The following interview/conversation is with Finnish artist Mikko Aspa, who works within a number of mediums. Many readers may know him as the founder and owner of the record labels Northern Heritage and Freak Animal. In addition to this, he has a highly prolific musical output, with the black metal of Clandestine Blaze, the power electronics of Grunt, and the funeral doom project Stabat Mater, among many other ventures. He is also a prolific publisher, through the printed zine and online forum Special Interests. To say that his name is something of repute within contemporary underground music circles would be putting things lightly.
There has been a distinct maturation in the sound of Clandestine Blaze over the past few years, yet the musical expression and artistic intent is still the same, without compromise. Music is still raw, yet there are points on City Of Slaughter and Tranquility Of Death where songs are accentuated with layers of synth, or in the case of the title track from the latter, acoustic guitar passages.
In some respects this reminds me of the simple, yet sophisticated approach that Beherit made on Engram. Traditional black metal, well thought out, and not just “varied” for the sake of being “open-minded”. Would you care to tell us what brought these changes, or better to say developments in the musical direction of CB?
MA: Natural progression took me into making songs different than they had been in early days. It would be foolish to repeat exact same template over 20 years. In case of Clandestine Blaze, shift is slow. It can be seen happening between each album. To compare couple first ones with couple last ones, there may be drastic shift. To follow discography in chronological order, the transition is subtle and almost logical.
With new albums, my intent has been to make songs that are not following the absolutely simplest expected template known from pop/rock. They are not progressive or complex by any means, but often you can not guess what will be coming after next riff or song part. In early days vast majority of tracks were intentionally repeating most common type of template with no musical variation or display of musicianship.
I wanted music to be utterly monochrome, everything else than “fun” to listen to. Nowadays intent is that music is not totally predictable or mathematical. There are many other goals too. Certainly not to sound uplifting or joyful like a lot of contemporary Black Metal appears to be.
You have undertaken many other projects across the metal and noise spectrum, in a variety of different capacities, exploring different themes and concepts. Of all of these, your work as Clandestine Blaze and Grunt seem to be the most collectively representative of all these as a whole. Could you tell us how it came to be that these two projects ended up becoming the dominant projects in your portfolio, and giving a background to that?
MA: Bands where I work with other people, I am often in role of assistant or collaboration and role of leader is taken by someone else. A lot of projects are sort of spin-off from main works, that are Grunt and Clandestine Blaze. These two are the focus points. Both were the most important right from the start. They are expressions of myself in many ways.
Many of the spin-off projects have narrow and tightly framed singular artistic vision they are meant to fulfill. Approach of these projects may differ from what is done with my main works. Scope of Grunt and CB is not merely specific artistic vision, but they represent my worldview and approach to life in general.
Are there any direct or indirect means by which the other projects you have done influence the development of CB and Grunt, or vice versa?
MA: There is always crossover. Most of the other projects have been spawned as “spin-off” to explore specific sound or theme, had already been dealt in main work. Instead of giving one particular topic too much attention in Grunt, there are opened a path that took closer look into specific topic or sound, while Grunt continued to explore with wider scope.
Besides this, you can draw line from one to another and find the common topics and musical elements. During last decade, often Grunt and Clandestine Blaze albums sort of communicate with each other. They include similar topics, similar themes, but often discussed with different language – so to say.
Bands I play or have played as member, also may influence at least in ways of keeping musical skills developing more than bands that exists only in form of recordings.
Can you tell us about the history of Special Interests as a print and online publication, its various mediums and what you’ve set out to achieve with it?
MA: I have edited noise related zines since the 90’s. Freak Animal and Degenerate ‘zines most notable. At the time when first issue of Special Interests came out, print magazines that focused on industrial-noise and related genres were pretty much non-existent. Original aim was to publish ’zine 3 times a year.To preserve current moment of the genre to physical form, to distribute information and to give platform for artists that would never get covered in music press of magazines of other genres.
