As if the flamboyant "No Holier Temple" wasn't enough, meeting by email Khvost, aka Mat McNerney, Cornwall refugee in Finland, has one understand he's confronting a mystic, one who has completely interiorized an idea, a philosophy.
Paganism as relationship with nature, in opposition to the humanism of the "new" monotheistic religions; music a spiritual journey, as self-discovery. An unbreakable goal, to be reached through the blizzards of the contemporary music world. With a special companion: Svart.
What impressed me from your previous interviews is that you found, coming to Finland, as new sources of inspiration, an interest for Paganism, apart from the nature of the place, of course. Is there really a popular culture delving into past religions? Is that something that propels the Finnish neo-folk scene, like Tenhi for instance?
The way of life here is more connected to nature and the forest – from the paper and forestry industry and people getting their lively-hood from it to everyone picking berries and mushrooms in the autumn. There are even words left in the language that come from the old religion, like the word for thunder, ukkonen, derives from the God of Sky, Ukko. Everybody celebrates midsummer's day here in the old ways by retreating to their summer cottages at lakes, to the nature. I'm not sure if this propels the Finnish neofolk scene but it's something that inspires us. There's not really a neofolk scene here or not one that we know of or connect with. I have never listened to Tenhi, so I can't answer for them. I don't go in for national romantic music or the idea of it, because even though I have a special love for Finland, the nature and beliefs here were the same all over northern Europe. It's just man in his natural state will always remain close to the natural world. All of our problems arise from trying to separate ourselves from the natural world.
Did the contact with this new culture shape your music and how?
It's not really a new culture – this way of living has always been part of me and the culture I enjoy. I think it's in our blood and ancestry. I love British paganism and our heritage too. I think that in going to Finland where there is more untapped nature and vast wilderness with less people it was easier to indulge this fascination. We are pagans, we always were and how we should remain if we want to sustain ourselves. Here I'm more free to do the kind of music I do and it gave the music a meaning and purpose. It freed the music and left it open for all the influences – nature frees us from the worst of our human nature.
You stated that “the songs were written specifically to be channeled by a group”, and in fact “No Holier Temple” sounds absolutely more cohesive than your debut “Dawnbearer”. What was your bandmates’ background? Was it difficult to merge it with yours? What touch did they bring to your songs?
They were the first musicians I've worked with that approached music from a very open state rather than playing exactly what I had written or having someone else's music in mind. They just wanted to jam and were all about the feeling and channeling something, or copying or playing in a certain style. They let the music be what it needs to become. There is a more spiritual connection with the music than following notes. Some musicians learn how to play like other musicians, but these guys want to be themselves, without ego. That's something magical that you can still find in Finland, people without the bullshit of ego like in bigger European cities. People in London for example are way too concerned with popular culture and in being somebody else. There's too much social pressure to behave a certain way.
My band's background is Tampere psychedelic scene, some from Dark Buddha Rising that I'm really heavily into. It wasn't about merging styles, but they knew what I wanted to do and I knew what I wanted from them. It was quite intuitive, it wasn't about fitting it together, we instinctively knew it would work. It was meant to be.
How would you put your two records in relation, from any point of view?
Both are folk albums but played from different perspectives, “Dawnbearer” is an internal view looking from outside in. It's about personal revelation and awakening. “No Holier Temple” is more objective and looking from inside out. It's more of a world view and searching for a common view, other people connecting to the same sort of group awakening.
What I found compelling about “No Holier Temple” is the variety of influences and nuances. It really sounds like an album that a metal lover, an indie hipster or an old hippie would like at the same time, and I mean it as a compliment of course. You’re like David Tibet playing with Opeth and covering 60s British psych-folk. Still, don’t you find it a problem, sometimes, not to fit in a specific audience? Do you feel part of a scene?
The point of stepping out of the current popular scene was to create a new scene – this is the beginning of something. We feel it, and so do the people around us. We hope we can be part of something new – people are now getting influenced by different genres, they're more open minded in music. But a lot of the music that's coming out is influenced merely by the sound of the 60s/70s and not the true lifestyle and culture. They just want to ape the fashion. It was important for us that we also include the social and philosophical aspect – not just about recreating a certain sound. Mankind was gearing towards a way of thinking back in the 60s and we'd like it to come back and have a resurgence. We're a part of a new movement and we're spearheading it. It's about creating something new than sticking to old scenes, and we're inviting others to join. We're not really avantgarde, but more of a reactionary commentary on the state of the world today. It would be great if we could give a voice or a meaning to people, rather than just become a curiosity. There are too many of those bands around and I find them disposable.
Regarding this, how are you feeling with Svart?
Svart is commited to putting out quality music in a quality way. They believe in what they do and care about it, listen and would like to change the way record labels work with bands – which is very important to me in this day and age. They feel like an extention of the band, which is essential. I even trust them now to hear our new music at the same time as the band does. The record label feels part of what we do and they have a chance to interact with what we do. When we talk about marketing, we can now do it in an honest way without pushing or hoodwink people into buying our product, but actually just telling how it is, on our own terms. Svart is a label that people can trust.
I think that a common trademark of acts that are liked by the metal community (Tom Waits, Wovenhand) is a strong tendency to representation, which sometimes brings people to see metal bands and related acts as “cheesy”. Do you recognize this as a possible danger in your music? What is the secret, in your opinion, of sounding natural, true?
