The Devil and Jef Whitehead
Jef Whitehead, the force behind Leviathan and Lurker of Chalice, speaks.
Photo by Stevie Floyd
Hey Jef, it's Drew from Noisey here.
Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. Was looking over the transcript of our conversation, and I'd like to see if you wanted to expand on some of the stuff that was going on in your life around True Traitor.
I know you said you'd prefer not to talk about it, but as a journalist I'm obligated to bring up the charges that were brought against you. I know you have disputed them in the past and were only convicted of one charge of the several brought down upon you, but you were convicted of aggravated domestic battery.
Do you have any comment about it whatsoever?
I realize as a journalist all the law drama is intriguing but I really don't have anymore to say about that topic... If you really NEED to talk about all that maybe just say it's not something that I ever really give much energy these days… people who really know me know it's all bullshit. I’d like to leave that nonsense in 2011… And I really would like it if your article/piece wasn't bashing Decibel.. They've been super awesome for me and my family lately so we appreciate them quite a bit...
Thanks so much for your time,
Above are a pair of emails that I exchanged with Wrest, otherwise known as Jef Whitehead, following an interview we conducted a couple of weeks ago. Whitehead’s a scary guy, and he’s scary for a lot of reasons. He is scary because his music, which could loosely be described as black metal with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in, is itself scary. It plumbs the depths of human depravity, featuring brutal shrieks of agony littered amongst a thicket of tumultuous tremolos and drums that make sense in spite of their twists and turns. At its best, listening to Whitehead's music as Leviathan is like listening to your own death, in real time. Sometimes we do not seek out music for pleasure, but instead to find solace, shielding ourselves from the harshness of reality by wallowing in something even darker. When you want some music to punish yourself with, Jef Whitehead is ready for you.
Another reason Jef Whitehead is scary is because he is a generally intimidating person. As we speak on the phone, he casually says things like, “The world’s a cold place, man. Being alive isn’t the best party I’ve been to,” presupposes “a bunch of people were talking shit” on him for appearing on the cover of Decibel holding his infant daughter Grail, and makes disparaging comments about “ex-white-belt kids that heard Number of the Beast a couple times” who claim to be metal journalists. Later in our conversation, he will ask me, “Before this job, had you heard Leviathan before?” Timidly, I will admit that my main beat is not metal.
These are not the scariest things about Jef Whitehead, however. The scariest thing about Jef Whitehead is that in January of 2011, Whitehead was arrested in Chicago after allegedly choking his girlfriend into unconsciousness, sexually assaulting her with tattoo tools, and leaving her in the streets outside the tattoo shop he was working in. After an initial indictment that charged Whitehead with a total of 34 crimes, he was tried on four counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, one count of unlawful restraint, and one count of aggravated domestic battery.
Ultimately, Whitehead was convicted of aggravated domestic battery on his then-girlfriend, although he and those close to him staunchly maintain his absolute innocence. If he was falsely accused of his crimes, this sets the metal community—which is already not the most woman-friendly space in music—back. The next time a woman comes forward and says she is the victim of a sexual crime, it will be easy for her peers to point to Whitehead's situation as evidence that sexual assault allegations are to be questioned. The fact of the matter is that for every falsely reported sexual assault, there are many more that go totally unreported—according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 68 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police, and 98 percent of rapists never spend a day in prison.
With the numbers in your favor, would you admit it if you committed a crime this heinous? And if your friend were accused of something like that, would it be your automatic impulse to defend them, to presume their innocence in spite of even overwhelming evidence to the contrary? If he actually did it, there are many who would have you never listen to a Leviathan record again. These people would not be wrong to do this—similar arguments are often made against musicians like R. Kelly, Chris Brown, and Varg Vikernes, all of whom maintain rabid fanbases despite having committed horrific acts against other people. The thing is, their music is not in and of itself harmful—you can’t understand a word of what Vikernes says in his songs, and the lyrics of R. Kelly and Chris Brown are generally about sex, love, and relationships. For Whitehead's part, though he employs song titles such as "The History of Rape" and named his most recent album True Traitor, True Whore, his actual vocals are generally just a series of unintelligible screams. However, the fact that their music is a product of a harmful personality makes many queasy, and with good reason. It turns into a question of whether we’re consuming the art, or the artist themselves, which can bring forth the question of a listener’s motivation. Indeed, it's possible that some Leviathan fans were pleased that Whitehead was convicted of domestic battery, because in a perverse way, it backs up the perception that Whitehead is himself the human extreme to match the sonic extremes of his music.
