Anaal Nathrakh has long been a favorite here at Spinal Tapdance HQ, from the raw, corrosive noise of the demos and debut full-length The Codex Necro to the more pronounced melodicism present on Domine Non Es Dignus, the extra slathering of industrial noise and unease on Eschaton and everything since. With a sonic assault more bilious than any two blokes from Birmingham should theoretically be capable of, the duo of Dave Hunt and Mick Kenney are responsible for some of this young century’s finest black metal. Anaal Nathrakh released their sixth full-length album back in May, and it is the delightfully nasty and unhinged Passion that serves as the jumping-off point for the following interview with vocalist and lyricist Dave Hunt (also known by his [un]Christian name, V.I.T.R.I.O.L.). Dig in and blast out.
Spinal Tapdance: You’ve had a long-stated disinclination to print your lyrics, and have explained that you would prefer the listener to explore the themes hinted at in your song titles, album art, and so forth, on his or her own. That’s a laudable goal, but do you think that’s a plausible expectation of listeners in an oversaturated consumer culture? I suppose it could be argued that oversaturated consumers wouldn’t bother to read lyrics, either, so maybe what I’m trying to ask is whether your decision to not print lyrics has more to do with you, or with your perceptions of your audience.
Dave Hunt: Interesting way of putting it. No, I don’t think it’s a plausible expectation of listeners. But the ephemeral nature of virtually all significance in this oversaturated consumer culture is one of the main reasons for not printing lyrics. It’s not that no one would read them, it’s that only a small proportion of those who did read them would actually pay attention to them. That’s not particularly a condemnation of anyone, I just realize that people often don’t pay close attention to things. And the people who would bother to properly read and think about lyrics are I think virtually the same people who will spend 5 minutes with google trying to figure out what’s going on even in the absence of lyrics. Provided it’s understood that there’s anything really going on in the first place. Hence trying to put bits and pieces in plain sight in the titles and liner notes etc. But a plausible expectation? Not at all, and that’s why we don’t actually expect it. You don’t have to delve any deeper than the play button on your stereo to get something – hopefully something powerful – out of our music, or indeed most other music. And if that’s enough for you, then fine – after all, we’ve put a shitload of effort into making an album, not an essay. But all the same, if you’re interested enough to want to look under the surface, then it’s there for you. In a way, withholding lyrics is almost an invitation.
ST: Many of your song titles are references to works of literature or other classical artistic endeavors (Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” on Hell Is Empty…, Dylan Thomas’s famous poem on Domine Non Es Dignus, now Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” on Passion, and so on). Are these somewhat sly references to a cultivated, well-rounded education, or do the works in question have a direct bearing on the songs in which they are invoked?
DH: It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt. Some of the references are simply because the phrases involved were appropriate – for example the Mozart one. The vengeance of hell boils in my heart? Brilliant. ‘Hell is empty, and all the devils are here’ is a quote from Shakespeare, but in a sense of finding new meaning in the line when looking at the world now through the lens of Anaal Nathrakh. So a sideways reference. Whereas the Thomas poem might be differently intended, but I think it’s intensely compatible with the anguished sense of desperation and nihilism in what we do, so that title is more like a proper reference. But none of it is meant to be an oblique way of saying ‘gosh, aren’t we well read?’. Not at all, and I’d hate to be thought of as so arrogant a wanker. It’s just a matter of going through life and finding things, thinking of things, trying to understand and express things. We’ve never used a reference for any other reason than that it helped us articulate what we were trying to get across.
ST: On that topic, I’ve often wondered whether the clear rage and disgust present in Anaal Nathrakh’s music and themes ever tilts into full-on nihilism. The reason I ask this is that your soaring clean vocals often seem to function as something of a check on the violently nihilistic aesthetic of all-out corrosive blasting. When this is coupled with your invocation of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” on Domine Non Es Dignus, I wonder if there’s a sliver of, if not hope, then maybe simple indignation that functions as a positive reaction to all the terrible things you see in the world.
