Photo Courtesy of Freeman Promotions
Tonight, Monday November 8th, Gwar returns to Toronto with UK legends Napalm Death for a sold-out show at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, marking the first larger-scale metal show in the city since the start of pandemic. The added bonus is that the tour is in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of Gwar’s 1990 sophomore splatterpiece, Scumdogs of the Universe. I recently had a chance to speak with vocalist Michael Bishop, otherwise known as The Berzerker Blóthar. Bishop played bass on Scumdogs as the original incarnation of the Beefcake The Mighty character, and returned to the band as lead singer after the untimely passing of Dave Brockie aka Oderus Urungus in 2014.
The other exciting news from the world of Gwar is that the band’s ultimate behind-the-scenes documentary, This Is GWAR, has now entered the final editing stages, with a preliminary cut already having been screened for select audiences. For me, Gwar has always been the truest representation of live theatre and practical special effects in all of music, and so a film that takes us deeper into the non-fictional aspects of the band really intrigues me.
“I always knew that the story behind it, is something that people would like to know,” says Bishop.
“This is pretty much that, there’s no silliness to it, there’s no… it’s… it’s kind of a hard watch, man. It’s emotional, this band has been through a lot of trauma. I’ve played in other rock bands that had success and were touring, and Gwar is by far, the most difficult band to be in, in the world. I’m convinced of that. Maybe if you’re trying to do death metal in some Islamic country, (laughs) I’m sure that’s difficult! (But) as far as what you have to do every night to make that show happen, it’s fuckin’ hard! I think this movie is about the commitment that we all made to one another to participate in this kind of art project. It is a co-operative effort at producing musical theatre that involves visual artists, costuming, set design, (and) narratives. As an academic, I taught at the University of Virginia, we’re trained to (be like), if you’re looking at something and you want to understand it, well let’s find other things that are like that. How can you understand the Straight Edge movement? It’s kind of like the Boy Scouts, right! (laughs) With Gwar, I can’t find an analogy, there isn’t one. There isn’t something that Gwar is like, other than musical theatre, but then it’s really not like that because it’s a rock band. It’s unique, man. I’m very happy with the film, I think it does a good job in evoking, and ultimately I think that’s what art is supposed to do. It evokes the sense of Gwar. You definitely learn a lot about what makes this band tick, and really what makes it tick is this very serious artistic and emotional commitment to one another and to the project, and that’s really what that film’s about.”
As the film is being completed, the Scumdogs tour is chugging along nicely, and while Bishop and the rest of the band and crew don’t have as much freedom as they’re used to on this trek, they are back on the road bringing the full Gwar experience to a new generation of fans, many who might be hearing this classic material (and getting hosed with intergalactic fluids) for the first time.
“For us, doing Scumdogs has an almost spiritual feel at times,” he says.
“The songs (don’t) feel dated though, which is great because the crowd really knows these tunes. That’s probably what’s the most moving thing about it. I’ll look out in the crowd, and there’s some 14-year-old girl and she knows every damn word. We’re enjoying it. It’s been a while since we’ve been on the road. Things are very different because of covid. There’s some different procedures around it, and we don’t get to see a lot of old friends just because there’s rules about being backstage and stuff like that. Other than that it’s the same old, same old (laughs), and it’s good to be back out again, and be doing it again. All of that is positive. I always like to see big empty parking lots across the country! (laughs) We immediately head to the worst part of town in every city we show up at and sit around in the parking lot. Probably the biggest difference is that everybody’s on the bus all the time cause of covid. We’re not out, hangin’ around, partying, or anything like that. But it’s going great. The shows are packed, people are loving it. Lot of sell-outs on the tour, it’s great.”
“We were a punk band playing our idea of metal.”
To me, the Gwar of 2021 has a lot in common with the Scumdogs era, because for a time the band focused on more comedy/parody-style songs, and now they have a far more metallic sound. Scumdogs was arguably their first “serious” album musically, featuring their most cohesive lineup up to that point
“(On) Scumdogs, we were really trying to establish ourselves as a metal band, but we didn’t really know how to play metal,” says Bishop with a giggle.
“Brockie tried to kind of pretend like this wasn’t true, but Gwar is a punk band. We were a punk band playing our idea of metal. At the time, bands like Slayer were pretty new, we hadn’t grasped on to that. The way that record was written, (laughs) is the way punk musicians would try to write a Celtic Frost song. By the time we did Hell-O (in 1988), that was a group of musicians that we thought was gonna stick around. But we made the change and we got me, Mike Derks (aka Balsac The Jaws of Death – guitar), and Brad Roberts (aka Jizmak Da Gusha -drums). I was on the first record, and Dave was on the first record, (but) once we got Mike and Brad in the band it really did congeal into what Gwar was. Through the years Gwar definitely has changed a lot musically. It’s weird to play Scumdogs every night. It’s actually a challenge because Dave was a much more varied performer on the earlier records. He was still sort of messing around with a bunch of different voices. Almost like Tom Waits, he’d adopt different characters for different songs. No matter what era, when I’m singing Brockie’s stuff it’s always challenging. He was a very dynamic singer, there’s a lot to his voice. I do my own thing, but I always try to keep that level of variation in the performance.”
