Machine Music’s Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Panopticon
[This is the SEVENTH installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Album: Roads to the North
Label: Bindrune Recordings
Favorite Song: "Where Mountains Pierce the Sky”
The Bare Bones: The sixth full-length album from Minnesota-based, one-man black metal project Panopticon, the brain and love child of musician and songwriter Austin Lunn. It is widely considered as the second installment of the so-called Kentucky Trilogy, that begins with Kentucky (2012) and culminates with 2015’s Autumn Eternal.
The Beating Heart: if Kentucky was about home, the essence, warmth, struggle, strife and, perhaps mainly, the stability and the sound of home, then Roads to the North is about the anxiety, horror, mourning and instability of change. Bringing in Austin Lunn's biographical fact of a very real change – leaving his adopted home state of Kentucky and heading to the wastelands of Minnesota – along with a bevy of emotional and musical influences, Roads to the North is a storm of mixed feelings and a sense of homelessness. Cutting black metal, melodic death metal, and, yes, sometimes some good-ole-fashioned shred-fests, come together to create that unstable tableau of emotion: the sweet melancholy of a lost home, the constant terror of an unknown future, and, ultimately, the comfort one finds in the creation of the work of art itself. The comfort that is the ability to construct one's own ever-moving, ever-evolving poetic home.
In honor of including Roads to the North to the Albums of the Decade series I conducted the first-ever (!) phone interview with Austin Lunn, which, in all honesty, is less interview and more sprawling conversation about art, life, depression, estrangement, death, love and how all those elements converge into something like bittersweet music. Oh yeah, and also a million-word geekout over Death albums. Just before heading into said conversations, I'd just like to add that if you like this interview and the other things on this site please consider supporting it in any shape or form, be it following the (somewhat too) active Facebook page, the overflowing Spotify account, the brand-new Instagram account, supporting it on Patreon, following the website itself (there's a signup thingamajig in the top left part of this page), or just dropping a line. That's it. On with the show.
Was there a moment, you sitting as a young kid, and a band or an artists that you didn’t know just made you think “holy shit!”
So, this has happened to me a bunch of times in my life. I don’t know if you’ve read any interviews I’ve given. I haven’t given that many, but typically all I do is talk about other musicians, I don’t like to talk about myself very much. So usually my interviews end up being about politics or other bands [laughs]. I’m a big record collector, an obsessive record collector, and have been since I was…. God, I must have started when I was seven years old. So, in 1991 my dad took my to a record store on Poplar Ave in Memphis, Tennessee, where I grew up. He had heard about this band at work from a guy named Steve Lefler that he worked with, and it was a new record, had just come out, by this band called King’s X. I’m actually putting the record on right now.
So, he knew that I liked music and that I had some tapes and that I liked listening to the radio, and I would sit on my bed with pots and pans and chopsticks from the Chinese restaurant in the mall, and play drums to the songs on the radio [King’s X blasting in the background]. And so he took to me Cat’s Music on Poplar Ave and said “I’m going to buy you a tape of this band that just came out with a new album that I think you’ll really like,” and it was an album called Faith, Hope, Love and that record really…. In 1991 I was I’d been seven or eight, and King’s X was like the southern man’s Rush. They were super progressive but heavy, and there are grindy parts in that record, and there are Beatles-esque vocal harmonies, really deep spiritual and emotional lyrics. Doug Pinnick is this southern, black man who is embroiled in infernos of political strife, and that record really blew my mind, and King’s X became my favorite band. And so for Christmas that year I got their two previous albums, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska and Out of the Silent Planet, and my musical roots, the root to everything that I do musically, is based in King’s X.
They were the first music that I listened to that was heavy, the first music that I listened to that was emotional, it was the first music that I ever listened to that critiqued society. And Faith, Hope, Love, I don’t believe it’s their best record, but it’s a very emotional thing for me. I think their best record is either Gretchen Goes to Nebraska or their self-titled album. But my bass tone to this day is an attempt to emulate Doug Pinnick’s bass tone. To this day. And I still use eight-string basses but I really want a 12-string bass, because that’s what Doug used. And I’ve seen King’s X like six times. My dad took me to see them in 1992, I saw them in ‘94 in the Dogman tour, and I got to meet them. That was one of the best experiences of my life. When I was in college I met them again in one of their meet-and-greets and they remembered me as a little boy.
My dad has since passed away, that’s the subject matter of that song “Watching You,” it was about my dad’s death, and I got to see King’s X twice last year and I got to meet the guys again and talk to them. I was real drunk, real real drunk, and I sat down with Doug Pinnick and talked to him about my dad and told him that my dad had passed away, and then I went out to the parking lot and cried.
That’s crazy. And did he talk to you?
Oh yeah. He’s remembered me every time he met me. I’m kind of easy to remember. You’re not going to forget the big tattooed blonde guy. Pretty easy to remember.
