Blog: Escaping Germany for Bosnia via Flixbus, with a broken phone, to volunteer at a Hostel in Mostar (a diary entry)

Editor’s note: Some of the following blog was written stream of concious, and may not reflect the present opinions of the writer. Travel is not that bad and he is not as cynical as it may seem.

(Prologue) Before leaving Germany:

Sometimes it feels like I lurch from self-created crisis to crisis. This feels like one of those moments. I’m living in Germany, where I’ve been for the last year on a Working Holiday Visa. This ends in two days, and although I’ve been ringing and emailed New Zealand and German embassies, the rules surrounding the end of the visa are not clear. Perhaps I have to leave Schengen area, perhaps I can just move to another EU country which New Zealand has bilateral travel agreements with, for example Denmark or Netherlands. But it is not clear. The New Zealand Embassy in Berlin has even advised me that some New Zealander’s stay in Germany for a bit longer at the end of their visas, and that nothing has happened to them. Such help that is, and it leaves me thinking it will be at the discretion of whichever customs official I run into when I do eventually decide to leave Europe, and actually encounter a passport check. Regardless I believe I will leave the Schengen area just to be safe, and then when I re-enter Europe I can be sure I’m on a tourist visa.

At this stage, my in two days I must legally leave Germany if I am being very careful, yet I have not booked anywhere to go. I have emailed a Workaway in Bosnia that has space for me, yet that will involve braving a 24 hour bus ride from Berlin to Sarajevo. Just to add another layer of difficulties, to this already difficult situation, my phone has decided to break today out of the blue. Not charging or turning on. While this might seem trivial, not having a phone in this day and age when you’re planning long cross country travel across Europe, where you’ll need booking confirmations for buses and trains, google maps for accommodation or just about everything, not too mention some music to distract the 24 hours on a bus away, – makes for a considerable extra challenge.

Now in Bosnia:

So I have arrived at my destination, of Mostar in the southern area of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the main city of the region given the name Herzegovina within this country. The 24 hour bus ride from Berlin to Sarajevo went mostly smoothly, the bus was packed so I had to squash up besides a friendly older man from Bosnia for most of the ride, who spoke not a bit of English. We smiled and gestured at each other in a friendly way never the less. I managed to get a few hours sleep during the bus ride, and with no working charging points for my laptop and still no working phone, I spent most of the ride staring out the window, chatting to some other young travelers during the toilet and cigarette breaks, and occasionally read the only book I brought with me, a guide to learning German grammar. Interesting that now I finally leave Germany, I start to study.

There were several slightly nerve wracking stops at customs check points, entering and exiting Croatia and entering Bosnia, but save for being questioned on my travel plans within Bosnia, and having to produce a copy of my German Working Holiday Visa to explain my extended time spent in Germany, It went without a hitch. I received the stamps I needed to show I’ve exited Schengen at the end of my visa, and am now free to explore the Balkans and return to Germany and the EU when I wish on a tourist visa.

It’s interesting having left Germany after a year, that I don’t feel quite ready to leave. Just as I felt when I left London, it’s as if I’ve just gotten started. There was so much of Germany left to see, so much Deutsch language left to learn, and so many friends I had to say goodbye to. Hopefully I will see them again, but it does feel somewhat like a chapter coming to a close prematurely. Such is the way of the traveler limited by visa lengths.

Traditional Bosnian baking class

At the Mostar Hostel where I volunteer:

Still with no phone to guide me I eventually found my way to the Mostar hostel where I would be volunteering, after a bit of a back breaking walk, due to once again too much luggage brought with me, and have to ask the locals for directions. It was good to take my oversized travel bag and guitar off my back, and get settled in to the new Workaway (a workaway is the website where you find these volunteer opportunities). It was not much of a break however, as nearly straight away I was helping the owner set up some crates he had delivered that day for sitting outside, as well as learning how to check in guests and helping fold the laundry. I look forward to a sleep in a bed for the first time in a few nights, and to being able to explore Mostar in the coming days. The owner of the Hostel, Taso, is also helping to fix my phone, which will hopefully get me connected to the outside world again – and be able to travel with a little more ease. I’m slightly lonely, a little worried about whether I’ve come to the right place, but I guess that’s the case with travel. It takes you out of your comfort zone, and forces you to learn from new situations, as well as seeing new places and meeting people. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it for the journey… or at least that’s what they seem to say.

