Added: April 24, 2014 Thanks to: Peter Bouwman (transcript)
In July 2008, John was interviewed for a documentary film titled The Heart Is A Drum Machine and his answer to the question "What is music?" eventually became a DVD extra. You can read more about this film in the filmography subsection.
Thanks again John for joining us in creating our film, we were talking earlier in the house about kind of the nature of creativity and your will to imagine and create and stuff, and I was kinda curious to maybe talk a little about that.
Well I think that the force that created us is expressing itself through our existence; I don’t believe that a musical idea starts in your brain. I believe it starts at a place before that that we don’t have any direct contact with. And I believe that everything that we do, everything that we create is nature expressing itself the same way that when a flower grows out of the ground or a tree grows out of the ground it is nature expressing itself. And you might say that the tree is expressing itself by the way its branches move out, but it’s the force that drives nature. The tree is the visible thing that appears to our senses, but I don’t at all believe it is the source of why everything is perpetuated all the time, you know. Music is an ineffable thing, that I don’t think words can really do any good to, to really give us any true understanding of. We are able to make contact with that current or the creative force of the universe or the source or God or whatever you want to call it. We are able to sort of connect with the intelligence of this by learning a musical language, learning a musical instrument, learning how to identify a sound and a feeling and to be able to learn how to gradually to express that feeling through an instrument.
The idea of somebody considering themselves responsible for a piece of music is ridiculous, we are only acting into the laws of nature that have, you know, given us the possibilities that we are exploring with the intelligence we have been given, you know. You have something like the frequency spectrum from low to high that’s what we’re working with, that’s here whether we’re here or not, it exists as part of the structure of physical reality. And our brains are learning to interact with it through learning an instrument, you know, or through using our voice in a certain way. But the possibilities are presented in this kind of invisible silent way, they’re just there. Sound, the laws of acoustics are what they are, the frequency spectrum is what it is. The twelve note to the octave scale was just something waiting to be discovered but which was already a mathematical possibility before whatsis name, Pythagoras (laughs) thought of it. I just believe these things, you know Bob said it in that documentary of your guys, it’s just not so much that he was inventing something as much as it was there waiting to be invented, and it was just up to somebody to discover it, you know. It’s that way with any piece of music. I think it’s been the big lie that’s been perpetuated ever since the star making machine of Hollywood started.
The star-making machine of Hollywood has perpetuated a lie that the image is the thing, and that the thing responsible for a great actor or a great musician that’s just been continued by the music business is, they get this idea into the publics head that it is the physical image of the person and the name of the person that is responsible for the creation of what they do, and that’s not what creates it. What creates it is the imagination and the thing that makes it possible for one person to be in the right place at the right time in their life to create the things that they create has to do with a really complex structure of the mind and the soul and the nervous system and everything. All these unknown things that are taking place in the subconscious which can be just as much structured by terrible things as it can by good you know. A person can be nothing but abused and put down their whole life and for whatever reason, their will to live, their love for music, their feeling for music, and all the fucked up things that have happened to them, all combine to make perfection you know. I mean just for example somebody like Jimi Hendrix having a really difficult life growing up, nevertheless, that was exactly what made him the person who was capable of doing the beautiful perfect music that he did. Or some kind of disadvantage like Beethoven being deaf, you know, things that appear to be disadvantages somehow in the complex network of the universes’ intelligence end up working towards making this perfection. I really don’t believe that somebody would do it with some kind of a perfect life. And this is just all stuff, it can’t be explained, nobody understands why it is it results in it, but it’s not because Jimi Hendrix looked the way he looked, it’s not because Jimi Hendrix danced the way he danced or because his name was fucking Jimi Hendrix, you know. It’s like these things are just meaningless, yet the way the business has used these media tools, has perpetuated this idea that what’s important is that he’s the greatest guitarist ever and he’s Jimi Hendrix and there’s his picture, that’s him. And it’s like, you know, the only real picture of him is his music, you know, the only thing that we should be like putting on a pedestal of a person is the works of somebody’s imagination, and the imagination itself should be catered to by the people whose responsibility it is to take somebody’s music from them to an audience, you know. It’s the real star of the whole thing, I don’t believe that the human being is the star, and I don’t believe their name is the star, I think it’s their imagination that’s the star, and just because it’s something you can’t package, just because it’s something you can’t take a picture of, just because it’s something you can’t measure by it’s number 1 or it’s sold this amount, or this many people love it, or this many people come to see it. There is no way to quantify the imagination and there is no way to sell it directly.
