An Interview with Jeff “Firewalker” Schmitt of Saint Disruption

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Saint Disruption, founded by Jeff Firewalker Schmitt (musician; founder of the Eagle Condor Council and Wisdom Keepers member); John Medeski (renowned Jazz musician; cofounder of Medeski Martin & Wood); and noted music promoter and manager Aaron Kayce is a musical collaborative that brings together musicians, video artists, and visionaries to explore the issues of our time.

Saint Disruption, in conjunction with its record label, Root Doctor Media, is a model for harnessing collective wisdom,  self-organization, recording technology, and creative artistry to create compelling works of beauty. Profits from our works are used to support the greater good through alliances with NGOs and nonprofits.

While our aspiration is to substantially contribute to the greater good, we are not a charity organization. We strive to create right-livelihood for ourselves and our collaborators, as a way of supporting the creation of great music. While we are purpose-driven, we are not wedded to specific causes and aim to be non-polarizing, authentic, adaptive and responsive. 

Saint Disruption aspires to collaborate with international music festivals and concert series. Our vision is to create an ‘ecosystem’ of collaborating musicians and artists who not only produce music and videos but also perform at renowned events and venues. As such, Saint Disruption seeks to move beyond the confines of conventional music and production. If you would like to learn more about Saint Disruption, you can head over to their website here. Cheers.

Andrew:
Jeff, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a weird year. How are you holding up?

Jeff:
Yes, it has been quite a year. I suppose I count myself among the privileged. The almost complete cancelation of my year’s events left me with the gift of time to create poetry and music and to be with family.

That said, I am deeply concerned about the trajectory we appear to be on. I see the tremendous strain on young people and performing artists.

Andrew:
Tell us your backstory. How did you get into music?

Jeff:
Funny story. As a little kid (4-7 years old) I was completely enamored with big band music. I loved the Henry Mancini show. My aspiration was to play flute, but my school’s band teacher said that my teeth were too crooked. So I went with my second choice – drums. But, it was a challenge to get a drum set. After a couple of years pestering my mother – at the age of 8 – she made a brilliant move. As someone who hates to cook, she said she would get me a drum set if I learned how to cook! It worked out so very well. To this day not only do I play drums, but I love to cook and my mother listens to the Stones, Led Zep almost daily – she just turned 85.

Andrew:
You’re a ceremonial folk healer. Tell us more about that, what it means and how you’re relating it to music with your collaborative effort with John Medeski, Saint Disruption.

Jeff:
Sure. For many decades I enjoyed a really rewarding career in research; I am also a social entrepreneur. About 15 years ago, I was introduced to the cosmology, ceremonial traditions, and healing technologies of the Northern Andes and the Northern Coastal Curandero traditions in Peru.

I suppose one might say that the Spirit opened up an avenue for me to learn about myself and to be of greater service to others. Some call these sorts of events a “calling from spirit” – the path of a traditional is not something you chose. But I must say that what I have learned and faced in myself has led to the most amazing life imaginable!

In terms of how my sacred practices influence Saint Disruption, I think John articulates it very nicely… What we are doing is creating sacred or spiritual music that is not overly sacred or spiritual. It’s really about intentionality! John and myself and the entire community of collaborators are aligned in our priorities – we put community above career, resilience above abundance, and are dedicated to fostering a collaborative space that helps us each be the best person that we can be. All of these things, in essence, are deeply spiritual. And there’s the shadow work…our inaugural album is truly about our exploration of the places in the collective American soul (perhaps the soul of the entire industrialized world for that matter) that would benefit from a sober assessment.

We are taught to move away from the darkness; this is in opposition to what the ancient traditions teach us – For it is in the darkness that we truly come to know ourselves.

Andrew:
Tell us more about how Saint Disruption came together. How did you and John meet?

Jeff:
John and I came together about 13 years ago via a chance meeting deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle. Over the last decade, we stayed in touch and did a few small projects together, but it wasn’t until March of last year that a clear collaborative trajectory became clear.

