Mat “Kvohst” McNerney | Song of Kali

This interview has been published on Radio Metal the 25/10/2017.

In only five years of career, Grave Pleasures, previously known as Beastmilk, had a fairly stormy history. Made of thundering debuts (Climax, 2013), line-up changes, infectious hooks, and new identities, it led to the divisive Dreamcrash, a record built on the ashes of Beastmilk, In Solitude and The Oath. It looks like the band, who sings about destruction and creation over infectious death rock melodies, doesn’t hesitate to put theories into practice, enticing both seasoned black metallers and 80s sounds lovers, somewhere between the cover of The Cure’s “A Forest” by Carpathian Forest and Perturbator. In that respect, Motherblood, the band’s new record, is crucial: it’s about strengthening Grave Pleasures in its new incarnation, and for leader Mat “Kvohst” McNerney, about expressing as clearly as possible his take on life.

For the release of this record under the patronage of the fearsome Kali, we talked about all these things with McNerney. A prolific musician whose work is as shape-shifting as it’s coherent, he explained the concepts hiding behind the intoxicating melodies of Motherblood, the rough times Grave Pleasures went through, the status of this project in his whole career, and his vision of music, whether it be in general, live, or his. An enlightening talk with an artist fascinated by humanity’s darkest sides.

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Motherblood will be out in a few days—the release party is actually tomorrow if I’m not mistaken. How do you feel about it? What do you think about the reception of the first tracks so far?

It’s been great! We’re very happy with the album amongst ourselves anyway. It’s going very well with the band. When we started getting good feedback on the new tracks, it was just great. We knew we were onto something and that the album is very good, but you never know until it goes out there how people are gonna respond. So far, it’s been very good.

The last few years have been quite stormy for Grave Pleasures: the band went through lots of line-up changes, lost a founding member, changed names, and Dreamcrash seemed to take a lot of fans aback. How did it affect you and the band as artists?

It was a difficult time, but it was really the album that we wanted to do at that time. Dreamcrash was quite a divider amongst the fans, but we knew that. We made the decision to make the album a certain way, which was the way we wanted it to sound and be. When you do that, you expect that there’s gonna be some feedback like that. In a lot of ways it was our début album as Grave Pleasures, and in other ways it was a continuation of Beastmilk… It’s always going to happen, this kind of reaction. In the best sense, it set up this record, it made it possible. You need to do that sometimes; as an artist, you really need to purge yourself of this feeling which we had. At the time, we were really down, we were coming from a breakup, a couple of members had come from breakups with their previous bands, so there was some kind of dismal feeling within the band. Now, we have a very solid line-up that we’re all very happy with, and the band is sort of inspired again. You can hear that in the sound, there’s a lot of positivity and confidence in it… It still has dark themes, but I think there is some kind of positivity in the sound, it’s much angrier again.

It seems like the consensus about Motherblood so far is basically: “Beastmilk is back”. What is intentional?

It probably is due to the fact that we went back to some of the inspiration we had around the Beastmilk era. When the Dreamcrash period was over, we lost a couple of members, Uno [Bruniusson] and Linnéa [Olsson] left, and I had to do a lot of introspection about what this band means to me, and what this band actually should be as a band. It was taking it back to its core, in a way, inspiration-wise. The band is back to a full Finnish line-up again, and I think the Finnish musicians are very inspired by the 80s post-punk scene here: whether you consciously know that or not, it’s a big part of your inspiration as a musician because it’s been part of a very long period of inspiring other bands as well, so even if you’re inspired by modern bands, they will be inspired by 80s bands. I think it’s within the DNA of this band. I really think that Grave Pleasures is a Finnish band with a British vocalist. It’s what gives it its different sound, its kind of sound clash. It was a bit weird with the last line-up we had, a couple of members were living in Berlin and were Swedish, and I just don’t know if that vibe really fit the band, it just didn’t work out for the best. Now I think we have the inspirations coming back from the same source, and that’s probably what you hear there that reminds you of Beastmilk.

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The video for “Infatuation Overkill” was one of the first things we heard about the record I think, and it feels very much like a trailer where we can see all of what the band is about. Did you intend it like that?

Yeah, I think we really wanted to come with a very strong and forceful kind of manifesto for the band. That’s what that album really is as well: it was titled “Motherblood” for a reason; because it really goes back to what we are, our birth or roots as a band, if you like. In many ways, the title can be traced back to that. I feel like it can be another restart for the band more than a début, it’s exactly what this band is all about. For me, this album is like a new beginning. So we wanted the video to be very strong, to be a series of themes that are very symbolic of what this band is about: this duality between life and darkness, death and rebirth.

I feel like visuals have always been an important part of what Beastmilk was and what Grave Pleasures is—and maybe it applies to all your musical endeavors actually—, from the White stains on black tape visual to the artwork of this new album. Do you see music and visuals as a whole?

