Wrestling-Themed Black Metal: An Interview with Lives Of The Kemet

Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy gets the lowdown on one of the more fascinating concept albums of the past year.

On Sunday, the world of professional wrestling’s silly season begins with WWE’s Royal Rumble. If you enter the battle, you must make sure your fellow 29 competitors leave the ring by being launched over the top rope; and if you are the last man standing, you will be immediately placed into the main event at WrestleMania, the biggest match at the industry’s biggest night.

Daniel Krow is excited for this weekend. A life-long Portland resident, Krow spent his teenage years playing in crust-punk bands, trying to get in an issue of Maximum Rock’n’Roll and watching WWF wrestling. As he grew older, he found his musical and wrestling tastes expanding to black metal and VHS copies of gore-soaked Japanese deathmatches. Late last year, Krow combined the two interests under the name Lives of the Kemet and the self-released album Willow and Fall. An unusual mix of pure noise, field recordings and gallows humour, Willow acts as an audio biography of the high-flying wrestler Jeff Hardy and his much-maligned time spent as the character Willow the Wisp. The creaky Gothic voice that Hardy put on as the character was pitched somewhere between unintentional humour and a childish malevolence, but Krow turns the character into an escape for the wrestler, a creative pursuit into the macabre that acted as shelter from years of heavily-publicised drug abuse.

The bulk of the music Krow selects as the backdrop for Hardy’s tale is a digitalised, splintered take on black metal. Krow says that “black metal helps me express an aesthetic that I’ve never been able to express before.” He spoke to RBMA about the similarities between black metal and pro wrestling, learning to appreciate Jeff Hardy and creating music as music criticism.

What was your first exposure to black metal?

In middle school, I read Lords of Chaos and it really freaked me out. Being Jewish and seeing all this Nazi imagery and rhetoric was terrifying to me. The pictures of [Mayhem’s] Dead with his brains blown out, [dead Mayhem guitarist] Euronymous in a cave with his candelabra, Varg [Vikernes of Burzum] holding two knives and wearing corpse paint... So macabre! I remember being so scared. Now, it’s the most exciting thing to me.

Your musical background is based in Portland’s punk scene, yes?

It was. I played guitar in a band called Anti-State. Very cut-and-dried hardcore punk. I then did a total 180, moved away from hardcore and started listening to all of the stuff I’d never listened to before. I went from listening to grind, hardcore and powerviolence to Belle & Sebastian and Three 6 Mafia.

The first black metal album I ever listened to was Darkthrone’s A Blaze in the Northern Sky and I really wanted to get into that album, I desired being able to listen to it all the time. It was tough, forcing myself to listen to it over and over and over, but then it clicked and there was no looking back. I really thought that indie and hip hop were my type of music, but it’s weird now as I’ve come back to that punk stuff. Nothing sounds as fresh, or as raw, as black metal and punk.

Darkthrone - A Blaze in the Northern Sky

This shift happened around 2008, around the time that you had started blogging. What effect did that have on you?

That was a really fun time. I felt like blogging was a whole other adventure – talking about music in a way where I could suddenly bring all these opinions to bear was really exciting. I wanted to be a professional blogger but I don’t think I was going around it the right way. This one critic, Brandon Soderberg, had a blog called No Trivia and he would blog about music in such a passionate way that it seemed like his entire life, writing about music so you could stay sane. He would get into these fights and say such outrageous things, and while a lot of it I didn’t agree with, it was still exciting to see somebody making these connections between, say, rap and avant-garde cinema. He had this post about how Three 6 Mafia were just as avant-garde as Tim Hecker or any of this IDM stuff, and within a year or two I was like, “He’s right!” Three 6’s stuff is incredibly next level – it’s just the way it’s coded. It was exciting to talk about music in so many different ways, only trying to challenge what someone else thought.

Were you making any music round this time?

I wasn’t really, just dicking about on GarageBand. I was reading critics just savaging releases and thought that I had to come with the best stuff I had. Every time I made something, I wondered what a critic thought about it and how they could tear it apart. Creatively speaking, that is so difficult because you keep thinking of the ways that someone can make fun of it.

Black metal came from people pushing themselves to huge extremes… I feel like I owe it to them to do the same.

As somebody that engaged heavily with music criticism, was this a big learning curve to undergo as a musician?

Oh, huge. I had to actively reject my feelings so hard to get to a point where I could make the record I wanted to make. To me, black metal is one of the few genres to have this insane, mythical history. I can feel so self-conscious with black metal, because it’s an extreme type of music and I respect that. It came from the sacrifices that these early artists made, pushing themselves each other to huge extremes… I feel like I owe it to them to do the same.

