Features I by I 07.07.14

Drew Daniel talks Burzum, ‘Blurred Lines’, and tackling black metal’s issues head-on with The Soft Pink Truth

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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.

“When I do these black metal songs, 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 ‘Black is the night! Metal we fight!’ You are in their face.”

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?

‘89, ‘90.

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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soft pink truth interview 2

Could you talk about the Soft Pink Truth album prior to this one, Do You Want The New Wave or Do You Want The Soft Pink Truth?, and how that compares or contrasts to this album? Obviously it involved a similar process, but with different material – punk and hardcore.

Yeah, that record was made to be a punk statement. So I kept it at – I think it’s 34 minutes long. It’s less epic and grandiose and psychedelic than the first album. It’s something that was as much about doing the history of punk and hardcore in a way that would do justice to its own internal differences and antagonisms – you know, it wasn’t about saying, ‘punk is X’ or ‘punk is Y’ – that it has some essence. That’s why I would cover things like, you know, Teddy & The Frat Girls and L. Voag and Nervous Gender – rather than, you know, here’s the Circle Jerks, and here’s Slaughter & The Dog, and here’s SSDecontrol or whatever. I wanted to have that continuum from the macho jocky side to the arty faggy side be a part of the way that punk history was reflected on.

I felt like it was a test of Matthew Herbert’s willingness to keep me on Accidental, but he was really into it. And I think he was into it because of the politics of it. He told me at the time, ‘I love how angry your record is, because I don’t hear enough anger in dance music.’ And I think that says more about him, in a way, than about me. I think because he’s really a citizen of dance music and constantly in demand at festivals and constantly DJing parties, I think it inevitably makes him want to push back against it. For me dance music is this world that I travel in every so often, but I don’t see it as my home so much. Because of what Matmos is and who our fans are. So for that very reason, in a weird way, I don’t feel angry at dance music in particular. To me it’s fun and it’s exciting because it’s not my home base.

Both the new album and the previous one critique certain political problems within the scenes in question through the lense of dance music. I wonder if, these days, dance music suffers from similar problems. I live in Amsterdam, and going to predominantly white house and techno events there involves encountering this quiet ground hum of racism – in spite of, obviously, the minority ethnic origins of that music. I don’t think that’s particularly rare in dance music either – particularly with the rise of EDM in the US. So I wondered if you’d ever considered turning your critical mirror on dance music?

Hmm. I mean those issues were on my mind when I thought about, ‘What kind of dance music do I want to make out of this black metal?’ I felt that if I had made a very polished, very slick sound-designed tech-house record out of black metal, in a way it would’ve been a very flat gesture. Because I feel like that image of the cold, controlled, curated aesthetic world that’s part of the vision of, you know, techno – that isn’t really all that inhospitable to a lot of the black metal attitudes and personae. I think they would probably be fine with that. I think what gets weird is if I have women and have disco and have, like, Vogue ball – a, frankly, blacker framework for what the rhythms are. That is more of a profanation of black metal, to be really blunt about it.

It’s something that I’ve had to think about: in what does the alleged racism of black metal consist? There’s very clear racist bands – you know, there’s National Socialist black metal bands like Satanic Warmaster and Peste Noir. And in the context of recent European elections that’s really just frightening – that’s not some weird subculture, the mass culture is already drifting towards these very politics, which are extremely dangerous. But then I think there’s also the kind of softer racism of the pastoral ambient vision of a world in which we escape the ugly evil modernity of the city in order to go back to our farms and villages. And a lot of black metal trades in these ambient interludes or ambient evocations of the hillsides, right? I mean Burzum’s album Filosofem, with its 25 minute Tangerine Dream-esque noodling track – all the artwork is people in agrarian Europe, and they’re all white.

Is it racist to play ambient music? Of course not – people of all colours play ambient music. But in the context of a black metal scene, is their connection of the pastoral with the ambient a form of crypto-racism? I would argue yes – because the city, as the space where we encounter racial difference, gets abolished on behalf of some supposedly transcendental gesture towards some beyond, where we can finally be, you know, peaceful and silent. We’re peaceful and silent because we don’t have to hear those jabbering minorities that we don’t understand, that make us feel ‘who’s nation is this’, or whatever, right? So there are softer and harder forms of racism implicit in attitudes about what genres are for, who they’re for. That was why I wanted to make these Timbaland beats on top of Burzum, and then that goes into a kind of deep house, techno chugger for 25 minutes. It was to take this pastoral ambient statement of Varg’s and to destroy it by forcing it to become civic again, rather than rural.

