Before there was techno, before there was even music, there was the ‘drone’ – the primal, underlying sound that began with the earliest ancient civilisations – an aural expression of a universal hum we can only hope to fleetingly channel.
The influence of the drone on music, ritual and popular culture is the subject of a new book by Harry Sword, Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion, which is due to be published next week by White Rabbit Books (click here to order).
Tracking the drone from Neolithic ancestry through to the sonic experiments of Brian Eno, Hawkwind and Sunn O))), it’s a fascinating read, and already looks set to be one of the most-read music books of the year.
Author Harry Sword, who admits the idea for the book came to him from “a moment of epiphany in a Dutch dive bar”, describes it as a “a rabbit hole to the universal drone, sonic oblivion and the transcendence of the self through music”.
909originals caught up with him.
What inspired you to write a book on the history of ‘drone’? Other than a smoke-filled weekend in Tilburg, that is?
It’s elemental: the drone and the 4/4 beat. These are the fundamental sounds – the foundational sounds – that we have a bodily connection with from day dot: the mothers heart beat, the rushing of maternal blood – it’s heard at 88 decibels in the womb, which is loud (the same volume as a car wash).
I’ve got young kids and I find it fascinating – for the first few months they’d only sleep with a white noise drone generator on. It’s a return to the sonics of the womb, essentially. And it remains that way – I love that feeling of being surrounded by sound, surrendering to it; to get to the point where it envelops absolutely and consciousness, nuts and bolts thoughts – stresses, the everyday – is evaporated into that beautiful lucid dream state. And it’s the drone – in its many glorious forms – that so often facilitates that.
Initially I was going to write about doom metal and its satellites – the whole sub -low, hypnotic strata of metal, essentially – which I’ve adored for years. But I started to think more deeply about the defining characteristics of that music and it soon led me down a far broader path.
On a foundational level, what ties that sound – that whole world of sound – together? Two things: sustained tone and a reverence – and I mean a proper, quasi religious reverence – to the transcendent properties of the riff, circling, droning, vamping. It’s meditative, almost priestly.
Then it was a case of researching and thinking and, most of all, listening far and wide. And the path I wanted to forge ended up incorporating a far wider breadth of sound than initially envisaged: the subject demanded it.
It’s funny: when I was working on my book proposal around 2017, I’d occasionally talk to people in the pub or club about what I was up to. And I’d always – always – get one of two reactions: it would either be just total ‘what the fuck are you on about; that’s an absurd idea’ incomprehension or ‘you have to write that book, why has nobody written that book, I need that book’ kind of wild, evangelical enthusiasm.
There was nothing in the middle, which I took as a sign I was on the right track.
One of the things that strikes me about the book is that while it has a chronological structure, the subject matter is almost beyond chronological definition – the drone has ALWAYS been present, somewhere in the ether, and artists harness it to create electronica, doom metal, jazz, Moroccan folk music for example. Is this one of the main points you are trying to convey with the book?
You’re spot on. That’s what I love about it. This isn’t about ‘drone music’ as a genre – I was adamant that I wasn’t going to write that book. The drone is so much bigger than genre constraints – and it sure as hell isn’t just about ‘drone music’ although that is, of course, a part of it.
It underpins – and, crucially, so often subverts – so many divergent sounds. Take punk rock. Think of Suicide and Flipper and Black Flag – how far they pushed the limits of punk rock; how they broke out of that scene, which, when you speak to them, was a straitjacket of conformity and machismo and bullshit. The drone was vital to all of them.
Imagine going to some hardcore show in a squat in San Fransisco in the early 1980’s and expecting warp speed political, Dead Kennedys type shit and – instead – you get Flipper doing this greasy, demented, dronal noise! It changed peoples lives, outlooks, horizons. Punk was no longer some cookie cutter thing.
