Deströyer 666 – An Interrogation

originally written by Juho Mikkonen

”So, what do you wanna know?” a giant asks, waking me up from my crapulous haze with a voice from below.

I spend a fifth of a second to gain a good grasp of where I am, and, by the looks of it, I’m sitting at the backstage of a club with the whole of Deströyer 666. On my right hand-side, I see this aforementioned big fellow. Ian Gray (a.k.a. Shrapnel), the second guitarist of D666, busies himself with changing the strings on his BC Rich and gearing up for the night’s gig, waiting for me to open my gob. Opposite him sits the band’s renowned frontman, Keith (a.k.a. KK Warslut), who’s concentrating on tuning his Ibanez. Matt Schneemilch (bass/vocals) and Chris Menning (drums) lie in wait in the background.

It might be the hangover anxiety, but all eyes seem to be on me. My spoken English ? usually devoid of any accent, whatsoever ? begins to wobble, and I start to sound like a Finnish politician. The consonants, dripping from my tongue, feel sharp, like katanas. I decide to have a crack at getting my shit together, finally managing to ask Ian how much time they have for the chat.

“How much do you need?”  he replies, without taking eyes off his axe.

“Forty-five minutes,” I hear myself suggesting, cautiously.

The guitarist chuckles, “Forty-five…what is this, an interrogation?”

Because I accidentally left my do-it-yourself-Chinese-water-torture kit at my humble home, I take that as “Yes, we’re fine with forty-five minutes.” With the help of a deep breath and a few sips of beer, I make my final attempt to climb back from the basso loco, and, miraculously, the recipe works. By undergoing a dramatic change in a barely noticeable fashion, I morph from a walrus into a war god ? with a shiny new digital recording apparatus as my war-trumpet ? while still cunningly retaining a walrus-like facial figure as a reminder of last night’s ethanol overdose. So, with some poor person’s big buttocks as my cheeks, I feel like I’m ready to play ball.

Apparently, the guys of D666 have paid no attention to my inner battle of the wills. They have their own hangovers to worry about and their own beers to destroy. This is the third and final night of their mini-tour in Finland, and, the night before, they played for a whopping crowd of 500 batshit-insane Finns. According to some testimonials, faces were seriously ripped, and, honestly, you would expect nothing less from D666. Ian seems to be sincere when complimenting our small nation-state as “a very metal country,” thus enforcing my conviction that maybe it’s not just a pitiful myth.

Practically speaking, the band has been touring since last May in support of their most recent release, Defiance. Keith explains that, so far, the so-called tour has been somewhat of a sporadic endeavour, which means that they’ve had weeks and even months off from the pleasant rat-race of being a performing artist. After the summer’s festival season, things are about to get more acute, when D666 jumps on Mayflower to sail across the Atlantic with the merry puritans from Shining and Enthroned. For the band, the autumn of 2010 ends with a nerve-shredding marathon of 35 dates with Watain in Europe. Keith seems to take little pressure from it, and he would gladly take these long-ass tours over any occasional festival gig.

“Personally, I prefer the small shows. There’s a bit more contact with the crowd, and they’re a bit more personal. But I think the rest of the guys like the big festival shows, but I’d prefer gigs like last night over any festival show,” the front-man explains.

Last September, D666 finally got around to playing in Latin America, when the band journeyed to Brazil, Chile and Mexico before hitting the North American shores for six shows. The short visit to these three South and Central American countries ? legendary for their intense-as-hell crowd-participation ? left the Australian outfit with a hankering to return as swiftly as possible.

“It was really, really cool,” Ian recollects with eyes still gazing at his weapon of choice. “It was great to get to South America, y’know…something we’ve wanted to do for a long time. Yeah, it was everything we had hoped for…just great. Particularly, Santiago [Chile] was amazing. They were really diehard metal fans, really into it, really vocal. We had a good time there.”

