“My taste in music, my need for music, has never left me. I find that everything I do in life, I need music to get me through it, it’s a constant soundtrack that needs to keep going.“
If an evil genie had you stranded on a desert island and limited your musical selection to the past discography of one single artist, you could do far worse than to pick MAT MCNERNEY, or Kvohst as he is also known (a pseudonym that is explained during the course of this conversation, by the way). The British singer/songwriter, who has established himself in Finland for quite a number of years now, has been a part of fascinating, groundbreaking bands like Dødheimsgard, Beastmilk, Code, Void or Decrepit Spectre, and currently boasts the dreamlike duo of Grave Pleasures and Hexvessel as his main vehicles of artistic expression. The Devil’s Mouth caught Mat super busy in the middle of the promotion for the new Grave Pleasures album, the sublime ‘Motherblood’, but he still had time for a long and very pleasant chat about his roots, his journey and his expectations for what is still to come.
You were very young when you formed your first “real” band, Vomitorium, so you must have gotten into music quite early. Do you remember what were the first sounds that got some sort of special reaction from you?
There were a few small explosions in my mind that started to set it off… I think the earliest one was seeing the Beastie Boys ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ video. I was already listening to music, I was already aware that it was a sort of a magical thing for me, but when that came on TV and I caught sight of it, I was blown away, it was something else. The stuff my parents had was pretty tame, mostly pop, it was nice music, then this came along and I was like, wow, what is this? It was so punk, so different. I remember I went to school, and we had to do this woodwork shop where we’d make these name badges for our door, or you could put your mother’s name in there, and everyone was making these kinds of fancy things. I just wanted to write “Beastie Boys” in there! [laughs] So I got it on this plaque I made, it was pretty advanced for a kid to make it, and I remember I got in trouble with it. I remember my teacher going like “what is this Beastie Boys?!” [in delightful evil-teacher vocal mode] The name alone drove people a bit nuts, it sounded like they were nasty. Thinking back now it was very tame for what it was, but yeah, ‘Licensed To Ill’ was one of the first albums I got and it really bridged that gap when I started to get into metal.
So it seems the rebellious attitude was something that appealed to you from the start, right?
Yeah, it was a Catholic boys’ school, so it was very much that I was attracted to what broke me out of it, out of that mindset. Music at that point was the most daring art form that did it, it was the one I was attracted to the most. Everybody was very concerned with music being dangerous for young people at that time, there was a lot of talk about it, the whole Judas Priest legend was going around. It was still very much in the air that music drove people to suicide and it was dangerous, and that’s how it was thought of by the priests and my teachers and my parents definitely. I think that me going from Paul Simon and Elvis Presley to liking the Beastie Boys was like a dangerous culture that I was getting into, and that felt good for me. It was freedom, it was rebelling, getting out of my bubble.
Your aforementioned first band, Vomitorium, was a death metal band. Was death metal your first “extreme” love, before black metal came along?
Yeah, definitely. Death metal came first. Black metal wasn’t really a term during that early 90s death metal scene, not until Darkthrone, which for me was the first experience of it. I got a tape with ‘Soulside Journey’ and ‘A Blaze In The Northern Sky’ on it, and I totally misunderstood which was which. I thought ‘A Blaze…’ was the first album and ‘Soulside Journey’ was the next one. That seemed logical to me and my friends too, of course it is, you’ll want to be progressing into this death metal style that everyone’s doing, not the other way around. I thought this noisy weird stuff is surely the past. [laughs] Then another guy came in with something else, and it was Mayhem, and he was like, no no, this is the new thing! It’s going into black metal! And we were like, wow! It just turned everything on its head, it felt like the sound was regressing, it was going back into this sort of… because Bathory was an anomaly back then, you know? It was something weird, not a whole thing to base a style around. So when that happened we took a bit of that into the style of Vomitorium as well, but it was still death metal. We were much more inspired by the bands of the scene. London-based bands and what was happening in England was for me much more exciting and inspiring than the Florida bands or anything like that.
