Right around the time the dudes from Burzum and Emperor were torching churches in their native Norway, a trio of Mexican teenagers lit their own black metal inferno in Mexico City. Guitarist/vocalist Marco Ek Balam, drummer Jorge Ah Ektenel and bassist Jose Ortiz burned their first corpsepaint hymns to tape in the form of Xibalba’s 1992 demo In Lucescitae Tristis Hiei. Naming themselves after the Mayan underworld detailed in the ancient K’iche’ mythological text Popol Vuh, Xibalba’s hellish sound was informed by Ek Balam’s early pilgrimages to El Chopo—the legendary weekly flea market in Mexico City that deals exclusively in heavy metal and punk merchandise (official and otherwise)—where he stumbled upon cassettes dubbed from Venom and Mercyful Fate LPs. The acclaimed and cavernous full-length Ah Dzam Poop Ek (pronounced “pop,” not “poop”) followed in 1994, but by then the band’s enthusiasm for an underground culture they saw becoming increasingly trendy had started to wane. They went tits up in ’97 and didn’t reform until 2008—this time with Victor Ehxibchac on bass—after Nuclear War Now! re-issued the Xibalba recordings.
Currently operating under the name Xibalba Itzaes (partially to avoid confusion with a hardcore band from Pomona) this mysterious black metal triad will release a new seven-inch via Nuclear War Now (streaming below) and descend upon North America for two shows this year: Berserktown II in Santa Ana in August, followed by a Halloween show at the Acheron in New York City. We recently corresponded with Ek Balam, who gave us a time-capsule glimpse into the Mexico City metal scene of the ’80s and early ’90s.
What was your life in Mexico like at the time you formed Xibalba?
Marco Ek Balam: I can say it was great. I was still in school and still amazed by the evolution of music that didn’t seem to stop since the early ’80s. Most of my time was dedicated to listening to new bands and new sounds, apart from being in school and the regular home/family thing that was pretty boring. But if you wanted to survive in a place like Mexico City, you had to get as prepared as you can in order to open a sea of alternatives and opportunities.
A lot of people had this belief in the church and Christianity, despite the fact that they never practiced what they preached. I was born into that, [so it was] a little hard for families and friends to accept different paths. Musically, there were not many spaces for promoting the band, but we were happy having a little scene that we can say was ours—even when it was not so easy to afford buying the so many good records that were released. Those days were the real deal.
How were you first exposed to black metal?
It was in 1985, I think. Since I was a little kid I had the influence of my older brother. He used to bring these LPs to the house—most of them from Kiss, Queen and Led Zeppelin. He was very young, though, and even when he couldn’t afford to buy too many records, he managed to get some very great albums and a lot of Mexican hard rock magazines. He used to listen to a radio station that sometimes played Sabbath and Priest and the music of the time. I must have been six years old, but I was wondered by the image of Kiss and by their sound. Back in those days, it seemed that my brother was looking for something heavier all the time. It was some kind of trend maybe; I don’t know. It was weird, but I got caught by that as well. Soon he bought the first two albums from Maiden, but I think it was when he bought Screaming for Vengeance when there was no doubt that Judas Priest was the heaviest band around. As he was discovering new bands and getting deeper and deeper into this band, I became very interested as well. I was growing and kind of understanding a little more.
I must have been like 10 or 11 when Metallica was first heard on the Mexican radio. We couldn’t believe the sound of this band. Some magazines were also talking about their new amazing sound, and so my brother embarked on almost an impossible journey to find this record—impossible because metal music was very hard to find in Mexico. It was not seen very well by Mexican society and it was banned from so many places. Some people saw us with fear, as they always related us with gangs and thing like that. If you were a metalhead you were a bad guy.
But on that journey he discovered this now-popular flea market exclusively dedicated to selling or trading music. There were very few people involved in that market, unlike today. The market still exists but it’s a totally different thing. I remember vividly when he took me to that place. Some people used to make copies of the LPs on tape to sell them at cheaper prices. They used to put the LP covers on the ground and carried a tape recorder, so you could listen to the album previous to buying the tape.
