The Apocalyptic Visions of Current 93

by Jennifer Kelly

David Tibet talks about the frightening images and transcendent beauty at the heart of his new album Black Ships Ate the Sky in a rare interview with one of experimental music's most intriguing characters.

The music is minimally lovely, a web of delicate picked guitars, the reverberation of cello and other strings, and over it a voice, not quite speaking, not quite singing the stark, frightening poetry of the end of the world. The voice—dramatic, foreboding, impassioned—belongs to David Tibet of Current 93, who for more than 20 years has used music and other arts to explore his most deeply-held spiritual beliefs.

Since 1982, David Tibet has recorded under the name Current 93, collaborating on more than 40 albums with an extraordinary array of experimental musicians, including the late Jhonn Balance (Coil) and Fritz Hammon (23 Skiddoo), Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, Nick Cave, and Shirley Collins. Along with Incredible String Band, Sun City Girls, and Pearls Before Swine, Current 93 has become a touchstone for the burgeoning free folk scene, a forerunner of bands like Six Organs of Admittance, Wooden Wand, In Gowan Ring, and Spires that in the Sunset Rise.

Ben Chasny, who plays on Black Ships, said he first heard about Current 93 just under a decade ago when reading about the Incredible String Band and Comus. “I was actually not into them at all when I first heard them. It took about a year to warm up, and then after that I was a die-hard fan,” he said. Chasny was particularly taken by Tibet’s work with Steven Stapleton. “The way they combined acoustic elements with dark ambient sounds and scrapes hit me pretty hard. I did a record called Dark Noontide and it was heavily influenced by Current 93’s All the Pretty Horses,” he added.

The range of Tibet’s influence can be gauged, to some extent, by the musicians he fields on his latest album. The band for Black Ships Ate the Sky includes long-time collaborators Michael Cashmore and Steven Stapleton, alongside Six Organs’ Ben Chasny, cellist John Contreras, William Basinski, Amy Phillips, and William Breeze. The guest artists are even more varied—Antony (whose first album was released by Tibet’s Durto Jnana label), Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Bonnie Prince Billy, Shirley Collins, and others.

Mystery amidst the banal

Born in Malaysia as David Michael Bunting, Tibet was exposed early on to an extraordinary array of religious traditions—Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, filtered through British, Chinese and Indian cultural forms—and “found great beauty in all of them,” he said. Later, Tibet traveled to Katmandu to study Tibetan Buddhism, but though interested in many spiritual traditions, his life and work is deeply Christian. He believes in the coming of the apocalypse, the resurrection of Christ, the existence of heaven and hell in a matter-of-fact way, and his work explores these issues continually. But he also maintains, just as strongly, a connection with the ordinary world around him. Alongside images of destruction and salvation, he’ll slip in references to “toast and tea and judgment”, the day-to-day intersecting the marvelous.

“What always struck me about the world is the great mystery that surrounds us in the middle of absolute banality,” said Tibet. “For me, you know—for anyone, I think—we may be thinking profound things about, ‘I wonder what will happen when I die,’ and then there’s a knock on the door and it’s the postman, or it’s somebody coming with a bill. The profound is intermingled and interwoven with the banal constantly.”

Even the most ordinary objects, the most familiar people and relationships, are, to Tibet, a source of wonderment. “We’re complete mysteries to ourselves, and we’re mysteries to everyone else,” he said. “The whole nature of the world is suffused in mystery and unknowability, and I think to me, that is really beautiful, sometimes it’s really terrifying, but it does make everything incredibly special, that we’re surrounded by mystery upon mystery and yet we say that we know someone else or we know something, but it’s all ... everything is wearing a mask and we ourselves are wearing an infinity of masks one after the other. We strip one mask away and there’s another mask there. That’s how I see things, the idea of wearing masks that we disguise ourselves.”

Though his work is often difficult and disturbing, Tibet himself radiates kindness, gentleness and intelligence. He is funny, in a self-deprecating way, and warmly empathetic, even as he explains why—nothing personal—he generally doesn’t like doing interviews. “I really feel that, because I’ve done so many records and books and paintings, I want it to all speak for itself,” he said. “What I have to say, which really is a long personal dialogue with myself and my obsessions and hopes and fears, that it’s really all there. When we start explaining ourselves, whatever we do and whoever we are, it tends to complicate and darken things, rather than clarify and elucidate them.”

