Psyched To Meet You: The Flowers of Hell

Words and interview by Armin Enayat

Unearthly and without the slightest chance of being any close to here in the infinite cosmic time, somewhere deep far in the blackened outer space, silence breaks into a powerful and luminous centre of creation, and it is The Flowers of Hell that appears through the haze of cosmic stardust—a transformation of misery and toil into love!

The Flowers of Hell are a transatlantic orchestral rock band that fuse together the sounds of a variety of genres, including experimental space rock, psychedelia, shoegaze, neo-classical and drone music, greatly influenced by the condition of synesthete founder and frontman, Greg Jarvis. Synesthesia —a neurological crosswire resulting in senses overlap— causes Jarvis’ brain to unwillingly perceive sounds as floating visual abstracts, with this type particularly called timbre-to-shape Synesthesia. The band’s resulting sound is often recalled as the orchestrated extension of My Bloody Valentine, The Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3, and Spiritualized.

Based between Toronto and London, The Flowers of Hell run a 16-piece-or-so “orchestrock” with the main members occasionally travelling between the two countries for songwriting, live shows, and recording sessions. Just like sculptors, Jarvis and his team spend an abundance of time to carve out and model a main idea, using a wide range of instruments from brass, strings, to woodwinds, until the resulting shape is a soulful ambience of divine sounds, perfectly and delicately harmonized.

With the band’s main mission being exploring and creating music, just for the sake of it and not necessarily to achieve commercial success, they have five LPs, two EPs, and one compilation under their belt with extensive acclaim from renowned musicians and bands such as Lou Reed, The Patti Smith Group, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, My Bloody Valentine, and Spacemen 3. The band have also positive coverage in Rolling Stone, NME, Pitchfork, and the BBC. Their heavenly music has even taken The Flowers of Hell to the skies of NASA, where their Sympathy For Vengeance was synchronised with the Discovery Mission footage. Also worth mentioning, the every-travelling Jarvis was once suspected to be a spy and held by a rebel army named OPM in Papau New Guinea. Intending to study the music of cannibals, Jarvis ended up finding and playing a ukulele to prove his musicianship and win his freedom back! The incident was soon covered by the media.

Beginning as a studio project in 2002, and turning into a live act in 2005, The Flowers OF Hell has had a number notable events, including their live act at the Tate Britain in 2020 with their Come Hell OR High Water LP going on display, and a performance at the Moscow Conservatory in front of synesthete audiences. They have also found their way to the neo-psychedelic music scene by giving performances at Austin Psych Fest and Liverpool Psych Fest.

No doubt The Flowers of Hell’s artistry unlocks the door to the subconscious mind synchronised with the natural frequencies. Weightless, celestial, and marvellous, it is the music of the universe that could be heard in the night sky with the reflection of the silver moon in the peacock lake, unveiling secrets of being…

MOOF: How did a studio project turn into a live act and what we know today as “The Flowers of Hell”?

Greg Jarvis: I went to the Albert Hall on mushrooms in 2005 for a ‘best of’ classical music concert with a 300 piece orchestra, a 100 piece voice choir, and lasers! Inspired, I rushed back to my home studio and jammed away, and in the following weeks I pulled some people together to perform the piece I’d written, “Opt Out”, as a one-off show at Club AC30 (one of the only club nights in London a person could play our kind of music at). It went great and as we loaded out we all agreed we ought to be a band.

How many members do you currently have? Are there any fixed members in your band?

Nothing’s fixed, it expands and shrinks based on what we’re doing, where we’re doing it, and who is/isn’t available. There’s easily over a hundred people who’ve played in the group onstage since it’s started. The most we’ve had onstage at once is probably sixteen for some of our more orchestral performances, and the least would be two (a duo show I did in Oaxaca, Mexico the other month with a brilliant Mexican flugelhorn player named Silver who I caught busking in the streets.)

About half in North America and half in Europe, how do you manage such a big band based on two different continents? Aren’t you challenged sometimes?

In my early teens I was in the twenty-member Royal Canadian Air Cadet’s 666 Squadron marching band, so the logistics of a large group with a lot of admin is kind of innate to me. The Flowers original drummer, Guri Hummelsund, and I had a comedy duo side-project at one point, doing reggae covers of White Stripes songs as The Red Stripes – I did get to find out how much easier it is to organize just two people!

We have also seen some other rock bands orchestrating their music, for instance for a particular live show/album, and I have always loved the idea! The Flowers of Hell is already an orchestral rock band! Why? How did you come up with such an idea?

Shrooming at the Albert Hall – as mentioned above – works wonders for ideas. (At least until you get stuck thinking about The Beatles lyric, “How many holes would it take to fill the Albert Hall?”) Since then, it was our goal to mix psychedelic music and orchestral music and while we started out being psych with a classical tinge, by our fifth album, Symphony No.1, we grew into doing classical with a psych tinge.

