Interview: The Birth of a New Xasthur
Although Scott Conner probably will answer to Malefic, he prefers being called Scott these days. That’s not surprising given the complete transformation he has made in the past few years.
The famously introverted black metal pioneer recorded a slew of albums and EPs under the Xasthur moniker throughout the first decade of the millennia. Although the project came to define the burgeoning “one-man black metal band,” the depressive music blurred the atmospheric parameters of black metal with drone, haunting psych rock, and proto-blackgaze dissonance.
And then, he stopped.
Dissatisfied with black metal, he turned to an acoustic guitar and under the name Nocturnal Poisoning released Doomgrass in 2014 which ushered in an eponymous new genre. Although the Panopticon has been incorporating indigenous American folk music into ambient folk metal, Conner abandoned metal completely and didn’t seem to miss it.
As if this wasn’t enough of a change, the notoriously misanthropic Conner -- who in 2006 stated in Pitchfork, “I will always keep Xasthur a band that will not play live. I don't work well with others for too long, if at all” -- rounded up musicians to complete a revived Xasthur. He made touring a priority including a month this past summer with St. Vitus/Obsessed frontman Wino that took him across the country. Later on, he will be playing the Prophecy Fest US in Brooklyn and the Southern Lord Power of the Riff fest in Los Angeles.
He even consents to telephone interviews now – in the past, he would only talk to the media through e-mail. From his Alhambra, California home, Conner elaborated on all of the changes both musical and personal, and where Xasthur goes from here.
You've been on a great many labels. What attracted you to Prophecy Productions for this rebirth of Xasthur?
With Prophecy, they got a hold of my booking agent one day. He told me about it, they called me up. Usually I just go with what comes my way with labels. That's just kind of what came my way.
Do you feel any kinship with the other artists on the label or was it as simple as they asked?
I’m familiar with the artists that they have. I like the idea of the style of bands they are going for. I like Alcest quite a bit; even though I'm not an expert on their music or anything like that, from what I know I like Alcest a lot. I think I had something to do with me going for the deal with Prophecy.
At first it seemed like you were happy to be done with Xasthur and you released music as Nocturnal Poisoning. What prompted you to bring back Xasthur?
I made a mistake. I've made a lot of ‘em, and one of the mistakes was changing the name. I never really needed to change the name. I thought I did. My goal was to play live and tour and doing that with the name Nocturnal Poisoning just wasn't going to happen. So I changed the name back to Xasthur and now I've been able to tour a few times.
You also changed Xasthur. The project was famously just you whereas now you expanded Xasthur by adding Christopher Hernandez and Rachel Roomian. Is Xasthur a band of three members or is it still Scott and these guys help you?
It’s both, I think, somehow. Playing live, depending on who it is, I don't think one person is enough. I prefer 22 strings instead of four or six or whatever. If it's going to be a live thing I think more picking instrumentation needs to be happening. It needs to be [fuller] and that's why I prefer playing with other people. It needs singing, it needs lyrics, you know what I mean?
For now there are three people but in another way it is still like a one-person band because I take it upon myself to just write everything. That's like the least I can do, because I’m not a singer. So it's both.
How did you actually meet Chris and Rachel and realize that they were going to be good fits for what you wanted to do?
It started with Chris at least a few years ago. He was making videos of songs that I had, making videos of him playing them. He had maybe a dozen of them down on his own. When he was able to learn everything on his own, on his own time and learn it correctly, I was like, let's do this, let's start playing. If you could learn a dozen, you could learn a hundred of them.
Then after that we played a few shows and we met Rachel at a festival in Washington. We just hung out with her. She plays a lot of instruments, you know. She played bass – that was kind of her main instrument and she is actually really good at it but I didn't know she wanted to do it or not. I wanted to ask her. I made some kind of like bassist wanted add and she was like the only person that replied to it, days after we saw her play bass while we were hanging out with her.
Sounds like it was meant to be!
I guess so, yeah! After many, many years people finally fell into place.
Was that always something that interested you? Xasthur was famously one of the leading one-man black metal groups but even then did you have ideas about expanding the project?
