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

[This is the 22nd installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]

Artist: Woe

Album: Hope Attrition

Year: 2017

Label: Independent (vinyl via Vendetta Records)

Favorite Song: "No Blood Has Honor"

The Bare BonesHope Attrition is the fourth full-length album by New York black metal outfit Woe, which had begun as the one-man project of vocalist and songwriter Chris Grigg, later transitioning into a full band. It also marks the band's first independent release, following Woe's exit from Candlelight Records. A vinyl version was released by Vedetta Records.

The Beating Heart: Seeing that Woe has long been considered a part of the NYC black metal scene, even without actually being in New York throughout its existence, one may feel more comfortable talking about Woe in the context of East Coast American black metal. And there are many aspects one can point to when discussing some of the traits that characterize the East-Coast American black metal scene, that set it apart from other, more Neurosis-inspired scenes such as the Midwestern, Southwestern, and Northwestern bands: there's the explicit experimentality and cerebral nature of bands like Krallice or Kayo Dot's "metal" albums; there's the "European-style" rawness and melodious aggression of the black metal produced by such acts as Krieg or Yellow Eyes; and the all-out insanity of Profanatica, Hovohej, and Negative Plane. A field of massive bands, attempting some pretty massive feats of self expression, classical-music-sized ambition, and vehement belligerence. Within that maximalist context Woe's mode of black metal appears deceptively simple: direct riffs, aggressive drum work, and a vocal style that, as the albums progressed, comes closer to what could be called a hardcore mode of gruff attack than most black metal bands. But it's that false sense of simplicity and rough, personal style of songwriting that mark Woe as one of the leaders in contemporary black metal. In that way Woe can be perhaps best understood as the black metal descendants of 80s and 90s East Coast legends such as Type O Negative, Danzig or even hardcore outfits such as the Gorilla Biscuits, bands that made songs that felt simple but, with time, uncovered mesmerizing depth in songwriting, craft, and delivery. The kind of metal bands that were, as most metal bands aspire, larger than life and yet at the same time entirely human and life-sized. An artistic throwback to 90s New York or Brooklyn, an era of metal and hardcore that combined the highest kind of grandiose artistic ambition and expression, packed into catchy compactness and a fascination with punk and even pop. Within that double pull, of musical accomplishment and human expression, Hope Attrition is not only the high watermark of Woe's stunning discography but of any metal, black or otherwise, that has come out in the last 10 years, if not more.

Before proceeding to my correspondence with Woe's Chris Grigg I would like to encourage you to read the rest of this ongoing interview project, which will be running until the end of the year (and probably spilling into the beginning of 2020), 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. My aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, focusing on the art and life of that art, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 1 of amazing local black metal, death metal, grindcore, folk, and more. But, to the interview. Enjoy!

Was there a moment in your life, perhaps as a younger person that you remember changing the way in which you thought of music, or that made you want to become a musician yourself?

I don’t think there was any one moment. My parents were musicians, they both composed and performed, and my father was always working on various art or research projects. It always seemed natural to me that if you wanted to create or explore something, you should just do it. But perhaps one moment that stands out the most isn’t a song, band, or album, but an experience. When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I went to my first local punk show. I don’t remember who played but I remember the crowd, the band playing on the floor, the energy, the volume. I remember thinking: “This is what I want to do.”

What led to you to form the project that would become Woe, and what then made you shift from a one-man project to a full functioning band?

Initially, I wanted a project where I could set the pace and explore musical ideas without having to compromise. I was curious to see what would come out if I tried my hand at black metal, I wanted to participate in the thing I felt so passionate about. The shift to the full band happened naturally. Woe was offered a show, one show turned into a few shows, a few shows turned into a regular thing. It became apparent after a while that the other members offered perspective and abilities that I didn’t have. I’m still doing the majority of the writing but we’ve found a way to open things up for discussion and workshop things as a group. Working as a full band has made me answerable to others and forces the level of quality to be higher. I try to write with the other guys in mind and don’t bother presenting riffs that I know they’ll reject. It’s healthy.

The band is a part of what has become, for better or worse, a quite well-defined scene, with bands like Krallice, Yellow Eyes, Anicon, Castevet, Imperial Triumphant, to an extent, and others. A scene noteworthy not just for its novelty but for its almost explicit urbanity, which hasn’t always been a highlight of black metal as a genre. What role does living in a city play in Woe’s music and inspirations?

I’ve been here so long that I probably can’t pinpoint it as well as someone who was looking at it from the outside. It certainly influences the pace, the aggression, the intensity of it. It’s crucial to my worldview. Living in NYC exposes you to more attitudes and perspectives than you could possibly find anywhere else. It allows you to appreciate things you’d probably never experience, otherwise, and it offers truly unique opportunities. It’s made me more passionate about my political views because these things are worth protecting.

Image may contain: 3 people, night

Woe. Photo: Jonathan McPhail

While Hope Attrition isn’t technically Woe’s third full length, it’s the third album of the band operating as a full band, and has the song sounding, to use a cliche, more focused and cohesive. Did the recording/writing process have a different vibe that time around, or was it different?

