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Exploring the Brains behind the Noise

You Know Nothing - A Conversation With Michael Gira

Michael Gira, the man behind Swans, is unadorned in a way that stands in stark contrast to the layered complexity and sonic textures of the music he creates.  The exhaustion of the sound, the auditory abrasion, the passage of time since the band’s formation in 1982 - all of these sit well with Gira, whose output since the band’s reunion with 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, and the masterpiece that is 2012’s The Seer is arguably more productive and relentlessly focused now than he’s ever been.  Next month will see the release of To Be Kind, a two hour trek into the primal yet strangely inviting and creative mind of Gira.  The album continues with along the same thread as its predecessor with a brilliant focus and expansion on Gira’s vocal stylings which find him wavering fiercely between welcoming and threatening.  SfB recently spoke with Gira about the path that led him here, the problem with virtual experience and the modern age, and more in this special interview feature.  

To Be Kind is the third release for Swans in just four years.  Just given the scope and magnitude of what these last two records especially have had, do you see yourself as being more creative now than ever?  What do you attribute that to? 

Panic.  [Laughs]  Time is running out. 

Is there a sense of urgency for you now with your creative process that there wasn’t before?

No.  I mean, I’ve always had to work.  I don’t really feel like I’m complete as a human unless I’m working on music or art or writing – unless I’m making things, basically.  There’s always a sense of urgency.  There is a sense of the window of opportunity winding down for doing something as all-inclusive and taxing on one’s physical energies as Swans. 


My first question concerns your relationship to your music, Michael.  Where were you when music found you, and do you see yourself in that same place of creative vulnerability even today or has that evolved somewhat?

I was certain I was a visual artist.  I started drawing obsessively when I was very young, but I guess when I was in my late teens I mandated to myself that I had to do fifty drawings a day, meaning fifty sketches and not complete drawings in order to develop skills as a draft person, and then I went to art school and that sort of thing.  Along the way a friend of mine would play guitar, and I’d try to sing.  Now I’m talking mid-seventies or something and singing Rolling Stones songs.  [Laughs]  But I didn’t really consider actually doing anything seriously musically until punk rock happened.  That was a decisive moment. 

It wasn’t so much about the music, because the music was pretty inconsequential, but it was just the kind of chaos and anarchy and the general bile and hatred for consumer society that I thought was inspirational. While I was in art school I just made the decision where it was like in one hand here’s an art career that was increasingly becoming something professional like a lawyer or something, and then on the other hand there was something I saw as vital and relevant to the times.  So I quit, and I started a band.  I actually started a magazine first, but then I started a band.  But it took me a long time to learn how to really make music of any consequence. 


photo credit: Cool Music Central 

When you think about the evolution of sound with Swans, it’s fascinating to see its beginnings as an incredibly visceral and abrasive experience to where it is now with an almost orchestral layering and multi-faceted approach to melody and rhythm. The music is still confrontational, but it’s more conversational now.  What do you see as the kind of creative impetus for that transition?

If you’re not challenging yourself and your audience, you’re just kind of a non-entity both existentially and publicly, so I always feel it’s necessary to try to push things further or at least in a new direction.  There’s different aspirations for the music now.  I don’t really know what the early ones were except just a kind of all out, never ending rage.  I suppose now there are more positive and more looking for some kind of real positive experience between us and the audience. 


When you mentioned that early motivation and drive for you with punk, is that ethos still alive today?  Not just with you but in general from your perspective?

It’s nothing.  I mean, there hasn’t been anything since 1979.  [Laughs]  The style of punk is stultifying and stupid.  At the time when it started it was great because it was just raw and basic, but even the initial purveyors of it like, for instance, if you take the transition from the Sex Pistols to Public Image, they kind of grew quickly weary of that.  So I think for people to hang out to the style of punk is really stupid. The thing that was interesting and good about it to me was that rejection of the necessity to be some kind of virtuosic player, which, at the time, bands like Yes, Gentle Giant, and all that stuff were becoming pretty bloated and awful. 

I actually like some Yes now in retrospect.  [Laughs] But just the immediacy and iconography involved in punk was really great, too, and the use of media.  But that’s all irrelevant now, because those times are gone, so the only thing really interesting about it to me is just the ability of someone to get up and do something themselves and refuse to be cowed by obstacles or indifference.  With us I don’t think about punk at all.  I don’t care about it.  I haven’t for years.  I’m in my own world and the music we make as a band is in its own world, really. 


There is that value that Swans has always placed in the band’s relationship to the audience.  How has that relationship changed and where did you see that kind of conversation with the audience come from?

I guess the music is more inclusive now, potentially, although it was always an experience between us and the audience, though one probably fraught with rancor.  [Laughs]  Nowadays it’s that we’re all in it together, reaching for the same place.  And I’m talking about a live experience, of course.  I view a recorded album as having only a tangential relationship to the live experience.


photo credit: Wilton Barnhardt 

Going back to your personal life, you turned sixteen in jail if my research is correct.

I think that’s it.  [Laughs]  I’m not even sure myself.

The time since has no doubt seen your experiences shape who you are and, consequently, the art you create.  What value do you place on experience as a crucial creative asset?  Do you see that component to your creative process differently now than you did then when you first began creating music?

Yeah, I guess.  It still affects the art.  Since the beginning, and I guess maybe it has to do with the art school training, but I’ve taken personal experience and changed it or used it as a partial element in what I’m building, and what I’m making.  I don’t view my own personal experience as being inherently interesting or valuable to anybody else.  It just serves as kind of an impetus for work.  My personal experience could be a book I’ve read, a movie I’ve seen, sex I’ve had, or a moment of spiritual revelation.  It could be all kinds of things, and then the work is a different matter.  You try to make something out of it.  The work is never really an explication of anything, either.  It’s more of an end in itself. 


