Talking through the high strides of the Olympia, Washington-based black metal trio.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
Amidst the beauty of Washington's forests lies Owl Lodge Studios, home of the Pacific Northwest's premier black metal unit, Wolves In The Throne Room. With the bar kept high with 2017's Thrice Woven, anticipation grew high upon the band's signing to Relapse Records last summer, marking the early stages for the next chapter to come. Fast forward a year and their grandiose new incarnation, Primordia Arcana, a true standout among its contemporaries.
Arriving tomorrow, August 20th, via Relapse Records, Primordia Arcana comes forth as the epitome of creative freedom. There were no barriers, no limits, and no non-familiar external parties involved in the realization of this black metal marvel, which incorporates the serenity of the great outdoors in an accessible and quite alluring manner. Prior to engagement, audiences are met by the photographic artistry of Amjad Faur, a professor in the Visual Art and Visual Studies department of Evergreen State College. Faur captures the mystical essence of the trio by helping craft and capture an altar of the band's symbolical items, representative of the record's personal qualities. What brothers Aaron and Nathan Weaver and Kody Keyworth composed for Primordial Arcana is nothing short of extraordinary as if to offer a temporary escape from the world through an engagement beyond a surface level listen. It's a high mark not only for the near two decade trajectory since the band's inception but for the genre as a whole, serving as a benchmark in comprehensive composition.
We welcome multi-instrumentalist Aaron Weaver of Wolves In The Throne Room to an in-depth discussion on the band's photographic partnership with Amjad Faur, their intentional DIY approach, the native devil's club plant, and much more:
Almost two decades in and though one could say that most bands seem to settle at this point of their career, you do the opposite and expand upon your craft to realize what many will surely consider your best work to date, ‘Primordial Arcana’. With a newfound partnership in Relapse and this being a completely self-contained body of work, do you feel as though this is what you’ve been working towards all these years?
Weaver: It’s hard to say that because we’ve never rested on our laurels. It’s hard to say, “Ah yes, we’ve arrived at this place of completion.” I caught myself yesterday musing about the drum sound I want to conjure for the next record. I don’t really feel that there’s ever a place of reaching the end of anything. The music is so intimately tied to my life. There’s not a separation between me and the band and me as a civilian, if you want to put it that way. It’s all part of this process of unfolding my soul work and a journey of my heart. It’s going to keep going on and unfolding in mysterious and unexpected ways.
Absolutely, and it does so organically. With time comes growth and you’re a much different person now than you were circa ‘Diadem of Twelve Stars’ (2006). As mentioned, ‘Primordial Arcana’ has a full on DIY approach: recorded, produced, and mixed by yourselves at Owl Lodge. With no external parties involved and full Relapse Records support, was this critical in realizing the vision you all had for the record?
Weaver: Definitely. When we wrapped recording for ‘Thrice Woven’ (2017), I had a conversation with Randall Dunn, the producer we’ve worked with since ‘Two Hunters’ (2007), and he said, “Dude, next album that you guys do, you guys have to record and produce it yourselves.” Our time with Randall had been very fruitful, but it was coming to an end creatively. We were starting to maybe tread down some of the same paths we’ve already been down together. We like to keep things fresh and so does he. He really spoke the truth there because I really don’t think that there’s anyone else that could do the job. This music is so personal and so intimately tied to our landscape and the spirits of the landscapes that we live in. Unless you’re living the same life with us, there’s no way a producer, engineer, or mixer could understand that. We actually had this experience.
I hadn’t planned on mixing this record. We thought it was going to be a big enough creative challenge to do all of the recording ourselves. When the recording was done, I passed the record off to a very excellent and highly regarded metal mix engineer. I got the mixes back and I was just completely dumbfounded. My jaw literally dropped. All of the magic, all of the spirit, all of the feeling of the music had been sucked right out of it. It’s right there that I realized that what Randall was saying was true. No one can get this except for us, or if they’re here with us making the record with us from beginning to end. I took on the job as the mixer on the record, which was a bit of a challenge given that I hadn’t planned on doing that. I appreciate a challenge and I’m super happy that this is the way it turned out. I love the way the record sounds and I’m super proud of the result.
Hats off to Randall for knowing when to step away. That says a lot about his character. When you do this for a living, folks sometimes take on jobs just for the sake of taking on jobs because it puts food on the table. Here, there's a great deal of integrity and value. He knew to let you all take the helm and the results obviously speak for themselves.
Weaver: Definitely. In some ways, I was kind of his apprentice over all of those years. I’ve always had a real strong interest in the craft of recording and the technical side of it. He always took the time to teach me the technical tricks of the trade, like correctly putting a mic on the snare. These things are so crucial to being able to do it. It’s great to have had someone to show us those ropes.
Randall is a unique dude in that he just gets inside it with the artist. With maybe a lot of engineers, the band shows up and the engineer just presses “record”. Randall really gets into it energetically and spiritually with the artists that he works with. He’s just right there in the creative trenches, putting all of his soul on the line to make something that’s really special.
He guided you along the way and became a part of the band instead of doing the job from a surface level.
