Interview: A Pregnant Light
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It’s only taken two years for Deathless Maranatha to figure out what takes most musicians more than twice as long. Maybe it’s the volume of recordings he’s issued in that time (seven solo EPs and three splits) or maybe it’s just the brash personality at work behind the Grand Rapids, Michigan, artist’s guitars, drums, and howls. When you see a new recording by A Pregnant Light – hold the cassette in your hand, slide out the liner notes, gaze into the eyes of whatever purple-tinted film actor happens to be gracing the cover – you know exactly what you’re getting. APL is bold, APL is sensual and, increasingly, APL is hooky as all hell.
Starting with St. Emaciation late last year, the greatest revelation about Maranatha’s recent output has been the post-punk swerve his anthems have boasted. Domination Harmony sees this influence fully realized. By far APL’s catchiest and most accessible release to date, the three-song release continues the band’s tradition of leaving its listeners wanting more, but this time it’s oh so much more. Every track, each second, bristles with an energy and freshness, an undeniably confrontational edge that renders the term “post-black metal” null and void. Backbeats abound, multi-tracked guitars build and clash counterpoint with triumphant melody, there is swing and weird surf guitar and somewhere Johnny Marr’s ears are burning because he never in a million years would have thought someone would hear his work and do this with it. “The Pregnant Life” is the closest thing to a perfect track these ears have heard in years, metal, punk, pop, whatever. It’s got like three different hooks, but most of all, the songwriting is airtight. Just linear enough to raise your fists and air guitar like a complete jackass, but claustrophobic enough to warrant brooding with a decent pair of headphones strapped around your dome. This isn’t punk. This isn’t black metal. This is purple metal. Below, Deathless Maranatha gives us a rare glimpse into living the pregnant life.
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Not counting splits, Domination Harmony is your seventh recording as A Pregnant Light. How have your composition and recording techniques changed from The Feast of Clipped Wings to this point?
They haven’t changed at all. I would like to think they've gotten better. APL is very much an inward venture, so I'm spending time with myself learning how to better express my music and utilize the recording methods I have. Although lately, songs have been composing themselves more and more in my head. It used to be that I would come up with a guitar riff or drum part, or dynamic idea, and build around that. Now, as I walk further down the path I see things in their finished form more clearly. I suppose this gives me a bit more guidance, but the concept remains the same. Bit by bit, the song reveals itself to me. I still have to work relentlessly to chisel it from it's source. Like many have said before me, I'm just the vessel.
A friend of mine said, "Man, this new stuff sounds way better than your first stuff". When he said "better" it wasn't referencing how many people dismiss lo-fi recordings as inherently inferior, he was saying that things sound more pleasing. Easier to digest. It’s true. Unlike noise or other experimental genres where discomfort or extreme frequencies are part of the art/presentation/experience, the goal for APL is for you to be able to hear everything. Even the things that are masked (vocals in reverb, or a washy guitar part), are meant to be heard clearly, or, felt. It's funny, he asked me what gear I was using and I told him that I haven't bought a single piece of gear in three years. It's true. I don't have a ton of great recording equipment, it's really just basic stuff that any high-schooler would have. It really is, but all the increases in fidelity are due to learning how to use the equipment, or record with it, embracing its strengths and limitations alike. I need less things in my life and got rid of a bunch of crap (recording equipment, gear, and personal effects). I wanted to surround myself with useful tools. Things that serve a function and serve it well.
The technical aspect is my least favorite thing in the world. I hate engineering and mixing my own stuff. I have to because I can't afford anyone else to. I dream of one day just being the artist, not having to isolate ground loop hum or microphone phase issues, you know? I'd love to work with an engineer who wants to get bold, adventurous sounds, someone like Don Zientara or J Robbins. I would be really into working with a real producer at some point, too. Someone who could really take the songs somewhere. If Trent Reznor or Brian Eno are reading this... get with me, dudes!
