Interview: Xaphan of TOMHET
Words/Interview by Jupiter
For over 15 years Tomhet has been forgoing an untouchable style of Atmospheric Black Metal. With 7 full length albums and more than a dozen EPs Xaphan has been the driving force behind it all. Since the first album 'A Dark Serenity' all the way through to his latest release 'Neoteric Emptiness', there has been a clear sound and style to the band. Having a chance now to speak with Xaphan now I’ll start at the beginning. What helped set the tone of Tomhet’s unique sound?
Thank you for the kind words and introduction. That's a great question, I feel like my answer would have changed over the years. In the beginning, I think I was trying to recreate the atmospheres and emotions I was experiencing from my early introductions to black metal and ambient music. Being from Canada, I was naturally influenced heavily by winter and the cold. Musically I was really inspired by the one man bands, such as Burzum, Vinterriket, Xasthur, and Leviathan. As well as horror movie scores and classical music in general. I started Tomhet really young, and it took a number of years to fully grasp and understand what I was doing, especially on a technical level. For the most part I’m self-taught on all my instruments. I simply wanted to make music, and if I got something semi-listenable at the end of recording, I was very happy. The more my skills progress, the better I’m able to recreate what’s going on in my head. My influences eventually spanned out to other genres like industrial/electronic music, specific artists would be Psyclon Nine, Ulver, Unter Null, and Skinny Puppy. Over the years, the themes have changed, often release-to-release, often revisiting old ideas and continuing that experience. Regardless of what a specific release's imagery is based on, I like my music to be emotional, spacious, and dark. It evolved into a bit of an outlet or document of my mental health, at times it’s been very personal. Life has many extremes. Sometimes it’s comfortable and relaxing, and sometimes it can be difficult. It can be challenging to sit through even 5 minutes of it.
From the first full length release “A Dark Serenity” forward, the skeletal framework has been there for what has become an audio score of your life. The influence of the harsh environment that surrounds you is ever present and as you’ve continued to progress you’ve exposed more of yourself in your work. With the vast influences you’ve drawn from, do you have a singular one that has remained consistent over time?
I definitely draw from life experience as a main influence. Whether it's nostalgia, trauma, near death experiences, heartbreak, regret, feeling great, or whatever it may be. It's honestly pretty personal now that I think further about it. On top of that, I've always had difficulties managing my mental health, and once I discovered alcohol, I basically took a dive. I haven't drank in 4 years now, but those memories are still there. That shit made me go to a really terrible place, and I almost lost everything. I have a hard time listening to certain eras of my music, simply because of how much I romanticized with it all. The further I get from it, the more I'm able to focus and appreciate the greater things again, such as nature or the stars. That shit's at least enjoyable to write about.
First thing I would like to say is congratulations on 4 years of sobriety. Realizing that you have a problem is extremely difficult and getting yourself onto a path of recovery takes a lot. It’s a very hard and humbling journey, but you are making your way through it. With your full length albums the way that they are written they do seem like chapters of your life story. Meant to be taken in one chapter at a time in its entirety. When you sit down to start an album do you have your experiences in mind or does it just come out in pieces in the moment?
Thank you, I appreciate it. Life’s hard, but far worse when alcohol is involved in my case. When it comes to writing, ambient music is a lot easier to really capture that mood I’m trying to produce in that moment, especially if it’s loosely focused on emotions tied to certain experiences. It’s not often anymore that I consciously focus on singular experiences while writing. The Caliginous albums were heavily influenced by my active alcoholism and feeling helpless, as well as a failed relationship of 5 years. The second Caliginous album also focuses heavily on a winter car wreck that I experienced in 2012. If I do write a song that ends up being about something personal, it’s always something eating at my subconscious. It doesn’t really become “about something” until it’s in the lyrical or naming process, to me. As an example, if an album takes the course of a year for me to compose and record, that’s an entire year of experiences and possible influences. There’s also the joy of not knowing what you’re going to come up with, sometimes I’ll try writing something pretty, and it ends up scary in the end. I get more accomplished if I don’t force the song in a direction, I like it to speak for itself. That’s probably why most of my songs are considerably long.