Weaver: Yeah indeed, and we taught him a lot too. He didn’t know much about heavy metal. He didn’t have the same background in like an early 90’s Florida death metal scene that Nathan and I are steeped in. We always had to be like, “Man, you gotta boost that fucking 4.5 key on that kickdrum. It just sounds like a wet tub of fat getting whipped with a beaver’s tail.”
There was mutual growth, which truly speaks of the strength of the times you worked together. The DIY approach is even visible on the cover art, which you put together in partnership with Amjad Faur. You had Denis Forkas on ‘Thrice Woven’, Christophe Szpajdel on ‘Black Cascade’, and now stray from that for a cover photograph rather than a cover illustration. What drew you to Amjad’s work as it pertains to partnering with him for ‘Primordial Arcana’?
Weaver: It was the perfect partnership. For one, he’s a local dude. He’s a photography faculty at the local university, Evergreen State College. He’s a full on metalhead and a fan of the band, so those are some elements that really made it an excellent partnership. We like to have a hand in the artwork. ‘Thrice Woven’ was the only time we’ve just commissioned someone. We told Denis Forkas to just make something, which is the first time we’ve done that. With Amjad, we wanted to come back to a place of having a bit more of a hand in the creation of the cover.
It was an excellent process. We gathered all of the items that you see on the cover of the record. These are all things that come from our personal lives and things that we have in our studio. We worked with Amjad to place them as a magical altar. There’s a certain point where we step back and let Amjad do the fine tuning, which is where the artistry lies to get the angles just right so that things are captured on film in the best way possible.
It’s simple but effective. From daggers to animal skulls and fur pelts, there’s a great deal of symbolism present here that harkens back to the album’s hermetic themes. Where did you find common ground with Amjad when interpreting the music through his photographic style?
Weaver: Where would we not find common ground with Amjad? Put it this way, you go into that guy’s studio and he’s got every Dungeons & Dragons book just lined up along the wall. He’s got painted miniatures and a mannequin where he’s building a chain mail suit. He’s got some paintings that he made to look like the covers of Burzum’s albums with broken glass and blood everywhere. It just feels like the kind of studio that is perfect to fully let our wildness loosen.
If that’s not the perfect collaboration, I don’t know what is. Amjad also did the interior photos for the record.
Weaver: The cover is shot on a large format analog camera, the kind where you have to go underneath the hood. The interior shots are macro shots, which were taken on a super high definition camera. The artwork turned out beautifully. Jacob Speis from Relapse did a super great job with the layout. He created all of the designs, sigils, fonts, and the graphics. Oftentimes, we’re so picky. Oftentimes, we get something back from an artist and say, “Ah, I wish it was another way.” With Jacob, it looked awesome and we went with it.
Touching further on that point, it’s important to highlight the multi-pronged approach to the physical release. You have Amjad’s cover, detailed interior photos, and Jacob’s exquisite layout, all of which are critical to conveying a message at a time where streaming is the dominant form of media consumption. You also have that fantastic box set. For those that pick up the physical release, they’ll be pleased to know a great deal of attention went into every aspect. Would you say it’s significant to be intentional about the way you entice and immerse audiences through the physical format?
Weaver: Oh yeah, and it’s so important to us. It’s our philosophy about music. A lot of it comes from the fact that it’s how we grew up with music. All you had was the album cover and the liner notes to learn about who a band was. I remember that feeling of being a kid and coming across a record where all you had was the cover, maybe a band photo, and the music itself. It was a really wonderful way to experience music.
Another thing is that we’re really passionate about making records that are meant to be listened to from beginning to end rather than just the singles. Of course, some songs stand on their own, but it’s kind of like opening up a book and reading a single chapter. Sure, there could be some beautiful, evocative writing, but the author meant for you to read the book as a whole. Our records are certainly that way. At the same time, the world is what it is. I’m appreciative of anyone who chooses to connect with our music, whether that’s on a Spotify playlist or with the full double LP experience.
The options are there.
Weaver: Yeah, and as you know, we’ve been making our own music videos. That’s our way to interface with the reality of modernity. It’s awesome. It has been very fun to learn about working in the visual medium, something we’ve dreamed of for a long time. It’s finally becoming a reality, which is something that is really gratifying.
That’s a perfect segue into my following point. There’s an ambitious visual approach that extends to the music videos for ‘Mountain Magick’ and ‘Spirit of Lightning’, two grandiose tracks. You of course wrote the story, costumes, shot the footage, and edited it yourselves. Do you feel that your established visual identity plays a key role in conveying the messaging of 'Primordial Arcana’?
Weaver: Absolutely. We’ve always been really passionate about the atmosphere at the live concerts and on the records. Even going back to our earlier shows, we used to light up like 100 candles and have oil lamps and bring stumps on tour with the intention of creating an immersive experience. The music is part of that, the visual imagery, the atmosphere at the live concert, and now video. It all works together to create a more complete experience for the audience.
Having seen you open for Behemoth and At The Gates a couple of years ago, I can attest the power of your atmosphere. The Pacific Northwest has an abundance of natural beauty to embrace, as you so eloquently integrate in your music, imagery, and more. How much do your surroundings impact the creative process for Wolves In The Throne Room?
