context and intentions so that we may extract as much from the experience as possible. And both Joys and Devlin have wonderfully indulged us with their perspectives on Ireland and the literary left field.
Noted: The Catholic religious indoctrination that forms the backbone of Devil, Repent! seems to be a lingering problem in Ireland, to the point where it’s become a truism – do you think it has become so common as to just be largely ignored? Are there any ways to counter it, or is it a lost cause?
James: The denial, and the will to ignorance is probably the most extraordinary aspect about Ireland. But it’s hardly ignored, it’s actively suppressed. Lately you’ve had dead babies in a septic tank in Galway, which only forms part of a much larger scandal of systematic abuse and oppression by powerful institutions who’ve imbued themselves with an unquestioned moral power over swathes of vulnerable people they were meant to be sheltering. Abuse by paedophile priests, and the cover-up by bishops, most of whom who are still working in the church is another huge scandal that never seemed to reach any kind of remotely acceptable resolution.
The creeps have ecclesiastically shuffled back to the cold recesses of their churches presumably with some personal assurances from God that all will be well after a few fucking hail Marys. But by ‘God’ we might mean the less-than-celestial Irish government and rather earthly Vatican regime. It’s such a mind-boggling model of corruption that implicates politics, journalism, culture, religion and their institutions, and it’s allowed one a glimpse of a particular kind of dreadful awesomeness where the last decade has seemed like one long nauseating moment where so much collusion over so many years suddenly came to light. And it’s blinding, hard to comprehend in terms of scale, and you think of the millions of people who feel a genuine, meaningful devotion to that religion, and how that may have shaken their faith, betrayed their trust, and maybe how it’s strengthened it.
Abuse by paedophile priests, and the cover-up by bishops, most of whom who are still working in the church is another huge scandal that never seemed to reach any kind of remotely acceptable resolution.
Peter: From the earliest age you are taught – but really told – to believe that simply by being alive, you are a dreadful person who must live your life to make up for the pain you’ve caused unto others, whether it’s your family in the physical world, or Jesus in the metaphysical world.
A person often follows religion because of the promise of eternal happiness. A person often strays from religion because they find happiness sooner, elsewhere. Yet nobody seems to push for change, on either side. The church is a constant and tucks all its flaws under the carpet. It has to, otherwise it will crumble. Change cannot be a part of something which takes its values from a 2000 year old book. However, lay people go along with this. Very few truly desert the church. They become faux catholics, leading the life they wish, until it’s time to pretend for the sake of family values, or for the sake of status within the communities, to be a good Sunday morning catholic again. Everyone knows, no one admits. So the church keeps all its power over the youngest generation, simply because the older generations fail to act.
James: You ask, ‘how are they – you know, bog-standard Catholics – thinking about all this?’ because the whole religion is based around rigid organised ritual and hierarchies of guilt, mediated by a huge system of celibate men, taking orders and directives from a centralized cabal of celibate men living in a great gilded castle delegating various modes of repentance and forgiveness, which is handy. And I guess this is why there is such inertia in Ireland in dealing with it, because the hard theological and ethical questioning that needs to happen – and which might help prize open the church and analyse what’s wrong with it – is kind of, understandably, obfuscated by the consummate horrors and agonizing pain of what keeps getting exposed, but also the possibility of conviction and justice is negated by obsessing over forgiveness and quick moral closure.
Yet nobody seems to push for change, on either side. The church is a constant and tucks all its flaws under the carpet. It has to, otherwise it will crumble.
So these highly-emotive cycles of horror, repulsion and grief freeze out the opportunity for any kind of debate that might begin a process of healing rather than what seems to be happening, which is a process of collective amnesia. None of this is helped at all by the media’s ‘it was a different time’ horseshit. So one of the most prevalent things in Catholicism in all its guises is a relinquishing of personal responsibility – sin and repent, and repeat, ritualised in the act of confession, which we wrote about in Split Booth.
