It’s October 10, 2015. I’m in Oakland for California Deathfest, sitting in a hotel room at the Mariott. Heineken and Burnett’s are in good supply. Members of Antediluvian and Ritual Necromancy are talking politics with the staff of No Clean Singing and taking turns going down for cigarettes (nobody has a room key).
I’m sitting next to Matron Thorn, while we wait for Val “Ascaris” Dorr to make her way back to the room so we can conduct an interview. Deftones is playing, and Thorn tells me he’s never listened to Iron Maiden. It’s not true: Ascaris corrects him in an elevator ride we share with a couple en route to a wedding
“You said this last time and we made you listen to ‘The Trooper’”
“Oh, you’re right.”
It didn’t make an impression. No surprise there. Together, Ascaris and Thorn are Ævangelist, and their music bears no resemblance to classic metal. Their music uses murky death metal as a template, but employs synthesized drums for a more rhythmic, pounding approach. Their latest album, Enthrall to the Void of Bliss, expands on that idea with a host of nuanced genre-crossing touches that draws influence from hip-hop and goth while incorporating keyboards and saxophone.
Their stage show stands apart as well. Ævangelist’s session musicians (formerly including staff columnist Jon Rosenthal, in full disclosure) smear themselves with ink. Thorn shrouds himself in black veils, shirtless so that, among other things, his African American and Mexican skin tone (he prefers the term exotic) is in full display. Meanwhile Ascaris wears skirts, knowing full well her beard will make some people in the crowd go “huh?” Some go worse than “huh.” Thorn’s received death threats.
Politics aside, Ævangelist is overwhelming and hard to follow. So are Thorn and Ascaris. They finish one another’s sentences, and both prefer to speak in the abstract. Later, in a separate hotel room, our conversation grew knotty and thrilling: they assumed characters, spoke ironically as their detractors. Speaking with Ævangelist is a flirtation and a riddle.
Here’s where I want to start: Identity is part of the Ævangelist package.
Ascaris: Oh, God.
Matron Thorn: Oh, well. Let’s get real.
Ascaris: Identity is part of everyone's package whether you like it or not. Not necessarily from our perspective but from a consumer perspective. People listen to music, display their enjoyment of music and attend concerts influenced in a big way by how it reflects on their identity. They say, "This is something that's part of me. Yeah."
Matron Thorn: Consuming illicit substances and making music is a package deal but as far as identity is concerned I don't really think that anybody has a metal identity. All the people that I've ever met that considered themselves metalheads were just people that had very specific tastes and they didn't really have any other way to define themselves, so they called themselves metalheads. I try to tell them you're just who you are.
Ascaris: Yeah, that's absolutely true. It's not so much an actual identity as an identity that you construct around your actual identity. People get confused a little bit sometimes.
I think a lot of . . . I don't know if this is a function of population or if the social media phenomenon amplifies this, but people desperately want to be a part of a community.
Matron Thorn: That's human nature. The thing that generally makes us equal as human beings is wanting to avoid suffering and wanting to feel less alone in the universe.
Ascaris: “God, I felt terrible the other morning when I woke up at 3:00 in the morning and there is just no one to be around.”
Matron Thorn: The whole purpose of any movement or any social group or anything is to just make the person next to you, with the thing that you have in common with them, feel like you're brothers or you're in some way connected. If they really just take a second and dissolve all of these social constructs they would find that they have everything in common with the person next to them because the person next to them is really just lost like they are, looking for a way to believe.
Ascaris: If I kept talking to those people on the elevator we would've become friends with them. They are a couple of times our age and probably don't listen to metal and are certainly not here for a metal fest. They have a completely different income bracket than we do but they're people.
Matron Thorn: In the way that you have everything in common with someone, you have nothing in common with them.
When you and I were talking on the internet, [Matron], we were talking about how you had this idea of how the title of the band, Ævangelist, is sort of a modus operandi. You want to evangelize people to something but that something is left intentionally vague. Can you fill me in? Or define that void?
Ascaris: Of course. A big part of the whole band, all the music making—it's not even so much the band as it is the the creation [of the music]—is pieces of definition of the void. The reason art and communication exists is because nothing is definable. Everything is more complicated than that so there is a ceaseless font of new additions to definition of anything.
