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Exploring The Creative Process and Headspace of GODRAYS

For many of us, the realities of life under quarantine are only beginning to set in. At a time when nearly every transmission from the outside world is cause for concern, we crave an inner calm and stability that has long since disappeared from our outer lives and daily routines.

As a result, we have sought our peace in small comforts, like a morning cup of coffee, or the sunlight shimmering through the trees. We have found ways to connect and share moments with one another, despite not being together in person. And we have kept our spirits up by finding joy in the ways we entertain ourselves; sometimes in the unlikeliest of places.

Jonah Ort, who writes and performs under the name GODRAYS, has found solace in, for some, the unlikeliest place of all… the screeching, deafening howl of noise and feedback. GODRAYS is Ort’s mostly-solo studio project, occasionally accompanied by bassist Quin Simon for live performances. Nearly all the band’s music expresses chasms of warmth and feeling through loud, squealing, crushingly heavy riffs and tones. Through it all, Ort’s soft, clear voice cuts to the core, its naked emotion insulated by a wall of noise.

For many listeners and musicians, it is difficult to express vulnerability using such means, let alone find comfort in them. But GODRAYS turns this sometimes bludgeoning sound into a powerful outlet for self-discovery and open-hearted honesty. It’s not heaviness as a blunt instrument, but as a way to express a feeling that mere words cannot.

In this digitally-conducted interview with Music in Motion Columbus, Jonah Ort invites readers to take a peek into the creative process and headspace of GODRAYS. We had an open-ended, insightful discussion about battling through anxiety onstage and off, the raw power of doom metal, new musical directions in synthesis, and an extremely dated, innocence-destroying Flash game from our shared childhoods exploring the Internet.

Image credit: Lilith Grace

Peter Vilardi (PV): First of all, how are you holding up during the quarantine?

Jonah Ort (JO): I’ve been doing my best to drown out the low anxious hum, playing as many video games as possible and trying to be productive with music. I’ve been listening to a lot of noise rock lately, if that says anything.

PV: What does the noise do for you?

JO: It’s a brilliant distraction. I get really lost in it, you know? With my anxiety, it’s hard to distract me with music alone, but anything with lots of noise can get me there. Believe it or not, I fall asleep to noise music all the time. I’ll wake up at like 3 a.m. in a panic when a particularly shrill bit of feedback comes through.

PV: I’ve heard a lot of people’s reasons for loving noise music, but never that it relaxes them.

JO: Oh, absolutely. I’m gonna be cliché as hell for a second, but it really does sound like the inside of my brain… like it’s cancelling out my internal brain static, if that makes sense. I’ll hear a guitar feedbacking like crazy and think, “yep, I can relate to that.”

PV: It resonates with you.

JO: It’s one of my favorite parts of a live music experience. A guitar just being pushed to the edge until it can’t take it anymore. It’s blissful. And it adds a real physicality to the show, too. Guitar feedback represents a lot of what I value in music, really.

PV: How so?

JO: I’m a big believer in imperfection in music. I’ll forever unironically defend the sentiment “It’s supposed to sound like shit.” Like… no offense to prog or math rock, but it never clicks with me. As much as I respect it, the really clean, skilled instrumentation just isn’t something I can relate to. I’m way more interested in the guitar track getting fucked up in Hardcore UFOs by Guided by Voices, or Daniel Johnston’s voice cracking.

Every time I’ve tried to get something perfect, I’ve gone a little insane. I respect the craft, one hundred percent, but I just don’t have the personality for it. So I feel much more at home with outsider artists who just embrace [imperfection], and are fantastic in spite of it.

Image credit: GODRAYS

PV: To me, it’s very raw; it adds an urgency to your songs that wouldn’t be there if they were more labored-over.

JO: Thank you! Yeah, it’s part of the experience. I think that’s a defining characteristic of my live performances. It’s always gotta be a little rowdy and rough in spots.

PV: It’s also very raw emotionally, the way you use discomfort musically to express the discomfort you write about.

JO: I have a hell of an anxiety disorder, diagnosed C-PTSD, the works. It’s a mental battle every time I’m onstage. My hands shake too much to tune my guitar. It is what it is.

One of my favorite artists ever is Gary Numan. He has Asperger’s, and his performances were criticized for being too robotic. So he made music about literally being an android. He took his stiffness and wove it into his own mythology. So that’s the attitude I’m [approaching] my music with. The anxiety is part of my real life, my stage performance, and the songs I record. I like to think I pull it off – I don’t have any other option, you know?

PV: Absolutely. It’s genuine.