Mostar’s old town, packed with Tourists

Exploring Mostar:

My first experience in Bosnia and the Balkans itself has been, for lack of a better generalization, a learning experience. I had to learn or get better at laundry and making beds for example, as this has been a large part of my daily work at the hostel, and not something I realized I was so bad at. There’s a knack to speed changing multi-beds and washing piles of linen and in order to have fresh beds for new guests in the morning, and after a rocky first few days I think my laundry efficiency levels had risen considerably to keep up with the demand. I next had to master checking guests in, as it would be my job to stay and keep the hostel running while the owner is out taking tour groups to the famous local waterfalls. This job came with relative ease compared to the laundry, other than the relative boredom of staying in the hostel all day. Once I got some afternoons off, I went to do the usual exploring of a new city, doing the recommended walking tour, learning the history, soaking up the atmosphere and meeting some new traveler friends, most through the hostel.

The famous 24 meter high old bridge, now a main attraction to watch locals and risk taking tourists jump off

For Mostar, the most interesting revelations came because of the not so long ago war and genocide that tore through this city and split it apart. The Bosniaks and Croatians largely still live on separate sides of the river, separations which occurred due to the Croatians turning arms on the Bosniaks, although they were previously allies in expelling initial attacks from the Serbian armed forces. After years of bloodshed, with concentration camps set up at the hands of the Croats, regular civilians taking up arms to protect their families and not one citizen of Mostar spared from loosing a family member or friend, the fighting eventually ended. These people who fought against each other just over 20 years ago now live again side by side from each other, and some have had to show an incredible amount of forgiveness in order to continue with daily life. This terrible history has now become embeded in the tourism of Mostar and Bosnia more generally, and those coming to this land for the sun, activities and cheap beer with also inevitably find themselves engaging with the past and present politics of the area.

The remains of the old bank building (opened just before the start of the war) also known as the ‘Snipers Tower’ for the use of the tower by Croatian soldiers as a vantage point to target civilians

While gazing at the somewhat touristy Minaret’s of the Bosniak Mosques on one side of the river, and the dominance of the Christian bell tower recently built on the other side, it is impossible not to be confronted by the separations, but also this separation has become part of the touristic charm of the city. Therefore, even as things are getting deep on the free walking tour, where the brilliant guide Sheva tells of the traumatic past (he himself had to carry a gun when the war broke out, even though he was a student in the city at the time) – tourists begin to discuss the horror of the events, and grapple with the remaining corruption in the city, while enjoying all this as some kind of pleasurable spectacle to go hand in hard with the Gelato and sun-tanning sessions. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the scars from the war in Bosnia have not had enough time to heal, yet the city relies on tourism for the majority of it’s income, so the citizens end up commodifying their tragic recent past. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, one side of me thinks the reliance on tourism will keep any violence from occuring again, but at the same time the interests of the tourists run at a shallow level mostly. They would not be learning about this history if they weren’t here for the beer, and the closeness to the more hyped up Croatia. Many tourists seem to become history or political experts, or so they act, but it is not the reason why many of the them travel. Mostar is a fascinating and beautiful place, but in some ways still a very troubled one. Hopefully the economy will get better and there will be more fair job opportunities for regular Mostar-ians beyond just capatilizing off the interests of passive tourists. Then perhaps they will resent the tourists less (there is some rudeness in hostels and restaurants, perhaps as a result of the share amount of tourists), and be able to rebuild in a way less focused on the issues of the past.

  

Epilogue:

One week after staying at the Mostar hostel I start to get wary of all the young explorers, traveling for weeks or months at a time, sticking together with fellow international tourist friends met hours or minutes before, ticking off all the same landmarks, monuments, activities and tours. Perhaps the truth is that we’re a mob blindly chasing some original travel journey story, or to tick off our bucket-list to a more impressive degree than our neighbour. We could be buying into the travel dream because that’s whats being marketed to us, because a generation of youth chucking in their jobs and traveling the world equals profit for banks, travel companies and economies. Regardless, volunteering remains a valuable experience, and a continued learning one as that – as I learn that my cynicism and jadedness knows no bounds, and that even in a beautiful place like Mostar, I must over-think everything until the point that I don’t enjoy it much anymore, and feel like perhaps traveling is not for me. I guess that’s why they say ignorance is bliss (i.e. an ignorant traveler is a successful one).

