The Soft Pink Truth On the Edge of Aesthetics and Ethics

The Soft Pink Truth On the Edge of Aesthetics and Ethics
Photo by M.C. Schmidt
Drew Daniel is a perfect example of a 21st century polymath. One half of San Francisco glitch experimentalists Matmos, Daniel also fancies himself an accomplished writer (he's a Pitchfork contributor and author of two books) and has spent part of the last decade teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute and at UC Berkley. So it should come as no surprise to find out that this openly gay, Ph.D electro producer is also one of the planet's biggest (and most informed) black metal fans.

On his third solo LP (and first in ten years) under the moniker the Soft Pink Truth, Daniel professes his love for the dark arts with Why Do the Heathen Rage? , transforming ten black metal songs (from classic acts like Darkthrone, Hellhammer, Mayhem and Venom) into clubby house anthems. Exclaim! spoke with Daniel about his decade-long layover, the importance of novelty music and his undying love of black metal.

It's been ten years since you've recorded anything as the Soft Pink Truth. Can you talk about the layover?
I moved from San Francisco to Baltimore, became an academic, published two books, worked on Matmos records, toured a lot with Matmos and played Soft Pink Truth shows at noise warehouse parties in Baltimore, building up a different set of songs. I had made an album's worth of Soft Pink Truth songs that were on a laptop that was stolen from our house, so I lost a kind of "album that might have been," of which only some sketches and loops remain. I have been pretty busy for the last decade, honestly.

What was your relationship with black metal prior to the recording of Why Do the Heathen Rage?
From my days in high school as a punk and hardcore kid, I'd always been into metal too. I first heard black metal when my friend Kris Force's band Amber Asylum signed to Misanthropy Records, which was Burzum's label also. So I heard [Burzum's 1996 album] Filosofem and it blew me away. I've seen many black metal bands live, starting with shows by Mayhem and Enslaved in San Francisco a decade ago, and an Emperor show in L.A. that I saw. So it's been a passion of mine for quite a while. Living in Baltimore, I go to Maryland DeathFest whenever I can, it's a huge bonus to living in this city.

When you were younger and listening to black metal, were there moments when you started to question the lyrical content or the comments actions of the musicians?
I was already politicized by being a hardcore/punk kid in high school and by being a philosophy major and a recently out gay man at Berkeley as an undergrad, so by the time I was listening to black metal, I was already quite familiar with the political tug-of-war that goes on in underground extreme music scenes around these issues at the border zone of aesthetics and ethics. The notoriety of, say, Boyd Rice's flip-flopping around Nazi imagery/racist statements was familiar to me from industrial fandom since I already loved NON's records but despised his political stances. So I wouldn't say that black metal posed a new challenge on that score. In some ways, listening to Laibach and NON and Throbbing Gristle had already shown me a spectrum of ways to engage with totalitarianism that ranged from critique and parody to embrace and reification, so this was just more of that, but with longer hair.

Can you talk about the recording of the new album?
I record everything myself, at home in a studio in my basement. It was a very cold winter and I just shivered and stayed up very late at night obsessing about the bass lines and synths. It's a combination of laptop soft synths and our own collection of analog synths. Owen from Horse Lords played some guitar on one track and I played piano on the Burzum cover, "Rundgang (Fuck Varg's Racist, Anti-Semetic, Bullshit Politics Forever!)," a bonus track left off of Why Do the Heathen Rage?. I spent endless hours hiding weird little samples and audio "Easter eggs" into each song, little audio jokes for the careful listener to discover. For example, processed vocals from a health department official describing an Ebola outbreak are layered into "Let There Be Ebola Frost." Doing metal vocals is hilarious, because you're hearing the music on headphones and your neighbours don't know that you're singing along to music, so they just hear this freak next door screaming about Satan. I laughed so much the day I recorded Terrence [Hannum] from Locrian screaming the Darkthrone and Sargeist lyrics, they're so fucking intense and over the top. For my vocals, I screamed into headphones and used the headphones as a microphone because you get this very gritty, shitty, lo-fi crunch sound when you do that, and it seemed to suit the vibe of Venom really well.

Why did you choose to work with Antony Hegarty, as well as Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak?
They're both great vocalists with [an] incredibly human, vulnerable presence, but also, just as importantly, they're friends of mine, people that I know well enough socially and from previous musical collaborations that I felt like they would immediately "get it" and click into place with this project. And they're both people whose normal musical output is several galaxies removed from heavy metal, so the contrast was appealing. Martin and I have been playing in Antony's band as part of this Robert Wilson opera, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, for several years now, and I've been hanging out with Jenn socially for several years too, and she also plays in Horse Lords, Baltimore buddies of ours, so it just felt like a comfortable collaboration.

