KR: Totenwerk appears to deliberately remain in the shadows, with quite a prolific body of work to date so far, though printed in very limited editions – there seems to be a following for the label and perhaps a certain “mystique” surrounding it. Under which circumstances did Totenwerk come to life?
TOTENWERK: The label was founded in August 2013. I don’t recall anything special about the circumstances or the reasons why it happened. It was likely a combination of things that had lingered already for some time: boredom, a creative urge, vanity, disappointment with “the underground”, an enthusiasm for music as well as certain ideas and aesthetics that I wished to see released and supported, but felt no one else did. Totenwerk is a very personal endeavour and the question of why I’m doing what I’m doing and why I’m doing it the way I’m doing it in the end always comes down to: because that’s how I like it and that’s how I believe it has to be. The one practical directive that was there right from the beginning and that I still follow today is that the label had to be doable, managable for me. Time and other resources are limited and I can’t afford to invest greater sums into larger, professionally manufactured editions. A DIY approach seemed to be not only the most natural but also the best way, which means that I do everything myself at home. This obviously sets certain limitations to what can be done and in what way. These limitations are also a reason for the limited editions Totenwerk does. On the positive side, this DIY approach allows me a greater flexibility, spontaneity and independence. The mystique you mention is not “forced” but stems, I believe, from the pure and unique, often esoteric, sometimes even devotional character of the music the label releases.
Speaking of the “prolific body of work”, there is only two things to be blamed for that: my enthusiasm and The Nothing’s vast archives which he kindly allowed me to plunder.
The artists connected to, and music released through the Totenwerk imprint is more often than not a very “fringe art” kind of affair, obviously you have very developed tastes and an ear for the obscure.
The question of taste and the refinement of the senses is a difficult one since it is inseparably intertwined with the development of one’s personality, even more so than opinions and views which have a more reflective, hence intellectual and more rational, element to them. Taste, as well as our sense of humour, is nothing we choose or think out or deliberately shape and develop into a certain direction (although I’m not saying that this is impossible as there may be rare individuals past and present who indeed experiment in these matters). Just like one’s character, taste is the result of experiences one has made and experiences one has not made and could thus be seen as an undisguised and genuine expression of one’s self. A discussion about one’s taste therefore quickly turns into a discussion of one’s personality and biography which is too broad and too delicate a subject to discuss publicly. However, what I can say about how I ended up with an ear for the obscure, as you call it, is, that many and quite different influences have contributed to it, not just exposure to and knowledge of music but also literature, philosophy, religious studies, art, film, as well as dreams, memories, accidental experiences and encounters of all kind. It all relates and contributes to what we find beautiful or meaningful or true, what touches and moves and speaks to us and what doesn’t. But why the obscure then? That the mainstream, that which we are fed every day, is void of meaning, is dumb and dull and wrong, is needless to say; as needless as it is to point out the fact that the rare, the mysterious, the obscure, that which the Germans call “Geheimnis”, holds a fascination for us humans as a promise of something extraordinary, a deeper meaning and a higher truth.
On the other hand, obscurity for obscurity’s sake, as a form of mystification or “elitist” approach, is just a simple negation of the mass approach of the mainstream and doesn’t deserve much attention either. Obscurity as such is not a badge of merit nor a seal of quality. From a more positive angle it could be seen as a matter of something and someone refusing to comply with and to fall under the categories of commonplace thinking and the commercialized mainstream. It could be a matter of not “fitting in”, in that the positive expression of someone’s vision happens in a way and takes on a form that only few can relate to. But back to your question: for me personally, it has always been about intensity, energy and that which I can’t describe better than a “feel”, that hinting at and longing for a deeper meaning, for transcendence, for an overcoming of the limitations of a finite existence, a spiritual union with the beyond. I find intensity and energy more often than not more directly and genuinely expressed through rawness, unpolishedness, even primitivism, than through sophistication. Then again, when it comes to the certain “feel” that it needs for me to connect with something, I look for an odd sense of “warmth”, that not many others see or hear in that something. Noise, distortion (especially low end distortion), which many find harsh and unpleasant, can give me that feel. Also, what a lot of people refer to as “dark” or “extreme” as something disturbing or uncomfortable, for me often has something warm and calming and comforting, meditative even. And it’s that very same feel of “warmth, intensity & darkness” that I found as an 11 year old in a live version of “Midnight Rambler” or “Sympathy For The Devil”, that I found as a 16 year old in early Swans or Godflesh, that I later discovered in black metal (although less and less so) and in industrial and ritual musick and that I always tried to capture, to evoke and to create in my own works.
