Features I by I 05.06.14

“Detroit techno and black metal have so much in common”: FACT meets Wolves In The Throne Room

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wolves in the throne room fact interview 6.5.2014

This July, American black metal group Wolves In The Throne Room release their fifth long-playing album, Celestite.

Over the last 12 years, Wolves – the duo of brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver – have shown a willingness to upset black metal orthodoxy. Rejecting corpsepaint and Satanism in favour of a worldview steeped in deep ecology and nature-based spiritualism, their music explores an atmospheric, sometimes transcendent take on black metal somewhere between the aggressive and the meditative. Nor is there any pretence to their philosophy: the Weavers spend most of their time in the foothills of the Cascade mountains of Washington State, among the towering cedar and fir trees.

Wolves In The Throne Room’s last album, 2011’s Celestial Lineage was a watershed release for the band, making increased use of analogue synthesizers, and inviting in sometime Sunn O))) collaborator Jessika Kenney to add haunting, choral vocals. But it’s hardly preparation for the leap Wolves In The Throne Room take on Celestite. A sort of companion piece to Celestial Lineage, it delves into that record’s dark materials and reconstitutes them into a deep, sprawling synthesizer record with notes of kosmische pioneers like Tangerine Dream or Popol Vuh: certainly, more Spectrum Spools than Southern Lord.

What precipitated this change? And does this mark Wolves In The Throne Room’s exit from metal for good? In this extensive interview, Aaron Weaver (drums/guitar/bass/synth/vocals) talks new beginnings, Brian Eno, new age philosophy, and the deep kinship between black metal and electronic music. Celestite is available to order here.

Hi Aaron, how are you?

I’m at a house overlooking the Salish Sea – it’s a beautiful warm late Spring day. It’s going to be in the 80s today, so that’s pretty awesome.

While promoting Wolves In The Throne Room’s last album, 2011’s Celestial Lineage, you said you were ready to move on, look to a different way of doing music and a different way of living. Has that come to pass?

Definitely. We looked at Celestial Lineage as alchemy, I suppose. We poured everything we had left into the gas tanks, into the creation and the touring, with the intention of making the best record we could, and of doing live shows that we were really proud of. The goal was that when it was over, we had really accomplished everything that we wanted to accomplish with the project, and then be free to do whatever we wanted next. If we felt like we were done with Wolves, we could do that. But we took a couple of years off after Celestial Lineage and decided that, indeed, there was more work to be done.

So you genuinely thought it might be the end?

If anything, we actively were not trying to say whether it was the end, or a new beginning – but we were just trying to be fully in the moment, see it through. There’s so much tendency, as a musician, to always be living in the future, because you’re always planning the next thing down the line – the next record, the next tour. I was getting sick of always thinking like that, and so it was refreshing to throw out all those expectations, those notions you should be planning, what you want to accomplish or what outcomes you hope for. We just decided, we’ll burn this fire as hot as we can burn it, and whatever the outcome, that’s how it’s going to be.

Interestingly, you talk about it in terms of an ending and new beginning – but reading about it, it sounds like this album grew directly out of the Celestial Lineage sessions.

That’s true. When we were recording Celestial Lineage, the intention was always to make what eventually became Celestite. That was always part of the plan. Celestial Lineage has a lot of sounds in the mix that definitely take a back seat to the heavy metal aspect of our sound – the guitar and drums and the harsh vocal. But it was our idea with Celestite to focus on the more esoteric, synthesizer sounds that were part of the Celestial Lineage session.

It seems like synthesizers really entered the band on the album Two Hunters, but they’ve exerted more of a grip as time has gone on.

Yeah, definitely. We had a little synthesizer on [2006’s debut album] Diadem Of 12 Stars, but it was definitely not as fully developed as it became later. I really credit Randall Dunn with introducing us to that concept – at least in the way we ended up doing it. Randall has produced our last four records, so we have a pretty good working relationship. Definitely, he brings a lot to the sound of the records – he’s got a style and an aesthetic that has brought a lot to the record over the years.

“I guess it’s my dirty little secret that I’ve always been as interested in industrial music and dance music as I have metal.”

Has he helped you accrue equipment?