Sometimes, it really does come together at the same time, and other times not. I don’t feel like it’s necessarily combined all the time, but sometimes you get a real feel for it and you know exactly what you want. I think at the very beginning, when I started conceiving Motherblood to go with the music that we were writing, I had in my mind that Kali visual, it was there from the very beginning. I always have a visual in mind, but I don’t always wanna be the guy directing that because I think you can get very close to your meanings, but songs should be a universal thing, so it should be able to be open to interpretation. That’s why for the most recent video for “Joy Through Death”, it’s the director [David Fitt] taking his own direction on the song. I think that’s very interesting when other people come along and make their own meanings out of your work. Visuals are obviously a very important thing of what we do, but it’s not necessarily conceived at the same time.

As you said, the cover of the record is Kali, the goddess of destruction and creation in Hinduism. Perhaps surprisingly, she’s been used by quite a few black metal bands through the years, like Cult Of Fire and Dissection. In your case, why did you pick her especially?

Kali is a very strong religious symbol. What I wanted to present is our current situation in the world at the moment as a species. What I’m talking about is how we are destroying our natural order, so Motherblood represents that time is running out for us, but also represents the Mother that we are eating into. We’re sacrificing the Mother. In ancient religions, the Mother would represent the sacrifice, and the children would eat her flesh or drink her blood. This was transposed nowadays in the modern Eucharist that the Christians use as their sacrament. The Mother was changed to a male figure, Jesus. Jesus has been used in millions of album covers, and I think Kali is very underrated and underused as a symbol in comparison.

It also symbolizes the idea of a religion around nuclear fear. There’s a documentary about how we will dispose of nuclear waste, and how they’re gonna warn future generations about what’s there. The concept is that you will have to create a religion around it to stop people from going there because of the dangers of nuclear waste. It’s interesting, because Egyptian hieroglyphs, although we decipher it, were basically on tombs to warn people not to go there, but people still did, even though there is this warning of danger. The time when nuclear waste will still be a danger to mankind is about the same length of time. Languages don’t last long enough, we need to think of symbols. I think Kali is a great symbol of that thing itself: how mankind has created this eternal death. We have actually created our own form of Kali. In a way, we represent Kali, we represent the chaos and destruction of the universe.

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As you said, nuclear fear is an important theme in your music, and at first, one would be tempted to think it refers mostly to the old Cold War context of death rock, but these last few months, it feels as contemporary as can be! What do you feel about that?

It’s been going on like that for a long time, it just so happens that the news ramps it up now that we have a leader who is very controversial in the States and a leader in North Korea that is ramping it up as well politically. It’s very prevalent in the news right now, but if you read the news carefully and if you are conscious of this nuclear fear thing, then you would have seen it coming for a really long time. It’s coincidental that when our record is out, there seems to be a lot going on, but it could have been at any time because this is what it is, it is the state of the world.

For me, it’s less of a political statement and more of a statement about how we see ourselves as a species: we don’t look at ourselves scientifically, we like to abstract ourselves from our environment, we think we’re special, we think we’re different. I think we should look at ourselves and at what we represent—and we represent quite a lot of bad things. We don’t really like facing that about ourselves as a species, we don’t really like to face the fact that we are equal parts death and creation.

I guess that’s why you picked Kali as well? Because in Eastern religions and spiritualities, opposites tend to be brought together, and good and evil are both in Kali, which stands for both death and rebirth…

Right! She’s so magnificently beautiful, and at the same time, it’s such a terrifying figure. I wanted her to be specifically staring at the viewer so you almost see each other eye to eye. It’s almost like a Medusa effect when you look at this figure, and I think we see her as we see ourselves, as we are. Kali mirrors the universe. I think that’s how we should see ourselves: as a very destructive force but at the same time, we procreate, we breed, and we expand as a species. I just think that people don’t like to look at the dark side of human being, but we like to put that in our music because it’s very liberating, and after all, that’s what death rock and rock’n’roll should be about. It should be about death and destruction at the same time.

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Actually, I was wondering how you ended up playing death rock in the first place. Before, you were mostly known for your participation in black metal bands like Code and Dødheimsgard

I’ve always listened to a lot of different kinds of music, I’ve always been a music freak, and I’ve never really been a genre-purist. Although I was really heavily involved in the black metal scene and connected with the Norwegian black metal scene in particular, I’ve always been an outsider. When I moved to Finland and stopped playing in Dødheimsgard, I had a reaction feeling and I wanted to do something different. It was a definite decision to go in another direction. I wanted to bring out a lot of stuff I was listening to quite regularly at that time (and still am), and sort of connect a lot more of my interests musically into what I was doing, not just black metal. The thing about black metal at least at that time is that if you’re gonna do it right, you should do it properly, and I think it didn’t leave enough for me creatively to be involved in. I felt like I’ve got what I wanted out of it.