That’s all it is, I think when I first started I was really thinking of it as being me that was now expected after years of holing up in my bedroom practicing all the time, I thought it was me that it was now expected to be good on command, you know. I joined a band that was at the time my favourite band, and so it wasn’t like the same kind of musical development that a person can have by just sort of following their intuition, and following the course of their interests and their imagination, and eventually stumbling upon something that they really feel like is what they are here to do. In my case, like, I joined a band and basically, like, was under a tremendous amount of pressure to be liked, to be good, you know, and I gradually realised that all those kind of concerns really disrupt creative thought and really stifle it, you know. So the more I got out of the way, the more I stopped believing it was me that was doing it, but the more I started just allowing the force that was making me feel what I feel to be the thing that was carrying the whole thing and running the whole thing, I just found the music was there, it wasn’t something that had to be forced, it wasn’t something that I needed to put myself under any pressure to do, I just felt like it was just something that was happening, you know. Unfortunately I was already so off balance from putting myself under so much pressure for a couple of years that by the time I was doing that I didn’t really understand why I was feeling what I was feeling I probably couldn’t articulate it as well back then as I can now, so I ended up just having this real distinct feeling that the image wasn’t the thing and that it wasn’t the people that were responsible for doing this, and somehow that by being a part of the world that I was in at that time I was disrupting the flow of creativity and I was going to gradually sort of lose contact with the feeling that I had. And so I ended up going really far in the other direction and just pretty much just spending all my time painting for 5 years and with no thought whatsoever to what the products of my imagination would be worth to anybody else, and that was a really healthy thing for me to do at that time.
So when I’m performing, it’s a little weird, I like recording more than performing, because you really do, you just close your eyes, especially recording alone, you’re alone with the force of music, there’s no other distractions, there’s no possibility for your brain to go anywhere else. If you are a physical person standing in front of people, you’re getting certain charges. Luckily it’s the energy transference between the performer and the audience and the audience and the performer that I really enjoy. I really do love seeing people’s faces smiling, I love seeing, you know, the light shining out of people’s eyes and stuff, and it’s what makes me love it you know. But what I like doing on stage is just shutting my eyes, I’ve gradually stopped caring about entertaining the audience in any way, because I found that these things that a performer gets in the habit of thinking that they need to do in order to be entertaining, jumping around and stuff like that, you start doing it cos you feel it but eventually like any habit you just start doing it. And I started gradually realising that it just didn’t matter, that the important transference is in what you’re feeling inside to the audience, and they will respond with enthusiasm if what you’re feeling is strong enough, and if what they’re feeling is strong enough it’ll just notch you up to a little bit of a higher level, you might feel you’re able to play faster on stage than you could if you were in a room by yourself, you might find yourself just putting an energy into it that’s just a little more intense, than what you would do in a studio, its not necessarily better, its just human energy bouncing off one another the same way it does when people have sex or whatever.
But most of all its been important for me to just really be thinking of the music and be thinking about the force that’s making those people feel what they feel and the force that’s making me feel what I’m feeling. And to not think of it as at all about, I don’t think a performer should ever judge themself as their performing, if they make a mistake or if they didn’t play such a good solo, or if they did a bad drum fill or something. Its stupid stuff to think about, and it’s stupid to be judging yourself as you’re going by, it puts you after, which when something has already happening its like regretting the past, it’s like there’s not point in it’s already happening, the best thing to do is live in the moment and to worry about the very next step, well not worry about, but think about the next step, you know. So when I’m playing I’m usually sort of lingering between right being in the moment or foreseeing things before they happen. A musician gradually is able to be at one point in a song, say like two measure before, but you can anticipate what the fourth measure of a cycle is gonna be like, and you anticipate what it would feel like if you put a note say on the 10th 16th note of the bar or something. You don’t even need to use the symbols or numbers or anything in your head unless they are equivalent with the musical feeling. All you have to do is picture the musical feeling.
