Meet Chris Black. From writing for Metal Maniacs in its heyday to running the Planet Metal label to playing in High Spirits, Superchrist, and Nachtmystium, Black is a pillar of the metal world. My favorite project of his, Dawnbringer, put out one of my favorite records this year, Nucleus. I interviewed him for the year-end feature on Nucleus in the January '11 issue of Decibel (#75, GWAR cover, order here). Below is the interview in full. Black dishes about recording Nucleus, pro wrestling, and the state of metal journalism today.
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How do you feel about being named Decibel's 4th best album of the year?
It's flattering, I guess. Unexpected, for sure. We've been making Dawnbringer albums for 15 years now, and we've always had people who were very supportive and felt very connected to them from the start. But that number seems to be growing. In past years, that number hasn't included Decibel writers and people from Stereogum and stuff like that. So it's taken a little bit of adjusting to the response. Once the response first picked up, I was like, "Shit, what did we do wrong this time?" because this hasn't happened before. (Laughs) But we're getting used to it, and it's very cool.
Have you kept up on what people think of the album?
Yeah. Chris [Bruni] from Profound Lore has been sending me some review links, and I've done a couple of Google searches myself. Like I said, it's pretty surprising and unexpected, some of the things that people out there are saying about it, but it's very cool.
Are people getting it right or wrong?
I don't know if there's a right and a wrong to it, so much as there are a lot of people coming to the band for the first time and don't have the same context as some of those people who have been following what we do for longer. And it has always been surprising to me the different ways that people read this band. Last time I looked on Metal Archives, I think we were still [considered] a death metal band. Our first EP, which came out in 1996 - I would see it described as Norwegian-influenced black metal. And then a couple reviews later in some other magazine, it was described as psychedelic thrash metal. Our first full-length Unbleed in 1997 [was described as] "100% melodic Swedish death metal". And then somebody else would say, "This is like Manowar playing Emperor songs".
There's not a right and a wrong, but I continue to be surprised - in some cases pleasantly surprised, and in some cases a little more on the confused end of surprised - by the different ways that peeople are reacting to it, the different ways that people are trying to put it in some sort of context outside of itself, which I've never been comfortable with entirely. The albums are kind of within their own context in my mind. So to see people try to situate a particular Dawnbringer album within some sort of scene or state of some union - these are all arbitrary boundaries that people are setting up around it. That can be disconcerting to me, but it just comes with the territory. It's what journalists do, and I accept that.
I put it in the not-entirely-accurate context of retro metal. I don't think the record is a consciously retro one, but it might be an unconscious one in that you've been around, so those are the values you bring to the table.
That may be. I don't think the value system has really changed. Even if you go back and listen to what we were doing in the '90s, you can hear a lot of the same ethos in terms of the note choices [and] the role of guitar solos within the songs. It's difficult for me, because I have arguably the worst perspective as far as being objective and trying to see things for what they are. But I don't see there having been a whole lot of evolution for Dawnbringer. If it sounds more anything, it sounds more good because we recorded it with Sanford [Parker]. That to me is the single biggest difference. And that's a pretty basic one, really, when it comes down to it. Creatively, the people involved, the process - nothing's really changed.
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How did you choose Sanford?
It was kind of lucky timing. When we were working on Addicts, the Nachtmystium record, back in January. I was actually at the studio and sat down and opened up my email, and there was a message from Profound Lore basically saying, "Hey, what's going on with Dawnbringer?" Would you be interested in doing a release together?" I basically said, "Hey, Sanford, what are you doing in June?" (Laughs) And he said, "I don't know, you tell me". So it was the right place at the right time, as far as jumping on that opportunity. Sanford's done a few projects for Profound Lore, so there was already a relationship there. Sanford and I had done a few projects together - Nachtmystium among them - so there was already a relationship there. I would have wanted to work with him regardless, but Profound Lore's involvement made it easy for that to happen.
Sanford's an interesting choice, since Dawnbringer's probably the most straight-up metal thing he's worked on.
I agree. Maybe you could put Gates of Slumber on that list. Maybe Bible of the Devil, although they're more of a rock 'n' roll band in my mind.
Did his background on the fringes of metal ever come into play during the sessions?
How do you mean?
Here's this guy who's producing psychedelic stuff, he's on this industrial tip, he's using keyboards. And here you are, playing metal with a capital M. Was there any interplay between the two dynamics?
