Interview with Aesop Dekker
Aesop Dekker was drummer and founding member of the dearly departed Ludicra, a San Francisco band who re-imagined black metal for an urban, American context. Along with Weakling, they were largely responsible for founding the West Coast black metal scene that has become a worldwide phenomenon. But with their deep understanding of the genre’s origins and musical nuances, Ludicra always stood apart from—and head and shoulders above—the slew of posers who followed in their wake. Of course, they never got their due.
While Ludicra has passed on to the corpse-hall of the gods, Dekker has never been more prominent in the metal scene. Since 2007 he’s become an integral member of Agalloch, playing with them on 2010’s Marrow Of The Spirit, and he’s recently begun drumming with The Worm Ouroboros, who play an unusual but convincing fusion of neofolk, post-rock, and trad doom. His current work belies his origins playing ragged, melodic punk rock in bands like Hickey, who were legends of the 90’s underground.
But Aesop’s influence on contemporary heavy music extends beyond his work behind the kit. He’s one of those rare people whose skill as a musician is matched by his skill as a music writer. In late 2007 he founded an mp3 blog, Cosmic Hearse, sharing a new item from his mind-bogglingly extensive collection every day (with the occasional break for touring). It’s become an authoritative resource for everything from kvlt black metal and primitive death metal to the still-more-obscure reaches of Japanese noisecore 7-inches, underrated krautrock gems, and mediocre Swedish heavy metal albums. If you are under 35 and into metal, punk, and related sounds, Cosmic Hearse has probably had a direct or indirect influence on what you listen to. Reading the Hearse for some 3 years, I became every bit as interested in Aesop the tastemaker as Aesop the drummer. Indeed, if it weren’t for his writing I might not be writing about music today!
I wanted to get at the roots of both his writing and his playing. So when I spoke with him over the phone a few weeks ago, I focused on his history as a listener to, collector of, and sometime-distributor of black metal. I asked about how he got into the genre, how he understands it, and how that experience has informed his own musical projects. Let’s do this thing!
Pavel: As a place to start I thought I’d get a little autobiographical, and then move onto the more musical stuff. As a teenager in Florida during the 1980s you were playing in punk bands, but you were also already tapped into the first wave of extreme metal. How did you get into the heavy stuff, especially when most of it was happening in Europe and really obscure in the states?
Aesop: I think like a lot of people, I was fortunate… In the 80’s record stores were [still] hubs for people. I was located smack between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami had a place called Open Books and Records which was a really small store, but it was owned by this couple who were super-dedicated to stocking what they thought was the best stuff. And there was another store in Ft. Lauderdale called Underground Records, which was mainly important Finnish and Japanese hardcore records—
Pavel: Whoa, sick!
Aesop: And then later on the guy got really into thrash and early death metal. So he started stocking that stuff too. We’d just skip school and hang out at that store and smoke pot and listen to records all day. And there was another one that I think was called Record Haven. That was only speed metal. So this place—the cultural fucking wasteland of South Florida—actually had some cool record stores going on. And you know, I was playing in hardcore bands and I was on that scene, but there were a handful of bands that were acceptable, like Venom and Sodom. If it was from Europe and it was really fast and sloppy [it was cool with the punk kids]. The first time I heard Sodom I was just like “that was just kind of a punk record.”
Pavel: So that was something that blew your mind?
Aesop: Yeah, and I remember playing the first Voivod record just because it looked like a punk record to me, and it had mention of war and that cover art…
Pavel: The first Voivod was kind of a punk album wasn’t it?
Aesop: Yeah, and then when I listened to it I was like “I don’t really get what the differentiation is.” And I don’t know if it was because I was younger, or if it was because I was growing up in a place where people weren’t exposed to much culture, that I didn’t know or didn’t care? I have a hard time wrapping my mind around why we thought certain things were acceptable and certain things weren’t. I knew that we didn’t like guitar solos and we did not like falsetto vocals. But now those things are really important to me… I mean, Mercyful Fate is one of my favorite bands. But at the time, those things were kind of a no-no, you know?
Pavel: Yeah, I went through that myself too. Fancy guitar solos were a deal-breaker. It made me take a long time to get into Dissection because of that.
