Metal has had a long history of talking about mental illness, with one of the genre’s most famous songs – Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ – essentially being a two-minute reflection on the nature of depression. But sometimes, such conditions can be trivialised, or even fetishised, especially within the context of black metal. One young band who are tackling depression and mental illness with seriousness though are post-black metallers Agvirre, whose recent EP Silence was based on themes of mental illness, isolation, and self-worth.
We asked founding member Frenchie about the origin of the band, their place within the metal scene, and the importance of speaking to others.
For those who haven’t heard you before, how would you describe Agvirre’s sound?
Oooh, it’s quite hard to describe your own music, that’s why we need you journalists! Erm… I guess we make very sad and melancholic music. Agvirre doesn’t really sound like just one thing; we have elements of black metal, shoegaze, noise rock, post-rock and some electronic textures going on. Our songs are usually pretty long with twists and turns, and we combine rock instrumentation with strings, spoken word samples and synths.
We like to think our music is pretty intense, but we have a strong emphasis on melody. Unlike a lot of our peers who make extreme and heavy music, we play in standard tuning to give more brightness to our sound. I think there is quite a lot going on and things can get quite dense, like a wall of noise. I don’t really know if we are a metal band as such… I feel like we are standing on the outside of metal, peeking through it’s window… Somebody added us to Metal Archives though, so maybe we passed the test! *Laughing* I don’t know, you tell us!
Where does the name Agvirre come from? Usually a bit of sleuthing indicates why a band picked their name, but in your case we struggled to find anything.
Our name comes from a sort of fascination I have with Werner Herzog’s cult classic 1972 film Aguirre, The Wrath of God, which was our original band name before we shortened it. The film follows Aguirre and his band of pilgrims as they make this chaotic journey to find the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. I’ve always thought the film has quite a black metal aesthetic to it. But for me personally the film is an allegory for life; we’re all on this exhausting journey looking for something that we don’t even really know exists, but we keep moving forward anyway. It’s a stupid band name though! *Laughing* Instantly forgettable and nobody can pronounce it correctly, so we might have fucked ourselves there!
Lyrically, your EP Silence explored concepts around mental illness/health and self-worth, and there was a very personal feeling to it. Was writing and recording these songs a cathartic process?
Very much so. I’m diagnosed with various mental health afflictions and I’ve had my fair share of traumatic experiences. In my previous music projects, my writing had started to shift into more personal territory, so when Agvirre started it just made sense to go further with it. It’s something I have to live with and think about every day so it came very naturally. I’ve never been too interested in writing about fantasy or fictitious things, but tackling real, every day challenges and feelings.
Agvirre itself began from one of the most difficult and scary times in my life when I was going through the worst depression I’d ever experienced. At that point I had been making weird industrial and electronic music as Hexagon Trail and I’d barely touched a guitar in like two years. I remember distinctly being depressed as hell, sat on my couch, staring into space, feeling numb, and I spied my dusty electric guitar looking all neglected in the corner… Something compelled me to go and pick it up and instantly the riffs and earliest versions of the songs that make up the Silence EP came to me right there and then. Within a few days these songs were born quicker than I’d ever written anything before. It was almost like these songs had already existed somewhere within me and had just been begging for me to pick up a guitar and unleash them. It really helped me to refocus my brain and to heal. It felt good and like it could really become something. Making this music helped get me back into a good place and so I’ve dedicated myself and poured my entire being into Agvirre every day since.
Mental illness can often be fetishised in art – with the cliché of the “suffering artist” – and especially in black metal, with figures such as Dead and Niklas Kvarforth having their illnesses treated as some kind of endearing quirk more than anything else. Was Silence an attempt to redress this, and talk about how serious these issues can be?
Not consciously, but you raise a very good point. We are aware there is a microgenre called depressive suicidal black metal with bands such as Shining and Xasthur; and some of the bands in that genre will have album sleeves with people showing self-harm wounds and song titles and lyrics that address suicidal thoughts directly. Those bands walk a tightrope of ambiguity because it isn’t too clear if their music is coming from a genuine place, or whether they are trying to glamorise those feelings of depression and inner nihilism. Perhaps it could be both. Either way, I don’t see Agvirre as being a reflection of depressive suicidal black metal, or whatever you want to call it. In fact, other than incorporating some influences of black metal, there isn’t too much about us or our imagery that link us to the genre.