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Film Review: Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)

The latest Bond film features all the hallmarks of the beloved franchise – international locals, elaborately staged espionage action sequences, a Bond girl or two, a menacing foreign-accented villain and a plot to end world safety plucked straight from contemporary headlines. Being a product of both the age of terror and mass-surveillance, the scriptwriters deftly manage to include strands of both within the films surprisingly entertaining narrative. I say surprising, as many of the reviews I’d read prior to seeing the film had had me expecting a much more derivative Bond entry. The core Bond-formula elements are all there, but returning director Sam Mendes executes them with style, wrapping up the Craig-era Bond films in a satisfying way, while leaving room for more.

It has apparently been a while since watching early Bond, as I had forgotten all about Spectre and their role and their role as being the main bad guys back in the Connery-era films. It was perhaps rather naive that I realised mid-way through this film that I was watching both a reboot and an origins story. Blofeld is back, and Christopher Waltz puts his signature twisted spin on the character, largely over-shadowing earlier versions. The classic villain has been given an expanded back story, providing more depth to his villainous motivation. Of the returning characters, Ben Wishaw is back at Q, and is given his own share of action time – a worthy successor to Ben Whishaw. Roy Kinnear is back as the of Mi6 and Judi Dench obviously exited in the last entry, but the scriptwriters have chosen to have her shadow hang over this narratives events.

The bond girl this time around is Lea Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swan, a daughter of a Spectre member living in hiding. Following on from strong female action characters of recent times such as Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, she is not just eye candy for Bond to save, but does much of the saving herself. Seydoux and Craig have chemistry, and their relationship has the usual amount of Bond-style twists and turns. In spite of the attempts to have a strong female co-star, I feel her character is at times a bit predictable and feels one of the least daring elements of the narrative.

Sometimes it’s not entirely apparently how the films enormous budget, one of the largest in history at $245 million, was put to use. Perhaps marketing and actors fees account for a large proportion of this, but one area where the money was apparent was in the use of major international locations. The opening sequence set during Mexico Cities’ Dia de los Muertos kicks things off with an ambitious single take shot, including a large amount of extras (many probably digital). Later, Bond speeds through the narrow medieval streets of Rome in a thrilling chase sequence that rivals the best of them. Things later return to London, and I was happy to see many familiar landmarks make an appearance. I’m assuming it wasn’t cheap to stage action sequences around Trafalgar Square. The action scenes are entertaining, the explosives well executed, if the violence a little less frequent as the last three Craig entries.

I wonder, with the budget being used in reasonably subtle ways (for a Bond film), are pretty locals are not enough to win over modern audiences. While the action sequences are flashy, they are not nearly as frequent as a Joss Weadon or Michael Bay action film. The ambivalent reactions toward Spectre makes me wonder if the entry is too nuanced for a modern audience, who are increasingly used to action sequences filmed like first person shooter games, and narratives with the simplest of good-bad dichotomies (every Marvel film for example). Although the narrative had it’s share of flaws, the scriptwriters usage of contemporary issues as plot devices was much more intelligent and subtle than the usual distorted cinematic propoganda (such as that of the cold war era Bonds). The film explored the connection between terrorist acts and the profit gained from private companies selling mass-surveilance to fairful governments and their people. In one scene, after South Africa remains the only country adverse to joining the fictionalized ‘9 eyes’ intellegence network, we later see a headline reporting a terrorist act taking place within Cape Town. Spectre are of course behind and profiting from all this, and their motives are not fully explained, but the subtle use of relevant issues is a welcome touch.

Mendes has given the Craig-era bond films their own continuity with this entry, and they now stand-out especially from the rest of the franchise. By revisiting and re imagining such iconic moments of Bond history as Spectre and Blofeld, Mendes manages to pay homage to the series while further drawing a line in the sand regarding the place of the Craig-era films. The Craig films have seemed a new beginning ever since Casino Royale, but now more than ever they have their own continuity and connecting themes, inspired by the old books and films, but given a slick new polish for a modern generation. Unlikely as it seems, more than ever the Bond series appears to be one with legs to continue to future generations. I hope that Craig at least gets one more, but if this is the end to his Bond career, it’s a fitting finale.