Aesop: I think those were our criteria… It wasn’t until years later that I started playing in metal bands that I was playing with people who grew up purely listening to metal, and punk was this thing that they avoided! The guys in Agalloch are a prime example of that—I’m still learning about this wealth of bands that I totally missed out on from hanging out with those guys. But in return there’s a million hardcore bands or punk bands that they’ve never heard that they should absolutely hear.
Pavel: Definitely. Just out of curiosity what are a couple of those bands that the guys in Agalloch are turning you on to?
Aesop: Oh man, like, this band Xysma, this old Finnish grind band that played more melodic death metal later on…that’s been some of my favorite stuff. The Israeli band Salem was one I’d never heard of. So I missed out on a lot of things that were going on in the early 90s because I just wasn’t all that interested in punk or metal at that time.
Pavel: [Shocked] In the early 90’s you weren’t listening to punk or metal???
Aesop: No, I was listening to things like The Birthday Party and discovering the Swans and Neubauten. That was the point where I was trying my hand at being an erudite and sophisticated college kid, I guess.
Pavel: So were you not playing in Fuckboyz or Hickey at the time?
Aesop: That was kind of an in-between period. I’d moved out from South Florida before the guys who were in Hickey and Fuckboyz. They moved out here with the drummer who had replaced me, and I was hanging out with them and all but I was at art school and I wasn’t playing music. When the guy who replaced me moved back to Florida, then I started playing with them again and that’s when we turned into Hickey.
Pavel: So that leads into something else I’d really wanted to ask about. I had been wondering how you experienced that early 90’s explosion of Scandinavian black metal, but I guess you weren’t actually listening to a lot of metal at that time. When did that stuff start to surface for you?
Aesop: I think in general people in the States got it a little late. I used to work with Scott from Neurosis, and they toured in Europe, and he brought back that Kerrang! and was telling me “there’s this band and these rivalries…” For me, like for a lot of people, it started off as this sensational gawking. But then I was like “Well shit, I wanna hear these bands really bad!” I remember I was on tour and we were in a store and I managed buy a couple of things there. Me and Matty from Hickey were avid dumpster-divers, and we rummaged through the dumpster of Mordham Records, a big distributor (I think they’re gone now). We found a bunch of water-damaged Darkthrone CDs and we got a cassette by the band Manes, so that kind of set us on this quest. It wasn’t easy—there wasn’t the internet—so whenever we were on tour we would just scour stores. We were in Mexico once and found a store that just sold dubs—cassette dubs of black metal records with a Xerox of the cover in a Ziploc bag. We heard about Satyricon and Immortal through that. And in San Francisco we had a couple other friends who were playing music that were interested, and we started this miniature trading scene off the four people that were interested in it in 1995 in San Francisco. And those are the people that ended up starting Weakling and Ludicra.
Pavel: That’s actually something I was wondering about. Were there any bands that popped up before Weakling, that were doing black metal in San Francisco between, like, Von and then Weakling and Ludicra?
Aesop: Well, Weakling predated Ludicra for sure. Gossard had had some concept of Weakling since the early 90s, but there were maybe eight people in San Francisco that listened to black metal, you know? As far as metal bands in San Francisco, Slough Feg was the only one, and they stuck it out—they were around before metal was cool. There were the thrash bands, the 80’s Bay Area thrash scene, but all those dudes had gone on to something else. They wanted to be in punk bands, be Bad Religion…
Pavel: Right, right, because that’s where the cash was at the time.
Aesop: Yeah, so it was weird! The only people who were interested in black metal were people who grew up into the punk scene, and were avidly looking for something compelling.
Pavel: So do you think that in a way these people were sort of displaced into black metal by disillusionment with what was going on in the poppy Cali punk scene at the time?
Aesop: I dunno if that’s it so much as just that these were people who were willing to dig the crates, you know what I’m saying? The people that were gonna actively look for strange music. I mean, I’ve always been like that, getting really excited about genres or weird scenes. Someone will be like “Oh my god there’s bands in Slovenia that play…,” and I’ll be like “well I need to hear that!” I’ll spend days just trying to research and find everything I can. So [that was part of black metal’s appeal to me] at the time, but like I was saying about Sodom it also had kind of a weird DIY punk thing to it. Xeroxed cassette covers in black and white, and shitty production values. So it was all very interesting to us. When Hickey disbanded, me and John Cobbett were excited about starting some kind of black metal band just to make a record, because we’d been seeing Weakling… I think there were bands before Weakling but we didn’t know about ‘em.
