Fire-Toolz is the project of Chicago-based experimental composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Angel Marcloid, who has been making music under various monikers over the years. As her main creative outlet, Fire-Toolz serves to decompartmentalize the myriad genres Marcloid has been invested in since early childhood – from prog-rock to emo, smooth jazz to death metal, industrial to ambient – allowing her to explore a maelstrom of infinite possibilities. The resulting work is often overwhelmingly dense, chaotic, and ambitious, and I am upset because I see something that is not there., the fifth Fire-Toolz record to be released by Hausu Mountain, is no exception. It’s another wild, radiant collision of sounds, formative memories, and experiences both blissful and traumatic, all spliced together in ways that harshly contradict and beautifully juxtapose each other while eluding language. Informed by several spiritual and philosophical touchstones, Marcloid’s music rests in the airy, distorted space where nostalgia meets catharsis, yearning to see and be seen beyond the field of illusion.
We caught up with Angel Marcloid for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about gener fusion, how memory feeds into the world of Fire-Toolz, the spiritual framework behind I am upset because I see something that is not there., and more.
One of the main ways that your music has been discussed is through the lens of genre and your willingness to combine disparate styles. But thinking about it more broadly, it seems to me like one of the driving forces behind it is memory – as it relates to genre, but also as it relates generally to the realm of sound, spaces like the internet, or traumatic experiences
I think that that’s accurate. To a large extent, I think that the genre fusion is an incidental artifact of working with the memory aspect. You can trace back my interest in a lot of the types of music that I’m working with to my early childhood. I grew up on prog-rock, and then I got into extreme metal in my late single digits; I was in elementary school listening to Deicide and Morbid Angel. I’ve always been kind of experimental about music – every time I’ve been in a band, I’ve sort of pushed the band in that direction. When I was playing guitar in bands, mainly I would have a massive pedal board. One of the guitarists from the band Orgy said in an interview one time that they didn’t want their guitars to sound like guitars, and when I read that it just blew me away. I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly it.” And then maybe 13 to 24, I was completely immersed in early emo. All of these different styles that you hear in Fire-Toolz were very much rooted in stuff I grew up with. I don’t get as inspired by new music as much as I do by old music – I would say one of the only types of music that really inspire me now that’s kind of a new thing is deathcore.
In that sense, memory does play in as far as genre. And of course, memory plays in as far as the content. People knock nostalgia in the arts, a lot of people have a problem with it and say it’s contrived. But I’m not afraid to admit that nostalgia is a huge factor. I’m very nostalgic of the old days when everything felt simpler, more benign. I have a very strong sensory memory and I’m just hypersensitive in general, things make really huge imprints on me. That’s why I focus so much on that kind of thing in my music.
But I don’t set out to make music that combines different genres. That sort of happens automatically when I go to make music, because that’s how I think about music. There’s no real rules or limitations, you just kind of make what you feel. When there is a smooth jazz saxophone line over an industrial beat, or there’s a wall of harsh noise happening and then there’s a keyboard line that sounds fairly ‘80s, that just feels very natural to me. It feels very natural to shriek over a smooth jazz-type sound.
Whether it relates to sound or any other sensory experience, what kind of memories did you find yourself channeling on I am upset because I see something that is not there.?
As far as the lyrical content and what the songs are about, they are almost always about things that are very current. Subject matter-wise, I write about what I’m going through in the moment. But the nostalgia and the early memory aspect is more of a felt thing that comes out in just the way things sound and sometimes the melodies, so it’s hard to pinpoint the memories. If anything, it’s not anything that you would think would stand out. It’s not necessarily any specific events, but more just the way things looked and felt back then.
I get this visual a lot of times when I hear my music of the way that the sunlight looked when it would hit a wall or a field. Sometimes when I’m driving, I’ll look around and I’ll sort of snap back into my early childhood, a little bit dissociatively almost. And when I see something that looks very modern, like a very modern car or something, it sort of snaps me out of that. But if I’m going on the road and all I’m seeing is grass, concrete, maybe some old buildings, and the way the sky looks and the light looks and everything – if it looks like it could exist back then because there’s nothing super modern in my view, I will sort of go back to that place. And so, my music can do that same thing. Even though the music is very futuristic in a lot of ways, and I’m using some of the most modern technology that’s out there, it still brings me back to those times and makes me see those things in my head.
