David Murrieta Flores (ACL): Hi Fire-Toolz! To begin with, please talk to us a bit about how Fire-Toolz came into being, and how it relates to other projects you have (like Nonlocal Forecast or MindSpring Memories).
Fire-Toolz (FT): Fire-Toolz was born when I decided to graduate from my stint in strictly producing abstract experimental music and go toward something with more beats and rhythms and song-like structure. It was under a different moniker at first, but I hated that moniker the whole time I used it, so I changed it after the first full-length. At first the music I made was pretty broken and sonically/compositionally nihilistic, but as time went on, my songs became more and more refined.
MindSpring Memories is a purely sample-based project where I try to take 80s and early 90s songs I really like, chop them up, slow them way down, and process them in a very specific way (honing in on syncopated and pitch-shifted delays, different types of reverb, morphing filters, and lots of modulation (phaser mostly, but also flanger, chorus, and more)). I intend to enhance the emotion that is already there and create new stories.
Nonlocal Forecast is kind of like an offshoot of Fire-Toolz as it taps into the new age, jazz fusion, and prog elements that FT fans are used to hearing. But it leaves out 99% of the metal, industrial, noise, etc., elements. It’s easy listening in a way, though it’s complex and richly composed enough to maintain attention.
ACL: Ever since Skinless X-1 you made it explicit that there’s a spiritual dimension to your work, and I believe that’s even clearer in I will not use the body’s eyes today., which I think often veers into active meditation territory. How would you say your music connects to the ‘somewhere else’ of spirituality?
FT: To me, spirituality is the opposite of somewhere else. It is right here, all the time. Everything is spiritual, just like everything is political. I will not… definitely roots itself in spirituality, but frankly everything back to Drip Mental was highly spiritual. Especially Eternal Home. It’s kind of hard to meditate to my music, but I do write about meditation occasionally. I am embarrassed to say that my meditation habits are horrible. However, my engagement with the spiritual dimension is always active, whether I’m free-flowing in it or mentally wiggling around in the dirt, desperate for physiological confirmation of its manifestation, activity, and accessibility. The answer to that dilemma is usually to relax and open, but I’ve got some over-intellectualization habits that essentially block mystical experiences and intuition.
FT is an insanely spiritual endeavor. It is not obvious to a lot of people, but I can’t get away from it, and wouldn’t want to. The lyrics are so soaked in metaphysics, spiritual philosophy, the spirituality of the psychological, my life experiences and conditions viewed through a spiritual lens, and lots of references to concepts and ideas from different ancient wisdom traditions and their teachers, books, etc. Buddhism, Vedanta, Daoism, Christian mysticism, Sufism, and a lot more.
[When it comes to these different traditions], it would be nearly impossible to try to cram a good explanation of them (and how they relate to my work) in a paragraph or two because my life and my work is a never-ending and always-evolving web of intersecting modalities and syntheses of Truth with a capital T. It’s always unfolding for me, and it’s always being channeled. I try to avoid ‘belief’ because I value empirical experiential evidence of what many call God, higher dimensions, and how they manifest in our lives. And I have to add that you can use a lot of different words for God… consciousness, love, the Self, Source, the Dao, Brahman, whatever. It’s not about an entity in the sky who is separate from us calling the shots… it’s more like a reality rooted in love, a pervasive intuition that we’re part of. We’re living out the One thing. It contains all of the light and darkness (which is just lack of light). Kind of like a Yin-Yang. We embody it and are expressions of it, regardless of our spiritual or religious leanings (or lack thereof).
I think one way to get some of the “concept” part across is to mention The Perennial Tradition, which readers can look up. People who are religious studies majors or who are immersed in any single tradition to the point of being dogmatic about it tend to scoff at the term, but my soul is incapable of putting all my eggs in one basket. My spiritual philosophy is basically that meme of Charlie from It’s Always Sunny when he’s working at the post office, or those scenes in A Beautiful Mind where John Nash is in his room obsessing over all the newspaper clippings and writing on his walls. (I am not saying I am a conspiracy theorist, I just appreciate their dedication to making connections.)
