RUIN: Let There Be Light
RUIN is a legendary punk band formed in Philadelphia in the early 1980’s. In 2013, the band plans to reissue some of its back catalogue, old outtakes and several new songs. Ruin reunited in 1996-97 for several shows, and plans to play live a few times this year. Seymour invited founding members Glenn Wallis (guitar) and Cordy Swope (bass), who have since gone on to enjoy fruitful intellectual careers, to answer a few questions about their fascinating and unique musical project.
Glenn Wallis (GW) is currently associate professor and chair of the Applied Meditation Studies program at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies. The Institute is an emerging leader of integrative education. Prior to this position, Glenn taught in the religion departments of several universities, including the University of Georgia, Brown University, Bowdoin College, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Glenn holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Harvard University’s Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. He has written the following books: Basic Teachings of the Buddha (New York: Random House, 2007), The Dhammapada: Verses on the Way (New York: Random House, Modern Library, 2004), and Mediating the Power of Buddhas (Albany: State University of New York Press, Buddhist Studies Series, 2002), Buddhavacana: A Pali Reader (Onalaska, Wash; Pariyatti Press, 2011).
Cordy Swope (CS) is now an innovation leader and has led human-centered, interdisciplinary teams in creating profitable new products, services and businesses in a wide range of industries for companies such as, BASF, BMW, Eli Lilly, France Telecom, GE Capital, Herman Miller, Nokia, P&G, Mercedes Benz, Novartis, Renault, Siemens, Telefonica and Timberland. He has won awards for both design research and communication design and his work has resulted in a handful of utility patents both in the US and Europe. His work has also appeared in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Cordy currently serves on the advisory board of the Front End of Innovation conference Europe. He teaches master classes at Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID) and the Designskøle at Kolding, Denmark. He also conceived and taught the first design research course offered at his alma mater, Pratt Institute.
Interview by Melissa Unger
Let’s go back to the beginning. RUIN was never ‘just a band’. It was more of a project, a way to express and explore your Eastern/Buddhist philosophy via the medium of hardcore punk? Tell us a bit about this and why you decided to express yourself in this manner versus another means of expression?
GW: One of our many slogans back then was it’s not about the music. It was about a whole life. One of our favorite words was passion. When you put all this together you get it’s about a life lived passionately, and music is our creative distillation of that life. That formulation, too, explains the hardcore punk affiliation. Musically, those were the days of flabby, ponderous rock virtuosity. Punk offered an alternative: raw, immediate expression. With the explosion of a simple, fierce three-chord progression, we could obliterate the transcendental differential of “art” and re-gain the human being stumbling in mute reality. Buddhist teachings offered signposts to the way back. But there were hidden dangers in both punk rock and Buddhism. Like all cultural constructions, both threatened the very freedom they promised. We soon realized that wearing the mantle of either required subjugation. Being a “punk rock band,” being a “Buddhist,” meant answering the call of quite specific ideologies. Each meant, precisely, being in a particular manner, a manner, moreover, dictated by others. So, the antagonism to coerced constructions (art, music, American middle class values, etc.) that instigated the move to each was merely deepened. And this struggle between creative potential and formal structures is unending.
CS: To this day, I am not sure if hardcore punk was a medium for Buddhist exploration, or if Buddhism was the medium for hardcore punk exploration. That I happened to explore both of those things simultaneously seems logical in retrospect. I was finished with caring about taste and with annihilating my senses with both substances and rhetoric. Glenn and I always pointed to a William Blake quote, “The fool that persists in his folly shall soon become wise.” We always snickered among us that the key word in that aphorism is “persists.” I was a fool and Buddhism and punk rock were the perfect ways for me to persist in my folly.
The band has been dormant for 17 years, what prompted you to decide to come back together now?
GW: It really is unending. If it’s about creating a whole life passionately lived, “it” persists through life. “Dormant” works as a metaphor since it implies that the plant remains a living organism. And it is, of course, true of the band that, as an entity, it has been dormant for years. But a band is a collection of individuals who, in our case at least, have continued to live—to breathe, think, love, create, hate, question, experiment, fail, try again, and fail better. Every so often the possibility of doing all of this with one another—banded together—emerges. Why? Because “it” persists, in some form or another, or in various forms, often hard to recognize. Beyond that, I don’t know. The most recent prompting was typical in that it was strange and unexpected. Cordy announced that he’d be in Philadelphia on such and such a date. Let’s get together and play. And without hesitancy on anyone’s part, we all converged in a rehearsal space and played for eight hours. We played like six teenage boys in desperate search of the wisdom and succor that a major E-chord might offer. I don’t understand any of it. Not the prompting, not the response, not the power of the E that we all discovered that day.