That day when we were looking for the Ride the Lightning, the then-new Metallica album, we saw this guy with like four LP albums on the ground. Those records were [Venom’s] Welcome to Hell, Black Metal, At War With Satan, and Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break The Oath. We didn’t find Ride The Lightning that day, but we listen to Welcome To Hell and I was nothing but amazed by all the Venom albums. I remembered Black Sabbath was evil in some way, but Venom was a totally different thing, new and scary in some way. Cronos’ vocals were like growlings of a big demonic monster from hell literally. No one had ever heard anything like that before. I think that was my first encounter with this kind of music. I became Venom’s number one fan that day.
What was the initial inspiration for starting the band?
As we were growing and the music was also evolving into this big, monstrous thing, a little scene began to emerge in Mexico City, with old bands like Massacre 68 (a classic Mexican punk band, old Discharge style) and Transmetal, a then-new band making this thrash-death thing. We began to attend to their gigs because it was the nearest we could have to this style. If it wasn’t easy to get the original LPs of our fave bands, it was absolutely impossible to think about seeing live one of these bands in our country. So we were happy with these bands of our own. We used to attend this little market by morning and went to the gigs in the evening on the same day, and it was great.
We soon became friends with most of the guys involved in the bands, and soon even attended to their rehearsal place. I was totally interested in music, nothing else mattered to me in those days, and this experience got me a lot more involved into it. It was at one of those gigs that we met some guys that wanted to start a band, My brother was supposed to play drums with them. One of the guys had this very old drum set, and sold it to him.
Since my brother was the only one with a job he didn’t hesitate and got that drum kit. But eventually it was me who practiced with it. The band rehearsed a couple of days but never developed into a real band at all. Later on, one of these guys got into an already existing band and he gave birth to [Mexican death metal veterans] Shub Niggurath.
In the meantime, I had this drum kit and a lot of time, so along with my other brother, we started making noise. You know in those days Napalm Death, Sore Throat, etc. were the newer bands, with this new sound. So we ended up making a million songs in a minute on a rehearsal tape, just drums and growls. As my musical interest was growing, my brother bought me a guitar. And that´s when we started making things in a different way. I think this is how it all began. Carcass was around and the death metal thing was rising from everywhere.
Were there other extreme metal bands operating in your area at that time?
Right before we started, the bands around were Anarchus, some kind of a thrash-grind band; G.P.K. a noise-grind band; Pactum, thrash-death maybe; and Atoxxxico, a hardcore punk band. Then it was like a second wave, with bands like Cenotaph, and this band called Tormentor, which transformed into Sub Niggurath. But they were more death metal bands. We were already in a band called Dread in those days, some kind of grind-death band as well. I was totally into Napalm Death’s Scum at the time.
How did you decide on the name Xibalba?
When we formed this band Dread, we recorded two demos and played like two shows only. We had some fans then, but I remember that it was this obsession with Napalm Death’s Scum that brought me back to the early bands. I think I read in some magazine that the album Scum had been influenced by Celtic Frost and so immediately looked for my old tapes. While listening to them I heard a lot of Scum in CF. That was the first sign of wanting to change the band’s direction. Getting back to Celtic Frost got me back to Bathory as well, and that was it. It was the ending of the ’80s when I started listening to the old bands. I was never that much interested in the rising of those death metal acts in those days. I always thought it was boring. But rediscovering this sound was something great. That was when the song “Ancients” was written. I even thought we were the only ones doing it. But I was in junior high when I had this ancient history class, and that was the first time I read the Popol Vuh, and I got very into it. The name was picked up from that book. I don’t think we thought that much about it. The name suddenly appeared so easy and fast. And I have to say Viking-era Bathory must have influenced us to do it with our own culture.
Why was it important for you to reference ancient Mexican and Mayan culture in your lyrics?
Because it gives us identity with our land. I have always thought that the only way to survive against the enslavement of modern society is by finding your own roots. It’s the only way to get spiritual freedom and release. To us, the Mayan culture was one that seeds the elements of cosmic wisdom in our minds. You just have to check on the counting system for the calendar—impressive. See the language represented in glyphs and trails, the ancient observatory wisely placed to watch the stars according to the rotation of the earth at Chichen Itza, and the Equinox effect on the pyramids is something with no parallel on the face of the earth. So are the writings of the Popol Vuh or the Chilam Balam manifestos. They’re unique.
What were the circumstances surrounding your first demo, In Lucescitae Tristis Hiei?
