The War on Control: An Interview with Cult of Youth's Sean Ragon
Stream the new Cult of Youth track too!
“The music I would say is interesting, but I think that the band's importance lies more in the ideas behind it and the way that we engage with people,” says Sean Ragon, the mind behind Cult of Youth. They will soon release their third LP on Sacred Bones Records, their magnum opus thus far. Ragon describes Final Days as rock n' roll rather than neofolk, a genre in which they are more often classified.
I got to know Ragon at Heaven Street Records, the record shop and back room recording studio that he owns, which has recently become a hub for much of North Brooklyn's underground music scene. At Heaven Street I have learned more about noise, industrial and electronic music than I ever could have disappearing down some Blogspot or Soundcloud hole. Chalk it up as another example of the enduring importance of physical spaces for physical music.
I also had the pleasure of recording a yet to be released EP with one of my punk bands at Heaven Street. Being a definitively unserious band, some might even say a joke band, it was encouraging to hear him cackling in the control room while we engaged in our typical sophomoric nonsense that few in the New York punk scene ever appreciated as much as we do.
This interview was conducted over Skype while Ragon was on his honeymoon in Berlin (talk about dedication). We discuss getting the shit beat out of you, being perceived as a fascist, and the importance of Throbbing Gristle, among other things. Cult of Youth's Final Days is out Nov. 11, 2014, and you can stream it's closing track “Roses” below.
Like your other recordings there is definitely a lot going on on this album. Can you tell me a little bit about the writing and recording process for Final Days?
This one, fuck I don’t know how to describe it. This was a difficult record to make. What the title even implies is I just sort of had this feeling like I was fucked. Like I was about to die. There was this feeling of despair that was always about me. This feeling like I don’t have long left. I couldn’t shake it. I would be waking up at night with nightmares just feeling frightened. I couldn’t even walk in a cemetery because it frightened me, the way it reminded me of my own mortality. I started buying lots of human bones and things like that and keeping them close to me, and just doing some weird stuff. I was in a very strange place emotionally and the record I think is a response to that. I certainly exercised a lot of possible demons from myself in the process. And in a weird way I think that my life changed a lot after the record was finished. Almost immediately after, I went through a big period of change, and a feeling of what death actually represents.
Where do you think those feelings came from?
I have absolutely no fucking clue. I don’t control that shit, it just comes to me and that’s just where I was.
Was it a sudden thing? Or something that came on over time?
I became increasingly paranoid and frightened of pretty much everything and had just gotten very dark within myself. I don’t know why, maybe I’d been working too much [laughs]. The shop is grinding me down, who knows [laughs]. I feel a lot better. I went through a lot of shit. A few days after I finished the record, I got beaten real bad in an altercation with four dudes. I got stomped out badly. I got stomped in the head, stomped in the ribs, and they fucked up my legs real bad and shattered my bones in a few places and tore my ACL. I had to get major surgery, and I still can’t walk quite right, and I’ve got metal in my leg now. There’s a lot of things I can’t do. Today, even, just when I was sightseeing I had to stop and sit down because I can’t walk for long periods. I can’t climb stairs. I can’t bend my legs all the way. It’s fucked.
And that really was a big change, getting used to that, spending months on crutches and canes and just trying to rehabilitate myself and get back to just being normal. That changed me on a deep level, just experiencing that. It also gave me a lot more empathy for people that I know that are living with disabilities because it put me in those shoes, even just temporarily. There’s stuff I’m gonna carry with me for the rest of my life from this, but it’s not that bad, I can get around. Whereas I know some people who can’t do that. So it put me outside of myself quite a bit, and whatever dark shit I was going through spiritually or emotionally, in a weird way it almost took some dramatic event to shake me out of it and be like, no, it’s not so bad because you had your health, you had this, this and this. And I also got married. That’s a big step in one’s life. I feel like I got put through the ringer and now I’m just on the good, positive end of things and happy to have gotten this record out. it was certainly the one that needed to get made but it didn't come from an easy place to go through.
So what does that mean? The next record is called “Redemption Days,” or “Happy Days” or something? Where do you go from here?
Maybe there won’t be another record. I have no idea. This is the one that I’m proud of. In the past, I could look back on things I’ve recorded before and I’d say about fifty percent of it I don’t like. About maybe thirty percent of it is tolerable, and then about twenty percent of it is exceptional, you know? I’m a very harsh critic on myself. Whereas this I feel very proud of. I feel very strongly about this. Every element of this is exactly what I want it to be. So it causes me to question. Maybe don’t do something after this. Do something else, you know? If it seems appropriate I absolutely will but if it doesn't seem appropriate then don’t, because there’s no need to extend a project beyond its usefulness. We certainly are gonna tour on the record and see how that goes.
What was it like being in the studio? How do you talk about the music that you’re playing on this record?
