Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Altar of Plagues
This is the 25th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: Altar of Plagues
Label: Candlelight/Profound Lore
Favorite Song: "Feather and Bone"
The Bare Bones: Mammal is the second full-length from Irish black metal/post-black metal band Altar of Plagues, founded by vocalist, guitarist, and main songwriter, James Kelly. The album is the first to feature the band's final lineup, with AoP calling it quits following the release of their subsequent album, 2013's Teethed Glory and Injury.
The Beating Heart: Few bands has done more to bridge the gap between modern black metal and the alternative and post-rock scenes than Altar of Plagues. In the European context only Alcest comes to mind in terms of influence. However, while their French counterparts emphasized rock and pop influences, ranging from shoegaze to grunge, Altar of Plagues pushed heralded a bleak, emotionally explosive deconstruction, of the kind often associated with post-rock and post-metal bands such as ISIS, Neurosis or Slint. Thus while Alcest used their influence to blur out, so to speak, the dark shapes and colors of black metal, Altar of Plagues worked to introduce drama, dynamism, and emotional intensity into the stagnating body of European black metal, of the kind found not in A Blaze in the Northern Sky but in Through Silver With Blood. To a large extent, however, AoP was a kind of blaze in the somewhat northern skies, creating a detonation that would inspire bands from both sides of the black metal coast – from Deafheaven and Bosse de Nage to Oathbraker and Downfall of Gaia – to change the way black metal is thought of, consumed, and performed. Mammal, in my eyes, is a high water mark in that sonic shift, which is the reason I have chosen to include the album in this ongoing project, via an in-depth conversation with James Kelly.
Before proceeding to my fruitful and, I think, interesting, conversation with Kelly about Mammal, I would like, as always, 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 (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) 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. To the interview. Enjoy!
I wanted to begin with the formal first question, but once that's out of the way, I want to address a different issue. So the question I always start with is if you remember a time, perhaps as a younger person, doesn't have to be, where you were just hit by a song or an album that completely either scared you witless or changed how you thought music could be?
I'm trying not to overthink this question because if my brain starts churning too much I'll think of too many things. Off the cuff, the record that always got me was The Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation. This was before even Keith Flint had shaved his head and got the punk look. I saw the video for “No Good,” it’s this black-and-white thing where they're in a bunker using a sledgehammer to break down a wall. The music was just insane because it was really the antithesis to all of the refined commercial stuff I had heard. This was just chaos. So that for me is definitely…. The whole thing, I think like that video, which I saw when I was quite young – I picked up on The Prodigy when I probably wasn't even 10 years old. A friend of mine, his brothers were a good 12 years older than us, so they were young adults, who are going out to raves and stuff. And they were bringing this culture home with them. And we were just kids, still in primary school, absorbing this from them. So yeah, that would be my first memory, that sort of stuff.
What was it about it you liked? I know it's kind of a silly question, but was the music? Was it the video? Was it both?
The music. I mean, I think they're tied together, but I would say for me, first and foremost, the music that was such a rush. But then the whole thing becomes one package, because you're like: “I want to go to this place that's in the video, where this is the music I will hear.” But also that The Prodigy record kind of defined me in a way, because it’s literally the electronic heavy metal record: crazy drum machine beats but they sample like Nirvana riffs and all this kind of thing. So yeah, that definitely was one of the strongest seeds that was planted in me when I was young.
I was a teenager around that time, and a lot of my friends who were into metal, but not the same metal that I was into, so more like the mid-90s new wave of American heavy metal like Machine Head or Fear Factory, that kind of stuff, they all of a sudden switched to The Prodigy at some point, or, I mean, it ran alongside. So The Prodigy was that electronic group that you could hear if you were a metalhead. But I think that for some of them it was the seed into leaving metal and turning into, say, Goa trance or house music, and things like that. And so I was wondering, because there seems to be a lot of this in-and-out, I haven't really addressed this in any of my interviews, but there seems to be a very close relationship between electronic music of a certain kind, either a very big-beat or very ambient, and heavy metal. And so were both of them kind of coexisting for you at the same time. Did you discover like metal and then the electronic thing stayed that it replace it? How did it work itself out for you?
Everybody has to have an identity to latch on to when they're kids. And when we were young, it was either you’re a raver or a rocker. And I was like: “Well, actually, I like Metallica and I like The Prodigy.” And they were like: “No, you’ve got to pick one.” So I was trying to be a raver and a rocker at the same time. And actually, as I became a teenager, I drifted away from electronic music and then that's when the metal wormhole opened up and swallowed me for a few years. But I can see why they're related and why they attract similar people, or why people migrate from one scene to the other, because they're both quite countercultural, and they both provide a musical and a social refuge from normal culture, whether that refuge is just you and your headphones, or it's you in a dark nightclub with rave music or in a metal bar talking to other people who are into the same shit as you. So, it makes sense to me that people can just like find and hide away in these subcultures.
So, since you raise the communal aspect I wanted to ask you, you're originally from Cork, right?
And is that where where everyone in the band originally was from?
“Originally, yes” would be the answer. The actual timeline of Altar of Plagues and it's members is a little complex. Because it pretty much started as me and kind of ended as me in a way. It started in and around Cork and then it spread to different parts of Ireland.