CS: There has been additionally a constant drumbeat of nagging from certain sections of our support for just one more reunion. And our feeling is that we might do this once more before we are too old to play this music – if we are not too old already. I hear a lot of opinions about band reunions – “They need the money,” or “They are bored old farts doing a nostalgia trip.” We have even heard recently that we are probably too old to reform. To these opinions, and with all due respect. Kindly. Fuck. Off.
Perhaps a little personal anecdote might explain my personal inspiration to reunite. Some years ago, I introduced myself to Quincy Jones at a cocktail party on Martha’s Vineyard where we both were lurking around, feeling out of place because it was a posh, moneyed crowd. Instead of asking him boring questions about what it was like to produce Michael Jackson’s Thriller, I asked him what that last Miles Davis concert at Montreaux was really like. He described how demanding it was for Miles to physically be able to play his early music again. There were other, junior soloists there to pick up the slack. Miles’ deteriorating health was a big issue, even up to the final hours before the show, and no one really knew if he would show up. We both teared up as he described Miles’ final heroic performance, hitting THAT note during the last time he was ever to play “Solea” from Sketches of Spain. Here we were, a couple of strangers – grown men – crying like children at a posh cocktail party on Martha’s Vineyard. If there was ever an emotional blueprint for what a last final concert should be like, it is Miles Davis and Quincy Jones at Montreux 1991. I want to feel something like that – something that renders all else in life peripheral because this will be the last time in our lives that we play this material live.
It is not about taste or youth or nostalgia or people’s opinions. It is about life and death and moving people, especially ourselves. Despite dying young, Dylan Thomas once wrote “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It feels healthy that we want to rage against the dying of the light now, because doing so prepares us for the many deaths that lie ahead – especially our own.
GW: It is true, somehow we did “function.” Otherwise, we’d have nothing to show for it. But we functioned the way that searching young men do when they band together and juxtapose their lostness. What we discovered in doing so was a unified force, a power that resided in the whole. I look back on those early days with an almost painful sense of gratitude for my band mates. I see now, thirty years later, the tremendous role they each played in my formation as a person. I mention this because I now know that the creative process with these guys is what was so formative for me. It shouldn’t be surprising, given what I’ve already said, that the motivation behind our process was not some preconceived “sound” or musical program. In fact, if you look at each of our musical proclivities—blues, metal, ambient, pop, classic rock, traditional folk—it doesn’t completely make sense that we formed a band at all. I always knew that Vosco, the singer, and Cordy were open to exploring various sounds, some not at all akin to punk, or even necessarily rock. It was obvious, too, that Damon, my brother and our other guitar player, had his heart in the cranked up blues of Jimi Hendrix. But I was more intent on a consistently hard, heavy, fast and furious sound. And I was probably a bit of a bully. Yet, something allowed us to merge elements of our individual tastes in our songs. Practically speaking, Cordy’s talent as an arranger played a large role in this. He was able to hear connections where the rest of us just heard a random riff here and a throw-away progression there. He could suggest unexpected ways to put parts together. Vosco also had an uncanny ability to hear a strange musical possibility that no one else did. Damon’s leads always altered the musical architecture to some degree. So did his rhythms, which complemented, rather than duplicated, mine. Both of our drummers, Rich and Paul also exerted their influence, in the understated way that drummers do, on tempo, accents, arrangement, and so on. So, everyone felt musically satisfied enough to go on for as long as we did.
CS: One day in December of 1982, I brought my bass and jammed with Glenn on vocals, Damon on guitar and Rich on drums and decided to join on the condition that we get Vosco on vocals and that Glenn switch to guitar. We had booked a gig a month before we had the band assembled, and sweated out a month of daily rehearsals before playing our first show in January of 1983. During that time, I quit school, quit smoking, quit two other working bands, rearranged all of the old Ruin songs, wrote a few new ones, moved into a shared flat with Vosco and became a practicing Buddhist. We played our first show and that was that.
At the shared flat, Vosco and I began to collaborate musically. It was both brilliant, and at times turbulent. We listened to each other’s music collections, jammed, and made a lot of tapes. Damon and Glenn were more set in their musical ways. They preferred to evolve the group slowly rather than to experiment. Creatively there was the official Ruin channel and then there was all of this other stuff. Glenn was always spending a lot of time in the library – researching and writing. He would come up with new words, some would be lyrics, other words would find their way into pamphlets that we would print up in his family’s print shop and distribute at our shows. No bands I ever encountered on the road did anything like this. We liked to experiment with the form of being in a band.
Also back then though, many musicians typically had side projects along with their bands. Vosco and I set up various musical channels with which to experiment. We brought along other people to jam with us sometimes. We sometimes formed one-off collaborations with different people to record or open for Ruin. It was a way to push things forward without having the pressure falling on the band to generate new material. I always recall there being two musical speeds to Ruin, one was Vosco’s and my speed, which was about constant experimentation and iteration – the other was the Glenn and Damon speed, which was the actual speed with which the band produced finished material. Now it seems that Glenn’s musical speed has increased, mine and Vosco’s are about the same (or maybe ours has deteriorated with age and Glenn’s hasn’t?) and Damon’s is about the same. In a group, creative speeds are important.
