My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Guillaume de Machaut meets Bone Thugs-N-Harmony through black metal.
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Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is fond of discussing his music on a theoretical level. Said music, most frequently heard in the band Liturgy, has, in the past, fallen within the realm of black metal, with harshly screamed vocals and shredding, unholy guitars. Liturgy’s 2011 album, Aesthethica, prompted heated debates in black metal circles, while attracting no small amount of critical acclaim.
Since then, Liturgy has contracted to a two-piece, then expanded back out to the same lineup that recorded Aesthethica. Their new album, The Ark Work, finds them shifting toward a host of new styles. For one, Hunt-Hendrix’s vocals have shifted toward more melodic territory. And, while the group’s sound remains magnificently heavy, that heaviness is less traditionally metal; Hunt-Hendrix has cited both hip-hop and centuries-old compositions as influences. He’s a man with plenty to talk about, and our conversation at a Bushwick cafe covered a lot of ground.
Tobias Carroll The new record has a very different sound than the previous one. In the time between albums the group went from a four-piece to a two-piece, then back up to a four-piece. Did that have any effect on the way that the songs were conceived? Were you writing for a different ensemble?
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix I think it only had a little bit of an effect. On the one hand, the arrangements on the record reflect the way that the music has always sounded in my head, from the beginning. I love the previous records, but I always felt like they were incomplete. So, part of a promise I made to myself was that this album would sound more like the shimmering, spectral version of Liturgy that exists in my imagination. I also wanted to make a record that was less focused on drumming than the previous two records had been, to flesh out not just rhythmic aspects of what I call transcendental black metal, but also the harmonic or timbral aspects. I took the time to learn Ableton, and how to arrange music on a computer, and do experiments with re-sampling, and things like that.
TC You’ve talked about there being a hip-hop influence present on The Ark Work. Were artists like Dälek and Techno Animal, who blended hip-hop with a dense sonic component, something that was in the back of your mind?
HH My interest in hip-hop is more oriented towards trap-rap and groups like Three Six Mafia. I’ve always really loved triplet flow ever since I got into Bone Thugs-N-Harmony as a little kid. I loved how mysterious and occult this style of monotone, fast, triplet-oriented rapping sounded. When I wanted to change up the vocal style for Liturgy, that seemed like a really good candidate, in part because it has a very esoteric sound, which I thought would mesh well with black metal in an unusual way. Because the occult vibe of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony resonates with that of Darkthrone, maybe it would make sense to transfer the vocal style from one world to the other. It sort of sounds like reciting something in a mass. Medieval music is another major love of mine, so I thought that I could use black metal as a node to connect these very different styles—Guillaume de Machaut meets Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, through black metal.
I’m interested in creating a new coherence in music that is difficult to identify with on a social level, because it contains cultural reference points that are incompatible. Maybe, that forces the listener to confront the pure emotion beyond cliché and style. It seems like that’s something that you have to confront in making music right now, because we all have access to this panoply of musical traditions. There’s an ethics to extracting elements from each of those and combining them in a way that doesn’t make sense in terms of any one of them. So, that was a deliberate aim.
TC You were saying before that there were certain artists you were looking towards who were blending styles in more complex ways. Who were some of the ones that came to mind?
HH The best comparison I can think of is to Schnittke. His poly-stylist approach brings together different eras of music from the classical tradition, and puts them together in one piece. So, this would be something like Schnittke’s approach, but it would include everything you could find on the Internet: rock music, rap music, and classical music, too.
TC I was going to say something that “Reign Array” has this very rhythmic aspect to it that isn’t necessarily rock or metal drumming. What was the process of making a song like that? Were these songs written over a couple years? Were you writing at all to fit the technology that you learned along the way?
