Josef Saint speaks about loss, trauma, friends and fallen comrades, and the outsider nature of art, industrial music, and the Baltimore scene that Nahja Mora has made its home.
An InterView with Josef Saint of Nahja Mora
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Nahja Mora has been one of the more esoterically experimental entities in the Baltimore underground music scene, pursuing a classically avant-garde industrial mentality that has evolved into something entirely “other.” The group’s latest effort, AHFHAOTA began as far back as 2005 when Josef Saint first founded Nahja Mora, the material proving as emotionally taxing as its subject matter of coping with trauma. Since then, the band has achieved much, and with the world in a state of turmoil and coping with its own mass trauma, along with a wave of personal loss and self-realization, Saint dusted off the material to present a more refined and sophisticated concept album than had originally been intended more than 16 years prior. Never at a loss for words, Saint spoke with ReGen Magazine recently not only about the arduous gestation of AHFHAOTA and the circumstances that led to the album’s shelving and eventual resurrection, but also touches on the creative dynamic between himself and his band mates, his departed friend and musical associate Hobart Blankenburg, the nature of outsider art and industrial music, the Baltimore music scene, and the social and political milieu that guides the Western world.
You’ve stated that AHFHAOTA is a concept album that you started in 2005 dealing with your personal struggles, and the larger issues of how people communicate while coping with emotional and mental trauma.
At the risk of asking too personal a question, are there any specific experiences that you’d feel comfortable relating to us that helped shape your outlook and the viewpoints you’re presenting on the album?
Saint: An effort has been made in Nahja Mora to illustrate communication as a root of and solution to conflict since the get-go.
I was a mark once and someone could smell it, and I didn’t back down because we are each arrogant. It was over a patch and my boots and my hair, and the biggest symbol of the phenomenon there was the entire involuntary audience, out for fun, pretended that they also didn’t want blood on their tongue.
During the production of AHFHAOTA, I worked days on another production – specifically for a contracting firm of now a former associate. The bigger point is that that production was a goddamn nightmare of seeing the entertainment elite quick to undermine support staff. There was a full production office for this giant conglomerate of people sitting around doing absolutely nothing for months. There were promises made that were undermined by some person sent in from elsewhere… the way of corporatism. Anyway, then came in the dehumanizing process. It had been a while since I was shoulder checked by a young man in Oakleys, khakis, and a polo, but I was met again with that experience in a certain well-fed part of Baltimore that I was only in while I had this day job.
I also learned of a horrible reality where a high school classmate of mine who had shared social circles in punk rock music scenes and was involved in some very dark social times now, for lack of a better term, is a well-insulated serial rapist who is suing any who remark on this truth for conspiracy and defamation. Yes, he is literally, legally in the process of suing the survivors of his sexual abuse for simply taking part in #MeToo. And sadly, he is connected in the Baltimore music scene like some sort of nightmarish bastard version of the degrees of Mr. Bacon. This is the reality of this dumbass society – money can destroy truth, and this un-dude comes from money.
I also put two and two together and named what had happened to me and realized my survivorship during the period and production of AHFHAOTA. The message of it all is reframed into a warning of what can happen with too much isolation. But also, you know… it’s kind of amazing how much shit just goes on in front of everybody and nobody says anything, isn’t it?
What led you to put the album off for 16 years?
Saint: As a debut in 2016, it would have been unwieldy. In 2005, it existed as tone poems, 12-tone systems, FujiCam recorded piano performances, and aleatoric compositions on a 286 – whatever sound of a center being lost and spinning out I could make. AHFHAOTA was meant to connect to Actualiser in production, at least as a prequel to it, but in reality, it is a summation of things that happened in the past that indicated the present and color the outlook for the future. After Final Realization…, AHFHAOTA became our production objective. It was developed from a grouping of tracks and through discussions and unpacking of the story with Jenny, Jeff, and Shawn.
I think we needed the oomph of lyrics coached by sleep deprivation and guitars recorded in the freezing cold, and the isolation and disease and trauma of 2020-2021. During production, excluding the revisit upon ‘Give Way to Shadow’ and the archived vocal on ‘ONE DAY,’ I limited myself to two improvised vocal tracks on each song. There were no lyrics written until after I transcribed them. The energy needed to be there absolutely.
In what ways do you feel the long wait helped you process some of those experiences that you could actually approach the album again?
Saint: Being able to name what happened to me and then reflect on times when I have been singled out due to my appearance and abused publicly allowed me to figure out what the hell was I trying to communicate in 2005 when I came up with the greater concept of AHFHAOTA, and its relation to predators surrounding prey and the way self-destruction can make marks for predators.