There was also seemingly futile attempt to resurrect the 80’s/90’s style of approach, where wide variety of experimental noise co-existed in same milieu. Reality is that subgenre mindset is so strong these days, that eventually it was best to conclude Special Interests has barely ambient, electro-acoustic and such material. Focus remains power electronics, noise and closely related material. Scope is still very broad, not being spokesman of one subgenre or even my own personal taste.
Out of all these aims, Special Interests paper fanzine exists. It is published less regular manner, but remains among very few print publications of the type. There are various attempts in creation of podcasts, documentaries, etc. It all remains limited by lack of time. There will be more, but there is also other things to be done. Big part of my activity is not visible to foreign people, as I have shifted major part of my writing to Finnish.
Most stable activity is Special Interests forum, that enables bands, labels, collectors, and so on, to discuss, promote, sell and trade their material. To do this without restrictions enforced by social media platforms and marketplaces. Due strong content of many industrial-noise releases, it appears good to have some true independent infrastructure left. It is unfortunate that so much of contemporary ”underground” relies purely on good will and platforms of multinational corporations.
The opening track from Terror And Degeneration features a quite prominent sample from the David Cronenberg film Videodrome, which asserts that “we’re entering savage times” and that one needs to be “pure, direct and strong” to survive them. The film had a lot to say in regard to the convergence of human destiny and ever advancing technology, which i noticed seemed to be present in themes explored in other Grunt material.
This seemed to inform particularly the “surveillance” elements of Someone Is Watching. If any, to what extent is this explored in the work of Clandestine Blaze? As an artist who has worked and performed in the audiovisual medium before, to what extent does cinema influence you on an individual level and in the sonic output of Grunt?
MA: Those works you mention are created back in 1997-1998. While subject matter is far more relevant now than over 20 years ago, it is also almost too banal and trivial to deal with it now. At least it should be looked from less obvious perspective. Things explored in those releases are just daily life now.
Clandestine Blaze does not observe this type of elements of society. Material is meant to be sort of beyond technology and timeless in many ways. Not bound to society and current daily reality in same ways as Grunt can do. Things Clandestine Blaze deals with, are more primal. It would never talk about tech of surveillance, how it happens in contemporary society.
CB work could of course touche the motivations and reasonings and the spirit what is behind the actual technical level. It could observe the shattered free will and the necessity of illusion of paradise where sheep and wolves co-exist in peace like in Watchtower magazine covers. Surveillance society has traits of this.
To return to question about movies. I do have plenty of movies in my collection and I respect the artform. However, it is far less important that music or books. I can live perfectly without having TV or watching movies. It is most of all prioritizing my time. I am not looking much of entertainment, but food for though. These days I watch way less movies than I used to.
Most of the time I am not even seeking to find any particular movie and most of my collection I have never actually watched. They remain there for sake of one day wanting to do so. It is unlikely those movies to be found in popular streaming services and after times of wide and easy availability. It’s been several years since I last time put movie dvd to player.
Black metal and power electronics are genres of extremes. The widely mythologized and eulogized Norwegian scene of the early 1990’s was extreme not only in musical and ideological intent, but in the sense that destructive and fatal actions arose from its “inner circle”, with similar and more widespread illegal acts taking place in its wake.
Consistent with tropes within the genre, it is something which reflects itself in the cryptic and occult lyrical content of Clandestine Blaze, which often tends to reflect and portray destructive forces and urges within the nature of man. Whether one could consider this as the Hobbesian war of all against all, the Darwinian survival of the fittest, or Nietzschean concepts of will to power or the overman.
Power electronics on the other hand is a subgenre of industrial where many practitioners, since the early 80’s tend to aestheticize various extremes, be they socio-political, ideological, sexual, criminal or otherwise into a format which is presented in a manner that is confrontational, impartial and lacking in irony to the extent that many of the tropes inevitably shock, alienate, and anger the untrained listener.
Whilst not a type of “propaganda” to those outsiders, it may be interpreted literally and thereby judged as such. What are your thoughts on this? In increasingly politically correct times, to what extent do you think that “elitism”, “extremism” or “extremity” such as the types described above are a fundamental prerequisite to these forms of music having their desired effect, or as a means to achieve a sense of ‘authenticity’?
MA: We would first have to consider what *is* the desired effect? Lets say, if you are looking for people to be offended. Of course, that is probably easier than it ever was. However, this doesn’t have any real level of achievement in adult life. It may have seemed good in adolescent perspective, …but now? If you know the triggers how people are outraged, and you know that this outrage leads nowhere, why bother?
Confrontation and provocation is valuable when target is advanced enough. Of course one can’t totally rule out of usefulness of sheer terror or even annoyance, but generally I feel the music and the message is not performed for the enemy, but yourself and for potential fruitful receiver.
The goals of old industrial to ”shock” live audience with ripping noise, is futile in situation where most of the audience comes to enjoy the ripping noise. People receiving splatters of blood and rotten meat from stage of Black Metal gigs, are not offended or disturbed by such actions. It leads to necessity to evaluate whether the ”shock” or ”extremism” has value, and if yes, then in what way.
We live in utterly different cultural milieu than in times when the underground was largely directed to an unprepared generic crowd. You know, the 90’s youth house gig collecting every kid from the town, vs. gig of devotees and veteran followers of music gathered from all around the world. It is totally different realm.
I believe that the most important factor is that the creator himself has genuine sense of importance of his work. That he feels and knows that work has both meaning and purpose. That this meaning is personal, and beyond. Transgressions that are personal, have a purpose, that is not linked to any goal that requires ”audience”. I feel that there needs to be real revolutionary element to it. That this process is about change and transgression, not about irritating some sensitive pussies.
One should approach it not as a lecturer, but really realize your own role in the process. Artist himself is also in process of learning and experiencing things and transforming. It should not be the tales of something, but the actual thing taking place. Meaning, in context of Black Metal, this is personal magical transformation, and not some foolish ”telling how it is” to bunch of listeners.
Same can be of course said in context of industrial-noise. I feel most of the music is aimed to enable elevated level or perception and cause change in reality. It is the real apocalyptic music, where world formerly taken granted in shattered and no longer existing. It is full re-evaluation of values and system of world that crumbles in front of you.
Most often my own works, for me, are the realization and illumination. It is the moment of certain era of process being summed up. Many things are already in your brain and character, but only articulated in form of art taking shape. It is the utmost opposition to entertainment and ”fun”. It is less about telling audience, and more about revealing to myself. It is the journey into darker consciousness.
Furthermore, as I mentioned above, it is not about ”telling how it is”, but album often can reveal itself to its creator AFTER it has been done. Unconscious decisions and seemingly well thought reasons may appear in different perspective in light of new look to it – especially when compared in synthesis with past works. Returning few albums backwards and seeing what you attempted to say, but could not fully articulate yet.
Fact that most people appear to be totally unable to handle even modest irritations and emotional challenges, rules them totally outside the scope any art should (or could) reach. It is ok for them to listen it as music. I think good bands work on that level too. I am fine with my work being treated pure as music, even if it is not that for me.
To separate people who “really get it” – that is of course elitist attitude, and therefore to reply your questions: Of course, elitism both necessary and mandatory and extremity is logical destination of path that is always willing to take the next step. It may only manifest itself in different forms than what people generally think when those words are being used. Many of the traits and symbols of “extremism” are now only decor and eye candy.
Whilst Clandestine Blaze releases have become more varied in a way that might appear to be more “ear-friendly” to the untrained listener, harsh noise elements seem to take a more upfront, abrasive position in more recent releases of Grunt. They come across as more directly rhythmic and not unlike Genocide Organ or Grey Wolves in this respect. The more prominent use of abrupt, chaotic feedback blasts and squelches recall 1980’s Whitehouse, and hark back to the origins of extreme electronic music.