In a broad sense, A Course In Miracles confirms Vedanta confirms Daoism confirms the Law Of One confirms Kabbalah confirms a lot of religion-less new age teachings confirm a lot of Native American spirituality, and so on. What could be seen as disagreements between traditions, to me, are really just different angles, different pathways up the mountain to the same peak. This is why my references jump around so many different traditions. I’m interfaith, unitarian, universalist, and my life trajectory is healing trauma and uncovering who the fuck I am, and what the fuck all this is, led by the wisdom of multiple wisdom traditions. That is my spirituality, and that is what my music seems to document.
ACL: How do you manage to put them together? Is it a bit like you manage to put old-school synthpop and metal together?
FT: Yeah. Precisely because, to me, synthpop and metal aren’t any different. It’s all the same mountain. Holographically, all of these seeming fragments are contained in the One Genre. It’s okay if others don’t look at it like that, but I don’t feel like I genre-hop. I feel like I am just exploring all the flavors of my heart, and some of those flavors are complex and have layers to them.
ACL: Are there certain sounds or musical sequences that you associate with this dimension?
FT: I think that all the music I make is associated with that dimension. I think there are certain passages that really hit me in the gut, but I don’t think I could separate them from the others in order to analyze them. They are too much a part of everything else. I feel like I’m writing one long song.
Spirituality and our mystical experiences can sound like gridlocked digital cybergrind, smooth new-agey jazz fusion with tear-jerking sax solos, meditative ambient/drone passages, or piercing feedback and walls of noise. When I hear my own work played back, as Pam Beesly would say, “I feel God in this Chili’s tonight.”
ACL: I think that in music, generally speaking, spirituality is tied to one form or another of “sacred music” with very specific rules and traditions. How does your music relate, or become distinct, from these?
FT: I feel all music (and art) is sacred. Whether it’s intentionally imbued with that energy or not. Something does not have to be injected with spiritual intention in order for me to have a spiritual experience with it. I watch videos about quantum physics presented by staunch atheists and it brings me closer to love than most religious music. Maybe my ways of fusing music creation with spiritual inclination seem distinct to others because my music seems to leak straight out of my heart without thought, whereas a lot of traditional sacred music is intentionally created within a specific cultural or religious framework. Even modern contemporary Christian music has a pretty narrow formula. And it sounds cringey as hell to me anyway, LOL. My framework is generally no real framework.
Oh, I do love Richard Souther’s interpretation of Hildegard’s work, but that’s because he’s a jazz fusion artist and the album is doused in nostalgic synth sounds.
ACL: There’s usually a “dark side” to most spiritual traditions, even the ones that do not have a strict distinction between light and dark. I know I’m being very culturally catholic about this, but I’d like to ask if your work also has a “dark side”.
FT: I think there is a “dark side” to our lived experience and higher dimensions which impact us here on this plane. But to me, spiritual traditions are essentially love-based, and were organized and compiled to interpret our spiritual existence into modalities and ideologies. They were formed to bring us closer to ourselves, our personal truths, God itself. Those who do not agree with that may have been indoctrinated or burned by conventional religious institutions. I don’t see darkness in the wisdom itself, but it depends on your perspective. I think what comes off as “dark” is what our pain and ignorance leads us to do and believe when it is not seen and healed. Most religions formed to correct this for people, but we both know how completely upside down the institutional versions of them are, and how they’ve infected populations with dogma and exclusivity. I mean, it only took a few years for Christianity (before it was even called that) to screw itself over the moment governments used it for power, militaries used it for colonialism and genocide, and churches used it for manipulation and control. The ancient mystics survived this though, which is why I pay attention to their teachings rather than any kind of modern church. Many Evangelical and even Protestant people would puke if they knew the kinds of things the Christian mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart was writing.
