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Interview - Attila (Mayhem)

Interview with Attila from Mayhem
by Erika Kuenstler at 13 June 2014, 4:20 PM

MAYHEM has been hailed as the most notorious and influential band in the history of Black Metal, and much of the happenings in their earlier years (such as the murder, suicide, church burnings, and rumours of cannibalism) have become the stuff of legend in the underground scene. However, these topics are so well documented that there really isn’t anything new that can be said about them (although Dolk from KAMPFAR is currently working on a biography that should be a very interesting read with his more objective outsider perspective), and so, when I got the opportunity to interview MAYHEM, I steadfastly resolved to look at other aspects of the band. So when I sat down with Attila before their recent show in Munich, much of the conversation revolved around touring, the upcoming album “Esoteric Warfare”, the impact of the two new guitarists on the band, and Cold War based artwork. And of course in order to commemorate their 30th anniversary, we also talked about the change of influences and recording processes over the years, as well as the media stigma attached to the band.

You’ve already got quite a few of the tour dates behind you. How have they been?

They’ve been alright. We have a lot of German dates, which mean we have a little less audience each time. Five dates in Germany is quite something, considering this is just a short tour. But it’s ok. I think we’re in good shape, the shows have been alright, people seem to like it. We’re playing a new song, so that’s also cool.

Have there been any new places on the tour where you have never played before?

Yeah. We played Hamburg, we never played there. Also Bochum; so in Germany, we’ve never played these places, because in the other countries, we played in the capitals, like London, Paris, Brussels, or Bratislava. So Bochum and Hamburg were the new places.

And if you could play anywhere in the world where you’ve never played before, where would you play?

Haha, I would love to play the Vatican! I would like to play in Egypt, in Cairo; Lebanon for sure; and Beirut would be awesome! Many countries actually; there are a couple in South-East Asia, like for instance I would like to play in Bali or Indonesia. We had an offer, but it never happened. We also had an offer in China, but we never played there. We’re also going to play India: we’ve never been there before. Personally, I like places with ancient civilizations or cultures, because then I can visit these places, and it’s cool to feel the energy when we play. I would love to play in Baalbek in Lebanon, with the ancient temple. Haha, I would even pay to do that!

You also have a lot of fans in South Africa.

Oh, yeah! I would love to go to South Africa. We had an offer there too, but sometimes it these things get postponed or don’t work out. I’d love to go there: It seems to be a very interesting and beautiful place, with a lot of ancient things there too, like the ancient mines and the weird spots. I’d really like to check it out actually.

You’ve been touring for your 30th anniversary. Are there any plans to tour with your new album as well?

Well, the album is not out yet, and this is the 30 year anniversary, but I think that once the album is out, we’ll put more of the new songs into our set, and move into that thing. Maybe at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year, we’re going to focus on the new record. But I think we will have one more European tour in the autumn, and I think already then we are going to have a bit more from the new record, and have a shift in that direction. But the thirty years is great, it’s amazing!

It’s been seven years since “Ordo ad Chao”. What happened to the infamous Budapest Sessions?

Well, what happened was a split in the band. Blasphemer left after the album was released and after the first touring period. I of course respected his choice, but he said he wished to change and to do something else, so he took some time to replace. We found some people already, but it’s not easy, because we can’t have these auditions. We can’t check out hundreds of people. So we were looking for a guitar player who we knew or who was introduced by some bands. So for example, one guy was introduced to us by the MORBID ANGEL guys. But the guys we have now, Teloch and Charles, they were both in other bands. The thing is, when you need a good guitar player who is experienced and talented, they normally have their bands already, or even a couple of bands. For instance, Teloch was in GORGOROTH, and we didn’t want to take the guitar player from the band. We don’t want to make obstacles for anyone else. But when GORGOROTH had these problems and all this shit happened, he was suddenly free. He was not interested in that circus I guess, and so we got lucky. But that all took years, and that altogether fills up these seven years. Of course, we don’t do albums very often, but it shouldn’t take more than three or four years. Plus we also needed a guitar player who didn’t just play the instrument, but who was also the right person to fit the chemistry of the band. And that takes some time. So we had to tour with these guys first and get them to understand the philosophy and the whole music. When you play on tour, you start to understand the whole way of thinking more. So then we went to the writing process, and that took another one and a half years.

How has the writing process been now that Blasphemer is no longer there, seeing as he was very much involved in the writing process before he left?

