Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Behemoth

[This is the THIRTEENTH installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Behemoth

Album: The Satanist 

Year: 2014

Label: Nuclear Blast Records

Favorite Song: “Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer”

The Bare Bones: The Satanist is the tenth studio album by the Polish masters of the death/black metal hybrid, Behemoth. With a career already spanning decades the album proved a latter day masterpiece for the band, catapulting them into the kind of mainstream success that is more than rare for extreme metal acts.

The Beating Heart: Putting it as simply as possible, The Satanist is a perfect metal album. From its varied and dynamic pace and atmosphere, impeccable and crystal-clear production, all the way to the impassioned performances that stand at its core, it is that one album where everything just fell into place for Behemoth, in a way in which it has rarely fallen into place for any metal band in recent memory. With the added biographical backdrop of band leader Adam "Nergal" Darski's health scare, and the gap between it and its predecessor, 2009's Evangelion, Darski and Behemoth remerged stronger, more powerful, and just plain better. Truth be told this website doesn't deal much with what could be generally considered "mainstream" metal, even in extreme metal terms. But the majesty of this album is, I think, an absolute consensus. Or at least it damn well should be.

Before the interview with Nergal, however, I would like to, as always, encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, which will probably be running until the end of the year, with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (FacebookInstagramSpotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. Our aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local metal. Thank you all for being here, and here's the talk with Nergal.

Was there a moment you remember having with a song or album that really changed what you thought about music?

When I was seven or eight, a good friend of my brother had taught me my first guitar chords. He was a great guitar player. One day he brought home a cassette, which only had one song and he never gave me the name of the artist. He told me, “This is Satanic Music – this is the music made by Satanists” and left me there. I listened to the whole song, which started with the sound of a black mass. I was pretty disturbed by the sounds – it was new to me and as a kid it was shocking! It took me years later, that I found out it was Merciful Fate – "Don’t Break the Oath." By that time, I was a sworn fan of King.

So, I wanted to get to The Satanist, and one of the things that are noticed on The Satanist is an emphasis on dynamics and atmosphere instead of all-out aggression. And I’m specifically interested in the way the drums work in that album, they seem much more expressive. 

It’s hard to say. We wanted to achieve a more organic sound, we wanted to get away from this death metal, black metal thing, and more generally get away from trying to sound as perfect as we can. And that’s what we attempted. That’s why we continued with [Evangelion mixer] Colin Richardson, because he did an amazing job. And so we went for him, and the first song he mixed for The Satanist was “Ben Sahar,” and he was at it for four weeks, only to eventually fail. It was still great, but we were looking for something else. That doesn’t change the fact that he is a renowned and great producer, but the result was not satisfactory enough. We wanted that album to sound like something else. Don’t give me another one of those black or death metal sounds. We needed something more than that, something beyond that. That’s why we went with Matt Hyde. So, just searching for that organic sound was the key.

An when you say “organic” what do you mean? Not overproduced, keeping imperfect tempo at times? Because that sounds like a hard thing to achieve. 

I don’t know, I just used my intuition. We all have our favorite bands and we know what we like about those bands and what vision we’re after for the album. For example I like high-gain guitar, while a lot of bands used very compressed sounds. I like it more distorted. But it’s hard to say. Just play me something, and I’ll tell you if I like it or not.

So, if I ask that differently: When you listen to The Satanist in retrospect, what seems different to you about that album when compared to the things you recorded earlier? A more organic sound?

Yeah, more like “vital.” To me it just sounds vital, more human, so to speak. It’s a genuine sound. It’s still metal as fuck, but…. I really just like records that sounds like something else. There are too many imitations around, and what I’m attempting is to do something that’s going to stick out, sound like nothing else. Which is a massive challenge these days because there are so many records, so many great records. Just give me something that’s going to sound different, something that sounds out of this world. That’s the formula I’m trying to follow with Behemoth. I don’t know if we’re successful in that or not. All I know is that we try.

I’d like to follow up on something that you said, “metal as fuck” while being human, or something of that order. So, I think you’ve made it clear that for you, and this touches on the title of The Satanist, satan is a symbol for a rebellious independence and a sense of agency. Would that be correct?

Pretty much. The general idea of satan for me is as an empowering symbol or archetype. I try to educate people that whatever it is they thought about satan is due to their cultural environment, which in my case is European and Catholic. It’s wrong, a misconception. So that’s my take and I’m trying to sell that idea that satan and its nature is much closer to human nature than any angelic being. And I totally stand behind that. I know that for some people it sounds like some kind of crazy heresy or blasphemy, but to me the logic is very sound. And I have my arguments to back it up.

I have to say that it doesn’t sound strange to me, especially since the image of satan, especially its portrayal in Milton’s Paradise Lost and in the Romantic movement is very much in that vein, an image of fiercely independent, human, and creative agency. But what happens when you take all that confidence and rebellion and confront it with an experience, such as the illness you faced prior to recording The Satanist, that seems to work against that confidence

I think my sickness made me even more human, even more humanistic. Just made me stronger in so many ways, strengthened a lot of values I already had. I don’t know if this answers your question.

It does, but do you think that metal, with all the machismo it has and the brash self confidence, has a place, even culturally, to be vulnerable and talk about humaneness? 

