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What Is Extremity? A Conversation with Mayhem's Attila Csihar

We talked to the legendary black metal band's frontman about pushing boundaries, playing live, and learning from opera singers.

Photos by Ester Segarra

Thirty years. Three decades. For the sake of time and sanity, I won’t list the high/low points of music history since 1984. There’s plenty in the way of extreme music over the last 30 years to provide infinite debates over an endless stream of largely pointless topics. Lemmy is still getting laid more than any of us, the solo in “Damage, Inc.” is still beyond comprehension, Rush are still making better music as near senior citizens than anyone else, and black metal is still controversial. Cyclical redundancies aside, history always provides perspective but rarely forgiveness. Considering the glut of information, myth, lore, and just good old fashioned bullshit that’s tied to one of black metal’s founding fathers, Mayhem, it’s almost surprising to read or hear conversations about the band that are centered around their actual music.


Mayhem’s hits and misses over the last 30 years have offered a rare glimpse into a band trying to find some semblance of order in the chaos not just of their music but in that of their reputation as well. It’s not that the band has, is, or ever will be greatly concerned about what anyone thinks of them or their music: It’s Mayhem, after all. It’s the fact that for all the theatrics, the documentaries, the stories, the abject stupidity and ignorance of former bandmates, and the notoriety, Mayhem is a band capable of creating truly compelling and brilliant music. They are a group of musicians whose career and fame has largely been propelled by the myriad reasons not to listen to them.

Now 20 years removed from his full-length Mayhem debut with 1994’s De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, vocalist Attila Csihar scorches through every track of the band's new release, Esoteric Warfare, with the kind of unhinged fury that only his voice can provide to the frenzied churn of Mayhem’s music. The album is a masterful achievement for the band in many ways and also a testament to the raw power of heavy metal and its ability to render mute the voice of distraction. Attila's passion and unparalleled creative vision for his music is a characteristic that follows him beyond the stage, revealing an authenticity that’s alarmingly endearing and positive. It’s a positivity that, at its very core, seems to come from a place not filled with a clichéd horrific darkness but one firmly rooted in the simplicity of being the fan of music he’s always been, only now a little older and a little wiser.


Mayhem has now been a band for 30 years, and you guys have now released your seventh full-length overall with Esoteric Warfare. What were the beginnings of this album’s creation, and did you see the end result being different than what the initial stages of its creation suggested?
We wanted to do something that sounded like Mayhem. The music—it’s hard to describe in words. It has this aspect of some kind of fast brutality and extremity, but still there is a slow aspect as well. It just had to be extreme. After the Ordo album, which was a little bit progressive—maybe a little bit too much—almost like a fusion album where riffs were not repeated and the rhythm was always out or different or kind of twisted, we wanted to go back from there instead of going forward in that direction. Every Mayhem album has a kind of unique aspect, but we wanted to go back to a little bit more traditional extreme metal. Of course, there’s all these elements that Mayhem has built up for itself as a band, but we still wanted to go back to something that was straightforward musically and a little more brutal and more like extreme metal.

That was a goal, and when we had the recording, I think we pretty much made it. I think Teloch did a really good job compositionally because it has this great rusty pendulum feeling. (Laughs) It’s obviously Mayhem music, but it’s still original. He grew up on Mayhem’s music, though, so of course he knew what it needed. But I think it was a brave thing. I’m happy with the result. Our vision is more or less fulfilled. You never have it 100 percent, but I think it’s strong. It seems the majority of people and fans like it. Of course there are some people who hate it, but that’s very welcomed, actually. That would be very strange if things weren’t like that.


When you say “extreme music,” Attila, it’s obviously something that synonymous with Mayhem, just given the band’s history not only musically but also personally. From your perspective, what’s changed about the way audiences and even musicians view as extreme art or music? Does extreme art and music in 2014 look terribly different from that of 1984 to you?
Back in the 80s when the whole so-called extreme heavy metal or extreme music scene was born, I think it came because we started to push the boundaries musically. The bands were coming up. Motörhead started with the double kick, then Slayer made it even more extreme, then bands like Venom [arrived] with this very aggressive approach, this black metal approach. It was all about the destruction, like even with a band like Possessed, when they came out with Seven Churches. In the beginning it was all technical, too, like who could play faster and crazier and stuff like that. I think the next wave that came with Mayhem and the Scandinavian scene, the extremity went not only into the music.

When I heard the first songs from the De Mysteriis album, it was so new and even more extreme because the drumming was faster than anything I had ever heard before, and the music, the riffing, and everything was just new. Add to that the fact that we were kids, so people went crazy and well. (Laughs) The band became like public enemy status in the early 90s. (Laughs) At the same time, we were just following our instincts. I never thought we were gonna go that far back in the 80s. It’s interesting that we followed those instincts and somehow it became reality. The whole world, a little bit, ended up shifting into this extremity not only for music but I think also in cinema or in fashion or video games. They go more and more extreme, at least technically. They’re more fucked up. But there is also a limit, I think, to how far you can go. There is a point where you flip over. The energy has a peak. It’s sharp like a blade. If you go further than that peak or the tip of the blade, it grows less strong. It weakens.


