Until interviewing Bay Area old-school nasties Vastum for dB #82, I thought metal's attitude to man's carnal desires extended just to the more is more philosophy of take it when you can get it, and like Skid Row's Sebastian Bach was probably right when he said that sex addiction is one of the healthier addictions, with the caveat, "Unless you're like fucking a light socket or something!" Hey, whatever gets your beans-a-blowin'. But the carnal wrongness exhibited throughout Vastum's gnarly debut Carnal Law, which lurches from side to side on a sort of zombie crust beat and chugs down on some sunken-and-morbid post-Celtic Frost haymaker riffs, just felt properly disturbing. It was a bit like those heady days of defloration, crossing the whole Satanic Rubicon as a kid going to über-Catholic school and trying to equalize a fascination with Deicide with the apparent fact that God was going to send me South to burn eternally in the afterlife. The thing about Vastum is that, while death metal's personalities are either marginalised by their reclusive post-prime selves (e.g. Benton, Glen) or by dropping the quality baton (e.g. Vincent, David), vocalist Daniel G. Butler sounds genuinely pretty far out. This dude could be the genre's bête noire for the next decade. Here's hoping... Anyway, this interview is pretty long (fuck work, fuck the man and just read it) and talks about what makes him and Vastum as a band tick. This interview was originally scheduled with guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf but Butler and his philosophical hugger-mugger stole the show. Hey, it's his message, I guess. If you like your death metal underdeveloped and morally skewed towards perversion and earthly, human horror, fill your boots: Vastum come highly recommended.
Is it true that the whole concept behind Vastum is influenced by French writer George Bataille? Daniel G. Butler: “Which is mostly how we are being promoted. We are greatly influenced by George Bataille, his philosophy, his writing on sovereignty and eroticism, and his mysticism and psychoanalytic thinking.”
What’s that all about? DB: “The core concepts are sexuality, of course, umm, eroticism, to speak in terms of sexuality or eroticism prior to its scientific and commodified form, which we refer to as sexuality. It’s about eroticism, experiences of being outside one’s self but intimate with others, simultaneously. There’s also a lot of ethics involved in the writing of the lyrics and the concept – there’s a lot to talk about here.” Before we get into that, how did you guys get together? Leila Abdul-Rauf: “The way the band came about was very non-linear. But the band’s approach to coming up with the concept, it was always there. I think its something that is part of him [Butler] outside of the band. So I would say it’s always been there since before the beginning of the band. The band went through a couple of different stages before it is what it is now, and the approach has been the same, lyrically.”
How did you guys get together? LA-R: “Well this band came from initially as a side-project outside of Acephalyx, which is Dan and Kyle’s main band [Kyle House, guitar], and it was a side-project called Corpus. It also had the drummer of Vastum, R.D. Davies, and then they put together a really great demo two years ago. I was good friends with Kyle and Dan through Acephalyx—my old band and them played shows together in the past. I ran into Kyle one day and we talked about jamming. That’s how I got thrown into the mix after Dan and Kyle and RD had already been doing Corpus. When Kyle and I started jamming together that’s when the fully realised concept of Vastum came about, that was probably about the end of 2009.”
There’s something about death metal that’s so brutally atavistic, like no wonder Suffocation were used by the History Channel for their commercial. DB: “Absolutely, definitely yeah, that quote/unquote Dark Ages—that’s our perception of them —and I don’t think that it is common to refer to the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages anymore. It certainly was for a time.”
But what you’re doing is a bit different, this philosophy-based approach to DM is pretty fresh. DB: “I feel really derivative, if I’m being honest with you; I mean, Bataille is a really primary source of inspiration and these are the things he wrote about, and certainly in reading his writing I had this sense that through his desire to look at our animality and that primal side of humanity and almost suggesting that we have this responsibility to look at this, creating a sort of ethic around it: those are the inspirations. It’s horrifying. Y’know, when I was thinking about this interview and some of the stuff I might say, when I first saw videos for Morbid Angel, when I first heard Deicide when I was 12 and 13, I was really scared. I was like, ‘Oh man, they’re so satanic!’ It frightened me. Now it’s like, ‘Satan!?’ Y’know what I mean? It’s this representation of fear, negativity and darkness, and now what I really find frightening is continually looking at myself, and my own psyche. That’s the sort of stuff we write about, and it’s the stuff that other people don’t wanna do which is why I write about it.”
