Interview: Ancient VVisdom

Formed around the core of vocalist and songwriter Nathan Opposition, Michael Jochum (electric guitar) and Justin “Ribs” Mason (acoustic guitar), Ancient VVisdom conjures hypnotically heavy neo-folk music that combines a myriad of musical and artistic influences while maintaining an intensity that harkens to the bandmembers’ hardcore roots. Joined by bassist TA and adding dedicated percussionist Mitchel K. Morris on their latest release, “Deathlike,” Ancient VVisdom’s sound is simultaneously spare and full of surprising instrumentation—stand-up bass, standing percussion emphasized with chains and machetes and even cigar-box guitar find their way onto the band’s recordings. 2012 found Ancient VVisdom appearing at Roadburn and touring in support of Ghost on their “13 Days of Doom” shows, evangelizing the release of their debut LP “A Godlike Inferno.” Those who caught Ancient VVisdom on Enslaved’s epic trek across North America this winter were shown what Nathan Opposition calls “a whole new machine”—a seasoned group of musicians with a signature sound and a unique and mesmerizing stage presence. Occult Rock caught up with the band after their final performance on this tour to talk about channeling the creative spirit, the ritual nature of live music and their infamous split record with Charles Manson.

Fans of your former bands like Integrity and Iron Age might be surprised by the strong apocalyptic folk (Death in June, Nature and Organization, etc.) sound of Ancient VVisdom’s music. Do you think there’s much crossover between the fan-base of your hardcore/metal bands and Ancient VVisdom?

Nathan: I’d say it’s about half and half—there are definitely people who know us from other bands that appreciate what we’re doing now. And then there’s a ton of new people we’ve met doing shows and being out there with the crowd and hanging out.

Ribs: Yeah, I like to see the new fans that weren’t into hardcore or anything like that. The older crowd likes our stuff as well. Metal kids like us too. It’s a diverse audience—sixteen to sixty-two, that’s our demographic!

Michael: Our fan base is very international!

Nathan: We’ve played for people around the world for a very long time and now these people are no longer acquaintances, they’re just buddies of ours. People we’ve grown up with who have seen us play with a number of different bands and projects have watched us evolve our sound and try different stuff. Those people have definitely become familiar faces in a strange land.

What inspired you to write this type of music? Was there a specific “a ha moment” or was it just a natural progression of ideas?

Nathan: It’s just my writing. In any other band I’ve been in, I’ve been a drummer or someone playing other people’s songs and Ancient VVisdom’s songs are ones that I’ve written personally.

Michael: Even the heaviest bands have that interlude. Like, Sabbath will have that acoustic interlude, or Zeppelin will do it. I guess we’re just taking that interlude and turning it into full-length songs.

Nathan: There has to be a balance.

Michael: And the lighter sound pushes the heavier moments up even harder. There’s a lot of synth on the new record, some distorted guitar, and the layers give it a heavier sound. I don’t know—I guess it’s our duality.

One of the unique things about your music is the use of unorthodox instrumentation (standing percussion, chains, machete, stand-up bass, some synth) sometimes played by guest musicians in the studio. Can you tell me a bit about how you started incorporating this kind of instrumentation? How do you adapt your playing for live shows?

Nathan: We do that because it’s an enjoyable sort of thing, you know, having different friends of ours who are musicians collaborate on tracks. We had our buddy John Winsor play cigar-box guitar on “Deathlike,” which is an unusual instrument to use in this type of music. We’ve used railroad spikes and chains and all these different things. I think for me, it’s a more interesting percussive take on drumming.

As for playing live, I get what you’re saying—it’s almost like you feel you’re naturally missing something because you don’t have all those layers. I feel like we really capture that well and one of the biggest compliments we’ve gotten is when fans say we’ve captured the same sound live. The way we layer things when playing live helped with that dynamic. Like, there will be a part where TA isn’t playing, perhaps, and then when he does play he drops it really heavy. We do certain tricks like that to make up for the layering not being there. We’re actually thinking of getting a keyboard player, and there’s definitely talk of getting more instrumentation within the band. But that comes with time, that comes with money, that comes with budget.

