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In Her Thrall; an Interview with Nikolas Schreck

Nikolas Schreck | Credit: Zeena Schreck

Nikolas Schreck | Credit: Zeena Schreck

.:.IN HER THRALL.:.

An Interview with Nikolas Schreck

by Alexander Nym

After 20 years of absence from the stages of this world, Nikolas Schreck reemerges with messages from another.

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Most readers familiar with the occult strands within the so-called gothic, industrial and neofolk genres may remember Nikolas Schreck, prolific writer, magician and performer, from his involvement in the group (and organisation) Radio Werewolf and his relations with protagonists, organisations and events usually associated with the so-called „Satanic Panic“ which (dis-)graced US media and culture in the 80s and early 90s. From 1988-1993, he co-directed the Vienna-based Radio Werewolf with his partner, the artist and musician Zeena, whose recent live musical performance at the prestigious Performa Arts Festival in New York marked her return to the stage.

In the two decades since, Schreck has been living in Berlin and has devoted himself to writing scholarly books about controversial subjects (such as The Satanic Screen or The Manson File) and the teachings of left-hand Tantric Buddhism, a religion he adhered to after severing his ties with faux occult organisations, the operations of which he had explored and immersed himself in previously. All of these experiences and interests inform the recently begun collaboration with legendary avant-garde and industrial musician John Murphy, who certainly requires no introduction to the readers of this zine. The two of them will present their unique take on musical performance art at the fourth installment of Tower Transmissions, an annual festival in Dresden dedicated to contemporary and classic experimental, avant-garde and industrial music, on September 27th (for further information on line-up, venue and ticket purchase, see link below).

Here is presented a conversation between Herr Schreck and cultural scientist Alexander Nym, which took place in a space/time-bubble created by the two of them in mid-August 2014.

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Alexander Nym: How did the collaboration between John Murphy and you come to pass?

Nikolas Schreck: John and I working together seems almost like a natural thing because of our involvement in this milieu and this „genre“ for decades, but in fact we did not meet each other despite having worked with many of the same musicians for many years until January of 2013, when you introduced us at [IRWIN‘s Was ist Kunst Hugo Ball exhibition opening at Gregor Podnar] art gallery here in Berlin. Our collaboration is based on our friendship, not on our former affiliations with various bands, groups and ideologies. I think people need to be clarified of a misimpression that this is part of the „neofolk“ genre, or „industrial“, or all of these words that John and I have been lumped into through our whole career, but neither of us have ever felt a particular association with. So this is based on our own unique collaboration; it has nothing to do with any genre, it’s a very pure musical expression of where we are in this moment; it’s a very personal expression, so it doesn’t fit into any category or label. This musical collaboration that we’re doing is developing in a very complex way and comes from our friendship, our very deep shared taste and other obscure areas of music that sort of crystallised in our adolescence in the 70s, and as I’ve said before, probably not what people expect. Both of us independently–he in Australia, me in California–were very much devotees of… a horrible word that I don’t use, but: krautrock, which is a reprehensible word, but just to make it easily understandable. You know: Amon Düül, Can, Faust, Ash Ra Tempel, Neu, etc. That sort of thing really influenced us and was the guiding inspiration to music, and also secondarily an artier substream–also another horrible word: glam, or glitter, so those two things very much influenced us. David Bowie obviously, as well as Eno-era Roxy Music and Lou Reed‘s more avant-garde work–the musical cusp immediately before punk happened. And jazz, of course: John’s father was a jazz drummer, and John played in an almost infinite number of funk-jazz groups when he was young, and my own parents used to be jazz promoters. I have a childhood memory of sitting on Count Basie‘s lap in Las Vegas, shortly before Frank Sinatra would go on stage. Being exposed to Basie’s minimal keyboard style showed me that less is more on that instrument. As a singer, hearing Sinatra at that early impressionable age taught me all about phrasing, intonation, delivering a lyric, and fully inhabiting a song.

So both John and I have been immersed in jazz from our childhood. I would say we’re working in those directions, but we’re bringing it to a more personal interpretation based on who we are now. It’s important, in a magical way, to look at the connections. The art gallery that we met at was dedicated to Dionysius, the Areopagit, who was a Christian mystic–that’s what these icons that were shown were. The exhibition was a tribute to Hugo Ball, who was a founder of Dada, and I would say there is a dadaistic spirit to what this performance will be and to our work. In magic, one has to look at how things begin, so John and I’s collaboration began with Hugo Ball, who was at once a Dadaist and mystic. The word „dada“ comes from Dionysius, the Areopagit; not many people realise that. The next performance we do will be dedicated to the god Abraxas; it will be an invocation of Abraxas, following the first one which is an evocation of the ewig Weibliche (the eternally female). We will use a quote from Dionysius in order to give an illustration of how magic works: that the very thing that brought us together we’re applying to the work that we do.

