Alan Moore interview: The KLF, magic and Greg Wilson’s Super Weird Happening
Alan Moore talks music and magic with Vicky Pea ahead of a Super Weird Happening in this interview.
Undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting individuals, when asked to interview Alan Moore it was hard to know where to begin, with so many fascinating topics and an unrivaled body of work to draw on.
Staying true to our scope we geared the conversation towards the musical spectrum, with just a touch of magic.
VP: Greg tells us this isn’t the first time he’s tried to prise you away from Northampton and to one of this events, what is it about April’s Super Weird Happening that finally got you onboard?
Alan Moore: I’m generally tied to Northampton more by my workload than by mystical or psychological forces, although with that said I suppose being a deaf teetotaller with a belligerent hatred for everything that normal people enjoy hasn’t really helped with my mobility or sociability.
No, this time it was a number of factors that happened to fall into place. For one thing, I’m just about to launch into the final volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Kevin O’Neill, and there happens to be a brief lull in my schedules.
For another thing, The Florrie is a beautiful building and we all have to do all we can to stop our – and I repeat our –heritage being eaten and excreted by this new breed of voracious and ridiculously entitled demi-humans that seem to have recently infested the political landscape.
A third contributing factor is that the event will be showing off some of my lovely wife Melinda Gebbie’s lovely paintings in a suitably celebratory setting, and I really wanted to be present for that. Fourthly, it will be an opportunity for us to hang out with Leah (Moore) and John (Reppion) and three of our astonishing grandsons, Eddie, James and Joey. And finally, since I’ve been promised some kind of mandrill-themed Nuremberg rally to shore up my populist support prior to the takeover, I really didn’t see how I could refuse.
VP: The central connector for the event is a book of which you are an integral subject, The KLF: Chaos, Magic And The Band Who Burned A Million Pounds. Can you tell us how involved, or aware, you were of The KLF at that time and whether the premises raised in the book were obvious to you during their activities?
AM: I’ve known Bill and Jimmy on and off for years, ever since they brought their film of the money-burning to show in my living room around twenty years ago. From what I hear, all of us were pretty much floored by John Higgs’ remarkable book.
For my own part, although I remember those years as a glorious period of swirling psychedelia, magical insight and ferocious productivity, it wasn’t until I read John’s massively illuminating KLF treatise that I began to see how those apparently random events seemed to fit into a wider narrative. Unless they’ve somehow seen the script beforehand, I imagine that it’s fairly common for the actors in a drama not to know the nature of the drama that they’re in while it’s going on, or even that they’re actors.
VP: Are there any artists today you feel are effectively utilising the link between magic and creativity?
AM: I tend to see art and magic as being actually pretty much interchangeable rather than simply linked, so I’d say that any effective artist, in whatever field, is successfully exploiting the magical qualities and abilities of art, whether they think of it in those terms or not.
Stewart Lee, for example, while he justifiably lacerates the many absurdities of the occult and occultists – witness his exposition on the Brotherhood of the Golden Dawn and the watery semen of Aleister Crowley – also understands the shamanic roots of the clown figure, and the magical social and psychological spaces that clowning can open up.
All creative endeavour, in my definition of the term, is attempted magic. In fact, I think that sometimes being too aware of the magical element in a work can be to the work’s detriment. Probably better to just do the very best piece of art that you’re capable of and let the magic take care of itself, although with that said I think that if all artists took what they were doing as seriously as they would take summoning a god or a demon they might have greater success and be less prone to emotional or psychological estrangement.
VP: The relationship between music, the occult and magical practices has changed throughout time, from religious worship through to the satanic panic. Has there been a link between to two that has fundamentally remained unchanged throughout history? Have you had any experience of music enhancing ritual or vice-versa?
AM: Music, as with all of the arts and much else in our culture, grew directly out of shamanism and was one of the earliest shaman’s tools for entrancing and transporting his audience to new states of consciousness. That music has been co-opted by all of the world’s major religions is a testament to its power, but I think the major developments in music have more often sprung from individual magical practice rather than from organised mass religion.
Claudio Monteverdi was an alchemist who invented the western form of opera as a means of including all of the various art forms into one spectacular presentation, the better to convey alchemical ideas to his audience, and thus works like Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Wagner’s Ring Cycle are, seen in this light, fairly obviously esoteric alchemical metaphors.