It is doubtless that outside of the metal community, many non-metalheads learned about Whitehead as a musician through the allegations that were brought up against him and were drawn to his music out of a sense of macabre curiosity. In a fucked up way, these allegations may have gotten him more name recognition, and therefore earned him more fans. This is no one’s fault, and it says more about the state of our society than anything else.
Regardless of Whitehead’s innocence or guilt, why you listen to his music, or even why you’re reading this right now, Jef Whitehead is a compelling character. His music is interesting, and people care about what he has to say, both musically and personally. He’s partners with Stevie Floyd, a talented musician and tattooist in her own right. Together, the pair has a daughter, with whom he recently shared a Decibel cover. In our initial conversation Whitehead is tight-lipped about his conviction, and as you can see above, he doesn’t offer much more when I follow up. Despite some admittedly tense moments between us, it seems as if Whitehead is as open with me as he could possibly be, and is taking his new responsibilities as a partner and husband to heart. It’s as if he’s living the words that sometimes Noisey contributor Grayson Currin used to describe Scar Sighted in his review of the record for Pitchfork: “It seems mostly like an imperfect but intriguing attempt to reorganize his life and reassert his craft, to not right his wrongs but to not repeat them, either.”
What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Whitehead, which he agreed to conduct in order to promote his new LP, Scar Sighted. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Listen to "Within Thrall," a track from Scar Sighted, below.
Noisey: Tell me about the recent Decibel cover.
Jef Whitehead: It’s what’s going on in my life, and it’s as real as it gets for me. I just thought it’d kind of be a cool idea to have my kid on the cover. I also kinda did it cause not like most metal dudes are tough guys, I thought it would be good to do the opposite. I did a thing for Stereogum and the guy told me that a bunch of people were talking shit, saying I’m not kvlt and this and that. Which is fine, that’s cool. But I wonder what their band sounded like in 98, 99, 2000. I don’t really care what people who don’t make music say because they’re voyeurs. I don’t know why having a kid, or respecting the love for my family has anything to do with kvlt.
The whole thing it’s not something I would’ve done. The first couple times Decibel approached me to do stuff I was not into it. I’ve seen the magazine and it was very tongue-in-cheek and poking fun at metal, and seemed like a bunch of ex-white-belt kids that heard Number of the Beast a couple times and started a magazine. But that’s not the case, and I’ve come to know a couple of those guys. Their hearts are in the right place, and they’re die-hards and love all kinds of metal. It’s still bizarre that they put someone who doesn’t tour or play live on the cover. But in a couple months nobody will remember, so what does it matter.
It seems like you’ve had a more relaxed approach to press in the past year or two.
I think all that kinda gets in the way of the music. People of course want to read what you say, people want to see what you look like, what t-shirt you’re wearing. I’m a 46-year-old man who dresses like a sixteen year old and still wears band t-shirts because I’m obsessed with music and that never goes away. There’s peaks and valleys—for a while when I was living in Chicago I was not making any music. I totally wholeheartedly enjoy the kvltspeak, the occultness of corpse paint and that imagery, but that’s not me now. I don’t need that. I’m sure there’s a lot of people calling me a sellout, which doesn’t really make sense because if they heard the new record, I sure didn’t sell out. I’m putting out my own vinyl and I’m sure not making any money from this. I can buy diapers and shit but I’m not driving a Lexus or anything. I totally dig the guy who makes fucking music and makes ten copies and its hard to find, I love that kind of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time on this record and I want people to buy the vinyl. Where I live there’s a lot of people with their metal get-ups and stuff, which I think is awesome. You’ll see like 20-year-old kids with Sodom shirts. How the fuck do you know about Sodom? And then you come to realize, “Oh your dad knows about Sodom. Your dad’s the metalhead.” Where I live there’s a lot of people into metallic expression. Be it black doom, death, whatever. There’s a lot of bands here that are doing what they’re doing correctly.
There’s also a lot of nature, which is very good for cultivating this feeling of being alone.
Right. I’m a city kid, so my girlfriend Stevie eventually wants to live in a cabin in the woods some day. I like living in concrete. I like going downtown and seeing the depravity and the depths of what a human being can do to themselves. I don’t know why I’m attracted to that. I mean nature’s cool but I don’t write music about trees and stuff like that, and there’s some bands who do that are okay, but if I did that I wouldn’t be honest.
