Dayal Patterson: Black Metal Will Always Be With Us
No matter who you speak to, anyone who knows a thing or two about black metal will agree that it has a fascinating history. But according to English author Dayal Patterson, no definitive book on the subject has ever been written. Most deviate towards the sensationalised incidents that blew up in Scandinavia in the early to mid 1990s, ignoring the origins and the history that exists outside the infamous incidents. Patterson hopes to change all of that with his newly released book, Black Metal: Evolution Of The Cult, a 600-page history that traces black metal all the way back to its origins in the 1980s. We had a long talk with Patterson about his book and how he came to track down and talk to some of the most well-known figures in the black metal scene.
Why write a book about black metal, what drew you towards it and fostered your interests?
I’ve been listening to black metal and following it since about 1995 so I had a deeply rooted interest myself, and when I first went into it, it was a very sort of, subterranean movement. People weren’t really aware of it unless they were a part of it, even bands like Cradle Of Filth and Dimmu Borgir were essentially unknown even by metal fans at the time. As the years went along, it got bigger and bigger and a lot of people who weren’t necessarily part of the scene started covering it in documentaries and books. I was waiting for someone to write a definitive book or guide if you like, one that really went in-depth and spoke to the right people, but it never turned up. In my opinion, most of the books that came out are interesting but they were looking at just one tiny element of it. It got to about 2009 and there were still questions I wanted to ask and things I wanted to learn about black metal and at that point I wanted to get my head around what it was all about really and just put that to bed in a way. So, I guess I did it for myself, but I also did it because I felt that the things that were out there already were distorting people’s opinions and views of black metal.
As you said, some of the literature and films have been made by people outside the black metal scene. Had anything definitive been written by someone on the inside?
No, you have the Slayer Diaries by Metalion [Kristiansen] which is a great publication, but it’s a compilation of fanzines and it’s looking at one specific area of black metal. That’s a book that was written by an insider, although it’s more like a compilation, but it’s not attempting to be a definitive guide to the entire scene. So the simple answer is no, I don’t think that anyone had written a book as an overview on everything that had gone on by someone that wasn’t from the outside. The problem with that is, and the films are the same, I’ve seen some good documentaries on black metal but you’re always limited by time and so you end up focusing on 15, or actually probably around five bands. They’ll always talk about Mayhem of course which is important, but you just end up with the same people, so people coming into the scene or even people in the scene, all they’re hearing about are the voices of maybe the five to ten biggest names. But black metal is such a complex, varied scene, so you end up with a distorted picture of it.Most of these books and videos and so on, they’ve tried to fast forward to about ’91, and I think that if you’re going to tell the story of black metal, you ought to tell it from ’81 up to the present day because there’s been so many changes and so many things have happened. I kind of think also, if you come at the genre as an outsider, you sometimes miss the point of things and misunderstand things, because it is really complex. It’s not like a lot of music scenes, it’s quite hard to decode. I mean, it’s taken me 15 years.
I suppose one thing with those works is that, while they simplify things to a point, they are able to draw newcomers in and from that, the newcomers can learn a bit more. So, would you say that your book is written more for the black metal fans, or could newcomers get into it?
I would hope both actually, that’s the aim of the book. I gave this book to my dad to read who knew nothing about it, and now he has a fairly comprehensive understanding of it. So you don’t even need to be a fan of heavy music to get the whole picture from this book; it tells the whole story. But at the same time, I didn’t want to tell all the same stories again and again in the same way, I didn’t want to go over old ground. Because I’ve been reading fanzines and interviews with these bands for 18 years now, I was very aware of what had been told. Even if I was covering a key event in the history, I could tell it in a way that I knew hadn’t been told before, so this book is hopefully a comprehensive history for people, whether they know anything about it or they don’t know anything about it. If they do know about the scene, I can guarantee that every chapter is going to have something that they didn’t know before.
Not wanting to tell the same stories is an interesting point, because the impression that I get is that the bands tell those stories because they’re the stories that they’re comfortable telling. When you were talking to these bands, did you ever find it difficult to get stories out that they hadn’t told?
