“I like your wings.”
“I like your wings.”
The second attempt managed to pierce through my malaise. I turned to my right in the direction of the voice to find a shaggy haired man with gold metallic lipstick that was shining brighter than the tealights that lined the bar. He motioned a weathered finger to his eye.
My body burned as my anxiety tightened. Not only was a stranger talking to me, but I had evidently become so frayed that I forgot how to accept a fucking makeup compliment. If nothing else, the heat melted away at some of the iciness I had encountered that day, both in the form of an early winter storm and blue-haired snowflakes. White powder blown up by a girl as her pet sparrow watches onward – the T.J. Eckleburg of the Northwest.
I smiled at the young man and made sure to return the favor through a discussion of his lipstick. Urban Decay vintage collection. We bonded over how NYX is high-end quality at a drug store price until our conversation shifted to what we were drinking. I gestured towards his glass, expecting him to describe some kind of Ale harvested from a collectively-grown wheat source in the foothills of Eugene. But, to my surprise, he sang out “oh, light beer.” I told him what a relief it was to find someone that still unapologetically takes Miller Lite, and I guess I got a little too excited, because I expressed my resentfulness of how men back home in Baltimore would shoot IPAs into the big vein of their ballsack if it were the only means of consumption.
I had been trying to conceal the fact that I was just visiting, but it kept spilling out. I found myself at the same point I had been at with every Uber driver of my trip – the, “so what brings you here?” question. The only proper response would be “how much time do you have?” But instead, I danced around it, inevitably leading to an uneasy silence. How do you explain what a Xasthur is? How do you call an interview an interview when every plausible question feels hostile? How do you negotiate a trip that’s bound to lead you on a path for which it is impossible to plan? These were the questions that quite literally kept me up all of the previous night.
“I’ve always wanted to see Portland,” I was finally able to get out.
Fortunately, this man was a bit savvier than Randy in his Honda Odyssey.
“I understand,” he said, reaching for his beer as his eyes distanced in thought. “I moved here a while ago from Alaska.”
“From the wilderness?” I asked with grandiose visions of having to shoot down moose on the way to school without any lipstick smudging.
“Oh no, Anchorage. City boy.” He grinned sweetly.
I felt a vibration in my elbow that I was using to prop my head up as my nerves shifted into pure exhaustion. I unlocked my phone to see the latest installment in the conversation thread that had been going on with Xasthur since October. I was being urged to get to the venue soon to catch the openers.
I told my new friend goodbye.
I had spent the day trying to subdue myself with distractions – brooding to Ulver in a coffee shop labelled “safe space,” having liquid lunch at a brothel turned bar, and getting tattooed by a Frenchman at a shop across the street. But I could no longer deny what I had traveled thousands of miles to do, and that was to speak with the man formerly known as Malefic, the alleged face of misanthropy, solo DSBM master to unplugged outlaw, Scott Conner.
I entered the crowding High Water Mark, whiskey in hand, as prepared as one could be in such a scenario. I glanced back to the merch table, where I instantly spotted Scott lumbering at well over six foot over a collection of Xasthur gear, hair long, black, and wild. My first instinct was to snap my head back into my shell, but somewhere out of the depths I dug up the courage to pivot, descend, and offer a hand to shake, albeit a shaking hand.
He introduced himself warmly but coolly, presumably un-swollen by the “I listen to Subliminal Genocide everyday” line I embarrassingly dropped in one of our prior messages. I started off easy by inquiring about the whereabouts of the rest of the band. Scott motioned to a couple of seats down from him where Rachel Roomian, who had joined the ranks of Xasthur this past year to fill the role of a newly-added bassline, popped out of the depths of a t-shirt box to greet me. He went on to explain that guitarist/vocalist Chris Hernandez wasn’t allowed n the venue until right before they were due to play since he’s under 21. I had been oblivious to his young age given the ease with which I had seen him play in Xasthur’s YouTube rehearsals. When I expressed this surprise to Scott he laughed, saying the kid looks about 15, but had impressed him after messaging him videos of him mastering several Xasthur songs – songs he claimed he had had tried to write in an uncrackable code.
