.:.I AM THE HONOUR.:.
An Interview with Arjan Peeks of Cultus and Heidens Hart Records
by Jonathan R.
Without a doubt, Arjan Peeks—mastermind and musician behind the project Cultus—is one of the more (in)famous people when it comes to underground black metal in the Netherlands. Not only is he composing music and playing instruments in various bands, most famously in the German heathen horde Heimdalls Wacht and the Russian avant-garde black metal group Blackdeath, but he is also well-known for working as a sound engineer and for running his own label, Heidens Hart. With Cultus, he surprisingly decided to release a reworked, rearranged, and reproduced version of his first album, A Seat in Valhalla, which is now available under the name of Gezeteld in Zegeruïnen. Since the new album proved to be rather strong, we got together with Peeks and talked with him about his reworking of the debut, his decision to run a label, and the current status of the black metal scene.
Heathen Harvest: Hello Arjan, and many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions for Heathen Harvest. Let us start with the most obvious question. The last Cultus material was released in the form of a split in 2008. After that, it was quiet around your solo project. What was the reason for this long quiet episode?
Arjan Peeks: Hi Jonathan. Thank you for your interest and invitation. Much appreciated.
The reason for the silence was that I didn’t put priority in finishing new Cultus material. I did write enough material for the new album and already recorded demos for it, so it was never ‘on ice’, so to say—just a ‘work in progress’. Nothing new was going on to inform people about. But since 2007, some time has passed. I started writing right after the songs for the split LP were finished, and now there’s enough material for the next album. However, I’m just taking my time to work everything out. During these years, I chose to prioritize my other bands, the label, recording and mixing other bands, my regular job, travelling, reading, etc. I felt that I could express myself enough with those activities, so that was the reason for the long quiet time.
But as everything happens and changes, the time came once again that I wanted to put attention into my own creation. This started with the re-recording of old songs as well as playing live again for the first time in almost a decade, this time with a completely new lineup.
HH: Your new release, Gezeteld in Zegeruïnen, does not consist of new material but is much more a reworking of your first album, A Seat in Valhalla. How did it come to this? How did your interest in your first album spark again?
AP: I was just fed up with hearing that annoying drum machine and the unsatisfying overall sound. And during all those years, I ‘added’ melodies in my head. It wasn’t like my interest was sparked again. I have always liked the songs but couldn’t listen to them anymore; I thought they were incomplete ideas, rough and unfinished, recorded under sub-optimal conditions, and I just thought they deserved to be re-recorded, sounding in a way where it would be bearable for myself to listen to it, and with the new elements added.
HH: At least two things about Gezeteld in Zegeruïnen are interesting. First of all, you decided to rename the album. Was that simply to show the listeners that it is not the same release as your first album? Or is there also a new message/new lyrics to be found on this reworking? And since I am having trouble translating the new title exactly, what does it mean and what does it refer to?
AP: Originally, the songs were written in both Dutch and English, but for the new version, I translated them all to Dutch and also partially rewrote the lyrics, so the album title also had to go. The new title is a kind of poetic translation of ‘Seated Among Victory Ruins‘, being Walhalla, of course, as written in the Völuspá. And the second reason for the different title was so that people would understand it’s not a 1:1 rerecording of the same. I think we can all agree the re-recordings of, for example, Stormblast and Under the Sign of Hell are useless. Of course, those re-recordings were done because of contractual reasons, but in my case there is a clear creative difference between the different versions that should be pretty obvious.
HH: You decided to really work with your old material. I even used the pathetic word ‘deconstruction’ for Gezeteld in Zegeruïnen because it does sound pretty different from your first album. Why was it important for you to not just re-record and remaster the old album, but make something new out of it?
AP: Yes, that’s it exactly. The old album was a collection of several recording sessions with differences in sound, language, etc. As described earlier, I wanted to create a consistent new album that lifted the songs to a whole different level: from an amateurish, unfinished, uncohesive collection of drum machine demo stuff to a proper album, written and recorded as a whole and in the circumstances I wanted to. So, you could say it’s deconstructed and even stripped of everything I no longer liked about the songs, but then on this foundation the new ‘versions’ were written.
The same goes for the artwork. A couple of elements of the first versions where used (see if you can discover them on the cover) and new parts were added. Unfortunately, however, this cover (which was assembled with elements from five different paintings) cannot be used for the LP edition as it’s technically too low quality; it will look very bad when enlarged. So, for the LP, a duplication from the entire front cover is being painted by the talented Polar Maya (Blackdeath) in five times bigger size. The picture will not be different though.
HH: I am far from being an artist, but when I read old articles and works of myself, I often find it difficult to re-read and work with them because I have the feeling (or at least the hope) that I have evolved and become better, so I am always a bit ashamed of my early work. How is that in your case? What feelings do your old songs evoke? How easy was it for you to go back to your old compositions?