Some of it’s just about choosing your questions, because I don’t know if these bands necessarily want to tell the same stories over and over again, I think it’s possible that people just ask them the same questions. If they’re interviewing a band like Mayhem, they’re going to start asking about the murder or the church burnings, and I think a lot of people are just going to ask bands the questions they’ve already seen asked out of a lack of imagination. It’s not like I avoided those key incidents, but I tried to go a bit deeper. Because the book was written now, a lot of the people that were involved have had a few years to look back at what happened, speak a bit more openly and maybe even have a bit more of an understanding than they would’ve had they been interviewed at the time it was happening. The way I approached it was to dig deep into the psyches of the people involved, but also to try and get a sense of how this music form developed, how one band influenced another, where it came from and where it’s going. They weren’t rushed interviews, a lot of the bands were interviewed several times and some of them I already knew, so I think people felt a little bit more trusting and comfortable talking to me than they might’ve with some of the people that have interviewed them in the past.
I’d like to talk a bit more about the book as a whole. Apparently you found it tricky to find a cohesive timeline when writing the book, and it’s true, black metal didn’t start at A and get to B, the history varies depending on who you speak to. Did you end up landing on a cohesive timeline and if so how did you find it?
By talking to bands and tracing back. The title isn’t arbitrary, the book’s about the evolution of the movement and with each chapter I have other bands talking, so it’s almost ordered by a band, scene or sub-genre per chapter. As well as having the people involved talk, I also have people who were influenced by it talk. So in the chapter on Venom, you’ll find people from Mayhem and other bands talking about how that created the sound for them. Or if you’re talking about Master’s Hammer, Rotting Christ or Beherit, I have bands from later on saying why those were essential. It’s been a case of talking to the people involved and finding out or confirming what drove them, then tracing it back. I would say that there’s a fairly cohesive timeline, I think Venom has to be the starting point, there is one chapter before Venom but it’s about metal during the ’70s and how that formed, but Venom is undoubtedly the starting point of extreme metal in general, and especially black metal. Then you have bands like Bathory and Hellhammer who you can’t really question, then you have bands that joined the first wave bands leading to what blew up in Scandinavia a few years later, so that’s Master’s Hammer, Tormentor, Rotting Christ and Von for example. Because the most fascinating period of black metal’s history is ’91-’94, or at least it’s the most influential formative time, people tend to try and skip forward to what gets called second wave black metal, so what happened in the ’80s is often presented as a brief side note, a little kind of precursor or something. I saw a piece recently, and it was by a very good writer, but it said that black metal started with Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky in ’91, and I think that’s horribly misleading. Fenriz himself, you know Fenriz and Ted [Nocturno] from Darkthrone, they’d be the first people to say that that was rubbish. If you listen to Master’s Hammer and Beherit, especially Master’s Hammer actually, their ’80s output is black metal there’s no doubt about that. So I spoke to the people involved, but I think anyone with an ear who listens can go back and see that red line running through the history.
But there’s so many conflicting stories and legends in black metal history. Was it tough trying to present a balanced account of some of the events?
Yeah some of that was quite tough, especially things like the events in Norway, that was hard sometimes. I’ve done my best to present a balanced account and what I had in my favour was quite a few people to draw on. There are a couple of chapters about the Helvete scene, the Inner Circle and all those famous events, so I was lucky to have quite a large number of people to draw on as witnesses if you like. It wasn’t as hard as it would’ve been a few years ago because a lot of these people have had time to reflect and maybe speak more honestly. If I tried to write this book in the early or mid ’90s, I think a lot of people would still have been trying to build their own legend, but now it’s almost unnecessary. A lot of these people are legends, and if you take time to speak to them, they don’t mind deconstructing that slightly. I think if you read this book, you get quite a good sense of who these people are, and that includes Euronymous [Mayhem], because I had a lot of people talking about the very different aspects of his character, and Dead [Mayhem] as well. It’s a big book, about 210,000 words, so there’s a lot of detail and everything’s in their own words, I’ve not editorialised it too much.
