"We’re definitely not going for traditionalism."
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is a phenomenon so complex and shifting that defining it is almost subjective. A lot of bands have pretensions to being a collective, but this Canadian group of collaborators truly is as much a fully functioning visual art movement as it is a DIY theater company, as it is, in fact, one of the finest experimental/psych rock bands on the circuit today. The group has produced a self-titled album, true, but it has also produced musicals and art installations, all of which fit into the same distinct monochromatic-yet-kaleidoscopic, Western/non-Western aesthetic.
To try to put it succinctly, in everything they do Canadian-Asians singer/percussionist/artist Ruby Kato Attwood and drummer/programmer/artist Alaska B., Iroquois singer/set and costumes creator Ange Loft and their colleagues refract and transform indigenous and Asian diasporic culture using a lens heavily tinted by punk and metal. The different facets of YST come together in their stage show, where black and white cardboard set pieces and dramatic kabuki/Chinese opera/anime-inspired staging immerse concert goers in their world.
Though it’s clear from the start that there are some giant and highly original brains behind their big sound, you don’t need to know about every single subversive idea that inspires their art and music to enjoy it. Still, we think it’s even more fun once you know how much this band of noh-wave punks and Iroquois core kids scorn your westernized concept of Buddhism (looking at you Noah Levine.) We also love knowing all the parallels between black metal and Vajrayana Buddhism that Alaska B. will draw at the slightest provocation.
If you think their music is formidable and their stage show visually overwhelming, try talking to them. MTV Iggy survived the trip, and we’d recommend it to anyone. We got them on the phone while they were touring Canada and the US with Xiu Xiu. We’re publishing almost everything they said because, well, it was all kind of amazing.
Is there a spirituality or an aspect of spiritual practice to your music?
Ruby Kato Attwood: I think it draws from certain traditions or philosophies that are related to Hinduism or Buddhism, but I guess it depends on what you consider religious experience. I’m mean most rock shows, at least for me are pretty intense spiritually, more than listening to a recorded album.
We definitely try to generate psychic space when we play. It’s been really interesting touring with Father Murphy and Xiu Xiu because I feel they do a very similar thing in performance, so it’s been interesting seeing how the crowds are responding.
We do perform a couple of tracks that are quite meditative … for certain people. I can see everybody, right? And for certain people it’s really boring. There are certain people that leave during that track or check their phone and there are people that become totally taken over by it. To answer the question directly, I think it’s subjective. For some people, it’s very spiritual. For others, they don’t have that feeling.
Do you connect with the music on that level?
Ruby: I have to. Because performance for me is quite terrifying. I don’t actually enjoy it and I find it really embarrassing, so I have to kind of breathe and focus. And I definitely practice yoga and meditation regularly.
It’s interesting that the music is partly inspired by Hindu and Buddhist thought and that you also bring meditation onstage with you out of necessity.
Ruby: Yamantaka is a Sanskrit word. It’s a deity. And then “Sonic Titan” is the name of a Sleep song. It also refers to the idea of the universal sound. We definitely draw from those traditions but I wouldn’t purport to represent them in their entirety at all, since they’re so vast and varied and spread over tons of different cultures and languages.
There’s an aspect of Tantric Buddhism that we’re expressing that I think is actually very appropriate. It takes three elements: There’s the aspect of the music or the mantra. Then there’s a positioning of certain things, which is described as a yantra, the way that a sacred space or performative space is set up. And then there’s a person, someone who wants to be there and is … not really witnessing but is seeking this psychic space that we’re creating. It’s really all about the audience and us creating something together. I think that’s the way it is for a lot of bands.
Where does the Native American influence on your music come from and how does it manifest itself?
Ange Loft: Well, I’m Kanienkehaka, it’s our traditional name for Mohawk in the Iroquois Confederacy. I’m from Kahnawake, which is in Quebec. I spent a lot of time when I was a teenager doing traditional singing, like, traditional Iroquois ceremonial songs and social songs, also wake singing for funerals. So that’s really where it comes from. It’s kind of not traditional. I had a lot of training at this place called the Centre for Indigenous Theatre in Toronto in pow-wow vocals so I got interested in pow-wow style vocals.
