Why Do The Heathen Rage? cover art by Mavado Charon
Drew Daniel—one-half of electronics-driven pop experimentalists Matmos, Shakespeare professor, and acclaimed author of an opus on Throbbing Gristle—may have just painted a target on his back, undoubtedly in the form of corpsepaint. As the metal-phile savant behind queer-of-all-trades project The Soft Pink Truth, Daniel—in the follow-up act to 2004’s punk rock cover feast, Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth?—is putting out a black metal-inspired album called Why Do The Heathen Rage?
For the project, he fed himself a healthy phalanx of his beloved seminal black metal from the likes of Venom, Beherit, Sarcófago, Sargeist, Darkthrone, An, Mayhem, Hellhammer, and Impaled Northern Moonforest and morphed it into a thump-heavy, bass-booming house music rager. Those black metal extremists may not be too pleased to hear a sweat-dripped dancefloor version of "Satanic Black Devotion" by Finnish terrorists Sargeist mishmashed into a twangy riff, only to be dashed with a sample of SNAP!’s 90’s MTV dance staple "The Power." Yeah, that "I Got The Power."
But that’s Daniel’s raison d'être on Heathen—he’s unapologetically taking on the movement’s checkered history of homophobia and violence while, at the same time, paying homage to his black metal idols. With cohorts like Antony, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, Terence Hannum of Locrian, his Matmos partner M.C. Schmidt, and Owen Gaertner of Horse Lords in tow, Daniel, with his "Electronic Profanations of Black Metal Classics," takes the blackest of the blackened and transforms it into a body-movin,' beats-gushing, synth-crazed black metal-cum-queer disco beast.
We caught up with Daniel via email while on tour with Matmos somewhere in Europe to talk corpsepaint, his black metal lineage and the album art for Why Do The Heathen Rage?
Noisey: Let's talk about artist Mavado Charon’s rad cover art for Why Do The Heathen Rage?, premiered above. Was there any direction from you for it or did Charon develop the concept and run with it? How did that all work out? Does the artwork have any subliminal messages? Or perhaps a message for the black metal sect? What does it mean to you?
Drew Daniel: I wanted something offensive, and I wanted something that would be offensive to an imagined black metal purist (though that is quite possibly a straw person that doesn’t exist). I already knew Mavado’s amazing work and asked him if he would draw a crew of corpsepainted black metal kvlt dudes having a sadomasochistic gay massacre-cum-orgy on a field of sex toys and corpses. He agreed and knocked this assignment out of the park. To me the cover is like a hardcore queer “Where’s Waldo?”: It makes your eyes swim, there are too many details, it’s kinda horrific and hopefully also hilarious. (Like the music inside, ideally.) I drew the SPT black metal thorns logo, and the graphic designer Rex Ray placed it under Mavado’s orgy drawing in metallic pink foil so that it would shimmer like a lake of pink blood/jizz. You have to see the vinyl version to get the full effect, so check that out. It’s gorgeous!
What does it mean? I suppose it’s a rendering of a scene from the id, a violent fantasy space without ethics in which desire and death are swirled together with no regard to health or sanity or survival. So it’s an image that realizes a queer zone beyond the reach of ethics, a place where the negativity and hatred and rage afoot in the lyrics of black metal are allowed to play freely. My goal is to confront an imagined black metal fan viewer with a cartoonishly literal realization of the ideas they claim to already like: “Destruction and Sodomy” (to quote the title of a split EP by Black Witchery and Arch-Goat). And for them to see that their subculture is already queer as fuck.
Now on to Why Do the Heathen Rage? Why did it take ten years in between 2004’s Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Soft Pink Truth? and Heathen?
I finished my PhD at Berkeley and moved from San Francisco to Baltimore and became a Shakespeare professor in the English Department at Johns Hopkins University. And worked on several Matmos albums, and wrote two books (one on Throbbing Gristle and the other on Renaissance melancholy). I also made an entire SPT album that was on a laptop that was stolen from our home, of which only sketches and demos remain. So I stayed pretty busy during that decade.
Photo by M.C. Schmidt
Heathen is SPT's foray into black metal. How and when do you decide to tackle the genre for Heathen? Did you experience some type of revelation that made you want to go in this direction?
