Sunday, July 18, 2021

Journey to the Satanic Planet: A Conversation with Lucien Greaves

Remember when records scared the hell out of people?

Venom. Ozzy. Maiden. Judas Priest. Slayer. These were some of the artists who landed on the hit lists of many a devout (some would say hysterical) Christian and/or political leader during the infamous Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Television programs and news reports regularly featured horrified parents and self-proclaimed “occult authorities” who shook audiences with tales of devil worship, murderous cults and the evil (and often “subliminal”) messages found in Heavy Metal music. Of course, such handwringing was complete and utter bullshit, but it was thrilling to know that Rock ‘n’ Roll still possessed the ability to instill the right amount of fear in the hearts and minds of those who will never understand.

So, here we are in 2021, and the real world is a lot more frightening than anything presented on a recorded work. That said, the sinister crew calling itself Satanic Planet has just unleashed one of the darkest and most undeniably devilish debut albums in years. It certainly helps that a bona fide Satanist – Lucien Greaves, co-founder of The Satanic Temple – is among the group’s ranks. None other than Dave fucking Lombardo (Slayer/Dead Cross/Mr. Bungle/The Original Misfits/Suicidal Tendencies/Fantômas) supplies the drums and additional sounds, while Justin Pearson (The Locust/Dead Cross/Swing Kids/Deaf Club/Retox/All Leather) and Luke Henshaw (Planet B/Sonido de la Frontera) round out the quarter. They are joined on their recently released eponymous album by a slew of guests, including Shiva Honey, Travis Ryan (Cattle Decapitation), Jung Sing (Silent/All Leather), Eric Livingston (First Church of the Void), Nomi Abadi and Carrie Feller (Hexa).

At first listen, Satanic Planet sounds like a Hammer Film soundtrack LP that’s been left out in the sun for an afternoon. However, repeated spins reveal a richly complex and wildly inventive ride. Leave your preconceived notions at the door, because this is not mere juvenile shock value packaged in a spooky name.

Satanic Planet’s history dates back to Greaves’ 2019 press campaign for the Satanic Temple documentary, Hail Satan? While in England, he was asked by Metal Hammer to discuss some of his favorite music and immediately included Dead Cross – Pearson and Lombardo’s band with Faith No More’s Mike Patton – on the list.

“This interview found its way to the guys in Dead Cross, and Justin reached out to me and wanted to know if I’d do an interview with him for a podcast he does with Luke Henshaw, who is now part of Satanic Planet,” he recalls. “Justin does another act with him called Planet B. So, they came out to Salem. We were sitting around talking, doing this podcast and hanging out. Justin floated the idea that we would do some kind of album.”

The initial plan was for Greaves to perform spoken word over background sounds. However, this concept swiftly changed once he traveled to the West Coast to begin work on the project.

“When we got into the studio, we just kind of abandoned the spoken word concept and just started working full-on into music. It was a bizarre kind of dynamic we had in the studio, because we went in there without much preparatory work. We had this idea of doing spoken word, and I had some text. Then, we ended up working on music, which made me kind of abandon the text I had and start revising things. So, we were actually in the studio for a couple of weeks where we were playing around with sounds simultaneously to me writing lyrics for those sounds and rhythms we were coming up with on the spot. I would text segments of these lyrics I was writing to Justin and Luke, and Luke and I would get in the sound booth and play around with vocals and things like that. I don’t know how many bands just actually write everything in real time when they go into the studio.”

Unfortunately, no one involved in Satanic Planet knew that the entire world was about to pause.

“I had just gotten home from the studio in San Diego and went straight into lockdown. This was March 14th of 2020. We were supposed to play our first shows starting like March 23, something like that. We had the album pretty much all recorded by the time I went into lockdown and stayed in Massachusetts for the entirety of the pandemic.”

Although the virus’ arrival halted Satanic Planet’s immediate plans to perform, the group continued to collaborate remotely on new ideas and ultimately came up with an additional song, “Strangers.”

