The Shade And The Light: Nergal Of Behemoth Interviewed
, February 10th, 2014 06:36
Kim Kelly talks to Poland's most upbeat, dynamic and open-minded heavy metal Satanist about coming to terms with his past and a close call with death
It's a bright afternoon in Brooklyn, and Skype is burbling away as it attempts to connect me with Poland. Together we hit paydirt, and a familiar yowl comes creeping down the line, accompanied by a tiny, tinny approximation of an AC/DC riff. Of course Nergal's got 'Highway to Hell' as his ringtone; really, to expect anything less would do a disservice to Satan's most charismatic foot soldier. It's nothing if not appropriate for the Behemoth ringleader. He's weathered death threats, stood trial before Poland's Supreme Court, and conquered cancer, then after all that, he somehow found the time to release his band's most important work to date. Behemoth is one of the biggest extreme metal bands in the world, and to hear him speak, the man's just getting started. If there's a route down the Brimstone Boulevard, Nergal's speeding in the fast lane with the speakers on full blast. Ol' Scratch wishes he could keep up with this dude.
Today, Adam "Nergal" Darksi, as he's known on his passport (seriously) is in a sunny mood as he enjoys his last few days at home. Rounded out by drummer Inferno, bassist Orion, and guitarist Seth, Behemoth is due to kick off an extensive European tour with Cradle Of Filth, and despite the enormous amount of pressure this particular tour is sure to heap upon him, he seems utterly unfazed. This upcoming jaunt will mark the first time their new material sees the light of day (or night, as it were), but the setlist will feature plenty of older tunes – we're promised "about 60% new and 40% classics, of course with all the stage gear, backdrops, pyro, etc." The band's tenth album, The Satanist, was just released by Nuclear Blast/Metal Blade, and is already being hailed as their most complex and dynamic work yet. It crackles with energy and glimmers with dangerous intent; Nergal prefers to describe it as "sinister", but the song remains the same.
"You probably talk to artists every day that say, 'Yeah, this album is our best, so on so on,' so I'm happy to say that I'll be original here, and say that, no, this is not our best record yet, because that's not for me to judge. Some people like Demigod over anything else, some say Evangelion was our best, but people have their own opinions. To me, the bottom line is that The Satanist is the most sincere record we've ever done. It's a very organic and very natural album in many ways, and it's also super dangerous. It's probably the album that we're the most satisfied with, which is a unique feat for most artists; usually they're unsatisfied with themselves. It may be an oxymoron or whatever, but you're actually talking to a happy artist here! It's a great record. I love it. It's not arrogance, it's passion and it's love for my own creation and a full acceptance of who we are in our nature."
A lot has gone into this record, and it shows. While their previous effort had a tendency to feel too polished and their approach one of rote repetition, The Satanist is on fire. It's the most punishing thing they've recorded since 2004's watershed Demigod and it's no wonder that they're proud of themselves. This album marks a rebirth in more ways than one.
"One of the factors that makes this record so different, and also I really hope it's something that distances our new record from the majority of extreme metal albums in the market these days, is that most of the music that is offered by so-called extreme metal bands is not extreme. The paradox is that the average extreme metal band these days is just another friendly band, which actually pisses me off, because that's not how 'extreme metal' - black metal, death metal - was meant to be. This is why I don't listen to them. If I want to listen to some extreme metal, I go to the niche of the genre where bands don't give a fuck because there's no money and no business involved, there is no compromise. I'm very much inspired by bands that don't give a fuck, so you could also call The Satanist an "I don't give a fuck" album! What I'm missing with these 'extreme metal' bands is the danger factor in these bands; they try to be friends with everyone, they play blasts all over the place, playing blasts for 45 minutes is just dull, it's boring. The Satanist is about dynamics, and it's a very diverse record. On one hand you can say that it's totally the most sinister album that we've ever put out, but at the same time, it's flirting with genres. There's a lot of traditional stuff going on, there's classical hard rock, you can hear it in the leads and some of the riffing and the grooves. It's not a typical death metal record. I like to think of this album as something very unique. So on one hand, yes, we are part of the genre, we are an integral part of the black metal tradition, and we know where we come from, we have so much respect for our roots, but on the other hand, it's more than that..."
