One thing I remember about living in Chicago: in June, when summer starts settling in, the lightning storms start. They are ominous and beautiful; the electricity scratches across and down the sky, and vanishes — just like that.
Lightning is a natural source of a thousand different metaphors. How could it be otherwise? Just as light creates the world, lightning cuts back right through it. Light above light. Like constellations instantaneously formed in our atmosphere, lightning tells stories of all that we know about our lacerated selves, and, at the close of the instant, everything that remains unknown, a vast sky.
In June of 2011, in Chicago, under this sky, in this atmosphere, Locrian (André Foisy, Terence Hannum, Steven Hess) and Mamiffer (Aaron Turner, Faith Coloccia, Alex Barnett, Brian Cook) came together in the studio to create Bless Them That Curse You, a collaboration album due March 6 on Profound Lore. Cut through, together, they made an exposed and complex and, yes, awesome thing — an album surely be one of this year’s best. We spent the last week e-mailing each other about it. Here is the conversation that we had.
May I ask, just by way of an introduction, how Locrian and Mamiffer came to work together?
FC: Aaron and I had been listening to Locrian for about 2 years, and Aaron and André had been trading records. I was really into listening to Locrian’s “Rain of Ashes” for about 5 months of dismal fall and winter. I brought up the idea of collaborating or playing shows with Locrian to Aaron and he asked André, and Locrian was also into the idea. And so we went from there.
AF: Yeah, I had been listening to that Mamiffer album for a while. Aaron sent me Mamiffer’s “Hirror Ennifrer” album a while ago along with some other stuff. Out of all of the stuff that he sent me, that was the album that I ended up feeling most connected with and the album that I just sort of ended up playing over and over again. The Utech Records Festival last year brought Mamiffer and House of Low Culture to the Midwest. We kicked around the idea of playing some shows and/or doing a bit of recording a few months before the fest and everything kind of spiraled from there. Aaron and I discussed how we would record and we decided that we really wanted to record with Greg Norman at Electrical Audio. After that we decided to let some labels know about our collaboration, and we were really fortunate to have some labels that helped us make this happen.
Were you in Seattle, then, Faith? I remember that winter. It was my first winter in the Pacific Northwest. Dismal is the word.
FC: Yes, I was. Aaron and I had just moved to Vashon that year and were sort of in the middle of nowhere, no people and no sun. It was pretty gloomy.
Why Greg Norman and Electrical Audio?
AF: We’ve recorded at a lot of studios in Chicago and with a lot of different engineers. We (Locrian) didn’t really consider recording at Electrical since we expected it to cost so much. One of Aaron and Faith’s Chicago friends suggested Greg for the project and he did a great job. I was a bit afraid of working with him since there aren’t many engineers that I trust around Chicago and the one guy that we really trust, Jeremy Lemos, was booked or out of town.
The feeling of the voice, in some instances, is valued over knowing the content.
TH: I think Electrical had so many perks and it kind of made sense. They had a Mellotron that I wanted to use real bad and get all King Crimson. But Greg was such a good person who was supportive and understood the direction we were all going. He plays horns on “In Fulminic Blaze” too.
FC: Greg is so great to work with. Someone suggested him and Electrical and as part of the experiment, and we went with the idea. Electrical was a great place to use as sort of a blank canvass to get to know everyone. Nothing is wrong with the setup, and everything runs really well there, so we were able to focus on experimenting and music. But the Mellotron was definitely an important part of our decision.
About recording: I’ve found — several times — that even collaborating with my fellow bandmates can be … difficult. And while Locrian and Mamiffer share some aesthetic sensibilities (some that make this collaboration seem incredibly natural from the outset), there are some obvious differences between the bands. Were these differences already breached by the time the bands were recording in the studio? Was the studio a site for exploration or reconciliation? And did the bands encounter any surprises while working together?
AF: Terence and I have been performing as Locrian for a long time and in that time, we’ve really learned how to work intuitively and to improvise much better than we were capable of when we first started playing. I think that skill is reflected in this recording and I think that Mamiffer has a similar skill through their own unique style. I feel like our two groups were so busy working on all the little things that needed to happen for the recording to happen, we didn’t have much time to think about breaching the differences for our groups. So it just happened. Our two groups met in person on the morning that we wrote and recorded the last track on the album.
