Wolves in the Throne Room: Live Review + Interview with Aaron Weaver

October 2, 2011
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It’s Friday night in the RiNo district of Denver, a clever abbreviation for the River North Art District, which is actually just a deceiving name for an area most known for its popularity on police scanners. The harsh sounds of hometown doom band, Skully Mammoth,escape from the space they call Rhinoceropolis. I am outside, drinking from a can of Dale’s Pale Ale, reflecting back on an interesting conversation I just had with a couple self-proclaimed Satanists at the dive bar down the road. Guys in Darkthrone shirts mingle with girls painted in ink with pincushion faces. Jocks in baseball caps stare disapprovingly at hipsters in tight polyester pants and horn-rimmed glasses.  Two long-haired dudes in a minivan smear black make-up around their eyes. Conversations about the new Wilco album are drown out by heated debates around Jef Whitehead‘s guilt/innocence in the alleged crime of sexually assaulting his girlfriend in a most gruesome way.

I down the last of my lukewarm brew before entering the recreational vehicle that has been home to Aaron and Nathan Weaver and the crew of five that make up the touring entourage of Wolves in the Throne Room. It is 9:00pm and Aaron is fighting for his health. Their female, straight-edge driver tells stories from the road while Aaron finishes his soup. Someone outside is yelling that their car just got jacked. Nathan wanders from the back room, grabs something from the kitchen and shakes my hand before disappearing back into the nether regions of this rolling home away from home.

Tonight marks the 26th show on a tour that has taken the band across North America — playing mountaintops, half-pipes, art spaces and everything in between. Everyone is ready to get home. The fact that they are heading in the direction of Washington seems a small victory when you consider that they will be home less than two weeks before starting all over again in Europe. This is the reality of life on the road.  The reality of the world and culture we live in. That is until the brothers take the stage and guide us through the ‘portal’ into their ‘mythical reality’ — to another ‘form of consciousness’.  If this sounds pretentious or unrealistic, you have yet to experience a Wolves in the Throne Room show.

Those of us hanging out among the ‘homeless refuge’ artwork in the backyard were the first to gain entrance into the ceremonial space that had become of Glob (the larger space next to Rhinoceropolis).   No overhead lighting, no windows and only one way in or out — the tapestries garnered with animals and cryptic writing, the smell of sage and incense, the glow of the smoke in the blue lights — you couldn’t help but feel like you had descended into the forgotten catacombs of an ancient cathedral. I almost expected the band to emerge in hooded robes and forge a circle of the audience to perform from within.  But this was not to be.  The trio walked out like a few normal guys and went straight into Thuja Magus Imperium, inciting a wave of pressure from the large crowd at my back.

From the front, it was obvious there was no stage.  The band, who were lit with simple candles and lanterns, were actually performing from a slightly lower point in the room.  Those outside the inner circle would have to be satisfied with the sound and the aesthetic only.  For most in the over-capacity space, there would be no visual connection with the band.

Aaron referred to himself and his brother as ‘hippie ravers’ during our interview.  At the time I found that comment surprising, coming from a core member of what most would consider to be a black metal band, but the live experience proved to have a lot of similarities with the rave experience — very loud, intense music that awakens something very primal inside those experiencing it; an ebb and flow that requires the audience to move as one, to feel what the person next to them is going to do before they actually do it; there is a time to sway, a time to stand still and a time to let the rage/euphoria/adrenaline manifest itself in the form of pushing, shoving or crowd surfing.  To be a part of this micro community, you have to know what time it is.  If you can’t get along with your neighbors, you will fuck up the neighborhood and you will find yourself violently evicted.  It was about half way through the set last night when Nathan had to remind our special community about these rules.  ‘you need to mellow the fuck out. if everyone is having fun, that’s cool, but if it’s only 10 of you…mellow the fuck out‘.  It was a very ‘outside world’ comment and it did break the magic for a moment, but Prayer of Transformation transported us back into the world of Wolves in the Throne Room and for the rest of the set, there were no more thoughts of anything beyond these walls.

