Photography by Becka Diamond
It’s difficult for me to talk about Prurient, the main project of prolific noise and electronic musician Dominick Fernow, without sounding like a fanboy. No musician in the realm of extreme music – noise, metal, or otherwise – has had such an impact on me. Fernow is not just another dude in an underground scene of abrasive music, flailing and yelling to waves of crushing static; he’s the fucking vanguard of what extreme music can be.
Prurient’s discography, especially the bigger releases, moves in an unpredictable fashion. 2011’s Bermuda Drain is both his most accessible and his most daunting work, where he morphs dance music into a blurred nightmare of missed subway stops and perverted new wave. His dance-sleaze was even more blatant on 2013’s Through the Window, whose closer, “You Show Great Spirit”, would be a club hit if more metalheads were into techno.
There’s also a beauty to his work, which began with his use of buried synths on 2006’s Pleasure Ground. “Apple Tree Victim” is a fan favorite, as weird as that is to say for a noise project, because death and lust intersect in such a way that you wonder why they were never linked in the first place. If you want to get absolutely fucked up emotionally, “I Understand You” is a tender synth line getting demolished and consumed by squalling noise until it gets choked out for good. Fitting that it’s the very last song on the very last Hydra Head release, his split with Justin Broadrick’s JK Flesh, Worship Is the Cleansing of Imagination. You can’t have beauty without filth, and the yin won’t always be the yang; the imbalance is natural. Prurient is imbalanced music in the best way possible.
Frozen Niagara Falls, his latest and first release for Profound Lore Records, encompasses all of what makes Prurient Prurient – it’s a unified mess of a lot of what he’s explored in his career. His return to Prurient, after focusing more on his militaristic techno outfit Vatican Shadow over the past couple years, is a double album that’s not easy to digest, but he doesn’t do it out of some sadomasochistic need to test his fans. It began as a challenge to record everything acoustically in Pennsylvania and ended up an affirmation that he’s definitely not in Los Angeles anymore, that bleak New York winters always suited him more. Niagara’s liner notes advise you to “Listen at night while snow falls silently under street lights,” and while it is definitely cold-sounding in many aspects, the clashes and pain are for all seasons.
Fernow and I spoke about the making of Niagara, but we also delved into his teenage death metal years, exchanged views about art itself, and I also found out that one of the best shows of my life – his set at 35 Denton 2013 – was one of his worst. As you’ll see, contradiction is key in Prurient’s world. Perhaps that’s why his music resonates so much with me – he acknowledges that it’s impossible to fully sync up to an ideal self, that there’s little order to the world despite all our efforts.
Frozen Niagara Falls was originally intended to be recorded acoustically – guitar and field recordings – out in rural Pennsylvania. What was your initial intent with trying to record that way?
Well, I’ve always held “noise” to a higher standard in terms of the need and necessity for it to step out of its comfort zone and try to not repeat itself. Not that I think it’s better or worse than any other genre. When I got into it, it was all about destroying the boundaries and pushing yourself in a masturbatory way deeper and deeper into your own personal world. I’ve always been hyper sensitive about repeating myself, even though of course I have, and it’s impossible idea to strive for continued [originality], but the motivation and the attitude will always be there to try and maintain the spirit of discomfort. I felt that after doing several years of primarily computer-created and electronically produced recordings that it made no sense to continue with that after the development of Vatican Shadow, which essentially came out of the process of trying to learn how to do MIDI programming through the whole Bermuda Drain era.
The creation of Vatican itself really was to try and contain that method of creating music, particularly considering the history of what I would call Prurient’s “actual albums,” and each one of those entailed a radical change in the recording process with the intention of creating discomfort. Look at the word “prurient” and its etymology; one of the earlier definitions comes from the Latin word “to itch.” So, I do believe that it’s important to strive for those kinds of challenges. And specifically in the world of Prurient, when we recorded Black Vase, that was done in one day, and at that time I had been touring heavily, and Ben from Dropdead had said to me at one point, “A record is a recording of what you do live.” That was a very radical idea to me at that time because in my mind, coming out of a metal background, you toured in order to show what you had done in the studio, not the other way around. You don’t tour to support a record; you tour to create a record. I wanted to get back to the immediacy and physicality of what I think if I had the potential to be moved away from instrumentation.
