In 2010, one-man black metal outfit Xasthur released its final album, Portal of Sorrow. That it would be Xasthur’s swansong was announced in advance by its creator, Scott Conner, who abandoned his longtime alias “Malefic” and used his real name in the credits for the first time in a career that spanned 15 years and 20-plus releases. Earlier this year, Conner reemerged as Nocturnal Poisoning and released Other Worlds of the Mind on his own Disharmonic Variations label. Beyond the fact that it’s the same musician and takes its moniker from Xasthur’s debut full-length, Nocturnal Poisoning has almost nothing in common with Conner’s previous work. First off, it’s not black metal. It’s not even metal. Secondly, there are no vocals. Last but not least, there’s hardly any electric guitar. It’s essentially Conner finger-picking an acoustic with occasional (and sparse) drumming by Ronald Armand Andruchuk. Reference points for the album’s dozen instrumental tracks may or may not include John Fahey and Leo Kottke. It’s easily one of the most dramatic turnabouts in the history of music, and yet it’s gone largely unnoticed by the black metal enthusiasts who were sweating Xasthur’s every move just five years ago. Decibel recently caught up with Conner to discuss his striking transition. Nocturnal Poisoning’s music is obviously very different from the music you created as Xasthur. What inspired the transition from one to the other? As soon as something old was ending, dying and not working anymore, there was something new that was starting to work out better.
Do you feel like you’ve made a personal transformation with this project as well as a musical one, especially now that you've dropped the Malefic persona? Yes, well, I'm stuck with who I am, so all I can do is try--as a person, musically and through music--to make some kind of change within that, discovering another side of myself, or another ability within, instead of just going along with being some other dead person that I was supposed to be for so long. If I hadn't discovered or rediscovered other abilities or interests, I may have been the same old character for a long time; that wasn't working for me, musically or personally, and I had to find a bit of peace of mind by letting it go. There are times I get to thinking that music, creating, it's like therapy for me, and if you have a therapist who's making you more angry and not doing you any good, you fire them and think about getting a new one.
In the past you’ve said that the attitudes of some people in the black metal underground made you want to stop playing that kind of music. Could you elaborate a bit? I've probably elaborated on this too many times. First of all, it's not "underground" in the slightest. Second of all, too many of the people involved, especially labels and bands, are worthless pieces of shit, liars and chiselers. I will now be making the kind of music that never had any kind of "scene."
Beyond the people involved, did you also just get tired of black metal itself? Yes, I got very bored of it. I've heard everything, everything that's so "different," too, and it's all the same; there's nothing that can be done to it, or with it anymore. I can hear right through it and I can see right through it, speaking of the people involved. The music itself only had a firm grip on me for a few years, and that was plenty—now it just sounds like a leaking faucet or a car alarm to me. And whatever it's supposed to "mean," well, so much of it doesn't mean shit to me anymore. I never learned anything from it, musically or aside from that; it never "empowered" me or anything like that. I don't think anyone would be able to tell me what I'm missing out on by not having it in my life anymore.
There are no vocals in Nocturnal Poisoning. Is this because you wanted to focus on your guitar playing or just because you got tired of doing vocals--or is there another reason? Yes, that's true. Once I gave up on looking for a singer, I noticed the guitar playing and the writing started to pick up a lot more, be less basic, more guitar-oriented, instead of building and setting up songs around or suited for a singer. I'm starting to realize that maybe a singer would have slowed me down or kept me from doing my best, so now I'm glad that didn't work out! Sometimes simplicity is amazing, but I instantly knew that something simple was expected out of me with NP, but I expected a lot more out of myself. I can always prove that to myself even if no one else wants to accept that. But no, when it comes to my own singing, it's either the high screams or the low death vocals; but I won't be doing any of that, and it obviously doesn't fit into what I'm doing now—I'm no real or clean singer, that's for sure. One of the other main reasons for having no vocals is because lyrically, as the saying goes, "if you don't have anything good to say, then just don't say anything at all." I mean, if I tried writing about having a few rounds at a saloon or something random, it would just come out sounding hateful, and I've already done more than enough of that.
The name Nocturnal Poisoning was taken from the first official Xasthur full-length. Is there any sort of thematic connection between the two entities? No, not really. If I named my new band after a season or nature, or even tumbleweed, then no one would even bother listening to it. I make up a lot of shit or realize a lot of things as I go along, so it probably turns out the name is just a way of tricking some people into listening to something else. So far, a few people here 'n’ there have been tricked, and they're not too upset about it.
Nocturnal Poisoning is essentially just you and an acoustic guitar, whereas Xasthur featured drums, bass, layers of distorted guitars and vocals. Was there something about stripping away the extra instrumentation that was crucial to you moving forward as an artist? Yes, it's very much a "less is more" kind of thing. I wanted to just focus on what I'm probably best at doing, instead of trying to do everything. Doing all those other instruments was sort of a juggling act, like I was inconsistent with drumming and vocals, for example. Metal and distortion were things I probably wasn't too good at working with all the time, either. It may have kept me from hearing it for what it really was. There are no keyboards or any sound effects, I got tired of having keyboards, piano or mediocre guitar leads "carry" a song or writing songs that played off of that. I always liked making songs that were written on guitar first, having that be the main point, but distortion and guitar picks were things that were interfering with that, so acoustic guitar was the answer. With NP and going predominantly acoustic, the ideas keep on coming and the riffs keep on flowing. But I'm sure people will actually be stupid enough to called it "ambient" or some lazy shit like that. Whatever, I know better. I just started paying bass, again, on some of the newer songs, and I'll continue doing that. A couple years ago, I tried it and didn't think it would work right for this, but sure enough, it does.
What inspired the title Other Worlds of the Mind? Mostly the music itself, probably another dimension of the mind, going or being somewhere else in the mind and visualizing the lengths and distances in time and space, or not having any surroundings. The body being in one place, the mind being anywhere it wants to be. Titles like these come into my head when I'm least expecting them. When you have nothing and nowhere, you always have your mind to take you places, and eventually your physical body will follow or catch up. Or, just some other kind of journey, to simplify it.
In a blog post earlier this year, you mentioned that you’re much more interested in playing live with Nocturnal Poisoning than you were with Xasthur. What changed your mind? Well, that was the number one goal. As you probably know, you have to make music work for you, and playing live can do that, depending on how you do it. You have a different perspective, and you can see your music growing and working for you that way. Not doing that for so many years makes a person feel like they're stuck and not going anywhere with their music, and that's another thing I wanted to change. I'm still open to the idea, but I don't have a band--not even half of one--so it's just me, again. I can play guitar alright, but when it comes to playing live, it really helps to have something, someone else to play along with, or else I get thrown off. With NP, I practiced and remembered the songs much better than I had in the past. They were specifically meant to be taught to real members and also played live. I don't ask for a whole lot either--I've told guitarists they can play in half-time to make things easier if the songs were too hard, and that I'd play in full-time. But as usual, no one's got the time to practice, and it's beneath them to learn something from someone like me--or some are too busy counting the hypothetical dollars to have any dedication, and of course that's going to cause some tension. Don't look to me for the money; my former pimps took it all. The most I can get is someone to "throw" some guitar leads or some singing on an emailed track; that doesn't "help" me and it doesn't help them, either. That's not going to get anyone out on the road. Too many people I've tried to work with also have this "let's not, but say we did" attitude (LA). Anyway, long story short, I'm a one-person band again because I have to be, not to be stubborn and not because I'm "hard to work with." It will take some time before I'm naive enough to believe that this can be a real band someday. I will have to be even more selective and cautious when it comes to any other musicians, if they're asking for something out of me or even if they're offering.