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In Extremis

Murder Most Foul: Church Of Misery Interviewed
Toby Cook , April 9th, 2014 05:47

Ahead of their show at Desertfest later this month, Toby Cook catches up with Tatsu Mikami of serial-killer obsessed Japanese doom group Church Of Misery

Serial killers! Sabbath! Doom! Yes, the Japanese do indeed have a way of doing things just a little bit differently from the rest of the world, and the killer-obsessed, Sabbath worshipping bastard-riff-bishops Church Of Misery are no exception – apart from the fact that they don't just do it differently from the rest of the world, they do it differently from the rest of their countryfolk too.

A lot has been made in recent years of the current 'doom revival'; that many of the genre's pioneers – Cathedral, Saint Vitus, Witchfinder General, etc. – toiled away almost ceaselessly for years, not in the face of acute hatred but, even worse, in the face of utter ambivalence and insidious, indifferent shrugs. And yet, doom has endured – and not just endured but grown, to the point where Sleep can support Slayer, and festivals like Desertfest and Roadburn may well owe their very existence to those sons and daughters of Sabbath who were born too late. But at least these bands had a scene to fit into, somewhere, no matter how ignored that scene was. Church Of Misery on the other hand held, and still hold, the ignominious distinction of being one of only two doom bands - along with the criminally overlooked Eternal Elysium - in the whole of Japan. That they have not just continued to operate, but become arguably one of the most revered doom bands in existence, is nothing short of remarkable.

The Church were formed way back in 1995 when bassist – and sole remaining founding member – Tatsu Mikami left his particularly thrashy former band, Salem, and wanted to get right back to basics, to playing the music that originally inspired him. And, it seems, indulging in his fascination with serial killers. And so the serial killer obsessed band-that-Vertigo-records-forgot, Church Of Misery, was born. The group's first real exposure to UK audiences came in 1998 via the We've Learned Nothing / Murder Company split with home-grown, much-missed stoner/sludge lunatics Iron Monkey. Now, nearly seventeen years and about 57 members later, the Church's congregation is arguably larger than ever – in part thanks to last year's outstanding full length Thy Kingdom Scum – and the last few years alone have seen them tour the globe with the likes of Eyehategod and Monster Magnet, not to mention selling out their own shows as far afield as Australia, with little deviation in their Sabbath-meets-a-homeless-Led Zeppelin approach to riff-craft.

Much in the same way that every time Electric Wizard play a show you expect to see them arrive in a sort of Satanic Mystery Machine, there is and has always been something utterly cartoonish about Church Of Misery, lurking underneath their obviously superb musicianship and, err, 'deadly' serious subject matter. It would be easy, in fact, to write off a band who title their records things like Master Of Brutality and Houses Of The Unholy as a bit of a prank; it would be easy to see the serial killer obsession only in terms of shock value. The masterful reality is, though, that whilst they may appear like somewhat of a joke, and while it might seem old hat to so extrovertly worship Zeppelin and Sabbath, in actual fact it isn't old hat, and Church Of Misery aren't a joke. Sure, their musical approach rarely deviates from what can only be described as a deranged take on Black Sabbath if they stopped recording anything after Master Of Reality, but each time it becomes incrementally more refined. Just take Thy Kingdom Scum: while there's still plenty of dirt there, the funk is funkier, the blues is bluesier and the doom is doomier - and the clarity to production, far from diminishing the effect, only serves to heighten the music's sense of frantic derangement.

Church Of Misery are then, perhaps, a study in the importance of aesthetic – serial killers might seem a morbid and perhaps insensitive topic, and it might seem grim to write songs about Peter Sutcliffe or Myra Hindley, but these aren't homages, they're mere documents, set to the sort of acrid, fugged-out riffs every two-bit stoner doom band wishes they could write but simply can't. This isn't Channel 5, and this isn't the five-hundredth Charles Manson documentary, this is Church Of Misery – they obsess about mass murder for the same reason Electric Wizard obsess about drugs and b-movies: because life is dark, metal is dark, because no one else has the balls and because it's fun.

Through a psychedelic gospel of riff-worship and misery, the Church have ascended metal's flaming pulpit and proclaimed the word of doom with resolute conviction, and succeeded, in no small thanks to their undisputed reputation and one of the most frenzied and strangulatingly tight live acts you're likely to witness. So, ahead of their show at this year's Desertfest – playing as main support to fellow countrymen Boris – we caught up with their high priest of low-end, Tatsu Mikami, to talk, well, doom, murderers and, err, Norman Borlaug.

