The most memorable live show I attended in 2014 was by a band called Timeghost, a one-person act who took over the room with a mix of sound, mood, virtuosity and spectacle. Even by the standards of a town renowned for immersive musical performances, Timeghost was intense.
The show had elements that, if described, might sound alienating, but which within the context of the performance brought the audience and the performer closer, evoking empathy rather than horror. This special dynamic hinged on the earnestness with which Timeghost set about its work and an extraordinary otherworldly atmosphere created over the course of the set.
Afterwards I felt exhilarated and strangely emptied, as if purged of something. It was, I think, what undergoing brainwashing might be like. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. You really, really, really ought to see Timeghost when it returns here on Tuesday, April 28.
I "spoke" with Timeghost electronically about music, altered states, and New Orleans.
Gambit: I caught your most recent New Orleans show and was strongly affected by it. Among the things I experienced was a sense that I was on some sort of metaphysical journey with the other people in the room. That show was in a small, spooky basement, but as someone who does DIY touring, you must get booked all kinds of places, including bright, high-ceilinged art galleries. How much does the physical setting affect the performance?
Thanks for being there, and I’m glad you felt engaged. Everything affects the performance, qualities of the room especially. If it were the same every time though, it would get really boring for me. I’m up for the challenge of transforming the space with the performance. I try to affect people on a number of different senses in addition to sound. It’s my goal for people to feel hypnotized or experience some kind of altered state. Manipulating more than one sense at a time makes people more suggestible. All performers are attempting a form of hypnosis, even if the reason is to simply make you watch them. I like to perform in a very dark environment, which is usually simple to achieve anywhere considering most shows happen after sunset. Controlling the lighting disorients people from the typical use of the room. My lights flicker, which is usually a sign of something malfunctioning. Malfunction triggers people in interesting ways.
South Louisiana is a piece of the world mutilated by industry, and it’s now the fifth anniversary of the BP oil disaster. You have a song that is about or makes reference to the oil disaster; can you talk about its origins and the ideas behind it?
That song is called “Enoch”, which references both the first biblical city founded by the descendants of Cain, as well as the esoteric language supposedly gifted by angels to Dr. John Dee in the 16th century. The lyrics were written specifically wondering about humanity’s relationship to fire, and the choice to build our society around things that combust, burn, and explode; the romance and the curse of it. Last time I was in New Orleans, I began the song referring to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I was working as a crew member on the film Beasts of the Southern Wild at the time. We were on location in the bayou for months and our work was directly affected by the crisis. Some of that experience worked its way into the lyrics. I was told something about the quality of sunsets being brighter and more brilliant out on the rigs because of the oil molecules in the air. It was a beautiful and haunting metaphor for the bigger picture; the infatuation with power from a chaotic source, completely surrounding us and clouding our vision seductively.
Do you have any thoughts on New Orleans as a place? What has your relationship to this city been, and what does New Orleans mean to you?
I’ve had some important experiences in New Orleans over the years. The city is soaked in memories. Not just my own, but generations of people. I love cities that feel like an old person who shows off their scars and tells you the stories. Some cities still have that, but there are too many people that want to cover the scars up, give it plastic surgery, and pretend like it’s an innocent child ready to submit to you. This is a trick. I see all cities as being built as the site of exploitation. People came to the city to exploit or be exploited by industry. Now with most of America moving to a service or tech-based economy, people try to white-wash the history. It happens everywhere. I like that New Orleans has a proud musical heritage that has changed the world through its wealth of imagination and culture. The people are proud of it. You can’t say that about every city.
How has your work changed since you began performing as Timeghost?
I used to get completely drunk or high in order to perform. I thought it made the performance seem darker or more extreme, but after looking at older shows I realized I was less articulate in my goals. I’m challenging myself more to strike a balance between clarity and curiosity. If I spell it all out for people, it’s like preaching and I want to avoid that. However, if I don’t give enough clues, it gets too exclusive. I want it to feel like waking from a dream and not understanding what everything means but still feeling something out of the ordinary. Through the gaps of your memory, you pick out the strongest symbols and steep your brain in them.