You can’t start with the maximum speed. That’s what I’m saying about energy. There is a certain speed, like sometimes we have to hold back Hellhammer because we don’t feel when we play a song that it requires a certain kind of speed or a type of technicality. It’s not always important to go faster. Hellhammer always wants to go faster, though. (Laughs) We have to hold him back because he is crazy. (Laughs) He’s in his 40s, obviously, and he’s still pushing the boundaries, and that’s the most extreme thing I think. That’s really the trademark for us, I think, is that we still try to push the boundaries in different directions.

What is extremity? It’s a good question. To me it’s always been you pushing your own boundaries. It’s you making a stronger or sharper point for yourself—a stronger aim, a further reach. It’s a fucking emotion. It’s a lifting. This music, this extreme metal, is cool as fuck to listen to, and what is in there is hard to define. It’s not really how good you are musically. It’s not only about talent. It’s more about how can you manifest this feeling, which is really strong in the spirit and the whole feeling behind the music, and that’s really hard to describe. It’s something you learn, but it’s also something that comes with instinct. You can play one tone, actually, in a way that people go fucking nuts. And some other people might come out of a music university and can play anything from classical to jazz but are still not able to make one tone to make people feel this kick in the ass kind of thing, you know. Who knows what happens in that split second of instinct? It’s something really interesting for music, I think.


When we play our songs from the 80s live, they still sometimes end up kicking more ass than our newer, more brutal songs. There is something essential in it. For this album, I don’t know how extreme it is. Of course we could have gone more progressive, but then it would turn into almost a fusion jazz thing. (Laughs) That would be very extreme, but the strength and the power for us, for Mayhem, might fade a little bit if we did that. We didn’t want to go that way, and I don’t think people wanted to hear that. It was really cool and refreshing for us to come back a little bit. Then again, I see Hellhammer is smiling, so I think he probably reached his goal with the new album. (Laughs) He made some pretty fucked up things with the drums that were his own vision. I guess everybody had their own goal with the record. The guitar playing is very—there’s a lot of spice in it, and I love that. It’s just a lot of guitars and noise and fucked up tones, and I don’t know how extreme that is, but it’s interesting. And that adds up to the edge for us. With the vocals, I tried to push a lot of extreme things that I didn’t do before like this kind of fucked up (screams into phone). It’s this crazy voice that’s almost like a witch. I found it out through the years and didn’t use it much before.

You mentioned vocals, and it’s something you’ve definitely forged your own path both with Mayhem and with other projects as well. There’s a pretty astounding level of dexterity to your vocals just given the range. At what point did you realize early on that you had this vocal capability? Were there vocalists who inspired you initially in the beginning, and how have you seen yourself grow as a vocalist over time?
It’s kind of a strange story with me, and it goes back to my childhood. I’m an only child. I don’t have a brother or a sister, and I was fascinated by music all the time. I hooked up on heavy music when I was probably nine years old or something? My brother-in-law showed me some KISS and some AC/DC and some other stuff, and I hooked up on that. But when I was home I just practiced for fun. When you’re home alone, what can you do for fun? I just put the stereo on some kick ass heavy metal and was just screaming along with the vocals even though I didn’t understand one word. But it goes back to my really early life when I was ten or something because if there had been someone around like a brother or a sister, I probably would never do it. I was alone. Plus, I was doing some pretty intense racing sports and water polo, and that helped with my discipline, I think.


Then I started singing with Tormentor. I remember I felt my throat, and there was some pain and shit in the beginning because we were just shouting and stuff, but I can still knock it down. I never lost my voice. I always hear about this where people lose their voice, or they fuck it up or something. I was very lucky. It’s never happened to me. I played sick many times even with Tormentor back then. I had a fever and shit, but there was a show, and I went on to play. Sometimes I would feel it after the show where I couldn’t speak that strongly, but it’s nothing like where my voice would go. After Tormentor I tried out a couple of different things, and then a friend of mine suggested that I go to this vocal teacher. That was in the early 90s before my time with Mayhem. I was like “What? Eh, okay. Why the fuck not?” (Laughs) It was this old woman—an opera teacher. I didn’t say anything, of course. I was just like “Yeah. I’m interested in vocals and singing and stuff.” The first time I heard about breathing techniques was from her, and I attended for about half a year. I had to stop, but I learned a lot about the breathing practice and how to use it in the music that I wanted to make.

Around ten years later, in the early 2000s, I was invited to perform in this rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar. At that time I didn’t have much to do, actually, so I said “Yes. Why not?” I had the role of Caiphas—the priest who actually crucifies Jesus—and I was singing these lines: “Must die! Must die! Jesus must die!” (Laughs) And that was fun. But they had a teacher there too, this other woman, and I went to her as well. She was this classically trained opera singer, and she was talking about the same thing again with breathing and stuff. I went to her for a couple of years, actually, once or twice a week, and sometimes three times. I was working on it. After a while I stopped again, and then I ordered DVDs of vocal training, and I found it more effective in a way. The particular DVD I had was more contemporary focused and more about folk and rock music.


