Left Hand Path Interview

Interview by Todd DePalma for Left Hand Path.

Could you talk about your childhood? You grew up in the suburbs, right? Did you always have an interest in drawing? Are there other artists in your family?

I was born in the bathroom of a small apartment on June 2, 1972. My father soon abandoned our family and we moved to a quiet suburb near the Hudson River about 30 miles north of Manhattan where I was raised until I moved away when I turned 18. This area of New York abounds with rich folkloric history that deeply inspired me as a child. We lived briefly in the town of Sleepy Hollow, made famous by Washington Irving's legend of the Headless Horseman. Not far away is the geographical locale of another Irving classic that has seeped into our national identity, Rip Van Winkle, popularized by Arthur Rackham's brilliantly illustrated 1905 edition. I also knew of a secluded corner of the Bronx known by the early Dutch settlers as Spuyten Duyvil or 'Spitting Devil.' Unfortunately, that area has since been renamed. I remember autumn nights with jack-o-lanterns on every porch and leaves in the streets. The winters were beautiful and bright. The summers were long and wild. I think I was a pretty introverted kid and spent a lot of time alone drawing and running through the woods near my house. I enjoyed collecting things like old bottles, bones, and insect carcasses. I'm actually not much different now except that I tend to collect books and records as an adult. There are no other 'professional' artists in my family but both of my older brothers are creative in their own ways and encouraged me on many levels growing up.

Was your family religious?

No, my family was not religious at all and I never experienced the need to rebel against an inherited faith. I did briefly attend a Catholic school for kindergarten, but this was a matter of convenience and not a matter of faith. The nuns confiscated my KISS trading cards and said they were Satanic, so I knew Catholicism was full of shit from an early age. I'm not baptized and have only attended church for a few weddings and funerals. I've always known exactly where I stand.

In many ways your style is accumulated from both popular and underground culture -- From comics, television, advertising and the modern fanzine but what led you toward the actual subject matter? Did the idea of death occupy you as a child even before you were familiar with any of these things?

I think to a certain extent growing up without a father had a profound effect on the paths I would take in life, including early reflections on death and loss. The only things he left behind were some old existential novels and I was always sort of looking for traces of him so I delved into these books at a very young age. Among them was The Boston Strangler by Gerold Frank, a true-crime account of serial murderer Albert DeSalvo. I plowed through that book and became fascinated with the idea that a man could do those things. I barely understood sex, so the idea of "sex murders" was pretty intense. I also read my father's copy of Hunter Thompson's biography of the Hell's Angels for a 5th grade book report and kicked the knowledge of gang rape to my squirming classmates. Despite these early literary influences, I'm actually not a particularly morbid or violent person. I think of my drawings as stories and the best stories to tell involve brutality, blood, sex, and death. I didn't invent that formula. Take a look at the stories people have been telling each other since recorded time. The Eddas, the Bible, the Upanishads, the epic Greek poems of Homer. These stories have survived because they somehow unleash emotion and unhinge the intellect.

This is fascinating to me as someone who was actually raised Catholic, because the vestigial pagan aspects survive in Catholic art; the mysticism of blood and flesh. And I think that's always been my foundation, at least mentally, toward violent imagery or the extreme. But as you said, this is also the perennial gravitation of mankind, and each path has new or different consequences. You also mentioned The Eddas, The Upanishads and Homer. And I know you've studied comparative mythology, so let me ask you: do you believe Jesus actually existed or is he another succession in the [controversial] line of mythical resurrected Gods?

Aha! My mom was raised Roman Catholic. Well, it is widely accepted by scholars- both archeologists and theologians alike- that the sacred traditions of indigenous people were often 'absorbed' by Christianity as it spread its influence around the globe like a fucking cancer. This was especially true in Northern Europe where Christianity was met with strong resistance and we see vestiges of pre-Iron Age heathen traditions in the Christmas tree, Easter celebration, Adam & Eve, Noah and the Ark, and even the days of the week of the Christian calendar. There are theories that Jesus was an appropriation of the popular Norse gods Balder and Odin, Balder being the 'shining god' or 'white god' (i.e. white light) and Odin being the patriarchal All Father. The Edda describes the gentle and wise Balder in beatific terms and certainly the surface parallels between Jesus and Odin are tempting. Jesus was crucified and thereby brought salvation to humanity. Odin hung himself from the Tree of Life or World Axis, Yggdrasil, and received the sacred runes. Furthermore in the Norse creation myth there is the sacred trinity of Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve, who together slay the primordial giant Ymir and create the 9 Worlds from the scattered remains of his corpse! I would actually argue that the fundamental differences beneath those similarities are so radically different (and opposed) that Jesus would be a poor appropriation at best. Did he actually exist? Who cares? To paraphrase Nietzsche, if he did exist we would have to kill him. And I would draw it.

