You never forget your first real love.That intoxicating rush of emotion, awe, and understanding becomes inextricably linked to your idea of what this thing is supposed to be like, and invariably forms the bedrock for your preferences. It colors the rest of your interactions—either consciously or not—for the rest of your life. For Sebastian Montesi, that first love was Morbid Angel. When he discovered Metallica at the tender age of 12 (and came across the works of H. P. Lovecraft shortly thereafter), that early exposure unwitting provided the seed for what would become a lifelong appreciation for the darker arts—and most pointedly, death metal.
That appreciation has long manifested in his own work as a musician and songwriter. The Vancouver-based guitarist and vocalist currently pulls double duty in Auroch and Mitochondrion, two uniquely complex death metal bands who have no problem vaulting past the genre's own limitations in pursuit of perfection. Auroch in particular have upped the ante on their new album, Mute Books. Out October 21 via Profound Lore (and streaming in full below), the album upends any assumption that technical death metal must invariably be boring or masturbatory, and instead uses that instrumental prowess and a strong personal commitment to spiritual evolution to strengthen their truly innovative songwriting.
Montesi handles the bulk of the that for Auroch, a process he describes as hard work (actually, he says "it sucks," but we'll get into that later). As much as he enjoys playing in Mitochondrion, and feels a deep connection to the band, Auroch is his personal outlet—as he said, simply, "It's fun to play someone else's music, but when you play music, you also like to play the music that you write, too! Auroch serves that purpose, especially for me, and now more so for Shawn, too, because on this record, he actually contributed a lot of material"
His efforts do not go unnoticed: Mute Books is an obvious step forward for the band, one that separates them from both the current herd of tech-obsessed death 'heads like their (excellent) countrymen in Chthe'ilist, and from their own brother band, Mitochondrion. Between their vitriolic performances at Maryland Deathfest, California Deathfest, and Migration Fest, a successful US mini-tour, and the new album itself (to say nothing of what the next few months may hold), this has truly been Auroch's year. I called up Montesi the day after he and the rest of Auroch had returned home from playing California Deathfest (an experience he described as "excellent," though he sounded less than enthralled with "sights and sounds and smells" of the city of Oakland) to talk about songwriting, Lovecraft, and the eternal hunt for perfection.
Noisey: Are you going to come back to the States more often now that you've got this new album coming out, and have figured out all of your visa stuff?
Sebastian Montesi: The visa stuff worked out well. It's a pain in the ass, but it's done. It's worth it because you get harassed a little bit less from the border guards. Just a little bit less. They've never liked us. Having a band set up like us, where we have to work normal human jobs, we have gotten a lot done this year. For us to have done a bunch of different festivals and enter the States five different times, is pretty good by our standard. It's going to take something special to come back again. It's difficult to go to the states, even as a Canadian. You're not very welcoming when it comes to bureaucracy.
Just wait until we all move to Canada after the election. I was listening to the record, and there's this one particular riff that seems to pop up in a lot of the songs, linking them like a common thread. Was that a conscious decision?
That was a conscious thing, and you're the first person to catch it. It's in the first song and in the halfway point of the record. We had mapped the first song as being the first song as we started it. As we wrote the other song, we thought it would be a good halfway point for the record, so we wrote the riff in that song. It appears in other spots in a less full form. There's no deeper meaning it other than it's a nice audio motif to hear back.
At the roots, Auroch is very much in that Canadian tradition of technical, weird-ass, death metal.
That's definitely the root of the influences, but you know how influences go. It might be your main influence, but that doesn't mean that we've listened to it that recently.
Rght, but the first record you fall in love with definitely gets imprinted in your musical DNA. That's how you figure out what a song is—what a song is mean to sound like.
You're completely correct. When you write a song you go, "How does a song go? This is how a song goes…because it's what in the subconscious." On the base level, it's a matter of neuropathways. When you start playing death metal, you learn these classic songs and then have the memory that your hand likes playing. You try to go beyond muscle memory, but at the end of the day it's your fundamental base on how you play music.
Death metal puts such an emphasis on technical proficiency, but you guys hit a good sweet spot. I think it's easy to tip over in that void of just jerking off the guitar.
