Machine Music's Albums of the Decade: An Interview with Locrian
This is the 49th installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Album: Return to Annihilation
Favorite Song: "Obsolete Elegies"
The Bare Bones: Return to Annihilation is the fifth full-length from American experimental/drone metal outfit Locrian, comprised of Terence Hannum, Steven Hess, and André Foisy.
The Beating Heart: Despite my usual aversion from discussing band's trajectories as "development," it seems to me that the shift from where Locrian emerged and where it found itself in Return to Annihilation as the process of a slow, droning ascension. Slowly, from the murky depths and cutting experimentalism of Drenched Lands and The Crystal World the band was accumulating more and more ideas, sometimes melodic, sometimes completely abstract. Like some primeval, shapeless invertebrate that had spread out, consuming living things that had once lived beside it. That tedious, slimy process finds its zenith with their 2013 masterpiece, in which Locrian of old – static, bold, weird – clashed with a new sense of movement and, at times, splashes of golden beauty. It is one of those rare recordings that is as demanding as it is gratifying, also serving as the house for what for me personally is one of the greatest musical pieces in recorded history, one that in itself is a revisiting of Locrian's past – "Obsolete Elegies."
It is for these reasons and many more that I have decided to include Return to Annihilation in this series, an extremely special album from a generationally important band. This in-depth interview with Terence Hannum, in fact, took place a very long time ago, even longer than the usual, recorded sometime in early 2021. At that time, as you shall see, Locrian had only just completed recording what would later become their brilliant newest album New Catastrophism. Many thanks to the band for taking the time and for allowing me to take me time as well. Patreon supporters of this strange place have had access to the recording of this conversation for a few months now. They're cool like that.
Speaking of this weird place, as always, check out our various interview projects and other cool shit. And if you'd like to keep abreast of the latest, most pressing developments follow us wherever we may roam (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and now also a tape-per-day series on TIK TOK!), and listen to our shitty podcast (YouTube, Spotify, Apple), and to check out our amazing compilation albums. You can support our unholy work here (Patreon), if you feel like it. Early access to our bigger projects, weekly exclusive recommendations and playlists, and that wonderful feeling that you're encouraging a life-consuming habit.
Also, we JUST released our latest benefit compilation MILIM KASHOT VOL. 4, featuring 29 amazing tracks from some of the best of the best of the extreme underground.
On to my long-overdue conversation with Terence.
Is there an album or song, an album cover, a live show probably as a younger person, that you can remember that really changed how you thought about music? That made you think “Wow, this is weird” or “I’m scared” or anything like that? With the added caveat that this happens quite a bit in one’s life, but I guess more specifically an experience that sticks out from early on?
Yeah, of course. I think you live for stuff like that. That music would do that, that’s why you’re here, you find something that captivates you. I think specifically about something that may be scary – I remember listening to Obituary’s Cause of Death at some time when I was a teenager. It didn’t sound like what I thought death metal was supposed to sound like and it was way more harrowing to listen to. That and the cover art really got to me. I was just like: “This is really awesome.” And also kind of scary – you’re sitting in your room in your parents’ house, trying not to listen to it too loud. They have all these samples between songs, and they’re really creepy. And great [laughs]. It’s such a great record. I’ve been able to see them live a few times now and they’re one of my favorite live bands. I didn’t see them then, I was too young and way too terrified to go to a concert like that. But that record left such a big impression on me.
And another one, if we’re talking album artwork, Sonic Youth’s Dirty was a really big record for me. I really liked it, it had a video that was kind of popular. But I remember not really knowing who they were, and just sort of got it and then saw the video and thinking “Oh, that’s cool” and then I was just buying everything. Every Sonic Youth record. And then that led to that their album cover was by an artist. I liked art, I was into art, and I read about it. When Dirty came out, I was 12 or 13, and I was just amazed. I was looking at Mike Kelly as a teenager, who did the cover art. Which would then lead me to other artists like Gerhard Richter.
Who did Daydream Nation
Yeah. And so to me it seemed that art and music should be like this, this is how it should be. Art should be on the cover of an album. I don’t know, it just clicked.
And live, I would say…. When I was in college…. I didn’t really like the band Assück very much on record. But Steve [Heritage] of Assück ran the record store nearby. And I remember there was a show that they were playing and I just thought I might want to see them play. And they were so good. I was so impressed. I didn’t think grindcore could be like this. I just remember thinking grindcore was a cliche and they destroyed that live. I just thought “Oh, this is really interested and really serious and incredibly well done.” I mean, the drummer was phenomenal and everything was so fast and technical. I think that at that time I wasn’t that interested in that kind of music, I was kind of like “I’m over it.” And I just became a fan, then and there.
