Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Liturgy
This is the 44th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Label:Thrill Jockey Records
Favorite Song: "Generation"
The Bare Bones: Aesthethica is the second full-length album from New York experimental black metal band Liturgy, the brainchild of writer, musician, and composer Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.
The Beating Heart: Liturgy has been a lightning rod for just about every human sentiment regarding the human production of art and music for the last decade or so. From "hipsters" and "scene tourists" and all the way to "genius" and "trailblazers," the band, headed by the enigmatic Hunt-Hendrix has rarely left one devoid of some sort of opinion. My own personal take, however, has been quite consistent through the years (which might also be the reason I also interviewed Hunter way back in 2015) – Liturgy is one of the most important, exciting, moving musical projects of this millennium, one that bears the mark of true genius that is the ability to continuously shift, change, and transform without losing sight of their idiosyncratic and laser-focused ambition. Having said all that, choosing just one album that would represent everything Liturgy has meant to the extreme and underground music scene was something of a daunting task. I could have went for the wild, etherial experimentation of their 2015 masterpiece The Ark Work, or even for the fantastic fusion of styles that was the critically acclaimed H.A.Q.Q. I eventually chose the album that in all reality was the which made me fall in love with the mind that is Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, their 2011 break-out album, Aesthethica, which, to my mind, is easily one of the best, most unique, and most influential albums of the past decade or so.
All of which, then, led to the below wonderful (if I may) conversation with Hunter, one that traverses musical theory, The Smashing Pumpkins, gender, philosophy and, naturally, music itself, all flowing from one end to the other as effortlessly as Liturgy's music. It was a real treat and a rare honor, and I hope you like how it turned out.
As always, before we get to my exchange with Matt this is my chance to encourage you to check out the rest of the Albums of the Decade series (and the rest of our interviews, including a news series about the great albums of the 90s) as well our new podcast (YouTube, Spotify and all that) and/or our latest compilation album MILIM KASHOT VOL.2. Also follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, if you like what you see here (for whatever reason). Thank you for your time and support. On to the lovely Hunter and the majestic Aesthethica.
Do you remember a moment in your life, and there are probably many like these, when you were listening to music or experiencing art in any other way, and you just felt transformed, elated, shocked, re-wired, transgressive? Probably more as a younger person. Is there an early moment you can remember of being moved by music or art in that way?
Well, of course. In my early life I think there were two that were equally important. When I was a very young child it was with Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins. I was really into music at an almost creepily young age, at around five or six. I was really into Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins and stuff. That really set the tone for my whole life somehow, Siamese Dream. I think it might have been the first album I ever bought – I don’t even know how I could have bought it. The other one is Converge’s Jane Doe.
And you remember what it was about any of these? Or do you remember how you felt? What was the attraction for you? with either of those, or both?
First of all, they both set the tone for me in terms of knowing that I needed to devote my life to music. I guess there was something like a mix between brutality and emotion. I don't know, it sounds so stupid to just put it like that, they're both very, very heavy albums – I mean, Siamese Dream doesn't sound as heavy to me now as it did – but they both kind of represented this release from ordinary life that was like kind of scary and violent but also could make you cry. And especially with Jane Doe, just the way that album was composed, there was something about the perfection of its form, the way that it would sort of sustain that sad brutality. It would be going at 10, or going at 11 for the entire album, but it also had dynamism in spite of that. I’m sorry, but I'm going for three albums when you asked for one.
Let's go three, the more the merrier.
So, the other one is The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which I think was a little later, probably around late high school or early college. And it gives me a very similar feeling to Jane Doe. It's just so severe and so complex, and then within there there are just these flickers of passion that emerge out of that chaos, kind of almost in spite of it, but it wouldn't be possible without it.
I just wanted to say that I don’t think it’s stupid to put it like that at all, things that are unnatural for you would not be natural for other people. I mean, people look for different things, and are attracted to different things. And so the fact that you are attracted or found something interesting in this kind of duality between brutality, violence, heaviness, that are a lot of synonyms you could use there, with…. I guess the question would be with what? With a sense of urgency? with sadness? with a sense of frailty or humanity?
Well, maybe not just sadness, maybe also something like cosmic love. Tenderness, I think. I mean, also just, like, cosmic love or something. Like tenderness, I think. I mean, neither The Rite of Spring nor Jane Doe are happy albums, exactly. I think Siamese Dream is a more openly loving album, or something. But there's intimacy and tenderness that feels very personal. But it almost can't be personal, because it's in such a severe case and then the dialectic between those things, which I was always really driven to. Those two albums and that one piece, I've listened to them so many times that I have every single moment memorized. There are pieces like that or albums like that you just hear them so many times that they become the lens through which you view other things. Or the prism through which you create.
I would agree, obviously, I mean, I have those albums for myself as well, but I always find it interesting that…. Just take Siamese Dream as an example: you listened to Siamese Dream so many times, that Siamese Dream is a part of your equipment. And even when you judge your own music you kind of maybe compare it to that experience or to it as an art form. But I'm very interested in the fact that was the one you chose for your equipment, right? It's not a conscious choice, obviously. When you're a child, you're not going like: “Yeah, if I just pick this album and when I'm a musician it will be very serviceable to me,” right? That's not how the mind works. You just latch onto something, and then repeat it, try to, you know, take it apart, trying to find out what it is about it. But there's that initial contact that is very interesting, because that's you choosing a lane, I guess you could say, or the prism.
