THE MORNING HAS GOLD IN ITS MOUTH
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished
and the stars
—Darkness, Lord Byron
It’s written that the prophet Muhammad wore a silver ring set with agate and carnelian to commemorate the removal of idols from the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Ancient Romans powdered agate and mixed it with water to counteract the effects of snake and scorpion venom. And what is agate? It’s just a mineral really; part of a family of semi-precious gems that are produced in volcanos by silica dense cave-water gradually draining into the rock’s perforations. The layers of silicate condense into crystals whose color can change over time dependent upon variations in temperature, pressure and various soluble components leaching into it as it develops. Voila, my friend. It’s just a mineral all in all, but one that happens to have been ceremonially woven into the clothes of Babylonian prophets and has been used for centuries in the production of precision pendulums helping sleuths to calculate gravity, locate water and talk to with the dead. Now, if you were to guess, which of agate’s aspects was it that inspired Steve Austin to label the eighth track on his No Good to Anyone album after it? Care to put money on it?
“A lot of the song titles on No Good to Anyone are just little snapshots of moments around here,” shrugs Steve before sharing a simple anecdote that threatens to read as thoroughly banal to the average ear. “During the recording of the album my son Willie turned fifteen so you know, he’s got driving on his mind. We’d been talking about getting another car and this one day he says, ‘Hey Dad, you used to have a Suzuki Samurai before; would you want to get another Jeep?’ This was before the surgeries and this was also in this period where I was just trying to make everyone happy after all that we’d been through so I said sure. And it was funny because the jeep turned into a kind of a crusade for the two of us. Willie and I ended up finding one but we got duped by the guy that sold it to us; it had a ton of different problems. But because of that it kind of turned it into a project where Willie wanted to work on the jeep and he wanted to learn about car repair and so as a father/son thing, we started fixing it up, bit by bit.”
As a father myself I can envisage this scene bathed in all its placid, golden-hour simplicity, like gazing into the parti-colored pool of a Thomas Cole landscape. And where does the song title fit in? “When we were looking for new interior there was this color that was almost black but not quite… It was called ‘agate.’ Agate,” he repeats, rolling the word gingerly like a cigarette. “It’s just a sound that when I say it represents this memory of me and Willie working on the jeep, just trying to get it ready to use.”
What comes to your mind when you think of Steve Austin? You ever fancied him in a setting so rosewater-y paternal? Probably not, right? You’ve most likely painted him into a triptych with panels titled “Maggots and Riots,” “Babies Born Without Lungs” and “The Man Who Loves to Hurt Himself.” It’s just too simple for this kind of figure to become channeled into a qualifactory corset by the collective whims and biases of fans and scriveners like you or I and—taken solely as a soundscape—“Agate” might gratify that predilection. It’s a foreboding collage suggestive of a cardiac event recorder blurting out its final, dying signal. Utterly at variance with the suggestion of amber-hued afternoons spent replacing axel shaft seals and PVC valves with your son.
“[The loop] was made by my friend Marc Ablasou who plays in a band called LAE, (we made a record a couple of years back.) He’s really great at creating this stuff. When I first listened to this one, I was thinking about the machine-like monotony of my life,” Steve offers. “It’s droning. It revolves around this one sound that’s a heart monitor. So, when it stops, the beat stops along with it. There’s this pause and then finally, there’s another one. BEEP,” he chirps. “That’s the nightmare; it’s like the machine is cycling along until all of a sudden… it just stops. The song’s just a fragmented, abstract thing, just me fixating on a frightful moment. What would it be like if all of a sudden it just stopped?”
And there it is: the wedding of the word ‘agate’ to this weird sonic backdrop breathes consequence into the piece. That whisper of nostalgia adjacent to cold suggestions of an intensive care unit provide it necessary bite. We’re apathetic when it comes to caricatures of death—especially in extreme music; we’ve been groomed to be indifferent. That might be partially due to the fact that these depictions rarely trouble themselves with details regarding the length and breadth of experience that the dying are obligated to forfeit in their departure. Yet nestled within our attachments to these memories awaits genuine horror and ghastly torment. That’s the scary shit and this is the pith of this brief instrumental track: genuine horror. And the funny thing about it is that its audience would never fathom this layer of relevance by simply engaging it as a piece of music. “Agate’s” implications are intended solely for Steve Austin; precisely what I meant in the intro to part one of this story, regarding landmarks scattered about the record leading rearwards into time.
