A Tragic Journey Into the Future: A Conversation with Striborg’s Russell “Sin Nanna” Menzies
My own experience with Striborg dates back to an impulse buy at the Schaumburg, Illinois, Tower Records in 2006. A black metal logo over a dense, vast forest, and the vote of confidence found within a Southern Lord logo (at least, it was a vote of confidence then), it might as well have had a sticker which read: "Tailor Made For Jon Rosenthal." Embittered Darkness / Isle de Morts was dismal, strange. Even today, I haven't been able to find anything else which sounds quite like it. However often Striborg's black metal years have been aligned with the "depressive/suicidal black metal" style (Sin Nanna, himself, agrees), the music made by this solitary artist, deep in the woods of Tasmania, is something all its own. I've heard the terms "weird," "outsider," and "obscure," and they all make sense in this particular case. Striborg's music carries this sense of dread, loneliness, and hatred. It's monolithic, strange, and sometimes even hard to listen to, but in that is its success. Sin Nanna had always branded himself a misanthrope, and his distant hatred is made clear through this raw, ugly music.
I had always felt an intense curiosity about Sin Nanna, who was unmasked as Russell Menzies in the 2011 One Man Metal documentary. Before this documentary, he seemed like a distant, unapproachable being. Tasmania is so much more isolated and geographically distant than Norway and France, and to be hidden deep within the forest creates its own mystique, anonymity or not. In the documentary, Menzies reveals himself as thoughtful and eccentric, but still a guarded man. Though his name was now public and the man behind the corpse paint became less mysterious, I had so many questions left unanswered by the brief documentary.
Now operating under the "blackwave" tag, something adopted beginning with the blackish darkwave/coldwave album Instrumental Trans-Communication, Menzies has made greater attempts to "come out of his shell" and embrace the Internet Age. Taking advantage of his sudden transparency, I chatted with the artist about change, personability, his career, and more, which you can read below.
Striborg was always always an enigmatic artistic entity. Aside from artists you might have worked with, your name was this big mystery until the release of Vice's "One Man Metal" documentary. Even so, you've been very careful about your presentation as an artist and have been very guarded, maintaining a careful sense of control as far as attitude, unveiling, and artistic explanations which is difficult in the Internet age. How has this gradual near-sociability and embracing of the social media age been for you as an artist over the past few years? Has it changed the way you approach the Striborg and Veil of Darkness projects?
Everything that used to pertain to the Striborg enigma is completely thrown out the window now. I have, unfortunately, become a slave (like most people) to today’s technology and social media. I even own an iPhone, although only for one year [as of now]. Never owned one previously. Now, especially with the new direction I’m going in with Striborg, I want to be more interactive and engaging, especially with the fans. If they take the time to contact or message me, I want to endeavour to reply back. I used to never reply or take my sweet time to. I’m okay with this as long as I’m hiding behind a screen. None of this has changed my approach to creativity, I always create for myself. In addition, as my new album is a digital only release, I have to go out of my comfort zone to promote it.
How does it feel to be more engaging and embrace your audience? I recall a time when I only knew as much as what was in CD liner notes and what eventually would make its way onto Metal Archives. It's such a sudden and severe lifting of the veil.
I feel a better person for it, I guess...
Facebook is still relatively new to me and noticing the response rate, it requires you to be rather responsive and therefore perhaps reach more people when posting something new.
I’m still trying to figure that one out. Like I said previously, I’m still hiding behind a screen so I’m ok with this. The Facebook page is still not 100% official as it was created by a fan, linked to Phaedra’s Facebook and I have access to the Striborg page. For example, I can leave a comment as Striborg but it likes and messages as Phaedra! Very confusing and frustrating.
Is this kind of hiding something you find necessary for Striborg?
Of course, I hate myself…
I'm guessing this is a main focal point of Striborg and something which you express within your music. At least, as an addendum to its more outward misanthropic tenets.
I’ve realised it’s not others I hate, after all, what have they actually done to me personally? Okay, so there are a bunch of whiney arseholes online, but they target anyone and everyone.