Just given the scope and magnitude of what Swans has done even with the last two records, I’m curious as to what you’ve personally seen evolve or change the most with your creative process in your career thus far?

Hm.  That’s gonna require some cogitation.  [Laughs]  That’s a good question.  I guess learning to be fearless and just understanding that life is very short, and there are no boundaries except what you impose on yourself.  That kind of realization has informed the music and the work.  I guess that’s the best way I can answer that.  [Laughs]


Just in talking about relationships to music, do you see the simulated connectivity that social media has given us over the last few years as a potential threat to what we value when it comes to authentic connectivity and, by proxy, the creative impulses brought on by genuine experience and relationships?  A lot of what you and Swans place importance on seems to contrast that virtual interaction in many ways.  Do you see that as a potential threat or obstacle to how we view or even create art in the future?

Well, that’s been a subject that’s interested me for decades – the propensity for us in modern consumer, hence advertising in media inundated society, to experience things secondhand or in ersatz or virtually.  In fact, in art school in 1978 or maybe it was 1977, after having gone to these video games where you would shoot these pistols at a movie, I thought that was the perfect metaphor for modern existence – this kind of completely ersatz involvement and experience.  I designed, or quasi-designed, this mask that would feed them video images into the mask, and it would cover your eyes completely. 

The idea was that one would wear this rubber suit, and they would immerse themselves in body temperature liquid, and they would just live completely in the images that occurred in this mask.  Somehow – I didn’t know how scientifically, of course – their response to the images would be part of it, and there would be this continuous false experience, or not false because it is real, but this just purely virtual experience.  So I wrote that, and it’s in my sketchbook still.  I thought that was part of how we live, really.  I wrote a story in the early nineties or maybe it was the late eighties called “The Sex Machine,” and that’s thinking about that also. 

It’s from arriving in New York in the early eighties and going to Times Square, and there were these arenas or areas you could go to where you would go into a booth, the window would go up, and there would be a woman there.  You were supposed to masturbate and have this sex with her, but I thought it was really interesting that it was completely abstract.  [Laughs] There was a human being there, but it was completely unreal, and the booth was set up in sort of a circle, and men would be around it, and the women couldn’t see the men, but the men could see the women.  I thought that was really odd.  In the middle sometimes in this particular place, they would have sex there on the bed in the middle, and you would all watch that, too.  I just thought what a perfect kind of illustration of how we live these days.


Do you see that voyeurism that’s so entrenched in our culture at present as a potential impediment to experience?

Oh yeah, it’s in fucking everything.  For instance, I’m playing a show and seeing dozens of glowing cellphones facing up at me.  It means that those people are experiencing the show right then in ersatz.  They’re unable to just be there and experience it.  It’s really frustrating, and it’s strange.  A concert, at least of our intensity, is supposed to be a unique, one time experience, and they’re already recording it and living it as if it was virtual.  That’s really frustrating.  I played a show in Paris recently, a solo show.  I was plodding along with my song, and right there in the front row, which was only two feet in front of me, was this guy on his cellphone. 

And I don’t know if he was looking at me or videoing it or just on his cellphone, but I was just singing thinking ‘OK, I’ll just ignore it,’ and finally I just thought ‘How repulsively rude,’ so I stopped the song and said ‘Hey, hey, hey!’ He looked up with this sort of sneer on his face, and I said ‘Get out!  Get out!  Get out! Stand up and leave!’  I screamed at him, and he and his girlfriend finally stood up and harrumphed out.  [Laughs] 

I just thought what a strange change in culture to think that that’s OK to do.  It’s really distressing. I see my children, I have young children, and they’re always wanting to watch TV or be on the computer. It’s inevitable, but I’m sure that at their age – in fact, I asked a neuroscientist, a woman I know, they don’t know for sure, but it seems that that kind of interaction at a young age is physically changing the way brains develop.  So I suppose there’ll be a Videodrome kind of change in our culture.  [Laughs]


So Cronenberg called it back in ’83. 

Yeah, yeah.  [Laughs]


When discussing value, especially as it pertains to that perspective of art and the artist, what do you see as the most crucial or invaluable component of your music and your creative process and why that specifically?

I enjoy the process.  The end result is incredibly important to me, obviously.  I work and labor intensely on a record for months – half a year, usually, probably more just conceiving it, and then gathering the funds, and building it and everything.  I’ve realized over the last like five years that the most enthralling aspect of it is the process because it’s never finished.  Nothing is ever finished.  I like it that way now.  You finish a record, but then the songs or song or piece or whatever it is that we’re working on instantly will change into something else, and it’s just this energy that’s taking shape as we move along through time.  And I like it that way. 


And that, to me at least, goes back to that previous discussion concerning our culture of immediacy and the loss of appreciation for the actual process.  It’s hard to place importance on that when everything in art and music often at least feels driven by results. 

You’re right.  People want things instantly.  If you look on YouTube you see how many versions of us live there are that has nothing to do with us live or me solo live.  The sound has absolutely nothing to do with it, and it’s just this little postage stamp simulation of what the experience was when it was filmed.  But that’s what people want, and they think they’ve figured out the band or whatever artist they’re looking at that way, or maybe they’re looking at art that way.  I mean, imagine looking at a Van Eyck on your computer.  [Laughs]  But it’s just the way we live now.  I mean, even weapon systems are like that.  A cousin of mine is a developer for virtual weapons systems, and that to me is a really bizarre concept because the consequences are dire, right?  [Laughs]  It’s just the experience in that abstract way again. 


photo credit: Marco Micceri 

Obviously the live experience of Swans is fairly well known, and you guys have several tour dates coming up.  What goes into that for the band on a practical level?

