Tri Angle's James Kelly speaks to the half of Matmos releasing an album of queer metal covers
As a substance, metal’s malleability is variable but certainly not resistant; its atomic layers can be bent and pummeled into new shapes and forms. When it comes to music, though, many criticise metal’s perceived unwillingness of its sonic counterpart to bend and yield. In response, Drew Daniel (aka The Soft Pink Truth and one half of Matmos) has turned the black metal genre inside out for his new electronic record Why Do The Heathen Rage? – “an incredibly blasphemous comedy house covers of black metal.”
Camped up, bleeped out, smoothed down reimaginings of cuts like “Ready To Fuck” by Brazilian blood-curdlers Sarcofago’s or Venom’s 1982 classic “Black Metal”, that is. Daniel’s taken the canon and caked it in colour and irony, rather than corpse paint (which he still dons for press shots). He’s also invited the likes of Antony Hegarty, Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, Terence Hannum of Locrian and Daniel’s Matmos parter, MC Schmidt, along for the ride. Over on the other side of the Atlantic and no stranger to the perils of corpse paint is James Kelly, formerly of metal outfit Altar of Plagues and who now makes electronic melancholia as WIFE. With WIFE’s debut album out this week on Tri Angle, we listened in as the pair kicked down some boundaries.
Drew Daniel: Since you’ve been in a black metal band yourself I’d love to get your perspective on my record. Can you hear the structure of the originals or not?
James Kelly: It’s definitely a super abstracted version of those covers, which for me is great. Metal bands have a tendency, when they do a cover, to just reproduce the same thing. I’m really into subverting metal in more interesting ways because I think it’s asking for it. It’s really funny the way black metal is supposed to be this rebellion against so many things yet they get really pissy if anyone steps up and tries to do something a bit different.
Drew Daniel: Yeah I was really struck by that, I noticed that the band 1349 had covered Mayhem’s “Buried By Time and Dust” so I checked it out because I thought if I’m covering this song it I better see what they’ve done with it! But their cover is just completely locked in to the exact style of the original until it just sounds like a more beefed up version of something that already existed. To me, I feel like the point of an electronic cover is to test the catchiness that’s built in structurally to these riffs and see if it’s still catchy if I completely relocate the sound. It’s definitely that riff, ringtone-ised and transformed. That was my goal. But some people have reacted and said ‘this is weak; isn’t black metal’ and I’m like ‘no shit, dude!’
“I guess my goal is to try and be an outsider wherever I go” – Drew Daniel
James Kelly: They don’t have a sense of humour or a sense of irony…
Drew Daniel: Well it’s weird because I feel like at a festival black metal fans talk to other fans and they’re human beings out to have a good time in those kind of environments but I think maybe it’s the culture of getting online and commenting that people feel the need to be sort kvlter than thou about it. Are your Altar of Plagues fans down with what you’re doing with WIFE?
James Kelly: Some of them are, some of them aren’t. It’s funny because in my experience, its like most of the metal people have wished me well and sent me on my way, whereas the people in the pop world are more like what’s this guy doing? I think it’s easy to perpetuate this idea that metal is this alien thing and it’s not and I think people kind of use that as a point to start off these interviews.
Drew Daniel: I think for me there was already that model of that Vondur record where they do Elvis Presley covers in a black metal style and that’s an early Scandinavian black metal record but there’s very clearly a humorous attitude and awareness that there’s more music than just metal. If you look at Fenriz from Darkthrone and those Neptune Towers records that he did, they’re very clearly long-form electronic music; so people who make black metal are aware of all different kinds of genres. I think the media likes to paint metal fans as if they’re ignorant and shut-ins that have no recognition of a broader map of music but I don’t think that’s true. We know it’s not true!
James Kelly: America is a stirring pot for so many different things cultures compared to Europe – say if you live in North Norway you may never be exposed to rap as much – so they have different relationships to metal. There’s more black metal coming from America than Europe over the past few years. What do you think?
Drew Daniel: Yeah I think that the European context is because there was such a classic scene in the early 90s and it might be intimidated by its own history, whereas in America it’s already inherently a transplant and that maybe means you have more mobility. Obviously with that comes controversy, because some people don’t want black metal to change. But I think it’s false to think that if a band changes the formula - i.e. Deafheaven – that they’ve done something to the sacred heritage. They haven’t gone back in time and altered, for example, what Mayhem have done because they’ve done something new with it. I think that’s better than this historically correct wannabe thing. You might as well be a civil war re-enactor!
James Kelly: I wanna know more about the gay metal clubs in the US. I don’t think it’s something we have in great abundance over here…
Drew Daniel: So there’s this night in Brooklyn called Rainbow in the Dark which is listed as a heavy metal club for ‘gay men and Satanists’! But it’s really just a party in a bar – it’s super fun to go to but it’s not like spearheading some movement. The funny thing to me is that if you look at a lot of classic black metal culture through a queer lens, you can see all this homoerotic imagery circulating throughout it like that Beherit record "Werewolf, Semen and Blood" or lyrics about sperm. And the identify of the sodomised seems kind of symptomatic, shall we say. There’s this very male nature to a lot of it and then that moves over to a hyper-masculinity that seems kind of gay. Maybe that’s my agenda.
James Kelly: Yeah I remember when Gaahl came out; I was personally very excited because I thought it was so good to have an iconic gay man in the black metal genre. But sadly the Internet can be a stomping ground for ridiculous and narrow-minded commentary.
Drew Daniel: Yeah, I’ve seen people take their logo and make it spell out Gor-gaay-roth and stupid shit like that. But I’ve also seen people who really hate my record say ‘we don’t need you, we already have Gaahl’. So maybe that’s an interesting sign of progress, that some people don’t care if you’re gay or straight as long as you keep it necro and brutal. Maybe there are ways that people in the scene are flexible about genre but they are more flexible about sexuality. I wanted to make my record because I thought it would be incredibly fun to do but I wasn’t necessarily thinking that I needed to educate these black metal people because there’re probably ignorant people in every music scene. I didn’t want to be someone who assumes that metal heads are dumb. It’s interesting that when Rob Halford came out that now we can look back at so much of Judas Priest and see this thing that was there all along. They have a song called “Grinder”!
James Kelly: Do you wear corpse paint?
Drew Daniel: You know I sweat so much when I play that I haven’t done it yet, but I feel like I’m chickening out and that I need to do it.
James Kelly: Have you played at a metal show yet?
Drew Daniel: No, not yet. We’ve been asked to play Rainbow in the Dark and I would love to be on the bill. It would be amazing to try and do it in front of a metal audience – I think they would fucking hate me but I’m willing to take that chance. So far I’ve played a techno festival in Denmark and London’s Vogue Fabrics. It’s weird for me to perform this music as I come from the Matmos context where it’s about experimental electronic music so delivering these lyrics having to have this kind of emotional force is a role I’m not used to. I’m used to hiding behind my laptop and letting my boyfriend do all the talking on stage. I guess my goal is to try and be an outsider wherever I go. It’s amazing if you can convince a room full of people to get down with you but if you can’t it’s pretty lonely up there when you’re a solo artist and you’re trying to bend people at an angle away from where they think they want to go. It’s like any moment of seduction; it can be really pleasurable or insanely awkward.
The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do The Heathen Rage? is out June 16 via Thrill Jockey; WIFE’s What’s Between is out now on Tri Angle Records