'It would be ideal to create a permanent state of ecstasy'
Interview Ari Spool
Photography Jason Nocito
On Halloween 2009, Liturgy played Bushwick, Brooklyn’s Market Hotel to a packed house of costumed revelers, including one perfect Lil’ Kim pastie outfit replica. A few days later, ’SUP spoke to frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, drummer Greg Fox, bassist Tyler Dusenbury and guitarist Bernard Gann in Hunt-Hendrix’s home, just a few blocks away. The house is a rambling Victorian, one of the few houses left standing from when Bushwick was a place for the mansions of rich beer brewers around the turn of last century.
Liturgy was originally Hunt-Hendrix’s solo project but he expanded it into a full band last year, a bit after releasing the debut record, Renihiliation (20 Buck Spin, 2009). This was the first full-band interview they ever gave (also their first in-person), and soon after our conversation, they blew up. Liturgy made The New York Times’ 10 Best Songs of 2009 and The Village Voice’s Yes In My Backyard column’s end-of-the-year mixtape. They have been getting played all over WFMU, even by the DJs who supposedly don’t like metal. Hunt-Hendrix also presented at the now-legendary Hideous Gnosis black metal symposium in December ’09.
Liturgy say their music is called “transcendental metal”, but they don’t really consider themselves part of any metal scene at all. As far as I can tell, they invented the term. What it means, in the practicality of sound, is large, sped-up, manic drums layered with a range of vibing harmonics, both vocal and instrumental. The music washes over you and soaks in. Listen to it while you are sleeping and the spirits will come. The band is also classically trained, well-read and very culturally savvy.
We sat in their living room around a big L-shaped table to chat, while various roommates wandered in and out. We smoked a joint, but I can’t remember if all of us took hits.
What are you reading, what are you watching, what are you listening to, what are you seeing in a gallery? Is there anything that you’re currently collecting?
Hunter: Right now, I’m into Kenneth Anger, Aleister Crowley and James Joyce. And Carl Jung.
The Red Book (1914-1930) specifically? Or just because of The Red Book you’ve been going back into other stuff of Jung’s?
Hunter: It is kind of Red Book-inspired. But I’m not reading The Red Book because I can’t. It’s too expensive.
Greg: We’re trying to get a band copy. We talked about that at last practice, but we never really agreed on it.
Because it’s what, $175?
Hunter: It’s over $200. So we might split it four ways.
Do you think it will be available in the library?
Hunter: They have it at a museum right now – at the Ruben Museum.
Greg: But you can’t read it.
Hunter: It’s the original Red Book so it’s in a cage. And they’re selling copies.
What is particularly interesting about The Red Book?
Hunter: I think it’s interesting that Carl Jung sees himself as a prophet, and that he left this book and didn’t publish it, and didn’t leave any instructions on how it was to be published.
Greg: There was something on NPR recently about that. It was about authors who died and what to do with their manuscript. Like, Nabokov had this unpublished thing that’s being published right now, and his instructions to his son were to burn it. And then this other guy was like. ‘Well, I know he didn’t want us to do it, but we did it.’
Tyler: It’s all about sales.
Hunter: Yeah, it’s to boost sales posthumously.
Tyler: Of the Nabokov estate.
They can’t really be hurting for money!
Tyler: It’s a publishing company. They’ll take what they can get.
I thought it was really funny on Halloween when you guys dressed up in black metal makeup—
Hunter: Death metal makeup.
Greg: Corpse paint, actually.
Who were you specifically aping?
Hunter: We weren’t really going for anyone in particular, but I ended up kind of looking like the guy on the cover of [Darkthrone’s] Transilvanian Hunger [Peaceville, 1994].
Greg: You kind of look like that guy anyway, though. Without the makeup and with the makeup.
Hunter: Yeah, kinda.
Greg: I was going for ‘dead.’ I had a photo.
Bernard: That’s all I did is wake up that morning and look at that photo and say, ‘okay’.
Greg: [Bernard and Hunter] looked the best. I think I looked the worst. My shit was so sloppy. It just looked like I took black and white face paint and smudged it in my hand and just went like that.
Hunter: I thought it looked good.
Tyler: My girlfriend said it looked like I had blackface on. A lot of people thought that was my costume.
