Captured within Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos's documentary "The Source" is the story of a rock band that worked in a way that no rock band had before -- pure improvisation with no commercial intent, hitting the recording studio with a revolving cast of musicians after meditation sessions and then releasing albums one after another, nine of them in 1973 and '74.
The Source Family band went by several names -- Father Yod and the Spirit of '76, Yodship and Fire Water Air, but by far they were best known as Ya Ho Wha 13 -- and in the film it's said they recorded as many as 65 albums while living together in their communal "mother house" in the Hollywood Hills. They made their money at the Source, a health food/vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip that attracted celebrities like John Lennon, Goldie Hawn and Warren Beatty and was known for its young and gorgeous staff, all of them members of the Family.
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One of the band's fans is Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, who is featured in the documentary speaking about the power of their music. "When they play music, there isn't a material consciousness that comes with it -- unlike everyone else," Corgan told Billboard.biz during a conversation that included Wille, a book editor, filmmaker and cultural event producer.
"In the history of rock music they are almost without compare," Corgan continues, noting he has performed with Ya Ho Wha 13 several times since their reunion in 2008. "It's like an improvisational Pink Floyd or something. On the surface that doesn't sound like a big deal, but it's really hard to create that atmosphere -- that mystical state -- and they create it improvisationally."
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"The Source" is booked for a few other film festivals and Wille is hopeful the film will lead to a soundtrack album, a tribute album and a tour by Ya Ho Wha 13 with bands inspired by them. Corgan says "I'd be open to that" about the tour, though he is currently working with Sean Evans, the creative director of Roger Waters' "The Wall" tour, on the design of a set for the next Smashing Pumpkins tour. He says they will be playing "Oceania," which will be released in June, in sequence on the tour. "It's got a good prog thing to it," he says of the album. Building an elaborate set "seems to be the proggy thing to do."
Corgan and Wille, who published the book "The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and The Source Family," spoke about the documentary, Ya Ho Wha 13's music and the effect it is having on younger musicians over breakfast at the Driskill Hotel in Austin during South by Southwest.
How did you come to know the band?
Billy Corgan: I got to know Sky Saxon from the Seeds, who was in the Family for awhile, and through him I met Djin Aquarian, one of the first people to join the Source Family. (We met to rehearse) in a very small studio and it was 30 people smoking weed. It was like this time bubble, not people still living in the '60s, but living that lifestyle and transplanted into the modern age. Djin and Sky constantly referenced Father Yod like a Christian would reference Jesus. "Father said this, father said that," and they're singing "yod heh vau heh" in their songs. And I'm asking, what is all this?
Is there a way to explain the appeal of the music?
BC: If you're a musician you jam and it's usually bad blues, Clapton in the basement crap. It's truly rare to play with people who play improvisational music a la (avant garde saxophonist) Albert Ayler, where there is a level of high skill combined with divine inspiration. In their case it was sealed in this atmosphere where you left the ego behind and you become this other type of musician. It's incredibly rare to find, especially in rock. It is weird. I have played with them a few times and it is always different.
Jodi Wille: In the '80s there was a whole sector in New England, Byron Coley, Thurston Moore, all of those people who became obsessed with Ya Ho Wah 13 records. They didn't know what they were, but the pysch collectors at the time said this is very cherished material and it was very mysterious. So when the book came out, there were the psych fans and the fans who followed the music that Ya Ho Wah 13 inspired that was called Higher Key (named after the family's label). They're not pysch records, they're kind of God records, but they're not Jesus Records. They're spiritual.
BC: It's not just that this is a relic of a moment. It is very sophisticated music.
I know I've seen vinyl reissues of the music. How widely available is it?
JW: There have been a number of reissues. Drag City, Tee Pee released their best-known album "Penetration," Swordfish put out a number in the U.K., Captain Trip did a box set. When the book came out (in 2007) five labels put out Source music in one year. It was mighty swift. The (Source Family) foundation has partnered with Drag City -- they've been very supportive.
Is that how they continue to work? And since it's so different from what you do, how do find a way to work with them?
BC: With Sky you'd sort of run into people. Talk about no organized mind there -- for Sky (life was) moment to moment to moment. It rises above good and bad. You can have an incredibly sublime music moment for five minutes where you say this is the most pure music and then they'll play the most whack shit. That can only happen because they have no consciousness of what they're playing. I tried to produce some stuff for Sky and Sky improvised every lyric at this point in his life. Every take was different. You couldn't say, "that was a good hook, could you sing that the same way?" Let him improvise and he'd give you the best line you've ever hear followed by the worst line you've ever heard. They'd go into the studio and just play. There was no conversation and they had no musical organization.
JW: There is also a singer-songwriter phase in the family, but at a certain point Father Yod thought ego was getting into the music so he declared there would be no more rehearsed music.
What made them re-form the band?
BC: I was like, "why aren't you guys playing?" I thought, OK, I'll play with these hippies, some space rock in the basement. The reason Ya Ho Wha 13 endures is because the musical component is not just a trinket of another time. That's what surprised me.
JW: You have sophistication mixed with motivation, which gives you this really special thing.
What happened when you played with them?
