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“Let Us Contemplate the Higher Things”: Mark Will on “Sister Dragonfly”

Mark Will: I always cast the I Ching in early January to get a feel for where I am and what’s to come. This year, according to the oracle, there is CONFLICT in the present, and the future will demand ADAPTATION. I’m still not sure what that means exactly.
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This is the fifth in a series of interviews with American expat Mark Will, the songwriter, vocalist, and bassist of the Taipei-based musical collective [ai]. In previous conversations, we have discussed “Dystopian Theme Song,” “The Kinkster,” “Now I Know You,” and “Lonely God,” the first four singles from [ai]’s debut album Carmina Formosa. I recently met Will at a restaurant near Daan Park to speak with him about the band’s fifth single, “Sister Dragonfly.”

Sister Dragonfly

Happy New Year! What are your resolutions for 2017?

I always cast the I Ching in early January to get a feel for where I am and what’s to come. This year, according to the oracle, there is CONFLICT in the present, and the future will demand ADAPTATION. I’m still not sure what that means exactly. Maybe it refers to the coming Trumpocalypse. Maybe it relates to my personal life. Maybe it has to do with my creative work. Probably it is relevant to all of these in one way or another.

So you don’t have any specific plans?

I typically have two sets of goals: reading and writing. I define these terms broadly. Any research I do, any sort of creative input I get, constitutes “reading.” Any production I do, any sort of creative output I have, constitutes “writing.” This year I plan to continue my study of Burroughs, Ballard, and Mishima. I also want to read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s history of indigenous people in the US, as well as the works of Henry George and Thomas Paine. In terms of writing, I hope to finish the second canto of my epic, Of Letters and a Man. My translation of Pessoa’s Message will also be coming out, along with the first chapter of a novel. I’m still working on a translation of Aeschylus’ Persians as well. And who knows? I might even write some songs for a new album. If that doesn’t happen, I’ve got two albums worth of old songs that need to be recorded properly. Of course, I will also continue to release material from Carmina Formosa and pimp it on social media.

“Sister Dragonfly” is now your fifth single from Carmina Formosa. Why release so many?

We will release them all. Every song on the album, all nine of them, will be singles. We want to promote Carmina Formosa as much as possible and if that means making every song on the album available on YouTube, so be it. The old formulas for releasing material are no longer relevant. The music business is a joke anyway. We’re certainly not making any money with this enterprise. In fact, we’re losing money. The production and promotion costs are ridiculous. But I want these songs to be heard.

In our previous interview, you mentioned that “Sister Dragonfly,” like “Lonely God,” is a “secular spiritual.” But whereas “Lonely God” describes the “masculine godhead,” “Sister Dragonfly” describes the “sacred feminine.” Can you expand more on this idea as it relates to “Sister Dragonfly”?

I realized all of this after the fact. I didn’t consciously attempt to write two secular spirituals, one masculine and one feminine. But in retrospect I see that’s what I did. “Sister Dragonfly” expresses a longing for the divine mystery in its feminine aspect, which may be manifested as the light of Saraswati or the darkness of Kali. I think “Sister D” is more light than dark, but there is definitely some shadow as well. There are so many great rock songs that celebrate the power of the feminine, or what Goethe called das Ewig-Weibliche. I hope “Sister D” can take its place within this tradition, which is well represented by the “In Praise of the Goddess” playlist on our YouTube channel.

What is the origin of the phrase “Sister Dragonfly”?

There is a former Taiwanese TV star who called herself “Hu Die Jie Jie,” which translates into English as “Butterfly Sister.” I liked that name, but I thought it was a bit too cute for my purposes. A dragonfly seemed more mysterious and interesting. This creature also belongs to what we might call the “classic rock bestiary” (along with the bird, the dog, the cat, the spider, the fly, the king bee, and so on). It is featured in an old Fleetwood Mac song, for example. More importantly, it appears in the lyrics of Jimi Hendrix. In “Spanish Castle Magic,” Jimi sings: “It’s very far away / It takes about half a day to get there / If we travel by dragonfly.” It has a psychedelic connotation, although I don’t think our track turned out as psychedelic as it might have.

