Totem: Muses of Musical Medicine

By Moriah Hope

There are many facets to the art of sound. Whether sound vibration bounces off a live percussionist directly to your ear drums or through the intricate construct of a quality speaker, there is a noticeable effect on our body, mind, and spirit. I am increasingly fascinated by music theory and the free-spirited, mysterious yet highly logical structure that sound follows. My friend and melodious expert, Phoenix, reminded me of the limitless possibilities of creativity. Musical constellations are still waiting to be discovered. With continuously fresh realms of exploration in art and technology, what is the future of music? Phoenix Clay Hollingsworth of ‘Totem’ demonstrates the complex design of digital mixing and mastering combined with a nexus of cultural beats and live native instrumentation, not to mention his incredibly medicinal and humble spirit. Let us dive into the archetypal conductor that is Totem.

SYJ (Moriah): How did you come up with the name for your solo music project, Totem?

Totem: I try and let the naming thing happen all on its own. I wanted it to be organic. I knew the feeling that I was going for. Musically, there are many themes that drive me, but one repeating theme that keeps recurring is this futuristic merging of antiquity. I like taking ancient practices and implementing them in a contemporary milieux. For example, taking a didgeridoo (dating back over 5000 years), and sampling it through 21st century highly sophisticated audio processors. Terence McKenna called it the Archaic Revival; it’s the re-institution of sacred rituals into our society via music, creative culture, and shamanistic exploration. So, I knew I wanted the name to represent that at face value. Totem. I think it does.

SYJ (Moriah): I first heard you a couple years ago under a different band name NumiNative. How has your past projects influenced Totem?

Totem:  Digital music is relatively new to me. My musical roots are in funk, rock, reggae, jazz; largely analog styles. Then I joined a traditional Middle-eastern/Lebanese group and started learning eastern modes/scales, time signatures, and rhythms, which blasted my mind open to a more obscure music. Then shortly after attending my first “transformation festival” in 2009, I was totally committed to exploring the digital frontier of music. After moving to Boulder, CO in Winter 2013, I started up NumiNative with my good friend, David DeVine. We played The ARISE Music Festival in 2014, and teamed up with Zoe Clare and StarWater Crew and founded our North Boulder studio location, Starwater Collective. It was out of this studio that I cultivated all the work that became, “The Bonfire of Life”, the first LP.  So, it’s certainly not been without many superheroes and synchronicities that Totem has come to be.

SYJ (Moriah): Seeing as your previous project name was NumiNative and you describe your genre as native downbeatcan you elaborate on the native influence in your sound?

Totem: Sure. The native influence in my music came about when I was introduced to traditional Lakota ceremonies(i.e. traditional sweat lodge, pipe ceremony, etc.) Through these practices, I became deeply aware of the Native American strife that has plagued this nation since its inception. I’ll spare the hundreds of years of calculated decimation of native tribes such as Lakota, Sioux, Dakota, Navajo and many more, and just say that I feel innately aligned with the native discourse of this land. Not just the native tribes of this land, but the Zulus of Africa, the Aboriginal Australians, the remaining Mayan, Incan and Aztec of Central and South America, the Kahunas of Hawaii and so on. I think all native peoples of this planet hold a piece of the puzzle, the sum of which could retell human history as we know it. I think there is great worth, at the height of a decadent society, to turn our attention to the wisdom of our elders.

Musically, I’m primarily motivated by natively inspired sounds: native flute, didgeridoo, tabla, djembe, traditional chants, etc. Each of these instruments emulates the culture from which it came. You can learn something unique about a country by playing instruments from it. Moreover, the same instrument can be played differently by varying populations of a similar region. Where I see a lot of potency as a producer is creating a digital mix of, say, a native flute, djembe, didgeridoo, doumbek, and tabla. So, right there you have instruments from Native America, Africa, Australia, Turkey and India. Music is a lexicon. It’s a dynamic interplay of sound that tells a narrative. In this way, I think doing this in a humble way is a great way to catalogue a common congruency amongst ALL world cultures. Language creates barrier, but music has none. It precedes meaning, and so it can be freely exchanged by all people. So, I’d say that’s the goal right there, at least right now: conveying commonality of all races with music.

Animal totems are the other primary influence in my music. If you’ve seen my logo, its a picture of a fractal raccoon. The raccoon is my personal animal totem. To many native people, animals represent the varying facets of consciousness; each with unique medicine to offer. For example, raccoon medicine has to do with masks. The mask can be used for either deception or hypnosis. It represents dexterity and bravery. The lion shows us brute strength, the leopard conveys prowess and cunning. So, I consider Totem to be a mask I wear, creatively distinct from the “mask” I wear as Phoenix. None intended to deceive, but to tell a story.

SYJ (Moriah): Aho Mitakuye Oyasinis the title for your first-ever written Totem track. Can you tell us what this native Lakota phrase means to you?

Totem: Yah, well as I understand the literal translation is: “To All My Relations, We Are One.” This is a common phrase that was used in ceremony by elder figures that I learned from. I see it as similar to Namaste. It’s like a recognition of the sanctity of life, and a reminder that there is no separation.

