CHAOS FOR THE NORMAL
"What is all future but resurrection? What is all creation but thyself?" (The Focus of Life, Austin Osman Spare)
Carl McCoy, the frontman and lead singer of Fields of the Nephilim, discusses the life and works of Austin Osman Spare with writer and psychic quester Andrew Collins.
I am not sure what music Austin Osman Spare might have listened to on his radiogram or gramophone player. Yet whether it was classical, jazz blues, or swing, I would like to think that if he were around today then he'd be an admirer of the band Fields of the Nephilim. They made a shock entrance on the gothic rock scene in the late 1980s with a brand of aural pleasure that was inspired not just by magic and the occult, but also by the Watchers and Nephilim of Jewish mystical texts such as the Book of Enoch and Book of Giants. Yet it was the modern-day Nephilim's unforgettable appearance on stage as Wild West drifters in duster coats, covered in white flour made out to be desert dust, that captivated audiences world-wide, projecting them on to notoriety with staggeringly original singles such as Moonchild, Psychonaut, For Her Light and Preacherman. However their albums were more than simply rock concept albums. They were ambient experiences -- soundtracks to movies only in your dreams or nightmares -- that carried a sense of mystique and inner emotion unparalleled in the music industry. It is an attitude that thankfully continues with Mourning Sun, the band's first studio album in nearly a decade. Released earlier this year, it has projected the Nephilim back into the limelight all around the world.
For me, the love affair with Fields of the Nephilim goes back to one night in 1988. I recall watching Top of the Pops and seeing the promo video for Moonchild, which had just entered the Top 30. The snarling jaws of hell-hounds, combined with shimmering scenes in black and white showing shrouded spirits, ritual paraphernalia and occult invocation, left me transfixed. I didn't know who these people were, but felt I needed to listen to their records, find out what made them tick. I became acquainted with the Nephilim's front man and composer Carl McCoy, unquestionably the driving force behind this fascinating musical phenomenon. Carl subsequently read and was impressed by my book The Black Alchemist, released that same year, and since then we have remained friends.
There are a great many influences that have inspired Fields of the Nephilim's mesmeric music, and unique artwork that Carl McCoy and partner Lynn create under the name Sheer Faith. They include the 19th century artist William Blake, magician Aleister Crowley, Elizabethan magus Dr John Dee, the character of Jack the Ripper and, more significant to the occasion, Austin Osman Spare. Indeed Earth Inferno, a Nephilim live album released in 1991, bears the title of Spare's first ever book, published in 1905, as well as cover artwork that is a recreation of Spare's picture The Self's Vision of Enlightenment.
Carl McCoy was born in South London and spent his early years in Brixton, where Spare had his dingy basement studio until his death in a local hospital in 1956. Carl watched his first ever film at a cinema that would one day become the Brixton Academy, and here in 1990 a memorable performance by Fields of the Nephilim went on to feature as the band's live video Visionary Heads, released the following year. Its place of recording prompted him to dedicate it to the memory of Austin Osman Spare, the fulfillment of a passion that had begun many years beforehand.
It is a fact that a great many younger enthusiasts of Spare only became aware of his existence after listening to the music of Fields of the Nephilim, and learning of Carl McCoy's own fascination with the subject. Thus it seems fitting that at such a sensitive time to the memory of Austin Osman Spare we celebrate his achievements by asking Carl his thoughts and feelings on one of the 20th century's great artists and magicians.
"The man was inspired," was Carl's initial response, opening an extremely rare interview with a man who seldom speaks about such personal interests. "He was an inspirationalist, and I feel an affinity with him."
How did this affinity begin?
"I found Spare by chance -- It was mainly through references to William Blake, John Dee, the chaos current and, of course, art."
Was it the art that captivated you, or the man himself?
"Somehow, the symbolism struck. We were of a like mind. His writings and interpretation of evocation were something I understood totally, and there are not many people that I have found who really shine. Spare used a language that is very old -- partly words of phonetic emotions, but more than anything it was his symbolism, which balanced it out to fill in the gaps of what he attempted to explain.
"Spare needed the sigils and the art to come together as a magical language. His style was able to help me in what I did as far as understanding and interpreting the whole current, and the spiritual instinct that surrounds us. He tried to explain that which is not dimensional, and he did it perfectly."
Was there a lot of interest in Spare when you first became aware of him?
