Drew Daniel’s The Soft Pink Truth music project contorts the seemingly immovable aesthetic of black metal into something just as primal and compelling. The project’s upcoming Why Do the Heathen Rage? (Thrill Jockey) release transforms the cold, barren anthems of bands like Darkthrone, Beherit, and Venom, into the robotic yet fluid clicks and pulses of house music that is irrefutably catchy. What might seem like an elaborate joke at the expense of serious music, is actually a sendup by Daniel of what he both loves and, perhaps most importantly, hates about black metal. It’s a stroke of brilliance on Daniel’s part mainly because the music accomplishes the nod to two cultures and music forms that for all their supposed differences, are rooted in the auditory similarities that speak both to mind and body. SfB spoke with Daniel about his journey to creating Why Do The Heathen Rage? and more in this special feature interview.
photo credit: M. C. Schmidt
Where were you when music found you and what was the kind of initial catalyst for you creatively speaking?
I never really thought I would make music, and it still doesn’t really feel like that’s quite honest. [Laughs] Because I’m not trained on an instrument and really never had any training. It sounds pretentious but honestly I sort of came at this work from sound rather than music. The way that it started really was playing with a tape recorder. When I was a kid I was given a tape recorder that had a little microphone in it, but it was a broken microphone, and when I would record my voice it would sound like a monster. It would sound super distorted and scary.
I remember thinking that was really amazing – that you could tape yourself and turn yourself into sound but also kind of transform yourself.You could go from being some wimpy little kid to some kind of frightening monster. The idea was that you could use sound as this prosthetic technology to change ourselves, to change what we are. And I think when you’re young, you’re so powerless, and you dream of power or you resent the parents who have power over you. You want power. That sort of deforming technology as sound was also a way of having some virtual power that you don’t actually have. You can become frightening, and I like that so much.
When you talk about the disparity that exists between sound and music, what for you is the distinction between those two things?
I guess the thing that I do is I try to imagine it as a visual graph. I imagine that there’s two oppositions. I imagine a graph and one axis, a vertical axis, is sound versus silence, and the other axis, which is horizontal, is noise versus music. So when you overlay those two oppositions then you sort of get four quadrants. You get something that is silent but musical. Looking at sheet music, there’s no sound but there’s musical information. Then you get something that’s both sound and music like a KISS concert or a Rihanna single.
Then you get noise that is silent, like in information theory any gap in a signal like if a cell phone drops out, that’s technically noise. Even though it’s silent it just means a loss of signal or a loss of content. So, by extension, that also means there’s a kind of space to see the way that these things overlap with their opposites. If noise is opposed to music or if sound is opposed to silence, then it’s just wherever the places are that these distinctions start to touch. That’s just how I think about it, but I don’t think about that way when I’m actually making something. When I think about making something it’s not nearly this abstract.
There’s a paradox here, which is that a lot of noise culture and the noise scene, and I go to noise shows constantly and listen to a lot of noise music, a lot of is deliberately not trying to be musical. It’s embracing noise and letting noise be noise. But there’s also an endless variety of noisy variance on music, so there’s noisy hip-hop like Clippings or noisy black metal like Theologian.
There’s various crossing points. That book Noise/Music: A History, by Hegarty makes an interesting point that noise is always failing. It’s always failing to stay noise, so what seems really jarring like think back in the beginning with Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” – that song used to be really disorienting to people, and now it’s banal.As time goes by, and I’m not saying that someday we’ll listen to a Merzbow record, and it’ll sound like whale songs but maybe. I don’t know. [Laughs]
That kind of naturally lends itself to the space between the artist’s conscious efforts and the unconscious reaction of the experiencer. Do you feel that what you do is sort of a creative operation within that negative space, or is there a deliberate auditory focal point for you?
Yeah. It’s something that I’m very aware of when I’m doing Matmos, and that I’m pretty much not thinking about when it’s Soft Pink Truth. [Laughs] Matmos’ point is very deeply the sort of poetics of the material objects that are the sources or the processes that started the song off, and there’s this feeling that’s like a magic spell in being able to find these material sources that have a certain power. Part of that is telling people when they’re listening what they’re hearing and letting that information act on their experience of listening, but also that has to be open to contingency like maybe someone doesn’t give a shit about your liner notes and just hears it as music, and you’re not in control.