Not really. Sanford's role on this album was definitely more on the technical side, whereas with the Nachtmystium records, he's giving a lot more input creatively. Which isn't to say that there was no input from him in that area on this album, because there was. But his biggest idea that he brought to the table was, "Let's make you guys sound good". (Laughs)
And I thought that was a great idea, because the previous album was literally recorded in my closet. Actually, not all of it - I recorded the drums in my friend's basement. And then we did the rest. I had my little recording rig set up in my closet, because in the apartment that I was in at the time, that was the only place I could secure it from my cats, who are hungry for cords and wires. And if you've heard it, it's not exactly a state-of-the-art studio production.
So [working with Sanford] was a huge opportunity. We don't have that kind of psychedelic saturation, that layering of different sounds and different textures that he's known for. But I think it's a Sanford job nonetheless. He likes loud drums, and there's definitely loud drums. Everything's pushing up towards the red, which is distinctive of a lot of the records that he's done. There's not as many layers, so the layers that are there, we can really crank into the foreground, which I think works really well for the album.
Did the album turn out the way that you envisioned?
For the most part, yes. There were a few things that changed along the way. Actually, there were a lot of things that changed along the way. But then new expectations kind of built around that. The album originally was going to be a palindrome. The whole album was going to go forwards and then backwards. That was really the biggest thing that we changed course on along the way. But really with any album, you kind of have to, at a certain point, take yourself out of it, and - it sounds like a cliché - you have to let the songs breathe and let the songs evolve into what they want to be and what they're going to be. You really have to kill yourself at a certain point in the process, or you're just going to ruin it.
With the musical palindrome, were you actually writing notes down on paper, and then reversing the order?
Yeah. I always write on paper for Dawnbringer. Again, there's exceptions, but, yeah. The first three songs on the album - those were written with the intention of later appearing in backwards form at the end of the album. I got through most of "So Much for Sleep" and a little bit of "You Know Me" before I realized that, again, here I was with my heady, progressive, high-art concept standing in the way of what the songs really wanted to be.
Why did you want there to be a palindrome?
I thought it would be really, really cool. I like to have guides when I'm writing, because I write for so many different bands. I need to put some parameters to work within. Even if they end up changing during the process, which they often do, I need to start within some sort of boundaries to have any early progress at all. [The palindrome was] an idea I had had for many years. I thought that would be a really cool form for the album to have. And then we had a lyrical concept that was associated with this, and even an art concept ready to go. But, again, it just didn't pan out. (Laughs) We had the little miniature remnant of that idea at the end of the album, which I think was a good compromise because some of the musicians involved were pretty bummed out that we weren't following through with the headier, high-art, progressive album design.
Did you ever do that thing where you play a guitar solo and then flip the tape over so it plays in reverse?
For the song "Pendulum", we actually did it the hard away. We wrote out everything on paper backwards and then played it. We didn't do anything in the computer. That guitar solo is a thing of wonder for that reason. (Laughs) Nothing was done digitally. That's all human playing that you hear.
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The lyrics of Nucleus primarily deal with mental states. Thematically the album exists in its own world, not reacting to the outside world. Is this something that you intended?
Yes. I've been asked a couple times recently whether I would call Dawnbringer my most personal project. And the short answer is maybe. The real answer is no, it's not, but it's definitely the most introverted. Like you said, there's a lot of exploring different mental states. That is by design.
Do you have a specific mission that you want to accomplish with Dawnbringer?
Overall, I don't know. Back when I was 15 or 16 when I started it, I think the mission was to be the greatest band of all time, and to be the savior of American heavy metal - which is very much a 16 year-old's ambition or delusion. Nowadays, Dawnbringer is kind of a respite from everything else that I'm doing. The boundaries are looser. There's a playfulness that I can get away with, especially musically. I can try a lot of different things that may not be compatible with other threads that I have going on.
As far as there actually being an objective personally, no - I just want to make a good record that I want to listen to. That's really what's been guiding my creative process my whole life: "I think there should be a record that sounds like this. And there's not, so I'm going to make it". Simple as that. So if there's any guiding principle to Dawnbringer - as cheeky or obvious as that may sound - it's "it didn't exist, and I wanted to hear it, so I made it".
What exactly do you want to hear?
(Pauses) What do I want to hear? (Pauses) Good heavy metal.
So 16 year-old you wanted to be the savior of metal, which implied that metal needed saving. Do you still feel that way now?
Oh, geez. In some ways, I do. I don't know that that wording would still be accurate. Maybe I just want to uphold what I see as the essential truths of heavy metal, which are that you can have a guitar solo in every song, it's OK for people to understand the words, albums are more important than shows... I'm going off the top of my head, so that may be all I have at the moment. (Laughs) In a more theoretical [sense], I definitely prefer the Aeolian scale over the other variations of the minor scale, things like that. I could go on about that stuff. I have certain subjective preferences for the elements of a song that I strive to uphold and exploit.
