The Cultivation Of Space: Khanate Interviewed

Khanate were the first great experimental metal band of the 21st Century but folded in 2006 due to intense internally generated pressures; they have returned with a stunning new album To Be Cruel released on Sacred Bones today, with news of live gigs and a full reissue programme. The four musicians speak to John Doran about breaking ground and eating livers. All photographs by Ebru Yildiz

At the end of the last century strange things were afoot in the world of heavy metal. In the re invigorated field of doom, a small number of unconnected bands returned to the ur-template set by the song ‘Black Sabbath’ in 1970, but this time informed by newer sonic developments (such as the uncompromising avant garde impulse of second wave Norwegian black metal, the production techniques of hardcore dance music and the rough grain of noise music) they were liberated to imagine new textures, new colours and new heaviness. Strange new affects were being wrought by outliers such as Electric Wizard, Sleep, Boris and Burning Witch. A new terrain was being formed which would act as a sturdy platform from which Sunn O))) would become the public-facing avatars of heavy metal as a hip, desirable, invigorating late iteration of modernism; a glorious transit that would reach its apotheosis with the release of Monoliths & Dimensions in 2009.

But before this unlikely ascension, there was one band who represented the future-facing apex potential of metal. They created new music at the intersection of extreme amplification, trance-inducing repetition, minimalism and improvisation, and achieved this without bolting on sequenced digital production, and without begging for intellectual respectability by fusing with other, more critically acceptable genres. And that band was Khanate.

A New York four piece, they stood on a continuum with some of the great 20th century modernists of art and cinema in as much as they shattered time into discrete units, freezing one terrifying moment of horror and examining it from a seemingly never-ending multiplicity of angles. This was cubism made sound. The lack of release or respite offered by their music was truly breathtaking. This sound represented the instant before a human body connected with concrete at speed, time-stretched to infinity, reaching – eventually – beyond terror, into transcendental bliss. (This was an idea made literal by the NSFW/ NSF anywhere video that accompanied the song ’Dead’.) James Plotkin (bass) and Alan Dubin (vocals) of rambunctious avant-grinders OLD, Stephen O’Malley (guitar) of Burning Witch and Tim Wyskida (drums) of post rockers Blind Idiot God, to borrow a well worn James Brown exhortation, hit it then quit it. The almost laughably wretched symphony of feedback and inchoate pain of their self-titled album in 2001 was followed in 2003 by the grand abyssal statement of Things Viral. This was the sound of extreme music dunked in an acid bath and stripped down to a skeleton; every inch of its workings exposed in painful clarity. Heightening band tension, no doubt partially created internally by the intensity of the music, led to the relatively more conventional, sideways step of Capture & Release in 2005. (It should be pointed out however that the word ‘relatively’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.) A year later the band split with some kvetching in public about commitment to the cause, and the superior, tantalising Clean Hands Go Foul recorded during their third album studio session and released posthumously in 2009, only added to the sense of Khanate being a band who had arrived too early and then pushed too far and too hard. And that, it seemed, was that.

If it seems odd to anyone today that Khanate have now reconvened and produced a new album, then the band themselves don’t feel the same way. But then they’ve had time to get used to the idea: they broke ground on To Be Cruel seven years ago. After the 2006 split, there was an initial cooling off period, followed by all members of the group getting back in touch. Stephen O’Malley played with the late Mika Vainio in ÄÄNIPÄÄ, whose album, Through A Pre-Memory (2013), featured Alan Dubin on vocals. While touring with KTL, O’Malley also shared bills in Philadelphia with James Plotkin, who also mastered his Keep An Eye Out record for Table Of The Elements in 2009. Tim Wyskida and Plotkin formed the dark ambient group Jodis with Hydra Head’s Aaron Turner. And all of them saw each other socially, sporadically, despite now living miles apart.

Today Tim Wyskida lives in Berlin, a move prompted by a desire to claw back more time in which to play live music. Back in 2015 he was still living in New York City however and it was during a visit by O’Malley that the pair recorded the track ‘Solastalgia’ (with John Zorn engineer Mark Urselli) at Eastside Sound Studio for the Ben Chasny curated compilation Hexadic III. Stephen O’Malley, who is talking to me from Paris, his home of 16 years, reveals that his ideas for this initial session were inspired by Chasny’s book, The Hexadic System, saying he used it as “a kind of tarot – a divinatory approach” to break free from entrenched compositional habits. The pair were delighted with the results. Wyskida adds: “We decided a short while later, ‘Hey, let’s jump into a studio and work on some more music to see how it goes.’”