We have to get the mojo back.  I’ve been working all along, but the band has not been working as Swans since we finished recording together in mid-October, I think.  It takes a while, so we have three weeks of rehearsals every day, and hopefully we’ll get it back by the end of that.  Usually by halfway through a tour, we’re a pretty organic six-headed entity.   There’s a set kinda like the universe.  It expands and contracts.  It grows organically.  It usually doesn’t contract.  [Laughs]  Each night it gets more and more worked out and also more open at the same time.  It always changes.  That’s been a kind of revelation as far as I was saying about looking at things as never finished, and that’s how it works.

What are you most hopeful about in terms of the future not just for Swans but for yourself personally?

[Laughs]  I think hope is an overvalued item.  I think it’s more trying to be in the moment that’s important.  I’m not pessimistic or cynical at all, but I think hope is a little bit delusional.  I think it’s just important to be in the moment and keep an open mind.  

Thanks to Michael for his time.

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Triptykon: Melana Chasmata


Thomas Gabriel Fischer turned fifty last year.   Aside from creating at least one of heavy metal’s most seminal and influential bands, the enigmatic and oftentimes mercurial vocalist/guitarist has literally witnessed the genesis of the genre itself, from its early Blue Cheer days to the quick and seemingly endless permutations that have come since that time with every hyphenated adjectival qualifier being exhausted into infinity.  It’s been a hell of a ride for Fischer who formed the blackened thrash metal band Hellhammer in 1982, releasing their first demo Death Fiend the next summer.  That same year, 1983, would see the debut full lengths of bands like Slayer, Metallica, Mercyful Fate, Pantera, Queensrÿche, and many others.  The year also saw the formation of bands such as Bathory, Mayhem, Morbid Angel, Death, and Testament.  KISS took off their makeup, Motley Crüe shouted at the devil, Ozzy barked at the moon, Ratt released their debut EP, Thin Lizzy swan-songed with Thunder and Lightning, and oh yeah, this guy named Ronnie James Dio split the sky in half with a debut record called Holy Diver.  One year.  All of that in one year. 

Hellhammer would disband in 1984 with Fischer, known then by his “Satanic Slaughter” moniker, wasting no time in redirecting his creative efforts into Celtic Frost the same year.  There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said about Fischer’s indelible effect on heavy metal.  That subject is typically given the same kind of reverence that only a handful of bands that rhyme with “Sathory” are likely to receive.  Celtic Frost released four full-lengths not named Cold Lake over the course of almost a quarter century complete with an eight-year hiatus that saw Fischer largely embrace a rare silence with the lone exception being his industrial Apollyon Sun venture that saw one full-length release with Sub in 2000.  After the sole post-breakup full-length release of 2006’s Monotheist, Fischer again focused his time, his energy, and the enormity of his talents in a new direction, this time with Triptykon.   The band’s 2010 debut Eparistera Daimones was a triumph not just in the musical sense that it displayed the kind of forward thinking compositional brilliance of Celtic Frost but also in the sense that it reaffirmed what so many in heavy music already knew about the madman behind it all – Thomas Gabriel Fischer refuses to stagnate. 

It’s important to recognize the disparity between that refusal of complacency and the refusal to bow out with dignity.  Time is notoriously cruel to musicians and artists or something like that.  But really, let’s not blame the abstract notion of our desperate attempt to compartmentalize our existence on what honestly boils down to piss poor choices and misplaced/misdirected value of art and music.  Time doesn’t mean shit.  Take a look back at the bands mentioned from 1983.  Let’s employ some honesty with regards to the replete use of phrases like “washed up” when it concerns the vast majority of those bands.  The point is that time had nothing to do with Slayer seemingly being more about the drama than the music these days.  It had nothing to do with four mop headed Bay area doofuses going from Kill ‘Em All to a storyline that makes Days of our Lives look like P. T. Anderson by substance comparison.  You either move along with the time or you let the time move you.  Either way, the finality is our commonality.  Might as well shake things up along the way. 

Enter Melana Chasmata (Century Media), the second full-length from Triptykon, an album that’s likely to start debates with comparisons to its outstanding predecessor.  Where that discussion is likely to nosedive into endlessness, what’s inarguably the most amazing and outstanding achievement here is Fischer himself.  That isn’t meant to detract from Fischer’s brilliant band mates with bassist Vanja Šlajh cutting a low-end chasm across songs like “Boleskine House”, a song which also features her equally as moving vocals, “Altar of Deceit”, and “In the Sleep of Death”.  There’s also V. Santura, whose backing vocals and complementary guitar work on tracks like the cerebral but eviscerating opener “Tree of Suffocating Souls” serve a purpose far beyond that of “additional guitars”.  Santura’s layering chords propel Fischer’s melodies that run the gamut between dirge-like pulses and the searing precision and speed that’s come to be so characteristic of any project involving the man formerly known as “Warrior”.  Providing the commanding rhythmic texture for the bombast is Norman Lonhard, whose sense of rudimentary space gives the songs here a sonic pulse that’s masterfully unpredictable.

The album itself is perhaps Fischer’s least abrasive work to date, which isn’t to say it’s not a challenging listen.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Melana Chasmata is challenging in the sense that the album finds its mastermind at his most creatively cathartic, including his legendary work with Celtic Frost and Hellhammer.  Fischer’s work has always felt like the result of some unspeakable resistance occurring within the man himself.  That kind of introspective abrasion gave birth to a sound and a style that was wholly confrontational and unforgiving in its execution, oftentimes resulting in Fischer’s insatiable craving for experimentation leaning into overindulgence.  The nine tracks here undoubtedly capture that same relentlessness, with Fischer’s growl as menacing as ever and perhaps even more so given the seemingly unparalleled emotional investment he poured into the record.  When I talked to Fischer back in December, I hadn’t yet heard the new record and after our discussion I honestly wasn’t sure what my response would be once I heard whatever music had come from Fischer whose obvious inner turmoil had moved beyond the romanticized “tortured artist” and into a realm that was all too real and personal. 