Why are albums more important than shows?
Because albums last forever, and concerts are ephemeral. The [album] experience can be just as intense. For me, growing up, I was exposed to albums. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where in my generation, I was one of maybe three or four people that were into metal at the time. So metal was very much a private experience. I came to know music by having Bathory on my headphones when I was falling asleep at night. It was not a collectively experienced phenomenon for me. Perhaps largely because of that, I have always been more creatively focused on album making than touring or performing shows.
Again, the reverse is probably true for a lot of bands. There are bands whose music is a collective experience. Manowar - there's a band who, to really understand where they're coming from and what they're doing and why they're so good at it, and why they've really endured - you kind of need to experience it in a hall without any wimps and posers around. It's not a private experience.
To get back to Dawnbringer, Dawnbringer is something you experience by yourself. I think that's very much in keeping with and perhaps attributed to the way I became connected to heavy metal in the first place, which was by myself.
Does it bother you, then, if I tell friends about Dawnbringer?
No, not at all. Once it's out of my hands, it's up to everybody else how [to determine] they're going to experience it, how they're going to utilize it, and what it's going to represent to them. No, that doesn't bother me at all. If I wanted to completely control it, I wouldn't release it. Once you put it out there, it takes on its own life, and there's nothing you can do about that.
What do you think of the album now?
It's grown on me. Considering this band's history, we recorded it extremely quickly. As a result, when we were done, I was still in the mode of wanting to change things. This is true, really, with every album. There's always those thousand little things - or, if you're lucky - hundred little things - that you'd go back and do differently. But by the time I was at the beginning of that stage, it was already weeks too late. The album was already sitting on Profound Lore's desk, and there was nothing I could do. So the postpartum stage was a little intense this time around. But I've learned from making albums that all you can do is get past it and try to watch out for those things the next time around.
Do you get why people have responded so enthusiastically to it?
I think so, but I'm not entirely sure. I don't know. I think it came out of left field for a lot of people. I think a lot of people hadn't been exposed to the band, and our particular brand of heavy metal energy may be a little foreign to people. But then the consequence of that is that it sounds fresh. It's something that sounds new. It's not one of 20 albums that sound like that. It's distinctive in a way that maybe a lot of albums aren't. That's really worked against us in the past. But the singularity of Dawnbringer maybe is finally working to our advantage, but I'm not sure.
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It's funny that you're not sure, because you used to be a metal journalist. It would have been your job to be sure. Is it weird now to be the interviewee instead of the interviewer?
No. I'm comfortable with that. I still prefer to do [interviews] over email so I can edit. I'm kind of a compulsive editor, even when I'm just emailing to say, "Hey, let's get together for dinner over the weekend". What's weird for me is to read completely unrelated interviews [with other metal musicians]. People are speaking a language that I don't really understand. The way that metal journalism as a whole has evolved, especially now that web-based journalism has really taken over - that's what's weird to me. I tend to avoid it.
Do you think writing for the web is different than writing for print?
I don't see why it has to be, but, yes, it seems like it is. It seems like a lot of it's tossed off more quickly. Nothing's independent anymore. Everything's connected to this and that.
Back when the WWF was still the WWF in the late '90s, and Vince McMahon's brand was the underdog - the Monday Night Wars, that's what I'm talking about. They were the underdog. It wasn't very long before they were back on top. They were the better show. They were more entertaining, which is obviously what they were going for. But quickly from there, the wrestlers started appearing in ravioli commercials. Instead of the original music they were writing for the wrestlers... they actually had a guy whose job it was to write The Stone Cold Steve Austin Song and the Mankind Song and shit like that. It was always changing a little bit, and it was kind of cool. It was all part of their production values. But then they started becoming a little more successful, and they had to tie everything into everything else, whether it's ravioli commercials or how such-and-such doesn't have his own music, he has a fucking Staind song, and you've got to listen to this Staind song if you're trying to watch wrestling.
And I think a lot of online journalism is the same way. There's always these interconnections. Part of it's the advertising that is on the screen with whatever you're trying to read. I understand how that works. But it's all very distracting from the matter at hand. And the fact that you can embed media within [online content] - obviously in a magazine, you can't have a YouTube video on a page, you can't have a sound sample that plays right at you as you're reading - that's kind of cool that you can do that. But, again, it's very distracting. It doesn't promote a sense of independence that you really need to hang on to if you're talking about art.