It’s interesting, and this is somewhat besides the point, but this is only the second time King’s X came up when I asked this question. In the first time the album mentioned was Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, and the person who made that comment was Devin Townsend.
Oh that makes perfect sense. Of course Devin Townsend likes King’s X. Of course. And you know, Jason Walton from Agalloch he’s a really good friend of mine, and he loves King’s X too. He was here visiting, he was staying at the house…. My basement is my record room and we were down there getting trashed, the kids were asleep. So we sat down there and drank a bunch of booze and we talked about King’s X all night. He said that of course you like King’s X.
But why is it so obvious?
Because I steal their riffs all the time [laughs], I just don’t play them as well because they’re good musicians and I suck [laughs]. But the backwards power chord, the weird tunings, all that is King’s X.
Wait, did you just say you sucked?
[Laughs] Well, compared to Ty Tabor I cannot play guitar. That dude is the shredder. He’s like the best guitar player ever, pretty much.
It seems to me that…. You know, Jason Walton and Agalloch, Devin Townsend, and you would not be easily grouped into one square or category….
But that’s the beauty of King’s X, you can’t group everyone together.
No no, I’m not trying to. But it does seem to be that you are, and I’ll try to avoid over-generalizations and speak to my own experience as a listener, but there are artists that strike a very delicate balance between the powerful, heavy, chest-pounding part of heavy music and being a fragile human being. And if I was asked who those musicians were then without a doubt you and Devin Townsend would be on that list for sure. So, is that part of the King’s X legacy? Not only the southern man’s Rush but also the feeling man’s heavy metal?
Absolutely, there’s no doubt. I mean on this album there’s a song called “Mr. Wilson” about when they were going through litigation, it’s about feeling ripped off by people who just wanted a piece of them as they rose up. And then you go to “Talk to You,” which is later on in the album, which almost sounds like Meshuggah. It sounds like Meshuggah with gospel vocals. Really brutal synchronized chugging, it’s super heavy and super dark. But then two songs later there’s a song about Doug’s reconciling his Christian upbringing and religiousness and his internal struggle. Every song on those album has some sort of personal…. The first four, at least. The fifth album, Dogman, is super personal and super dark. I don’t really like anything past the first five albums.
But there’s no doubt that there was a heavy metal element, a rock element, a progressive rock element, but the major focus was using music as an outlet. Using music as a way to process emotion. And Panopticon has always been kind of thrown into the “political band” bucket because Panopticon has been expressly political in the past. But the truth of the matter is that politics are very personal to me and very emotional to me. The buffer between my brain and my heart is about that thin [creates a thin gap with his fingers]. I’m one of those people that I only do things that I feel, and music is very emotional for me. And so if I’m, like on Roads to the North there are very progressive parts that are very King’s X, very Rush, very Camel, kind of nerdy – that was an emotional experience for me that I needed to convey. And King’s X is the same, it’s all about the way you feel.
When you say the emotional experience you wanted to convey, then the emotional experience of what?
Whatever the subject matter of the song. Like in On the Subject of Mortality I was writing about coming to terms with death. I have been grieving the loss of my dad for many years, my best friend Jack lost his mother at a young age, and I was coming to terms with my own mortality because up until that point in my life I had been really miserable, and not ever been a really happy person. I met my wife Becca a few years before that and finally began to see some reason and joy in life, and once I experienced that I felt a certain degree of lust and fervor for life. There was a sense of urgency, that I needed to keep it, whereas before I didn’t really care, I was like “If I die, I die. I don’t give a shit.” But then all of a sudden, when there was a reason to stay on the planet, I felt this urgency to stay here. And that’s what drove that entire album, this desire to exist so I could see the beauty the world has and experience that.
And that became very evident in that record. Even in the original release of the album it was barely even mixed, none of the guitars got re-amped, it was nothing. It was recorded on a computer with direct “in,” I had three mics, I recorded it in my basement, I didn’t even have a stool to sit on when I was recording the drums, I sat on a garbage can. So, I didn’t have the money to make the record that I wanted to, but I just needed to get it out because I didn’t feel like…. At the time I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder where I kept thinking I was getting heart attacks, and so I kept having to go to the hospital because I thought I was just going to croke. And my dad had died of a heart attack, so this was all in my brain. And, I’m a little chubby, but I’m not unhealthy, I was vegan for twelve years at that time. It’s not like I was sitting around eating bacon and guzzling whiskey.
So, I kept having these anxiety attacks and having to go to the hospital and I kept thinking “I’m going to die before I finish this record.” And so there was this urgency to get this album out, to say what I needed to say because I didn’t know if this week would be the week. And then when the album got done and off the press, it was really poorly recorded, it sounded like shit. So that’s why we did the revisions thing a couple of years ago, where we remixed the record, re-amped the guitars, sample-replaced the drums. made it sound like it was supposed to sound. And the new reissue of the album is just a better mix of the album, where you can hear everything, and that’s also why we played the album in [the 2018] Migration Fest, for our first-ever shows.
