MAYHEM - Nice Nighttime Music for Tender Maniacs
by Michael Moynihan
Thanks to Michael Moynihan for use of the interview.
For any of you that dont know alot about the history of the black metal scene, buy Lords Of Chaos and read all about it. It especially covers the Norweigan events of the early 90's (like Euronymous' death, Dead's suicide, and all the Church burnings etc.)
Despite its frigid location in the icy north, Norway is a land of fiery passions and explosive temperaments. Norway’s most extreme contribution to the world of music is no exception. Known as Mayhem, the band lives up to its nameÑand not merely due to the furious sound, for the group’s history is as bloodcurdling as anything they sing about.
Formed in 1984 by guitarist Øystein Aarseth, Mayhem initially emulated the extreme Metal bands of the time like Venom and Bathory who were pioneering the nascent genre of Black Metal: a vicious substratum of uncompromising music defined, at least ideologically, by its intense opposition to Christianity. Mayhem first performed live a year later, and soon inaugurated their longstanding tradition of surrounding themselves with impaled pigs’ heads as stage props. In 1986 they released a debut demo-tape, Pure Fucking Armageddon, issued in a numbered edition of only 100 cassettes and now a rare collector’s item there are probably quite a few diehard fans on the planet who would commit murder just to obtain an original copy. In 1987 Mayhem spat forth its first full-length album, the aptly titled Deathcrush. By this time they had become the most notorious band in Norway, and underground fanatics in other countries were starting to take notice. A second album would not be released until 1994, but they had some justifiable excuses for the delay: by this point half the band members had perished in violent circumstances. During this interim Mayhem also played a key role in inspiring a fledgling Norwegian Black Metal music scene to initiate a wave of church burnings and other visceral assaults on society which continue to the present day.
The most infamous member of the Mayhem was Øystein Aarseth himself. Having adopted the nom de guerre Euronymous (allegedly Greek for ‘the prince of death’), he set about cultivating a militant Black Metal scene through both music and propaganda. How much of this was merely self-promotional hype is a subject of debate, but Aarseth certainly did court real-life disaster with his efforts. An early singer for Mayhem was Per Ohlin, who adopted the stage name ‘Dead’ And an apropos title it was, given that only a few years later Dead would take a shotgun and blast apart his own cranium, leaving behind his apologetic suicide note: ‘Excuse all the blood.’
Not one to pass up a ready-made opportunity, Aarseth quickly capitalized on Dead’s demise for the mythology of Mayhem, encouraging rumors that others in the band had cooked and eaten parts of their former vocalist’s body after the suicide, not to mention that they distributed shards of his skull to friends in the scene to wear as talismanic jewelry. Øystein Aarseth also opened up a record shop in Oslo to promote extreme and Satanic music. He named his little store ‘Helvete’ Norwegian for ‘hell.’ Although initial plans to operate the shop completely devoid of light inside (the customers would have to carry torches in order to see the records on sale) were abandoned, Helvete did become the meeting point for the important adherents of the burgeoning Black Metal movement, which now included bands such as Burzum, Darkthrone, Emperor, and Immortal.
It was probably Burzum’s protagonist Varg Vikernes who sparked the church burning trend (now a worldwide phenomenon), although it has never been successfully proven in court that he lit the initial fire. He was, however, convicted of involvement in subsequent church arsons as well as a brutal slaying. His victim? Former best friend Øystein Aarseth. After publically exalting death and destruction for years, Euronymous met an unpleasant fate in the stairwell of his apartment building in the late summer of 1993. He was found in the early morning hours lying lifeless in his underwear after having bled to death from multiple stab wounds. The precise motives for the killing are still a subject of intense speculation.