Willow and Fall has a very distinct, almost collage-esque feel to it. How was it created?

I sample riffs and try to use them as very rare material. I don’t want to wholesale grab a riff... When I sample, I want to use that riff to its maximum potential. That was a real long process, to get to the point where I felt confident making stuff in GarageBand. It comes with the computer, a piece of software that’s not used by professionals, so I’m just copying and pasting. Me, having spent years fussing about with the filters and EQ levels, trying to figure out how to use it…

Have you considered that using GarageBand, which is so readily available, almost seems like a logical end to DIY black metal aesthetics? They weren’t against recording in the most lo-fi, immediate ways possible.

That wasn’t something I was immediately conscious of, but that’s very true. As far as Willow and Fall goes, I was wanting to play all kinds of black metal. I sampled Burzum, Nortt, a lot of lo-fi stuff that I absolutely love. The lo-fi metal has a sense of, “I have to make this record! I don’t care if the drums sound like pillows! I have to express this!” To me, if someone is making black metal on FruityLoops or GarageBand in their basement and they’re just screaming their guts out, I want to hear that. When I listen to early Burzum, which is supposed to be incredibly difficult to hear, I like hearing how cheap it sounds. [pauses, gathers thoughts] Black metal is a hateful sound. And if you’re not bringing that, ultimately I can’t listen.

Do you consider Lives of the Kemet as a piece of music criticism?

For me, this music can’t exist without music criticism. That was such a huge part of how I got into music, it was always there. I was always thinking critically about the music that I was listening to and that allowed me to see the music in a bigger political or social context. So now, it’s music as music criticism, but it’s about making sure that the music is the most powerful thing and not the interpretation. It’s such a weird thing, where I can make an album, where I can put it all on the line, but I can’t stop thinking about how it would be interesting to use a certain sample at a certain point. I’m currently making the second Lives of the Kemet album, which is about Euronymous from Mayhem, and the last two songs sample Death Cab For Cutie, Cat Power and The National, and I’m trying to make them sound as dark as they do to me. It’s also a deliberate confrontation with the idea of true black metal. There’s a fake podcast running through the album discussing the fact that it’s not black metal, and those characters are so mad that it’s representing the genre. I just wanted to address that – if you’re going to make an album like this, just be like, “I know!”

In a way, it’s also electronic music.

Yeah – or hip hop.

Top 80 Moves of Jeff Hardy

The interesting thing is that black metal can be so bleak, and defined by its bleakness, and putting it next to pro wrestling is almost an absurdist move. Why did you choose Jeff Hardy as the album’s focus?

As a teenager, I must have liked the daredevil aspect of Hardy – he’s a high-flyer, he did a bunch of dangerous moves – but then I watched ECW and was like “Jeff Hardy? Pssh, forget it.” It was almost like a death metal band where you think, “I’ve seen these guys – they’ve got families.” You end up writing them off as not extreme enough. When I saw ECW, it was so insane and violent… There’s a match where Sabu breaks his jaw, ties it up with some tape and keeps wrestling. At the time, it was the most exciting thing to watch.

After Chris Benoit killed himself and his family in 2007, I started to look into the whole culture of wrestling and it was just horrifying. These people don’t have medical insurance. They’re considered to be independent contractors, they pay for their own travel, if they get hurt they can get fired and are unable to do anything about it. They get pushed and pushed and pushed to keep performing, keep performing, keep performing… From what we know about concussions, a lot of wrestlers are in such pain constantly. So when Jeff Hardy got in trouble for drugs, I was like, “Of course. How do you do this job without taking a ton of drugs?” It just made me so angry. Watching wrestling now is even darker than it was before. Before, it was just fun. Now I can only think of the pain involved and the psychological strain that it takes to beat your body up like that every night.

Willow the Wisp – TNA (Jeff Hardy Return)

Although you were no fan of Hardy, what is it about him and his Willow gimmick that inspired this album?

When Jeff Hardy returned to TNA last year, the promos for his Willow gimmick were incredible. He called himself an “avenging angel,” said he “didn’t think like us, feel like us.” If you look at bands like Venom, it’s dudes having fun and singing about the devil, but they took that seriously. And Hardy decided to take Willow seriously.

Willow aside, the biggest inspiration for the album was this video of a drugged Jeff Hardy shooting [controversial type of pro wrestling interview] on CM Punk. He’s in this diner, he’s so high and he’s so pissed about how CM Punk made fun of his drug use, and there was something in all of that which surprised me, as I thought he was just this fun-loving guy.

