Cold World: An Interview With Iceberg Theory

To stay afloat in the flood of the music blog cycle, good artists do whatever it takes to get your attention. Some will let you pay what you want for their album or continue to edit songs on their LP after it's released; others are bolder with their approach, chewing on cockroaches or remixing their album entirely with cat sounds. But every so often, an artist lurks in the shadows, modestly mastering his craft. Waiting until just the right moment to sneak up on you with his songs. That's how I became familiar with the raps of Iceberg Theory.

His solid debut LP is called Technomagical Realism, and likely to no one's surprise, it was recorded in New York. It's a collection of verses as no-nonsense as a surly shopkeeper from the Big Apple, alongside snares as cold and hard-edged as a winter's bone. A few influences emerge: there's a sense of the mystic moralizing of Brother Ali and the ironclad personal code of early Wu-Tang. But while Iceberg Theory is in the early stages of his career, he doesn't try to make a name for himself by biting other styles.

I caught up with Iceberg Theory and discussed the essentials of hip-hop -- beats, rhymes and life -- alongside subjects unique to him, such as fantasy and religion.

Your rap name is culled from a writing technique by Ernest Hemingway. Who are your other literary influences?

As far as poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke is one of my favorites. Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and Duino Elegies are both classics and have given me so much direction on both life and writing. He puts a very big emphasis on both solitude and nature, and in retrospect, so many of my aspirations about living closer to the land come from his writing. "Only the individual who is solitary is placed under the deepest laws like a Thing, and when he walks out in the rising dawn...all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life." Other poets who have influenced me heavily include William Everson, Fernando Pessoa, and Hafiz, the Sufi mystic.

I also am a big fantasy reader and in that arena I have to give it up to Patrick Rothfuss, the author of The Kingkiller Chronicles. The series tells the story of Kvothe, a traveling trouper whose parents are killed after trying to write a song detailing the history of the Chandrian, a group of seven people thought only to exist in myth. The whole story is told in first person and Kvothe is such a compelling character. The series also has an incredible love story, which can be rare in fantasy. In general, fantasy really intrigues me because of the whole world building aspect. There is world building in any writing, but the amount of imagination and detail that goes into quality fantasy is truly amazing to me. Rothfuss is able to create characters, landscapes, culture, history, and systems of magic all in a place that came out of his mind.

Who are your dream collaborators?

As far as emcees: Ka, Billy Woods, Elucid, and Has-Lo are probably the people I would like to work with the most. Their writing is on a whole different level compared to what most rappers are doing and when I listen to them, it always makes me want to step up my own lyricism.

Production wise, if some big name people approached me that would be cool, but I think the most important aspect with that is the relationship between emcee and producer and how well the producer can craft a unique sound for the emcee. Like right now, I'm already working on my next album Philokalia, which is entirely produced by Tokyo Cigar. We've been working for almost ten years at this point and when I approached him with the concept for the album he was able to craft it in a way that no one else would be able to. This is a testament to his skill, but also speaks to the numerous albums we've already made together and the conversations we've had along the way.

What role does religion have in your lyrics?

I'd say religion is pretty much a central focus of my writing, which is also an extension of my life. While I don't follow any particular religion, I love studying them and seeing how they intersect. The Perennialist School of Thought is definitely a major influence of mine, with authors such as Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon. Schuon has a book called The Transcendent Unity of Religions, which is a personal favorite. The idea is that on a level of formal structure, different religions are born out of different cultural circumstances, but at an esoteric level they are pointing towards the same metaphysical truth.

Reading Thomas Merton was also huge for me. For those who aren't familiar, Merton was a Trappist monk. He writes a lot about solitude, which was always a battle for him since the Cictericans put a huge emphasis on community, but eventually when a new Abbot was elected, he was able to build his hermitage in the woods. Merton was really ahead of his time and in his later years he was constantly talking about new forms of monasticism, which is at the center of what I hope to do with my life. I think the monastic impulse is a response that a lot of people have, but in our society, which is largely post-traditional the idea of running off to a monastery and worshipping Jesus all day doesn't really resonate with the masses. Yet, I think a lot of people have this desire to live with a singular focus and see that our culture does not respond to our deepest yearnings.

As humans, it seems like we are always reaching for something beyond ourselves that we can't quite grab. For me, religion gives a language to that search. In a lot of ways it has been problematic when we take that language -- those symbols -- as being inherently true, or more true than other symbols. Schuon refers to individual religions as relative absolutes. Each religion contains the whole, but one religion might put more of an emphasis on one aspect than another. For instance, Christianity is very much a religion of Love. In Islam, the problem is posed differently. Love is important, but remembrance of God is the primary aim. That doesn't mean love isn't there, but that the religion is responding to the human condition with a different focus. So in my view, I want to see where all of the religions are coming from and try to understand what is truly essential is self-transformation.

Talk about your creative partnership with DJ A.I. How do you get the best effort from each other?

