Pillars of the 90s: An Interview with Beherit about Drawing Down the Moon
[This is the Fifth installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]
Album: Drawing Down the Moon
Label: Spinefarm Records
Favorite Song: "Salomon's Gate"
The Bare Bones: Drawing Down the Moon is the debut full-length album from shapeshifting Finnish black metal outfit Beherit, formed in Rovaniemi in 1989.
The Beating Heart: Drawing Down the Moon, not unlike many other masterpieces of music and art in general, is like an object suspended in air that somehow manages to connect with a clear past, authentically represent a present, all while projecting itself into the future. From its past Beherit channel the bestial influences of bands such as Blasphemy and Sarcófago, annihilatory music that is almost inhuman in its aggression. In its present Drawing Down the Moon spellbindingly exhibits everything that was different, strange, and contrarian about the early 90s black metal scene, presenting a band confident in its own originality entirely on its own terms. And as far as the future, well, Drawing Down the Moon, as I have stated regarding other singular works of musical art, is from the future. Bringing together that pagan aggressiveness, a boundless curiosity and willingness to experiment, and a keen ear for atmosphere and dynamics Beherit were able to fashion an album that still sounds as haunting, as strange, and as terrifying as it did 27 years ago.
All of which are, of course, serves as only a partial explanation for my choice to include Drawing Down the Moon to this ongoing interview project via a conversation with Beherit mastermind Marko "Nuclear Holocausto Vengeance" Laiho about that incredible album and also some choice words regarding an upcoming Beherit release, the first full length from the band in eleven long years.
Before that, however, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.
So, now that that's out of the way, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTube, Spotify and all that). On to my conversation with the great Vicotnik. And on to my interview with Marko. Enjoy.
Is there a moment you had, perhaps as a younger person, that changed the way you thought of music or that felt dark or scary? I realize there are many moments like these but any one that comes to mind?
My father used to listen to Elvis records a lot so that was my first music, but my first vinyl was by the Finnish band Hanoi Rocks from the 80s. There was some sinister sound, it was Self Destruction Blues. I was very young when it came out and I was in my grandmother’s home, alone in the room and listening to the record player. That was the first record I bought with my own money and my first brush with that kind of music. Later they influenced bands like Guns N’ Roses. But somehow in the same room, perhaps one or two years later, I was listening to Metallica. There were more hypotonic elements to it and it was more metal. Hanoi Rocks was more rock n’ roll, Metallica was probably my first metal band. It was at the same time as things like Iron Maiden or Gary Moore and stuff like that.
Do you remember which Metallica it was?
Probably Ride the Lightning, I’m not sure. But the first band where I felt the danger was a Slayer live show doing Hell Awaits. I had some friends who were maybe a couple years later who were into Slayer and the first time I saw them on video I was like: “Whoa! What is this?” People were stage diving. And they told me that at every show one person dies at least [laughs]. That feeling of danger, that was from Slayer.
Do you remember why you liked Hanoi Rocks? And was all this happening in your grandmother’s house?
[Laughs] They looked cool, a glam-rock band [laughs] with long hair and make up and that interested me. And our family spent almost every summer there. I think that was around Christmas time. On that Hanoi Rocks there was a song called "Dead By X-Mas" and I was just learning English and heard “I’ll be dead by Christmas” [laughs], it was cool. So yeah, we spent a lot of time there, a very small town near the Russian border. It’s now empty because everyone moved from the countryside to the city.
I asked that because I have a memory of being very young, maybe 10, and seeing Alice Cooper’s “Poison” video and then my grandmother came in the room and watched the TV with her and I just remember being horrified that she was there experiencing it with me. So I guess I was wondering whether the fact you were at your grandmother’s house enhanced the effect, that you were listening to something “wrong.” Or was it just the place where you listen to music?