The New Blockaders were using hammers on concrete floors in the early ’80s for their first album in a tool shed. It didn’t have much to do with instruments at all, but pure recorded essence of the physical relationships between objects and sound. The fact that Black Vase was recorded in one day – obviously we took time to massage and bring out the mix and everything – but just the idea of doing something pure in the moment seemed to be an important thing to go back to, in the same way that I felt it was important with Bermuda Drain and Through the Window to say, again, that noise was also electronic music as well. There is not that much of a leap between techno industrial and noise if you’re looking at the roots of electronic synthesizers. So there was a real desire to get back to the purest, most rudimentary sense of just recording the physical relationships of sound, and particularly the sounds of pain, the sounds of destruction, the sounds of things that are uncomfortable.
We had originally set up to record in this rural estate in Pennsylvania only using acoustic processes. That’s not to say it was intended to be an acoustic guitar album. The further down that path we tried to go, it started to feel like a kind of hypocrisy because I’m not an artist who needs an excuse to not care about the audience. I don’t feel that’s honest. I think there’s very few people who genuinely don’t care, and I think we all need to be very upfront and honest with music as a product. And by definition, as a product, there’s a consumer. That’s not intended to be as cynical as it sounds, but I think it’s an important point here because of the way this was created. [Chris] Bruni [Profound Lore Records head] gave a lot of space for us to do this, and in a way that created a lot of stress because you’re conditioned do something – make an album. Is it a CD, is it a record, is it a tape, what does that mean? There’s a terms to a contract, in other words, and the fact that it was so open-ended became like a vacuum of sorts where it was unclear; it was like going on a trip where you have no idea where the trip is going to end. It’s a limbo, a vacuum to get back into your own headspace, and that’s kind of a dangerous thing.
With the intention of stripping everything away and the craving of large spaces, going into the country, being in a rural environment, going into a barn – the harder we tried to make that work, to get out of that comfort zone, I think, in a sense, due to the way this record was commissioned, or in a way anti-commissioned, intentionally forced us to go more and more deep into an internal space. It’s almost like wanting what you can’t have, or the grass is greener kind of cliché. What I’m trying to say here is that the hypocrisy of, “Ok, there’s an audience, here’s the history of the band, I don’t want to use any electronics” – as we started to do that, we kept trying to kind of cheat, “Well let’s add some effects, that sounds good, let’s put reverb on it.” What’s the point of trying to do something acoustic if you’re essentially making excuses for it not being electronic at the end of the day? In a way, we stepped away from what felt natural in order to become honest about what the band really is and that it wasn’t the one-thing-to-the-next kind; it wasn’t this hard-line vision. It’s never been a puritanical vision; it’s always been a corrupted, mixed-up, impure collection of contradictions. Going from the grandiose and absurd, Sisyphean process of trying to do something elaborate and outlandish and really pushing the limit of creative restrictions – it took going through that process in order to become honest and say, “Well, let’s start just doing something.”
Your comment about audiences reminds me of a conversation that I was having with a friend, where she didn’t agree with me that people want a reaction to their art – good, bad, or otherwise. I am skeptical that people just do art for themselves.
There are people that do, but I think we don’t hear from them as much. I don’t use the term “reaction.” I’m not seeking a reaction. What I am seeking, I’ve realized more recently doing this, is to try and create an experience. And also, I’m looking for collaboration of sorts. I’ve always considered myself an “artist” rather than a musician, an artist that worked through the platform of music. I’ve started to realize that’s bullshit because there’s very few people in the visual arts world who are collaborative, it’s almost entirely a singular journey. You work in your studio, you spend most of your days alone, you don’t have bandmates, you put your name, your given name, your birth name. I realized I am actually interested in collaboration, and that’s why I think music is a special platform in the arts. There’s collaboration between bandmates and producers, but it’s also a collaboration with the audience. I ask myself all the time, “Do I actually really want to go on stage and do this again? Why? Do I want applause?” It can’t be that fucking simple; it’s way too much work. It’s either gambling, or some kind of attempt to connect with people, as absurd and silly as that sounds. That’s ultimately what I’m looking for, at least. Rejecting the idea that the audience even exists is missing the whole point of music. By disseminating out into the world, there’s an exchange.
