Language Separates Divinity From Self: A Conversation with Mowgli

I first heard about Mowgli through a frenetic Google search for Mount Kimbie. Having just purchased my tickets for their upcoming show with Holy Other, I was digging through press mentions when I came across a cryptically named Dummy article.

The hip hop artist making spoken word poetry from Mount Kimbie tracks. Intrigued, I dug in, and what I listened to absolutely floored me.

Each re-listen uncovered new layers of meaning, allusions both new and old. This was no mere logorrhea — to quote “Cadence”, “apathetic anacronyms aptly applied”. After initially reaching out via email, Mowgli and I had a freewheeling Skype conversation in March, talking about math, consciousness, language, music, upbringing…divinity.

In order to cut down on the wall of text, this interview will be posted in two parts. Part 2 will be posted soon!

WRGW: Could you tell me a little bit about what you’re wearing…and, explain anything you care to explain about it?

M: MowgliWhat I’m wearing is an invention by my friend Vladimir, a Russian scientist, who’s developed these glasses. They’re more for fun than anything else…they kinda make you start detaching from reality around you. It’s a useful tool. When performing, in everyday life, walking around, whatever.

There’s not too much to be said, I mean. Two LED lights here, just changing colour gradually, and uh, I don’t know what it does to your audiovisual cortex, but you start to feel like you’re in a film after about 15 minutes.

I could swear…I thought you were wearing 3D glasses for a moment, but really special ones, because of the red and blue lenses.

Before I ask my first formal question, I want to give it a little context. About a year and a half ago, I did a show here at the George Washington University, called Sampledelia. It’s a show that explores my love of sampling, whether as an art, muscial technique, or a…portal through which you can get exposed to new genres of music.

During the intro of the show, I’d always play a quote by one of my idols, DJ Shadow, from this 2001 Doug Pray documentary called Scratch, about the history of turntablism:

What kind of debt do you think you owe to the past, musically or through people in general?

M: I don’t really have a very linear view of time. Everything’s existing at once, there is no past, present, or future.

I’m very interested in the type of songs that you talk of, in that I produced a lot of sound art and electroacoustic stuff that was very sample-based to start with. I always felt that there were interesting things to grasp. But musically, I don’t feel indebted to it. It’s come before, and we’ve got to create something new now.

You know, some people dwell in the past, and feel that, you know, it has to sound a certain way, and we have to pay homage to these people. I don’t really care. [Laughs]

So, you mentioned that you experience time in a nonlinear fasion. One of the talking points in my intro email was how you can be like the Greek figure, Janus, looking at the past and the future at the same time. Does this ability have any advantages?

M: I think…obviously it’s an advantage in whatever you do, and I kind of presume that most people think and see like that. And they don’t, always. So sometimes you have to help them along in that process.

We’re always rediscovering things that have always been here. Half of the things I’m looking at and researching are ancient phenomena, that have been around for thousands of years. And we’re just rediscovering them, and rewording them in a way that we understand as Western.

…um, I forget what the question was now.

 [Laughs] Does it give you advantages or–

M: –it should do [that], and I think people are starting to realize the advantages of not living in a bubble.

Is there anybody in particular that you’d like to point out for doing this?

M: I was in conversation with a guy called Jim Girouard, an American guy, who’s developed this — it’s basically like astral time travel, you’re sending your consciousness back and forth in time. And, you know, I know of guys who are building time machines in their front room. Quite literally sending the cat back in time 10 minutes. And then you’ve got Preston Nichols, who’s involved in various time travel things.

But I mean, musically…there’s so many interesting musicians around, and I’m crap at naming lists of people I like. I was just listening to Andy Stott —

 –Uh huh. Oh, gosh, Luxury Problems, right?

M: Yeah, I was just listening to that.

I like the guys I work with. Old Apparatus, you know, they’re doing something really great. I’ve got a new project with them that’s coming out in about a month (ed.: it’s released on April 8, it’s called IAO)…I think I’m allowed to say what it is now, it’s going to be called Khing Kang King, so look out for that.

I think the reason electronic music’s so exciting at the moment is that a lot of people are merging all these different genres, and things we’ve learned and are still learning. It’s quite exciting, and I couldn’t really name…you know, one person.

On the subject of electronic music…well, my background  is in electronic music, and I initially got into hip-hop via electronic musicians who dabbled in hip-hop…as well as hip-hop production.

