Wilderness Hymnal’s Javier Wallis talks Final Fantasy, psychedelic heavy piano music and queer identity in metal.
Carl Sagan once said that “an organism at war with itself is doomed.” As humans, we are to blame for the current ecological threats and political perils that loom over everyday life, are we not at war with ourselves? This notion weighs heavily over Anthropocene, the debut album from Manchester-bred artist Wilderness Hymnal, a flowing listening experience with a narrative that centres around the manmade threats we all face, from relentless consumerism and political instability to the impending threat of climate disaster. The album is even named after a proposed term for the current geological epoch.
Musically, the album is self-described by its writer as “psychedelic heavy piano music” (or sometimes “death piano”). It’s not unusual for artists to come up with a unique classifier for their particular brand of music, but in the case of Wilderness Hymnal, it’s essential. There isn’t much out there that sounds anything like the experimental musings penned by British-Venezuelan musician, producer and visual artist Javier G. Wallis, which come off like a bizarre collaboration of unnerving post-rock, expressive piano passages and drone-ridden psychedelia. This combination is at once evocative and poignant, bubbling with the growing anxieties and powerlessness that Wallis, and many others, feel in the face of ecological upheaval and political peril.
To find out more about everything from the influence of Final Fantasy and Madonna to the album’s creation and the visual accompaniments that Wallis has crafted, we had a lengthy chat with him about all things Wilderness Hymnal and Anthropocene.
What are your earliest music memories, and how did you end up discovering extreme and experimental music?
My earliest music memories are of my dad playing Pink Floyd and Bo Hansen in the house, whilst my mum was listening to Spanish music. After that, my dad unfortunately got into bad country music and ELO. I remember not liking his most of his music, so I mainly listened to the radio – I liked Madonna when I was six years old. Nobody in my family was musical. I got into nu-metal when I was twelve or so and that was the start of the road. When I came to study in Manchester, my best friend introduced me to Gojira, and that’s where things got really heavy. I was listening to a lot of death metal at the same time as I was getting into Bjork. I simultaneously started this parallel line with electronic music and extreme metal. After that came doom and black metal for me – an ex introduced me to Deathspell Omega…
There’s no coming back from that! So when did you start playing piano?
I started when I was thirteen. I was a big nerd, and I wanted to learn because of Final Fantasy soundtracks. I’m not really classically trained. I found what worked for me was learning chord shapes and translating tabs into piano music, like Led Zeppelin and Jeff Buckley songs. I am lucky that my teacher let me get on with it, because that was what kept me engaged. It wasn’t until I got into Tori Amos when I was nineteen that my piano technique really started to solidify. Everything I’ve learnt since then has come from writing stuff that is a bit harder than I can actually play, and then practising until I can.
How would you describe Wilderness Hymnal in your own words for someone who has never heard you?
Psychedelic heavy piano music. It’s a bit progressive, there are a lot of different genres mashed into it. Sometimes if I want to mess with people I call it “death piano”! The heaviness comes and goes. It’s in the same place as Emma Ruth Rundle; it’s an emotional weight that can get quite dramatic. I’m always drawn to dark music of any sort, whether it’s Drab Majesty, Chelsea Wolfe or Wolves In The Throne Room. I’m also a massive fan of Fever Ray and Dead Can Dance – Lisa Gerrard is a force of nature!
The album is called Anthropocene… This record clearly has a running concept through it and you have created these wonderful music videos. How do these videos tie into the theme of the album?
The theme of the record is about inheriting a poisoned chalice. Six of the songs were written and produced deliberately so that all of the instruments and lyrics have a synesthetic quality to them. I was trying to evoke a specific environment with the songs. ‘Aorta’ and ‘Caldera’ are both volcanic, ‘Meltwater’ is glacial, ‘Abyssal’ I wanted to sound like it was in a deep sea trench. That’s the way I worked, very visually with the songs. Nature is very central to the record.
“Anthropocene” is the name that geological scientists have proposed for this era to signpost this period where humans have had such an overwhelming effect on weather systems and oceanic carbon cycles. For me, it is very painful to see the world we love degrading. It’s hugely emotional for me, to the extent that I wrote a goddamn album about it!
