In his work with Matmos, Drew Daniel (along with his boyfriend M.C. Schmidt) uses found sounds, field recordings and sound effects to create riveting, collage-like music. But as the Soft Pink Truth, his solo project, Daniel brings identity politics and fondness for cultural criticism to the dance floor. On his new album Why Do the Heathen Rage?, he set his sights on a rich and bewitching subject: the brutal musical movement known as black metal.
Though its history traces back to several different decades, depending on who you talk to, black metal is generally associated with a wave of bands from Norway in the early ’90s that took metal to violent and forbidding extremes. The sound of foundational bands like Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem and Emperor was mercilessly raw, invested in peculiarities of aural texture as much as brute power and speed.
They also engaged in behavior that made the darkness of their aesthetic all too real. In 1992, a member of the band Emperor murdered a man named Magne Andreassen, for no stated reason other than the fact that he was gay. In 1993, Varg Vikernes from the band Burzum killed the guitarist from the fellow band Mayhem. (Two years earlier, Mayhem’s lead singer, who answered to the ominous stage name Dead, committed suicide with a shotgun.) Churches in Norway were burned for their supposed affronts to the country’s pagan heritage, and black metal in general provided a pulpit for nationalist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and generally hateful views.
Black metal’s sordid history forms the backbone of the new record by the Soft Pink Truth, which re-imagines classic black metal songs as anthems for the dance floor. Some songs are recast in the image of disco; others feature female vocals in the place of über-male growls. The entire album is probing, pointed and playful.
In an interview with Wondering Sound, Daniel talked on the phone in a tour van about his evolution as a metal-head and his feelings about black metal’s past, present and future.
Where are you right now?
We just got off the ferry from Denmark, arriving in Germany, recovering from a late night. I played as the Soft Pink Truth yesterday at this giant outdoor techno festival, and then we played a Matmos show at midnight. We were up until 3 a.m., and I’m feeling a bit rock ‘n’ roll right now. It was a festival called Distortion, one of these European city-street-fair-types of things where there’s 50,000 people and three main stages, and then lots of people set up little sound-systems block by block. Everybody just wanders around in a big drunken mess. It was mostly hip-hop and trap, a lot of people playing “Turn Down for What” [by DJ Snake & Lil Jon] and “Tipsy” [by J-Kwon], and then I’m slated to do 30 minutes of Soft Pink Truth in the middle of that. I thought, “These people are going to fucking hate me.” But actually, a mosh pit formed. When I did the Darkthrone cover, I was totally astonished — these preppy blonde Danish people started moshing.
Do you think they knew the material you were working with?
In a context like that, they don’t even know who’s playing. They’re just there to have a good time. They’ve never heard of you. I started barking “I am the Soft Pink Truth from Baltimore,” but my vocals are going through so many effects that it probably just sounds like “Garble garble ROBOT garble garble.” I don’t think there’s a lot of communication going on, but they seemed to be totally down. There were some metal-head kids at the very front too, some longhaired kids. I think one of them actually knew the Mayhem track.
What was the trajectory of your metal fandom?
I was a punk-rock and hardcore kid in high school, so metal was the enemy. Hardcore was left wing and I perceived metal as right wing, for the kind of people who would beat me up. But as soon as I heard [Metallica's] Ride the Lightning, I realized, “Well, this is amazing music.” Then I heard Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and I was like, “Holy shit, this record’s great. I shouldn’t just be listening to Minor Threat and Die Kreuzen. I need to hear more of this stuff.”
The records that did it for me were sort of in the halfway zone between punk and metal, like Cro-Mags’ The Age of Quarrel or Corrosion of Conformity’s Animosity, where there’s clearly a punk element but also a chugging effect where you know you’re headed toward metal. I always tried to follow both. Carcass’s Reek of Putrefaction was an important record for me in high school as well. But I got into going to lots of metal shows pretty late. Living in San Francisco, there was a club called Lucifer’s Hammer, and they hosted Enslaved and Mayhem. So I saw those when I was in college and really liked it, this feeling of something really dark and hateful, yet incredibly energetic and propulsive. Then moving to Baltimore catalyzed it further. Baltimore hosts this amazing festival called Maryland Deathfest, which is a four-day festival of exclusively extreme metal — so it’s black metal, death metal. So it’s gotten more pronounced in this decade of my life, which is sort of weird: turning into a metal-head in your 30s and 40s. But that’s my journey.
