|If you were at Cornerstone, you might've caught Steve Scott singing with
his former EXIT labelmates, the 77s, or after Vector's set, which turned into an EXIT
reunion, with the 77s, Vector, Charlie Peacock and audience members on stage for a 3 a.m.
jam session of Scott's "Ghost Train." Steve also gave four seminars on
Christianity and the Arts which will be compiled later this year in a book called
Scratching the Surface.
A founding member of Britain's Arts Centre group, Steve is best
known Stateside for his brilliant 1983 EXIT release Love in the Western World and
two acclaimed albums on Alternative Records, Lost Horizon (1989) and Magnificent
In this interview, Steve talks about music, missions and modern art. Balinese music was
playing in the background while Gord Wilson interviewed Steve in his Sacramento home,
where he lives with his wife, Debra, and daughter, Emma.
ACM: When did you come over from Britain?
SSC: The first time was just for a visit in 1976; it was the Bicentennial year
and they were selling greyhound bus tickets cheap--$76. I had points of contact in New
York to do poetry readings - St. Mark's and the Bowery - places like that. I brought a
copy of my film with me (Ghostdance) and showed that a couple places. Then I took a five
day bus ride from Port Authority, New York, all the way across to the Bay area, across
America. I visited San Francisco for a while, and stayed with a friend, and then
hitchhiked down to Los Angeles, and stayed with my friend, Randy Stonehill. And with Larry
Norman, whom I'd met in England previously, Tom Howard and those guys.
I came back in 1977 with the idea of making a record for Solid Rock. That didn't quite
work out and I moved up to Sacramento, and eventually ended up going for the legal status
change from visitor to permanent resident. Between 1977 and 1981, I'd visit the U.S. and
go back to England. I met my wife as a friend in 1982.
ACM: What's your film?
SSC: I made a film called Ghostdance when I was in art school in England - a
collage film, an experimental film. At that point I was very interested in making films
and going multi-projection events. I brought the film to trek across the country with me,
and I had a book of poetry of the same title published in a small edition in England. The
idea was to do a reading, sell copies of the book, show the film. That was published by a
small, independent publisher called Monolith Books, headed up by Tony Lopez, who is
himself a poet and performance artist. In 1985, when I last saw him, he was completing an
advanced degree in modern literature at Cambridge University.
ACM: You've also lectured at Oxford, have you not?
SSC: No, the key word there is "in", as opposed to "at".
Myself and Brooks Alexander were just coming off traveling through India, and as part of
our traveling itinerary - in India it was research - but in both Hawaii and England we had
speaking engagements. Some Christian movements in Oxford had put together an all day thing
on new religious movements and the cults, and we spoke at that. It was organized by some
churches within the vicinity of Oxford.
ACM: Can you give us years on these trips?
SSC: We left for India in December of 1980, and came back to America in March of
1981. We were in Hawaii for a week, Christmas in Hong Kong, Singapore, trainride up to
Thailand, nearly a month in India, Berlin, Germany, then I stayed in England, where my
family is, for a few extra weeks.
ACM: What's the other trip?
SSC: 1987. An organization called Gospel for Asia headed by K.P. Yohannon does
these trips for American pastors and missions people types to go over and see the work
that the native church and native evangelists are doing, with the idea of going back and
giving a report to raise money to support the self-generating churches. There was me, some
Calvary Chapel people, and others making this trip, seeing the work the local church and
missionaries were doing in India - Delhi, Bombay, Madras, all the way down to Rama Swaram,
which is a little island. There's a little apostolic type church begun there by a man
named M. Pavlose, on this Hindu holy isle. When most of the trip left, I and Yohannon's
business manager, Kris Juett, who had put in time in Calcutta with Mark Buntain's
ministry, she and I hightailed it down to Calcutta when everyone else split. I also saw
Mother Theresa's work in Calcutta.
The first time I went to India was under the auspices of the Dialog Center in Denmark,
under a man called Johannes Asgaarde. They were a Lutheran organization setting up trips
so pastors could see what was going on with European and American youth in India, so that
we might catch the vision of setting up a counseling center for all those people who get
burned out on the gurus, have sold their passports and are stuck over there. So the first
trip was with evangelical, ecumenical, pastors from all over - Lutheran, Baptist or
whatever. The second trip was about third wave missionary stuff, about Western support for
self-grown works in the developing world. The third Asian trip was to Bali, for a
conference put on by Bruce and Kathleen Nichols and the protestant church in Bali, in
conjunction with the Traditional Media Section of the International Christian Media
Commission (ICMC). They'd organized this conference, "Artists as Agents in
Re-Creation," which was gathering Christian artists from all over the world,
predominantly the developing world, with a view to exploring the use of traditional and
extended media as art, as cross-cultural communication, either as the assertion of
implicit Christian values, or the exploration of what's involved in explicit Christian
communication across cultures. Both facets were explored through a variety of media. That
was the beginning of '89. When that was over, I spent a few days in Java.
ACM: Do you see these ethnic influences influencing your music?