When all of my workshops, travel, and teaching for 2020 completely disappeared due to the pandemic, I was afforded the luxury to make a shift. And the guidance I received was to go back to music and poetry. Having witnessed and experienced different forms of abuse, I knew that that was something that I needed to write about. I also knew that I needed to write about oppression. But this knowledge was tempered by acknowledging that I am an overall privileged white guy. So I made the bold decision one day early last year to reach out to one of my musical heroes, Umar bin Hassan, the founder of the last poets.

Umar graciously agreed not only to recite a poem that I wrote, but he also gave me an autobiographical poem that explores child abuse and all of its dark dimensions. I was very humbled to receive this poem and realized that I could not by myself truly do this creative justice. I reached out to John asking him if he would work with me and the rest is history.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about your new album Rose In The Oblivion. What was the recording process like?

Jeff:
I think what is most significant about our album is that each song enjoyed a Long incubation time. I did most of the recording in my home studio; each of the songs went through many revisions before taking the tracks to my friend and colleague Michael Hynes of Nomadic Studios. Michael is a great producer and arranger. I was able to help me bring the sonic and structural aspects of the songs to a really nice place.

Throughout most of the year, there were tracks flying back-and-forth between numerous Studios. John works at Applehead studios just outside of Woodstock, New York; it was there that all of the keyboards were laid down. All in all, I think the album benefited from some of the strange inefficiencies brought on by the pandemic.

Andrew:
Let’s go back to some of your life pre-music. At 15 years of age, you were taken captive by Guatemalan Rebel Forces, right? What was that experience like? How did it shape you going forward? How does it inform the music you’re creating today?

Jeff:
Yes, that was a wild experience! At the time I was in my second year at a small liberal arts college – I was lucky to have gained early admission to college, and thereby bypassed much time wasted in high school. It probably kept me from getting arrested as well! I was a bit of a hellion as a kid.

Anyway, I was on the tail end of a winter term research expedition to the barrier reef off the coast of Belize. We had come to the mainland to do some touristy things. We were in Guatemala near the border of El Salvador… It was 1981, and as we know, there was much conflict.

To make a long story short, we were captured for a short time by the Guatemalan rebellious forces. Luckily no one was hurt or killed, but it was a demonstration to me that the narrative that was being told in America was miles from the truth. This event, while crushing in some ways, has given me a different perspective about Hidden agendas and corruption. Looking back, social engineering and propaganda techniques were primitive compared to what they are now. Fast forward to the pandemic; I encourage each concerned Citizen to look critically at the popular narrative and explore source documentation.

Andrew:
There is certainly a spiritual quality to Rose In The Oblivion. How have experiences such as living with the Secoya people of the Amazon shaped the through-line of spirituality?

Jeff:
Thank you. I am fortunate to have had so many experiences and received many teachings that Have shown me that there are many ways to live and believe on this planet.

Compared to how most people have lived on this planet from the beginning of time, the way that we are living is somewhat of a freak show. This perspective has been valuable for me. As someone who seeks to explore the underlying meaning of things, my experience with my brothers and sisters from cultures who live in very different ways has been very helpful.

So much of what we are doing in western civilization is not working for people or for the planet. In this context disruption, Becomes a sacred act. Music is a tremendous platform to challenge and asked questions, and shake things up! We like to think that sacred somehow implies tranquility, but the world’s wisdom traditions tell us otherwise. The great spiritual traditions of the world all have their decapitators And destroyers!

Andrew:
More on the spiritual philosophy of this record, both yourself and John were “Not looking for spiritual music” but “Looking for the spirit to come through.” Let’s dig more into that. Tell us your meaning there.

Yes indeed…your question puts us squarely in the center of the matter of consciousness and spirit.

I don’t think Saint disruption is here to try and push an agenda. If there is a spiritual dimension to our songs, it is in the education, the challenge to the shallow narrative, and the structure of the music itself.

