MACHINE MUSIC'S ALBUM OF THE YEAR: AN INTERVIEW WITH SkyThala
Album: Boreal Despair
Label: Moonlight Cypress Archetypes / I, Voidhanger Records
Favorite Song: "Variegated Stances of Self Mockery"
The Bare Bones: Boreal Despair is the debut album from American black metal/classical project SkyThala, featuring members of the Moonlight Cypress Archetypes collective (Primeval Well, Vile Haint, Crestfallen Dusk, et al).
The Beating Heart: Out of the three AOTY entries for 2022* SkyThala's debut came latest in the year, co-released by Moonlight Cypress Archetypes and the great I, Voidhanger Records, mid-November. In order, however, to fully explain the impact the album had on me in such a relatively short span of time, I must first lay here a short list of facts:
1. I have been a huge fan of MCA-related artists for a few years now, beginning with the stunning debut by Primeval Well (introduced to me by friend of the show and genius, Caio Lemos).
2. I have spent the last year or so really getting seriously into modern classical music, specifically Ligeti, Saariaho, Penderecki, and others (I've even devoted a developing Spotify playlist to the topic).
3. I am a lifelong admirer of complicated things made to be entertaining or affecting, and home come to appreciate that ability perhaps beyond any other.
So, combining my already immense admiration for anything that comes out of the MCA camp, my current obsession with modern classical music and just how fucking heavy that shit is, along with the all-important element #3 stated above, my reaction to Boreal Despair was immediate. It took everything that is heavy and distorted about the classical tradition, grounded it with some incredible gnarly riffing and hyper-intense, at-times-almost-brutal-death-metal drumming, and delivering what has to be one of the most casually mind-fucking albums I have ever heard. And there exactly lies the magic, not just in SkyThala's ability to fuck your brain, but how casually they go about it. An organic, cohesive, assault on extreme music, and one of the most well-crafted, well-executed, and, yes, enjoyable pieces of avant-garde metal you will ever hear.
Thus, I present to you an in-depth exploration of the mind of Skythala guitar and co-composer Ryan Clackner. Hope you enjoy it. I sure did.
* Note: This is AOTY interview #2. For the first interview, with Scarcity, go here. And here's my full AOTY list.
These were a couple of years in which isolation and death seemed to reign supreme, and they caught me, on that personal level, in the middle of some significant, mostly positive, upheaval. Through that, one of the brightest points of light have been the kind, generous people who read my words, support my Patreon, or just send a nice message once every now and then. You all made this past year that much more livable. My endless thanks.
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Do you remember a moment you had as a younger person that kind of rewired your brain when it came to music. I often think of these in terms of being frightened, but it doesn't have to be. But it does have kind of an element of shock, like: “I didn't know music could be like this!” With the added caveat that obviously when you're a person like yourself who's always engaged with music, that might happen today. So I guess I'm not looking for today but for the one that happened when you were younger.
Where I grew up, nobody listened to metal. Everybody listened to punk, and I hated it, and. So I had an aunt, my aunt Melissa, who liked hair metal, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, Motley crew, and all that crap. And somehow a Down song got on the radio, “Stone the Crow” off of NOLA, and so I really got into that album. It wasn't that much longer after that that The Great Southern Trendkill came out. I mean that actually scared me, you know, because I was, whatever, 10 years old or something, and I remember thinking that the singer from Pantera really sounded like a rip off of the guy from Down [laughs].
I think all I really listened to when I was a kid was what they call mainstream metal now. We call it that because we have the Internet, but back then everybody did, they were just buying CD's or tapes. I started playing guitar when I was in 8th grade, so that's 13 years old. And when I was like a little kid, all the way back to first grade at seven years old or something, I was listening to music. But I never saw myself as a musician. And then eventually, somebody had a guitar and I just became obsessed with it immediately, and then my grandparents gave me a guitar when I was 13. And it wasn't very long after that that the teacher that I had at the time just said: “You know. you're progressing very quickly and you have some natural talent. You seem to be smart, those Metallica or Pantera songs you're gonna be able to do that in like a month. Why don't you do something that's really, really hard,” and he said: “You should join the jazz band in your school.” So, I think in like eighth or ninth grade, at the beginning of high school, I started Jazz studies, and that shit was truly terrifying on a whole other level than anything I’ve heard before.
What terrifying? I assume a different terrifying than “Suicide Note Pt. 2”?
Yeah, because it just cracked open the bigger-picture ideas. I was still very young. I'm 39 now, looking back on it…. The guy who did it for me was Coltrane. And so I started listening to Coltrane when I was fucking young, like 14 or 15, you know. And I became obsessed with him, I mean, completely fucking obsessed, for a long time, going all the way from the beginning of his career up until his death. I was obsessed with all of it.
Was this happening parallel to the metal stuff? Was it replacing it?
It kind of replaced it, but, you know, obviously I never could get rid of it. I've tried to disown anything metal-related four or five different times in my life, for one reason or another…
[Laughs] … and I just can't do it. All this stuff that me and you have talked about since we came in contact with each other [about metal bands that bring in classical or jazz influences], I mean, it's as much born out of a frustration of that, as anything else. Eventually, as I've gotten older, a kind of acceptance of that. I think you see that split a lot. I think we’ve [in earlier conversations] mentioned Imperial Triumphant. I feel like this is a thing with guys that are about 40 years old now, who also have either jazz or classical training…. This is a psychological split that I don’t think is unique to me in any way. But I maybe went about it a somewhat different way.
