Interview mit Michel Nienhuis von Autarkh

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With the end of Dodecahedron, the Netherlands lost one of its most extraordinary black metal groups, but at the same time gained an even more unconventional project: AUTARKH. On their debut „Form In Motion“ the band combines metal of the most extreme kind with incredibly diverse electronic sounds. In our interview, mastermind Michel Nienhuis explains how he approached his foray into electronic realms, what he thinks about the relationship between humans and machines, and why he doesn’t think highly of constructed dualities.

Hi, thanks for answering a few questions for us. How are things going for you at the moment? How are you coping with the ongoing pandemic?
Thanks for having us, Metal1. We are doing great actually. On April 16th we played our very first live show as part of Roadburn Redux (the live stream version of Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, NL), which was a unique and rewarding experience. We have had some great responses om our debut album ‚Form In Motion‘ so far. It is unfortunate that we can‘t play for a live audience at the moment, but Roadburn Redux was a great alternative to show our performance to people all over the world.

A while ago you announced quite promptly that you were laying Dodecahedron to rest and launching AUTARKH instead. What was going through your mind at that time?
It was hard to deal with the severe illness and death of our friend and musical companion Michiel Eikenaar. That whole period was a tough time for the members of Dodecahedron on different levels. It became apparent that the flame of Dodecahedron had burnt out, but by that time we were already way into working on a 3rd album. A couple of demos were finished and I thought it would be a pity to just leave that there, so I thought about what I could do with it. Then I remembered an idea I had years earlier; the thought of trying to combine the type of extreme metal that we were doing with Dodecahedron with electronic beats that I have been listening to for a long time, stuff like Aphex Twin and Autechre. That required me to debate who I would ask to join in on this project, because there was some new territory to explore. I asked my friend and former colleague Tijnn Verbruggen to weigh in on this, since he has experience as an electronic music producer and David Luiten who has the ability to look at music from multiple perspectives (as a guitarist, as a drummer and as a producer). We started discussing and experimenting and things were moving forward in a good way, so we decided to be in this project together.

Was it out of the question for you to continue without Michiel Eikenaar under your former name or did the name change have another reason?
First of all, I don‘t see this as a name change. AUTARKH is a new band. It was not out of the question to continue Dodecahedron without Michiel, we actually did that for 1,5 years with our new singer William van der Voort. AUTARKH however has a completely different line-up, a different sound, and different musical and lyrical concepts – that‘s why I would call it a new band.

Your announcement read like AUTARKH could be understood as a continuation of Dodecahedron. Why was that so?
It is a new band, but the artistic fundament of Dodecahedron remains intact within AUTARKH because most of the songs were originally written for a new Dodecahedron record. The most successful aspects of the Dodecahedron sound can also be heard on ‘Form In Motion’: heavy dissonant riffing, distorted Fender Jazz bass sound, contrasting atmospheres and Joris Bonis’ sound synthesis. In the rhythmic department we could try some new things because we decided to figure out how to implement beats instead of regular drums, and I also wanted to explore what I could do with my voice other than growling.

Your work with Dodecahedron even had a scientific paper written about. Can you tell us something more about that?
The paper is called „From Plato to Dodecahedron: The contribution of Ligétian textures and electronic music to the compositions of an extreme metal band“, written by French musicologist Camille Béra, from the Univerity of Rouen. The abstract says: „In this study, we will develop the idea that Extreme Metal, in search of generic renewal due to stagnantion in its musical language since the end of the 2000s, tries to appropriate, or at least adapt to its discourse, some of the codes of contemporary art music. As part of this hypothesis, we propose to illustrate, with examples chosen from the repertoire of the band Dodecahedron, the wide variety of processes implemented in a recent album (2017). This article will discuss the fusion between Plato’s solids, „textures‟ borrowed from composer György Ligeti, and also electronic music.“
Camille interviewed me in the spring of 2019 because she wanted to research the way we were implementing contemporary composition techniques, and in what way we were exactly influenced by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. In the paper she goes on to explain the nature of our approach (using numbers related to the Platonic solids for instance), and it also features a spectrum analysis of the first section of ‚Interlude.‘

Depending on the subgenre, metal can be either technically challenging or rather intuitive and emotional. From your point of view, does your music come from a place of rational consideration or rather from a gut feeling?
Both. First of all, I don‘t believe that what some would consider technically challenging music rules out emotion. I regret that people sometimes tend to see that duality. A lot of consideration was done first, in order to create a generic structure for the album. Once that is in place, the function of all the different songs in the whole becomes clear, and with that it also becomes more clear what the story line is. From there on more concrete specifics like riffs, song structures and lyrics fall into place, and that is mostly done in an intuitive way, from the gut.

Musically, you have obviously made changes to your sound with AUTARKH. How did this change of style into an even more electronic direction come about?
Maybe I can explain a bit of our search process here, to give you some insight on how we worked our way through some of the challenges on our path. We wanted to create a sound for the beats that was not like the typical industrial metal sound, but more like Autechre or Aphex Twin. The problem with that is that it is hard to keep all the spatial details in place that those type of beats revolve a lot around, because the spectrum is filled with a lot of distortion guitars most of the time. We had to find solutions for specific problems like this one.
The mix was quite a tricky and time-consuming process. When we had everything recorded, we needed to create some overview because we had quite a lot of tracks in the project file. David and I grouped them in categories and started making a balance of the beats first. Then we added bass, riff guitars, ambient guitars, space layers and finally vocals. By that time we realized we needed to think carefully about which sound should be lifted where exactly in the spectrum, because some layers were inaudible. So we made a drawing where we placed all the different type of sounds in different places in the spectrum in order to create an overview again.
Along the way we found production ideas that could make a difference in sound compared to what we already knew, for instance with the blast beats. We used heavy side chain compression on the reverb of the snare to make the sound more wobbly and less mechanical and put distorted samples of short metal sounds on top of it to re-add attack to the hits.

