Interview with Nergal from www.ultimate-guitar.com
“I Loved You At Your Darkest,” Behemoth’s 11th album, is as brutal, savage and menacing as anything to ever come out of the dark and creative brain of the group’s singer and composer, Nergal. At the same time, there are uncharacteristically moody instrumental pieces, cleaner vocals and clean guitar tones you would never hear on earlier Behemoth records. For Nergal, it is all just part of the journey.
“We’re evolving not only as human beings but in our music,” he explains. “I’m still exploring and retrospecting everything that has been done in rock music in general. I see myself way more open-minded today than I was five or 10 years ago and it definitely reflects in our music. What you hear on the record is my whole life but also in these recent years it has been very influential in the context of the record. When we were touring for The Satanist, I would just stop from making any extreme metal music. I would get away to the other side of the pole so to speak to something that was completely not extreme. It was still dark but very mellow what I did with my other band, Me and That Man.”
In our conversation, Nergal talks about these different elements, recording the album, the band’s image, and his first guitar.
You wanted to incorporate elements you’d gotten working with Me and That Man?
I did that and it kind of helped me out to go back to Behemoth because I had this extra experience and I was just more open. I would even open up my vocal abilities. When it came to tracking the vocals, I had already a few other aces in my sleeve. It’s still very Behemoth and very extreme but it’s also something more adventurous.
When you were trying to bring more rock in the music, did you actually try and dial in different kinds of guitar tones to sort of emphasize this style?
Yes, absolutely. The first thing you should know is I composed all the material just playing an unplugged Gretsch guitar, which is a non-metal guitar. It’s a blues-rock whatever but it’s everything but a metal guitar so it doesn’t determine the way and what I play. OK? Because you cannot really do any shredding or fast picking on a Gretsch because it’s gonna sound shitty.
Because there wasn’t that typical huge distortion on most metal guitars, you played different things?
Everything that was coming up was more spacious and there was more breath in the music and the riffs and the song structure.
What guitars did you bring into the studio?
In the studio, I mostly played my ESP but we had at hand other guitars that we used for flavoring here and there. We used a Fender, Gibson, Jackson. Sometimes it was like, “Ah, that riff sounds good on Gibson. Let’s do it with a Gibson.” There’s not much shredding and stuff but it’s more like bending or emotional and we thought, “Let’s go with Gibson.” This time were more freely used anything that was at hand that just felt right.
This is the first time you approach the guitars this way?
Even back on “The Satanist,” we were very strict. “OK, this is the guitar. We will use it for the whole recording.” This time we were more liberated and thought, “Yeah, fuck it.” There was one studio we had been using but this time it was like, “The drums sound good in that room. Let’s do it there.” The guitars I wanted to do just a few blocks from my place because the guy is amazing and the studio wasn’t anything glamorous but he was a cool guy and I felt very comfortable. All those things made this album so diverse and eclectic.
You dug the idea of not being tied to one guitar or one studio or one style?
It was a really cool experience. I would say they were the most comfortable studio sessions I’ve experienced ever.
You worked with some cool people on the record like Matt Hyde [Slayer, Children Of Bodom] who mixed the record and Tom Baker [Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson] who mastered it. Were you looking for a certain kind of sound?
We tried other options. We sent one track to Greg Fidelman who did Metallica and he’s a great guy. He did the first mix for “God = Dog” and he was very good and very high quality but not necessarily what we were looking for. We came back to the initial idea that it would include Matt Hyde as the main mixer. Just because Matt understands what Behemoth should sound like.
You did have an idea of what you wanted the record to sound like then?
Yeah, more or less I do have a picture of what Behemoth should sound like. All of us do because we all contribute to the production of the records. It feels best we know what the records should sound like and then we need very talented and open-minded people around us to help out. We started with Daniel Bergstrand [Meshuggah, In Flames] from Dugout Studio in Sweden to set up the drum kit and get the right tones and then he dud dub-mixes for the drums in Sweden. He and Matt Hyde mixed it and Tom Baker who did Madonna and Nine Inch Nails did an amazing job on mastering. He was suggested by Matt Hyde.
It sounds like you were really happy with the way the album turned out.
The tracks were really done well. It was our best tracking ever, OK? I was actually there when Matt played the rough mix for the first time and he was like, “Oh, shit. It already sounds better than “The Satanist” mix.” It was much easier for him to mix the record. He was like, “I just need to get the levels good and a little EQ here and that’s it.” He was really happy with that and when we got the mix I told him right away, “Matt, we don’t really want to ruin that mix by overdoing the mastering. Do you know anyone who can give it a little boost and that’s it?” That’s when he suggested Tom Baker and he was amazing.
How did you record the tracks?
We’ve always worked the most classic way: we do scratch guitars and we either play them from the backtrack or someone plays it. We start with drums, guitars, bass and vocals and then all the extras. It’s always been done that way so no changes here. I talked to Andy Sneap and he said Judas Priest starts with guitars when they do records and I’m like, “Holy fuck.” That’s so weird but hey, as long as it works.
All the Behemoth records have been recorded as trios: you, Orion and Inferno. Were you a fan of trios?
We are three plus one, which means we have a session and live member Seth with us for 15 years now. We were tracking rhythm guitars for the first time ever. Up until The Satanist, I would do all the rhythm guitars plus my lead parts but this time we wanted this tension between guitars. Like Judas Priest, you feel a different vibe. They’re not entirely perfect but that’s exciting and really charming and that’s how we wanted to do it this time.
But you do consider the band a trio?
We are three-piece because we are like God: we appear in three personas. That’s why.
The video for “God = Dog” was pretty dark and brutal. Is the image for you a critical part of the band’s music or is it there to just to be controversial? The music can stand on its own without that kind of imagery, right?
I agree. We get a lot of shit from people. I actually use that argument often – if we weren’t delivering quality, I wouldn’t be so up in front of people doing all this crazy stuff. But because our foundation, our core is so strong and steadfast and proud and really well done and we know how much heart, effort, and energy we put into that, it feels like, “Hey, you know what? We can do whatever the fuck we want?” because the quality is there.
Right. If the music sucked, people would laugh at the imagery you’ve created.
I’ve always looked at Behemoth and seen us as a very conceptual artistic entity. I really think music is part of something bigger. If you decide to skip the lyrics and skip the videos and you like the music, it’s cool. But in order to benefit from everything Behemoth is delivering, I always suggest to people, “Pay attention to every detail we’re putting out there.”
How do you see Behemoth?
This band is the vision and the voice; it’s the sound, the aesthetics, the content, the message, and ideology. Everything around is really well pre-thought and there’s a very strong content there. To me, listening to music is 50 percent and the other 50 is everything else. It has such a stronger impact if you process all of it.
You mentioned that Seth played all the rhythm guitars. Did you do all the solos?
I did about 30% of soloing and most of it I give away to Seth. He feels more hungry and he’s still developing in that direction. I just go for the vibe. I remember 10 years ago, I’d be practicing to solo. These days, I just grab the guitar and punch a chord or a certain note and I let it sustain and breathe. I’ve changed my approach and playing philosophy quite drastically.
Now it’s more about the atmosphere instead of a lot of notes?
If you compare this record to The Apostasy, for me from a time perspective it looks like so much overdoing. Why did I play all those notes? What did I want to prove? It was like, “OK, I’m Nergal at the age of 30 [Nergal’s age when he recorded “The Apostasy” in 2007]. I have something to prove.” But these days I’m like, “Nah.” It’s totally about the vibe and the groove. Some of the stuff is really simple but I must say there’s a lot of heart and emotion there and that’s really what matters to me these days.
“Solve” and “Coagvla” are the opening and closing tracks. These are instrumental pieces with organ and very different for Behemoth.
Yeah, there’s organ in “Solve” and choirs and orchestration in “Coagvla.” We’ve got these two musical forms that were specially made to open and close the record.
Would you want to write other instrumental music like this?
No, no, no. It was just for this album’s purpose. At this very stage, you can’t really draw any conclusions like, “Oh, I kind of feel a sense of what direction the band’s gonna develop on the next record.” First of all, I don’t know if there’s gonna be the next record because no one knows that. I know I gave my very best on I Loved You At Your Darkest. I’d rather just focus on the present day and give my very best to promote the record, to push the record and do not disturb my attention thinking about what happens in two, three or four years. I don’t care really. I just care about what is now.
That makes a lot of sense. Finally a few questions from the readers. You can save one guitar, one amp and one effects pedal from a fire in order to play a gig. What do you save?
I’d go for the Gretsch White Falcon. It is the most beautiful and stunning instrument I’ve seen in my life. It has a soul. Some Vox amps, which would work with the guitar well and a solid cable. You don’t really need much. Maybe a boost but if you have two tools like this combined together, you’re ready to play beautifully.
If you could put together your dream band of musicians from guys living or dead, who would you pick?
I’ll give you the idea I’ve had for quite some time and I’ve already approached the people I’m gonna mention. It is a dream idea but I’d really like to pull it off. I’d have Rob Halford singing over some music I’d like to make together with Ihsahn from Emperor. That would be amazing.
You’ve approached these guys?
Yeah, we’ve been talking already so it’s cool. It’s all about the logistics so we’ll see.
What is an instrument you cannot play but would love to learn?
Piano. I’d love to learn how to play piano and maybe incorporate that in other albums so live I could just switch from guitar to piano.
If you could take one guitar lesson from any guitar player, who would it be?
He’s your guy?
I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking about it; it just came up naturally. He’s a revolutionary guitar player. He’s still alive so it may be possible to get a lesson. [Laughs]
Were you a big Zep fan?
No, never. I mean I become one eventually but I’ve always been a Sabbath kind of guy, OK? I’ve always been a Sabbath and Maiden kind of person rather than Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. I was aware of them and listening to some of the stuff but I was never a diehard. But in the recent five years, I’d say Led Zeppelin grew on me totally. Getting Zeppelin is like drinking whiskey—it really has to grow on you to appreciate the taste of good whiskey. You know what I mean?
Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
There’s a few records and I don’t remember exactly which one was first. I think the first cassette was from the Polish band Kat or Turbo.
Did you have access to American and English bands in Poland?
No. There were no stores where you could just go and buy Maiden or Judas Priest. There was no way there was a release date that you could get it there the same day. Poland was unlike the rest of the world in that sense. Eventually, someone months later would bring it over from behind the Iron Curtain on vinyl and then he would just copy it on cassette and probably charging money from people. That’s how people would make money back then. Or there were two radio programs once a week that would play the whole record from start to finish.
That’s pretty unbelievable.
It was a very common thing in a Communist time, which was something unheard of in the civilized world because they respect the publishing rights and stuff. Back in the day, the Communists were like barbarians because they wouldn’t have to pay anyone so they could play the whole record because they wouldn’t give a fuck. But because of that and me as an eight- or nine- or 10-year old kid, you could listen to Metallica, Venom, Sabbath through this radio program.
Do you remember your first guitar?
Yes, of course. It was custom-made but it wasn’t like a super professional instrument. It was a guitar that was partly done by my father’s co-workers in the shipyard. It was done from my brother’s friend and then I bought the guitar from him at the age of 8 and it was an electric guitar. My first acoustic guitar was some wreck acoustic piece that my father who was probably drinking with his buddies won it playing cards or something. Really shitty though, hahaha.
What was your first real electric guitar?
I don’t remember to be honest.
What type of guitar did you play when Behemoth first started?
I played some shitty guitar from some local brand and nothing really very professional. Really, really bad instruments in the very beginning. Now I’m trying to figure out what was my first good guitar but I don’t remember. We just borrowed guitars and when I had a show I’d borrow a guitar. There was a guy who had a studio and he owned an Ibanez and the fact it was an Ibanez everyone worshipped it.
Was it a good guitar?
No, it’s like today. Most of those guitars out there were cheap Chinese or Asian mass production and they’re not really good for professional players. They might be good for when you’re starting, yeah, it’s cool.
Thank you. Play all the good notes.
I try. [Laughs] Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.