Frayed Ends of Sanity
CoC chats with Ashmedi of Melechesh
by: Jackie Smit
If your response to hearing the opening strains of Melechesh's latest opus wasn't one of awed amazement, then it's likely that you've stumbled onto this website by mistake. Long one of the underground's best-kept secrets, these Sumerian metallers had much to live up to after their stunning 2003 effort, _Sphynx_, catapulted them to the upper echelons of many a year-best list. In fine style, they delivered with a record that not only upped the ante on its predecessor, but presented a band that had evolved into perhaps an even more baleful beast. Odd thing though -– in the hands of lesser artists, it could quite easily not have seen the light of day. As frontman Ashmedi explained during our marathon conversation, delivering _Emissaries_ to the masses was a task fraught with many an obstacle, not least of which was actually coming up with a record that was good enough to match up to the lofty precedent that the band had already set for themselves.

Ashmedi: When I wrote _Djinn_ I had already started thinking about how I was going to do something better, and I ended up writing _Sphynx_. Then I kind of got into trouble when it came out, because the record got so popular that it actually started to stress me out a little, because we soon came to realise that now people started having very high expectations of us. The response was great in the sense that it opened up a lot of doors for us and it was long-lived -– the album wasn't just popular for a month after its release, but years later. So that created a lot of pressure, and at first I was very nervous when it came to writing the new album. But then I put that all behind me and decided to ignore it and I found that while I was writing, I was actually becoming more confident. Then I just thought to myself: "Fuck it, I'm not going to limit myself in any way –- I'm just going to let the music flow." So I didn't corner myself in any way, and the Melechesh sound is something that's natural to me anyway, so it just came from there. I wanted to make a good album and I was nervous at first, but the deeper I got into it, the easier it started becoming.

CoC: One of the things that struck me about the album first was the extent to which the lines between all of your various musical influences have become blurred, and as you alluded to earlier, the material sounds more natural.

A: Absolutely. I was more confident, and I also think that the aggression on the record was due to me not limiting myself. I was feeling aggressive in my day-to-day life and I wanted to reflect that in something that was more powerful. Perhaps it also came from the fact that we were doing live shows again, and when I was writing I did actually have moments where I thought: "Wow, that would sound great on stage." What I like about what we do is that the songs don't copy each other. They each tell a different story, they sound different and they have a different atmosphere. We're a black metal band at heart, but we have a lot of heavy metal and thrash metal influences as well.

CoC: I think that's something that is often missing from a lot of metal today -– where with records like _Master of Puppets_ or _Rust in Peace_ you could hear two seconds of a song and know exactly what you're listening to, and despite so many great albums coming out at the moment, it's actually quite rare that you find that.

A: Exactly. I think you pinned that down perfectly, and I think it's something that's not always mentioned, but I'm very aware of it. I want everything that Melechesh does to have that same quality that an album like _Master of Puppets_ or _Altars of Madness_ has where each song is a different story –- it starts different, it sounds different, but it's the same band. Each of our songs has that quality, but they all sound like Melechesh, and we always had that to a certain extent even on our early demos. So I'm very aware of that, I think that I would get bored otherwise.

CoC: What happened to make you start playing live again?

A: Well, actually a fan called me and he said that he was basically going to make us play. <laughs> He's in a band himself and he wanted to get us back on stage. Before that, there were a number of reasons why we didn't play, and it included being busy in our personal lives or logistics not lining up right or basically not wanting to audition to anybody. But then I decided that I wanted to make an effort to do it, so we started playing shows again in 2004, and that was the first time that I had been on stage since 1998, and being on stage I remembered that interaction that you have with people and it makes it very real. Experiencing that again made me want to do it more often and made me want to interact with the people who appreciate our music. So we started accepting more offers, and we played more countries, and it's definitely something that we're going to do a lot more now.

CoC: I imagine that the crowd response when you played again after so long being away from that was just a tad more intense and enthusiastic?

A: Oh, absolutely. The first show we played was in Berlin and people came from really far away to see us, and that really flattered me. The thing is that tour bookers were probably not up to date with how well _Sphynx_ had done either, so before 2004 we never got a fair tour offer, and without that we didn't want to go out on the road, because I'll be blunt -– we'd get offers where promoters wanted us to play for free, and you could almost be certain that at least half of the turnout on there would be coming to see us. Now things have changed, and I think that we've done things the right way, and definitely one of the plans that's already been set in place is that we're going to be touring Europe with Keep of Kalessin, Goatwhore, Marduk and a personal favourite of mine, Enslaved. So we're very excited about that.

