Often, mystery is mistaken by depth, which makes it all the more refreshing to find artists whose ideas only get richer upon dissection. Such is the case with the idiosyncratic way that Utrecht based outfit Grey Aura approaches black metal, combining it with literature, jazz, flamenco, and audio theater. Earlier this year, on March 4, the band released «2: De bezwijkende deugd» through Tartarus Records, the second installment in a series of demos based on «De protodood in zwarte haren», a novel written by the band’s guitarist and vocalist Ruben Wijlacker, which was released around the same time. Broadly speaking, the novel tells the story of Pedro, “a young painter who is engulfed by radical modernism and an unquenchable desire for abstraction.” The quote is taken from this location, where you can find a longer description of the novel.
While the core of the interview below focuses on both demos and associated book, we touch upon the previous stages of the band’s career. With that in mind, let us briefly establish that context. Grey Aura was formed in 2010, released the «Candlesmoke» EP in 2012 and followed that with the «Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort» full-length in 2014, an historical representation of final voyage to Asia by Willem Barentsz in 1596 that has subsequently been added to the Dutch National Library in The Hague in 2016, the same year it saw a physical release by Blood Music. A more extended biography can be found here, whereas the story behind the full-length release can be read at this location.
We sat down in an Utrecht cafe with two of the band’s members, namely, Wijlacker and guitarist Tjebbe Broek, and began by asking about the starting point for such an ambitious project. “It was supposed to be both a book and a recording right from the beginning,” Wijlacker tells us, further expanding on the concept’s inception “I kind of started having the idea of writing a book about an artist or an artistic movement when we were still busy with our first album,” before precising that the work on the book and subsequent releases began around 2015. Two years later, the band released «1: Gelige, traumatische zielsverrukking», at first independently and later through The Throat. By that time, “the main story was done and we knew what the songs were going to be about, but it wasn’t fully done.” In fact, he was still working on the final chapter and general editing by the time «2: De bezwijkende deugd» went to press.
Given that we are considering music very closely tied together with another artistic medium, we wondered how they approached songwriting for these songs. Broek tells us that “the first idea is to think about what kind of atmosphere and story we want. For each song, we think what part of the story we want to express and the next step is playing riffs and writing guitar parts,” with Wijlacker adding that “we barely ever jam. We always start by thinking that we want to write about something specific or to channel a certain atmosphere. That’s the first part, getting into the right atmosphere, getting the story right.” The suggestion of a story-board like approach to songwriting is then confirmed, first by Broek stating that “even more concrete than the atmosphere is to say, for example, this is the part where Pedro comes to Paris and is entering the hotel,” and then explicitly by Wijlacker, “we’re basically writing scenes.”
Both novel and records begin in Jerez de La Frontera, Spain, in 1924, with Pedro fleeing “north after his family is brutally murdered by a loan shark. He joins a seemingly joyful French couple he meets on a train to Bobadilla and travels to Paris,” (source) the setting of the second demo. At the inception of «1: Gelige, traumatische zielsverrukking», we are treated with mournful flamenco singing by Falu de Cádiz. While that led us to imagine a sort of funereal representation of the main character’s recent loss, Broek explains that “in general, this kind of flamenco style that the singer is using tends to deal with those kinds of themes, but what is being sung is not necessarily related to the assassinations of the story,” with Wijlacker adding that “we included it because we already knew that this particular style of flamenco is relatively dark and we wanted to get the whole dark, Spanish atmosphere across. We didn’t necessarily connect it to the murders.” This atmosphere driven approach, connected with the album’s lyrics, suggests that the music represents the story as it unfolds in Pedro’s mind, with the first demo ending at the point of the novel in which he is on a train directed to Paris. Wijlacker tell us that “it basically starts off with him getting on the train, right after his family is murdered, trying to escape and feeling very confused and scared. Then, it is more about his feelings, but there are multiple layers so it’s hard to explain. It was written intentionally like that. On the one hand, there is the direct story, just the separate scenes, and then on the other hand there is a certain flow of emotional, spiritual, and artistic abstraction. We wanted to use the story to get the undercurrent in there.”
