Circuit-bender, photographer, spiritual mentalist, professional hypnotherapist, experimental vocalist, and all-around seeker, Carly Ptak would probably never attribute these descriptions to herself.
Oct 1 2008, 12:00am
Circuit-bender, photographer, spiritual mentalist, professional hypnotherapist, experimental vocalist, and all-around seeker, Carly Ptak would probably never attribute these descriptions to herself. She used to live in Ann Arbor, where she met Twig Harper, now her husband, and in 1996 the two of them moved to Chicago, where they ran the Mystery Spot, the absolute raddest furniture and junk shop ever. Seriously, they had such an eye for the weird and the interesting—and they sold it for cheap—that every trip there felt like some kind of expedition.
She and Twig comprise now legendary noise outfit Nautical Almanac, an act that’s been actively mutating in size and output since 1994 (she’s been in it since ’96). In 2001, they bought an old, run-down three-story building in the west side of Baltimore and dubbed it Tarantula Hill. They fixed it up and decorated it like a cross between a psychedelic dollhouse and the Unabomber’s shack, ran a record label called Heresee in it, and held shows in the attic. On St. Patrick's Day, 2006, while they were at the No Fun Fest in New York City, their house caught on fire and burned down. After going through some dark times—figuratively and literally as they spent months with no electricity—they fixed the house up a second time, went on a vision quest to Peru, incorporated video and lights into their live performance, and got married. Somewhere in the meantime, Carly went to hypnotherapy school and now runs her own business as a hypnotherapist. We talked right after she returned from a food-gathering trip to the woods.
Tell me about your recent foraging expedition.
I went with my friend Andrew, whom I met when he was in high school. I could tell he was really special. He came to shows at our house. He was one of the only high schoolers who ever came. Now he’s 24 and he knows so much. It was the first time I’ve been in the natural outdoors and also working, not just walking around appreciating the trees. I was looking for things, identifying things, digging them up, storing them.
So what do you mean by working?
Not just letting my mind rest—trying to talk to a plant, trying to figure it out. That’s working to me.
What did you find?
I got sumac and made sumac soda pop. It’s delicious.
So it was a learning trip?
For me it was, but for Andrew, since he lives on the west coast—he’s into alchemy, he goes to herbalism school—he was collecting plants he doesn’t usually have access to. He was looking for this old growth forest, which is a place that’s never been cut down, but we never found it.
How can you identify something like that?
Since the ground has never been dug up, completely different plants live in it. Also the trees are bigger.
You’ve been getting more into food lately.
Yes, learning how to prepare different things, learning about finding food without anybody but me and preparing it so I can save and store it. And being more in control of what I put into my body.
Are you preparing for something specific?
Sometimes I feel I am. Definitely I feel that things can’t keep up the way they are. I’m prepared if they do, but there are so many cracks that it’s good to know where you can get clean water and be able to identify a couple things you can eat.
Living in a huge city, this kind of talk always freaks me out.
It used to freak me out too, before I met a teacher of whom I could ask any question.
Who was that?
Duncan Laurie, but there was a trail that led to him. During that trail I was asking paranoid questions, and you know who I asked? Richard Metzger. Once I had enough people to ask questions to, and I truly listened to their answers, I was able to let go of the feeling that there was anything wrong with change.
Richard Metzger seems like a helpful person to ask paranoid questions to. How did you meet him?
While on a tour I first went to Paul Laffoley’s studio. He’s a pretty visionary diagrammatic artist in Boston. I felt like he cut off the top of my head and poured in a big pitcher of jelly. By the end I was practically crying because I was so overwhelmed with information. Knowing that he is something of a hub, Paul told me that I should go see Richard Metzger. I told Paul I was looking for someone to talk to, and I knew it wasn’t him because I didn’t have anything to give back. So I went to Richard Metzger’s house.
What did he tell you?
He talked about the nature of change, and accepting it. He’s really into Aleister Crowley so he pushed me more into reading his stuff, which I’d always avoided up until then.
What do you think of Crowley now?
I have a great deal of respect for him. His sheer output was massive in every direction, not just his writing but also his cultural influence. It’s not like I want to teach or live exactly what he says, but his life is very paradoxical and I am attracted to that. Paradoxes usually signify something of a truth for me. Also, I think he’s similar to Jesus and the Buddha in that much of his teaching directed you to find your own way, although those who followed him then and now do try to do it his way too.
Let’s go back to Duncan. He was your first… guru?
I don’t know what the word is! Teacher is a word too but these kinds of words don’t work for me because the relationship is give and take. That’s what I discovered just by looking for him. I needed to find someone who had something to learn from me too. And he’s my friend but he’s more than my friend because I know he knows a lot more things than I do. So I haven’t figured out the word for him yet. Do you have a suggestion?
Mentor is the one I use in situations like this. Obviously the other word that pairs with it is “student.” It’s like parent and child, where it implies a slight bit of hierarchy but it’s understood that there’s a huge exchange.
I think that’s a good idea.
So you seek out people—let’s just call ’em “mentors” for now—specific individuals, actually.
Yeah, but my question to them was less "Who is my mentor?" and more "Whom should I meet while I'm traveling around?"
How did you know that Duncan would be your main mentor for a while?