You could go and see those bands all the time, they came and played – we actually had a venue in our school, underneath the school, called The Crypt, and local bands played there. Bands like Decomposed were really inspiring to us, Dark Heresy too, these were bands that felt really technically advanced to us at the time. Listening back to it now, they were kids as well, but we really liked them a lot. There was this ‘Underground Titans’ tape, which had Incarcerated, Gomorrah and stuff like that, that was really important, there was also this death metal festival in Tufnell Park and I went to that and it blew my mind… I was basically blagging my way out in the evenings. We would say we’d stay at someone’s house, and this guy’s parents were more relaxed about letting us out, so it was all basically this big lie that we were staying at his house when we were all going out. We got found out once, when we went to see Napalm Death one night, we were in a lot of trouble. [laughs] But that was the atmosphere, it was like, “yeah, let’s go out and see some nasty death metal! Against our parents’ wishes!“
Personally, although I never stopped liking death metal to this day, I do remember that when I discovered black metal, it seemed so much more sophisticated, so much more connected to some sort of thought process, despite all the chaos that existed around the genre, particularly in Norway. Was it a similar transition for you?
It was, totally. And it wasn’t just the Norwegian bands, there was also Rotting Christ, the Finnish bands too, Unholy and Beherit… I was into ‘Drawing Down The Moon’ more than a lot of the Norwegian stuff. Impaled Nazarene‘s first record was something that also really took hold. I had all these fanzines, I was really into them back then, there were all these different scenes going on at the same time, it was weird that Norway kind of just came out on top, I guess all the drama in the scene helped. But I definitely felt that all these bands were as good as each other and that there was a strong scene in each country. What was really interesting was that everybody was bringing up history – the Greek bands were taking pictures in tombs and other historical places and things like that, for example.
The great thing about all this letter writing was that it really taught me to write letters. I wasn’t a very schooled kid, I wasn’t very good at school, didn’t do great in exams, and stuff, but writing and getting all these letters, you always got recommendations about books, it was all very literary as well as about the music itself. I remember I wrote with Dani from Cradle Of Filth, there was a lot of talking about horror writers and things like that, and that, in turn, got me into reading more books. Just writing these eloquent letters was a feat in itself for a kid who’s just at school. I think it brought us up, me and my friends at school at that time. We were like, we have to go home and write a bunch of letters now! [laughs] Other friends at school definitely weren’t doing that, they were just starting to experiment with alcohol and smoking weed and things like that. The whole music thing, in a way, delayed a lot that for us. Being in London and exposed to those things, it was actually very good that we had something else to do and to be exposed to, that was productive when you think about it. Making tape cassettes and sending them out, those were your first steps towards something a bit more mature, it’s something that helps you in all jobs in life, I suppose, that young experience in communication.
I do realise that I’ve had established from a very early age several notions of language, of geography and other useful kinds of knowledge, and all of it has stemmed from being a part of that “network” we had. You ended up assimilating a lot of culture in that way, and discover a lot about things that seemed alien to you.
Yeah, and there was a weird thing, a strange kind of contradiction, that everyone was so proud of their culture, there was this sort of cultural awareness, but at the same time everyone was really international in the way that they would think, and have friends all over the world. I talked to friends at school or to my parents about certain things, and I’d say, yeah, I know about this or that place, because I’m writing with a guy who is from there! It was amazing, it was something that didn’t happen usually to people back then. Now with the internet everything is so open, it’s different. But also, the idea that you had to work for your musical hobby was interesting. Because you really did have to work to get those recordings, someone had to get you the tape, and everything you did was a sort of social activity. Even if you were stuck in your room listening to tapes you were still connected, that was our own form of internet, we’d just establish the connection through tapes and trading and letters. I still keep all those tapes and letters, they changed a lot of things for me, it was like a springboard to other places.
“[Fenriz] called himself Satan’s Poet, and that suddenly made it okay for you to say you read poetry.“
What kind of literature did you get into because of music?
