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Prawy do lewego: Our New Polish Music Column Interviews Merkabah
Filip Kalinowski , December 16th, 2015 08:44

Our man in Warsaw Filip Kalinowski spoke to the avant sax metal trio Merkabah for our new monthly look at the Polish underground

Merkabah live by Aleksandra Burska

"Moloch sees Merkabah tempering their instrumental improvisations with sixties psychedelia and noise, while calling on the titular Aramaic god as inspiration.” This was the description of Warsaw based, hardcore/jazz heavyweights Merkabah's second album when they placed in the Quietus Albums Of The Year 2014. After a live CD Lyonesse and a debut LP A Lament For The Lamb, the band, which combines a traditional rock section with saxophone and places a great importance on live visuals, moved away from its mathematical yet spacious post-metal roots, and delved further into the realms of trance and squalor. They combine the attitude of AACM scholars with the sheer brutality of the metalcore underground.

Released by the excellent Instant Classic label, Moloch received great reviews far beyond these shores and brought the band to wider audiences both at home and abroad.

I met with Rafał Wawszkiewicz (saxophone), Gabriel Orłowski (guitar) and Adrien Cognac (visuals) in Klubojadalnia Eufemia, the hearth and home of Warsaw's leftfield, underground scene. Outside a tiny venue which hosts the gigs of various musical experimenters no matter whether their roots go back to punk, rap, noise or free-impov, we sat, smoke, drank and talked... well over a year ago. During this friendly chat, they told me about the number of interviews they have given just for them not to get published; as well as the problems they had with their rehearsal space after finishing work on their – still to this day – last album. “God was angry because of Moloch”, Adrien claimed with a grin. I just smiled to myself as I listened to their stories and on the way home I was already planning writing up the feature. And then… all the hell broke loose. Yet one should never say never...

Merkabah know what it means to go on tour with Behemoth (something they did in the middle of 2014) and how it differs from going on tour by themselves (which they also did at the end of last year). They have played a dozen or so concerts since we last spoke; on the huge stages of Poland’s biggest clubs during Behemoth's Satanist tour and small underground venues such Eufemia. They have now almost got their next album ready - it may even be a double LP but it’s yet undecided. What’s certain is that they are about to incorporate new instruments into their arsenal – a lapsteel, a synthesiser and a lot more electronic gear. They also admit that they have been moving further into directions suggested by earlier material. “The concept is just begining to take shape, but the whole effect is much more psychedelic, rakish, swaying and drunk than Moloch. It is also a little bit less heavy", says Gabriel. However until the day of premiere it is batter not to take anything for granted. As they reveal throughout the interview their assumptions often lead them in completely different directions to the ones that were planned originally.

Do you consider yourselves a part of any scene?

Rafał Wawszkiewicz: Yes, generally I feel that we belong to a scene…

Gabriel Orłowski: I disagree.

RW: …but this scene is not connected to any specific genre.

GO: Yes, more like being consolidated by some kind of musical tradition.

What do you mean by “tradition” – your specific musical influences or some kind of an ethos?

RW: It’s a way of approaching things. Right now in Poland there are many young, unconventional bands that are really interesting and operate on a similar basis to us. This usually concerns the logistics and general organisational issues; we all support each other so it’s a kind of a scene. On one hand you got Mord’A’Stigmata or Thaw – original black metal bands with their own approach to the genre, and on the other hand there is 1926 or Ampacity who you could call space rock. Among all those bands there is also a place for us. So there is a scene, but it isn’t stylistically consistent.

GO: I read somewhere that we’re from the jazz scene.

RW: The fact is, whatever you want to call it and whatever genre you attach to it, the Polish alternative, leftfield music scene is doing really well nowadays.

Adrien Cognac: This scene is really open. Different bands share the same stages; people from different projects play together or at least know each other, from those heavy metal ones, to those who are more…

RW: …cheerful.

AC: And it all fits together so there is a scene, but I don’t know if it has a name.

GO: Underground.

AC: Yep. Probably just Polish underground.

The spectrum of genres and stylistics is really broad among this scene that we talk about, but you mentioned by name just the rock and metal ones.

RW: We all descend from this metal root.

AC: It’s the bands' common denominator. Everyone listens to something a bit different but we were all raised on metal.

RW: I’m having a little renaissance right now. I went back to Slayer and I still love them, even as [Jeff] Hanneman isn’t with us any more, my heart still beats faster when I listen to them.

Did you also listen to Polish metal?

AC: I remember one band – Anal Stench, they were fucking great. I don’t remember where the hell I first heard them, but they were brilliant; this kind of eastern death metal: very proper, very good.

RW: I used to listen to quite a few Polish death metal bands and black metal bands also. There was a band called Christ Agony and their debut album Unholyunion was great; although then that guy started to make some really bad music but that’s a different story. Behemoth was already operating and playing some proper black metal at the beginning of their career. Recently I also went back to KAT – “Coś we mnie łka, to mój syn, maleńki zwierz. Nie płacz! Nie płacz!” [an expert from 'Bastard' – “Something weeps inside me, that’s my son, a tiny beast. Don’t cry, don’t cry!”, Ed] There was also an album by Dies Irae, I don’t remember the name but it was brilliant, when you conceder classic death metal, it’s absolutely great.