Half the band might have been dead and buried, but Mayhem refused to die. Drummer ‘Hellhammer’ re-enlisted the help of a few early former members, bassist ‘Necro Butcher’ and vocalist ‘Maniac,’ and recruited a new guitarist, ‘blasphemer’. Maniac had originally left the band before the Black Metal scene reached its fully-fledged atrocity exhibition status, but he maintained steady contact with Aarseth during this period and was able to observe the unfolding events from a distance. His unique insider/outsider vantage point provides a glimpse into the development of both the music and the ideologies which went accompanied it part-and-parcel.
As the musicians grow older and more mature (most of them began playing in their early teens), the philosophy of the genre likewise shifts and evolves. In recent years some proponents of Black Metal have abandoned Satanism in favor of various strains of indigenous heathenism, while others have gone from advocating communism, chaos or anarchism to singing nationalist hymns to the Fatherland (the latter sentiments have a particularly troublesome ring for many Norwegians, given the occupation of the country by the Germans during WWII). Not content to restrict his artistic expression solely to the the vicious cacophony of the reanimated Mayhem, Maniac has also explored other musical horizons with his atmospheric side-project VoluspŒ. The name derives from an ancient Norse doomsday prophecy foretelling Ragnarok, or the end of the world as we know it.
While nay-sayers will tell you that Black Metal was little more than a fleeting trend or a flash-in-the-bellfry publicity stunt, the genre is more popular than ever. First generation bands like Emperor are dominating independent record charts in Europe, while second generation groups like Dimmu Borgir have even performed on national television recently for the Norwegian equivalent of the grammy awards show. The re-formed (but certainly not reformed) Mayhem has released an EP of sonic terror called Wolf’s Lair Abyss (Misanthropy Records) and completed a sold-out concert tour of California. They are presently hard at work on their forthcoming album, A Grand Declaration of War. What follows is a conversation with Mr. Maniac, who discusses the past, present, and future of Black Metal in general, and Mayhem in particular.
What do you recall about the beginning of your relationship to Black Metal, and how did it come about that you initially joined Mayhem?
This is really a long time ago, but I will try to recollect my memories as correctly as possible. My involvement in Mayhem started back in 1985. At that time I was listening mostly to extreme metal music. I read an interview with Mayhem in a very early edition of Slayer magazine. It made me very curious, and I wrote to Euronymous. Our friendship evolved and we visited each other a lot. It was a very small crowd for this kind of music in Norway then, and most of us stuck together much of the time. Later in 1986 I recorded a tape, called Septic Cunts, with only my voice and a rotten guitar. Shortly afterwards I got a letter from Euronymous in the mail which just stated ‘ENORMOUS,’ and then I became the vocalist of Mayhem. This is very much the start of it all for me and my involvement in Black Metal.
How would you describe the atmosphere in the Black Metal scene back then?
Back in those first days there was more ‘fun’ involved. We had many a good laugh in our quest for whatever we were seeking. I mean, we were very interested in dark things, read a lot of occult literature and watched horror movies when we didn’t play music. At that ageÑwe were around 17 or 18Ñyou have a very uncertain view on how the world is and you try to find answers to everything society was not able to provide. We talked a lot about violence and were inspired by gruesome things, but in real life it manifested itself in shooting with airguns at old ladies’ dogs, setting fire to skateboard ramps, etc. At some point this changed and the ‘jokes’ were gone. I wrote lyrics at that time very much like the horror movies I watchedÑmostly blood and amputations mixed with some ‘satanic’ words. You might call it ‘gore lyrics.’
Why did you leave Mayhem? Did you lose interest in what was going on with Black Metal?