The impetus of art and music is nothing if not a murky place replete with assumption and misguided posturing.  The issue gets even cloudier when it’s perfectly acceptable to assume that or spout the utter insane thinking that posits all dark music as being born from a dark necessity in sadness or depression.  But that’s dismissive of the actual beauty with dark music.  It’s not born out of the darkness.  It’s born in spite of it.  Fischer’s brilliance doesn’t come from being depressed and to suggest the stimulus as such isn’t just deflective, it’s offensive and arrogant.  Melana Chasmata isn’t remarkable because its primary creator battles against the very real demons of self-doubt and isolation.  The album is remarkable because this music occurs in a time and space outside the reach of that isolation and those demons.  Even more significant is that Melana Chasmata feels and sounds like Fischer resisting not himself but the doubt that might cripple him creatively and personally otherwise.  The album’s mastery comes from the enraged war against a nemesis that’s far more cruel and vicious than any darkness imaginable.  Thankfully, each song here rings like a soaring victory and triumph not only for Fischer as a musician but most importantly as a fellow human being.  

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Noise Worship - A Conversation With Oren Ambarchi

It’s a subtle but nonetheless distinctively powerful world that Oren Ambarchi has created with his experimentation in sound over the last almost three decades.  Collaborations with acts like Sunn O))) and Merzbow are only a few of the many examples of Ambarchi’s multi-faceted approach and conceptualization of the limitlessness and intricate relationship between the noise and the listener.  SfB recently spoke with Ambarchi about his career and the relationship he sees between the free form jazz roots of his youth and the heavier, abrasive sounds he creates.  

My first question just concerns your life and where you were when music found you.  How have you seen yourself evolve and grow both personally and musically since you first felt that creative impulse to write music?

I don’t know.  I think I’ve always wanted to play music, and I’ve always been, from a really young age, I’ve always been completely obsessed with it.  Growing up, you know, there are always some times when you have your doubts about the path, and you think ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t really be doing this.  Maybe I should be doing something else.’  And sometimes personal situations, lots of things forced me into doing other things, but they never worked out.  It was always a distraction because I just couldn’t stop thinking about music.  I was never good at anything else in a way because I couldn’t really commit to it a hundred percent, because I was always thinking about music. 

So when I finally sort of thought to myself ‘I’m just gonna do this because this is what I love,’ since then, thankfully, everything just keeps evolving and working out for me.  I’m really fortunate to be able to do this with this path of just exploring stuff and trying stuff.  I guess one big thing was me just deciding to follow the muse.  When I was younger I had a lot of self doubt, and I still have self doubt, of course, but when I was younger I used to think ‘Oh, maybe I should be doing something else,’ and my family, they were kind of encouraging on the one hand, but the music was never something serious.  It was like a hobby, and you should try to do something more serious. 

Sometimes I would believe that, and I would try other things, but it would never work out truly because I was distracted, and I couldn’t commit to anything else but the music.  The next step was sort of feeling comfortable about being myself and doing what I wanted to do in music and not trying to emulate other things.  That took a long time just to find that path.  To me, it’s all about evolving and challenging yourself and trying things that might be a little uncomfortable or just pushing yourself to try stuff all the time and keep moving. 


Was your family a musical one?  Did you see some of that inspiration as being at least partly genetic? 

There was a lot of music in my household, for sure.  There was always records playing, and my grandparents as well.  My grandfather had reel-to-reels of stuff and all kinds of ethnic music.  I had access to a lot of great records and things as I was growing up, so I was really lucky in that sense.  I begged my dad when I was really, really young about playing drums, and he was pretty distressed about that, but he didn’t shun me, of course.  They said to me ‘You need to learn the piano first if you wanna play the drums.  You need piano lessons,’ and I really didn’t wanna do that, but they kind of forced me into it, and they said: ‘Well, you need to do that for a year.  Minimum.  And then we can talk about the drums.’ 

I think they were secretly hoping that I’d forget about the drums and become a piano player, but I didn’t.  [Laughs]  But they were really cool like exactly a year to the day I said to my dad ‘OK, I’ve done this for a year, and now I wanna play drums,’ and he found this really sort of super cheap, shitty drumset, and they were cool and allowed me to do that.  It was awesome.  They put up with that kind of thing, but when I got older towards the ends of high school, my dad could see that I would do really badly in school, and he would take my records away and take the drumkit away, and then I would do really well.  I’d get straight A’s the next semester, and then he’d give them back, and it was this sort of pattern or cycle that used to happen on-again-off-again.  

Then when I finished school it was like ‘OK, now you really need to think about what you’re gonna do and what you need to do.  Music’s all good, but it’s not a career or that kind of thing.’  I would get swayed.  I think I even did computer programming at one point.  I absolutely hated it.  I just tried different things and nothing ever worked out until I sort of just said: ‘I can’t really do anything else.  I can’t really think about anything else.  This is what I’m gonna do.’  It took a long time just to have the confidence just to try, especially in Australia.



What was or is the specific obstacle with being a musician in Australia?  Is it a place you see as being fairly supportive of the arts or at least those that are of the experimental variety similar to what you’re doing?

Absolutely not.  [Laughs]  The thing is there’s a kind of dichotomy because the actual culture or people of Australia, so to speak, I would say that generally no, the arts, it’s a pretty difficult struggle there.  I guess it would be like Canada and the US in that sense.  It’s not really taken as seriously, and it’s not really encouraged.  But on the other hand, doing what we do is pretty alien to the general society.  It’s again probably similar to Canada and the US in the sense where if you’re a famous rock star, that’s one thing, but if you’re a weirdo experimental musician, it’s pretty alien, and it’s not really encouraged. 

