Evading the specific confinements of any genre, To End It All are often described as death industrial, though ex-classical, dungeon synth, and harsh noise all make their appearance as well. After a pleasurable haunting by their performance at Covenant Festival V, we decided to reach out to see what’s behind the enchantment. Joy Von Spain and Masaaki Masao’s 12 year relationship as collaborators allows for a beauteous synthesis of artistic vision and aural inspiration, while maintaining distinct individual contributions.
I was fortunate enough to Skype with Von Spain and Masao of To End It All, based out of Seattle, Washington. What follows are segments from the transcript of this real-time dialogue.
Indu Iyer: Seattle is so renowned for grunge and rock, like Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana – is there any influence there for you?
Joy Von Spain: Not so much for me. I actually moved to Seattle in 2004, and I was more involved in the electronic and noise scene there, and you [Masao] were making electronic music mostly. I feel like there’s definitely the ghosts from the 90’s around, but like any city that has a lot of new people moving there all the time, the face of it changes every few years.
Masaaki Masao: I’ve lived in Seattle for 21 years and did listen to some of that music, but I don’t know how much of that has influenced what I’ve ended up making. I was making Noisy Drum ’n’ Bass when I met Joy.
JVS: I was doing a lot more synthesizer oriented music [when we] started playing together. At some point I started doing some vocals which I hadn’t done for a really long time. I would say that there’s another vein to the Pacfific Northwest, extending down to the Bay area. There’s a whole Vancouver-Seattle-Portland-Oakland-San Francisco connection of harsh noise, experimental, industrial. We have more influence coming from that kind of scene.
II: Do you feel like the weather and the climate have any influence over the type of music that’s come out of this region? Compared to the rest of the US and Canada, it’s just so grey, so dark.
JVS: Absolutely, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily a matter of influencing from within. I myself was attracted to the place because of that. [Masao’s] basically from the desert, I’m from Florida originally, so we kind of gravitated here because of the climate in some ways. And that’s why we stayed…there’s something to be said for the actual sound of the rain in the Northwest in that it creates this wash in the back of your mind.
I consider the difference between growing up nestled in a suburban cul-de-sac, versus the bustling mainstreet where I currently dwell, and the constant sound of traffic is akin to Von Spain’s rain-wash. The Pacific Northwest, though renowned for its scenic beauty, is known by locals for perpetually monochrome seasons and drab vibrance, something akin to London greyness. The dense forests have allowed it to be a hub for forestry, and its various waterways allowed for many port cities and trade centres. Noisy places of industry. Just as environment influences sound, environment influences economy, which links back to sound. Informal instruction from the world.
II: What’s your background with music and art? Do you have formal training, did both of you study music by yourselves, a bit of both?
JVS: We definitely both have a background in studying instrumental music. I studied voice a little bit and I did some theatre when I was younger. A little bit. I feel bad even saying that [laughs]. I studied music composition and theory mostly, big nerd on that front for sure. It’s kind of nice because when you learn the language of rehearsal as a young person, it makes it so much easier and faster to communicate and collaborate with other people in that environment. I don’t think it’s necessary because people have many different ways of communicating. [Masaaki and I] had enough of that background where it’s just easy for us to communicate our ideas quickly and try a lot of different things, than to try and reinvent the wheel.
II: Language of rehearsal, that’s interesting. I feel like intuitively I know what you mean, but how would you describe it?
JVS: Being able to try many different things in a short amount of time, or repeat the same thing. It’s kind of like a scientific experiment, you keep repeating it to see if you could get the same result, or if maybe some new information comes to you.
II: It requires a lot of openness and experimenting. You have to be willing to throw out an idea even if you like it, to cooperate a bit, things like that.
JVS: I think that’s definitely one side. Another side is the ability to not be irritated or upset in the repetition. I think that’s the discipline of the rehearsal. The language but also the discipline, both of those together are necessary.
I have flashbacks of navigating creative terrain in theatre school, largely similar for any collaborative process: the frustration when others denied the necessity of repetition, or the shame when I looked lazy in thinking five from the top’s were enough. Then the shock and awe when improvised bullshit actually turned out better than anything rehearsed to supposed perfection. Honing the ability to move from dog-and-tennis ball type focus to open receptivity is but one challenge of the artist.
II: What do your lives look like as artists? Is all your work in music?
MM: Pretty much [laughs]. That’s all we do.
JVS: We have to make money with jobs, but then after that, there’s usually rehearsal a few times a week. We’re totally engaged in writing, performing and rehearsing, and going to other people’s events as well.
MM: It’s basically working on music for a few different projects and then going out to shows and then figuring out other aspects like videos and the visual element.