I went back to school. First I studied very basic History, English, Politics and Sociology. Then I educated myself as a sound engineer, which is my job today. Around 1988 I felt that Death Metal had become mainstream and I started listening much more to all other kinds of musicÑespecially Industrial and Gothic music. In 1991 I started a band called Status Fatal, very inspired by Joy Division. However the band fell apart after a year or so, and we only recorded one demo. I still had quite regular contact with Euronymous as he was a very good friend of mine. He usually kept me updated on what was happening in the Black Metal scene and we used to discuss politics. He was a communist as you are probably aware of, and at that time I was very much into anarchism, so we had our arguments. I loved bands like Darkthrone and also Burzum when they released their first albums. Something vibrant and very much alive had come out of the dying embers of extreme Metal. I also used to visit Helvete, but most of my contact with Euronymous happened through the mail and by phone. I lived in a small mountain village and was very happy with that. Reading a lot and slowly changing my views on things in general and the concept of God, which had been bothering me for years. So I was very much aware that things were happening, but I guess I didn’t know how it was really going to manifest itself. Music was not the most important thing for me at this point. It was also around this time that I was very frustrated with my life, and I also tried to kill myself, but my brother found meÑsomething that really made my life even more depressing. I figured out a lot of things around this time, and today I am very happy to be alive. Suicide for me now is something very unthinkable and almost disgraceful. Then one day I was watching the news and a picture of Euronymous popped up on the screen. Murdered...
How did it happen that you rejoined Mayhem?
In 1994 me and Necro Butcher recorded some things for fun called Fleshwounds, and come summer Hellhammer asks me to join Mayhem again.
In what ways has the group changed in its musical and lyrical outlook from the early days?
I would say that it is a progression, but we have become much more aggressive in our ‘musical language.’ The lyrics are turning more and more away from the occult approach and into more philosophical things, really without a concept of "gods" and religion as we know it. I am not a Satanist and I really can’t write lyrics about something that I do not believe in, although I am very interested in it. The lyrics for our coming album, Grand Declaration Of War is much more about how I feel the state of the world is, and that something must break, something must happen. We still play Black Metal, and we play it the way I feel Black Metal was and should beÑwithout dreamlike keyboards and female vocals. We are trying to get through with some aggressive and brutal viewpoints, at least in the eyes of the moral standards and codices of today’s western society, we feel that this can not be done with ‘nice nighttime music for tender lovers.’
In what ways do you contribute the most to Mayhem?
As I said, mostly in the lyrics, but also a bit on the musical side. I do the song intros and this is also a part of Mayhem, as I will continue to do this in the future. I will also do much of the coming artwork for record-sleeves and merchandise. Before I lived on the ‘edge of the world,’ so very much of the music was now done after I had sent the lyrics to the other guys. Now that I have moved back to Oslo our ideas and viewpoints will merge even more. Our opinion is that Mayhem should be one being, one beast with four heads.
You mentioned that the conceptions of the lyrics in Mayhem are changing a lot from what went on in past years. Can you explain a bit more about these ideas you have been putting into the lyrics, such as the concepts of God, etc.?
This question is one I really don’t want to go deeply into. I do not like to explain my lyrics or analyze them. But I guess it is not analysis you are after... What I can say is that the lyrics are very personal, especially on the Wolf’s Lair Abyss E.P. Those lyrics have certain hidden messages and meanings that we, the whole band, have decided people can try to figure out. The lyrics for Grand Declaration Of War are much more straightforward in many ways, but still very personal. My concept of God is not like there is an old man with a beard and stern eyes. I feel in many ways that the mere word ‘God’ is something I do not like. We have one life, but that life is eternal. Paradise is not a place anymore, it has burned down. It is so hard to try thinking of other meanings of things that has been like ‘standards’ for 2000 years, but that is what I am trying to do. My lyrics very much reflect my views on the world and some of the things to change it, or at least to change the mind of the people who listen to my lyrics. Also the lyrics have become much more militant and do not so much revolve around mysteries and magic as they used to. I am not a very fond believer in magic rites and spells. I believe more in physical things, but of course ‘one soul is eternal.’
What it your own personal impression of the factors which led to the Black Metal scene beginning to ‘take action’ with the church burnings and other events in the early 1990s?