On the other hand, in Australia, especially in the cities like Melbourne where I live and Sydney, there’s a really healthy scene, and it’s very, very vibrant.  And the quality of the musicians and people in the arts is really high, actually, especially after traveling around the world.  There’s a really healthy scene, especially in Melbourne, which is encouraging because everybody seems to be upping the ante in a way, whether they’re doing stuff that’s similar to what I do, or their own thing.  It’s just very healthy and very encouraging, and people have a really positive attitude, so that’s a really nice environment to create stuff. 


It’s interesting, because so often I hear from American artists and musicians about how European cultures are so much more accommodating to the arts and create those creatively conducive environments.  Do you see that when touring?

I see there’s a history of support for the arts, and in a lot of countries in Europe that’s just in place.  It’s a given.  It’s kind of nice to be able to tour there and be paid and supported and looked after to do what you do.  On the other hand, I think that the fact that in Australia, and I’m not trying to turn it into this romantic notion, but a lot of us have to struggle to do what we do.  Maybe because of that the quality is really high in Australia.  I can’t speak for the US.  I’m not sure.  Speaking for where I live at the moment, people do it because they have to do it.  They love it, and they have no choice.  It’s more of a struggle, and maybe because of that the quality is really high in Australia.  We can’t really rest on our laurels over there.  It’s more difficult to make it happen. 



As much as it’s seen as a kind of cliché, there’s something wholly beautiful and fragile with that discussion of art being born out of adversity.   The idea that our most compelling creations are oftentimes derived from some kind of emotional or even physical destruction.  With that, how do you see your compositional process, and what do you value most about it?  Has introspection or self-awareness affected the growth or evolution of what you value in that process?

With me, it’s very intuitive with what I do, and it’s kind of off-the-cuff.  When I’m make a piece it might take a long time.  I might sit with it for a long time, but the initial idea is always very spontaneous and kind of primal.  It’s very quick and not very thought out or planned so much.  Once I’ve got that idea down, then I’ll develop it, and take my time and sit with it, and shape it, and that takes a while.  I don’t know if that’s connected to struggle or not.  I guess I struggle with the material trying to find something that I’m happy with.  That’s actually kind of tortuous because I’m very fussy, and I always have self-doubt, and I wanna push myself. 

There is a lot of struggle within myself, but there’s no question that this is what I wanna do.  It’s just that the only struggle I have is if it’s valid what I wanna do.  Do I need to do this, and do people need to hear this?  Do I need to put this out into the world?  That’s the struggle that I have, and I seem to have it more and more so as I get older.  I seem to become fussier about what I release or what I do, but on the other hand I’m trying to have this attitude like with a lot of the collaborative projects I’ve done over the years, mixing things for groups such as Sunn and other projects, I’ve approached that in a really loose kind of fun way.  I have a lot of fun with that stuff kinda because it’s not really my stuff. 

It’s not a solo thing, so I’m a little bit more loose and in a little way more experimental because I don’t have any hangups.  I’m not as precious about it.  [Laughs]  So the last few years I’ve been trying to have that attitude with my own work as well and try to treat it the same way as well, and that’s been really liberating just to treat it in a more spontaneous, loose fashion which has allowed it to open up more than I have in the past.  It’s still a struggle and tormenting to get to the point where you can finish something.  It’s just the way I am, so I guess that’s kind of normal for me to be that way.  [Laughs]


You mentioned your work with Sunn, and of course there’s also your work with Merzbow that comes to mind.  There’s a lot of spontaneity and a jazz like ethos that both acts seem to emulate in many ways.  Do you see a connectivity between that jazz concept and what’s often considered dark or heavy music like Sunn? 

I do.  I’ve always listened to Japanese noise music back to when I was in my teens. I was really fortunate to travel to Japan back in the early nineties in the heyday of that sort of classic noise period, and I saw a lot of that stuff live and worked with a lot of those people back in the day.  To me, there’s a connection between that and certain metal things.  I guess it’s more the spirit of those things where it’s about this ecstasy, this ecstatic feeling where you lose yourself in the sound, and it’s all about sound.  I don’t really look at it as metal or heavy or any of that. 

There’s a connection between a lot of the free jazz that I loved, a lot of Indian music, a lot of ethnic music and a lot of the noise stuff and some of the so called metal stuff if you wanna call it that.  The connection between all of those things, it’s that sort of texture in sound.  It’s about sound enveloping you.  To me it’s a very joyous thing, really.  I’m not really into dark music, per se.  To me, making dark music is really easy.  I find it really easy to make dark music.  It’s almost a cliché in a way.  It’s much harder for me to write a pop song.  I envy people that can write great pop songs.  I struggle with that.  I wish I could do that more. 

Dark music kind of comes easy for me in a way, so I guess I’m not really wanting to make dark music. It just takes a lot of convincing, to me, if you’re gonna do it that way.  I don’t really look at Merzbow as being dark.  Even a band like Darkthrone, like early black metal stuff, even though it’s pretty nihilistic and dark so to speak, to me, a lot of that stuff is really beautiful and quite joyous.  That’s what I love about that kind of music, where it’s just really almost sort of ecstatic or lofty and spiritual in a kind of way.  I’m sure it sounds really strange.  [Laughs]


In talking about the idea of experimentation of music and our current culture’s response to the idea of that art or music that pushes boundaries and asks questions or places what we know under a different light, do you see where we are now with the seemingly limitless possibilities of what we can absorb as far as information and art are concerned as being more conducive or receptive to experimentation or what’s long been considered extreme art or music?

