Interview: Babylon Whores and Pride of the Damned, Pt. 2
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This is part two of Scab Casserole’s three-part retrospective on Babylon Whores. Read part one here.
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If I should lose my very soul
in some distant port of call
I’d still find my way home
If I took pride and I should fall,
my wings could not be shorn
My heaven would just be cold
—“Enchiridion for a Common Man”
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To borrow a phrase from William Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” the music of Finalnd’s Babylon Whores was the dark secret love during my teenage years. Though they toured with King Diamond and appeared on CMJ Samplers (one of which being the place where I first heard their song “Errata Stigmata”), no one else knew them. Their music was like nothing else I was listening to at the time; it was Satanic but subtle, melancholy but not whiny, just the right amounts of sloppy and heavy and mysterious, all without ever involving flowing robes or ruffled cravats or any of that faux magical bullshit. They didn’t just sing about tanks and chains and whiskey and Hell; they looked at the Devil inside us all, and how the ancient myths and magic of yesteryear related to the drudgery and madness of today.
Last year, Svart Records announced that they would be releasing a Babylon Whores vinyl boxed set. Entitled Pride of the Damned, it would contain six records and a 100-page book detailing the band’s career. In anticipation of this incredible collection, I decided to track down the band and do a career-spanning profile of them, which we’ll present here in three parts. When I contacted guitarist Antti Litmanen and frontman Ike Vil, they were happy to oblige this eager fanboy.
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You went from Sugar Cult Records to Misanthropy for the full-length. How’d that happen?
Ike Vil: Sugar Cult was a “label” by name only. I usually just borrowed money to get the product out, and got maybe 75% of the money back in the end. Mikko Mattila of Isten ‘zine had sent some stuff off the EPs to Tiziana of Misanthropy, and we heard she was interested. When we were recording Cold Heaven, we still had no kind of a deal, however. We just hoped somebody would pick it up, as I was tired of “running” the “label.”
Antti Litmanen: We thought that someone out there had to get Babylon Whores eventually, but the interest of Misanthropy Records took us by surprise.
Ike Vil: Obviously Misanthropy was known as the home of Burzum, but we thought it was cool, although probably the only black metal I could say I sometimes listened to was Venom. I bet Tiziana also wanted to confuse the crowd that was waiting for more Burzum clones. I can’t remember if there was other label interest at the time, but we were happy to sign with Misanthropy, who later licensed Cold Heaven to be distributed by Music for Nations.
By Cold Heaven, the band sounded very solidified in their sound and imagery. Was that a natural progression, or did you push the band in a certain direction?
Ike Vil: Litmanen and Ewo (Pohjola, guitars) were having their own Celtic Frost fan club in the band and converted me very quickly. Or maybe this is all hindsight — maybe I still thought I was in a gothic punk rock band while the two guys thought we were in a Celtic Frost-type metal band. I know that Jake (Babylon, bass) couldn’t have cared less what we were, and Koutala (drums) was more into garage rock. He even borrowed a double bass pedal from the drummer of The 69 Eyes for the recordings of Cold Heaven.
Antti Litmanen: While rehearsing for Cold Heaven, we understood everything was coalescing into something unheard of, so we simply played to our strengths. Musically, I was more interested in subtle layering than technical complexity. Lyrics were a necessary evil to most of our contemporaries, who probably thought us too clever by half and too lax with the actual practice. We always saw lyrics as 50% of the entire equation.
Ike Vil: In any case, we wanted to go for that harsh guitar sound, and there were not many options in Finland at the time — we booked Tico Tico studio in Kemi specifically because we wanted Ahti Kortelainen to engineer us, as he had proven himself with early Impaled Nazarene and Sentenced stuff. I think the fact that Ewo was working at Spinefarm Records by the time was a big factor too — he probably booked the studio and was also in contact with Misanthropy because of his job. All in all, Ewo sort of took over managing the band at the time, which was a great relief to me, as I had always wanted to leave the financial and logistical stuff to others (and concentrate on being a miserable, dark fuck). Of course Ewo later started managing Nightwish. At the time, there really were no “managers” in Finland.