Black metal bands seem to be split between being glaringly self-referential (Immortal decorating their albums with photos of themselves in battle gear, Darkthrone's last decade of output) and completely mysterious, as if to convince listeners the music isn't made by humans at all. As with other aesthetics of the genre, you've managed to straddle that line. To what extent is "Lives in Hole, No Friends" a commentary on the stereotype surrounding one-man bands? Is this an attempt to subvert the common perception of the "guy in his parents' basement"?
That song has almost nothing to do with actual friends, with being alone in the physical sense. Maybe it does, but sub-level. I don't think that's the heart of the matter. I know the subconscious is a great director of all art, but I would never reference others, especially other one-man-bands, in my work. APL is the work of my mind, my heart, my spirit. It's MY music, not in the sense that I make it, but that it's the music of me as a person. I'm lucky to be able to write my own soundtrack.
"Lives In Hole, No Friends" is about the personal place our souls rest on our journey. It's about the balance of the life we live socially and the spiritual path we are all on. I suppose they do connect. I feel utterly alone on the path. I feel weary and beaten down often. Every once in a while I meet another seeker along the path, but it's not the way of the path to go together. You can meet someone for a short while, but eventually you have to go it alone. In some senses I'm a super-normal person. I have a small group of friends, I go out to shows, grab a few drinks, and have a good time. The only thing I really take seriously is my music. Everything else is fluid. It's a really intense battle to fight alone, and I'm grateful to the supporters I have. I would still make this music, even if no one was interested, but music is a really great vehicle for communication. I am a social creature to some extent, I'm not some solo, basement dwelling black metallist. I think you're right on when you say that I split the aesthetic.
I have no desire to pretend I'm something I'm not. I didn't want to mislead people into thinking I am something I am not. The music is very much it's own hallowed thing, though. The music should be mysterious. It should be deep and layered. It should take work to dig through it. It's not meant to be immediate, unlike a punk song. My lifestyle is more of a statement towards the one-man-band thing. My music is unto itself, or at least, only self-referential.
Many of my favorite black metal projects are the kind of dark, basement dwellers you speak of. I'm not that, but I sure do like their music. I want my music to seem inhuman. For me, corpsepaint, or spikes and stuff like that, isn't part of MY process, but I would never, ever say anything against those who do that. I mean, isn't the commitment and imagery and presentation of black metal what really drew most of us into the genre, after the music, of course? I think that stuff is beautiful. It's worshipful.
As Wyatt stated in his Stereogum pieceon Domination Harmony, "The Pregnant Life" seems to be a statement song of sorts. This is a deep-rooted element of heavy music that's been all but abandoned by everyone except hardcore bands. Why did you feel it was necessary to break the fourth wall at this point in APL's existence?
Correct! I come from a hardcore punk background. I'm a latecomer to black metal, I got into it around 2001. I knew about it from being a record collector/music fanboy, but I really got into it around then. I have tons of respect for people who were defending that genre in the 90s when it was dark and void. Now, you can't click an article on a major music website without some reference to the stuff. Yeah, though - I felt the need to write a "this is who we are" song. I was listening to a lot of youth crew and straight edge hardcore at the time I was writing those songs. I love straight edge hardcore so much. To me, they have this idea, this thing that they stand behind, and they go at it full-bore. I love the commitment, I love the passion, the dedication. I wanted to take it extremely seriously.
The only metal bands I can think of that write "this is who we are, this is what we do" songs that I can think of are party thrash bands. You know the kind? It's stupid. Slice virgins, not pizza, right? haha!!! Or, I guess Manowar has some songs about being Manowar, but again... even if they are serious, many don't take them that way. I like Manowar, though. ha. Motorhead writes songs about being Motorhead, but that's because they're tapped into that primal rock and roll thing. Rock and Roll should be about Rock and Roll and Rock and Roll things. Not about anything else.
