Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Mat McNerney Pt. 2
Photo by Mick Hutson
This is the second and final part of our profile of Mat “Kvohst” McNerney, who left his home in the UK to become part of the avant-garde black metal underground. Read that piece of the story in part 1, here.
III: Giving up the Kvohst in Favor of Hexvessel
In 2009, McNerney found himself once again unmoored from any one project. He moved to Finland in order to be with Marja Konttinen and left his metal responsibilities behind. He started two bands, each different from and complementary to one another, like two sides of a coin. McNerney’s apollonian and spiritual self became Hexvessel—a psychedelic folk project that is also his family. His Dionysian self, in all of its sexuality and cynicism became Beastmilk, now Grave Pleasures.
On the phone, McNerney sounds most emotional when talking about Hexvessel, in part because so much strife went into continuing Grave Pleasures (more on that below), but also because Hexvessel began as his baby—and now includes the person with whom he had a baby.
“I just started doing Hexvessel as something of my own,” McNerney said. “I've never really written music just on my own; I'd been doing stuff where I was writing for other people's music. So I got the confidence and the ability to be able to write on my own.”
He wrote folk music. Hexvessel is a mixture of the American psychedelic folk sound of the ‘60s and the more esoteric British folk revival of the ‘70s, filtered through McNerney’s love of Scandinavia (they’ve covered both Carolyn Hillyer and Ultimate Spinach). A song appeared on Werewolf songs – Music inspired by Swedish Folklore in 2011, alongside the project’s debut full-length, Dawnbearer.
One gets the sense, talking to McNerney, that the traditional rock band experience didn’t sit well with him. “I think I really got this illusion about in the scene and when being part of what was going on in Norway, I really felt that it was just another form of rock n' roll,” he said. “The guys in the bands were just sitting around drinking beer and eating pizza and telling fart jokes just like every other form of rock n' roll.”
Folk, then, became his path back into feeling good about the music he was making. “Folk music basically is the heart of all music. If you’re trying to get back into whatever the core of what makes music what it is, it's very much stories. Stories that are meant for relating and connecting with,” he said.
And folk music did connect him. McNerney wrote the music, but Dawnbearer reunited his lineup of Code, at least in part. Andrew “Aort” McIvor contributed guitar, bass and other instruments to McNerney’s songs. It also artistically connected him to Konttinen, who sings and contributes percussion on every Hexvessel album, as well as taking an active part of the band’s art direction. “She's very much part of the writing process and conceptual part of the band.” He said. “It’s our shared thing, if you know what I mean.”
Hexvessel is a family band in the tradition of the folk groups that inspired McNerney. Guitarist Simo Kuosmanen and bassist Niini Rossi are also a couple, as is drummer Jukka Rämänen and the band’s long running merch seller. McNerney is taking his and Konttinen’s son with them on some of the band’s upcoming tours in support of their upcoming record, When We Are Death, and he seemed excited by the prospect. “It's very strange I think when parents kind of have their own life that's separate from their children and they're not very open about their social time. […] Too many people have this kind of conventional idea of what it is to be a parent.”
Hexvessel works with and against the nostalgic ‘flower power’ tradition of American psych folk, in particular. McNerney explained: “In the sixties and seventies there was this ‘love generation.’ Looking back in hindsight, we see that it didn't really succeed; there were misplaced, naive feelings, but there is something about that that I identify with, […] idealism, and a child-like enthusiasm for something [peace] that's quite a good thing for people to dream about. We're not hippies at all, but we are very much about environmentalism.”
McNerney spoke admirably about people in Europe who are trying to ‘get off the grid,’ as well as other eco-friendly bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, and expressed some anxiety about America’s hostility toward environmentalism as an ethos. He walks what he talks. 10% of all Hexvessel pre-sales will go toward the Finnish Natural Heritage Foundation, which helps preserve the country’s forests. The band’s merchandise uses environmentally friendly ink and is printed, at least in part, on recycled papers.
If that all sounds a bit optimistic considering McNerney’s history in black metal, consider the following: he sees Hexvessel as a continuation of the true Norwegian black metal spirit which has been lost in modernity. “I took that part of what I [what interested me] in black metal and I carried that on within Hexvessel, he said, before reminiscing on long walks with Fenriz of Darkthrone. “We would go into the forest and forest-walking. He was very into the nature around Oslo and preservation of that nature—that's where I connected with black metal. If you're into being anti-Christian and against modern capitalist values, you will identify with nature, because it's everything that's darkness. It's everything that is anti-the-built-up-world. I liked that there were forests in their artwork. And without that nature mysticism I got really bored with it.”
