If you don’t know who Mystery School is then it is about time you do. The music made by Mystery School (aka Jhonny Russell) defies categorisation. Yes there are songs, yes there is weirdness and yes it is in the spirit of traditional lo-fi experimentation. It has hints of pop music and has the kind of sticky hooks that will get stuck in your head. What makes it stand out to me however the unique way the music is communicated. Underneath the sonic landscapes there is a pain and a yearning that is bursting out of the speakers every time I listen to it. This music is clearly searching for the divine and it shivers and shakes like the internal sermon of a human being trying to escape the demands of daily existence in search of inner peace. It is music that stays with you, not just because it is catchy but because of its beautiful fragility and internal ache. Regardless of how conscious or unconscious it is, the music of Mystery School is a rush release of emotions that swirl around from its creator Jhonny Russell.
On the self-titled debut release from Mystery School (which is not so much a debut, more a collection of the music Jhonny has been working on and releasing for a great many years) you are not so much as invited but thrust into the internal world of its creator. Like all great communicators the songs remain open to you to interpret. There is an extreme degree of mystery pulsating through every word and every sound on the album which unfolds a brand new spook every time you listen. It is vital music for anyone who believes in the healing power of music and an album that I’ve had on repeat for the past few weeks.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jhonny about his process and the music and art he makes under the Mystery School moniker. After conducting this interview I left the situation feeling changed and it not only helped strengthen my own outlook as a musician / artist but as a human being.
Here is how the conversation played out:
Being in a one man band I’m interested to know how your music is created. Is it more a process in free jams and improvisation and collecting the best sounds from those unconscious collisions of sounds and crafting the songs from here, or is it more about setting out with a conscious goal of what you want to communicate?
I’ve done many different methods and approaches and never really had one routine to how I go about it. Looking back sometimes I’m puzzled myself as to how some songs came to be. If there’s a constant it’s just letting it flow however I’m receiving it, as if channelling it subconsciously. I try and clear my mind, let it happen and just don’t force it. Sometimes I like to set some parameters or a list of sounds, styles or elements I want to use just because then you have some vague direction to be heading in, otherwise sitting there with endless possibilities can be too overwhelming and disorientating and doesn’t result in getting anything done. It’s always different though because I don’t like to repeat myself or have one set style to my music.
The emotional territory covered on your music is incredibly deep. The way the music has connected with me personally is overwhelming at times. Your music is incredibly tender. There is an ache swirling through the whole movement of music. Was there anything in particular motivating the emotional landscape of your music and is it an honest extension of yourself or is it just a bunch of really well-crafted fictional stories?
I don’t really try and analyse my own output much, but I think that meditative type approach I use would lead to it being an extension of my subconscious psyche or of the collective unconscious. I guess the fact I’m not a proficient player or an overly confident, belting-it-out type singer probably adds to that vulnerable, emotional edge too. People tell me sometimes that I should sound more confident, but they just don’t get it. I don’t want to sound confident, I want there to be that fragility that you got from it. I see a lot of the songs as allegorical messages rather than normal fictional stories.
I get a taste of the spiritual through your music; does spirituality play a part in influencing your sound and approach?
I would say yes, it definitely does. That method of meditating and the process of automatic writing rely heavily on spiritual aspects. I also have a very keen interest in mysticism, ontology and things along those lines, so not only the methods by which the music is made but also the topics of the lyrics and subjects of the songs often relate highly to spirituality and metaphysics.
Being so DIY and independent, what were the bands and artists that inspired you to take this approach?
Mostly just bands from Toowoomba where I grew up. Groups like The Embalmers and Pentheus that recorded themselves and released cassettes with hand-drawn, cut and paste, photocopied cases. I thought that was the coolest, so early on they were my biggest inspiration to make my own stuff. Also I’ve just always preferred rawer demo versions of songs than the slick, perfected studio versions. I see my kind of lo-fi music as what zines are to magazines. But after working out how to record and produce myself and doing it for over a decade, I have developed a major appreciation for great professional production at the same time too.
How important is punk rock to what you do as both a person and an artist?
It’s not all. I think a lot of what it’s originally meant to be about translates to my music, but a genre or a label for a subculture is certainly not important to me. I think that fact I’ve never been taught how to play guitar or record or anything and the whole D.I.Y. angle gives it a punk orientated aesthetic and vibe, but I don’t play by rules. I’m just hesitant about that label because when it becomes that sheepish check-list attitude that pretty much most labelling comes with, I’m out. To me there’s nothing punk about sounding like Ramones in 2013, you know? There’s nothing punk rock about sounding like anyone else, but I think the general attitude these days is if it ticks the same boxes as something else that has been called punk that makes it that as well. I don’t see it that way.
My favourite song from your album is “My Spaceship” – when I listen to it I hear a roar and a level of pain that comes from an experience of cruelty or alienation. I’m curious to know if this song is an example of personal experience or real world cruelty or if it is just a general desire for escape?