So when you were starting out, and I assume you were quite young, was there a sense that you felt like you were a part? A defined scene that was going on in Cork, whether a metal scene or whatever, or rock scene, or was it just like you guys were doing your thing, oblivious of anything?
No, I was such a music geek. And was really fortunate, actually. It got to a point where my inspiration and heroes became some of the local bands. I thought they were so good that I didn't even need to listen to Slayer or whatever. I just got so swept up in them and I’d go to their shows when I was 13 or 14, there used to be these all-ages events to which I could go. And then you get to know people, and time passes, and five or six years later when you're old enough to go to the metal bar, and some of these people are still into the same stuff and you end up seeing and reconnecting with some of these people who were also at those shows when you were much younger. And then you end up becoming a part of that community.
Do you remember some of the bands that you were into? Did any of those bands break out?
My hometown heroes would be a band called Belinus. They had a really amazing demo called Battlechants that just totally blew me away. When I heard that I was like: “Oh my god! Something can come out of Cork that actually rivals the shit I'm obsessed with from Norway!” And not only that, these guys had the image, they all had the long hair, they wore all the right stuff. That was just so intoxicating to me because I was also in this really repressed stage where I was forced by my school to keep cutting my hair and I was trying to wear these chunky new rock boots and my parents wouldn't let me. So you're trapped in these confines, then you see somebody who's local and who has broken out of that and is doing it. So yeah, that kind of stuff was definitely really inspiring.
And then by the time Altar of Plagues was starting we would have been involved in the local scene, playing in Cork. But we pretty quickly set our sights beyond that, because one of the things I was always strongly aware of was the fact that, right, these bands who I was obsessed with for years, haven't gone anywhere. And I wanted to go further than that. So I was like: “You can put your energy into playing your hometown every two weeks or you can play your hometown once a year, and try to make things happen in other places."
How did you make those things happen?
I think we were quite lucky in that the band caught on in Ireland pretty quickly because at the time there was a message board for Irish metalheads just called Metal Ireland [the site shut down in 2018, MM]. Everyone romanticizes forums that are now gone, but that was a really good forum. Metalheads in Ireland, it’s a small country, but it made everyone really tight and know each other. And all it took there was for somebody to post “This band from Cork is amazing! You need to check them out!” That's effectively what happened to us, and it caught on and then we got offered our first Dublin show and that went really well. And then we got offered something else off of that, and then our first break was when a Dublin promoter offered us to open for Mayhem. And I think that actually came about because he posted on that forum: “I’ve booked Mayhem, who do you guys think should support?” and the name Altar of Plagues kept coming up.
And then we did the Mayhem show and their tour manager was like: “You guys are amazing, would you be interested in coming on to some of the European shows.” And that was within one year of us doing our first ever show, so it snowballed quite quickly.
I know you were you said you were more kind of into your local thing growing up, but I assume you had an awareness of who Mayhem was and how important that show was.
Yeah, of course. I mean, I had a very typical metalhead’s progression that started with Metallica eventually found Slayer, got totally obsessed because that it had a darkness I had never heard in anything before. And then, you know, Slayer opens you up into this world of super dark music and then I was getting stuff from Limewire and Napster, all the black metal I could find and then I just like got totally into Emperor, Satyricon and all the kind of obvious Norwegian ones, and then just went deeper and deeper into it.
So, I wanted to ask this later, but were you all at all aware of the American scene at this time? Bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, Weakling, Agalloch?
No, that was definitely off my radar.
So, this is kind of me approaching, I guess, my issue with this interview, which is a problem I have faced only once before, and I didn't really know how to solve this time. And I'm trying to solve it differently with you. So the problem is that I couldn't pick an album. I tried helping myself by being very strict about the decade thing, so that eliminated White Tomb, but that still left me with a problem. And I'd like to describe the problem. I think Altar of Plagues in a relatively very short time went through the entire arc of development of a black metal band of the type that I would associate myself with, that I like. And I know even black metal doesn't necessarily fit, but it fits more than any other type right now, so I'm just going with that.
And by development I mean that White Tomb even though it's, I guess, a little more ambitious and most more kind of even you could say pretentious than your run-of-the-mill black metal album, is still very raw and very aggressive. And then by the time you get to Mammal that aggression is somewhat deconstructed, and I would like to talk about that, and one of the themes that I'm interested in is this idea of time. So, time in White Tomb – there are these breaks and it breathes, and it's not all kind of blastbeats going on for three minutes, but it's a much more linear album, in my mind, than Mammal. While Mammal is much more circumvent, much more invested in time, elongating things, asking questions about things. And then by the time you get to Teethed Glory and Injury it's like: “Fuck this shit.” It's almost as if it if you hadn't told me that was your last album as a band. I could have guessed it, because in a way it's a statement: “Whatever it is that we did before, I'm not feeling it as much anymore. I'm doing something that is, in a way, blowing that up.”
And so, that's how I see it. And I enjoy every station in that journey I just invented. I like the youthful ”Let's get out of this place” type of energy, I like the questioning, and I like the “fuck it.” And so I found myself at an impasse. But I didn't want to say let's talk about your career because I don't want to do that. And so I chose Mammal. And I think the reason I chose Mammal is because it's an interesting place in between that is still quite aggressive, only differently and we can talk about that if you'd like. But also very much aware of the limitations of its own aggression, if that makes sense to you. And so, by me describing Mammal as being this middle part, which is easy biographically – it's that middle album – but aesthetically. Does that make sense to you? I mean, the fact that I'm describing it as an album in which you're questioning things, does that resonate at all with you?