No, no, definitely. I don’t come from a very cultured family, they don’t have that background. I was listening to that record all week. But those were the first moments where I felt that music, that there was some magic there. Before that it was children’s songs or the radio, but those were the first moments where I felt that there was something behind it. After that I started to collect records, living with my parents. I was still living with my parents in my old room even when we started doing Beherit, and so I was making all that noise in my room, but they were fine with it. They were very kind. Maybe they saw how passionate I was about it. When I was younger I played a lot of sports – football, skiing, ice hockey – but then my dad bought me an electric guitar and an amplifier and then it was no more sports [laughs].
[Laughs] That’s amazing, that he bought that for you.
Yeah, yeah. It was incredible.
I liked how you described feeling magic for the first time, that you found what attracted you. But that was Marko when he was young. Now you’ve been a musician for quite some time, and doing different kinds of music. Do you feel like there’s something to that magic that you’re still interested in or that you’ve tried to recreate in your music throughout the years? Perhaps something you thought was mysterious or scary or aggressive that you then tried to do with your own music?
Yes. In the beginning I had friends who already had bands, at that time it was speed and thrash metal. And I was going to their gunsrehearsal rooms just to hang out. And then at some point when I was getting deeper into death metal, bands like Possessed, Kreator, still big names, but I was starting to think about starting my own band. Those were the tape-trading days, and it was the same time that…. I don’t remember which of those bands came first, but it was 1988, two years before I went to the same school with Demonos Sova of Barathrum. I had a school band, it was probably more noise than music. And then at some point I got to listen to more underground music like Samael and of course the Brazilian Cogumelo Records bands like Sarcofago, Vulcano, Chakal and stuff like that. It was something that no one had ever heard or saw before, it was so brutal, with the face masks and the spikes. It was something that made us want to make the most brutal band in the world. That was when we started the band.
Of course at first it was learning how to have your own band, how to arrange rehearsals and how to start writing your own songs instead of playing cover songs. But then when we changed our names to Beherit that became our main focus, to be the most brutal band on earth. Later on that changed because we got old [laughs].
At some point you just realize that when you’re younger it’s 24/7 being the brutal guy, the evil occultist, it was just that. Later people get families, they go to work at the office. I’m not saying it’s impossible but it becomes very hard to be so fucking brutal like you were when you were young.
I would imagine. It’s just that I often debate with myself when I look back at the black metal of the early 90s whether or not bands like Beherit or Darkthrone or any band that was interested in a kind of primitiveness, in things being brutal but also very raw, so I always wonder if that’s an intellectual decision or a decision to not be intellectual.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s simple, because we didn’t have any real musical background. We had no idea how to write notes or anything, it was just listening to bands you love and copy it or try to make it even faster or more brutal. We didn’t even know the basics of how to write music, it was all about making songs that sounded brutal and evil. That’s how we started, and I think that hasn’t really changed that much [laughs] – we are still quite poor in how technical we are with our instruments.
I recently interviewed Vicotnik for this series and I asked him about getting into black metal as a kid, as you did, and he said that some of the appeal was that you felt like you could do it. It wasn’t music that was out of reach, you felt like the bands that you liked, you could still try and do what they were doing even if you didn’t know scales or whatever. Was that the case for you? Was some of the appeal those bands had, other than the fact that they were brutal, was that it felt doable?
Yeah, of course. We shared our first rehearsal room with punks and we shared our equipment with punk bands. I remember [laughs] that our principle was that we didn’t even want to learn how to play those instruments if we can use the distortion and if our drummer can play fucking fast, that was enough. And the vocals, those became just another instrument. It was just natural, just how punk rock started – you could make great stuff even if you didn’t know how to play your instruments [laughs].
OK, so I’ll ask the question now that I wanted to ask later, because that’s just how it goes. So, a lot of the bands I personally find interesting, they start off in a certain scene, maybe one that’s easy to get into musically like punk or black metal, but then they find that they want to develop differently as musicians and they feel something of a pushback from that same scene. That at first it’s “there are no rules,” and then at some point rules just start appearing. So I guess I wanted to ask whether you felt that either with Drawing Down the Moon or later with Beherit’s electronic albums?