It’s interesting because usually after I ask this question I ask whether or not you can tell how those early moments are acted out in your own work, or whether, for example, if you were scared by Cause of Death then whether you are trying to scare your listeners in some way. Or if you’re drawn to the almost conceptual quality of the artwork on Sonic Youth albums, whether you see that in your own work, and the same with the live performance aspect of it – for instance: “Is there anything in Locrian’s live performance that speaks to this need to do something loud very well?” But I think these all kind of answer themselves.
[Laughs] Yeah, entirely. Everything that we do. We always have artists on our covers, some of whom are famous. I mean, [the cover for] Return to Annihilation is by Richard Misrach, who is a phenomenal photographer and a great person, which was the biggest benefit of working with him. He still keeps in touch with us. He’s this world-famous photographer, for whom I have the utmost respect and whose craft I admire, but he’s also this phenomenal person. Like, he wouldn’t take a payment. He asked us to donate to this environmental organization instead. I was just impressed with his activism and his art. I mean, he was an anti-war activist in the 60s, that’s how he started taking photographs away from San Francisco and going out into the wilderness and following these military trails and proving grounds and all that stuff that’s out in California. So, to me it’s such an interesting part of his activism that I just really admired.
And it’s funny because the fact that Mike Kelly was on the cover of Dirty I began to seek out artists who make interesting art and that scene, which led us to Richard Mizrach.
Sonic Youth was and remains a very important band for me, and to me one of the few bands with a perfect catalog. But they’re also very unique in that they create complete artistic statements. They’re not just some people making music but artists very invested in every aspect of the object – the music, how it sounds, how it looks. Everything about it has to be meaningful. It can’t just be a throw-away, it has to mean something, and often mean something intellectual. And you kind of, to me, embody that with. So it’s so obvious to me that when an album comes out from one of your projects I have no doubt in my mind that the visual aspect is going to be very important. So, like Sonic Youth, everything is “of the thing.” Does that make sense?
Yeah. I mean, we spend a lot of time before we start recording. We normally have these documents, something like a mood board. We’ll put art up, we’ll put up books, we’ll send each other articles and stuff. We read a lot of articles about environmental catastrophes and stuff. For me, I’m reading that because I’m looking for the vocabulary, on a word hunt for lyrics and things that I think are interesting – geology, archaeology, weather patterns. Those are just very interesting to me and have a very interesting vocabulary. And I think it’s hard for us if we don’t have a concept or an underlying theme. Sometimes it can just be a piece of science fiction – obviously J. G. Ballard is a big one or someone like Samuel Delaney, and many others. But even if we’re not working on something we’re always just texting each other about books and different things. But definitely around that time – the concepts, the artwork, it all has to fit together it all has to be around these themes. It’s definitely not thrown together.
So you say that you guys throw these words and concepts around and by the time you get to the record, the music and all those ideas, they all circle around a general concept. One way to achieve that is through a concept album, which is a very literal application of that process. But I wanted to ask something about that, and it was a line you had sent to me when we did that written interview way back. You wrote: “I always feel like if it sounds like something or someone else it’s a failure.” I mean, I don’t know if you still feel like that.
[Laughs] Yeah! I feel that way about everything. If it starts to sound like anything, in any project, even in my solo stuff…. I’ve deleted a ton of stuff just because “This kind of sounds like this.” In Locrian, I feel like we don’t have that much of a worry, because I think we’re pretty comfortable with what we’ve been doing and where it’s going. It’s three of us and it’s very collaborative and very democratic. I think we have a really great process, and when we’re creating it’s wide open – anyone can do anything. Earlier on, when we were starting, there were a million bands that sounded like Sunn O))) or something like that, and you just can’t do that. Who wants to sound like them? They sound like them, and they’re great. Even Sunn O))) doesn’t want to sound like Sunn O))) half the time, they’re collaborating with all these other people, right? And they’re obviously restless creative people as well, always looking for a new input. And that’s exciting. That’s why they have fans around the world that love them.
But at that time experimental metal, or whatever, or noise was just a handful of bands that everyone sounded like. And sometimes you intentionally try to avoid that. So instead of André playing one note for a long time, what if he played a lot of notes? Maybe try black metal-y tremolo picking, but very minimalist. Or something like that. I mean, every genre is guilty of it. In metal you’re rewarded for your lack of creativity all the time. You’re rewarded for…. I mean, thrash revival? Really? We didn’t already have amazing albums from Sodom and Destruction? We need you? No, we don’t need you! You’ve contributed nothing creative to the conversation, it’s just nostalgia. I guess the one exception would be Power Trip, who were always lumped in that but I thought were phenomenal and had interesting, unexpected changes in what they were doing. That shows how creative people can take that template and do something that nobody’s doing. I like it when people are being weird [laughs].
