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In Extremis

Why Black Metal Isn't Our Cup Of Tea: Celeste Interviewed
Toby Cook , December 1st, 2010 08:00

Morte(s) Nee(s) was one of the year's most bracing albums. Here, Toby Cook talks to its creator about being assaulted with chairs, fake autographs and striving to be more extreme

When is a black metal band not a black metal band?

There is, of course, a fairly obvious answer to that question. Satyricon or Dimmu Borgir, for example – both bands who, over the years, have all but abandoned their 'true black metal' roots in order to either (depending on who you believe) flex their artistic muscle or shift a few more records. But the thing about black metal - perhaps more so than in any other metal sub-genre - is that the 'true' fans will fucking crucify those bands that try and push it in to new territories. You see, if you're a black metal band you've got to corpse-paint yourself up; you've got to focus your lyrics on paganism, Satanism, antitheism, Norse mythology... that's just the way it is. It's not punk; the most black metal thing a black metal band can do is not to ignore the constraints of the genre, but to embrace them totally.

What happens, then, when a band comes along whose sound is drenched in black metal influences, their concept equally soaked in misanthropic and nihilistic imagery, yet their lyrical content deals with such topics as the constant struggles still experienced by women in modern society and paedophilia? What happens when that band professes that they don't even really like black metal?

So, when is a black metal band not a black metal band? When they're France's Celeste. Confused? The Quietus was too, until we interrupted vocalist Johan's holiday to sit down for a chat in a West London pub - and resisted the opportunity to introduce him to Fullers London Pride...

Hello Johan. I hear this is your first time in London; how are you finding it so far?

Johan: Actually, I'm only here because my girlfriend offered to take me along. I have to complain about the weather, of course, but as for London itself, I really couldn't say too much so far. We've tried to visit as many places as we can, but I guess it would have been a bit better if we'd had someone from London to show us around; we have only done the 'classics', the Tate galleries and so on. Usually when I travel with Celeste we try and see the classic spots, but also a bit of the underground side of the city, so I'd like to see more of that side of London.

So, getting straight to it, can you tell us a bit about how Celeste got together?

J: Well, we are all from Lyon and I guess we started something five years ago. The band sort of already existed, but not as Celeste, with the three other members – Guillaume, Royer and Antoine, the guitarist, drummer and bass player – and they had been playing together since high school, but never really played any shows or did anything proper. I had a previous band – Mihai Edrisch, we were a more scremo orientated band – and just before we disbanded, I met the three guys via a forum post advertising for a vocalist. As at that time I only had Mihai Edrisch, I wanted to have something else going on too; I wasn't really worried about the band splitting up or anything, I just wanted a change of scenery. So I met the guys and told them straight off that it would not be a serious project for me, but they didn't have anybody else offering to sing for them, and they sort of knew of me from my previous band, so we said "Ok, let's do it!".

A couple of years later my first band stopped and Celeste became my only band – fortunately it has become what it has become, and to be honest, I am now much more interested in what we are doing in Celeste that what I was doing with my previous band. So I feel pretty lucky.

Your most recent album Morte(s) Nee(s) has a very strong concept about the struggles that women face in society, everything from lower wages to rape and genital mutilation. That's a very heavy theme, what brought you to that subject matter?

J: It's actually pretty hard to explain how I came to the subject. From very early on, even with Mihai Edrisch – which was of a more romantic nature, falling in love and love experiences and so on – I was writing about sad topics.

So when I started with Celeste I was always writing about very nihilistic topics, although of a more general nature. I think you can actually see our albums – Pessimiste(s), Nihiliste(s) and Misanthrope(s) – as a deep fall, y'know. The titles say it all. It's pessimistic to nihilistic to misanthropic, so it's getting tougher and tougher each time. On Misanthrope(s) I had already dealt with some of the topics that I deal with on Morte(s) Nee(s), such as paedophilia, violence against women, rape, incest and so on. I really wanted to stress these topics more on Morte(s) Nee(s) though, and show not just the bad sides, but also the brighter side - the power that women have to be able to deal with these problems, but also how women sometimes are guilty of their own destruction and how men are also guilty of destroying themselves.

Although it is pretty tough and maybe harder than what I have done before, I wanted it to show more of a contrast. There are also some good things in it. I never remember the titles of my songs, but the sixth song ['Un Miroir Pur Qui Te Rend Miserable'] is really optimistic; in the beginning it deals with early childhood and how young children can be a mirror to you. When you see young children they are usually smiling and it talks about trying to reach for your past life, how easy it was and how innocent children are and how innocent you should still be, but will never be. And then it becomes much, much darker; how men can break childhoods and how women also can also destroy innocence by their failures.

So in contrast to the previous albums, there is a hint of positivity in Morte(s) Nee(s)?

J: Well, yes, but positivity is a good way to get even darker, y'know? You can make the things brighter, and then much darker; that is sort of the point. If you are always pessimistic, finally you look either stupid or nobody gets your point. So it's a really good way to get some contrast, and at the end, go even more extreme.

Even more so, it's a very controversial topic for a band with black metal leanings...

J: Actually, can I just say: I don't really have a clue about black metal, to be honest. I don't listen to it at all, really; only our guitarist listens to a bit of black metal. What's funny is that some people told us that we had a black metal influence before any of us had listened to any of it, at all! I actually think that is what drove Guillaume to listen to some, and now he is quite fond of it. He bought some CDs and told me that I had to listen to some, so I know little bits now, but it's really not my cup of tea. First of all, I really don't like the production. To me it's total crap. Something like Darkthrone, I don't know if it is their point, but I really don't like it.

Even though you're not a big fan of black metal, there is, as you've said, a black metal influence in your music and one thing about black metal is that it can be quite hypnotic and almost hypnagogic, just through the sort of wall of noise that is creates . Is that angle something you have purposely explored with Celeste?

J: I understand what you mean, but it really wasn't on purpose. To be honest, as a band, our first goal has always been to make the heaviest music ever; it sounds pretty stupid, I know, and sometimes we are like kids with candy – at rehearsals we are always trying to make it heavier, heavier, heavier. Of course there are parts with more 'feeling', slower parts, and although there is always the heaviness coming from somewhere, to us there is a contrast in our music. However, when we started to get better known, we saw that a lot of the feedback we were getting was: "Celeste are always doing the same thing. Same song, always the same sound, always the same tricks..." and so on. At the beginning I was pretty upset about that because when you work a lot on your music and you really understand all the details behind what you are trying to do, you really think that people aren't getting what you are trying to do. But on the other hand I think it's quiet interesting, and maybe it's why people thought we had the black metal influence – the relentless aspect of the some of the songs – because I think that this feedback was what made us stress this side of our music more; maybe that is why Morte(s) Nee(s) is seen as being more black metal orientated, with the songs being of similar speed and very relentless. But I don't really know, it is very hard know how your music is seen by other people.

I've heard a story about a guy coming up to you at a gig and asking you to sign a CD by a completely different band, is that true?

J: [Laughing] Yeah, that happened; it has happened twice actually. They were both on the same tour too, in Russia and central Europe, with Reka. So, one guy came up to me at the end of the show – it's probably not that funny actually – but he asked me to sign a CD of my old band [Mihai Edrisch] and I asked him: "Why don't you want me to sign a Celeste CD?" and he said that it was too expensive. And the second time it happened was a guy that came up to me and asked me to sign a CD by Reka, the band we were touring with, and he just didn't get that we weren't them. He saw the two bands play, but we both play mostly in the dark, and he just didn't know which band was which.

But you still signed it?

J: Yes! I told him, but he was like: "Oh, I don't really give a shit, just sign it". But in the same way, sometimes at the finish of a show, some people would think that Reka were Celeste and the same would happen to them, so that was sort of embarrassing.

I hear that you've also had a chair thrown at you whist on stage – care to explain that one too? Was that also in Russia?

J: No, no, that was in France in Rouen, just north of Paris. I could really say a lot of shit about this show because I really didn't like it – even though a friend of mine was one of the promoters. It was a very metal orientated festival, and this is maybe a bit of a harsh thing to say, but it wasn't metal from the city, more like metal from the village; just a lot of weird country people. I hope that they will never read this because a lot of people from Rouen want to kill me already... So anyway, we'd finally gotten on stage after having to sit through all these really bad metal bands – and when we came on stage we were all really drunk too, because that's what we used to do – but we came on to do a line check and it was shitty as hell. So I said to the sound guy "Look, please try to do better... or find me a better sound guy", because I knew that there was a better sound guy in the audience because I'd seen him working for another band who sounded quite good. I understand why the guy didn't like that, but the crowd just burst and when a bit mental, and started to get quite violent...

Oh, so they heard your exchange with the sound engineer?

J: Oh yes. And they also heard us complaining about these large lights at the side of the stage, showing up banners with the name of the festival on; we were a bit annoyed because we like to play in total darkness. So I said to the promoters "Look guys, can you please turn these off too", and then the crowd were whistling and shouting things like "Oh, look at you, acting like stars, go back home dickheads" and so on. But when people are like that with me, well, I like provocation, so I did my best to make them hate me.

Actually, I was about to leave the stage altogether. I just thought 'Fuck them! Even if we had to drive 600km to get here and we have to do 600km back, if they don't want to listen to us, then fuck them.' And then there were people in the front saying "Oh guys, look, we just came for you, we don't like the festival, we just wanted to see Celeste. We thought you were good guys, but really you are dickheads." It was funny really, and I don't really care what they say about me to be honest.

Anyway, in the end we decided to play, but people were throwing beer at us for the whole set, and between songs I was telling them to fuck off, and provoking them even more, and telling them "I'm waiting for all of you at the end of the show, I'm going to kick your arse's" and that kind of stuff. And so eventually, whilst we were playing and I was at the back of the stage screaming in front of the drummer, this guy came on stage waving a chair about, and as he is about to hit me in the back with it someone else from the audience jumped on him and stopped him.

But, y'know, I admit that we were dickheads, and drunk, and that I like provocation, so I can't complain too much... it makes me smile and they're good stories to tell to my children.

Morte(s) Nee(s) is available now via Denovali records, and can also be downloaded free and legally, along with the rest of their back catalogue, here.

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