If you haven’t allowed your precious orifices to be penetrated by the soaring goth anthems of Beastmilk’s Climax, it’s time to give in and drop the soap. Led by vocalist Kvohst (a.k.a. Mat McNerney), an Englishman who spent his youth fronting avant-garde black metal bands and obscure death metal outfits—he still helms psych-folk outsiders Hexvessel—this Finnish quartet figured out that combining the shimmering, infectious guitar rhythms of Brighter Than A Thousand Suns-era Killing Joke with the stentorian vocal delivery of Sisters Of Mercy and romantic lyrical subversion of the Smiths is one of the best musical ideas that nobody ever had. Until now. Plus, all the songs are about sex, death, or the apocalypse. But usually all three. Climax was produced by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou and came out on Black Friday, just in time to thrust its way onto our personal best-of-2013 list. I recently tracked Kvohst down at his secret Finnish lair to get all the pertinent details.
Noisey: You’re an Englishman living in Finland. Why did you move there?
Kvohst: I’m married to a Finnish girl, so I moved here for reasons of love about four years ago. I was doing some music with my other band, Hexvessel, so I was kinda searching for inspiration. I’d been traveling around Scandinavia for many years looking for something, and I found it in Finland.
What attracted you to Scandinavia to begin with?
Living and growing up in London as a total city boy, I wanted something far away from that kind of life and my Catholic upbringing. I just wanted the craziest thing I could find. [Laughs] I was really into the Vikings at the time; I guess I was a bit mad when I was younger. But the nature and everything else just stuck with me. I’ve grown to love it here a lot.
Do you speak the language?
Not Finnish, no. But I speak some Norwegian. I was in a Norwegian band, so I learned that almost fluently. But Finnish is a totally different thing. It’s a different language stem, and very, very difficult to learn. It’s really far out, and you could say that about Finnish people as well. They’re another species of human—quite strange people, really. If you watch the films of Aki Kaurismäki, that’s a good visualization of what Finnish people are like.
In my experience, they enjoy a drink.
Yeah, too much. [Laughs]
So how did you decide upon the name Beastmilk? It’s simple, but provocative—just like Climax, the title of the album. Is that what you were going for?
Yeah. We were discussing a lot of things around milk and semen and life fluids, things like that. Me and Goatspeed, the guitarist, were talking about Aleister Crowley and his book White Stains, and the magic potency of certain bodily fluids. There’s this idea of blood as being a shocking thing, but it’s also over-used as a symbol. So we were thinking that milk was a very powerful and cyclical symbol as well. But I really hated the name Beastmilk at first. It was down to Black Milk and Beastmilk, and it was like, “Oh, man—that pun is just not good.” But what’s clever about it is that it triggers a real like or dislike amongst people. And we were kinda tired of the fact that you could call your band Goat-something or something-hammer, all these cool names but then you hear it and the music doesn’t make much of an effort. Beastmilk also tied into the themes we wanted to address. Back in the day, band names like Killing Joke really set people off thinking, but today we’re so used to hearing those kinds of names. So it’s nice when people get really angry about the name, like, “Oh my god, they’ve resorted to this…” But it’s quite Freudian in that way—it looks like “Breastmilk,” and that’s part of the fun of it.
I think the name would be interpreted differently if your aesthetic wasn’t what it is. If Beastmilk was a death metal band, and the album cover was an illustration of a demon raping a nun or something, it would have an entirely different connotation. But your music obviously doesn’t sound like that, and the album cover almost looks like a Matthew Barney piece.
Right, right. When we first came out with the demo, nobody really had a clue where we were coming from. It was post-punk music, but recommended by [Darkthrone drummer/vocalist and all-around metal tastemaker] Fenriz, so it flipped a few people on their heads, like, “I’m allowed to like this?” [Laughs] And we pushed that even further with the album. It’s amazing how many, like, true diehard [metal] guys are rocking out to it. We played [London metal festival] Live Evil this year, and all these people were headbanging to us. We were like, “Are you sure, guys? Really?” But that’s cool. I like the idea that it can be taken that way if that’s what people want. It’s up to them. I quite enjoy that it can be multifaceted.
Your musical background includes death metal, avant-garde black metal, and neo-folk.
Yeah, I did my time doing metal stuff in my teens and 20s and then I started doing Hexvessel, which is psychedelic folk. So it’s been many years since I’ve been actively doing metal stuff. But that kinda defines who you are in a way, and I’m proud of coming from that scene. It’s been a long time since I’ve been active in it musically, even though I remain connected to all the bands and still listen to the music, obviously.
So what are you getting out of Beastmilk that you weren’t getting out of your metal bands?
I still get plenty out of metal, but I suppose it’s a case of where you’ve been and constantly trying to challenge yourself. I kinda felt like I did everything that I wanted to do there. But Beastmilk is something that I haven’t heard for a while with music. I get a rush out of listening to a few things mixed together that I don’t think could’ve really been done before. It kinda feels like the right time to mix those things up. Whereas I feel like death metal and black metal ran its course for me in terms of the impact it could make. I’ve always been an outsider in those scenes—I’ve been part of Dødheimsgard and Code, which is very avant-garde black metal stuff. So I was never comfortable with doing a traditional band.
You mentioned Killing Joke earlier. I hear some of that—specifically the Night Time and Brighter Than A Thousand Suns era—in Beastmilk. But I also hear Morrissey. Is that where you’re coming from on this album?
Yeah, and a lot of that has to do with every post-punk band sounding like Joy Division. It’s almost like when you plug your guitar in and turn on the reverb, you can’t get away from that sound, especially if you’ve grown up in that country. It’s in your blood, that music, so it’s kind of obvious that it would come out. It’s more like a subconscious influence rather than an active one. But Killing Joke is definitely a band I can relate to.
