[Cover photo background painting by Diane Viera]
Ivan Nahem has been a vocalist in several Post-Punk bands like Ritual Tension and Carnival Crash, but got his start as a drummer, and his very earliest foundations are in writing. In between the band work, he also discovered a passion for yoga and became an instructor for over ten years. Now retired from that role, back in 2017, he became part of the return of Ritual Tension as ex-> tension. When that creative work was interrupted by the pandemic, bandmate Gregg Bielski made a thought-provoking suggestion that Nahem find a way to bring together his experience with yoga and sound landscapes to create a new project. Crawling Through Grass was born, very much a new frontier for Nahem and the various people who he recruited to contribute sonic elements to the album.
The goal was to create something “yoga-adjacent” that could guide people through a series of musical experiences not unlike the progress of a yoga session. As potentially useful in a yoga class as in navigating a long commute, the songs were also constructed by bringing in sound elements from the real world in as much as possible. Rather than seeking to escape the world, Crawling Through Grass presents a meditative experience of the world in its own right. I spoke with Ivan Nahem about the expansive goals on this exploratory venture and what that journey has been like for him.
HMS: I know that you were active musically with other projects just before the pandemic. Would it have been weird for you to just stop making music during that period?
Ivan Nahem: Yes, it would have been weird for me. It was something that, in some ways, was inspiring, just being at home and trying to figure things out. It didn’t feel like you had to personally shut down during that time. For me, I would take long walks. I live in a part of Queens where there aren’t really any big parks, but there is a cemetery, so I’d go walk in the cemetery. I’d contemplate things.
I think the genesis of Crawling Through Grass was when my friend Gregg [Bielski], who I’d worked with in 2017 on an album, suggested that we do this. I had been a yoga teacher, and I was retired from that, but he said, “Why don’t we do a yoga album?” That was an interesting suggestion because that wasn’t the kind of music that I’d been doing at all. I’d known of the music of Brian Eno for decades and would play music like that in my classes, so I wanted to see what I could do coming from a Post-Punk perspective, which is where I started.
HMS: I was wondering what parallels existed for you to keep in mind. What kind of music is usually associated with yoga practice? Is it mainly ambient?
IN: Well, first of all there’s a caveat that I say about this album, which is that it’s not yoga music, per se, it’s yoga-adjacent. There is a form of music associated with yoga called Kirtan. It’s kind of devotional music, then there’s Indian music which can be associated with yoga. I wasn’t trying to do something like that. In classes, teachers do sometimes use unobtrusive music, so there is a lot of ambient music. In my classes, I tried to stay away from rocking music or lyrics that would catch your attention, because that’s not where you want your attention. When I made this record, I wanted to do something that I could, conceivably, play at a yoga class, or even just on the train.
One of the challenges for me was that previously, I’d been mostly a vocalist, in Carnival Crash, Ritual Tension, and other bands I’d been in. I started out as a drummer but became a vocalist. The challenge was, could I do a body of music that wasn’t lyric-heavy? I used language in it, and I think that each song tells a story from start to finish, but it’s not delineated by the language used.
HMS: I was wondering also about the storytelling aspect, because I felt I could pick up on that in the songs. Did deciding to make a yoga-adjacent album mean that you allowed yourself to use different song structures than you might usually use as well?
IN: There were some songs where I wanted it to be like a psychedelic canvas, like “Rainy Day Whispers”. The sounds come out of nowhere. I was thinking, “How can I make a song based on gong music?” Then there were songs like “Only Waking” and “The Sea, The Beach, The Jungle” where I used song structure, tunefulness, melody, and percussion in a more regular way. I wanted to weave in all those different elements.
When I approached my brother Andrew [Nahem] about this, who I’ve played with for many years in Ritual Tension, he said, “We are the wrong-est people to be doing this.” [Laughs] He said, “I’m not serene! I’m not tranquil! What am I going to do?” But he came up with “The Exaltation of Nothing”. It’s this really spacious thing that makes me think of falling through space forever. I think it works, both in the context of mirroring the universe and also in terms of going into an interior mode.
HMS: That song really made me realize how heavier instruments could be used in this context in a more pointed way.
IN: Right. He fulfilled the brief!
HMS: Had you ever created song in a collage-like way before, gathering elements together?
IN: I was in a bunch of bands, but in a funny way, one of the bands that relates is Swans, which is really heavy music. I drummed with them for about half a year. I remember coming up with drum parts that I wanted to be almost Tibetan, the kind of heavy trance drumming that you find there. Also, in Ritual Tension, there were times when we did that. Our introduction to “Hotel California” was way out there and kind of amorphous.
I also did a collaboration with Gregg Bielski on The Kiss. With that, he had just given me tracks with soundscapes and asked me to put spoken word on top of it. I decided it could be more musical than just recitation, so I started adding more music to it, more guitars. We called it ex-> tension because the three people I collaborated with were with me in Ritual Tension. That was very layered and experimental and that led to this. Actually, I think Crawling Through Grass is almost more conventional than that album.
I was often more intentional with this album, for example on the song, with “Wheels within Wheels”, a lot of Indian music uses a drone in the background, but here I wanted it to be rooted in this world. I decided to use motorcycle and car engine noises to be the drone. Coincidentally, my brother-in-law invited me to motorcycle races down in Jersey, so I recorded all these motorcycles. That’s the backing sound on the song, and the title “Wheels within Wheels” is kind of a pun on a Buddhist view of the universe and the actual wheels.