Dr. Michael Bishop - Ted Talk - GWAR and Regional Identity in Richmond, VA - 2015
Dave Brockie’s presence undeniably hangs heavy over Gwar’s legacy, with Bishop also academically comparing his vocal style to Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols. There’s something to be said for Oderus’ image having been synonymous with the band. He was the frontman after all and did the vast majority of the singing. According to Bishop there are some long-time hardcore fans who don’t like the band without Brockie, but he is quick to point out that there are a few fan theories that go way too far.
“It is kinda funny that Brockie died before the Trump era,” he says.
“I never realized how facile Gwar is, so you can assign whatever meaning you want to it. Punk rock’s kind of the same way. Punk rock is a term that can contain Skrewdriver and The Dead Kennedys! Gwar is very similar. You get people that look at this and they are 100% convinced that Brockie would have been a Trump guy, and you hear people say that! You hear people say ‘The band has changed. You guys have changed. You’re different now.’ We’re not! We’re just the fucking same! The world has changed. What people are willing to abide has changed. We have the exact same politics as we’ve always had: murky, confusing, (and) we try to leave room for people to interpret. But I can tell you right now, if Brockie was anything, it was a libertarian with a sort of liberal slant. He most definitely would not have been a fucking Trump supporter! (laughs hysterically)”
“That ability to handle pressure, it’s just something that’s fucking hard to do, and he was Dave Brockie for a long time”
Outside of tributes, the band has barely spoken about Brockie’s tragic passing. In my final question to Bishop I referenced the last interview I did with Brockie, where he stated that he wanted the band to outlive him. I then asked Bishop what he sees as the future of Gwar. For Bishop, making the band more successful means making different decisions than they’ve made in the past. Even if that means doing something different than what Brockie would have done.
“When you have success, you have pressure,” he says seriously.
“The will to accept that pressure, is what drives a lot of people to die, and that’s what Dave did, he died. That’s shit that happens again and again in show business, man. That ability to handle pressure, it’s just something that’s fucking hard to do, and he was Dave Brockie for a long time. It was not easy being that person, and that pressure, I think it took it out of him, man. Gwar having more and more success, (would also mean) more and more pressure. I think that in some ways whether he realized it or not, that Dave took steps to make sure that that didn’t happen. Even though they might have been very subtle. Ultimately, now the band is able to put ourselves in a position where we can be more successful. That’s a challenging thing to say in an interview, because people hear it as being negative but I’m really not, it’s just actually the fucking truth.”
The current Scumdogs tour is, by default, a living tribute to Brockie, as is arguably Gwar itself at this point. In our last interview, Brockie also spoke about how hoped that eventually everyone involved with Gwar would be able to be taken care of by the band, and that it would become even more successful than what it already was. I like to think that’s because he knew that, much like the fabled Cuttlefish of Cthulhu, it was destined to become the biggest of its kind.
“He wanted (the band) to have what they deserve,” says Bishop
“If there’s one thing about this life that we all know is that you don’t get what you fucking deserve. Like, nobody does. (laughs) So a lot of people, the things they get they do not deserve. Dave wanted, and deserved a tremendous amount of success. I think Dave was an incredibly successful guy. We just did an interview that was primarily about him. That’s because he was a huge figure in the lives of a lot of people. By any measure, that’s success. Brockie would have wanted this band to carry on and to do well, and to have success, and for the people that are in it to be happy.”
The Scumdogs 30th Anniversary Tour continues tonight in Toronto. You check out the rest of the tour dates here, and grab your own copy of the remixed Scumdogs of the Universe 30th Anniversary Edition or the Scumdogs XXX Live album. You can also stream Gwar’s most recent full-length album, 2017’s The Blood of Gods below.
This Sunday, September 26th, Zombitrol Productions and Green Merchant are proud to present the second show in the Backyard Jam series featuring UK rapper LTtheMonk, who’s just released a new album called On The Wall on Sonic Unyon Records. The 26 year-old Hamilton resident hails from the town of Beckenham, in London, which he describes as “a very white middle-class working place,” where he wasn’t directly exposed to music. This comes as a bit of a surprise given the 90s hip-hop vibes on the new album.