Back when I was visiting Paul Laffoley he also mentioned Duncan, but my response was basically, “Oh too late, we already went to the east coast so I don't know when I will meet him,” and I forgot about it. Six months later I woke up one morning with his name practically emblazoned across my eyes. That’s when I wrote him a letter and sent my CD Prepare Your Self and he invited me to come visit. This was in 2003. The way in which he welcomed me, I was overcome. And his studio is located in a very powerful place, on ironstone surrounded by three beds of water. Just being there has a physical effect on me.
Please give me a refresher on Duncan.
He lives in Jamestown, Rhode Island. He’s an artist who got really into doing research on occult technology for several years. One of the things he got really into is Radionics.
What is that?
It’s a machine that acts like an amplifier. Like, say you have a guitar—you need an amp to make it louder. Radionics are machines that work like that for a person’s intent.
You’ve used Radionics in Nautical Almanac.
When I met Duncan he immediately understood that the instruments I was making already were Radionics. It’s an open-ended word.
I’m assuming it’s because you constructed these instruments yourself, just by playing them you were amplifying your sense of invention.
Yes, but the sound coming out wasn’t necessarily my intent. And those boxes already came pre-made, I just bent the circuits, tuned into a different frequency than what it was already programmed to do.
Do you feel like there was a certain point in your life when you turned on? Or do you feel like you were pre-wired for this path?
That’s an interesting question because it comes with the concept of a path and the concept of being able to know who we were at another point in our lives. But yes, I’ve always felt turned on.
Well, I guess I mean that it seems like your output used to be more related to art than spirit or mind. You focused on music and making your instruments and you had your shop.
Things were much more tangible.
I wouldn’t agree with your statement about art, but about material objects, yes. I was using material objects as a way to make community. But to answer your question about the turning point, definitely the fire helped with that. Just having everything burned and not missing it, not really caring that much. But the fire helped magnify it. The first time I met Duncan, he said—and I understood this very clearly—that the boxes don’t matter. After being really into Radionics for a long time he got past the idea of the actual device being necessary to transmit intent.
So was the fire Radionics? Do you think you subconsciously willed it to happen?
The fire was brought about in a radionic manner. There’s no doubt in my mind that Twig and I caused it. The turmoil was already there, it just manifested in the material world, and it wasn’t a surprise to either of us that it manifested as a fire.
You guys lost everything, right?
Oh, we did not!
I thought you lost all of your old recordings of everything you’ve done, your equipment, your possessions, your pets—
Yeah, we lost a lot. I wrote a list of all of it, but that’s not everything! Twig and I have each other, and that’s most important.
That’s incredibly sweet. I’m amazed by how you’re able to frame the situation.
For me it just feels natural.
You and Twig have been together for 14 years and just this summer you got married. Does it feel different?
Yes, mainly in that when we feel disagreeable with each other, there’s a contract underneath. The contract means that disagreement can only go so far, because at the deepest level there is love. We didn’t get married for so long because mostly I was not ready to make that contract. I thought it was limiting and I wanted to live in an unlimited way. I had to grow out of those ideas, and that’s not just applied to marriage, that’s applied throughout my life. Accepting limits is a way of making choices, a way of setting yourself up to make choices that will allow you to be happy.
That’s really nice.
It’s the same thing with hypnotherapy. It’s interesting to have a discipline. When I meet someone I don’t know, I’m most curious about his or her discipline.
What’s your discipline? What do you practice?
It’s always changing but I do a type of standing meditation at least three times a week. I practice answering my phone, which is really hard—having an office and having a cell phone is so foreign to me. I’m practicing being responsible about it.
How did the fire trigger your desire to study hypnotism?
One, I needed to find a way to make money. My source of income, selling stuff on the Internet, had burned up, and I didn’t want to start doing that again. It kind of felt like I had graduated college and was wondering what to do. Two, on an artistic level, I’d become really disillusioned with performing to a lot of people face-to-face on a stage, the type of environment in which our performances were happening. I wasn’t happy with that kind of communication. Hypnotherapy was a way to take it in a new direction.
A lot of people just pick something and go for it. You’re informed by your experiences.
When I chose hypnotherapy, I’d been having pain in my back for a long time. I knew it was mental—because of the fire, I was carrying a lot of stress in my body—so I decided to try a hypnotherapist. When I opened the phone book to look for one I thought, Wait a minute. I don’t want to go to a hypnotherapist; I want to be a hypnotherapist.
What have you been working on recently?
I did a couple past-life regressions. It’s such an interesting experience to find someone who’s open to exploring that.
How does a past-life regression work?
Everybody experiences past lives differently. It’s normal within a past-life regression to see a relationship or circumstances from the past that has an effect on the current life. It doesn’t always happen, but frequently people go to the point where they have a clear understanding why they chose this life or body and they can talk to their spirit guides.
I like how all the modalities you study you tie back to your performance. Even when you started pursuing photography, you plugged that into Nautical Almanac.
That’s a whole conversation right there, what we are. I don’t categorize life in general, and I don’t categorize what we do.
It seems pretty dangerous to use Radionics in a performance. You’re asking for a lot of trust from the audience, which isn’t usually an element when you go see a band.
Yes, it’s a lot of responsibility. I try to be really aware of that. I learn and I make mistakes. But it’s learning for everybody, and whatever lesson anyone needs is fine with me.
Sure, but there’s not a disclaimer or anything before you perform.
There’s no disclaimer before life!