Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix Talks Legacy and Leitmotif + Debuts New Music Video (Interview)
Liturgy, the experimental black metal project of Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, has earned its fair share of attention (and concomitant criticism) over the last decade. The real question, though, has always been about what really draws all the attention in the first place. Either it's Liturgy's tenet-breaking music or the philosophical content the project has always placed front-and-center -- or, more likely, it's both. But neither were clear "attention grabs" in the sense that Liturgy (or its mastermind) might be all theatrics and no substance; instead, after four full-lengths, the band (and Hunt-Hendrix himself) have proven steadfast in their postmodern journey toward some kind of high-energy musical catharsis made just for them. Delving into the written content behind Liturgy's music is not necessary for an enjoyable listen, though it does offer context and perspective on Hunt-Hendrix's approach to music, black metal specifically. And sure enough, the band's latest album H.A.Q.Q. stands alone as a monolith of experimental drama; or, if you like, it can also nestle into the larger extra-musical framework the band has been constructing since its origin.
The point is this: it's possible to denote any artwork as pretense, but safely doing so would require an assessment of the artist themselves. Writing off a band as "not to taste" is one thing, but claiming "inauthentic" or "fake" music beckons an authority that nobody we know actually possesses. So, in a wave of semi-skeptical intrigue, we contacted Hunter Hunt-Hendrix ourselves to help put Liturgy's enigmatic existence into a bit more focus. We were delighted, for one, by H.A.Q.Q. as it stands by itself, as well as Hunt-Hendrix's work in the Origin of the Alimonies opera which saw its live debut last year. But, we were blind as to Hunt-Hendrix's attachment to his music, or the nature of his relationship with his artistic output, or how he views Liturgy in the social sense, etc. Those are the important questions when it comes to understanding music beyond just the music, not to what extent any given Liturgy album fits or does not fit a prescribed rubric.
Before you dive into the interview, check out a new music video for "Pasaqalia II," a song using samples and ideas from H.A.Q.Q.'s fourth track "Pasaqalia." Hunt-Hendrix considers this new song a "digital aria" that fits into his opera cycle called The Oioion Cycle -- the live performance of Origin of the Alimonies, Hunt-Hendrix indicates, was just the first part.
So it's been about, to the year, a decade since Renihilation -- that album, in my view, has been the grittier Liturgy that hooked me onto the band to start, but now with H.A.Q.Q., those old tracks feel prototypical in a sense. Do you hold any of your releases with Liturgy on a higher pedestal than others, even if it's just personal preference? Or maybe it varies depending on what stage of life you're in at any given time.
Yeah, I tend to like each album more than the last, but I also love each in its own way. For each of the first three records I felt pulled towards a sound we didn’t have the resources to execute yet -- so with each release the musical language was growing, but each also felt like a failure. H.A.Q.Q. felt different, because I was less concerned with breaking new ground and more concerned with rendering the existing sound really well, refining the compositional language and getting really strong performances and mixes, so I love it for a different reason, in a way. My more experimental or groundbreaking drive right now is more trained on extra-musical aspects of Liturgy, setting the music to an original dramatic story and engaging with the opera tradition with Origin of the Alimonies, as well as refining the philosophical and, like, scene-building aspect of the project via various platforms on the Internet.
I definitely am the happiest with the current era of Liturgy, out of all of Liturgy’s eras, and that includes H.A.Q.Q. and a lot of other things that are swirling around it, too.
You mentioned the prior albums being maybe an iterative process -- there are certain elements from prior albums that do make it, and then others that don't. The clean chanting vocals on The Ark Work, I know a lot of folks didn't really know how to take those in context? At the same time, some really dug them. I know you toured The Ark Work on the chanted vocals versus the screaming vocals, but now with H.A.Q.Q. we're back to primarily screaming. Is there any background to that decision or that thought process you could share?