Well it took about a year and a half to track the fucking thing. Our drummer Cory lives in the midwest so he wasn’t always available to be in town. He would come in, he teaches drum clinics sometimes in New York. Sometimes we would fly him in. So we’d put that into these sort of chunks where we’d work on it really hard. But the rest of it it was gradual. We did bass, guitars, acoustic guitars.
And then, one of the best things that ever fucking happened was I asked my friend Paige, who we had played together with in this band Future Blondes, I had no idea she played the cello. And one day she just shows up to this fucking show playing a cello through effect pedals. And I was like oh my god, we need you in this band, we needed this other element. She came in and her and I sat in the studio over the course of a few days and we just basically wrote the parts in the studio. She had listened to the songs and she had come up with some parts ahead of time, but a lot of it was us just making a ton of tracks. It added this textural element that was just really needed and really made the record special. On top of it there were a lot of field recordings and private recordings that I had made, and sort of textural things that I put in the background that I think are really important.
The last record sounded sort of sterile. It was just very clean. It was like I was afraid to have it be more noisy or rough around the edges. This record is a little more sloppy but I think it’s a better record for it. I took the recorder on my phone to all these different places and captured the sounds of this environment while this thing is happening, while this thing is happening, etc. And in the backgrounds of songs I just made sounds. Sounds of places and things, and places that people are in, so it’s like that person’s energy is on the record even though they didn't necessarily play on the record.
One night when I was with my old roommate, we were out, and we broke into this construction site down by the water, down past the end of BQE. We were just out there and just let the field recorder run. It was just the sounds of cars going above us, and the sound of being in this abandoned lot. We put that in the background of one of the songs, you can’t really hear it, but it gives a texture to it. That night is on the record now. So lots of these little snapshots of different experiences have their place. I think that’s important. Moments of my life are there.
Do you take a lot of field recordings?
I do now. I didn’t used to.
What prompted you to start doing that?
I was working with Luke, who does the project Helm. He was recording in my studio and I had a conversation with him where he really inspired me. We were talking about things, and I was getting an insight into his creative process, which is very different from mine. He said something about having the confidence to just let something run. I never really thought about that in that kind of way.
A lot of my song writing is just like, play this part, play this part, play this part. I think that's because I come from a punk background. For whatever reason, it’s not even necessarily that deep of a thing that he said, but it was just the right moment to hear that thing. Especially when we were working on a record that was so different from anything that I would make. It switched my shit up. And I’m like, wait, well what happens if between this song and that song we just take this fucking field recording of me and my buddy just doing nothing, with the wind, and just play it for two minutes.
Who gives a fuck? Put that on the record. Give it some space. Give it room to breathe. Treat it a little bit differently, don’t be so – it’s almost like a nervous energy that I have. Just draw it out more. Give it more atmosphere.
Contextualize Cult of Youth for me. Tell me about the genre that Cult of Youth is or what scene Cult of Youth is a part of.
It seems like we don’t fit neatly into any genre. From city to city and country to country we draw from a very diverse type of audience, which I really value. I don’t think that we can necessarily get put in a box and say it’s this kind of band or that kind of band. I don’t want to be some sort of snob and be like, it’s punk influenced post neofolk. I don’t fucking know, man. We’re just a rock band at this point. Like psychedelic rock or something.
The music, I would say, is interesting but I think that the band's importance lies more in the ideas behind it and the way that we engage with people than it actually does in the way that it sounds. I think that the real heart and soul of the band is when we go out and tour and we engage people on a human level. I think a lot of people do have a ton of misconceptions about the band, coming from all angles – the political, or religious, or whatever fucking spectrum. I think that they don’t actually get what we’re about until they actually sit down and meet us. Some people are pleasantly surprised, some people are disappointed [laughs]. The band certainly comes off more pretentious on record than it does in person.
What are some of those misconceptions that people have about your band?
Oh, there’s tons of fucking misconceptions. If you type Cult of Youth into google, one of the words that auto-fills in is Nazi. And it’s just like, really? I think it’s just cultural affiliation. When the band started it was more of a generic sort of neofolk sound. Just because it was a bedroom thing that I was doing. I didn’t think that it would leave my bedroom. I liked a lot of these bands, and I was just like oh, cool, I’m gonna make a bedroom neofolk record because I hated everything that was going on musically around me at the time. It was just bad garage rock and third rate power pop and whatever else was going on in New York at the time. In all fairness, I love power pop and garage rock, but it was a weird scene.
I wanted something different. That genre carries the baggage. I get that. And very quickly, I realized that although it’s maybe cool and mysterious to flirt with certain imagery or certain things like that, at the same time, if you really want to reach people through music and really wanna have some kind of impact or influence you also have to have a sense of social responsibility. Part of that sense of responsibility is to put shit out there that you believe in. Don’t just do some ironic shit or some stuff that’s like, spooky, or intentionally alienating. No, put it out there, put your heart out there, you know? And if you look at the lineage of where neofolk music comes from, it all goes back to industrial music.
