Brooklyn’s Cult Of Youth, primarily the project of multi-instrumentalist/songwriter and onetime Love As Laughter bassist Sean Ragon, has released home-recorded singles and one limited-edition Dais LP since 2007, but this new self-titled Chris Coady-produced, Kevin McMahon-mixed collection is the first he’s recorded with his proper band, bassist Micki Pellerano, drummer Glenn Maryanski, and violinist Christiana Key (who did the string arrangements on labelmate Zola Jesus’s “Poor Animal”). It’s also the first full-length with wider distribution. People who pay attention to the neo-folk, pagan folk, and post-industrial scene, wear Death In June/Current 93 shirts, bring up The Wicker Man occasionally in conversation, or frequent Todd Pendu’s gatherings, will likely be familiar with the band, but 2011 seems like the year the rest of the world will get a taste of Ragon’s frenetic, powerful energy. He’s a charismatic frontman with a lot on his mind — think a deceptively clean-cut, tattooed Shane Macgowan — so we asked him a couple questions. It’s worth reading his thoughts on opener “New West” before taking a listen.
The title “New West” has more to do with the emotional character of the song than an actual place or a concept. With the record I really tried to tell a narrative, and this song starts the record out because it express a sense of vastness and wonder. The concept of “going west” or exploring new territory reflects a lot of what I was going through personally when I wrote the song. At the time I was newly sober from drugs and alcohol, I had just started my own business [Note: He runs Heaven Street records and the record label Blind Prophet], and I had decided to go “all in” with the band and try to do things a little more professionally and attempt to go beyond the DIY home-recording style that I was comfortable with and used to. The song was actually written only a week or so before we went into the studio, and to me it also has the “freshest” felling of all the songs on the record.
Regarding the lyrics, there is a lot of stuff in there. A lot of the lines are basically snippets of different experiences that I had around that time that had an emotional impact on me. On in the day that I wrote the song, we had found that a pigeon had nested in the awning of my store. I had to get up on a ladder and chase the mama bird off with a broomstick and destroy her nest. When it came time to remove the eggs, I took them out with my hands and found that they were warm and still quivering. Watching the grief of the mama bird affected me very strongly, and I can’t help but think that my feelings about this experience carried over to later on in the day when I ended up writing this song. The basic message behind the song is that although people are capable of tremendous good, they are also capable of tremendous darkness. Just know that as you go out and about your business that the devil is just a few footsteps behind you – so beware!
Cult Of Youth are also a band who, because of the neo-folk and martial songs about lacing up boots, have been given unsavory political readings. We asked Ragon for his thoughts it, asking him for the politics behind the band, if any.
I think that a lot of people that come at post-industrial music and culture from an outsider’s perspective don’t really understand what’s actually going on and they jump to hasty conclusions. This happens from both sides, the right and the left. I like to look at the relationship between industrial music and fascism as being comparable to the relationship between rock & roll and sex. Industrial music is music of the mind (remember Throbbing Gristle served to basically make academic 20th century classical music accessible to a rock audience via the cultural climate of the punk explosion) whereas rock and roll is music of the body. It’s all pornography. Fascism is a forbidden philosophy, and forbidden philosophies titillate the mind in the same way that dirty pictures titillate the body. Even the best of us have fallen into using it at times. Although the music of Cult Of Youth is a far cry from the nightmarish sounds of Slug Bait or Hamburger Lady, there is a clear cut cultural map that ties us much more closely to TG than to a band like, say, the Rolling Stones.
Something that a lot of people misunderstand about the “military metaphor” is that it serves to strengthen, inspire, and empower the listener. I’ve always thought that martial music serves the purpose of invigorating people so that they have the strength to take on their daily battles with the self. I know that when there were times in my life where I felt lost or out of control I was drawn to art and music that basically said “Pull yourself together! Carry yourself with dignity and stand tall.”
Another thing that bears mentioning is that I didn’t always have the sense of social responsibility that I have now. I never really thought that anyone would even hear my music outside of myself, a few friends, and a very niche audience. These days I think a lot about the transformative powers of art and music and I feel grateful that I’m a position where I can actually say something that’s going to reach people. Now that the situation has changed, the content has changed to reflect it. We’ve all gotta grow up some time.
If you were to ask me what drives me right now, it is the concept of making “liberation music”. By that I mean I feel driven to create works that serve to ease the suffering of those in pain and inspire people to seek out liberation from all oppressive forces. The music of Cult Of Youth is the music of freedom, and anyone that tells you otherwise is a damn fool.
02/25 – Brooklyn, NY @ Secret Project Robot (cd release party)
03/09 – New York, NY @ Weird (Home Sweet Home)
03/10 – Philadelphia, PA @ Kung Fu Necktie #
03/15 – New Orleans, LA @ The Saint #
03/17 – Austin, TX @ Beerland (SXSW)
03/17 – Austin, TX @ Imperium @ The Chain Drive (SXSW)
03/21 – St. Louis, MO @ APOP
03/22 – Chicago, IL @ Abbey Pub
03/25 – Columbus, OH @ KVLT
04/14 – St. Louis, MO @ Billiken Club **
04/15 – Chicago, IL @ Empty Bottle **
04/18 – Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick **
04/19 – Buffalo, NY @ Mohawk **
04/20 – Toronto, ONT @ Garrison **
04/21 – Montreal, QC @ Il Motore **
04/22 – Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall **
04/23 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom **
# w/ Pop. 1280
** w/ Zola Jesus
[Band photo by Sebastian Mlynarski]