WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM: The Hellbound Interview
By Jonathan Smith
Wolves In The Throne Room are from Olympia, WA. Bandmates and brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver have just released their fourth full-length EP, titled Celestial Lineage, via Southern Lord Records. Their core sound is characterized by their use of black metal features such as shrieked vocals and fast, tremolo-based riffs, but it is complimented by the band’s increasing incorporation of ambient elements into their music a la acts like Emperor, Satyricon, and Burzum, as well as avant-garde groups such as Tangerine Dream. Generally regarded as a major “Cascadian metal” act, they are as open about their west coast D. I. Y. roots as they are about any Scandinavian black metal influences, and as a result they’ve gained popularity within a number of different music scenes. The band is currently touring in support of the new album, having just reached the last of their North American dates. I spoke with Aaron Weaver on the phone a few weeks ago as the band was travelling somewhere between Cincinnati, OH, and Columbus, OH. We talked about many things, ranging from the new album and the logistics of the current tour to black metal as a new romanticism and how Aaron feels about the band often being called “hippie black metal”. . .
Let’s start with talking about being on the road. You’ve mentioned in past interviews that one item that is hard to find on the road is healthy food. How’s that search going this time around?
On this tour we’ve got a dilapidated RV. It has a kitchen in it, and a refrigerator, and it has completely transformed our lives. We’ll hit the local food co-ops in whatever town and load up on whatever vegetables, grains, and other ingredients and make big pots of soups and that kind of stuff. We’re definitely eating better than ever on this tour. It’s definitely something I gotta do. I’ve got to have energetically good food in my life otherwise I freak out.
Are you guys vegetarian?
No. No, we’ve got a few vegetarians in the crew, but I’m definitely a meat-eater. I try not to eat any sketchy meat coming from the supermarket. I prefer eating stuff that’s homegrown or that comes from a wild source. On the road, we do the best that we can. Last night, the folks that we stayed with made a really great pot of stew with some good beef from a local ranch, and we were really excited to have that.
This tour has you guys traveling with your own PA system so that you can play in less orthodox venues, such as warehouses, collapsed barns, and fields. How’s that going?
Um, well, it’s brutal. It’s a five hour load-in and set-up and it takes four hours to break things down. We’re at the venue for about twelve hours, all of us working, everyone on the crew just kicking ass to set things up. But it’s totally worth it. The spirit at the shows is so much better than if we were playing in a club. It’s definitely worth it for us. As we get deeper into the tour, everyone gets faster and better, and things get more streamlined and go more smoothly. But it’s definitely a challenge, you know, because we’re trying to have the sound you’d find at a big club and set it up every night.
Though people can probably imagine reasons, I’d like to hear about why are you doing all that. How does that decision reflect the band’s values?
We’ve always had a certain D. I. Y ethic. I think that almost anything that is really interesting and compelling is happening in the fringes, happening in the underground, with freaks and weirdos living in a dilapidated warehouse on the outskirts of town. That’s where the good shit is happening, and that’s where we feel most comfortable. We went on a big tour last year and we played mainly your traditional circuit of clubs, and it just wasn’t the right vibe for us. We felt very isolated from our community, the people that we would like to communicate with, spend time with, and make connections with. On this tour, in every town, we’re able to be with the people who are on the same page as us.
Do you know anything about the SoyBomb, the venue in which you’ll be playing in Toronto [on September 6th]?
No, nothing at all. It seems like people are having a hard time finding information about some of the venues, but that’s just kind of the way it goes. You’ve kinda gotta put your ear to the ground and suss it out.
I haven’t had too much trouble finding out info about the SoyBomb. It’s located in the downtown of the city. From what I know, it’s a sort of D. I. Y. hang-out spot. . .
Cool. We’re definitely looking forward to being in Canada.
Let’s start to talk a bit about the new album, Celestial Lineage. Do you have any ideas about how you’ll be playing some of the more ambitious new material on this tour? Are you able to play some of the album’s more ambient material in a live setting? I assume that [guest vocalist] Jessika Kenney wasn’t available to come on tour with you, but do you have any female vocalists with you?
No, we don’t. It’d be great to be able to travel with Jessika in the future, but she’s not really the kind of person who would want to get in a van with a bunch of smelly folks. She’s really committed to her studies of Persian classical music, and she has a very quiet and peaceful life back in Washington state. We definitely want to play some special engagements with her in the future. I think it will happen. We don’t have any set plans now, but I have a feeling that we’ll be able to pull that together sometime.
We’re definitely playing material off of the new record. It’s a challenge, as it is definitely an ambitious recording, but we’re able to do it. We’ve got tons of amplifiers on stage and sound-effects, and lots of technological apparatuses to help us create that more orchestral and epic sound.