I started with Bram Stoker, then you’d go backwards to H.P. Lovecraft, and then getting into Arthur Machen and the more obscure writers. I remember going into bookshops as a kid and asking about any Arthur Machen original books, because they were all mostly out of print. And the people there were like, “What?? How do you know about this? You’re just a kid!” They’d be delighted, of course, but also wary, like, what the hell is going on here. The quality of the writing in most of the lyrics was also very advanced, Fenriz’ lyrics in those first albums was amazing, super rich contextually for getting into other things, like poets for example. I mean, he called himself Satan’s Poet, and that suddenly made it okay for you to say you read poetry. My English teacher was struggling to get anyone to sit still and listen to a poem, or write a poem of any kind, and suddenly me and my friends were like, alright, we’ll write poems and read them and everything! It was cool.
At what point did you look in the mirror and start seeing Mat, the musician?
I guess it’s really only recently that I’ve been thinking about that, that it’s kind of what defines me. I’ve always known that music is my thing, but I’ve always just seen myself like a fan or a music freak who enjoys doing these other things. It’s only now, really, that I look at it and I can see I have some notoriety here and there, I’ve had some successes in music, and I think that okay, maybe that’s my thing over everything else. In a way, I think that has kept me humble and hungry. I don’t really feel like I’ve achieved that much. I’m proud of what I do, of course, but what drives you on is that will to be getting to where you’re going. I’ve only ever had one ambition in my life, and that was to get signed and put something out on a record label, a musical work I’ve created. Apart from that I’ve always had the sense more to give back to something that has given me so much. Music has saved me, it has helped me to break out from that stifled, Catholic upbringing. I was very well looked after while I was a kid growing up, but I was always very artistic and creative, so I always had more to give than what I felt I was able to. That was the ambition that drove that on. As I got there, the ambition has been completed, I’ve been able to get work out, but the drive keeps going. The goal is never completed, it’s an insatiable need to keep feeding back into that which has been feeding me. My taste in music, my need for music, has never left me. I find that everything I do in life, I need music to get me through it, it’s a constant soundtrack that needs to keep going, and that’s why I feel I need to give back.
Is there a defining moment to your career that you would pinpoint, something that you see the definitive jump? Was it joining Code, or the period that you lived in Norway, or something else?
I think that joining Dødheimsgard was it. I worked really hard to get the job in that band, and then I got really brought up by Yusaf Parvez, Vicotnik. He was very experienced and he taught me everything about how to be, how to behave, the responsibilities of all these things. I didn’t know, for example, how to react if I was at a gig and someone would come up to me and say “hey, great show man“. My first reaction would be to want to tell him to piss off and leave me alone, I didn’t understand and I felt that was the only way to react. That was “cool”, a musician should be aloof and mysterious and away from those people, and if they try to come into your world you should be aggressive about it, because black metal is about that. Yusaf was the first person to take hold of me and tell me “you know, you’re an asshole. That isn’t the way to behave. If someone comes and tells you that you’re doing good music, you politely tell them thank you, even if you don’t know what to react.” Because it’s a really big thing for someone to come up to you and say that.
So that brought me up, because I never really had that, I never had a mentor to teach me, to guide me through how to be a professional musician. Yusaf was the first person who taught me that to be a professional was to be a classy person, to not treat people like crap, to always thank the people at the venue when you finish the show. I really value all those things that I got from him, because it would have been a really hard road for me otherwise. I had always been on my own before that, and bands were always a source of antagonism. You’d argue with your bandmates and things like that, and he was the first one to instil some sense of discipline in me, of respect for people, not just in these examples but in everything. That whole experience made me realise that, if you do things the right way, you will have success in this business. It’s all about your connections. And with this, it all came back to me – everything I’d done to get to that point was through other people. The connections that you make and those things that you do, that leads you where you are. It’s not about your own talent. I had always thought that these musicians that I liked, they had gotten to where they were by sheer talent alone, that was my first taste of the idea that the people around you are as much a part of your success as your talent.
I suppose that from a purely musical standpoint, being in Dødheimsgard was also decisive for you? Even if that whole Norwegian avant-garde scene that was on fire at the time did not really last in the way that we thought it might, at the time, it’s still some of the best and most groundbreaking extreme music that has ever been done.
