Akercocke Returns With Death Metal and Positivity(?!) aplenty

For anyone who missed it, last month Akerocke announced their exciting return to the world of extreme metal after a leave of absence from 2012-2016 (their last full-length was released in 2007!). The return of the UK four-piece gives headbangers 'round the world something to celebrate; if you're unfamiliar with the band's unusual blend of death metal, black metal, and genuinely unhinging sounds (made on instruments with names some of us can't pronounce), we recommend remedying that immediately. For the devoted Akercocke fans, a sneak peak of upcoming sixth full-length Renaissance in Extremis can be heard on new track "Inner Sanctum" (below).

We got in touch with guitarist/vocalist Jason Mendonça just after rehearsal to get the inside story. Click play, and check out the interview below between the bouts of headbanging. 

How was the rehearsal?

It was short but intense tonight. It’s coming together quite nicely. 

 How’s everything going with regards to new efforts?

It’s really, really good. There’s loads of positivity in the air around the project at the moment, from within particularly. It’s a really exciting time for us, and it’s really good to be back with the brothers and doing what we do best. And that’s making tunes. It’s been going since the end of last year, when we started playing again. Initially it was a bit of an uphill struggle because we were a bit rusty on the material so we had to kind of relearn some of the old material. But that was good -- we’re always up for a challenge.

What was really, really nice was I had a bunch of songs that I wrote in 2005-6, so we used those as a sort of initial starting point for remembering how to play together and reestablishing the dynamics and the interaction, so the whole thing’s been great. Then when we went public with the relaunch, the response from the kids and the fans has just been overwhelming. I had no idea that anyone would be remotely interested because I don’t hang out on metal sites and forums, (I’m too bloody busy!). When all the likes started coming in on Facebook, and all the lovely messages, it was absolutely thrilling. We were all really, really chuffed. 

You said you started with some songs you wrote a few years ago. And was that stuff that hadn’t been recorded in the past? 

Correct.

And is that stuff that we could expect to be hearing in the future? Or is that rehearsal room only?

No, it’s stuff that will be making it to the new album. It’s really nice. We demoed three songs as part of pre-production for the album. We wanted to experiment with new techniques to see if they were viable in terms of being production processes for a final release. At the same time, it was really nice to hear the shapes of the songs realized. You’re able to reflect on them. They were always just sort of sketches that sat in my computer as a bunch of riffs. While they flow like songs, it’s not until you get the other elements in there that you get the vibe, and get the feel, so it’s been a lovely process. 

On the website you guys mentioned “Expect new atmospheres, musical diversity, the sublime and the ridiculous.” 

I think what’s always been the raison d'être with Akercocke and what was always the original idea was just to make music that turned us on as musicians. There was always a conscious effort to develop the project from album to album. And I think if you listen particularly to the first four albums you can hear definite changes.

Rape of the Bastard Nazarene is kind of the product of four guys/five guys who have been completely removed from metal for years, just doing their shit. Goat of Mendes has very much a black metal influence on it as well. Because the first wave of black metal had personally passed me by (I wasn’t in that scene at all), it was nice to be able to incorporate some of those atmospheres. Choronzon is where the more orchestral elements started to play a role and the songs became even more thematic, leading up to Words That Go Unspoken..., which I think was sort of the zenith of that kind of creative, diversity and development of the sound of the project.

Where I think it started to fall over for me was with Antichrist where, whilst there are some songs on the album that I like, there were a number of technical problems around it. Putting those aside for a minute, it was also that I felt like we started to repeat ourselves a little bit. There’s some quite straight-ahead death metal on there, and there’s nothing wrong with straight-ahead death metal, don’t get me wrong, but we’d already kind of been there and done that. With this new record it’s been very much my intention (and thus David’s and the rest of the team’s intention) to make a discernible leap in progress again. While I think this album’s material thus far sound has the trademark hallmarks, if you can say that about us, it will be different again. 

One new member in the lineup –

And one old member back! [The first of] the two dudes completing the lineup with David and myself, [is] Nathaniel Underwood, who we’ve known for decades. This guy goes way back in the London underground metal scene. When we started discussing the possibility of actually putting the band back together, he asked if he could be involved, and he was just a logical choice.

Nathaniel is involved with a project called Dam. 

