By Justin M. Norton
Traditional black metal is almost painfully straightforward: Satanism, paganism and malevolence. But the music has changed since its beginnings (Venom, Bathory and Celtic Frost) and the second wave of black metal. Instead of a method of railing against organized religion black metal also offers a way to map scarred psyches. Plenty of recent black metal albums are the work of an individual or strong creative spirit surrounded by contributors: Leviathan, Xasthur, Vrolok and Shining to name a few.
While this trend has spawned numerous bands derisively called basement black metal it’s also produced its share of stellar music. New Jersey’s Krieg is among the most notable acts. Krieg – fronted by Imperial – broke out with the 2006 album The Black House. His latest album The Isolationist, Krieg’s first for Candlelight USA, might be even better. Imperial (also of the black metal supergroup Twilight) spoke to Hellbound from his home in New Jersey.
You are from Somers Point, New Jersey. If I remember correctly it’s close to Ocean City and Avalon. That part of the country doesn’t scream out black metal to me. How did you find the music in that atmosphere?
I grew up in Ocean City. I had a small group of friends that was into death metal and thrash. We’d listen to a radio show out of Stockton College every week. At some point in 1994 they started playing black metal. It was just the basic stuff… Darkthrone and Emperor, stuff that was easier to get. It spoke to me a lot more than death metal. It had more of an emotional connection instead of raw aggression.
I liked Samael’s Blood Ritual and Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky. Those were the two that grabbed me. The Samael record used an atmospheric approach and was different than anything I heard. It seemed to blend so many sounds. I wasn’t accustomed to music that used keyboards that way. I was used to keyboards in 1980s new wave.
Darkthrone had that level of rawness. At the same time the use of the distortion gave it an almost a visual aspect. You could hear things in the guitar that would bring images to your mind. I was 14 or 15 so obviously the aesthetics I got from it weren’t mature – it was stuff like dark forests and caves and ugly, brutal people.
Did you feel disconnected from the environment you grew up in? When I think of the Jersey shore I think about boardwalks and arcades…
I grew up around people into old hardcore so I wasn’t around a lot of the shore culture. We were the people that were hanging out under the boardwalk getting high and talking about bizarre childish shit. As far as feeling a disconnect? Since I can remember I’ve felt disconnected from my surroundings…just a feeling of being different and alienated from how you see people living their lives.
Is Krieg your way of trying to articulate some of those feelings through music?
It definitely plays a role, if it’s not the main thing behind it. Black metal isn’t just considered normal by societal standards so it will obviously express a disconnect with normal ethics and morality.
When did you make the leap from listening to a radio show to writing music?
Almost instantly. I was in a death metal band called Abominus. I didn’t write much. But I had the tools in front of me to start creating and once I heard black metal it was natural to pick up a guitar and bass and start working. It was just a few weeks after the first time I heard black metal. It was like how every band who heard The Sex Pistols started their own punk band that same week.
So you had a bunch of kids in New Jersey starting their own black metal bands?
Nah, that’s just the best metaphor I can use for my involvement. As soon as I heard it I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.
The new album is called The Isolationist. In 2003 you had The Black House. Your music touches on themes of despair, pain, depression…are these things taken from your own experiences?
Krieg’s music is entirely autobiographical. I don’t follow any religious path so I don’t feel I have the right to sing about Satanism. So that takes that topic out. But I’m constantly thinking and reading and trying to learn so that alienates me from a lot of brain dead war metal stuff that comes out in the U.S.
I’d rather write from experience. All of my favorite artists express themselves through their own viewpoints and experiences. I like music that honest. The things that I’m writing about, even if they are metaphors, they are more real than singing about Satan.
Have you experienced a major depression? You know the experience well enough to write about it.
The last ten or 11 years have been a major depression. I’ve been on various medicines. The only that stuck was when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year. They started medicating me with Depakote and a few other things. That’s taken a lot of the edge off. But I’ve been deeply, clinically depressed for at least ten years now.
