Beyond the Darkness: An Interview With Wolves in the Throne Room
, September 28th, 2011 09:43
In advance of their UK tour and appearance at Supersonic Festival, Brad Sanders chats to Wolves In The Throne Room in depth about their glorious new album Celestial Lineage and black metal aesthetics
For as long as there’s been black metal, there have been black metal personalities. Ideologues, iconoclasts, eccentrics, and misanthropes have heavily populated the subgenre’s key bands since its inception, and have arguably been responsible for propelling it to its present creative apex. As the genre has progressed and grown, so too have its icons. The relatively one-dimensional, scene-oriented radicalism of early Norwegian figures like Mayhem’s Dead and Euronymous has been largely replaced with more complex philosophies ranging from aesthetic transcendentalism (Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix) to primeval Satanism (Watain’s Erik Danielsson) to the sort of ecological spiritualism endorsed by Wolves in the Throne Room’s Nathan and Aaron Weaver.
Crucial as the members’ beliefs are to the Wolves in the Throne Room aesthetic, the Washington act would doubtlessly be relegated to obscurity in a crowded atmospheric black metal scene were it not for their continual sonic excellence. 2006’s now-out-of-print debut LP Diadem of 12 Stars introduced the world to the band’s expansive, otherworldly sound, while subsequent releases Two Hunters and Black Cascade began a trilogy completed by new album Celestial Lineage. The album may stand as the most essential entry yet in an already astounding oeuvre. The genre’s boundaries have all been torn down, and it stands as one of the most playful, enthralling black metal albums of the last ten years.
Drummer and synth man Aaron Weaver is perhaps the spiritual center of Wolves in the Throne Room. His role as principal songwriter, embrace of the band’s ethics, and willingness to talk at length about both has cast him as the group’s mouthpiece – and given how articulate he is, that's a damn good thing. Like so many of today’s best black metal musicians, he’s reverent and knowledgeable about his genre’s history while careful to distance himself from its ugly bits. He spoke to us for the better part of an hour about Celestial Lineage, black metal aesthetics, and the never-ending Liturgy debate.
You’ve said that Celestial Lineage completes a trilogy with Black Cascade and Two Hunters. What exactly unites them as a trilogy?
It’s kind of a thematic trilogy, so there’s a progression between all of the three records. So Two Hunters, to us, was intended as a mythic prehistory of sorts. It feels very archetypal. It’s like this archetypal black metal document, [that's] how we viewed it. The lyrical themes and the things we were thinking about while we were writing it and recording it had very much to do with the past, something that was lost and hidden, something that was so inaccessible to us. And then Black Cascade was a bit of a next step. We had gotten older and our farm was up and running and we were feeling solid in our lives, and I think the vibe of the record was a lot more solid. We were making connections with things, making connections with the Northwest and making connections with the music that we wanted to play and manifest.
Celestial Lineage is looking toward the future in a lot of ways. It’s definitely the most fully realized thing we’ve done. It’s the only record that I’m completely happy with. To me, it’s got a very astral vibe and energy to it. Two Hunters and Black Cascade are very Earth-oriented. The things we had in mind were the moss, the roots and the trees, and the animals that live around here, and the weather and the natural forces that human beings encounter in the Northwest. Celestial Lineage is more of a sky-gazing energy. It’s more about the stars and the moon, and the very different mindset that you have when you orient your attention upwards towards the heavens rather than downward towards the bowels of the Earth.
That’s obviously thematic and ties in with the philosophy of the record, but it also feels to me that in there's a wider range of influences in the music itself – there’s stuff that’s alien to the Wolves in the Throne Room sound as we’ve known it prior to this record. Was that also part of that natural progression?
Yeah, I think it’s a matter of when we first started out we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to do. We wanted to create music that was inspired by black metal - clearly on our own terms and clearly filtered through our own lens, but it was black metal. At this point, I think we’ve left that almost completely behind. We aren’t thinking about black metal at all anymore when we’re writing music. We’re thinking about music. It really is transcendent black metal at this point for us. The themes that interested us when we wrote and recorded Diadem of 12 Stars don’t seem as relevant anymore. If they did, I’d be a little bit concerned because it would mean we haven’t changed or grown as people over the course of eight or nine years. So yeah, absolutely Celestial Lineage has a different energy to it. There’s a different sound, different musical elements, and I think that the spirit of it is different than the stuff we’ve done in the past.
