Interview: Anaal Nathrakh
Anaal Nathrakh sounds like a runaway subway car from hell. Beginning with a few well-regarded demos and the now-revered 2001 album The Codex Necro, they have taught a course in audible terror to unsuspecting listeners. Surprisingly, there are only two men behind this often frightening music, not a pack of troglodytes. The first is Mick Kenney, who handles all instruments and writes the music. The second is Dave Hunt, who is responsible for deranged song titles, tormented shrieks, and off-the-wall literary references. Hunt mines forgotten books and obscure journal articles when sketching thoughts for upcoming albums. He also holds a day job in security. Who better to keep you safe than someone who constantly ruminates about fear and insanity? Anaal Nathrakh’s sixth album Passion comes out May 17. Hunt spoke to us from his home in England.
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What’s the first piece of music that scared you?
Possibly “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield (the theme for The Exorcist). Or maybe “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky. I know it sounds pretentious to start talking about classical music, but most people have heard it. Thinking about it, it would probably be Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana”. Most people in England now know that from an Old Spice advert. But it seems really evocative to me, like something from hell.
Why did the Exorcist theme frighten you?
The dramatic, evocative quality is what sets it apart. I actually didn’t know anything about The Exorcist when I was a kid. But the music made me think of coldness. It made me think of frozen space. All of the pieces I mentioned have a real sense of drama. They’re evocative and bring images into your head that wouldn’t have been there. Orff made me think of places that were vast and intimidating and frightning. “Night” is very bold and dark. When you are a kid, you are quite imaginative. You conjure up a whole world evoked by sounds. It seemed like an intimidating place. Kids are quite easy to scare.
Were you into horror films as a child as well?
No, just music, really. I’ve never been into horror films. I get something more out of something that’s bleak rather than something that’s just trying to scare you. Films like Cannibal Holocaust have never interested me because they didn’t seem frightening. The general idea seemed more shocking and creepy. I find it much more challenging to watch things that are depictions of desperation and bleakness. That’s been my bag more than horror.
The type of films you are describing makes me think of David Lynch and The Elephant Man.
The David Lynch stuff I’ve seen is freakishly bizarre and nightmarish and evocative. Halloween is a well-regarded film, but I thought it was more difficult to watch David Lynch. [In] Mulholland Drive, there’s just a sense of wrongness that was much more creepy that something overly horrific.
Lynch’s films like The Elephant Man speak to man’s infinite capacity for cruelty, which is, in many ways, the scariest thing of all.
Exactly. Requiem for a Dream does, too. That’s a truly difficult film to watch. There’s something much more real-world about them. I’m not immune to fantasy, but I’m still drawn to things that are more compelling.
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What inspires you to write?
I wait for Mick to give me an album of music. After that, it’s instinctively done. We have periods that are like creative boiling points. After a certain amount of time, there’s a point of critical mass. Very quickly, a sketchy idea comes out for a song, and Mick will just let it out. Whole songs come very quickly.
Mick doesn’t just use the first things that come to his head or improvise much. There are standards of quality, to use a business phrase. Still, we don’t analyze much. We want a sensation or feeling rather than things you can figure out.
The music we’ve done is expressive, a reflection of what we are thinking or something we saw. I suppose we sometimes try to produce something vile that produces a strong reaction. But it’s more intricate, because it depicts what we are thinking and feeling. Our music is a reaction to being horrified by the world. There are so many terrifying things, and they provoke certain reactions. It’s like holding up an image and saying: “Look at this. How does this make you feel?” There’s rage and desperation and tangible evil. We put it into music and see what people think.
Do you keep a journal or do any daily writing for inspiration?
That’s precisely what I do. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a journal, but I do have a running list of things that come into my head. When it comes time for an album, I pick out the strongest and most powerful ideas and what works best with the music. I have a huge list of things that occur to me. It’s the best way to do it. Inspiration can strike at any time; you need to make the most of it.
I’m imagining that your list doesn’t have entries that start “Dear Diary”.
(Laughs) No, it doesn’t. It might have an entry like “Vomit noise in a film that I thought was a cool thing” or something about allegations of rape by Congolese soldiers as a weapon of war.
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Why did you call the new album Passion?
A few reasons tied together. First, we wanted a direct title because we like to change things around. A few of our other albums have really long titles. We thought it would be appropriate to have a more punchy title.
It also has to deal with the meaning of the word “passion”. In a surface, rubbish way, it means that there is passion in the music. But the word passion originally comes from a Greek word that means “suffer”. I think the use of the word “passion” has been debased. It seems very weak today. I think passion should be a much more involved thing. It should have intensity, whether positive or negative. It’s not the smell of a perfume or a new item of clothing. It’s something that bites you at the deepest level. It seemed to sum up a lot of what we dealt with on the album.