SSC: Yeah, I think so. I like to listen to that stuff. I'm not the first person
to try and integrate them into a rock background. There's a viable way of working that
does that, whether you're doing Brazilian stuff, like David Byrne is now, or Oriental
influences, going back to early David Bowie, or even as far back as the Incredible String
Band: acoustic guitar, bongo drums, sitar, violins - it's been going on a long time and I
guess I'm part of that.
ACM: When did you get involved with the Warehouse?
SSC: On and off since 1977. They were interested in using the arts for
communication, evangelism, whatever, and my involvement from that point grew. I did
counseling, teach Bible studies, as well as working on the arts, being involved with
Sangre Productions when it was "up", being involved with Exit Records during
that phase of what was going on, and now the Arts and Media group - over 100 strong - is
"up" - again, with painters and sculptors and such; I'm very centrally involved
ACM: How about you becoming a Christian?
SSC: 1967. Through an evangelical coffee bar held in my home town of Chingford.
The idea was that you go to the cofee bar with your friends, and you try and bring up all
kinds of questions that Christians can't answer. I ws 16, in high school at the time, and
I met some people there who said why don't you come to our little church - it was a little
Evangelical Free mission church, and I started going to the church, and I'd date my
Christian conversion from around that point in time.
ACM: Were you also going to art school?
SSC: I'd just enrolled in a local college of further education that had some
foundational art classes - '67, '68, '69. Then the idea is that you take a portfolio and
try and get into a three year college. I didn't get in anywhere so I worked in a factory
for a year. I ended up going to Croydon art school in '71, doing a three year course
there. That's the other side of London, so I moved to Croydon, and went to a local Baptist
ACM: You said once you thought modern art was getting the short end of the stick
SSC: There were two approaches I recall being prevalent at that time: Either
they didn't understand it, and didn't really get to grips with it - but that wasn't the
Christians' fault - most ordinary people didn't really understand where a lot of things
were culturally, in terms of the avant garde, why things were happnening in galleries.
Some Christians were a part of one prong of a two prong approach - that prong was general
and understandable ignorance - you know, "why is taxpayers' money being spent on this
or that". The other prong, which is much more dangerous, is the people who'd say,
"we know about modern art; we've read a Francis Schaeffer book," or "we've
read the Hans Rookmaaker book - what do you need to know about modern art that Hans
Rookmaaker hasn't said?" Whereas both Schaeffer and Rookmaaker, I'm convinced, would
say, "go and stand in front of the work itself." People - these Christians, at
least - were satisfied to let the Shaeffers and Rookmaakers do their seeing and thinking
for them, which meant that they didn't really get to grips with the complex of ideas that
Rookmaaker and Schaeffer were necessarily boiling down to their minimum, in order to make
ACM: Do you have future music plans?
SSC: More records. I'd like to make more records. Randy Layton at Alternative
Records has more stuff on tape he'd like to put out, of an archival nature, and I have a
whole bunch more songs I'd like to record and get access to a 24 track studio with the
right kind of technology. doesn't have to be top 40 quality, but I now think, based on the
response to Lost Horizon, that there's probably people out there who want this sort of
ACM: Specific songs. "This Sad Music". Didn't you once say that owed
something to the approach of Eisenstein in The Battleship Potempkin?
SSC: There are a number of interesting jokes surrounding that. What happened in
"This Sad Music" is I took two tv programSSc: a Jack Van Impe sermon - a
famous evangelist on tv talking about the demise of the American value system; and a
newscast about the whales beaching themselves. What I did was I physically cut back and
forth between two sets of information on the page, and generated a poem that consisted of
juxtaposition of these images with no line of connection...this owes something to the
general theory Eisenstein came up with of creating images in the mind of the viewer by
simply editinACM: montage, jumpcuts, you can see it now on MTV. The film Eisenstein
is most famous for, using that technique, is The Battle Potempkin. But, that's where the
joke comes in.
Eisenstein, when you read through his books, Film Form and The Film Sense, alludes to
being influenced in turn by Japanese Kabuki theatre. The circle is completed by the fact
that around the time I wrote the music for "This Sad Music", James Clavell's
Shogun was being televised, and we were watching it religiously. I wanted to come up with
a cheap, toytown Japanese fake Oriental soundtrack. It's all very untidy, and it would be
very pretentious of me to say, "yes, I went and saw this, and I and Eisenstein went
and had a beer in Berlin somewhere and we talked about it at great length"; all those
references are there, but it's all pretty sloppy. The cut up technique is older than that.
Dada artist Tristan Tzara used to simply pull words out of a hat; he influenced William
Borroughs with the cut up technique, which Burroughs pioneered in books like Naked Lunch,
Nova Express, and The Soft Machine.
No, I literally wrote things out in my journal, and I edited, moved things around, and
came up with stuff that looked good in juxtaposition together. The kind of poets who
impacted me were people like Robert Bly, James Wright, Thomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet
who often juxtaposes images in a very calm , prosaic term, a calm, flat voice. Things come
together and accumulate, and build up an emotional sense.
ACM: How is The Boundaries coming together?