No, not really. When I was doing the black metal stuff, at that time I was getting so much results from doing it on my own that I just did it automatically on my own without wanting to start a band. I never had any plan to play live with it; I just didn't think it was possible. So instead I would just go ahead and record more stuff. I was getting results on my own. I didn't think it could be recreated live anyway.
Then I just completely changed everything. Many things needed to change. Now playing live is a change that needed to be made.
In the space of just a few years you went from one person playing black metal and saying you would never tour or even do shows. Now you are playing a different style, playing with other musicians and touring is a priority for you. Was this something you were always working towards or do you think that the Scott of a few years ago would be blown away if he could see you now?
I think he would be blown away. I think the Scott of ten years ago would probably be blown away a lot more.
I wanted to change for real. You know, a lot of people who say they changed don't really change or they don’t change that much. If you want to change, you have to go to pretty great lengths and change for real. That’s why I am doing what I am doing.
Usually change is brought about because of some kind of impetus behind it. In a lot of cases it's dissatisfaction. Were you dissatisfied with a lot of things musically or personally?
Yeah. When I was doing black stuff, I felt like I was never really saying what I wanted to say with it. I'm not really sure what I was saying with it really, most of the time. I was really kind of forcing just a few ideas only with it and I was getting really tired of that. I wanted to do more than that and I found a way to do more than that.
It just hit me one day, how to play better, tighter, and clearer, finding many new chords and scales and tunings. The picking improved right away and I finally felt like I was doing something different instead of doing the same thing over and over again.
What attracted you to bluegrass and indigenous American folk music? Was that always something you’ve always liked or did you recently discover it?
I grew up around acoustic guitar playing music. I learned A through G chords when I was a kid. Years later I rediscovered all that when black metal wasn't working anymore. Then after that I did get a little bit tired of the A through G chords. I started by changing them and making my own chords around them and in between them.
When I rediscovered acoustic guitar playing, I really wanted to learn whether it was bluegrass or not. I wanted to learn to do that style in my own way, do that style wrong as well. I discovered Doc Watson, Tony Rice and I was watching these people play all the time. I would get ideas off of that and then do it wrong in my own way, doing something completely different with it.
There’s a niche group of devotees for bluegrass and folk music. Have you ever heard feedback from followers of that scene about what you are doing?
Not really any that I can recall. That's a great question and that's something I think about a lot. Finding an audience like that, I think what I'm doing would really stand out like sore thumb in a different kind of way. If it was us doing blues and jazz and outlaw country festivals and bluegrass festivals, all that shit, I think what I'm doing would be very strange mixed in with that kind of music. It would stand out.
But what's been happening all the time is that something that isn’t metal anymore is constantly being pitched and sold to metal audiences and publications over and over again. It's being sold to them and it's not metal. They’re trying to sell something that isn’t metal to metal people. I'm not trying to do it, but it’s pitched to metal [audiences] and I don't think it is working. It's not standing out. It should stand out because it is different than that, but it's not what metal people want to be sold.
I think it would be better to play other kinds of festivals that aren't linked to metal in any kind of way. I'd be at least curious to see what would happen if folk and blues magazines and press – I do wonder what they’d think of it. They would probably not know what to think of it, but that would probably be good. It's better than a metal audience not knowing what to think of it.
I always thought metalheads were exceedingly open-minded about music, even if it is more publicized that we’re less open with regard to metallic culture.
I agree with that. I can't give enough credit to metal people for trying to be open-minded about it. They really, really try. Whether it sticks or it's working, I don't really know. But at all the shows I do, I'm sure that at least 75% of the people that show up, they're into metal or familiar with the music because of it being connected to metal at one time and they're connected to metal. They really do try their best to be open-minded about it. I give them a lot of credit for that. I appreciate it.
But whether it's working, I don't know. I'm not able to judge what kind of effect I'm having on people very well. I wouldn't be the best person to ask. I’m kind of cynical about it; I just assume the worst a lot. I assume that a lot of people don't like what I'm doing.
I’d bet that some people do get bummed out when they see a Xasthur show coming to town that’s acoustic and not black metal at all.