Aspects of your show are very industrial, not just as in the music genre, but in the sense of having to do with machines and their relation to human bodies, and yet you don't seem to be celebrating technology. Are you critiquing machine-human interface, or reflecting a reality we all live in? Or are these human-equipment interactions just artistic means to effectively express other ideas?
I’m not critiquing whether or not the lines between people and machines are blurring. I think that’s undeniable. One of my core beliefs is that “Nature” does not exist. People talk about the “Natural” world as something that we don’t touch, and it gets dirty and worthless when we do. I think this idea is built on religious programming and misplaced guilt. If my body is natural, then my cellphone, McDonald’s, and the internet is natural too. If nothing is unnatural, “Nature” does not exist. I’m also not questioning whether technology is good or bad, because it can be both. If I was anti-technology, I would play acoustic instruments and probably fit in a little better in places like New Orleans. I’m fascinated by technology and see it as a mirror that reflects our behavior back on us. Take all the technology away and humanity will still find ways to destroy itself. Everyone dies: why not explore it faster while we are still alive?
Your live set incorporates memorable and unconventional performative elements. How do you see your recorded music, which of course can't capture all that, as relating to the experience of seeing Timeghost live?
It’s a live act and it’s always been about the experience in person. For a long time, I let recordings act as an indexical document: it was the residue of a physical action. My first tape was direct improvisation to tape with no post-production. The second tape was composed around traversing a factory building on a horizontal axis for side A, and a vertical axis for side B. The length of songs had to meet the physical requirements of making it from one station to the next, and it was recorded in one shot. I also made a couple recordings just documenting current live sets. Over the last year, I began to enjoy making music for releases that are never intended for live performance or entirely conceived for release. My new record, Cellular, is composed around the concept of cellularity on different levels. I wanted to make a record that held together as its own statement, a real album that people could have a personal attachment to. It’s been a rewarding approach because not everyone has the opportunity to make it to a show. Now the music can travel further than my body and the record has received some support. Hopefully it will help me make it to some of those places where I haven’t played yet, it already has and I feel very lucky. Now the roles have reversed though, and people interpret the record as the original and the performance as an interpretation of it. I actually composed some pieces on my record to be embellished in a live performance with symbolic activities, that are visual, physical, and alter the sounds.
The two major ways I found myself thinking about your work after the show here in December was as a spiritual experience— as a powerful pagan rite from some lost past or near future— and also as a brave, in many ways non-verbal act of personal communication, a way of cutting through bullshit to achieve human connection. If those two facets aren't just something I'm imposing on your work, how do you balance between those abstract, symbolic, mystical functions and the ways in which your performance forges a bond between you and the other people in the room? Do you see yourself as conducting a variation on a church service, or is your work more personal?
I wasn’t raised going to church, but I try to pay attention to what reaches people on a subconscious level. There’s a void inside a lot of people raised in a post-religious society that leaves them looking for an experience larger than their body. Some people go to sporting events, some go to punk shows, some go shopping: everyone needs escape from themselves. It’s all very similar to me now. I’ve gotten interested in searching for something that comes from my intuition, but I also recognize some things just fall into my lap. Some of my interests are informed by occult philosophy and esoteric religion, but also science and electronics. People have an idea of “mysticism” as being about candles, altars, sigils, and hallucinogens, but I think there’s something even more ethereal in electronics and the internet. It’s all around us. I can’t think of a more new-age sounding term than “liquid crystal”, and it’s inside everyone’s pocket now. All this energy and information surrounds us invisibly until it hits your own personal crystal ball. I used to work for an electronics recycling company stripping old gear for parts, sometimes literally sifting gold out of garbage; the old alchemical analogy. I think what an artist does is to transform things into signs or to reconfigure their function altogether. This can be small or large. I don’t believe revolution is possible but everyone has the ability to cause malfunctions. Hopefully, it’s apparent in what I do and I encourage others to find their own way of feeling things. There’s no right or wrong way to hear a sound.
Timeghost plays the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center (1618 O.C. Haley Blvd.) on Tuesday, April 28 at 8:30 p.m. with ORA ISO, Psychic Hotline and Proud:Father