They reconvened in 2017 at Orgone, the small studio complex then run by Colombian metal producer Jaime Gomez Arellano and situated in rural Bedfordshire, 40 miles north of London. O’Malley says: “It’s an old radio station that was used during World War Two for sending fake German radio signals over the channel into occupied France.”

The pair spent a week working there, using Hexadic-inspired charts O’Malley had drawn up as a starting point. The guitarist was also inspired by his surroundings: “There were several little out buildings at Orgone and one of them was a pretty fucked up: a grim, concrete box. It sounded horrible in there and you didn’t want to be inside it for long. It felt haunted and gross. We put a couple of stacks [of amplification] in there and I played them at high volume… I felt imprisoned in that box.”

O’Malley says he resisted the idea of considering these new passages of music as Khanate material, but Wyskida had a more practical take: “It was quite clear that what we were working on sounded very much like Khanate. No surprise! Of course it did…” Eventually they both agreed to send a wealth of recordings, across several CDs, to the other two members.

James Plotkin, who is talking to me from his home in Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania, says he had a feeling that someone would eventually push the idea of them working on new material and given that time had passed he was open to it when the suggestion arrived, his only caveat being they couldn’t reform just to perform old songs. On hearing the new material he said it was clearly destined to become a new Khanate record: “So it was time for me to put up or shut up really.”

The three remember their vocalist being more hesitant, but coming round quickly after Plotkin, with some guidance from O’Malley, started arranging the disparate ideas and passages together into more coherent compositions. Alan Dubin, the only band member still resident in New York, says: “I was blown away. The guitar had a fantastic tone. The drums were bonkers. It all sounded like khanate to me. I was totally down.”

Even if Dubin was initially hesitant (he says he wasn’t), it is entirely understandable. You only have to hear his vocals with Khanate, or his other main project Gnaw, to get a visceral sense of how much he commits to his role. He has the furthest distance out of any notional comfort zone to travel, no matter what effort the other members put in, and that is presumably in psychological as well as physical terms. He started working on lyrics at the point when the songs were all but finished. He remains tight-lipped about the concrete meanings to his words but says that each track represents a fictional story inspired by his own interaction with the world. He gives me an example: “‘Like A Poisoned Dog’ was written when I had really bad insomnia and stress due to working extremely long hours without a break for months on end. Plus I had a roommate that I really couldn’t stand. I was exhausted, extremely angry and on the edge. So the timing was just right for me to write it.”

I’m relieved to hear that – for Dubin at least – there is a therapeutic endgame to be reached via pushing through such toxic, angry and harrowing feelings. He says his reaction to the music when he hears it now is sometimes relieved laughter, as if these personal moments of stress are now dealt with conclusively.

There’s a great Tom Waits interview (NME, 1 October 1983) that features a hapless writer asking the singer if he has taken steps to protect his voice, to which he replies, “Protect it from what? Vandals?” Dubin shares this cavalier spirit – as far as he’s telling me at least. He doesn’t do any operatic vocal warm ups. He doesn’t gargle with sea water. He doesn’t avoid red wine. The difference between singing like a man in his early 50s being boiled in oil compared to singing like a man in his early 30s being boiled in oil is only one of a few degrees apparently: “I’ve been singing like this for so long that I’m just used to the punishment on my throat. Although it does take a little while longer for me to recuperate now. When we were in the studio recording my vocals, by the end of it, my talking voice was almost gone. It sounded like I had laryngitis.”

The recording session the singer is referring to took place in early 2019 in Menegroth – aka The Thousand Caves – in Queens, NY, where vocals, bass, percussion and synthesis were recorded by the band minus O’Malley with engineer Colin Marsden. Wyskida brought a van full of exotic percussion gear along with him including a concert bass drum, timpani, an anvil and a home made 5’ by 8’ metal thundersheet. Describing the last of these he says: “You can make incredible sounds by rubbing rubber balls along the sheet, so it sounds almost like whale sounds, or maybe even opera vocals. And then if you hit it with a harder stick, it sounds more like a gunshot.” The aim was to bolster the relatively few drum hits already on the tracks – to really make them count – rather than to add counter or polyrhythms. Instead, to exist in the echoing voids between punishing strikes, Plotkin worked up generative synthesizer patches that would add deep industrial noise ambience to the most sparsely lit recesses of the tracks.

