One of my goals of this blog, when I started out in January, was to start interviewing underground artists, which is why I was over the moon when New Jersey’s rapper/producer/artist Iceberg Theory announced a brand new LP, “Philokalia” and agreed to answer some of my burning questions about it. I asked 10 questions, and I got 1,000+ words of thoughtful commentary on “Philokalia”, and its various themes of spirituality, philosophy, and psychology. Today, you get to see our interview, and by tomorrow I’ll have posted my own thoughts on the album itself, which is now available for purchase on Bandcamp, iTunes, and Amazon! We’ve embedded the album stream after the interview.
SING THE NATION ELECTRIC: I noticed you sampled someone reciting a few lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Duino Elegies: The First Elegy” in the beginning of your own spoken-word piece “Sext”. What’s your relationship with the poem?
ICEBERG THEORY: Rilke is one of my favorite poets and the whole series of Duino Elegies is a masterpiece. The particular origin of the clip is from a recorded lecture where Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (who appears all over the album) is talking to novices at Gethsemani about the convergence of poetic experience and religious experience. In short, the idea is that in order to really write about something you need to “become it” which deals with the same sort of self transcendence of religion. I would say that the two differ in the sense that if I am writing about a subject, I need to enter that particular subject’s consciousness, whereas in a mystical experience, one’s consciousness expands to a further degree, encompassing all sentient beings.
As far as the first Duino Elegy, there are just so many perfect lines in that poem, it’s hard to praise it enough. “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure / And we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us / Every angel is terrible.” There is just so much significance in those lines for me. No matter how one experiences God, I think this element is often at the forefront, the sort of realization of how fragile creation is, yet somehow it’s still held together.
SNE: When did you first read the Philokalia, and what was it about them that made you want to name your LP after them?
ICEBERG: Funny enough, I still need to read the Philokalia! I first read about the book in “The Way of a Pilgrim,” a spiritual autobiography of a man who wanders around Russia, learning the technique of the Jesus prayer, attempting to pray unceasingly. In the beginning of the book he visits these elder monks called Starets and they give him the Philokalia as a key to interpret the Bible. The book consists of sayings by fathers of the Eastern Church, all concerning the nature of interior prayer.
While the title might come across as esoteric, I think the necessity of unceasing prayer is pretty universal. No matter what someone’s vocation might be, I believe that we are called to live in remembrance of God. When we forget where we come from and distract ourselves from our end, it is easy to get caught in the ebb and flow of everyday life. To me, prayer orients a person back to what is ultimately real. In my own small way, I wanted to create a work that could offer that perspective to people.
SNE: One of the most important tracks seems to be in “Gethsemani (ft. Tokyo Cigar)”, where you profess confidence that “the saga continues” and that the truth is something that “few can decipher but no one can crack”, and (in the chorus) “we need more heaven than we knew before”. To what degree would you consider “Gethsemani” to be your artistic statement for the rest of “Philokalia”?
ICEBERG: That’s definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album…and it actually wasn’t even on the first draft of the tape. I had originally recorded that for Tokyo Cigar’s project, but as “Philokalia” was coming together, I had the idea that it would be the perfect way to close the album, sort of like the credits rolling in the background when the movie ends. I wrote most of the album when I was working as a live-in chef at a spiritual retreat center and lived in a monastic sort of community where had set prayer times, etc…I wrote “Gethsemani” before that, while I was still in school and I was reading into monastic vocations so I think that that track really captures that yearning, whereas the rest of the album takes place within the enclosure gates, so to speak.
SNE: Are you worried that people will hear devotional lyrics on tracks like “Lectio Divina” and label your album as just a Christian rap album, and ignore lines like Tokyo Cigar’s “make the offering, rasta spliffs light like menorahs”, and “36 chambers, 12 jewels, 7 chakras” on “Michael Jackson Socks”?
ICEBERG: Not too much…I mean I can definitely see how the album might have a devotional tone which might not work for a lot of people, but I made the album I wanted to make and I just have to hope that people connect with it. And even within the context of being pretty firmly based in Christian theology, that is by no means exclusive. On my verse in “Scientia Sacra” I start off with “The Dao, the mother of ten thousand, multiplicity spoken like a whisper from Allah’s mouth.” As much as I have an appreciation for Christian monasticism, I do not identify as Christian in any exclusive sort of way, and I think when people really listen they’ll see that it is far from an apologetic textbook for Catholics. But at the same time, the Christian influence is there. If you cringe when you hear the name “Jesus” then you might not fuck with the album.
SNE: You shout out St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, Ibn Arabi, and Julian of Northwich at the beginning of “Scienta Sacra (ft. Defcee and Paranom)”– which one is your favorite?!
ICEBERG: This is a good question…it’s funny you bring that up because some friends of mine have joked with me about name-dropping so many 14th-century saints and mystics. But it’s just the kind of shit I read so it feels more natural that anything else. At one point, St. Augustine’s “Confessions” was pretty major for me, and it still has a lot of significance but St. John of the Cross is pretty crucial. He is famous for his discussion of the dark night of the soul, which is essentially the point where one experiences God without light and consolation. Both poles have their place, and ultimately all dualities are made of the same “substance,” but the dark night leads to a truer kind of faith. It’s easy to believe in God when a person is in some sort of ecstatic, visionary state, but without the other end of the spectrum it would just equate to being “high” all the time. The dark night is like a crucible, in the sense that if the individual can withstand it, he or she will come out stronger on the other end.
