Interview by HannTu
Questions by Lord of the Wasteland and Hanntu
All live pics and words by HannTu
Alan Averill, the lead singer of Irish folk/black metal band Primordial, is magnetic. Like the Ancient Mariner, he fixes you with his glittering eye, and he is a fireball of energy in front of an audience. Offstage, he exudes a similar kind of aura. I spoke to him backstage a few hours prior to the London show at the Underworld a month ago, and it was fascinating to hear him speak on subjects close to his heart. He has a warm humour and a down-to-earth common sense that only the Irish have in abundance. Our interview was cut short by the arrival of other interviewers, but here was a person I felt I could spend days with and not run out of subjects to talk about.
I asked him first where his moniker “Nemtheanga” came from, and what it meant. “‘Nem’ means ‘evil’, in old Irish, ‘theang’ means ‘language’ or ‘tongue’, so it means ‘evil tongue’”. Did he choose it because it sounded cool? “Well”, he laughs, “I didn’t want like Necro this, or bla bla Hell that. In the old black metal days in 92, 93, it was a sort of an air of mysticism, an air of anonymity that went with the band, and it was just the done thing back then. But I wanted something that was more relevant to Irish mythology, to old Ireland in some way.”
But he has said in the past that Primordial is not about the Irish mythology, Primordial is about the here and now. “Well, no, I am very much into the old Irish mythology, we just didn’t want to be a band that based our lyrics and music purely on old sagas and old stories. We’re not romanticists and we’re not fantasists. Anything that has some historical content has to have some modern resonance. So if I use some Irish folkloric tale or other, it has to say something about the here and now. But we are all into Irish mythology.”
I wanted to know what had shaped him as a person, so I asked him what it was like growing up in Dublin around the 70s and 80s. His answer was short: “Poor and violent really.” Did the politics ever affect him in any way? “Well, it wasn’t the same as in the North of Ireland, that was where most of the actual paramilitary or religious violence was. Dublin in the late 80s when I was a teenager, there was massive unemployment, massive immigration. It was rough and it was tough, and if you were a metalhead, it was making a statement against society. It wasn’t some sort of fashion statement, it was a statement of your dissatisfaction and your opposition to the way things were.”
To make a living from music then was near impossible. “When we started the band, we weren’t handed grants or anything like that. We couldn’t hardly even get proper instruments, no one had any money. Rehearsing in somebody’s bedroom with shitty little amps, and a crap old drumkit. But I think what that does, is that it grounds you. You take nothing for granted, and you aren’t spoilt. You’re kept realistic of the fact that you had to struggle to get where you were. It also meant that there was no way that we were going to let anyone stand in our way when it came to trying to compromise what we were going to do.” No prima donnas then. “No! It’s not in Irish people to be like that. If you were like that, you’d just get the fock kicked out of you. People just cut you down to size with wit. You couldn’t act like a focking rock star.”
So what kind of religion or philosophy or ethic did he hold to? He pauses for a while. “Well, I suppose as a teenager I would have been very much into the whole black metal, satanic, occult thing, mixed with a cultural, philosophical slant. Then I kind of grew an interest and respect for my own history and culture, and then I sort of married my esoteric interest with a sort of cultural awareness.” Pagan? “Umm, I couldn’t tell you in 2008 what a pagan means. Perhaps somebody who chooses to try and live in…harmony, as opposed to opposition, with nature. The other guys (in the band) maybe have a more druidic, pagan perspective on life, but I still live in the city. I’m probably more of a political than a spiritual person.”
But by what philosophy does he live his day to day life by? “It sounds trite, but just being a fucking living breathing human being, interacting with the world around you. You couldn’t help but be influenced by the things around you. People told me when you get to your 30s you’ll mellow, but you don’t, you get more angry, more aggressive. It’s a dark world we live in, and Primordial’s sound reflects that. It’s not romance, it’s not fantasy, like I said before. Walk out on the streets, see the way people live, the way people are, the way they interact, the way they relate.”