SYJ (Moriah): Having seen you perform live quite a bit, I admire your ability to maintain engaging and powerful energy throughout your sets. How would you describe how the music carries you to do so?

Totem: I must say without a doubt, Totem is the most fun I’ve ever had with a musical project. I feel like I’m reaching a place where I can start to trust myself as an artist… to make mistakes, or do it right, but trust myself nonetheless. The way I’ve set up my live performances is such that it’s never the same twice. It’s like shuffling a deck of flash cards and sequencing the song however I choose. Each card is analogous to a sample, be it a vocal track, guitar, what have you. I’m pretty stubborn about my sampling, and averse to presets and pre-packaged sound. I spent the first 3-4 years in Ableton Live focusing on generic effects, raw oscillators, and original sampling. I kind of see this as the bedrock of my sound; fusing digital synthesis with organic sampling. That’s the highest medicine for me. Performance splendid bonus. I should say, too that Phoenix is largely a spectator in the performance domain. Totem is an archetypical appendage of me, but arguably not me. 

SYJ (Moriah): Totem is an electronic music project but I know you incorporate, play, and record live instruments yourself. What live instrumentation will be weaved into the new Totem album?

Totem: I’m pretty stoked to present a more compositionally pristine album. In the past I often felt like the song wrote me. I’d start with a BPM (beats per minute) and key, and wind up with a chord pattern, verse, chorus, and such, but never felt like I started out with a clear intention for each piece. With None of This Exists, But Here It Is, I feel like I’m starting to implement a creative process that’s efficient and impactful for me. We’ll see. That said, I’m going to be tracking most of my drums with a digital drum kit. This is exciting for me because I’ll have much more control of fills, intonation, and accents with the organic feel of a digital kit as opposed to drawing all my beats MIDI in drum racks. Not to mention, it’s way easier to mix than an analog kit. So most of the beats will be me, not my Mac. You’ll still hear a lot of the same flutes, didge, tabla, djembe, etc.; maybe with more clarity. You can also anticipate more guitar in the mix, both acoustic and classic, more of my own vocals, and hopefully some other local artists. I’ll also be taking on all the mastering for this one, too, which is a new frontier. We’re also wiring our new Neve 5088 Shelford Series Console at our studio location in North Boulder, so all this will be coming at you in the highest of fidelity. 

SYJ (Moriah): Your music is also described as a Prayerformance. What does this mean?

Totem: It’s an amalgamation of prayer and performance. Prayer takes on many faces for people. To worship something larger than yourself, no matter what the name, I think invites humility and grounding into our lives. How that’s done by someone is an incredibly intimate thing. Some people go to church on Sunday, and feel that their spiritual duty is fulfilled until next Sunday. My cathedral is made up of bass waves, drum fills and chordal melodies. The object of my reverence is The Spirit of Music. This is probably an entirely separate interview, but it’s my belief that Music itself is alive. It’s an intelligent creature much like ourselves. It’s weird.

SYJ (Moriah): Music has always been thought of as healing. Now there is widely accepted scientific research done on the healing power of sound. When people support or purchase music, I envision it as, in some sense, buying a prescription. With this in mind, how do you hope your soundscapes will affect listeners?

Totem: I’ve often said that the transformational producers of this generation are like the preachers of the new emerging paradigm. Music touches people in a deep way. It precedes meaning, so it transcends language barriers, cultural boundaries, etc. I can’t quite tell the difference between The Spirit of Music and that which animates the cosmos. The more I notice, the more I think the two are the same. It’s like the cosmos is a symphony. Is there a conductor? The more I study music, the more mystery seems to come. It’s like a never ending event horizon that holds infinite potential. Our only limitation is our imagination. So, I just hope my music stands the test of time, and can become a vessel for the voice of the revolution.

SYJ (Moriah): What is your vision / intention for Totems journey?

Totem: I was pondering this the other day coming down the mountain. Why do I perform? Whats the purpose? To me, I’m not interested in having an audience for any other reason than cultural influence. That’s it right there. The ability to positively affect and inspire my peers and beyond. Often, we convince ourselves that our voice is menial compared to the purveying voice of the Zeitgeist, but music creates a platform for our voices to have widespread impact.

SYJ (Moriah): Youve been working diligently, fine tuning and polishing the coming album. When can our readers expect to get their hands on this said album?

Totem: The release is set for June 3rd. Stay tuned for whereabouts of release party!

SYJ (Moriah): Anything else youd like to share?

Totem: Thanks SYJ! Check out my social media page to stay tuned in to upcoming shows: https://www.facebook.com/totemuzik

Moriah Hope is an activist, acting school graduate, musician, certified yoga teacher, and world traveler. Moriah sees to fuse her multitude of passions into an epic service for humanity. Most importantly she strives to walk her talk and envisions a world taking authentic and regenerative action for the greater good of all. SYJ indeed is the movement aligned with this mission.