I empathize with a lot of what you’re saying, personally, whether or not this helps the interview. I’m often accused of being a narcissistic interviewer, so I’m going to try and not do that.
Hey, that’s fair. It’s OK to talk about yourself.
I know, I know, don’t worry, I will. This is all temporary.
No, but what I mean is that I always find myself talking to people whose music I like, and more often than not it’s people doing things in genres where they’re not supposed to be doing those things. Maybe in a simplistic way, when people think of black metal, it doesn’t seem to me that that’s the mode of musical expression that most lends itself to the expression of personal emotions and to the expression of beauty. Because so much as what black metal comes off as is me being part of something that’s bigger than myself and me making stuff as difficult-sounding as I can, and in a way that chaos taps into that idea of a “bigger thing” I mentioned at first. And when I listen to how you describe your need to express personal emotions, but also specifically the beauty of those emotions, that seems like an incompatibility.
I don’t agree with that, I don’t agree at all. And I’ll explain why I don’t agree with that. One of my favorite black metal albums is Ulver’s album Bergtatt, and to me Bergtatt is…. Well, first you have to go with the word “bergtatt,” what it actually means. So “ulver” means “wolves,” “bergtatt” means “mountain-taken.” And it’s actually not even talking about “this thing, this juniper is bergtatt,” it’s more like the way the mountain makes you feel when you see it. It’s a very romantic thing, when you love someone you can describe yourself as being “bergtatt,” because you experience the mountain as this beautiful thing that you feel lost in. So if you think about that album, Bergtatt, that whole album is just this magical, enticing, almost enveloping, it sucks you into that record.
And the same goes for Burzum in Filosofem. That record has such a feeling and emotion. Or if you think about Windir, same thing with them on that Arntor record, there’s so much feeling and emotion. So, I think black metal can be incredibly emotional. And at the root of what you’re trying to express, whether it’s hatred for Christianity or anger, misanthropic ideations, it doesn’t really matter if at the root there’s emotion behind that, there’s this feeling that the artist is trying to convey. For me, I’m not a big fan of Christianity, but I don’t hate Christians, just like I don’t hate Satanists and I don’t hate muslims, I don’t hate Buddhists. I don’t feel the need to express hate. So what I express is longing, and what I express is frustration. And so for me black metal has always been about expressing extreme emotions, and I’m just expressing the extreme emotions that I feel.
I was raised Christian. My mother, my family are all Christians. I grew up in church. So, I’m not going to be talking about hating people that are my Aunt Connie and Uncle Bruce, you know?
But I feel like that’s such a significant statement, I don’t think everyone is saying that. Not everyone says “I won’t attack Aunt Connie and Uncle Bruce.” Some people do go after Aunt Connie and Uncle Bruce.
Well, they’re my heroes, you know?
I understand that, but that’s still a significant statement. To say that the people I grew up with, with whom I don’t agree right now, as an adult, they’re still my heroes. So when I press that annihilation button of expressing emotion, that button has a limit. It’s not an abstract infinity, it’s linked up with other people and limited by their existence.
The truth of the matter is that my mom is going to see the album. She has my albums. She knows that her son has serious depression issues. And she’s read the lyrics to “Message to the Missionary,” she knows I don’t like Christianity. But she knows that my anger toward Christianity is philosophical, it’s not a personal attack on her.
I have a hard time calling Panopticon a black metal band anymore because there are so many other influences. One of my favorite bands is Death, I’m super into Death, and Symbolic is probably my favorite metal album of all time. I always have a Death t-shirt on at all times, I have like 20 of them, and it’s just because they’re, you know, my favorite band. And it’s not just the music, it’s the ideas too. Sure, their early albums were dumb as shit, they had all kinds of dumb lyrics, and some of them were really offensive. That was the point. Death metal was supposed to be offensive. And whenever someone gets up in arms about “Oh, somebody’s record offended me,” I’m like “Fucking shut up.” This is supposed to make you mad. And right now everybody’s so PC…. And I’m not the most un-PC person, I’m pretty politically aware, but I don’t get offended. It’s just music, and you have the right to disagree.
But Death took it a step further. And I love Morbid Angel too, huge into Morbid Angel. When Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse were putting out their most extreme stuff that’s when Death took a step back and started writing about personal things. Individual Thought Patterns was an incredibly personal album. Spiritual Healing and Human were both very political. And Symbolic was the most personal that Chuck [Schuldiner] had made. And so Death really resonates with me because it’s extreme music but with thoughtful and introspective lyrics.
So, I’m always afraid of bad conversations but this is that other problem, this conversation is too good. My own personal taste, in metal, rests on three major foundations: Megadeth, Death, and Emperor.
