Interview: Babylon Whores And Pride Of The Damned, Pt. 1
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“And you are dying to get a life
And you would kill to find some peace.”
—“Love Under Will”
To borrow a phrase from William Blake’s “The Sick Rose”, the music of Finland’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 will come out on February 10 and will contain six LPs and a hundred-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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The Pride Of The Damned
How did the Pride of the Damned boxed set come about? Was it your idea, or did someone at Svart Records suggest it?
Antti Litmanen: Svart Records approached us about the box set a couple of years ago, but at the time, the whole project seemed too colossal. Then one day, when we all happened to be in the same city by chance, we sat down with Svart Records and, realizing they had actually everything mapped out in reasonable detail, we finally gave the box set the green light. That must have been the first (and the last) proper business lunch Babylon Whores ever had!
When I got into the band, it was during the age of CDs. What inspired you to go with a vinyl boxed set?
Ike Vil: My record collection is mostly vinyl, but apart from the first, awkward 7-inch, BW never released any official vinyl. The situation has now been remedied with a vengeance, so I’m a happy camper. I don’t know who actually came up with the “Mithraic Oxblood” red vinyl version, but I want to kiss that guy — the description put a huge grin on my face!
Antti Litmanen: We all grew up with vinyl, and it is a disgrace that the BW albums were not available on vinyl before. Better late than never, though. As for the “Mithraic Oxblood” red, yours truly came up with it, actually. But err… Ike, save your kisses for your girl and buy me drink instead.
According to the website, it contains a hundred-page book. Did you guys compile that?
Ike Vil: Mikko Mattila of Isten zine was the editor, but I guess you can say that we contributed heavily. It did feel weird to wade through history that I had put behind me without much thought, but I guess a lot of things made more sense with the benefit of hindsight. In a way, compiling the box set provided us with a closure that we never had in the first place.
Antti Litmanen: We actually ended up with so much material that the book could have easily become a 200-page monster, but you have to draw the line somewhere. The selection is quite broad, as is.
Was it difficult getting them all the material? Were there old master tapes and such that were hard to find?
Ike Vil: There were no actual master tapes in existence anymore, but luckily for the vinyl mastering, I found a box full of DATs containing unmastered final mixes of almost everything. What the individual DATs actually contained turned out a bit trickier, as I don’t have a DAT player — I guess everything’s on computer these days, but back in the day, it would have really made a lot of sense if we had taken the time to write proper indexes. When it comes to photos and stuff, we actually found a heap of stuff, including lots of embarrassing pics you’ll be able to see in the book.
Antti Litmanen: There was material even we had not seen before. We had a hand in curating the less inspired interviews, silly photos and bad reviews, so that it is a reasonably honest representation of our years as Babylon Whores, not some self-serving hagiography.
The lyrics of Babylon Whores’ songs are very poetic and in-depth. How much research goes into them?
Ike Vil: Not wanting to sound like a smart-ass, I always thought that a lot of living went into them instead of “research”. I wrote about my own school of hard knocks, using subject matter and terminology that I found interesting as a frame of reference. I mean, I like to read a lot of stuff, but somehow the word “research” in connection with “lyrics” always gives me the creeps. I’m a pathetic poet in that sense. If I ever write that great historical novel, however, I promise I will do diligent research.
When it comes to the mythology and symbolism in the music, do you write about things you’ve discovered, or go looking for old myths to feature?
Ike Vil: I guess I find the language of mythology fascinating when it touches something otherwise inexpressible that I can personally relate to — I mean, there are a lot of myths that are just plain boring, too. However, at best, some forgotten piece of mythopoetic nonsense can give you the chills by touching dark places in your brain. Some ideas just cannot be expressed in prose, being too multifaceted or even self-contradictory, and that’s why the only way they can be communicated is by analogy, the language of the mystery schools of old.
I guess I also “go looking for myths,” although sadly the few means available are usually just books and traveling. In general, I enjoy “rejected knowledge” immensely — if nothing else, it serves as a great antidote for the half-assed, limp-wristed cultural zeitgeist that we’re subjected to daily.
Antti Litmanen: The myths go looking for us. Our lives are short; myths are eternal and eternally vital for those with the least bit of perceptive acuity beyond the material spheres of our existence.
I think there was also a certain sense of self-contained mini-mythology to what Babylon Whores were doing. Whereas we might not have discussed Ike’s lyrics directly within the band, everybody seemed to have an angle or interpretation of their own to them.
I gotta ask: a lot of your music has themes of drugs relating to magic and occult mysticism, and your music has a really psychedelic sound to it. Were you experimenting with any drugs during its creation?
Ike Vil: Pretty much all of them. Of course you don’t need drugs. I think the only people who would actually benefit from doing drugs are the ones who are most eager to damn them all, but most drugs are used by people who should never use them. For most, prolonged drug use brings just misery and alienation — I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, either, if that’s a conscious choice and the person would limit the misery to him/herself, but unfortunately they are very rarely able to do that. I mean, it’s not the ennui of the English Opium Eater anymore, is it?