You're talking about a psychological split between what that primal side of you that wants to do metal but kind of cringes at metal or the scene aspect of it, and then accepts these more intellectual, broader landscapes of jazz or modern classical or stuff like that?
Yeah, it's the co-inhabitation of both of those. But it's also the inverse of that, because, having had the jazz training I was actively involved in the scene of jazz in the Northeast for a long time, and that to me makes me cringe, I think, maybe almost more deeply than the metal people, because I would regard the metal crowd, similarly to the folk or country crowd, in that there's like a hypothetical innocence that jazz and classical people by nature cannot have, because of the intellectual study required.
I think it’s an innocence, but also…. I actually used to think about this quite a bit about “cheese” in metal, and the critical – I'm talking from our critique standpoint – importance of being cheesy. I myself don't listen to cheesy metal, as much. I mean obviously all the metal I used to listen to in the 80s and 90s is now considered cheesy by default. But even in that era, I didn't listen to a lot of the cheesier stuff, but I've come to appreciate the kind of cap it puts on intellectual noodling, right?
Because it's not just innocent – a lot of metalheads are very sophisticated. But bottom line, what they're saying is: “I'm here to have a good time.” I've never been involved in a jazz scene that way, but I feel like that might not always a possibility when you're kind of on this kind of never-ending loop of of intellectualism, you can never say: “I'm having a blast,” it always has to be something a little more “substantial” than that.
Yeah. Well, black metal has that stink on it too, you know, except it's not necessarily intellectual.
Yeah, yeah for sure.
How do we say, it's a pseudo-theistic, pseudo-anti-cosmic, pseudo-cosmic, blah blah blah. It’s whatever.
You do get some of the second-wave stuff a bit looser about that. Darkthrone, I mean, they pretty much live on the fact that all they're doing is having a good time, to the infuriation of their audience. Or a band like Emperor, for a while there they had to notice how cheesy they were. But I would say black metal today, for sure. I mean, obviously having its roots in a couple of too-serious people in the 90s, but a lot of black. Black metal today is very self-serious. In that jazz way.
I mean so you did your job very well with that, but the first question you kind of spread that open for me in how you outline the two kinds of scary. On the one hand you have Pantera, but then on the other hand, Coltrane. And you said something about being scared by opening up bigger-picture ideas. Were you aware at 13 that they were big picture ideas? That they were an expansion of something that you already were thinking about? Or is that more you thinking back?
When I was at that age I was really obsessed with reading biographies, and I would read biographies of every musician that I cared about. And I was also studying jazz privately, and…. So, I grew up in the Northeast, in New Jersey. And jazz is still a viable subculture of the mainstream there. Sort of like bluegrass is where I live now, in East Tennessee, right? Jazz is not in any way a folk music, but it is kind of a regional music if you will. So, they have schools and all kinds of extracurricular shit devoted to children and teaching them how to play. Because it's a big thing. it's not like strumming power chords on a guitar, it's a much bigger project. So, I was taking private lessons, and I was going to these like weekend jazz schools and, for fun, reading these biographies.
So I say all that to mention, specifically, that there were kids who were in that program with me who are now famous jazz musicians who were and are on Coltrane's level as people and as players, and they're out there now. And I knew it back then. It was terrifying, in a very literal sense, that there are people that are actual, legitimate prodigies, legitimate geniuses, not just like some guy who thinks that he’s great or whatever. No, they really actually are. And it was like that all through college into my first year out of college. My first year out of any kind of schooling whatsoever, and all of my friends did go into New York City and I fucked off and went to Tennessee, and have been here ever since because I didn't want anything to do with it, for the most part.
So, you didn't want to have anything to do with it because you felt like you weren't good enough to pursue it?
No, I was. I was definitely good enough, that was beside the point. It was that I just thought I didn't want to live in a shoebox apartment for $3000 a month. You know, it's really funny that you said something about the scene, the “scene,” so to speak, and I assume that people say “scene” usually referring to some kind of extreme metal underground crap. Something that I'm not really particularly connected to, because I hardly ever leave my house. But, the jazz scene that I was involved with in my early 20s…. I mean, I moved here when I was either 22 or 23, and I just felt like an alien. I still feel like an alien. I'm just not young anymore and so I don't really care. The kind of [music] that I sent you, like Spintria, for example, I started hearing that kind of shit in my head when I was that age and, along with StumpTail, which is the kind of music that goes all the way back. The black metal shit is newer, that's just something I got into much more recently, say in the last 10 years or so. Which, again, is another one of those funny things, when I said I had tried to disown metal numerous times. I literally tried to disown jazz too. I moved to fucking Nashville because I just realized that I could play live music there all the time, and I moved there and realized it's the worst fucking music on the entire Goddamn planet [laughs]. It was a terrible idea. But you know it did what I wanted to do. It got me out of my hometown.
What is the accumulation of all these disownings? Do they amount to anything?
