ALBUM OF THE YEAR 2021: AN INTERVIEW WITH GREY AURA
Artist: Grey Aura
Album: Zwart Vierkant
Label: Onism Productions
Favorite Song: "Het schuimspoor van de ramp"
In a year packed with unbelievable music, some of which the direct result of artists locked in and forced to produce some of the best, most challenging music of their careers, Zwart Vierkant stood aloft. As is the case for much of the music and art I enjoy that thing that distinguished this most recent release by the Dutch project Grey Aura is its humanity. So many things are hurled at each other in this album – grandiose pretension, sonic brutality, relentless creativity, and what is probably, in my opinion, one of the best-sounding albums of the year. And art stands at the heart of the album, along with its orbiting materials such as Sanja Marušić's stunning cover art as well as the the book which serves as the album's conceptual wellspring, De protodood in zwarte haren, written by Grey Aura frontman Ruben Wijlacker. But the way in which Grey Aura treat that art is first and foremost as a human situation. Art as that which arrives at an impasse, at the crossroads, with the arrival of a problem.
And so the sound of Zwart Vierkant is indeed the sound of art, the sound of progressive, forward-thinking proggy black metal, to be exact. But the overtones and undertones of that art is human confusion, anguish, beauty, fury, and awe. And it is for that reason that I conducted this in-depth Skype interview with Grey Aura's Ruben Wijlacker.
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Do you remember a song or an album that you heard, maybe as a younger person that really changed the way you thought or felt about music? Obviously this happens more than a few times in an artist’s life, but perhaps one example that sticks out?
I think that one of the first things that come to mind would be Rammstein’s song “Sonne.” It has this music video that was on TV at the time in which they were miners doing all kinds of drilling and stuff. And I remember that was one of the first encounters I had with music that was somewhat dark or scary. It had that sort of feeling to it that I thought was pretty interesting back then. I think that was one of the encounters that got me hooked to dark music.
Since you brought up the fact that it was a music video, you watched it on TV…
I did. I should add that I think that album came out around 2001, so I must have been seven or eight at the time. I was pretty young.
I bring this up because obviously you’re a person for whom the visual aspect of things is very important. Grey Aura as a band is very involved in visuality in a very deliberately aesthetic way, right? The visuals feed the music, and vice versa. Would that be an accurate description of the importance of visuals in what you do? That it’s not just an album cover.
It has to fit together. It’s supposed to be one unified thing.
So, obviously you were very impressed by the dark music, but do you think that the fact that the experience you’re describing is also a visual one also had a part in the lasting impression of that video?
I’d say so. Of course it makes it a lot more immersive and adds a lot of atmosphere. I think that stuck with me, and is still, as you mentioned, very important to what we do. We really like to combine different art forms. I would say that the visual aspect is just as important as the music, to me that’s kind of a no brainer. When you look at an album cover then that’s your first gateway into the music, and then you listen to the album with a certain expectation or feeling – if you put a forest on the album cover then you’re expecting it to have the atmosphere of a forest. I think we understood that pretty quickly and started playing around with it. So, yes.
You also mentioned the word “scary.” Is that something that’s still important for you? Obviously not necessarily in the ooga-booga demon/devil way. Or maybe “scary” isn’t the right word, something with a dark energy or that feels eerie. Is that something you’re still interested in bringing out in your own music?
Definitely. I’d say we’re really looking for something that is – not to sound too over the top – really profoundly disturbing. And not in that traditional, as you said, “ooga booga” sense, but more as in something that really rattles you, that wakes you up, that gets you thinking. I think to experience really intense emotion is quite vital when it comes to opening your mind – first you have to wake up and then only can you start thinking about what you’ve just seen and heard.
It’s a bit hard to answer, because I don’t really talk about it all that much. It’s funny: black metal, a lot of it is really dark and there’s a lot of emphasis on being evil. But at the same time once you’re in a band it becomes kind of a given and you don’t really talk about it all that much. Maybe if you’re a traditional black metal band then you talk about being evil all day long. We don’t really do that, it’s not something we mention. But to me the disturbing part is quite important. Like I said, it gets you thinking, wakes you up to something you haven’t experienced before and makes you explore different regions of your mind. To me that’s really important, even if we don’t mention it very often.
When and Tjebbe started the band/project, and this was a while ago at a time when your sound was a bit more “black metal-y” then would you say that that original standard of scary black metal was more present in your thinking?