The only obvious darkness in my music is in my earlier material, which was when I was exploiting my pain and terror and confliction for the sake of art and self-expression. I was identifying with it, and playing a victim role. I have definitely been victimized, but I now try my best to not adopt a victim mentality. Now, when suffering shows up in my music (and it does often), the darkness kind of dissipates because I am shining a light on it. Suffering may still be present, but it’s being viewed through a lens of love, an intention to heal, and a burning desire to understand it. And I can say this with confidence in light of a handful of my songs touching on things like suicidal ideation and, in my earliest material, impulses to harm others in return for harming me.
ACL: In many cases, “sacred music” has a vocal element to it. Does your voice play a particular spiritual role in your work?
FT: Mostly in the lyrical sense. The way I do my vocals expresses emotion in a certain way, but I wouldn’t say I am doing it that way with spiritual motivation. I love singing, too. I do that sometimes. The value of my lyrics rise above the significance of vocal performance. The vocals are sonically just as a part of the music like the drums and synths and strange noises are. They’re all part of the whole, which is greater than the sum of those elements. A lot of traditional religious music has vocals, but it shouldn’t have to. Divinity speaks in so many ways. Even a rock sitting on the ground is just screaming with divinity. You can feel it if you try.
ACL: What sort of processes go into making a Fire-Toolz track? As in, is it as much about selection and collage procedures as about composition or improvisation?
FT: I just kind of fuck around and watch things materialize. And then at some point I feel like I’m done, and so onto the next song. There is no real formula. I don’t start with any particular instrument and I rarely have a lot of ideas before I start throwing paint at the canvas. The thrown paint reveals shapes and colors which have splattered around, and so I start to build off of them. It’s almost like fractals. It just keeps spiraling out. Ultimately, I am never 100% satisfied, and the inspiration never ends. I’ve never had writers’ block. Occasionally I have trouble with lyrics, but that doesn’t seem to last long.
ACL: What is creativity, for you?
FT: Reality is an unending creative process. Making music is the same thing as a rabbit breeding or a flower blooming or a galaxy smashing into another galaxy, or neutrons plowing through us all day. They are all divine expressions and they all have divine implications. I define “divine” as meaning “of God”, to put it simply. And please recall what I said earlier about what God is to me. I am not talking about a Christian God, a Hindu God, or whatever. Those are fine models, but as I’ve tried to express, literally everything is divine/of God. Even rotting dog shit. Rotting dog shit is no different from the experience of two lovers connecting with each other at the peak of orgasm.
[Creativity is] all I know. It’s part of why I am here. Things flow out without me making any effort. Creation seems to happen through me rather than because of me.
ACL: Is the creative process a spiritual process?
FT: You can probably extrapolate from my answers so far that I would say it is. Because it’s intuitive, and intuition is a divine voice. This intuition seems to not be produced in the brain. It seems to be received by the brain, like a radio with an FM signal. This aligns with a good amount of spiritual claims in various traditions. The creative process is also therapeutic, and like I said, psychology is spiritual.
ACL: There’s a lot of computer type references, perhaps even cybernetic, in your work. What implications does computing have for your music?
FT: I’ve always loved computers and the internet. That stuff was my safe haven all growing up. You would not believe how much my life changed when I was able to use email. Then when my grandmother got a WebTV setup, I would spend all day there hogging her TV. She had to watch her shows in another room. It was just mind-blowing and so influential. I’ve always been fascinated with coding, and enjoy the aesthetics of it even though I don’t know how to do it beyond early HTML and PHP. Computer alert sounds, early website aesthetics, and all of the fond memories I’ve made sitting alone in my parents’ computer room make my heart sing.
I use technology words in my music sometimes to explain certain things, but I also reference them from a place of pure fondness and nostalgia. [For instance,] sometimes I write about computer parts, the internet, or even coding. I reference RAM (Random Access Memory) as a metaphor for my mile-a-minute habitual thinking that I experience when meditating or doing inner work. In one song I reference a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk and relate it to my chronic back pain, as if I had a herniated disc (which I don’t). Those were the first floppies I ever had access to, and symbolize innocence and comfort to me. I also have an entire album in which I reference iPhone features in the song titles. Some mentions are metaphors, and some are just for the aesthetic appeal (and therefore somatic and/or synesthesia-related).
