A Symbol of Art

Justin Symbol is a self-proclaimed embodiment of Yin and Yang, and his debut album, 'Voidhead,' shows off his dark side. It doesn't mean all hope is lost

Photo by Scryer Photography

At first, Justin Symbol felt a whole lot like any other musician slash artist doing freaky stuff for freaky stuff’s sake. It happens so much these days, inverted crosses and sacrificed goat heads on outfits are de rigueur; they’re now more fashion sense than religious sense. Symbol’s dark, electronic, staccato songs are creative and progressive, and — most importantly — he is choosing art over comfort. His debut release, Voidhead, is the yang to an upcoming yin, but for now, he is exorcising his demons through the gut punch of an 808.

How did the shoot go the other day?
Justin Symbol: It was great. It was really great. You’ll see we had a cult/voodoo theme going on in the graveyard. It was really cool. I had a candle of St. Gabriel’s, the angel tasked with casting Satan down to hell. Somehow, it disappeared while we were in the graveyard. That was very mysterious, a very mysterious coincidence. I left it on a statue of Jesus, and then I went back to get it — because I realized I had left it there — it was gone. We couldn’t find it anywhere. That was some spooky sh-t. I think Satan was mad I was trying to represent the angel that cast him down, you know? That candle wants to go back.

Yeah, he wants to go back, man. I got a little slap on the wrist for that one. I think Satan is God and God is Satan nowadays.

I think it’s so unpopular to believe in God or to worship God, and it’s become so popular to wear these stupid upside down crosses and sh-t, like some of the hipsters are all wearing. I think the roles have been reversed, man.

I think it’s more shocking in these days to say, “I believe in God,” than it is to say, “I worship the devil.”

That’s definitely an interesting take.
Especially within the heavy metal community. Satan has become very popular there. I don’t think they even know what the f-ck Satan is, but they certainly think it’s cool if they say they’re down with him.

It’s been cool to love Satan for awhile now in metal music, but it’s interesting to hear you say that it’s unpopular to be Christian because I would argue that, unless you’re in that bubble, it’s as popular as ever when you’re under that light.
I don’t know. I’m in a different light; I don’t know what light I’m in, man.

Well, why don’t you try to explain it? What does it look like under your light?
Well, it doesn’t look like a meth pipe (laughs). Sometimes people like to smoke meth out of light bulbs but it doesn’t look like the bulbs anymore. It’s a new bulb and I don’t know what kind of bulb that makes it.

You don’t feel like you can explain your light?
(Laughs) I think my light is alternative. I see God and Satan as metaphors for the chaos and the order that exists inside each person. Each of us has this desire to control everything, to control ourselves and to be part. That’s the way I like to describe my idea of God. It’s that totalitarian inside of each person, where you want to control everything and everyone. You’re pissed off when things don’t go according to plan.

To me that’s the God aspect of each person’s personality and the Satan aspect is the animalistic side, the part of us that wants to rape, murder, steal and kill. All of us have it in us, we like to deny it and pretend it’s not there but we all have it in us.

We often confuse those two things — chaos and order — and we confuse them with good and evil, but they’re different because extreme order is not good. Extreme order is fascist totalitarianism. That’s not good either.

We need a little healthy dose of God and we need a little healthy dose of Satan inside of us. That’s what the whole cross symbol I use in my artwork represents. For this photo shoot, it was on the earring I was wearing. I had two rings with double crosses on my fingers. I have a finger tattoo with a double cross. Everything I do has a double cross in it. It’s a very central theme in my work.

I think people will say you’re going to be a shock rocker; your job is to sell as many records as possible, and you’re going to do it by poking a lot of sleeping bears. Where do you see yourself in that?
I think, as far as shock rocker goes, if I were in this for money, I wouldn’t be flirting with a lot of these images. Because as much as it might gain attention, especially nowadays when everybody is so politically correct, it’s like playing with fire. I’ve found that a lot of people are scared away or turned off from what we’re doing, who might otherwise really like what we’re doing.

It’s a double-edged sword when you talk about shock. I don’t really think it’s this quick fix for success as some people seem to think it is. If that was the case, then why wouldn’t there be more shock rockers?

I believe people don’t really think about what shock rock actually is. Shock rock is flirting with social taboos. It’s examining the things that are forbidden in our society and making people ask themselves, “Why are these things forbidden? Why do we fear them?”

