Remember when combining the words “American” and “Black Metal” together was a big joke? Yeah, that ain’t an issue any more, and you can thank Olympia’s Wolves In The Throne Room in large part for that. Led by brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver, they combined the feral intensity of BM with a nakedly environmentalist stance and neo-hippie/crust-punk philosophy; and that unusual combination garnered them an enthusiastic fanbase reaching far outside of metal circles. Over the course of two conceptually interlocked albums, they couched their worldview in eldritch sound that was equal parts icy noise and lush mystery that evoked the old-growth forests and constant rainstorms of the Pacific Northwest as much as Burzum evoked the landscape of their native Norway. Now with Celestial Lineage, conceived over a long, cold winter by candlelight at the Weaver’s communal farm Calliope, Wolves In The Throne Room are definitively closing this chapter of their creative life. Celestial Lineage is the last piece of a trilogy of albums, and they promise that this is the last you’ll hear of this incarnation of WITTR. Ghettoblaster rang up drummer/conceptualist Aaron Weaver as he was in the midst of repairing a generator during a tour stop in Tallahassee to find out whether this is indeed the end, the end, my only friend, the end…
Tell me about the writing of Celestial Lineage. You spent a long time both writing and recording this album.
It kind of expanded into this huge project. A lot of that time was spent building a studio at our place in Olympia. Which is something that altered the way we recorded and ultimately made for a good record because we were able to get really deep into it. Starting around January 1st we started writing songs, putting together visual ideas that would influence the songs, compiling a big compendium of images and poems and the sorts of things that help us focus the songwriting, and help me and Nathan get on the same page about the themes we want to work with. And then we recorded a fully fleshed-out demo version of the record. We planned almost every aspect of it out in a pretty complete way. Because, you know, we’re both kind of control freaks and perfectionists. And it’s good to always have an idea of what you want to do by the time you actually start recording with the producer. When that was done we brought Randall Dunn (producer, Boris, Sunn0))), Earth) on board, who’s the fellow that we’ve done quite a bit of recording with in the past, and we tracked the basic tracks for the record – the drums and some of the straightforward heavy guitars – at Avast Studio in Seattle. And then did a bit of tracking at his Aleph Studios, also in Seattle. And then took a month off.
And in that month, Randall’s life fell apart. His relationship of sixteen years ended abruptly under bizarre circumstances, and his studio got closed down under bizarre circumstances. So Randall was going through an extremely intense time of personal change and transformation and also we had to really change the plans for the record. We had planned on recording it at Aleph and so we had to alter our plans accordingly and ended up doing almost all of the overdubs – which is the bulk of the recording process – at our studio in Olympia. I was kind of concerned about that turn of events for maybe five minutes, and then I realized that it was actually the best possible thing that could have happened because we were able to… Randall basically moved into our house in Olympia and we just spent weeks there, just the three of us, in the wintertime, just really getting into it. And I’m happy with the way it turned out. I think because those adverse circumstances forced us to change things up at the last second and do something we hadn’t planned on doing.
How important is living in the Pacific Northwest and the Calliope farm been in the development of your sound?
We try to have that be everything to us. That’s what we’re always thinking about; trying to represent the spirit of the place that we live with the music. We’re always inspired by the landscape and by the weather and the underlying energy of the place. We’re trying as people to be really deeply of the landscape, trying to represent that experience through music. And that’s something that I think is quintessential to not just our band but to black metal in general. Or at least the black metal that I like and take seriously. It’s music that springs directly from a landscape.
Very rooted in a sense of place…
Yes. Black metal is music that has an adversarial attitude towards modernity, towards the mainstream culture and towards the way things are going in the world. If everything is being unrooted, if everything is beginning to exist in primarily a virtual space, if ancient cultures are being wiped away in face of a Western, capitalist, consumerist monoculture, then black metal says, “No we should do the exact opposite. We should go backwards. We should be deeply connected to one place. We should try and connect to tradition and the ways of ancestors.” And of course, that’s a bit of a fantasy. It’s an extreme reaction that is equally as unrealistic and untenable as the sort of hyper-modern techno-utopia that the mainstream promises us. But that’s the role of music – to present an extreme attitude. In the case of black metal, an attitude that’s insane, that’s too much.