Someone comes in with beers, sandwiches and the final guest list for Alan’s approval. I stop mid-question, but he says “Go on, I can multitask”. And he laughs. But Alan is a restless man, he is incapable of sitting back on his laurels. I ask him what other outlets does he have for his creativity other than Primordial? “I’m a mature student in college, so I get to write a lot about my politics and opinions. I sing in Void of Silence. I’ve been contributing lyrics and vocals to Marduk, Desaster, and now with the guys from Revenge. There’s lots of musical things coming on the horizon. Trying to get involved in video production with my cousin for the band. I don’t find any…contradiction in spreading yourself if you have the energy and the inspiration”.
History and culture is a major part of Primordial’s lyrics. Their latest album is a masterpiece of struggle and rebellion and nationhood, themes that Alan himself expounds on in length. But I asked him a question that seemed quite peculiar to me, which was why they had only written that one song in Gaelic, and never wrote any others. “We tried to do some more on THE GATHERING WILDERNESS, but it didn’t fit. I think in the beginning, that song was just the ultimate statement that we wanted to make in our own language, for everybody who understood it.” Why not any more? “We didn’t feel the need to do it any more. You take Scandinavian metal and they’re singing in their own language purely about sometimes where they’re from, and their own mythology. We always wanted to have a universal concept, so that you could see yourself from wherever you are, from Peru to Palestine, you could see yourself in those lyrics.”
Universal themes is one of Alan’s favourite phrases, and is something he aims for in his music. “People like to say, oh Primordial is about being European, about being white, but that’s not true. You should be able to see the same themes in Mexico or in South America, say, the influence of American intervention in South America for the last 100 years, you should be able to feel the same sense of loss and martyrdom, as in Irish history or Palestine, or say Kosovo, now with their declaration of independence. So these themes are universal, so you know, that’s the point, it could be the Middle East, or Asia.”
Does he think that all culture should be preserved? “I’m going to use the euphemistic ‘they’, as in the media and the government, would try and dissociate you from your culture. They would try and have you all-conforming, all-consuming, all-fearing, medicated, sterile and apathetic. This is what we have in the West, a society that has replaced spirituality and meaning with opulence, decadence and capitalism. And we have acted with a certain amount of impunity that we can just go around the world in cohorts with America, and just take this and take that. These are very dark and interesting times we live in.”
So there are no inferior or superior cultures, that culture is culture? “I don’t go in for any of that inferior superior stuff. The ancient Egyptians moved from Central Africa to nearer to the Nile, there’s been the Incas etc. There’s reasons why empires fail and succeed.” I asked if this was to do with a sense of arrogance and security in their own strength. He tells me his interesting theory, “It’s to do with geography. You look at the two (halves of the) Equator. Agriculture can never move from South to North and North to South, it can only move from East to West. And there are only a certain amount of animals that you can farm in this world. And you look at the empires that have succeeded, we have everything, all the agriculture and all the farmable animals. And you look at where the deserts and hot regions are, we’ll never stand a chance of succeeding with empires or civilisations there, because of the processes of geographical evolution.”
I’d love to hear more about his theory (because desert empires have flourished, the Egyptians for three millennia, and the Arabs have been around for a fairly lengthy period of time – or maybe I’ve misunderstood him completely), but we had to press on. I asked him why people have accepted them as black metal even though they didn’t really fit into the black metal mould. He replies, “To me, we were never orthodox black metal. Black metal is satanic. It is esoterically arcane, and there is no deviation from very much the Funeral Mist or Watain type of black metal. If it deviates from that, it’s not black metal. Of course, we can argue about how serious or not serious different people are into it, but to me that’s what it is. Primordial isn’t black metal. We come from the second wave of black metal, and our roots are in it, and there’s a certain “blackness” to the music. But I wouldn’t call us black metal, because I don’t think we subscribe to what I would consider the basic tenets of what black metal should be.”
So who has influenced him stylistically, musically and as a vocalist? “Musically, it was the things we grew up with: Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Bathory, Candlemass, Celtic Frost, Venom. Then the entire second wave of black-doom-death metal, the movement we were involved in influenced us. As a vocalist, at the beginning it was things like INTO THE PANDEMONIUM Celtic Frost, NEMESIS (Celtic Frost), pre-Candlemass EP. And then the kind of underground stuff then. Bruce Dickinson and Dio, Warrant and Virgin Steele and stuff like that, heavy metal vocalists. But generally anybody who sounds like they mean it, doesn’t have to be in tune. I’d rather listen to Isengard’s first album, than fucking power metal or something.” I told him I thought he sounded a bit like Warrel Dane, and he laughed and said “Well I like Nevermore, and I love Sanctuary, so that’s quite a compliment.”