Those roots run deep. Behemoth first surfaced when black metal's cruel Second Wave was in full swing and Nergal was barely fifteen. The band's first few demos were raw, sloppy, and primal, a far cry from the sophisticated output that lay ahead. In 1991, led by the examples of bands like Tormentor, Master's Hammer, and Root, Eastern Europe's extreme metal fans were beginning to organise in earnest. Behemoth was born into an environment that was still fresh and exciting, and, as Nergal (who quickly shed his original stage name Holocausto) would soon discover its dark side. The Temple of Infernal Fire (which was later known as the Temple of Fullmoon) was an answer to Norway's Black Circle in that it served as an insular community for Poland's nascent black metal scene. It brought together some of its most important musicians, including Rob Darken, an avowed white supremacist who's best known for his band Graveland and contributions to the vile NSBM scourge which still plagues modern black metal's underworld. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as time went on, the group developed a right wing political agenda, and Nergal distanced himself from it and its members completely. His former cohorts didn't take kindly to this perceived betrayal, or to Behemoth's burgeoning success, and things turned ugly… especially between him and Darken.
"I was so young and naive back then. I wasn't really interested in politics, and some of their concepts became very nationalist-oriented and politically oriented. I had no fucking interest in politics, so I wasn't interested in being a part of any of these groups. I understand from the perspective of people in outside countries looking in, it seemed like some kind of conflict comparable to all the conflict happening in Scandinavia, but it was not like that. The Rob Darken thing was really blown out of proportion because we didn't even know each other, we were only penpals sharing some ideas through letters. Then all of a sudden they thought they are so radical that they didn't want to have anything to do with Behemoth, so we parted ways, simple as that. Later on, it was followed with several death threats and bullshit, and people talking to the press. I was a big mouth, they were big mouths, and it took years and years and me going through all these health problems, and I stopped giving a flying fuck about Graveland millions of times on the way. Then three years ago, when I was released from the hospital and had been recovering for a few months, I was taking a trek around Poland and I just knocked the bell on his door. He opened it and we had a cup of tea, and ever since then he'll come down to Behemoth shows and hang out. It's cool. I have the same relationship now with some of the people that, back then, were our biggest enemies, that have now grown up. We don't share the same interests but we share a mutual respect. Even though I'm not really interested in their musical offerings these days, these guys stick around for so long so at least for that they deserve respect."
It's strange to hear a man sound so cavalier about receiving death threats, but then again, perhaps not for someone who's quite literally stared death in the face and come out swinging. It's also been quite a long time since Darken dismissed Behemoth as music for "drug addicted scums and gays" and bands like Absurd and Aryan Terrorism mocked him in their lyrics. Nergal almost seems to pity them. "All these so-called troublemakers, most of them were just big mouths. If they're still around, they probably have families and are fat and work as taxi drivers, because there was no art in their music. There was just hatred. Probably some of them are in jail, some of them are dead or being junkies by now. Each one of them, each one of us takes responsibility for his own life and his own actions. I'm responsible for myself and I'm happy where I am now."
He looks back on those early days ruefully, with the air of someone asked to discuss, well, what he was up to when he was still a dumb teenager. "We definitely at certain stages shared a common ground and mutual hatred towards certain values," he says of his then-comrades. ""When I revisit the early stuff I have so much respect for it. We were very young, and hyper passionate about what we did. I still cherish the sentiment that I had for this time, and I don't want to discredit what we did in the past." It's a diplomatic answer, and he turns on the charm with an easy chuckle to add, "I don't know how old you are, and you're a lady, so I won't ask! But check your pictures from when you were ten and fifteen, and what do you usually do? You go, "Aw fuck!" Some of it may be embarrassing, some of it may look naive, you know what I mean? It's the same with us."
As Poland's small, toxic NSBM scene continues to fester in obscurity, the once traitors have become the kings. Nergal's driven personality and the band's undeniable talent proved to be a massive boon for a small band from Gdansk who dreamt of bigger things.
"I know this for a fact, its a lot of my personal impact that has made this band so big. I've always been a driving force, and I'm in a perfect position now," he says with relish. Our man is far from humble, but in fairness, his resume does speak for itself.
And, as it turned out, even their chosen genre became too confining for Behemoth to thrive, as Nergal's description of their slow evolution away from their grim beginnings makes clear.