Now it’s Teloch who does all the stuff. It took time for him to get into the vibe, but when he started, he needed tools, he needed to hang out, he needed to talk and just be together, and then suddenly he just got the idea, and things started to happen relatively fast. He was actually really good at this. The other guitar player, Charles, had some stuff too, some ideas, but he just recently came to the band, so we didn’t want to spend more time on that, to incorporate his ideas into everything. So we thought we’ll let Teloch do this album, and of course me and Hellhammer were giving him instructions, but it’s still his songs and his music. It sounds like MAYHEM, or at least to us, that’s what it sounds like, and that’s what we wanted.

How representative is “Psywar” of the upcoming album?

It’s a relatively catchy song I guess; a bit more groovy. But still very aggressive and straight-forward. The album has different stuff. The first part of the record is a little bit similar to the “Psywar” song, the second part shifts a bit more to another dimension in a way, but not so far as “Ordo ad Chao”. It’s not going too progressive or too much experimental. Well, perhaps a few experimental parts. For instance, we have a song that is like a ballad. It has this slow, cool bass groove, and some interesting parts. We will see if people like it. We were cool with it, and that was the most important thing. We thought it was good enough; whether people like it or not, we will see.

When I looked at the album artwork of the single “Psywar” it very much reminded me of a sort of cynical satire of the Yugoslavian coat of arms circa 1950. Was this intentional?

I’m not sure. Zbigniew Bielak is a Polish artist who made the artwork. I think he did a couple of WATAIN and GHOST covers. He’s pretty good actually. We chose him because he’s an architect, and I had this vision for the artwork to look like a top secret kind of folder with weird plans and information from the Cold War era, with a 50s kind of feeling. Like a 50s Second World War or Gestapo document. So because he is an architect, it was cool with all these straight lines and geometrical things. But it’s a really nice artwork, and it’s in MAYHEM’s tradition. Every song will have a handmade drawing, so I think it’s worth it to get the limited box this time, because there will be posters of each artwork he made. He made like ten artworks, so every song has its own artwork. What happened is we talked for a couple of hours on the phone, and I explained to him what every song is about, and I sent him a couple of links, with a couple of visuals from what I had. But then I said “Ok, now it’s you; you’re free to do whatever”. Basically, the whole band is freedom. The same with Teloch; we just gave him some directions. Sure we throw out a lot of things: in these seven years we’ve thrown out two records. It’s not just with Teloch, it was with the other guitar players too. It was the same with this guy; we gave him a free hand and saw whether we liked it, but it turned out nice. That’s why the album is delayed now, because the drawing took more time than he believed. So the artwork was the reason for this delay. We didn’t want to fuck it up at the end, so it had to go the whole way. “Psywar” is about mind-control, the perfect warrior, almost like a droid with a totally erased and reprogrammed mind. So Bielak came out with this old emblem which also refers to the Cold War. There’s nothing political about the record actually; it’s all about mind-control, how a few people can control the masses, and of course the eternal themes like existence and non-existence, what is beyond life and death, other dimensions, occultism, esoteric things… There is even a little hint about aliens and extra-terrestrial things. I like to refer to things. Before it was angels and demons, and in this context, they are extra-terrestrial beings, which is basically the same thing. In the middle ages they called the same phenomenon angels and demons. A lot of it is based on many theories. I read about a lot of conspiracy theories and shit, so that is also in there. Actually, I even had my friend Christian Flack over. He’s an old friend from the US, and he just came by when I was in Budapest. I think he had a show in Hungary, but I didn’t know. He just knocked on my door, and I was like “Hey, what the fuck are you doing here?” “I’m just here for a show. What are you doing?” “Oh, I’m just writing lyrics” So of course we hung out, and he had a look at the lyrics, and we started to talk about it. He’s totally into this stuff too of course. In the end he came up with a couple of really cool ideas, so I gave him credit on the record. He’s really cool, a total expert, like on a scholar-level. He’s really really informed, so it was cool to have someone to talk to about all of this. I also always like to double-check my lyrics with someone who is a mother-tongue English speaker.

Looking back at the earlier MAYHEM stuff, whilst recording the first album, the sound technician actually thought MAYHEM was a reggae band. It must be very different to the recording process in MAYHEM nowadays.