It was a small studio but very professional for those days. They must have been dedicated to very different styles of music and not what we ended up recording there. I remember we did the whole session playing all together at once. We were located in different booths and we were only listening to ourselves on the earphones. So we had to rehearse a lot in order to do this session. Some guitar harmonies were recorded separately and I think the vocals too. I don’t recall the name of the studio. We liked the sound we got there—not so bad for those days in Mexico City. For the artwork we visited the sculptural space of the National University. It was a great session during the night. We got some great shots. Initially we made the layout ourselves and printed some covers, but then a friend of ours [who] used to work for a printing company improved it.
What were the first Xibalba live shows like?
Don’t remember very well, but I think it was some kind of a house party. We used to play with some local death metal acts, as well as some punk or grind bands, because there were not many bands doing what we were doing. And I remember people just staring at our performance without blinking because we appeared with this black paint on our eyes and we were making this kind of ritualistic entrance. Our sound of course was very different from what was expected in those days. And it was good. I even remember one guy saying that he almost had an accident while taking a shower [before] attending at the show—he said it was because a black metal band was on the bill. But still we always had this group of friends who were always supporting us at every single show we had. No matter how far, they always gave us their support and helped to create this environment in the crowd. They were our mephitic black metal cult, and we hail to them on the cover artwork of the first demo.
What can you tell us about the writing and recording of your 1994 album, Ah Dzam Poop Ek?
It was weird because the demo brought to us a lot of attention and suddenly we were playing some gigs all around Mexico City. Guttural Records was responsible for some of them. Then we got this deal to record the album. We were already writing new songs so we agreed with the idea. We were a three-piece band then, but since we were still studying it became complicated for me and Jorge to rehearse together. We had this friend of ours that was on bass guitar—he didn’t like the fact that we [couldn’t] rehearse with the drums and he just got out of the band eventually.
Jorge and I completed the rehearsing and the song structure for what was to become the Ah Dzam album. It was almost made separately as we had few rehearsals together. I remember the day we arrived to the studio, hoping to find a drum kit there. We were still using the old kit I told you about before, but didn’t want to record with it. When we found there was no kit at the studio, the session just got cancelled. We got back a week later, because we were able to do it only on Saturday and Sunday. The engineer was a guy from the death metal band Cenotaph, [but I] don’t know if he was still playing with them at the time. He managed to give the album a great sound for those days.
What does the title mean? Were you aware of what the word “poop” means in English at that time?
It means “The Throne of the Black Mat.” The Mat was an ancient Mayan term used to describe a time when a new empire takes over an old one. So that was the idea behind the name to refer to a new dawn of this black music. I never thought about the English language while making this title, but it is not pronounced as an American would do it. Is more like “pop” with one “o.”
There was a long period, from 1996 to 2008, in which Xibalba was inactive. What happened?
We got tired of the few spaces to develop in Mexico City, and we started seeing a lot of bands trying to make the same thing. Suddenly, it all became a fashion trend. I didn’t like that at all. So the lack of spaces and infrastructure, as well as the lack of interest in something that started to grow out of control, and in some ways very twisted, just made us follow different paths.
Why did you decide to get back together in 2008?
It was because of the interest of the people to find our old recordings. Many people was interested in owning a copy of Ah Dzam… and then Guttural Recs [and Nuclear War Now!] wanted to reissue the material. And people were still into it. So that brought us back.
You changed the name of the band to Xibalba Itzaes in 2010. Was this because of the hardcore band Xibalba from California?
It was more because of giving a lot more identity to our ancient roots and to bring a new sign for this new era. Of course we heard of this band and don’t want to be related with them. They have their own thing and sound.
Are you aware of contemporary black metal bands like Volahn that also incorporate Mayan lyrical themes? If so, what do you think of them?
Yes, I have heard so many bands doing that. Some sound good; others I don’t know. The point is that you should be close to your roots in order to find spiritual freedom and try to spread that to others—not to follow a two- minute fashion. But I have heard some Volahn and I think it’s great.
You’ve got some big shows coming up – Berserktown II in Santa Ana in August, a Halloween show in New York, and then the Black Flames Of Blasphemy festival in Finland later this year. What can audiences expect?
Expect the ancients.
J. Bennett plays guitar in Ides Of Gemini. He visited El Chopo in Mexico City many years ago and stuffed his suitcase with five-dollar “Mexican special edition” metal t-shirts that were definitely not bootlegs.