Black metal has always been a form that has pulled violently in opposing directions, with one camp determined to remain true to the old masters and the opposition willing to try every experimentation, explore every avenue available while retaining the core of extremity that black metal embodies – Bosse-de-Nage have, ever since their genesis, adopted the latter mentality, stretching their sound to razorwire fineness before tying it in impossible knots. Their most notable nod to the genre’s underground beginnings has always been their anonymity which, coupled with the erudition of their lyrics, has made them one of the most enigmatic bands around. With the release of Further Still, they have lifted the shroud a little and this is how we caught up with Bryan Manning to discuss their unique approach to all things heavy.
I think as good a place as any to start is with your name itself – why Bosse-de-Nage? Is there any connection with the character and with his last words, or is it more with Jarry’s work?
There’s a tradition in metal to name bands and albums after characters and locations from literature. People tend to draw largely from the fantasy genre, but that’s just not my reading preference. When we started up one of the guys said something like “why don’t we choose a name from one of your favorite books?” So I dug through several books and made a list of potential names. Bosse-de-Nage stood out for some reason. Even though the reference to Jarry holds no deeper meaning than that, I’m a great admirer of his work. There’s also a tradition (especially in black metal) to have a band name that’s fairly obscure and difficult, so I guess you could say we were trying to follow that model in our own way. It probably would have suited us better to choose a name that is easier for people to pronounce. At the time we didn’t think our band would get the kind of recognition that it has, so having a catchy name didn’t seem important.
On a similar thread, how much does literature play a part in where you have been and continue to go with your music?
I would say that for the most part literature has almost no bearing on our music, at least in terms of the music itself. Literature is a personal interest of mine, but that simply means that I like to read books. I’m not a scholar and I don’t have any academic ambitions or anything like that, I’ve just always liked to read. I guess my tastes aren’t typical, at least in the world of metal. There’s a whole wealth of writers out there beyond Tolkien and Lovecraft whose ideas align with the kinds of topics that metal likes to reference lyrically and thematically. Obviously, there are other sources that people draw from beyond those two examples, but metal is overflowing with references to their work. Literature will continue to have an influence on my lyrics. Whatever I’m reading at the time tends to influence how and what I write to some degree. I’ve always been interested in writing, but never had the confidence to actually get much of it done. I used to idolize people like Henry Miller who embodied what it was to be a writer with a capital W. On our first album only two songs featured lyrics that I wrote. For the rest I was reading excerpts from books, specifically Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, Bataille’s The Dead Man, and Lautreamont’s Maldoror. The same goes for our demos. It wasn’t until we wrote the second album that I composed lyrics for every song. The rest of the band liked the two sets I’d written for the first album, so I figured I could handle writing more. Everyone was into the lyrics that I wrote and they started to get mentioned by fans and reviewers, so it kind of felt like maybe I was on to something. This gave me a bit more confidence and drive to keep writing and even to write other things beyond lyrics. I still deal with self doubt and sometimes cringe a little at things I’ve written in the past, but overall I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve accomplished and grateful that it strikes a chord for some people.
You’re one of the most interesting bands in recent years to really explore what can be done within the confines of black metal, and I understand you have a lot of love for bands like Fleurety and DHG. What is it about the genre that makes it so well-suited for these kind of mutations?
I’m not exactly sure what makes black metal so suited to experimentation. To me it has always seemed like experimentation was built into the genre itself. There are lots of examples of bands that have taken the basic elements of the genre and then added in really strange influences from elsewhere. Dødheimsgard is a good example, but there were bands like Arcturus, Ved Buens Ende, and Samael operating at the same time back in the mid 90s who were making unique music that had a black metal backbone with all these other elements added in. It worked really well a lot of the time. Even groups like Mortiis and Abruptum hovering on the fringes of the genre without actually playing what most people consider black metal who somehow were counted as part of the scene. I guess what I mean is that more than any other metal subgenre, black metal just seems to have a much larger spectrum of sounds that can be added on to the basic formula without losing that essential quality that makes them black metal.
You were always quite elusive when it came to press for the band, so it’s interesting that seems to have changed this time around. Was there any particular reason for the shift, or for the anonymity in the beginning?
When we first started the band we didn’t intend to interact with the press, or even to play shows unless they somehow felt special to us. This stance evolved over time as the band itself changed and grew into what it is today. A big part of that approach was the desire to let the music speak for itself. We started to open up more on All Fours, but still didn’t do any full blown interviews. In general I find it awkward that people might care about anything I have to say. It just feels weird to me. Nevertheless, with this album it felt like it was time to move on from the restrictions that we set over ten years ago. Things get boring when you repeat them for too long and it feels right to be a little more open about ourselves at this point.
How do you view each new album in terms of what has come before it? Are there any overarching themes, either lyrically or in regards to technique, or is there still a desire to completely reinvent yourselves with every release?