Haha, yeah, I heard the story. It was actually the same with us in TORMENTOR, my old band in Hungary. When we did our first album “Anno Domini”, we recorded in this mainstream studio where this pop artist was recording some commercials and shit. People didn’t know anything about it, so when we started to play, they were like “What the fuck is this?!” But I guess it adds a little bit of spice to the sound. Today is different, but you can’t compare the two things: “Deathcrush” from ’84 where we had maybe a tape recorder, and today you almost have a computer on your phone! So this time what we did is we recorded the drums in a studio, but the guitars I think Teloch recorded himself in his home studio, and then I recorded the vocals with him as well. Instead of sitting in a boring studio, we went to a very beautiful site, his parent’s cabin in the fjords in Norway, totally isolated in this small village. So we were isolated there and totally focussed on the vocals. Actually, I recorded most of the vocals in one day. But to do that, we had to prepare a lot of things. I wanted to do it that way. You almost have a studio on your phone or tablet, but you can fall into the trap of doing too much editing, too much cutting and pasting and all that shit. I wanted to avoid this. I wanted to take it old-school: very straight-forward. So I think I recorded six songs the one day, then the rest over the next days. But then we went back to the studio for mixing and mastering, so it’s not a self-production in that way. But some parts we did our selves. Very different to how it was back in the day! It’s still expensive, but you can do a lot of things yourself.

And how have your influences changed over the years?

I grew up on Heavy Metal and I started to play music when I was 15. I already had shows with my first band TORMENTOR, and of course the influences then were the 80s Metal bands. We were looking for something more and more extreme. So things like SODOM and KREATOR, and BATHORY of course was a big big influence. SLAYER of course, and even DESTRUCTION; German Thrash, that was my thing. But I also listened to things like DEAD KENNEDYS back then. VENOM and CELTIC FROST of course were also a big influence. But I was also listening to more experimental stuff in the 80s, pre-industrial electro music, like SKINNY PUPPY and shit. They also influenced me a bit I guess, but it was mostly Metal. And today, I actually still listen to the same 80s music! Those are my bands, but of course, I have a lot of other bands too. When I look for influences, I try to think back to how I felt when we did the records like “De Mysteriis dom Sathanas” or some of the more successful TORMENTOR albums, and I try to set back my mind to that kind of state. But of course, you’re always going to create something new. I like a lot of Industrial bands, but I don’t know whether they influence me or not, but I still like to listen to something different from Metal but which is still dark and a bit more aggressive. Or also the Prog Rock bands of the 60s and 70s, so that there is something besides the Metal, but of course Heavy Metal or Extreme Metal is the main thing. I also get a lot of influences from books, movies, and Youtube videos, whatever really. Sometimes I see some really fucked-up thing on Youtube and somewhere in my mind it starts to inspire some visions or lyrics. Now is a cool age; you can access so much stuff, so you can’t really compare it to back then. You can access any book, any movie, any documentary, any information basically. Back then, we didn’t have so much information, I had to find this kind of channel from where these ideas were coming, and it’s still there of course. It’s kind of like a feeling that drives you, like “Yeah, that’s the right way”. It’s hard to explain.

Necrobutcher recently said that in the beginning, everyone was against the band because people didn’t understand the music, but that having people against MAYHEM made the band more determined to succeed. Now that the band has success, how has that changed?

Well, I don’t think we are a very much liked band still. We do have success, but even within the scene we are not the most successful band, there are much more popular bands. I’m not going to get into names, but obviously the ones with easier listening sounds and singing; they sell more and are bigger. But I think we are still trying to be ourselves in a way. I guess it’s also this 30 year anniversary. The name suddenly became bigger. But everybody hated us back then; even TORMENTOR never had a good review until the band had made it. Now we have a lot of good reviews, but back then: nobody. And it was the same with MAYHEM. It was like a public enemy thing. Now it has changed a bit. I think these people had to swallow. Now in Norway, they put us in the news, but they love when we fuck up something: that they like. They never put anything like “This is a great new album of MAYHEM” in the mainstream media, but if there is some bullshit happening somewhere, then of course they will talk about that. It’s more for sensation and selling; it’s not like they like us or support us. They just had to swallow the fact that we are still here and that the scene has grown, and of course we had a very important role in the whole history. But of course there are a lot of bands now who came after us and it’s now a big scene.

My final question: in your history, you must have learnt a lot of things. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learnt along the way?

Ah, there was a lot of stuff. Obviously you learn a lot of technical things about live shows, but I think the most important thing for me is that you always learn. I’ve never stopped learning. I still practice; I’m always still working on all these small details. And I also think it’s very important to try to keep the spirit alive; it’s not just the music. We represent the music which is about something beyond, and that should always be there. To sustain that, that’s hard; that’s what you have to learn: not to be a fake. It’s about the lyrics and composition. Of course, I could write lyrics like I did in the 80s about Satan and stuff, but that would not be as honest as I felt back then. That’s why my lyrics are about my interests, so when I look at my lyrics, I can say “Ah, that was my interest then”. I also don’t deny it. I don’t regret it, and I totally stand for it, but I think that evolves into something else, so we have to learn how to this whole honesty and spirit and interest.

Well, that would be all from me; thank you for answering all my questions, and it was a pleasure to meet you!

Thank you so much!


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