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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vassafor interview

Vassafor are in my opinion, one of the best underground Metal acts to come out of New Zealand.  It's master and creator Phil Kusabs or VK (his stage name) is an intensely interesting dark horse of a character.  The following interview delves deep into his and the world of Vassafor...

1 - Vassafor would seem to be a very personal project for you. Where does it originate from?  What is it’s key inspiration?  No matter how much I research, I can’t find any reference anywhere to the word ‘Vassafor’. What is it and what does it mean?  How do you balance the energy you give to both Vassafor and Diocletian, your other main band? For you personally, How does each band reflect your musical creative out put?

Vassafor is a reflection of me, but I have had some key contributors over the years to help me realize it. Especially since Ben became part of this. He has proved himself to be the perfect co conspirator to work with. I couldn't ask for a more dedicated partner in Black Metal crime. Vassafor started as a duo with Dan Lomas and myself around 93/94 period. He was a flatmate of Adam Craft who was the drummer in a Death Metal band called Spine I was playing in at the time. Dan and I quickly realized that we listened to the same bands (which were mainly the Eastern European/Hellenic BM scene of the early 90s and Bathory's 2nd album) & were both possessed by the same black metal feeling. No one in Auckland at that time (that we knew anyway) was listening to the same music as us, most were into the then current Death Metal of the early 90s. We ended up in a flat with a soundproofed practice room and started writing the material that turned into the first Vassafor songs from there.

In Vassafor I am responsible for the creation of all the music & lyrics now. Dan and I both wrote in the initial phase of the band but since then it has all been me. Since Ben's enlistment into the ranks, we arrange and get the material working properly as a band & as a result it has grown much stronger. Ben's influence on Vassafor is readily apparent on the album material, it is full of spirit.

In Diocletian, I am one of the songwriters and control the audio engineering, mixing and mastering of the recordings. That has taken up alot of my time. As a result Vassafor's schedule for recording this album has taken longer than I had initially anticipated but that has ended up working in our favour. Too many bands record before they are ready and can only give 75% to a recording. With Vassafor, the songs have all been demoed and tweaked multiple times before the master recording sessions take place. Where as Vassafor is a morbid journey, Diocletian has a martial spirit at its core since inception and I have tailored my writing for Diocletian within that aesthetic. For instance songs like Baphocletian, Werwolf Directive or Heretics that I wrote for the 1st album don't sound much like Vassafor material but they are still part of the VK tradition. Other than Heretics, I haven't contributed lyrics to Diocletian. Better to have a single writer delivering the propaganda in a band....

As for the name, you won't find Vassafor in a book. It is a misheard name from a dream I had as a child. By the time I found out what the proper name really was and who it related to I was already making this music and had started pursuing my interest in esoterica. Lets just say it was & continues to be appropriate.

2 - You appear to have embraced cassette tape and vinyl formats over CD. Why are these formats relevant in 2011?  Why should others embrace them?

Tape sounds superior to CD, simple as that. If someone can't hear the warmth of a well duplicated tape then they need to clean the shit out of their ears. Tape gives natural compression advantages over CDs, its much easier to get a far more "expensive" sound without the cost, ideal for young bands with no money/resources, this is due to the nature of tape compression. The reason why many drummers love recording to tape! Throughout the worldwide metal underground, the labels I've been interested in approaching aren't run by 20 year olds. They're run by 35+ year olds who started doing distros and then labels or zines after tape trading throughout the 80s and 90s. These are generally the people who throw CDr demos in the bin without bothering to listen to them. Consider how many emails with a link to mp3s on a myspace page some of these guys get! These are all things I've been told, not by one or 2 label/distro people, but by the majority. I send tapes with a handwritten letter to start with....then once they've heard it, chances are all communication will be email from that point on. But the first impression is vital and that should require some effort on the part of the band to target an appropriate label and spend time and effort producing tapes and physically sending them. If a band can't get off their arse and do something as simple as that then they don't deserve to make contact with the outside world....