DH: Hmm, that’s a nice point. It’s not quite right, but I’m just pleased someone bothered to think of it! The nihilism is present throughout, but it’s a specific kind – it’s not a conceptual nihilism which denies all significance. At the risk of getting too wordy, I suppose you could call it a teleological nihilism. There is potential significance, there is the possibility of something positive; a goal. It’s just that it won’t happen. I don’t think there needs to be some extra-planetary or objective ‘meaning benefactor’, and I wouldn’t presume to suggest what the actual or appropriate goals might be, but it does not seem to me that all content is devoid of significance, even if that significance is only subjectively generated. Rather, it seems that any goal is too much to hope for. We will drag it down, we will debase it, we will pervert it to serve our own venal self obsession – ultimately, we will fail. Because of what we as humans are. That’s what generates the rage and disgust, not the other way around. And it also means that the light, the positivity, anything soaring or hopeful, is futile. Which makes its existence all the more tragic, and ultimately almost spiteful. The nihilism is produced by the conviction, not that there are only terrible things in the world, but that the existence of anything else is tantamount to torture. I don’t know much Schopenhauer, but I gather it’s fairly similar to what he might have said. I suppose in a way it’s almost grief. But then that’s joined by a gleefully violent mindset which is given freedom by nihilism. If you inflict suffering and take away all hope then that can create rage – but it also creates someone who has nothing left to lose. I remember a song called ‘the truly dangerous nature of a man who doesn’t care if he lives or dies’ – well add to that ‘who has realized he was evil all along and has already been driven insane with rage’ and you’re about in the mindset.
ST: What would have to happen to make you write a happy song?
DH: I don’t know. I don’t understand happiness as well as I understand bitterness or desperation or melancholy, and it doesn’t come naturally to write about it. I think that people in general find unhappiness, or at least positivity that comes only out of conflict with unhappiness, more compelling. Think of cultural icons – of whatever kind – fictional or otherwise, and I think you’ll find support for that. Batman, Beethoven, Blake, Van Gough… None of them would be as interesting as they are without their demons. I’d rather watch a Lars von Trier film than whatever feelgood hit for all the family is doing the rounds. Maybe that’s just a personal dispositional thing, but I can’t see what would change that. Finding god isn’t on the menu.
ST: I suppose this is a pretty nuts-and-bolts question, but you’ve explained elsewhere that Mick pretty much presents you with a bunch of more or less completed songs, to which you add your lyrics. How do you go about deciding which lyrics or topics go to which songs? Have you developed a certain way of lyrically interpreting the melodic and/or barbaric noises Mick brings to the table?
DH: Yes. Each song idea or set of lyrics or whatever it is I’ve got at the time has a hinterland of things it involves and relates to, and if you run your mind over the various ideas while listening to the blank music, things start to fit into place in terms of atmospheres, sounds that would fit a given part of the music in such a way that they’d also be the right way to express a certain feeling in the words or whatever. I can often hear parts in my head as soon as I hear the music. Imagine if you’d written the words to the Queen song “The Show Must Go On,” along with words to a load of other songs, and you were thinking of the best way to express what’s behind them. You wouldn’t pick the music of “Fat Bottomed Girls.” And if there simply wasn’t a piece of music on the tape that worked with the words you’d written, they’d stay on the shelf until something came along that was right. That’s if you ignore the possibility of writing the music yourself specifically for that purpose. But in Anaal Nathrakh that wouldn’t happen anyway – I can do words and ideas and make horrific noises all day long, but Mick is the one who can write music. Though it’s also often the case that the ideas I’ve had play into what Mick writes. Not in a specific song sense, but it’s quite common that when he’s getting musical ideas together in his head, I’ll write out a semi-long hand explanation of the things I’ve been thinking about, or find pieces of artwork that resonate with it, and pass them on to him. That doesn’t form the template for what he then does, because obviously he’s got his own creativity and things he wants to include, and I don’t at all mean to imply that I’m the mastermind behind it all, because I’m not. We each do our part, and the music is Mick’s. But it does mean there’s a certain compatibility of tone between what we’re both thinking from the beginning. I’ve got loads of stuff that’s never ended up getting used in Anaal Nathrakh so far, but there’s never been a time I can think of that sitting with Mick listening to what he’s written hasn’t provoked a reaction that pointed to one idea or another that I’d got.