HH They were written over the course of a couple of years with different demos, and I was learning the technology as I was writing them, which accounts in part for the denseness. Re-sampling is a major technique for the record. Re-sampling the vocals, and doing stutter edits manually by copying and pasting the audio track. In some songs doing that to the entire master channel. That was the first stab at the new technique that I wanted to find a form for, which I now call “General Tremolo.” General Tremolo is an expansion of what I call “Special Tremolo,” which is the primary guitar technique for black metal, strumming the guitar string up and down as fast as possible. I was interested in the relationship between this picking motion, and the Lacanian concept of the drive, which goes from zero to one, back and forth, accounting for the nature of time. I wanted to detach tremolo from the guitar, and send it across different elements of the arrangement, and the recording, so as to ultimately arrive at the vibration of the universe.
That’s sort of an abstract idea, or even kind of a dumb idea, but I was thinking about that at a really early stage of working with a computer. That’s how I compose. I start with a poetic thought, and figure out what kind of sounds would come from that. At a certain point, musical intuition takes over. I really want the music to not just be a cerebral experiment. I want it to really be moving.
TC When is a piece done for you? When it’s recorded, and on the record? Is it always going to be manipulated in some way, or is it considered finished when it’s ready to be performed in front of an audience?
HH That’s a good question. Usually, I would say it’s done once it’s on a record. In the early days we would perform songs that weren’t really done yet, sort of rehearsing in public. I remember our first shows as a four piece were great, but really messy. After we recorded the first record, I did a lot of editing of the performances with the engineer, and it was only at that point that I considered the compositions to have been realized. Then we started playing the music on Renihilation the way that it was recorded, after it was finished in the studio. The album became a score. I really appreciate the talent of the other members of the band, because I feel like their feel for these musical ideas helps them coalesce into a nice, organic vibe.
TC I remember you talked about the influence of minimalist composition on the album. You’ve also talked about Glenn Branca in interviews. I feel like there are parts of the new record that remind me of some of Rhys Chatham’s work, in the ’80s. Where do you feel like the role of minimalist composition is in all of that?
HH I think of the window between minimalism and metal being Meshuggah. Meshuggah is probably my favorite metal band. Almost all their songs work the exact same way. They’re all in 4/4 time pretty much, and they all produce a gradually changing pattern that doesn’t hit the down beats where you expect it to, for a long time, and then finally, it comes down. The music seems cerebral, but if you give yourself to it, you discover it has a lot of groove. I think there’s a resonance between their music, and something like Steve Reich’s music, like “Music for 18 Musicians,” or “Piano Phase.”
Certainly, I’m a big fan of Rhys Chatham’s music and of Glenn Branca’s music, but there isn’t such a direct compositional connection as there is to Meshuggah, or Steve Reich. Glenn Branca works with the overtone series directly, and that’s not the way I write music. My writing is more song-oriented than Branca’s. But, insofar as minimal composition generally produces tapestries of ever-revolving patterns that activate a transcendental state of consciousness, it’s in sync with the vibe I’m after. I consider the NYC music scene that included Branca, Swans, and Sonic Youth, this quasi-classical music, quasi-rock music, quasi-art world scenario, to be the tradition Liturgy is a part of, rather than the black metal scene.
TC You talk about being into Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at an early age. When did you first get into metal, or minimalism. Was it all kind of at once?
HH The first band I ever loved was The Smashing Pumpkins. I was completely addicted to MTV when I was very young, like six years old. Totally crazy about Siamese Dream. I don’t think I’ve heard any other music that’s ever surpassed Siamese Dream. Maybe the Rite of Spring, but I’m not sure. I really loved alt. rock and grunge before the age of ten. I loved Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and Korn. My parent’s weren’t into music, so my only access to it was through MTV. In the mid-’90s all this strange stuff happened. Korn became as popular as Britney Spears, and so did Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. It was really weird and awesome that this dark, strange music with seemingly no commercial appeal exploded into the mainstream. Once I was in high school, I got really into hardcore, screamo, metal, post-rock and Aphex Twin. My taste was all over the place. It was kind of late in high school, and early in college, when I really took a serious interest in classical music.
TC Do you do any composition that isn’t necessarily intended for Liturgy?