“At that point, we thought we were done with the album. [‘Strangers’] originally started as just an off-the-cuff project; I thought it might be its own independent release or whatever, but we just incorporated it into the album.”

“Strangers” – and the entire Satanic Planet project, for that matter – took on a new life once Pearson passed the track along to Lombardo to see if he’d be interested in putting down live drums for it. Before long, the Metal legend was adding his unique touch all over the place.

“He had fun working on the entire album and really liked the idea of not necessarily doing live drums. He really liked giving the tracks this kind of deep, resonating ambience and doom sound that kind of permeates the album. He really added something there.”

Clearly, Satanic Planet is not the kind of album you play for your grandparents over cookies and cake on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Although there’s little ambiguity in the message this particular release aims to send, this writer has always maintained that “Satanic” music can be found anywhere – from Classical to Country and often without horns or a Baphomet in sight. With this in mind, I asked Greaves for his thoughts on what makes a piece of music inherently in league with The Big Guy Downstairs.

“The Satanic Planet album is laden with the philosophy we’ve injected into The Satanic Temple and things like that. To that end, I wouldn’t want to put too fine a point on, ‘This is legitimate Satanic music, and this is not.’ At the end of the day, I feel like Satanism embraces art. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a heavy-handed, specific message related to Satanism in the arts; what’s important is that it makes you feel something and that it’s enriching in some way. A lot of the intensely theocratic, monotheistic religions have had a historic acrimonious relationship to art. I feel like art, in and of itself in many ways, is very much a Satanic practice.”

Now that Satanic Planet has been unleashed upon the masses, the menace captured on disc and vinyl is raising more than a few eyebrows – especially within a Metal community that is largely scratching its head (and spouting considerable online vitriol) over everything from Lombardo’s presence to the album’s overall content. (Let’s get real for a moment: Fans of Slayer’s Hell Awaits shouldn’t be too shocked over the drummer’s involvement in something called Satanic Planet, while anyone who’s genuinely surprised by Lombardo’s contributions to such esoteric sounds would do well to check out his past work with John Zorn and Bill Laswell.) While he is certainly no stranger to controversy, Greaves is nonetheless nonplussed by the response.

“I had no idea how shitty the Metal scene can be with its purists. There are people who are outright pissed off that this isn’t a Metal album or that Dave isn’t playing Slayer drums on every track. That’s bizarre to me – the insistence some people have that the music you make needs to fall within some well-defined genre parameters. That wasn’t something I was familiar with until watching people’s reactions to this album.”

Away from Satanic Planet, Greaves is of course maintaining a heavy schedule with The Satanic Temple, the first overtly political occult organization in American history. While the Temple’s headline-grabbing activities are a far cry from those of other Satanic organizations, Greaves believes that such tactics are a necessary evil.

“I had no need to join or create an organization unless it was serving some organizational function. To me, in the case of The Satanic Temple, that was fighting back against the attempted theocratic overthrow of the United States – and, by extension, the entirety of the world.”

Naturally, not everyone has welcomed this cause with open arms. Although Greaves’ various media appearances have consistently demonstrated that he is affable, articulate and quick-witted, it’s not a stretch to suggest that many reporters and viewers have mentally placed either a target on his chest or a clown nose on his face. (As just one example, check out Tucker Carlson’s characteristically histrionic exchange with the guy.) How does he respond to critics who suggest that The Satanic Temple is merely trolling at best and proselytizing at worst?