Pretty much business as usual: I demoed alone, sent regular updates to Grzesiek [Czapla] and the band, feedback was received, iterated and repeated. The big difference with Hope Attrition was its focus early on. I knew exactly what kind of album I wanted to walk away with, I knew more about the preferences of the band, and I knew more about what kinds of songs we liked playing live and which ones we avoided. Woe 2 [Quietly, Undramatically] and 3 [Withdrawal] had some experimental moments and we spent years playing live, which informed everything about Hope Attrition, the new A Violent Dread EP, and what will become Woe 5.

Labels may not do as much as they once did, for better and worse, and yet metal labels, even relatively new ones, retain a sense of prestige and that sometimes translates to hype and sales. So, with an entire globe of musicians trying to break out of the Bandcamp cycle and get released by labels why is it that Woe chose to put out Hope Attrition, and also your latest EP, on your own?

As much as I’d love to take credit for everything that happened over the past few years, we did work with a label for both Hope Attrition and the new EP: Vendetta Records in Berlin. Vendetta and Stefan (its operator) come from a DIY background, like us, and it’s the first time I can confidently say that the band and label are 100% aligned in vision and goal.

But your point is still correct in spirit: We didn’t work with a “big” label, we’re still operating at an underground level. We’re fine with that. We’re fortunate enough to not need a big name to co-sign our stuff in order to reach an audience. By the numbers, Hope Attrition and A Violent Dread did significantly better than the albums that came before them, so there’s no indication that our growth is slowing — quite the opposite. Whenever we’ve had discussions with labels who presented contracts, we were never clear on what tangible benefits they could guarantee us beyond a recording advance, which we don’t need unless they’re gonna pay for us to work with Jens Bogren or someone of that level. A couple grand doesn’t justify ownership of our work, nor do vague promises of “promotion” or the prestige conferred by their name.

I’ve been told by many, many people that my attitude is unfairly colored by the bad experience we had with a lousy label, but time and again, I hear stories of people being screwed, deals that make no sense, friends putting their souls into albums that wind up being ignored by their own label. If someone offered us something significant and tangible, we’d have to consider it, but until then, we are very happy to work with our friends and release things we can be proud of.

Hope Attrition is not, of course, a political album. But it does I think address more issues than the average black metal record, at least more shall we say progressive issues in a genre that is at this point infamously conservative (I’m using the polite term). This seems to me also to have to do with the NYC scene, but more generally with USBM, with the other striking example being probably Panopticon’s Kentucky. Given the sometimes reactionary politics of black metal, what is it about American bands that enables them to retain a less conservative edge? And, as a musician working in New York, to what extent is this owing to the ongoing and powerful influence of hardcore?

My dad toured with jazz bands and my mom was a folk singer. Their music and their politics were inseparable, so when I was introduced to music, I was also introduced to the politics of it. Punk, hardcore, and metal come from many of the same DIY traditions as jazz and folk, they share roots that are extremely politically and socially aware. It’s all the art of outsiders, art of protest and rebellion, and the American story is, itself, one of protest and rebellion. Much of the black metal we’ve seen in the last decade comes out of people who came out of these traditions and it makes sense that our black metal would be informed by that perspective, even if it isn’t everyone’s focal point.

Beyond that, I think that many of the American bands who come out of cities are naturally inoculated against conservatism by virtue of exposure to real, working diversity of ideas and people. The extreme right thrives on tribalism, fear of the other, and fake news. It’s harder for that to take a foothold in places where people are surrounded by the people and ideas that Fox News claims are so dangerous. With so much American metal centered in cities and coming out of the DIY underground, with its long history of political awareness, we’re position to resist that bullshit in ways that maybe some more homogenous places aren’t.

There is no shortage of political opinions among black metal musicians all over the world, but it does seem that the majority of that global scene is quite traditional, at times clashing head-on with what would be called progressive politics. So beyond the fact that American black metal is political, as you say, is there a way in which it is also an anomaly in the kind of politics is sometimes stands for?

I’m no expert on American black metal so it’s hard to say. From where I’m sitting, I don’t think there’s a particularly high number of openly leftist bands playing black metal in America, I just think that there are a few who are especially vocal about it. As far as I can tell, most black metal fans aren’t too interested in political music and the bands reflect that.

Hope Attrition was I think a big moment for the band. The initiation of a lineup that would stick around for another recording, and hopefully more; artistic and critical success; and striking out on your own and making it work. Looking back at that record is there something you’re especially proud of? In the music, in the way it was made, or its legacy?

Hope Attrition was the Woe album I always wanted to write. Since there’s no money in this, my version of “success” is the ability to create a thing, release that thing into the world, and have that thing appreciated by anyone in the way that it was intended. It was the best version of Woe up to that point, the best work we possibly could have created. As an artist who makes no money from his art, I think that’s the most you can ever hope for.