MATG Exclusive Interview: Xaphan and Armanen of Kult ov Azazel
When one thinks of the aesthetics surrounding the black metal genre, palm trees, beaches and miles of swampland don’t generally come to mind. While the Sunshine State is called home to countless underground Death Metal acts like Cannibal Corpse, Morbid Angel and Diecide (to name a few) it’s hard to imagine how one of the biggest names in the American Black Metal scene came to be in such an unlikely place but after seventeen years, countless live shows and an impressive discography the band continues to crush any and all expectations. Having just played one of New England’s largest Black Metal Festivals to date (the Anti-Cosmic Festival in Providence, RI) and the release of their latest demo, ‘The Dawn of Luciferian Enlightenment’ I had the opportunity to catch up with Xaphan and Armanen to talk about the past, present and future of the band as well as the state of the USBM scene today.
Black Metal Bitch: Was this the first time you guys had been to New England? Did you guys check out anything cool while you were up here? I realize you guys were only up for what? A night or two? How did you like Rhode Island? Did you hit any tourist spots?
Xaphan: It was the first time Kult ov Azazel has been in the New England area. I have been in Massachusetts a few times in the past, but it was my first time in Rhode Island. Since we flew in late in the day we played all I really got to see was the scenery from the airport to the hotel, hotel to venue and then back to the hotel. Saturday we went to the BBQ for the bands and then hung out at the festival, so I didn’t really get to see much other than a Walgreens and a gas station on Saturday. We did eat at a killer place around the corner from the venue called Olneyville New York System. But due to the limited time up there I was unable to make it to any of the tourist traps. Not really my thing to be honest anyhow.
Armanen: We wanted to check out Providence. Lovecraft’s grave, some book shops etc., but there were some excellent bands performing at the fest. This fest with this specific lineup of bands was something special and rare. We can always go back up at a later date. It was more important for me and I think the other guys too, to get a chance to see some old friends and meet up with some of the other artists involved.
BMB: Anti-Cosmic was also a huge event thanks, in part, to the addition of one of Sweden’s biggest names: Shining (who played their first show on American soil). What was it like partying and playing with those guys? Were you guys big fans of Shining?
Armanen: I’ve always liked Shining and other projects that Niklas has been involved with. It was fantastic finally getting to see them live and the performance was absolutely amazing. I did not personally hang out with all of the guys from Shining, just Niklas which was very interesting. And of course, having him join us on stage was very intense.
Xaphan: Out of all of us I think Hag was the biggest fan. I know of Shining, but until the night they played I had heard very little from them. A few of us partied with Niklas after our set that Friday night and for the most part he was an interesting guy to speak with. It was a bit mind blowing when he came to me and said it would be a huge honor to come up and improvise on a Kult ov Azazel song and that he had been following us back in the beginning days of the band.
BMB: That’s got to be kinda cool to hear! Niklas (Kvarforth) from my understanding is quite a character, did everyone get along? I saw a lot of pictures from Katey (Wordbearer Productions) and he looked like he was having a great time coming here. What was he like?
Armanen: Casually intense, I think is a good way to describe the guy. I got along with him well and it was nice to talk about subjects/music other than just “black or extreme metal. I’d say the guy is very sincere about his music and the image that people may have in their heads about him is pretty accurate. But he is also a very polite person and has a good sense of twisted humor. Offensive laughs all around.
BMB: Did you guys get to check out any of the other bands at the festival? Were there any favorites that you got to see play? Anyone that KOA had been wanted to play with?
Armanen: Loads of great bands but the highlights for me were Shining, of course, and TOMB. I have been wanting to see TOMB for years now and they have played in NYC several times, but I have always been away for whatever reason. Their performance was beyond expectations! They are a band that I take very seriously and have a lot of respect for, so meeting with them and getting to hang out was very special. I would very much like to schedule some live dates with them in the future. I think having their energy around could only magnify what we do.