AP: But a writer is also an artist. So, yes, you can compare that completely in my opinion. In this case, the songs have evolved in my head with the added melodies, different song structures, different sound and lyrics, etc., so that plus the not-so-optimal sound and production of the original versions was the reason for recording everything again. For myself, like Mortiis, for example, there is a clear ‘first era’ (everything up to 2006-2007) and a ‘second era’, starting with the split LP and now the Gezeteld… album. Even though it’s old material from the first era, I consider this to be part of the new era because of how it’s written and recorded in this new version. The split LP from 2008 I still fully relate to at this point in time; we also play some songs from that split live. But I think it’s only natural for those going through a personal creative process to develop a distance between themselves and their creations, as they are growing further. Darwin and Sartre also renounced their writings; this is not something for amateurs, in fact it’s very common. I wouldn’t feel ashamed if I would feel ashamed of my early works.
HH: In the black metal scene, re-recordings of old compositions are often seen as problematic (as f,or example, the reviews of Gorgoroth’s Under the Sign of Hell or also the more or less useless re-mastered versions of early Satyricon albums show). What is your general opinion on bands trying to ‘improve’ their old works? And do you think that some Cultus fans may also not be too happy with your new version of ‘A Seat in Valhalla’?
AP: Yes, in the case of Gorgoroth, Dimmu Borgir, and Cradle of Filth, for example, I’m pretty sure those were done because of contractual reasons. When working with big record labels, bands are bound to a contract to deliver an X number of albums so they may decide to re-record older material in order to fulfill the contract—or in other cases where the band and label want to repress an older release but the band’s previous record label hold copyrights. The only way to avoid such bureaucratic ways is to re-record the albums. In both cases the albums are not re-recorded for creative purposes, although the bands will of course claim otherwise. And in the case of remastering, it’s usually a matter of trying to make old records sound more modern. Unfortunately, that means digital remastering by amateurs who only crank up the loudness of the albums and remove its dynamics. The Emperor and Satyricon remastered albums are useless if you own the original versions, but they sound just as loud on your mp3 player as your Linkin Park and other top-40 music, and that’s what those bands want.
Perhaps in my case you can say I didn’t rewrite and re-record it to improve the songs, but to finish them. If there are people who prefer the original, there is nothing for me to do about it, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. I don’t want to determine what people should listen to, and if they prefer the old version, over 3500 copies on CD and cassette of that one were spread (not including various promo releases), so it shouldn’t be so hard to find a copy. But I know what CD has been on heavy rotation in my car for the last couple of months…
HH: Lyrically, Cultus may be situated in the context of Paganism and Heathenism. While this spiritual belief was once a rather serious topic for neofolk and black metal, these topics are now pretty overused by hundreds of power metal bands calling themselves pagan or folk. Do you think this has made it difficult for an ‘authentic’ pagan metal band to be taken seriously? Or how do view the impact of these bands on the whole scene?
AP: Oh you mean bands like Amon Amarth? I don’t know. I’ve never heard that music, and I don’t care about mainstream ‘metal’ music.
When it comes to being taken seriously, you might have a point. Though sometimes easily forgotten, there are still some individuals and even bands in this scene who are serious about their creations (I don’t like to use the word ‘art’ as the term is conformist and existentialist), so when they are not taken seriously, it is mostly superficial or ignorant behaviour from the crowd. This is not a crowd that I personally want to appeal to (or take serious, for that matter), so personally, I don’t care.
What can I say” I’m a musician and I appreciate it very much if people like my stuff. But I don’t want to address a big crowd trying to actively find people to like my stuff. I don’t like advertisement. I don’t think I have ever paid for an ad in a magazine, to present my albums as if they are products in a supermarket. I don’t like to address a big crowd of unknown people with catchy slogans. I am serious about my music and the people I work with, and I’m just too old-fashioned and gullible, even naive, to expect people to find me instead of me them. That’s not a good quality to have for a ‘label manager’ from a commercial point of view, I guess. All the while, new labels are popping up everywhere, turning (their false and ignorant version of) black metal into a product for the masses just like new McDonald’s hamburger of with expensive ads in big magazines and loudmouthed egoistic exaggerating.
HH: If I am correct, you used lyrics by the poet Lennaert Nijgh for your song ‘Verdronken Vlinder’, which appeared on your second album Hymns of Descending. Sadly, my Dutch is not good enough to really understand this poem. I only know that it has something to do with a butterfly and the question of living in freedom. Could you elaborate a bit more on this poem? How far have the works of Lennaert Nijgh inspired your own art?
