Thomas May discusses with what we can only presume is the closest thing the group has to a figurehead, the band’s insistence on secrecy, the commune that spawned their concept and freedom from individuality.
“Oh I don’t know, we call ourselves all, like, different things all the time,” the hesitant voice tells me from the other end of a struggling international phone-line. I’ve asked my anonymous interviewee how I should refer to him in the present article, a question that seemingly catches him off-guard. What I had thought would be a passing formality before our conversation really begins becomes a sticking point, a stifling atmosphere of awkwardness quickly emerging. “But you can call me…” He trails off to silence.
With the sole exception of Christian Johansson, who gave a handful of interviews in the band’s infancy, the identities of Goat’s members have remained veiled in mystery ever since they emerged into the public consciousness two years ago. Although, to refer to them as “members” is probably overly prescriptive. Supposedly hailing from a commune in the remote north of Sweden, Goat functions more as a continuum of ideas and musical activity than a strictly delimited group: a fluid collective of individuals coalescing – albeit temporarily, perhaps fleetingly – around a shared sensibility, a shared music.
“It doesn’t really have a beginning and an end, maybe, you know,” my interviewee tells me later, once our ungainly conversation has begun to flow more easily. His fractured English is spoken fitfully, the musicality of the Swedish accent straining against an unforgiving foreign tongue, his economical clauses strung together with heavy silences and verbal tics. “But it’s more of a way of… A view of the world maybe, a view of music, or of cultures, that everything belongs to everyone, you know? To be influenced from, or to enjoy all cultures, all music, everything. And Goat is mainly somehow a tradition, a tradition of how to live, maybe, how to view things, how to look at things. And that probably doesn’t have a beginning or an end.” Within Goat’s internal logic, the concepts of identity, of authorship and ownership, become irrelevant – if not totally meaningless – as the individual is subsumed and dispersed within the collective.
“You can call me…” Again, he pauses. Floundering, he eventually asks: “I don’t know, what did Rachel say?” By this point, only a minute or so into our conversation, we’d both chosen to ignore my catastrophic blunder of addressing him by his real name, which had been relayed to me by my PR contact Rachel prior to the phone call. (“Hi, is that X?” was my ham-fisted opener. “No… It’s not X,” suspicion palpable, I’d clearly miscalculated, “but is this, er, is this from a paper?”) His name now an open secret, the only option was to plow on in earnest. “Well, she told me to ask you,” I replied with pained and insufficient jocularity. Another pause.
It’s hard not to be reminded of Rudi van der Saniel, a minor but particularly well-rendered character from the surrealist comedy series The Mighty Boosh, during our conversation. Played by Julian Barrett, Rudi is a jazz-fusion guitarist and High Priest of the Order of Psychedelic Monks, seeking to attain spiritual nirvana via his mastery of the phaser pedal and soaring, axe-hero solos. And when, at their first meeting, Noel Fielding’s Vince Noir enquires as to Rudi’s identity, he responds: “I go by many names,” before a long silence. “Well, what are they, then?” Vince eventually prompts. “Some call me Shatoon, bringer of corn. Others call me Mickey Nine, the dream weaver. Some call me Photoshop. Others call me Trenoon, the boiler.” The list goes on and on, culminating in the final pseudonym: “Others call me R-r-r-rubbady Pubbady.”
Of course, Rudi’s character acts as a metonym for the utopian pretentions of late-60s psychedelia, allowing the hipper-than-thou duo of Fielding and Barrett to poke gentle fun at its naïveté, jibing – albeit fondly, one suspects – at its contrived mystique. Throughout his appearances in the series, Rudi’s commitment to the dictum of the Order of Psychedelic Monks – his unerring belief in the power of music to offer blissful loss of self – is continually made quaint by his self-consciousness, his numerous cognitive dissonances, and the unavoidable absurdity of his appearance. In the aforementioned episode, Barrett appears particularly ridiculous: his head and arms poke through a carnival cutout done up to make him look like a disproportioned Jimi Hendrix, in his hands a miniature Fender Strat.
