Interview: Sabbath Assembly’s Dave Nuss

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Dave Nuss would love to play Sabbath Assembly’s music for a religious audience. But when he approaches more progressive Christian festivals his embrace of the Process Church theology – which promises the eventual union of Christ and Satan at the end times – guarantees they won’t get on a bill. “They’ll say ‘We’re sorry but worshipping Satan is just a deal breaker,’” Nuss says. “’It doesn’t matter how much you say praise Jesus. As soon as you say Hail Satan you aren’t wanted here.’ But metalheads are more than willing to accept it. They realize the deeper intentions.”

Throughout his life, Nuss has tried to reconcile his evangelical past with his desire to play darker music. He was exorcised as a child and later renounced his childhood faith. He believes he might have found the answer and a piece of salvation in Sabbath Assembly’s music, which recreates hymns from the splinter religious sect the Process Church Of The Final Judgment for modern listeners. The band’s new album Ye Are Gods (released by Ajna Offensive on September 22) takes an even darker tone than debut Restored To One. Nuss talked to us about his Bible belt upbringing, his conflicted rebellion and salvation in music.

— Justin M. Norton

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One of the Internet posters on Sabbath Assembly’s new YouTube video said the following: “These people are either exploiting an old hippie cult from the ’60s or they really buy into the wacky world of the Processions. Both are disturbing.”

Well, it’s definitely not a marketing gimmick. I would not have had the idea for this project if I didn’t have a personal or emotional connection with the theology the church is teaching. The project is way too much of a pain in the ass to do it for any other reason. This got me by the heart. There’s an intellectual connection; there’s just something about the nature of what they were trying to convey. It hooked me in a way that’s hard to explain. You might call it delusional, I suppose (laughs).

If you were looking for a marketing gimmick you could find other things that were more profitable.

We’re not making any money, that’s for sure. The Process Church doesn’t seem like a hot seller. I don’t think we need to defend ourselves from that comment. My relationship with the material and how (the Process Church) comes at spirituality as a psychology rather than a series of dogmas is why it’s so interesting to me. I grew up in south Texas in an evangelical holy rolling kind of environment. I totally reacted to that by getting into Satanic metal in the ’80s . . . Slayer, Venom and everyone. My childhood was very tortured. I wanted to be a good boy for my parents and family but I wanted to live through this music I was encountering. It had this passionate, pagan approach. And it made me feel like I was sinning.

The interesting thing is that in the Process Church the dark and the light have to coexist. There are dark ideas but these are common in Eastern spiritual paths, the whole Yin-Yang concept, and sun and moon in Hatha yoga. This is healthier paradox and a better way to incorporate the Western archetypes into our lives. It’s not about creating spiritual warfare but spiritual unity.

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Sabbath Assembly – “In The Time Of Abaddon II”

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What was your upbringing like?

In the ’80s the whole backmasking (backwards messages in music) thing was going on. I was going to record burnings at churches. I had an older brother who was really into it. I was so confused because I was attracted to the music but then my brother would say “we have to go to the Bible happening on Sunday.” I’d literally buy a Venom record and then take it to the record burning. It was crazy that I was doing it. I wanted the record but also felt like had to get it out of my life.

I became a project for my brother because I wanted to play drums from an early age. I grew up on Sabbath and KISS and Led Zeppelin. My brother was concerned to the extent that he would take me to these revivals and bring me to the front. He’d explain the situation. I was a kid who had a passion for rock-and-roll and I literally went through exorcisms. They were trying to cast the demons out of me, the rock-and-roll demons. The minister at one event kept saying “the devil is in the beat!” and “the drummer is carrying the devil forward into the world!”

Didn’t this terrify you?

It was absolutely terrifying because I wondered what was inside of me. I wasn’t scared of the minister. I was scared of myself. I didn’t know why I had been chosen to be this bringer of Satan into the world. It’s ridiculous to talk about now but this paradigm is absolutely prevalent in America and elsewhere. Anything that moves us inside or moves us to dance is considered very dangerous. I’m hoping that if the Process stuff became infectious it could be a healing paradigm. I’d rather raise a child in this ideology than the one I was raised in.

