Interview: Babylon Whores and Pride of the Damned, Pt. 3
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As wheel obeys the sun
Abide, Europa’s son
If dying is the answer, then dying be done
—“Death In Prague”
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To borrow a phrase from William Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” the music of Finalnd’s Babylon Whores was the dark secret love during my teenage years. Though they toured with King Diamond and appeared on CMJ Samplers (one of which being the place where I first heard their song “Errata Stigmata”), no one else knew them. Their music was like nothing else I was listening to at the time; it was Satanic but subtle, melancholy but not whiny, just the right amounts of sloppy and heavy and mysterious, all without ever involving flowing robes or ruffled cravats or any of that faux magical bullshit. They didn’t just sing about tanks and chains and whiskey and Hell; they looked at the Devil inside us all, and how the ancient myths and magic of yesteryear related to the drudgery and madness of today.
Last year, Svart Records announced that they would be releasing a Babylon Whores vinyl boxed set. Entitled Pride of the Damned, it would contain six records and a 100-page book detailing the band’s career. In anticipation of this incredible collection, I decided to track down the band and do a career-spanning profile of them, which we’ll present here in three parts. When I contacted guitarist Antti Litmanen and frontman Ike Vil, they were happy to oblige this eager fanboy.
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How’d the move to Necropolis Records occur?
Ike Vil: Tiziana thought she had seen enough of the music business and decided to quit the label, something that I had no trouble understanding. Her interest in paganism and the Divine Feminine led her to Vedic tradition, and if I understand correctly, she’s currently a practicing “pagan” priestess, an Aurvedic consultant, and an author. Of course, her decision left us without a label, although we had already started working on King Fear.
I used to work at a local second-hand record shop called Oskun Divari and had met a guy called Antti Lindell there who had built a small studio in Helsinki with his friend Kaide Hinkkala. It was called Hellhole. I thought this time it would be cool to take our time with the actual recording and have the mixing done in a big studio later on. Lindell also joined us for awhile and played on the US tour in 2000.
During the spring of 1999, we made rough mixes of four tracks to send to a couple of labels, and to enhance our chances, Antti prepared some fumigated sigils that we enclosed with the CDRs we sent. The sigils worked. Necropolis was one of the interested parties, and as I was eager to test the US market, I wanted to go with Necro. Of course they were mainly a black metal label, too, but Necro-Paul wanted to branch out at the time, and he was really enthusiastic about it all.
This album had a big release; I remember hearing “Errata Stigmata” on a sampler and buying the album at Tower Records in New York. Were you guys seeing wider exposure?
Antti Litmanen: At least wider than before. Misanthropy were great people and did a top notch job in Europe, but since Necropolis were from the States, we thought trying something different would not hurt — that is why we skipped the offers from European labels.
Ike Vil: I think Paul really did his best with promoting the album in the US, and we did a lot of press. I had vague hopes that we might attract some college radio types — I think “Hand of Glory” was even included on a CMJ sampler — but despite the rave reviews the album got once again, I guess it didn’t really catch on. At least I’ve seen no royalties from that one either!
How’d the title come about? Is it a reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear?
Ike Vil: No. It was an amalgam of a couple of things. Obviously, there was the notion of the “Great King of Terror” that Nostradamus predicted will appear in July 1999, and I think it was already early on during the recordings that I thought I don’t want to make the old guy look like a jerk, so we decided that we’d fulfill his prophecy and book the mixing for King Fear for July 1999. So in essence, King Fear was a fulfillment of a 16th-century prophecy. (Nostradamus obviously wrote in French and spoke of “Le Grand Roi d’effrayeur”.) There were more references in my mind, too, at least to the mythical King of the World, supposedly residing in his caverns measureless to man, also known as Shamballah, below Mongolia or Tibet, and I think there was also a German radio intelligence operator in Tibet during WWII codenamed “King Fear” (or then it was part of some Morning of the Magicians -type “lamas in the Reichstag” mythos that I was fascinated with at the time). The latter provided a connection to the Radio Werewolf thing. On a more mundane level, there is the simple fear vs. love dichotomy, especially on the last few songs on. (By the way, as I just googled the title, I noticed that a “King of Fear” had also found its way to Hellboy later on. The synchronicities continue!)