Matron Thorn: I think that our agenda is, in a way, intentionally nebulous because definition would just cheapen what it is that we're going for.
I feel a connection to people that take the time to sit and absorb what we're doing. Those are people who are . . . There are no types of people. I just want to make that clear. There are no types of people. Every single person is an individual creature, an individual species, an individual animal and there isn't anything that I can do that can universally apply to all people. What we're doing is by chance adaptable by these other people.
But as far as what you asked as far as us seeking to evangelize people, that is the goal, to liberate people from their perceptions of whatever it is that they think they're looking for. Because most people really don't know what they're looking for. We're all lost and the people who say they have it all figured out, they don't. It's nice to be a reminder of that to others: that no one has it figured out and that everything is ultimately hanging on by a thread, just hanging in the balance.
Ascaris: The more music creates [the sensation of] being lost, overwhelmed and confused, the more it can function as, again, a reminder that it is always more complicated than what you can grasp.
Matron, when Ascaris was out of the room and the recorder was off, you told the Bethlehem-Aryan Nation story, about how you recieved death threats on the basis of race. Will you tell it again?
Matron Thorn: Sure, sure. In my other band, Benighted in Sodom, I had covered a song by Bethlehem who I had liked for many years. I covered their song “Du sollst dich töten.” I sent it to Jurgen Bartsch from Bethlehem. He was real taken by it. Eventually we struck up conversations over the years and from there we developed a friendship that led to me realesing a split with Benighted in Sodom and Bethlehem. After that, he asked me to play guitar on the next Bethlehem album which featured myself and contributions from [Jonathan Thierry from Ataraxie] and Niklas [Kvarforth of the Swedish Shining] did vocals.
When I joined Bethlehem, they made a statement in response to many of these threats and disapprovals. They received a lot of hate mail because I had joined the band because I'm not exactly the Aryan poster boy. I received a lot of death threats. A lot of people were telling me that if I ever entered Germany, I would be killed. I thought “fuck yeah. I'm the ultimate troll.”
There's something to be said for intentional antagonism.
Ascaris: Especially with idiots.
Matron Thorn: I don't fear any of these people and I've heard it all before. I've heard every manner of racial, gender, sexual prejudice and discriminating things that you can imagine. I think it's awesome and I think it's a great indication of my achievement of my dominion, that I was able to evoke a response from such a large number of people in under . . . hey made that announcement and the threats came in within hours.
That's insane that the response time is that fast.
Ascaris: It's a gut reaction and then a knee-jerk response.
Matron Thorn: There's a whole news network for the NSC, didn't you know that?
Believe it or not, I don't actually keep up with the inside dealings of people who I find with interests that actively undermine mine.
Matron Thorn: There's a scroll on C-SPAN when you turn to the channel on the bottom of the screen. It's like, “Singer from Bolzer’s got Swastika tattoos. Raise the roof.”
Hell's Headbash raised your live profile, but it wasn't your first live show.
Ascaris: No. We've done a relatively short tour from the Midwest up through some of the East Coast in New York. We did a single fest in Denver which was, unfortunately, a great example of people reacting poorly.
Ascaris: I always screw up the name of it.
Matron Thorn: The Infernal Rites Fest.
Ascaris: Was it The Infernal Rites Fest? It's always the Rites of Darkness that I get it confused with.
People need to get better with their names.
Ascaris: When you're trying to, again, evoke an identity and so forth if you go too far away, you're worried that you're alienating yourself from the community that you're trying so desperately to be a part of. Oh, no! So, people repeat themselves a lot. If I said Infernal Unicorns nobody would come to my fest.
I'd be more inclined to go to a fest called Infernal Unicorns.
Ascaris: Everyone would know about it. Wow, what's this fest called Infernal Unicorns? That's not Infernal Rites, at all.
You guys would be the toast of the Nuclear War Now forums a second time.
Ascaris: Yes, the toast . . . with fire.
The toast with fire. Burnt toast.
Matron Thorn: I like that Nuclear War Now forum has taken so harshly to our brand as they call it gothic, faggy . . . oh, man.
