Forever Meddling: An Interview with Blake Judd of Nachtmystium

Addicts: Black Meddle Part 2
Century Media

Like thousands of other people in Europe, Blake Judd’s busy schedule came to an abrupt halt in late April when the massive ash plume from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano brought air traffic to a screeching halt. It wasn’t exactly the best timing for Judd and his band, Nachtmystium, who found themselves stuck in London with tour dates back home approaching and a slew of North American music press wanting to talk to the band about their heavily anticipated fifth album.

“That fucking volcano kept me stuck in Europe for an extra week after that long-ass tour, so I’m happy to be home,” says Judd with relief from his Chicago home. “There was so much uncertainty with when that thing would stop erupting, and then we started hearing the last time this volcano erupted the one next to it started going off three days later. We were worried we were going to be stuck there for longer than we were.”

It’s an especially busy time for Judd these days. As luck would have it, he finds himself on the cusp of the release of two new albums that has the metal world abuzz these days; not only is Nachtmystium’s Addicts: Black Meddle Part 2 set for an early June release, but Monument to Time End, the second album by his side project Twilight, has just come out to enormous critical praise as well. Both recorded with the great producer Sanford Parker and benefiting from the rather incestuous nature of the Chicago metal scene, the albums might take very differing approaches, but they’re each terrific examples of how much Judd has benefited by surrounding himself with talented musicians who happen to be good friends as well.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with a record than I am with this one,” the gregarious guitarist beams enthusiastically. “[Addicts] and the most recent Twilight record that just came out, they were both recorded within a year of each other with the majority of the same people involved in those records…It was great working with those guys, and I’m totally satisfied with the way both of those records turned out.”

Of the two records, Nachtmystium’s Addicts is going to attract the bulk of the attention, and rightfully so. After spending the first half of the previous decade developing their sound within the US black metal template, Nachtmystium made their first attempt at stretching the boundaries of their genre with the attention-grabbing Instict: Decay, which, while still rooted in black metal, showed some phenomenal examples of just how well progressive and psychedelic rock could be integrated into the sound. Judd and his mates took things several steps further on 2008’s acclaimed Century Media debut Assassins: Black Meddle Part 1, a brilliant mish-mash of black metal, hardcore punk, Hawkwind-inspired space rock and most memorably, arrangements and solos that smacked of classic Pink Floyd.

Addicts, however, takes a turn nobody could have expected. Touches of that self-described “psychedelic black metal” remain (the spaced-out “Then Fires” and the majestic “Every Last Drop” two good examples), but for the majority of the album the primary influence is post punk, the record full of so many twists and turns we don’t know what to expect next. Yet as insane as this album feels, according to Judd the band’s approach was considerably more clear-headed than anything they’d done in the past.

“It was a totally different session,” he says. “Basically we used all the money for this one on the studio time and getting people flown out, getting things paid for…Assassins was a fucking drug fiesta, it was like our Volume Four, like Sabbath’s shit about ‘so much cocaine we don’t even remember days or recording this.’ That’s what Assassins was like, and this recording was incredibly sober because we had no money for drugs or alcohol, it was all eaten up by the recording costs. [Laughing] Honestly we weren’t working obviously, because we were in the studio and everyone was a little strapped for cash, so I think it was a little more focused, which might have been a good thing.”

The album’s bolder moments are made all the more surprising thanks to the blistering old school black metal opener “High on Hate”, one of the better fake-outs on a metal record that we’ve heard in a long while. “Totally, that’s what we said in the studio, ‘Gotcha, bitch!'” Judd laughs. “This is what you think’s coming, but wrong, it’s not. And then we put the two most obnoxiously different songs on the record right afterwards totally intentionally. That’s just us being assholes.”

No question, the two tracks that follow pull the rug out from under listeners, but neither song smacks of shallow gimmickry. These are experiments that work, shockingly well in fact. A smooth combination of Queens of the Stone Age’s swing and the slicing riffs of Killing Joke’s Fire Dances, “Nightfall” is contagious from the get-go, tambourine, backing vocals, and a tasteful melodic guitar solo lending the track a pop element that somehow avoids sounding contrived.

“High on Hate”, Essen, Germany, 16 April 2010

“I remember writing the riff, I was in the basement of Kung Fu Necktie, which is this little venue in Philadelphia, we were playing there in December of 2008,” Judd reminisces. “I was down there, just put on a new set of strings, and started strumming that opening there, that couple of chords, and said, ‘Oh, that sounds really cool.’ I just played around with it a little bit, and I heard the tambourine-driven rock drumming in my head and I knew what to do with it. I wrote a bridge and put it together, and that was the end of it. There are only two riffs in that song, the key changes once, and then there’s the bridge. I like simple music that’s kind of verse-chorus-verse patterns that you can sing along to. That’s the stuff that’s most memorable to me.