Maybe it’s more common now.  It’s more accepted, I guess.  In some ways that doesn’t excite me so much.  [Laughs]  I try to keep up with what’s going on right now, but a lot of it doesn’t really excite me that much.  Most of the stuff that I get really excited about is the stuff where people were in a way pushing boundaries and transgressing what was accepted back in the day like in the sixties or composers like Robert Ashley or John Cage – a lot of the late sixties and fifties experimentations in the so-called “New Music World.”  A lot of that is what excites me.  They sound so fresh, and now I find a lot of the stuff becomes modified or becomes this accepted language. 

When it becomes accepted and set out it doesn’t excite me as much anymore.  The problem is we know too much.  We’re exposed to so much, and it’s really hard not to go to a gig and not go ‘OK, they’re taking that from this, and they’re taking that from that.’  It’s hard not to be jaded in a way.  [Laughs]  So I find myself – I really don’t wanna become bitter and jaded.  I wanna remain open and excited about stuff all the time because that’s what gives me energy.  But I find myself usually getting excited about older records when things were really new.  Things was all this unchartered territory, and you had all these people that were doing things that were really simple, elegant innovations, and that’s kind of what gets me going.  At the moment anyway.  [Laughs] 


What are you currently working on now and what does the rest of 2014 look like for you?

Speaking about the struggle we discussed earlier, I just finished a solo record and just mastered it about a week ago.  It’s been kind of in process now for two to three years, and I’ve just got it off my chest, so I’m really happy about that.  It was something I’d work on for a while, and then I’d put it to the side, I’d go on tour, I’d forget about it, but it would always be in my head, and then I’d work on it again.  I kind of worked on it through the years all over the world.  It is a solo record, but it’s very collaborative; probably the most collaborative record I’ve done ever.  So there’s a lot of guests, and it’s quite different for me. 

In a way it’s almost like a continuation from Sagittarian Domain in the sense that there’s a lot of rhythms and repetition whereas Sagittarian Domain, I built that up from playing the drums.  This one, one of the main collaborators is Thomas Brinkmann, who’s a legendary Cologne techno artist, who is probably one of my favorites of all time.  When I made Audience of One, I asked Joe Talia the drummer to sort of play in a certain style.  A lot of my previous records, it was always built up from me doing something on the guitar and then sorting it out with arrangements or additional instrumentation, and I kind of wanted to approach solo records a little differently the last couple of years. 

When I made Audience of One, that was kind of the first time that I’d had an idea for a drummer, for Joe, to do something.  And I presented it to him, and I got him to do it, and I kind of reacted to that and built something around that.  That approach really changed things for me in a way.  It was out of my comfort zone.  Normally I would start something and take it from there, so the idea of reacting to other people and then building something really appealed to me, so that was the first time I did it.  For this record, I asked Thomas to do the same thing with rhythms, which he did.  Since then, over two years, I’ve just been adding things to it and with lots of different guests. 

There’s John Tilbury, the piano player, Jim O’Rourke plays synth, this amazing tabla player from Japan, Yuzen, Eyvind Kang did some strings, and he played some Indonesian instruments, and just lots of different guests and some orchestral stuff I did with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra.  It’s in there, but it’s very subtle, so it’s almost like this forty-eight minute rhythmical bed, and then there’s all these textures and things that happen on top just evolving over that time.  There’s five distinct movements, but there’s always this pulse underneath it all. I’ve really been embracing, since I’ve been playing drums a lot, it’s really inspired what I’m doing in my solo work where there’s a lot of recurring rhythms to appear.  I like the idea where there’s something rhythmical and something abstract coexisting. 

Thanks to Oren for his time. 

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Vile Divinity - A Conversation With Lord Mantis

Ugly.  It’s the word that kept scrolling across my brain with the first listen of Death Mask (Profound Lore)from Chicago’s Lord Mantis.  For all the positivity we might try to employ in a kind of novocaine futility, the fact is that more often than not, existence is inherently ugly.  The universe is cosmically merciless. Nature has always been and will always be tyrannical in its arrogance. That we would expect the art and music we create not to reflect that ugliness seems naive at best and at worst, deliberately disingenuous. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing it as negativity, though.  It’s all we’ve got.  Like solitary splinters of light in an otherwise pitch-black reality, the art and music we’re given is invaluable in making sense of those things we allow it to illuminate in our lives.  But not everything the light finds is pretty or encouraging or even remotely hopeful.  Sometimes the light reveals an ugliness that’s as startling as it is strangely familiar.  

Death Mask is seven tracks deep with the total running time clocking in at a little over forty-five minutes.  It’s worth noting for the simple fact that the album moves in such a way that’s decidedly paced.  The tracks don’t blaze by, searing the paint off the walls, and they don’t trudge along in a sludge pattern.  The motion is exact and precise, winding across the seven tracks here with a controlled but seething malice that’s genuinely unnerving.  Opening track “Body Choke” is as filthy and malevolent as it is catchy with the dual guitars of Ken Sorceron (of Abigail Williams) and Andrew Markuszewski (of Avichi) twisting out a riff that’s as unforgiving as the lyrics retched and howled from the throat of vocalist/bassist Charlie Fell.  Pummeling the frantic churn into its hypnotic syncopation is the drum work of Bill Bumgardner, whose work behind the kit of Chicago’s other doom nihilists Indian is as outstanding and integral to the overall sound as it is here. 

The album’s title track starts with the up-tempo pace and trap driven sound of Around the Fur era Deftones, but the comparisons die quickly there with Fell employing the vocal textures of a banshee whose diet consists of chasing gasoline soaked straight razors with battery acid.  Fell’s voice isn’t overwhelming.  It isn’t commanding in the sense that it overshadows the power of the music.  The vocals here are noteworthy because they perfectly complement the volatility of the music and its subject matter.  The music is alarming and abrasive and wholly devoid of predictability.  It’s fitting that the vocals should work like a pinched nerve adding insult to the injury of a broken back from the music.  Both “Possession Prayer” and “Negative Birth” contain the slightest tinges of an industrial/power electronics influence with the band employing a disconsolate sterility with the subtle use of ambient noise. 

