Dylan Desmond (Bell Witch) and Janaka Stucky Are Going Off Script

The collaborators catch up about their improvisatory live shows, and much more.

Dylan Desmond is the vocalist and bassist of the Seattle-based doom metal band Bell Witch; Janaka Stucky is a poet, performer, and founding editor of the press Black Ocean. The two recently performed together in support of Janaka’s new book Ascend Ascend, so the two recently hopped on a call to catch up about it, and much more. Ascend Ascend is out now, as well as Bell Witch’s latest record, Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Dylan Desmond: Alright, so, I’ll start off. I recently accompanied Janaka for two live performances of his book, Ascend Ascend — one in Seattle, the other in LA. Before the first show, we had never met in person, much less rehearsed together. This gave the performances a very exciting mixture of rehearsed as well as improvised elements from both of us, and it got me thinking quite a bit about the translation of a written piece to a performed live piece, and the differences between improvisational and rehearsed performances. I guess from my personal experience, there are elements of a Bell Witch performance that can’t be directly recreated live, and likewise, there’s elements of a recorded performance can’t be done live. 

During parts of your performance, you enter a trance state, which brings a stark difference between what I imagine a reader would experience in reading the book and what they would see in watching you read and perform. There’s a kind of a repetition that I imagine connects the two. How do you feel that this element is consistent between the live performance and a private reading by a reader?

Janaka Stucky: Specifically speaking about the work Ascend Ascend, both as a text and as a performance: when I composed it, I was working from a very liminal state of consciousness where I was coming in and out of trance states and using meditation and other kind of ritual work. The text itself came out of that process, almost as a record of those states of consciousness. And so, just as you do as a musician, when you put out a book, you’re like, OK, it’s time to tour behind this book. But usually when you put out a book, you’re thinking, I’ll do the bookstore circuit and I’ll read a chapter or an excerpt or some poems or whatever, and then I’ll do a Q&A. And while I enjoy doing that, it did not feel like a way to represent this particular work and the place that this came from. So I took a step back and thought, What would performing this work look like? And that’s where the idea of bringing in all these other elements — the actual trance state that I go into the performance, the ritual objects that I set up around myself while I perform, and the music all came into play. These were all really integral parts of the creative process and the genesis of the text, and what I want to do is basically recreate that experience that I went through. 

So I think for these performances, it is maybe as close as I’ve ever gotten to really having the experience of the work for an audience member mimic the experience of the creation of the work. And I think that is symptomatic of where this work came from, because the process through which I created it lends itself to a theatrical experience. Whereas you can imagine if I were writing a novel, and I was just sort of drinking coffee and staring out the window and then writing a little bit and doing that day in and day out for days and weeks and months and years, and I was like, I want to bring the audience into that experience — that would be a very different thing, and probably not that compelling. But that’s why you do those bookstore readings, right? Because it’s like, Well, we’re going to just sort of enter the world of the novel. It’s not about the creative act and experience. But for this particular work, I think that it mimics that as close as I would know how to do. 

Dylan: That’s great. Some of what you’re saying makes me think of something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is the Arthur Rimbaud quote of — and pardon my French — “Je est une autre.” Which is translated to something like, “The I is another,” or “the I is something different.” 

Janaka: Yeah. 

Dylan: Which I think kind of insinuates that the creative self is something outside of the conscious self. Maybe sort of an id to the ego, of sorts. Or maybe even otherworldly, in an extreme interpretation. I think a lot of what you’re saying makes me think about that with the way that all the elements of how you put together the piece work into the translation of it and the expression of the performance of it. How different do you think that is between a live performance or the actual raw creation of the material, versus the recreation of the material? 

Janaka: Yeah. So, to sort of dissect the Rimbaud quote a little bit — I mean, you can think about it on multiple levels. But when I think about it in relation to the creative process, that when we are going through our mundane, non-creative lives — going to work or school or running errands or interacting with friends or whatever — we are inhabiting the world. And when we enter the creative space and the creative mode and that flow state, we are allowing the world to inhabit us. And that is like “the I becomes the other.” I think that that’s our job as artists, to allow ourselves to be inhabited by the world, which is a very vulnerable space to be in. Then through that work, we are inviting the audience to be inhabited by the world in a different way too. So we go from the mundane or the profane state of existence into a more elevated or sacred state of existence — and I mean that in a non-denominational way. I think the creative state is a sacred state, a state of beatification in a way.

