Like many black-metal bands, Watain are intimately familiar with death and decay. For years, they've splashed animal blood over audience members at their concerts (when they can get away with it), and performed near an onstage altar draped with fetid animal carcasses. But even for Watain, death can be a jarring, draining shock.
In March 2014, Selim Lemouchi (ex–the Devil's Blood), who played guitar live for Watain in 2010 and 2012, died by suicide, leaving his ex-bandmates stunned and shaken. "We heard about his passing 20 minutes before we had to go onstage in Moscow," says frontman Erik Danielsson.
"Being in Russia is fucking miserable anyway, so it was a very surreal, bizarre scenario. We did the show in dedication to him and we did a show the day after as well. Then we all went back to Sweden and flew to attend his funeral. It was the first time we had to go together to the burial of a band member. I don't really know if I can describe the impact that had on the band. It shook us to the core and it's safe to say that had a profound impact on the entire creative process for the new record."
Rather than react to Lemouchi's death by writing depressive black-metal songs, Watain lashed out in anger, creating Trident Wolf Eclipse, their meanest, most direct offering since 2007's Sworn to the Dark. Unlike 2013's under-appreciated The Wild Hunt, which featured some clean vocals, piano and acoustic arpeggios, Trident Wolf Eclipse adheres to the construct they established in the early 2000s — thrash and blast beats, aggressive, infectious riffing, melodic passages that contrast with the more infernal parts.
"I think we were all very eager to fucking just go for the jugular when it came to writing new songs," Danielsson says. "We were touring a lot and playing live with Watain is a pretty savage affair. That followed us into the rehearsal room as well and made it to the album — that raw, primal feeling that we always have when we perform."
In a candid, surprisingly cordial interview, Danielsson discussed the creation of Trident Wolf Eclipse, the impact of losing close friends, the confrontational environment created by playing such adversarial music, how the stench of evil never washes away and the time TMZ went to town after witnessing Watain's Satanic bloodbath.
AS BRUTAL AS TRIDENT WOLF ECLIPSE IS, THE INDIVIDUAL SONGS ARE MORE MEMORABLE THAN MOST BLACK METAL. THERE ARE ACTUAL HOOKS AND MELODIES THERE.
ERIK DANIELSSON It makes me very glad to hear it called melodic because a lot of people just talk about the hostility and violent aspect of the album, which are clearly there. But at the same time, it's melody and riff-based music. And I'm glad we got through to someone at least.
DID YOU WANT THE NEW RECORD TO BE MORE OF A BACK-TO-FORM RELEASE FOLLOWING YOUR LAST ALBUM, THE WILD HUNT?
The Wild Hunt was a pretty intricate fucking record to make. It was an album of epic proportions and a very, very cool experimental album to do and tour with as well and it dealt with a lot of heavy emotional states. It dealt a lot with sorrow and loss and I really like that album, but at the same time, I wanted to do something different this time.
THE BAND WAS CRITICIZED BY SOME EXTREME-METAL FANS FOR INCLUDING CLEAN VOCALS AND PIANO ON THE WILD HUNT.
The Wild Hunt is a one-hour long album and two of the songs are a bit more experimental. And yes, one was an almost acoustic song with clean vocals, but there was so much focus on that. There was quite a lot of stuff going on throughout that album that fell in the shadow of those two songs, which was sad to see. But I think at the same time a lot of people weren't ready to face something as naked as "They Rode On." It was a very, very personal song for me and I think some people felt a bit weird about me going there, which is good. I like to make people unsettled and shake them out of their comfort zone.
TRIDENT WOLF ECLIPSE FEELS MORE CONFRONTATIONAL AND LESS INTROSPECTIVE THAN THE WILD HUNT.
By now, Watain has become such an integral part of our lives, so it's almost impossible to do a non-personal album. Everything comes straight from within, but this time I wanted to deal with personal matters in a more direct way. The lyrics are a bit more allegorical and not as much directly based on personal emotions. It has more to do with empowerment in general. It deals a lot with direct force. All the weapons are faced to the outside, so to speak.
WHAT IS A TRIDENT WOLF ECLIPSE? IT THAT A METAPHOR FOR SOMETHING?
The title is very much a reference to Watain and what it has become. The trident and the wolf and the eclipse are the words for our most central symbols. Watain has always been a band that has worked with symbolic language and after all this time the symbols we have used the most have become charged with a lot of force, power and meaning. I turn to those symbols with great reverence, respect and humbleness. So it was important for us to make them visible with the album title and put a light on them. The symbols are very rich in language and they are not confined to one interpretation. They motivate thoughtfulness and contemplation.
WHAT DO THEY MEAN TO YOU?
What I get out of them isn't as important as how other people interpret them.