ACL: Does the safety and comfort that you feel when it comes to the early internet come from the early internet itself, or from the situation you were in at the time? I ask because the early internet was a pretty wild place, and for me, it was an experience of being often disturbed by the things I saw.
FT: I stayed away from the disturbing things. I am a big fan of curating my experience. I do this with my Twitter and Instagram feeds. People often tell me about how awful these platforms can be, and how disgusted they often are with what people display. I don’t follow people who make me angry. I mute the shit out of people. I want my experience to be fun, and it is. I enjoy social media 90% of the time. I like to make jokes, talk about things that are important to me, and have fun interacting with friends. It’s true that social media in itself is created to be addictive, manipulative, and it’s a data-mining haven. But there are a lot of manufactured and polluted things in this world that have beauty to them. The landscaping industry is one of the most pollutive and wasteful industries to exist, but there’s something about the smell of freshly cut lawn and suburban aesthetics that make me buzz with inspiration.
The early internet was awe-inspiring for me because I’ve always been anxious socially, and I was uninterested in frequent social activity, especially when it came to crowds, parties, gatherings, or field trips with classmates. I grew up getting bullied and shamed at worst, and at best simply misunderstood. I had a few friends who saw past my weirdness (and I wouldn’t even say they appreciated it), but so many peers (and/or their parents) saw me as either some sort of enigma, freak, or disturbed in some way. Most of those friends grew up and got involved in cliques other than mine, and therefore ended up dissociating from me. Pretty much every single male friend I had in elementary or middle school ended up estranged from me by high school. They were into sports and video games, whereas I was into drums, guitar, my cats, Dream Theater, and email. I wasn’t “disturbed” in the sense they thought I was, but these kids saw me through the lens their parents helped them form, and their media, religious institutions, etc. They were raised to think there was something wrong with people like me, my long dyed-red hair, my off-kilter taste in music, my femininity and my insistence on expressing it, my high sensitivity, my fashion sense (if you want to call it that, LOL) and my unapologetic expression of emotion.
My childhood included recurring trauma and abuse, which has gifted me with CPTSD, but that very same childhood was also magical and full of love. (Explaining this is complicated, but dialectics say that something can be two seemingly opposite things at once.) The internet played a part in all of that. The internet was a safe haven of creativity, discovery, entertainment, and wonder. In a way it was an escape from the trauma and fear and overwhelm, but “escape” isn’t the best word because I didn’t use it to dissociate. I used it because it was fucking great, and felt like my niche (aside from music). Just thinking about it right now gives me gooey-melty-nostalgic feelings. The limitations of it were somehow so soothing in hindsight. The guestbooks, the webrings, the AIM away messages, AOL keywords, the dial-up sounds, early HTML code, ICQ, iframes…ugh, I could cry. I wish I could get back there.
ACL: I recently read this quote by a computer engineer called Richard Hamming that says “the purpose of computing is insight, not numbers”, and I thought of it while listening to “Vedic Software ~ Wet Interfacing”. Would you say your music is also about insight?
FT: It very much is about insight. All I am doing most of the time I am writing is looking inside, meeting myself. Many insights I’ve had show up in my lyrics, sometimes long after writing them. They teach me about myself and the world.
Vedic Software is a phrase my friend Art came up with one day, and it made a lot of sense to me. It reminds me of when Neo had Kung Fu installed in his head. I’d love to install Vedic philosophy in my head. Wet Interfacing refers to a comment Richard Rohr once made about “dry interfacing.” I think he was referring to mindless, heartless prayer, where things are recited but not felt or experienced. So I thought about what “wet” interfacing would imply.
ACL: Following from that, would you say there’s a relationship between computing and spirituality?
FT: As I previously stated, everything is spiritual, so sure! More specifically, computing can be purely intuitive, or purely logical, and both of those facets are like yin and yang, and when they are integrated, you have a non-dual scenario. A whole, which contains parts, but is essentially One. Non-duality is at the heart of every major spiritual tradition, including the ones that contain very dualistic processes and sentiments. Which is most of them.
