Sister Bliss on dance music as a church for the unchurched
While I was writing Philosophy for Life, I lived with three friends in a church in North London. We discovered that our land-lady, who we never met, was Sister Bliss, the DJ and one third of the dance supergroup Faithless. This year, when I found myself researching the idea of music as a form of secular collective ecstasy, my mind immediately turned to Faithless. I got in touch with Sister Bliss, who's real name is Ayalah, and she, being a kind sort of person, agreed to an interview. I went round to the church, and we had this conversation:
So you live in a church, your DJ name is Sister Bliss, your first DJ gig was at Heaven, your band is called Faithless, and your hits include 'God is a DJ', 'Reverence', and 'Salva Mea'. Clearly Faithless were riffing off the spiritual vibe of dance music in the early 1990s, as were other bands then like the Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, even The Shamen. Dance music back back then seems more spiritual and idealistic than it does now...
I guess people had experiences while out on the nascent club scene and brought them back into the studio with them. All the people I know who were involved in dance music were punters as well, they weren't divorced from the scene. They’d obviously experienced something special on the dance-floor and were moved by it, emotionally and spiritually. They probably felt more connected to other people than they had before. A lot of people in dance music aren't so comfortable in the social world or in their own skins. House music was a really embracing place - as one of our lyrics says ‘it’s one house, there’s room for all’. It broke down barriers of class, race, gender. And it came out of a tough political era. Very disillusioned people were seeking some kind of community.
And obviously it coincided with the price of Es coming down. Pills were really the preserve of the New York gay community in the late 80s, and finally found their way over to the UK. Very few people had that experience, then suddenly, Britain was awash with Ecstasy. It became something that everyone could partake in. So the drugs together with the lights, the music and the sense of the illicit turned raves into communal ecstatic experiences where one could forget the self. There was a palpable energy, like I imagine you would get in the middle of a really powerful religious service with the laying on of hands and the talking in tongues. People lost themselves in the music in a really primal, tribal way.
There was also something very pagan about it. I remember going round an anthropology museum in Mexico, and it had all these colourful and densely patterned artifacts from Mayan civilisation, showing dances and human sacrifices, and there were labels under them saying ‘this was made under the influence of mind-altering psychedelics like peyote or mescal’. I thought, they were off it too!
And there was also a more aggressive energy to dance music in the early days. It wasn’t all ‘Peace, Love and Happiness’, it was also about being anti-establishment as well.
Which you get a lot of in, for example, The Prodigy.
Exactly. Dance music was literally outlawed [by the Criminal Justice Bill], so it made people feel like outlaws. There’s nothing more buzzy than feeling a bit subversive.
And for uptight British people of course, it’s important to get out of their heads and their inhibitions.
Yeah, breaking out of the Puritan Reformation.
When you first went clubbing what was it like?
I was addicted to it. It was like something had clicked in my DNA, with the music, with the experience, and the fact it was quite sensory. You know, when you go to see a band, you’re looking at the stage. But at a rave, even in some shitty old warehouse, you’d be immersed in smoke and strobes.
So it’s not just a passive spectator thing.
Exactly. It’s less of a spectator sport. You can lose yourself in the rhythm of the music. This was before electronic music was on the radio, on adverts, before it became the background soundtrack to our lives. Back then it was really alien: drum machines, squelchy synths. It wasn’t a familiar landscape. Another friend of mine discovered electronic music at the same time. This was 1987, I was 17 and had just passed my driving test. I’d drive and she’s read the maps and get us to these warehouse parties. We’d wait around and then get a number, meet at a petrol station. Or you’d pick up a flyer at a record club, or your friends would tell you about parties.
Did you do E?
Of course. I remember the first time - it was extremely exciting and an incredible experience. Jane Bussman and Matthew Collins have written very well on it - almost every page of their books I was like ‘yes, that’s how it was’.
And you were also a vinyl junkie...
Yes. I had this innate belief that I could become a good DJ. I practiced my tits off and drove everyone I lived with mad, but paid them back by getting them on guest lists. I went without food and fags to buy records because I was so passionate about being up on this music. It was about finding the new sound. I’ve always described it as the weekly pilgrimage to the record shop. The record shop was a community. It was a little church where we came to worship the latest shrink-wrapped import from the New York house scene. I’d go to four or five different ones around London - Black Market, Choccy’s Tunes, TRAX, Groove Records and Pure Groove. When I was at college, they used to send me boxes of records up to Birmingham, because there was no decent record store up there. That’s how I first heard of Rollo - they sent me Felix’s Don’t You Want Me, which he’d produced. I didn’t like it at first!
So Faithless grew out of your meeting with Ben Langmaid [now one half of La Roux] in a record store in Archway. He introduced you to Rollo and Maxi.
Yes. You just meet people and talk about music you love. That’s how I started making music. Ben didn’t play an instrument, but the sampler revolution meant it didn’t matter, as long as you had a sampler or an Atari. It undermined the monopoly of the studios, which were wildly expensive, and opened the floodgates. It was a very DIY scene, very egalitarian. I’ve worked with lots of people who can’t play a bloody note. And it wasn’t image-based like so much of pop music. It didn’t matter what you looked like. The punter and the DJ were one. It was much more about the connection with the ordinariness of life. Faithless was a lot about that.