The people who were doing shock rock, over the years, weren’t doing it to sell records. They were doing it because that’s who they were. That’s what was calling them as an artist. They wanted to dabble in darkness as an artist.

I don’t think it was this quick fix of selling albums that people think it is, because anyone who says that is not doing shock rock. If they were, they would realize that, no, it’s certainly not an easy way to sell albums, especially in a day and age when sponsorship is such a key factor in music.

They’re going to be less likely to sponsor us than they are some cheesy, run-of-the-mill, generic band that’s super safe and super corporate where there’s nothing dangerous. There’s no risk about that. If anything, rock and roll is more corporate and safe now than ever and therefore needs shock rock, more so now than ever before.

I’d like to hear a little bit about your history, because I’m interested in how you evolved and came to be Justin Symbol, instead of just the guy on the street that went to junior high school.
I got into music as a teenager. I was in school studying communication. I went to Syracuse University, and I was studying television, radio, film. I was in the best journalism school in the country, and I was learning how to communicate.

That was where I got the idea that a better way to communicate my concepts would be through music rather than through journalism. I saw that a lot of journalists had their own agenda and everything was being reported with some kind of slant. It really turned me off to journalism, and it made me realize that I would be more interested in pursuing my ideas artistically rather than as a journalist.

That’s when I hooked up with Baba Yaga, keytarist with the band. We met while I was at school there, and that was the beginning of what would later become Justin Symbol.

When you were on campus, is that where you developed your views and your beliefs? Most people with those types of views don’t attend a commonly… My uncle went to Syracuse and it’s not exactly where you’d see a Justin Symbol show, let’s put it that way.
No, it’s not. In fact, when I was a student there, I was very much apart from my classmates. A lot of people there were very… It was like this yuppie, preppy environment, and they had very stiff and politically correct ideas of art, entertainment and news as well.

They had a very limited outlook. I was often at odds with the people I was at school with. I found more success and more gratification in the local music scene in Syracuse.

It was all about hardcore and post-hardcore. We were playing a lot of shows with these really heavy bands. That’s part of where we got this kind of heaviness in our sound, which we had to compete. We were doing electronic stuff, but we had to show people that electronics doesn’t mean it has to be this sissy music. That’s where we got our roots with our sound.

You say you developed those with Baba as you were at Syracuse, and then eventually you dropped out. Did you ever finish getting your degree, or did you just decide, “Hey, this isn’t for me.”
I have a degree in news journalism. I had gotten my degree and moved to New York. I started working as a video editor — that’s another thing that I got into while I was at school. We filmed a music video, which is still on YouTube now if people want to look it up. It’s called “Mohammed was a Terrorist” (laughs). It was a response to there was a big controversy about this Danish cartoon. I don’t know if you remember it. It was in 2004. It was called Jyllands-Posten controversy. Basically this guy had a bunch of school children drawing the prophet Mohammed. One of the drawings depicted Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.

I do remember that.
That’s how I learned how to edit video: by editing this video that was called “Mohammed was a Terrorist” (laughs).

How did it go over?
It didn’t become the viral sensation that I hoped (laughs). Maybe that’s for the best. We could have had a lot of death threats and all that, which is fine, but it does impact the ability to produce art. That guy had to go into hiding. It’s no joke, man.

That’s another thing I’d like to comment on. This whole heavy metal satanic bullsh-t, it’s really f-cking safe. It’s very safe to target Christianity and be anti-Christian nowadays because they’re not going to be fanatics. They’re not going to come after you. They’re not really going to do anything at this point. It’s actually very safe. But when you start talking about Islam, that takes a lot bigger balls because those people will fight back if they feel like you’re sh-tting on their religion.

That makes it sound like you’re looking for a fight, though.
At the time, maybe I was. I was a little bit misguided as a young, budding shock rocker. When you’re young and you’re doing music, you’re trying to talk about these big issues, which have always been the things that have inspired me — but you don’t really know what the hell you’re saying (laughs). It was one of those cases where I wanted to talk about things and I wanted to play with fire, but was I ready for that yet? Was it responsible? Maybe it was questionable.

Really, what I was saying in that song, was that no art should ever be off limits. By saying Mohammed was a terrorist, I’m really saying we should have the freedom of expression to say that, even if somebody may disagree or somebody may feel that their beliefs are being violated.

