.:.UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE OF THE REAL.:.
An Interview with Lee Bartow of Annihilvs Power Electronix and Theologian
When it comes to supporters and promoters of the scene, they don’t get any more passionate or dedicated than Lee Bartow of Annihilvs Power Electronix/Apex Armories. Amidst the mad shuffle of being an artist, label owner, and promoter/ organizer of live events and tours, he found time to answer a few questions about his many roles and about the many, many projects that he has on the horizon.
Heathen Harvest: To start with your own work, you’ve just released a new Theologian album—a recreation of a live set. What was it about that particular performance that made you decide to ‘revive’ it?
Lee Bartow: Oh, this wasn’t an effort at revivification. In the past with Navicon Torture Technologies (NTT), I would very often release a CD-R to coincide with an upcoming live performance, featuring a “studio” recording of the set. It was a way to simultaneously document the rehearsal process and to solidify the structure of the performance. This new release was simply a continuation of that tradition, as we work through the growing pains of a new lineup for the project.
HH: How do you think the new album fits into the progression of Theologian’s sound (or is it more of an anomaly)?
LB: I wouldn’t refer to it as a new album per se; it’s really just an exercise, specifically in order to get us working as a unit. The release includes tracks from the last several Theologian releases, most of which were not originally constructed with my current collaborators, so it gives them an opportunity to make their contributions more concrete.
HH: Theologian isn’t your first musical project, but it is quite markedly different from the sound of NTT. Is this a project you see continuing for some time, or can you foresee reinventing yourself again in the not too distant future?
LB: When I began working as Theologian, originally there was a defined difference in execution, for me specifically, while others didn’t seem to think there was much of a difference between the two projects. It was intended initially to remain a solo project, but because I’m very much into doing collaborations, taking on additional people seemed inevitable. Theologian is in a constant state of reinvention, particularly because of the constant drive to collaborate. At any given time, I’ve got projects in the works with any number of artists. At present, we’ve got the H.P. Lovecraft series on Cadabra Records, which sees Theologian doing sound design and scoring for readings of the master’s works. We’re knee-deep in a collaborative LP with Lament Cityscape, which has taken on a life of its own and is resulting in material I never imagined myself actually realizing. We’ll be collaborating with Trepaneringsritualen in the near future, and various remixes and other assorted collaborations are always popping up. NTT had to die for very specific reasons; Theologian is the bloom which has sprung forth from that corpse. I won’t be laying it to rest any time soon.
LB: Dave Brenner of Earsplit PR lives five minutes from me, and after years of knowing him and his wife Liz from “the scene,” and having Earsplit work on various Theologian releases on Crucial Blast, we finally started hanging out locally. As he expressed an interest in working on music, I suggested that he come over and jam with me some time. It just made sense for him to become a regular collaborator from there. He’d been working PR for Cadabra Records, who are doing this Lovecraft series, and upon discussing his work with me with Jonathan Dennison at Cadabra, it turned into an opportunity to work on the next part of the series, which was The Lurking Fear. After Jonathan heard what we’d done, he decided that we would become the label’s official “house band,” and immediately sent us another project to work on, which was the Inferno 7-inch, featuring poems by Clark Ashton Smith. We’ll be doing sound design and scores for the rest of the Lovecraft series as well.
HH: Are you a Lovecraft fan? Do you have any particular works that have inspired you before this?
LB: I’ve been a Lovecraft fan since I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and I regularly listen to audiobooks of his stories. I’ve wanted to do sound design for film, as well as create my own radio dramas, for many, many years, so this is something of a dream come true. As far as particularly inspiring works of Lovecraft go, it’s hard to choose one story in particular out of such a huge body of work, but “At the Mountains of Madness” stands out, especially as it’s inspired so many other things I have enjoyed in my life, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (and the original film, and the short story from which both films originate, Who Goes There?).
Additionally, I am finally, after many years of delays, set to release an album by my friend Jon Ray/Skincage, Unimagined Space, which is inspired by and dedicated to the works of Lovecraft. This will be a co-release with Malignant Records, and will be the first vinyl record Annihilvs has produced.
