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An interview with Jes Aurelius of Ascetic House / by Jenn Pelly

Noise cassettes, psychedelic chapbooks, and philosophical pamphlets-- these are Ascetic House's prayers for the minds of the imprisoned.

Since 2011 this intriguing Tempe, Arizona-based artists circle has catalogued local as well as global underground sound and art of an especially exciting strain. It has released experimental music tapes from the likes of Pigeon Religion, Marshstepper, and Foreplay; photocopied collections of prose and poetry baring such titles as "Towards Madness", "Mystical States", and "Desire"; hosted performance events and punk shows; and channeled a general aesthetic of cerebral occultish elegance.

Ascetic House have likened themselves to the radical 1960s Panic Movement or Sonic Arts Union. Even their webpage has got a silent, analog feel; there is no mail order. Its discography listing repurposes a biblical passage as art aphorism, making the grand divine suggestion that these offerings from the desert are sacred.

This month Ascetic House has launched its Prisoner Outreach Program, wherein they will send any release to any incarcerated person in the United States for free. The tapes will be made with prison-approved cassette materials-- screwless, and clear-- and their publications will be sent unfolded, without staples. This is a commendable project that not only emphasizes the necessity of free culture but fills a void most don't even see. The prison-conscious market for New Music is essentially nonexistent save for Top 40 rap (not a bad thing, but surely tiresome at a point).

As Ascetic House eloquently writes on its website:

The United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, including China, which has four times our population. Over two million people are currently locked up in the immense network of U.S. prisons and jails. Mass incarceration is the corrupt system’s best solution to the vast array of social problems that burden the poor, the disenfranchised and the marginalized among us. It is also the corrupt system’s best method of perpetuating itself, with the main focus of state policy being social control.

Jes Aurelius is a recent graduate of Arizona State University with degrees in Justice and Religious Studies. He is also a guitarist in the noirish desert punk five-piece Destruction Unit; member of electronic provocateurs Marshstepper; and a prolific participant in Ascetic House, having left a mark on at least 30 of its releases. Our following correspondence covered the Prison Outreach Program and more.

Please elaborate on what motivated the Prisoner Outreach Program. Was there moment at which a program felt especially necessary, important and feasible? Do you personally know anyone who is currently incarcerated?

It's pretty simple idea. If you know someone in prison and want them to receive some free music or reading material, just send us a letter or email. I realize most people in prison probably won't get our newsletter, but that doesn't stop friends or relatives of people who are incarcerated from acting on their behalf. Certainly we accept mail from prisoners, and we have gotten mail from prisoners, even before this program was publicly announced. 

The intent isn't to get "subversive" material into prisons, although that would be a positive. It is really just so people in jail can get some mail and maybe something to pass a few hours. Anything to help pass the time. I know a number of people in jail and in prison, and I myself have been in jail. It is one of those things that you cannot understand unless you have experienced it. You cannot understand the dehumanization, humiliation and unnecessary pain that this system inflicts on people. More than half of those in prison are there for non-violent crimes. Any single one of us could be there. There are more laws on the books in the US than you could read in 10 life times, quite literally. The police don't even know them all, yet "ignorance of the law is no excuse". Give me a break. 

How did you start to learn about the prison-industrial complex in America? What do you think is most unjust about the U.S. prison system?

There is a great documentary called "The House I Live In" that I'd recommend watching. The whole system is unjust, and it's hurting every community in America more than it is helping. From upper class neighborhoods to lower class, they are all worse off.

Recently I watched the upcoming HBO documentary about Pussy Riot. There is a moment near the beginning when Nadia is reflecting on the possibility of being sent to jail: "If you are healthy, it's not so bad in prison. You have your brain, your conscience, and your soul. They cannot take that away from you. Jail is not the worst place for a person who thinks." Do you agree that, with access to stimulating intellectual capital, a prisoner can begin to free herself?

That is probably the best outlook you can have if you're forced to deal with the corrections system. Maybe jail is not the worst place for a person who can think, but it certainly isn't a good place.

There are obvious radical and provocative qualities to your music projects Marshstepper, Destruction Unit, and Pigeon Religion. In what ways is your general interest in sidestepping the U.S. prison system related to your connection to subversive underground music culture?

