For the masses, the perception of Norwegian black metal is of an extreme, possibly evil subculture. This has much to do with stories about the bands and the scene itself taking the journalistic approach, as very few of the artists and fans communicate with the rest of the world, leaving mostly headlines in their wakes. But when Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, the bassist behind legendary Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, put out his memoir, Dødsarkiv, a door was opened ever so slightly into the shadowy subculture. In publishing Necrobutcher’s memoir in English as The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984-1994, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore has helped kick the door open quite a bit more
Not content with just a book, though, Moore and Necrobutcher have done a series of Q&A sessions. The two also launched an exhibition at Tenderbooks in London, with Moore acting as curator. On display were all sorts of Necrobutcher’s Mayhem ephemera, including his rare collection of band photographs from the band’s early years, as well as recording session footage and the band’s radical album artwork.
Moore recently spoke to The Creators Project about The Death Archives exhibition. He also reminisced about how he originally heard about Mayhem and the world of Norwegian black metal.
The Creators Project: When was your first encounter with the band Mayhem, as well as the subculture surrounding Scandinavian black metal?
Thurston Moore: I had heard about them through the fascination with Norwegian black metal that started happening when Burzum put his record out. It was such a weird, weird record at the time for anyone in heavy metal. And I was kind of not listening to so much heavy metal at the time, but at some point in the 80s, when we were really into hardcore, like Black Flag and Minor Threat, all these bands. We got really interested in this band called Venom coming out of Nottingham, England. They were a heavy metal trio, long hair and pentagrams and the whole thing, but the sound was this hybrid of really thrashed out punk rock hardcore mixed with the tropes of metal, and it was really underground and kind of cool. They were kind of our re-entry into the metal zone.
We found out later that there were a coterie of metal kids in Scandinavia, particularly Norway, who were really turned on by Venom and Bathory, another band from England. So there was this new generation of kids coming from punk rock who really wanted to play metal, but not really wanting to play the refined metal that Metallica was sort of developing. They wanted to be a bit more fucked up, trashed out, and scary and just messing with ideas that dealt with completely politically incorrect perceptions.
So Mayhem was one of the first bands. I had heard their name but hadn’t heard them until a lot of the controversy started coming out where this band’s singer killed himself and then the guitar player was killed by the guy who made the Burzum record. And you just sort of heard stories in the press, and it was before the Internet so magazines Kerrang! and Metal Hammer, et cetera, would write about how something had just happened in Norway about these insane bands.
What did you think when you finally listened to Mayhem?
I remember hearing Mayhem’s album Deathcrush and thinking it was amazing. It kind of struck the same chord that I remembered liking when I got into Venom. And Venom is the band that put out an album called Black Metal, and I think Mayhem’s allegiance to Venom is that they sort of took on the mantle of black metal as opposed to calling it speed metal or death metal. I was curious, but it wasn’t like I invested much in it. But as the years went on I kept an eye on it, at some point the genre of black metal really became global and there was this incredible period, which continues today, but it reached an apex about five or six years ago where all around the world there were these super underground, primal black metal bands doing all kinds of aspects of the music—isolationist or really brutalist.
I became really fascinated with it because it didn’t really have any ambitions to have anything to do with the rest of the music world. It was its own thing—it sort of denied the industry of music, independent music, major label music, punk rock, anything, even heavy metal. So I started getting into it and it led me into the original texts, which was definitely Mayhem. And of course we all read Lords of Chaos and Peter Beste did that photo book True Norwegian Black Metal, and all of this information was coming to the rest of the world because it was kind of a hidden subculture and played to itself. It was very elite in a strange way. I didn’t really fancy myself a black metal warrior or anything. I didn’t dress up in corpse paint and crawl around going to gigs, but I was definitely interested in what I was hearing.
So how did this fascination mutate into the publishing of Necrobutcher’s book?
I did a tour of Norway last year and there was a Norwegian journalist who told me about Necrobutcher’s memoir, and I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t find it. Luckily I located one copy while on tour and it was just amazing looking. So my partner Eva and I took it upon ourselves to get the book’s English translation rights and publish this book here in England. And I finally got to meet Necrobutcher himself and I’ve done a couple events with him, including a Q&A here at Rough Trade in London, and that was amazing.
They’re kind of this undeniable band. The fact that they still continue after so much upheaval, more upheaval than any other band I can think of—one guy commits suicide, the other guy is murdered—and you kind of think the band is going to be over with at that point, but they continue with this singer named Attila, who also performs with Sunn O))), so they’re just very curious and I think they’re a very significant band. By translating Necrobutcher’s story you realize it’s just completely engaging and interesting in the context of all the rock and roll stories that are out there in the last 20 or 30 years. And he’s the only one who tells it from the inside. But he only writes for Mayhem—he doesn’t speak for black metal.
As far as the Mayhem exhibition, what was your approach as curator?
The exhibition completely comes out of the publishing of the book. The book is rife with photographs from the mid-80s when the band was forming because he just kept everything. It’s also rife with ephemera like fliers, set lists—everything. So the exhibition was just easy. It was just basically showing this work on a wall so that when people come to the show they really get the images in the book.
The exhibition is in this artist book space in London called Tenderbooks, and so a lot of the demographic that comes in there is not black metal kids, because they don’t go to bookstores. So in a way it’s bringing Necrobutcher, Mayhem and black metal into this space that doesn't normally associate itself with that kind of world. For Necrobutcher, it was incredible: he was so appreciative that he could actually talk about what he does to people who aren’t converts. For those people who are there, I think a lot of it is this introductory primer to this subculture, so in a way we’re kind of facilitating this meeting between the real world and this kind of nefarious black metal world.
After translating Necrobutcher’s book and curating the exhibition, do you feel that you have any valuable insight into the Norwegian black metal scenes' flirtations with Nordic paganism and then satanism? Also, what are your thoughts on the ideas about evil that exists in ceratin parts of this subculture?
I think Mayhem is the band least invested in that. But I think they sort of put on the parade of it because they saw it as something that they really equated with their fascination with horror cinema. So, for them it is theater. There is nowhere in this book where there is any expression of the more problematic strains that run through black metal—bands that sort of deal with either racist or nationalist ideology. Mayhem was never that, and I would have no interest whatsoever in publishing a book that had any of that ideology involved with it anyway.
The book is all about music and survival on the road, and Necrobutcher’s whole thing about expressing any kind of vocabulary with satanism or paganism is that he sees it as the flipside of Christianity. So he sees it as their equal. There is good, bad, devil, god, whatever. He sort of thinks that you have to believe in Christianity to believe in Satanism, and neither of them win. When you’re playing those grunged out power chords at that velocity and volume you’re going to raise the devil sign, you’re not going to raise the cross. That’s all there is to it, and he understands it on such a primal level. And that’s as far as it goes with this band.
I think a lot of people took it upon themselves to take black metal into more serious places of just real demonic investigation. But then I think a lot of music genres have a lot of problematic strains, whether it be strains of country and western or even punk rock. There has been some real horror in punk rock with the bands that are sort of bully boy pro-Nazi kind of punk that have existed over the years. And country and western has a horrible history of racist commentary. It’s like any genre, be it a religious or political persuasion: there is always going to be some fascist who ruins the party.
The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984-1994 is now available in English on Ecstatic Peace!