All photos by Mitchell Wojcik
Extreme metal is no stranger to sweeping, grandiose statements of malcontent (Craft’s Fuck the Universe remains a personal favorite) but it’s rare to come across an individual or group of individuals who can cut through the theatrics, and really get in your head. For example, the first time I interviewed Watain’s Erik Danielsson, we were standing in the dark, cramped basement of a grimy North Philly bar, and the diminutive Swede was quietly explaining his plans for the band’s future. “We want to set the world on fire,” he told me, eyes gleaming coldly in the gloom. I looked up from my notes to meet his gaze, and a slight chill dashed up my spine as I realized that I actually believed him.
I’ve only encountered a handful of other artists capable of evoking that kind of visceral reaction, and generally, those who do tend to ascribe to intense personal philosophies (occult, Satanic, or otherwise). Not Mantar, though. One of the first things the band's blond, boyish guitarist and vocalist Hanno tells me when we meet is that, “We don't have a message. It's more about the joy of destruction.”
He and the band’s other member, brooding, dark-eyed drummer/vocalist Erinc, are settled on the roof of the Vice building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, surrounded by the hustle-bustle of harried young professionals and amorphous “creatives.” When the two leather-jacketed Germans first got here, though, they were far more interested in the office bar (and snack kitchen) than in any hip new media accoutrements, which immediately endeared them to me. They’re easy-going and chatty, armed with a little bit of swagger, but zero ego and big grins.
The duo is in town doing a round of press for their upcoming new album for Nuclear Blast Records, Ode to the Flame, the imminent release of which will mark a huge milestone in the the young band’s career. Hanno and Erinc started Mantar in 2012, back when they were both living in Hamburg, Germany (since then, they’ve both moved to Bremen, and Hanno splits his time between Germany and his girlfriend’s house in Florida). As Hanno tells it, the band’s much-remarked upon two-man format isn’t the result of any grand artistic vision; rather, they couldn’t find a decent bass player in town, and as it turned out, they didn’t need one.
“We didn't plan to be in a two-piece band when we started. It was more like, ‘Oh, another band, c'mon, don't give me this.' And no one wanted to join— all our friends who would have been able to play the bass, they just weren’t into it. But we figured out pretty fast that it works pretty well with the two of us. We always did our own thing. One important thing was that we did not want it to get lost in a big bucket full of bands who all sound the same, or any kind of so-called scene. We actually all our life tried to avoid this kind of ‘scene’ feeling, because it ends up that every band sounds the same, and pretty much shares the same members. Didn't sound very tempting to us, no.”
The story of their partnership with global metal giants Nuclear Blast is yet another example of the duo's charmed life—or at the very least, their brass balls. I’ve got T-shirts older than Mantar, and they’re out here dictating the terms and conditions of their partnership with one of metal’s biggest labels. Before they’d even recorded any demos, they found themselves in the midst of a heavy metal bidding war as “pretty much every metal label” started sniffing around. When Nuclear Blast came calling, Hanno and Erinc laid down the law and told them that they’d only sign on the dotted line if they, the band, were satisfied with the album—and if they weren’t, they’d pull a Bolt Thrower and walk. Luckily for them (and for us), Ode to the Flame hit the mark.
“We didn't want and didn't ask Nuclear Blast for any money. We recorded 80 percent of the record in the space where we rehearse, because we did not want any label to have any kind of boundaries or right to push us,” Hanno explains. “We said, 'We ain't gonna send you demos and you've gotta put it out exactly the way and the tracklisting we want. Otherwise it's not gonna happen.' We gambled very high, and if we'd not have liked it, we would not have put it out. We literally would have thrown it away and nobody would have heard that one. ”
Moving from a boutique independent outfit to become labelmates with mega-mainstream acts like Slayer, Nightwish, and Danzig is quite a leap for even an older, more established act, but for an underground band like Mantar, some might see it as akin to heresy.