Yeah, it's weird. The thing with both Mammal and White Tomb…. By Teethed I felt I was fully conscious and engaged, for better or for worse, with the process. As abstract as it is to say, I was actually just present and engaged with the writing and the execution and the thought process. I feel like by Teethed I was fully there, by Mammal I was halfway there. I feel like in White Tomb I was just churning out, wearing all my influences on my sleeve. I feel like White Tomb is the one I struggle to listen to the most, and even though it's a fan favorite, and it's a classic, and I just feel like you can't get away from those because sometimes your most cherished record is the one that people have a connection to, and often the debut is the one where they found you and made a strong connection. But White Tomb for me is a guy who is wearing his influences on his sleeve, what you just called “ambitious,” to me, actually, I don't think I was ambitious. I feel like the ambition just stems from trying to fit too much into 50 minutes. When I listen to it now, to me, it just sounds all over the place. I almost laugh at it, to be honest. Not that I think it's a bad work by any means, but it just takes me back into the mindset of me 10 even 11 years ago, when I was trying to be in 10 bands at the same time. And that's cool to do. So I think White Tomb is the proof of concept album, but I hadn't figured out the concept yet, hadn't quite cracked it yet.
Mammal, though, was, it was definitely more nihilistic. I think White Tomb has mourning sadness in it. At the time I was in my first year of environmental science at university, and I really was living and breathing, ecology and conservation, and it became a part of the art and that is why White Tomb is an environmental record. Which, again, in hindsight is kind of cringe because the environment and black metal became synonymous with one another to an almost embarrassing extent. So, it's weird looking at that in hindsight, but that was such a big part of it, we genuinely believe the shit we were screaming about could save a few trees. But I don't possess that naivety anymore – for better or for worse, because naivety in art can be very beautiful. So I think that naivety was already wearing off in Mammal and Mammal is more like: “We all die, everyone rots, we’re all going to be bones.” That's the record.
Mammal came from roadkill. I remember we were in the U.S. doing a tour there, and there were actual roadkill everywhere and it was literally just this recurring image of dead deer seeping into my unconscious mind and kind of stirring into the thematic side of it. So Mammal is dark, and because Mammal stuck to that four-track format, it has a similar arc to White Tomb: It comes out swinging and it stays swinging for a bit, and then it has a dip off before the kind of grand finale. But I feel like really it’s the dark side to White Tomb, in that regard. There's no wholesomeness in it, there's no like: “We're going to be okay.” It's more like: We're fucked,” and just embracing that.
I had a different question, but, assuming that it is less cringeworthy for you to listen to Mammal, then what part about that album now sounds to you like “We're fucked”?
Just the entire performance of it. I think the way the guitars are played, the vocal delivery, it's rawer, but that's because it was purging some very dark stuff. So I just think it was really just like an outpour. It’s hard for me to listen to it objectively but when I listen to it I remember that headspace and I remember the atmosphere. It’s strange too because it was written quite quickly. And it was also, thankfully at that point in time, I was still very oblivious to…. Not that we had great success by any means, but I was still oblivious to the fact that there would be a bigger audience waiting to hear it then the record before. So I was oblivious in that I didn't feel any sense of pressure or that we should or shouldn’t write it this way or that way. It wasn’t very considered, in what I think is a very positive sense.
So I have a weirdly technical question. One of the things that fascinate me about Mammal is the interplay between…. I mean now you’re calling it nihilistic, and I guess nihilism works for me as well, but some of the times the guitar work and the vocal delivery sound neutral, in a way, as if someone doesn't care anymore. So the force of those isn't necessarily the passion through which they come through, but it's actually kind of a lack of passion in a way. So one of the things that are interesting for me with that record is how that works with the drums. Because the drums are super passionate, and the drums are super active and I think one of the signature moment of the album for me is the intro to “Feather and Bone,” which sounds to me today like almost like a drum-and-bass track: there's this light melody, and and the drums are just going ballistic as if the whole band is going crazy too, but it's just the drums. As if someone didn't tell the drummer that that’s not that song he’s supposed to be playing. You know what I'm saying?
I mean, the other notable difference between White Tomb and Mammal is that on White Tomb I’m performing all the instruments, so I'm the drummer on White Tomb. On Mammal our drummer Johnny King had joined and he was the drummer until Altar of Plagues finished. And he had a very different flavor to me and he was a far better drummer, in my opinion. But that obviously changed something within the dynamic too. We had just spent the whole summer together, we got to know each other very intimately very quickly because he just dropped straight into a band that had quite a lot of touring and, and the music just kind of coursed its way through him also, and he kind of reacted to it in his own way.