Funny enough, I met DJ A.I. through Twitter and one day he was posting that if an emcee wanted to work on an album with him, now was the time. That was probably about three years ago and we've been working ever since. One thing I really appreciated about A.I. is that he had a very specific vision about how he wanted the album to sound and what type of beats he thought would best compliment my writing. When you listen to the album you can hear his sound is heavily influenced by sci-fi. He calls it "galactic boom-bap." I appreciate that the sound of the album is very focused and gives a specific feeling from front to back.

On "Neon Genesis" you rap, "Bones splinter, my tone's winter." You also refer to yourself as "Nocturnal, not the type you want to see at night." Similar to what GZA did with Liquid Swords, your album sounds like it was meant to be listened to at night, and during the winter. Did you have a specific time of day or season in mind when recording the LP?

I definitely see this as being true. Though the album was released in the summer, I very much feel like it is made for a frigid winter night. In general, I feel like that is the sound I usually gravitate towards both in my listening and the music I ultimately make. It also could be a geographic thing, considering when I wrote and recorded the album I was living in Ithaca, New York, which has very cold winters. I'd be curious to see what my music might sound like if I was living in the tropics, but who knows if I'd even be making music. I'd probably be way too happy, sitting back on the beach drinking out of a coconut. So it's probably best for my output that I stay in cold climates.

What role do movies have in your music?

Movies have played a huge role in my music and writing. For one, I studied screenwriting, so trying to tell a story visually has been ingrained. On a more general level, I love watching movies and very often find inspiration for lines in various scenes. One thing that's really cool about the internet is getting to see films from all different cultures and decades. Andrei Tarkovsky is my favorite filmmaker. He is from Russia and died before I was born, but the topics he explores in his films connect with me far more than a lot of what is released today.

For instance, he probably made the best film about a monk (Andrei Rublev) that has ever been made. The film explores the connection between art and religion, which is one of my primary concerns, and is done so with such style that it's hard not to love. As time goes on, I would love to get more involved in screenwriting and making movies, but for now I am focused on rhyming.

Your personality on the album is a bit more grounded than most rappers, meaning you don't brag a lot and just focus on your craft. How much of that is a reflection of your true personality? Are you a much different person than you are on record?

I appreciate that! I definitely focus a lot on craft, but also want to provide some insight to my life as well. It's a balance that's always shifting. Some of my older work is straight up confessions, but my work lately has moved towards more of a stream of consciousness style. So you get a little bit of everything. In one line I'll take about why my family should disown me and in the next line I'll be in a monastery garden planting jade, rocking prayer beads. Fact and fiction are blurred.

I find it funny because my dude August Fanon, a very talented producer (we've also got some work in the stash) was telling me the same thing as far as me not bragging a lot. I think on some level that's definitely true, or at least that my way of bragging is different from most emcees. I'm a fat loser with no social life, hardly any money and aspirations of joining a monastery. But at the same time I'll "piss holy water while you're dying of thirst." I think with this album I give the listener a lot of different puzzle pieces and it's up to them to figure out what they think of me, if anything. But as I release more projects, I think listeners will appreciate the different sides of myself I expose, but at this point they have to do a little more work.

Who is your fanbase? Are you looking to appeal to people on a general level, or are there specific types of people you're looking to reach?

Figuring out my fanbase is one of the hardest aspects of being an artist that I've encountered because when it comes down to it, I'm really not sure. I make music for myself that I'd like to listen to, because the one thing I can trust is my own taste. I don't really expect that many people to appreciate what I'm doing, but at the same time, there are people out there who take the time to listen. I'd say on a general level, you have to be a fan of lyrics. One of the things I appreciate about Ka is that when I listen to his albums, I always pick up different nuances and double meanings, even after having the album for months.

That is the level of writing I aspire to in my own work. But as far as making music for a specific audience, that's definitely not my style. If I try to do anything other than make the music I want to make, it's just going to feel forced and ultimately be a waste of my time. If my main concern was making money, there's a lot of other things I could be doing that take way less time and effort. But with that being said, I want to connect with people and I know there are people out there that would appreciate my work if they heard it, so it's a constant battle of figuring out how to get the music to those people, without really knowing who they are.

Technomagical Realism is a very evocative title. What does it mean to you?

Thank you! I got the idea to call the album Technomagical Realism based on the genre magical realism, but I wanted to flip that in my own way. The name just popped into my head after working on the album with A.I. for a while and hearing how things were shaping up. My style of writing draws heavily on Religion, Philosophy and elements of fantasy and DJ A.I. brings a sonic palate that comes straight out of some dystopian future in space. Technomagical Realism seemed to combine all of these influences into one idea, one genre. Then when Tokyo Cigar came through with the album cover it really solidified what we were doing and all of these different elements came together into something coherent. I mean you got a depiction of me in monk's robes, riding a horse, being attacked by ninjas hopping out of a UFO. But somehow it makes sense, or at least it does to me.