What was recording the album like? The production has a really intense, raw sound to it.
Ike Vil: I think we recorded and mixed it in a week, which was a long time for us back in the day. It was cold and dark in Kemi in the middle of the winter, and we stayed at a run-down hostel. Most of us had the flu or were coming down with something. I remember Litmanen played Ravi Shankar each morning on his boom box. I also remember trying out a magical experiment: there was an R-Kioski minimarket on the way to the studio with a slot machine, and my premise was that if I just willed it hard enough, I could win my daily lunch money there. The band can testify that I really did live off that slot machine for a week.
Antti Litmanen: Kortelainen explained to us that if you want a something to stick out, it is perhaps better to have a silly, unexpected sound for it than go for the superficially ‘good’ ones all the time. Of course, we took that advice to the extreme and just gave him numbers we felt relevant for Qabalistic reasons or otherwise to dial into the FX, come what may. Some guitar leads were recorded backwards too.
This is also marks some of the appearance of traditional Satanism in your work. Where’d that come from?
Ike Vil: I guess I did some soul-searching in the lyrics using symbolism derived from Western diabology. Still, compared to most other lyrics dealing with the Devil that I can think of, I think for me Satan was more of a tragic and misunderstood figure, sort of like the god of suffering poets (and miserable, dark fucks) who romanticize their glorious self-destruction in a world where heroism is all but dead — it is Baudelaire all over again. Maybe there really is a spirit of fin de siècle that catches the imagination of certain people towards the end of each century and makes them turn to decadence and diabolism.
Is there a track from this album that stands out to you?
Ike Vil: Technically and musically, there’s probably a lot of room for improvement in everything we recorded then, but I kinda like “Beyond the Sun” and “Enchiridion for a Common Man.” They sort of sum what we were about at the time for me. Of course the ones that became the crowd favorites and staples in the live set were “Omega Therion” and “Arcadia Ego.” (On this version of “Omega”, my vocals are embarrassingly off-key. It was one of the reasons we wanted to do the song again on Deggael!)
Tell me about the title, also referenced in “Enchiridion for a Common Man.” Where’d that come from? Why a ‘cold heaven?’
Ike Vil: “Cold Heaven” is a poem by William Butler Yeats. In addition to his well-known literary laurels, he was also a miserable, dark fuck who was unlucky in love and (maybe therefore) dabbled in mysticism and ceremonial magic(k). I sometimes felt a strong connection with him and could even identify with some facets of his life. Today, I can remember just a few lines from the Yeats poem, but in the lyrics of “Enchiridion,” “cold heaven” hints at a Luciferian apology: it’s kinda OK to be cast out of heaven into the fires of Inferno, the only thing that changes is that you start to associate heaven with air-conditioning. (Southerners living in tropical heat cherish the cold, whereas us northerners would embrace the scorching sun in the middle of winter.)
It goes on with lines like, “Saw life as a girl from the avenue / Daddy’s sunshine with eyes of blue / Been more content with a cross-eyed witch / Back in an alley ditch.” The name “Enchiridion for a Common Man” came from a grimoire called The Enchiridion of Pope Leo III (pseudo-Leo, naturally), and probably also from [Aaron Copland’s] “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
I actually continued the “Enchiridion” theme in a song called “Crown of Iron” that we started recording in Kemi but never completed — there is a bare-bones version of it included in the box set that Antti salvaged from a C-cassette. I initially objected to its inclusion, as there are no acoustic guitars to carry my vocals as intended, and the lyrics are a bit childish, too. Now it sounds really weird, like warped-out relaxation music. Anyway, King Charlemagne went to Rome to be crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor by the said Pope Leo III, and I took it from there in the lyrics of “Crown of Iron.” “Enchiridion,” of course was sort of a handbook, a manual for a good life.
