I meet brothers Will and Sam Skarstad of Yellow Eyes in the lobby bar of the upscale Royalton Hotel near Times Square. While meeting a couple of black metal musicians in a bar where cocktails go for eighteen bucks apiece seems bizarre and inappropriate, there's a sense that an unexpected place is the best setting for a meeting with these two. A quick glance at the cocktail list shows a drink called "Wolves in the Throne Room" with little explanation given, and I realize that this is exactly where Yellow Eyes belongs—hiding in plain sight.
On the Brooklyn-based quartet's new full-length, Immersion Trench Reverie, Yellow Eyes continues to use black metal as a lens through which to view the world and to document their own experiences and growth as humans. The interludes carry much of the narrative; dogs bark in the distance, women chant, bells chime, and a tense stillness sits behind the whole thing. Still, it's the band's well established fusion of explosive black metal, shimmering leads, and howling vocals that creates such a staggering sensation. While Will is responsible for singing, his brother Sam writes the lyrics, allowing a balance of cadence and poetry to emerge above the din. This spirit of collaboration has now extended even further, as drummer Mike Rekevics and bassist Alex DeMaria show up in greater definition than before.
Over the course of two interviews, one with the Skarstad brothers and another with accompaniment from Mike Rekevics, we explore the essence of Yellow Eyes and their unique worldview. Preorders for the CD/LP are available now via Gilead Media, with a digital version available on Bandcamp.
Noisey: You are about to release your new record, your second for Gilead Media. Something that strikes me about Yellow Eyes as a band is that your sound is consistent. A lot of bands have a rhetoric in their press cycles surrounding "this is the heaviest thing we've ever done," or "we're just trying something new." For you, there's actually been a unifying voice. Is there an initial vision?
Sam Skarstad: I would attribute that directly to the process. It's not planned or rehearsed. It's just putting these components together. We're reckless about leaving it as it is when it comes out. There's a mountain of unorganized ideas. It usually happens that we start writing too early using those and we get flummoxed by it all. Then we realize that we need to drink a beer and listen to the ideas and sort it out.
Will Skarstad: I meet up with Sam and in five minutes we can come up with material I'd normally spend months on. We did so much of this one together live in his room. We're still locked in on the same ideas. Any time we hit a roadblock, Sam always just sorts it out. I'll keep hitting a wall. I'll find a riff I love and think that we need to find a way to get to the riff, but we'll hit a wall. Sam will say "why don't we just erase it?" It's hard, but he's right.
Sam: If something's giving you trouble then you just scrap it. You have to be brutal with yourself. I get a lot of joy out of being brutal in the editing process. It makes me feel good as the younger brother.
Will: To succinctly answer your question is that we've probably always done that. We've always had these roles. He's brutal about it. I'm precious about the riffs I love, but we end up creating something great.
Your new record was greatly informed by a recent trip to Siberia. It was Sam's first trip and much of the album was created in and from this environment. Can you elaborate on these experiences?
Sam: Based on the circumstances, it was an abstract experience to be in Siberia. Other parts of Russia made sense. Moscow was understandable in a way. You could connect it to other European cities on some level and place it in the world when looking at places I'd been. When you go to Siberia, it's disorienting. I loved that I never could quite get my bearings and I loved that I felt out of place. I would always get stared at every time we went out and I couldn't figure out why. Maybe it was because we just didn't have the steeliness. Maybe they look at each other that way.
When it came time to write the lyrics, I didn't approach them that differently from the other albums, but I had a lot of material to cull from. There were a lot of descriptions of setting in those lyrics, which is my favorite part of writing. I love creating place, landscape, colors. I loved being able to call upon cedar especially. Somehow, in Siberia, everything is made of cedar. You chew cedar gum after a meal. You have cedar nuts as a snack. They're so proud of it. It was nice to specifically call upon those things.
The field recordings are so crisp and clean sounding, how did you get that?
Will: It's funny too. Some of them were made with a professional recorder but some of them were created the way we're doing this interview, with just the voice recorder of a smartphone. Sometimes if you're in the right place at the right time, you just need to use what you've got and make a recording. I especially loved the bells and dogs. We didn't even get the bulk of the dog sounds. They would just have these brutal fights at night. We were staying next to this huge crated dog pen. These dogs would just attack each other all night long. They had scars on their faces. One of them had a broken leg from a battle that had happened over the night one night. They were going at it. We only got little bits and pieces because we didn't record the fighting.