“There wasn’t really a lot of contemporary UK hip-hop around me,” says LT, sounding relaxed when I reach him via phone late on a Monday morning.
“Also, it wasn’t like there was much American hip-hop being directly fed to me. So it meant that as I was learning about music, as I was falling in love with hip-hop and all the music that I decided to love, it was really just my own documentary watching and just flicking through the TV channels and being led to 90s hip-hop. It wasn’t like I had stuff at the time that was really drawing me in or informing me. I would listen to Kanye, 50 Cent, and The Game - everyone who was big in the early 2000s. But without having the cultural influences being directly fed to me, it meant that I could go anywhere to find what I really loved, and that led me to the 90s, hip-hop especially. So as I started rapping, and through to when I reached adulthood and became good at rapping, that’s who I was sounding like, that’s who I was testing myself against. Still now what I’ll do is, I’ll finish writing a verse, I’ll play one of the legends from the 90s, whoever I consider to be my favourite lyricist at the time… I’ll play one of their songs and then I’ll rap the verse against it to see if it can hold up to their standards, and then I’ll know that it’s a good verse. So I think that influence is heavily there because of how I grew up into it.”
On The Wall is both groovy and introspective. Emotional and informative. Stand out tracks like “Four Seasons” and “Brothers On The Wall” combine the aggressiveness and passion of Nas with the thoughtfulness of early Common or Mos Def. Then there’s the overall concept of “The Wall.” On the album cover LT appears in front of a restaurant wall of fame, but lyrically the album seems deeper than that. So I was eager to know what this concept means to him.
“For me, it is the wall of fame in whatever your field is,” he says.
“I think people will be able to use that. My life purpose is, I’m driven to one day end up on the pop music wall of fame, the black music and cultural wall of fame, the hip-hop music wall of fame. If someone is an inventor, and then they wanna be seen in the realm of the Edisons, the Teslas, and all of that. (Then) they can say they wanna be on that wall of fame. The album, it’s my opening statement to say that one day I wanna be on these walls of fame, and this is my introduction to get myself on there.”
When LT started looking for his rapper name around the age of 16, he added the Monk title at first because his friends told him that he would always just sit “looking very chill, very wise” when they would hang out. But on his 18th birthday, his love for a particular iconic 90s hip-hop group would elevate the title for LT, and turn it into something more meaningful.
“The most powerful monk definition that I found is being a monk of hip-hop, because (of) another 90s hip-hop link: I’m a huge fan of Wu-Tang,” he says seriously.
“The day I turned 18, I watched the movie (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) that inspired their first album 36 Chambers. There were all the Shaolin monks who were learning kung-fu, and then the 36th chamber spread kung-fu into the world. Then I found out that kung-fu means whatever you're dedicated to, as well as being a martial art. I thought, as a monk I am someone who is dedicated to learning every element. There’s hooks, there’s rhyme scene, there’s beat selection, there’s all of it. But also there’s that link of me spreading hip-hop to the world with my music. So I really became a monk in terms of spreading that knowledge.”
LT came to Canada in 2017. Although Canadian hip-hop has been strong for decades, I didn’t view the country as a place that someone would come to in order to further their hip-hop career. LT reminds me far more of the rap that I heard growing up than what I hear today, either from the UK or North America. But it turns out that this uniqueness is what makes him fit into the Canadian music scene, as well as the cultural connections to his homeland.
“I don’t sound like most people, especially in modern hip-hop, I don’t sound like a lot of people,” he says.
“I think I’ve just always been looking for a place, (where I have) the freedom of space to find producers, find other musicians who are on the same page as me, and the listeners who actually wanna hear the music. Hamilton, Toronto, they’ve been great spaces where I’ve been able to just come in and say ‘This is who I am, this is the music I make, these are views I have.’ There just so much opportunity to do the open mics, and then organize my own shows, and then open up for other people. I think it’s been great, people wanting to hear new sounds, new perspectives. I think Canada is an interesting mid-point because there’s so much American hip-hop love over here, but then at the same time there’s also so many people, as soon as they hear my accent they’re like ‘Oh yeah! My dad’s English or my grandma’s English,’ and they’ll know about English culture. So it feels nice. There’s a lot of parts that have felt close to English culture, but then also a lot of new North American culture as well. So I’ve enjoyed that midpoint and I’ve enjoyed everyone just welcoming me and the unique stuff that I’m trying to do.”
On The Wall was written approximately between June 2019 and March 2020. In fact LT finished writing the last song just as the pandemic was hitting North America. So any lyrical connection to the pandemic that you may interpret is just a coincidence. Although LT predicts that his future music may reflect his life during the pandemic, he says that he doesn’t have any plans to address covid directly.
