Arrington De Dionyso has been an active psychopomp of the American experimental underground since 1997, when he began the popular K Records group Old Time Relijun. Since then, he has donned and discarded many different mantles: reluctant spiritual Godfather to a bunch of colorful hyfy basement dwelling youngsters, to his Shamanic James Brown persona he adopts to front his current band, Malaikat Dan Singa. His music runs the gamut from fritzed out Fire Jazz to lo-fi jaw-harp experimentation to Trance Panic No Wave. There’s a little something for everybody.
In this interview, the conversation ranges as far as his musical tastes. We discussed World Music and Rainbow Metal; skull candles and the void. Arrington is humble but passionate about the topics he is interested in. He is a fount of wisdom and knowledge about a wide pedigree of esoteric folk music, but speaks in a down-to-earth manner that is easy to extract information from. It was only my second real interview, and he put me immediately at ease, allowing a wild sprawling conversation to occur.
Since this interview, Arrington has flown to Paris to open for the legendary Dutch anarchist group The Ex, playing with the equally legendary Ethiopian saxophonist Getachew Mekurya, before touring Europe for a month. I’ve seen him play a half-a-dozen times in the elapsed time, from sweaty nightclubs to a vacuous art gallery – he’s as complex as his music, with a wide variety of tricks up his rainbowed sleeves. A testament to the hidden but vibrant experimental community of the American Pacific Northwest.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you end up getting into Mongolian/Tuvan music?
Arrington: I have always experimented with my voice. When I was really, really young – being a Stars Wars fanatic at 3 years old, I did my own fantasy version of all the different characters. So I made a Darth Vader noise, and a Chewbacca noise, light saber noises… all that kind of stuff. One of the sound effects that I made was khagaria throat singing (does a Mongolian Darth Vader impersonation); that was how I did a Darth Vader voice. By vibrating the vocal folds in the back of the throat, you get to that same sound. I was always making imitations of animal sounds, and motor sounds, and spaceships, and dragons; that kind of stuff.
I think I was getting into Blues, like Howlin’ Wolf, some of those kind of singers, I think I was getting into that kind of stuff before I heard throat-singing for the first time. And then I heard throat singing on the radio, NPR did a little special about it in probably like 1990. So, in 1990 I was 15, and I heard it on the radio and was like “Well, that sounds kind of lot like that thing I used to do when I was a kid, when I was making spaceship noises”. So I just put it together, and to me it sounded like this sort of Shamanistic vocal sound. Back at that point, there was no internet, you couldn’t really research stuff like that very easily. So I had to look through the backs of books about World Music, and try to find references to throat singing, and there weren’t any books about it back then, at least not in English. So I had to do a lot of research about it on my own, and there wasn’t a lot of information about it back then. Whatever I could listen to, I’d find a way to make sense out of it.
Chain D.L.K.: So you were probably listening to music from all over the map at that point?
Arrington: Before that, I was listening to music from all over the world. Where I grew up, I was pretty isolated from any “Music Scene”… there was a very specific “skater punk/hardcore punk” scene. I went to shows ‘cuz I was into that kind of energy but the music wasn’t really all that interesting. So I just would listen to records from all over Africa, Asia, Indonesia, Native American music… there just weren’t records of throat singing back then. It had been like a Soviet thing. So when that stuff started coming out in America, it was sort of a big deal. I met Huun-Huur-Tu in 1995, and at that point I’d been really heavily into throat singing for a couple of years. I ran up to them back stage and sang for them and they were like “Wow! We’ve met Americans who’ve tried to do it before, but you’re the best American throat singer we’ve ever heard. You must be a reincarnated Tuvan”. They’d only been on tour a few times, they probably hadn’t met that many. Nowadays, there’s lots of people who try to do it. Back then, I was one of the only ones…
Chain D.L.K.: That was around 1995, you said?
