Matthew Kiichi Heafy of Trivium performs on stage at the Germania Insurance Amphitheater in Austin, … [+]
Trivium’s Matt Heafy has continued to shine as a ‘Renaissance man’ of today’s heavy music scene. Within the last three years alone, Heafy has managed to release two back to back critically acclaimed studio albums with Trivium, become one of Twitch’s most prolific musician-based-streamers, and has launched an ongoing solo career featuring a Jared Dines collaboration-EP and a popularized ‘Witcher’ cover among other things. In 2022 Heafy is preparing to add to his growing list of achievements, but from a more cultural standpoint this time around, specifically by reshaping one of the metal’s most infamously popularized sub-genres, black metal.
Ibaraki is Matt Heafy’s long awaited black metal album, and his first take on the extreme metal sub-genre. While it stands as his first fully fledged solo album, Ibaraki is a project that’s been in the works for well over a decade. Years ago the project first came to light when news broke that extreme metal’s own Ihsahn (Emperor) was working in collaboration with Heafy on the project, as producer.
Since the beginning of this year Ibaraki has finally revealed itself through a number of intricate and genre-bending singles, each of which eloquently show Heafy’s longstanding affinity for both the sub-genre and technical songwriting. However, what separates Ibaraki from most other black metal bands is its openness both lyrically and metaphorically. Gone is the exclusive elitist mentality that’s forever plagued the culture and sonic attitude of black metal, instead, Heafy openly embraces change in the form of instrumentation, lyrical content, and unique guest features, namely My Chemical Romances’s own Gerard Way.
Ibaraki’s full length self-titled debut releases this week May 6th, via Nuclear Blast. Matt Heafy spoke with Forbes to share more details on the album, how the project unfolded over the last decade, and why it’s become his mission to reinvent the sub-genre.
Matt Heafy: That’s a great question, I definitely am curious why and how it does evoke that feeling because that seems to be the conscious between a lot of people that have heard this, and even when I think about the record myself. If I think back to a lot of side projects, or if I think about what the idea of a side project may be, you could probably assume it sounds roughly semi similar to Trivium or lives in the same ballpark as Trivium and that’s usually what I see — from a lot of my favorite artists it’ll still sound iconically like them.
I think in the many years that it took this to happen there were a lot of evolutions and really big things that happened, and I attribute a lot of that to Ihsahn and a lot of that to self discovery. When we were about five years into this project I said to Ihsahn, “how am I going to sing or scream on this? Just like in Trivium, right?” And he said “No, I challenge you to sing and scream in a way you’ve never done on a Trivium record before,” and I was like “Ihsahn, I’ve been doing just Trivium since I was 13, that’s all I can do.” He told me, “no, you’ll find something.” Just to hear that from one of your heroes it’s kind of like, alright out of necessity I have to figure something else out.
Thankfully, blowing my voice out was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. As far as the Trivium things that have happened to me that make me better at what I do, blowing my voice out was one of them, getting into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and streaming on Twitch was one of them. These things all helped solidify a proper training method to a proper vocal technique or a proper technique in what I can do to get better at it. So I looked at what I had been training at with Ron Anderson (vocal coach who’s worked with Matt Shadows, The Weekend, Chris Cornell), who recently just passed which is really tragic because he was one of the greatest vocal instructors of all time.
I started taping into Ron’s methods and also taking a lot of these tips from Ihsahn, and I remember when I was showing Ihsahn how the screaming sounds different from what Ron had taught me versus what I do for Trivium, and he gave me characteristics saying “no, make this smile, make this sinister almost a joker smile while you screaming.” He had these specific things of the way to position my face and my mouth, the way to annunciate words, and when I first heard it I was like “Ihsahn is that the right style?” It didn’t sound like black metal to me, but it didn’t sound like Trivium either. So that might be components to it, and every single step of this project has been like that, it’s been a moment of either self realization and discovery, or having Ihsahn gently bring it over to a spot.
Another great anecdote, we were ten years into this project and it was about time to start recording this thing I said to Ihsahn, “I have no lyrics really.” I only had lyrics for the song that was going to become “Tamashii No Houkai,” but they weren’t titles at the time. I said to him “I wish I was Norwegian so I could write about Ragnarok and Thor battling Jörmungandr,” and Ihsahn said, “two things Matt, one that’s been done a lot, and second tap into your Japanese side.” Right then it was this big realization, it was like the answer was right underneath my nose. I mean my back [tattoo] piece is Susanoo battling Yamato no Orochi, and that’s the Japanese storm god battling a dragon, essentially the story of Thor and Jörmungandr. So it’s all of these big realizations of the self, and I do believe because there was so much time put into this, like you said, that’s why it’s so unique.
