Arson About: Burning Guitars With Mike Vest Of 11Paranoias & Bong

JR Moores travels to South Shields to meet the prolific underground guitarist and witness an immolation for inspiration

Photographs by Mark Savage

At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar in an act that would be described by the writer Michael Lydon as "a sacrifice: the offering of the perfect, most beloved thing, so its destruction could ennoble him further."

52 years later on the grey beach of Marsden Bay, Mike Vest is burning a bunch of his old guitars in an act the musician himself describes as "better than just putting them in a skip".

Vest has accumulated plenty of irreparable guitars over the years from playing in bands including Bong, 11Paranoias, Drunk In Hell, Blown Out, Haikai No Ku, Melting Hand, Dodge Meteor and a limitless array of other projects. In interviews, he’s even been known to claim membership of additional bands that don’t actually exist. Lobster Priest? No, that one was evidently real.

Setting alight to these guitars, says Vest, "is one of those ideas that sounds good in your head. Then when you start working it out, thinking about going to the petrol station and getting some gasoline, it gets serious all of a sudden. Have we got a fire extinguisher?" On the way to the photo shoot we drive through South Shields, visiting three different shops before we find one that does actually sell lighter fluid, and stopping off en route to collect an empty oil barrel from a car park. After a Spinal Tap-esque delay during which each guitar demonstrates a stubborn reluctance to want to catch fire at all, soon enough flames are dancing, smoke is billowing, and Vest is holding a sizzling guitar aloft like some kind of denim-clad fantasy warrior.

Interviewed beforehand in his kitchen, Vest says there is only one guitar from which he will never be parted. It’s the black SG he got when he was 16 and used in every band he was in for the next ten years. That one split in half and was glued back together. He can’t use it anymore but has kept hold of it for sentimental reasons. Vest’s first band, formed when he was at school, were called Evil Mountain. They would perform "really bad versions" of Iron Monkey songs like ‘Fink Dial’ and ‘666 Pack’.

Evil Mountain disintegrated when Vest discovered the first Khanate record. "I was obsessed with that album," he remembers. "That got me into feedback. Around that time, SunnO))) were coming out and they were talking about loads of bands that nobody knew about and the Table Of The Elements label which had all the contemporary drone pioneers. That’s what spurred it all on, really. Khanate wasn’t as cosmic though. That’s what I preferred, noise that was considered almost cosmic and fucked-with rather than just stale feedback, which is where Fushitsusha and my obsession with all the Japanese music comes in. They were doing exactly what I thought you should be doing which was having it groove-based but inside were all those abstract harmonies of feedback."

As different projects form and fall like minor empires, one constant in Vest’s career has been the mighty Bong. The Newcastle unit specialise in drone metal minimalism with glacial tempos and all-engulfing distortion. Reviewing last year’s Thought And Existence album for this website, Louise Brown reasserted the fact that Bong are "on a par with some of the greats of the genre from Yob to Om and including the godfathers, Earth, themselves."

Bong formed when Vest was 23 (he’s now 36) as he began to withdraw from the hardcore bands he’d played in previously. "When I was about 19 or 20, I started to meet people who were into hardcore punk but also into John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Skullflower, so it all squished together and I realised you could do whatever you wanted. That’s when it started to get interesting, guitar-wise, and I realised there’s still so much to explore with playing guitar. I wouldn’t say I’m great player, compared to what I see from what I call ‘proper bands’. I have a stunted style because I taught myself. But within that, you can still create your own sound. People have said they can tell when I’m playing on a record. There’s been a lot of exploration with guitars so to find your own sound is pretty good. Guitars get a bad rep."

Just as they impacted on many fellow purveyors of underground heaviness, Skullflower had a particularly profound influence on Vest: "Form Destroyer, IIIrd Gatekeeper, Carved Into Roses… all that stuff is magical." While he hasn’t read the recent article on Matthew Bower’s descent into cryptofascist behaviour, everyone Vest knows has been discussing it. He worries that others who’ve passed through the revolving door of Skullflower are being tarred with the same brush as Bower. These include people Vest can vouch as being solid, like Lee Stokoe who played on Fucked On A Pile Of Corpses and runs the Matching Head label, and erstwhile Melting Hand member Russell Smith from Terminal Cheesecake. It’s had a negative impact on them, says Vest. They’ve had gigs cancelled and suchlike. Vest hasn’t seen Matthew Bower for years, and nothing dodgy occurred when they used to hang out together listening to hip hop records and compilations of instrumental Kenyan drum music, although Vest does admit that Bower was always a "spicy character" and quite a "strange fella".