Keith is well-known not only as a touring and performing artist, but also as a staunch supporter of heavy metal and its lifestyle. Although he lives for metal, he can’t live off it and every member of D666 are compelled to put their noses into the grindstone in regular day jobs as well. The frontman also admits that nowadays he doesn’t feel the need to purchase every special edition vinyl of every album and attend every show and festival within a hundred-mile radius of his home. When I try to enquire the singer-guitarist about his LP collection and its crown jewels, I get a sense that his days of pimping one’s enormous heaps of polyvinyl chloride are long gone. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the fire still rages within.

“Well, nothing has really changed. Still, I’m fucking 38 years old, and, to be honest, I’m not the mad collector that I once was. When you were younger you just had to have everything, you know…to be a completist. Now I just get the records that I really, really like. I’m not that concerned if it’s the regular version or whatever. I kinda see that kind of thing as materialism, and it doesn’t interest me that much. If I really like the record, I’ll buy the vinyl and that’s it.”

Keith has maneuvered the D666 liner for 16 years, and, at same time, he has been able to observe the whole genre of metal from within. Unlike many other seasoned cats, he doesn’t dwell in bitter nostalgia, and when you listen to him discussing about the current metal scene, you’re not going to be predisposed for an hour-long rant about why the Norwegian professional musicians should be shot into the orbit alongside with their sexy saxophones. Instead of an attempt for traditionalist indoctrination, you’ll get a breath of fresh air.

“Actually, I think it’s fucking killer these days. For me, the last five or six years have been probably one of the better periods in metal since the mid-eighties. In all different types of genres there are just so many good fucking bands…like really exceptional bands. I’m constantly amazed and impressed,” Keith commends, while Ian gives his nod of approval. “If we’re looking for names, I think that the latest The Ruins of Beverast and The Devil’s Blood were awesome. Primordial is always, you know, high standard, and Watain…yeah, it’s just insane. Many fucking good bands these days.”

“And the scene is so much more organized than it once was. The guys [of Kold Reso Kvlt], who were organizing this thing, for example…they got their shit together, enough so that they can bring an Australian band here for just one fucking show. I mean fuck, when we started back in 1994, or even like ten years ago, it just wouldn’t have happened. Nobody would have paid your air fares from Australia to Europe for one fucking show. That’s beyond heard of, but today it fucking happens, and it’s great,” he continues.

Earlier, Keith has made it very clear that classic thrash metal, such as Destruction and Sodom, hold a special place as D666’s primary musical influence, and the band as a whole has always had its collective boot in the puddle of rawer leanings of the genre. The thrash resurgence of the past few years has called forth a sudden outburst of high-top-wearing Bay Area throwback outfits, the members of which could be the sons (or daughters) of the genre’s originators. For Keith, however, this scene possesses no relevance.

“To be honest, I’m not that interested in the whole thrash resurgence. Our music may be thrashy, because that’s the generation I grew up in. It’s not like I think that thrash is better than any other type of music…far from that. I can’t even think one new thrash band that I listen to. Are there any…?” the front-man reflects and tries to get help from his bandmates, who all shrug their shoulders, unable to name any new-generation thrash orchestras worth mentioning and, thus, obligate Keith to try and bring the topic into a decent conclusion. “I listen to more atmospheric, darker stuff. But, you know that things always come in cycles and everything gets repeated eventually.”

Keith insists that ? although he has tons of respect for bands that make it their conviction to play strictly black metal, for instance ? the genre discussions in general are of zero significance to him. Whether he finds something appealing or not, has nothing to do with the label attached to it. As far as D666 is concerned, the only principle is ‘no restrictions’. When I turn the conversation to the band’s latest opus and suggest that, with Defiance, D666 has removed their black/thrash stigma and soldiered further along the path of classic heavy metal, which they have been occasionally strolling down since the very beginning, the whole bands responds with an uncontrolled gale of laughter. As they try not to fall off their chairs, I take a look at my notes and opt not to ask my next question about the band’s opinion on the genre of brutal hyperborean post-viking blastcore. When Keith and the other chaps have had their fun, the polite front-man tries to offer a serious answer to my question before I fall flat on my face.

