Hello Aaron, 'Azimuths To The Otherworld' of Nechochwen is an amazing record that stands out in the list of releases we receive. To start this interview I would like to know a bit more about the environment and place where you live and how it inspires you to make music?
Thank you Vera, that is a huge compliment and I know you must hear a lot of bands. There are some great ones out there! To stand out is not something you can really plan to do, but I am glad that is happening. I live in northern West Virginia, a few streets away from the Ohio River. It's a relatively safe, quiet, somewhat mountainous place that has been in economic decline for a while now. The landscape is filled with signs of past industrial growth, such as steel mills and railroad tracks. I used to watch the sky glow red at night when the molten steel was poured several miles distant. It was eerie but strangely beautiful and the air was not very good to breathe. I'd go to state parks a lot where the natural beauty wasn't as touched by the pollution. Now the mills are idle and the air seems a lot cleaner but the jobs are no longer here. This is the plight of the northern West Virginia family. So you see, when writing for Nechochwen I look to the past before industrialization and always try to picture things before the settlers came to the area. There is a bleakness here that blinds locals to the beauty around them, and eventually that worms its way into your subconscious. It puts a bit of a stain on the natural beauty of West Virginia. I am inspired by this not because I want to be, but because it's a part of who I am. I strive to see the good here and not the bad. There is plenty of both.
Nechochwen came into being in 2005, but before that you played in a couple of other – more metal allied – bands. Can you tell a bit more about your experiences in the American metal scene?
Back in 1993 I was playing in a band called Dethroned. We only did a few shows but made lots of contacts in the scene. I think we were writing some really good stuff but there were lots of obstacles and eventually I went off to college. Around 2002 I'd moved back to the area and joined Harvist after 'A Gleam In The Night' was released. There were former members of Dethroned involved as well as an opportunity to join the band Angelrust. We did some local shows and released the 'Pale Portrait' EP and 'Heart Turned Cold' with no label support. The final Angelrust album, 'The Nightmare Unfolds', is due to be released March 12th on Stronghold Records. The album is one of my proudest musical moments, some of the best songs I've ever written and collaborated on. Since we didn't play out a lot, we never got much exposure and it always seemed we were more appreciated in Europe than over here. I sincerely regret not getting to tour with Angelrust and go overseas, maybe we should have fought harder! We were just having fun and playing loud and didn't think about it very much at the time.
On the other hand you are a classical trained guitarist – obviously reflected in the beautiful acoustic parts on the record. Can you shine a light on this side of your personality?
This is the side of myself that I see the most and others see the least. I'm glad you see the acoustic playing on 'Azimuths' as beautiful. I'm at a crossroads in my playing. For years I've built a repertoire by composers like Sor, Bach, Tarrega, etc, and most of my study and performance was of Classical, Baroque, and Romantic era music transcribed for guitar. Occasionally I would write something and play it on a gig. Around 2003 I was writing classical guitar pieces that ended up on the 'Forest of the Soul' album I released with Andrew D'Cagna. I started to really enjoy the songs and got lots of requests to hear them. Now I feel my priorities have flipped; I still maintain a full repertoire of classics but I write more than I study other peoples' music. I love that I can pull off a gig by myself, no band to rehearse with, no one to split payment with, usually there is good food and booze backstage, and usually the pay is very good compared to a metal gig. This is of course not the reason I became a classical guitarist but it's usually my favorite way to play live. There is great satisfaction in being confident and self-sufficient in your performance when you are by yourself.
You have released a debut album 'Agonkian Mythos' on Dark Horizon Records. Can you sketch the main differences between that one and the new album and tell something about its atmosphere?
To be direct and to the point, it's less than half the duration of 'Azimuths' and has no metal on it. That doesn't mean I like it any less, it's just a different album. It was an experimental thing for me, as I was trying to figure out what the hell this project was going to be! Just kind of winging it in the studio, you know, having no template to go by. People tell me they've never heard anything like it, compliments of that sort. It's not that I was doing anything ground breaking, I was just trying to find a cohesive way to compile seemingly unrelated songs with themes from the mid to late Eighteenth Century frontier. Damned if it doesn't have a dark vibe though. I hate to call it an acoustic album, those just happened to be the instruments used on it. The biggest difference for most people would be that there is no drum set or bass and hardly any vocals. The biggest difference for me is that Pohonasin's role was very small musically on that album, not including his production duties. His role was essential for 'Azimuths' and complementary for 'Algonkian'. The album's atmosphere is sombre, brooding, at times eerie and definitely full of enthusiasm for dark and bloody history.
The name Nechochwen intrigues me. It should mean 'stand alone'. Does it mean you like to be alone most of the time? What words should you use to explain the name Nechochwen?