Some indication of how "successful" this approach is...out of the first 25 tapes I personally sent to targeted labels for Promo MMX tape, nearly half resulted in album offers, & all at least replied and established communication, most have offered to distribute our material. This is how the underground has always worked in the past, present and will continue for the foreseeable future

As for others embracing it, I don't give a fuck whether anyone else in this musical backwater does it this way or not. This IS the way metal bands have spread their name and music with in the death/black underground for more than 30 years so you can try and reinvent the wheel or actually just be a band involved in the worldwide metal scene, as we are. There is no point to consider yourself a NZ band and limiting yourself within these borders. As proved year after year by the endless wave of mediocre local bands thats are destined for deserved obscurity

3 - Why was it important to you that the first official Vassafor live show in 2007, was held as ritualistic event?  It was actually held in a photography studio, but was originally going to be in a volcanic cave. Why did this not happen? Is another cave ritual a possibility?  Vassafor had existed in a different form before this time. For the benefit of the readers could you tell us about this.  I understand that there had been earlier recordings and an earlier live performance?  What were these?

Black Metal should have a ritualistic element to it. Darkness should be present in the music AND the presentation. Vassafor has elements of death worship and themes of sacrifice running through the concept, lyrics and music. Therefore the bones of myriad dead humans and animals are appropriate to have surrounding us onstage. I have the same thing when I record all my parts when there is no audience. Its not for show, its for the feeling it gives me, which is then transfered into the sound/fabric of the recordings. So it follows, therefore, that no "fake" props are involved. As Hellhammer said Only Death is Real...

Vassafor dead stage props. Photo by Krysten Jade.
After my first proto live experiences when I was younger, it didn't take long to realize that what I had in mind for Vassafor's presentation should sit outside of the mundane trappings of just another bar gig. I have never believed that being a "proper" band requires playing to the same group of retards every 2nd weekend like many local bands here in NZ have always done. Thats fucking stupid. All this approach does is devalue your music and watchability. Where is the incentive for anyone to go and see a band if you can catch them again in a month playing the same set as last time? I have added ritualistic elements to most of my bands for years now. Vext was a good example, with the faceless, mechanized & militaristic concepts we had onstage through the lifespan of that band. But Vassafor has never seemed like it was appropriate for normal bar shows. I foolishly did some with the previous lineup and regretted it immensely, esp as that lineup really had no true BM spirit apart from Heath. So apart from the 2 international supports we've done, all individual shows of ours are/will be utter hell. Wellington's Triumph of Death was a good indication of what to expect from Vassafor when we can control our surroundings properly. The stench of multiple dozens of dead rats with the visual information was very satisfying to me. All the Mayhem stage gear was provided by us as we thought it unacceptable for them to play with out suitable stage dressing....we have more now and are always adding to the cause. The Skuldom/Vassafor ritual that is being planned will scar Auckland's mind.....

The initial return to live performance after an 8 year absence was planned for a cave in a west coast beach but it wasn't safe/sturdy enough and the frequencies created at the volume we generate was just too risky for chunks of the ceiling caving in haha! If it had crushed an audience member I could've grabbed another skull for the collection perhaps!! I've had a history with that cave anyway, lyrics in the song Vassafor relate to a vision I received while fucked up via psychedelics in there over a couple of nights. While that cave will not be used there is an idea for a gig in an old disused quarry I have access to. That idea is for an outdoor performance with an extreme amount of fire and pyro. Total fucking holocaust.

If you can stimulate more than just one sense in a live setting then you can really begin to destabilize peoples minds. Its a bit like a principle that will be familiar to any within Martial Arts, you can try and be a hero and knock someone out with a king hit, or you can strike multiple different targets on a body in quick succession it shuts down much more effectively. So its not just the sense of hearing being stimulated but the visual aspect hits sight, the stench of death stimulates smell, and the volume we play at triggers the sense of touch as well. Thats because its so fucking loud that the air out of our cabinets should be massaging an audiences internal organs! Now if I could just get the audience to drink blood en masse during the gig & get the sense of taste covered....

4 - Tell us about the ‘Promo MMX’ Cassette Release.   What is this exactly? Are your earlier demo tapes still available anywhere?

The Promo MMX tape contains 2 songs that will be on the debut Vassafor album. The album will be on Double LP and tape only, no CD release is planned. Fuck CDs. "Weekend metallers" will still be able to download it almost instantly I'm sure....but they never would buy it anyway

'Promo MMX' cassette cover.
I still have a few of the early demos available actually. I must have stashed a bunch in a box at my house that I found a couple of months ago. Otherwise there may still be some available at Drakkar. I've done absolutely zero internet marketing in the past and I have no interest in myspace so Vassafor is still a fairly unknown band to many, unless you live in the underground scene and then we're somewhat known I guess. I like the idea of being an esoteric band, that people have to search for before it reveals itself to them, so when they get a piece of our music they are curious already and therefore open to receive the message. Its the way that I like to find a band and then become obsessive about it, seems much healthier for the long term prospects of a band rather than going in and out on a wave of hyperbole. Especially in these days of forum hype with insane feverish salespitchs that make no fucking sense. Its somewhat gratifying that we seem to get people listening to us who've had it recommended to them via others. Typically I get emails from people wanting one recording and then they write back later and want everything!!

