In my not-so-humble opinion, Faith And The Muse is the greatest Goth band ever. However, the dynamic duo of Monica Richards and William Faith would not want to be pigeonholed that way. Over the years they have combined Celtic, African, ethereal, new wave, death rock and other influences into an eclectic musical melange that transcends genre barriers even as it has captivated myriads of dark music minions inhabiting North America and Europe.
Since forming in 1993 — they met when she was singing for Strange Boutique and he was playing guitar for Shadow Project — the twosome has produced five studio albums and a double-CD rarities compilation. Their latest offering, the fantastic ankoku butoh, incorporates Japanese Taiko drumming into an album that is angry, edgy and often atmospheric, with lyrics culled from Japanese folklore and horror stories. It comes gorgeously packaged with a book and bonus DVD of videos and live performances. This isn’t a collection to download; you’ll want to own it. It made #2 on my Top 10 albums for 2009.
Prior to their current North American tour, I chatted with vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Richards and Faith for two hours on a wide range of subjects, from music to politics to permaculture. Faith And The Muse had been on a five-year hiatus (although its core duo was still married and collaborating), during which Richards worked on her solo album InfraWarrior and the comic book series Anafae, while Faith revisited his anarcho-punk roots with the politically-minded Anima Mundi project. But they are back together in this configuration, ready to roar once more, waging their war for peace and sanity with a heady sonic brew both on album and in concert.
(Part Two can be found here.)
The ’90s revival has begun, which means a lot of the great underground music from then — the cool Goth, industrial and ambient sounds that quietly flourished — could start bubbling under again. It’s been several years since you put out an album and toured, and you recently played shows in Europe. What’s the musical climate like over there for dark music?
Monica Richards: People are very, very hungry [for live bands]. They’re very sick of EBM.
William Faith: That’s the thing we noticed the most, the polarization [that started] in ’99 where you were either in with VNV Nation and Apoptygma Berzerk, or you liked these bands there were doing this sort of early ’80s death rock revival sound. So you were either rifling through old record bins or listening to new bands that were aping that sound, and we didn’t have an interest in either. It was kind of a dry time for us. Because this stuff has gone on for a while, and because we diverted to other avenues, coming back now the reaction was absolutely amazing. We couldn’t have asked for anything better. Everyone was so tired and really vocal about not wanting to see any two-man laptop bands.
I was tired of that back in the ’90s.
William Faith: Right, right. But it got so much worse. In the ’90s you still had bands like us and Switchblade Symphony, who even though they were electronic, was a full band. You had live drums and guitars and people doing different things. Speaking strictly for the whole Goth-Industrial-EBM thing, pretty much from 2000 up through now it’s been this real electro-centric thing where the performance aspect was largely limited to vocals, and to be perfectly honest a lot of people [were] miming keyboards. So when we brought out the string quartet and an actual Taiko player and this entire stage show, the reaction was amazing. Admittedly, in terms of crowds, we weren’t experiencing what we had at our peak in the late ’90s, but at the same time we’ve been gone for six years, which is two lifetimes in this industry. Coming back through, it was nice to see the reaction that we had and build on that, and this last tour enabled so much of what we’re going to go on and do.
On this album you were inspired and influenced by Japanese Butoh dancing, Taiko drums and J-Horror, and I’ve been exposed to all of those things throughout the last 12 years. I find it funny that you brought all of those things together on one album.
William Faith: I think that’s what any artist worth their salt does — takes all the cool stuff they love and finds a way to express it.
You’ve gone the Celtic route before and used African percussion. What brought about this obsession with Japanese culture?
William Faith: I suppose it is just one of these things that lined up for us.
Monica Richards: I think it just clicked at the right time.
William Faith: It was an observation on what we had already been doing. We felt like the Japanese really carried the torch in terms of horror. The films were far more dense and intriguing and infinitely creepier than a lot of the standard Hollywood fare that we were being fed. The stories had ancient undercurrents that Monica will comment on, so we had already been down that road and had been enjoying a lot of the J-Horror stuff. When it came to the music, we were wanting to do something different, and because of the anger we’ve been feeling with the world that we live in and the political climate, we had this angry undercurrent that we wanted to express. So this more martial, warlike sound that came from the Taiko — and we had both been into Kodo for many years — it just hit right on the mark. Looking at the warrior culture Japan, for me specifically, was something that was fascinating, and I thought that in this real undisciplined, care-free, me-centric kind of age that these Japanese Bushido concepts of loyalty, honor and discipline were largely missing, so I hooked onto that. And Monica had discovered Butoh and hooked into the old, traditional Japanese ghost stories.
Monica Richards: I’ve spent so many years researching my own heritage, which is Welsh-Celtic. If you go into the oral tales, the stories that come from the matriarchal age, you find that these are ancient because usually the beginnings of them have a woman who is inexplicably pregnant. That’s usually the sign of an ancient oral tale because this is pre-knowledge of patriarchy. When you look in the Japanese folk tales the same beginnings are there. That really clicked with me because I have so much knowledge of goddess tales, and these Japanese tales are almost the exact same stories except that they’re based in Japan. I’m still trying to figure out how. Obviously we have a human heritage of storytelling, and I’m try to figure out if it’s because it’s just primal human that these tales are set at water sources — wells, lakes, streams — and in these tales a beautiful woman usually comes, usually has a secret, and as long as the husband honors the secret or honors her, everything is fine. But as soon as he doesn’t, suddenly the storm breaks. These tales are across the world almost, so it just clicked with me the more I began reading the Japanese tales. Even the pattern work, just like Celtic knotwork, is all based on nature — based on leaves, based on flowers, based on medicine and remedies.