It's a fine line. We don't cross that line because of sheer limitations. We're playing at the absolute capacity of our abilities. If that proves to be just technical enough, that's fine. We can't play anymore technical than we do and if we played less technically, we'd be bored. That just so happens to be it. As you get older, you only get weirder. More hair in your ears and your nose. It gets more complicated. I'm sure it will progressively get weirder.
Thematically speaking, can you shed some light about hat's going on on Mute Books? I'm not very well-versed in the occult, so I'm definitely missing some things.
I've always really struggled with being able to answer these questions. It's because when you write lyrics, just like any part of the album, you spend a lot of time getting them right to a level that they properly convey the ideas that they should in the best possible manner, and that they've reached the potential of expression that they're complicated and technical enough, but also simple and to the point enough. It's no different than writing a piece of poetry. It's just when it goes beyond that and we want to start coding things into the lyrics, there are things that for different reasons that have been hidden in the lyrics. When you take a long time to codify the lyrics, I have found it difficult to express lyrics in mundane terms very quickly, does that make sense?
Yeah, because you put all this effort into creating these tight, compact little bundles of words and ideas—I can see it being hard to hard to unravel that.
Right, it's difficult. It's kind of like if you went, "Oh my god, I heard this amazing riff in a song" and I asked you how it went, and you go, "Na na na—" it wouldn't sound very good if you just hummed it. That being said, as a disclaimer, on Mute Books, we are trying to touch on the same philosophical strains that we've built up on the past few records, but perhaps a bit more streamlined. You write how you feel and what you're thinking. Then as old ideas die, they're proven wrong or become no longer relevant, those are weaned out of the lyrics, so hopefully each time what we're giving on record is a more distilled, crystalline version of the lyrics on the previous record. The lyrics should mirror personal and spiritual growth of some sort, that's the lyrics I like reading, anyway, and the kind I like writing.
Before I called you, I read through a few older interviews you'd done, and they all kept pointing to this "Lovecraftian death metal" thing, which, unless I'm mistaken, really doesn't seem to be a big part of the band now. Is that something you were into when you were younge,r and then expanded on?
Yeah, what you just said is closest to the truth. It's not currently relevant, but it's had it's place. We haven't wrote anything that has to do with Lovecraft mythos since we put out our first record. That recorded didn't deal exclusively with that. The author Kenneth Grant has been a huge influence personally. I took strongly to how Kenneth Grant incorporated Lovecraft writing into his own work. He's a very eclectic, very well-studied occult author, a spiritual descendent of Aleister Crowley, a lot of interesting stories there. I'm a huge Lovecraft nerd, there are very few things I'd say this about, but I'm an absolutely dedicated Lovecraft expert. On some of Grant's writing, even though I don't understand much of his writing because he was a genius and it's super complicated, having been a teenager when I discovered him, but I took very strongly to it, and I could see how the Lovecraft things were a little bit superimposed and a little bit forced. I found that as the gateway that combined things that personally I was into and beginning to research at the time. So Kenneth Grant, blends well with Lovecraft and Western and Eastern occultism, so From Forgotten Worlds is kind of exploratory in that sense, but Tamad Shud was perhaps more initiatory into other themes, with this record going further down that path. The Lovecraft was a little bit forced on us because people go "Ah, a metal band! Tentacles1 A few Lovecraft references! They're a Chthulhu band!", but in truth, we've always been interested in a really eclectic mix of occult, spiritual and philosophical practices.
It seems like all this stuff has been embedded in your subconscious and in your muscle memory for a very long time. What age were you when you first came across heavy metal, and Lovecraft, and these spiritual ideas?
I was about 12 when I first heard Metallica's St. Anger. I know it's hilarious because that was a terribly bad record, but that was the first heavy metal record I listened to. At the time, I was like, "Oh wow, this is the beginning of a completely new world of potentiality of music and how music can sound." After that, it was the typical sojourn down the rabbit hole. I started reading H.P. Lovecraft when I was 13, 14, shortly after that. I was very excited to find the Metallica songs that were based around Lovecraft's writing. It was a personal foundation.
I'm glad you didn't "grow out of metal" after that, like so many people claim to.