“I don’t know. Sorry, mate…I really don’t know. It’s never been like ‘this time, let’s do this and this’. It’s more like: ‘Well, here are the songs. Which ones we like and which ones we don’t.’ I think that Deströyer is not as preconceived as many other bands. We all have broad tastes in music, so our stuff ends up being quite varied. It was never our goal to be black/thrash or anything. For me, they are just two words.”

Still, both Keith and Ian admit that, music-wise, Defiance, which is probably the most epic and catchy D666 album to date, differs a great deal from the band’s earlier works. All-out thrashing takes the back seat, thus letting the melodic lead-work to take the Luciferian spotlight, and, overall, there’s a noticeable decrease in tempo when compared to the days of yore. Like Keith says, D666 has evolved between and even within albums, so it’s not like the fans expected them to release a sequel for Cold Steel…for an Iron Age. Still, for a D666 release, Defiance got an unprecedented mixed reception and while there were people who considered the album to be the highlight of the band’s career, there were also more detractors than you can shake a stick at. Keith feels that this was nothing out of the ordinary, and he claims that every album of theirs has had its fair share of criticism. On Defiance, Keith did not participate in the song writing process, leaving it up to Ian and Matt to forge the compositions, so Ian is understandably keener than his associate in war to try and analyze where all the critique stems from.

“I think that a lot people missed the thrashy elements of the earlier albums. Certainly, Defiance is a lean towards more mid-paced, epic stuff that we also did on our previous records. So, if there were people expecting a Cold Steel Part 2, I can understand why some people can be disappointed,” Ian utters.

Keith adds, “I think it would be fair to say that I didn’t write anything on this album. After so many albums of writing a lot of it and suddenly not writing anything…it’s bound to have an effect on how everything turns out. That’s probably a part of it, and you can’t fucking please everyone. Still, we are our worst critics, you know. We have our own issues and complaints with every album,” Keith continues: “Each of our albums has been really different…I don’t think any of our records have been the same, you know, and even the songs within the albums have been quite varied. I mean, even from the day one…for example on Unchain the Wolves there were thrash metal songs and then the long, epic ones, and we kinda mixed it all up. So, if people compare the new album to the old stuff, then I’m always left wondering of which old stuff they mean; the three-minute thrash songs or the fucking five-minute epic ones. Or are they referring to all of it, which would be a broad fucking brushstroke there, you know…”

Still, the question has not been that much about whether Defiance is chock full of top-notch tunage or not. Instead, it’s the album’s production and mix, which can be accused of being the cause of the raising eye-brows. The huge, compressed sound may be good for sheer battering and slicing, but, at the same time, all the finer nuances, dynamics and subtleties ? which are plenty in D666’s music ? get truncated in the process. Thus, it must be asked: has D666 fallen victim to the ongoing loudness war?

“You know, I’m not happy with the production, and you’re right; it’s too compressed. The vinyl version will be remixed and remastered, and it will sound marginally better. But yeah, I’m not happy with it,” Keith sighs.

“The major problem nowadays with labels, in general, is that they all want to follow this loudness war. And the main audience, the young kids, have their iPods and they download the album from somewhere, so they want to make sure that the mp3s are on full volume to blast through your ears. On the mastering stage, the labels expect you to compress the hell out of it and make it louder and louder, which results in loss of dynamics. Unfortunately for us, it destroys the atmosphere of the music in general, and no one of us was really up for it, but the label really wanted it…you know, to be really loud,” the drummer explains, and Keith assures that it won’t happen again, although both he and Ian suggest that, actually, they’ve never been satisfied with the production of a D666 release.

Nevertheless, there is also something of superior quality to be found on Defiance; something where D666 has taken a great leap from an artistic point of view. The band has always towered over their peers with their cut-to-the-point approach in the lyrics, but this time Keith really managed to ascend to completely unexplored heights in this respect, and the end result was some of the most compelling strings of words he had ever written. The singer-guitarist admits on this particular album he really put his mind into crafting truly meaningful lyrics.