Yeah, of course. I mean, it amounted to, eventually, while I was in Nashville, I just disowned Nashville [laughs]
During the last five years that I lived there I worked in a sober-living halfway house. I did night shift jobs, because everybody was asleep. So, I would just monitor these guys and make sure they weren't sneaking off and doing heroin or something stupid, and otherwise I didn't have to do anything. So I spent all that time, five years, alone. Literally alone. Literally in the dark in this halfway house out in the woods, listening to black metal taking all the different stuff – jazz, you know, everything we've talked about so far – and writing one song after the other and really just saying: “Whether I like it or not, this clearly is who I am. I can't deny it. I can't fight it, I can't push it away. I can't. I can't deny that I have this extremely antagonistic impulse, at times which falls 100% into, you know, a black metal context.” And I also have this urge to fly away into exorbitant concepts that are much more analogous to something like jazz or contemporary classical. I get sick of all of that shit, and I want to just listen to something that feels like the real world, and that can be easily represented by something more like country music, as an umbrella. It's definitely not limited to just mainstream country music by any means, but that's a good title.
This is interesting to me – and this is not where I was going to go next, but this is where we are so let's be there – because one of the things that we corresponded about a while back when we were talking about this, about the SkyThala album, is our mutual interest in this idea of everything going on at once in the music. And this is something that I've been thinking about quite a bit, rooted mostly in the fact that…. There's “Exhibit A,” which is: “I love Megadeth.”
That guy lives in Nashville.
He does, yes he does.
And his daughter is a songwriter. She's out all the time.
Yes, I know that she's a country singer. So, that's kind Exhibit A. And, liking Megadeth always confronts you with the fact that you do. A band like Metallica or Pantera, when you're younger, no one really questions that because they're the golden standard for that era of music. It might be a boring choice, but it's not a questionable choice. But when you like Megadeth, you're always confronted with the fact that it's a strange choice compared to those others because of the vocals, because it's tedious to some people, and so on. And I loved all of it. I loved the tedium, I loved the fact that there are transitions every five riffs, I loved the weird vocals.
So, as you said, like when you grow older, you stop fighting who you are and start investigating who you are. And one of the things that has come up is this idea of being bored. Or of having a difficult time holding one concept or one idea for too long before they get rid of it for another one that seems to be a shared aesthetic position for a lot of music that I like for a lot of music that I like. I see you're nodding your head. So, I guess the question would be to what extent are you aesthetically informed by “I love this black metal” and then five seconds later going: “I'm sick of black metal.” Does that dynamic inform how you write music?
Much more so going back five to 10 years. You could characterize it searching, looking for a sound: [in a mocking voice] “Trying to find yourself.” All that crap, right?
[Laughs] Hippy voice noted.
Yeah exactly. You know, shit that you would do if you were a somewhat stunted and frustrated person like I was in my late 20s. I moved to Tennessee having fairly serious drinking problems that I squashed when I was 27. So I didn't really get on with working this shit out until my late 20s, early 30s. By that time I was super jumpy, going from one thing to the next. Whatever heavy thing I was listening to, and then I would freak out and realized I needed to try to balance it with some kind of dissonant thing, and then: “Oh well, I have to have a train beat here,” or whatever country thing. I wouldn't say, for me personally, that it was a boredom with any of the styles, it was more like a kind of anxiety / identity disorder that would cause me to jump from one thing to the next without being able to actually settle on anything or dig into anything in a way that would really be appropriate.
And you feel like you're more settled now?
Well, yeah, I mean, God, I've been doing nothing but writing music for the last like eight years. I mean, the shit I've released is just like the tip of the iceberg. I think that writing is one of those things where you…. For me, initially writing, like I said, came more out of anxiety and eventually it's more like journaling, at this point. Just writing my own thoughts down, my experiences. I just basically don't give a shit enough anymore to lie, so to speak. Which is to say to try, to try to make anything be anything else than how it comes to me. There's an element of craftsmanship, but there's also an element of this music being a gift. A transmission from the other side, so to speak. What do you want to call it: God? The universe? The muses? or whatever. I don't care. It's beside the point, it's just to say that it comes to me when it wants to, and I write it down. I can work it out a little bit, and then it's done.
I accept this, I have no choice but to accept this. But I want to push back slightly in two different ways. So one would be to say that if everything is so settled, and everything is “you doing you” – if we shall speak in Netflix terms – how does that sit with the fact that there are many versions of you? It’s not just one band, or one Ryan there, right?
Yeah, that’s a totally contradictory statement.
[Laughs] I'm being polite. So there's that. And then the other thing I want to push back with is to ask: Is it a contradiction in terms – it might not be – to say “I'm settled” and yet produce music that is not settled. So, answer whichever of those you feel like.
To me, in my mind it would shake down that essentially you're asking me: “Is the process the same as the result?” So, obviously not. I guess more what I was saying in how I perceived it was to describe to you more the process rather than the results, because the results are obviously completely fucking nuts [laughs].
[Laughs] In the best way.
[Laughs] I mean, I hope so. I like it. I mean really that's what it is. That the settling, as you call, is me being settled in myself as a person so that I can allow this music to come out, at least in a raw-materials context. So, for example: a lot of the time when I say I'm going to sit down and write, nothing happens. But when I first get up and go grab the guitar, I'll be there for two hours and I'll have two or three new songs that just “fell out.” Or, if I say “OK, I'm going to go to bed now,” turn the lights off, and six fucking seconds later here comes some melody and I just know I'm not going to remember it. So I just gotta get up and go. I would call that the raw materials. That’s really not even a process, that's more like seeing something beautiful and having the sense to take a picture of it, because you like visual things…
I don't mean to disrupt your flow, but do you feel like that is a process you have been able to refine? Is that a skill that you are better at?