This extended period of writing, composing and recording stood in stark contrast with their previous, very DIY experiences. One of the upshots for Wyskida, for example, was getting to watch Dubin singing up close for the first time: “He looks like he’s in pain! Colin, the engineer, was taken aback at how intense it was. He was reading some of the lyrics and watching Alan perform them, and then said, ‘This is just… terrible.’ [LAUGHS] I marvel at how Alan can scream like that and not lose his voice.”

The drummer talks mysteriously about ‘intoxicants’ being taken in the later stages of this session leading to some berserk experimentation: “Do you know what a gong choke is? I’d get James to stand behind my gong, wallop it as hard as I could and he’d hug it.” Bottles were smashed in order to create novel percussion sounds but they soon discovered where the engineer drew the line. Wyskida adds: “He wasn’t so fond of the idea of us using the explosives that we’d brought into his studio. He thought a fire alarm would go off. And then he said if we did it outside the police would turn up.”

Later that year the band convened with Randall Dunn at Strange Weather Studios in Brooklyn to mix the album. It was the first time the four of them had been in the same room at the same time for at least 15 years, and the suggestion seems to be that socialising perhaps got in the way of the mix. Whatever the reason the band weren’t happy, but the process was then further interrupted by the pandemic. The final mix was undertaken by Dunn, O’Malley and Plotkin in summer 2021. The band were blown away by the results.

To Be Cruel is an incredible record, three tracks of 20 minutes each push the Khanate template outwards in weird and affecting new ways. The production is exquisite. Having had the luxury of living with it for several weeks now I’ve realised that subconsciously I’ve come to appreciate it much in the same way I appreciate a dub record recorded at the Black Ark such is its depth and spatiality. It is a record of fractal depth that bristles with detail at the very borders of perception. But most importantly it achieves all of this without short changing listeners on caustic vitriol, despondent awe and unquenchable agitation.

I don’t think it’s insulting – or particularly controversial – to suggest that on the face of it, Khanate have a particularly upsetting and punishing vibe. After 20 years of interviewing metal bands, I know not to automatically assume that the negativity of a piece of music is any kind of useful key to explaining the temperament of the people who made it, yet there is such an unremittingly preeminent bleakness to Khanate, such a powerful denudation of joy, that it seems fair to assume that there is something notable about the people responsible. But then naturally, I also think it’s fair to assume that Khanate, as people must have mellowed somewhat over the hiatus, begging the question: isn’t it much harder maintaining these levels of sonic anxiety now that they’re in their early 50s?

Wyskida has spent some time considering this idea and admits that while anger plays some part in the process – “When you hang out with these guys you’re going to hear a fair amount of negative commentary about US society in general” – for him the primary motivator is to “unleash power”. Plotkin counters that while he may have mellowed in some respects, if people are actually paying attention to the world they’ll know it is now easier than ever to get angry with the state it’s been reduced to: “I think there’s a level of maturity that that’s been achieved by Khanate that is probably reflected in the new music being not as raw and unhinged as it was in the past, but on the new record there’s a pretty good amount of vitriol that, you know, is certainly not forced.” Dubin reflects gleefully: “Maybe I’m more mellow but this is what I like doing so it’s easy for me. But it’s not just about sonic anxiety. I have been told that previous Khanate albums have been strangely soothing. So maybe this album will help soothe new listeners… HELP SOOTHE THEM TO DEATH!” [LAUGHS]

To Be Cruel sleeve art by Karl Lemieux of Constellation records

Alan Dubin and James Plotkin have been close friends since they were teenagers growing up as metal fans in New Jersey in the 80s; the former joined a band called Vile Stench, the latter: Regurgitation. Frustrated by the lack of progress of their respective groups they came together to form Old Lady Drivers (later known simply as OLD), a parodic grindcore band who signed to Earache in the late 80s and counted one Stephen O’Malley as a fan, splitting up in the early 90s. At the end of the 90s O’Malley wrapped up Burning Witch and left Seattle for New York. He was out at an ISIS show, late in 1999 and was introduced to recent Burning Witch convert Plotkin by Dave Witte of Municipal Waste. After talking for ten minutes, Plotkin asked if he was in a band and when O’Malley said no, he added, ‘Well, I’m a bassist and I know a drummer and a vocalist, so…’

By everyone’s account the first rehearsals happened quickly and intuitively without much discussion of direction or goals. The name came from O’Malley’s then interest in the history of the Mongolian empire, and in fact he says that at one point the band was called Ögedi, after the son of Genghis Khan, before they settled on Khanate, meaning the monarchical states ruled by these leaders. O’Malley can (and does) talk freely and knowledgeably on the subject of Mongol history until he checks himself, laughing: “The name actually doesn’t have anything to do with the music we make.”