Musicians such as Sir Edward Elgar were often guided by an intensely personal mystical vision, the time signatures in Holst’s The Planets are heavily suggestive of kabbalah, and when we get to the current era we have the great Syd Barrett basing tracks upon the I-Ching and allegedly reporting encounters with the Great God Pan.
As for the use of music in magic ritual, I know Crowley had his then-mistress Leila Waddell playing violin and his lover Victor Neuburg dancing at his public performance of The Rites of Eleusis, but since most rituals are conducted in private, I’m only guessing that a certain number of them probably contain a musical element. With our own Moon & Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels performances, we would perform a private magical ritual in order to determine what the subject of the performance should actually be, and then we subsequently worked that up into a full blown multi-media performance/ritual that was open to the public and was mostly centered upon the words and the music. I think any magician who isn’t utilising music in some way is definitely missing a trick, and vice versa.
VP: Could you give us an insight into your own musical discovery, the artists that have made the biggest impression on you creatively and personally?
AM: The biggest musical influence upon my life and work was the psychedelic explosion of the mid-sixties, coming as it did when I was at the most impressionable and excitable stages of my own adolescence. Mesmerised by Strawberry Fields, See Emily Play or We Love You, it was a relatively short step to Arthur Lee’s Love, Zappa’s Mothers of Invention or Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
In the early seventies, when it became apparent that the globally transformative Age of Aquarius that we’d wistfully hallucinated wasn’t going to happen, then the decadent and dressed-for-the-apocalypse Glam movement and its experimental peripheries became my main source of musical solace. Bowie was an enduring influence, but probably the greatest influence upon my work and my thinking to emerge from this period was the culturally refreshing experience, Brian Eno, surely one of the most important musicians (or non-musicians) on the planet.
VP: What does the cultural history of Northampton influence – in the sense that Liverpool’s history, development, location etc became a birthing ground for musical expression? From the outside Northampton doesn’t appear to have a strong music heritage, however has produced noble prize winners, high profile politicians and academics. What is the cultural legacy of Northampton?
AM: Having been on some governmental kill-list of regional towns since the 11th century insurrection of Hereward the Wake (and after that, besieging King John until he signed the Magna Carta; staging a failed uprising against Henry III; capturing Henry VI during the climactic battle of the War of the Roses; producing the Gunpowder Plotters and most of the enclosure act protestors like Captain Pouch and Captain Slash; capturing Charles I during the climactic battle of the English Civil War and then keeping him under house arrest until Cromwell could cut his head off; producing the first hotly-contested atheist MP and civil rights campaigner Charles Bradlaugh; unleashing weaponised debutante Lady Diana Spencer upon the Royal Family and in general not doing a great deal to raise our approval ratings) I think it’s fair to say that while there have been some extraordinary people, including some extraordinary musicians, that come from Northampton, the town is never going to attract the same attention as even a similarly assailed and disregarded city like Liverpool. I mean, Northampton doesn’t even get mentioned on our regional weather-forecasts, so our chances of a Nene-Beat musical explosion coming to the world’s attention are practically nil. On the other hand, even a brief glance at the above list should indicate that Northampton’s abiding cultural legacy is the extraordinary amount of spectacular troublemakers that it has turned out over the centuries.
VP: Could you give us a brief history of the Arts Lab and its current activities?
AM: The concept of Arts Labs was first formulated by 1960s visionary Jim Haynes, with his notion that anyone, anywhere, could gather together with likeminded individuals and produce art of whatever kind they wanted in a mutually supportive and completely unsupervised environment. I first joined Northampton’s Arts Lab when I was 16, and it was without doubt the single biggest influence on the way that I’ve approach my art – as a kind of inventive play – throughout my career.
David Bowie was someone else whose Arts Lab background was evident in the multimedia theatrics that he pursued right up to the end. So, yes, Arts Labs were an incredibly important part of the alternative culture that I was produced by, and their absence over the last forty years is perhaps partly responsible for the decreasing amount of artistic vigour evident during that period.
In 2015, asked to talk to some local students about anarchy and alternative politics, it struck me that what the 21st century was thus far lacking was any kind of an authentic counter-culture, a point which John Higgs makes more eloquently in his KLF book. It was decided that a Day of Counter Culture should be staged at the Northampton University in November that year, when an assortment of counter-cultural figures like me and Melinda, Scroobius Pip, Robin Ince, Francesca Martinez, Josie Long and Grace Petrie talked about counter culture before a generally appreciative audience.