I related to that feeling of having nothing to lose. That’s exactly what pushed me to make this album. The Willow character, that was just received as it being Jeff Hardy. He had this character, but then would come out and wrestle like Jeff Hardy, and like that, Willow was gone. It was like this character was never allowed to succeed, but the seeds of it showed so much pain. I do not project this onto Hardy, but I saw a pain, a betrayal by fans and employers. He’s out there sacrificing his safety and gets in trouble for doing drugs? All these wrestlers are on some sorts of drugs. I wasn’t a fan of Jeff Hardy, and on one hand the Willow character was kinda silly. So I thought I would make it as serious as possible, and I’ll use my knowledge of pro wrestling to show how dark this business is.

If you’d allow me to play devil’s advocate, wrestlers do shoot interviews because of their own personal problems or conceived bitterness.

There is something to that in the sense that Jeff Hardy is not CM Punk – he’ll never be CM Punk. He doesn’t have the microphone skills or the charisma, but this Willow character was so much stronger to me than what CM Punk was saying. There’s something interesting about what it takes to be successful in this business, as well as how you fail. But if you look at what Jeff Hardy has put his body through, what does it matter that he can’t talk or has no character? We’re so willing to dismiss a wrestler and say he isn’t ever going to be The Rock, but to be that person night after night and do that to your body? I want to tell those stories.

When it comes to music, there’s something so exciting when people say crazy shit and they can back it up.

In the modern age of pro wrestling, wrestlers’ lives outside the ring are easily accessible and kayfabe – the storyline reality presented in wrestling storylines – are not as iron-clad as before. I bring up kayfabe because black metal, with its elaborate personas and suspension of belief, has an odd relationship to reality that reminds me of pro wrestling.

I can totally see that, yeah, you’re always playing with what the truth might be. There’s a kayfabe to black metal too, in the sense that it’s so extreme that it may be too difficult to be upfront about who you are while playing it. More now than ever, black metal has reached a point where you can have bands like Liturgy or Deafheaven that are part of the genre but aren’t burning churches. If you look at the Norwegian scene versus the French scene, all the Black Legion stuff, there isn’t the same sort of actual violence. But in the writing? It’s all about not being human and claiming how ready for death you are. There is a relation there to kayfabe.

If you look at pro wrestling pre-kayfabe, there’s something ugly and gritty about it and sometimes it looks like a real fight, which is really exciting. The audience believed it when the Four Horsemen came into the cage to beat up Dusty Rhodes. People were freaking out and climbing the cage so they could help save Dusty Rhodes. We’ll never be at that point again. Too many of us know it’s all just a show. So with black metal I’m torn, because part of me thinks it’s interesting to drop the mask, but there’s also a level of believing that these dudes are this fucking extreme. When it comes to music, there’s something so exciting when people say crazy shit and they can back it up. There’s something really exciting about that to me.

Bathory - Bathory

How do you maintain a certain moral ambivalence towards black metal?

It’s a weird feeling: the more I become obsessed with the music, the harder it is to separate that. If I’m talking about black metal, I’ll say that I don’t believe in the politics or that it’s just a personal thing but… With this Euronymous album, I’ve entered into the idea of him as a villain. He wasn’t really one, just a poser that wasn’t as obsessed with death to the extent that Varg was. That’s the two sides of the genre. He didn’t give a fuck, and his moral compass allowed for the worse, as it incorporated historical violence like burning churches in response to the whitewashing of Norse culture. And on the other side, Euronymous just loved music like Bathory and Venom and wanted to push it further. There was something so fun about music that rejected the norms of traditional entertainment, and it instead became a celebration of nihilism and death.

When will the second Lives of the Kemet album be ready?

It’s a symbolic anger, and that’s why I think of it in the terms of a horror movie.

If I got my shit together, it could be done next week. I’m that close to being done, with only one song left to do. I know the next one after Euronymous would be about Amanda Bynes, the actress who’s become an apparent schizophrenic. So I want to see if I can make a black metal album about Amanda Bynes. I may include some dance music in it! I have to sustain some sense of darkness though. Each part of the album needs to have that black metal menace. It’ll be a challenge.

I’ll be honest, the more I listened to Willow and Fall, the more frightened I was to speak to you.

[laughs] Oh, totally.

You’re easy to get along with, but that album is very intense.

It’s an interesting aspect in my opinion, because that’s a part of me and the reason I’m able to go so deep and dark is because of the fact that I’m not using that in my daily life. The violence of black metal seems ultimately symbolic, but… Varg talks about how he’s a Norse chieftain, and no you’re not dude! There’s no way you can beat Norway, and Europe is not going to become this heathen empire again. It’s a symbolic anger, and that’s why I think of it in the terms of a horror movie. Emphasising with Jeff Hardy’s pain aside, there isn’t a moral dimension here. It’s a visceral experience.

By Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on January 23, 2015

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