There’s a huge difference between a trailer park meth head and a guy like Ernst Jünger, for example, a decorated German officer, author, philosopher and intellectual, who fought in two world wars, was wounded 14 times and lived to be 102. Stereotypical druggie, in other words. He and Albert Hofmann were thinking about devising a modern mystery cult with the help of lysergic acid in order to reinvent the religious experience, the sense of numen, that the Western world has lost. If the hippies hadn’t picked up on the stuff, maybe something interesting might have happened. But as always, the gun does not know if you’re loaded.
What comes to drugs and artistic output, Richard Hell wrote that for a short while, drugs can definitely boost the artist’s creativity, but before long, his or her output diminishes in both quality and quantity and ultimately becomes just tedious and repetitive. I think the danger lies in the fact that you begin to trust the ritual of doing drugs and then creating whatever it is that you create, and by doing so you eventually destroy the very spark that caused you to create.
Antti Litmanen: We were a rock band, not boy scouts. Yet I do not have any fascination with drug culture per se, and suggest there are other equally viable methods of mapping out the fringes of reality and reaching that elusive numen.
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The First Two EPs – Sloane 313 and Trismegistos
The band has a very unique sound. How did people react when you first appeared on the scene?
Ike Vil: I don’t think we really knew what we wanted on Sloane, and in any case, in my mind, we always ended up sounding too “clean” in the studio before Trismegistos. You gotta remember that everything was analog those days, and the engineers didn’t give two shits about your punk rock band or whatever the hell your music was supposed to be. It was just with engineers like Hiili Hiilesmaa and Ahti Kortelainen when we felt that we were approaching the ball park. (Kortelainen didn’t seem like he gave two shits either, but that was just the Northern Finnish mentality. I remember when I asked him for a “telephone sound” for the vocals, he brought me an actual telephone, as he was fed up twiddling with the knobs). In general, I think people thought that we were “some kind of punk rock,” and that was it.
What music was influencing you guys as you started off?
Ike Vil: I had grown out of metal at the time and was discovering bands like Dead Moon, who for me, were the epitome of a perfect rock ’n’ roll band. I was also into Bauhaus, Bowie, Iggy Pop and most things that could be ridiculed for being “dark” and “artsy” at the same time. Of course I had always loved Misfits and especially Samhain ever since I first heard the former back in ’84. In general, I preferred US hardcore to UK punk, and when the bands had a darker edge, like TSOL, for example, I was sold.
Antti Litmanen: It was quite a varied selection. Sabbath, Floyd, and Zeppelin I had listened to since I was a kid, but by the time I joined the band for Trismegistos, I think I was into experimental music, some noisy alternative guitar music and underground metal. I like to think that in our circles everyone was well-rounded in 20th-century music culture and we never fit into any scene ourselves (couldn’t have cared less, either), so the question of influences was a bit of a non-issue really — we didn’t consciously avoid anything but never stooped down to the level of “the sincerest form of flattery” either.
There was actually a song on Death of the West, “Hell Abloom,” which Ike and I thought was as straightforward a homage to Iggy, Bowie and Samhain as a Babylon Whores song could reasonably be — and of course nobody got it!
What was the metal scene in Finland like at the time?
Ike Vil: For me, before thrash broke, Finnish heavy metal was a joke; silly men in striped spandex yodeling silly clichés in bad English. As an old punk, I never even confessed to digging “heavy,” as the music was called in Finland, I just listened to “metal,” something that was cool and aggressive and new. I liked Slayer, Exodus, Whiplash, Dark Angel, Holy Terror, Celtic Frost, and Destruction, and the best of the bunch in Finland was a band called Stone. However, when the Finnish thrash scene evolved into death (and later black) metal and began to attract worldwide interest, I had already moved on (or so I thought).
Antti Litmanen: Thrash metal was the sound of my teenage years, but if I think of the ’90s, I am hard pressed to harbor any sort of nostalgic sentiment for anything but North From Here, Drawing Down the Moon, and perhaps a couple of others. It went downhill from there. There was a big “metal” explosion at the time and I guess I was as excited as anyone was for a brief while, before realizing that most of it was just insipid waste, ridden by a mercantile need to please, without any intrinsic vision worthy of note. Just like any other genre. It is still the same — you’re not actually moved to hate most of the stuff, it just bores you senseless.
On Sloane 313, you guys have a bit more of a punk rock atmosphere going on, but by Trismegistos a lot more darkness has crept in. How’d that occur?
Ike Vil: I probably was a miserable, dark fuck from the beginning, but the most important thing on Trismegistos was that Antti Litmanen joined the band. He had a heavier guitar sound and worshipped Celtic Frost (as I later said, it’s a miracle we didn’t turn even heavier), and as he was also interested in the occult, our conversations probably affected the lyrics, too. You have to remember that there was no Internet back in the day, and you really had a hard time finding information about the more eccentric and esoteric things in life. Back then, meeting someone who shared your interests was like finding gold.
Antti Litmanen: As above, so below. Our musical and lyrical development became a reflection of a Hermetic axiom in action.
It’s interesting that of your many lyrics, “Pride of the Damned” off of Of Blowjobs and Cocktails became the boxed set one, especially given the serene image used for the boxed set cover. How’d that come about?