JO: Totally! And I think that’s another reason why I adopt a very rock ‘n’ roll attitude onstage. It’s really just me wrestling with the stage fright. In my mind, I’m thinking, “I’m not gonna let my anxiety get in the way of me getting on my knees during this loud part.” One time, I overheard someone saying, “I cringed when they got on their knees during the guitar solo.” And all I could think was, “Motherfucker, me too! That’s why I did it in the first place!”

PV: Tying into that: what’s it like to let other people into your creative process, especially with songs this personal and sometimes uncomfortable?

JO: Not gonna lie, it’s tough! I come up with these very strict guidelines in my head. For me, as long as I wrote the song and recorded what I could, it’s fair game for others to tweak it. Quin [Simon, live bassist] has come up with way better basslines live than what I originally recorded. Everyone who’s produced my music has improved it by putting their own flair on it.

I feel like as long as the original notes and lyrics were mine, it’s fair game after that. GODRAYS is really just “Jonah Ort.” It’s the name I’ll use for all music that I write and record by myself forever. I made that decision when I first started recording.

Image credit: Rinn Knepper

PV: Where does the name GODRAYS come from, and what makes it a fit for you?

JO: It’s a video game reference. I think I first saw it referenced in Crysis, when I got my first gaming PC and was fiddling with the settings. It’s a term for shafts of light that come through trees. It’s a pretty outdated term, though; these days, it’s called “volumetric lighting.” Boring!

PV: I relate a lot to being inspired by gaming. What are some games that inspire you?

JO: Easily the most formative game of my entire life is Counter-Strike: Source. I was playing that game in 2005… I must’ve been like 11 [years-old]. Way too young to be playing that game! I was exposed to so much due to the multiplayer aspect of that game: esoteric memes, pornographic images, the works. And I played on a lot of custom servers with user-created maps.

Even at such a young age, I recognized how much work some people put into those custom maps, for no pay… like hundreds of hours of free labor so a bunch of people could have fun on a cool-looking map. My Mess of Wires EP and the most recent EQUIP KNIFE EP both feature screenshots of old Counter-Strike: Source maps.

PV: So it really did directly inspire you!

JO: I think it ties back into my love of roughness in art, in general. That aesthetic is ugly by today’s standard, but I want to bathe in it. To be honest, you can probably draw a line between the mashup of styles and aesthetics in old Counter-Strike: Source maps to GODRAYS’ style.

PV: I think a lot of people our age can relate to that, both in our nostalgia for primitive game graphics and in exposure to the Internet at a young age. I remember scrolling Newgrounds furtively, jaw on the floor, looking at the horrible stuff on there.

JO: God, yeah. Flash games and animations definitely did some damage to me as a kid.

PV: RIP to Flash Player… truly the end of an era. I’ve been binging all the Albino Black Sheep videos while I still can.

JO: I just went back and played that one Flash game where you played as George W. Bush, killing terrorists trying to invade the White House.

PV: Whoa! That unlocked a deep part of my brain.

JO: I just had to look at it again to make sure it wasn’t a collective hallucination.

PV: Right! Like, how did we get here?

JO: Bush Shoot-Out! That’s what it was called.

PV: Dear God.

JO: Truly a dark time for culture.

Image credit: GODRAYS

PV: Did you have a similar experience with the music you listen to? Was there anything that blew your brain wide open from a young age?

JO: Smashing Pumpkins, one hundred percent. They were formative for a million reasons. Seeing Billy Corgan perform in dresses, using his super feminine falsetto while his guitar just sounds like a fucking flamethrower, totally blew my mind. By that time, I had completely stopped liking “jock music,” and I was on a steady diet of Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction for a few very formative years.

I had never heard music that was loud and angry, but didn’t carry any macho bullshit with it. That was the plan from the very start; it only took me, like, 13 years to finally start doing it myself.

PV: It seems like your experiences with music, and art generally, have really helped you figure out who you are; and the art you make touches on this quite a bit, as well.

JO: Honestly, my music is really the only way I feel comfortable expressing my femininity in a public way. I don’t know what the psychology behind it is. But even though I’m anxious onstage, I feel more alive and present than just about anywhere else, so wearing a dress and makeup onstage just feels right. Like, I’m already baring my soul up here, might as well pull back the curtain even more while I’m at it. I really do feel empowered. It’s like, “Fuck you, I look cute, and this power chord is nasty as hell. What’re you gonna do about it?”

PV: Right, not just being yourself, but being defiantly yourself.

JO: Absolutely. The veil is off. I think Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan wearing dresses onstage is the musical thread that ties it all together. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of the most formative musicians for me also played around with the concepts of gender and femininity. A lot of early Smashing Pumpkins lyrics are almost entirely about feeling dejected from the male experience. So I was definitely kinda in that orbit from an earlier age. It just took me a bit to finally see it in myself, you know?

PV: Right, for sure! But it always resonated with you, even then?

