I recently got together with Nick Nauman, a college friend from a semester in India. We ate burritos in Brooklyn. He’s a famous musician now—or on his way, at least. Back in 2005, we were students on the Antioch Buddhist Studies program, staying in Bodh Gaya’s legendary Burmese Vihar. For our independent study projects we both traveled to Sikkim, where he spent a few weeks learning how to play traditional Tibetan wind instruments. I remembered this when he told me that his band Keepaway—a trio made complete by band mates Mike Burakoff and Frank Lyon—was getting some attention and good reviews. I asked: “Is there a Buddhist influence on Keepaway’s music?” He answered “yes,” and I took out my notebook and tape recorder. So even though the Tricycle blog is probably not where you expect to find exclusive interviews with up and coming musicians, that’s just what we have here. Enjoy!
What do you mean when you say Keepaway’s music has a “Buddhist influence”? Well, I’ve studied and practiced Buddhisms before, with various ebbs and flows of particular dedication. It’s meant a lot to my life in total. My band mates have a less direct history with Buddhist traditions, but we all talk about matters of the mind and world in terms that could be described as Buddhist. For example, we have a new song called “Hologram,” that my band mate Mike wrote, that could be interpreted as a yearning paean to a more realized understanding of Yogacara [a mind-only school of Buddhist philosophy]. We’re all invested in the dharma in different ways.
Do you consider playing music to be a meditation practice? I would like to. I think it can be. It’s difficult to reconcile the earnest drive I have to create things with the drive I have to suffuse my life with awakening and to understand my buddhanature and all that stuff. Sometimes when I play music, it’s an incredible way to still my monkey mind and let my consciousness ride the tip of each note. Sometimes it’s an anxious, knotty thought orgy, in which I find myself trying really hard to achieve some seriously desired but ill-defined notion of the perfect moment. So yea, I guess it is like meditation.
Tell me about your studies of Tibetan music in Sikkim. I was fortunate enough to get instruction on gyaling, dung chen, and rol mo. My teacher was a spritely young lama named Tshewang Dorje in Gangtok. We would meet up on a roof and just play the instruments. I was, at the time, super interested in how the music could affect consciousness and be an immediate boon to deep meditation. I went to pujas and talked to older lamas about “sound particles,” and about how the music is powerful enough to vibrate through all six realms. But mostly Tshewang and I just made noise and pee-pee jokes on the roof.
Talk about those Tibetan wind instruments and the nature of time. The experience of time has always seemed to me a pretty easy point of entrée into considering the illusory nature of reality. Even in American culture we note that time expands and contracts depending on how much fun we’re having. Listening to and playing music—which is an ordered, immersive activity—so often totally flummoxes what a clock tells us. Like a three-minute pop song can take you soaring for a gorgeous eternity, or it can bore you for twice as long, or it can flit by in the blink of an eye. Tibetan puja music is so viscerally powerful, so expansively structured, and so fluidly conceived, that the tick-tock time I’m used to simply has nothing to do. It’s moot. Sometimes the pujas last all day, and they’re droney and pretty and dull and captivating and moving and pacifying, and you can’t tell whether all that’s happening at once or backwards or over and over again or what.
Is it hard to keep your ego in check when the world is telling you you’re a rock star? Ha! I don’t know how many people are really telling me that. But definitely it’s a concern. I want to make creative pursuits my bread and butter, but in order to do that I have to promote my self pretty doggedly, and when that happens I think it’s easy to get super attached to an identity of individual importance. At least that’s the conventional model in the music industry. The Internet’s confusing things, for better and worse, I think. Despite the dangers, I want to explore how the experience of a pop song can teach us as much about the nature of selves and reality as any other intentional moment or statement. But I think the real project, beyond my ego and the sweet meditative vibes I can ride when I’m ripping on guitar, is to figure out how this can have anything to do with liberating all beings from samsara. Compassion music. That’s what I’d really like to figure out.
Listen to Keepaway’s “Yellow Wings” here on Pitchfork’s list of “Best New Music.” If you like what you hear, you’ll be happy to learn that their Kickstarter project to raise $10,000 for the production of a full-length record was a success.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.