Youth from Killing Joke is about to release an eclectic new album : in depth interview
Youth is about to release the Dub Trees Collective album – it’s thrillingly eclectic and ambitious and really works. LTW boss and Membranes frontman John Robb talks to the end of the sonic universe and back in this in depth exploration of the music and ideas behind the album and Youth himself.
All photos : Glen Burrows
Youth is one quarter of one of the great bands.
But that’s just the tip of the sonic iceberg.
Holding down the dub/funk/dirty disco bass in Killing Joke is enough in most lifetimes but somehow he has also managed to turn himself into one of the world’s top producer with a list of varied credits from Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Richard Ashcroft, Crowded House and currently working on the new Jesus And Mary Chain album, and a whole host of their projects including a great remix of my band the Membranes.
Not only that he has somehow found time to create a fascinating new project where he has linked together the sounds and cultures of disparate places like India,
Dub Trees, the ambient dub collective led by Youth, release the new album ‘Celtic Vedic’ on Friday June 10th 2016 on Youth’s own Liquid Sound Design label.
Dub Trees is one of Youth’s most revered dub projects, it helped define the Liquid Sound Design sound that fans around the world hold dear. Youth is joined by his long time legendary cohorts Jah Wobble (PiL) and Matt Black (Coldcut) for a welcome return to the cutting edge electronica that the Liquid Sound Design roster pioneered back in 2000.
‘Celtic Vedic’ came about after Youth was asked to headline the opening night at Ozora festival, Hungary in 2015. It features many field recordings made by Youth on his various Indian odysseys, and promises unchartered bass annihilation and heliotropic soundscapes. Pounding basslines are overlayed on 3D holographic beats and wrestle with serpentine melodies and psychedelic textures.
Youth has assembled a host of collaborators to weave their labrynthine magic on ‘Celtic Vedic’: Jah Wobble on bass, Matt Black on warped soundscaping duties, Galician Celtic pipe and flute player Daniel Romar, Bollywood contemporary Indian singer Shridevi Keshavan and Elfic Circle (Celtic Bardic harpist Andrea Seki, Fabrice De Graef on bansuri flute and Catherine Dreau on tubaphone).
LTW caught up with Youth after he DJ’d at the recent Great Escape Festival in Brighton where his set of heavy tweeted dub was stunningly hypnotic with the colour fully dressed taller than you think bass man was crouched over the DJ console cranking out devilishly brilliant collection of tunes.
LTW : That was a really rocking set in Brighton!
Youth : I really enjoyed that despite technical grief.
LTW : It sounded really good out front. It felt like a geurilla gig to hear those great tunes in the sweltering back room of a pub.
Youth : It was tricky last night working out what kind of set I was going to do. I’ve done that festival a couple of times before and I know Brighton. I thought I could do an indie anthems set and loads of people would be well up for it as they were all quite pissed at that point but I went for the dub set. That sort of dub set somehow kind of captures a lot of people’s radar somehow and I love that kind of music obviously.
LTW : The set took people on a trip. It must be great to play not familiar music and take the crowd with you.
YOUTH : Yes. It’s a bit risky (laughs)
LTW : Let’s talk about the Dub Trees album. Great record and an intriguing concept.
YOUTH : Yes (laughs) it is a concept album, I suppose.
LTW : There is a collision of cultures on the album from folk to indie to dub and you thread and link them together.
YOUTH : I think they do but initially there are not obviously strong connections between all of them. There has not been to much experimentation in putting them together, although has been some, so it is feel like we were, kind of, pioneering things in a way in that I’m going off the track and off the path and exploring and experimenting with what you can do.
LTW : Dub is the glue holds it all together?