Were you consciously exploring the idea of dance as a secular religion in Faithless? I mean, with songs like Reverence, Salva Mea, God is a DJ and so on. Even your DJ name was quasi-religious - Sister Bliss.
Well, that bit was kind of coincidental. Sister Bliss was the least rude DJ name I could come up with, for my first gig. Rollo had studied philosophy at university, although he only got a 2.2, cos he was busy chasing girls and partying. Then, after Ben brought me down to Rollo's studio, and we had made a few dance records together, he and I met Maxi through Ben. Maxi was a Buddhist rapper - we'd never met one of them before. So we sat talking in the studio, long into the night, asking him what his philosophy meant to him, and what it meant in everyday life.
Maxi’s a Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist. Nichiren was a 12th-century Japanese monk who came up with his own interpretation of the Buddha Gautama’s ideas. He said the Buddha is present in every one, and we ourselves are the Buddha. All you need to do is call out the Buddha name to raise the Buddhahood inherent within you. The idea that anyone could be a Buddha was a radical idea in Japanese society, where there was a huge hierarchical priesthood. Maxi put a lot of his philosophy into his lyrics. For example, the song Reverence is Maxi’s blueprint for philosophy:
I ain't a Christian, sometimes I feel like dissin' 'em
But listen, I'm just tryin' to tell you, what I know
If you could, once relax
Chill to the max, these words on wax
Would cause sweet bells to ring in your soul
If I say God is alive I know you wanna know why
Babies die, food don't grow, why trains smash, planes crash
Situation mash and slam bam your fellow man
Money's in fashion, huh, it ain't rational,
Because damn it, he didn't just give us the planet
And its wealth, deep inside your soul he left a piece of himself
The lord is in here.
Faithless was not purely escapist or mindless hedonism. It was about being fallible and human, and that’s why it’s touched people’s lives. It’s not just about Las Vegas pool parties. Though of course, then there came the era of people worshipping the DJ. There was a cover of Mixmag, it said ‘Sasha: son of God?’. Our song ‘God is a DJ’ was kind of a provocative nod to that, although really, God is a DJ is a metaphor for the beauty inherent in life itself: 'it's in minor keys, solutions and remedies, enemies becoming friends, when bitterness ends…. this is my church'.
Faithless quickly evolved into an eight-piece live band, which would play some of the biggest rock festivals in the world - for example, you twice played the main stage at Glastonbury. Did it give you an incredible sense of power to see that enormous Glastonbury crowd bouncing up and down to your songs?
I wouldn’t say it gives you a big sense of power. I think Maxi would say the same: it’s humbling. We’d come off stage and say, I can’t believe it. Ten years ago we couldn’t get arrested, and now we’re playing the main stage and Stevie Wonder’s on after us. We never got over the feeling that we’re fairly ordinary people that love what we do, and believe in what we do...but to feel that you’re among luminaries, and a huge crowd that’s just giving you love...It’s like a tantric energy - they give it to you, and you give it to them. I’ve never had a religious experience, but I imagine that’s as close to religion as it bloody gets. Because you’re seeing the most beautiful and the best part of people. You’re seeing people who have pain, and troubles in everyday life, and they’re feeling unadulterated joy. They’re being the best they can be, and you’re being the best you can be. That’s God-like. It’s beyond ego.
You and Maxi are obviously humble people with good relationships, so you didn’t get lost in that. Do you know musicians who did?
Yes, very much so. We worked a bit with Robbie Williams, who was obviously idolized by millions. He did a load of festivals with us, and used to come and sit in our dressing room. And he’d say ‘God, you guys talk to each other’. It’s like he was so famous that his band couldn’t really connect to him, maybe the management had told them what they could and couldn’t say to Robbie. He was a young man, hugely egotistical in one sense yet utterly crushed by it. And he was so anxious about performing live, despite being brilliant at it. He couldn’t really believe in himself and felt fraudulent. He was just battling with it at all times. Playing live is hugely energising and exhausting simultaneously - you take all that adrenalin off the stage after the show. But then you crash, and need something to keep you going. That’s why some people get mired in drink and drugs, because you’re so fucking high when you come off stage you want that feeling to never end.
But is it dangerous if the crowd is your main source of love?
Yes. You don’t want to depend too much on that adoration. Music fans can be fickle and every band has its day. I had a friend who got into music for different reasons to me. He always dreamt of the love of the crowd. And it’s hollow. I mean, it’s real in the moment, but you need other stuff to sustain you - a philosophy, or faith, or a belief in yourself. If you’re going out there to fill a hole in your soul with love...the hole isn’t going to go away. You can act the big star, then just be a mess the moment you walk off stage. It becomes a rather schizophrenic existence.
What are the imperfections of dance music as a religion?
I’ve never said that dance music is perfect. But there can be a perfection in it, in the moment, when the DJ drops that tune, and the crowd all feel it at the same time, and you get that connection. It’s very special.