“To be honest, with Nuclear Blast, we had a long discussion about if we want to go that step or if we want to go way more underground. Obviously, when you get signed to Nuclear Blast, people wanna hate you,” Hanno adds. “[Some people] behaved like someone took away their favorite secret toy from them and that toy was supposed to be us. And I said, you know what? I don't owe you anything. And we don't owe you. If you don't like it, hands down, I'm not offended. Just don't come to the show, don't buy the record. Don't think that I'm ever gonna kiss your ass for supporting this band. If you do, I adore you. Hi-five. You can sleep on my floor. If you're with the band, awesome. If you’re not, I couldn't care less. This is a blessing. This is a great gift for us and we are very grateful and appreciate everyone. And if you try to make an underground cult thing out of it, we're just the wrong guys because we're very bored of that.”
Erinc pipes up to add, “That's the thing about being old. You're realistic. You're not like, 'Oh, fuck, Nuclear Blast signed us. Aaahhh!' We're not like that. We know what we're doing and we know that we are doing it well. We go on.”
Though they're mostly pegged as a sort of black metal/doom/punk band, even a quick listen to Mantar’s music reveals a ton of Motorhead influence, particularly in the often rollicking riffs. “Way more Motorhead than any other things,” Hanno says. “Motorhead is very important.”
In their own perverse way, Hanno and Erinc do try to emulate that classic power trio vibe—by cranking it all up to 11.
“You could say volume in general is kind of a third member,” Hanno explains. "So we try just playing very, very loud. And obviously due to the fact that we only play guitar, we have to make sure to use a lot of low end and use bass amplifiers.
It's actually not that complicated. A lot of people think it's rocket science and there's gotta be a certain trick to arrange that, but as long as it's loud enough and you have enough amplifiers going and you tune everything very low, it's alright.”
It’s a bit more than “alright.” As jocular and goofy as the pair can be in person, they are deadly serious when it comes to their art. Ode to the Flame, the band’s sophomore record, is out April 15, and follows 2014’s Death by Burning (Svart Records) in theme as well as in execution—though I’d venture to opine that it blows its predecessor out of the water. The elemental fury of their multi-genre sound crunches black metal, doom, punk, and rock’n’roll (remember, Motorhead is important) into a heavy, compact sonic gut punch. The album is brutally straightforward, rife with ruthlessly catchy riffs and lyrics focused not on Satan or savagery, but on pure chaos, centering on the idea of fire as a guiding theme—a leitmotif, as Hanno says.
“It's so simple and so powerful. I like fire, because it has the power to burn everything for good and leave nothing but ashes and set everything to zero again. It has no compromise in it and I think it's a good thing. If you burn everything, you can restart again,” Hanno explains, channeling his inner Tyler Durden.
“That's the most powerful thing ever. Do you think with fire, we’re talking about passion? No. That's not what it's about. What we feel when we play is the beauty of destruction. We're in a very destructive rage, in a positive way, when we play, like fire—erasing everything, and hopefully making sure nothing's left alive.”
There’s that chill again.
Mantar’s very simplicity may just be the key to their broad appeal. As far as Erinc and Hanno are concerned, they’re barely a metal band, just a heavy one.
“We enjoy loud volume and pure rage and a certain display of power,” Hanno says. “That's what is the joy for us, I would say. A lot of people interpret a lot and want to. But there is nothing. It's loud and it's extreme and it's intense. That's what it's all about.”
They’ve also got no time for the spooky pageantry or po-faced Gnosticism that so many of their peers, and extreme metal as a whole, tend to embrace with wide-open, black-robed arms. Chills aside, Mantar’s approach is the polar opposite of how Watain’s Danielsson and his black metal blood brothers present themselves and their tightly-held Satanic beliefs. Even on the new album's seemingly “deep” songs like “Era Borealis,” the anthemic dirge is punctuated by Hanno’s primal howls of “death uber alles!” Death over all, destruction as a way of life.
