Interview mit Dylan Neal von Thief

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The musical worlds that THIEF unites could not be more different: On the one hand there is an overwhelming variety of modern electronic music, on the other there is an almost immeasurable amount of timeless liturgical chants – a day-and-night-like contrast. It is precisely through this supposedly contradictory mixture that mastermind Dylan Neal has succeeded in creating one of the most unique and impressive albums of the year: „Map Of Lost Keys“. In which way Neal’s collaboration with the avant-garde black metal band Botanist is also reflected in THIEF, what the religious aspect of his work is all about and to what extent live shows in the electronic genre are mere button-pushing can be read in the following interview.

Hello! I’m glad you found the time to answer a few questions. How are you at the moment?
Hi! I’m doing well. Happy but brutally sleep deprived. I’m in the back of a van right this moment making my way from Tennessee to Virginia for this US tour with Silence In The Snow.

In contrast to your music, the band name THIEF seems rather profane. What is the idea behind this choice of name?
You know, there was no exact reasoning behind choosing the name. It was just an amalgamation of things, really. I first simply liked the sound and feel of the word: THIEF. Then there’s this quote that I can’t remember where it came from, but it reads: “a thief in the heavens has nothing to gain”, which really resonated with me and I couldn’t get it out of my head. Anytime I’d try to write out a bunch of ideas for names, I would always come back to THIEF. And then, of course, it made even more sense since I was sampling all of these old vinyls and stuff…

In the songs of THIEF you mix electronic and religious music. What fascinates you about these two music styles, so that you came up with the idea to combine them?
I’ve always loved electronic music. Not so much the dance-like genres, but stuff like Aphex Twin or mid-Ulver era electronic music. It really has an ever expanding horizon and I think listening to that kind of stuff for such a long time ended up getting into my genes. As for religious music, it can sometimes just have such a profundity to it. It can be deeply moving, even if you have no idea (or care) what they’re chanting on about. I don’t know exactly when it happened that I had the idea to mix them up, but I think it was around 2012 and it was a lot of failed experiments until I was able to shape the sound that I wanted with the first release in 2016.

Your music is full of contrasts and quite unconventional. Would you say that the feedback so far has generally been good or did many listeners have a hard time trying to acquire a taste for it?
From what I’ve read/heard, it’s being pretty well received which is cool. I see it a lot after playing a show, too. I’ll be listening to the opening bands and checking out the crowd and I’ll think to myself “oh man, I don’t think this is going to be well received here” and to my surprise people will come up to me afterwards and tell them how much they enjoyed the set or how moved they were by the performance. It makes the long drives worth it.

Previously you played the dulcimer in the post-black metal band Botanist. Stylistically and instrumentally there are hardly any similarities at first glance. Would you nevertheless say that there are certain parallels between your work with Botanist and THIEF?
Yeah, for sure. While Botanist and THIEF might be opposites stylistically, both projects are very much kindred spirits in that we both share a deep need to experiment and find our own unique style. I don’t think neither Otrebor or I are interested in creating art that is simply a carbon copy of the music we love. That’s definitely a safer bet in terms of success, but it’s also much less satisfying. Botanist also has a sort of spiritual aspect to it: Nature is larger than us all and we are powerless over it.

A considerable part of your music has a religious background. Would you call yourself a believer?
No, I don’t subscribe to any Judeo-Christian religion if that’s what you mean. It’s ironic, I know, that I use a lot of their devotional music in my own, but that’s kind of what tickles me about the whole process. I’m stealing from them and making it my own.

Religious people are sometimes quite sensitive when it comes to other people dealing with their faith. Do you think that some might take offence at your music because of this?
Yeah I’ve thought about that. I haven’t encountered it yet in person but I’m sure it will happen. That kind of sensitivity seems so silly to me. If you’re solidified in your faith or practice, what does it matter what I say? Why is there so much fear surrounding someone saying “I don’t agree”?

On your current, second album „Map Of Lost Keys“ you use a wide spectrum of electronic sounds. Are there sometimes moments when you feel too overwhelmed by all the possibilities of electronic music?
Oh man, yeah, that’s definitely a thing for me. I will use whatever is necessary to get the idea out, but I try to limit myself so that I don’t get too lost in the details. It’s important for me to have some kind of frame to work within. You can get really lost in the world of synths and hardware and production and you can spend more time acquiring and learning it all than actually making music with it. For „Map Of Lost Keys“, I allowed myself to buy some new gear to help inject some new, chaotic creativity into the writing process as a way of keeping things fresh for me as well as learning new tools. I also borrowed a couple synths and miss I can’t afford from friends. That was actually a great idea because I’d only have maybe a week with a particular piece of equipment, so I had to just go-go-go and didn’t have too much time for perfectionism.