So there’ll be no concrete change in policy, fundamental things like gender equality and allowing clergy to have relationships that might begin to lift the church out of the dark ages. But I suppose you need to remember what’s at stake here too, what they stand to lose. These fuckers have immense property portfolios. As Pete always says, the chapel is always the most lavish building in town. They’re not going down without a fight.
Peter: The latest Pope has been very modern, and even, I would say, realistic about the future of the Catholic church, but he’s laughed at by his followers. He’s ‘crazy’, and I find this very saddening. Last week he excommunicated the mafia. How the fuck was this not done years ago?!
Noted: Is there a link between the James Joys name and Irish novelist James Joyce? If so, has his writing had any influence on you or your music? How about other literature? Your music would suit an accompanying graphic novel I feel.
James: Yes and yes. I find literature and some literary criticism a lot more useful to explain what I’m doing musically than texts written more explicitly about sound or music, mainly because people tend to write so badly about music, so reading things that are less proximate to my ‘profession’ saves me from the muso-bores, and tend to be the texts that spark my imagination. So these ideas that seem incongruous on first glance get surreptitiously transmitted, and they’re like oscillations at strange frequencies that you’re able to tune into.
But, yes, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in particular, also the work of African-American writer Nathaniel Mackey who, in a radio interview, very casually remarked that prose comes most alive when ‘words are whispering among themselves’, which is something that has always stayed with me. I’ve written quite extensively on his work and Finnegans Wake in the past. Mackey speaks quite a lot of the simultaneities of music (particularly jazz) and literature (mainly black literature) because their contents overlap enormously, but also because his prose is characterised by technical and stylistic tendencies deriving from an attempt to emulate jazz; at times it seems breathlessly improvisatory, and proceeds in stuttering, stumbling displacements. It always seems divergent.
I find literature and some literary criticism a lot more useful to explain what I’m doing musically than texts written more explicitly about sound or music, mainly because people tend to write so badly about music
And so with Joyce, especially in Finnegans Wake, there’s the same sensory pleasure of teasing out rhythms and sounds of words that seem to insist on being fleshed out by breath, throat, tongue, teeth and lips, because to look at, they are jarring and difficult to decipher, and the point is, with this kind of text – that is, one imbued with such vast depths of obscure and esoteric histories and languages (63 in total) – meanings are acquired more clearly through sounding them out by literal resonance, by speaking them, and even though reading Finnegans Wake aloud is sometimes like trying to disentangle your tongue from barbed wire, it’s kind of fetishistic, an enthrallment to idioglossia bondage.
But yeah, there are certainly other writers who are always lurking in the background, people like poet J.H Prynne, whose work is just, hard – I mean, it seems deliberately evasive and full of semantic trickery in one respect, but the words also have this additional layer of visceral spitting, almost musical impact, and it sounds to me like the insistent, urgent breathlessness improvisation of sax player John Butcher and some of Colin Stetson’s stuff.
But I think there’s similarities in phrasing, particularly in terms of evasiveness, and Prynne has this notion that he calls the ‘erosion of the cadential decent’, which I’ve always tried to respond to in my stuff in different ways – one really simple thing is running three sparsely programmed drum machines against each other at ridiculously varied step lengths – say, 31, 63 and 48 steps – which gives you continual undulations of unresolved phrasings.
So you can apply this to Finnegans Wake too, but his is the ultimate cadential tease [SPOILER ALERT!] – the last sentence looping us back to the very beginning via some delightfully lilting alliteration: ‘A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore brings us by commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.’ But, yeah James Joys is a particularly blunt, artless tribute to Joyce’s own bastardisation of names in Finnegans Wake. I’m sure he’d appreciate it.
Noted: There’s a deep fixation on urban life and the monotony of industry in your music and you frequently harness them as thematic vehicles, but does your view on the relationship between man and machine go further than that?
