Dave Hunt from Anaal Nathrakh talks death, desire and escapism
Birmingham extreme metal duo toured the UK last month, in support of their new album Desideratum. Before the London show at The Dome in Tufnell Park, I sat down with vocalist Dave Hunt to discuss the nature of desire, how they made the jump to playing live, and why their lyrics are never published.
Quigs: Just so I don’t embarrass myself, do you want to pronounce the band name? I’ve heard 5 million different pronunciations of it.
Dave: We call it An-arl Nath-rack. Whether that’s correct or not I dunno but we’re taking it from the film we got it from so it should be about right
Q: So it means ‘The Serpent’s Breath’ right?
D: So I’m informed, yeah. To be honest…the film we took it from – Excalibur the film was called – it’s Merlin saying his secret charm of making, whatever the fuck that is, and its something to do with a dragon and breath and all sorts of things like that, but we didn’t really have the etymology in mind when we did it, it was just ‘that’ll do as a name’. Its unique, it sounds kind of appropriate to the music and that’s that. What’s a Metallica, I don’t know what one is, it doesn’t really matter it becomes a label on its own
Q: So in the early days you guys didn’t play live that much
D: Or at all.
Q: And you went under the name ‘Vitriol’, which is an acronym right?
D: Visita interiora terrae rectificando invenies occultum lapidem.
Q: And how long did that take you to learn?
D: Not long, I just read it; it’s ‘Journey to the centre of the earth and through purification you will find the hidden stone’. It’s a thing from alchemy, about searching for the philosopher’s stone which they thought was the key to alchemy. I had an interesting philosophy at the time so I quite liked that; philosopher’s stone, the fact that its hidden and difficult and everything. The word ‘vitriol’ in alchemy actually means what we would now call sulphuric acid so that seemed kind of appropriate.
Q: So you guys never did live, and now you play live relatively regularly. What was it that prompted that change?
D: The BBC. We got asked to do a Peel session. We did that and it went fine – we did it the way we would normally do it. We got asked back by the BBC after John had died to do a rock show session and we thought ‘let’s do it a bit different, let’s try and put an actual band together’. We didn’t think we could; it wasn’t like we had a rule against it we just didn’t think we could A) find a drummer that could do it and B) that kind of thing and we managed to pull it off.
We had Nick Barker playing drums, Shane Embry was on bass, and it worked and we thought ‘fuck me we can actually do it’. Terrorizer, the magazine, found out that we’d done that and they wanted to put a gig on at Christmas time and they asked us to do it and that was our first gig headlining with Terrorizer at the Underworld
Q: Well you guys are quite jolly
D: We’re very jolly yeah, absolutely in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.
Q: Exactly. (Laughs)
D: (Laughs). But yeah, having done that we were like “Alright, we can do this!” So, we started doing it more.
Q: How hard is it to find a drummer that can play your songs?
D: Easier nowadays. The thing is, you’ve got x number of added years during which drummers have grown up listening to stuff with blast beats for half hour and stuff like that. Whereas when we started, there were pretty much no bands faster than Brutal Truth, and they were only blasting for ten seconds at a time, so it wasn’t a technique that was prevalent. But we found a couple of people that could do it, and now we have Steve, who’s just phenomenal. It’s ridiculous how he can do it.
Nowadays, it’s probably easier to find great, fast drummers, but back then it was much more difficult. We were pretty lucky to have found Steve.
Q: Now that you’ve got Steve, does Mick use live drums on the albums or does he still program everything?
D: For a long time it’s been a bit of a hybrid. It used to be entirely programmed drums, except now he’ll record some actual cymbals or various little bits like that. No, Steve doesn’t play drums on the albums because it would end up sounding pretty much the same and it’s an added complication to the production process.
Q: Right. Because you’re still in Birmingham, right?
Q: And Mick lives in LA?
D: Yeah, there abouts.
Q: What does Desideratum mean?
D: It means something which is desired.
Q: Well, that’s easy! When you recorded Desideratum did you go out to Mick, or did you record your vocals in Birmingham and send them to Mick who then did his thing in the States?