JO: Absolutely. Obviously not casting judgment here, but I think when a lot of boys my age were getting into bands like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, I was listening to Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction sing about femininity.

PV: I’m glad you brought that up; it’s kind of odd how so much of rock music is based on embracing this masculine posturing, and it influences the way people grow up. I remember being so into classic rock and hating everything else for not being classic rock.

JO: I used to think [bands] sucked because they used drum machines! So, yeah, been there, done that. If you told a 14-year-old me that I would grow up making music exclusively with drum machines, I would’ve lost it.

PV: I know we’ve talked in the past about other genres you enjoy, like shoegaze and doom metal.

JO: I had a very, very formative experience with doom metal that’s worth sharing.

PV: Please do!

JO: I was 17; it was the summer between junior and senior year of high school. I had spent the summer in Ohio staying with my aunt and uncle, and it was time to go back to Georgia to live with my folks. My buddy invited me to go see Streetlight Manifesto with him in Atlanta. I hadn’t really been to a show by myself like that before. We drove to Atlanta in his ‘80s Fox-body Mustang convertible. It was red and it was super ratty, but it ruled. The show was amazing; I crowd-surfed and moshed for the first time on the same night.

Image credit: Rinn Knepper

It was 2 a.m. when we finally left. The highway was empty, and it was like 78 degrees with a cool breeze; we left the top down. My buddy queued up Funeralopolis by Electric Wizard on one of those tape-to-aux converters. He asked me if I knew what doom metal was. I said no. He said, “You’re in for some crazy shit.” He played it so loud that it drowned out the ringing in my ears from the ska show, and it drowned out the noise from the highway (we must have been doing 90 [mph] on that empty highway). It was just bass and fuzz. Pure bliss.

PV: And it awakened something in you?

JO: I think I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. The next day, I just devoured everything I could of the genre. I learned how to play Dragonaut [by Sleep] on bass immediately.

PV: The way you integrate doom and shoegaze into your music is refreshing for how many liberties you take with the genres themselves. I know doom is a genre very much about borrowing and paying tribute, mostly to Black Sabbath, and I like that you don’t just imitate, but you make it your own.

JO: For me, doom and shoegaze are very similar in that they’re pure escapism. They’re two genres that, when done right, don’t sound fit for human consumption. I agree that doom is largely iterative and [about] worshipping at the throne of Black Sabbath, but it pushes boundaries as a genre: how slow, how heavy can we make this while still making it sound like a song?

And shoegaze is the same way: how much weirdness and ethereal reverb can we inject into this basic pop song until you can barely make out the fact that it’s just four simple chords cribbed from some Britpop song? They’re both also extremely non-technical genres. It’s all about feel. I mean, everyone’s first song on guitar is Iron Man [by Black Sabbath]. When You Sleep [by My Bloody Valentine] isn’t much harder. I was immediately drawn to those genres when I picked up a guitar. I could do it!

PV: Did you always have a clear idea of what you wanted to do musically, as GODRAYS? Or did it take a while to get there?

JO: Honestly, I’ve had these ideas for a long, long time. I was just never confident enough to start writing music myself. Guitar seemed too scary for me, but I’d lay out these songs in my head. I was singing made-up songs in the shower in like 2013 that ended up being GODRAYS songs in 2018, no joke. Learning guitar was really the barrier for me. As soon as I got my first guitar as a graduation present, and got a copy of Logic, it opened up so many doors. I’m still recording demos of things I dreamed up years ago that I’ll just randomly remember.

PV: So a lot of these ideas have stuck with you for a long time?

JO: Totally, or at least elements of ideas. I think I’ve finally crossed the threshold where I’m out of these older song ideas, though. I think my albums will be more cohesive as a result. With my first two records, I was really just getting out old ideas that stuck with me. It resulted in songs I’m really proud of, but some albums that were a little more scattershot than I would’ve liked.

PV: Interesting! My first impression was the opposite; that your LPs were very cohesive, compared to the variety and experimentation on your EPs.

JO: I think the production was really the thing that tied them all together. Here’s a fun fact: Gemini Spit had zero modulation effects on it. No chorus or anything when I recorded it. After Tyler [Stark, producer] gave me back the mixes, there was chorus and vibrato on almost every track! It glued the whole album together for sure… I think that was what made it cohesive.

Image credit: GODRAYS

I’m so thankful for his vision on that one. If he would’ve asked me, I probably would’ve said “No way!” to that much chorus. I’m glad he just went with it. I couldn’t imagine those songs any other way now.

PV: But, by and large, you see your full-lengths as more all over the place?