Yet at times, tracks are shorter and resemble more “song-like” forms. Can you tell us about how you undertake the compositional process, and whether these “changes” were a conscious decision or “from the gut”, so to speak? In regards to both CB and Grunt, what are the most “fun” or enjoyable processes in recording, and the most frustrating or time-consuming processes?
MA: Both are designed to satisfy my urge as both creator and listener. Both have progressed during the years, based on shifts of my approach. As explained before, Clandestine Blaze has shifted to create musically more interesting pieces. It certainly does not aim to be easy listening or any sort of ear-candy, but there is elevated level of song writing and riff structures. Especially the next album will be another leap on that.
My biggest influence is, and often has been, to create opposition to stuff I dislike. I am not so much being influenced by my favorite albums, but the ongoing situation of not being able to find material that satisfies me. While I do not want to complain about situation in Black Metal, for me it is highly inspiring to be nearly antithesis of contemporary Black Metal of almost all kinds. This remark is not saying there would not be abundance of good bands too. I feel I am rather influenced by what I do not want to be associated with at all, on any level.
Process of Clandestine Blaze is accumulating ideas for couple of years and then regurgitating this in fairly fast process where the ideas – both music and lyrics, are articulated into concrete form. Recordings are usually very fast and when material has sort of ”created itself”. I am more in role of observing the mental state and absorbed ideas of last couple of years that come out in shape of CB. Moment of creation is fast, when it is only about making the idea happen. I usually do not “intend” to write album, but one day it happens in sudden urge of gathering all the ideas that have been emerging and see what it may result.
Grunt is actually quite versatile. Full length albums give you one view. Live shows give another. Small scale releases may be utterly different. Abundance of material that does not show itself to audience or exists within ”scene” per se, but are private sessions or public street actions or such – again Grunt takes very different forms. It is true, that large pressing full length albums have taken very song oriented form.
Most songs are 3-5 minutes at length what may be easier for listeners to grasp than 60 minutes non-stop abstract harsh noise. However, Grunt has that element as well. For example ”Kraniometria” cd that came out last year was pure instrumental harsh noise. There are hours of such material existing, but I have not felt the absolute need to make it public.
These days, most recordings I make, are studio-live recordings of raw, but fairly complex song cores. Usually one overdub and vocals are added. There are plenty of things that need to fall into right place that the song is ready to be published. It is hard to say what is the ”fun” in making, when most of it is basically challenging and consuming. There is the urge that material must be made, and it is satisfaction to get something meaningful completed. It may have not been really ”fun” at most stages of creation, but it is satisfying.
You have a track on “Myth Of Blood” entitled “Linkola Legacy”, which references the recently deceased Finnish ecologist and anti-humanist Pentti Linkola. Do you share any outlooks or worldviews similar to his?
MA: Although his ideology is unrealistic and in many ways flawed, I agree with several points of his conclusions and respect his life’s work and contributions to culture. His passion for nature was obsessive and most of all focused locally. He was more of almost poet, than ”political” or “philosophical” person. His approach changed over the decades. I prefer the later era, especially the outspoken Linkola who would not shy express his views in media.
Lyrics in this song, are well known quotes of Linkola. Till very end of his life, he was opposed by many, but also appreciated by many. Considering the loathsome state of contemporary media, it was unusual that Linkola could be sort of mainstream ”celebrity” and also given plenty opportunities to speak. He was able to express opinions and facts that normally would never be accepted to be voiced in mainstream media.
This is the notable example. To strive towards your goal and ideal, in hostile surrounding. Opposition or time and devotion in seemingly futile struggle.
Of course, most of the audience respect him in form of martyr. Never in form of leader. It was his stubborn and futile struggle, that has passionate religious fury, that makes people look at him in same kind of awe like for saints. Although process is there merely to justify themselves continue the ways of sin, if we use the religious terminology. Acceptance the true divine wrath is simply too much for a man.