I can’t say I went through exorcisms but I grew up Roman Catholic and my family rejected metal in a similar way. But in some ways it only strengthened my interest. As an adult I’ve more or less rejected organized religion and your path has led you to discover something from the past that was maligned.

Do you mean, why am I still bothering? (laughs). It sounds like you let it go. In my 20s I moved to New York City and became a musician and forgot about my past. My daughter’s birth when I was 28 rekindled a lot of questions about bringing a child into the world. Am I going to do it the same as my background or different? It forced critical self-examination of my upbringing. What I found was a lot of anger. I was very upset about what I thought was an unjust situation. And I swore I would never do that to my own child. I was immersed in Carl Jung’s writings at the time. His basic point is that you don’t need to abandon the path you grew up with, but how do you look at your path and rewrite it so you can find your own space? I embarked on this journey to study Christianity again and find out if there was a different angle. And of course there is.

The discoveries of the last 50 years give a much fuller understanding of these teachings and how to interpret them. I think the Process Church lies within us; the power lies in a synthesis rather than dividing the forces inside. We all have Christ and Satan inside us. That was the church’s point. So why not hold them both up and allow the shadow side to exist? Then it doesn’t come around and bite you in the ass like the Catholic Church. If you try to repress the sexual urge it comes out in a dysfunctional way.

In the video you have a juxtaposition of Christian and Satanic imagery thrown together. As a child I remember both of those images seemed overwhelming, frightening, and dictatorial. Some of the video images remind me of Jack Chick Crusader comics.

Being raised evangelical as opposed to Catholic we didn’t have a lot of imagery. The Satanic thing was a lot more in my imagination. We had a lot of pictures of the blonde, blue-eyed Jesus around church but I don’t recall seeing images of Satan until I started exploring the Middle Ages. The imagery wasn’t as much a part of my path. The tear was in my psyche or my imaginary world. It was scarier to imagine the potential that there were demons lurking inside of me. It’s hard to rest when you find something like that out.

Jack Chick “Exorcist” comic cover

Did you ever go to therapy? How did you cope?

The anger was my way of dealing with it, putting a barrier between myself and my family. I went to college and was a philosophy major and was able to get a different perspective on the question of religion. I was able to get a little more scholarly and that probably saved me from burning down churches. I don’t condone that but I can understand why karmically that had to happen. What comes around goes around. When you look at the Christianization of Scandinavia 1,000 years ago . . . they cut down the sacred trees of the pagans. Fortunately I didn’t have to set anything on fire. That’s why the tone of Sabbath Assembly isn’t a black metal band. My relationship with the church is not one hundred percent destructive.

What did your family think about your decision to break away? Do they know about Sabbath Assembly?

It was traumatic for everyone involved. I wore my Jesus tee-shirt and my crucifix around my neck. I remember taking off my cross and telling my parents I wasn’t going to go to Campus Crusade For Christ meetings. I wanted to work at the college radio station.

For Christians there isn’t anything more important than salvation and the salvation of your child. So I think my parents and especially my father took it as a failure that I strayed from the flock. He had a lot of guilt and I had a lot of guilt. What do they know about what I’m doing now? It’s a Google search away. It’s almost like a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ sort of thing. My Dad is still a staunch Calvinist. The last time I was home I talked about why does religion have to have a supreme enemy that can never be reconciled? What function does that serve if you look at it as mythology? You are looking at the world between a battle of dark and light. We agree to disagree. Whether my family knows that some of these songs praise Satan and Lucifer? I don’t know (laughs).

It’s good that you still have a relationship. For a lot of similar families as soon as you renounce the path the relationship ends.

You’re right. There is still a lot of love all around. It’s important that my daughter has a relationship with her grandparents. She’s 14 already so she is able to get her own perspective on my family in Texas. During the last few summers she’s gone back to be an assistant teacher at a vacation Bible school program at my family’s church. It’s a real hoot for her to see, literally, the scenarios from the “Jesus Camp” documentary. I’m trying to emphasize that this is one facet of the world but you don’t have to believe or disbelieve it.

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Jesus Camp Trailer

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Sort of like a teenage anthropology project?