I think with Soft Pink Truth, the core thing for me was a set of turbulent emotions about making dance music out of materials or ideas or sources that are kind of hostile to the values of dance music. It’s about a contradiction or about a double citizenship that I have as somebody that’s a gay dude who’s heard a lot of dance music in gay bars and been a go-go dancer and knew a lot of people in nightclubs in San Francisco in the peak era of the rave scene versus being somebody that likes noise and hardcore, punk rock, and metal, and loves a lot of sounds a lot of imagery and a lot of ideas that are totally contemptuous of the ethos of dance floor music and dance floor culture.
To me, I love the paradox of bringing these two opposed contexts and making them collide somehow. That’s the fun part. I guess the negative space that’s opened there is how do I know what the listener is already familiar with or isn’t? Why would I assume that I’m the only person that cares about both of those scenes when, in fact, its’ a complicated world that’s full of people who probably love electronic music and black metal? It’s not like I’m the only person who’s thought “Oh, let’s put the chocolate in the peanut butter.”
What’s fascinating to me is that the cultures or various “scenes” associated with these genres is made to appear different by way of stereotype when the fact is that that both types of music are firmly rooted in that resistance to authority.
It was interesting in the wake of the coverage of the death of Frankie Knuckles, there were a lot of people sharing and celebrating classic early Chicago house, and so much of it is really stark and stripped down and sometimes has a kind of cold, frightening weird persona. On the track “No Way Back” there’s something quite intense and raw about both the instruments, the way that they’re produced, the way that voices are recorded – I do see a weird kinship with the pure early and sometimes very raw way that classic black metal records were recorded.
The working title for my album was Fenriz Has a Guidance Tattoo. It’s true! Fenriz from Darkthrone has a Plasticman tattoo so there’s a link to acid techno, and then he also has a tattoo for Guidance which is a fucking house label. That’s chilled, repetitive, minimal house. And there’s none more cult and none more authentic, I would say, than Darkthrone, so that’s why the record was gonna be called that. It was kind of just an in-joke to me, but you see the link that I’m talking about here. It’s right there if you just know to look for it.
Do you see experimental music or at least the push to blur those dividing lines between what’s assumed as a pure sound within genre going through a distinct period of evolution right now? Are perceptions of listening and even creating undergoing a kind of change with regards to how we perceive what’s long been considered mainstream popular music and underground music?
I think that what you’re seeing is a couple of movements simultaneously. What you’re seeing is both an increase in access to the past, so more and more people are listening to weirder and weirder records from the heyday of experimental music. I’m just talking about the accessibility of online YouTube files of Stockhausen or Pauline Oliveros or Terry Riley or the existence of a massive database like Ubu Web means that everybody now who wants can learn about Fluxus performance work, and then you’ve also got an explosion in terms of a totally grassroots DIY noise scene mostly focused on modular circuit bent or self-created instruments.
There’s the weird persistence in popularity of something like the INC – the International Noise Conference – there’s so many people making fucked up music and listening to fucked up music. On the other hand, I think that there’s a certain weird thing that is happening to music as a result of where we access it and how we access it, and I think that that is itself maybe something that hasn’t been thought about enough in a critical manner. I’m reading the new book by David Grubbs called Records Ruin the Landscape, and it’s about the 60s generation of experimentalists who were very hostile to recordings. They basically felt like making recordings is inherently a violation of the dynamic conditions of really experimental work.
I think, for me, I face that in that I like to make records and make that my focus, whereas my partner in Matmos, Martin Schmidt, he likes to improvise and especially improvise in quads. So when we tour with Matmos we’re almost always in quadrophonic. It’s not a format that you can record and disseminate easily. In general there’s just something that can’t be reproduced about these acoustic spaces. You have to be there. It’s not the same to look at it online, and it’s not the same to rip the YouTube file. I think that’s the real conflict right now.
It’s not so much about are people making mainstream music or weird music. It’s more about are people insisting on real presence, or are they reaping the often very appealing and intuitively apparent rewards of everything about culture making and moving online. And I’m saying this to someone who has a blog, so you’re a part of the problem. [Laughs] I don’t want to seem like a hypocrite here where I’m spouting off like I’m the voice of experimental music or something. The Soft Pink Truth is very much not experimental in its form at all. I’m trying to make pop music out of things that are extreme in terms of their content, but I wouldn’t want to pass off what I’m doing like “This is an experimental record.” I don’t think of it that way.