No. To me that's just an obedience.
So, are you better at being obedient?
Oh, yeah! I don't want to lose that shit! But then the next day then I'll sit there, say I just recorded with my phone, then I'll sit there with the phone recording and listen to it and meditate on it. And then I'll take the guitar out or whatever and develop it. Basically if this makes sense with any given band that already exists then I'll lump it into that category, and then start working on it from that angle.
Furthermore, to that end: yeah, there are a lot of different bands. The idea of Moonlight [Cypress Archetypes] when it first started was that each one of these bands…. Imagine being at an old-time bowling alley. I don't know how they do it where you live, but here people used to bowl in the grass, right? They would just literally take some pins and stick them up on a flat field, and you would take your bowling ball and just roll it across your fucking grass, or your yard, or whatever. In America there's a bowling green, where the primeval bass player is from. It's a common name, it's where it comes from. It literally means that people used to just bowl there. So, the ball is like a band, like Vile Haint. You take the idea of Vile Haint, that’s your ball. You throw it, it goes in a straight line, and however long it goes, that’s how long the idea will last, right? I want to see what happens with each thing if I can keep it moving in a straight line, and continuously develop it, but without changing its essential characteristics. So, whether it's Vile Haint or Primeval Well, or whatever, they're essentially…. I mean, they are a lot of things, but on a writing scale they're like a challenge to myself to see if I can splinter myself in all these different ways without having a mental breakdown or dying, because I've separated it all in so many different ways. But they are distinct, they feel different to me, they come from different places. I don't know, maybe that answers your question.
It does kind of, but I guess you clarified the most important point, that you are talking as someone who is talking about his process of writing being settled, or being more comfortable, whereas I am talking to you as a listener and saying: “Well that sounds all kooky, how does this kooky stuff come from a settled person?” I mean, to be fair, it's kind of a trick question, because no one said that settled people or settled artists sound settled. That would be a ridiculous thing to argue. But there is something to be said in being settled in the fact that you are not a settled artist, being OK with the multiplicity of voices.
I think it's just like turning on the faucet and you know that water is gonna come out. Instead of it being like “I have to have a mental breakdown” or “The country has to be in political unrest” or “I have to be on heroin,” you know? Because you hear people say shit like that all the time. I remember being a kid and listening to Al Jourgensen of Ministry say he can only write when there's a Republican in office.
That is the most Al Jourgensen thing to say, ever.
Yeah. Like, if you need something to hate in order to, whatever, then that’s what does it.
I think I relate to that on a personal level. There was never any suspicion that I would ever grow up to be a musician, that was never my lane, as a person who makes things. It was always kind of on the writing angle, and even that only came to fruition very recently. But when you study artists, and when you read their biographies, the necessity of pain and the necessity of inspiration…. One of the lines you hear a lot is “ I write because I have to.” And when you're young and you hear that you think “Well, if this person doesn't write, he'll die,” Like he's a screamo vocalist – if he doesn't come out, he'll collapse, right? And that alienated me because I'm like: “I'm doing OK, generally speaking, so this isn’t really relatable to me.” And it was only that I was much older that I realized that, in a very mundane way, if I don't write, I become an insufferable person. So it's not that I can't endure without it. I can, obviously. But life is just much more difficult and much more strenuous, and much more chaotic for me if I don't.
And sometimes – I know this is me about myself – what this amounts to is that you're sitting somewhere, and you're saying “I'm in a very bad mood. I'm having a very bad day.” And instead of saying: “Well, tomorrow will be better.” You can say: “No, I can actually do something that improves my life, I can do it now. I can open the faucet,” if you will, “and water will come out, and I can drink and not just accept the fact that I'm thirsty.” That to me is a way to grow up and understand that art isn't what other people tell you it is. It's whatever you want it to be.
And that by doing that you actually participate in it. Which to me is a very strange thing. You feel like someone who's defined himself as a musician since he was in utero, but I find that that self-definition as artists is still something that I struggle with just because of how it was presented to me by other people. But, fuck all that. So, I had a question about SkyThala. I originally wanted to ask you if you ever felt like you were part of a scene, but I think we established that part very clearly.
Oh God, no. No, I have Never felt wanted in a scene, or particularly like I really wanted to be there. To be both clear and fair to every other human that I've ever met in my life, that wasn't exclusive to music, much less the music that I have mentioned and or have been physically involved in. And this taps into stuff that’s way too personal to go into. But, when I was a kid, if the choice was to hang out with my friends, then I would say: “No, I'm gonna go to my grandparents house to play in the woods” [laughs]. And I would get lonely, but that's really what I wanted to do – run around in the woods with my grandfather.
This is a theme – you can recall that I said that I spent five years working night shift, alone. Working the night shift is tough as it is, but doing it alone…. And I wasn't dating anyone when that was happening too, so I literally spent five years alone in the dark. And it's like not the first time that I had been in some kind of fairly isolated situation like that. So, going back to the scene…
So you're saying that not fitting in a scene has more to do with you not fitting in general than not fitting in any specific scene?
Yeah. It isn't their fault, so to speak. And, to be clear, it's not mine either, right? It’s just that life has its way with all of us. As I've gotten older I just stopped them for being cringey and I stopped fighting myself for hating them for being cringey, and I stopped fighting myself for being so fucking hateful and cringey myself that I'm practically a black metal cartoon in that sense sometimes.