At the end of the event, during a brief questions-from-the-audience wrap-up, a lady called Celia in the front row asked if there was any way that she could stay at the event rather than return home to a life where she felt nobody had these ideas except her. This prompted us to ask anyone interested in the taking the ideas raised forward in some way to leave us their details, and at the end of 2015 around 20 people met in a local café and resolved to form into some kind of active artistic body, although it wasn’t until our second meeting in January 2016 that we decided to become – or I emotionally bullied everyone into becoming – Northampton Arts Lab, the sequel, which I have to say is even better than the excellent original.
There are more of us, we’re much more diverse, and the technology of the modern world allows us creative capabilities that the original Arts Lab movement could only have dreamed of. In the increasingly ambitious events that we’ve staged and the artefacts that we’ve been able to produce, I think we’ve shown some of the fluorescent possibilities that a set-up like this can realise, and we’re hoping that people everywhere and anywhere will realise just how much fun and how politically empowering unruly Arts-gangs like this can be, and maybe try it for themselves in their own communities. I promise you that you have no idea how much rich talent is out there until you offer them some kind of project the can crystallise around.
VP: Can you tell us a little about the creative purpose behind Unearthing, the development and how collaborators came aboard, as from the consumers experience it comes across as an absolutely monumental amount of work?
AM: Unearthing, a kind of illuminated biography of my late friend and inspiration Steve Moore, was originally conceived and written as a piece of prose for Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances. Prior to the publication of this, however, my friend the photographer and director Mitch Jenkins asked me if I had any text that might provide a springboard for some new photographs, something more creative and artistic as a remedy for all the high-end commercial work that had been his trade for years. I offered him Unearthing as a possible source for a few images, and Mitch immediately wanted to realise the whole piece as an extended work of integrated text and photography.
During the several years that Mitch was working on this, he was talking to the people at Lex Records who proposed that maybe some of their impressive roster of musicians could provide the musical backdrop for a spoken word version of the piece. This led to the lavish box-set of the music and reading that Lex released a few years ago, and to the performance of the work with Crook and Flail in the Old Vic tunnels underneath Waterloo Station.
The film of this performance, integrated with studio readings and other visuals, is currently available as a download, and I can only watch in admiring bemusement as this very personal piece of work is realised in all of these different forms. I eagerly await Unearthing: The Musical, and perhaps as a really weird Saturday morning cartoon.
VP: Are there any themes you’ve already covered, through novels or comics, that you feel could be enhanced by revisiting to add a musical element or soundtrack as with Unearthing? Do you think it’s an element more writers should experiment with?
AM: All of my work, whether in straight prose or in comic strip form, is designed to be exactly appropriate to the medium in which I am constructing it. If writing a film, I’ll concentrate on those things that only a film can achieve. The same thing applies if I’m writing a novel or a comic book. This isn’t to say that something written for one medium, like Unearthing, can’t be interestingly embellished by the application of another medium, but I suspect it happens only rarely, and I can’t think of any examples of my written work that could be usefully enhanced by the addition of music.
That said, the fact that I’ve worked extensively with numerous fine musicians on crafting songs or performance pieces has greatly enriched my work in general, in that it has forced me to think in new ways about my craft and what I’m doing with it. I’d certainly advise other writers to experiment with musical projects, because even in the event that they should ultimately come to nothing, you will be a far better and more versatile writer for the experience.
VP: Are there still plans to release The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic?
AM: Yes, the writing of The Moon & Serpent Bumper Book of Magic is finished save for a few of the more interactive visual elements, like the tarot deck, that still need attending to. With Steve’s death and the subsequent whirl of activity around Jerusalem and other projects I haven’t been able to get on top of my remaining Bumper Book work as quickly as I’d have liked, but hopefully I should be back in the saddle a little later this year, and with a bit of luck the whole book might be ready by late 2018. That’s an aspiration rather than a promise, so please don’t hold me to it.
VP: Finally from a selfish stance is there any desire to revive the astoundingly interesting Dodgem Logic?
AM: Dodgem Logic is one of the ventures of which I am most proud, despite the fact that at the time it was fairy financially ruinous (we felt that business plans were for squares). There will always be a desire to revive it, or to launch some publication like it, but at the moment there are no concrete plans, or even floppy paper plans. But, given that the world today is more screamingly in need than ever of an aggressively random and trippy-looking underground magazine, who knows what the future might hold? It’s certainly a splendid title, and I’ll probably keep using it for something or other until I finally work out what it actually means.