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Observations on London: The Weather

British people love to talk about the weather. This is no secret. Living in London, the locals constantly complain about the cold days, the overcast days, the wet days, and if a hot day comes along, they’ll complain that it’s too hot. Although it is true that London weather isn’t the best in the world, the time I’ve spent here so far I’ve been a little underwhelmed. London weather is quite manageable, if not calm and pleasant the majority of the time. Far from the completely miserable conditions Londoners act like they live in most of the time. Auckland seemed wetter. Dunedin seemed just as cold. Admittedly I’ve only been here four months, and just in time for one of the better summers in recent British history, so I may have just got lucky. It does make me wonder why British people are so much more obsessed with the weather than other nations of a similar climate (New Zealand being one of these).

Another horrible London day in Hampstead Heath

Probably it’s just that English people like a good moan, or so my co-worker has suggested as a reason for the London obsession about discussing the weather. It is the most obvious and consistent topic one can moan about, so I guess the theory makes some sense. But I would be a hypocrite if I claimed it was only the British over here complaining about the weather, because as this blog proves, the immigrants, over-stayers and ex-pats are doing it too. I guess I’m only going to raise more questions than give answers here, but is England weather so bad that it deserves all this attention?

When I first arrived, I was greeted by blue skies and sunshine. Not exactly the image of England I had been expecting based on the images of this country I had seen broadcast on TV back home. Coronation Street always seemed grey and grim, the same with most crime dramas and the news reporting never delved much into British weather. I was warned before I arrived about how bad British weather is, so much so that one of the large reasons for me delaying my UK arrival was due to fear of weather. To my surprise, almost all of the first three months I’ve spent here have been in pleasant conditions. A British heat wave was reported on New Zealand televisions back in 2012, but the way it was reported seemed only a few days exception to the depressing norm. It barely rained the whole of June to September, which is more than can be said for my first summer in Auckland where I was constantly caught in torrential downpours. Forward to the present time in London, and although late October is seeing the climate getting colder, it’s bearable and not even as cold as my home town Dunedin would have been in early Winter.

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The view outside my work window – The Westway

For example, we are nearing the start of November and on this particular day at 4.30, it’s not terribly cold and sky has plenty of colour to it. The grey British sky that I was expecting to see constantly seems to be partly a stereotype. Perhaps I got the wrong end of the stick, and London weather was always calm. Or could it be evidence of climate change, global warming or whatever name you like to use, that things are getting calmer around these parts. I can’t claim to be an expert of the weather of this country though – I’m yet to experience Wales or Scotland, which I’m sure is where all the really turbulent weather is found.

There is much to suggest that I am currently merely inexperienced and the bad weather has not yet hit. I am start to have to wear coats, and the sun is setting much earlier. I must admit that some nights after work, sitting outside having a pint with the work mates, it’s been pretty damn cold. But I’m adjusting. My friends and co-workers say that the worst is yet to come, so I’m bracing myself. Will it turn out that like other things in London, the worst weather will be a little bit over-hyped? (on a side note, other over-hyped things include – Hyde Park, the coolness of Hackney/Shoreditch, the quality of the local bands & the general social scene). Although I’m betting on a harmless winter, I will update you all in another few months time with word of whether things have gotten any worse. It won’t be long I’m sure that I’ll be eating my words.

Basically, if I can say anything constructive on the topic of British weather, it would be: don’t let it put you off coming over here. There’s plenty of other reasons to be turned off moving or visiting England, but the weather I don’t think should be the dominant reason. Unless you’re from California or Hawaii and you’ve never had grey skies and some cold ever in your life. But if you’re from a normal place like Auckland, Toronto or even Melbourne – London is probably on par with whatever weather conditions you’ve already faced. The winters are kind of cold, but not horrifically miserable and the summers are actually quite pleasant. Or at least so my fairly naive experience has led me to believe.

People reluctantly leaving their London houses

 

 

An Update On Life in London

I hate to think of this blog being dead, so for the first time in over a month I’m focusing and finishing a post. I had a good run there for a while – several posts a week for a few months. I guess it was the extra free time from being unemployed for the first time in several years combined with the excitement of being a new city. But then suddenly – inspiration caved away. To be completed honest I seem to have been in a post-travel rut for the last month. The first few months in London were hugely exciting, full of ups and downs – and although I found myself missing home I had enough anticipation and hope about what was to come in London that I remained optimistic. But during this last month, I guess the reality of living in this city dawned on me. It’s an expensive place, it takes a very long time to get anywhere and much of the time – it’s pretty boring. Just like anywhere. I’ve traveled half way across the world and relocated to a major international city only to find that life is much the same here as it was back home.

