It is a music that will never cross over. Though it’s now roughly 30 years old, Norwegian black metal is a genre that’s forever an outsider’s music. Like the work of ’60s free jazz titan Albert Ayler, or experimental noise band Wolf Eyes, black metal doesn’t need to cross over as it transcends its own genre. Within the black metal community, Mayhem are the undisputed overlords.
Formed in Oslo in 1984, Mayhem were as influenced by hardcore music and ideology as they were by metal predecessors Venom, Bathory and Celtic Frost. Released in 1987, Mayhem’s debut EP Deathcrush was an anomaly even in the aggro, underground metal community. While many of their thrash metal peers were enticed by metal’s macho posturing, the brutal pummel and furious vocals of Mayhem sounded personal.
Mayhem one-upped bands chattering about Satan, their lyrics touching unnamable evils lurking in forests and tombs, with images of apparitions and paganistic gods, clandestine deities born before Christianity who intend to long outlive it. No other black metal band, barring fellow Norwegian group Darkthrone, had been so expert in carving out the template for a music that’s highly regional yet loved by diehard fans the world over.
In 1987, Mayhem began working on their first full-length studio album. It was during this era that the band seemed defined by two tragedies: the 1991 suicide of vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (aka “Dead”) and the 1993 murder of guitarist Øystein Aarseth (“Euronymous”) by then-Mayhem bassist, Varg Vikernes.
In May 1994, the band finally launched the much-delayed full-length release, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, an album many consider the definitive black metal release.
Over the course of eight songs, Mayhem only reinforced their sound, which was now not merely “black,” but impenetrably obsidian. While earlier black metal bands had celebrated a monochromatic albeit-still-effective production, with Mysteriis, Mayhem ran the songs and sound through a dark prism that seemed to shine a new light on the possibilities of black metal. The album also contained the last lyrics written by Dead before his suicide, and final recordings by Euronymous prior to his murder. The fact that Mayhem had been “tied” to conspiracies surrounding several, early-’90s church burnings in Norway only added to the sinister mystique surrounding them.
Nearly 25 years on, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is as relevant as it was the day it dropped.
Now Mayhem are touring De Mysteriis, something they were unable to do when the album was new. On this tour, the band is playing the album in its entirety from start to finish. The current lineup features longtime members including bassist Jørn Stubberud (aka “Necrobutcher”), drummer Jan Axel Blomberg (“Hellhammer”), vocalist Attila Csihar and guitarists Morten Bergeton Iversen (“Teloch”) and Charles Hedge (“Ghul”).
Last year, Stubberud released a memoir of his life with Mayhem, cutting away much of the myth and reflecting on the early deaths that once loomed over the band, while describing horrific and hilarious events that would put any band to the test.
Published by Ecstatic Peace Library, Thurston Moore’s savvy underground imprint, The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984-’94 features a layout with dozens of archival photos, making it more akin to a coffee-table-size, visual art book edition.
Folio Weekly spoke with Stubberud during a band tour stop in Madison, Wisconsin. What follows are some highlights of our conversation.
Folio Weekly: What compelled you to release this live version of De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas and a tour to support it?
Jørn Stubberud: Well, there were a lot of reasons for doing that. We recorded it again, it sounded cool and we wanted to make a show with the Mysteriis. Our sound engineer, Tore Stjerna, created ambient music to play between the songs. Every thing is together in a way. We thought that since we decided to go on the road with this, it’d be cool to have a live DVD and album. And on the tour, all we play is Mysteriis from start to finish, songs one to eight. We never got to tour with this album, for obvious reasons, so we’re doing it now.
The original album is nearly 25 years old; with it Mayhem achieved a kind of codified black metal. Since that album, do you feel you’ve accomplished what you initially wanted to do with music?
It’s like being a householder: You’re never finished. But no, I never set out with a certain goal and I was never satisfied with anything. [Laughs.] I always look forward, to build a ship; you know? Conquering the world—and we have 59 countries and counting.
As far as an underground sensibility, was aligning yourself with Thurston in publishing The Death Archives a statement about having an underground sensibility?
Yeah. When we hooked up, Thurston immediately recognized what kind of publisher I wanted and he’s from a cool scene and was always into these kinds of alternative, hardcore bands. I had offers from other publishers but Thurston was much closer to home, in a way. And they have definitely proven that, too. It was a pleasure working with Thurston and his partner, [visual book editor] Eva Prinz.
In the book, there are parts when you seem to debunk a lot of the myths or stories surrounding the band. Did you do this to counteract so many metal bands that reinforce their own macho mythologies and chest-thumping?
Yeah, true. I get tired of all of that shit. So I was thinking to tell the story in a way of how it really happened. I always thought I’d write a book when the band ended. After the book came out, I read where a critic said this was the first real music autobiography that wasn’t self-indulgent. But in the process, I never thought about it. But after I read that review, I read the book again with different eyes and found that the book is more about my mistakes; all of the things I did wrong more than anything else. Throughout the book, it’s all about the wrong food [laughs], wrong place, wrong venue … you know? I had to settle a lot of things since so many people have aligned themselves with Mayhem’s history. But you know, it was a troubled fucking way to go and a troubled fucking past with a lot of bad years. I’ve had people tell me the history of the band, which is my life’s history. Ha!
When Mayhem was coming on the scene, there was a parallel scene here in Florida with bands like Death, Morbid Angel and Deicide. Did Mayhem feel any kind of kinship with them?
No, not really. None of the American bands really came over to Norway until the ’90s. Of course, we know about all of those bands. My favorite band was [Chicago metal band] Death Strike with Paul Speckmann. I thought that was the coolest thing that came out of the States at that time. But Death were pretty good. But it really just popped up in the mid-’90s, the whole American thing. Øystein picked up on that American and Florida scene pretty early on. But then he saw all the bands wearing Hawaiian shirts and shorts and he said, “Death metal? What is this?” [Laughs.]