I used to do this form of meditation where you would sort of try to imagine the feeling of steel or you would try to hold a shape in your mind like a red circle and hold it there and not let it change shape and not let it change size and just try to hold it in your mind. And as I was doing these things every day, or try imagine the smell of chocolate, and hold the feeling of the smell in your mind you know… the smell of chocolate, the taste of chocolate! And you try to hold these things in your mind, and I realise that I’m doing that all the time in music. I’ll often imagine a rhythm that I can hit on the guitar, you know, and I’ll imagine it say 4 measures ahead of time, and Flea will have been hearing the same thing and we’ll hit it at the same time, you know, it’s like something is offering us these things, if your brain is open to them and if you’ve developed the right relationship to the laws of music and to your instrument, you’ll just find them waiting there for you, you know. I really think it’s this idea that ‘oh God how could I ever be a guitarist I’m never gonna be, you know, Eric Clapton’ or something. It’s like, these kind of ideas that the person is this intimidating figure, who is this great God, it’s interrupting, and the fact that people are judging themselves as if there’s some kind of criteria that has anything to do with these intimidating God-like figures, that that’s the thing that we’re reaching for and if we’re not getting it…
I just feel like a child has this relationship to the creative force you know. Yeah your parents gradually, you know, stifle your connection to that creative force and gradually shove your face in the concrete, and so do your teachers and the school system. Everything is working against you. But the force of creativity, nature is not working against you, it’s right there for you at any time, you just have to be ready to not judge yourself, and to be open to whatever is gonna come through you, and to be ready to not judge it as it comes through but be alright with it whatever it is because it’s just the universe expressing itself. Nothing is expected of you, you know, you just have to be there for it, and sometimes to get yourself in a position to be there for it is something that takes years of selflessness or years of just a love for music, for no reason at all, for whatever reason music produces the feelings in you that it does, and playing an instrument produces the feelings in you that it does, and you just follow the light.
I know my years of practicing guitar, they weren’t really very emotional you know, I spent a lot of time just practicing scales and learning Frank Zappa instrumentals and trying to learn the most complicated music I could. The way my intelligence was able to relate to and connect with the nature of music and the feelings that music arises that music brings about in me ended up making me be able to form a musical thought in my head and be able to bring it out into physical reality through my instrument. I remember being a little kid hearing music in my head all the time, I would hear songs in my head, as a 7 year old kid I had no idea how to produce them and, you know, how to bring them out, I just would hear them. And it’s only through years of playing an instrument without any reason other than just because you love doing it that eventually you learn the chords, you learn the intervals, you learn all kinds of musical references by learning other peoples music, and gradually what you hear in your head can come out. You know, there’s nothing intimidating about the process other than maybe you’ve gotta put some time into developing a relationship with an instrument or two, you know. I just don’t think people should be so threatened with this idea of being great, ‘cos the only people who have any right to say what’s great or not are, you know, I don’t know, people like Stravinsky, you know, or Bartok, or somebody, they had certain criteria’s by which they judged music, but they knew it from the beginning that it was ineffable, you know, they weren’t trying to describe it, they were describing their criteria based on a, you know, in a theoretical way, the same way jazz musicians would discuss it or something. The idea that music has begun to be judged by the feeling that a star generates in the minds of people, it’s really confused the issue you know, so I really believe that people should get back to, you know seeing music for what it actually is, and not for the people who play it or the various ways in which its sold, you know.
An interesting definition of music that I heard was that, or an interesting description of it, is that it’s a coordinate point between sound and human intelligence. It’s the meeting of those two things. Sound on its own isn’t music as much as, you know, John Cage might have, you know, loved the sound of, you know, traffic in New York, or as much as we might like the sound of birds singing, it’s not music until it’s organised by human thought. And the fact that sound even enters our ears and then turns from a wave form into an electrical current in our brain, and then that becomes a musical feeling, the fact that music constantly is turning from one thing into another, its just one of those things that’s just happening and we have no idea why, you know, it’s like scientists can only explain what’s happening but they can’t explain why it’s happening, you know.