Not really. It’s funny. When I first started making music, this is just me personally, before Grey Aura, this was in 2006 and I was only 12. And when you’re 12 – I was a drummer then – and you get your first drum kit you’re not really that into philosophy or art history, those things would come later. You’re just introduced to black metal and things were very black and white. You wanted to be evil, and you first Mayhem for the first time and you wanted to sound like that and be like that. So, of course when I was 12 to when I was about 14 I wanted to sound evil and dark. Later on some nuance came into that.
We formed Grey Aura when I was about 15 or 16 and the first thing we did, before the debut album was this EP Candlesmoke, which was really quite post-rock and shoegaze influenced and quite soft in many ways. The decision to make a full-on black metal album following that came out of a need to try something else. We wanted to do something that sounded like black metal but we wanted to approach it in a more mature way, so we chose what was to us a more interesting subject – [Dutch 16th-century explorer] Willem Barentsz. We just wanted to experiment with that, take the original black metal form and play around with it without losing too much of the original style. But I wouldn’t say that that album was made with the intention of sounding very evil.
So, given that you were quite young and that even your initial version of what black metal meant was already quite unusual, did you guys feel like there was a very defined scene that you fit into? Or was it more a case of you guys doing your thing and not paying that much attention to what’s going on around you?
That’s an interesting question, because when we started out we weren’t in contact with any scene, at all. Both Tjebbe and I were from a very small town, we never really talked to anyone outside of that. So we were really just doing our own thing. But, at the same time, we had the internet and we checked other bands out. I like a lot of second-wave black metal bands, I’m fine with that, I like Darkthrone and stuff. But the thing is that I don’t want to do it all over again. To me that’s a bit unnecessary and pointless. You don’t want to make Transilvanian Hunger 10,000 times. It’s already been made. When we formed Grey Aura we just wanted to try our own thing and we weren’t really part of any scene. That happened much later when we got into contact with other bands and started to play live. It took us six years to do our first show, so we weren't really in contact with anyone.
My own personal experience with the older stuff is that I wouldn’t even compare it to something like Darkthrone or Emperor but I would compare it to something like Dødheimsgard or parts of Ulver. So, some of the more left-field Norwegian black metal traditions. So, were you interested in that stuff at all, or, as we said, just doing your thing?
Back then we were listening to all sorts of stuff. I’ve always been open to all sorts of things. I remember I got into black metal around 2005-2006 and back then it was about the start of the whole blackgaze movement, so I discovered Mayhem at the same time that I discovered Alcest. To me it was never really an issue that bands were doing all sorts of different things, and I think the same would be true of Tjebbe. We just discovered this very broad musical genre and we tried to give our own spin on it. Because to us that was part of the deal, we discovered it as this very broad style with a lot of bands doing different things. I’ve said this in interviews before, I think it was always intended to be like that. If you look at first-wave black metal bands, there was a period in the 80s where no band sounded alike. Bathory and Celtic Frost are completely different bands with different themes and sounds. And even with the second-wave bands, it took quite a long time before a standard sound was set.
I would add to that that even when that standard sound was set the bands a) still sounded different from one another and b) the bands that established the standard let go of that standard when on to do very different things. Mayhem’s the best example, since they were so weird from the get go. It’s not a standard anything. So the entire idea of standardizing it is kind of ridiculous.
What I think is interesting in what you’re saying is that the lore of Norwegian black metal in the 90s is that it was a very analog experience. You grew up in Oslo, you met a few guys, you got a tape in the mail from Brazil, you have the photocopied zine, and all that. And the progression from that Norwegian moment onward is also described in very analog terms. And I think it’s very interesting, and obviously appropriate to those who grew up later, that later bands don’t really have to go through all that and didn’t have to go through the so-called phases of black metal. They don’t have to start at Bathory and move to Mayhem and then Virus. They can find out about everything at the same time. Which is a very postmodern way of experiencing black metal. I’m sure some people would be horrified that you found out about Mayhem and Alcest at the same time but I do think that is the experience of anyone born in the 90s and onward.
I’d agree with that, I would just add that the bands in the 80s were doing their own thing without trying to become something standard.
I agree. I just think that if you take a concrete scene like, say, the one in Oslo, the need to do something differently came out of knowing what everyone else was doing. That’s one way. But in some instances some people just didn’t know. They listened to one tape, went: “I like this, I want to make a band like this” and just did something. That was basically what Marko of Beherit said when I interviewed him. He had no awareness of being different from anything, and I think in some ways it’s easy to do something different like that since you have no reference. But if you upload an album to Bandcamp today and you’re immediately compared to albums that came out a week prior.
