Sun Worship Hate Corpsepaint, Love Liturgy, and Believe That, in Black Metal, Less Is More
The Berlin black metal trio just rereleased their brilliant 'Elder Giants' album in North America via Translation Loss; listen here.
Photo by Stefanie Kulisch
Last year, Sun Worship's Elder Giants album deservedly found its way onto a good number of best-of lists; the Berlin trio's take on black metal skewed atmospheric and ominous, littered with pulsating rhythms and bolstered by a raw, stripped-down live show that left audiences at Roadburn breathless. One of those lucky Roadburn attendees happened to be Translation Loss label head Drew Juergens, and after seeing Sun Worship methodically and elegantly decimate the Green Room, he signed on to help bring their Second Wave-influenced ferocity to a broader audience across the sea.
Unlike so many of their black metal peers, Sun Worship shuns theatrics or pretension onstage as they hammer through their icy epics; bizarrely enough, they've been hit with labels like "hipster" or "false" as a result, which is pretty laughable after one actually sits down and listens to the music they make. As drummer Bastian told Noisey over email, "To suggest what music is influential and important to me, that would open a too wide field. I can say that I listen to Deerhoof, Moondog, Devo or The Prodigy as much as I listen to Sons of Northern Darkness or Nemesis Divina."
And so it came to pass that Translation Loss re-released Elder Giants in North America on October 30 on CD (vinyl is available here). I fired off a few questions via email to Sun Worship drummer Bastian and guitarist/vocalist Lars ahead of the release, and they got back to me with a multitude of unfiltered opinions on everything from corpsepaint and Liturgy to gentrification in Berlin.
Noisey: One thing that a lot of people (writers included) tend to focus on is your stage presentation—or rather, your lack thereof. Why do you think fans are so attached to the imagery and theatricality of black metal?
Lars: We all have a background in punk and hardcore to some degree as well, and to say that there isn't some kind of dress code in that community would be far from the truth, so this is not an issue exclusive to black metal, or rockabilly for that matter. All scenes work that way—you're not a part of it if you do not assimilate visually. It's a cultural identity thing.
Bastian: It's hard to say. Maybe it's still an environment with a strong aesthetic approach. I see it has become an issue, but as far as I understand and notice, a lot of people are quite open to the fact that we don't care about the show or our performances in visual terms. In my opinion, this lends a greater importance to the music and I guess that's what people like about us even though we don't have the cliché metal look. I would say that people having problems that it are a small minority. For sure we somehow deconstruct the expectations of an audience that hasn't seen us perform before. We're serious about what we do, and that's what people get out of it.
Was it a conscious choice to steer clear of theatrical imagery?
Bastian: Yes, we had discussions about what we want to do on stage. Honestly: corpsepaint was an absolute no-go from the very beginning. For me, it became a parody of itself at some point. It devaluates the quality of the genre. I guess on some point it had a progressive aspect connected to the musical context it was born out of, but that was a contemporary relation. In the moment, it became a necessity for the actors of the scene in order to be "true," but it also became obsolete. Images whose purpose is to disturb never work long if you use the same images over and over again.
Lars: We considered playing guitar sitting down and having bright lights blinding the audience so that we would be hard to see, but that's it. We're just not interested in posing as something we aren't. I agree that a certain degree of theatrics may create an atmosphere or mood in itself that can support your music, but with black metal things are so cliché-heavy to begin with—less is more, you know? This also relates to my personal vision of black metal. Also, I must really stress that it is not about wanting to be subversive for the sake of it at all, ever. We take what we do damn seriously, and it really upsets me if people think that we do what we do merely to pull their leg.
As often as you're compared to more modern black metal bands, there is more history behind your songs than people may realize.Can you tell us a bit about the inspirations behind Elder Giants, and the bands who have influenced you most as musicians?
Lars: Darkthrone (up to Total Death), Mayhem (De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas), Emperor (first two albums). Weakling as well. Definitely Mount Eerie—Lost Wisdom might have been the album which rekindled my long-dormant interest in black metal in the first place. That was in 2009, and I had not been listening to black metal for about ten years, save for Darkthrone occasionally. We were and still are very much into Krallice and Liturgy as well, but that never really translated into our music. I'm into lots of krautrock and ambient stuff like early Ash Ra Tempel and Popol Vuh, Barn Owl, Elm, too.
