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No Time for Epitaphs: Behemoth’s Nergal Talks Defying Death and Embracing Life

“The here and now is what I fought for”
March 8, 2015, 11:28am

Photo by Martin DarkSoul / Courtesy of Nergal

Since their 1991 formation, Behemoth’s success has been due in large part to the band’s musical versatility and the unrelenting charisma of its members. The band’s history, including their formation in the midst of a newly post-Iron Curtain Poland, has been a remarkable story of artistic vision and, in recent years, one that’s seen a compelling portrayal of human endurance. Diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, vocalist/guitarist and the band’s most visible figure, Nergal, endured the full weight and reality of what his lyrics and the music of Behemoth had often dealt with directly. A year after having the line between his art and the harrowing possibilities of his reality definitively blurred, Nergal was given a clean bill of health and an unwavering new sense of resolve.

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With every ounce of the singer’s defiantly powerful rage poured into the music and lyrics, 2014’s The Satanist became not only one of the year’s best metal releases, but also an immediate milestone for the band itself. As with any story worth telling, Behemoth’s own has been documented in the recently published biography Behemoth: Devil’s Conquistadors.

With the band’s current US tour coming to an end, Noisey reached out to Nergal to talk about the biography and what was different for him on the other side of facing death.

Noisey: I wanted to start off by talking about your new biography. What was the catalyst for you to know that this was the right time to write the biography?
Nergal: Well, I mean, Behemoth started when we were at a young age, and we are a long-running band now. We’ve been around for two decades, and we’ve put out like ten records and a bunch of small releases and toured the world multiple times, and we’d really collected just so many stories and emotions and situations and anything like that – we just collected it, so it just felt like it was the right path to release a biography. I pretty much feel about the biography now as I felt about Confessions of a Heretic then; that I don’t want this to be seen as some kind of epitaph. It’s like bands who complete their history, and then years later they build a monument or something, and I didn’t want that. We’ve been on tour long enough to write at least a few hundred pages of really amazing stories to be told, and I wanted this to be done while the band is on its top, and even in regards to my own life because you could say I’m at my peak now in all ways: intellectually, physically, and my confession was that this is just the best moment ever in my life. I’ve never felt healthier or happier or more hopeful, and I just couldn’t think of a better moment than these two books to say those things and to say that it just feels amazing. Judging by the response from people and the fans who’ve bought it and read them, I know there’s something special about that.

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You mentioned being healthier than you’ve ever been, and of course that brings to mind your own personal battle with leukemia – something you faced and overcame all while under the lens of the media. Was the experience and going through the illness something that provided an urgency for you to document the band’s history as well as your own?
Yes. Absolutely yes, and you know why? Because once I faced this groundbreaking and life-changing situation, this near death experience as they say, I realized that I had to revisit my years and at some points of my life I lost these, so I just didn’t feel making long term plans. I focused on the better moment, and I tried to focus on the better part of my life which is reaching people, and I live for today. I know it sounds cliché, but tomorrow may never come. You just don’t know, and I want it to be good, and I want to lead the life that I want, and I honestly don’t know if that will be another thirty or forty years. I don’t know that anymore. The here and now is what I fought for, so I don’t want to wait five or ten years to write a book, and when my band is about to play tonight I’m planning to play the show of my life. That’s how it feels to truly celebrate this honor. There might be a next chapter a few years down the road eventually. You never know. Maybe there’s gonna be a Behemoth Conquistadors Part II or Confessions of a Heretic Part II in ten or fifteen years, but I don’t know this today. I know for a fact that I’m alive today, I’m feeling great, and I have two amazing groups, and the success of our last album The Satanist under my belt, and probably the best US tour that we’ve ever done that’s about to be completed.

Photo courtesy of Metal Blade

It's kind of ironic that that you faced the stark reality of death and overcame it, while being in a band like Behemoth where so much of the thematic focus is on the subject matter of death itself. Did you see your relationship to writing lyrics change or be directly impacted by your experience?Definitely. It wasn’t the experience of consciously opening up every day and going through the lyrics to try to do that, though. Something would just click in my head, and then it would come out in one verse or in words, and I would be like “Wow, I wrote about it.” It was fascinating. It was like a projection out of my head of those experiences and into the song. I remember this moment when I was invited onstage to perform “Penetration” with Fields of Nephilim, and I didn’t realize which verses I’d picked until I started singing out the part of the lyric that says “Shining like gods / New body, new blood,” and it just shook me, man.

Your lyrics specifically have always been a distinctive part of Behemoth—it’s very obvious that you’re well informed of the subject matter. Where did that fascination with mythology and religious history begin for you?
I don’t know, man. I just felt compelled by the subject since I was not a kid but since I was around fourteen or sixteen. I was fascinated more by the metaphysically religious than the religious. Things like the occult and others. I’ve always been eager to learn ever since I was a kid. I’ve always been a good observer of the world and all the world’s various histories, so I got into more powerful studies and it became me trying to see the magick of every day and just realizing how much of an alchemy we really are as human beings. So I try to channel through the lyrics and through the music, and it’s very eclectic. There’s a lot of stuff going on and sometimes I don’t know what it is or what inspires it. I just write about the stuff that has a deep meaning for me.

Jonathan Dick is getting mythical on Twitter - @jonathan_k_dick