As for the artists connected to Totenwerk, they are actually not that many. I came into contact with The Nothing (who in one way or another is responsible for half the releases the label has put out so far) in 2007/2008 in the heyday of Myspace. Back then he was active mainly with Breath Of Chaos and Ilabrat. We exchanged music but eventually lost contact. All those years I have always been a huge fan of Breath Of Chaos especially and hoped some of the releases that I had received from The Nothing on CDr would be released properly one day. So when it came to me thinking about starting Totenwerk, The Nothing was the first artist I thought of, not only because his music was what I had in mind for the label but also because I knew there was a lot of material, most of it unreleased. So I contacted him, he loved the idea and pretty much gave me everything he had ever recorded or was still working on at that time. It was a similar story with Nekrokaos and Noth. As for MH LMTH, I simply contacted and invited him to release something and much to my surprise he said yes. All the artists I work with I either have been in contact with or have been a follower of for quite some time already. The only exception would be the recent Infektionsabteilung tape which was the first submission to the label that actually led to a release. The label is not limited to a specific genre or style. Rather, I look for something that holds its own place, in terms of the music as well as in terms of themes and aesthetics. A certain (spi-)ritual, esoteric or transcendental element is very much appreciated but is not the principal requirement. In the end it simply comes down to whether I like something or not and whether it fits with the label’s aesthetics.
There has been a series of Unknown Artist releases through Totenwerk…
Those anonymous releases are all by myself. When I started recording and releasing the first couple of them I didn’t deem it necessary to have an own artist name for them as they all were to be released on Totenwerk. In fact, they were specifically recorded in order to broaden the musical output and presence of the label and to add a certain set of ideas/themes and aesthetics to it that I wanted to explore for quite some time already. I thought of those releases as representations of my vision for the label. Hence there was no need to treat them as “artists” on their own. Since then, and quite ironically so, things have changed and these days I feel that both entities, the label and the anonymous releases, are not fully aligned anymore as the series of anonymous tapes, which in the beginning were meant just as a contribution to the label to define it further, have gained such a momentum, presence and identity that they pull Totenwerk into a direction it cannot move to without reservation (partly because the label represents and is itself represented by other artists as well). Therefore a decision has been made to create a new platform solely for my own, religiously themed work. This new label is called FANATICISM and operates independently from Totenwerk. Also, all six anonymous releases on Totenwerk will be made available again in new editions on Fanaticism while Totenwerk will continue its course by releasing music by other artists.
Fanaticism…a name possibly inspired by the same subjects that influenced Unknown Artist releases such as Yirat Hashem and Ecclesiastical Reich?
Yes, pretty much everything about this series of releases is religiously themed, be it on the question of faith or dogmatics, mysticism and ecclesiasticism or even ideological and political implications (which is the case in particular with ‘Ecclesiastical Reich’ which is trying to explore the ideological ties between fascism and catholicism and the idea of a totalitarian civitas dei). I like to refer to these releases as ‘Neue Sakralmusik’ (‘new sacral music’) and ‘electronic edification’. My interest in such topics is old. I have been fascinated by the subject of religion (mainly the Christian and Jewish traditions), faith, spirituality and theology for many years. No one can seriously deny that this subject is utterly rich and complex in substance, history and meaning, no matter what one’s personal stand on it is. What interests me are many aspects of it and I will only name a few fundamental ones: the metaphysical and transcendental stance of theistic religion and faith and the even more principal question of cultic and ritual practice, sacredness and worship, vision and ekstasis; the history and authority of the church as a wordly institution and abode of the other-worldly (a kingdom in this world though not of this world); the power of tradition and dogma as well as art and architecture; the existential question of faith, the dilemma of the paradox and the absurdity of faith (I am referring to Kierkegaard); the political aspects of it in form of martyrdom and holy war, fundamentalism and fanaticism. The list could go on. My fascination with these topics grew stronger the more I became aware of their rapid decline in modern western societies (a decline which has begun long before my time of course and which now has reached a point where these questions – not to mention the answers which generations have tried to give to them – are not even understood anymore in their true dimension). And I tend to take sides with that which is under pressure rather than joining the choir of mockers. There can be no doubt that an atheistic and anti-religious, a materialistic and nihilistic stance has become commonplace and thus is the much easier position to take nowadays. The alternatives of private belief systems, gnosticism and occultism I find quite frivolous if not plain ridiculous.
