Photo courtesy of 20 Buck Spin
The first time I met Leila Abdul-Rauf, we were standing atop a grave. Several hundred graves, to be exact, and all occupied by the crumbling bones of long-dead women. It was a place of peace, and reverence; we spoke softly, in whispers, and stole glances at our companions through the crosses. Montreal is full of cemeteries, and through luck and morbid curiosity, she and I had both ended up in one of its most clandestine burial grounds. Death intrigues us both, and we're both from New Jersey; friendships have been built on less, and interviews consummated through precious little more.
I've been planning to sit down with multi-instrumentalist, composer, and former academic Abdul-Rauf to discuss her rapidly expanding resume—counting Vastum, Hammers of Misfortune, Amber Asylum, Ionophore, and her own solo project as bullet points—for years, but it was only on the cusp of her latest album's release was I able to nudge the stars into alignment and make it happen. A musician since childhood, this year alone, she's recorded multiple albums, released a gorgeously chilly album, Insomnia, via her self-titled ambient project, and is now steeling herself for the release of one of her most compelling works yet.
Vastum's Hole Below is one of the best death metal albums of the year, if not the genre's absolute pinnacle for 2015. Much has already been made of its cavernous, bone-crushing heaviness and beautifully disgusting guitar tone, to say nothing of the shuddering rasps and viscous gurgles of Abdul-Rauf and vocalist Daniel Butler's demonic vocal tag-team. It's creepy, and complex, and utterly engrossing; you'll be hard-pressed to find anything else under the death metal banner that hits quite this hard, even without taking into account the disturbing, cerebral lyrics, which elevate Vastum to an entirely different level of extremity.
Hole Below is out November 6 on CD and digital through 20 Buck Spin (with vinyl to follow) and on cassette via Sentient Ruin Laboratories. Abdul-Rauf and I spoke for over an hour, veering off into asides about gentrification and Nuclear Death before returning to the meaty stuff. She laughed often and gave measured, thoughtful answers as the conversation wended its way through messy, thorny subjects like sex, gender, and how fundamentally gross humanity really is.
Noisey: Hey Leila, how are you? I'm sure you've been busy since I saw you last, since you're the busiest human being in metal.
Leila Abdul-Rauf: Yeah, with all my different projects, and working on top of it. It's a lot!
What's your day job?
I work for an institute for psychoanalysis as an administrator. I don't actually do psychoanalysis but I'm running the admin for the program, and the funny thing is that Dan, our singer, connected me to this job because he's a member at this institute. He's a therapist. not a psychologist, but he's got a strong leaning on psychoanalysis, so a lot of the lyrics are influenced by what he's read.
The really interesting thing about them is that the language is very elaborate, but the concepts are so bloody and visceral—sex, violence, abuse—filtered through this introspective lens that you don't often expect to come across in metal lyrics.
For sure, definitely the introspective approach. I like to pretty much just write about images, because it's hard to put my feelings into words. So sometimes a really intense image will evoke that feeling much more effectively than trying to actually express it just in words outright—almost just like piecemeal, a piece of the picture here and there, and it's up to you to kind of patch it together.
Could you give me a peek into what's going on with the new lyrics? The lyrics for your last record, Patricidal Lust, were really intense in a way that I haven’t often encountered in death metal.
Dan and I split the lyrics pretty much down the middle. It's kind of a tricky thing to talk about because I can't really say exactly where he's coming from all the time with it, but he ends up kind of tying all the concepts together because he's doing the artwork. Our lyrics are spread all over the map; I tend to play around with the sexual part of it, sexualizing things that aren't sexual, and vice-versa. I think it's really funny when I hear people talk about Vastum as sexy death metal—there's nothing really “sexy” about it! We describe sex in this really vile way that's graphic, it's horrific. It's just really dark and ugly. And hairy, and sticky.
It's human. Whenever sex comes up in death metal, it’s coming from a fantasy perspective, which honestly seems like a cop-out—like, sure, this or that band doesn’t really want to tear off your head and fuck the hole, but it shows how violent misogyny often gets a pass in extreme metal. It's just a bummer to see.
Definitely. It's consistently sexualizing the same old things, taboo-izing the same old thing. It's boring! And then there's this way in which people talk that it doesn't exist, so if you call it out, you're crazy. Because in their mind, it doesn't exist—so why are you making a big deal about something that's all in your head? People hate when you speak up against anything that's not truly status quo. People that won't admit something that's status quo, but really is the status quo. When you do it, you're just marginalized from the get-go. You're the enemy.