AP: Perhaps I should explain for the non-Dutch people: Nijgh and Boudewijn de Groot worked together a lot. Nijgh’s lyrics were used by Boudewijn de Groot all the time. It’s not like I mixed and matched the music of De Groot and the lyrics of Nijgh together for this cover version. Anyway, his writings are greatly poetical, amazingly creative, and his words are always very well found. Though you can disagree with the political themes and the meanings behind them, I find the writing to be very inspiring and appealing. Many of his lyrics are critical of the social system and, in my opinion, there is a kind of bitter tone to them which appeals to me. My own interpretation to this particular song is that you think you can be free by being different, but in the end, you realize this is not the case. Being different with the purpose of being different is just as conformist as everything else. Some people are born outside of the rest. I never wanted ‘to be something’ or ‘to be against the rest’. This thought doesn’t cross my mind. You cannot be you by being against something, or against everything. You are already or you are not.
Other than being lyrics for Boudewijn de Groot, there is no real inspiration in his writing. But whenever I hear his music, I notice the words. Who knows if/how much they influence me subconsciously.
HH: You open up a rather interesting discussion here stating that, ‘being different with the purpose of being different is just as conformist as everything else’. Black metal prides itself with being a form of counterculture and still nostalgically dreams about the mighty church burnings of the good old days. However, in order to believe that burning down a church is something worth doing, you are already in the cycle that you also acknowledge the church and its values. You cannot be against something without affirming the phenomenon you are against. But if we elevate this discussion to a different level: What can black metal as an ‘art’ do to escape this cycle? Or is that really impossible as you claimed that you need to be born in a different way? Should black metal fans even think about this problem?
AP: Well said indeed, but I was never against any phenomenon within this scene. I observe the scene, see the positives and negatives, and get out of it what I need for myself and do what I can to support those who support me. The black metal scene in itself is nothing more special than the train model scene, political scene, hard drugs scene, or whatever scene. No one can change the world anyway—not by listening to black metal, not through politics, not through reading every philosophy book ever written, and not through rehearsing with your band and releasing a 7″ EP.
And about counterculture, I’ve discussed something similar like that in an early interview. I agree with you. The honest ones in this scene are outcasts anyway. Whether you’re nostalgic about church burning, old magazines, or picture LPs, it doesn’t matter. I believe the honest ones are suffering for they are honest but know this honesty is in vain. They can trap themselves and are suffering about it, but most of all, they are suffering because the world will not change, humans cannot change, and everything is in vain.
I certainly think about this problem, but don’t want to change it. I know I can’t anyway. It’s my job to keep black metal elite. Let me make my music and write what I want. In the end, black metal is a form of entertainment for a couple of minutes per day for most people. But the way I see it, those ‘most people’ are just material, as Dostojevski describes it spot on. The ones that are different know they should and cannot change it because of the very reason they are outcasts.
HH: Apart from your musical endeavours, you are also running a label for underground (black) metal which focuses on black (pagan) metal bands from the Netherlands. You have been around since 1998 with this label. How has the label work and the whole scene changed since you were actively involved in it? What is the most difficult part of running an underground label nowadays?
AP: Well, the number one change is, of course, that nowadays all music is immediately made available for free on the Internet. People used to buy music to discover new bands and check them out. Nowadays, most people listen on the internet first and decide then if they’re going to buy it or not. That is not so good for sales since you can create a nice and big expensive package with big booklet, nice sound, bombastic artwork, but people will look at it and say, ‘wow, that looks great, I will check it out on YouTube’. We have to get used to these modern times. There’s no point in being melodramatic or angry about it. On other hand, these same people also use the internet to recommend my stuff to others, and there are other ways of using the Internet to promote your music.
Still, peoples’ mentality seems to have changed, which is making me sad. People used to support bands and buy their stuff, but nowadays people ‘use’ music like a single-use product. People want to have new stuff fast, fast, fast… Labels and people jump on bands as if they are business opportunities instead of enjoying music. Even going so far where labels, out of pure jealousy, envy, and egoism, are stealing bands from each other just to be able to lead the hype and get all the sales. I had this happen to me a couple of times already. Bands wanting to be famous as fast as possible, individuals with no credibility and nothing to say kissing up to known people for that sake.
The hardest part is not giving a fuck about the scene, as if it’s an overcrowded grocery market. But luckily, this comes natural to me.
HH: If you had to sum up the ‘message’ of your label Heidens Hart in a few sentences, how would you describe your label?
AP: There is no message behind my label. I do what I want to do. I work with the bands and individuals I want to. I don’t operate under one single type of subgenre, location, or image. It would be limiting myself. I understand it’s easy for labels to put themselves in a box so they can be identified and labelled as such. I am not keeping up appearances to be able to follow some trend or hype. Every scene is a civilization in itself, with trends, hypes, people who make themselves look important, people who only talk the talk but with an empty cavity where a brain is usually present, replaced by alcoholism, driven by social pressure, limited by a plain lack of IQ, etc. Anyway, perhaps my tone is a bit cynical. There’s a downside to every upside, but the upsides are there anyway. I love to make music, and I like to promote the stuff I make. Tour a bit here and there, organise for or record other bands, gain something personal out of that or out of travelling, reading… Those are my passions. I’m a musician; I don’t need a lot of things.
