Hailing from the west of Ireland, John of the Apocalypse (JotA) formed last year and released their debut single 'Take That Technology' in December. Their sound has been described as 'folk inflicted, dark experimentalia', with samples and spoken word woven into atmospheric and primitive alt-folk songs. Touchstones include Grandaddy, Elliott Smith, Wilco and Sparklehorse. Their follow up single - Newborn - was delivered just last week.
NM: We were all glad to see the back of 2020... but in launching JotA you must have been pretty damn determined to make something of the time. Is this, more than any time in recent past, the time to be creative and to create?
PH: Yeah, the songs of JotA were burning a hole in my pocket so to speak. And we were really fortunate to get the drums recorded in a studio just before the lockdown hit. So we had the foundation to build on for myself and Steve to record the rest of the tracks. I was really grateful to have creative work to pursue. Especially as I know it's been really tough for a lot of artists in Ireland this year.
In terms of adapting to the pandemic - I think yes, while it is restrictive, it has also offered the opportunity for more inward, soul work, in any form. I've had some very soulful conversations with people who are getting a breather from the hamster wheel and re-evaluating their purpose and way of being in life. While this can be disorienting and scary, I think there can be great potential in it too. Facing death, illness, fear and loss can be real catalysts for creativity in any form, as an expression of pure aliveness!
NM: And how about 2021... you are set to release the debut EP in a few months. Is there a tour on the cards or is it a case of play it by ear?
PH: Definitely a play it by ear scenario for now. But I'm cautiously optimistic that towards the latter half of 2021 there will be live gig opportunities again. Which will be a great relief from both a fan and musician point of view. I have sorely missed not getting to live shows. But in the broader scheme of the burden of pandemic suffering, it is a small cross to bear. My main focus now is an album's worth of songs I'm whittling away at, so I want to jump into that more fully once The Sacred Animal EP has been birthed on Good Friday April 2nd (*plug!)
NM: Take that technology - would you say this is aimed more at those of have fallen victim to its charms, or at technology itself for backing us into a corner? And what´s your relationship with it - love/hate?
PH: I like this question cos I think you've caught the ambiguity of the whole 'technology' issue. I'm certainly pointing the finger inward at my own relationship with technology. It's such a formative part of who we are now, as individuals and as a collective, we're all part machine. And it brings many blessings obviously. The pandemic has really shown that. I can join a group of people from around the world and connect with brilliant teachers and grow and learn in ways that were impossible before. But on the darker side, I can use technology to numb myself, in an addictive way that leaves me feeling powerless. And it's so freely available and ingeniously designed to create hooks and algorithmic profiles and trackers that harness the compulsive dopamine centres in our brains. The major currency of today is consciousness - clicks and attention. So Take That Technology was a somewhat tongue in cheek, call to my-self to wake up and reconnect more with the simple joys of nature, people, to become more present and alive and break some of the conditioned techno-neural patterns that don't serve me. A work in progress!
NM: I was delighted to have had a sneak preview of the follow up single "Newborn" which is now out.. delighted too that poetry takes centre stage. Is this a one-off or will poetry/spoken word continue to play a part in JotA music?
PH: The words for Newborn kind of stumbled out as I was working on the song, which was originally going to be an instrumental piece. They felt intuitively right and I didn't double guess them too much. Looking at them now, I can see the story that was developing. I heard a great Rilke quote today from a very wise woman - "You must give birth to the images. They are the future waiting to be born".
Recording the vocal as spoken word was also was just a gut intuition, what the track seemed to be calling for. I definitely lean more towards vocal melody in general but there are some amazing spoken word / music pieces out there - like Whipping Boy for example, some of Tindersticks work, Nick Cave has dabbled, Arab Strap, James Yorkston. And when it is done effectively, I really love it. There is one other track written for the next album that is spoken word also, though I fall back on my melody warbling for the other songs.
NM: It´s hard to pin a genre to the music - is that a good thing or a bad thing and do you think the sound will continue to evolve?
PH: It's something I was aware of for this record, as my music has been critiqued for being too diverse or 'eclectic'. But overall I'm moving more towards allowing whatever expression is seeking to come through and trust in that. A song or any creative work doesn't come from the conscious mind. And I'm acknowledging more and more how songwriting is not a personal process - me as Patrick writing a song - it's me as Patrick listening in to the void, to create the right space for a song to come through. This may be completely out of line with the 'style' of the last song I wrote, but that's not for me to question. The more I tinker with preconceptions or self-conscious ego ideas, even subtly, the more energy is depleted from it. In saying that though, I obviously need to consciously shape the record sonically and thematically after the writing and it is something I consider, how to weave sonic threads throughout a piece and create a story. But ultimately I want to let the daimon decide as much as possible what will emerge! That's where the gold is for me..
John of the Apocalypse - music can be found by clicking HERE
on Spotify or on Youtube!
