The Elemental Spirits of Masonic Indie Rock
DR: Why are you guys named the Gnomes of Zurich?
JB: Because we liked it as a name.
DR: Now, I'm familiar with the Gnomes of Zurich as a generic term for Swiss bankers. Is it also a secret society?
JB: That's what we're familiar with, is the Swiss bankers. And we found it actually in a Robert Anton Wilson reference. We were just looking at books that were laying around the place, and we thought, that's just odd enough, and we couldn't think of anything better.
DR: And you got your symbol from the "Gnomes of Zurich" card in the game "Illuminati: New World Order"?
JB: That is correct.
DR: What city are you guys from?
JB: We're in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
DR: Where did you people meet?
JB: Well, I'm originally from Germany, and I moved here in '76. Matt's originally from Michigan, and he moved here in the late 80's, and Matt and I had been in a band together before that.
DR: What was it called?
JB: It was called Janitor Joe.
DR: Was it the same type of musick?
JB: Pretty much, yeah. Maybe a little rougher around the edges. A little bit more noisy. A little bit more screaming. And Scott's originally from Minnesota, and has played in a lot of local bands as well - Black Spot, the Figures. Janitor Joe had broken up then, and we were looking to get back together with somebody.
DR: So who writes the songs?
JB: It's very collaborative. The lyrics are mostly mine except for a few of 'em. But for the songs, usually someone will bring in a riff, and then we just work at it, and go "No, we don't like that", or, "Yeah, that's good", and throw out what we don't like, and keep what we do like, and work until we finish a song that way.
DR: How old were you when you moved here from Germany?
JB: Uh, 11.
DR: And you already spoke English?
JB: No. Not a word.
DR: Was that difficult?
JB: Well, yeah, I mean, it seems so long ago, and I feel so American compared to back then, but yeah, there was a good year of adjustment, I'd say.
DR: I can't tell at all. I can't hear an accent at all.
JB: They say that if it's before puberty, your vocal chords can adjust to a foreign language. If its after puberty, you'll never get rid of the accent.
DR: Oh, I had no idea it had something to do with puberty.
JB: Somebody told me that once. I can't say that for a scientific fact, but it kind of makes sense, you know?
DR: Do you guys do a lot of shows?
JB: We used to. When me and Alex, I think it was right around 1991 when we started, we were touring the typical U.S. schedule. You know, 5 months out of the year, fall, spring. And things just got very different out there. I don't know how much you've paid attention to the indie rock scene of the last ten years, but it seems like ever since the major labels came in, people are more interested in becoming stars, and going for the money, rather than the music, which has been our primary drive. And it's been harder to get out records. Its been harder to do tours and play in clubs and get the support that we need, so we've just taken it easy, and because of that, we've never broken up, we've never said that we won't tour again. We may tour again. We play around the cities occasionally, but we don't call up and try to get on as many bills as possible. But we practice very regularly, we write new songs, and in a way its a lot better, because we're just doing it because we like it, and for no other reason than that.
DR: Are you getting played on the radio at all?
JB: Locally, and on college radio stations very irregularly. I get emails and phone calls from people in other cities, and we still do get radio play here and there, but if anything we're going to try to push into the MP3 market and try to get more stuff out on the internet. I see a lot of it going that way anyway.
DR: So it doesn't bother you that people might be stealing your songs on the internet?
JB: It's my song, the songs are copyrighted, we have the proof on the CD, so if somebody's gonna make money off it, then we can take them to court. But as far as somebody downloading it and listening to it for free, that's great. The point of making the music is that people listen to it, and that's more important to me than for me to see money from it.
DR: What are some of the other bands that you guys like?
JB: It varies. I can't speak for them. I'm really into Type-O Negative lately, and we all like a lot of the early British punk stuff - Psychedelic Furs, Gang of Four, all that sort of stuff. I like a lot of the experimental German and British stuff that was around during the early 80s: Einstruzende Neubauten, SPK, that sort of weird stuff. I think we all like Big Black, you know, that noisier stuff that started happening in the late 80s, early 90s. But there are plenty of bands between then and now that we've found and liked. I'm really into Godspeed New Black Emperor right now. Various things.
DR: The only album that I have of yours is 33rd Degree Burns.
JB: And that's our only full-length album that we have out.
DR: So what are the other releases that you've put out?
JB: We have three other singles that came before, and one after the album. The first one was out on Sister Records, which was this small Canadian label. That one has "Poland Meets Africa" and "Staring Contest" on it. The next one has "Dispenser" and "The NAMBLA Fight Song" on it. And the last one has "Will to Fail" and a cover of a Psychedelic Furs song, "Dumb Waiters" on it.