I think as artists — anyone who has created is familiar with that state of consciousness, in one way or another, during the act of creation. We talk about being spoken to by the muse or being struck by inspiration. That is, I think, a very common experience, but I think what distinguishes that in a performance setting is it’s very different to allow yourself to be inhabited by the world when you’re in your studio or at your desk and you’re sort of private and secluded or you’re in your safe space. It’s different to allow yourself to be inhabited by the world in front of an audience in a very public setting, because it is a very vulnerable act and you are losing a piece of yourself and you are surrendering control to a certain extent. I think writers don’t do that very often. I think musicians are sort of prone to doing that a little more — not all of them, but they’re at least familiar with the trope. 

Dylan: Being caught up In the moment.

Janaka: Right. And I think we all know certain acts live can be really incredible and transcendent, and you can feel as an audience member when those musicians have become caught up in the moment and have sort of allowed themselves to be inhabited and surrender, and there’s a bit of a loss of control that turns into something a little spontaneous and exciting and interesting. 

Dylan: I think about it with the audience sometimes and dancing, or whatever variation of that.

Janaka: Totally. Because that state of consciousness is infectious, too. It’s sort of like when the artist is doing their job, then it gives the audience permission to surrender, too, and that’s what makes for a really beautiful and invigorating artistic experience.

Dylan: Yeah, it’s like a collective experience.

Janaka: For sure.

Dylan: That notion makes me wonder — to go back to the Rimbaud quote, if the “I” is something else, I wonder how interconnected that something else is between everyone. Like if everyone in one room can get caught up with the music, or with any performance — if everyone’s getting caught up in that performance and they’re all kind of on the same wavelength, is that something else? Like one singular entity that everyone involved is tapped into? Or is it that each individual is tapping into something completely different based off of their own experiences? How does their ego and their id communicate in that moment?

Janaka: I think it’s a little bit of both, right? I do believe that there is a collective other that we’re all tapping into. You can think about that in a variety of ways, but even on the most fundamentally scientific sonic way, if we’re thinking about music — the beat, the tone, the melody, all those things trigger a kind of universal experience in the human body and the mind and the nervous system. And at the same time, we’re all experiencing that through our individual lenses of our own cultural backgrounds, our own lived experiences. So there’s a central other that we’re all tapping into collectively, and our individual experience of tapping into that central other is going to have an infinite number of flavors to it, I think. 

Dylan: Sure. So you’re saying there’s a tint of individuality in that and a tint of collectivism to it.

Janaka: Yeah.

Dylan: That’s fascinating to think about. There’s an escapism in that, that we all want to escape our consciousness to go to that place. We seek it out to great lengths. I guess that’s kind of a big draw to art in general. Do you think that the draw towards those sort of otherworldly or outside experiences are promoted by our modern world more? Or do you think that that’s something that would be inherent regardless of the times?

Janaka: I mean, I’m curious what you mean by “promoted by the modern world.” Do you mean insofar as that our modern, or contemporary, culture promotes it in terms of advocates for it, or promotes it in terms of [it] creates a hunger for it?

Dylan: I think that would be more more along the lines of what I’m thinking. Like in our modern lives, is there maybe a void — or an aspect we’re looking to escape that could maybe be also be seen as a void — that we’re looking to fill? 

Janaka: Yeah, definitely. Because I think that our experience of awe — which is really what we’re talking about.

Dylan: Indeed. Yes.

Janaka: Our experience of awe comes from kind of a place of… I want to say stillness or silence, but I don’t mean that in a literal sense. Let’s use an example of a sunset: You’re walking along, or whatever, and you’ve got your endless flow of thoughts going like, Oh, I gotta do this thing, and then after that I gotta pick up this other thing, and then when I get home, I’m going to call this person. Then all of a sudden, you turn a corner and there’s this incredible sunset, and the clouds are lit up and they’re pink and gorgeous —  and that endless stream of thoughts just stops for a second. And then in that moment of stillness, you experience awe. And then a second later, you’re like, Oh, that’s a beautiful sunset. That’s really cool. And then you go back into your day.