D: No, we did that last time with Vanitas. This time, Mick recorded the music, and then he was coming over to Europe anyway I think, so we recorded the vocals while he was over. It’s a collaborative piece, we were lucky enough to be able to do a lot of it while he was over, it was just like a toss of a coin really.
Q: With the way technology is now though, you don’t necessarily have to be in the same room to make music anymore.
D: We do, actually. Because of the way we put the vocals together with the music, like changing the music to adapt to the vocals and all that, it’s not quite like Rod Stewart singing a cover, you know? We have a synergistic way of working, but you’re right, the technology exists, in a more conventional sense, to be able to make music without ever meeting.
Q: Exactly. There are bands that do that.
Q: So, with Desideratum, what are you desiring?
D: The idea behind it is not really about what we’re desiring; it’s intended (though it may not come across in every case) to make people think a little about the concept of desire. What it actually means to desire something. There’s a lot of complicated things in play, that right now, over a table may not be the most fascinating thing, but there’s certainly things to think about when you’re sitting down by yourself.
What happens when you acquire something that you’ve desired? It’s an act of destruction in many ways. You destroy the state of desire in yourself, and thusly the attractiveness of the object, and a lot of that is built into the inquisitiveness of society. Everything is the shiny new thing that you have to go out and buy. Everything is the new sensation that you have to be a part of. Once you’ve read the story, you’ve got the car, whatever it may be – that is then mundane and you need to renew the desire, or at least society says you have to.
And a lot of societies are about the manipulation of that tendency to desire. It’s also about what is it that you desire, because desire is ephemeral a lot of the time. What do you desire when it’s your last day, on your deathbed? What do you want? One more day? Or the one person who doesn’t show up to say goodbye?
These are quite powerfully emotive things to think about, so it’s almost a memento mori in some way. There’s a lot of other stuff that is reflected in bits and pieces of songs, but the general theme is all about desire. Basically, anything you can think of along those lines I’ve probably blurted out in an interview to someone recently (laughs).
Q: (Laughs). That’s very cool. It seems like for you guys, no subject is off limits, and your body of work really does cover a massive array of subjects, from Hitler’s suicide, to Pagliacci, to Thomas Hobbes, Nostradamus etc. How do you decide what to write about?
D: It’s just stuff that comes into my head. Literally that. Everything can potentially be an inspiration. It’s having a certain attitude to the world and occupying yourself by doing certain things like reading up on obscure crap, and things just poke out to me. I’m always looking at stuff, reading about stuff, thinking about stuff, and certain parts of it lend themselves to Anaal Nathrakh, and that’s it really.
I keep a list, usually just on my phone and anything that either comes to me, or I come across, I just stick on the list and when we come to do a new album I go through the list and see what suits the music that we’re working on.
It’s not so much an intentional activity; I don’t sit down with the express purpose of “Let’s find things for Anaal Nathrakh” (laughs). It’s just stuff I come across organically.
“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.”
Q: You guys never publish your lyrics.
Q: There are groups online that spend a lot of time trying to guess the lyrics for your songs, and interpret the meanings within them – with some of the interpretations varying wildly. Do you watch these groups from afar and find it interesting? Is not publishing your lyrics an intentional way to make people think about your music and concepts more, and inspire them to investigate of their own volition? Or do you not publish them because you just want people to take the songs at emotional face value?
D: Much more the former. I think the world now, especially with the internet at our fingertips, is all about giving you whatever you desire as quickly as possible, and that causes virtually everything to be devalued as a result.
It’s not particularly the most relevant example, but seeing as we’re talking about music: when I was a teenager, before the internet came along and you could get anything, to me, a particular album was an object of massive aspiration. I would have to save up for it, I would have to find a shop that sold it, and do a lot of stuff to obtain it, and once I had it I would value it a lot more.
Whereas now, I could download it, and if I don’t like the first 30 seconds then I can just delete it, or quite often you’ll forget you even downloaded it in the first place. Personally, I tend not to do that, but it’s something that you can do, and it’s the same sort of idea with the stuff that’s in our music. I could give you the lyrics and you might read them and think about it a little bit, but then just move onto the next thing. But if I create the impression that there’s something interesting going on in the song, then if you do get anything from it, it will be something you figured out yourself and it will mean more to you.