“First and foremost, I find it odd that people contrast us against the theocrats we’re obviously pushing back against and find us to be the ones who are being provocative, inflammatory or otherwise poking our noses in where they don’t belong. It drives me insane to see people hitting us with criticism that we’re just trying to insert ourselves where we don’t belong when we’re asking to put a Satanic monument alongside a Ten Commandments monument on public grounds – and that our drive to do so is merely political or trolling and not really religious. I can handle that type of scrutiny as long as it’s equally applied. They don’t look at the evangelical groups that are fighting to have these monuments that open the door for us to have our monuments and ask, ‘Well, are they just being provocative against secularists? Are they just trying to spit in their eye? Are they just trolling to get their evangelical advertising all over public grounds?’ People are just kind of inert to this idea that [evangelicals] deserve placement there and any other claim to equal representation can’t actually be something that is reflective of somebody’s deeply held belief. They see what were doing as just something that is meant to offend the Christians; it doesn’t matter if what they’re doing is offensive or not. To me, that’s just really bizarre […] I just don’t understand what people don’t understand about what we’re trying to do here and how it goes well beyond being some kind of prank or just mere trolling.”

Considering the political and social divides in our country these days, it comes as no surprise that conflicts of opinion often exist within The Satanic Temple’s membership. (A Satanist myself, I have misgivings about the potential unintended consequences of some of the Temple’s legislative endeavors, but that’s a topic for another time.) What is surprising is that these squabbles don’t faze Greaves in the least.

“I think one of the good things about us is we don’t demand that everybody agrees with everything that we do. We try to keep things flexible so that there can be internal debate, and we’re not cult-like; we don’t prevent people from affiliations with any outside groups or ex-members or anything like that. Sometimes, people look at the disagreements we have internally and think this is a sign of weakness or our impending collapse. In fact, I think it’s a sign of our strength and our dedication to leaving those avenues open and leaving people to free inquiry.”

As for the future of Satanic Planet, Greaves confirms that a second album is currently being composed via filesharing, adding that Lombardo is taking an active role in the initial creation of the tracks this time around.

“The kinds of files that we’re exchanging back and forth right now indicate that this one’s going to sound a little different, but it’s also going to have a lot of that same complexity to it. I’m really excited about it.”

The group also hopes to make its long-delayed debut on the live stage in the coming months.

“We’re looking at our prospects for playing live sometime in the near future. We don’t have anything set yet. I guess the shows we were originally going to play were delayed for a while and listed as ‘postponed,’ but I think they’re considered canceled at this point. Last I heard, the festivals just aren’t booking anybody new right now, because they’re catching up from what they didn’t [have] during COVID. It looks like most of the festivals put their lineups together before we even recorded our album. But I think by the fall, we’ll certainly be playing shows.”

Although Greaves has built a deeply polarizing public-facing life for himself, there is no denying that Satanic Planet represents his ability to attract sonic collaborators of the highest caliber. Despite its faux fretting, the world truly loves a good fright, and the album provides a fun – and ultimately harmless – way for folks to indulge in this fetish.

Happy listening – and see you in Hell!


Monday, July 12, 2021

"Leisure" Lives On: Inside the Global Celebration of Andy Gill

As regular readers of this website know, the past 18 months or so have seen a slew of releases honoring the many innovations and talents of late Gang of Four guitarist/producer Andy Gill, who passed away in February 2020 at the age of 64. Now, after years of preparation (including considerable work done by Gill himself prior to his death), fans, admirers and fellow musicians are finally able to experience The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four.

Released last month, The Problem of Leisure collects 20 artists from around the globe (some legendary, some new to most listeners) who offer their unique spins on hand-picked Gang of Four compositions. Considering Gill’s widespread influence on the world of music, it’s no surprise that the end results are eclectic and intriguing. From the faithful (Helmet’s “In A Ditch;” Hotei’s “To Hell With Poverty”) and ferocious (IDLES’ “Damaged Goods,” Tom Morello & Serj Tankian’s “Natural’s Not In It”) to the wildly inventive (Warpaint’s “Paralyzed;” Flea and John Frusciante’s “Not Great Men,” complete with vocals by the Silverlake Conservatory Youth Chorale) and idiosyncratic (Youth of Killing Joke’s dancey Dub reinvention of “Forever Starts Now,” Sekar Melati’s live gamelan version of “Not Great Men”), the album serves a suitable celebration of a man who spent his life stretching sound beyond convention.