It’s hard to explain, but in those moments that you’re describing, it’s almost like the present is in step with the past.
Yeah, it’s almost like they’re fused, like you can’t tell them apart. Maybe we shouldn’t use the word memory, because it feels present and past at the same time. We’re not gonna do this because I’m not a physicist, but if you get really deep into physics you could start arguing about the past and the present and even the future being the same. And sometimes I feel like I snap into states where might be experiencing something like that, but I don’t know for sure. You’re right that it’s hard to talk about, because I think these things go beyond words. I think that words and our language kind of pixelate things that are really a much higher resolution in order for us to conceptualize it. But I think that there’s a sense that we have sometimes where something just is completely beyond explanation, and I think that what we’re talking about is definitely beyond explanation.
It’s interesting that you brought up physics, because one could argue your music leans more toward spirituality as a means of explaining it.
I feel like they are two different ways of looking at reality, and I think there is no disagreement between the two. I think the reason why we find disagreement is two things. One, we can’t embrace paradox or nuance – we just have a hard time doing that as a society. And two, I think physics, not as they currently are understood, but ultimately, if we were all-knowing, which will never happen, physics would be able to explain a lot of spirituality. We’re just nowhere near that. There are people that talk about physics and spirituality; there’s a a great book called The Tao of Physics. There’s a lot of spiritual philosophers that fuse what we know of quantum mechanics with spirituality and spiritual modalities. I think a lot of those people can get kind of kooky, but there are plenty of people that are really on to something. If your spirituality is more religious and fundamentalist, you will see staunch differences – you’ll see that physics and science study material reality, and spirituality is more about metaphysics and beyond. I just think that fast forward, I don’t know, 1,000 years, maybe more, it’s not going to be that much different.
It goes back to this idea of fusion. Whether it’s to do with a philosophical or musical or even experiential framework, that seems to be the main principle that guides your thinking and work.
Yeah. When it comes to the nature of reality and experience, it’s a non-dual way of looking at it. And as far as ways of studying it, it definitely is a fusion. Although I have the most limited amount of knowledge on physics – I can’t really say anything definitively, it’s just like not my place – I do watch enough Youtube videos by physicists, and I’m really fascinated by this stuff, so I use terminology in my lyrics often about physics and spirituality in the same lyric.
The album takes its name from a spiritual self-study program called A Course in Miracles. How does it tie into the thread of the album?
There’s two different ways I can talk about it, and it’s both things – seems to be a common theme. There’s a level of spiritual inclination that is necessary in order to fully embrace A Course in Miracles. It uses traditional Christian language, and in a way it’s really hard to read for someone like me who used to and still does somewhat associate Christian terminology with utter bullshit. I’ve come a long way and mystical Christianity is something I’m actually really interested in, I’m just light years away from any kind of modern application of it. I think that most churches that stand today have very twisted interpretations of the mystical implications of the teachings in the Bible. The Bible is very flawed to me, I definitely don’t believe in biblical literalism. I’m more into the ancient mystics who read between the lines and wrote their own books. So it can be hard to read because the terminology is very Christian, but the message is actually very different from the way the modern church interprets it. What it claims to do is clear up the misconceptions that the Bible and Christian movements over the centuries have perpetuated. It’s a very non-duality-oriented teaching.
One of the things it gets at is basically our belief in illusions. That can really relate to trauma, because when you experience a traumatic event, obviously it’s real, it’s really happening, it’s not an illusion – you’ve been abused, you’ve been assaulted, you’ve been in a car wreck, or even just things like breakups and loss and grief. All of these things are real traumatic events. But if you don’t properly process that trauma, and I would say that most people don’t, I think there is an extent to where we start dealing a lot with illusion and delusion. I don’t mean that in an insulting way, but let’s say that some things have happened in my last five romantic relationships that were really traumatic, and then I enter a new one. I’m so traumatized that I’m assuming all of the time that those things that happened to me in the past are going to happen or are happening now. So that’s why the title is I’m upset because I see something that is not there., because I am seeing danger where there isn’t any. I’m experiencing this safe moment as danger and I am approaching the situation from a place of fear, and that holds people back.
