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Interview with Ashmedi from Melechesh

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How’s the tour going?

It’s going. We’ve done the majority of it and we have seven concerts left. I mean, it’s a touring festival and it’s going well.

The tour is called Conquerors of the World, and it really is just that. It’s rare that you would get such a diverse group of international bands, especially when none of the bands are from the States.

Oh wow, I guess I never thought about it that way. I mean Inquisition is kinda from here, but yes it really is an international package.

How do you feel being a part of this kind of renowned international group of bands?

It represents my life. I’ve always been surrounded by an international community. I’ve never been with a single type of people, always an international group. Touring with such a diverse package is I suppose pretty common in Europe, but it is very cool to be doing in here in North America.

Right, because most of these tours for us are made up of Western European or Scandinavian bands. To have you guys along with Krisiun from Brazil…

…and Septic Flesh from Greece and the others. Yeah, I see what you’re saying. It is very interesting.

What do you think it is about extreme metal that has it keep gaining popularity all over the world? It’s getting to the point where you can find extreme bands from just about every country.

People like this music. It has the ability to be popular among a certain demographic of human beings, no matter what culture they’re from. However, through all the new media we have like the internet… it helped spread it further. Some countries never really imported many CDs so they never knew it was something they would like or not, they just didn’t have it. There have always been underground scenes but it simply got bigger I think because of the Internet.

Melechesh Live

It’s funny, because people my age have always kind of known it this way and we almost wish we could have been there to experience the tape trading scene and things like that. It’s almost too easy now.

Oh, that was awesome! It was like living a fantasy. Your heart would beat faster when you would see a record shop, or when you get a tape in the mail. You get this stuff from people you’ve never met but you affiliate with them and sympathize with them… getting word from a weird corner of the world and hearing that your music was being played there, it was great. It’s not being nostalgic, it has kind of a romance to it. Even buying an album back then, even if you didn’t like it you listened to it UNTIL you liked it. Unless you really didn’t like it you listened to everything. Not like now when you can just click a button and say “next!”

Going back to the history of Melechesh, what prompted the move from Jerusalem to Holland?

There were several reasons, something that like you don’t do just for one reason alone. Be it demographical, political, social, or artistic as well. We wanted to continue doing what we were doing in a different city. I didn’t like what was going on in Jerusalem. With all these things combined I just thought “I’m outta here.”

Was there any sort of persecution against Melechesh, being a black metal band in the Holy City?

Not every day, but there was a period where we had some issues. Sometimes the issues were with the society, our own community, and sometimes there were issues with the authorities. But this was all a long time ago, a few years before we left.

How did the move change the band, your music, your writing process?

It made me really appreciative of what we have, but it also made me very sore and angry. We went to a place that was easier to travel from, we got more acknowledgement. If you think about it, making a black metal band in the Holy Land is really practicing what you preach. But somehow the media and the audience gives credibility to only those who preach, from a cocooned environment like in Western countries. They only took those ones seriously. They didn’t listen to bands who practiced what they preached, they didn’t take it seriously. Other groups were victims of marketing. No one ever said coming from the Holy City was “cool.” Until some people were saying, “Wait, this band actually from there. What the hell?”
I mean, we rehearsed around the corner from where Jesus was crucified! My family was Christian, not religious but from just from that background. I was baptized in the place he had the Last Supper, and now I’m doing all this extreme metal! If you want to look at it from that context… I wasn’t in some god-forsaken wooden church in some village somewhere, this had real historical significance. It is kind of cool if you think about it. Being in Jerusalem it wasn’t easy being in a band. Not in the regular community or in the metal community. From all sides it sucked.

But it must have given you tons of inspiration.

Oh yeah, it gave us inspiration; we really liked being there from an artistic point of view. I’m saying in practice we ended up taking beatings from all sides. Until people start realizing otherwise and sneezing and waking up or whatever…

You started Melechesh as a solo project, but it quickly became a full band.

I never intended to keep it as a solo project, it only started out that way because I was busy with another band. I was doing it more for my own passion. Then I thought within a year, “Okay let’s make this a proper band.”

Ashmedi Live

But you’re still acting as the main song-writer?

Yes, I do the majority of the work for the band. Song-writing, structures, management, artistic direction, lyrics, pretty much everything.

In addition to the Middle Eastern melodies in your music, it’s always had a nice thrashy quality to it. Was this an intentional development? Did working with Proscriptor from Absu inspire this at all?

No, not really. I see what you mean but I don’t think so. That’s the kind of music I like and I was aiming for that. We invented the whole Middle Eastern black metal thing, so you shouldn’t compare us to any other black metal bands. The word can be misleading, I prefer calling us Middle Eastern Extreme Metal. But no, Proscriptor didn’t really influence us much since I was writing the demos in Holland and just sending them to him. It was the way I wanted it to progress, it was always a conscious decision. Our first album was leaning toward raw black metal and that was very intentional. While recording the first one we were already halfway through writing the second one. Then we did the second album, Djinn, which was very much emphasizing Middle Eastern music. And that was just sort of a statement. After that we were kind of doing just whatever we felt like. The thrashiness is just a part of my nature, just how I play the guitar I suppose.