There are a lot of different ways I could spin this. I am not a software developer or a hacker or anything (as much as I aspired to be when I was in my early teens). But I can say that talented and creative developers and programmers aren’t just thinking technically. It’s not just commands and math. My partner works as a devops engineer, but she despises spending 8+ hours a day thinking in code and working in a toxic work environment, because it requires her to suppress her intuitive and spiritual inclinations in order to get the job done. She is now in school to become a therapist/social worker which will likely be a remedy for that. Her experience is different from my experience computing and spending time on the internet, and both of our experiences are valid. The small self (by small I mean not the Self, a synonym for God, but rather the seemingly-individual self) acts as a vessel for divine intuition. You don’t have to be at all a spiritually-inclined person to experience this. It’s when you’re in the Now, when your identity seems to vanish and you merge with what is happening. This can apply to computing of all kinds just as much as it applies to playing music, playing basketball, having sex, cooking French toast. Any process in which it is possible to integrate the logical with the intuitive.
Another way of relating computing with spirituality is factoring in theories in physics. The Holographic Principle basically states that our physical reality is coded on a lower dimension 2D “surface.” And you can push that a little further and ponder the Brotzman Brain or the Simulation Argument. Bring those ideas into the language of our spiritual reality as well as computing metaphors and you could say that the non-dual whole of God (aka this all-pervading reality) projects this universe out like a hologram, and has orchestrated this simulation we live in. Which kind of works with early Hindu ideas around our experience of reality being a sort of illusion or construct. This doesn’t mean it’s not real and authentic, but the deeper truth of it is veiled, kind of like living in a programmed simulation would be. What is experienced as free will is actually just God playing itself out. We really do experience it like free will though. And we’re supposed to. There is and isn’t free will. So maybe a character in a computer game experiences navigating its tasks and journeys as expressions of free will, when in reality there’s a higher dimensional being (you or me) fucking around with a computer keyboard and mouse that someone else manufactured.
This could also lead to interpretations of The Matrix I guess, but we won’t take it there.
Who fucking knows what’s going on, but it’s fun to think about.
ACL: When we speak of “processed sounds”, we speak basically of computerized sounds. Do you think there is a parallel between computerization, creative and/or spiritual processing of sounds?
FT: I see the spiritual as more of an all-encompassing reality. It’s pervasive. Computerization and other “worldly” creative processes are manifestations of that spiritual reality. It’s how that reality shows up in this physical form. At least on this planet. The processing piece is something I am just more or less addicted to. I want to process everything. I want to run it through my filter. Processing sounds is like putting a cool outfit over my body, or decorating my house, dying my hair, rearranging or spray-painting furniture. And all of that is spiritual because it leads me to feel more like myself. Who I am has a sort of spiritual identity to it that transcends yet still includes all of those things I just listed. You could look at physical reality as processed spirituality. And by processed I mean creatively and artistically filtered in some way. Pixelated. Veiled. Disguised, really.
ACL: I would like to finish the interview by asking you a loosely-related question: would you describe your approach to music as Fire-Toolz as holistic, fragmentary, or an in-between?
FT: I would say it’s made up of a lot of fragments if you want to break it down. But ultimately my approach is holistic. It’s kind of like the duality/non-duality dichotomy (which is essentially illusory). The non-dual contains all the dualities. So, the holistic phenomenon and process that is Fire-Toolz contains all sorts of parts, but the parts make up the whole, and the whole is not the same thing as the sum of its parts. That’s just how I see it. Many will hear different sections, vibes that abruptly change when you’re not expecting them to, etc. But for me, it is compiled to birth one sacred thing.
ACL: Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to add for our readers?
FT: Waste time in my Discord by going to discord.fire-toolz.com and please follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @fire_toolz. You can also sign up for my email list at fire-toolz.com. It’s hard to reach people these days when there are so many platforms, so just follow me on them all so you don’t miss anything.
New LP coming early-ish next year. Hopefully.
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