I’m not saying that all Muslims are terrorists. I said Mohammed was a terrorist. If you look at the history of the prophet Mohammed, he kind of was. He was raiding caravans. He was like a warlord warrior. People like to pigeonhole things because they don’t actually know the history of it and it’s easier to just say, “Oh, that guy was a racist, blah, blah, blah,” then research what I’m actually talking about it.

It’s also easier to write Justin Symbol off and compartmentalize you because you exists somewhere else and not in my world.

Through most of what I’ve heard you say in our conversation is that you’re fiercely loyal protecting art. You’re willing to use whatever means that may be to make sure that people, especially yourself, have the right to express that.
Absolutely. Art is one of the most important aspects of the human experience. People don’t value it as much now as they used to. People take it for granted, but art is a basic, fundamental, human need. It’s existed since the dawn of civilization. It’s an important part of who we are as people. It’s one thing that separates us from animals. It’s something that needs to be cherished. Art is spiritual. Art is creation.

When you start putting a limit on what an artist can say or what is allowed, it can become a really a dangerous thing. It’s not really doing anybody any good, especially in an age where Clear Channel is controlling all the radio. Live Nation dominates all the venues. Music, now more than ever, has become this thing where you have to play by the rules.

People don’t expect certain things to be said within music. Rock and roll has lost sight of its roots, those folk rock roots, which made it a socially conscious art form and not just something for people to shake their ass to. There was more to rock and roll than that. A lot of that has really been lost, especially in the new generation of bands. They just don’t have the balls to talk about anything that’s not safe.

The flip side would be to say that there is still a need for people who need music to shake their ass to.
Absolutely. Our music is still designed to shake ass. At the end of the day we are entertainers as well. I’m not trying to say we’re creating some kind of manifesto, high-art thing. At the end of the day, it’s still entertainment. It is rock and roll. It has a little bit of that social element in it, though. I think that’s important.

Where do you draw the line between art and harm? You can’t go have sex with a 14-year-old just for art’s sake.
Absolutely not. I don’t think that would be art. Art is a reflection of the subconscious, and when it becomes a literal act and it’s no longer art, I’m not telling people to go out and do this or that. I’m telling people to do whatever the f-ck they want. I don’t have a message.

At the end of the day, I’m not campaigning for some kind of cause. I’m not telling people to go out and do anything, really, other than be themselves and think for themselves.

Sure, but I’m asking you as Justin. Where’s your line? Not what you represent.
Where’s my line?

I won’t cross lines I find morally reprehensible. I have crossed certain lines at times in my life and I have eliminated the factors that caused me to cross those lines. That’s it.

Would say those were things like drugs or alcohol?
Drugs, alcohol and bankrupt spirituality, which was my state of mind for the past ten years. Up until half way through the creation of Voidhead, I was in an increasingly dark place, spiritually and mentally, and it was causing me to do things that I did not accept. Therefore, I had to change my program. I had to change what I stood for and I had to change, what I did on a daily basis, which meant for me eliminating substances all together.

That experience you had a lot of Christians would refer to as a spiritual experience.
I absolutely had a spiritual experience.

What happened in those moments you think prompted you to have a spiritual experience and not previous to that? Then, following up, how did you respond to it? Because a lot of people have those experiences and get floored and they’re like, “I don’t know what my next step is.”
Well, I was doing things I was not OK with. I was involved in violent situations where I became extremely violent towards others, including situations where I came close to committing murder on multiple occasions.

Honestly, I was afraid of what I might do if I continued to use. I took a trip to Israel halfway through the creation of Voidhead. When we started making Voidhead, I was a mess. I was sleeping in my own puke. I was completely delirious. I was in the depths of alcoholism. I was constantly drunk. When we did the song “Purgatory,” I blacked out and woke up in jail in Washington D.C. with no idea how the hell I got there.

I took a trip to Israel and I had a vision there. There’s a place called the Western Wall, which is the birthplace of the three major world religions. I touched that wall and I had a vision, like a holy vision where I saw a lot of flames. It was a kaleidoscope of eyes and flames. I actually tried to recreate that vision in the “Digital Penetration” video. There’s one part of it where there’s all these eyes in a kaleidoscope with fire.

