Thessalonian Dope Gods-

Whom The Gods Make Mad...

By Dr. Abner Mality

It's a funny thing about pushing musical boundaries. Push too hard and nobody listens to you anymore. Push too little and you might as well not push at all. It's awfully tough to figure out how hard to push in these days of musical genres like "pornographic splattergrind", "murder rap" or "electronic power violence". Perhaps the most radical approach to challenging the listener is not to offend or confuse but to offer actual intelligence in music while not being overwhelmingly obvious about it.

Enter the Thessalonian Dope Gods, who have been pushing in this direction since the mid-80's. I received their latest record "High Idol Pulsation" and wasn't sure what I'd be up against. Upon inspection, I found a beast that is pretty hard to nail down and digest. Heavy metal, punk, drum and bass techno, folk, new's all there, with some of the most cryptic but intriguing lyrics in the scene today. I can't say I am comfortable with the Dope Gods approach, but I will say that "H.I.P." is damnably difficult to put out of your mind. Often frustrating, it's rock music as an intellectual and sonic puzzle.

Well, being the mad scientist and lover of unorthodox research that I am, I accept the TDG's challenge! To help get more of a handle on their unique style, I communicated with ES3 (Edward Shimborske III) and RKW (Randall K. Wilson), who have channeled the essence of the Dope Gods for many years now...

 WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: First, how did you come up with the name for the band? And fill us in on the history of TDG, you've been around quite a while?

ES3: Randy and I have been making noise together since the mid-80s. But before we emerged as an ‘electronic’ duo, we met every so often with a few other people and ‘jammed’ in the then-vacant high-school band room. I played rhythm-guitar, badly, and he played piano/keyboard. As his interest in music expanded, he started buying drum-machines, super-expensive keyboards, and a bevy of MIDI equipment. At that time, he was working with a slew of other musicians in various projects, but I saw the potential to do something a bit different with him, taking a more punk-rock approach. As a result, we started meeting every weekend for these marathon sessions at his house and produced a series of sample-heavy instrumental recordings. They were in the vein of Art of Noise and MAARS, but with a heavier guitar-driven sound. Little did we know, that at that same time, Wax Trax was emerging in Chicago -- being raised in Warren, Ohio, pre-Internet with no cool record stores, we had little access to musical knowledge. Eventually, as we started adding vocals, we needed an actual ‘band’ name, so I presented to Randy a long list of monikers. He picked The Thessalonian Dope Gods, so it’s his fault.

RKW: You know what they say about bands with long names?

 WC: The cover to your album has to be one of the most uncommercial packages I've seen. Does this image have any special meaning to you and do you give a damn whether you sell any records or not?

ES3: I’ve always like the Led Zeppelin/Pink Floyd/Beatles approach to album covers... the ones that make you work a little and tend to retain a bit of mystery...and the idea of a wrap-around cover… from the LP days. It’s not necessarily the most commercial-looking piece, but it’s certainly engaging. It was designed by a graphic-artist named Sean Burres, but we later superimposed many more elements into it. For all practical purposes, it’s an outlandish totem pole that features very little information to tie it to any recognizable culture. Generally speaking, totem-poles have always seemed to resist archetypal Western classifications, while still representing tribal life and telling the history of a people… rather archaically. As far as the selling of records goes, we’re not too worried, we’re just telling our story. Of course, to make money would allow us to devote time to the project…

 WC: I'm fascinated by some of the wordplay in the lyrics. "Burying the Equilibrium" is a good case in point. Is this kind of autobiographical? I thought it might be dealing with someone trying to maintain integrity in our society...

RKW: We have lyrics in our songs?

ES3: “Burying the Equilibrium” was a song I penned  lyrically -- looking back at myself, wondering why I upheld certain aspects of my personality and why I sold out other parts. In a lot of ways, it’s an ode to finding one’s Self and discovering how to make that Self complete as the wolves try to rip you to shreds. I’ve worked in education for years, and I see how countless adolescents carry on in directions that aren’t in accordance with what they really want to do -- they kowtow to societal norms and school, religious traditions, family expectations and things they don’t really believe in, which gets to be pretty counter-productive. The others conceal themselves out of fear of rejection. So, in “Burying the Equilibrium,” the protagonist sells out, loses personal balance, and eventually has to defeat the adversary pulling him/her onto the wrong course in life. By song’s end, the character tries to return home; home being the representation of lost roots. Although it’s part Jekyll & Hyde, it’s supposed to say that anyone who builds a strong foundation can always reclaim it, no matter how far away they traveled. All too often, individuals don’t think they can start over or return ‘home,’ so they become part of the common denominator. And those who never contemplate building a foundation never have anything to worry about ? they can burn out, fade away, and be dropped into a hole much like a pop-can. A good portion of the lyrics are about duplicity… the rest are about regret. Go figure?