I wanted to break that fourth wall because everything I've done is so self-focused and turned inward. I wanted to make a track that would reach out and grab the listener and say, "THIS IS WHAT WE ARE ABOUT". When people hear a straight edge hardcore song or band, they know that this is serious, this isn't an endorsement of a feigned lifestyle. "The Pregnant Life" is as real as real gets for APL. It's as outreaching as I will get, too. It acknowledges, for the first time in APL, the listener. It doesn't acknowledge the listener by addressing them, it sort of "opens the door" and lets them look in on what's going on. I worked on those lyrics and music longer than any other piece of APL music, even if it doesn't seem like it. It had to be the song about itself. It had to have everything that I've come to do across the path of my releases. It had to be mature and well-stated. It couldn't be cramming parts in just to cram parts in.
One of the things that strikes me about A Pregnant Light is the embracing of not just melody, but actual hooks. Songs like "Impurity Flowing Upwards" and "Glint, Glimmer and Glow" feature these massive, hummable riffs that you just don't hear often in underground metal. In past releases, some of these hooks were buried between the more extreme or experimental passages. The three songs on Domination Harmony are the most immediate you've ever written. "Heat Helps These Flowers Grow" even swings during its chorus. You mentioned trying to reach out to your audience. Are these more streamlined songs an attempt at this?
I don't think they're written to reach out, necessarily, in the sense of being accessible to reach a larger audience. Like you said, the hooks have always been there. I think really what reaches people are melodies and atmospheres. Those are the two things I try to craft with the most care. A lot of underground music that is just harsh and un-catchy is beautiful. I love that stuff. It's so strong and powerful. I just don't write in that style. I'm a huge noise fan, I've got no problem listening to a full LP of some guy banging sheet metal with a crowbar, but when I sit down to write songs, that's not what comes out.
Raised on too much '90s radio rock, and skate punk, I suppose. There is always some sense of melody hidden.
I made an attempt to streamline this last batch of songs from Domination Harmony. It was the first time I made my lyrics available to the public or journalists. They were my most personal, and esoteric, to date. I finally feel at peace with what I am. It's funny, I'm so obsessed with purple, and it took until this last release to realize, "Oh man, I'm PURPLE METAL." I know that may be putting a Liturgy-esque bullseye target on my back, but I would encourage any shit talkers to fuck off. I have such a deep love for monochromatic black metal, I don't want to call myself that, you know? I don't want to be seen as an interloper or anything. I'm all about speed, hate and spikes, but I don't do that. I mean, in my opinion Nifelheim is the best active black metal band in the world right now. What would they say about "purple metal"? Yikes!
I suppose, to some extent, there is a bit of direct influence on these songs that have been absent elsewhere. It's pretty well documented that I'm a massive Madonna fan. Of course, Madonna's seminal second LP was produced by Nile Rodgers. Rodgers was also a huge influence on my favorite guitarist of all time, Johnny Marr of the Smiths. Nile Rodgers was recently in the spotlight again after his collaboration with Daft Punk, especially on that "Get Lucky" single, so in the middle of "The Pregnant Life" around the 2:10 mark, I have my little tribute to Nile Rodgers. It's not really like anything he plays, it's too static, but that's because only Nile Rodgers plays like Nile Rodgers.
Honestly, when I write parts, I try to write like a heavy metal / punk rock Johnny Marr. Lots of layers, lots of melody. I sort of play rhythm and lead at same time. "The Pregnant Life" also has a huge Iron Maiden salute, and those who know anything about Nifelheim know that Iron Maiden is their favorite, as they are mine. I will go on record. Maiden is the best metal band ever. Better than Sabbath. Better than James and the boys. Maiden forever. I saw them last summer on their Seventh Son tour, and even though that's their "prog" album and prog sucks, it was so damn good. They can't fail. Even the Blaze albums are good. Virtual IX is a bit soft, but The X Factor is tremendous.
"Purple Metal" is completely fitting. It reminds me of the couple of times John from Agalloch has mentioned "grey metal" in interviews about The Mantle. Apparently some critic just dropped the tag into a review, and the band thought it was kind of funny at first until they realized it totally described their entire sound and mood. It fits with the Madonna cover and the tinted album art, especially Cleopatra on "Live to Tell". Both Cleopatra and Madonna are sexualized figures in their times. As you've said, there is a human quality to APL's music, and a major part of being human is our respective sexuality. I hear a subtle sexual undercurrent in much of the music.