I felt like I’d grown out of screaming back in 2014 while I was writing The Ark Work, and I actually wrote this new album with chanted vocals too. But we started playing material from Aesthethica again at shows early last year, with screamed vocals, and I was kind of shocked at how satisfying I found it to scream live, and kind of spontaneously slipped into doing it on the newer songs too. So on H.A.Q.Q., I tried to combine the two, to keep some of the vocal melodies that I had planned on using but then supplementing them with screams, which I think resulted in the best of both worlds. In some cases, I turned the melodies into violin lines, in others I got better singers to sing them -- a scream can't have a melody, you know, any functional melody, so I found other ways to do it -- so it just ended up making the music richer. The singing style isn't dead, though, I just left if off of H.A.Q.Q. -- I have material on the way that pursues other lines of development from The Ark Work, including the track [we put out today] which is an electronic and more lyric-driven reformulation of one of the tracks on H.A.Q.Q.
I think there’s still a lot to be explored in the space between trap music and black metal specifically; still, I really like the idea of iteratively covering those bases as well as classical music in different ways, since they’re such fundamentally different ways of listening to a making music, and they deserve to be integrated in an aesthetically smooth fashion, which is hard to do. Bring in drama, a theory of the nature of reality, a theory of how art-as-politics might be pursued in 2020, and a community for feedback to refine all of the above and hopefully inspire a few people, and we’ve covered all the bases I’m trying to touch with this project.
I think the burst beat, that idea, definitely existed and wove its way through Aesthethica, but now H.A.Q.Q. has less of a burst-beat feel and more of a smooth, cinematic feel. Almost as if it could be a movie score. And maybe that's where the opera ties in -- also with Origin of the Alimonies -- and so maybe, as you might be alluding to, these two realms of music are combining into one form somehow?
I mean, I think Liturgy has always been cinematic -- in the sense that the language of classical 19th Century romanticism which is used to convey a sense of profundity or intense emotion in movies is also a central influence on Liturgy. The structural features of, say, Brahms -- sonata form, modulation between keys, genuine harmonic motion, the general aesthetic of sturm und drang -- these are a key aspect of what makes the music sound so dynamic. The style is a big influence on a lot of black metal, but I think it’s more common as something to be gestured toward superficially as an aesthetic, whereas I’d like to think I dig especially deeply into structural features that really make it pop. Me crying while listening to Brahms at age 19 is a big part of the origin of Liturgy. The burst beat is the rhythmic battery that is supposed to weld or solder that harmonic and melodic language into the rock music tradition. It uses various gear shifts and accelerations to pierce through the false horizon of pure speed that the blast beat represents, which is why it goes beyond black metal.
I’ve always liked the idea of arriving at the type of dynamism that classical music is capable of at a level of intensity that is higher than rock music rather than lower.
Do you then, in your mind, see Origin of the Alimonies and Liturgy as two separate artistic desires, or are they maybe two outputs of the same source?
It’s the same source, but oriented towards two different types of musical awareness, two modes of attention or like two types of audience or distribution structure. Origin of the Alimonies is way more through-composed, has a lot more silence, microtonality, and room for improvisation; it's this dense, monolithic thing that is meant to be challenging and even boring, like a Branca symphony or a Wagner opera. Maybe you don’t even like it at first, but it comes to life after you get to know it. H.A.Q.Q. is more tuned to the Internet, something that hits very hard immediately. I was committed to releasing the album on the same week that we debuted the opera in Los Angeles because I’m extremely interested in interacting with these two modes of attention at the same time, drawing audiences across the cultural partition between them. I have a theory that this type of thing is a path to non-ideological awareness, creating aesthetic windows between the culture of transgression whose dark side is impulsiveness and a culture of discipline whose dark side is conservatism.
What's your emotional attachment to your music, something on a more personal level, or is [Liturgy's music] something that you're maybe engineering from a more analytical standpoint?