What are you trying to accomplish with your music?

Lift off! I always seek to make something that will transport me away into sound (and into the synesthetic sights I experience when I hear any sound). It’d be nice if our stuff was more widely heard, but if we wanted to be popular, our music wouldn’t sound as it does. BBC Radio 6 regularly air stuff from a 2007 radio session we did, and particularly whenever they play “Foreign Lands”, a six minute instrumental tamboura drone piece, I laugh going, “What the fuck were we thinking? We get our big break to play a BBC session and we did that in our set?!” But of course, that’s why it’s still getting played a decade and a half later, it’s not like anything else in their archive.

What is your songwriting approach in the band?

There’s a lot of different ways I write. Often it begins with me demo-ing something on my own and sending it to bandmates. Sometimes we’ll jam something out off the studio floor with me giving the players some instructions. Sometimes we’ll just record an hour of improvisation and use the best couple minutes of it. Sometimes I’ll have people come by my home studio one by one to add their layers to something I’m working on. Sometimes it’s a combination of all of that. With some pieces, like “Keshakhtaran”, it starts with me adding people onto my demo, and then I’ll delete my original layers and be left with the arrangement that’s been built around it.

You spend a lot of time working on your music, from composition to recording, with your music sometimes being overlayered. For example, “Symphony No.1” took 6 years in the making. What are some of your challenges during recording, and how do you overcome them?

I absolutely love coming up (and listening back) to my original idea for a song. And then I absolutely hate all the work that goes into building it up into a full fledged recording that’s up to our standards. I got to work with a lot of my production heroes early on – Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3, Tim Holmes of Death In Vegas, Tom Knott of the Earlies, and Peter J. Moore (Cowboy Junkies and much more) – and what I saw with every one of them was that it’s perfectionism that makes their productions excellent. It’s all about taking the time to do painfully tedious tweaks that can go on for hours and hours and make a difference that next to no-one will notice. But they will! And as they all hear anything I do, I think that motivates me to put in the extra time!

How has synesthesia affected you musically? Whether when creating or performing?

Synesthesia comes in many forms and in the form I’ve got, all sounds appear around me on as visual shapes on an abstract plane that move and flow depending on what each instrument/sound source is and what it’s doing. I also feel the sounds as physical sensations outside of my body, and see lyrics unfold in front of me like subtitles running past. The latter bit means I often prefer instrumental music, and the former bit means I’ve a preference for music that’s well produced with a lot of layers of a lot of different instruments. 

Songs are really abstract animated movies for me, that often look more beautiful than anything I’ve seen in the greatest galleries of the world. So when I’m creating a recording, it’s really like programming a pyrotechnic show that’s going to set off my synesthetic visions and sensations to the max when I listen to it back.

Your experience with OPM was concerning and exciting to read about at the same time! Why did you ever want to explore the music of cannibals?

As a priest said to me when I entered Papua, “We have gone from cannibalism to computers in one generation – we had no bronze age, iron age, space age or whatever else you did.” I’d wondered, what does music sound like when it’s coming from the last people connected to the raw animalistic soul of humankind? The best musicians all perform from the depths of their soul, and what’s that sound like if that soul is untainted by the world of the mind that generations of human have collectively constructed?

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently on a year long sabbatical, traveling the world as I work away on a book that’s basically an edit and expansion of the journals I kept as a young record exec in the hedonistic days of 90s Eastern Europe, watching their society transform after the collapse of communism, while working with a lot of big name acts and having some pretty high risk travel adventures.

What are some of your plans and ambitions?

Getting to Jarvis Island! When I was six, my dad put up a map of the world on my brother’s wall and showed us England where he’s from, Ireland where my mom’s from, Toronto where we were, and then way, way off amidst a big swath of blue, he showed us a little dot that had Jarvis Island written under it! So, I’m writing this from a (surprisingly) wired up hut in the rainforest in Fiji where I’m killing time for two weeks awaiting the next plane to Kiritimati Island where I’ll hang out at the marina looking for a ship and crew to take me the remaining 379km to Jarvis Island! 

It’s a 4 square km uninhabited desolate treeless place by the equator that’s ringed by sharks and a treacherous coral reef, so between that and the fact America somehow own it, landing mightn’t be possible, but I’ll be happy to see it before rising sea levels submerge it. 

Do you have anything to say to your fans? 

Enjoy! And if you’re in the UK, catch us headlining London’s 100 Club on June 7th with Spacemen 3’s Pete Bassman, ace psych rockers The Confederate Dead, and Tim Holmes of Death In Vegas (who’s bringing down a mixtape for the night!)


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