Yeah, so a good description of what music is that I’ve heard is that it’s sound being organised by human thought or by human intelligence. The idea that as much as we might hear things that seem musical to us in traffic noise or in the sound of birds singing, it’s not actually music until it’s organised by human intelligence. And the fact that a sound may start as a physical motion that’s hitting a string that vibrates and then that that string turns into electricity that goes through a pickup and then goes through a chord and then comes out of a speaker and it becomes a wave form, and then the way that the air molecules are being moved around makes an impression on a microphone that turns it again into electrical current, and then it can become a sound on a tape, and then it can be another wave form in the air, and go into a persons ear, and go from being air again to being electrical current again in the persons brain. This is just a process that it’s something that we don’t understand, we can describe it and we can control it, but we have no idea why it’s happening, scientists can explain what is happening, and we can understand what the laws are that are in effect when this is happening, but we don’t understand why it’s happening. It’s pretty much, you know, the process that I just described, it’s the equivalent of the idea of reincarnation of one person becoming something else, it’s really all that’s ever happening, nothings ever dying.
Anyways and I think that even a song, the fact that you only hear it at that single point of right now yet it’s a series of moments, but it never occurs any other time than right now. Each moment in a song is sort of dying and becoming something else, as the whole thing is going along, it’s basically just that idea of reincarnation just moving through the course of a 4 minute song, or whatever, one section turns into another section, and then goes back into being another section and gradually builds and grows. And, you know, why all this is possible, why reality isn’t like dreams, where things just all of a sudden you’re in one place and then for no apparent reason and by having nothing to do with your own will you’re somewhere else. The fact that reality isn’t like that, also, nobody can explain why it’s that way, you know. So to be satisfied with some sort of explanation of what’s happening rather than why it’s happening is just silly. People who are satisfied with those kind of explanations, I just think that they’re ignoring half of what’s going on, because, you know, half of it is that it is happening, half of it is that something is making it happen. And I guess sometimes things that we don’t understand are scary, death is scary ‘cos we don’t understand it, and I guess we put a lot of things that we don’t understand in that category because so many of us are so scared of death.
But it’s this process that we are sort of living into, and these laws of nature that make the perpetuation of reality, the fact that yesterday doesn’t die but it still remains as a thought, and what we put on the shelf the day before is still there the next day, the fact that that kind of consistency is running through things, the fact that there is a permanency of matter, is also something that we should just be happy that it is that way it could be so many other ways, and you can see that from your dreams. It’s like reality could be really hard to get your handle on at all, you know. And luckily we are given this gift of being able to practice something, and grow familiar with the laws of music and the laws of nature and gradually be able to create something in the same way that the sun has created us. That the sun is sort of teaching us that lesson in the fact that it’s revolving and doing the same thing everyday. It’s telling us all that if you do the same thing everyday you can build and build and things will grow as a result of your doing that thing over and over. Everybody knows this, they’re all getting jobs and stuff, they think they’re just getting jobs because they wanna make money but it’s because it’s the way nature works, nature works in circles, nature works in cycles. And if you ignore those cycles, if you just sit around and do nothing all the time, or if you don’t follow the interests inside you that compel you to do things, your life will gradually just lose meaning until you are old, you know, or if you do something that it’s not your will to do, your life will also lose meaning until you’re old.
But the more you explore by consistently reading or by consistently practicing an instrument or by consistently studying the laws of science, you will gradually grow in a way that’s inward that can’t always be measured, but will always create fulfilment inside you and will always give you a fascination for where you are and what you are and why you’re here, and I believe that by doing that a person in old age, it can be a privilege, you know, it can be a way of going more and more from worrying about the outer presentation of what you are and being concerned with what you are on the outside and you can gradually enrich what you are on the inside, and I think any music of any worth has been done by people who are very interested in the internal process of their soul and their mind that’s taking place while they are writing music, their emotions.