JO: Oh, for sure. To me, at least where my head’s at musically, Girl in Feedback feels like a singles collection rather than an album, almost. To me, there was just no throughline in the songwriting. There was some consistency lyrically, but overall it didn’t gel the way I’d want an album to. I kinda went into it with a maximalist approach anyway… I had all these songs saved up for so long, and I felt like I had to get them out there no matter what.

PV: You didn’t know if it would be an album right away?

JO: Totally. I was just recording song after song, and then I stepped back for a minute and realized I had an hour of good material out of nowhere.

PV: Do you have a particular mindset when approaching a set of your songs, like “this is an album,” or “this is an EP?” Or do you just write and assemble later?

JO: I go into it thinking it’s going to be an EP or an album, then start writing songs from there. For me, I want my albums to generally fall into the same genre – use similar instrumentation, etc. With EPs, I try to experiment more and stop caring about cohesion. Like, for EQUIP KNIFE, I decided that I wanted to write an EP with no guitars at all, just synth. So that’s just how I started recording songs.

I also tend not to really cut anything out when recording for an EP. Even if it’s a song I’m kinda unsure about, I’ll usually throw it in there as an experiment. When it’s an album, I’m recording a million songs, then whittling them down. It’s a way more painful process.

PV: What was the synths-only process like for you? Did it change or affect the way you approach songwriting typically?

JO: Oh, one hundred percent. Whenever I write a song, it starts with just guitar and a placeholder drum track. Until EQUIP KNIFE, that’s been the base for all of my songs. I think it freed me up to get weirder in that specific way that synths can get weird. I experimented with a lot more ambiance, and I had also fully sequenced the drums myself for the first time.

I usually use the drummer tool in Logic, then tweak the MIDI a bit. This time, I was actually drawing out the piano roll for my drum loops. So for the drums, it was way more meticulous and thought-out, but for the synths, it was way more adventurous. There were a lot of happy accidents when recording that EP. I also actually had to take the time to learn synth theory, which was a ton of fun.

PV: Do you write your songs with live performance in mind? Or do you figure out the live show after the fact?

JO: I always write with performance in mind. I’d never write a song where I couldn’t be able to play a main part of it and sing it live. That’s why there’s never a second guitar in any of my songs. I always want to be able to play them solo live if needed.

Image credit: Rinn Knepper

PV: So you’re always thinking about how it will sound and how it’ll be pulled off live?

JO: Absolutely. That’s partially why I have so many guitar pedals. I have to be able to recreate the studio sound live, at least to the best of my ability. Thankfully, the music I like writing is usually simple on the guitar side of things. All the complicated stuff happens with a synth, which I just put as part of the backing track.

Lately, I’ve really been leaning on that more and more; using the guitar as a base layer, then using synth for the melody. As I’ve been writing songs for my next album, I’ve found myself finding ways to make the guitar a little more complex, but opting for a simpler approach. It just sounds better to my ear, and my future self will thank me when I’m onstage.

PV: Speaking of which… what is your future self? For this project? Personally? Do you have any goals or ideas that you’ve set your sights on?

JO: If I make music that’s a radical departure from what I’m making now, it’ll probably be in the form of an EP like EQUIP KNIFE. I like to think of my albums as “canon” and my EPs as, like, bonus lore or something; like, how Star Wars has multiple levels of canon. Obviously this could all change, but I want my albums to have a throughline; more of a refinement of the sound I’ve been working on. I’m a long, long ways off from a radical departure.

PV: When you look back on where you’ve been musically, and how far you’ve come, what do you feel?

JO: Gosh, this is something I’ve been grappling with a lot recently, since I’m in “album mode” right now. The word that keeps coming to mind is “mature.” I think my songwriting has matured a lot in the past few years.

I think now, as of like a month ago, I finally know what I want my “sound” to be. I’ve gone back and forth so many times regarding what genre I wanted to be. At one point, GODRAYS was going to be a grunge band, and at another point, I was sure I was going to pivot to full shoegaze. I swore that album three would be all doom metal (it won’t).

PV: With all that in mind, what should folks expect from this next set of songs?

JO: I have seven songs demoed out for my next album, and I feel like I’ve finally achieved that cohesiveness I talked about earlier. I’ve been constantly fluctuating between genres for a while now, and I think I finally found this sound that sits right in the middle of grunge and shoegaze.

After listening to these demos, I came away thinking, “OK, this is the defining GODRAYS signature sound.” It’s a dronier, more fuzzed-out sound than anything I’ve done. Slow guitars that kinda wash over you… way less riffy. The majority of the melody will come from my vocals or a synth. I think the album Gold by Starflyer 59 is a great reference point.

PV: If there’s one thing you want to communicate about yourself and your art to someone who’s never met you before, what would it be? How do you want to introduce yourself and your work to them, or what do you want them to know before experiencing it for themselves?

JO: I want to make music that people can take a lot away from.

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