Thrash Hits

October 21st, 2010

Interview: Melechesh – “We took a fucking big risk- we could have ended our careers”

If only to stop him from drooling all over the place over Melechesh’s new album, we packed Tom Dare off to chat with their frontman, Ashmedi, about Istanbul, Mesopotamian mythology and what that damn title means.

By now you should have read our review of Melechesh’s stunning new album, The Epigenesis. You’ll know that we think it’s one of the best records to emerge in the latter half of 2010 – it pushes boundaries because the band’s creative drive of expression requires it, not merely out of some misplaced urge to sound outré. and it does it while simultaneously sounding heavy as fuck. Why haven’t you bloody well bought it yet? It’s why we were so keen to have words with the first-Jerusalem-now-Amsterdam-based band’s frontman, Ashmedi. What the devil is it like fronting one of the most forward-thinking black metal outfits in the world today?

Your new record is called The Epigenesis. We’ve got no idea what that means – can you explain a little about the title?
There are several meanings. You can find it in geology, where it’s about the formation and growth of rock. Like our music- but that’s not the reason, it’s a coincidence. In biology it’s the evolution of the cells and multiplication. But philosophy and spirituality is what we’re aiming at. It’s causality of events that are meant to happen – including accidents – which lead to growth and spiritual enhancement. It’s the peak of spiritual enlightenment, and hence we chose the word ‘epigenesis’. It fits the album perfectly.

The lyrical content is still rooted in Sumerian and Mesopotamian philosophies and mysticism. What is it that you feel these can teach people in the modern world?
I’m not after teaching or preaching. Those themes are very profound. They give you an indication of the origins of mankind as a civilisation. I do have my own interpretation of the songs, really I do. Some of the interpretations are subliminal meanings of the lyrics that can relate to your daily life. But in Melechesh we’re very comfortable in the themes of Mesopotamia and Sumeria, not necessarily repeating mythology but also other mystical themes and occult from the Near East- like the Kabbalah, Sufism and what have you. It’s known that it’s the cradle of civilisation and has affected other mythologies. But also the source – where did it come from? – is what interests me. And to be partially related to this culture gives me a sense of ownership. So I feel very comfortable singing about it rather than subjects I’m completely unrelated to.

Does this sense of ownership and identity relate to the roots of black metal philosophy in individual expression?
No, I don’t give a fuck about that. It is simply a fact that… it’s like when you see some bands drawing inspiration from a fictional book called the Necronomicon, making albums after albums, and I’m like “wait! This comes from my ancestral background”, you know? So I’m like “wow”. And it’s a very fascinating world we come from. I’m Armenian-Assyrian- and when I say Assyrian that’s not an ancient claim, it’s a current diaspora. So this is like my great-great-great-great-ancestors believed in this thing, that’s all. I’m an individualist but I just come from the Near East and I’m proud of it, very proud of it – it’s a unique place, very magical, obviously misjudged at times. It’s not like “it’s my identity, I’m nationalist” or some bullshit like that. I’m a child of the universe. I happen to come from there and I like it, but I like the rest of the world as well – the rest of the universe.

So it’s a personal expression, it’s not any sense of ownership of certain ideas and cultures to specific areas?
No, no! I just think that the whole concept is fascinating, and it fascinates many others, they just don’t happen to be coming from there. And they have every right to sing about it. I’m not like “no, you can’t do that”. They have every right to because the universe is one place – the barriers are man-made. So is religion and so is politics, so I won’t play that game.

You recorded The Epigenesis in Istanbul. You recorded [last album] Emissaries in Germany, Djinn in Holland, Sphinx in Sweden and As Jerusalem Burns in Jerusalem. What was the reason for choosing Istanbul?
To a certain extent it was a statement. We like to defy the norm. I mean we can record anywhere we want- in America, in Europe, we were offered all these studios. But I’m like: “Wait a minute, I’ve never seen a band go to the East to record. It’s always bands recording in the West, and bands from the East dream to come to the West to record. Let’s go there! Let’s practice what…” well, we don’t preach… “but let’s walk the walk, not talk the talk”. So we went there. I like Istanbul- it’s very inspirational and it’s a very logical place for Melechesh. It’s East meeting West, like our music. It’s a place where they always had Anatolian rock, from the ’60s. Actually a pioneer of the genre plays on our album, 67 year-old Cahit Berkay from a psychedelic band from the ’60s called Moğollar, which means ‘Mogul’. So it was very obvious to go there, a logical choice, but we took a risk. We took a fucking big risk- we could have ended our careers because there’s no proper reference from the big studios. But it paid off. We took a risk and it paid off.

Watch the trailer for The Epigenesis here:

The city of Istanbul, one thing people don’t realise about it is that it’s very heavy metal. There’s so many heavy metal bars, more than any other city I know in Europe. I think there’s four metal bars- I’m not talking about shitholes, very nice design, décor, they’re big, they have waiters, they have cover bands that sometimes play better than the real bands. Every Sunday in this one bar there’s this old lady band playing Savatage, Judas Priest – all the best. When they’re playing the guitar they’re smiling – they’re not nervous or self-conscious. They forget about the universe – I like that! Then there’s like 30 rock bars that play some form of heavy electric guitar music, there’s 20 or 30 shops selling heavy metal t-shirts…I mean you don’t have that in Amsterdam! It restored my love for metal, that place. Not that it ever stopped, but it can be complacent – there it’s not complacent. There’s also great scenery, great architecture and great access to traditional instruments and talent.

