Interview with Timothy Pope | By Eric May
The Australian experimental metal powerhouse known as The Amenta are back and this time with a crushing look at two dichotomies, the will to live and the will to die. On their new album Flesh Is Heir, Timothy Pope describes the constant battle that every human being faces on a day to day basis and why it is significant, as well as the interesting process of how the album came together, why a band shouldn’t be influenced but inspired – and several more intriguing inquiries. The Amenta displays just one of the many reasons why the genre of metal music remains one of the most intelligent genres of music in the world. Put on your thinking cap and get ready to expand your mind…
First of all, explain the concept of Flesh Is Heir. What exactly does this mean and how does this concept relate to the album itself?
Flesh is Heir is thematically about the war between the two sides of the human psyche. We all have these two sides, though some lean further to one side than the other. The first aspect of humanity is one that we have termed “The Obliterate.” The Obliterate is the aspect of us that desires to be subsumed by something greater than itself. Existence drags behind it a huge bundle of troubles, worries and strife. The Obliterate seeks to escape these issues by losing the understanding of the self by become just a small part of something greater. You can achieve this annihilation of the self through booze, drugs, religion, violence and sex amongst others. The other aspect in the war is one that we call “The Realist”. The Realist, rather than trying to destroy the self, actually tries to propagate it. This aspect is the desire for survival and individuality.
These sides are constantly at war and it is the tension between the two that is the energy that we know as life. This tension is utilized throughout the album because we are trying to exercise both aspects of ourselves in the music. Some parts of the album were created to sweep you up and blow your thoughts from you brains. Other parts are meant to make you stop, think and question. The lyrics take both sides of the argument and try to find the ideal way. I have come to the conclusion that there is no ideal – Just the struggle.
What was the recording process like for Flesh Is Heir? Where did you record it, how long did it take? Were there any notable difficulties?
Flesh is Heir is the first full- length album that we have completely recorded and mixed ourselves. In the past we have used external engineers to record the drums and mix the product (while we have recorded everything else) but you end up compromising your vision. We have spent the last few years working our skills up to the point where we felt we were able to do our own music justice. The album was mixed by Erik [Miehs, guitars] and I think he did a phenomenal job. It is the most sympathetic mix that we have ever had. It allows all the aspects of our sound to show through, where in the past our recordings have been too guitar or electronically weighted. It is a very organic and natural sound and I reckon it smokes most of the production out there at the moment.
The process was very long, as all our recordings are. The first difficulty was that all the members of the band now live in different areas. We are/were a Sydney-based band but now only two members actually live in Sydney. Cain [Cressall, vocals] is the worst culprit. He lives in Perth, which is about a three-day drive from Sydney across very inhospitable desert. So getting together to record was very difficult. We sent a lot of ideas to each other via email and dropbox, which certainly helped. We recorded most of the album in our own studio, NON Studios, but due to the distance, Cain recorded his vocals at his studio, Violent Voice in Perth.
This recording was actually easier than a lot of our recordings in the past, at least for me. For the previous album n0n, I spent literally months per song creating all the electronics and samples. It was an arduous and tedious process. I couldn’t face the idea of that level of detail and work again and, as I am now one of the members that live outside Sydney, I couldn’t spend that amount of time in the studio away from my family. So I had to find another method to record. I ended up finding a way that was much more immediate and “live”. Instead of programming parts, I made a huge sample bank of tiny sounds that I had recorded around the house. I used kitchen appliances, child toys; circuit bent guitar pedals, homemade spring guitar as well as stealing small bits of audio from some modern composers. I made these into keyboard patches and mapped all the controllers of my keyboard to various effects. Then I basically played the sounds live into the sessions while mangling and affecting the sounds in real time. The end result is a much more organic, immediate and human album.
What exactly did you want to convey musically with the album? There are bits of electronic, mixed in with various nuances of death and core and black.
It’s funny that you mentioned “core”. I don’t hear that aspect in our sound at all and it was definitely not a conscious decision. Other than a bit of older hardcore (Black Flag, Minor Threat etc.) we don’t listen to hardcore or metalcore at all. I think people get confused because our previous vocalist had tattoos and holes in his ears. He listened to hardcore but he had nothing to do with the writing of any of our music and joined the band after the music of n0n was recorded. I have always been confused by that. To me, it seems that people are listening with their eyes and not with their ears. But, I firmly believe that it is not the artist’s role to dictate how their music should be appreciated. So if you hear hardcore then so be it.
We do not try to shoehorn different sounds into our style. We have been doing this long enough and, unlike a lot of bands; we have spent years before ever releasing anything working out what we want to do. We never sit down to write a black metal riff or a death metal riff. We just like to make ugly, dirty music because it makes us grin. There is a savage joy from creating a truly disturbing piece of music. New ideas that push the boundaries of the artists experience are the most inspiring ideas imaginable. We spend our writing sessions trying to find those ideas. We deliberately never limit the palette of sounds that we draw from. We grew up with death and black metal but also have a keen interest in electronic and experimental music so those aspects obviously tend to filter in. But we will try anything. On Flesh is Heir there is the song “Cell” which is almost trip hop. Any idea that gets us interested and excited is worth pursuing. We avoid ideas that remind us of ideas that we have already created or heard. They are boring and do not inspire us to continue to write the song. Only those original and unique ideas are used.
Explain the concept behind “A Palimpsest.” Something about that track seems a bit tribal at first and then things go into a much electronic nature.
There was no concept to A Palimpsest. Like a lot of our recordings it began with one single idea and was built up from it. The first sound I recorded was that percussion sound. I created a drum loop at a ridiculously fast tempo and put a bit of reverb across it. I recorded the track back into the session and then slowed it down to about a quarter of the speed. Instead of the clattering drum sounds that it started with, it became more of that “tribal” indistinguishable sound. Another notable sound in that track is the choir loop. A very good friend of ours who creates Ritual Noise under the name Melek Tha provided this. I took that loop and mucked around with it to create the harmonic base of the track. There are other percussion sounds in there made from bits of metal I found on the side of the round, and the noise section is made using an ostrich guitar which has been resampled and mangled as it played.
For all of the ambient pieces for this and all of our albums, the genesis always comes from experimentation. It is a process of sitting down with a blank canvas and starting to record and manipulate sound until something grabs my ear. Then it goes back to experimentation. I slowly build the song until it feels like it says enough. Often I end up deleting the first idea because it becomes unnecessary. My new technique is to try to use as little layers as possible to convey a mood.
There are so many interesting song titles on the album, like “Teeth”, “A Womb Tone”, “Obliterate’s Prayer” and the ending of “Tabula Rasa.” What are the concepts behind these tracks?
They all tie back into the theme of the war between the two sides of the human psyche. “Teeth” is about the use of drugs to strip away the human aspects of the mind, leaving only the basest desires and instincts or “reptile mind”. We’ve all seen people who change completely when under the influence. This song documents the purposeful destruction of the self and draws parallels between drug effects and de-evolution and eventual re-evolution.
“A Womb Tone” is obviously an instrumental so there are no lyrics to discuss but the title refers to the idea of the womb as a safe place before the self becomes a stand-alone entity. The title is a play on the term “room tone” which is the sound that is recorded when you turn up microphones in a silent room. Even in silence there is noise. Even in the womb there are worries.
“Obliterate’s Prayer” contains some of my favorite lyrics on the album. The song is about the use of music to destroy the concept of self. Some bands create music (and in this instance the inspiration was seeing the band Swans live and listening to their live album, We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Heads) that removes the ability to think as you listen to them. The music is so immense and all consuming that you only realize minutes later that you had effectively ceased to exist. “Obliterate’s Prayer” uses the idea of drowning to describe this process. At first you fight, but as you let go you sink to the bottom and all is peaceful.
Finally “Tabula Rasa” is about the use of mob violence and mass hysteria to annihilate the self. This song tries to tie together various acts of public hysteria, bravery and cowardice. Obvious examples are the English Riots in 2011, the Arab Spring, Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 1604 and the Hacktivism of Anonymous.
I’ve heard the term “Tabula Rasa” used before. It means a clean slate. Do you think that this is what mankind needs right now? A reboot?
If you had asked me few years ago I would have been very quick to say, “yes, let’s reboot. Let’s have a year zero and start again.” Perhaps I am getting cynical as I get older but my feelings on this now is that, even if that were possible, people will not change. We are still driven by the same basic greed. We will fuck over our neighbor for a few bucks. You put the right amount of stress on people and they will do terrible things. At our most basic level we are all animals. It’s survival of the fucking fittest. Now that we are “civilized” fitness isn’t determined by physicality but by cunning, amoral drive and above all, money. I am certain that if we would start again then we would end up at the exact same place. People are both noble and disgusting even within one body. I am just as capable of terrible acts as the next person. But I am also just as capable of noble, poetic things. But you put our backs to the wall and you watch the rats scuttle.
In the context of Flesh is Heir; “Tabula Rasa” refers to the purifying and nullifying nature of mob violence. Through these terrible, violent and disturbing acts, the mob reset their clock. They come out of the fire newborn and once again capable of decisions that could lead to “mangod” or “manbeast.”
Explain “The Argument.” I’m quite curious as to what this argument is about and how it relates to the rest of the album. Why is this argument significant? Who is having this argument?
“The Argument” is one of the central lyrics of the Flesh is Heir theme. It is a microcosm of the structure of the entire album. The argument is between The Obliterate and The Realist. One aspect suggests an idea while the other tears it down. The central points of the argument where taken from the Proverbs of Hell, by William Blake. I liked the idea of using the Proverbs of Hell because they are very thought provoking on their own and hopefully these lyrics would draw people’s attention to them. They are essentially Humanist ideals.
“The Argument” is a very important part of the album’s flow. I think, because the argument on its macro level is carried out over the course of the rest of the album, the actual back and forth between the two sides could get lost. This song brings it back into focus and into a literal argument between the two.
Obviously, the sound of The Amenta requires certain tools. What are the kinds of instruments that were used on this album? What brands of guitars and drums do you use? What programs or keyboards do you use for your electronics?
We aren’t the kind of musicians that are very gear proud or protective. We will use whatever we have lying around and The Amenta’s sound comes from our brains not from our equipment. So I don’t really know what guitars and cymbals the other guys use. Erik uses seven strings mainly. Most of the sound of Flesh is Heir comes from our method of recording. In our studio we have two computers. One is the main recording computer, which is running Pro-Tools. We use some of the effects on that machine to rip apart the sounds and create the ambiance that we like. The other computer, running Logic, functioned both as a synth host and as an outboard effects machine. Sometimes guitars would go into the effects computer, be manipulated with a controller keyboard and then fed into the main computer.
For the effects and noise, there are very few actual keyboard sounds. I can think of maybe three instances where I used an actual keyboard sound. All the others were samples that I had created. I like doing this because it means no one is ever going to sound like us. I couldn’t even recreate most of those sounds, as they were all manipulated in real time as we recorded. Everything will be an approximation.
I think the most important aspect to our sound is that we aren’t precious with anything. We believe that the recorded sound is just another aspect that can be manipulated. So we will pitch shift vocals or guitars, distort drums, create bass loops. We try to work like dub musicians. The recorded sound has many potential sounds and we try to mangle and rework the sounds until they are very unique. I can’t think of many other bands in extreme music that are as open to change and manipulation as us.
What bands could you cite as influences to your music? What bands are you personally into these days?
We don’t cite any bands as influences. There is a huge confusion between the terms influence and inspiration. Influence is a negative thing. You are influenced by events or by restrictions. You shouldn’t be influenced by bands. I think of creation as a journey. You are following a path and you don’t know where you are going but you will know when you get there. On that path there are many forks. Each fork is a decision. If we were influenced by another band at each of these forks those influences would cloud our judgment and force us away from the path we would naturally choose. So influence has to be avoided. Inspiration, on the other hand, has to be cultivated. If influence pushes you off the honest path then inspiration doesn’t push or pull at all. It is a lantern that lets you see the fork in all its detail. Then you can make an honest decision unclouded by outside influence.
So we are not influenced by other bands. We are, however; inspired by many, many bands. I can’t speak for the other guys, because inspiration is a very individual and private thing, but I am inspired by any artist that finds a unique language in which to express themselves. There are so many bands that create music that is redundant. When you hear a band that is saying something completely new or saying something old in a new way it is life changing. When I was a younger man I found a lot of this in black metal and death metal but it has been a while since a band has really sat me on my arse. I have to search a lot further afield for that jaw dropping moment. I hear it in all kinds of music. It could be electronic music (I am listening to Boards of Canada as I write this.) I have recently surprised myself by enjoying a bit of avant-garde hip-hop. I love the new Immolation album because no one sounds like Robert Vigna. There is a killer Garage/Noise Rock/Whateverthefuck band from Australia called The Drones; the lyricist has a mind-blowing way with imagery. Also another Australian band called Heirs play a kind of post-metal that sounds nothing like either Neurosis or Isis and therefore rules. I’ve always had a soft spot for bands like Einsturzende Neubauten who invented a whole new language for music. Another release I have been playing a lot is Final Report from X-TG, the splinter group of Throbbing gristle. I love all sorts of different music and I will listen to whatever gets my rocks off.
The album and its imagery seem to revolve around being gagged and chained, thus is the same with your band photos. Do you feel that we’re perhaps, “chained to the flesh?”
Our relationship to ourselves, and by extension, our flesh is a complex one. In line with the war between the two opposing aspects of our psyche we both despise and desire our own flesh. People simultaneously want to protect it from harm and tear it off and dance around in our bones.