As you said earlier Merkabah doesn’t operate on a basis of a genre. If the stylistic isn’t what gives the basis for the track, what does? Emotions?

GO: Ideas rather than emotions.

RW: We always approach our rehearsals very cheerfully - we joke a lot, laugh a lot and then the final result is always a kind of hateful sputter. So – to be honest – I’m not sure if it’s an emotion that I want to transmit through the music or maybe an emotion that is somehow natural for me in the context of music. I speak for myself not the whole of Merkabah but I don’t want to deliver any message through my music. I don’t have anything to say through my music, except what I like and what I find cool or interesting. And as it happen I prefer unpleasant, aggressive music.

Gabriel, You mentioned ideas. They are the basis for new compositions?

GO: Not always the basis but at some point of preparing a new material, in the middle of the process…

AC: A concept is born.

GO: We sit down and think about a narrative.

AC: But it’s always an open, loose one.

RW: And in the context of creating music itself it differs a lot. Sometimes we have an idea…

GO: Afterwards.

RW: And sometimes before; and sometimes in the middle. So it’s hard to pinpoint our attitude. It all happens quite naturally.

GO: And spontaneously.

Moloch has a quite developed if not quite total concept. The traces you can find in the names of the tracks, the references to specific periods in the history, to the ideas of philosophers or writers. How did you come up with this idea of tracing the evil throughout the ages?

GO: The first loose basis of it came to us as we were finishing A Lament For The Lamb.

RW: But back then it meant something a bit different. At the beginning it referred to Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl', but the concept developed further. Gabriel was the one responsible, and maybe Kuba [Sokólski, drums, graphic art] also added something. So in the end it became not only an allegory of western civilization but evil as such.

GO: It was supposed to be a critique of civilization as such.

RW: Moloch is an allegory of indefinite evil. We dwelt on this concept while working on the record but we named the tracks after the music was completed and arranged.

GO: It had to be merged and stitched.

This kind of dirty, rough mix and master is also a part of this merging and stitching?

GO: The first version was even grimier.

RW: It was also a question of how we wanted to sound on this record.

GO: It was parallel.

AC: The dirt is conscious.

RW: We wanted to sound off the mainstream.

AC: There was a cleaner version of the mix but it didn’t sound right.

GO: We just wanted to sound brassy and radical without any fuckery.

For me this kind of mix also underlines the lively, improvised aspect of your expression. How important is the factor of spontaneous improvisation in your work? Is it the foundation for new compositions?

RW: It differs. In every new track there is an influence of improvisation but most of the motifs are firstly improvised and then rehearsed and worked on, so in the end they loose the spontaneity of the improv. Sometimes we start from completely free improvisation and sometimes from this kind of rehearsed motif and sometimes from a theoretic idea. But you’re right, most of the time it’s improv - we just take drugs and play.

GO: I think we take those distinctions and borders between what is improvisation and what isn’t quite loosely.

RW: Concerning Moloch, the track named 'Hillasterion' almost in its entirety was created during improvisation. We played a live jam and we found that it sounded so good that we put it on the record almost exactly as it was; or at least the first five or six minutes of it anyway.

Concerning these motifs that you talked about - do you record all your rehearsals or you rely on your memory?

RW: Usually we try to remember those parts, because each time someone is supposed to bring a recorder he forgets to do it.

GO: Then it’s impossible to recreate it in its wholeness so we build up a new improvisation out of the motifs that we can remember.

RW: We try to recreate it but it’s always different.

So, Moloch is a compilation of various recordings done throughout time or it was recorded during a studio session?

RW: We never entered a studio.

GO: We never left our rehearsal place.

RW: The studio came to us, because our producer Rafał Wiewiór has mobile equipment and we recorded it in our usual – now, former – rehearsal place, which didn’t look like those modern, expensive recording studios. More like a barrack in the middle of nowhere and moreover it was done during the winter so it was as cold as a kennel in there. We played in jackets, next to the electric stoves, or – most of the time – we didn’t play at all because it was to cold and we didn’t want to.

GO: Well, we played but in great suffering and pain.

AC: The material was more or less ready for a year before it was recorded.

RW: When the studio came to us we knew it really well so we just filled the places that were left for improvised fragments and everyone played two to three takes or sometimes even one.

GO: Or 15.

When you play live do you improvise in those “blanks” left in the structure?

RW: It depends on how bombed we are.

GO: We don't have any assumptions. If someone wants to improvise he can detach from the main motif.

RW: As we have the material prepared and we have agreed that it is already formed for a new track, we generally stick to it, but if someone has and idea to sail away or to change his part, as long as he doesn't go over the top and break the whole progression, he’s free to do it.