[Laughs] Complete with woods and isolation, the whole thing.
Everything, it’s all there [laugh]. It is really kind of funny, because you don't choose. But I’ve also stopped fighting. So I guess to try to make some sense out of all of this, the process is a representation of not hating myself and everybody else anymore, and just saying “This is what I am. This is what's going to come out, and what's going to come out It's going to be totally fucking nuts.” And I love it. And that's OK. It just is what it is. It's just a kind of representation of a person who's been alive for a while.
And SkyThala is an interesting thing for me because when I was in college I was obsessed with Stravinsky and I used to take lessons with classical theory professors, and we would sit down and look at the scores and, god damn, man, talk about something being scary. If you look at the book for The Rite of Spring, it’s probably close to three feet [thick], and the staff for each instrument is huge. So, you're talking about pushing probably 40 instruments, all going at once. The scale of vision of something like The Rite of Spring, for example, is, when you actually can open your mind to it, it's so huge that it's really incomprehensible. And the fact that not only is it incomprehensibly large, but the vision that he unleashed on people at that time was so offensive and so insane that they rioted and burned that opera house down, they burned it to the fucking ground. And this was over 100 years ago. Because it was just so violent and fucked up.
There’s no doubt in my mind that every black metal guy in the world would tap into that, if possible. But the thing that obviously the barrier is the scope of that music is vast, and it's also just extremely technical and a lot of it is still really, if I had to sit there and actually analyze it, would be kind of over my head. We just wanted to take the obvious things from it and find the obvious, or at least what was obvious to me and Edward, crossover points. It's just also obvious that if you were to take something like an oboe or a bassoon and place it in there with all the blast beats. Just that fact alone, that would come across to people as a dissonance, a psychological dissonance, a cognitive dissonance, even if it isn't 100% on the scale that Stravinsky was actually playing at, it's still like a fairly big picture for a black metal band to strive towards.
Yeah. So, I have a couple of things I want to ask about that, one having to do with…
Also, hold on, it’s really worth mentioning really quickly that SkyThala started as a joke. It's really important to remember that, and for me to say that to you. And I don't care if you put that in the interview or publish….
I'm putting in everything. But wait, what’s the joke?
Well, because it was so outrageous. Edward and I both love classical music, we listen to it all the time. It's the main thing I listen to. Him too, it's just ridiculous. Like what were we gonna do? Go hire a fucking orchestra? I don't know how to score anything. I don't know how to orchestrate. So it started as a joke, and we just said “Oh yeah, we'll do that one day in 10 years or something.” And then the riffs started coming to me, and then Edward said: “Well, I'll buy the orchestration software.” And then we just, piece by piece, started fucking around with it, and it ended up just coming together to the point of saying: “OK, yeah, maybe this is actually doable.” We went through the entire process all the way up into the mixing with both of us going: “I don't know if this is a good idea or not. This might be really, really stupid.
[Laughs] That is very important, I’m very happy you added that. But so I'll ask the question I wanted to ask. I find it very interesting that it started off as a joke just because it was just such a huge undertaking. And I think I think you said that you know just by hearing the oboe people will get, you know, fucked, which is correct. But, my sense, and I’ve already…. I sent Luciano of Voidhanger a message the second I finished listening to the promo. And I've been a huge fan of his label for many years, And I said “This might be the best album you ever put out.” So the effect of all that “too muchness,” which is a recurring theme for me, is a very surprising sense of cohesion. It doesn't feel scattered, the oboe doesn't feel out of place, the modern classical breakdowns don't feel weird. It feels like the whole thing is an organic whole that just works together. And so I wonder if that is disappointing to you. Because maybe you wanted me to burn down the opera house. Maybe you didn't want me to enjoy it. But the whole thing just works.
I mean, we live in a different time than Stravinsky. There's not very many things that I can think of that we would do nowadays that would actually cause people to a) give a fuck and b) give a fuck enough to do something violent about it. There's not much, especially in America, we don't really seem to care very much about anything here [laughs].
Actually, to that point, I think Liturgy was going for that at a certain point in time.
Yeah, sure. I think I touched on this in one of our online conversations that we had, but I don't think I could have done this one first. We had to do Primeval Well and we had to do StumpTail – those two specifically, because they have the most genre bending, and really probably StumpTail more than Primeval, to me. Primeval Well is more settled, StumpTail is very openly neurotic, and it really, without any warning whatsoever, shifts around from genre to genre. Primeval is more cohesive in terms of the mood and the overall effect.
With SkyThala, and moving forward, the whole idea was to swap out any reference to anything like American folk music or anything like that, completely just cut that out altogether. And swapping in Stravinsky instead of banjo bullshit, or whatever. And said: “OK, well, it's not going to be a banjo, we're going to use an oboe instead.” And then we realized: “OK, the one oboe is not really enough, we need sections, we actually need a string section, we actually need a trombone section, we actually need multiple bassoons, to really capture Stravinsky.” Especially with The Rite of Spring, those instrumentations for us are what really stood out. And it blended pretty well. Not as perfectly as I hoped that it would, but it blended really well, all things considered. If you say: “Stravinsky, though, it really stretches everything out-of-the-box, so it can't just be the instrumentation, it's also that rhythmically it has to be extremely fucked, and harmonically…” It’s just that there are certain basic tenets that he used in all of that stuff, for lack of a better word. The music's happening in two keys at once, and rhythmically, it isn’t so much what people freak out about, as far as either odd times or polyrhythms. But it's more like where it's shifting constantly, so it never really settles on anything.
