by Chawech | Header Photo by Karah S. Kym
This interview was first published on the original Heathen Harvest website on November 5, 2006. It has been relocated here for historical purposes. Please see the bottom of this article for additional notes.
Heathen Harvest: How did the Red King come into existence?
Johann Cleereman: The Red King came about when I was performing seasonal rituals in the woods of the Washington coast here in the Pacific Northwest. The music developed as a guide to the Solstice and Equinox gatherings that myself and the other members of Corvus Corax would convene. So it really developed out of the performance aspect to what I was doing. Although I had been working with the sounds and developing the music while traveling extensively throughout the United States, these rituals allowed a certain focus to take over. And while I don’t think the music has a very ceremonial sound, especially the new record, this is where the roots of the Red King sprang from. Of course, lyrically, I suppose a good summation would be transformation. There is definitely an alchemical theme throughout the early material, which was a natural representation based on my own studies, understandings, and developments.
HH: Could you describe what kind of rituals you perform?
JC: I would only chance to discuss them briefly, and only those that are part of the performance. Any details would only serve to ruin the experience for the initiate. There is, of course, an initial cleansing and consecration of the space, an absinthe ritual (communal), igniting the hermetic furnace, forging the homunculus, the whitening/blackening/reddening stages, dissolving the fixed through distillation, passing of the mortal heart into the ether, elemental directive, conjuring of the spiritus, and medical injection. These are but a few of the rituals that are performed. Not all of them occur every time, and likewise, I may add a few during a show in order to confirm a particular event. It seems that adding rituals to shows is starting to catch on among some other performers around the Pacific Northwest. I’d like to think that I am responsible for this, yet other acts like Soriah, Blood Axis, and Corvus Corax seem to have been doing some at around the same time, which seems to suggest that those of us here seem to be on a similar level with regards to ritual and its importance. And I think it’s great that others have begun to incorporate this as it truly lends to the whole experience. One entity that seems to be heading in the right direction with this is L’Acephale, a very sincere group from Portland that includes Markus Wolff from Waldteufel, who incorporate more and more ritual into their performances as well. It seems to be a movement here, and I think it is a very positive thing.
HH: When someone mentions the band name ‘Corvus Corax’, I always think of the German medieval folk band. I have just quite recently discovered that there is actually another band called Corvus Corax. Could you tell us a bit more about them?
JC: I know about the confusion. I suppose we each came up with the same name around the same time, though there are severe differences. The Corvus Corax that I am a part of is in hiatus at the moment. We produced one album, The Atavistic Triad, on the Dark Symphonies label. This was more than a band; it was a community of heathen artists who traveled extensively while maintaining a compound deep in the woods of Washington. Everything was D.I.Y., and we celebrated the Equinox and Solstice with our comrades from around the country for two or three days. Corvus Corax’s music has been described as heathen/epic black metal, yet most folks recognize something unique about it. The album is soon to be repressed with a bonus song that was performed by an early incarnation of the band, and which was written by one of our brothers who has since passed away. Most of the Corvus Corax crew has progressed to great heights or gone down in flames by now. It was a very cohesive, intellectual, spiritual, and brave gathering of talented individuals. For any of your readers who are into the early black metal sounds of Emperor, Ulver, or Enslaved, I would highly recommend The Atavistic Triad (available at Sonic Abyss Records by request only as there are a limited number of the originals left… and the repress will be on Dark Symphonies this winter). I still stand firm that Corvus Corax was the truest black metal band to come out of the United States. We actually lived as a coven, took revenge on our enemies, and embraced our own culture away from those who only dabble in the dark arts.
HH: How does the Red King fit in with your every day life?
JC: Sometimes the line between myself and the Red King is razor thin. Folks often wonder how much of the performances are “real.” I like to leave it a bit ambiguous. Leaving some of the mystery keeps one engaged in something. However, I’m not one of those musician types who is limited to a single identity. I have many other interests that I pursue with equal dedication. Yet, many of the themes in the Red King are passions that naturally evolve from my everyday interests. Such things as my zymurgical and distillation practices are evident in aspects of the Red King both musically and lyrically, as well as in the performance mode. I look at life as a series of rituals, and therefore, music and performance can likewise be thought of this way as well.
HH: What’s the story behind the name the ‘Red King’?
JC: The Red King evolved from the alchemical application of the term. It is used to represent one of the final transformations, or perhaps the ultimate transformation. An artist’s most compelling work can be thought of as the “red king” stage of their work. However, there are many, many alchemical applications of this term, and they vary depending on the source and the layers of mystery and deception that are twisted around this term. So, I cannot fully answer this question as it is up to the individual to discover the true meaning of the “red king,” and this can only be done through experiencing one’s own ultimate transformation or definitive mastery of their art.
HH: The Red King seems to be about more than just music. How important are things like album art, imagery, and song titles?
