We Interviewed Deveykus, the World's Only Hasidic Doom Metal Band
I hit up band mastermind Dan Blackberg to figure out just what’s going on inside their suspiciously shorn heads.
I first stumbled across Deveykus when a friend in Israel who knows I’m big on the heavy shit sent me a link titled “Hasidic doom metal band!” I can see why he was so stoked, but wasn’t entirely sold on the thought that the grim-faced be-hatted men who stalk the streets of Bed Stuy with tired-looking wives and legions of children in tow are secretly composing sweet Sleep riffs beneath their furry brows.
In true dream-crushing fashion, judging from the band’s photos (which show a handful of nice, modestly bearded gents in plain t-shirts and flannel) the Orthodox cred isn’t quite there. Their melodies tell a different tale, though. Deveykus’ debut album, ‘Pillar Without Mercy,’ is out now on Tzadik Records, and is a total instrumental mindfuck, blending trombone-driven klezmer melodies with droning doom tempos and funeral drums. I hit up band mastermind Dan Blackberg (a pretty, pretty big deal in his own right within certain experimental circles) to figure out just what’s going on inside their suspiciously shorn heads.
Noisey: So just how does Hasidic culture influences Deveykus?
Dan Blackberg: The music we make is based on traditional Hasidic wordless melodies called nigunim (or nign in the singular) that are meant to be sung over and over again until your spirit either reaches some transcendent state, or your vocal chords give out. Hasidic culture, like a lot of cultures based around religious fundamentalism, has a ton of totally fucked up things about it, and then some seriously amazing music! One of the great traits of the culture is that they put singing these melodies above praying as a way to get your spirit lifted towards some divine energy. I can get behind that. Another great thing they do is appropriate all kinds of music with the excuse that they're "reclaiming some divine spark in the melodies." I think it's great to turn that around and "reclaim" these melodies that almost no one outside of that world would ever hear for everyone!
The name of the band actually comes from the Yiddish pronunciation (deveykut in Hebrew = Deveykus in yiddish) for a genre of nigunim that are on the meditative end of spectrum. What I did was take some of my favorite pieces, and recompose/deconstruct them so that they came out even slower and more doomy than I thought they were originally.
I hope people accept us as a doom band. I feel like the trombone is a pretty doomy instrument. It doesn't do acrobatics very well, and is much more suited to playing some low sludge. I don't know about the wider world of doom, but I heard a lot of trombone the last time I saw Earth (Hearing "Ouroboros is Broken" on trombone was fucking awesome), and it's all over Sunn O)))'s record ‘Monoliths and Dimensions.’ I'm the first one to admit that I'm a real doom and metal noob, but the other guys in the band are seriously deep in this stuff, especially our drummer, Eli Litwin, so I feel like they're going to help bring me into the fold!
You’ve done time in “Hasidic Punk Rock” band Electric Simcha as well; I’m beginning to sense a theme here. When’s your Hasidic Black Metal band debuting?
Man, I wonder what a Hasidic Black Metal band would sound like. I think it would be amazing to hear something like that coming from inside the Hasidic world. Years ago, I once came across a Myspace page for a band called Schneerson, which was straight death metal made by some dudes from in the community. They couldn't give their real names because they thought they would be kicked out of religious school. I don't know if it was real or not, but I thought that was fascinating.
Electric Simcha was a band to play all the fast, raucous nigunim that I like, again, trying to tie it together with a genre that could bring it outside of it's natural habitat. When I put that together in 2010, I had just finished Michael Azerad's book ‘Our Band Could be Your Life’ so I was listening to a lot of early Black Flag, Minutemen, and Husker Dü. That hardcore energy and the Hasidic party energy seemed so close together to me, that I just got some friends together who had expressed interest in playing Jewish music, and just did it.
So I started Electric Simcha in 2010, Devekyus recorded last year and started playing live in 2013... maybe check back in 2015!
You’ve said that you want to bring the “awesomeness of Hasidic music to a wider audience,” but then ended up drawing influences from notoriously dense bands like Earth and Sunn 0))). Why did you choose to work within the loose confines of doom/drone instead dipping into a more user-friendly genre like pop or rock?
The sounds of those bands are the ones that had the greatest connections for me. I mean, a room full of men with huge beards wearing all black, probably wasted on vodka, singing these songs over and over again for hours. That seems too brutal and esoteric to fit in with a more mainstream presentation. Plus combining Jewish music with more experimental forms of metal is still pretty unexplored territory. That and there's already too much weak world music out there that bills itself as Jewish and references more mainstream pop forms. I wanted the intensity of the music match the intensity of the Jewishness of the tunes. Like the Deveykus and the doom really fit like two different animals somehow evolving completely compatible characteristics, but from two completely different evolutionary paths.
My two main motivations for both Deveykus and Electric Simcha were to play Jewish music on trombone as a lead instrument in some kind of personal way and to make music that drew on the strengths of the musicians around me. My friends, who are also the people I get to play in the band, are the ones who introduced me to bands like Earth, Sunn O))), Bohren & der Club of Gore, and Khanate, so that's the place I start from when I'm trying to make music that makes sense to me and let's me explore as wide a range of what I'm into musically as possible.
There’s are some definite jazz and prog rock influences spiraling out of Deveykus’ tunes, too, and your name is pretty familiar to experimental music fans by now. What exactly is your musical background?
