From Velvet Cacoon to Ghost Bath: the Curious Anatomy of a Black Metal Hoax
A little mystery never hurt anyone...but lying about your origins is another story.
Photo used by Janaza, taken from Facebook
Black metal is shadowy by nature. Since the earliest stirrings of the genre began to strengthen and spread back in the late 80s, extreme metal bands—especially black metal musicians—have been obscuring their identities behind stage names, costumes, and corpsepaint. It's completely unremarkable to come across names like Mortiis, Climaxia, and Usurper of Eternal Condemnation and Inverted Crucifixion, and more recently, it's become more appealing for black metal projects to go by initials, symbols, or to refuse to give any semblance of a name at all. It's all part of the illusion, a wonderfully ironic habit of a genre that values authenticity and conviction over nearly anything else.
Some bands push the illusion even further, ditching authenticity to create their own mythologies and fictitious back stories. It's not just metal, either—would people have latched onto formerly-anonymous UK electronic artist Burial so quickly if he'd been open about his identity from the onset? Would The White Stripes have piqued our interest so much if they'd never been faux siblings? Artists do this to stir up interest, to obscure their actual origins for personal or professional reasons, or, occasionally, to have a bit of fun. Ghost Bath, a North Dakota band that presented themselves as Chinese, made some waves this week for exactly that reason, and they're far from the first black metal-ish band to pull something like this. Stereogum editor Mike Nelson wrote a great essay detailing how some metal bands "catfish" their fans, and included the most notorious example—Velvet Cacoon, a Cascadian psychedelic black metal duo that gained considerable acclaim in certain circles (especially the still-great album Genevieve) before falling apart. The two people behind the "band" stole songs from other albums, and led the metal underground on a merry chase for severel years, spinning lies and fabricating rumors about insane asylums, ecoterrorism, breakups, reformations, and albums that didn't even exist before admitting to the whole charade.
Alongside a few other metal publications and Hammer of Hate Records (who announced the upcoming release of a new Janaza recording, then took down their post), I got suckered by a band called Janaza, a project purported to be the work of an Iraqi woman in Baghdad. She (or whomever ran her Facebook account) was very convincing in interviews, but under scrutiny, cracks in her story eventually began to appear; no definitive answers have been reached, but the band's Facebook account has been inactive for years. Just last year, Relapse released an EP by Myrkur, a one-woman project with interesting choral melodies and an even more interesting backstory that turned out to be a bit less grim—after a Bandcamp interview confirmed once and for all the obscured identity of Amalie Bruun, high fashion model and vocalist for Brooklyn indie rockers Ex-Cops.
It's embarassing and very, very irritating to be fooled (publicly, no less) but as the curious case of Ghost Bath makes clear, it can happen to the best of us. This atmospheric, Deafheaven-lite outfit claimed to hail from Chongqing, China, and signed to established German label Northern Silence Productions to release their sophomore album, Moonlover. Their previous album, Funeral, came out in 2014 on flagship Chinese label Pest Productions, who have long been dedicated to supporting homegrown talent. Once Northern Silence sent out promos of Moonlover to the press, the praise came rolling in; Stereogum has been a big supporter, as have a legion of metal sites (Pitchfork praised Funeral last year). Just last week, I published an interview with Ghost Bath's nameless founder, as well as a stream of the band's new album (it really is quite good, all drama aside). Shortly thereafter, I got a couple of messages from people I trust letting me know that Ghost Bath wasn't quite what it seemed. Some more sleuthing incovered a larger story set far away from mainland China, and an ensuing email conversation with the person behind Ghost Bath himself filled in the blanks.
After finally persuading Dennis Mikula, the main man behind Ghost Bath, to go on record and give me the real story his answers revealed a greater sin. In the media's perpetual marathon mad dash to be first to discover and lay claim to a promising young band, sometimes they—we—don't dig deep enough to sniff out the full story. That's our fault, not this Minot, North Dakota musician's. Maybe he should have corrected us, but really, we should have known better in the first place, especially when one realizes that a quick Google translation of the band's listed lineup reveals a Jamie, a Dennis, a Taylor, and a Donovan. The page itself has been updated to reflect the band's actual origins—Minot, North Dakota, not Chonquing, China as it originally listed.
It bears mentioning that, for all Mikula's insistence that the band wanted to keep their origins secret, I have an old email from them (from the same email address that they use now and list on all of their social media accounts) written in somewhat broken English, asking me to review "chinese black metal band, Ghost Bath's, newest album "Funeral." The same email was sent to various other members of the press, which just might be how the media got the idea that the band was from China. I also had a conversation with Pest Productions about how the band has represented themselves to the label. "Before the deal with us they were Chinese (including for us), because our doors are open highly to Chinese band. Then one friend told me they were not Chinese, so I had a big discussion with the band, they were near to be sacked on the label. Ghost Bath said us were sorry about the mistake and finally we did the release. I remember that day when I was informed about the nationality of the band, I was very angry because I thought they used the Chinese thing to sign easy with us...then with the sorry words of the band and after listen the record, Pest decided release the record just because finally all this is about music, and the music was/is fucking great."
During our many email conversations (I requested to speak with him multiple times but Mikula refused to talk on the phone), he told me about how much they enjoy Silencer, another band with a dubious backstory, and after answering the following questions, gave me an additional statement, which answers questions about why they wanted to stay so mysterious in the first place:
"I think that a bit of mystery behind something is what makes it beautiful. I could learn about notation and consonance and dissonance, but I would rather not. Everything doesn't need to be so calculated. Instead of writing and playing with my mind, I am able to write and play purely from the heart. It was only natural that I attempt to bring such mystery into the band. Some, like me, will appreciate that. I think we find this in bands who also try to incorporate a bit of mystery, or the fans who enjoy those bands. Others, who aren't into that sort of thing, might be put off by it. But at the end of the day you must decide for yourself if some mysteries are best left unsolved; and if you can find beauty in such things, not only music, but the universe in general."
