Heathen Harvest: I would like to ask you first about your most characteristic feature, which is your extreme vocal range...you manage to sound different on nearly every song. Do you actually 'think' yourself into a different persona for each song, like method acting, or is it purely a physical thing, reacting to the music?
Andreas, it is both and also something else entirely. It has been pointed out to me that I sometimes appear to channel and that a type of invocation can occur.
HH: You once said your extremist tendencies were nurtured by your upbringing in the American South...not the conservative South of stereotype, but a South full of eccentrics. Would you like to elaborate on this and what the South has meant to you throughout the course of your life?
New Orleans and the bayou country of Mississippi and Louisiana involve a richness in a particular way of life with respect to many cultural traditions.... voodoo, storytelling, significant items passed down through generations, myths, superstitions, secrets, the supernatural, vivid music, spicy food, sensual air, snakes, intensified elements of nature, red wine, street performers, Mardi Gras, Charismatic Catholicism, speaking in tongues, ritual....
HH: Before you joined Swans you were working as a performance artist in Atlanta. What did these performances involve? Have you always been an extrovert?
Quite the contrary, I would say I am introverted and reclusive. As for performance art, some have noticed particularly that the cover images of me on my cds involve a physicality in an extreme portrayal of myself and that they perceive this as a significant part of my work. Indeed, to prepare for "The Men Album", I had my back tattooed with a Sufi heart and a dagger thrust into that heart and the ancient symbol of Victory (the running legs) inside that heart. Thus , even with a knife in the back (betrayal) through the open heart (represented by Sufism) , Victory prevails.
In "Anhedoniac"'s photos, my body is full of bloody gashes and open sores as I wear a dangerous "chastity" belt. I commissioned the belt from two artists (one of whom was Cedric Victor) specifically for the photo shoot with Richard Kern and Kembra Phaler. On the "Dissected" cd, my face is dissected and stitched back together thus representing the process of deconstructing my songs and remixing them as done on that album. In "Mahakali", I stared in rigidity for hours with severe black and red theatrical wound makeup on my face and my tongue thrust out to the point of the sensation of severing from my body. Therefore, the reproduction of the artwork is as important as the music to get the message across. I could go on detailing other albums...
Before I joined Swans, I was a performance artist. One event involved me being a human statue with what looked like cement all over my body. I did not move for hours as I held the position of "The Mourning Woman." Another event about the meat industry had me wearing slabs of meat and blood with contact mics all over my nude body... Another had me making a commentary about the psychiatric industry and for this, I literally worked myself up to a place of "madness" and "withdrawal." It was documented and entitled Walls Are Bleeding... This was the performance piece that led me to Swans. On another piece, I made a huge black heart-shaped sandbox and filled it with sand dyed black. I shoved a jagged handled shovel into the sand and invited people to play in the sandbox and stab into it with the shovel. The small sign on the wall said "Please do touch."
I also had graffiti artists spray onto muslin and I sewed large caftans out of the fabric and had a woman model them in the gallery. Sometimes the performances went on location like the time the entrance to the Georgia Mental Health facility was spray painted with a stencil saying Defy Psychiatricks. This piece was done in conjunction with Georgia artist EK Huckaby. AT the time I was exploring societal standards of what is acceptable behavior and what is considered unacceptable and classified as "insane." I had been studying Indian holy men and how what the west might consider delusional would be viewed as mystical somewhere else.
HH: The New York music scene in the 1980s had a reputation for being very innovative, with Swans, Sonic Youth, and the so-called 'No Wave' scene. Did you deliberately move there to be part of this? Did you already have a premonition you would end up singing for Swans?
Mars, DNA, Lydia Lunch, Jim Thirlwell also were part of the scene when I moved to the East Village. However, none of that had a thing to do with my moving to New York. I was drawn solely to the idea of working in Swans. Ultimately I became a significant part of Swans and remained in Swans longer than anyone but Michael Gira who began the band in 1982. Everyone else came and went. It wasn't just "a band" by any means. The vocals in Swans and the Skin/World Of Skin albums came about solely because I was a trained vocalist and it was a natural evolution of my input. Live, I spent 1985 and most of 1986 playing keyboards and creating sounds for Swans. In the studio, I had recorded choral backing vocals on "Greed" and "Holy Money" in addition to screams and the song "You Need Me." During those years, we were dubbed "The Loudest Band In The World" by the British press. I was writing music of my own and that led to working with Michael Gira on the "Blood Women Roses" album (the first Skin album) and in turn that led to the Swans album "Children of God." My skills in arrangements and melodies and writing parts for guest musicians came into play as well. Of course, there were many heated arguments about credit for arrangements and what constituted the song in terms of songwriting credit. It was necessary for my own vision to do solo albums as a way of airing my skills and responding to the lack of formal credit I generally received in Swans for my skills. In the end, actions speak louder than words and the work speaks for itself.
HH: Early Swans had a very violent, self-destructive aura about them, and you (as a roadie) often had to drag paralytic members of the band safely out of harm's way. At what point did this self-destructiveness begin to turn around and give way to the more philosophical, reflective urges of the later Swans period? Did it coincide with the change in the music from brutal and torturous to the beautiful, haunting style heard on albums like 'Love of Life' and 'The Great Annihilator'?