MH: It’s funny because Ihsan and I were just talking about this on my Twitch stream, and when people hear the idea that we did this remotely all by computers and utilizing technology to make this thing happen, I’d imagine this surgically precise computerized almost perfect sounding metal. I’ve met a lot of bands who have to write like that, you have to write on a MacBook in between shows, in the van, in the bus, writing all the drums, quantizing everything, and that’s the way it sounds — it sounds like surgically precise and sterile. But we still managed to make this thing sound so organic and life like. I really love the production style that Ihsahn did and he had a very huge hand in guiding Jens Bogren, who is one of the greatest metal mixers of all time having done everything from Opeth, Amon Amarth, to Dark Tranquility, just everything across the board. He made this thing sound almost in the spirit of a record being recorded on tape that still sounds a little bit more polished than tape. I mean when I hear a band mention raw and organic I’m like, alright I’m going to hear Orange Amps and 60’s Les Pauls, that’s what I think when I hear “raw and organic.” But this has a different kind of raw and organic sound to it. It’s still has that modern tightness but feels like tape, and he pulled that off with the way he got Jens to mix it.
What’s really cool is that the record is actually a time capsule, in the sense that if you take out the intro and outro, tracks two through nine are placed in the order that they were written. “Kagutsuchi” and “Ibaraki-Doji” were written and recorded in 2010-2011 and the actual DI tracks are from then as well. Initially I mentioned to Ihsahn, “well now that we’ve got all of the demos together let’s have me rerecord each thing,” and I think I tried to rerecord “Kagutsuchi” and he said “you know what, the energy is so much better in the originals, let’s keep the originals.” I had never thought that was a possibility, but it’s so cool that it’s this time capsule. You can hear that the style is semi-similar with those two songs, and then “Jigoku Dayu” is incredibly different, and I recorded that in 2012-2013.
“Tamashii No Houkai” and “Akumu (feat Nergal)” were both co-written by Ihsahn. One day he said to me “I’ve got some old riffs, do you want them?” And I said “of course!” I like to think in my head they’re old Emperor riffs, but those songs are semi-similar as well. The last two tracks, “Ronin (feat. Gerard Way)” and “Susanoo No Mikoto (feat Insahn), are pretty similar in my opinion. “Ronin” has very minimal guitar parts in the sense that the first two tracks have six to ten guitar parts layered with all of this orchestral Japanese instruments and big stuff happening, whereas these last two tracks just have two rhythm guitar tracks and it’s me going back to the concept of how I used to write on [Trivium’s first album] Ember to Inferno, where at the time, I was the only guitar player in the band so I would fit rhythm and melody into the one part that I’d be playing, and that’s what you hear on “Ronin.” So it’s almost like you get five records of what [Ibaraki] would be if it existed across five records.
MH: I met Gerard Way in 2006, we were both on Big Day Out in Australia. We were the only metal band playing that day, and My Chemical Romance were the headlining band, and that’s when The Black Parade was out. The promoter invited both of us to dinner, he was like “I think you guys have similar vibes you should meet.” I hit it off really well with Gerard and we stayed pen palls for years, and one day he asked me about black metal tremolo picking and how to do the technique. I sent him a little tutorial video and was like ‘here’s how you do it.’ He thanked me very much and I told him “you know what, I’ve been working on a black metal side project for about eight years now, would you do some guest vocals on it?” And was he was like “I’d be honored.” So I sent him the framework for “Ronin” and I hadn’t heard him do that style of screaming before, but he’s such a prolific creative person so of course he’s going to have a great scream. When Ihsahn and I listened to his scream we were like “…this is insane.” This is some of the best black metal vocals that we’ve ever heard in our lives and he totally crushed it.
MH: I think that’s a thing that came out naturally because going into this I had the exact polar-opposite intent. Growing up loving black metal, when I first discovered it I was 15 years old and it was introduced to me by a local musician named Richie Brown, and he got me into black metal when I was in Trivium. So I joined Trivium when I was 13, I thought metal was as extreme as it gets and then I started discovering things through Napster, and I heard my first Cradle of Filth song, my first Cannibal Corpse, and then my first In Flames song which was actually the song “Jotun.” I was so into the fact that there was more, and that you can get more extreme and there’s different sounds. I remember I was really gravitating towards that In Flames song “Jotun,” because there was so much unique melody which reminded me of things I didn’t hear in metal.