Do you have a ritual before going onstage to play live?
GW: Yes, we often ritually marked the shift from everyday life to stage performance. Personally, I’ve always felt an acute need to generate a visceral sense of purpose when I’m shifting into some new arena of action. That’s true now before I give a talk or conduct a class or meditation session. It was particularly necessary with Ruin because of the intensity, expectation, and chaos that were lying in wait on that stage. Ritual is an effective way of driving life back into the body. So, we did things like sit in a circle, place a candle in the center, lower our eyes, feel our breathing bodies, imagine what we were about to do, let our nervousness and anxiety come to life, become whole again. Other times we’d stand in a circle, eyes lowered, while one of us would read a moving passage from some writer or philosopher; then take three synchronized deep breaths, storm onto the stage and kick ass. The reactions of the people around us backstage when we performed these rituals always amused me. Imagine a bunch of burly punks, all leather and spikes, standing respectfully to the side, motionless, hands folded, while we engaged in actions that screamed out for ridicule. Our rituals were literally transformative, altering the shape of things, like people’s faces, their expressions, ours, too, and shifting our thoughts, bodies, and emotions out of the slow burn of daily life and into the rarified energy of performance.
CS: Historically we have also listened to a variety of music to open emotional pathways before we play. There is nothing like the feeling of being 15 years old and being blown away by something. We try to recreate those moments for ourselves if we can. Backstage we have listened to the music that did it for us – the usual MC5, Stooges and whathaveyou – once Stravinsky’s magnificent Le Sacre du Printemps or a couple of times, Bob Dylan’s Baby Blue. Before we take the stage we often select music to change the atmosphere as the lights go down. We have always liked to mess around with the conventions of the rock show format by building tension and anticipation long before we take the stage. I believe that the first 20 seconds of any band’s live performance are the most important as the audience makes up its mind about you right then in the moment. You have to completely bring it in that moment or else people tune out. And the preparation of those first 20 seconds can also begin long before we ever appear.
As for rituals, Glenn is usually the officiant if there is an invocation of some sort. I leave those rituals in his expert hands. He also performed my wedding ceremony years ago.
GW: When he was asked to describe the creative process, the otherwise verbose Henry James said simply: “We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have.” Really, I can’t think of a better (non)description. But when I reflect further on it, it looks something like this. It was in a philosophy class. It involved something like dual awareness. I still get that when something really grabs my attention and demands the bulk of my cognitive-affective resources. I don’t mean split awareness. I mean something like two channels—two conduits or pathways—of a single awareness. Maybe it has something to do with the two hemispheres of the brain. I don’t know. But the way I experience it is that one channel receives linguistic data, concepts, ideas, logical structures. The other receives images, feeling tones, qualities, atmospheres, unformed unnamables. When I do what’s necessary, like stare out of a window or at a wall for a while, just sit still, or meditate, these two flow together, suggesting other possibilities. So, that doodle is just a visual rendering of ideas and words from a professor’s lecture, fusing with raw bodily sensations and mental-emotional atmospheres. In that instance, I was unaware that I was filling several pages with line doodles. In the larger scheme of things, line doodles are, of course, pretty inconsequential. But I have continued to allow this dual awareness to do is work with my subsequent projects. I don’t want this to sound like some sort of mystical absorption or anything. If it makes sense to speak of a “collective unconscious,” as you do, I would want to do less in Jung’s sense and more in Marx’s. I don’t see myself as ever accessing hidden realms of universal knowledge. I see it as a consequence of being a human being fully immersed in my material realm—in my physical environment, in my particular culture and its social-symbolic system. Creativity is a response. It’s a response to being engaged with others in our shared world.
Is there any particular book or text that has had a profound impact on your creative evolution?
GW: Around the time of Ruin’s first incarnation, in the early ’80s, William Blake’s poetry had a strong hold on me. I think it was more Blake’s passionate engagement with his unique vision of life than the actual content of his poetry that impacted me, if that makes sense. He served as an example, someone who labored on his creative vision, thought hard about it, looked intently at the world around him, in the sense of contemplative looking, and crafted it all with great care into a unique, cohesive expression. I wore out my copy, too, of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and Twilight of the Idols. I carried a copy of the Buddhist text the Dhammapada in my jacket pocket for years. I would often pull it out for nourishment during lulls in scuffles with drunken clubbers as a doorman at the Kennel Club, a popular nightclub in Philadelphia at the time. Hesse’s Steppenwolf was galvanizing. I’d probably read everything Henry Miller wrote, too. Emily Dickinson was a deeply disturbing force in my life. She still is. As with Blake, I often read these writers with an eye to example rather than idea. They were exemplars of a creative life. They showed a way. Still, many of their ideas found their way into our music—via that second channel I mentioned. In the ‘90s incarnation of Ruin, I was under the spell of Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer, his acolyte. They led me to Georg Trakl and Friedrich Hölderlin, both of whom I have subsequently spent many hours translating. For the coming (?) resurrection, I am absorbed in a bizarre French thinker named François Lareulle. I’ve been reading a lot of Samuel Beckett and Georges Bataille lately as well. I hope there will be a musical transmutation of my current reading. If not, it’ll show up in some criticism that I’m writing.