Do you have a set idea of each album before it comes out?

We have a set feeling, or a set vibe. Not quite a vision. While writing it starts developing and you come across different inspirations. You start then to heading towards a certain direction during the writing process but we never start with one set idea.

2004’s Ziggurat Scrolls EP was the very first Profound Lore release. The label has since become one of the most important forces in underground metal. How did you end up working with Chris Bruni?

Oh, they’re still around?

Yeah, they’re putting out a new album almost every week nowadays.

Oh wow. Yeah, I actually don’t know Chris. He had a partner who was one of my dear friends, Adrian Bromley who wrote for Unrestrained Magazine. He asked me to do this favor for him, which was to record an EP. I wanted to help him because he was a good friend, so we released the Ziggurat Scrolls. He actually passed away a few years go. I don’t think Adrian and Chris worked together too much, but that’s great that Chris is still doing Profound Lore. So yeah, pretty much they asked for an EP so we gave it to them.

Would you ever produce another vinyl-only release?

Yeah, we love vinyl. It’s something that keeps that kind of rock n’ roll, underground heavy metal culture going. We’ve always loved vinyl, almost all of our albums are out on that format. We have The Siege of Lachish EP out on vinyl, we have the Ziggurat Scrolls, so yeah we’d love to keep doing stuff like this. I mean, vinyl is its own thing; it’s an experiential way of listening to music – almost like playing an instrument. Because you have to physically move things around, it gives a more organic sound, the big artwork, it’s great.

Mystics of the Pillar II

Speaking of EPs, Mystics of the Pillar EP was released earlier this year with a few re-worked songs from Epigenesis. What was the concept behind those re-envisioned songs?

That’s actually going to be out on vinyl. But the idea behind it was very simple; we had a song that ended this way, but it also ended that way, two different endings. Halfway through the song it just changed, so we recorded it twice. One for the album and the other one we wanted to release separately so people could hear the two different versions of it. And the other two songs are very melodic, very full and orchestrated. So we thought it would be cool to release it without vocals so you can just chill on the music.

And is there a new full-length in the works?

[laughs] Yeah, of course! The idea is to just have the proper inspiration to write a good album. Touring a lot doesn’t help; this is our fifth tour since the last album came out. It’s better to be sitting still and focusing when you’re working on an album. Within a year it should be clear.

It seems like you usually have at least two to three years in between each album, but they always end up being critically acclaimed. Quality over quantity.

Absolutely.

A few years ago a trailer for a documentary starring you was released by Nuclear Blast. Is that still in the works?

No. The pothead director – with no disrespect to potheads – lost all of the footage. We went to Jerusalem to the school I studied, our first rehearsal space, everything. He lost it. And then he wanted my sympathy after he lost it. But it wasn’t even my project; I was the subject, not the creator. But that being said, there is a Canadian TV show that just started called The Cool Guy Files. Every episode is about a person of interest like a lacrosse player or a skateboarder or snowboarder or whatever. But they wanted to do one about a heavy metal musician so they filmed an episode about me. It was really cool of them. It was done during the previous tour with Rotting Christ, about a year and a half ago and I just got the news that it’s going to be broadcast on Canadian television during primetime. So yeah, that kind of took the place of the documentary film. I really appreciated that. It’s not going to a retrospective, more just following us with a camera on tour. The original documentary was supposed to be personal and revealing; showing where I visually came from. Maybe some other director will want to do it one day, but I’m not going to try to get involved.

You mentioned earlier you were really the first extreme band with Middle Eastern influences, but it’s clear you’re not the only ones anymore. What do you think about bands using these scales and imagery that are something native for you, but they have zero attachment to?

I applaud it in one sense, because music is universal. We’re all people, you’re allowed to be influenced from this corner or that corner. There’s nothing wrong with liking Mexican food in America, you know? So in that sense I don’t mind it. But in every genre there’s generations of musicians and the majority of the later generations start trivializing it as a gimmick and thus killing it. But every once in a while there can be a surprise. When death metal came… you know everyone wants to get signed, and they aren’t always skilled enough. Same with black metal, same with thrash… it starts with credibility and ends with cheesiness. But between those two there are always a few bands who are doing great stuff. But I am afraid that will happen to our style so we really try to keep our distance. We don’t want to ride on that wave, people know what we started and who we are. And it is our style and we see the ones who want to play Aladdin/Disneyland music with tons the keyboards… that’s not for me.

Being from the region, I was wondering if you heard that story about the underground black metal bands from, I forget what country, Saudi Arabia, I think, and wanted to comment on it.

Oh, the Iraqi one? Yeah, that was a fake story. There’s a lot of poseurs and liars.

