Drew Daniel talks Burzum, ‘Blurred Lines’, and tackling black metal’s issues head-on with The Soft Pink Truth
An album consisting of house covers of black metal songs, whose cover features a bunch of men, in corpse paint and various states of dismemberment, doing all manner of obscene things to one another. What could possibly go wrong?
A lot, obviously. But if there’s one person would can navigate such a moral and aesthetic minefield with playfulness and grace, it’s Drew Daniel.
As half of one of music’s most erudite and charming duos, Matmos, Daniel has developed a reputation for high-concept electronica which isn’t afraid to show its soft side. His solo project The Soft Pink Truth, meanwhile, tackles house music convention. But this is no straightforward dancefloor side-project: whether 2003’s quasi-plunderphonic Do You Party? or the following year’s Do You Want The New Wave or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth?, which covered punk and hardcore classics in devious techno style, Daniel’s compositions invariably carry a sting in their tail.
After a decade’s break from the alias, Why Do The Heathen Rage? is Daniel’s most contentious release yet. Tackling a range of black metal songs, from classics (Venom’s ‘Black Metal’) to latecomer pisstakes (Impaled Northern Moonforest’s ‘Grim And Frostbitten Gay Bar’), Daniel’s intention is not to parody nor to straightforwardly venerate. Instead the album is, in his own words, a ‘profanation’ of a genre he loves; a queer inversion of its values which acts as both affirmation of its power and stringent critique of the scene’s homophobic, fascist and racist tendencies.
The resultant album reads like an exploration of what it means to love an artform whilst being troubled by its political content. It’s an issue with wide applicability in the era of ‘Blurred Lines’, where the political implications of pop are discussed loudly and at length. Partway through a Matmos tour of Europe which included a smattering of Soft Pink Truth dates, the ever-articulate Daniel sat down to chew over the issues at hand.
To accompany this interview we’re premiering ‘Teachers’, a cover of Daft Punk’s Homework track of the same name that serves as a digital bonus track to Why Do The Heathen Rage?. Stream it here, and read Daniel’s description of the track on page 3 of this article:
How’s the tour going?
It’s been fun. It’s been a very odd ride, in that Matmos has its aesthetic frame, and then occasionally I’ve been doing these Soft Pink Truth shows. So that’s been this hilarious, like, bonus round of faggy black metal karaoke sorbet after this steak, you know? It accesses a very different side of my personality. It’s not even like past Soft Pink Truth shows. Humour was always a part of it, but not so much being a frontman. When I do these black metal songs – I’ve done it now in London and Copenhagen and Berlin, and it’s been fucking hilarious, because you have to sell it. You get this mic in your hand, you go up to somebody and you’re like [approaches your correspondent, grips his head and sings inches from his face] ‘Black is the night! Metal we fight!’ You are in their face. And if I would stop doing that, go over to my laptop and try to tweak something, people [would get] bored – once you’ve been that, that’s what they want.
Is that something you’ve done before? Or have you always performed in more of a knob-twiddling capacity?
I was in hardcore bands in high school, and I sang and beat on scrap metal – it was this sort of like Neubauten-ish punk thing. But part of doing Matmos was really saying goodbye to all that. And I think for good reasons – I think that kind of self-righteous macho frontality model is really gross. And the politics implicit – they can vary, it can be on behalf of straight-edge veganism or it can be on behalf of fascism or whatever – but the basic model of like, daddy’s angry and he’s gonna tell you how you oughta live – fuck that, right? So If I’m gonna do that style then I have to do it with this full awareness of like – there’s something very, very ludicrous [about it], you know? So I do things like – I’ll deliver the line ‘feel my body’s stench’ and make people in the crowd sniff my armpit. And they do it! This woman in Berlin ran across the dancefloor to put her face in my armpit.
Martin Schmidt [who has been sitting off to the side, quietly checking his iPhone]: Maybe that’s Berlin…
Maybe that’s Berlin yeah, maybe that’s a special case [laughs]. But it’s been really fun.
You mentioned you were a hardcore kid. At what point did you get into dance music, and how?
I think if you have the American experience then there’s this ambiguity about the relationship between hip-hop and dance music. To me, in my culture, hip-hop is our dance music. That’s what you play at parties that makes everybody dance. We don’t have this giant machine of the techno, house, festival, rave context. Obviously house is American, obviously there are micro-scenes. But for me, when I was in seventh grade – before I was into hardcore and punk – I was into rap, and I would breakdance to Run-D.M.C., and I had like parachute pants and bandanas, and I was drawing invisible boxes with my hands.
When was this, the ‘80s?
