Nym: Countermagic release show

Sat., Feb. 1, 9 p.m.  

Arcana, Durham

Three days before its January 6 release, the INDY premiered the title track from Countermagic, the sixth album by Durham-based electronic musician Lewis Scaife, aka Nym

I liked the record, a lush, sleek blend of downtempo and instrumental hip-hop enriched with live musicians and sword-and-sorcery movie samples. Nothing else suggested a concept except for the song titles: “Nocus Pocus,” “Hex Deflector,” “Incan’tation.”

I’d been emailing with Scaife, gathering routine background detail. Almost as an afterthought, I wrote, “There’s clearly some sort of magic theme around this record, what’s up with that?”

Countermagic is about protecting ourselves from the supernatural threats that surround us,” he replied. 

“It has been personally revealed to me that I am a Countermagician,” he went on. “I can render curses ineffective. I can make ghosts invisible, inaudible, and otherwise undetectable. I can turn magical crystals into inert stones or invert their magical polarity to cause a negative effect equal to their former power. Sorcerers find themselves powerless in my presence. Sometimes, clients come to me complaining that they are being harassed by psychics—I can use my powers to turn these pesky precognitions into relatively safe postcognitions. All for a very low fee, considering the personal risks involved.

“Some unbelievers have called this album ‘deep cover skepticism,’” he concluded. “This just goes to show that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.”

I had two swift reactions to this email: excitement, because nothing excites a writer like a vivid, unusual story; and wariness, because here was a guy saying he could nullify magic and releasing his album about it at a Tarot-themed bar. It’s one thing to concoct a counter-magical “protagonist” for your album promo. Insisting that it’s real is something else. 

“If someone had a magic crystal in their pocket and I rendered it inert before they went into a job interview, that would be a fairly despicable thing to do. I don’t go into Everyday Magic and wave my hand over the merchandise.”

Either Scaife had unique beliefs and experiences, or he was dissimulating—for media manipulation, a skeptic’s crusade, general lulz, or some other hidden purpose. I held out hope for the former right up until his closing warning against credulity. But I still wanted to know what he was up to. I asked if he was serious. 

“Let’s just say you can’t prove I’m not serious,” he replied. 

Apparently, a game of cat and mouse was underway. 

I was sharply aware that with one email, a subject had bumped himself from short review to longer feature. I suspected Scaife of “deep-cover skepticism” as soon as he preemptively rebutted it, and it struck me as a little icky, as Scaife is a white man invoking traditions from other cultures and communities. There seemed to be an ethical difference between applying the concept of counter-magic to things like haunted houses or fantasy novels and things like African-American spiritual folkways (“Voodon’t”) or Wicca (“Whichcraft”).   

Scaife claimed he believed in magic and could counteract it; I suspected he was a rationalist troll. But a troll can hold sincere, illuminating beliefs, and maybe I was wrong. So I set out to learn how counter-magic related to Scaife’s experience, what he hoped to achieve by promoting it, and whether that context shined a more or less sympathetic light on his motivations.

Even though this deceptive narrative implicated me in the story in an unusual, uncomfortable way, I decided to play. 

I arrived at Scaife’s house in Durham on a sunny winter afternoon. He showed me the computer where he makes music and then led me to the back deck. I sat on the edge of a deck chair to face him and took off my sunglasses. He reclined in the other chair, facing the sun, and kept his sunglasses on.

Through streams and licensing, Scaife makes his living from his music; downtempo is popular in Europe, where he has a big enough following that his album prices default to the euro. He says he grew up in rural Virginia and lived in San Francisco after college. He moved to Durham in 2016. He’s not necessarily a reliable source, but there’s an ample online trail to support his basic biography. 

Scaife has been releasing albums as Nym since 2006. For someone who never played an instrument, he displays a fine ear for melody and composition on Countermagic, a joint release with Athens’s Melting Records. To compose, he listens to world music from online archives and develops a sense of its unique harmonic profiles, collaging them into a foundation. Perhaps it’s ironic, as he’ll later note, that he describes his role like that of a spirit medium. 

“I’ll hear these melodies that emerge,” he said. “They’re already there, and I just need to listen. It’s like you’re holding pottery and you drop it and pick it up and make a new picture out of it, a mosaic approach. I feel like I’m more like a facilitator than the driving force.” 

To translate his computer melodies for instruments, Scaife enlisted guitarist Zach Scribner, violinist Morgan Fleming, flutist Tonito Walls, and others, including his girlfriend, Melissa Rakowitz, who performs as Spherelet. Some of them will join him at the Arcana release show on February 1. 

In terms of polish, Countermagic is Scaife’s most ambitious record yet. Its theming is more ambitious, too. Warm Blooded Lizard, from 2011, had a simple Spaghetti Western concept, while 2017’s Lilac Chaser was about optical illusions. Scaife said that it was after the latter that he discovered his powers and abandoned skepticism. 