Sam: One of the most notable things that I recall about Siberia that I remember Will told me about before that's impossible to ignore is that there are wild dogs everywhere. They're running around the street in packs. Protecting each other and figuring things out. They share food. You'd see six dogs sleeping in a corner with one dog sitting up guarding them. If you get too close, they'll back you off.
Will: It was funny being there with my wife Natasha, who is from Siberia. These dogs don't always look so tough because they're doing their own thing but she'd warn us against getting too close. It's not worth getting in their world. She'd been attacked by the dogs there.
Sam: Do you know the dogs know how to ride the metro in Moscow? They sneak under the turnstiles and they get in and know exactly which stop to get off at to forage for the food they need.
The two of you exist without social media. How are you impacted by avoiding this digital social climate?
Sam: I would say that the main thing is that you need to be able to find a peaceful place inside your own head. It seems like so many people give away their best ideas or they share these germs of ideas on the internet. They go into this big familiar room, this common space online. It feels jovial and supportive in that environment, but it's ultimately a sinister seclusion from natural life.
Will: What better opportunity would we have as two people in a black metal band to post all sorts of cool pictures in Siberia on Instagram? I love that there's no pictures of it. Nobody would even know we went if it weren't for the press surrounding the record.
Sam: The one thing that we all agree on is that the worst thing you can do for your band is become more known publicly than your music is good. Your hype shouldn't outsize you.
Will: In black metal there's no such thing as fame. The best case scenario for me is that somebody discovers it and loves it in 2030. I would way prefer our music to be timeless than "hot" right now. To us, the pinnacle of success that we've already achieved is the ability to go play a show in Prague or Lithuania and come back and still manage to pay our rent and not be broke. This exact stage in the game is sustainable enough. It pays for itself and the opportunity is there for us to travel, hang out, and play music together.
This is the second record you've put together with a consistent lineup. How has this impacted your collective inertia?
Will: Mike helps with structures. No one has ever given any input until Mike joined. We've known him for a very long time and we like all his other bands. His insight's extremely beneficial. Little things like suggesting a part gets played longer. I might not have noticed but it's so beneficial to have a third set of ears.
Sam: I don't even remember how long we've been playing together but this is the iteration of the band that we were always trying to reach, with all due respect to our friends who've played in the band before. This feels like a self-sustaining model. Mike is always coming up with new and surprising ways to challenge the songs.
Mike Rekevics: It's interesting to me to come from being an outsider and seeing their musical progress over the years. I'm involved in structure but I'm not helping write the songs, the melodies, or anything like that. I feel that particularly on this record they found the happy medium. On Sick With Bloom, it's a much more savage album than earlier Yellow Eyes. On Immersion Trench Reverie, the structures are more serpentine and complex than on the last record.
Sam: It's very much changed the way we write songs. We know that Mike can take a very simple part and make it interesting with carefully chosen percussion.
Mike: Sometimes it's just sheer force. You don't have to constantly change to keep things interesting. You can take the simplest thing and just slowly start playing it harder. It's palpable. The force shifts the feel of the part without actually changing anything.
None of you are from Brooklyn originally. How does it impact you writing songs somewhere so crowded and then leaving to the woods in Connecticut when you record?
Mike: What I find so valuable about New York is that living here is like a trial by fire. You can either deal with the stress, the pressure, and the pace or you're squashed and don't do shit. It's a social creative sieve for different character types that can exist within it. There's a realization of just how valuable time is. For me, I start realizing the value of each source of creative output. I'm not getting any fucking younger. I have to hustle to pay my rent or do anything at all. It should be worth it. That compression is a galvanizing struggle that feeds my creativity. It adds focus and motivation to my creativity. It informs the writing process in any band I have. That pressure is difficult but is ultimately helpful in terms of quality control and forcing myself to get it right. Stepping out of the space of pressure and allowing your mind to expand in the vacuum changes it.
