If you’re at all familiar with the ‘70s spiritual commune the Source Family, you probably discovered the Los Angeles-based cult through their band, YaHoWha 13. A rotating collective of musicians orbiting around frontman/guru Father Yod, YaHoWha 13 created droning, ritualistic outsider psych that sounded like nothing else coming from Southern California in the 1970s. Mesmerizing as the music may be on its own terms, it only hints at the epically strange story of the Source Family.
Filmmakers Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, who co-directed the newly released documentary The Source Family, recently gave us some insight into the world of Father Yod and his followers. Their film chronicles the expansive Source Family saga, a tale that begins with a felony-funded health food restaurant and peaks with a fatal hang gliding accident in Hawaii. Our appropriately winding conversation with Wille and Demopoulos eventually meandered away from the history of the Source Family, and on to topics like Billy Corgan’s YaHoWha 13 fandom and the reasons why pagans make the best krautrock.
This is the first full-length feature either of you have directed. Did you just feel that the Source Family story needed to be told? And why did you co- direct?
Jodi: Well, you know Maria and I both have a background in film and video production and mine goes way back; I was directing music videos and a couple commercials, concert specials in the ‘90s. And Maria was directing commercials for a while, and we both met each other while we were assisting music video directors. But for me what happened was around 1998, I started a publishing company. One of the books we did was on the Source Family, and I was working with [Source Family historian] Isis Aquarian on it. We did a lot of interviews with Family members, and when we were doing those interviews around 2006, and she was telling me exactly what she had in the archives – Source Family home movies, and hundreds of hours of audio tapes, with Father Yod doing the music – I realized this would make an extraordinary film. And if I didn’t do it, somebody else would (Laughs).
And I really wanted to do it. I’d never felt constricted by format, and I’m just very interested in certain ideas, and also fascinated by ‘60s and ‘70s subcultures and fringe religious groups. And I have been for 20 years, and I’ve published other books on them. And so, decided that I was going to take that on, I knew that I would need someone who would be really strong at putting it together in the highest quality, and I knew Maria was capable of that. I also really trusted her for sensibility because we’d been friends for 20 years, and she produced one of my favorite documentaries a long time ago, and I just knew it was going to be a big adventure and I wanted to bring in somebody I trusted, sensibility-wise, talent-wise…And that was when it really started getting serious. There’s no way I could have done it without her.
Maria: Thank you Jodi. It’s been a fun, wild ride for sure. For me, I’ve been working in film this entire time but I’ve never done anything of this size, except producing a feature-length documentary. But I’ve never actually directed a feature-length film, so it was just such an honor and so much fun to work on and to collaborate with Jodi and Isis Aquarian who has all the archives, and was the associate producer on the film.
That was something I actually wanted to ask you about…I was struck by how extraordinarily detailed the film was, and I was wondering, did having access to Isis’s archives have a lot to do with that? What was it like piecing this story together when there’s already a sort of official Source Family history in existence?
J: I’d say that working on the book with Isis first probably made all the difference, with being able to include all the details and nuances in the film. Starting in 2006, aside from the hours and hours Maria and I spent doing interviews, I probably spent close to 1000 hours with family members. Talking to them about their own personal experiences, their relationships with other members in the Family, hanging out at their houses, spending the night at their houses…really getting to know them intimately and talking to them intimately. And in doing that I almost sort of joined the Source Family (laughs). And got to know the story in a very in- depth way. So there are members of the Family that told me I know more than them now, because while they were living together, they didn’t really talk to each other about their own lives, especially their past. A lot of them learned new things about each other during the film. It’s a very complex dynamic. There are 150 different versions of what happened in the Family. They’re all independent of each other in many ways. It’s incredible how many different viewpoints you can get, and how independent-minded former cult members are. (Laughs)
They’re very independent-minded about the experience and what it means to them. I did an enormous amount of research when I was putting the book together, because, even though Isis and Electricity Aquarian were authors of the book, I was, at the time, interviewing Isis and helping her write the book, to get all of that information, and then doing extensive research on the Family, the time period. We were just lucky to have the book, and the time spent with them.