Pavel: They just weren’t worthy of notice, I guess?
Aesop: Well, there was Robed In Exile who were a black metal band from San Jose, I think, and I know that they were doing stuff pretty early on. And there was Bud Burke who was in Exhumed [also San Jose] who had a couple bands in high school that I think would qualify.
Pavel: What were the names?
Aesop: There was Dawning, who were this sort of black metal-ish doom band, I think they recorded a couple demos, and then he had this band Dying In Your Beauty Sleep—
Aesop: –that I think were sort of an early black metal band, like ’94, ’95 if I had to guess? So, it’s weird to think that San Jose was maybe before San Francisco, but…
Pavel: Black metal has always cropped up in weird places, right?
Aesop: Yeah, so there were definitely American bands, like Profanatica and Judas Iscariot, and I knew of Profanatica but I don’t think I heard of Judas Iscariot until way later.
Pavel: So when you were getting into this stuff can you remember any particular “holy shit” moment…not necessarily the first thing you heard…where one of these records opened up your understanding of this music or made you realize that there was something different and special about it?
Aesop: Well, there were several of those moments. In 1996 or 1997 there were not that many records, and the ones you could get were even fewer. I have very fond memories of John Cobbett and I calling each other and saying “Oh my god have you heard Kampfar?” or “Have you heard this Ulver record?,” and each one being more mind-blowing than the last. There are so many. The first Ulver record, definitely. I remember also being really floored by the fact that this was music made primarily by teenagers who lived in this really isolated place. That made it so much more exotic and mysterious. I don’t think most people have even thought about Norway, you know? I think Transylvanian Hunger stands out because the band so intentionally went backwards like that. After having figured out how to make records that sounded amazing and write songs that were interesting, to just totally go so minimalist and weird. That was something really fascinating, and I remember that spurring my interest even further.
Pavel: I can see how that’s consistent with a lot of the sounds you’ve explored on the blog.
Aesop: I’ve always had an affinity for things that are badly recorded. For the longest time I thought [about it in terms like]: “This is music that has to be made, it’s so important that it’s made that these people don’t even really care if they have the means to do it well or not. It’s just gotta be done.” So for Darkthone—a band that clearly could play and write material and record it—to go that route was mind-boggling. So, that’s why there’s a lot of stuff like that on the blog. And black metal’s great for that because there are so many bands in the strangest of places, really young people who are not really concerned about making something that’s even heard! It’s really weird.
Pavel: I’m curious about the concept for Ludicra, which is kind of a departure from a lot of the Scandinavian stuff that you’d come up on. There seems to be this distinctly urban quality to it. Was that an idea that you had at the outset? How did you develop it?
Aesop: Oh, no! The original mission statement and intent was [just] for me and John Cobbett to make a record. We didn’t plan on playing shows. I was going to do the vocals and drums and he was going to do all the guitars and bass. It was going to be total early Sodom, early Darkthrone, Nifelheim-worship stuff. We had no concept. It was just going to be a black metal band. I don’t think we even planned on putting our names on it. We were just going to make it and put it out there. And when we were rehearsing was when we hooked up with Christie and Jessica who were also working on stuff, and combined forces, and then Jessica left and we got Ross and Laurie in the band. And all that developed on its own.
I think if anything it was probably most informed by Laurie coming in and doing a lot of the lyrics, you know? I mean, we knew that we didn’t want to write about Satan and swords—we never wanted to do that—we wanted to keep it more mysterious and vague. But she came in and brought this real honesty. She said “I’m gonna write about what I know, and what I experience, and what life is like for me,” and that informed this other aesthetic. The lyrics would tell us the album’s title, and then that would tell us what the art would look like. We had an idea of what color we thought things would be. But the whole trick of Ludicra was not to overthink it, to just do what came naturally and let things develop.
Pavel: I was wondering if there was a common thread between the stuff you’ve done in metal, with Ludicra and Agalloch, and the stuff you’ve done in melodic punk. Is there a sort of spirit, a motivation, a drive, shared between what you did in Hickey and Fuckboyz and what you’re doing now?