CoC: One of the biggest problems you had in completing _Emissaries_ was the mix you got back from Attie Bauw. What exactly was wrong with it?

A: It was total shit. Really, calling it total shit would be doing him a favour. I mean, first of all he didn't want us to be present during the mixing, because he wanted to do it alone, and since he's such a famous guy we had to agree to that. The thing is that the recording was so good, that we actually had rough mixes that would have been fit for an underground album, and that's just someone turning the knobs on so we can hear everything. That's totally un- mastered, it's not EQ'd, it's not compressed -– nothing. That sounded better than Attie's final mix. But I think the issue was that he wasn't focused. I think that he possibly had two things on the go at the same time, although he wouldn't admit to that. Also, it could have been an issue of ego, because everything was so well recorded that you basically just had to tweak a couple of knobs for it to sound perfect. He actually sent us two songs that he had completed and those sounded OK, but the rest didn't.

CoC: So, are we talking as bad as _St. Anger_ or worse?

A: Worse! <laughs> I'm talking no mids, no bass -– worse than most demos I've heard. The drummer sounds like he's playing the kickdrum with a broken leg, because Attie mixed the record the hard rock way, which doesn't work for fast drumming. The toms aren't there, and if anything Woodhouse Studios is known for having a powerful drum sound. The audio there is great and you can hear it on the album now, but when he was working on it he made it disappear. We recorded the guitars with good amplifiers and good microphones and they sounded really good. But what every smart studio does is that while you're doing this, you have another cable going directly into the recorder without any distortion, so that you have a second track with a completely clean signal. That way in case anything goes wrong, you can play that track through an amp as though there was someone actually playing it -– it's called re-amping. It's a fail-safe thing that you have just in case. Attie only used that track; he put it through some software and made it sound really fuzzy, and that was it. Then when we got the mix back and said that we weren't happy, he said: "Well, fine, I'm not going to release it in that case." He wasn't going to refund a cent or remix it. So he kept the money and told us "Tough shit, fuck off", basically.

CoC: So you got an inferior product and you got ripped off?

A: Well, it was the record company who were ripped off more than anything, but I felt really bad about it because they had already invested so much money in having us record at Woodhouse. This album ended up being the most expensive record that Osmose has ever paid for, and I felt like I needed to deliver to them because they believed in me.

CoC: This had a very personal effect on you as well, and I remember reading an interview where you mentioned that you had started seeing a psychiatrist during the recording of the new album. Did you ever get to the point where you felt that the project was going to fall apart?

A: No, no, no! <laughs> I could never have let that happen, because I was too obsessed by it. People told me that it wasn't good for me, but that was about as far as it went. Only last night I was chatting to a lady at the rehearsal room who told me that it looked as though I had aged by ten years while we were doing _Emissaries_. But the thing is that we were all already stressed out working on the album and we were really trying our best to deliver something that topped what we did previously, and then someone comes along and destroys it by twisting a few knobs because of financial issues. I mean, where's the integrity? I think that a lot of these big names are used to the budgets that the record companies used to have in the Eighties and they can't cope, so they become like -– and I don't to insult anyone here -– old car salesmen. They start wanting to get the business at any price, and in Attie's case I think he didn't realise that we have a voice in the underground and that people would hear about it if it weren't any good. So that all cost me a lot of stress, and as a result of it, I didn't want to work; I didn't want to do anything. It was a combination of things -– there was the stress of the studio, and I was also taking really strong pain killers for an injury in my back, which can affect some people in really strange ways.

CoC: The sort of stuff that professional athletes use?

A: Yeah, probably. It makes you hallucinate the first time you use it! The problem is that a side-effect could be very deep depression if you're put under a lot of stress, and I was under a lot of stress. I lost objectivity in the studio, I couldn't tell whether what we were doing was good or bad, and then the mix happens and it destroys everything you worked for. So I went completely berserk when I heard that, and actually the last track on the album -– the jam session -– comes from me just wanting to unwind basically right after that episode. The leads on there are very sincere. But we overcame that. It's not the end of the world.

CoC: It must be a huge pay-off to see how well the album has been received so far though?

