When is a cult figure an occult artist?

By Peter Stenshoel and Jay Kinney
Excerpted from an article in Gnosis magazine; Summer, 1994

IN THE LATE '80s, a new band, World Entertainment War (WEW), started playing in clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Fronted by Rob Brezsny, also known as Pope Artaud, the group's lyrics spotlighted the manipulations of modern media and the joy of self-discovery, served up with heady doses of Tantric imagery and ironic wit. Embedded in the prevailing milieu of hip cynicism and extreme noise, the group seemed to reach for a radical shamanic mantle and produced some bone-shaking dance music in the porocess. WEW's first album, Telepathics Anonymous, appeared in 1987. Brezsny and company formed their own Infomania label for the production of their second album, Televisionary, in 1989. In 1991, WEW's shot at the big time, the self-titled World Entertainment War, came out on Popular Metaphysics Records, distributed by entertainment giant MCA.

On the verge of gaining a wider national audience and possibly succumbing to rock stardom, Brezsny disbanded the group and decided to withdraw from the limelight for a spell while he sorted out his relationship to mass marketing and show biz. While it is commonplace for heavy-metal bands to flaunt the trappings of black magic, or for Gothic dirge groups to summon up images of the occult, Brezsny's songs and stage presence implied a more complex (and ironic) engagement with magic and the unseen. In speaking with Brezsny it soon became apparent that he resists easy labeling:

"I've tried to avoid calling myself a poet or a singer or for that matter a magician or occultist or a shaman or a qabalist because all those titles not only limit what people can perceive about what I'm saying, but they also do violence to my relationship with my own inner sources."

When asked what he means by "inner sources," Brezsny replies:

"I'm speaking about that community of angels and muses and ancestors on the other side. I haven't come to any conclusions about whether these intelligences are dismbodied parts of my own personality or actual objectively existing entities on the astral plane. In fact what they are really doesn't matter to me. I have names for them and I consult with them and I try to take their information with as much skepticism as I would any embodied person's. In other words, just because they're on the other side or incarnate in a different realm than the material plane doesn't mean that they are by definition more accurate.

"So, by 'inner sources,' I first mean those complexes or personalities or selves or angels. And I also mean the embodied tradition of the writers and magicians and musicians that have inspired me. For instance, I get a lot out of the Golden Dawn and Paul Foster Case and Dion Fortune, who both came out of the Golden Dawn. But I've never made a direct reference to any of them in either my public writing or in my music because people tend to have knee-jerk reactions to any mention of the occult."

Brezsny explains his perspective on the relationship between information, power, and 'naming':

"I really subscribe to [what] Robert Anton Wilson said, that information by definition contains some element of surprise. If it doesn't contain something you haven't heard before, then it's not information. It's propaganda. It's preaching to the choir or setting up personality cults. In my creative work, I always assume that if I come upon something that I've thought of before or that I've heard other people think before, then I'm not working hard enough. Part of the role of the creative artist is to create new cultural forms: to break down the old ones and to create new ones.

"That's why language is so important. It's the primary way we create new realities. In the myth of Genesis, naming was the power of the first man, Adam. He created the world in a sense: he created things by his acts of naming. But the acts of naming now are so corrupt. Who names? Primarily corporate sources name. And those who claim to be in rebellion against the corporate sources are basically naming in reaction to them. They're defined by those corporate sources because they're defining themselves in relation to them.

"To take back the power of naming is a very intricate and difficult process. It's very tricky. In pop music and on the radio, it's seldom that you hear new information about things that aren't recognized, that haven't been articulated before; they may as well be invisible. They don't exist. In fact, how successful a pop song is usually depends on how familiar the emotion or the statement is in the song. If it's an unfamiliar statement, if it defines a quality of love or a quality of relationship that may be familiar on an instinctual or intuitive level but hasn't actually been named by some authority or celebrity, then it literally doesn't exist and it won't get on the radio. That's part of my explanation of why World Entertainment War's lyrics won't even be picked up by so-called alternative radio. They're invisible."

WEW's intent of promulgating a conscious critique of the culture business brought them face to face with the dilemma of success. If Brezsny remained true to critiquing the hand that fed him, financial failure was likely. But if WEW did achieve success, their message would be seemingly co-opted by dint of that success. Why did WEW, who were archcritics of corporate art and music, agree to sign with a major label? Brezsny replies:

"Part of the reason is because we didn't get anywhere on that populist level and, believe me, I tried for many years. I've been doing music since 1980. It's one thing to play the clubs and work your way up from the bottom and after five or six or eight or 10 years begin to get your message out. But I did that and it didn't work. By the time 1990 rolled around -- when after 10 years my music still wasn't being played on the college radio circuit -- I decided to go with MCA. It turned out to be a bad gamble, because MCA withdrew its support from the record within a few weeks after its release when they determined it wasn't going to hit the top in an instant."

Working in pop music is usually an exercise in trying to garner as large an audience as possible. Does quantity, the number of units sold, overshadow the quality of the act of creation? Brezsny replies:

"In a shamanic culture, the shaman or medicine person in the group spends her time communing with the other world and performing her magic, but she comes back and applies it. It's not just an autistic masturbatory narcissism in which she dwells; she comes back to use what she has gained there to be effective in her community. And that's a problematic thing in this culture, because to be effective in your community is not necessarily the same thing as aggrandizing yourself or increasing your income. Nevertheless they are related, and to be of use requires paying homage to the rules -- which is to say that the only way you are going to be of use is if you sell a cerrtain number of units, if a certain number of people come. I guess there is no answer except to develop a relationship with that problem and to develop an ongoing conversation with the project of how to be useful, knowing that you have to sell units, without being absorbed into the coporate beast.

"You can never get it right, at least in this age, but you can move in and out of doing it right, hopefully without being snuffed out, without having your soul snatched like so many other people. That's why I'm sitting out now for a year or more and saying, 'Well, they almost got my soul that last time. Now I've got to back to the source and learn how to be stronger.' The next time I figure out how to sell units and be of use, I'm going to have to have more tricks at my disposal, because I didn't have enough last time. I got slogged. I began, just very subtly, to believe that I was a rock star.

"It certainly didn't happen consciously. In part I think it was that I started to be possessed by the Dionysus archetype. That was the underside of it. I don't think anyone can live in the Dionysus archetype, because when you're Dionysus you get torn apart. You live constantly in the dream. You lose your contacts with people and you don't remember what's important about daily life on earth."

At present, Brezsny occasionally tours with World Entertainment War. He recently released a 70-minute collection of the band's material in a CD titled, "Give Too Much."

Peter Stenshoel co-founded the Post-Void Radio Theater in 1977, which launched into orbit "The Little City in Space," heard over public radio until 1990. His synthesis of music with the perennial philosophy can be heard on his releases "Codex from the Trockster," "Strangely Colored Map," and other tapes available exclusively from the "esoteric journal for the masses," The Excluded Middle

Jay Kinney is the publisher of the now defunct Gnosis magazine and co-author of the book Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions