Photo: Ben Taylor / Courtesy of Motormouth Media

Music, Drama, and Philosophy with Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix

Liturgy founder Hunter Hunt-Hendrix discusses religion, philosophy, history, and music from Johannes Brahms to Waka Flocka Flame.

12 November 2019

Liturgy founder Hunter Hunt-Hendrix stands out within the mostly nihilistic black metal milieu. Widely known for his invention and articulation of Transcendental Black Metal more than a decade ago, Hunt-Hendrix has injected into the extreme musical subgenre a “double nihilism” that, to summarize one part of his philosophy, negated a “series of negations” to arrive at Affirmation. These qualities of transcendence and affirmation are part of what has put Liturgy on the radar of philosophically-inclined metal listeners.

The band’s latest album is H.A.Q.Q., and the title refers to the phrase “Haelegen above Quality and Quantity”, which, according to the press release, “represents Hunt-Hendrix’s uniquely Marxist and psychoanalytic vision of God”. God and religion have always been part of the Liturgy schema. On the artwork for breakthrough album Aesthethica (2011), the Petrine Cross and the Latin cross sit side by side, as if proposing an alternative to Slayer’s similarly emblazoned, yet fully heterodox God Hates Us All (2001).

Still, there remains a tension between those two crosses, one inverted and the other upright. Those crosses came to mind when Kanye West released The Life of Pablo in 2016, with its dichotomous “WHICH/ONE” text on the cover art. The answer, West revealed, was tripartite: “Which Pablo? Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar of course, Apostle Paul. [Paul] inspired and was the strongest influencer of Christianity. Pablo Escobar was the biggest mover of product, and Pablo Picasso was the biggest mover of art. And that mix between message, art, and product is The Life of Pablo.”

H.A.Q.Q. was initially surprise-released in November of last year on digital formats and streaming services. The release occurred at the same time as a short Liturgy tour on the West Coast, the live-action debut of Hunt-Hendrix’s opera, Origin of the Alimonies, and the opening of his philosophical art exhibition. While “message, art, and product” are certainly counted among the ways Hunt-Hendrix communicates with an audience, his evolving interdisciplinary activity of music, drama, and philosophy involves a complex system of theories and practices that takes a while to explain. I spoke with him shortly after the surprise release of the album, in an interview that covers religion, philosophy, history, and music from Johannes Brahms to Waka Flocka Flame.

First, I ask about the experience of touring with Liturgy while opening an art exhibition and premiering an opera. “It’s been really good,” he answers. “It’s been a lot of fun. For a long time, I’ve wanted to treat this as an interdisciplinary thing, to be doing a band but be taking a dramatic work and philosophical work seriously. Just in this past month, it’s been nice to have those other aspects of the project materialize more concretely because I’ve been building towards it for some time.”

He explains, “It started with the opera. The venue REDCAT offered to let us debut this live-action opera, which is something I’ve been working on for years. And so we sort of planned everything around that. We were like, ‘Well, we’ll be on the West Coast, so we’ll do some Liturgy dates.’ And then I wasn’t sure we would finish an album in time to release it, to go along with this. So we didn’t announce that but wanted to do that. Then this gallery offered to fabricate some of my diagrams, philosophical diagrams in this art show. It might have been wiser to spread things out a little bit. Some people on our team were saying that. I think it’s more interesting to just do everything at once and to overload the system, or something with these totally different things that are nevertheless kind of connected.”

img-335Drain by Semevent (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

I ask if doing everything simultaneously reinforces the substantial connections between the drama, philosophy, and music. He responds, “Maybe it would have seemed connected either way if we had, you know, waited until January to do the album and the spring to do the art show or something. But I don’t think so. I guess the collective attention span is very short. For something to feel like it’s all connected, it has to happen all at the same time.”

One concept that Hunt-Hendrix has discussed in recent years is perichoresis, a term that within Christian theology describes the intra-Trinitarian relationship within the triune God. I comment that I find it interesting such a concept has a place within his work. Hunt-Hendrix goes on to describe the original concept as a “spinning motion or positive feedback loop between the three members of the Holy Trinity, that’s generative. I think that’s really interesting,” he says. “So my term, perichoresis, is derived from that, but it’s not the same. My version of perichoresis is inspired by that, but the three members are not the Christian trinity. They’re music, drama, and philosophy.

