Interview: Hunter Hunt-Hendrix Of Liturgy

The front man for the controversial transcendental black metal outfit speaks on New York, No Wave and Nietzsche – and recommends some provocative books in the process.

Combining the pure affect of over-the-top walls of noise with storytelling that crawls up from the dark end of human imagination, black metal has become the latest, rather unlikely favourite of the music intelligentsia. Over the past few years, the common perception of all things blast beat has changed from ‘to be ignored/disgusted by’ to ‘architectural structures and the closest thing pop culture has to classical music’. Hmm. While some of this certainly holds true, the vast field of black metal surely encapsulates more variations and history than the new found interest might acknowledge.

With their very own take on the Scandinavian legacy, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s Brooklyn based outfit Liturgy have often been dubbed frontrunners of a third wave of black metal, single-handedly attracting the young and the hip of the Big Apple to your favourite metal spot. Alongside disturbingly beautiful songs on their independently released debut EP and album, plus a sophomore album via Thrill Jockey, Hunter also penned a manifesto declaring his vision on how to channel the relentless energy of black metal in the best way. At the 2012 edition of Primavera Sound in Barcelona, we sat down with Hunter to find out more about his upbringing in NYC, his love for No Wave and Nietzsche, hatred of nihilism and punk and the theoretical framework he has constructed for his band.

Issue Project Room

You’ve gained notoriety by establishing your very own approach to black metal, basically adding various influences to a genre that used to follow rather strict guidelines. What music did you grow up with? Did classical music play a part in your upbringing?

When I grew up, there wasn’t very much music in my home. My parents didn’t listen to much music, but I watched a lot of MTV as a very young child, starting at the age of six, seven. I was obsessed with MTV. That was around the time that Nirvana became very popular. Watching “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a very formative experience for me. In high school I just listened to a lot of metal and hardcore, or contemporary classical music, which led to older classical music. That about covers it, really. [laughs]

Liturgy basically started out as a one-man project. When did you decide to join forces with your fellow band members, and where did you guys meet?

Me and Greg [Fox, Liturgy’s former drummer] played together in high school. I knew Tyler [Dusenbury, former bassist] and Bernard [Gann, guitarist] through some mutual friends. Bernard was actually the first person to join the band, then Tyler and Greg joined afterwards. Now it’s just me and Bernard again.

From the very moment your first EP dropped, people have dubbed Liturgy the spearheads of a third wave of black metal. Do you feel that is an accurate description, or does it seem limiting in a way?

I’m not sure, to be honest. There certainly has been some press that presented Liturgy as a major band in the third wave of black metal. On the one hand, I’ve been very intentional about declaring that Liturgy is the new kind of black metal. I wrote this manifesto for the band which declares the existence of a new era in the genre. [laughs] However, black metal has never been my main influence. You know, I said I didn’t identify with Brooklyn that much, but I do identify with that New York music tradition, from the early 1980s on. Bands like Swans, the composer Glenn Branca and No Wave bands like Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. That scene was so connected to the visual arts of, for example, Tony Conrad, Jenny Holzer. It was this sort of world where music and art were closely linked together. That really is the tradition I feel most directly connected to. In a way, black metal is a style of music that I chose to explore as a form. But I don’t really identify with the black metal scene either, so it is not a surprise that there are people in the black metal scene that don’t identify with my band. There was always this performance art aspect to delivering this manifesto. I’m very interested in declarations and grand visions.

Let us talk about the manifesto then. You initially wrote this declaration for an academic symposium, is that correct?

Exactly, I originally delivered the manifesto at an academic conference called The Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium. Everyone else who spoke there was a PhD, or a professor at some school involved with continental philosophy or literary studies, or something like that, but all of them loved metal and wanted to write about the connection between metal bands and, for example, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze or the occult traditions and so on. I studied philosophy in school, and I have always taken philosophy very seriously, especially the Nietzschean tradition and the French Nietzscheans I’ve already mentioned, like Bataille or Deleuze. There are two sides to the manifesto I’d like to clarify: one is the content, the other concerns the performative gesture of delivering the manifesto, which people didn’t really seem to have understood. Just the gesture of declaring something, like, ‘Thus, it shall be…’, ‘I dare you to disagree, I dare you to hate it’, that impulse kind of comes from this philosophical attitude that involves building your own universe and building a system of coordinates for your own that clashes with ideas in the existing world. This is the performative element of this declaration.