JVS: We’ve also worked a lot with Butoh dancers. About 11 years ago, we started working with Vanessa Skantze, who’s a very interesting movement performer who has studied Butoh extensively and works with other practices as well, so some of that is present in our work. I did a modern dance minor when I was going to school, but I was mostly focusing on the collaboration between choreographers and composers and how dance and music work together. The field of study of dance expresses the same kind of emotions that we are doing with To End It All.
I gasp at the mention of Butoh, and we share a moment of enthusiasm for having found fellow admirers of the avant-garde Japanese dance tradition. Butoh emerged post-WWII, and it’s founders Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno sought to rebel against the subtlety of traditional Japanese dance forms like kabuki and noh. Though very diverse in how individual practitioners personalize Butoh, it is often performed in only white body paint and a loincloth, and involves a juxtaposition of slow, delicate movements, accompanied by sudden bursts of wild energetic displays. Thematically, Butoh explores the grotesque and taboo, something very inline with To End It All’s interests.
II: How about Scourge of Woman? It has such an amazing title and album cover, very evocative to the experience of being a woman, and has really powerful, visceral song titles like “Burning Rapists” and “In Cases of Incest and Rape.” Where does the conceptual side of things come into play?
JVS: I write lyrics or snippets of things, and a lot of things can’t be expressed properly with our other band, Eye of Nix. It needs a different kind of intensity that’s a lot more personal, or even political in nature. There’s many, many, many things that we’re extremely enraged about, and have been our whole lives, so when we see these same things coming up over and over again, I don’t really know what else to do about it. Those are the sort of pieces that we’re reflecting with this music. With the album art for this particular album, I worked with Anima Noctura, who’s an artist who we work with a lot for album art and photography. We would just listen to the music and then look at the imagery we had created, and this was the perfect expression. It was like the Cassandra myth from Greek mythology. She could see the future, but no one would believe her. I feel very close to that story, I think all of us women do.
Daughter of the royals of Troy, Cassandra was gifted with clairvoyance by Apollo, on the agreement to be his. Shortly after being bestowed with Sight, however, she revoked this promise, and he cursed that her prophecies never be believed. The story is told as betrayal on Cassandra’s part, but who knows. Perhaps Apollo had a Weinstein streak, and merely used Blue-Balls rhetoric to silence a woman.
JVS: A lot of us have grown up with [beliefs like] we have the right to reproductive freedom, we have the right to autonomy, and to go around saying “hey, if you don’t do this, or if you let this happen, this is what’s gonna come come next. I see the future.” Then, to not be believed. That was her curse. I feel like a lot of us walk around in our daily lives in that state. People, regardless of their gender, if they happen to be identifying as male or happen to be identifying as female, feel the same way. The alliance that we create together in our anger can be expressed in the sound, can be expressed in the visual representation of it. That’s the long answer of it.
Clearly moved by turmoils of the American zeitgeist, and by the private witnessing of the world around them, To End It All takes the scum of sexism and creates a bizarre yet resilient paste with which they mold meaning. The long answer is great.
II: And what is it like for you Masaaki, what’s your experience or perspective as a male working with what Joy is talking about?
MM: I just try to support what she’s trying to say and get out there, and I completely agree. I try to be there to support the art of it.
II: One thing I’m curious about is what it’s like to collaborate. Joy, do you strictly do vocals, and Masaaki, you strictly do the instrumental side of things? What’s that process like for you, do you both direct or influence each other?
MM: We definitely work together on all the music, but she comes up with all the vocals by herself. We talk about deciding which types of samples and how it’s going to be played, so we collaborate on music. All the keyboard parts.
JVS: Sometimes he’ll be delving for sounds out there in the world, and I’ll hear something and then want to record it, or he’ll hear something and go “oh we should use that sound.” Then we go to the rehearsal space and figure out how this sound is best showcased to be the meat of this piece. And then our keyboards are kind of … the supporting role a lot of the time. I feel like a lot of the time [Masao’s] doing the whole rhythm section and at times creating a whole environment. Then the voice will be one character walking into this whole space.
There is a theatrical quality to their sound, and it makes sense when considering this perspective on their work. The variety present in a set is like watching Chekhov: First Masha enters, then Olga, then Irina, each with their own worries, frustrations, sorrows. A single voice plays many characters, while still being part of a greater story-line.
II: Something that struck me most was the vocal variety. Plain speaking, operatic singing, screaming, everything in between. What inspires or necessitates this?
JVS: It’s impossible to stick to one range, to one formula. It doesn’t seem possible to fit what we’re hearing in our minds into one cube.
Instead of a cube, a multifaceted crystal. To End It All is the kind of salt-of-the-earth artist that often gets lost in pretension and self-importance that contaminate the creative sphere. Articulate, passionate, and completely committed to their craft. If there was any hope to end Cassandra’s curse, this is it.