Aesop: It’s strange because, musically, Agalloch carries a lot of the same devices and vocabulary that I was used to [from my old bands]—playing in 4/4 times, the melodic hooks and flourishes—these sort of remind me of punk in this weird way. But other than little hints and tinges here and there, no. When we started Ludicra one of the things I really really wanted to do was increase my vocabulary as a musician. And that’s where playing with Worm [The Worm Ouroboros] has come into it too. I’ve always wanted to play outside of what’s comfortable and what I know. All these bands have to be different! And that’s how I’ve gotten better, is just by playing with people who are better, and playing differently, and who are writing music that is a challenge to play. I wonder about people who start side projects that sound a lot like bands they’re already in, you know? I’ve been doing some recording with Matt Rizzler [aka Dwight Trash] who was in Hickey, recently, and we were talking about playing Hickey songs and I told him I wasn’t sure I could do it.
Pavel: Just because it’s too specific to having that lineup, having Matty in the band?
Aesop: No, more because there’s devices and phrases and things that we did in Hickey that I haven’t done since. And I don’t know if they’re still part of my musical landscape. I don’t know that I can make my hands and my mind do those certain things anymore. I could come back to it, but it’d be difficult, because I’ve pushed myself into playing in a totally different way.
Pavel: So, on that note then, is there no chance we’ll ever see you playing in any sort of Japanese noisecore-meets-Nifelheim band, or anything like that?
Aesop: Oh yeah I would totally do that! If I had time and people that I wanted to play with and wanted to do that, yeah, absolutely.
Pavel: I just think that’d be dope to hear!
Aesop: For the longest time I was wanting to start a really knuckle-dragging primitive death metal band, but now it’d feel strange because there are so many good ones that have just come out in the last few years or so. There’s no need, you know?
Pavel: There’s a bit of a glut! Which of those bands do you think are worth listening to?
Aesop: Well here in town we have Vastum, and there’s Funebrum and Disma. There’s a million good ones. There’s Undergang from Denmark. That kind of Asphyx/early Swedish death metal worship is back. Which makes sense because if we’re going in order from the retro-thrash thing, and then after that it’ll be like a resurgence of early black metal. And then I don’t know what happens after that! Maybe nu-metal, it’s like going in a circle!
Pavel: Dude nu metal is already back!
Pavel: It’s back in a new form… have you heard beatdown hardcore or slam death?
Aesop: Oh yeah I know about the slam thing, it’s like Devourment-style bands…
Pavel: Well there are some that take Devourment that go even more bro-jock with it. It’s pretty sweet to me!
Aesop: It’s weird because San Francisco is like a bubble. We don’t have kids here. There’s really an absence of teenagers in San Francisco. It’s not like the burbs where all these bands are going to come from. We have no metalcore scene, it just doesn’t happen here. It’s just a weird infertile ground where it cannot take root!
Pavel: Interesting! Do you this non-presence of teenagers has helped shape the music coming out of San Francisco?
Aesop: Yeah I definitely think so. That’s a question that’s come up a lot. People ask why we have such a fertile scene and I think that might be a part of it! There’s not a whole lot of jack because it’s hard, it’s harder to live here, and there aren’t a lot of venues. If you’re in a band and you’re not very good you’re not gonna get shows, you’re not going to go very far. There’s a strong scene where people work together—bands from all different genres will play together—but if you’re band isn’t good no one is going to give you a leg up. So it’s strange because you’ll see a deathrock band play shows with doom bands, but that’s all because these are the quality bands. It’s a sort of non-competitive competitive scene, if that makes any sense.
Pavel: You have to be competitive to get in, but then it’s not cut-throat within it.
Aesop: Yeah, it kind of connects to this thing where we were accused of being elitists. There was this big debate about why bands like Ludicra and Asunder—our group of friends, our scene of bands—weren’t supporting bands that were “TRUE METAL.” It just kind of came down to this notion that we can’t support bands just because they’re playing metal. Ludicra would play a show with a good, shoegazey indie rock band that we liked before we would play with a thrash band who weren’t very good. And there were a lot of cries of “you guys are just elitist scene police assholes!” But what we were just trying to do was promote bands that were worthwhile, instead of just because…*they play metal.*
Pavel: Support the scene, bro!