The Problem of Leisure was initially conceived as a multi-act tribute release commemorating the 40th anniversary of Gang of Four’s legendary 1979 debut album, Entertainment! However, Gill’s widow, Catherine Mayer, explains that those plans – and the project’s initial timetable – soon changed.

“It always would have been a bit of a tight schedule. This sort of album, where you have multiple artists involved, is going to take a long time. Some of them will turn around and deliver a track right away, and others will say that they’re going to and then they’ll disappear. Also, Andy was always deeply involved in every aspect of what the band was doing and busy in all sorts of other respects. At various times, he sort of co-managed the band, but he was also always writing new stuff. He also had a funny relationship with time; he always hoped things would be quicker than they were. I don’t know that he would have ever necessarily hit the deadline for it being launched on the 40th anniversary of Entertainment! But even before he was tested in that way, it changed course because he started approaching musicians he really admired and who he thought might do something interesting. Several of them came back and were really enthusiastic, but they wanted to do tracks that weren’t on Entertainment! So, it had already moved away from being just Entertainment! Once that happened, he then started being more interested in what the creative process was. He was really very, very excited by that. He was getting feedback from all these musicians he really cared about who were talking to him about the songs themselves and what could be done with them.”

With the artists afforded a free hand in selecting their tracks, it soon became clear that the album would end up featuring more than one cover of a particular number – something that wasn’t an issue for Gill.

“He was actually curious to see what different people would do with the same track. It didn’t matter to him which album people chose things from; he just wanted to see what they’d come up with. He got very far down that track at the point where he became ill.”

Gill continued to work on the album (as well as Gang of Four material that would later comprise the posthumous EPs This Heaven Gives Me Migraine and Anti Hero) from his hospital bed.

“I was not involved in the project in any formal way at all, but when Andy was in hospital, I was actually helping him with his computers and communications. But really, this was totally his project. He was excited about it literally until the moment he couldn’t be excited about anything. So, that’s why when he died, there was no question in my mind that it needed to be finished. In the hospital, I had made – at his request – a list of people he still felt he wanted to get involved with the project. There was also a rudimentary track list, which I followed to a very large extent.”

Very much to its credit, The Problem Of Leisure doesn’t pretend that Gang of Four’s relevance ceased once the original lineup splintered following 1981’s Solid Gold. Instead, the collection provides a fairly far-reaching representation of the band’s work, even touching on later tracks ( “Broken Talk” [reimagined in Mandarin by Hardcore Raver in Tears as “Last Mile”], “Where The Nightingale Sings” and “Forever Starts Now”) released during the time Gill stood as Gang of Four’s sole remaining original member. This part of the album’s focus was due in part to Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja (appearing on the album under his remix name, 3D, alongside British duo Nova Twins), who suggested having a go at the 2015 track “Where The Nightingale Sings.”

“Robert was one of the first people to come back and say, ‘I actually want to do something much later.’ ‘Nightingale’ was already in before Andy died. In fact, it was being mixed while he was in hospital.”

The final track received for the album – former Gang of Four/David Bowie bassist Gail Ann Dorsey’s fantastic rendition of 1982’s “We Live As We Dream, Alone” – holds a special place in Mayer’s heart.

“That just felt like a commentary on what we were all going through. It also meant so much, because Gail and Andy really loved each other. She had been in the band, but they had also been friends for so many years. I’m so happy she was able to deliver that. I’m sad that he didn’t hear it.”

Fortunately, Gill was alive long enough to be blown away by several of the recordings.