Do you remember your first exposure to black metal proper?
I would date it to playing Venom on the radio when I was a DJ. So many bands that I liked were name-checking Venom, so I thought I’d better check them out. I think I started with some tracks from Possessed, then things from Welcome to Hell and then the album Black Metal. That would have been early ’90s. It’s arguable whether Venom is truly what we’re talking about when we’re talking about black metal. They get this strange sort of priority because of a song title [the album Black Metal's title track], but the first true black metal I heard would have been Burzum’s Filosofem. My friend was signed to this label Misanthropy, and she got a lot records on the label, which was Burzum’s label. She gave me Filosofem and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe the entrancing, minimal relentless of it. At that point, it had already arrived fully attached to the narrative of the murder and the church burnings, so it [was surrounded by] a cloud of total notoriety.
So you were aware of black metal’s unsavory context at the start?
Yeah, absolutely. Because of the advocacy of black metal by Aquarius Records, the whole San Francisco underground scene was aware of black metal pretty early on. A lot of people in the noise and industrial scenes had been interested, via Death in June, in artwork that served a kind of ambiguous border-zone of playing with pagan heritage and various political stripes. I’m talking about non-Boyd Rice Death in June, Laibach — none of whom were the same ideologically, but they all liked to press those buttons.
The key is that a lot of industrial and noise people in the Bay Area glommed onto black metal, because it had the sonic extremity and also this kind of dark, ethically-dubious allure. That was happening in the scene around me at the time. Kris [Force] from Amber Asylum had played in a band with my boyfriend Martin [Schmidt, from Matmos] called IAO Core, and a woman named Annabelle Lee was playing in Amber Asylum and later became the romantic partner of Michael Moynihan, who was the author of Lords of Chaos [an infamous history of black metal] and was the leader of the apocalyptic folk band Blood Axis. There was this weird social awkwardness of people in the Bay Area suddenly consuming all of this objectionable material and drawing their own conclusions about what it means, what the politics of it are.
For me, I was totally interested in the art and compelled by the aesthetic vision, but troubled by what I was consuming. I think that was completely typical. I don’t think I’m an interesting case at all; I think the vast majority of people in the underground scene that are down with black metal are not, in fact, racists or anti-Semites, but they are caught in this sticky situation because of what they’re consuming.
Black metal overlapped in the ’90s with the early rave era, which you also allude to sonically as the Soft Pink Truth. Of what significance is that synchronicity to you?
What’s also at stake with the Soft Pink Truth is my own weird shame about dance music and this sort of strange double-citizenship of listening to lots of techno and rave and various forms of extreme music, and imagining that the camps are hostile. Somehow, I want to do this perverse work of forcing an interaction. But that may be an illusion, because lots of black-metal people were listening to electronic music. It’s very clear when you consider that Mayhem got Conrad Schnitzler to play a synthesized intro on their very first record. There have been these smoking guns of linkage between electronic music and black metal from the beginning.
As far as trying to connect rave culture and black-metal culture, I think the idea of sonic extremity and ego-death and collective merger that happens on the dance floor on drugs when you’re hearing really extreme gabber and fucked-up techno isn’t all that different from the ego-death and collective merger that you feel in a mosh pit. That same state of sublimity or submission to something that is sonically intense, that’s a physiological thing — it has nothing to do with these elaborate politics of genre and questions that I’m also thinking about. There’s more of a direct connection. I remember going to this techno club in London that would open at 2 a.m. on Sundays and you would dance for eight hours. The music was so fast and so fucked-up and weird-sounding. I remember wearing a Carcass shirt to that club because, to me, there were linkages.
Over the years, there have been attempts to put the chocolate in the peanut butter. There were records on Earache that were attempts to make some kind of industrial-metal-techno. When I made this record, I didn’t want to do that, exactly — I didn’t want to sample guitar riffs and loop samples of guitar. I wanted to respect the musical form of the riffs, but I didn’t want to have a wannabe dynamic of mimesis, where you’re trying to make the music sound like metal. I think some people are offended by what I’m doing to these classic songs because it doesn’t deliver the same sonic qualities as metal. But that’s quite intentional. I’m not trying to sound like metal. I’m trying to play metal songs in a new way.
The notes to the new album cite the “guitar chord transcription assistance of Owen Gardner.” How did that work exactly?