Aesop: Yeah, that mentality was kind of leftover from the punk scene almost, this whole “give everyone a chance” like it’s a fucking sandbox or something. There was a lot of hostility and bad blood between bands here for that reason.
Pavel: But at this point it’s sort of been decided, history has been written?
Aesop: Well it almost decided itself, because there are no venues in San Francisco anymore, so nobody’s playing shows.
Pavel: What happened?
Aesop: The city shut ‘em out. It became increasingly hard. And also the whole game changed. Now there are these touring metal bands and these giant packages, so no local band is getting on the bill when these show come through. You’ve got 5 or 6 bands chosen by the labels and the booking agents, it has nothing to do with “these bands are friends and want to tour with each other,” it’s all business. There are warehouses in Oakland, and that’s awesome because there’s a whole new generation of bands that have popped up doing those kinds of shows. But when Ludicra broke up we hadn’t played a show in the Bay Area in going on two years, just because there was really no place for us to do it. The venues that were bigger wouldn’t have us, and the venues that were smaller were just too small. So we were in this weird limbo. And I think that was the deciding factor. A lot of these rivalries went away because a lot of the bands went away.
Pavel: That’s sad!
Aesop: Yeah it is sad, but there’s always a bunch of new, really great bands coming from Oakland, usually. And in five years one of them will still be around and will have a record out. So it’s kind of cool, in a weird way it’s almost like there’s a natural selection that goes on with bands in the Bay Area.
Pavel: So, natural selection (sort of) relates to something else I was gonna ask. A couple times on the blog you’ve mentioned your old tape label, The Funeral Agency, and I’ve always been curious about it. And going back to the natural selection thing, a couple bands you repped through that have gone on to at least some measure of success. Like, Gravehill have a few albums out and Bosse de Nage have been signed and whatnot. So that’s cool! And I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your experience running that label, and what you were trying to accomplish with it. Was it fun?
Aesop: Yeah, it was fun! I had done a project that was a kind of ambient/noise/soundscape thing, and I had done a tape, and I was trading with a couple distros. And it occurred to me “I could make tapes at home, I could dub tapes off, and do my own stuff, and then I’d have something to trade with people.” And it was initially just going to be people I knew, but then I had bands writing me and wanting to submit stuff, and there’d be bands I’d get a tape of and I’d say “Oh this is really great, I should write to them and see if they wanna do something.” And I think I put out some 10 releases total. What killed it was my deal with the bands, which was that I’d give them 20% of the tapes I ran. I had a box of 500 tapes to send to this German band [says some really long confusing name], the best thing they’d ever put out, and it got lost in the mail and went back and forth, and the long and short of it was that it just got too expensive. I was paying way too much out of pocket just on post office costs.
Pavel: Yeah I’ve heard that before. You were gonna do a release of one of those Korean black metal bands, right?
Aesop: I was trying, it was really hard! That scene is like the same 5 or 6 people, and I was basically trying to strike a deal with the label, Nerbilous, saying that I’d do tape versions of these releases and then distro them in the states, because that stuff was really hard to come by. And I was under the impression—and I think I’m correct—that it would be easier to sell a tape than a CDr. And now I think I’m totally right! I think I was a little ahead of my time on the cassette label.
[But yeah,] when I lost those tapes in the mail I was devastated, I was just done. Actually, just recently, I gave all the leftover covers from OT from Akitsa who does Tour de Garde because he was saying that he’d like to keep some of those in stock if I had any, and I’m all for that.
Pavel: What was the name of that German band whose tapes got lost?
Aesop: Varghkoghargasmal! And they eventually put out a record on tUMULt, the label of Andee Connors, one of the owners of Aquarius Records. He has this knack for putting out the coolest records that nobody buys. So he was enamored of it, [as was] everyone who heard it. It was a one-man black metal band, all instrumental, but he didn’t have a distortion pedal so it was kind of like weird surf music. And I think he was also recording the drums last, so it made for things falling apart and then coming back. It was very interesting and… I don’t wanna say poorly played…but…poorly played.