"The people who I feel sorry for aren’t the Matthew Bowers of the world because probably, to him, this is all going to plan. The thing that upsets me is it doesn’t come off well for the people who had something to do with Skullflower when it wasn’t about that and it was about free thinking, carving your own path, and doing something that essentially nobody was doing at the time because that sort of noise-guitar style wasn’t popular. It was totally anti-politics with made-up words, sci-fi landscapes, and jokes among the track titles. It’s a shame he’s done all that. I don’t condone it. The thing I’m upset about is the people who it’ll affect indirectly who haven’t been in Skullflower for years. And those special records will be tainted by what’s been said. I do think if some people had conducted some research it could’ve all been avoided. I imagine Bower’s probably been pumping out a lot of this stuff for quite a few years. Instead of throwing money at a name, certain promoters should have said ‘Well, who is in Skullflower at the minute?’, looked at what they’ve released, and asked if that was the vibe they wanted. ‘Can you play IIIrd Gatekeeper?’ Well, that’s not how it’s going to work because that record was thirty years ago. There’s no good outcome. It’s just a mess.

"The one thing I will say about all this xenophobic and Nazi stuff in black metal and everything else that’s going on is this: if you’re buying that stuff, as far as I’m concerned you’re supporting a cause. If you’re listening to and buying that stuff, that’s not on. I hate it when people say it’s art for art’s sake. If you’re putting that into the world – especially now – and you’re buying it, you don’t know what you’re funding. There are a lot of people around now who run these black metal distros and everyone’s buying a lot of Nazi black metal and it’s a big business. That’s not being addressed. I think that should be looked at as well. This isn’t cool. It just needs to be got rid of. We’ve got enough ostracisation and segregation in politics as it is. We don’t need to be stoking these flames because you’ll get a world that you never wanted."

The plight of former Skullflower collaborators and the relative popularity of fascist metal bands aren’t the only things that trouble Vest. Over the course of our two-hour conversation, he voices concern about a number of grievances. What he describes as: unadventurous listeners being spoon-fed insipid bite-sized recommendations by the algorithms of exploitative streaming platforms; monolithic booking agents impeding the diversity of bills and quashing opportunities for acts who are actually striving to do something different; artists who rashly flock onto the roster of the same trendy psych-rock label that all the other bands are signed to; independent imprints being equally prone as major corporations in manipulating the direction of their musicians through either overt or clandestine means; producers who overload compression onto guitar tracks so that every album by every band sounds like it was made by the same group of soulless automatons; musicians who think they’re being experimental simply by prodding a synth or two when that particular instrument has been around for donkey’s years; audiences who are reluctant to put any effort in so instead they obey the commandments ordained by those authoritative listicles purporting to have determined ‘The Most Experimental Albums Of The Century’…

"I feel as if people are being forced into what to like and they’re not really responding. They’re just going along with it. There are better bands out there that don’t get as much recognition simply because they don’t have representation. And there’s always all this protocol to do with certain aspects of booking gigs and stuff. There’s still that rigid formula, instead of it being a lot freer. It probably comes out of the fact that I’m so prolific that nobody knows what the hell’s going on, which I understand because I don’t clear anything up a lot of the time and I don’t really do anything on the social media side to tell you anything about it. There’s no ‘This is this band. And this is this band.’ It’s just: New album. There it is. New album. There it is…"

One of those many new albums is Asterismal by the morbidly psychedelic doom metal trio 11Paranoias. The other members, Adam Richardson and Nathan Perrier, are absent from today’s instrument burning session because they both live in London and haven’t been invited. The album is being released by Ritual Productions who have never attempted to meddle in anything Vest has created, be it with this band or Bong. The final instalment of a trilogy, where 2014’s Stealing Fire From Heaven had "lead drums" and 2016’s Reliquary For A Dreamed Of World had "lead bass", Asterismal foregrounds Vest’s ear-mashing guitar work.

"We started to realise it would make for a good trilogy when we did the second one because the bass sound was so good on it," he explains. "There were a lot of melodic lead bass bits so that came out in the mix. I wasn’t playing a lot of the riffs on that record so the prominent groove-based bits came from the bass and a lot of the guitars were quite exploratory. It’s quite a melodically dreamy record that one, rather than full-on heavy scuzzed-out doom.

