Interview + Mix: Drew Daniel (The Soft Pink Truth)
Why Do the Heathen Rage?, Drew Daniel's new album as the Soft Pink Truth out on Thrill Jockey Records, is a lot of things. In the universe of reviews, thinkpieces, and other interviews, though, the aspect that doesn't get as much play as it should is that this album is fun as hell. I recently conducted an interview with Daniel, which also touched on a lot of things: Shakespeare and Milton, queer theory and the death drive, rave kids getting down with Darkthrone covers, and black metal's almost anti-Luciferian conservatism. Heavy stuff, for the most part.
As if to remind us all of the fact that this project is as much about moving bodies and cracking smiles as it is inspiring dissertation prospectuses and courting dour disapproval from scene gatekeepers, Daniel has also put together a DJ-style mix of that stalwart cornerstone of black metal: atmospheric intros and outros. Most of these are played straightforwardly, but others are allowed to bleed over into one another, such that the whole mix plays like both a feverish, dark ambient nightmare and a hopelessly earnest love letter. Apart from proving — as if it needed proving — that Striborg is the absolute king of the spooky ambient interlude, this mix demonstrates that Daniel has not just the footnoting instincts of an academic, but also an abiding love for this genre, despite the moral quagmire and very real violence of its deep history.
The subtitle of your new album Why Do the Heathen Rage? is "Electronic Profanations of Black Metal." Based on some of the statements you’ve made elsewhere about the album, I'm wondering if you're drawing direct inspiration from the work of Giorgio Agamben. In his essay "In Praise of Profanation," Agamben describes the act of profanation — or profaning — as the act that returns something previously considered sacred back "to the free use of men." The passage that seems most germane to Why Do the Heathen Rage?, however, argues that "[t]he passage from the sacred to the profane can. . . come about by means of an entirely inappropriate use. . . of the sacred: namely, play."
Is that your goal with this project? To destabilize the "special unavailability" of black metal through play, subversion, and mockery, and thus bring it back to a realm where you can actually do something with it, relatively unhindered by its problematic history of violence, homophobia, extremist politics, and so on?
Transgressive acts against the sacred are often locked in a kind of adolescent dependence upon the paternal authority figures that they defy: you can see this throughout the history of Satanic aesthetics, and you can see it in the thought of Georges Bataille, the photography of Andres Serrano, and you can see it in the T-shirt designs piled up at every merch table at every heavy metal festival. It’s an obvious point: Satanism is a belated and reactionary critique of the sacramental system that it inverts, a rebellious cry of “I don’t wanna” that pushes back against the authority of God the Father. So my project just gives this dynamic one further turn of the screw. . .
[T]he [Agamben] quote you provide certainly captures the spirit of what I’m doing: hopefully the record is taken as both humorous and serious, both loving and hateful, and it tackles kvlt authenticity with a stance that mingles worshipful attention to formal details with an oppositional spirit of “Bestial Mockery” […] If the “classic” era of black metal has become a set of canonized treasures, then that makes them ripe for a satanic profanation, an inversion of their professed values.
That said, there have been a lot of funny, quick 'n' dirty parodic takes on black metal culture over the years (Vegan Black Metal Chef is just one example among many) and while I can see why this record does undeniably rub spiked shoulders with work like that, it’s not the same thing, in my opinion. There is a novelty music “gag factor” that I cannot deny. . . [b]ut I would also hope that there are dimensions to this record that aren’t so easily resolved, and that don’t let me off the hook by invoking irony as some kind of safe, distancing gesture. This record is as much an act of identification with the spirit of black metal, the attitudes and world views of some of its greatest songwriters, as it is a critique of them. In that sense, it has all the crushed out awkwardness of a fan letter.
It’s a playful experiment. I’m asking “what if?” about this music. What happens to these songs when they lose their distortion, their grain and timbre and become simply notes and words? Does their power remain or diminish? I didn’t have an answer in mind, it was a kind of test to see what would happen to a genre if you took away most of its sonic signifiers and reimagined its audience. And I did that with a queer audience in mind.
Are you at all concerned about it coming across as little more than a smug fait accompli, though? Meaning, if some listeners get on board with your simultaneously mocking and loving interpretations of the source material, well then that's great; but if not, and you get knee-jerk rejections of what you're doing, then it simply proves a broader point that the oppositional attitude of black metal falls apart when directed inward?
Maybe my masochistic fantasy is that somebody somewhere will oppress me and denounce this record? Maybe I want those knee-jerk responses? It’s a valid question. I certainly got some harsh reactions to my punk and hardcore covers from Crass fans who thought I was committing sacrilege. What would hurt would be for someone to fully grasp my intentions, approve of my politics in a condescending way, but simply hate the record at an immanent sonic level. That would hurt.