I mean, there’s that aspect of what you said that has to do with not sounding like anyone else, but I guess what I’m interested in as that when you’re describing a process when you’re reading, for instance, J. G. Ballard or just in general think about a concept for the album, and yet you want to make sure you’re not writing a Ballard soundtrack or not, as you just said, doing the same thing someone else who was also inspired by the same things had already done. So I guess what I’m asking is whether in that moment it becomes less about a fleshed-out interpretation of a concept and more like something you can set out from. An initial inspiration or thought that you just sail away from.
Yeah. That’s a good question. To me, The Crystal World, as a novel, painted this picture of a world crystallizing with this doctor treating leprosy…. It was amazing. One of my favorite Ballard books. But to me it was more like “What is this landscape?” I’m always interested in that, thinking how it would feel to inhabit that landscape. So it’s more of a jumping-off point. I think you’re right, it’s not like we’re writing it chapter by chapter or telling the narrative. It’s more an inspiration. Same with [Samuel] Delany’s Dhalgren, which was just something that we referred to all the time, this amazing, phenomenal book. The technical element of it is amazing – it starts in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of a sentence so that the whole book is like a giant circle. It has a series of notebooks at the end, something like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or something. Really, really great. To me it’s “What’s Dhalgren like?”
And then you read something like The Crystal World or you read something like Dhalgren and you start to think about what’s happening environmentally. You get this new landscape of poison or contamination or something that you have to inhabit in some way. That’s how it comes together for me. You’re trying to challenge yourself musically and, with Locrian, we’re always trying to create new landscapes. That’s really what we’re thinking. It’s all about sound and that you’re in it and going through changes that are very prolonged or very weird, maybe abrupt. And the books give us some language, some visual that we can then play around with.
It’s funny because my next question was supposed to be about “space.” What I meant to ask about space, which really kind of corresponds to what you’re saying about landscapes, is that Locrian always really felt like an exploration of space. There’s a way in which you can explore space that almost feels like an attack on temporality. Temporality is like this rope pulling you along, or a narrative. So, just as in the example you gave, following a book chapter by chapter would emphasize that sense. But one of the things that happen when you fuck with temporality is that you inadvertently, or intentionally, create space. Everything is kind of in abeyance, nothing is really “moving along” as much as you’re used to. And obviously in Locrian there are many moments that, if you’re a person listens to the kind of music that gets moving – pop music or punk, for instance – if you’re used to that kind of “catching a groove” type of song then Locrian is going to be a very frustrating experience for you. Because it’s not really going anywhere, a lot of the time.
Or it’s going somewhere very, very slowly. And that, at least in my experience, creates a sense of space. So I wanted to ask you about whether you guys are consciously exploring space, but you kind of half answered that already.
Yeah. It just happens. I’d give credit to Steven [Hess] on that, because he’s the most experienced improviser out of us. And he’ll kind of articulate a tone for the moment we’re doing, and it’s always just a great suggestion. I mean, we all do it, but I would give him a lot of credit for that. I think something like that happens in jazz, where you mess with expectations. Listening to Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler or someone like that, you become more present, in a way, because you’re listening for the change, you’re listening and thinking “Is that the hook?” And I think we try to find music that can do that.
Yeah. I have something of a fetish with drummers, and am the owner of an escalating theory about the role of drummers in the world. But I think that one of the quantum leaps in American underground music in the 90s was a very drummer-led one. I’m thinking of people like Britt Walford from Slint, Jason Roeder from Neurosis, drummers who took it upon themselves to not play along with the idea that the drummer is the beat of the song. Which, going back to what we were just saying, is basically tinkering wit their role as guardians of temporality. “I’m not going to be your metronome,” in a way. “I’m a musician. I have an imagination.”
Yeah. I think we have quite a few songs where we will play in rhythm with Steven intentionally improvising out of rhythm. It’s fun [laughs], and it’s hard. It’s harder for us to keep rhythm and for Steven not to. So it can be challenging. Like the song “The Crystal World,” actually, where he was totally in his own space. But I think that’s a very interesting observation, for sure.
As a side note, I have found that when I write, and I don’t really know where to go….. My stuff isn’t really very narrative-driven anyway. I guess it’s the Locrian version of writing…
I don’t know what to do with characters that much and how their actions are supposed to progress. And so sometimes I run out of ideas, and I have found that the most productive exercise for me is I try to think about a painting or photo that would be in the mood I’m looking for and I just look at that picture and I start writing the picture.
That’s a really good writing exercise, I think.