To hear McNerney tell it, key portions of the musical ethos that compelled him to leave the UK and become part of the Norwegian underground are all but lost on modern black metal artists. “The thing that attracted me to black metal was this idea of bettering yourself. The elitism for me wasn't about saying ‘We are better than you,’ it was about striving to be the best that you can, and to rise up out of the expectations that our parents had on us, or society was having on us, to be something else. Bands like Ulver were influenced by William Blake and the old poets and old artists. It was like a revival of and appreciation of classical arts, ‘Okay, your band is from Greece. So why don't you sing about Greek gods and get into mythology?’ It taught a whole generation how to write letters—it was this letter-writing generation of people sending tapes to each other, learning how to write. They were reading poetry and books. I just felt like it was an intellectual movement.”
In comparison, the modern wave of primitive black metal bands that eschew both the intellectualism that McNerney idolized and the zeal for experimentation that he took part in do not cut the cake. Maybe worse, McNerney sees in them a capitulation to the society that black metal was intended to oppose. “Some of these bands that are anti-human, anti-life can be interesting, but very few. It gets very tired because everybody in the western world is like that. Actually you're just the same as everybody else. Lady Gaga fans and people who listen to One Tail One Head... they start to merge. I don't see any values. […] I like to have my black metal take me to a higher level rather than down to the lowest common denominator.”
Hexvessel embodies both of his critiques of black metal, both as an elevating experience and as a revival of pre-Christian traditionalism. McNerney said that Hexvessel is “where he put his church,” and that his approach to folk music takes inspiration from Rob Young’s folk history Electric Eden, which helped him re-contextualize folk music as a resuscitation of dead stories. “In the chapter on the album Spritchaser by Dead Can Dance, they had this really great quote about making dead things live again. Old flutes are made out of bones, strings are made out of sinews from animals and drums are made out of skins. When you sing these songs that are about people's stories, people's lives, their lives and their deaths, and trying to explain the nature of the world, you're using these instruments. The song and the story came through those dead animals,” McNerney said.
IV: The Brief Life of Beastmilk and the Birth of Grave Pleasures
Up until this point, McNerney’s musical endeavors never collected many accolades. Even in a niche genre like black metal, Code and Dødheimsgard made esoteric sounds for those already bored with the style’s broad-stroke cliches. Hexvessel’s early albums were released through Finnish super-indie label Svart, but never received any formal US distribution. He was unprepared for the storm of expectation that one of his projects whipped up.
When McNerney founded Beastmilk with guitarist Johan Snell, he didn’t expect the project to go anywhere. He called it a garage rock band. The songs they wrote together sound like little explosions, all of McNerney’s pent-up frustrations from years of intellectual and thought-out music catching fire at once.
If Hexvessel contains all of McNerney's higher aspirations, then Beastmilk was the receptacle for all of his less savory desires and feelings. “ I came out of a couple of long term bands and I just really wanted to do something different,” he said. “There wasn't the same kind of boundaries and care about writing the music. I don't think I was so precious about it. We just went with our total gut instincts.”
Those gut instincts paid off. Beastmilk self-released a tape called White Stains on Black Tape in 2010, and then released the Use Your Deluge EP on Svart in 2012. Neither captures where Beastmilk would wind up, even though a few of those songs did wind up on the band’s first album. McNerney says he and Snell were going for a blend of Dead Kennedys, Dead Moon and Rudimentary Peni. They wrote fun, catchy punk songs that overcome bare production jobs.
Over the course of those releases, and concurrently with his other work in Hexvessel, McNerney perfected a deadpan gothic affect, one which perfectly fitted the band’s campy obsession with sexual humor and old Soviet aesthetics. Americans may have some trouble understanding just how heavily the shadow of Soviet Russia hung over Finland during the Cold War. For every native Finnish member of Beastmilk, who were all children during the USSR’s twilight, playing songs about Kremlin information officers and nuclear detonations like “Red Majesty” and “The Wind Blows Through Their Skulls,” must have been cathartic. The way McNerney married those themes with a droll eurotrash personae probably felt transgressive in the way that Jello Biafra often is.
For their debut full-length, Beastmilk decamped to GodCity Studio in Salem, Massachusetts, to work with Converge’s Kurt Ballou. Nate Newton, Ballou’s Converge bandmate, contributed some backing vocals and Occultation’s Viveca Butler sings a duet. What they made together was every bit the explosion that McNerney’s earlier work hinted at. That album, Climax was an energetic love letter to 80’s gothic rock music. Better, it was catchy in the extreme. McNerney adopted an affected Morrissey-ish croon and used it to deliver bubblegum lyrics with razor blades inside. “An innocent kiss turns to lust / I’ve got a genocidal crush,” he sings on “Genocidal Crush.”