How did you manage to get through the past decade? What were some of the most difficult moments?
It can’t be said that I’ve made good decisions most of the time. I’ve tried to learn from my mistakes. But just because someone suffers from an illness like depression or bipolar disorder it doesn’t mean they are suicidal or have a death wish. That sort of thing to me is self-pitying and weak.
Two things that were the worst? In 2001 I came home when I was living with my mother. I was pretty young. She was dead. It kind of affects you when you try to do mouth to mouth on your mother’s corpse. It fucks you up a little bit, I imagine. The second was when I decided to end Krieg. That’s the lowest point I can think of. I was making horrible decisions and I thought if I took Krieg out of my life things would get better. I somehow associated it with a lot of hard times when music for me, especially Krieg, is therapy and catharsis. It keeps me a lot healthier than I would be without it.
From what I know about bipolar disorder one of the defining traits is impulsivity. I read a book where the author was watching the Berlin Wall come down and decided he needed to be there. He went and got on an airplane. Did you have any experiences like that?
The years from 2004 to 2007 were completely like that. I was making bad decisions and it cost me. I can’t pick out any exact moments like the Berlin Wall. There was nothing like that; there was just underlying pressure. Fortunately I don’t have bad issues with impulse control.
Did you find you needed to exercise more control in your life … that you couldn’t go on long tours or do a lot of partying?
Within the last year I’ve shown a lot more discipline. It doesn’t mean I’m making a lot of healthy choices but I’m taking greater steps to stay in control. Fortunately, the Candlelight deal means I’m not working with someone in their basement or garage. I need to stay disciplined to not get lost in the shuffle.
When listening to The Isolationist I noticed you do touch on the things we’ve been talking about but there are also elements of defiance and a push to live through pain. Is that accurate?
Suicidal behavior isn’t something I want to be a theme. So there is an aspect of trying to overcome the obstacles that living like this presents.
Did you hook up with (producer) Sanford (Parker) through your work in Twilight?
I met him at a New Year’s Eve party with Blake (Judd) from Nachtmystium a few years ago. We talked about recording but I never thought I’d been able to get myself together enough to record with him. We did the Twilight record last year and we kept in touch. He’s really good with listening to what the people he is recording want rather than putting his own trademark like you’d get out of Abyss Studios or Sunlight.
Did you come to him with the material already written or did you work out ideas in the studio?
It was about a 50-50. I had skeletal versions of songs, full songs and ideas. We ended up writing a lot in this scummy shithole hotel outside of O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I was in Chicago eight days in February earlier this year.
Was recording there in the dead of winter the right environment?
Chicago gets hit with such bad weather that there aren’t many available distractions. You can’t be in the studio and go “I want to go get a sandwich” or get a beer. You can’t do any of that. You just have to buckle down and focus. It gets so goddamn grey and depressing and ugly that it’s a good emotional environment for recording.
I visited your MySpace page recently and you again put out a post that said Krieg isn’t a political band. Why do people misinterpret what your band is about – because you have a German name?
There are a few reasons. There’s this huge belief that everything German is Nazi oriented. That’s complete bullshit. The word was around hundreds of years before the 1930s and 1940s. Another thing is that I’m friends with bands that are political. It doesn’t mean I follow their beliefs it just means these people are friends. I’m friends with people from all walks of life. You are going to meet people and not necessarily agree with their beliefs but that doesn’t affect your relationship.
The other reason is that people want to tag bands with some political name; especially if you don’t denounce the group they say you are a part of. I won’t denounce any political movements. One, I’m not a part of them and it’s not my place. And two, I believe in free speech and free expression. If someone wants to go out and be a part of a movement even if I don’t agree with it it’s not my place to step in. I’m not an activist, I’m not as politician. I have enough problems of my own and I don’t need to start a war with any specific movement.
People have said the Nazi thing for years. It’s really funny because Krieg is a band based on nihilism and personal darkness. These things don’t go hand-in-hand with the national socialist ethos.