Eventually, I ended up hitting a wall with my concept because I was starting to stifle myself. So I put the best songs I had together and I ended up with this theme of inheritance. The other songs are about dark personal situations in my early life.
For the videos, my director Sam Fenton and I took a bit more of a conceptual road because I didn’t have a big budget at all. We found a nice Scandinavian black metal-looking pine forest in Lancashire where we filmed most of the music videos. I had a colour pallet for all the visuals. There was a photograph of the Deepwater Horizon oilspill by Daniel Beltra that looks like an abstract painting, so we recreated that with paint and oil.
How long has the album been in the making and what collaborators did you work with along the way?
I started writing it four years ago. I actually wrote the first iteration of ‘Altar’ after the [Transmutation] EP came out. The other stuff took longer because I was learning to produce on my own.
So my collaborators on this; Joe Garcia co-produced it with me, Mike Kelly, my guitarist, is kind of my right-hand man. He’s an amazing instrumentalist who helped pushed me into finishing the songs. John Simm from Cleft played drums. I set myself a challenge of writing as many of the drum parts as possible on this record, so the result is a lot of strange drum patterns that you wouldn’t have a drummer write *laughs*. I think I had something to prove! Chris Taylor at Noiseboy Studios in Salford tracked the drums. I recorded the grand pianos myself at an old Victorian house in Withington, Manchester where I used to live. I just happened to live with this old guy who had a piano, so it was perfect. Then we took it all to Joe’s Garage in Bristol. I was witness to a recording session he did with Dylan Carlson from Earth and Maddy Prior from Steeleye Span. I got to see him work and we got on so well that I went back to work with him. I sort of owe something to Rose Kemp. She is a doom artist who started making horribly abrasive, weird wacky doom metal. She and her mother Maddy [Prior] run these vocal courses in Cumbria and I attended a few of those, so props to them for helping me fix my voice and become a better singer!
The album’s lyrics, artwork and videos are very vivid and colourful in contrast to a lot of artists who are using stark black and white aesthetic these days. Was colour a conscious idea you had in mind?
I think that’s partially down to my personality. I’m a very visual person so that’s always been in my creative sphere. I’m that metalhead who turns up to shows in bright yellow t-shirts *laughs*! I like colour. A lot of the lyrics were written separately to the music. I still get quite anxious writing lyrics, but what I go for is strong imagery and putting words together that wouldn’t usually go together, and trying to create something evocative. I don’t like my lyrics to spell out one thing, I like them to be a combination of the abstract and the personal. Colour is a big part of that. It’s down to the way my brain works. I like contrast and I like doing something contradictory.
The release and the promo of the album has largely been a DIY thing. What difficulties have you faced?
Just finding the time to do everything! I’m quite fortunate that I’ve been in the music scene for about nine years. I used to be a music promoter, and I work in radio, so luckily I got to know a lot of people through my line of work. It’s just really difficult to sustain yourself and have time to do all this stuff. I’d advise any band doing a DIY release to start your planning four or five months ahead if you can, and you need to start your press three months ahead. So it’s about managing your time and resources. The album had been ready for a year. I had to graft at my day job, and various side jobs to earn money so that I could then make the best go of it. I have to be 100% behind the direction of the video, the artwork. I can’t not be included, as I didn’t want to risk things being taken in a direction I wasn’t happy with.
Do you think it is getting easier or harder for independent artists to make their way and stand out these days?
I think it’s great that Bandcamp exists. Honestly, there have always been pros and cons, things that have changed for the better and for the worse. There is so much music being made. It’s a great thing that technology has allowed more people to have access. [Music recording software] Ableton, in particular, is made for people who don’t have a superior recording knowledge. Electronic music is closer to the ethos of punk now. You can just get your phone or your laptop and go out and make music. But it is incredibly difficult for artists to stand out. It’s very much a cutting-through-the-noise situation. Artists who don’t have enough money are screwed, and I don’t think that is right. Record labels can’t afford to take chances on artists who don’t have a proven track record either.