TH: I would agree it was a lot of logistics and very little forethought. I don’t think we doubted it would work out. I had a lot of faith in Faith and Aaron from respecting their work.
AF: I feel like we used the studio for exploration. We didn’t know what was really going to happen, but we just worked really intuitively. Surprises? I’m not really sure if we encountered surprises. It definitely would have been easier if we would have been able to finish the entire thing in person, since Mamiffer finished up the mixing on the West Coast and we finished up the mastering in Chicago. Those were pretty minor obstacles considering what we created. And I think it also worked really well since we had fun. Well, at least I had fun when we were making it.
FC: I had belief that everything would work out, it seems like we all have good intuition when it comes to collaborating, feeling, and improvisation. This has been a great working experience for us. I feel like my communication skills have improved as a result. It was great to have 2 days to be free in the studio. There were a lot of instruments there that we don’t normally have access to, and we had never met in person before. The whole thing was one large experiment.
I love looking at peoples’ notes almost as much as I love making my own. Would you tell me about these notes? Why lightning?
FC: These are images from Greg Norman’s studio book, that he leaves out for bands to write notes in, and he keeps them.
TH: Faith and I had a few conversations about weather, and we shared tons of images by artists like Jack Goldstein and others, just people who used this awesome imagery in their work. My notes are mainly lyrics and shifts in tone. I think Faith did a lot of sketches. I think Aaron would like map out songs since we had lots of parts and parts within parts so we had to keep our heads about where things went.
FC: Terence and I were talking about the after-effects of lightning strikes such as “skin feathering”: like what happens when a person gets hit by lightning. It looks like many other things we were both interested in. The lightning connection was like a continuous creative thread, relating to alchemy, and to electricity in the womb and the fern patterns inherent in creative human fluids. We kept some notes about these things along with notes on trying to keep all the songs in some kind of order. I think its a great part of the process and I have always been interested in other peoples notes, seeing their thought maps on how they arrived at conclusions. You can see some of the topics of conversations that were going on in the studio through the words and images. The chart-looking things are how Mamiffer usually draws out song structure narratives.
Bless Them That Curse You. Would you mind talking about the title of your album?
TH: Faith suggested it and I thought it really was evocative and a bit confrontational. It is a great binary, it folds in on itself. Obviously it could go toward the gospels but I think it also draws a line in the sand a bit like an expectation about the collaboration or even its content. Again, to me it fit in this nice provocative way.
“In Fulminic Blaze,” “Corpus Luteum,” “Second Burial,” “Lechatelierite,” “Metis/Amaranthine/The Emperor.” These are evocative and mysterious song titles. And I see how some of them work into themes already mentioned: alchemy, the womb, lightning. Others remain more opaque. Would you mind talking about some of them?
FC: Many of the titles represent something during, before, or right after its altered state. Also represented is ritual, of the body and of spirit, divination and change. For example: In the tarot the Emperor is always looking over his shoulder, for he knows his power and existence is reliant upon female creative empowerment. Such as Corpus Luteum, the yellow body. The fertile fluid surrounding the potential of new being (the egg in ovulation). Lechatelierite: is formed when lightning meets the earth. Evidence of sky and earth “mating,” the result is very beautiful, as lightning melts sand, changing its physical properties, much like a body buried in the womb of the earth.
TH: “In Fulminic Blaze” to me fit this vision of a world conjured out of nothing and illuminated only by lightning. I think the common thread is this conflict between man and nature, in a way. Expiration and eternity.
The voice seems to play a minimal, if buried, role in Bless Them That Curse You. It seems noticeably absent (or at least unintelligible) until the final song. I’m interested why that is. What is being said?
FC: The lyrics are included in the layout for the recording. Most of the lyrics have to do with conversion of states, physical and emotional, past and present. I had already pre-written the lyrics for the last song on the record before coming into the studio, and did not have any others prepared. Aaron wrote his lyrics in the studio. Most of Terence’s lyrics are obscured through feedback and sound manipulation, and the feeling of his lyrics is abstracted emotion. The feeling of the voice, in some instances, is valued over knowing the content.
