In the dystopic world of death metal, lyrical themes tend to volley between the lewd and obscene to the cosmic and grotesque. So it’s rare to discover a band like Vastum, who find lyrical inspiration in scholarly sources. Vocalist Daniel (he prefers to withhold his last name) is fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind, a passion that has led him to pursue a career in the field of clinical psychology. Guitarist and vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf holds a B.A. in both psychology and linguistics, and has worked in administration at mental health organizations for over a decade.
The duo’s work in the mental health field has humbled them, and forced them to ponder the different methods and modes of human communication. Their music takes that fascination even further, dealing with despair, shame, patricide, sexual perversion, and therapy.
In advance of the re-issue of their debut LP Carnal Law, we talked with Leila and Dan about how their lifelong interest in psychoanalysis informs their complex, murky, and wholly intoxicating death metal.
When I think about “despair” in the context of your work, I think of being unable to control oneself from certain acts or thoughts. What are the darkest moments of despair? How are they connected to music?
Leila: For me personally, despair’s darkest moments are those when grief takes over, to the point where I am completely mentally, spiritually and almost physically incapacitated by the emotion. It’s when insomnia is at its worst, and basic, daily human functioning is a struggle. Consequently, it was during these moments where songwriting came easiest. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily more prolific during these times—I’ve learned by this stage of my life how to be equally prolific during times of joy as well as darkness, and to take inspiration from all kinds of feelings and influences. However, it’s during those moments of despair that song ideas crystallize most clearly for me—the notes, the tones are almost tangible, and I feel like more of a conduit possessed by the ideas rather than the one composing them.
Daniel: It’s interesting to think of despair as a kind of obsessive-compulsive repetition, or just a repetition compulsion of some kind. I think there’s an element of despair in reckoning with one’s powerlessness—and I do think this is present in our lyrics—but deep despair seems quite separate from the anxiety implied by your definition. The deeply despairing person would not be worried about their thoughts or actions; they would have indifferently accepted them as the shit life they’re doomed to live. Mourning or mournfulness can be represented in music, but I think despair is more in league with the unrepresentable. In terms of musical genres, we could say mourning is the language of doom metal and doom/death metal. I guess I don’t think despair can be captured in music.
Can music be a form of supplication through which despair is controlled, or even harnessed?
Daniel: I don’t think music can control or harness despair. If it’s controlled or harnessed, it’s no longer despair. It might be sadness or depression, mourning or melancholia, but not deep despair.
I’m not breaking any ground by saying sexual perversions are an ongoing theme throughout your work. I want to hear a bit about the dichotomy between someone in power using sexual perversion versus someone in a place of weakness or powerlessness.
Leila: In my lyrics, I’m not referring to sexual perversion per se, but perversion of societal law, and the complex and unconscious sexual dynamics of relationships in conflict, and the shame, pain or horror attached to them. These complexities weave a web of codependency and confusion that blurs, or shifts, the imbalance of power—the dichotomy between one in power and one in a place of powerlessness. In this context, there is no advantage or disadvantage to either position, just an endless war-like nightmare of cyclical emotional pain. I also find the term “sexual perversion” to be problematic, because many use it to refer to any consensual sexual act that is outside of heterosexual procreative sex, and those people, specifically those working in government, certainly want to control it in the name of so-called ‘religious freedom’ by passing hateful and restrictive laws.
Daniel: Sexuality is inherently perverse. Obviously, that does not mean that everyone is non-normative in their sexual behavior. It means that sexuality can take many, many forms, and that there is nothing in our biology that determines the forms sexuality must take. Sexuality is a psychological, and not a biological quest. To paraphrase [Georges] Bataille, “It is a matter of one’s soul or psyche, one’s taste or aesthetic, not one’s drive to reproduce.” Posit a norm and sexuality will deviate from it; your taste won’t exactly be mine, and mine won’t be yours. Sexuality is very personal in this sense. But there is also an impersonal dimension to the sexual, and this is something that is harder to speak about, about because it doesn’t have anything to do with sexual acts. Many of these ideas are taken from my own understanding of psychoanalyst/philosopher Jean Laplanche. These are themes that heavily inform “Enigma of Disgust,” “Primal Seduction,” and other Vastum lyrics. So, to talk about sexual perversions is somewhat redundant, since sexuality is inherently perverse—and I think this is the point of our lyrics. We’re pointing to the enigma and perversity at the heart of sexual desire.