More seriously, it seems like the risk here that you indicate is that my record might contribute to an ambient climate of smugness about silly teen sub-cultures which permits those who think they stand with me to adopt some implied stance of adult superiority towards those sub-cultures, a stance that would let both myself and my fans off the hook all too easily, by insisting that we are the upright/good/tolerant ones and black metal fans are the “bad guys.” What could be more self-serving than suggesting that black metal is for uptight homophobes and I’m the fun faggot, so you’d better like my record or be found guilty of being an uptight, fanatical square who “hates fun”? Perhaps in making fun of / making “fun” out of black metal, I’m not doing anything radical at all, but simply dragging something beautifully feral back to the land of the cute, and thus back to business-as-usual. In so doing, I would be guilty of pimping myself out as a kind of subcultural variant of the “sassy gay friend” stereotype that is the familiar object of repressive tolerance in a neoliberal media landscape all too keen to celebrate its own ever-expanding comfort zone of acceptance (as long as you make like a good gay clone and consume lavishly, drink the right vodka, etc.).
Having taken that critique out for a walk, do I think the shoe fits? Fuck no! Or at least: I would hope not! But it’s not for me as an artist to write my own ticket and prove in advance that this is or is not the case — that’s up to the listener to decide. My motivation in singing misanthropic lyrics and presenting a visual depiction of a murderous gay S&M orgy was to let the project completely immerse itself in the fantasies of hatred and cruelty that sometimes drive black metal lyrics and imagery, and to implicate myself in so doing. If they didn’t appeal to me at some level, there wouldn’t be anything at stake in the project other than a cheap shot at someone else’s credulity.
I also wonder what you think about the potential homoeroticism of black metal. It's certainly not played-up as intentionally as you might find with industrial music, for example, but your choice of songs seems to play up the often underplayed sexual element of black metal. Your cover of Venom's "Black Metal" certainly takes obvious joy in highlighting the line, "Riding Hell's stallions, bareback and free.” Are you intentionally reading more of that content into the music as a pointed way of profaning the intolerance of the genre, or do you think there's more genuine homoerotic content than is typically recognized?
The smoking gun here might be Euronymous’ infamous/alleged remarks that “anal sex is more evil than vaginal penetration” — a symptomatic and not-un-hilarious position to take. What’s interesting to me is not speculation about particular people and their identities but about black metal as a deeply artificial stance in which the reactionary adoption of something as “evil” counts first, and the actual sexual act comes second — that, to me, is far queerer than any normative identity, homo or hetero. That is what is queer about black metal. Indeed, one could align quite a lot of the virulent “anti-life” positions and stances adopted by black metal musicians with the recent positions taken in the so-called anti-relational wing of queer theory (I’m thinking here of Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman). Edelman’s position in “No Future” is that queers, because they do not (generally) reproduce, become the cultural bearers of the death drive. Insofar as all political rhetoric is bottle-necked through the future and the image of the child as that for which we must strive, work, and produce, the doctrine of “reproductive futurism” binds creating children and believing in life and the future together. Against this normative backdrop, queers refuse the future and refuse life. (You can see the curious sense in which this very positions risks reifying the worst aspects of anti-gay rhetoric, but that’s not what Edelman is up to).
As I see it, the black metal kvltist posturing against life, as well as in the practice of corpse-painting the body until it looks dead, comes to occupy precisely this position: embodying the death drive, refusing the future, refusing to accept life as a positive value. In this particular sense, black metal as a culture is already queerer than queer. As such, it doesn’t need me to show up and make jokes about how gay it is, or how homoerotic it is (though of course when you go see Enslaved and the guitarist dude’s abs are on display to a room full of sweaty, nervous-looking men then there’s a completely obvious dimension in which that is what is going on). But bracketing that, black metal is already queerer-than-queer because of its insistence upon artificiality (make up, posturing, highly aestheticized rituals) and its hostility to “life” as a value. That’s part of what fascinates me about it — its cold, ruthless intensity.
Why not just avoid Burzum, Emperor, Dissection, Mayhem, anything out of Blazebirth Hall, and anyone else with clear, documented connections to violence and politics you find hateful? Here's the real thrust of my question: By selecting songs from artists like Venom and Hellhammer who — at least to my amateur historian's knowledge — have not engaged in violence or dodgy politics and then linking them to your project of intentional, political profanation, don't you risk totalizing black metal into something morally reprehensible by nature rather than by choice of an individual band or artist? Or do you think that in some ways the whole genre is guilty by association?
Yes, the “some are / some aren’t” distinction is an important one to make, and it is useful because it deflates the hysterical, tabloid reaction to this genre that sees no difference between genuinely NSBM and other black metal bands, who have many different political affiliations, or no discernible political affiliations at all. I have mixed this album up because it’s meant to be a portrait of black metal across time and across topics/styles, so there’s a range of bands from Brazil to Finland and there’s a range of bands historically from prototypes like Venom to late-comers like An. I am trying to construct a kind of “family portrait” of black metal as an aesthetic tendency, and by necessity that means I am going to be lumping together groups which don’t see eye to eye.
