Matmos' Drew Daniel confronts a genre's questionable politics with ten idiosyncratic covers
A long look back at the history of black metal reveals a whole lot of unspeakable evil. There's rampant Nazism, homophobia, arson and a string of high profile murders, one of which famously involved Varg Vikernes, perhaps the genre's most famous practitioner. And yet, its aesthetics remain among the most influential in heavy music today. Cascading, tremolo-picked electric guitars and clattering blast-beats crop up everywhere from Phil Elverum's Mount Eerie to Deafheaven's bleary shoegaze-metal, but few of the bands who cop the genre's trappings do anything to address its questionable politics.
Drew Daniel, who's best known as one-half of the Baltimore-based experimental act Matmos, is doing his part to change that. On Why Do The Heathen Rage?, his first record in ten years under weirdo house moniker The Soft Pink Truth, Daniel takes on ten black metal classics, tying their cimmerian thematic concerns to technicolor trap beats and garish synth stabs. The record is being billed as a queer critique of black metal, but Daniel says these reimaginations seek only to highlight its latent homoeroticism (see the album's graphic cover art below). Enlisting friends from within the metal scene (Terrence Hannum of Locrian) and without (Antony), Daniel creates a dizzying hybrid of house music's aspirational euphoria and black metal's overbearing nihilism, simultaneously criticizing and celebrating the embattled genre so close to his heart. We recently caught up with Daniel to discuss his troubled relationship to black metal and the aesthetic and political goals of the new LP.
What drew you to black metal at first? Was there anything else you were listening to at the time that led you in that direction? Though arguably more of a prototype than the real thing, I would say it started with Venom. So many punk and hardcore bands were citing them, and I was already into side two of Black Flag’s My War and Black Sabbath, so it was only a matter of degrees before getting into metal and from there, black metal. The first of the classic Scandinavian bands that I heard was Burzum. My friend Kris Force’s band Amber Asylum signed to Misanthropy Records and she gave me a copy of Filosofem and I was struck immediately by how forceful and sharply defined it was. It sounded like surf music to me. I was a longboard surfer and could relate on that level.
Did you immediately find objections to the politics of those artists, as a listener? Sure. Part of the backstory surrounding that copy of Filosofem was “this guy is a Nazi and he killed his friend and burned churches.” Of course, I was aware that this amazing music was made by a repellent, fucked individual. It made all of us uncomfortable, if I can speak for the weirdo industrial noise scene in the Bay Area, which had already been through some of these ethics/aesthetics debates around Boyd Rice/NON and his fence-riding where Nazi politics were concerned. Perhaps the geographic distance made it all seem more exotic. At any rate, life in the Bay Area was supposed to be about tolerance, difference, thinking about diversity as an everyday experience, though of course there are plenty of shitty racist people everywhere. The open hatred and hostility in black metal gained power by being so shocking in contrast to the way I thought and most of my friends thought. It made it seem both more powerful and more dubious.
Did you find a way to reconcile your own views with the actions of those bands? Listening isn’t voting, but it’s not “innocent” either. I feel like I can listen to Nazi black metal bands and experience their work as music precisely because I don’t speak the languages in which they are screaming/screeching/gargling. So as for their crappy ideas and laughable ideology, it doesn’t enter my consciousness in a direct way, to be honest. But I don’t entirely, shall we say, "surrender" to the experience of listening to Peste Noire or Blazebirth Hall, because you can’t not be aware of how awful their views are, and of how much they would probably despise me as a human being. I’m not their implied listener, so there’s the feeling of sneaking into somewhere you don’t belong when you listen to this stuff.
With all that in mind, what was the first spark for making this record? How did you decide that this was a tradition you wanted to engage with? I was DJing, and I played a Darkthrone song, and noticed that the lyrics were kind of similar to Adonis’ “No Way Back." A lot of black metal songs about pacts with Satan involve the idea of irreversible, absolute decisions, and that somehow seemed to slot in my mind next to these Chicago acid tracks that involved intense, dark chant-like vocals about having “no way back” and losing control. Somehow there was an associative leap that got me thinking about black metal and dance music being in some kind of surreptitious conversation as genres. When I noticed that Fenriz [of Darkthrone] had tattoos of the Plastikman logo and the logo for the Guidance label, something clicked for me.
Even outside of the political aspect, I think fusing the aesthetics of black metal to house music is really interesting as well. Was that an aspect of the decision to make this record as well, to marry negativity and ecstasy to one another? I think there’s a formal comparison that you can make about relentless forward energy that is also a kind of stasis or produces an effect of floating. People call house monotonous and unchanging and they say the same about black metal, even though they are also both incredibly propulsive forms of music. At the level of ideas, you’ve hit the nail on the head in saying that “negativity” and “ecstasy” become indistinguishable when you are on the dancefloor or in the moshpit and feel physically overpowered by sound and surrender to something deeper that feels endless or eternal. But house goes for low-end bass and black metal goes for treble. Black metal consciously embraces war and suicide, while house is trying to elevate and lift people up. It would be foolish to press the comparison too far or ignore these obvious distinctions, yet there are dimensions in which they overlap or touch.
What motivated the choices of the songs you covered? Were sonic aspects or lyrics of the originals more important?
I needed catchy riffs and lyrics that held up to scrutiny and embodied something about the scene as a whole. Those two components were the most important criteria: things that made you bang your head and phrases that I thought would sound amazing when wrenched into a new context. These are, in my opinion, great songs, and they’re also songs that I felt had the potential to survive as transplants because of their formal power. The catchiness factor was really important to me, so some bands that I love but which rely more upon texture were left alone. Lucky them!
How did you decide to involve the collaborators on this record? Was everyone receptive to and excited by the concept?
I only asked friends that I thought would be receptive, but there’s a big leap of trust that everybody took and I’m grateful. At the end of the day, there’s not that much of a difference between Terence from Locrian trusting that his hardcore screaming will work on top of trap beats and getting Jenn from Wye Oak to sing the hardcore male porno-fantasy lyrics of “Ready to Fuck.” It’s about letting down your guard and being vulnerable in the midst of music that seems really obsessed with power. Antony was clear about not being into black metal aesthetics, but he was an incredibly good sport and channeled the energy that that spoken-word track needed.
What's most incredible to me is how catchy the whole thing ended up being, despite the high-minded idea behind it all. Were there ever points where you found the songs not quite translating as you transposed them from one style to another? That was very much my goal. I wanted to prove to a potentially skeptical listener that if you clear away the smoke and distortion and trappings, these are, at their core, incredibly catchy songs. Some of them I worked on really relentlessly. It was very hard to get the Sarcofago riffs to behave on top of 4/4 structures because their form is closer to death metal in some ways and their rhythms and guitar parts are weird—very lo-fi and technically gnarly. I probably made six different versions of that song before finding something that worked for me. The same goes for “Maniac” and “Let There Be Ebola Frost.” This wasn’t a casual thing. A lot of sweat and worry went into the programming here.
This record has been described as a queer critique of the genre. Do you think that something as messy as black metal can be reclaimed through acts like this? It might sound like I’m just trying to be cute here but I think black metal is already a deeply “queer” genre, and I’m just trying to show that. Think about it: a bunch of men with long hair wearing makeup and lipstick and velvet cloaks and lots of bracelets who wail about sorrow, the moon, and werewolf semen? That sounds already mighty queer to me. I’m just framing old information in a new, aggressive way that foregrounds what I think was always already going on.