5 - You’ve played in a number of different and diverse bands over there years.  The most interesting and also at extreme opposite ends of the musical spectrum, would have to be your stints playing session bassist for two bands of legendary status within their own realms i.e. New Zealand Flying Nun band ‘The Chills’  and Canada’s Black Metal Skinheads ‘Blasphemy’.  How did these come into being?  What would your personal highlight from playing in each of these be?  What would be the most valuable thing you’ve learned from each?   Of all of the bands you’ve played in other than these two, which would be the stand out and why?

I've played music seriously since I was at high school. I was born in 72 so my final year of school was in 1990. I was already a fairly handy bass player and had been possessed by metal since being a 13 year old listening to Mercyful Fate and Venom tapes a mate's older brother recorded for us. So by the time I finished school I was already into the underground and had access to tape trading mainly through my mate Rhys. I never had anyone to play in decent bands with during that time and so the first real band I joined as a 19 year old was (what turned into) Spine which is still the most technically intense Metal band I've ever played in.

By the time I was 23 I could play anything (I was into anyway) on bass. I already had a feeling that playing technically precise music but looking at your fretboard was nowhere near as powerful as playing with feel and actually projecting what you were actually feeling while playing it off a stage. In 96 our band got the Morbid Angel support slot on their Domination tour that hit NZ and Spine played a series of gigs around various towns/cities (Vassafor by this stage had already recorded our first demo). Spine was winding down when I got a call out of the blue asking if I wanted to audition for a band that was about to tour Europe and the States...and get paid for it. I had been recommended to the Chills by a couple of different musos who had seen Spine and my other, other (rock) band Canis play live and knew I could easily play the set. When I heard about it, my first thought was that it was a great way to see Europe and the States, but not if I had to play clean and nice and be someone's lackey. Fortunately Martin Phillips is a really interesting character (to say the least!) and was more than open to me playing it the way I thought it should be played. He was sick and tired of his band being thought of as some twee little pop band & really wanted some mongrel rock n roll in the lineup. So I provided that with my bass....distortion and pick violence. While I learnt a huge amount from his songwriting craft (which is incredible), about real dynamics within songs and saw his  discipline for writing all the time no matter what, the experience also taught me that I shouldn't be on a stage playing music I don't believe in 100%. Conversely, this is one of the main reasons I have a real passion for playing on stage with Blasphemy. I've loved that music since I first heard Fallen Angel of Doom first rape my stereo speakers in 91 and then got the demo the following year as a tape trade. I used to try and work out the Fallen Angel of Doom songs (difficult through the production!) and have always considered the vocals of Black Winds (along side Wagner Antichrist & Nuclear Holocausto) to be the most extreme in metal. On Diocletian's Sect of Swords 7" we covered Weltering in Blood that I had worked out and when it was released by American label Unholy Horde, we made sure that copies were sent to the Ross Bay Cult so all the members could at least have a copy. Blasphemy guys were into the 7" & contact was established from there. We had known that they were active and gearing up for shows for nearly a year when they lost their bass player and were considering doing their comeback shows as a 4 piece. That simply wasn't gonna happen, not when I could do something about it anyway. As for highlights, playing NWN fest in Berlin 2010 and seeing 1100+ people chanting the words to songs in front of the stage was one thing, but then looking across to the side of stage and seeing all of Order From Chaos, Mystifier, our brother bands Black Witchery and Proclamation plus various others from bands I respect all willing us on to devastate was something I won't ever forget. The sight of  Chuck Keller (who had played incredibly with both his bands that weekend-OFC was fucking godlike!) headbanging like a maniac throughout the whole set was very humbling! The year before when Blasphemy played in Helsinki was killer as well. Ending with Ritual, as soon as the Ross Bay  beat started a huge wave of violence swept the audience unlike anything I've ever seen at a metal gig, so much blood on the floor after that set....the Blasphemy chant rang out for minutes after, but it seemed like an eternity! We had just played every song Blasphemy ever wrote so there was no more.....