Yeah, it's certainly not a conscious choice and it's only in part an unconscious choice. Like, it definitely is partly that because, you know, the same someone else can hear the same thing and not happen to them. But I think there's also an element of sheer contingency to it, which is also an interesting thing. You Just happen to, at certain moments in your emotional development, your brain kind of opens up, and it's as if it's looking for something to feed it. And then something appears, and it just clamps down on that. Eighty percent of what the thing is, in its appearance, is just chance, it's just something new. You're at a certain age, you have access to a certain thing, and then one of those things comes in and so your fate is twisted in that way, because it kind of determines your destiny. And it's only partly because it's something that resonated with you. That's how I see it.
Yeah, it's also because it happened to be there and you happen to be there too. Actually, this is a bit off topic, but one of my interviews was with a modern act that really to me defines the dialectic between severity and fragility and that’s Infernal Coil. And so I interviewed Blake Connaly from Infernal Coil and I asked him the question about the song or artist that really blew him away as a younger person and he was around his backyard or something like that in his street in Atlanta and he saw something sticking out of the ground. And so he pulled it out, and it was a CD of Helmet’s Meantime, which would then become a very influential album for him. It doesn't get more contingent than that. I mean, it doesn't get more just dumb luck, digging out something out of the earth that ends up being significant for you. And maybe we can add a third layer, just because you like threes, that there is something about the experience of contingency that is also part of this. That it's something I found, right? Something no one knows about? Or I'm having an experience that is mine. That is tied up with the fact that it's contingent.
Yeah, don't know if you read Alain Badiou but he calls this the necessity of contingency. I think that that's something about the savoring in the apprehension of the sheer contingency itself, in the fact that it's contingent. You can forget that it’s contingent, and I think you're more in touch with your freedom, your soul or something, when you remember that it’s these contingent shocks that drive you. And if you forget that, I think, you're less free because you're serving them in a more blind way. Whereas when you're aware of the contingency, it's a bit more like… I almost said “a joke” or something, but that's not quite right. You use them as materials, you understand that “Oh, I have this subjective void within me that is still more than these contingent shocks.” So I can kind of pull myself back from them and then use them more as materials, like having an idea of how to relate to them, how to create a system of meaning out of them.
I guess I'm kind of getting like Nietzschean now, and another experience like this with me was that I think I discovered Nietzsche right around the same time I discovered Jane Doe, so in early High School. And that was a similar destiny-driving experience and a similar kind of obsession. I mean, I don't take pride in liking Nietzsche or anything like that [laughs] It's so cheesy: “Ooh, I'm a Nietzschean.”
But Nietzsche’s fundamental philosophical and ethical categories, I couldn’t take those glasses off if I tried. I can't even imagine not having them.
I get that completely. I mean, the way you describe Nietzsche is how I would describe my relationship with Megadeth.
Because it's obvious that it has usefulness for me that far exceeds the amount of embarrassment that exists from me having, you know, had that connection with it.
You’re a huge Megadeth fan?
Yeah, I’m a fanboy. For reasons, but, you know.
I don't know. They're very well. I've heard very little Megadeth.
That’s OK, you haven’t missed out on anything.
Why would you say that?
Just kidding, you missed out on the universe. But that’s your problem.
They’re not quite as good as Metallica, right?
Oh, that's blasphemous. That's horrible.
So why not just listen to Metallica?
That’s OK. If you can’t read Nietzsche I guess you could always read Socrates.
You can’t read Socrates.
[Laughs] Alright, read Plato then! [Laughs] Anyway, I actually wanted to return to the contingency thing, because usually at this point I would ask you whether or not you as an artist felt like you were trying to embody that dialectic between tenderness and severity in your own music. But actually I want to ask something different first, which is, is there a way to sustain contingency when you're making art?
Can you say a little more about what you mean by “sustained contingency”?
Yes. You spoke of recognizing that that internal void, that it's just coincidence, or happenstance, and that the existence of that void allows for the experience contingency. So, you found Siamese Dream and now you want to make Siamese Dream, and you tried to record Siamese Dream, and it's great, but it's not what you're looking for. And so you're obviously not talking about that, right? You're talking about maintaining some kind of loose, free relationship. I would imagine the artistic process entails some challenges in that regard, right? It’s not always easy to stumble upon things.
I mean, referring to the first question, obviously the answer is “yes,” I do like to try to sustain that severe-tenderness, and anybody who has heard Liturgy can hear that that is probably the salient characteristic of the music, with the addition of… I guess it’s reductive to talk about influences, but since that's how the conversation started, there's also Steve Reich's “Music for 18 Musicians.” It has an energy that isn’t present in the Stravinsky or Converge or The Smashing Pumpkins that is more psychedelic. Steve Reich's music is quite tender as well, in a way, like, in this other piece “Eight Lines (Octet).” It’s more of an uncanny tenderness in the context of something like mathematical or statistical shifts, it's more mechanistic. That energy is really important to me in music as well, having sections that are sort of trance-out moments, this long stretch where there’s a regular beat going on, and then there's like just seven or eight different instruments, or maybe maybe just guitars, and they're just pulsing in patterns that are at odds with each other in a way that's almost boring and kind of pulls you out of the driven-ness of of ordinary Western music or whatever, including rock and roll music. And so I would say that that is a crucial figure or energy, as well, that I always have in mind. It feels like something's missing if that energy isn't in my music.