The centerpiece of that first release, whose underlying story can be found here, «Dialoog & Improvisatie: Ontmoeting met het roofdier», contains a passage of audio theater depicting the meeting of Pedro and Béatrice Charron, in which this emotional undercurrent comes to the fore with Pedro lying about himself, “he is a bit paranoid because his parents were murdered by a loan shark and he is worried that he’s coming after him and therefore tries to alter the story a bit,” Wijlacker explains, before we ask him why is it that, already on the second demo, Pedro seems scared of Claire Sophie Petit, a Wallonian poet he meets in Paris (a summary of the story behind the second demo can be found here). This leads to our conversation finally centering on the «Black Square», the 1915 suprematist painting by Kazimir Malevich. “The whole story is about the Black Square, that’s the focus point both in the book and the album. It’s a representation of abstraction and dematerialisation, not just for art, but for everything, it’s the ultimate form. In a way, Pedro is pulled towards this void by the different women he encounters along this journey. The first one, Béatrice, is very intimidating in a way. She’s very open, very sexual, very loud and present, and it kind of frightens him. After a while, he meets Chauchat,” the in-story nickname of Claire Petit, whose more introverted personality makes her “more interesting to him, so he feels more at ease with her.” There is an overarching ambiguity about whether or not these characters are “puppets of the black square, pulling him towards this intensity of the void. I’m leaving it open whether or not that is the case or if he’s just being paranoid and loosing in mind. In his eyes at least, Béatrice was a first test of the Black Square aspect that he was gravitating towards.”
As things currently stand, there is a stark transition between demos, from Broek’s flamenco on «Bulería (aftiteling)» to a sample of an interview of George Bataille in «Sonate», whose translation you can see below and which Wijlacker had stated represents a lot of Grey Aura’s philosophy. He answered our request for elaboration in a personal sense, “to me, what the whole quote represented and how it connects with our mentality with writing music is that it is very much a way to get something out of there, a cathartic experience, a self-cleansing so to speak. It’s not so through the topics you’re singing about, as I don’t believe in singing a sad love song to get over a heartbreak, but in this case it’s more about doing something really intense in order to feel something as intensely as possible and that way, somehow, rising over it, or maybe becoming one with it and taking it with you to grow. The music itself, and that applies to writing the lyrics too, is very much about getting a sort of intensity across in order to feed of it. The intensity itself becomes a thing.”
Interviewer: “It seems that happiness, for you, the greatest happiness is associated with the greatest intensity of perceived sensations.”
Bataille: “Well, let me just explain my thinking on that quickly: intense sensation is what destroys order. It’s essential that people manage to totally destroy the servile state they’re kept in, due to the fact that they built their world, the human world, a world I live in… A world that I live off, but which either way has a kind of charge to it, something infinitely heavy, that is found in all our anxieties, and that needs to be removed, one way or another. Certainly, I’d much more prefer to hear a sonata to having a gun being fired right next to my ear. The intensity is however even greater if I get an enormous noise like that in my ear, on purpose, just to annoy me. It appears to me then that it’s something invariable; that extremely intense sensations are very valuable, as long as we can tolerate them.”
It seems as if the story told through the music has been stripped down of most of the events and focuses on the feelings experienced by the character, particularly those that overwhelm him. thereby overloading the story to a point that it is the sequence of overwhelming events that becomes overwhelming in an of itself.
Having discussed the Bataille influence, we pressed Wijlacker to elaborate on the four other artists cited as influences to both book and records, beginning with Gustave Flaubert. “A lot of themes in the book and in the music are about the love, the addiction to love and the intensity that it brings with it. Specially in «Madame Bovary» by Flaubert, the protagonist of the story, Emma, has a lot of very strong urges and desires, and thereby looses herself in these desires and in the end dies due to them. It was very inspirational to me to read about a person who’s very much drowning in this intensity of love and actively seeking it out, feeding off it, but at the same time making the experience so overwhelming that she can’t bear it anymore. In a way, that’s what Flaubert brought to the table, that and the title of the second demo, which I also took from him.” This idea of being consumed by one’s desires seems to be at the heart of «Sierlijke schaduwmond», the last song of «2: De bezwijkende deugd», which he confirms, “absolutely. It’s funny because I hadn’t read Flaubert prior to starting the book. I was at about 75% of the writing when I read «Madame Bovary» and I thought it was perfect, that in a way there was a similar idea behind that story, and I liked it a lot.”
Another 19th century writer whose influenced is felt throughout Grey Aura’s work is Arthur Rimabud, who “is a very good example of someone who sought out limits and totally transgressed them in every possible way; not just in his work, but in his life as well. It’s something that is very much in common with what our protagonist, Pedro, does. He’s someone who’s very much obsessed with these notions of intensity. What I took from Rimbaud is this frantic, almost sickening urge to transgress. I still think that his work packs a punch today, but when it came out in the nineteenth century it must have been absolutely crazy, which I think is very inspiring.”
