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Spirits Made Flesh - A Conversation With David Eugene Edwards of Wovenhand

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Born from the tumult of spiritual rebirth and worldly rejection, David Eugene Edwards is a man uncomfortable in the skin he considers a mortal restraint. It’s not to say that the man behind the alternative country act 16 Horsepower and the mercurial but no less influential Wovenhand considers himself above this world. Quite the opposite, actually. Edwards has for years now used the reckoning between his Christian beliefs and the world around him as a conduit to create a music that is utterly earnest and unhindered by listener expectation. Wovenhand’s upcoming Refractory Obdurate (Deathwish, Inc.) finds Edwards as loud and commanding as he’s ever been, his voice echoing over the post-rock tide like a modern day Ezekiel summoning the bones to rise up and walk. SfB recently spoke to Edwards about his religious background, its influence on his music today, and more in this special feature interview.  

My first question just concerns your relationship to your music, David.  Where were you when music found you, and do you see yourself in that same place now after all these years of creating music?

Yeah.  At first it was just singing in church.  My mother played guitar and sang, so initially I probably heard it from her, and then my grandfather was the preacher, but he led the music as well, so that’s where I first started singing.  As time progressed, it was the only thing that I was able to grab ahold of that was usable by me to communicate.  [Laughs]  And it was only up to a certain point.  Of course I liked it.  Everybody likes music, right?  But, I felt like I could go farther with music as a child than anything else, than anything I could have done at school or through reading or through writing or sports or anything.  I knew it was a place where I could live, the music. 

 

Has that changed or evolved in any way for you since those early days singing in church?  How sacred is the music to you now, or is it?

It’s changed a lot.  Mainly in the fact that I grew up in the constructs that are around me – the way in which music is presented to you.  This is the music of the church, and then it’s presented to you like this.  And then, of course, there’s other churches that present it in a completely different way, but the way I was raised, those were the wrong ways.  We were doing it the right way, other people were doing it the wrong way.  Not even talking about the world and its music – that’s a completely different story altogether.  This was just within the church itself.  And then there was the big argument of what you could listen to and what you couldn’t listen to and anxiety and worry over music that we were getting in from the outside. 

The longer I make music, the more I realize that music is not sacred.  My music is not sacred.  It’s not sacred to me, and that’s what I mean by the constructs that you grew up.  I’ve come out of this sort of alternative country world where I play the banjo or I play the accordion, but I don’t play them the way you’re supposed to play them. So the people that play the banjo or that play the accordion, I am like a heretic. Seriously. It’s not a joke. I’m literally a heretic to these people, and not only them but a heretic to rock ‘n roll people as well. I’m pretty much a heretic to everybody. But I never even thought about it. I just do what I like, if you understand, and all the different collection of influences that influenced me musically or whatever for whatever reason that formed what I do, I didn’t think about it. But once you do it, people point at it and say whatever. It’s kind of odd.

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You’ve mentioned before that you’re not too terribly concerned with the process of how the music is made, and you kind of distance yourself from that. Is that kind of disconnect something you see as a creative catalyst in itself?

We can go back to the initial question and how I attached myself to music early on. That was where I felt like I could live and communicate to some degree but only to a certain extent, because my ability only goes so far. This distance I have with my own music and this relationship also just has to do with that I’m very unconfident about it. It’s not a really comfortable thing to just pick up a guitar and start playing around the house for people or something. It’s still embarrassing. I’m still an embarrassment to myself. It sounds weird, but this has been the same since I was a child. I can only go so far with my talent, so I live within that, and it is an odd relationship. 

But as I mentioned before, the sacredness of the music – of course it’s sacred.  Everything God has created, everything good is sacred.  If God is a part of it, then it’s sacred, so man is sacred.  Every man is a sacred man.  And God speaks in different ways at different times in whatever way he wants to.  In America if you play this really folky, all wooden instruments and you’re singing, and you dress like an Amish person or whatever, and you’re singing in a certain tone of voice, and the woman is singing with the real airy, lilting innocence – this is a construct, not evidence. 

But people look at it as evidence.  They say “These people are godly people,” but listen to their music. You can extrapolate this to any society. If you’re listening to music from Egypt, or you’re listening to music from Iran, or wherever, people will say “Oh, we like this, so God is there because we like it.  We like the way it sounds, so we’re closer to God,” but that’s not the case. God does what he wants to do. He’s not part of your little construct here. He’s down the street with some guy who doesn’t know how to sing that doesn’t even have a voice. He’s making music with that guy or someone who can only grunt.

 

Obviously with your background and the value you place on your spirituality as it relates to your music.  Do you see your relationship to your religious beliefs conflicting with the rock ‘n roll or punk aesthetic that’s always been associated with the total rejection of religion?

People want to stand up and address things that they see that they don’t agree with. They stand up and they say “This is what’s going on, and we need to do something about this,” and people get together in groups and try to make this happen politically, socially, or however.  The conflicts – I mean, the whole idea of punk rock music and rock ‘n roll are the same, which are, for the most part, an act of response to oppression.  These are responses to oppression, and there’s many different responses to oppression. Oppression is a problem, so you can’t point at rock ‘n roll and say “Okay, this is bad,” just like everybody else talks about constantly – you have to go to the source of the problem.  You can’t put a band-aid on it. 