“I think there are more eternal concepts that I wanna focus on,” he says thoughfully.
“There’s been a lot of dark stuff that’s happened in my life and with my loved ones over covid. I think just because it’s ultimately, hopefully, a temporary situation. Just like the whole world got over Spanish flu in the last century, and the world has moved through various things. There are still the eternal concepts like love, and poverty, and oppression, and success and all of that. So I don’t think I’ll have 50 punchlines about social distancing, or all the bars about how I’ve been living in quarantine. It will still be the bigger life concepts.”
LTtheMonk plays the next Zombitrol/Green Merchant Backyard Jam this Sunday, September 26th from 6-7pm. Tickets are sold out, but you can stream it for free on the Green Merchant Twitch Channel. You can listen to On The Wall on Spotify, and you can watch the video for “Four Seasons” below.
Photo by Gaui H Photography
For the final Zombitrol At Home interview, I spoke to Heri Joensen, known for being the frontman of the Fareose metal band Týr. He’s got a new gothic/symphonic metal band with Czech vocalist Viktorie Surmová, and they’ve just released their debut album The Light Within (you can read my review here).
Týr’s early albums could technically be described as folk metal, with the caveat that Faroese folk music is largely acapella. So while other bands were making folk instrumentation more metal, Týr was creating original metal compositions to blend with traditional vocals. These albums are elaborate and progressive, overflowing in traditional compositions and beautiful vocal harmonies. It was 2009’s By The Light of the Northern Star, that saw the songs get shorter and tighter, with less long flowing prog solos, in favour of a more traditional metal style. It was this change that saw them move from a solid main support band, to a consistent headliner.
"I can see this clearly from Týr, that the simpler and more straightforward songs are the ones that people like, (and) are the ones that are much more likely to be successful songs,” says Joensen seriously.
“If you really want to make a living of this, then you have to consider that when you write the music. I think with (The Light Within) I tried to resist all my instincts to (be) more elaborate and make it more progressive. More than a few times we took it down a notch and made it simpler and less winding, less lengthy. That part was a conscious decision. You’re a music enthusiast, and I think most people who listen to music aren’t. So am I, I love all good music. I can get quite nerdy about it. But most people are just listening while, I don’t know, driving or whatever they’re doing. I can simply see the numbers on YouTube, on Spotify, that the simpler songs get way, way more attention. It’s nice to have done the other stuff, but it simply comes down in the end to how do you make a living of this, and that is by making the simpler songs. Something that has a better chance of becoming popular. That’s not the same as selling out. They are still songs that I will stand by 100%, even though they are shorter, simpler, and more straight to the point. That is not the same as selling out, and there’s a line, a balance to find in-between those things I think. I still have my other project Heljareyga, and I have some songs there, 10 or around there that I’m working on now and then, that are quite lengthy. I’ll get my progressive songs into that, and leave Týr and Surma more straight to the point.”
The shift in sound also saw Joensen’s original lyrics become more prominent, and more of his personality began to shine through, even if he was writing in a historical context. So when it seems on the surface that many of Týr’s songs are purely mythological, they are always from a personal perspective.
“Whenever I’m writing the lyrics myself there’s always something personal in it,” says Joensen.
“If there isn’t, you have lyrics like ‘Alexander The Great’ by Iron Maiden, where they’re simply reciting historical facts, which isn’t terribly interesting honestly. It’s nice to memorize for your history test (laughs), but it’s not really that interesting. What I like, the first modern Faroese poet Jens Djurhuss he modernized (in the Faroes at least, I’m sure it was modern in the mainland before that), poetry about ancient subjects with a personal angle, because a personal angle is rarely ever there in mythology and medieval literature. I think the personal angle is very valuable, and you can almost only do it from your own value system and experience. I have a personal point that I want to get across when I write lyrics, no matter how mythological they are.”
Despite this value placed on the personal within the mythological, when I’ve broached the subject in the past, Joensen hasn’t always been forthcoming with the more personal experiences behind his lyrics. But with Surma, his personal life is front and centre, as the band is perhaps a literal labour of love with lead singer Viktorie Surmová. Head over to Surma’s official page and you’re greeted by a dominating photo of Joensen and Surmová superimposed by the band’s heart-shaped logo. To Joensen, Surma is not a side-band, but full-time group that exists alongside Týr. But what came first? Collaboration or romance?
“Romance came first!” says Joensen laughing.