2019-2021+ has proven to be an incredibly difficult time for like everybody, but perseverance is all. We each are impacted by our choices and the choices made for us. Eventually, cascading failures or otherwise come home to roost. It’s not the individual parts, but the system; the parts in context are catalyst.
Unbeknownst to most except for those that are close, I formerly supervised physical security operations
for most of the USA’s power grid… at least, during swing shift. In 2020, that corporation decided I was a ‘threat’ and kicked me to the curb – after submitting me to a bunch of questioning and interrogations by retired federal agents. They pretended that I fit the criteria of a spree killer. I was in the midst of finding my footing as a survivor of sexual abuse. I can’t help but think that they found works I released earlier and angled them to characterize me. I had been a whistleblower to the Maryland Governor over this Fortune 100’s choices for my team and their blatant disregard for their safety. But money is more powerful than ethics and the squeaky wheel can get removed real easy like in an at will state. My former teammates were then given lessons on symbols and black cats and things concerning my faith and culture. Nowadays, I am randomly offered drugs across state lines through Facebook Messenger… always across state lines, always. That’s neither here nor there – I do not believe in coincidences. It’s just all part of the corporate police state we Americans exist under.
Come to think of it, when I made a PayPal business account for Nahja Mora, it was shut down by request of Interpol because of the name and my legal name being French-sounding. Interpol/PayPal demanded copies of my passport and ID to legitimize our business. They, of course, undid their stay, but we’re on some list I suppose. It may not have helped, to be quite honest, that we played with Jihad in the minds of those who are quick to profile and are always studying their subjects.
I despise being profiled. I despise anyone being profiled. So much of my personal existence has been made up of people profiling me. So now, I work to perform the profile I want to communicate to the target I choose. It is self-defense in current worlds.
The long process was all of our terrors living in this service economy nightmare while our arts and culture and media (excluding hip-hop and some punk and democracy now) are simply nonsense maintaining the status quo and using their bully pulpit to talk about absolutely nothing but sensationalist distractions.
We lost Hobart Blankenburg (also of Precision Field) in 2020, with the album being dedicated to him, along with the cover of PJ Harvey’s ‘The Devil.’ Again, at the risk of asking something personal, tell us about your friendship and your working association with him – what was the dynamic like between the two of you, how you worked out ideas and wrote songs, etc.
Saint: Hobart was my music partner of 17 years. We demoed songs for each other and gave feedback to each other. We invited one another to jam on things we were developing. Hobart was and is my brother. We attempted to be honest with one another always and miraculously, we were genuinely into one another’s work. I miss him every fucking day. Hobart was a goofy, caring, fun-loving guy. He was the partyman. He was a gardener, a father, a mentor. He professionally was a counselor, and you know, he was professionally also a composer and songwriter of extreme skill. He made an amazing work as his last. Hobart and I didn’t really, like, work in a band situation where we jam and come up with a riff over a beat and write it down. Hobart started his pieces individually and so did I. We then would talk to one another about what the track’s intent was; this then indicated what instrument we would play and what message we would try to take part in with our musical language if we invited one another to play on particular songs anyway. Hobart, of course, was not on every Nahja Mora track and I was not on every Precision Field track. In fact, nobody but me was on Final Realization… and I wasn’t on Love & Debauchery at all. I pushed him to do the design himself because I was stuck in this dumb make people grow thing. But I dig the artwork; I don’t dig his absence. His wife Sara painted the cover.
Hobart and I had an ability to jam together in a really interesting way because we had played together for so long and since the get-go understood each other’s musical language. There are tons of recorded jams.
Over the years, you’ve had various collaborators and band members, with Jenny Rae Mettee (of Fun Never Starts) being the most consistent aside from Hobart. Tell us about your working dynamic and how it has evolved over the years; how much would you say her contributions have affected the sound of Nahja Mora – both in helping you realizing your vision, and perhaps in veering it in directions you wouldn’t have thought of?
Saint: Nahja Mora makes friends well with others and we work with and remain akin to friends who share earnest and expressionist spirit. This can be described as a brand or a band or a collective or group in which I am the musical director and composer. Jenny and Hobart each have/had developed their sound on their own and with me and we have matured into who we each are together. Furthermore, each of us is a musical director of our own brand or band or collective or group, etc. I am currently a live player for Fun Never Starts – this is a music scene, after all.
Also on the album are longtime associates like Lilith Astaroth, Jeff Byers, and Shawn Brice… similarly, tell us about their contributions and how you feel their presence helps to elevate your vision for Nahja Mora.