YOUTH : Yeah! I have done a few albums with (Michael) Wadada and Suns of Arqa. He spent 10 years 20 years ago in Goa learning sitar. When he was there he had the revelation to take Indian classical music to the west via reggae and dub. He made 20 albums with Indian classical musicians playing with dub artists and reggae artists. Even though I didn’t have such road to Damascus epiphany as Wadada 20 years ago when traveling india I noticed a strong correspondence with Indian traditional music and Irish traditional folk when in India. When I was in Rajasthan I saw this Indian fiddle player who was very tall with bright blues eye playing what sounded, to me, like an Irish reel and then I kept hearing these correspondences everywhere. After that when I looked at the cultural history and traditions of Hinduism I realised that it was an old Pagan religion and one of the few pagan religions that is still around. Then I looked at the correspondence between the culture and philosophies of that and the culture and philosophies of indigenous shamanic tribes of the UK. I looked at the culture here of druids and the celts and I found a strong correspondence between the role of Druids and the role of the guru and the babas and the tradition in India. They are both shamanic and both wandering aesthetics and I thought it was a really strong connection. I’m not not sure why that still is. There are various theories like it’s an adopted culture from India and someone brought it and it collided in the middle of Europe somewhere and it got spread around. Who knows? it’s a big mystery.
Part of that journey making this record and thinking about this stuff for me is the reconnection to a deeper understanding of my own roots and where I’m from. I’m a big fan of the anthropologist Joseph Campbell (Joseph John Campbell was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience) who in the sixties wrote lots of books and drew lots of lines between the native traditional cultures and, of course, before him was Robert Graves ((Robert von Ranke Graves (also known as Robert Ranke Graves and most commonly Robert Graves; 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985 was an English poet, novelist, critic and classicist) some of whose work drew a correspondence between the Greek myths and the traditional native myths from around the world.
You can see Pan in the Green Man here and you can see him in Shiva in India. Those sorts of accordance suggest to me that we have a uniform or a unity in our cultural origins. Through diversity and change and traveling we have adapted our own but essentially we have come from the same root. It’s trying to draw correspondences and similarities between juxtaposing and separate elements of Celtic and Hindu – they seem totally different but they are not. They are very similar.
LTW : Hindu is the last of the old religions. The monotheism, one god religions that replaced the original religions somehow failed in India which kept the old religion which, for us, is a portal into the past, our past.
YOUTH : Traveling India reminded me of what it might have been like in Europe and these islands 2000 years ago where it the faiths and idea were probably very similar.
LTW : It’s Interesting that it stayed there and flourished.
YOUTH : It’s amazing that in India people are worshipping and doing ablutions the same way as 4000 years ago. They have the same clothes and dress as 4000 years ago. It’s an unbroken culture that’s been the same all that time. It’s very hard to find that continuity anywhere today. It’s remarkable when you go to those places and it opens you up to that possibility of continuity. When I first started going to stone circles in the UK with Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke. I get a real feeling of familiarity in those places. Just by being there and playing drums and staying up all night and taking mushrooms. We are part of a continuum, keeping that continuity going and connected. So for me it’s been a big part of my mental health and well being to do things like that for the last 20/30 years. It’s a fantastic position as an artist that I can explore that through the work and that’s what this album is about really.’
LTW : A lot of the field recordings on the album capture the sounds or atmosphere of India.
YOUTH : It’s fantastic what you can do now, 25 years ago when I first started going to India in the days before the Internet and before laptops and all that I would joke with my fellow musicians that one day we would be able to go up a mountain with a handful of chips in our pocket and take a computer up a mountain and make an album. Of course we are well used to that now but even up until 5 years ago it was still not easy but with technology moving faster it’s become so much easier. I did an album 5 years ago with the Gyuto monks – an order Tibetan monks best in Dharamsala in Northern India who are connected to Dalai Lama’s Tibetan order. (the album is Chants: The Spirit of Tibet’)
I spent a few week in their their monastery recording their ceremonies and making the album out of it. I had taken a couple of digital hand held recorders which are getting smaller and lighter and better since then. So everywhere I go now I start recording found music and found sound in the fields, the markets or buskers on the street, people singing outside the metropolis. I just have it in my pocket and have my headphones on and walk around recordings. Even with just a smart phone you have got a hard drive recorder as well and I do a lot of video and filming audio on the phone as well. When I got back to England I was touring another show project called Zik’r with Karen Ruimy which is a combination of flamenco and traditional Kwali music. (a stunning exploration of flamenco’s roots in India – London gig coming up in June – http://www.sadlerswells.com/whats-on/2016/zikr/). We did two tours of India and Bangladesh doing Sufi festivals and every time I have done those tours I took a digital recorder and recorded musicians in situ. The found sound is stuff like the sound of a donkey pulling a cart. All that stuff is really inspiring for me. It creates an atmosphere and takes me straight back to the place. The recordings are like little polaroids for me and they just add a kind of context to some of the other recordings we made there and again connect them back to the inspiration of that we are doing.