“The band is very one-dimensional, very straightforward, and I like to do that with the lyrical themes as well. We don't have a message—especially no retro-rock occult bullshit message. We've been asked by several magazines, 'Yeah, your lyrics seem very occult.' Go away. That's fucking children's birthday party shit, you know. It's so weird. I mean, I can deal with that with Black Sabbath or Blue Oyster Cult, but every fucking retro band nowadays?” he tells me, rolling his eyes. “I couldn't care less about all that shit. If you need a gimmick to sell to the people, you're obviously not a good band. We don't do that, and we are not a political band like Crass, either. It's more about the beauty of fucking things up.”
I was surprised to hear him mention Crass, but really, it should’ve been obvious from his attitude alone that Hanno was—is—a punk at heart. It’s something he shares with the soft-spoken Erinc, who is content to let his garrulous younger cohort (Hanno is 33 to Erinc's 41) steer the conversation, and only chimes in when he feels it’s necessary. “When I started to listen to listen to music, I think it was grunge, and before that I was into pop music, Sisters of Mercy, and stuff like that. But I also got the punk rock attitude, and I think when it comes to music, that's my roots there,” he tells me.
That DIY approach has worked out well for them. This is a band that played its fifth show ever in front of a packed crowd at the Netherlands' famed Roadburn Festival, that released its first album on Svart Records—one of Europe’s most respected independent labels—and that is poised to positively storm the globe this year in support of their all-important sophomore album. They seem as surprised as anyone about how much they’ve achieved in such a short time—as Hanno says, almost in wonderment, “The less of a fuck that we gave, the more happened.”
Watain did go on to set the world ablaze after a fashion, and their considerable success is thanks in no small part to the single-minded focus and ruthless ambition of that fiery-eyed man I spoke to in that basement to nearly a decade ago. I have no doubt in my mind that Mantar is on a similarly ascendent path, though their approach is so different: choosing simplicity over Satan. Mantar isn’t evil, and they’re definitely not reinventing any wheels, but Hanno and Erinc are ambitious—and they will stop at nothing to satisfy their hunger.
As Hanno says, “I tell you what, you don't have to like Mantar, but we could pull out our equipment during daylight, with no light show and no fog machine, nothing, and we're still gonna slay. And that's where it all comes back to the punk background. Less gimmicks, more action.”
Catch Mantar live all over the damn place this spring and summer:
4/14/2016 Doom Over Leipzig – Leipzig, DE
4/15/2016 Schaubude – Kiel, DE
4/20/2016 FZW Club – Dortmund, DE
4/21/2016 Schlachthof – Wiesbaden, DE
4/22/2016 B58 – Braunschweig, DE
4/23/2016 Stockrock – Hagen, DE
4/28/2016 Desertfest – Berlin, DE
4/29/2016 Desertfest – Berlin, DE
4/30/2016 Desertfest – London, UK
5/05/2016 Beta – Copenhagen, DE
5/07/2016 Volksbad – Flensburg, DE
5/13/2016 Post Valley – Gießen, DE
5/14/2016 Doomed Gatherings @ Glazart – Paris, FR
5/27/2016 Freak Valley Festival – Siegen, DE
5/28/2016 Visbek Rockt – Visbek, DE
6/03/2016 Metalhead Meeting – Bucharest, RO
6/05/2016 Metalfest Open Air – Plzen, CZ
6/18/2016 Hellfest – Clisson, FR
7/01/2016 Tuska – Helsinki, FI
7/16/2016 Gefle Metal Festival – Gävle, SE
8/07–09/2016 Heavy Montreal – Montreal, QC
8/17–20/2016 Summer Breeze – Dinkelsbühl, DE
8/26–28/2016 Psycho Las Vegas – Las Vegas, NV
10/14-16/2016 California Deathfest – Oakland, CA
'Ode to the Flame' is out April 15 via Nuclear Blast Records; preorder it here.