I love Emperor. I’m a huge Emperor fan. I got to see them on my birthday last year. I got to go back to Oslo, because I used to live just south of Oslo, so I got to go back and see Emperor on my fucking birthday.
I’m sorry, I didn’t hear a thing, the connection is horrible.
Anyway, point being I have spent most of my adult life trying to figure out what it is about these bands that make up the root of much of what I appreciate in music. And I do deviate, there is that ugly, riffy death metal band that I’ll like, but the core is those bands. And I think about this all the time, so there is no final answer. But a partial answer has to do with being personal, has to do with not shying away from indulgence – which means not being afraid of being indulgent musically and not being afraid of being self indulgent by way of talking about yourself….
Well, you know some people would suggest that all musicians are talking about themselves, because they are expressing their own opinions.
I would agree with that, but that’s in theory because some musicians don’t think that that’s what they’re doing. You could argue that it is what they are doing, but they would reject that with a passion and say they’re being political, for instance.
I think there’s an inherent self indulgence that comes with being a musician in the first place.
I agree, but Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk is indulgent in a way that cannot be missed by anyone…
Oh, it’s so pompous…
Yes, exactly that. It’s so pompous, that’s the word. And Chuck Schuldiner was a pompous ass, God bless his soul. And Dave Mustaine as well. So my point here is that the beauty I find in the music these musicians make has to do with not being able to miss your own ass. That it’s a human being doing this, and that there’s a human being that’s being too much of everything to the point that even he can’t miss it. He can’t miss it in a way, say, theoretically The Stooges may have missed it, because, say, they considered what they were doing to be “stripped down.” Dave Mustaine is not missing the point that he’s a self-indulgent pompous ass. Nor is Chuck, nor is Ihsahn.
Now, why is this rant relevant to what we were talking about? It’s that these musicians, while being self indulgent and allowing themselves to be self indulgent, are also trying to make beautiful, intricate music. Beautiful, super-melodic, music. The kind of music that when you listen to it you think to yourself “Well, that took a lot of figuring out, that’s not something you just belt out.” No one listens to “Holy Wars” and says “Yeah that’s just basically the blues.”
And I want to ask a question about Roads to the North that has to do with this. We’re not going to just sit here and talk about how we like the same music.
Because Roads to the North has many moments of sheer, self-indulgent, pompous beauty. And I’m thinking specifically about the quasi-melo-death-Swedish riffage, and the solos.
Yes, but it’s not just any shredding, it’s the kind of shredding you can imagine someone with an 80s hairdo doing in a lyotard.
This is spandex shredding.
Yeah, sweep picking [laughs].
[Laughs] You said it, I didn’t want to say it, but yes.
[Laughs] It’s true, it’s all true. Everything you said is true, and I know it.
I just wanted to put it out there. Now, when we hear it on the album…. And I know Roads to the North is often referred to as being part and parcel with Kentucky and Autumn Eternal. But when you listen to Roads to the North and you feel that anguish and anxiety of transition and change, and then comes that sweep pick out of nowhere, then the first thing my brain does is to say “Wait, that’s not supposed to be there.” Because that was not supposed to be that moment where Marty Friedman comes in, this was supposed to be this somber moment.
So, and here I’m getting at the question, do the beautiful elements in your music have to do with a kind of melancholy or homesickness?
Yeah, absolutely. That whole record reeks of homesickness, of leaving Kentucky and wishing that I was back home. When I moved to Minnesota, I had a really hard time being here, I was really struggling with being uprooted. I live in the north now and I’m a very southern person, everybody here is very different than me and it’s been really hard on me to make that transition. And so the solos were meant to…. For me the guitar is a very passionate instrument, and a guitar solo should be a very passionate thing. When I play a guitar solo, I’m trying to convey a feeling. It’s not just ‘How much can I shred” it’s that I want you to feel the urgency that I feel and I want you to feel the desperation that I feel. So that’s why a lot of my solos have these sad harmonies. And then there will be those sweeping, tapping parts that shred, because I want you to feel my anxiety and confusion, and the chaos. But there’s deep beauty in that chaos.
Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy. No person in your life that you love is an easy person to love, if they were easy to love they would just be disposable. You have to work. Love is an idea, it’s not an emotion. And so, a lot of the time when you’re expressing these things they’re chaotic, and so the solos on that album and the drumming on that albums are really intense. A lot of really fast kickwork and one-handed drum rolls, death metal stuff. Because I wanted there to be a sense of chaos and desperation, but I wanted it to still be really melodic. Also, at the time of that record I was the most honed and practiced as a musician as I had ever been, and I’ve never been able to return to that level of technicality because I have two kids and I don’t have time to practice anymore.