Sam: I find when we go to the cabin and we play these songs, which we've already rehearsed so much here in New York, the songs just sound and feel better to me. What we end up writing feels like a call to another life that we could've led, something more rural. We love being up there so much and it almost feels like this gift.
Will: I have to forget that I'm in the city. I look out and I can see a church steeple off in the distance. I just do every single thing I can do to forget I'm in the city. If I had not been in the city, I would still be writing music but it would not be as good as it could be. It became way better because I can go see all these bands and draw inspiration from how great they are.
Sam: Creativity, to me, only exists within this ugly underbelly of feeling motivated or not. Whatever you're doing in life, you have to feel driven and it definitely helps to be around people who are the same way. I don't know what I'd be doing if I was out living in the middle of the woods.
Mike: There's value at writing in the city, but it's important to step outside and give yourself perspective. It's nice when you're actually documenting these songs to step outside of the context in which they were created. How has it spoken to the core of what we're actually creating? Having that space in the middle of nowhere is beneficial for finding this perspective.
Since the last record, most members of the band have been involved in outside projects. How has this impacted the dynamic in Yellow Eyes?
Mike: The value that I find in playing with different bands is that it helps me understand what is essential to each band. What is the essence of this project? In some bands, riffs will be similar and you think they could be used for something else but there's something about it that's separate. The more you play with each project, the more you understand the dynamic of the humans involved. It's not a limiting thing. Things don't become narrower, despite the focus. You realize that this is the core of this project emotionally, spiritually, or psychically. It becomes a place where you can do anything once you identify that
Will: Ustalost was a really intense experiment. I wrote the whole thing in maybe two weeks. I have files from three or four years ago that are titled "Ustalost" and they're all Yellow Eyes riffs. I had to write for a solo project in order to free myself from the strain of writing for Yellow Eyes. The only way to do that was to do it completely on my own and tap into the ultimate freedom and let it flow.
Sam: Anything that compels you to write consistently is a good thing. You find something that's been unsaid in life and then you say it. It helps to find what your voice is.
Will: Also, as a member of Sanguine Eagle it's been so awesome. The riffs are made completely differently. Simón writes all the riffs and they're so different. Sometimes I have to fight to get out of familiar habits in the Yellow Eyes world. In Sanguine Eagle, he's playing guitar so backwards from how I play it and it's a very inspiring thing. It's great trying to relearn and intimately get into his musical mind to figure out where he's finding these songs.
Final question to wrap things up. What does black metal mean to you?
Mike: To me, black metal is a spiritual war. Straight up. It came from heavy metal but it's not rock'n'roll. It's ecstatic devotional music to this abstract deification of self. To struggle to clean your mind, clean your heart, and clean your spirit of everything that's chained you and to let loose like a primal scream. It is to hurt beautifully. That's why I do it.
Will: I've had a visceral connection to the music since I first heard it. We may live in Brooklyn but a lot of the time we feel more at home in the woods or in Siberia. Black metal's just a missing puzzle piece in my life. I'm not the Encyclopedia Metallum, but when I hear black metal done right, I know that there's nothing I'd rather hear.
Yellow Eyes European tour dates:
Thursday, 26.10.2017 – Cologne (DE) "Privat" (+Turia)*
Friday, 27.10.2017 – Trier (DE) "Ex Haus" (+The Ruins Of Beverast, King Dude, (Dolch))
Saturday, 28.10.2017 – Mannheim (DE) "Forum" (WIR SIND DIE TOTEN-festival w/ Grave Pleasures, Jucifer, MORAST, Bellrope, and more)
Sunday, 29.10.2017 – Leiden (NL) "Gebr De Nobel" (+Turia)
Monday, 30.10.2017 – Strasburg (FR) "Diamant D'Or" (+Paramnesia)
Tuesday, 31.10.2017 – Basel (CH) "Kaschemme" (+ THRON)
Wednesday, 01.11.2017 – Giessen (DE) "MUK"
Thurday, 02.11.2017 – Berlin (DE) "Urban Spree"
Friday, 03.11.2017 – Leipzig (DE) "IFZ" (+ Turia, UNRU)
Saturday, 04.11.2017 – Prague (CZ) "Klub Famu"
* without ULTHA
Ben Handelman is waging war in 140 characters or less on Twitter.