People make me feel ugly to be human when I’m around them. Therefore I prefer to stay at home as much as possible. I’m not so much a misanthrope but a self loather or perhaps a self loathing misanthrope. Rather pathetic don’t you think? So emo and goth!
I'm not so sure you're alone in that sense of isolation - lest we recall the larger movement of black metal musicians becoming more transparent regarding their inward negativity and expressing that sort of confusion in their music. Even so, what is it like looking back on your larger body of outwardly misanthropic work now knowing that your hatred is more self-directed?
I guess it’s a bit hasty and immature looking back at it now. Although I genuinely had my reasons. You need to give people the benefit of the doubt and a lot of time you end up being surprised at the good nature of some people and how giving they are. I don’t mean as philanthropists but giving and engaging as a person. Wholehearted, nothing withheld. Still, there is arrogance, pomposity and those who are standoffish.
Is this new insight what fueled this sudden shift into a new style, which you call "blackwave"?
A long, boring story I’m afraid… I’ve always been into late 1970s and early 1980s new wave, synth pop, post punk, goth rock, darkwave, coldwave and Lycia. Although, I never had any idea just how strong the contemporary darkwave scene was until about four or five months ago.
First off, you need to know the circumstances surrounding my epiphany. Unfortunately, in June, my son was committed to a hospital where he stayed for two months. I’m not going to divulge any more information, suffice to say that as parents we were devastated and I nearly had a nervous breakdown. The worst two months of our family’s life.
Anyhow, I’ve been jaded with black metal for years. This is my epiphany... I was walking back to the hospital listening to the usual depressive/suicidal black metal on Spotify. The track ended, then this amazing darkwave track came on. It was "Fall of Misery" by Kriistal Ann. I was literally blown away! I loved it! I listened intently and while I was listening I imagined what it would sound like if it was a little darker and had black metal vocals! I had this epiphany right there and then, and decided to create the first ever real "blackwave" album. I felt a huge weight had been lifted. Not just because I could say "bye bye" to black metal, but it gave me hope and solace when everything seemed so unbearable. For months after, I discovered many fantastic darkwave artists and had visions in my head of what to create myself. I also decided to rework the "Weeping Abandoned Spirit" track, and it surprisingly turned out far greater than I ever imagined.
Even spookier is the fact that a darkwave band from Hobart, Tasmania took a band photo exactly where I had this epiphany.
Oh gosh, that's awful. I hope that situation is better now.
The darkwave influence is definitely apparent on this new approach, and reworking that older song in the more darkwave-influenced style definitely fit. I recall the cover Xasthur released of Lycia's "Cold", as well as another conversation I had with an artist about shifting styles and genres -- it's all about arrangement. You could use the same melody to exude isolation, or a different kind of darkness, or even euphoria. Did working with these new composing and recording criteria present any issues? Is it a comfortable change?
Yes, it was Scott who introduced me to Lycia in the first place.
I’ve never been interested in doing covers, personally, but I did the Siouxsie and the Banshees one because they are one of my all time favourites, and I remember someone ages ago stating that every Striborg song sounds like a cover of "Eve White / Eve Black." Another person then said, I wouldn’t be into them. How wrong he was. I thought with this cover, bring it on. It’s not a particularly good rendition of the song though.
A very comfortable transition, especially the lyrical freedom. I don’t always have to talk about forests all the time. This was shifting on the Procession of Lost Souls album, anyway, although writing lyrics are a very dark and profound head state for me to be in. It was both [challenging] and rewarding working with just synth and programming drum parts. For the first time ever, I could compose [and] practice along to drums. It felt so right. It also improved my concentration and timing. The vocals also turned out better because they don’t have to compete with all the black metal frequencies.
It's interesting to think of Striborg so suddenly taking on a much more modern, electronic approach. I guess I still associate the project with the images of you, cloaked, wandering through the forests and screaming in a cave. Something very pastoral and lonely, now thrust into a stark, industrial metropolis. Aside from being created and recorded by you, of course, what do you feel is the essence of Striborg which connects these dual identities?