“Souvenir’s a good word,” he suggests thoughtfully, almost beneath his breath. “This is an audio souvenir.”
NEVER PUT OFF UNTIL TOMORROW WHAT CAN BE DONE TODAY
“I don’t want to go down the road of other bands, (even one’s that I super respect like Iron Maiden or AC/DC) you know, where the structures of the songs remain in the same exact vein or format. We’re in a new day,” he emphasizes. “This is a new age!” Steve exhales ponderously as if forecasting a spasm of full body revelation. “When you think about [the year] 2020, isn’t it just fucking mind-blowing!? It is to me. I was eight years old in 1976. In the ’70s, if someone were to start talking about 2020 it would have felt like they were talking about the Cro-Magnon period thousands of years ago because it would’ve seemed equally out of reach. And now, here we are.”
I’ll agree that the number 2020 feels especially pivotal, like a pregnancy trawling late into its conclusive trimester, (perhaps it’s those two ominously gravid zeros.) But just for a bit of perspective consider all the collective lunges into impossible futurism that we’ve already experienced in the recent past. Since we’ve mentioned pregnancy for example, in 1996, scientists operating out of Scotland’s Roslin Institute were able to successfully edit the DNA of a single mammary cell taken from a Finn Dorset sheep which was then injected into an unfertilized egg and fostered to term. The resulting animal was christened Dolly, a sheep who for six years lived out a fairly conventional—however un-customarily public—life. She even gave birth to lambs of her own, (sired by a Welsh mountain ram named David) but I’ll stop with the frippery and incidentals here to emphasize what should be an earth shattering fact: this team of clinicians were able to successfully recode a single udder cell so that it contained within it the raw instructions to make an entire sheep, stem to stern. This would be like extracting a rivet from a fuselage and making a light passenger-jet out of it. Like god creating Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, but really for real this time. What exactly does this mean for us? Why didn’t we all call in sick to work and just scream into a paper bag for an afternoon upon reception of this potentially dreadful miracle’s announcement?
“Out of chaos God formed substance, making what is not into what is.” —The Essential Kabbalah, Daniel C. Matt
In March of 2000—when Steve would have been about 32—the fruit fly’s entire genome had been deciphered down to each cell’s 13,601 individual genes. Not only that but astrophysicists determined that dark energy is compelling the immeasurable expansion of the universe to quicken dramatically, which will ultimately upend the laws of physics and drown life as we know it deep within the silence of an indifferent eternity. But who cares? That exact same year saw the release of the Creative Nomad Jukebox MP3 player which had the capacity to carry roughly 1,400 songs within a device about the size of a Croissan’wich, (a technological marvel in its own right.) Unimpressed? Well, that’s just the glib insouciance of hindsight talking, dummy; it was amazing! Twenty years on and MP3 players are quaint, seasonal cycles of methane and oxygen have been documented on Mars and human embryos have been genetically modified to make the resulting fetuses resistant to HIV. All that while Croissan’wich technology lies shamefully dormant and Brian Adams manages to cling to the airwaves like peanut butter to the roof of your sorry old mouth.
“Man, I hate my fucking car radio because it refuses to stop playing Brian Adams,” announces Steve. “And if it’s not that then it won’t stop playing fucking Lynyrd Skynyrd or whatever other bullshit that was made forty years ago. And so I say to all the other artists of planet Earth: forget the past! Step out, take a chance, write something new. Prove to people that we’ve evolved as a civilization since 1950, 1970, 1980.
“Let me tell ya something,” he drawls, his agitation inching, (almost indifferently) towards escape velocity, “we don’t need to reboot Slayer anymore! Sorry man; we don’t. And we don’t need to role-play anymore Pantera shit either. No more of this ‘We’re the most brutal guys in the world; we smoke more weed than you; we drink all the alcohol…’ I just think that all these cliches have been going on for 70 years—essentially since the 1950s—and now we’re in a new day and age where if we all could just stop fretting over imaginary shit, we could take a step back and say, ‘What year is it again? Oh right, it’s 2020; cool. So, what am I doing artistically that’s representative of the year I live in? What am I doing that’s different, that hasn’t been done prior to this space and time?’