Just looking at heavy and extreme music recently and the new generation of fans discovering bands like Mayhem or Emperor for the first time, how have you seen the dynamics change for heavy music and its fans since those earlier days where the controversy seemed to eclipse black metal to where it is now? It’s still obviously a polarizing genre and topic, but it seems retrospect has served black metal well in many ways. How far have we come?
It’s interesting because the scene has been changing, of course. There are new generations, and [with] Mayhem it’s a strange thing because we never really stopped. When Mayhem stopped, it had to be stopped. There was a reason. When the murders and stuff happened, there was a break, but since the break we’ve always been going on. That’s why I think we are very respectful of the older fans, too. I’m always very happy to see the older fanbase, but young people interested in us is also really cool. I think it’s kind of like a result of our philosophy with music. We’re still pushing. We’re still trying to make new stuff. We had a couple of songs for the new album, which were really great, but we didn’t think for this one it would be good. Maybe one day we’ll do an old school record. Especially here in Europe, though, there’s so many bands and so many different styles from garage rock to old school classical orchestras and everything else including extreme music.


When you go to Wacken Festival, there’s a huge pentagram on the sign, and that’s the biggest heavy metal festival in the world, I think. There’s a lot of heavy and extreme bands there, but now, especially with Hellfest, which started out as an extreme metal festival, there’s other stuff like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and other bands headlining. They’re going further, and it’s from extreme metal. It shows, I think, that it’s the same spirit. The Iron Maiden guys respect us. The Slipknot guys even respect black metal, and it’s all connected. Even if you don’t listen to extreme music, you’re in a big metal festival and you watch these other bands, and people don’t get pissed off. It’s like a huge family, and extreme metal became a big part of heavy metal, I think. That’s pretty interesting.

In a way, we came to the size not of like Black Sabbath, but we play on the same stage. We share the same spirit. Of course Black Sabbath these days I would question, so I would think Iron Maiden is a better example. Those guys are amazing. Iron Maiden is the fucking pure essence of heavy metal. I saw them the other day here, and Bruce Dickinson hadn’t changed. I saw them in '84, and that was the first heavy metal show I had ever seen. Now, 30 years later, I see them here in Budapest at almost the same spot, and the guy pulled out the same energy. It was amazing. There was nothing slow and nothing wrong. He was just running up and down like he always has, and it’s really inspiring. That’s extreme to me. It’s extremely important and extremely inspiring. Those guys are considered old, and they’re still pulling off shows because the show is their focus.


You keep going on. You always work on your techniques just like a Wushu master. You practice and you get older, and who knows what will happen? With Mayhem, we were among the first of extreme heavy metal bands, but we still don’t know how far we can go with this. It’s be interesting to see, actually. We’ll be playing from a wheelchair. (Laughs)

It’s interesting you mention the Iron Maiden show and how inspiring it was, given the fact that Mayhem shows hold their own kind of notoriety. How much value do you place on the live performance, and what can fans expect at Mayhem shows this year?

I think every Mayhem show is a special show, at least for me. That’s something I very much follow with my instinct. I don’t plan it. After 30 years, now we do a little bit more traditional black metal stuff on stage, just going back to the older elements. Of course I have a skull now and this bone cross. I really like to have something manual in my hand and not just the mic. I really enjoy playing with these things while I sing. It’s like a magic stick for me. (Laughs) These bones—they somehow make the whole thing come alive for me.

So far people have enjoyed the shows, and I’m very happy to say that. I think we sound better live now, and maybe it’s because of the new album coming out, and that taking the weight off our shoulders and bringing us more together or something, but I think the music was really kickass and cool. There’s a lot of small things to still work on, of course, but for Mayhem it’s very important to play live, and for me personally as well. I think that’s what the basic meaning of playing music is: that you play live. Even releasing an album, where the music comes from, that record only physically lasts for 60 years or something. It’s cool to make new albums, and it’s fantastic to compose music and spread new ideas out, but to play live and to face the people and involve the audience in the performance, that is the heart. It’s very challenging. People can see if you’re dishonest. If you’re unsure or not confident. Sometimes we struggle, but we strive to be better all the time.

When we play live I forget about all the techniques and the technical aspects, and it becomes just an action to manifest the spirit. I fall into a trance. That’s my thing. That’s what I love. Every vocalist has some kind of thing and their own kind of peaks, and for me this trance is my peak. But also when I look into the eyes of the audience, that crazy channeling that happens there. It’s so beautiful. That only happens in a live show. These theatrical elements are very important to Mayhem, of course, but it’s all about the utmost there. The music is the most important. That’s where it is. All the rest is just supporting this manifestation of what we call Mayhem.

Jonathan Dick likes to push himself to the extreme in every interview he does. He's on Twitter - @steelforbrains


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