Liturgy – Returner

So, regarding the content of the Transcendental Black Metal manifesto – If I had to break it down into what it is essentially about, I’d say, more than anything else, it outlines a strategic attempt to overcome the nihilism that comes with the pure affect of traditional, or Scandinavian, black metal by employing the burst beat technique as opposed to the commonly used blast beat. Would you agree? And if so, can you guide us through the terminology used?

Yes, I do agree. However, in my mind, there is not a direct correlation between the ideas in the manifesto, delivering the manifesto and the music of Liturgy. They are related to one another, but they are not exactly the same thing. The fundamental idea in the manifesto is that there is a development in the history of extreme metal. There seems to be a productive force that pushes extreme metal one certain direction, which is to be more extreme. [laughs] Each new generation builds a new genre of metal that takes the most extreme elements of the previous generation’s metal. It’s easy to see the development from thrash to death metal, just as it is easy to see this development from death to black metal. Thus, what I call ‘hyperborean black metal’ is characterised by the blast beat. The blast beat is something that is not used all the time in the black metal context, but only at the most extreme moments. For example, on an album like Transilvanian Hunger by Darkthrone, the blast beat continues on almost the entire record, on every single song. So, there’s an ambiguity in what it does: on the one hand it is the most extreme possible beat, but on the other hand, when it is always there, it becomes atmospheric.

Black metal has this contradiction in it, between being the most intense metal and the least intense metal, as it defeats itself by completing a trajectory in the history of the metal genre. I love the bands who play this music, but the manifesto contains this idea of a leaping-off point into what I call the ‘burst beat’, which, instead of a constant blast beat, is a blast beat that accelerates and decelerates. I connect that with a concept of life. It becomes a sort of organic metal.

If there’s anything that I do kind of hate, it’s punk. The real nihilism is punk, because there is no hope in it and there’s no sense of a deeper reality.

How does this tie in with the concept of the ‘haptic void’ you’re referring to?

The haptic void is like the ‘trauma’, or the ‘other’ or the ‘thing’ in psychoanalysis. It is the complete, hypothetical satisfaction that is totally destructive AND creative, and something that people who compose metal seem to feel the urge to reach – even though it is impossible to reach it. The idea of transcendental black metal is to sustain a relationship to it that also includes an awareness of its impossibility.

You open up a number of referential fields in the manifesto. One of the most central points seems to be the connection between your approach of black metal and a utopian American experience resembling the ideas of transcendentalist writers like Emerson, Thoreau or, later, the literary Beat movement.

To me, the fundamental idea of Transcendentalism is the idea that the destruction of a form is a creative act – that there is some kind of artistic, or cosmic, or spiritual force. Emerson refers to it as a divine force: God, Jehovah, a force that keeps moving forward, creates forms and then destroys them. That idea of a sort of health and joy involved in letting this force work through you to destroy something which leads to a creative act is something that I really identify with. Thus, when I talk about an American spirit, I guess that’s what I’m talking about.

The specific US-American trope of pushing the frontier easily goes along with that description.

Yeah, it really works well in an artistic context but when it comes to the social, political and economic context it applies in a much more problematic manner. [laughs] But with regards to the Beat Movement from the 1950s into the 60s, you mentioned – it has also been a big influence for me. I’d agree with what you’ve said, I also see it as a continuation of the Transcendentalist movement, that might not even have started in America, but originally with William Blake. Allen Ginsberg’s poetic muse, or poetic master was William Blake, as he had his early experiences with ‘divine’ poetry with Blake’s works. So, once we start talking about the Beat Generation, that’s when you also start talking about counterculture. Counterculture is something very important and meaningful to me, and the beginning of American counterculture came out of the Beat generation, even though they were primarily poets and novelists.

Some of your descriptions of the organic features of the burst beat even resemble the way Kerouac, Amiri Baraka, etc., wrote about be-bop.

