It’s 1.30pm, and in the corner of a Berlin pizzeria Nick Beggs is on a tear. The Mute Gods mastermind has spent the best part of an hour expanding on a range of views that take in everything from the hopeless state of the world and the futility of religion to the military-industrial complex’s alleged cover-up of extra-terrestrial life in
a manner that could be politely described as ‘emphatic’.
Beggs – long-haired, charismatic, looking at least two decades younger than his 57 years – is no bug-eyed ranter. He articulates rather than fulminates, though when he’s really getting into something, he locks his gaze directly onto you, either forgetting to or just not bothering to blink.
Still, he’s not one to stint on sharing his opinions. Here he is, for instance, on Knucklehed, a song from The Mute Gods’ upcoming third album, Atheists And Believers, that takes aim at the growing populist movement and the people who are mindlessly fuelling it:
“With Brexit, there’s been a whole reimagining of ourselves as a nation
– a new type of staunch nationalism. It comes from the lowest common denominator, it comes from fear, from people who are not prepared to listen
to educated people, people with experience. There are agendas everywhere. We have a responsibility to distil things down to find out what’s really at the centre of what’s going on. And Knucklehed is about people who are not interested in that.”
Here he is, too, on the environmental dance of death that humanity is currently, and obliviously, locked into:
“When I was young, I joined Greenpeace, went on Save The Whales walks, got involved in a bunch of political things. My friends thought I had lost the plot. They’d say, ‘Why are you doing this? This is bollocks. There’s nothing wrong the planet, idiot.’ Forty years later, I’m right.”
And here he is on the future of the human race. Or, rather, the lack of it:
“I think it might be too late. It probably is too late. But I’m not going to stop screaming, because I’m so fucking furious that we are such stupid c*nts. We are going to reap such a bitter harvest.”
All of this and more is addressed on The Mute Gods’ new album. Atheists And Believers is a record whose unapologetically catchy songs are a Trojan horse for Beggs to smuggle in a worldview that swings between fury, exasperation, bleakness and maybe – just maybe – the tiniest bit of hope.
The question is: what has the world ever done to Nick Beggs?
And the answer is: how long have you got?
Beggs is in Berlin today as a member of Steven Wilson’s band, a role he’s had since 2011. This evening, they will play a show at the Tempodrom, a gothic-brutalist concrete arena 300 metres from where we’re sitting.
Beggs knows that his association with Wilson gives him a cachet within the world of progressive rock that he might not otherwise have. “I feel like an imposter,” he says. “But I found that by touching the hem of the garment of greatness, I get the opportunity for other people to want to listen to what I’m doing.”
When Beggs conceived The Mute Gods, he always knew that he wanted to make a trilogy of albums. “I liked the concept of that,” he says, taking a slice of the mushroom pizza he’s ordered. “I wanted to get the three albums out in three years. The whole thing took
a lot of thinking about, a lot of walking the dog and batting ideas around in my head. They were skeletal ideas, and the nuance and detail had to be added later on. But that was the idea.”
He’s hit that three-year schedule with Atheists And Believers, give or take a month. It follows on from 2016’s Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me and 2017’s Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth, albums with which it shares strong musical and conceptual ties. The work rate lends an urgency to The Mute Gods that’s rare these days. Could that have anything to do with the mass psychosis that seems to have enveloped the planet? Short answer: yes.
Beggs says there is “an unholy triumvirate” of things going on in the world right now that are precipitating our downfall and have shaped all three Mute Gods albums: religious dogma, political insanity and environmental catastrophe. “Politics feeds into the environment and religion feeds into both.” A laugh. “And then there are
all the sub-categories.”
He tackles the topic of religion head-on on One Day, a song that shoots down the notion of humanity as part of a grand celestial masterplan: “Life is a chemical reaction,” he intones, over and over again, refusing to let up.
Beggs has past form with the subject, but from an unexpected side of the fence. He became devoutly religious in his late teens, passing through different denominations of Christianity before starting to lose his faith in his early 40s. Today, he holds his former beliefs in disdain.
“The right-wing Christian idea is that we are made in God’s image and therefore we are the centre of the universe,” he says. “Which is barmy and dangerous. It’s a philosophy which has led us into a terrible cul de sac. We could all be snuffed out in an instant and it won’t make any difference – nobody will be any the wiser about God. We are irrelevant. We have to set aside these ideas of our self-importance and readjust how we see ourselves on the planet, because we are just tenants for a short period of time.”
Ironically, the title track of Atheists And Believers addresses an entirely different, but no less provocative subject. It’s a continuation of the title track of Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, in that it is “centred around the way the industrial-military complex has so much power in America. [Former US President] Eisenhower warned us about its danger, but we didn’t listen and now it runs the world. People don’t look, they don’t have their eyes open. Hiding in plain sight, as Jimmy Savile showed us, is effective.”
But the song goes deeper than that. It engages with the concept of alien life – specifically, whether it has already been discovered by the powers-that-be and, if so, why they’re hiding it from the public.
