Aaron Weaver of Wolves in the Throne Room about the mythic levels his band operates on
Since 2004, Wolves in the Throne Room (due tonight, September 30, at Rhinoceropolis) has established itself as one of the most sonically innovative black metal bands going. Rather than imitate the Viking spirit and aesthetic of its Scandinavian brethren Wolves have written music rooted in the band's own experiences as people living in the Pacific Northwest.
Rather than articulate an overt critique of the modern world as we know it, this band has chosen to try to create an otherworldly experience for itself and its audience with its songwriting and its performances. Some black metal bands attack organized religion and society as we know it. Wolves in the Throne Room bypasses that entirely and writes songs that speak to the yearning in each of us to be free of a civilization that places unrealistic demands on all of us and thus the world.
The members of Wolves in the Throne Room aren't anarchist or environmentalist ideologues, but, as you'll see below, they're artists exploring ideas about what might be more sustainable outlooks on the world and a deep connection with the land immediately about you. Yes, the band's music is dark, heavy and often bracing, but it serves to challenge the listener to avoid complacency in a time when so many social forces encourage helplessness and apathy. This band's songs sound like the perfect antidote to the malaise of our current era.
We spoke with Aaron Weaver about the mythic level at which his band strives to operate, the significance of creating a parallel culture and the end of its current trilogy with the release of its 2011 album, Celestial Lineage.
Wolves in the Throne Room
Westword: A couple of years ago, you did an interview with Brooklyn Vegan wherein you said that the modern world view is "missing acknowledgement of spiritual reality." Which seems to be absolutely true. In what ways do you think this has hurt modern civilization and how do you think doing the kind of music you do and the life you lead addresses that issue?
Aaron Weaver: I think that's what black metal is all about, whether it's the way we interpret it, or whether it's the more extreme, nihilistic, sometimes even Satanic, black metal that a lot of people are used to. It's music that's intrinsically spiritual. It's music that's striving to operate on the mythic level. It doesn't have the sort of everyday, humdrum concerns that most pop music or rock and roll has.
If anything, it's incredibly pretentious -- that's something that a lot of people think. People have a hard time taking it seriously sometimes, but I have no problem indulging those sort of pretensions. I think it's really good and useful to try to work on a mythic level. I'm sure it's not always successful but it's certain our goal to do so.
What experiences brought you to the realization of that the modern world is missing something, and how would you say that your view of the world differs from that of say religious fundamentalists? On a surface level, it could be argued you're making the same case.
Totally, yeah. That's another sort of fundamental theme that runs through black metal. It's this sense of paradox and ambiguity about tradition. On one hand, we're very interested in trying to connect to something that we think is older and deeper than the culture we're handed as modern people. But at the same time, we recoil against the church, we recoil against political conventions, we recoil against social conventions and very much want to forge our own path and do our own thing.
I think it's in that liminal space, that space of contradiction, that the power of the music resides. I think that's why black metal is sometimes so despondent and melancholy. Because you can't have it all. I think there's this sense that we've lost something and we can't have it back. And maybe it's not something we ever wanted to begin with. That sense of despair and loss and you don't even know what you lost. That's one of the central themes in black metal and that runs through our records as well.
How did you become aware of what mainstream society would call radical ecological groups, and how did their ideas influence you and what you do? Has the thinking of Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan or Daniel Quinn had an influence on your own?
Yeah, absolutely. Maybe not so much now that I'm in my thirties. But definitely those were the ideas that were very much in the cultural ferment in the underground scene that Nathan and I grew up in when we were young teenagers in our early twenties -- ideas of radical environmentalism. You know, I hate being pigeonholed as some "environmental band," if we're talking about recycling or reducing our carbon footprint or something.
The philosophers that you mentioned are suggesting something much deeper -- that it's not a matter of reforming modern civilization; it's the notion that there's something fundamentally wrong with modern civilization. That there's been some sort of rupture and humanity has strayed off course and embraced a materialistic and radically non-spiritual way of living that's going to eventually end in our destruction. And along the way we're going to destroy a great deal of the natural world.