“We were on tour in 2016 in Europe and Viktorie was working for one of the organizers of the show here. First time I laid my eyes on her I was completely blown away, and well, we got to know each other and we’ve been together ever since. This logo, she came up with the basic idea for it. That’s kind of random, it’s not directly related to our relationship. It’s a funny coincidence. That was actually not deliberate. I don’t think I’ve made a deliberate effort to be a private person. There’s just not much interesting about me, other than the music.”
The Light Within, while far more symphonic than Týr’s music, is also steeped in history. Each song on the album is inspired by a different historical sculpture from around the world.
“Viktorie came up with that,” says Joensen.
“The basic idea for the whole album (came from) the memorial for the victims of the communist dictatorship of Czechoslovakia that existed here for decades. It’s a creepy-looking memorial at the very center of the city. It’s lit up from the ground, so that if you walk past it in the dark it’s very eerie. This was not meant to be a political album, this is really meant to be a personal, individual album.”
Surma 2021: (L to R) Rens Bourgondien (Bass), Aleksandr Zhukov (Drums), Viktorie Surmová (Vocals), Heri Joensen (Guitars/Vocals)
Photo by Krystof Peterka
Joensen is spending most of his time in Prague these days. He’s arguably the most well-known Faroese person in the world, so I did wonder if there’s any pressure for him to live back home, since he’s become the main cultural icon of a nation of over 50,000 people.
“The biggest reason that there’s no chance I can live there is the level of cost of everything,” he says after some thought.
“As you know, things are pretty much cheaper here in Czechia. With the income that a struggling musician such as myself has at the moment, there’s just no chance I can live in the Faroes. I’d like to live there, that much I can admit, right now it’s more convenient to be here. Of course there’s some people who would like that I was in the Faroes, but it’s not for professional reasons. You know, for personal reasons obviously. I have 2 kids there. Of course for band business it would be much more convenient even to be closer to (Týr bassist) Gunnar (Thomsen). For some things this is not the optimal situation, but for others it’s more convenient.”
Joensen’s other brush with international fame has come from a strange place, as he invoked the ire of the controversial environmental activist Paul Watson, who captains the anti-whaling ship Sea Shepherd. The whole incident started with a personal Facebook post that Joensen made while participating in an annual Faroese whaling ritual where he wrote “real men kill their own meat.” I saw the post at the time, and although I eat meat myself, I found it to be a bit silly, but nothing more. I was shocked to see Joensen essentially labelled as Public Enemy #1 by Watson, followed by protests at Týr shows around the world.
“I think looking back on how the whole thing went, I think I would agree with you, it was not the right thing to say,” says Joensen frankly.
“It was a joke not meant to imply the existing or missing masculinity of anybody. I honestly didn’t think it would get that much attention. Had I known, I would not have made that comment. I (don’t) have that reach, Sea Sheperd has that reach. They took it and blew it up. If it weren’t for their actions it would have been nothing. They have a very well-functioning… I would call it a propaganda machine, and they put it to its full use. It’s very effective.”
Joensen and Watson haven’t exactly met face-to-face as of yet. They had a conversation on the Animal Planet channel, and Watson turned up as protest outside one of Týr’s shows in California (Joensen says he walked right past him and wasn’t recognized). It's true that Watson has a far bigger reach than a metal band from the Faroes, and it made me wonder if Týr actually gained any new fans from the exposure via Sea Shepherd’s crusade against them.
“I know for a fact we have, yes,” says Joensen excitedly.
“People who say that they heard about us only because of that, and they came to the show, bought a ticket to support us. On the last U.S. tour I heard that maybe 10-15 times.”
Despite the Animal Planet appearance, Joensen’s actual views on whaling in the Faroes have not received much attention. The controversy created by Watson positions Joensen as a kind of official figurehead for the practice. The reality is that his views on the subject are not black-and-white enough to suit that narrative.
“Depends on how you do it, and why you do it,” he says.
“Of course it’s of vital importance how much suffering the animal has to go through for you to harvest the meat. As I understand, Japanese shark-finning, they cut the fins off a shark while it’s alive and let it go back into the ocean with its fins missing. That would be illegal in the Faroes for the last several decades. You’re not allowed to harm any large ocean animal unless you have specific permission or orders to do so. You’re certainly not allowed put a scratch on a whale as long as it has a chance of escaping. You have to secure it properly on the beach before you kill it. It’s not helpful to paint the issue with a broad brush.”
Týr 2021: (L to R) Tadeusz Rieckmann (Drums), Hans Hammer (Guitars), Heri Joensen (Vocals/Guitars), Gunnar Thomsen (Bass/Vocals)
Photo by Gaui H Photography
Surma was ready to head out on tour when the shutdown hit. In the meantime Joensen has spent his time creating merch stores for both bands, and working on new music. His pandemic routine has been pretty solid. After he wakes up he exercises and works on band merch orders. He then writes and records music from the afternoon until midnight. Luckily for his fans, these daily sessions seem to have been going really, really well.