Xaphan: We missed most of the bands on that Friday, but did get to catch the awesomeness that is Absu. On Saturday, let’s see… I caught Grave Gnosis, Teloch Vovin, Wormreich, Khaotika, Murrum, TOMB, and Shining. I had never seen TOMB, Murrum, or Shining, and would say to see those bands for the first time were the high point when it came to the bands on Saturday.
BMV: Kult ov Azazel has been around for 17 years now and has remained one of the staples of the American Black Metal scene for a while now. Can you tell me how sunny Florida can spawn such a monstrosity? And what can you tell fans about the USBM scene at that time especially in southern Florida?
Xaphan: When we started there were no black metal bands from South Florida. I think the only other black metal bands active around that time were Black Witchery (as Witchery) in Central Florida and Lord of Depression on the West Coast. People ask all the time how did sunny South Florida spawn this band and all I can say is it would have spawned whether I still had still lived in Tennessee or any other place at the time.
BMB: How exactly did Azazel form? And was it hard putting together a Black Metal project in Ft. Lauderdale?
Xaphan: Around 1998 I was working on a project by myself and a drummer friend I’d have program my drum machine for me. I was going under the moniker of Azazel. When I left my sound engineer job at a local nightclub I went to work for a musical supplier where I met Xul. He was doing a black metal project himself under the moniker Erebus. He was looking for someone to burn his four track demo mixes to CD and by chance that’s how we met. We decided to join forces and start a band and that’s where it started. The hardest part in the beginning for us was finding the right drummer. We went through at least 11 before we found Hammer.
BMB: Kult ov Azazel has been with Arctic Music Group pretty much since the beginning and the release of your first full length album, ‘Triumph of Fire.’ (which, by the way, is an amazing album from start to finish) How did signing with the label come about and what was it like having the backing of the same company working with bands like Malevolent Creation? And how did that change the way the band operated?
Xaphan: It didn’t change how we operated at all. It did, however, give us the opportunity to be heard by more people and to establish our name. At the time Phil of Malevolent Creation and their attorney formed Arctic Music. We had just recently ditched our rehearsal space and had started sharing a space with Malevolent Creation. We were rehearsing for a show one night and Phil had stopped by. For one reason or another, the PA system wasn’t working and Xul was screaming the lyrics over the music. Phil was impressed and immediately said he wanted to sign us. About a week or so later I was contacted by Scott Hecker with a four album contract.
BMB: What is involved with the creative process of making an album? How does KOA put together the music and how does the each member contribute to the development of the final product? Has the process evolved since ‘Triumph?’ And how?
Xaphan: The process is still the same all these years later, but in ways it has evolved and devolved. Back in the beginning we used to all get together in a room and throw ideas at each other. Those ideas we’d expand on and in most cases we walked away with a new song or two. Then over time it became I’d write the majority of the riffs for songs, Xul would throw in a few riffs here and there and we’d then fly Hammer down from Buffalo, NY and we’d flesh it all out. Then Xul or myself would write the lyrics. Nowadays, we do a lot of file trading. I write the riffs to a click track then send it to Hammer. He then records drums and sends it back to me. I retrack all the guitars plus other ideas then I send it to Necrol. He adds his ideas and solos if needed and then it goes to Hag for vocals. He writes the lyrics, records his parts and it comes back to me. The last person to track is the bass by Armanen. So that’s the process we go about writing and to demo our music these days.
BMB: You guys have had some issues in the past with lineup changes. Do you find keeping the core group beneficial when it comes to the creative process? You’ve worked with a ton of great musicians in the metal community as session players. Do you feel that has helped the band develop creatively?