And as far as the question of how to maintain contingency? I mean, I think part of what you're asking is “How do you stay open to new shocks?”
But for me part of that is also to create shocks. So, the whole rap, trap music aspect of Liturgy… It's a strange thing because trap music is probably the most popular and loved style of music in the entire world. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but there's something about its place in the context of Liturgy’s music, it has this alienating quality that I really sort of cherish and relish in, because I think that, especially when you've had a music career for a long time, there's a danger of getting in your lane, and having a groove and kind of like knowing what will make people happy. And then just not even consciously feeling like you have to do more of that, but not wanting to in a way that closes you off from contingency, like you're talking about. Like when H.A.Q.Q. came out, people were really happy with that record, and so it was almost important to me to have the next release, a couple months later, be a rap song. And it kind of freaked people out, again, just a bit, you know, and I kind of felt ashamed about it.
Yeah. I guess what I'm saying is that I think that there's actually a certain – if we're talking about this kind of existentialist life stuff – creating scenarios where you make yourself ashamed, and make other people who thought they knew you be like: “Wait, what, what the hell's going on?” I think that that is a really important part of staying open to contingency, because you're sort of proving to yourself, first of all, that you don't depend on approval. Because you're openly doing something that flies in the face of it. And it actually is energizing in this strange way where it's sort of traumatizing, it doesn't feel good, it feels bad. But I've found that that makes me more free to keep experimenting.
Yeah. I mean, I don't know how it is, with you, but my experience – because obviously I'm the topic of this interview
But my experience with doing that, if feels like I'm walking down a path that's becoming narrower, and that my freedom of movement is becoming more and more restricted till I actually need to make a choice, whether I break right or left and risk the certainty that whatever I'm doing is good or not, or approved by anyone else or whatever, or do I break. And then when I break, it feels like this moment of rebellion of asserting your autonomy as a person and as an artist. And then something strange sometimes happens is that when you do that, then sometimes the response is: “Oh, that's great! That's what we were waiting for you to do.” Or sometimes those responses to me are more unsettling than people being shocked and horrified. Because you're trying to shock and horrify, even yourself, and what ends up is that you've somehow appeased someone, somewhere. Have you ever experienced that?
To some degree, yes. For me it's never happened right away, I think that it’s five years later [laughs]. Even combining my whole philosophical project with a music project and being so kitchen-sink about genre within the context of black metal, there was a long stretch where people just thought that was complete madness and there was almost nobody who was nice to me for it.
I loved it
Yeah, there were definitely some people, and you've been supportive, and obviously, Liturgy had fans that whole time. But, something kind of shifted to: “Oh, this is cool, she has a YouTube channel where she talks about philosophy,” and I can put my philosophical system on t-shirts and people want to buy them or something like that. It completely blows my mind. It would blow the mind I had five years ago, for sure. It was dark. So, I don’t know. There's probably cases where it's happened right away that I’m just not thinking of.
When you say it was dark, not that I meant to actually go there right now, but my experience, which is obviously a very un-intimate experience with you and your personal life, but the narrative I had as a listener, you know, glean from Liturgy as it progressed was that you were thrilled that all of this was happening. Not in a troll-like glee of: “Yay, everyone is mad at me,” but that you didn't mind the negativity. Because the music always felt free, and always felt kind of uninhibited by, what I think in layman's terms could be called a continuous shitstorm aimed straight at your head. And so it never felt like it impeded you in any way, and thus my assumption was that you never even noticed.
That assumption is not correct [laughs]. I could see maybe how it would come across that way, and there's some truth to what you're saying. I didn’t mean to say: “Oh, you’re so wrong,” it’s a good question. But, no, it was very distressing. I mean, having hate directed at you doesn't feel good. I think it was at its worst around The Ark Work. I would prefer for people to love everything that I do, and I didn’t expect it to be such a negative reaction, I really didn't. I knew it would be, I thought it would be more like it is now. I mean there are still tons of people who don’t think Liturgy is legit, and I still have plenty of haters, but I don’t have as much contact with them. But [then] it was a huge personal crisis, it was really painful.
But, I have these concepts that we’ve been talking about in my head as well, and so you’re right that I was certainly aware that there was a risk of that and not hedging against it. It was willing to potentially put up with that much pain in order have the right to create in a free way and know that there are people, like you and other people out there, who would really deeply connect and that for some people it would be a very powerful thing, it would create the experience for them that I had with Siamese Dream or whatever. So, I don’t regret any of it, but it was very, very painful.
It’s interesting you said that you felt the brunt of it after The Ark Work, because I would assume it would have happened earlier. I mean, obviously it did happen earlier, and so I guess my question would be: Did the fallout from The Ark Work hit harder because it was backlash from within the devoted? Because I’m guessing The Ark Work was not an easy pill to swallow not just for casual listeners but also for people who had followed Liturgy up until that point.
That may be one way to put it. I think a better way to put it would be…. So, we put out Renihilation, which was our first full-length, and that didn’t have any blow-back at all. It wasn’t that big of a record, but put that album out when we were playing shows in the context of experimental punk, DIY – not in a metal context. And so it was strange for our scene for us to be playing black metal at all. It was like: “Whoa, they’re playing black metal? They’re not playing tribal drums with synths?” But then I wanted to release Renihilation on a black metal label, because I wanted to make contact with the metal scene – which I had no contact with – and we released it on 20 Buck Spin. And when the record was released it got a pretty good amount of attention in the metal underground without people really getting to see the band or knowing that we came out of this completely different culture. I think people called us “hipsters,” so they kind of understood.