HH: Regarding the collaboration with Lament Cityscape coming out later this year, what is it about this band that appealed to you as someone you would want to work with?
LB: Again, thanks to Dave Brenner, who works PR for Battleground Records, I was turned onto Lament Cityscape’s album, The Torn, shortly after it came out, and was utterly blown away. I listened to it so much that the people around me got really tired of hearing it. Through Dave, the idea of collaborating (and touring) with them came up along with David Rodgers at Battleground, and once the process began, it came together in a very natural and organic way. Mike McClatchey of Lament Cityscape and I work really well together; it’s been really exciting and such a pleasure. I think I’ll actually be sad when it’s finally completed, but then we’ll be performing this material together, so that’s going to be far more intense than the recording process has been.
[Late breaking news: Theologian will be playing with Lament Cityscape at Southwest Terrorfest V this October.]
HH: What elements of each of your sounds do you find come through in the collaboration? Or is it something that will sound very different from either of the separate projects?
LB: Mike has served as the primary producer for this album, which is a position I usually find myself in, so that’s one salient difference between this and my usual process. We initially sent Mike a bunch of field recordings and other materials that Dave recorded, and Mike created tracks using those elements. I wasn’t directly involved until a few weeks into the recording, but since then it’s become far more collaborative. Daniel Suffering, of Whorid, who is another primary Theologian collaborator and my label partner, has also been working with us on this release.
As of now, we have six or seven tracks that are actually pretty close to being finished. I’d say they sound closer to Lament Cityscape than Theologian simply because it’s Mike who’s doing the bulk of the work, but we’ve talked on several occasions about how it’s turned out to be something very different than what each project represents on our own.
HH: You mentioned that you’ll also be working with some other artists this year. Can you tell us a little about those and what stage each of the projects is at the moment?
LB: Back before Apex Fest VI, Black Horizons and Cloister Recordings wanted to do a split/collaboration with Trepaneringsritualen, but we didn’t have enough time to make that happen in advance of the festival and tour. So, we’re getting back to work on that soon.
Berlin-based label metaphysik is releasing a split between Theologian and Ancient Methods very soon, that’s been in progress for many months now. I believe the test pressings were recently approved, and it’s in production as of this writing.
Cipher Productions is reissuing Nature is Satan’s Church, the 2012 collaboration with The Vomit Arsonist, as a double vinyl, which will include remixes by Four Pi Movement (Greg VanEck from Prometheus Burning), Iszoloscope, and Worms of the Earth.
Also in the works for what seems like a million years is a collaboration with Blue Sabbath Black Cheer. I have lots of work still to do on that. There’s another Malignant Records digital label sampler in progress, and I’m working on a track for that with Rob Kozletski of Shock Frontier. I recently asked Samantha from T.O.M.B. to work with me on a release for her side project Skulsyr, so I guess when they come back from Europe, we’ll make that happen.
HH: How do you go about choosing artists to work with?
LB: That’s a difficult question to answer, and yet so simple. I guess if someone’s work resonates with me in a certain way, I feel like I need to somehow make it a part of what I’m doing, to interpret and mutate it in my own way.
HH: As the head of a label and a promoter/organizer of some major North American tours, you wear a lot of different hats. How do all those commitments affect your personal creative process?
LB: My day job takes the majority of my time at this point, whereas I spent the majority of late 2012 to early 2015 out of work, and dedicated myself solely to music and art. It’s been a difficult transition, but as of fairly recently, I’m doing a decent job of balancing creative commitments. Not living in the same space as my computer and “studio” have certainly curtailed my capabilities, but I do what I can when I can, and overall it’s working. Not as well as it could be—I still find that packing and shipping orders is the single element which falls by the wayside in deference to everything else, but I will continue to do what I can to streamline the process. After close to eighteen years of doing this, I know it’s still nowhere near the way I want things to work, but life has a habit of getting in the way of certain ambitions, and we have to take circumstances as they are and work toward changing them over time.
HH: You’re on the cusp of a major new tour that culminates in an Easter festival. Can you tell us a bit about that and how it came together?