So, that time was the internet era but it was before the world wide web and so all the news or reactions they came weeks or months after the fact. But Drawing Down the Moon…. At the time we were all very disappointed that Turbo Music released our first demo tape and then album because Drawing Down the Moon was really the sound we wanted for Beherit. But after that album I moved to Helsinki and started to work at the Spinefarm record store and then I just realized that I didn’t want to be a rock star, that I didn’t want to be that guy on a stage that was touring the world. At some point between the beginning and Drawing Down the Moon and a bit after that that I realized that that wasn’t me. So, maybe it was just the natural way to distance myself from that, along with the label starting to ask about a new album because they were starting to see that very slowly there was more and more demand for Drawing Down the Moon and they were doing represses and people became more interested. And I said “Sure, no problem you can book the studio for me!” It was one, two weeks later and we already had the album [H418ov21.C], and I was like: “Fuck, so this is how you make music!” Electric Doom Synthesis came out about two years later because when I was recording H418ov21.C I really knew nothing about how to make music like that. I had heard some bands, and made some sounds, and I still had my voice, so that was already a lot. Electric Doom Synthesis was already better that way. But those were already the times of the Norwegian black metal “mafia” and the church burnings and things like that and so I was already out of the black metal scene, working at a record store and being in charge of the techno and industrial stuff. It was just the way it naturally developed.
That seems like quite a sharp shift, not just in terms of the music but also maybe in terms of your goals. Like, five minutes ago you were they guy who wanted to make the most brutal music on earth and then it was: “Ah, maybe I don’t.”
Yeah. I think maybe it started with us wanting to be being the most brutal band in the world with The Oath of Black Blood and stuff like that, but already with Drawing Down the Moon the band was changing into something more mindful. I started to think about sound structures and atmosphere more than before. You’re totally right that the album after that was very different, but there’s still the ritualistic element to it. It was also that at that time I didn’t have a band because I had just moved to a new city and didn’t really know anyone and so maybe all of this would have gone in a different or even “normal” way if I had stayed in the city with the rest of the band.
So, about Drawing Down the Moon – it’s such a strange album. It feels like…. Do you like watching cooking shows? Like reality cooking shows and stuff?
[Laughs] You mean like Master Chef?
Do you like those?
So, sometimes on those shows they have something called “a deconstructed dish,” where they take a traditional or popular dish, take it apart and present it in this fragmented, new way. So, Drawing Down the Moon feels like deconstructed black metal.
Because it feels like a lot of the parts are separate and then put back together. It’s in the mix, in how the production sounds…. It’s almost the kind of atmosphere you would expect on an industrial album, like a Ministry album or a Skinny Puppy album, where all the elements are very distinct. Unusually in black metal and in rock generally there’s this effort to make the band sound like one cohesive thing, and Drawing Down the Moon feels like five things happening at the same time and each of them exists in a separate space. Does any of this make sense to you?
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely yes. There are a few reasons for how it sounds. It’s very much how I wanted it to sound. When we were listening to the mix for the first time, we were driving back from the studio. The bassist and drummer [Santtu “Black Jesus” Siippainen and Pekka “Necroperverser” Virkanen] were sitting in front of me and they stopped the car [laughs] in the middle of the road and went: “No, Marko this sounds wrong” and so on, I don’t remember who adjectives they used. “The kick drum is so weird, it can’t stay like this.” And I just thought “It sounds so perfect!” It just sounded different than anyone else back then and that difference means something. So, I was very very happy with that. But, like you said, there are very interesting elements. For instance I played my guitar with my BOSS Heavy Metal-2 pedal and a Marshall but the cabinet was from a bass guitar cabinet and that made it sound weird. And the drum mixing – our drummer was sick one day so I recorded the drums with my bassist [laughs] So there are a lot of mistakes.
The guys in the studio were very professional, they had worked with Tarot, they had Marko Hietala from Nightwish. He came one day into the studio and went: “What is that? What is that sound?” They didn’t have any control over the sound that we wanted, and that was still a possibility in the 90s. Now that would be very hard to do, because all the studios are digitized and they can correct all the mistakes easily and if they don’t know how that band would like to sound it’s easy to fix or to compare it with their other songs on Spotify and to EQ everything to make it sound correct. And in the 90s you still had the freedom to make anything and you didn’t have to care about how it should sound.