Xaphan: I wouldn’t say the session members we have had in the band has helped in the development. The core was always myself and Xul. Then Hammer came into the picture. The core became myself and Hammer when Xul left in 2009. But for the first 10 years the core was always been us three and most of the others where session guys playing what we wrote. There’s a few exceptions to this such as when Nocturath and VJS were in the band since both contributed in some form or another with the writing of a couple of songs on “Oculus Infernum” and “The World, The Flesh & The Devil”. Now I’d say the core is the five of us since everyone brings something to the table when it comes to composing or writing.
BMB: On the other side of the music industry, what is involved with getting out and touring? How does the label treat you guys when you’re on the road? You’ve been all over the country. What are your favorite places to play and would Europe or Scandinavia ever be a possibility?
Xaphan: Where do I even begin on what is involved with getting out and touring? There’s a lot of headache that goes into it. Especially if you are like us and book them on your own. The label always treated us well. Being it was a smaller label we got very little tour support from them but enough that it would help us to do the tours. It wasn’t any tour support you’d see from say Nuclear Blast or Century Media, but it helped and allowed us to do small scaled runs. We have yet to play Europe, Scandinavia or Central and South America. Eventually we’d like to make that happen. As for my favorite place to play, it is wherever there is a stage and a PA system and rabid fans.
BMB: How did the Venom split with Teratism come about? Did you guys know each other before going into Black Static Studios? Or was it a matter of you guys occupying the same space at the same time?
Xaphan: We have been close with Teratism for quite some time. I met Wrath back in my touring days with Malevolent Creation and then I think the first time we played together was on the Northern Lights Festival in Canada. From there we ended up having the same manager for a short period of time and also did a West Coast tour together in 2004 and then an East Coast/Southern tour in 2005 and a few shows together in 2010. That’s not including all the one-off festivals we have done with them over the years. I forget who came to us with the idea but they all know I am a diehard Venom fan, so for me it was a no brainer to say yes to the idea.
BMB: What exactly happened at the Autumn Equinox Festival in 2007? What happened that had prevented Xul and Hammer from playing?
Xaphan: Hammer is a drum tech and I want to say at the time he was already scheduled to do the Nile tour. Maybe it was Testament? He’s worked for so many bands it’s hard to say who he was working for in 2007. Xul by trade does computer infrastructures for huge companies and at the last minute got called on a job. So I had VJS fill in on drums and Imperial of Krieg fill in for Xul. It was a bit of a scramble at the last minute but came off perfectly for the festival.
BMB: What is your favorite part of the being in Kult ov Azazel? Is it the creative process and recording or is it being able to tour with some great bands or is it something else entirely?
Xaphan: I love everything about this band. From writing the music, to recording it, to playing it live. I live for every process. It’s seriously the only thing that keeps me alive.
BMB: Last year while touring with another big USBM act, Wormreich, where the band obviously had to cancel touring due to the tragic car accident, have you guys kept in touch since and are you guys planning on hitting the road again in the future?
Xaphan: We are still in touch with Wormreich and the other band Khaotika that was also on the mini tour and suffered a loss of one of their members as well. Before the tour there were plans to do a split vinyl with Wormreich and that plan is still on. In fact, Vulk just sent me their tracks to do some mastering on. I began writing and demoing out our tracks for it. As for the label releasing said split that is still unclear as we search for one for this one off release.
BMB: As a veteran act on the road who do you look forward to playing shows with and what do you think of the current USBM scene? Are there any bands that you have yet to work with that you would like to?
Armanen: There’s so much shit to sift through these days. In the late 90’s there weren’t many Black Metal bands in the United States. Now everyone and their brother has hopped on that wagon and I just cannot be bothered. There aren’t that many Black Metal bands in the U.S. that I really care for, so the idea of a scene is not something I ever tried to analyze. A lot of people like to look at it as a community, but I have never felt any sense of camaraderie. I actually don’t like most of the people I have met in this “scene,” so I have never felt like a part of it. The idea of national brotherhood coming from something so misanthropic is just absurd to me.
