“This is an electric shock collar,” says Luke Wyatt, the musician who records as Torn Hawk, producing an ominous-looking black band from his backpack. We’re sitting in the performance studio at the Mexican Summer offices in Brooklyn, a cavernous room with low lights and acoustic paneling that makes ordinary conversation sound eerily airless. I’ve come here so that Wyatt can practice something on me that he calls “Positive Disruption,” in which he will wreak a small amount of havoc on my life for an hour or so in order to produce a beneficial result. Before Wyatt and I met, I had to fill out a questionnaire he’d designed made up of inscrutable questions like, “How do you get the last bit of toothpaste from the tube,” and “What magazines do you subscribe to,” and which ended with a request for me to send him a photo of the inside of my refrigerator.
Wyatt has been practicing Positive Disruptions for a few years now, an extension of the kind of body-and-soul harmony he’s been exploring in his work as Torn Hawk. I arrived braced for Wyatt to ridicule me, make me put on a costume, or even attempt to shave my head. I was not, however, prepared to strap on an electric shock collar.
“The collar has 100 levels,” he explains calmly. “It’s actually designed for dogs.” He pauses. “You don’t use spray-on deodorant, do you? Because if you do, we would have to stop immediately.” Just as I’m beginning to work out the science behind spray-on deodorant acting as a rapid transit system for electrical current, Wyatt adds, “Now, I was going to make you put this on, but I thought that was too fucked up. So instead, I’m going to put it on, and we’ll test your capacity for empathy.”
On the latest Torn Hawk record, Union and Return, Wyatt moves away from the blinking electronics of its predecessor, the hilariously-titled Let’s Cry and Do Pushups at the Same Time, in favor of slow-moving, obtusely-structured songs that nod toward neo-classical music with their strange cadences and herky-jerk melodies. If his music is an extension of his, let’s say, “therapeutic” work, Union offers a kind of ‘positive disruption’ to typical linear songwriting, using sudden shifts in momentum to create something new and startling.
“I stole the term ‘positive disruptions’ from something that I did in the past with some friends,” Wyatt explains. “We had a friend who was, like, rolling up quarters so he could buy beer at the bar and shampoo so he could stop stealing from his roommates. So my friends and I decided to shoot this movie and cast him in the lead role. He’s a bad actor, but we did it because we were trying to yank him out of his crappy routine and force him into teenage playtime by giving him something else to focus on.”
Since then, Wyatt has expanded his practice to include people outside his immediate circle. “If there’s some 45-year-old ladies that want me to come over and deal with their disorganized pantry, I’m going to come over and ‘positively disrupt’ their kitchen routine. You need a codified terminology for people to take you seriously. This whole thing basically allows me to do something that I’ve done many times before, which is give people advice as a way of telling myself what to do.”
It’s clear after only a few minutes of speaking with him that Wyatt is a natural for this line of work. A self-described “control freak,” he is almost distractingly handsome and has the kind of wry delivery that creates an instant sense of camaraderie by making it seem as if he’s as skeptical about his techniques as you are. One minute, you’re joking about the archetype of the “sweatshirt-soft male pot smoker,” the next he’s producing an electric shock collar from his knapsack and informing you that you’re going to do push-ups.
“We’re going to start with a warm-up that I call ’10 Plus 10,’” he says. “It simulates the hammering triviality that one goes through when promoting a record. We’re going to do push-ups, and we’re going to do them as fast as we can. And after each set I’m going to ask you a series of questions. You have to answer quickly and move on to the next set, or we start over from the beginning, and I get shocked.”
The notion of doing a set of push-ups in time with Wyatt is daunting–even in a baggy button-down it’s clear that he’s in exponentially better shape than I am. I struggle through the first round, after which Wyatt immediately turns the whole experience inside-out, making what was initially just a strange premise for a feature into a kind of meta-joke on the entire act of feature-writing itself. “What are the 10 dumbest interview questions you can possibly ask?” I blurt out seven quickly — “Where did you get your band name?” “How did your band meet?” — before I come to a dead stop and there’s a muffled buzz and Wyatt’s head suddenly jerks sideways. “Not fast enough. We have to do it again.”
We make it through the first round and I clear the next few gauntlets easily: Tell me 10 things you like about yourself, Tell me 10 things you wish you could change about yourself. When I list The Force Awakens as one of my 10 favorite films of the previous year, Wyatt’s head snaps back again. “Did you not like that movie?” I asked. “No,” he replies, “I just felt like giving myself a shock.”
After I’m sufficiently red-faced and winded, Wyatt issues the final command: “Call five people you haven’t spoken to in a while who you want to re-connect with and tell them what you’re doing right now.”
At this point, I freeze up, and decide immediately that I’m going to cheat. I have a paralyzing fear of cold-calling, and the notion of contacting someone who I, say, went to Bible College with 20 years ago and explaining to them that I’m doing push-ups with a musician who will administer an electric shock to himself if I don’t follow his orders is too much for me to stare down. I quickly dial one of Bandcamp’s Senior Editors, our Managing Editor, and a handful of friends who I speak to on a regular basis. (One of them later texts me back: “When I listened to your message, my co-workers were like, ‘Why do you have that weird look on your face?’”) I keep my rule-breaking a secret, but am almost immediately sorry I did. “The reason I asked you to do that is because I try to make people push past the anxiety to do things—even if it seems like a little thing. I try to get them to do things that they’re anxious about, or are even a little bit awkward. It’s way to crack an egg on your head and let the yolk run down.”
We move on to the questionnaire. “You sent me this list of magazines you subscribe to,” Wyatt says. “You read the paper versions of these?” I nod.
“What do you do when there get to be a whole lot of them?”
“I save them,” I reply. He arches an eyebrow.
“Why do you save them? Because you may read them again one day?”
I stammer, and he cuts me off before I can answer.
“I want you to think about that, and also think about what would happen if you were in a situation where a circumstance forced you to leave those magazines behind. What would happen there? I want you to put yourself in the shoes of someone who can’t save those magazines and see where that takes you.”
We move on. “Now, the toothpaste tube. The approach you gave me is OK, but I’d like to share a nice technique with you that I use.” He leans in slightly. “Next time you get to the end of the tube, flatten it all the way out, get a pair of scissors, cut off the end of the tube and stick your toothbrush in there. I’ll bet you get at least a week or two more out of it.” I have literally no response to this. Wyatt shrugs. “Just something to consider.”
We sail through the next few questions easily: What aspects of my life give me the greatest satisfaction? How would I describe my day-to-day outlook? The photo of my refrigerator Wyatt requested was so that he could determine whether or not I was wasting food but, as it turns out, I pass that test easily. “I could needle you a lot more about stuff, but you don’t need it,” he says. “I kind of wish you were more screwed up. I could really dig deeper. But you’re already doing the right shit.”
When the session wraps I feel strangely calm, something Wyatt is used to. “Your point of view is completely malleable, to a degree, and you can act to shift it,” he explains. “You can’t change events or what other people are in control of, but you can change how much you give a shit about them. The worst thing to do is to use the endurance approach, and let yourself be managed by outside events and just try to sit through it.”
“That makes a lot of sense,” I say. “I was sort of nervous about coming in here because I had no idea what you had in store for me. But I can kind of see how this approach is helpful, and can work.”
“Yeah, it’s good,” he says. Then, after a beat: “I mean, you probably would have been more freaked out if I put the collar on you.”
—J. Edward Keyes