Arrington: 1993/1994/1995, I was heavily into it. I was doing it every day, any chance I had I was practicing, trying to build skill. And then, incorporating that into my music I was making, not doing Mongolian music but using that vocal technique. People like Paul Pena, (subject of the 1999 documentary about Tuvan throat singing, Genghis Blues), do it in that Blues way, but I wasn’t… I guess I have my own opinion on it.
Chain D.L.K.: You try to keep it more traditional?
Arrington: There’s something about… I’ve heard some other people who sort of do it like “throat- singing-and-Delta-Blues-combined” and it always comes across as kind of hokey.
Chain D.L.K.: I know what you mean. It’s like those “Blues Fusion” records…
Arrington: Just make the music you want to make, I guess, but it it’s this weird pastiche. Sometimes you see people come up on stage, and they’ve got this Mongolian shepherd costume on, and its like “Dude, why the fuck do you have to dress like that? What do you even know about that shit?” I’ve never made any claim to be performing Mongolian music or Tuvan music. I don’t even consider what I’m doing to have that… It has no more or less reference point than, let’s say there’s some dude in Japan who wants to play sitar in his rock band. That’s not Indian music! Let’s say there’s some dude in Costa Rica who takes up digeridoo; they’re not playing Australian music! Someone in Russia wants to play Ukulele, they’re not playing Hawaiian music. You can use tools. A Tibetan monk could be using a MacBook to download their scriptures from a database. It’s just a tool. You can use your voice any way you want to.
Arrington: You have to be careful with that. There have been a few occasions where I’ve really been able to perform in what I consider the “proper” context for a ritual/ceremonial event, and I say proper in quotation marks. Like tonight, we’re playing in this lounge, bar, kind of club. This is a business that is established to be a gathering place where people will purchase and consume alcohol. Maybe forget about their troubles at work and let loose for a couple of hours. We could draw a connection between this kind of commercial establishment and this ancient, archetypal notion of gathering with your brethren and consuming a sacred beverage and reaching a transcendent hallucinatory Shamanistic place where you’re gazing into the void. But most people coming to this kind of venue aren’t reaching for that kind of illumination. If in some way our rock’n’roll performance in a bar… we might draw some tenuous archetypal connection between 21st century bar culture and reaching towards transcendent, illuminated, enlightened kind of ritual context. We can draw that parallel, but it’s weak. Now, I’ve done some concerts with Malaikat Dan Singa where we’ve performed with bonfires, or in very intentional art venues, and it’s really cool to have that kind of context set up for you. But I feel like with everything I’m saying, I’m kind of backtracking a little bit. If there’s something in the music itself that we can somehow transmit that will carry over no matter what kind of venue we’re playing, then I feel really good about that. I feel really good about being able to just communicate that intense… I call it “gazing into the void”. I want to make music that brings you to the very brink of absolute nothingness and absolute infinity and you can’t tell the difference between what’s what and you just gaze into that vast, vast void of nothingness or everything. If someone can show up here on a Friday or Saturday night thinking “I’m gonna hang out with my buddies and have a couple of beers! I heard there’s some band playing… Molly, Mali, I don’t know what it means. I can’t even pronounce it”. If they can come to that, totally unexpected, and be like “What the fuck was that? That brought me to another place. I went into trance. I started seeing shapes and colors”. If we can bring that to people when they’re not even expecting it, then I think we’re doing a service.
I’m gonna backtrack one more time. It’s 2012; different avenues of Pop Culture have been permeated with this 2012… there’s a lot of futurism, and kind of New Age investigations. You can talk about Ayahuasca, DMT… it can be a very mainstream conversation, ‘cuz a lot of people are talking about that kind of stuff. Every now and then, I’ll see bands that maybe perform in costumes, or light a smudge stick before a concert, or have different projections of coloured lights, and they’ll get really steeped in this ritual vibe. I think, when there’s a choice, as far as Malaikat Dan Singa is concerned, I’d rather present it in a way that still keeps people guessing. You still present yourself as though you’re a rock band, just gonna set up and play some tunes. Because then, when you’re not wearing all kind of fancy leaves and shit in your hair and you’re not doing big face paint, and having bones up on stage and skull candles. If you just show up like you’re just going to do your thing then you can really pull the rug out from under people’s feet and drop them in that chamber of new, expanded consciousness. When you go up with all the lights and gadgets and costumes and things, then its like “O, I get it, its one of THOSE bands!”.