I don’t feel as a songwriter or as a person I have any business telling anyone how or what to believe. And at the same time, I hold tremendous confidence that when people come together creatively with positive intention, what is revealed is sacred in its essence… As Clement Greenberg once said: Art is the lie that tells the truth. Truth, especially these days in this war of illusion and Mirrors that is playing out before us, is more sacred than ever.

Andrew:
How influenced were you by the likes of Alice Coltrane, Taj Mahal, FKA Twigs and the like? Who are your greatest influences musically?

Jeff:
Certainly all artists that you have mentioned here are inspirations for very different reasons.

When I think about the work I’m doing now with Saint disruption; the biggest influences are tricky – not only as an individual artist but as part of an amazing vibrant art movement that came out of Bristol in the 90s.

I think there is a certain grit in this album that is probably due to my love for Captain Beefheart, P-Funk, as well as Sly and the Family Stone. The last tune on the album called “Thief of Darkness,” was more inspired by artists like FKA Twigs, Cocteau Twin, and even Stereolab.

In terms of the lyrical disposition, of course Umar Bin Hassan and the Last Poets stand as huge influences as well as my dear friend Agent23. His album monkey wrench Has had a huge influence on the spoken word part of my songwriting.

Andrew:
Aside from music, what else are you most passionate about and why? How do your other passions inform and inspire your music?

Jeff:
Perhaps more than anything else I am passionate about collaboration and about sharing a little bit that I have learned through my years.

One of my greatest strengths, if not the greatest strength of mine, is my ability to identify an interesting challenge and gather around myself people who are far smarter and more capable than I am to do something amazing to address the challenge. My wonderful partner Cindy and myself are devout cooks and see the act of preparing food is sacred. Since a very early age I have been cooking, this is something I also share with John.

How do my other passions inform my music? That’s a really great question! I think it’s really about my desire to provide nutrition whether it’s mental, spiritual, or physical nutrition! I am a pretty avid reader, and I do like bringing a cultural and historical bag of tricks to my songwriting. It’s interesting to me that while our inaugural album is in no way Christian, it seems to be replete with imagery and evocation about early Christian stories that are the cornerstone in many ways of western culture.

I am certainly interested in synesthesia, the crossing of senses so I will often ask what a food sounds like and what a sound or a song might taste like!

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music? What are a few albums that mean the most to you and why?

Jeff:
I am pretty much all-digital and have been for a while. It is truly extraordinary what one can do for relatively little money in a home studio. That said, I always try to use acoustic instruments when I am building songs. I find that there’s no substitute. I am an avid listener, so I don’t really have a particular place where I go to find and explore music.

Talking Heads, Fear of Music – taught me that world music doesn’t have to be world music and that driving insistence can be gentle.

David Byrne & Brian Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts taught me how manifold meaning can come from the mash-up of well thought out sound choices. Super important album!

There are a few artists who I think in modern times have done a great job in creating – using John’s terminology – spiritual music without being spiritual. Coltrain’s A Love Supreme, McCoy Tyner’s Expansion, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame, any of the Sebelius and Mahler pieces conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Just about everything by Moondog ever did.

Peter Gabriel‘s Us had a huge impact on me as did Beck’s Mutations. I think both of these works gave me permission to be courageously personal and vulnerable in my writing.

Andrew:
Last question. You’ve had a long, successful, and multi-layered career. With that being said, what advice would you have for young artists looking to take the plunge?

Jeff:
Trust your instincts, listen to the wisdom of your body, don’t let anybody no matter how much of an authority they may appear to be tell you what to believe or what is right or wrong regarding your inner experience.

Be Courageous in your unknowing, be bold in your acts of dismantling what does not work. Love the earth and yourself. Be willing to sacrifice everything in seeking your truth

Consider the possibility that existence is a miracle

Interested in learning more about the work of Saint Disruption? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.
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