"When we started a part of this black metal current in Poland, we decided that we don't want to be defined as a 'Polish black metal band.' Years later when they tried to put us in the same box as 'Polish death metal.' It may be very egocentric, but I never wanted to be a part of labels and boxes. At a certain stage we started drifting away. Our sound was becoming more complex and technically advanced and some of these guys couldn't catch up because of lack of skills (I'm half kidding here!); they were probably jealous of how we were improving so fast and how Behemoth could speak English so we could get a record deal and started touring Europe, so they had plenty of reasons not to be friends with Behemoth. Back then, on the ideological level we were fully exploring these local pagan traditions, but then after a time I said, 'No, I've been to this place, now I need to explore another place.' Some people decide to stay in one room forever and they get comfortable, they stay in that room for 70 years then they die happy. For me it's cool to spend one day, maybe two days there, but then I want to try other things. That's my nature, I've always had this hunger for exploring new and unknown places, and that's why I became an artist. It thrills me that I can enter the unknown, places that I've never been before. Maybe you lose fans or credibility, you lose this or that, but at least I'm not losing myself. At least I'm honest with myself."
Whomever first told Nergal that, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" had no idea what they were setting him up for. After he was diagnosed with leukemia in August 2010, he spent months on end in treatment, underwent a bone marrow transplant and, finally announced his recovery the following winter. Whilst he was there, he was heartened by the outpouring of support he received from fans and the global metal community, and incensed by the hate mail sent by religious folk who'd write, "Now you see, you will face the real god, you're going to burn." His voice darkens. "That really enraged me to be locked in his hospital cell and getting all this negative information. I became more radical in my beliefs when I was in hospital." He never wavered in those beliefs, either. "Not one single thing could make me think, 'Wow the game is over, I should really think my life over and eventually convert to this or that.'"
Happily, he made it out of the void armed with a renewed passion for his life's work. Behemoth hit the road shortly thereafter to pick up where their cancelled Evangelion tour had left off, and Nergal's been on full tilt ever since. Believe it or not, he says that he is grateful for the experience.
"I've literally overcome death. I conquered it and I'm happy to sing about that which other bands can only imagine. For them it's all just speculation, but I've actually been there and experienced death, and I hope I'm not going back anytime soon. But, I definitely wanted to share this energy on the new record, because it's very honest. There's no bullshit there. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying other bands are bullshit; you can be a poet without graduating university," he explains. When I bring up the concept of death worship, one of metal's most sacred cows, he circles back to one of his pet recurring themes, and focuses on the duality of the concept – the darkness, and the light.
"The whole The Satanist concept is all about combining these contrary values that to me complete the picture, and they can coexist. You ask me if I worship death, nowadays it's obvious to me that I do, because as much as I worship death, I appreciate and celebrate life, and one cannot exist without the other. I won't be just worshipping death just to elevate my black metal aesthetic" he grins. "I really hope that I collect a lot of experience and sow it into the music and make Behemoth's music more honest. My whole experience just made me be even more honest with the world. We can use fake names and masks and stuff, but somehow it made me feel like I have nothing to hide anymore. Even with all the wardrobe and imagery around the band that is sinister, eerie, and evil, we definitely stand behind what we represent, but to me there's no contradiction in entering the stage, and when I get into the song 'Conquer All', saying 'It feels great to be alive!'"
His lyrics have always tended towards the profane and the Satanic, and The Satanist is no exception. "Stages are our battlefields. We fight using metaphors and artistic aesthetics, that's our way to express ourselves, then we get offstage and get a few drinks, talk, and laugh, despite the fact that we are all different. That's what civilized people do." His approach is more messenger than monster, explaining that his sacrilegious texts are laid wide open to interpretation, and he welcomes all comers to decipher them at will, even in regards to defining Satan himself. "I have no reason to argue with them. On one hand I get that Satan is so straightforward and primal, that's cool, ‘cause that's what it is! But then someone else says, 'No, its about human beings and freedom', well, yes it is! Please come at me with millions of other definitions, 'cause I'm going to embrace them all. That's how we're going to have an impact, with more interpretations. Let freedom ring!"
"We need Satan to keep balance. We need all these so-called negative aspects because they are part of one very important entity. If I had a kid one day I wouldn't tell him, 'Here are day and night, you should really avoid the night and focus on the daylight because that's where you feel comfortable and safe.' I'd rather tell my kids, 'It might not be the safest because it's dark and you may feel scared, but explore it and get knowledge from it, you learn from it as well.' That would be some fatherly advice from Nergal! And you can hear that in how we approach our art."