It might be a bit bookish, but the philosophy behind man’s carnal mores is pretty death metal. DB: “Yeah definitely, I feel death metal is a great forum for us to explore these themes because there is a history of bands that I don’t feel are original I think that our approach is somewhat original, but I think there are other bands who have done it before. One thing about death metal, and a lot of bands, is that they didn’t go far enough. They didn’t go past the limit. I think a lot of lyrics from bands, while they talked about it, they talk about horror and atrocity, they don’t identify it with themselves—I guess how horrifying, disgusting and sickening, pleasurable and freeing their own sexuality is.”
Does it not freak you out thinking about that sort of thing? DB: “It scares me? Oh, absolutely. The thing now, though, is that I know it is just fear. There’s no real story to it, there’s just the experience. Ideally, it might be of that aspect, which is fear, but we have a tendency to create an entire story round it. Fear is not something to fear, y’know.”
What is it you fear? DB: “My fear? That’s a really great question, and that is the question I encourage everyone to ask themselves. My great fear is the potential for my own hands to do the most horrific violence I could ever imagine. That’s my great fear. To imagine it, and to be with that fear is really freeing, actually. That’s a fear— but fear is an endless pit. That’s a big one for me.”
By singing about it are you bringing it out in the open, contextualizing it then. DB: “Yeah, absolutely, I definitely would agree with that. There are many theories of development, psychic development—which I like to refer to as disfiguration—that would suggest that we do all share a tendency to live in fear.”
Is this fear of what you might do what keeps you on the straight and narrow, so to speak? DB: “Well I think it is the root of all man’s right-doing to his self. Like, the fear is what tells me that I did the right thing. We do anything to manage our fear, to tell ourselves it’s OK. The only reason I can find for them is overwhelming grief at the unhappy world we have created, and just that overwhelming grief; that’s like the only solution that I can come up with, and that grief is definitely more preferable to me than fear. That fear that we spend large amounts of time trying to manage is we’ve created this thing… We’re fucked. And with that knowledge and just the surrendering to it gives me that opportunity to just… That’s when my ego is overwhelming; it’s like something that is greater than itself, and surrendering to that, even if it’s only briefly, gives me a chance to experience life a little differently from fear, which is grief.”
Grief keeps you compassionate? DB: “Yeah, I do. I mean, if you think about it well my approach to it is a lot different to quote/unquote existentialist; if you look back at Sarte and Bataille, Sartre referred to Bataille as the excremental philosopher because Bataille was interested in making room for violence as part of life, and Sartre was convinced in his sense of right and wrong. Bataille didn’t have this sense of good and bad and right and wrong. He didn’t talk about compassion or anything; that’s more my own experience I am bringing to the picture. It’s hard to say, in my own life I lean more to the side of compassion. And honestly, with the ego that I have it is a lot harder to be compassionate, and it’s a lot darker to be compassionate, a lot darker than to be a dick.”
Why, because being compassionate is like making a sacrifice? DB: “Yeah, ‘cos there’s a big shadow cast on my ego. Because I am not into that Will to Power bullshit like a lot of death metal/black bands: they wave that Nietchzean flag. One of my favourite essays of Bataille says we don’t need a Will to Power we just need a will to chance, which is a will to risk, to chance, that I’m going to sacrifice my own idea what I think is right—what I thinkand see what happens.”
Is it necessary to silence your compassion to make brutal art? DB: “Silence the compassion and get into the more hateful side? Sure. But, see, I don’t need to do that because I am naturally hateful, I am naturally negative and I am naturally cynical. So it’s like my challenge is like to be compassionate. I grew up with those feelings and thoughts instilled in me and that’s just my life, my understanding of life. I am much more inclined to hate and that is an equally valid interpretation of my desire. That’s what Vastum is about in attitude; it’s not about compassion it’s about desire. And desire has got lots of hate in it. Bataille always wanted to make room for desire, not just specific manifestations of desire—“This is good, this is bad,” whatever. And it’s ugly. I am really attracted to the ugliness, the dark and hate, which is one of the reasons I love reading him. As I am learning to live, because honestly that kind of approach to life doesn’t lead to life necessarily, which is great because it makes some great art and it’s inspirational in a lot of ways, but as I learn to live I think it is more important to have both, and I want to be able to experience pleasure unfiltered through the world, and be sovereign. My understanding of it is being able to experience pleasure through a multitude not just one thing, and not being enslaved by my need for hate or my need for love or my need for this or death metal or this identity—to be just open; the will to chance, open to it all. I definitely think it is important to experience both, the hate and the compassion, all that stuff."