We always spoke of doing trilogies and we thought Asterismal was a really good record because it’s like a mixture of the first two albums and everything’s also a bit brighter. It was Adam who came up with the idea because he’s had his head in the mixes, the mastering, and all of that. The artwork for the records is all very similar as well. We used those MPV [Multidimensional Paranoid Vision] pictures where you’ve got to put on the glasses and it shows you different pictures within each picture that’s printed on top. So it felt like they were all connected in some kind of odd way. I’m into sagas. I like things to be all synced up together in a bizarre triangle. It also encourages people to look at the other albums as well. Let’s get back to the idea of historic stuff. Try to remember a couple of years ago when we did this album and how different it is and how it’s changed. I always find it fascinating how bands change, in a good way. How those bits on that particular record are really good and they’ve made them bigger and you feel as if that was what they were meant to do."

What they were meant to do? Like some kind of predestined grand scheme of things? Free will set aside as we bend to the shackles of God’s plan? To fate?! Fire rituals on the beach? Sacrificial instruments? Much has been made of the hypothetical relationship between drone metal and spirituality. Owen Coggins has written a whole book on the subject. SunnO))) have been branded with more than their fair share of quasi-religious analysis. Doom-metal legends Sleep, to whom both 11Paranoias and Bong are often favourably compared, have spoken of their quest to "find God", albeit through the unusual process of playing ridiculously long songs that are all about smoking weed. Al Cisneros, bassist and singer in Sleep and Om, believes that riffs are constantly floating around us in the atmosphere. The musician doesn’t create a riff. He merely beckons it out into the open. He is the vessel through which The Riff is able to manifest itself into existence. Vest sees things differently. "I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes down to it. I want to believe in ghosts but sadly I can’t. I understand what he means about picking stuff out of the air. If I’m writing demos for albums I don’t think about what I’m going to do, it’s just what comes out. So I understand that he would just be sitting there and discover something that sounds great. I suppose it’s a romanticised way of talking about it. But it’s in your subconscious. That’s where they’re coming from. They’re not in the air."

Vest went off Sleep when they licensed their own line of skateboards. So don’t hold your breath for any 11Paranoias craft ale spin-off opportunities. There’ll be no pair of box-fresh Adidas trainers embellished with the Bong logo to put on your Christmas list. Oh, and don’t expect any new material from another of Vest’s numerous projects, Blown Out, who used to specialise in vivacious side-long psych-prog instrumentals. The trio’s other members are in Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs who appear to be doing rather well at the moment. This is not the first time one of Vest’s bands has been scuppered by what he calls "better offer syndrome". He doubts anybody will discover Blown Out through Pigs’ success. "When we were doing Blown Out, they were doing Pigs, and we always used to mention all the bands that everyone was in because I felt we had to cover everyone’s backs. I would list all the bands in the promo or whatever you would call it. But from what I can tell, not that I read any of this sort of BBC nonsense, I’ve never heard them mention anything to do with Blown Out."

Vest says he always knew Pigs would become a commercial success despite – or perhaps due to – the fact that "they’re not really into music that much, man." From Vest’s vantage point, "They’re into partying and that’s what people want. They want a band that’s like a party machine. A lot of the time, people in London want to watch northern people fall around drunk. They like that. They like watching The Cosmic Dead make fools of themselves. They like seeing Pigs being twenty deep into Sambuca shots and kicking off, lads about town, wearing footballs tops. A lot of people down in London probably think Newcastle still has outdoor toilets. Flat caps and rollies and stuff. So for them, it’s like going to the zoo."

To reiterate, let’s not expect any further Blown Out activity. That’s Mike Vest for you. Uncompromising. Independent. Prolific. Bloody-minded. Off the radar of the influential booking agents. Unable to play any sort of game. Totally honest. Maybe shooting himself in the foot every now and again but maintaining his definition of integrity in the process. So thoroughly committed to the cause of experimentation within in rock music that he thinks Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs are some kind of frolicsome pop band. A true sceptic if ever there was one. If he’s not sacrificing all this broken equipment to the sonic gods, then he’s certainly sacrificing something. And if he happens to be having a guitar bonfire, he might as well burn a bridge or two at the same time.

Asterismal is out now on Ritual Productions. Bong are on tour late April, 11Paranoias are playing live over summer

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