Was it important to find a female to sing Sarcofago's "Ready to Fuck" in order to disarm the song's lyrics?
I had made about half of the album and Martin (aka M.C. Schmidt), my boyfriend and partner in Matmos, listened to it and said "It's very male, you haven't really taken it to that 'diva house music' place yet," or words to that effect. And I realized that he was right, that I needed to press the point by having a strong female perspective on this music. The lyrics of "Ready to Fuck" are an absurd male fantasy of sexual power and so they're pretty ripe for satiric flipping. There's also something wonderfully odd about their use of the English language in those lyrics; "I will lick you of the feets til the head." What? And I've always loved the breakdown in that Sarcofago song on a musical level, it's such a great riff, so it seemed like a nice combination of strong material with a singer who can really fucking sing her ass off. Jenn really channelled that Donna Summer "Love to Love You Baby" way of singing, I was so stoked when I heard what she had come up with. It was jubilation.

When Terrance Hannum of Locrain guested on the album, did you ask for his opinion on any of the tracks?
He's a friend, but I was still nervous that he wouldn't be down, so I sent him my Beherit cover ("Sadomatic Rites") as a kind of sonic teaser for what this record was going to sound like. I was so glad that he was willing to take part, because his shriek/scream has that elemental power that you need in black metal, and without him, the record wouldn't be able to hit that. Aesthetically, I really respect his vision, both with Locrian and in his visual art. In fact, I own a multimedia work of his which is a "tape collage," literally made out of black metal and noise cassette tape glued into a grid on canvas — it's called "Decay." Terence was very supportive early on and his belief in the album really reassured me when I was at a point of feeling real doubt about whether anyone but myself would give a fuck.

Can you talk about the opening piece, "Invocation for Strength"?
It's meant to replace the black metal worship of Satan with an alternate form of pagan queer goddess spirituality that comes from a different context — the "Radical Fairies" subculture. It's a poem that appeared as the epigram to the text "Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture" by activist and provocateur Arthur Evans. So in the place of, say, an invocation to Satan, you have this feminist rant against capitalist alienation that celebrates androgyny and Kali and resistance to male domination and patriarchy. I wanted something that would sonically resemble the intros of black metal albums, but with a radical queer content.

Thrill Jockey [initially didn't] release images of the album art due to it being of an "extreme violent and sexual nature." Can you talk a bit about the album cover and some of the controversy surrounding it?
Apparently it has already been rejected by German censors due to the extreme violence, and so the German edition is going to have to cover the artwork. I wanted the record to go to work on you as soon as you look at it. I had a vision of a queer sadomasochistic orgy of black metal guys in corpse paint sucking and fucking in a field of corpses. Happily, Mavado Charon made this a reality. All praise is due to him for his "can do" spirit! As for keeping it a secret, it's because I'd rather have people see the real thing when it is available in record stores. I want it to be a material experience. It's a dense image that doesn't reproduce well if you shrink it down, it needs to be seen face to face — especially on vinyl with the reflective foil layer — in order for it to have that power.

Were you afraid that the album might be taken as a sort of gimmick?
I am comfortable with that category/accusation. I spend a lot of my time listening to things that are derided as "novelty music": Perrey & Kingsley, Spike Jones, space age bachelor pad music by Enoch Light, and so that category is not a threat to me. I always think it's interesting that there's this sense that some music is not "real" or "serious" and to me those designators can be compared in interesting ways to the discourse that used to surround queer people — that queers were somehow "arrested" in their developmental progress towards mature heterosexual completeness.

You could argue that novelty music is the queer misfit within the world of music; it's the abject music that refuses to comply with the protocols of high self-seriousness and musical expression that real music is bound up with. That said, I am hopeful that the detailed execution of the covers on a musical level should make it clear that I'm not a casual or contemptuous tourist here. I love and respect these songs as songs and the formal care that I've taken should, I hope, lead people to grant it some grudging respect, even if they hate what I've done. But really, that's up to them.

In which ways do black metal speak to you on a personal level?
The obsessions with extreme scenarios of extinction, annihilation and mass death which surge throughout black metal are, to me, deeply congruent with the kind of scenarios that we know as a species that we are heading towards if we don't deal with climate change and the effects of overpopulation and unbridled global capitalism. So for me, the dark fantasies of black metal are also a vision of our planetary future. That's not "personal," it's species wide in its implications. I guess the feelings of rage and despair in black metal are, for me, familiar feelings too.