In the press you did for Black Cascade you said it was a "live-ready" record, and listening to Celestial Lineage I don’t necessarily get that vibe. Is this stuff meant to translate to your live shows?
Well, we’ll be able to do it. These are songs that we’ve played live in the practice space, and then of course during the recording process they kind of take on a life of their own. But I think we’ll be able to do it. We’ll probably have an extra person with us, and I’ve got a synthesizer array back behind the drum set. The one thing we will be missing live is Jessika Kenney’s vocals. We’ve always had the idea of being able to tour with her, and I think we actually will be able to do special shows with her, maybe on the West Coast or in Europe next spring. So it’s gonna be a bit of a challenge, but I think we’ll be able to do it. We’ve always had a pretty unorthodox approach to equipment. Both of the guitar players use three amplifiers, so there’s six amplifiers on stage, and I’ve got a synthesizer and a bunch of other arcane boxes that help produce a bigger sound than usually two guitar players and a drummer should be able to accomplish.
You mentioned that it would be sad if you hadn’t progressed since Diadem of 12 Stars, and while I agree, but I also think it’s a great record. When you look back at that era, do you look at it with the same appreciation for where you were at that time?
Yeah, I think so. We’re gonna start touring in late August, so we’re just now getting together the set that we’re going to play, starting to practice with our live guitar player and starting to get things wrapped up with the live material, and we’re definitely going to play material off the older records. We might even play a song off Diadem of 12 Stars. It’s still kind of up in the air. We’re going to have a meeting about it in the next few days and get that figured out. I love that old material, and I think that when we play it we’re absolutely able to get back in that zone. It’s not as if we’ve pulled a complete 180.
A lot of the stuff on Celestial Lineage sounds more like Diadem of 12 Stars than like Two Hunters or Black Cascade, in that it’s a little more harmonically complex. Black Cascade was really stripped down. There’s a lot of places where it’s just the guitar and the drums hammering away on a riff. Celestial Lineage, I just listened to it a week ago before we approved the final masters, and there’s literally one or two spots where it’s just drums and guitar playing together. Everywhere else, there’s a great deal of other information coming at you, whether it’s melodies and harmonies hidden in the murk or different instruments. So yeah, in a lot of ways we’ve returned to a lot of stuff that we’d set aside for awhile that we worked with on Diadem of 12 Stars and brought it back.
The new album has seven tracks, and I think people have kind of gotten used to a Wolves in the Throne Room LP having four tracks. Was there some decision-making process going into that, or did it just feel right?
We did want to create shorter songs to be a bit more disciplined with songwriting, and that was mostly a challenge to ourselves. We really like the idea of repetition and using that black metal technique of repeating a melody for a very long period of time to create that trance effect. We’ve done that a lot, and it’s something that I really like and value as a musical technique. And not just in metal - in all music. But we wanted to sort of set a limit for ourselves and say 'We’re not gonna do that on this record' in order to challenge ourselves and make it more difficult, and I think that setting those sorts of limits pushed us a lot to write better songs. We rejected a lot of material for this record. I’d say a whole other album’s worth of material we wrote and then pitched, because we felt it was too similar to stuff we’d done in the past. We wanted to really push ourselves to create something that felt new and fresh to us and that felt forward-looking, and also felt in line with the concept and the themes of the record, which like I said before is star-oriented and astral-oriented.
If I’m not mistaken, it’s the last album that will ever be recorded at Randall Dunn’s Aleph Studio. What was the atmosphere knowing that going into the recording?
Well, the atmosphere around the whole record was just totally insane. In a lot of ways it’s the last record for Wolves in the Throne Room, too. We’re definitely going to continue on as a band and continue to create music, but as far as doing music in this format – a metal band releasing records on Southern Lord and touring around and doing this conventional thing – I’m done with it. It’s been a really great set of experiences and it’s been really rewarding, and we’ve accomplished everything we’ve wanted to and more, but it’s definitely time to move on to something else. A different way of doing music, a different way of living.