I think the carelessness in the guitar comes from…. One of the things that happened with Mammal as well was that I rejected this fucking grandiose sound, like: “My riffs are going to change your life” kind of sensibility. And I think the thing between White Tomb and Mammal was I had done my first ever international touring. We've done a couple of shows in the U.K. and so forth, but after White Tomb was when we went out into Europe, and I saw all the bands in the scene, played festivals, and got a much wider sense of what was going on, what other people were doing. And I just really got sick of this big, “My riffs are changing the world” kind of thing, which I feel like we were maybe guilty of a bit as well in White Tomb. Obviously I love epic-sounding music, I’ve made a lot of it, but there’s just a real sweet spot, for me, and once it crosses that sweet spot it just becomes…. It's the difference between a Hans Zimmer track and an Arvo Pärt track. It's very subtle, but it's there, and it's the difference between McDonald's and artisan food. And that I think that’s what I was starting to reject, already by Mammal, this kind of faux epic, and I think that's where that carelessness maybe comes.
But that’s interesting because…. Say this was 1984 or ‘82 and I had interviewed you and you were, say, fuck it, maybe Bernard Sumner and I'd be like: “Why are you not a punk band?” And so one of the arguments, one of the post punk arguments was, I guess, I mean, I don't I don't remember ever hearing anyone articulate it, but it to me it always sounded like: there was a certain kind of naïveté and ambition to punk that expressed itself in how punk was made. And maybe at a certain point there was a kind of arms race to who was more punk, who was the most extreme and anti social and all that. And it seems to me like at some point post punk came along and said: “You know what, this is not my thing anymore. I think I'd rather relax, take a step back instead of another step forward. And I think I'd like to talk about myself, as opposed to why, you know, the world is crashing, and everyone's corrupted.” And so what you're describing to me sounds kind of like that.
I feel that way. I think some of the best music or some of the music that becomes unintentionally progressive, or creates a bit of forward momentum, is kind of reacting to…reacting to whatever. It could be reacting to political circumstances, but very often it's reacting also to the music scenes that it's coming from. And I do feel like White Tomb, like I said, is us wearing our influences on our sleeves, it’s a sound that was kind of was definitely brewing at the time, and that’s us saying: “This is our contribution to that.” Whereas Mammal is more of a kickback, and it's the first time that we’re making more of a move toward rejecting that stuff.
I assume you're aware of the fact that specifically Mammal but also Teethed are, amongst the maybe boring generic categories that are thrust upon every band, Altar of Plagues but one example, “black metal” is hurled your way, but also what's known now as “post black” and “post metal.” And the reason why I assume that you are aware of this is because you did a split with Year of No Light, who are pretty much down the middle of post metal of the, say, early teens. And so I was a fan of the music at the time, and began listening to Altar of Plagues because of that association.
And a lot of these bands that end up in that pile all arrive there for different reasons. Like you know, some of them are hardcore bands, like maybe Neurosis or ISIS, that are working maybe unconsciously to deconstruct the kind of simple song structure as a kind of experiment with dynamics, if you will. I just I just spoke to to Johannes [Persson] from Cult of Luna, and that's pretty much his experience. And some of them are reacting to something quite different, and don't think of themselves as a part of a global movement to deconstruct metal, or some shit like that, they’re just react to what’s in front of them, which is I guess your case. But so my question is: once you did kick back, did you suddenly find yourself in a whole other scene that you never thought you would be part of?
Not as such. I don't feel like Altar of Plagues had this night-and-day moment where suddenly it went from one thing to another. We always remained within like a certain type of metal scene. But what did happen that I was glad of was in the beginning, through our experiences playing with more traditional black metal bands, became conscious of the shows we would do or the people we would potentially align ourselves with and just make a concerted effort to migrate more towards a place where I felt more comfortable.
This making yourself feel more comfortable, did it involve making people uncomfortable? Like some people uncomfortable? Like distancing a certain audience as well?
I don't think so. I've always tried to keep the door open for everybody as long as they're cool and have no bad agenda or whatever. I'm totally down if hardcore bestial death metal fans want to come to the show, I'm totally down with that, as long as there’s no weird agenda coming in the door with them. Also there was being on a lineup of bands who you just can't relate to a single one of them.
Can’t relate to them personally or can’t relate to them musically?
I feel like a little bit of both. Because, to call a spade a spade, I think in extreme metal a lot of the personalities in very extreme bands, their demeanor reflects the band. We met individuals who were as aggressive as the music they played. Violent, drunk dudes smashing up backstages. I just felt very uncomfortable in those kind of environments. And I felt very uncomfortable because at the time I looked about as normie as it gets, not by any effort of my own, It was just who I genuinely was. I was in college studying science. I didn't have anything remotely metal-looking about me."
So, unintentionally normcore.
Exactly. Unintentionally normcore [laughs]. I hope that doesn’t become the soundbite. We would play the shows, at first, and I would be selling the merch and I would say that I was in the band, and they would say: “No, you’re not in Altars of Plague!” and I said “I am, actually.”
It's funny because this was all also…. It has been ten years since White Tomb and it really has been a pivotal time in that I always sensed back then, I strongly felt that there was a space that could be bridged and an audience that wanted that. I knew that I had friends who were into this shit but wouldn't go to the shows because the crowd was too weird or intense for them. They felt alienated and I just knew there had to be someone who was finally going to draw the line between…. Like, I feel like there was a big divide between say Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, an array of rock bands that could lean a little into metal and a little into indy or whatever, and then you just had the metal world. And I felt like there could be a bridge better built between those two. And there could be shows that cater to a little bit of both. And I really sensed that was coming. And I feel like we really stove to do that. And I became more confident in us saying “No” to shows that didn't feel right, or making a concerted effort to try to tour with bands that we felt like we could do that with. And Deafheaven became the example of the band that really went mainstream with it, so to speak, and they, in a way, are the ones who became the poster for like being the metalhead with short hair, things like this.