TH: Well I sing on a few of them but I prefer my vocals buried, and I ran most of them through amps and effects rather than into nice mics. So on “In Fulminic Blaze” I just kind of distanced the screams through out the track, trying to make it sound bigger but somehow further away. Like a storm. Or something you’d hear during a storm. I put a lot of whispering and just exhalation in the backgrounds of a few tracks; I was listening to a lot of Goblin soundtracks. My vocals are way contorted for my part of “Metis/Amaranthine/The Emperor.” I wanted it to sound more like an instrument than a voice telling you something specific. Kind of counter intuitive because I actually had lyrics. But it is a nice contrast to Faith’s singing and Aaron’s scream. So there’s a lot of color to the vocal palette on the record.
On, perhaps, a more personal note, because I’m infinitely curious about this, how does geography figure into or shape your songwriting? Between all of you, it’s even more personal. I’ve lived in Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southwest, and I can’t help but wonder, respectively, what do, or did, you take from it?
TH: I don’t know how much this record actually was influenced by a real landscape for me, I think through our conversations during the recording I really imagined more of a fictional, though scientific, landscape where weather reigns but is called and divinated by people or powers or maybe something went wrong environmentally. So, I don’t live in the midwest now I live in Baltimore and in about a week or two weeks’ span I was in an earthquake and a hurricane after moving here. That was really interesting.
AT: Where I’m living at any given time certainly affects my overall frame of mind and my emotional state, and those factors definitely affect the music I make. It’s not a specific type of environment that equates with specific type of music or musical atmosphere, but how that environment in the context of my life affects me as a person. Living in LA proved to be ultimately detrimental for me as the city itself was suffocating — I have never felt more self-conscious or lonely than I did when living in LA, and my creative life suffered as a result. This had something to do with the state of my personal life at the time, but also with the place itself. When I lived in Boston the energy of that city and my experiences in it provided a charge for me overall that in turn further fueled my creative energies. Now my time in cities is over, at least for the moment. The fact that I’m living in a rural area where I don’t feel hemmed in, under the constant scrutiny of others, distracted by the chaos around me, opens up my mental space and allows my thought processes and feelings to flow more freely.
I live in Baltimore and in about a week or two weeks’ span I was in an earthquake and a hurricane after moving here. That was really interesting.
SH: I have to agree with Aaron a bit on this question. Not personally — that would be impossible — but more with where I’m living, have lived, or possibly will be living. This definitely affects my mental and emotional state of mind and, quite possibly, stability. Having lived in all the regions you mentioned, I’ve gone through many different mindsets and ways of thinking, both positive and negative, which in turn have always affected my creativity one way or another. I have been in Chicago now for 12 years. It’s safe to say living here has positively affected my musical creativity. There a feeling of being “landlocked” here, and also isolation, though your surrounded by millions, and those feeling can get to certain folks in different ways: you can either feed off it, or have it feed on you, and I prefer the former. With that being said, I feel like I’m ready for a change again, and a move from the city, or a least a city this large, would be a good thing for me in the near future, and I think it would bring more positive creativity along with it.
AF: I’ll agree with Aaron that my environment really affects my overall state of mind and emotional state. I’ve lived in Chicago for a while and I love a lot of things about this place. It’s great to be a musician here and I’m really lucky to have a bunch of decent studios near me. This weekend, I had to go to the other side of my neighborhood to master material from some upcoming releases. It’s great to be able to do stuff like that since I know that going into a professional mastering studio is not something that most musicians can do. In terms of the environment here, it’s really flat here. I grew up in the mountains so that bothered me at first. Now, the flatness doesn’t bother me, but I do get bothered that Chicago is so devoid of any wild environment. You can drive for over an hour from the city and you can still be in a Chicago suburb. That’s suffocating for me. Even the suburbs for New York City don’t go on for so long.
On a different note, I’m reluctant to suggest that there were ever significant divisions between metal and other segments of independent music culture. But the relationship between them, today, seems unique. On the one hand, it seems as though the appropriation of metal is often cynical, or even mocking — or at least more so than it ever was. On the other hand, it seems as though a certain aesthetic of darkness is being used for honest exploration and critique. Is there something unique about appropriation today? Is there something unsettling about it? And how does a dark aesthetic function, for you, as exploration or critique?
AF: Both. This album was an exploration entirely. As far as my other music goes, you have to experience the work to find out how it’s critique.
FC: For Mamiffer it seems to be an exploration — the word “darkness” would be a blanket statement for many things we are thinking about while creating. I don’t think it is as simple as that one word. As an aesthetic for the artwork that comes with the recordings, I see this darkness as a simple and unifying visual theme. A lot of the music is complex and full of layers and textures, so it’s a relief if the artwork accompanying the record is more neutral in comparison.
