.:.WHEN WE WERE DEATH.:.
An Interview with Mat McNerney of Hexvessel and Grave Pleasures
I’ve known Mat McNerney for about five years, and we’ve collaborated on a record (Sabbath Assembly’s Quaternity). Hexvessel and Sabbath Assembly also toured together back in 2013. I first met Mat at the Roadburn festival when Sabbath Assembly played there in 2011. He came over to our merch table and gave us a copy of the first Hexvessel album, Dawnbearer. We listened to it in the van for the next couple of weeks on the road, and I just kept thinking, “Who is this guy?” The record was an occult overload, as if he was packing every mystical tradition on the globe into every song; his sense of melody and instrumental prowess was evident, but something seemed a bit overbearing about the whole experience. When No Holier Temple came out, I knew that Mat had struck gold because that album sang with a sharp focus and sincerity I rarely encounter in any contemporary music. The songs were gorgeous, his voice enchanting, and the album felt strangely “complete”—almost perfect. So it is with great eagerness that I have been waiting for this third album, When We Were Death, to drop.
Heathen Harvest: The last time we hung out was on our tour together back in 2012, and a lot has happened in your career since then. I thought we could start there, then jump ahead.
I have always had an uneasy relationship with touring, and at that time we were touring “Ye Are Gods,” which is basically a church record. I was very enthusiastic about “No Holier Temple” because I also thought of it as a kind of sacred record. I guess my expectation was that our tour would not be as “rock ‘n’ roll” as it turned out to be. Of course, after the first gig together, we all ended up naked and drunk in a sauna, so that basically set the tone for the next couple of weeks. At one point, however, I felt disappointed about the late-night craziness, and I found myself railing against it, trying to maintain some concept of a lifestyle that was more “sacred,” whatever that means: yoga, meditation, abstinence. But that approach runs so counter to the touring lifestyle as we think of it according to our common metal ancestry. I remember having a breakdown about it at one point, and you and I had a disagreement about some tour responsibility stuff; I just felt so disappointed that the tour didn’t have a different tone. I remember the next night—the last of the tour—you went onstage and dedicated your set to the intention of the album, speaking about the Finnish forest charity, refocusing things away from the debauchery. Those couple of weeks seem to have brought about a reset moment for both of us.
What is your memory of these events?
MM: That tour was an interesting period for me because the band was fairly new, so I had to really carry the soul and inspiration of the band on my own. Marja (Konttinen) had been sharing a big part of that with me, and she couldn’t join on the tour. We were starting to basically separate the way she worked in the band, with her not necessarily being part of the live lineup anymore. It was a change for me, with her not being there to kind of anchor both of us to the reasons why I was doing this thing. I was really unsure how to approach the live thing with a band that were in it for different reasons. It’s taken me a long time since that tour for us all to get to know each other and share our common goals.
I think our disagreement and joint disillusion came at a good time because it shook me out of my complacency and allowed me to really consider what I was doing and why. Hexvessel has been my reaction to music and the music ‘business’ I had been part of as a kid. I didn’t want a ‘band’ in the metal sense; I wanted a family and to share a spiritual journey. It’s called Hexvessel because it’s a vehicle, a spiritual vessel on a journey of discovery and search for spiritual meaning. It wasn’t ever really meant to be my solo project or anything like that. It was intended more as a shared experience. I think that I held on to what I could on that tour—what I knew from my experiences to keep me grounded. For example, those metal mantras about the code of ethics around loading equipment, etc., and I guess in trying to find something wrong in the other band and blaming others, I was avoiding confronting my own issues surrounding my conduct and the band. I started Hexvessel as a way to escape a situation in ‘metal’ music that was basically bringing me down: the same old tours, the same nights of drinking over and over, basically using this Satanic context of rock ‘n’ roll—the Lemmy doctrine, if you will—to treat yourself and others like shit. It always somehow feels liberating in that you escape yourself, but you don’t escape or rebel against the world in the way you think you are.
I often discuss it these days when people ask me if I am inspired by drugs with Hexvessel, and I say that if an astronaut went to space and started getting obsessed with and addicted to his spaceship, then we’d consider him insane. You don’t go to space to explore your spaceship, you go there to explore the unknown regions of space, and the ship is simply a vehicle; so that’s the same with drugs. I think people get a bit lost with this touring lifestyle, and it’s easy to use the ‘rules’ or this kind of touring mindset as a crutch that helps you avoid really thinking about what it is you’ve set out to achieve. So yes, to cut a long story short, I think we both had a good awakening and agreed afterwards that we had both maybe wanted something different. The tour ended well for both of us, I think. When we got to the Roadburn festival, and the spirit of the festival and the people really brought a nice closure to the tour, it felt like we were finally in a place mentally and physically where the more spiritual aspect of the ‘tour’ could come into its own. I think when we met in New York (prior to the tour) we were very much of the same mindset, but for me it’s taken a long time to really understand myself as a touring musician and know how to still find some aspect of the other or the spiritual within it.