I asked why the venue couldn’t just put some X’s on his hands. Scott told me that’s an East Coast thing. Surveying the room in my motorcycle jacket and cuffed jeans with combat boots, I couldn’t help but feel like a little bit of a goddamned NYHC kid in comparison to all the jorts, dreads, and skin tones marching towards the crust category. But I guess it was beneficial to my task at hand – I belonged just enough to feel comfortable, but remained on the fringes enough to stay astute.
I reassured Scott that I could catch up with Chris at Xasthur’s next date in Tacoma, as I had managed to work two dates from their West Coast leg into my travel plans. In the meantime, Rachel told me about an exciting new venture she was working on—Erzsebet, a one-woman band—and how the only thing she could associate with Baltimore with John Waters. Hey, it was an improvement over The Wire.
Our conversation was briefly interrupted by a man trying to barter his wife wisdom’s tooth for a Xasthur album, but after happily giving it away for free, Scott offered me a seat. I thought he was going to be eager to delve straight into his new music, but instead struck me with one of his first of many inquiries into my own life by asking for a general rating. I joked about what scale we were working with. We agreed on Yelp.
I grappled with my review. Two stars ultimately came out, but I added an extra half given my current position. I was quick to toss the question back to Scott, who, surprisingly echoed mine. However, he was quick to qualify by explaining that there have been times in his life when he was at zero stars. I couldn’t say I was surprised being that I’ve described black metal Xasthur in the past as audible despair. I tried to get him to elaborate without prying too abruptly. The most I could get out of him was that it was during a time when he had left his hometown of Alhambra, California, just East of downtown L.A. I attempted to probe more about where he’s from, but after a brief geographical description and complaints about killer heat and droughts, Scott was, again, quick to turn the question back to me. He said he had only visited Baltimore once and found it scary, much like Detroit. I told him he wasn’t wrong, with a city as serene as Portland serving as a stark reminder of how chaos rules at home.
Given Scott’s congenial demeanor, his rise in the Yelp-Life ranks was apparent. He attributed it to his ability to do what essentially he was there to do; travel, communicate, and further develop a new chapter in his musical career. He continually made it clear that the past has passed, leaving his vision positioned decisively forward. I wanted to know his secret to dropping certain anchors, citing some kind of play on “trauma will always linger” (my first of many lame plays on various Xasthur titles that made me hate myself). For Scott, liberation seems to be found through working hard at what you want to do until all else becomes background noise.
Silence fell between us as the first opener, Vradiazei, began. I can’t say I was overly perceptive of what I was watching. The night was just getting underway, but I already had my fair share to consider.
“Are you depressed?” Scott finally turned to me and asked.
At first I thought he was referring to that given moment. My resting face is pretty miserable, after all. I became worried that he confused it with boredom, and I hurried to find the words to properly express that I was more overwhelmed. Or maybe he meant clinically depressed? I did a mental sweep to try to articulate that GAD is my mood disorder of choice. Was this an appropriate time to talk about Klonopin? But every answer to every question seemed to produce some kind of fatal flaw, so I just sat there, leg shaking, mouth hanging.
“I know. Who am I to ask, right?” He said, turning back toward the stage.
I downed my drink a little faster until I finally felt confident enough to pose Scott the harder stuff. I sat my glass down in front of the candle burning between us over Vradiazei’s merch.
After watching One Man Metal (2012) more times than I could count, I was curious to hear his thoughts on his portrayal. I expressed that while I enjoy watching these sorts of documentaries in that they provide a glimpse into the lives of some of the artists who inspire me most, after conducting some of my own research, their content seems to be glossed over at best and downright misleading at worst.
Scott opened up about the matter more quickly than I had anticipated being that it was first time during our conversation in which the focus had shifted backwards.