The sound also progressed further, with more of a Motörhead-ish power behind it. How’d that happen?
Ike Vil: As I said, we wanted to have our own sweet time recording the stuff and chose a lower-end studio, with the idea of mixing the stuff in a high-end place. I heard this is how Venom did it—apparently the results were not so good when they decided to reverse the process! The prolonged, piecemeal recording process also enabled us to think more about the arrangements and eventually also led to guest appearances by guys like Otra Romppanen (in my opinion the best guitarist in the world) and Nik Turner (Hawkind).
Antti Litmanen: Otra also contributed indirectly, as I had been playing with him in an old Finnish band Mana Mana since 1996. I always liked how Mana Mana had a lot of loud melodic guitar, track upon track built over one another, and wanted to do that in another context. With King Fear, we had the time to get more involved with the recording, finally. It also meant the live versions of the songs turned out quite different, as we had to narrow the songs to the essentials and practically re-learn them after the extensive studio sessions. I never saw that as a problem — different beasts — but it was always pain to try and convey the BW style to other guitarists, however great players they were, because there was a lot going on besides standard power chords. I was usually happiest working on my own.
Another important thing is that we played hard. I went through more sets of strings than I could reasonably afford, and when we played live, my fingers were bleeding by the mid-set most of the time. That sort of attack cannot be artificially replicated, however great gear you have. It’s all in the fingers, as they say. Eventually, I had to cut back on that consciously for the sake of maintaining a semblance of tuning even for a few songs.
It seems like you guys were moving heavily towards European Biblical imagery here and away from some of the punk trapping — that nuclear fuck-you attitude — of the previous albums. Was that intentional?
Ike Vil: I never thought about it that way, but you’re probably right: “Exit Eden” is obviously Biblical as fuck — although, with true "Pride of the Damned," it portrays the Fall as felix culpa, a happy one! — and “Errata Stigmata,” too, a track that I guess was the culmination of my personal diabology, an epilogue, really. And yeah, there’s Nordic mythology, plenty of German tragedy, Parsifal, Grail, and Roman references. On the other hand, it also has our single most personal song, “Fey,” that I wrote for my friend who died of a heroin overdose in 1998.
Antti Litmanen: There was a strange incident one night as we were wrapping up the days’ work at the studio. I asked to have a tape copy of the song we were working on and the engineer told me to press record. Then he noticed that no cables were connected and asked me to do it again. When I got home, I listened to the tape and heard the ‘click’ of the Rec button—and where there should have been silence, a male voice followed saying: “This is a sacred dream, a dream that can’t be realized!” Needless to say, we decided we were on to something and chose to proceed, tempting fate and sanity!
This record, in its lyrics and album art, has a decent amount of wolf/werewolf imagery. What’s going on there?
Ike Vil: Inspired probably by Hermann Löns’ Der Wehrwolf (1910), a novel about German guerrilla resistance against the invading Swedish (and Finnish!) armies during the Thirty Year’s War in the 17th century. The Wer(e)wolf plan was a futile exercise in one kind of "Pride of the Damned," supposedly military but ultimately a propagandistic concept. As I was becoming increasingly interested in military history at the time, I obviously couldn’t restrain myself from fooling around with the concept that also included Radio Werwolf, a short-lived propaganda station that broadcasted from Nauen, near Berlin.
Back in the day, I came up with quite a few possible stories, a series of events with 10 chapters that you could fit in the framework that King Fear provided. Today, the only one I can remember is a story where “Errata Stigmata” begins the events on the Mars Field in Nuremberg. Obviously the wolf was also assimilated with Fenriz in the lyrics (and even “black dogs pulling up mandragore”!).
