On their second album, „Through Aureate Void“, British doom-jazzers FIVE THE HIEROPHANT have steered their surreal style in an even more concise direction than on their rather unwieldy debut „Over Phlegeton“. The result is a fascinating record, that nevertheless is still surrounded by an aura of the unknown. On the occasion of the release, we conducted the following interview with the band – an exchange about bizarre instruments, the merits of music without vocals, the often exaggerated mystification of improvisation and the cult of personality in rock and metal.
Greetings! Thank you for answering a few questions for us. How are you doing at the moment?
Hey. I have no reason to complain, I’m doing good, thanx. Just found out that LG Petrov died today, so that’s sad. I have been playing Entombed all day today just because.
The corona pandemic has put many musicians in particular in a precarious position. How are you coping under these circumstances?
Like I said, I’m good. I never wanted to make living from playing music, so this situation doesn’t really affect me in this respect. Of course, we cannot play or go on tour and it sucks but the world has not ended for me. I know it has for some of people I know, though. I have a positive mindset so I’m sure this too shall pass.
Did your experiences with the pandemic affect you during the creation of your new album „Through Aureate Void“ as well as the record itself?
Yes, actually. We have been in the studio, recording the new album, went about half way through it and had to stop. It was really frustrating, not being able to finish what we started in a timely manner. I really hate it when the session drags out like that. It should be done quickly, when the energy and ideas are there, buzzing. But no. It was like reheating a half eaten dinner. Okay, but preferably not. So I’m not really sure if and how it affected the actual final outcome, but I’m sure it has in a way, because it disrupted the process.
Although your music has a lot of metal characteristics, you don’t just use the usual instruments of the genre, but also saxophone, various percussions, etc. Is there one instrument among the ones on „Through Aureate Void“ that particularly interests you at the moment?
Saxophone, of course, is the one instrument that sticks out. I think we should explore the experimental side of sax in the future, but it’s all up to Jon, as he is the sax man. I regret we didn’t use enough theremin. It’s a really difficult thing to play, and I didn’t know how to utilize it properly. But if you look into theremin you’ll see what kind of a magical tool it is. It actually is the first electronic music instrument ever created, and the story behind it is pretty full on too. I really enjoy playing bow guitar and I feel like there should be more droning bowed guitars in some places. Also skull shakers are kind of a tricky instrument because adult skulls are too big and playing them is a bit impractical, difficult to keep the steady rhythm. A child skull is much better, because it’s smaller, almost like maraccas. But a child skull is very thin and it makes it brittle. You see, these are the types of problems we have to struggle with.
Especially the saxophone is a defining aspect of your music. What originally inspired you to put this particular instrument in the context of metal?
I went to see Swans play a gig in Brighton. They were absolutely crushing, and I’ll never regain the hearing loss I suffered that night. But before Swans I saw Zu. The rawness and brutality of their live music made a big impact on me. They also made me realise sax can be incredibly effective in metal, so it was Zu who inspired me to seek out a sax player for FIVE THE HIEROPHANT. After seeing them nothing was the same again. Thank you, Zu.
Your new album is said to have come largely from improvisations. How did you approach improvising while using such a wide range of instruments?
I would not say largely from improvisation. Partly maybe, yes. After all most of the songs have some degree of structure. Some tracks come from a free jam type of thing, and some were preplanned. I should mention that both on our 1st album and the demo the saxophone was all improvised. Jon came into the studio without hearing any of the songs before, and just blasted all the sax lines, all done within maybe 3 hours. This time he had time to prepare at least some of them beforehand. So the improvisation idea, that seems to puzzle so many people, is in fact pretty straightforward. There is some degree of coherence in the track, once drums and guitars are there already recorded. From here you can take whatever instrument you like and just record stuff on the top. Then you listen to see if its acceptable or not and decide to keep it or delete it. I mean it’s not rocket science. It’s just noises.
How did you manage to ultimately form coherent songs from the results of your sessions?
In a ’normal‘ type of band you have riffs and drums do blast-beats or what not, and you have to memorize it. With FIVE THE HIEROPHNAT it’s like that too sometimes, but sometimes we just jam and after 5 or 10 minutes of noise it all comes together and the planets align. And usually no one knows what really happened because it was all spontaneous. So we learned to record all the jams. If we strike gold, we can figure out what was what and have a chance of repeating it. Otherwise it’s all gone and nobody remembers what just happened. We do get carried away sometimes.
I have the impression that on „Through Aureate Void“ you put less emphasis on metal and instead push further into other genres. Did it become too monotonous for you in the long run to build your music on slow and heavy guitar riffs and drums?
No, man. It didn’t become too monotonous and we surely will carry on with the heavy stuff. Maybe even heavier than before. Our new album has two tracks that have no distored guitars, but they are still pretty trippy. So I agree we drifted away into quiet waters. We could do a fully ambient album, like the two „Magnetic Sleep“ tapes in the future again. Whatever is necessary to acheive the goal.
Your debut was already quite hard to get into, now on your new album you have even longer songs of up to 15 minutes. For some people your music is certainly too difficult to access. What do you think about that?
Yes, I am aware of that. It’s not for everyone. But hearing people say ‚oh man, this is so difficult‘, it’s not how I see it. It’s not difficult by my standards. Merzbow can be difficult, or Ornette Coleman. That’s what I think. Still, some people say it’s too much, and it’s fine, not everybody has to be into it. It would be a terribly boring world where everyone would agree with everything. Time will tell if it’s a great album or if it’s fucking boring. It could be either way.
Are you considering going into the opposite direction and instead channeling your sound into shorter, catchier songs in the future?