They initially played together at Tim Wyskida’s rehearsal space in New Jersey, recording material on a digital 8-track. They fell into respective roles quite quickly with Plotkin becoming the arranger, O’Malley the riff writer, Dubin the literary aesthetic guide and Wyskida the de facto conductor. Khanate, for a metal band, were relatively free from the outset, meaning loose timing was a concept that needed to be contemplated seriously. Their set up quickly became one where everyone had a clear view of Wyskida: “It’s the only way to do it. Obviously, if I’m raising my hand in the air and coming down with a stick, it’s quite clear for everybody to see where the next strike is. When Khanate started, I didn’t really have any experience playing this type of music. I’m not sure this type of music even existed before Khanate was doing it. I think the thing that was unique with us was this idea of free timing. But even the word ‘free’ isn’t exactly accurate. You have to stay within certain parameters, timing wise, for the flow to be maintained. If you leave too long of a pause, the song loses its momentum, if you come in too soon, it gets jumpy, and then it doesn’t feel right.

“Initially, as the spaces between the hits were getting further and further apart, it was difficult. I would find myself rushing in to fill that space… my mind would be trying to hold the timing back but my limbs would have a different idea. I got more comfortable with it over time. We would talk about how everyone felt the flow. Constant conversations helped us to figure it out.”

The band’s 8-track recordings became the basis for their debut, self-titled record and in true no-budget style, Dubin’s vocals were recorded in a closet in Plotkin’s small apartment. O’Malley laughs: “Alan was screaming so loud that he lost his breath and passed out. I also remember him popping blood vessels in his eyes at some point through screaming so heavily.” Dubin sighs: “It was really fucking hot in there. Oh my god, I actually passed out a few times. We had the door closed because Jim’s flat was right near a street and we didn’t want to capture any extraneous traffic noise. I’d be drenched in sweat and he’d open the door going, ‘That was fucking great, dude! Next take! Let’s go!’ And I was like, ‘I feel like maybe I need some ice water first man.’”

There was a sense 20 years ago that Khanate were making urban music in that it was the soundtrack of existence buckling under the pressure of early 21st century city life. I ask them how they feel about that idea now given that three out of the four of them live in less stressful environs than NYC. For Plotkin it was never the main consideration but he admits it would be hard for him to imagine making music like this while living in “a beautiful place” in the countryside or the comfortable suburbs. O’Malley, who has been an American expat living in France for 15 years has had some time and distance to consider this: “I don’t want to come across as insensitive to people who went through something deeply tragic on that day but all of us went through 9/11. At the time I was 27; a pretty hard young man who had good armour from living in Manhattan. But then this world changing event happened that affected all levels of society and everyone’s personal lives. I think it really affected our music too somehow, not directly but by us experiencing something at such a scale that it couldn’t even be discussed or explained.”

There were a few improvements by the time they came to record Things Viral. O’Malley switched to a metal bodied Travis Bean guitar, they loaned a 16-track digital recorder from Aaron Turner and set up shop in a friend’s live-in rehearsal space above a tyre shop and a textiles factory in Sunset Park, New Jersey. O’Malley describes the space where Things Viral and Capture & Release were written and recorded as a “devoted but desperate scene”. He adds: “There was some heat between the players, and it comes across in the music. It was challenging to record at that high volume under those conditions without any isolation for drums. But I wouldn’t trade any of it. The character of the music is so pristine on those recordings.”

Thankfully by this stage, Alan Dubin’s lot had improved. His vocals for Things Viral were recorded at SAR Studios. True, he still had to record them in a closet but this time the closet was situated in a big studio. He remembers: “Funnily enough AC/DC were rehearsing there at the same time and just hanging out in the hallway. So I’d be inside this closet screaming the words to ‘Commuted’ – “Pieces of us in my hands, on the floor, in my pockets… RED GLORY!” – and I’d open the door to get some fresh air and Brian Johnson’s stood there drinking a beer going, ‘Yeah dude!’”