Poland is a deeply devout country, and like most of his peers, Nergal was raised Catholic. He first started to question the church's teachings when he was around thirteen and only a year before he started playing black metal (of course, by now it's clear that there's a correlation). It took him until his mid-thirties to completely sever the cord connecting him and the Church when he became an apostate and officially withdrew his name from the church's ledgers. "You may be whomever you want, a Satanist or otherwise, but when your name is in there, they consider you to be a part of their shit, so finally I just said, 'No.' I remember talking to a priest, and he told me that it's not really worth burning bridges. I generally never do that, but this one bridge, the one that connects me with their god, I wanted to burn to the fucking ground."
That attitude has landed him in hot water several times over the years, and he's still fighting a blasphemy charge from a 2007 incident in which he ripped up a Bible and denounced the Catholic church onstage at a gig in Gydnia. His charges have been dropped twice, yet they keep on hauling him back in. Nergal seems resigned to his status as a scapegoat, but also seems hopeful about the wider ramifications of the case.
"We are the only country in Europe that has this blasphemy paragraph in the codex. It's all about violating the most fundamental democratic rule, which is freedom of speech. In all the other countries there's no issue anymore. You're calling from America, right? In the process of becoming democratic, you had to work your way to democracy. Maybe in the 50s you had these kinds of cases. These days we don't fight anymore, we fight in courts. I know I'm being used in a process that will be a very important part of Polish history, and I'm happy that I'm part of it. Even if I fail now, wait another 5, 10, 15 years. There are going to be more Nergals, people who crave that freedom of speech that feel limited and restricted, and one day, this whole fucking balloon is going to blow the fuck up, and conservatives will give up. It makes no difference for myself, and for the system, it doesn't make much difference either; it's a matter of time. If it happens now, good for me, point for Nergal! If it doesn't, I'll keep playing music I love as long as I can, and new people will come. Once we invented the wheel, we can't regress; all of civilization is going in a forward direction."
No matter how much distance he's managed to put between himself and his baptized faith, he recognises that religion isn't going anywhere, either, and has made peace with the idea. "I don't think you can erase religion from people's nature. It's a sad fact, but it's a fact that they need it. It's an easy way to go through life, to be led like sheep to the slaughterhouse. The majority of society doesn't question things. They'd rather focus on their materialistic goals. Religion is a part of our lives, our systems and politics, but it's all about finding balance and compromise. I'm not an idiot, I know that when I die, it's probably going to be there for another thousand years."
As he says himself, despite song titles like 'Christians To The Lions', he himself has Christian friends. "We respect each other, and they enrich my life. I'm all about coexistence. You probably come across people that are religious but are smart enough and cognizant enough that they don't really need to argue over your beliefs. That's what makes life interesting. In my wildest dreams I think, okay, there's no Christianity anymore, just people like myself. What a boring world! I'd rather be on the other side, and be myself, against the values that I despise."
Though Nergal has so far triumphed against his greatest adversary yet, there's still plenty of work to be done. Not content to dominate the metal spectrum, he's got fingers in all sorts of pies. Playing off the notoriety that his court cases and a past relationship with the famous Polish pop star Dorota Rabczewska aka Doda brought and branching out into television as a judge on The Voice Of Poland, written a book, and even gotten into film (Ambassada). Now that his stern visage has been splashed across Polish tabloids and movie posters, he's a bona fide celebrity. Still, he chuckles sheepishly when I mention a recent interview for Playboy.
"I've been in there a couple times, for interviews and fashion, no nude pictures though!" he sputters. "I don't take all this media stuff super seriously. A magazine put me among the ten best dressed men in Poland - Nergal number 5!"
He inadvertently threw some shade at Kerry King when I marveled at the thought of an American metal icon enjoying a level of mainstream celebrity that would land him in GQ ("Well that's because he's not even well-dressed, let's be honest. With all due respect, let Kerry be Kerry!) then got to the crux of the matter.
"I want to go beyond this heavy metal genre. I know there's kids that get confused when they see a guy that they look up to and who wears makeup and is this and that in videos and see him in The Voice Of Poland jury or in the movie I've just started which was a comedy about Nazis called Abassada (it was all over cinemas here, and I was one of the main characters), and they may get confused but that's what I'm all about, confusing people. If they want to define me and have me for themselves, they can sleep well because they will never have that. I won't be defined. I believe in the fact that human beings are hypercomplex individuals. The fact that I'm a heavy metal musician doesn't make me go this one and only way; I'm there to be on this path and simultaneously be beyond it. I dwell in several different dimensions, some of them may look weird to you, some may seem to exclude one another, but for me, they do not. To me they complete the full picture of complexity that is this duality of my nature."