Liturgy interview with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix: "We want our music to be as mind-blowing as it can be"
The leader of NYC's most divisive heavy band unpacks his self-described transcendental black metal.
By Hank Shteamer|
This week's Time Out New York features a joint profile of Liturgy and Krallice, two local bands that are hard at work positioning NYC as the new black-metal capital of the world. Following is a candid e-mail interview with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix—frontman, songwriter and, as you'll read, chief theoretician of Liturgy. The band has incited quite the uproar in the underground, with some proclaiming its new sophomore LP, Aesthethica, a quantum leap for the genre and others crying foul because of Liturgy's regular-guy image, heady conceptual underpinnings and Hunt-Hendrix's background as a Columbia philosophy student. Read on for Hunt-Hendrix's candid thoughts on the various controversies surrounding his band, the deliberately "mind-blowing" nature of its music, Liturgy's new label (Thrill Jockey), his recent obsession with rap and more.
Time Out New York: Since you're attempting to redefine black metal on your own terms, is it important to you to remain aligned with that movement at all? Why invoke the term in the first place? Hunter Hunt-Hendrix: The style of music we play, in terms of technique, is black metal. And the essential characteristic of black metal—creating metal with reference to the cosmic, the mythological, the historical, the mystical, a field of reference that goes farther into the past and deeper into the fabric of being than the rock counterculture tradition as we typically think of it these days—our music shares this characteristic. Black metal is the springboard, the jumping-off point. I think black metal ended and fulfilled the history of metal. The style is our frame of reference even if what we do is pretty alienating to a lot of metal fans. I'd like to see a black metal that is connected to the real fresh beginning of the counterculture, when the counterculture itself was less amnesiac about the past, the Nietzsche-and-Blake-inspired political-spiritual revolutionary vibes found in writers from Whitman to Miller to Ginsberg. So maybe black metal's history-and-occult vibe makes is a good tool for that endeavor.
There seems to be more of an emphasis on groove and slow tempos on this record (I love "Veins of God," especially). What inspired that? What about the more mathy elements, such as the beginning of "Generation"? That's not something you often hear in the black-metal context. Are you trying to steer the genre in a proggier direction? We want our music to generally be as mind-blowing as it can be. Disorientation from ordinary end-directed existence, contact with the true channels of life. We used to always use constant climax for the effect, but now we use repetition and hypnotic vibes too. Those are two kinds of transcendence. Sort of Wagnerian or Thelemic excess versus a more Buddhist-type awareness of the substrate. Wanted to activate both of those in alternation. It's also partly because it's a longer record and it would have been ineffective to sustain the level of intensity of the songs on Renihilation for over an hour. Also we're just getting down with groovier vibes. I've always been a huge fan of Meshuggah and Sleep, so also the sounds of those two bands are just leaking into ours.
What inspired the concept of the burst beat? Was it something that you heard Greg [Fox, drummer] playing that you later categorized, or was it something you asked him to play? Were you influenced by free-jazz drumming? Is it difficult to learn/rehearse/perform subtle shifts in tempo, i.e., when no one's really keeping strict time, per se? The burst beat was the cornerstone concept of Liturgy. The inspiration for it was the percussion in "No More Sorry" by My Bloody Valentine. That's a really soft song, but turned up really loud, it sounds like this impossibly chaotic and organic accelerating and decelerating blast beat. I though that if black metal has completed and annulled metal, that bits of its carcass can still be used to make a chaotic, life-affirming kind of cacophony, with breathing, pulses, cycles, asymptotes. The concept was born pre-Greg, and the "burst beat arc," the way the accelerations and decelerations follow and complement the harmonies of the songs is written on the drawing board.
I really like the natural-sounding production on the new album. Is it important to you to have a very raw and organic sound, rather than either the super lo-fi approach of early black metal or the super hi-fi/digitized approach of modern-day technical metal?
It was difficult to decide what direction to go with for the production on Aesthethica. I knew I wanted Renihilation to sound raw and kvlt, and knew I didn't want Aesthethica to sound that way, though we didn't enter the studio with a clear idea of what that way would be. I do like how the end result is so organic. I could have also imagined it being somewhat more harsh and pummeling too.
What do you think about the idea of authenticity in a genre like black metal? As a fan of black metal, did you ever have a fascination with the idea that some of these musicians were murderers and arsonists? Do you think that an artist in a genre like this should have to walk the walk—i.e., should a hip-hop artist have to prove that they have a criminal past in order to be taken seriously when rapping about crime? When I think of authenticity, I think of Heidegger or of the Ethics of the Real. An authentic channeling of paradigm-cracking forces in spite of the expectations of the current system of rules. Fidelity to the event. And in that sense I think Liturgy is an exceptionally authentic project, as we are really willing to suffer being hated for doing what feels right aesthetically.
Did you ever openly discuss or conceive of the idea of not having a particular image for the band, in terms of dress or onstage presentation? Obviously black metal is such a theatrical genre. Are you making a statement by avoiding, say, corpse paint, raw meat on spikes, etc.? No. We neither ever considered wearing corpse paint nor considered not wearing it. We've always been in a community of people who play rock and aren't really theatrical about it. That's just the way that we do it. No statement of any kind, no decision to "not have any particular image." Funny, of course: The result of this nondecision to not do something has become almost like a brand for us.
The screaming vocal style seems to be the most traditionally black-metalish element of Liturgy. Is this approach a vital part of the band, or could you see moving toward the more chantlike style heard in the various song intros? The screamed vocals are the least thought-out part of our music. I could really imagine that changing in the future. More chanting for sure, but also recently I've become deeply obsessed with rap. I wish there were [some way] to use rap instead, but more like a glossolalia, a schizoid speaking in tongues, like Lil' Wayne meets Bizzy Bone but more ritual or Kabbalistic. If we ever find a way to make it work, maybe we'll switch to some fresh kind of "rap metal." I can't believe I'm actually writing that, but I've been thinking about it a lot. There is a certain rightness to the scream, too. We'll just have to see.