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I remember you grumbling about the fact that we talk about burgers on our site.
Yeah, that's a little weird. If I didn't know anything about Black Oak Arkansas, I could read [our review of the Black Oak Arkansas burger] and still not know anything about Black Oak Arkansas.
How would you suggest that I improve the site?
I wouldn't. I think your site is what it is, and is very good at what it is. But if I wanted to go somewhere to read something a little more - how do I want to put this? Your site is perfect for what it is. Decibel is perfect for what it is. [But] I don't want to read about what happened in Genghis Tron's tour van, you know what I mean? I just don't care. I'd rather read about what somebody's who's listened to their album 10 times has to say about what's good about it. It's just all too fast. There's too many anecdotes, too many in-jokes. I don't know. I'm not saying it's all garbage, don't get me wrong. I haven't adjusted to it yet - put it that way. I have not adjusted to seeing hamburger reviews next to my metal content.
Who would you hold up, then, past or present, as paragons of good metal journalism?
Metal Maniacs while Jeff Wagner was there. Oh, yeah! I remember when he got the call for that job. He was Relapse's publicist, and we were already friendly then. He said, "I'm gonna turn [Metal Maniacs] into the biggest fanzine of all time". And I said, "I'll help you". And sure enough, that's really what he did. There was an energy among the people there. There was just an energy and an honesty to it. And we were into metal. We were into hamburgers, too, but we weren't into talking about the hamburgers in the metal magazine because we were already fighting for an extra page for somebody's 2000-word review of Voivod's Negatron. You know what I mean? It was just full-on metal.
Who else? There's a cool zine out now from Finland called Qvadrivivm. That's very wordy, the way Finnish zines can be. But it's got a kind of seriousness that I like. I do like seriousness. I'm a pretty serious person, really.
I was part of [Metal Maniacs], so it's easy for me to say. But I think that late '90s Metal Maniacs period was really, in my mind, a model of the way things ought to be done. Anything before that, I couldn't say. Metal Forces and all those magazines were before my time. That's not something I was exposed to. I was very bummed out [about Metal Maniacs' demise]. Even up 'til the end, Metal Maniacs was hanging on. I did not like that they started featuring 60 bands per issue instead of 10 or 15 that the editors really believed in and really thought were worth it. But that's just the way things are trending now.
That's probably just advertising. You cover more bands, you get more advertisers.
How is that not a form of corruption, then?
That's the economics. If I ran a magazine, and it covered one band per issue, even if I were the best metal writer in the world, no one would advertise in it.
The situation with Metal Maniacs was unique at that time, because there really were no other print magazines that were specialized for underground metal. Just the very existence of Metal Maniacs during that time was enough to attract advertising. Believe me, they did not make concessions based on ad dollars. It may not have benefited the long-term health of the magazine; I don't know. But they ran a pretty tight ship, as far as payola and conflicts of interest [went].
Would you ever write about metal again?
No, I don't think so. I've said what I had to say. Besides that, it's a question of time. I don't know if you know the magazine Isten from Finland - I've done a few things on and off for them, but they're also a very on-and-off enterprise themselves, so I don't think of it as a regular thing. It's just when our ships pass in the night.
It's interesting that you value the album so much. While running my site, I've noticed that album reviews get the least hits.
I'm sure that's true.
And that pains me, because I grew up with albums, too. That's still the way I listen to music. But if I run loads of album reviews on my site, that might sink the ship, so to speak.
It's disappointing to hear, but I'm also not surprised. It's something that's been said many times about many phenomena - before the Internet, things were different. Before the Internet, if you wanted to hear something, you had to buy it or find a friend of yours who had bought it and get it from them. That's why album reviews, I think, have lost their value. Nowadays the people who still do buy music are the same people who can get on the Internet, hear a few songs, and make their own mind up. Are they giving it the same analysis that a journalist from the past would have given it before writing a review? I don't know. Probably not. In the end, does it matter? Probably not, because they're going to decide with their dollar whether it's any good or not. So the outcome is the same.
But I'm not one who stands high up on a metal cathedral and pisses down on the Internet. I wouldn't be able to make a living the way I am without the Internet. I wouldn't have been able to have the musicians I wanted on the Dawnbringer album without the Internet, because we wouldn't have been able to communicate and collaborate as easily. I love the Internet. I use it every day, more or less constantly in a variety of ways. But it has enabled a lot of changes that are for some people are hard to accept. But you can't take it back. You can't go back to the way it was. I might as well take advantage of what I can and ignore the rest, and good luck to everybody.
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