You mentioned Melechesh’s sound being based on East meeting West. There seems a sudden explosion – at least in the consciousness of the West – of bands that incorporate sounds from the cultures they grew up in with metal. Do you think this could provide a kick up the arse of the Western scene- stop it getting complacent and thinking it has the monopoly?
It doesn’t have a monopoly – metal is universal, it was always universal. Just because the magazines and the labels are situated in a socially affluent place where the government and the infrastructure allow them to easily do what they want doesn’t mean the music itself is regionally bound. It isn’t regionally bound. We see ourselves as a metal band – we don’t rely on ethnic instruments or something, these are cosmetics we use. We’re not part of the folk band explosion.

We’re a metal band – it’s a guitar/drums relationship. Except in our own way, we use our own patterns of drumming, but it goes back to the drummer-guitar relationship. But we use ethnic instruments at times just for enhancement. And you know what? We try as much as possible to avoid the cliché. “This sounds too Middle-East cliché, Aladdin from Disneyland.” What kind of garbage is that? Many bands do it and I just can’t stand it. We go to deep philosophical ideas and music scales, not just limited to the Near East – we go as far as, like Indian music, Persian music and what-have-you. That helps the music. And it is a statement, that we invented the Middle Eastern black metal-ish sound…we invented it, so maybe it is a message that music is universal and can come from anywhere. The statement was when we recorded in Turkey. [Adopting a mocking voice] “Oh look, what is there to do in Turkey?”. Yeah, well listen to the album.

It’s been four years since Emissaries. Was there any particular reason for the long gap?
There are several reasons, of course. I don’t shit albums out. They have to be very sincere. You have to work a lot on them, so it’s a long writing process and I thought the more time there is, the more atmospheres I get onto the album. That’s one. Two, topping Emissaries is not an easy task. Well, I didn’t try to top it, I just try to be as good as I am and make Melechesh as sincere as it is now. This is Melechesh sounding now. The album is very diverse, it has short songs, long songs, simple songs with two riffs, songs with many riffs, songs with only 12-string guitars, there’s a twelve minute long song… it’s a very brave album, a very confident album. It shows “here’s Melechesh, they’re confident! Not arrogant, not complacent and not taking things for granted- they’re just confident, they’re comfortable doing what they’re doing”. And we didn’t look sideways, we didn’t look back, we didn’t look forward- we were just like “there it is, there’s the music”.

Another reason is we played live. Sometimes playing live gets your focus away from new material. And some personal things that I had- you know, challenges, and I had to overcome those. That’s why it took this long. Ironically, what the current day industry teaches us – to expect an album once a year – is not necessarily the right way. It is the norm now- at one point it was normal to wait four years, three years for an album. By the way, it did take a bit longer- it should have been out, say, half a year earlier – but there were logistical reasons. For example, I was literally sitting, waiting for the studio to be finished. I visited it for the first time when it was still concrete. That’s a small reason! I don’t call them delays, just a longer waiting time. But what you get in return is 71 minutes! It’ll take you another four years to absorb fully.

So it was very much about getting the right album rather than “just another album”?
I won’t do “another album”. I hope. I keep that in my mind. I do my best, and it has to be sincere or it is not done. So there is no “an album”. You might not like the album after this, or you might love it, but it’s an album that must be sincere to me.

Watch Melechesh play ‘Rebirth of the Nemesis’ live here:

There are a lot of different instruments used on the album, such as the sitar. Will you be using those in the live shows?
It depends on the live show. It depends on the place and the time and the time slot. If we do a headlining show – not tour, but a show, a special event – then definitely we’ll use the whole thing. But otherwise it’s just too logistically difficult. Mind you, like a said before, it’s a relationship between drums and guitars- it’s a heavy metal band. [The other instruments] are cosmetics. I play the guitar-sitar, but I also play the acoustic Indian sitar on the album. We also have other instruments played by other people, but we also try to get instruments that aren’t really cliché instruments, that have very dark, somber sounds.

Any plans to do a headline show in the UK?
The reason we didn’t come here was a big coincidence. We played a lot with Emissaries, just something went wrong with booking once or twice- I don’t know. We’ll definitely be coming here. In the coming year we’re going to be touring a lot, so of course we’re going to come to the UK, man! We’ve been to Dubai, we’ve been to Canada, we’ve been to fucking Armenia of all places. We’ve got people from Iran flying to Armenia to watch the show, waving Iranian flags – because it was so close for them – yet we don’t come to the UK, it’s ridiculous! It’s one of those things. We laugh about it. We definitely want to do it! It’ll happen this year.

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Melechesh will be keeping their promise and touring Europe in support of Nile early next yeah February. FUCK YEAH.

Nile/Melechesh February 2011 UK/Ireland tourdates:
08 Cardiff Millenium Music Hall
09 Liverpool Masque
10 Derby Redemption
11 Dublin Villiage
12 London O2 Islington Academy

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