With the band, we now know each other so well—and have discussed these aspects a lot more—that we’re closer to finding that place where we can elevate the live experience and our intentions around it so that the drinking and partying don’t become the be-all and end-all. Everyone has to have a right to escape a bit and let off some steam; let’s not forget that it is very demanding work, the hardest job, and the most fun job in many aspects, but it needs to be something more for me. You have to work at it. We built rituals around it. We have a group powwow before we go onstage where we each take turns reading or reciting an inspiring quote. We use magic stones and chant, hug, get close, use incense backstage, and always ask for a stereo on our rider so we have a music system to play inspirational music before we go on to get into the right state of mind, kind of like a backstage intro. There’s lots of things you can do which elevate the experience so that you have memories of more things and share in more things with your brothers and sisters than beer, more beer, and a few more beers.
HH: After the Beastmilk album, I was pretty upset with you (just being honest). You were doing that total rock-‘n’-roll experience, and I was working on “Quaternity,” which is a super weird and inaccessible album. I wondered, “Is what Mat is doing ‘spiritual’ or ‘occult’?”. What does it mean to be an “occult” band, or spiritual, religious, mystical, or esoteric for that matter? Is it in the lyrics, the chords, the mood, the image?
MM: For me, the music, the experience of it, and the idea of elevating your talents, exploring them, defining them, and honing them is ‘occult’. It’s the same as practicing magic as part of your greater work, and I don’t mean that to brush it off, or to pass something off as something else, but I think we might have become a bit preoccupied with the salad dressing rather than looking into the salad, if you catch my drift. (laughs) I got very tired of cloaks, masks, and incense on stage and people calling their shows ‘rituals’ for a while because I felt that it had become meaningless to people, but now I have a slightly different take on it. Since the Paris attacks, I have been thinking hard about what is spiritual in music, and somehow there’s this kind of accepted opinion that we’re more morally corrupt in the West and that we go to rock concerts and here come these very spiritual people to attack us based on our debauchery, as if there is nothing sacred about a rock concert.
I have been reading about a Pythagorean theory that states the harmony in music is the harmony of the universe; you probably have it in the types of weird Christianity you are into, right? Music is like this other form of heaven. My altar at home is my record player, music, candles, and incense. I don’t need drugs to get high, and I don’t need to kneel to pray or get a connection with my version of God. It’s always been music for me, and when you talk to a devout religious person about their faith, I think they will eventually start to describe things that real music freaks can identify with—the epiphany and the enlightenment. It’s all there in the feeling at the core of all deep music; it is transcendental. The keys to those doors don’t have the same shapes and are not of the same metals. If you start to get really into connections with music, you will ultimately want to explore those more. What we did with Beastmilk was give a very nihilistic principle a very digestible and catchy spin. I had read and been reading a lot of (Slavoj) Žižek and this book by Eugene Thacker called The Dust of This Planet, and I felt that nihilism and our darkness need to be celebrated and not feared; it should be part of what makes us great. It came from that. I am proud of what we did with Beastmilk, and I don’t think I have ever tried to present myself as a one-band artist. Some people want it that way. I’d like to be more of a contradiction. I liked the early Norwegian black metal scene in that way; those artists were often moving like sharks in all directions.
HH: I have always thought of Dawnbearer as the most “esoteric” album of your three full-lengths, but now I hear it as simply a bit less focused, considering the direction the band has gone. Perhaps there’s a few too many ingredients in the soup. Now I hear on When We Are Death a kind of stripped-down clarity. How do you describe the progression of the records musically and lyrically?
MM: Well, I think you said it! I hear it that way too, but those unfocused elements are still on my hard-drive on the musical cutting board. I had a lot of material for this album—maybe two hours of music—and I just wanted to cut it down and put out the most Hexvessel album I could. I wanted the album to be a perfect representation of what I always intended the band to be about, for the music to sound like, and the influences behind it. There was originally a lot of the dissonant stuff for the intros and the more whimsical, weird moments of the band that we simply left off the record. I wanted a pure experience, and as an artist, I am constantly striving to be as honest as I can because I think that’s the most challenging thing you can do. Everyone can hide, obfuscate, and put a cloak on it, but I want to try to be as empowered as I can. I think honesty and simplicity in music are the most powerful elements, and they can produce the most powerful connections. I spent so long creating complex and convoluted music. I feel that repeating that cheapens the music of the present and the stuff I make after it. You have to find the journey you’re on as an artist, if you even consider that it is art that you are creating.
The first album was about a spiritual awakening, so the lyrics reflected a lot of that and the huge amount of books I had started to read again on the occult and magic. I was on fire again with a sense of beauty in the universe, after smashing away any form of happiness for years with black metal and nihilism, which was good for me because I think Catholicism had poisoned my mind. It wasn’t the right fit for a person like me, and it did a trip on my brain. I am still tormented by what Irish Catholics call ‘Catholic guilt’! So, Dawnbearer is erratic as a result; the focus is about being unfocused, yet being inspired.