As the following answers show, he's clearly not very happy with me for blowing up his spot, but the issue here has never been that the band wants to remain anonymous—it's that a bunch of white dudes from North Dakota lied to their former label, the media, and the greater metal community to get us to believe that they were from China.
In two days, though, no one will give a shit about where this band is from, and those who appreciate their music will keep on listening. Moonlover is currently killing it on Bandcamp, and as Pest Productions noted and Ghost Bath insists, it's all about the music...right?
Did you ever have a Chinese member in the band? Was that where it all started, or was it really just a matter of, as you mentioned in an earlier email, picking an arbitrary location on Bandcamp?
Our origin was always to be unknown, though Bandcamp requires to pick a location on their site. We have seen many bands jokingly pick Norway or Hell, Michigan as their location but did not want to do as such. Since we wished our origins to be unknown, we picked a location of immense beauty.
How many people are in the band?
Currently, there are a number of members. But it changes often. We prefer to be called 无名 Nameless, collectively. Ghost Bath is currently working on the next album after Moonlover already. It will be recorded with the band's current five members.
Why did you decide to use Chinese characters for your song titles, etc?
Our first two releases were put out through Chinese labels. This is their origin. It is a beautiful language, so we continue to use them to this day. With actual origins in Chinese releases, we have no problem doing so. Everything, when it comes to a band, is part of an aesthetic. Some meld together better than others.
Ghost Bath photo via Metal Archives
When did you really start noticing the perception of your Chinese origins being accepted as fact?
It is very hard to tell. Blogs, review sites, etc started posting things so fast that it is unclear. I would imagine it having to do with our "Bandcamp" location, our labels' releases coming out of China, our use of Chinese symbols, and the fact that each post of these writers would be influenced by the rest. If one blog posted details about our location, the other's would assume these were correct.
I suppose the biggest question is, why didn't you ever correct people? Why did you let people keep thinking you were from China?
From the start, the band has been adamant about its privacy. Does respect for personal privacy exist anymore with the internet? People can think whatever they wish. We refused to correct people because we do not wish to put actual faces onto our music. It is our wish as a band to connect to all human beings.
To be asking, "why didn't we personally correct anything" is sort of looking at the problem wrong. There need not be a correction. Just maybe an acceptance that maybe people aren't sure of where members reside. To truly listen to Ghost Bath as intended, we must stop making associations outside of basic human existence. Maybe we aren't from where you believe. Maybe we are. Associations like this are only detrimental. Why must we be looked at through that scope or lens? Is it so hard to sit down and take something in for what it's worth? If it wasn't "Hey, I think they're from China" it would only be something else to take its place. That is the nature of human beings. Our emotions are what we strive for. "Tragedy, ecstasy, doom..."
You said before that you like keeping Ghost Bath shady, which isn't exactly uncommon in black metal and experimental music. Why is it so important to you to keep your identities secret?
Why does it matter? It is our right to do so. Our music is genuine. We are not happy people, and our music reflects that. If I wanted someone to ask if I was "okay" every day due to our lyrics and sound, I would tell the world who we are. Some people are extremely nosy, and that's fine. Others are not fond of putting themselves as individuals on pedestals. To each their own.
Moonlover's gotten attention from some pretty big publications already, all of whom (including mine) had you pegged as Chinese. All of the smaller blogs covering you have done the same. Can you talk a little bit about this ripple effect?
Let people think what they want. It doesn't bother us in the slightest. If you listen to us for any other reason than the music, then you are doing it wrong. I am not going to talk about any ripple effect. I think that is for someone in the industry to talk about. We just create art.
It seems fans aren't really worried about locations at all. Here are a few responses we have gotten so far on the subject: "Your amazing music matters to us not your name !" "I have no interest in finding out who you all "really are." You make amazing music and that's enough for me. 加油!" ""People fucking suck. They can't respect privacy."
So fuck it. Fuck everyone else. We do with our art as we please. NOTHING will change that or our entire purpose is lost.
What do you think this experience says about the way media works?
Honestly, fuck the press. They operate under the availability bias that we, as humans, have to deal with on a daily basis. Who cares? I'll probably repeat this during this whole interview. Who cares? Maybe the people who didn't do their research in making an entire published piece about the location of a band instead of the band itself, when their origins were specifically asked not to be written about.
[Editor's note: I would like to remind readers that this band presented themselves as Chinese to me and multiple other members of the press, as stated above]
Who's to blame for the confusion here: Ghost Bath, the press, or internet culture as a whole?
There is no blame for confusion. Confusion is good. It is a reaction. Art is not supposed to be easy.
Did you think at all about the problematic nature of a white dude from North Dakota basically pretending to be Chinese? I'm assuming that wasn't on your mind, but it looks kinda dodgy.
Call us whatever you wish. We are worthless humans. If we thought highly of ourselves, maybe we would play a different type of music, and create pages for ourselves as individual musicians, and prop ourselves up like some kind of meaningful beings. But we are not. The fact that we cower and hide is no act. We genuinely loath our very core, and out from that comes our music.
So please continue to call us what you will, we already know we are insignificant failures. But without our knowledge of that fact, Ghost Bath would not exist in the first place.
'Moonlover' is out now on Northern Silence.
Kim Kelly is on Twitter - @grimkim