Taking a cue from “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” written during the slavery era and later published in 1867, John Beckmann created his own stark hymnal around the universal message of living through darker times and coming out on the other side with his version, off his upcoming debut EP Stomp the Devil with The Mortal Prophets.
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A bluesy gospel processional, “Nobody Knows” is some kind of spiritual awakening. Soulful at its core, Beckmann unravels dread and deeper pigments of sorrow and bliss, retaining fragments of the original song with Sometimes I’m up / Sometimes I’m down and the chorus Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen / Nobody knows my sorrow, while stirring in his own alternate reality singing Sometimes I’m all around / Sometimes I wander round and round.
Following the previous single “Stomp the Devil,” and its stark black and white video filmed at Untermyer Park and Gardens in Yonkers, New York, “Nobody Knows” is a continuation of Beckmann’s eccentric storylines. A mad, musical scientist, Beckmann has a penchant for twisting genres, mixing gospel and Americana with more avant beats.
“It has some of the most amazing obscure, early blues music on it,” says Beckmann of Stomp the Devil. “It’s almost alien-sounding. I was fascinated by it, especially the lyrics. It was America’s primal scream.”
Produced by David Sisko, Stomp the Devil is informed by the repetitious nature of history and present day, and other oddities melded through cinema. French anthropological ideations, pre-war gospel and blues, and nibs of experimental electronica all converge with Mortal Prophets collaborator guitarist and composer Gary Lucas of Captain Beefheart and Gods and Monsters, who Lucas says was instrumental in guiding the sound of The Mortal Prophets around all the sonic nuances.
“I’m interested in building up a deep sonic atmosphere,” says Beckmann. “There’s a certain uncanny quality to the music, one that reflects my love of German cinema from the ’20s, [and filmmakers like] Werner Herzog, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Kenneth Anger—films that possess magic.”
This fall, Beckmann is set to release an expanded interpretation of The Mortal Prophets’ music with multi-medium artist (Axis Mundi Design) and spoke to American Songwriter about working with the Captain Beefheart legend and the greater spectrum of Stomp the Devil.
American Songwriter: Did you go in with any set intentions regarding what you wanted to write, the messages you wanted to get across, and the sounds you wanted to exhibit for Stomp the Devil?
John Beckmann: I was looking for songs that had a timeless quality, that were deep and soul-wrenching, yet would be possibly open enough to a new interpretation. I distinctly remember the effect of the compilation album American Primitive, Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel 1926-36 had on me when I first heard it. It’s 77-minutes of gut-bucket, early gospel from the collections of Gayle Dean Wardlow and John Fahey. I wanted to tap into that early sound but create a new landscape that was a collision with German electronica with groups like Can, NEU!, Harmonia and Cluster, with a No-Wave electronic edge.
You can think about the project in this way: In his introduction to, “The Raw and the Cooked (1964),” French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss writes of his confidence that “certain categorical opposites drawn from everyday experience with the most basic sorts of things—raw and cooked, fresh’ and rotten, moist and parched, and others—can serve a people as conceptual tools for the formation of abstract notions and for combining these into propositions.
AS: What a treat having Gary Lucas involved. How has this collaboration influenced this project?
JB: To have Gary play on my first five songs right out of the gate was certainly a stroke of good luck. David Sisko, who produced the EP, had previously worked with Gary on a few projects, so he introduced us at the very start, and we met, and hit it off. He’s such a great guitarist, he liked the vibe and understood where I wanted to take this initial grouping of songs. He imbued the songs with a psychedelic experimental edge, with his looping and long-delayed guitar riffs and effects. We pretty much just turned him on and let him loose in the studio.
AS: How would you describe this next single, “Nobody Knows,” within the context of Stomp the Devil?
JB: “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is an African-American spiritual that originated during the period of slavery but was not published until 1867. The song is well known and has been covered by so many important artists, such as Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, and many others.
The song has such a fascinating history. It deeply resonates with me, and no doubt a broad spectrum of people. It’s so brutally honest and direct. We can all relate to its meaning regardless of our cultural backgrounds. We’ve all experienced dark times of one kind or another while seeking to come out the other end.
Sometimes I’m up
Sometimes I’m down
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground
Oh, yes, Lord.
Photos: Aren Svensen