“To Know the Light” of Black Metal: Dawn Ray’d on Growing Towards Love, Not Destruction (Interview)
Dawn Ray’d built their reputation in black metal by pairing second-wave Norwegian sonics with overt anarchism. Such a combination is prone to its share of detractors, and it’s not as if their violin usage earned them much sympathy. Nevertheless, they became a beacon for morally-aware black metal in a sphere where people hungered for groups they could openly support.
That support is a two-way street for Dawn Ray’d, as they experienced the power of community firsthand by cutting their teeth in screamo circles. A defined scene with friends, acquaintances, and partners provides more than a sense of belonging. To build one is the most crucial aspect of activism, and the most actionable step one can take in a nihilism-inducing framework, according to vocalist and violinist Simon Barr. After the lockdowns that welcomed the new decade, Barr and his bandmates Fabian Devlin and Matthew Broadley felt the malaise spurring from a lack of in-person community.
To counteract their growing nihilism, they doubled down on their support for each other. The result is their upcoming To Know the Light, the largest step in their musical development.
The new record’s direction was founded upon looking at how one can progress in black metal while keeping its core intact. In short, there’s only so many ways you can innovate upon yourself through tremolo riffing. Much like building a community with others, it requires looking outwards and expanding.
That’s the approach Dawn Ray’d took on To Know the Light. They leaned more on protest songs and Barr’s violin, bisecting their black metal with rebellious acoustic anthems. On a philosophical and practical note, it’s as Bjork says; “If we don't grow outwards towards love, We'll implode inwards towards destruction.” Barr was kind enough to speak with us about community building, sloganeering and its lacking effectiveness, and how a blunt romantic partner altered To Know the Light’s course.
By and large, anarchism and black metal is seen as adversarial, but To Know the Light moves towards optimism. How important do you think it is to act with positivity despite how desolate the world appears?
Our whole album deals with this. Fabian, Matt, and I got into anarcho-nihilism to figure this out for ourselves. A quick summary of that is: everything is fucked; the climate is shit; the government isn’t going to help us, and the future looks horrendous. We have two choices; we can either kill ourselves, or we can carry on. For me, the reason to carry on is, everything is fucked in the future, but there is so much beauty, goodness, and joy to be found in the world, and we get that from community, music, and art—all beautiful things. This includes other human beings.
I don’t think I’m optimistic. There’s a joy to the record, but I don’t think it’s optimism. There’s happiness to it and in my life. The record is trying to balance those two opposite ideas—that everything is fucked, but there’s also joy. The last part of that is a community and the goodness of human beings.
It’s tough to accept that everything is shit. It’s so easy to say that nothing matters and become selfish, but then you realize all the joy in our lives is based around others and how we interact with them. We’re social creatures. It’s only through others that we can salvage hope.
That was what I found hardest about COVID. It made us lose community and music. One thing I love about shows, whether I’m playing them or attending them, is seeing people you know. I love those micro conversations with people you may not be able to ring up to grab a beer with. You may only speak with them for 10 minutes at a show, but they’re still important relationships. For me, that’s the reason music is important. It informs my politics ‘cuz it reminds me that people are good and worth fighting for. I could give in and become misanthropic, but there’s so much good in the world, and people are inherently good. We have to fight for that.
The track “Freedom in Retrograde” contains so much more joy than what you were releasing before. How did COVID reshape your need to find joy where you can?
I personally, for the last three years, found it hard. It’s probably similar for everybody, but we had to “be strong” and “hold on tight” for years. After a while, it takes a toll ‘cuz you have to hold that mindset. I’m realizing now after the fact how much that affected me.
One of the things that helped me mentally survive was being in this band. The creative focus, meeting up in the practice room when we were allowed, and just seeing those two guys and my girlfriend got me through. It made me realize there’s a difference between surviving and living. It’s been nearly three years of surviving, but this band helped me do so. Creativity is important, but it’s sharing that with other people that brings true joy. You’ve got to share it with other people, and I learned through COVID.
On that note, would you say the record marks as much of a personal leap for Dawn Ray’d as much as a musical development?
Yeah, there’s a few reasons for that. I think every song is political. I made a point in Dawn Ray’d at a certain time where every song I wrote would be political rather than telling my own personal struggles. They are often quite personal responses to political situations and how I understand them. I think part of that is that I can’t write the same song over and over again. I can only say that I hate Nazis so many times.
Another thing is that you can read these (anarchist) theories on paper, but you need to internalize them and know if you actually believe them. You need to ask if they’re things you deeply understand to be true. So this record has been about that and our own personal understanding of them.
