In certain circles, some might say “so goes Matt Pike, so goes the entire metal scene.” As the co-founder of two of the most iconic bands of the last two generations of die-hard metal fans, Pike’s mighty riffs laid down with SLEEP and later with High on Fire has led him from the underground to mainstream love from critics and fans alike. With his debut book about to drop, and a solo album tentatively due in 2022, Pike is on a roll and a High on Fire show, playing their first concerts in a few years now, is a necessary ritual for fans.
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Kevin Hufnagel is one of the brightest and best guitarists and creatives in the underground scene, if not in all of music. He ha been in demand as a performer and a producer for over 20 years. You know his work from his many bands: Dysrhythmia, Gorguts, Vaura, Byla and Sabbath Assembly too. However, over eight solo albums Kevin has explored new territory, free of the parameters typical genre-bands have to work within. Chris Tippell of Ghost Cult caught up with him via email to learn about his new solo album Kleines Biest and what makes him tick as an artist.
As well as the likes of Gorguts and Dysrhythmia, you also have several solo efforts. How long has Kleines Biest been in the pipeline?
KH: Kleines Biest took a total of 6 months to make. I recorded and mixed it alone in my apartment, using only guitar through some effects pedals. Then I abstracted a lot of those tracks, digitally, in Logic. It was quiet an obsessive endeavor. My girlfriend would often come home to me sitting in the dark with headphones on, having not eaten or showered all day. I felt I was onto something I hadn’t really heard before in guitar-based experimental music. I wanted to have this mixture of bizarre, otherworldly sounds generated by warping my guitar sounds as much as possible, but with moments of more traditional soaring guitar harmonies. At least that was the concept in the beginning, then the material kept getting stranger and stranger.
It’s such a radical jump from the larger bands you’re known for, and even from other solo efforts like Ashland which still had obvious clean guitar throughout, whereas its much less obvious and distorted. What inspired this leap?
KH: Well, there’s no point in making solo albums that sound anything like your other bands, first and foremost. Regarding the difference between this one and Ashland (which is all baritone-ukulele by the way, not guitar); even though I had enough material to make another album in the style of Ashland, I thought that would be unexciting, to me and the listeners. Instead, I had the desire to make something really abstract and futuristic-sounding. It still retains the darkness that seems to pervade everything I do, giving some coherence album to album.
You mention contemporaries such as Tim Hecker and Gas in the press release for this album. Were such artists your inspirations for this project, and if so what was it about them that influenced you?
KH: Those artists mentioned in the press release were more the label’s (Handmade Birds released the cassette version) impressions of my material rather than actual influences on me. This question just made me check out Gas though, and I’m enjoying it as I type this. I would say musically for this record I drew from influences as disparate as Fennesz, John Cage, This Mortal Coil, various ethnic and industrial musics, and the guitar harmony work found in Fates Warning and Mercyful Fate’s early catalogs; a combination of some of my earliest, more traditional influences and later, more avant-garde ones.
Do you agree that Kleines Biest has a soundtrack quality, perhaps in a sci-fi/horror sense?
KH: Certainly. I would say ultimately when it comes to influences on my work, they are more visual than musical. With this album I found that when I started a musical idea, I would immediately envision a landscape or a scene. This vision helped guide the rest of the piece, and thus I would sculpt an accompanying soundtrack… basically bringing to life what I imagined I would hear in a dream if what I was envisioning visually was just that. I was also heavily into watching the TV show called Disappeared, which is about true missing persons cases. The eerie, unsettling nature of those stories, episode after episode, started to seep into my work as well.
Kleines Biest (and your other solo outings for that matter) is so far departed from metal, much more so than anything else you have done before. Do you think its stuff that people who know you primarily for Gorguts will be in to it or is it a different kind of crowd?
KH: I don’t really consider whether fans of my bands are going to like my solo stuff at all while I’m writing it. Fortunately, those who follow my bands tend to be open-minded types. Still, I feel it’s mainly only the die-hards who really get what I’m doing and support it. I would like to reach more of an audience outside the world of metal, but it’s tough when that’s what you’re primarily known for.
Is this kind of more ambient music something you would like to venture with further or is this a one off?
KH: I’ve been making ambient guitar music since the 90’s, so it’s nothing that’s new to me. I’ve already got another EP finished that’s ready to go. It’s a little less jarring than Kleines Biest, and is meant to be a companion piece to my ‘Polar Night’ EP from a few years back. Both will be issued together as one package, on cassette, later this year.
With touring with other projects, is there any plans to take this album out on the road or to do any shows for it, or is it just a studio project?
KH: Live I only play the solo acoustic compositions, so mainly stuff from Ashland and Songs for the Disappeared, as well as unreleased works. I haven’t figured out a way to perform the abstract, ambient material yet. So much of it is manipulated in the computer and layered in a way that I could never duplicate live, and I wouldn’t want to be one of those laptop guys that just presses play and pretends I’m doing something.
Do you focus on one project at a time, or switch between different things? How do you balance doing diverse projects?
KH: I’m involved in too many things to really just focus on one thing at a time. I usually split up my days, when I have the time, working on a variety of projects. Sometimes I will lean towards working on one more than the others if I’m really on a roll creatively, or there is a show/tour/recording coming up. It can feel overwhelming sometimes. These days I really need to be disciplined with documenting all my ideas sonically, as well as notating them in written form, because it gets to be too much for my little brain to remember everything.
What is in store for Kevin Hufnagel for the foreseeable future?
KH: Finish writing the next Dysrhythmia record, which I hope we can record this winter. Track the new Gorguts EP in October. Release my next solo record before the end of the year. Vaura is demoing new material currently, very different from our precious recordings. I’m also working with the band Sabbath Assembly now and our new record will be coming out in September on Svart Records. So expect a lot of new music coming from me in 2016.
While not exactly a household name even in underground Metal, Kevin Hufnagel’s CV covers an impressive range of some of the more interesting and experimental bands and albums in modern Metal. His time in Dysrhythmia, Gorguts and Vaura shows a creative, ambitious player who’s not prepared to settle in one place for too long – so it’s hardly surprising that his new solo album leaves behind even the flexible restrictions of those bands to engage entirely with his own creativity.
The music on Kleines Biest (self-released) is a little outside Ghost Cult’s usual comfort zone in terms of labels and references, but if pushed I’d describe it as a kind of abstract composition, drawing on elements of Noise, Dark Ambient and other electronic forms, alongside occasional uses of Hufnagel’s guitar. The eleven tracks are instrumental, and each focus on a particular style or atmospheric theme, covering a broad range from sinister to reflective. There are aspects of Hufnagel’s compositional approach that are suggestive of Scott Walker’s post-Tilt (Fontana) work, but without Walker’s voice and skewed “song-writing”, it takes on more of a background role.
At its best, Kleines Biest is genuinely both daring and engaging collection of tracks from a musician who has clearly set out to challenge himself. Perhaps the most successful parts – certainly from the perspective of most Ghost Cult readers – come when Hufnagel brings his guitar to the compositions, employing abstract, atmospheric riffing that highlights how the trappings of Metal can be used to achieve unconventional results. Like a lot of “background” music, however, it can sometimes slip into meaningless abstraction and hollow sounds – at its worst, Kleines Biest is little more than more adventurous lift music, and the album perhaps outstays its welcome at times, especially during the more ambient or contemplative sections.
A largely successful experiment in stepping beyond the boundaries of Metal, then, for a musician who has spent his career pushing and testing those boundaries, but most people reading this are likely to prefer his work within the more structured format of a band.