So that record was really desperate. The lyrics were never published for that album, because they’re fucked up. They’re very very sad, they’re not political at all. They’re about heartbreak and they’re about the pressure. The last song, “Chase the Grain,” is about dying, about feeling that your life is passing you by and you’re not even a part of it, you’re just living out the narrative. The final lines on that song are literally about what to do with my corpse after I die. “Let my spirit go to the mountains, let my body flow into the sea, pour my ashes into the river, chase the grain after me.” And “chase the grain” means beer, pour beer on the ground as you do when someone dies. You see it in rap videos – “for my dead homie.” When my dad died me and a bunch of friends got drunk and we poured a bottle of bourbon on the ground. Basically it’s like…. Did you ever watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?
Dani DeVito’s character, he says: “When I die, throw me in the trash.” That was basically what I was saying: When I die, throw me in the trash. Because my life is over and I don’t matter anymore, all that matters is what I managed to do while I’m here. What I managed to give while I’m here. The whole point of that record and all the records since then have always been “not much will change when I’m gone.” That song, it’s about how shit doesn’t matter. When I’m dead, people won’t even remember my name. Maybe for a few years after I’m dead folks will remember me, but 10-15 years after that, no one will talk about me anymore, I’ll be dead. Who gives a shit? And so what matters is what we do now.
And Roads was about lamenting the loss of those relationships and the culture I am so steeped in and a part of, and trying to reconcile that change. So the guitar parts on that record have this desperation, this shredding fervor and anxiety. And my way of conveying that is making them really busy, making it all over the place all of the time, because I wanted the listener to feel my franticness.
But that’s interesting because that didn’t come off as chaotic to me, it kind of works like a code. It’s not just you playing desperately on the guitar, that style of playing is like a code in my brain and that code is translated as “Oh, pretty!” Not as chaotic.
You listened to a lot of Dream Theater when you were younger.
Oh, no! God I didn’t. I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone, but no I didn’t.
I did, I did.
But that’s an interesting point because the music that we’ve been discussing…. The people who like Emperor are the Dream Theater geeks of the black metal world.
And the people who like Megadeth are the same for thrash. So I didn’t need Dream Theater because I had Megadeth, Emperor, and Death, I was cool.
I didn’t need the clean uncut stuff, mine was cut and I was happy. I liked the flash and the grit together. So that solo came, to return, and my brain decoded it as “beautiful flashy moment,” not as a moment of desperation. And interestingly what you’re describing as a desperate attempt to get busy on your instruments, whether drums or guitar, in order to get all that chaos out, in my mind reads as the attempt at a technical, melodic song. Which I then interpreted as homesickness. Because if everything is about struggle and anxiety, and there are very anxious moments on that album, along with moments of very clear “home,” such as the traditional instruments used throughout, that are pitted against this cold almost Norweigian wilderness parts.
Or Minnesotan parts.
Minnesota is filled with wilderness. Minnesota is basically the Scandinavia of America.
A lot of Scandinavians too, no?
Yeah, 50 percent of the population is of Scandinavian descent.
So, when those other flashy moments came in, I didn’t feel the chaos of the wilderness or the comfort of home, I felt beauty. And so when I’m coupling that weird interpretation with what you’re saying, then it’s as if you’re saying: “If you stress the chaos of now the result is something beautiful."
I mean, there’s always beauty in sorrow, and there’s always beauty in extreme emotions, it’s just that it’s sometimes hard to see. And Panopticon’s musical M.O. has always been expressing sorrow in a way that’s very sentimental and very melancholy. With moments of rage. If you think about Kentucky that albums has moments of just chaos and fury. But then there are bluegrass songs on that record. So, I don’t think that any of these feelings that we’re talking about are in any way not beautiful, they’re just painful.
It so happens that because of this interview project I’ve been having these conversations in abnormal frequency. And so just last week I talked to a musician and his idea of beauty is a complete utter devastation and sorrow. He said he knew they had a great song because they left the studio feeling horrible. And I found that to be a very interesting statement. And so it is true that sorrow produces beauty, but it doesn’t always produce an uplifting effect. And I do think in Panopticon it does have an uplifting effect. It’s sorrow, but it’s hopeful.
It’s bittersweet, yeah. But if you knew me in real life, that’s kind of the way I am. I’m the smiliest depressed dude you’ll ever meet. Everything’s a joke, but it’s not. And that’s kind of the way that I function. And also I love metal, and I love progressive music, and I’m super into country and folk. But I also really love mid-90s emotive bands like Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate and stuff like that, and I love shoegaze, and I love Slowdive and Air Formation and that kind of stuff. So, that stuff finds its way into my music as well.
It’s weird, I would never think of Sunny Day Real Estate as hopeful, but I guess they are.
Ah man, that third record, How it Feels to be On Something, that record is full of hope. But ironically my favorite one is the pink one when he wrote when he got out of the asylum.
My favorite one is The Rising Tide.
Oh, I saw them on that tour. It was fantastic live. And I got to see Mineral during that reunion tour a few years ago and that was great.