To sound natural and true, you have to be natural and true. It's important that whatever you do, you do from the heart. The great metal acts, despite having very simplistic, generic or childish lyrics, always win if there is heart in what they are doing. I don't think people that listen to music are stupid to judge bands in such critical way – they listen with their heart too and people like what touches them. It's important to do things honestly, and pure entertainment is something else. A great example is Autopsy with ridiculously gory lyrics, on the verge of being childish, but they do it with so much feeling that it always shines through.
It's about being a lightning rod and a conductor, you just have to channel what's right with the music. We are physical beings so we can't do much outside that and our sound is ours, and it connects with other people if they are physically made up the same way or inclined to hear it, sometimes you touch something and as a songwriter you are constantly searching for how to do things in more honest way. The biggest disappointment to me as a songwriter would be to accused of being crass or that you have to say is irrelevant.
If you do things honestly and with a pure heart, then I think that you have to be prepared for the fact that people will find it too much, they will get turned off or repulsed. People don't always like to face the truth and their emotions but I'm always striving for a way to get to where I'm going with a song in a most simple and direct manner. I think John Lennon's “Imagine”is a prime example of a completely honest and straight to the heart song that I couldn't understand why anyone wouldn't be touched by it yet there is still people that find the song cheesy. I guess the big achievement for us is that we've managed to gain an audience where a lot of the people who listen to us didn't listen to anything like this before and we've managed to open some minds.
Speaking of representation, you shot quite a number of videos for “No Holier Temple” songs, all dealing with some kind of forest rituals. Can you tell us a bit about their concept and their realization? How important is the visual component in your music?
I'm a lyric writer so I always think visually – lyrics are visual already. We're from the visual age and that's how our minds work so it's important to give people some kind of platform to dream from. I really enjoy the whole fan video aspect where people make videos for songs they like and that's something bands should embrace more. It's such an important aspect of band's culture that people would attribute certain imagery with a band and to explore visually or associate something they love with music they love.
We think we treat the videos in that way that we're offering just one aspect – how we see those songs - and we'd like it to be more of a dialog where people would answer us what they think when they listen to the songs. I always used to make up my own videos for bands in my head and it would be exciting to see the real video I don't feel videos are something you have to do just to get people interested in your music but I've always felt that Hexvessel is some of a soundtrack music. It's good to get people thinking along those lines.
“Woods To Conjure” was directly inspired by Dave Foreman and what he said about going into the forest and our reasons for doing so, and if we go there just to relax and because it's pictoresque but he talks about it being much much more, and we wanted to show with old forestry videos to contemplate our relationship with the forest. We're completely connected to our environment and surroundings but I think people have lost their understanding of that connection. We hoped that this film would give people some conflicting feelings in the right way.
“His Portal Tomb” is not obviously about nature but it is in that way that you're talking about us being an intrinsic part of our environment then dealing with topics like death and rebirth of human beings then you're talking about the whole lifecycle of the world. I wanted to explore the idea of death and the afterlife and what all our dreams and folk tales tell us about death and what it really means.
“Sacred Marriage” is a song written by an artist called Carolyn Hiller who was one of the first musicians to open my mind to paganism. In her songs she is invoking the gods of nature and I wanted to explore not just the song buttwo young people through an adventure in a forest would have a spiritual awakening by getting to know the pagan gods. I wanted to look interplay between innocence and spiritual awakening and the balance of light and dark and how these two things are the one and the same.
How does all of this translate in your live expression? Do you project anything? Do you like to interpret also physically your songs?
I don't like the word ritual but instead channeling, and we are as the name “vessels“ conducting some wavelengths outside ourselves. I really wish it wasn't just about watching a band but the audience would come and dance and be part of it. After playing black metal for many years I've grown very tired of the imagery and don't feel like I need to hide myself behind a cloak or facepaint. The best shows for me and the enlighting concerts where I go away with some new knowledge of myself or managed to dream things outside myself, big entertainment where you pay money just to be entertained. We're much more about finding something within ourselves and the audience than about entertainment.
Much of your aesthetics and poetics revolve around pagan spirituality and/or religion. What got me curious is the character you invite people to worship: Carl Sagan, if I’m not mistaken. Can you talk a bit about him and why he’s so important for you?
Sagan was such an icon for positive thought around humankind and science, he was a positive believer in the future. We admired the way he filled us with wonder about topics that often can be horrifying and frightening, or just too hard to understand. I think we see a kinship in what we're trying to do and what Sagan was trying to do. A lot of bands play with the darkness of paganism or use the world occult to put a stylistic shine on their fashion music.
We're really trying to open people's minds into what paganism really means, what Sagan and we are both saying is that there are labels for things that people don't understand and they're often used as masks for people to hide behind or scare people with. True paganism like true science isn't a belief, it's a pursuit of knowledge and our connection with the universe.
Reverence for nature is of course a key point of paganism and thus neo-folk in general. You refer in particular to the famous naturalist John Muir as a source of inspiration. Can you tell us what in particular interests you of his work?
He was one man against the world. He had some pretty straight-forward goals and he managed to achieve them. He had an incredible foresight and it's astounding how much we now owe, all of us, to just one man. Muir proves to us that if you stand by your values and what you believe in, you're able to do something positive, not just for a decade but for many generations to come.
There seems to be little information about your future touring. Can you unveil some of your plans to us?
We're doing a small European tour with Sabbath Assembly to start with and during 2013 trying to do as many places as we can! Thanks for the interview!