Not a huge revelation I suppose – I’m the same person here as I was 3 months ago in Auckland. You take your problems and personality traits with you. Life doesn’t automatically change just because you’ve moved to some foreign place with a lot of history between it’s walls and within it’s streets. The grass is just as similar a colour as what the saying suggests it will be.

So no great revelations, but I have learned a great deal. About myself, about friendships – about how people half way across the world from each other are not all that different at all. London is still a fantastic place and I’m having a lot of good times, and new experiences. Obviously I’m not leaving yet – I’m getting enough out of living here to stay for the time being.

There’s a lot I’ve been wanting to write, review and talk about – but have been lacking in concentration and motivation. I could be concerned about views a little too much. Rather than just writing what I want, I end up writing posts in order to get my view counts to rise. Sometimes it seems a waste of energy to write long blog pieces only to get a dozen or more eyes scanning the page. I don’t know how many people actually read these, probably very few. I’m not making any money from whatever views I do get on this blog, wordpress takes whatever cents I could be making. I’m therefore far from a successful blog writer, but considering this is only one of the many hobbyist activities I’m pursuing – it’s not a huge deal. I should probably keep writing for myself, little diary entries such as this, and then it might be much easier to keep up the posting regularly.

Just this last week I saw both Morrissey and Martin Phillips live in London. Both were great, although for me Martin Phillipps took the cake – playing a mix of rarities and crowd pleasures. Morrissey was great for sure, but his ego is so far up his own ass – he seems to really believe in the mythology of himself – that too much of the show is all about worshiping the great Morrissey, rather than about good music. Morrissey has a lot of good songs, but he chose instead to play majority songs from his newest albums, mixed in with 90’s deep cuts. The diehard Moz-heads seemed to love it, I guess I’m just not die hard enough. These are concerts I should review in more detail – and hopefully I’ll get around to more of that soon. Off to Greece next month as well – first time in the Mediterranean and could supply inspiration for a post or two. I’ll most likely just eat some awesome Olive drenched food, and stare at some old things.

There is a lot more I want to write about London as well. The city and experiences within it have been well covered within blog posts – but I feel there is still room for another voice on the joys are struggles of this over-crowded British center. Alas, life in London will continue – I will endeavor to tell you more about the stupidly high cost of living and terrible experience that is the London underground. Until then, here is video of a rap set I performed recently at Cafe 1001, in Shoreditch:

Review: Rioting outside Wireless Festival (Finsbury Park, London, 4th July 2015)

 

 

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Yesterday Kendrick Lamar played as part of Wireless festival in London. I had a ticket for the day, having wanted to see Lamar live for some time. But having arrived at Finsbury Park i was overcome with festival snobbery and decided Wireless wasn’t for me. My feelings were probably due to the fact that apart from Lamar, the only other acts on the lineup that I would have had even a vague interest in seeing were Mary J. Blige, who I already skipped at Glastonbury, and Childish Gambino, who I don’t particularly rate. The fact that Avicii was headlining, an artist I dislike in a genre I particularly dislike, cookie-cutter radio pop house, EDM or whatever the currently label is, irked me further. Why should Kendrick Lamar have only an hour, with his discography only getting stronger, him having probably the best album of 2015 after all, yet Avicii was given nearly two hours to stand on stage and cue corny pop anthems and tweak eq nobs on his CD-jay or serato set-up while the kids trips peak as the streamers and smoke and mirrors create the usual manufactured concert euphoria. I eventually decided this was not worth the 45 pound I paid for the ticket, and flogged it off to the first group I found who were buying.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 13: Kendrick Lamar performs on stage on Day 2 of Yahoo Wireless Festival 2013 at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on July 13, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images)

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – JULY 13: Kendrick Lamar performs on stage on Day 2 of Yahoo Wireless Festival 2013 at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on July 13, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images)

Seeing Kendrick live will have to wait, but instead I can review the vibe from outside Wireless Festival in the Finsbury Park grounds, North East London. The party was not confined to inside the walls and outside, hundreds were milling around in groups, publically drinking as this is legal in London, the atmosphere and prospects of getting a show for free attracting youths and hang abouts of all sorts. I may have left my ticket behind but not the festivities entirely. Instead a friend and I joined in with the free Finsbury festival happening that day. It may not have been corperate sponsored entertainment as per what was going on inside, but the outside festivities had a charm all their own, and plenty of entertainment, proving the youths can entertain themselves without needing big light shows and european DJs. The entertainment instead became all about finding a way into Wireless for free.