 WC: You go out of your way to be eclectic, mixing real heavy stuff with techno and even a folky acoustic track. Do you think a band can go too far in trying too many different things? Is there a certain line you have to toe to remain listenable or are there no limits at all?

ES3: In terms of eccentricity, our song-writing is basically the strange marriage of polar opposites. I have an over-extensive knowledge of music, by choice, ranging from old Hawaiian blues and classical stuff to European death-metal and folky Library of Congress recordings. I listen to everything, try to stay current, and am constantly going backward to hear anything I’ve never heard. Randy, on the other hand, is streamlined and always creating, so he listens to little outside of his traditional favorites and a few odds and ends. The two sides of the coin then come together to beautifully eliminate any crass predictability, though we really do try to maintain a ‘pop’ format so we are indeed listenable. It’s certainly not my place to say how far a band should go, but I personally don’t pleasurably listen to bands that I think push it too far, like Mr. Bungle, Yellow Machinegun, and Napalm Death. I need checks and balances in my music, and I like bands that take it right to the edge, like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Jucifer, Kittens for Christian, Braniac, Loppybogymi, Stylex, etc…

RKW: I do listen to music on occasion, though I'm usually too busy to listen to a whole album in one sitting. I've been listening to The Ruins, Can, Devo Live, Neu, and Herb Alpert, as of late. I really can't take anything on the radio these days -- it just makes me feel bad when I’m forced to listen to the radio in a friend’s car or something. So many people sounding so similar -- why bother? I deliberately avoid anything popular or trendy on purpose. That stuff can infect your brain... I’d rather have mad cow. So, yeah -- the question! I think the TDG definitely take it a bit too far sometimes, but we just can't help ourselves. We tend to attack songs from multiple angles/perspectives. Sounding consistent from song to song has just never really mattered to us, thank Ole Nick Nick. Good thing too -- I don't think we could pull it off anyway, and I know it wouldn't be very fun trying!

 WC: How did you decide to cover the Split Enz track "I Got You"?

ES3: My parents were big fans of the Split Enz, so I always heard their tunes around the house. And while I loved all their material, I always felt “I Got You” would make a great heavier tune with gang-vocals and a more twisted delivery. It seems to lend itself to the treatment rather well.

RKW: ES3 mentioned it as a possible cover, and I immediately heard our version in my head. Since I’m fused to my computers at the base of my spine, it was no trouble at all to get it into the machines.

 WC: Can you see yourself adding different instruments like horns, strings, etc. to the Dope Gods sound? I could imagine you incorporating some tribal and world beat influences into the mix.

ES3: While the sky is always the limit for us, I doubt we’ll experiment with trumpet solos any time soon! We’ve scrapped some ideas that included African instruments and rhythms and recorded different things with fiddles, but we consciously try to keep things in a comfortable and credible neighborhood. There is a definite approach being taken.

RKW: There are a few samples of big band type stuff on the last CD. mostly just used as layers buried in the mix. So while I doubt we'll be hiring the Phil Harmonic anytime soon, you never know what may be in a TDG tune... horns, indeed!

ES3: The TDG sound will certainly distort over the course of the next two CDs but likely be more guitar-driven. Already, we have some great slide-guitar played by Five Horse Johnson’s Brad Coffin and some bizarre stuff from my brother Micah (from the PB Army). Also, Eric Schmidt from Speedealer is laying down some tracks.

WC: The TDG is technically just two people. Do you guys play live or is this strictly a studio band? And if you do play live, how do you do it?

ES3: As of now, we don’t ‘officially’ play live…

RKW: The music will be difficult to reproduce live without a wall of black boxes. I've done that whole thing with other bands, and it really sucks… especially if you're in charge of all the black boxes. If we do any shows, they will be stripped down to the essentials...drums, bass, guitar, vocals, harpsichord.

 WC: Would you characterize yourself primarily as an industrial band? Or do you find labels limiting?

ES3: I don’t mind labels, so much, but industrial music has become such a boring genre that I’m almost embarrassed to be associated with it. Primarily, we’re an industrial project, but we don’t let the expectations of that limit us. And we’re certainly not out to cater only to people with a penchant for industrial music. Lyrically, we have little in common with industrial music, as I understand it.

RKW: Labels help humans with communication, and they’re at work on many different levels in the subconscious. The brain is constantly filing things and putting them in the proper area of our memory, as categorized by labels. No one appreciates being labeled, but we all use labels on a daily basis. Who cares? We’re all victimized by language and its limitations.

WC: What artists would you like to collaborate with and why?

RKW: Mostly just dead people. It would be more of a challenge.