Totally (laughs). And that’s how she is receiving it. The past summer we had a lot of discussions about it and how a lot of the stuff doesn’t make sense under a rational microscope. I’m really proud of her for asking these questions.

In your upbringing it sounds like people told you music was the path away from God but that your spirituality came about because of music?

Music has always been the most scared scripture for me. I imagine we probably agree that music is the closest thing to a spiritual reality because there’s a non-material vibration we are putting out. Of the things we engage in it’s something we can get closest to the spirit. Slayer’s Reign In Blood actually saved me (laughs). It kept me alive.

Because it made you question?

Because it gave me some relief that I wasn’t alone. I had intuitions about the dark side and here was this band and community of people saying let’s not squash this, let’s celebrate it. There’s a song called “Angel of Death” that will blow your head off. And then there was “Jesus Saves”; I was drinking these words up. It was like what I was thinking, the words in my head. It was a beautiful salvation by Slayer, so thank you.

I feel like I’m using music as my therapeutic vessel. I feel like I’ve found the antidote, the solution that helps me cope with the feelings of being split. Sabbath Assembly helps me feel whole again. When I look back to Restored To One I get tears in my eyes. And not because I played awesome drums – it’s the message of the music, the way forces conspired to make it come together. I feel the same about Ye Are Gods. I have a lot of passion and emotional investment in this project.

Dave Nuss on Ye Are Gods (Soundcloud clip):

Do you think Sabbath Assembly’s music and the Process Church teaching is a way for you to try to put together the schism in your own experience – the extreme fundamentalism and the desire to escape?

We did a performance in New York a few months ago. And a lot of people were justifiably scratching their heads as to what it’s about. It forced me to take a step away and think about how an audience member views it. I realized that what I’m trying to do is rewrite some chapter of my past. I’m trying to recreate those church services in a way that I feel comfortable. What do they do sometimes in therapy — role play? I’m role playing and going to church the way I’d like it to be told.

What do people say to you about the music?

In a place like New York it doesn’t make much sense. People here aren’t very over-churched. There isn’t as deep sense of what it’s about. It’s more about young, hip handsome people from Brooklyn making music. What’s interesting is that Jamie (Myers, vocalist) now lives in Dallas. I asked Jamie to get a few people from Dallas to rehearse. So that’s what we did. I was there for two weeks working with new musicians. They all get it. There’s a mega church on every corner and a billboard of Jesus everywhere. They really loved the music and could really feel it. It’s in our bones to respond to this Bible belt environment. So it was a great leap for the progress of the band. If I can keep working with musicians from Texas and Jamie, more people from this background, it will lend more power to the presentation. I’d love to go to a progressive Christian music festival if there is one and present this music to people concerned with spiritual issues. I’d love to take the paradigm head on.

We were on tour with Earth around the UK for about six weeks. They bring out a really broad audience. It was a good context to tour; it was kind of heavy but not thrashy black metal. Dylan (Carlson) just loved the band. He heard us and got in touch right away and said he wanted to bring us out. It was the right way to go out; be with people who are open stylistically. We had a blast at the merch table. People were asking us about the Process Church and what people really believe. I think they were expecting us to hand out our own version of the Chick tracts, which we haven’t done (laughs). Now, almost two years later, I feel more wrapped up in the church side of it.

How did you meet Jamie?

Jex (Thoth, former vocalist) told me about a year-and-a-half ago after a tour that she wanted to focus on her own music. It was a devastating blow. I wasn’t sure I was going to go on because she was such a big part of the first record. I was listening to The Locust Years by Hammers Of Misfortune, one of my favorite albums, and I realized I had to call Jamie Myers. I hadn’t realized she also worked with Wolves In The Throne Room. She was into it right away; got it on a deeper level.

Her voice is remarkable.

It lends such a depth. Jex’s did too but it was a different feeling. Jamie has this dark quality to the voice that suits the new material really well.

Do your bandmates or collaborators need to share your world view?

In New York there are a lot of musicians who do it for the gig. In the big city there are people who are pros. I’m at the phase of my career where I don’t want to spend a lot of time in band practice. I’ve been spoiled by what New York provides in terms of efficiency. But it doesn’t lend a lot of unification to the theology of the project. Both albums were recorded instrumentally with hired guns and it came across. But I’m looking forward to the next chapter, the Texas chapter.