There's a lot of this attention-getting behavior. Who can be more extreme, who can be more evil, you know? [Laughs] Misogyny is evil, so if you take out misogyny, you're not evil anymore, and therefore you're not metal.
And if you have anything to say to the contrary you're a PC feminazi trying to ruin metal for everybody else.
Right. There's this assumption that you're censoring everybody. And the important thing is that people don't know the distinction between censorship and just not taking the bullshit.
Asking someone to take responsibility for what they're saying or doing is not the same as saying “Hey, you can't make music anymore!” Some factions in metal are just so afraid of sharing and not having it be their little club.
A lot of this stuff is working subconsciously for people. I reference in Vastum lyrics the narcissistic injury: It's this collective narcissism. People can't be criticized, and if they do it's like they're sent back to this really intense injury of ego. This is happening on a bigger, macro level.
I think that's one of the reasons Vastum is resonating so much with people. You have the brutal, old school, crushing kind of sound, but your lyrics show that there's something deeper there.
We question a lot of shit, and we question ourselves. I think the introspective nature of the lyrics is a reflection of how we are really focused on self-reflection. So, you know, we sing about the dark and ugly shit, and we know we're probably perpetrating dark and ugly shit too, but we're kind of owning it, and looking at it head-on for what it is. It's a kind of self-check going on.
I’ve got to admit that when I saw the title for the new album, Hole Below, my first thought was, “that's probably about vaginas.”
Well, everyone else thinks it's about assholes [laughs]. You can think of it as a physical hole, but it's a mental or psychological hole as well. The cover shows Narcissus staring at his his reflection, and it's sort of like looking down and falling into a hole, so there's something transformative about it too. A lot of my lyrics are about narcissism and narcissistic abuse, too. I sing about all kinds of different abuse.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you get asked about gender a lot.
Well, get this—most people don't know there is a woman in the band. They just assume that there isn’t. I think Pitchfork did a review of Patricidal Lust and they had no idea I did vocals at all! I think most people who haven't seen the band live or haven't seen a list of our names just assume that there are no women involved.
People just don't think that it could be someone who's not a man making those noises?
Oh yeah. Or, shit, playing guitar? Soloing? Hell no. Laughs. I also play trumpet on the album. People probably don't know that. I learned trumpet actually before I learned guitar. When I started learning guitar, I kind of ditched the trumpet for a while.
Photo courtesy of Leila Abdul-Rauf
You could’ve ended up in a ska band, I think you dodged a bullet.
[Laughs] I certainly did. I did jazz, I was in my high school marching band. And then I was like, okay, i’m going to do my own band. But yeah, back to your question about the gender stuff. I think I get more asked, “Oh, are people surprised that you're a woman when they hear your vocals? Or that they find out later that you're female?” I get more of that kind of thing.
It's a strange thing, like,”Surprise, I'm here!”
It's interesting. I'm curious about what they're thinking when they do find out. How does the music change for them? Or does it change? Maybe it does. I think I read something on a forum like, “Oh, well, if she plays guitar, she probably doesn't do any of the solos or write any of the songs.” There's this expectation that you play this role as like the person who takes instructions and isn't the leader. It's like, well, actually...
And in the meantime, you’re playing various instruments and writing music in a half dozen different bands. I know Hammers of Misfortune just finished a record. What else do you have going on?
Insomnia came out in March, and that's been pretty well-received.
That record is awesome. And it's so beautiful. What was it like getting that out there? It's so different from what you usually do.
Yeah, it's totally different. It's awesome. It's one of my favorite things in the world to do. It's my escape from the world [laughs]. It's definitely the most introspective thing that I do. It's the first project I've ever produced on my own. Besides all the writing, handling all the production has been a learning curve for me. Doing something that's not totally guitar-based was very refreshing as well—to really just focus on composition—trumpet, piano and voice—and making those things sound like 10 million different things. There's a complicity to it. It's really it's been this intense lesson in production and how to make a journey out of something that's pretty much just made of three instruments.
Is this your first solo effort?
Yeah, this project is the first stuff I've written, produced and recorded on my own under my name that's come out on a label, starting with the first album, Cold And Cloud. So that was a very scary thing [laughs]. When you've been doing bands for decades and then you go out on your own, it's like, whoa. Because it's your name on everything—you can't hide behind a band name. When people write reviews, they're using your name, and it's just so personal and vulnerable. Especially when it's this really ethereal, feminine sounding thing when you're known for this kind of heavy, brutal stuff.
It's such a huge leap.