I actually wanted to ask you about that specifically. One of the things that kind of recurs in the music I'm interested in is that the drums have a very important role in creating disorientation. I'm not talking about SkyThala, I’m talking in general. There's this breakthrough that happens in post rock and then metal, where the drummers discover that they are musicians and start acting like musicians. And when the drummer starts acting like a musician within the general context of a rock song, that can have a very disorienting, jarring effect.
Where it’s like you're seasick, you don't know what the rhythm is, but it can also open up more space, bringing in a kind of meditation into the proceedings. And so a lot of the bands I like have drummers who do weird shit, or do very groovy shit when they're not supposed to. When I listened to SkyThala, the first thing that came to my mind when I listened to it for the first very first time was: “That’s funny, this sounds like grindcore drumming.” And when I was preparing to talk to you, I listened to it again and again – mostly because I just love it – and it dawned on me that the drummer is playing straight the whole album. The entire album is either blast beats or straight up 4/4, so that all the chaotic energy is not coming from the drums at all. The drums are the straight man in this comic duo. All the funny stuff is happening in the orchestra, from the guitars, from the vocals. And so that was the first realization. The second realization was that the introduction of space or spaciness to the album is not through the drums doing freaky shit, but through sectionally. So there are a lot of sections. The drums are still straight in all those sections, but the sections change. And often at least once a song the drums drop off completely. There's this floating, sometimes modern classical, sometimes weird kind of sense of disorientation because the drums aren't there because they're so steady all the time. So does any of that make sense?
Yeah, totally. I mean, it's one of those things that are really in development, in the future it could end up being very different. But for this album we definitely needed that, because those riffs are really heavy and they didn't really need free-jazz drumming, they needed muscle. And a lot of those riffs….I think everything but the last song was all done on my baritone guitar, so it's pretty low. I mean, the drums are pretty straight, but they're not really as straight as you might think. They match the guitars, and a lot of the riffs are meant to be pretty deceptively simple, and that's one of those key things about Stravinsky's writing, that it might actually be some kind of fairly gnarly thing if you were to write it down and actually look at what it was. But the repetition, where it happens over and over again, can be so deceptive that you really lose sense of what's actually happening, and he's playing the guitar. So the guitar and the drums, they're utterly synched, which is, you know, a metal standard, right? So, the drummers you’re talking about…. OK, for example: I've been listening to a lot of Ved Buens Ende, I listened to these albums just for the drummer alone. That's just the opposite.
I write everything where it's almost like I am in that role myself, and then it kind of straightjackets the drummers into playing a little more – even though the writing itself is really fucked, the drums have to kind of go along with it, because otherwise it would just be a big mess.
I mean, they're a great example. By the way, I interviewed them for the 90s project I’m doing. But I would even go as far as to say that the best opposite to this is Virus, because Virus is his band. It's really interesting, because when we were corresponding about music that happens all at once, and how it's strange and very soothing and fulfilling for me but a huge headache for any other normal person.
So the banner for that is the banner for that is Virus. Because Virus to me is candy. I listen to Virus when I want to feel good. But most people when they listen to Virus probably want to kill themselves, right? It's not what they would consider “feel good.” And a lot of it has to do exactly what you just said, with the seasick feeling that the drummer is creating where everything, including the riffs, is shifting. So you're saying the music was fucked as it was that you needed a drummer to really kind of pull it in. But it's such an interesting way of pulling it in, maybe because of the way the drums are recorded and maybe the associations I'm getting from how they're recorded, but it really sounds like grindcore, brutal death metal drums going at 100, as opposed to even blast-beating black metal drums. They sound brutal. In a great way.
I think that probably has a lot to do with his snare too. He's got the high-Pitched snare. It cuts through. And, really, at that point, with an album like that, it would be hard really to truly call it black metal. I think it just moved off into its own little thing, because genre norms are pretty much gone. But, calling it death metal, I would say that's kind of inconceivable because I think, and I feel sort of shameful admitting this, but I've probably listened to like 10 death metal albums in my entire life, and not recently. It's not my thing.
I get that. In a weird way after I listen to SkyThala the album I want to hear after is a Ligeti album.
Yeah, well, that's what I was going to say…. We've already been talking about the new album, and we already agreed that we're going to. We're going to dump Stravinsky and go for Ligeti on the next one.
I'm sure there will still be references to Stravinsky, because that's…. The funny thing is, if you listen to a lot of Stravinsky and then go listen to the other crap that all the other bands on Moonlight – the Stravinsky influence is there, and no one has ever nailed me for it before. And I'm kind of surprised, it's just extremely overt. With SkyThala it was a good way to move it into something that Edward and I both wanted to do. But now that we did that one, we're already looking at the next thing, like I said, Ligeti is the guy. So, we've already been talking with the drummer, with Sean, saying: “OK, it's gonna be a lot more fucked up. It's gonna be a much more spread, where. I love Jute Gyte, you listen to his stuff, I’m assuming.
I mean, not a lot because I get headaches after a very short listen.
