In conversation with Robert Ryan of Electric Tattoo and SOMA

On Saturday, April 1, at the Trinity Church in Asbury Park, SOMA will be celebrating the release of their record Shiva / Shakti as they headline an immersive event featuring musicians and live projectionists alike.

Celebrated artist and NJ native Robert Ryan is a deeply spiritual person. Since the late ’90s, the co-owner of Electric Tattoo (Asbury Park) has gained notoriety for his original style that blends spirituality—specifically, symbolic images or icons that are prevalent in Eastern cultures/religions—with traditional American tattooing.

Though preceded by his reputation as a visual artist, Ryan has also long been involved with music. Over the years he’s performed in multiple bands including Out Like Lambs and Lord Sterling, and has explored a variety of genres including punk, psychedelic, indie and experimental. Most recently, Ryan has been satiating the desire to create/play music, while simultaneously nourishing his spirituality, as a member of the Kirtan band Sacred Order of Mystic Apogees, or SOMA for short. 

For the uninitiated, Kirtan can most simply be described as the act of praising the Divine with the intention of fostering one’s devotion to said Divinity. Characterized by ancient mantras sung in a recurring, call-and-response fashion, Kirtan songs may seem repetitive and non-complex in structure to the layman—and that’s more or less by design. Unlike other styles of music where songs can be sung to an audience, Kirtan is defined by the mutual participation of whoever is leading the mantra and everyone else in attendance repeating it back; therefore, mantras are both inherently powerful, yet simple enough for the audience to follow and recite. 

While catchy hooks and rowdy concerts are not essential to the nature of Kirtan, SOMA’s musical stylings (not to mention the eclectic array of instruments used to inform their sound) are mind-expanding and their performances are capable of eliciting a dopamine release not dissimilar to what one might experience at, say, a rap or hardcore show. 

This Saturday, April 1, at the Trinity Church in Asbury Park, SOMA will be celebrating the release of their record Shiva / Shakti as they headline an event, featuring musicians and live projectionists alike, that’s been aptly dubbed “an immersive experience” by presenters Light Brigade Collective and the Luminous Abstract Society. 

Ahead of Saturday’s show, we had a chance to talk with Ryan about SOMA’s origins, the new record, his spirituality and more. 

One of the things I like about SOMA is that you seem open to playing anywhere. I’ve seen you twice now: once at a yoga studio on a farm where most of the folks in attendance were familiar with Kirtan, and then at Asbury Park Yacht Club (RIP) where a few people walking in from the boardwalk were a little confused or didn’t know how to process what they were seeing/hearing. Does SOMA make a concerted effort to play venues where people might not expect to see you, or are you just open to playing wherever? 

Part of the mission of the band is to try and bring the music to as many people as possible. Because a lot of the music is traditional, we’re more or less trying to do our part to keep these songs [alive]. At first we were a little bit at odds with the idea of playing bars because the attentiveness might not be the same. But we’re not trying to gate keep these songs, you know? We can just present them to whoever and they can respond to them however they feel and hopefully it will connect on some level.

We’re not trying to convert anybody either… [our goal] is to just glorify the songs which, to us, are sacred. Our belief is that everything that is sacred is truly everywhere so we might as well just play wherever we’re offered.

How did SOMA form? 

Me and Kevin have known each other since we were kids, and we had played in a group prior to SOMA called Mishra Bhakti…Soma was born out of that. Mishra Bhakti was just traditional Kirtan music, but Kevin and I wanted to expand on it and bring more soundscape kinds of things into it and break out of the idea of just being a Kirtan group. As much as I love that kind of music, there are a lot of trappings and preconceived expectations of what Kirtan should be – like the stuff you see traditionally at the yoga studio. We wanted to do something that’ll kind of turn that on its head. There’s a place for that obviously, but it’s not what I liked about the traditional Bhajan music. 

We’re heavily influenced by the street performers in India and we wanted to embrace that more…[music for] the common people, the people that have regular jobs and are out in the world and have a deep connection to God or to inner self-discovery. [This music] is not just for the yoga schools, it’s not just for the practitioners or monks, it’s for everyone. 

What was your background in music before playing in Kirtan bands? 

