Activity Meditates on Religion, Isolation, and Unmask Whoever

The NYC four-piece talks spirituality, pre- and post-quarantine.

Preface: Maybe somewhat interestingly, I wrote mine before everything went down and didn’t change it, and Zoë wrote hers after.
— Travis Johnson

On a summer day when I was 18, about two weeks from going away to college, I was in my room in my parents’ house wishing for all the world that I could stop existing. I didn’t want to die, because that could possibly involve some kind of afterlife, or meeting God, or something worse I hadn’t imagined yet, and I wasn’t up for any of it. I wanted total annihilation. My head was filled, each day, from the moment I woke up until I could finally fall asleep at night, with horrific thoughts. The thoughts made me deathly afraid of myself and who I was. There was a weight I felt on my chest at all times – it usually woke me up in the middle of the night.

Six months earlier, these new kinds of thoughts I’d started having would have been unfathomable. Something had shifted in my head and awful things had been revealed, and I couldn’t look away. I was losing my mind.

So, this one day, in my room. My mom knocked on my door to check on me. Now, I don’t know why it was that day that I felt I truly couldn’t take it anymore, but when she, who had raised me to believe in certain religious ideas that had never actually been real to me, asked if I needed anything, I asked her to pray for me. When she asked what was the matter, I broke down and told her all of the things I’d been quietly trying and failing to fight off. I cried my eyes out and she held me and told me more about our family history of obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. It was the first time I’d felt any relief in months.

There seems to me to be a quietly humming, pulsating something behind all things, gentle and severe, alive with mystery. It is bent on joy for all of us, and I feel I came to know it the littlest bit in my treatment and recovery. I’ve never been an adult without OCD, depression, anxiety, and I’ve never been an adult without the feeling (that is all it is) that there was something infinite that wanted me to be healed, to accept myself as I am, to forgive myself. Almost immediately after this awareness crept in, it was followed by a second awareness: that, feeling accepted, I wanted others to feel accepted, that this mysterious Something felt for others the way it felt for me. 

Incidentally, this has informed my leftist politics ever since. It makes no sense to want others to know they are loved while tolerating their degradation and abuse at the hands of racist, anti-poor, homophobic, transphobic laws. Capitalism is self-hatred masquerading as self-love, feeding back in on itself nearly infinitely, then expressed outwardly in greed and fear. It is an enemy of a radical, transcendent, eternal love.

 Those months after I came clean to my mom, when I was starting on medication and therapy, when I was staying up in the dark in my dorm room while my roommate slept, listening to music and writing feverishly, I began to feel like I might at some point start to feel OK again, but that OK would now be different than it was before. I had told my mom, “I just want to go back to where I was before this,” and she responded, “You’ll never go back there again. You’ve seen new things. You’ll go somewhere new.”

I started to realize that some music sounded and felt like that, and I wanted more of it — the sound of looking at something vague and possibly frightening, gentle and severe, alive with mystery. I would fall asleep to those sounds every night, with headphones on. That’s what I wanted to hear, and it’s what I wanted to make.

It wasn’t just bottomless reverb, though it could be that. It wasn’t just a wall of guitars or synths or untethered samples, though it could be those too. It wasn’t just evocative lyrics that only hinted at their author’s intent, though it could also be that. I didn’t, and don’t, really know it until I hear it. It’s ever-shifting, a moving target, trying to hear or create that sense of going somewhere new when your instinct is for the old place, the floors and doors and halls and walls you got to know already. It’s not even about new sounds. It’s just about a feeling.

Noise, blasted out drum machines, a guitar with only one string that’s somehow still out of tune with itself. I heard it in In a Silent Way, Post, Jandek, often-sad early house music, the thrashed and beautiful prepared strings of The Dreebs (and now Leya), those puke-inducing flanges on Duran Duran’s “Come Undone,” the “and that was the world” closing chords of Silver Jews’ “Pretty Eyes.” Those diseased synths on Portishead’s Third, or the plunging progressions on “One of Our Girls Has Gone Missing.” The way the sillier moments of Faust records made the sadder moments sadder. It was there in the cracks. When the stakes are infinite, which I think they might be, things sound different.

But then, also, sometimes I just wanted shit to sound really cool.

And now, in a deeply collaborative band, the band I’ve always hoped to be in in some way or another, our impulses all bouncing off of each other, I’m always thinking of this feeling. There’s a part of a song called “Looming” where it sounds to me like Jess is barely touching her guitar strings. There’s a moment on “Spring (Low Life)” where Zoë’s voice hits me as coming from the moon. The key-jumping samples on “Calls Your Name.” I can’t really say why they hit me with that feeling, but they do. That’s a lot of why algorithms are nearly worthless: I suspect many of us are looking for nothing more than to feel a certain way when we listen to or make music, and what exactly triggers those feelings is so idiosyncratic that the slightest absence or presence of this or that can ruin it all. And what a privilege it is to be in a band with these specific people.

That’s the whole point of music for me, chasing that sense of a void which is not at all a void, and it all goes back to that time where I didn’t want to exist. 

— Travis

I have this dream: it’s a sunny spring day and I want to enjoy it, but I’m trapped inside a dark and dusty house by some unseen weight. As the sun travels across the sky, I move in slow motion. I want to hike through dappled light, I want to stretch my body on rocks left by the flow of a melting glacier, I want to see tadpoles sprouting legs out in the pond. But by the time I make it past the front door, the golden light is draining behind the evergreens.

