We spoke with Rafiq Bhatia about the points of a compass, the value in writing a self-agitating arrangement, whether or not time is circular, the last time an ordinary object blew his mind and how artistic creation can act as a spiritual conduit.
I think the sense of tension and the destabilizing forces in the music that you’re describing are oftentimes designed to throw the attributes of each thing into sharper relief.
We asked Rafiq to tell us what comes to mind when he thinks of each point on a compass.
Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits.
Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits.
Cactus. There are these monkeys in Madagascar that learn to pick the fruits among these prickly cacti.
When I listen to your material, I hear way more of a sense of uncomfortable, prickly struggle than a straightforward approach. The different aspects of your arrangements sort of agitate each other. Have you ever gotten good results from writing a piece that didn’t “want” to be written, like the exposed edges could tell a new story?
That’s a fascinating take. I think I’m oftentimes very skeptical of the direction that a piece feels like it wants to go in. When I’m writing, the results that I end up feeling the best about in the longer term often come from critically examining the first idea that felt comfortable and responding to it in some kind of way. There are, of course, exceptions to that, in which something feels like it comes through me rather than from me. In a lot of cases, an idea like that is something I might stick with, even if it takes a long time to figure out how to respond to it.
I think the sense of tension and the destabilizing forces in the music that you’re describing are oftentimes designed to throw the attributes of each thing into sharper relief. William Blake said, “Without contraries there is no progression.” That’s something that has always stuck with me. We’re not really able to appreciate a thing fully unless we see it in light of its opposite.
The assumption that things need to “gel” in order to be perfected or provocative is one that I strongly question. It’s something that I find really interesting about peoples’ listening behavior in general. We, as a culture, are very happy to see a film that rattles us and forces us to question things and moves us to tears, but by and large, people’s listening habits suggest that they just want music to work well with whatever they’re cooking in the kitchen or the yoga they’re doing.
Do you think of time as being circular or a straight line? I understand the former is kind of an indigenous sensibility, and I also wonder if our daily experience is so blurred by our past memories and impulses that it’d give credence to that concept. Thoughts?
I’m not sure if I’m wholly familiar with the circular time theory other than what you just described, but I’ve heard mentioned the idea of time as being an invented construct to describe entropy. I think, for me, the feel of time certainly feels like it’s variable and related to a bunch of other factors in my life, not least of which is how much time I’ve already experienced — it keeps accelerating. For me, making music is very essentially caught up in time, and it’s also essentially caught up in memory. The relationship between those two things is what ends up blurring my conception of time most often.
Memory has this interrupting influence that has to do with traveling around a lot and being in a lot of different places over the course of a short period of time. Sometimes I’ll go back to a place I haven’t been to in a few years, and it feels like I was just there yesterday — I smell the same smells and see the same things. I actually feel that way every time I go to LA because the weather’s exactly the same.
I think the brain has an amazing way of filtering out unnecessary information — I mean, try describing the last 10 meals you had. But it also kind of clips things in the way you’re describing — somehow, all the events in your life between the two trips to Los Angeles you’re describing are wiped away for a second. Sometimes, I’m like, “What did I do between ages 10 and 15?”
Well, I guarantee you that if you walked into the house you lived in during that time, you’d remember. Olfaction and memory have a really close relationship. For that reason, a lot of times, when I’m trying to get work done on the road, it can be really difficult to focus in the fleeting moments between travel, soundcheck and the gig.
Actually, a lot of the work on this record was done on the road, and one of the things that I used to help me develop a ritual around creating on the road was to bring a travel-sized candle with me. I would only burn it when I would work, and it was kind of incredible how effective it was. I was taking advantage of the connection between smell and memory — every time I’d smell the candle, I would remember the previous day when I had been working, and it helped me get back into that mindset. Behavioral economics 101!
Well, maybe time itself isn’t circular, but I think human nature totally is. The far-right has taken Christian concepts of meekness and chastity and warped it into nationalism and greed, and the far-left adopted this puritanical, Mike Pence sort of extremism, which is bizarre too. Would that seem cyclic to you?
I think maybe there’s a binary nature to our politics that leads to that. There’s so much corruption and power-hungriness in Washington that I feel that it’s not always about the ideas that are being articulated, but it’s more about their effectiveness toward the end of abusing and holding onto power. I think that’s very clear in terms of the Republican Party’s embrace of Donald Trump. It’s not altogether surprising to me that, since we have this binary system, the Republicans show themselves to be failing morally, so there are some on the other side who are trying to take hold of that high ground that’s been vacated. I see it from the perspective of a “Who can grab the moral high ground?” power play. That makes sense to me.
Me too. Rather than taking apart the logic behind asinine proposals like arming teachers or whatever.
I feel like that just comes from the NRA being like, “Okay, how can we spin this one?” It branches out from there.
The fact that we have dug a hole for ourselves comes from our willful amnesia about our past. So much of it has to do with greed and power. We need to take a long, hard look at our history.