When we move on towards inquiring about the impact of painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, he laments that the novel has not yet been translated into English, “because I laid it out there. I integrated his philosophy into the story itself. It’s not so much like Flaubert or Rimbaud, who are more external influences that low-key crept into the lyrics. Kandinsky is much more of a central figure on the story told in the novel. He is, once again, about transgressing, going past limits that have been set by academic traditions. During his time, he was one of the first fully abstract artists. His ideas were in that sense very revolutionary and he added a spiritual element to art that I think had been lost at some point. He was one of the people that pointed out that we were loosing this spiritual element in art and proposed making it a central point of art again. This spiritual element is, on the one hand, secular, but on the other hand he does see art as a divine thing in itself.” It is indeed at this junction between art and connecting oneself with the sublime that Kandinsky’s work ties with the novel, “what he did was sort of a spiritual triangle, at the bottom of which were the masses and artists could rise up. There were various regions and at the very top was a seer like person, who would be enlightened by art and feed the people down the pyramid his spiritual bread. Pedro has this idea that he is a seer, that he is rising to the top, but that at the same time, he is not, it’s all an illusion. He’s reading Kandinsky, going crazy about it, thinking he might be some sort of messiah figure and he ends up in a really bad way. It’s something that lives in his mind.”
Due to the importance of the Black Square in the story, we asked about Malevich’s influence in the end, particularly focusing on if an eventual increment in abstraction should be expected in the adaptation of the novel’s latter stages. “As I said earlier, there is a sub-current of abstraction going on but it does not really come into the surface until later in the story, particularly in its second half, which is basically Pedro going insane and will be the subject of demos three and four.” At that point, we turn to Broek to ask how can a guitarist approach trying to conveying someone’s mental breakdown due to an obsession with abstraction, “it’s quite hard and a big difference between these demos and this story and what we did in the previous album, because that was just an historical event that we were portraying.” In that sense, it was as if they were scoring a film, “it was way more clear what we had to do, this is much more abstract.”
One way we can discern to tackle the issue is the progressive distortion of a motif, with certain passages sounding more and more tortuous. Wijlacker expands on the idea, saying it’s “also shifting compositionally, making certain transitions a little awkward or out of place. «Parijs is een portaal» is an example. Suddenly, it goes to this jazz environment and it gradually gets more disturbing and dark.” On that song, the same holds with regards to sudden shifts in vocal tone, as it flows towards a more anguished tone by the end. It highlights another element of this second demo, which is of an increment of performativity in the vocals, which Wijlacker tells us “was a conscious decision, to experiment more. I must also admit that we have more quite parts in this demo, and that they lend themselves more to a juxtaposition with anguished vocals and a more dynamic approach.”
By the end of the second demo, Pedro is dreaming about Chauchat, whom he is idealizing and ascribing the word ‘perfect’, all while using the word ‘nothing’ over and over again when contemplating himself. This led us to ask Wijlacker to explain what seemed to us to be a loss of sense of reality or beginning thereof. “What is happening is that as he gets more and more obsessed, first with Béatrice, but specially with Chauchat, because she’s the one that gets him, he is starting to transform her in his mind into this divine being, someone that is almost identical to the Black Square in itself. It’s this non-being, this something spiritual, something you cannot see but think about, dream about, and lose yourself in. That last part of the song is really about two things. It’s about the factual sequence of actions, him meeting her and loosing his mind over her, but it’s also about his experience and the way he experiences meeting her. He sees her as perfect but, at the same time, in reality, he is being chained, growing more and more into nothing.”
There is a concept connecting the band’s approach and Pedro’s fate, one that appears often in connection with Grey Aura, namely, immersion. We wondered whether the incorporation of Flamenco in the first demo and of French music in the second were a function of this notion. As Wijlacker explains, we missed the mark there, “not so much the regional influences, specially the Spanish-influenced parts, as Tjebbe plays flamenco guitar, so that came quite naturally. With regards to the French parts, we both like French music and appreciate that whole atmosphere, so that was something that was already inside of us and it was quite easy to get out. The immersion part – and I can only speak for myself here – had to do with an emotional immersion, getting to the mindset we wanted to get across. It might sound fake, but the immersion was about getting into a specific mindset in order to write the songs, to get it going.”