Finally we got on to Primordial’s latest album, TO THE NAMELESS DEAD. I asked him how much of the Irish struggle was explicitly in it. “Being Irish, you have to understand that there’s a certain isolationism that comes from being on an island. There’s a certain mentality that’s bred with that. You don’t border any country. So our people sometimes have that stubborn refusal to…submit to cultural, historical or political trends. We have a particular sort of mindset. So yes, Irish history and the politics of the country, and the way we relate to our own culture has a massive influence on the band, but like I said, it’s about trying to put things into a universal context, that’s the task, you know. I mean OK, something like “Coffin Ships”, that’s singularly about something that happened in Irish history, but somebody should be able to relate to that air of tragedy that surrounds that. But there’s no lecturing tone, you know.”
Does he hope that this will open people’s minds and eyes? “I can’t stand on the stage and sing about fucking zombies and comic book heroes. I actually would feel a disgrace to my ancestry. I don’t go in for this ironic metal thing. There’s no humour in Primordial. I mean, I have a sense of humour, but this is absolute seriousness. Primordial exists parallel to its culture, and one could not exist without the other. If I stood on stage and sang about the evil dead this and bla bla bla that, I’d just go what the fuck am I wasting my time for. Maybe I have kids in 10 or 15 years, and they say this is what you wasted your fucking time doing, and I go “yeah but it was a big laugh weren’t it?” No. There’s something more serious. Of course, if you come and see the band, it’s a heavy metal show, heavy metal energy, and I’m an old school heavy metal guy, I love that kind of thing. But we just choose that this has to be the way it is. If you get it, you do, if you don’t you don’t. If you just want to drink beer and headbang and listen to ‘Empire Falls’ cos it has a cool riff and a cool chorus, that’s okay as well.”
I asked him about his shift from the black metal vocals to the vocals that he now uses – the more melodic, emotional, less harsh way of singing. “Well 5 of the songs on the first album don’t have black metal singing, that’s half the album. But yeah it’s true. There’ll always be that black metal thing – ‘No Nation on This Earth’ is black metal singing – in the band, but just whatever fits you know. If a song requires black metal singing, it does. If it requires ‘singing’ singing, you just sing. Nothing is ever really conscious with Primordial. If you spend any amount of time sitting around with us, you’ll find that it’s just not possible.” He laughs ruefully, “So disorganised, and so all over the place…I just don’t think there’s a way that we as Irish people can sit down and be so planned and organised. ‘Yeah our third album will be like Destruction, with some Dark Angel riffs’ and bla bla, it couldn’t work!”
I asked him about recording acoustically, something they’ve done for ages. “Yeah, I understand if some bands don’t have much money and they need to record in Pro Tools and they do the best they can. But it’s when you try and go for that computerised, synthesised thing – it makes it sound like a machine playing on those metal records now. That’s not the way we look at it. If Black Sabbath can do it in three days, we can sure as fuck record and mix in 13 days. It’s more about the entire atmosphere, than ‘oh the bass drum sound needs to be tick-tick-tick-tick’, clickier and whatever. Listen to the bass drum in Mob Rules – I know you can’t do that, that’s fucking 1980, but let’s just try and have a proper sound.”
We were interrupted by other interviewers at this point, but I thoroughly enjoyed my chat with him. It’s rare to hear a metal band nowadays that takes its music seriously, and that actually has things to say, like Primordial so obviously does. It is of course an added bonus that they have the craft to put their thoughts into verse and music, and the even greater craft of taking it on stage. I really do look forward to seeing them at Wacken this year. They recorded their performance at the Dublin gig, and we may very soon be seeing a DVD from them at some stage or other. If not, catch them if you can on their summer festivals tour – Wacken and Graspop are confirmed I believe.
Thanks to Andy Turner for setting up the interview.