How did you get into hip-hop and/or electronic music?

M: Um…hip-hop, I was probably an excited wee young kid who really liked UK hip-hop. But I got involved in a lot of ways in elements of the UK hip-hop scene. I’d…paid my dues in. And I always liked the rapping element of it. To be honest, I never really liked American rappers. I mean, I had heard the names of some of them, but I didn’t really listen to the music.

But separately, I did like electronic music…I did like experimental music…fucking noisecore and all that crap. I liked everything, you know?

Yeah.

M: And in my head, the best hip-hop mixtape I’d ever heard, which I still have on tape somewhere, is like, Liam Howlett of The Prodigy. The Dirtchamber Sessions — that was just a mashup of weirdness…and I thought everyone saw hip-hop the same way as me.

But then I quickly realized it wasn’t really [like that]…and that most people saw it as that thing that happened in the early 90s and sounded like Wu-Tang. I’ve never even heard their album from start to finish.

I mean, I always thought that the two coexisted quite happily. I don’t know.

Well, for one thing, the compositional techniques are fairly common between the two. I mean, there are people chopping up samples on MPCs for hip-hop production, as well as…Mount Kimbie playing around with an MPC and a Kaoss Pad.

M: You know, to me, that’s the natural progression. I don’t really see it as any sort of weird thing. I did those tracks with Mount Kimbie…when they first came out, while Mount Kimbie was still quite small. They’d played a few gigs, released one EP.

And I wrote two of those tracks. They’d liked the last thing they’d heard [from me], and I was waiting for them to do something with it, but I think they were just too busy or whatever. So I put them out how you see it.

Yeah, to me that’s a natural progression, but not everyone sees it like that.

Since we’re talking about the natural progression…of music, of electronic and hip-hop, and all of these genres that swirl around each other anyways…I want to highlight a lyric from the Mon.talk Project, from the last couple of lines of “Choose”, where you said,

Language separates divinity from self
Old game to play along to
Don’t change won’t want to

Could you explain that? I have an idea of what I think it might mean, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

M: Putting words…putting words in people’s mouths is where everything breaks down, you know, in understanding ourselves. I think that some of the most profound experiences you can have…if you attempt to put them in words, there’s…no way you can describe it in words.

I mean, there’s X amount of words, and some of these experiences — they’re infinite. That’s probably the downfall of major religion — they try to describe something divine in between words, to give to some kids. And that doesn’t really work.

So yeah, that’s what I meant. We’re all divine beings, and if you try to describe that, in a word, in a chemical formula, it doesn’t really work. Though…we love trying to.

Yeah. Speaking of the…chemical formula for divinity; in the liner notes to the Mon.talk Project, I remember reading, oh, astral projection machines this, bizarre research chemicals that…what’s your compositional process like? For the music, the lyrics, the intersection? Was it different from before when you were doing Mon.talk?

M: I can’t really move this computer, but if I could show you…around this computer is pages and pages and pages of random words and little phrases everywhere.

I do experiment with lots of different…machines and…substances…[Laughs]
Anything can spark the compositional process! I think those Mon.talk tracks were written at about 5 in the morning, in a car somewhere. And yeah, I am in contact with a lot of different inventors. Like I said before, I’m quite willing to try out their crazy inventions and see what comes of it.

My lyrics are just…me, categorizing those experiences. All these words around me are experiences, and sometimes if you don’t make a track out of it, in time, then they just become experiences that you’ve forgotten. The more you expose yourself to, the more you can make that’s interesting for other people to hear and contemplate.

I want to contrast what you said now with something you said earlier. You talked about how language sometimes — putting an act or putting a sequence of emotions into words can diminish from the experience itself. Does it worry you that you…relaying your experiences to us…diminishes from them in the process?

M: [Smiles] Yes. That’s why…I don’t try to be profound. Like I said, I’m just categorizing experiences, and that’s all you can do. I mean, you can try, and you can attempt, and maybe you might even become addicted to trying to put those experiences in a way that can sum them up and do them justice. Maybe that’s my own failure. [Laughs]

But yeah, I’m very aware of my own limitations.

Well, the good news, I guess, is that it’s not a unique challenge to any artist. Any artist, no matter where their mind is…or what they’re trying to relay, to either themselves — to remember it — or to the listener, to address them, it’s always a challenge.