Relating concepts through your person gives them power. It’s only when we speak about how they affect us on a personal level that they can spread the message to others. You need humanity.
The theory is important. Some of my favorite anarchist writers like Errico Malatesta were writing in the late 1800s, and that’s a fucking long time ago. A lot of that is still really relevant, but not all of that is. You have to apply it to your reality. You have to know how that affects your everyday life. This isn’t just an academic, chin-stroking exercise where we can fire off cool quotes from people who lived 100 years ago. We have to live this every day, in every moment, in every interaction; it all has to be informed by these ideas and politics and this sense of community. Otherwise, it’s an intellectual exercise that never gets to the core of what’s happening.
Because then you’re not trying to extend the branch to other people. On that note, how does music, as a political tool, mobilize versus other forms?
I believe it was Mark Fisher, the English scholar, who often thought politics in culture couldn’t perform your politics for you. You can’t listen to Rage Against the Machine in the car, think “fuck the police,” then go out and do nothing about it. I would think that people wouldn’t believe that just wearing a Dawn Ray’d t-shirt to a show convinces others that they’re a radical and then do nothing more.
I’m careful. I don’t want to perform people’s politics for them. I don’t want people to think that listening to us is enough to engage in politics. At the same time, it’s a radicalizing form of music. System of a Down, Rage Against the Machine, and a ton of punk bands were the first venues through which people heard about these ideas. We all need an entry point. I think music is especially good at that.
I remember listening to Propagandhi songs and thinking, “Where the hell is all this coming from?” That was really cool. It’s a good way to bring people in and gently explain these ideas. We can also build community through it, and communities are what get things done, whether it’s fundraising or meeting like-minded people and working with them on activism projects. I think a lot of culture war stuff at the moment like queer politics have massively benefitted from music. I don’t think that’s necessarily heavy metal, but queer music and spaces have benefitted and helped progress some of those politics. I think it’s an important political medium, but we must stress that it isn’t just performative. It needs to become real action in the real world.
It’s a good way to get the message out there. Most people work a full-time job. After coming home from work, feeding themselves and potentially their children, they don’t have the bandwidth to do more research—they’re exhausted. They’re forced to ask themselves what’s more important—homework or enjoying what little life we’re afforded in this system.
Totally. Absolutely, I think politics often finds you. You see something is wrong and realize what’s up. Music is a good way to gently arm people with ideas and frameworks in which they can understand those things when they start to happen. I had a friend who lived in Greece during their economic collapse. He was involved in punk, but he wasn’t a radical. That’s where I got the quote from, he said, “Politics came to me; I didn’t come to politics.” He knew about punk and anarchism, and all of the sudden, he was armed with ideas to understand the world and respond accordingly.
I do think the academic side of things is important. I do think we have well-written and concise responses to very difficult technical challenges, both philosophically and theoretically. But also, being really concise and understood is important, and I wonder if there’s an ecosystem where there are different ways to learn these things, depending on people’s circumstances.
You have to know how to put the ideas into a language people who aren’t familiar with the jargon can understand.
I don’t want to bash the people developing these complex theories. But some people have the time to do that. I think that’s how anarchism works for me; whatever your skill may be, there is a space for you in the revolution. Whatever your skill is, it’s needed, in everything.
That inclusivity is good because it conveys that numbers are important. We still want you here even if you’re not particularly skilled. Another thing I wanted to ask about community building —how does it differ in-person versus online?
One thing we learned over COVID was that community sucks online. Doing Zoom calls with your family and friends sucks. You can play shitty games and FaceTime them, but it’s hard. I hope we’ve learned over the last few years that we need to be together, and we need to be face-to-face.
Technology--plus, as you said, capitalism and our jobs-- get in the way. Work sucks; it’s horrible; it grinds you down, and it eats up all your time. You’re exhausted with the time you have left. Even if you have a good job, it sucks that you’re coerced into working it or you’ll starve. The internet is no replacement for contact with other human beings. We know what it is to live well, and we know what’s important in our hearts. We have to fight for that because it’s constantly being taken away from us.
Building an online community with people you have met can turn small differences into massive divisions. Two people who ideologically agree on 95% of issues can hate each other for that dissenting 5%. In-person though, we tend to be much more accepting because we see people as a whole.
We played a show in Portland once. We played with another anarchist band RAGANA. They’re a two-woman band, which is quite rare in extreme metal. It was a radical show; there were some info stalls from a few anarchist groups, so there was a lefty air to the show. I was doing merch at the end, and a lad, a kid who couldn’t have been older than 20, came up wearing a Burzum shirt. He bought a record and a t-shirt. I just chatted with him, was nice to him, and gave him some flyers that serve as a gentle introduction to anarchism. He was super nice; I was nice; he bought some shirts, then went home.