The dragonfly by nature is an elusive creature. What is it that eludes Mark Will?

Everything! What can we truly grasp in this world? What can we hang on to forever? All things must pass. This is the Buddhist concept of anitya or impermanence. But in the song I suppose I’m referring specifically to the elusiveness of the goddess or the sacred feminine. To be connected to that energy is probably my highest desire in life, and yet I feel I never get enough of it. That angst is implicit in the lyrics, I think.

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The main riff of “Sister Dragonfly” is quite distinctive. How did you come up with it?

The song is in the key of A, so the riff is just a little guitar figure based on an A major chord. The idea was to use open strings as much as possible so that the jangly notes would ring out. Some people say they hear an echo of the Family Mart doorbell jingle, and this may have been a subconscious influence. One hears it everywhere in Taiwan, so I’m pleased to have this little Taiwanese (and, more generally, Asian) allusion on Carmina Formosa. If “Sister Dragonfly” ever makes any money, though, I suppose I’m opening up myself to some kind of lawsuit from the Japanese man who composed the jingle, but we’ll deal with that when it happens. During the recording, Oren added just the right combination of distortion and chorus to his guitar to produce that buzzing sound which suggests an insect.

The bass really grooves on this track.

Thanks for noticing. I’m quite pleased with the bassline on “Sister Dragonfly.” I consciously attempted to emulate John Entwistle, The Who’s virtuoso bassist (and horn player). I’m not sure I was successful in my imitation of his style, but I’m very satisfied with the result. It’s one of my best performances on the album, I think.

I really enjoyed Oren’s guitar solo at the end of the track too.

We knew we wanted to have one song on the album which featured a kind of trance section. Bass and drums would play a continuous drone and Oren would solo over that in the manner of an Indian raga. We originally planned to have such a musical interlude in the middle of “Love in the Time of Tuberculosis,” but it seemed to work better at the end of “Sister Dragonfly.” You can definitely hear the influence of John McLaughlin’s brand of rock fusion throughout the solo, but as usual Oren’s performance is poignantly and profoundly unique.

Why did you choose Egyptian iconography to promote “Sister Dragonfly”?

I searched for some goddess imagery in the public domain and immediately there appeared Isis, whose wings obviously resonate with the lyrics. I’ve also used Nike, the winged Greek goddess of victory, to promote the song on social media. Celtic and Near Eastern fertility goddesses are perhaps less relevant to the lyrics, but I consider these images fundamental to my conception of the feminine and have used them as well. Art featuring Indian goddesses also allows us to create interesting juxtapositions of sound and vision.

Besides meditation and the casting of the I Ching, do you have any other spiritual practices?

I’ve experimented with Tantric sex, sigil magic, runes, and lucid dreaming, but I’m by no means an adept at any of these. Lately, I’ve become interested in sensory deprivation flotation tanks. My friend “The Cosmic I Am” loaned me a copy of John C. Lilly’s The Deep Self and has encouraged me to experience “the float” for myself. I’m a bit apprehensive about it, but I plan to give the tank a try later this month.

What’s the latest on your collaboration with film director Kevin Kewley?

We’re working on a new music video for “Dystopian Theme Song” at present. I will appear as Lao Wai or The Stranger, the role I assume as vocalist and frontman of the band. The basic scenario is that I will be a talking head on the set of a dystopian news program. I will perform the song from behind a news desk as though I were reporting the news. There will be a news ticker or two, with text in English and Chinese, and a screen in the background showing random slides of war, ecological disaster, police brutality, celebrity culture, and so on. All of this will be intercut with newsreel footage and paradoxical political slogans to create an alienation effect. I will post updates on Facebook and Twitter.

I look forward to seeing the video when it’s complete. In the meantime, I’ll prepare for our next chat, the focus of which will be “Three Little Jailbirds,” your commentary on the social problem of incarceration.

Sounds good. We’ll talk again soon.

Nick Danese