But Aesthethica was a much bigger record. It was a better album, it’s the one we’re talking about, and obviously not just black metal. And it was a really exciting time because there was a ton of positive attention, and it was also a weird time because the non-metal world was becoming more interested in metal, generally, so there was a lot of positive feedback from really big media outlets. It was bizarre, like: “What? The New York Times is talking about us?” And the New Yorker and all this stuff. And in metal, specifically, a lot of people were discovering us for the first time, seeing us as this band from another context. So there was backlash in that context, but not in other contexts. There it was “Whoa, this is crazy and kind of cool, I don’t really know how I feel about any of it but something magical is happening.” That’s basically how it felt with Aesthethica.
And then with The Ark Work, I think it did disappoint a lot of people who wanted another Aesthethica. I think there was this idea that Liturgy was kind of gentrifying metal, which made metal fans mad but made non-metal fans kind of excited – we don’t dress the part, the music is kind of prettier, and it could reach a much wider audience, it’s not as challenging or confrontational. That kind of thing. And that’s the last thing I would want Liturgy to be, I wanted it to be more radical than black metal – black metal, squared. And so I think The Ark Work was this really crazy record… I mean, I don’t think it’s that crazy, I think it’s very beautiful. Everything in it sounds really beautiful to me, it’s not like there’s something in there that’s designed to sound bad or something. So, I could have imagined that being appreciated, like: “Wow, this is so original, it’s not even what people outside of the metal scene thought it was, it’s just totally unique.” And, yeah [laughs], that didn’t really happen. All that only happened more recently.
It’s interesting because – and this is something that happens to me with this interview project from time to time – I told you I want to talk to you about Aesthethica, but I had a very hard time trying to decide whether I wanted to talk to you about Aesthethica or The Ark Work. Not because I like it better, I like them the same, I think they’re both beautiful, but choosing The Ark Work felt like making an ethical choice on my part as a big “fuck you” to all the people who didn’t like that album. Because I loved it upon arrival. Even though I loved Aesthethica and I would have been more than fine with getting more of the same, I still loved The Ark Work. I felt like I got Aesthethica and then I got a very nice smack in the face, so everyone’s a winner. But the reason I chose Aesthethica is that I think I’m interested in transitional albums, and while I wouldn’t describe Aesthethica as transitional in the conventional sense, but once you realize what it’s followed by then it gains this tone of “the album that broke something.”
One of the things that is tempting to do is to make a narrative out of someone’s artistic career. I do it quite a bit, mostly because it’s an easy way to get at a question, but when I went back and listened to all the albums all over again I was struck by two things: by the fact that all your albums sound like you – there are elements of Renihilation that are still present in your music today. And in that way Aesthethica was a fine tuning, a recalibration of what could generally be said was the same vector as Renihillation. And with The Ark Work, again, the same elements are still there, but you’re obviously breaking something up. And so since I chose to speak of Aesthethica I can then maybe pose this type of transition as: What broke? What drive was fulfilled with Aesthethica to the point where you felt like you didn’t need to go there anymore?
I feel like I can answer that question in a number of ways. First of all, most of the music on Aesthethica had been written when Renihillation came out, and it was very clear to me that Renihillation was not a fully rendered representation of what Liturgy was supposed to be, so in a lot of ways what broke was that Aesthethica was well-rendered. It sounded the way it was supposed to, it had as much complexity in it as I wanted it to have and it was just a good, clear statement. So, in a way, once you’ve made your statement now you’re done. By the way, there is an EP before Renihilation that a lot of people have not heard and it’s actually more similar to The Ark Work than any of the following two albums, because it’s very experimental and has electronics in it and that kind of thing. So, even going back to the rap thing, I wanted to have electronics and classical instrumentation and trap aesthetics and glitch and stuff like that in my music from the start. I’m a very passionate Aphex Twin fan, I’m a very passionate Bone Thugs-N-Harmony fan, and I was a composer.
Not artists you tend to hear listed one after the other.
No, I guess not.
But Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are very severe and very tender, so that works.
I like the same things in all music. So is Aphex Twin, Aphex Twin is very tender and very severe too. Everything I like has the same dialectic, so I just put it all in the same place. And classical music is so huge for me – Brahms, Wagner, Prokofiev, Shostakivtch. So, in a way, Aesthethica was the definitive statement of a certain sound, but I couldn’t use electronic music when we were making Aesthethica, I didn’t know how. So I got Ableton and a little MIDI interface and started actually making rap songs, and then making IDM songs. And I could compose, I could write music using Western notation and stuff, but I didn’t know how to combine that with metal in a seamless way. And so from one angle you could say that there wasn’t as much of a break as it would seem because those influences were there. Like, I wanted to put triplet-flow vocals singing stuff on Aesthethica but I was like: “I just can’t, how could I?”