SINCE TRIDENT WOLF ECLIPSE WAS, IN PART, A REACTION TO THE DEATH OF SELIM LEMOUCHI, WHY AREN'T THE SONGS MORE MELANCHOLY?
In life, we thought a lot about losing someone close to you, but with the music, we focused as much on how to come back to a powerful state and how to honor the memory of that person in an empowering way rather than just sobbing about it. Selim chose his own death. He didn't die by accident. I wanted to respect that and I think the way the album sounds has a lot to do with the power of his being and the things that I feel when I remember him.
EXTREME-METAL MUSICIANS SEEM TO HAVE A LOWER LIFE EXPECTANCY THAN PERFORMERS IN OTHER GENRES.
Well, the music genre that we belong to is one that acknowledges very openly the fact that we're all going to die. Death is a very central theme, which is something very beautiful and it really underlies the forcefulness and the very serious stance that people have towards metal. A lot of our society and culture is quite ignorant of death and shuns it like the plague instead of welcoming its very natural presence in life. Death is something to come regardless of whether you're prepared or not or if you want it or not. It's going to come and I think it's very important to be reminded about that with frequent intervals. It's something that people need to hammer into their heads. This is the fate of all of us eventually.
WHAT DO YOU STRIVE FOR WHEN YOU WRITE AN ALBUM?
I like when things are pure and relevant and expressed with so much passion they start to tremble and throb. That's usually more based on a very honest expression rather than a desire to be extreme. A lot of the savage aggression in a lot of the old extreme metal has kind of disappeared. I think people studied it too closely and tried to use it as a blueprint instead of just another outburst. For me, it's a matter of finding your own reason to do overpowering things. It shouldn't come from the desire to sound like anyone else. It should be based on pure emotion. That's when real extremity comes out, and that's when music becomes really interesting.
FOR THE UNINITIATED, A WATAIN SHOW IS AN UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCE. REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT YOU SPLASH BLOOD OVER THE CROWD, THE CLUB ALWAYS SMELLS LIKE A SLAUGHTERHOUSE. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO SAYS, "I LIKE WATAIN, BUT I CAN'T STOMACH SEEING THEM LIVE."
This is very hostile and dangerous music that comes from a highly potent, diabolical source. But it's also something that is quite beautiful and breathtaking and sublime at the same time. And if you take away the hostility of it or the challenging aspect of it, then you lose an important element of the music. If you start to dissect things and just keep the things you feel are acceptable then you end up with something that is conforming instead of antagonistic or wild and fierce and free and careless. So, there's no way around our full presentation, including the blood and the stage presentation. It's a totality and I think even all the people that say, "I love the band, but I cannot go and see them live" — I think the reason why they still feel admiration for what we do is because of that fact. They understand we're doing something quite challenging, a bit obnoxious and hard to handle. A lot of people chose not to be in the middle of it, but what person who is into extreme metal doesn't at least like the idea of that?
IS THE LIVE SHOW MORE ABOUT PERFORMANCE ART OR SATANIC RITUAL?
It certainly has elements of performance art. I'm deeply fascinated and interested in that whole scene and I have been for many, many years. And some of my interest and involvement in that scene has colored our performances, for sure. But when it comes to the live show, I think it's better to just view it as Watain.
TMZ FILMED PART OF A SHOW AND RAN A CRAZY, ALMOST COMICAL STORY ABOUT THE BLOOD YOU SPLASHED INTO THE CROWD.
I don't know what the fuck that was. We did one show in Brooklyn. It was at a hipster-oriented festival and the show went well. Everything felt great. There were amazingly supportive diehard Watain supporters in the crowd. But there were also others who weren't accustomed to what Watain was about. Some of those people were with TMZ, and they made a big deal out of the blood. It was an extremely bloody show even by Watain standards. After the show we flew back home and I got back from the airport and turned on my phone and it started beeping. People were like, "Oh, it's all over the news!" I was like, "What's all over the news?" I checked it out and it was a really outrageous, hilarious news report of a Satanic ritual in Brooklyn. I think that it only served our purpose. It spread the word and, of course, not every reaction to a Watain concert has to be positive.
AS LONG AS THEY REACT YOU'VE ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING?
Yes, and even if it was made up by a sensationalist journalist it still had a relevant part about how people perceive Watain on a more mainstream level. And that's good because by now we cannot deny that they're part of our audience. Watain have grown far outside of the more confined black metal movement. So it's good if those people read outrageous articles like that. If they want to know what it's actually about then they can come and see the shows. It's good to keep people curious.
AFTER YOU FINISH A TOUR, HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET THE STENCH OF BLOOD AND ANIMAL INNARDS OFF YOUR CLOTHES AND BODY?