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The day before, some of these outside lingerers had managed to find a weakness in the fencing, providing the opportunity to get in for free. Saturday night, this was repeated except this time, security was ready and waiting. Word had got out through social media and those attempting to get in the second night had rapidly grown from the day before. I was expecting to see people attempting to break in, but also due to the police and security presence, had assumed this would deter the majority of attemptees. I was quite wrong. My friend and I had found a spot to sit, enjoy the sun and a few beers and perhaps enjoy some of the sounds leaking in from the festival beside us, when suddenly scores of people came running nearby. Quickly clicking to what was occuring, my friend and I caught up and followed behind. A weakness had been found in a back vehicle entrance, and people were pouring into Wireless in droves. Not long after, those same people were pushed back out, and a clash with gatecrashers and security ensured.

Now practically a full on riot, the crowd outside that had only swelled further took it upon themselves to sprint round the perimeter of Finsbury, making attempts to rip the Wireless fence down, a few making it over here and there, most chased away by security and police. Security were unable to physically attack the crowd, the police seemed resigned to let it take place and so arrests were not made and things were largely unviolent. As Kendrick took the stage this only convinced the mob to try harder to break in. Kendrick sounded great from outside, his anthems belting out as the mob took made final attempts to break down the wall of corporate music festivities. King Kunta sounded out and only made the kids try harder to get in.

Kendrick’s set coming to an end, the mob gave up. No one breaking in was attempting for the sake of Avicii, it was Lamar’s street sharp anthems that were uniting a crowd of bored London youths. Someone later made the comment to me that such an event was evident of what happens when there is not enough afforable leisure options available for youths. With school out,what else is there to do but get drunk in a park and try and break in to where the fun is. This is perhaps evident of the organisef chaos that youth boredom can eventuate to, if on a scale of that of Londons. A microcosmic example of the London riots that have been, and will probably be back. An occurance like this anticipates that.

Wireless_Festival

All this keeping the desperate kids out of the entertaiment does make me think, why should the rich no pay for the poor, taking a leaf out of the Proms books. Once the tickets have all been bought up, if there are 300 people hanging outside, why not just let the doors open and let them in, rather than semi-violently keeping them out of the corperate funded entertaiment. The hack DJs, the bloated corperate sponsors, the venue owners will all still make a profit. It’s happened in the past, The Wall in Berlin 1990 for example, or early Glastonbury festivals where fence jumping was just an expected part of it. Or what about Woodstock, when over demand and not enough ticket supply led to it becoming a free concert.

But it’s not 1969 anymore, and giant metal walls and police presence are the solution to keeping the poor or cheap out, and keeping the profit for the sponsors as high as possible. Bring on the next riots, they’ll probably be a lot more serious next time.

Note: I’ve just read that some people were in fact hurt, and perhaps stabbed in the attempted mob break ins. So to re-evaluate, breaking into a festival and using violence isn’t cool. I would probably recommend distancing yourself from such goings on. Also I don’t wish to insult the victims of previous riots – obviously personal casualties as well as property damage occured in the last London riots and I wouldn’t want to endorse any of that.

In the future I think I’ll stick to reviewing the concert – and discussing why Kendrick Lamar is a much better choice of headliner than Avicii.

A World of “Mayhem” – The truth behind Norway’s darkest band

Earlier this year I attended the 2nd ever Westfest, a metal and hard rock festival staged in Auckland, New Zealand. There was a massive lineup of bands on the bill, including Lamb Of God, Judas Priest, Faith No More and Soundgarden. It was pretty much a New Zealand Soundwave. According to rumour, the festival failed to break even which surprises me given the impressive line-up, but this was perhaps due to the festival being held on a Tuesday more than anything else.

Also playing on the bill was the infamous Norwegian black metal band Mayhem. I was immediately curious about checking out these guys live when I heard of their addition, even though I hadn’t really listened to them since my high school days. Listening to their first EP Deathcrush and reading about the bands dark history was a strong memory from my mid-teen metal head days. I caught up on the bands discography, and found they had plenty more fantastic albums and songs, Freezing Moon off first album De Mysteriis Dom SathanasMy Death off Chimera, Psywar off newest album Esoteric Warfare to name a few. Their music was complex and aggressive but much more textured and well written than I’d previously assumed.