The tour that just ended in late August, I noticed that at a lot of the shows, a lot of the people knew what to expect. I thought that was really cool. There were two other tours and I felt like I was giving a disclaimer every time. At every show I played, I felt like I had to tell anybody I could, “Hey, I'm just going to warn you that it’s not metal.” But this time I didn't really have to warn anybody. People knew what they were going to get and they were there anyway. I thought that was really cool. That was encouraging.
Doing the black metal thing again, it's just like… I wouldn’t be able to do it if I wanted to. I don't have all that black metal equipment anymore. I don't have room for drums anymore. My life is different now, not just inside of me mentally. I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to do anymore.
Would you say you’re happier now?
No, I'm not really happier, but I do enjoy what I'm doing a lot more. I think that's what it is. I really do like what I'm doing much more. I'm getting a lot more musical ideas and riffs and chords and better lyrical concepts. It's kept me busy and it’s kept me interested.
Overall I can't say that my life has gotten better at all. I'm sure like a lot of people have stereotypes about acoustic music and what I'm trying to do is break all of that. A lot of people think if you play that kind of shit, you’re happy. They think it is “happy people music” and it's not. Lyrically and also musically it's not very happy music at all. I'm just reflecting that in different kinds of ways.
In the 2012 Noisey One Man Metal documentary you famously said of Xasthur lyrics, “you might wanna look into dying and killing yourself. You might wanna look into that.” Is the revived Xasthur just as nihilistic?
I refused to watch it, that’s just the way I am.
[The lyrics] are influential in a negative and positive way today. I’m not giving hints or suggesting anybody kill themselves. That's another idea that's changed a lot, but the idea is to relate, look around, take a look at yourself and change yourself, change where you are, and change what you see if you don’t like it. If the lyrics and the songs are hitting home too hard or making or making you sick, be aware. it's just awareness. I write about what aware of. I write about what I see around me and what I’ve been through. If anybody else has seen that too or been through that and wants to do something about it, then that’s on them.
It sounds like you took a lot of your own advice then in the last couple of years.
Yeah. I think so.
You released the Aestas Pretium MMXVIII EP to tie in with the Wino tour. You’re doing the Prophecy Fest in Brooklyn. What are the plans for the next album?
Actually I don't really know when the new album is going to [come out] anymore. We’re supposed to be recording it right now, but it's just got way too expensive. I can't really afford to pay to play. So I don't know anymore. After the Prophecy Fest there’s the Southern Lord Power of the Riff Fest. And after that I have no idea.
Are there logistics in play as well that is complicating the recording process?
Yeah. The logistical thing has made it a little bit hard because everybody lives like 60 to 450 miles apart from each other. So that makes things a little bit harder, planning the time doing something about the distance.
When I used to record at home, I’d be done with a song before anybody could even drive over! But that’s changed. Things have changed a lot now. I am not really into recording that much because I’ve done that hundreds of times. I’m into playing live. That’s what I focus on the most. Albums don’t mean shit to people anymore.
Has all of the touring impacting how you write? When you first started making music that was not something you could draw on.
That’s just something that I've really wanted to do for the past eight years and I just started doing it a couple of years ago. I'm used to traveling anyway. Even before I started touring it's just something I've always done and been into and gotten used to so I don't have any problem with it. I enjoyed playing the shows with Six Organs [of Admittance] and Wino a lot. After a while you get more comfortable doing it. Some nights we would all just jam together onstage and offstage.
I want to keep on doing it. I don't want to do one tour; I want to do like three in a row, like everybody else gets to do. It makes you a better musician; it makes you more comfortable doing what you're supposed to be doing.
In the past you were accused of being misanthropic. Would you say that still is a good description of you?
Well, I'm probably just misanthropic by default. People will always make me that way. It's not something that I need to attach to my name anymore or deliberately try to be. It is and it isn’t who I am. It’s not all that I am. It’s a part but it’s not something I focus on or dwell on. Now it’s a different side. It's a more honest side; it's a more explicit side. It’s still dark though.
Support Invisible Oranges on Patreon.