I grew up on top of a mountain, surrounded by woods in an old red farmhouse overrun by animals and art supplies. Books, paintings, cartoons and gag gifts could be found in every room and there were always instruments lying around, which my sisters and I were encouraged to use. My dad grew up in the same town. He was raised by Catholic parents, and he went to church with them every Sunday. When I asked him about it, he told me that the services were given in Latin and that he had no idea what was going on except that “the priests looked angry and the churchgoers looked absolutely miserable. In Sunday school, the nuns told us that ‘God is Love’ and then beat us with a stick for the slightest infraction.” By the time he was 10 he began to suspect that something was wrong with his religion, and with that suspicion came a sense of betrayal that the picture of reality his parents had fostered in him might be false. 

My mom was brought up in a Conservative Jewish household in the next town over. She went to synagogue every Friday night throughout her childhood, and she attended Hebrew school where she learned Jewish history and the Hebrew language, but she never believed in God. By her mid-20s, she was studying Wicca. She collected seashells and filled them with saltwater for rituals, and she performed ceremonies in an outfit that she’d hand-sewed out of purple satin. Years later, when I was little, I found those shells in a wooden box on her nightstand. They looked like potato chips to me and I discovered they were salty (I’d put them in my mouth when she wasn’t looking). My mom ultimately decided that Wicca wasn’t for her; she didn’t believe in the deities. When she became a parent to my sisters and me, she was a self-identified Atheist and raised us as such. We were never encouraged to worship a higher power, just to be good humans and respect all life forms. 

I used to bristle at the mention of God. It felt to me like a shorthand for an oppressive cosmic surveillance system. God was a man who thought he could command me, but he wasn’t welcome in my house. Instead, I found patterns and pathways in nature, chain reactions that became sacred to me. They terrified me, too aging has always been particularly horrifying. I cried on my eighth birthday because I felt like time was passing too quickly, and my childhood would be over before I knew it. I saw what was coming for me and I didn’t want it. My dad promised me that I’d remain the same inside, and I vowed to stay seven forever. But as I grew and learned more about death, I began to wonder why I should bother doing anything that I didn’t feel like doing, if life was so temporary. I wasn’t nihilistic, though, just existentially depressed. I still cared about morals, and the more I learned about systems of powers, the angrier I became. I was frustrated by every selfish decision that compounded an unjust world. I didn’t have the tools to process that feeling in a productive way, so I just held onto it and scratched inky trenches into notebooks with my pen during class. When I learned about the concept of a multiverse, I started fantasizing about alternate dimensions as an escape from inevitable pain and loss, the weight of which felt unbearable. The idea that everything could continue to exist in some form was, and still is, a comfort to me. 

I’m grateful that my family is non-judgemental about mental health, and that we can all talk openly about our struggles. To cheer me up when I was a kid, my mom would take me to nature centers and for walks in the woods near our house, which is still how I reset. I find comfort in the elements of nature, like the hallowed shape of a fern, the branching pattern of a tree, and waves; vibrations, light and sound.

Something happened on my 13th birthday that altered the course of my life: my sister Rachel made me a mix CD that included songs from Metric, Elliott Smith, Grandaddy, Pavement, and what’s become my favorite band of all time, Enon. The songs on that mix led me to complete discographies that have buoyed me and influenced the kind of music I want to create. Each track initiated a domino effect that has informed the events that I’ve gone to, and the people I’ve met. Eight and a half years later, Rachel asked me to join her band Field Mouse, and we’ve been playing music together ever since. 

In addition to playing in Field Mouse, I started making music with Travis Johnson, Steve Levine, and Jess Rees back in the fall of 2018. We decided to call ourselves Activity, and we wrote an album called Unmask Whoever that will be released through Western Vinyl on March 27. Playing with Activity has helped me get over the fear and perfectionism that has always stood in the way of my productivity, because we don’t second-guess ourselves collectively as much as I tend to on my own. We trust each other’s instincts and we didn’t overwork the album or get too in our heads about it we finished writing some of the songs in the studio. Before I was ever in a band, my depression often made me feel unmotivated to play music, but having bandmates who rely on me keeps me engaged in an activity that brings me a lot of joy.

I’m writing this from self-imposed quarantine during the COVID-19 crisis. Like the rest of the world, I’m horrified by the fallout of this pandemic it’s apocalyptic. I’m feeling the distance from my loved ones and worrying about their health from afar. I’m a little over two hours away from Travis, Jess and Steve, and I’m wondering what the world will look like moving forward, as this catastrophe unfolds. The CDC just recommended that events of 50 people or more should be cancelled for the next eight weeks, which means that we’ll postpone our release show and the tour that we planned. Playing music with friends and being part of a creative community brings meaning to my life, and so many of us find comfort in attending and putting on events, but it’s crucial that we delay these now in order to slow the spread of the virus. Music has been critical for my mental health during this time at home, and now is the perfect time to listen to all the albums I’ve been meaning to get around to, and to support other artists who are struggling as all of our careers take a hit.

It’s a beautiful day, and under normal circumstances I’d like to drive up to my parents’ house and drink coffee by the frog pond with my mom and dad, but I’m lucky enough to have a little fenced off space behind my home in Philadelphia. I listened to our album out here in the sunshine, away from everyone. I think about all the decisions forming the unimaginable chain of consequences that led us here, and I look forward to the day when we can play these songs to a crowd again.

Zoë Browne

Unmake Whoever is available for pre-order here

Activity are an avant four-piece featuring Travis Johnson, and drummer Steve Levine, both from the band Grooms, bassist Bri DiGioia, and guitarist Jess Rees from Russian Baths. Produced by engineer Jeff Berner of Psychic TV, their new album Spirit In The Room is an emotional seance held through an unearthly haze of menacing trip hop, ambient electronica, and synth-based noise rock, and is out August 4, 2023 via Western Vinyl.

(Photo Credit: Ebru Yildiz)