“It was a big release, it was an explosion, like a nuclear detonation,” McNerney remembers. “When doing that record we could do whatever we wanted and it didn't really matter [because] the band was totally unknown. It didn't have to be cult, or true, or necro, anything. We just went with the music that we loved. [...] The success of it, the album, is that it was a very naturally written record. For years [I was] doing things that were consciously not catchy, Having that pent up inside me for so long was just necessary to get it out at that point, and it meant that the whole album was chock full of hooks. If you deny yourself doing those as a musician they're backed up, you have a big backlog of hooks.”
People took notice. Climax was met with rave reviews on release. Beastmilk played three tours with acclaimed acts like Doomriders, Sólstafir and In Solitude as well as several festival in 2014, including the prestigious Roadburn. The experience wasn’t all positive.
Ask McNerney about the year of Beastmilk tours, and he will probably sigh a little, then begin talking at a rapid clip as follows: “The thing about Beastmilk was that we were never a good band live. This was a catalyst for us going down the road to breaking up. It was a band that just very quickly overnight became successful and known, but we didn't really have time to start playing with each other well. We didn't really know each other. We made a couple of tape cassettes, putting one of them on to seven inch, and suddenly, we are being asked to play Roadburn. And then they changed us from the small stage to the main stage right when we got there. It just seemed like there was such a big buzz for the band that they had to upgrade us and we weren't ready. We were very, very sloppy. We weren't disciplined. We just didn't really expect it. A garage band that's being asked to play a really big venue? It was a really bad thing.”
He has a point. There’s some footage of that Roadburn performance on Youtube. The band looks disjointed, as if everyone—especially Snell and McNerney—are playing their own show in their own space on their own piece of the stage. These kinds of problems are not easily fixed.
One easy fix however, was to hire a second guitarist. Most of Climax is double tracked, and Snell could not play the music by himself. The band enlisted Linnéa Olsson, formerly of The Oath, as a second guitarist and began working on Beastmilk II. The lukewarm performances didn’t deter Sony, a major label, from offering Beastmilk a deal. In the face of a major market push, Snell and McNerney's relationship imploded and took most of Beastmilk with it. The two parted ways on, by most accounts less-than-amicable terms.
Rather than keep on as Beastmilk without him, McNerney changed the name of the band to Grave Pleasures. “Johan Snell and I started Beastmilk; it was the fairest thing to do, the right thing to do,” McNerney said. Olsson took over guitar duties with Juho Vanhanen of Oranssi Pazuzu on lead guitar and Uno Bruniusson, formerly of In Solitude, on drums. To the band’s surprise, Sony decided to sign Grave Pleasures anyway.
The new band recorded their follow up, Dreamcrash in May of last year and recorded it in September of that year. It’s a downer album, one in general slower and more melodramatic than Beastmilk ever was, as a direct result of McNerney’s falling out with Snell. “I felt that if we did another record that it should have its own story and its own identity and the best thing to do was to expand on some of the more serious sides,” McNerney said. ”Dreamcrash is a bit more of a serious record, but it's also a reflection of what was going on at that time. The band kind of fell apart, so the record has a lot of autobiographical elements to it; it's about a relationship breakdown”
Its reception was not as enthusiastic as that of its predecessor, even though it presents a more-or-less direct continuation of the Climax sound, albeit with a bit more polish. McNerney isn’t surprised, even though parts of Dreamcrash date back to when Snell was still in the band. “The production is quite different on both records. So I think that kind of caught a lot of people off guard. Had we been a band that wanted to please, we would have just had a similar production,” McNerney said. “It would've been a very different record, the second Beastmilk record. So this reaction would've come no matter what. And I know that I have the demos from what we were making. And some of the songs made it on to the Grave Pleasures record. So what you're listening to really is where we were going with that second record, just with a very good drummer and two new guitarists.” He said that “New Hip Moon,” “Crisis” and “No Survival” all date back to the scrapped Beastmilk II demos, but also that Dreamcrash sounds intentionally different from its predecessor to avoid any criticism that the band was unoriginal or treading water. He also doesn’t believe that the original demos of those songs will ever be released either as an EP or as bonus content.
Grave Pleasures may still see the same popularity that Beastmilk did, only this time McNerney will have to do it the long way: touring. He’s currently on tour with Grave Pleasures, and so far he says the material is going over better live, where the band plays Beastmilk songs as well. “I think that when people see it live, they really get the two albums together. The material is written for that purpose. I have confidence in the fact that it, be hysteria over the name change and the change of the styles and stuff like that, it will blow over. I have a lot of people who turned up and said, ‘I was really skeptical about the new record. and then I saw you guys live and I loved it.’”
After that, McNerney will hit the road with Hexvessel again. So much has changed since his days with the Norwegian underground that now he sees these bands not as projects, but as part of his lifestyle, one he’s been working toward since he was just a teenager in Wimbledon in a bad death metal band and nowhere to go.