The root of everything is Throbbing Gristle. And the purpose of Throbbing Gristle was, in my opinion, an attack on control mechanisms. So the process with which that band attacks the control mechanisms is it’s like, let’s put some shit out there that you know exactly how the fuck you feel about. Nazis. Obviously bad. Serial killers. Obviously bad. Sexual deviancy, rape, you know. Maniacal problems, just stuff that you know exactly how you feel about them, that there’s no questions about. Then let's fucking shine bright lights in your face and play these fucked up sounds and then present it purely with no bias, no opinion on it, but just as information, and shock you with that information. But with the stimulation of the lights and the sounds to sort of fucking distract you, and almost hypnotize you. So maybe you don’t know how you feel about these things anymore. It’s almost like a de-programming of how you feel about very obvious subjects. I think that the purpose of that is not that you come away from that being like, oh I went to see Throbbing Gristle and now I think that Nazis and serial killers are cool. But it’s like, I went to go see Throbbing Gristle and I’m fucking confused. If they can confuse me on some shit that’s real black and white, maybe the way I feel about things that are not as black and white, maybe that’s a little more subjective, maybe I need to analyze my own life, maybe I need to analyze my own relationship with control mechanisms within my life. If you see what I’m saying.
Any genre you get copycat bands, you get people that take that imagery. Then you have bands like Whitehouse and Consumer Electronics that took it from a different perspective that was almost more punk. They were just like fuck you, we’re just gonna fucking yell at you, then go [makes noise music beep with mouth], and yell, you little cunt! And that’s great too. The culture sort of progressed, but there was always that sort of ailment within the culture. And so obviously bands like Death in June and Sol Invictus and stuff like that, they’re actually coming more from a punk and a post-punk lineage.
And I think over the years there’s been a lot of misunderstandings, but there’s also some shit that is pretty straight up. There are bands out there that are not being artistic with it. There are bands that are straight up Nazi bands too. So it’s complicated, it's complex. But I think that within the industrial scene and the post-industrial scene, I think that there is more room for people with different viewpoints. I’ve been to shows in that world where there’s far left people and far right people in the same room and they’re enjoying a show and they’re not fighting with each other. Whereas you wouldn’t have that in rock circles. In rock circles, people are very like, this is my belief, and I’m gonna fucking make you have the same belief as me or else you’re not welcome here. It’s just a different community and a different world, so I think that when people come from a rock background or they're ignorant of the history of that culture, they try to put this black and white spin on something that’s a little more complex. I don’t know how much that says about us, rather than a cultural thesis or something, but hopefully it sheds some light on it. The purpose of the band is the same sort of purpose that I described, that I believe Throbbing Gristle was. An an attack on control mechanisms and an idea of personal liberation or personal rising from something that’s bad and making something good out of it. And that’s the purpose of my own creative process. I use it to get through that stuff. And hopefully it can help other people. I've met people that have said that is has helped them. So that’s that.
What do you think those control mechanisms are now?
There’s no one thing that’s a control mechanism for everybody. Every person’s situation is different and one thing that might be liberating for one person might be really imprisoning for another person. I'm not gonna be like, it’s the banks! I don’t know. Maybe some guy gets a loan from a bank and does something really cool with it. You can’t put black and white on things. I would say the biggest control mechanism is being close-minded, and it’s internal. The biggest control mechanism is the human ego and what I would describe as the reptile portion of the human brain, the part that denies human beings the capabilities for better things, the part of the brain that keeps people trapped and doing the same thing all the time and thinking about things in the same way. It almost doesn’t even matter. Even if somebody thinks they know exactly what the right thing is, and they just feel completely morally just in whatever the fuck they think, and it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s still good to weigh other options and think about different things. Even if going through that process you say, you know what, that just reaffirmed what I originally thought. It’s like, great, but at least you explored the possibility that there might be more out there.
People have really strong identities of themselves these days, and they just congregate through the internet or whatever else with other people that have the same thoughts as them. And they just talk in circles and build each other up into this fucking angry frenzy. It’s really weird. It happens in particular in liberal circles. People get real fucking angry about social issues that are supposed to be empowering for people. And it’s like, why are you getting angry for the sake of positivity? It doesn’t make sense. It’s so fucking backwards. You should be positive about positivity, you shouldn't be, like, attacking people that aren’t thinking. It’s just weird. We live in a weird world. That's why I feel so blessed and so privileged to be able to travel. In a few months we’re getting flown to Russia to play a show. That’s crazy. I never thought I’d play a show in Russia. I never thought I’d get to go somewhere and meet people from there and experience something so foreign and so different from where I come from. That is such a privilege and that’s so special. And I think that’s the purpose of all of this. The purpose of art, and music is a type of art, is to experience more of the world and to transgress your humble beginnings. To get more out of the world you live in. And hopefully share that with others in some way or another.
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