On certain tracks herein, you begin toning down the speed and going for these more doomy, stoner metal moments. Where’d that come from?
Ike Vil: I can’t remember if “stoner” was already a catch-phrase at the time, but I do remember digging the early Kyuss stuff. And obviously I absolutely loved Monster Magnet. Antti?
Antti Litmanen: The first Kyuss album was omnipresent in Finland at the time, although I would contest any direct influence. As for doom metal, I used to think it was the best contender for becoming modern sacred music, what with the ponderous tempo, contemplative lyrics and dirge-like melodies. That was the theory; the reality of some stoned hippies noodling endlessly on the blues scale hardly lives up to the ideal. Some of it stood out: I loved the first Cathedral demo, for instance, and when we were mixing Death of the West, we had Endtyme at the studio. I think that album inspired Hiili to bring in a little extra crust into the mix.
What was the reaction to Cold Heaven? Did you tour extensively?
Ike Vil: Nope. We did an European tour with the Dutch goths Wish and Finnish Nattvinden’s Gråt two months before the album came out, when nobody had heard of us. It was really just a DIY tour organized by Teemu Kautonen of Nattvinden’s Gråt (Tuomas Holopainen of future Nightwish fame played in the band, by the way, and the band was signed to Spinefarm after Ewo heard their acoustic demo during that tour.)
After that, I think we just did an endless string of one-offs that were financially more or less insane. The reaction to the album did surprise us, as Cold Heaven gathered rave reviews all over (it was the album of the month in Terrorizer, for example). Music for Nations even licensed it to Japan. As is usual in Finland, people started noticing us over here, too, when we had gotten some recognition abroad. We shot a video for “In Arcadia Ego” that was even on rotation on MTV and Viva. It makes for hilarious viewing for more reasons than one, but afterwards, I can’t for the life of me understand why I had hair like that. I guess it was down to the fact that I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to have a ’50s pompadour or long hair, and as my hair grew, I just stubbornly kept the old “superbad dome” and tied the rest into a ponytail. My girlfriend called the ‘do “the spaghetti pot”: there was the bulbous pot part on top, and the ponytail made up the handle. Of course, the vague hints I kept hearing just made me more adamant not to change it.
In the end, Cold Heaven probably sold jackshit. We never received a penny of royalties off that album. The only royalty slip I ever saw was a paper where MFN had deducted some “storage fees” or something off the sold albums so that the bottom line was an even zero. Maybe it was the case of us unexpectedly becoming the darlings of the press that the audience never found us. Alternatively, it was down to the fact that nobody could buy the album anywhere. In a way, we were lucky that Misanthropy was able to license the album to a bigger label with potentially better distribution, but who knows, maybe we had actually sold more without the deal.I think some UK booking agency contacted us, but I can’t remember what happened with that. I just know there were no tours offered to us by anyone. I was content with the ol’ Pride of the Damned. Our live shows at the time — and probably later, too — were often chaotic, but I think they were rarely dull.
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Deggael (A Rat’s God)
Deggael (A Rat’s God)
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In my research, I can’t find anything about “Deggael.” Who or what is Deggael?
Ike Vil: In a nutshell: the Antichrist. Alternative spellings include “Deggial” and “Dajjal.” I think the word still means “deceiver” in modern Arabic. Continuing my Baudelairean romances, I guess it was just logical I made Deggael into a “rat’s god” (inverted “Dog Star A” [Sirius], which in my mind also became the Sol Niger/Black Sun and the violent heat of late summer that kills nature and paves the way for its death and new resurrection. You can also substitute “nature” with “love.”)