My profanation is a profanation of the genre as such, not just an attack on “bad guys” who somehow deserve it because of their politics: I’m lovingly assaulting the entire genre. But how could any selection be representative or fair when you’re talking about a huge range of different people? Though the sequence of covers emerged in a piecemeal fashion, I designed the album to be a companion to my last album of punk and hardcore covers, Do you Want New Wave or Do you Want the Soft Pink Truth? And on that album, I had covered “Homo-Sexual,” a homophobic song by The Angry Samoans that I loved as a teenage closet case. In the case of that cover, it was about acknowledging the harm and damage done by sub-cultures to minorities. That said, on this record I didn’t cover Satanic Warmaster or Peste Noire. I just didn’t feel that I could successfully flip their songs in the way that I felt that I could flip the Samoans. It was a judgment call.
In the case of this album, it’s less straightforward. It’s about the murk and ambiguity surrounding how songs operate as fantasy spaces in which multiple constructions are possible: one person’s anthem of hate might make some other listener feel powerful, feel understood, feel like they were part of some community. Songs aren’t simple. When Darkthrone sing the phrase “the burning slaves,” is that a racist line? Is that a racist image? It can be given that construction, but in the context of church burnings it might have other meanings: slaves of God, slaves of Christ, who are burned in a pagan uprising against Christianity. I come from Kentucky, from a segregated childhood in the American South, from the land of the Klan. My ancestors in Alabama owned slaves. I am a white descendent of that Confederate history, so a line about “burning slaves” encodes, for me, a horrific American past that may have absolutely no resonance or relevance for the Norwegian author of the song. But in covering the song, I’m trying to work through the politics of black metal as a subculture in which things migrate across context and change, gaining and losing power in the process. I’m part of that change, a perverse twist in the circulation of this music, giving it a spin of my own, taking these riffs and notes and words and relocating them.
One thing about black metal — which, if I haven't yet made clear, I also have an abiding love for and troubled relationship with, although as a straight white man, the threat that black metal poses to me is primarily a threat to my own self-image as a progressive leftist sort of person — that has always seemed so maddening, even outside of the violence, stupidity, hatred, and backwards politics, is that for a music which presents itself as something to be taken extremely seriously, it is almost singularly hostile to attempts to engage with it in an intellectually serious manner. Of course, as the genre with perhaps the most heavily stylized aesthetic and most ritualized presentation, there's a serious dose of performativity to reckon with. Do you think that's all just due to the coagulation of certain default modes of presentation? I mean, you don't see many death metal bands putting on airs of having read loads of Nietzsche as a prerequisite for making music in the appropriate spirit.
I took part in the second Black Metal Theory Symposium event at the Fighting Cocks pub in Kingston, UK, along with Scott Wilson and Ben Woodard and Nicola Masciandaro and Evan Calder Williams and Eugene Thacker and many others, so I’m definitely already “guilty as charged” when it comes to the tricky prospect of theorizing about the implications, assumptions, and aesthetics of black metal. Doing that triggers hatred and disdain. If I recall correctly, the first Symposium immediately triggered online comments of the “Drink shit, falsers” variety. I would be disappointed if the conjunction of black metal and theory didn’t trigger skepticism and resistance and hatred, as those stances and affects are hard-wired into this subculture.
The irony is that much of the theorizing of black metal is itself bound up with the articulation of various kinds of cosmic or ontological negativities (scenarios of planetary extinction, metaphysical meditations on non-being and the void, ecological evocations of dead environments) which are, themselves, mimetic of the positions, zones, or concerns felt to be already present within black metal aesthetics. Stepping back, you can see that there’s a sort of mirror logic in place between the negativity of those who hate the theorization of black metal and the negativity of the theories themselves, and a kind of “race for the bottom” ensues: Who can think the darkest thought? Who can hate the most intensely? Who can limn the most utterly final scenario of loss and nothingness? Who can evoke the bitterest curse?
My own contribution was to bring up race and to ask about how we might understand corpsepaint in the context of the long history of onstage minstrelsy — even if in this case there’s a kind of cross-identification with the dead rather than a cross-identification across racial barriers. The image of the black metal kvltist as a deathly pallid, militant/morbid icon raises the question of the historicity of black metal aesthetics: it’s a kind of anachronistic free for all in which ancient pagan warriors and medieval Vikings and early modern melancholics and malcontents and German Romantic wanderers and 19th century diabolists keep blurring and melting into each other. The pallor of the corpsepainted face revises the Renaissance cult of black bile (in which the face was darkened by bile) into a pallor closer to the Romantic cult of tubercular beauty, a whiteness that is implicitly racialized. At any rate, my essay on this topic is forthcoming, so consider this a kind of “teaser” for that piece.
The full piece can be read here.