When Mat McNerney was growing up in Thatcher's Britain of the 1980s, the world was a different place. Or at least the enemies were different. "We had the fear of the IRA as a constant threat," he recalls. "You had all these bombings in Soho and things like that. Just like ISIS today, it was a real threat to our safety. The Cold War was lingering. It was very much a 'If they bomb us, we're gonna bomb them' kind of thing. And now it's back again with North Korea and Trump."
These days, McNerney lives in Finland with his wife and their two-year-old son. He's also the vocalist and co-songwriter for Grave Pleasures, a death-rock band that specializes in post-punk pandemonium, nuclear metaphors and pop hooks. Their latest album, Motherblood, takes the nuke theme to gloriously catchy heights with songs like "Be My Hiroshima," "Falling for an Atom Bomb" and "Atomic Christ" as McNerney's stentorian vocal lines invoke doomsday over razor-sharp guitars and apocalyptic beats. "The nuclear metaphors are either about using love to describe nuclear fear or using nuclear fear to describe love," he explains. "The way I'm thinking about it, love is so terrible and destructive at the same time as being beautiful. But it's really about taking it to the core of what Grave Pleasures means: The darkness in the light, the love and destruction coming together."
Though man-made apocalypse looms over Motherblood like a mushroom cloud, McNerney's lyrics also reference mind control ("Mind Intruder"), obsession ("Infatuation Overkill") and Charles Manson ("Doomsday Rainbows"). Disparate as these allusions may seem, McNerney says they all show us something important about ourselves. "As you get older and become more pessimistic, you begin to understand that this is who we are," he offers. "This is just life. But as an artist, you can't just throw people in the abyss. You need to have some sort of ladder out. I like to think our music provides that."
McNerney points to his own childhood as evidence of that need. "Being brought up as a Catholic, I really needed Slayer as a kid," he says with a laugh. "Being in this really stifling institution, I could go to my bedroom and put on Reign in Blood and feel free. It sounds silly, but music is really important for people, still, as a way to break out. My parents would say, 'Why do you listen to that music? It's so dark and destructive — it's only bringing you down.' But in my mind, it was pure freedom."
These are ideas McNerney has been toying with since 2010, when Grave Pleasures first blindsided the underground's collective consciousness under the name Beastmilk. Following a demo and an EP, Beastmilk unveiled their full-length debut, Climax, in 2013. A deafening buzz ensued as the band was showered with social media adoration and critical acclaim. After landing a major-label deal with Sony, original guitarist and co-songwriter Johan Snell flew the coop, precipitating the name change to Grave Pleasures. "There was a lot of hype around Beastmilk that never really paid off in any way," McNerney acknowledges. "There was a lot of talk, but it didn't result in sales and it didn't result in fans at the gigs. I guess it was one of those bands that people expect something of. Sometimes those bands do get somewhere — when Ghost came out, there was a lot of buzz and they turned into one of the biggest bands today. That didn't really happen with us, but it resulted in more rewarding music and a more rewarding lineup and situation for me personally. I would definitely not swap that and be Ghost — that's not what I want out of music."
The band's first album as Grave Pleasures proved to be a key transitional phase. Recorded with a new five-piece lineup that included former In Solitude drummer Uno Bruniusson and new guitarists Linnéa Olsson (formerly of one-and-done Swedish sensations the Oath) and Juho Vanhanen of Oranssi Pazuzu, Dreamcrash lacked the raw immediacy of the Beastmilk album, and wasn't nearly as well received. "There was so much turmoil around Dreamcrash that it didn't really have a chance — with us or the listeners," McNerney concedes. "No matter what we did, we were between a rock and a hard place. There was always gonna be expectations and stuff [because of Beastmilk]. So I feel really sorry for the band at that time and for that record because there're many aspects that I think are really good. We learned a lot from it — what didn't work, and how we work together. But I'm of the Tibetan mind that everything kind of happens for a reason, so I'm still quite proud of it."
Grave Pleasures underwent another upheaval prior to the recording of Motherblood. McNerney, original bassist Valtteri Arino and Vanhanen remain — the latter taking up co-songwriting duties — while welcoming drummer Rainer Tuomikanto and guitarist Aleksi Kiiskilä to the fold. "It's an all-Finnish band again, apart from me, and I think that's done something to the dynamic," McNerney offers. "On the Dreamcrash album, the music was so significantly different, which was a conscious change for us. But with this combination, with Juho and Aleksi writing, it's back again because the focus is united. And maybe it's something about writing with Finns as well — there's this Finnish post-punk DNA and it's in [this album] because the post-punk music scene here is so strong and so much a part of their history."
As such, Motherblood revives the hook-laden power and sheer danceability that made the Beastmilk album so infectious. "With this record we've achieved a lot of those things that I felt we were always capable of as far as songwriting," McNerney ventures. "I think we got to a place that I always hoped the band would be. For me personally, it feels like a big milestone. It feels like we're back to what this band is all about."
When McNerney isn't recording or touring with Grave Pleasures, he does freelance design work and is a stay-at-home dad to his son, Ottava. "It means 'The Great Bear,' like the constellation," McNerney says of his son's unusual name. "It's a Finnish name, but it's rare here. He has a couple of second names, so if he thinks Ottava is too weird when he's older, he can rebel against his hippie parents by taking a more normal name."
The singer says fatherhood has changed his perspective on touring and playing in bands. Prior to his son's arrival, McNerney was a participant or full-on member in several musical projects. These days, it's just Grave Pleasures and his "psychedelic forest folk band," Hexvessel. "Fatherhood has focused me on doing the best I can with the time and opportunities that I have at my disposal," he says. "When I spend time with my son, I want to make sure that I'm present. And it's the same with the music — I want to be someone who gives a hundred percent when I'm doing music. I'm so fucking lucky to have this really supportive family that allows me to do this. I know so many guys who used to be in bands and that's their story: 'I used to be in a band,' but now they work a normal job. For me, it's my life — it's part of who I am."
McNerney is quick to point out that playing in a band these days rarely means simply playing an instrument, singing or writing songs. "With social media, being in a band is a constant graphic design job," he says with a laugh. "I do the layouts for the Grave Pleasure records, but even if we get someone to design our merch, I have to lay it out and prepare it for the printer. People don't realize that bands nowadays have to be this multi-disciplined company, where you're really involved in all aspects. People in bands in the Seventies, they didn't worry about this stuff. They got to be rock & roll without all the corporate business bullshit. They got to smoke weed and get laid. But I spend a hell of a lot of time doing stuff that's nerdy."
As our conversation winds down, McNerney's thoughts veer toward the political climate that underscores Grave Pleasures' nuclear fixation. "I think everyone's starting to realize that we're not really safe and we never really have been," he offers. "You have these leaders, and our lives are in their hands. So nuclear fear becomes the fear of ourselves, in a nutshell — and it's those things about ourselves that we try to escape from that end up defining us. If you accept them, I think you come to a certain sense of peace. If you come to accept death, you'll be at peace with it and you'll start to enjoy life more. So that's the positive message behind the band — the Grave and the Pleasures. It's the idea of: Come dance with us while the whole shithouse goes up in flames."