And whilst Goat are less explicit in their guiding principles than the politically charged music of the Woodstock era, the group’s unashamed adherence to an almost mystical sense of universalism places their music within the same category of art striving, perhaps naively, to tear down barriers between people – be they personal, political, spiritual. “There is only one true meaning of life and that is to be a positive force in the constant creation of evolution,” states a heavily-reverbed voice during their new, second album ‘Commune’, released last month on Rocket Recordings. And the group’s intrigue is only amplified by their strictly guarded anonymity: the seductive pull of the unknown emanates from their music, itself wide-eyed and intangible in its eclecticism.
“He said to ring him any time, and if he’s free he’ll talk,” I was told, somewhat ominously, after a long period of attempting to pin the group down for an interview. But just as Rudi’s ambitions and cultivated aura are undermined by his unavoidable silliness, my conversation with this member of Goat is coloured by similar juxtapositions of the lofty and the amateurish. When I finally made contact with my elusive interlocutor I found a modest family man attempting to contain his marauding three year-old in the background. “Do you have kids?” he asks me later over the noise of what sounds like a full-scale riot in the background. “You can never do something, you always have to interrupt something. But it’s great, but you have to be… especially when they’re” – emphasising each syllable – “three years old.”
And these traces of the quotidian – the messy, the unguarded – at the centre of Goat’s elaborate game of smoke-and-mirrors lends a sense of charming artlessness to my interviewee’s responses, keeping his occasional ambiguity from becoming tiresome schtick. It’s not until the end of our hour-long conversation that I finally press him again on his chosen pseudonym. “Just call me… just call me…” pausing, and then, almost apologetically: “Just call me Goatman.” He stops again before adding, “Probably people have used that before but it’s all I can think of now.” Goat’s enigma is clumsy, ill-formed, and, above all, human.
“Well, it’s like ‘World Music’ – like with the first album – [which] begins with the same melody and it ends with the same melody actually. And we did the same thing with this one but in another way. It’s just a nice way to make it circular, you know?” Goat’s latest record, ‘Commune’, is bookended by a hushed bell-like sonority – the sound of a Buddhist prayer bowl, Goatman informs me. A subtle gesture, but one which lends gravity, a sense of obscured significance, to the unkempt music within: the repeated tone forms a frame that draws the album’s disparate sound-worlds together in tentative and partial synthesis. “It ends with the beginning somehow,” Goatman elaborates, “and it gives a good wholeness to the album, I think. It’s mainly a musical thing; it’s no other thing really. It’s a musical thing to make it whole, like a piece of art, you know, it sticks together all around. That’s the main reason.”
And the desire to create a musical experience of tangible, yet fleeting, unity was embedded into the group’s approach throughout the process of writing and recording ‘Commune’. “We worked more with the wholeness from the beginning,” Goatman tells me. “With ‘World Music’ we worked with the wholeness afterwards, somehow, to make it as an album. Now we could do it more from the beginning, which was a little different. And ‘World Music’ was maybe more spontaneously recorded, this time we recorded it – we’re better with the studio now as well – so we recorded it more as an album: we knew it was going to be an album.”
Goat’s debut album, ‘World Music’, was released in 2012 after Rocket Recordings stumbled upon the group’s music online. “We recorded two songs – I think it was ‘Goathead’ and ‘The Sun and The Moon’, it was called – and those songs were… a friend of ours, I don’t know if they’re a friend of me really, but some friend, some friend’s friend or something…” As he often does throughout our discussion, Goatman briefly tangles himself in a moment of self-revision and contradiction before continuing. “…made a video for those songs, two videos, one for each song. And they put them on YouTube, I think, and Rocket found them, I think it was like that.”
As our conversation returns to ‘Commune’, Goatman offers a second motivation – aside from the purely musical reasons he initially noted – for his group’s desire to cultivate a unified musical experience. “And it’s also because, you know, our music sometimes – it’s a spiritual thing, all music is a spiritual thing. It somehow fits, I think. It fits the context of the album, I think.” As his explanation becomes increasingly fragmented, his sentences disintegrating into unfinished clauses, he laughs: “I don’t know how to explain it in English.”