Once again, I have to stress that, maybe also because of the method in which the lyrics were written, I hoped that the symbolism was so plentiful, multifaceted and open-ended that it could be “translated” and “opened” by the listener in numerous different, even contradictory ways, just by letting your brain make the freak connections. I think that deep in one’s mind, there is probably no distinction between the atavistic fear of wolf, the reverence and even totemistic identification with it, the almost comical imagery of the werewolf in popular culture, or something else where your mind has mapped the symbol. Deep down, the symbols are ambivalent and maybe therefore frighteningly potent.
I had always been fascinated with Roky Erickson’s lyrics — because of his numerous trips (and sadly probably also the electric shock treatment), his lyrics would sometimes eerily underline these connections in a way that is both comical and chilling.
What tracks do you most like from this record?
Ike Vil: I think it’s a rare case where I actually love the whole album. Obviously there are songs where something could have been done better, but I think it really is an album where the individual songs are a part of the whole. When it comes to the live set, the ones that became the crowd favorites were “Errata,” “Radio Werewolf,” “Skeleton Farm,” and “Exit Eden.” (I initially refused to do “Fey”, but we did play it later a few times.)
Tell me about the filming of the “Sol Niger” video.
It was cold — you probably can’t notice it on the video, but the water where I stick my head to scream was just above freezing point. Later Antti told me that they had found a corpse in the water — actually a water-filled old mine.
You also did a video for “Errata Stigmata,” but it’s significantly more DIY than the one for “Sol Niger.”
Ike Vil: We basically first produced “Errata” ourselves, and it was directed by my friend Juhana Tuominen, who shot it on 8 mm (and provided the Vestal virgins and sawn-off horse hooves from the slaughterhouse!) The quickest way to make something happen is obviously to do it yourself, and although “Errata” was a shoe-string production, it made for less embarrassing watching than “Arcadia” (at least I had snipped off the “handle part” of the “spaghetti pot!”) “Sol Niger” was a more professional effort, where we actually had a small budget. Sami Käyhkö did a good job on that one, but unfortunately, I don’t think that his firm ever got paid.
Antti Litmanen: We thought “Errata” was great actually. There was a disturbing, rough edge to the wavering 8 mm visuals, but the record company thought it was too rough, and urged us to do another one.
This album sent you guys on tour rather extensively, including the House of God tour with King Diamond. How was that? How’d the US react to Babylon Whores? How was King Diamond to tour with?
Ike Vil: Yes, Necro-Paul got us to support King Diamond in the US, and it was definitely a long and strange trip. The King Diamond guys treated us well, even giving us booze from their rider. There was a sort of camaraderie between the Swedes and the Finns, apparently something that you’ll only find when you throw the neighbors onto a different continent! Andy LaRocque was very nice to us, and the Drover brothers were always fun to hang out with, as well as the actress Jody. King’s bass player David was a WWII tank buff, too, so you can guess what we talked about. Of course it was always nice to have a beer with the guys from Shadows Fall and Deep, too.
I don’t think Babylon Whores went down especially well with the King audiences. They were pretty much there for their corpse-painted regent, but we didn’t get booed off stage either. Obviously we were usually the odd one in any kind of company, but I don’t think there would have been one “perfect” band for us to tour with. After the US tour in September, there was talk about us supporting Kovenant in Europe, but nothing came of that.
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Death of the West
Death of the West
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Tell me about the three years between King Fear and Death of the West. What was going on in the band?
Ike Vil: After King Fear came out in late 1999, we did sporadic gigs here and there during the winter. After the US tour in the summer of 2000, we were supposed to take it easy for awhile and then start writing our third album. I graduated from the university and got a regular job, and apart from a few gigs, we really didn’t do much for almost a year. Everybody had a day job.