William Faith: And the Shinto thing playing in.
Monica Richards: For me it was opening the door to yet another world, even though it is kind of the same world for me as far as researching folklore and mythology. It was great to see that this world is strong in Japan, even now.
I recently bought the book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn, which was the basis for the famous, Oscar-nominated Japanese horror anthology film Kwaidan that came out in 1965.
William Faith: That’s one of our absolute favorites and a big inspiration.
Do you think that perhaps Japanese horror resonates with people because it’s more metaphysical than physical? That it is about finding horror within yourself and your connection with the world as opposed to someone with a knife chasing you or demons coming up from the bowels of hell?
Monica Richards: I think so. Also, because within the horror there is something ancient, I think it really hits our primal brain. It constantly goes back to if you’ve disrespected a woman or disrespected your ancestors or disrespected nature through industrialization, now there’s hell to pay. I think this is such an ancient theme that it hits people in the gut because they know they’ve heard it before, but they don’t know how or where.
William Faith: It’s something elemental. It’s beyond the physical. As you were saying yourself, there is something to that. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams is another one of our favorites. The Peach Orchard is a classic tale that hits on that same mark.
Monica Richards: It speaks to the child which all of us have within our hearts, that child that used to revere nature and to question why do adults do this and that. It could be the death of a pet. It could be the fact that the forest next to your house has been cut down. So it speaks to those wounds that you got as a child, and we all have.
Hollywood has needlessly remade so many of these films.
Monica Richards: They remake a lot of J-Horror but always mess up the plot, and it doesn’t make sense.
William Faith: The American version of The Ring was so convoluted. Once I saw Ringu, it was like, “Oh my God, this is what this was meant to be!” They had added this entire, additional, unnecessary subplot.
Which is very Hollywood. However, I thought the ending of The Ring was much more dramatic in the American version.
William Faith: Sure, sure. Visually, once you get Industrial Light & Magic on deck, the effects that we’re able to produce here are usually stunning. But for every gorgeous film you have… I mean, The Cell is the most beautiful piece of shit that I’ve ever seen.
Going from metaphysical to physical, Taiko drumming is obviously very intense and tiring. After watching Kodo perform, I imagine they’re completely wasted by exerting so much physical energy on stage. How difficult was that to bring to this album, and how therapeutic was when you were doing it? There’s a clear undercurrent of anger on this record.
William Faith: It was therapeutic and emboldening at the same time because it is a very martial discipline. I studied with a sensei here in Los Angeles for a while, and as with any instrument I’ve learned for any purpose, I always learn the basic technique, a little bit of the culture and history about it and spend a little time getting to know it in its proper context, be it historical or simply musical. Then I’ll almost always break away after a short period of time and take it and do my own thing with it. In this situation it was amazing because it took a little bit longer to find my feet on the instrument because there were specifics about it that really set it apart from other things, even drums and percussion where I spend a great deal of time. Just the fact that you cannot muscle a Taiko drum to get it louder or to get it to sing properly — it’s really in the wrist. You can hit that thing as hard as you want, but you’re not going to get it any louder than if you use the right flick of the wrist. Learning just that specific technique in and of itself took some time, along with the proper stance, and then building up physical stamina was another matter entirely. To say nothing of the amazing blisters that come with it. It took some time to get it where I wanted, and once I did acquire the basic technique, physical stamina was another matter, building it up to where I needed to go, especially on things like “Battle Hymn” where it has 16th note rolls all the way through the song. Then doing that all in one take. I was really trying to be performance-based about it, rather than cutting and pasting like so many people do these days.
So this was very much a live record then?
William Faith: I very much tried to keep it that way.
Monica Richards: Oh yeah. I got to be the engineer for when William did the drums for “She Waits By The Well,” and I can’t even tell you what it was like to be there while he just did track by track by track of all the drums. It was amazing.
William Faith: It was great fun to do. Was it therapeutic? Absolutely. [laughs] I was able to work out a lot of stuff, and I think you can hear it in certain ways. But at the same time it was also really empowering and impassioning — you come out spent but energized in a different way for having been able to express that idea and energy. And then live being able to hand it off to Julia Cooke, who does it for us live — she’s been studying for some time at the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, which is one of the most prestigious Taiko dojos in the country. She is just amazing, and the way that transfers live is fantastic. Her form is infinitely better than mine could ever be. It was amazing to me that we were able to get someone who not only excelled on the instrument but at the same time understood our history and was part of it. She saw us for the first time in 1994. It was one of those perfect connections.
Monica Richards: I have to say that I get to stand by the side of the stage when you guys play Bushido. We also have Steven James and Marzia Rangel doing Taiko for that, and it’s like watching a punk rock tribe because they all shout at the same time, and the form is gorgeous. It’s just amazing.
Despite being antiwar liberals, you’re choosing very martial, warlike music to express your frustrations on this album. You’re clearly against what the sounds imply, but you’re using that as a rallying cry to get your message across.
William Faith: Absolutely. The juxtaposition is not beyond us. If anything, there is a war for sanity, a war for peace. It really is a time where we find ourselves pitted against these prevailing mentalities. Using an old Noam Chomsky quote that I love — if 99% of the data that you have points toward absolute human extinction and only 1% points at a chance for life, you go with that 1% because that’s all you have. In this situation, we’re underlying what we feels matters to us and what we think is important, and we’re presenting it in a very passionate way because we are very passionate about it and do feel this polarization occurring. We’re saying that this is what we believe, this is who we are and this is how the world can be.
Monica Richards: The world could easily end in a holy war. That’s not how species survive.
Part Two: The importance of music, permaculture and principles in the world of Faith And The Muse.