Xaphan: To be brutally honest I haven’t followed the US scene since probably around 2005. There’s a few bands that have surfaced since that time that I have taken notice of, but overall I tend to stay out of the scene on a personal level. I got sick of the infighting, the back stabbing, and shit talking that went with it, so I removed myself. As for bands I look forward to playing with? I can’t think of any at the moment. Maybe Venom? We got the chance to play with Celtic Frost back in 2007 and that was a childhood dream. Now the only band remaining from my childhood dreams would be Venom. But overall, I prefer working with bands that are cool people. I don’t so much have to like their music, but them as people. Working with people on the road you can get along with goes a long way to make touring comfortable.
BMB: Armanen, I imagine you’re constantly going back and forth from New York to Florida. Is you being so busy the reason Tenebrous is no longer making music? Is there any hope for keeping that project alive?
Armanen: Tenebrous is something that I have decided not to do anymore. When we started writing the music for a third album, it had progressed or matured in a few ways. If we had recorded and released it under the moniker ‘Tenebrous’ it would not have made any sense. We have grown so much since then and some of those old songs I wrote when I was 15, 16 years old. We’re not those same children anymore. I am actually working on a new project with my other half from that band that slightly picks up where we left off. But this is something very different. More layered and somewhat intricate workings. Something that we are definitely taking our time on due to conflicting schedules and the fact that we have never been truly satisfied with much of our previous work.
BMB: You’ve been in the band since 2009, but you’ve moved around from guitar to bass, correct? Which do you enjoy playing more? How did you join up with the band and what was it like coming into such an infamous and well known band?
Armanen: That is correct, 2009. I started on guitar and have moved back and forth from bass depending [on] some line-up changes or who was available to play what. I am fine with playing either. Bass took some getting used to since I had never really played bass except for the years I was with Demoncy. My predecessor in KoA is someone who I have known and have been working with since our mid teenage years. I believe he had recommended me when he exited the band. Joining the band was really cool. Being very familiar with the music and having seen them live so many times, having toured with them under a different band, it just made sense. Sharing a lot of the same thought, ideas and tastes in music makes it very easy to work with new people as well.
BMB: Top 5 USBM bands of all time. Go.
Xaphan: Krieg, Blood Storm, Black Witchery, Demoncy, and Profantica/Havohej.
Armanen: In no particular order, Demoncy, Incursus, Night Bringer, Black Funeral, and TOMB
BMB: What are the biggest influences of KOA? What are your biggest influences as a musician?
Xaphan: Bandwise, all forms of LHP enlightenment. Personally as a guitarist, Randy Rhodes (which is not evident in our music) and the first and second wave of black metal bands. Did I mention Venom is my biggest musical influence? Also the speed metal bands of the eighties and some of the early hardcore punk from the eighties as well.
Armanen: The first time I ever wanted to play the guitar was after seeing a Danzig video on MTV in 93. So I guess Danzig and John Christ.
BMB: What are your thoughts on the European/Scandinavian scene? There seems to be a lot of people over there who are skeptical about American Black Metal bands, which in my personal opinion is ridiculous considering the tons of bands here in the States that influenced the second wave. Do you find any truth to their claims?
Xaphan: I don’t even waste my time about thinking about such nonsense. This argument is still going on in 2016? As for their scene, there are some amazing bands that come out those countries.
BMB: In addition to working on material for the new album, you’ve also collaborated and worked with Ricktor (Electric Hellfire Club, Wolfpack 44) on his new black metal project Wolfpack 44. How did you hook up with Ricktor and how was it working with him professionally?