LTW : What places where you going to the first time when you went to India? did you start with Goa?
YOUTH : I remember in 1979 meeting my first bohemian hippy in a Ladbroke Grove squat. There was this guy called Smiles and we went to score some hash from him. It was me and Alex from The Orb. We were teenagers then and he opened up this hands he had this Nepalese temple ball which was like a chocolate orange cut into slices. He opened it up and this amazing pungent aroma came out of it. He said if you ever to India then go to Goa and this is where you get this, like in a cornershop and we were like wow!
He had all indian hangings in his place. He was a proper hippy and I thought we can do that one day and eventually I did 12 years later. I was at the end of the eighties. At the end of acid house. I was getting disillusioned with it all. I had a broken heart because I had split up with Sally who eventually became my first wife. I started feeling difficult emotions like jealously etc and I thought I’ve got to do something about it. So I thought I would do the classic hippy thing and go to India but not go to Goa. I wanted to try and sort myself out and and went and did six months on my own in 1989. I went to Varanasi. I had a house boat there in Beneres.
For two months I lived all over the place and I had amazing cosmic coincidences, serendipitous experiences. I met amazing wise people and I found time and space to sort myself out. I went to a few shamans and did some meditation and towards the end I thought I could do a 6 or 7 year retreat. I was getting really into it. I ended up with one Baba and did some a meditation and when it ended I said what should I do? and he said I shouldn’t go deeply into it here but go back to England and Wales and do something there as a retreat and that stopped me from staying in India. I’d done what I was there for and I though, ok I don’t have to worry about the next 6 months but before I go back I will check out Goa. I had met a girl who had arranged, fantastically, to meet in Goa for the last two weeks of the trip, We got out there and I went to one Goa party and it blew my mind. It as like seeing the Sex Pistols. It was revolutionary. I spent two weeks there immediately after that party. I went with 4 people – there was me and this girl who really got it and this guy and this other girl who didn’t get it all and they left. At the first party we stayed all night and when we got back to the house the next day I said it was fantastic! why don’t we do this next year? rent the hose for whole season! rent it for three months? So I booked the house for the next year and I invited loads of friends out there and that was it.
When I got back to England I joined a druid order and did a 20 year mystery school tradition (Commentators point out that ‘twenty years’ could have been a figure of speech to denote a long duration of time, or that it might have actually been 19 years, since the Druids almost certainly used the Metonic Cycle, a method of reckoning based on the nineteen-year eclipse cycle) with an order of bards and druids and that’s where I kind of found my darshan – not in India. I had to go to India to get the message to come back here and reconnect my own roots here – not in a physical DNA thing but a spiritual thing. I could have easily gone to South America or North America and tapped into the native traditions there, I could have found my mystery school education there but it happened to be India. So this album, in a way, is a soundtrack to that journey and it combined everything that I found nourishing in both of those cultures in one musical tapestry.
LTW : Could you talk about connection between these cultures , theDruids and the Indian gurus – these links go back centuries. I always thought of Jesus as being some sort of version of the Indian Baba and these cultural influences moved around a lot more than people though. They travelled a lot these people.
YOUTH : There is also the languages that move around. We have an Indo based language group but more importantly if you go to Wales, which linguistically is not connected to any other European language – not even Celtic or there is the Basque language which is again another arcane language with no connections. But back to Welsh – there are 50 words that are closest to Sanskrit (It was a Welshman in India in the 18th century, Sir William Jones who noticed the similarities between Welsh and Sanskrit and thus pioneered the later research into the families of European languages) . There’s a book called Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery by George Borrow (- a travel book by the English Victorian gentleman writer George Borrow (1803–1881), first published in 1862). He was one of the Bloomsbury set and first came up with the strange correspondences in the language. Look at the roles of the gurus in India – the Babas have an oral tradition that is past on.