For me, I interpreted that as a glimpse of my future I was given to by some kind of higher force. The future was chaos, madness and murder. For me, I saw that as a sign that things are not going in the direction I want to go in. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail. I don’t want to be a murderer. I’m here to create art; I’m not here to self-sabotage anymore and shoot myself in the foot any more. I made a change. I made a huge change in my life.

When I hear that, the first thing that I think about is that, physically, the world’s natural order of things is to devolve into chaos or disorder. A lot of people don’t make it out of their dark times; it’s a force against nature.
No, they don’t. They don’t have the humility to make it out because they don’t approach it out of humility and can’t accept something bigger than them. They can’t turn his or her self over to that and set aside their own will.

The funny thing is I, too, have a concept of god or of a higher power, but mine is not rooted in Christianity. It’s a higher power that wants me to do exactly what I’m doing, which is what you called, quote-unquote, “shock rock.” It’s a higher power that wants me to use the arts to push people’s buttons, to challenge them and to make them question things. Otherwise, why would I have been so driven to do it all these years?

Obviously there is a force bigger than me that’s telling me this is my part to play in society. That’s what I follow. I follow that when I do my art now. I don’t believe that my art is the devil or a satanic thing as it used to be; it’s bot, actually. It’s God and it’s the devil. It’s chaos and order.

You are embodying the spirits that you saw, and you saw this, the role you’re playing for society, which is necessary for the advancement of what some people would just call humanity.

Let me back up a second. I never said you were shock rock; I said a lot of people are going to qualify you as shock rock. I think a lot of people reading this would say you’re just being taboo or off-limits or…
Out of touch.

Out of touch with the reality. How do you feel stay truly grounded, and how could you possible reach somebody with those types of staunch social structures?
Well, there are a lot of people who, unfortunately, I may never reach because they may have shut themselves off, but I will reach a lot of people who still have an open mind.
In the end of the “Killing an Arab” music video, for instance, we show a beheading. Beheading is a very important, very real part of society right now. In fact, with the latest situation with ISIS, I would say that beheading is a very relative part of reality. We made that video before the situation with ISIS, when there was a beheading of American journalist. It was just funny how after we made that and suddenly it was seen very poignant afterwards.

It’s a part of reality that people don’t want to look at, the part that is the taboo, the forbidden. The fears of society, the things that we don’t want to talk about. When you talk about school shootings or you talk about terrorism. That’s reality, too.

In fact, it’s actually, in some ways, a more relevant reality because it’s something more unique to our modern era. Music should talk about those things. Art should talk about those things. What I do is very grounded in reality.

If you look at the history of provocative arts, the case tends to be that the people who oppose it bring as much attention (or more) to it as the people who are interested in it.
The other side of it is I don’t want to water down what I’m doing just to reach a larger audience. I don’t think it does it justice. People will find it refreshing that there’s someone who’s not watering down their content in an age when so many artists have chosen to take that route in order to reach a wider audience.

Let me end with this. I find fulfillment in my own personal journey. What do you find most fulfilling, what’s the thing that keeps you moving? Where is it that you find yourself going that sustained you now, whereas before you kept feeling that you had to rely on other things?
The most fulfilling thing for me, honestly, is the work that I do outside of music, which is the personal work I do to fill the void and fill the hole that I have. In turn, helping others is the most fulfilling thing for me. It’s the most fulfilling way I’ve found of filling the hole.

The other thing is to be able to bring that into the art — but that I’m just not communicating a place of darkness and pain. There are going to be a lot of troubled people who will be gravitating towards what I do. I want to take people on a journey and show them that this not all about blackness and despair.

The next record that we’re doing is going to be called Godhead and it’s the yin to the yang of Voidhead. It’s going to be a continuation of the concept that was developed with Voidhead. I think it’s going to shed a lot more light on some of the things that we talked about in this interview and show that I’m not this one-dimensional character who is looking to lead youth astray or corrupt them, so to speak. There’s a lot more to this story than even I am aware of at this point. There’s more that I have to say that hasn’t quite been revealed yet.

I would say that a real faith, a worthwhile faith, can only be strengthened by searching and questioning for the truth. It’s only false faith or weak faith that could be shattered by what I do.

I don’t think what I do is designed to turn people away from any higher power. If anything, I talk about a higher power in my music. I might have alternative ideas about it but I certainly do not advocate atheism in any sense. It all comes down to how strong is your faith. It can only be strengthened by searching.

Justin Symbol was posted on November 21, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .