John Higgs talks with Rawillumination about his new book on The KLF and RAW

Raw scholars of the highest caliber in conversation. Thanks Tom. 

JMR Higgs talks about his new book on The KLF and RAW

It's strange to say that a book about a British pop group is one of the best short introductions to the work of Robert Anton Wilson, but it's also true. JMR Higgs' KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money discusses the group but puts it in the context of the band's biggest influence, the Illuminatus! trilogy and Robert Anton Wilson.

So it's a pop biography that has lucid explanations of reality tunnels, model agnosticism and Discordian philosophy. I also learned about the history of Ken Campbell's stage production of Illuminatus!

Mr. Higgs entered the literary scene with I Have America Surrounded: A Biography of Timothy Leary, which I plan to read next year. His novel, The Brandy of the Damned, appeared this year and another novel, The First Church on the Moon, is largely complete. The Tumblr companion for the KLF book is here.

Higgs, who lives in the United Kingdom with his family, cheerfully agreed when I asked if I could pose some questions. This interview took place a couple of days ago via email.

What impelled you to write a new book on The KLF? Your bibliography shows that other books have been written on The KLF.

Hi Tom, yeah there have been fanzine histories and The KLF have been mentioned in broader music books, but there hasn’t been a book like this. One of the main reasons for writing it was a desire to write about Robert Anton Wilson and Discordianism, because that was the obvious next step after writing a book about Leary.

I’m a sucker for writing about ideas, but really what I like are ideas that kick up an absolute shitstorm in the wider world. That was fine for a Leary book, because he escaped from jail and was hunted around the world by the US government and so on. But I couldn’t think of a way to write about Bob Wilson which brought more to the party than we already had in that fantastic ‘Maybe Logic’ documentary. So this was my response to that problem – tracing those ideas all the way to that burning of a million quid on a remote Scottish island.

Why do you wish the two members of The KLF had not burned 1 million pounds?

Ah, good question. I said that because every era has a strange undercurrent of previously unthinkable ideas preparing to bubble up to the surface, and during my formative years that current was the Chaos current. The Chaos current, by definition, is never dull but it is not concerned with destination, and for me there’s something unsatisfying about that. (This, in part, was the cause of my unease about the book before putting it out.)

I wrote the book to record an aspect of the history I lived through which was in danger of being lost. That’s all well and good, but I couldn’t help think those in earlier eras such as the Enlightenment or the Renaissance or even the Sixties had more fun, and at times when I was deep in the book I would grumble about how what fell to my generation was sodding chaos and money burning.

That said, after getting the book out I feel much happier about the whole thing, and if Cauty and Drummond wanted to burn a million pounds, then good luck to them. There were far worse eras to live through. It was certainly better than the early 20th Century, when the strange undercurrent was all proto-Nazis and Aleister Crowley fucking goats and the like.

Has there been any response by Bill Drummond or Jimmy Cauty to your book?

Not that I’m aware of, but then I wrote the book and put it out without informing them. That’s not an approach I’d use for any other non-fiction book, I should add, but it was necessary for this one.

There are two main approaches to non-fiction - the first is the academic, encyclopaedic approach where you painstakingly pile on fact after fact and hope the accumulated impact on the reader gets the subject across. The second is about capturing the spirit of the thing – something like the Led Zeppelin book ‘Hammer of the Gods’ is a good example of this - and that was what I was trying to do here. An ‘official’ or ‘approved’ or even an ‘acknowledged’ book wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing, and that would have damaged the book.

That said, I did meet Jimmy Cauty when I first attempted this book about five years ago. He was a lovely guy and as helpful as you could wish, but speaking to him I couldn’t shake the impression that deep down he wished that no-one would ever mention The KLF or the money burning ever again. Shortly after that the publisher who had wanted to put that book out went kaput, so I put it to one side and left it. Or I tried to, anyway.

Your new book says that the "path" you chose in telling the story of The KLF was determined by a desire to "create a narrative that was (a) a good yarn and (b) something that would mess with the reader's head on as deep a level as possible." Does this describe your objectives in The Brandy of the Damned?