Yes, I agree. True.
I had a question, though we did kind of touch on it so maybe it has now become too general, but let’s see. Obviously music is the vocal point of the band, but music is just one artistic avenue that is weaved into whatever Grey Aura is. We already mentioned the visual aspect, but the visual aspect, but even beyond design you also write literature and that literature is also about visual art. So the visual is intertwined into the writing, which is then intertwined into the music, it’s all these things at the same time. So I guess I wanted to ask how that process works for you as a band? I know that in the case of Zwart vierkant the album is in a way an extension of your book, but seeing that these things are so important to you guys, where do you start?
That’s really hard to answer because usually, when it comes to our writing process, things come at the same time. Wherever we have a musical idea there’s usually some sort of visual idea or conceptual idea attached to it, that’s how it’s always been. It’s hard to describe because a lot of things happened spontaneously. I remember when we were writing for Zwart vierkant we would think of a certain atmosphere or of a certain scene from the book and then discuss…. A lot of people always ask me “What are your main musical influences?” and they expect me to name a bunch of bands. Which of course I could do, I wouldn’t dare claim that we’re not influenced by other bands, including black metal bands. But when we write music we don’t say things like: “Oh, this riff is supposed to sound like that band or that band,” when we write music we discuss what the music is supposed to portray. So, we sit down with our guitars and we ask each other what the song is going to be about, what’s the atmosphere going to be like, what’s going to happen in it. We kind of approach it almost as a movie, and dealing with specific scenes, and then we ask ourselves: “OK, well, how would that sound? How would it sound if someone travelled from one place to another or to meet someone? Things happen very quickly that way.
So, it has a very visual aspect to it from the very start, because we start visualizing how things are going to look and how they’re going to sound or feel. And then as both of us are interested in different art forms, it’s quite easy to attach all these art media to these ideas. So, instead of asking “How is it going to sound?” asking “How is it going to look?” And as Zwart vierkant is set in the early 20s, you can quickly come up with artists from around that time and connect their ideas to the music. As I said, it happens very quickly and spontaneously and I think that’s a good thing.
Oh, for sure, I think it’s one of the only ways, it’s just that it’s interesting. In my experience artists don’t enjoy talking about the process of making art because they feel like they don’t necessarily understand their own process, they just do things, and that any kind of explanation would sully that experience of not thinking. But I think a better way to look at it is that, given that it’s a non-thinking process, how do different processes look like? For example, I just interviewed a band for my 2010s series and they described their process in similar terms to what you’re talking about, only described through the idea of landscapes and creating landscapes with music. The music isn’t an interpretation of a landscape, but more like a feel or atmosphere. And also, speaking as a writer, a lot of the questions I ask in these interviews are also very self-serving in trying to understand my own process. But, for example, I have found that when I’m stuck at writing it helps if I choose a painting from Google that I think fits the vibe of what I’m going for and just start describing the painting. So, just a way of inserting the visual into the textual, for instance.
I’d like to add to that, and this is something we’ve had discussions about lately within the band, talking about to what extent is it possible to capture, for instance, to use a cliche example, the essence of the forest or a landscape with music? And we almost agreed that it’s more-or-less impossible because it’s your own interpretation of the landscape. With a lot of bands this is also very connected to a geographical location. For instance we would say “OK, we’re going to try and capture the canals of Utrecht.” I don’t think it’s very possible, but of course you can play around with the idea. For instance half of our story [in Zwart vierkant] takes place in Spain, so we used a lot of Spanish instrumentation and Tjebbe is a flamenco guitarist. We added that to it, which kind of gives it this Spanish feeling, but of course all of that is culturally determined and we’re playing around with that. And naturally I would never claim that we as a band captured the spiritual essence of Spain. We kind of tried to go beyond that and look inside, I suppose.
It can’t be precise, in a scientific way, but it can be precise emotionally. And I think this gets to our earlier discussion of the difference between what has become a standardized form of black metal and art that happens to be inspired by black metal. The standardized version is a very literal version. Literal in how you dress and look, in how you’re produced and how you sound. But it’s also literal in the appropriation of the scenery – what happens if you want to be an orthodox black metal band, but you’re from New York? What happens if you’re not born in a forest? And so it is very much a question of interpretation. That what we’re talking about here as being “right” or “precise” is something that feels right, not necessarily a reliable copy of the original. So, for you it felt right to put in that wonderful Spanish guitar line, because in your mind that’s Spain. When I listen to that I’m not thinking of Spain at all, just that it’s beautiful.