“And the idea is that Christianity gave birth to capitalism and that produced a new, different trinity, which was industry, science, and culture. To imagine a new mode of production beyond that, in this kind of, like, Marxist spirit would be to imagine a world that’s governed by music, drama, and philosophy as its ruling principle. The path towards that would be an attempt to pursue a practice with those things in combination, which is what I’m trying to do with Liturgy, and this philosophy and stuff. It doesn’t have to be done in my way.”

He continues, “It’s a combination of these three disciplines, but then there are four specific operations called siphoning, coalescence, arrogation, and catalysis, which are ways of connecting music, drama, and philosophy in their different aspects. Formal aspects, different styles, the history of these disciplines, and then institutional aspects, which is part of the effort to put all these things out at the same time, is that it sort of lights up these different discursive fields that aren’t always in communication. Like an album drop and that music industry world, and an opera, the performing arts world, and the philosophy scene. And I guess the underlying idea is a particular critique of capitalist ideology, which is kind of derived from Mark Fisher.”

When I signal my appreciation for Fisher, Hunt-Hendrix asks, “You’re a Fisher fan?” I respond, parsing, that I’m not sure what Fisher thought of having fans, but that I’m a Fisher reader. Reiterating Fisher’s ideas, Hunt-Hendrix explains, “The notion that in this era of capitalism, supposedly transgressive or revolutionary culture is preformatted almost in advance to serve capital. So that there is no outside. There’s sort of a pseudo-outside. [Fisher] lays down the gauntlet of that challenge to underground culture in his book Capitalist Realism, which came out ten years ago, and the world has changed since then. The idea of this is to respond to that and attempt to do something that is transgressive and is traumatizing and dangerous and kind of surging. But it also doesn’t then just collapse and become commodifiable, because the interdisciplinary character is rigorous enough that it can be sustained. Because it includes this theory of world history, it evades the snare or at least tries to. Obviously, it’s totally speculative, but that’s the idea.”

I’m curious about Hunt-Hendrix’s take on Christianity giving birth to capitalism. “I mean, that’s not really my idea,” he says. “Max Weber has kind of a famous book about it [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism]. It’s this notion that the guilt and shame that comes with Christianity, and especially in Protestantism, of measuring every moment of your time and wondering whether it’s sinful or not, actually is the precondition for wage labor. And so there’s this cultural practice of dividing up and measuring your moments in time that then makes it possible to assign a monetary value to each moment. And that’s how labor was born in the capitalist sense. So it’s something like, there was a cultural intensification that Christianity presided over in Europe, and then this new mode of production, which was capital, was possible because of the way people were sort of monitoring themselves. It’s a theory of history.”

Speaking as a Protestant, I say the incrementalism he describes sounds more like a form of legalism that doesn’t square with Protestantism. Hunt-Hendrix adds, “I’m very sympathetic towards Christianity, too. I think a lot of the basic features of Christianity have kind of been suppressed under capitalism and by modernity, especially a certain, a connection to the divine, obviously, and cherishing of community. I’m a pretty hardcore realist about God existing and like, Christ existing. I do think in the current context, there are developments that have been achieved by certain continental thinkers, especially Marx and Freud, and Nietzsche, that Christianity could be supplemented by or something like that… So I’m very interested in this very difficult-to-even-articulate-and-think, relationship between countercultural avant-gardism and Christianity and what could come of that.” I ask if he’s talking about theories of liberation theology, and he responds, “I really love Cornel West. His prophetic pragmatism is a really important stance and is a Christian approach to an idea of emancipation that is also secularizable.”

I point out that Kanye West is also performing interdisciplinary activity involving Christianity but within a pointedly capitalistic context. By chance, my interview with Hunt-Hendrix takes place on the very day that West is premiering his opera, Nebuchadnezzar. “In terms of Kanye, it’s strange,” he says. “I’ve always… how to put it? I’m in L.A., and I’m very close to the Hollywood Bowl because the gallery I’m staying at is near there, so I guess I might see his opera, which is happening today. I’ve always felt this strange kindred quality to Kanye.

