Q&A: Leviathan’s Jef Whitehead On His Early Years, His Future, & Scar Sighted + “Gardens Of Coprolite” (Stereogum Premiere)
It’s hard to remember a world where every type of music imaginable wasn’t available at the click of a mouse, but it’s the world we lived in just 15 years ago. If you were a fan of black metal in the late ’90s and early ’00s, you had to work to find the music. Part of the thrill was the chase to find albums that flew far under the radar. If you were a black metal musician, your work was distributed via word-of-mouth, through a small cabal of die-hard fans and in the right record shops. The earliest black metal bands in the states — Profanatica and Von — were defunct at that point. So the music was largely made by a small collection of iconoclasts: Neill Jameson of Krieg, Judas Iscariot, Blake Judd of Nachtmystium, Scott Connor of Xasthur, and Jef Whitehead of Leviathan. Whitehead, a successful tattoo artist and onetime skateboarder, used the name Wrest.
Whitehead, also responsible for the visionary Lurker Of Chalice project, was among the most guarded of these artists and refused to give interviews. In a twist only possible with digital media, one of metal’s hermits later became a headline. While working in Chicago four years ago, he was charged with sexually assaulting his then-girlfriend in a case notable for lurid details. The state dropped 28 of those charges and Whitehead was found not guilty of the remaining counts except for one aggravated domestic battery charge. That subject has been covered at length, with varying adherence to the facts, but if you’re interested in learning more about it, you won’t find a more detailed account than this Chicago Reader story. (Whitehead does not want to comment on the case.)
Whitehead has since charted a different course. He became a father of a daughter, Grail, with his girlfriend, fellow artist and musician Stevie Floyd (of the bands Dark Castle and Taurus). He relocated to Oregon. He has worked to reclaim the Leviathan name after years of problems with early labels and bootleggers, and to ensure his material is released as intended. And he finished Scar Sighted, an album that is the follow-up listeners were hoping for after the pivotal Massive Conspiracy Against All Life.
There’s been little talk about how all this started in the first place — Whitehead’s life in the two-plus decades before he embraced black metal. We talked to him about his roots, his new record, and his life in Oregon. Plus, we’re premiering a track from Scar Sighted called “Gardens Of Coprolite,” which you can hear while you read.
STEREOGUM: Until I watched the Vice documentary One Man Metal, I never knew you were a sponsored skateboarder.
WHITEHEAD: I was a sponsored amateur. I started skating when I was 12 or 13 and it was all I wanted to do. I lived in San Francisco and moved back to Santa Cruz. There was a small public park and I skated it every day like it was a job. I ended up moving back to San Francisco when I was about 17 and skated every day and went to high school with a few dudes that went pro. I skated for a shop called Concrete Jungle owned by Ron Posner, the guitarist of MDC [Millions Of Dead Cops]. It was a blast.
STEREOGUM: What did you like about?
WHITEHEAD: The creativity, the freedom, expressing yourself. Now it’s kind of a business — Red Bull and company sponsorships. I skateboarded for this team and I was pretty tight with this guy Jake [Phelps] who is the editor of Thrasher now. That was right around the time Licensed To Ill dropped and a lot of skaters got into hip-hop. But I hung out with the more punk-rock dudes. The street element had a “fuck you” [vibe] to it, and was about doing what you wanted every day.
STEREOGUM: When you were skating had you started working on your art and music, or did that come later?
WHITEHEAD: I was in a band called Home Brew with a kid I went to high school with who was in a really good punk band called the Afflicted. Home Brew was like post-punk — we didn’t even know what to call it. [The band] was punks and hippies — San Francisco natives. I doubt any of those dudes live in the city anymore because you need five jobs to buy a cup of coffee. Then I was in a band called GASM that was like a Chili Peppers thing. We were informed by everything from the Doobie Brothers to Bow Wow Wow. It was just kind of party time, a free-for-all. I actually listened to GASM a few months ago and it is very dated. It does not hold up. But we played a lot of shows in San Francisco.