Think of Greg Ginn, the way he played on My War era Black Flag with those crazy atonal, avant garde solos. He had more in common with Albert Ayler than the UK Subs; and Rollins going inwards with his lyrics, just ploughing the depths of despair and existential dread, it was like a descent into the depths of the howling, naked soul. And the drone is there – it might not be front and centre – but by god, it is there.
And that’s just one example. The drone is fundamental to so many faiths – it’s uncanny. Think about the OM – which is, of course, a vocal drone – all life, all knowledge, springs from the OM. To the believer, it’s there before us and it will be there after us.
The sheer breadth of interviewees in the book is staggering – everyone from Brian Eno to Terry Riley to Anthony Child, aka Surgeon. Did you find any interesting parallels in terms of how they define the drone?
I did – something that came up time and again was the idea of allowing yourself to submit to sound – of wanting to become immersed; to negate the ego, to be taken away by it.
I think Brian Eno summed it up best when I interviewed him: ‘I think of surrender as an active verb, not a passive verb. People love surrendering. Think of when we practice surrender – music, drugs, sex, art. In all of those things we are putting ourselves in a situation where we let go, lose control’
Another takeaway from the book is the sense of place that you ascribe to the different interpretations of drone, from the Neolithic acoustics of Malta’s Hypogeum to a patchouli oil-scented bedsit with Hawkwind on the stereo. Is that sense of place important when seeking to understand the drone?
I think so, massively. All ritual is about intention – therein lies its power. I believe that ancient, sacred spaces leave a psychic residue and that what we’re picking up is the fervency of intention: both of ritual practice and belief.
When we visit, say, ancient stone circles we’re dealing with a belief system that left no written trace whatsoever. We have no dogma, no scripture, no letter of law. But what we do have is symbolism and, in some cases, acoustic resonance: these people didn’t have to build these structures; they didn’t have to spend years, decades – in some cases centuries – building and tunnelling.
It was hard, arduous – and from the nuts and bolts hunter gatherer perspective – unnecessary work. But they did do it! So: the intention is palpable and massively affecting, still, regardless of the fact that the codified system of faith – in the liturgical sense – has been lost to the mists of time.
The Hypogeum is a unique space; the reverb down there is incredibly intense – 14/15 seconds down in the oracle chamber; it’s a staggeringly atmospheric place and I try to convey that in the writing. There are no solid answers – and I love that. Mystery is a beautiful thing. I have no interest in pinning butterflies to the wall.
It’s funny you mention Hawkwind: I’m a massive Hawkwind fan and something I used to do regularly was get really stoned and put on Warrior on the Edge of Time and try to actively track back, in my mind, to everyone experiencing the record down the years: a form of primitive astral projection… back to Ladbroke Grove, 1975.
I love the idea of a record becoming a portal to a particular place and time – one that leads you somewhere very specific. Why shouldn’t it? Again, it’s all about intention.
Platforms like Spotify are full of playlists of ‘transcendental ambient’ music and things like that, and the book references the hippy dippy internet obsession with 110Hz frequencies. But drone music isn’t something that can be wrapped up in a neat, commercial package, a sort of ‘Now That’s What I Call Drone’. Or is it?
It’s a tricky one, that. Because anything that can be commodified along such crass lines is going to be. I’ve always disliked the idea of rigid conformity to genre lines – I abhor that kind of thinking about art. And – very often – the music that specifically labels itself as ‘drone music’ or ‘ambient music’ is rather dull, because the producer is coming at it from a position of knowing the end point before they even start. I.e the influences are coming from a very small pool.
But, that said, I’d be loathe to say that those kind of playlists are always negative. It may be that people get something deep and profound and useful from them. If so, great. But the way I listen to music is quite specific, in that I like to listen to a record from beginning to end in the order the artist intended (unless I’m DJ’ing myself).
I would never… never… ‘shuffle’ a record. I love the ritual of it and the focus of it. If I don’t have the time to listen to a record from beginning to end in one sitting then I won’t listen at all. And if I’m writing about a specific artist then I can only listen to that artist – and that artist alone – while I’m writing. I want the spirit of the music to come through in the writing.