I'm coming to this music from background that starts a long way away. I grew up playing classical and jazz, then discovered the avant-garde forms of both those musics in my late teens/early 20s. I have spent a lot of time in both those worlds, both at the New England Conservatory, and afterwards. At the same time, I was getting really deep into the most traditional klezmer music and learning all the trombone parts off of old recordings from the 1920s and stuff. There weren't a lot of people interested in this stuff, so I've somehow managed to become one of a small handful of people who can actually play traditional klezmer on the trombone. After school I moved back to my hometown of Philadelphia, where I spent a lot of time playing klezmer in New York and Europe with folks like Frank London and Michael Winograd, then coming home and playing free jazz and improvised music.
Somehow in all this I missed almost the entire history of rock and pop music. I didn't even listen to rock when I was a kid. I probably couldn't have told you what Nirvana sounded like until I was 25, let alone the Melvins or Black Flag. But while I came to rock late, it definitely had a strong impact on me. I think it really provided me with a bunch of different kinds of bridges that let me bring different parts of my musical world together.
How were you first exposed to Ashkenazic Jewish music? Were you raised in a religious family, or become more interested in your heritage as time passed?
I think the seed for this music came from growing up going to synagogue. I was raised in a mainstream Jewish family. We celebrated most holidays, but we didn't really keep kosher. We went to services about once a month. I did the whole Hebrew school thing and even the obligatory Israel trip. I got into klezmer starting with a random CD that my parents had, and then from studying with people at klezmer workshops in the US and Canada.
I was already pretty disillusioned by religious ideology by the time I started getting in to klezmer. Once I found that, then that was a lens that I could use to as a way to look at the rest of the tradition, religious and otherwise. There's a lot to like in Judaism, but I'm not into dealing with the religious practice. For me, it's all about the Jewish music that kicks some serious ass. Luckily there's a lot of it. Unfortunately, it's almost all from 80 to 100 years ago.
Unusually for both punk and doom, Electric Simcha and Deveykus seem to embrace positivity, bouncing from celebration melodies to ecstatic trance. Why do you choose to focus on the brighter side?
I think the word ecstatic is the key. I don't feeling like this ecstatic as an expressing feelings of positivity, but more one of survival. These melodies come from groups of people who were experiencing some seriously dark shit over in the Old Country and who continued to deal with it after they came to the US. I think that a lot of the motivation behind these tunes is to do something that enriches your spirit so you can get by in a world full of insanity and shit that's beating down on you mentally, if not literally burning down you village or sending you to a death camp. So even with the music we did in Electric Simcha, which was definitely celebratory, if it's embracing a positive nature, it's always tinged with a little darkness, or at least the understanding that things might not be okay once you leave the wedding. I think there's a dark tinge to any positivity in our music because it points to Hasidic culture as it is now, and that's got a lot of serious problems, especially the treatment of women.
I think this inherent ambiguity is one of the greatest aspects of Ashkenazic Jewish music. My goal is to present these musical statements as powerfully and as honestly as possible to just lay the contradictions and problems bare, so we can all get to grappling the important stuff.
Do you see Deveykus as a form of worship, or simply a creative outlet?
While I wouldn't call it worship exactly, but I absolutely want Deveykus to function as a kind of ritual. Honestly, I want to bring to it as much of the feeling that these melodies create in their original context, but in a different and more open setting. The music is absolutely a creative outlet. I think by presenting it as rock music, we're able to bring in other sounds to explore and question the implications of these melodies. Expressing myself creatively and honestly is the highest form of expression that I know of so maybe that does count as worship. In the end, the only way I'm capable of doing things is to put together elements that I think sound good and let it all hang out so people have to navigate through the information in their own way, so everyone, take it however you'd like.
I saw a video from one of your recent live performances, and was struck by the hypnotic, commanding performance Deveykus conjured up; it was entrancing, to say the least.
Thank you very much! When we play, we want to bring a sonic intensity that you can't help but be swept up in. The guitars and bass provide a massive wave of harmony buoyed by the slow beat of the drums with the trombone punching it's way through. The sound is immense, it's immersive, it will vibrate you.
It's fucking thrilling to perform this stuff. I get to play my trombone like a spear of light that pierces through the sound and tugs people into a slow moving torrent or energy. I think I can speak for the whole band when I sat that the few times we've been able to play this stuff live have all been extremely exciting and moving to us.
What has the response been like so far?
It's been amazing. I've been extremely bowled over and humbled by how positively the music has been received so far. At our record release show in New York, I got a great response from both the metal people in the audience, and from some Orthdox Jews. I'm very very excited to keep spreading the word and .
What are Deveykus’ plans for the rest of 2013?
I'd love to figure out a way to play in New York on some kind of show inside the religious community. I think the greatest thing we could ever achieve would be for a Hasidic rabbi to ban us and forbid people to listen to our music for fear of being seduced by the outside world.
I would love to bring this band to some festivals. I just think the band's sound is made to go through a really big sound system. I sincerely hope that the Jewish festivals will pick us up, because I think we're doing something new in Jewish music and I also think that our sound can bring in a whole new audience.
And, lastly, what does your mother think of all this? Mine would be so stoked if I started up a Catholic bluegrass band.
I think my mom's pretty into it! She came to the record release show and said we reminded her of seeing the Who and the Filmore East sometime in the 60's! I don't know how much we sound like the Who, but I'll take it!