HH Not much. There’s one other band that I’ve had since college called Survival, which was originally a screamo band called Birthday Boyz. The songwriting in that band is collective, and it’s not as ambitious of a project. We just want to make rock songs. I keep planning to do more work for film or for stage, something more like an opera. I think that will happen in time, but it takes a long time to make the Liturgy songs.
TC That makes sense.
HH Yeah, it’s always a work in progress.
TC In a broader sense, do you consider the album to be solely the music that someone hears when listening to it on vinyl, on CD, or digitally? Or, is it the album, and the art-work that surrounds it?
HH To me, the work really has three aspects, which I associate with music, art and philosophy, respectively. The music itself goes along with a philosophical system. It’s sort of a cross between psychoanalysis, Christianity, German Idealism, and the Upanishads. I’ve been developing that a lot more since the last record. The song titles are named after archetypal characters that represent important aspects of the system, like “Kel Valhaal,” and, “Reign Array.” Then, there’s the career of the band itself, which is as much as a part of the work of art as anything else. The relationship to the Internet, and the music industry, the flow of trends, and the contradictions between making money playing music, and paying attention to a broader historical context: It’s like process art, or performance art. I’m interested in approval and humiliation, connection and disconnection, the ways that emotion and identification translate across the Internet.
TC Do you feel different when you’re performing a Liturgy show, rather than, say, the screamo band you’re in? Or, is it still the same sense of being on a stage in front of an audience?
HH Survival and Liturgy both basically make epic rock music, but with Liturgy I work more deliberately to break new ground, and find new means of expression. But, in both cases, emotional catharsis is the most important thing.
TC Do you have a plan to collect all the writings you’ve done, at some point, into some larger work?
HH I do. I’ve done a lot of writing, and I think fans, haters, and bloggers, have also written a lot of interesting things, and I want to collect those things too: comments, threads, and flame wars. That’s part of the work too. It would be great to have someone edit that into a book.
TC You delivered a paper a few years ago at a conference on black metal. With Liturgy, there is a very theoretical side to it, but also a very visceral aspect as well. I’m also thinking of the Michael Robbins piece on metal that came out in Harper’s last year—the fact that metal is something that can be very much studied, and analyzed, is something still really fascinating to me.
HH Black metal is so easy to study and analyze in an academic context, because its art and lyrics so frequently invoke themes from romanticism, the medieval era, and esotericism. Most black metal theorists are scholars whose focus is one of those topics. For example, Nicola Masciandaro, who is a medievalist. As far as I know, no one studies the musical structure itself. It’s more about the culture surrounding it: Expanding the frame of reference within which to situate black metal.
TC You also share a label with Soft Pink Truth, who did an album last year that blended black metal and house music.
HH Yeah, that was such a confrontational record. I remember, years ago, Drew [Daniel, of Matmos and Soft Pink Truth] talking about wanting to combine black metal and sissy bounce. The vibe of the record is so lighthearted, but given the ideological contradictions between the two styles, it’s a disturbing experience too.
TC You talked about how the vocal approach changed for the new record. Did that also change how you were writing lyrics at all?
HH The lyric writing process is exactly the same. People don’t generally realize how weird my lyrics are. I just free associate prophetic nonsense, and then I find a way to deliver it. The only change was that, on some songs on the new record, I’m singing a lot faster, so I had to think more about the rhythms. That was just an extra step. I really enjoy writing lyrics, actually.
TC It struck me as interesting that the record begins with a couple of brief pieces, then transitions into longer pieces. Did you have that sequence in mind from the outset, or was there some trial and error involved?
HH Yeah, the song order on the record was something that was established very early on. I think of the first four songs as one big song, in a way, as a suite. I tend to think of albums as a whole, as something that develops. For this record, I really wanted each song to have its own rule, and for each one to be different from the others in some fundamental way, but also to have an overall aesthetic unity. I’m pretty happy with how it worked out.
The Ark Work is available now from Thrill Jockey Records. Liturgy is currently on tour.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.