JC: The Red King involves all aspects of application in order to present the most compelling series possible. I believe that having too narrow a focus is actually quite limiting. Everyone specializes these days, which I believe makes for passivity and mundanity. Therefore, I work equally hard to combine all the aspects of the albums to be masterful on their own. Of course, the lyrics to me are as important as the music, which is a rare attention these days. The covers for the albums are intensely rich pieces of art that don’t need to be attached to a box in order to justify their existence. I have been extremely fortunate to work with a few great painters for the first two releases. Madeline Von Foerster is an excellent artist in her own right, and astounds me more and more with her recent developments. I urge your readers to view her art whenever possible. She also was responsible for much of the layout on Vitreolvm, right down to the very particular Municious font. And Benjamin A. Vierling composed the Somniferum cover as a complementary image to the Red King’s submission to the Infernal Proteous compilation/combination book/4-CD herbal collection (another stunning release, completely unique and well-presented). When I decided to go with the painting as the cover to the new record, I didn’t want to compromise the shape or magnitude of the painting by putting it in the normal square format of typical CDs, so we went with DVD-sized Digipaks to accommodate the integrity of the painting. I also had the layout of the new album done by Patricia Cram of Vial Magazine fame. She is a close friend and understood how to achieve the look and feel that the music conveys. She likewise developed the cards that are included with the CD. I believe that with the popularity of downloads and burnt discs that I need to offer a really comprehensive presentation. In other words, I’m trying to create something worth having as a whole, rather than the cheap and easy alternative. And I think that both of the Red King releases are really fine examples of the whole package being something worth holding and experiencing. Even the promotional copies of the CD are sent in really nice silver and black hand-stamped envelopes. Now the performances are the focus of my scrutiny. I’m developing ritual performances that are transcending the idea of what a live show can be, and the performance aspect to the show is receiving all of my dedication, as well as the work of over a dozen other performers and mad scientists around the Pacific Northwest.
HH: You recently had a few live shows. How was the response from both the audience and the other bands?
JC: I have been getting a heap of responses to the latest shows and picked up a few more for November as well. It is difficult to find venues willing to put on a Red King show due to the extreme nature of the performance. Yet, I think this is part of what makes the shows so sacred. People are really feeling transformed from the experience. I can sense the heightened level of attention folks heed at the beginning of the performance. I include audience interaction and transform the space with several devices to raise engagement with the individual who would otherwise be an observer. It seems to be working as it is rare that someone leaves during a performance, and it’s just as rare to see or hear any of the babbling and cajoling that you get at most shows. Folks are pretty attentive to the show while it lasts and come out with many questions and a lot of understanding as well.
HH: Why did you initiate a free CD drawing for Somniferum?
JC: I realize that not everyone can afford to buy the complete package, so I am offering five free CDs every month for those who sign up. And once signed up, they are eligible for every drawing after that, of which there are eight more I believe. So, this is a chance for someone to get a collector’s edition of the CD for free. The additional incentive is that those who sign up can be added to the mailing list concerning the Red King’s performances. The performances are rather random in their time and space, so this is a way for those who wish to participate or attend to be notified, as it is very easy for these shows to pass under someone’s radar. Some of the secrecy behind the shows is due to the nature of them, which makes most venues unable to host such events. There is little by way of advertising for the Red King shows, and the sign up helps to spread the word while offering additional incentives.
HH: Even though Somniferum hasn’t been out that long, are you working on material for a new album again? When can we expect more from the Red King?
JC: Yes, I will be working on some new ideas this winter. There’s no telling when they may manifest. I feel I must continue progressing, so this new material will take some extreme measures to pull off. It will either be brilliant…or I will die trying.
HH: Lastly, thank you for this interview. In parting, is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
JC: As an independent artist, it is crucial that folks understand that there is a much deeper relevance to the Red King than what can be experienced online. I would urge folks to get involved with live shows as much as possible to maintain a true sense of community. It seems that this online format has become a substitute for the substantial self that is our true person. Rather than downloading songs, order the discs; go to shows; write actual letters. That’s what keeps this spirit alive.
Johann Cleereman passed away near Otres Beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia on or around October 6th, 2016 under curious circumstances. We are republishing this article to help keep the spirit of everything that he represented as an artist alive and to keep the enduring flame of the Red King burning bright. At the time of his death, Cleereman was living in Cambodia and crafting his own “unregulated” brand of absinthe called Syn. You can read more about Johann in this final chapter of his life in this VICE Magazine feature.
We are currently planning a larger editorial covering the days of Corvus Corax and the life behind the Red King. Our ability to make this happen relies entirely upon our ability to track down Johann’s Corvus Corax bandmates, however. If you know how to reach either Mallus Stormcrow or Paul David Martin, please touch base with Sage at Sage@heathenharvest.org.