 6 - Judas Priest or Iron Maiden? Why?

Mercyful Fate. Because they are the best metal band ever, the first Black Metal band and are still hugely resonant for any generation of metal listener. Quite an achievement. I also rate every single album of theirs, the 90s reunion era albums are killer as obviously is the first glorious period of the band.

However Priest is great. First 4 albums and Painkiller are absolutely perfect and theres plenty of gold on many of the albums. Point of Entry, Turbo and Ram it Down excepted....Iron Maiden though is fucking rubbish as far as I'm concerned. They weren't even a decent band in the NWoBHM movement, I'd rather listen to Angel Witch, Witchfinder General, Venom or Tank any day of the week

 7 - You are currently working on a forthcoming album which I understand is to be released on double Vinyl?  Could you please give a run down of that and what we can expect by way of titles and of the music? I’ve noticed you talk about a song for the album called ‘Archeonaut's Return’ on various forums. What is special about this song and what is it about?

The album will be called Obsidian Codex and contains 8 full songs and various atmospheric pieces. Around 85-90 minutes of music for this beast. Some older songs feature. Obsidian Prince from first demo was reworked into Obsidian King, probably only half of the original song remains in recognizable form. Craft of Dissolution from the Drakkar released 7" is redone. Archeonaut's Return from the 2nd demo is there. I finished this track in last days of January and its also quite modified from its original form. I believe that songs have their own lives and can mutate into any direction at any given time. This version of Archeonaut's has ultra doom elements within it and sounds darker than the mk1 version. The 2 tracks from the promo tape Rites of Ascension and Sunya are present, a total funeral doom epic called Nemesis and 2 more shorter tracks, one of which is a 2 bass/no guitars tribute to Greek BM ala Necromantia that will close the album. This is next to record as of the writing of this interview

Archeonaut's Return is a special track for Vassafor as it has elements from the first era of Vassafor's compositional phase when I was first being possessed by the Black Metal feeling in early 90s but still listening to huge amounts of 20 Century Russian Classical composers like Shostakovich, Schnittke, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and trying to incorporate the concepts of symphonic arrangement with a  metallic context. It has a very linear structure and I'm sure is quite unlistenable for anyone not possessed by BM. At 17 and a half minutes long it was the first really epic track I completed that I was satisfied with. This is the track that first cemented what Vassafor stands for and what makes us our own unique entity. We sound like no one else and no one sounds like us.....

8  - The only consistent member of Vassafor both live and in the studio is your self.  What is the reason for this? Are there any musicians you have enjoyed working with more so than others? Who are they and why?

The only reason there are gaps in Vassafor's history can be solely put down to it being so difficult to get suitable people to play in this band. I've been hugely fortunate to have Heath Mortlock of Skuldom help me by playing bass for the period of our live rituals since 2005. Very talented and absolutely perfect Black Metal maniac of the highest calibre. HOWEVER I've always wanted to do a gig with Skuldom and I write most of Vassafor on bass so its been a case of me playing guitar live by default as there aren't enough real maniacs with the proper skill level to play guitar for us. Even though if I can play it on guitar it can't be that technically difficult!! It seems we have an appropriate line up now and I shall be able to switch to bass.

But really, it has been having Ben Parker (Malevolence) join on drums thats been the key. He is one of the very few people I've met (let alone musicians) who really is possessed by Black fuckin Metal. His arrival signalled the time to seriously approach doing an album. His attitude fits Vassafor perfectly and he is the first person since Dan Lomas & I started this band that I would call a fully fledged member of the Vassaforian Cult. Dan was a brilliant guy to play in bands with and a real demented genius. If he was in the same timezone as us he would still be part of the fold.

Vassafor drummer Ben Parker.  Photo by Daniela Stanislawek.
9  - For the past few years you’ve been DJ for the Nocturnal Dominion Radio show on BFM (Note: I’ll include a links to the live stream with details of the show’s time). During this time you’ve played a lot of new and obscure music that listeners might otherwise not have had the opportunity to be exposed to. Have you discovered any new bands recently that you would like to recommend to people?  If so who are they and what are their releases?