You gotta go find the root problem, and that is the world right now with everyone trying to get to the root problem of whatever it is, whether it’s intolerance or religious fanaticism or whatever.  We wanna get to the root problem. What’s the root cause of these people acting like this? So we do all of this, and we meet in this center pavilion and talk about this stuff, but the place that we meet – this is fucking Disneyland. We’re having our little meeting in Disneyland, and maybe you live on the northside of Disneyland, and it’s great over there, and the southside’s great, but we’re living on Disneyland.

The land you’re on does not belong to you. The buildings that you’re walking around on and in, and the roads that you’re driving on were built by slaves that were murdered and not paid and raped, and then you stand there and wanna make these decisions about rock ‘n roll or gay people, or when the church is basically an institutionalized pedophilia ring. All over America. All over the world. You create a problem, then you solve the problem. That’s how this country works. You create a problem, then you solve the problem. You bankroll both sides of the deal, and then you just keep rollin’ on. I have no patience for some guy in a suit that’s gonna come up and tell me anything. I have no patience for it.

 

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I think that’s something you’ve always put forth very earnestly with your music, David. There’s consistently been this anger paired with a spiritual questioning of the world and your perspective of it.  When you think about the trajectory of your career, and all the things that you’ve seen and what’s obviously an incredibly hypocritical world in almost every facet, how have you seen what our society or culture values with music and art specifically evolve over the time period since you’ve been involved with it?

I don’t really know. I’m really kind of distracted from it. I just made music, and then all of a sudden we got on a major label, so it was made easy for me when for years and years it wasn’t. But there’s no rhyme or reason behind it. We didn’t have some big push behind us or anything. It was just that somebody took a chance on us, basically. I think every major label is looking for the small, strange band to be part of the resume of the corporation, and that’s not to say that there’s not good people there.  

And when I say “good people,” I mean people that are interested in music and people that are interested in what people are doing rather than marketing. There’s nothing wrong with marketing necessarily, either.  There’s just artistic people that work with music that don’t make music. That’s the whole idea behind it. Obviously there’s all the people that write about music like we’re doing right now. I’m talking about it, someone’s relaying that to somebody else, and that’s their job. So, they’re either artistic about what they do or they’re just corporate about what they do. 

 

Looking at Refractory Obdurate, there’s that same self-exploration and introspection you’ve always put into your music, but now the sound seems bigger and more commanding than ever. Was there a different approach for this new record than with previous ones?

I used more scripture on this one, like direct scripture. A lot of times I use references or have different scriptures in some way referenced or intermingled seemingly unrelated. But this one had more verbatim use, almost. Like the song “Hiss” is one of the ones that’s already been released, and it’s basically just Isaiah 5 just set to music just kind of putting it up in this kind of format to be communicated in this fashion. I like the way it turned out.

 

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There’s certainly a lot of confrontational material in the Old Testament, just thinking about you mentioning Isaiah. Do you find yourself going more to the Old Testament or the New Testament when writing, or is it a balance of both for you?

I mean, the New Testament is the Old Testament. The Lord is the Lord always. He’s never changed. He’s always been the same. He’s spoken in different ways, but as of now He’s of course spoken with Christ, and that’s the whole point. Just as on the road to Emmaus when Christ is speaking to these men, and they don’t know who He is.  He relates to them, Jesus, through the scriptures from Moses until today, so this is the Old Testament. The whole Old Testament is about Jesus.  Everything. Every word.

People say “Oh, the Old Testament has some references to Christ and some of these are in the Psalms and some of these are in the messianic prophecies,” these kind of slightly vague messianic prophecies about the Messiah where you can go back and say “Hey look, they’re talking about Jesus here.” This is the way it’s taught in church, and for the most part they only use the Old Testament when they wanna scare you, not realizing that the Old Testament is the Lord Jesus.

All of the Old Testament. Samson, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar – these are all the Lord Jesus. Joseph, Jonah, Job or Elihu – all are the Lord Jesus. This is all about the finished work of Christ, the lamb slain before the foundations of the Earth. This is His story.  Yes, He comes in the flesh as the fulfillment of the law which has been expressed the whole Old Testament, but I have a different relationship with the Old Testament than most of the people I know that read the Bible. 

 

What lies ahead for you with Wovenhand this year, and what does the rest of 2014 hold for you?

We go to Europe at this end of this month for about five weeks.  At the moment we have no American booking agent. It’s difficult for us in America. It’s difficult for us to have a booking agent because we don’t do a lot there, so it’s difficult for them to keep us on the roster. I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but that’s just what’s happened. [Laughs] We’re gonna put some effort in trying to remedy that and do some shows here. But we’ve always gone to Europe. Since ’95 I’ve been going to Europe because that’s where the people have been interested in what we do for the most part, so we continue to do that. It’s like when people have to go get another job in another part of town. They gotta take a train for an hour and a half to get to their work, because that’s the only place they can find a job. It’s a similar situation, but I love my job, and I love the audience.  

