Wolves in the Throne Room
By Clayton Purdom | 6 April 2009
Wolves in the Throne Room’s Black Cascade is easily one of 2009’s most powerful records: a staggering consolidation of the band’s force into a brutal and lovely assertion of black metal’s artistic possibilities. Noted radical environmentalists and feminists, the band draws as much ire from purists as it does praise from scene outsiders. Although, to be fair, pretty much everyone agrees that Black Cascade fucking slays. At the band’s core are brothers Nathan and Aaron Weaver, who share a farmstead in Washington state. Aaron took some time to talk to CMG about where the new record fits into the band’s artistic vision.
Cokemachineglow (CMG): When exactly did the core of the group form? It was you and (guitarist and vocalist) Nathan (Weaver) starting off, correct?
Aaron Weaver (AW): Yeah that’s right, and now the band is me, Nathan, and then the other guitar player is Will Lindsay.
CMG: Is (bassist) Ross (Sewage) no longer in the band?
AW: Ross was just a touring bass player. I think this last European tour we just finished, that will be our last tour with him unfortunately. He has three other fulltime bands and he needs to maintain his life at home in Oakland. Playing with Wolves is just too much for him, which is very unfortunate because we love having him in the group, he’s a good friend of ours. Hopefully sometime in the future he’ll have more time.
CMG: Was he involved much in the writing of the music? How does the writing go down? Is there a core writing team, or is it entirely collaborative?
AW: Yeah, me, Nathan and Will write all the music and do everything on the studio. On Black Cascade Will played all the bass guitar. That’s how we track it, as a three-piece: Nathan plays guitar, Will plays bass, and I play drums and everything else is overdubs.
CMG: Will came in a little bit after you and Nathan had sort of started the band, right?
AW: Yeah [he came on board) just in the past year. Nathan and I have always been the core of the band, we started the band together. Will will be our third second-guitar player and hopefully our last. It’s a tough dynamic because Nathan and I have obviously been playing music together for a long time and have a very strong shared vision. So it’s difficult for people to sometimes feel like the third wheel.
CMG: So, how long have you and Nathan played together?
AW: In one band or another, for years, since we were maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. So for a long time, off and on.
CMG: Do you feel like some of the earlier things that you guys did were progressing towards this, or did you try other things before you arrived at, as you called it, the “shared vision”?
AW: Yeah, we come out of a DIY punk background, albeit we’ve always played metal music, but we come at it from a DIY perspective. And you know looking back on our previous musical expressions you can see the nascent form of Wolves in the Throne Room. It’s music that explores dark feelings, that’s physically intense to play, and has an occult dimension to it, a spiritual dimension to it. But yeah, I think Wolves in the Throne Room is the most fully realized thing we’ve done.
CMG: More on that “shared vision.” Do you feel like there’s a clear progression in the records, or do you feel like you’re more refining that vision with each one?
AW: I don’t think there’s a progression, necessarily. I think that we established the boundaries that we’re going to work within on the first record, using trance-inducing sound, drawing upon black metal, exploring ambient and psychedelic passages. I think that every record should either expand or improve upon all of those elements to our music. I think the thing that has progressed is our own confidence as a band. In the beginning every band is really just a collection of their influences, and it takes awhile to really achieve your own selfhood as a band. And I think that at this point we’ve really done that. At this point when we go to write a song we don’t say, “Oh, this part should sound like Led Zeppelin.” Or, “This part should sound like Burzum,” or whatever. We just create music spontaneously and it comes out the way it comes out.
CMG: This may be a cliche question, but just going off what you just said, do you think the new album is the closest, the fully realized? Like, is it your favorite-slash-the-best? Is it closest to what you want Wolves in the Throne Room to sound like?
AW: No, I think it’s just one aspect to our sound. I think our next record I’d imagine is going to be very, very different. It’s going to expand on the ambient and the dreamlike side of the music.
CMG: The ambient seems a little more prominently placed on this record. On the last record it seemed like a lot of that was gotten out in the first track and then just kinda moved on, except for in some interludes.
AW: There’s a good deal of ambient stuff on Two Hunters, for sure.
CMG: So do you feel like you’re bringing that out more in the music now, or at least heading towards doing that?
AW: Um, in the future, yeah. I think Black Cascade is harsher. I think most people have said it’s the most “metal” thing that we’ve done. It’s the most riff-oriented, it’s got the most harsh vocals, and it has the least amount of time on the record that’s soft and dreamlike.
CMG: I guess I mean those harsher and softer aspects don’t seem so separated. What sort of progression do you feel like you’ve gone through on the albums’ production?
