Saturday, May 22, 2010

Interview: Vukodlak

Well, first of all, I just wanted to say that it has been a strange last few years in the American black metal scene, hasn't it? What started out as a completely underground movement, put forth and sponsored mainly by a select few individuals, spread out all over the country - with a few half-hearted efforts at consolidation - has become a very large and thriving scene, with dozens and dozens of bands. Now, Vukodlak has been around for a little while now, and has been a part, through various compilation appearances, interviews, etc. of the rest of the world's picture of the burgeoning USBM movement - where do you think Vukodlak really fits into the scheme of things? Do you think that your band should be taken (or do you want it to be taken) as a sort of 'fringe' group, operating on the edge of the entire movement, or do you want to see Vukodlak step into a larger position?

In all honesty, I don't feel that Vukodlak fits into what has developed as "the American scene." Before Vukodlak was conceived, I had attempted to form a band with several members of Evil Divine which was to be Maskim Xul. Aside from those individuals, the only others I knew personally at that time who were involved in black metal were Xaphan from what is now Kult ov Azazel and Troy from Bloodshed Divine. The ideas that ultimately spawned Vukodlak were developed in near isolation. As I later discovered, most of what makes up the "scene" in Pennsylvania is centered in Philadelphia and somewhat in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your viewpoint, I was living in the extreme northwestern part of Pennsylvania, Erie to be precise, and barely anyone in that area was into metal let alone anything more underground. I've grown comfortable working this way as of late and I certainly don't wish to be in a position wherein Vukodlak would be representing American black metal as a whole.

I know that you have released a few tapes - first of all your demo 'Via Diabolis', which I am holding in my hand right here, and then, going by website, some advance tracks from your upcoming album, a tape called 'Eternal Damnation'. Now this first tape, which I believe was revamped and 're-released' at some point in its initial history (am I wrong about this?) is what probably did the most work in getting your name and sound out into the underground, right? It seemed to appear in a lot of places all at once...and now you have released 'Blackest Autumn', a MCD on Realms of Darkness (Kevin Knipp's website/magazine turned label), so, let me ask you: what was the response like to the first tape? Any criticism or praise that really sticks out in your mind? Are you still proud of 'Via Diabolis'? Would you go back and change anything on it if you were given the chance? How do you think it measures up to your latest release?

Yes, "Via Diabolis" definitely helped me to establish Vukodlak in the underground. A lot of effort was spent sending out multitudes of free copies because my theory was why the hell would anyone pay for something by some completely unheard of band? Even those that actually paid for the demo were only charged enough to cover the cost of the cassette itself and shipping. As you mentioned, this demo has been re-released through Mp3.com. It's the same mixes and whatnot that appeared on the original plus one bonus track which I had recorded for the Pagan Winter radio show that was hosted by Imperial of the mighty Krieg. While a few people complained about the very straightforwardly programmed drums, the initial response was quite positive overall. I am still proud of what I accomplished with this release because I put it out with absolutely no outside help at all from beginning to end. There are a few things that I might have done differently with it however I feel that it represents where I was at that time in my life. I don't think that it accurately depicts where Vukodlak is now but neither does "Blackest Autumn" since most of those recordings were from nearly two years ago.

If I am remembering correctly, you first started Vukodlak as a sort of 'project' band, really, just working out songs for your own amusement and then sending them to friends to get their opinion, etc. What made you decide to stay with this group, to expand it, build upon its own growing momentum, and put so much work into its growth? What I am getting at is this: at some point, you must have made the decision, on some level, to commit a large amount of energy to Vukodlak, to make it grow, to invest your imagination with its potential...what sponsored this decision? Can you remember the moment when you thought: 'Well, I'm in a band now, things are going pretty well, I'm going to work with this...'? What do you think Vukodlak or your other musical efforts really brings to your own life - what would you miss if it were all to disappear? And, most importantly, what do you think you have learned about the music of other bands by writing your own - do you approach listening/thinking about music differently now, knowing how difficult it is to produce?