Saint: Nahja Mora makes friends well with others, to again repeat an adage of an old friend who is expected to collaborate in future, but the adage twisted. Music is a language; all is a language, and some speak the same language or expand the vocabulary to make for even more complex statements. Musicians each come from their own history and sculpting of their world view inherent in the sounds they emote. Thus, the harmony envisioned is recorded and produced.
Lilith is one of my oldest friends with whom I developed a friendship over ICQ in the mid ’90s. We worked together in a band in the early 2000s and some recording of her from then shows up magickly here (part of the production of AHFHAOTA involved archiving and treating very old VHS tapes). Jeff is a friend from childhood; we both went to the same high school, and we played in bands together when we were teenagers. When we were both in college, we jammed together semi regularly – at that time I was playing piano and Ableton, and he was playing guitar and circuit-bent devices. Shawn is, honest to god’s truth, one of my biggest musical influences, so It’s been a very humbling and powerful experience to have him work with us and, furthermore, for he to be a friend. So much of this album was made with Dropbox and email.
I think the contributions of Jenny, Shawn, Jeff, Hobart, elevate the vision by imparting their energy into the sound. Shawn contributed parts on ‘Ash World Grey,’ which was concerned with media impacting an already messed up mind in bad circumstances. His contributions informed the momentum of the song. Jenny and Jeff each, like actors, drew from their own experiences to emote their parts they recorded. This album was produced with players. Hobart’s appearance on AHFHAOTA is on ‘to the dawn a Knife,’ a song that was a COVID ‘jam.’ I improvised a keyboard track, then quickly recorded a drum track over it. Then I shared it with Hobart and Jenny on Dropbox. Jenny then recorded cello and synthesizer at her studio and Hobart recorded his devices at his. I put this all together and then recorded a vocal when I had the right energy. It’s weird to describe a song this way and still call it a ‘jam,’ but trust me, it was a jam.
I think Lilith’s presence, ghostly and kismet as it turns out, adds to the deeper meaning that I meant in the tracks arranged. I think her line, ‘Killed so many dreams’ is a pinnacle point in the story of the album.
In June, you put out covers of Michael Jackson’s ‘Whyuwannatriponme?’ and Propagandhi’s ‘The Only Good Fascist Is a Very Dead Fascist’ as a standalone singles.
A quote from Orson Welles (1981, Filming The Trial), “Every work of art is a political statement. When you deliberately make it, you usually fall into the trap of rhetoric and the trap of speaking to a convinced audience, rather than convincing an audience. I don’t think it is the duty of every artist to change the world; he is doing it by being an artist. That just automatically goes with it…”
Of course, underground scenes like punk and industrial have a long tradition of addressing politics and the contemporary sociopolitical climate, so I wanted to ask you about your thoughts about this on a philosophical level.
Saint: I personally know that no one can adequately predict the impact of a piece of any art on the world or on a subjective individual’s tastes. Everything is political. Nothing is political. Turn onto politics before they turn on you. He’s sort of right about that.
Music is political because it is a part of everything and it’s political when it’s a part of nothing. But cheesiness is something else. I should hope that neither of those covers are cheesy; the honest truth is both were reactionary to things happening in my world. I made the MJ cover over the course of a night while hallucinating, for real. The Propagandhi cover was because… fuck Nazis, fuck white supremacists, Nazi punks fuck off.
But back to Welles and the idea of speaking to the audience you’ve already secured. Nahja Mora’s audience is unspecific and growing and I couldn’t be happier with that. Bandcamp for one does allow artists to view the albums purchased by their fans. It can be very interesting. Nahja Mora unfortunately gets lumped quickly into one sort of thing in one sort of scene over a few singles with particular beats, though on the same albums are acoustic guitars with accordions. We don’t really have a particular sort of people who listen to Nahja Mora. We have previously spoken in our own opinion rather blatantly on certain political processes leading to apocalyptic disasters, or warnings of environmental reclamation/retaliation, or domestic abuse, or whatever suffering typically reserved for the bleeding heart. The key message is we have to take care of one another. Is that political? Maybe. Is it social? Sure. It is just the songs and messages and stories I choose to write and frame in the way that we do. I wonder what Welles would think of the media institutions that exist today and I wonder then if he would still back this statement that he made in 1981.
I long for the lost voice of music culture. Live Aid. The Tibetan Freedom Concerts. The early years of Lollapalooza. The world before the conglomeration of media. Gangsta Rap. MTV News. We did once have a vocal youth sociopolitical entity, but in the end, it became the biggest conglomerate of all undermining each and every one of us. Even Prince was upset and named them on a record. Where did it go? Well, I discovered some of this scene through MP3.com. The RIAA attacked that, destroyed it, though it was mostly if not entirely independent artists. One thing led to another to ultimately a situation where artists are paid nothing for their work and instead, listeners are charged monthly for limitless listening of everything while their spent monies are invested instead in artificially intelligent warfare. Realizing the dire stakes of the current world can be easily experienced after viewing demo/marketing videos of artificially intelligent autonomous tanks working as a wolf pack.