For all of the album’s exceptional moments, and there are many, the masterstroke for Death Mask comes with the album’s closer, “Three Crosses”.  At ten minutes, the song is easily the longest track on the album, yet it’s also the only reprieve provided from the nothingness and despairing void that swallows up the rest of Death Mask.  The song isn’t haunting in the pedestrian sense that it conjures up emotion.  It’s haunting in that it embodies the very emotion it seeks to reflect.  Pain.  Suffering.  Denial.  The End.  The End.  The End.  The track’s melodic surge is echoed into existence with the thundering collapse of Bumgardner’s bass drum sounding as if it’s just at the threshold of pounding through the floor but stopping just short.  It’s a brief melodic postscript to an album that reads like a letter from some place and time where a very real pain exists. 

The song’s final movement finds a quickened pace and what’s arguably the album’s most frenetic moment with whatever semblance of melodic hope provided from the song’s first half quickly and viciously unraveling in a torrent of Fell’s tormented howls and the venomous sounds that carry them to the album’s abrupt end.  The song captures the very heart of the album’s ugliness.  It illuminates the cruel and repulsive nature of existence not simply with Fell’s obvious lyrical throes, but in the very aesthetic and atmosphere of the music itself.  The album’s strength isn’t in the shock of what it presents, but in that what it presents is a very dark and terribly real place in the human consciousness.  I have trouble believing that the seven tracks here could come from any place save for one of authenticity.  I have as much trouble believing that these songs position themselves as answers or statements about any sort of idealism or social perspective.  I honestly have trouble believing these songs are derived from anything but creativity born from experience, both wonderful and devastating, casting its light on an ugliness that calls for a sound that’s just as hideous and equally as powerful.  


SfB recently spoke to Fell about his own troubled past, the controversial cover art to Death Mask, and more in this special interview feature. 

You’re out on the road right now but not with Lord Mantis.  How’s that tour treating you so far?

Yeah, I’m on tour with Ken who plays in Lord Mantis.  He’s in a band called Abigail Williams.  They’ve been around for a long time.  I’m playing drums for them right now on a little tour.  It’s fucking exhausting, man.  I’ve been up for like three days straight on a weird meth bender and fucking detoxing from a bunch of pain pills and heroin.  I’m not feeling totally awesome right now.  [Laughs]  It’s fucking grueling, man.  Just crazy fucking drives all the time.


Beyond this, you’re obviously getting ready for the Lord Mantis release later this month, The Death Mask.  What was kind of the thought process for you guys going into this record as opposed to the last album, Pervertor

Man, it was a totally different situation.  Pervertor was actually done over a pretty long period of time.  We made different songs in different sessions like “Perverter of the Will” and “Ritual Killer” were actually recorded about a year before the album.  With Pervertor, it was just a totally different state of my life.  I feel like The Death Mask is more of a personal, self-reflecting album for me with just the lyrics and just the whole vibe of it.  That’s really been the difference with this one. 

Before I was kinda getting a lot of my ideas, like with Pervertor, from watching Cronenberg films and shit like that, and this time I just wanted to make something that was real and reflected the people in the band, their emotions, state of being, and other stuff.  I wanted it to be something that could be cathartic for somebody instead of something just like a head-banging record.  I wanted something with a little more context. 


You mention the lyrics, and it’s something that truly stands out with Lord Mantis already but even more so with this record.  There’s a very real and visceral hatred that just seethes out of these songs.  It’s incredibly authentic, or at least certainly seems that way.  Where does that darkness come from for you personally?  What’s led you to where you are now to be able to create what you do?

I’ve got a shitload of health problems right now to deal with and some addiction issues.  I’ve been dealing with stuff like that for kinda my whole life.  I spent a lot of time in different institutions and corrections, and I’ve had all kinds of really fucked up experiences in that.  I think a lot of that stuff that happened back then when I was younger in my teens and early twenties it gave me a totally different perspective then.  Now, it’s like after all that living and stuff, I just kind of see the nothingness and pointlessness of everything. 

Everything is just meat, and it’s me just being detached from any sort of spiritual element, and just living as part of some giant regurgitating machine that you’re just some fucking gear in.  It’s kind of typical or whatever of what they say, but when you think like that, and you don’t really believe in anything, and you just kind of let yourself be an animal, you can make some really honest shit.  I think that’s the mindset, or at least mine is, when we’re writing.  I’m not trying to do anything.  I’m just letting go. 

It’s like a therapy almost just doing the vocals and writing.  That’s what comes out of my personality into the music, and I express the violence, darkness, or whatever that I’ve experienced.  We’re just not trying to be like the theme restaurant bullshit Satan bands.  The demon’s the emotion, I guess.  It just comes from those experiences.  When you let go like that you just end up with some really fucked up things that come out.  When you open yourself up everyday to pretty much anything, you’re gonna end up with some really fucking weird shit. 


What’s the alternative to that, though?  If you’re not using the music as a conduit for this violent kind of introspection, where does it go for anyone that doesn’t find a creative outlet?

Oh man.  If I didn’t have this, I’d be in jail.  That’s what got me out of all this shit was having music.  Really, man.  I was a really fucked up guy before I started putting all my effort into being a musician and writing music and playing in bands and just getting out and doing it.  Before that, I was fucking burning buildings down and shit.  I was in trouble all the time just acting out the stuff that was in my head instead of putting it into a better outlet for it.  

I didn’t need to be that person anymore. I used to get into a lot of fights and shit, and I just don’t have that in me anymore.  I don’t even like the idea of getting into altercations anymore.  It’s really kind of pacifying in a lot of ways, which is really what I needed.  I had no choice.  It was music, and it’s not like I really decided what I wanted to be or something.  It just happened because it needed to. 