After I recorded the song "Ja Sam Vampir," I received some encouragement from a few friends who liked it and I decided to work on an entire demo. Once that was finished, I promoted the hell out of it. I took everything one step at a time. I never felt that it was a "band" since I've always been the only one putting any energy into it for the most part. I've finally gotten to the point where I had aimed to be at which is having someone able to pay for duplication and to handle distribution. Some people may call that "commercial" or whatever but isn't part of music being able to share it? If being "true" is about having hundreds of shitty cassettes in your garage then I don't care to a part of your little club. I'm not making money off any of this; in fact, I've lost quite a bit over the last couple years. Anyway, back to your other questions... Vukodlak, and music in general, is an outlet for me, a catharsis. If I were no longer able to be get things out this way I'd probably become a serial killer or something for want of something to keep my brain occupied. I've been playing music for eleven years and making home-brewed recordings for nearly as long. Many people enjoy the live aspect of being in a band but I've always enjoyed the creativity involved with writing and recording much more. I couldn't care less about being on stage like some trained poodle jumping through hoops for the amusement of others.

Because many of our readers are European, and a large part Scandinavian, I wanted to ask you this, to kind of let them into the minds of American musicians: tell us how difficult it is to be in band in America, not only from the standpoint of finding capable musicians, or those who share your own aims, but also from the point of view of trying to establish one's band, find rehearsal space, gather support from others, distribute your music in stores, etc. I have found that a lot of European musicians, for example, just do not understand how large this country really is, and how completely isolated we are as artists - separated from each other, separated from 'society', and scorned or feared on every level...care to comment? What is it about Americans that makes them so afraid, not only of experimentation in the arts, or roads of expression that are not distinctly familiar to them, but also of any kind of honest personal/emotional communication, of art - in whatever genre?

It depends on where you live in America actually. You may find more people with similar ideals and aims in more populated areas like larger cities, but you might be stuck searching for studios for rehearsal space. On the other hand, in rural areas, most people have their own homes and thus have access to basements and garages for rehearsal space but there are far fewer individuals interested in working on music with you. I suppose it all depends on what you're after. I've lived in both rural areas and much larger cities like Philadelphia and I can see the advantages and disadvantages of either. I don't know that artists specifically are scorned by American society but anything remotely different certainly is. Most people here feel safe in their consumer-driven worlds and feel violated if you interfere with that or make them think on any level beyond their pathetic day-to-day life. MTV dictates so much of what adolescents and teenagers think life is all about. It's almost like a 24-hour infomercial. Then again, as Anton LaVey so often said, "Better to be used than to be useless..." Some people are born sheep and may never attain anything greater than that status.

Related to the question above, tell us a little bit about where you live - the nature of your social environment, your everyday life, and what part music (especially your own writing) plays in your 'normal' life, outside of the metal scene. How did you first become involved with black metal - or with extreme music? Do you find it difficult to get the time, energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration to work on music? How far do you think you will take your own musical explorations? What part will music play in your life in the future - or, rather, how much of a role would you like to see it play?

Currently, I'm living in a rather small town. It's too small and certainly too rural for my tastes though. Any time you can go into a bar and see people in fishing gear it's a big much. I have a job like most other people which takes up a lot of my time each day. I've been on the other end though and was unemployed for part of last year for various reasons. When it got to that point, I no longer appreciated the free time I had and became quite listless. I'm generally more productive when I have to squeeze in an hour here or there with my guitar even if it just means playing along with a favorite CD. I do go through phases where I won't even touch my guitar for days but then I'll pick it back up and often come up with a really cool riff that was lying dormant in the back of my brain. Whether or not I continue releasing music publicly, it will always be some part of my life. I don't want to be playing black metal when I'm 50 years old though. I'll find some other way to express myself when the time comes but until then I will take Vukodlak as far as I see fit. This has always been driven by my vision and no one can tell me when it's time to stop but me.

Some of our readers may know that members of your band are also responsible for a small website/group called 'Pennsylvanian Hunger', which is geared mainly towards supporting USBM and, in particular, black metal from your own state...how has this project been going so far, and where would you like to take it? Are there any plans to organize events or gatherings which will support the Pennsylvania scene? Are there any other Pennsylvania/West Virginia/Appalachian groups or cults that you think our readers should know about? Do you think the groups from this part of the country share certain characteristics, motives, sounds, or ideals that make them stand out from other collections of artists in the USBM scene?