Even though I live in the forest I have a fascination for metropolitan areas, car parks, industrial buildings and long hospital corridors and the way they are lit up or city back streets at night. It’s mysterious to me. [I feel] Instrumental Trans-Communication can be appreciated in both an urban or forested surrounding. People have commented that they can still feel the forest atmosphere and that it still sounds like Striborg. I spent three months practically living in Hobart, first performing and watching events for Dark MOFO, then with my son in hospital. I guess this period of time influenced me somewhat.
Performing live was definitely a new element of the Striborg experience when first unveiled in 2014 as the Purifying the River of Tears concert, and the ensemble was very unique, featuring you handling electric guitar, flanked by a string quartet and overdubbed voice and drums. What led you to make the decision to perform live, and how did that ultimately unfold?
It was Kirshsa, now wife of David Walsh (the owner of Mona Museum etc.) who approached me about performing live. I did my usual thing back then and just ignored the e-mail. Once I told Phaedra about, she was like, have you answered back? Good thing I did as it was a successful experience and Mona really look after their artists. It was Kirsha’s idea to include the quartet (two of whom were in the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra). They really made the piece what it was and it was nice having other people performing with me.
Were there any difficulties you found yourself facing when figuring out and attempting the live format?
Not at all, as I used a backing track to rehearse the guitar live and I had a composer work with me for the strings section. Only one rehearsal was needed with them. Everything seemed to go swimmingly.
I guess that was meant to be more of a question as to personal struggle rather than things which have to do with logistics and practice.
I was working at the time, so I had to juggle practice and many meetings while also working. I remember feeling intense anxiety about it, and nervousness for weeks leading up to this event. I was truly out of my comfort zone and there were high standards to be fulfilled. Luckily, on the actual day, these fears had dissipated and everything went smoothly.
This was a very large step after you had essentially disappeared back into the darkness after the Vice "One Man Metal" documentary, seeing as this particular performance follows a near three-year silence for your once-prolific project. With this larger unveiling and first public demonstration, what did you set out to accomplish?
A chain of things happened: the financial crisis, hence Displeased Records stopped paying me, and artists, too, mind you. The One Man Metal documentary was released, so all the mystery pertaining once to Striborg was gone. I nearly lost This Suffocating Existence album for good. Subsequently, due to all these factors, I spent the next few years depressed and full of apathy.
The Mona request to perform live gave me a kick up the back side, and their advance enabled me to purchase a new Mac [computer] and recording software. I was back on track!
I didn’t set out to accomplish anything [with the live show]. The "Purifying" piece was to accompany an art project and cause that Kirsha was working on. My own personal requirements were that I didn’t make too many mistakes!
Do you feel your art as Striborg is misunderstood?
Constantly, even from the word "go."
I’ve always felt like an outsider and that my approach to black metal was unorthodox in its execution. Most people don’t understand. Luckily, some do "get it" and feel the catharsis within the music and lyrics.
Now that I’m doing something new, people seem to think it’s already been done before, and many times over. I swear, I have never come across an artist who has taken the darkwave/coldwave style and taken it to the next level with a black metal aesthetic hybrid. There is no metal whatsoever, hence why I tagged this new direction as "Blackwave."
I’ve seen other artists with this tag but they just perform the usual black metal with synthwave or are just very noisy and experimental. Blackwave is just a darker version of darkwave/coldwave.
This is something I have created just like when Venom created black metal. (Just for the record, that is still one of the finest black metal releases in history, after all. How could this milestone not be?)
The impetus of your work as a black metal artist in 1994 is surprising considering your constant physical isolation. How did you end up discovering the style and what ultimately fueled your unorthodox approach? I've read odd descriptions of Kathaaria material as being "Ildjarn-esque", but even that carried a similar sort of sadness and oddity found within your later black metal works.
Since 1994, I always had this burning desire to express my own catharsis. The sheer crudity of my recordings in the early years was just a result of the poor resources I had. I made do with extremely poor and borrowed equipment. I had never even heard Ildjarn until mid-late 1997. His work was a massive influence on the Misanthropic Isolation album.
Something to keep in mind is that I had been playing extreme metal since 1989 in a mostly death metal band prior, and also parallel, to my solo work. Worldwide distribution didn’t start for Striborg until 2003. A lot of futile years led up to that point.