I think all the oral traditions of the world from the ancient Greeks to the Welsh to the Irish to the Native American – they all have a correspondence and that was what the genius of Joseph Campbell when he noticed this. They all wrote short stories that we share and that we kind of adapted into our own stories. It’s a great reason to sort of apply to infantile nationalistic identity, you know, because it’s ridiculous that we all share those stories that we all use. I think the beauty of it is in the diversity of the expression of those stories from around the world. For me many roles and figures in the Welsh Badric stories fulfil the same stories as in the Hindu epics and things like that. They all contain more philosophical ideas than religious ones. They are like the Greeks in that they don’t represent black and white answers. They present situations that can explain the duality of truth and then the ambiguous nature of things and they are poetic, bardic – it’s poetic. it’s oral. We share the traditions of bards
LTW : It brings back the Robert Graves idea – the poetic side of the connections he was writing about like in the White Goddess…
YOUTH : I think when you go to those places and tap into that then it starts to come through to you. You tap into it. It’s like the Orphic voice and also for some reason the idea of the the muses. In the Greek thing – the artist or the poet have to get themselves into a state of delirium through ritual or intoxication or invoke the muse or the muses and they will come to them and speak through them. That’s the poetic. When outsiders come to our the revelry they can’t interpret it or understand. It’s like talking in tongues of something. That’s the idea of the Orphic voice constantly flowing through us. It’s also like the Shakespeare phrase – ‘man does not make the music, the music makes the man.’ I tap into that and as an artist you tap into things and it comes through. No- one knows where it comes from. It’s a mystery. It’s a fool who thinks it comes from themselves. Therein lies half the tale of every rock star who has crashed and burned.
LTW : Do you think music language got in the way? Maybe music was the last thing to join these different ancient cultures together? or it was the portal?
YOUTH : Well certainly music is a universal language. It doesn’t need interpretations. You feel it and music is a great way to illustrate how juxtaposing, disparate, opposite things can harmonise and become one with other opposites. All great music does that. I think music can be very political in how it can connect emotionally with what we all feel. It’s hard to articulate it as poetry does in a lot of ways. In some ways poetry and music are the only things that can articulate this because they feel a certain ambiguity and they engage with part of your imagination and force you to come up with answers to those questions. You’re involved. You became part of it and that’s a very unifying thing to experience.
LTW : Do you find working outside the confines of Killing Joke makes it easier to do this?
YOUTH : Well, you know, with Killing Joke or with any band it has its own personality. It has its own demands and criteria. Even when we started Killing Joke we were already reaching outside. Even on our first single we started had deconstructing that by doing a dub version of our songs and remixes as main release. At the beginning we wanted to deconstruct what we did. At other times we became very locked into the way that we did it. It’s been difficult to break from that sometimes. Certainly with Killing Joke then and now it’s what I do outside of Killing Joke that makes Killing Joke what it is. I’ve always felt a strong need for me do lots of other things outside of music – even painting and writing and stuff and all of that helps inform what I do with Killing Joke when we get together.
Equally Geordie doesn’t do anything outside of Killing Joke but that for him is as important as me doing everything outside of Killing Joke. It is those dynamics that work. I’ve always loved bands where each member looks like they should be in a different band and none of them look like they are in the same band. That’s definitely been the case for us. What Jaz does with his symphonic work and what Jaz and Paul were doing with ritual spiritual expression with Killing Joke early on doesn’t always get shared by me and Geordie and vice versa. All of those things come into the cauldron of Killing Joke and coagulate and come out to make Killing Joke what it is which I think ultimately is a very powerful, positive expression of hope even though we are known as doom merchants! What i think we actually achieve is that universality of everything and everyone in there together and the possibility of cosmic unity or whatever and through those disparate elements being able to work together.
LTW : It’s great to find that overlap!
YOUTH : It’s unique but the great bands have that in their own way. At least two members are like that often. We were lucky with Killing Joke in that we got 4 members like that. Sadly where you have a band with everybody on the same page doing the same thing it doesn’t alway work. It needs some grit in the oyster or something that goes against the grain. In painting and art and photography it’s the juxtaposition that works – it’s east/west, rich/poor. Those sort of things combine to create powerful statements of who we are.
LTW : When you do project like this what does this bring back to Killing Joke.