Dylan: Your phone rings.

Janaka: Exactly. So I think that our modern experience disallows for those moments of awe, because we have given ourselves so many opportunities for stimulation and being productive that we have become unaccustomed and uncomfortable with allowing for that mental and psychic space that creates the opportunity for experiencing awe.

Dylan: Sure. 

Janaka: But it also means conversely, I think we’re really hungry for it because we don’t experience it that. I think it also kind of comes from boredom, and we don’t allow ourselves to be bored anymore. You know, we’re like, Oh, if I’m feeling bored, I’ll just doomscroll on my phone, or whatever. I’ll just binge watch five seasons of this thing on Netflix. So I think no matter how hungry we are for it, we are also uncomfortable with the sort of preliminary states of being that allow for it. And so we’re also depriving ourselves of those opportunities. And I’m guilty of that, too. I don’t mean to be preaching — I definitely am prone to that as well. I think the trick is just sort of catching yourself doing it and then be like, Instead of doing this, I should allow for this other thing and just go for a walk or allow my mind to wander, or do whatever, you know?

Dylan: Yeah. That makes me wonder about it in a performance setting. Because obviously for a performer during a performance, there’s kind of an out of body — maybe that’s hyperbolic, but the performer’s in it, and the audience is observing. So the audience maybe has more room for those outside influences to kind of catch their attention in the moment. In the earlier days of Bell Witch, there would always be the “Free Bird” character, you know?

Janaka: [Laughs.] 

Dylan: There’d be a part in the song when we’d get really quiet and we’re kind of barely doing anything and someone in the back of the room is gonna, you know, “Free Bird!”

Janaka: Right.

Dylan: As time has gone on, I think that’s happened less and the silent moments really resonate. Maybe to bring us back to earth for a second here: Have you ever had any of those things during live performances of yours? I feel like the motivation behind that is the “Free Bird” person themselves is feeling a discomfort.

Janaka: Yes, I think so.

Dylan: In the room, there’s this thing happening and there’s silence and no one’s moving, and maybe part of their ego takes over. They want to say, “Hey, me!”

Janaka: Yeah, they don’t know what to do with themselves.

Dylan: Yeah. Have you ever had those sort of things happen during a live performance of yours?

Janaka: I’m not sure that I have. In my earlier days, like in my 20s, I would do poetry readings in between sets in, like, basement metal and punk shows and stuff like that. So in those cases, the audience didn’t come there to hear poems, so there was a lot of hecklers. But it was also really cool — I mean, I really loved doing those things. I never got upset, because I get it. But also, I think people kind of vibed with it in a way that was different, and they would heckle but not in like a, “Get off the stage, you piece of whatever!” It was more just, there is inherently more silence in a reading than there is in the wall of noise that comes with a metal band, or the driving speed of a punk band or whatever, so there is an opportunity to interject and to interact with this single individual up there. So I definitely dealt with that. 

I think it comes from that place that you’re talking about, but I also think that there’s always an opportunity to then kind of interact with that person and invite them in to the performance. If what they bring to the table becomes a part of the tapestry of the performance and is not treated as a disruption of it, then it’s sort of like… It’s like John Cage’s minutes of silence, where everything becomes part of the aesthetic experience in that moment. Even the person shouting “Free Bird” in the back or the person’s phone going off. I mean, that’s what I deal with, right? It’s like, I bring this poem to this beautiful moment of silence, and then a police car goes by or someone’s notifications ping on their phone or whatever. But then you just kind of roll with it, and it’s cool because it’s sort of like everyone has this moment of, we’re existing outside our bodies, we’re existing outside of time, and then you’re like, Oh, OK, now we’re anchored in space and you know, it’s OK. There’s that tension there.

Dylan: So you kind of improv off of the the mood, so to speak?

Janaka: Yeah, you can cue off it, you know?