Respectfully, I would say there is more than a subtle sexual undercurrent. It's a key driving factor. I don't want to be too obvious about it, or conversely, be like the Mentors, or a lot of Power Electronics or something... but it's really what holds APL together. Thematically, it's very much sexualized music. I mean... "pregnant" is in the name of the band. It's hard to think of something more extreme. Death is worshipped in our culture and in this subgenre, but life is what we have all experienced. Doesn't get any darker than life. Death is beyond. No one has come back, I mean, really come back other than being clinically dead or something for a few minutes. Life is gnarly as hell, and to carry life--especially as a man, I am so blown away by that concept. It seems like birth would have been phased out of society now... everything is so technological, but a child still must come from a womb. Although sex isn't the only way to get it there, it is carried through there. It seems so animalistic. To carry a life inside you. It blows my mind.
Also, there is no underlying statement either pro or anti-abortion in that, so don't read into it. Not at all. I just think birth is weird. Fascinating.
What's next for A Pregnant Light? You're averaging three solo releases and a few splits a year, so my guess is more material is already in the works. You mentioned that a full-length release would be an interesting experiment. Is that in the near future? It's interesting that you play live with your punk bands but an APL show may not ever happen. Is it a matter of finding the right musicians to translate the material, or simply keeping the project more intimate?
I’m always working on new material. My goal is to put out a full-length this year. It's a difficult balance. I want it to be cohesive product, not just a bunch of songs grouped together. Working in a shorter EP or demo format is cool because it's easy to group ideas or concepts. I've been writing for the album for a long time. Sometimes I'll get a riff and it will scream "album riff" rather than something to work on immediately. I’m digging through endless riffs to work out something meaningful. Sometimes I feel like an architect more than a musician, making all these parts fit together.
I would be very interested in having APL play live. The project at its core is incredibly intimate, but I think when we get five or six people together, it could be a really amazing way for that intimacy to be shared and expressed.
I used to want to be secretive, to be whatever it was these mythical black metal bands were. Anonymous, mysterious, and I really enjoyed the feeling of being unsure of what anything is, or what it means. I wanted that so badly, but I felt the need to be honest with myself, and the people that enjoyed my music. It's sort of why I took on the Purple Metal thing. Out of respect for real, cult black metal bands, I wanted to separate myself. I never intended it to be funny thing or a joke, or a marketing gimmick.
I got tattooed by Jef Whitehead last year, and he really inspired me to be me. Dude is an amazing tattooer with an amazing talent for music. It's public knowledge that he's Leviathan. He did that documentary thing on Vice, he tattoos publicly, I actually just saw him play this big ambient / experimental thing in a Chicago cemetery. I've never talked to him about Leviathan, when I was getting tattooed by him we talked about tattoos. On my way out the door I said I really liked his music. I don't know anything about the dude other than he's Jef Whitehead, and he's Wrest. He's not a poser, he's a real dude. I am a real person, I don't want people to think of me as this vapor or mist that's veiled behind the band. Knowing who I am doesn't hurt APL, it should inform you.
I'm a real dude, and I'm really fucking pissed off all the time, and this is what happens. It comes out all purple. It isn't some hipster-haircut love and feathers thing. I experience love and life, and it's fucking dark. It's intense. APL is not escapist. It's confrontational. So, I encourage any internet shit-talkers to step the fuck off. That's not a meat-head hardcore dude physical challenge, it's just saying to not be an anonymous fuck-stain in a world (internet) that doesn't even exist. I'm a real dude, this is my music. Like it, or shut up and move on. I can handle being picked on, especially by these mutants that say stupid things to me. So, I'm not too worried about the haters, of which there have been many. When someone "gets" APL, they really value it, and I truly value them. They're in this with me.
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