I don’t know, that was my goal. Obviously it can sound incredibly pretentious to weigh your arrangement choices with these heavy chains, as if people are liberated because I made a beat. Like, you know, get a fucking life dude! [laughs]. But nonetheless, if the conversation is about, why make this choice as opposed to that choice? – if the conversation is about aesthetics – then yeah, I think reflecting on the implicit racism of various scenes has got to be a part of what it means to respond in this way.

“Twitter’s this flat platform in which you can talk back to mass culture about the things that are fucked up about mass culture. I think we’re more aware because more people are talking back, and that’s a really good thing.”

I interpret the album as being a personal attempt to navigate that difficult issue – of liking something aesthetically that has political aspects that you dislike. Did it take you a long time to reach a certain peace with black metal in that respect?

I don’t think I’ve reached it yet [laughs]. There’s a reason they call it a release when a record comes out. It’s like – you aren’t in charge any more and you aren’t in control. There’s obviously fears of being misunderstood. And I’m still aware of the very valid sense in which people could say, ‘you haven’t succeeded in justifying this or in legitimating this’, or ‘you’re complicit in recirculating it’ or ‘you’re rewarding these trolls and attention whores with more validity just by doing this at all – why do it?’

So I’ve had a lot of doubts while making it. I don’t think I’ve ever made a record that I’ve had more anxiety about. I don’t think that makes it good or bad, it’s just true. But I did have a feeling of, ‘I need to finish this – I don’t want to back down from this, and I don’t want to not do it because I’m afraid.’ I mean it’s real – I’m an academic, and publicly affiliating yourself with people that are Nazis and satanists is not a good idea in academic communities. I think I can justify why I’ve done what I’ve done, but I would also understand someone feeling this is beyond the pale. I mean especially with the extremely violent, pornographic cover art. That’s a deliberate kind of button-pushing. I mean, I was up for tenure through this whole process, and [there was an] anxiety of like, ‘am I gonna get rejected by the board of trustees because I’m spreading this seemingly pro-arson record around?’ I’ve always felt like if I sat down with somebody and had a conversation about what my goals are, then I could clarify that. But there’s also a point at which you have to trust that people actually can think in complicated ways, and that you don’t need to pre-empt their reactions.

Going back to this idea of navigating the political and the aesthetic – I think part of why the record’s really interesting and maybe has a wider applicability than people who happen to be fans of both dance music and black metal-

[laughs] We’ll find out how many of those there are…

-one of the reasons is that everyone confronts these issues to some degree – even if it’s just, say, the casual misogyny in a pop song. Recently there’s been quite a lot of online debate about this sort of thing – ‘Blurred Lines’, for example, or a string of music videos that were been accused of having racist undertones – Avril Lavigne, Sky Ferreira. I wondered if you had any thoughts on why now, in the last few years, this particular debate about the political implications of music has flared up?

Well the one word answer is Twitter, right? The way to get a lot of people to retweet and favourite is by talking about something they know about. So pop culture is the most strategic thing to discuss on Twitter. But Twitter’s also this flat platform in which you can talk back to mass culture about the things that are fucked up about mass culture. And in which especially women and minorities have a voice, and have a way of talking about how they feel: minoritised, racialised, or threatened by media which for so long – whether we’re talking about pop songs or Hollywood films – has always had the male 18-24 year old demographic as the implied consumer. And so why are we more aware? I think we’re more aware because more people are talking back, and that’s a really good thing.

I feel like in my own work I want to explore and handle materials that are disturbing in order to look at the antagonism, and that brings with it certain responsibilities. I guess I have to await responses from people about what they think. There’s a line in the Darkthrone song, ‘Beholding The Throne Of Might’, which is about burning slaves, right? That line, burning slaves, is that a racist line? Well, I think in the context of the church burnings in Norway, it’s part of this sort of radical extremist, pagan assault on Christianity, and it’s not racist. Recirculating the line ‘burning slaves’ in America, it becomes energised by ambient racism – by the history of slavery, by the history of – you know, the Klan burned black churches as a way of subjugating black people. So the signifier moves, and you need to be aware of that.