Our record Silence does address feelings of depression, suicidal thoughts, grief, trauma, low self-esteem and anxiety but not at all with glamorous intentions. We want our music and lyrics to show people that these are challenges in life that can be overcome; so even though we explore territory that people might consider to be really dark or harrowing, we ourselves believe we are preaching a message of hope. We have a fair balance of minor and major key moments, and we hope that our music has some uplifting and comforting moments amongst the darkness. We purposely ended the record with a section on the last couple of minutes of ‘Abandonment’ that we call the “happy ending”, where everything goes major key, and we all start singing, “take off the mask that silences you”. That’s what the record is about.
We’ve seen musical heroes and friends take their own lives, perhaps because they were unable to break their own silence and reach out to people and talk about the negativity they were going through behind closed doors… Behind that mask and fake smile that they put on in order to face their friends, family and colleagues. I kept seeing that word “silence” in a lot of articles I read about mental illness and we want people to know that no matter how hopeless and worthless they might feel, there is a light at the end of that dark, scary tunnel, and there are ways to overcome it. People should not feel ashamed or embarrassed to talk openly about their struggles, but it is just as important that we check in on the people around us and look for signs that they might be going through a hard time [especially during the current COVID-19 situation – ed.]. It might sound cliché, but it really is okay not to be okay; it doesn’t make you a bad person to be going through a hard time and neither does it make you weak. In fact, finding the courage to speak up and tell someone that you are going through a bad time is one of the strongest things you can do. These are all very delicate issues and we want to approach them seriously and respectfully.
How did you record and select the spoken word samples used on the EP? We can’t imagine it was easy to get people to open up.
Indeed this was a very fragile process. I didn’t just want this record to speak from my own experiences, but also to understand what other people are going through and find out how they manage to cope; whether that is people who also live with mental illness or people who have been through periods of depression and suicidal thoughts. Working as a journalist, I interview a lot of bands, so I wanted to find a way to bring my journalism into Agvirre too, so I reached out on social media and asked friends if they would be comfortable talking to me about their experiences and thoughts on the subject. I prepared a set of questions the same way I would an interview, and the people I spoke with were tremendously brave and really opened up to me. The responses were really positive and some of the chats went on for hours, and it was really inspiring to hear about other people’s insights.
The spoken word samples embedded into our record and teaser trailers are taken from these chats. I made it very clear from the start my exact intentions, and the names have been left anonymous. I am a big fan of Pink Floyd and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and I love the way that they are able to frame spoken word samples and field recordings into the narrative of their music. I really wanted us to avoid using samples from pre-existing sources like films or speeches, as I feel that type of sampling has been overdone, so I’m happy that all of our samples come from a completely unique and original source.
Your debut show was on a pretty eclectic bill, with OHHMS and Hundred Year Old Man. Do you feel that Agvirre are a natural fit with such forward-thinking bands? Are there any other bands you would consider yourself to have a special bond with?
We couldn’t have asked for a better debut show, playing with such talented friends was a true blessing. We feel like Agvirre have a lot of strings to our bow. It will be interesting to see how we fare playing with proper black metal bands, but we really want to play on eclectic bills with weird and experimental acts, or even with post-rock and shoegazy bands. We see that Ithaca have recently toured with Big Thief, which is a really divisive and risky pairing, but we love that. Shows should be more eclectic in the UK and not just pigeonholed to one genre because there are a lot of bands out there that transcend and break the boundaries of genres entirely. Not all of us in Agvirre come from a metal background and we listen to plenty of music from all genres.
As for other bands we feel we share a special bond with, there are so many! It feels like the most exciting time to be making music because we are surrounded by a wealth of amazingly talented people who want to break new ground. I guess if you had to force us to pick one band we share a special bond with, it’s Hidden Mothers from Sheffield. We love those guys and I guess we started making music around the same time and are on similar paths, so it’s nice to have another band to lean on and bounce off.
Anything you want to add?
I’m a personal fan of Astral Noize and I really admire the work you are doing, as well as thinking outside the box when it comes to the articles you write and the questions you ask artists. Thank you so much for letting us be a part of it and for supporting us from the very start.
Silence is out now on Trepanation Recordings and Surviving Sounds. Click here for the tape or here for the CD.
Words: Stuart Wain
Pic: Christian Manthey