AN: After the initial phase of getting to know each other, what was the spark that lit the flame of musical cooperation?

NS: On one level I think it’s because we got to know each other, our understanding of what music could be and our love of sound in and of itself, an sich. Again, none of all the labels, categories, or ideologies that are always projected on his work and mine, but actual passion for the manipulation of sound and the art of music, which is somewhat lost in this milieu, all this symbolism, and this supposed message of it. So, I think we’re very relieved and refreshed to work with someone who actually loves music and wants to perfect the craft of making sound. Secondly, I think the direction this music’s going in spontaneously by our working together could truly be said to be psychedelic, in the true sense of the word. By that I don’t mean just recycling clichés from the 60s, but in a true sense literally mind-manifesting. Creating music that changes the consciousness of the musician and listener.

Nikolas Schreck (r.) and John Murphy (l.) in Berlin during the rehearsal for their upcoming concert „In Her Thrall: Evokation des Ewig-Weiblichen“ at the Tower Transmissions Festival in Dresden, Germany. Photo: Zeena Schreck.

Nikolas Schreck (r.) and John Murphy (l.) in Berlin during the rehearsal for their upcoming concert, In Her Thrall: Evokation des Ewig-Weiblichen, at the Tower Transmissions Festival in Dresden, Germany. Photo: Zeena Schreck.

AN: The Dresden performance at the Tower Transmissions Festival is announced as „sonic ritual“–however, there’s a difference between ritual music in an anthropological sense, like the field recordings of ritual activities, as opposed to music created in a ritualistic setting with the purpose of being recorded, or music intended to create a certain mood, yet not produced under ritualistic circumstances. In how far is your performance going to be a live ritual?

NS: Well, the fact is that every performance I’ve ever done since I began my professional career as a musician in 1982 has been ritualistic. I think it’s important to set the context, that my understanding of music and art in general is that it goes back to the sacred. I mean, in this secular atheistic postmodernist world, humanity has lost contact with the sacred and the spiritual, that’s painfully obvious. But, music began as magic. Music is ritual by its very nature, and this first performance that John and I are doing together, voice and drum, that’s as primordial as you can get; it’s the very essence of prayer and music, if you go back to shamanistic cultures and to neolithic cave rituals. So it’s a very primitive, primordial music that we’re creating, and yet there’s also elements of pop music to it, so it’s not… I wouldn’t call it ritual music, but to me, because I’m a spiritual practitioner, every single performance I’ve done has had a ritual intention. Because I’m a magician, it may not be apparent; it isn’t like I’m waving a sword around or wearing a hooded robe; I’m not using any kind of occultist, corny symbolism. Magic comes from the Indo-European root word mach, or “make”. Make happen. If you make a sound, and your mind is clear and you are conscious of what you’re doing, and you’re trying to transport the essence of that sound to another mind, you are doing magic. So I would say all music is magical, while most of it is creating mediocrity. I mean, most popular music is altering consciousness for the worse. I am trying to awaken people, liberate people, enlighten people.

AN: You’re talking about what is also referred to as escalator music; music welling from the gaps.

NS: Yes, but that’s no less magical. I mean, music in itself is a spiritual phenomenon, as is any artwork: If you create an image, no matter how banal, you are doing magic. If you do it with the purpose of awakening and enlightening people, freeing people from illusion, that’s one thing, but most art, because of its mediocrity and its conventionality is a kind of black magic in the worst sense, in the sense that it is putting people to sleep. The music I’m doing is always trying to awaken people, especially as for quite a while now I’ve been a practicing Tantric Buddhist, so my intention of every act that I do, everything, every single thing that I do, is intended to enlighten and awaken others. So, in that sense, every part of what we’re doing is a ritual, but not a caricature of a ritual.

AN: No theatrics.

NS: Yes, although I come from a very theatrical background, and my training in music in a way comes from musical theatre and singing in a theatrical context. There’s actually… it’s not a performance. It’s real. For instance, the phrase Ewig-Weibliche of course comes from Goethe and Faust, and the epigram for this particular performance will be „Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis“. That sums up what music, art, and magic are: you are presenting, in a conscious way, a concentrated symbol that communicates the essence of something that cannot be communicated in a linear way to other human minds.