ST: Again, another somewhat utilitarian question, but since I have never tried to make such an unearthly racket with my vocal cords, I’ve no clue how it works. Do you have a practice regimen to keep your voice in shape, or do you try and save it for recording and live shows? Are there certain of your vocal techniques that are more difficult than others?
DH: No, I don’t practice or anything. And I’m only human – obviously I can do this, or there wouldn’t be albums of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. My voice gets fucked up sometimes. The thing I find hardest is recording the really harsh screams; oddly enough it’s easier live because you’re there in the moment, you’re sweating, half drunk, half mad because you’re psyched up for the show. But when you’re recording, all you’ve got is a microphone in front of you and everything swirling around in your head. So when you try to express that, it’s easy to go too far and blow your voice out in one verse, or you try too hard and it comes out sounding shit. So you have to be mindful of what you’re doing, which can be hard if what you’re doing involves expressing the fact that you’re out of your mind! I just try to remember that I’m trying to do something via the most extreme form of singing I can manage, rather than something so extreme that singing no longer applies. On a tour, you have to be more careful – the temptation to get slaughtered the whole time is very strong, but if you do that every night for a week your voice won’t last for the rest of the tour – at least not with this kind of singing. And the people who’ve bought tickets for show number 14 quite rightly don’t care if you couldn’t say no to the 20th beer the night before. So on tours I try to look after myself a bit – not too much drinking after shows, get enough sleep etc. It’s a pain to have to always have one eye on restraining yourself, but it’s a small price to pay. One thing I do do though is experiment with making sounds, for example I’ve been trying to figure out khoomei recently [Ed: khoomei is a form of Tuvan throat singing in which several resonant tones are produced at once]. I have no idea what my neighbours might make of that. But that’s as close to practicing as I get.
ST: Both Rainer Landfermann (ex- of Bethlehem) and Alan Dubin (ex- of Khanate and a shitload of others) put in severely demented vocal spots on Passion. Do you feel any pressure to spice up your own bag of vocal-cord bothering tricks when you’ve got guests like that?
DH: No, not at all. I don’t tend to see things as a competition. It may sound like some soppy cliché, but really I just feel privileged to be able to be in the company of people like that, artistically speaking. We only ask people whose work we respect and admire, so it’d be perverse to ask them, but then secretly hope they wouldn’t do anything you couldn’t beat yourself. They’re just different, and that difference is a good thing. In terms of what those two did on this album, I think it’s brilliant. They both brought something unique with them and far from being intimidated, I simply love hearing what they did. I’ve been blown away by Alan’s work, especially Khanate, for years. And Rainer is both one of the most uniquely maniacal vocalists in extreme metal history, and a pretty inspiring guy to work with. He threw himself into it, and before he’d agree to take part he had to ensure that the song and the ideas behind it were things he could 100% get behind. That kind of integrity and commitment isn’t something you see every day.
ST: You’ve had a bunch of great guest contributions in the past, with the aforementioned vocalists plus Mories of Gnaw Their Tongues (a wonderful aesthetic pairing for Anaal Nathrakh if ever there was one…) on the current album. Do you have anyone on a dream list of future collaborators, either in terms of vocals or noise/programming, or do particular names only come up when you’re working on a specific project?
DH: Possibly King Diamond. I don’t know how realistic that is, but hey, we can dream. But other than him, no, there’s no list. We just think of what we’d like to do at the time. Like I say, it’s just people whose own stuff we respect and admire, and who would be a good mix with Anaal Nathrakh. There have only ever been two people who we’ve asked who haven’t ended up on an album – Philip Best from Whitehouse and Ghost from G.G.F.H. Dr. Best was very nice about it, and took the time to write back giving his apologies for not having the time and wishing us well. Ghost did say yes, but then I found out he’d sold all his equipment and given up music. Though you never know, maybe he could be coaxed into it one day. So those guys would be particularly special if ever we did work with them. But other than that, we just see what happens. There are a couple of names we’ve mentioned to each other as possibilities, but there are no fixed plans.