AW: Well, we’ve worked with Randall Dunn on Two Hunters, on the EP we recently released, Malevolent Green, and on Black Cascade, and so, yeah, when you work with the same person for three records in a row you can’t help but develop a working relationship. It’s gotten to the point with Randall where he really understands where we’re coming from and understands our idiosyncratic language that we use within the band. We can describe a very obscure sort of sound to him, or a very esoteric sort of idea, and he’ll have some good ideas about how to, using the technology he has at hand, create those sounds.
CMG: I hear more production on Black Cascade. Even though I do agree it’s harsher, I hear a lot more synths and electronics over the climaxes of some of the songs.
AW: Yeah, very true. It’s very produced. We lay down the bass, the rhythm guitar, and the drums, and there’s hundreds, literally hundreds of overdubs on that record. There’s a great deal of analog synthesizer and oftentimes twenty guitar tracks going at any given time. And the vocals are the most produced. On Two Hunters the vocals are very, very raw, just Nathan in a room with a very dry mic, but on this record we wanted the vocals to have a more inhuman sort of element to them. Have them sound not just like a human being, screaming, but have it sound more elemental. So we used more production techniques to get that sound.
CMG: There’s a bit of a dichotomy there that I’ve heard thrown at you guys in interviews before, but as far as sort of the radical environmentalism and that shared vision within the band versus the increasingly technological aspects of your music—do you feel like you’re pushing that dichotomy with all these layers of production?
AW: Well I mean that’s life, you know? Trying to forge a path that doesn’t feel like you’re compromising too much. I mean, that’s one response to that. Another is that we’re playing black metal music, which is fundamentally a music of contradiction, a music of confusion, a music of alienation, a music that’s really caught between two worlds. It’s music that demands that we live in some sort of primitive tribal way, but also at the same time acknowledges that that’s impossible, that that’s a reality that cannot come to pass, and that’s the source of a lot of the dynamic energy of the music, because it’s so fraught with contradiction. So that’s another thing I’ll say. The third thing is that a lot of people have said that, you know, they surmised that we choose to record on old analog equipment, or that we use old tube amps because we somehow feel that that’s a more organic way to record, and I totally disagree. I think that as soon as you record something, whether it’s on a reel to reel, $100,000 board in Seattle, or whether it’s on a four-track in your bedroom, you’ve already let the genie out of the bottle. The music is no longer an immediate, spontaneous creation that’s ephemeral, but it becomes a document, it becomes something that can be stored and transmitted. It has nothing to do with the actual technology that’s involved in recording, how many layers you use or what sort of amp you use. It has everything to do with the process of recording.
CMG: I remember reading some things about your demos, a lot of early praise did harp on that aspect, which could be a lot of press construction, creating a sort of mythology about the purity in the music. Do you see any validity to those claims? And if so, would you say you’re sort of embracing that contradiction in the way that you’re allowing your sound to grow a bit production-wise?
AW: Wolves in the Throne Room is working on a couple of different levels. One level we have a very distinct occult agenda, and we have a path of spiritual growth that this music is a part of, and that’s a personal thing. But on another level, we’re very much a rock band. And we choose to use rock and roll conventions. We use the music business in order to create and transmit our art. And you know I don’t even know if that’s a contradiction necessarily. I think it is what it is.
CMG: It’s a medium?
AW: Yeah, it’s the nature of the medium we’re using to work with, the rock and roll medium. We might as well paint or write a book, or do whatever. But we’re choosing to use rock and roll, and there’s a specific set of tools that are involved in rock and roll. And that’s: the record label, electric guitar, recording.
AW: Yeah, exactly. It’s all part of a very established way of doing things, that we’ve made a choice to do.
CMG: I read somewhere where you guys were asked about touring and trying to make music a full-time profession, and the response was something like, “No, that’s absolutely not what we’re looking to do, and we wouldn’t want it to be that way.” Whoever this was said they also practiced carpentry or something.
AW: That was probably me.
CMG: Is that still the case?
AW: Absolutely, for sure.
CMG: Is that more out of sanity, or for the sake of the music or for the other lifestyle?
AW: It’s sort of for all those reasons. We have a pretty extreme vision. Both for our lives and for the music that we play. I think that we have very different motivations for playing and recording music than a lot of bands do. A lot of bands would kill for the opportunity to tour eight months out of the year, and to make a living touring and recording records, and that’s something that we could very easily do right now. But we would never do it because for me the source of power that animates our music springs from living a very traditional, rhythmic life here at home in Olympia. Working on my farm, spending time with my family and my partner, eating food that comes from the feeds that we sowed, and spending as much time in wild places as possible. Those are things that give me the inspiration to write music and to perform live. Every day that I spend on the road flying in a plane or traveling in a van, dealing with the mundane aspects of a traveling music lifestyle, I can feel my connection with that source of spiritual power slowly being severed in a very real way. So, yeah, I’d never trade in —
CMG: Your lifestyle in Washington for the one as a musician?
