Art As Catharsis


by R.S. Frost

Lachlan R. Dale runs the aptly named record label ART AS CATHARSIS that specialises in progressive and psychedelic music and features such artists as TOWN PORTAL, CASCADES, CONVULSING, SIBERIAN HELL SOUNDS, HASHSHASHIN, and many more.

Lachlan is also a loud supporter of world music, in particular, traditional Middle Eastern music and instrumentality, and is quite the adept musician himself being skilled on a multitude of old-world instruments.

Having this deeply vested interest in tones and timbres from the cradle of civilisation, and having visited there on multiple occasions, how do you find living and conducting your business in Australia?

- Australia is a strange place to live. This is a country that was taken from the local indigenous population, and held through force and conflict. We don’t have deep roots here - particularly considering there is evidence that indigenous people have been here for more than 65,000 years.

This colonial past seems to produce strange patterns in the psyche of most Australians. We don’t value the varied and sophisticated culture of the indigenous population - and we don’t respect the art, music and literature produced here. We tend to look to the United States or England for our cultural cues.

Then we have the geographics: we live on an immense, sparsely-populated island. The economics are stacked so firmly against any sort of commercial success - particularly for individuals playing underground music - that many of us just accept that we will never make any money from our art. In a way, this frees us from tradition and commercialism and opens up a space for us to experiment with weird and wonderful ideas. But it also brings problems. I’ve met too many excellent musicians who can only scrape by week to week.

We are also a profoundly multicultural country, which brings up wonderful opportunities for collaboration. In the last year, I’ve met musicians from Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Syria, India, Turkey, and Tibet living in Australia. It’s not all bad.

Lachlan is rather learned and outspoken in regards to the state of socio-economics that face the current generation and the far-reaching implications this has on the future of our species. These inclinations are of rudimentary importance to Lachlan’s progression through early adulthood and the subsequent title of his label.

How did you come to have such a vested interest in the state of global affairs?

- I spent most of my teenage years feeling isolated from the people around me, which I suppose is the quintessential teenage experience. It took me a very long time to find people who were interested in the things that moved me - philosophy, meditation, strange music and human rights.

I can still remember the day I started reading ‘A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide’. The book recounts instances of genocide and ethnic cleansing which could have been prevented by the international community. Inaction - or even the active suppression of information - led to the loss of countless lives over the last century. I was in Year 11 at the time, and I couldn’t understand why we weren’t learning about this in school. What could possibly be more important? Doesn’t the existence of such large-scale suffering render almost everything else trivial?

I think this sense of isolation - of not fitting into the dominant culture of my surroundings, which was sports-mad, anti-arts and anti-intellectual - has had an enormous effect on who I am, and the music I’ve produced.

Early on, I played and listened to music for psychological regulation - it helped to purge negative emotion. Through music, I was able to maintain some semblance of equilibrium, hence the name of my first record label, Art As Catharsis.

That relationship has changed throughout the years. In my late twenties, the focus shifted towards introspection and the exploration of positive psychological states, including mystical experiences. These days, I am driven by a desire to achieve and express psychic wholeness. My music is becoming more and more bound by my meditation practice and reading of Buddhist philosophy.

Image credit - Rhiannon Hopley

May the ingestion of certain substances have had anything to do with said mystical experiences?

- I’m hesitant to affirm this, because the general perception is that the use of substances trivialises the deep experiences that are possible. I disagree with this view - shamanic cultures do not take ayahuasca for some light, aesthetic experience. They are plunging deep into themselves, and (they would claim) the spirit world.

My interest in mystical experiences pre-dates any contact with entheogens. In my late teens, I had what I think of as an unprompted mystical experience. This is something that is very difficult to put into words. All I can say is that I felt an overwhelming connection to “the universe”, whatever that might be. It was an experience of transcendental equanimity; a sort of deep and resilient contentment that strikes me as one of the most important moments of my life.