Ascaris: Art fags, high school drama kids, etc.
Ascaris: You hear that Nuclear War Now people? We read your threads. You're making us giggle. Thanks.
I think part of the reason that happened was I wasn't aware that you guys have this live aesthetic and it plays with gender norm. You play with the ideal of what corpse paint should or should not be, what instrumentation is or isn't acceptable, because you use tambourine and saxophone. The photographs were really good and clear, so I think that was the first time that people really had a good look at what an Ævangelist live set would be.
Matron Thorn: I'm exceedingly grateful for everyone that is supportive. But. inasmuch as the people who are totally against it, all of the things that they're saying online, whether good or bad . . . they're saying things. That's the important part.
Ascaris: It's not so much a creation for your enjoyment, necessarily as a creation to do things to you on some level . . .
Matron Thorn: For your stimulation.
Ascaris: Yes, exactly, stimulation whether it becomes hatred, indignation or if it changes something about a person on some level, and it certainly changes things about us, then we have done the correct thing.
What does it change about you?
Ascaris: There's certainly no way one can embrace and create this sort of music without, while it happens, being more or less transformed into not necessarily elemental force but something outside of what it is to be someone sitting in a room. I think that's true of not just us but anyone who takes their art, music or exercise, for that matter, to a higher level and allows it to change them. There is no point in stagnation. There is no point trying to hold onto whatever it is you are when there is always an opportunity for chaos and change.
Matron Thorn: We are constantly in flux. We are meant to be a transformative experience. I think that a lot of people . . . I want to convey this as unpretentiously as possible, but . . . I don't think that I'm better than anybody. As I said before we are all different creatures. I know that there are people that have booked shows for us thinking that we were this really good metal band that they'd heard about, but then when they saw us . . . Afterwards they spoke highly of the other bands, they mentioned that the other bands were really, really good but they made it clear to us that what we did was different.
I'm not trying to imply that what we did was necessarily better or worse. I'm only saying that the people who spoke about us that were responsible for organizing shows or people that attended said that the other bands were good but we were different. These were the people that came up to us and explicitly mentioned that we had an effect on them that went beyond a bit above guys that like metal playing riffs. All of us in the band come from vastly different musical backgrounds and generally different backgrounds as far as ourselves as people. I think that's also a large part of what makes it so honest, the construct of what we're doing.
Ascaris: Rage and anger aren't necessarily the wrong reaction either.
Matron Thorn:Those are good reactions. They're emotional responses one way or the other.
Ascaris: If it makes someone think about hating us and why they hate us and even affirms their hatred of us and people like us, we're still changing someone. They're not stagnant. The world is not about positivity or good.
Matron Thorn: If people want to tell us that we don't belong in their little scene or in their death metal or black metal or whatever scene, they can have it. They can have all of it. Keep it. They should just keep their scene and take it. We don't need any part of that. We are our own thing and there are people that recognize that.
You do seem . . . Not to be antagonistic, but you do seem frustrated by this reaction that you get.
Matron Thorn: No.
I’m sorry. That was my impression. Maybe my gauge for humanity needs to be realigned. If so, realign me.
Matron Thorn: I'll realign you. I'm not at all frustrated. I've heard everything and it's prepared me for more than anything that anyone is able to say or do in my direction, at all. With what we are doing as art, not as metal, not as a band, but as art.
Not as high school drama.
Matron Thorn: Not as high school drama.
Ascaris: Nothing against high school drama . . .
Matron Thorn: Nothing against high school drama. Join your drama club, high school students.
I will second that. I joined my drama club and it was a great addition to my education.
Ascaris: I worked in tech crew and teased the actors about running into walls in the dark.
In a sense that's still what you're doing.
Ascaris: Granted, but as far as the scene thing goes obviously we weren't trying—well, maybe it's not obvious, maybe it was only obvious to us—we weren't trying to be part of a scene or create something for a scene and it's almost more confusing to us that people are upset that we didn't fit into their scene. That they expected us to is strange. I suppose it makes sense now but it was strange that anyone was expecting that and was surprised that it didn't happen. When I take something and I put it in my ears or my face, I want to gauge it for what it is.