Thanks to David for his time.

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A Pregnant Light: Before I Came

          A Pregnant Light: Before I Came (Colloquial Sound Recordings)

Given the sheer amount of musicians in heavy music today positing themselves as “raw” or not given to the desire to gloss their sound over with heady production, it’s no surprise that the creative pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The idea of employing a “raw” aesthetic within extreme music too often finds that definition narrowed to the finite restraints of simply being abrasive or largely inaccessible. It’s an unfair generalization to a word and characteristic within extreme music, especially, given the fact that the word itself is just as associated with pain as it is beauty.  Not that those two ideas in the context of art or music are mutually exclusive by any means, but rather that their coexistence as opposed to the alienation of one or the other, often provides the most compelling kind of soundscape, and, perhaps more importantly, can allow for a kind of music that’s at once utterly rare and compelling in its vulnerability.

I was late to the game with A Pregnant Light, the one-man post-black metal project based out of Michigan.  Thanks to one of the few helpful end-of-the-year lists from the always-reliable Lars Gotrich of NPR at the end of last year, I dove headfirst into what I honestly couldn’t (and still can’t) wrap my head around. That sounds like a critical malfunction, and maybe it is, but it also presents the near mythical place of genuine engagement between art and the observer.  Known by his moniker of Deathless Maranatha, the man behind A Pregnant Light is Damian Master who runs the Colloquial Sound Recordings label that, in addition to APL, also features one of Master’s (many) other projects, Aksumite.  Only active since 2011, the small label has produced an impressive number of releases with A Pregnant Light spearheading the forward-thinking creative trajectory of the man behind the sound. 

This month saw the release of Before I Came, a compilation of A Pregnant Light’s previous material focusing on the project’s highlights along with two new tracks (“Ringfinger” and “Lilajugend”).  Master smartly places the two new tracks in a one-two punch at the beginning of the compilation as a kind of reference point for the listener to fully grasp the arc of what APL has managed to accomplish sonically since its 2011 demo, The Feast of Clipped Wings.  It’s immediately obvious how much value Master places on melodic conversation as “Ringfinger” begins with a jangle that echoes Johnny Marr but also roots itself within the song’s singular context. The song is quick to charge into the black metal blast beat push, but the texturing thankfully never swallows up the melody’s drive. Though the influences are obvious here, the music only shades in the corners with what’s inspired it instead of engaging in a kind of derivative echo. 

In his interview with Invisible Oranges last year, Master was quick to express the kind of abrasive introspection that works as the genesis for A Pregnant Light’s music, saying that the project itself “is very much an inward venture.” Sure.  What artist or musician doesn’t say their creations come from an inward place?  Posturing as such is old hat. Employing authentic introspection is a rare beast altogether, however, and A Pregnant Light captures that rarity with a conviction and sense of composition that’s staggering.  Taking its name from a combination of the German words for “purple” and “youth”, second track “Lilajugend” shows Master’s appreciation for and, more importantly, understanding of Eastern music traditions, specifically with regards to the Carnatic music of India and its unique vocalizations. Again, those inspirational elements for A Pregnant Light work here like connective tissue, bridging the relevance of what presumably sparked that initial creative desire within Master to the value he places on introspection and personal experience as a catalyst. 

Master has used the phrase “purple metal” with regards to A Pregnant Light’s sound, and it’s a fitting description or at least a way of drawing a line of distinction between the music here and the typically nihilistic thematics and sonic abrasion associated with black metal.  This isn’t to suggest that black metal musicians aren’t introspective and don’t use that self-awareness as a creative guideline for their music, but rather that the end result is oftentimes strikingly different from what appears on Before I Came.  Songs like “Heat Helps These Flowers Grow” and “The Pregnant Life” utilize a subdued but nonetheless just as potent sexual tension with the lyrics and even Master’s well-timed transition between his punk-fused screams and Ian Curtis-nodding crooning offering a delivery that’s powerfully suggestive.  God knows there are plenty of metal musicians giving just as much creative love to Bauhaus as they do Black Sabbath, and it’s another welcomed component to a genre that’s arguably more conducive to transformation and evolution than any other. 

Before I Came is unabashedly raw in its scope and in its execution, though that vulnerability doesn’t come from an overused sense of coarse atmospherics. The music here takes advantage of its power by exposing those layers and textures it utilizes. The aforementioned “The Pregnant Life” is easily one of the most outstanding songs, heavy or not, I’ve heard in ages simply because it lays perfectly bare the compositional vascularity of its individual parts.  That kind of sonic autonomy where the melody, harmony, and rhythm coexist but as separate entities working to a common end is the stuff of subtle brilliance and elevates the music here to a very uncommon and wholly remarkable place. Before I Came succeeds on numerous levels, but most importantly the collection of songs here stand as a place marker for what will undoubtedly prove to be only the beginning for the extraordinarily captivating music of A Pregnant Light.

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You Know Nothing - A Conversation With Michael Gira

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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. 

 

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. 

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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.

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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.

 

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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. 

 

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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

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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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