Keeping the mystique. How does one do that in this over-saturated, over-hyped, and overwhelming world of media? Is it just another, albeit a road less well travelled, way of increasing attention, getting your head above the crowded parapet?
"Media saturation is probably very destructive to art," opines author Joyce Johnson, and one-time girlfriend of Jack Kerouac. "New movements get overexposed and exhausted before they have a chance to grow, and they turn to ashes in a short time. Some degree of time and obscurity is often very necessary to artists."
In the short history of rock’n'roll, there was a time that a band could develop over at least two or three albums. Rarely did they strike gold from the very beginning, or fully locate their creative mojo. But, the seeds had been sown, and it was then a matter of careful nurturing. Hundreds, probably thousands, of famous or respected bands and artists would have been dropped if they were forced to operate in the 'get results first, ask questions later' environment of the mainstream music industry these last few years; where rapacious profit-making and extreme competitiveness have clearly dented risk-taking, to the detriment of music as art.
But thankfully, with the major labels becoming less and less important, and with the concurrent development of the DIY and independent sectors, there has been a slow return to the idea of artist development. Just like the 'slow revolution' that has infiltrated all aspects of creative life – from cooking to journalism – there is a maturer, less frenzied approach to artist development. As always, the cream eventually does rise to the top or is at least given a chance to.
Taking the idea of mystique a step further are Sweden's Goat. Indeed, they are possibly the most well-known 'faceless' act to have graced the music scene in recent years. Acts such as Burial, Neutral Milk Hotel, Daft Punk, Swedish heavy metallers Ghost, and the avant garde music collective The Residents are just some of a handful of relatively successful acts who have eschewed their identity and/or publicity altogether. But, have any gone as far as Goat in not only hiding their physical identity but also shrouding their history in one of possible legend and myth?
Who are these masked musicians? Does their home village of Korpilombolo actually exist? Are they really a part of a voodoo tradition? Is their music one that has been been passed down through the generations? Or, are they really just bullshit media manipulators?
Despite their enigmatic, vaguely ludicrous qualities, there is one thing we can be pretty sure of, the music. Goat’s music is by turns intoxicating, tribal, psychedelic and sonically adventurous. With Requiem, their third album, Goat again show off their credentials as internationalist groovers, coming from the unlikely isolated northern Sweden, very close to the border with Finland. "It’s a beautiful and at the same time very grim place," says Lill-Benny of Goat, via email, of Korpilombolo. Whether or not this is true is made fuzzier by the fact that a few years back Goat’s Wikipedia entry misspelled the village name, and there seemed to be no information at all about this place. Unsurprisingly, both omissions have been amended. As it transpired, Korpilombolo was a real place. Also, Lill-Benney is not his/her real name and they don't do interviews any other way it seems. You just have to roll with it. You have to believe, in Goat.
Hopefully, that all makes sense. But even if it doesn’t, again the important thing to know is that Goat make exceptionally idiosyncratic, 60s/70s drenched music that eludes a geographical location or specific genre description. It is apparently a music that has developed since they were children, playing as part of a local community tradition. Moreover, Goat say there is a voodoo tradition within their make-up. The legend goes, that after a travelling witch doctor settled there several centuries ago Christian crusaders invaded and destroyed the village, and the surviving inhabitants placed a curse on Korpilombolo as they fled. It's said that the effect of the curse is still felt today, and informs the highly rhythmic and trance-like music played by generations of villagers, which, in turn, has shaped Goat's extraordinary music. "There were once voodoo priests in the village and the thinking has been used to create a state of mind where you connect with the spirits and become almost trance-like," says Goat.
But, by the sounds of it, it could be from anywhere in Europe; or the Americas, the Middle East, or Africa for that matter. Hence, Goat’s debut album of 2012 was called World Music, an album that had afro-beat at its heart, along with lashings of head-nodding Jefferson Airplane style psych-rock, post-punk, Turkish rock, desert blues, krautrock, and acid folk in the mix. It was pancultural as well as polyrhythmic. It was mesmeric, hypnotic stuff. It was released on the leftfield UK based Rocket Recordings, home to acts such as Gnod, Teeth of the Sea and Hey Colossus, and became a cult success, catapulting Goat from almost nowhere (the wilds of northern Sweden) to stages around the world, keen to hear this strange, anonymous, yet deeply connecting music; "We expected nothing when we recorded the album, that is the plain truth. So we were totally surprised. It was an effortless spontaneous creation made out of nothing. A silent hymn to the eternal. A celebration of life, love and joy!" Lill-Benney has said.
“We've been taught since we were small to have an understanding of not only western bands, but of music from other parts of the world. The title World Music was chosen because we believe we play 'world music', and that's what we think everyone plays. Also, the term 'world music' has some negative vibes; people say it with some form of contempt when they talk about it as a genre, but we think it would be strange for anyone to claim they didn't play world music.”
Seemingly taken aback by the interest of a UK label and gig promoters outside their native Sweden, Goat were not even sure if they would like it enough to go beyond the run of shows they booked in October 2012. But they went so well, Goat were, er, up and running.
“The elders were playing very rhythmic music with lots of drums and they would sing in an olden type of Swedish," Goat says about what we might call their hippy foundations. "It is also influenced, as we are, by many other types of music. For example, in the 70s, they were influenced by Swedish progressive rock. When we talk about Goat as a musical tradition from our village, part of the tradition is to be very open-minded to music from all parts of the world. People who have played music in our village have always brought in different forms of music into what they would play. We took the name Goat when we were older. There have been previous incarnations of Goat and the music has not been the same in all the years, but it comes from the same musical tradition, and it is why we play like we do."