Definitely, yeah. It was a bit sad for me that when I joined that band, those were pretty much the last days of that music being relevant. You had avantgarde-metal.com, you had almost a scene, and in my mind I felt that it was going to go forward. What you’re seeing now, with black metal being so diverse – you’ve got stuff like Myrkur which is such a weird mix of pop music and black metal and stuff –, that’s what I thought was going to happen back then. What I think is a bit of a shame is that no one recognises how ahead of the time those bands really were. I was listening to ‘666 International’ in the car with Juho from Oranssi Pazuzu, who’s also the guitarist in Grave Pleasures, and he wasn’t that aware of that record. That blows my mind, because Oranssi Pazuzu are so much at the forefront of what is experimental black metal right now, and getting popularity from it, while Dødheimsgard are almost an obscure band. That blows my mind, because they were so influential back then, and people don’t realise how much that has made today possible, basically. I think that it could have gone further, I guess that by existing, it almost necessitated the end. Where do you go after that? You had to regress to go forward again, just because it was so far out, and a little too soon too, basically.
When you’re too far ahead of your time, that’s the sort of thing that tends to happen.
Yeah, I remember that when we did Void, we were doing something like that, I talked to people from the Norwegian scene and they weren’t thinking there was any relevance for the Emperors and the Satyricons and the Darkthrones. It felt like Dødheimsgard coming out with ‘666…’ had redefined everything and that from now on it would only be bands like that that were going to be seen as leaders of the scene. It really was taken that seriously, maybe black metal was over and Dødheimsgard were the leaders of the scene now. That’s how we saw it, we were doing Void that was heavily inspired by what was going on there, also by the industrial scene that was so big in Britain, with these big goth clubs and stuff like that, and we took a bit of that on board. But we were playing live, playing with Zyklon, and people didn’t really get it, they didn’t know what to make of it. In our minds we were already there, but we didn’t realise it would take so long for people to be interested in bands like that. You see a band like Igorrr, they’re huge, and they’re great, but they’re basically making what ‘666 International’ was. No one has any clue Dødheimsgard already did that twenty years ago.
“When I write, I just don’t write black metal.”
Is there a specific reason why you never returned to extreme music (as a performer, at least, not as a fan) after leaving both Dødheimsgard and Code in 2011?
I think I was a little disillusioned when I left Dødheimsgard, from what I imagined I was going to achieve there. Ultimately I realised I had to do something of my own. I had joined other people’s bands, I had done Code, which was a collaboration, Dødheimsgard which was very obviously somebody else’s legacy, and always would be, and it was a delight to be a part of those things, but at some point I realised that I had so much more to give, so much will to create, that it wasn’t going to work out for me in the long term. So I left that, I moved to Finland, and I was thinking of doing something as a reaction to all of that. I took everything that I’ve done on board, but when I write, I just don’t write black metal. It’s weird, but if I’m thinking musically, what I create is basically what nowadays comes out in Hexvessel and in Grave Pleasures. I can pretty much define it by those two areas, stylistically. I don’t feel that I have metal in me to write. Maybe I got it all out of myself by doing those bands, maybe I have something to come later, I don’t know. It’s not like there’s bound rules or anything, I just have to do what’s natural, and if I sit down and make a metal song, it’s going to sound contrived. I think you have to do what your heart tells you to do, musically. I was a bit afraid of releasing Hexvessel, for example, because it was so stylistically different – it took a lot of friends telling me to do it, that it was good and that I shouldn’t be afraid of putting out something different, that I didn’t have any expectations I should try to fulfil. That felt good, and it was a surprise that did well. I wasn’t expecting anything, really.
Having lived in Finland for a long time now, and with your family and your bands firmly established there, do you feel part Finnish already too?
I guess I do now, yeah. I think I always will, no matter where I live. It’s kind of the heartland, if you like, it’s where I get inspiration from. Have done, for a really long time. Before I met my wife, before I settled in Finland, it was this sort of imaginary world. I once read a Terry Brooks book, ‘Magic Kingdom For Sale – Sold!’, the main character buys a magic kingdom in a catalogue, and he gets there by going through this secret entrance in the forest, and it’s like another dimension. It’s really weird, but I really related to that so much, it’s what I felt about it when I got to this place, and a few other places too. It’s like your imaginary world and reality are fused. The person you want to be and imagine yourself is reality, and your outlook on things, in your imaginary world, is suddenly reality and it makes sense. It feels natural, and very good artistically to spend time in that environment. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but I guess people who have traveled, who have searched for something, and have found it, can relate to it. I was reading Jaz Coleman’s book and he talks about the island where he lives in New Zealand as being that place, the mystical kind of Atlantis that you discover. It’s worth going through years of looking where that place might be.