GO: Everyone is responsible for himself. But we try to stick to the structure.

Rałał, how you approach the saxophone in this kind of musical environment?

RW: I finished music school so I was taught to play saxophone as a solo instrument. Although I had never played it in orchestras, I used to play quite a lot in big bands, so there – except occasional solos – I also learned how to be a part of a big musical machine. But apart from these experiences most of my activities were as a soloist and that was whether I was sitting an exam (sometimes accompanied by the piano) or playing with my first band. This band also didn’t have a vocalist so I took the part of a lead instrument. I was also a soloist when playing in brass section of a funk band.

GO: I see you've been working on your biog.

RW: I am aware that the saxophone doesn’t play the chord progression of the tracks, so I have some limitations in building up a form. At first I thought about my role in Merkabah as a soloist, as can be heard on A Lament, our first album done together where my parts sound like a recorded improvisation, while on Moloch, I’m more a part of the band. It also stems from the fact that A Lament was partially rearranged for me to fit in, because the parts for those songs were made before I joined the band. Today I think I approach the saxophone more like a guitar.

GO: It’s also on a strap.

RW: And I can play riffs. I often play motifs; I have resigned from playing solos and am trying to get away from the jazz scales for the sake of different sounds, which are more similar to those of the guitar. So in Merkabah my role is that of a lead instrument but not a soloist.

As you’re playing with what is more or less a metal band, I suppose many people tend to think about the sax as the "voice" of Merkabah.

RW: I know many people think of it like this, but I don’t approach it in that way – what I do is too accidental and the vocals in music are rarely accidental. Also the sound is quite different – there are some sounds that resemble a growl or a scream but these are different aliquots.

Do you somehow try to elaborate on the topic of the track with the sound?

RW: On 'Deconstruction Mass' for A Lament there is this one moment when my sound isn’t especially pleasant. We were in the studio with Gabe and we both decided that my part should sound like the slaughter of a pig and I think I managed to achieve this aim. That’s our attitude towards the topic.

Is it possible to distinguish between the different periods in the history of Merkabah or is it too fluid?

RW: Moloch is a dirty, wet rag thrown in someone's face. The sound of all the earlier records is completely different and it reveals the process that we went through to make them. I remember that after we recorded A Lament my friend from my other band said that he liked it but he was afraid that if we went any further in this direction we would become a parody of ourselves. When he listened to Moloch for the first time, he was surprised and… so were we. Later, when we started to make tracks for the new record we assumed that maybe we would do something softer and more spacious because Moloch was indeed really radical. And we did the most fucked up, harsh and loud thing ever. We were laughing that we’ll become a grindcore band if we continue.

GO: But at the same time it’s quite catchy.

Adrien, how do you work on the visuals for Merkabah?

AC: Up until a while ago I used bits of movies, scenes from films – different visual clips and mixed them live with some effects. I’ve got parts that fit into specific tracks and during the shows I use them according to what’s happening and what the mood is. But then I sat down with Gabe and invented the whole concept of visuals to Moloch. It’s still being made and the process moves along quite slowly but it does move. We’re filming our own scenes according to a script that we’ve written.

GO: We use both the historical and mythological context, but it works mostly on a symbolic and allegorical level, even though it’s quite loose.

AC: I never know which track is which, I’ve never learned it, so my attitude is also quite loose. I improvise all the time.

G: During our live shows we also tell a different story that on the record so this kind of attitude fits well.

Adrien, while you mix those visuals do you use any kind of hook up to the instruments so the images react to what the guys are doing?

AC: I once made a system that was connected to a button hidden in Gabe’s effects that sent me a midi signal each time he used it and that affected the visuals. We also employed a device using accelerometer – essentially a motion sensor. I thought that I would attach it to Rafał’s saxophone, so when he writhed it would change the colour on the screen.

RW: But I didn’t writhe so the colours didn’t change.

Concerning the other visual aspects – covers and merch – you also do it yourself.

RW: That’s true. Kuba, our drummer, mainly does the graphic part and Gabe also sometimes adds something to this aspect of our work. The cover of Lyoness is their collaborative work, and also Gabe did all the photos for the Moloch booklet.

The internet helped you a lot in getting new listeners, from Poland and abroad.

AC: It’s a question of access to technology and being able to record yourself cheaply for example. It’s easier and cheaper to record an album and promote it [now].

RW: It means that even the least commercial music can reach the people who listen to these kinds of sounds. And it’s already happening. Ampacity are slowly preparing for their conquest of foreign countries and deservedly so because they are an amazing band. There are lots of Polish alternative bands, who are trying to force their way not only to Warsaw, Cracow or Breslau but abroad as well. Bands like Thaw or even Blindead or Tides From Nebula have blazed trails for the younger bands, are now getting attention. They operate successfully on an international level. We have also got some plans and we’ll find out what happens next. And even if I’m not sure if these are the best days for the Polish underground, I’m sure they are coming soon.