Around 1994 or 1995, I was mostly obsessed with Darkthrone, Norwegian, and Polish black metal. It’s evident somewhat, although I am pleased at how unique the Tragic Journey album turned out.
One of my bandmates in the death metal band I was playing in at the time said that someone he played it too, commented that it sounded more Norwegian than a Norwegian band!
What led to Striborg becoming a global entity? Although you had mentioned it was a futile effort, how did you get the word out about Striborg before that, seeing as you were mostly self-releasing everything on your own Finsternis Productions imprint?
It was Asgard Music that helped immensely and Finsternis back in 2003. I never had the internet back then. I had the nerve to just send loads of parcels to record labels I liked, asking for a trade, and, surprisingly, they all sent something in return. Back then, the response to what I was releasing wasn’t a very enthusiastic one. It wasn’t until Spiritual Catharsis that people [started] taking notice of what I was doing.
All the years leading up to that point were just a few cassettes and CD-Rs distributed to friends and family, with only a couple of copies in a record store.
I was completely unknown for many years.
The world certainly took notice afterward -- I recall finding (and buying) a brand new copy of the Embittered Darkness/Isle de Morts CD at a "big box" music store in the city where I grew up. How did you, then an outward misanthrope, react to the much more widespread renown?
I liked being distributed so well. Displeased and Southern Lord Records helped Striborg become midstream. I hope one day to get back on track like that. There was a time when you could purchase a Striborg cd at any JB HI FI store Australia wide. The response I received in Melbourne was overwhelming ten years ago when I did the Pentemple collaboration with the Sunn O))) members. I had no idea just how many people were actually listening to my work. None of this changed the way I choose to live or perceive the world. It was nice knowing that my art was being circulated in the underground.
I definitely own the Southern Lord pressing of that particular album/compilation. It was an interesting choice for the label, but I enjoyed how passionate Stephen and Greg were about Striborg in interviews. Kind of made Striborg one of those classic "record store finds."
In discussing positive things in your world, I realize I've been coaxing a lot of more negative experiences out of you up until now. Though there is this image of you as the isolated misanthropist, you've talked about a lot of positive things in the past, too. Things you enjoy and draw influence from. Though we've discussed coldwave and other gothic styles of music, I was wondering if you could tell me about other things (music, books, movies, art, and so on) which influenced Instrumental Trans-Communication.
I have a fascination with all things paranormal. "Instrumental Trans-Communication" refers to a paranormal investigator's method of hooking up a camera through a TV screen and facing it to the screen to create visual feedback into infinity, in the hopes of capturing any visual anomalies like images of faces or shadow figures, etc.
In the "Homosapiens Devoid" music video, I utilised this same technique only with a mirrored image and in black and white. This was the same technique Doctor Who used to create the opening themes for the first three doctors. The ITC cover is a still from the Homosapiens Devoid music video.
I watch a lot of paranormal investigation shows as well as supernatural thrillers. I’m a massive horror fan in general, although it is the Twin Peaks series that stands heads and shoulders above everything else!
I don’t have much time to read these days with such a hectic lifestyle. I used to read fact and fiction of guess what topic? Yes... paranormal or the supernatural.
Absolutely no black metal artist inspired Instrumental Trans-Communication at all, with the exception of previous Striborg. I drew on the inspiration of the original late 1970s/early 1980s post punk, new wave, goth rock, synth pop, and electro scenes. Lycia (Bleak - Vane) and contemporary darkwave/coldwave.
I recall your interest in ghostly presences and the paranormal from other interviews in the past. There was one experience you had described in another, maybe a decade or so ago, which detailed a haunting you had experienced. As I can't find a scan or digital copy of the particular interview, could you retell this haunting story? Is this something you still draw from?
Back in 1995 only a week or two before recording my first solo album A Tragic Journey…, I ventured to this stereotypical looking house which looked haunted with my new flatmate. I used to walk past there late at night while listening to music many times previously and wanted to show him it. As we stepped onto the property, I had this feeling of great unease and dread. No one had lived there for months that I knew of.