It's a method they continue to employ on their music, including the new album, Requiem, the follow up to their second album Commune, which features the track ‘To Travel the Path Unknown’, whose prologue goes: ‘There is only one true meaning of life and that is to be a positive force in the constant creation of evolution'. “We just jammed together using whatever instruments we had around,” say Goat. "The songwriting process is strange. Normally, when we play together we don't play songs, we make music, and every time we play is a new time. Our songs are never really finished and we never know how they will end up when we start recording.”
‘Try My Robe’ was the first taster off the new album, released back in July, a continuation of the fusion of western psychedelia, turn-of-the-70s rock, and eastern instrumentation. It also sounds very live; the beginning of the recording features the hum of analogue amps and incidental background noise, as if they are getting ready, before they come in unison, like a mutant psych-cross of the Incredible String Band, Acid Mothers Temple, The Bhundu Boys, Can and Transglobal Underground. Basically, it grooves along effortlessly. Like a jam, in fact. Try My Robe? Yes, please.
“As we have stated over and over, yes, this incarnation of Goat will also pass,” says Goat in response to a question about whether or not the band are part of a longer tradition, one that goes back in the mists of time. Previously, Goat had stated, “Some of us have played together since we were children in the place we originally came from. From the village of Korpilombolo. The three of us from Korpilombolo are the original members and the core of the group (which is now a much bigger and fluid operation, involving people from other parts of Sweden including Gothenburg). Goat as a musical tradition is older, and we are just a recent example of the project. It's more of a tradition to play this way. There have been recordings of Goat for the last 30 or 40 years, but it is not us playing. We have actually been playing together since we were five or ten years old."
It's this collectivist approach that sets Goat part. They don't write traditional songs, they just play live as a group, jam away, and see what happens. Goat is in essence a fluid collective of like-minded souls, coalescing around music. "When you make music in a collective, the individual is unimportant." For Goat the band, the concepts of identity and ownership are void, except as a collective ideal. There is a utopian idealism at work within Goat, which could easily be open to ridicule, especially from some of the battle hardened and cynical music journos out there. But their cause is helped by the playfulness of their lives, and indeed answers to some questions. They have a sense of humour it seems. When asked recently who would be their idea of festival headliners, Goat said; “If Holger Czukay and Geezer Butler had a son, it would be him. Just him playing bass for a couple of days." Meanwhile, they have described their own live performances as "the harvesting of souls," and life on a commune, “… a blissful, easeful and peaceful existence," that involves "24/7 transcendental and beneficial activities, nudity and worship of the GREAT ONE . Invocations, prayers and total rejoice! The love of death and awaiting the return of the horned one.”
Over their short history of playing live outside of Sweden, there have been some festival shows at Glastonbury, Latitude, Coachella, Roskilde, and just a few weeks ago, End Of The Road Festival, all helping the band to gain a following, as well as the opportunity for them to hone their stage appearance and act; one that consists of wearing exotic masks and ancestral costumes, while the two front-women dance themselves into some kind of shamanic oblivion. “We think music sounds better without the connection to individuals and that we are connected to the listeners by the music," says Goat. "There are also reasons that are connected to the culture we grew up in. In northern Sweden it is about not drawing attention to yourself. The important thing is what you do, not who does it. The masks are really essential. Yes we were brought up in the mask-tradition."
Album number three, Requiem, only bolsters this mystique. This theatre allied to the nomadic qualities of their sonic adventures. Somewhat mysteriously though, they deny that they call Requiem their ‘folk’ album, even though this has been attributed to them by their own people. “Other people call it that,” claims Goat. Instead, they say, Goat’s inspirations include; “Hans Edler (maverick Swedish musician), Kenneth Higney (‘outsider’ American singer-songwriter), Marpa the Translator (Tibetan Buddhist teacher from the 11th century), Shaggs (all-female lo-fi garage American band of the 60s, also with an ‘outsider’ status), Padmasambhava (eighth century Indian Buddhist master), St Francis (of Assisi), Lill-Bosse (possibly the American politician and philanthropist, Lili Bosse, the daughter of holocaust survivors.)” Philanthropic, Buddhist outsiders. Maybe that is what Goat aspire to be, albeit anonymously; "For us, it’s unimportant who we are and that’s the way we want to keep it. That’s why we choose to stay anonymous."
Whatever or whoever they are, it’s also about the music as much as the people behind it. Because it is so intoxicating and fresh, it is much easier to forgive and understand their apparently esoteric hippy-nomadic-commune ways, that resonate with the Woodstock era, when people started talking about 'us' and 'we', rather than 'me' and 'I'. Then, as now within Goat, there was an invocation of the collective spirit. And in Requiem they continue to fine-tune their electrified freak-outs, unplugged tribal rhythms, and meandering hippy folk ("Psychedelia is music that is free," say Goat) oscillating between and around these three general styles. Between the live jamming and repetition of ‘Temple Rhythms’ (“to some extent it’s how we used to sound”); the initial rustic-folksy approach of ‘Union of Sun and Moon’ (“It is an ancient tantra that deals with the nature of mind”), before it morphs into something surprisingly approximate to the pancultural, sampledelic mash-up of The Go! Team; the African highlife of ‘Trouble In The Street’ and the appropriately fuzzed-up ‘Goatfuzz’, which evokes a hybrid between early Hawkwind and Black Sabbath. But generally, Requiem veers towards the psyche-folk; mandolins, flutes and tribal percussion permeate throughout, culminating in closing track ‘Ubuntu’, which features a delay-driven electric piano line and the voice.
“Love, money, gardening,” says Goat about the overriding themes of Requiem. "Because we don't care. Because we love doing what we do together because we want to," says Goat about why they eschew their normal selves within the gaze of the public eye.
Their cultivated aura shows no bounds.