And there’s one more answer, which is that I was definitely confronting my gender between Aesthethica and The Ark Work and I think that there’s this very unmistakable queerness in The Ark Work that partly comes from my identification with certain types of music that are connected to queer communities. And in some ways I feel like The Ark Work would have been a stronger statement if I had transitioned before it came out, like there was something almost missing in that. Maybe that was an aspect where I wasn’t being totally free and that was part of the incongruence. I don’t know if that makes sense but it’s something that has become a lot more clear to me in retrospect. I was very close to the surface of possibly transitioning at that time and I decided not to, and I was really at war with myself. So that energy there is in The Ark Work and I know that that’s part of the story, though it’s hard to fully express what I mean.
It makes a lot of sense, but it makes me want to ask a follow-up question, if that’s alright, which is…. If The Ark Work was also perhaps an expression of that war, by being confronted by your gender, and so to what extent is Aesthethica what brought on that confrontation?
Did it cause it, you mean?
Or was it an expression of it, of zooming in on that confrontation. There’s something about Aesthethica that is that more refined version of Rehabilitation, which is imbued with that energy you mentioned before when you spoke of Steven Reich – statistical, repetitive, almost a cancellation-of-the-self kind of vibe. So there’s this idea that that is more more to fruition with Aesthethica along with the aggression of a metal-style riff. So you have moments in songs, like on “Generation,” where the repetition is so aggressive and so direct and so, to a point, trippy, that it’s almost as if it’s the expression of this kind of singular drive or attempt to hide a different drive – I don’t know which one fits more. So the question would be whether or not Aesthethica was a confrontation with gender that you may not have realized at the time?
I’d say my experience of womanhood has shaped all of my music. Liturgy has a first song, even though I had made some songs and some cassettes that were more like VAST or something, but it was a cover of “No More Sorry” by My Bloody Valentine. And the burst beat, everything about the kind of flowing of the burst beat, my emotional experience of the world is feminine, whatever that means. I know exactly what it means, and that has animated the music from the start. But I think around 2012 or 2013 the idea that my sense of womanhood meant that I was queer, that I was a transgender person, is a different thing. Being a woman and being a queer person, those can go together – and I’m also a lesbian too. And I had almost never heard of trans people before that. So I would put it like this, that there was maybe an inner sense of womanhood before The Ark Work without a kind of identification with queerness on a collective level, and that the latter appeared along with The Ark Work. Because I began to understand what that meant a little more.
I get that completely, I guess I’m trying to figure out if I asked the question right.
Are you asking if there was something imminent to Aesthethica that kind was a completion? Sort of like: “Now something has been fulfilled, therefore something has been broken? That the phoenix must rise from the ashes?
That too. But what pops in my head is an interview I did with Patrick Walker from 40 Watt Sun and Warning. And he’s an amazing person, spirit, artist, the whole thing. And he speaks in poetry, he sings clean, never growls. And everything is so tender, but the music, especially in Warning, was so heavy, when you see it live it crushes your skull, while he’s being so tender about his feelings. And so I asked him why he needed all those riffs if all you want to do is be exposed or vulnerable?” Not even riffs, more like volume. And he said a couple of things but also that maybe he was never brave enough to just do it without the distortion, like it was protecting him.
I’ve had a similar thought before. I’ve definitely had the thought that I might have never gotten into black metal if it weren't for gender dysphoria. Because it was like these feelings are unacceptable and I need to have something…. Not just that I needed to put up a wall that was more aggressive, but also this sense that what I connected to in the sense of isolation that characterizes the style of black metal that I am at war with but obviously I felt so connected to. In the sense of it just being impossible to be understood. Going back to the contingency thing, it didn’t make any sense for me to have a black metal band. It wasn’t like I was influenced by the metal scene that I was in when I was a teenager, it was very bizarre that I was so into black metal. It’s a bit hard to express how out of left field it was in the culture that I was in during that time, so it wasn’t as obvious. The obvious thing for me to do based on my friends would have been to have a band that sounds like At the Drive In or Lightning Bolt. And so, I was really driven to black metal for purely personal reasons, whereas a lot of music you like with your friends, if that makes sense. But that might not be entirely true, I had some friends…. I was into screamo, Pg. 99 for instance were using black metal aesthetics and that emotive range. There was some sense that there was a shared resonance between those genres, it wasn’t totally out of the blue.
But that’s part of the contingency aspect of it anyway, right? The fact that you happened to be in that space that was adjacent to the black metal space doesn’t negate the fact that wasn’t a radical move for you on a personal level. That the need for that kind of radical move was a personal need, not just the fact that some friends liked Orchid or black metal wasn’t such a big shift.
But what I wanted to say when I was rudely interrupting you was that there’s something about black metal was also the expression of what you called isolation, of the tension between the outside and the inside, and it really reminds me of that great Fredric Jameson thing about how modern tension was basically that, between an inside world and an outside one, the emblem of which is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” That no one will ever understand me and that the product of that tension is that scream. So I think it works well here, because it’s literally screaming.
I’ve always identified metal as expressing that vector of modernity, of the emergence of this inhuman excess in the wake of the scientific revolution. And that there is something that we’re still trying to make sense of and confronting, which is not a very metal thing to think about, I guess.
Yeah, it makes complete sense. In those ways it corresponds with the gothic, which came up during the industrial revolution, and all the vampire imagery, and the ghost stuff. It works.