Like raves, psychedelic shows, events like Burning Man and other desert or forest retreats, a Wolves in the Throne Room show is an attempts to give people a reprise from the everyday world, and on Friday night, in a space called Glob, in an area called RiNo, in a city called Denver, Aaron and Nathan Weaver attempted to give us a glimpse into a world created in a studio on a farm in Olympia, Washington — a world that might not actually exist at all — and in this attempt, they succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations.

Before the show, I sat down with Aaron Weaver to discuss the future (or lack thereof) of Wolves in the Throne Room, being the band who killed black metal, creating cultures from scratch, Pitchfork’s Best New Music rating, organic farming and the assholes who can ruin a show.

Wolves in the Throne Room started out as a semi-anonymous band.  Your comments made to the press lately point toward a less accessible band in the future.  In fact, you told Westword that you want ‘to become more obscure, more hidden in the shadows’.  Is it fair to say interviews such as this will be a thing of the past after this tour?

It’s hard to say.  I’m not really thinking about the future so much.  It’s so easy to be focused on the next thing or the next step.  We’re trying really hard to be in the present.  We’ve been deeply engaged in writing the last record and going on this round of touring, which we’ll be doing for the next few months.  We have some vague ideas of what will happen in the future, but I don’t want to speculate too much.  I could still see doing interviews, but for this round of touring I’ll do hundreds of interviews.  I definitely won’t be doing that in the future. It will be much more focused.

Speaking of this tour, you have made the decision to play less traditional spaces, such as where we are now (Rhinoceropolis).  How difficult has this been?  What have been some of the major obstacles?

It’s been hugely challenging, but also very rewarding.   It’s just the workload.  It takes five hours to setup and four hours to break down and then the show in the middle.  So, if you have eight hours of driving and you do the math, you figure out that there is never any downtime.  Tonight’s a good example – we’ll finish our load out at 4am, we’ll get in the van and drive to Boise, we’ll get to the venue just in time for load in.  Sure, we’ll have an hour to spare for people to drink coffee or do their morning rituals – it’s a lot of work.  Physical work.

Sometimes the venues are a challenge as well.  We’ve played some pretty bizarre spaces.  In Toronto we played a room that was incredibly small and the majority of the room was a half-pipe.  We had to setup in the half-pipe.  It actually ended up being an amazing show.  A whole crew of artists came and decorated the whole space with greenery and foliage and people were just packed in there and it was a really amazing vibe.  It was one of the best shows of the tour.

The show in Vermont was on top of a mountain.  There was a recent hurricane that blew through there and just wrecked the roads.  Everything was still soggy and wet, so we had to transfer all of our gear – our whole PA system and everything – out of our trailer and into a tiny, beat up Toyota 4×4 to drive up the side of this muddy mountain.  It took ten loads to get everything up there.  But that’s what we signed up for.

You mentioned that the Jamie Meyers vocals were not used on Black Cascade because you wanted something you could play live and knew she wouldn’t be there on the tour.  This time around you seem to be performing tracks that include Jessika Kenney even though she isn’t on tour with you.  What changed this time around?

When recording the new album, we weren’t thinking about performing live at all.  Celestial Lineage is a classic studio record.  We wrote all the songs in the studio and didn’t play them live at all.  We didn’t even play them in the practice space.  It was put together in a really different way.  We built a studio at our house in Olympia and were able to do a kinda Dark Side of the Moon thing – construct the songs in a different way than you would if you were writing in the practice space with a full band.

Who will be sharing the stage with you and Nathan tonight?

Just the second guitar player, Kody.  He’s the classic session man for the road, but he’s definitely part of the family.  There have been a whole slew of second guitar players in Wolves in the Throne Room and Kody is definitely the person who is most on board with our vision – the most integrated into the spirit of the band.

A lot of metal bands want to incite a form of aggression, or a sort of controlled rage in their crowd.  Wolves in the Throne Room seem to frown upon this activity.  When you look out into the crowd, what do you like to see?  What impact are you looking for?

Hippie dancing.