Maybe exchange is a better term than experience; that’s giving too much credit to the artists to create the experience. It really is a collaborative effort between the audience and the performer, particularly in a live show. The audience is in as much control.
What sort of experience are you looking to create?
I’ve been talking with other guys about this – they’ve said, “You’ve said you don’t make anything when life is good,” and that’s true, and that sounds very pretentious, but it’s also kind of like – I don’t really wanna hear about things that are going well because, I don’t know, it almost comes off like bragging or something. “Hey man, I just had the best day!” Who the fuck wants to hear that? There has to be some problem-solving element to it, an implication that we’re here for a reason and that you can serve some kind of purpose or achieve something else or address something else, even if it’s just asking another question. That’s what I used to like about music when I was a kid: I didn’t know everything about the people making it. I wanted to feel like I wanted to know more, that I didn’t have all the answers and was learning something. If you go in like “I have all the answers,” there’s no exchange. It’s a desire to try to discover something, even if it’s discovering something about yourself. When you’re having sex with somebody new, the reality is almost completely different than the whole fantasy that you’ve built up. I think you discover something like “this isn’t what I wanted” or “well, I didn’t know about that.” And that, ultimately, is a selfish act at the end of the day, even though it involves other people. I don’t think we need to take away the ego or the selfishness out of the exchange; I think that to say that it’s entirely one-sided is just not doing the service to the potential of what either party can gain from the agreeing to the terms of the situation.
Going to that point about collaboration earlier, one thing I felt about the record was that Arthur Rizk was kind of a “second member” of Prurient, if you will.
That depends on what you would call a “producer” because there’s been a disconnect in the “indie takeover” about what a producer’s role is. I think the idea of the producer and the engineer have kind of been blurred, but in the old days, there was creative input and studio power in the producer on many of the classic rock albums. That’s not to diminish anything that Arthur or Kris [Lapke] have done in producing the record, by any means. I even think the term producer – that what I think of when I use it is someone that has creative input. You’re right, they both had contributions to the album, or it wouldn’t have been the album, not just dicking around with a 12-string guitar.
I know Arthur did guitar and some synths. What else did you feel that he brought to the record?
When we started to record, he insisted on not using a click track. The record was done in two phases: the first was with Arthur, and then I was working with Kris Lapke in the later portions of it. Arthur’s approach to recording really was about the acoustic elements, and not just the guitars, but also, we did a lot of percussive recording – torn fabric, wood being broken apart, rocks, stones, a lot of natural materials. His approach was, “Let’s get away from metering and monitoring and measuring through the computer.” Ironically enough, Kris and I did the total opposite at the end of it. It’s kind of like what I was saying earlier about intentional forced divide between what the band is or isn’t. This record really is a collision of those two ends. The structure, particularly on “Christ Among the Broken Glass”, that was really Arthur’s structure. Kris and I went back in and built the house, put in all the windows, did all the roofing on that foundation Arthur had built.
So it really was a collaborative effort – it was about composition, rather than just playing riffs or tracking. Both of these guys really understand the band and they have a very deep appreciation of music, and the emotional qualities behind music, and that’s part of why it was important for me to work with them. It wasn’t just a tax bill thing; it was about being able to answer the question “why is it good” or “why is it bad” from a technical side, from a historical side, but also from an emotional side. “What does it make you feel and why?” You can’t just be, “I like it or I don’t.” You have to articulate the root of the emotional attributes. So I was really lucky to have both of these guys.
When you say they’re able to answer why something is good or bad, what did those conversations entail? Were there any sort of disagreements? Did they shine a light on anything you didn’t see?