I think that stench never really goes away, to be honest. Even if the actual stench goes away, I think the inner stench or the inner things that live on after the tour are there to stay. It's a process of transformation. Each tour adds to the savage spirit, which is very related to the stench that people often talk about. It has a lot to do with a form of primordial ecstasy. It's something that is quite transforming in every aspect. It does something to you. When you've done that to yourself enough times thing will start to change. That's just how it is?
CAN YOU ELABORATE?
It affects your general understanding of what is valuable and why people fear things and why war and things such as fire and blood and the warrior spirit are held in high regard in most early civilizations before people started to focus on less relevant matters. It takes you to a more primordial sense of being. It's hard to think about without sounding overly dramatic or over-intellectual, but to me, it's a very simple fact that the more blood and fire and raw experience you have in your life, the more you will change in that direction. I see that as a very positive evolution. It's made us a very strong bunch of people. It made us gather around something very important in life, which is something a lot of people would like to say about their own lives. The things that we use are very integral parts of my life right now. They mean so much more than just being stage props for me.
THE PROBLEM WITH EXTREMISM IS ONCE YOU START DOING OUTRAGEOUS THINGS YOU SOMETIMES NEED TO DO MORE OUTRAGEOUS THINGS TO REMAIN RELEVANT TO THOSE THAT THRIVE ON SUCH ACTIVITIES. FOR MALADJUSTED INDIVIDUALS, THAT CAN LEAD TO CRIMINAL ACTS. IN THE NINETIES THAT'S WHAT CAUSED CERTAIN NORWEGIAN BLACK-METAL BANDS TO BURN CHURCHES AND, POSSIBLY, COMMIT MURDER.
I think criminal activities and metal are naturally connected. To me, that fact is very much based on the energies that black metal deals with. They are, to a great extent, malevolent energies that are not shunned, they are praised and welcomed. And people cannot play around with them for a long time before they start to manifest. Either they manifest as artistic expressions that become quite radical and extreme and interesting to a lot of people or they manifest in other ways, such as crime, murder, church burnings and so on. It doesn't matter if you're for it or against it, it's the way it is. And I think these things also come in waves. People have heard about these things [that happened in Norway] and think that they belong to the past. But I think that as long as there are people that perform this type of music with pure intent it's just a matter of time until these things will resurface again. It's cause and effect.
WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR WATAIN TO GO BEYOND ONSTAGE RITUALS AND INTO THE REALM OF CRIMINAL ACTIVITY?
There's never been any line that we've been afraid to cross. But it wouldn't be very ... I've grown tired of people who have boasted in interviews of what they could do and what they have thought of doing. That's completely irrelevant. The things that matter are what you do and, to your own self, what you're prepared to do. To put it simply, our stance on crime is as simple as this: We have never been interested in following anyone else's rules or ethics or moral codes. We have never been particularly interested in following anyone but our own true will. And, of course, when you feel that way, you have to cross certain lines that are considered illegal in society or at least very offensive. But if you have something that you truly love and that you truly believe in, then the fact that you'll step on someone else's toes when you do what you, that has to be a secondary thing that you consider. The most important thing to consider is that you're doing what you're here to do.
IN INTERVIEWS, YOU'VE OPENLY EMBRACED SATAN AND DECLARED THAT WATAIN IS A SATANIC BAND. IS THAT STILL WHERE YOUR IDEOLOGY LIES OR HAVE YOU TRANSCENDED THAT? IS IT STILL ALL ABOUT THE RELIGION OR IS IT MORE ABOUT FOLLOWING YOUR WILL AND SUMMONING POWER FROM WITHIN?
No, nothing has changed in that regard. Of course, having had this central in my life for over 20 years now it obviously becomes more and more important, more and more severe. And at the same time, perhaps, it's less that's important to try to explain my motivation to people.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?
I mean what people have to remember is Watain is an expression of who we are. But it's not an explanation of who we are. It's not a band with an agenda, it's not a band with messianic intent. The people behind the artistic expression have their own beliefs. We have our own way of looking at things. I used to think it was quite relevant to talk about these things, but what I learned over the years is that people aren't interested in an actual explanation, they're interested in the juicy stuff. They want to hear about animal sacrifice and ritual slayings — that part of our beliefs. And that's a very neglectful and disrespectful way of looking at a way of life. To me, it's quite tiresome and it has made me less and less interested in talking about it, especially because it's led to more misunderstanding of what we're about.
What I'm what I'm interested in sharing regarding my own personal belief is that the Satanist can be found in the music and the lyrics and the artwork, and that's where I draw the line. It adds a lot to my own spiritual being to have that part of who I am be a bit more confined and shut away from the public person that I am in Watain. People have this conception of what a Satanist is and that is something I would like to distance myself from. I have lived a life with people around me who have lived and who have died and have killed in the name of Satan. So for me, it's a little bit different than for a lot of black-metal musicians.