I read someone describing Hexvessel and Grave Pleasures as your light and dark sides. Although that’s very debatable – I think there’s a lot of both light and dark in both of them –, they do feel like a complementary duo. Are you fully satisfied with what you get from the both of them?
Right now, yeah, definitely. I think it’s also the role in both those bands – in Grave Pleasures I’m very free to be the frontman figure and to explore that side of myself, and it’s a proper band, the chemistry between us and the way we react interact with each other is very different, very collaborative. It’s really living that rock’n’roll dream. Hexvessel on the other hand is basically a solo project, it’s an internal discussion, it’s very introspective, the world that comes out in the music is pretty much inhabited by myself only, it’s less of a shared world. The collaborative part is more when we play the music. I’m very lucky to have two very distinct bands that I’m a part of, because I’m a lot like that, and one thing ends up inspiring the other. I usually have four or five books that I’m reading at the same time, and I’m always into a few bands at any given moment too, so it makes sense my bands reflect that too.
Sometimes you’re still referred to as your old “black metal name” Kvohst. What’s the actual origin of that pseudonym, and are you still okay with people calling you that?
The origin was a dream I had, and I came up with the name after that. I felt that, within the context of the dream, it was a gift, a spirit name, if you will, that I was given. I got it on a piece of paper in my hand after I woke up, and it said this along with another sentence. I woke up really excited because I think it was the first time in my life that I remembered a very specific detail from a dream. I had to look it up, and the sentence was absolutely meaningless, but the word stuck with me, and I discovered it was very close to the Russian word for “tail”. I just thought that was interesting – if you think about what a tail does, and what my career is like musically and what I am like, I’m very shifty and I enjoy the contradictory nature of that light and darkness approach, I like to have that in my music and in my sound. I just thought it was a very good description of who I am, and it still applies.
It holds up better than if you had called yourself Christcrusher, or something like that, at least.
I didn’t want a name that was a total black metal name… although at the same time, there are phenomenal musicians who have had those kinds of pseudonyms, and I think those names, when you take them on, it doesn’t matter in the end what the word is. It’s a creative mask. I really needed it back then, as a way to feel comfortable to work behind it, to not put too much emphasis on who I was as a person. I didn’t really feel I was a fully formed person, and I wasn’t, but now I’m much more confident and comfortable with who I am and who I’ve become. Going back to that question of when I saw myself as an artist, I think that when I was comfortable and made peace with that, I became able to use my own name as well. But I don’t have any stigma attached to that or anything, if someone comes up to me and says “hey Kvohst” I’ll say hi back, it’s alright, I’m proud of that name and I’m still fine with using it.
This is actually the second conversation we’ve had in a very short time, the other one was totally dedicated to Grave Pleasures and it’ll end up in a magazine, but from this time talking to you, I get the feeling that you are in a very good place right now, artistically and otherwise. Is that true?
I am, I am. I take everything that happens now as just a blessing. Everything that we’re able to achieve now is just icing on the cake, because I feel like a lot of what I never dreamed possible has come true, I’ve gotten to experience such great things… and those that I haven’t been able to do, I don’t waste time worrying about them. If they happen, they happen, and I’m super happy about that. I think I’m really over that portion of my life where I did spend time worrying about stuff like “I really need to play Roadburn!” [laughs] That’s happened a couple of times now, I got to meet some lifelong friends, I really value that I’ve had the chance to do it, and if it happens again I’ll have the same feeling and I’ll be very humbled. I just have this sense of gratefulness to everybody that helps me through, that has given me a chance and believed in what I was doing. That’s the only reason why I am where I am.
(Mat’s photos by Studio 1851)