Doom, certainly in the UK anyway, seems to be undergoing a real resurgence at the moment. In the 80's and 90's particularly it was almost totally ignored, despite the great bands, but now there are festivals – like Desertfest – that are almost built around doom. Why has doom not just endured, but gotten stronger?

Tatsu Mikami: Because there is, and always have been, good bands, good labels and good people in the doom scene, right from the very beginning. The funny thing is that people who used to listen to nu-metal, or metalcore, or some shit, now listen to doom and feel like it's fresh and new.

Of course in your home country of Japan, the doom scene is almost non-existent, right? Have you noticed it improve since you started? And why do you think there are so few doom bands when Western bands like Cathedral are so popular?

TM: I also want to know the answer to that question! I mean, yes, Cathedral are big in Japan, although it is more that Lee Dorrian is popular, not doom. I have to say, too, that it is not that the doom scene is "almost non-existent" in Japan, there is no doom scene here in Japan – there are only two doom bands: Church Of Misery and Eternal Elysium. No young bands, only us two. Yes, we sometimes play together, but I don't think that that counts as a scene! And to be honest, we in Church are really disappointed with this situation; it's the reason why we always tour overseas.

In a certain sense, do you think that not having much of a scene to be part of has actually helped Church Of Misery progress?

TM: Well, as I said earlier, there is no doom scene in Japan – it's very, very underrated in the metal scene. But as for Church Of Misery, our popularity is getting bigger day by day – Thy Kingdom Scum stayed in the top five of the import chart for four months, and our shows are always full or sold out. So for us, yes, the situation is better than ever before, and getting better.

Where did your fascination with serial killers come from? When did it start?

TM: Since the beginning of Church I've been reading about and watching programmes about serial killer. I'm really interested in the process of them turning from a normal guy into a psychotic killer – it's a really interesting story. And, y'know, I thought that topic is a very good fit for our heavy and doom-y music. That's the reason I chose it! That combination is very strong and brutal; it's perfect for Church Of Misery.

When you were in the UK once, you visited Dennis Nilsen's old house – do you make a habit of visiting 'serial killer landmarks' or crime scenes?

TM: No, I've only been to Denis Nilsen's house, that was the first and last time I've visited a serial killer's house. So far! I was taken there – to his old house in Highgate, London – by the guys in Ramesses.

What makes a particular serial killer a good subject for a Church Of Misery song?

TM: Brutalisation, inhuman deeds; highest impact in terms of exposure and gruesomeness.

How come you don't focus on any Japanese killers – Shoko Asahara would be perfect, wouldn't he?

TM: Actually, we've already tried writing a song about him – although it's still very sensitive in Japan. It's a very long song, about 20 minutes in fact, called 'Subway Poison Gas Attack'. You'll be able to hear it in the near future.

Where do you think the line is between using these killers as subject matter for art, and giving them undeserved attention and glamorising their crimes?

TM: I don't think of it as 'art', I'm just writing about a true story. I don't include any of our opinions, just the story.

But what do you say to people who feel that you are, and shouldn't be, glamorising these stories?

TM: I don't give a fuckin' shit! But I know what you mean, because still, even now, I sometimes get emails that say things like: "Your sound is really awesome, it's amazing music, but your topic of serial killers really sucks". [laughs] But I don't really care what they say, and I'll keep doing what I want to do. This band will never change our style or song topic.

Didn't you change the cover of Thy Kingdom Scum due to issues of sensitivity?

TM: We did indeed change the design for that. The first design for the cover of that album was photos of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, but Rise Above stopped us from using that because their murder case is still pretty sensitive for British people. They were concerned that UK record shops might refuse to stock our album if we stuck with the original cover.

Isn't there something inherently wrong with the fact that more people know who Ted Bundy is than know who someone like Norman Borlaug is – who is credited with saving at least a billion people from starvation?

TM: It's not my fuckin' problem; nobody expects us to write songs about Norman Borlaug!

Who exactly are the 'false stoners'?

TM: All bands, labels and those in the media who ride on the trend of the "stoner movement".

Church Of Misery play the Electric Ballroom on the Sunday night of this year's Desertfest, which takes place in Camden from 25th-27th April. For more information and tickets, as well as the full line-up details, click here to visit the Desertfest site.

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