But do you think that Deafheaven were able to do it because they were American? Do you think it was more difficult for you, coming from a European scene, to do that?
I think that one of the things that honestly may have held Altar of Plagues back a little was that I just simply think the name “Altar of Plagues” means metal. And that, to me, just cornered us a little more than might have otherwise been.
I like that Deafheaven is a name that, if you looked at it objectively, it could be anything.
They had that working for them, yeah. But it's interesting because Altar of Plagues ended the same time Deafheaven exploded.
Yeah, I love those guys they’re very, very dear friends now and I would have first met them just before they did Sunbather. And it was cool to meet them because I had heard all about them, and so I met them and told them I was all about their album Roads to Judah and they were like: “This is crazy! We were so into White Tomb when it came out!” And then I remember when Teethed came out, they were telling me how much they were into it and stuff. And likewise, I was really into Sunbather. But, we probably came from very similar influences and with very similar kind of approach in mind. And I just think we kind of shot in different directions with it.
So, I wanted to just kind of ask a few more of more technical questions. One of them is about time, which I promised we would get to, and one of the things that I think Mammal seems to be explicit about, and I guess it's one of the things that has become a hallmark of the group of bands that have been given the name, post-whatever is this idea of playing with time, or playing with suspense, or being explicit about dynamics, right? This is the heavy part, this is the quiet part that hints at the heavy part that’s coming, right? It's much less condensed and it gives you time to think about the fact that you're waiting for something to happen, right? Or that something is happening very fiercely. But then when you're in Teethed that almost goes away, because the songs are much shorter, and the statements are much more, I guess, explicit, to an extent. But when you're looking back now, at Mammal does that feel like, I know you said that part of what you were trying to do is distance yourself from other bands and other sounds, but do you see now looking back a kind of theme of playing with time or being interested in dynamics?
Ironically, even though we utilized that linear quiet to loud technique, I love unpredictability and I love getting a left turn when I was expecting a right, you know? And I usually can't get into something where I can anticipate what the next note is going to be, like I can anticipate on what bar the next change is going to happen. But I think there's something so satisfying about the interplay between very quiet and very loud. It's been done so much and it has mass appeal, Nirvana being the biggest example. It's obviously a very popular technique. And that just exploded within metal, and it continues to be used. So that was a part of what Mammal began to reject somewhat, and which Teethed fully rejected. For me, I think the first band to introduce that sound to me was ISIS. And then it's funny how you can trace the lineage of these things. I remember people coming up to me after White Tomb saying: “Oh, there are elements of ISIS in here,” and they would have certainly been an inspiration at the time, but once you get into them, and you work your way backwards, and then you're like: “Well, who's this Mogwai band?” And then you go backwards again and then that splinters off into something like The Cure on one hand, and then something like My Bloody Valentine on the other. And you're kind of working your way backwards, so you end up actually, via ISIS, absorbing Mogwai who've absorbed The Cure, and so on. I just feel like that sound was maybe exhausted to a point and I also felt we had explored that template enough. If Mammal is the stopgap between fully embracing the, let's just call it ,the post rock paradigm and Teethed being a total rejection of that, then Mammal lands somewhere in the middle…. It was the natural bridge between those two. Even though I'm articulating some of the idea behind it, it's easy for me in hindsight to say how I was feeling but in actuality I wasn't waking up in the morning saying: “I reject post rock,” it was just something that was beginning to course through my subconscious and filter into the music.
I agree completely. I don't think that I think, in general, that people engaged in art are engaged in a conscious effort to do anything. They're engaged in a kind of a long term experiment. But I think that even if you take a band, like ISIS, for example – they don't sound the same on all their albums. There isn't a moment where someone in ISIS says: “Yes, we just wrote the perfect ISIS album, let's stop there,” because the process is internal, right? It begins with maybe you having inspiration as a younger person, and trying to kind of express that inspiration or do something with it, which may have been White Tomb for you. But then you kind of do that. And you get a good look at it, which is a recurring theme, I think, with a lot of artists who do things over time, that you get to look and contemplate your own art and say: “Yeah, that's not interesting to me anymore, and so there are elements of it that I like, that I may use now and develop, but there's a lot of this that I don't need anymore for me, personally. And then that becomes Mammal. And then you do Mammal and you look at Mammal like: “Yeah, this is not me anymore. I'm not interested in this let's find something in this and make this into my next thing.” And so things don't progress according to how you read what you read on allmusic.com, which used to be the big website for music for me when I was a teenager, it progresses because you feel things that you're attracted to certain things and you reject others, I guess.
it's actually interesting for me to have this conversation because I've never been able to discuss something I did with such hindsight. If I read one of the post-Mammal interviews today I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have said anything I'm saying to you, those ideas hadn't actually developed beyond my subconscious at that point. You know, sometimes interviews become redundant in a way when they’re that soon after the record, because you haven't even had time to have perspective on it. You can talk about “Oh yeah, we recorded it here, and this is where we wrote it, and this is how we wrote it,” but I haven’t yet absorbed the real drivers behind it all. It takes a very long time to do that.