I don’t really look at things from a heavy-metal perspective. If you follow me on my social media – well, of course I could be just good at faking, so you can never know if I’m entirely honest, but I know I am – and I can be vulnerable, and I can afford to be. I don't have a problem admitting to my mistakes, I have no problem showing that side of me that is weak. Because, obviously, I also I have a side of me that is weak, and I have no problems speaking up about that. Every human has that, this duality. I just think people in general are quite closed and not very open, and I like it when artists open up. I just went to a Nick Cave show, and he’s one of those people that I really look up to, and how he opened up about his life and the death of his son. That serves as an example for me to follow.

Do you think that duality, strength and weakness, is that part of what made The Satanist so appealing for so many people, even those who may not have been fans of the band before? 

I hope so. I hope so. But, then again, I’m not a spectator to all of this, I’m the creator behind it. With every record that we release and every creation we release, a video, an album, a concert, there is that line that we cannot cross. Because as creators we just do it, we release it, and that’s it, it ends and it’s no longer ours. You own it, the spectator, as a listener, as the receiver of our art, you take it over and process it in your own way.

But that’s interesting because I know that you are very involved in the managing side of the band. Not every band leader cares about album art or marketing strategies, but you are. So, given what you just said about it being over for you as a creator, how do you maneuver between being the artist who has a very personal thing to express and once it’s done it’s not his anymore, to the business manager selling the product?

That’s who I am, I guess. I’m a very thinking and analytical person and I guess that gives me the ability to control that side of the band too. That pretty much sums it up. Mick Jagger used to say that he hates doing business but if he doesn’t do it then somebody else will step it and rip him off. Which sadly is very much the truth regarding today’s industry. If you were a musician asking me for advice, even if you’re not capable of running things on your own, find someone you trust, who will run your business, who will represent you. Make him read the contract, be smart before you sign anything, and learn from other bands too. I read a lot of bands’ biographies, and I learn a lot. I just try to watch my ass, and I try to watch my band’s ass, because if we have a career for another ten or fifteen years I want to make sure it’s fucking solid, that it’s decent, without anyone coming in and ripping us off.

Have you ever gotten shit for that? Say, that you’re supposed to be the artist and not the business man and the fact that you are, do people perceive you to be less of an artist for doing that?

I’m super immune to criticism coming from anonymous people. And the world is filled with that. The world is full of people who are full of frustration, who are unhappy with their own lives and so they step into other people’s lives and watch it instead of just focusing on themselves. I’m only focused on Behemoth. It may seem egotistical, but because I’m so focused on myself and Behemoth I’m not interested in analyzing other people and other people’s lives. I don’t do that because I have no time for that. So I always advise everyone that if you just work on yourself, on building yourself and on strengthening your core, you won’t need to waste your life on that. I don’t know. How can people criticize or judge me if they’re not me? [Laughs] So, I’m super indifferent and immune to them because it doesn’t hurt at all, because no one else is me. Only I know how to live my life and how to write my music, how to run my band and what to do with my life.  "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” that’s the classic statement, and let’s follow that formula, and if we follow it the world will be a much nicer place.

I’ve done a few of these interviews and I always wonder how musicians are able to shut out criticism when they write new music, because it seems like if you write something like The Satanist and everyone loves it then everyone expects you to write another Satanist. And so I would think that this type of immunity is very helpful when you’re writing.

I’m just happy that what we came back with is a record that is pretty fucking different than The Satanist. At the end of the day we get a lot of credit, and thinking people do appreciate the fact that we stepped it up again, not just cashing on the success of The Satanist. I’m not interested in that. As an artist I’m interested as adventurous as I can be. 

I read one of your quotes where you said that every time you make an album you do your best for that moment. I know you don’t like to deconstruct and that you are a pro-active creative person, but did you notice while making The Satanist that that current definition of “best” is somewhat different than it was in the past? That it’s a different kind of “best”?

Yeah. I mean, basically I’m all about expending myself, expending my needs, my aspirations and fulfilling them. It’s a very egotistical process. And if a fan X or Y expects the next Behemoth endeavor to be extremely brutal then I cannot really answer to that, since maybe my “best” and my aspirations are somewhere else already. So I’m not even sorry for people who felt disappointed with whatever we deliver, because…. I don’t know. Heavy metal is a very narrow path, to be honest. We’re still a part of that, but we would like to think that we are heavy metal, and beyond. We are black metal, and beyond, we are this and something else, something more. That’s why I hope that when people get bored of death or black metal, and this will come sooner or later, because everything comes and goes in cycles, and so if this cycle is over, and people find something else, Behemoth will remain and will be sustained because we are bigger than just another death or black metal band.

Bigger creatively, in what you’re trying to achieve?

Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Which is another thing: Why would Slayer remain successful throughout the years? Because they were something else. Why did Metallica grow so big? Because partly they are still a thrash metal band, but they are something else. Same with Rammstein, you name it. Artists that stay creative through all these genre changes, that stay adventurous, refreshing, and exciting.  

I interviews a few musicians that have changed quite a bit throughout their careers and it seems to me that the rule is that if you stay true to yourself, to whatever is interesting to you at that moment, even if it’s far from what you did before, you’re still on a good path for you. And that that’s a journey that defines you, that you can look back at all the stations you’ve passed and say “That was my life.”

Yeah, yeah. It is the story of my life.

And so going to back to where we talked about Satan being this contrarian position, then maybe what you’re saying is that your idea of Satan is that it is a contrarian position to being stagnant. A path of always reinventing who you are.

Absolutely. It’s the push to constantly evolve and to constantly change. And never grow stagnant, because stagnation is death.

So my last question is, when you listen to The Satanist now, what is it about that album that you’re especially proud of?

I’m very happy with the whole record, honestly. I think it’s a very coherent album, with not one signal weak point. I’m very happy with it.