Ike Vil: The frivolous song title you mentioned aside, I think it was pretty early on that I summed up the kind of attitude we had in the band as “Pride of the Damned.” In a nutshell, it’s a Miltonian philosophy of ruling hell rather than serving heaven. Sort of like “fuck you and your opinions, this is what we do.” I think without it, we wouldn’t have lasted very long!
When did the mythological background themes come in? Even on “Love Under Will,” you’re talking about “eschatologies and parables” — not the usual blood-fire-death that most metal bands obsess over.
Ike Vil: As I said, teaming up with Antti led me to think more about what kind of lyrics I wanted to write, too. What comes to writing “Love Under Will,” I mainly remember that I wrote it real fast and was inspired both by a Dead Moon track, “Area 51,” and a girl I had just met (although I really can’t remember who she was anymore). In general, infatuation is one of the greatest sources of inspiration — hence all the fuss about “muses.” Obviously you’ll also get great material when it all ends on a sour note and you’ll want to tear out your heart through the ribcage! Reading the lyrics now, there are a couple of funny slogans, but it’s all still pretty juvenile. Thinking back, I probably picked “eschatology” at a Comparative Religion class in the university, and I did have a (pretty much unlistenable) psychedelic freak-out album by Red Krayola called Parable of an Arable Land.
The title Trismegistos: a reference to father of Hermeticism Hermes Trismegistus, or simply a declaration of “thrice great?”
Ike Vil: Now that you mentioned it, there was a big Baudelaire influence to the whole EP. There’s even a short quote on the original sleeve, from a preface to the Les Fleurs du Mal. I should probably quote the whole thing (unfortunately I can’t seem to find the name of the English translator just now, it could be Jeffrey Burton Russell):
Stupidity, error, sin and stinginess
Garrison our minds and enslave our bodies
On evil’s pillow, Hermes Trismegistus
Slowly rocks our enthralled minds
And the rich metal of our wills
Is vaporized by this learned alchemist
It is the Devil who pulls the strings that move us:
We find charm in the most disgusting things
Each day we take another step into hell
Deadened to horror, through stinking shadows
Reader, you recognize this delicate monster,
Hypocrite reader, my likeness, my brother!
Antti Litmanen: And “Pride of the Damned” itself probably originates in Baudelaure’s “Madrigal Triste” from Fleurs du Mal.
Ike Vil:As you can see, I even ripped off some things for “Love Under Will.” In general, in addition to the general Weltschmerz and existential soul-searching that befit a healthy young man, I guess I was having my honeymoon with the Devil, reading all I could find about Western diabology and the evolution of the related symbolism. Obviously the Devil initially represented a symbol of rebellion for me, but philosophizing further, it probably also led me to ponder the relationship of the conscious/unconscious in Jungian terms (a theodicy of the mind, really), and in Freudian terms, my rotten father figure. So basically Trismegistos is all about Devil worship, and come to think of it, pretty much all of Cold Heaven, too!
And maybe casting Hermes Trismegistos for the part of Satan, as Baudelaire did, is not such a bad idea: you need to begin to understand the “bad” in yourself in order to cultivate the “good” (as opposed to just projecting the “bad” elsewhere, in other words demonizing others). The alchemical themes in Jungian psychology are not limited to symbolism and iconography; there’s a great deal of good in joining the fragmented opposites into a single whole again!
Tell me about “Hellboy.” Your music obviously shares a lot of the same imagery and themes as Mike Mignola’s comic — were you influenced by it?
Ike Vil: I hadn’t read Mignola’s Hellboy before writing the song — I just had this harebrained idea of a kind of a slacker superhero, an alienated, dark fuck; king of self-inflicted misery. I was most likely talking about myself, too. I remember a Joykiller poster drawn by Frank Kozik that I had on my wall where the half-visible label of a whisky bottle obviously said “Soulless Luxury,” and the lyrics pretty much flowed from there. Later I naturally got hold of some early Hellboy graphic novels, and I did like Mignola’s linework (and obviously the subject matter, too). His art reminds me a bit of P. Craig Russell, whose Elric graphic novels I loved. (Also, it seems that Mignola and I both share a fondness of these post-Jugendstil, near-operatic designs of the Solingen dagger and sword factories!)
Both EPs feature “Speed Doll,” which has a kind of sadness to it. Where’d that song come from?
Ike Vil: It’s about a girl who did too much speed, obviously, no hidden occult references there!
Antti Litmanen: I guess all of us knew a few lost souls hazed by the bright lights of the city. Could be about any one of them. I never asked Ike.
“Trismegistos” is a kickass rock song, but also has a lot of piano and gothy sadness to it. “Silver Apples,” meanwhile, is in many ways a straight ballad. What inspires you guys to take these prettier moments?
Ike Vil: I’m a self-confessed art fag, and would have had no trouble going Simon and Garfunkel all the way (minus the actual homo part), if we had been a bit more talented musically to pull it off. I think we did try to cultivate that side of us on all our albums, however, with varying results.
Antti Litmanen: Life and Death.
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