“It’s just really funny that he announced an opera to go along with his album drop, which is like, what I just did. Obviously, he’s working on a much larger scale than I am. Yeah, I was a little bit disappointed by his most recent record [2019’s Jesus Is King]. I think his take on the relationship between pop culture and Christianity is sort of inverted, or it’s like the opposite of what I’m interested in. He’s choosing more conservative elements of Christianity that I’m not as interested in, and choosing more commodifiable elements of capitalism that I’m also not as interested in. I like Kanye a lot; his most recent stuff I’m a little bit less interested in, for whatever reason.”

Regardless of the gulf between the two artists’ takes on religion, it is interesting to see religious ideas being taken seriously in metal and rap — two music genres that I point out are not popularly considered the go-to music for religious people. “I do think that religion is really on the rise,” Hunt-Hendrix says. “I think more and more people are going to become religious again. And because of that, I think that’s kind of the wrong term — be articulate about what is valuable about religion. Because it’s easy to forget how oppressive and violent, the history of most of the Abrahamic religions has been. It has a dark side as well as being the most important thing there is. I’ve been corresponding with the philosopher Reza Negarestani. He wrote this brilliant book called Intelligence and Spirit that I feel very influenced by. He’s from Iran. I see his book as basically a new post-accelerationist, post-Mark Fisher rational theology, and I wish he would articulate it as that. It’s a very spiritual book, but it’s rhetorically kind of anti-religious. And I’m asking him why. He grew up in a very oppressive world of religion.”

Bringing the conversation around to H.A.Q.Q., I quote a section of the press release that refers to the album’s aim “to generate an energy of prophecy and love in the name of what is to come”, which sounds innovatively contrary to the intentions of traditional black metal. I ask Hunt-Hendrix to discuss his concept of transcendence, including to what end. Is it transhumanism? What does his prophecy look like? He answers, “It’s very difficult, almost suspiciously difficult, to have a clear goal for the world. It’s almost too dangerous for someone to have an idea of what a radically different future would look like. Or at least it seems too dangerous. So part of my system of philosophy, it culminates in an eschatology, which is a theory of the end of the world as we know it and the rise of the kingdom of heaven. So this is also a Christian thing, an Abrahamic thing.

“The eschatology is generated by metaphysics, basically, or axiology and metaphysics. So you have to think about what it is for something to be good in the first place, and then try to think about what being is and what history is. Then arrive at an eschatology, which you can use different kinds of language to describe it and make it sound so different to people. But it’s both a messianic vision, but also a political vision that you could describe using secular language too. I think it’s less clear that way. And so it’s transhumanist, I suppose, though I don’t really like the associations with that term, because it sounds so ‘cyber’ or something. But it’s like trying to imagine what a radically different world would look like, where we are very different, and maybe there’s no more state and no more family, and human sexuality is transformed and to really imagine what a kingdom of heaven would be.”

He continues saying, “and maybe science and technology are part of it, but it’s also getting that Marx’s communism and Nietzsche’s Übermensch and Aquinas’s kingdom of heaven, city of God, are different views on the same kind of thing. And then I have some concrete concepts that are an attempt to sketch out what laws might govern it. I don’t know. Basically, there are four new values: Sovereignty, Hierarchy, Emancipation, and Individuation. And those are these new human rights that would be the rights of individuals of this city. I don’t know. It’s a cross between messianism and transhumanism.”

The first single from H.A.Q.Q., “GOD OF LOVE”, shares particular compositional similarities with “Tragic Laurel” from Aesthethica and “Haelegen/Reign Array” from 2015’s The Ark Work. I ask if those songs are intentionally linked to one another. “Yeah, I kind of know what you mean,” he says. “The musical language of Liturgy is fairly limited. We like certain chord changes and certain types of modulation. People don’t note this very much, but part of what makes Liturgy’s music sound the way it does is that it’s digging into the language of 19th-century classical music. You know, the music of Brahms, especially. I’m such a huge fan of Brahms. And I think that there’s something really powerful, almost epically, about that music.