What was it about the mix that you liked, seeing that the rest of the band didn’t really like it? That it was different? I can tell you what I like about it: That because it’s so separated out, that the voice is so dominant over the guitar, in a way the voice, bass, and drums are the stars of the album. It creates a very interesting atmosphere, like two bands are playing at the same time.
Was that separation something you were looking for?
Yeah. That was the time of Bathory’s Hammerheart, and if you listen to that maybe you can hear some of where that came from. The Bathory production, it was a very unique album, but there was that sense of elements that are a little bit unbalanced. And at that time I was also listening to Bathory’s early Viking era, after Blood Fire Death, and I think that was a big influence in terms of sound. Also Entombed, but Entombed, Left Hand Path, that was recorded in Sunlight Studios in Stockholm in a very professional way, but we just picked out elements. Have you heard Engram?
I have, I love Engram.
So there are some of the same elements there, but with 16 more experience. I wanted to have that same thing, but the guys in the studio, they started to fix everything because they had ProTools. So every morning I would come to the studios and they already fixed everything, all those little mistakes that used to make all those albums in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They were not perfectly balanced, there’s always some snare hit, some mistake. So, I’m happy with Engram but it’s perhaps too “clean.”
You can definitely see the relationship between those two albums, but I guess Engram does feel more cohesive, the songs sound “fuller,” if that makes sense. There isn’t that strange space between everything as there is in Drawing Down the Moon.
Yeah. The Engram demo versions were very primitive, naturally, because I recorded them in my home studio, and they had a very early Beherit kind of sound. But then so much changed when we got to the real studio I have a problem mastering it since it sounded too commercial. I had lived with the demo versions for a year and then things changed so much that I said: “This is not what I wanted when I was writing these songs,” but I had to live with it.
It seems that you place a lot of value on mistakes. You spoke of the kind of mistakes you make when you’re a young musician who doesn't know how to play the instrument or write songs, and the mistakes that kind of naturally happen in the studio, and that if you correct them then something bad happens to the album. So, how do you ensure mistakes? How do you create an atmosphere that allows you to make mistakes?
With my new album I can have an idea, it can take days or it can take weeks, it might be a sound or presence. But when I come to record I try to get in the first or second try, five times at most, because that way I can make something that’s imperfect. That way there’s more feeling than there is technique or quantizing. That’s what I still try to do. It was there in the early Beherit, we could only do very fast studio sessions. The first recordings were one or two days. The longest time we have ever been in a studio was with Engram and that was one week. I always want to try to capture the spirit. Of course if it later doesn’t fit I can skip it or re-record it later. But I think that was always something with Beherit, that we didn’t want to sound perfect.
I think it’s a trap for artists often, to try and think how whatever it is you’re doing can be the best possible thing, and sometimes “best” and “perfect” get confused. But as a listener what you’re looking for is human, and human things aren’t perfect.
Yes, but of course I have a different approach which is to being something unnatural, but I think that life and nature themselves, they’re not perfect. It’s just life.
Yeah. So, I had a question about the shift to electronic music after Drawing Down the Moon. You already mentioned that that was partially because you had moved to a new place and you didn’t really have a band and that you didn’t believe in being a rock star anymore. But one of the things that’s interesting in the 90s and the black metal scene is this slow incorporation of industrial and electronic music, whether it’s Samael, Burzum, Dødheimsgard, Beherit, and so on. So, what was it for you that led you down that path? Because it wasn’t like you decided you didn’t want to be a rock star anymore and then picked up an acoustic guitar and started making folk songs right?
So what was interesting about it for you? Was it the inhuman element?