So you’ve played as a solo musician live, but for the album release show in Manchester you played with a quartet. How did you find that?
I’ve played on and off with drummers as a duo, but that was the first time with a full band. because the record had a full band arrangement, I felt like I needed that. I’ve always wanted to continue with a band setup, it’s just finding a drummer is really difficult! I’m in love with live drums, heavy, heavy drumming! I think if anything, that is the most metal thing about this project. I got obsessed with Kylesa because of the two drummer thing, and drummers like Mario Duplantier of Gojira and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden. I love drums!
You’ve played with extreme metal bands as well as rock and experimental artists. Do you see Wilderness Hymnal as quite a malleable project?
Absolutely! The difficulty I’ve found is that when you start out, people want to be able to put you in a box. And when all your songs are different, when people hear one song, they will assume that’s what you are about. That’s been a big challenge because I think people can get the wrong impression. I fit in everywhere. I feel the most kinship with metal bands, as that’s where I’ve grown up and that’s where my heart is. I think the weight comes through, and people get why that weight is there. But I’ve played with shoegaze bands and experimental bands. I think open-mindedness will connect the threads. I like to mix it up! I like going to gigs where you aren’t watching the same band four times!
Who are your favourite Manchester artists?
It’s not necessarily even about Manchester. There are a lot of artists I feel a kinship with. The reason that I moved to Manchester in 2008 was the band Oceansize. I’m also really proud of my friends Pijn, who I’ve supported live, they’re doing really well on Holy Roar. There is also an amazing project called Mesange. They are a drone electric guitar and violin duo. Think Earth mixed with Jessica Moss. There is a band from Bristol I love called Dorcha, they’re like Kate Bush meets Scott Walker; wacky art pop I love them. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs [props to Javier for actually saying their name correctly out loud], Sex Swing, Vodun from London, Kathryn Joseph from Glasgow, she’s on [Mogwai‘s record label] Rock Action. VOW and Glarus from Manchester, Trojan Horse and She The Throne. Tanya [Byrne] from Bismuth and I have very similar interests! I love their real intensity and heaviness, and their latest album is called The Slow Dying Of The Great Barrier Reef, so you can see that we are in similar conceptual territory!
You like to play dress up live; tell us more about your outfits…
I’m always really drawn to artists that care about the visual component. There’s always a sense of transcending the ordinary. Chelsea Wolfe does it, Zola Jesus does it. When you do promo photos, it’s about trying to get you out of the ordinary and into a world of your own. That’s really important to me. At first I was quite daunted by it, but I’ve come to see it as a worthwhile challenge. Because I’m queer I pass as straight, but my music isn’t especially queer in terms of subject matter, so I wanted to try and integrate other aspects of myself. A drag artist called Eva Serration, she helped me come up with the makeup. All of the ideas for the costume come from ways to try and express themes from the record. It’s kind of a new take on the man of the woods character or the Jack O’Green character. I’ve sort of tried to integrate elements of drag culture and give a platform to queer artists to try and do something a bit different.
Was there a sense that you wanted to bring queerness into your music and lyrics?
It doesn’t really on this record. It’s only the last few years I’ve come to identify as queer. I was always the token gay metalhead. I’m used to being in straight company and fighting my corner. But it’s been really rewarding to embrace queer company in Manchester. There are artists like Coil and Throbbing Gristle who are both overtly queer performers, but I think metal has steadily become more conservative and there aren’t as many queer artists. Shout out to Vile Creature, Body Void, Gaytheist and I Told You I Would Eat You.
There is still a long way to go. I don’t want people to be taken in by the idea that we’ve got equality now. I’m very hesitant to label myself as a queer artist because I don’t think my music speaks to queer issues.
It’s great to highlight the issues, but just being open and comfortable to be yourself is very important too…
Absolutely, that is a political act in itself!
Any final thoughts?
Plant trees and hail Sagan!
Anthropocene is out now. Purchase here.
Interview: Chris “Frenchie” French
Intro words: George Parr
Images: Samuel Andrew Fenton