So Nathan and I were both in a very intense place of change and transition and trying to figure out what to do next with our lives. And Randall was in an equally intense space of change and transformation. He was ending a sixteen-year relationship and ending his studio which he’d built up for the last ten years, and was basically just this homeless, wandering rogue with a stack of preamps under his arm. So all three of us just got really, really deep into the energy of letting things go and really giving ourselves over completely to the record and using the record as a catalyst, almost a springboard to push us and force us to move onto something else.
Do you have any idea what you mean by you’re going to start doing some other direction? Have you brainstormed that at all?
No, we’ve kind of made it a point not to, because it’s so easy to always be looking at that thing that’s just over the horizon and forget what you’re doing at the moment. So I’m making it a very specific point not to think about anything, whether related to Wolves in the Throne Room or any other aspect of my life, beyond February of next year, which is when we’ve got our last round of touring plans for this record. After that, it’s just tabula rasa as far as I’m concerned.
How important in black metal do you think it is to present a full aesthetic package beyond just the music? I think Wolves in the Throne Room has always done a great job from the song titles to the album artwork to even the presentation of your live shows. Do you think that’s crucial for black metal?
Absolutely. To me, that’s one of the things that is so engaging about black metal and why we got engaged with the genre to begin with. It’s so unlike punk music. Punk music, the whole idea is to not have any pretension at all. Take Black Flag as an example. The aesthetic is about not having an aesthetic. I think that’s definitely a great movement, I like that sort of attitude. But clearly black metal has nothing do with that. Black metal is baroque and romantic and grandiose. It can be extremely pretentious, and I think that all those things are absolutely a part of creating a successful black metal band, because like you’re saying, it’s more than just a band. It needs to be a complete aesthetic experience.
I think that you saw that with the very first black metal bands in Norway, with the music being connected with the imagery and with the atmosphere. It’s always atmosphere that you hear black metal people talking about, and that’s something that’s always really resonated with us. And it’s more important than just painting a picture. It’s not just about creating an atmosphere. The real reason that it’s important to create that atmosphere is to create a space where people can lose themselves. Another reason why black metal is different than punk music is that it’s explicitly spiritual. It’s explicitly dealing with mystery and with myth and with metaphysics. It’s explicitly working on those levels, and I think that the costuming and the sometimes over-the-top imagery are the sort of things that allow people to lose themselves in the music, and be able to journey by using the music as a catalyst.
How crucial do you think the political and ecological concerns that people associate with Wolves in the Throne Room are to appreciating the music? People kind of have this vision of you as these commune-dwelling, farmer black metallers with all kinds of radical views, and I think that’s built into the mystique, but do you think it’s necessarily a part of understanding the band?
Yeah, I think it is. Obviously, I think a lot of that stuff has been blown out of proportion. We don’t live in a cave. We aren’t Luddites, obviously. But I think it is true that a big part of our vision, and a big part of the meaning of the music, is demanding of ourselves to ask more of ourselves. Not just accept the world as it is, and play the game that mainstream society wants you to play, but demand of ourselves, and then demand of the listener, to question that on a deep and fundamental level. And that’s the important thing about black metal as opposed to punk rock, as I was saying earlier. It’s not a political issue. It’s not about overthrowing the government. It’s something way more subtle. It’s something that has to do with opening up to a different view of the world, and understanding that the world has a spiritual dimension and a hidden dimension and a mythic dimension that a lot of people are really blind to. I think that black metal can be a portal to understanding aspects of that hidden world. All music does, on one level or another, but I think black metal is so unique in that it specifically addresses the mythic and the spiritual.
We’ve done a couple of pieces on Liturgy recently, trying to defend them a little bit because they’ve been put through the ringer so much by the 'black metal elite.' Why do you think that the black metal community has so much trouble with breaks with tradition?
The first question I have is, 'Who is the black metal elite?' I’m only marginally aware of the whole controversy surrounding Liturgy. I’ve never heard Liturgy. But I did read, it seems like there was some sort of back and forth…Who’s the dude in Liturgy?
So as I understand it, he released some kind of manifesto, right?
Right, about transcendental black metal.
Could you just explain to me very briefly what he was saying in the manifesto?
He basically thinks that black metal doesn’t need to be obsessed with negativity and darkness, and he thinks that you can use the black metal blueprint to be life-affirming and positive and optimistic, and that’s kind of where people have been bothered a bit. They think black metal is inherently based on darkness and negativity and hate and all this, and he’s being too radical for suggesting otherwise.