They’ve rebranded to be called Damim. They’re Hebrew words; I think the original word means “blood,” and the new word means “bloodthirst.”

Also we’ve got Paul Scanlan, the original guitarist back. That’s absolutely stupendous because Paul and I are both left-handed right-handed guitarists. We’re both left handed -- I write with my left hand, so does Paul -- but we play guitar right handed. And there’s something about playing with someone who has the same fucked-up brain hemispheres that is really conducive. We work really well as a writing team. 

Paul has a rare quality amongst guitarists, which is he has a style. And by that I mean he’s distinctive. There’s millions and millions of fantastic guitar plays, much better than us, out there in the world, but Paul, when you hear him play, you know “Fuck, that’s Paul Scanlan!” Having him back aboard has just been brilliant. He’s a prolific writer of very high quality material, so it’s just been great. One of the other beautiful things about the sort of coming together is that we all communicate really well. I’m a very, very low stress kind of person. I have so much pressure in other aspects of my life that when I’m with my bros making music what I want to be able to do is to extend the musical conversation into good verbal conversation. The four of us, we’re a little bit older now and we communicate a little better now, which means actually getting from A to B in the creative process is just a joy. 

I’m sure that makes things a lot easier, rather than struggling through that process. 

Definitely. And a lot of bands have internal tensions and struggles and egos and shit like that -- you know what man? Screw that. I couldn’t be in an operation like that because I just don’t have the patience. 

It seems especially tough when you’ve got a handful of 17-year-old boys who have a few beers and then all of a sudden it gets real tough.

It’s so true. Youthful enthusiasm counts for a lot, but there’s so many people who start out at school or college or whatever, and say “Yeah, let’s make a band!” Then when it comes time to the reality of what’s involved, and going the distance, and the amount of sheer hard work that’s required, people fall by the wayside. That’s OK, but I think often the imagined charm of being involved in a musical project [is different from] the reality of slogging your guts out in a bus for 45 minutes of gig or an hour and a half of gig. It’s really something of a challenge. 

A title was mentioned for the new record, Renaissance in Extremis. Could you tell a little about the title?

It’s pretty direct, really. “In extremis” I always thought meant “in the extreme,” but it doesn’t mean that at all. It actually means “in difficult times,” or “in a difficult situation.” I think that the title is apt in a couple of ways. In as much as there have been very difficult situations personally, over here, and this renaissance has been born out of some of those sort of situations, but also in the geo-political situation. It’s a difficult situation in the world right now. This is a huge time of flux, particularly with what’s going on in your country today, so I think the title works for a number of reasons. But hey, “renaissance” is self-explanatory. 

When you guys decided “OK, we’re going to start doing something new,” was there a big decision that “we’ve really got to push this on the social media,” or was it something that just sort or happened? 

Probably six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. There was never really that much kind of strategy, from a promotional perspective. We’re old dogs! Personally I don’t use social media particularly. I use Facebook to keep in touch with my friends and family, but Twitter and Instagram and all that other stuff, I don’t [use those]. What’s become apparent is that they’re a necessity, so we’ve had to kind of dip our toes into the water with that kind of stuff. There’s no overarching strategy to all of that.  

What lead you to decide to record new material?

Regarding the reformation, I think David has been keen to do this for a long time, and I don’t think he would mind me saying that. I was very, very reticent, and I said I would never go back and be involved in Akercocke again. I had numerous reasons for that. One of which is that I always believe in going forwards, not backwards (and I’ve set myself up for a great bit of hypocrisy there), but I’ve always felt that if you’re going to do something then you have to just do it. If you can’t commit to something 110%, then just don’t bother. 

That sounds kind of binary and quite fascistic, but it’s the way I’ve always been. I either do something to the best of my ability, or I just don’t bother. I felt for years that I had nothing really to contribute musically, and then last year some dudes I know got in touch with me and said “We’re going to do a benefit gig for Covan of Decapitated.” [They asked] how would I feel about getting together with them and just playing some covers for a laugh and for a really, really good cause. And I said “Fuck it, yeah, that sounds good.” I met up with these dudes, and we practiced a couple of times, and went out and did a gig with a couple bands in London. I had a moment of clarity, that something really, really important was missing from my life. I had kind of forgotten, as mad as it sounds, how much I loved doing that. 

