Q&A: Liturgy Talk Fonts, Philosophy, and Being Despised
Ever wonder what it's like to be hated by the public? You don't always need to look high up the totem pole for a Lana Del Rey or a Nickelback to find a musician who appears to receive more criticisms than compliments online. Take, for example, Liturgy.
The Brooklyn-based black-metal band led by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix receives invective that's far more pointed and heated than the garden-variety internet bile.
"Pretentious" and "hipster" repeatedly come up in discussions of Liturgy, and if there is anything complimentary about those terms, folks using them are very seldom out to remind you of the nice things.
The source of the hate for Liturgy isn't so much their music as it is what Hunt-Hendrix said about their music. In spring 2010, Hunt-Hendrix published "Transcendental Black Metal: A Vision of Apocalyptic Humanism," a manifesto that proposes a "decisive break" between Transcendental Black Metal ("a fresh exploration of the essence of black metal" that's rooted in America and "solar, hypertrophic, courageous, finite and penultimate") and Hyperborean Black Metal (the original European form that's "lunar, atrophic, depraved, infinite and pure"). (Read a portion of the work at Vice.)
When Liturgy's second record, Aesthetica, hit last year, "Transcendental Black Metal" began to receive heavy circulation online, sparking a backlash against the band and its frontman for putting such highfalutin-sounding ideas out in public. (This is where those two words from above come in.) Chris Grigg of black-metal band Woe even dedicated 1,600 words to tearing Hunt-Hendrix a new asshole.
At its core, the war against Hunt-Hendrix and his manifesto is about intellectualism and, more specifically, an outsider in the metal scene offering his thoughts on it. It's no coincidence Hunt-Hendrix's past as a philosophy student at Columbia University has been repeatedly mentioned. This conflict is less about his feelings on black-metal and more about the way he sounds and looks for expressing them this way, which ultimately relegates his music to an afterthought. Hating Hunt-Hendrix ignores all the splendor contained in Liturgy's sound. Sure, its sense of lightness contrasts conventional notions of black-metal, but it's a rich and effective product in and of itself.
Anger aside, Liturgy's status as the black-metal band everyone has to have an opinion on has afforded them several unusual opportunities, including a short Florida tour with Sleigh Bells that hits Revolution in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday night. Realistically, this team-up will only exacerbate those hipster connotations, but c'est la vie.
Before the show, we caught up with Hunt-Hendrix to discuss the physical implications of the anti-Liturgy movement, his favorite figures in Romanticism, Swans, and a crucial activity most aren't doing amid this hue and cry.
New Times: How much of the backlash against Liturgy has translated to real life?
Hunter Hunt-Hendrix: Oh, interesting. Almost none of it. I mean, we had a couple of hostile people on tours and stuff, but generally, it's a strange phenomenon. I was just at a show the other night and this guy came up to me, and he was like, "Man, I really hate your band, but you're a great guy." We sort of had this friendly conversation. I'm so accustomed at this point to people saying they hate my band that I wasn't offended. The kid had a friendly disposition, so we got along great. In a way, it's like people voice these opinions on the internet, but my experience generally is that in real life, they're pretty good-natured.
This might be bullshit, but there's a story floating around online that involves your tires getting slashed and windows shattered in Portland.
Yeah, we had slashed tires and a shattered windshield. So as I mentioned, there's been a couple of acts of hostility, although it was never really confirmed that that was actually directed at me or our band because of the music. We never found out who did that. It might have been a coincidence, but then again (Laughs), it might not have been. I forget whether it was Seattle or Portland. It was in the Northwest, and I think it was a place where people are more chilled out. I don't know. I was surprised that that happened.
What's the value of putting these ideas of black-metal out there?
Liturgy is not my primary point of reference. It's like if I was playing a style of music that doesn't fit into the record collection of a metalhead or some of those people who are more orthodox about that stuff. It feels weird sometimes and bad sometimes, but for the most part, I'm kind of into it. It's kind of an exciting thing to make a record and put some words down on paper and have people be really affected by it one way or another.
I've said in other interviews that I would be uncomfortable being in a band that just got buzz, like, "Oh, people are really into this band right now. They have a new sound." That kind of buzz stuff on the internet is pretty vacuous. People forget about those bands really quickly, and it's much a different thing whereas making people really mad, I think, is something I'm more interested in doing.
If you had to pin down a couple of reasons, why has the backlash occurred in the first place?
I think there is, in fact, a multiplicity of reasons, sort of a perfect storm. It wasn't just one thing. First, people always pin down the fact that the members of our band don't dress like metalheads, so it's this visual thing. Secondly, which is kind of totally unrelated, is this manifesto, which is much more of a kind of intellectual thing, which doesn't really fit in with the hipster identity at all really, but maybe it comes across to people as sort of arrogant or pretentious.
On that subject, there's really not a lot of understanding in a way. I'm into the responses. I look at the message boards and see the threads. It's like, "Oh, this guy thinks all metal must be like Liturgy or it's bad." People imagined that it's an attack on black-metal, which I never intended for it to be. It's much more of a creative thing. Then, our music sounds kind of strange to people, I guess. A lot of the time the music itself gets left out of the conversation. I think because it's so minimalism-influenced and kind of noisy, people think it's not played well or something like that.