I think that's absolutely true, and I think that most modern people, if they really think about it, agree. I think that most people know in the back of their minds that this materialistic culture can't exist forever. I think everyone knows that oil's going to run out and that the earth is not going to be able to sustain ten billion people living Western lifestyles. But, of course, that's a very hard think to accept because our lives depend on modern convenience and it's a very hard thing to shift your consciousness to think about another way of living.
Yeah, and Daniel Quinn, in particular suggested that maybe we can't go back, but that, indeed, the way of living we've cultivated -- no pun intended -- for the last ten thousand years, especially since the industrial era, is not sustainable.
If anything, Wolves in the Throne Room has a bit of a New Age agenda, in that, if I had my druthers, there would be transformation of consciousness that the hippies were talking about in the '60s and '70s. That there would be some sort of next evolutionary step in human consciousness. Similar to the transformation that occurred at the advent of agriculture and the advent of the printing press and the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and the technological/digital revolution. All of these are huge shifts in, literally, the way the human brain works and the horizon of our possibility.
I think that's what a lot of musicians are doing -- especially out there on the fringe -- is trying to imagine that shift taking place. Maybe it will only exist in the world of art, music and ideas but that's the role of art, music and ideas -- to explore possibilities and fantasy and maybe some of those ideas will push themselves into the physical world.
Like a parallel culture that may influence the mainstream world.
Absolutely. That's something that really annoys me is when people critique our band or critique another band that has this sort of outlandish visioning of things. They say, "That's not realistic. How can people be expected to go back to living in some sort of pre-industrial way?" Well, that's not what our band is about. We're just presenting an image. We're presenting an artistic idea. We've got no political agenda. We've got no sort of roadmap about how to improve things. It's purely art. People can take from it whatever they wish.
This next question might be the longest question possible.
I give the longest answers possible to match up.
To me, your music has always been very life affirming and primal rather than nihilistic. And that black metal itself, at least early on, has been an attempt to reach to some deeper level of human consciousness, maybe a connection to the archetypes that Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung talked about. Even the church burnings that became so publicized seemed like an attempt to uncover the roots of a culture -- a kind of radical cultural ecology, maybe. Did you have these ideas about what black metal was about before you did that music, or did you discover that and how to articulate those ideas, as you were doing it?
I think I've always been aware of black metal and that there was a connection between the black metal culture that was emerging in Norway and the underground culture that we were a part of in the Northwest. There was some sort of profound connection, some sort of resonance. I think that maybe the central idea, if I really had to strip it down, was the idea of uncovering the occult or the spiritual or the energetic reality of place. Being deeply connected to a place and creating music and art that rises up out of a landscape.
Not in that the music is about the weather or the things that happen in Norway or the Northwest but rather it's trying to represent the spirit of the place. I got that idea very early when I heard the first wave of Scandinavian black metal and it was very clear that we could apply it to our own situation here in Cascadia.
It was also very clear that the themes of misanthropy and a certain apocalyptic sensibility that exists in the thoughts of those radical philosophers you mentioned -- John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen -- I think is mirrored in black metal. I think it's a really different perspective but it's coming from the same place. This sense of disgust with humanity as we go down this really foolish and short-sighted path.
Wolves in the Throne Room is one of the best band names of all time because it really encapsulates what your music seems to be about and what it sounds like. How did you come up with that name?
Ah...You know, I don't know. Nathan and I were talking about this a couple of days ago. We don't remember where the name came from. We started writing music for an unnamed project, and the first song we wrote was called "Wolves in the Throne Room" and that just became the name for the band because it so clearly captured, yeah, the spirit of the music. This idea of unleashing wildness and tapping into some sort of feral spirit that would be liberatory and transcendent. And we've tried to stick to that theme over the past eight or nine years.
And that feral spirit in the heart of a place of power and kind of being against that.
Yeah, absolutely. There's a certain anarchist sensibility to our music as well. Not political anarchism, necessarily, but a desire for freedom and a desire for creating a world of your own rather than take the world as it's been handed to you.
In that Metal Sucks interview from 2009, you talk about how the process of farming has an occult or underlying spiritual dimension for you, and that the physicality of playing your music "that allows the transformation of consciousness." That made me think of [G.I.] Gurdjieff and maybe Rudolf Steiner. Are you familiar with their work, and did their thinking have an influence on what you do?
