Friday, May 8, 2015

Interview with Joshua Touchton of Virgin Flower

There's this distinct moment from Joshua Touchton's International Noise Conference set as Virgin Flower where he bares his teeth and hisses in air. Is it a smile or a grimace? Does this gesture come from a place of exaltation and affirmation or pain and oppression? It's memorable because that idea of illusory context is an important one, not just to performance, but to our identities. Sure, a person mixes sounds together, but there's more to it. What lays the bedding of the mind that makes the sounds? Who watches the watchmen, dig?

I often don't get the answers, but one of the great joys of doing interviews with artists I respect and sometimes admire is getting glimpses of it. This is one such instance. I'm a bit honored to have gotten such an open response from Joshua about the darkness in his life surrounding his more recent output, including the excellent Absence of Essence on the consistently great PopNihil label, a swampy mix of beats, electronic samples, and distorted vocals, languishing somewhere between Suicide and Dr. Octagon.

The new tape is as much a reflection of Joshua's haunted past as it is his looking forward. Rather than stay trapped, Joshua casts out his darkness. The listener becomes witness. Does he or she empathize or dance along? Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive.

Jordan Reyes: So tell me a little bit about the tape you just put out on PopNihil. That is your first tape, right?

Joshua Touchton: No, there was a tape I put out about two years ago on a Jacksonville label called Rainbow Pyramid. It was a split with my brother John in his previous band. She does the Mouth Mouth thing now. There were called Ascetic. We did a Virgin Flower/Ascetic split. This new release on PopNihil is, I don’t want to say more intimate, but it means a lot more to me.

JR: Why does it mean more?

JT: It’s all sample-based - I use a sampler, but the new samples were made from scratch. I use a drum machine and a synthesizer. The old samples were with a Synthesizer, an oscillator, and obscure tape samples. I feel like I found my niche now. I feel comfortable. I’ve developed a consistent sound. Since that tape, I’ve actually written a couple more songs and they’ve got a similar sound and feeling. So I’ve gotten out of that last phase and begun to do what I’ve always wanted to do by myself. I feel like the new Virgin Flower tape is an extension of a band my brother and I used to be in, which was a heavy noise rock n’ roll band. I played drums and he played guitar and synth. Where we left off, I picked up. It’s noise punk rock by one man.

JT: I like the previous tape a lot too, though. That’s why I kept the name. It’s out there on the internet. Actually, I also did a split with Baby Ghost on PopNihil so there was another previous Virgin Flower PopNihil release that had two songs of mine on it. It’s a really short split - about twelve or fourteen minutes altogether.

JR: Have you known Matthew for a long time?

JT: Yeah, I’ve known him since 2012 I believe. We’re going on three years of knowing each other.

JR: Are you and your brother John [editor’s note: John Touchton from Severed + Said] close? Do you guys get to bounce ideas off each other?

JT: Yeah, well, outside of being my brother, John’s my best friend. He’s definitely someone that I’m influenced by greatly. We live and work together and have made music for a long time. I actually just bought some drum sticks today and we played music for the first time in a long time. We’ll play electronic stuff together too. But in terms of bouncing ideas, totally. I ask him questions and he asks me questions. I would say we’re both inspired by each other, though I can obviously only speak for myself.

JT: Beyond an artistic level, on a personal level, I think he’s a really good person. I like what he does. I think he’s smart.

JR: I really enjoy talking to him too. I met him at Sweat the night after you played and we ended up talking about Philip K. Dick for like half an hour. It was awesome.

JT: He’s a smart dude and I’m inspired by the way he lives. He lives a very balanced life, I’d say. He’s helped me when I’ve been in fucked up places. There’s a couple people who have helped me through some crazy shit. I’m glad to have had that come around. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if we hadn’t grown up together or what his would be like.

JR: So what was your first encounter with experimental, darker, noisier music?

JT: I’d say when I was about fifteen I saw and met these dudes Chris Spohn and Logan Owlbeemoth. They would do Telepathic Friend and Friendless Outsider. Logan has gone to form Os Ovni. I don’t keep in contact with either of those dudes anymore. So that was in 2005 to answer your question. A lot of the older noise, experimental dudes I got into are either totally burnt out or very competitive and afraid of other creative outlets, afraid of other people having success. A lot of the noise dudes are really fucking strange, man. They’re burnt out or isolated or weird internet dudes.

JT: So in 2005, I saw some more experimental projects at this place The Pit in Jacksonville. There were two pits. One was an outside DIY space and a lot of good bands came through there. Thank God came through there. Upside Down Cross. Wolf Dick. Super Pizza Party. Telepathic Friend.

JT: Before that, I was into punk music, but I found out about Suicide when I was about thirteen. I remember seeing “Dream, Baby, Dream” and thinking “this is fucked up.” Seeing that, I recognized it as something that I related to that wasn’t full-on punk rock. Ultimately I feel like that stuff affects the way I make music. I sound like some mix of electronic punk and I’m really excited that I have people like Matthew and John to encourage me to do what I’ve been doing.

JT: Jacksonville is a weird place to play experimental shows at. I don’t play out that much because it’s not worth it sometimes. I like going out of town to play.

JR: That’s what I was going to ask next, like, how is Jacksonville for an artist like you?

JT: It’s great in the sense that there are a lot of creators here doing experimental stuff. Matthew, John, and a couple other people are a steady foundation for that. But the people who go to shows here seem to be less concerned with the cultural aspect. They’ll just go out with no intention to hear music. There’s a lot of that. That’s okay. That’s better than no one being there, but I feel like most of what’s going on here isn’t thought of the same way that I think of it. But I believe in what we’re doing and I believe in Jacksonville. I love Jacksonville, though. I would move if I weren’t happy here.

