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A Conversation: David Benjamin Blower & Duncan Jones Poet, author, social care-ist Duncan Jones talks at length about ending, hope, singing and more with David Benjamin Blower

A Conversation: David Benjamin Blower & Duncan Jones

Poet, author, social care-ist Duncan Jones talks at length about ending, hope, singing and more with David Benjamin Blower

by Duncan Jones, Poet in Residence
first published: March, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

I suppose there's an "I told you so" moment; an unpleasant energy of that kind that appears in conservative, apocalyptic religious circles; an "end of the world" hand-rubbing, absolutely.

There are musicians who come from somewhere quieter. You have to pay attention and still yourself if you’re going to catch the power of it. Times like these, when things are unravelling, need art like this. Following his performance at the Quiet Night Out in February, I talked to David Benjamin Blower -  a musician, a writer and maker of the Messianic Folklore Podcast - about ending, hope, and singing, alone and together.

DUNCAN JONES: Were you aware of a point when you were a kid, when you realized that music had a power to it, that it could change things, change the atmosphere, change the room?
DAVID BENJAMIN BLOWER: I can pinpoint a moment in childhood where I had a very clear experience. I didn't know whether I wanted to sing or to cry and there was some blurring between those two worlds. I wasn't thinking about music as such. That's maybe my earliest experience of realizing that we do these things with our bodies and with what we carry.

DJ: There’s something about the voice, isn't there? When watching a performer in a room, there are a lot of times when I find it painful; the vulnerability of it. I'm just waiting for some catastrophe to happen when somebody opens their mouth to sing. Sometimes you're hearing somebody performing and it is a bloody catastrophe in all sorts of ways. But you're really catching a vulnerability there.
DBB: You’re right, vulnerability is the thing. I suppose when we cry, it's almost an immediate portal into the things that we're carrying, the things that we don't show. Yeah, I think probably something similar happens with music. I think something like this is when we perform with our voices and when we sing. So I suppose there is something very vulnerable that you're encountering when you're seeing somebody perform or when you're performing.

DJ: That vulnerability is certainly something in your work. At the heart of what you're writing, you’re recognizing our own, everybody’s vulnerability. You know we're in this particular state. At this time. The world is the way it is. It's hard to see some way through.
DBB: There are some words that are often in my mind, from the Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan. People would say to him, “Oh, you're a prophet, you're predicting the future. You're predicting all these technologies,” and he says, “I don't predict the future, I predict the present.” his point was that we normally go through life looking in the rear view mirror, keeping up with the stuff that's happened in the recent past, because that's the story we know. Ahead is the story we don't know. And the present is also unknown because it's unfolding, isn't it? So I think it's something about trying to create a space of presence, in terms of time. That's where where we're able as a gathered group to feel the present, which I think often involves feeling the uncomfortable feelings of the present, the anxieties, the griefs of the present.

DJ: A kind of anti-mindfulness! Being conscious of how shitty things are. Face to face with reality, this feeling of something coming to an end; you have to look to it. There has to be some way of facing it. That's important. Sometimes what I’m getting from your work is not so much a plan for living, but maybe this is what we need in this moment, and the fact that we need to be together in this moment.
DBB: Do you get a call to action or something like that?

DJ: There’s something more political there, undoubtedly. You recognize a duty of care, if you like. You’re in the midst of a catastrophe and the easiest thing to do is to hide away. But then, there’s no proper hiding place as such and you have no other choice but to turn to each other.
DBB: I guess it's true that the uncomfortable feelings that we don't become conscious of end up driving us and become destructive. I feel like the shared task of the now is to is to be a presence for one another, in which another person can fall apart.

DJ: Do you see hope in what you do, in what you're writing? Can you situate hope in it?
DBB: That’s a difficult question: sometimes, and sometimes not. That's me. It ebbs and flows with how I'm doing. I think in some ways I didn't really know hope until I hit walls of hopelessness. Hope is something that happens when there appears to be no hope.

DJ: Yeah, that Benjamin thing, hope only makes sense in a situation of hopelessness.
DBB: If it's not there, then you're probably feeling optimism. When I feel like I'm hitting that wall, you know, sensing the weight of things, that’s the precondition for hope. There’s the feeling that everything's so beautiful and meaningful and people are so beautiful and dreadful but still, immeasurably valuable.  That gives me hope. You know, it doesn't really have a rational explanation.

I suppose I've been making art of this kind for 20 odd years now. I don't want to romanticize it, because I know there've been times when I have lost hope. When there's no hope to hand on the other side of that loss. Well, you can't live on a diet of ashes, as a friend once told me.

DJ: Is hope something that needs other people? Do you need others to be able to hope, or is it a solitary exercise?
DBB: Certainly, for me, I need others. I need at least an other. I think there being no other is probably a loss of hope for which I can't see a remedy. It’s in our relationships. I think that's the meaning of things. I mean, even if it’s a relationship with the pot plant you've grown. That's not enough, I know. But I do have quite an expansive idea of relationships.