Although, when we release an album, it’s not like I want to give everyone homework, because you can just ignore it and listen to the fucking thing. But, if you want to find out more, bits and pieces here and there, that will lead you down a certain path – then I think you’re more likely to reflect on what you find.
Q: Yeah, because you’ve taken a personal journey to find the answers, you’ll connect more with the music.
D: Yeah, hopefully.
Q: I just wanted to talk about the end of Vanitas, your previous album. “A Metaphor For The Dead” was a track that actually showed a lot of melodic death metal influence, certainly more than you’ve ever displayed before, and the ending is a long winding guitar passage that feels hopeful and even, optimistic in tone, much more so than most of your material. It started conversations about what shape the next Anaal Nathrakh album would take, and whether we would get something that’s overall more melodic from your previous work. But, if anything, you’re back to…
(Dave laughs and punches his hand to simulate the force and aggression of their music)
Q: Yeah, exactly (laughs)! Songs like “A Firm Foundation Of Unyielding Despair” really help set the tone. And then, when you look at “Ita Mori“, the final track, it just (mimics a long scream), and then just suddenly cuts off.
(Dave laughs again and simulates an instant cut-off.)
Q: I remember when I first listened to that I thought you might have finally broken my headphones – it didn’t sound like the song was over. Just such a sudden stop – was that a conscious decision – to defy people’s expectations, or is it just the way the songs came out?
D: It was a conscious decision in a slightly different way. “A Metaphor For The Dead” was written for a very specific purpose – namely my Dad died.
Q: I’m sorry to hear that.
D: Thanks. There’s nothing you can do about it, but thanks. He really liked Pagliacci. We had a…complicated relationship, but that was something I got from him and had an appreciation for, so I said to Mick that I wanted to do something around that refrain as a kind of tribute for him. To be honest, I didn’t even know if I could actually sing it until I tried, but I liked the idea of trying, and in the end we managed to pull it off.
The way the music was written to fit with that, so when you say that it’s a bit more melodic it actually comes from the Pagliacci opera, and also with the fadeout with it being about a death I wanted it to end poignantly rather than abruptly, because death is quite abrupt enough as it is – and there are remnants that are left behind after a death, their memories, their experiences, in essence the things that their life comprised of. It’s not so fancy as to be a concept piece about all of that, but the song is generally meant to capture some of the feeling around the phenomenon and experience of losing someone.
So, “going back to normal” (laughs), isn’t so much a reaction to that, if you consider that on its own, but just us carrying on as a band.
Q: Are you guys aware of what your fans say about you online? Do you ever spend time viewing discussions that fans have about potential song meanings or see what they say about you in general?
D: Not really, to be honest. I mean, we’ll see stuff on our social networks and various stuff like that, but we don’t Google ourselves and try and track down every little thing that someone has said about us.
Q: For sure. Well, a lot of fans online generally say that In The Constellation Of The Black Widow is your masterpiece – it’s the album that you’ll never top, or even come close to ever again. As a musician and artist that is still very much creating, how does that make you feel, if anything?
D: Makes me feel like I’ve heard it before. People have said that in the past about The Codex Necro, our first album, and some of those people still say it now.
Q: Yeah, I actually know a few of them…
D: Some people said the same thing about an album we did called Eschaton, and that’s not to say that nobody has said it about the albums in between, they’re just the ones that significantly stand out for a lot of people. Loads of people have said it about Constellation, loads of people said it about Vanitas, our last album, as well. So, no, it doesn’t really come into our heads. We’re intent on doing what we’re doing as well as we can, and anything outside of that is… Journalists might sit back and reflect on a career, but as far as we’re concerned – possibly when we’re finished we might do that – but we’re still doing stuff now, so we’re mainly just thinking about the future rather than reflecting on the past.
Q: You guys are extremely consistent. You crank out albums every 18 months/2 years and they maintain a consistently high quality. How do you keep that momentum going?
D: Possibly because we’ve got the “stuff” to put into it, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t do the album. It’s not like we sit down and say “It’s time to do an album now, what’s the best six ideas I’ve got?”
We’ve got plenty going on inside us, between us that we can draw upon. So eventually, it becomes time to record a new album, if that happens to be 18 months since the last album then so be it. It’s not a calculated thing.