Nachtmystium got kicked off the Scion festival for having a German name and it doesn’t look like the promoters even listened to their music.
That whole thing was just a witch hunt. It was right around the time the economy was tanking and these companies don’t want anything to tarnish their reputation when people already don’t want to buy a car because it’s too expensive. People also want to say “look at this good deed I just committed. Come buy a car. Come get a shirt.” That’s what that was about.
He (Blake) also gets grief from people who say he isn’t black metal enough anymore when he was playing the music when he was 17.
I’ve known Blake since he was in high school and I don’t have anything negative to say about his musical evolution. It’s exactly what he feels and what he wants to do. Its shows an open mindedness to add these influences to black metal. But people are always going to be shitting on more successful people because they are jealous or because when a band gets a larger audience it’s no longer their own. He’s been a victim of both.
Isn’t part of the black metal ethos doing your own thing?
Exactly. But for so many people it’s no longer about a freedom to express it’s a fashion show. It’s groups of people in these little clubs with stupid rulebooks and lists of people you should or shouldn’t listen to based on what a person was wearing on a given night. If you show up at a serious black metal show in a pair of blue jeans they are all going to throw away your record. It’s childish and a byproduct of the fact that black metal is so easy to come by that anyone can be a part of it.
One of the songs that intrigued me the most on the album was “Photographs From An Asylum.”
It’s an old song, one of the first I wrote when I started Krieg. It’s a metaphor for being locked in your own mind – an asylum without any windows or a sense of time or being. I’m fascinated with stories and pictures of these old institutions that were run like prisons. They were supposed to be there to help people but they were horrible places where people were abused and mistreated and died without getting attention for ailments and illnesses that are completely curable or at least treatable. These buildings had such a build of negative energy that your hair would stand up when you walked in.
Compositionally, I wanted it to be a movement of three parts, a more traditional Krieg riff in the beginning, something almost nauseating in the middle and this caveman nod to Beherit and Archgoat at the end.
Did you ever see the movie Session 9 that featured Danvers Asylum? It’s about these people who go insane as they try to renovate this closed asylum in Massachusetts.
No, but it sounds right up my alley
Did you ever visit any old or abandoned institutions?
When I was much younger there was one – I don’t even remember the name – but it was near the studio where we recorded our first two albums. It was in New Jersey right outside of Philadelphia. We would park and hang out on the grounds and try to see as much as we could without security kicking us off. I think it’s a strip mall now.
It’s remarkable that people were put in these places and tortured for things that could now be treated like high blood pressure.
People had their complete sense of self stripped for things you would take two pills in the morning and one pill at night for now.
Krieg is personal music…what is it like to play live?
I don’t really notice the crowd. It all blurs together. It is intensely personal and I don’t release lyrics and I don’t talk about lyrics too often. I give vague ideas. Yet here I am singing these songs in front of people about personal trauma and isolation. Still, I really enjoy playing live, it feels good. It gets your endorphins going and it’s a way to relieve periodic stress. You go punish yourself in front of people and it’s like a public exorcism.
You’ve often talked about how you were influenced by authors like Bret Easton Ellis. Has anything else you’ve read lately influenced you?
Most of what I’ve read in the past six months is personal correspondence of authors I like, the letters of William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski. Bukowski was incredibly prolific which is odd because he was the town drunk and womanizer living in a shithole motel. Underneath all that you have a deeply sensitive man.
I haven’t read any new fiction that’s really grabbed me. I know Ellis has a new book out. I went to get it. He takes five to seven years to write a novel. It’s about thirty bucks and the fucking thing was like 115 pages. I’ll wait for the paperback.
Could Krieg in a strange way provide a lifeline to people who’ve had struggles like yours?
It all depends on what they get out of the music. Music, even if it’s about flowers and bunnies, can be a lifeline. There is certain music that kept me completely grounded and it had nothing to do with what I was going through. If someone gets that out of it good, I’m glad, but I never want to be someone who tells listeners what they should get out of it.
The Isolationist is out now on Candlelight USA