Struggling against the Tides of Damocles with Dawn of Azazel's Rigel Walshe

"If you’re in Terrorizer or whatever magazine and you don’t like it, fuck you."

One common aspect of working in the extreme metal world is that often-times you will come into contact with people with turbulent personalities. It makes sense right? This is challenging and anti-social music, so of course some people who make it would be challenging and anti-social too. However, Rigel Walshe, bassist and frontman for one of New Zealand’s most longrunning metal institutions Dawn of Azazel, is the exact opposite of that. Open and jovial, MaF anjoyed an extensive conversation with him about his new album Tides of Damocles and the New Zealand metal scene.

2015 sees Dawn of Azazel returning to the fold after an extended period of inactivity, what was it that made you return to making music "Well, we first took our break for a number of reasons. Some of that had to do with our professional circumstances. I mean, my last job which I recently left and spent the last 2 or 3 years doing, it wasn’t really one where I could be in the public eye a lot [Note: Rigel worked as a covert police officer]. I had to be quite considerate of the fact that being in a band meant I was going to be appearing in interviews and news sources. We had to be a bit quieter as a band, but then I left my job and a couple of the guys wrapped up their time at uni. Part of it was those changes in circumstance, but also it was the fact that having taken some time away from music in a different professional field, it reinforced why you put up with all the crazy, insane, idiotic, spontaneous people that you encounter in the scene. At my old job, it was a very strict, regimented and structured environment. Spending 3 or 4 years completely immersed in that environment makes you realise the importance of having that artistic outlet. It’s like oxygen, if you have art in your life, you don’t notice it but the second it’s gone, it’s all you can think about." 

How did the writing process for this album go? Was there an element of shaking off the rust? "It was pretty hard because of the fact that when you take some time off from this world, you lose track of just where you sit in it. On the other hand it was a lot easier because we had access to better systems. All our other albums were just jammed out in an old school fashion where you didn’t have any access to proper recording equipment. Whereas this time, we did it all through protools, we did everything to a click track, which made it much easier to construct the songs individually and in turn meant we spent more time in the practice room rehearsing rather than remembering the songs. It was much more efficient and I think we got a better album out of it because we had a much better system in place for channelling our creativity."

What are the lyrical themes you focus on for this album? "Well, pretty much all of our releases have a focus on the will to power, the will or mindset to succeed. Tides is a little different because it’s a mixture of two different ideas represented in the songs The Odious Tides and Damocles. Now, Damocles obviously refers to the Sword of Damocles, which is a tale about a guy of the same name who resides in the court of the Persian king Dionysius the Second. So, you’ve got this king and his courtier Damocles who thinks it looks pretty good to be a king. So, the king allows Damocles to borrow the throne for one day and all the riches and power that go along with it. But what he also did was string up a massive sword above the throne with one single horse hair to illustrate the fear and anxiety that comes with great power. And as for The Odious Tides, it’s really about looking at life as this unrelenting ocean that’s going to swallow you unless you swim and fight against the waves. In many ways I think life is like that. If you see it as something that’s going to get comfortable, like if I get whatever you define as success, that one day life will be easy when life’s really just a constant battle and then you die. It’s that kind of futile balance of the end, but also ties in with the Damocles idiom and some of my experiences over the past couple of years. Like, seeing some people in very powerful positions and how that plays on the mind and how the pursuit of power or prestige comes with a mental cost." 

Tides of Damocles was recorded over in the US, why record so far from home? "Well a lot of people have the philosophy these days, and quite rightly, that you can do it yourself. Certainly with the amount of money it cost us to go over there and record, we could easily have bought a pretty decent protools rig, a few plug in mics and hired out a room. But to my mind, the reason why that makes sense is why you shouldn’t do it. It’s a mentality of putting in that extra effort and going that extra mile to stand out as well as to demonstrate your own dedication to it by going that far. The album is going to exist forever and while we’re not made of money, we paid for this thing out of our own pockets, we want to do something that we can be proud of and will stand the test of time." 