How difficult was it to try these new things? Was it also a learning process for you?
It can be challenging at first, when you start to realize all the things that need to be researched and done. However, I like the process of searching and once I found the right people to search with, it became an incredibly inspiring process where it was not just me but all individuals in the band searching and working out what we should do. You can definitely see it as a learning process.

You use electronic sounds associated with different genres like ambient, glitch and noise. Where do you draw inspiration from in this regard?
Ever since I started writing and playing music in bands I have been interested in artists that are somehow able to cross the lines of genres or make combinations of sounds and styles that I hadn’t heard before. A good example of that is a band like Mr. Bungle. They were absolute masters at blending styles and did it in completely different ways on each album. I used to listen to them a lot when I was younger and learn what kind of things they were doing and which stylistic combinations resonated with me. In that time I also got acquainted with artists like Amon Tobin, Aphex Twin and Mats & Morgan, who are somehow able to create a new sound or develop an existing sound into something new. I started looking for the same passion for development and experiment in the more extreme guitar-oriented music that I had always been into and found insane and intense bands like Converge, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Candiria and The End. The numerous innovations that Meshuggah brought throughout the decades served as a foundation for this quest; these type of artists inspire me to keep searching and reinventing.

Many metal fans seem to dislike electronic music because they prefer „handmade“ music. However, technical tools are, of course, playing an increasingly important role in metal as well. From your point of view, is it even possible to distinguish between „real“ and „fake“ music at all?
Another duality: ‚real‘ and ‚fake‘. From what I understand (which is very little) when reading about the latest developments in the field of quantum physics, we humans are not even close to understanding what ‚reality‘ encompasses, or how we could begin to define it. ‚Real‘ and ‚fake‘ can be used as descriptive words, but I‘m afraid it is entangled with the perception of the person saying it – I try to be very careful with absolute truths.
When it comes to music, I‘m not particularly interested whether a certain sound is synthesized or played on an instrument, I start paying attention if it moves me in some way.

Your debut „Form In Motion“ seems to deal with very abstract concepts. Would you like to elaborate a bit on the themes of the record?
‘Form In Motion’ is an album about a process of development, transformation and growth, a story about breaking a cycle and moving forward from one place to another in the broadest sense. I would say it is reflecting a dystopian state of being during ‘Turbulence’ and ‘Cyclic Terror’, a confrontation with the limits of reality and everyday life in the world of matter. In order to overcome those limits it is required to look at the internal state of being and begin a process of growth and transformation from within, which is the main theme of ‘Introspectrum’ and ‘Lost To Sight’, ultimately leading to a state of catharsis, self-government and independence in ‘Alignment.’

The album in general is incredibly diverse. From your point of view, what is the common thread between the individual tracks?
The thread is the development and transformation that I was just describing. If you play the album from start to finish, the band and the listener are moving along a certain timeline together.

The record also contains a few short instrumental pieces. However, some people often tend to just skip them. Why do you think the intro, interludes and outro are nevertheless an important part of „Form In Motion“?
Because they are part of the transformation process. ‚Metacognition‘ for instance emphasizes the fact that the thought process of the self can be observed for the first time. It is a beautiful moment of awareness and relaxation at first. ‚Zeit ist nur eine Illusion‘ tries to emphasize that although we were moving along a timeline, it‘s not the only one and they could all go in different directions.

Some parts sound incredibly brutal with their glitches and artificial beats. From your point of view, can traditional instruments still keep up with that in terms of intensity? Or have machines finally triumphed over humanity, so to speak?
Well, the upside of using electronics for the beats is that you can use more layers than a drummer could operate with his hands and feet. In that way the machine is more advanced, but to me the sound wouldn‘t feel alive if the machine is not operated by a human in our band. If we would just play the studio beats in a live situation, then they would always sound exactly the same. But we have Tijnn Verbruggen altering and influencing them, which gives an even more diverse sound than the diversity a drummer could make on his kit. Human and machine cooperating: a win-win situation for AUTARKH thus far.

„Form In Motion“ is quite a challenging record and certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Did you have to deal with negative reactions? If so, did you maybe even manage to take away something useful from some of the criticism?
The negative criticism I have read seems to be about the electronic component. One reviewer was dissapointed because he likes Dodecahedron and regretting us moving in this direction. What can I say? You can‘t please everyone, and I don‘t mind.

Do you already have further plans for AUTARKH?
Since we started rehearsing in September 2020, we were working on the split-off called AUTARKH III at the same time. This project also had a premiere on Roadburn Redux. We are currently debating to release that material. We have a bunch of shows planned for autumn/winter 2021, and we‘re debating new ideas for a second album.

Finally, a short brainstorming session. What comes to mind when you hear the following terms?
IDM: A term to describe certain electronic music.
Streaming concerts: A great alternative for live shows.
Nihilism: Nothing (laughs)
Music created by algorithms:
Social media: Very promising at first, turned into a horrible monster.
Sci-fi: Rick & Morty.

Thanks again for your responses. Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers at this point?
The density of ‘Form In Motion’ might be overwhelming at first, but I hope the listener takes the time to give it a couple of spins, finds nuances in the extremity and eventually joins in on the journey this album is about. I hope they can experience the album as a body of work in its entirety and get a sense of the spirit of ‘hard work will pay off’, whether that be on a practical or a spiritual level.

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