JT: There’s exchange too. There’s a lot of hardcore here, but maybe that’s everywhere. There’s a lack of punk rock, though. There’s not a lack of experimental stuff, but there’s not that much support. At the same time, you have people like Matthew who’s doing something special. He’s the dude and his fucking label has put out so many releases in two years.

JR: I can’t believe how much he’s done.

JT: He’s an impressive dude as far as that goes. I think Jacksonville is on its way up. I think people are going to recognize what’s going on here. Maybe not, but we’d all be doing stuff even without the recognition. John just got that release on Not Not Fun for Severed + Said too. That’s a really big deal. I’m really proud and happy for him. 

JR: That’s massive. I guess he’s doing a East Coast tour soon too.

JT: I think Matthew’s going with him. I don’t know if he’s going to play any shows, but I know he’s going with John. That’s good news for anyone who releases a tape with Matthew - he’s going to go out of his way to help people on his label.

JR: Have you gotten much response for the tape?

JT: To be honest, not yet. There’s a lot of people I personally know who gave me some. I couldn’t be happier, but I don’t think too many people have bought the tape at this point - I don’t think it’s sold out. I’m kind of happy, though. I don’t want a bunch of locals owning it. I don’t want to waste copies on people that I already know or something. I’m keeping all of my copies - I mean, I’ve given it to a few important people. I told most of my friends who want it to either order from Matthew or listen to it on the internet. It’s really special to me.

JT: So this is the most response I’ve gotten - from you and some dudes from Orlando who have asked Matthew to book me there. Like I said, I’m releasing music for response, but whether or not I get any sort of response doesn’t keep me from doing what I’m doing. I don’t do music to be popular or to get credited. I like people hearing it. I want people to, but I think it’s more of an outlet or a therapy than anything. It’s my journal. It’s my exegesis (laughs).

JR: A lot of your vocals are pretty distorted on the tape. What are you talking about?

JT: Most of it is about self-obsession, negative desires, drug addiction. My last few years were very intense. I stopped making music for a while. I put a lid on some things and started doing music again. All the music I’ve made since then has been about the last two years of my self-obsession, physical and psychological abuse, self-destruction. I mean - it was just a really rough couple of years. There’s a lot about hard drugs, being alone, and being happy with everything I was doing, living only for my desires, and being okay with that. Now I’m not. I’m still sick in a lot of ways, but not in the way I was. There’s no hard drugs now besides alcohol.

JT: That description sounds dark, but to me what’s truly dark is poppy music with the same concept. At least when you put on headphones and listen you know it’s dark. There’s no subliminal message. It’s obvious by the packaging and style of music. It’s still poppy in a way. There’s still a beat to it.

JR: I think a lot of pop music isn’t just dark but it tells people to embrace a lifestyle prepared to make you an unhappy person.

JT: Definitely. That’s what I’m saying. I had this conversation with a dude Genre Baptiste. His shit’s really catchy and amazing. I love it. I saw him in St. Augustine and got to meet him so I told him “Wow, that was great. It was really dark.” And he said “No, it’s not dark. It’s poppy.” And I was like “Yeah, it’s poppy and catchy but your subject matter has so much discontent that I can relate to.” I felt like he slipped it in and covered it up behind a poppy song. So, yeah, I completely agree with you. All these songs on the radio that are scientifically going to make you dance, where there’s no way you can hate the chord progression, has a message that’s “Get drunk and fuck. Get fucked up and fuck.” To me, that’s way more dark than what I’m doing. My shit’s obvious. It’s obviously about an outlet for the dark sides of myself.

JR: It’s sort of like, this is maybe a weird way to put it, it’s what the devil from Christianity would do. It’s that sick-smelling honey that brings you close and ends up making you ill.

JT: That’s a good way to put it. It takes the negative things that you’re told not to do or be careful in doing and making them appealing. To me, that’s the darkest shit ever. I covered a Backstreet Boys song a couple years ago. My intention was to show how to how that culture is a distraction and negative for girls, urban girls, or whatever. It’s telling you to go to a mall and get a dress and new jeans. It takes all the industries of the world and tries to destroy culture. Any threatening culture out there they try to neutralize as quickly as possible.
JT: Pop music is down to a science. The frequencies and chord progressions are things you can’t dislike. Underneath that is an undertone of darkness that, if you thought was the secret answer, would cause you to hate your life and potentially die from being too intoxicated or getting an STD.

JR: But it also make you consume. It makes you buy. You begin thinking “I could do the same thing as these guys if I buy the right car or if I look the right way.” And everyone is in on it together and it’s totally terrifying.

JT: You’re right. And it’s terrifying that sometimes the jobs we have, which we need to live, leaves us with a certain amount of money that we don’t spend on bills. I know that I’ll be bored and go spend money that I have on something, or go out to eat. Buying something because I’m unhappy or have an impulse. They got to me. I like to think of myself as being on a minimal level of that idea, but we’re all stuck in this cycle of work, which gives you extra money and you have two days off on the weekend - what are you going to do? Will you spend it on drinking or buying shit? They’ve got me where they want me.

JT: But I also don’t have a car. I like to think of myself as being on a lesser level, but I like to buy cigarettes or alcohol. I don’t buy any drugs that come from gas or have blood on them. Being a consumer is a real thing, and it’s been going on since we were children, or even infants. They’ve been trying to get us and they did. It’ll be okay (laughs).

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