It has to do for me with creating sacred space. It’s kind of like funeral singing because there are these high notes that we don’t really have in our social songs, but the vocals that I do on stage are mostly improvised. It’s definitely not a pure form at all.
I grew up listening to hardcore thrash in Montreal and silly, trashy, trashy metal bands, and that kind of growly thing definitely feeds into what I’m doing. We’re calling it Iroquois core because the other drummer Walter Scott is also Kanienkehaka and we kind of have this plan to do some cultural fuckery. We’re definitely not going for traditionalism. The first song on the album ["Racoon Song"], that’s a traditional song. That’s the opening on a real social song just put into more of a pentatonic scale.
Is Yamantaka // Sonic Titan psychedelic?
Alaska B: I feel like it’s there as a starting point. When I was in art school when me and Ruby met and started working on this project, new psychedelia was, like, the thing in Canadian universities and the east coast, like Fort Thunder, Lightning Bolt, that kind of moment, from which groups like Gang Gang Dance we’re coming up. And the way we saw it in class, everyone was getting into kind of maximalist pop art and you can’t really do that without referencing psychedelia in one way or another because of its stain on the American rock psyche.
But a lot of things that people were doing were very culturally appropriative, which is a whole debate in and of itself as to how good or bad that is. But we kind of looked at it and were like “You know why don’t we just do it ourselves on our own terms with the work that we want to do it with.”
Like black metal, say, was one of our influences, I’m a huge metal head. And black metal has always taken Christian and pagan influences and used them to make all kinds of grotesque, dark imagery inside of northern Europe, but for us as Asian identified Buddhists, there were elements of black metal that could be appropriated and used for other expressions, like the corpse paint referencing kabuki and Peking opera paint.
Like with KISS there so much rock history that’s related to these kinds of cultural images. We just decided we could apply it to Buddhism. Instead of having an inverted cross we could use Buddhist imagery of death and destruction and Buddhist iconography and use those instead. We would take Buddhist symbols and invert them similar to a cross, to re-appropriate them.
I’m an illustrator so I’d draw lumps of flesh or intestines to represent a classic symbol. A lot of it was drawing on famous works of Buddhist art or Asian art and kind of like inserting ourselves inside of them.
I think that’s a lot different from psychedelia. Like psychedelia is trying to put yourself into some kind of “ooh, mysticism” kind of universe or head space and I think what we do is much different. We have a certain kind of intent that was not typically used in psychedelia.
When you subvert Buddhist images, it’s not Buddhist thought that you’re trying to subvert is it?
Alaska: In a way we are. Like I hated that book Dharma Punx. It was all about being a Buddhist punk. I don’t like this enshrining of Buddhism as this kind of austere, zen perfection, like John Cage was all over talking about zen as emptiness, but sound and fury is just as important. If you believe in nonduality, then emptiness is the same thing as full and violence is the same thing as peace.
I feel like a lot of Buddhist ideas in the west are seriously removed from their origin. There’s people who say to me “how can you be drinking a beer and you’re a Buddhist?” and I say to them “Well, I’m not a nun.”
So, I feel like we are subverting them as far as the western perception of them goes. But we’re trying to negotiate whole new ways of being Buddhist. Like, the ways of doing it in Asia are not really relevant here. Say you’re a Vajrayanic Buddhist you can’t really go to the charnel grounds here and dig up some bones and make implements out of them, because that’s very frowned upon by our laws. So you have to find new ways of doing things and new ways to negotiate those traditions.
As punk rockers and metal heads we have to find new ways to do it. Like the death and gore in metal is not much different from the death and gore depicted in Vajrayanic Buddhism. If you look at their imagery, it’s got bloody corpses and the protective deities are running around with human heads hanging around their necks.
Do have any concerns that someone might misinterpret your performances, the way people in the West do with a lot of Asian culture?
Alaska: We’ve had a lot of conversations about that. Like a lot of former members have been like “I feel really weird on stage like this.” We have pushed ourselves so far away from authenticity on purpose. People look at us and they go “That’s not really authentic.” Why do we have to be authentic? This concept of authenticity is enforced on immigrants, but it’s not expected from the dominant population.