The initial concept of Pennsylvanian Hunger was mine although Jason/Lord Sedit (Vukodlak/Evil Divine/etc.) helped out as well. I was tired of everyone I met online speaking negatively of USBM in general and decided that since geography separates most American bands that I would focus on my own state. Jason started a webzine and a club on Yahoo.com sharing the same name as my website but they're both geared towards all USBM rather than just local bands. The main idea of Pennsylvanian Hunger was to help promote bands that people outside out area would never have a chance to hear. Up until this point, it's been primarily an archive of information but plans to set up shows have been discussed as well as the possibility of a compilation. I feel that there are tons of worthy bands from this area whereas Bloodstorm usually seems to be the most wellknown. USBM forefathers Grand Belial's Key has members in Pennsylvania. There are really raw, ugly black metal bands like Vukodlak and Infernal Hatred and there are bands that are more orchestrated like Solace In The Shadows or Exorcism. Pennsylvanian black metal is as diverse as anywhere else but since most of the bands are located in or near metropolitan areas the attitudes have a tendency to be more harsh and hateful due to environment. That doesn't apply to everyone, of course, but a good majority of the individuals that I know personally are some of the most dedicated when it comes to music and what could be interpreted as the "black metal mindset."

I was actually born in West Virginia, and moved to Texas when I was four years old - but for whatever reason, and I can't say it's because of where I was born or the nature of the environment that I spent my first few years in (although this is what I suspect, deep down) I have always had a strong desire to go back to the Smoky Mountains or the northern Appalachian valleys, somehow, and to explore that vast, beautiful range even further...do you consider your environment directly influential/inspirational in composing music? From the title of your upcoming album, 'Appalachia', and from what I know of your own beliefs concerning this, it is almost as if you would like to place this part of the world on the metal map, musically, and as if you are saying: this region of the country is as important, influential, or inspiring, as any of the more 'famous' black metal locales: the Carpathians, the upper reaches of Norway, etc. Care to comment? Do you think that black metal, all around the world, is made all the more powerful when it is allied with the 'nature' themes that have been prevalent in the music of the Norwegians, for example, or do you think that sort of thematic material is best left to the Europeans?

I mentioned that most of the bands from Pennsylvania are from the city but some of the most majestic areas of the state are within a mere hour's drive. It creates an interesting mix of influences in the music produced here. Yes, there is disgust at the human filth that is pushed in your face day after day but there is also an almost magical beauty than can be found in nature and even in the architecture of historical cities like Philadelphia. The Appalachians are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. The word "Pennsylvania" itself means "Penn's woods." There's a great amount of history in this particular area of the country and many of us here acknowledge and draw from that. I don't think that Europe has a monopoly on influences of this ilk. I realize that their roots are deeper because those people have been there for thousands of years. However, if one can look away from the commercialism that is modern America you'll find that only a few hundred years ago this land was, for the most part, undefiled by human hands when Europe had already been raped and violated by disease and religious wars. There is an energy that still flows in the forests and rivers which is no different from that felt in any other region of the world. You have but to look for it.

I asked this question to a band earlier and got an interesting answer, so I want to put it to you as well: do you think that musicians, both when writing out the lyrics to fit with their music, and in the general construction of the themes, abstract emotional messages of their melodies, etc. have a personal responsibility or stake in what may happen when others listen to their work? Do you think that the power of producing music - bringing all of these disparate elements of art together (graphic design and visual manipulation, personal expression through language and music, image, tradition, etc.) - also brings with it a correspondingly important responsibility towards the listeners, taking them into different worlds or altered states, and then being liable, in some sense, for what these people may find there? Or do you think that it's outside the range of an artist to be responsible for what he may summon in the minds and hearts of his audience? How do you feel about the fact that, through your music, you may not only be spreading 'darkness' or themes of anger and despair, but also pushing people one step closer to actual violence? Do you think that black metal, as a style or genre, all-encapsulated, must be reserved as an outlet of the most extremely 'negative' emotions, and thus should be seen in this light, as an avenue of complete extremity, free of all boundaries, and taken with a grain of salt because of this...not taken so 'seriously'? Or should there be no limits on art at all, and must we take black metal musicians at face value?

Do I feel responsible for what listeners of my music may do? No. Not one fucking bit. People should take responsibility for their own actions. If Joe Smith listens to a black metal CD and then shoots himself, should the band members be at fault? Obviously not. This individual apparently had problems to begin with and may have gone the distance on his own regardless of what he had been hearing. Did anyone consider that maybe this music was the only thing that had consoled him when his life was utter garbage? If someone hears one of my songs and feels compelled towards violence, then so be it. The people who listen to black metal and actually hear what is being expressed already look at the world with cynical eyes. Having negative emotions is healthy and enables one to fully appreciate the positive things in life. Some people choose to create "happy" music and often live in a nightmare world of substance abuse and depression. Others unleash hatred and pain through their art and in turn are more healthy in their regular lives. The key is the ability to differentiate between truth and fantasy. I'm sure none of us runs around in the forest with swords and corpse paint but those things represent lost ideals. So yes, in many ways black metal musicians can be taken at face value if you approach it the right manner. Of course, I'm talking about people who really put forth the energy into the music, not goth posers attempting to piss off their parents.