Damn! I heard rumors but I really didn’t want it to be fake.

Me neither! But I immediately knew because I know their culture so well. I felt everything about it was fake. Even the photos they provided were from demo shoots of other bands. But I understand the Arabic culture and the Iraqi people and their mentality… and it’s just not the way they speak. I knew immediately it was just some dork who wanted some attention. As far as Saudi Arabia, heavy metal is illegal there. But there are bands who do it but they are not heroes, most of them at least. They all have connections in the government, millionaire kids mostly.

Haha, so there’s no crazy underground scene of bands fighting for survival while being hunted down by their government?

Sorry to disappoint you, but no. There are a few bands in Jordan, a few bands in Egypt, but they took a beating for it. But these are whole generations after us, when we started it was all uncharted territory. We were the first non-Israeli band in the region to do this. Besides that, across the entire Middle East we were really the first ones to do this. Many of these people are… I just discovered they were buying their way through metal. They would buy themselves into a festival or into a record deal, and that really shattered me but it doesn’t mean that every band is like that. But look at the Iranians for example, they risk so much to be into heavy metal and it has nothing to do with connections or money. I met one Saudi kid who was in the forefront of the “scene” there and I asked him how the hell he does that. He just told me he has government connections so nobody pays attention.

Well, despite it being fake this got me thinking about the whole struggle involving black metal. The second wave started in Scandinavia, and featured tons of anti-religious sentiment. But Scandinavia is known for its tolerance of free speech and so those bands weren’t, and aren’t, really risking much.

Oh yeah, say there’s a kid in school in Scandinavia saying all this anti-religious stuff, he would get pulled aside by a counselor who says “Hmm, I’m very concerned. Let’s talk about these feelings and maybe send you on vacation!” That really is not a challenge. With all due respect to them there is plenty of talent in Scandinavia, but it’s part of their government policy to export art! The bands even get funding from the government! But the challenge is to make good music, obviously, and some make fucking amazing music. But since kindergarten they’ve been taught how to play music so it’s really part of the advantage for them. And that’s why it’s famous in the first place, because the government promotes it. Scandinavian bands will come to tour The States, and their embassy will promote it, like the Norwegian embassy will actively promote bands from their country. Go figure. With some other countries, it would be like “find them and take their passports!” [laughs]

The world is funny. It’s all upside-down, mangled, wrong is right and right is wrong. Perception and reality is all altered, you know? And hey, let’s talk about rebels in the music scene. The so-called “rebellion youth.” The first thing they do is download your album for free, and then they say that they support metal. All of a sudden they want to be on the guest list to your show and then they want to get a free shirt. Then they take their disposable income and give it to the Apple Corporation, and they don’t even try to steal from someone like that because they think something like an iPhone is more legitimate. That’s not rebellion, is it? That’s conformism. I’m not saying I’m against the Internet, because like I was saying earlier the Internet is important and because of it more people know us. It’s a double-edged sword. All I’m saying that in terms of rebellion, everything is twisted. Nothing is as it seems.

It’s funny that being into metal used to be more about going out and going to shows, now metalheads can just sit in front of their computers all day and think they’re part of a community.

Yeah, you have to go out and experience it with your friends. Only part of the expression is actually listening to the music. But I’m not against it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a rebel, I’m just saying there’s essentially no rebellion.

Melechesh has been around for almost 20 years, through multiple members and even an international move. Did you ever think it would last this long?

I never thought it would last. I was just a teen kid playing guitar, I never even thought I would get a record deal. I just took it day by day because I wanted to do it so badly and it just ended up happening. Then it started paying the bills and stuff and I thought hey, why not?

What keeps you going?

Several things. One, of course, is the love of the music. Two is exploration and creation and challenging yourself. Three is leaving a legacy, that’s very important to me. And four, you might find this funny, it’s a moral responsibility. Because we came from the Middle East and I think we have a moral responsibility to show other bands from there that they can make it. You can have bands from the States or bands from Scandinavia. It’s also the way my friends look at me. They all have their great careers and then they see me as their hero, the one who says fuck off to a career and is playing heavy metal. I wouldn’t want to disappoint them, they’re so happy I’m doing it! [laughs] They tell me I’m doing the right thing and to keep at it. But then of course when this becomes your life it can be so stressful, and the trick is to separate the manager side of you from the artist side of you. That’s always a challenge.

Huge thanks to T-Terrorist for the photos!

Andy Osborn

I live in Seattle, where I spend my time creating and consuming beer while (simultaneously) attempting to put together coherent words on the beauty of atypical black metal.

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  • http://www.shreddernet.com Maz

    This is rad. I’m glad he touched on the dynamics of middle eastern bands and “scenes”. You have people like UC Irvine professor Mark Levine who think that a vibrant metal culture bodes well for the health of a country’s civil society, they ignore an increasingly frequent account that seems to say that it’s really a priviliged thing. Kids need cash to import records and connections to keep the authorities off their back.