Michael: It’s an ongoing growing process, you know—musically. The records are always going to sound different. We’re always going to continue to grow.

Speaking of the albums sounding different from one another, it feels like “A Godlike Inferno” was Luciferian/Satanic while “Deathlike” has the stamp of Azrael on it. Was this a conscious decision during the song creation process?

Nathan: My lyrics are something that I really spend time decoding, and finding what I want to say to people; what I want to project to the world, what I feel is powerful and invokes a sort of spirit to the world. So “Godlike” was a take on my Luciferianism, my view on Satanism, and my view of horror as well. It’s not just about a spiritual side of things; it’s about a fantasy side of things and a fun side of things, and an evil side of things as well.

But with “Deathlike,” I was writing from a more realistic place, using a more reality-based sort of thought process, and there’s more of a meditation on life and death, something I think really makes sense to people.

Some people can be shut off by the Satanic concepts. See, for me, I’m inspired by that sort of concept; I’m enlightened by that sort of concept. But for some people, they’ll take a look at that and say “Oh I’m going to write this off right away.” I’d rather open my mind and open other people’s minds and expand what people can understand and not shut any people out. So this time around, I decided to leave a lot of entities out of this record. That’s not to say I won’t bring them up again for future records!

Michael: I think “Deathlike” is more understated, you know—it’s not as in your face.

Nathan: The message is still there, it’s the same message, but it’s not so right out in the open.

Michael: “I’ll make you believe in Satan”—it can’t really get any more in your fuckin’ face than that!

Nathan: “My name is Lucifer, please take my hand!” I was writing from that spot, trying to be as offensive and over-the-top, you know—shocking to some people, or empowering to some people—when writing “Godlike.”
On “A Godlike Inferno,” the track “VVorld of Flesh” is an ode to Brazilian psychedelic/Satanic horror icon Coffin Joe. Are there any other figures from the world of horror films that inspire you?

Nathan: More so than musicians, probably! You know, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Coffin Joe… I’m really into old horror films. We all like our own things in different ways, but we find a common ground there. Horror is definitely influential in my lyrics and in my messages, as an image of what our band is. I’m very driven towards the horror side of things.

Michael: I mean, the scores in some of those movies are some of the best parts.

TA: Some of my favorite movies are my favorites because of the scores! “Alucarda” is one of my favorite movies, more for the imagery than for the score—the imagery in that is absolutely amazing; floating nuns and coffins full of blood, just incredible. I love the imagery combined with the music.

Michael: We keep it theatrical too, and I think that helps.

That theatrical aspect is loud and clear in your live performances! Nathan, you’ve spoken in the past about how performing in front of a live audience has a ritual aspect. Can you tell me more about this kind of engagement between the band and the audience?

Nathan: It always has to be engaging. As a lead singer, it’s really nice to be free from playing drums because it’s great to have the freedom to have your hands out to the crowd. Naturally, if you do something that takes two different parts of you, physically, you’re going to put a percentage of effort into each thing that’s going to mess with the balance of the performance. For me, drumming and singing—that was kind of a strange mix. It’s tiring, and it can be hard to project your vocals.

I’d say almost anything a person does on a day-to-day basis can be a ritual if you do it right, and if you find empowerment by it. Or you can just go through your day and not think about it, and if you don’t think about it you get nothing from it. So for me, I work to get something from every day and I get something from what we do. Every song has a certain importance for my life and there’s an importance to what we do. Each song has its own uniqueness, its own energy behind it, so I think all those things combined create the entirety of our live show. To say it’s a ritual would probably be pretty accurate.

In 2010, you released a split record with Charles Manson. How did that come about?

Nathan: Friends of friends.