DR: The NAMBLA Fight Song. What can we look forward to with that?
JB: I don't know about the title. Ask the drummer. He picked it. We just thought it would be funny to have a song called "The NAMBLA Fight Song." And I wrote lyrics to it in the style that I like writing lyrics, which is really ambiguous, so that the listener has to make up his or her mind as to what the point of the song is.
DR: But it does have some kind of pedophile overtone to it?
JB: I don't mention pedophilia. You know, it's really up to the listener to imagine what the point of the song is.
DR: What was the reaction to 33rd Degree Burns? Did anyone understand the Masonic references in it?
JB: For most of the people I've talked to , it probably went straight over people's heads. A lot of our friends from earlier bands didn't know why we picked the name. They just thought we were being way too far left field with most of our choices in names for songs. The name was actually suggested by the head of the label Amphetamine Reptile back then, because it was a very good pun on the 33rd degree being the highest degree in the Scottish Rite, and 3rd degree burn. But until we saw your review, no one had picked up on the reference at all.
DR: On the cover of the album, those guys - who are they?
JB: I didn't make the cover, Tom Hazelmeier did, but as far as I know, it's out of some government book that he had. They're members of government out of South Dakota in the 60s.
DR: I guess it depends on how things are packaged, because it looks so sinister, it's like you're looking at the members of the Illuminati.
JB: That's right, and that's what we wanted to kind of suggest, obviously, with that symbol from the Illuminati card and the flame. I thought it worked well.
DR: Are there Masonic references on any of the other albums?
JB: No. You know, the Masonic references were always suggested to me by other people. I am, myself, a Mason. You know, most people you meet in indie rock aren't Masons, and wouldn't care to be involved in Freemasonry. But I did just because I had an interest. I like to study and read about esoteric, weird knowledge like that, and I thought, "Why not join and see what it's like?" And because of that, people like to joke with me about it, but I don't care, I'll take it, and go with it. But I don't specifically write lyrics about Masonry per se.
DR: What lodge?
JB: Minneapolis 19.
DR: Which branch, is that the Scottish or the York Rite?
JB: I'm part of both. The Minneapolis 19 is actually just a Blue Lodge, which is the basis for both of the rites. I'm 32nd Degree in the Scottish Rite, and I'm a full Templar in the York Rite.
DR: That's quite an accomplishment.
JB: Yes, I've done it all.
DR: That's great. So how did you get involved? You just read about it?
JB: I read a lot of books about it. There is a lot of information out there. I looked at some of your website, and obviously you're aware of some of it. It seems that you and me have read a lot of the same books, and I think it's just a very interesting history. There is probably bad stuff that I don't even know about. From what I know, a lot of the lodges, it is like what a lot of people say, it's boy scouts for grown-ups. It's just something I enjoy, and there are some books out there that I believe indicate the actual heritage of heritage of Freemasonry as being the Knights Templar But what the truth is, nobody can really know or prove, and that's why I'm so fascinated with it in the first place, just 'cause it's an interesting historic organization.
DR: Are you the youngest person in your lodge?
JB: Yeah, pretty much.
DR: So what's it like hanging out with those guys?
JB: The amazing thing I've found is that they're very tolerant people. They've very open to whatever people think and believe. One of the first things you learn is that religion and politics are not to be discussed in the lodge. For a bunch of old people who you tend to think are going to be more right-leaning or conservative, they're actually very tolerant and open-minded people.
DR: Do you believe in any of the Masonic conspiracy theories?
JB: Not that I have seen, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.
DR: Have you read Morals and Dogma by Albert Pike?
JB: Just parts here and there. It's a pretty long book, and it's on my to-do list. When you're going for your 33rd Degree, they give you a book that's called A Bridge to Light by Rex Hutchins, and I've read that, which is basically the Cliff Notes of Morals and Dogma.
DR: Have you heard of Manly Hall before?
JB: No, I have not, actually.
DR: He's kind of like the Albert Pike of the 20th century, because he's this vast storehouse of knowledge of all these different cultures and magical systems and philosophical systems, and history, and he's put it all into a philosophical whole and explained all of the mysteries of Freemasonry in that context. It's kind of amazing to see how all of these symbols of Freemasonry go back to ancient Sumeria and beyond.
JB: Right, and I'm sure I've read some of those theories in other books, but there's another thing I'm gonna have to read. That's the way it is. The more you learn, the more you see what you have to learn more about.
