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Dark is Dark: Scott Conner Trades Black Metal for Bluegrass as Nocturnal Poisoning

The man formerly known as Malefic of Xasthur drops the distortion pedal for clean darkness. Stream a track!

Artists and musicians suddenly and inexplicably walking away from the sound or aesthetic that we’ve grown comfortable with as listeners is as old a story to rock and roll as that one involving Led Zeppelin and a shark. We want an explanation and we want it now, and we take to Twitter to discuss these demands in the most hyperbolic and self-loathing ways possible, oftentimes missing the point entirely. It’s rock and roll. The whole thing was built on a foundation of: do whatever the hell you damn well please. Sociological points of argument aside, that attitude will thankfully never change so long as people continue to have ears and brains and other people continue to have discernible musical talents to entertain said ears and brains. In the 2000s, you couldn’t ask for a more well-received one man black metal act than Xasthur. The usual big names of musical journalism carried his banner of mystique, intrigue, and genuinely thought-provoking music loud and proud, and the man behind the mask (see: corpse paint) was placed alongside those other solo black metal artists like Wrest and Striborg (see One Man Metal for more). In 2010, after eight full-lengths, the man behind Xasthur, Malefic himself, stepped outside the shadow of mystery and simply became who he was all along, Scott Conner. Rather than holing up in a cabin in the backwoods of Tennessee a la Vinnie Vincent however, Conner immediately set out to challenge himself to learn something that from his perspective had been the muse inside him all along: bluegrass.


For the purist bluegrass bots no doubt trolling every interview on the Internet, Conner’s brand of bluegrass is not for the Scruggs or Monroe purists. It’s a strikingly familiar echo of what listeners were given through the medium of his work with acts like Sunn and the project Xasthur itself. For Conner, the worlds are not merely similar they’re damn near symbiotic: those mournful notes of the Mississippi Delta didn’t simply inform heavy metal, they gave birth to its sense of isolation and reverence for those dark realities of existence. Calling his new project Nocturnal Poisoning, the title for his first release as Xasthur back in 2002, seems appropriate given the fact that both projects bear the same weight of Conner’s lonesome yet strangely inviting to the listener. On Doomgrass, his third full-length as Nocturnal Poisoning, Conner takes the acoustic blues and country to a place as murky and treacherous as any he did with Xasthur, only now the veil is lifted and what was ethereal and mysterious is now vulnerable and familiar. Stream the new track "Can't Find The Sky" and order Doomgrass via ITunes or THE END.

We spoke to Conner about moving past Xasthur and about his perspective on that project as it relates to what the future holds with Nocturnal Poisoning.

Noisey: Doomgrass is your third full-length as Nocturnal Poisoning since you first formed the project in 2010, Scott. Regardless of the genre, you’ve always been quite prolific and productive with your creative output. Do you see yourself as being constantly inspired? If so, has that always been the case, or has it been a matter of slow discovery ​throughout the years?
Scott Conner: Yes, I'm pretty sure that the inspiration will keep on coming, it's something I can pretty much count on now. I'm even inspired to make new songs when I don't expect to be. It's more than just trying to come up with something new. I actually have to slow down sometimes because I have an overload of ideas and new pieces of songs coming to me. I get ahead of myself now, which is, a nice problem to have.


How do you personally see your relationship to the music you’ve created throughout the years? Is that process a matter of you finding the music or the music finding you so to speak?
It's really both, it found me and I found where to look, I knew where I didn't want to look, as well. I can relate personally more to what I'm doing now, it has any kind of subject matter that I see around me and have experienced, in one way or another, it's less cryptic, I guess you could say. I think, and everyone knows that a real change was needed. Going acoustic and fingerpicking really helped me find the sound and the kinds of songs I was looking for, it was the only way to make some bigger changes and to get different results than the ones I'd been getting. I couldn't find what I'm doing now with guitar picks and a Warlock.

You’ve made it clear that Xasthur is a dead project, but I’m curious as to how you view that material now given the fact that it’s in the relatively distant past from where you are now. Has time provided different or perhaps changing perspectives for you with regards to what you created with Xasthur?
It has taken some time to get chance to look back on it, and I still haven't had the chance to miss it, but I don't think I would anyway. There's a few songs that I'm satisfied with now and then, some that are key or special to me in a sick way and some that were exciting to make. Making that many songs seemed unnecessary whenever I do look back on it. There's so many things I could have done differently, better, so many songs that I didn't need to make etc. It was the opposite of how I function musically nowadays, I was always trying to catch up and keep up, instead of getting ahead of myself. I was on autopilot with Xasthur most of the time, once I finished a song, it was right on to the next one, I didn't ever play, practice or remember those songs after I was done with them, so that might have something to do with not being able to look back on it with a sense of pride or completion. I made it a point not to be this way with Nocturnal Poisoning, I remember almost every song and practice or revisit them often, so I take some more pride in what I'm doing now because there's way more focus and reason. I was a harsh critic with what I did, but I'm less of a harsh critic with nocturnal poisoning.


