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 Sathanas, My 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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.