Rock music has always lent itself to the creation of mythology. Whether it’s an apocryphal story of a sand shark or the carefully created origins of KISS’ make-up, musicians have sought to both become and construct characters audiences will find compelling. The Beatles transferred their narrative from music to film, and the Monkees were created wholesale and then rebelled in Head. Bands like Coheed and Cambria and even Insane Clown Posse have taken up the mantle in recent years, translating their stage personas into comics, elaborate videos, and features.
New York band New Villager is putting a new spin on this tradition, basing all of its various projects on the mono-myth of Joseph Campbell and the writings of Mircea Eliade. As New Villager creates its own myth with a dazzling series of live shows, videos, and art installations, Ross Simonini and Ben Bromley are also thinking deeply about what it means to tell these stories, both to the artist and the audience. In the midst of New Villager’s fall tour, Simonini took some time to discuss the ideas that underpin the band, and how it functions as a multimedia project.
For those who don’t know New Villager, explain what you’re trying to accomplish. There’s a lot of mythology, but it doesn’t seem to be written down all in one place.
I don’t think it is all written down in one place. That’s sort of a key aspect of it. You can only access certain parts in certain ways. Some is contained on the album, and there are other parts in the videos, books and installations. We’ve also been working on our live shows so they can become a part of it. It’s a single idea, and we’ve been working on it through all these different media, but it’s not necessarily complete in any one of them. It’s more like a lens, and in the same way that you could approach any part of the natural world with the scientific method- yesterday, a piece of concrete, your dog- that’s basically what it is. We created all these parameters so we could both be creating art and coming at it from the same place. Those parameters are all based on Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth. Do you know that guy?
Actually, my next question is how you arrived at using Joseph Campbell as a basis for your parameters.
He created this idea of the mono-myth, that all stories from ancient times up to these Hollywood blockbusters we all go to see can be interpreted through this single lens. There is an eternal story. We replace the details, but the general arc of it remains the same across cultures and times. We really wanted to make pop music because it’s something that has a place in the culture and people have ready access to it. Using this type of music would make whatever sentiments we were trying to get across instantly more palatable because we were delivering them in a familiar format that was easy to understand. We’re going to try and take this idea with us to other places. We’re trying to make a feature film, and it would be laid out along these lines, as was Star Wars or any film that basically uses the three-act structure. Another example is sonata form; it has a very similar three-part shape. On some level it’s very unoriginal, and that’s kind of the point. Every story is essentially the same, but we took the format and tweaked it so it would have our own stamp on it.
How did this inspiration strike you?
Ben and I have been friends for a long time, and we’ve been making music for a few years. We didn’t really have any particular intention for it, but a few of the songs that he made were related. At that point, we started discussing something larger, along the lines of an album. Then we would be drawing as we were recording a song. We’d draw out the curve of the song to get its basic contour, and decide what shape was right for the mix. It began to get less abstract, so we codified a set of rules, giving ourselves parameters and constraints. We didn’t want it to be a totally open-ended deal. We did it naturally; we were also reading a lot of books about myth at the same time, Joseph Campbell and Eliade. We were discussing these things any way, and it seemed natural to use these forms to filter all the things we were talking about. It helped us narrow down the thousands of decisions that we had to make with each song.
When you’re playing in the band, are you yourself or a character in the mono-myth that you’re creating?
We aren’t characters. There actually aren’t that many characters. It’s not like a story in that it’s plot driven. It uses the mono-myth more for a framework through which you can tell a story. What we do have, and it seems like only a semantic difference, but it is a difference, are roles. Each role represents a different part of the mono-myth. There’s a role that we talk about called the Black Crow Boy. That’s not a character, but a description of the certain qualities a person would take on during the moment of transformation. If someone were going through a Haitian voodoo ritual, there’s a moment where the person goes from being his or her every day self to in a trance. That moment where a person switches over is what we would call a Black Crow Boy moment. You could also look at the moment water becomes ice as that moment. We’re not playing the roles of the characters so much, but all the characters that you see in the videos are interpretations of these roles.