It is hard for me to say exactly what happened, since I lived very far away from the scene itself. What I can say is that Euronymous was getting more and more into extreme communism and the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. He was talking a lot about executions and extreme demands for action in some way. Also he was very fed up with the underground the way it worked. People were just talking and nothing happened. He would like to change that. Other people in the scene also felt like this. Somewhere it all changed and it might have been with the first church burnings. I think there is a mechanism within the human soul that works like a trigger for such things. It also might have something to do with the fact that in Norway we live in a very ‘protected’ environment where everything, or at least most things, work. It is a social democratic society, where extreme things do not happen very often. Lately there’s been a ‘wave’ of violence in Norway, within the last few days some 5-8 people have been murdered, and this is the headlines in every paper and TV channel. If this happened in USA, no one would have cared. In the minds of some of the people in the scene back then this society was like a straightjacket or something. You are very much supposed to be and act like everyone else. Not everyone is willing to do this. Something that lurks in the souls of many a man surfaced and, in a way, exploded. However this is just me and my thoughts spinning around this subject. It might have been totally different things that caused it.
You seem to imply that a social democratic system as you have in Norway, where everything is very peaceful and well cared for, may be quite literally ‘backfiring’ in a way. From your own experience do you think a social climate like in your country might cause some people to react against it in a powerful way?
My guess is that this might just be the case. I feel, myself, that it is pretty suffocating to live in an environment like this. I do not think that the human race was meant to live in eternal peace. We have some instincts in us which will not accept this. I will not respect the limitation of the human will, as it is being forwarded by our political leaders. So the things that happened triggered a lot of this and it happened all over the country, and also, I know, with people who were not into Black Metal. Several churches and graveyards have been desecrated by people outside of the scene. And when gentle dad explodes with a shotgun, it might also be part of this suffocation, or the fact that he actually was stark raving mad. If you try to drown someone you get to a point where the person you’re pushing down either gives up or destroys you.
Also Norway is different from Sweden or Denmark in that it is, in many respects, much more conservative...
In Norway we are more conservative, something that I am very happy about in a way. The fact that we are still not a part of the European Union has to with something in the spirit of the Norwegian folk which harbors suspicions about everything foreign. Unfortunately this is slightly changing now. When our political leaders wanted us to join the EU, there was a demand that this had to be voted over, the results came, and we are still not a member.
Are there differences between Norway and the surrounding Scandinavian lands that might contribute to outbursts of extreme behavior?
It is an unwritten law in Norway that says that you should be anonymous, or not try to be someone, this is also something that might demand extreme actions.
What is the impulse behind your solo project VoluspŒ?
The main motivation is my urge and need to work with things outside of Metal. I listen to a lot of different music and VoluspŒ is very much revolving around my lyrics. I feel I can write slightly different lyrics in the musical patterns I design for VoluspŒ. Also I am my own master and can do whatever I want to. For the time being it is only for me and close friends, but now that I’ve moved back to Oslo, VoluspŒ will probably be joined by Blasphemer, who is also into other kinds of music. Then something more might happen. I enjoy very much to sit in the studio and just mess around with sounds and oscillators. I like to work with analog equipment in various ways. I have loads of other things recorded, things that I am not satisfied with, but when I work in the studio I might suddenly find one simple thing in previous things I have done that I can use for other songs. I try to put together various soundpatterns merged with my lyrics and afterwards I can sit back and really think through what I meant with my lyrics. It makes things clearer when I can view it from another angle. Besides it is alot of fun to sit in the studio all night.
There has been a growing tendency toward the imagery of Nationalism and even National Socialism within Black Metal. How seriously can this be taken?