“The UFO subject, for me, is a fascinating one, because it doesn’t necessarily mean they exist,” he says, locking Prog with that unblinking gaze. “What it shows us is that there’s something – there’s some kind of subterfuge, some kind of parallel agenda going on that we’re not supposed to know about.
“If you do your own research,” he continues, “if you’re prepared to talk to the right sorts of people, there’s some incredibly compelling evidence. But the larger truth is that there are too many people that you don’t want on your team. There’s too many people out there who are basically mad.”
He’s clearly aware of the reputation of UFO-ologists as tinfoil-hatted lunatics, then? He interrupts before I can even finish the question.
“That’s why I wrote the song,” he says. “Because they don’t want people to think about it. There’s been a huge PR campaign done to dumb down the mentality of the people who talk about the subject. That song is about the way the media deals with those people who do stick their head above the parapet.”
But why? What do the people putting the spin on it stand to gain?
“Can you imagine the way everything would change if that stuff came out? If any of it was true, if it became public domain, there is nothing in the world that wouldn’t be changed.”
The rest of Atheists And Believers is no less strident in its willingness to challenge and provoke. Iridium Heart draws parallels between the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and the current political climate, while Twisted World, Godless Universe – a “wrestle between the light and dark in a person’s soul, if there is such a thing”, that features a guest appearance from Beggs’ daughter Lula on vocals – is as bleak as its title.
But there are moments of tranquility on Atheists And Believers, too, not least the album’s final track, I Think Of You, a moving instrumental meditation inspired by the death of Beggs’ mother. She was just 38 when she passed away; Beggs was 17. As he explains it today, he dealt with it in a way that might seem strange to other people.
“I did all my grieving when I was 15, in an afternoon, when I found out she had cancer. I’d seen my grandfather die slowly and painfully over 10 years, so I knew what was coming. So I did all my grieving with a friend of mine in a room one afternoon, when I should have been at school. And then as far as I was concerned, she was dead.”
Writing the song now wasn’t so much a catharsis as an MOT on his mental state. “If you’re a balanced individual, you’ve got to live with grief every day. Being able to recalibrate grief daily was important. The fact that I could write a song and dedicate to her it was a bill of clean health for me.”
He says that being the focal point of his own band is exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. “You’re in a position where you’re the conduit, and the standards are on your shoulders. I feel that if I’m going to make music, and people are going to buy that music, then I’d better say something of some worth. And if I didn’t get this stuff off my chest I’d probably develop a few tumours as well.”
How far he can take The Mute Gods – who also feature sometime Steven Wilson drummer Marco Minneman and Steve Hackett keyboardist Roger King – is another matter. Three albums in, and the band have yet to play live. This was initially down to Beggs’ concern that he wouldn’t have enough material to play. Now that he does, he’s considering it to the point where’s he’s talking to promoters. “If I can make it happen, I will,” he says. It will most likely be a slot on a festival bill or very small club gig.
“It’s most likely to happen this year. If it doesn’t happen this year, it’s less likely to happen the year after. I’d like to do it. If I don’t do it, I’ll be a bit sad.”
Where does he take The Mute Gods next? The answer might be nowhere.
“I don’t know whether I will. If it doesn’t go out live I might just leave it at three albums. I’m at such a big crossroads with it all, because I don’t know whether it’s going to go live. I kind of feel like I’ve said all I need to say with it. I don’t know whether it will be seen as an important body of work or whether it will just be seen as a piece of fluff.” He lets out a sigh that suggests he’s not being disingenuous. “I honestly don’t know.”
It’s 2pm, and we’ve been talking for nearly 90 minutes. The restaurant has filled up with lunching Berliners. Beggs has to attend a Wilson-mandated band photoshoot. He takes our email address and says he will send through some examples of quotes from political and military figures that support the existence of alien life (he does; they make interesting reading, though don’t necessarily constitute proof of a shadowy cover-up on their own).
At one point during our talk, Prog asks him to characterise how he feels about the state of the world. Angry? Exasperated? Cynical?
“The first two, definitely,” he says. “But not cynical. Steven Wilson says I’m one of the most positive people he’s ever met. Whenever he asks for my opinion, he knows he’s going to get positive feedback. Now, if you want me to give you that, I will. I can tell you about the great things in the world, too. But how long do we want to enjoy the great things in the world? Unless we deal with the really terrible things, we’re not going to around to enjoy the really great things.”
You’ve talked about a lot of problems. But what are the solutions?
“Shout,” he grins. “Be ranty. Make people listen to what you’ve got to say. Opinions change others’ opinions.”
Does he have hope for the future?
“Sometimes I look at some of the emergent technologies, like early carbon capture systems to fix the carbon in the atmosphere and help stop climate change. Sometimes I think the genius we have is breathtaking, it really is. If we can not be buried by the stupidity of the masses, if we can get ourselves up high enough to do the right thing in just the right time, we might be alright. I don’t know.” He smiles ruefully. “But it doesn’t look very good, does it?”
This article was originally published in Prog 96.