“He took so much pleasure in the bits of this album he heard. He really did love the IDLES track; he loved the Gary Numan cover [“Love Like Anthrax,” with Ade Fenton], and he loved The Dandy Warhols [“What We All Want”] and talked about Everything Everything [Natural’s Not In it,” produced by Gill]. The Flea and John Frusciante track came in when Andy was still not only able to hear it but able to both laugh himself silly and say, ‘This is absolutely brilliant!’ There was so much on that album that excited him.”

Artwork for The Problem of Leisure (which is available in a plethora of formats and editions) comes courtesy of Damien Hirst.

“It was a bit of a mutual appreciation society,” Mayer says of her late husband’s relationship with the British artist. “They both really liked what the other one did and saw echoes of what they were trying to do in each other’s work as well. Andy and I had gone to the huge exhibition that Damien did in Venice, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.’ We had been to a lot of his stuff, but that had been while this project was gestating. Andy had seen the artwork by Damien and loved the kind of playfulness in it – the way in which it sort of plays with your expectations and the sort of deceptive, often childlike simplicity of the imagery. If you think about the artwork, which Andy did himself, for [Gang of Four’s 2019 album] Happy Now, there’s an awful lot of the same impulse in there – something that is a bit joyous and silly but also, in that case, a bit dark. You can take those images and make something that’s multilayered out of it.

“Damien sent all these different possibilities,” she adds. “There was a whole different set of imagery, but Andy instantly went for the dog. He just loved it.”

The cover’s googly-eyed charm reflects a side to Gill that few detected amidst a body of work full of political observations and melancholic introspection. On stage, the man was all business – very often well dressed and regularly delivering the penetrating, steely-eyed glare of a disapproving headmaster. However, as this writer experienced firsthand in 2016, backstage was a decidedly different affair. Once the seriousness of the Gang of Four experience was stripped away for the evening, Gill was jovial and extremely good company – something Mayer knows better than anyone.

“His stage persona was so austere, [but] he was such a bloody nice person. He was lovely, and he was very, very funny. I don’t think that those sides come across in the public persona. That was, for me, the thing I wanted to get across. I’ve posted some pictures [on social media] that he’d probably kill me for posting! (laughs) Instead of it being all cheekbones and scowls, it’s him doing very silly stuff. I just wanted people to be able to see that.”

Above all, The Problem of Leisure showcases the legacy of a deeply creative force who never stopped working. While most musicians are a notoriously lazy lot, Gill was very much a moving target – always on his way to conceptualizing and achieving the next thing. Considering she spent years alongside a man of such drive, what does Mayer credit as the engine for a work ethic that enabled her partner to maintain his focus even as his sun began to fade?  

“I don’t think he had a choice. It’s funny; I’m a writer, and sometimes I actually feel there’s something wrong with me if I’m not writing. He was like that, but even more so. Back in the pre-digital era, he was forever tormented by getting whole songs coming into his head that he wanted to find a way of recording or writing down. He wouldn’t know how to do it. They would come at inopportune moments – when we were in the middle of dinner or on a walk in the middle of nowhere. He would ring our old-style answer phone that had a cassette tape in it. He would sing things or do rhythms down the phone or whatever into those tapes.”

Not surprisingly, Gill’s mind worked overtime while traveling as well.

“[With] the no-frills airlines that we used quite a lot, you really wanted as little luggage as possible. Andy would nevertheless pack an entire keyboard and a computer in his luggage! He was never not writing music.”

Naturally, Gill left behind an extensive – and chaotic – personal archive of his adventures both as a member of Gang of Four and as an in-demand producer for the likes of Michael Hutchence, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and host of others. Mayer is in the process of making sense of it all.  

“Sorting through what there is has been astonishing, and I’m nowhere near the end of it. I’ve found music that has never been out there […] I also have funny things. I’ve got not one but two battered microwaves, with the implements used to beat them to death [on the Gang of Four track “He’d Send In The Army”]. I have things that people wore on stage and lot and lots of personal letters. It would take me forever to go through this!”