On the questions of substances, Michael Pollan recently published an excellent book called ‘How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence’. He explains the emerging neuroscientific view that our mind gets locked in particular grooves - patterns of thought, feeling and emotion. This is the downside of neuroplasticity: if we don’t exercise our minds, they become hard, stagnant and difficult to change. Recent research suggests that substances like psilocybin might be helpful in regaining mental flexibility.

For instance, Pollan takes us through recent research conducted by Johns Hopkins University which shows that psilocybin can dramatically reduce depression and anxiety in terminally-ill cancer patients. Guided experiences with psilocybin are allowing people to successfully come to terms with their mortality, and to reach an entirely new perspective on life. Many end up flourishing in their final weeks and months. Honestly, the stories are incredible. This should give us some suggestion of how these substances can be used positively.

When I was young I felt emotionally cut-off from both people and the world around me. Psilocybin - and to a lesser extent MDMA - helped me become a more reflective, humble and empathetic person, and allowed me to confront and process experiences of death, loss and grief. This is something I’ve sought in a very direct way. I feel like I’ve been reconnected to the natural world, and to other people.

Image credit - Conor Ashleigh

For those who seek to begin the journey into spiritual centredness, do you have any recommendations for a starting point?

- Well, I think people in the West are in a very difficult position. Shallow materialism, hyper-individualism and capitalism have all taken their toll. Our culture has lost something that we can’t quite define. You could call it “religion”, but that doesn’t seem precise enough. Perhaps you could say “our capacity for spiritual experience”, but even that seems too vague. The real tragedy is that we have lost both the tools to induce these experiences, and language to speak about them.

It’s been positive to see the spread of meditation - though, like any new cultural trend, it is rapidly being both commodified and simplified. At least this might mark a starting point for getting a glimpse of “spiritual centredness”. For anyone interested, I would recommend meditation in a secular, Vipassana tradition - the style offered by teachers like S.N. Goenka and Joseph Goldstein - and books like Robert Wright’s ‘Why Buddhism Is True’, or (the more dense) ‘After Buddhism’ by Stephen Batchelor, for a sense of the philosophy that accompanies Buddhist meditation.

One of my goals is to eventually express these ideas through music. I can hear “psychic wholeness” in a performance like Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar’s ‘Raga Yaman’, but of course, I can’t use his language. It’s not my own.

You recently launched another label, WORLDS WITHIN WORLDS. Can you tell us a bit about this and what you’re hoping to achieve through this new venture?

- Over the last few years, I’ve been exploring the classical music of India and the Middle East, which has been an immense source of inspiration. With Art As Catharsis pretty firmly established at this stage, I decided to start a new label to showcase some of the music from these regions.

I’ve particularly enjoyed classical music from Afghanistan. I have fallen in love with the sweet sound of the rabab. Happily, I’ve been working with the Afghan-American musician Qais Essar on his new EP, which is a good indication of what you might expect from World Within Worlds.

Really, I see this as a continuation of the elements I enjoy in “progressive music” (by which I don’t mean the genre of “prog”) - the manipulation of rhythm and time, and the use of experimental or non-linear composition techniques. Unpacking the structure of a classical Hindustani piece is no small feat.

Shifting our focus from theory to practice, how did your interest in creating audible art as a musician manifest itself?

- When I was growing up, my Dad was always playing guitar around the house in this wonderful, semi-classical, fingerpicking style. Those memories have a special place for me, and were a big part of why I wanted to learn music.

I took guitar lessons for a while but never really got any momentum, then one day an opportunity came up. An older friend asked me to play bass for his band, EBOLIE, who were a drunken grindcore band in the middle of a transition towards something far more interesting.

I could barely play, but thankfully the drummer and guitarist - Gene White and Tim Brown - were patient. They taught me how to play complex rhythms and compositions, and fed my interest in diverse and bizarre forms of music. Those two used to sit around for hours figuring out ridiculous polyrhythms to challenge each other with and experimented with esoteric songwriting techniques. Eventually, that band shed the singer and became SERIOUS BEAK, whose two albums you will find on Art As Catharsis.

Aside from Serious Beak, have you been involved with any other musical endeavours?

- The ones I will mention are HASHSHASHIN, a sort of psychedelic Middle Eastern droning prog outfit, and the psychedelic doom outfit ADRIFT FOR DAYS.

