Clean Living And High Thinking: How Hardcore And Hare Krishna Can Work Together

Shelter and Youth Of Today frontman Ray Cappo discusses how the philosophies of punk and Hare Krishna aren't as different as you think

Clean Living And High Thinking: How Hardcore And Hare Krishna Can Work Together
Mischa Pearlman

The world is a very different place today than it was in the mid-’80s and early ’90s, when Ray Cappo formed, respectively, the New York hardcore bands Youth Of Today and Shelter. And so, even within the punk community that prided itself on being outsiders, the fact that Ray used his bands as a vehicle to espouse his spirituality was incredibly unusual. These days, of course, the ideas contained within both Eastern spirituality and punk have become well-known around the world. And while, on paper, the worlds of hardcore punk and Hare Krishna seem miles apart, there was actually a common thread between them, one that’s guided Ray – who, when he’s not embarking on occasional tours with both those bands, works as a yoga teacher – throughout his life and continues to do so. As he prepares to take both bands on a small European jaunt, Ray divests his life lessons, his philosophies and how it felt to be an outcast amongst outcasts.

What was your entry point into both punk and becoming a Hare Krishna?
“I was just sort of on a spiritual path from a young age. Part of me getting into punk was a rebellion against mainstream existence, with the music, and I was always into the concept of self-betterment. I just turned more towards Eastern thought because it resonated with me as a sort of a very wide gate understanding of a spiritual path. And so with that, I just started consuming tons of books from the East, and philosophy – and not just philosophy for the sake of debating or being philosophical, but practical ways to upgrade my life. I wanted a meditation practice, I was already a strict vegetarian, I didn’t take any drugs or alcohol – so in one sense it was a little bit weird. I was like a punk of the punks in one sense, because the punks were all totally into drugs and stuff like that, and if you weren’t, it was considered completely weird. Why would you not be into it? We’re an alternative. But to me, it was no alternative – because everybody’s getting wasted. I wanted the complete opposite of that, so I sort of became a complete outcast of the punk scene. And truthfully, I was fine with that. The music was aggressive and strong, and it gave me a good platform. We were into clean living and high thinking, and that became our message. Now, self-betterment and self-help are very in vogue, and everybody’s a vegan. Back then, you couldn’t find a health food restaurant or a veggie burger anywhere."

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At what point did you think to mix your spirituality with your music? Because on the surface, they seem like such opposites – the peacefulness and that aggression.
“Well, I think if you were a fly on the wall in the culture back then, it wasn’t a weird hairpin turn. It was an alternative culture, also. Back in the ’80s, the whole Lower East Side of New York was an alternative culture, so with that there was a community of people that, although we had different music, different backgrounds, different diets and different spiritual paths, it was all alternative to the norm. So to see a freaky Krishna guy, a freaky goth guy or a Wicca girl, a vegan or a vegetarian or a macrobiotic – we were all just a bunch of freaks. That’s why we hung out with hip-hop guys – all the hardcore guys knew the hip-hop guys, and Madonna hung out with us. Everybody hung out back in the ’80s because we were all a bunch of freaks – and in that there was some kind of common unity. I got into punk and I was already straight-edge and a vegetarian, so that was a little weird, but again, there was a whole culture of it within that subculture. It was different than typical American suburban high school for sure, but at the same time everybody was just doing their own crazy thing. You had anarchists and squatters and a straight-edge kid and these American nationalists, and they were all clumped together as a bunch of weirdos – but somehow there was a weird co-existence. We tolerated each other because the mainstream hated us all.”

So you were united in opposing this common enemy, this other force.
“I mean, the force was just so different than us – mainstream music, mainstream food, mainstream lifestyle, mainstream clothing – and in retrospect, even though we were all completely different and the people I hung out with were nothing like mes. That’s what New York was like in the ’80s – at least the culture of mine. There was mainstream culture in New York too, but it was a weird place. It was a sort of Wild West, so to speak – the police were corrupt, the city was dangerous. The city now is like a Disneyland and it’s safe; I’m happy because my mom lives there and I’m glad she’s not dealing with the stuff we had to deal with. But back then it was scary, so you clumped together with other people.

"One of the biggest yoga groups in the world is called Jivamukti. They have this big place in London, a big place in New York, and the founders of that were these punk guys we knew from the Lower East Side – they were just a freaky group also that did yoga. It wasn’t such a weird thing, but it was a different thing, and now, 30 years in, the tree has just grown different fruits. Now the fruit is that I’m a yoga teacher and a father, and I did all this stuff in my youth and occasionally we get together and write songs and play music.”

How important was it for you to spread your message – with Shelter particularly? Presumably that was an integral part of what you were doing.
“I feel music and messages go hand in hand together – otherwise music just becomes a soundtrack. Which is okay. But I feel if you have a stage to say something that’s going to benefit people, why not use that stage? It’s almost like you get a platform to speak and if you have something good to say you can really affect people in a deep way – why would you waste that opportunity? For me, times were so problematic that I always felt myself like a mouthpiece of social change – which stems from your own personal change – and I still feel like it’s important to say those things. It’s how I want to raise my kids, it’s how I teach my yoga students, it’s how I wrote my lyrics. I feel like I have a platform to lead by example and to share that. Especially when they’re stemming from an inspirational place. For me, it was old wisdom literature from Ancient India. I felt these were so deep, and we’ve gone so off-track in modern culture that it would help for people to just hear these type of things. So in a very broadminded way, I tried to put these truthful ideas as lyrics.