Do you feel like both goth, death rock at the time and black metal basically played this same role of facing this dark side of humanity that we don’t wanna look at?

Yeah, I really think it was a duality and it’s perfectly reflected in the music; to me, it’s the best way to express that. I’m a pretty dark person so I think a lot of our lyrics are quite extreme in many ways, but the music sort of paints a different picture. That’s really what I want, a much extensive view of death and life. I like the idea that our music can work on many different levels, and I think that’s the issue for me nowadays with black metal: it’s a music that I feel doesn’t have as many dimensions as what I’m doing right now. That’s just for me, I don’t mean it as a listener, but as an artist, about what challenges me and what I get out of it. I still listen to a lot of black metal and admire it very much, but as an artist, I feel like there are more dimensions in what I’m doing now to challenge myself and to convey my main messages as an artist.

I guess that’s why through your career, you’ve evolved in very different bands and aesthetics?

Yeah, I think so! As an artist, you’re always searching for what it is you’re trying to say and where it is you are going, and I think I’m finding that road a little more over the time, that’s why I stuck at this and why this Grave Pleasures record is coming out: I really feel like there is a story here that I’m telling, and I feel like I haven’t told it well enough, that I have more to say on it. These songs are representations of that.

You were talking earlier about duality, and it’s interesting because I’ve always considered your two bands at the moment, Grave Pleasures and Hexvessel, in those terms. They are both very different, to the point that they maybe complement each other: Grave Pleasures feels urban, bleak, cold, whereas Hexvessel feels connected to nature, organic… How do these projects are related according to you? Both seem to revolve around death, though…

Yeah [chuckles]! I don’t really see it that way, but it’s always interesting to see how others see it or how they make sense out of it, which can be as real and legitimate as how I do. For me, it’s not really about representing different parts of my personality or anything like that, I feel like they are both very much me, I can stand behind both of those things as different projects. It’s just different stories or more accurately, different ways of telling a story. Hexvessel is indeed sort of a natural mystic work, and I’m very involved with that, but at the same time, Grave Pleasures is also very spiritual to me, it’s like a different aspect. They’re both concerned with mankind and its relation to its environment. Ultimately, the story is the same, it’s just that they are told in different ways. I think Grave Pleasures is just as much a sort of environmentalist band in its core themes as Hexvessel is, it’s just that they both tell it in different ways. They’re both very necessary for me. To feel inspired for one, I need the other and vice versa. I need both of those in my life and I enjoy doing both of those things. I probably would do more if I had the time, but I need to be realistic, at my age and with my family situation, about how much time I really have. I’ve never been one of these artists that spread themselves very thin, I wanna do it properly when I do it. I wanna do everything I do as well as I can, that’s why I stripped it down to doing just these two things.

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The legendary David Tibet from Current 93 appears on “Atomic Christ”. How did this collaboration come to be?

I’ve always been a very big fan of his work and been inspired by his lyrics and music. Working with him one day has always been a dream at the back of my head although I never thought this would be possible. We wrote this song “Atomic Christ” and I really heard something of Current 93 in there. I realized that the way I was going about with the singing and the lyrics were reminding me a lot of that. I just wrote David Tibet and told him this, and asked him if he wanted to contribute in some way. He just answered that if he was to contribute, he would have to write his own stuff, because that’s what he does—he doesn’t just join as a guest. It started there and we just started working on the intro. We had some back and forth before we started it because he wants to approach everything he does from a very ethical standpoint: he really wanna make sure he can stand behind it, not just the music but the band and everything. It was wonderful, it was quite a learning experience for me, and I think he gave Motherblood a kind of weight, like what a big actor does to a movie. His performance opens the way to a song that I think is important for expanding the world of this band. When you get to that song on the album, I think it’s when this album really opens up, and you realize that the band is capable of that, that it can be much more than what you’ve heard so far. I feel like it opens up a new avenue for the band, new directions for us. It’s a very crucial story in this album, these lyrics. Having him there at that point in the album is very important. The whole experience of working with him, what it means to explain our influences behind this record is so very important. I’m really happy that we got to do it.

Juho Vanhanen from Oranssi Pazuzu plays in Grave Pleasures. Just like you, he handled very different styles in his career, whether it be psychedelic music or extreme metal. How do you work together?