Many of the songs on Climax feel like anthems. Were they intended to be?
Yeah, but in a twisted way. You mentioned Morrissey earlier, and I think what he was doing in the Smiths was kind of creating anthems out of twisted themes. For me, Beastmilk is about the thrill of taking some of the themes that were touched upon by black metal and death metal, but you can really push those into kind of a catchy pop direction that allows a lot of people to get in on it. Whereas metal is kind of limited in scope. So it’s allowing me to get the same vibe and feeling of black metal, but opening it up a bit more. And I think the Smiths did something similar in that they wrote pop songs with strange themes. So yeah, they’re meant to be anthems but not, like…I don’t know, I’m trying to think of a really lame band… Turisas or something like that.
Kurt Ballou is known for producing super-heavy bands like High On Fire, Trap Them, and his own band, Converge. On paper, it doesn’t seem like he would be the go-to guy for something more nuanced and melodic like Beastmilk, but the end result is one of the best productions he’s ever done. Why did you want to work with him?
That’s one of the reasons we picked him—because it’s not what you would imagine. Getting Kurt on board gave us the feeling that anything could happen because it wasn’t the safest way to go. But it was quite important for us to work with a guy who was gonna bring a different perspective to it. Because music like ours is quite simple and quite catchy, you can fall into that trap of just doing the easy thing. But we went through quite a struggle to get out to his studio, and I think that comes out in the record. He took a band that was basically a demo band and brought us up to the level where we could make an album. He did a great job.
And Kurt isn’t the only member of Converge involved. You’ve got Nate Newton doing some backups.
Yeah, he’s on “Genocidal Crush” and “The Wind Blows Through Their Skulls.” Nate’s a guy who really connected with us from the beginning. He ordered our stuff and told Kurt about us and invited us to their shows. So he’s been a really big supporter of the band from the beginning. It was excellent to have him there with us. It was cool to have that connection with the American hardcore and punk scene. Somehow we managed to reach over from Finland to there, and they can understand it because there’s so much of that in our music as well—Dead Kennedys, the Misfits, and that kind of stuff. So it’s quite interesting for me. It’s obviously great that Fenriz picked up on it, but to be connected with the Converge guys as well is quite astounding to me.
There’s also a woman singing on the song “Strange Attractors.” Who is that?
That’s the singer from Occultation. We played a gig with them in New York, and we were so blown away by her singing and by her as a person as well. She came into the studio and started teaching us yoga and stuff. She’s a very inspiring person. And it’s better to have her than someone who’s a known singer, like Jex Thoth or something. A lot of times I get annoyed because I think bands put a guest singer on an album just for their name rather than for their talents. But Occultation is a band people should know about. They’ve got a guy from Negative Plane, so they’re kind of from the black metal scene, but then they’re doing this Christian Death-inspired stuff with some post-punk vibes. We share some background in common, even though they sound really different from us, so we felt like we’d found some soulmates there. I mean, there’s not many bands around that we could play live with that would actually make sense.
You mentioned Fenriz, who has been a great champion of Beastmilk. Did he come across your music online, or were you in touch with him through the black metal scene? I know he was also in Dødheimsgard at one point.
I’ve been friends with Fenriz for many years, but I’ve never really sent him any of my bands. We had a conversation a long time ago where he was like, “Don’t bother with that stuff. I’m not gonna sit you down and play you the new Darkthrone, so you don’t have to sit me down and play me what you’re working on. If I’m into it, I’ll find it on my own.” But I did send him the demo tape along with some other stuff, and he emailed me and said that he was really into. I think it was the first band I’ve been in that he’s actually liked, so I’m quite happy about that.
I understand you’re heavily interested in Charles Manson—you even dropped his name in the song “Fear Your Mind.” How did you get into him?
I got really obsessed by reading Helter Skelter, and from there I read everything and watched everything I could about him. I was ordering VHS tapes through the post and everything. Even these days, I’m looking at stuff about the Family online all the time. I’m not sure why. For a short time, I started reading other true crime stuff, but for some reason everything always came back to Manson. Being a bit of a hippie, I can somehow find something that I can relate to in his environmental philosophy and my own experiences taking psychedelic drugs and trying to turn on my mind. When I read about the Manson Family, it answered a lot of questions I had about the dark side of that whole hippie lifestyle. A lot of the things he says I can kind of agree with, which only interests me even more. A lot of things he says are crazy, and a lot of things he and the Family did were horrific, but it’s quite interesting in that through those things you can kind of discover something about yourself.
He’s still something of a national boogeyman here, at least for people of that generation. But he didn’t actually kill anyone, which makes the whole thing more fascinating. And like you said: for every patently insane thing that comes out of his mouth, he’ll say something else that has a unique kind of wisdom to it.
Yeah, exactly. He even says it himself: You can know a country through its murderers. The more I travel in America, I think of the things I’ve read and the things he’s said that crop up in my mind, and it does let you know a lot about the psyche of a nation and how things work. To normal people who have grown up in a Christianized society, that probably sounds completely crazy, but I think if you’ve lived through extreme scenes, you can kind of relate to the cult around him. Certain subgenres of music are cults in themselves.
And now you’re label mates with him here in the States.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s quite fun. I really love his whole Air Trees Water Animals concept. I think it’s fantastic. I could keep reading about it forever. And I heard someone smuggled a mobile phone into him that he would use to leave messages for people where all he would do was sing, “I’ve been dancing in the devil’s fire!” over and over. It was really excellent. I like the idea that he gets a mobile phone but then all he does with it is terrorize people with these crazy songs. It’s very inspiring somehow.
J. Bennett plays guitar in Ides of Gemini and occasionally dabbles in writing cover stories. Peep Ides of Gemini here.