Do you ever feel like there’s an assault on smartness, delicacy and good sense on a grand scale?
Oh, absolutely. That’s also been ongoing. The persistence of that can be traced to our willful amnesia about our past and never really reconciling as a country after slavery or taking adequate measures to deal with it, further punishing the people who already had to go through that. In the Reconstruction era, there was progress being made that was responded to with Jim Crow. I grew up in the South, and I saw so much willful ignorance about that history playing out.
I feel like that is directly responsible in a lot of ways, and when it’s indirectly responsible, it’s still a useful metaphor for so much of what we’re dealing with right now. I think a lot of that comes from a lack of regard from people who are in positions of wealth and power for the rest of the country, where it doesn’t matter if everybody else is properly educated or given access to opportunities that would one day allow them to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The fact that we have dug a hole for ourselves comes from that. So much of it has to do with greed and power. We need to take a long, hard look at our history if we want to change any of it.
Sometimes I try to put myself into the mind of someone who would verbally assault the victim of a school shooting online. Do you think that enthusiasm about hitting rock-bottom vis-à-vis human decency comes from the herd mentality the Internet allows? Would sufficient anonymity make someone like you or I do something similar?
My hunch is that anonymity has a big role to play. There are stories where people have sought out trolls and tried to understand what motivated them, and a lot of times, it was the classic story of the schoolyard bully. Under the surface, there’s that person carrying around their own hurt and trauma. It’s too neat and tying it up in a bow to assume everybody’s like that, but I’ll bet that plays a role with a lot of people. And, yeah, I think there are serious consequences for many areas in the country where people used to have good jobs and were able to make lives for themselves and their communities, which has been replaced by opioid addiction and all that stuff.
It’s definitely a real phenomenon, and wherever you place the blame, it’s something like we, in cities like New York, often don’t appreciate the full impact of in the same way that we also don’t appreciate the full impact of what, say, living on the South Side of Chicago is like. Which has been the case for longer, and we don’t adequately address those kinds of issues. Now, we’re seeing those issues in white communities, and we should really be addressing both of those problems. That’s the way I feel about it.
Have you ever observed a glitch in your own mind? Have you ever connected two thoughts in a way that, in hindsight, didn’t make any sense, or experienced a flashback that seemed disconnected from its trigger?
I’m struggling to recall a specific example, but that happens all the time when I have a lack of sleep. Every thought is like that, which is awesome. I think I’ll experience that more when I become a parent. My friends who have kids have that serious “glitch” situation going on. It’s like a constant moment in The Matrix where the cat walks by twice.
Sometimes, in the most unbearably grim parts of New York, I’ll notice the odd natural object coming out of the concrete and it really strikes me. Can you tell me about the last time an ordinary object like a cloud or a tree really revealed itself to you and blew your mind, like it was the first time you’d seen it?
Well, I have a contrary story that was really amazing. My girlfriend and I have a great apartment in Brooklyn, and every so often we’ll be visited by some beautiful doves on our fire escape. We have some really nice views of nature and, for large periods of the year, there are beautiful trees that bloom outside our window, so there’s a lot to be thankful for. But it also is New York, and half of our apartment looks out on a pretty empty alley with concrete flooring. It’s kind of like the New York you’re talking about.
There was one night where the sun was setting and we saw something kind of gracefully hovering in the alleyway. My girlfriend pointed it out to me and was like, “Look outside!” I looked, and I think she thought it was a bird, but that she didn’t look at it closely, so it was actually just a black deli bag floating really gracefully that was caught up in the wind tunnel of the alley. I burst out laughing and was really giving her a hard time for it. She was like, “We’ve got to appreciate the nature out here!”
If you just hear intense, extreme noise in a vacuum, you don’t fully appreciate what it is and how it punctures stillness. It’s about using it in a way that harnesses more of its potential.
So, I recently began commuting every day to Manhattan, and it made me think about how the human brain is suited to living in a metropolis versus the sticks. It’s a cliché that New York is “fast-paced,” but I think that rings true as to what we’re equipped to handle mentally as human beings. Any thoughts on how our environments rewire our minds in that sense?
I think about that all the time. I can’t remember a day going by in New York where that wasn’t crossing my mind. I think that our bodies didn’t adapt to being in totally different cities every day — what I do every day when I’m not here is not that much more natural than what I do when I’m here. But, I think one of the things that sticks out to me the most is the noise level. The noise that we are constantly exposed to in New York City. The train is a prime example, especially being in the Union Square subway station with screechy rails and everything. A friend of mine, who just had a kid, has a decibel reader on his phone and it was up to 97 or 98 decibels when the train rolled up each time. It’s all high frequency and ear-splitting.
I’ve been influenced by the late-‘60s movement in jazz where the music became more turbulent. John Coltrane’s later period, for example, has really inspired me.