Although there is a mountain of Gill-related material that has yet to be heard or seen by the world, Mayer cautions that it’s likely that much of it will remain that way. 

“I’m kind of exhausted with doing all of this stuff myself. There’s a whole thing that happens with widows being the keeper of the flame. He was and is the love of my life, and I don’t want to cloud that with stuff. I only want to do stuff that’s good for him; he’s not here to represent himself. I would only ever put something out there if I thought it was of value to Andy’s legacy. I don’t know what’s on these tapes I’ve found, but I’m not going to rush half-finished songs out there. That would be a disservice to him.

“There’s a thing about people saying [about the dead], ‘Oh, this is what he’d have wanted,’ and you know that’s not necessarily true,” she continues. “But in my case, there’s a ton of stuff that I know that he would have actually wanted, and it’s not all about him. Gail Ann Dorsey and I have been joking about it – and it’s not entirely joking – but Andy was pushing her and pushing her to do more solo work. I want part of his legacy to be to turn around to Gail and say, ‘Do that bloody solo work!’ He wanted her to do a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper.’ She and I have been talking about her finally doing that. John Sterry – JJ Sterry, who was the last singer in the [Gang of Four] lineup – and Andy became very close. Andy so wanted him to have a solo career. So, again, that is to me another part of his legacy.”

When the world heard the devastating news of Gill’s passing, social media feeds and media reports were instantly flooded with tributes and remembrances (including a piece by yours truly). These expressions of appreciation were very much in line with the reverence shown to Gang of Four in recent years – a well-earned (if decades-late) acknowledgement of the genius of a band that unjustly struggled to achieve mainstream success for the majority of its career. This posthumous praise, and the release of The Problem of Leisure and other recent Gang of Four-related projects, begs an important question: Did Gill have a sense of how much people loved him and how meaningful his work was to them?

“No, and that’s one of the things that’s the most difficult for me,” Mayer replies. “He was such a funny person. He knew how good he was; he used to periodically tell me that he was a genius and I was very lucky to be with him! (laughs) And I would agree, obviously. But he also was incredibly modest [...] You have no idea how many of our close friends were utterly shocked by the outpouring about Andy after he died. They really had no idea he was a prominent musician. I’ve worked in very different fields to him, so we have lots of friends who are in politics, other areas of the arts and other areas of life. They didn’t know much about music. They’d go to his gigs and they’d like the music, but they had no idea – and he wouldn’t have thought to tell them. He saved the ‘I’m a genius’ stuff for me!”

Purchase The Problem of Leisure

More on Andy Gill/Gang of Four on This Website


Sunday, July 4, 2021

IT'S ALIVE!: Inside the Low-Brow Lyrical World of Electric Frankenstein

All great bands understand the value of making a visual statement to go along with their music. For New Jersey Punk Rock & Roll veterans Electric Frankenstein (EF), this has meant 30 years of awesome low-brow poster and album cover art. But what happens when the band’s actual music gets interpreted by some of the world’s most inventive and incendiary artists? This new 350-plus page book of illustrated lyrics answers that question by taking 125 selections from EF’s extensive 1994-2017 discography and bringing them to life in glorious (and often gloriously grotesque) ways. If trashy comics, film noir, Punk Rock and NSFW sex and gore bring a smile to your face, then this ones definitely for you.

Yes, all the great horror/sleaze/Rock poster artists are here, but there’s also a slew of newer or previously unrecognized talents in this collection who will titillate, test your limits of good taste and make you want to put on your favorite EF records and view along.

Personal favorite? Well, that’s a tough one, although I must give a nod to the woman-getting-her-bare-bottom-reddened-by-a-sinister-priest BDSM charm of Ben Tegel’s art for the rare EF track “Let’s Sin.”

Stunning from cover to cover, this book is an absolute must-have for admirers of adventurous art and fans of the output of one of the most prolific and consistently great bands in American underground music history.

Get yourself a copy of the book at its Kickstarter page.