“I’ve been working on mostly Týr. I have a folder in my computer called ‘The 9th Album,’ and one called ‘The 10th Album,’ even,” he says with an audible smile.
“That one has maybe 15 songs. I’m not really sure where to put every right now, and Gunnar and (drummer) Tadeusz (Rieckmann) are also working on their own ideas for the next album. I’ve made some recordings, guitar, and wrote some lyrics. A few more months of work and we’ll have (it) ready. I started making a guitar album. Just with my own guitars, bass, and drums. Will I ever get to that? (laughs) I’m not sure. I also started making an acoustic album. I have a lot of material that I hope I will get to one day. I don’t think we’ll have too much, ever. You can still release a full album every 2 years, and even doing that requires your absolute full-time attention. I don’t think we’re in danger of getting anywhere close to that.”
Joensen is overall quite an easy-going person, but that’s not to say that he isn’t passionate about his opinions. So when asked if there was any kind of message or lesson that he’s taken away from the pandemic, he didn’t hold on back. But unlike others who can be outspoken, he knows that not everything is an absolute, and in the end we only have our own perspective.
“One thing that has become worse during the last year definitely, is the common misconception that the internet is a real world,” he says as seriously as I’ve ever heard him.
“That was already bad before the lockdown, and now that people are forced to sit at home with no access to the world but the internet, that’s clearly become worse. People should try every now and then to go a whole day without a screen, I think that would be very helpful. I’ve thought about many, many things. But it also depends on what personality you have, which issues you’re going through. As for someone like me? The lockdown and isolation hasn’t been very tough. I’m a very introverted and un-social person. I’d probably be going on just like it is now, even if it weren’t for pandemic, save for the tours and shows. But if you’re a very outgoing and sociable person, then you might have completely different issues than I would have from this, and I would have no idea how to address those issues. I can only speak for myself.”
You can stream Surma’s The Light Within in it’s entirety here, and Týr’s most recent album, 2019’s Hel here. Check out Surma’s debut video for the track “Until It Rains Again” below.
Chthonic Megaport Festival 2021: (L to R) Dani Wang (Drums), Doris Yeh (Bass), CJ Kao (Keyboards/Synths), Jesse Liu (Guitar), Freddy Lim (Vocals)
Background: Special Guest Audrey Tang
All Photos Courtesy of Freddy Lim & Chthonic
The success story of the Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic (pronounced “Thon-ik”) and its frontman Freddy Lim could only be described as inexplicable. There are musicians who have become notable politicians, and there are heavy metal musicians who have achieved some degree of mainstream notoriety. But not only has Chthonic become a part of Taiwanese mainstream pop culture, but Lim is now a twice-elected legislator in parliament.
Let’s start with how a black metal band has become the most influential and beloved act of an entire nation. Chthonic found local success in the late 90s – early 00s. Their blend of black metal with Taiwanese historical themes, and use of the erhu (two-string violin), resonated immediately with a varied audience. When Chthonic won “Best Band” at the Golden Melody Awards (the Taiwanese equivalent of a Juno or Grammy) in 2003, it was regarded as an upset. That was arguably the beginning of their national artistic invasion. By the time the band started to gain significant attention outside Taiwan, Lim had already starred in a historical drama film, met with the Dalai Lama, and become the chair of Amnesty International Taiwan. As of today, Chthonic, a black metal band, has established itself as a Taiwanese cultural watershed, with complete penetration across all musical genres and artistic mediums.
“We played a remarkable show in the square in front of the President Hall in 2019,” says Lim when I reach him around 9am Taiwan time.
“We called it the Taiwan Victory Concert. It (attracted) 50,000 people. I think most of them, they sing along with some of our songs, even though they’re not ordinary metal fans. Even some pop artists, they cannot achieve that level. There are some pop artists in Taiwan they say they’re inspired by Chthonic, even (covering) our songs. We have gone some places we didn’t expect.”
The Victory Concert takes on an even greater significance when you realize that Lim was already an elected official at the time. Take a moment to think about that. Not just a heavy metal politician, but a black metal one at that. Lim was even encouraged by his staff during his first election run to not cut his hair, as the public was used to his heavy metal image. It sounds a bit mad, really. Like a some metalized version of an American comedy movie where the protagonist randomly becomes U.S. President. The unlikeliness of the situation is not lost on Lim.
“Yes, I think was it was quite dramatic,” he says laughing.