Obviously at the same time, there’s very sensationalised elements in the history of black metal, which is what a lot of the early literature has focused on. But it’s hard to avoid those events when you’re writing a history, so how did you structure the historical narrative surrounding them?
I wasn’t avoiding the subjects that would be considered sensationalist because I wanted to talk about the people as much as I wanted to talk about the music. So things like extreme politics, extreme violence or ideological actions, all that stuff is great reading and you can’t remove that from the story of black metal. I wasn’t trying to avoid the stories, but I was trying to deal with them in a more truthful way without adding anything myself. That was it really, and it sounds cliché, but I was trying to find the truth about these events and communicate them without too much emphasis, because you don’t need to exaggerate or sensationalise a lot of this stuff because it’s already so extreme. The good thing with black metal is if you do your best to dig out the truth, you’ll find more interesting things than you could’ve made up.
On that note, there are plenty of black metal musicians who claim that previous books distort the truth, which is something you agree with. So did you encounter any resistance when you were approaching musicians for interviews because of how they’d been treated in the past?
Not so much actually. When I approached the people involved, I made it clear that I had found previous attempts at covering this to have not done what I wanted to do. I distanced myself a bit from them in that sense and I’d interviewed a lot of the bands over the years; I had personal connections with some of them. Some were strangers, but I could still point to the fact that I’d been in this scene for a long time, that I’d been writing for metal magazines and fanzines for a long time, so basically I set out quite clearly what my position was, which was appreciated. The other big thing was that I allowed bands to proof read their chapters, they couldn’t change what my opinions were, but they could check for errors. That was really helpful because a lot of stuff got turned up and added to. It was a bit more collaborative as a process as opposed to other books of this type, and even other articles. Then it went from there in the sense that people involved in the book would get me in contact with somebody else. There were some people whose numbers I didn’t have or who were hard to get a hold of, but other people who’d been involved said, “I think you’ve got the right idea, so I’m going to speak to this person for you and see if they’ll get involved.” But there was very little or even no suspicion or bad reactions, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at how willing people were to get involved.
And a nice big overarching question now, who were some of the most interesting or memorable people and bands that you interviewed?
Almost without exception I would say all of the interviews were pretty interesting, there’s probably 80 or 75 people directly involved in this book, plus others where I used archived interviews to write about them. There’s very few of those who you wouldn’t describe as unusual people or characters. Definitely Tom Warrior [ex-Hellhammer and ex-Celtic Frost] and King Diamond [Merciful Fate] were very interesting when digging right into the roots of this stuff and getting their opinions on what happened afterwards. Talking to them and finding out what they thought about black metal, what they kind of gave birth to, was a really big thing. The guys from Mayhem were really interesting because they’re some very extreme characters, very individualistic, Niklas [Kvarforth] from Shining is a very extreme guy, some of the stuff he said and told me about was quite extreme by anyone’s standards. People like Fenriz who of course has a good overview of what’s happening, Infernus from Gorgoroth and Gaahl who was from Gorgoroth and is now in God Seed, again quite extreme characters. Snorre Ruch from Thorns was a personal high, that was one that really meant a lot because he’d been involved in creating what we call black metal in a large way and he was witness to a lot of the more famous events. One more, Saint Vincent from Blacklodge, just because his spiritual views are so out there, well fascinating really, but it’s just really interesting to talk to people of that unusual spiritual view.
As you’ve written this definitive book, I’d like your opinion on black metal as a whole. Some of the bands and fans appear to be very protective of the music and the scene. Did you get that impression when you were interviewing them and if so, why do you think they’re so protective of it?
I feel fairly protective of it, I can understand that. I think it’s a very important genre and scene, and it’s frequently misrepresented. Too often it’s misrepresented by people who don’t understand it so I have sympathy with them in that sense, I’m certainly not looking to exploit it in any way. If you show that you’ve got the right intentions, you just have to take time, you can’t just jump into it, but I think a lot of people just want to be sure that it’s not being exploited and that it’s not being treated without the respect it deserves. I can appreciate that because that’s sort of the thing that wanted me to write the book in the first place, just seeing it being covered in a way that I didn’t think was right. That was part of the reason that I felt I had to do it.