Even if you look at the word “passion” in a religious context, you are talking about someone being flogged, scourged, and crucified.
There’s this nice, cotton-ball version of Jesus out there. In context, there was incredible suffering and intensity, something that was meant to make a point. If you just look at the word, it means big, hard ideas and experiences.
A lot of words like “passion” that are supposed to have strong meanings have been beaten into submission by marketing and consumer culture.
Oh god, yeah. We could talk for hours about that. The whole world is turned into commodities that can be bought and sold. There’s this desire to label everything for marketing, and it devalues everything. The principal example is love. It’s a box of chocolates or an emoticon on Facebook. It’s so easily said, but it has nothing to do with what it really is.
Another word is “depression”. People say “Oh, I’m depressed”. Well, try dealing with someone who is clinically depressed. It’s not “I couldn’t bother to get up this morning”. It’s hard, and it’s real in a way that the word doesn’t evoke. That goes for so many things. It’s a symptom of overuse, trying to take a shortcut to communicate real feelings.
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You said elsewhere that In the Constellation of the Black Widow was inspired by Moment of Freedom (a novel by by Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe). Was there any literary inspiration for this album?
There’s one song in particular on this album, “Who Thinks of the Executioner”. It deals with the second part of Bjørneboe’s trilogy. “Paragon Pariah” is about a book poorly translated into The Ego and His Own by a German nihilist. “Drug-Fucking Abomination” is about a journal article I found about how horror has to do with identifying as a victim. There are books and papers and bits of literature scattered through the whole thing.
After I heard your last album, I went back and read Moment of Freedom and later learned the author took his own life.
You did go and read it? I suppose that’s a victory for making a reference in extreme metal (laughs). You might remember the main protagonist says that within 10 years, he will have seen so much of the horror in the world that life won’t be tenable any more. It was about 10 years after the book was published that he died. I don’t know if it was some sort of weird autobiographical prophecy, or it if was a coincidence. But it makes it have that much more impact.
Well, if you look at the title Moment of Freedom, it has a bleak tone considering what happened.
Well, triumphant, also, in a bleak way. There’s the idea of suicide setting you free from the world that contains so many horrible things. That’s not what I think, but it is an established thought. Look at the Camus book The Stranger. So many people read it to deal with their teenage angst. It’s an act of empowerment when the guy dies. It’s stepping away from what’s imposed by the outside world. It’s a powerful idea.
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Was the idea of the cover to combine beauty and horror?
The inspiration for the cover came from a prosaic place. We toured last October. In Prague, there’s a torture museum. There’s a woodcutting of someone being sawed in half like you see on the cover. They have one of the saws on the wall. We both just stood and stared at it. It was so powerful and repulsive an image.
Mick did the artwork and tried to paint it so it was Kafkaesque. The people doing the sawing are obscured. The only fully-realized person is suffering. And the only thing they have to experience is their suffering. They have no idea why it’s happening or what’s going on. That’s why they were suspended upside down in the original torture – so they would know what was going on and remain conscious as long as possible. The idea of knowing you are being destroyed goes back to the conceptual horror stuff we talked about.
Passion is still not going to be accessible to a mainstream listenership, but would you say it’s more accessible than The Codex Necro or your early music?
No, I don’t think it is, to be honest. People seem to have an idea that it’s happening to our music, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s just better-produced. You can hear the instruments clearly. That might make it seem more approachable. But think about what’s going on. Right from the artwork to what’s dealt with on the album, there are no concessions. It’s bleak. There are horrible things going on. And the screaming is harder and harsher, and the blastbeats are faster, and structures change more and are harder to follow. It’s just the presentation in terms of production and the fact we’ve learned to do things slow.
I think a lot of this has to do with the Internet. There are these one-man elitist judgment squads that will talk down to anyone who tries to make things sound as good as possible. But the majority of people who listen to this music can make their minds up.
We’ve talked about Moment of Freedom and some other books, but what is the unlikeliest thing you’ve read recently?
I’ve been a doing a university course that’s forced me to read certain things. I don’t want to be boringly serious. But I’ve been reading a lot about what makes people happy and what constitutes a good life. I suppose that’s counter-intuitive to Anaal Nathrakh, but I’m trying to figure it out.
Have you become happier or picked up any tips?
(Laughs) If I have, I don’t think I’ve noticed so far. This is a long-term thing, and I’ll probably need to wait for things to change.
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“Volenti Non Fit Iniuria “
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