I love the cover image of the album because it has a little of that ambiguity and ambivalence. The figure (portrayed by Cain), is gagged and chained and is desperately trying to escape. But if you look closely at his hands, his left is pulling the chains away from his throat as you would expect but the right is pushing the chains into his throat. We both want to survive and be obliterated. We’ve all thought about killing ourselves, whether seriously or idly, and that is the spoor of The Obliterate. The fact that we are still here to conduct this interview shows you the power of The Realist. We want to live just as much as we want to sleep.
Obviously, you’ve had the ability to tour with several bands (and from the sound of the live tracks, your songs sound brilliant on stage) so what would you consider the high point of your recent tours, and what would you consider the low point, or where you’ve run into any trouble? Also, have you had any experiences while on tour that you’d consider comical?
Touring is always a comical experience. Just the fact that you are leaving your life behind to live in a van for weeks or months on end is an elaborate joke. I guess a recent high point was our first ever gig in Asia at the Hammersonic Festival in Indonesia. We had never been to Asia as a band and had no idea what to expect. I am not sure of the actual numbers but it looked like we played for 8000 + people which was pretty killer. We met some amazing people and had a great time. We’d love to get back to Asia as soon as possible.
There are low points in every tour and there almost seems to be a cycle of depression and elation that you go through every week. For me, the lowest point I had was at a gig in St Paul, Minnesota. We were setting up our gear ten minutes before we were due to start. As I plugged all my gear in, I realized one of the power adapters to one of my synths was fucked. Throwing our gear into a trailer every night had caused the cable to fray. So basically I was hamstrung. Half of my shit worked and half didn’t. The rest of the guys played a blinder of a show but I could only chime in occasionally. I was so fucking pissed that I punched my gear board and fucked up my hand. That would go down as one of the worst shows I have ever played.
Now to lighten things up. The comical was on the same tour with Vader, Decrepit Birth, Warbringer, Augury and Swashbuckle. We happened to have a day off in California for Thanksgiving. Being Australian we had no idea what the fuck was going on with this holiday. One of the guys on the tour by the name of Kenny, who was doing merch for Warbringer, ended up taking the entirety of The Amenta and Augury to his family’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was one of the most surreal times of my live. We hadn’t showered in days and some of us were probably a little bit worse for wear after some holiday consumption but these people were amazing. They fed us, gave us use of their shower and generally seemed to love the idea that their family holiday was overrun by stinking, hate filled homeless fuckers. I am eternally grateful to Kenny for introducing a bit of good times into what was otherwise a long and grueling tour.
Keeping the tone of Flesh Is Heir in mind, how long do you think we have as a human race? Do you think we can pull through or is the planet completely doomed?
I won’t make a prediction for time because I don’t think it is a case of a Mayan prophecy and then doomsday. I don’t think people can change. We are animals fundamentally and while I am sure some of your country folk would disagree, we are descended from apes. We are primal and you can dress us up in civilization but that disappears pretty quickly in the right circumstances. People will fuck each other over for a couple of bucks. I would happily kill to provide just one more day of food for my family. If we were to “pull through” what would we pull through to? Some utopian dream world? I don’t buy it. Even if we could start from that place we would bring all of our greed and animal instincts of personal survival at all costs and it would pretty quickly resemble the old world.
I don’t see it as an end of the world thing. I don’t think that humanity is going to blow itself up. To my mind it is a slowly diminishing circle. We keep tracing the same steps over and over but gradually getting closer to a point where we can’t move anymore and we just stop. Humanity is doomed in the same way all species are doomed. There is a use by date. The power of the machine is such that we can’t redirect it. “Civilization” and our animal instincts force a certain form of behavior on to us en masse. So while an individual might be able to change they will never be able to swing the mass.
Finally, what does The Amenta mean? Where did you come up with this name and how do you think it relates to you as a band?
The Amenta means “the Hidden Earth” and was the underworld in Egyptian mythology. The symbol itself represents the setting sun. The decay of western civilization (metaphorically represented by the setting sun) has been a recurring image in all of our albums. It was originally a song title for a song that went on to be renamed and appeared on our first album, Occasus. On that album we used a lot of ancient mythology to metaphorically discuss the issues that we saw with western culture. The name suited the band because it carried with it those images of decay but also the idea of the temple of judgment from Egyptian mythology where the soul is weighed against a feather. We like to think that we sit in judgment. All of our lyrics are weighing the world against a feather. How do you think it falls?
Thank you for your answers and for a bold and interesting vision.
Thank you very much for the interview and the obviously researched and thoughtful questions. It was an absolute pleasure to speak with you.
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