Michael: We have great friends!

Nathan: Me and my brother—me and Michael were in a band called Integrity for a while, and their singer, Dwid Hellion, came across some new live recordings of Charles Manson recorded on a cellphone that he had brought into prison. Manson has certain privileges where he’s allowed to play guitar in the courtyard. He’s a very old man at this point, so he’s pretty well taken care of, to a certain degree.  We got hold of some of the recordings because Dwid wanted to release an album of Charles Manson’s music on the Holy Terror label he runs. Michael and I were in Poland at the time—Warsaw—playing a show and on our way to the show, Dwid busted out his cellphone and started playing new recordings by Charles Manson. I was already a fan of Manson’s music in general so hearing that I was like “holy shit—this is new material from Charles Manson!” I was pretty taken aback by that so I pretty much just straight-up asked—“ask and you shall receive,” I know that’s a weird message or whatever—but I just asked if we could record some tracks and do the split. Gray Wolf and Star are two of Charles Manson’s good friends and they visit him all the time—they really liked our music and they agreed that it was a pretty appropriate thing to do. We both play an acoustic style of music. He hasn’t done a split with any other band ever before.

Ribs: Charles Manson is an Ancient VVisdom fan.

Nathan: Oh yeah, he had to approve everything.

Ribs: I just think it’s great how he recorded his side, and we recorded our side. We recorded in our old house in Downtown Austin. It was a little built-on, dry-walled laundry room.

TA: That’s where we shot the “Opposition” video!

Ribs: Yeah, and it’s literally the size of this fuckin’ table [holds arms out to block out an area of about 6 feet by 6 feet square]. So we were sitting in there and we just ran the cable through—there was a sink, there was a window, and we put the 8 track on the dirty dishes, recording through the microphone stapled to the ceiling.

Michael: Passing the bong through the window!

Ribs: We’re in there with acoustic guitars, just fuckin’ playing, and we got an eerie feeling, ‘cos it’s like a sloped, roofed, like weird little room. Very crypt-like, very cell-like! It meshed very well with Charlie recording in his cell.

Michael: And the mastering of it really helped out, because it was very distorted.

Nathan: It added a continuity to the songs.

Ribs: Jack Control at Enormous Door engineered that!

Nathan: Yeah, they do wonders. He also mastered “Deathlike,” and Jack mastered the new Darkthrone, “Underground Resistance.” The Manson split was an interesting happening, and it was a once in a lifetime thing, so we jumped at it. And hey, if anybody’s going to do it, it should be us.

Michael: And no other band in the world will ever, ever get to do this.

Nathan: Unless they bootleg it!

Manson retains a sort of bogeyman status so I imagine that a pairing like that has gotten some pretty extreme reactions. Even though the underground can be a bit more accepting, have you experienced any backlash?

Nathan: Of course, yeah.

Ribs: With every positive, there are negatives.

Nathan: I think it’s pretty funny. I enjoy some of the negative things people say about us. I mean, music lovers are over-opinionated people—human beings are overly opinionated!

Michael: If you say something negative, you’re still talking about us, so our name is still in your mouth! There have been some empty threats. What was it somebody said?  Someone said they were going to chuck bottles at us.

TA: Yeah, they said they’d cut the patches off of my jacket.

Michael: I think some of that was a poke at us, for being a “lighter” band, going on tour with heavier bands. Like, “look at these guys, I’m gonna talk a lot of shit on the internet and sit in my mom’s basement and blog about it.”

Nathan: Yeah, there are always positive and negative reactions. I’m more into the positive reactions, I appreciate them. And every person who’s ever appreciated what we do, you know, I like to meet them on a first-name basis. It inspires me to do new shit.

It’s clear that you’re passionate about a wide variety of music and you blend elements of these influences into your own work. How do you approach merging such seemingly different genres and styles?

Nathan: Roky Erickson is one of my favorite artists.