Do you believe there is a “misanthropy” inherent in the Finnish subconsciousness that might contribute to the country’s fair share of talent within various subgenres of underground music? If otherwise, what do you think that is?
MA: It may be called that sometimes. Perhaps the specific kind of stubbornness combined to lack of universally acknowledged talent would be better. I would assume that a lot of Finnish music appears less focused on “PR” and “marketing tactics” and “trends” than in some other countries. As one can observe, Finland has very short history of producing “globally meaningful” culture. There are very few globally known masterminds.
Most of underground music used to be somewhat clumsy, noisy and raw. Be it early 80’s hardcore punk, late 80’s thrash, 90’s death and black metal. Finnish industrial-noise, even Finnish techno was known to be somewhat low-tech and primitive. Back then, when the idea of “what Finland sounds like” was establish, it can be actually that lack of talent contributed greatly to the sound. Instead of visionaries and geniuses, you got most of all: circumstances.
It is curious observation, that in these golden times of raw music, most relevant Black Metal and noise and such emerged from small towns. If there was meaningful and legendary bands from Finland, you can trust that almost without exception, they come from small towns and villages. At least they originate from there and later on moved to bigger cities.
In the 80’s and 90’s, basically before all devouring entertainment business and digital communication, people were most likely not predominantly “misanthropes”, but seekers of meaningful things to do. This drive and hunger to do something else than just vegetate and rot, will certainly cause misanthropic tone when you see the small town “normies” just be happy and content with… vegetate in apathy.
It is curious to see, what are the effects, of not having this type of environment. Of course we have had already 20 years to observe, and one can ask whether Finnish underground music still carries the same spirit? To certain extent it does, but when looked critically, one may see it has been largely tainted by same global flaws that plague underground music in general. Large part of its uniqueness is gone, in favor or “better quality” and “professionality”.
What lies next for Grunt and Clandestine Blaze? Is there any new material currently in the works?
MA: I just released new GRUNT album “Spiritual Eugenics”. That was major effort to get finished in a way it is. It is double LP / double CD format, consisting wide variety of tracks in 80 minutes duration. There is more Grunt material that is “under work”. I am not in hurry, so it is not decided when and how something comes out.
Clandestine Blaze next album is probably within 2020. It is recorded for most part, but like with Grunt, I am not in hurry with actual release. I’m more focusing on feeling the material is strong enough to survive test of time and my own critical evaluation.
Aside from a full-length, various splits and a recent compilation of said works, is there anything we can expect in the future from your doom project, Stabat Mater?
MA: Yes. There is completed new recordings, but I can not yet confirm when exactly those are being released. There will be more material recorded, which might be released even before formerly completed recordings are being published.
What upcoming releases, new, reissued or otherwise can be expected in the near future from your labels Northern Heritage and Freak Animal?
MA: There will be soon new albums of VIGILANTISM and BIZARRE UPROAR. More will follow.
Northern Heritage will have new material from unknown new names coming in 2020. However, reissues keep coming and next expected DIABOLI CD repressings of Kirous, The Antichrist and Wiking Division CD’s. Baptism repressings on vinyl.
COVID-19 has been all the hype, dominating all forms of media and cultural dissemination. This affects business and day-to day life too. Firstly, what are your observations on the mass media alarmism that has characterized the outbreak, taking into consideration past events in world history? How has this affected or challenged your running of Northern Heritage and Freak Animal, in terms of supply, distribution, international shipping, print press et al?
MA: There is barely effect for me, except that shipping is not possible to all countries. Also there are delays here and there.
For me, this appears as good opportunity to re-organization and prioritization of things. It proves that many things that were formerly considered out of questions and totally impossible to do, suddenly were very much doable. Whether these actions were good or not, is up to debate.
That concludes my questions. If you have any last words, please feel free…
MA: Thanks for the interview.