“I feel like I live in a world where if I turn on my TV, it’s showing me stuff from the 1970s and ’80s. Everything is some fucking remake. I don’t think these young bands get enough credit and I don’t think they get the platform to be able to do these kind of things anymore. It’s 2020 and I have to hear .38 Special on the radio again? Really? Really?!! Art reflects society and when the art is just showing you reruns… I don’t know. We need to be sticking bands on the front of magazines who are fucking 20-year-olds that may be stuck in a basement and hate their parents but they want to do something new and they don’t want to fit in! They want to make music that’s totally different. I think that we all could stand to take a step back for a minute and really think about what we’re doing.”
“The century of airplanes has a right to its own music.” —Claude Debussy
WHAT YOU HAVE IS WORTH MUCH MORE THAN WHAT YOU WILL HAVE
[Whereby we change the subject]
“I like really inventive films. I feel like if I hadn’t ended up doing what I do and if I had another replay on my life and someone said you can do whatever you want to do other than music, anything else, it would have been scriptwriter or film-maker. Stanley Kubrick, Atom Egoyan, Darren Aronofsky… you know those are my artistic heroes these days, meaning that if someone asked me about artists—like what moves me—you’re gonna get more responses related to film than to music because I feel like it’s an area where extreme creativity is still a thing. I feel like the whole time I’ve been making these records, I’ve been trying to do an audio version of something akin to a work by Lynch or Tarantino and it lends an element of, I guess, performance art to some of these songs.
“Take a stress Pill” —Hal, 2001: A Space Odyssey
“You know, I think Stanley Kubrick parallels a lot of Today is the Day’s output in this way: Kubrick was not a horror filmmaker but he made horror films. He wasn’t a science-fiction film-maker but he made science-fiction films. You can tell by the sequence of the movies that he chose to make that there was no correlation between them other than the overall signature of their artistry. Stanley Kubrick seemed to be a person who was dissatisfied with ever doing the same trick twice. For him, the variety, the difference of each of his films from one another seems to have been the fuel for him to continue. The dude was truly touching on different forms of human existence and matters that relate to the inner self. And luckily for all of us, the stories he told are all different from each other and they all suggest different conclusions. In a lot of ways, I feel like Today is the Day albums are kind of like that.”
There’s an incidental detail in The Shining that I’ve always liked regarding the famous aphorism ‘All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.’ The line’s reveal is crucial and obviously Kubrick intended for the scene to play equally well in international markets but decided that simply translating the phrase word-for-word into other languages would most likely result in something without any intrinsic cultural relevance and was therefore more probable to induce mild puzzlement as opposed to dread. He determined that the feeling would best be preserved by plumbing the desired languages, (Italian, German, French and Spanish) for axioms that correlated to the spirit of the original phrase as opposed to opting for its slavish translation into them as most people would have done. At a glance the phrases he selected may appear to bear little relation to the original expression, their source code. But—at least within Kubrick’s mind—they could not be more intimately bound. How alike to the inconstant forks of a genetic line, quietly wheeling around the eddy of their genesis? Of course, when it comes to our genes, modern genetics undeniably reveals that a) their sole aim is to multiply themselves rather than to enhance, develop or secure their host in anyway, and b) if anything, we labor in service to them, not the other way around. We’re essentially their uniform; they wear us.
In a similar way, Steve Austin primarily appears to labor in service of the act of creation itself while being driven by a parallel intensity to interrupt any overt suggestions of a pattern within the body of his work. Perhaps Today is the Day is the actual managing director and Steve’s merely its long suffering secretary.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, in the process of making this album, it was nothing but pure, absolute survival,” he exhales ruefully. “How do I describe it? Like, if you took a person and you Hulk-style slammed them to the ground, shattered several bones of their body and then basically ordered them, ‘Hey, make a painting for me right now and whatever it is you create, I want you to do it from the heart.’ Well, presuming that person paints the painting it’s obviously going to take a lot longer to make, it’s going to be a lot harder to do and the themes that are going to be in that painting are going revolve around shock and anguish because the artist is in a fractured condition. They’re fucked up. Hell, I’ll admit it: I was fucked up! Like ‘can’t hardly do anything’ fucked up.”