A: Absolutely. I mean, imagine going through all this for people to start dissing it? But it's been worthwhile for me, and it's gratifying to see what's happening now. It was a challenge to make the album and things got out of hand, but I'm feeling better now and I feel ready to go out there. I mean, this isn't even in my nature -– I'm not like this at all. The situation just caught me unawares and really kicked me in the balls.

CoC: Going into this record you also changed drummers. (Proscriptor left because of the issues you were having with his being so far away.) Did it have any impact on what you were writing working with your new man, Xul?

A: Well, Xul played with us in the concerts and he did a good job, and we kept on jamming after the gigs were done. Between rehearsals for gigs I'd be working on new material, and every once in a while I'd ask him to try a certain pattern, and I could show him how because I'm basically like a drummer who doesn't practice. I know how the drums work and I write all the drums for Melechesh myself, which I then record with the guitars using a drum machine, and I'm able to show the drummer how it would work. But each drummer has his own style –- his own rolls or chops he'd add in here or there -– and honestly, I wasn't too worried about the drums when Proscriptor left. I just wanted someone who was able and enthusiastic about it, and it's always a plus when someone is interested in the themes that we sing about, and Xul is also interested in the themes, which helps because he knows what the ideas behind the songs are and the emotions and the visuals I have in my head for each one. Most songs that I write for Melechesh are interpretations of pictures that I've seen. The second song on the new album for example, "Ladders to Sumeria", in my mind while I'm singing that I'm literally building a Ziggurat brick by brick going upwards. When I wrote the song I visualised that, and then I wrote the riff. With "Deluge of Delusional Dreams" -– that song was based on a dream I had, and I remembered it when I woke up, and that set the tone when I wrote the song.

CoC: One of the album's most visual tracks is ironically "Gyroscope", which is a cover of a Tea Party song. What made you decide to include that on the record?

A: There are songs that you can refer to as covers and when you change a couple of things, in the legal sense and in the publishing world, they become adaptations. So we recorded that song to be an adaptation or an "adoption". We wanted it to become our song as well. When we actually got permission to do it, we asked for permission to be able to do what we want, and the Tea Party people said: "Go for it." I'm a fan of them as well, and when I decided to do the song I wanted to do something of my own with it. That for me is very satisfying. There are a lot of metal bands who do covers and use them as bonus tracks or whatever. We wanted to take a non-metal song and make it like us, because I think that it has more artistic value. So I'm very proud of it, and I know that they like the song as well. We changed the beginning, the ending, the drum patterns, some of the singing, and I like it. When I listen to it, I get a great feeling and that's important.

CoC: You've mentioned before that you find Jerusalem very inspiring and that even though you live in Holland, you tend to go back there quite often. Why do you have such an attraction to that city in particular?

A: I kind of recharge when I go there. How can I explain it? I just love going there. I like the vibe of the city on more than one level -– even the nightlife there I enjoy more than I enjoy it in Amsterdam where I live now. There's just more to do there, period. If you want to eat at four o' clock in the morning, there's a ton of restaurants to choose from; whereas here, if it's past a certain hour and you haven't eaten yet, you die. Or you go to McDonald's. <laughs> On a more artistic level, I've always sensed something very profound in the city; something you feel in your gut if you're aware of your own spirituality. So whenever I'm there I always sense this energy, and it's not even on a three dimensional level –- it's almost like there's another city within the city that you don't see. In fact, that inspired "Leper Jerusalem" from the new album, which was about my view on the occult side of the city -– contrasting it as both a leper and an addiction, because people have always wanted a piece of it and have been fighting over it since the dawn of time. There's so many cultures that have ruled and lived there, and they've all left a presence there. I also think that when so many people focus on something in particular it generates that energy, because energy is physics -– it doesn't vanish. All of that I find very inspiring. Most of _Emissaries_ was written in Amsterdam, but when I'm sitting in Jerusalem I get the best ideas and the creativity that comes out of me just flows in a very natural way. I think that if I didn't go there every once in a while, I'd go crazy. <laughs>

CoC: To my ears, there's a very tangible tension present on this new record, and an almost war-like atmosphere on more or less all of the songs. Was there something more behind that than simply wanting to make a heavier album as we discussed earlier?

A: No, that was just the way we all felt. We didn't even realise that the album was going to be heavier -– we just kept adding more blast beats and a lot of faster stuff and actually the drum pattern on the first song on the new record is something that's very new to us. It's definitely true that there's this whole "action" running through the album, but it wasn't a conscious decision to make a heavier album. It's not hard to make a consciously heavier album.

