This is the fourth in a series of interviews with American expat Mark Will, the songwriter, vocalist, and bassist of the Taiwan-based musical collective [ai]. In previous conversations, we have discussed “Dystopian Theme Song,” “The Kinkster,” and “Now I Know You,” the first three singles from [ai]’s debut album Carmina Formosa. I recently met Will at a diner near Dapinglin Station in Taipei to speak with him about the band’s fourth single, “Lonely God.” The following transcript of our interview has been condensed and edited.
Before we talk music, I want to get your take on the US election. Were you surprised by the result?
All along I said that if I had to bet, I would bet on Clinton, but it wouldn’t surprise me too much if Trump carried the day. A nation that could elect George W. Bush twice is capable of anything. Still, I tended to agree with Julian Assange, who predicted that Trump would not be “permitted” to become president. Clinton appeared to be the Establishment’s choice, so it seemed unlikely that Trump would prevail. But then I had a strange feeling after the FBI chief made his announcement about Clinton’s emails ten days prior to the so-called election. I began to suspect that the deep state had shifted its alliance from the unindicted war criminal to the billionaire buffoon.
The deep state? You sound like a conspiracy theorist.
That’s fine. I don’t mind being labeled as such. But there is nothing controversial about the concept of the deep state. Even the mainstream media acknowledge its existence. See, for example, Bill Moyers’ interview with former Washington insider Mike Lofgren, who also uses the term “shadow government.” I’m now reading The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on U.S. Democracy by Peter Dale Scott, who is probably the foremost authority on the subject. He cites C. Wright Mills’ identification of “a tripartite American power elite, composed of corporate executives, the military establishment, and a ‘political directorate.’” Is it so difficult to imagine that such a power elite would fix an election in the US, just as it has done in other countries?
I’m not prepared to follow you down that rabbit hole. Let’s discuss your new single instead. How did you come to write “Lonely God”?
About four years ago, whenever we went to Family Mart or 7-11, my wife and I kept noticing this brand of chips called Lonely God. We thought it was odd that a company would choose that as its name. I had already started writing songs for Carmina Formosa, and my wife said I should write one called “Lonely God.” After accepting her assignment, I imagined this god wandering around the island of Taiwan trying to be admitted to the pantheon of local deities. I resurrected an old riff that I wrote about fifteen years ago, and the verse and chorus evolved from that. Then I tacked on that chord progression at the end for a little two-minute jam that Oren could solo over. I came up with the vocal harmonies in the studio. I call the song a “secular spiritual.”
What does that mean?
Like the spirituals of old, a secular spiritual expresses a longing for connection with the divine mystery, but it does not promote any particular dogma or religion.
Like the spirituals of old, a secular spiritual expresses a longing for connection with the divine mystery, but it does not promote any particular dogma or religion. I realized after the fact that I had written two secular spirituals for Carmina Formosa: “Lonely God” and “Sister Dragonfly.” One is about the masculine godhead and one is about the sacred feminine—Yang and Yin, as it were. Other songs I consider representative of this genre are included in the “Hymns of Secular Spirituality” playlist on our YouTube channel.
Do you consider yourself religious?
Not in the sense that my fundamentalist parents would. I rejected their brand of Christianity long ago and to this day I retain an antipathy to all of the Abrahamic religions in their more dogmatic variations, although I do often employ the symbols, concepts, and terminology of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in my music, art, and writing. And I am deeply interested in the more mystical offshoots of these traditions: Kabbalism, Gnosticism, Sufism. But I’m sure the strict monotheists would denounce me as a pagan on account of my affection for the Greek and Norse gods and my preference for the spiritual traditions of the Orient. I’ve always been attracted to Hinduism, Buddhism, and especially Taoism. Even before I moved to Asia, I thought of the Tao Te Ching as my Bible and I would cast the I Ching in times of crisis.
What about now? Do you still cast the I Ching?
Absolutely. I find it to be the best way of knowing one’s own mind and breaking through psychological blockage to some kind of resolution. While recording and mixing the album, I consulted the I Ching before every visit to the studio. But I have used other oracles in the past. While writing the songs of Carmina Formosa, for example, I was consulting the Osho Zen Tarot. I have also used the divination blocks at the temples here in Taiwan.
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How does that work?
You go to the temple, pray and burn incense to the god of your choice, ask a question, and drop the divination blocks on the ground. When the blocks land, if one is up and one is down, then the answer to your question is yes. If both are down, then the answer is no. If both are up, then the god is laughing at you.
Tell me about one of your temple visitations.
Before my wife and I were married, we consulted the goddess Mazu at her oracle in Janghua. We were having issues with her family, who were violently opposed to our relationship. So we asked Mazu questions and used the divination blocks to know her answers. Our first question was: “Will the family ever accept our relationship?” We dropped the divination blocks and the answer was laughter. Our next question was: “Does the family dislike me because I’m a foreigner?” Answer: “Yes.” And finally we asked: “Will this situation improve as time goes on?” Answer: “Yes.” It has proven to be quite an accurate prophecy.
Do you talk to other gods besides Mazu?
Yes, as a writer I consult Wen Chang, the god of scribes and scholars. I have a little statue of him on my desk, and meditating on his image has helped me with certain writing projects. I also like the red-faced war god Guan Gong, who is a dispenser of justice. We sought his protection and guidance when we were involved in a lawsuit with an unscrupulous former employer of mine. In the end, we won our case and collected all the money that I was owed, as well as some punitive damages.
It sounds like you’re a Taoist.
I don’t feel that it’s necessary to define myself that way, but to those who insist that everybody must have some religion I probably would say that I’m Taoist, since my wife’s family is. But in terms of belief and faith, I’m actually more of an atheist, although I don’t wish to associate myself with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and their ilk. As far as religious doctrine goes, I like the Jain concept of ahimsa or non-harming. It’s an impossible ideal, of course, but it remains my goal. Buddhist compassion is also a guiding principle for me, but I believe it’s easier to practice compassion towards others when one is calm and peaceful with oneself. Meditation is the best way to achieve this, in my experience, and it has helped me greatly. While in Thailand, I studied Vipassana for a bit, and recently I have become interested in Tibetan traditions, though I am very undisciplined about meditation and wish I practiced it more regularly than I do.
What made you choose Aztec iconography to promote “Lonely God”?
I looked for pictures of a solitary god and one of the most interesting images I found was that representation of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent whom D. H. Lawrence wrote about. We’ve also used imagery of the Greek god Prometheus, the Persian god Ahura Mazda, the Norse god Loki, and the Yoruba god Eshu, all of whom are lonely in various ways, I suppose. Because I foolishly allowed myself to be distracted by the recent electoral farce, I haven’t promoted “Lonely God” as much as the first three singles, but I did post on Facebook and Twitter an interesting message I received from a fan in the States. He said he had been listening to the song while under the influence of psychedelics and his interpretation was as follows: “Lonely God is the immortal soul with a conscience within us. If our souls can’t die, I’d say that makes us gods. And we’re lonely because as humans we’re social creatures.”
The last time we spoke you mentioned that [ai] might be playing some upcoming shows. Is that still a possibility?
Oren has returned to Taiwan, but he is still settling in. After we meet to discuss the future of the band, I’ll know more about potential live performances. But I can tell you now that we’re planning to collaborate with film director Kevin Kewley on some proper music videos.
I look forward to seeing them, and we’ll meet again soon to discuss “Sister Dragonfly.” In the meantime, may Lonely God guide and protect you!
His peace be upon you, my brother! Amen and hallelujah!