When we were first given the gift of hearing the music of Glasgow’s The Cosmic Dead – that music being among the most mesmerizing, the most powerful, the most cosmically calculated chanting chaos that we listened to, repeatedly, in the whole of 2011 – we found it hard not to reflect on another gift we were given some thirty-plus years previously.
The gift in question was a copy of one of the most popular books of all time – “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, the illustrated companion to the 1980 television series of the same name.
You needn’t be the Associate Director of the Center for Radio Physics and Space Research at Cornell University to make the connection between The Cosmic Dead and Sagan, who did as much as anyone else in the 20th century to advocate for the exploration of space using the best parts of our inquisitive nature. And – make no mistake about it – he’s dead.
More to the point, it’s a similar inquisitiveness that unites Sagan with The Cosmic Dead – an enduring quest for, if not the truth, future questions and future answers. We hear it in The Cosmic Dead’s loud, massively over-driven space-rock majesty, repeating its unearthly sounds for light years between our ears.
Certainly there are those among us on this very ridiculous webpage today who feel the appeal of The Cosmic Dead’s (sometimes) forty-minute jams is not designed for them. Stranger things have happened – including the time there was a best-selling book in America that trumpeted the following words:
“As the ancient myth makers knew, we’re children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage, propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders, all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience and a great soaring passionate intelligence, the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the Cosmos an inescapable perspective awaits.”
We’re happy to offer you further insight into the inescapable perspective brought about by The Cosmic Dead, courtesy of not-currently dead drummer Julian Dicken. Enjoy.
What was the first music that ever captured your attention? Can you recall what it was about that music that appealed to you at that time? How has your opinion of that music changed over time, if at all?
A lesser man would be afraid to admit this, but not me sir. I can tell you without a hint of shame that it was hearing 2 Unlimited’s “There’s No Limit” on the radio or maybe even the TV as a nipper. That was the first song I can remember being drawn in by and that stuck in my head long after I had heard it. It was then that I fell in love with the 3 R’s. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition; and then some more after that. Has my opinion of the song changed over time? Yes. Last time I heard it I remember thinking, “Ugh, what a piece of complete and utter horseshit.”
Digging perhaps a little deeper, what artists do you consider being most influential for you in terms of seeing music as exploratory – exploratory both from a purely sonic perspective but also from a personal, expanded consciousness perspective?
Probably those bands from late 60’s / early 70’s West Germany that usually fall under that rather broadly inclusive umbrella term of “krautrock.” Neu! and Can are big influences on the way I approach things rhythmically; Dinger and Liebezeit have definitely played a big part in the way I drum. There’s something about that repetitive, primitive, almost machine like insistence, mixed with (more so in the case of Liebezeit) jazz-like sensibilities, that really appeals to me.
The great thing about stripping a beat down to its bare essentials, as with the case of the 4/4 “motorik” beat, is that it can leave a lot of room for the music to flow in this really driving yet organic way. In its own time and under its own terms. It doesn’t feel forced. I think Neu! were absolute masters of that, and I often listen to them when I work on my illustrations as I find it has this very calming, relaxing effect and seems to really let your thoughts flow naturally and readily. I find them very therapeutic and helpful to listen to in that sense.
How did the members of The Cosmic Dead come together? Did you have any experience playing in other projects together before this? How do you think the concept or direction of the band has evolved since your first practice?
Just good luck, really. There have been quite a few line-up alterations since our inception, but I think we’ve reached the stage now where we have a really solid line-up. To start from the beginning, I used to be in the band with our original bass player, Josh, and we both happened to move to Glasgow from our hometown of Morecambe. We then met James by pure chance when his girlfriend came round to view our flat when we were looking for another flatmate. We became friends and started jamming together. Just like that.
We met Omar after playing a gig at his flat, and after a while of being our “smoke and lights man,” he took over on bass duties. Lewis, our newest addition, was someone James had met years ago busking outside a gig with his other band, The Radiation Line. He just invited him along to rehearsals earlier this year, and here we are. When we first started, there was no real “concept” to speak of, just a desire to be very, very, very loud. I think we’ve really found our stride this year however, with much more of an expansive and psychedelic sound. I’m quite eager for us to progress and experiment more next year though – move away from being too much of a sum of our influences and hopefully into more original territory. Karate chop some boundaries into dust and stuff. Or at least cross them out with a big, over-sized novelty crayon.
Who is responsible for the striking cover art featured on your debut cassette, and has anyone from Bubble Puppy indicated any surprise to learn that they, in fact, have skulls for faces?