“I think ‘Nightfall’ is a perfect example of if there was ever to be a Nachtmystium pop song it would be that, and I’m proud of that. To sing a song that gets stuck in my head all the time and anyone I’ve given the record to, close friends of mine, people at the label, they’re all like, ‘Man, that’s a fuckin’ rocker, it’s anthemic’…I like that. It’s a solid song from beginning to end.”

Better yet, though, is the jaw-dropping, dance-infused “No Funeral”, which is little more than an undulating riff repeated atop a groovy beat featuring a ludicrous but highly effective electronic snare sample. The Killing Joke influence is again undeniable, but feeling more like 1985’s Night Time than anything else, the song so bizarrely catchy and incessant that it could even work as a crossover single. Stranger things have happened in pop music.

“It’s black metal disco, dude,” Judd smirks. “It wasn’t supposed to sound like that. When I first wrote it I was like, ‘This sounds like the opening track on Brave Murder Day by Katatonia,’ it had that driving rock beat. The only thing that makes it sound like that is the fact that there’s a synth bass and we put that fucking hilarious snare sample on, that’s all it is. The lead part that sounds like a keyboard, the [riff] that goes on over the whole track, that’s a guitar with a weird effect on it, and then we put the synth bass under it playing the same notes and it comes out sounding like this full keyboard section, but in actuality that’s just a guitar tapping thing and the riff underneath it is totally, totally reminiscent of old Katatonia.”

When asked about the inspired inclusion of that ’80s style electronic snare sound (which surfaces once again on the contagious, Joy Division-like “Ruined Life Continuum”), Judd responds, “When I first heard it I was like, ‘Dude, that reminds me of Fine Young Cannibals.’ You remember that awful song ‘She Drives Me Crazy’? I was, ‘Ah, that’s fucking terrible!’ and Sanford was like, ‘No, listen to it for a minute, it’s kick-ass.’ And then he cited six or eight other bands that are actually cool that have similar shit, and I was like, ‘Okay, I get it now.’ And then we added to it, and as it came together I liked it more and more. But it’s weird, because it’s a song you can fucking dance to. It’s very strange to have that on one of our records. I still listen to it and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck is that?'”

Longtime Nachtmystium listeners might also notice a subtle change in Judd’s vocal delivery as well. “I’m trying to find ways, while still keeping an extreme delivery on my vocals, to somehow make them more audible. Enunciate better,” he says. “Because one thing people hate about extreme music often times, the love the music but can’t deal with the vocals, they can’t understand the words. So I’m trying to find a way where I can still scream pretty harshly and also be understood. Killing Joke does a great job of that, as does Ministry. Both of those bands have really processed vocals and a pretty extreme delivery, but you can make out ninety percent of what’s being said on those records…You listen to ‘Nightfall’, if you put a clean singer on that, you could probably classify that as a rock song and not even call it a metal song at all. So I didn’t want to ruin it for some listeners by having extremely harsh vocals on it.”

“I Couldn’t Ask for Anything Else”

A big reason behind the groovier feel on Addicts is the drumming of Jeff “Wrest” Whitehead. Known by many as the mastermind behind solo projects Leviathan and Lurker of Chalice, Wrest stood in as Nachtmystium’s session drummer for the new record, and his simpler approach is a far cry from the more technically sound, taut drumming of Tony Laureano on Assassins. “He’s a really good friend of mine,” explains Judd.

“He’s the guy who turned me on to ninety percent of the music that has inspired all of this. I’d never listened to bands like Joy Division of Interpol before we made the first Twilight record. And he’s playing me Turn on the Bright Lights and I’m like, ‘This is fucking amazing. I’ve never heard this style, and if you played it to me two years ago when I was younger and still a necro black metal dude I would have told you to get fucked and (turn it) off.’ [Laughing]

“But my spectrum had broadened a little by that time and he turned me on to so much great music and styles that I’ve gone and studied myself and discovered other bands that are similar. I totally listen to a lot of that style of music now, more so than metal, this post rock and indie rock stuff. He kind of opened my ears to that, so I thought, who would be the best suited person to help me make something like this, and it made sense to choose him.”

He adds, “We work really well together, too. It was the same story for this record, and I’m so happy that I asked him to be involved and that he was willing to do it. And he’s really happy with the record too, which is cool because he’s notorious for not being totally satisfied with his albums after he’s done. [laughs] He can always pick them apart, and he really seems to like [Addicts] and the Twilight album.”

