Feature / Channeling the Divine: In Conversation with Liturgy’s Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix

Some bands play complicated music. Clashing guitars ride roughshod over the listener, backed by furious batteries of percussion. Some bands go further—they are chaotic, mercurial, testing the limits of form and function, delighting an audience with deft flurries of sound and colour, expanding the mind and the boundaries of genre.

Then, there are rare groups who take the challenge further. Their output is bewildering, beyond the outer realms of the most adventurous listener, a rewarding challenge for anyone who finds pleasure in bafflement. Liturgy are one such band, and their maximalist 80-minute record 93696 is testament to their ambitions.

I spoke with guitarist and vocalist Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix just after the record’s release, ahead of their upcoming tour.

Congratulations on your new record—it seems to be getting really great reviews.

Yeah, I feel people are responding pretty well. We worked really, really, really hard and it seems like people can tell. It’s been a long time coming, so it’s a big relief just to sort of have it finally out in the world.

Yeah, definitely. It’s always interesting to try to describe a project like Liturgy—I think people used phrases like ‘wildly ambitious’ way too early in your career. Obviously all your music is ambitious, but how do you describe an 80-minute album that discusses the structure of heaven?

I don’t know that the ambitious aspect is the most important thing to me. The music is very emotional, and that’s something that not everybody sees, still—sometimes they do. To me, the music feels intensely personal. Like there’s a lot of feeling in it—big, big feelings.

Yeah, that’s something I picked up on. Was there a link between the new instrumentation you used and any new emotions you’re trying to conjure?

I think so. I mean, some of the instrumentation is from classical music and 19th century classical composition is really, really important to me, partly because of its formal characteristics, which I follow a lot in composing Liturgy‘s music. And also because of a certain kind of emotional subjectivity that that music has, there’s nothing quite as sweeping and moving as a Brahms symphony. So I think the strings and flutes connect to that. Then there are other instrumentation choices that are more of an experiment—I was really interested in working with microtonal flutes, like an ocarina, and flutes that don’t use the twelve tones that the rest of the music is composed using. That’s meant to have more of an uncanny effect. I guess there’s a lot of emotion in the music for me—there’s personal emotion, there’s the spiritual stuff which is the most on-the-surface, and then there’s a kind of… maybe madness too that I’m interested in conveying.

Yeah, there’s a definite sense of chaos. I think you’ve got a name for that now. I always have to put a lot of time aside to sit down with a new Liturgy record—there’s a new Immortal record coming out soon, and I can absorb that over a shorter period. It’s not as much of a commitment.

Right, yeah! I mean I wish I could be someone who’s never heard the album and then hears it for the first time. Like, I have no idea what that experience is like, because I’m so invested in the music, I always already know what it sounds like. But yeah, I get the sense that it’s pretty intense to attempt it the first time you hear it.

Yeah, totally. What are the complexities of writing such a long record? I think this is the longest one you’ve done so far.

It’s not just long, it’s also really detailed and intense for most of that time too, which makes it feel extra long. There was no plan to write a record that was so long, I just knew that I wanted the record to be totally finished. It’s kind of hard to explain—there have been earlier records that I felt weren’t quite finished, but it was just time to get them out because it sort of… had to happen. H.A.Q.Q. especially was like that—we just needed to record. That record feels almost unfinished to me. This record, I really wanted it to just be as complete as it can be. We had a lot of time during 2020 to really work hard. I mean, it could have been shorter—part of me considered taking the title track and having that be a separate record altogether, which would have really changed things. And as I think you know, the album has two 15-minute closers. For a long time I was trying to decide which of the two to use before deciding to use both. Anyway, the material just kind of came and just kept coming, and that’s why it’s as long as it is. So it wasn’t like something I was setting out to do.

Are there challenges in keeping something like that coherent or cohesive all the way through?

I definitely tortured over the exact number of interludes and what kind of experience exactly to create, or what it would be like to experience it. There’s an additional interlude that I almost put on the record, and I’m still not sure whether that was the right choice or not—basically another interlude in the middle of the album, to just really separate the two sides. But yeah, I definitely think it flows well. I certainly cared a lot about that—it wasn’t just throwing a bunch of songs in, I thought a lot about changing the key or the mode or the tempo from one song to another. So there’s different kind of tools that you sort of use to structure it.

