Interview: Scott "Malefic" Conner of XASTHUR
Words/Interview by Kelly Tee
Xasthur is a name that is well known and respected within the Black Metal community, and regardless of his change of musical direction or should I call it, revisiting his musical roots – there is no denying this man is an inspiration to many aspiring and established musicians. I had the pleasure of speaking with Scott, the man behind the Xasthur brand, to discuss his bluegrass music, live shows & his transition from a black metal one-man band, to the band Xasthur is today.
Hi Scott, thank you so much for talking to me. As a huge fan of all of your work and given your varied musical journey, I want to go back to the start – where you were first playing in several death metal bands, before forming Xasthur in 1995. What was the pinnacle point for you where your passion became black metal – and who were your biggest influencers which helped shape your creations at that time?
I think it was Thergothon that made me start hearing sounds and ideas in my head years ago. It was something else that got me into it.
How have you benefited from the dynamic of having a line-up for Xasthur.
I've had a line up of people and musicians that has changed occasionally over the last 9 years. It helps a lot to have that. I prefer and enjoy playing with others, following them and having them follow me, I hear what I'm doing better that way and keep up with the songs being played. With metal, I can't tell one person's distortion from my own and vice versa. At this time, I have Chris doing vocals, bass, and guitar, Joe doing 12 and 6 string guitar and myself (Scott) 12 and 6 string guitar, keyboard/piano, music, and lyrics. I imagine some musicians will come and go as well.
During your time as an extreme metal musician you worked with many artists collaborating on splits and doing live shows with Projects such as Sunn O and now with your new bluegrass band Xasthur – given your seemingly reclusive nature – how do you find playing live? Or does this have pros and cons for you and if so why?
I enjoy playing live. I want this band to actually and finally give something back to me and others involved for a change, that there is a reason to do it. After years of "making black metal at home", I realized that's not enough, it seems anyone can do that with an app these days, it has been time for a while to continue playing live, letting you know how it's being done, that people are making this, not software. Playing live is an opportunity to explain what you're doing in your songs, why, and what you're singing about when given the chance and learn about the people and their perspectives. Plus, traveling is all I do anyway and what I'm used to, on account of Xasthur or just because I live that way.
You decided to change your project direction in 2010 ending your black metal artistic journey and reinventing Xasthur as bluegrass and acoustic neo-folk band in 2015. Have you always had a love for this style of music and at any point do you miss creating black metal?
Well, I never stopped and then continued again, I kept on going past 2010. I started playing acoustic and fingerpicking and started getting some results from it before I even knew what black metal was like over 30 years ago but picked it up again and started getting results quicker than I got any results with metal. It was similar to starting all over again but with a head start.
To offer a metaphor that may be suitable for metal readers, if you find out that you can make some pretty intricate and thorough funeral doom like a Mournful Congregation, why would you keep on playing Deathcrush? I miss the recording equipment and instruments I used to use for black metal, but that's about it. If I had it to do all over again, I would've, could've done something more or better with it, without the tunnel vision.
You have now taken Xasthur to another level with an array of live shows. What were your reasons behind keeping your black metal creations only for recordings?
It was just easier to do it myself. It was too hard and I was too discouraged to get a band of people together. When you have the intention of playing live, you better remember those god damn songs and keep on practicing them.
What are you enjoying most about playing Xasthur bluegrass music live?
If one wishes to say something in and with music, and if they want to make something more obscure or original, or even more technical, they would need to realize that ain't gonna happen when sticking to black metal guidelines. But I enjoy using at least 13 frets, I like having three picks on my hand rather than one, I like using all 12 strings rather than 3 or 4 tops.
The portrayal of you in One Man Black Metal seemed to silo you as a person who didn't enjoy the interaction with others and who did nothing but create music (which isn't a criticism), however now your new music is seeing you take to the road constantly, you are actively interacting on social media and engaging at your live gigs too. Were you completely misunderstood as a black metal musician and do you think on a whole DSBM artist often are given this unapproachable aesthetic due to their music?
Well, it's not necessarily looking at, it's looking back and realizing some changes needed to be made. Part of changing music and changing yourself goes hand in hand. The black metal wasn't made to be played live and it wasn't made to be understood. I got sick of that. I wanted to do more and work harder, to play live. I also wanted to write something more blunt or blatant to be understood. Black metal was easy and its accepted, that's why so many people do it. I want to do more, not less. When you have something to say, when you have more to say and play than you ever have before because a new way of making music and writing is coming out of you, then you want to talk about it, be more interactive with the people, you want to explain it, have it relate, on the road, online. The documentary- I was very sick of trying to find answers for black metal and trying to portray it or whatever was expected of me, I was about at the end of it. And since, I have reprogrammed myself. I sort of created music back then, that's all I do and all I give a fuck about now, but I don't want to be just another black metal band that's barely any different than the next, there are already millions of those. If it truly was underground, like it was supposed to be, maybe there would be something left to do with it, but it's not. The way I see it, at least to play devil's advocate, Arizmenda has taken it as far as it can go where many others haven't and won't take it, so what's the use? Sometimes a person takes a look at themselves, as a person and musically as well, and then wants to change and do something about it.
How is your writing process with your bluegrass project different from that of writing your black metal? Did you go through certain phases and processing for each and how are they varied from each other to give you the music you produce today?