The second record was where I found my religion and my church—the nature mysticism where I landed—and it was cemented by my life in Finland and my surroundings. That was the beginning, I think, of discovering my path. It’s still a whimsical record, but it was always the record I was most proud of (even more than the Beastmilk one) until the new album came along. Now I think that, just as the understanding of the occult informs the way I approach music, nature mysticism informs my song lyrics without them necessarily needing to be about trees, the forest, etc. The song ‘Cosmic Truth’ is a love song, but it’s about the realization of the meaning of true love through a deep connection to nature, what it means to be a human, and the best part of our nature. I think it’s about happiness too. As you become enlightened and you focus into your enlightenment and hone it, then I think your happiness grows. You know how to be more content, and I think that should be something people can be honest about in a song.
HH: In the lyrics of “Cosmic Truth,” what’s the spaceship that exploded? Are you referring to something specific? What “cosmic truth” did you learn from it?
MM: Yeah it’s a story about when we went over to see the last shuttle launch of all time in Florida with Marja, and we stood and watched as it took off. It didn’t explode, but you know the feeling was that we had this very profoundly mind-blowing experience, and as we stood there in tears, I had this sense of real admiration for human kind in a way I never had before. These few people sitting on top of hundreds of tons of rocket fuel propelling themselves into the atmosphere; such vulnerable fleshy beings sitting on top of an explosion basically in the name of all that is good. I was so inspired about what we are: our science, our minds, and what we are capable of right there is our frontier, and they were pushing out into it. I was so happy to be one of us in that moment. I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we celebrated that and not imaginary gods or myths?’, and these are miracles that are worthy of the name! I learned that there are these constants that will never die; that the spirit that is within us is god and it is love, and it’s all the universe—that we never leave the universe, and that we have this essential role. I learned optimism again, which I had completely and utterly lost. And if you love the environment and nature more than human beings, you can fall into a very dangerous way of thinking where I had been for a long time. It was a good epiphany for me, and one that warranted a song about it.
Years ago, I might have just hidden it in metaphor or written about something completely different, and what I thought was ‘cool’ rather than what is absolutely universally cool instead!
HH: Speaking of metaphor, what does death symbolize in the songs? First off, in the album title, and then in the song “Hunter’s Prayer” in particular: “And when I am death I give you life. And when I am death I am yours and you are mine.”
MM: It’s in the Tibetan sense, or like the Hagakure where you become death and are one with it. There was this Prisoner episode called ‘The Girl Who Was Death’, and then a Devil Doll album of the same name. I have always been inspired by that show and Devil Doll titles. (laughs) I wanted a concept that knitted together the ideas the songs were discussing about being one with nature or about knowing your place in the cycle of life and death. As I mentioned, I was reading Pythagoras and this idea about the music of the cosmos, and I felt that these things came together as the idea that when you are, in the Tibetan sense, rid of the shackles of this world, then you are one with the universe. I wanted to use this morbid name to bring a positive message. It’s what I am all about these days, through death to love, from darkness to light.
HH: In the song “Mirror Boy,” you ask, “Did the weight of that knowledge break your heart?”. When I read this line, it did actually break my heart, somehow intuitively. Without actually knowing what the knowledge is, I filled in the blank. But the song did leave me wondering what the knowledge was. Based on our conversation now, I assume it has something to do with the joy and sadness of recognizing our own mortality. Am I on the right track?
MM: Yes, you are, but “Mirror Boy” was a real boy in Liminka where my wife grew up, and he used to use a mirror to find things for people or help them with their problems. I saw this picture of him as an old man, dead, with pennies on his eyes and a small group of relatives around him, a humble and poor ending for a man who was, even as an old man, called Mirror Boy. I thought the whole story of him was profoundly sad and touching, that he sat all day and was visited by people from miles around. Of course, it was never nice things they wanted out of him—it was always death, money, grief, pain, or strife. What a burden, to be this guy—to have to help—and he died poor and unknown. It’s a folk tale, I suppose, for a person that never had a song to be sung about him.
HH: I want to compliment a fine image in one song, “Earth Over Us”: “All flesh will turn to hay / won’t you lay the earth over us?” What exactly are you representing here?
MM: It was a line by Marja; she wrote the lyric with me, and the idea of people just being fertilizer. We’re just part of the Earth to the next wave of people. As Captain Beefheart said, ‘The stars are matter, we are matter, but it doesn’t matter.’ The idea is that we belong to the Earth; the Earth doesn’t belong to us.
HH: Okay Mat, thank you. That is an excellent introduction of the new record for us. We appreciate you sharing all of this.
MM: Thank you. Peace and love.