AN: The inexpressible, as Wittgenstein put it.

NS: Yes. It’s going under the radar of logic.

AN: Something which by its very nature is temporal, confined within a certain space/time setting, with a beginning and an end but which nevertheless is trying to evoke a sense of eternity within those confines.

NS: That’s a very good point. In fact, because I am a practicing magician, and a Tantric Buddhist, it is also a ritual in a sense as Mircea Eliade made very clear in his descriptions of ritual for instance: there is ritual time and ritual space. So, this performance will occur in no actual temporal place; it occurs in eternity. And for those who are sensitive enough and aware enough, it can be an enlightening experience. For those who are on another level of mentation, it could just be perceived as entertainment, but that’s true of everything. It’s entirely dependent upon the consciousness of the listener and the spectator.

AN: In how far is the audience going to be involved in this „sonic ritual“?

NS: Every performance I’ve ever done depends entirely on the rapport between the audience and the performance, so to speak. It’s shamanistic: I am the medium to another world. That’s the only „role“ that I have. I’m not interested in self-expression, and I think I’ve been very misunderstood in that people think that I’m expressing some personal, inner belief system; on the contrary, I’ve always tried to clear myself of the human personality and become a vessel or vehicle for the forces I was communicating. Obviously, with Radio Werewolf, it was the devil. Literally, not symbolically, I was a servant of the devil. In this ritual, I am opening myself to the feminine wisdom principle that is at the core of the left-hand path in the true sense of the word for those who understand the tantric meaning of the left-hand path. That’s the core of what I am in this ritual: I am a priest who is clearing away the human to allow the feminine, the shakti/dakini principle, in me, and that’s unpredictable. I can’t tell you exactly how that will happen, so in that sense it’s not a performance, it’s ashamanistic invocation or evocation.

AN: Isn’t it an incongruency of some sort to invoke the Ewig-Weibliche in yourself and shakti energies without even having a biological female on stage as a physical vessel for it to manifest in?

NS: That’s a good question. For the most part I don’t have a conscious, rational or linear explanation for what I’m doing. The reason people should come to this concert is because it has to be experienced to be known. I think any true art, if it can be explained, it’s not art; it’s polemic. So, true art has to be experienced. It is a truly psychedelic experience, you have to go on the journey to know what the journey is. Especially in this day of sedentary internet life, where everything is experienced through a screen, or second-hand through some digital interface, it’s very important to me to have a personal connection, you know, a human animal with other human animals…

AN: A first-hand experience in what I’d call a society of surrogates, in which we’re increasingly conditioned to accept replacements for the real thing. Slavoj Žižek has stated this when complaining about caffeine-free coffee, alcohol-free beer, etc. It won’t be much longer until people will have THC-free weed…

NS: Yes, it’s a simulation. As a spiritual practitioner, the point of my artistic activity has always been to get to the real; not in any way to provide escapism. And of course, people who think I’m a complete lunatic for doing what I’m doing believe that what I’m doing is some kind of madness, but that’s because they’re veiled in illusion. My only point has been to awaken people to the actual nature of reality.

AN: So what is real?

NS: Well, that’s a very complicated question. All I can tell you is that it is what we are transmitting through my voice and the sound that we are projecting. And that can allow someone who is awake, aware and sensitive, and truly in the moment to have the awakening experience, but you have to experience it that way; it can’t be explained in any linear mode. But to get at the core of your question: In this particular milieu, genre, whatever you want to call it of music that John and I have been ghettoised into, there is something I’ve always been very conscious of, or probably the popular misconstruction of it, if it has a negative side–racism. I would say that actually, the thing that is obnoxious or annoying to me about this genre that we’ve been stuck in is that it’s very much a boys club. There is a great deal of ugly misogyny in it that is almost accepted, and I don’t see enough critique of that. This poison of misogyny and contempt for feminine power is not only an unspoken obscuration limited to the various so-called „alternative“ music scenes and subcultures but is also prevalent in the supposedly liberated spiritual and magical circles that sometimes interconnect with them. One striking example I often encounter in my everyday life are the common negative male reactions to the fact that Zeena, as founder and leader of the Sethian Liberation Movement, is my spiritual teacher. Many men are clearly still unable to accept a strong woman as a spiritual and artistic authority in her own right, and insist on reducing women in leadership positions to their roles as a man’s property, whether that be as daughter, wife, girlfriend, or mother rather than seeing powerful women as sovereign entities.