The major labels of yesteryear committed their artists’ catalogs to even worse fates with a yet darker view by trading off royalty payments to artists for equity instead in these Silicon Valley exploiters. I’m not sure that that quote keeps up with the times and the sorts of things that the artists of this day must compete with and work with and work against. The underprivileged and the caring are always the ones to be the most political in their art because they want to make a stink about issues that affect them. What is art if not expression of the self.
Really, we are weighing pop music, for lack of a better term, against Welles’ statement. On second thought, I don’t think these ideas are compatible. Recorded music is somewhat of a propaganda piece and a live show with the energy that we’d call a show is not so much different from a political rally or a preacher consumed with their wanted spirit performing for their flock. That’s why we talk about building a following, even in digital social worlds, no? So, is this art in the higher sense, or is it something entirely new – the cult of personality?
Or where does Welles’ definition of the world lie? Is he talking about what I call the Earth or what each person has: a worldview? If so, yeah sure, every artistic work changes the world by changing the worldview of its author. As for rhetoric… this is art and it’s closer to propaganda really than anything else. We’ve got to be frank somewhere!
We’ve been enduring the pandemic for more than two years now, and while live shows are back, we have vaccinations and boosts, history has shown that it’ll be quite some time before we no longer have to worry about it. As a musician/artist/sound-maker (however you want to describe it), what do you feel that artists, labels, venues, the industry as a whole should take away from the situation?
Saint: We lived in a false reality that a band is not made until it has toured while sun-era COIL and :Wumpscut: stared us all in the face sipping their tea. Perhaps the bigger thing to realize is the future is already here and if a band exists on the internet, it is no longer local – there are no such things as local recording artists; we exist in a global world. Deal with it. Making hierarchies is stupid and unbecoming, is it not? Isn’t this all supposed to be a reaction against what the industry is telling you to do?
The most spoiled of all the arts is the film and television industry. The reality is that we should be seeking to influence the world by getting our music onto as much media as we can. The recording industry has mutated into such a sorry state that sometimes the best security that can be made is fostered through getting a piece of work placed; more so now than ever before I’d muster. That being said, I am hearing tons of advice on dialogue sampling, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t parrot the point of someone whose professional opinion on the subject has been well-earned: the algorithms are getting very advanced. Publishing and licensing are things; so is copyright. Nobody wants to have to deal with a surprise third party. Nobody wants to have to deal with a surprise super powerful conglomerate third party. We in the United States are not subject to some of the more artist-friendly laws in parts of Europe. Furthermore, why not sample our representatives and senators – city, state, federal – and really shake up some copyright law?! Sampling elected representatives making public speech! Where does the first amendment protection lie? Whose IP is the recording? Also, maybe you learn something…
We also need to be truly independent, each of us, and make sure to be defensive. Learn what you can and work to get your work noticed. Be on your own side and talk about yourself and your work. Publish your work! Do the work to learn this world! Contact heroes; contact film and television music supervisors!
In Baltimore, being that I am locally active to the here where I currently sit, there is concern from local bar/venue ownership that corporate interests were maximizing on the pandemic’s economic imprint and buying up property that was unable to succeed. The loss of every stage that supports music culture impacts every bit of this art. The expectations of many in the United States and possibly abroad may need to change. The whole showcase of ‘talent’ may need to change as well. More house shows, performances in art spaces. Perhaps with the change in society, those that identify under the moniker of industrial music may want to make for more guerilla style performances if possible. Would that be such a bad thing really? A return to form and political movement? Those booking tours may want to view Google maps or at least consider contacting locally resident talent that has worked with particular talent buyers. Not doing this can apparently lead one to some extremely ridiculous situations if not abided. We all could apply that ‘see something, say something’ sentiment at least in honest faction! This is an easy way to build community.
I am a huge fan of Propagandhi. I’ve followed their output since the ’90s. What I think about most is they had a very clear want and message to try to, as they saw it, fix the world. hey clearly worked hard on their songwriting, skillset, and abilities. They developed hooks and singles and anthems for everybody to sing along to. They wanted these messages heard. But over the past 30 years or so, their music has gotten so much more… existential. They now seem to say, ‘It’s too late – find and fix what you can, but it’s just too late. So, with grace, teach and fix what you can, but the greater world is lost but for our tradition and teaching.’