It all started when I was DJing at a party in Brooklyn called Rainbow in the Dark and played a Darkthrone track and noticed that the lyrics to “Beholding the Throne of Might” had some interesting overlaps with phrases from house music, specifically Adonis’s song “No Way Back.” That was the seed for the album. For a while the working title for the album was “Fenriz Has A Guidance Tattoo.” He does! And that’s fucking funny to me and interesting formally as well because it means we might think about the minimalism and relentless rhythmic surge of black metal as being already in conversation with dance music, from the beginning. I’m just making the link explicit.
Let's back up to your youth for a sec. How did you first discover black metal? How old were you? What about it drew you in?
As a hardcore kid in the 80s, I was of course aware of the messy overlap between metal and hardcore: Cro-Mags, Corrosion of Conformity, Cryptic Slaughter (this was before the glut of “metalcore” washed over everything). In college I was a DJ at KALX in Berkeley, and I started playing black metal then—first Venom, then the Norwegian bands. I saw Mayhem and Enslaved play at a club called Lucifer’s Hammer and that cemented my interest. I first heard Burzum when my friend Kris Force’s band Amber Asylum was signed to Misanthropy, which was Burzum’s label at the time. She gave me a copy of Filosofem. I loved the relentlessness of the music and the weird feedback loop of totally forward-moving energy and strange emotional frozenness that it induces. It sounds pretentious, but black metal shows you that stasis and momentum (or, to use an older philosophical dyad, being and becoming) can be one.
You're a metal addict and a gay man. The violence and homophobia in black metal has been well documented. Can you recount any experiences you or your peers personally were faced with at shows, etc.?
Personally, I’ve had way more trouble at hardcore shows than at metal shows. I remember getting pushed up against a wall and called a faggot at a straight edge hardcore show, and I’ve never had trouble like that at a metal show. But then I’m also not making out with dudes at metal shows (so far). I have clocked gay dudes and picked them up at Maryland Death Fest, but you have to be discreet about it because people are often kind of “on the down low” in that environment. That said, I saw a very visibly trans/genderqueer person at MDF this year in the pit during Gorguts set and that made me happy. As with any civil rights issue in public space, the onus is on the minority to stick up for itself first, and that takes guts. Maximum respect to Gaahl for this very reason.
As seen in your awesome Soft Pink Truth pics, you are seriously decked out in the corpsepaint for the record. Is dressing up like that your way of paying homage or are you mocking?
I love the artificiality and queerness of corpsepaint, its unacknowledged fellow traveling with drag and trans identity, but I also find its weird kinship with minstrelsy traditions kind of risible because I think there’s a hyper-racialized dimension to fabricating this whiteness-beyond-whiteness that is worth critiquing and unpacking when you consider the volkish racist politics of a lot of black metal bands. So… it’s both. I’ve written an academic essay called “Corpsepaint as Necro-Minstrelsy” about this dynamic.
Photo by M.C. Schmidt
There are certainly black metal fanatics out there who take their metal super seriously. Have you received any backlash from people when they heard about Heathen?
Not yet, but then it’s not out yet. I am bracing for disdain and assume that people will wanna fuck with me. When you hear stories about people slashing the tires on Liturgy’s van because of their alleged “falseness,” one can only imagine how offensive some people might find my record. I say: bring it. But bring it by challenging me and talking to me. Don’t fuck with my band’s tires when I’m not looking. That’s just cowardly.
How would you defend the record to the doubters or those who think you are "disrespecting" black metal?
The point for me is “profanation,” rather than disrespect. When you profane something, you take its sacredness as a given, but you invert it and play with that sacredness in a rough, hands-on way. That’s what taking a truly Satanic stance towards black metal permits. Also, I feel like the way that I’ve delivered the vocals is not mere camp or easy, self-serving mockery—every vocal performance on the record is, in my mind, a sincere expression of the lyrical ideas. I love these lyrics, and I’ve made them very clearly intelligible as a way of celebrating and extending their poetic reach. That’s not disrespect.
Are you friends, acquaintances, or in contact with any of the bands that you covered on Heathen? If yes, what has been the feedback?
Some of the musicians I’m covering are now dead, some are alive. I have not attempted contact in either case. I didn’t make this record to flatter them or curry favor with them, and they are certainly free to despise what I have done to their music. But I sincerely express my gratitude to them for creating this music in the liner notes, and I mean what I say: These are great songs, and as much as I’m critiquing the limitations of black metal as a scene, I’m also celebrating what I find inspiring within it—the music.