LB: On the heels of the success of the tour with Brighter Death Now, Deutsch Nepal, and Raison D’être, I was contacted by Thomas Bøjden of Die Weisse Rose asking if I could help with something similar. As I’d been wanting to bring :Of the Wand and the Moon: to the States for years, and had tried to make it happen unsuccessfully in 2008/09, I was all too happy to make it work this time. As the two Danes had a new common project, and had previously worked with Blood and Sun, it was fairly clear-cut how the rest of the lineup should look.
HH: As a fan of this music, what are you most looking forward to on the tour?
LB: Honestly, when doing these kinds of things, it’s all a process of stress-stress-stress-stress-stress-stress. Then it happens, and the stress subsides until the next thing. I can’t say I particularly enjoy it exactly. It’s a passion, it’s an avocation, it’s something I have vowed never to do again on many occasions, and then I end up doing it again. What I probably look forward to most about it is reflecting on the fact that it happened at all, and then being glad that it’s over.
HH: There has been a bit of controversy, particularly surrounding the NYC dates of the tour, as there often is with neofolk, from members of a local Antifa group. What is your reaction to their criticisms? Have you had the opportunity to speak to any of these critics personally?
LB: The thing that strikes me as odd about this whole thing is, in the very few posts I’ve seen online about boycotting or resisting or calls to action against the perceived fascism of the artists on this tour, I have been either not mentioned at all, or mentioned only in passing, as though I am some peripheral figure to be half-mentioned. Nobody has contacted me directly about any of it. Looking at the whole thing from my particular perspective, [it] strikes me as one individual’s personal vendetta. The fact that I orchestrated the entire tour, coordinated with all the promoters, collected the funds for the airfare, and am renting and driving the vehicle, which will take them from city to city, has been entirely ignored. The fact that I have a Jewish mother and African-American father seems to me as the most likely reason for this. It would put a rather salient dent in the argument that we’re all a bunch of Nazis hell-bent on spreading a gospel of intolerance across the country. As a child, I bore witness to my father being threatened and insulted because of the color of his skin, and I myself was called a “penny-pinching Jew” by all the black kids in my neighborhood, while the white kids saw fit to call me “zebra” or “half-breed.” The implication that I’d have any interest in supporting anyone’s racist agenda is preposterous. But, particularly in the current age of Internet-armchair warriors, it’s extremely difficult for people to comprehend the nuances of real life. They are uncomfortable with the concept of moral ambiguity; they cannot comprehend that a half-black Jew would count someone like Boyd Rice among his biggest influences, nor do they have the capacity to realize that the world is not interested in hearing of their outrage. Some of the biggest Death in June fans I know are Jewish.
HH: What do you make of the broader accusations that the neofolk and martial industrial genres have a racism problem, or that they are promoting a fascist/totalitarian agenda?
LB: While I don’t deny that there is this element amongst the “scene,” just as it is present in the rest of the world where we live (look at the fucking Trump movement), I also find that the artists and most of the fans with whom I have personally interacted have no interest in promoting any agenda whatsoever, aside from playing some shows, selling some records, and hanging out with their friends. Many of the artists I know who have been accused of being racist, fascist, bigots are nothing of the sort. I find the accusations leveled at these people to be ludicrous at their base, and inflammatory. The fact that those who purport to be acting in the best interests of those whose values they claim to defend turn around and act with violence against random individuals is indefensible. Using totalitarian methodologies to get your point across does nothing other than illustrate your hypocrisy. Demanding the extermination of ideals which run counter to your own and employing violence to express those demands is, by definition, the action of a fascist ideology. If you want to fight fascism, breaking the faces of people standing in line to get into a concert is a far more cowardly method than demonstrating at a Trump rally.
HH: Of all the work you’ve done in the music scene, what is it that’s made you the proudest?
LB: My longevity. I’ve seen so many labels, publications, promoters, venues, artists, fans, and stores fall away over the years. I’ve been part of the “scene” in New York since the early 1990s, and while I may not have experienced the same level of so-called “success” and public adoration that people half my age seem to be enjoying in recent years, I’m satisfied that I’ve done what I’ve done for all the right reasons. Thank you.