YOUTH : I think with Jaz it’s interesting. Jaz is one quarter Indian and for whatever reason he was a little bit in denial of his Indian roots. He didn’t want to go to India he was not interested in Indian mythologies ann that changed 20 years ago and he started reconnecting with it and tapping into it. Actually, initially, I was more interested in that than him. I’m bringing in Indian classical music – one of the things with Dub Trees I find DJing in-between the bands prior to us going on stage. I do DJ sets that will bring those elements in. My listening is permanently dub and world music and that whereas Jaz doesn’t really listen to anything outside a bit of funk and never listens to jazz music but dub. I listen to lots of jazz music and all of those external sounds that we listen to add to what we are doing and where we take it all. It’s all in there playing and it sounds like Killing Joke and you need all of those different things to get there somehow.
LTW: This album very diverse. How do you sketch this out? Do you wander around India and hear and feel something and build track from that?
YOUTH : I select from my library of found sound. That is what I draw upon really. I also pull together amazing musicians. Jaz Coleman introduced me to Daniel Romar who is a Galician flute and bagpipe player and also a folk historian. When I started working with him his sound was so magical that I started to put him with different Indian sounds and Indian flute players like Fabrice De Graef – an Indian flute and baruso player.
I put him with him Andrea Seki – a Celtic harp player and brought in various other Indian musicians and instruments. There was a ritual element to it. Last summer when we started this album it came about really because I got asked to open the Love stage at Azura festival with a special show that I put this together of world dub fusion stuff and then I put the musicians around it was very similar to how I would musically direct the Sons Of Arqa but with a more focussed western folk angle and an eastern musician angle.
I put them together and stepped aside and let it happen. Really those musicians have taken it off the scale and the music itself all fits. It’s really easily put together. It all comes from the same source. There’s not a problem making it fit and then of course wrapping it around dub as the central foundation again allows me to make long arrangements and to go on journeys as classical Indian music does and traditional Irish music does as well.
It’s also something also working with Gerry Diver – a very well established, traditional folk producer in the UK and Lisa Knapp – who won folk singer of the year twice on radio 2. I produced her first record 15 years ago and I brought in various traditional Irish musicians I met here and then I’m working with a great school of Indian music in Southall cultural community centre. I’m doing projects for them based in indian east/west fusion and getting to know more of the traditional musicians. They get to know more traditional folk musicians here and putting them together is important. Politically my agenda is to put big concerts where they are on stage and where there is no incongruity between different cultures and everyone can work together on the same stage very happily. Just by doing that it breaks down the barriers of nationalism, prejudice and racism – all those things because you can’t help but be enchanted by it.
LTW : And the core to all this is the drone…
YOUTH : The drone! yeah! I’m building these long string drone instruments for my Puretone orchestra which is about using the pure tones of bells, gongs, tuning forks which are traditionally used in healing on a stage with drone and rock musicians and all psyche musicians and, yeah of course, a drone! it just puts your head in a funny space straight away. Whether it’s getting if from the hurdy gurdy in Wales or the Harmonium in India, it’s that drone. The bagpipes are the most universal instrument around the world and they just create drones and once you got the drones you got bedrock to do anything else on top and still engage and not break the spell of this magical portal of that drone that you create. You walk into that phenomenal thing of course and you get it with great dance music, great ambient music and every great music. There are elements to all great music that will have drones – even on classics like the Beach Boys, God Only Knows or Good Vibrations there are drones in there and the Beatles, of course, used drones.
LTW : Do you construct the drone ?
YOUTH : I got various instruments and now the ones that I make which I will exhibit at the Zar exhibition permanently – the painting exhibition where I have got collections of found objects with sculptural elements included in there.I have built a long string drone instrument made out of found wood and found objects like jam jars and metal shelving and things that I put pick ups on. You can bow them to or strum them and create a drone. I got a electronic indian tambura boxes loads of stuff. It’s quite easy to make a drone by recording a few people singing and looping that. Looping of course is very drone orientated and prevalent in dance music and in hip hop culture and all that comes with that and loop culture which has a strong connection to the drone. I think there is a book in this actually!
LTW : You could call it ‘droning on!’