We started working together on the last record, Dreamcrash. He came on at the beginning to write the lead guitar for the record. We weren’t really sure if he was going to be a session member or a real band member, but he turned out to be a real member of the band, he did everything with us around that record and came on tour with us. When the other guys left, there was a lot of stuff we wanted to do together—we’d already written a couple of songs for Dreamcrash that didn’t make it to the album but I felt were very good (they were just very different). We were excited about doing something else. Juho has been in a lot of different bands before and around Oranssi Pazuzu, he produces records, he’s a very prolific musician, and he’s a guitar teacher by trade; he works a lot in music in Tampere. I knew him because we live in the same town and we sort of share band members with each others’ bands and stuff like that. We’re very close, and we were really excited about working together for that record. He took more of a driver’s seat on this album; from the very beginning, instead of him just writing lead guitars he was writing songs with me. The outcome of the record is in a very big portion thanks to him and the other new members that joined as well. He’s just a very eclectic musician and has his hands in a lot of different styles. I think this band is really good for him because it really shows what he is also capable of. Oranssi Pazuzu is very technical, but they say—and it’s true!—that minimalistic, simplistic music can also be the most technical music you can imagine because it’s very difficult to do simple but well. If you listen to a lot of these 80s bands, you may think they write very simple songs, but it’s not true, it’s in fact very difficult to play and write those kinds of melodies, to write a melody that is not cheesy nor will turn people off, but that is timeless… I think it’s a very difficult thing to do, and I actually believe that a lot of the melodies that Juho wrote for that album is very classic, timeless stuff. Very well written music.

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The scene of Tampere in Finland seems quite unique, with a strong leaning towards psychedelia and experimentation—I’m thinking about Hexvessel and Oranssi Pazuzu, but also Dark Buddha Rising or Atomikylä for instance. As a foreigner—although I guess you’re not really a foreigner anymore!—, what is your take on this scene?

It’s a very unique scene to Finland and it’s a very unique scene to the world as well. You always know a Tampere band because they have this sound… It’s a very rich scene for music in general, there are a lot of bands, a lot of gigs going on, I think it just generates that kind of interest. People who don’t wanna go to Helsinki and give themselves a career usually move to Tampere. It’s the alternative city. A lot of artists and musicians, people who don’t have that kind of commercial mindset, move here. That’s what Tampere is all about: they call it “Tempere rock city” and it’s not for nothing. It’s a great place to watch bands, there’s a big punk scene here for instance.

Both Hexvessel and Grave Pleasures signed on Century Media lately. What did it change for both bands and for you as a musician?

It’s a very supportive label. I got to know them through Hexvessel, they were very interested in working with me and that band. Century Media has a good balance of being an overground label owned by Sony with an underground sensibility. They take care of their bands, they’re very interested in everything you do instead of just throwing the music out there. You work with them quite closely. They have a good team, and they know how to do their job, you don’t have to worry so much about anything else than doing your side of things. I like it a lot, I really need a supporting label around me doing this stuff because it’s such a lot of work, everything from videos to visuals to press statements… I have a lot of artistic input in every single level, so I really need a record label who takes care of business basically, that does its job, and that’s what they do. It’s been great so far.

I’ve read an interview with you in Becoming the Forest where you compare music or art in general to magic. I was wondering how it influences your way of envisioning live shows especially…

I think that live performance is a form of magic because you’re coming there just yourself and the audience, it’s a conversation between you two, and you have to entertain people. What entertainment really means is making people happy, making them dream, taking them out of their everyday lives, and transporting them somewhere to give them an experience that they will remember. This is the reason why I like watching bands without a mobile phone or anything like that. I think it’s very important that you just have that experience with the band; it’s between you and the band. What goes on at the moment when you experiment something as a band or in the audience, it’s without words, it’s an experience. That’s why live music is still such a thrill to everyone. In those moments, you sort of time travel, you step out of your body, you can have all kinds of amazing experiences. It’s very inspiring. Your job as an artist is a very big one, it’s a big responsibility. I don’t think anybody should take it lightly. I really like it when a performance can work on many levels. It can be this very deep and meaningful thing, but it can also be very punk, very wild and in the spur of the moment. I think about all of those things and do a lot of research about it, I still read about it a lot, I really like to understand what it means to be an entertainer and what kind of role it means you have to fulfill for people and for yourself as well. I take it very seriously, I really enjoy it, it’s a very big aspect of what we do, maybe the most important one. Especially now because I think that recorded music is sort of taking a back seat to live performance nowadays.

Yeah, and for having seen you live a couple of times, I guess that Grave Pleasures’ music is meant to be heard live, right?

Yeah, and even more so now. We wrote these tracks for that, they are very live orientated and we have a very live orientated band as well. There’s a good spark and fire between the musicians.

You do have some tour dates planned already I think…

Yeah, we have tour dates in the UK and in Germany, and that’s it for now. But we’re working on bigger tours as well.

I guess that’s mostly what’s next for the band?

Yeah! It’s getting it out there and play live. We have three albums now to chose from and play out to people, so we can build out different sets and do some nice, long ones, so it should be good!

All pictures come from the “Infatuation Overkill” music video. You can find Grave Pleasures on Facebook.

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