Going with the idea of trying to mirror the real world, in “51st St Savasana”, that’s my address at home, so I have sounds of the elevated train that’s not far away. People think that yoga is otherworldly, full of rainbows and unicorns, but the real yoga is looking at the suffering that we go through in this world and seeing how we can mitigate that for ourselves and others. I wanted to bring both of those things to it: You are apprehending the world as it is, but you are aiming for the sublime. You are aiming for tranquility. In terms of relating to Covid, I was thinking, “How can I share something from my myself that will contribute to people feeling better?”
HMS: I did notice the use of real-world sounds. I think it makes for a really interesting construction because it’s a practical effect. I’ve come across musicians who work only with “found sound” but I don’t come across a lot of hybrid situations.
IN: Lots of musicians have experimented with that, but I wanted to use everything to bring all kinds of sounds in. There are sounds of crickets. Sometimes I made mechanical things imitate real world sounds, like in “The Sea, The Beach, The Jungle”. There are sounds in that song that I was making on a machine that are supposed to sound like frogs and other things.
One irony that arose was in the song “Shikantaza”, which means “just sitting” and is a kind of meditation. Thinking about sitting in the middle of the world, in the middle of duality, including light, dark, right, wrong, up, down. I wanted those words to be there in the song, but I wanted them in another language, so I said those words into a Google translator and recorded these machine voices saying these words in other languages. Then I asked a singer from Poland, Jadwiga Taba, to do the same thing, and in some ways what she said sounds less human than the machine voices. It does really mix things together. I also cajoled my wife into some “found vocals”. All kinds of material is there. Music is sound and you explore that in different ways.
HMS: That song, “Shikantaza”, made me think about the ways in which vocals can be used in as robust a way as instruments to help create song structure. The vocals almost take on the role of an instrument. That one also feels like it could be a film soundtrack.
IN: Actually, I’ve been working more in film. I did a video for the first song on the album, “Only Waking”. I also did a short film for the song, “The Renunciation of Regret” for The Kiss. I think of myself as a multi-media artist. I started out as a writer. I’m a pretty natural performer, so I love to perform, but for most of my early life, I loved music deeply, but I thought I had no talent for it. I didn’t really school myself in it, so I’m playing catch up now.
HMS: Didn’t you start doing band stuff pretty soon after college?
IN: In my early 20s, I was a poet, and published a book of poetry called Raw Scorpions. But the people I was really listening to were Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and people like that. That was my ideal. When Punk Rock came along, I was in San Francisco, and was part of the scene, and I always felt more comfortable hanging with musicians more than writers and poets. It just felt more natural to me. I started with bands in my late twenties.
I was thinking, “Okay, that guy on the stage is really fucked up, and I think I could drum better than him.” So I bought myself a Ludwig silver sparkle kit, and within three weeks I was on stage. I had to learn really quickly. My first band, called The Situations, became an overnight sensation, and everyone was coming to see us, but I practically didn’t know how to use my hi-hat. It was a baptism by fire! Since then I’ve been trying to learn music as much as I can, but I’m really bearing down on it now, trying to learn keyboards and playing guitar every day.
HMS: Did you then, or now, have thoughts about why people want to be in a room with a live band during a performance? This might have bearing on the world of yoga, too.
IN: Somebody once said that unlike the movies, if you go to see a play, someone could die on stage. [Laughs] It is sort of like that. It has an immediacy to it. To be looking out and see people relating to the music, too. Part of the reason I called the band Ritual Tension is that I was studying a lot of Native American culture and trying to connect with that in my 30s, and I felt like there were rituals that bring people together. Human beings have been doing something like this since we began.
We are pack animals who gather and create energy together. There’s a tension there that can be broken by the dancing and the music and getting into that kind of trance state. In our modern lives, we do this through going to a club and getting Dionysian. That’s what I want to try to bring to live performance. I haven’t performed since some shows in 2019, but I’m really looking forward to some live shows.
HMS: That way of thinking definitely explains the extreme relief I’ve seen from audiences who have been able to return to attending live performances. I’ve been able to go to several shows, and there’s a lot of crying and hugging going on. Of course, artists who have been performing tell me that too. Do you have a meditative experience while performing?
IN: Oh, yes, that’s so true. People talk about being in “the zone” and I remember in my first performances with The Situations, you’re in this state that just takes over and you keep going. You’re not worrying, you’re just doing it. That relates to the reason that I fell in love with yoga. It’s just contemplative moment and breathing. When you bring yourself into that, it just makes you feel better.
That’s what I’m trying to do on this album, too. I wanted it to have an arc that’s similar to a yoga class. That’s why I call the first song, “Only Waking”, though it’s also a pun on spiritual awakening. Andrew told me the song sounded like I’m waking up, and I knew that’s how I wanted it to open. Then it gets more and more intense, like with “The Exaltation of Nothing”, and then there’s the cool-down at the end, like at the end of the class.
I wanted it to almost be like a description of the final contemplative pose where you just lie down at the end of a yoga class, because sometimes your mind is racing. But at the end, things are coming back to a relaxing place, and hopefully that’s where people end up.