The truth was that it had taken a long period to get him to even participate in the project, which ended up debuting long after it was actually shot. Eventually, he gave in, and found himself being put on the spot by individuals with whom he didn’t feel overly comfortable. When asked if there had been a follow-up since he’s embarked on his less easily-sensationalized style, he said that there had been in the form of a print interview, which admittedly went a lot better. I mentioned what a shame it was that his single foray into the spotlight had to be at the hands of those who came into it with the story already written. I went on to explain my similar frustrations with media outlets that waste a good deal of potential on click bait and toeing lines. Scott insisted their intentions are rarely good.
Before I could explore his perception of true intent, we were interrupted by some hippie buzzing over us.
“I can hear your voices all the way in the front row,” he said with in a markedly high voice, as if Becky and I had been discussing our brunch plans. “I just want everyone to be able to hear the music, for them, but also for you.” He grinned before scampering back off into the crowd.
Scott became self-conscious that the whole crowd had been eaves dropping on what we were saying. I reassured him that homeboy was full of shit. Making people with infamously poor self-esteem even more insecure; I guess that’s how you build a safe space.
We decided that there wasn’t a better time to go out for a smoke. Perched under the venue’s awning to escape the light but persistent freezing rain, Scott passed me his American flag lighter and I brought up the source of his lyrics, which are showcased now more than ever in Xasthur’s shift into clean vocals.
Understanding the darkness of fantasy versus the darkness of reality is essentially the key to understanding the before and after. Black metal, is, of course, rooted in myth that grew chaotic as it attempted to leave the safety of the page. With acoustic Xasthur, the disorder that is observed while walking down the street can lead to the kind of introspection that yields innovation—often for the better—if you allow it. Scott compared the effects of his words to holding up a mirror that some are more ready and willing to look into than others.
Shivering and stuttering, I ventured into a chapter of One Man Metal that had been left unclosed – visual aesthetic. I was more careful in discussing the past this time by holding it only in relation to the present. I noted the seeming transition of Xasthur from cloaks and corpse paint, to incognitocism via minimalism, to compromises in touches like wearing a bandana over the face. Scott rejected my final proposed evolutionary stage, asserting that the visual aesthetic of Xasthur is still none, and the bandana is no more than a tool to mitigate criticism from those who expect him to still look as he did at 20.
I disclosed that I had brought up such a topic because I had been struggling with wanting to express myself creatively while simultaneously wanting to attract little attention to myself. He commiserated, but didn’t seem to offer a means of reconciliation. I guess there isn’t much of one.
By the time we returned in, Johanna had taken stage and Scott was growing nervous about his impending set. He said he wished he was home watching TV, even though he doesn’t watch TV. Flight sentiment but fight action. I was on the same page. I had been all night, holding onto a kernel in my mind, one that reminded me that chasing safety wasn’t going to get me very far.
There’s a crunchiness that’s been maintained across the musical story of Xasthur, one that’s too signature to Scott’s songwriting to extinguish as matters have unplugged. It’s what tugs at me until I’m pulled in once more. It’s what heightens my emotions as I stare endlessly into the mirror until it inevitably shatters under the pressure. And mostly, I take comfort in that these teetering on the downright mismatched melodies aren’t something I’ve had to give up as I, and the rest of the world, said goodbye to Malefic. With the crowd transfixed on Scott seated on stage, Chris and Rachel on either side, I knew I wasn’t alone. Interestingly, the reality that the crunch was now coming through via a delicately winding path instead of an impenetrable wall only made the shatter so much louder. As I took in elaborate finger picking, classically clean vocals, and provokingly dismal words held together by the smoke billowing from incense perched on the edge of Rachel’s music stand, I knew I was witness of the advent of something important, all spurred by greatness of the past.
As the set drew to a close and I polished off my fourth whiskey, I collapsed into a booth along the periphery and tried to regroup. I wasn’t sure how to leave things with Scott. After a good twenty minutes and mumbling something incoherent to a dude who asked if he could clear the beer cans in front of me, I knew I couldn’t keep my eyes open much longer. I stood awkwardly next to Scott until he finished his conversation with Johanna.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I slurred.