There’s a theme among my haters that the music of Liturgy is overly analytical somehow, which is a charge that completely blows my mind. I can’t imagine someone not having ears to hear the intimate, tender, sincere emotion with which the music is dripping, or not grasping that it comes primarily from an experience of pain, and an earnest quest for hope and love. The only explanation I can think of is that, given that my personal experience of subjectivity is so feminine, and given that metal is such a male-dominated genre, a lot of people who hear the music are men who have repressed a certain capacity for tenderness. They hear Liturgy, can’t allow themselves to consciously label what they’re feeling, and are motivated to call me a faggot or whatever instead. Not all, but maybe more than you might think. That theory would account for the hate crime energy that’s always been hovering around the band, and also account for the somewhat surprising number of trans women who have told me that hearing Liturgy, and The Ark Work in particular, helped them transition, which is one of my favorite things to hear.
Are there any experiences from your past that might highlight what goes into Liturgy; or maybe you translate more general states of being into Liturgy's music?
I was a very pent-up, mentally ill, suicidal, and socially maladjusted being when I began making music under the name Liturgy. Originally, my attraction to black metal was congruent with the desire for suicide, along with my attraction to Nietzsche’s philosophy, which people superficially associate with nihilist despair. It was a lucky accident that I started actually reading him and discovered that contrary to superficial appearances he was actually a life-affirming philosopher, which gave me the idea of trying to create a life-affirming black metal that would prevent me from killing myself. Of course, the rocky career of the band itself has been painful too, and a lot of what has gradually been discharged into the music has been the process of getting sober, cultivating a personal relationship with God, accepting that I’ll always be kind of a freak with a kind of schizotypal messianic tendency and a decidedly queer and feminine sexual orientation and gender identity.
More recently, I’ve been able to accept the constellation of who I am as something that doesn’t need to change. It is psychodynamically impossible for me to make certain compromises that others do so as to have a more traditionally successful career, despite criticisms. You might even call it integrity or genius, but I’m ok with the term neurodivergence too.
You could almost say about the new album that it's you almost blossoming in a social way too? That coincides with the Q&A, Twitter, the Discord channel -- you're actively engaging with people who consume your art to learn more about it, I guess?
Yeah there’s definitely been a generational shift that makes my life easier. Ten or even five years ago, there was no comfortable place for Liturgy in either the the Brooklyn DIY punk scene that we’re from or the metal underground into which we were transplanted -- like the combination of religion, continental philosophy, metal, and post-club just seemed insane to people. There was literally no one who would swallow the project whole, or like fewer than five people. Even big fans would try to explain away or apologize for the philosophy and so on. It’s been kind of nice to find kindred spirits on the Internet, like there have been pockets of the web forming where what I’m doing makes sense to people, I think partly because they aren’t mediated by gatekeepers, so I can speak for myself a lot more easily. And I’m even meeting and taking inspiration from other people who are doing similar things, which is something I could honestly never find in DIY before, though I always wanted to, so I really cherish it. The world is changing so much right now, the hegemonic media structure is unraveling or eroding, there's a lot more freedom and a lot less hierarchical control of culture. That's a dangerous thing in a lot of ways but also there's a beautiful side to it, a certain potential. I'm interested in that.
Does that side also give you any fear or trepidation or anxiety?
Yeah. It's dangerous, but all the more reason to engage with it and have a positive impact.
So I guess you're putting better energy into the system, so to speak, and not adding negative energy or trying to detract.
Yeah, and honestly at the end of the day, saccharine as it sounds, it’s about trying to spread the spirit of love, or of God. There's just so much emotional toxicity in the world right now; I love the idea of just sending out love on Spotify, you know? I like to imagine the emotional essence of the album conveys a healthy sincerity and courage, with a dash of equally healthy psychosis, and that it’s at least a little contagious. Like spreading a certain emotional state and existential attitude around using channels that were designed for something else.
On H.A.Q.Q., is there a narrative or story that could sum up the album, something you might associate with a novel or short story, or maybe the album is more nebulous and atomized in terms of its intensities or content.