As for Twilight’s Monument to Time End, it’s an enormous leap from the lauded eponymous 2005 debut. With Wrest, Krieg’s N. Imperial, the Atlas Moth’s Stavros Giannopolous, the ubiquitous Sanford Parker, and Isis’s Aaron Turner all lending a hand, this second record is much closer to what Judd envisioned the project sounding in the first place. “This is what [Twilight] was supposed to sound like originally, but we didn’t have the funding to do it and we did the album on a four track in two weeks,” he explains.

“There was very little planning for it, it was very amateur in that regard. It was just an experiment more or less that got released and promoted as something that’s greater than it really was. The marketing on that record was, ‘It’s a supergroup!’ That album was recorded two and a half years before it came out and nobody in any three of those bands was popular at all. To put it out as this big cohesive, planned thing as a big American black metal supergroup was kind of ridiculous,” he adds with a big laugh.

Monument to Time End is considerably less audacious than Nachtmystium’s Addicts, but its sentiment is very much the same, not caring one bit about genre restrictions. One moment the music resembles the expansive soundscapes of Isis (“The Cryptic Ascension”), the next we hear tender synth touches atop a bruising arrangement (“Fall behind Eternity”), and the next the music starts to subtly reflect Depeche Mode (“8,000 Years”, the brooding “Negative Signal Omega”). With tracks ranging from five to just less than ten minutes, it’s an album that requires patience, but it’s a highly rewarding one upon repeated listens.

“I’m kind of the ringleader of that project, I started to put together the first one years ago,” Judd says. “For this one Wrest was just coming to Chicago to do some tattooing and he wanted to stay with me for three weeks, he was like, ‘I’ll tattoo for three weeks and the last week we’ll just hang out.’ I was, ‘If you’re going to do that, why don’t we get together at night the whole time you’re here, go into my rehearsal room, and we’ll make a new Twilight record.’

“We got Stavros from Atlas Moth because he and I were going to start a project together, and some of the material that actually wound up on the Twilight record was just going to be a project I was going to do with Stavros. Then we started rehearsing it for the first time with a drummer with Wrest, and that kind of immediately made it Twilight. He added to it, we wrote that record in three weeks, we had Neil from Krieg out in Chicago, got him to get some lyrics together and lay vocals down. Sanford was obviously in town so we were able to get in the studio and record.”

“The only person who wasn’t present for it was Aaron, and we sent him all the tracks via email and pretty much told him this is what we were thinking and what we’d like him to try to do, and he did it. He didn’t contribute a whole lot of guitat to that record, I think a lot of people think parts that sound like Isis, the opening track, that’s all me and Stavros, we wrote that whole thing, that’s him playing those clean leads that sound so Isis-esque. Aaron contributed more like clean vocals and weird ambient sounds and stuff. He did do some guitar shit, but not a whole lot.”

In fact, Judd and his friends are so happy with how Monument turned out that plans for a third album are already in the works, including a potential seventh member coming along for the ride. “[Monument] was a fucking awesome experience, and we’re going to do another one hopefully by the end of the year as well,” he enthuses. “We’ve got interest from some other people, namely Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, which is not confirmed at all, but Jeremy Lemos who is their sound man is the guy that owns the studio with Sanford, so there is a unique connection to Sonic Youth through him. Thurston Moore is apparently a big black metal fan, and Sanford has talked to Jeremy about talking to him being on this next record, and apparently he seems very interested. So there’s a small chance we’ll be collaborating with him, which would be a fucking dream come true.”

In the meantime, as the indie rock world proceeds to wet its collective pants over the prospects of Thurston Moore making an extreme metal record, Judd will be slogging along with Nachtmystium, hitting the road and playing shows to whoever will have them. Whether it’s savvy underground metal aficionados or curious indie kids, Judd is simply happy to have his music heard. To him, extreme metal should be an inclusive experience rather than an exclusive one.

“I’ve seen enough of both sides of the scene now, we draw a very diverse crowd,” he says. “We draw people out that are into stoner rock and have beards and Electric Wizard t-shirts on, we draw people that have Archgoat back-patches and are covered in leather, and then we draw indie rock people that are just music fans. I call them indie rock people, that’s a very fucking unfair generalization of a dude with short hair, jeans and a t-shirt that looks like he might have a day job. We draw people that are obviously not involved in the heavy music community, at least visually, a bit more normal looking people… I don’t care who likes the music, if you find something to connect with and I can draw people from all different areas of independent music in general, that’s really cool. I feel blessed to know there’s a wide spectrum of people that listen to what I do.

“It’s great, man, it’s all I do,” he continues. “I don’t have to have a normal job. This is my whole life and I love it, every fucking day of it. It’s fun and I work with great people and make some honest music that some people really seem to be enjoying, and I couldn’t ask for anything else,” adding with a laugh, “I just hope it lasts.”

“Twilight, “8,000 Years”

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