James: I think probably much more explicitly in the Alexithymia EP, the name of which I like more than the EP itself, because I was writing something very quickly that was more squarely aimed at ‘being techno’ and it came out sounding quite aggressive and industrial. Certainly I do have a preoccupation with cities, and read stuff about urban geography and architecture, but my interest edges towards psycho-geographical notions of cities and their particular cultural mores or social curios than any particularities of urban life like drainage infrastructure or fibre-optic broadband coverage.
And there are certain cities that interest me more than others, like Detroit, Paris, LA, Newcastle, maybe Dubai – which writer Mike Davis calls a ‘dream world of neoliberalism’ – for a variety of reasons. I’m unsure I have a readily accessible view on the relationship between man and machine. I mean, when I’m making this stuff there’s always a certain kind of fluidity – definitely hybridity – but it’s not always obvious or apparent at the time, and I think I’m glad of that.
Noted: There’s a certain desolate aesthetic captured on the records’ cover that sits in quiet contrast to the music – what’s the story behind it?
Peter: I love the contrast. The music is so full of disgust and despair vomited up from the darkest pit of our guts, yet the cover is so sharp and perfectly withheld. It’s the search for answers, the search for meaning and joy, for direction, for anything really, but all many people get in return is nothing. Blank pages. A desert. A vacuum. No guiding light. No epiphanic moments.
I mean, when I’m making this stuff there’s always a certain kind of fluidity – definitely hybridity – but it’s not always obvious or apparent at the time, and I think I’m glad of that.
James: The cover photo for Devil, Repent! was taken on a highway in Utah about ten years ago when I lived in Chicago for a short while. Utah is considered part of what is called the bible belt, though it’s slightly further west than the rest of it. We were on a very very long straight road of hundreds and hundreds of miles, and as well as plenty of ‘the world’s biggest corn on the cob’s, on the side of the freeway, you pass a lot of huge billboards with various fire-and-brimstone messages relaying your inevitable desiccation in hell (unless you repent, of course).
It’s a very particular kind of conservative evangelical Protestantism in those parts, which sits slightly at odds with Devil, Repent!’s preoccupation with the luxuriant European opulence of Roman Catholicism, but despite that I felt there were similarities in the austere, kind of arid – acrid – frame with which both sects view the world around them, and the severe way in which they viewed human beings, but particularly women and children. There are definitely equivalences in their dreadful self-loathing and fear that centres on flesh, sex, desire.
So, the highway is the belt – constrictive – but it’s also the way out, and it’s a beautiful thing, it’s – and this is clichéd to fuck – liberating, and I think this is because of the roadside geography, and what that does to you as you drive through it from east to west. There’s a slow seduction by rock – by geology – especially as you drive westward; you pass through the New Mexico and Colorado Rockies, which over about one hundred miles as you approach slowly erupt from the horizon like sores, and then you have the eerie Cold War landscapes of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada familiar to me through Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone TV shows, B-movies and all those US Civil Defense Films on Youtube, towards LA, the arid city that shouldn’t exist – it conveys water from somewhere else using a concrete aqueduct that runs for 400-odd miles; it’s sited by a fucking beach.
So, the highway is the belt – constrictive – but it’s also the way out, and it’s a beautiful thing, it’s – and this is clichéd to fuck – liberating.
But it’s the home of pagan-pseudo-science cults born into a nuclear paranoia that might not have existed without Hollywood and its therapy-entertainment-complex. LA is the eerie afterglow of the 20th century, and the city is strewn like fallout. It’s amazing. But literally too, I mean, it burns annually. I mean, there’s this rocket scientist Jack Parsons, who also is experimenting with Thelemite occultism in the 1940s and 50s, and is in touch with English occultist Aleister Crowley and – of course – L. Ron Hubbard, so the place is imbued with this historical overlaps of scientific rationalism and pretty esoteric metaphysics – and then as well as that you have this parallel world of sci-fi movies being made by Hollywood and filmed in the rocky desert landscapes of the city, which render the familiar terrain of LA unearthly.