Any time bands wear face paint like that it always makes me think of Roy Wood and his band after ELO, Wizzard, which was his last band before he became a total recluse, only appearing in public to perform with Cheap Trick.
Tyler: Was Roy Wood the mind behind ELO?
Well, it was him and Jeff Lynne.
Hunter: I think that wearing face paint is pretty awesome. We were sort of doing it just as a Halloween costume, but by the time we started playing I was definitely channeling.
Greg: It was awesome. The cool thing about it is that we’ve always said we’re not going to do that, as far as what it is we do and don’t do on stage. There’s not really any discussion about what we’re going to do, except just play the songs. Originally, we thought, we have an excuse: have fun on Halloween. But doing it actually served to be this great focusing thing, this ritualistic thing. I think it definitely made us all feel really good.
Hunter: I think it made us play really well. We channeled our own music more than usual.
Tyler: I think it was staring in the mirror for so long.
Greg: Yeah, like, before we were doing like a Meet the Beatles thing!
Tyler: It was totally the Kiss cover.
Would you consider doing it again in the future, for not-Halloween?
Greg: I would do it again.
Greg: Or maybe like some kind of middle ground I would like to find.
Hunter: More bland. Like David Bowie black metal. Maybe we would do it on other special occasions. Like Christmas. Or Mardi Gras.
What was the logic again, about not wearing face paint?
Hunter: Well, I mean, it never even occurred to us to do it, because we’re not really part of a metal scene. And American black metal bands don’t really wear corpse paint anyways. It’s an Eastern European and Scandinavian sort of thing. It was never even a question. People who hear our music on the Internet think we made the decision not to dress up like a black metal band, but it’s the opposite. We just never made the decision to do that.
Greg: When this was becoming a band, from being [Hunter’s] solo project, we didn’t even ever talk about this being a black metal band. At a certain point, it snuck in, and now it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re a black metal band.’ But there was a while when we weren’t thinking of it that way.
Tyler: I don’t know if we say that, still.
Hunter: We just ended up releasing our record on a label that [releases other black metal bands]. I mean, we do play black metal, or at least that’s the root of the music that we play. But we don’t worry too much about how to think about it. And those questions kind of come up only once more people hear the music and then they try to classify it.
Greg: And I think also one of the things about wearing the corpse paint, one of the things that made us all enjoy it – again, it was Halloween – but I think it got people really riled up. We were more in character, and it made people freak out a little bit! At least, the people in the front were doing things that we don’t normally have happen at our shows. Normally, people aren’t thrashing around at all.
Yeah, there was a good amount of slam dancing going on!
Tyler: Convulsing, I would say.
That show was really interesting because it was quiet music, loud music, loud music, quiet music. And after you guys played, people were screaming ‘One more song!’ and I think people really, really wanted to listen to more metal.
Hunter: I think it was a well-curated show, because Mt. Eerie’s new material was black metal-influenced, and that was kind of the meaning of the show. Though, it was kind of lost on a lot of people as I’ve noticed in reviews and stuff. The point was that it was kind of black metal-crossover material. Coming from different directions. And I think Mt. Eerie’s new stuff is great, and I was very, very stoked to play with them.
It was definitely a really different thing. Metal is a constrictive genre, in a lot of ways.
Greg: It’s super conservative, as a genre.
Hunter: Especially black metal.
Bernard: Yeah, it stays the same.
Hunter: It’s the most orthodox music there is. And the main stream of it hasn’t changed in like 15 years, which is kind of interesting.
Greg: I think that also ties into why painting up and stuff like that isn’t something we thought about. And also, we don’t come out of a metal scene at all.
Hunter: Yeah, my relationship to metal has always been through the Internet. I think [Greg’s] too. We went to high school together, and we would go to Lightning Bolt shows and Arab on Radar shows. On the Internet we’d download metal records, but we’d never really see those bands live.
Greg: It was always a novelty. Seeing metal bands was always like, ‘Dimmu Borgir is in town! Why not? Let’s go check it out!’ But it was always a rarity to go to a metal show. It wasn’t anything I felt like I was a part of.
What about drone? That’s technically an entirely different genre that I feel like experiences a lot more crossover.
Tyler: That’s the background I come from. Bernard comes from that background, too. That’s one of the things I did in college, electronic composition. I still do that now. I’m into drone. Big time.