You’re invoking elements of a long line of West Coast counterculture on Celestial Lineage.
That’s how we look at it. That’s what we’ve always been all about, trying to build on an existing counterculture and push it in the direction that resonates with us. We’re definitely inspired by the earlier counterculture scenes everywhere, but especially on the West Coast, starting with the Nature Boys that started in the ’30s and ’40s in California, and moving on to the Beatnik scene and the Hippie movement, and the bizarre assortment of religious movements and cults that make the Northwest or Northern California a spot where a lot of weird people congregate and a lot of weird stuff happens. We definitely feel like we’re a part of that history. And in a lot of ways, there’s almost a sort of orthodox traditional hippie culture that’s emerged in the past 50 or 60 years. It’s definitely the beginnings of a tradition, or the beginnings of a religion, or the beginnings of a worldview. And who knows where it will go but it definitely feels like the beginning of something. Like, about a year ago, one of our landmates at the farm was pregnant and she had a blessing way. Which is kind of this goofy, hippie ceremony. It was facilitated by this older woman in town who was in her sixties. And she’d had a blessing way in a teepee in Okanogan County where there were pot farmers back in the day. And there was a forty-year old woman there who’d had a blessing way for her daughter. And my friend was in her early twenties. So there were three, four generations of women there who were taking part in the same ceremony. And it’s just this made-up, goofy ceremony, but I think that it’s a made-up, goofy ceremony that’s existed through four generations. And me and my wife talk about about having kids and she’ll definitely have this same ceremony that will be facilitated by older women. And I would hope maybe that some of the kids of my peers that are coming up in this scene will certainly change things up, but will begin to be able to feed off of this tradition. But, y’know, it’s just a bit of raver-hippie utopianism….
What did (guest vocalist) Jessika Kenny each bring to this album?
Jessica was someone whom we opened the door to a true collaboration with. We worked with her in the past on another record and we knew from the beginning that we wanted to have a lot of her presence on the album, just because of who she is. As a person, she kind of sums up a lot of the themes of the record. Her personal history and where she’s come from and where she’s at almost kind of tells the whole story of Celestial Lineage. She’s kind of this old, kind of street punk, living on the street with a Repulsion t-shirt and dreads, living this extreme outsider lifestyle. And having this extreme ideology of rejecting mainstream society and traditions and orthodoxy. And at this point, she’s in her mid-late thirties, just a bit older than me, and she is profoundly immersed in orthodoxy. At this point she’s a pretty renowned scholar of Persian liturgical music, and teaches University courses and is world-class . And at the same time, she still has this incredibly wild and free spirit, that dreadlocked street punk from fifteen years ago. And she’s been able to reconcile those two extremes. This extreme desire for freedom and to not be held back by obligations to the existing culture, and at the same time able to tap into this ancient and timeless source of beauty that you find in cathedrals in Europe or the liturgical music of Islam.
There is a heavy sense of finality around the record – you’ve alluded to this being the end of this iteration of Wolves, the end of a trilogy of albums – what made you come to these crossroads?
It’s just a necessity. We’ve been doing essentially the same thing musically, although we’re always growing and always learning new things, but pretty much the same path for eight, nine years? And just those old ways of looking at things and old attitudes aren’t appropriate anymore. The choice is to either do the comfortable thing and keep cranking out black metal records and get to the point where we can headline Wakken (laughter)….and, y’know, get to be like the average Watain, that sort of professional, careerist metal band. And that’s just never been our goal, the last thing we want to be is a professional band. The lifestyle of a professional band is not something that I’ve ever wanted and is nothing I would ever want. It’s nice to be able to tour and meet people and build community and travel and see new things, but it has to happen within reason. And definitely I think I’ve gotten my fill of that over the past couple of years, and I really would like to refocus my energies towards hearth and home, which has always been my priority, but this has just been a bit of a detour, perhaps.
When did you realize that black metal was the ideal vehicle for your aesthetics and philosophies?