I looked up at one of the windows and saw a figure that had a faceless white head. My friend didn’t see it, but I freaked the hell out and we flew from there. As we walked back down the road to our flat, a huge gust of wind and leaves swept behind us. This was normally a busy road and there wasn’t a car in sight, which was strange as it wasn’t that late at night. It was late Autumn, so it would get dark at about 5 or 6 o’clock. As I opened the door to our flat, both a light bulb blew and a string on my acoustic guitar sitting in the corner snapped at the same time.
My anxiety was getting the better of me. I had this feeling that someone would come around for a visit at 3 o’clock in the morning (something that would normally never happen). I said to my friend “let’s stay up all night," as I was so shaken up by what I had encountered. I wrote my first lyrics to Tragic that night, and many others. "Beyond the Shadow of Silence" was a direct inspiration of the night's events.
And guess what? One of my friends did come and visit me at 3 in the morning. It’s as if I knew, 100%. I’ve been like that about a lot of things ever since, I must have a psychic ability to a certain degree. Precognition.
The next day we went back to the house and went inside. It was strange looking at the back, there were parts missing in the veranda that didn’t add up. Inside I had a sense of vertigo or the sensation of being on a ship. I was really sick for about a week or two, so much that I gave up coffee and alcohol and continued to for a year or two afterwards.
Some time had passed and I lived later with my brother in another flat. I had a candle burning in my room, and I forgot about it. I was in my brother's room, telling him about my ghost story, when, during the climax, flames and smoke came bellowing from my room opposite. What had happened was, the candle burnt down next to the lighter where I left it and "boom!" The fire brigade had to come and put it out and aired out the house. So many years have passed and I can’t explain these paranormal events -- is it all just coincidence, or something more?
Interesting you bring up a Kathaaria song's lyrics, mostly because you've never released any from that actual era. Is there any reason those have been kept secret?
Probably because they either wouldn’t make sense to others or I’m not happy with them. Most likely they are too personal to share, or all of the above.
The original cassette of Tragic… did have the lyrics published, although they were rather small and illegible.
Was there ever music of yours you hesitated to release for these same personal connections? Some feels so intimate, sometimes it borders the uncomfortable.
I’ve only held back the original Black Desolate Winter and Trepidation albums as I had to record them again because of many timing mistakes. I’ve otherwise released everything else. I don’t mind sharing my catharsis.
Borders the uncomfortable, I like that. Perhaps a lot of other artists wouldn’t have the nerve to share everything…
In changing to the blackwave style, has the catharsis you've felt in creating your music changed, as well?
Not a bit, this is a comfortable transition, so many traits still feel the same. If anything, I’m opening up even more emotionally and personally with blackwave.
Where do you plan on taking the blackwave style further? I imagine, given your prolific nature, there are more works to come.
Absolutely, an EP will be released in March/April 2018 featuring a couple of tracks that didn’t quite make the Instrumental Trans-Communication album. One of which is a "dreamwave" track. A new album will also be released in late 2018.
I guess I just want to explore and refine this new style further. It’s a new lease of life for me as I haven’t felt this creative in years or been this obsessed since A Tragic Journey. It will be a complete mystery as to what range of "wave" may fall under this new blackwave style. Perhaps I may have more continuity with the new album, or more diversity. Nothing should be planned, only a natural approach. [It will have] mostly black metal vocals, but also a couple of clear vocals too (I’ll make sure to practice my arse off next time).
Having said that, the vocals turned out ok (not great) but ok for the "Abandoned Spirit" track. It was, after all, my first attempt at performing clear vocals and took many listens to get used to it. Not to mention all the tweaking and studio trickery to present it as best as I could.
You've been using a lot of "-wave" genre names, which is very common in more gothic styles, but is still very alien outside of that context and has garnered some interesting responses. Is there anything you would like to add about the "blackwave" tag in particular to clarify, especially to the recent naysayers?
Actually, I’m surprised just how many people do understand these tags and are already into it. Something that I found out from my Facebook page.
It seems I have caused a lot of controversy over this new self-proclaimed genre. Especially with Toilet ov Hell, who obviously knows nothing about the wave style and obviously has it in for Striborg. To a certain extent I’ve even been subject to cyber bullying.