It’s about expressing a completeness that is nevertheless coloured – even defined – by difference, I suggest. Something larger, more elaborate arises from the multiplicity of constituent parts. “Yeah, exactly. That’s what I think both of those albums do. Because they start and they end in the same way, and the song structure – we’re very, you know, this is the thing that we’re very careful about, or we put a lot of thought and feeling into getting the sequencing of the albums to be good, so it’s not just a collection of songs, it’s a wholeness that is bigger than the pieces in a way. That’s the main reason of it in a way – to get a bigger spiritual experience from listening to the wholeness of the album rather than picking songs out.”
Drawing on everything from Afrobeat to druggy psychedelia, from funk to Middle Eastern sonorities, both of Goat’s albums vibrate with internal energy, invigorated by dissonances and contrasts, but also fleeting moments of harmony, between the multitude of genres and traditions that comprise the collage. As such, Goat describe their music, defined as it is by such an eclectic approach to recombination and juxtaposition, using the somewhat loaded term ‘world music’ – which was also, of course, the faintly provocative title of their debut album. When I broach the topic of the label’s undesirable associations, at least in British English, of post-colonial Western consumerism, Goatman concurs, saying: “I don’t know how it’s used exactly in Britain but in Sweden the term is used to…” At this point he pauses, laughing: “my son is trying to speak English…” He continues: “The term here has been used to put together all music that is non-Western, non-European, non-American music. And you put all those different musics together and you call it ‘world music’. You know, if you look at a record shop, and you look at ‘world music’ and you find music from every country that are not nearby. And that is, I wouldn’t say it’s racist, but it’s, it’s really… stupid, in a way. You know what I mean? Yeah, it’s not racist, but it’s ignorant, in a way.
“And so, we also feel that, like, genres are pretty, pretty – I mean, sometimes you need to call things stuff – but it’s pretty old-fashioned also, you know? Because things are mixed up now, things are mixed up all the time and are getting mixed up more and more and more. The world is getting more global and connected with each other. All music exists in all music, so the genres we talk about today are so silly sometimes. And so we call our music ‘world music’ because it belongs to the world and it comes from the world, as simple as that really. You know, it comes from the world and it belongs to all parts of it. That’s how we want to use the word.”
Goat’s use of the term, then, is an intentional attempt at reclamation: an attempt to imagine a way of listening in which music from a culture foreign to one’s own is not heard simply as an exoticism but rather as part of its own nuanced and complex history of aesthetic practice. “I hope so,” Goatman agrees. “And I hope people can, not through us, but I hope people can discover or can change their opinion about music from other places, and not call everything ‘world music’, which does have negative associations over here as well. Music is music, wherever it comes from. Let’s call everything ‘world music’, you know. In a way, everything should be called ‘world music’ – you shouldn’t just call music from non-Western places ‘world music’.”
Given their sensitivity to the myriad complexities surrounding our consumption of music from around the world, it’d surely be a simplification to label Goat’s music – and, in particular, its use of African and Middle Eastern sounds – as an example of crude, or politically suspect, cultural appropriation. Yet, the fact that this charge is not uncommon in discussions of their music is more likely due to the subtlety of the distinction – between Goat’s ideal of ‘world music’ and the more common meaning of the term – than the shallowness of their listeners. As The Guardian’s Michael Hann wrote in his review of ‘Commune’: “After all, the notion of a bunch of Swedes taking African-styled guitar melodies and welding them on to droning psychedelia could easily be taken for cultural appropriation. But then Goat, with their masked players on stage, are reliant upon appropriation for their exotic sense of otherness, which is key to their appeal.”