I would think “disagreements” would be an understatement. We would have shouting matches. I remember on “Dragonflies [To Sew You Up]”, there was a really heated debate about the end portion of the bassline and whether it was too uplifting or not, in terms of the scale and relation to the front path of the song. It wasn’t really until the vocals came in that I was able to fight for my side of the story, which was the subject matter is what creates the mood, particularly with the lyrics and vice versa. The sound and the rhythm is related to the subject matter.
Even on “Greenpoint,” the crappiness of the guitar playing at the beginning of it is – my ultimate purpose is that it’s wrong, and it’s wrong in the sense that it’s not distorted crazy guitars where you can get away with it in a metal sense. There’s no drummer. The clarity of it creates a challenge because you can really hear what’s wrong, but I think it’s those philosophical arguments – “Is it intentionally wrong? Is it wrong enough were it becomes clear it has an emotive power? Or is it wrong where it feels like a mistake?” A lot of debates like that.
And it applied to the execution on a technical level. “Lives Torn Apart” was really a failed track until Arthur decided to completely destroy it, and suddenly it brought everything together. The whole thing of trying to mix rocks and stones with acoustic guitars was a lot harder than it may have seemed on paper because they’re both acoustics elements. Again, that was a contradiction – we needed to bring noise and electronics in to put the acoustics together. And also to be able to be your own worst critic, and that’s something that, getting back to the idea of audience, that’s not to say we’re not really looking for a pat on the back from the audience. Trust me when I say we are our own worst critics. There’s nothing I’ve heard anyone say negative about me or the band or any aspect of it that I haven’t already thought of before. You have to be critical. The last thing this fucking world needs is another record, especially one from Prurient. We have to be very conscious about what we’re putting out with such an overwhelming amount of material that’s being produced.
I feel like for any creative pursuit, there’s a little arrogance involved. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to think “people will care about what I put out!” to a small degree to carry on.
I don’t know. Maybe. I also feel like there’s also so much fear and insecurity at the same time. It’s also a maddening experience, listening to a sound, making an album, the repetitiveness of it. By the time it comes out, for me at least, arrogance has been pretty much destroyed at that point. I can’t even stand to hear it. I don’t have any perspective on it. In some ways, you’re right. You sort of have to believe, even though you hate it; you have to have some sort of faith in what you’re doing. It’s just a very strange, contradictory, and disturbing, fucked-up thing that we do: We create music and hope people will listen to. It’s really vain if you think about it. It’s presumptuous.
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.
One of the books that I quoted a lot on the album, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel, he tells his students never to try and be successful. The only thing you can potentially do is follow your passion, follow your heart, and that if you throw yourself into your work, people will follow and recognize that. On the one hand, I think it’s very idealistic; on the other, it’s true. The harder you try to achieve something, the bigger the failure. And I think people see through that.
See through it how, exactly?
A lot of it is about the presentation. You present it into an era where people don’t want you to – in a weird way, it’s a very conservative time for music. I don’t think people want anybody to change. They feel attached to whatever idea there is of an artist, and this feeling of ownership and entitlement. If you look at music in the ’90s that was mainstream, it’s shocking to think of material like that coming out now. I think it’s partially a sign of the times, because there’s so much option and choice. The irony of that is there’s even more fear about making a bad decision as a consumer. As a listener, we have to double-check everything first before we really commit to it. There’s a deeper feeling of entitlement. When you really “go for it,” the harder you go for that, it’s threatening in a way for the outside because it feels like questioning, “well, I’ve already committed to this.” It’s not giving the power back into the hands of the audience anymore. I think that’s the era we’ve entered into, where everyone has become their own curator. Pick and choose what songs they want to hear, an active element from the audience that didn’t exist pre-Internet. There’s a larger underbelly of conservative thinking that has risen out of having too many options.
Conservatism out of too many options?
Yes. In the old days, when all you had was a Bad Brains record where they’re playing reggae and you heard about the band for 10 years and you just had to deal with it and try to reconcile what you heard versus what you were actually able to find. I think that creates a different kind of interaction and experience – your perception versus the reality. It never used to be, “I need to hear a 30-second sample before I make a decision.” Part of the whole fun of it was you took the risk, and it was the only record you had for the whole month, and you had to force yourself to like it in a way, to spend time with it. Now that we have such an incredible level of active participation and curation, everyone is curating their own – like the idea of a playlist – the dark underside of that is people are a lot more conservative about what they’re willing to a risk on.