The initial aim of Nocturnal Dominion from Max and Ollie who started the show in mid 90s was to play what was going on currently in the worldwide underground & its not so different today, well when me or Bad News do it anyway. Rhys normally likes to keep it Old School DM. I also throw in some old classics has well.

Theres always great new music sprouting up from all corners of the globe. The metal underground is in excellent health if you know where to look, no matter what style of metal you're interested  in. To me South America is still full of gold. The Chilean scene is one of the strongest in the world for underground metal. Force of Darkness, Hades Archer, Perversor, Wrathprayer, Temple Below, Magnanimus, along side old masters like Death Yell, Pentagram (chile), Dominus Xul, Totten Korps and Hadez are smashing the underground black/death scenes while bands like Procession & Capilla Ardiente are hitting doom ala Candlemass. Brazil is still spawning incredible bands like Grave Descrator in the classic tradition. The whole South and Central American scenes still seem as vibrant as ever

Its the same in Europe. Germany's Ascension are an excellent Black Metal band that have just released a superb debut album. Also their country mates Truppensturm are killer who have released 2 albums. Canadian band Antediluvian is def worth attention and have just released their first 12" EP after 4 demos. They will do a split 7" (I think) with Witchrist soon. Aussie band Grave Upheaval released a great demo in 2010 as did US death metal maniacs Disma. The first vinyl of these bands should be well worth investigating. UK band Crucimentium are great as well and so far only have a demo tape to their name but have a deal that should result in a 4 or 5 track ep from what I gather.

UK Doom band Wounded Kings are well worth a look as well. There are tons of good bands out there these days....the spotlight has well and truly come to land on NZ from an outside perspective due to what Ulcerate and the Doom Cult bands have been able to do in the last few years on an international stage. Hopefully Skuldom will be able to get their album out to an international audience. It should rape mind's effectively, its a brutal as fuck BM album. Their problem will be that they haven't done the ground work in the underground so they have no presence in peoples conciousness worldwide as yet... Expect Heresiarch to continue the assault out of the NZ border though. I predict their first demo will be very well received within the scene they are aiming towards....

10 - Upon reflection what are your thoughts on the self titled Vassafor EP/Mini album? Why was the mix/mastering way better on the vinyl version?  The CD version did feature a cover of ‘Mercyful Fate - Black Funeral’.  Is there any chance we could see this on vinyl in the future?

Simple answer is, CDs are worthless trash and vinyl is my priority. It was recorded and mixed with vinyl in mind and I had much more time to get it right for mLP rather than the mCD version which came out months earlier. Everything about the LP version was superior esp the cover art and layout. I will never attempt to do artwork or layouts again! I have no skills as a visual artist so I'll leave it to the people who do have them in that area. Cam Sinclair did the layout for vinyl which turned out perfectly for the aesthetic I was hoping to achieve. Not too stressed about the MFate cover disappearing into the void. It wasn't perfectly executed to my mind so best to leave it as it is. After the album we have a split to do and then I want to do a rehearsal tape with a tailored set on one side and covers on the other so probably end up chucking Beherit, Sodom & a few tracks from Greek/Czech BM's incredible legacies....

11 - Going back to the ritualistic side of things, is there an element of this involved in the Creation of your music?  If so how?

There isn't one strict method of creating Vassaforian material. Some of my music is fashioned via jamming in a more traditional, mundane way, some was remembered from dreams I have but quite a high proportion is manifested via more ritualistic methods. Vassafor is an esoterically charged band so there is a component of using (seemingly) chaotic divination methods to create music from the void. One method is using 3 templates I call the Black Metal Kaos grids that is used in almost a ouija like fashion. It can also be modified through lyrics. Then the raw pieces are fashioned into useful sections. There are formulas involved in some of the methods of creation and numbers always have their part in every ritualized song arrangement (often within lyrics as well). There are other less consciously worked methods as well but some of those involve various states of deprivation or drugs to get into a suitable trance level to write...unsurprisingly these are always the least productive methods as it results in a lot of rubbish that has to be weeded through to find the odd gem haha! I tend not to write like this very much any more as it has such a low success rate....

12 - Thanks for taking your time to complete this interview.  Anything to add in closing?

 to the death...

Update 18 March 2011: Since this interview was posted, VK has provided a link to a new Vassafor track for your listen pleasure.  You can check it out here: Craft of Dissolution (mix in progress)

Phil Kusabs/VK. Photo by Krysten Jade.

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