Yeah, it's sort of the opposite ends of the extreme, but kind of similar in an odd way too. I think both albums create a very distinct atmosphere. But anyway, yeah, I'm doing all this other shit! I'm doing Ionophore, which is more electronic stuff, with two amazing people who I work with now kind of long distance, but we're just finishing a second album. It's the first time I've done a band where we're all producing it together. It's awesome.
You must have a lot of patience to deal with all these bands.
It's funny, because it's there's some that require more patience than others. But I have to say that Ionophore is the most collaborative thing I've ever done because everybody equally writes, performs and produces all of the stuff. Because there's this balance of power; everybody has an equal voice. Everybody is equally invested. That's super rare; I've never had that in a band before. I've been in situations where it's like, you know, in this band, there's a dictator, or in another band everybody's flaking out all the time so I have to do everything myself [laughs]. Or somewhere in between.
I'm sure you've seen every possible incarnation now because you've been in so many bands.
Yeah. But you know it's funny because I'm more interested in not following the traditional band format of like, okay, let's schedule a rehearsal. Okay, now we're in one place, let's write a song. Okay, let's rehearse that song, and let's record it exactly the way we rehearsed it live. I find that to be very limiting nowadays, and it's just really nice to move away from that, especially with Ionophore and my solo project. We don't have to do everything in that order. I think once you start producing things on your own you have this extra ammunition to just work when you want, where you want kind of thing.
With Vastum, how did this whole record come together?
This album came together pretty quickly. Well, a lot happened in the past couple of years. We had some lineup changes. Shelby Lermo replaced Kyle House on guitar, and that was two years ago already. And then our bass player left town for a year, so Shelby and I just worked on the album alone with two different drummers. The second drummer, who's Adam Perry, who's actually on Patricidal Lust, he left and came back. It's very sporadic. The band doesn't get together that much. At this point, it's been, like, maybe once a month, if that. We haven't had a full band rehearsal in three months. Most of our rehearsals are partial practices with just three of the members. So it's challenging, because we don't have that much time to really put things together. Everyone's so busy. It's impossible to have all five people's schedules align in a way that people can actually show up.
Do you all live in the Bay Area?
We do now. Our drummer was in LA for a while but he moved back up here. It's not even the location. It's like just people's schedules, everyone's spread thin doing ten thousand things. And different levels of commitment in the band too. So it's like damn, we had to get this done [laughs]. It was do or die.
How do you have time to do anything else?
Well, because most of the time my bands aren't really doing very much. Hammers of Misfortune just had a show that was the first live show we've done in two years. Vastum hardly ever practices, so those two bands don't take up that much time after the recordings are done, and Ionophore and my solo project just happen when I have the time, there's no need to really schedule that. That's how it happens [laughs]. If they were all busy, I wouldn't need five projects!
It sounds like a good balance, even if you do have a very polyamorous approach to bands.
One band can't be your everything [laughs].
You’re kicking off a quick run of East Coast dates tonight at The Acheron in Brooklyn. I don’t think it’s something you’ll have any problem with here, but do you think metal as a whole is ever going to get to a point where no one thinks twice about seeing you onstage with Vastum?
I think some people already have. It seems like the European death metal scene has a lot more women involved, and has had more women involved since the beginning. I wouldn't be able to rattle off a bunch of names, but they're there. And then there's Nuclear Death— that ugliness, but imagery in her lyrics, is probably one of the most inspiring things for me in Vastum. There's something really brave about what she sings about. It's so ugly and dark and so vulnerable. And then being a woman on top of it, that's fucking brave.
She really put that humanity into death metal.
And humanity is so horrific! You can describe ripping apart a corpse, but I think it's more interesting how you describe ripping apart a corpse and what lens you go through. Are you talking about your experience of it and how it reminds you of all these awful things you endured as a child? Or just like watching a horror movie? If the lyrics read like you're watching a horror movie, it's kind of boring.
You can rip apart the corpse, but you gotta examine the intent, too. Like, why are you mummifying her in barbed wire?
There you go. That's a much more interesting question.
VASTUM Four Days Of Sodom Tour:
11/05/2015 The Acheron - Brooklyn, NY w/ Trenchgrinder, Infernal Stronghold, Coagula [info]
11/06/2015 The Sidebar - Baltimore, MD w/ Ilsa, Genocide Pact, Castle Freak, Bestial Evil [info]
11/07/2015 Strange Matter - Richmond, VA w/ Locusta, Vorator, Left Cross [info]
11/08/2015 The Farm - Philadelphia, PA matinee show w/ Trenchgrinder, Repellers [info]
Kim Kelly is being gross on Twitter.