Michael: We love old school deathrock like Christian Death, Goth bands like Sisters of Mercy. [sounds of agreement around the table] Bauhaus, the Cure.

Nathan: We’re really influenced by a lot of different walks of life and by a lot of different music from different places in time. One of my favorite bands is the Doors, and one of my favorite bands is Bathory. I just listen to all kinds of shit and I’m inspired by life, I’m inspired by everything that surrounds me. Music especially inspires me to create music. If it weren’t for every other band that came before us, I wouldn’t be playing in a band.

Michael: A lot of different bands like to put a ceiling over themselves, and there isn’t that above us.

Ribs: We’ve done that for the past ten years, playing in other bands. I don’t want a ceiling, and that’s where this band started. It’s like, let’s do what we want to do and take every influence we have, and let’s bring it all together.

Nathan: Fuck genres, fuck appealing to anyone’s notions. I’ll do an acoustic song, I’ll do an industrial song—whatever I’m interested in at the time, I’ll do it.

Michael: I think the minute you build that ceiling is the minute you stifle your creativity.

Nathan: It’s like, OK, yeah—now I’ve gotta play blast beats, my amp’s gotta be at fucking 20.

TA: That’s why I wanted to be involved in this band! I’d go show to show telling them I wanna play bass, I wanna play bass. Because it’s something new, it’s something different! I’m very persistent. [laughs]

There’s so much creative energy going on with all of you. Do any of you work in other areas of the arts?

TA: I think Mitch is a barbeque artist! And he’s amazing on Instagram.

Mitchel: OK, I’ll accept “Barbeque Artist.” [laughing]

Michael: Nathan is the one you really want to talk to!

Nathan: Well, I’m always doing other shit, I guess. Finding inspirational things to do.

I started writing my own series of short horror stories—very Edgar Allan Poe-influenced, almost poetic in a way. I was going to release something called “Occult Underworld” which I’m still working on, and a couple different friends are going to help me write some stuff. My friend Thomas from Norway is doing all the artwork for it, and Dwid from Integrity is doing some writing for it. It’s something I’m just developing. I don’t have any intentions with it, I don’t care what happens with it—I’m doing it just to write, just to open my mind and try doing something I’ve never done before. Maybe one day I’ll release it, maybe I won’t—I don’t know, it’s all up in the air.

If I’m inspired to write something, I’ll write something—either it’ll be a commentary on life in general, or something influential, something inspirational. I guess it’s my own version of occult writing. I see so many people reading a lot, but I don’t see people writing a lot. It’s cool to read somebody else’s words, but when you write your own words, it’s the embodiment of your own power and creativity. So for me, I’d rather write more than I read and sort of develop my own occult being. For me, writing is really important.

If I feel inspired to paint, I’ll paint something. It’s probably really shitty to the normal standard of what painting may be. But here’s the thing—some person might look at it and say “oh this is real shit,” and some other person might look at my work and think “oh this is beautiful.” It’s really rudimentary stuff; black and white paintings, grayscale, but it’s really fun to do.

I also like to do these creative pieces with found objects, doing arrangements—finding plants and other things from nature, and cutting up playing cards, taking these iconic things and cutting them up. Taking symbols that people are really familiar with—that they familiarize themselves with—and they don’t realize why. You see these things, or you see like a Jack cut out with a broken heart underneath some sort of arrangement I put together. I don’t know—I do shit like that. It’s fun, it’s just to keep myself occupied I guess.

I’ve also started to do some work with film too, which I’d like to get more into eventually. I’ve started filming around my neighborhood and things that inspire me, or putting a score to something that I filmed. I did this one piece—you know that film “There Will Be Blood?” There’s this one quote from that, where this character is talking about the blood of Christ and it’s really epic—you know the part where he’s trying to convert the main character into being a Christian? He’s really insincere, and it’s a really weird interaction, like there’s an ulterior motive for him in doing that. So I put that as a quote, with an underlying score that I created. I filmed some religious statues around the neighborhood I was in at the time, and water passing under ice, and all these really abstract, weird things, but it turned out really cool. I’d like to do some more shit like that, and eventually I want to do a horror film.