I wanted to ask two stupid questions. So, famously Kentucky had a lot of traditional instruments, and there was also some of that in Roads to the North and in Autumn Eternal it almost goes away…
Yeah, just the intro, and there is steel guitar in the last song.
But it is noticeably reduced.
But then last year you put out one side of an album that was just that. So, why? Why did it go away, and why did it come back?
So, Kentucky, Roads to the North, and Autumn Eternal are like a trilogy, they’re me processing. I started writing Kentucky before I knew that I was going to move, and I finished Kentucky when I was moving. So the album was literally a love letter to my home state and as I’m writing this love letter to my adopted home state – I was born in Tennessee, I didn’t love to Kentucky until I was 19 or 20. And so those albums are inextricably connected, with Roads being about me dealing with leaving Kentucky and restarting my life at 30 years old, becoming a father for the first time. And then Autumn Eternal was more written about the acceptance of a new life, and never really feeling like I belonged anywhere.
So when that trilogy was over, and it was time to write a new record, I had for years wanted to do this kind of double album duality thing, going back to when I was about 20 years old when I used to be in Anagnorisis. The follow up to Overton Trees was supposed to be this record about duality, two sides of the same coin, perception-is-reality kind of a thing. And I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of doing two sides of the same issue.
And I’ve been reading this guy Sigurd Olson, he’s from Minnesota and born in Chicago, first-generation American, his parents are from Sweden, he is responsible for the Wilderness Preservation Act that protected all of wilderness in the northern Minnesota area, the boundary waters. And he’s an ecology writer and his work is profound. If you look in the liner notes to Autumn Eternal there’s no lyrics there it’s just Sigurd Olson’s writings just copied and pasted because I wanted people to read his words instead of mine because I felt that his words were more what I was trying to say in my dumb-ass lyrics. I felt he said it better. And Norwegian ecology writer Arne Næss as well.
So, when it came time to do a new record what I wanted to do was to look at two sides of the same coin: the effects of urban life on people and the effects of rural life on people, and how we need the wilderness in order to center ourselves. We need nature to remind us of our humanity, so that we don’t become possessed by the technology and conveniences that industrialization and urban life provides. So the record has two sides. The black metal side of the record is all about pushing people to get out to the wilderness. Go see the night sky, go see the wilderness, see the northern lights, go experience these things. And then the country side, the Americans side of the album was about the consequences of urbanization and industrialization, the conveniences that modernity affords us.
And so the album is two sides of the same coin but the lyrical concept is flipped, so the side with the darker lyrics is the country/Americana record, and the album with the more hopeful lyrics is the metal record. I was nervous about the country record because I’m not a great singer. I don’t have a very good voice, I sound like I have laryngitis all the time, like I just woke up. But you know what? That works well for the kind of music that I like. It’s not like I can sing Like Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth or something, I could sing more like Kris Kristofferson, now that he’s like 80 years old.
I was really nervous. I thought people were going to shit all over it and really there weren’t any bad reviews, except for that needledrop guy. But the album was received really well. We didn’t send out any promo copies because I didn’t want the focus to be on “Here’s the new Panopticon album,” I wanted it to be “Hey, listen to this record, get out into the woods, spend your time in the forest, remember what it’s like to be a human again. Get out of the city, go into the woods, put this record in your earphones and go for a two-hour-long walk. And that’s what a lot of people did.
But that’s an interesting combination because you’re telling people “go out of the city, go into the woods but put Panopticon in your ears when you’re doing it.” So it’s not just this immersion in nature, it requires a medium. It’s not that the truth is in nature and all you need to do is stretch your hands out and grab it, you need a guide.
Well the point was to get people to do it. When I released the album I said “This is the way I want you to experience this record, on a long walk or sitting by the fire. I want you to experience this record in the natural surroundings that inspired it.” It was just basically an excuse to try and encourage people to get out into the woods. It was kind of like a bribery almost: “Here’s this album, I really want you to experience it this way – get your ass off the couch.”
There’s this Israeli singer who’s a very interesting person, who grew up in a religious household, went secular in his early adult life, and then became religious again. And while religious he became a very popular musician even among secular crowds, and he put in his liner notes that he asked the audience not to listen to his album on the Sabbath. And I’m not a religious person, but I respect that, and have never put that album during the sabbath. So it’s kind of like that.
It’s kind of like Blood of the Black Owl’s Banishing Ritual. Banishing Ritual is not meant to be listened to as one song and then turned off. In the liner notes it says to listen to the album in its entirety. And so that was the album I used to go out to the hills with, when I lived in Kentucky, and go for a long walk in Bernheim Forest, and I would smoke a joint and listen to that record during the entire eight-mile walk. And now I only listen to that record in the sauna, we have a sauna here. And I won’t turn the album off until it’s done, because that album was meant to be a ritual. That’s the way that Chet [W. Scott, the musician behind Blood of the Black Owl] wanted us to experience this record. I think that there’s a profoundness to when an artist has a way that they want the album to be experienced. I think that’s a really cool thing.