Do you enjoy being a father?
It’s awesome. Everyone says the same thing: it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, there’s no days off, but it’s amazing. I wake up to somebody who’s psyched to see me everyday. And it’s honest. She’s the most honest person I’ve ever met. She’s not stuck in a world where she’s putting up selfies and getting her self-esteem by how many likes she gets. She’s super open, and when we’re carrying her or rolling her down a stroller or whatever, she’s super observant. She’s checking everything out and everything’s brand new, and she doesn’t know what it is yet but she’s open to it. And that’s really beautiful but it’s also terrifying at the same time because you get poppa bear syndrome where you’re like “not my little girl.” I thought about having a kid in the past, and I was always like, “Man I hope I don’t have a little girl because I’ll have to buy a shotgun.” I can’t afford to shit the bed on life anymore. I have to show up and be held accountable.
What about Stevie, your girlfriend?
We do everything together. She’s the love of my life, she’s my best friend. Sometimes she hates me of course, but we do everything together. We live together, work together, she’s an amazing artist, tattooist, musician. The whole package. A lot of the stuff that’s going on for me, Leviathan-wise or life in general, like I never thought it would be like this. I’m doing my own merch for the first time. People don’t realize it’s an incredible amount of work. I’ve always wanted to separate myself, like, I’ll do the music and let the label take care of that. But you always end up getting fucked. Even if they’re an honest label, you end up having another person that has a say in what you want to do. And now it’s just her and I. It’s uh… how do I put it man. Like I’ve had the best time working with Chris (Bruni, of Profound Lore), and he rules. And I want to work with him in the future. But as probably everyone knows, I was involved with another label, where I signed a contract for basically seven records. Wasn’t worded like that but seven full-lengths, and they owned all the rights to the songs. And I was so stoked like, “Yeah they’re gonna sell my records, woohoo! Didn’t really think about it, you know?”
And of course they promoted it, and there was ads in Metal Maniacs and all that, and they’d give me reports of radio play. I don’t give a fucking shit about college radio. But said label made a lot of money from the band. It’s just rotten, they’re very involved with the church of Satan, they claim to be Satanic and all this stuff, but they’re just scumbags. It’s not kvlt, not Satanic, they’re just shitting on the scene. And if you come back at them, they’re like, “Whoa, it’s not about the money man, that’s not kvlt,” but it’s like it’s so easy because I mean, I haven’t seen dude’s house but I’m sure he’s not hurting.
Just for shits and giggles, I checked out said label’s roster now, they have one band—a band called Thrall, and that’s the only thing even remotely listenable. They have a bunch of corny bands, this band from the south with corpse paint and glasses over it. I urge anybody who is a lover of music, or if they love music, stay the fuck away from Moribund records. The guy is, it’s just horrible. He licensed five records to be put out by this German label, and we went back and forth and they want more records, and they sent me two copies of each of the five records. And they licensed it fair and square, they paid him the money, but he told them I was in prison so they gave Odin (of Moribund) my royalties and my copies. And I was like, I’m not doing anything else with you guys unless I get 50 copies of each record. And they were like, “We can’t do that, we did this fair and square” and I understand where they’re coming from, but they did, they just put out True Traitor on vinyl, no test pressing. They’re like, “Oh really people do test pressings?” and it’s like are you fucking new? And I had Stevie go back and forth with them, because I’ll be mean and you can’t do business like that. You can’t get emotional like that. I don’t even know any of their bands, like they sent me some of their stuff and it’s like a yawning festival, really boring. So they licensed it for cassette, to this guy to South Carolina. And I got with him and he sent me tapes, because people don’t know when they license it, I have nothing to do with it. When that German label sent me an email that said, “We work very closely with artists,” it’s like you’ve never contacted me at all. And they put out all five records without the art, which is bullshit. Massive Conspiracy and Chemicals of War had art and lyrics and stuff like that. It’s incomplete, especially Massive. And my friend Tim Lee did the art for that and I think it’s beautiful. So it’s like you’re basically selling a bootleg, a vinyl version of a CDR. And of course I take it personally man, I poured my heart out on those records. That shit means a lot to me, and I am going to repress those records myself. And dude can sue me or whatever, but eventually I’m going to repress those because Stevie and I are starting a label. But first we’re doing demos, like demos from all three projects. Like I have books of CDRs that no one has heard yet.
I think people are especially interested in Lurker of Chalice material.