Most of the stuff is ours, really. I got the bug these last couple of years – I’ve been amassing vintage analogue synthesizers, samplers, even some really bad ’90s digital stuff, which if you push it in the right direction makes some interesting sounds. Randall has a bit of stuff, but most of the sounds on the records are ours. We also collaborated with a guy who has a Serge Modular set-up, and that contributed a really cool sound to the record. It has this bizarre unique alien DMT vibe to it – it’s very much pure electronics. And there was also some Brian Eno-inspired studio processing. We did a lot at our studio in Olympia, which is relatively humble in its appointments, but we were lucky enough to do a bit at a studio in Seattle that has these beautiful API Neve consoles, racks and racks of amazing effects, compressors and all this stuff.

Talking to musicians who use a lot of synthesizers, it’s a world that sucks you in.

Yeah, it does. I’m not that much of a gear head, which I feel blessed by, but it becomes a bit of an addiction. You get in a mindset – like, I could make the music I really wanted if I could only buy this particular thing. And I don’t want to be in that situation where the music becomes about the equipment you own. I prefer to have a more limited palette of sounds at your disposal, where you push up against those boundaries – that’s where the interesting stuff lies.

Synths are far from uncommon in black metal, and they’re used in lot of different ways – there’s a gulf of difference between, say, the way Emperor and Burzum use them. But you sound like you’re coming from a different place still on Celestite – the spirit of it closer to early Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream. 

Those are definitely touchstones for us. I would also say there’s a bit of an industrial influence – Coil, Psychic TV, even Whitehouse to a certain degree. I guess it’s my dirty little secret that I’ve always been as interested in industrial music and dance music as I have metal. [laughs] I was just going through some boxes and came upon my stash of mid ’90s drum’n’bass records and my Technics turntables. I’ve always been interested in this wide spectrum of electronic music – whether it’s that Steve Reich compositional stuff, or as you say Tangerine Dream and Popol Vuh, this more post-hippy psychedelic, spiritually exploratory music. But also a wide spectrum of dance-orientated music. Detroit techno and black metal have so much in common on so many levels – both draw on this energy of decay and the sort of spirit of failure, of modern industrial civilisation as it slowly collapses around us. And you can take it further – the tempos match up. And there is that idea of using very modern instrumentation to approach very ancient sense of a trance state. The connections go on down the line. I think a lot of black metal people are pretty interested in techno music, there’s always been that thread.

I remember reading Fenriz had a Plastickman tattoo.

Yeah, I think he’s the kind of guy who loves any sort of deep scene – and of course techno is a pretty deep scene.

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And as you say, this music can be an investigation of spiritual concerns.

You know, that’s really been the primary focus of Wolves In The Throne Room since the beginning. It’s hard to say whether there’s any particular spiritual agenda. It’s more about exploration. Music is such a powerful portal into a different state of consciousness. If you want to put it in magical terms and call it the other world, or a different dimension, or you want to think about it more in terms of psychological terms, exploring your own psyche, they’re both valid.

Do you think Celestite is exploring something different, spiritually speaking, than Wolves In The Throne Room’s guitar and drums records?

Actually no, I think it’s precisely the same world. When we open the door and engage in the music when we’re writing or performing or working in the studio, this whole world opens up for us, and it’s always the same world. It’s funny, two years passed from Celestial Lineage and recording Celestite, and when we got back into it was exactly the same – the same universe that me and Nathan had been working at these last 10 or 12 years. If anything it feels deeper and richer than what had come before.

Around the making of Celestial Lineage, you talked about it having a sky-gazing quality, while earlier records were rooted in the earth. But Celestite is a mineral. Is this a return to an earth state?

Well, if you get into new age ideas about crystals, which I’m more than happy to do, it’s a paradox. A crystal is light encapsulated in the earth. Crystals are interesting in that way – they have the energy of starlight, this crystalline, crown chakra aspect to their being. But they also come from the bowels of the earth. It’s one of those alchemical images – uniting the opposites. It reveals that these are arbitrary boundaries that we draw between heaven and earth, black and white, good and evil. It’s Buddhism 101, essentially – it’s all illusions. And the real stuff happens at that razor-thin place. That’s where all artists try to work, I think – at that very touchy place, trying to reconcile these irreconcilable things.

You live in a pretty rural location. Are there issues, keeping things as delicate as synthesizers in such spots?

