Strange stories

Geoff Birchenall digs deep as he enters the Bong galaxy.

As I sit down to write these questions, I wake to the news that the great Stephen Hawking has passed away. His life’s work involved a mammoth attempt to unravel the very mysteries of the universe. At times – and especially over the two sprawling tracks that make up Thought And Existence, not to mention the title itself – it feels like Bong are trying to do the very same thing. “It is hard to compare the rigours of science with the relatively undisciplined nature of art,” David Terry concedes, “but aye, in a way… Still seeking some sort of truth but by channelling rather than trying to understand. Gazing in awe at the universe rather than trying to work out how it works.” Does such awe involve any spirituality? Is there anything to the human condition that transcends the corporeal? “I am an atheist but only in the sense that I worship nothing,” Mr Terry offers. “For me, hard atheism i.e. saying ‘no gods exist’ is even harder to justify in a rational sense than believing in gods… Surely to say for certain that no gods exist, one needs to have knowledge of the entirety of existence. There may be gods out there but I doubt they are the ones we are told about and I find it even less likely they prescribe to such petty rules as our religions tend to.” As for David’s use of the word ‘gazing’, this ties in with the astronomically themed album cover. “I have indeed spent a lot of time gazing at the stars… There is a detached serenity there that helps view our own lives in a more objective manner, helps to cast aside the distractions of corporeal existence. Thinking about the vast distances and timescales, the light that has been travelling from before mankind even existed, through the great spaces between can afford a certain calmness.”

I always thought of Bong as a band particularly conducive to reading intense material to. The album’s second track ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is an homage to Jorge Luis Borges for instance…a suitably metaphysical reference too given the short story in question! “I am a lover of short stories,” David offers, “perhaps because they fit my poor attention span, and his are some of the most original and thoughtful.” What about other works that could be read alongside a Bong listening session? “Anything you enjoy reading really, but our music might serve as a good backdrop for the cosmic tales of the likes of Clark Ashton Smith or Lord Dunsany, or it may help relax the brain and make it more malleable for more philosophical tales like those of Camus or Dostoevsky.” David Terry has, both in our conversations over the years, and through his relentless exploration of a singular musical style often struck me as someone who, to a certain degree, favours discipline over freedom of expression as the route to musical nirvana. “They are not mutually exclusive concepts…” he argues. “All art requires some discipline to enable the artist to cast aside the countless distractions and humdrum of the day-to-day and this enables freedom of expression to happen.”

This leads on to a discussion of the intricacies of composition. When composing new material do the band stop listening to other music or rather allow the influences of an eclectic listening diet seep into their subconscious? “We generally compose as we play through long jams,” he replies. “We try out different ideas until some sort of cohesive whole appears, but whatever music we have been listening to beforehand will doubtless have some effect on us.” Whatever the methodology, there is no denying that Bong walk alone. They have few peers when it comes to carving demanding, yet wholly enveloping soundscapes. Thought And Existence rewards dedicated, patient listening – especially isolated on a good pair of headphones. But will there always be a place for such art, despite the waning of patience levels among humankind? “It is hard to say ‘always’ when considering humanity…” Terry posits. “We won’t be around forever. At least with so many humans alive there will be a need for some of them to enjoy strange art.”

Thought And Existence is out now on Ritual Productions |

This feature was intended for publication in ZT issue 084, but due to lack of space it’s landed here for you to enjoy online instead. Subscriptions and single copies available here:

Thanks for dropping in!

If you’re here maybe you should think of adding Zero Tolerance Magazine to your arsenal of regular reading? We offer a 3-issue trial subscription to whet your appetite.