CS: We considered books to be form of intellectual, spiritual and emotional nourishment. While we had learned to read at that point, we had not yet learned to be cynical, wizened, critics of what we had read. We accepted and affirmed almost everything. So at age 20 for me, it was quite simple actually.
Invisible Man by Ellison opened me up to the possibility and desirability of a life lived underground – or in an underground scene. At the beginning of Ruin, On the Road by Kerouac gave me a jittery restlessness and visceral ambition to tour.
Siddhartha by Hesse initially normalized some of the more inscrutable aspects of Buddhism for my western mind. The Gift by the Velvet Underground provided an important milepost of blurry experimentation between music and storytelling.
You have both gone on to carve out successful intellectual and creative careers. Tell us a bit about how being a part of RUIN has influenced your life.
GW: I always fantasized that in the after-Ruin-life, I would go on to write books and articles and have other creative projects that carried Ruin on in different guises, even with the word “ruin” showing up in the titles of these things. “Songs of Reverie and Ruin,” for example, was supposed to be the title of a book of poems; but we ended up using it for a Ruin CD in the ‘90s. To a current master’s student who is writing about how meditation practice has wreaked havoc in her perfectly pleasant life, I suggested the title “How Meditation Ruined My Life.” It’s a continuation of the potential of some material, action or idea to alter us in a very particular sense, in a way that makes it impossible to go back to things as before. As a band, Ruin had that effect on people via sound and performance. As an educator, my goal is still to be an impetus for such alteration. Really, I am after more than alteration. I like what Richard Sennett says in his book The Craftsman about his own teacher, Hannah Arendt: “the good teacher imparts a satisfying explanation; the great teacher—as Arendt was—unsettles, bequeaths disquiet, invites argument.” Translated into Ruin’s parlance, my goal is to ruin my students. Same with teaching meditation. Same with having a conversation over coffee or beer. I’m not talking about browbeating or anything necessarily aggressive. I am talking about a manner, an attitude, of engagement with others, a mutual sifting of our lives. In this sense, everything I’ve gone on to do is a continuation of the life that animated Ruin. One final example. The tagline of my blog is weaving a bloody tapestry of ruin. The blog has nothing to do with music. But is has everything to do with Ruin.
CS: It is so rare to collaborate with others creatively who share a common goal of moving people. It happens sometimes, maybe in theater, or in certain religions. In business (especially in creative business) goals tend to be mired in political, cut-throat bullshit. And music? Shit. There is often so much heavy attitude, irony and/or substance abuse around music few can recall what it feels like to be moved by it. In my experience, it is movement that is the key to being able to lead a creative life, and that movement ultimately involves moving and disrupting oneself as a person first. Buddhism taught me that, but then again so did punk rock.
I have spent a career leading creative teams at some of the world’s leading innovation and design firms in the US and Europe, and through that have created all kinds of new-to-the-world products and services, many of which are used by millions of people. I do this line of work because I am drawn to creative disruption and change on all levels. I detest the status quo at almost any given instant. Oddly enough, I have found that the corporate world with its endless stream of bullshit, is actually not a bad a context for finding people who also seek out disruptive change. A lot of my work is around “creating cultures of innovation” inside of organisations – be they for-profit or non-profit. Often these cultures must transcend petty, national, ethnic or educational biases in order to function as a growing, creative organism. Ruin formed a perfect basis for me to build the necessary skills to help build such cultures.
Glenn has initiated a significant new-to-the-world discourse in the study of Buddhism. He is a genuinely disruptive force. One of our drummers, Paul has gone on to play with the likes of Helios Creed (a hero of ours, formerly of SF legends, Chrome) and Jello Biafra. The other members also lead extremely taxing lives, with families, careers, and world tours.
We all share a sense among ourselves that placidity is somehow dangerous, and thus there is virtue in any kind of movement – especially in the movement of people’s hearts.
I view the Ruin experience as a unique exercise between us as a group, and then between us and the people who like to come to our shows. Despite our professional experiences, and especially what some might characterise as “professional success,” for me – maybe for us – there is nothing quite like playing a Ruin show, especially the next one, which will likely prove to be our last one.
Published: April 23rd, 2013