When did you start reading Bataille? DB: “I first started reading him when I was 19, I guess—about 11 years ago. I started reading him because I was like, ‘Man I feel all fucked up, I feel all disturbed.’ I wanted to figure myself out so I was reading books on psychology and sexuality, and all the psych-books just seemed wack to me. I wasn’t really relating to it. So I started reading more philosophy. I got Eroticism and I started reading it; it didn’t really make much sense to me, much of anything, but I did get the sense that he was speaking to me. For me, Bataille is a mystique in a lot of ways, and there’s a voice that mystiques use in their writing and I feel like I connected with that. He is very much a writer who disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed, and that’s when I started reading him I would continue through college, and bring his books into class. Professors would be like half-interested but in general, in the academy, there’s been a tendency to dismiss him – for good reason, he was always challenging philosophy and who knows, he probably wouldn’t want to be read in a philosophy course. I don’t know. But I’d like to incorporate him into the research and writing I was doing at the time. Psychoanalysis was another complementary body of thought to Bataille, for me, and it felt like it provided a similar sort of body of knowledge, and also disturbance and comfort: that’s what Bataille did for me."
Meanwhile, back at the death metal, has the genre lost its danger or is it just getting it back? DB: “I think there is also continuing developments in the genre—even through the later ‘90s, when bands were getting more technical, you had bands like The Chasm, even bands like Morpheus Descends—lots of bands were still around. I guess in terms of the genre, bands pushing the boundaries and limits; I think while it’s cool to do that, a band like Master are like the Motörhead of death metal and they’re badass. They put out the same record every time—it’s a little different but it’s like still pretty driving, rotten death metal. Bands like Disembowelment were doing something amazing.”
Is there a lack of personality in death metal where, say, black metal has (had) in abundance? DB: “I think it has personality but sometimes it could use more character, and just in terms of, like, I think there are musical approaches to death metal and writing—the thing I love about it is that it’s extreme and it’s looking at the body and the mind and all that stuff—that it can get into a rut where that becomes a shtick and a gimmick, and less of trying to create that feeling in your stomach. There’s that personality of rotten, horrible gore death metal, which is cool and I love a lot of bands like that, but like you said what I love about death metal is that feeling it gives me, just a kinda dark, sick kinda feeling. I think there was a time when that kind of approach created that more. Even Satanism, I think there was a time when Deicide and Morbid Angel were extreme—it’s not really more. I love those bands, but it has turned more into a shtick and a gimmick. If I turn on myself and I look at the horror of my own mind—I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of shit going on in my head which is uncomfortable, and disturbing. I think that’s pretty death metal. Nuclear Death, they like to do that; they give you a sick feeling in your stomach.”
What about the crust influence, from the beats it suggests that Vastum, musically, take a lot out of crust and punk? LA-F: “Yes, I’d agree with that; no-one from our rhythm section is here but there is definitely a punk root that we all share.” DB: “My attraction to old sounding death metal is because it came from punk, it came from punk’s influence. And not so much American but the European kind—I shouldn’t say it came from punk. The Bay Area, yeah, I mean Autopsy have definitely a punk vibe to them, it’s pretty rotten punk death metal. It’s more the Floridian, East Coast death metal that didn’t have that stuff. Even then, there’s a lot of meeting of the genres. With that being said, Vastum—and I know people say that we have these punk tendencies and crust influences—but the goal is to be a death metal band and play more traditional, primal death metal.”
It’s pretty simple. KA-R: “Definitely, that’s very, very intentional. That was the goal all along, and this is the reason I play in Vastum because it’s such a break from the technicality of the Bay Area progressive scene which has exploded in recent years. I’m also the guitarist in Hammers of Misfortune so Vastum is a really nice break from the nice bells and whistles of progressive rock.”
Don’t let John Cobbett hear that. LA-R: “I tell him that every day in practice! It’s not something we overanalyse or overthink in terms of the musical performance; it’s just straightforward energy. It’s fun.”
It’s ritualistic. DB: “That’s one of the coolest things about older death metal, it’s real experiential. It’s a ritual. It feels… It’s simple, and that’s what often makes it have that hypnotic quality. And that is what we were going for – a little more mood to it.”
Is it psychedelic on some levels? DB: “I could get down with that word. Yeah, there’s lots of bands out there, newer bands, like Grave Miasma, there’s a bunch like Disembowelment and Incantation, and with Vastum there’s a bit of that, of trying to create that mood.”