Haven’t people always been a little risk-averse when it comes to music?
How old are you?
I just turned 28.
Happy birthday. [Pause] Next question. [Another pause] Hello?
Oh. I thought you were interviewing me now.
[LAUGHS] I think it’s certainly radically different from when I got into music in the early ’90s, with metal.
What was your introduction to metal?
I didn’t really like music so much. I just listened to what my dad was listening to, which was primarily oldies at the time – Buddy Holly, Lovin’ Spoonful, that kind of thing. It wasn’t until I went to public school that I started actively caring about music at all, and I just happened to meet these guys who had a death metal band. I wasn’t into metal at all. I didn’t know Metallica or Iron Maiden or anything like that. I just got thrown in headfirst by hanging out with some guys and watching their band practice. Coincidentally, the guitar player in that band went on to play in Wolvhammer, who are also on Profound Lore.
Oh yeah! I know about them.
He’s no longer in the band, but it was shocking to realize that later on. Anyway, they were all into the demo tape-trading underground death metal scene of the early ’90s, so that was really my exposure to music. I never understood that there was a culture around music. I just thought you turned on the radio and never thought about where the person was from, what food they ate, what their beliefs were, what their religious background was, what music they listened to. I just never thought about it as an active culture. That changed everything for me. And also, the idea that you could go to a show and watch one of your favorite bands and the guy next to you was also in a band, that was a completely shocking discovery and a directive.
Bruni told me to mention Deicide’s Once Upon the Cross when I interviewed you.
A huge record for me, still to this day. Actually, I have a hard time listening to it because it makes me so crazy. Last time I put it on, I slit my hand open thrashing around near the edge of a metal table. At that time, I didn’t really have any money for music, so these two Hungarian brothers – Gabor and I can’t remember the other guy’s name – there were twin Hungarian brothers in high school. They said, “Check this out.” They gave me the CD to borrow to take home. I knew Cannibal Corpse, I had Tomb of the Mutilated, and I had other tapes like Bolt Thrower. But growing up in Roman Catholic household, it was hard for me to reconcile Tomb of the Mutilated at the time – I had to special order the CD, I remember reading the lyrics to “I Cum Blood” and just feeling like, “I am a bad person. How can they say this? What does this mean?” As much as that was difficult at the time as a child to deal with the emotions and the excitement, the feeling of danger, to receive Once Upon the Cross in a Roman Catholic household, it was, “Holy Fuck. This is real. This is not a fantasy. This is my life.” To have something that extreme also be that mundane, something I could relate to, that had some personal relevance – it was really frightening in a way that no other death metal has had since. It wasn’t stupid and senseless; it was questioning the deeper conflict around what it meant to be forced to go to church and deal with the family element of a religious household.
Were your parents aware that you listened to death metal, particularly Deicide?
Yeah, I remember playing The Bleeding by Cannibal Corpse for my mom. I remember I played her “Pulverzed” and tried to explain to her why I liked it. She never liked it. She always hated it, but she let me have it, and I think that’s an important distinction. She didn’t try to take it away from me. I think that, ultimately, is what good parenting is in some kind of way. It’s funny, going back to even something like Broken Hope. When I look at it now, I’m even more shocked by it. Not because it’s really and truly extreme; it’s not. No wonder my parents were bummed out, or anyone else would be bummed out. It’s funny that stuff, death metal in general, seems to have gotten a pass in the larger context of censorship or what people will tolerate. I remember going into Hot Topic not too long ago on tour killing time and [was] kinda shocked at all the death metal shirts there and remembering how risky it was to wear a Butchered at Birth shirt.
Once Upon the Cross is a very special record to me. It’s the perfect mix of … I don’t know, the application of death metal to reality. It deals with religion in a hard and real way that could only come from a religious background.