Yes, the metamorphosis of Swans is one of the most dramatic accomplishments in the history of music. If the work had a self destructive aura even in early Swans is probably a matter of perspective. It was certainly making a statement about power. I believe the change in the music was ultimately all a part of an evolution stemming from honesty and maintaining belief in one's work. To continue doing something when it does not feel honest is a sham and an insult to the artist and the audience. For my part, I came on board after "COP" and soon thereafter, melody found its way into Swans. I view this as the utilization of my input coming into the equation of the evolution.
HH: You've collaborated with a number of interesting musicians over the years. I would now like to ask you about some of these...how the collaborations came about, what those artists' work means to you, and in what ways you think your respective work has complemented one another's. The first is A Perfect Circle, which (correct me if I'm wrong) is a side project of Tool...
It was a project involving Maynard who is in Tool. Maynard was given my original handmade edition of Anhedoniac when he played a festival in Japan. He liked it and we met in Atlanta when he was on tour. Subsequently we hung out in L.A. several times...I had him come over to my house for dinner... He dedicated a song to me from the stage ... it remains a beautiful moment of my life.
I had known them for years before we made a cd together and did shows together. It felt like being amongst brothers, being in the same tribe.
I have admired Brian William's work since before I joined Swans. I was actually nervous to meet him because to me he is legendary. He is a genius. He recently did some work for Puscifer (another project of Maynard's) and used my voice. Would love to work with him again.
HH: Blixa Bargeld?
The MASTER. A consummate artist. Honored to have known him since 1984 when I met him on the Swans European tour. He did a brilliant performance for "Feral" on The Men Album. I asked him to be the voice of "madness" and what he did is chilling and inspired.
Joe Budenholzer and I lived in the same neighborhood in New York and became friends. Working with him was always joyous. He is a visionary.
HH: Your upcoming album features contributions from ex-Pantera singer Phil Anselmo, and Attila Csihar, probably best known for his work with Mayhem. Does this mean the album will have a metal sound or influence? How did your collaboration with Phil come about?
It isn't metal. My work will always be "Jarboe" and that means no category or style other than the worlds I create in my head. They were chosen because the quality of their voices for the specific songs was perfect. I love hearing what another singer does with my work. It brings me great joy. To collaborate is to trust and to let go of ego and control. I have always gone into it with this ideal and I have never been disappointed. Philip was familiar with my work. He told me he had my work in his iPod! We had long talks about music and Louisiana. My family is from there and so is he and he also lives there now.
HH: How do you think your material has developed since the beginning of your solo material. Is there a pattern to the development?
I have continued to explore and maintain an open mind about what is possible in music and vocalizing. This sense of adventure is my development in progress. For example, on "MAHAKALI," I recorded lead vocals inside a Solomonic Magick Circle with an inexpensive microphone and used a selection of those recordings in some of my songs on the album so that the energy of the circle would be present on the album. Even if they were distorted in places, the process was more important than pristine recordings.
HH: What does the future hold for Jarboe?
A European and American tour for "MAHAKALI" in 2009. (That is the title of my album coming in October 2008). A special limited project collection called Pandora's Box from my website! Also an ensemble cd project with Julia Kent, Kris Force, Meredith Yayanos, & Annie Hogan called AEAEA. And music for a game from Belgium launching in March 2009 called The Path. And a musical/audio documentary on cd called The Sweet Meat Love And Holy Cult.
HH: Then, after I had had the chance to listen to a preview copy of Jarboe’s new album ‘Mahakali’, I pitched a few more questions her way…Top of Form. Your new album 'Mahakali' channels the spirit of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction. You seem to suggest on the album that Kali can save as well as destroy us. Do you believe that we live in the Kali Yuga, the Iron Age, and that things will have to get worse before they can get better and a new Golden Age can begin? In a broader sense, do you think that creation must always be preceded by destruction?
Yes. I do believe in the cycle. The cycle of creation and destruction.
HH: Talking of destruction leading to creation, I read an interesting article recently about American separatist movements, who want (for instance) Vermont or Alaska to secede from the Union. These movements are apparently growing in strength as more people become disillusioned with the U.S. government. Do you think that separatist tendencies like this will increase around the world? Is decentralisation the way of the future, and if so, do you see this as a good thing?
I am aware of this movement and I have friends who are part of this movement living in rural Idaho. As for it being the wave of the future, I can only say that ''change is in the wind and a season of destruction begins.''
HH: Was it difficult for you to channel the spirit of Kali for the 'Mahakali' album? How did you prepare yourself mentally for the task at hand?
Visualizations and meditation were involved. I took the position of only commentary on the energy in a narrative sense on some tracks on the album and then flipped it over on other tracks to BE the energy. This back and forth gives balance and keeps focus. On the tracks where I channel Mahakali, I felt complete.
HH: You also did an album this year with Justin K. Broadrick from Godflesh, which is a lot different in atmosphere to 'Mahakali'...it seems a bit more playful or experimental, but also dark in parts. What are your thoughts on this album...and did it match what you hoped to achieve with it?
J2 is an exchange of filters of ideas utilized with restraint and also abandon in that we keep a certain minimalism yet invite the whimsical quality you noticed. And yes, even in the more playful moments, there is an unsettling quality of tension. This is deliberate and is why we named it after a measuring unit of heat and electricity. It is a plus that both of our names coincidentally begin with the letter J.
HH: Thanks very much for the interview. Any final reflections?
Yes, thanks for listening !
All Photographs taken by and used with the permission of Marilyn Chen.