That’s around when I met Richie Brown and he showed me Emperial Live Ceremony from Emperor, and that’s when I first fell in love with black metal. I’m not promoting this, it’s obviously a bad thing, but I started getting into the lore of black metal and I was really enthralled by the fact that there was a style of metal that was causing band members to kill each other. I thought this was more intense than I had ever realized. Obviously as an adult now I’ve realized I had blinders on towards things that were happening in black metal, and those are things I’m not into and that’s kind of why I’m rewriting what I see as black metal. But I was really into some of the early mission statements of what these guys said in that they were taking back the old religions for Scandinavia and for the pagan religion. I thought it was interesting that these [early black metal bands] were claiming they were taking back these old religions, and maybe these 16-17 year old kids were just saying that just to be shocking, probably, but it definitely captivated me as a kid getting into metal. So I fell in love with it and went further and further. From 16 to 18 or so I was the kid who had the super long hair, a long-sleeve Dimmu Borgir shirt with cut-off combat pants, and that’s when I said now I’m going to cut off my hair and straighten it and have eyeliner and really tight small shirts. So I knew the mentality of the ‘elite’ metal kid because I was that kid, I was the kid that said anything with singing sucks, and anything that’s mainstream sucks. When I was 18 or so I said I want to make an alias black metal record, because I knew ‘the guy from Trivium’ is not allowed to make a black metal record by ‘elite black metal standards.’ So I started creating some stuff that I would never reveal until all of the elite metal fans fell in love with it, and then I would say “haha it was me all along.”
I saw this 15 year old in 2010 outside of In Flames’ burger bar [in Göteborg, Sweden], he was wear an emperor shirt and I asked if I could take a picture for my food/travel blog. He agreed and I posted it online and I sent a copy to Darren Toms, who had been a long time friend of mine, because he works for Candlelight Records which is Emperor’s record label. I said to him, you should send this to Ihsahn because this is super cool, this young kid is keeping Emperor alive. Darren copied me in an email with Ihsahn and Ihsahn thanked me for all the years of support, and I said “hey I’ve been working on a black metal track, do you want to to check it out? So I took the opportunity to send him that song and his response was pretty short, he said “this sounds like second wave black metal, well done.” Around that time he had just released Eremita, and hearing that was like hearing black metal for the first time all over again. It was so shocking in that here’s the guy from Emperor and now there’s saxophone solos, Jazz chords, clean singing, and this weird very melodic vibe happening.
What I loved about black metal when it first came out was it was this rebellion to metal being the same, and these musicians feeling like metal had become safe and it was all about mainstream popularity, so they created something so extreme that was so unique. But when you stick to those rules of ‘hey it has to sound like it did in 1994,’ then there’s no innovation. So I was more into the idea of something like Eremita, it’s so not black metal that it becomes black metal. I rewrote the entire idea of what I was doing and I no longer cared of making this an alias project, and I wrote what became “Kagutsuchi.” I sent that to Ihsahn and he said “I’d never heard anything like this before, this is great well done,” and that’s when I asked him “would you like to produce this if I did this as a record?” And he said “absolutely.” That’s when he invited me down to Notodden, Norway. I took multiple planes, trains, and buses to get to his village. He took me to the studio and took me to see these old churches that are so breathtaking and beautiful. He took me down to the studio and made me dinner, we drank Christmas beers and watched Blue Velvet, talked about black metal, talked about music, talked about life, and it was obviously a life changing experience.
After that and as the years would go on I’d write a couple songs here and there, but then I started looking back and that’s when the blinders came down. I thought the satanism and paganism was cool, but when you start to get into the racism and bigotry and that stuff, this is not for me. I felt almost taken advantage of, this is a genre I had been championing my entire life, and I’m not saying all of it is like that, but some of it, but to see that I was super let down. So I was like you know what, I’m going to reinvent this in the way that I want to reinvent this. The lyrics of “Ronin,” while they are a story, it does sidebar and represent a bit of what I feel in the way I want to reinvent the genre for myself. I don’t mind at all what people think of this because this was 100% a project for me by me. The fact that people like it is a huge bonus.