It’s the reason why there are wars, why there are shootings, why fathers hit their kids, why there’s animal abuse. I honestly think that trauma has a lot to do with it – well, I want to say communication, too, is a big part of it, but trauma and communication are kind of the basic causes of all of the strife in the world. And underneath the trauma and communication, you could just boil it all down to fear. I think that fear and love are opposites, and A Course in Miracles addresses fear very heavily.
I feel nervous to use any kind of Christian terminology with my following, because they’re mostly made up of, you know, queer atheist leftists. [laughs] There’s a lot of uncomfortable feelings around it, and I still feel uncomfortable with it. So I tend to be a little cryptic with it, but I’m getting better. And I incorporate just as much Buddhist, Hindu, Vedanta, Daoism into my spirituality and my music and my lyrics as I do Christian mysticism, because I’m definitely a universalist, interfaith person. I pretty much think that all spiritual modalities, many of them, are valid paths up the same mountain, and there’s no right or wrong way to experience reality, experience God, be one with the divine, however you want to define that.
Musically, has it been a challenge bringing those teachings into the world of Fire-Toolz, or has it been mostly intuitive?
It hasn’t been much of a challenge, because the intermediary between those teachings and my music is my personal experience. And if I make music about my personal experience, and my personal experience is assisted by these teachings and these ways of viewing reality and my life, naturally they were going to go into the music. If I was a political activist, plenty of that would go into my music, and I’m not really that. Sometimes people are surprised to learn that I don’t talk about transgender issues at all in my music, and I very rarely make any political points. It’s just not my thing. Because Fire-Toolz is a very honest project, musically and content-wise, there’s really no manufacturing that. I just write about my experience, and I can explain my experience, partially, through different spiritual points of view.
Trauma is woven into many of the tracks on this new album, but it’s almost foregrounded by how much of joyful and even fun process it sounds like it was making it.
I’m glad you perceive it, that’s really important. I’m not just sitting there being like, “This trauma is so horrible. I struggle so much.” There’s always light there. There’s a little more light than darkness all the time. Hope and light are inherent in the music, and I think with my first couple of albums that wasn’t necessarily true. It was a little bit, but not largely. I really was capitalizing on and almost exploiting my own traumatic experiences on the early albums, victimizing myself more than the actual experiences had victimized me, if you want to use that terminology. But ever since my album Interbeing, I think that’s where things took a big turn, to where there was more light. I was still talking about traumatic experiences, really horrible experiences and emotions and beliefs, but a lot of the tragedy in the lyrics was sort of concluded by some kind of spiritual statement that put a little sheen of hope or comfort on it. I don’t mean hope in the sense of optimism – see, we’re getting beyond words now.
When it comes to trauma, despite years of therapy, and despite all of this effort, there are a lot of things that are just not resolved. There are a lot of things that will never really be resolved. But I think it’s possible to get to a place where you can be present with the trauma without being controlled by it, and I think that’s the goal: to not be controlled by it, not listening to that voice – or hearing the voice, but not obeying it.
I read that the first voice we hear on the album is that of your wife. Why did this opening feel right?
It goes right along with the album title. It’s kind of uncomfortable, but it’s an authentic recording from a voicemail, and obviously, she gave me permission to put it there. But I was having an experience where I really thought something was happening that wasn’t, because I was interpreting some circumstances as meaning something they didn’t. It’s super vulnerable to put that line there, and sometimes I’m like, “Should I have even done that?” It’s just too real. If the album were an article or something, that would be the headline.
Can you talk about what the final track on the album, ‘Novaturient Wave-Form Collapse’, means to you?
I spend a lot of time listening to my own music before it comes out, because I do a lot of note-taking. Listening to it outside of your music production software really makes things sound different, so I think I was just driving and listening to it. And it just did something to me really, really profoundly, and I don’t know what. I know it sounds crazy and esoteric. The song is about a certain thing lyrically, but there’s just something about the last passage that feels more like part of a song, and every time I hear it now, like 95% of the time, I just cry – sometimes full-on, primal sobbing. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I just don’t know. I think the whole song just sounds like I’ve just been through some crazy shit, and I’m sitting in the backyard – the lyrics refer to this, sitting in my backyard on the cheap swing that I bought from Wayfair – experiencing the breeze and the sunlight, and just looking back.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Fire-Toolz’s I am upset because I see something that is not there. is out now via Hausu Mountain.