 

Past controversies

Mayhem‘s past is well documented. Their third lead singer Dead, real name Per Yngve Ohlin joined in 1988 just after the release of the Deathcrush EP. Per lived with fellow Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, aka  Øystein Aarseth, in a house the band also used to practice in. Per was a quiet, reclusive personality and possibly depressed. He killed himself, his body later being found by Øystein/Euronymous, who took photos of the corpse. These photos later turned up on the bootleg live album cover, Dawn Of The Black Hearts, which infuriated Mayhem founding member and bass played Necrobutcher (Jørn). Jørn left the band after that incident, but Euronymous would continue, recruiting Hungarian singer Attila Csihar to fill Dead’s shoes on the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas album (using the lyrics largely written by Dead). Varg Vikernes was recruited to fill in as bass player, who also recorded as the artist Burzum. Drummer Hellhammer (Jan Axel Blomberg) filled out the line-up, who had also joined the band after Deathcrush. Tempers would soon flare between Øystein and Varg, with Varg stabbing and killing Øystein (he would plead in self-defense during the court case). Varg would head to jail, leaving Mayhem’s future up in the air.

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Pelle Ohlin or ‘Dead’ in 1988

Lords Of Chaos

A chance meeting between drummer Hellhammer and Necrobutcher would result in reviving Mayhem and since then they have gone on to release 3 albums, an EP and toured the world, gathering a loyal fanbase. This is a very brief history of the band and you find more definitive histories through out the web, or in documentaries such as Pure Fucking Mayhem. Their complicated and somewhat tragic past has often overshadowed their since productive and relatively normal career’s though, and this continues to be the case, with Hollywood now announcing a film based on the history of the band and particularly murdered guitarist Euronymous, to be directed by Swedish music video director Jonas Akerlund. Akerlund is not a complete stranger to the metal community, having been a drummer in early black metal bands and also the filmmaker for the infamous Candlemass music video, Bewitched. Mayhem singer Dead appears in the Candlemass video, so it’s possible Akerlund and Dead were friends or acquaintances at one stage. Never-the-less, the movie is based on the book Lords Of Chaos, which is not looked at favorably by some parts of the black metal community, for glorifying or being factually wrong regarding the lives of Euronymous and the events that occurred in the history of the band.

Necrobutcher, interviewed recently, is not too happy about this upcoming adaptation. He’s quoted as saying;

This book Lords of Chaos is fucking crap and that some stupid Swedes are gonna make a movie out of it is not OK. I will do everything I can to stop this film… Tell the Swedes and the Hollywood people to go fuck themselves.”

necrobutcher meeting westfest

Jorn or Necrobutcher and I outside the Westfest after party

Meeting Necrobutcher & discussing the real Per Ohlin (Dead)

I met and chatted to Jørn for sometime after the Mayhem concert in Auckland. Although some alcohol may have been involved I got some interesting insight into the workings of the band and Jorn’s own feelings about his bands history and how they’re regarded. Jørn talked about the loss of Per (Dead). Per had been known to talk about killing himself for some time. Jørn said that members of the band had limited patience his comments about suicide. He seemed to imply that Øystein and Hellhammer would say things to the extent of – “if you’re going to keep talking about killing yourself, why don’t you go and do it”. This uncaring attitude seems cruel but in my mind, the band were all very young at that time. They were perhaps short tempered and serious people, but I doubt they would have actually wanted their singer to commit suicide. Jørn stated that he was closest with Per, that Per was a cool guy – shy and with a weird sense of humour. Per apparently avoided eye contact with people – Jørn talked about Per coming over for dinner at his house, and when thanking Jorn’s mum for the food, would have his eyes fixed at the ground. Had Jørn himself had been aware of Per’s final threat to kill himself, Jørn would have tried to stop him. Per had told the other members of the band, but not Jørn, about his plans. Jørn suspects that Per knew Jørn would be the one that would stop him committing this act, hence why he kept it secret.