Q: You guys were with Candlelight Records for quite a while…
D: Three albums.
Q: Yeah. Just after Passion, you had written Vanitas pretty quickly and you had to hold onto it for a while…
D: Well, kinda we had to hold onto it because we were working on the production side of it. We’d written and recorded it, but the way we work is that it’s only finished when we stop touching it. With a lot of bands, once you’ve written and recorded it, you’re out of there and other people come in to mix and master it, whereas we like to do everything ourselves. We ended up spending a very long time on the production, but in terms of writing and recording, it did happen pretty quickly after Passion.
Q: Was that part of your reason for joining Metal Blade? Did you have any trouble with Candlelight?
D: No, not at all. The deal had finished and we always like to see what else is out there. They offered us a contract to resign again, but in general we tend to always see what else there is, and Metal Blade seemed a pretty good bet to go with, so we thought “why not?”
Q: How many albums do you have to do with Metal Blade?
D: This one’s for three albums as well, but there are certain break points in a contract that you can take, so we may not end up doing three albums with them, but if we were to, the same terms would apply. Once that’s done, we’ll see what the state of play is then.
Q: Production wise, you guys have gone from Constellation, to Passion, to Vanitas, and now Desideratum, and there’ve been huge shifts in your sound just across those four albums. You’ve removed a lot of the “fog” and static and other parts of your production that made it sound murky and impenetrable, and now your production is enormous, and clean, and heavy as hell. Frankly, it’s just as powerful, but in a completely different way. When you consider just how oppressive and filthy The Codex Necro is, and contrast it with Desideratum, which in comparison is pretty squeaky clean, but still manages to be heavy as hell in a different way – are you tired of that old style?
D: Production is a function of what you want to hear when you’ve finished, and that same thing informs the songs as you write them. The songs are different, the production’s different, they’re just completely different things. Also, the more recent albums sound the way they do because we’ve got better at it over time. It’s a combination of wanting to do something that sounds a little bit more modern, and our experience – we’ve just got better at doing it over time.
Q: With Desideratum, and all of your music, there is some processing on some of the vocals on the album – how difficult is that for you to replicate in a live setting?
D: You tell me after a gig (laughs). To be honest, we don’t use a lot of processing. Some of the stuff has distortion on it because the input trim on the mic distorts a bit when we do it (laughs). To be honest, other than that there isn’t a lot of it – we don’t use autotune, if there’s a harmony it’s because I did it and we layered it into the track. We tend to do things far more organically than you might think.
Q: When you’re playing live do you find harsh vocals or clean vocals harder?
D: They’re both completely different. I don’t really know how I manage to do the things I do – they just come out (laughs). There are specific ranges of harsher vocals that do wipe your voice out a little bit, but no, it’s all just fucking torture (laughs).
Q: (laughs) It really comes across! How much of the new album are we going to see cropping up in your forthcoming setlists?
D: It will depend on how the gig is running, and how many songs we get to play, but you should hear probably at least three new ones.
Q: Is it hard to decide what tracks to push out in order to make room?
D: Yeah, it’s fucking impossible (laughs). We’ve been having to make that decision for quite some time now and it never gets easier.
Q: You guys keep cranking the albums out so you only have yourselves to blame.
D: Well, yeah, exactly! Although it’s not so much that we have a large back catalogue, because there’s songs we’ve never actually played live – it’s also about playing songs that people want to hear. Lots of people ask us “are you gonna play this, are you gonna play that?” and if we just wrote down those suggestions we’d have too many songs for a set just on that, let alone what we actually want to play as a band.
That might sound a bit bigheaded, but that’s not the intention.
Q: No, you’re fine (laughs).
D: (laughs). In general, it’s pretty tough.
Q: Of the new songs, what’s the one you most enjoy?
D: Playing live, it’s probably “Unleash”, the first proper song on the album because of the start of it. At the moment we’re playing it towards the start of the set because of its placement on the album – and the start of it, the way the rhythm works feels really aggressive, and live, that’s what I like – aggressive, powerful songs.
In terms of listening to, I’d have to say the song I enjoy most is probably the penultimate track, the one we did with Kvaforth…
Q: “Rage and Red“.