I unlearned as much metal as I could, that was like hitting a 2 chord wall or a rut that myself and I think most black metal people can't snap out of. For example, it's so common to start any riff off with an open E or D, so common to 'tremolo pick', I wanted to break those habits.
I learned and relearned many new and old songs and chords I had forgotten all about, then I made my chords, picking style and some tunings based on bluegrass picking, folk (not neo) and blues, and more recently, changed, darkened it all.
Is there any resemblance in your writing with your bluegrass music to that of your dark black metal? Has your black metal helped you create what you create today in any way?
I would say somewhat. The similar black metal tricks I used to have are not something I go to first, but they're there. Those tricks have new things in between, around, before, or after, and are less deliberate. I search for a style, technique, and sound I either haven't heard or haven't heard much, no matter what music. When I was doing black metal, I wasn't learning anything from other musicians past or present.
Originally when you started your bluegrass project it was called Nocturnal Poisoning, and you later changed your name back to Xasthur – given that you Xasthur is so heavily tied to black metal, what was your reasoning for changing your name back to Xasthur and not keeping complete separation from the familiarity of this project name?
No one could figure out who was doing nocturnal poisoning, leaving a hint wasn't enough. Xasthur is more of a household name.
Your music is predominately bluegrass however there are long drawn out chords of doom and obscure darkness amidst your sound too – has this underlying darkness to your current music helped you maintain your black metal fan base? Have they remained loyal to you as a musician and do you receive positive feedback from these fans regarding your latest work?
Somewhat, I think black metal fans are truly looking for something different, they should be. They want to be open-minded, I've noticed this, especially in real life while playing shows and touring, I see it, but they end up looking for things that are black metal related or has ties to it for something new. I don't think they're going to find it, I'm not. For example, I would rather hear a black metal band playing jazz, their way, rather than covering it up and playing it safe with the metal in it and attached to it, or covering it up. That would be something new or different. The feedback is a mixture of bad, good, and indifference. I would say an even amount of all three. I'm used to the non-black metal grave I dug for myself, so I'll keep on laying in it.
What were your main reasons for moving away from black metal? And what was your main goal of achievement with your move to blue/doom grass neo-folk sounds? And are these being achieved for you and how?
I don't think that kind of music gave me or anyone else anything to believe in. Yeah, I know it sucks that I'm saying that in a metal magazine but to readers as well. I don't think it's original and no matter what I did, I felt like what I was doing just sounded like another black metal band and said nothing and it had no message while playing or 'creating' within that template or 'scene'. When I came to the end of trying to continue making something that resembled black metal, I realized that you can throw a trumpet in or on top of black metal and it's still gonna be black metal, definitely underneath it all or even at the surface. I figured the only way to do something different, for real, was by not doing black metal. Today, I'm hoping that I'm doing something more transparent and explicit than metal. But I don't understand the 'neo' with folk, I think of the word Neolithic.
Has playing live more frequently helped you grow as a musician and if so how?
It just forced me to be more of an on the spot type of musician, to bring it and deliver it on the spot. It gave me something else to work for and work towards. Like throwing yourself into a pool and telling yourself "you better learn how to swim now!". I think not playing live and/or with others for years was a setback as a 'musician'. Having nowhere to live and nowhere to record has helped that in a lot of ways but has also made things harder.
Your later music while acoustic and on the surface might seem polar opposite to black metal – there are drawn out doomful chords and lyrics that feel as if you are speaking to the listener, a story so to speak. What are the general themes to your songs and how you deliver these vocals, sometimes feels like a conversation – is this deliberate and why?
A lot of questions are being asked, that could be why. Questions no one is asking, and no one's asking themselves either. I know I'm talking directly to someone, or anyone, in the songs. It's how I write, it's how I think, it's how I talk, it's what I see, it's what they see too, but its probably easier to think about nothing, not look at people or yourself, that's why most people are like "whatever" because it's not the same music without any explanation they're used to. Either that or everyone has a nice life and doesn't know what the fuck I'm talking about. But yes, you are right, it's like a conversation, confrontational, observational I've been told. Confronting ourselves and others.
Your last release in 2016, Subject To Change was a really peaceful, interesting and often catching listen – how successful was this album for you and given that your last release was 4 years ago and 2020 going to be the year for another Xasthur release?
It wasn't too successful. I couldn't and wouldn't pay the media or for a 'PR campaign' to endorse it, like it or make it visible. People can have a mind of their own though when a new one called "Victims of the Times" which comes out sometime this year in 2020, unless COVID-19 and the aftermath of protests and riots postpone it until next year, or forever. I have stepped it up on this album, that is fact and not an opinion. It's probably too technical and not socially acceptable enough to be one of those "excuse to tour" types of records that I've been hearing a lot lately. It's fine with me that 'subject to change' is either forgotten or not known in the first place, I like the songs but was not too satisfied with the tempos of it all. I guess the victims of the times record will be dark and depressing, for acoustic music or not. Well, that's what ya'll want and I'm sure there'll be a lot of complaining when that's what you get. On the other hand, I understand if this album, this band plus music in general is something people don't want to think about or deal with at this time.
Scott this has been an absolute pleasure and honour as a big fan of your work both in black metal and what you are doing with your music today. If there is any additional information you would like to leave the reader about tours, merch etc, please go for it.
Thank you, Kelly, for the interview, and good questions. I don't really get interviews much anymore. At this time, there's no hope of touring or merch, but there is a new Xasthur record coming this year like I was saying.