Matron Thorn: I think that people had this idea that we set out to emulate things or be recognizable among people that they considered to be our peers. In reviews people mention bands like Portal and Antediluvian . . .
Ascaris: I tried to like Portal. I respect Portal. While all of those bands are definitely respectable, I can't speak on behalf of their artistic visions because I'm not in any of those bands. The only thing I can say is that we had no intention of ever going after anything that they did or going after any sort of pedestal that they stood on. We only represent ourselves and our own ideology.
Why play with gender, or the performance of traditional masculine and feminine roles in your presentation? That is an element of your live show that is distinct from your peers. Portal's live show is very visually stimulating.
Ascaris: Playing with death and the surreal.
Yes, that's right.
Ascaris: I see what you mean.
But you're pushing different buttons. Why push those buttons?
Ascaris: At the risk of being a pretentious art person, I was listening to NPR the other day and there was an interview with, I believe her name is Barbara Hannigan, who is a classical singer from Canada who has in the past few years started conducting while she sings, which I personally can't fathom. Even to the modern day, conducting is still one of those old boy's club maneuvers and they were asking her about being a woman doing this and that and so forth and what she said was, "I did not choose my gender, I chose my career." I think it's not necessarily a measure of artifices so much as even the smeared black ink and so forth are merely aspects of the self coming forward rather than an intentional message or anything of that sort. What happens with Ævangelist is the interaction of the forces of the human being that come together and create whatever it is they do as a result of what they are.
Matron Thorn: Definitely a result of what they are.
Ascaris: . . . Rather than with intent.
Matron Thorn: And those are things that are terrifying to people because those are real things and those are the things that touch people. They extend to the different facets of who you are as a person. They affect things that you didn't know could be affected. There are people who put on costumes and perform musical shows. Some people are moved by it and some people aren't. There are people that put on makeup. Some people are moved by it and some people aren't.
Ascaris: Many of the costumes are made of denim in batches.
Matron Thorn: We don't have budgets like other people. We don't come from any sort of prestigious financial allotment of any kind. We are presenting ourselves as we are. The fact that it is scary to people and the fact that it is vulgar and offensive and profane to people is exactly as it should be because that is largely what reality is. Our representation of what we do with this void, as you put it, is no more than just a very intimate reflection of reality itself. It’s us just doing what we do, just being ourselves.
Ascaris: Profane used to mean things which are not sacred, which is that everything around us is profane. Reality is profane and if our reality strikes you with the new meaning of profane that offends you, maybe you should take another look at the reality around you.
What's the new meaning of profane?
Ascaris: Swearing and offenses.
Matron Thorn: The new meaning of profane is indefinable. It's the people that don't want to stand among anyone that wants to be categorized on their gender or based on anything that they do. There are some people . . .
Ascaris: Profane is in the eye of the receiver.
Matron Thorn: The profanity is in the details. It's in the heart of every person that doesn't want to just view this as something representing some group of people.
Ascaris: And there's something profane about trying to do that.
Matron Thorn: There is.
That answer puts not only you as a performing musician but anyone involved in the enterprise on any level, including myself, in an interesting ethical predicament in terms of how to word things. One that requires reflection before continuing onward.
Matron Thorn: But that's what makes it worthwhile.
That's what you do this for. No one does what I do to be part of some unpaid PR arm. That's dumb. You do this [music journalism], after a while, because what's stimulating and interesting about it is that the art and the subculture is a lens through which you can view an essential part of humanity. Multiple essential parts.
The tough thing about my job and the thing that is difficult to do and so a lot of people fail in doing it, is finding something that really does touch a nerve, not just amuse people. Something that is stimulating. You guys have found a way to do that. You have found it in yourselves and the world around you.
Ascaris: It's surprisingly easy.
Ascaris: Just by not hiding. That's all it takes, apparently.
Matron Thorn: We do not hide. We might be hidden but not hiding.
I want to ask about something else you did that's a little bit profane.
Ascaris: Oh, dear, please.
The track “Alchemy” is the ultimate left hook of any abyssal death metal record I've heard this year. There’s a lot of hip-hop in it. It's nice when there's something sort of interesting in the middle of it to slap me out of my boredom and stupor. Talk to me about that track please.