It’s interesting to watch the reaction.  In some situations it’s a mosh-pit kinda thing.  Sometimes that’s awesome, sometimes that’s exactly the right vibe for the show.  I’ve got no problem with mosh-pits or violent movement.  I like that kind of thing.  What I hate is when 99% of the audience is in a very introspective space and is really into it and then you have one fucking asshole, some meathead, picking up the change.  That’s the kind of shit that really annoys me.  So yeah, every show has been really different.  We’ve had everything from full on Grateful Dead gyrating to crowd surfing like a Nirvana show to a huge mass of people all moving as one organism.  I don’t have any expectations or desires about what people should be doing, but I just hate it when one or two people fuck up the vibe.  I guess what I don’t like is when someone is going against the grain from what everyone else in the room wants to be doing.

Celestial Lineage wraps up a trilogy. A trilogy of albums that share an overall theme, artwork, label and producer.  Now that the trilogy is complete, will there be major changes in the future?  Will the band continue down the black metal path?  Will future releases be on Southern Lord?  Has any of this been considered?

Of course we’re always thinking about it.  When we’re making a record we kinda have to think about the next one because  there are always so many ideas that you have and you can’t squeeze them all into one album.  So we definitely have a lot of ideas about what we want to do next.  It’ll always have a black metal spirit to it, but we’re going to have to push the sound a lot farther out – way more psychedelic, way more spaced out, way more droning and astral and root, moss, echoes – I suppose.  Those are the sounds that I’m most excited about. I love the black metal stuff, but at a certain point it becomes formulated.  We’re definitely at the point where we’ve pushed it as far as it can go without starting to repeat ourselves.  So we’re definitely going to have to push things out in the future.  You hear a lot of those sounds on Celestial Lineage, most of the record is pretty out.  I’d like to go even farther out.

In 2007, you said ‘I cannot imagine playing this music for more than another few years’, but here we are almost 5 years later.  The music has changed and progressed, of course, but do you see Wolves in the Throne Room as band 5 years from now?

No.  Definitely not.  I mean, this is it.  We’re going to continue to play music and we’re going to continue to tour to a certain degree, but we’ve been a very focused entity for the past five years and it went on longer than I expected it would.

Do you still see you and your bother making music?

Yeah, we’re the band and we still have ideas and a certain amount of inspiration, but we just need to change the focus of it.  I don’t want to deal with labels anymore.  I don’t want to deal with the business side of it.  Touring is such a compromise for me. Today we went to Wal-Mart and bought a Styrofoam cooler because our fridge crapped out in our RV.  I’m just not down for that kind of shit, man.  It’s just not my scene. So unless we can do it in a way that’s completely in line with our value system, I’m just not doing it.

Speaking of labels, Southern Lord seemed like the perfect label for Wolves in the Throne Room.  As a label, they seemed focused on packaging and artwork as much as the music. Wolves in the Throne Room has always been more than just the music to me…it’s the lyrics, the imagery, the philosophy, etc.  Can you tell me more about your relationship with Southern Lord?

We had a three album contract with Southern Lord and this is the last one.  I could see potentially working with them in future, but I really doubt it.  I prefer to do things on a more DIY level.

Southern Lord had a moment, you know?  We were in the office about a year ago and all the iconic records were up on display and I was really struck, as I’m sure you have been, by the power and cohesiveness of the aesthetic of all the bands and all of the releases that the label put out during that golden age.  I would say Greg — Stephen O’Malley’s design – with Randall Dunn’s production, created one of those situations where there was a perfect confluence of music coming out from the underground and meeting up with someone who’s got some business acumen and is able to package it and release it on a larger level than to just the underground.  This, combined with someone who has a really good ear and someone who has an amazing eye – it’s just one of those synergistic situations.

I’m not quite sure where things are at right now.  There was a point there where all of the bands on Southern Lord were really doing something interesting and creating some really iconic records.  I think people will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and think ‘oh wow, that was really a moment’.  It was something really special and I hope that continues for Greg and I wish him the best for sure.

I have noticed many interpretations of the trilogy have been thrown around, but in your own words, what is it all about?  Why a trilogy?  And was it a trilogy from the beginning?