But that’s an utter success. Because you’re not trying to project “Spain” but your interpretation of that, and what I’m getting is a cool classical guitar in a weird black metal song. But then what makes it interesting in the case of Zwart vierkant, especially when compared to the debut and how it relates to the themes you explore in Zwart vierkant. So much is different, visually, sonically, everything. But if I kind of dig into the book and its narrative it’s very much about a person who is troubled by the idea of abstraction. He comes from a world of figuration and he encounters the black square, is shocked by it and becomes obsessed by it. And so I guess my smartass question would be: To what extent is that evolution of your sound a kind of move toward abstraction? It’s funny maybe to say “figuration” and “abstraction” when talking about music, but in what way is the newer album your attempt at being more abstract?
That’s a tough question. I think there’s a risk here for us to connect ourselves artistically too much to this particular album or this book. Because, from the beginning, we have always been interested in doing things differently each time. So already when we were writing the first album we were afraid that people will pigeonhole us as this arctic black metal band, and we thought maybe people were going to get where we’re going with this after three or four albums, because we’re doing another one which is different, but still we don’t really want to identify with it too much. In a way it is us, but we are quite fluid. The next full length is going to be a continuation of Zwart vierkant, it’s a two-part thing, but the album that’s going to come after that is completely different from both and from the debut, and so it might not be about abstract art at all, it might be about frogs for all I know.
I guess I can rephrase my question by asking: Do you think there’s a way in which at this point in time, or at the point of making Zwart vierkant, you might have been interested in moving toward the abstract?
Of course, yes. That’s true. I just wanted to get that out of the way. But once we had this idea of doing something related to abstraction we kind of moved our sound toward that. We started consciously experimenting with more abstract compositions, just trying to play around with people’s expectations. Sometimes even within a single song, we would try to experiment with that and obviously that’s deeply connected to the story and concept.
There’s a kind of irony at play here. There’s that inescapable conversation about “true black metal” and all that, that always seems to be in the background. So, given that conversation, it’s very interesting that we’re talking about an album, its related literature and visuals, that are about “blackness.” So it’s very tempting for me, perhaps not wise, to say that in way this kind of experiment is very much a part of that tradition in that it’s looking into a kind of void or tapping into a kind of fear of chaos. Abstraction is also chaotic and primordial. And so it feels fitting to talk about the conceptual interaction with the abstract and say something like: “The traditional way of doing black metal isn’t scary anymore, how about we try some stuff that’s actually scary?” Scarier than a face lightened by a candelabra. I don’t know if any of this makes sense.
It does, and kind of goes back to what we started talking about in reference to the Rammstein music video. When I first saw that video I felt disturbed, not so much scared, there weren’t any ghosts or monsters in that video, it was just very uncanny and it felt weird which made me feel disturbed. And I think that ever since then I have been attracted to that particular feeling and it’s one of the things that got me into extreme music and extreme art, and I think you just made a really good point. Naturally the whole satan stuff, it’s fantastic, but I don’t think it really does the trick anymore. It might, if bands approached it from a certain way, but the way most bands approach black metal topics these days comes from a very Romantic idea of what satanism is and what darkness is. To me, and this might sound weird, and a lot of black metal fans might understand what I mean, when I listen to Transylvanian Hunger I don’t feel disturbed or scared, I usually feel pretty warm, it feels kind of cosy, because you’re used to it. And, for me, that’s kind of what’s been lacking in a lot of bands these days. I want to bring back this feeling of being disturbed, and I think it’s very important for extreme music and art to conjure that feeling in people. So, I would say it’s quite a conscious decision to change the discussion of darkness.
And of course this is very personal. I’ve already noticed that a lot of more traditional people look at the album they tend to think we’re just trying to be complicated for complication’s sake or that we’re trying to be sophisticated. To me that’s not the case. As you said, the whole idea of abstraction and the void is very intense, and it brings about intense feelings and thoughts because it’s kind of incomprehensible to think of total abstraction. I think that that whole idea is what inspired us to use this particular concept, because to us it’s very powerful. Of course we too still have that Romantic idea of darkness, we still like to play around with atmosphere. But at the same time there are points in the composition that go beyond Romanticism and step into total abstraction, and those to me are the points that art gets actually dangerous. And, ironically, those are the points where a lot of people stop listening, they don’t want to listen to it anymore, because apparently it triggers something in them. They might try to rationalize that, but I think that the idea of constantly shifting sounds and purposefully making people feel discomfort, I think that evokes something deep inside, this disturbance of abstraction that we try to keep at bay as long as we can. But all good art has this dangerous side to it that pushes us over a boundary that we have made for ourselves, and I think it’s quite important that art keeps on doing that.