They have always been people who are concerned with the process of what they do, and haven’t been very concerned with what the outer result of what they’re gonna do is when it leaves their sphere. And I believe the more that even a great musician becomes concerned with what it is when it leaves their immediate sphere, the less contact you have with what’s going on inside you because you start to equate the music with the reaction it provokes as opposed to what it naturally is, which is just something that takes place inside you, that you have been given the gift of being able to realise and to bring into manifestation. And so I’ve always felt strongly on just listening to what your imagination dictates, I’m the kind of person, I’ll shift from liking one kind of music to liking another kind of music to where, I’ll go through a period of 3 years where I’m obsessed with one kind of music, and then 3 years later I can’t even imagine why I was listening to it, I’m so much in a different place, because it was just where my imagination gradually led me, gradually the idea of listening to one thing stopped being exciting and gradually the idea of listening to another thing seemed more exciting. And it’s because I’m judging music based on its quality, and obviously if a person was judging music based on how popular it was or something, you would tend to focus your interests around things that were popular and you would tend to make sure that all your musical efforts were co-ordinated with the standards that the public sets of what is considered, you know, the best. And I believe that that kind of thing can make the imagination of a person that should be changing from one thing into the other into having a fixed idea of what’s great, you know. The mind should naturally just shift from one thing to the other, ‘cos that’s the nature of the mind, you know, it jumps from one thought to the other all the time, we have no control over that, but it can you know, I’m not going to go into that... But it’s the nature everything in reality to change from one thing into another, and our minds are doing it all the time, and there’s no reason that a person shouldn’t completely shift their interests from one musical form to another, or shift their idea of what the idea of a great guitarist is, or what the idea of what music should do is. It’s all really natural and, you know, to let the ideas of what society tells you “this is a great guitarist, he’s number one nobody is better than him” what that ends up doing is just putting a fixed idea about something that people should never have a fixed idea about.
I’ll go through phases where I’m studying completely, you know, guitar players who weren’t very well practiced and didn’t have a lot of technique or anything but their ideas were so strong, and the emotion that they put into their music is so strong, and they were so unique and original, that they for that period of time seemed better than somebody like Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix or people who I also consider to be, you know, the greatest, it’s just like, but I can’t see someone like Bernard Sumner from Joy Division as being any less than what Jimi Hendrix was, in my eyes they’re the same thing and depending on my mood, depending on the time in my life, I’ll see one as being extremely relevant to my life, and I’ll see another one as having no relevance, and then it’ll turn around the other way again, and you know, I’m really happy that that’s the way that the brain works, and that’s the nature of music, only the individual can say for themselves what’s good and what’s worthwhile, you know it’s these ideas that are perpetuated that trick us into thinking that there is some sort of a criteria for these things is ridiculous, it’s only what makes you feel what you feel, and only you know that, you know. So, sometimes you’ve gotta clear your head a little bit, and get away from caring about what your friends think is cool or whatever to really listening to your subconscious and listening to your own real feelings and deciding for yourself, you know, what feels right to you, you know.
I said I hated music that I didn’t hate, I just hated the kids who I associated it with, you know, so when, like, things like Dépêche Mode and stuff came out, I didn’t think I liked it, and Duran Duran and stuff like that. And I knew in the back of my head that I did like the sound of it, but at the time that it came out there was no way that I was even going to admit to myself that I liked it because I was concerned about the outer appearance of what that would mean if I liked it or something, or creating some kind of a fixed identity of me as the guy who really you know, into the music I was into, which obviously I was much more into than I would have been then anyways, but you know, but whatever things like King Crimson, and Genesis and Yes and stuff like that, that was what I really related to the most and what I felt like gave me identity.
But gradually when I did start get into things like Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, I was like, you know, I remember liking this when I heard it I just didn’t admit it to myself, you know. It would have been one thing to keep it secret from other people, that’s its own issue, but to not even let myself know it… I remember recording a Dépêche Mode song on the radio, and then when I realised it was them I stopped recording it, and you know, I loved the sound of it that should have been all I was going by, you know, I shouldn’t have been concerned about ‘oh these people like it who I don’t like’ or something like that, you know, it’s like it’s a silly way to think, and I guess I have the reverse of it, most people like things because other people like them, and I think either way you’re doing yourself an injustice because you like everything you like for a reason, if something sounds good to you it sounds that way for a reason, and even if you don’t understand something right away, sometimes if there’s some little part of your brain that says ‘there’s something healthy here’ or ‘there’s something interesting here’, sometimes its important also to do that. I did that, you know, with jazz and stuff, I guess I grew up around classical music, so I didn’t have an ear for jazz the way some people do when they’re young, but I knew that there was something there for me, and so I learned things on my guitar and gradually developed the emotional receptors in my brain that relate to the types of feelings and sounds and chords and melodies that are in that kind of music.