DR: Can we go back to 33rd Degree Burns? What's the message behind the song "John the Baptist."
JB: Oh, I guess that has a Masonic reference.
DR: Yeah, he's the patron deity of Freemasonry.
JB: When we picked that name, I think we had other things in mind. A lot of those songs had a self-negative tinge to them, and I think what we were more getting at was the Martyr Syndrome with that title.
DR: The platter with my head?
DR: And what about "Killing an Arhat"? This is obviously some kind of spoof on "Killing an Arab" by the Cure.
JB: That's exactly right.
DR: And what's an Arhat?
JB: Gee, I can't even remember. I'd have to ask one of the other guys, to be perfectly honest.
DR: Are you a fan of the Cure, or were you just making fun of them?
JB: No, we like them. That's in that category of early British Punk/ New Wave stuff. I think that the first two or three albums of theirs were great. Very depressing, moody and I like that a lot.
DR: There's one other song I wanted to talk to you about, which was the 33rd track. It's a secret track, and you concealed it behind 20 silent tracks of 3 seconds each. What is this about?
JB: Well, we wanted to do the little Masonic things as much as possible, and so we wanted it to be the 33rd track. And since the base degree of Freemasonry is the 3rd Degree, the Master Mason, we wanted to make the tracks 3 seconds long in-between just to play with the pun as much as possible.
DR: Did you notice that most people didn't even listen that long?
JB: Oh yeah. Most people haven't even heard that song.
DR: And what's the name of the song?
JB: "People Have Sex Without You."
DR: Why would you even say that to a person?
JB: It's sort of a slap to people who are very self-centered, very egotistical, and as the lyrics indicate, it's like, "The world goes on without you. You know, you're not the most important thing." Scott actually came up with that phrase, and we couldn't think of a crasser way to tell somebody, you know? "You're not the center of the world. Things happen without you. People even have sex without you."
DR: Have you played this album for any of your lodge brothers?
JB: One or two of the younger ones have heard it. Again, it's not that I don't want to, it's just that I don't think they'd really be interested.
DR: But there are some others who are your age?
JB: Yeah, there's one who was actually a friend of mine, and his dad was a Mason, so it was through my connection with him that I got to join, and we joined at the same time, although he's not as active in it as I am.
DR: Have you noticed any other bands using Masonic imagery?
JB: I've noticed a few bands use logos here and there, or make reference to it. I see it happening more and more. There was a band in Boston that had a record with a Masonic cover of some sort. I've met people who you think are just your typical punk rock whoevers, and you find out that they have been involved with the fraternity in the past, or currently are in one way or another. I guess there are more odd fish out there.
DR: Did you know that Michael Richards from "Seinfeld" is a Freemason?
JB: Yes, I did. I found that out recently because I get the Scottish Rite magazine monthly and they had an article about him in there.
DR: Would you be interested in seeing a "Masonic chic" develop in youth subculture?
JB: I think it's just going to. It's the turn of the century, and if you look at the other turns of the century, Masonry has always gotten a little bit of a boost because people are interested in the esoteric, and I think we're seeing that again. Everybody in early punk has always bashed organized religion, and rightfully so. But people are interested in that aspect of life. Not necessarily religion, but the Hermetic, the spiritual, whatever you call it. And I think an old organization like the Masons is going to appeal to people at a certain point in their lives. I think we're going to see more people saying, "What is this all about? I'm going to check into it and find out more."
DR: Well, I hope so. So you see some kind of a Golden Age coming?
JB: Not a Golden Age, but I think we're going to see a bit of a rebirth. And if not, it's just going to disappear, because like I said, I'm one of the youngest people there, and within 25 years, easily, if there's not more people my age joining, most of the Masons are going to be dead.
DR: We hope to combat that. I would encourage anyone who wants to, to join the Masons. I understand you still have to be male and 21, correct?
JB: Except in France, which has co-ed Masonry, which is not accepted by the American jurisdiction. But there are co-ed fraternities in Europe.
DR: Yeah, I've heard of some in America.
JB: There's one in California, but I don't think they're recognized. But they are recognized by the lodges in Europe that are co-ed, and those go back to the mid-1700s. That's pretty progressive for an old-time patriarchal institution. You know, here, they have the Eastern Star for the women, and I don't know how good that is, but a lot of the same things are talked about. It's just not as predominant, and they don't have all the nice rituals that we get to do.
DR: Yeah, I'll bet it's not nearly as good. It's just a lot of moral philosophy, and then you do bake sales and stuff.