No, there’s no story on the album, it’s really more of an attempt at union with God as something eternal. In my theological system, H.A.Q.Q. is like a salvific, passive aspect of Godhead, a path to salvation via adoration. In a different sense, there was a narrative dimension to the act of releasing the album itself, with regard to releasing it unconventionally, without giving most media organs in the music industry time to review it. Like an act in the narrative space of the canon of history, redefining Liturgy’s legacy.
I’m very interested in braiding together the external narrative of the band’s career with an internal narrative that plays out across my operas and my mythopoeia; technically I consider both narratives to be aspects of the opera. That’s part of why the new "Pasaqalia II" track is part of the opera cycle: it expresses the voice of a character in the mythopoeia, but the release is also part of the band’s history, which has a narrative dimension of its own. Maybe somewhere the two will converge and existence will be redeemed. But yeah, no explicit narrative on the album itself.
Did that just feel right for this stage of Liturgy, or was it purposeful?
It wasn’t purposeful, which is kind of nice. I’d been working hard on the opera since 2016, which is obviously a narrative work in the traditional sense. H.A.Q.Q. sort-of came out of nowhere; I wasn't even necessarily planning on writing a new Liturgy album. I had an extremely positive experience working with Tia [Vincent-Clark] and Leo [Didkovsky] on an initial performance of the opera we did in 2018, and they were such a pleasure to work with and so great at bass and drums (respectively) -- I knew immediately I wanted to make a new Liturgy album with this group of people. Bernard, who’s been in the band since after the first EP, played in the opera too and it all just coalesced. I think if you'd have asked me two years ago if there'd be a new Liturgy album -- I’d have told you that I’ve totally moved away from it. I was kind of surprised to be inspired to make more.
I've been scouring opinions on the new album, and I think "surprise" comes up a lot both in terms of timing and sound -- I think you may have won a lot of new fans over with the new album, maybe as compared to The Ark Work. Do you have any immediate reactions to gaining new fans?
When we released "God of Love" in September, my mind was genuinely blown by the flood of kind and loving comments. It’s something that’s never happened before, like comments on the Internet specifically being really affirmative. I’m sure part of it is that a lot of the haters have gotten bored of complaining and are just remaining silent, but whatever. In some ways I personally prefer The Ark Work, that album had a true touch of madness and was more experimental. But it’s also flawed, and the performances on H.A.Q.Q. are definitely stronger, it’s been such a joy to be working with Bernard, Tia, and Leo that some of that positive vibe probably infuses the whole project. I feel like they deserve a lot of credit for making the album what it is -- this music is not easy to play.
When I heard the new album for the first time, it was not what I was expecting, but I'm glad I did not get what I had expected.
What did you expect?
You had answered somewhere online that there'd not be clean vocals, so I did expect screaming, but I thought more burst beats, more fragmentation, and you get that sort-of with the glitchiness of H.A.Q.Q., but then again, I didn't expect any glitchiness at all to begin with. Totally out of left field. At first, I wasn't sure if I liked it, but after multiple listens, the effects add this character and breaking point or even bookmark for me to know where I am in the song, and just really cool.
There was a time when I thought this album would be more stripped-down, to maybe even have no additional production on it beyond the metal band, and be just like Aesthethica -- but once we had them up and running I couldn’t help myself with piling on all the glockenspiel, harp, and strings. They stand alone really nicely without the production though, which is how we play them live, where they kind of bloom in a different way.
H.A.Q.Q. released digitally on November 12th, 2019; physical release is expected on May 15th. Liturgy will be on tour later this year, dates below:
April 15 - Pittsburgh PA - Thunderbird
April 16 - Grand Rapids MI - Pyramid Scheme
April 17 - Chicago IL - Empty Bottle
April 18 - Detroit MI - The Sanctuary
April 19 - Cleveland OH - Now That’s Class
April 21 - Toronto ON - Baby G
April 22 - Montreal QC - L’Esco
April 23 - Boston MA - Great Scott
April 24 - Brooklyn NY - Baby’s All Right
April 25 - Philadelphia PA - Milkboy