And inadvertently what happens is I become focused on space, because a picture isn’t a narrative, it’s just this you look at. Like, I wanted a very morbid village scene and so I just looked for one of those weird Breugel and started writing about how people felt in the picture. It’s not conducive for moving things along, at all.
But it creates an interesting moment. And if someone’s reading my stuff and going “Hey, this isn’t moving everything along” then that’s fine. They can read something else. Just like they can listen to “Obsolete Elegies” and say “I don’t know where this is going. I would rather stop this track and go back to “Chopped in Half” and that’ll be fair enough. But more often than not I as a person am more interested in what’s happening in the middle section of “Obsolete Elegies.” I guess I find it interesting that whatever it is I’m doing you’re doing with other things. You’re looking at a novel and making spatial music out of it.
So, getting to our discussion of Return to Annihilation I wanted to ask about the two collaborative albums you did before that: one with Horseback and one with Mamiffer. Two artists that would fit quite nicely into this discussion of spatial music, for different reasons and in different ways. So collaborating with people who you might argue are even more space-driven than you guys, I was wondering if there was something you took away from those works that you might have implemented later on in your own work?
I mean, yeah. With Horseback, we have been friends but we never played together. We played a festival together and then that week went and recorded that collaboration. It was very enthusiastic, we had all these ideas going everywhere, but we never really had a big chunk of time. With Mamiffer we had more time. It was a lot more pressure, because we were in Electrical Audio and Profound Lore was behind it. And we didn’t really know them that well, personally. So it was definitely feeling each other out and figuring out things. And in the end it became…. I’ve actually listened to it recently, and it became this really neat document. And I feel like, for me personally, I was a little stubborn at the time, and not as open. The moment was almost too much for me. And when we got to making Return to Annihilation it was much more about trying to be open, trying to listen to my bandmates more. Not to stick to an idea.
And so the recording with Mamiffer was kind of interesting, because Aaron or Faith would say “This isn’t working” and I would go “Yeah, it’s not.” Sometimes you need someone to say something and move along, try another idea out. And there were a lot of ideas. So it was definitely a learning experience that I took a lot from. And we did do another collaboration with Christoph Heemann, but that was over email. That was really interesting, because he sent us two tracks and we recorded over those, and then we sent him two tracks that he then turned into something. So, a few emails, but not a lot of communication.
Interesting. But, what do you mean by being stubborn?
I think that, in that situation, not being that open to an idea. Or trying to stick by something and really make it work, when it was clear that it wasn’t working.
As a kind of ego thing? “My idea will work”? That kind of thing?
No, more like you just keep trying and trying to get a sound and realize that it just doesn’t sound that good. When you’re recording music and you’re in the studio and then you realize you’ve spent whatever amount of time on something to sound good and it just doesn’t [laughs]. And it’s frustrating, for sure….
Kind of sounds like marriage.
[Laughs] Sure. But in the end it’s a good lesson, because next time you’re in the studio you just go: “This is a rabbit hole, we’ve been wasting a lot of time on this thing.” So now when I’m in the studio I keep an eye out if there’s an idea that’s out there and that might take a little bit of time and just trying to watch the clock and think:”How much time have we been spending on this? Is this the right time to be doing this?” Still open to the idea, but also kind of: “Listen, if it doesn't work, if it doesn’t sound good maybe try this one out later.” It definitely makes you operate in a different way. You start thinking about your time and creative output, and then to maybe know earlier when your idea was not as…good [laughs] as you thought it was.
In a funny way it makes me think of teaching. I mean, I’m a friendly guy, I tell jokes, and I hope my classes always feel open-ended. But I’m really looking forward to me being able to let go of more of my own ideas in class. Sometimes you just feel yourself being closed-fisted and stressed and maybe even defensive, and it isn’t good. And then I’ve always had the best experiences in classes where things weren’t that uptight or well-defined. Where the lecturer would just throw out a word and wait for their students to react and I would always think: “God, how can you stand the pressure of not pouncing and just throwing out your own ideas?”
Yeah. You’re right, I think it happens with teaching too. I mean, it’s a stressful situation anyway, and I think you’re also taught to teach by teachers who feel the same way. Like, I teach art in a school for education and my wife is a teacher, and she does these small things in her fifth-grade class where I'm amazed at how she’s able to do all these small things that would save so much stress. The kind of things that I could implement when teaching in college and get a response and have the students learn more than way. Instead of me just telling them everything.
For sure. Alright. Return to Annihilation. When you talked about being stubborn and learning to let go, do you feel like the way you guys approached that album was informed by that lesson?