He shifted into the particular tone—evasive, stickling, archly orotund—that he uses when he talks about counter-magic. 

“I am able to dispel curses, and where I go, ghosts aren’t,” he said. 

Did this happen by his presence alone, or was an action required?

“I don’t know. This is very mysterious to me,” he said. “The rituals are very minor. For all I know, it could just be the presence. I know it works because there are no ghosts afterward.”

How did he know there were ghosts before?

“I have to take the person at their word. If they have a haunted house, and I see no ghosts, I can only assume that the ghosts fled my presence.”

How were these powers revealed to him?

“After a lifelong appreciation of skepticism, I had to take a hard look at the facts. If I have to take other people at their word, they have to take me at mine. I can only assume they’re mistaken, telling the truth, or lying. If they’re telling the truth, I must accommodate this new subset of reality that they’re proposing with an explanation of my own.”

I’m concerned that someone with closely held beliefs who wanted special privileges or respect in our society could be disingenuous about this and get those privileges just on their say-so. That’s my fear, that someone’s out there being insincere about this, while I’m dead serious.”

Scaife said he discovered his powers at a séance at Arcana.  

“It was proposed that it was my presence that disrupted the séance,” he said. “I was flattered. I didn’t think I had the power in me.”

How did the people at the séance feel about that?

“Frustrated,” he said. To the suggestion that skepticism alone would be enough to disrupt a séance, he replied, “I’m no longer skeptical. I can only propose it was my magical powers.” 

I said it all sounded like an intellectual dare from a rationalist in mystic’s clothing. 

“I can understand why people would think that, but I will not accept it,” he said. But he would concede that animus for organized religion is a factor.

“I’m concerned that someone with closely held beliefs who wanted special privileges or respect in our society could be disingenuous about this and get those privileges just on their say-so. That’s my fear, that someone’s out there being insincere about this, while I’m dead serious.”

I asked if anyone had tried to problematize this idea for him—after all, some of these belief systems are the redoubts of marginalized populations—and if he wanted to hurt people.

“No, and that’s the scary thing. If someone had a magic crystal in their pocket and I rendered it inert before they went into a job interview, that would be a fairly despicable thing to do. I don’t go into Everyday Magic and wave my hand over the merchandise. It’s something I do have to be conscious of exerting.”

Throughout, Scaife maintained a neutral expression occasionally broken by a charming, disingenuous grin. Near the end, he told me he’d given me “a quick visual pat-down” to make sure I didn’t bring anything negative, such as an evil talisman, into his home. Apparently, I hadn’t. He sent me off with a plastic tub of greens he’d grown in his garden. 

still wondered if there was a sincere core in Scaife’s artifice, but when I tried to fact check the Arcana séance, he said he’d misspoken—it was actually just a Ouija board. He directed me to Rob Hansen, a friend from San Francisco who is credited for “thematic/genre consulting” on Countermagic. I wrote to ask if he’d talk, and he sent back a long, entertaining, garishly fictional story. 

In a wink-nudge tone, Hansen spun an elaborate tale of moving into a haunted apartment next door to Scaife, who promises to use his music to keep Hansen safe and gives him a bottle of whiskey as a “hex deflector.” In exchange, Hansen has to pay Scaife’s Wi-Fi bill—in laundry quarters, no less—and watering his plants is part of the protection ritual. 

It’s as if Scaife were Tom Sawyer tricking his friend into whitewashing a fence. I was now fully in on the joke.

Meanwhile, Scaife emailed to clarify his thoughts on the cultural-appropriation issues I had broached.  

“I’m a straight, white, cis male homo sapiens, and surely labor under some internalized delusions of privilege,” he wrote. “But I feel that I identify only circumstantially with all of those categories—especially the last. Worse to me than any malignant magician or pernicious priest is the superstition of anthropocentrism. … Countermagic isn’t about targeting at-risk people, it’s about engaging the interested, out-maneuvering the skeptical, and conferring with the credulous.”

He pointed out the paternalism of my assumption that certain communities “need” magical beliefs, and I said that, as it seemed we agreed that he was talking in character, I cared more about his motivations than his sincerity. I asked if there was some formative, perhaps traumatic experience he’d had with magical beliefs.  

“I’d be happy to try and take the wizard hat off, but I consider it thematically important to the album that the character isn’t broken,” he replied. 

But for once, he told me the straight truth: He perceived a taboo around challenging the spiritual beliefs of others, and counter-magic’s emphatic, unfalsifiable, dubious claims were meant to redirect a burden of proof onto magical beliefs.

The game had run its course. Did anyone win? I appreciated the creativity lavished on it, though I thought there was something a little juvenile about the logical trap. Scaife had succeeded in making a mountain out of an instrumental hip-hop molehill, which amused him. I still think the record is good, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to listen to it in the same way now. It’s not that I dislike Scaife. But I don’t trust him, and I wonder if I brought something negative into my home. 

I never could quite bring myself to eat his greens.

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com. 

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