And you know, there has been so many forces working against people to come up with a fixed idea of what they like that sometimes you kind of have to train yourself to figure out what you actually like, because it turns out I really love jazz and it really means a lot to me, but those doors hadn’t been opened up in my head, or like I said, just those receptors hadn’t needed to be woken up you know. And so I really just think it’s important to pay attention to the nature of the way that the brain relates to music and to listen to every little thing it dictates in terms of how you can get more from all the wealth of beautiful music that there is in the world.
There is an incredible amount of great music, it’s unbelievable that so much has resulted from us, I mean there is as much as there is food growing out of the ground and plants growing out of the ground. It’s you know, it’s there if you gravitate towards it and if you put the energy into it, I think its really unwise to just, you know, buy whatever the thing is that’s pushed down your throat next, you know it’s like it’s important to look for things and to find things yourself, you’ll find that something is guiding you towards the things that you need to be listening to, and the more you do it the more in touch with that force you’ll be. You know, nature wants you to eat its beautiful fruits and eat it’s vegetables and look at it’s trees and feel its wind, and nature wants you to listen to the music that it’s resulted in. You know, no reason to think of the efforts of man as being separate from nature its all just one thing it’s nature, it’s what exists. One thing.
I get the impression, I talk to a psychic, and she said something about my cats, they enjoy the noise that I make, and she also said something about them not having the same perception of time that we do. So it started to make me wonder because music is so intrinsically connected to time, it is sound being structured through time, that their perception of it, they wouldn’t hear the organisation of it in the way that we do. It’s funny how with a piece of music, you’re just following your feelings but you play something that is good in the form that you make it in but if one note was off, if one note was in a slightly different place it would sound totally wrong and sound like it didn’t at all follow a coherent train of thought. It’s real specific why one note sounds good following the next, and again it’s something you just gradually learn by following your intuition, it’s not something that can be directly, or at least it’s never been directly explained, or understood. But it has to do just with the set-up of our brain, we perceive time in the way that we perceive it because of the set-up of our brains and our sensory apparatus, and our nervous system, it’s not so much that time is definitively going at that rate, it’s totally possible for another species to be experiencing everything at a completely different rate. Seems to me like flies must experience it at a drastically different rate, they are way too on top of it for having such small brains.
And so I figure that cats are probably hearing time speeding up and slowing down or something all the time and that what we hear as being musical organisation and a coherent train of thought just doesn’t sound like a coherent train of thought to them, but at the same time they seem to respond to the music. My cats love it when I listen to music with them more than anything you know, but I believe that it’s because they feel the feelings that you’re feeling when you’re listening to it, you know. I believe that cats feel what you’re feeling and from what I’m told their thoughts are, they think more in pictures and they don’t think in words and you can transfer the pictures in your mind to your animal. And so I think that they must be feeling what I’m feeling just in the same way that, again with sex it’s like when both people are gradually causing each other to feel the same thing as one another. And when people come to a show, by the power of the music the audience is generally all feeling more or less the same thing, you know, altered a bit by one persons personality or one persons capacity to feel to another’s but basically they are all feeling what each other is feeling, and I think that’s what taking place when an animal owner really loves their animal and their dog comes running when they hear them playing the piano I think they really like hearing them play the piano because it’s when their family member is feeling, you know, what they’re feeling, and they like being in a room with that energetic current flowing through it. So I think they hear the sound but I don’t think they experience it the same way that we do, but I think they still experience the end result is still the same feeling. Most likely, anyway. At least that’s the way I’ve put it together.
One of the most beautiful things that I think about live music is the fact that for the period of time that those people are in the place, assuming that all the people came there because the music generates the feelings in them that the music dictates, they’re all generally feeling the same thing. They are all feeling good at the same time, they’ve all put all their thoughts about their everyday life out of their head, all their worries, they’re just not on their mind. The power of music has joined all their consciousnesses into one thing, they are literally functioning as one organism, you know, and they are all feeling more or less the same thing. And it’s no different than, you know, when people have sex and they gradually cause each other to feel what the other one is feeling. And, you know, in any event it’s at a sporting event, it’s the same thing, everybody is connected to the things that are taking place, and the emotions that it arouses in them and it unites people in a way that in their everyday lives… You know it’s part of the tragedy of existence, we are all, you know, alone in here, you know, there is no escape from that, you know, you’re inside your body whether you like it or not, and so to be able to feel that what is in you is in everybody around you, I think is your ability to experience the real truth of what’s really going on that it is all one thing, you know.