By email Chasny, too, observed that working with Tibet is not as doom-laden as people might expect. “I have my own apocalyptic view of the world, so it’s not too hard to get behind what David is singing about. We have different thoughts on how and why it will end, but the end is the same,” he said. “The funny thing is that when we get together, it’s all laughs. You’d think it would be a dark lord convention, but really it’s mostly chit-chat about the new Renee Zellweger movie and arguments about Judas Priest and Thai food.”

World’s end and redemption

Tibet wrote Black Ships Ate the Sky over an exhausting four-year period, struggling to get down a tidal wave of images and ideas that came to him as if from an external source. “I have odd periods where it’s as if a crack has opened up in my skull and colors and images and words start pouring in,” said Tibet. “This happened particularly with Black Ships. Huge amounts of text started pouring into my head, and again, usually quite flat, but sometimes quite vivid and hypnagogic.”

One of the most striking of these images was the “black ships” of the title, which make repeated foreboding appearances throughout the album. Tibet explained that the idea came to him in a particularly vivid dream, which he describes like this:

“In the dream, I was looking up at the sky. It was a very calm, blue sky, with occasional fluffy clouds floating across. And then I saw black ships coming into the sky from the edge of my horizon,” he said. The ships moved slowly across the sky in a strange, discontinuous motion that Tibet compared to a flip-book animation. “By the end of the dream, they just filled up the sky,” he said. “They didn’t have mouths in their holds or their mouths, but the parts of the sky that they covered and passed through took on the consistency of being devoured. It was like they were biting lumps out of the sky and behind the sky, there was a fog deeper and more unsettling color that became ... the sky became corrupted behind the black ships as they ate into it.”

Yet while this image might seem nightmarish, Tibet said that it did not frighten him at all. “I suppose in a way, I see why people see these as dark or foreboding. To me it’s hopeful. To me, they’re all signs of the second coming of Christ. So although they’re disturbing, perhaps, to me they’re essentially hopeful, that this is a time that we have to pass through before Christ returns and the full glory of humanity is manifest.”

The “Black Ships” songs—there are four of them—start with the repressed tension of “Black Ships in the Sky” and gradually build in intensity, ending with the title cut, which is by far the most electrified and harsh track on the album. Their nightmarish quality is counterbalanced, though, by a series of haunting and beautiful renditions of “Idumea”, a hymn that was written by Charles Wesley in 1763. “I love that hymn, and it’s always moved me,” said Tibet. “It is the key to the album, because, as you say, it’s balancing out the black ships.”

“The ‘Idumea’ for me is a constant reminder to keep things in perspective,” he added, explaining that its verse dealt with the Catholic Church’s “Four Last Things”, namely death, judgment, heaven. and hell. “I think ‘Idumea’ is a really hopeful song, but it does say to people that it’s your responsibility, that it’s one’s own responsibility and that the judgments that we make and the decisions that we take have profound implications for our lives and for our souls.”

Repeated nine times in the course of the album, the verse “And am I born to die? / To lay this body down / And must my trembling spirit fly / Into a world unknown” takes on a different shape with every interpretation. With Marc Almond singing, it is all search and questioning, with Will Oldham, it takes on the weathered grace of an Appalachian funeral song. Baby Dee’s take is mysterious and spiritual, emerging out of a tranquil shimmer of harp, while Antony’s feathery, self-harmonized version sounds like an angel’s barbershop quartet.

Tibet says he met then-unknown Antony in 2001 in New York through a friend. “He was very sweet. We didn’t talk much. He gave me a CD and we just chatted a little. I didn’t know who he was,” Tibet recalled.

Antony, by contrast, was already a fan of Current 93’s work, particularly Of Runes and Some Blazing Starre. By email, he remembered, “I had been aware of David Tibet and his work for several years before I met him. I had owned several of his records and they made an strong impression on me, they seemed very poetic, metaphysical, cryptic, pastoral and existentially alarming.”

Tibet took Antony’s demo back to England with him, put it on and was immediately struck by it. “I just knew he was a genius and was going to be a superstar,” he said. Tibet ended up releasing Antony’s self-titled album on his own Durtro Jnana label as well as a CD single “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy”. Though Antony has since moved to Secretly Canadian and broader success, the two have remained friends, and Tibet naturally asked him to consider recording “Idumea” for him. Antony did, lending his unearthly voice to that hymn, as well as “The Beautiful Dancing Dust” on Black Ships Ate the Sky. Asked if he felt pressure to put his own stamp on “Idumea”, knowing that so many other people were interpreting it, he said, “It’s funny but I didn’t really consider other people’s versions and what they might sound like. I just followed my nose really. My version is a little bit Helium voiced and strange, a choral a capella version.”