Chain D.L.K.: It’s easily categorizable.
Arrington: I want to keep people guessing a little more. I mean, if a band gets more popular, or if more people show up knowing what to expect, then we might have to change our game to keep it renewed every so often.
Chain D.L.K.: That shouldn’t be a problem with you. You release a lot of different kinds of records.
Arrington: Yeah, there’s a lot of different things happening.
Chain D.L.K.: How would you describe your music to someone who’s never heard your music before?
Arrington: I usually don’t. I’m usually like, “It’s just my band”. But sometimes you have to put something on a website. On the poster, I think it says something like “Trans Utopian Trance Punk” in Indonesian. I mean, it’s all nonsense. Its just a tagline. I’ll say “Utopian Dancehall”. I’ll say, “We play dancehall.” In Indonesia, I’ll say “We play electric jatilan”, because in Indonesia you can say “jatilan” which means… Jatilan is a style that is very roots-oriented, village trance music. It’s not gamelan, it’s not classical music, it’s just this village trance music. They’ve got all kinds of costumes and dancers and they play these really cool rhythms that are like (sings a rhythm) and the dancers go into trance and there’s this whole culture around that. It’s very folksy, in a way. Its like street music or village music; someone might be having a wedding or a birthday party. They’ll be like “My son’s graduating High School. We’re gonna bring the trance music group. They’ll get possessed and go into trance and have this whole thing going on”. So its like electric jatilan, with this intersection with dancehall, this intersection with the Black Metal stuff sometimes, but really more like Rainbow Metal, in a way. Prismatic Metal…
Chain D.L.K.: I’m pretty Rainbow Metal, myself. Would you talk about this most last trip to Indonesia?
Arrington: I was mostly in Java. I was in Bali for a few days; Java, Bali, Lombok Island. I had never been to Indonesia, and it was a lifelong dream to go there. A lot of people were sort of surprised. They were like, “If you’re going to go somewhere around the world, why don’t you go to Tuva?” and it’s like… I don’t know…
Chain D.L.K.: Java would be more fun.
Arrington: Yeah. Java would be more fun. Its not as cold. The first two Malaikat Dan Singa albums had already been out and I was trying to generate, with YouTube and downloads and things, there was a bit of interest. Indonesian people were discovering the band. Some people who were in the different punk scenes, or Metal scenes, in Indonesia, were like “You’re an American. What’s this all about? Are you going to come to Indonesia?” Eventually, I had people say “When you come, man, I want to set up a concert with you” or “If you come, my band wants to play a show with you”. So I was getting a lot of interest, people were writing me, curious about what we were doing. At a certain point, I figured there was enough going on in Indonesia that I could string together some shows and I could get some local musicians to kind of be my band and do some shows out there, and it’d probably be this really amazing thing. It worked out really well. I spent a couple of months raising money. I spent a year getting all the contacts I would need, and figuring out how that would all work logistically. I networked with some arts organizations there, so I’d have places to stay, and I could do art shows AND concerts. There were a couple of places where I did these workshops with art school students. I did two different workshops for singing and voice, with more like High School students. It was an amazing time. It was amazing to get to play with Indonesian musicians. There’s a lot of interest from younger people, who are interested in the more contemporary expression of experimental or noise or improvised music, but they want to see if they can find a uniquely Indonesian approach to those contemporary kinds of dynamics. I had some very meaningful interactions with some musicians … groups that are doing Doom and Black Metal-type music using all traditional instruments or people who are doing this totally crazy freeform breakbeat dubcore, using all samples from gamelan music. Or other groups who are doing really extreme improvised noise, but you can tell they are coming from a deeply Javanese traditional background, yet they want to do