Pretty immediately. The first black metal record I got was Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse. I remember buying it at a rummage sale and I remember having this very strong connection to it. It’s got that obtuse cover with the sort of Norman-style knights in this woodcut, and at the time I was heavily into death metal, as many people were in those days, and I was immediately drawn to the sound, the rawness and this aristocratic, mythic spirit. It really resonated deeply with me, and from that point, black metal has always been a part of my… thought process. The music and also the ideas behind it. And at a certain point, maybe about ten years ago it just became very clear that we should and we certainly could take aspects of black metal and then create some sort of hybrid with our own local culture. Because it was so obvious to us that there were so many similarities. We come out of a scene that is pretty focused on ecology and protection of old growth forests and this sort of thing and it’s a very distinct culture to the Northwest. And there’s so many similarities between the two worldviews, critiquing civilization, yearning for a more ancient sense of the world, a connection with tradition and nature that perhaps we’ve lost as modern people. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know, that’s a romanticized idea, that’s definitely an idea that exists in black metal and that exists in the radical culture of the Northwest. And then the darker side of it as well exists in both worlds. In both the black metal world and the ecological punk world, a hatred of humanity and a strong sense of misanthropy as we look around and see what humanity has wrought. It was obvious that it was the right thing for us, it was also equally obvious that we didn’t want to be just another clone of Immortal or Satyricon or Emperor, that we’d have to do our own thing and create something that sprang from the landscape of the Northwest and not try to have it be shrouded in Norse mythology, talking about fjords. (laughter) It’s not our scene, man.
When you’re making music as Wolves, what are the elements of black metal songcraft that are sacrosanct, and what are the parts that you can play with and transform?
As far as the sound, that’s the first thing I noticed with Emperor is the guitars and drums – in some senses it’s rooted in heavy metal but really it’s more about creating a trance effect. It’s really got more in common with shamanic drumming and with noise music. It’s not heavy metal, it’s not riffs, not headbanging music at all. That’s the aspect that I’ve been really drawn to and will always be really interested in, using that wash of sound, no matter how you create it, whether it’s with synthesizer or with drums or acoustic instruments or with heavy guitars and blastbeats. Creating that wash of sound that you can get completely lost in. Inside that wash, at first it appears to be a void, a meaningless void, but the more you get into it, the more you realize that it’s actually deeply nuanced and is almost more of a rorschach test in a lot of ways. You can find whatever meaning you need to find within it. And that’s something that I’ve always said about black metal, it’s very inwardly focused music. It’s meditative music. Most heavy metal is very extroverted, it’s about putting on a big snow and headbanging and drinking a beer with your buddies. Black metal is the exact opposite. It’s all about gazing inwards and trying to discover things about yourself. It’s quite meditative, really. That’s the way I’ve always seen it and I think most people who are really into black metal, that’s the part about it that they like. That meditative quality.
You’re trying to play more unconventional venues on this tour?
Oh definitely, that’s the theme of this tour. For the most part we’re playing all non-traditional venues; a good amount of DIY spaces, but also a good amount of… y”know, the top of a mountain in Vermont and a muddy pit in Portland and a few crumbling warehouses in the fringes of various industrial districts in a couple of different towns. It’s definitely different than the tours we’ve done in the past but it’s more in line with the tours we’ve always wanted to be able to do but haven’t had the logistical ability to pull it off.
So after the tour, you’re both going away for awhile?
There’s a bunch of offers on the table, there’s talk of going to Australia and Japan, there’s talk of another tour in Europe in the springtime to play some festivals. But I’m kind of feeling that might not be the best move for us, I’ve got a … I’m really keen on building a new house and that’s what I prioritize. And in the Northwest, if you don’t get started as soon as things begin to dry out in the spring you won’t get done by the wintertime. You’ve got to drive things in by September at the latest, so most likely I’ll be working on a new house. We do have plans to do another record. Celestial Lineage is definitely not the last Wolves In The Throne Room record. It is the last record of a phase and a certain era, I suppose. I actually just tan into Randall a few days ago in Atlanta, he was with another band doing sound and we were able to hang out and talk about our future plans together. And we’re very keen on doing another record. I’d love to begin work on it a bit this winter but maybe it will have to wait until fall of next year but definitely things will happen in the future musically for us.
Originally published in Ghettoblaster Magazine (Issue 30).