As for the inspiration and the artistic use of these themes and topics, fortunately they have not been exhausted yet in industrial music and culture. I am of course aware of the fact that I am not the first one who uses these subjects – just think of early Current 93, Nails Ov Christ/The Grey Wolves, Ain Soph and others.
My own personal opinion is somewhat ambivalent and therefore weak, I must admit. On one hand, although not a believer in the full sense of the word, I like to think of myself as a sympathiser at least. On the other hand and unfortunately so, the way Christianity presents itself these days through individuals as well as institutions is pathetic (even more pathetic than the so called Satanists) which makes it impossible for me to align myself with it. The whole issue is very complex and difficult though.
The layouts for this series, especially those of Transzendentale Fuge, Haioth Hakodesh and Praephatio Super Apocalypsim all contain very interesting symbology and texts, and I’ll assume those lean more towards Revelations and biblical cosmology than those I previously mentioned?
You are right. More specifically, ‘Transzendentale Fuge’ is themed around Ezekiel’s vision of God in Ezekiel 1. Beyond that it is a meditation on the question of vision, ekstasis and transcendence in general. ‘Praephatio Super Apocalypsim’ and ‘HaIOTh HaKODeSh’ both deal with the grand theme of the apocalypse and the role of the Malach (Malakh) or angel. Haioth Hakodesh (or Hayyoth ha’Kadosh) is a kabbalistic term for the first choirs of angels, the Seraphim. It literally means ‘beasts (creatures) of sainthood’ which allows a quite fascinating and different view on this subject. It reminds me of the opening of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy and that “Every angel is terrifying”, an idea which is also present in ‘Praephatio Super Apocalypsim’. The latter then is in particular focussing on Joachim of Fiore’s salvation-historical and mystico-philosophical interpretations of the Book of Revelation and his idea of the three ages, or status. The image used for the back cover of ‘Praephatio Super Apocalypsim’ is from Joachim’s ‘Liber Figurarum’. The images on the front are both by the Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs.
The layouts simply try to support the themes of the different releases visually. They have been created to evoke a certain atmosphere, to help setting the stage for the musical work and to stimulate the listener’s mind.
Is there a desire from you for the audience to seek out knowledge on the thematics present?
I can’t say I feel such a desire. I don’t have the wish to educate or enlighten people. That is not my role. My role is to create substantial music and make this music available to anyone who cares to listen. Even though the themes present in my work are important for me, as a person as well as an artist, I don’t believe a deeper knowledge of them is necessary to enjoy the music and be stimulated by it. If someone feels that there is more to it and wants to learn more about the thematic context of my work and picks up some books to dig deeper then that is a good thing. But, it really would be about them and has nothing to do with me. If someone else ignores the religious context completely and uses my music just for meditation or to trip out to, then that’s fine with me too. Different paths can lead to the same result, which is transcendence and, ultimately, union with God. For some the way is knowledge, for others it might be prayer, for others again it might be hallucinogens.
Not to derail this interview too much away from Totenwerk, but these recordings are not your first published works, as you were previously active with Wicked Messenger.
Funny that you ask about this. You are the first to draw that connection. I have never mentioned Wicked Messenger to anyone in relation to Totenwerk or Fanaticism. WM is a thing of the past for me. The project ended in 2010/2011, after ‘Dreamer | Redeemer’ (which was released in 2012, but recorded two years prior to that). WM was a very ambitious project, driven by perfectionism and the fixed idea that each release had to be a new step, different from and better than the previous. This, as I later realised, was one of the reasons why it had exhausted itself after only a few years. A lot of things that I learned whilst doing WM I employ these days with the anonymous releases and Fanaticism. But today I allow myself to be much more spontaneous and versatile than I was with WM. Something like ‘Ecclesiastical Reich’ for example would have been impossible for WM which was much more defined stylistically and therefore musically and aesthetically much more restricted.