When we started writing Death of the West, suddenly nothing seemed easy for me anymore. To cap it off, when we went to the studio, Necropolis was already in financial trouble, and in the end I had to sell the master to Spinefarm/Universal. The album finally came out in the spring of 2003, but you can really hear it was a hard one to make — it’s doomy and hopeless as fuck.
This album seems to be your peak of delving into European myth and legend, and it's more psychedelic than any of the others. What influenced this?
Ike Vil: My honeymoon with diabology over, I guess. I was still into symbols of hopelessness, stubborn pride and impending doom — it seemed that the millennial vibe had gone nowhere, and from European history, I found plenty of stuff to help me wallow in misery. I do remember traveling to places like Delphi and Prague specifically to immerse myself in the past (I went to the Parnassus bearing gifts, as is the good and proper way, looking for a new direction for my life, too). In the end, the album turned out kind of a Baedeker of the damned, where the West was definitely “Occident,” the land of the setting sun, painted with pitch-black strokes, a culture ripe for death that just waited the cleansing destruction by the hand of Kalki, the last Avatar. I think I try to see it all in a bit more positive light these days!
This album’s sound is powerful and crushing. How was the writing and recording process?
Ike Vil: As said, the process was pretty crushing for us, too, as we spent long winter nights in the studio quarreling. Apparently the tracks captured pretty much all of that that foreboding vibe.
Death as King seems to be the major theme here, throughout many of the tracks. What inspired this concept?
Ike Vil: At the time, I think I found some kind of solace (or morbid comfort) in the imagery of the medieval Totentanz. Obviously death is the king and the ultimate leveler, and my take on death has always been a mixture of deep awe and morbid curiosity. I wait for the last great adventure with great interest, but I feel there’s still quite a few things I need to learn and do — as most people do.
I also immersed myself in the historical novels of the Finnish author Mika Waltari (1908-1979) at the time and could not help be carried away by his pessimistic yet delightfully ironic renditions of the human condition — his descriptions of, for example, the fall of Constantinople just ooze pure "Pride of the Damned." There are some English translations of his books available, but I don’t how successful they are. I think some of them are even abridged. The Egyptian is probably the most famous (it also became a stupid-ass Hollywood movie), but I think I like The Dark Angel, a story about the fall of Constantinople, the most.
Can you talk about the Tarot influence on “Life Fades Away”? It’s an interesting and unusual approach — no fortune teller laying cards down, but an immersive understanding.
Ike Vil: Sorry to let you down, but I am a complete charlatan when it comes to Tarot: I’ve never actually read them, and my understanding of the symbolism is based solely on intuition and on what I’ve read by authors like Papus, Waite, and so forth. I just think that they provide an excellent chance to exercise the art of analogy. Obviously you don’t need to look very hard to find a plethora of various manuals listing the correspondences of the arcana to almost any kind of system, from Alexandrian witchcraft to Native American mythology. It would be sweet to believe the myth that there is an ancient legacy of mystical knowledge condensed in them, but who knows — you can still get pretty far with intuitive analogy!
As someone who went to Praha for the first time this year, I’m interested in “Death In Prague.” Someone left a comment on my Waxing Atrocious piece about you guys to mention that “Death In Prague” was about the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. Is there validity to that? If so, can you discuss this?
Ike Vil: A long time ago, I lay on my bed with a girl, looking at a poster on the wall: the cover of an old Creepy magazine that depicted a werewolf and a vampire in mortal combat in front of a ruined castle. She asked me which one of the characters I identified with, and, pressed to answer, I said I guess I’d be that ruined castle. In the same way, I guess the protagonist in “Death in Prague” is the city itself, and in the context of the album, I think I wanted Prague to represent the whole of Europe, smack in the heart of the continent as it is, and even Western culture. In the first verse, Prague sees Edward Kelley, John Dee and all the miracle-workers and charlatans that Rudolf II had summoned to his court; the second, as you said, is about Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia-Moravia.