Close. It's more like “Walks Alone”. I think I like to be alone about as much as anyone else, but I've always been social with friends and I like being around good people. The bad ones can go away forever, I can't stand being around those who are pricks and do no good for anyone. It is a Lenape word, a friend used it to describe me when I was younger. To me, it doesn't mean that I like to take walks by myself. I don't take it literally, I think of it describing someone who does their own thing regardless of popularity. Like following a unique path in life of the way you do things even if you are ridiculed for it. This described me then and now.
You have Indian ancestors and that's illustrated in the music in a wonderful manner. How did your journey and interest in your past begin?
My stepdad gave me a copy of 'Panther In The Sky' by James Alexander Thom, and I had to know more. It was the story of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader. I was not raised with any native or religious customs in the house, but my mother told me about my grandfather and great-grandmother's Indian blood and I don't know how I never noticed their features before! I guess I was just a kid being oblivious. It was apparently not that important to anyone but me. I didn't get anywhere in my genealogy until years later but I continued to study the Fur Trade Era and learned a good bit about nature and wilderness skills as well as shooting black powder weapons and tomahawk throwing. I had a blessed childhood in this regard. People I've met along the way with ancient knowledge have crossed paths with me at very coincidental times. It will happen all at once and freak me out and then everything goes back to normal for a while. Trips to the western U.S. in my youth, seeing reservations and ruins of the ancient Anasazi culture will stay with me forever.
What were the most striking things you discover on your research?
How incredibly advanced these people were, even back 16,000 years. You see, this is the earliest radiocarbon date that archaeologists have found in North America, and the samples dated were from the Meadowcroft Rockshelter. This is not in Alaska, or the Polar regions, it's in Pennsylvania about 8 miles from where I live. I feel at home here because others have felt at home here longer than any other place in North America. It was the perfect place from a food, shelter, water, and climate standpoint for earlier Indian groups. Before the time of Christ, these groups had developed symmetrical earthen roads and enormous geometrical and animal earthworks with celestial alignments that are amazingly accurate. Think similarly to the Mayans, who are getting lots of attention these days. There is a connection there. Imagine being able to line up a complex system of giant earthen geometric circles and trapezoids, many acres in size, to lunar alignments that occur only every seventeen years. Now do this with wooden digging sticks about 1800 years ago. Can you figure out how to do this in 2010 with modern equipment? I'm sure an engineer could but I could not.
Can you tell something about your ancestors direct in line and the way they lived their lives?
One thing I can tell you is that they were blunt as hell. I saw my grandfather today and he told me that I'm getting fat. My wife's ancestors are from the same region, descendants of the tribes of the Monongahela Valley, and they were the same way. Tell it how it is. They married white settlers and gradually moved west to the Ohio and became farmers and junk dealers before the steel mills were built. Then they moved north to my present location for mill jobs. My grandfather was a steel worker, he's 86 now. One of my ancestors way back was Dutch. He lived to be 116 years old! And he died by drowning. He had so many kids that I think everyone in West Virginia is related to him. But the direct line of Indian ancestors in my lifetime and my parents' lifetime were secretive about their blood. There was the Klu Klux Klan and other bigots, and Indians weren't treated well of course. So much heritage was lost for fear of the haters. There is a very strong tradition of hunting and fishing in my family that is tied in to this, even if other traditions were lost in assimilation. I'm slowly trying to reclaim what has been lost.
It also led to an interest in warfare about the French and Indian war? Can you explain?
This is a somewhat overlooked war in American History, probably because the United States did not exist yet. My earliest ancestors that I know anything about were in the thick of it. One was actually at Braddock's Defeat, an infamous and very bloody battle. This is the war that put George Washington firmly in the public eye and began great divisions in the populace of North America. Everyone had to pick a side. Of course history is written by the victors but it's very interesting to read journals and correspondence from both sides of the era (1750's). 'Algonkian Mythos' focuses a bit on this war but covers a historical span of about 50-60 years, past the American Revolution. Warfare was crude of course by today's standpoint but still ingenious. It was a mix of Indian style warfare, sniping, raids, etc. and Europeans trying to fight Old World style in great forests. For example, at the battle of Fort Necessity, Washington, in his youthful inexperience, built the fort in a low place and only cleared the trees about 60 yards. This gave the enemy plenty of trees to hide behind and left the fort very vulnerable. Add in a blinding rainstorm which turned the fort floor into soup, and you had a bloodbath! So just as the war was an experiment in American dominance, 'Algonkian' was an experiment for me in creating dark acoustic soundscapes that conjure war, massacres, torture, and forced relocation. I'm just glad no one was shooting a flintlock at me from behind a tree.
'Azimuths To The Otherworld' includes some blackish and doom-like influences. What can we see as your main bands/artists that inspire you to write music (from the metal scene)?