So, I guess that leads me to my next question, and I’ll use a person I've interviewed for this series as a kind of a lever into that question. And that person is Kristoffer Rygg of Ulver, who is, I think, the most notoriously shape-shifting person in the scene, who is still somehow, to his own frustration, considered part of the scene, even though he's making 80s pop at this point. And one of the things that came up in my discussion with him is this idea of retrospect, that his beginning is somewhere beyond the mist of making black metal. And then it turned into a fascination with, I guess you would call now post rock, which then became a fascination with drone, which now at this point is, you know, a pop sensibility type of thing, which I personally think is his best work, but that's just me. And, and so, when you look at your career, and you add Altar of Plagues, so everything that you've done post Altar of Plagues, including Wife and Bliss Signal. So I guess my question is this: Kristoffer Rygg kept the name Ulver throughout the band’s history. The band was never the same after about four years, and yet it was still called that, and I think that may be part of his trouble, in trying to shake the metal image. So, we've reached that point of your story where you're in Teethed and you're rejecting the post rock paradigm, but you are also during Altar of Plagues, doing Wife and then continuing it a bit after Altar of Plagues, and you’re into a different entity altogether. And so that begs the question, why couldn't Altar of Plagues been an electronic experimental project?
I mean, just for me it simply couldn’t have been. And I don't know what inspired Kristoffer to carry on this path, it might have been stubbornness, it might have seemed like it made sense, or maybe he just didn't give a fuck one way or another. I just was like: “I have to draw a very clear line in the sand here.” And I know some of it will come with me, but I'm drawing a line that's distinct enough that there will be a lot of people who won't. And that's okay too, because I'm not looking to do something that's going to appeal to Altar of Plagues fans. I'm just trying to explore something that's really, really…. I mean, yeah, we can talk about lines you can draw between Altar of Plagues and Wife, that's obviously just the type of sound I like as a songwriter. But yeah, in terms of just the entire thing. It was just really drawing a distinct line in the sand between them, you know? And, as I mentioned, I also had issues with the name Altar of Plagues and it being quite upfront about the vibe. Yeah. I think Ulver is a more abstract word in a way, so it could lend itself to some other stuff. I felt like Altar of Plagues lends itself quite well to one very particular thing.
And in addition to that you also have tedious complications like record contract commitments and stuff, and it wouldn’t have made sense for me to do an electronic record via a black metal label and that type of thing. But, honestly, for me, it really was just making a mental and creative distinction, I needed that distinction for myself to really just remove it all from the world of Altar of Plagues and try to come at it from a fresh approach.
I assume some of the people reading this interview will be people in bands today, because there are so many of them anyway, who would be thinking: “What the fuck is James Kelly thinking to himself?! He had a band with a following, that's what everyone wants. He has an ongoing contract with a reputable label, that's what everyone wants. He was a working musician, and he kind of ended it for himself.” So why would you make that decision? I mean, obviously, you had your reasons to make that decision. But what was it the most kind of tiresome, what was it that you were the most tired of or couldn't wait to get away from, that really led you to want to draw that line?
To be very candid about it, and it won't even be the most romantic answer, or the one with the greatest amount of mystery to it, just simply in terms of life and the amount of time you have, touring is so time intensive. It's not financially rewarding. Making the records is so time intensive. It is not financially rewarding. No surprise, but being in a black metal band doesn’t pay. And I didn't stop it so I could get paid elsewhere, I stopped it because I was at a point in my life where I was working my ass off like 60 hours a week as a waiter, then I quit the job to go on tour, came back, tried to find a new job, work, work, work until I got a little money that I can afford another month of the tour. And then what happened in that time was, I had so many other musical ideas, but I couldn't get them out because Altar of Plagues was taking up the little time I had outside of the necessity of paying my rent and paying my living. It just got to a point where I was like, I'm dying to explore this other stuff, and I feel really, really satisfied and grateful and fulfilled with what the band has done. And I just said: “Am I going to just dive in headfirst and do this or am I going to lose a lot more time doing something that I already feel fulfilled and satisfied with?” So I think that's kind of just where it was, honestly. And I have to tell you, I kind of didn't see another Altar of Plagues record. It really just felt that was it. Teethed happened and I didn't mill over it for too long. It was just a realization and it felt comfortable, felt like this was the right thing and this is what I want to do and I feel okay about it.
You can't let any of that stuff play into your mind, that you have a record deal or anything. It is totally fair to think we were giving up a good thing. Teethed was our most critically acclaimed record, and it was the divisive one, for better or for worse. For all the people who said that they're not into this band anymore, it opened us up to an even bigger audience. But we never had a manager, we never had a real booking agent. I didn't have a clue how professional bands operated. Some bands do well because they have a good team, whether it's the label or somebody else, of people involved helping them to, or maybe even the band themselves, but good at orchestrating it all and saying: “Right, we need to hit the ground running with a tour once the record drops” and these kind of things. I didn't do any of that or really get any of that at the time, and we missed all these opportunities. And, you know, hindsight is great and a lot of people picked up on us after, but in that moment, when it ended, it didn't feel to me like I was leaving something massive behind me. Afterwards, it felt like that because that's when people started to come around. To this day I get asked about the band, and it doesn't bother me one bit, I think it's super cool. I did a tour in Japan recently with a different project, and people asked me about Altar of Plagues, and I’m cool with that. I'm glad people are into it and still connect with it. I'm really excited the music has actually lasted for a while, because you know how many records come out every year that you're into it for two weeks, and then you never even come back around to it again.