I think that in a lot of metal…. People think of me as being against metal or something, or anti-metal, whereas it’s obviously not true exactly. There are vectors within it that I am against and that are reactionary. The way is to sort of respond to an excess – we’re kind of switching from a personal existentialism to a socio-historical thing, I guess. But one can adopt all those aesthetics from Romanticism and the gothic and the medieval and paganism or whatever there is in a lot of metal and do it in a trad way, in a way that’s opposed to modernity. Obviously Varg is the poster child of that – “a man is a man and a woman is a woman, modernity is just a further corruption of Christianity which was already a corruption of paganism, black people belong in Africa,” and so on.
All the anti-semitism comes from there too.
Yeah, and that really is a big part of extreme metal. I’ve never seen any studies on this so I don’t know the scope, but it’s at least a part. It doesn’t characterize it entirely, obviously, but I can’t think of a single genre of music that is more congruent with reactionary traditionalism than extreme metal. Maybe aside from some kinds of classical music.
Or neo folk.
Neo folk, yeah. And so part of the experimental ethos Liturgy is about is to confront that same historical excess in an affirmative way. So it’s not just that it’s political reactionary and it’s evil, which I obviously think it is, but it’s also fearful and it’s regressive and it’s a decision to close itself off from the potential that emerges with that excess. Modernity is a horrible thing in a lot of ways but it’s also a wonderful thing in a lot of ways, since it has this aspect to it that involves freeing people from social strictures. For example, trans people and queer people and women, but not just that. The idea of equality or egalitarianism and rights, civil rights, that anybody has civil rights not just the marginalized, these are a contingency. Modernity is a contingency. Anyway, we’re faced with it whether we like to or not, and so the music I make is trying to sync up to the potential of new formations and unforeseen and the higher degree of freedom and so on that affirms the void rather than reacts against it.
So, I have a question about that. I’ll start at the end, the bottom line was supposed to go something like: “To what extent is Liturgy, perhaps since the beginning, but especially in its latter stages and we can use The Ark Work as a convenient break line, invested in re-inscribing tradition into the experimental space?” Actually, you can answer if you feel like it and I can get back to where I wanted to go later.
So, the answer is “to a very large extent.” And I don’t have the sense that it’s something that’s that well understood. Personally I think it’s something that’s sorely needed, I don’t see it very often out there in culture. I think that one is typically either a radical or a traditionalist, but there’s much in tradition that is valuable. Like, love of god, for example, or certain ways of valuing a discipline and an aesthetic practice, or submitting to authority, in certain limited ways, that I think are really important for agency. That’s the thing that I think the Left sometimes has an agency problem, it’s hard to have a clear vision and execute it because most of the structures for doing that are adulterated by bigotry, and so there’s a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
For instance, The Ark Work has some classical music but I see Origin of the Alimonies as classical music. It’s too composed in the way that classical music is, it belongs more in my view in the classical canon more than the metal canon, and I think there’s something about the emotional signature of classical music, with the way it’s structures, the way it forces you to focus and be patient and maybe not even begin to enjoy something without hearing it many times, but having something there that forces you to keep trying anyway. There’s something there that I think is really valuable. Classical music is great, and god is great and those are trad things and I like them [laughs].
That’s the headline [laughs].
A lot of people are doing that, a lot of people are kind of turning toward religion and that kind of stuff, and they are also adopting all the bigotry as well. Not just in metal, but in culture generally. You have to tease out the distinctions, it doesn’t mean that civil rights isn’t important or that identity politics is a lie, or whatever.
For me, and this is an attempt to bring Aesthethica into the discussion, the appeal to the traditional has always been there in Liturgy, and I think that Aesthethica is a place where…. I’m a big Joyce fan and his works that are considered his brain-melting masterpieces are usually the came later, like Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses, but I’m a big Dubliners fan, which is his first short-story collection, and the reason I’m a fan of it is because to me he’s as complex there as he is later, only it’s lurking beneath the surface. He’s very obviously a different mind even though he’s writing just realistic short stories. To me there’s something more appealing about that. And so it’s interesting to me to think about how or in what way traditional patterns or themes are in Aesthethica as well. You talked about the repetitive aspect, and so there’s that, it’s almost like an anti-ago, trance, mystical experience, so the repetitive riffs do that. There are the chanted, looped vocals, so there’s that too. There’s the cover you did back in the day for Shellac’s “Prayer to God,” which I assume a lot of people hated, but it was really just chant-based and chanting has a very important traditional role in liturgical music and just the experience of music in the middle ages and before that. So to me that was always part of Litugy’s charm, that there were always old-world parts about it. And so in that context maybe Origin of the Alimonies is just a greater bringing to fruition of that kind of ambition, of creating a traditional work of art, but the traditional impetus was always kind of there.
In my opinion another really important way that Aesthethica is traditionalist is in its use of the sonata form. It’s not as old as chant, but it’s seventeenth, eighteenth century so pretty traditionalist by most people’s standards. The songs in Aesthethica are structured like Brahms compositions, they have expositions and development sections and modulations between keys that’s kind of rudimentary compared to Brahms but it’s using classical diatonic and chromatic harmony a lot of the time. And it’s composed in a very scientific way. I analyzed Brahms pieces. I think that the thing I like so much about nineteenth-century classical music is that it just has this unique ability to surge that isn’t just a sheer onslaught, it’s very structured and nimble and it has lots of different scenes and moods. But, anyway, just the use of pre-modernist music theory is a huge part of Aesthethica.