LTW : It’s interesting how technically adept you have to be to get back to the basic idea of the same sound that you had in the first place
YOUTH : It’s interesting isn’t it? I think also on this album there is a lot of ceremony on there. I normally keep my spiritual elements, unlike with Killing joke where we wear those on our sleeves, kept that buried. But I think I’m beginning to be a bit more overt about that the Cerronnus Dub Ritual EP that came out in February was basically the rituals of druids put to music with the intention of invocation and an atmosphere.
I try and do that in a way that doesn’t make it too silly, although silliness is encouraged – like in KLF I’m really into the discordian absurdist art movement. In a way if you want to be profound to do that you have to be a little bit absurd as well. The Holy Grail is like the bible for that is Monty Python and that is one of theories of where we got the Killing Joke name from. It was a Monty Python sketch.
Using humour can really counterpoint the fake sense of being overt about it. It’s always been a problem for me – when I joined the druid order, I found that how can I take this seriously without taking the piss out of it? maybe I should take the piss out of it then I can be serious. That was veritably the KLF approach and that is my approach with Killing Joke. We do that as well – the lyrics are more literal and political and that sense of what I’m doing with Dub Trees is putting that out there. Maybe it’s like if you haven’t read the sleeve you wouldn’t know. You just listen to the band and hear the DJ play the song and not necessarily know it’s all there. I think partly to turn people on to their own spirituality they are not druid or Hindu – maybe they have their own religion and don’t need to dive deep into someone else’s.
Spiritual expression is important today. It’s becoming a culture more sanitised and more machine like, more Orwellian and a big part of our humanness. It is our expression of soul and spirit. If you like or do an incantation.
I don’t want to get too deep about it. I think like with modern art – art galleries have replaced the churches as a place where we go and find our connection to the world and nature and the nature of ourselves. You go into an art gallery and when you are told to keep the kids quiet or don’t touch this and it’s like a church it really annoys me. A gallery is there to engage and connect and it’s not a church like if you mention world spiritual in the Guardian and how it’s about health issues and yet the great grandfather of modern art – Deauchamp was motivated massively and influenced by the occult and by esoteric ideas and yet those seem to have been removed from the galleries. We are now in this clever, dark Dawkins wold of intellectualism where instead of a spiritual expression I just think and I encourage myself and other artists to come and take that on a little bit by putting out what they feel doesn’t have to be sterilised, intellectual, post modernist blurb. It can just be a feeling or an atmosphere and a connection that is subtle.
LTW : Is your music music a reaction to the sterilisation?
YOUTH : That’s right it’s a reaction. I don’t think of myself being a reactionary artist. I made this point with Killing Joke early on that if we only exist to react to to the establishment or other people’s ideas we are not engaging. What we have to do is proactively express what we feel is a solution or is somewhere where you want to be. The big problem with punk for me was not about pointing the finger at the establishment and saying it’s all fucked and that it was about finding and experimenting with new ways of doing it and new ways of living and expressing and listening and living those ideas from your own violation and not as a reaction to someone else’s. I think there is a bit of both
LTW : In some ways punk was liberating but also sometimes conservative – like hating hippies – which could be read as a reactionary stance?
YOUTH : It’s all part of the counter culture. That expression from the twenties Paris to the Elysium mysteries of the Romans to the beats in the 40s and 50s to the hippies and then to the punks to the free raves to the free festivals. They are all part of it. They all connect into the same stream, the same root of counter culture and they are all part of that expression. They are different questions and different ways of expressing the same thing. So punk and hippies are all part of the same thing. Actually it was going to Goa that made me realise that, also acid house suggested that and Goa solidified that because you would have every element of punk, every element of hippy there and casual and all the rave culture together partying under strong LSD in the jungle. All those weirdo clothes would literally fall off and you’d all realise that you were all on the same trip. So that for me was Killing Joke had been part of it. What we do is facilitate that underground spirit and combine those elements of hippy and punk or whatever. We were one of the first bands to use industrial and electronic rock and electronic dance music with heavy rock and juxtaposing opposites together to to bring everyone together. Really of course a band like Hawkwind and even the Grateful dead had also been doing that for years.
LTW : Hawkwind are revolutionary in this context – 30 years ahead of the game.
YOUTH : It’s been a great release working with Nik Turner. We have almost finished this collaboration album with him. Which is me doing electronic, ambient music and him playing sax – all very Bladerunner. Sounds great.