There’s an interesting quote from techno artist Regis [aka Karl O’Connor] near the end of the book, in which he references how techno has stripped away the verse-chorus-verse format, the traditional gig format, the artist as rock star – the first time that ‘anything experimental or avant-garde could be applied in a popular way‘. With that in mind, is drone more commercially accessible now that it has been at any time in its history, do you think? Or did The Beatles get there first with Tomorrow Never Knows?
I think that people are more open now, certainly a hell of a lot more open than when I was growing up. But it’s a double edged sword. For example: jungle/DnB was a big part of my life in my teens and twenties. I did a radio show and used to play out and about and go to free parties and spend all my money on records – you know the drill.
But, back then (late 90’s/early 00’s) people involved in electronic music so often stayed in one lane: you could only buy physical music and records were expensive, so people became hyper obsessive.
That was great in some ways – I love the focus and discipline of that – but these days the world is available at the click of a button. So kids are exposed to the most intense, crazy left field sounds and they can build up a really wide knowledge base quickly.
They are open to everything. It’s amazing. Some people are cynical about that, but in so many ways it’s brilliant. Because if you use the internet for music and art – and try to stay away from too much political ranting – it can be this totally enchanting, magical thing.
It’s easy to lose sight of how incredible it is that you can be in bed, sitting in the pitch black, with this weird glowing lightbox playing Angus MacLise at 1:00 am – it’s a wonderful thing. And I know the downsides are myriad, too – not least the financial side – but I want to focus on the positive for a minute, because your question ties in with that.
And Karl is absolutely right. Because if you take techno as an example, you can do anything with it; it’s this amazing canvas. So long as you give people that pulse…you can do anything with it. What a powerful mechanism that is! You can give people a sheet of atonal drone; the most obtuse sounds imaginable – no builds of hooks or whatever – but you will be taking people with you. People are more open to new sounds now than they have ever been. The kind of tribalism I grew up with seems less prevalent.
In terms of commercial accessibility, though? In comparison to the sixties, say? No way- the drone was everywhere in the sixties. It was one of – in many ways the – defining influence on psychedelia. People were looking for sounds that sonically mirrored the warping and bending of acid, and they found it in Ravi Shankar records.
The sitar was foundational- to the extent that, even now, if in a movie they want to ‘set the scene’ in the sixties you’re more likely to be getting a sitar drone on the soundtrack than some fuzzy riff. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ changed everything: It was a year zero moment. And it was all about the drone!
As Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))) once described his band, “Our intention is not to be destructive. It’s nourishment.” With society seemingly going to hell in a handbasket at the moment, can drone offer some sanctity in a world gone mad?
Yes! It can be immensely beneficial. It’s a beautiful thing to be taken out of time – and the transience of current events, also to silence the inner voice. I find immersion in slow moving sound incredibly beneficial. It does palpable ‘good’.
On a personal level, what’s the closest you have ever come to experiencing the ‘sonic oblivion’ of the title? The footnotes to the book mention a certain Salvia-enabled experience….
Ha! Salvia is ludicrously intense and the only time I’ve experienced pure ego death – which I found liberating but some find terrifying. I’ll tell you something about Salvia, though: you don’t do it twice…
But it does tie in with the book in the sense that the ‘sonic oblivion’ I’m talking about is a negation of the ego through sound, something of an ego death in itself: that moment when you’re out of your mind – out of the prison of intellect and consciousness and rationality – and somewhere subliminal and primal.
Closest moments for me? Bongripper at Roadburn 2015; Sunn O)) at Amsterdam Paradiso 2019; King Earthquake vs Iration Steppas, Brixton Recreation Centre 2004. All of the above were a sheer encounter with sonic oblivion.
Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion is released later this month on White Rabbit Books. Click here to order.