I was being a bit flippant there to drum home the notion that all non-fiction books are far from neutral truths, but that said it is pretty close to my approach to Brandy. Although Brandy really is intended to heal and sooth the reader’s head, rather than mess with it. I think of it as a balm. It is supposed to feel complete and satisfying at the end, even if it only makes sense on a subconscious level. It’s supposed to leave you feeling new and clean, and positive. I’m not claiming that I achieved that, of course, but that was the aim.

I’m quite open that all my books are attempts to hack the reader’s mind without them noticing, reprogramme them a little and send them on their way subtly different to how they were before. Advertisers do this all the time, but they are doing it to make you unhappy and to make you want things you don’t actually want. In that context I don’t think what I try to do is too much of a liberty. I get all this from Robert Anton Wilson, of course - anyone who’s read Cosmic Trigger and the like will know how books have the power to alter readers like that.

It’s a lot of work, writing a book, and I couldn’t do it if my ambitions were just to entertain or to distract or whatever. There are enough books that can do that already, and we really don’t need anymore. I have to convince myself that the finished work will be a more valuable use of my time than going round and giving all my friends and family a hug, or hanging out and making them a cup of tea or whatever.

How is the First Church on the Moon coming along? Our friend Orlando Monk from The Brandy of the Damned will turn up again, will he not?

He will – for one scene at least. The book’s going great and the aim is to finish the first draft by Dec 31st, so that I can think to myself, “2012? Oh yeah, I wrote three books in 2012.”

The First Church on the Moon is much more of an out-and-out comedy. Whereas Brandy is aimed at the head, without being rational, First Church is aimed at the heart, without being sentimental. (The third and final part of the trilogy is about sex and death in a way that is neither gothic nor erotic. But that’s a tale for later!)

First Church will be fun and daft and just be a real pleasure to read, with the ambition behind it not becoming apparent until the end. It’s the first thing I’ve done that I think has mainstream appeal, so I’ve got to decide whether to hawk it around big publishers or put it out quickly with the others. Going mainstream with it makes a lot of sense until you realise that it wouldn’t then appear until 2015, which would destroy any momentum I’ve been building up this year. So, you may see it soon, you may not.

Why did you release your book under the Creative Commons license? Are you unconcerned that some people might obtain copies without paying for them?

That doesn’t really bother me, if I’m honest, the more heads I can get into the better. Putting my books out under the Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial license  and keeping the ebooks DRM free, just seems the healthiest approach to writing these days.

That said, the fact that the character of Orlando Monk declared himself to be Public Domain is more of a worry. I woke from a dream when I was writing ‘Brandy’ thinking, “Shit! Orlando Monk has put himself in the Public Domain!”, so I added that to the text because that book had to be true to my subconscious.

That was more worrying because I’ve got a backstory to that character that I like a lot and think is pretty outrageous, but I’d have to adapt it if others start adding things to the character. The first person who was going to add Orlando Monk to one of their stories, incidentally, died shortly afterwards. That’s not connected, of course, but I mention it whenever possible in an effort to unsettle other writers who might be thinking about using him.

You mention that you did not actually read Illuminatus! until you were 90 percent finished with the book. What did you think of it after reading RAW's nonfiction books?

I had read the first volume twenty years earlier, but I’d never got round to finishing the full thing. But that first book alone definitely opened me up and changed me for good. Most of the RAW I’ve read has been non-fiction so I’m anxiously waiting for his back catalogue to appear as ebooks so I can have a good wallow in his fiction (they’re not always easy to get hold of in the UK). I’m eager for any news about when his back catalogue will appear on ebook, incidentally!

I think publishing RAW ebooks is important. At the moment his work is kept alive by the Californian counter-culture, the conspiracy theory scene, Libertarians and the like and that’s great, but it’s also stopping his ideas from spreading further, where they are needed. As I say in The KLF book, Bob’s multi-model agnosticism does seem to me to be the only way forward from the whole post-modernism thing, without retreating into false certainties and ignoring the things that brought us to post-modernism in the first place. So I’m genuine when I say that I think he was one of the most important thinkers of the late twentieth century, but I’m aware that may not seem convincing in light of the lurid 70s book covers and so on.

I think a lot about how RAW should be presented to the 21st Century but I don’t really have any great ideas about how to do that at the moment. I will write more about this at some point. But in the meantime, I want to say how important blogs like yours are and the research you do – so thank you for all your work!