So, I’ve been pretty good with my ego so far and we’re winding down so I feel free to re-insert my humongous sense of self importance into the conversation. So, I don’t really know what’s going on in my life. The basics of what I do are not whatever we’re doing right now. This is what I do because I love music. I have no idea what I’m doing. But what I find myself doing is focusing a lot of energy into things that in the real world – by which I mean money, paying for shit, being a parent for my kids – feel like weird, stuttering failures. It’s like I’m the Hunchback of Notre Dam walking through the financial district and everyone is pointing at me and saying “This guy is not contributing anything to anyone.” And maybe it’s my age, but I used to feel guilty about these things and I don’t feel guilty about them anymore because I realized – like you said way back when we began talking, about how nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy – that this struggling to be human to the best of your abilities is something that is visible to some people, not all people. Just like some people…. You know what, let’s go there: A lot of people who like Death think they ruined their music on Symbolic.
Yeah, and they don’t like The Sound of Perseverance, which I think is a great record.
That’s blasphemous, but a lot of people think it’s their worst album.
Some of my best friends hate that album. And I’m like: “Dude, how can you hate this record? It’s incredible!”
But that means that even within the small realm of people who appreciate harsh music, tough life, the expression of emotion, there’s going to be a majority that’s going for “I want power” and a minority who’s going to say “Chuck Schuldiner is a wounded human being, and I want to hear it.”
Yes! That’s what I want to hear!
And even within that minority there’s an even tinier minority who, without sounding too weird, “get it.” Who can, say, listen to Dave Mustaine and don’t just hear a pompous, half-bigot, self important idiot.
Which is what most people hear, what they hear is a wounded person doing all this extra work in order to not look wounded anymore.
Or to process their wound.
Yes. And even if you ask him, douchebag that he is, “Hey Dave, do you think that solo was meant to process you wound?” He’d say “Fuck you! I don’t have wounds!” But that’s the beauty of the music, is that it tells you things that the person doesn’t even know about himself.
All of which is to say that my choices to make stuff that means nothing to almost anyone, like this lovely conversation with you that will be a lifelong memory, but it doesn’t buy me anything. But so what?
Certain experiences in life can’t be bought. The good experiences in life can’t be bought. That’s one of the quintessential messages of my band, anti-capitalism. That solace and validation is not something you can buy, it’s something that you have to make for yourself.
I’ll just radicalize that further: It’s not even that it’s not something that you can’t buy, it’s not something that can be given to you by anyone but yourself.
I agree, I agree wholeheartedly. It’s perception is reality. You have to be self aware enough to be able to receive these things.
When language is taken away from you, and this is kind of part of my research, by depression, by violence, by death, and you find yourself devoid of language then you find yourself that much closer to being dead, to being an inanimate object. And there are some people, and this is not a judgement against those who don’t, who are able to transform their state from that of something resembling an inanimate object back into life through the prosthesis that is poetry. They build, so to speak, a limb.
So your prosthesis is your music, your mode of remaining human is your music, but everyone has a different way. You have to struggle with it, and it’s work, it’s always very hard work being human, and it doesn’t always pay off. But the payoff is that you’re human.
Have you ever spent time listening to Townes van Zandt?
I love him.
Me too. He’s the greatest American poet of all time. “Pour the sun upon the ground / Stand to throw a shadow / Watch it grow into a night / And fill the spinnin' sky.” To me he is everything that you’re talking about right now. His memories were robbed from him through electro-shock therapy and he created this poetic prosthesis through his writing, that’s how he regenerated himself. He regenerated his entire existence, his entire being, through his body of work. And to me, Townes van Zandt’s words are haunting. He blows my mind. Everytime I do a country set – I do these acoustic sets where I’ll go open for somebody and do a country set – I always play two Townes van Zandt songs. Because I feel like his words, they’re quintessentially human. And he’s unsung, you know? Like, recently the hipsters jumped on the Townes Van Zandt freight train. Him and Blaze Foley. And Blaze is one of those guys, along with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and a newer guy named Richard Inman that’s really young and that I’m really into.
These poets, these musicians that are writing poetry, it’s the poetry of their lives. It’s not like they’re writing songs just so they can hear themselves talk, they’re processing their existence in real time. And they’re doing it not just for themselves. It’s like on The Sound of Perseverance CD or LP there’s the Nietzche quote – “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” – that’s what these guys are doing, they’re gazing into the abyss. And it’s cool to know that you’re a writer because for me poetry and writing have always been the focus of music, it’s just that I don’t think my poetry is good enough to stand on its own. And the lyrics for the last three albums had not been published but they’re the best lyrics that I have ever written. But they’re so personal. Like in Scars, I didn’t put the lyrics out there. In fact I wrote some of the songs in Norwegian because I didn’t want people to know what I was saying. Even if they could understand, most of the people who listen to Panopticon don’t speak Norweigian. So I wanted to shield…. Do you know what nougat is?