Two Hunters was a totally spontaneous thing, we never expected to make another record afterwards.  We weren’t thinking about the future.  Actually, that really fits into the whole conceptual flow because it was very primal and unmediated.  It kind of erupted out of nowhere.  Two Hunters is a record I’m really happy with and proud of.  People really responded to it.  With Black Cascade we decided there was a flow and there were clearly three records that should be made. Celestial Lineage is that last record.  So, it wasn’t clear until Black Cascade that there would be three records that would be thematically linked.

As far as the way it works conceptually, it is about creating a culture.  We’re basically ravers.  We’re basically hippie ravers.  Our goal is to push a new culture into being.  Maybe it’s pure fantasy.  Maybe it’s something that only exists in our minds or only exists in a very small community of people on the extreme fringes of society — it’s not anything that will ever amount to anything or ever affect anyone beyond a very small group of people….

Or maybe it will affect people many years after the fact…

Maybe, who knows?  But that’s not really our concern.  The idea is that this is our intention.  The intention is to open up a portal to a different consciousness.  I’m not going to say a different level.  I’m not going to say it’s better.  I’m not going to say it’s an evolution, but it’s different.  It’s a different consciousness.  It’s the consciousness that you hear in the music.  Clearly the world of the music is not the world of the everyday.  It’s taking place in a very different reality.  I would say it’s a mythic reality.   So, the three records are about the process of creating a culture from its first spark to a certain place of maturity.

If this culture could exist outside of the music, or if Wolves in the Throne Room could create their perfect planet, people and culture, what would it look like?

There’s this book I really like called Ecotopia.  I really like literature from the hippie movement.  On one level, it’s really funny and kitschy – it’s interesting to look at where the thought process was at during that period.  It posits the idea that Washington, Oregon and Northern California secede from the union in a semi-violent secessionist revolution and create this hippie paradise.  I just love it so much, man.  It’s just so my scene.  People should just check out Ecotopia.  On one hand, it’s tongue-in-cheek and kinda funny because you know, we’re not hippies.  We’re black metal.  We are definitely coming at it from a dark and misanthropic point of view.  We don’t have any ‘tie-dyed holding hands’ kind of bullshit going on.  At the same time, I really resonate with a lot of the visioning that generation had.

Did you and Nathan grow up in an ecologically aware family?  Was there an event that caused you to go in this direction with your music and your message?

I hate being pigeonholed as an environmentalist band. I’m sure that’s not what you meant, but that’s not how I see it.  To me it has nothing to do with environmentalism or recycling or anything like that. It has everything to do with a shift in consciousness — a different way of looking at things — like seeing the world as an animate place that is charged with magic at all times, rather than just a lifeless rock that you extract wealth out of.  Maybe that is an ecological point of view, but I just don’t want to be affiliated with some liberal fucking Green Party bullshit.

This ‘shift in consciousness’ viewpoint, was this something that formed in childhood or did it come from your own experiences and education later in life?

I think it has to do with the culture we came out of.  The punk culture and the underground.  Anti-civ, anarchist, freak, outsider, metal, black metal, visionary, hippie sort of culture that we were immersed in.  Also, I suppose I could thank our parents a little bit.  Nathan went to a Waldorf School when he was a kid.  My parents are pretty forward thinking people, but they’re also conservative, middle-class, regular folk.  They don’t think we’re crazy at all.  They’re pretty happy with the stuff that we do and are supportive of us.

Are you familiar with the band Liturgy or what they term ‘transcendental black metal’?

No. I know a lot of people like to talk about them, but I have never heard them.  I have heard from people who’s opinions I respect that they are worth checking out.

You spoke with Westword about the perceived pretentiousness of black metal.  Liturgy have been stamped with that label more than any other current band because of their physical appearance and even more, because of a manifesto written by Hunter Hunt-Hendrix concerning what they dub ‘transcendental black metal’.  Wolves in the Throne Room have been associated with  another term, ‘astral black metal’.   Any plans to write a manifesto?

Noooo.  Good lord no!  No way, man.  I hate the idea of trying to convince anyone of anything.  I guess I do it enough in interviews and even that makes me uncomfortable.   I don’t want to come off as if we’re trying to preach or tell anyone to do anything or say that we’ve got it all figured out or that we’ve got some utopian vision that everything should sign up for.  That’s just not it at all.  We make this music and people can listen to it and take whatever they want from it.  It’s not our place to pass judgment on anyone or demand that anyone take it a certain way.