Time to withdraw a bit online, I think.
In layman’s terms, blackwave is just darkwave music going to the next level, hence, the musical style of darkwave with the atmosphere/aesthetics of black metal and dark ambience. I find the lyrical themes to be about the same. So far, my take on blackwave doesn’t include any guitars in it, no metal. This may be subject to change, although I don’t want to contaminate it. Some shoegaze style guitar would suit it, or even metal, but that may suit others to do so. Blackgaze has already been done. Not blackwave, though, well not the way I’m doing it. I’ve done my research and many others claim that this has been done before, [but] it simply hasn’t. There are many close comparisons with witch house, synthwave infused black metal, and experimental electronics etc. It’s just not defined as the genre I’m doing now. Unfortunately, a lot of people will still not understand…
I know it’s a bit bombastic to make up a new style myself, but wouldn’t it be misleading to release a new Striborg album with people expecting DSBM when it isn’t?
Are there any "wave" recommendations (aside from those listed earlier) which you would like to make to our readers who would want to venture deeper?
You can’t go wrong with most of the original late 1970s/early 1980s new wave and synth pop artists. Tubeway Army/Gary Numan, The Human League, John Foxx/Ultravox, Visage, Real Life, Pseudo Echo, Simple Minds, OMD [Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark], Killing Joke, Icehouse, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Split Enz, New Order and Joy Division, as well as all the Goth stuff like Sisters [of Mercy], The Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Christian Death, etc.
Also some of the electro punk and industrial artists are of interest, like Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Fad Gadget, Cabaret Voltaire, Suicide and Chrome, etc.
As for more contemporary artists, Lycia, Kriistal Ann, Hante., Paradox Obscur, Tearful Moon, Drab Majesty, This Cold Night, Bleib Modern, Boy Harsher, All Fires, Ash Code, She Past Away, Circa Tapes, Pure Ground, Cold Cave, Future Holograms, Pleasure Symbols, In Death it Ends, Le Cassette, Lebanon Hanover, Qual, Neo-Satan, Rosa Apatrida, Veil of Light, Brutalist Architecture in The Sun, Lamtheshadow and Balvanera, etc..
I also hear you're quite the breakdancer!
Ha. No, not really.
I mean, it was something I did when I was younger and then did it from time to time (usually when I was drunk) just to blow people out. I’m ok at it and still can do most of what I used to. I’m like nothing compared to the breaking you see on Beat Street. I’m not as agile as I use to be. Getting old really sucks!
Still, I don't think people expect the mysterious black metal misanthrope to have roots in breakdancing and B-boy music.
Exactly, I also love psychedelia/prog rock and krautrock. Mostly late 1960s psychedelic rock/pop. I’m a bit of a hippy at heart. I don’t really fit in with the black metal scene, so I’m glad to disassociate myself from it and don’t mind being different to the stereotypical metalhead.
The krautrock influence was at least apparent for those who looked, though. The title escapes me at the moment, but I recall you naming something after a Tangerine Dream album?
Yes, I absolutely love Tangerine Dream. I took the title "Mysterious Semblance (of Spectral Trees)" from "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares."
Also, "Origin of Paranormal Possibilities" from "Origin of Supernatural Probabilities." A bit of a rip-off. I don’t really do that anymore.
I wouldn't call it a ripoff, more of an homage. Black metal is full of those!
So you've cast off the mystique and are taking a more personal approach to Striborg. How long until you fully separate from the Sin Nanna persona, if ever?
The mystique was lifted in 2007, first with the Pentemple & Sunn O))) show, then with the Journey of a Misanthrope, though it’s the One Man Metal documentary that has truly thrown everything out the window.
I’ll always be Sin Nanna, even though the name sounds silly. After all, there is a song on the Black One album called that [Editor's Note: True fact, O'Malley and Anderson did dedicate that song to Menzies.], so I can’t really change it.
I wanted a new pseudonym, Suicidal Ghost. I use it for some things like eBay. I’ve even seen someone on Twitter with that name who were talking about Striborg. Hell, there is even a band called Nefaria.
As Sin Nanna is an alter ego, it will never be separated from Striborg.