I would never have guessed that, but I guess I felt that. I grew up in a classical-music-loving home and thus stayed the hell out of it for as long as I could. I tried to ease my way into it and it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve really hid my stride and found the stuff I liked and stuck with it.
I’m kind of curious what you found.
I kind of always knew that I liked Shostakovich, and I remember liking it because it felt kind of metal. I tried the by-the-book stuff, Mozart, Beethoven, but none of it was a level of attraction that made me want to listen to it, more like I got why other people liked it. And only recently I got into Bartok, Ligeti, Prokofiev, and Rahmaninov.
Now you’re talking.
And one other contemporary composer, Kaija Saariaho. She’s just so beautiful and sharp and dissonant, just beautiful.
She’s a spectralist. Her style of music is called spectralism.
I like that name too.
I just discovered the other day that she has an oratorio about the life of Simone Weil.
Yeah, I love Weil, but I haven't heard that yet.
Actually I was literally thinking to myself what I wanted to work about next after Origin of the Alimonies, since I wanted to write more classical music. And I thought: “I want to do an oratorio about the life of Simone Weil. Who’s done that? No one has!” And then I looked it up and Kaija Saariaho did.
I was super upset that she stole my idea years before I had it. Decades before I had it.
Might as well be her. Anyway, I wanted to get…..
I actually want to get back to your interest in classical music, because I don’t really listen much to Mozart or Beethoven either. More Bartok, Shostakovich, Prokofiev. I haven’t got to know Rahmaninov as much as those others.
I like him. Among that group he feels a little more pleasant, which I sometimes have a problem with
So, he’s a little sweeter but he’s still in that group for me.
Shostakovich 4th, 5th, and 6th string quartets are gold. They also belong on that list with Converge. Especially in his use of the sonata form, because he just packs that form and makes it so intense and so transcendent. Anyway.
Thanks for that. So, if you remember the question a while back was whether or not you felt Liturgy re-inscribed tradition onto the experimental space. And I think we’ve dealt with that. But the reason I’m returning to that is that it’s not very easy for me to position Liturgy in a specific scene. When I started listening to Liturgy it was because I was a dork, I guess, who wanted to revisit the metal of his youth but was a bit too smart to revisit it in the same way, and so there was a group of bands that really did that for me, and just so happened to be from New York and from the same broad area – Liturgy, Extra Life, Kayo Dot, and Yellow Eyes on the more metal side. And for a while that was where Liturgy was in my head. And then after it stopped being there, and time has passed, now when I think about reinscribing tradition then there are two other artists that I wouldn’t necessarily do things that are similar to what you’re doing sonically, but feel like they’re on that wavelength of re-inscribing tradition – LINGUA IGNOTA’s Kristin Hayter and Charlie Looker of Extra life and all his other stuff.
And so other than throwing those names at you, I want to eke out a question. Because I’ve spoken to Charlie a few times and I have too with Kristin Hayer once and one very prominent feature of their re-inscribing is the place of the body. That in a way the reintroduction of the body via tradition into the experimental space is what makes it as radical as it is. For Charlie it was his growing awareness of his body and lifting weights and his own body, and for Kristin it’s this inclusion of performance art and the physicality of performance art and how it folds into noise or metal. And that all brings me to you. And here it’s tricker for me – Where does Hunter bring her body into music? Into that aspect of the music, of the traditional? And one of the answers I wanted to try out on you was Catholicism. Because it felt like… You said something before that you share the black metal’s fascination/repulsion in the excess of the modern world. But it feels like that blacm metal’s way of dealing with that is shutting itself in with runes and pretending like the modern world never existed, or trying to eradicate it. And your sense feels like your fight against the modern world is through a Catholic version of divine love, which includes the body, which is interested in the trinity and the ways in which the parts of the trinity relate to each other. But out of all that mambo jumbo my question would be: Do you think that the investment in Catholic theology is a way of introducing your own body into your work?
First of all, I know both Charlie and Kristin. I’ve known Charlie for a long time, I only know Kristin a little bit. I would say that Extra Life is a bond-fide influence on Liturgy, especially the album Secular Works. Charlie also lived in New York, but when I kind of encountered the scene in Brooklyn that had this kind of punk, avant-classical hybrid thing going on at the time, I met Charlie and I heard that record and went: “Whoa! This is really special.” If anyone hasn’t heard Secular Works, check it out. It deserves to be heard by more people.
And as far as the body, I have two answers I guess. I’m trying to think about your hypothesis about Catholicism. On the one hand…. You’ve never seen Liturgy live, right?
Sad to say I haven’t.
It’s pretty physical music. The burst beat, for example, is extremely demanding to play. I’m not the one playing it [laughs], but it’s hard. And you have to get better and better to play it. The performances are very, very physical things. When the band is together and we play, especially when it’s live, but also in practice…. Obviously every metal is throttling because it’s loud, but to me it feels very straightforward that there’s this kind of throbbing, organic surging that is the body in Liturgy. I don’t really talk about it much anymore, but in the text I talk about the haptic void, which is kind of my version of something like the Deleuzian “body without organs.” Not really, but I propose the existence of an entity called the haptic void which is what drives the history of metal and it’s a kind of god, in a way, that promises a very physical satisfaction from violent feeling in metal. And at the same time it eternally eludges that satisfaction. When I was writing it I was thinking about, again, Converge’s Jane Doe, and how in a way it’s a perfect record, perfect because it’s so physically throttling – I clench up, I do my air drums. It’s a very surging experience, but it also falls short. This could have been more intense. Something was missing.