STEREOGUM: When did you start training to tattoo?
WHITEHEAD: In 1991, I left San Francisco for Southern California for a year or so. I was living in Huntington Beach and skated with this guy who was starting to tattoo. And I was willing to trade him for tattoos. He tried to do this Celtic thing that looked horrible and is under another tattoo now. I ended up getting an “apprenticeship,” which I’d put quotes on [laughs]. The shop was in Berkeley. I’d been obsessed with tattoos since way before high school. I used to go to the shop in the Lower Haight and was awestruck.
STEREOGUM: You spent a lot of time in San Francisco right before the city was gentrified.
WHITEHEAD: [Gentrification] started happening really hard around 1996. I seriously know two people in San Francisco that are still there and that’s because they inherited houses from their folks. Everyone else is in Oakland, or here [Oregon]. Last time I was there it was a bummer. I’ll always have a spot in my heart for that skyline. All of the cool things that were happening are gone and it’s a shame.
STEREOGUM: Were you doing well enough that you were able to get by when you still lived in the city?
WHITEHEAD: I was fine. In 1996 I was established and had a clientele and was busy. I was just frittering away most of my money on my music. I was drawing and making music. I had my bedroom and a music room. I left in the end of 2006 and moved to Oakland. Probably until about two years ago I thought I’d be back, but the last time I was there … it’s not the same.
STEREOGUM: Given some of the stuff that happened in San Francisco that you’ve discussed previously, some of those memories weren’t happy.
WHITEHEAD: Whatever, it’s life. Mine is a story. It’s not the worst story by any means. I went through some incredible trials and tribulations there. But I don’t think about that when I go there. I think about losing my mind on LSD and skating in Golden Gate Park or seriously skating from the Cliff House to 20th and Mission. That’s what I remember. There was a Jim Jones Temple right on Fillmore and we would break in and take plywood and put it against the stage to make ramps. That would probably be against the Patriot Act now. The Jim Jones atrocities only became interesting to me later.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to get your take on some of the aggrieved people online upset about the Decibel cover photo.
WHITEHEAD: What’s going on?
STEREOGUM: Some people said it wasn’t very black metal.
WHITEHEAD: I got a text this morning I think that was about this. People are saying this isn’t black metal, really? Are these people in bands?
STEREOGUM: Most of them don’t seem to identify themselves by name.
WHITEHEAD: There you go. Get off of Mom’s computer. If you are a musician I’ll listen to you, but if you aren’t, I don’t care what you have to say. I don’t need some fucking kid in his 20s telling me what black metal is. I don’t want to go on a tangent. I’m often not into doing interviews because you are never in control of how you are perceived. I’m just trying to promote a record. And my new record isn’t black metal. There’s a lot of other stuff in there. Purists have always said, “This isn’t black metal,” but I will never try to keep rehashing [old sounds]. I’d feel corny staying in some guidelines. That’s not free. People can say what they want. People texted me saying they were defending me and I was like: “Why are you online arguing with people?” I went through a phase of doing Facebook but I don’t have time do it anymore. I have a kid and we’re doing merch ourselves.
STEREOGUM: A lot of these people probably weren’t around when you were among the few people doing this in the States in the late ’90s.
WHITEHEAD: I read interviews with bands and they have a bunch of magic books. And they play the same shit we’ve been hearing for 20 years. I guess you can do that. I guess it’s kult? I like music that is always in the bargain bin and always buy one-man bands.
STEREOGUM: Do you still get the same feeling looking for new black metal as you did in the beginning or has it changed?
WHITEHEAD: The whole time I was in Chicago, unless a friend showed me something, I didn’t search. Now I can’t fritter away $200 bucks on records. But lately I’ve found some bands that are kicking my ass, that are new and fresh. They give me hope and it’s inspiring and a lot of it is from this label in Sweden called Ancient Records.
STEREOGUM: What about the label speaks to you?