Blasphemy comes cheap in metal, but this seems to a record that really resonated with you.
Even away from the extreme version of a black metal band’s take on Christianity, like some people would criticize it for essentially saying that there’s an anger that I can identify with and that it makes easy targets of religion. I want to make it clear that I’m not an anti-religious person by any means. Prurient, I would go as far as to say that it’s religious noise.
Christ figures do tend to appear in your work, like in “Christ Among the Broken Glass”.
I would also make the distinction between religion as in referring to or being of religion as opposed to religion in and of itself. All of my music projects, I would say that the real common denominator between all of them is religion. The element of mythology or philosophy that religion attempts to deal with, for better or for worse, is something that is sorely needed from a lot of conversation in art today and even just culture today. Things have become overtly politicized that we’ve gotten away from the philosophical and metaphysical realm that we need to deal with. There’s a whole set of questions that are very important that have nothing to do with policy. Policy is very earthbound, and it’s of the moment, but the questions of death and where we come from and our place caught between nature and consciousness are timeless questions. We need mythology, and we need symbols because we’re burdened with consciousness; we’re cursed with consciousness. Abstraction and abstract thinking is something that’s very important to hold onto, especially as an artist. And for some reason, I think it’s been kind of removed from the discussion with a lot of music and art. The value and role in religion in society it does still deal with symbols and mythology.
You’re making me think of…
Once Upon the Cross by Deicide!
Hah! Yeah. But I also think about Werner Herzog’s theories of “ecstatic truths,” seeking a greater truth that can’t really come from traditional fact-finding modes of “truth.”
Herzog is another – I like that he does it in a way, how do I put it, there’s not an explainer. He doesn’t have to agree or disagree with something in order to get something. I think that’s also an important viewpoint that seems to be lost. We’ve become very polarized and very reactionary, one side or the other. That’s a really dangerous territory to be entering into. The goal in education is to be able to think and not just react. If you’re just following one doctrine or the next, that’s not really a discussion going on. It’s hitting someone over the head with one perspective or the other, and there’s no room for a conversation to open up in terms of music or the creation of art. You have to have questions, not answers. You need to go through that process experience without knowing, because that’s why you’re going through the process to find to answer, not “I already know what it is.”
I think that Justin Broadrick is really good at inquiry – if you really think about “what is the message?”, it’s not really clear, but there’s a lot there. You really feel like this person has something to say and that I don’t necessarily know what the hell it is, but you want to try and find out what it is that he has to say. That speaks to his testament to his longevity as musician, finding that balance between feeling like you’re willing to do the work even if you don’t necessarily – you’re along for the ride even if you don’t necessarily know where it’s going. That kind of ambiguity is what I look for and what excites me. He’s been a huge influence for me.
When it comes to ambiguity, I tend to gravitate towards music and writing more so than visual arts like film and TV. That ambiguity, creating images in my own mind instead of having them presented to me, I think is valuable.
Much of my motivation to do anything is through reading, because of that kind of process that goes on in your brain when you’re reading versus watching. I don’t have a TV, I don’t watch TV, and it’s not a political choice. I don’t get as much out of it. I don’t find the experience to be engaging. It doesn’t inspire me as a medium. And that’s something that’s so crazy about sound too, what the fuck kind of medium – it’s such a weird thing. A band going on a stage and creating these sounds? When you think about it literally, it’s so bizarre. You stand there and watch these people that are creating this thing that’s totally abstract, and you can’t see it, but you can feel it.
There’s something really powerful about the medium of music – it’s very immediate. I don’t think movies are immediate. You watch the first 10 minutes of a movie and you hate it, or you can see the full two hours and you hate it.
Since we are talking about visuals, where did you get the idea for the cover art, using your girlfriend’s purse?
It’s a strange image in its banality, but it’s become, somehow, indicative of it all. With a title like Frozen Niagara Falls, the visual is so deep, you can’t not see the falls. The dichotomy or asymmetry or – fuck, what’s the word I’m looking for – it’s a non sequitur. That’s very important to the Prurient ethos in general, essentially to not take things at face value – to work with layers, there is something off here. The image is one of the visual relationship between the idea of failure and falling, punctured by reality with something so grandiose – it’s a contradiction, it’s a paradox, it’s something that is innocuous in the environment of something very threatening, very powerful and very beautiful. Very violent, something decorative becoming violent. It’s a contradiction.
