Xasthur on Taking Back Their Name and Playing Acoustic Black Metal

Xasthur is coming to 51 West.
Xasthur is coming to 51 West. Courtesy of Xasthur
Few things are more impressive than when a band radically changes their style and pulls it off with grace.

Consider all the ink spilled over Radiohead's transition from world-conquering guitar band to Warp Records-loving electronic outfit, or how Talk Talk's astonishingly morphed from '80s synth pop band to bucolic jazz-playing godfathers of post-rock.

We love a good reinvention story, and few bands have shapeshifted as radically or as effectively as black metal band Xasthur.

Started in 1995 by mastermind Scott "Malefic" Conner, Xasthur conjured up dark ambient sounds through their atmospheric black metal music. Collaborating with groups like Leviathan, Nachtmystium, Mord, Sunn O))), and even singer Marissa Nadler, Xasthur created haunting songs that helped define an entire genre. They cast a long shadow over any American band that wanted to slather on some corpse paint and howl like the winds of winter.

In 2010, after releasing their eighth studio album, Malefic announced that he was retiring the Xasthur name. Calling his new project Nocturnal Poisoning, he released a string of albums inspired by bluegrass, country music, and the haunting solo acoustic guitar work of John Fahey. Going from gnarled, crackling electric guitars to the quiet pluck and strum of acoustic guitars is a radical leap for any musician to make, let alone someone from the world of black metal. But Malefic made it work, creating eerie, introspective tunes that invited you to sidle up to their darkness and sit in their laps like a cat.

After a few years as Nocturnal Poisoning, Malefic announced that he was switching back to the name Xasthur. Forming a new lineup with Christopher Hernandez and Rachel Roomian, the trio are now touring as an acoustic black metal band. We got a chance to talk to Malefic about his reasons for reclaiming his name; Hernandez and Roomian joined in later in the conversation to offer their perspectives on joining forces with Malefic.

New Times: In past interviews, you’ve talked about your desire to retire the Xasthur name and your lack of interest in doing live performances as Xasthur. I was wondering what inspired your change of heart? What’s compelled you to pick up the Xasthur mantle again and hit the stage?
When the music changed, many other things along with it needed to change, too. I never had the intention of having the old "black metal" Xasthur play live, it was not a possibility. Starting over also meant rehearsing everything I wrote so it could be played live. It's about wanting to do more, that's where the change of heart comes from, as in wanting to back up what you do. Any person today can make a one-man band in their room on a cell phone — that is not enough anymore! I think people are slowly starting to figure out there's too much of that. Using the Xasthur name: it took many years and work to build up, I wasn't willing to let it go just because I've stepped it up with the songwriting.

With your work as Nocturnal Poisoning, you delved deep into the realms of blues, bluegrass, country, and instrumental guitar music. In your time playing and learning those styles of music, did you discover commonalities between black metal and these older styles? Did you pick up anything in the subject matter of the lyrics, or in the quality of the sounds themselves that hit your ear as something familiar?
 No, I don't find much similarity with black metal and acoustic guitar playing country, blues, bluegrass, etc. Most black metal can not transpose to acoustic and fingerpicking very well because most of it is picked on one or two strings at a time or just various power chords. No, I try not to take influence in anything I hear lyrically; someone else wrote that, I want to write something else. Nocturnal Poisoning and Xasthur should be considered one in the same.

You talked a lot in past interviews about the virtues of being a solo artist- being accountable to no one else, not having to deal with the lack of commitment/discipline from other musicians. One thing I was wondering about was your experiences with “the other side” of that. Do you find it to be liberating/creatively fulfilling to be a part of someone else’s project, when the burden of being the main creative force isn’t on you? I’m thinking in particular about the work you did with Sunn O))), where you made a significant contribution but didn’t have to be the captain of the ship. Have you found it to be rewarding to be a collaborator/guest on other people’s projects, or is it something that holds little appeal for you these days?
I never thought collaborations were fulfilling after giving them a chance. Most of the time it's been about whatever someone throws on top of what someone else writes and not about people working, composing or writing together, which would've been more interesting. I know that I can give more than one hundred percent when I'm doing all the work towards something. If I'm not captain of a ship or assume full responsibility, then I'm not gonna make anything that's too good.

Do you have any interest in doing scores in the future? Listening to your instrumental work, it’s so emotive, evocative, and atmospheric that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine it making a killer soundtrack for a film or TV project.
 I used to have ideas and hopes of doing that, having or making that happen but it never did. TV and movies are nearly an impossible door to get a foot in.