“It just has this way of resonating with a wide emotional range. It’s feminine and masculine at the same time. It has this way of crescendoing that if you go under the hood, you see that the climaxes are generated by very simple modulations from one key to another, which is a contingent invention from classical music. The classical tonal system hasn’t always existed. Most music is modal; it’s not tonal. This music is not as complex as the music of Brahms, but it’s activating certain types of modulation and chord changes that I think people connect to. I don’t know if it’s naturally, or it’s just sort of in the culture or something like that. It’s a very powerful awakening, just some kind of hope and courage and tenderness.

“There’s this philosopher [Friedrich] Schiller from the 19th century who talks about aesthetic education and trying to create works that create a healthy cultural atmosphere or are invigorating in some way. That sounds kind of like a conservative idea, actually, and maybe in some ways, it is a conservative idea. I think a lot of contemporary culture is unhealthy. I mean, everyone thinks that. So, yeah, to kind of use musical structures to generate a certain state of awareness that may be more receptive to the idea of a new era for civilization or something like that, or a connection to the divine.”

Given that Liturgy has expanded to include more diverse acoustic instrumentation and digital production practices, I ask if the music of H.A.Q.Q. was difficult to mix. How does one determine the way these disparate sounds should fit together? “It’s hard,” he says. “I think this last album H.A.Q.Q. is definitely our best-mixed album. I really couldn’t have done it without Seth Manchester, who is the engineer at Machines with Magnets, which is a studio in Providence. He’s done a great job with a lot of other more art-leaning heavy records like he made the Lingua Ignota record, the Daughters album, Lightning Bolt. He has a really good ear for that stuff. I think that we were able to make the record sound as heavy as it should and still get some details in there for all of the harps and glockenspiels. It’s a technical issue. It’s very difficult to mix this music. I’m very happy with the way it came out.”

One memorable aspect of H.A.Q.Q. is the way that glitches disturb the songs. What, I ask, is the intended function of glitching the music in that way? Hunt-Hendrix’s answer involves Transcendental Black Metal, which he summarizes as having “two basic techniques, one is the burst beat, which is this slant on the black metal blast beat, which accelerates and decelerates”. “And the other,” he says, “is general tremolo, which is a newer idea. I think people know the term a little bit less well. The basic idea is that it’s a mutation of guitar tremolo, which is what black metal uses, that sort of fans out into, first of all, the other elements of the arrangement, like the glockenspiel and the harps. It’s just kind of like these fast repeating notes. But then also it bleeds out of the performance into the recording itself. There’s something I like about that. I like the way that the glitches, they kind of have this Brechtian alienation effect because it really feels like live music. But then you glitch out the whole master track, and it kind of forces you to remember that it’s a recording or something like that.”

As a listener, though, the glitches also remind me that something ecstatic was happening, and now it’s not. “I’m glad it sounds that way,” he responds. “I imagine it as almost just like bursting at the seams. I’m always wanting this bursting-at-the-seams quality. And so what better way to do that than to tear the recording apart, or something like that? But do it in a musically competent way that sounds pretty. It’s not like you wouldn’t get the same effect from glitching out a Talking Heads song or something. The music is already kind of glitching out. It’s this flood of very fast moments, and so it doesn’t sound as different from the live performance as you might think at the same time. I like to think that for some of them, you might not even be sure whether the band is playing it or it’s being glitched out. There were a couple that I put in that were designed to be in the uncanny valley.”

Finally, I ask if there’s any lingering influence of trap music (a stated influence on The Ark Work) on Liturgy’s current sound. “Trap music, I grew up loving the rap music that was being made at the time, especially Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Tupac and mainstream rap in the late 1990s. I’m a little bit less interested in trap music now than I was during the Ark Work era. I think during that time, emo rap didn’t exist yet. People weren’t making a connection between trap music and metal during that time. And I thought it was kind of transgressive and very interesting to push that boundary in part because it felt like there was some kind of cultural chauvinism that was keeping them separate. Now, you know, nu-metal is very trendy, and so I put those elements a little more in the back seat on this record because it’s a little bit less meaningful to me now. But I feel like trap music, especially in its Waka Flocka Flame era or something like that, has a similar potential resonance with 19th-century romanticism that black metal does. And so it’s cool to approach that horizon from the trap music direction, as well.”