Will we get to hear the track you didn’t end up putting on the album? For such a detailed record I’m interested to hear the detail that didn’t get in.

It’s very short! Part of me considered doing a Kanye thing and putting it on the album after it’s been released—I almost logged into Bandcamp and added it, and emailed the label. I’m sure it’ll be heard eventually. It’s just a short melody—it’s called ‘Daily Bread II’. ‘Daily Bread’ is the first track on the record, and this is basically the reprise played on toy piano. It’s less than a minute long but it more thoroughly divides the album into two groups. I think it would have a strong effect in terms of how you psychologically perceive the record as two things rather than one thing, but flows a little better without it.

I’m interested in the themes of sovereignty, hierarchy, emancipation and individuation that underpin the record—can you tell me more about these?

A big part of the intention in Liturgy generally is to create meaning, or create some kind of reference point for thriving and vitality and freedom, in a situation where a lot of the structures that have divided that stuff in the past are dissolving. That’s something I think about a lot, trying to make music that has a healing and inspiring effect, and drawing attention to it and conveying ideas that might be useful. So sovereignty, hierarchy, emancipation and individuation are four ideals that I propose that could be useful in our time as the world continues to change so much. They’re laws that govern heaven. Individuation is the most important one, it’s the right to create from a unique place. Emancipation is a little more general—the right for groups to become free or recognised, to have a political dimension. Hierarchy is a little more logistical, it’s the right to be put in contact with what you need to grow—so many of the problems in our society come from a mismatch of needs and resources that could be matched up really well if the information was provided. Sovereignty is the ideal of becoming increasingly independent from exterior sources of motivation, be that in a psychological sense—being able to desire—or being more free from energy needs and stuff like that. But they’re just ideas. It feels very oppressive to be in a time like this where things are changing so much. It’s not really clear what the world will be in ten or even five years, so these are just some philosophical offerings.

I’ve read that this is like a vision of an imagined heaven.

In various religious traditions there’s an idea of making contact with the ultimate desire, the highest desire, and I think that’s the desire for a world where we can recondition the soul. Who knows what world might come to pass in the next couple of years. I think there’s power in cultivating desire for that, so that attention feels like the choice between desiring that and being consumed with resentment and fear because lots of bad things have happened and maybe everything is gonna collapse too. So there’s something kinda cosmic about it, a vision of heaven. But in a concrete way too—can our world become heaven? You and I living in it and having lives where we’re free to create and learn and grow?

Thank you for that, that’s really enlightening. It feels very timely to be talking about that with things like AI happening. It feels like we’re either on the precipice of something really fantastic—in the UK we’re talking about the four-day week which opens up more space for creative things—but at the same time it could all go horribly wrong.

Yeah! I think whatever it is, it’s not going to not happen. It’s going to go well or not go well, but we’re not gonna be living in the same world. In the AI situation there’s a lot of discourse about that—’well, the robot can just make the art so what use is the art’—I’ve never really been concerned with that because what the task of art should be is to try to see, as clearly as possible, what’s going on and somehow nudge things towards the best possible outcome, to whatever degree that’s possible. The AI thing is also related in some ways to why I wanted to make the album so finished and final—people have commented a lot on how it rehearses a lot of themes from earlier Liturgy albums, it kinda seems like it’s the final Liturgy album. I don’t feel like it’s the final Liturgy album, but I don’t know if it will make sense to write music in the same way again soon so it’s nice to kinda have things tied up. I also wanted to record it to tape to make it sound like something from the past. It almost feels like we’re living in the past because there’s this future that seems like it’s invading the world. I like the idea of this record being this very analogue thing that’s composed in a meticulous way—that’s something we may never do again.

I mean, I hope it’s not the last Liturgy album. How do you feel black metal has changed since you’ve been doing Liturgy in terms of the bands around you and the press you’re getting?