Yeah, of course, the Beats were really into jazz. But then rock came to exist, and then the counterculture became this huge thing, something that had never existed before – sort of this impossible but really idealistic way of living that was really experimental, unwilling to accept any of the current social and political and economic forms. I’m generally very interested in that original countercultural impulse. In my view, counterculture has really declined since the 60s, or even the 50s. A lot of this has to do with the problematic relationship between counterculture and commerce. Hence, here’s what is so interesting to me about black metal: I see black metal as something really different from punk. If there’s anything that I do kind of hate, it’s punk. [laughs] I actually love black metal, or hyperborean black metal very much, as an alternative to a punk attitude. The real nihilism is punk, because there is no hope in it and there’s no sense of a deeper reality. Basically, counterculture began saying no to a lot of things, but more importantly it was saying yes – and over time the ‘no’ overshadowed the ‘yes’. That ‘yes’ element is what I want to revive.

Liturgy – Pagan Dawn

All of a sudden we’re back with the central European philosophical tradition of negating the negation. That’s very close to your negation of nihilism, you even called your debut album accordingly, Renihilation. Stylistically, the Liturgy debut differed from the first EP in various aspects…

Yeah, the first EP Immortal Life was much more conceptual because I really wanted to make the music as extreme as it could possibly be. I felt like I couldn’t have many chord changes, and thus it’s not a very musical record. I then came to terms with the fact that I wanted to write real songs. So, a major change from Immortal Life to Renihilation is that there are songs with verses and choruses and I started working with a live band. The concept of Renihilation is indeed a negation of the negation but it’s more of a general, final negation. This was an idea I first encountered reading Nietzsche in high school and identifying with the figure of Zarathustra. You reach the lowest point, which Nietzsche identified with Christian moralism. Nietzsche hated Christianity, but even more than that he hated the secular world that came out of Christianity, that still held the worst of Christian values without realising it. That was like the darkest nihilism. He has this concept of resentment, that the human psyche develops as these series of negations, of ‘no’s’ but with each negation, human culture becomes more aware of itself. And Zarathustra presents a final no, which is a no to nihilism itself. That by default becomes an affirmation, something very joyful and positive, but at the same time very intense, scary and violent. I identify with that. The term Renihilation is inspired by that.

So, after Renihilation gained widespread recognition, you’ve signed your latest full-length album Aesthetica to Thrill Jockey. Before that, all your recordings were carried by a certain DIY ethos. Did that change with the third record?

Hm. Aesthetica I would consider the first successful Liturgy record, although I don’t mean successful commercially but it was the first record that I was a little bit satisfied with how it sounded – though I actually hated the sound by the time it came out. Maybe that always happens. We released it on Thrill Jockey, which was sort of appropriate because of the network of people we were associating with. Again, we’re playing music mostly in Brooklyn within that indie rock, experimental world, not so much in the metal scene. So, Thrill Jockey just happened naturally. We had written the record before signing with them, so I don’t think that being on the label influenced the process of creating the music. It certainly intensified a certain perception of the band as something outside of the black metal world. We simply gave them a demo of the record and that was it.


Henry Miller - The Rosy Crucifixion

This is a trilogy comprised of three books: Sexus, Plexus and Nexus. It’s not as widely read as Tropic Of Cancer, but it is the book that is closest to life – in the sense of flux and the vertigo of joy and suffering – that I’ve ever read. Reading this book makes me feel the way I want Liturgy to make people feel.

Alain Badiou - Being And Event

Badiou presents a philosophical system with an ontology that entails a certain kind of heroic ethics, which I find to be really inspiring. Even the act of writing the book is an instance of living according to this ethics.

William Blake - Jerusalem

I see Blake as the initiator of the entire tradition of writers and thinkers that I’m interested in. His vision of the apocalypse in Jerusalem is related to the destruction of western culture and the liberation of desire.

Henri Bergson - The Two Sources Of Morality And Religion

The figure of the ‘mystic’ in this book presages the figure of the schizo in Deleuze and Guattari’s books. The idea that the mystic generates a new quality, something that was inconceivable before, by means of attunement to the flux – it is a great idea.

D.H. Lawrence - Fantasia Of The Unconscious

This a rare prose work by Lawrence in which he articulates his own theory of the unconscious. There is an almost fascist neo-pagan quality to his views, which is ultimately disturbing but also fascinating.

By Julian Brimmers on July 18, 2012

On a different note