AN: And this boys club you mentioned happens to be a very white one at that as well.

NS: Yes, yes!

AN: That might be incidental, but there’s quite a discourse in the United States, where there are many people of colour who are into neofolk and industrial music. There seems to be a real issue with some of the preconceptions about industrial music, and even EBM and other related genres being supposedly white and European.

NS: I don’t make any bones that, even though I am a Tantric Buddhist which comes, regionally speaking, from the Asian culture, I am a product of European culture, and all of my work is very much imbued in European culture. But the important thing about this particular concert that John and I are doing in September is that it’s intended as a deliberate countermeasure to this misogyny, the sexism… it’s very limiting and is completely lacking the female wisdom principle. It’s very, very rigid and male and masculine in the worst way, and I think that’s why it is somewhat sterile and stale, and I’m hoping to bring a new impetus of life to the people who encounter this. Now, the best way to do that, if a man takes on the feminine, that is taking on what is hated. I think there’s a great deal of suppressed–and sometimes not so suppressed–misogyny and hatred of the female. Since my basic religious practice of the left-hand path is reverence and veneration for the feminine, by becoming feminine for this ritual, I’m hoping to transform others.

On a more linear and comprehensible level, there will be two new pieces that I composed for this particular performance exclusively, and the others will be cover versions of female artists who have particularly influenced me. So in a way, it’s an homage to these female singers and musicians because actually, I was inspired mostly by female musicians to become a singer or musician. For instance, we will be doing our own very personalised interpretations of Marlene Dietrich, Nico, Blondie… actually, Debbie Harry was one of the first rock performers I ever saw in 1977. We’re also doing a song from AC Marias, who is a very obscure English performer who’s been forgotten. So most of the songs we’re doing are particularly the female performers who inspired me to even become a singer. By reinterpreting their songs in a ritual context, I’m paying a debt to them because they were my inspiration. This concert will also make explicit that I’ve always been conscious that my singing and songwriting operates as a manifestation of the Troubadour and Minnesinger tradition, in which the singer is inspired by the vision of the Lady Fair. One of the new songs I’ll be debuting at this event is an exploration of the troubadour theme, which connects the knightly cult of chivalry to the deeper spiritual worship of the feminine wisdom principle through song. In that regard, my work could be said to harken back to the central place of divine feminine figures in Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite art. Going even further back into the mythic and divine origins of musical and poetic inspiration, this performance will also be a celebration of the Muses, those supernatural females understood in antiquity to be the source of all creativity.

AN: Let’s talk a little about your future plans. You mentioned a second manifestation of your and John’s collaboration centered on Abraxas; are there any other plans besides that yet?

NS: Well, I don’t think we want to give too much programmatic planning for what that will be, but, to get back to what you were saying about this digitising and this secondary experience: one thing that I’m determined to do with these particular performances is to make each one unique, rather than just doing the same set. We will be working with other musicians as well, and our plans are already to become more complex and go into directions that we ourselves can’t imagine. We really want to test ourselves and make it an adventure for both ourselves and the listener. We don’t know where we’re headed but into the unknown. The one thing I can say is that it’s very important in this particular era of repetitive, recycled, rehashed entertainment, that each of these performances will be unique and, eventually, I believe they will be seen as a cycle of performances that will have their own coherence as a series. That’s the best way I can describe it.

AN: Let’s talk a bit about your other music project, Kingdom of Heaven: whilst the musical ritual concept is hardly surprising for anyone familiar with the central importance spirituality & enlightenment have in your life, Kingdom of Heaven displays yet another facet of spirituality, which in this context might be regarded as yet another kind of replacement or surrogate of spirituality:

In the video „Ballad of Lurleen Tyler“, you appear as a parody of the stereotypical American preacher, poking fun at the underlying ideas of leaders and followers, of sanctity versus corruption, inherently criticising a shallow form of religion.

NS: Well, that was the first song that I did with Kingdom of Heaven and my collaborator in that, James Collord (formerly of Radio Werewolf). I think anyone who knows my life and career knows that I’ve constantly had to battle this kind of American capitalist, fundamentalist Christian religion. So, it’s a parody of the very force that has constantly been a thorn in my side, to use the religious phrase, and that [Schreck’s long-time partner and collaborator] Zeena, when she was the high priest of the Church of Satan, was fighting, you know. It’s a particularly American phenomenon, but I don’t think Europeans can quite comprehend that unless they’ve been there.