Yeah, I was born in ‘71, so I’m talking about ‘83 to ‘86. And then I got into punk and hardcore in like ‘85, ‘86. And the racial divide was very apparent. There was all the kids at school who loved Prince. Then there was the kid who loved Black Flag and Minor Threat and hated Prince. And we were like, ‘what, there’s a human being that hates Prince!? That’s insane! What kinda asshole hates Prince?’ I like the punk spirit of refusal, but I also think it’s a totally false choice. Obviously there’s aspects of Prince that are punk as fuck, you know? And there’s aspects of punk that are insanely square and stiff.
Was there a point where you stepped over that divide?
Yeah I think there was. I think part of becoming hardcore was a militant attitude. I mean think about the name, ‘hardcore’ – the very name of the genre is about militant fanaticism, it’s about saying there’s this other despised and accursed herd who are not true, who are fake, who are weak. And that had a lot to do with the closet, that had a lot to do with Kentucky – that I was in a very redneck, racist context, and so hardcore was a lifeline because there was this set of freaks that would pull together. And I thought that that included my own queerness.
But then you start to go to punk shows and there are straight-edge hardcore kids who are talking about how, ‘yeah, let’s fuckin’ nuke Iran, yay Reagan.’ And you suddenly realise, ‘ew… this isn’t actually as freaky as they think it is.’ But my first musical productions, I had tape decks and I was reading Burroughs, so I would do cutups. Then I got a delay pedal which I would use as a sampler, and I made a couple of hip-hop tracks, and then started making beats for this hip-hop crew in Louisville called King G and the J Crew, that was all like arty white kids that went on to be in that band The Rachels. They had a hip-hop skeleton in their indie closet. And so do I, because I was Deadly D.
Was there a point, coming out the other side of hardcore, and being old enough to go to clubs, when you rediscovered dance music?
Well what happened is I got into punk and hardcore and that led me to industrial and noise. Once you’re interested in noise and cutups and you’re listening to musique concrete, you suddenly think, ‘well, what’s the music with the most hyper-insane edits and cuts?’ And that’s when your remember, like, ‘oh, actually that Art of Noise stuff that I was breakdancing to, that was part of a cutup continuum – of an attitude towards aggressive editing’. So a lot of my love of breakbeat techno, like Sons Of A Loop Da Loop Era, Kaotic Chemistry – that moment with Suburban Base and Moving Shadow, where those records were incredibly obnoxious about what they were doing to their samples – that really impressed me from a noise and industrial perspective. I don’t think I understood, really, the kind of minimalist heritage of Plus 8 Records and Cybersonic and geeking out about 808 drum machines or whatever. I didn’t relate to that step-sequencer programming world. I was about sampling and the cutup. That was really my jam, you know?
And how about specifically dancing? I understand you were a go-go dancer for a while?
[laughs] Yeah, I think being a punk rocker I didn’t have a lot of context for it. But then I went to Berkeley and I was suddenly in the Bay Area, came out of the closet, started taking LSD and going to raves. And my first boyfriend was a party promoter who threw illegal parties – he threw this thing called Party Out of Bounds where he would just roll up with a PA in an underpass and do a queer dance party. And it was before we were calling it raves, and the music wasn’t necessarily rave – it was B-52’s and James Brown and Public Enemy.
When was this?
Martin: I was also employed by the same gentleman…
Yeah, my boyfriend Martin was an employee of my first boyfriend Doug… a little bit shady. Um, and I started go-go dancing in clubs. And go-go dancing… when you’re in a jockstrap in front of a roomful of total strangers, you wanna feel like you have some power, right? And you wanna feel like you have some right to be there. Gay men can be very cutting and quick to let you know if you’re not their type, you know? So I wouldn’t necessary call it the most welcoming environment or the most life-affirming job ever. But mostly it gives you a lot of time to think about the structure of dance music. ‘Cause you’re up there and everyone’s watching you dance, so you’d better think about it. And I think that’s when I started to count and listen to dance music for the frameworks of what – of how it was being constructed.
So you learnt something about dance music through the process of having to dance to it. Is that a relationship that carried on? Are you somebody who enjoys going out dancing?
I love to dance, yeah. I mean I love that feeling of people losing their minds on the dancefloor and yelling and sweating, and you keep telling yourself, ‘oh, I should really go pee’, but you can’t leave because the way that one pattern is cascading into another pattern is cascading into another pattern, that endless, you know, ‘Lost In Music’, Sister Sledge-like feeling, you know? I do believe in that. I’ve had times in my life when I was being really catalysed by the dancefloor. A club like Club Uranus or Clubstitute in San Francisco, or Trade or VFM in London. The things that I heard – The Mover, you know that guy Marc Acardipane? – the things that I heard him play were just so insane that it just… I think everybody that comes up through clubbing has stories like that, of like, ‘oh my god, that one night when so and so played such and such’. And perhaps it’s interchangeable, because perhaps it’s about the emotional release that you want rather than this pattern versus that pattern. But I still, when I’m making Soft Pink Truth, do think about the dancefloor, and I think about utility and functionality, and I don’t spit on those terms.
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