On a side note, it is interesting that in Muslim tradition, Iblis (i.e. the Devil) is not completely without redeeming qualities: because he refused to bow down to Adam, instead holding on to his original covenant that he serve God and God only, some sects have also honored him as the embodiment of ultimate loyalty. To give due credit, I first stumbled on the name “Deggial” via a Finnish punk/art zine by that name. I think the editor Dingy had seen the name in a Swedish book on demonology — probably the same book that the Therion guys had read, too. When Antti was visiting them in Sweden, they gave him a puzzled look when he presented them with the Deggael mini-cds, as it turned out that they were about to start recording an album called Deggial. Talk about synchronicity.
What was going on within the band at this time?
Ike Vil: It was during this time that I started to rely on the method of inducing a state where I was no longer conscious of what I wrote. I remember that “Deggael: A Rat’s God” came into existence that way — I had not slept for a couple of days and just strummed on the acoustic guitar till I was no longer aware of myself. That way, the song wrote itself. Of course the music was still mostly a team effort, but with lyrics, I thought I had found a method that ingeniously transgressed the boundaries of ego in a near-magic(k)al fashion. Later, I would just “find” long passages on my computer from which I could mine whatever I needed. Of course, in the long run, the method was just bound to suck me dry and alienate me further.
Antti Litmanen: It was a strange time, all in all. We went to record in Kemi again. Struck down with fever, Ike and I took turns in reading Bardo Thödol, trying to complete the record as everyone else had gone back to Helsinki already. Ike wanted “Deggael” to be an occult ballad, but it had a life of its own and it became more and more dissonant by the minute, until finally emerging from the abyss in the form that went on the final record. A bare-bones version can be found on the forthcoming box set. Then were some sounds Kortelainen refused to put on the record, although we practically begged him — he said he wouldn’t take responsibility for someone’s cabinets being wrecked by our experiments!
This album was released by Spinefarm in the US — how’d that deal occur?
Ike Vil: It was only available as an import in the US. Because of the un-success of Cold Heaven in the hands of MFN, Misanthropy bought back the master from them (MFN had actually paid for the recordings), and then licensed the Finnish rights to Spinefarm. Ewo probably had something to do with it. I remember making and distributing the flyers for the release gig and getting the date wrong on two occasions, and it became a running joke on our web page that we were such an esoteric band that disinformation was deliberately spread to discourage the non-initiated from attending the secret gatherings!
The album opens with “Sol Niger,” a discernibly slower opener than your past records. Why go in this direction?
Ike Vil: I guess we didn’t think somebody would consider it slower (or more gothic) — if anything, we probably thought it was an example of the other side of our sound that was maybe not so audible on Cold Heaven. Anyway, “Sol Niger” was a rare case of two wrongs making a right: me and Antti both had a very tumultuous relationship behind us, and without even realizing it until later, we poured it all into that song, Antti in the music and me in the lyrics. In the end, I think “Sol Niger” became one of those songs that defined Babylon Whores.
Why’d you choose to re-record “Omega Therion” on this album?
Ike Vil: The reasons could have been numerous: the vocals on the original are way off-tune, we could have wanted a heavier guitar sound, or maybe we even wanted to promote the track more, as Deggaelwas originally supposed to be released hot on the heels of CH.
On “Somniferum,” you give a straight-up Tom G. Warrior “UNGH!” to begin the track. Are you guys big Celtic Frost fans? This song has a real Frost-ish burliness to it.
Ike Vil: Of course there are fans and “fans” — I mean, I thought Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion were kinda cool but couldn’t really understand what Pandemonium was about (despite numerous efforts). Then there is Antti, who even dug Vanity/Nemesis and was always eager to point out how there was still a noteworthy “pling” here or “plong” there, maybe even a good riff buried somewhere, despite the way CF looked and sounded by that time.
Antti Litmanen: That death grunt is probably the most overt Celtic Frost reference in the Babylon Whores discography. The way I see it, if you were into KISS or Mötley Crüe in your teenage years, you probably end up wanting to sound like them. If you were into something like Celtic Frost, you end up wanting to do your own thing instead!
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Part three of this series will run next week.
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