I think so. I think we were better bandmates when we were doing it. But, I mean, it was also a high-pressure situation: our first record for Relapse, and again back at Electrical Audio. With our friend, Greg Norman, but it was still stressful. But I think coming into that I felt like I wanted to be more present. The irony of that is that we had more structured songs, we had these whole ideas that we were sending back and forth as demos. From the first song it was a “song,” do you know? Four-minutes long or something. But it was definitely something I was thinking of, of being more open as we were playing around.
So you’re saying that you tried to be a better bandmate during the recording but it just so happened that it was an album that was much more fleshed out when you got to the recording stage? So a combination of those two processes, in a way?
Yeah. For me, I can’t speak for anyone else. I was trying to be more open to ideas and to improvisations and just to things we were trying to do with the record.
It’s interesting to me because Return to Annihilation – obviously, because we’re talking about it – is one of my favorite albums ever. I don’t know if you remember, but I had this weird Idea a while back where I was going to take the track-by-track version of “Obsolete Elegies” and teach it in my poetry class. We corresponded about this few years ago.
Yeah, I remember that.
So it’s an album that means a lot to me, I still don’t really know why. And one of the things that sets it apart as a Locrian album but also as an album period. As a Locrian album it sounds like an album written by a band, performed by a band, and that makes sense as that kind of album. Even if it is still very abstract and droning at times, it feels like that stuff, which really used to be your meat-and-potatoes, becomes almost like tools of advancing the song. Like you’re using that as a texture.
And at times, not only did you pass as a band but as a 70s prog band.
Which is a very different look for Locrian. No one is listening to The Crystal World and thinking Genesis or Yes.
But there’s a very strong, almost pretension in that album that I absolutely love. Because it feels like people. So aside from what you just said about you guys passing demos around beforing recording or that some of the songs turned out to be “song songs,” did you guys feel like you were making a different kind of record?
Yeah. The album prior was The Clearing, and that was a great situation and interesting, but I think there were always things that we do and that we really like and then there are things we’d like to try. I think with Return to Annihilation it was like “Well, let’s try to have a song like ‘Eternal Return,’ and let’s try to have a multi-part suite songs like King Crimson would do or Yes.” Not that we sound anything like them, but hanging out we would put on some Yes or Genesis and share some deep cuts. That’s just the weirdos we are. I actually saw Yes 2-3 years ago with my dad [laughs] and it was actually really good, I really enjoyed it. They played like this really obscure that I really liked. It was all noisy and abstract noises and all the fans who were about my dad’s age were like: “What?! Who would even know this?!” and I was like “Yes!” [laughs]. “I love Drama! I’m the only one who likes that record!” [laughs].
But, yeah, I just think we had a few ideas we wanted to try, had a few inspirations that we had around us. And we were embracing the prog. Our original label Fan Death Records out of Baltimore and Sean [Gray] who’s one of the three people who ran the label was such a Yes fan that we just would talk about Yes all day. And not feel ashamed [laughs]. It’s funny because André is very influenced by Robert Fripp, so it was kind of why not embrace some of the weirder…. When we formed Locrian as a duo the Robert Fripp and Brian Eno (No Pussyfooting) album was like our Mozart. So it was something that we felt crystalized already when we started, so it made sense. Still, it’s ours, you know?
Yeah, when I say “70s prog” I mean “the Locrian version of 70s prog.”
Yeah, yeah. Like the three-part song, or there’s a piano and strings. Yeah, we wanted to do that. For us it was like: “This is it. What if we don’t get to make another one? What if they hate it?” So, yeah. Definitely.
So, within that, I kind of want to latch onto “Obsolete Elegies.” Also because I think I’ve reached the conclusion that I would be willing to be buried with that song and “Holy Wars.”
Whoa! [laughs], that’s awesome.
I’m a big Megadeth person. And one of the reasons I want to talk about “Obsolete Elegies” is that it’s you revisiting an old idea. And the way you did that is why I find that revisiting so interesting, because you went into your past and picked up this rusty piece of metal that used to be part of who you were, was the kind of music you made and was completely within that scope, and you said “Alright, I still think that was a good idea. It might not have been realized or something, but it’s still a good idea. Let me bring it into the present, and by the time I’ll be done with it it’ll be a 1977, chrome-plated Coup de Ville. It’s so much more, and this is a very unprofessional term here, “fancy.”
So why did you go back? And why, when you did, did you take it there?
I think it was an idea that André had. Because he said that the original was on Drenched Lands, which was pre-Steven, and André just felt like there was something there that he wanted to get back to. And I was like: “That’s kind of a cool idea.” The original wasn’t that long, compared to the 15 minutes it became, and with that the idea that we would do something different with it but if you knew the record and you knew the deep cut you would go “Whoa, I know where this came from!” Or, if you were new to us and you noticed then you would maybe go back and listen to the origin.