There were a couple of other sort of catalysts. For example, a couple of record companies have been reissuing the old material, and maybe one particular record company that shall remain nameless, did something that I was quite aggrieved about. As much as I admit maybe it’s not the best thing to be fueled by negativity, but that definitely played a part. I said “Fuck it! You know what? Why don’t we just do this, and make sure that it’s done right, and that the aesthetics are correct?” As opposed to having somebody else regurgitate our ideas in a way that was contradictory to the original concepts.

You weren’t doing any other metal projects in the interim, were you?

No. I’ve had no involvement in music, really, at all, since our last show in 2011. I went through a very, very difficult set of circumstances in life that were so challenging that I felt that I had to remove myself from a lot of… well, let me put this another way. Some things had to give, to keep all the plates spinning for me, and I had to prioritize what were the important plates. The important plate was the welfare of my children, my family, and being a good father. I had no time to indulge myself in creative passions, or musical interests at all. Mercifully things have improved to a point where I’m in a position again where I’m able to feel that I have something to contribute. 

The band had a strong, specific image in the past with the suits, etc. What motivated that in the past, and has there been a conscious effort to do something different?

That was born out of the fact that when we started the band we wanted to do something striking and very different. In our daily lives we weren’t kind of jeans-and-t-shirt guys, we were professionals. I can be found on a Saturday wearing jeans and a Slayer t-shirt, but in my daily life, I was out wearing a suit. So we said “Fuck it, let’s wear suits. That will be striking, and also lend a seriousness to what we’re doing.” With the kind of lyrical content, we thought it was really important to be as strong in a visual sense as we felt we were trying to be sonically.

We had loads of fun with it. We did photo shoots with Rolls-Royces, and horses, and models. Dave and I are particularly into film, and liked to do the film noir imagery around Words That Go Unspoken... Also, the Hammer Horror/Hammer-esque kind of imagery around Choronzon was a great deal of fun.
 
You asked if it was a conscious effort to have a different image now. The answer is “kind of.” We’re a very different beast. Akercocke 2016 is a very, very different proposition, and the theme of positivity flows right through the project. It’s not just about the internal dynamics and sentiments within the band. That theme of positivity and that vibe will express itself in other ways, so I think we’re going to be a lot more chilled out and laid back about our appearance. So expect.... Don’t expect anything.

It’s interesting that you keep using the word “positivity.” 

The lyrical content will be very different this time around. Before, we were very, very lucky in that we established a really loyal fan base, and that was wonderful, but when I was reflecting after the last phases, prior to reforming, on the project, I also thought that if I was given a chance to do this a second time ‘round, I might try and use that opportunity differently. I think there are some things that are worth communicating about, whilst it is fun to live in a kind of fantasy, horror-film land of devil worship and séances. This round, and this sounds so cheesy, so cliché, but we’ve always played from the heart, it’s always been from the heart, and I think to use that motivation to convey a message which is heartfelt will be a worthy use of this seeming second opportunity. 

I recently heard a piece on NPR where musician and Decibel-writer John Darnielle talked about death metal as a music from the heart. Are you thinking that you have another shot at something and feeling “Oh yeah, I can do some of those other things that I wish I would’ve done before”?

It’s not that I would have wished the past to be different. If people like and dig the new material, that’s fantastic, and it’s just important to me that the content, be that musical or lyrical, is of the maximum value. For example, I struggled with health issues in my time away from music. Specifically I struggled with mental health issues, and I think it’s important that after going through a recovery period to be able to share with other people that these things can be fixed. A lot of people who have far more media profile then a little death metal guy from London, like Ruby Wax or Stephen Fry, have all been really sterling in removing the taboo surrounding that issue. Illness is illness, and if you break your leg that needs fixing, and if you break your head, that needs fixing too. There shouldn’t be any stigma or distinction between the two. If I can use my own experiences to convey anything positive about that, then I will do so. 

Is there anything else that would like to say for people reading the interview?

Keep your eyes peeled. If you guys dig it, come out to the shows, and we’ll see you on the road. 

Any chance for US tours?!

We’ve been approached, and all I’ll say is think 2017 is going to be a very, very busy year.   

Keep up with Akercocke via Facebook or Twitter, or via the Akercocke homepage, for updates.

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