So I wanted to shield my tender man nougat.
My feelings and my emotions. And so I left a lot of the lyrics out, with the lyrics to Roads never published. Autumn Eternal, the lyrics were never published. And if you could see them you would understand why, they’re really dark and really exposing, and I’m a person who doesn’t like to be a downer, and that’s all poets.
You know when you’re being a downer, or when you’re addressing issues that are a downer for you. But you don’t know what the effect of those things could be on other people. Other people could be listening to what you consider to be downer and laugh or be uplifted.
Or, or…. For instance, I have a very good friend named Petri Eskelinen and he’s from Finland and he played in this really great band called Rapture that was kind of big a few years ago. They’re kind of if Katataonia had stayed in the Brave Murder Day era but got a little more In Flamse-y at times.
[Laughs] In Flames-y. That’s great.
Not the crappy In Flames, the first couple of albums.
Got it, got it. The Jester Race In Flames.
The Jester Race and even some of Colony. God, The Jester Race is so sick. God damn.
Colony was where they lost me.
Colony was the last album that had any good moments in it. Whoracle had its moments. The Jester Race was fantastic.
In that realm I’m more of The Gallery guy. The Gallery, Skydancer.
Yes! Do you like A Canorous Quintet?
What is that?
OH SHIT! You haven’t heard of A Canorous Quintet?
No, I don’t think so.
I’m about to make your day. You’re going to listen to Silence from a World Beyond, it’s all you’re ever going to want to listen to, it’s perfect. Ok, getting back to earlier in the conversation – Roads to the North. I was listening to A Canorous Quintet all the time.
That explains the Swedish death metal vibe to that album.
I love Swedish death metal. Now what I listen to, as far as death metal goes, is Gorguts, Vastum, Tomb Mold, and I still listen to ungodly amounts of Suffocation. I’m a huge Suffocation fan. I got to see them in St. Paul a few months ago, and they were so great. I fucking love Suffocation. I love playing just nasty, dirty death metal. If I was a better musician that’s the kind of shit that I would make.
But going back to what I was saying about Petri. So, about 15 years ago I was going through some really dark times. I was really feeling low, having a hard time, I was in a really shitty marriage, things were just bad. And I discovered Rapture, particularly their album Songs for the Withering. Which just got re-released and I actually wrote the liner notes for it. And so I wrote Petri an email and said “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that your music is helping me through all this shit.” And this is way before Panopticon, so what right do I have to write him? It’s not like I had something to offer, I was just a fan. And then he wrote me back, and we started this email correspondence, which has blossomed into a lifelong friendship, where we meet each other in other countries, just to hang out.
What he didn’t know is that he saved me, with his lyrical honesty, his expression of sorrow, his pouring his passion and his sorrow into the music. It made me feel like I had someone I could identify with, that understood me. And he didn’t even know it, but he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me out of that horrible situation, and then after that he became my friend. So, when you said “You don’t know if other people are going to see it as a bummer,” some people may see it as salvation.
Yeah, and it may be the same people. The music that lifts you up is sometimes made by the people who would get why you needed to lifted up in the first place. That if you invest your personality into your art to such an extent that your music becomes a part ot it, then the people who like the music are also connecting to who you are as a person. It’s the most roundabout and inefficient mode of communication, but it works when it does.
Going back to what you said earlier, it’s conveying hope through sorrow. A sorrowful melody can convey hope. It’s that bittersweet component.
So it’s interesting because, last year I published my first book, it’s a novella, and just today I had a friend tell me that he finished reading it with a bittersweet feeling. And I think that a part of it is that the book deals with the most dark and painful stories and memories of my family life and plays with them. And so the subject matter is dark, but the playing is fun, and the bitter and the joyous are made to co-inhabit the same space. Kind of like your flashy solos – you’re processing your sorrow and I’m hearing “Weeeeeee! Look at me!”
[Laughs] That’s the nature of mixed emotions. And essentially everything that we’ve been talking about this entire conversation is mixed emotions. Using brutal music to convey beauty and sorrow, it creates so much tension. And your book, the way you describe it, your device is creating tension. That’s a powerful tool
I agree. It is. I’m writing another one, and it’s even more horrible.
Yeah, it’s even more brutal. But more playful too. I guess you need to find your way to make it into a productive tension.
One of the interesting things is that if you watch the documentary about Townes van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me, there are interviews with the folks from Sonic Youth, they were recording his final material before he died, and they said that one of the things that made Townes so believable was that he wasn’t just depression all the time. He had funny songs, he had a jovialness and laughter. And the tension between those two elements, that dynamic, showed you that there is no darkness without light, no light without darkness. If all we had was nighttime we wouldn’t know what day is.