Yeah, and I guess that’s what I’ve gathered from talking to other people about it. And yeah, Wolves in the Throne Room has absolutely received the same kind of criticism, because over the years I’ve said the exact same thing. That’s something that I believe very strongly. I think that maybe the difference is that I’ve always said that we don’t play black metal. I refer to Wolves in the Throne Room as a black metal band just sort of out of convenience. But I’ve also been really clear over the years that I do think that true black metal, which is a worthwhile and very powerful thing, does need to be negative. It does need to be rooted in the darkest aspects of the human experience – bitterness, negativity, hatred, violence, tribal warfare, mass murder, these sort of things lurk in the human experience, and it’s always been there. And true black metal channels that incredibly destructive and insane and violent energy.
That’s why I’ve always been clear that Wolves in the Throne Room, although we’re drawing from black metal, we understand black metal as something that can be transmuted and can be transformed into something else. And that’s what we do in Wolves in the Throne Room. So I think that that’s the reason why people have attacked Liturgy so much. It’s because he’s making this grand, declarative statement that black metal isn’t this, it actually is this. I think that I’ve always been clear to respect the darkness that’s inherent in true black metal, and then make the distinction that 'Yeah, we don’t do that. That doesn’t resonate with me as an authentic artistic vision for Wolves in the Throne Room, so we’re gonna do our own thing, and I don’t really care if anyone has an opinion one way or another about it.'
Another obvious reason why Liturgy gets run through the ringer, as you’re saying, is because of their looks. They’re the definition of the Brooklyn hipster as far as the clothes they wear and the aesthetic that they present onstage and just their overall demeanors. And honestly, I don’t think that’s the worst thing on Earth to attack. Like you were saying earlier, black metal isn’t just music. It’s not just a matter of tremolo picking and blast beats and harsh vocals. There’s an aesthetic element as well that needs to be respected and integrated. I think it’s perfectly fine for a tr00, kvlt black metal person to say 'Well, Liturgy, they’re not real black metal.' Well, yeah, they’re not real black metal! And neither are Wolves in the Throne Room!
I guess where I get extremely annoyed with attacks on bands like Wolves in the Throne Room or Liturgy is just the extremely childish and lowbrow nature of the dialogue that goes on about it. I’m fine with people having philosophical discussions of the importance of engaging with true satanic ideals in black metal or the importance of staying true to the left hand path. I think those are legitimate discussions. But the majority of the shit-flinging that you see is just 'These guys are fags,' or whatever. And that’s the sort of thing that’s so easy to ignore because you can easily imagine the kind of person who’s typing that thing into their computer, and once you achieve some sort of mental image of the lonely nerd who’s engaging in this shit-flinging on the Internet, it’s very easy to just completely put it out of your head.
I always find it disappointing because, as much other stuff as I listen to, I do primarily consider myself a metalhead, and to see such immaturity and such childishness from people gives the genre a bad name and almost makes you want to disassociate yourself with it.
And that’s always been the nature of metal, and not just black metal but the larger genre of heavy metal. I think that it’s always been the domain of the very intelligent and the extremely stupid. You know what I’m saying? When I was 14 and 15 years old, the music I was into was death metal, and most of my friends were into death metal, too, and we were pretty smart, sensitive, engaged kids. And then at the opposite of the spectrum were just the most nightmarish, troglodytic meatheads listening to these sort of bands. It’s something that every metalhead struggles with because it does give metal a bad name and makes it appear somewhat ridiculous to people who don’t understand the genre the way we do. It’s a bit of a shame. But at the same time, I think there’s a good deal of very worthwhile dialogue that goes on around heavy metal, and black metal specifically.
I think you’re right. From an intellectual standpoint, I think metal’s in kind of a Golden Age right now.
Yeah, I think that we all agree that metal is an extremely relevant artistic, intellectual and philosophical point of view in this day and age. That’s why I’m interested in doing it. There’s a lot of things that I could be doing, but metal, still, at this point, being 33 years old, still seems relevant to me. It’s still addressing issues, feelings, and a certain sort of world spirit that defines our age, that defines the spirit of this time that we’re in right now.
Wolves In The Throne Room play at Supersonic in Birmingham on the weekend of 21st-23rd October, and tour the UK around the same time.Click here for more details .
Photo by Alison Scarpella