ST: Do you think the plethora of projects both you and Mick have worked in (Benediction, Frost, Mistress, Fukpig, Professor Fate, &c.) has influenced what you do in Anaal Nathrakh, or is Nathrakh the Ur-music, so to speak, out of which all those others spring (excepting Benediction, which obviously predates Anaal Nathrakh)?
DH: Neither. Each thing we do is, or at least feels, completely separate. I suppose subconsciously there’s probably some crossover, but to us they’re totally different to one another in the same way that you’d speak differently to a work colleague than you would to your spouse or a friend in a bar. You’re still you, but different things naturally come into your mind depending on the context. Common strands exist, of course – Mistress had a lot of hate and desperation, Benediction has a lot of aggression, and so on. And these things are in Anaal Nathrakh as well. But that doesn’t mean they’re linked on any more fundamental level or that one project gets the leftovers from another. Everything gets 100% attention and commitment at the time. I suppose you could say that if there’s an ur-anything, then it’s simply the personalities involved, and each musical outlet is a different facet of those.
ST: For quite some time, Anaal Nathrakh was a studio-only proposition, but in the past several years, you have done somewhat more frequent touring. Was this change primarily about feasibility and finding the right opportunities, or was there a mental warming to the idea of playing live that wasn’t there formerly?
DH: It was definitely the former – while in the earlier days we may not have played live as Anaal Nathrakh, we were still playing gigs with other bands all the time, be it Mistress, Benediction, Exploder or whatever else. But it simply didn’t occur to us that Anaal Nathrakh could work live. Naïve, perhaps, but that’s how it was. But then we found there were drummers who could play with us, and so we went out and did it. Nowadays we’ve got a sufficiently stable lineup that we can at least consider most things that come along, and we’re lucky enough to be in a position where some of the things that do come along are interesting opportunities. A few years ago the offer wouldn’t have come along, but if now we get offers to play things as potentially exciting as Scion in California a few weeks back, well then we’ll take them. We still don’t want to overdo it to the extent that we or the audience grow over familiar with Anaal Nathrakh gigs, but there are plenty of places we’ve never played in, or haven’t played in for a while. So somewhat more frequent touring currently seems like a good idea.
ST: Obviously, music journalists are always looking for heuristics, ways of grouping bands together as a form of descriptive shorthand. Therefore, earlier in your career, it was pretty common to see Anaal Nathrakh described as industrial black metal, and compared to other groups like The Axis of Perdition or Aborym. My question to you is, have you ever thought of Anaal Nathrakh in these terms, as a sort of urbanized, decaying industrial style of black metal, or have you simply been interpreting black metal (or metal, period) in the way you think it ought to sound?
DH: We’ve never really thought of it in any way that was contingent on external points of reference like that. It’s not our version of metal, it’s what happened when we decided to make some music. We were both into black metal when we started Anaal Nathrakh, along with a load of other stuff, and that’s what was in our heads. But that’s pretty much when we stopped thinking about it – as soon as we’d made a demo for which the only guiding principle was ‘nasty’, we only ever thought about what we wanted to do, rather than what anyone else was doing. I suppose you’ve hit the nail on the head in the question – journalists, or more generally people who write about music, have to be concerned with stylistic intersections, tropes, trends and so on. And to a certain extent some bands might be in terms of where they want to position themselves. But in our case, as with I suspect many others, that’s not what we’re thinking about. We just think about what’s exciting or stimulating or interesting for us to do, and then other people can worry about the rest. The only time you’d really hear us mention anything like the name of a genre is if we’re talking about it after the fact and trying to work out what we did.