Do you see yourself combining your visual art with the music of Ancient VVisdom?

Nathan: I’d like to write a song to accompany something I created visually—yeah, that would be cool. We’ve got some friends who are in the filmmaking industry, and I’m taking pointers from them, sort of finding a niche there a little bit. As I mentioned, I’m starting to write, which is a big part of the process because if you don’t write, you don’t have anything to go off of. You can’t just point a camera at something and just expect something great to happen, you know? Some people can do that, but I don’t see that as a productive way of creating. I’d rather have a plan in advance. Writing is a preliminary process whenever you do something like that.

It might seem a bit crazy to ask this question when you’re just coming off a double tour (Enslaved as well as dates supporting Royal Thunder) and have just released a full-length record, but what does the future hold for Ancient VVisdom?

Nathan: We’re going to go back to Austin, we’re going to do some SXSW dates, we’re going to work on some new music videos. We’re actually discussing working with Mike Washlesky who does 12 Gauge Films and we’re going to start pre-production on some new music videos. He’s an independent filmmaker. We’re working with somebody we haven’t worked with before; we’re working with somebody who’s well-seasoned so that should be pretty cool.

We’re going to do a UK tour with Audrey Horne, which includes members of Enslaved, and that should be really fuckin’ cool.  We’re going to do a week and a half in England, Ireland, Scotland. 

Michael: We love the UK! We love Metal Hammer.

Ribs: Shit yeah—Metal Hammer, Terrorizer, all those guys.

Michael: They give us so much support over there. They really love what we’re doing and they’re really passionate about it, and they just help us out so much with press, promotion.  Cheers to those mates! People love us there, it’s awesome.

Nathan: Yeah, we did a BBC Radio 1 recording session last time we were there. We were just walking down the same halls as Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, recording in the same room where Led Zeppelin recorded.

Michael: We were very much beside ourselves.

Ribs: It was very humbling. The guys there were just the coolest and they fuckin’ loved us. It was a great time. Very natural.

TA: We’re sitting there eating on a couch, waiting for our session. There’s a picture of Led Zeppelin sitting in the same spot while we’re sitting here eating crappy fuckin’ pizza, about to record. I’m walking in, there’s a picture of John Peel on the door, and I’m like “that’s John Peel—does that mean this is the Peel Sessions Studio?”  Yeah, this is the Peel Sessions Room, most of the gear is the same gear. I’m thinking “oh my god—we’re recording on John Peel’s gear. This is insane.”

Nathan: That was seriously a crowning moment. I don’t know—most bands would pray for that to happen in their career. That’s something you can’t just waltz into.

Ribs: You’d expect the BBC Radio 1 guys to be like “yeah yeah yeah, whatever—it’s fine” but they’re seriously stoked about what they’re doing. They’re into what we’re doing, saying “yeah, that shit sounds great!”

Nathan: They gave us one copy of the recording and I wanted to release it… but we lost it. We can track it down but we haven’t tried yet… But it would be cool—we did “Opposition,” “Devil Brain,” “Last Man on Earth.”

Ribs: Yeah, that was the first time we recorded “Last Man on Earth!” It’s a totally different sound than what’s on the record. That would be great to release.

Most people with any familiarity with the music industry know the story of the overnight success is a myth, but it does seem like you’ve gotten a lot of recognition in the past eighteen months or so. Can you tell us what this experience has felt like?

Michael: Well, we started the band in 2009—it’s been four years! Maybe it’s time we got more recognition? [laughing]

Ribs: We’ve just done this before with so many other bands, so we just don’t want to make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. This time, we’re going to use all of our resources.

Nathan: All of our wisdom!

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