It seems with Liturgy the biggest issue people have is with their presentation.  An important part of metal is the aesthetic.  If you’re going to play metal and you’re going to come out there like you just got out of your dorm room, there’s going to be a certain amount of people putting you through the ringer.  Maybe that’s ok.  I’m the first person to say metal needs to be pushed forward.  It needs to be ripped open and transformed at all times, but also, you can’t come out there looking like a dork.

In the past it seemed there was almost a frustration with being labeled ‘black metal’, but in recent interviews the black metal conversation comes across as more positive.  Do you feel this is because more people now understand that Wolves in the Throne Room are more than just a black metal band?

I go back and forth on that label. For the most part, I just don’t think it applies at all at this point.  I also think the band is probably the last group of people who should put a label on themselves, because we don’t have any perspective.  We’re so wrapped up in our weird trip that we can’t really step back from it – we’re totally immersed in it and it’s extremely personal.  It’s not the kind of thing we’re thinking about or making a calculated attempt to try to be something or try to have the record sound like something else.  It’s a very pure thing.  It springs out of nowhere.  It’s up to other people to label what we do.  That’s why I go back and forth.  Sometimes I’m happy with the black metal label, other times I’m not.  I’m mostly not.  I’d rather just be able to do our own thing and not have some preconceived ideas about what we should be doing.

Celestial Lineage just received the Best New Music label from Pitchfork.  If I’m not mistaken, this is the first metal album to receive this label.  Does this mean anything to you?

It doesn’t mean anything to me personally. I don’t care.  It doesn’t make me feel good about myself or make me jump for joy, but I think it does say something about the culture.  The semi-underground music culture. Clearly black metal has arrived and I think at this point that might mean it’s dead.  I think maybe we killed it and I actually feel really good about that.  I’m totally happy to be the band that destroyed black metal.  Someone just sent me an email saying that there’s going to be a big article in The NewYoker on Wolves in the Throne Room and Absu, I think…

NPR was streaming the new album.

I’ve always joked that the minute I hear this shit on NPR is the minute I kill myself.  So on one hand, it’s sad when something completely leaves the underground and dorks who have jobs are aware of it and have opinions about it.  On one hand that disgusts me, but on the other hand that’s just the way of the world.  When artistic movements begin in the underground, inevitability they will be revealed to the world.  I think that’s just the way it is.  I’m not a part of the mainstream.  I don’t pay attention to the outside world very much.  It’s not something that I think about or care about or worry about – our place in the whole thing, but it is definitely an indicator that something has happened, something has changed, something has shifted.

Speaking of being in the outside world, who is taking care of the farm at home while you’re out here?

My wife runs it.  The past couple years she’s been bottom-lining the whole thing.  For the past couple years I’ve been doing music at least six months out of the year.  It’s a big, working organic farm that produces a lot.  It’s not just a hobby or something.  It’s a real thing.  It’s a business for her.  It’s very much a lifestyle too.  It’s definitely a spiritual enterprise more than it is a financial enterprise.  That’s definitely where my priorities will shift once this round of touring is completed and we’re able to settle back into home life.  That’s where I will be spending all my time and putting my energy for the foreseeable future.  At least until next winter, when things calm down a bit and there isn’t so much to do outside.  Then I could see heading back into the studio, lighting up the stove and the bong…

Any misconceptions about the band that you would like to clear up?  Any closing comments?  Last words?

Yeah, there are so many misconceptions about the band.  It’s so weird being in a band and seeing how people respond to it.  People have so many opinions, you know?  One of the things that really bugs me is when people will listen to one of our records and be like ‘clearly, they are highly influenced by…’ and I’m like ‘I haven’t even listened to that band’.  It’s interesting to be in a position where people are commenting on what we do, because that’s never really been our plan.  We just happen to be in this situation where our albums have received a certain amount of awareness and people are coming to our shows, but it’s never been our goal to be a big rock band.  We don’t want to do that and we’re going to do our best to sabotage that.  I guess I don’t know what I’m trying to say with that – I don’t know.  Forget the whole thing.

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