"No one was asking questions about him. You grow up and find interests, and Austin Osman Spare was someone that intrigued me. He wasn't someone who I was pushed into liking. Just looking at everything he had put down as hard copy in images, writings, and in books, impressed me. It was one lonely person's interpretation and outlook on life and beyond, a true visionary. For me, it's been a lonely road. I'm okay with that and I think Spare was similar in this way. He found out for himself how to learn by his own experiences. He did not want to become a great poet or celebrity. He simply wanted to express his ideas. What I do is not about becoming a famous rock star, artist or magician. I do it firstly for myself. It was born in me. It's my path. You can't put a label on that, because his expression of existence is as important as anybody else's."
Are you saying that it was through loneliness that Spare achieved his goals?
"No, he was a person that lived a solitary lifestyle. He wasn't lonely because of the whole spiritual entity that surrounded him. He never felt lonely, he didn't need help."
So how do you associate with Spare through his work? Does it inspire what you have done as Sheer Faith?
"I was doing that anyway. I didn't do that and change my direction. Spare existed as a parallel to what I was doing. I understood what he was saying, not just through words, but his suggestion and de-suggestion. The Symbolism he was using encompasses so much. It captures more than just a word or moment."
Did this inspire the cover artwork for Earth Inferno?
"That was, of course, a written work by Austin Osman Spare, which led to the title of the album. The Cover came from my reinterpretation of a separate picture called The Self's Vision of Enlightenment. For me, this represented a state of mind. It symbolised the way I felt at the time. It conjured up change. Spare's work hasn't changed anything, although maybe it has given me confidence in what I do as right for me. It was just pure coincidence that what I did reflected on Austin Osman Spare within my work."
Thus for him the two minds existed separately until one day he came to associate with Spare's own life, and the connection was made.
"Obviously, I never knew him in life. Yet like him, I was born in South London, and I believe he was born at a similar time of the year as me. He came from nothing, but his memory remains. Underneath all the poetry, philosophy and spirituality, he was ultimately a very talented artist. If you look at his pictures and paintings, they were not only magically induced, they are pure art. He showed that the presence of the overlaying spirit was using him as a conduit."
Spare practiced automatic writing, the art of allowing the hand to write or draw spontaneously, seemingly under the guidance of an external force. It was a pet subject of the surrealist movement of which he was part.
"Automatic writing was a huge opener as an influence and a confidence to achieve. I don't know many people that have admitted that."
Is there a favourite piece of art or writing of Spare's that you particularly like, that specifically does something for you?
"I think it's a lot of the darker material, really. There was everywhere Chaos of the Normal, and altruistic subjects such as the death posture and other magical material in The Book of Pleasure."
The death posture was Spare's chosen method of empowering a sigil, involving the achievement of a blackout through strict ritual practice.
"And it works. It has been going on in one form or another among shamans and fakirs for thousands of years. It is the art of glimpsing at death. Whatever method you use, it is a trip out, a blackout, suffocation."
But is it important?
"It is within this context. It was tied up with the dualistic axiom of divine opposites. Yet Spare's ultimate principle was the achievement of not remembering the sigil following the blackout. It was the deliberate fulfilment of forgetfulness."
Is this the way you approach your own sigils?
"Yes in the idea of deliberately not remembering. The thought form remains where it was in the first place. You let go of it, but it is there, empowered."
But why do it? What does it achieve in the long run?
"You can't walk around and desire something. Desire is not enough. Dreaming and wanting is not the answer. The idea that magical symbols are created and used means a lot more than that."
If Austin Osmond Spare was around today what would that be like? Would he be a fan of Fields of the Nephilim?
"I don't know. Nephilim fans are generally impressed by the music and the stage presence, which is just escapism, but it can be interpreted as ritual as well.
"Yet there is an ambience in Nephilim music, missing in a lot of music. This evokes a certain state of mind, which is there in Spare's art as well."
Is this something unique to Fields of the Nephilim, or is it there with other bands as well?
"I don't think you'll change the world by being a rock and roll band, but the philosophy and the ritual of what we are about is the most important point here. Spare put the same emotion into his writing, his drawings, his paintings.
"His success was for real. Spare was inspired by the spirit, the entity or influence that surrounded him. I relate to that totally. Yet some people see all that as merely a spur of the moment garble, but it's not. That's not what he was saying with his work. He was far more intelligent than that. There's a difference between spontaneous dribble and pure genius."
Do you relate to his sense of spontaneity in your own lyrics?
"My voice works in a similar way to that of a clairvoyant. It is a process that goes back in time when I respond to the multifier then there is definitely something that is influencing me. It is like an oracle -- a mouth piece. It's not so daft as people might think. You're not out of control with some spirit singing through you -- It's not like that. It is a part of what we are. Some people have got the ability, the behaviour and the confidence to do this, and I am from a similar school of thought.
