Why Do the Heathen Rage?
is a queer-centric take on black metal from The Soft Pink Truth, the dance-oriented side project of Drew Daniel, best known as one-half of Matmos. The record, featuring avant-garde house and techno-tinged covers of metal songs, begins with a dramatic reading of a poem from Arthur Evans' 1978 text,
Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture
, and ends with an evacuant sample of Rihanna's "We Found Love" wrapped around gnarly buzzing guitar riffs and tortured screams. In between, Daniel and a number of collaborators, including Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner and members of Locrian, confront black metal's racist and homophobic ideological origins and even actions—Faust, the drummer for baroque black metal legend Emperor, went to prison for the 1992 murder of a gay man. The result is a puckish thesis (Daniel is also a literature professor at Johns Hopkins University) that trolls metal's hateful lunkheads and the complacent hipster shits content to separate this fascinating music from its supremely fucked-up value system. While on tour in Europe with Matmos, Daniel discussed
Why Do The Heathen Rage?,
which will be released by Thrill Jockey on June 17, over email. (Brandon Soderberg)
City Paper: Did this project arise out of a personal responsibility you felt to unpack the loaded elements of this music? As black metal has become part of the currency of cool, a dialogue about what it means to listen to music made by hateful murderers hasn't followed.
Drew Daniel: This record comes from my own inner conflict about why I like this stuff. It's a silly record about a serious question: Where does pleasure stop and responsibility begin? I just felt suspicious of my own joy in listening to this work, suspicious of what it meant about my politics, my identity, my ethics. I made the record in a spirit of mockery at the limitations of black metal as a scene and as an aesthetic but also as a way of calling myself out about my own complicity as a listener and as a fan. Was I recirculating and enjoying something that is rooted in horrific crimes, atavistic attitudes, and cruelty? Or was I responding on a physically direct level to powerful art that just happens to have been made by fucked-up people?
CP: Why Do the Heathen Rage? began with you looking inward, but you introduce a diverse roster of artists to help you wrestle with these ideas. Is incorporating other voices another way to oppose black metal's closed circuit of values?
DD: My record involves queer and trans and female people (and some straight, white male allies) working together to "cover" (in the sense of "occupy?") a territory that isn't (often) marked as such. But then again, if you know where to look, there already are black and Asian and queer and female people all over the world who do listen to and make black metal already too, so it might be a mistake to assume in advance that the white Nordic image of black metal connects to the reality. That's part of the importance of [Brazilian proto-black metal group] Sarcofago for me—in remembering that there are Brazilian ancestors to the corpse painted cultists.
CP: Can you talk about Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak's diva-house take on "Ready To Fuck"? It's the moment where the record first breaks away from sounding "metal."
DD: About halfway into the record I played some rough tracks for my boyfriend [M.C. Schmidt, also of Matmos] and he said that it was all too male and gruff and macho, and that it hadn't hit the "diva house" place that it needed to hit. At that point I had known Jenn for a while, but I still had to get up the courage to ask her if she would be willing to take part in this. I didn't doubt her mettle or her courage or her talent, but it just is hard to sing lyrics as ridiculous as [Sarcofago's] "Ready to Fuck" without laughing, so it wasn't exactly an easy assignment. What she did to that song was to take it way, way beyond my skeletal arrangement and into these disco-paradise clouds of harmony. She makes the record far more human, and funny, and warm. I'd have to say she makes it sexier too. Can I say that about my friend or is that creepy? Fuck it, she makes it sexier.
CP: What about David Serrotte? His Butoh/vogue performance at High Zero last year with your partner, M.C. Schmidt, was incredible, and I'm excited to hear him working with you now.
DD: David Serrotte is actually the first person that I ever knew in Baltimore—he was writing my boyfriend and I these letters about Matmos and performance art when he was a teenager. He is a member of the House of Revlon (See City Folk, page 16), and I've attended vogue balls with him at the Paradox and at various hotel ballrooms in Baltimore over the years. He's now a performance artist based in New York, but he came down and did an amazing vocal take on Darkthrone's "Beholding the Throne of Might." I thought that the language of thrones and kingdoms in that song was playing with a set of metaphors that are also potentially at stake in the ballroom scene—people slaying each other in a vogue battle, various dynastic intrigues and houses at war with each other, the whole competitive fierceness of voguing subculture seemed worth overlaying onto that track.
CP: And Owen Gardner of Horse Lords?
DD: I had wanted to do black metal covers for a while, and had made some unsuccessful prototypes through either sampling black metal directly (which struck me as cheap and too easy) or through using various audio-to-midi transcription software plug-ins (which couldn't handle the gritty lo-fi recording quality of black metal at all, and produced hilarious but unusable results). So I called in Owen Gardner. He's an incredibly talented guitarist, a fast worker and a detail-oriented obsessive. He was the perfect partner and without him this record would never exist. He did the Beherit track ["Sadomatic Rites"] and I had so much fun creating the arrangement based on his score/transcription, so it just snowballed from there. I started to feel guilty because I kept texting him and asking, "wanna do another?" and we were like drug buddies or something. He always said, "Yeah."
CP: Were you interested in sonically honoring black metal? You've captured the menace and unpredictability of that era of black metal expertly.
DD: I'm glad to know that. I wanted rawness, and a certain malevolence and chaos to break into the music, and I wanted momentum and force. That was important to me. So I'm relieved if you felt that that registers on the record, because I didn't want to make obvious musical attempts to ape the forms of black metal. I wanted to capture the perversity and energy of black metal but to transpose it to a different place. ■