An early Mayhem band photo, Per Ohlin in the corpse paint

An early Mayhem band photo, Per Ohlin in the corpse paint

I was told about the funeral for Per, that Jørn attending and conversed with many family members morning the loss of the barely beyond teenage years Per. It seems like it would have been a lot for a young musician to cope with. When we read about Mayhem‘s history, it is nearly always exaggerated and played up for shock, treating the drama around the band like tabloid fodder. It’s easy to forget that these were real people, with real struggles and that the bassist commonly known as Necrobutcher was a real guy, playing in a metal band with ambitions to be the next Slayer, who suddenly has to cope with a suicide in the project he had avidly pursued since high school. Jørn leaves the band after the death of Per, angry at Øystein who’d promised to destroy the photos he took of Per’s corpse. He did not, and the image turned up on the cover of a bootleg live release that has now been widely seen. Per had a personality, and circulating the image of his corpse only served to dehumanize him.

Øystein would continue Mayhem without Jørn. The next incarnation of Mayhem would once again come to end with a death, this time Øystein’s, at the hand of the bassist of his own band. Jørn stated he had since forgiven Varg for killing Øystein, he understood why he could have been driven to, although of course didn’t support the crime that took another friend from Jørn’s life. Now he had to deal with the death of another one of his friends and bandmates. Jørn told me that due to these losses, touring with the band is now especially hard, as he has children that he finds it difficult to leave. When he’s on the road, he constantly worries about their safety. So many people look at a band like Mayhem and judge them on past events and their brutal image, without taking into consideration the real personalities within the band.

The current Mayhem line up (from left) Hellhammer, Ghul, Attila, Teloch, Necrobutcher

The current Mayhem line up (from left) Hellhammer, Ghul, Attila, Teloch, Necrobutcher

I talked to Jørn about a whole lot more general stuff, not just the heavy topics, just generally discussing the current Mayhem live set-up. We talked about their songs and I rambled to him about how awesome it was to be partying with a whole bunch of music fans to a classic like Chainsaw Gutsfuck. Apparently the bands gear had been stuck in America and couldn’t get to Australasia for this tour so they were forced to borrow Fear Factory’s gear, hence a rawer set (no triggers on the drums I believe and mostly old favourites played, not many from the new album). We also discussed the controversial/racist comments that drummer Hellhammer had made in an interview (Jørn brought this up, I didn’t prompt him) with Jørn expressing his disapproval at what he said (black metal is only for white people – or something pretty disgusting). This has apparently caused Mayhem to have problems playing with other bands. Napalm Death, long-time friends of Jørn, had banned Mayhem from the guest list at their gigs. This harsh feeling has somewhat cooled down, and although Hellhammer hasn’t retracted his statements it seemed some consolation that Jørn didn’t agree with them and felt them just another set back, another controversy in Mayhem’s history to distract from the music they were making. I have to admit, getting into Mayhem I had reservations due to the connection with racism through the drummers comments. I had to do some research to decide whether I would follow this band. Talking to Jørn made me realize the the complicated nature behind band dynamics and that even if one band member says something, the rest of the band doesn’t necessarily agree with it. It is still a complicated and off putting issue and I believe if the band want to be recognized on a wider scale, one step would be to publicly denounce these prior ignorant and inflammatory comments.

 

Conclusion

Jørn and Mayhem have had a whole career, nearly 25 years since those dark events transpired in the bands history in the early 90s. They’ve recorded four albums since the death of guitarist and founding member Øystein, and have largely avoided controversy since. In an artistic sense, Mayhem have always been motivated by pushing extreme music to the next level. Their divisive image reflects this, and even though their history has been forever tainted with several tragic events – they are a band like any other, one that was started by music fans back in high school and that has achieved what all teenage musicians dream of – having a legacy and influence that would ripple out through-out a worldwide music community.
The upcoming Lords Of Chaos film will be interesting – will it tell the story of Mayhem with sensitivity, respecting the fact that the deceased singer Per/Dead was a real person, a shy and sensitive guy who was overwhelmed with his own internal darkness, or will it sensationalize the events that transpired? Regardless, it’s good to keep in mind the complexities behind any horrible story, that there are real people and lives affected even in a band that are as misanthropic on a surface level as Mayhem.

It’s quite possible that I’m a kiwi fan who got a thrill from talking to a crazy Scandinavian bass player from the other side of the world that goes by Necrobutcher and who was keen to down some vodka sodas and indulge me in asking way too personal questions about his life and career. That’s probably closer to the truth.

On a side note, I also chatted to Attila for a while after Necrobutcher departed back to his hotel. Also a cool guy, we discussed some pretty crazy stuff, but at the risk of sounding like to much of a fan, I’ll save that for another time.

Attila Csihar

Attila Csihar