The corpses in the booklet – is that also reflecting something inanimate becoming violent?
Again, that’s sort of a twist or a negation. It is a sculpture. At first, it seems like it’s a dead body. But it’s not. It’s clay, it’s material, it’s of the earth. The artificiality of it, the fakeness of it, it’s a sculpture. The distancing – it’s more of distancing yourself from the experience. The negation of a truthful experience. A fantasy, a lie, something that’s gone and out of touch and out of reach. It’s a violent image that in reality is totally non-threatening, so it’s an inversion of the cover.
That disconnect, that’s something I find in a lot of metal and noise. It’s not really based in reality. It’s more like morbid play.
The title in itself is like – the falls, they don’t really freeze, and when they do it’s only halfway. That in and of itself is a contradiction. By definition, they cease to fall. If they’re frozen, it doesn’t fall, if you approach it literally. The whole concept of the record is Prurient, the failing and destroying I did. It’s not about a grandiose thing; it’s the opposite. I’ve said it before in other interviews, but it’s so important – it’s not about nostalgia. Nostalgia is an emotional revisionism of memory; this is about the hard reality. So as much as you’re saying about arrogance behind my music or something, yes that’s true, but for me there’s also an incredible amount of loathing and self-doubt and self-hatred, a self-destructive urge, a tendency to second guess and question. I don’t really identify with arrogance in terms of being driven. I take it more as frailty and fragility rather than strength. All the images are indicative of that ethos. It’s a fatalistic version of “this is what it is.” It isn’t complete – it’s incomplete, it’s invalid. My entire fight is fighting against invalidness, struggling to try, as a person who’s suffered from depression and anxiety disorders, the struggle to find balance. I think that’s why I gravitated to the extreme – the exaggerated version of peace.
I feel like you can be more honest with yourself when you’re going all in. I’m not really into tepid music, like a lot of indie rock. I feel like if you’re holding back, it’s a lie. That’s why I’m drawn to really extreme music.
I would wholeheartedly agree with that. But it’s also a contrast. Getting back to that first question – it’s also an attempt at contrast, at balance. Even if it’s a failure, there’s still a desire to try and achieve that kind of equilibrium. Because the whole fucking thing is a contradiction in itself – the universe allows for life in places that are impossible to live. Our existence is a paradox. Why do we have this consciousness? So we can realize how fucking horrible everything is and that we’re gonna die and the desperation to try and perpetuate this misery? The whole thing is inherently corrupt. I think that’s why art or music in this context is so important – by definition, it has no functionality outside of itself. “Pure art” in a rhetorical sense, where it’s a decoration. The utility and uselessness of it is indicative of our condition. And I think that it’s alarming that we don’t value, in this country, art or music more because it really speaks to the essence of our situation. It’s one of the only tolls to answer those questions that everyone has.
And those questions, like I said, can’t always be answered through conventional methods. They’re a different thing to unravel.
Do you like Exit-13?
Yes, but I don’t listen to them a whole lot. Should I look into them more?
Ethos Musick. It’s sick. And also, Just a Few More Hits is a great EP. The reason I’m mentioning that is because the booklet in Ethos Musick, it’s so great because it’s so full of information and statements and imagery, but also a sense of humor. That’s kind of a great contrast in a way to what’s on that album. Extremes, but also humor and message, for a total contradiction.
Are you ever playing Texas again?
I don’t know. I’ve never had a good show in Texas.
I saw you at 35 Denton in 2013.
You did? As Prurient?
Yeah, you played with–
Oh my god! That was a really rough night for me. It was a really big moment personally – I was so out of shape from touring, I was so fucking depressed, just unhealthy. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t perform live anymore. I didn’t have the vocal power. I didn’t have the endurance. It’s so demanding physically. That show was the breaking point where I said, “I have to change my life. I can’t do it anymore.” A lot of the press around this album has been about trying to regain the ability to do this physically. The tour coming up with Godflesh is the first US tour I’ve done since 2007.