I can take responsibility for that crime! From what I remember, James managed to find one of them on MySpace a good while ago and sent him a message about it. I don’t think he ever replied, though. He probably wasn’t very impressed. In all seriousness though, I’d like to think they would appreciate the nod. I mean, we are all big fans of Bubble Puppy. Saying that, they might just end up trying to sue us for all we’ve got. That’s one for our legal team to ponder … It was another complete accident that the cover came to be, though. “I heard a song of theirs on a compilation of psychedelia a while back, and decided to search for them on Google images to see what they looked like. I came across the cover of “A Gathering of Promises,” and lo and behold, they looked uncannily like the line-up of The Cosmic Dead at that time! I just put the original image up on our website for a laugh, and it just ended up getting used as part of the artwork. I think I was really into the idea of appropriation in art at the time – still am to an extent – so that would have been a big part of it. I do like to think that the cover ties in somewhat with our name, though. I mean, there’s obviously the “dead” part, but another level, I wanted to create some kind of visual nod towards the notion of what we’re about musically. We may reference and be influenced by bands of the past, of the 60’s and 70’s, but that’s very much a thing that is dead and buried now. However, I think it’s important that if you are taking ideas, ideals, sounds or whatever from the past, that you add something new to the equation, do something different with it, which is what I’d like to think we aim for musically. Personally, I think there’s nothing worse and utterly pointless than a band that just completely emulates the sound of a band or bands from the past. It displays a complete lack of imagination and they might as well just be a tribute band, y’know? You have to advance and evolve ideas. I know that could be seen as a completely hypocritical statement for me to make, as our band could be perceived as quite musically regressive, but I honestly think we’re evolving beyond that, which will hopefully be reflected in our next album.
Speaking of nods to the past, the opening track on the above mentioned cassette is entitled “The Black Rabbit,” a track that has magnificent time-traveling abilities – it’s 18+ minutes pass in what feels like just moments. Is the track title a reference to Lewis Carroll, Grace Slick, both or neither? What else can you tell us about this track?
That song title does relate to Lewis Carroll, albeit indirectly. It was in fact inspired by the original 1903 “Alice In Wonderland” film adaptation, which I believe was one of the first ever silent motion pictures. But yeah, I decided to use that film in a video for a song of ours which was untitled at the time. For me, one of the most striking images in the film was the white rabbit that Alice chases down the rabbit hole (simply a man donning a full size rabbit suit – I’ll put money on it being a large influence on the costumes used in David Lynch’s “Rabbits” series!), so the song simply became “The White Rabbit.” We ended up recording a slightly different version of it for the album, so we changed the title to black instead of white, as although being different, they both originated from the same idea and riff. I like to think of them as two sides of the same coin. We’re also all big fans of the televisual landmark known as “Quantum Leap,” as well as the various exploits of Doc Brown. So yeah, time travel is cool with The Cosmic Dead. Just don’t kill your granddad when you travel back in time, kids. Or else the very fabric of the universe will be irrevocably destroyed. Obviously.
What is the live experience of The Cosmic Dead like – or at least, what would you like the live experience of The Cosmic Dead be for the show attendee? Can you think of any time when you had relatively low expectations for a band’s live performance, but the band actually ended up blowing you away?
I think we’ve yet to reach our definitive live experience, but ideally I would like our concerts to be just as much of a visual affair as a sonic one, to create more of a sensory experience. I’m particularly fond of the idea of us investing in a decent projector at some point to get some seriously intense hypnotic visuals on the go. In essence, I guess I want our live shows to look and sound like we’ve just opened up the star gate in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and we’re taking the audience for a trip into the outer reaches of the universe … yeah, we definitely like to work within realistic parameters. Alternatively, we could just hand out tabs of acid at the door. It’d probably be cheaper …
In terms of being blown away by a live band I had low expectations for, I can’t really think of any examples to be honest. I generally only go out of my way to go to a gig if I expect that band to be particularly good. There have been numerous occasions, however, where I’ve seen local bands in Glasgow I hadn’t seen or heard before, and have been pleasantly surprised by how good they are. It’s one of the great things about the place: it’s big enough and there’s enough going on for you to accidentally stumble across stuff like that.
What music have you been listening to lately? Would you care to comment on the rumor (the rumor that I am attempting to start right now) that you next release will be a 66-minute version of “Uncle John’s Band,” entitled “Workingman’s Cosmic Dead”?
This week I have mostly been listening to the second High Rise album (brilliant, obscure, needle-in-the-red Japanese psych from the mid eighties), “Embryonic” by The Flaming Lips (psychedelic overtones, but it has a very contemporary and unique sound. I love it – the lyrics are fantastic as well), and the new Fall album, which isn’t fantastic, but not too bad, either. It contains a song called “Cosmos 7,” though, so kudos for that, Mr. Smith. The rumor that The Cosmic Dead will release a 66-minute version of “Uncle John’s Band” is entirely true; you clearly have good sources, sir. It will not, however, be our next album but merely an isolated release. So although your agents are good, they aren’t that accurate. Maybe they could do with taking a leaf out of the KGB’s book, rather than running about attempting to establish themselves as philandering James Bond-like figures. Very unprofessional, that.