You never know. I played in bands with shorter, catchier tracks and there is nothing wrong with that. But I am really drawn to minimalism, more and more. Playing the same riff for 10 minutes, repetition, it opens cetrain doors in your perception. Repetition and monotony is one of the best strategies for acheiving that hypnotic, trance-like state. So that is a conscious choice for us. Not because I couldn’t come up with another riff, but because less is more. So like I mentioned, I fully intend on exploring a more noisy, heavy, repetitive black metal mantra. Not grindcore.
Your songs are almost exclusively instrumental. Why did you decide to let your music speak for itself without vocals?
It is less literal, and more elusive. The form is more free. If you have a vocalist, the guy is there, delivering the lyrics on the top of his voice, and he attracts all the attention. The meaning is out there on the plate and there is little space for any interpretation. We want to avoid that. First of all, personality worship, so common in the ‚rock‘ or ‚metal‘ scene, has no place here. I would rather be anonymous, not to distract the audience from what is really important, the music. And second, no lyrics, no message, we don’t want to impose anything. I believe our audience are intelligent and imaginative enough not to need being spoonfed some half baked catchy bullshit. We demand a little more from them. So in this respect I am happy to walk away from the rock/metal paradigm in the opposite direction, into ambient, krautrock, noise.
Lyrics are often the easiest way to tell what message a musician is trying to convey. With instrumental music, on the other hand, it’s often not so clear. What do you personally want to make your listeners feel or communicate to them with your music?
Well, this is precisely my point. While there is nothing wrong with having a singer, we chose not to. It has its highlights but it also has its downsides. I believe instrumental music can be free from ego to a greater degree. Rock and metal love the inflated ego of a star. There’s no need for a big ego in music if you want to liberate from the ego. We do not have a message that we would like to convey, well, not in the literal sense at least. We do not have any truths to reveal. Every listener has to uncover his own truth or create his own transcendence, and we are only background noise. You can go on a journey wherever your mind takes you, and we are only a vessel that enables you to travel. We use hypnotic forms and repetition in order to create this other state of mind. We use ritualistic objects and instruments like tibetan trumpets and so on, and mantra-like loops. This is the shamanic aspect. To break you out of the here and now-ness, let you out of the prison of rationality. No message as such, apart from the music and your reception.
However, on „Through Aureate Void“ there are occasional spoken word passages, but they sound rather mumbled and difficult to understand. What are these spoken parts about?
These are fragments from Ezra Pound.
The artwork and the title leave quite some room for interpretation. Nevertheless, would you like to briefly explain the basic idea behind „Through Aureate Void“ in terms of concept?
Like I said, this is what we intended. Your interpretation will be as good as mine and the next person’s, if you really need one. People like to have things explained clearly, in small doses, so they can consume it easily, otherwise they get confused or scared. There should be no room for too much doubt or question marks in a world like that. But some of the most interesting art is the one that leaves certain things open, unclear. This is why people hate minimalism or abstract art. This is why people hate contemporary art. I love it, well, at least some of it. I think at the end of the day, art, including music, should attack your senses in a way that nothing needs explaining. If it still needs explanation, then clearly it’s not that good, because art, including music is a universal language and needs no translators.
For the artwork you again used a picture by Odd Nerdrum. What is it that draws you to his art in particular?
I knew Odd Nerdrum’s painting for a long time and always admided it. But one sunny day, I happened to walk into a gallery in Barcelona, by chance, and saw his paintings live, so to speak. Looking at them in real life has no comparison to seeing it on the internet or in a book even. It was almost a religious experience. Again, you look at them and nothing needs explanation. It’s all there, the darkness and brutality in the brush strokes, and the imposing size. So that was it for me. These are pictures that speak a thousand words.
Do you think his artworks will continue to be a defining part of your output in the future?
I am unable to say. I would be incredibly happy if the answer to that was yes, but I cannot say.
What will be the next steps for FIVE THE HIEROPHANT?
We are looking to play some shows as soon as we can, to put the new album tracks through a baptism of fire and test them live. We will be releasing a split EP with Wyatt E sometime this year as well. And we will be working on new material. Maybe another „Magnetic Sleep“ tape, or maybe a new album, or both.
Finally, I’d like to go through a quick brainstorming session with you. What comes to your mind about the following terms?
Avant-garde: I really love avant-garde art of the early 20th century. The early avantgarde films by Man Ray or Duchamp. Also I’m into paintings like russian constructivism and suprematism, dada, all that modernist stuff. When I hear the term avant-garde in today’s context, it can be off-putting sometimes, or maybe it’s just me getting old. Yesterday’s avantgarde becomes today’s kitsch.
A cappella: That’s a great idea. quite the opposite of what we do. Phurpa is pretty far out, even if not necessarily a capella as such, but almost.
Streaming concerts: I don’t understand that idea. Waste of time.
Nihilism: The only way forward. For me, it’s not a defeatist or pessimist world view. It’s realist. We should shed our armor of grand narratives, and see them for what they are, an illusion. I really could go on about it…
Esotericism: As if we didn’t have enough illusions and beautiful silly distractions. I do understand esotericism may be taken for its purely symbolic, archetypal values, like a mythology, but it should stay just there, on the mythology shelf. Contrary to what you may think, I am a fairly down to earth and rational person.
Most important album to you personally: You mean, like, of all time? Not possible to point out one. Too many to mention, sorry.
Thank you very much for the interview. If there’s anything else you’d like to share with the readers, feel free to do so here:
Thanx for the interesting questions, it was a pleasure to answer them, and thanx for your support.