You had mentioned in a couple of earlier interviews how you worked in installation work and sound artwork, and that seems to run parallel with a lot of your recent developments. When did that interest begin and how did you run with it?

M: I’ve always been a musician, a…classically-trained musician, and then for me, I became more interested in art music. That ran alongside my interest in hip-hop and my interest in a lot of other genres of music. So to me, there was never really a separation.

I liked pushing things to extremes, so I guess that was the same with music and sound. I like pushing things to their logical conclusion, so I thought the more experimental you can be, the better, as far as I was concerned.

And I’ll admit, I might have been wrong. There are certain key elements that you miss when you just try and make something as experimental as possible. Maybe the classical artists were right, and there’s something more…fundamental that we should look to.

The one thing I was struck by, when I was looking up more about you for this interview, was some of the pictures from the Hip Hop In English feature. The multitude of beautiful geometric figures, drawings, and hanging mobiles…I know you can’t turn around the computer to show all of them, but could you explain how you were using them in your endeavors?

M: When I said, “Language separates divinity from self”, that doesn’t mean that some people haven’t done quite a good job at trying. Perhaps maths and geometry do a better job than we do with words.

The more you look at something…you know, when you look at a table and then you think of a table, the same part of your brain fires, so I figured that if you’re looking at the most divine shapes we can offer, perhaps…

Sacred geometry.

M: Exactly. That’s a large part of my life as well…and everyone’s life, whether they like it or not. Trying to understand that, however, futile that might be, is…so if you surround yourself by certain things, you study those things, the intricate…maths of them…then you start to understand a little more about yourself.

Did you contemplate math as a career option before you turned to music and hip-hop?

M: No. I always was good at maths, and liked maths, but the way maths is taught in school is…almost designed to make you not interested in it.

The type of people who are interested in it are generally the biggest bigots you will ever meet. I mean, they’re worse than priests! You’ll try and have a conversation with those people and they’re the most close-minded people you can imagine.

The way maths should be taught, you know, Rodin Maths or Randy Powell Maths, that would be amazing. Maybe I would have wanted to be a mathematician. But…I never did, growing up. I fucked around in class and terrorized the teacher.

[Laughs] Yeah. I knew that I got into science, and the art behind science, because I got into it on my own. People talk here in the United States about the Montessori method, you know…learning by doing. I think it’s cool that you’re doing just that, when you explore mathematics as well as how artistry was constructed throughout the years.

Do you have any interesting insights that came up during this search?

M: Like I mentioned before, if we’re talking about math, what Marko Rodin explains just by dotting numbers in a circle in his Rodin coil…that’s the key to everything that people are looking for. It’s the key to free energy, it’s the key to antigravity…and that’s just looking at nine numbers plotted around a circle and looking at how they coexist with each other.

And that ties into some of the secrets of Freemasonry and the secrets of a lot of mysteries, and it’s sitting right in front of people and people don’t understand that.

Again, I forgot your question. It’s these glasses it’s these glasses! [Laughs]

Well…it’s putting you into a proper state for an interview, so I guess that’s fine too. Returning to a previous topic, what’s your approach to writing the production underneath your own lyrics?

M: There’s never really a method…it’s quite freeform. It is…or it was very sample-based, because I liked pictures out of snapshots of the past. They might have just been experiences…words that meant something to me, or something maybe deeper. There’s never really any method, other than writing them down with a pen. Maybe you can compile them on a computer, but if there’s a lot of power when you write something with a pen.

I mean, the act of writing itself reinforces the memory.

M: Exactly. But yeah, process-wise, there’s isn’t one. Sometimes something’s written over six months, a word at a time. Sometimes it’s written in 20 minutes.

The video that initially drew me to you was the one for “Cadence”. How did that come about, and how were you involved?

M: I had come up with abstract concepts about what the track was about, and production team Lynch + Leigh and director Ben Winston interpreted that into the video.

I think it’s a good video! It went largely away from what I planned, to be honest, but then again, it was based on abstract concepts. I was involved as executive producer on “Choose”, which was with my audiovisual partner Tovanskï.

There’s another video coming soon for Khing Kang King, and on that one, I worked directly with Ben Winston. If you watch that, you’ll see a little more about how I would make a video. That being said, they’re all fantastic videos.

To be continued…

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