How do you put these videos together? Some of them are pretty elaborate.
Funding is very limited, so I think the fact they look pretty good, are filmed well, and have all these excellent costumes is just a testament to the people working on them. We’re not using very much money at all. It’s just all obsessive work and a lot of attention to detail from the people working on them.
Who are these people?
They are mostly friends. We think of New Villager as very inclusive. Ben and I started it, but it’s pretty open. This last installation we did there were ten people working with us and we consider them all New Villager. The same thing is true with the videos. Ben Dickinson directed the first two and now he’s working on some other stuff with us. We’ve also met some people through Ben that have become ongoing members. That way we’re able to maintain continuity throughout the different products, which is nice.
How do you translate this to the live stage?
We’ve had some shows where we just played as a band and others where it’s more elaborate. We’ve had dancers on stage with us. On this current tour, we have a guy that is live sculpture. As we’re up on stage interpreting the music, he’s more out in the crowd offering a different interpretation. It’s relatively new, but we’re trying to develop it. We’re also trying to use installation materials on stage to create a temporary environment. We’re always trying to do different things to bring the visual aspect of New Villager into the live show. We’re not always able to do it, like at festivals, where we just end up playing as a trio, but hopefully in the future we’ll be able to do it even more.
Do you consider yourself coming more from the visual arts?
I would actually say it’s the opposite. We’ve always played in bands for a long, but the only reason we started doing the art was to come at the idea from all angles. The visual aspect is newer for Ben and me. But it’s not entirely untrue what you’re saying, given the importance of visuals to New Villager; it’s just that the music did come first.
What bands have inspired your project as you’ve developed it over the years?
I’ve been asked this question before, and I’ve never come up with an answer. There’s not one perfect archetype band that we really wanted to follow. It’s more an amalgam of a lot of different artists and musicians. We often have Michael Jackson as this person who was mythologized in our time. It was interesting for us to think about the idea of Michael Jackson versus Michael Jackson himself. There’s this idea of him as a myth that supersedes his art for a lot of people. I would bet that there are certain parts of the world where Michael Jackson the myth exists in much greater prominence than Michael Jackson the musician. There are probably Michael Jackson shirts floating around third world countries where the people wearing them have little or no access to his music. It was this idea and the idea that pop music, even though it seems like a popular form of art that can’t be used to explore things like mythology, it still is on some level. That’s really exciting. Did I answer your question?
Because there are lots of artists who do that, from Bob Dylan to David Bowie to Led Zeppelin- all of those artists worked at mythologizing themselves within the context of their music. They maybe weren’t doing it as obviously as we are, but they were doing it nonetheless. They were all thinking about these ideas. Bob Dylan changing his name is fundamental to changing from a person into his conception of himself as an artist.
I also see a lot of the Flaming Lips creativity in New Villager, in the videos especially.
The Flaming Lips are a perfect example of a band that has become known as artists as much as for their music. There’s always the moment when the singer goes out into the audience in a plastic bubble, and this amazing series of videos. What’s great about them now is that their music has become very accessible, but you can deeper with it. If you want to check out the weird side of Flaming Lips it’s there, but there’s also this beautiful song on the surface that anybody can access.
Where do you see this project going eventually?
I’m suspicious of goals a lot of the time, so I don’t think I can foresee exactly how it’s going to end. I think I can safely say we want to explore this project from as many angles as possible. We want to do a book and a film, and a black box theater show. We’re talking about doing this interactive environment thing for an installation. I think all of these things will come together in such a way that each of them will be a puzzle piece, and that when the final piece drops, it all becomes clear. It may just end up being a big nebulous mass of art and ideas. I’d be okay with that too, if that’s what it ended up being. I think people are finding more in it, however; we had a guy recently show up dressed in costume from one of the videos. He made connections that I hadn’t even thought of; it was amazing.