We are in the Holocene extinction. That is the reality. The sustainability of the Earth can be calculated, and it is far less than our current growing human population. But as far as the bigger picture, there’s just not enough fear of death. People everywhere just lack this understanding that they could die or be killed at any moment. It’s a huge motivator I think to so much reckless aggression and petty social or political drama that literally and or potentially ‘kills’ us. I’m not saying that we should sit around in helmets and bubble wrap. I mean that we need to cherish the life we have and respect that others could take it from us, or we could lose it over negligence or recklessness. So, be kind.
And I think that leads to my final point: we need more political speech. We need to realize that people listen to what we say. There’s precedent that shows even this hidden cornered scene got some bad press due to some bad actors doing some atrocious stuff whilst twisting media from some of our peers into soundtracks for their madness. Who really cares about the bad press? We should care about the trauma inflicted.
We need a better understanding of what the words we say can mean for the listeners of our work. We need more truth tellers and innovators speaking truth to power, every power. We need a continuation of our history as a fight to free information and free people against austerity or neoliberal exploitation. And we need a lot less of people telling us how to act or how to feel, and badmouthing us or attempting to hurt us for not falling in line with the roles they prescribe to us. We need less of the idiot music industry in the industrial scene. Anger is more useful than despair!
If someone is going to use symbols or actions to shock, then they must take some responsibility for their repercussions; otherwise, they are playing shock games that only shock in an antiquated sense. Regurgitating the status quo is just a pale imitation of the music industry of yesteryear – ready to abuse anything, steal anything, appropriate the image of anything for a quick buck. If you’re trying to operate under this worldview of industrial, I should hope that you are seeking to experiment, react, and be industrious in your output. Be a music industry yourself. If you seek to shock, have a purpose for the shock. The shock itself doesn’t do much but upsets the gears. But that is a purpose, isn’t it? I wonder what would be a real shock right now in 2022. I don’t think that I honestly could be shocked.
Are there any plans for Nahja Mora to perform live again sometime soon? And if so, in what ways do you feel you’d be adjusting your approach to playing live – either on a performance, technical, or business level?
Saint: We intend upon releasing video. Anytime a recorded work is reperformed, it is adjusted in some way to be played live, whether by players or by tape. You cannot escape that fact, no one can. Plans? I am an agent of chaos, at least in present. There are too many factors at this very moment that must be ironed out, but the end goal is a tour. I like theatre and video and lights and thinking of things made into new things. I like to be falling down the steps. That is the goal of a live event: falling down the steps. I have so much again to release as well.
Nahja Mora, Precision Field, Fun Never Starts, Stoneburner… all representatives of the Baltimore industrial music scene. Every city seems to foster its own particular styles and talents, so what can you say about Baltimore and how the city itself has shaped your musical outlook – both in terms of defining your listening tastes and how you approach making music yourself?
Saint: Baltimore is an industrial city where one can clearly see addiction, racial divide, gentrification, industrial ruin, economic divide, and environmental pollution; decades of corruption, centuries of racist policing. The music we all make and made is a product of seeing the shit so many are talking about up close and personal. Also, it’s just awesome. There’s a small shed structure in north Baltimore with ‘MERZBOW’ written across its roof in stark lettering. We have a museum of industry; we have a museum for outsider artists. The reps of our scene in Baltimore should include Curse and Hex Me. And you know, Matmos, Jeff Carey, and Worms of the Earth moved here not too long ago, no? Constants is a pretty cool producer too. Locrian is based here. As for me, myself, and my socialization… dude, I went to private catholic school forever, and have always been a weirdo. Does Baltimore just make weirdos? If so, why am I weirdo? If everyone here is a weirdo, there shouldn’t be any weirdos at all! Baltimore makes experimental music, and listen jerks, industrial music is experimental music!
Outside of music, what are you enjoying most right now? Watching movies? Reading? Clubbing? Hiking? Anything at all… what is giving you the most joy?
Saint: I enjoy history and sociology. I watch films regularly. I haven’t hiked for a while, but I miss it. I am enjoying archive.org. I enjoy tracking down the works of Monte Cazazza. I enjoy sending and receiving e-mails. I paint and make things for fun, soon for profit. I design graphics. My wife and I take care of our cats, dogs, tarantula, rats, horse; I am the rabbit king by choice of the wild rabbits in my neighborhood – they approach and hang with me. I work on my ability to communicate with crows. I work on my ability to communicate with… everyone.
I enjoy cybernetic thinking. I enjoy learning policing techniques defensively, body arts, and having social relationships with insects and arachnids. I like making things. I adore talking to strangers.
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