Bastian: I was listening to Darkthrone, Ulver and Tangorodrim at the time when we wrote the songs. I was just amazed at how Transylvanian Hunger introduced a way of drumming whose outstanding character I had never realized before. It was so reduced and minimal, no comparison to what I listened to before—no fills, no breaks, just blastbeats. I loved the trancelike atmosphere it created. Coming from a grindcore and hardcore drumming background, it was the complete opposite of what I would normally play so even that was a very new and interesting field for me to explore. The Nattens Matrigal album by Ulver is one of my all-time favorites—it's so harsh and furious. Justus Ex Fide Vivit by Tangorodrim is somehow the opposite of that record; I loved the simplicity and the obviously drunk drummer. All in all that was truly part of the writing process.
Certain segments of the black metal community is its tendency to dismiss bands as "hipsters" or "false" based only on image or affiliation, and to try and keep the genre "pure". What do you think these people are afraid of?
Lars: I'm not sure, but the whole Liturgy shitstorm for instance had a strong homophobic vibe to it. And cultural identity certainly plays into this as well. Black metal was never inclusive. Also, the values and ideals promoted by the protagonists in the 90s were not exactly progressive either and it is not surprising that this attracted a lot of people with rather conservative mindsets, mildly speaking.
Bastian: That someone else pisses in their garden and do it way better than they do? If you want to point out the Liturgy discussion for example: these guys did an incredible job for the genre and its history, because they reached a sphere of progression that Mayhem and Darkthrone did the last time in the nineties, and that they didn't need to wear bulletbelts and corpsepaint to do that for sure pissed people of. I think there is a lot of resentment involved. But it's a natural reaction I guess, for ages no one except the "true" scene gave a shit about the genre, and suddenly there are all these kids picking up their instruments and bringing it straight to the point, giving the genre a new popularity. That doesn't resonate well with the anti-participational sphere of the genre.
Berlin has a huge crust punk community and several legendary squat venues. What is the relationship like between the punks and the metalheads? Is there crossover, or is it more separated?
Lars: It seems to me that there's actually a large scene of people who go to all sorts of shows without actually being part of either the punk or metal scene, or any scene for that matter. We haven't played Kopi yet but several other places with a similar history, so this isn't really a big deal over here I think.
Bastian: Death metal has a wide acceptance in these places already, and you see more and more black metal bands with a left-wing or crust punk background appearing. We played our first shows in squats.
How has the music and arts community in Berlin been changing over the past few years? Gentrification and rising rent is a big issue, and I wonder if the influx of new people has helped or hurt the existing community.
Lars: I'll try and keep this short for such a complex issue. There's too much of everything and too much of that is not of much lasting value. Generally it seems that we've reached that point where more people are interested in consuming than creating (in the widest sense), and that those who create do that to cater to an existing interest. Hence, things get bland, boring and annoying. But it's still better than in so many other places, for the time being anyway.
Bastian: I have been living in Berlin for about ten years now, and I still haven't figured out how the city works. For sure, it's become more expensive, and you have to work more to pay your rent. Yes, the constant changes influence your way of life but you get used to it. Nice bars close, others open. You get kicked out of your rehearsal space but you ll find another one. That truly just works with mobility and a certain social capital that you need in response to these changes. I don't want to grow to old in this city. That's for sure.
Sun Worship has been a band for about five years now, and in those past five years black metal has gained more mainstream recognition than anyone could have predicted. Where do you see the genre progressing in the next five years?
Lars: What's mainstream anyway these days? Who makes more money with what they do, Liturgy or Watain? Anyway, I do not really pay much attention and I do not really care.
Bastian: It's on the peak and dead soon.
How did you personally discover black metal? What drew you to it?
Bastian: My interest in other extreme music genres like grindcore just vanished and I was searching for something new. Then I stumbled over Immortal.
Lars: That first Enslaved album. I had already been listening to Samael, but this was unlike anything else I had heard at that point. I was totally taken in by the rawness, minimalism and monotony that created an (at that time, for me) absolutely unique atmosphere. The whole aesthetic spoke to me a lot. Then, Darkthrone's Panzerfaust. Case closed.
What are you plans following this release? Can we expect to see you Stateside anytime soon?
Lars: We're finishing a new album right now that will be recorded early next year, so that's where our focus is at the moment.
Bastian: It would just be great to come and perform in the States, hopefully we get the chance soon!
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