HH: Is being a musician not entirely different from being a label ‘manager’? Don’t you have to deal with a lot of bureaucratic stuff in order to release music for your artists? Wouldn’t it be easier for you if you just focused on composing music with your bands and projects and let some people do the label issues? Or is having one’s own label also necessary in order to have full control over one’s (and friends’) art?
AP: Yes, sometimes this drives me pretty crazy to be in this position which seems to be right in the middle of everything. Actually, I did stop with expanding around a year ago. I stopped planning new releases except those who were on my ever-growing list. There will be more of this coming, so less new releases and the mail-order will not be expanded. Instead, I will produce more stuff for a smaller crowd. I know what my maximum is, I know what I want, and I’m not taking on more than I want or can. For example, I’m working closely with Mortiis now. This is a huge honour for me. I produce official merchandising for the first era of dungeon albums. The work is extremely time intensive. It costs a lot of time to make the designs, work on the layout, order and send them, etc. But it’s worth every second, and I know I can spend every second needed because I don’t have other projects going on that need to be rushed. To me, that is also part of being creative, even if that is not creating music. And as said earlier, I felt the urge to start with Cultus again, so at the end of the day, you could say I prefer to make music and be productive in other ways instead of writing invoices. And yes, you could say it is needed to do everything myself to have this control. Bureaucratic jobs can also be outsourced, so with that and cutting down on expanding, I am able to keep this control and keep being creative in whatever way I want.
HH: You are also a live guitarist of the Russian black metal band Blackdeath. Could you tell us how you got that job and what fascinated you about their art? Obviously they play black metal, but their art has a certain experimental and avant-garde character which is rather different from Cultus.
AP: Yes, the later albums show a more avant-garde sound, though their sound and overall philosophy is still extremely harsh and inaccessible—or even plain weird to some. We worked together for some time already as I released their albums and set up their first ever tour in Europe. One thing led to another and I joined them for live second guitar attacks. What fascinates me about them is their completely genuine style of music and lyrics, and their full dedication to it. The whole concept behind the band is unique and they are 100% motivated to create and be productive. The guitar riffs from Abysslooker are not easy and required some rehearsing. Especially some stamina was lacking since a lot of barré chords are used. They work with militant discipline and precision—straight in-your-face and no double agendas. I think this is where our characters are equal. Many people can learn from this attitude. Whereas most people in the black metal community create or write in order to appeal to those in their own particular community, or in order to look/sound like something else, Blackdeath does their own thing for the full 100% and I recognize this way of creating; our motivation to be productive is the same.
HH: You have also been playing with Heimdalls Wacht for many years, and they are one of the most respected underground black metal bands in the German-speaking world, specifically when it comes to the combination of authentic lyrics and music. However, most interestingly, for your last album you decided to sign a contract with Black Skull Records, which is basically the same as SMP/Trollzorn and therefore a relatively big label which is heavily involved in the business side of metal. How did this label change or influence Heimdalls Wacht? Or what did you hope to gain from that change? How hard is it to keep one’s artistic integrity while at the same time being involved in the business aspects of the scene?
AP: Yes, I have been with Heimdalls Wacht since the beginning—a decade and still going strong! We signed to Trollzorn because I’m at the limits of my capabilities when it comes to promoting and working for a bigger band like Heimdalls Wacht. This was discussed within the band, of course, and there are no hard feelings about this. I am still producing merchandise. I will still keep the older albums in print. I will remain a member of the band and I will still work 110 % to promote them, just like people know me. The band is an intellectual and nostalgic spirit that appeals to many people, but there’s only so much I can do to appeal to our audience and to work for the band. The band has grown massively in this first decade of existence to the outside world, and I used to do a lot more for the band than just being a live member. I helped with artwork and graphic stuff, not only for the albums but also merchandising, mastering, assistance with recording and mixing, bookings, promotion, the production of the releases, etc. The label switch did not change the spirit of the band, but it did pave the way for better conditions for the band. We got to record in a proper studio this time, with an experienced engineer that understands our music. The label has their people to help with the tasks I mentioned; they have people to do layouts, they have the money to pay a proper studio, they have their tools and contacts for better promotion, etc. To me, the essence of the band has not changed since the beginning. Their expression is the same. The artistic message has not changed a single bit, the way I see it. Also this integrity you mention has not changed, but it’s picked up by more professional people who can channel it further than I can. Being involved in the business aspects doesn’t really change to me personally. The band does their own thing, and I don’t interfere with this.