And you were supposed to tour with Godflesh a couple years back, right?
Yeah, and I had to cancel because I couldn’t do it. I was in such terrible condition mentally and physically. I couldn’t do what was demanded of the performance. It’s not a casual thing. It’s active participation.
Is there anything about touring in particular that stresses you out?
Of course, it’s hell. And my days are numbered.
Like never perform live again, or rarely?
Yeah, I mean, never say never, but I want to go on to the next stage of life. And noise to me is about chaos and change. It’s a ideological view of life. It’s not about distortion pedals.
Are you dreading this tour?
I dread every tour and every show, but it’s incredible to be with Godflesh and with Justin. He’s influenced me as an artist and as a person. I remember the first moment of hearing Streetcleaner on my boombox stereo. It was first moment when I understood the feeling he had gone through, that gray, urban feeling – that was a very profound moment. And Kris, we were college roommates, and I remember walking into the dorm room on the first day, and Kris had gotten there first, and he had a Godflesh poster on the wall. I thought, “Shit, I’m in the right place. Whew.”
The last thing I’ll ask you is this – something I don’t think you get enough credit for is the poignancy and beauty of some of your songs. “I Understand You” is probably one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. How does that sense of beauty fit into your work?
It’s hard for me to describe what others get out of it, but I think that because it’s a song with no lyrics – in that sense with the instrumental, also with something like “Jester in Agony” as an example, I’ve always defined Prurient through the vocals, so when there’s the inclusion intentionally of an instrumental track, that becomes an opening point for others because there’s no context kind of built up through lyrics and vocals in the first place. In terms of where I’m coming from with those particular moments – “Apple Tree Victim” from Pleasure Ground has some vocals but in my mind is connected to “I Understand You” – it’s a contrast between the melodic elements and the noise. I don’t think that it’s one or the other; it’s the collision of that kind of harshness or that chaos along with repetitive structures and melodic [elements]. It’s indicative of the roots of a project – a contradiction, a paradox, hypocrisy. I think all of those things are important – people can react to a simple pairing like that. The emotive quality that people react to comes from the pairing of dissonance and melody, rather than one thing or next.
And in the terms in the way melody is used, what I look for in rhythms is what I would call a figure eight pattern. I wanna hear riffs that kind of create an up-and-down feeling melodically, a rise and a descent that creates a figure eight, so to speak. And that sound could go on forever. It’s repetition within a rise and a fall that also speaks to a feeling of displacement and a feeling of awareness. Something that recently I found was very profound and very obvious – you can’t not breathe. While you’re sleeping, your lungs will continue to suck in air. That is a very scary and very profound way to think about breathing. Your body is forcing itself to continue. Like I said earlier, there’s a corruption to all that, a kind of fatalism. Why? You just force yourself along until you’re dead. That’s the human condition, that carrying on despite the inevitability. Creating melodies in that figure eight pattern, like in “I Understand You”, that sense of timelessness, and not in an epic or quality sense, but being stuck somewhere. When you’re stuck somewhere, that’s when you become aware of your own consciousness. When you become aware of your own consciousness, that’s when the real problem starts.
Self-awareness is a gift and a curse.
Yes. In a way, that bittersweet quality is what I really look for. As a musician, that’s what I try to achieve melodically, and I think without the noise, you can’t do that.
What I love about “I Understand You” is how this beautiful melody gets eaten up by noise. It’s as if the song is consuming itself.
Hey, it’s a vacuum. It’s also about losing friends – the acknowledgement of loss, but also of freedom. With every loss, there’s a kind of freedom that also – every relationship, whether it’s sexual, friendship or whatever, it’s a commitment. So when commitments are shattered or betrayed, there’s also a freedom in that. It’s more than emotion. It’s possibilities, but also wasted time.
Andy O’Connor is an Austin-based writer who contributes to Pitchfork, the Austin American-Statesman, Decibel, SPIN, and others. He tweets.