Ascaris: It was a surprisingly natural progression for something that comes off as, as you said, a left hook. If you go back and listen to the older albums. Listen to those rhythms. Listen to the textures when the guitars go away. Oh my goodness, there's a little bit of that hip-hop spirit everywhere.
Matron Thorn: There is. The influences from the music come from a lot of different places and almost none of them are metal.
Ascaris: Again, it's that not hiding thing. Instead of choosing to cut out the sounds we hear in our heads we make them happen. It's easy to have a preconceived notion of what your “thing” needs to be. There are people in very straightforward, direct death metal bands who probably in the last week have been listening to some rap on their car speakers and screaming along to it but they would never make it part of their music. I've got to separate the parts of myself. My expression will only be from my right shoulder. All those parts of myself, only those. We are not interested in cutting out the parts.
I have this frustration constantly with the retro doom movement. I think people ignore that Black Sabbath loved R&B too.
Ascaris: Yeah, I'll take that.
Ozzy loved Motown. There's a huge part of the African-American soul element that was in [proto] doom that people are just bad at expressing, maybe or they're just scared to express it.
Matron Thorn: Let me say this about that: one of my favorite bands of all time is Alice in Chains and Layne Staley was a soul singer. You can replace Layne Staley with any number of R&B singers. After he, unfortunately, passed away he was replaced by someone who is essentially a soul singer. The guitar riffs that Jerry Cantrell writes and everything that they do now, everything they've ever done in their entire career has always been reflective of this emotional element. I think the problem that people has is that they're looking for types of things but they're not looking for qualities and it's the qualities that makes things what they are. It's not the rules, it's the qualities.
Ascaris: It's not the type of person. It's that their personhood is coming through.
Matron Thorn: Exactly.
I've been looking for that sentence for years writing about this music.
Matron Thorn: As a musician, my music choices would terrify people, would bother people, would annoy people.
Okay, well, I was listening to Fetty Wap on the plane down here.
Ascaris: I don't know what that is but it's a delightful word.
You haven't heard the “Trap Queen” song? It'll never get out of your head.
Ascaris: I've seen people post the video . . . Maybe I should avoid it.
Matron Thorn: Lycia is my favorite band in the entire world. If I was stranded on a desert island and I could only bring three albums with me, the first album would be The Burning Circle and Then Dust by Lycia and then the other two albums would be The Burning Circle and Then Dust by Lycia in case something happened to the first copy.
Ascaris: He's definitely burned through some copies of CDs before. You've got to have back-ups, especially on a desert island.
Matron Thorn: With that being said, my range of influences goes everywhere from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum to Mariah Carey to country music sensation Gary Allan to Boys to Men to Morbid Angel. I'm all over the place. The problem is that no one really makes . . . There isn't a specific type of music that I like, there's qualities. There's certain notes, certain chord progressions that people make that I could just listen to over and over again.
Ascaris: It doesn't matter what kind of thing it is as long as the people are being people and not being afraid of themselves and actually getting it into their artistic medium.
Matron Thorn: The only way those qualities can come out is if they do that, is if they are who they are and they just create . . .
Ascaris: . . . what they do.
Matron Thorn: . . . what they do.
My desert island record might be Black Celebration by Depeche Mode, and David Gahan was just talking about my other favorite band, Metallica. He said they write pop songs and my strong feeling is that it’s true. I think that there is an emotional commonality between those two bands that I love and Alice in Chains.
Matron Thorn: You can play pop songs with metal instruments and you can play metal music with pop instruments.
Ascaris: I believe one of the unnumbered rules of the internet is that there is a metal version of any song somewhere on the internet.
Ascaris: Not always good.
Ascaris: Frequently people are trying not . . . rather than to be the person they are, they're trying to . . . well I suppose it is part of trying to be the person that you are, they're trying to reconcile what they feel safe with, what they're admitting they are with parts of their life experience that are not conducive or supportive of the safe image for themselves. An angry young white male does not want to admit that this pop music is part of his life experience and in 30 years he might have a fond memory of that stupid song that came out and was on the radio all the time because it's part of his life.