AW: Yeah, definitely. We’re spending way more time (as musicians) now than we were a couple years ago. Which was a tough transition to make because that means we’re away from home more than we have been. But it also allows us to pay the bills with the music. So we can tour Europe for a month and come home with enough money that we don’t have to have day-jobs anymore. And so it puts us in the position where when we want to record a record we can focus entirely on the record. Or if I want to spend three months building a barn at home milling lumber and doing the timber framing I can afford to do that as well. So it’s sort of paradoxical that by spending more time on the road and by utilizing the music industry machine to our advantage it actually gives us more time to do things outside of the band.
CMG: You said something about the time that you spend in vans and airplanes that you can feel your connection with your artistic source being severed. Do you think that that process of severing and then returning to it, can that make it grow a little bit? Certainly there are things in life that are that way, where one side sort of feeds off of the other, the give and take. Or do you look at that time as wholly negative, and sort of a necessary evil in order to be able to make the art that you want to make and also live this other type of life that you want to live?
AW: That’s a really good question, and I think you really hit the nail on the head. It is a paradoxical thing. Because, things should be hard, and things should be difficult, and you should have to struggle because you appreciate the fruits of the struggle that much more. And, yeah, that’s how I look at being on the road, it makes me appreciate my time at home that much more. And also I think that you can look at being on the road from a completely negative point of view, but I don’t like to do that, I like to take it for what it is and try to make it into something really positive. The best way to look at it is you’re giving yourself the opportunity to really focus 100% on playing music every night and it’s very paradoxical in that respect. When you play music for an hour every evening that sort of gives you the strength to carry on and keeps you connected to the things that are important. By playing the music every night it allows you to continue playing the music. I like to look at touring as an opportunity for almost like a monastic journey of sorts, because you’re completely removing yourself from the everyday of existence at home and you’re putting yourself in a situation where it’s the same people every day, the same ritual every day, playing the same music every night. There really is an opportunity if you look at it this way to really get something positive out of it.
CMG: I sort of have this impression of your records from listening to them a lot that could be completely wrong, but some of the things you’ve said sorta feed into it. Is there a reason why they’ve all been four tracks, for example? There seems to be a progression at least within the albums themselves of a starting point and a clear finale and climax to them.
AW: Yeah, that’s very very true, we definitely look at writing a record as creating a complete document, almost as writing a novel, rather than just streaming songs together in a random way.
CMG: Have they been split into four parts because that’s something that just sort of worked?
AW: You know, it’s interesting. We are very interested in numerology and the power that numbers hold, the significance they have, but actually the amount of tracks on the records has been purely coincidental. I understand how one could assume that there is a deeper significance to it.
CMG: You talk about the monastic journey and I’ve also seen you all use phrases about the “purifying” or “transformative” qualities of the music, and it seems to me that there is if nothing else a consistent emotional or intellectual arc to the records.
AW: Black Cascade is based on images from the tarot deck, which is something that’s very important to us, especially for Nathan. He’s always cast the tarot deck. And we actually make the majority of our important band decisions using the tarot. And so the four songs correspond to four different cards in the tarot deck, and they create a narrative of sorts, they do create a dramatic arc that represents a journey from one state of mind to another.
CMG: And see, that’s kind of what I’m getting at, there’s this idea of a journey from one state of mind to another that I see popping up a lot, that I hear in the music and I see popping up when you all talk about the music. One example of this is the way you talk about black metal, you’ll say black metal is certainly is one of the forms that you’re using, but a lot of the ideas traditionally associated with black metal are used as a starting point, that you then move from. And that change of state of mind, I’m wondering more clearly what you’re talking about.
AW: For us, that’s why black metal is so important. Because I think that black metal is best understood as a shamanic journey, when you really look at it on a deep level. In traditional societies it was the job of the shaman through entering a trance to experience some other plane of existence, to enter the otherworld, which was a very dark and dangerous journey, and you’d encounter all sorts of harrowing things and malevolent spirits. But through undergoing this journey you’d come back transformed, you’d come back with new knowledge to bring to the community or you’d come back with some sort of spiritual power in order to bring your community into balance with the natural world and I think that that’s what black metal is. Fundamentally it’s an attempt to transform your consciousness to gain some new knowledge, to shed some older, weaker version of yourself in favor of something new through the music. And that’s why I think so many bands have it wrong: to journey into that dark place and never leave. You know what I mean?
AW: So if a band says, “It’s our goal to glorify Satan, to revel in depravity and the absolute depths of blackness that are possible in the universe,” well I think that’s just wrong. I think that’s missing out on the possibilities for transformation and change. That’s what life is all about, is finding ways to grow within yourself and finding ways to evolve.