Here are a few favorites: Anathema, diSEMBOWELMENT, Mournful Congregation, October Tide/Katatonia, the Ulver trilogy, and Amorphis. For black and doom I look to Sweden for Dissection and Candlemass. There are so many death metal bands too, like Edge of Sanity, Pestilence, and Vomitory. I like the first few Morbid Angel albums a lot. Agalloch and Arcturus are great pioneering bands. The new Absu is great, probably my favourite record of theirs. Iron Maiden is still my favourite band though, and I listen to Abigor a bit too.
I think you have a wide range of musical tastes. Which other music do you like to listen to these days?
Outside of metal, I like Iron and Wine's 'The Creek Drank The Cradle', all of Jose Gonzalez' stuff, the flute playing of R. Carlos Nakai, and the classical guitar playing of Christopher Parkening and David Russell. Russell must be heard to be believed, he's so good. I was heavily into fingerstyle guitar, but I can't keep up with all these guys anymore. There are so many good players! I need to take some time to hear new stuff. Musk Ox is a very inventive project out of Canada that I enjoy. I also love the traditional Appalachian fiddle tunes, played on the clawhammer banjo. This is some of my favourite stuff to play, and it's haunting.
You performed at the Heathen Crusade festival III. I think that must have been a special experience as mainly acoustic artist. Can you tell us everything about this happening?
It still baffles me that I was asked to play there. Why Nechochwen? What did 'Algonkian' have in common with these other bands? Hell, I wasn't even a band, just one guy. I had to prepare loops of recordings to play along with. In typical fashion for me, I had set lists designed for a month before and then scrapped them when I got there in favour of spontaneous sets. The whole thing was chaotic and confused as far as logistics, communication, etc, but it was one of the best things I ever did. Just about everyone was wonderful to me. The response was great considering I was at a metal festival playing acoustic guitar exclusively. The openness of metal fans to other music kindred in spirit should not be ridiculed! There were some major sound inadequacies on the side stage and conflicts with sound-checking bands but who's complaining? I got to be on a bill with Ancient Rites, Moonsorrow, Inquisition, and Metsatoll. I learned a lot about traditional Estonian instruments and got to get out of town for a few days. Most importantly, I got to hang out with my old friend Dusk and meet the Bindrune crew in person!
Your music and lyrics are inspired by the travels you did. Can you go a bit deeper into that?
Most of these were somewhat local trips. How can you write deep, heartfelt music about places you only read about in a book? I had to step into the reconstructed cabins at Gnadenhutten, that cursed place where so many innocents had their skulls smashed in. I saw the crawlspace where the Moravians had hidden corn to retrieve during a famine, only to be rounded up and massacred by settlers seeking revenge on a different tribe. I'm not here to make a judgment call, just to set their energy to music. I went to the mass grave of the Indians and the decorated “war hero” graves of their slaughterers. More than any locations, I visited the earthworks and mounds of the Adena and Hopewell in researching for 'Azimuths'. They turned out to be much more spiritual than academic trips, especially sites in Ohio like the Newark Earthworks and Flint Ridge. These are protected sites that were used for ages. Mounds still stick out on the landscape unnoticed by most people, don't they feel their energy? Flint Ridge is a very, very ancient and sacred flint quarry about 20 miles long, containing the most beautiful and functional flint found anywhere. If you find an arrowhead in the east, it probably came from Flint Ridge. You would have to be spiritually dead to not feel the energy of that place. It is located just a few miles from Interstate 70, the heart of the American highway system. Coincidence? The route has been travelled extensively for many thousands of years. Fortunately, more efforts are being taken to preserve these places than in recent history. What's left of the Newark Earthworks (the map of which is printed on the disc of 'Azimuths') will boggle the mind. It's an observatory, repository for the dead, and ceremonial ground that must have taken generations to complete. These are just a couple of the Nechochwen field trips. But even a two minute drive will take me to where Logan and Washington once walked (though probably not together) and where Lewis and Clark once wrote in their journals. The tree on the cover of 'Algonkian' is on one of Washington's surveying routes. I'm glad to learn frontier history first hand.
Lyrical and spiritual guidance came from the Adena & Hopewell people. Can you give some more detailed explanation of this for our readers?