But there is a dark side to it too isn’t there? I had quite a few raver friends who messed themselves up on drugs.
Yeah of course. I got really depressed in the late 90s and laid off everything, because I started feeling really paranoid. But I was also working in a scene where there were some quite envious people, and when you start to do well, there’s envy. But of course there’s a dark side - sometimes people make friends, but they’re just disco friendships. They’re not there to support you, they’re there for the good times. I feel blessed that the friends I made in those formative times are still my friends. We made deep loving connections, partly because we had profound shared experiences. There were some epic times that we had carousing, that we all remember very fondly. We share collective memories. I imagine religion feeds on that as well.
Yes, peak moments. Tell me about a favourite peak moment.
Well, I don’t want to talk about them too much. One was The Eclipse in Coventry. My God, what a mess that was. It had the latest licence in the Midlands. You could stay there til 8 or 9 in the morning. I remember they built a replica of Stonehenge on the stage for the summer solstice. We used to make a regular pilgrimage to The Eclipse in a convoy...rave disciples!
Do you think music’s power over us is spiritual and transcendent, or mechanistic? What I mean is, you could see music’s power as mechanical, in that you just work out the mechanical formula to manipulate people’s emotions.
There is some music that is manipulative, for sure. I feel Faithless discovered a structure or arrangement, which we spent ages honing that has become much aped and contrived.
For example, there’s a particular sort of suspense and build-up in Faithless songs.
Yes,that was very much Rollo's ethos with dance music - that the best records had a real sense of tension and drama, and then a subsequent release. We experimented for ages with our arrangements, and we really listened to the structure of the best records. Then after we had huge global success with 'Insomnia', it became a standard blueprint which was copied a lot in a derivative way by lots of producers. There are some very commercial dance records now that are so manipulative. They attempt to do what Faithless did but in a really crass way, without taking you on a journey along the way, and without any lyrical integrity. Rollo said to me ‘You can hear them buying a private jet with these records’. On the surface, it’s very attractive - who wouldn’t want to go to Vegas and get $300,000 for just standing there playing your own music. But the other side of that is, you’re making it lowest common denominator, which we always wanted to avoid.
But your songs had an amazing power over people’s emotions, so there were manipulative in a way...
You’re right, maybe we were just more artful. I like to thing it was less crass. We avoided doing the less obvious and cheesy. I like to think our music was never made with an eye to the charts. It was made for the dance music community, for ourselves and without compromise.
What do you think of contemporary electronic music?
What’s happening now is America has recently got into it. It’s very interesting - one of the most religious societies, and they’re now falling for dance music - which previously they probably would have seen as a black, gay, Satanic music - as passionately as we did in the 1990s. It’s become a massive industry. Contemporaries of mine are making huge sums, like Tiesto, who’s a year older than me, and who’s now making $40 million a year.
Me and Rollo have long discussions about dance music becoming this insane industry. What’s it standing for? Something really vacuous and absolutely not spiritual. It’s about table-service and pool parties in Vegas. It’s become less subversive and counter-cultural, and is now organised into these mega-rave productions, like fun-fairs for children. That’s when the real underground grows stronger, because some people don’t want the Guetta-isation of dance, they want to go to some really mad, unregulated place, some dirty jackin’ warehouse with quality music.
Has dance music lost its soul?
There’s always been the flossy side of dance music. But then if you dig deeper, there are people making more interesting stuff, expressing their actual lives. Like grime, that’s a real counterculture, people expressing and finding a way out of a pretty shit life-situation. But even that changes over time as it becomes more successful, like Dizzee Rascal, who started out as the most antagonistic rapper, then eventually he goes to Calvin Harris and makes the biggest record of his career. Who’s going to knock it?
Do you think, after 25 years of dance music, that we’ve become so familiar to the ‘build up / drop’ dynamic that we’ve become numb to it, so it has to be done in ever larger and more ridiculous proportions, like on a Skrillex song? Music can become worn out, can’t it?
Well, this is where music and technology meet. Suddenly there’s a new plug-in, or a new keyboard will come out. Or someone will make a mistake, which is Brian Eno’s big thing, like someone will play a bassline and it gets put through a keyboard amp. Weird things happen. From those mistakes come a whole new set of techniques. What I love about electronic music is there are no rules. Some people are making really complex busy-sounding music, the whole Complextro scene, while others are going so back to basics that it’s skeletal, like The XX. There are people still seeking, still on a journey. The best dance music is a journey - through technology, through consciousness. There must be something in it - you’ve gone somewhere and arrived somewhere new. At its best takes you on a journey as a person, into love and blissfulness.
Though it could just be you’re getting your thrills from the music rather than from genuine relationships.
Well, Maxi would say it’s about the people you’re with. Your experience will be better if it’s collective than if you’re on your own...unless you’re sitting there with a bucket of pills and your favourite Grooverider tape.
Sister Bliss and Rollo are now working on a new project with the award-winning performance poet, Kate Tempest.
If you enjoyed this, check out this interview I did with James Kennaway, a historian who has explored the history of moral-medical panics around music, from Wagner to heavy metal.