Gurdjieff not so much. I'm pretty familiar with his stuff, but I've never gotten deep into it. Steiner is something I take pretty seriously as a thinker and a visionary. I look at it almost artistically rather than as science -- he's presenting it as some sort of spiritual science. I look at it as more of a possibility or as a different perspective on things.
And yeah, the worldview that Steiner espouses in his writings is one that I really agree with--that there's an occult dimension to everything and it's very much in the physical world. That's also a pagan idea I really resonate with. That just beyond the veil of our everyday lives that there's an occult dimension or a deeper, more ecstatic spiritual dimension that's there that you can only access at certain times. Certainly playing music or reading a book or interacting with art is one tried and true way to get to that ecstatic space.
You didn't go to a Waldorf school, did you?
Nathan did, actually.
In Celestial Lineage, the ambient element seems more emphasized, and Popol Vuh is mentioned in connection with that album. What was your introduction to Popol Vuh, and what is it that they do that resonates most strongly with your own music?
I've always been a fan of that sort of '70s, more out there, post-hippie, Krautrock sort of music. I've always felt a strong connection with the music that was coming from the early '70s, when people were making that wasn't pop, wasn't just about driving your car or even about politics, "Stop the war," or whatever. But it was more about spiritual journeying and expanding the horizon of possibility.
Even the Grateful Dead in a certain way. I don't like the Grateful Dead, I think they're a really shitty band; I don't like the music. But I'm really interested in the phenomenon. I feel a certain connection to it in that it's music, yes, but it's more about a culture. It's more about creating a world that's rooted in a sensibility and an aesthetic and a spirit that's got nothing to do with the mainstream culture. I really appreciate and understand that. I guess it's the same way that I understand and appreciate cults or the draw of any sort of fringe, extreme movement. That's the kind of thing I've felt pretty attracted to.
Did you originally conceive of Two Hunters, Black Cascade and Celestial Lineage as a trilogy and did you have a plan for how each would sound?
Two Hunters was a pretty spontaneous eruption. At that point we weren't even thinking about what we were doing tomorrow let along a couple of years down the line. When we were starting to write the material for Black Cascade, we knew there would be a trilogy that would eventually play out. It's been in the works for a couple of years.
I might have mentioned previously, and I've said in the past, that Black Cascade we wanted to be as stripped down as possible. It definitely lacks a lot of the ambient elements that Two Hunters has and Celestial Lineage has. So when we were writing that record we knew there had to be a companion piece to complete the cycle. That record became Celestial Lineage.
There's a lot of musical themes and lyrical themes and ideas that appear on all three records. If you look at the cover art, it's pretty much the same on all three records. The same idea, just a variation on a theme. So we did a lot of things like that in having themes appear on all three albums in order to create this sense of a greater work. They really can be understood as one, big document rather than separate albums.
With Celestial Lineage ending the trilogy and as a kind of end of this phase of what you're doing with the band, is there anything you're looking forward to doing at the end of the tour to cultivate the next phase of your creativity in the music?
Aaron: The main thing I want to do is not do any music for a long time, I think. Basically since Two Hunters came out, Wolves in the Throne Room has been our main priority. Whether that's with touring or writing records or just sort of dealing with the business of being in a band. It's been a really valuable experience I think. A lot of bands would kill to be able to not have to have a day job and be able to go on tour and have their records do reasonably well.
But honestly, I've never really cared about that kind of thing. I'm glad we've had these opportunities but I'm really excited to kind of end it. Most bands would try to build on their career and try to do bigger shows and play bigger festivals. We want to do the exact opposite. We want to become more obscure, more hidden in the shadows, less accessible.
I feel we've sort of peaked as far as a band who's really out there presenting themselves to the world. Now we're ready to retreat back to our own private zone. We definitely plan on making another record after this and I'm sure we'll play live. But I definitely need to recharge my batteries and get refocused on my hearth and home, which is my number one priority in life.
Why did you choose Ali Scarpulla to do the photography?