In looking at social media and the massive level of information as well as art and music that we absorb, oftentimes involuntarily, do you see the growth in popularity for experimental and noise music as a kind of response to that in a way?
As everyone became a librarian of their own digital horde of content, a part of that is that they have more and it’s easier to get more of every genre. I have about a month’s worth of continuously different metal on my laptop, and I have about a month of classic industrial music, and I have about a month of techno, where I would have to sit for three months and only listen and never go to sleep in order to hear everything I’ve already got. That’s so much fucking music. But when you’re using certain interfaces and all of a sudden saying “Oh, I’m just listening alphabetically” you go suddenly from, say, Abruptum to Aphex Twin.
It draws these lines across the alphabet that disregards content, or you alphabetize by song title, and suddenly you’re creating these conversations across genre that would not normally ever happen. It’s weird. The access is great, but it may also flatten some of the mystique of the hard to find or the difficult. For me it makes the live experience even more important and even more mysterious. That chance to see particularly highly reclusive musicians that aren’t interested in self-representation. I was on tour with Matmos in Australia and New Zealand, and we went to play a festival in Tasmania, and I actually had the chance to see Striborg play, and I’ve been listening to him for forever.
I love his work so much. The epilogue to my scholarly book about melancholy, there’s a point where I do a critical reading of Striborg’s work as an example of melancholy aesthetics of the present time. He’s not someone who I ever fucking thought I would see play live much less play live with a string quartet next to a river in a forest late at night in Tasmania, but it happened. To me, that was a powerful moment in part because that was someone who has not taken the path of lots of branding and lots of self-exposition with lots of tweeting and blah, blah, blah.
They deliberately left a lot of negative space in which you can just imagine, and I think that that kind of power is harder and harder for people to have, because the culture machine expects everybody to have to be on message all the time to keep feeding the beast with new pictures, new brags, new cross-references, new cross-marketing. Maybe what’s interesting about the misanthropic or solitary stances of a lot of black metal culture is that it refuses that kind of glibness, and I think that’s interesting.
What was your thought process going into Why Do the Heathen Rage? and how much did you see the end result evolve or maybe even devolve from that initial creative push?
It started as a kind of joke. I was DJ’ng at this party in Brooklyn called Rainbow in the Dark, which is like a heavy metal party for gay dudes. I joked to someone who was there: “Oh, it would be really funny if you did a Darkthrone cover where you cut all the lyrics out of classic house music,” because I’d noticed that Darkthrone’s “Beholding the Throne of Might” – they sing “When Hell calls your name, there’s no way back,” and I thought of that Adonis track “No Way Back.” I was talking about it with Hunter from Liturgy, actually, and he was like “Oh, you should do that,” and I thought maybe I should.
I went home and made the Beherit cover “Sadomatic Rites,” and it was so fun to make it. The first time I played it back to myself after I’d laid out all the parts and done the vocals and put things in place and really listened to it, I just couldn’t stop laughing. It just struck me as the most absurd music, and I was like “No one in the fucking world wants this. This is not effective house music that will make people dance and not actually effective scary black metal that would make black metal people happy, but I need to do this!” [Laughs] It was a kind of compulsion.
It was so fun doing the first two songs, the Beherit and the Darkthrone, that I thought “Oh shit, maybe I’ll do another Soft Pink Truth record, and there’ll be a few black metal covers,” but the more that I did the more that I realized – “No. This is the record. I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna go all the way.” It became this ritual with my friend Owen Gardner, who’s the guitarist for this great band Horse Lords. He agreed to help me, so he would sit and transcribe the riffs, and then I would input them into MIDI, send them to all these synths, and then reconstruct the riffs and check against the original. It was very important to me that if you loved these songs, and if you knew them, that you would be able to recognize at least chord elements on the new versions. That was important to me. I don’t know why I’m imagining there’s some sort of Olympic table of judges in corpse paint that are gonna hold up a six or a seven or an eight and ask “Did you get the riff? Did you get the solo?”
But the truth, really, is very simple. I fucking love these songs. I think they’re great songs. I love black metal, and I also, as a gay man, and as someone who’s not a racist, fascist asshole, I also have big problems with black metal and problems with the political cowardice around its fanbase. It’s not acceptable, and so that combination of what do you do when you really love something and you really hate something, for me the answer was really clear. Make a record about it, so that’s what I did.
Thanks to Drew for his time.
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