Interview: Asphyx Vocalist Martin van Drunen
In extreme metal, the word "true" gets tossed around a lot. Its exact meaning is difficult to decipher, and is often felt more strongly than it is understood. But one thing that can be claimed with utter certainty is that few bands have remained as true as Asphyx. Since the late '80s, this toxic Dutch four-piece has remained a creeping force for musical ugliness that would rather go on hiatus than put out a lackluster record. Their murky mixture of grinding buzzsaw first-wave death metal and oozing drawn-out doom has never delved into goth or folk, but has continued its steady creepy crawl through the decades, converting new fans and strengthening previous convictions with every record. This month, the band releases their eighth full-length album, Deathhammer, a fist-forward tribute to bestial rage and disillusioned disgust that easily stands alongside the band's previous releases. Vocalist Martin van Drunen recently called me from the Netherlands to discuss the new record, the band's legacy, and the good times that come from being in one of death metal's most brutally true bands.
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When did the writing process start for Deathhammer?
Actually, straight after Death…The Brutal Way. It's strange to talk about the writing process, because it's not really like that for us. That's the nice thing about modern technology. Paul [Baayens, guitar] goes home with a riff in his head, plugs the guitar in, records it quickly, and sends it to us asking, "How about that?" If it's in doubt, we'll skip it, and if it's great, we'll keep it. And then it's just about getting together on a jam and seeing if we can make songs out of all of the riffs we have. And then it continues, slowly, until they're to our liking, and once things are great, we start recording a bit. But that works for us.
Your last album came out in 2009. Did you guys wait so long simply because of logistics, or did you need something to fire you up?
Well, it's more that we don't have deadlines. We never have to have an album in by a certain time. I think it was the last rehearsal session we did, we were jamming, and thought, "You know, we need at least three or four more songs to have an album." What's interesting about that one was that we left it with an album. Recording of the album was interesting as well, because Paul built himself sort of a studio, and we recorded the guitars there. We just take our time, and don't believe in deadlines, at least until Century Media comes to us and says, "Okay, we're releasing it then." That's the deadline.
On the new album, you guys have your signature mix of very fast old-school death metal and creeping, doomy pieces. Do you have a preference between the fast-paced tracks or the slow ones?
No. Absolutely not. Because the slow tracks are really, really heavy on this one, I think, and they are a pleasure to perform live as well. It's not a sad kind of thing, where you get your breath during the solos; it's heavy. And it's a very welcome change in the kind of songs people hear live. It wasn't even planned this way. That's, for us, more or less the first time that's happened. There were always some mid-tempo songs in the past, but then the albums always sounded like either fast or slow albums. But to play them live now, I love them all.
Is there a track off of the new record that you're especially excited about?
To me they're all good, but the only strange song on this album is the title track, "Deathhammer", because many people tell me, who are not really death metal fans in general, that the song sticks in their head. A girlfriend of a friend—she listens to stuff like Green Day—told me she'd seen our bit on YouTube and really loved our song. That's a huge compliment to me—that we can draw people who aren't really into death metal to the music we're making. It was sort of the same for me, because when I first heard a rough cut of the song, it had an old death metal vibe that really stuck with me afterwards.
The song that really jumped out at me was "We Doom You To Death". It has a really powerful evil riff behind it, but the lyrics are pretty tongue-in-cheek.
We're not terribly serious about everything we do, though we are professionals. We do everything in a professional way and never disappoint our friends onstage. But yeah, when we put it together, we had the riff and everything, and I had a couple of beers at home and the vocal line came to me, so I started writing some stuff down. Everyone came back saying, "Hey, this is good",and I figured, "Well, what are we going to do with it? You don't want those lyrics." But instead, they told me, "Nah, you're killing it, do what you want to do." That's how Asphyx works. Like, the scream at the beginning of "Deathhammer", where I yell, "You death metal bastards"! just sort of happened in the studio. Same at the end, when I say, "On your knees, you dogs". I just did it as a joke, but the guys were like, "Aw, Martin, fucking leave it, it's so cool"!
That's sort of the atmosphere in this band. If we're at a show, a fan's screaming for us to play a song and it's not on the set list, we'll play it because we know it. This whole band is a big pile of fun, apart from the fact that we play brutal music. We still really love playing it.
You repeatedly mention playing live and not disappointing your fans. Is playing live the most important thing to Asphyx?
Definitely. We are a live band. It's not that I don't like recording—recording this album was great. But I'm just a guy, and that's why I started making this music anyway, to get onstage and have the guitar behind me. It's a privilege to be on that stage, especially with people coming to watch you. If I wouldn't be playing live, I would quit. For some people, it's hard for playing, people who don't know how to be onstage and can't take this incredible volume. All you want to do is play live. That's the way I see it.
Asphyx has always remained an underground band, but your fan base has remained loyal and strong. What has kept Asphyx relevant these many years?
I think it's a combination of everything. I think it's partly because we're normal fellows, and if people want to come up to us, shake our hands, have a beer, they can always do that. We'll never treat fans poorly. With them, you stand or fall as a band. We've always tried to remain fans ourselves, which is another thing. We make the music we love to play. I would be in another band, or this band would have another singer, if I didn't love this. And that's the last thing, we always give everything we have. Unfortunately, we've never had a chance to do this in America, but sometimes if we're headlining in Europe, we'll play for two hours! What death metal band plays for two hours? So when we do a headlining show or a release show, our fans know what they're going to get.
One of the bonus tracks on the album is a cover of "Ov Abysmi Vel Daath", from Celtic Frost's recent Monotheist record. Why cover a new Frost song as opposed to a Morbid Tales classic?
We did this Century Media 20th Anniversary thing, where every CM band covers another CM band. Grave covered us—they did "Vermin" [from 1991's The Rack]—so we thought we'd cover Grave, but someone else already had it. Then, someone mentioned that Frost had recently released that record, so we went with it. We changed it a little, and I think it turned out quite well. Actually, Martin Ain said he quite liked it. Which was funny.
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Asphyx - "Deathhammer"
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In stores and digital February 27 (Europe) and February 28 (US)
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Header photo by Nicole Behrendt.