The PR information for Celestial Lineage notes that the album is the final installment in a trilogy that began with 2007′s Two Hunters and continued with 2009′s Black Cascade. If this is the end of that cycle, what makes all these albums a trilogy?
We didn’t intend on making a trilogy from the start. Two Hunters was a pretty spontaneous experience, and was about wildness and being feral, taping into an unfettered spirit, something that is unmediated. Then, when we started to write Black Cascade we knew that there would have to be a third record that would complete the cycle. That was partially because of musical reasons, since we wanted Black Cascade to be a stripped down metal record focusing mostly on guitars and drums. When we made that decision we knew that we wanted to do a third record that had a much deeper soundscape going on, and that was way less metal and far more. . . something else, something more astral and etherial. I think we’ve succeeded with the new record. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.
It’s a great record. However, you have noted in the past that the reason you wanted Black Cascade to be stripped down is so that you had something that could be played live in its entirety, and you did that. Why did you decide, then, to go from a record that was easier to play on tour to a very complex sound that is much more difficult to capture in a live setting?
One thing is that we always like to challenge ourselves, to do things the hardest possible way for whatever reason. And really, we didn’t have a choice. The music that is found on Celestial Lineage is the music that I am personally really excited about. We definitely had no inspiration at all to make another stripped down metal record, whereas when we made Black Cascade we definitely knew that it would be what it was. There wasn’t going to be another one after that.
We knew that it was going to be a challenge to play the Celestial Lineage songs on the road. That’s a part of the reason we’re using our own P.A. system and bringing along our own experienced crew to help manage things. We need a good-sounding, powerful P.A. system to reproduce all of the etherial sounds that are on the record.
Can you talk about some of the additional musical influences on Celestial Lineage? It’s obviously not just about black metal. . .
Yeah certainly. Influences are kind of a tricky thing. I can definitely say that we weren’t trying to sound like anything else. When Nathan, [producer] Randall Dunn, and myself were talking, we would use other artists as common reference points in order to get at the sound that we had in our heads. There was definitely a lot of German krautrock mentioned in our discussions. Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Amon Düül II, that sort of thing. I really like that scene, that post-hippy, German, squatter, freak, acid scene. It’s a scene I really identify with, and I really like the music and the energy of those bands.
There was also talk of various avant-garde composers, which is why you hear the more noisy, atonal strings that we did on the record. Then there’s also traditional religious music of many different kinds. Byzantine chant was something we thought about a lot. There’s Persian classical music, which is Jessika Kenney’s area of expertise. Plains songs and other early Christian music traditions. We wanted to make the music on the record sound like liturgical music, but liturgical music from a religion that doesn’t exist, or that only exists in a certain place and time.
But there are a lot of metal influences as well. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t stray too far away from black metal. That is the root of the music. Emperor and Satyricon were some of the bands that we wanted to draw from on this record. In the past Burzum has been a big influence, but Emperor and Satyricon took over on this one.
What was the recording process like for Celestial Lineage, particular giving that you and Nathan apparently have different habits and daily schedules?
The thing that made this record different is the fact that we recorded it in our studio at our compound in Olympia, WA. We were able to spend a lot of time writing and then a lot of time recording, really getting deep into the sounds of the record.
As far as the writing process went, Nathan and I kind of split it up. I would get to work in the early evening until about midnight, and Nathan would work after that. We would work on songs and melodic ideas separately, and then every now and again we’d get together and collaborate. Over the course of a few months we recorded a really fleshed out demo version of the record with all the melodic elements in place. Once we had that skeletal version of the record completed, we got in touch with Randall and began to craft the actual record.
We always try to do a combination of recording at a real nice studio and then record in more gnarly conditions so that things don’t end up being too slick. We recorded the drums and basic guitar tracks in Seattle, and then after that we took the tapes back to our house and did everything else back at home. That afforded us the opportunity to get really weird with it.
How are things going at Calliope, the growing farmstead/compound where you live with Nathan and others? There’s a lot of speculation about how you guys live. If I’m not mistaken, you’re not totally isolated. You have cell phones and things like that. What’s daily life like for you our there?
For the past twelve months we’ve been working non-stop on the band. I try to help out my wife as much as possible in terms of maintaining things, but we made a decision to do an album that we’re really proud of and a tour that we’re really proud of, and then we’re done. As a band, we’re going to do a few things totally different in the future.
When we get back from this round of touring, sometime in early spring next year, I’m definitely not going to be living this kind of [band] lifestyle anymore. I value it to a certain extent, and I’m really excited about the stuff that we’ve done and accomplished, but I need to be at home, living a quiet, peaceful sort of existence. We want to step away from some of the compromises we’ve had to make in order to be a touring band. I’ll get rid of my cellphone, probably cancel our DSL connection, build a new house, get the farm off the grid, and just dig in and really commit to that lifestyle.