So the 20th Century is dominated by expansions of scale, and what we know becomes scaled up out and in at a rate much faster than ever before. Massive explosions, death on vast scales, space, the Moon, and then the big weird nanoscopic space of quantum mechanics. And what we see the post-world war II is the world dividing up into speed tribes and economies of scale, with the US firmly on top, and of course the US has this frontier myth that reinforces its provenance and destiny, which means that no one bats an eye when phrase ‘The American Century’, referring to the post-war period and beyond, comes into common usage – coined, naturally, by the Americans themselves.
And for me it’s hard to detach that from the sublime natural geography of the place – and also its cities. I said earlier, it’s a kind of geological seduction, but irradiated by a devout faith in technology and progress. And, in answer to your question, this is where the ghost of the book in the album artwork comes back, ‘cause it has no discernable words on its pages, there’s an ambiguity to which faith it refers – evangelical, scientific, technological, patriotic, occult, American-Indian, whatever – and I think the greater point is that while I was there, I sensed that there was always a haunting of some kind of belief or faith behind nearly everything.
So that’s why on the sleeve it’s got a ghostly ambivalence, and nothing to say except the liminal presence of its open pages. The US harbours a landscape that we all recognise as representing something expansive, new, a kind of mass of optimism mixed with fear and danger, guilt and dread; and that’s what is exhilarating, and I wanted a slice of that on the cover.
James: I have a surreptitious collaborator in John Ayers of Guessmen, who’s always been the first person I’ll send things to for critical appraisal. There’s a collaboration somewhere in the distance there. He’s got the best ears in the biz. Others were mainly fortuitous encounters with superb musicians who I had the pleasure of teaching a little bit over the last few years. Phil Begg (aka Hapsburg Braganza) who does all the lovely spectral guitar-work on Split Booth was the one who noticed the anagram in Pete’s name, which obviously lent a nice edge to what we were writing. We also had access to some amazing facilities in Newcastle which helped a lot. But yeah, I was just very lucky to be surrounded by some very talented, very open-minded people, and that was all I was looking for.
The Pete thing was a bit different. He’d been working on his album Leaves with John Ayers. It’s incredibly beautiful, and I used to sit in on the studio sessions. When I was finishing up Glyphic Bloom I had a track called ‘The Face You Don’t Recognise’ which has the most bizarre phrasings in it, so I just figured I’d give it to Pete for a laugh and see if he could come up with a vocal for it. I always thought it could have had one, but I could never figure one out. About a week later he comes back with it all mapped out and practised. We recorded it in one session and now it’s one of my favourite tracks.
So, Devil, Repent! grew out of that and a lot of very drunken rants about Ireland in the Hotspur pub after work. The lovely thing of working with Pete is just how quickly things get written. The other amazing thing is that his voice is so rich and his phrasing so intuitive, that there is virtually no post-production on the vocals aside from some very conservative EQing. But then I think that’s the case with most great singers. Mind you, we were using a 3k microphone…
Noted: Given the number of field recordings you must have captured during the creation of Devil, Repent!, were there any that you’re particularly proud of that you decided against using? In the same respect, how did you go about constructing your tracks from a process perspective?
James: Yeah, I mean, certainly field-recordings play a big part in what I do, but probably played a much bigger part in the Glyphic Bloom album in terms of determining structure and things like that. With this one, I went and deliberately recorded things that seemed like they might fit, sonically or thematically, rather than the whole ad hoc approach. I went to a church and recorded all the noises housed in there I found interesting.