DJ: Can you say a bit more about that?
DBB: Well, you and me live in the city of Birmingham and we see people every day. And, you know, I have a sense of the work that you do and you work with people. It's all about relationships and it's all about care and the value of people. That's beautiful. That gives hope. That's that's what it is, we human beings living together.

On the other hand, it's not that we're supposed to have a relationship with everything all at once. That's a tall order. But I think we're really suffering, even where there are good human relationships. There's this painful loss in what the shape of life is doing to us. Our relationship with with everything, with the more-than-human world, is mediated by industry. Most of the animals we see are on a dinner plate, you know. We don't have anything beyond that to do with them. Most of what we see that grows is curated and managed by councils and city planners. I don't know, I think this really hurts the soul in the long run. I think we're feeling that.

DJ: It can be incredibly alienating. it's hard to look outside of it. For me all things are mediated. You can’t escape mediation. You have to work through that. But the moments where you feel, this is a living relationship, they surprise you. It's very hard to engineer those things. I certainly feel where I work, (social care) that I have to let other people show me who they are and go with that rather than try and shape them or run with my own assumptions. I have to be open to that other person and that can be hard, quite difficult, but I think that's the way.
DBB: What you're saying makes me think of the guru industry, where there's a culture of manufacturing profound encounters with nature and so on, and it's all happening in this managed, packaged way. Ready to be sold. But real relationships and real encounters happen at the speed of life, don’t they? The speed of life's own natural outworking. It happens outside of your control. You're encountering an other. It's not you.

DJ: There's a risk this guru thing can happen with music. There's a whole issue around the uses of charisma in music. You’re pulling people in and things can go awry. Do you know what I mean? There's a way in which people might be coming to hear you, wanting to be spoonfed, but that's that. They don’t want to work too hard, but they want tidy answers, and some people play up to it. Teaching is a terrible profession for that. Priests as well, but I think there's also a risk with someone writing songs about serious stuff.
DBB: It sounds like you're talking about the professionalization of things, where people go to someone expecting a service. You want the musician to service you with an emotional connection. So a real human connection gets lost.

DJ: There’s certain musicians I could think of where there's an element of that going on. How do you keep a distance from that? How do you disrupt it?
DBB: I'm one of so many countless musicians just operating in a really small way, interacting with small communities and this is the thing I like. It’s beautiful, working at the scale I work at as a musician, as a writer, being able to interact with people. Most of the gigs I play are in lounges. 20 years ago I'd be playing venues where you could have a big crowd but I so rarely do that now. Those venues were replicating in some small and shambolic way, the spectacle of the big name gig or of Top of the Pops. You know, all the stage lights, you're up there, the audience is down there. Now I'm mostly playing in people's lounges or community centres or little coffee shops, places where you build connections. I'll play somewhere and sleepover at the house and drink whiskey with whoever lives there. It's nice to work on that scale. It doesn't really pay! Yeah, that's the trouble. It doesn't pay but you can see everybody in the room, can't you?

The Outsideleft gig at Corks had one of the most beautiful atmospheres I've ever played. The feeling in the room was just gorgeous. There was so much care that people seemed to have for each other. I was walking into an existing community rather than people who a promoter had managed to round up.

DJ: They have a knack for putting everybody at their ease and making these curious choices. It’s Bearwood people mostly. That’s what I like about it. It’s people from around the corner. When I've been there, people are paying attention. It can feel very intense. They’re alive to it properly, no assumptions, waiting to hear what they were going to hear.
DBB: And the DJ before I was playing was just amazing. Lots of Afro beat stuff. Just a beautiful feeling space. It was the music for moving to and everyone was engaged, you know, and I was kind of thinking, well, everyone wants to dance. Am I about to kill the mood? But then people were just ready to connect with whatever odd thing might happen next.

DJ: The latest album, It seems to me that there's there is a shift. You have these great choruses that are going on. There are moments where there’s space for everybody to join in.
DBB: I played some of those songs near Hastings in January in a scenario for people to sing along. Yeah, it is really beautiful. I've not really done that before, you know, hearing the room filled with all these voices…

DJ: I don't go to church these days, but it reminds me of those moments when you're singing in a congregation and you're suddenly overwhelmed. You've lost control of yourself.
DBB: There is something powerful and primal about singing together. I went to a Methodist church as a kid so you're singing old hymns, and I actually hated them. Turning the page to see how many verses you've got to survive before you can sit down again. I think there was something about that form of music; hymns all sound like national anthems. To me there was something triumphalistic about the vibe. But then there are other experiences.

I remember going to a Pentecostal church once as a kid. iIt was a black Pentecostal church, and I was hearing everybody improvising as people do in Pentecostal churches. There's a sort of musical culture of making drones with the voice. And then people are doing the practice of singing in tongues or speaking in tongues, so they're saying things in some language that nobody understands. An anthropologist would be fascinated. You're really entering into a sort of ritual, an embodied community practice. I remember as a little kid just thinking, wow, what a beautiful sound. Not that those kinds of church spaces don't have problems and complexities. But it was a very visceral experience.