Yeah. Talk about being fucking seasick. But, it's something where the drums and the guitar are going for full-on rhythmic mayhem. Stravinsky had it, but it was barbaric. Whereas with Liget it's more deceptive and floaty.
Yeah, Ligeti makes deconstructed music sound pretty, which is such an impossible thing.
Yeah, super tricky.
It's so funny that you were actually mentioning his name. I've been obsessing over him for the last six months. I'm kind of in an identity crisis lately, being a person who started a blog about metal who only listens to Ligeti.
Well dude, it's incredibly beautiful dark music.
And it’s scary.
It's totally scary. That's what I'm saying about all this crap is that a more adventurous metal type would be able to get something out of somebody like Ligeti, and that's specifically what I look for. And what inspires me is finding those places where the genres cross over, so to speak. It's not a literal crossover, it's not like Ligeti ever… I can't imagine that guy ever gave a rat's ass about metal, and I don't think most metal people would give a rat’s ass about him, outside of the where his music was used in film. But, nonetheless, in terms of its overall effect, in the game of perception, if you will, there definitely is some crossover territory.
Especially, for me, the orchestral pieces. And for me the shit that gets me the most is the orchestral pieces that have the choral arrangements. They're terrifying. You know, it's true, it's totally terrifying music, it's mind bending, absolutely.
In such a great way.
And It's very musical.
I don't know what kind of mind creates music that sounds like that. I mean, I know it's such a trite thing to say, but it really boggles my mind when I listen to it. But that leads me to something you wrote when we corresponded. Something about, andI'm paraphrasing, that whatever it is the internet has done to music has not yet really been fully realized.
Oh totally, not at all.
This obviously taps into a lot of the conversation we've been having about the scenes.
Because Moonlight is very much an internet-type setup, right? In terms of audience, but also in terms of genre, mixing and matching and doing whatever. So I wondered what you think that change means? What do you think the Internet should be doing to how we think about music and how we make it or consume it, or whatever?
I don't know, that's hard to answer. I think that we're basically a quarter of the way into a new century, in a new Millennium, and we are largely still feasting on the collapse and decay of the 20th century and its innovations, which are similar in scope to the Internet, but I think the Internet would completely eclipse even the industrial revolution. So, what should it do? I don't know, because the Internet has infinite potential.
You’ve said you indicated there was a certain shift happening, so where do you see that happening?
Well, I think, first of all, it already happened. I think the change has already been made. It's hard to even describe, it’s a collective hive mind entity that is partially propelled by AI, but also partially propelled and blocked by human nature, which is brilliant and completely idioticת and utterly moronic, all at once. So, you would think that by now…. Twenty years ago, when I was still in college, I thought that by this point genres of music wouldn't even exist anymore, but that's futuristic and it implies that I understood nothing about human nature [laughs] which, you know, is exactly typical of an idealistic young person.
I think that we are seeing, slowly but surely, that people are chipping away at genres. But what I have observedת personallyת is that it typically tends to be in a binary fashion. So, you'll have jazz musicians that start to integrate blues parts, or rock parts, or hip hop, or whatever, or the people in Nashville now who are incorporating either EDM or hip hop into their country music. I don't actually know of too many people that are actually using three separate primary genres. And I think I could not have started toying with it without the Internet, even when I was younger.
A lot of this whole thing with me, melting different shit together, started because I would just have people over to my house and we would drink and I got sick of getting up and changing CD's all the time. I wanted to hear something that just had everything that I liked in it. And by the time I got to any kind of place to do that myself, the Internet had long since taken over and, and it became very easy. I lost all my CDs, I lost all my tapes, at one point when I was just young and completely pissed drunk all the time, and the only way I could go and listen to Coltrane was on YouTube, and it felt very weird. It felt cheap. I felt like a bad person, listening to him on YouTube. Same thing with any of the metal stuff. But eventually I fell into it, just like everybody else has, and fell into social media and so on.
I don't know if this is something you pay attention to or not, but here at least there is a very big push right now, and has been for some time, toward legalizing psychedelics. And the reason I mentioned that is because they are a sort of infinity unto themselves, and the Internet is an infinity. Music is in Infinity. This is the first time that I'm aware of in human history in which so many different essentially infinite topics are at everyone's grasp, like on their fucking phone. It's mind-blowing. It's like we're at the very beginning, I think.
Yeah, it's interesting because I'm teaching a course right now, a course that I've been teaching quite a bit, but the essence of it is the historical context to something like what it feels like to be a person in the beginning of the 18th century, where your father's and your grandfather's world was very world and the world you live in is the infinite cosmos. I think that's kind of like, uh, parallel to what you're talking about, that it's a. It's a mind fuck.
And not everyone can handle it, which also brings along with it the attempt to minimize it again.
Right. And that in itself is a mind fuck too. That not everyone can handle it.
Yeah, not everyone is comfortable with Infinity.
Right, and you shouldn't be, I don't think.
Right, which I guess, is why you sometimes feel the urge to use the country riff.
Yeah, exactly. It's the ground.
To ground it, right. So it's that interplay between the infinite and the ground, but with increasing doses of Infinity, right?