Xaphan: I wouldn’t call Wolfpack 44 a black metal band per se. There’s those elements there, but so many other elements as well. The way I became involved is a bit of a crazy story, I guess. I’ve known Thomas from EHC for many years. I was communicating with him way before I even started Kult ov Azazel. Triumph of Fire had just come out and I went up to Milwaukee Metal Fest to see Gorgoroth and The Electric Hellfire Club. For one reason or another, EHC ended up not playing supposedly due to an illness with Thomas. But I did meet Ricktor at that point and remember he was totally blown away with the first KovA album. Over the years we kept in contact and traded shirts and shit. Fast forward to 2013 and I get a call from Ricktor asking if I would be interested in doing vocals for his new band. I mentioned I thought it was strange he’d be asking me and was told the suggestion actually came from Thomas. That blew me away that Thomas Thorn had recommended me. It wasn’t long after I was demoing out vocals for the songs and then up in Chicago tracking vocals there and down here in Fort Lauderdale at S.B.S. Studios. Now we’re just waiting for it to be released through Deadlight Entertainment.
BMB: You’ve also worked with some other big names in the scene including Krieg, Von, and even into other genres with Hateplow and Evil Amidst. How did you hook up with Krieg with them living up in New Jersey?
Xaphan: Krieg is another band we’ve had close ties to since our beginnings. Imperial was one of the first people to contact us about the Order of the Fly demo when we were still just Azazel. From that contact came the Kult ov Azazel/Krieg split. Then as discussed earlier, he sat in for Xul on the Autumn Equinox Festival. The way I hooked up playing for them was just by chance. We were both playing the Samhain Festival in 2010 and he needed a bass player. He approached me about doing it and being one of my favorite bands from the USA I naturally agreed. I learned the bass lines and the rest is now history.
BMB: With the addition of Hag as vocalist into the band were you relieved to go back to focusing on guitar? How did he become part of the group and will he be featured on the upcoming album “Violators of the Covenant”?
Xaphan: He will be predominate on the new album. And yes, I am glad to be going back to just focusing on the guitar and the musical aspect of the band. In the beginning, to keep things simple we decided to take on the vocals rather than search for a standalone singer. Neither Xul or I were great at playing our instruments and singing, but over time it happened. We did it out of necessity to keep things simple. It wasn’t long before we were trading off vocals and that became part of our signature in sound. Then when Xul left it all fell on me if the band was going to continue, which I was fine with. Hag came into the picture when we played a show with Pact in 2014 at the Wrath of the Goat Festival. Hag and I hit it off and by the second day of the fest was talking about putting together a side band with us and a few members of Wormreich. Thus the short lived band Naos was spawned and we recorded a couple of songs before Hag told me he had quit Pact. Seeing the opportunity I asked him to join Kult ov Azazel. He accepted and has become a valued member of the band.
BMB: Can you tell us about the upcoming album “Violators of the Covenant”? Is there any particular theme within the album and when can fans get their hands on it?
Xaphan: The album will be a presentation of sonic black magic, each song differing in lyrical criteria whether it covers traveling the dark Qlippothic spheres of abyssic consciousness or channeling the energy currents of the Dark Gods. We’ve made 4 song pre-production demo available at kultovazazel.bandcamp.com. Two of those songs are “Into The Belly of The Beast” and “Corpus Edimus, Sanguinem Bibimus”. “Into The Belly of The Beast” theme wise is about astral thought projection and ego transcendence with meditation and self reflection as the vehicle by which the subconscious mind is explored as a descent into the dark spheres of the mind. With “Corpus Edimus, Sanguinem Bibimus” we make note of the symbolic cannibalism and flocking together of Christ’s sheep. But for the most part the reoccurring themes within the album are homage’s to the ancient Dark Gods and the destruction and disdain for humanity.
BMB: What can fans expect from KOA in 2016? Will you guys be getting back into the studio any time soon?
Armanen: (laughs) We will be entering the studio exactly 6 months from the moment anyone asks about it!
Xaphan: Definitely a new album and some touring!
BMB: And what about you, Xaphan? Any upcoming projects you would care to mention?
Xaphan: I think I’ve covered everything project wise already. Or I should say you have with your knowledgeable questions. Other than that I’d just like to say thanks for the interview, interest, and support!
Interview by Nicole Rush aka The Black Metal Bitch