By the time Khanate came to record their third studio album Capture & Release with Jason LaFarge over four days at Seizures Palace, Brooklyn, there was a fundamental disagreement over how to proceed. Plotkin favoured keeping the same method of improvisation then composition with little practice to keep things fresh and spontaneous, while Wyskida and O’Malley wanted to try out a more traditional process of songwriting, practising/finessing then recording, and ultimately they won out. The irony was that while this new method arguably didn’t produce their best work initially, it was so effective that it left them with a full day of extra studio time and tape left to fill. They recorded some improvisational pieces which, when finally released as the posthumous Clean Hands Go Foul in 2009, ironically revealed a band at the height of their powers in some respects.

The following year divisions widened into unbridgeable rifts. The issue of four young men moving at different speeds in different directions who, perhaps, didn’t yet have the maturity to discuss these issues in a dispassionate manner wasn’t going away. O’Malley is now frank about the extra band stresses he was under: “For me 2006 was a very complicated year. On a personal level, I was just getting divorced from my wife and I was dealing with alcoholism to a pretty high degree.” However, at the same time, SunnO))) were just starting to blow up in popularity and after successful tours across America and Europe he decided he needed a break from both groups to get himself straight. Not long afterwards however he got a call from Martin Ain asking if SunnO))) would support Celtic Frost on tour across the US. It proved an opportunity he couldn’t turn down: “The decision didn’t fly very well with the Khanate guys. And I guess, retrospectively, it came across as favouritism.”

It wasn’t the only issue though. Khanate themselves were growing in stature and offers of longer and longer tours were coming in. Dubin reveals that his full time job in video editing made it impossible for him to commit to multi-month trips away from home. Eventually, Plotkin announced that he’d had enough and walked, formalising what had probably been on the cards for some time. He is nothing if not philosophical about it all now: “I think the thing that led to the fracture of the band was probably more a case of life happening to four different people with four different mindsets and four different sets of priorities.”

Late in 2016 CLRVYNT.com published an excellent oral history of Khanate, ending on the downer note that it was highly unlikely they would ever play together live again, unaware of course, that at that very moment the first stirrings of a reanimated group were twitching into life. At the end of the piece, band members made the very real point that their cessation had left a notable hole in the live extreme music ecosphere.

While the band won’t be drawn on whether they’ll make more studio recordings together again, luckily plans are already underway for new live shows early next year. They’re going to take it step by step, playing a show or two in Europe first to see how it feels before committing to anything more extensive. The logistics are more difficult now of course. There is no short drive to a warehouse space above a tyre shop, no neighbourhood closet for Alan Dubin to be shoved into. Rehearsals will be more crucial now than they ever were in the past.

Wyskida, who goes out to watch more live music than ever before now that he lives in Berlin, told CLRVYNT that if Khanate ever reformed they would give the live music scene a boot up the ass. Big words, but does he stand by them now live shows are looming… He is sure of it: “Yeah, absolutely. There are some gems out there, but generally I feel like I did when Khanate first got going. People play for different reasons. Most want to be part of a big tribe. They embrace cliches and gather around them. They’re what I call trace artists. Putting up a tracing paper on top of the Mona Lisa and tracing the outline, then calling themselves artists. It’s frustrating for me to watch as I’ve always felt I should be doing something true to myself and interesting. There’s something about Khanate, where you feel like you’re kind of tossing a grenade into the middle of the music scene.”

Again in CLRVYNT Dubin was even more succinct when contemplating the then seemingly unlikely concept of Khanate playing live. He said he would relish the chance to eat the livers of weak Khanate copyists and wash them down with a nice chianti. Now that somewhere at this very moment a booker is no doubt negotiating a live appearance by them I wonder if he’s relishing the chance to put this into practice, figuratively or metaphorically at least.

He snaps: “Figuratively? No, I mean that I am absolutely good to eat their livers. All of them. Literally. I will literally eat their fucking livers.”

To Be Cruel is released digitally today on Sacred Bones with vinyl to follow on 30 June. The full reissue programme includes Khanate ST, Things Viral, Capture & Release and Clean Hands Go Foul

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