The Soft Pink Truth did a record of punk covers, and now you've done a black metal album of covers. How do you constitute this project as not some type of novelty act? What's next? An interpretation of 90s grunge hits?
Am I a queer Satanic Weird Al Yankovic? In my faggot dreams, yes. Novelty music is often used as a dismissive term to police the borders of so-called “real music.” I am not afraid of that category as I think some visionary stuff gets lodged there at the “kids table” (like Spike Jones or Jud Jud or Tater Totz or Thai Elephant Orchestra or Anton Maiden, one could go on). I don’t know about another covers album though—I think the next record might be more psychedelic and theft/cut-up/sampling oriented.
Photo by M.C. Schmidt
Do you plan on playing shows as SPT and doing a set that is exclusively songs from Heathen?
Will you play "metal clubs" or dance clubs?
I will play wherever I’m wanted. I have played these songs at a power electronics/noise festival called Voice of the Valley in West Virginia and at a gay R&B dance club in London called Vogue Fabrics. In both cases it was really fun to do, because this music just doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. It always feels kind of contextually “wrong”, and I love that. Some people get into it, they throw the horns, they mosh and sweat and dance; other people just stand there looking really confused about what it is supposed to be.
What are the chances of black metal fans who normally wouldn't be seen dancing to loosen up a bit and shake their asses?
I wouldn’t bet on it, but I did see some kids in Revenge T-shirts at my London show who were head-banging, so I think it’s possible.
What would it mean to you to you to have had one of your heroes to have partaken?
I think it would have changed the project utterly. I have maximum love and respect for Fenriz and would love to make electronic music with him, but this record was conceived as a queer critical gatecrashing, and to have sought permission would have compromised that spirit of profanation and intrusion.
How did you decide on the covers that are on Heathen?
It was like a game of Jenga: adding, taking away, hoping it doesn’t all tumble down. I started with Beherit and Darkthrone and then it just started to grow like a fungus. For a long time I thought the Burzum cover would be on the album, but for political reasons that seemed impossible to rationalize to me. The decision to make it a single LP kept it from going on interminably. The style of the covers themselves changed a lot—there’s a radically different version of “Let There Be Ebola Frost” that I did which I still like, but I felt like the version with Jenn was at once “poppier” and, for that reason, more provocative as a cover. Gradually, a historical sequence of sorts emerged—balancing pioneers and early innovators with the later hordes. I knew I needed to cover a diverse range of lyrical topics: sodomy, sex, murder, ecological disaster/extinction, grimness, gay bars, and, of course, Satan.
How did you decide on Heathen collaborators like Antony, Jenn Wasner, Terence Hannum (Locrian), your partner in Matmos, M.C. Schmidt, and Owen Gaertner (Horse Lords)? Was it a requisite that your collaborators on Heathen needed to be black metal enthusiasts?
Owen is a scary musical genius, and he did all of the riff transcription; check out his sick band Horse Lords who play hyper-intricate yet funky music in the “just intonation” tuning system for evidence of that. He is down with black metal and gets the genre. Terence is also a special case because he is in Locrian, and so he can do real deal black metal scream/screeches, and I knew that a few songs really needed that at their peaks. But aside from those guys, I wanted people whose voices would help me to transform these songs and push them into new directions, people who did not sound at like the kind of singers that you associate with black metal. Jenn’s earthy voice does really funny things to Sarcófago’s lyrics, and her presence puts this alternate gendered spin on the ball and significantly ups the complexity of the harmonies on that cover too. It’s handy to have talented friends! I think because M.C. Schmidt is 50 years old he delivers those Mayhem lyrics (“I’ve been old since the birth of time”) with the croaking, years-of-cigarette smoking authority that comes from age and experience. I am partial to him because he’s my boyfriend, but I think he really nailed that one.
Finally, would you call Heathen a "big fuck you" to the violence and homophobia that exists in black metal?
I am saying “Remember Magne Andreassen!”. Gay men are not expendable. Black metal has queer blood on its hands. That makes it fair game for push back and resistance.
Brad Cohan wears every single corpsepaint even when he's in the house. He is too metal for Twitter.
Like black metal? Like taking the piss out of it sometimes, too? So do we: