Q&A: Bölzer On Psychedelic Drugs, St. Anger, And What’s Up With Those Swastika Tattoos
The eternal contrast between gradations of dark and light is one of life’s great dualities. That which seems permissible under the cover of darkness feels transgressive in the daylight, and as I discovered this past weekend, the hedonistic excesses of the night feel even more raw and exposed when bathed in the milky glow of a midnight sun.
Let me set the scene for you: I’m in Neskaupstaður, a remote town on the east side of Iceland that’s nestled by the looming specter of the Norðfjörður fjord and sports a robust population of 1,437. Every July, this sleepy hollow is overrun by scores of music fans hellbent on soaking up every last intoxicating drop of Eistnaflug, Iceland’s biggest (and only) multi-day metal fest. The organizers always pepper their broad lineup of homegrown Icelandic talent with a smattering of international guests, and 2014 featured appearances from At The Gates, Havok, Zatokrev … and last-minute additions Bölzer. Judging from the response the commanding Swiss duo got from the roaring crowd of diehards and drunkards who greeted their death metal machinations, whomever greenlighted that particular decision knew what they were doing.
It’s hard to contest Bölzer’s status as one of 2014’s biggest extreme metal success stories. Ever since the release of 2013’s Aura EP sent shockwaves through the community and the band started utterly destroying every festival and foreign gig they encountered (including a holy-shit tear through Maryland Deathfest this year), the hype around them has been rising to alarming heights. With the imminent release of their excellent new Soma EP, it’s reached a fever pitch.
Knowing how down-to-earth guitarist/vocalist Okoi “KzR” Jones and drummer Fabian “HzR” Wyrsch are, and how strange the outpouring of attention must feel for them, I thought it’d be a smart idea to ask a few questions before they jetted back home to Zurich. We met up at the festival venue’s restaurant, and quickly realized that the evening would be much improved by stronger booze. A short stumble down the block to their friend’s hotel room solved that problem. Red wine flowed, a campy British sitcom playing mutely on the TV, and someone was fucking in the bathroom. By now it was about 3AM, and the sky was still lit up like a cloudy afternoon in New York City, albeit amidst much more spectacular scenery.
With crying seagulls and drunken Icelandic banter as a backdrop, Okoi and I retired to the balcony for more wine and loose-tongued ruminations on the music business, the cosmic themes behind their latest release, and what role his swastika tattoos play in all of it.
STEREOGUM: Some bands are into psychedelics, and it shows in their music. Some bands do loads of speed, and it shows in their music. You guys aren’t exactly Puritans. Does your own substance use have any impact on the music you make with Bölzer?
KzR: Indirectly yeah, I think so. We love to drink, we like to enjoy ourselves in a hedonistic way, and we also like drugs, psychedelics especially because they open your mind. So any experiences we have had with drugs definitely influence us as people and will obviously influence the music too, especially in my lyrics and just the way I see the world. Music for me, creating the music we do, is a drug in itself. It’s a form of escapism, it’s like a meditation or sort of ritual when we’re playing live. You channel certain things that you’ve experienced before through the music and whenever you delve in substances again it just sort of creates this big connection.
STEREOGUM: I’ve seen you play a bunch of times now, and it always feels very primal. Your whole presentation is very visceral; you’ve got your shirt off, you’ve got the Cronos-angled mic, Fabian is back there bashing the skins. It all feels very real, and I think people really connect to that because it looks like you’re playing your balls off.
KzR: That’s interesting you say that because that is important for us. Everything you said is exactly correct, that’s the way we see our music, our performance. That’s the way we’d like to be perceived, I guess if we’d like to be perceived as anything, if it’s being looked at in a vanity sense, we just want to be honest and what we play is completely honest. We write what we feel, in terms of effort and song writing and structuring, anything in terms of aesthetics and symbolism, it’s very visceral like you said. It’s very human. Our whole theme is very human, it’s not about demons.
STEREOGUM: I was reading the promo sheet for the new EP, which is brilliant, and it said that while Aura focused on male energy, Soma focuses on its female counterpart. Could you tell me a little more about it? It seems like you’re focusing on very personal themes in a very cosmic sort of way.
KzR: It’s all the things that interest me as a writer, I’m speaking from my perspective now, as a lyric writer and the main songwriter. All things that interest me in general like mythology and ancient cultures, there’s a large emphasis put on what you are as a human being, the power you have, the weaknesses that you have, the dualism is integrated like male and female, dark and light and all of the different juxtapositions in life. That’s what interests me because that’s what it means to be living, so I like to differently play with that in the musical arena. The two EPs that we released are a concept package meant to complement each other and contrast each other, so with the male Aura and the female Soma, there’s a very lunar solar-orientated concept and it covers a lot of things that I think about, like being a man and being a person who is interested in things you don’t see firsthand. That’s what’s important for me, as well as the obvious.
STEREOGUM: In metal, we’re so used to hearing about Satan and demons and whatnot, and it’s all sort of been done. You’re part of a newish vanguard of extreme metal bands that are reaching for something different, like Cult Of Fire, Sheol, or Tribulation for example. It seems like a reaction to how inherently boring metal can be when left to its own devices, when it’s not challenged.
KzR: Oh yeah absolutely, I agree with you. All of the names you just mentioned, they’re all people who are creative and are fully aware of the metal roots. They’re all very well-versed in all of the metal bands who have created the base in the past, but they want to do something fresh, they want to stimulate themselves. As an artist you have to do the utmost you can to discover yourself and your creativity, I think that’s really important. It’s not just adhering to the so-called rules of the time.
STEREOGUM: You guys definitely break the rules. You’ve told me previously about how you’re happy to stay with Iron Bonehead and Invictus Productions, underground labels that have supported you since the beginning, instead of jumping ship to one of the biggest labels that have come knocking as of late. Like so much of your approach with Bölzer, that’s not a very typical move. Why are you sticking with this approach?
KzR: It’s a valid question and it comes down to a number of reasons, actually. Primarily because we’re working with friends and close comrades who have done a lot themselves to get themselves off of their feet, to create their own labels and distros and what not, and we’ve befriended them in the past and they’ve supported us. We want to support them back. It’s not just a working relationship, it’s a friendship before business or anything like that. The secondary reason is definitely that that’s never been an attractive thing if you’re aware of how the music industry functions on a larger level. I’ve never wanted or desired to be a part of that. My father is a musician too, and I’ve heard a lot of stories from him about his difficulties in the past.
STEREOGUM: Was he in a band?
KzR: He’s a solo artist, and he’s been doing it all his life, like 40 years.
STEREOGUM: So you sort of know what you’re in for.
KzR: Well, he definitely told me a lot of things, before I was even interested in getting my band anywhere. He told me all these stories and I saw it firsthand because my mother sort of took over managerial duties for him and I was always there. I knew how difficult it was for him, and how often he was away on the road playing gigs and not making much money. A record label took all the rights to his music in the early stages because he wasn’t aware of what he had to do to maintain his rights, and all that shit. For me, major record labels were never attractive. If you look at the old bands, speaking strictly metal now for example, or rock and roll, it was like goal number one was to get signed to a major label and all of these young kids, they didn’t know what happened behind the curtains, for them it was just like being part of the machine.
STEREOGUM: Usually it went wrong.
KzR: Yeah, usually it went wrong, exactly. Financially they lost I don’t know how much money, and secondly I think their music suffered negatively as well.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny, I think you would get some backlash if you signed to a bigger label, especially now. So often when a band tries to advance and sign to a bigger label, fans get so pissed off about it like, “Oh, they sold out, I’m not a fan anymore.”
KzR: That’s another issue that actually gets me worked up. Bands that are really truly dedicated to their art, and all they want to do is express themselves, and I truly believe most bands do that, even the fan perspective is always biased and it’s always flooded with different emotions. It’s just not reliable and the artist, fuck man, they do whatever they want. You are not them, they are not you, everyone is their own person and everything is subjective, so fuck it man. If a band wants to do what they want, they do it, I don’t care. I can understand fans getting worked up about their favorite band in the world taking a direction they never expected, but I mean man, what the hell?
STEREOGUM: You don’t know them, they don’t owe you anything.
KzR: Especially if the artist starts to realize that people are becoming reliant on their certain style of doing things, then they’re probably going to want to change just for the hell of it, because no one wants to be a cliché.
STEREOGUM: We’ve got the blueprints but there’s no reason to just blindly follow them unless you want to be an Incantation clone.
KzR: As much as I want to hate something like St. Anger for example, as much as I hate that record, not even having to listen through it once, I can still give respect to Metallica. Who cares, man. They can do whatever they want.
STEREOGUM: When guys put out the Roman Acupuncture demo the people that heard it were definitely stoked, but then you put out Aura and things got kind of crazy. I mean, we’re in fucking Iceland looking at a fjord drinking red wine, it’s a bit different from 2012, isn’t it? Why do you think you were the band and Aura was the record and that was the time that sort of just made everything pop off? You’re doing so well, and to a lot of newer fans, it seems as though Bölzer came out of nowhere fully formed, like you sprung out of Zeus’ forehead.
KzR: I think it’s a number of factors that are playing a role in the full thing. I had a band previously, so it’s not like my first band or anything, and I was really aware of wanting to create something which I could be proud of creating. Or I just wanted to create something which was very true to myself, so it was my own critique which was coming into question. So, I started that with Fabian, things started to work out well, we were happy with the material, we decided to just make a tape and release it ourselves, we happened to know some of the right people because we went to a lot of festivals and were talking with people. As luck would have it, talking to the right people we got to know Darragh [Invictus Productions] and Patrick [Iron Bonehead] and things took off from there. I think the fact that we’re a duo definitely plays a role in the whole thing as well. There are not many, especially you only have Inquisition, and maybe one or two others as well, it’s starting to move into doom and progressive and sludge and stuff with other duo bands.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of the huge sound, you’ve got a pretty unique set up. There’s so much going on and you sound so huge. Could you tell me what’s going on there?
KzR: I tune to B, just straight B. I split my guitar signal, I play a 10-string guitar. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, a B.C. Rich Bitch. It’s a custom shop model from the ’80s. Dave Mustaine used to play a Bitch, but he just left the four strings that you can double up, he left them out because it was a really cool, metal cut guitar for that time. I got myself one of them because I love what the 12-string brings in an acoustic arena: a really full chorus sound, you can play really simple chords and they sound huge. I’ve always loved it and I thought, “Wow, I’d love to do that in an electrical form.” I got wind of the 10-string B.C. Rich Bitch, tried one out and managed to find a really nice one from the ’80s and bought it. Then we started playing, just the two of us. We actually tried out two or three bassists when we started out, and it just didn’t work. The energy Fabian and I have wasn’t shared with a third member, and we just thought, “Man, fuck, let’s just try to do it double because the riffs I’m writing are just becoming bigger anyway, and I know what I want to do, I think I can do it without a bassist.”
STEREOGUM: How long have you guys known each other?
KzR: Seven years? Almost seven years. We just started carrying on as a duo, then I started making my setup bigger. I started using a three-way splitter to run the signal through two guitar heads and a bass head simultaneously. That’s basically the setup, with a lot of emphasis on the songwriting part, naturally. So we write as a duo and we know we’re a duo and we know we’re a live band, so when I write the riffs I make sure that it is a full-sounding ordeal. I still think it’s in its early stages. I’m never happy with anything but I really want to improve the setup and make it very imposing.
STEREOGUM: You guys are really are still in the early stages, which is mad when you think about all the progress you’ve made in the past couple years. So, now you’ve got Soma coming out in August and you’re going to reissue the Roman Acupuncture demo too, right?
KzR: Patrick from Iron Bonehead will be doing the vinyl of Roman Acupuncture, and Darragh will be doing the CD because we like to share the duties, and Patrick is primarily vinyl-oriented and he’s our major dude at the moment. We work with both and Darragh’s doing Soma on vinyl, which sort of balances everything out. The album is going to be released through Iron Bonehead.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any plans for U.S. distribution? You’ve got such a European-focused outfit, and clearly they do just fine, but have you given any thought to setting up a North American branch to get the record out there?
KzR: The idea is that with the debut album next year, we’re going to do that all ourselves with Patrick and he’s strongly convinced that he can cover the duties so I’m sure he can.
STEREOGUM: He is a smart man.
KzR: We want to do as much as we can ourselves, by our own means.
STEREOGUM: You’re like the Frank Sinatra of death metal.
KzR: You never know if you don’t try, so we’re going to go for it despite all of the offers that we have from other people. As I said at the beginning, we want to stick with our close friends.
STEREOGUM: That’s the easiest way to not get fucked over, and it’s really easy to get fucked over.
KzR: You get fucked over really quick and I don’t want to be fucked over by a person I don’t know. That would be the worst aspect of it, because I would kill him anyway, but going NATO on a guy you don’t even know, you start to realize what a fucking idiot you are for even getting into that kind of shit — you don’t even know the guy and you’re dealing with him and money and all that bullshit. Fuck that. I want to work with people I know and respect and that’s it.
STEREOGUM: I think a lot of bands are dazzled by the thought of big labels, but at the end of the day, they don’t care about you. You’re a sales figure. That’s why so many bands fall apart, because they don’t have anybody on their side and they’re surrounded by sharks.
KzR: Yeah, surrounded by sharks. That’s the most important factor of the whole thing, we’re not interested in becoming a blown-up name, an inflated name for a short period of time that appears on whatever magazine and whatever festival and whatever connection with other bands and labels and names. That’s of no interest to us whatsoever. We want to build ourselves up from the bottom and just do as well as we can. That’s all we want to do and the integrity is very important to us so we’re aware of what will happen if we decided to go another way and take up some of the offers we’ve been given and who knows if you don’t produce something that’s desired or expected, you just get spat out and forgotten about and you’ve lost every aspect of integrity you hoped to have earned. We have much more freedom this way, we can do everything we want to, everything. No matter what labels tell you, there’s always a hook. We don’t have that, so I’m happy about that.
STEREOGUM: I hope some younger bands read this, they could learn a thing or two from you guys, or rather, learn a couple of things from your dad.
KzR: He taught me to be a healthy cynic, that’s important.
STEREOGUM: Are there any other details you can give me that you’re okay with having public? You’re planning to do the full length in spring 2015, right?
KzR: Yes. What we’re going to do is go record in New Zealand with Cameron Sinclair, who did the mastering for both EPs and many other bands. He is a close friend and my favorite audio engineer because he’s a fucking genius. Anything he does is gold because he has a passion for it and he works with it until it’s finished and as it should be. He’s also critical, which is rare in this area of music, where I don’t think people are critical enough.
STEREOGUM: He did the new Diocletian, and that’s clean and filthy at the same time.
KzR: He makes big, imposing recordings sound the way they should be. We’re not interested in pop recordings that sound massive, there’s too much money involved. It’s as you said, it’s filthy and huge and beautiful at the same time. That’s it. The idea is to do a small tour on the way to New Zealand hopefully touching over Australia, perhaps Japan but things are in planning, and then after we’ll play a few gigs in New Zealand after recording, and then go over to America.
STEREOGUM: For a tour?
KzR: For a small tour, yeah. We’re working with people to organize that.
STEREOGUM: I have one more question. I wanted to talk about your tattoos, specifically the swastikas and sunwheels. I know you and I know what you’re about, but not everyone who sees you play has that background. I want to just get it all out there before anyone sees a picture of you and makes assumptions. So. What’s up with the swastikas?
KzR: Please, I’m very happy you asked me because only a few people have asked me in interviews and I’m more than happy to tell people because I don’t want to be misunderstood. My sunwheels, my swastikas, my whatever you call them, it’s an ancient symbol used by basically every culture on this planet at some time or another for more or less the same reason, to express their adoration for the sun, the solar power. Most of them were sun-worshipping peoples, or held respect for the balance of the sun. It’s also a lunar symbol in itself for the sun cultures. Its right or left form reversed is a lunar symbol, too, and it’s a female as well as a male symbol; it represents a lot of different energies. It’s a continuum, it can be a destructive force, it takes a lot of natural philosophies into one. If you read about it, it’s really fascinating.
STEREOGUM: The way you describe it, it makes so much sense in regards to the themes on Aura and Soma. There’s a huge thread running throughout your life that you recorded on wax and on your arms.
KzR: My two arms are dualities in themselves. For example, my hands are tattooed the way I use them. For me, my striking hand is on the guitar and my female creative hand is on the fretboard. They’re all thing that I’m aware of and that I’d like to accentuate, and so my tattoos do that. These tattoos are meant to do that, they’re meant to bring you a connection to yourself through vivid symbolism, to make yourself aware of what you are and what you belong to. That is the purpose of a tattoo, the way it always used to be. It channels energy and it almost emits it. I’m all about that, I’m all about channeling what you’re supposed to be as a human being. You’re supposed to do that, you’re not supposed to just exist. You’re meant to pass on things, you’re meant to create or destroy and be a part of some kind of change or movement.
STEREOGUM: It also recently dawned on me that the title of your much-loved song “Entranced By The Wolfshook” is actually referencing the wolf’s hook symbol, which has got a very heavy history of usage by the Nazis as well as in Hermann Löns’ book Der Wehrwolf and by forestry workers in Germany. You even incorporate the wolf’s hook into the Bölzer logo itself. Can you tell me why you decided to highlight that particular symbol?
KzR: Indeed, man’s lusting for power is as a wolf’s for meat … often leading to self destruction. For us the wolf’s hook, or Wolfsangel, is one of the many symbols of antiquity to become caustically stigmatized as a result of their usage within a fascist-era Europe, something we are soberingly aware of but do not condone. Enough systematic cultural lobotomization has taken place in the past to make any such further demonization of values and symbolism acceptable within a modern and supposedly tolerant society. We promote the growth and enlightenment of the individual, the last thing on our agenda would be to glorify the implements of power involved in the collective enslavement of a people and their individualism. Fascism and racism in that sense are pretty unattractive for us.
Bölzer’s Soma EP is out 8/5 via Invictus.