That is serious cultural voyeurism, when you expect me to do something authentic when no one else is. How many guys playing the blues actually play the real blues anymore? Things evolve over time.
Also, for us as Asian or First Nations artists, these things are being appropriated anyway. I’m sure you’ve seen all the girls at indie rock concerts running around in headdresses, people running around in kimonos. These things were already appropriated, but we don’t touch on the things that are appropriated everyday, the ones that people use. And I think that’s why people are surprised or alienated. If they were to imitate us they’d look pretty goofy, because the things we do are part of an art project.
Is the project a way to resolve the tension between Eastern and Western identities?
Alaska: I believe the tension is an illusion. I don’t really have tension in my own identity. I’m mixed race, I was raised by my Chinese family and grew up listening to Irish folk music and know everything about Norse mythology because it’s parts of my background. And I feel like my personal family history is colored by other people’s concepts of East versus West not my own. And I think that’s what it’s negotiating, like popping holes in the bubble that somebody else created.
We’re not really negotiating anything. The only way to negotiate those differences is to not negotiate them. When you’re diasporic you run out of options. You can’t just copy home. You’re not really from there. You can’t just put it aside and do what’s really dominant here. At a certain point you’ve got to make your own path and that’s kind of what we promote in our group.
We’ve had a lot of fans over the years who are of Asian, mixed race, First Nations identities who come up to us and say “I’m just really happy to see people like me doing something that isn’t like a second generational parody of my grandparents traditions and that isn’t just blindly throwing them away to join the dominant way of doing, say, punk.”
How is Star coming? Are you guys still working on that rock opera?
Alaska: We are still working on it. YST is a partial soundtrack, it kind of follows the narrative arc, but it’s only little bits of it. It’s not really the full opera. The basic scenes are there. But when put on stage it would be done a little different.
I was finishing a degree and supporting this record is taking a lot of time out, but after finishing an American tour and a European tour we’ll hopefully be in production mode sometime this year.
But right now we already have a musical that we performed an early version of called 33. It’s a 33 minute musical that’s set to time, it was initially performed in Toronto. And we’re redoing it at Pop Montreal this Fall. It’s set to a beat, 33 minutes at 120 bpm. The whole thing is set to a click from start to finish. Each act is 11 minutes long and each act has one minute of text. It’s a drag opera about two rival drag queens in a club where one becomes disillusioned with life and the illusory world, and the other drag queen her protégé is jealous of that overcoming of greed.
What is Star about?
Alaska: Star was imagined as a fictionalized narrative. It was started after researching these old Chinese texts that describe North America down to mileage, including some older Chinese myths related to a place like the Grand Canyon, which doesn’t exist in China. There are two main trips, one is 4,000 years ago and one is 15,000 years ago and both have well-documented texts discussing the people and animals of North America.
Of course, being written in ancient Chinese and having been reinterpreted, re-copied, burned and then re-written by emperors, they’re probably fairly inaccurate. So, we’re not purporting that anybody actually did come to America, though it would have been really easy travel and the Chinese did reach as far as South Africa earlier on, which is about equidistant and also a more difficult journey.
The concept was that we could navigate colonialism in a different way than had been navigated. It’s really just about travels through distant lands. We have a complex plot related to terrorism and murder. It’s like a no-wave-Les Miserables, outsider, over-the-top kind of production.
Are you currently building anything new for your stage show?
Alaska: We each do larger one-off shows that take place about every three months. They would take place quarterly, we’d have massive stage sets, we’d do lots of songs that we’re specific to each show. They were all done starting from scratch and very few things were reused. Nowadays, because we play so many more shows and, being on the road, we can’t fit all of that stuff into our car until people pay us more money.
We have pared it down for tour, but we definitely have set pieces, we have a brand new lighting system that a couple of us built. We are also bringing a large dragon puppet on tour. We definitely have more stuff in store for future tours.
What kind of a show would you do if money was no object?
Alaska: We just want to keep increasing the scale and complexity of our work. Our first show we had moving parts on sync. There were spinning parts that I built with motors and cardboard. We would like to take over a large theater and paint the whole damn thing black and white.