That’s really interesting actually. Having the 2013 album titled “Caliginous 2: nothingbutanxiety” seemed appropriate listening through because it felt similar to the 2012 release. Like the second part of the story. Though listening through them I had always thought that the narrative and feel of the albums were reversed. With the second album having a lot more chaotic elements to it and the first being slightly calmer. But now understanding more of what you had gone through, both in life as well as the writing process, I now see it as a story unfolding to a violent end. It’s very fortunate you survived your wreck and were also able to channel all of what you went through into something cathartic. Going back to your sobriety, were there any changes to your ability to write at all?
Thanks man. Yeah, the crash was a really heavy experience and had a lasting impact for some years. The cover photo for Caliginous II was actually taken a few hours earlier before it happened, taken before the sun went down. As for your question, I really want to say no. However, initially I had a very hard time doing anything without booze. I had worked alcohol into every aspect of my life, even my recording and performing routines. I was shitfaced for lots of those recordings. I wasn’t enjoying it at that time, though I thought I was. I think I was documenting as many of my ideas as possible, because deep down I knew if I kept living the way I was that I’d fucking die. I would’ve been dead by now. So yeah, I’m glad I was able to stop. When I first quit, I had a tough time thinking of anything else, so it was very hard being focused enough to write. Now that it’s out of my system, I wouldn’t say writing in itself is easier. Like, I still get stuck on songs for months on end, or end up in a hole of writer's block. However writing is much more rewarding, and more enjoyable. It’s nice to enjoy it again, I really missed it.
I think that writer’s block is bound to come and go with time, especially with you performing everything yourself. You haven’t just stayed within a proverbial musical box either. Beyond the unique black metal sound that you’ve crafted, you’ve also created a completely different style that is best described as “Cosmic Ambient”. Want to talk a bit about how that came about and where you would like to expand that to in the future?
Absolutely. Doing everything yourself it’s easy to get lost in the process or get stuck being overly critical. For my ambient music, I wanted to do something different. It was trial and error to get a sound I liked. I loved how epic black metal ambient stuff like Vinterriket was, and I loved how “heavy” certain industrial artists were (such as Psyclon Nine, Dawn of Ashes, and Unter Null). I wanted something as heavy but at a much slower tempo and in my melodic style. Heavily sustained and distorted notes accompanied by thunderous beats, that’s how simple the recipe is on paper I guess. My initial playing around with these sounds was on the split with Moloch (UKR). That release was more ritualistic sounding, but the idea was there. The first full release of it would come years later on “Of a Dying Star”. I have plans of revisiting this sound and style, it’ll be nice now that I have more knowledge of audio these days and am using better software and hardware. The ultimate goal with composing these kinds of songs is to make the listener feel out of body. An airy feeling of bliss, I guess. Not quite meditative music, however it shares very similar aspects. I also like having a dark or somber tinge to some of these compositions. I still don’t understand why I like getting an emotional response out of my music. Because of how spacious, entrancing, and massive I try making these songs, I can’t help but imagine the stars and universe when writing these. So pairing the cosmos imagery with such just works to me. As well, the possibilities of space are really neat to read about and think about.
Upon first listening to “Of a Dying Star” I get that it genuinely was something very different and special. It has an aura of blissful connection to the universe. It’s an album that I have shared with just about everyone I know regardless of what they typically listen to. The album also shows how diverse you are musically. With every album being a specific chapter of your life as well as additional releases, what does the future hold for Tomhet?
I really appreciate how much you like that release. I plan on revisiting that sound this year. It’s really tough to say what the future holds for Tomhet, though I want to continue it as long as I can. There’s some small goals I have to accomplish, for example I’d like to see all my full lengths on vinyl eventually. As for new music to come, I have a very limited 7” lathe being released soon thanks to the lovely Jems Label. I’m also in the beginning stages of my 8th full length, as well planning out another cosmic ambient release. Right as the pandemic was starting, I had been feeling the urge to revisit an old song of mine that I hate the original mix and performance. So I’m almost done rerecording that from scratch. I’m also going to hopefully be working on/starting up a couple new side projects soon. Because the worlds shut down right now, I have the time to work on Tomhet and other stuff again.
With an 8th album in the works, another venture into the cosmic music realm, and an EP to look forward to, as the story of Xaphan will continue to be told through his music.
The EP 'Resonating Lunacy' will be available roughly midsummer through JemsLabel at jemslabel.bigcartel.com. You can find Tomhet’s discography on Bandcamp at thetruetomhet.bandcamp.com as well as most streaming services.