One I’d add to that is that black metal and Romanticism are kind of light rice and white, they belong together from black metal’s inception. Black metal is a Romantic artistic movement – the return to nature, the fascination with a pre-Christian European culture, ghosts, satan the rebel, etc. So, it kind of makes sense that if you want to counter that intuition in black metal or if you feel like it has run its course, then something like modernist abstraction would fit. And it’s to not to say that whatever it is that you’re doing is only that, but just that at the moment your music seems to be saying: “This is not cutting it anymore.” But what makes it even more interesting to me is that we are living in a very figurative time – Instagram, Facebook – people are very interested in projecting visual images of themselves. And I often think what could the next step of that look like? I’ve taken pictures of myself, I’ve taken TikTok videos of myself, I’ve done everything to document myself. So, the next step would either be going deeper in that direction or I go the other way, which would be to say that figuration isn’t cutting it anymore. I just don’t know what that means. I don’t know, it just feels like your album is very timely considering all those concerns.
Yeah. I would just want to add to that is that the whole figurative thing on Facebook, I would argue…. It’s quite an interesting time right now, because both things are happening at the same time: people want to document themselves as accurately as possible, but at the same time there is this algorithm in the background that is getting more and more complex, reaching a point where people are no longer able to understand what it is doing. And that frightens people, it disturbs them. I would say that right now we’re in between those things. We’re both simplifying the depiction of life, information gets very comprehensive, but at the same time there’s a very abstract algorithm in the background. And I think that the combination of those things is quite interesting. I’m interested in seeing how that develops in the future.
That’s absolutely true, I think. One of things that drove art and thought in the modernist period, in the beginning of the twentieth century, was a growing sense of alienation between people and their world. The world a few decades prior was much more rural, much less technological, and then suddenly everything quickly became something like science fiction. And people felt alienated, and that sense of alienation was the driving force for a lot of avant-garde art of the period. People were basically scared to even be alive. So what I think is interesting in what you’re saying is that at first people feel very connected, both in their ability to communicate themselves and be in touch with other people and their lives. But there’s this growing unease which you called the algorithm but I’ll just call unease that there’s a discrepancy between what I think is going on and what’s actually going on. And that unease lends itself to different modes of expression, to try to break away.
No more rambling. Last question. Now, usually this question comes up in conversations about albums that were written a long time ago, so I understand there hasn’t really been that much of a space since the release of Zwart vierkant and now. But, given all that, is there something about that album that you’re especially proud of? Something, a decision, a song, the way it looks, that you feel came out especially well?
It’s a bit hard to answer, since I don’t want to pass off as too arrogant, but I’m not sure I would change anything on it. Maybe that’s because we worked on it for such a long time. With the demos, all in all, we worked on the whole thing for six or seven years, so we knew exactly how it was going to turn out, which gave us a lot of freedom to fine-tune things. Obviously in retrospect you can always think of things you could have done differently, but in general I’m really happy with the overall result. I do really like the album cover, I think it was a good choice and that it added something to the music and I think it’s quite a direct reflection of what we were trying to do. Maybe if that cover would have appeared on an album from another album it would not have done so much for it, but because it’s a black metal album it disturbs people because it kind of fucks around with your expectation of what a black metal album should be like. And of course that’s something we’re really doing with that album and I think the cover really conveys that well.
I mean, there are so many other things. For instance, I think the drums were played wonderfully by Bas [van der Perk]. Also really happy with the bass, I think the bass lines and sound both turned out really nice. It’s actually funny, I mixed the album myself and Robert Hobson mastered the album, who also mastered the Forest of Stars album [Beware the Sword You Cannot See], and in his master he kind of cranked up the bass a little bit. Obviously it was there in the recording, but he sort of amplified it a bit more, and I think it did something very interesting to the sound. I’m quite happy with how that turned out, it made it warmer and gave it more detail and also made it feel a little dirtier.
I have to agree on all points, but it’s interesting – I’m looking at the cover now – and it beautifully ties our entire conversation together because it’s people portrayed as blots of color. Almost like a landscape that has turned into abstract art, and the people’s faces are hidden. So this intermediate space between abstraction and figuration.