The Source Family might seem like the average hippie commune: In the early '70s, World War II veteran Jim Baker opens a vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles, devises philosophies from a mix of Eastern religions, adopts the names Father Yod and YaHoWha ("was, is, will be") and gathers followers to live, work and meditate together.
Over 100 such supporters eventually joined Yod, adopting new monikers with the common surname "Aquarian." But some of them also formed a rock band called YaHoWha 13, whose recordings have become sought-after treasures from an intriguing American underground that continues to find new audiences more than 30 years after Yod's death.
YaHoWha 13 emerged from impromptu jams that followed the Family's 4 a.m. meditation ritual. Yod would simply declare, "Let's play some music," and members of the commune would abide. The lineup changed occasionally, but almost always included Yod on vocals, Djin Aquarian on guitar, Octavius Aquarian on drums and Sunflower Aquarian on bass. The "13" in the name signified Yod as the central "one" fused to these three core colleagues.
The group was mightily prolific, releasing nine LPs on its own Higher Key label between 1973 and 1975, the year of Yod's death at age 50. Originally sold for a dollar each at the Source restaurant, the albums were reissued in the late '90s by Japanese label Captain Trip on the 13-CD set God and Hair (organized by Arlich Aquarian, better known as recently deceased Seeds founder Sky Saxon). Still, zealots wanted more, enticed by rumors that YaHoWha 13 had recorded enough music for over 60 releases. Most of those original tapes no longer exist, but Isis Aquarian—who detailed the Family story in her fascinating 2007 book, The Source—also recorded less formal sessions, creating an archive she calls The Lost Music.
This is where Dave Nuss, a toddler when Yod died, enters the Source story: A member of New York's The No-Neck Blues Band (aka NNCK) and a longtime YaHoWha 13 fan, Nuss saw parallels between their creative process and the communal art of his own group, a mainstay of the New York avant-rock underground since the early '90s. NNCK remains a true collective, with a core of dedicated members involved from the beginning still convening at their Harlem space, The Hint House, to rehearse, record and sometimes live.
"If you squinted your eyes, the environs might resemble a less coercive and significantly poorer version of the Source Family's Father House," Nuss noted in an article for Bixobal magazine.
After developing a friendship with Isis and other surviving Family members, Nuss suggested releasing some non-YaHoWha material on his Sound at One imprint. That could include music by The Voice, a group led by Yod's first wife, Ahom; a solo voice-and-piano recording by Aquariana Aquarian; and a 1980s metal album by guitarist Pythias Aquarian called The Law. Isis recommended that he instead release some of The Lost Music, but Nuss felt a bigger label would be required. Drag City (which had previously put out work by YaHoWha 13 offshoot Children of the 6th Root Race) offered its support, and Nuss began crafting a single-disc release from Isis's reams of material.
"I wanted it to be like a real YaHoWha 13 album that would have been put together back in the '70s," Nuss says of the resulting Magnificence in the Memory. "I was concerned that it not sound like a sampler or something thrown together." Nuss's concern spread to all aspects of the project, including the cover art. "I was trying to preserve the original aesthetic. I kept wondering to myself, is it really my place to even have an opinion about this whole thing?" he recalls. "Eventually [members of the Family] said, 'We'll take your word for it.'"
The effort paid off: Magnificence offers nine vital tracks that touch on garagey psych-pop, ritualized jamming, improvised noise and frantic chanting. Yet it sounds remarkably consistent, due to Yod's forceful presence and the devout playing of his colleagues. The band may follow its own logic, but it's a committed one, roughly like a spiritualized version of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band.
That cohesion is especially impressive given the material Nuss had to work with. "Isis recorded morning meetings on a little reel-to-reel recorder with one stereo mic. So, often she was in one room, and the band was practicing in another," he says. "Sometimes you can hear people near the mic laughing and talking, including Father Yod.
"She also had these stream-of-consciousness notes about the material, but I just sat down and listened to everything. There were songs repeated in different versions; there were half-songs and little blips of talking. By the time I had pared it down, I could make out some of the words. So I'd say to Isis, 'It sounds like Father is saying this.' And she would say, 'Oh yeah, that's called "Camp of the Gypsies.'"
In contrast to some original YaHoWha 13 albums, whose long pieces often stretch out over entire LP sides, the pieces on Magnificence are shorter and sweeter. In that sense, the album serves as a good entry point for any YaHoWha 13 newcomer who might find God and Hair too daunting. "I gravitated more toward the music that had a jamming-in-the-rehearsal-room vibe—the material that feels like, 'We're going to play, but we don't have to make a big deal out of it,'" says Nuss. "They weren't forcing it to be some kind of superextended masterpiece."
Indeed, if you've never heard YaHoWha 13, you might be surprised how tuneful much of Magnificence is. Even when the band spreads out musically, structure underlies the wild sounds. "Going through the archives I was really surprised at how musical some of it was. There are rehearsed chord changes and so on," explains Nuss. "If you listen to a record like Savage Sons of YaHoWha , that album is all chord changes and beautiful songs. And this is the same group of players that was behind that album, so they had songs up their sleeves."
You might even recognize some melodies on Magnificence. The first time I heard Yod's whistling on "Sunshine Man," I thought he was mimicking the hook from George and Ira Gerswhin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" -- and it turns out I might be right. "When I visit the Family and we chant and meditate, they tell me, 'Father always said it doesn't matter what melody you use. The name is what's important, chanting the sacred name ['Yod Heh Vau Heh,' or Fire Water Air Earth, the Family's name for God],'" Nuss explains. "He was into all this pre- and postwar American music, like rally-the-troops kind of songs. He would use any melody from that time, and just chant the divine name to it. So it's not surprising at all if you recognize something traditional in the melodies."
YaHoWha 13 reunited a few years ago and still tours, makes new music and maintains yahowha13.com (a companion to the Family's highly detailed yahowha.org). But much Lost Music remains unheard, and Nuss is hopeful that further editions will surface. He expects the next release to be a live set from 1973 performed at, of all places, Beverly Hills High School. An excerpt can be heard on the CD that comes with the Source book. And he still has hopes for non-YaHoWha material, especially music crafted by female Family members.
"I love all the YaHoWha 13 output, but it is very male-dominated—strong, heavy rock," Nuss says. His enthusiasm for this material echoes the peaceful earnestness of Father Yod. "The women's angle is very gentle, and I feel like that warrants release. We have all the tapes, so it's just like, let's do it. Let's make it happen."