And I think the other thing was that we wanted it to be a study in contrast – the opening, which is very subdued, to the very prog second movement, to the super-ambient third, to the absolute black metal of the end, with the million guitar solos everywhere. So we just wanted it to be this exercise in contrast. That was my contribution, I would go: “It needs a shift!” I would be playing the piano there for a while at Electrical, so that was that inspiration. And then the second movement became a whole song unto itself, which is still my favorite part of the record, actually. I had just gotten a Moog from Moog, they had just started sponsoring us, and it was very exciting and so I wanted to make a song that had this big, audible proggy bassline. And then the third movement is a really ambient piano that’s building up to the big ending.
And so finding the notes, and finding ways of doing it four different ways and making sure they shift in contrast…. I’m actually looking at the record right now, and I remember that the lyrics for the fourth part, “In Felsic Splendor,” those were inspired by Karl Marx. The last lines are a quote from Marx, actually: “To awaken the world from its dream of itself.” We had all this stuff in notebooks, phrases and stuff. I remember holding on to something and going: “I don’t know where this goes” [laughs], and then, when I was writing the lyrics, start to put it together. And we wanted for the whole record to be this dream that you can’t awake from. Like an artwork that’s very dream-like – chemical fogs, flooded, radioactive dumping grounds along the Mississippi River. I just wanted it to be this horrible place that just can’t be real but it’s 100-percent real. As if we live in a fantasy where we might see that the earth just stays the same, but then we realize that it’s not. We’re messing it up, terribly. We’ve been seeing it this summer, it’s horrible. So that quote is lining back throughout the whole song, through different forms of really obscure science about moving plates and atmospheric pressures and stuff [laughs], but basically that this is a shifting, changing world that feels like a dream or a nightmare that you can’t awake from.
That grand part of “Obsolete Elegies,” with the crazy keyboard run that sounds like a 70s krautrock explosion…. I mean, Locrian’s music, and I’ll get to one aspect of it in a second, always kind of sounds like a dream. I mean, I’ve never listened to Locrian for “the riffs.”
[Laughs]. I mean, the riffs are there, but I’m not there for that. I’m there for an experience
For something that’s engulfing, and spacious. But in that moment, and one of the reasons I love that song so much, you feel glorious. It feels like, if you’re still in the dream, then it’s the best fucking dream you’e ever had.
And if you’re not in the dream anymore, if you’ve waken up, then waking up is a good thing. Because the dream isn’t great. But that moment feels like a revelation. Like being alive. And the reason I like that so much is because often in metal, and I guess this is true of some experimental music as well, the sense of feeling something “real” is often embedded in the aesthetics of roughness. It’s real because it’s fucking heavy. But in that moment that’s not what it’s about. It’s real because it’s beautiful. About not being ashamed of the fact that you went to a Yes concert with your dad.
[Laughs] I’ll tell you about the times I went to see Peter Frampton and Bob Seger another time [laughs].
This is a safe space. So it’s about being OK with beauty. And you know, for a lot of people who are into underground music being real is an ugly thing. And you guys are, every time I listen to that part, like a fucking rainbow. A glorious moment of pretty.
One thing that I learned playing in Locrian that I also carried over to my other bands is that even if something is ugly there needs to be something in there that’s a little shimmer of something. It doesn’t have to be there the whole time, it can be buried there somewhere, but it needs to be there. And that’s just how it works for us, how we prefer. I would say that around Drenched Lands probably we revised what we do, that we could have grandiose moments. I think we thought that it might be more interesting to us if it takes time to get to this element of reward or resolve in a major key, you know? Something that just takes you out of what we just put you through. And, again, I’m a visual artist and that’s one of the things I teach – contrast. You make something much darker when you put something lighter next to it. And when you can do that with music, then suddenly the dark feels darker and glorious bright moments feels way better.
For sure. The rainbow doesn’t come out the way it does if there isn’t a droning guitar going on for a couple of minutes.
[Laughs] Yeah. I think it’s what I look for. It’s hard when you put on an album and the song accomplishes exactly what the last song did, or the structures are very similar. And it’s hard to find that piece that will break with it, that will give you something you need from their vision, that they will try something different. For us, I think we found something that works, that makes people listen. It makes us excited! We’re the ones writing it! A lot of our art, we make it for ourselves. We make the rules. We sit there and say “This needs more contrast, or more of this and that.” No one else cares! So we could have done the same a few more times, or go to the bridge, but we didn’t. We wanted to do something different.
I would have cared, Terence. I would have cared very deeply.