I am not a political person, I hate politics. Right wing, left wing, in my mind it is all terrible. I don't care about reforming the prison system, the justice system, or any system. Why would anyone want this stuff RE-FORMED? I am only concerned with showing people that they can take their own path, they can be responsible for themselves and maybe not be as worried about what their neighbor is doing. Everyone wants freedom for themselves but they want to control or manipulate the freedom of others, and it just doesn't work that way. The world will only improve when peoples’ minds improve. When we evolve as a race. Not when the right guy gets elected. Our goal is to encourage that evolution. 

If you were in prison what would you want to listen to?

I would probably listen to Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, etc... Music that paints a much prettier picture of the world than you get to view from a cement cage. The Tropicália movement was also quite revolutionary and is a big influence on what we do. I'd listen to that stuff and the Vaginors.

I've read that Ascetic House was solidified with the release of Sungsang's LP in 2011. Can you describe the moment at which it felt necessary to put a name on this work that your group of artists in Arizona has produced?

I don't know that there was actually a moment. Much like there isn't a single moment when you turn from a child to an adult. It was more of a gradual evolution, learning and working pretty heavily over a period of years. Eventually it got to a point where it seemed like it was valid enough to deserve its own name. The decision was partially because it made things easier for us to organize, and partly because it made it easier for other people to identify as our work.

In 2011 you also moved to a shed and sold all of your belongings. What was that like and why was it necessary?

Yes, that did happen. I lived in a very nice apartment with many nice possessions, cultural artifacts, things of personal significance and the like. But I was also in a major rut. I wouldn't leave my house or do anything productive. It dawned on me that all of these things I was surrounding myself with, trophies of past achievements, were really holding me back. Keeping me content with what I have done, and not what I should be doing. So I got rid of them. It really wasn't very hard. Anything I couldn't sell, I gave away. I kept only what would fit into the shed. I then proceeded to write Towards Madness, Towards Death, The Birth Of Death, A Book To Read To Other Books, Desire Unknown, Parakletos, How The Mind Operates On Itself, TR The Painter and The American Fighting Man the first month living in the shed. 

How did you become familiar with the tenets of asceticism? It seems like a sort of spiritual awakening through discipline/self-denial can be achieved even when you are physically imprisoned. You can still live an ascetic life.

I do not intend to preach that everyone or anyone should live an ascetic life. My habits and programs change as fast as anyone else's. I do think it is good to practice self-discipline and self-denial, but only when you are denying yourself things that go against your goals. Denying yourself something simply for the sake of denying it is just as counter productive as needless indulgence. Buddha adopted extreme ascetism and then later denounced it as being obstructive to ultimate freedom. The Aghori ascetics are hindu sect known for their extremely taboo beliefs - they cannibalize, consume urine and feces, sleep on top of their dead, drink alcohol, take drugs... The idea is that if there is anything taboo in your mind, or anything you don't believe to be sacred, including that which most people find repulsive, you cannot achieve ultimate freedom. 

How would you characterize the mood/imagery of the publications and cassettes you release? What do you hope they will do for jailed persons? 

It would be impossible to characterize the mood or imagery of all of our output as a whole. If I HAD to do it, I would say it is all contradictory. There is no single unifying theme or message. Often times there is no theme or message at all. I also don't really have an interest in characterizing anything, because that would place an artificial restriction on how someone should interpret it. I say just delve in, and see what you enjoy or connect with. We hope that it will help someone pass the time.

Arizona sounds like it could be a cultural desert itself but there is an interesting history with bands like Sun City Girls, Meat Puppets, etc. Can you describe any ways in which you draw inspiration from them?

There is definitely a great history of inspiring people from Arizona. You've likely heard of most of them, but there are others that no one will know about unless they are from here or spend a good deal of time here. These people were huge inspirations to us when we were first getting involved in art, politics and what have you. There was a historical record that showed you could still do whatever you wanted, even in the desert where everyone thinks you have to move away to accomplish great things. At this point in time, however, that inspiration has served its purpose and there are now so many brilliant people involved in this movement that we don't even have time to be inspired by anyone else but ourselves. 

Destruction Unit play T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge on June 9th with Milk Music and Merchandise.

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