In taking ‘Beholding The Throne Of Might’ and putting it in a Vogue ball context, I’m arguably trying to transplant that to America. So I had to be ready to explain, like – ‘well, what do you mean, singing a line like that?’ You know? And I don’t do it casually. I’m from the American South, and my family owned slaves – my ancestors owned slaves and fought for the South. So I can’t sing a line like ‘burning slaves’ without thinking carefully about, well, what are you saying? But I’m also – I am the artist, and I have my intentions. And then I do my actions, and then they have effects in the world. But it’s up to the audience and listeners, readers, thinkers, to then say, ‘well, here’s the effects’. And I don’t get to control that. And people don’t like that. And we’ve seen this over and over. About ‘Blurred Lines’, about lots of things – where the artist seems to magically think that if they just say they’re a nice person then their job here is done. As if it was about niceness.

It’s that slippage: ‘did I do a misogynist or racist thing?’ becomes ‘am I a misogynist or racist? Well, of course not – I’m a nice person!’

Yeah, right. It’s the gesture that’s launched a thousand apologetic YouTube videos. I mean I think it’s an exciting time for that very reason. I wouldn’t want people to misunderstand me, but I also have to be ready to shut the fuck up and, you know, let listeners decide what it means for them. There’s already some – I’ve had people that write me letters that are like, ‘as a Jewish queer who likes black metal, I love your record!’ But I’ve also had people on message boards say, ‘fuck this weak faggot bullshit’. I mean some of the people who hate me have avatar names like ‘nigger slayer’, you know? Then there’s also people that are like, ‘I totally wanted to love your record but I think it sucks!’ [laughs]. It’s a very broad range of responses. Mileage may vary.

Drew Daniel on ‘Teachers’:

“You know who Daft Punk are. They’re so aggressively marketed, successful, imitated and fawned upon that it can feel redundant to praise them, but they’re a best case scenario for pop music that is clever, perverse, catchy, ridiculous, flawlessly executed and yet also, yes, actually popular. I’ve always loved Daft Punk, and bought the ‘Da Funk’ 12” when it came out, so I’m a long time fan.

“When I thought about Why Do the Heathen Rage?, it seemed to me to be a record about influence and about honoring but also cannibalizing your predecessors, so for a while I kicked around the idea of covering Daft Punk’s ‘Teachers’, in which they give shoutouts to electronic, house, and hip hop producers that they admire and that influenced them. (I started listening to Robert Hood because of this song!). I sequenced a beat and riff that (somewhat) resembles the groove of the original, though admittedly it’s less funky and more shabby, and then I replaced Daft Punk’s Hall of Fame with my own Valhalla, concentrating on metal, crust, doom, noise, musique-concrete, minimalist and electronic music rather than house or dance music, following each shoutout with a snippet of music from the artist in question (sometimes an extremely obvious one, sometimes an arcane little intro noise or feedback squeal).

“These are not necessarily my “favorite” artists, just bands or people whose names slot into the cadence of the Daft Punk original – so there aren’t references to lots of people I also like but whose names don’t scan. My song is much longer than the Daft Punk original – I liked the idea of someone just namedropping forever, as if you’re being shouted at by some aggro record collector nerd in a club while you’re just trying to dance. I think there’s a spiritual kinship between ‘Teachers’ and, say, the monologue in LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’, and I like the slightly exhausting vibe of that song, so I made mine a bit “too long” so that it would have that endless-running-faucet-of-references effect. I thought about putting this track on the album but I ultimately committed to doing just a single LP and there just wasn’t space for it, so it became a bonus track. It’s a ridiculous thing to have done, but it was incredibly fun to do. Very labor-intensive but worth it, I hope.

“Bonus info about a bonus track: the final two samples are from Leonard Cohen and John Watermann. Cohen is referencing the way that songs age and change as we age and change with them: ‘let’s sing a new song, boys, this one has grown old and bitter’. John Watermann is sampling dialogue from the noir film Laura, so my sample is ‘a sample of a sample’ – in the context of the original film, the line comes from a sinister bachelor character who uses a regular schedule of listening quietly to records at home as a means of controlling someone and keeping her in line, so it seemed kind of apt as a dark, final coda. The sample’s context suggests that the love of music might be fraught with all kinds of conflicted emotions that are getting worked out through seemingly passive appreciation.”

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