My theory at the time was why metal keeps getting faster, that’s one trajectory in metal, there are others, of course, like it getting slower, but they are both tied to a similar root where it’s animated by this desire for jouissance, of just physical satisfaction that is inherently elusive. And that it has a post-human vector in that because it’s not like dancing. Most music has a social function where it’s going at the speed in which you walk or that you can kind of bob your head or that you can dance to. And obviously all music relates to the body, but it also relates to mating or just kind ordinary human stuff. So it’s a conventional body, whereas something that is unique about metal, because of the loudness and this increase in speed, pushes the body beyond the current, ordinary horizon of corporeality. And you can imagine it crossing a threshold, like a boiling point, into a new kind of body. There’s something about metal, potentially, that is transforming what the body is and what physical experience is. And then my whole thing was that the blast beat represents a dead end because it’s so fast that it’s like in The Truman Show when he hits the wall of the dome. Going as fast as possible until it’s a blur until it becomes atmospheric. An album like Transylvanian Hunger is also atmospheric because it’s so intense that it’s just humming. Which is cool, I love it, but then you have to shed that whole layer of skin. So I used that drum style and reinvented it into this cyclical process that restarts the historical trajectory of physical intensity in a new way.
The other answer is that more recently…. In the first year of your transition your body evolves in a way that it never will again. I was very focused on my body, literally. Few people have seen it yet, but in the film version of Origin of the Alimonies, the whole story is told on my body. I actually feel very shy about it, I’m not even sure what medium to use to release it, because it’s kind of NSFW. So in a totally different sense I have been thinking a whole lot about my personal body. That’s why I put that image on the album cover, that’s a scene from the opera film.
And then, Catholicism. The only thing I can think of, and you can relate it to the idea of the flesh in Catholicism. The band is called Liturgy because the performances of Liturgy are meant to be a liturgy, and what a liturgy is is essentially a mass, a Christian mass, and at mass what happens…. I’m not a Catholic, so in a way I can’t be Catholic, so in a way I’m more of a hyper-Protestant. A Nietzschean Protestant, I guess, or just a follower of the Ark Work, my own religion. So what happens during a mass is you’re eating bread and wine, but they’re only bread and wine before you eat them, after you eat them they are Christ’s body. I’m not a drinker so I don’t drink the wine, but the wine and the break are Christ’s body and blood and so you are eating Jesus, you’re putting Jesus inside of you so that he can be in your heart and you are renewing your membership in the body of Christ. In Catholicism the body of Christ is conceived as the Catholic Church, which is this institution that is basically awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus and trying to spread so that as many people can be saved as possible before he comes, or they can experience the joy of living in love, that kind of thing. I’m into that view of the body of Christ, I take it seriously. I believe in the dogmas of the Catholic Church, but I also like the spin on the topic of the body of Christ that you find in French post-structuralism and the philosophers influenced by that. [Slavoj] Žižek is the most explicit about this, that the anarcho-communist artistic transgressive psychoanalytic community is the body of Christ, that that’s the new body of Christ. What’s distinct about it is that it is bound together by a love instead of by social inscription, or class, or race, or whatever. It is bound together because it has a utopian mission, essentially, and it inherently stands against the ways of the world.
I’ve always seen music scenes as a body of Christ in that way. These are the kinds of things that I’m interested in – experimental music scenes, experimental philosophy scenes, that kind of schizo-analytic world. The art world is mostly a pretty corrupt place. But in New York, on the Lower East Side, everything has this sort of vector that is congruent to all these things. Certainly in the legacy of Fluxus and all that, there’s this space where these different regimes of culture and politics that are experimental can kind of come together and kind of half understand one another. And that that is the body of Christ. And so, a Liturgy show is a sort of mass for the new post-secular body of Christ.
Maybe that’s more of a “yes” to your question.
That’s the way I took it [laughs]. OK, so one last question, and it’s a return to the safe haven of the set question – since we began with a set question: When you think about Aesthethica, when you look back at that album, is there anything that you’re especially proud of? A song, a choice, the entire album, the production, anything?
Well, I guess you’re asking if there’s one thing.
It can be whatever you’d like.
It’s our first record that really felt like a Liturgy album, and it was part of this whole moment. I mean, just because I’m composing music in a different way now doesn’t mean that I wish Aesthethica hadn’t been made. I think there’s something about “Generation.” Because in a way that song is kind of the Liturgy song, in a way, except that it also doesn’t have the burst beat, for example, or vocals, or chord changes. The idea was that this would be a Glenn Branca/Steven Reich type of thing only with metal. And originally it was a classical composition that was scored for a chamber group and I sort of transferred it to metal. I remember we were starting practice it and I was thinking: “Is it boring like this? Does it need more stuff?” but then we’d play it and do: “Alright. Let’s just stay on this one note, this is definitely going to work.” I mean I have other songs or parts of songs that have that kind of back-beat rhythmic complexity, but I just feel like I could never do it where you just stay on one note again because it would just be an imitation of “Generation.” So I just know I can never do it again, and it’s so strange that it’s not what you would think of as the kind of classic Liturgy song in terms of the style, and yet it just kind of is. So, I think “Generation” is the really one special thing about Aesthethica.