That's always been a strange thing for me. I think people must limit themselves, "I can't listen to anything besides metal", and then they oversaturate themselves and get sick of it. Heavy metal is not the only powerful thing in my life, but it's not something I've let become a negative thing, either.
It's ultimately just something you like. It's fun.
It should be something that you enjoy. If it isn't, it's doing something wrong or you're doing something wrong to it.
I know that you're into many different kinds of music, too. Was there anything that went into this record that listeners may be surprised had an impact on your songwriting?
Totally, totally. Like we were saying at the beginning, the real key influences, like for us Gorguts, Cryptopsy, Kataklysm, Morbid Angel, that stuff is less of a direct influence as it is more of a bedrock that's omnipresent. So the actual main influences on this record are not those things, but rather those are just the forefathers of the influences. One thing that we were really after was not just making another death metal album that had this pummeling, pummeling, pummeling dark atmosphere, we wanted something that ebbs and flows, so we drew from a lot of soundtracks; we wanted to create something with a cinematic bounce to it. Alot of Roman Polanski soundtracks, and the soundtrack to 28 Days Later was very important, John Carpenter's recent Lost Themes LPs, it's an endless list. The Weeknd, I'm a big fan, a lot of neo-folk, a lot of dark ambient. A lot of post-rock, a lot of noise rock too, Russian Circles, Health, anything that makes you think, makes you feel good, makes you feel bad, makes you feel like doing something awful—anything that has a palpable impact.
How do you go about folding those other ideas and influences in something as intrinsically straight-forward as death metal?
How does it actually go into it, yeah—to be totally honest, it goes in a lot more naturally than you'd think. At the halfway point of the record, there's an ambient piece, a very detailed little piece though it might not sound like it at first listen, with that monkey-sounding laughter in the background? Sinister little piece. That was exactly the type of thing that we wanted to include, because we felt that the atmospheres that we wanted to convey, and the atmospheres of, say, Dead Can Dance or Der Blutarsch or Ra Al Dee Experience, aren't all that different, so we made that piece ourselves from scratch, recording all the instrumentation. So interjecting something like that is actually a lot more transparent than you might think the blend between those two atmospheres, and then at the end of the record theres a good example of a choral piece, ritual sounding music. the whole beginning and end of "Say Nothing," I don't even consider that a death metal thing—I know theres a big solo over one part, but its more of a big weird spacey rock part, I know it blends well into a death metal song or I think it does, but it wasn't written as a metal piece. The entire first section of "Billowing Vervain" comes out of a metal part and goes into a death metal part, so maybe the brain doesn't separate, but it was not really written as a metal piece. Just all over the album are things like that, where it was more like "I want to recreate this feeling that I heard in a song that's wasn't a metal song." It's everywhere in the record.
Is it fun to write this music? Or is it something you feel driven to create?
It sucks, to be totally honest [laughs]. It kind of does! But it's the feeling of hard work, it's the way that hard work sucks, when you're certain you're driving towards something that's Type 2 fun, it's going to be fun when it's done kind of thing—"I can't wait to see this thing done, let's get it fucking done." And really, our music is about suffering, so for us to have had a hard time or a little tribulation while we write it, hopefully conveys the ideas a bit better. It has to be a little bit uncomfortable. I don't think that music can be sincere about any kind of suffering or hardship if the people who write it were completely comfortable the whole time. I want that unease to be in it authentically, and the writing of it is uneasy and unpleasant, and we're all in a bad mood [laughs] so I hope that it comes across a little bit.
Are you happy with it?
I'm very happy with it. It's the first record we've written where I'm completely satisfied with it and didn't with that anything was changed.
How are you going to top that feeling?
I don't know, but we'll have to find a way or we'll call it quits [laughs]. You never want to be too proud of your last accomplishment. Right now, the hard work is done, we get to do the fun stuff now, so right now I'm very satisfied with it, but I'm sure given a few months for retrospect I'll probably find something wrong with it.
Always searching for perfection.
You have to. There's no point in making music just for the sake of making it; if it's not you're best thing, then what's the point? I think a lot of bands that hang around too long could probably do with a bit more of that.
Live photo by David Burke.
Kim Kelly is searching for god knows what on Twitter.