Dylan: Sure, sure. So with that in mind, the idea of improvisation: the performances that you and I did, we hadn’t rehearsed together. Obviously you had your parts rehearsed, I had my parts rehearsed, but we were sort of playing off of each other in some ways. So when you’ve performed with other people — I imagine the show you just did in New York was of a similar nature — are there certain things that happen in a performance that sort of click differently with you? Or maybe send something in a different way than what it would have in a different, different setting when there is such an improvisational nature to it amongst the musicians, but there’s also this composed nature to it as well?

Janaka: Yeah, definitely. I didn’t rehearse with any of you ahead of time. And different degrees of preparation — I actually think you and I were the most prepared in terms of our pre-show communication over email.

Dylan: Which to say, honestly, it didn’t feel like it was a whole lot.

Janaka: No, it wasn’t! I was talking with Jason [Woodbury] at Aquarium Drunkard about this, because he was commenting about how when he listened to the record how cool it was how Lori [Goldston] and I blended together and how that sort of felt like magic. And I said, “Yes. And also you have to recognize that each person that’s coming to the table in an improvisational setting has done not just preparation for that specific performance, but has a lifetime of preparation in their own craft that they’re bringing to the table.” And really, the minimal amount of communication that you and I did, or that Lori and I did, is just about intention setting. You know, sort of just talking about, “Here’s the tone we’re going for and here’s the emotional or narrative arc of the set.” But other than that, what happens within that framework, we’re going to just play off each other and see what happens. 

It varies from musician to musician for sure. You all were playing different instruments. So that’s another thing, and then also everyone’s playing different speeds, different compositions, different things like that. And I have my own tempo that I go with in the in the way that I escalate that feels sort of inherent to the work. Which I can’t just do in a vacuum when I’m performing with someone else — I have to play off them and find them, find the moments in the silence and the rhythm to place lines and things like that. 

But I love that. Each one of those performances feels different. And that’s true, I think, even if you’re doing the same thing with the same person Because you and I are the only ones who performed together twice out of all those people, but the Seattle show and the LA show felt different to me. 

Dylan: Very much so. 

Janaka: And that has to do also with the energy of the crowd, the architecture of the venue. Also the fact that we had one under our belt by the time we were going into LA.

Dylan: We were veterans. 

Janaka: Yeah. So I think all of those are really cool. There’s something really great about each live performance being its own time capsule, its own special individual thing that is different than a studio recording — which is also really awesome, but it’s a different thing. You know that.

Dylan: I remember in Seattle, I was so nervous before we got on stage. In LA, maybe it was the same, but like you said, we were a little more comfortable because we had done it before so we knew what to expect. There’s one moment I remember in particular in the LA show where it was kind of like a John Cage moment — it got very quiet and you stood still, and I remember I’d stopped playing and I was like, I’m pretty sure this is where I was supposed to stop. There was this tension that I felt and I was like, Oh, no. Are we doing this right? And I feel like that sort of thing made it better. Then when we came back in, it was with an extra gusto, which was totally improv. I mean, there was no plan of that at all. That’s different, of course — it’s improv. But do you feel like something of that spirit is consistent in improvisations? 

Janaka: Yeah, I think if everyone’s doing their job, that is a consistent piece. I have some friends who do improv comedy, which is a very different form. But if we’re talking about improv, they have this mantra of “yes, and” — so whatever the person feeds you, you’re affirming it and then you’re adding to it. And I think there’s that in the nature of these performances. Whatever you and I were feeding to each other, we’re just accepting that in the moment and then building on it. And part of that tension and excitement is to see how the other person’s going to respond to whatever I just fed them. When we did our second show together, we felt more confident because we knew that we could do it because we had done it once before, and there’s also the tension and excitement of, OK, well, how is this going to be different? Because we don’t we still don’t have a script. We just know that we have been successful at it once. 

Looking back on the shows and the tour — because I also have performed with a pre-recorded score — I realized that I really prefer those improvisational shows much more. When I started doing them, before our first show, I was really nervous too and I was like, This is cool and I’m excited to play with Dylan, and I’m scared to leave the comfort of my pre-recorded score and knowing what’s next. And by the end of the tour, I was like, Wow, I always want to do that. I don’t ever want to go back to the pre-recorded score. It was a really cool experience.

Dylan: Likewise.


Bell Witch is a doom metal band from Seattle. Their latest record, Future’s Shadow Part 1: The Clandestine Gate, is out now.