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean. We can’t help it. When we’re together it’s just what starts to happen. We start to think about how to make things more complex, how to make things not be something we’ve heard before. It becomes our way of working, we’re on this quest to find something. And everything we do is another step toward whatever that is.
The whatever it is that you’re looking for, in Locrian, for instance, when you guys are working together, is that related to whatever it is you’re looking for in your visual art? Or anywhere else? Iterations of the same question?
I think in some ways. That’s the musician that I am, at this point. I won’t be able to make a very successful indie-pop record any time soon [laughs]. Whatever it is that I do is going to be weird and a bit off and I’ve made my peace with who I am as a musician. So, it does carry over to the other things that I do. But, with Locrian that became our objective, to pursue whatever that thing is out there.
So, I have a question that’s kind of weird. I have a fascination with your vocals on Locrian. And the way I describe them to myself is “Someone being overcome by a natural phenomenon.” So you’re either drowning or very far away, or in a fog. It always feels like the voice is coming from beyond something, far away or coming from far away, sometimes appearing like a ghost. And obviously, if we wanted to go there, that style has its precedents in black metal, for instance, the “vocal beyond the mist” kind of thing, or just having the vocal low in the mix.
For me it was definitely like that Abruptum record or something like that, in just how weird the vocals were. And then I really enjoyed some of the American black metal bands in the early 2000s, like those early Xasthur records. As much as I love death metal, the record that made me feel differently about metal vocals was Carcass’ Heartwork. That was just: “Oh, I like that!” [Laughs]. It wasn’t the low growl of death metal or the hardcore shout, when I heard Heartwork it was “That’s what I like.” Raspier, higher register. Obviously black metal had existed, but that was before black metal made this huge impression on me. That was a big one. And, for me, I use a lot reverbs and I scream all the lyrics really slow, so that even if the music is very fast I’m sustaining this word for a few bars or whatever, and that’s just how I do it. I’m not going to be a grindcore vocalist [laughs], won’t be able to do it. But it does sustain things very long and that’s how I thought of it.
And, yes, I agree with you, I wanted it to be like a voice in the mist. Or even, if we go back to “Obsolete Elegies,” on the first part, “Isostasy,” I am growling the whole time and you don’t even notice it until the end. There are things that are subliminal growled at you. So for me, again, the screaming, the singing, the chanting, the whispering, I’m always thinking “What else can a voice do in this context and be scary?” [laughs].
Well, it is [laughs], it’s very scary. But it’s scary in a desperate way, which I guess kind of recalls Xasthur in that style. But the reason why I said this was weird question was that in preparation to our conversation I checked out an older lecture you gave and that I found on YouTube about the “about face,” the profil perdu. This idea of painting someone from behind. I really liked that idea you speak of of being a shorter guy in a metal show, and that part of that landscape is always going to be heads. You’re never going to have a clear, uninterrupted view of the thing itself. So I thought it was all very insightful and beautiful, but it made me think that a lot of the artwork or movies that you have as an example there, that’s basically your vocals.
That the person is turned away, yeah. Interesting.
Not just that he’s turned away, it’s a person who is part of a landscape that is much larger than he is. He’s not the main deal.
Yeah. Definitely. I think there are a lot of Romantic ideas about the landscape that I think about. I think there’s an interesting articles about landscape architectures about how the invention of the steam engine in England brought on this apocalyptic writing of “destroying the landscape with hellfire” and these poetic essays about how people didn’t want a train to go through their beautiful countryside. And I love finding those things, and I’m a fan of a lot of art about landscapes and stuff. So, I’m totally comfortable with that. And of course there are those Caspar David Friedrich paintings with the lone individual and in awe of the landscape, of a Turner painting that has not people and all landscape to the point of abstraction, where you can’t see where the ground is. And so I think that definitely fits. I like that, I might use that [laughs]. That’s a good observation.
Use it! I think it’s interesting, because there’s a lot of Romanticism involved in black metal, in general. Very nature-involved, melancholy, everything is big and I’m small.
Yeah, you read The Sorrows of Young Werther and you’re like [laughs]
Yeah, he’s a black metal incel.
So, there’s that kind of family resemblance, because black metal in general is interested in these themes. But in black metal often that comes with a sense of agency. Something like: “I might seem small, but it’s because the modern world has made me that way.” Or “I might be small, but my smallness is my power.” But with your vocals the sense I get is that it’s that, only without as much emphasis on the agency. More like: “I’m fucked.” Almost like a ghost passing through. So, it has that gothic, Romantic quality to it, but it’s almost sterile.