Originally from Massachusetts, USA, Vienna-based Deirdre Brenner is a musician with a passion for chamber music and art song. She has performed in venues including the Wiener Musikverein (Vienna), Wiener Konzerthaus (Vienna), The Kennedy Center (Washington, DC), Teatro Real (Madrid), Philharmonie Essen, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Stadthalle (Bayreuth), the National Concert Hall (Dublin), St. Martin-in-the-Fields (London) and the Hollywell Music Room (Oxford).
In demand as both a teacher and coach, Deirdre is currently on the faculty of the Anton Bruckner Privatuniversität in Linz, and IES Abroad in Vienna. She is co-founder of the brilliant Boyne Music Festival in Drogheda, Ireland, as well as the innovative concert series Mosaïque in Vienna. Her latest project - Hourglass- was launched in 2020.
NM: It's been a crazy year. But you still chose to launch the Hourglass concert series in the middle of it all. Was that a matter of "no time like the present" or just testing the water?
DB: To be honest, I think it was more impulsive than anything else. Last March, in the span of a very short period, all events shut down in Austria and gradually internationally as well. As a pianist, that meant a loss of not only performance work, but also a loss of the beautiful social connection that happens through performances. Live music takes its breath from these connections... connections between performers and audience, as well as connections among the audience. These connections create a powerful energy and a special sense of community.
There was a small window of time during the summer and early autumn where it looked like "socially distanced concerts" would be the way forward. I decided to launch Hourglass as a way to surf that opportunity. The idea was to present hour-long programs in Brick-5, a gorgeous space which offers the possibility to arrange seats at safe distances while also maintaining a sense of intimacy. These concerts would be paired with an optional brunch either before or after the concert. The goal was to create a flexible covid-friendly performance platform while also restoring some of our lost community.
Our first concert in October was received with overwhelming joy, but just a week later the next lockdown went into effect. I'm hoping that once things open up again that we can continue where we left off....
NM: You are a very busy person in general, in my opinion.... If you're not playing a recital, you are organizing a concert or even a festival. This year obviously threw a spanner in the works, but was that at least time to recharge your batteries or work on another project?
DB: More like 2349837 spanners. I have to admit, it's been a challenging year. We've watched our profession dissolve into the unknown and it's been hard to figure out if we need to practice patience, or if it's time to start finding/creating other kinds of work. I can't say I have figured it out.
As you know, I founded the Boyne Music Festival in Ireland in 2013 with two of my cousins, Aisling and Julie-Anne Manning. It's a summer festival which brings together chamber music, poetry and song alongside a host of other events. Like most events last summer, we had to cancel due to the pandemic, but the time created in the void of other cancelled work has given us the opportunity to devote more energy to planning the future of the festival. We're navigating our way through some structural changes at the moment with the hopes of setting ourselves up for growth in the years to come. I can't exactly thank corona for this opportunity, but we are very excited about the future indeed.
NM: What has it been like working with Zoom and other technologies and do you think that in the future artists might integrate them into tours and live performances?
DB: If there's one thing we know about our connection to technology, it's that our engagement tends to increase over time. I can't imagine that these new modes of connection are simply going to go away once we are allowed to sit in the same room with each other again. I would imagine that we'll see hybrid trends going forward. Perhaps concerts and tours with the potential for additional viewers from home in certain instances. However, recording/streaming generally comes at an additional cost and it's hard to know if the money will be there to support such ventures in the future.
There have been a few instances over the last year when I have really appreciated the power of Zoom & friends. A large number of conferences and training programs which I would normally not be able to attend (mostly for geographical reasons) went digital. This opened up the possibility to learn and connect in new ways. I feel my professional circles expanding internationally and have found that growth quite interesting.
NM: What can we expect from Hourglass next year or are you just winging it for now?
Expectation is a word I tread on lightly these days. The short answer is that I don't know. I'm bursting to make music again though and look forward to the day when I can rehearse with colleagues without accompanying feelings of fear, guilt or futility. If we transition back into a phase where socially distanced concerts are permissible, then I imagine we'll open the floodgates to all kinds of heart opening programs. I'd love to see Hourglass offer a series of concerts in the spring / summer... but only time will tell.
Follow @hourglasskonzerte and @boynemusicfestival on Instagram to keep up with plans for 2021...
Michael McGriff is an author, editor, and translator. He was born and raised in Coos Bay, Oregon, and studied creative writing at the University of Oregon, The Michener Center for Writers, and Stanford University. He is the co-author, with J. M. Tyree, of the linked story collection Our Secret Life in the Movies, which was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014. His poetry collections include Eternal Sentences, Early Hour, Black Postcards, Home Burial, and Dismantling the Hills. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Poetry, Bookforum, The Believer, Tin House, American Poetry Review, Poetry London, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday and PBS NewsHour. His latest collection, Eternal Sentences, was selected by Billy Collins as the winner of the 2021 Miller Williams Poetry Prize.