Hann’s equivocal stance is understandable: Goat’s cultural tourism may well have pure motivations, but their music is nevertheless in continual danger of being consumed almost as a contemporary form of blackface, at least at the extreme end of the scale. Even within the context of our broader discussion of his conception of the term ‘world music’, I still feel a twinge of discomfort at the occasional turn of phrase emerging from Goatman’s otherwise impeccably considered explanations. (Perhaps most strikingly: “if you feel something appeals to you, use it: it’s yours.”) And if these instances are merely attributable to our not-inconsiderable language barrier, then perhaps that only reinforces this point: communication is never free from the spectre of miscommunication, especially within the semantic haze of musical meaning. And, in that sense, Goat’s game is a risky one.
In any case, Goat’s vision of an idealised ‘world music’ can be seen to lend a political edge, an urgency and force, to their otherwise abstract songwriting. Is Goat’s music intended to evoke such an image of a utopian society, one in which differences are woven together into a complex, yet harmonic, whole? “Well if you think like that or if other people think that, it’s fine,” Goatman responds. “But it’s nothing that we have planned or strived for. It’s just what we wanted to do and what sounded right. It’s not like we have a political agenda that we want to bring forward or anything like that, it’s just – I can understand that people feel like that – but it’s not planned.
“It’s just that we listen to a lot of music and if you don’t control your creativity in a certain direction, it comes out the way it comes out,” he continues. “And this is the way it comes out. But we don’t try to create something really – it just happens when we put down a lot of jamming into songs.” Goatman goes on the elaborate on the group’s recording process: “It’s just the people who are involved at the time – it could be two people, it could be ten people actually. It’s, you know, if someone brings a friend to the recording session, it’s like, ‘if you want to do something then you can do something’. But also, the people who can operate the studio: they are the bunch of people who mostly are involved. But some people can be there and the other people are free to do whatever they like. So not all people are featured on all songs.”
So Goat’s aesthetic of ‘world music’ – one which could spark so much theoretical wrangling – is perhaps merely a symptom of the group’s openness to new ideas in the compositional process. I suggest to Goatman, though, that an intangible sense of a political stance – a sense of what is right, of what is worth creating and working towards – can arise naturally from any aesthetic object, however supposedly insular it may be. “Yeah, I guess so, I guess so,” he concedes. “The only thing I would like to point out is that… Ah, here comes my girlfriend, finally. I can concentrate on one thing…” – his son now receiving the undivided attention he’s been clamouring for – “Collectiveness; collectiveness and togetherness is one thing in our minds, you know. But it’s worth pointing out, we don’t have a political agenda or anything like that.”
The sense of radical openness – to other people, to other cultures and musics – so integral to Goat’s way of operating can be traced to the shared sensibilities of the broader collective to which the group belongs. For, the name “Goat” refers not to a band but a commune situated in the village of Korpilombolo in the far north of Sweden. “I’m not even from the North, actually,” Goatman tells me. “I’m am not from the original Goat commune, but I’m part of the commune now, I’ve been travelling up there since I was small. My parents knew – I’m from Gothenburg originally – my parents knew people up there, we would travel there and then I’m part of that and the band now. But the band consists of younger people and Goat are a lot more people than that.”
Embroiled in mystery and rumours – largely provoked by the group’s infamous first press release – of voodoo-based religious rituals, Goat’s official backstory is tinted with playful ambiguity and evasion, always withholding far more than it reveals. I suggest to Goatman that, as such, the group – as a concept, as an entity – appears to hover somewhere between reality and fiction: an enigma enmeshed within a chaotic slippage of meaning. “Maybe it is, maybe it is,” he laughs, guarding his answers carefully. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say.” He continues: “Maybe people are really disturbed by it, they can’t put their finger on it. Maybe they don’t know if it’s true, as you said. They don’t know. And maybe they hate it because of that but maybe they like it because of that.
“But it’s not constructed,” he continues. “I understand what you mean. But it was nothing, it was nothing planned. We told Rocket about ourselves, and they made this press release, which was part” – emphasising – “part of our story. But it was part, it wasn’t the whole picture. I guess because we embraced spiritualism and religions and all that, you know, it gets probably a bit unreal for people. But it’s nothing we’ve sat down and had a meeting about, you know, how we’re going to do this. It was just happening quite spontaneously.” He pauses before arriving at his conclusion: “It’s the music: if you like the music, you like the music. If you don’t, then you don’t.”