CMG: I hear that in the music.
AW: Thanks. It’s frustrating that more bands don’t take it to that level. The band that inspires me personally the most is Burzum. Of course, as an individual I think Varg Vikernes is pretty reprehensible (in) his political views. He’s obviously not the kind of person who you’d want to emulate, but I do think that Burzum’s music has some semblance of —- there’s something very important about it. I really think that there’s a pure and powerful artistic expression. There’s this one line, this one lyric you can understand on Filosofem, “Life has new meaning.” And that’s something that to me sums up the possibilities for black metal, you know? Journeying to this metaphorical dark freezing forest you return changed, you return reborn.
CMG: That intellectual arc that you’re talking about going from black metal, that dark place, into something new, where I think you all have that connection with nature, how much relativism is okay within that? Do you think that going to that dark place is something humans ought to do? Whether it’s through music or drug use? Do you think taking themselves into that dark place is something they ought to strive for in their lives, something they owe themselves, even?
AW: Yeah, it’s a tough question because one of the things about Wolves in the Throne Room is that we really don’t want to preach to anyone about anything. That’s why we don’t publish our lyrics. We don’t want to appear as though we’re on some high horse, as though we have some wisdom that we’re trying to transmit. We don’t consider ourselves to be intelligent or spiritually acute people, we’re just doing the best that we can. So on one hand, I’m very hesitant to pass any judgment on what someone should or shouldn’t do. But if I were talking to my friends, I would say that absolutely it’s something that humans should do. I mean darkness is something that’s very much a part of life, and chaos and wildness are very much a part of life, and these are things that as people who live in cities, in these very controlled and domesticated existences — you know, these are energies that we don’t really have much contact with. And I think that we should. I think that it’s an important aspect to come to understand.
CMG: A lot of people would say that in cities there is wildness.
AW: I know what you mean, the whole “urban jungle, concrete jungle” sort of feeling. But I think that’s a very different sort of thing. Wolves in the Throne Room, as people, and as a band, are interested in the hidden occult significance of things, of events and of objects and of people. I think that everything in the world has a physical manifestation, but it also has a spiritual manifestation, it has a being on another plane of existence which people over the years have called the otherworld and the astral plane or whatever, I very much believe that to be true. And so if you go to a city and you really try to feel the energy of it, really try to understand it on an occult level, and you go to a wild place in a forest and you try to feel the occult energy of that place, I think you’ll find they’re very, very different. I think that you could apply the adjective “wild” to both of those places, but beyond that I think that you’re not gonna find that many similarities.
CMG: I suppose that feeds into my question about relativism. Would you say people in cities can’t get this vision, or that it’s your goal to help them understand it? I do think your band is an exception to a lot of the norms in black metal, but a lot of times there’s an absolute unwillingness to open itself up to any sort of relativistic view of the world.
AW: I see what you mean. And you’re right, most black metal bands actively cultivate a sense of elitism. They say, “Well, I don’t care that people in the cities don’t have access to these sorts of things, because I’m not interested in some sort of egalitarian morality. I’m not interested in some sort of egalitarian morality. I’m seeing myself as a Nietzschean Super Man. My will alone be the whole of the law.” And, yeah, that’s not the perspective that Wolves in the Throne Room is coming from at all. And it raises a very very difficult question: that, we feel very strongly that for us personally it’s crucial to have experiences with wild places, and it’s wrong to live entirely in a world of human creation, to live entirely in this Luciferian, hermetically sealed bubble of high-rises and cell phones and very artificial culture. And I understand how that can be seen as an elitist statement, because obviously very few people have access to the sort of lifestyle that we have. We’re very lucky people, and we’ve made choices and worked very hard and here we are. But those sort of choices aren’t available to everyone. At the same time, I believe what I say. And I believe in the intent of our music, and the message that we’re putting out there, that, yes, wildness is crucial. And that there’s an emptiness that comes with city life, and an alienation that comes with city life, when that’s all that you know and all that you experience. But I just have to leave it at that. Because I can’t — because I don’t want to make any sort of value judgments, and I don’t want to make any sort of political statements. For instance the next step would be, “Well, if you have these deeply held spiritual convictions, then what’s the political action one should take? Should we have compulsory bussing to the wild woods? Should we destroy all the cities and force people to live in a hunter-gatherer existence?” And that’s just not the point of our band. I’ve said a couple times that it’s not our role as artists to suggest some sort of action. It’s not our role to suggest some sort of political program or some sort of economic strategy. I mean, we’re artists. And we’re expressing the truth of our existence, and we’re expressing something that we feel on a very deep, intuitive level, and it’s up to individuals to take from that what they wish.