I remember reading The Angel of the West Window by Gustav Meyrink while in Prague, and in my mind, the story of Kelley and Dee started to live its own life. Dee found his Stone after all; it was a kidney stone. Those who sought to return to “old European ways,” whatever they thought they were, ultimately destroyed and damned old Europe. There are a lot of golems in this song.
This album featured many guest musicians, including Maniac (of Mayhem) and Taneli Jarva (of Sentenced). How’d you bring these guys together on the album?
Ike Vil: Mayhem were in town for a gig, and as we’d gotten to know the guys, we had the idea of inviting Maniac to guest on one of the songs. In the end, Maniac ended up giving such a no-holds performance on “Death in Prague,” kicking and screaming on the studio floor, that we even used a part of it in “Hell Abloom.” By the time, Jarva had also moved to Helsinki, and we had had our adventures together. I’m not sure if I remember this correctly, but since there was a line in “Life Fades Away” that went “dance over the graves,” I probably thought it fitting to have Jarva do that, as he had been “dancing on the grave with lil siztah” in Sentenced!
Antti Litmanen: It was a case of mutual respect, quite outside of only music. In many ways, those guys, whether Jarva or Mayhem, were also going against the grain, ready to bleed for their art — sometimes even literally, of course!
The record was very hard to find in the US. How was the distribution/label situation at the time?
Ike Vil: [Spinefarm] were originally meant to license it to Necropolis for US release, but I think Necropolis folded before that, so it was only available on import over there. The Finnish release was in May, I think, and Universal Music/Motor Music released it in Germany/Central Europe in late summer.
How was the reaction to this album?
Ike Vil: The reviews were good once again (although it wasn’t the album of the month anymore in Terrorizer, unlike the first two!), but we really didn’t do much press outside Finland. By the time, Universal had bought Spinefarm in Finland, and I heard Dante Bonutto from Universal UK liked the album and wanted us to shoot a video for “Lucibel." From what I understood, Finnish Universal didn’t think it necessary. Somebody told us there was a good chance we would get the support slot for the Marilyn Manson European tour, but nothing came of that either. We got a new booking agent in Finland who sold us a string of shows, and even though there was a good crowd everywhere, we wound up losing money. In January 2003, after supporting The Crown in Helsinki (getting jackshit once again), I wrote a letter to the guys and said I’ve had it. I quit my job, too, and moved away from Helsinki after a while.
How long afterwards was the band operational? You’ve played reunion shows and such, but was the band writing throughout that time?
Ike Vil: My decision to quit came pretty suddenly. We had already tried out some ideas for the next album, and I had even contacted Hiili Hiilesmaa for him to produce it, but as I said, in January 2013, I felt I’d just had enough.
Antti Litmanen: Outwardly, everything seemed to be getting better slowly, but we were treading water, really. Ike was the first to do something about it, and rightly so, although we were not exactly pleased with the way he handled the situation. In retrospect, I’d say we had lost some of the “Pride of the Damned” as we attempted to become more professional and reliable as a band, not realizing that fire was actually intrinsic to our band.
Ike Vil: We haven’t actually played any reunion shows — personally, I find the concept a bit tedious. When Stuka and Boa turned 30, they wanted to celebrate it with a show, and we played a one-off in Helsinki under the moniker “Babylon Horse." Apart from that, we were responsible for some drunken noise at Stuka’s wedding and later at Pete Liha’s wedding, but that’s it.
Antti Litmanen: We’ve turned down all offers for reunion shows. Like Ike said, the whole concept is tedious. Unless done for the right reasons – none of which exist presently – there would be no point either.
Ike Vil: Hopefully the better things that made up Babylon Whores have returned to the Platonic spheres whence their original inspiration came from. I think it’s secondary whether they cart us old, bearded men back to channel those things or not. I have a new band now, after almost a decade, and so does Antti. You’ve got to look forward and not hide in the shadows of yesterday.
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