“Especially when I decided to run, there were a lot of people who (weren’t) serious about (it). They (thought) it might be a joke and I didn’t really mean it, but I meant it! So I carefully managed to win, and also try to expand the impact. That’s why I decided to form the new party. I was the representative of the new party in the beginning. The whole visual idea of the party, the logo and how we ran the campaign in the first year, it mostly was my idea. Also the art team for the party, those were (also) the art team for Chthonic. So in the beginning there were a lot of things going on with the Chthonic team.”
Freddy Lim speaking in the Legislative Yuan
The party that Lim is referring to is the New Power Party (NPP), which he founded in 2015 (he’s no longer a member, but we’ll get to that). Lim was already known for political activism, and he was often asked if he would ever consider running for office. It was assumed by many, including myself, that Chthonic’s use of Taiwanese history and mythology in their lyrics and image were tied to that activism. But to Lim, the 2 were always separate in his mind. Only now in his new position can he see why many took it the other way.
“Most of our lyrics are about history or mythology, so before I took the job I sang them with imagination mostly,” he says.
“But in recent years it’s kind of put 2 things together, imagination and the facts – the true world. In the old days when the fans would look between the lines to reflect (on) some of the meaning of the lyrics (and associate them with) the true world, I would always say ‘I respect your feelings, I respect your explanation, but for me it’s just imagination. For me it’s mythology and history.’ But in recent years when I sing all those songs, I can see why they see the reflection of the true world (laughs), because I’m in the true world, I’m trying to make the true world better. So I can see that some of the lyrics have the power to trigger the ear of the people (who want) to change Taiwan and make it a better country.”
"I can do more things, not just to win the seat but to prove to Taiwan that my way of fighting, my way of doing things works."
Lim was inspired by the wave of young people running in the 2016 election, and despite some initial concern about his chances, he was able to defeat the 5-term ultra-conservative incumbent in the Zhongzheng–Wanhua constituency. The Legislative Yuan is Taiwan’s parliament/congress, and like many countries, it’s dominated by 2 parties. The centre-left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is currently in power, while the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) sits in opposition. Aside from winning his own seat, Lim managed to lead the NPP to third-party status in the Legislature, with the goal of using their new position to influence DPP policy. But in 2019, once Lim was no longer party chair, the NPP considered nominating a presidential candidate for the 2020 election. It was this discussion that would lead to Lim leaving the party he founded.
“The day I decided to leave the party… it was kind of difficult for me,” he says solemnly.
“At the press conference, a journalist asked me ‘How do you feel?’ I stopped. For almost 30 seconds I can’t say anything. My tears almost dropped. (laughs nervously) But I collected my emotions. I put myself together in a short time. It was difficult because my district is a very conservative district, and according to the polls I was behind my opponent who was the (same as the first election). According to the polls I was quite a huge distance behind him. I knew the only thing I should focus on is (being) re-elected in my district. That’s the most important thing. I can do more things, not just to win the seat but to prove to Taiwan that my way of fighting, my way of doing things works. (The) idea to nominate a presidential candidate, I was pissed by that. We don’t even have enough staff to run the party, how are we going to run the country?! I had 3-4 jobs in the party. We should take things seriously. It’s not a joke! You can’t do things this way or you will lose people’s trust because all the citizens know that you are a small party, (that) you’ll run out of hands. So I decided to leave. I told them the only way is to support President Tsai (Ing-Wen), especially when (her) opponent, which was the KMT candidate, was very pro-China. The Chinese government (have) tried their best to infiltrate Taiwan, and the only way we can stop the infiltration is to stop the KMT candidate. Which means supporting President Tsai.”
Freddy Lim Resigning From The NPP (2019)
A number of key NPP party members followed Lim and left the party, and he was re-elected as an independent in his district in 2020. As an independent, Lim can only receive a limited amount of political contributions, but the upside is that he is able to move more freely and establish bi-partisan organizations within parliament. After his re-election he was visited by pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong, who urged him to form a caucus in support of their movement. He now chairs that caucus which includes representatives from 4 parties.
“The Chinese communists, they always say that the Hong Kong democratic activities were supported by the DPP, (and) it’s not true!” he says emphatically.
“It’s excuses always used by the Chinese communists. So as an independent, it’s much easier for me. The 2 major parties, they have strong conflicts. They confront each other hard. Sometimes we need to be neutral and need to show the united power of Taiwan with (bi-partisanship). That’s what I should do in this phase right now.”
"I think for people like the Hong Kongers, they got oppressed by the Chinese government much more than me. So I just have to take care of my own safety, that’s not that difficult."