ST: Maybe this isn’t a question you can easily answer, given that you made an entire album about eschatology, but have you got a favorite doomsday prediction? What do you make of the fact that for many cultures and religious traditions, eschatological beliefs are actually a source of hope rather than dread, in that the end times supposedly bring redemption or renewal rather than utter destruction?
DH: It’s both pathetic, and perfectly understandable. Mankind has been obsessed with its own extinction – both individual and collective – since the dawn of time. As far as I’m aware the oldest surviving example of human literature is The Epic of Gilgamesh, and among other things that’s about a hero grappling with mortality. It’s one of the most fundamental aspects of mortal human life that we will at some point die, yet it’s also one of the most inscrutable mysteries, and wondering about it is part of what we are. The redemptive aspect I do find a bit less natural though – to me, that smacks of vanity. Many eschatological beliefs revolve around being part of a ‘chosen’ community; being one of the few who are recognized as having some kind of worth or significance that places them above the masses who will disappear, be blown up, washed away, or whatever it is they think will happen. That just sounds like a kind of psychological coping mechanism to compensate for a feeling of insecurity or insignificance. I can’t recall an eschatological prediction that says ‘noone will die, it’ll just be a huge event that makes everyone better without hurting a living soul’. Think about it – given the number of different individuals or groups who think they’re the ones who will be redeemed or reborn, the likelihood of any given individual surviving is miniscule. History may be written by the victors and/or survivors, but the truth is that most people sink without a trace. It reminds me of past life regression – why is it that virtually everyone who undergoes it seems to think they were some kind of nobleman or royalty? Hardly anyone ever seems to have been a serf or a turnip farmer. The cold truth is that if there ever is a cataclysmic event, you’re far more likely to be one of the vast majority of losers than to find it a pleasant change. As for favourites, well, I don’t actually think any of the predictions I’ve come across are true, but the fact that several different ideas converge around the end of 2012, that’s interesting. McKenna sounds like he was at least half crazy, but to come down to a time that’s apparently within hours of a Mayan prophecy several millennia in the making – well, December next year should be a fascinating month.
ST: Do you think of Anaal Nathrakh as being a reflection or an indictment of the world around you?
DH: The reflection is the indictment. It’s an attempt to see more clearly what’s going on, and realizing that that involves far more awful things than we often understand. It might sound a weird example, but that’s a big part of what I thought Marilyn Manson was aiming at in his Antichrist Superstar period – he was just holding up a mirror, but one calibrated to show the underbelly, the gruesome parts of the society he was part of. I’m no Manson buff, so I may well be off the mark, but that’s how it seemed to me. So the things reflected in that mirror are still real, but people prefer not to think about them. And in our case, that’s the indictment. Look at what we are, look at what we do, look at what we have made. If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now – and if you haven’t, you should – then we’re a musical cousin of Kurtz. I don’t mean the militaristic attitude, I mean in terms of the fact that yes, he was mad, but he was also possessed of a frightening clarity, and he had been driven mad only by seeing what was truly out there. I think of Anaal Nathrakh as howling at the desolation that apparently hardly anyone can see, and blaming the only thing it can consider responsible – everyone and everything.
ST: Lastly, I’ve been staring at this cryptogram-looking puzzle in the Passion booklet all morning. You don’t need to give me any hints, but can you at least tell me if there’s an actual message to be decoded, or if you guys are just totally fucking with me?
DH: Haha, yes, there is an actual message. It was to have been the name of the album, before we settled on Passion, and at the time it seemed like it summed up an awful lot about the world. Plus the type of encryption is relevant in a wry sort of way. But I’ll leave you to figure out what kind of cipher would be appropriate, and go from there.
ST: I really appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions. I’m sure doing the interview rounds is a brutal slog, but Passion is another real neck-snapper, so it means a lot. Cheers.
DH: And I appreciate your taking the time to make the questions interesting. Interviews are only really a slog when you’re asked the same unimaginative question for the 150th time, and you avoided that. So cheers, and glad you liked the album.
Many thanks to Dave Hunt for taking the time to answer this interrogation so thoroughly. Passion is out now on Candlelight Records.