To what extent was the creation process of the new album also a learning process for you?
It’s a huge learning process for me in every way. If it wasn’t, I don’t think the album would be very interesting or at least different from its predecessor. I’m always learning more and more about production and fine-tuning my ears in an attempt to improve my mixing abilities. Then there is the inner process – learning about myself, where my blind spots are, my fears, where I need to push or pull… things like that. In the absolute sense, it doesn’t even matter about the music – it’s about your relationship to it and as what kind of tool it has functioned for yourself.

As already mentioned, the songs are very different from each other – some sound more like trip hop, others like ambient or noise. Did you arrange the songs in accordance with the lyrics or were there other clues as to which tracks should sound how?
I put the songs in the order that felt energetically right to me. An opening, a ramping up, a climax, and then a flowering ending. There’s a lot of shifting focus in regards to the lyrics, so the sound kind of changes with that.

In your songs there are often church-like (choir) vocals to be heard. Are those samples or were they recorded especially for the album?
Probably 85% of the choir sounds were sampled and the rest were recorded/arranged. I do a lot of ‘crate digging’ for old vinyls. Great fun.

Just as there are countless variations of electronic music, there are also tons of religious songs. How did you approach the selection of chants that would be used on „Map Of Lost Keys“?
I don’t really have a method or selection process other than listening to a vinyl or something and waiting until something really jumps out at me.

As far as I know, the lyrics are inspired by traditional dirges and hymns. How does this influence manifest itself in the songs?
Regarding the lyrics, I’ve had that said to me before and I’m not quite sure where that ‘fact’ started as it isn’t true. There are a few tracks who’s lyrics were based on old hymns („Vesper“ and „Hung From A Tree“ for example), but it’s not something I do often. Lyrics are usually personal for me.

The three tracks „Desert Djinn“, „Holy Regicide“ and „From Nihil, With Love“ are announced to be especially personal by a sampled speaker. For what reason are those tracks announced as such?
(Laughs) I think that announcement is more referring to the three lyrics which follow: “the clouds rumble, the wind blows softly, and my soul pines for a meeting with god” – I didn’t write that obviously but I think it speaks a lot to the flavor of THIEF in a way.

For the release of „Map Of Lost Keys“ you worked with Prophecy Productions – a label not necessarily known for electronic music. Why do you think it was nevertheless the perfect choice for THIEF?
Yeah, while Prophecy isn’t known at all for electronic music (are we the first?), they are known for pushing experimental music and I think that’s one of the ways we fit in so well with them. They pretty much right away ‘got’ what I was doing and were excited about the project and working with us, which is all I can really ask for!

Many metal fans are sceptical about electronic musicians and dismiss their live shows as simple button-pushing. How would you argue against that?
(Laughs) Well, in a sense they’re not totally wrong about that, but in the same sense one could say “metal is just string plucking”. Now, if a band is just pressing play and standing there, sure, that’s no fun, but I don’t think most electronic musicians are really doing that. It’s hard to speak about that as a whole because there’s so many artists but I don’t think you can listen to someone like Autechre or Author And Punisher live and say they’re ‘just pushing buttons’. They’re like the Spawn Of Possession of electronic music, just instead of playing ultra-technical riffs, they’re piloting a space ship through a dense asteroid field. In the end, though, it’s all about feeling, right? Do you like the sound? Does it make you feel something? Good. Everything else is extra. The way I work with it with THIEF is incorporating a live band into it so that it has a much more visceral, engaged feel.

Right now you are on tour with Silence In The Snow, which are stylistically very different from THIEF. How did this concert trip come about?
I had to accept early on that I’m probably not going to find a band that’s very similar to THIEF to tour with (laughs). The shows are working out well I think though because they’re also dark and moody and the atmosphere helps tie us together. I also think it’s great when bands that aren’t exactly the same genre as each other are touring together. It makes the show so much more interesting. To be honest, seeing four metal bands in a row, or any genre really, fatigues me.

At we usually end our interviews with a short brainstorming. What do you think about the following terms?
Batushka: They’re cool. I think they’re cut from the same cloth as THIEF. Unfortunate though, the whole fracture that happened with them.
Dubstep: Not a fan of modern dubstep. I do really like the dubstep predecessors though like Burial and Kode9. Some of the modern dubstep though has killer production, I will give them that.
Religious extremism: Detestable, close-minded fear-based ignorant nonsense. Now, mystical extremism…
Black Metal: Best metal!
Rhythm vs. melody: Neither are essential. I suppose I’m attracted to melody first, though. My drummer Robert has a great argument on how rhythm actually incorporate melody.
Veganism: Very respectable but I don’t have the willpower to give up meat. I had BBQ three times in two days last week driving through Texas. Meat is one of my final vices, for sure.

Thanks again for your time. If you’d like to say a few last words to the readers, you’re welcome to do so here:
Innovate! The only koan that matters is you.

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