AN: You’re taking over the role of the enemy in that song, the stereotypical Midwestern American preacher: neat, clean and messianic on the outside, but dirty, rotten and corrupt on the inside, like „Oh yeah, there’s this young girl in the first row I wanna fuck“.

NS: Right, exactly, and I think I became my enemy in that, but you know it’s just one song. In Kingdom of Heaven there are no barriers or borders to the areas we’re going to cover, so the album which we recorded, which will be released shortly and we’re finishing now, is very eclectic. I think any song that we released would give too much of a limited impression of what we’re doing because it’s a very wide scope. That particular song, I think, if people know my biography, will know that I am becoming the opposite of what I’m supposed to be, and also becoming the enemy so to speak.

AN: Didn’t this also bring about some understanding of the enemy by providing a peek inside? Through identification with him, didn’t you get a glimpse of what it is that actually makes him what he is?

NS: Yes, it does, and I think it’s important to explain that I do music, or writing, or whatever artistic activity I do, to understand the world. By becoming something I understand it, so I can even have compassion for these people and see how limited they are. I also think it’s important because a lot of people have interpreted that video as an anti-Christian video. It is not, and I’m not anti-Christian. I’m anti-religious hypocrisy of any kind. I don’t have any problem with the teaching of Jesus Christ in its gnostic, traditional sense, but the perversion of Christianity is what „The Ballad of Lurleen Tyler” is satirizing. I think that’s important to make clear.

Also, because of the internet, whatever people have encountered first is what they think you are, because there is no context on the internet. People see interviews with me from 27 years ago and assume that’s me today. They literally don’t know; young people have no idea how to research anything or the context, so I think it’s important to make that clear: that it’s not an anti-Christian, Satanic statement, but rather it’s a critique of religious hypocrisy as one could find in any religion.

Nikolas Schreck and James Collord in their band Kingdom of Heaven's video „The Ballad of Lurleen Tyler“.

Nikolas Schreck and James Collord in their band Kingdom of Heaven’s video „The Ballad of Lurleen Tyler“.

AN: Maybe there is hope that the continued use of internet and communication technologies will lead to an increased understanding of the historical dimension of processing data from various periods.

NS: The problem is that young people are not educated on how to research that. It is possible theoretically to use it as a source of wisdom, but instead, because of the ADD-like attention span it’s just whatever audiovisual stimulus comes. It’s accepted without any interpretation or putting it in any historical context. So, that’s important, but as far as Kingdom of Heaven is concerned, that particular video is just an introduction to our music. Even the other songs that have been on German radio, it’s a very wide spectrum that James Collord and I are exploring.

AN: You also stated that the inner revolution is of central importance. As a good number of the people reading this interview are probably in some way interested in spiritual awakening, heathenry & paganism, occultism or other, non-Western/non-Christian ways of developing a way of non-conformist quasi-religious outlook, what advice would you give to the seekers out there?

NS: The inner revolution is of central importance because there’s no hope of improving the inherent suffering of the human condition by becoming entangled in worldly social activism or dualistic us-versus-them political agitation. History proves that only mires you in deeper delusional bullshit. Instead, it’s essential to master our own minds. Reality’s not „out there“ somewhere. It’s a projection of our own confused interior thought process. If you try to perform magic or invoke the gods without first understanding and training your own mind and purifying your intentions, that will only drag you further from enlightenment into distracting fantasy. So my first practical advice would be that you should immediately learn from a competent, ethical, qualified practitioner how to meditate properly. Only then can you even begin to perceive the true nature of reality and attain the emotional tranquility needed to embark on a course of initiatory liberation. Secondly, it’s crucial, since you use the phrase „spiritual awakening“, to understand what we’re seeking to awaken from. What prevents you from awakening is nothing other than yourself: the sleepwalking hallucinatory trance state that our own illusory ego and self-absorption lulls us into. Finally, don’t make the common mistake of choosing a spiritual path simply because you’re attracted to its outer aesthetics and symbolism or as a worldly social outlet providing access to a „cool scene“ of like-minded hobbyists. The only valid criteria for selecting a spiritual practice is that it provides effective methods–not theory–that awaken us from the ego’s clutches. Methods passed down from a pure traditional lineage proven over centuries that have a track record of freeing others before you. There are many discarnate spiritual beings and incarnated teachers trying to awaken you right now. Turn off the noise of your digital toys and listen in silence, calm and with clarity, and you’ll hear them.

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Further Reading and Sources:

Official Website | Nikolas Schreck @ Facebook

Nikolas Schreck @ Youtube | Tower Transmissions Festival