Black metal… I don’t have that much contact with the black metal scene. When we started playing I was in the Brooklyn music scene, the art rock, art punk scene, with Krallice and Liturgy, doing more of an art approach. At the time it was unheard of, doing what we were doing in the context of black metal, mixing it with noise rock or whatever. Since then I think black metal as a genre has evolved in interesting ways. There’s a lot of amazing black metal being made, it’s a great medium for experimentation. But at this point it makes sense to think of black metal as one tiny slice of what Liturgy is. I don’t know if it’s mostly a black metal band that experiments with other forms—to me, it feels like it’s sort of connected with maybe five or six different types of music and black metal is one of them. I know I call it black metal—it’s so unusual because it’s very close and distant at the same time.

Can you expand on that, very close and very distant? Do you mean as an influence?

To me as an influence and I think in terms of the people who can and should care about the music. When I first encountered black metal, I connected with the cosmic qualities, the abyssal loneliness and isolation and the drive to be like rock music but also something totally different. In some ways of course Liturgy is black metal—I feel the connection to black metal’s essence—but I also want to push in a different direction, or even further into the direction that black metal is already tending towards. Not everyone else wants that extra push.

I always think the idea of transgression is so central to the idea of black metal. It’s weird that when people try to push that envelope and expand the boundaries of black metal that the core fans are like—that’s a transgression too far!

Yeah exactly! Like, isn’t Liturgy the most black metal band? I think it is!

That’s something that struck me when I first heard you. Hearing Liturgy for the first time was like—oh, this is new, this is identifiably black metal but in all kinds of wild and wonderful different directions all at once. And, yeah, it did feel like very true to one of the strands of black metal, which is to be in complete defiance against what’s gone before. I think black metal was very true to a kind of artistic spirit that’s unfettered by the constraints of capitalism. I don’t know how true that is now.

It definitely has this way of making music that’s not as connected to the music industry—it resists commodification. I mean—I just think, this is so obvious to say, but so much black metal is steeped in hate. It’s proudly waving the flag of hate, and—you know, I think hate is bad.

Same here. I don’t see Liturgy as hateful at all.

Yeah, I think there was a time when that kind of transgression was—like, invoking hate was a way of rebelling against hypocritical conformist moralism in Western society—something that metal has always kind of gone up against. But now, the power it’s opposing is not so powerful any more. And now there’s so much hate that has a voice in the world. And I think the sectors of black metal that are just, you know, bigoted and hateful get to be bigoted and hateful. And so like—hate in music means something different now than it did in like the 90s, if that makes sense.

That definitely makes sense. I wanted to talk to you about gender—I’m non-binary and I’m interested in other trans and non-binary in metal and extreme music generally. Have you seen an increase in more people coming out?

Yeah, definitely. And I think that mirrors that more people are coming out in the world too. But it’s definitely a lot more accepted in metal than it was a long time ago. I mean, at least in certain sectors. But yeah, I would say there’s a lot more.

I heard an interview where you talked about gender dysmorphia and how it influenced the music that you made. I see a lot of trans musicians in metal—Pupil Slicer are a good example—who are making really forward-thinking extreme music that seems like it’s coming from a place that we’ve not really heard before. Do you see a similar kind of energy in them?

I think everybody is unique. There was a particular problem with gender dysphoria that black metal specifically solved for me. I mean, I don’t know that many black metal bands with trans people in them—I would imagine that like, a particular kind of wound or pressure or difficulty would manifest in different ways for different people whether they’re making extreme metal or not.

That’s great, thank you. I’m glad I got to ask you about that. What’s up next for you? I know you’re touring later this year.

We’re doing more touring than we ever have actually, which is nice. We’re about to go to Scandinavia—it’s kinda nice that it’s the fatherland. We’re doing a US tour in the summer, then UK at the end of the summer, and then continental Europe in the fall. So we’re just really trying to perform this album as much as we can—for me, the live show is maybe even more important than the record, you know? Actually playing the music and being with people, it’s like sharing the energy. So I’m very excited—we’re starting in a week and a half and then we’ll just be on tour all year.

93696 is out now and can be purchased here

Words: T Coles

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