And not only that, but we would go back and interview people three or four times. There was a long gestation period, because documentaries take so long typically, you’re sort of collecting information and processing it, then you’re going back and collecting more information. So we had a lot of time to seep in the material and put this very detailed thing together.
Did you ever get the sense that some of the members were protective of their memories, or unwilling to reveal things?
J: Maria, you can talk about Isis if you want to, during the interviews…(Laughs)
M: Well, there was already a great amount of trust there, because Jodi and Isis had been working on the book, And Isis was able to talk to many of the Family members to get them to participate. There were definitely other levels of trust. At first, when we were interviewing people, Isis was always present, and we finally had to ask her to leave the room, but then she would hover around. But when we finally gained her trust, she would fully remove herself from the area where we were interviewing, because we didn’t want our subjects to be biased at all or tell their story a certain way because Isis was present. And some people were a little more reluctant, but would slowly open more.
J: And also, when we were first doing the book, Isis was interested in doing a whitewash in some ways; you know? They didn’t want to talk about the robberies, they didn’t want to talk about the family members who were unhappy with their experiences. But after I talked to her, and said, this is for the general public, if you want people to believe you, then we need to be honest about what’s going in there, because they’ll know that there’s stuff missing. Because no family is perfect. And when some of the reviews came out, they said that the best part of the book was that there were divergent views.
I think that kind of multiplicity comes through in the film, too. Like all these different versions of Father Yod keep piling up. Of course, there’s the guru, but then there’s his backstory, he was named “America’s Strongest Boy,” right? Then there’s this idea of him being a crook, and sometimes he just seems like this lusty old man who’s saying “balling” every other word…Do either of you see him primarily one way, or is he just more of a mosaic?
M: I feel like all humans, he’s very complex, and I definitely see him as a mosaic of all those things, and what was great about getting all these different views is we were able to really tell the story from an insider’s perspective, and kind of pull stories as much as possible from the group’s point of view.
J: And I would say, for me, hearing so many stories about him over the years, my perceptions of him keep changing. Sometimes, I would do a 180 about him, there were so many stories about him, and so many points of view that I ultimately I don’t know what I feel about him overall. He’s far more complex than most people. He’s as complex as any great literary character or historical figure that’s a visionary. And what I respect about him is his legacy through the Family members. And I see that through the specific Family members. Because every single person that we interviewed, including his wife Robin, who is sort of the tragic figure of the film, they all still love him dearly. With Robin, he ruined everything when he started sleeping other women, but she still adores him, and thinks of him as her soul mate. And all of the Family members, men and women, have this affection for him that’s endured for decades. So while some people might argue that he was irresponsible with the Family in some ways, he clearly was sincere to them, through the very end. He was honest with them and gave more than he could. And most people’s ideas of cult leaders is that they’re manipulators who are taking from people, and making people feel bad. This clearly wasn’t the case for everybody we interviewed. Again, despite his personal flaws, overall, I see all of this complexity in his character, and I think his legacy was a positive one.
Right. One thing that surprised me was the diversity of lifestyles taken up by former Source Family Members, from people who fell in with other cults, to another who became a pioneer of stem cell research. He seemed to attribute a lot of his ethic from his time spent with the Family…
M: And that’s one of the wonderful things about hearing all these different perspectives from all the different Family members. They each processed it in a different way, and each made it individualistic. They took that very unique experience, and carried it and manifested it in different ways. And that sort of resonates the theme, that 140 people can be present for an experience, but they’re all going to process it very differently. That’s the kind of the ultimate manifestation of that theme.