How, if at all, does being based in Glasgow affect the sound of The Cosmic Dead? What are the best and worst things about living in Glasgow?
I do think living in Glasgow probably does affect our sound to an extent, but not hugely. I’d say it has more of an effect on the way we approach making our music and playing live shows rather than the actual sound of our music itself. One of the good things about being part of a musical community, especially if you play with lots of bands who work hard to be technically proficient and exciting live, or rather, just inject a lot passion into whatever they do, is that it has this positive rub-off effect on other bands. It probably just happens unconsciously, but they see other bands live, see how good they are, and then know that they somehow have to match that or aim to surpass it themselves. Not in a one-upmanship kind of way – it’s more that a certain band or bands will set a standard or precedent, and that encourages other bands to try and match it. I believe it’s an entirely healthy thing, and you see it happen more with bands who hang out together and encourage a sense of a community. That’s one of the great things about Glasgow. We’re lucky enough to have grassroots DIY promoters like Winning Sperm Party and Cry Parrot who really encourage and venerate that sort of stuff to a great extent. I wouldn’t really say there are any real negatives to living in Glasgow. I mean, personally, it’s everything I could’ve hoped for, especially compared to the town I grew up in, which is a very small place. Back there, there was an overriding sense of bitterness and claustrophobia, and that can be really stifling and generally detrimental to creativity. So by comparison, moving to Glasgow was a bit like finding yourself sipping herbal tea with The Velvet Underground in Andy Warhol’s Factory circa 1967. Ha ha ha.
In his essay “Background Radiation: The West German Republic Tunes In To the Cosmos,” Ken Hollings remarks that, “The sound of radio static connects inner and outer space. Tuning through a wireless dial also means discovering that unique audible space that exists between stations: a mysterious zone of harmonies and distortions that function according to some strange and distinct logic of their own.” Your thoughts?
Wow. I’d love to read that essay – sounds great! You know, I think that kind of idea is what any musician or band who considers their music to be psychedelic or consciousness-expanding are attempting to tap into, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s also funny that Hollings uses the analogy of tuning in-between stations on a radio, because I used to love doing that as a kid with my little handheld portable! I remember doing it every night when I was about 7 or 8, under the covers of my bed, long after I was supposed to be asleep. When I got bored of trying to look for foreign stations on long wave (I could usually only find Radio Luxembourg), I would just mess around with the dial and entertain myself with all of the crazy noises you could create flicking through the waves. In retrospect, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had become a synthesizer / signal generator obsessive today if I had been given the opportunity to own such equipment or could afford to buy it.
But anyway, I’m rambling … I think it’s really interesting to listen to those NASA-released Voyager recordings of radio waves that have been emitted by the planets and beyond, and then converted into an audio signal. If you’ve not given them a listen, please do – they’re incredible. Each planet or moon has its own unique song, which all sound like beautiful, haunting, sometimes eerie (check out Jupiter) ambient drones. But the thing that I find fascinating, and please bear in mind that my knowledge on the subject is admittedly rather thin so I may be wrong here, (maybe one of your readers could rectify for me!), but my internet research would suggest that the Voyager probes, which were launched in 1977, were the first to actually record the “sounds” or rather, signals, of the planets to a decent degree (I believe recordings from Earth pick up very little). Now, here’s where I could be wrong, but I’m currently under the impression that no recordings like this existed in the public domain pre-Voyager, and yet, there’s this correlation between the Voyager recordings and the sounds found on the records of many psychedelic bands of the late 60’s onwards (generated primarily by the growing use of electronic equipment such as oscillators and synthesizers), and even sci-fi films and television before that. Throw into the equation the growing use of lyrical themes and imagery of space and the cosmos in music, and it gets even more interesting. Arguably, this all became prominent in art due to the influence of the space race and the moon landings, but for people to make a guess at what space and the planets could actually “sound” like, and be so on the money, is utterly amazing. Maybe it was just mere coincidence, or maybe we did “tune in” to the cosmos … who knows? Either way, it’s bloody fascinating stuff!
What’s next for The Cosmic Dead?
Lots and lots o’ things! Paradigms Records are putting out our self-titled debut album on CD, and we’re planning to put a bunch of cassettes out on various tape labels soon. They’ll probably just contain jams, rehearsal recordings, droney stuff, chants maybe – that kind of thing. They won’t be albums, though. We want to make a clear distinction between the two. We’ll definitely be releasing a second album on vinyl and probably CD in 2012, though. We’re also currently in the process of booking a UK tour for the end of February, so that should be nice, as it’ll mark our first shows outside of Scotland. We’d also love to play outside of the UK eventually, as we appear to have quite a lot of fans overseas! We’ll also probably book a big show at the end of 2012, sell it out, and blow ourselves up at the end of the set in a blaze of glory. There ain’t nobody gonna top that …