Pavel: So, the last tape question I have is more of a personal curiosity thing. I tracked down some forum advertisement you did for the Funeral Agency a long time ago—I think it’s basically the only information about the label on the web—and you mentioned some sort of crust band called Mokyre [mangles pronunciation]…
Aesop: Whaaa? Oh…it’s pronounced “mockery!” Mokyre was something I was gonna do through the mail. It was me and John Cobbett, and we were gonna get this kid Paul from Russia to be in on it. And actually, as you mentioned, it was gonna be like if Confuse was black metal. But we never did it! I made the cover art and made a big deal about it but we never recorded anything!
Pavel: Dude, do it!
Aesop: I remember we recorded some drums for it after a Ludicra practice, but it never went anywhere after that. I’m surprised, I forgot that I even mentioned it!
Pavel: So why the weird spelling?
Aesop: It was supposed to be a tribute to Les Legions Noire, they’re really into the “yre” combo. It was supposed to be a LLN/crust/Confuse band.
Pavel: You mentioned before that you “didn’t want to write about Satan and swords.” And yet black metal is this music that’s laden with a lot of meaning—it reimagines the world through these diverse mythical systems. You clearly have a really strong connection to the music but you’re not particularly interested in Satan or the Norse gods or whatever. So I was wondering how black metal has resonated with your experience and ideals, or how it’s influenced the way you see the world. Could you tell me something about your emotional and intellectual connection to the music?
Aesop: Well, that’s a hard one. By the time I discovered black metal I was in my mid-twenties, and my worldview was pretty set up. I definitely feel that listening to punk and hardcore in the 80s informed my morality and my worldview then, because I was a kid and didn’t have a whole lot of parental guidance. And it did a good job, in a weird way. I feel like it taught me integrity and the value of working hard. A lot of people who were in the punk scene and then got into black metal were like “Aw man I love this music so much but there’s all this other shit, these trappings are just ridiculous, I can’t palate this.” I feel like maybe I wasn’t all the way there, I definitely didn’t have an ironic snicker like “oh-ho, isn’t this quaint,” but I just sort of looked around it. And I was also a D&D nerd when I was, like 10—
Pavel: Weren’t we all!
Aesop: Well no, we all weren’t! So there were references to literature that was dear to me when I was younger. This was the work of teenagers, so it makes sense.
I think since then black metal has developed into something that has these different facets [to its lyrical content and imagery], but early on there were pretty rigid rules as to what you could sing about. And I remember there being debates about how the greater spiritual concern of black metal differentiated it from death metal. But that to me felt lazy—there’s definitely musical things going on [that separate the genres].
So my interest was wholly in the music, and I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the other things. There were definitely things that were troublesome. There was racism, and religious ideas—Satan itself is this Christian concept… But I was more interested in blastbeats and layers and layers of guitars and atmospheric recordings.
And I know that this is the complaint, the whole argument we’re having now about hipsters, and hipster metal, and “hipsters have ruined black metal,” and so on. But nobody has come out of their mom’s ass listening to metal, and if you’re a 45 year old man and you’re still running around in the forest with a pseudonym and a sword then…that’s great for you, but it’s not something that’s held much of an interest for me. It doesn’t bother me, but it never really interested me.
Pavel: So how has that shaped your experience playing in a band like Agalloch, where John Haughm seems to be really sincerely devoted to this pagan ideal, and that’s a big part of the music?
Aesop: Well, I don’t wanna speak for John’s thing, you know, but he has this very “Walden” sort of relationship with nature, and his lyrics address his wondering if it’s a man-made construct, or a religious or spiritual [phenomenon]. That’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about his lyrics—they’re self-referential and they question a lot of these ideas: “I have this reverence for nature, what is this?” It is sincere and it’s honest, but as far as the pagan aspect of the lyrics you won’t find an Agalloch song that mentions Thor or Odin. It seems more about a personal connection with nature. Which in a weird way is sort of like how Ludicra and Laurie’s lyrics are about the landscape that she exists in. So it’s just people who are writing honestly. I guess maybe that’s the thing—my affinity is for bands that write about what they know, and I think that’s gonna be your best bet lyrically. But I seldom pay attention to the lyrics. When I was younger they were really important, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become less interested in image and lyrics and more interested in sound.
– Interview by Pavel Godfrey
Check out Pavel’s excellent blog, Trial By Ordeal
– Feature photos as marked by Taylor Keahey
More examples of Taylor’s work can be see on Flickr
…and of course, don’t forget to check out the legendary Cosmic Hearse!