<p>J: Many of them took the teachings of the family and in their own specific way, took them forward. The woman who’s working with hospice, some people opened up vegetarian restaurants, the stem cell research pioneer, and Magus Aquarian, who is one of the pioneers of Silicon Valley and sold his software staffing company for $60 million or whatever. These people represent a generation, a subculture of people who were involved in these radical social experiments in the ‘70s. Cults, communes, social experiments, call them what you will, but what I found through my research – and not just with Family members but with other members of groups of the time – is that these groups served as cultural incubators for some of the people in them, and gave them the space for thinking far outside the box, and thinking in ways that most people who operate in normal society do not think. And much of that has to do with the risks that they took, and the experimentation of that period. These groups helped to incubate the transformers of our culture. And this happened in the 1930s, there were a lot of communes, and in the 1840s, there were tons of communes, free love communes, and people who were focused on cultural renewal and a new kind of personal transformation. So unlike what most people would like to believe, which is that these are all dirty drug dens, the reality when you talk to these participants is different.
And with the Family dissolving a couple years after Father Yod’s death, it seemed like most of the participants began moving on.
J: Well, to be clear, it took more than just a couple years for some people to adjust and enter back into the real world. I think it took them many years, decades for some, to process the experience, especially because the media in general was so unfriendly to any radical spiritual group, because of Manson, and because of Jim Jones. So a lot of people – especially because Yod jumped off a cliff and died – they came back to Los Angeles in shame. And then some of their family members thought they were Satanists. It was not an easy transition back into so-called reality for family members. But some of them were able to go back on, but others took awhile to figure out just what it was that they’d experienced.
M: And also, people tend to think that because these groups didn’t last for a long time, they weren’t successful. Well, longevity’s not really the measure of success. It’s that, while they were active, they were getting something meaningful out of it. And a lot of the Family members attribute this period as the most meaningful and transformative of their lives. So that’s one of the misconceptions in popular culture.
J: That’s one of the things so many journalists like to do, dismiss this period as futile, or useless, because these things didn’t last long. But you don’t have to be in a commune forever to experience a profound personal awakening and transformation. It’s a very important distinction to make.
Coming into your film, my only connection to the Source Family was through their band, YaHoWha 13, which I knew as a kind of obscure vinyl collector thing. Or, I’d heard of them as the people who hung out with the Seeds’ Sky Saxon (Laughter). So it was interesting to see this inverted in the film, like the musicians were almost the hangers-on in this case.
J: Well, in some ways that was the case, but in others, there was just a lot going on in the family, around him and in other areas. I found out about the Family through the music, too, I had the Captain Trip Japanese box set, and that was how I got turned on to them. But we made a very specific choice early on to not make a film about the band, because the story is obviously so much more epic than that. To make the film just about the band would diminish the importance of the story, and what was going on in the larger scale. Because even though the band was in some ways part of the glue that kept this family united and together, they were just one component of many. And to me, I find that even more mind- blowing, being a fan of the music. That it was just one facet. I’ve had people tell me that after the film, they can’t think about the music the same, and they mean that in a good way.
M: And not only that, but the music was kind of an expression of the creativity that was part of their daily lives, that was also expressed by how they made their own clothing, they were obviously very much into their culinary pursuits, and then there’s the music. It was almost like a form of prayer, connecting to a higher power. It was like they were able to express their experience through their music. So that was the wonderful thing about being able to use it as the soundtrack – they were actually singing about what we were showing in the film, and we were able to companion them very well.
The music feels like a natural extension of the way the lived.
J: We could have easily made the film – and there could be another one at some point – about the music. But what was interesting for me was especially interesting for me was to explore the impulses behind the making of the music. Which in some ways ended up being taboo to certain generations, the idea that spirituality was really the underlying base. Not just for the Source Family, but for a lot of music making in the ‘60s. Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, even Led Zeppelin – they weren’t dark occultists, but they were still spiritual, they were occultists. And just exploring the potency of that sort of element, which has been repressed by a lot of scholars and writers who studied the ‘60s and just like to focus on the sex and the drugs and the acid or whatever. So it was exciting to explore that taboo.
I didn’t expect Billy Corgan to pop up in the film and echo what you’re saying…that you can hear this spirituality in YaHoWha 13’s music.