How do you guys feel about being labelled ‘Cascadian metal’? How involved are you in your local scene and with other regional bands like Fauna?
Fauna are definitely Wolves In The Throne Room’s mirror image. We started at the same time in Olympia and were working within the same sort of scene and with the same sort of ideas. One of Fauna’s members has lived at our farm over the years, so we definitely have intertwined musical lives and we’re really in touch with them. We try to keep in touch with the other, younger bands who have taken black metal and applied it to the reality of the landscape of the northwest. I’m gratified that there seems to be a number of people who have done interesting things with the genre.
I think genre labels are always a little bit goofy, but I have no problem being labelled “Cascadian black metal.” That’s fine with me.
It is easy (and often convenient) for people to use such labels, particularly as the genre grows and changes. . . What do you think about the fact that, much to the joy of some metal fans and the chagrin of others, black metal has become a genre that has fluid sonic and aesthetic boundaries and expresses a variety of different world views?
I think that black metal is just the perfect musical culture to emerge for this very specific time. As people’s lives are getting more and more dominated by technological mediations, and as humanity rushes onward toward some unknown future, I think black metal is the perfect counter force. Black metal is the adversary that says ‘no” to all this, that says we need to move backwards and burn the world to the ground, in this really extreme sort of way.
It’s the same sort of reaction that the [late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century] Romantics had during the industrial revolution as traditional agrarian ways of life were disappearing and factories and cities were transforming the ways that people lived. Black metal is a modern romanticism. I think that’s why it has become such an important part of the cultural landscape. It’s giving voice to a sense of horror and revulsion as the culture and the world rush forward into something we don’t fully understand. It definitely resonates with me because I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to rush forward. I want to go backwards and try to get in touch with something that’s older rather than trying to discover something new.
You have mentioned in past interviews that black metal is, at its heart, underneath its various permutations, sub-genres, and partisan politics, a critique of modernity. I would be interested in hearing you talk more about that critique. How do you and your band, as people who use modern technology to express your beliefs, navigate the division between nature and culture that is one of the fundamental beliefs informing modernity? It seems like there’s potentially a contradiction there. . .
That very sense of contradiction and that very sense of paradox is another big part of the black metal aesthetic and black metal ethos. Obviously, we’re trying to engage with questions about modernity and civilization using MacBooks, tube amplifiers, RVs, cell phones, and DSL connections. I think it’s within that conflict that the real dynamic energy of the music lies. That’s why we’re playing black metal and not some hippie jam music. You feel very much caught between the ideal that you glimpse every now and again in some special moments, and the reality, which is flawed, involves compromise, and doesn’t really match up with the utopia that you might have in your mind. I think that if you’re playing black metal and you have no sense of contradiction at all, then there won’t be very much dynamic energy in the music.
So that very contradiction is what fuels the genre?
Yeah, absolutely. Black metal is the music of strife, of trying to reach out for something that you don’t have that you might never be able to have. It’s not music that is about “wow, I’m feeling extremely content and utterly at peace with things.”
A minute ago you referred to “hippie jam bands,” a scene with which I’ve had a little experience in terms of its music and by having once attended a festival. One characterization of WITTR is that you are just “hippies playing black metal” and that you don’t really take the genre that seriously. How and why do you differentiate yourself from jam band culture? Why, despite playing black metal, have you guys maintained your ecological and D.I. Y. commitments and interests?
Well, in a lot of ways we are hippies playing black metal. I feel a much stronger connection to the hippie homesteader scene in the northwest, people who are really living the life and taking things to the next level, than I do with a bunch of urban nihilist, cokehead, hipster black metal scenesters who are into true kvlt whatever. I don’t feel any sort of connection with people who just get wasted at the bar and have a kind of shallow, nihilistic existence. I’ve got nothing but distain for that kind of thing, and I’ve got no connection with it at all.
At the same time, if you look into black metal, it feels very different than, say, The Grateful Dead. It’s a completely different energy, a completely different set of intentions. But I’ve got no problem being labelled a hippie black metal band. I’d rather have that label. I’d rather stir things up and be hated by people that I don’t respect rather than be accepted by “the scene.” We definitely take a lot of pleasure in “breaking all of the rules” in the genre. It’s amusing to see how worked up people get about it.
In the past you and Nathan have both described your music as “life-affirming and positive.” Is that still something you consider to be true?
Oh yeah, totally. Especially on Celestial Lineage, I think that’s the energy we’re trying to get across. I think Two Hunters had a bit more darkness to it because we were younger and a bit more pissed off, a bit more disgusted with things. But at this point we’re not playing music to point out how fucked up things are in the world. The utopia that I want is right out in front of me, and all I have to do is grab it. Celestial Lineage is one sort of manifestation of the vision that we’ve been working toward over the past ten years, and we’re feeling that it’s within our grasp. The energy, especially on this new record, is very positive and it’s about a sense of excitement that there is a more beautiful world around. That to me sounds like a bit of a hippie idea, and I’ve got no problem with that.