Weaver: I would say it’s everything for me. It’s not possible to overstate the importance of our natural surroundings, especially on this record because our studio, which is where I’m at right now, is at the edge of a very beautiful and magical forest of western red cedar, Douglas fir, hemlock, and a variety of other plants in our understory. I just love this place so much. It’s interesting because I grew up in Olympia and so, the forest where our studio is actually the very same forest I grew up in as a kid, playing in the woods and climbing trees. I can remember encountering plants for the first time. For instance, I have this very strong memory of probably being 11 or 12 years old and encountering devil's club for the first time.
It is the most important and magical shamanic plant to the indigenous people of Cascadia, the Salish people. The plant is endemic to the forests, stretching all the way to Alaska. It grows in clumps of six to twelve foot tall tendrils that are covered in needle sharp spikes and it’s topped with very large, sort of fig-shaped leaves. It’s a very magical and powerful plant that I have a longstanding relationship with. I remember seeing it for the first time in this same forest that our studio is in now. It’s just something that is really special, to have the opportunity to live in the same woods for 40 years and very slowly develop a relationship with the landscape, plants, and spirits of this place. That’s the music for me. That’s the inspiration. That’s where the message comes from.
It’s at the core of who Wolves In The Throne Room is as an entity. I’m looking at the plant now and it’s quite neat.
Weaver: You harvest the root when the leaves fall off. November is kind of the traditional time to harvest. You dig down and find a piece of root that doesn’t have the thorns growing from it. You can cut chunks of it out, which is good for the plant because it helps it propagate and expand. You peel the outer layer of bark off and that’s the medicine mend. It’s a magical plant. It’s not psychedelic in the way that mushrooms or cannabis would be, but it has a consciousness altering quality to it.
Are the berries edible?
Weaver: I don’t eat them and I don’t know anyone who does, but I know they’re a favorite food of black bears. There’s not so many of them here in the lowlands where we are, but they’re certainly out here.
It’s amazing how impactful some of these miniscule elements, like the devil’s club, are to the larger scheme of things. The PNW is known to consistently deliver a plethora of bands that all thrive on the community element present among you all. Would you say that WITTR thrives on said camaraderie?
Weaver: Definitely. We’ve got a really awesome community here of not just musicians but people who are vibrating on the same frequency, so to speak. These are people connecting to the Earth, connecting to ancestors, and the old ways of being. They do so while being modern people, not just trying to live in a fantasy but trying to bring an older wisdom into our modern lives and make it sustainable.
It’s evident in the musical and creative output as a whole. Going back to the intentionality of it all, ‘Spirit of the Lightning’ rekindles the community present within metal and music in general, a community that faced tribulations this past year with a lack of shows and in-person camaraderie. At this time of sociopolitical turmoil and imbalance, where does ‘Primordial Arcana’ stand as an inviting experience of escape?
Weaver: You know what it is man, it’s that our records embody the sounds that we find as we journey into ourselves and into our own heart and souls. Going back to what you were saying ‘Spirit of the Lightning’ and this feeling about the metal community, that’s what the heart of heavy metal is to me. It’s individuality. It’s about the importance and unique magic of each individual person. It’s a call for everyone to find and seek their own truth inside themself, to find their own path that comes from their own heart, soul, and mind, and to have the courage to follow that wherever it may take them. That’s what our music is. Wolves In The Throne Room is the sound of our own personal journey in doing that. I hope that this record inspires people to look into themselves and find their own magic and their own power.
I’m certain it will, and judging from fan engagement so far, it’s apparent that it’s creating that effect. What role do you feel that black metal and metal in general plays in the larger scope of the world as it is today?
Weaver: The thing that drew me to black metal originally was that it is music that very explicitly works within the realm of spirit, the realm of mythology and magic. I grew up in a punk scene, which is very secular and materialistic. At a certain point, I just knew there was another unseen dimension to reality. Heavy metal has always been music that delves very consciously into the realm of spirit. It’s a tool, it’s a journey into these realms, a very powerful one actually.
It’s very much needed. In closing, Aaron, what would you say you’ve learned most about yourself throughout the years? ‘Primordial Arcana’ is certainly a culmination of your growth.
Weaver: I just know that I’m able to look into myself with a lot more clarity. As a younger person, my ego mind was a raging beast of never ending judgements and thoughts, plans for the future, schemes, and machinations. I’m aware that as life has gone on, I’m able to put that thinking mind aside more easily and bring my awareness and my consciousness down into my heart and into my body, and just be at a much more calm and centered space to be connected to my truth and not the cultural narratives that we’re fed or things that I’ve heard from my family, media, or politicians. I can tap into my own inner voice, my own inner wisdom, and that feels really good. It’s been a lifelong journey to get to a place where the shattering madman that dwells in my brain can take a break every now and again. ‘Primordial Arcana’ is the culmination for now. The next phase begins in this very next moment.
Primordial Arcana arrives on August 20th via Relapse Records. Order your copy HERE.