Totally randomly. It was one of those synchronistic kind of deals. Nathan was just looking around on the web randomly searching for photographs to get ideas because we kind of assumed we'd have to the pictures ourselves, which is what we've done in the past. Nathan ran into Ali's photographs, liked them a lot and contacted her out of the blue. It turns out she was a big fan of the band and actually had a list of the bands she wanted to work with and we were on the list.
She was excited to come out here and collaborate. It was a really good experience. She's a really interesting person. Super young. She's like 21 years old. Which I really liked, because I liked having her perspective as someone who is a whole generation younger than I am, I just turned thirty-four. I appreciated having her perspective on black metal and on music generally that has a consciousness-expanding agenda.
I thought that she brought a really interesting energy to the photographs and thought she did a good job. Especially being someone who's so young, I could see them being a little intimidated or not necessarily being willing to speak their mind and really stand up for themselves artistically, but she really got in there and did some cool stuff.
I really appreciate her approach to photography because she basically does everything all analog in a sort of weird way. She shoots her film on to regular thirty-five millimeter film and then processes the negatives by dipping them in wine and other kinds of acids and blowing smoke on them and manipulating them physically in an almost ritualistic context. She's a pretty interesting and out there person. I liked her process and was glad she was a part of making the record.
There's a funny interview from Unbelievably Bad in Janury 2010, where you mention how you're working toward the day when you can just play "outdoors, in abandoned buildings, decrepit warehouses," which sounds great to me. But what about that appeals to you, and how close are you getting to that?
I don't remember that interview, but yeah, that's definitely been our goal for years. And on this tour, we're going to get as close as we've ever gotten to that ideal because we've got the resources now to take a much bigger show on the road, as it were. For this tour we got rid of our booking agent and booked the whole thing ourselves just through the DIY network. We're playing, as much as possible, in non-traditional venues, and we'll be building our own P.A. every night and setting up our own light rig and pretty much creating a venue from scratch. Which is a huge logistical undertaking.
We just have to do it. We just can't play another sports bar where there's a big screen TV playing the game in the background while we're trying to do this music. That's just ridiculous. I'd rather not go on tour than to have to make those sort of compromises. So definitely, on this tour, there's going to a bunch of venues that are going to be interesting and inspiring.
Not to take words out of your mouth, but those are the kinds of things you'd rather do because they're well away from the kinds of experiences you mentioned and more like the kinds of experiences you'd like to have.
Yeah, man, it's a really hard to step outside the established parameters. The rock and roll business is like any other and there's a template set up and one band just gets shuffled in after the next in the same circuit of clubs. And energetically, there's something about that that rubs me the wrong way. We're lucky at this point, mainly because we've worked so hard on the band, to have the resources to do our own thing. We're trying to have the best of both worlds: the underground/DIY spirit but also the sort of more professional organization and logistical capabilities of a more traditional rock show.
The place you're playing here is one of two DIY venues that regularly books shows; the other being Blast-O-Mat.
Cool. The Denver show was one of the last to be booked. I'm glad it came through. That's actually one of the cities where it looked like it was going to be at a sports bar or some shitty place. But it seems like something cool.
Being from Olympia, Washington, or thereabout, do you play there often and how are you received? Do you consider yourself a part of the musical tradition of the Pacific Northwest? If so, in what ways? If not, why not?
We do play in Olympia. Not very often. But usually at the beginning or end of every tour we'll play Olympia. But we're definitely not rocking out down at the local bar on a regular basis. We've got a strong following here in the Northwest in Portland, Olympia and Seattle, which is kind of our stronghold. There's a lot of people very much on the same page as we are and taking black metal and reinterpreted to reflect our own ideas and our own local realities.
That's just kind of where the culture is at. I think Ali is a great example. She's twenty-one years old and for her black metal is just part of the cultural fabric. It's the music that deals with darker issues and has a mythic aspiration to it. It's become just as much a part of the musical culture as anything else.
As for being connected to a Northwest musical tradition, we do feel a bit of a connection to the Northwest. Our music is so different from, say, Nirvana, but there is that Twin Peaks vibe that comes through that is very much a reality in the Northwest and yeah, we do feel a certain kinship with other bands that come from around here.
Even if you're not doing it consciously, the landscape is going to affect your music whether you want it to or not. So any band that comes from the Northwest is going to have a bit of that gloom and rain that we express very consciously.