I played in punk and hardcore bands for the last 25 years, 30 years. And so did Kevin and Mike as well. [Mike was not] in the same circles as me and Kevin, because he is a lot younger, but we definitely have a lot of the same influences.

How has traveling to India shaped your devotion and practice? How many times have you been there?

I’ve been going every year for the last 13 or 14 years, with the exception of the [time when travel was prohibited] during the pandemic. For me, personally, going there opened my eyes to the everyday reality that is the spiritual life. It’s not just like something that you do part of the time. Here (in America) we compartmentalize…a lot of times we’ll just go to church on Sunday; our spiritual life is one thing, and then our work life is another thing, and our relationships are another. But many of the [truly spiritual] people you meet in India, this is their life, it’s their practice and it’s what they do. It’s people with regular jobs like you and me, there’s householders… but they are practicing constantly.

That’s super inspiring when you see it firsthand because it’s their culture. [In India] people aren’t bashful about their devotion and they’re not trying to hide it because it might not be cool or hip. But they’re also not trying to make a show of it either. It’s really cool to see the humility, but also the fervor there. Getting to kind of connect with these very ancient practices that have been going on for thousands of years, and it’s still happening there daily. To experience that, to be invited openly and very warmly into that…it’s been a huge inspiration for me.

Kirtan songs, as guided by the mantras, all seem very structured. With that in mind, what is SOMA’s songwriting process like and is there a lot of freedom for creativity?

Well, it’s interesting because like, there’s tons of assigned things in the songs that we’re doing. The way that you chant, the amount of time something gets chanted, the intonation of the songs…we try to do all the chanting as properly as possible. And then a lot of the tunings, or even the beats on the Mridanga drums…they’re all kind of assigned. They’re these traditional arrangements, but within that framework, every single person that’s ever played those songs has brought something else to it. It’s like if someone were to give you a palette with blue, red, and yellow paint, but you could paint whatever you want. What happens with these traditional arrangements, because it’s so repetitive, eventually the song kind of shifts on its own no matter what.

Where did you record “SHIVA / SHAKTI” ? 

We recorded that at Retromedia in Red Bank with Adam Vaccarelli. I played in a band with Adam called Out like Lambs, and I think he’s such a great engineer. I’ve recorded with him a bunch on some other projects as well; I love his studio and working with him.

I imagine SOMA performing inside Trinity Church, with the visual projections running along the church walls and ceiling, is going to be an incredible spectacle. Was there ever any question as to where the release show would be?

We always wanted to do the release at the church, that was our number one spot. We played there once before, opening for the wonderful singer Parvathy Baul… after playing there once and realizing the range of sound that you can get there, we’re like, “we gotta do the record release here.”

When performing with SOMA, are you always very present/aware? Can chanting the mantras bring you to a meditative state?

Actually, yes. The result of being in that meditative state is the awareness. So, you become very sensitive to the entire audience and the level of participation. That’s like one of my favorite things about these shows: each person there isn’t just a receptor for sound, they’re an actual participant. The audience is like an amplifier for whatever we’re doing; as we get louder, they’ll get louder, you know? The intensity of the rhythms when people are clapping along, it raises the energy so much, and as the energy raises in the room, it raises in us. It’s a very active and passive relationship, it goes back and forth.

What do you want people to know about SOMA and the new album? Any particular message for folks who’ve yet been introduced to your music or Kirtan in general?

We’re trying to present something that has had such a huge effect – a positive influence – in each of our lives. We’re also trying to share that anybody’s welcome. A lot of the time people ask like, “oh, is it Hindu?”  Our music is based off the Sanātana Dharma, which is the oldest practice on the planet, but we’re not trying to sound Indian, or we’re not trying to ape somebody’s culture.

We’ve been so touched by these mantras and these traditional Bhajan songs that we’re just doing our part to be a link to that for everybody else. Hopefully the songs will have that same kind of influence on their lives, and then they can pass it along to whoever. I don’t expect a hundred other Kirtan bands to be born out of SOMA, but if just one person is moved to look a little deeper into what we’re doing, or look a little more inward, then it’s mission accomplished.

Sacred Order of Mystic Apogees (SOMA) is: Shivanesh, Kalpa, Vasudeva, Nataraj, Mrityunjaya and Stephen.

Follow SOMA on Instagram

Listen to SHIVA / SHAKTI on Bandcamp