I view it as a kind of character. And that’s when I know it’s working. I will write the lyrics, and then record the vocals and go “I don’t know, I might come back to that,” and then when it starts to work it becomes: “Does it feel like the story? This ‘watcher’ that’s telling you what’s wrong with everything that’s around you, is he there?” So, it’s funny, you’re more specific, but in my head I just call him “the watcher” or “the observer.” That’s how I piece together lyrics, as q transmission from this person who’s out there.
You know with Return to Annihilation we were kind of writing this world that’s transforming, and that was the idea. And the impossibility of “return to annihilation,” since you can’t return if you’ve been annihilated. So, for example, on the title track the last word of the third part is “noctambulism,” like he’s sleepwalking through all this chaos and as the world transforms into halls of vapor and light, with mirrors that are reflecting these landscapes. So all very SciFi [laughs] but not too impossible to think of when you see flood images and start to think about a landscape of just reflections. How would you get that in the natural world? Through total destruction when something happens and everything just shifts entirely.
“The watcher” works very well with that idea you discuss with “profil perdu,” because you’re painting something that isn’t watching you. He’s looking at something else. So, you’re looking at him looking. Anyway. It’s just cool.
Next time you can interview me about my book in Hebrew, we’ll call it even.
But, we all know that the album you planned got pushed back by the pandemic [which was then finally released in 2022, [MM feeling guilty about how much time it takes to transcribe!] which makes it the biggest gap between Locrian albums, by far. And so I wanted to ask you how did that feel coming back to making stuff with a band after all that time?
It was tough. I mean, it was great, and it was wonderful. In the last few years I don’t think there was a week I don’t talk to Steven or André. The irony was that we were supposed to record and then COVID happened, but we’ve been practicing. André came to Baltimore, and we would demo stuff and work things out. So, we’ve been working. But obviously the plan was messed up. But going back together was a mixed bag because I also wished we got back earlier, while, you know, it’s nice to know that you can get back to the studio with your bandmates and it’s like no time passed and you’re having a really good time.
We recorded with J. Robbins of Jawbox, who’s a noted recording engineer, albeit not for any drone metal stuff. But I recorded with him with the Holy Circle and I just knew I trusted J. very much and J. is a very creative engineer who I know could get in there with the three of us and have ideas and be open, and he was. It was amazing. If we wanted to do something then it was immediately mic’d up and ready to go and he was 100 percent up to do it. It was kind of a relief that we had someone who knew what he was doing [laughs]. We had a few sketches going in, but we kind of deliberately came in with more of a direction toward drone and ambient. We were very pleased.
Alright. So, last question. By the way, when you mentioned it was important to have some melody next to the ugly stuff – that’s “Holy Wars!” Just saying!
[Laughs] That record, when it came out, was the most important thing to me. I would stay up late to watch the “Hangar 18” video.
Music to my ears!
My son loves that video.
Well, yeah, it’s the most ridiculous video ever.
Yeah well, my son and the “Hanger 18” video [laughs]
Well, no joke but the intro to “Holy Wars” with the galloping riffs and then there’s that almost slight melodic solo?
That’s the paradigm of “melody next to ugly thing” in my mind.
I love that song. Because it’s “Holy Wars” dot, dot, dot “The Punishment Due [laughs] and I remember that confused me so much when I was a kid. “What’s that mean!? What’s the ‘punishment due’?”
One of the things that I’ve encountered repeatedly in doing interviews for this series but also for the 90s series is that sometimes the things you thought were genius was just stuff happening randomly in the studio. It kind of stumbles your way, and you find it beautiful, but really no one really meant it to be exactly that.
OK – Last question: Is there anything about Return to Annihilation that you’re still proud of, or that you think held up especially well?
I honestly feel the whole thing. I felt like we fought for all the right stuff – the artwork, the mastering, everything. And when I put it on, it’s fun. I remember all the ideas, all the stuff we were trying out. And that we accomplished it, that’s the other thing. When you’re trying to do four contrasting movements within the same song with a similar riff form an older song and it’s interesting, and to hear how much it has meant to you, that’s definitely it. But, again, I put it on a few days ago thinking “I should probably listen to this if we’re going to talk about it”…. And I do that once in a while when we’re working on new material, I’ll put on some of the older stuff and think about whether it fits well together. But, yeah, I’m always going to be proud of that album, I always felt like we didn’t compromise anywhere – not that we were asked to. Relapse was 100-percent supportive, from the artwork and the design to what we sent them. I mean, I know André isn’t completely happy with the guitar solos he did in certain parts, but I think I was always going: “Do more! Do more!” [laughs]. I mean, [the listeners] just listened to ten minutes of static and drones, let’s go out with a bang.
So yeah, when I look back I think that we did what we wanted to do, and that’s pretty great. I feel really good about it.