Many of these things are because of the shock value (not particularly smart to doÑyou get banned everywhere), but also very much because we are very interested in what happened in those fiery years. How do you think the world would look like if that war had not happened? I read many books on this subject, viewed from both sides, and I try to figure out how it all occurred. That said, we are getting more and more militant, but that’s a natural progression of our music as well as opinions. We are not National Socialists, but we find strength in many of the dogmas and codes of honour from that time. As I said in one of my former answers something must happen, something must break. I am not saying that it necessarily needs to be another Third Reich. But I will not submit to the moral standards and vices of today’s society. As for nationalism: I see myself as a nationalist, and if you call yourself that today, you are automatically a racist and Nazi. I know there is a big difference in these things. I love my country and I am willing to fight for it. I am not talking about fighting for the people who run our country, but rather the land itself and its true spirit. I am very proud to be Norwegian and I do not see anything wrong in that. Besides, wrong and right are things from the world of Christendom and that is a religion I truly detest. People might claim that they are not Christian, but anyway their whole view on the world and the way they live their lives is totally corrupted by Christendom. My mind is flying now and I shall try to get back to what you really asked. How can I finish this? OK...We are not Nazis, but we find things here as well as in a lot of other literature and events that have happened throughout the entire history of man. I am reading this book now called Poltava, about the defeat of the Swedish army against the Russian military in the 18th century. The book is based on diaries and letters from the Swedish soldiers. The Swedish army consisted of 49,000 men and only 1300 came back home. It is a very brutal book, but one of the books I have really enjoyed reading lately. These are chronicles that inspire me to write music and lyrics, besides numerous other things.
One thing I noticed in Norway was the presence of a real schizophrenia or difficulty in dealing with its past during the 1930s. In some ways this is similar to Germany, but made even more complicated by the whole Quisling/Terboven affair, and the fact that Norway was occupied. What do you think about this ongoing ‘problem,’ and will Norway even reconcile its past with itself?
I do not know if this ‘wound’ will ever heal. Maybe when all the veterans have died. If you try to use old Norse symbols today you are a Nazi in the eyes of most people. A recent research report that was published two days ago shows that one out of five of the highest ranking officers in the army was pro-Germany when the war started. This has surprised a lot of people in Norway. It is like we try again and again to actually see what happened, but no one wants to. It is best kept a secret, it is enough to know that something really ‘bad’ happened and that Quisling was the bad guy. It is quite impossible to raise your voice and try to see it from another viewpoint. I bought Mein Kampf awhile ago and the person in the bookstore just looked at me with bewildered eyes, as if I was Adolf Hitler in person. To discuss things like this you have to be either a professor in history or philosophy or something like that. Ordinary people should just accept the ‘facts’...
There are many people (often Christians or conservatives, but frequently Leftists as well) who will try to argue that music such as Black Metal should be censored or banned, as they claim it inspires crimes (murder, church burning, etc) and is dangerous to young people with "impressionable minds." What are your own views on the role of music like that which you play, and how it relates to the listeners, their behavior, and "society" in general?
First of all, the effect of Christian talk shows, music, etc., is more devastating on the youth of today than Black Metal ever could be. It is brainwashing people into doctrines that are in themeselves the manifestation of ‘evil.’ It is a threat toward life itself. As for Leftists; what about the R.A.F., etc., etc.? It is all a matter of which group you end up in... conformity is the keyword for all those who blame us for having a bad influence on youth. They can`t stand people who do act and think for themselves (although this is not to say that there is no conformity within the Black Metal scene). But what I want to do is to wake people up from dogmatic slumber of any kind. It destroys cultures. If we have any effect on our fans, then I hope it is of the sort that awakens people. If anyone will ban us I think that will just make us stronger. A problem here is of course that a lot of church-burnings and other actions are done out of ‘conformity’ or as a way to get ‘credit’ among friends. They hype one another. When that happens we are just back at point zero. I am myself not a very big fan of actions like these, I believe there are other ways, but of course these actions has had an effect. The problems of getting through to people are the same in the Black Metal scene. People becomes sheep whatever the influences are. I believe very many things are wrong in society and if I can get some people to realize that, then I feel we have had the influence we wanted. People have to be made aware of their sheep-mentality and as soon as that happens I think the Christians, Leftists, etc., will lose much of their power over people. I think they are afraid of this. Then we would have no need for ‘evangile des humbles.’