I collapsed into bed, craving sleep more than ever. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t turn myself off. I tossed, shivering uncontrollably, as I was too inebriated to remember that rising to turn up the heater was an option. The mirror. It plagued my mind. I didn’t want to forget a word. I slipped into one of those half-sleep hells for about an hour before I had to get up to catch the train. Insides cracking and heart pounding, I made my way to Washington.
As I beat on through the pines, waterfalls, and small towns, I felt unsure as to where things would go from last night. My forehead pressed against the cool glass of the window, I considered what it would take for a stray rock to fall from one of the many vast cliffs to come and take me out. My body shook. I was in decline.
Any time a venue has “all ages” literally painted on its outside walls, it’s probably not a good sign. But I was in the progressive Pacific, right? Certainly this wasn’t going to be that Christian club my friend had visited during a Tennessee rehab stint that frisked him for cigarettes. I dragged myself through the doors that were plastered with warnings of no drug use and $1 re-entry and gave the man running the front table my ID for a bar wristband. He handed it right back without a glance. Confused, I saw Scott come out from around the corner and hoped I would be getting some kind of explanation as to what this place was about. After expressing our thankfulness that we had both managed to make it one piece despite the lingering inclement weather, we sized up the sparsely filled room. It was when I saw the sign for $2 sodas at a concession stand that it hit me – I was in a straightedge club. I wasn’t sure what kind of sick joke this was. Scott asked me if I wanted to go get into the Ciscos he had stowed away with him in the van. I agreed despite the possibility of having to find a pole to get on just to get us back back in.
Scott settled into the driver’s seat and I, shotgun. I opted for a black cherry and we clunked plastic with a bang that blended in with the low thudding coming from across the street. There was what he described as a “generic doom show” going on at another venue, which he believed to be drawing kids who would have otherwise gone to see Xasthur. I tried to gauge his opinion on doom as a trending topic, and I noted my embarrassment about my inability to do so without overuse of the word “scene.” Scene, seen, was how he explained it. Scenes are no more than recycling centers. I didn’t necessarily disagree, detailing my struggle to make sense of being a metal fan that hates so much of metal.
“Then maybe you’re not,” Scott immediately retorted, his eyes fixed on me.
Without much eagerness to discuss metal, particularly black metal, our topic switched to family as the 14% began to kick in. Scott was eager to hear about mine, but I didn’t know where to begin. Every word that came out just sounded like trivial white people angst, but he listened attentively nonetheless. Surprisingly, he indicated that passive aggression seemed to run in his family as much as it does in mine. Despite being a musician like his mother, from what I could gather, he was never deemed as being the right kind. It also sounded as though there was resentment surrounding his success, although that was more of my observation than his, perhaps stemming from his habit of self-deprecation.
“You know,” he paused for a moment. “There seems to be this expectation among families that you have to be there, you have to be there gathered around the Thanksgiving table. But you don’t.”
Again, he looked at me intently.
“You seem like someone who works at Nordstrom. Do you know what Nordstrom is?”
I stutter-laughed a bit. The real question was how does Scott Conner know what Nordstrom is. Yet, here we were.
I told him my whole spiel about how I live a double life — half in law, half in writing and music, that I am well aware that one will eventually give, and I have taken this year to “find myself,” and thus figure out which one it’s going to be. I expected him to laugh in my face as most do when I told him my day job title. But he didn’t. Rather, he told me that he believes I’m managing my duel identity more effectively than what I give myself credit for. Still, he insisted my true career path should be Nordstrom.
Growing uncomfortable with this perception, I switched gear slightly. I was just buzzed enough to venture into One Man Metal again. Well, more specifically a question Scott had declined to mention in OMM — so, have you, like, worked jobs outside of music like us normal people? It felt less sharp in this context, and I guess he agreed. He let it be known that he’s held down many gigs, but the only one he named was aiding a senior citizen until they passed away.
Eventually we realized how very much time had gotten away from us, and after a quick smoke, we ventured back inside so Scott could prepare to play. The man at the front table made no eye contact.