Sure, for some things. And especially as I become more and more aware of it all myself. The country thing is like a very funny, contentious little thing because its meaning to me changes over time. I mean I play in a country band here, and I love it. And then sometimes I really dig into it, and then sometimes I just want to just really attack it. Like, the last time I had one of those gigs, I had spent all day listening to Ligeti and Philip Glass, and then I went and played that gig at like 10:00 o'clock at night and I and, man, it got pretty out of the fucking box
[Laughs] How was the response?
I got a lot of funny looks.
Yeah, that’s not the infinity crowd, is it?
Well, I mean from my bandmates!
I specifically, intentionally kept the note choice pretty middle of the road, but I just really stepped up on the blurry rhythmic choices and a lot more reverb and delay than normal, to try to kind of mimic that effect that Ligeti gets, especially with those choral pieces where it's so blurry and haunting.
There was a performance artist by the name of Chris Burden. Very brilliant man. And one of my favorite pieces of his is that he bought commercial spots like on a local TV station, like a 30-second spot or something. And when you buy the 30-second spot, there's no questions asked, they just play your 30 seconds. And his 30 seconds was him naked, crawling on broken glass, in black and white. So, one minute you're watching like a butter commercial or whatever, or like a detergent, and the next second there's this dude's groaning over broken glass. I love it. That idea is so beautiful to me.
It sounds like a David Lynch movie.
[Laughs] But in real life. That someone is going out of his way to fuck up your day. So what you did kind of sounds like that, a bit.
I think it basically was. A twangier version.
[Laughs] Alright, I want to ask one last question just before I overstay my welcome. I usually ask this question when people have made albums a while ago, but I think it’ll work in this case as well. So, obviously we are all very happy with how Boreal Despair came out. But still, having said all that, is there anything that you are especially happy about? About whatever having to do with that album, how it came out, the fact that it exists, a specific passage or movement, a song choice, the cover art – the cover is great by the way. Any one element or the whole thing that you look at it now and say “OK, I'm happy I did that”?
I think, on a musical level, probably the parts that I would say I'm the most proud of are those sections where everything is happening all at once, and it still retains just enough grounding that it doesn't sound like somebody pushed a bus off a cliff, or whatever. It's really close to that, it just barely holds on.
Yeah, it's definitely teetering on an abyss that you don't actually want to fall into. It is worth noting that Edward spent quite a bit of time, as did I, studying. He was practicing a lot of organ pieces just to get used to the idea of having that much crap going on at once. And I spent an entire summer, once the riffs were recorded, studying orchestration videos on YouTube, because that's what I had available to me. So, I literally spent months with orchestration videos online, just to get some basic sense of …. I've been listening to that kind of music my whole life, but I never said I was gonna fucking do it myself, though. That's a whole other world. So, I am happy with how it came out, but I also am proud of us as individuals for taking the initiative to just do something that really was kind of outrageous – Humorously outrageous – at the onset.
It's also worth noting too that I think I wrote most of the guitar riffs, but Edward wrote a lot of the orchestrations for those bigger parts himself. And then I came in and added something or whatever, but a lot of those parts you mentioned where there were no drums – he did a lot of that himself. And so, I did a lot of the stuff where it was the riffs and then the parts that were happening during the guitar riffs. Overall it came into being as a fairly cohesive monster, which, considering how it started and how ridiculous the idea was, I feel good about it. I mean, I'm proud of it. I love it. I love listening to it.
And it's also worth mentioning too that it's the first album that we used this guy from Madrid, Simon da Silva from The Empty hall Studio. We had talked online a fair bit about one thing or another, and eventually I asked him if he wanted to work on this album, because I didn't want to try to mix that shit myself. And he was like: “Yeah, I'm interested in working with you,” or whatever. So I'm like: “OK good because I'm sending you this orchestral nightmare, and good fucking luck” [laughs].
He did a great job.
Yeah he did a great fucking job. It's amazing and that was the first thing he did for me. Needless to say, he did a very good job blending it all together. And Sean too, the drummer. I've never met that guy, he lives in New Jersey, I don't know him, he's another guy that I found on the Internet, that's just another kind of maverick maniac that likes to do really crazy shit. And I sent him those files and instructions on what to play, and he actually did it [laughs], which, if you really think about it, it's completely amazing and unlikely. And he sent it all back and then we added all the classical crap and then it was like: “OK, well, we got the album. Now we have to send it to Simon and see what he does.” And then he actually nailed it.
I mean I was about to ask you if you once you got a handle on the whole compositional thing then maybe that would be something that you'd be interested in doing even aside from the metal aspect of it. But I would think that something is ridiculous or a joke right, and then it turns out and it turns out great, then maybe it just increases the tools you have. It adds tools you didn't think you had.
Oh absolutely. When I say “ridiculous” I don't mean it in a cheesy way or whatever. It just seemed so impossible and unlikely that it just made us laugh, right? So it wasn't wasn't funny like….
Not “ha ha” funny.
No, it was more just, you know, you see a mountain in front of you and one friend says: “Oh yeah, we can run up that” and then you go: “ I don't think so.” And then you start on it and you're getting halfway, and it's not too bad, and so then you just keep going and you realize “OK, I guess it's doable.” We started with Stravinsky just because that's what I was the most hands-on familiar with in terms of my own background. But, moving forward, if we did another Stravinsky album, so to speak, it would be probably too easy. Now we have to go and go to Ligeti because it's just even more fucked up.
I guess we're going to end up with the John Cage album eventually.
Yeah, eventually it'll just be a totally improvised album. But it won't be Spintria.