When holding a guitar pick becomes an excruciating feat and your very physiological house is burning down around you, does the activity of composing and recording an album sound remotely biocompatible or even rational? Absolutely fucking not. And yet Steve Austin’s unquenchable fealty to the exercise is deeply—however paradoxically—life affirming. After all, isn’t agony and disbursed platelets totally on brand with terrestrial birth?
“Ultimately the idea has always been to expand consciousness, to broaden my own self-realization and to try to give people the empowerment that comes from listening to other fucked up individuals that are like themselves and are likely pitted against the same kind of obstacles as they are. They can drop into this and go, ‘Hey, Steve’s being real here. I can connect with Today is the Day because he’s not worried about being the cool guy or the brutal guy or whatever. He’s just himself with his ugly fucking teeth and his weird fucking face and his weird band.’ I hope for them that the bottom line is that they don’t feel like Today is the Day is trying to ransack their goddamned pockets using sing-along-songs.’”
NO MATTER HOW EARLY YOU GET UP , YOU CAN’T MAKE THE SUN RISE ANY SOONER
The distillate of what we are, (or what we think we are,) is an almost unfathomable thing to surrender. In the wake of Today is the Day’s bus accident in 2014, Steve Austin appeared to be shackled to calamities which ruthlessly sheared away fundamental layers of his identity. Imagine having every precious qualifier and touchstone that you recognize yourself by peeled back in one go until at least even your own face in the mirror has been warped into unrecognizable shapes. Imagine trying to make sense of what’s left. What does it really even mean to be you?
Within the cannon of ancient Mesopotamian gods, Ishtar was among the most powerful and arguably the most culturally influential. She was the goddess of love and war, referred to in The Book of Jeremiah as the ‘Queen of Heaven,’ the forerunner of Aphrodite, Venus, Astarte and Artemis, (and—by some accounts—the tradition of Easter) and is the first known deity for which we have written authentication. That being said, most of her qualities, holy enterprises and temper tantrums, (along with those of her peers like the more familiar sounding Marduk and Nergal) were lost as cuneiform writing lapsed into antiquity around 400 CE.
In one of the few surviving stories, Ishtar must descend to the underworld to retrieve her recently murdered lover, the Shepherd King, Dumuzi. When she’s confronted by the gatekeeper, she threatens to splinter the doors and allow the dead to escape and feast on the living if she’s not allowed access. So, he ushers her through the first of seven gates which lead to an audience with the queen of the dead but removes an item of her clothing as a toll for each one she crosses until finally she arrives naked to the throne room. In a contemporary retelling of the myth, these items are veils, each one representing a stratum of her identity. When she confronts the queen in this version, she’s informed that in order to retrieve her lover, Ishtar must surrender her last veil. That veil is her body. She must fully commit to the sacrifice of her identity in order to attain the object of her desire.
We accumulate multiple layers of identity as we flounder through our human experience like coats of paint blanketing an old kitchenette. They become our polestars; we have a weird tendency to defer to their spurious guidance. (By the way, I have a theory that the ghosts of this world are simply these old coats of identity, still animated by the mulishness of their tempers but divested of a functional physical costume.) Simply uninstalling these programs at will is so arduous and so painful that we hardly stop to consider it, it must be an operation that happens to us via death or traumatic happenstance—as in the case of Steve Austin. Only a goddess such as Ishtar could undertake this kind of labor so capably. Perhaps this is why those old agate-decorated prophets were so wild eyed for their muse, (or maybe they were just in it for the ‘sacred prostitution’ angle, I don’t know.) The paradox is that beneath these many sheets of subterfuge dozes god—or at least a pixel native to its sacred countenance. Those layers of identity that obscure this sleeping god are simply distortions and that’s entirely okay; it’s intentional. It’s similar to the distortion of light as it passes through a stained glass window; marvelous in its way even as it inhibits the actual substance of the rays that animate it. We are by design a form of inhibited divinity.
I do have just a couple of Steve Austin related anecdotes that I wanted to share with you before I finally gutter the lamppost on The Uncertainty Principle series (read Part I here). I’ll meet you at the shoreline of part three for your conclusory debriefing.
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream…
The palaces of crowned kings -the huts,
the habitations of all things which dwell,
were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
and men gathered round their blazing homes
to look once more into each other’s face.”
—Darkness, Lord Byron
“But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.”
—Gold Leaves, G. K. Chesterton
“From dream to dream we have always been like an ever flowing stream.” —“In Death’s Sleep”, Dismember