Yeah, there is [laughs]– right as we were wrapping up recording, I brought all the equipment to my house, this dilapidated cedar shingled hippy dwelling that someone put together in the ’70s. I had all the stuff upstairs in my studio. There was this massive rainstorm and the roof caved in. An MS20, it just can’t handle that. But sometimes in our studio we have the opposite problem – we heat it with a woodstove, and the heat from a woodstove is just so intense, I feel it drying out the capacitors and circuit boards on these crusty old devices.

Listening closely to Celestite back to back with Celestial Lineage, I can hear bits that seem to draw on the same source material.

Absolutely, that’s the process. And a big part of this record was about developing a new process. That’s something I’m very interested in. The process with this record was to delve into the sessions of Celestial Lineage and find certain sounds, phrases, and then kind of remix them – to process them Eno-style through the console, and then use that as a starting point, to build things on top. It’s interesting to take that approach. Nathan and I are so committed to – or maybe so stuck in – our own methodology and formula, which is definitely guitar-orientated. It’s like, write on guitar, add drums and vocals, and then add synth, choir and strings. It was invigorating to work from a totally opposite angle. But this record was a very much a one-off studio project. If we do stuff in the future, I think we’ll return to our familiar sound – guitar and drums.

You’re not leaving metal.

No, not really – I mean, we left metal a long time ago, in my mind. But if we do stuff in the future it will be in that spirit.

It’s worth pointing out, there are guitars on this record –

Yeah that’s true, although they’re played in a way – well actually a lot of the guitars on the record were lifted off Celestial Lineage and processed.

Right, they have a kind of droning quality – but the quality of a guitar can change depending on what it’s played over the context that you put it in. Played over drums, it feels fast – but alone it feels more like a wash.

Absolutely, and that’s something I’ve noticed when mixing our records. Maybe that’s partly the inspiration of where Celestite came from. Often when you’re doing a mix, you’ll mute the drums and have just the guitars – and whenever we’ve done that, it’s always a bit like, that sounds fucking awesome. So I think that’s one reason why we did Celestite the way we did – to give an insight into what we hear when we’re mixing records.

I think a lot of the commentary around the record will concern the lack of guitar and drums. But actually, what surprised me most is the lack of vocals. On the last record, the bits you did with Jessika Kenney bits on Celestial Lineage were really beautiful, and it felt that might be something you’d further pursue. Did you feel like it wouldn’t fit?

We thought about it, and when we started recording, I called Jessika, we discussed it. But as we got further into it, we started to enjoy the idea that there wouldn’t be a human voice on the record. It was becoming more elemental, in a way. And to bring the human voice into it – and a very distinctive human voice – I feel it would bring the focus down a bit. The human voice is so intimate – especially Jessika’s voice. And I think that would have shifted the perspective in a way that wouldn’t have worked for us. With Celestite, we wanted it to seem like we were peeking into a world that exists of its own accord, without the interference or input of human beings.

And it’s coming out on your own label?

Yeah, our contract with Southern Lord was up, and as people who have been committed to a DIY approach, it seemed like an obvious choice. If you can sort distribution and promotion, it just doesn’t need to go through a label any more. But most of it, for us, was an energetic thing. For us to have as few layers of commerce between us and the people listening to the music felt right.

There’s a track title, ‘Initiation At Neudeg Alm’. That’s a place in Austria, yes?

It’s in Salzberg. We have these friends who have this amazing venue they’ve built on an old family farm way up in the top of the mountains. It’s the most amazing venue I’ve ever played at – especially for metal music, because it’s just so epic. We’ve played a couple of times – not in the last few years, but I’d like to get back there. They do these summer solstice concert-slash-rituals that are pretty mind blowing. The pictures on their website are pretty spectacular. They’re erected all these standing stones, and they make these log fires that are literally 50 feet tall. It’s a serious pagan event.

Will you play this music live?

Yeah, we’re planning on doing some concerts on the west coast – Vancouver, DC, San Diego. And that’s all we have planned for the time being. We’ve had interesting offers from festivals in Europe, Japan, Malaysia… but we’re going to do these few shows and see how it goes. My wife and I have a new baby at home. Having a child shifts your perspective a great deal. I’m enjoying being home in these first few months. A whole new world opens up.

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