ES3: Musically, I’d like to work with various producers, if ever given the chance... people like Mark or Bob Mothersbaugh, Mike Clark, Brian Eno, etc. We’ve actually talked about involving more people in the project, taking a get-in-where-you-fit-in approach, but all-too-often it doesn’t make much sense. Still, off the top of my head, I’d like to be involved in irregular projects with Mike Palm (Agent Orange), Adam Ant, 16 Volt, Ken Nordine, Ohgr, Willie Nelson, Mindless Self Indulgence, Marianne Faithful, Tom Waits…

 WC: Would you say your lyrical intent is mainly positive but couched in negative terms? I looked at "Only God is Meaner" and that's kind of a harsh statement, but it seems to be telling people to stand up for themselves.

ES3: I see our lyrical content as fiercely positive. The first record, Urban Witchcraft, centered around the Faustian story of Mephistopheles and the metaphors that accompany it: religious conviction, regret, integrity, repression, independence, and the omnipresent unconscious. Lyrically, that record was, more or less, a ‘temporary permit’ and the preparation for a journey with longer legs. We were just getting the car fueled up, packing sandwiches, and putting air in the tires! Now, we’re building on ideas and expanding. “Only God Is Meaner” is probably a great example of the overall picture. This song geminated from a variety of sources, including the old Greek maxim that’s repeated at the end of the song ? “Be your own god; know thyself.” And while that particular phrase has been attributed to tons of ancient philosophers -- most specifically Socrates -- it’s a simple, universal idea employed by lots of progressive-minded folks, including John Fire Lame Deer, Carl Rogers, the Church Of the Subgenius, and even Christ, if you look at his unbasterdized original teachings. Unfortunately, thanks to the prevailing attitude and general intolerance of Christianity’s historically-conditioned robots, we were handed the relative clarity and simplicity of Paul’s teachings over Christ’s when the religion that molded our country was taking its baby-steps. Ever since then, thanks partly to Constantine and the Roman Empire, the church has repressed higher consciousness. Most people refuse to accept that Jesus was a bit of an eccentric who was spitefully strange and dangerous… a man who did both bad and good in his life and certainly hung out with the wrong crowd. If the real teachings of Jesus -- which work on moral, communal, psychological, individual, and theological levels -- had been instituted with the multiplicity of the human condition as its focus, a lot of death and psychological damage throughout history might have been avoided. From my understanding, Jesus never saw things in black and white or wanted people to repress themselves. So, regardless of whether there’s a God or not, which is irrelevant, this life is the only real guarantee you’re ever going to get. Lyrically, we say stand up, be counted, accomplish things, and live a little.

 WC: A lot of the lyrics seem nonsensical at first glance, but they have a kind of rhythm to them. "12 Gauge Deed" seems strictly poetic to me...words put together to create an effect, but no concrete meaning. Am I on the right track with that or full of hot air?

ES3: That’s one of the few that’s actually an exercise in the subconscious, constructed mostly from dream imagery. I write a lot of different stuff, but TDG lyrics have to work in a myriad of ways. They have to carry some weight for the listener if said-listener chooses to engage; they have to be inventive or put a new twist on an old idea; they have to both sound good and look good on paper; and they have to maintain some clever pattern.

RKW: I couldn't care less about lyrics. Some of my favorites bands make up gibberish for lyrics, and that’s just fine. For me, lyrics have to work rhythmically first, then I might actually read them.

ES3: Wait till you hear the next album! it features a song structured entirely out of palindromes, yet they all move forward in rhyming couplets!

 WC: Have you guys ever had any Spinal Tap moments you'd like to share?

RKW: ES3 has never seen the movie in question.

ES3: Well, just recently, I was accosted by police for trying to get into a recording studio we were using, but that’s a long, drawn-out story that doesn’t look great on paper. Outside of the expected clichés, I’ve worked in a lot of different aspects of the music industry, so I’ve amassed a ton of peculiar stories with people ranging from Kid Rock and Rudy Ray Moore to Prong and Gwar and a bunch of folks…

 WC: What's coming up in the future from the Thessalonian Dope Gods?

ES3: We’re finishing All Manner of Beast, which includes a cover designed by Dan Yaccarino, the children’s author who created the Oswald show for Nickelodeon, and we just appeared on Interbreeding II: Industrial Mutation, issued by BLC Productions, and The Harder The Better: Volume Five, released by Turkey Vulture Records. Outside of that, we’re scheduled to appear on a forthcoming Robert Plant tribute doing the song “Too Loud” and the next comp that Bluntface Records puts together. If all goes well, we’re going to do a few remixes for Gwar and Bleed For Me as well. Aside from that, we may try to centralize a homebase and do more production work as a team. We’re keeping busy with collaborative film and video projects as well.

Check for all the sordid details.

(Sin Klub Entertainment)