it in the 21st century. They want to present something in a really new way. It’s so fascinating to imagine the possibilities. That’s what this project is all about; it’s about imagining possibilities. I was like, “What would I come up with if I were to take dance hall rhythms, weird metallic sounding guitars all in pentatonic tunes, and I sing in Indonesian, but have Krautrock bass lines throbbing through everything. If I just imagine that kind of sound in my mind, why shouldn’t I find a way to actualize that? And I’ll put drones behind it, and raga-influenced Free Jazz bass clarinet. It gets to be so extreme in this imaginative landscape of music that it doesn’t sound like “O, I’m going to combine this, and i’m going to combine this…” It doesn’t sound like that! It sounds like something so uniquely left field, that it’s not just a collage or a pastiche. Its its own imaginary syncretic hybrid of living, breathing, newly actualized form of music. There’s so many things… there’s a dozen different things that you could say, “Well, it sounds a little bit like this, or a little bit like this”, but you can’t say its just a mix of all those different things.
Chain D.L.K.: Earlier you described your music as Black Metal. How so?
Arrington: Well, that’s one of a dozen things or so you could throw out there. I’m not really big into any metal scene. Some of the newer bands, you know that band Liturgy? I’ve been kind of following what they’re about, more in an ideological sense, and I think they’re onto something when they talk about “Transcendent Metal”, in this very William Blake/Walt Whitman way, in this American spirituality influencing this transcendent, boundary pushing way. Transcendent and transgressive. I’m very interested in that kind of thing.
Chain D.L.K.: You just recorded a new album? That just came out?
Arrington: It’s called “Songs Of Psychic Fire vol. 3”.
Chain D.L.K.: Was that recorded in Indonesia also?
Arrington: No, that was recorded on the Equinox, in Olympia. It was inspired by my last tour in Europe, I did a show in Sweden. This very strange location of these ruins of this 4000-year old fortress, at the very top of this steep hill. These rocks came down into a corner, it was almost like a little patio between these giant boulders. They had organized a very unofficial sort of concert; we ran 300 feet of cable to plug the amplifiers in. On that tour I was doing things exclusively with voice and tape echo. It was a really inspiring show. They had a big bonfire going. I was singing and performing, really feeling like I was getting in touch with the spiritual energy of that spot. I was really talking to spirits, more than talking to the audience – there were less than 10 people there. It wasn’t about the audience, it was like “I’m going to sing to these rocks, and the breeze, and the smoke, and the clouds”. When I got back, I wanted to go to the studio RIGHT AWAY and capture the power of what that concert had meant to me. I did it all in one night and released it.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there anything else you feel people should know about your music or what you’re up to?
Arrington: Check out http://arrington.bandcamp.com. I’ve got all those new recordings. I do a lot of recordings with a 1940s-era lathe cutter, and I’ve been releasing a lot of that stuff online. I record directly onto plastic plates, old style record technology. Those recordings have a very unique sound – the way they are recorded is a very trance-inducing process. I go into trance when I make them. When you make them, the records will skip a lot, and you’ll get these really crazy rhythmic surprises. You wouldn’t think of composing it that way, but it happens accidentally and then you get these locked grooves, and you can use that locked groove for the basis of a new song. So I’m getting really deep into these very trance-and-hallucination inducing sounds, just because the repetition is so off-kilter, that your mind goes into pretty far-out places with it. You feel really alive with it, it’s so satisfying. You can listen to it all for free, on Bandcamp. You can also check out my tumblr (http://arringtondedionyso.tumblr.com/); I’ve been active painting a lot, doing a lot of drawings. The artwork is connected with the music in a lot of ways.
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