I joined the spattering of kids dispersed across the room as Xasthur took stage. I was taken back to my scene kid days as many took cross-legged to the ground, assuming hyper-serious Thinker-esque poses. Despite the summer camp feel of the venue, it was refreshing to see earnest engagement after having been caught up in back patch fruit salad the night prior. As much as I was craving a seat, I felt too self-conscious. I had tried to have a rebirth that afternoon, but my attempt at napping turned into more hallucinatory tossing and turning in which the line between my reality and the fantasy of Insidious playing on TV in the background became blurred. Still, my half-massed eyes saw nothing short or an all-giving performance despite the different circumstances. The last notes were strummed, and I was hit with a pang of loss.
As Chris and Rachel began to load up outside, Scott and I regrouped backstage on either side of a sinking leather couch. We spoke in hushed tones, careful not to disrupt the impossible stillness around us. He pulled a yellow notebook from his backpack, which he explained was filled with new Xasthur lyrics. Flipping through until he found a page with which he was content, he began reading.
Poverty, homelessness, technology; the chaos that forms under the guise of progress. I was looking into the face of it all uncut, but there was still one question that remained answered. How. How does Scott translate his perceptions, and others’ perceptions of themselves, into deeply effective art?
“I don’t think you want to know,” he said, shaking his head nervously.
I didn’t press further.
“I think…I think Nordstrom is really the answer. They actually have really great coffee.”
It was nearing 2:00 AM and I was wearing thin. I finally got the courage to ask him what the tit-licking fuck he was doing inside of a Nordstrom. He named 90’s-style mall hangs as one of the few remedies for the SoCal heat.
In the warm light of the bedside lamp in the hotel room, I finally got a better look at Chris. Long haired, lip ringed, baby faced, sitting up at the desk chair, one leg propped over the other, radiating old soul. He had told me he had ping-ponged between California and Mexico throughout his life, but was currently living with Scott and another roommate in Alhambra. Chris and I were fading and Rachel was crumpled up asleep in a seat, but Scott’s conversation was unrelenting.
Through a twisted course of words, black metal history book and soon-to-be film, Lords of Chaos, was brought up. Scott rose in passion.
“None of it’s real,” he whispered in my direction.
I was unsure of how to interpret his meaning of real. Churches burned. It can’t be denied. Even if he was referring to the alleged ideology behind it, labelling it false unleashes us down a slippery slope. If someone labels themselves a Satanist, for all intents and purposes, they are a Satanist. There are no inherent qualities to being such a thing, but there are real consequences when someone is labelled as such. Maybe it was the onset of delirium, but I could no longer differentiate between what was a difference in philosophy versus a deliberate desire to dissent – on either of our parts, that is.
Scott sat back down on the edge of the bed next to me, picking up the nearby TV remote and holding it to his mouth.
“So, you said you are trying to find yourself. What are you trying to find?”
He turned the remote to me. Chris watched on silently.
I can’t recall what I said, if anything. It was most likely word salad at best.
He turned the remote back to himself.
“You know, I think you need this interview more than I do.”
Again, the remote turned to me.
I said something disparaging about myself and my own art. He had me looking into the mirror, but I didn’t see my current or future self, but rather a past self I no longer wished to recognize.
As light broke on the next morning, I found myself rising from what was now a streak of fleeting rest. Unease was rising out of my hollowness. Every movement to my body made my arms hang listlessly like miles of fog. My legs were jelly.
In front of the Tacoma waterfront, we went to say our goodbyes.
Taking in the views of vast clouds and pine-covered mountains, Scott expressed his disbelief that I was leaving this to go back to a place like Baltimore. I, on the other hand, was conflicted. I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to be anywhere.
Chris pointed out an American flag flying half-massed in the distance. We all wondered to which national tragedy it could have been referring. It was concluded that the stance has become a default status since, chances are, there’s one going on somewhere. I shrunk another size down.
As the van pulled away, I walked down the nearby dock and draped my arms over the ledge. My head bowed. Droplets came from above to meet the river down below until the streams from my eyes joined in. A teardrop dangled at the bottom of my jawbone until it finally leaped to be swept away in the thousands of others propelling the far off cargo ship, whose smoke was lost whirling into the low-hanging clouds.
There’s some to be gained, but much more to be lost.