WHITEHEAD: It’s different and a lot of the bands use clean tones. A lot of it sounds Swedish. And a lot of it is like a band is rehearsing and a homeless guy with Tourette’s just walked in. It’s just magic. I’m really obsessed with it and it’s starting to bother people around me [laughs].
STEREOGUM: What was your mindset when you started working on Scar Sighted?
WHITEHEAD: As always, to write something someone will listen to more than once and write something that makes sense to me. I also lyrically wanted to get some ideas out. I’ve written about death quite a bit. I don’t want to give anything away but it was a chance for me to send hails out to things I’ve done before. My girlfriend Stevie [Floyd] is from Florida so, needless to say, a lot of death metal is played in our house, and you might hear that. I want to get to a point where I have the freedom to go play drums in my boxers. In the late ’90s and early ’00s all I did was make music. I have a box of tapes and CD-Rs and we’re hoping to release that this year — a big vinyl box set. It could be three to five records of music people haven’t heard.
STEREOGUM: Did Stevie have any ideas to help shape the record?
WHITEHEAD: She had suggestions. She just let me have my space and do my thing. We’re working on something together called Devout and it’s different than what either of us have done. But I think people will recognize our voices. She was instrumental, very supportive. Nothing in my life would be going on right now if it wasn’t for her.
STEREOGUM: How did producer Billy Anderson contribute?
WHITEHEAD: He’s an original. I used to see him around San Francisco but I didn’t meet him until he was doing sound for Agalloch. He’s been responsible for so many legendary records. He’s also fast and works hard and is still excited about things; you would think he’d be jaded but he’s not. It’s hard to write sad music around him because he’s hilarious. A lot of ideas of the record were from him; he really likes doing samples. And the way we sequenced it was all him. Hopefully he will work with me again, if he has time.
STEREOGUM: When you write music as Leviathan, do drums come in your head first?
WHITEHEAD: A lot of the old stuff on four-track, I’d play drums for four or five minutes and then write stuff over the drums. With Scar Sighted the songs were in my head beforehand. The riff from “Dawn Vibration” was actually from 2003 or so. There aren’t recycled but reinvestigated riffs that I put in there — and a lot was brand new.
STEREOGUM: When you first met to talk about this project Anderson knew your catalog, correct?
WHITEHEAD: I guess he did but he never told me. He’s worked with High On Fire and Neurosis and I didn’t think he’d fuck around with low-fi blackened expressions. I like black meal clean but not super polished because it loses the grit. He came over to my place and talked about it briefly. He didn’t know how I worked, that it’s all in my head and I chip away at it. I didn’t feel rushed.
STEREOGUM: In addition to running your label, Profound Lore, Chris Bruni has been one of your most steadfast backers personally and professionally. What did that support mean to you?
WHITEHEAD: Everything. Chris is an interesting guy. You can tell by his roster that he has good taste. And he’s always turning me on to things. He’s obsessed with music and I think the creepier the better. Chris approached me to do Tentacles [Of Whorror] on vinyl and that’s how we started talking. He’s one of those guys who has always done what he says he will do. I’m sure you know my experience with labels before — I’ve been fucked. That’s one of the reasons we are going to do the vinyl ourselves. We spent a long time on the record and I’m neurotic if I have the chance to be.
STEREOGUM: What do you enjoy about fatherhood?
WHITEHEAD: Being around someone who is completely open with no bullshit or defense mechanism, someone who is just bright and open. She [daughter Grail] had some yams this morning and it was amazing. Just watching someone grow makes you face your mortality. I’m 46. Just watching her inspect her toys is a life-changer. It’s made me a more responsible person. I can’t afford to lose my mind and go on a two-week tear.
STEREOGUM: Kids can intuitively do something adults have forgotten, which is experience the moment.
WHITEHEAD: I think they can see things in our surroundings that we aren’t open to. She is in tune with things we are too closed to figure out.
Scar Sighted is out 3/3 via Profound Lore.