But, honestly it was just instinct and it felt right. I might have recited a couple of reasons there, but I'm sure there were a million other little things that factored into it. And I changed as a person to you know, I started the band when I was, I would say 17, 18 years old. And it started out as me demoing in my dad's office space, he let me set up my drums upstairs. I would demo it with one microphone, recording all the instruments up there. And then it grew into what it did. But, by the time it ended I was a grown man and I felt very differently about things and I had a different outlook on the world and I had a different type of energy about me. I think Teethed just finally exercised all of that. Anyway, if I were to approach Altar of Plagues today, it would definitely be so different as well, because I'm just a different person.
The world today, the music industry, whatever the fuck you want to call it, has changed dramatically in those 10 years. Had you started Altar of Plagues today, knowing what you know about touring, about the process, would you just make a solo project where you record everything and you put it up on Bandcamp and don't even tour?
The touring. I mean, I love touring and I still love performing live in whatever capacity, but it was just more case of it being very time intensive and, as a result, cost intensive. Most people who've been in bands for a few years will agree that there comes a certain point where going away for six weeks sleeping on couches, then coming home to be jobless and have to scramble to find a job – you have a drive to do that for a while, but it becomes unsustainable. So I just think if I were to do it today, I would have a smarter approach to touring or that I would be a bit more selective about say playing to thirteen people in a random French town or whatever. I don't want people to read that and take it the wrong way. I think a DIY ethic is very important and helpful, but I've also performed in front of enough 10 people or less crowds to also be very pragmatic about it now, and just simply value my time and energy enough to be able to decide: “Right, this is the type of thing I think is worthwhile, and this is the type of thing that I think isn't."
I always enjoy, and when I say “always,” it makes it sound very impersonal, but that's not the intent. But I always enjoy when the musicians I interview and it's always a very small group, because it's only the, you know, the ones I like, when they tell me how much they enjoy the benefits of retrospect. Like what you just said, or sometimes people say, you know, it's been so long since they've thought of that album that the conversation makes them realize something about that time in their lives. And I always like that. I'm very I'm very proud of those moments.
I feel like a lot of how I feel about Mammal I have not articulated until today, so I definitely enjoyed that.
I appreciate that. But what I meant to say is that I think you unintentionally gave me one of those myself, to me [laughs]. Because I really didn't realize up until this very second why it was that people agreed to talk to me about these albums that were recorded so long ago, and I think that at least some of it is that, on your end, being a musician, interviews are a promo activity. So people are super interested in you when you put out a new album. All you do is talk about that new album, which, to your point, you have yet to process anything about, you just made it so you don't have that much to say about it. Then that's it and once that albums out for a while, you don't give as many interviews and people don't care about the album anymore. And here I come, and I'm like the opposite of the promo process because I want to talk to you about albums that you've done in the past. And so now I think I understand why it is that people, and you specifically, are having these these moments, it’s because that's not the way it usually happens, I guess the timing of it
Yeah, I mean I can sit down today and account for the ways that album has played into my life, whether it's memories I have or even friendships I have today as a result of some doors that album opened. So, you kind of live and breathe it forever after it becomes a part of your life, but in that sudden moment right after it's executed it hasn't found its way into the world and back into your life yet.
Which is a conclusion I might need to reach about this crazy maniacal project that I've engaged myself in, to remind myself that this is for the future, not for the present.
You do what you do to make you happy. And even coming back to my point about why I finished [Altar of Plagues],I think someone can look at that and go: “Oh my god, he was in a band, and he left the band, it was a good band and a band that was doing well.” It doesn't matter what it is, if you’re standing in a coffee shop making coffees or if you're an accountant, or if you're in a band that's really, really big. You trust your gut and go: “Am I Happy? No. Then I need to change this.” Not to say that I wasn't happy, but I just wasn't happy about the idea of that being the way I spent all my time forevermore. “Is there something else I'd rather be doing? Yes. So I'm just going to go into that.”
Granted, the wording “split up” is very dramatic. In hindsight, I could have said “hiatus” and it would have felt less permanent, even if I knew it might never happen again. But that was also an aspect of me saying wanting to draw that line in the sand.
One of one of my all-time favorite band has been on hiatus for the last 17 years, so I think I get the point.
Okay, so here's the official last question. Except for one question I didn’t get to, but, never mind. I'm trying to keep it very tidy, and it’s very unlike me to do something so tidy. And so my last question would be, um, so when you think of Mammal knowing that it may have been kind of like a transitional period for you, personally and musically, what is kind of a warm memory or something that you're proud of? When you think about that album, something that you kind of kind of kept with you?
There are a few aspects about that record we haven’t really touched on and that are coming to mind as I wander back in time to the record.
Go for it!