Let’s talk about the cover art for The Death Mask.  One thing that keeps coming up with regards to it is the perception that you guys, Lord Mantis, are condoning or glorifying violence against transgendered people and also that it’s simply condoning violence period.  What’s your perspective on the issue of violence against transgendered people or anyone for that matter being glorified or dismissed in music or in art?

I think violence is part of being human.  It’s like love.  It’s part of the emotion.  It’s a reaction you’re capable of having.  But here’s the thing.  The cover art is me.  It’s violence against myself.  I have a very similar tattoo on my arm, and it’s supposed to represent my soul.  The main part of the issue is people’s idea of Whitehead, and everyone just thinks he’s this fucking monster because of the trial, even though he was innocent of all these rape charges.  But they’re still stringing him up.  It’s fucking bullshit. 

I didn’t mean to offend any group of people.  I’m making art that is reflective of my personal state and having my own sexual issues.  It has nothing to do with anyone else and everything to do with me.  It’s self.  It’s not a “fuck you” to anybody.  It’s just there.  It’s a piece of art.  I’m an uneducated college dropout.  Not everybody is some educated Portland asshole.  I’m a fucking street junkie from Chicago, and I talk and think like one.  I can’t put any other fucking face on that.  I’ve been getting a lot of shit for that also.  I can’t put another personality into myself and just switch. 

Mantis hasn’t really had that much success, really, and part of it’s because of that.  A lot of these fucking bands are bland as shit and are just regurgitated fucking garbage and some of them are touted as geniuses constantly, and that’s fucking frustrating as well, but it’s all part of the dicksuck game.  It’s putting on a personality for somebody else to make them feel good, then they’ll hook you up.  I can’t do that.  I don’t know how to do that. 


I think the association is being made that the art is representing feelings you or the band have towards transgendered people, and that’s been the primary issue.  Considering the fact that this is a group of people who have endured and continue to endure horrific abuse and oppression, this is something potentially alienating to them regardless of what the intent may have been.  

Society shits on people who act like themselves.  They shit on people who are honest.  The US is like a Christian belief state and part of that belief system is complete sexual oppression.  It’s so deeply ingrained in people that they don’t even fucking know.  There’s a whole shame that’s connected to it, and people react against people who act on something that’s natural to them.  You could make a million different groups for what people do and want sexually.  It’s human. 

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around why anyone would want to feel shameful about anything that makes you human, which is why all of this has been fucking frustrating.  I just see it as human. I run security for a bar in Boys Town in Chicago.  I know a lot of transgendered people, and I’ve got transgendered friends.  I’ve been with transgendered people.  I think if it was just a woman on the cover, no one would get pissed.  If it was just a man on the cover, no one would get pissed. 

The fact is that it was supposed to just be a complete human.  Male and female.  I think everybody has a little bit of both in them.  It was and is supposed to represent the full equation.  That’s why I have it on the cover.  It’s all self-harm.  The cuts on the arm, the cuts on the leg – I have those in reality.  Those are on me.  Those are mine.  It’s me and not anybody else. 

I don’t condone oppression against anybody.  It sucks because it’s there.  I know it’s real. It’s something that’s hard when you’re trying to change other people’s views, especially when it’s something in terms of the sexual.  In a way, though, I think that things are changing because I think this generation seems to be a lot less concerned or worried about shame than the last. 


photo credit: John Mourlas 

In talking about this generation, you’ve obviously been playing music for a while and been involved in the heavy music scene for most of your life.   How have you seen the perception or idea of extremism change or evolve over the last five to ten years where the genre seems to have gained popularity?

In a lot of ways, I think there’s two metal scenes.  There’s the metal scene for musicians who only do extreme as in their playing and not in the message or the emotion of the music – people that think that only the fastest of the fastest shit is extreme.  But I think now there’s more fucking people getting involved in the other type that’s more emotionally heavy and focuses more on content and is more cathartic. 

It’s more than just ‘Oh, that’s a cool riff’ or ‘That’s a really fast beat.’  I think bands like us and Indian are starting to hit more along the cerebral and emotional line.  I think that’s kind of being held or thought of as more extreme than what you’re playing or how fast you’re playing.  It’s the content and what you’re saying.  It’s a bit more respected than just your ability. 



It’s definitely divisive in many ways just given the fact that so many have a kind of misconception over what’s mainstream or what’s supposed “respectability” in the metal scene or scenes. 

Yeah, it’s weird because in Chicago it’s crazy divided.  The metal scene that all these bands are in like Indian and us, we don’t consider like Oceano or whatever as part of that scene.  They’re a metal band from Chicago.  They’re a big band, but they’re not really considered the local metal scene.  It’s super split, man.  It’s really crazy.  The band I’m touring for now is a pretty interesting example of that because they’ve made more riffy stuff in the past, and Ken kind of switched to doing more emotional, cerebral kind of stuff. 

He’s an amazing musician, but it’s crazy how he kept the kept the name but changed the style and people still won’t listen to it simply because of the name and they associate it with some other scene.  And it’s crazy because it’s actually really thoughtful, emotional black metal played by guys who used to be in like Nachtmystium and who are in Wolvhammer and shit like that.  It’s just weird and fucked up how people are guided by that kind of made up idea about what’s hip or whatever without actually listening to the music. 



What’s the rest of 2014 look like for you and Lord Mantis? 

I didn’t want us to really be a touring band with Pervertor.  It just never seemed to really work out.  We didn’t really have a lot of bands that sounded like us that wanted to take us out.  Everyone kind of takes out a band that sounds identical to them in a way.  But for this we’re going out with Hell Militia at the end of June, and I’m trying to set up some West Coast stuff for the end of July.  I’ve been touring and setting this shit up since I was nineteen, so I’ll make some shows happen.  

Thanks to Charlie for his time.  

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