Can you talk a bit about patricide and what it means to you? It’s been an ongoing theme throughout your career. It even graced the title of your second LP. In what sense are we referring to ‘Patri’—father? God? Symbol?
Leila: I’ll leave it to Dan to answer specifics regarding the lyrics to that track if he wants, since he wrote all of them. ‘Patricide’ is referred to in psychoanalysis within the context of the Oedipal complex: the conflict between the unconscious desire to kill one’s father in order to have sex with the mother and avoid castration, or to abide by the symbolic “law of the father,” therefore affirming the father’s dominance. My lyrical references to patricide are symbolic and less direct, with reference to failing patriarchal law, the fragility of masculinity, and sexualizing the male body simultaneously as both an object of desire and repulsion—for instance, breaking down the male body into its parts: chest hair, sweat, mouth, etc.
Daniel: ‘Patricide’ refers to the destruction of God’s, the father’s, etc. law. The theme of patricide is an attempt to imagine anarchic states and/or anarchic states of being. The song “Amniosis” signals a turn from the patricide of Oedipus to the worship of the feminine in Thallassa [the the primaeval spirit of the sea].
Another ongoing theme in your lyrics is the idea of being cast out due to shameful acts. What is shame to you? How do we feel shame? How is shame exorcised?
Leila: There are myriad ways that shame can be brought on—assuming the person isn’t a sociopath, in which case there will be no shame to speak of. The source of shame is in the programming process early in our lives that shapes us into law-abiding beings following what society regards as civilized human behavior. When we violate these laws, the pain that we feel in shame is the primordial pain of abandonment and, ultimately, the fear of death. Since shame is deeply connected to our survival instinct, I believe the only way it can only be exorcised by broad societal changes whereby the acts in question are no longer considered shameful.
Daniel: Shame is something that makes us human. Bataille followed St. Augustine in emphasizing this. We clothe ourselves out of shame, and this shame is what distinguishes us from animals. Shame is linked to sexuality and it is, in some sense, the essence of seduction. A naked body excites, but it does not seduce. A clothed body—or we could say, a sexuality ‘clothed’ as care—is what seduces. Shame can also be a great political tool. Act Up was an amazing queer activist group that really used shame to mobilize and express rage. I think this is important.
I guess I don’t think feelings should be exorcised. Rather, I think they should be understood. Even live performances don’t exactly exorcise feelings. People tend to think performance is where I might ‘let out my frustration.’ Maybe this is true to an extent, but I tend to think of performance as momentary lapses in being human, moments when I have no shame, no feeling in particular, and I’m in some sense becoming more of an animal or more of a non-human object. Performance is pure environment such that ‘I’ no longer exist, at least momentarily. ‘I’ am in and of an environment. A kind of oneness, I guess, though oneness implies a union rather than a less defined lack of differentiation. I dunno.
I want to talk a bit about therapy in an artistic sense. After a show, rehearsal or recording session, do you feel at all alleviated from the pains of life?
Leila: It isn’t an either/or for me: composing, producing and performing music is highly therapeutic for me and it can be a welcome disconnect from day-to-day reality. It can be many other things, too: a spiritual transcendence, a loss or dissolution of self, or a way to immortalize oneself. I feel alleviated from the pains of life, and most in my element, when I am alone composing and recording ideas. It’s how I’m the most productive, and the hours slip away unnoticed. This is how I work on my solo material and my other band, Ionophore, and it’s my favorite way to work. I also write most of my ideas for Vastum alone, and typically don’t bring in a song until it’s more-or-less finished. I love to collaborate, but scheduling band practices and shows are the bane of my existence, so lately I’ve been gravitating overall towards long-distance collaborations so I can work at my own pace. For Vastum in particular though, the live performance is the culmination of the energies we all put forth, and the temporary post-show high can be very addictive.
Daniel: Art can be really helpful in a clinical context. I think it’s great. I’ve used arts and crafts clinically, especially when working with children. Music is therapeutic, but I think it also disconnects us from reality, and this disconnect might actually be its most therapeutic effect. I don’t think shows or music provide relief from pain so much as they create space for reflection, which in turn creates relief. I would hope that music and performance elaborates on the way that I feel, but also that it does not change my feelings, per se. I don’t want to run from pain or pleasure. I want to feel it deeply and to think about it. I want to experience my emotional life in its conflict and complexity. This can be quite frightening. It can be enlivening and pleasurable too. Regardless, this is definitely what Vastum is about.