JB: Exactly. Well, I mean, a lot of Masonry is the bake sales too.
DR: Do you participate in any of that?
JB: As much as I have to. I'm Master of the Lodge this year.
DR: Oh really!
JB: Yeah, so I have to organize all the meetings.
DR: So all those old guys are looking up to you. That's great.
JB: Yeah, but it's also kind of scary. It take a lot of time to organize everything. I'm a busy guy in general.
DR: It'll be good to have it as part of your legacy. It's something you can tell your grandchildren.
JB: I just figured "go for it." A year is a year. It'll be over before I know it.
DR: Did you have to get elected to this office?
JB: There is an election, but it's pretty much pre-ordained that it's going to happen. Probably in the old days it was more like a real election, bur nowadays all the lodges are scrambling to find enough officers to fill the positions.
DR: So are you familiar with the whole thesis of Dagobert's Revenge and Holy Blood, Holy Grail?
JB: I have read Holy Blood, Holy Grail probably about 15 years ago. So yes, I'm very familiar with that. That was one of the books that actually made me get interested in Masonry to begin with.
DR: Is there a focus on the Grail in any of the degrees of Freemasonry?
JB: Oh yes.
DR: Which ones?
JB: Mostly in the upper degrees of the York Rite.
DR: And what is their interpretation of the Grail, to your understanding?
JB: It's not interpreted, it's just mentioned. Obviously I don't want to get into too much detail. A lot of that stuff you can find out in books, what the rites are. The suggestion that's made in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that it's the bloodline of Christ, there is no such thing mentioned at all, or even symbolized. But that doesn't mean that's not what it symbolizes, or it doesn't mean the original intent wasn't to symbolize that. Just because you've gone through these allegorical rites doesn't mean you understand what the original intent was. Another thing that Masons say everywhere is that no one speaks for Masonry. Every Mason can have his own opinion as to what Masonry means. There are no secrets. You can go out and buy the books and find out even the handshakes and everything, but we just have those to make the fraternity special. I've seen them use some of the passwords on TV shows. Unless you're a Mason and you know that's what the word is, you don't know if they're just making up a word or not.
DR: Do you notice that there are a lot of Masons who don't seem to understand or even be interested in what they're learning.
JB: Oh, I would say the majority. Like I said, Masonry is whatever anybody wants it to be, and I think for a lot of people, especially after WWII, it became more like the Oddfellows or the Elks - it was a social club. But then there is a sub-section of people that seem to have joined for the exact same reason that I joined, because they were interested in the esoteric aspects of it, and the history of it. Anything you want to get out of Freemasonry, that's what you're going to get. The biggest selling point for Masonry these days is philanthropy, and if you enjoy charity work, you're going to join for that. If you are interested in the esoteric knowledge, though, you will join for that, and that has been around for hundreds of years. It's just that segment of the population of the is a very small percentage.
DR: Why don't you tell us what the future holds for the Gnomes of Zurich?
JB: Right now we're just finishing up recording for our new album. We don't know who will put the record out, but regardless, we're going to put a record out. We'll see from there. Maybe we'll do some short tours, maybe we'll do some longer tours, but I think it really depends on what shakes. We've definitely been planning on making a short tour down through Texas because we usually do really well in Texas. We find a lot of people responding to us and going to the shows. The East Coast is usually better than the West Coast. It seems that the people on the East Coast are still more interested in what we're doing musically than people on the West Coast are. It's not that we wouldn't want to go out to both places, its whether or not anyone will let us play at their clubs
33rd Degree Burns
Named after a sinister secret society of Europe’s rich and powerful, as
well as a powerful card in the game Illuminati: New World Order, The
Gnomes of Zurich are more than just a bunch of smart-aleck gamer punks,
they’re wise men, and from the lyrics they write, I’d say they’re very
illuminated. They rock, and they know their Duncan’s Ritual also. This
particular album contains enough craft secrets to start a Jacobite
uprising, and are they clever! Songs include: “About Yay High”; “John
the Baptist”; “Killing an Arhat”; “sikc (sic)”; and “a: are snakes the
devil?”, as well as a mysterious unnamed track #33. If you leave the CD
going after track 13, the rest will progress in silent, three-second
intervals until you get to 33, at which time you will hear a dark,
disturbing song which starts out, “It must be hard to be important / You
carry the weight of the world”, and has a chorus which goes, “When will
you ever learn / some people have sex without you?” The entire album is
a pleasure to listen to, especially after you’ve given it a few tries.