Each album is its own thing. There aren’t really any grand overarching themes other than maybe my own personal obsessions that show up in the lyrics. The Marie character has recurred on some of our work, but mainly because it’s easy to return to a character that has already been established when some relevant idea occurs to me. I’ll probably continue to make small references like that where a character or setting shows up more than once, but it won’t be with some grand unification of all our work in mind. Our songwriting approach has remained essentially the same for every album, even though they all sound quite different. I guess there was a sort of turning point between our first and second albums, because there was a three year gap between them. The first album has more in common with our demo material, even down to the recording process. We kind of stepped away from the band for a bit after we finished that one, thinking that it had run its course. When we were approached by The Flenser about releasing it, it became evident that other people were interested in what we were doing. This prompted us to get back together and write more songs. At that point we were a little more eager to work other influences into the mix. Each album from there is kind of a stepping stone to the next one. I think we really started to come into our own on our third album, then finally really figured everything out when we were writing All Fours. By then we had a pretty solid idea of what makes up a BDN song. I know every band in history has thought of their most recent material as their best, and that is definitely the case for us as well.
What was your intention going into the writing of Further Still? Do you have a set approach in terms of writing music and lyrics, or has it varied over time?
The only difference in our approach on this album is that we set out from the beginning to write shorter songs. We just wanted to challenge ourselves, really. The idea was to pack all the elements that make up BDN songs into more concise packages. At the same time we were willing to let a song run longer if it felt like it suited the song. A couple of the tracks on Further Still ended up being over six minutes in length, but for the most part we succeeded in keeping things succinct while still writing songs that still packed in all the twists and turns that comprise a BDN song. The only area where that didn’t work out was the lyrics. For some reason most of my lyrics on this album are on the longer side. I think that informed the vocal performance a lot.
“I guess that more than any other metal subgenre, black metal just seems to have a much larger spectrum of sounds that can be added on to the basic formula without losing that essential quality that makes them black metal.”
The new songs seem punchier than your earlier material but still seem to pack in just as many ideas. How did you go about condensing your sound down in this way (or am I just imagining things)?
You’re definitely not imagining things! It was just a matter of setting out from the start to write shorter songs. I think this in general made them sound punchier, and perhaps more urgent.
You have a well-deserved reputation for being some of the most interesting lyricists around. Are there any other vocalists/lyricists out there you particularly admire, and do you think that the general perception of metal lyrics has changed much over the years?
My favorite lyricists are Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt, although I don’t think my lyrics resemble theirs in any way. In terms of metal, I’m into the lyrics of JR Hayes from Pig Destroyer and Michael Gira from Swans, if he counts. I’m sure I’m forgetting other people that I like… Honestly, most metal lyrics don’t do much for me these days. I appreciate them when they’re earnest, but a lot of the time they come across as silly. I know that makes me sound like a snob–I guess I am in this regard. A lot of the stuff people write about it is just kind of tired and unoriginal. I’m sure there are people that feel that way about what I write too. Obviously it’s all subjective and one person’s Shakespeare is another person’s EL James. As picky as I am about lyrics, they don’t usually make or break a band for me. Some of my absolute favorite bands write lyrics that I don’t care for at all. Extreme metal has an advantage there, because it’s generally harder to pick out what people are saying exactly. Shouting or growling something that looks silly on paper can still sound powerful.
Taking your music as a whole, what do you think are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
I think our biggest strength is how well we know each other and work together. At this point the same four people have been playing in the band for over ten years. We’ve developed a really good working relationship and we have our own vocabulary for speaking about the songs. If someone came and watched us write a song they’d probably scratch their head or laugh at how we talked about it, but it works. We’ve also been friends for decades and have similar senses of humor, which helps too. That same relationship might also be our biggest weakness. Sometimes it takes us a while to get things done because everyone in the band has their say in what we do, whether that’s writing a song or deciding to play a show. I guess it might also be perceived as a weakness that we don’t tour much. The writing and recording process is more exciting to me than playing live, although performing does offer its own unique brand of catharsis. I definitely feel more of an emotional connection to the songs when we’re performing them in front of an audience. Long tours probably aren’t in the cards for us though; we’re all just a little too old to want to deal with that lifestyle.
Aside from working on Further Still, what has been keeping you all occupied in the past few years?
Well, we all have normal jobs and whatnot. I don’t really want to get into the minutiae of our lives outside the band. It’s boring enough to us, let alone to someone who doesn’t know us personally. I’ve been writing a book for a couple of years now. It’s a difficult process and I still feel like I’m figuring out how to do it as I go, but it’s getting there.
Finally, given the calibre of music that comes from the Bay Area, is there anyone else out there we should be keeping an ear open for?
I’d suggest Ails from Oakland. They’re probably my favorite local band at the moment. They feature Laurie Shanaman and Christy Cather from Ludicra, who haven’t been nearly as active as their fellow Ludicra alumni. Their debut album The Unraveling came out last year on The Flenser and it’s really great, just really solid black metal. There’s also Succumb, which is a death metal band that Harry (our drummer) also plays in. There’s an up and coming band called Vale (also from Oakland) that people should keep an eye out for. As far as I know they only have a demo right now, but they’re definitely one to watch. Dispirit is a band that features John Gossard from Weakling. They’ve been around for a while at this point, but I don’t think they’ve released anything but demos and rehearsals yet. There are so many bands around here, it’s hard to remember everyone when you’re put on the spot.