I’m not sure I’m particularly proud of any one recording, probably because I knew that the recordings I was making were always going to be cut up, re-sampled, warped and messed around with in all sorts of ways, that the kind of fidelity to absolute location became less important. I have generally quite a scrappy, messy approach to gathering this stuff, and some of the textural gradations are achieved by the occasional and beautiful shitness that certain devices lend to the recording – and by that I mean the technological limitations of things like a phone mic, or a dictaphone, or whatever. I will go out and make better quality recordings with nice mics and that because they obviously offer a recording with far richer resolution to work with, but certainly part of the fun, for me, is hearing what I thought would come through quite clearly in a recording actually being obfuscated by some other sound you didn’t hear at the time, or by digital or analogue artifacts or whatever.
So, Devil, Repent! grew out of that and a lot of very drunken rants about Ireland in the Hotspur pub after work. The lovely thing of working with Pete is just how quickly things get written.
So there is a really useful discrepancy between what you are hearing, and what gets recorded, due to a myriad of reasons, but this is especially true when you take an unscientific and somewhat careless approach as I do. That cleft though, is where most of the ideas seem to emerge later when I’m editing or playing around with recordings in various samplers. I’ve also absolutely no qualms about intervening if I’m standing recording something and I’m bored. I’ll knock over a chair, slam a door, make some guttural noise, drop something on the floor. Most of the time it’s the sound of something happening in a specific space that’s more interesting than making endless field recordings that try to honestly translate what the space sounds like. I like to hear the human being there, all those sniffs and coughs, brushing of clothes, the squeaking of shoes on tiles that you desperately try to stifle have this really lovely tender quality that lends a nice intimacy to it all, but also there’s generally always going to be other people in the space, so that’s always good.
I do things like re-amping a lot of field recordings in other spaces and recording that, which is how most of the sudden changes of air in Glyphic Bloom were achieved. But in terms of constructing the stuff, it’s a messy process and is normally pretty different for each track, but I’d say I’ll try to find a rhythm first, or at least a particular pacing that I want to work with, then I’ll add various pulses of noises to try and upset those rhythms or pacings. Once that’s done, it can go anywhere, and a lot of the time it’s composition by subtraction, where everything is piled in and it’s a case of just taking things away or trimming them until something is sculpted out of it. Which makes playing it live an absolute nightmare [as] I don’t have a particularly logical workflow.
Noted: What’s next for you?
James: I’m writing an album that tries to fuse electroacoustic music with a bit of sampling. And I’m using a lot of Bernard Herrmann’s recordings as sampling fodder. He was an ultra-prolific composer for film and TV, and the stuff is remarkable in that it sounds like he was approaching the possibilities of orchestral instrumentation and arrangement in the same way the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was experimenting with oscillators and early synthesisers. The timbres and textures Herrmann solicits – in his work for science fiction film – by really sophisticated orchestration from quite traditional instrumentation is really impressive; he renders earthly music alien and strange, and the beauty is that this stuff is contemporaneous with people like Sun Ra, and the Radiophonic Workshop, with records like Ra’s Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy, The Nubians of Plutonia, or BBC Radiophonic Music.
So the final pieces for the album are worked around improvised structures, one take skeletons. Ken Hollings in his book ‘Welcome To Mars’ calls one of his chapters ‘Absolute Elsewhere,’ which I’m borrowing for the working title. It’s returning to the city; the city as contagion, infectious. So where Devil, Repent! was a really rabid invective into a void, at an indifferent institution – a vampire squid – or something, this next one’s going back towards the kind of obsessive, paranoid inwardness of albums Glyphic Bloom and Canon Fodder, which I think is quite easily translatable by electroacoustic approaches to sound, and combining that approach – all its grueling gestures of warping, twisting, torquing – with a quite improvisatory lo-fi sampling practise using an old Yamaha SU10 is proving a lot of fun, rhythmically and narratively, like, here are two dramas getting tangled up in each other’s business in a pleasing way. Maybe like ad hoc engineering and the occult ritual or something.
I think Pete and I definitely have another album in us. It felt like we were cut off in the middle of a really fertile phase and I think that we could’ve reached much darker, heavier places. I hope that we might emerge one day with another bilious vomit of Irish gothic.