With Fanaticism, will you continue to cover the concepts that were touched on beforehand, or perhaps branch off into other ideas?
The intention is to continue. In fact, continuity is an important factor here as each release manifests only one aspect and needs to be complemented by all the other releases in the series. The shift of focus, style, mood and dynamics from one release to the next is part of the whole project as an ongoing exploration and manifestation. I don’t want to sound too “artsy” here and I don’t mean it as if everything is thought out and planned: it certainly is not and there is a lot of free flow happening. But to me the releases really work as an ongoing commentary and they work best if all held together. Besides the question of ‘conceptual continuity’ (a bow to Frank), I can easily think of many more aspects of the topic of religion that I haven’t explored yet, ideas, atmospheres, images, juxtapositions. Also, as pointed out earlier, the whole subject is close to my heart, theoretically as a personal interest of mine, but also musically, because whatever I do and create has this solemn and contemplative and ‘spiritual’ drive and feel to me. It is just what manifests when I sit down and make music. Mixing this with a completely different set of ideas would be challenging – not impossible, but challenging. A more abstract approach, away from defined themes and ideas, could be interesting though. I can’t really see myself working with what appears to be the “standard” themes and aesthetics of PE, industrial, harsh noise and the likes. I’m actually quite bored with those. Of course, the day might come when I get bored with what I’m doing now also. That day however will be the end of Fanaticism. Different things, new things, would demand a different platform and a new name.
In principle there is always an abundance of ideas and themes for creating art. The question is which ideas are the right ones for what someone is doing. This can only be determined out of the context of someone’s art. I also like to think that ideas, even though exploited for the sake of art, are more than just randomly chosen images and slogans used to spice up one’s work, but that the artist has a personal interest in them, a genuine connection with them. If that is true it would mean that the range of possible ideas for each individual artist is limited by the artist’s personality which brings us back to the question of taste, which was touched upon earlier.
This may seem like a standard and uninteresting question to some, but I never tire of reading the answers. Are there newer projects around today that have caught your attention from a listener’s point of view, or perhaps long established acts you still enjoy?
Yes, there are. Mainly artists that have been around for some time already, not so many newer projects, as I rarely pay due attention to new artists and labels these days. That is not because of arrogance on my side, since I have no reason to doubt that there are talented people out there, nor is it conscious ignorance, because I wanted to protect the creative source of my own music from undue influences, but I simply don’t have enough time (and energy) for it anymore. The artists I still follow are usually ones that I have been a fan of for quite some time. In terms of extreme metal I am fond of the Brisbane “scene” of Portal, Impetuous Ritual and Grave Upheaval. There are other metal bands and labels that I follow, Crepusculo Negro for example, bands like Nyogthaeblisz, Teitanblood, the Danish Order of the Nonagram, to name some. My interest however in metal has lessened over the last few years. It is too much of the same and the whole genre seems rather stagnant and dull – to me at least. The only album for a long, long time that really has enraptured me on multiple levels and has shown me new horizons, musically, aesthetically, artistically, was Reverorum Ib Malacht’s ‘De Mysteriis Dom Christi’. I also hail the genius of Wold and am an admirer of Malachi Michael’s work in all its manifestations (Emit, Hammemit, Deverills Nexion). In terms of raw ritual ambient musick, nothing will ever come close to J Dread’s project Kaniba, although sadly this chapter is now closed. Thinking about it and looking at my not very extensive collection it seems that the majority of artists I like and hold up are not active anymore or even if they are I have lost interest in what they are doing now. Many of these are considered to be “classics” of their genres anyway, so there’s no need to mention them here again.
To conclude this interview, what is to be expected from Totenwerk and Fanaticism for the near future?
A: Fanaticism has just released tapes number six and seven. Only two reissues remain, ‘Transzendentale Fuge’ and ‘Praephatio Super Apocalypsim’, which are next in line. Then that gap between the present and the past will be closed and everything will be gathered under that one banner Fanaticism. New material is in the works but seeing that I am the sole contributor to the musical output of the label it might be a while before something new is released.
As for Totenwerk, things have slowed down since I have moved my own work to Fanaticism and The Nothing’s archives are pretty much exhausted. None of the past contributors to the label seems to be very active musically at the moment, hence the label is somewhat dormant, waiting for new material or new artists to emerge.