Do you relish the idea of recording for a traditionally nonmetal label like Thrill Jockey? Are you fans of any of the other artists on the label in particular? Yes we're very happy to be with Thrill Jockey. We love many artists on that label, both from the past and the present: Nobukazu Takemura, Boredoms, Tortoise, Lichens, Double Dagger, Future Islands, High Places, Daniel Higgs, just to name the first few that come to mind. When it comes to attitude about music, Thrill Jockey feels right.
Do you tend to read what's written about you online? Do you take the amount of hater-ish remarks as a sign that you're succeeding in a certain way? More specifically, have you seen the video of homosexual love scenes set to Liturgy music? How does that make you feel? What do you think motivates it? I read less and less, or at least a smaller percentage of what's out there. I used to be very interested in feedback, fascinated by the reactions of the metal community to my music and my words. I made a decision to not pull any punches in interviews and articulate what inspires the music, and I'm glad about that—most of the time, though sometimes I doubt myself and wonder if I should keep my mouth shut. A lot of times if I go back and read what gets printed or taped, I cringe. I myself sometimes think to myself, Man, that guy sounds like such a douche bag. Ha. Transcripts of interviews are always pretty awful to read, so I avoid that. For the most part I enjoy how it riles people up. Some of the recent feedback that I have seen, however, is pretty brutal, and sometimes I'm a little freaked out and hurt. Do I take it as a sign of success? I'm going for originality, and I think that true originality has a lot to do with finding a space that is inconceivable, the stupidest idea ever, the impossible, but that's alive and sort of flickering, and then exploiting it. And of course, people get pissed off by that, and I do consider that a success.
Touring overseas, have you found the international metal community to be closed- or openminded? Do you encounter the same sort of backlash (e.g., "Liturgy is NOT true black metal," etc.) in Europe as in the U.S., or more specifically NYC? No, actually people in Europe, Scandinavia especially, tend to be really supportive of the our band, much more so than USA haters.
You've performed on a huge variety of bills, with metal bands, indie-rock bands, noise bands, etc. Do you feel particularly comfortable or uncomfortable in any of these settings? What is the ideal Liturgy bill? It's interesting to play more and more and become aware of different audiences as real existing things. It's a strange world, like people develop tastes and expectations in these big groups. I don't know. I really enjoy playing in art spaces with experimental jazz saxophonists; playing kind noisy psych/postpunk shows can be good. I think we could can fit pretty easily into the alternative-metal world (I'm thinking of bands like Melvins, Pelican, Sunn O))), Boris, Melt Banana, Om). Playing straight-up true black-metal shows is definitely the least comfortable, but also the most awesome.
Do you feel any particular kinship with—or derive inspiration from—Krallice? If so, what interests you about their music? The two bands seem to be evolving along similar lines. Any other artists, metal or non, that you find inspiring right now? Is Liturgy part of any scene in NYC? I think Krallice is really awesome. They're probably a better band than we are. I don't think their musical project is so similar to ours. They're all about patterns and death metal, and we're all about explosions and hardcore. They do these big compositions, and we're way more song-oriented.
A lot has been made of the fact that you went to Columbia. Would you just as soon omit this biographical information, or are you more or less happy for people to know? Why do you think it's such a controversial piece of data? Would it have the same effect if you were in, say, an indie-rock band. I remember initially being uncomfortable about revealing certain facts about my life. As though there's something scandalous that makes the music invalid. But at this point I'm so accustomed to negative reactions to what are simply my honest ideas and opinions that I don't feel like there's much "damage" to be done. I went to Columbia and was a philosophy major. I also studied avant-garde composition there with Tristan Murail, one of the inventors of spectralism. For a while my plan was to either be a professional philosopher or a "serious music" composer. Even worse, I was there at the same time as and hung around with the members of Vampire Weekend. All that feels controversial somehow, though it's hard to put my finger on what makes it feel that way. But, I mean, that's whats up and now I'm doing this black-metal band, so there it is.
Hunter, what came first, the musical direction of Liturgy or the philosophical component? Is it important to you that someone read up on yourtranscendental-black-metal theory [see here and here], or are you happy if people just enjoy the music? Would you like to see this topic discussed in academia, or could that potentially be unhealthy for what is essentially an underground music form? Maybe I could say they began at the same time but the philosophy component crystallized more quickly. Partly that's because I was spending more time on philosophy, studying Nietzsche, Deleuze and Bataille, when I began recording Liturgy songs. I think that the first EP, Immortal Life, is weaker musically than the full-lengths. The first EP is more dependent on an understanding of the intentions behind making it than the later material is. I think discussion of black metal in academic, or at least para-academic circles, is awesome. There's a lot going on. The annual Hideous Gnosis conference, the new black-metal journal Helvete. There is a new movement in philosophy known as speculative realism. It is practically tailor-made for an encounter with black metal. I think that to the degree that anyone involved in underground music has an anti-intellectual attitude they are making a mistake. There's also a relationship between fine art and black metal that a lot of people scoff at. There's a great new French journal called C.S., which is devoted to exploring the connection between fine art and extreme metal. It is rad. I guess it's just difficult to a lot of people to see that music, philosophy and art share a living common root. In the 19th century everyone knew that. People these [days] take so much pride in being unpretentious and cynical towards "big ideas." Everyone wants their music to be either "just music," but they never consider that this shit is actually real.