And the first thing about that album is that the recording of it landed at a kind of weird and actually a very transitional moment in my life, as I was literally moving away…. I had lived in my parents home where I grew up and where I spent my entire life, and I was moving to London to begin University. So I had just been in London, trying to move all my stuff and trying to find an apartment. Also Mammal really was one of these ones where we went: “Let's book the studio dates, and whatever we rock up what we rock up with." It wasn't written, it wasn't even fully conceived going in. And I remember I was so stressed and putting so much energy into this move, that I neglected Mammal. And then I had to go through this feverish rush to get it done. And then as a result of the strain I was under, I became very, very ill, and I was literally fever-ridden in the studio, like out-of-my-mind sick. So, in that regard, I don't have a fond memory of the studio. I was so extremely ill I couldn't even sit through…. In the studio it was just me and Johnny the drummer, and the engineer. And I was so ill I couldn't even sit in on his drum recording, I was delirious seeing ghosts in bed.
Could that feed into what we discussed earlier about the so-called apathetic riffing? Because, you know, maybe you weren't all the way there in the physical sense?
Yeah for sure. I think it all is definitely a part of it, down to every detail terms of how even when I listened back…. I mean, now especially I do a lot of more music work and my ears are far more tuned and conscious of mixes, for better for worse. Because, if I was to go back and remix those albums with the ear I have now they’d also sound totally different. So that's why the naivety or the underdeveloped aspect of things can really be a good thing. Also, the keening I feel really good about. The keening is the Irish vocals you can hear on "When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean".Yeah. The keening I feel really good about, the keening is the Irish vocals you can hear. We got them as a result of Johnny, the drummer, who was new in the band. I have already talked to him about the vague concept of the record, just basically being the “death” record, basically being a funeral. And then he started talking to me about these funeral performances called keening, in traditional Ireland, where the bereaved wife or mother would…they gather around the body or the grave and perform it, it's an improvised performance, and you hear it on the record and it's really powerful. I feel like in a way, at the time, I don’t want to say I mishandled them but I really just didn't even give…. Not that I didn't give them great consideration, but today I would almost respect them too much to sour them by framing them within my own music. But they were really special, and they came in really at the last minute, and they added something really special to the record.
When I said that I forgot to ask a question, that was a question I forgot to ask. The reason why I found the keening very interesting is because, I mean, the way you described it, how it happened right through Johnny, who thought maybe it would be a good idea to bring in the keening that that's a kind of very mechanical description, I guess, of how it came to be. In my mind, it had a very interesting conceptual importance. Because in my mind, if you're performing an album the way that album is performed, which is at least partially, you know, nihilistic apathetic, to some extent ambiguous, and so this vocal performance is strange, not only because it's different than the music, but because it is a traditional reaction to death, not nihilistic in that it is devoid of any kind of metaphysical attempt to grasp death or to deal with death. Because the rest of the album surrounding that moment is not a metaphysical attempt to deal with death, it’s saying there is no metaphysics, that we're only body and then we rot into the ground. And here comes this older woman, at least it sounds like an older woman. who is singing a song that seems to project: “There is a limit to how nihilistic you can get, when you think about death. There, you will always have to lean partially on something like tradition or metaphysics.” That's how I read it.
I feel like, as well, that as it arrives at “All Life Converges to Some Center [the album’s closing track that follows the keening] I feel like that is where the, the anger has calmed a little, and I feel like there's a bit more grief in that track, and in the lyrics I refer to specific people. And actually this album, lyrically, I was personally invested in it, whereas White Tomb is more in keeping with the black metal tradition of longing for the forest. Mammal was more engaged with something very literal and personal and inevitable, and I think that may have filtered into it by the end. By “All Life Converges to Some Center” I just feel like it’s thawed and has given way to a kind of sadness and grief.
So maybe that's part of the appeal of that album for me, maybe in some weird antenna I felt the arc of the album as two songs of “We are nothing but bones,” and then a wall of grief, which is the woman keening, and then the kind of acceptance stage, I guess, or something like: “Okay, maybe we are bones and rot, but it's still kind of sad, which is where “All Life Converges to Some Center” is.
I mean, it comes through on the vocal performance because of the way which we recorded them, which was one take. I went into the room and just one straight shot through the album. And I was very committed to keeping the takes no matter the outcome, so I got absolutely in the headspace of the album, hit record and that's it – 50 minutes of my life in the year 2010, whenever it was we did this, and the recording immortalized it.
I just wanted to add as a tidbit that – “keening” is the word?
So, the word for grieving in Hebrew is keena. Actually, it’s not for grieving, it's specifically the sometimes theatrical, crying and singing at the funeral.
Oh. There must be a connection because quite interestingly in the Irish language the word for Jesus is “Iosa” and its almost identical in Arabic, so there’s some linguistic migration happening there.
Yeah, I mean, this is completely not related to what we're talking about. But my day job is that I teach English literature. And one of the interesting wormholes I found myself going down was that there was an entire cultural strain of Irish culture that believed that the Irish originated in the in Semitic tribes in the Mediterranean basin. And there was also so there's articles about how Irish is very freakishly close certain languages, such as Hebrew, and articles about how Irish music is related to Arabic music. Um, but there's also a kind of mythology, according to which Ireland was founded by Phoenicians who came from Carthage. And so because the Phoenicians were a trading nation, I guess you could say, that originated in what is today Lebanon more or less, and they invented the alphabet. But, yeah, this is me meandering again.
Yeah, we have a fascinating history. I mean, I have a pile of books that I had every intention of eventually getting around to tracing back some of them. Just some of the Irish genealogy and our history, like our deep, deep history.
That’ll be the topic of our next interview!