I’ve got no problem with that either. It’s one of the things I’ve come to enjoy most about Wolves In The Throne Room.
Yeah, but at the same time, there’s a lot of hardcore, left-hand path satanic black metal people who are totally understanding of us, and appreciate us for what we do. I’ve got a lot of friends who are very much on the “dark side” of things. It’s definitely not my spirituality and vision, but in general I think that smarter people understand that what we’re doing isn’t really so different than what they’re doing. We’re all just on our paths, trying to manifest something for ourselves.
Ultimately it seems like if you look at different partisan political positions, you usually find a lot of similarities with regard to the issues if not the solutions. . .
I think that’s true. Among artists and other people who are really committed to pushing ideas forward, there’s way more common ground than you might expect. You know, you go to Norway and you meet these black metal guys whose girlfriends are hippies, or goths, or industrial folks. People always assume that a scene like black metal is this monolithic thing, but that’s just not how it goes. Creative people, no matter their proclivities, tend to hang out together and inspire each other.
We take a lot of pleasure in being a band that tends to unite people across a lot of fronts. The show we played last night in Cincinnati was a perfect example. There were a lot of hardcore metalheads, but also goth-industrial types, street punks, crust punks, a few sort of hipster Pitchfork music types, and a few sort of crazy, wandering aesthetic types. That’s the kind of crowd that we want and like to see at our shows rather than just a bunch of black metal clones with long hair wearing combat boots and leather jackets.
Jessika Kenney is one person who plays a prominent role on Celestial Lineage. You’ve mentioned in the past that one of the reasons you work with people like Jessika is that you strive to “honour the feminine energies in our lives,” and that as a band you strive to offer, among other things, “a critique of modern patriarchal culture.” As someone whose values are very much informed by third-wave feminism, I’d be interested in hearing more about how a critique of patriarchy fits in with the rest of the band’s values and concerns.
That’s a big part of the culture that we come from. We’re rooted in D. I. Y. scenes, rooted in environmental concerns, and rooted in questioning the basic tenants of civilization and modern culture. Certainly, issues around patriarchy have always been huge in the scenes in the northwest. It’s part of our D. N. A. It’s not even something we really think about. We’re not politically correct sort of people, but the culture we come from is the way it is. It’s definitely part of our music and a part of our ethos, a function of the lineage that we come from. It’s in the water, I suppose. . .
It’s nice to be aware of cultural examples of what a feminist is supposed to be and can be other than just someone like Hillary Clinton. . .
Yeah, I’m more on [[ecofeminist writer and activist] Starhawk’s end of things. . .
In truth none of us are into politics at all. We have a different approach and a different perspective on things.
What are your plans for the future of Wolves In The Throne Room?
The first thing is to take a break, and get our hearth and home together. However, we do have plans to do another record. I’m actually really excited about it. . . Maybe even in the winter time, if things go well, and we feel the inspiration flowing. Randall is definitely on board to do it. It’ll be something that is definitely not very metal. I think it will have a metal aesthetic and a metal spirit to it, but I’m ready to try something that doesn’t have blast beats and harsh vocals all the time.
We definitely want to work on more ambient sounds, but we want to maintain volume and intensity. We want the same kind of ripping intensity that you get with harsh vocals, blast beats and brutal guitars, but to do it with different sounds. We did a bit of that on Celestial Lineage, and I’d like to expand on those sorts of ideas.
We really just need to push ourselves. I’d be really bored making another record that sounds like Black Cascade. It just wouldn’t be honest. I see bands do that all the time, just crank out records on repeat. Slayer’s made a career out of it, but that’s just not for us. That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re trying to pay your bills. It’s not what we’re all about.
You guys live within a very particular regional landscape, a particular bio-region if that’s the word to use, that allows you live the life that you live. It’s a privileged position that not everyone can have. What do you say to people who are inspired to live as you do but don’t live in an environment that allows for it?
That’s something people ask a lot. It’s really not our place to tell anyone how to do anything, or to make any sort of suggestion about how people should live. That’s something that we’ve never wanted to do and we never will do. That’s something that happens in a lot of music. A lot of punk music in particular has a political agenda of trying to convince someone of something. We’ve always been against that, and we’ve never wanted to appear that we’re sitting on a high horse trying to lead people. As you mentioned, living like we do is not an option for most people. It’s appropriate for us, but it’s just for us.
I think it’s really important for Wolves In The Throne Room not to have any sort of proselytizing aspect. For us the music is purely energetic. It doesn’t have a message, and people can get from it whatever they want and need.
*Images taken from Southern Lord, Encyclopedia Metallum, and NPR music.