I have a lot of Lurker stuff no one’s heard. But then again I did sell CDRs of Lurker material in San Francisco where I first started doing it. But I don’t actually have the copies of those CDRs so I’m not sure what people have heard, but I’ve seen one of those go for like $250 on eBay.
Let’s talk about Scar Sighted a bit.
I don’t think I’m really making black metal anymore. It’s not for me to say Leviathan’s black metal, because I don’t know what the fuck it is. But it’s not, every once in a while I’ll listen to older stuff I’ve done, and I’m like yeah that’s textbook black metal. But now I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
You’ve definitely reached outside of the metal community.
It’s pretty obvious if you listen to my shit that I listen to way more than black metal.
What are some of the things that you’re drawing from when making a record like that?
I’ve been in bands before I started Leviathan, but it’s very personal and it’s a way as release, and it’s brought a lot of stuff out of me. But that’s more of the lyrical content. A lot of it’s just, and it’s gonna sound corny, but it’s just experimenting and trying to find chord progressions, or putting notes together. Someone told me when a piece of music makes you sad, the sounds reverberate in the lyrics and make you sad. I don’t know if that’s true, but I find it really interesting. And I’ve always been attracted to darker or melancholy music. But I’ve always tried to do something different, or something I haven’t done before. I don’t think any of my records sound like the record before it. And thank god, because True Traitor sucks. That record is fucking terrible. I was curious and listened to that a couple weeks ago.
Why do you think it’s terrible?
It’s super sloppy, it’s not focused, and a lot of that’s because I wrote it when we were tracking. And a lot of that is because there was a lot shit going on in my life at that time.
Do you want to talk about that?
I’d kind of rather not. When it was going on I think I talked about it enough. But around that time I did two interviews, one for Pitchfork and one for Decibel. And I was hammered for both of those. The Decibel one was on the phone, Pitchfork was on the computer. And I don’t know if you’ve read those, but I sounded like a fifteen year old. But I don’t drink anymore, which is good.
But to go back to your question, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I haven’t listened to Scar Sighted since it was mastered, and I know people that would seriously force their friends to listen to their music all the time. I’m not going to name names, but someone I was involved with would invite people over and play his whole back catalog. You look over, and all of his records are on the wall. It’s like, I should invite you over for a festival to my cock. It’s embarrassing.
The guy knows how to write a good song, but he can only write two of them. I think it’s insecurity, I think their music makes them who they are and they identify themselves through how they express themselves musically, which I get, but to me it’s kind of embarrassing. Especially now, like there’s so many things going in my life, and it can’t be all about me. To me, music is a very selfish thing. I’ve never had a thought about having other people playing along on a Leviathan record or anyone else playing it live.
Do you feel mellower these days?
Maybe outwardly, or to other people, but in my head no.
What do you mean?
Going into my head there’s a lot of thought patterns or philosophies I’d rather not get into I don’t want to share with Grail. I don’t want that to rub off on her. She needs to make her own mistakes and live her own life, but the world’s a cold place. And being alive isn’t always the best party I’ve been to. But if I can be there for her, and help her understand that stuff, like there’s no way to shelter your kid from everything. And you don’t want to. I’ve always learned the hard way, and still am. Yeah I’m a little mellower and OK with the cards I’ve been dealt and what’s happened. It’s not like it just happened. I’ve been working really hard on it. And Stevie has been super instrumental in that. We’ve both done an incredible amount of work on ourselves. It’s just kind of growing up, I guess.
Do you have more perspective?
Yeah. I feel fortunate, like for instance some of the ways I treated people in Chicago, or just went about carrying myself on the day-to-day, there’s a number of people I shouldn’t even fucking talk to anymore. I’ve met some pretty amazing people through music, skateboarding when I was a kid, tattooing, artists. I’m friends with some friends with really inspiring artists, it’s just mind-numbing what they can do on canvas or on tape.
Tell me about Devout.
So Stevie and I met in Boise, Idaho, and I came back to Portland with her, and Stevie at that point was just working on her eight-track all the time. And we started making all these songs, but we didn’t have a drumset so we sort of did a drum circle for lack of a better word. One track of me hitting a bass drum with a wooden spoon, one track of me hitting glass, it’s pretty interesting. We eventually did get a drum set, and all the songs are really different. It’s really cool working with her, and she’s got a shit ton of great ideas. It’s taking a long time to figure out Ableton and all that stuff. There’s something about Devout that we’re just really excited about.
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