AF: I agree that there’s something about some musicians who use the idea of heavy metal as some sort of kitsch thing and I can see that as mocking. People and musicians have been referencing heavy metal in their non-metal forms of music and in their style for a long time. To me that’s nothing new. Today I also notice more and more musicians who play some form of fairly typical heavy music trying to reference non-heavy music in their own music in order to sound unique or special. I could give examples, but I’d prefer not to since even these musicians are making something that’s important to them, but not me.
I’m not sure what’s unique about the heavy music being made today. There are certainly some musicians who I would consider to be contemporaries of Locrian that are doing something unique with heavy music and I find that to be interesting. I don’t find most heavy music to be very interesting though. Boundaries are confusing and dangerous. You can look at cultural boundaries like food taboos or musical boundaries-boundaries between genres. I would consider Mamiffer to be the contemporaries of Locrian, and I definitely think that Mamiffer’s music can be unsettling and difficult to place in any genre and for that reason it might be confusing and challenging for some people. I’m sure that Aaron’s non-Isis related music is challenging for a lot of fans of Isis specifically because so much of this music is difficult to categorize and it’s difficult to listen to his work in House of Low Culture, for instance, and jam out to it. Why would a collaboration between Locrian and Mamiffer work even though our music is very different? Probably because neither of our groups really care about sounding ‘metal’ or whatever.
I used to get a really special feeling when I would listen to ‘metal’ music, but I rarely get that anymore and I think part of the reason I don’t feel anything from most musicians working in this style is because it’s dominated by people who want to listen to really safe music without any real message or statement, or at least not a very thought-provoking message. These people are afraid of being vulnerable. To me, this album is so strong and unsettling because our groups were comfortable with being vulnerable. I feel like our music is dark because that feeling is honest for us.
In the tarot the Emperor is always looking over his shoulder, for he knows his power and existence is reliant upon female creative empowerment.
AT: This is a hard question to answer as it could be a deep discussion in and of itself. I think André’s answer covers lot of the important points. But I would also add this: a lot of different musicians and artists outside the realm of metal have wanted to co-opt the visceral power it possesses, but from a safe distance where accusations of baseness or pomposity, [which] are often leveled at metal bands, can be easily deflected… I also like what André said about the “special feeling” associated with a lot of metal music — this is what drew me to it as well… The vulnerable feelings presented in it along side the more overtly apparent anger and rage said something real about the experience of being a conscious human. James Hetfield singing about his parents being assholes and shredding his innocence in “Dyers Eve” was a really powerful thing for me as a kid, though I may have only understood it intuitively then. But the feeling there, the willingness to express pain and confusion through music was really compelling to me and still is. A lot of metal now seems to focus solely on the macho element in it — being tough, being “cold and grim,” being evil, and maybe that’s where a lot of it falls short. Expressing feelings of vulnerability is far more strong and courageous than lyric-sheet fantasies about killing and the glory of imagined battle.
It’s interesting to me that you see your projects as ways of expressing vulnerability. On a personal note, one reason I am drawn to Locrian and Mamiffer, and to your contemporaries, is because listening to your albums leaves me exposed, vulnerable. It’s tiring, to be honest. And I agree with you, Faith. “Dark” is a limiting word. It’s loaded and simplistic. But it’s the first word I think of… When I think and feel through the work that both bands have done, individually and collaboratively, I arrive at irresolute (and precarious) thoughts and feelings. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Rather, I think your bands have built up one of the remaining aesthetic sites of honesty.
FC: I am definitely drawn to things in the dark, thats some of the best territory for me to start and work with as an inspirational ground. Undermining the belief that “we know it all” is so great. ‘Not knowing’ motivates me as an artist and in Mamiffer, which largely entails looking into the darkest parts of myself and my partner. There is very fertile ground in the curiosity and humble honesty of exploring that which is usually unseen, unknown or unconscious, and often cannot be pinned down by facts. Our interest in this darkness isn’t so much a premeditated aesthetic choice in our presentation or content, or even in sounds, but in a kind of clear substrate of possibilities; like cleaning before a ritual, a plowed field, or the womb.
[Photo: Rik Garrett]