In the press release for «2: De bezwijkende deugd», it is explained that Pedro gets a hold of and furiously reads copies of «De Stijl», a magazine founded in 1917 by the movement of the same name, which was comprised of artists and architects advocating for abstraction and universality. We asked Wijlacker if, amidst his immersion period, he went through the same experience. “Absolutely, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to write about it. I think abstract art is something that can be seen in the early manifests and amagazines that these artists wrote and participated in. They were also very obsessive and intense, they were pushing themselves beyond their own limits in order to reach this abstraction. Malevich in particular, wrote several manifests that are really intense. They are only a few pages long and reading them feels like someone is punching you and himself while doing it.”
Another aspect that is impossible to ignore is the jump in songwriting between «Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort» and the last two demos. As Wijlacker explains, writing the former “had a lot to do with the story and very much the story as a movie in a very historical and factual manner. When we started writing, we went from scene to scene to scene, discussing very small details, such as the part where they walk down from the boat. It was more about the story and, after that, we were a bit bored with just doing the story. We wanted to add something of an emotional layer to it and so we started to think how else can we express the story through music. The first thing that happened in the demos was that we thought about changing textures and focused more on the emotional side instead of the factual one. In between the demos, we were lost on the chaos of sound textures, so this time around we went back to writing songs while integrating certain aspects from that first demo.”
Regarding the way they weave contextual music elements such as flamenco and jazzy passages into black metal, Broek states that the challenge resides in “doing it in a good way, to actually combine different music styles. It’s easy to do a little sidetrack, a lot of bands add some strange bit to the music but do not change the basics, but to actually combine all these things is quite hard.” As Wijlacker puts it, there was a conscious effort to avoid this easier route, “we tried to avoid the little sidetracks, the little field trips into other musical styles. In general, we just tried to get elements of jazz and get feelings of the urban Paris in the 20s to creep into the music itself. Of course we also did it separately on a couple of parts because we thought it was necessary there.”
Looking ahead to this material coalescing into a full-length record, we asked them how they intend to approach this process. Wijlacker points out that while they are “still thinking about that”, illustrating the subtlety by pointing out that “the first part of the album is going to end with the flamenco guitar and transition into the second with the Bataille interview. There might even be some new transitional songs to make it more of a smooth transition between the Spanish and French vibes,” with Broek noting that this integration “is the biggest challenge. We will change a lot, I think, and we have to change a lot of things, because musically, the atmosphere of «1: Gelige, traumatische zielsverrukking» is quite different from that of «2: De bezwijkende deugd». We also want to dive deeper into the field recordings that we used, for example, in «Dialoog & Improvisatie: Ontmoeting met het roofdier». In general, we want to try to develop this incorporation of monologues, dialogues and music, all reacting on each other, it would be nice to get this aspect better.” This of course, brings the question of what will happen to the contributions by guest musicians Johan (Terzij de Horde and Black Decades, vocals on «Dialoog & Improvisatie: Ontmoeting met het roofdier») and S. (Laster and Nusquama, bass on «Sierlijke schaduwmond»). “I would probably change the compositions for a lot of parts, but it would still be ncie to include Johan and S. on the records, to keep the guest contributions in there,” Wijlacker tell us before expanding on their evolution in the incorporation of audio theater between demos, “on the first one, there was a clear line between the dialogues, the audio theater so to speak, and the music. The goal on this record, and we are still not there yet but will hopefully be once the full album is recorded, was to really integrate those two things in a way where the music reacts to the voice actors and vice versa. For instance, there’s a dialogue with two people arguing and someone starts shouting, the music itself reacts to it and you get a dynamic interchange between these different elements.”
As for the root underlying this drive to incorporate dialogues into the music, Wijlacker explains that “we were playing around with this idea of combining audio theater and music maybe even as early as 2010 or something. Then we did the «Candlesmoke» EP that had a different kind of vibe and started thinking of that idea again. It was on the first full-length that we decided to make it part of what Grey Aura is. We felt like a cinematic atmosphere would be beneficial to the music. After it was done, we were not very satisfied with how the music and the dialogues sounded separated from each other and decided that on the next release we should integrate the parts more, make them flow better.” As things stand, it is clearly an ongoing process within the band, as is the incorporation of disparate music styles within black metal. The scary thing, and both the studio version of «2: De bezwijkende deugd» and its live interpretation as we witnessed at Roadburn are testaments thereof, is the idea that despite how far they’ve gotten so far, there is much, much more to be expected from them in the future.