“Because I wasn’t contributing musically, I had a lot more time to work on the lyrics. I do believe that the lyrics on this album are the best I’ve ever written. Majority of them I’m quite happy with, but not with all of them. So yeah, they are quite nihilistic and self-destructive in a sense, because I was actually attacking some of the things I was saying in previous albums. It’s about breaking down our idealism, beliefs and that kind of topics. A Sermon to the Dead, for example, was completed in the studio, and some of the texts there are from a Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead,” the singer-guitarist explains.

“I don’t think that lyrics can make or break a band, but for me they are very important. But I also like bands with crap for lyrics. I mean, that’s the irony of metal, isn’t it. If the riff is good and it sounds good, you’ll listen to the band, regardless of what they sing about. But, personally, I like the lyrics to actually say something, and I think that metal musicians are in a unique position, where we can actually make that happen. So, for me, it’s a waste of the medium to not say something of substance in the lyrics. But, whether anybody’s listening or not…that’s a whole ‘nother question.”

It’s a rare occasion that D666 gives interviews, so hopefully at least someone is listening or reading. I try to make good use of the opportunity and get some insight on matters, which are yet to be properly disentangled. First of all, after Cold Steel…for an Iron Age (2002) and the Terror Abraxas EP (2003) the band went on a six-year recording hiatus, which was quite interesting for a band who were making their way to the top of the kvlt-ladder. So, I believe that for the bulk of D666 fans, myself included, it would be fascinating to get a glance of what the hell was going on during those six years.

“Not much happened, really. We all live in different countries. These two (points at Ian and Matt) are in London, Chris is in Germany and I was in Holland at the time. I think that the distance started to get to me, and it was hard to maintain the band unity for living so far apart. So, we kinda agreed to take a hiatus…a time out, so to speak. And then, in fact, the tour we did in 2006…we coined it as our “Farewell and Fuck Off” tour. It was gonna be our goodbye, you know. We ended up enjoying it so much that it inspired us to act things up again, and then we spend like two or three years to get the songs together. But the biggest impact is the fact that we live in different countries, so we can’t just get together every week and go over our ideas. And when we are working on an album, for instance, we rehearse once in every six weeks or something. By the six weeks and the next rehearsal comes along, everyone has forgotten what we had done last time, you know, so it’s kinda one-step-forward-two-steps-back,” Keith answers.

“It wasn’t really a good way to work,” Ian picks up. “We were travelling constantly, you know. Like Keith said, normal bands just drive at the end of the road to meet your mates, but we had to get flights, and it’s not even all the effort. You have to get up early, get a cab or drive at the airport, and after a while it gets pretty draining. I think that affected us, as well.”

“And the financial part of it. It was three flights for just one rehearsal. 350 euros just for one fucking rehearsal,” Keith concludes.

Another puzzling question for anyone following D666’s career revolves around their label, Season of Mist, and the band’s decision to stick to its services. Apart from the pressure to wage the loudness war with an un-dynamic and, thusly, unflattering mastering job, it’s a well-known fact that D666 themselves did not approve the album artwork on Cold Steel…for an Iron Age. When I query as to what exactly transpired there and why on earth did the band stay with the label for the release of Defiance, Keith opens the proverbial floodgates.

“Oh, fuck. Well, for the back of the album cover…we had nothing to do with it. They just did it. And the choice of the photo…I mean, he’s (points at the drummer) not even in the fucking picture. About the front cover…we didn’t have a computer in our house, so we had to get on a bus and travel forty minutes to someone else’s house to use a computer. We had the record label breathing at our neck, saying that it’s gotta be done now. We had no artwork, we had nothing, so we had to go online and borrow images, and the whole thing was just slapped together, you know. And there was this constant ‘hurry up, hurry up’-thing. For the vinyl, it was this other fucking label, Displeased, and they were no better. Actually, the last imperative was that if we’re unable to deliver it, they are gonna do it themselves. You know, it was like: ‘Just put anything on there.’”

“I still remember getting the fucking CD. You know, we had moved from Australia, sold everything and left our girlfriends. Those are big fucking sacrifices. When I got the CD version of Cold Steel…, my heart fucking sank. All that effort for this piece of shit, you know. I went fucking mental, didn’t I? Actually, I went home early from work, I was so emotionally upset. I couldn’t stay at work, because I was so fucking angry,” Keith reminisces with a big laugh.

“About why stay with Season of Mist, that’s a really good question. They gave us a computer to make sure that this would never happen again, so we could do the artwork ourselves. Then the guy who could actually work with Photoshop went back to Australia, so it didn’t do any good at all. But, we like the fat bastard [Michael S. Berberian],” the front-man chortles.

“Yeah, he’s a good bloke,” Ian affirms.

You would think that any underground label with good promotional skills would be willing to take D666 under their wings. The band also has experience in working with smaller players, such as The Ajna Offensive and Iron Pegasus, and, overall, given the internet’s power of self-promoting, it might be a worthwhile decision for D666 to align themselves with a smaller outfit in the future. Keith and Ian admit that they’ve done some shopping, and for example Candlelight and Osmose have shown interest in recruiting them, and it surely isn’t written in stone that the next D666 outing will be a Season of Mist release. Still, they both agree that this aspect of being a recording artist is not something they like engineering, which means that the easiest solution ? the path of least resistance ? is also the most functional.

Regardless to which label will have the honor to stamp their name on the follow-up of Defiance, two things are certain: it won’t be another seven years in the making and the dynamics will be back. The song writing process has already been launched, and according to Keith, the band is hoping to board a studio during the first quarter of 2011. Before that, the good folk at Hell’s Headbangers are slated to re-release Cold Steel… on vinyl, with band-approved artwork (courtesy of Zbigniew Bielak) and an unreleased bonus track. Unfortunately, the exact release date has not yet been nailed on the town hall bulletin board, but I get the feeling that we won’t  have to salivate on the prospect for too long before we can hold the final product in our teensy-weensy hands.

The recent deaths of Peter Steele and Ronnie James Dio have palpably shown to the metal listening populace that ? even in the world of heavy metal ? things don’t last forever. D666 has had a hell of a run during its 16 years of existence, but you can’t escape the fact that the band is not exactly a young, upcoming act anymore and that they have already been on the verge of calling it a day. While there still might be a couple of years before the members of the band can claim their veteran’s badges, Keith does admit that he has been thinking about the life after D666 and that there’s a distinct possibility for him to move back to Australia within a short period of time. So, what would make him stay in Europe and continue with playing balls-out metal ‘til the unforeseen future and beyond; a post as a second guitarist for Destruction, perhaps?

“That question is humorous on so many levels,” Keith laughs. “No, I wouldn’t do it, because I would lower the standards of the band too much.”

When I try to be more inquisitive about the band’s future and the possible plans that the guys have outside the band, they politely refuse to shed more light on the question. I sense that it’s not for the sake of some faux mystique, but because of a healthy conception about the junction of privacy and publicity. Some things are for friends’ and hairdresser’s ears only and I’m just a stranger without a comb.

“Everything I seriously want to say is in the lyrics,” says Keith. “To be honest, I’ve done like three interviews during last seven years. I’ve kind of figured that if I can’t say something in the lyrics, it’s not worth saying. I’m so sorry, but I’m sick of reading other bands’ interviews. They are all so fucking self-indulgent, you know…’we’ve done this, we’ve done that, we’re the best’. Ah, fuck off…”

I check the screen of my fancy-ass, new-age voice capturing device, and it shows forty-three minutes. Our discussion may have taken a negative tone, but almost every answer has been delivered with a gleeful laughter and, overall, the vibe in the room is positive, although it might just be the good ol’ hooch wreaking havoc among my brain cells. Whatever the cause might be, my gut tells me to wrap things up while I’m still winning. It’s the irony of this gig: you might be hung over like never before and your questions might be a little shoddy, but you can trust that the band will always make you pull through.

Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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