Has distancing yourself from Xasthur and the Malefic persona been a sort of liberating ​experience for you and essentially provided the pathway to what you’re doing with Nocturnal ​Poisoning?
Yes, I would say so, a bit of pressure and a burden is gone now. That was like a character I could, but couldn't and didn't really want to live up to anymore. It gets ridiculous too when you get a little older. It was a role I was supposed to play, then a role I wasn't supposed to play. If I took it too seriously, that was a problem, if I didn't take it serious enough, that too was a problem. Believe it or not, you really have to watch what you do and watch what you say if you're playing the role. We can't pretend that black metal music and the characters within it haven't been 110% demystified and exploited over the past five to ten years. I don't understand how that doesn't totally spoil it for the people who listen to the music. The more it's been demystified, the more of a lie it is to carry on the persona; it starts to become a parody of itself, so I stopped. I didn't like that state of mind, as well as the musical and personal restrictions that came with it. I'll just be Scott from here on out and that'll have to be good enough.

Even with the death of Xasthur, do you see yourself as being invariably connected at ​least perhaps as a fan to what black metal inspired in you creatively back then?
No, I feel a lot of people tell me how amazing it is that the world is flat, but when I get the chance, I try to tell them that world is actually round, music itself can be too, if you let it, explore it and explore yourself. I really think you had to be a certain age at a certain time to be impressed with that kind of music or to find some meaning or purpose in it. But, I really try to put myself in the shoes of younger people discovering it today; I would think it was a damn pop up ad that kept popping up, the 'old stuff' included. It's also not something strong enough for me to be connected to 20 years later, if I couldn't find anything else to inspire me in that amount of time, then I guess we could talk about 'back then' forever. I already hung around a lot longer than I planned on or wanted to.

Blues and metal have had a close relationship since the very beginning with Black Sabbath’s debut, and on Doomgrass there’s certainly a bluesy, dirty atmosphere you create with the songs. Despite that correlation, people still tend to see those two sounds or genres as being the antithesis of each other. Was the progression from black metal to the blues something you see as entirely natural and common sense just given the multitude of similarities between the two?
I just figure out some blues playing, sometimes, but I don't officially 'know' the blues like the back of my hand or anything. I don't really make a blues genre claim because I'm sure there's some blues players down south that would hand my ass to me. I make some vague interpretations of it that get interrupted by something else. I just do what I can do with whatever comes to me. The singer, Robert, sort of makes it a point for some kind of blues to come out in his singing, among other voices that come to him. I don't hear much blues in common with black metal, though, it does (or can) stay pretty far away from theory, or it tries to, but I do hear it in Black Sabbath and some of the bands that rip them off pretty well.

Even with the sound stripped down to the raw and vulnerable acoustics of Doomgrass, ​you still manage to create that familiar, dark mood and aesthetic you crafted so well with Xasthur.​Is that darkness something you’ve always been able to tap into as a musician? Has your ​relationship to that specific musical characteristic changed or evolved throughout the years? If so,​how?
Well, if it was all light, all dark, all good times, all naive, all misery, all depressing, then I don't think anyone would need to hear it. I slip in some bad or dark notes among some colors, other colors. I'm not trying to make something all normal, and I'm not trying to make something all fucked up, either. It's not always what mood I'm in, but what mood I'd choose to be in. Other times, other places and today is what I'm making, inside and outside of your mind, or maybe questions in our minds. I just want to see what else I can do, usually that's what I have to look forward to, you know? I ended up teaching myself, developing some strange chords and tricks over the years while I was doing Xasthur, so I can find a more subtle way to not let it go to waste within a lot of the new tricks I'm developing. I can't use any of these new tricks in black metal. I just want to make something that's good quality, or real, music that doesn't necessarily have a person asking themselves whether it's dark, light or 'atmospheric' every few seconds. Either you dig it or you don't.

You’ve been incredibly open and honest about how playing the music for Nocturnal Poisoning has been tedious and a learning process, and how you see Doomgrass as a kind of culmination of the work you’ve been pouring into this since day one. Do you see yourself as being happier now as a musician than you’ve ever been? Is that insatiable desire to grow as a musician something you see as the main source of satisfaction for you creatively?
As a musician, yes, I enjoy what I'm doing now a lot more. Yes, I have that desire, even though I don't see much of that desire around me. I wouldn't really call it 'tedious', but yeah, it's always a learning process as it should be, but I'm taking more notes on what I'm doing this time! The only tedious part has been with it taking so long for it to grow, to reach another kind of audience and for the metal audience to adjust, I reckon I'll keep on doing it even if they don't. Nocturnal Poisoning is actually more technical than Xasthur was, it's just more mellow and doesn't have any of my mediocre drumming, so I think people might get thrown off by that. And yeah, Doomgrass is basically like a finer tuned adjustment of what I've been doing the last few years. Each 'album' will be either an improvement or more interesting than the last one, or both, or else I won't even bother.

What lies ahead for you in 2014, Scott? Can fans expect some live shows in the near future?
I'll probably get to recording again around November or December. As far as live shows, we'll see which direction the wind carries Nocturnal Poisoning. A lot of musicians fund their own tours these days, I can not and will not. I'm not counting on a live band yet, as I've been let down by greedy, lazy and fake musicians for many years, but it looks like there's a chance of picking up a much needed guitarist and then bassist, and there would be more to talk about then, if or when it happens. At this time, I'll keep my mouth shut for the most part, because I feel that I've gotten my hopes up and made this kind of claim before without delivering. Well shit, I've said a lot in this here interview, probably too much, but thanks a lot for hearing me out.