"I know my own mind. No one uses me. No one possesses me. It's just like you have a helping hand sometimes, and it just helps force the language."
What do you think about the people that have got into Austin Osman Spare through listening to Fields of the Nephilim?
"How it makes me feel doesn't count -- It's about Austin Osman Spare"
Yet all these people are into him because of you?
"I feel he is an artist that needs to be recognised. As much as he, like me admired Blake. They get exams in the name of Blake. Yet Spare actually took it on to new dimensions. Spare needs to be nominated s a very valuable person. He didn't just have a finesse for scribbling. He never put himself up on a platform up there, as an extrovert like Crowley did. Spare had the natural ability and the talent to see his true will, and that was something he was trying to achieve, and there is a message here for everyone."
Are there any Nephilim tracks which have been inspired more than any others by Austin Osman Spare?
"There is one that comes to mind. This is Submission from Elizium."
That is a powerful track that climbs in energy and power from inception to completion It's about the bringing forth of a female spirit form, a Babalon, from beyond the abyss. Was there any more?
"Another obvious one is Melt, which is subtitled The Catching of the Butterfly. This is a track that was conceived of through my own unique methods and visions."
Melt is a restrained and very beautiful track on the otherwise uncompromising, virtually death metal album ZOON, put out by Carl in 1996 under the name Nefilim, with an f. Yet why suggest these examples above all others?
"Both songs rely heavily on the concept of the death posture, the chaos within."
Was this inspired by your interest in chaos magic?
"The chaos current in the late 1980s and early 1990s was growing steadily. and there was some real inspired ideas emerging at that time. Before the internet there existed a real connection, and for me it became a kind of grown-up magical era. Labels like occult, magic, witchcraft all went out the window, and in came the chaos current, which was really beyond the veil. It was an adjustment period."
Certainly this was the age of the instigation of chaos magic, recalled in the title of the monumental Nephilim single Psychonaut. It recounts the title of chaos magician Pete Carroll's grimoire Psychonaut published in 1982. This I knew but what did he mean by 'Beyond the veil?'
"Chaos magic was dark, and the alternative to the new age."
In other words, an antithesis, and didn't we need it in the end! All the plinky-plonky music, good vibes, and false hopes, that came to nothing. God thank chaos magic which came as it did as a sober up pill before the onset of the present aeon, the now generation. It is an attitude expressed in my own book Twenty-first Century Grail, published in 2004. This features an unlikely grail quest glimpsed through the eyes of the Typhonian initiate. Its cover, showing a horned Magdalene holding a grail cup, was done by Sheer Faith.
"The whole current of that era was important. There was a lot of power there, and it was like the modern occult, and everyone was 'hidden.' Everyone was experimenting. It was the new movement, and it is still there. A lot of influential people were out there, the Pete Carrolls of this world. They were inspired by Spare."
And it is a movement that is still growing, despite the fact that it might not be so hidden these days.
"But there has been a lot of people affected by it. It was a good shaman. A modern shaman had arisen. The sixties and seventies had felt Crowley's influence -- rock and roll, drugs, revolution, magic. The eighties and nineties were more inspired by Austin Osman Spare."
is no question that Spare was unique, well beyond his time.
"Yes, but don't just look towards the hocus pocus and magic that surrounded him. It's like Crowley, people take him too literally. Accept the fact that they were both very talented, influential people, which we need to recognise. Maybe the whole purpose of their existence was to inspire generations to come, not within their life time. They were ahead of their time. The shame is that individuals like them rarely get recognition whilst they're still alive. There are not enough people who wish to push the boundaries of existence. It is a digital world, full of mobile phones and computers. People don't know the art of being. They don't even know themselves."
Do you think that Spare thought this way back in his day?
"He was probably surrounded by a culture that was up its own arse, and what he did was backed away into a corner. Spare tried to find out his own true way, and he proudly achieved that. I feel he didn't care, and why should he? He didn't do it to be put on a pedestal. He did it to realise his own reason for being put on this earth. That's why we're here, to intercept and to fulfill our own existence. After all, we're all going down the same road eventually. You should learn to become what you actually are. Many people try to become what they can never be. Spare learnt the art of being, and he did it very well. I think that is something all people should ponder upon. There are too many distractions. Too much interference these days. You can only become what you truly are. That's all I want to achieve, is being me."
All true but it is sometimes hard work 'being me.'
"It's hard work, but if you're honest with yourself, then it's the right way, even if it might be seen to be the dark path. I spend my life becoming me. Not trying to find me. That's different. Sometimes I get tripped up on the way, simply for doing what I do. And that's the hardest trip of all, but it works for me. This is True Chaos of the Normal."