BC: They have the central core ego of any band -- who plays where and what. It was like inserting yourself into a normal band politic and they trusted me so it was no different. When we wanted to set up a Source festival or a Ya Ho Wah 13 festival, (Source Family matriarch) Isis was worried. We thought it was a no-brainer -- the Pumpkins would play, Ya Ho Wah 13 would play. Isis killed it.
JW: I think it was just the timing, because I think it could easily happen this year.
BC: Now having met her she's an incredibly intuitive person and she was right to say no at that time. I have a different appreciation for it now than I did then so I would come at it differently. I was like the "Our Gang" -- let's put on a show, let's put on a Source Family show -- until it developed into politics. I have done a few gigs with them and jammed with them privately. It's an incredible experience like no other musical experience I have ever had.
All of this happened when the book came out? Did that spark thoughts about the documentary?
JW: When the book came out we got the band back together for the first time and the events were so successful. We played Cinefamily and Echoplex (in L.A.) and then we did an East Coast tour, playing the Knitting Factory and then San Francisco. I worked with Isis and (Family member) Electricity on the book and it was like a documentary in print. We filmed our interviews, so I met 30 Family members during the research. I was so blown away, so astonished by the level of intelligence and humor and charm and insight that I got from these people. Isis said she had five hours of home movies and hundreds of hours of audio, and as soon as I saw that stuff I said I'm going back in. It was just too good.
Where do you go next?
JW: We're going to San Francisco at the end of April and we're supposed to hear at the end of March about all these other festivals. We're also going to the Athens International Festival (in Ohio) because I went to college there. We're hoping we can hook something up for L.A. We haven't submitted to the L.A. Film Festival yet, but my hope, my vision, is we'll have a screening at the John Anson Ford Theater and we'll have Ya Ho Wah 13 come out for it and have them play afterward.
Is the time right for the festival that was scotched?
JW: The whole thing is congealing right now. There is a whole scene happening, especially in L.A., that is supporting what we're talking about right now. Some incredible Austin musicians came together at this gallery space, Wardenclyffe, a little bit outside of downtown. There were eight musicians on stage and they had these three renditions of Source Family songs. What I'm thinking of doing is putting together a tribute record and have different musicians from different regions doing their versions of Source Family music. Drag City may be doing a soundtrack and the Source Family has a double album coming out on Drag City. L.A. bands that are a part of this burgeoning scene -- the Entrance Band, Spindrift. There are tons of them.
What's the fascination?
BC: It's not a great analogy, but its like in the early '60s when the white kids would drive out to meet Son House and he's driving a tractor, or whatever. When you play with Djin it's like stepping into a completely different world. A lot of '60s musicians have had time to reflect so they're almost like a schtick: They're the doing the imitation of the '60s version of themselves. Not with these guys. They are on that trajectory still. Djin lives in his van on the road with no money. Sky was the same way -- it's all in.
JW: There's certain kind of authenticity with these people.
BC: I hate to use the word purity because it's an overused term in music, but there is a purity of spirit. So I can see why twentysomethings would be fascinated and ask, 'what is this? I can't buy this at Urban Outfitters.' It's a different DIY culture and it's been fueled by this story. This group somehow has infused the possibility that we can do this in a different way. It's fresh and has a different level of spirituality in it, but it's an undefined spirituality.
JW: Partly it's that people see there's something larger than themselves and there's not a language for it yet, at least in pop culture there's not.
It makes you realize how similar the early part of this century is to the 1960s and '70s. These people looking for something that requires community and, in this case, can't be delivered on a computer or a phone screen. There's still the behemoth corporation to rail against but now that corporation happens to produce music, but there is no chance to join that world. In the '70s, maybe your oddball band stood a chance.
BC: The money is going out of it. All musicians are finding themselves doing a qualitative analysis of this. Do I want to spend the rest of my life on the road? If you're a country star in the 1950s, being on the road all the time meant success. It meant you were going to do another record; you could be on big radio shows. Being on the road now is (the equivalent of) a tree falls in the forest. You can be in oblivion. The rest of the culture is rumbling on talking about Lana Del Rey on 'Saturday Night Live.' Then there's this other culture. I think the idea of what we're doing definitely feels different.
JW: It feels like there's a different DIY where its harmonious rather than discordant. It's more collective oriented. I see these kids hang out with each other. What makes so much sense for Billy to be attracted to this is he's the only artist who came of age in the '90s and had a cosmic feel. I feel you are the only one who gets this.
BC: I made decision at the end of the '90s to make a break. I did it when I was at the pinnacle of my musical material life, so I had a chance to slow down the ego. When I met Sky and Djin I had already gone though that and come out on the other side, so I was very open.
It's a weird story to share, but at the end of the '90s I was very closed up because celebrity did my head in. I went to see a psychic and she wanted to do a drum circle -- her husband was a professional drummer. We went in some basement and the whole idea is that it should be egoless. I remember playing and thinking am I doing this right. It was so of the ordered mind that I couldn't do the drum circle right. The lesson of it -- and l saw it half way through -- was what am I doing? I can't even just play music. I need a stage, I need an audience, I need light. What's wrong with me? That was the beginning of my evolution of that consciousness. The mindset of the '90s -- my Titanic band vs. your Titanic band. Sustainability is the new success. That's something we're drawing from these communal ideas.