What would happen is, I would pick a song and make a date with Owen, who is a friend who has played in Matmos and is one of the co-leaders of this band Horse Lords that play in just intonation. He’s the son of a luthier, and he’s removed all the frets of his guitar and relocated them so that he can play in just intonation. He’s kind of a genius, and he likes black metal.
So he would listen and I would loop, bar by bar if necessary, what was happening and filter it so that he could perceive more clearly what the structure is. In some cases, the tracks are extremely lo-fi and raw. Then he would sit and transcribe it, mark the chords and notate the solos. Like with any sort of transcription, the result was a form of sheet music that I would enter as MIDI and then play back an initial run, and we’d correct mistakes and listen again. So there really was an attempt to be as true to the bass and guitar parts as possible, but then once I was doing the arranging, I wouldn’t necessarily respect the form.
I would always start from a clear sense of what the original was doing. For example, Sarcofago’s “Ready to Fuck”: I’ve written a new part and started with that new part, and that’s because I’m trying to build a bridge toward a kind of disco dance-floor functionality. So betrayals of the originals are crutches, and they’re driven by trying to land somewhere new. I always started with a real respect for the form. That’s why the Mayhem song ["Buried by Time and Dust"] is as long as it is. I wanted to follow exactly what those guitar parts do, because I think they’re brilliant. But there were some cases when I wanted to make something that would land on its feet, so I disregarded the structure of the original.
The intro to the album cites a book from 1978 called Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture by Arthur Evans. What is the significance of that book to you?
Arthur Evans is fascinating. He was a queer activist and was associated with the birth of the Radical Faeries movement. He also made these wonderful broadsides against gay clone culture that he would sign under the name The Red Queen; with titles like What Are You So Afraid Of?, they were mocking the masculine clone pretensions of mainstream gay male consumer culture in the Castro. He’s always been this thorn in the side of normative gay assimilationist politics, and that makes him interesting to me. But what makes him most compelling is he has this sort of outsider scholar persona, and Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture and Critique of Patriarchal Reason are these tomes that he wrote.
[Witchcraft] is a reading of the history of magic and the history of the question of witches. It’s a kind of feminist and queer counter-history, and it offers radical faery people a sense of heritage that is in itself somewhat anachronistic — that is, it’s mobilized by the attitudes of the civil-rights movement while it’s trying to think about, say, the trial of Joan of Arc as a queer moment of history. I really wanted to have something at the very beginning that flagged a queer pagan perspective as a kind of counterweight to taking on black metal Satanism as a default position. I think Satanism is fascinating and complicated maybe in ways we don’t realize because of its schlocky cliché presentation. But I’m not a Satanist, so I felt like starting with some kind of queer counter position was an important way to begin things. I’m also trying to imitate the way that lots of black metal starts with an ominous spooky intro. I just wanted my ominous spooky intro to be referencing Crowley and capitalist alienation rather than just talking about spitting on Jesus.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=313ZYFgLdyU[/dek]
To what extent are you trying to call attention to black metal’s troublesome history vs. wanting to reform it going forward?
I’m caught in a funny place with this record because, if you care about black metal at all, these crimes and damaging fucked-up histories are completely familiar and totally old news. In fact, people in the black-metal community are pretty sick of talking about the early ’90s. There’s a kind of eye-rolling that goes on among black-metal fans. But I didn’t make this record for black-metal fans. I didn’t make it with any sort of polemical [sense of] “I’m here to make you feel differently about your scene.” I wanted to explore what would happen if I identified with these songs and transformed them. I guess I did have in mind insisting that the murder of Magne Andreassen was a terrible moment that has been ill-served by the hipster fandom surrounding black metal. It’s really frustrated me. But then I started wondering, “Well OK, where is my frustration and my anger coming from?”
Maybe it’s from shame, because I’m part of the problem too. I’m a fan of black metal; I gave money to go see Emperor, this band that killed a gay man. So I’m not starting from a position of innocence or some ethical superiority where I’m here to school others and make them more like me. I’m in a dirty position myself. That mixed emotion and that state of liking and hating something, of feeling energized and feeling repulsed — to me that’s aesthetically interesting. I don’t like self-righteousness. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, like a lot of us, and just can’t believe the extent to which it’s this engine driven utterly by self-righteousness. I would hate it if this record that I made is yet more of that. I’m more interested in owning complicity.