Gosh, I never really go back and dissect it, but I would say it’s bits of both. I was pretty down and depressed as a kid and I think I coped a lot of people getting mad at me for being sad or wanting to be alone and not talking much. It always seemed insane to me to be angry at someone for being down. The same with having a lot of health problems and having people act like you’re inconveniencing them or annoying them because of it, instead of being shown any sympathy, help or understanding for something you can’t exactly control or want to have. There is also a large element of wanting to escape your own body from having constant physical health difficulties involved too. There’s more layers and angles though. I like to make it and I’ll have my story and reasons behind things, but once it’s released and out there I think the listener gets to decide what it means to them, and if their interpretation is something totally different from what I was thinking about or originally expressing then that’s fine because it only really needs to matter to them how they receive it.
I’m interested if John Frusciante and his music have influenced your sound at all because a lot of your music has hints of his lo-fi hymns?
No, not at all. I haven’t heard a great deal of it to be honest. I do enjoy a lot of his stuff, like Ataxia and the Klinghoffer collaborations, but he’s far from an influence on my work.
Beyond music, what other art forms influence you to make the kind of sounds you do?
Mysticism, the occult, geometry, magick and critical thinking.
In Australia, in 2012 and now 2013 it seems that intense and adventurous music like Mystery School are a rare thing. When the landscape favours empty calorie indie rock you start to get a lot of shallow music. Further to this you can almost see this divide in the indie music communities where you have these empty calorie bands being touted as “underground” independent bands being sold to youth culture as the “alternative” and then you have the real underground which is full of the bands obsessed with sonic adventures and who see music as art as opposed to commerce. How do you see and view the Australian music scene and why do you think that so many people favour the empty calories version of independent music as opposed to the intense art driven stuff that you make and who are some of your current favourite local artists?
I don’t really know or care what’s being favoured by the majority. What other people like is none of my business. I think there’s room for everybody and I certainly don’t think that any band should not exist just because I don’t dig them. I don’t think that “art driven stuff” is the only thing that should be made. It can get kind of sad when there’s absolutely no support or audience for what you are trying to do, but hey, you chose that route and you can’t force people to be on it with you. I don’t think someone liking Top 40 hits is wrong and has bad taste. They just don’t have my taste and that’s totally cool. I wouldn’t doubt that they genuinely love banal shit, and they should be totally free to do so. I have been really unwell for quite a long time and so have been getting out less and less and am a bit of recluse these days, so I couldn’t really claim to have a reasonable view of the Australian music scene to be able to assess it. There’s always good stuff happening everywhere. Finding it is half the fun.
Are you planning to release more music?
Always. I have had a break while trying to get on top of poor health but am slowly working on new material. Can’t say for sure what form it will take yet. It always changes from what I originally intend, but I have about 13 songs I’m in the early stages of demoing that will probably make up the next Mystery School album, but also about 30 instrumentals I want to do something with, and the list of songs I’ve been wanting to cover is pretty huge so am looking at recording some of those too. I usually rush things but at the moment I’m happy taking it a little slow for a change.
What is bad music to you?
I can appreciate pretty much anything that has the slightest bit of originality to it. That’s important to me, to not be a replica of another band or sound. So bad music to me is anything that is just totally formulated from an existing style or a carbon copy of other acts. I see the point and motivation behind revival bands and recycling sounds but for me I just need something, anything in there like even if it’s just the singers voice has its own style or the music is a unique combination of existing things, just something that they are bringing to the table.
What is good music to you?
I think it’s just that. My taste. I don’t think my opinion is the be all and end all, I’m right and anyone else is wrong. I can appreciate different things for a million different reasons. I can dig the simplicity of Ramones or I can marvel at the complexity of a Zappa composition. I could like something for a cool lyric, a gnarly synth sound, a badass beat. It’s endless. But, yeah, I don’t see it as something I don’t like is “bad music”, it’s just not for me. Obviously someone must be digging it, therefore it has its purpose.
Slipknot or Slayer?
Both are not really my kind of thing. I like Slayer and have ‘Reign In Blood’ on vinyl, but I haven’t heard anything of theirs since ‘Divine Intervention’, though that was a cool album. I’ve got nothing really against Slipknot. I saw them play on their first album tour at The Arena, just because I was given a ticket, and it was actually a decent show. I haven’t heard any of their stuff since that first album though, so I’m not really sure I’m qualified to judge them now. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to choose one or the other, Slayer, no question. But if we’re going to talk heavy music, I’m all about ‘Chaos A.D.’
So if you care about music that is pure then I believe you should do your best to experience the music of Mystery School. It has changed me and as I always love to illustrate, that is all I want music to do. Leave me feel changed and teach me at least 5 (or even more) new things I didn’t know about myself prior to listening to it.
By: Dan Newton
Bandcamp – http://jrmysteryschool.bandcamp.com/
Official Website – http://jrmysteryschool.wordpress.com