I have a new, as-yet-unnamed duo with Timothy Johannessen as well, which broadly fuses traditional Persian and Afghan music with elements of doom and drone. I also hope to release some solo recordings of the Afghan rabab this year.

Image credit - James O'Connor

My research into the name has led me to believe that the word Hashshashin is derived from a term given to an ancient sect of Persians who were renowned for their stealth killings. It was rumoured that before said killings these assassins would ingest hashish, hence they became known as Hashashins.

- Yes, well, it’s an excellent example of an Orientalist-colonial myth. While I believe the Nizari Ismailis under Hassan-i Sabbah conducted assassinations, they were in no way associated with hashish - which is unsurprising, given the Koran’s view on intoxicants.

The name seemed to parallel my engagement with music from the Middle East: how I hear and interpret this music is informed by my Western cultural context. I am bound to misunderstand and misconstrue, and am almost by-definition cut off from ever truly understanding, say, classical music from Iran. Still, I want to draw inspiration - though I hope I can do that far more respectfully than those who recycle this frankly racist myth.

Has being involved with Art As Catharsis, or the creative world in general, granted you any particularly special or memorable experiences along the way?

- I have been lucky enough to travel and meet some wonderful people. Last year I attended the World Sacred Spirit Festival in Jodhpur, which celebrates spiritual and sacred music from across cultures. The festival is held in an immense, hulking fort which towers over the blue-washed walls of the old city, as well as the surrounding desert.

On the first morning, I sat before a delicate white marble temple waiting for the first act. Out came Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, who performed in front of the temple. As dawn broke over the city, the temple began to glow orange, and the trees around us were filled with tiny birds. That was a special experience.

The year before that I spent some time in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. We were lucky enough to meet a number of local musicians - including an Ismaili group, SAMO, who very generously performed for us late one night. Their music was similar to classical Iranian music but was more centred on Sufi ideas of ecstatic performance. I think that may have been the spark which threw me headlong into world music.

I’m very curious as to your personal musical influences, given the profusion of your output.

- Well, there are a few important artists I could mention. SQUAT CLUB were a local Sydney band that really challenged my preconceptions of what I thought was possible musically. Stylistically, I cannot define them. (Gladly a few of them have reunited to play in HELU, whose debut we will be releasing later this year.)

Perth’s TANGLED THOUGHTS OF LEAVING had a similar effect. Compare their debut album to their second full length. I value those sorts of creative risks highly. It suggests an integrity that goes beyond what might be commercially acceptable.

More recently, TIGRAN HAMASYAN’s ‘Mockroot’and CAR BOMB have been a source of inspiration. And then there is the classical music of Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, India, Palestine and so on - and wonderful musicians like Ustad Mohammad Omar, Homayoun Sakhi, Ali Ghamsari, Ustad Mohammad Reza Lotfi, Ustads Musa Eroglu and Ustad Arif Sag (their album ‘Turquie’!), Naseer Shamma, Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz, and Ustad Shahid Parvez. They are all hugely inspiring.

Image credit - Margret Ellen Burns

With a seemingly unrepentant stream of releases coming through the label and your own musical endeavours to consider, are there any upcoming events or releases that you are particularly looking forward to?

- Well, for my own music, Hashshashin will be recording a new album over April. The three of us have poured an incredible amount into these songs. Whether they will be to anyone’s tastes I really can’t say. We can’t get perspective on them.

I’m also looking forward to performing again and recording with Timothy Johannessen. Our debut performance was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia late last year. The few times I’ve played with Tim have been so energising and given his background in traditional Persian music, I know we have plenty more to explore together.

As for my record labels, I'm particularly looking forward to new music from HELU, THE BIOLOGY OF PLANTS, BONNIESONGS and TURTLE SKULL. We should have plenty to keep you busy.

This is an excerpt of the full interview conducted in which Lachlan discusses the complexities of meaning and motivation through recognition from others as well as a broader narrative on the state of live music in Australia and the political aberrance that threatens to put a stop to it.