Yeah, that’s another really good example. A lot of that stuff, even now when I listen to it, I can hear the tension in it and the power of sound that’s harnessed in it. You can only imagine what the impact would have been when you had never heard sounds like that, you know what I mean? Nowadays, we’re saturated with so much loud, intense mechanical noise that you never know how shocking that would have been at the time that Coltrane and Hendrix did that. I think a lot about that and how one might achieve something that breaks out of the kind of noise we’re inundated with now in the same way that would have in those times.
Back then, I think it was really new to put noise in what was essentially pop music. But it’s interesting you mentioned both Hendrix and Coltrane — weren’t they both somewhat responding to the horrors of Vietnam in that noise? Wasn’t it supposed to replicate the sound of mortar fire dropping?
Yeah, as for Hendrix, but for Coltrane, it was actually what was happening right here. The song “Alabama,” for example, was a response to the black church bombing that had happened immediately prior to that coming out. I think the civil rights movement and that late-‘60s jazz movement were very closely intertwined as well. As for music’s power to express more than what is harmonious with the activity we’re doing at the moment, you’d be hard-pressed to find two examples of people who, in a very essentially human way, were able to bring consciousness around these issues with sound.
Turn-of-the-century acoustic blues led to electrified Chicago blues, which led to rock & roll, then ’60s British blues, then punk and heavy metal, then black metal, then harsh noise wall and power electronics. Do you think we’ve hit the wall of how extreme, intense and noisy music can be?
Maybe, but I also think the thing that is left to do more of has to do with contrasts. If you just hear intense, extreme noise in a vacuum, you don’t fully appreciate what it is and how it punctures stillness. It’s about using it in a way that harnesses more of its potential, and Ben Frost was someone who changed my life in the way they did that. You should find the song “Killshot.” I’ve never heard so much meticulous organization and control of the most insane noise. It definitely changed the way I play the guitar, and in terms of finding the modern-day equivalent of how Hendrix controlled feedback and how Coltrane could make the sound fray and come back together again. Ben Frost is doing something like that with noise where he’s able to harness it, rather than let it all hang out.
Yeah. There was definitely a progression to that, though. Listening to Live in Seattle versus “Body and Soul,” which is a beautiful ballad recorded later than “Naima,” it’s really interesting how he is pulling the same tension-based language and playing something that’s so essentially beautiful, at the core of humanity. It feels so true. No matter how many notes he plays — and this sounds like such a cliché — but with one note, he can totally destroy you and go straight through your chest. I’ll never cease to be amazed by that.
It’s what I imagine what religious people talk about regarding prophets, people who are charged with this message. It’s easy to think of these people as superhuman folks, but a lot of the religious narratives talk about how difficult it was for these people to try to grapple with that sort of responsibility, who feel utterly unworthy or unready to be accepted for who they were. And Coltrane has that sort of godlike status. He’s remembered and sort of deified. You know, there’s the Church of St. John Coltrane. Some of his songs remind me of searching and breaking through.
Yeah, and wasn’t Coltrane kind of struggling before his most celebrated work? I remember reading stories about his early jazz career, where he showed up loaded on Miles Davis’ bandstand and Miles punched him in the lip and fired him. Then he kicks heroin and alcohol and has a spiritual breakthrough that led to his most frighteningly advanced work.
But I know he also studied Eastern philosophy. I used to study that stuff a lot, and one thing that always kind of haunted me was the idea of the erasure between an object and the space that it occupies. For instance, I’m sitting here in a chair in my office, but the Vedantic thinkers might say there’s no difference between me, the chair and the room. I don’t know if I really buy that, but it haunts me sometimes. Have you ever thought that way?
There’s certainly something to the idea that there aren’t any boundaries, and on some level, that’s true. The idea that everything is connected is literally true. That actually inspired one of the tracks on my record, “The Overview Effect.” It itself was inspired by a video on Vimeo called Overview, which is a series of interviews with astronauts in space. The title is used to describe what you’d feel when you see the earth from outer space, to see how tiny and vulnerable and interconnected everything is. So, one of the pieces on the new record is sort of an ode to that idea, and also meant to be a flyover of the planet in terms of its form and how it progresses.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: March 26, 2018
Total questions: 8 + 15
Word count: 3156
Reading time: Eleven minutes
agitation, amnesia, anonymity, Ben Frost, bully, chastity, Chicago, circularity, compass, composition, concrete, conduit, connection, country, culture, deli, delicacy, destabilization, disconnection, east, example, force, guitar, harness, information, intelligence, jazz, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Manhattan, mechanical, meekness, memory, music, New York, noise, north, northeast, northwest, olfaction, overview, potential, production, puncture, Rafiq Bhatia, reconciliation, schoolyard, sense, Son Lux, south, southeast, southwest, stillness, tension, The Monkees, The Velvet Underground, trigger, vacuum, Vedanta, west
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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