Sean Ragon may well be the busiest man in music you haven't heard of. When he isn't busy running the Heaven Street record store in Brooklyn, NYC or running his Blind Prophet record label, Ragon plays several instruments in his once-solo project Cult of Youth. And now he's on tour, visiting Europe for the first time - this, despite being involved in the underground DIY music scene for more than a decade.
Cult of Youth plays furious neo-folk music - none of your flower-power protest nonsense - with an edge of post-industrial grime. The newest release, Love Will Prevail, brings these elements together with a mellower edge. Despite being caught up in the modern revival of folk - Bon Iver, Mumford and Sons - Ragon is more old-school.
Growing up in Boston, a town which gave us the likes of The Dropkick Murphys, Sleep Chamber and the Pixies, he played in a number of punk bands throughout the '90s. It was through this scene that he finds himself distinguished from what he calls "art for the sake of gaining something else".
"I think that the difference between folk - like, indie folk, which really had its biggest revival, I'd say, in the early 2000s - and what we're doing is the cultural perspective," says Ragon, sparking up a cigarette in a grimly lit Glasgow lane. He's just played a rapid-fire set in Stereo, playing through as many songs as you can count on your digits without stopping to so much as breathe. Despite this he's relaxed, if twitchy, eyes squinting and hands talking with him through every point he makes. "For me, I come from a punk background and an industrial background whereas those people come from an indie rock background…and a kind of twee kind of thing."
Like spoilt rich kids?
"Not necessarily spoilt rich kids, but their world view is really different. The idea of a punk scene, an industrial scene or an underground background is that your value to that community is based on what you do, and how you participate. In the indie rock music world it's pure consumerism, where you're judged on what you can sell or how good your publicist is, or this or this or that.
"There's no desire to put your passion into something because you're not rewarded for hard work - you get rewarded for your looks, you get rewarded for how much money you have, how many friends you have, your social status, it's just a totally different thing. It's not art for the sake of art, and I don't buy it, man," he says, his posture on that final syllable halfway between a shrug and exasperation.
Ragon is a happier man when not discussing preppy teenagers delicately twiddling guitars like king-size Stradivari, especially when talking about how much he has pushed to turn Cult of Youth into what it is now. "Around '95 or '96 I first really started getting into bands like Psychic TV and Coil and all these kind of bands that would now be considered to be post-industrial. To me, those bands seemed larger than life…all the people who did it were up on these pedestals in a really weird way!
"At the time I was into punk bands, punk music, stuff like that because it was what my friends were doing and it was nice to have a social life," he continues. "At the end of the day I really wanted to be doing this whole other kind of thing. Over the years I thought 'well, I'm just gonna do it', and I started recording the earliest recordings of the band, which is me by myself in my bedroom, playing and recording everything.
"In the early days there was never any plan for it to perform live. I never thought it would leave my bedroom. I was just having fun, and I printed my own single and I couldn't give it away! I saw somebody on the street wearing a t-shirt of a band I like and I was like 'here, take this home, listen to it! Just give it a listen!' I printed 300 copies of that, it took me years to get rid of them…but as it became more known and in-demand, it was like: 'okay, we're gonna put the band together'."
That band, for Love Will Prevail, is made up of Ragon, who plays several instruments on each song, along with drummer Glenn Maryanski and violinist Christiana Key. Recording the new album was a different experience compared to creating the band's 2011 self-titled debut, becoming as hands-on as you can possibly imagine. Ragon built the studio in which LWP was recorded, learning carpentry and putting it together directly behind the Heaven Street store in New York.
"There was this feeling [early on] that this band was trying to recreate [my original recordings] that was unique and special because they were home-recorded and weird, and so it was almost like a rock band covering this other kind of music," explains Ragon. "We used the advance money…and built this fuckin' studio at the back and recorded it there! I feel like it captures the spontaneity of the earlier recordings without sacrificing sound quality."
The album as a whole sounds sensational, garnering universal acclaim, but it leaps from acoustic thrashing to Irish folk rants and minimalistic storytelling - all the while maintaining a sense of control over proceedings, like a feral dog on a leash. "A lot of Love Will Prevail was sort of based around personal changes I went through in my life," he explains. "The central theme is just that people in their daily life get caught up in all these conflicts and desires, to be either the winner or the loser in a kind of power-play relationship, where one person is dominant and the other person is submissive. It plays itself out as one person wronging another; the other person has to come back and wrong them back to get even…this whole part of the human brain that's really conflict-oriented.
"It's based around the idea that by letting go of the desire to be on the top or on the bottom and that sort of situation you can leave behind that reptilian nature of the brain and abandon it. The title for the record just came from the lines of one of the songs [Garden of Delights]. It came last minute - the record was written and none of the songs had titles and I was like 'Now I have to name the thing!'. That element just came out [when naming it]."
The more animalistic side of Cult of Youth comes out when songs are performed live: Ragon screams bloody murder and tortures his vocal chords raw as each song is rearranged in a flurry of white noise, thrashing drums and endless acoustic thrashing. Despite this, Ragon insists that the band used to be more riotous. "The first ever show we played with a band we were running around in the crowd, smashing guitars and trying to fight everyone in the room and screaming in everybody's face…I used to have a chip on my shoulder, like I had something to prove, but now it's more like a little…mellow."
That desire to prove himself has been whittled down by Cult of Youth's popularity and the strength-to-strength growth of Heaven Street, which he credits with teaching him valuable lessons about self-sacrifice and struggle. Ragon is a born fighter and an opportunist, turning Heaven Street into a venture much in the same way as Cult of Youth: shrugging his shoulders and saying 'fuck it'.
"In its current location, we signed the lease last November and we've been open since January," he says, unable to hide a smile. "I ran it for a a year and a half, maybe two years, before then. My girlfriend owns a vintage clothing shop…it was too big for them to fill up when they first opened and I was like, 'let me pay you 'x' a month and put some records in the back and see what happens.'
"We started with this many records" - he makes a gesture with his hands to indicate 'tiny' - "and had five copies of the same things, and years later now we have thousands of records in stock. It's kind of incredible that it worked like that!
"At the time I pretty much sacrificed everything in my life to make it work," he finishes. "I quit drinking, quit doing drugs, I quit spending on myself, I quit going out to dinner…completely living like a monk, 100% of my time and effort dedicated to that one thing."
In today's make-or-break music industry, dedication like this is hard to come by. And when the latest indie acts begin to fade away, you can guarantee that Sean Ragon will still be there, working away in the underbellies of the scene, creating art for the sake of art, rather than for the sake of gaining something else.
Cult of Youth are touring Europe until October 6th and tour the US from October 16th. Love Will Prevail is out now.