CoC: It may just be a case of digging too deep, but there is a bit of an irony to the atmosphere of the new record as you just described it there and the fact that right now all is not particularly well in what is effectively the old Mesopotamia.

A: Perhaps. I think that there's definitely a second meaning to a lot of the songs on this album, and there are definitely lyrics and pieces that for me are very enlightening in a hidden sort of way. Personally, I try and distance myself from anything political, because I don't like what I see going on in the world. We've never intended that there be any relevance in what we do to the global situation as it exists at the moment, apart from acknowledging that perhaps the destiny of mankind has been pre-ordained. From a purely subjective point of view, we stick to the origin of mankind, and I think that a person could perhaps interpret that as having a bearing on the world today, because time and history moves in circles. Whatever is happening in that part of the world right now [Mesopotamia] is definitely happening for a reason.

CoC: You regard Melechesh as a black metal band at heart, and looking at your new record alongside some of last year's other strong releases, a lot of other bands appear to be moving away from the cut and dried Satanism of old and exploring a variety of different themes with –- if we're honest -– a lot more intelligence. Do you regard this as a sign of the genre "growing up" in a way?

A: I don't know if you could call it growing up. You could have a metal band sing about beer and it would still be a kick-ass band, because it creates a certain atmosphere. Having a band that sings about Satan in the "classic" sense can be a cool thing, because it serves a certain purpose and very little else beyond that. To oppose religion in your music is valid as well if you want to do that. I feel like I made my point early on in that I don't appreciate monotheistic religions and I think that they do more harm than good. But we're done with that now and I don't want to dwell on that for my entire life, so I focus instead on creation. Creation is harder than destruction. I also started digging deeper into the occult, and once you get past the basic Satanism you start to discover a lot of new things -– you start knowing yourself in a more universal and cosmic sense. So I try to express that in the most credible way that I can through our music. Of course, many people grow up and they start to control their emotions with more discipline and they become more thoughtful with what they're saying. But if you were to ask me if I wanted to play bass in a Satanic, goat-worshipping black metal band, I'd love to! <laughs> To me that serves the same purpose as Motorhead. What I don't like are bands and people in general who are blind to what they're actually singing about and know nothing about the subject of their lyrics. I need to be convinced that someone knows what they're talking about. I don't like bands who just carbon-copy another band because they like their music and want to emulate them in every way, because later on they'll start to influence other bands and then it just becomes a vicious circle of ignorance. If you can convince me that you believe in what you're saying, then I'm cool with that.

CoC: So aside from the tour that's set to happen in May and June, what else is on the cards of Melechesh over the next twelve months?

A: We're going to try and do a couple of festivals, and I want to try and get over to the States to play some shows there. But other than that, not much. I'm going to be composing a lot. I've always wanted to make an acoustic album -- which is not to say that the next Melechesh album will be an acoustic release, but just to do something special with some old riffs of ours and a couple of other things. That may or may not be released under the Melechesh name. Another thing that I don't tell a lot of people is that we often do a lot of improvisation in the rehearsal, like just an hour on end of improvisation and jamming. So I may try and do something like that as well, which again isn't going to be a bold new direction for Melechesh -– just something experimental which I'd to release somehow. I just don't know if it will work if we record that, because we would probably be too conscious of the fact that it's actually being recorded, if you know what I mean.

CoC: Well, Ashmedi, thanks for your time. Is there anything you want to say to end off the interview?

A: The sleepwalkers must awake. I usually say that at the end of every interview. <laughs> It's my finale, but I mean it.

(article submitted 4/2/2007)

8/10/2003 A McKay Melechesh: Just to Hear What He Sphynx
8/12/2001 A Bromley Melechesh: Mesopotamian Hunger
11/15/2006 J Montague 8.5 Melechesh - Emissaries
8/31/2003 M Noll 8.5 Melechesh - Sphynx
8/12/2001 A Bromley 8 Melechesh - Djinn
7/14/1997 S Hoeltzel 8 Melechesh - As Jerusalem Burns... Al'Intisar
3/28/2011 J Carbon Rotting Christ / Melechesh / Abigail Williams / Lecherous Nocturne / The Ziggurat The Gates of Sumeria
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