Hunter: You don’t really call it drone music, but I’m really into new music, avant-garde classical music. [Ted] Ligety, [Iannis] Xenakis, spectralism, [Gérard] Grisey,and then minimalism stuff like Glenn Branca. I think there’s a connection between what we do in our music and that stuff, even though what we actually do is totally different. But, the resulting sound-world I think just plugs in to all that stuff. And Bernard is really drone. Huge into minimalism.
Bernard: Well, I grew up around a lot of it and I’m always really the kind of person who will get down and lay on the floor, like LaMonte Young. Ellen Fullman is one of my favorite people; I got into that a couple years ago.
LaMonte Young is still going, right?
Bernard: Yeah, I think he’s pretty crazy now.
Hunter: Didn’t you see him?
Tyler: I worked at this gallery in SoHo that was a block away from the DreamHouse, and there would be this guy out there who had those bags that are made from, like, woven plastic, like in a plaid. He had a big beard – a white beard – and he looked like LaMonte Young and I kept think-ing it was LaMonte Young but he was way cracked out. I mean, he would hand people tissues and ask for money and stuff. And then one day, I asked him if he was LaMonte Young, and he said yes and I offered to carry his groceries up the stairs. And then I would see him on the subway every day after that, and he would give me tissues all the time, but he always denied that he was actually LaMonte Young after that, so who knows. It might not have been him.
Greg: At Bard, [Hunter, Tyler and I] all studied with Bob Bielecki, who was his main engineer.
Tyler: He was the technician for The Well-Tuned Piano (Gramavision, 1988).
I was listening to the record today and I was thinking, ‘This would be a great record to go to sleep to.’ In a weird way! Like, if I was in a LaMonte Young situation and I was lying on the floor, I would absolutely fall into something really close to sleep. And then I was thinking about how uplifting music that you listen to go to sleep to really has to be. And then I was thinking about the word ‘ecstatic’, which feels like a zeitgeist right now.
Greg: What do you mean by a zeitgeist?
It’s appearing everywhere in art that I feel is relevant. And I was thinking about how the physical word, ‘ecstatic’, in a colloquial way is not generally used in tandem with its root, which is ecstasy. I was really focusing on that word already, and then of course you guys have a song called “Ecstatic Rite”. Why did you use that word?
Hunter: It would be ideal to create a permanent state of ecstasy.
Tyler: I don’t know about that. People who actually achieve that – you don’t want to hang out with them.
Hunter: It doesn’t really work out.
Greg: You don’t want to hang out with them unless you also achieved permanent ecstasy.
Tyler: But then you just want to hang out with yourself. Why would you hang out with anyone?
Greg: As far as the zeitgeisty-ness…(pauses) well, the zeitgeist is the ‘world spirit’. That’s the literal translation. So when things are coming up, I guess you would say that they are ‘coming up in the zeitgeist’?
Hunter: The spirit of the times.
Greg: I think maybe part of why that’s coming up a lot…I think a lot of artists, me being one of them, feel like in popular culture there needs to be more breaking through the fakeness – the fake mask that is put up by the people that are making work. If what you want is your work to have that kind of influence on people, it seems like it’s a reaction to the way the world is now. It’s lacking realness.
Tyler: Someone at where I work today coined a term for this new wave of totally anti-ironic art that’s coming on right now. I feel like the early oughts were all about calling something out and bringing it down. Maybe contrasting it or something.
Tyler: Exactly. And this guy where I worked he said, ‘The new thing now is neo-sincere-ism.’ He had it all labeled and such. But it’s not even there. It’s not even at a point where it can be labeled. But people are being sincere and earnest about, like, how happy they are, which I find really boring.
Greg: Is that what it’s about? Being happy? I think you could stop there and just say that it’s about being earnest.
Hunter: I think irony and critique are getting tired, and I guess that’s what art is usually about.
Hunter: No, ecstasy.
There’s only so much that you can be ironic about, but I wouldn’t agree that art is totally about ecstasy – because there has to be more drama to it.
Greg: As long as it’s not bullshit, though!
Tyler: I think it’s really like a classical idea, like, old, old time, renaissance style.
Hunter: Or even older, like the idea of the truly good and beautiful. That’s basically what my band’s about.