How do you think all these associations have impacted the band's chances for success in a positive or negative way?
That's a question I ask myself. It's certainly gotten us a lot of attention in mainstream press that we never would have gotten attention in before. It's become this phenomenon. The New York Times, Spin, Newsweek or The New Yorker, these outlets that wouldn't ordinarily really cover black-metal at all. For better or worse, that's a result of it.
I would like to think that maybe in the long run they've helped the band, but in the short term, I mean, it's not like we sell a ton of records. I think that a lot of people really just don't like our band, and that if they just heard it and were blindfolded, they would probably like it more. The alienation is real, so that hurts the band in a way. These are things that honestly I'm not really thinking about very much anyway. As long as we're able to get our stuff out there and have it be in the world, you can't really plan on how that's going to look.
I'm not even sure what our goals are, whether it's to be the most respected band in a particular scene or the most famous band. We have no particular goal as a band in a way, beyond kind of just doing things and going with the flow.
You said in an interview that "Transcendental Black Metal" has to be in Arial because "it doesn't work in any other font," right?
It is true, it is true. It's funny. Recently, I've been doing solo performances where I actually deliver the lecture as a PowerPoint, but I also do this chanting that's like on the album, using a loop pedal, and so I did it more of an art world environment in this group show. For the first time, someone came up to me afterwards and was like, "That font was perfect." This guy was a designer. Arial is a special font. I know that I have one person that agrees with me, but it's hard for me to explain why exactly it has to be in Arial, but it does. Arial was invented by Microsoft so that they wouldn't have to pay royalties to the makers of Helvetica.
And Helvetica's another very popular one.
Yeah, Helvetica's a very popular font. I think that generally people think of Helvetica as the ultimate beautiful modernist font and Arial as a bootleg version of that, and sometimes, that just makes Arial very attractive to me. I had a Helvetica version of the manifesto, and then finally I was like, "No, it's gotta be in Arial."
Philosophy-wise, what are other things out there that you'd cite as major inspirations to you, things that needn't necessarily come from music itself?
Yeah, people don't ask that that often actually. I mean, the idea of making a manifesto that describes your own music definitely came from studying European avant-garde music from the '50s and '60s. (Iannis) Xenakis is a composer that I'm an enormous fan of, and he has an entire book that's a manifesto for his music. And (with Karlheinz) Stockhausen, each piece he put out, he'd write a really technical but also really cosmic and new-agey kind of text that would sort of explain the piece or be a companion to it. It's very much a tradition from European classical music.
Those are big influences. Wagner is obviously a huge influence, his writings on the artwork of the future and so on. I probably spend more time listening to Wagner than almost anything else. It's not really other metal bands who are playing right now or anything like that, which is why I feel a certain kind of distance from the whole scene.
You've also expressed an interest in Romanticism. Are there any specific American or European writers that you're into?
I mean, Wagner is certainly one of them. He wasn't such a great writer in a way, but he was certainly part of Romanticism and his manifesto for his music is definitely a model. I guess Nietzsche is a touchstone for almost everything. Novalis. I really like German Romanticism, but also contemporary French thought is a big part of it, too. Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux are these two philosophers that I'm always kind of reading.
Is there anyone on the contemporary music side you'd look to as an inspiration--say, someone from America after the '30s?
You mean, like in rock music? I mean, Swans is a huge influence on me. It's difficult to really articulate, but in terms of overall vibe, it's sort of doing this kind of mystical, ecstatic rock. Listening to Swans really kind of opened up my awareness of possibilities of what you could use rock to do.
Is there anybody that nobody would associate with you or expect you to cite as an influence that you would?
In terms of attitude toward music?
I can't really think of anybody. Maybe Prince Rama. Taraka (Larson) and I have had a couple of really good conversations, and I think we're on the same page about music, and she has a manifesto herself. She wrote a manifesto for Prince Rama, which is awesome.
Many people have talked about the manifesto and many people have analyzed the music. Even within all that information out there, is there anything people haven't picked up on?
Oh yeah, totally. I feel like most of the content of both the music and the manifesto (hasn't been picked up on). I don't feel like either is very well understood.
In the manifesto, for example, I've never seen anyone really discuss the argument or the content of it. Everyone just writes about its existence. As far as the music, there's a lot of compositional work that went into it. The songs are all related together using certain variations of just one master rhythm that I have that I try to weave the whole thing together with, and no one's ever noticed that or asked about that, but maybe that's more my fault because if no one hears it except for me, then maybe I need to compose things a little bit better. (Laughs) So yeah, there's stuff that people have not touched that maybe will in the future.
That is an excellent point. People rarely talk about the manifesto itself.
It's like, "This guy is such an asshole! He wrote this manifesto!" I spent a long time crafting this thing and it's kind of painstakingly put together, but yeah, no one ever talks about what's actually inside.