Then, someone online criticized me, saying they were disappointed that the singer of Dawn Ray’d was talking to someone in a Burzum t-shirt. Like you said, you can be a purist about these things on Twitter. You can look at someone’s profile, see their bio, and read their tweets, and you’ll conclude that they’re a Nazi and that you won’t engage with them. But things are so much more complicated than that in the real world.
We take everything at face value on the internet, I think. That person was just a kid who liked black metal. He went out of his way to pay money to see anarchist bands. So he wasn’t a fucking Nazi. In the case that he was, I hope that being kind to him and giving him some literature sent him down a different path in life. What was I supposed to do, hit him? He’s a child. Everybody knows that’s not the way to get to people.
If he came in sieg heiling and making the room unsafe for others, then yeah, do whatever you want to him. But he wasn’t. He was a kid that’s into music. Truthfully, I wouldn’t wear a Burzum t-shirt; it’s probably not appropriate at that type of show. Is that kid my enemy? I don’t think so. However, these complexities are lost on the internet. That’s why I think the real world is so important and why we should log off sometimes.
I read an interview with Trespasser, another anarchist band, and the interviewer asked them for similar artists, to which the band replied, “Sorry, we only listen to assholes.”
I think people like those bands, like Burzum, despite the fact that he’s a Nazi. you often can’t help the things you emotionally engage with. Varg is a piece of shit, but he did play a huge role in what we know as black metal today. Like, you can’t deny where it’s come from. I came into black metal through Wolves in the Throne Room who constantly reference Burzum, but I have been influenced by him.
Whether you like it or not, this is where you are. I don’t like these purity politics and pretending we can only listen to bands that are more comfortable from four years ago who, whether you like it or not, were influenced by sketchy bands. The sooner we accept that, and we’re more honest about it, the sooner we can be intelligent about it.
I like your ideological approach—bringing people in with warmth, especially in a world where in-groups and out-groups are prevalent.
It’s like, have these purity politics got us anywhere? The state manufactures culture wars all the time, I think. It’s happening in the U.S. and the U.K. There’s a huge anti-trans movement that is deflecting from the real problems in society and creating a drama about something that most people are entirely disingenuous about and don’t care about. It’s a way to distract working people from the actual problems in the world.
It’s making a scapegoat out of already marginalized people.
Exactly, and we know that we’re being divided. There are lessons to be learned from it. We have to fight for what’s right, and we have to bring people in. I think in building communities, both in and outside of music, you’re sometimes gonna come in contact with people who don’t have the same politics as you, but we’re gonna have to come together. We’re going to have to draw a line—You can’t be fascist, sexist, transphobic, etc.—but not everyone is going to have the same politics as you.
We have to remember that we’re all at different levels of development. There’s language I would’ve used as an 18-year-old kid that I wouldn’t use now because I realize it’s offensive. My understanding of anarchism is totally different than it was when I first came into it in 2010. I’m glad people were kind to me then and brought me into this community and scene. I really don’t think pushing people away does you any good. I think the Jordan Petersons of this world will mop up all the people we push away.
There will still be interpersonal conflicts come the anarchist revolution. People will still get into fights, and some will be bullies. There will always be problems. We’re not trying to build a perfect world, though; we’re trying to build a better world.
To Know the Light greatly expanded your sound. What provoked that expansion?
We’d written a handful of songs and recorded some rough demos. I was playing them to my girlfriend and was pretty excited. I asked her what she thought, and she said, “Can I be really honest? It just sounds like the last record. Nothing has changed.” Initially, I wanted to be cross about it, Oh, you just don’t understand, you know? Deep down, I knew she was right, and I’d known that already.
So, we sat down with the songs we had and started from scratch, asking ourselves what we could do to not write the same record again. We’d always put a ton of effort into our live shows but not enough effort into the songwriting. We tried to go through every single song with a fine-toothed comb. I learned to listen to music in new ways, studying how albums flowed and finding the purpose specific tracklisting. I had to teach myself how to craft it better.
Also, I wanted to draw in other influences. We’re not a trve cult band, and I don’t want to be. Are there bands out there that do that better than us? Yeah, and they’re great, but that’s not us. So we were in a position to bring in new ideas and experiment. Maybe that could be our role. I feel like we started this band again. It was a reimagining of what we could be again. It was a positive experience, but we had to be honest about our failings and try and move forward.
To Know the Light releases March 24th via Prosthetic Records.