Who do you spend the most time listening to these days? What are the artists whose works continue to inspire you and inform your own creative process?
 I just see and hear many possibilities when I listen to people like John Fahey, Six Organs of Admittance, Jerry Garcia, Townes Van Zandt... I'm either inspired or motivated by them, though it's probably hard to hear an influence by them.

On a related note: your song lyrics have an eerie poetry to them. What writers inspire you when you write songs? Whose voices and subject matter resonate the most with you?
 Lyrically, I'm watching and I'm listening to everything around me; it’s not influenced by writers or other people's music. I'm trying to put into words what you're seeing and thinking, or what I am; whether you want to see that or not, at least I'm giving something to relate to. Stories of my own, stories of yours or someone you know. I write about reality, the mind, psychology, dysfunctional behavior, poverty, homelessness, whores, junkies, social issues, inner cities, greed, liars, rip-offs, underachievers, fear, TV and brainwashing and how I know it in my head. I don't think reality fits into black metal — if it does it's rather vague. There are a lot of mirrors in what I write, it could be more than before, so it's only natural to want to look away but they're meant for us to take a look at ourselves, not turn a blind eye to the world around us and cause some kind of change. I think it's directed 'for' someone rather than 'at' someone than in the past.

As a lyricist, has there been a subject that you’ve always wanted to write about but just haven’t been able to do it justice? Some topic or thematic idea that haunts your imagination, but refuses to be pinned down with words yet?
 No. I think that was a problem or idea 10 years ago, trying to find the right subject and not finding it. Today I just write whatever comes to me or comes my way and it's been a handful. Some people can turn what someone read elsewhere into their own thing, many can't and do it anyway... I can't and won't.

What are the roles that Rachel and Chris play in Xasthur?
Rachel is the bassist and Chris is a guitarist and the vocalist.

Having been working in a solo capacity for awhile, was it hard for you to get back into the swing of working with other people on your project, or were the three of you able to gel relatively quickly into a cohesive unit?
 It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, even though it was different and has taken some time. But both of them learn new music and all of it probably quicker than I could if I were in their position. Rachel joined about 8 or 9 months ago, and she must've learned about 50 new songs in half that time; she's completely up to date with everything new when we all practice. It's pretty much the same story with Chris too, he's been involved at least a couple years now. When we play something new together for the first time, it's as if we've done it a dozen times.

Christopher Hernandez: I feel it was pretty easy to start working efficiently together from the beginning. Going into it, I knew how to play a few songs, so that made it easy to start up. Scott and I just sort of clicked from the beginning and having Rachel on board afterward with us seemed like a very natural step that made sense.

Rachel Roomian: I think the first time I came down to LA from the SF Bay Area, we stayed up all night playing all these songs, I just improvised at first and joined in with them on the bass. I knew the songs pretty well from heavy listening for years before joining.

Had you collaborated with Rachel and/or Chris on any other projects before they joined up to be a part of Xasthur?
No, I hadn't.

Hernandez: Does Nocturnal Poisoning count? Cause that's what we were still doing a few years ago when I joined before Xasthur.

Roomian: I had opened for Xasthur in Oakland before I started playing music with them, under the name Erzsebet. It was a solo/one woman project... I had been missing playing in a band, having played with a few bands in the Bay Area, and dedicated with devotion a greater part of myself to playing in Xasthur

Has touring together as a group inspired you to work on new material that y'all be recording together in the future, or have you all already been working on material for a future release?
Well, like I was saying, they know the songs so well and have learned them so quick that we went ahead and recorded a full length back in Feb, it should be out by 2018.

Hernandez: We've been working on new music and have recorded a new album. It's not out yet, but we'll be playing the songs from it a lot throughout this May/June tour.

Roomian: I'm very excited for the release of the new album. I had a very powerful and personal response to the lyrics and music, and through them, an inner voice was speaking clearly, to me and through me.

Aside from your work in Xasthur, Malefic, do you have plans to do any side projects in the near future
I'm just sticking with Xasthur, the only project I need, I seem to have my hands full and I'm getting enough out of it to not worry about side projects and what not. I think it's getting more experimental with five or six different tunings being used and not holding back or having any inhibitions with the lyrics.

Xasthur will be playing with Johanna Warren, Suicide Forest, The Cult of The Yellow Sign, and Empyreal on Friday, May 12, at 51 West in Tempe.

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Ashley Naftule