Actually yeah, that’s a pretty good point. Because even before the recording of Drawing Down the Moon…. I had gone to the civilian service instead of going to the army and I met this guy, he had the old school Commodore BBS and tracker music and hardcore techno from Germany. And that was the first time I had heard real underground techno. I just thought it sounded really unnatural, really hard, pushing, cold-sounding and then we started to go to some warehouse parties, full of smoke and just very hardcore. And I think that was one thing that I realized that you can use the machines to make very deep, dark-sounding stuff, with industrial elements and things like that.
When I asked Vicotnik about his reasoning he said something along the lines of as long as he was making strictly guitar music he would always be tied to the music that had influenced him and that adding electronic elements helped him free himself from that. Is that something you can relate to?
Yes, yes, definitely. Also it became harder and harder to make that music. The Beherit rehearsal rooms were so noisy, with the guitars, the drums, no acoustics, with the volume going higher and higher and doing all that three times a week, and then scheduling rehearsal time. It just became too much. And it was so freeing to just have your own sampler keyboard, own home studio, and to make sounds on your own without needing anyone else. But that was also the birth of the Engram album, because I was doing that home studio thing for so long that somehow I started wanting to get back into the rehearsal room. That was one reason we made that album, because it was the first band album in a long time. But now I’m back to the home studio and I think that now the technology is such that I can do a project like that with the other guys from home. We can work with all our home studios, exchange files, maybe have sessions, but we don’t have to be everyone at the same time in the same place in a noisy environment.
And so the new album is going to be a Beherit album?
Just out of nowhere? [UPDATE: Here it is]
Well, I make music I usually don’t label it with any band or artist name, I just make the tracks. So I started that last year’s summer. And about a year ago I managed to get a new way of making music. Before I always tried to make a track from beginning to end and then move on to the next one, and that was very stressful and I was never happy with it. But about a year and a half ago I made a live setup where I can make a full album within the same palette. It was 15 or 20 channels and I was able to work it in a way that I started to build some parts when I felt like, say, an ambient part and then move to a different mood. It was very inspiring and somehow it started to feel like a Beherit album. Then around January 2020 some guys from the label were here and we were drinking down stairs and I just went “Hey guys let’s go upstairs I might have something for you,” and they went: “Marko, this sounds like Beherit.” It was still missing a lot of parts, but still, so we decided to go ahead with it.
That’s very exciting. For be for me, I can imagine more so for you.
[Laughs] Yeah. This new album is very dark ambient. I think it feels like how I would make a combination of H418ov21.C and Electric Doom Synthesis. I think it’s my darkest creation. It came very deep, and I made it for a year and it was mastered already in May but the COVID pandemic made the label want to delay the release. So for me it’s already an old recording.
Can’t wait. OK, so, in terms of concluding our discussion of Drawing Down the Moon, is there something about that album that you’re especially proud of when you look back at it today? A song, a production choice, the whole thing? Anything that you’re happy you did the way you did.
Wow, what a question. Ah, I don’t know.
Do you not like it?
Oh, I’m happy that I made it, that I was able to make an album like that. It’s hard to say. Now I’ve been very long in the real world of work, going to the office, living in society, and the business side of it and I know now how the business works, but then I didn’t. So I’m happy that I was ignorant of what is right and what is wrong [laughs]. Because at that time all we had was freedom to make music and art, without the weight of thinking about what everyone else was thinking about our creation. That was still a time when you just made things and didn’t care. So I’m happy to have lived in that time and have that freedom.
Do you feel that you have less of that now?
Definitely, yes. When you spend most of your time online, on social media, that interrupts the real world, because in social media everyone thinks the same, have the same kind of thoughts, listen to the same kind of music and you start thinking that whatever you do next has to be some kind of perfect movement. It’s a pity, and it’s very unhealthy for your mind because you get lost in that world and you don’t realize you’re just one black metal, Nuclear Holocausto Vengeance and that nobody cares about you [laughs]. Which is something that’s good to remember in order to free your mind.
I never thought of it that way but maybe that’s one way of describing what growing up is. You start off by assuming no one cares, and then you get into a kind of middle part where you think well someone might care, which begins to be a problem because of expectations, and then you grow up and realize “Oh, they don’t care” [laughs].
[Laughs] Perfect, excellent.