The Adena and Hopewell were the mound building death cults in the Ohio Valley and Upper Midwest. This doesn't mean they were evil or killed each other for fun, they just had a tradition of ceremonies to transport their dead to the “Otherworld”, a place beyond this world where they would reside. They used sheets of mica in their burials, possibly because the mirror image they produced was a world they could see but not enter, like the sky. Very powerful medicine indeed! So earthworks and mounds, and surrounding works, were usually constructed in proportion to the sun and moon, with solstice alignments and such. Not that unusual considering Stonehenge and the Pyramids, but other things were, like the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms to become animal spirits and get closer to the Otherworld while still living. Wolf jaws called spatulas have been found along with human skulls with their top teeth removed, so the wolf teeth and snout could be inserted into the mouth like dentures. With a wolf hide draped over the head and some powerful hallucinogens, you have, in the context of ancient culture, a very real and vivid link to animal spirits and probably the oldest, purest form of lycanthropy! Do you see why I thought it was appropriate to make this partially a metal album? These groups, over the centuries, became the Fort Ancient people who built the Serpent Mound and later groups like the Monongahela. These people, the later mound builders and their descendants, are the stock of people that are part of my own ancestry.
The album is released at Bindrune Records. Do they have distribution in Europe as well?
Yes. What a great company, 100% support 100% of the time, and complete artistic freedom. I've never been so excited about an up and coming label. Distribution in the U.K. will be handled by Code 7/PHD. The rest of Europe will be handled by Bindrune getting the releases to the bigger distributors directly.
Are there plans to play gigs? (acoustic or even with an electrified band?)
I have my normal classical guitar gigs that I do, and sometimes I'll throw in a few of my own tunes. I could always do what I did at Heathen Crusade but there is a lot more involved musically now than just solo guitar pieces. I've gone as far as Texas with Pohonasin to play other gigs, but finding a full band for this is something I've never had to do. It's been festering in my brain for maybe six months now, I think it would be great. If there is ever a Bindrune showcase I would like to be a part of it in some capacity. I have no immediate plans but I'm not ruling it out either!
The album is recorded at the Sacred Sound Studios. Can you tell a bit more about the recording process? Did you do it all by yourself or got help from congenial musicians?
There were no other guest musicians, just Pohonasin and myself. We record every Friday on various projects, and 'Azimuths' took about 7 or 8 months worth of Fridays. Pohonasin's studio is fantastic; great vibe, great gear, really comfortable with soft furniture and endless cups of coffee at two in the morning. We discussed the outcome of the album last week and determined that we were not really aware of what we were doing. A lot of the album was conceived as rough sketches during the work day, plotted out mentally on the drive to the studio and just sort of came out on their own in the studio. The same goes for the drums and bass. I went back for grad school a couple years ago and studied jazz improvisation. I think this helped me to spontaneously create in the studio. We both felt like vessels from which the sounds came rather than composers. The whole thing is a blur, and I actually sustained an injury somehow while recording over a year ago that still hasn't healed. I think I tried to channel something I wasn't supposed to and was punished for it. I take no credit, this music did not come from me but rather through me. We just guided it into its digital form and sanded its edges. I got to do some engineering for the first time with the drums and some of Pohonasin's supporting vocals. I learned a lot from that. The beginning of Red Ocher contains a harmonic ringing akin to playing wine glasses with your fingers. I have no idea where it came from. Listen real close, it's coming from the guitars but really shouldn't logically be there. If I could harness stuff like that and steer it willingly I would just quit my job and live in the studio. There is power in the Red Ocher Paint, the ringing sound was a gift from somewhere.
I see you are working on a common website in addition to the MySpace page. When do you think it will be on line completely?
I had a friend helping me with that but I think he has forgotten about it. I have no knowledge of web design and zero interest in computers beyond recording and typing. The website has been in the back of my mind though and now is when I need to ask for help with it. So I am hoping to be operational in the coming months.
What are the plans for the near future?
There are multiple stages to album creation. I'm obviously in the first stage now after completing and releasing 'Azimuths' but I am working on the raw skeletons of two new songs. I have a good scope of what I want to be the subject matter for the next one but it's too early to reveal. In order for there to be more music, I must be very honest with myself and willing to gain new knowledge through experience, usually lessons learned the hard way. 'Azimuths' drained a good bit of my artistic gas tank, and to become the vessel again I have to reconnect with some personal things I've been distracted from. This will happen soon and the songs will flow like the Monongahela River again. On a less spiritual note, there will be new shirts and other merch coming in April through Bindrune.
If there is anything I forgot to cover, feel free to add it…
Thanks to you Vera, it's great to answer your thoughtful questions. Please check out my contribution, “Winter Strife”, to the soon-to-be-released 2 disc compilation 'Der Wanderer uber dem Nebelmeer' on the Pest Productions label and distributed by Prophecy Productions. The track is exclusive to the comp and is the first Nechochwen track with Pohonasin on drums and bass. I also want to mention that in the age of rampant illegal downloading, an impossible opponent for recording artists, that the music itself is only part of the album. The wonderful 16 panel booklet that accompanies the cd gives the inner meaning to the songs and complementary artwork. You are missing a lot without the book, so even if you do not purchase the original, find a way to read it so you can follow what I'm trying to achieve with the songs. Thank you for the support!