"Instead of writing a love song, or a song about being broken-hearted, which are really just like reading a tabloid, and who wants to read or hear that? If I’m going to give a person a book, I’d rather give them Shakespeare than People magazine – so if there’s some truth you can give a person in a CD or an LP or some music, give them some truth, instead of the same old dumb love song that everybody’s been singing forever.”

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Punk’s always been a little bit against that, and against the sappy old love song.
“Punk’s been sort of everything, and it’s always been. After punk rock, it’s like, how much do you want to hear about how much you want to hate the government? How about work on your own problems? And even with, say, a marriage problem – if you go to a good therapist, what’s a good therapist going to say? ‘You got a problem with your wife? What’s your problem?’ Anybody who’s a little bit thoughtful, right down to Western therapy, will say ‘Stop complaining and start working on yourself.’ So you’re right – punk went through this whole phase, where it’s like you want to blame the government, you want to blame the Queen, you want to blame the president, you want to blame the CIA. I get it. They’re corrupt, they’ve got deep pockets, they couldn’t give a shit about you – I get that. But what about you? When are you going to change yourself? I know you want the whole world to change, but when are you going to change? And I think that’s why I liked straight edge – I felt like we’re turning the microscope on me. And I felt like at the same time you can get a little arrogant with that too, and I felt like my next band, Shelter, got a little bit more into dealing with the stuff that the Buddhists or the Hindus wrote about. Some people would even say, ‘Yeah, you can’t write about spiritual things with punk’ and my answer to that was, ‘I thought you said there are no rules? If there’s no rules, fuck you. I can write whatever I want. Don’t say there’s no rules and now all of a sudden come after me with some rules?’”

Do you think you made things harder for yourself by being who you were?
“Here’s the deal. If you have some deep, deep inner calling within your heart, what are you going to do? Dumb that down to win people over? All you can do is follow and speak your heart. And if people don’t like you, you’re going to have to let that go. If I’m here just to please people, what’s that going to get me in life? Sometimes you’ve just got to do what you believe in, despite public opinion. And you know what? It worked out good. For all the people that gave me the finger, there’s a bunch of people who are like, ‘That changed my life.’ I’ve met kids all over the world who got serious about their spiritual life – not just Eastern spiritual life, but I’ve met people who have become Christian mystics from listening to Shelter. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a home run – for a person to get serious about their own spiritual life.”

For someone who already didn’t drink or do drugs, how did spirituality help you evolve as a person?
“I think the clean living gave me a foundation, and the spirituality started to refine who I was becoming as a man, and who I later became as a husband and a father. It starts to refine your consciousness – the way you think and see the world, the way you treat people, the way you treat your body and yourself. It sort of acts as an internal GPS.”

How did it feel when you first reformed and you were playing those songs and channelling your youth?
“I don’t think it’s such a big deal to sing the songs, because the songs speak to where I’m at today. I can still stand behind them for the most part and a lot of the ideas that I wrote, even in my teenage years, but it does channel a different energy, and I’m sort of shocked when I get up onstage now – like, wow, this is powerful stuff. There’s definitely something that takes over me and it does sort of channel my youth into my body again, and the feelings and emotions that were there when you were writing the songs. And I really like the songs, actually. I think it’s important to like the songs that you wrote.”

Do you now relate them to what’s going on in the world today?
“Truthfully, a lot of the songs are more relevant today. One of our most popular records was Break Down The Walls – it doesn’t get any more relevant than that in America right now.”

Is that something you find depressing?
“I just think the world is polarised more. And truthfully, I think the mainstream is ready to hear these messages now. It just wasn’t spoken about, but now the world is splitting and people literally have to choose sides in how they want to take care of their bodies, take care of their consciousness, take care of their mind, raise their families. Back then, things were sort of merged. You couldn’t find health food, but the junk food wasn’t so junky, whereas now it’s extreme – the junk food is so bad and yet you can get Chinese medicines and alternative health treatments, and you’re one Google search away from finding a natural cure for cancer. It wasn’t like that. It was all just sort of merged, but now the world is polarised and you have to like opt in to a whole new diet or lifestyle, or just get sucked by the current of trashiness – American trash food, American trash thought, American trash culture. You really have to opt out of that and choose the new alternatives, which are now no longer alternative. It’s like the country is split.”

What do you think your legacy is – as a musician, as a teacher, as a human?
“As a musician, I guess it’s the contribution you left behind – live performances, but also the music and the lyrics. Those last after you die. Your children last after you die. And I plan on doing tons of writing right now – writing books – so hopefully those will last after I die. As far as legacy, between books and music, that’s probably the best I’ll get in this lifetime.”

Are you scared of dying? If something happened tomorrow and your life ended, would you be content with it doing so?
“I think I’ve made a little bit of peace with my temporality. I’m happy with what I did today, and with how I lived today. I’m happy with that, and with how I relate to my children and my family and my students and the contribution I gave to this world. I’m okay if I have to die today. Maybe that sounds overly unreal, but I think I am.”

Shelter will play The Dome in London, UK, on November 4. Get your tickets now.

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