Transcendental Meditation + 16th Century Air Spirits: Thomas Cohen on New Music Project Sylph
When the first S.C.U.M album was released in September 2011, it was following about ten years of almost daily excitement coming out of the most gloriously insalubrious corners of New York and London, with the indie music scenes in both cities living through what would probably be their last genuinely golden age. Again Into Eyes was – and arguably still is – a revelation (check out ‘Whitechapel’, which sounds just as thrilling to this day), in that while it seemed a reasonable progression from what had come just before, it also sounded like absolutely nothing else that was going on around it.
Those scenes quickly fell off their respective cliffs, and remain lying in the same ditch a decade later; and S.C.U.M sadly flamed out rather quickly after having shined so brightly. Exceedingly charismatic and admirably ideological frontman Thomas Cohen blissfully married Peaches Geldof in 2012, and they would go on to have two children, before she so utterly tragically died from a heroin overdose in 2014. His 2016 solo album Bloom Forever poignantly and directly addressed the unimaginable tragedy.
Five years on, and Cohen is returning to music in the most startling of ways (though one should have expected nothing less), with a new three-track EP, the ethereally titled Silver As It Was Before (out May 21 via Mute), under the banner of Sylph. The name refers to mythological “spirits of the air,” who first appeared in 16th Century German alchemist Paracelsus’ Liber de Nymphis. And appropriately, the songs do somewhat seem to dance upon the wind, if we may be just a bit dramatic.
To ready this new sonic manifesto, he spent any time he had away from domestic duties mostly communing with experimental electronic and dance music, which influenced his writing to startling effect. He then sought to weave together what he’d just gleaned with his considerable talent as an iconoclastic art-pop singer-songwriter. Opening track ‘In The Morning Light’ is a trancey, hymn-like mantra (about “unification and the sunrise”), layered over primal, repetitive beats; ‘Braid’ is something like a new gen Nitzer Ebb with the BPM cranked up to proper Berlin clubbing levels; and ‘Tears Fall From the Sun” is seven-minutes-and-six-seconds of trippy, aural meditation, with Cohen chanting lines like, “I look to myself / Laying on the floor.”
All are seemingly meant to have a kind of entrancing, halluncinatory effect on the psyche, and likely even the body, as well. Though purely cathartic bouts of dancing are also a likely reaction to the music.
We caught up for a chat with the inimitable Mr. Cohen, in hopes of gaining deeper enlightenment – and we were not the least bit surprised to achieve exactly that.
S.C.U.M’s debut album Again Into Eyes was an absolute revelation – who made the decision to not continue as a band, and why?
It wasn’t so much a decision as an emotion and a loss of the ability to make music together. Frustration isn’t a creative force for me. It was an amalgamation of my teenage school band, I would ask members to join based on their personality and appearance, because I thought that’s what made a great rock & roll band. After that point we would spend years touring until we unveiled ourselves as great songwriters. But we lost that ability perhaps due to exhaustion or a sense of false entitlement.
With your 2016 album Bloom Forever, were you able to properly reckon with the tragedy you’d suffered through?
I don’t believe in good or bad work. To me there is only honest or dishonest work, those that create because they have to rather than because they want to. That album is honest work that I made because I had to and I don’t really analyze it any further than that.
Other than that album, you’ve seemingly just been busy being a single father these last seven years. What made this the right time to return to music?
Oh, I thought now the whole thing doesn’t exist anymore, it’s the perfect time to make a reappearance. Because something interesting might just happen.
A sylph is an air spirit – how does the name help to explicate your current artistic manifesto?
I initially liked that it was imaginary and from the 16th century. Artistically the persona developed more when I played with Regis at Berghain [in Berlin] in 2019. As a performer in a space full of performance and raw primitive, physical, transcendent movement and expression, all there was left to do was to entwine myself with the space in between – the places that usually only get filled with sound. I like that it relates back to the production of the music too. So much of techno and ambient is sound design and sound pressure where you’re literally choosing how much space will engulf an element in the track, whether it’s the amount of reverb or the level in the mix – you’re creating imaginary rooms, and how much air there will be to breathe within them.
Were the new songs recorded during the lockdowns?
Both EPs were written and recorded between Berlin and London, pre-pandemic.
What has been your Covid experience, especially as a father of two?
Towards the end of 2019 I had an overwhelming feeling that something was ending. None of us could have foreseen the contemporary plague that was about to happen, but that emotion led me back to Transcendental Meditation, which I’d learnt in 2014. I never stopped practicing it, but fell out of the habit of twice a day everyday and would use it more ceremonially. It had a profound effect upon me, and now it’s at the core of my being. I can’t imagine life without my forty minutes a day.
What is it like?
Pure bliss consciousness, the unified field, loss of trauma and processing and overcoming of the more unstable emotions of being human…and replacing them with infinite light. Once you transcend you know what it really means to “go out,” and you become immune to any contemporary anxieties. It should be ingrained in the human experience, but that concept is too overwhelming for me to expand upon.
TM has an equally profound effect upon your creative process. You constantly are presented with melodies and ideas fully formed, these melodies are on an eternal loop throughout the universe. As musicians we are just here to channel them.
‘In The Morning Light’ almost sounds like a Kraftwerk record as if it were released by 4AD; and ‘Braid’ also has a kind of Teutonic electronic essence. What sort of music were you absorbing going in to the making of the EP?
Regis, Vatican Shadow, Mike Parker, Simon Shreeve, Rrose, JK Flesh, Reeko, Lustmord, pinkcourtesyphone, Steve Roach and Eliane Radique. That’s a good start. All incredible artists who constantly redefine the genre texturally. I think formatively seeing Marcel Dettmann play for nine hours had a big impact on me too. It was the first time I thought this music could have my voice over it.
And it certainly does – on ‘Tears Fall From The Sun,’ you recite “Nothing more / left to find / beyond our lie.” Is that as nihilistic as it sounds?
I like your interpretation, but it’s “nothing more left to find beyond all light.” It’s written from an emotional viewpoint into your own existence, from a point beyond our universe. There is no water on the sun.
So, will Sylph be a continuing project?
The Sylph project is quite a simple concept: What would happen if I [evolved] this violently instrumental genre that’s existed for nearly thirty years into a singer-songwriter format? I’m really proud of the first two EPs being collaborative and I worked with some of my favorite artists. I think somewhere within 250 songs I’ll find enough to sing over and continue releasing music as much as possible.
There was a youthful, provocational impulse to S.C.U.M – how has ten years and fatherhood changed what you want to accomplish via music?
It’s the same energy driving me today that drove me back then, that hasn’t been altered by my experience. In terms of accomplishments, if there are any, I ignore them rather than focus upon what they are or what I would want them to be. I do this because I have to.