What does Jamie think of Process theology?

She’s a more intuitive person than I am. I like to talk and rationalize stuff and she just gets it on a gut level. When we were rehearsing or I’d see her perform there were no questions needed. She was totally on board.

You earned a Master of Divinity degree at Columbia.

That was where I really got into the history of the 200 years before and after Jesus, looking at alternative texts that didn’t make it into the Biblical canon. I ended up working for a while as a hospital chaplain. That was my way of getting closer to death and illness and learning to grapple with it. I didn’t want to learn anything abstract; I wanted to test my ideas. What I found was that Christianity as we’re taught doesn’t deal very well with death. There is a lot of fear. There’s a lot of denial. I found that in general with the Christian chaplains. By contrast one of my partners was a Zen Buddhist. They are like samurais meditating on death every day. There is a mission to purge themselves of the fear of death. That fascination put me on the path to discover the Process Church and other cult groups. I don’t like the Process Church; they were hierarchical and there was a lot of room for power and abuse. That’s why we aren’t trying to recreate it. But I think the ideas were quite strong.

How did you get in touch with (former church member and author) Timothy Wyllie?

Through a mutual friend working on a musical project. Wyllie had written a book on the Process Church. We just really hit it off and talked long into the night about the church. He had some of the music for the hymns and I thought the sheet music was incredible. He told me they had never recorded anything. And that’s where the idea started.

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Timothy Wyllie interview

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There wasn’t any push-back from former Church members?

The old members aren’t even communicating with each other. With Timothy’s blessing I thought it was OK to proceed. Over time we’ve encountered other past members and they seem OK with it. One person was concerned about publishing rights. We’ve tried everywhere to find them and want to give proper credit. But no one has come forward. The next thing we heard is that “these sound like gloomy rock songs and we did it more like Gospel songs. What are these parts you are adding?” Jex and I said we’re making an album, not starting a church. We want to create great songs but we can’t fake a revival. Why would we fake it or do something ironically? We just want to share the message the best way we know how.

Do you think some people find the music frightening?

Hell yeah. I find the song “Abaddon” spooky. It’s not a Process song; it’s something I wrote in the spirit of it. Those songs work their way into it. “Judge of Mankind” on Restored To One terrifies me when I hear and play it because it does what is supposed to do. It conjures all the four deities. Jamie won’t sing it and other people have hang ups about it. I’ll let Jamie speak for herself but to me the song is scary.

What if someone came to you and said “Dave, you are smart guy. You have a master’s degree in divinity and are successful. This music is from a cult and it’s dangerous. Why are you putting it out in the world?”

Believe me, I’ve heard that. Our first guitar player is one of my closest friends. And he said I shouldn’t mess with this because a lot of people were hurt by the cult. It shouldn’t be honored; this is something we want history to erase. But I think there’s a lot to it once you get past the personalities. The way these spiritual ideas took form in the 1970s was dysfunctional. But I don’t think that was unusual for the period. I think people were trying to make sense of things. There were sex scandals and mind control and all sorts of problems. But there’s a lot there to be explored. I have a 500 page book of (church founder) Robert deGrimston’s thinking and found a lot of things people would like to find out about, that would have meaning in the modern world.

Was it true that the Process Church was hatched from Scientology and eventually led to the Best Friends Animal Shelter?

That’s the chronology. MaryAnne (deGrimston) believed animals, German shepherds in particular, weren’t bothered by the same kind of walls and blocks we have socially to telling the truth. There is more of a link between instinct and action. She actually thought German shepherds were more spiritually evolved than humans. Look at humans and the faces and personas we use to get through our day. A dog barks right away because that’s instinct.

I have a very hard time with the idea that German shepherds are more spiritually evolved than humans.

(Laughs). I won’t go on record one way or the other on that but thought it was important to share.

Could you live life without spirituality?

It just seems to be a fixation I have. Whether I’m visiting churches or running off to some class on Eastern thinking it seems to be in my blood. I just got the bug.

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The Ajna Offensive will release Ye Are Gods on the autumnal equinox, September 22, 2012.