J: But, you know, it’s interesting, I got to know Billy because he was a big fan of the Source Family book, and he ended up being one of the biggest supporters of YaHoWha 13 when we got the band back together for the first time in 33 years. When the book came out, I put these events together in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. And as they were getting back together, Billy was really the only rockstar who really stepped forward to actively support them in a way that others who professed to be YaHoWha 13 fans didn’t really do. So it felt appropriate to have him speak on it, since he was so personally involved. He’s a very spiritual person, which was really unpopular at the time, especially with bands from the ‘90s (Laughs), when that was so uncool. So we thought he was an interesting choice for the film, even though we know not everyone would understand that.
He actually recorded something was Sky Saxon a few years ago, right?
J: Yeah, and Billy was the one who actually organized the tribute after Sky Saxon died. People like to say Byron Coley and Thurston Moore who are the big proponents of YaHoWha 13, but Billy was really the one who stepped up and did that for us.
On a more sobering note, the former site of the Source restaurant is now home to a bar and grill chain…When you were doing research for the film, did you find that a lot of artifacts of the era have disappeared?
J: Well, the restaurant itself is now Cabo Cantina on Sunset and Sweetzer. The Source restaurant existed into the early ‘90s, I used to eat there. It retained its identity as a health food restaurant. And then Damian, who’s in the film, has the Source Health Food Store in Hawaii, and if you’re to walk in there, it feels like the spirit of the Source Family for sure. But as far as other physical landmarks, places like the Golden Bridge are imbued with the spirit of Yogi Bhajan’s community. So I don’t know if a lot of those places have been wiped out – that’s just sort of the nature of gentrification and urbanization.
Can you tell me a bit about the Source Family tribute band?
J: I always had a lot of musician friends who were interested in the Family, but I just met a lot more after the book came out. This year, for the film premieres, we’re just having a bunch of friends in various cities come out. So in New York we have a number of events that Dave Nuss of the No Neck Blues Band and Sabbath Assembly put together. We’re having some really fun events in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco that’s just the result of some friends who really love the Source Family coming together and making things happen.
I don’t want to get into “ahead of its time” clichés, but it’s odd how well some of the darker, more drone-oriented YaHoWha 13 stuff fits in with the music of artists like No Neck Blues Band.
J: Well, it does. A lot of artists were deeply inspired by YaHoWha 13. I mean, No Neck Blues Band, they almost based their whole band on that (Laughs). I think that’s why a lot of bands want to do the tribute. And it is a different kind of psychedelia, and it’s one that, more than being acid based, or drug based, is cosmically based. And I think for people who have already gone through their drug phase in life, that are interested in something beyond that, the Source Family presents an inspiring path. It’s a path that’s healthy, and sustainable, and it’s not like you’re in danger of falling under the spell of Father Yod because he’s dead (Laughter). Not that it would even be a bad thing necessarily, but I think this band provides a safe way of exploring things like occultism and spirituality through music. And I think YaHoWha 13’s music, at its best, is as good as any of the best krautrock coming out of Germany in the ‘70s, like Amon Düül, Ash Ra Temple, Can, Cosmic Jokers. There aren’t a lot of those groups from the States, but they were definitely heavy in Germany. Probably because that’s where all the original pagans were. (Laughter)
That’s weird, because I made a similar connection. YaHoWha 13 seems more in line with krautrock then other psychedelic music coming from Southern California in the ‘70s.
J: And I really think that has to do with paganism. Because the Source Family were ultimately occultists. They weren’t Jesus freaks. Even though they kind of were…As Father Yod would say, we’re all Jesus. Not me, but you. Which is much more aligned with the idea of the Übermensch, and German pagan ideals about communing with nature, honor, courage and character building through radical initiation into other realms.
And YaHoWha 13, they were creating most of the music, the spontaneous stuff, at 6am after one hit of the sacred herb and hours of heavy breath work and meditation, and Father Yod channeling into other dimensions. So they were operating in a multi-dimensional reality, in a disciplined way, as important ritual before they created their music. So their music was part of that ritual, and I think that lends it weight.