Alright, let's turn away from these sorts of themes for a moment...let me ask you a question that's been in my mind ever since I first heard of your band, and read your first interview: just what do you find so inspirational, influential, or powerful in the music of Acheron? 'Blackest Autumn', for example, contained segments which I could tell were directly influenced by this band. In my mind Acheron are either completely underrated or totally overrated, and I can't really decide which - and I haven't been able to, for a number of years. Whatever one may think of them, they have been in existence or have been active for a long, long time now, standing, somehow, completely separate from the rest of the US scene, and just going about their own thing...comments? Did their overt religious/belief systems play any part in your own decision to sponsor Laveyan Satanism, or inspire you to explore these paths?

I enjoy everything about Acheron. Songs like "Fuck the Ways of Christ" perfectly sum up many of the philosophies of LaVeyan Satanism. I like that the song tempos vary; they aren't stuck in the "faster is always better" mentality. I know Vincent Crowley is a huge Black Sabbath fan which shows through in a lot of his riffs. Having grown up on Sabbath myself, maybe I've injected more of that influence than an Acheron one... I definitely feel that they stand apart from the rest of the supposed scene. They weren't hugely popular when it seemed that every death metal band was from Florida but yet they survive to this day, albeit having had a brief hiatus. I can't say that Acheron was directly responsible for my support of LaVeyan philosophies though. I've had a significant portion of these ideas my entire life; reading the Satanic Bible only helped to put a name on it. King Diamond was the real reason that I even picked up the book because I had heard so much about his involvement with Satanism and I've always had a healthy interest in any occult related topic.

From listening to 'Blackest Autumn' in particular, which I thought - for whatever reason - would feature a complete innovation or evolution in your sound (thankfully it didn't), I now am fairly certain that there are only a few styles of black metal that you really are attracted to instinctively, or which you think Vukodlak is capable of or naturally inclined to illustrate. What, in your mind, does Vukodlak really exist to portray or create in the mind of its listeners? Do you plan on staying with this style - harsh, raw, simple, violent, Darkthrone-laden, traditional black metal - or do you want to expand your sound even further and incorporate other elements or sounds? I noticed in 'Blackest Autumn', and I mentioned this in my review, that there is a sort of leaning there towards German thrash, whispers or echoes, maybe, of bands like Sodom, Destruction, etc. Does this reflect what's in the cards for Vukodlak? Tell us what you have planned for the future...

Musically, Vukodlak is and will always be this harsh, violent entity. I don't see that changing any time soon. I consider Darkthrone to be a profound influence on my simplistic approach to songs. I don't care how many notes I can jam into a riff if it I can't feel it and to me, black metal is about feeling, not musical masturbation. That isn't to say that I'll never incorporate other elements. I think "Cryptic Passage" is about as different from anything I've recorded thusfar and for many reasons it's one of my favorite songs especially lyrically. A bulk of the material released thusfar explores my views on Christianity but I don't want to base my whole lyrical direction on that. There's already one Deicide. I think that it's safe to say that future material will still contain occult themes but also stop to venture into the dark recesses that lie within ourselves. On another note, what is interesting is that you are now one of several people who have mentioned this German thrash influence when there is none to be found. I've never even heard most of those bands. The thrash I grew up on is stuff like old Megadeth, Overkill, etc. - all American bands. I'm sure that's considered blasphemy by more than a few folks but I can't change what I heard. Actually, my father was probably one of biggest initial influences on the musical path I've chosen. I grew up on liberal doses of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and other older metal bands. This wasn't when I was 9 or 10 years old; this was right out of the womb exposure. My mom used to get mad when he would put headphones on me as a little kid and play different stuff. We even went to see Ozzy together. As I grew older, I moved on to more aggressive forms of metal but that seed was planted early on.

Alright, this is where you get to write your last words...what do you want on the tombstone of this interview? Any last comments or things to tell our readers?

Be sure to check out "Blackest Autumn." Hopefully, the full length won't be take as long to get released as the mCD! Two-horned hails to Erebus for the interview...