The most stunning version of the old hymn, though, is the final one, Shirley Collins’ ravaged and ravishing interpretation of an alternate verse she learned while song-catching with Alan Lomax. “It’s amazing,” agreed Tibet, when I mentioned how good the song was, “but she didn’t like it.” Collins, who lives near him in the South of England, first agreed to record the “Idumea” four years ago, he said. But as the time grew closer, Collins who hadn’t sung publicly for decades, began to worry. Tibet continued to gently urge her to try it, and finally, she agreed to go into the studio. Concerned about her voice, she intended to speak-sing the song. The disc she sent Tibet contained five spoken versions and two sung, and she encouraged him to use one of the spoken ones.

“She was just terrified to hear what her voice sounded like, and she’d say to me, ‘But my voice isn’t the same as it was,’” recalled Tibet. “And I said, ‘Well, of course its’ not. It’s changed because you’re older. You’ve experienced more. And of course, it’s not the high voice of an 18-year-old girl.’ Because she’s not an 18-year old girl. But to me the depth and emotional resonance and beauty is heart-breaking. And everyone that’s heard it has said that. Everyone loves it.”

Don’t call him industrial

Tibet’s work is difficult to categorize, not really folk or spoken word or improv, and certainly not “industrial”, a tag that is often assigned to it because of Tibet’s relationships with bands like Coil, Nurse with Wound and Psychic TV. “To me, industrial just means really abrasive noises, violent, unpleasant sounds that are meant to sound like machines,” he said, dismissing the term. “And our music wasn’t ... I just never had any interest in that.”

Tibet much prefers the phrase “apocalyptic folk”, which he coined in the late 1980s, when a distributor asked for a short genre buzzword. “I didn’t mean it as folk music.,” said Tibet. “I actually don’t like folk music either. What I meant was that we are apocalyptic folk, or guys. But it stuck, and now it seems to cover a lot of doomy folk. I sort of traded one burden and halter in and landed myself with another one.”

Music, art, business, Coptic ... and self-knowledge

In addition to Current 93, Tibet manages his own label Durtro Jnana, which has released albums by Tiny Tim, Shirley Collins, Baby Dee, Antony and the Johnsons, Pantaleimon, and Little Annie Anxiety, in addition to his own. He and his label manager, Mark Logan have recently put together a five-CD benefit compilation for Doctors without Borders to raise money for AIDS projects in Africa. They’re planning another such project to benefit a leprosy colony in Africa.

Tibet runs a publishing house, which is currently in the process of issuing the complete works of Count Stenbock, a 19th gay poet and short-story writer, and Thomas Ligotti, a contemporary horror writer. He is a painter and a linguist. Having taught himself to read the New Testament in the original Greek, he is now working on Coptic, a hybrid of Greek and ancient Egyptian. “Fundamentally it’s the ancient Egyptian language, which we commonly see in hieroglyphics, hieratic and demotic,” he explained. “It’s ancient Egyptian, written in Greek alphabet, and the particular dialect that I’m interested in which is called Sahiddic.” With Coptic grammars and notes strewn around his bedroom and an email correspondence with a professor in Australia, Tibet hopes to become fluent enough to read the “Gospel of Thomas”, which collects sayings of Jesus Christ.

All these activities are, in some way, a continuation of Tibet’s search for meaning, an ongoing dialogue with himself about life and death, sin and salvation. Asked if art and music were good ways to clarify such large issues, he responded with a chuckle. “Well, if the answer is on the basis of, have I clarified anything, then I guess it’s been a really bad way,” he admitted. “But if it’s do you know any other way, then I would have to say, ‘No, it’s the only way I know.’ It’s the best way for me. It just keeps on taking you into yourself and within oneself, just as without oneself, there are plenty of dead paths. We just do the best we can to make sense of the world and make sense of ourselves, and hopefully with some kindness and understanding. Getting to know oneself is very difficult, but it’s something that we all have to do. We eventually have to find out what’s behind all the masks we’ve worn.”

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article