D: Yeah! Just because it takes me back to when he was doing his recording. We were in a hotel room in Norway at about 5 in the morning. We were all completely shitfaced and…I’ve seen things man (laughs).
D: It was an experience, that’s for sure.
Q: So recording with Kvaforth was a good experience then?
D: Yeah, I mean the guy’s a dick obviously (laughs), but I like him.
Q: He’s your kind of dick.
Q: A while ago on The Monolith we actually gathered together the opinions of our resident Anaal Nathrakh superfans and came up with a “definitive” list of your top ten songs, and for the most part we managed to avoid some of the usual suspects. There’s no “More Of Fire Than Blood”.
D: It’s not in the set tonight either (laughs).
Q: Controversial! Do you guys run your Facebook page?
D: It’s mainly Mick that does stuff with it, I’ll occasionally post something, but not really.
Q: At the time, someone on the Anaal Nathrakh page linked to this article and said “Holy shit, someone actually thought about our music and didn’t include “More Of Fire Than Blood”!
D: Actually, that sounds like something I would have wrote (laughs), so maybe I did see this list.
Q: (Laughs). From 10 to 1 we’ve got: (recounts list while Dave smiles and nods).
D: We’re actually threatening to do “Blood Eagles” live.
Q: Oh yeah?
D: Yeah, we’re not doing it tonight because we haven’t rehearsed it, but there’s been a lot of discussion about putting it into future sets. Oddly enough, it’s the drummer that wants to do it (laughs).
Q: Really?! (laughs).
Q: That song is horrible for a drummer.
D: Yeah! So maybe one day we’ll crack it out on stage.
Q: To be fair, it sounds pretty horrible on your vocals as well – that last passage is a particularly throat shredding scream; doesn’t that hurt?
D: To be honest, I don’t remember doing it (laughs). I can imagine it probably did, it usually does. It’s all about the end result, it doesn’t matter if it hurts.
Q: For sure. In our article, we managed to work out what a number of the songs were about, but one of our Nathrakh historians pointed out that “Satanarchrist” has words from Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy – what the hell is it about?
D: It’s a slightly unusual song. It’s a transformative process that a guy goes through – it’s unusually abstract for us, I tend to write about things that are more tangible in our world, but taking the Agrippa stuff it’s set in a fantastical setting created by just reading the book that those pieces came from. In short, it’s a fantasy.
Q: That’s cool. I really love the riff of that song, it’s like a slow dance.
D: Yeah, almost like a waltz.
Q: Yeah, I wouldn’t mind it as the slow dance for my wedding (laughs).
D: Not sure what your mum would think (laughs).
Q: So, you ‘remade’ “Satanarchrist” on Constellation; are there any older songs that you look back to now and wish you could remake with the production of Desideratum?
D: Not really, to be honest. Because we may as well use similar principles to do something that is completely new. Whether or not we ever will re-record anything, I’m not entirely sure – maybe one day it will seem like a good idea.
Q: So what made you re-record it originally?
D: We wanted to at the time. It seemed like the right thing to do, it rang a lot of bells from the past. Also, it felt like a statement for the time. Quite a number of people had written us off, because obviously we’d already done our finest work ever (laughs), and so were somewhat irritated about the fact that we still had the audacity to make music without just copying the first album over and over again.
Q: Yeah, I know a few people who think that way.
D: Exactly. That’s quite irritating to us as well, to be honest. Just go and press play again if you want to keep listening to the first album. So, we thought we’d remake an old song and show what it sounded like next to the new ones. Not only did it demonstrate that it was quite simple, not as brutal, certainly when compared to the new stuff since, but also completely happy in the company of the new songs – it doesn’t sound like something that shouldn’t have been on the album or didn’t belong. It was just to illustrate that many of the core values are still just what they were. We haven’t changed. We haven’t sold out or turned our backs on our original sound, we’ve just evolved.
Q: For sure. Last question: Musically you guys are the personification of nihilism and negative catharsis through music – what makes you happy?
D: (Long pause). Escapism. I quite like playing video games and watching films, because it gives you something else to focus on and switches your head off. Stopping thinking, that’s what makes me happy, because thinking will always make me miserable (laughs).
Q: Thanks so much for your time Dave, good luck tonight.
D: Thanks, good to talk to you!