SNE: I loved Tokyo Cigar’s production, especially on beats from “Rainbow Body”, “Lord Northbourne”, “The Desert Has Become A City”. Layering certain words like “daytime” at 0:27 on “Assisi” felt especially important, given the continuous themes of contemplation and philosophy. Did TC put the tracks together before or after he heard your lyrics? What was his/your creative process
ICEBERG: Shoutout to Tokyo Cigar. We’ve been working for years under the group name The Plexiglass Fountain. I think a lot of that history was essential in creating this particular album in the sense that when I gave him the concept he was able to craft (with no samples) exactly what I was envisioning without me really being able to explain it fully. I knew I wanted to have something that had a monastic character to it, but there’s a lot of ways you could go about that. The idea was to have more traditional tracks and then have seven “B-Sides” which equated to the seven prayers in the liturgy of the hours. Yet, beyond knowing the outline of that structure, sonically it was up in the air. I would never have known how to ask for a track like “None” but when I heard the beat it made total sense.
As far as the process of actually making the album, before I went to live at the retreat center in Minnesota, Tokyo Cigar sent me all of the beats for the album. While I was living and working there, I would take time to stay in this one room hermitage we had on the property and I wrote and recorded a large portion of the album there. The hermitage was very secluded and it put me in a really good head space for creating. I would sit on the porch and listen to the sounds of the woods at night until something came in my head…or if I was reading something, a phrase might catch my eye and I could snowball off that. I just really liked how organic it was and how I could write without feeling like I had to force it. If no words came then all the better.
SNE: What’s the inspiration for the song title (and Twitter name) Lord Northbourne? By any chance, is it a reference to the British aristocrat and pioneer of organic farming in the early 20th century?
ICEBERG: Exactly! I came across his work in an anthology on “The Perennial Philosophy” my old religion teacher sent to me while I was in Minnesota. His work was cool, and the name stuck with me after spending the winter in rural Minnesota, walking on frozen lakes and shit like that.
SNE: What’s your favorite piece by Ernest Hemingway, the inspiration for your stage name? How does the literary theory of “iceberg theory” apply to your views on spirituality and religion, and how you express it?
ICEBERG: I like a lot of Hemingway’s books. Ever since I read the short story “Hills Like White Elephants” I was hooked. My favorite novel is probably “The Sun Also Rises.” What really strikes me about his work is how simple and conversational all of the dialogue is, but it gets across so much…I mean that’s the whole idea behind the iceberg theory in his writing. While I think he might have coined the phrase, it just mirrors the way people talk in general. In conversation, there is so much that goes unsaid, but that information is usually far more important than anything that is being discussed outright.
As far as spirituality, I think the iceberg theory connects in the sense that we all have an unconscious that determines a large portion of our behavior. As long as we’re unaware of what’s motivating us on an unconscious level, it’s going to be hard to make much progress. Once a person starts to understand the stuff that’s below the surface, he or she can take a much more genuine look at their thoughts and behavior. In a sense, this is psychological, but it’s all connected. Even if you could argue that one’s experience of God is beyond psychology, the way the individual interprets that experience is undoubtedly bound up with psychology…the more that the psychology is unknown to the person, the more likely he or she will get caught up in chasing phantasms.
SNE: Last year, you told Alex Koenig at the Huffington Post that you’d love to collaborate with Ka someday, if you ever got the chance. Are there any other rappers or producers that have joined the “I want to work with this guy” list in 2017?
ICEBERG: Producer-wise, I’m actually working on a full length project with my dude August Fanon. I’m really excited about how that’s sounding so far. I’m also working on an EP produced by Ohini Jonez. We’ve been talking about putting something together for a long time so it’s cool to have that on deck for later this year…
As far as emcees, I’ve been wanting to work with Humpasaur Jones for a while so hopefully that happens sometime this year. Plus Collosoul Structure from Tomorrow Kings. It’s cool that a lot of the people I’ve been wanting to work with are actually on “Philokalia.” Defcee, Paranom, and Alaska are some of the best emcees out right now so it was an honor to have them on the album and they all came with some incredible verses. I’m also hoping to expand and produce more for people as the year goes on so we’ll see what happens with that.
SNE: Have you ever considered doing live shows as Iceberg Theory, either with “Philokalia” tracks, or your beat tapes, or your collaboration with DJ A.I.? Do you think there’s an audience for your artistic ethos on the East Coast
ICEBERG: I’ve thought about it a bit…a little while back I had some shows in my old apartment where I performed some of my Angkor Wat material and that was cool since it was a little more hype. Overall, I’m not really big on going to shows, so as far as my musical aspirations go, that’s not really up there too much. I feel like the music I make is for listening to on headphones or on a long drive or something of that nature. I don’t really think people want to get drunk and dance listening to me rap about Teresa of Avila. Who knows? I could be wrong.