Indeed, despite the aura surrounding the group and the story of its origins, the Goat commune is actually made to sound remarkably quotidian and non-mysterious in Goatman’s descriptions. “A commune is just a bunch of people living together, sharing the same beliefs, somehow,” he tells me. “But it’s also the natural way for people to live. All people live together with other people all the time, you know what I mean? And people today need to be aware of that more, I think. People of today need to be aware that we are all part of different collectives – your family, your friends, your work, your society, your country, your city, your whatever… your village – we’re all part of collectives or communes and the more we recognise that, the more we can personally play a positive role in our communes or collectives. Which is really our purpose. Don’t live for yourself, live together.”
So what does the band’s music share with the music played within the commune? After a pause, Goatman replies: “It’s not the same. It can be whatever, but music is pretty free up there. There’s lots of [styles]. Like in the ’70s there was prog rock, probably, but in the ‘80s, I don’t know, actually – but still it’s a lot of instruments, a lot of drums, lots of rhythms, lots of dancing, lots of like pretty natural, natural…” he trails off, searching for the right word. “Natural music. You know what I mean?” laughing, “Natural music is not the right word… it’s a stupid word but… don’t write natural music…” I did, but only because I think the term is probably more precise than Goatman feels: the Goat commune and its music seems oriented around an ideology of authenticity, of music and expression arising organically from unconstrained self- and group-expression, free from pretence or individualism.
“Like, simp… not simple music” – still struggling for the best description – “But people play together, you know, jamming with drums maybe. Or the next day, people jamming with drums and a guitar. It doesn’t really matter. Mostly jamming but they pop up like bands or stuff like that – groups that want to do their own music like we have done. And then some young people from up north moved to Gothenburg and hooked up with me and some other people and… So it’s not just people from here influenced by other music. It can be punk rock or whatever, you know. So influences are brought in, it’s the openness for it that is the thing, in a way. You mix whatever you like with whatever you like in the songs and it’s your own expression.”
I mention that there seems to be a subtle, and paradoxically constructive, interaction between tradition – in the commune’s approach to collective music making – and the erasure of tradition – in the desire to incorporate sounds from elsewhere. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I would say that [the latter] is the musical tradition, basically. That is what the tradition is: to stay open, to travel, to explore, you know. To explore cultures and music and, if you feel something appeals to you, use it: it’s yours. That’s the tradition, maybe, in a way.”
And it’s this goal of forging a purity of musical expression – one which arises from the spontaneous and egoless meeting of individuals – that drives Goat’s desire for anonymity. “When we play together wearing masks, wearing something that expresses our sense of the music, we feel more united, we feel more like one person,” Goatman tells me. “It’s more easy. It’s more easy to express something when you know that your face is not there, when your identity is not there. It’s just music coming out. It’s easier to let it out, because there are people watching you.
“And, yeah, it’s also about the individualism of our time because it’s that individualism that we want to get away from. You know, we’re not individuals, Goat is not consisting of individuals.” He pauses briefly and laughs. “It is of course consisting of individuals but it’s not the way we want to be seen, that’s what I mean.”
It’s almost as if the anonymity is a form of secular sacrifice, of the individual to the larger group, I suggest.
“Yeah, I agree with it, yeah,” says Goatman. “It’s a hard word to use, but at the same time I think it’s pretty correct. That’s what Goat is mainly about: you have to give up something for the greater good of the group, of the collective or the commune or whatever. We give up: it’s for the music in a way.”
Goat’s anonymity, then, is an integral part of the group’s self-concept as a commune, allowing the individual to surrender their ego, their desire for ownership or recognition.
“Exactly,” he concurs. But then, in a characteristically self-contradictory move, he adds: “And also, you know, you can’t forget that a show is a show.” His laugh punctuates and halts his train of thought. Refraining from elaboration, Goatman merely leaves the statement to hang briefly between us in all its opacity and knowing ambiguity. After a pause, he adds simply: “That’s also true.”