NM: Let’s get straight down to business - new book coming out in a few weeks - can you say a little bit about it or how it came to be?
MM: This is a different kind of book for me: all the poems are short and each line is a single sentence. I'd come to a point of being more than a little tired of my recent work, which tends toward the dense and dreamy and tortuous. Like all the writers, I gaze longingly over the fence and yearn for the poems I can't write. In this case, the desire was to write a stripped-down, short, understated poem that wasn't afraid to retain a spirit of mystery. Yannis Ritsos is one of my heroes. He's been heckling me from the bookshelf for twenty years, challenging me to stop hiding behind pyrotechnics and a certain kind or ornamental poetics. But why the line as a single sentence? The answer is pretty unromantic--I was reading Larry Brown. In his story "Boy and Dog" from Facing the Music, each paragraph comprises a single, short sentence. It looks like a skinny poem on the page, yet it's an utterly devastating and direct work of fiction. Facing the Music is Brown's first book, and it shines with the swagger, experimentation, and "fuck-it" attitude that tends to make early works so alive and unapologetic. It hides behind nothing and says everything. It looks its drama square in the eye and says it like it is. I took it as a challenge to try to translate that formal element--and that spirit of writing--into a poem. I suppose at the back of it all is the social media zeitgeist, where language is corrupted into a system of yes or no, like or dislike, praise or kill. It's a system that rewards grandstanding and violence and the weaponization of the very building blocks of poetry. It's far too romantic and stupid to say that Eternal Sentences is a kind of reclamation project. But it's also true that the age we're in is deeply cynical and dangerous--even the poets and democracy advocates have signed up to abuse one another in the public popularity contests our cultures have become. When I was writing this book, I decidedly took my dearest subjects and tried to give them the clearest language: poverty, violence, class, family, and the post-industrial, rural American landscape of my childhood. I wanted to be honest, direct, and unadorned. What's also true is that this was never "a book I was working on." Rather, this collection represents more of a laboratory experiment. I didn't send this work out to journals. I didn't share the poems with trusted poetry friends. I wrote them for an audience of one, really. I'm also growing dreadfully bored of talking about myself. Like all writers, I bumble along in the dark and hope something sticks. This book is carnival mirror for who I was during the time I wrote it.
NM: I wrote a review of Early Hour on this blog and implied that your physical surroundings are one of your biggest muses. Was I right? Or does the muse evolve with experience/time/kids/financial hardship/ etc.?
MM: The poet Alexandra Teague asked me recently what my current book project is about and I said something like: "Ya know, same-o same-o: family river horse dream landscape simile crow." That pretty much sums it up. I'm entirely moored to place (rural Oregon). As it happens, that place is an American logging town on the other side of its economic heyday. I grew up in the woods. I lived there for the first 20 years of my life. We were poor, though I never felt that way. We lived in a house. We lived on land that has been in my family for generations. I felt like an insider--I was another face with a known last name that belonged to an industry. All my memories--those mythic, important memories from childhood--belong there. All of my mother and father's memories belong there...and so on and so on, back through the family tree. It's likely why I'm drawn to the poems of Ted Hughes and C.D. Wright and Larry Levis and Charles Wright; they write through the personal and into the mythic. My myths include the landscape itself. It's why I'm so drawn to figuration. I'll spend the rest of my days strumming up similes for the gray light that hangs over those waters and logging ridges.
NM: I’ve always thought - and I’m sure many people have thought this - if you’re going to be an actor you need to live in LA, a musician in New York, an artist in Berlin... what about a poet? For one year, where would you base yourself if you could?
MM: Assuming I had a vaccine in my arm and Euros to burn, I'd happily fly to you! Vienna! I could drink that coffee and traipse around there forever (or for a year). No matter where I've been I've only ever written about my childhood landscapes. Like everyone in lockdown, I've filled a good portion of my days wishing I were elsewhere and in a different time.
NM: Ha! You´re not alone there! This lockdown has definitely seen our imaginations wander a bit more. In terms of wandering and the new book - are you normally one to do a reading tour to promote it? Given the current situation - what’s the plan?
MM: Nah. I'm likely a publisher's nightmare. I don't promote my work or give many readings. It may turn out that the pandemic will look like any other year for me, in terms of my getting out there with a new book. I'm fairly private and quiet, these days.
NM: If you could superimpose your name onto the cover of one book as the author - which book would you choose and why?
MM: Well, if you're asking about book design, please slap my name on the cover of ANY Penguin or New Directions book from the 60s or 70s. If you're asking about a book I wished I could have written, that would likely have to be Larry Levis's The Dollmaker's Ghost. Or Malena Mörling's Ocean Avenue or Frank Stanford's The Singing Knives or...