DJ: Yeah, I think my strongest experience is with Welsh chapels, going to a Cymanfa Ganu, a community singing festival. Everybody’s going through the hymnbook. You're going from one hymn to the next. It was a very powerful experience even not knowing the language. It grabs you in the guts and you know every line was felt. It meant something.
DBB: I think one of the griefs of the present, one of its poverties, is the lack of a shared, embodied culture or experience, like that. The scenario you've just described is beautiful, but, of course it's a tradition that's passed down from generation to generation, isn't it?

DJ: And it's dying as well, it must be said. You know it's not going to be around for much longer.
DBB: Yeah, and there are reasons, aren't there, to speak of church traditions. There's lots of reasons why many of these are withering, but then I think people feel the sadness of not having a tradition that you’re just born in and you just do it and you'll know how to sing the song and what the song is and what the poem is. The lack of a shared language of that kind - not just in the religious sphere -  is sad because you can't invent it in a hurry.  It's like whisky. It takes a long time to authentically develop that sense of falling into it, falling in together in that embodied way.

DJ: Maybe needing each other in a difficult time such as this, maybe it can be a seed for community. You know you're on the bare bones of your arse and you need to reach out to somebody else or you need to make something of this situation. Where poverty is, maybe that’s the best breeding ground for community
DBB: I suppose that's the Faustian pact of the present: as in there's a thing that you lose, but there's a thing that you get. And the thing you lose is arriving into a rich tradition that you can just swim into like a fish. But the thing that you get is a possibility. It's a time with amazing cultural plasticity. It's a time when you can share collectively. In our tiny ways, we're all contributing to whatever cultures and traditions and developed world views might go into the future.

DJ: One of the things that clocks with me is the apocalyptic in your work. My dad was obsessed with revelation, end times. He'd be reading us that stuff when we went to bed as kids which, looking back, seems to me insane. Obviously, I can see some of that in what you're doing. Those texts have given something to your work. However, there's a sense that talking to some Christians about it, there's a weird delight that things are coming to a close.

A case in point: a friend of my brother. He's from a Jehovah's Witness family and his dad's not one for the smiles. He’s very fierce. My brother went over to see him recently just after lockdown. He was happy as Larry! He was chuffed, because all of the signs were falling into place for him. This is the kingdom coming, right in front of him. There was a delight in it. Do you know what I mean? I don't know if you've come across that.
DBB: I suppose there's an “I told you so” moment; an unpleasant energy of that kind that appears in conservative, apocalyptic religious circles;  an “end of the world” hand-rubbing, absolutely.

DJ: I've had to school myself off that thinking, When I was a kid it was how we looked at the world. I had to shrug it off. I know that there is something coming to an end, and that's a lot of people think that. It’s not just people of faith. All sorts of people think there is something coming to a close in some way or other. I don't want to go further than that, because I think we have to understand where we are in this moment, rather than expecting Christ to come down with a fiery sword or any of this schtick.  All we can say is, well, here we are, we're living at the end. What are we going to do about it?

You can't live with that revelation stuff in your head all the time. It's not possible. But at the same time you have to say well, you know, here we are, we have to live through it and find a way of living with each other, and that that’s the thing for me. Religion can be a very dangerous thing. Those narratives are incredibly powerful and you have to know how to treat them.
DBB: I mean, it's one of the reasons I love the Martial McLuhan quote. Martial McLuhan was a really interesting guy. He's a media theorist, an intellectual. He was a very serious Catholic. But there's something very Jewish about his refusal to predict the future.

I just predict the present,” which I think is what Hebrew prophets were really about. I think it's Walter Benjamin, who said that they were forbidden from predicting the future. That was a kind of divination. Their task was the remembrance of the symbols of the past as a practice of being wisely together in the present.

I find that I'm passing in the other direction in a way that doesn't seem to cause too much of an upset. I had quite a religious upbringing but I never had apocalyptic narratives thrown at me in an alarming way. That wasn't part of it. But for whatever reason, as a little kid, an eight year old kid, you get given a Bible. I don't know why really, but I started reading those books. It was an odd thing for an eight year old to do, but I just found them fascinating and I still do. The apocalyptic books, like the Book of Revelation or the Book of Ezekiel, these were always my favorite. The imagery is just amazing. You know the art of it, the the immersive power of it. I mean, not to say I experienced it just as art. It was a very sacred thing for me, and it still is. It’s all there. You know there’s so much revelation language going on in my music and writing. I always read those books as a politicized painting of oppressed people surviving imperialistic, colonizing situations.

DJ: It’s about Rome. Well, Revelation is about Rome, there's no doubt about that. And with our own Imperium now, power is playing out in maybe different ways, but it's still power and it's still domination.
DBB: A text like that from 2000 odd years ago, has a fascinating interpretive power today, speaking into the politics of Rome. You know where Michel Foucault quotes Petrarch: “All history is praise of Rome.” The White House has it grand classical white pillars. We're still emulating that ideal of the noble, white, civilizing empire. I suppose that's what's going on in our corner of the global village.


Essentials
David Benjamin Blower on Bandcamp→
Duncan Jones at OUTSIDELEFT→

Duncan Jones
Poet in Residence

Duncan has lived and worked in Birmingham for over forty years. He does things with words and pictures.


about Duncan Jones »»

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