As you hinted at, we don’t live in the same climate that existed when these bands were defining the genre. Can black metal transcend eras and remain relevant with its message, even though it’s not being played in the same context?
The message hasn’t faded, although I don’t know if message is the right word. The feeling at the heart of this music is still as true as ever, it’s about individualism at the core, and the thing is if you ask what is black metal about, you’ll get many different answers. For some bands, like Watain, Marduk or Funeral Mist… I’m just listing Swedish bands aren’t I, but a lot of these bands if you ask them, “What is black metal?” they would say, “It has to be Satanic, it has to be about Satanism.” But then if you did say that you’d have to say that Mayhem, Thorns, bands like that weren’t black metal because they aren’t Satanic and that would seem a bit strange. I think the message, the ethos and the feeling is timeless really, you can listen to those classic albums and they still sound as true as ever, they still sound as powerful as ever. Artistically, I think it’s timeless, maybe it’s a little bit different now because you can’t get quite the same feeling, or the feeling relies on a little bit of nostalgia. The ’90s were very different to now, if you were into black metal in the early to mid ’90s it was much more of a statement and there was a much more interesting atmosphere than there was now and that’s what I’ve tried to capture a little bit in this book. I think it can still be relevant, things like Burzum and Darkthrone, that sound has almost become what people associate with what black metal is. At the time when it came out, that sound was quite groundbreaking even though it was rooted in other stuff like Celtic Frost and Bathory, but it was still quite revolutionary. It’s not necessary for every band that comes out to try and copy Darkthrone and Burzum, which a lot of new bands do. Bands that push forward with their sound and do something new, that’s important because that’s what black metal is about. I also think we are still a world under the grip of monotheism, populated by human beings, so when people feel anti-religious and anti-society, black metal will always be relevant because that’s what defines the human condition.
And finally, does black metal as it’s traditionally known still exist in terms of what is being created today?
That’s a difficult question but I would say that the interesting thing about black metal is that it’s always been a mix of conservatism and radicalism, so you’ve always had this very traditional aspect with this groundbreaking, brave aspect. If you look at those records that people often think defined the scene, for example Darkthrone, I’ve seen people saying Darkthrone was the start of it all, but if you listen to Darkthrone’s A Blaze In The Northern Sky, that has such a massive debt to owe to Celtic Frost. Those bands that came out in the ’90s, they didn’t see themselves as groundbreaking, they saw themselves as carrying on the work of the ’80s. If you speak to the guys from Gorgoroth they’ll say that, Mayhem will say that, Darkthrone will say that. But they wanted to bring something new into it which is why they had this really radical sound, and I think today it’s the same thing really. There’s always going to be bands creating black metal in exactly the same way as it was created during the ’80s and ’90s, by fanatics who totally adhere to the musical and spiritual rules that were laid down by people like Euronymous. There will always be bands that stay true to that and you can also say that there’ll always be black metal bands who are willing to push the boundaries if you like. I mentioned Blacklodge earlier, if you listen to Blacklodge, there’s a massive industrial element to it and some purists will say, “That’s not black metal.” But in a way it’s more black metal than some third rate Darkthrone clone because it has that same spirit and an artistic bravery to it and it’s rooted in the style and it’s very thorough, ideologically. In that sense, it’s a totally timeless genre. The only thing I would say is that it’s obviously very different to make black metal now than it was then and now that black metal is bigger with a commercial face, it has changed it slightly. I guess a band can never come out and make black metal in the same circumstances as they did in Scandinavia in the early ’90s, just because back then it was hated, unknown and very niche. I don’t know if black metal could be created had the internet existed, or not in the same way, because these days everyone knows what everyone else is doing and a big part of what happened in the late ’80s and early ’90s was that no one really had that, everything was slowed down to the pace of writing, so all of these bands developed their vision in isolation. You don’t have time to become your own thing in isolation like bands like Mayhem and Venom did, you’re instantly connected to a hive mind if you like. But to summarise, I think black metal in every form will always be with us, but I think it’s impossible to recreate the circumstances that gave birth to it.