Lim has never been quiet about his opinions of the Chinese government, and it does seem that the feeling is mutual. In 2018 Chthonic was denied a visa to perform in Hong Kong with singer and activist Denise Ho, who duets with Lim on the track “Millennia's Faith Undone.” Lim was also physically attacked in parliament by a KMT legislator who wanted to disrupt the confirmation of committee members nominated by President Tsai. On his way to vote Lim was assaulted as the KMT member attempted to grab the vote from his pocket. There are of course, larger safety concerns. Lim rarely speaks about his family or relationships publicly, and has become even more cautious after entering politics for fear of pro-China extremists, whom he says are backed by both organized crime and Chinese governmental agents. Despite this knowledge, Lim shows little fear when speaking about any potential threats.
“Yes, my friends always ask me to hire more bodyguards, (laughs) for me and my family,” he says casually.
“With the infiltration of China now in Taiwan, some Hong Kong activists (when) they travel in Taiwan they are attacked by some… I don’t want to say they’re spies, but they’re hired hands. Definitely, sometimes I’m concerned with my own safety as well. But I think for people like the Hong Kongers, they got oppressed by the Chinese government much more than me. So I just have to take care of my own safety, that’s not that difficult. They have to get exiled, or arrested if they are in Hong Kong. So yeah, I think I’m fine. I’m concerned about my safety a bit, my family too. But yeah, we’ll be fine.”
Freddy Lim performs at Roar Now! Bankgah (2020)
With the hopes of so many on his shoulders this begs the question, when do Lim and Chthonic find the time for metal activities? Their most recent album, 2018’s Golden Melody-winning Battlefields of Asura, was arranged by Lim and guitarist Jesse Liu from material written in 2013. The band doesn’t play more than once a year, and the shows are posted in their entirety on YouTube and Facebook. With the pandemic largely under control in Taiwan, their next performance is this Saturday, March 27th, at a masked and socially-distanced Megaport Music Festival.
“Chthonic will play just to support, because don’t have international artists for the festival this year,” says Lim.
“Most of the local artists will play and we will headline. Our rock and dance music festivals are still being put on, and our traditional ceremonies and feasts are still being put on. Religious rituals are still going. Department stores, shopping malls are open. People go sightseeing like usual, but just with masks and social distancing. I think we are very lucky, because we are so close to China. We implemented pandemic prevention mechanisms very fast and early. The pandemic didn’t affect Taiwan too much. The local cases (as of March 3rd, 2021), we have only 9 deaths, and 77 local cases. We are one of the countries that have contained the pandemic best. We kind of continued daily life, the ordinary way, but of course with masks and social distancing.”
Aside from posting it online, the band plans to release a live album of their set at Megaport, including a physical edition with a special Chthonic “Made In Taiwan” mask, since Lim feels masks are now part of our fashion culture. He also hopes he can encourage other metal bands to have their masks made in Taiwan as well.
"Although Taiwan seems far away from you, please understand that Taiwan is the frontline against the Chinese tyrant authoritarian regime."
It's a lot to take in. Lim and Chthonic have managed to achieve symbiosis between extreme metal music, mainstream culture, and national politics, all while under the eye of an authoritarian power. I first met Lim on the road about 13 years ago, and although he spoke passionately about his beliefs and causes, there is a distinct difference now. When Lim speaks now there is a grim determination and a sharpened focus that shows his passion has become intent, because change is actually within his reach.
If Chthonic does ever play outside of Taiwan again, it won’t be for many years. As such, I wanted to know what Lim would say to foreign fans of his music, who might feel detached from his current job and political efforts.
“First of all I hope you will still enjoy all the songs and videos that we post online, (because) we don’t have time to tour around the world anymore,” he says.
“Although Taiwan seems far away from you, please understand that Taiwan is the frontline against the Chinese tyrant authoritarian regime. (There are) a lot of infiltrations that you might find in your own country. I know in Canada, in the United States, or in Europe you can see a lot of different Chinese agencies in schools and in communities. They’ve been seen in different industries. Even in Hollywood, you can see that a lot of movies have been made to obey the Chinese government’s standards. They have to change the storyline of the movie just to follow the rules of Chinese communists. You might (think) that Taiwan is very far away and threats from China is something that you might not need to care about. But actually things have got a bit different in your own country too. It makes your life different. It changes your freedom, your free way of living. So try to know more about what happens in this region, in this so-called ‘Far East.’ (Not just) because you want to care more about the people under oppression, but also (because you) want to protect what you have in the free world right now. I do believe if the people in the free world, if we work together, if we are united, we can make the world better, and we can find a better way to deal with the biggest authoritarian government in human history, and to change them.”
Chthonic will play the Megaport Music Festival this Saturday, March 27th. You can watch the full 2019 Taiwan Victory Concert below, or you can listen to it via Spotify. The band also has tons more content on their YouTube page.