SSC: An overall theme is emerging. Everything I do is pretty simple, and none of
it's particularly original. What happens on Love in the Western World, and on Emotional
Tourist and the Lost Horizon compilation, is you set up one metaphor, work with the
tensions and problems produced form that one metaphor. What happens on LIWW and ET is the
idea that relationships between people and countries and cultures and between people and
God, can either function in relation to one another, and also the breakdowns and problems
in those human relationships, can demonstrate the essential difference between the kingdom
of God and the kingdom of people.
Some people will argue that romantic love is a working parable of divine love. On the
other hand, Denis De Rougemont in Love in the Western World (the book), and Anders Nygren
in Eros and Agape, argue that human love, and the romantic ideal, is a grotesque parody of
divine love. You have the plus and the minus of that particular metaphor. One metaphor:
human relationships somehow either function as an analogy of human-divine relationships,
or constitute an unacceptable substitute we try and fill our lives with. Then you have the
tension between cultures, the essential differences between one culture and another that
add to the flavor and add some grit to the metaphor.
Then you have the idea of travelling. You take that metaphor and you roll it out as a
landscape, and you travel through it. The journey's the goal. Travelling is how you get
from A to B, why you get to observe what you do. So you have the idea of these
relationships, and the idea of travelling through whatever landscape, whether it be an
emotional, psychic landscape, and electronic landscape, a global village. All those things
come into play, because the world is coming into our homes through the tv screen.
ACM: Are the songs travelling through these landscapes?
SSC: The "Emotional Tourist" scenario is very much about travel. The
part about being in the taxi is literally, line for line, out of the travel journal from
when I was in India. I was in Delhi, we were pulling away from a traffic signal, and these
little kids came up right to the window. There's me and Brooks Alexander in the back of a
taxi, and these little beggars were everywhere. The one thing I thought is that I wanted
the signals to change.
Travelling constitutes the way of getting into those metaphors. Here we are, we're
travelling, we're on the ship of fools, or whatever. The Boundaries will read like a
travel journal, but it will include the whale poem, a whole book of stuff I wrote in the
early '80s called Margins, which is a series of poems that related one to another, stuff
out of my time in England in '83, time in India in '87, my time back in Bali and Java in
'89. Some of it will be finished poetry, some merely fragments of a travel journal or
reminiscences, or the raw materials that ended up in songs. It will look like something
very much in process, and the title is set up to have a geographical frame of reference,
to explore the idea of is this poetry or i sit prose? All the irregularities of form: One
minute you're looking at a poem, the next at what I had for breakfast today, next a
scribbled note to myself about changing the lyrics. You set up something which looks like
a record of the work in process, while at the same time, reading as ajourney from A to B,
and as a subteranean record of certain thematic concerns. The book is titled The
Boundaries, because that seems the most economic way of covering everything that the book
wants to be. At the same time it has a useful, geographic frame of reference, which has
already been established.
ACM: Why do this book? What sparks it for you to pull these things together?
SSC: I've published this poetry infreuently since the early '80s. I wanted to
bring together all the material from its very early stages of work, from raw material
through to finished work; it seemed like a nice project to setup. You know, the boundaries
between prose, poetry; life, death; sleeping, waking; the boundaries between people,
between cultures, between human experience and spiritual experience.
ACM: To me, you're real close to Laurie Anderson type of performance art.
SSC: It's a similar type of thing to, say, United States. While I was at college
that was very much the vogue, conceptual and performance art. I'm very interested in using
different media. I'm working on a multi-media performance piece sequence now, involving
ACM: Well, you did that thing with the wolves about the crucifixion.
SSC: That was Lambfire A.D., that was designed and put together by David and
Susan Fetcho in Berkeley, who at that time were living in Sacramento and working with the
Warehouse. That was a multi-media thing at the Warehouse about 11 years ago (1979). It was
a sort of performance art-liturgy-multi-media thing. I did a thing on the crucifixion that
worked very very literalistically off the frame of reference established by the Scripture,
so that when Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 and elsewhere where he makes reference to the
animals, we brought in the animals. We blacked the place out, played a stereo soundtrack
of holwing wolves, and because the sign of Jonah came up, we used some stuff off those
albums of whale songs, and had the poetry being read over the top of it. The place in
complete darkness, we had the audience thinking they were surrounded by a wolf pack at one
point. Large mammals were swimming around and singing to each other. That kind of
performance art I'm very interested in and would like to go further with. The music is
only the tip of that particular iceberg.
You take all things in the songs that you would probably explore indifferent media, and
compress them into a layer of references, like a samba beat and a cheap koto sound on a
keyboard so you have that song that makes sense musically, but is also like an ironic
reference to a different culture. I want to do more multi-media stuff.
ACM: How come you don't go down to the local open mike and do it?
SSC: Time and stuff. I do intend to do that. One thing I want to do through
Alternative Records is from The Boundaries, in which I'm working with synthesizers and
spoken word. Like the whale poem, only an entire record. Journal fragments and poems read
voer ethnic and electronic sounds, and set up synthesizers to do things like that.