The album was also self-released. Now that you’ve gone through and actually released it, how would you compare the process of releasing an album yourself, as opposed to working with a label? "To be totally frank with you we’ve had a bunch of labels in the past and I’ve been pretty unhappy with the job they did. Everyone that you talk to, at least in my experience, has similar stories when dealing with labels, like they didn’t get the special treatment, or they feel like really did what they could have for the album. At the stage we’re at, I’ve got enough contacts and know enough people around to handle things. Earsplit, the PR company that handles things for us outside Australia also does the releases for labels like Metal Blade and Relapse, so if we’re released by them we would have the exact same push. Maybe there would be more credibility in certain areas because you’re on this or that label. But for the consequence of giving away total control of your music, I don’t feel like the results we had gotten with labels was better than we could have gotten ourselves. In this day and age, if you have some sort of following, the only question you should be asking labels is ‘what can you offer me?’ because a lot of it you can do yourself as long as you’re willing to go out and do it."

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that people frequently come up with unfitting genre tags for Dawn of Azazel. What are some of your pet peeves when it comes to the public receiving your music? "I guess it comes down to people wanting to box you into a category. Y’know, it’s human nature, it’s going to happen, but our whole career that’s happened. For our first album, they called us war metal or compared us to Angelcorpse and they’re all influences on our sound. Another one that comes up all the time is Ulcerate and they’re doing their thing and doing it exceptionally well, but we’re really not trying to do anything like that at all. We share a lot of similar influences, but if you listen to one of our albums expecting something abstract or avant guarde you’re not going to get it because that’s not what we’re trying to do. My biggest peeve though is the fact that these days people will only give your music 30 seconds and if they don’t dig it, they’ll switch it off. The last thing I want is someone who expects us to sound like Gorguts or Ulcerate to listen to us and immediately shut us off because we don’t sound the same."

I find that, especially on the reviewer front, so many people get caught up in the content cycle of just pushing out opinions before they’ve let the material have a chance to breathe. "Well let’s be honest, for a band in our position most reviewers are just going to listen to our album once. That’s frustrating when you get people that don’t give your music a chance. If you’re going to bother reviewing it, at least listen to it twice [laughs]. But that’s the beauty of the internet; if they don’t like it, fuck em. If you’re in Terrorizer or whatever magazine and you don’t like it, fuck you. Back when I was a teenager, if you didn’t have those people onside, you didn’t have a chance, whereas now, who cares what the critics think? It’s more important that a segment of people appreciate you and get where you’re coming from."

I’m always interested in hearing about the experiences of bands that came from places that aren’t Europe and America. What was it like being a metal band in NZ during the late 90’s/early 2000’s? "It was really hard dude. I mean, when we first started, there were really no extreme metal bands around. There was a bit of a scene that ended around 95, but it was really dead when we came up.  There was Malevolence, who are still going and a couple of black metal bands, From The Dark and Coven who are long gone. But the first show we played, I organised at a community hall. It was kind of the state of the scene; there were no bars to play at. It was really tough, but things picked up around the mid-2000’s, we just stuck with what we were doing, but our demo got some traction overseas and that reflected back here. So things really started going well around that time and to my mind that’s still the heyday of the scene. I mean, we’ve had quite a few bands like Diocletian, Witchchrist and obviously Ulcerate that have started getting their name out there, but I think as far as the scene goes things were far more cohesive in the sense of people coming to shows and there being a real sense of community. The geographical displacement made it hard too, but luckily we had the tape trading thing giving us some traction. A lot of bands from here end up failing because they don’t manage to get that support network and build on it. The isolation really kills you. It’s like Australia but a lot worse."

What are your current plans for the future? "We’ve got a couple of shows already hooked up in Australia. Part of the trouble of releasing an album yourself is that the release date is always up in the air. So we’re a little on the backfoot in terms of booking dates. But we’re working on that now, Australia is a place we want to get back to ASAP. It will definitely be towards the end of the year. Stay tuned."