One of my favorite pieces that you've done that blends together the old-school horror and Mythological themes is "The Return", showing a young boy and girl happening upon this gigantic woodcut of Odin's head lying inside a dark forest, as ravens and runes hover in the treeline. Like many of your drawings it also utilizes every inch of paper. Do you remember how long that piece took and what is the general approach that you follow from the start of an idea to its completion?

'The Return' is an old drawing that stands up rather well. It's a personal favorite and though it is technically flawed it still manages to convey the ambiguity of emotion that I was trying to express. As uncomfortable as it is for me to comment on my own art, I agree with your assessment that this drawing effectively blends elements of horror and myth and I would even go so far as to say in hindsight that this is a self-portrait. The image is a fragment of a dream I had many years ago and I remember working on that in several sittings around the summer solstice. My own children posed for it and are well versed in the lore. I don't exactly remember but I probably spent about 30 hours on that one. The title invokes the solstice and all that it symbolizes but also refers to a Sol Invictus song, which I thought must've influenced my dream at the time. Thanks to Tony Wakeford for penning such beautiful lyrics! Incidentally, all 24 runes of the Elder Futhark are hidden in that drawing.

What was the first horror movie you remember seeing? Do you remember how you reacted?

The first horror movie I recall seeing was Jaws, and I remember it very well as it was also my first movie theater experience. My mom took my brothers and me to see Jaws when it first came out. I was like 4 years old and she probably took me because she couldn't afford a baby sitter. To say I was terrified is an understatement. The underwater scenes were like a surreal nightmare but it was so fucking fun and exciting at the same time! I think I watched most of the movie through a buttonhole in my mom's sweater and when the movie finally ended, my brothers loved it so much that they begged my mom to stay and watch it again! To this day I have a slightly irrational fear of sharks and the deep ocean. I also remember very vividly the first zombie movie I ever watched, Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things. It was the late night movie on TV and my older brothers let me stay up with them. The comedy and bad make up was totally lost on me and I was completely terrified by the notion that dead people could come out of the ground and eat the living. Years later I found it on VHS and was almost scared to watch it again! Of course, I loved the movie much more as a teen when I was old enough to appreciate the humor and the Manson references. It's still one of my favorites. I also remember watching the great Mario Bava film Black Sabbath on late night TV around the same time and that movie left a very distinct impression on me, especially those vivid colors and atmospheres. Black Sabbath is a nearly perfect horror film.

Did you collect or have access to E.C. comics or any of the more classic horror and suspense publications? What were some other early influences?

No, I had to back track as a teen and even into my young adult years to really unearth the great EC comics. I'm still constantly learning and discovering new fragments of lost and obscure art. I got my hands on a few issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and House of Mystery, which had some classic art by Berni Wrightson and Jack Kirby, but I didn't really discover those 50's comics until I started going to horror conventions in the late 80's. By that time I was reading new stuff like Gore Shriek. When I was very young, 8 or 9 years old, I was reading comics like Conan, Swamp Thing, Moon Knight, and Master of Kung Fu. Looking back I guess I really loved Doug Moench's stories. He would do crazy stuff like that Moon Knight story where the Chicago water supply gets contaminated with a violent hallucinogen! I also loved Frank Frazetta as a child. During my teen years I figured out the Metro-North railroad system and started going down to Manhattan by myself to explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Film Forum. In a single afternoon I could catch a Vincent Price flick in 3-D, wander through Egyptian pyramids, see instruments made of human skulls, and catch a hardcore matinee at CBGB's! I was lost and wandering around the Village one afternoon when I came across a great little underground poster shop called Psychedelic Solution. I probably spent hours in that shop over the years and discovered hugely influential artists like S. Clay Wilson, Joe Coleman, Greg Irons, and H.R. Giger. I also caught Pushead's very first public art exhibit there. I was lucky to have a mom that didn't really censor much and always challenged me to delve deeper. She even read parts of the Satanic Bible with me when I was a Slaytanic teenager. I think she was always more concerned about me being genuine and not a follower of trends. That has always stuck with me. My brothers were also always challenging me to work harder at my drawing. In fact, the very first comic I ever created was a challenge from my brothers. I had made some flippant remark about a crappy looking comic and they were like, 'Oh yeah? Why don't you draw something better?!' It launched a weekend-long comic contest and I guess I've been drawing ever since.

When did it get "serious" for you? When did you realize this was somehow a part of you and when did you discover metal?

It's always been serious for me. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting around the house drawing and listening to Black Sabbath records with my brothers. We were Judas Priest fans from back in the 'Sin After Sin' days. We bought Iron Maiden 'Killers' when it came out just for the cover art and that really was my introduction to metal proper. I remember staring at those Derek Riggs covers for hours. From there I started tracking stuff down on my own. I guess the same way a lot of kids heard amazing music and picked up a guitar to make their own, I looked at the amazing cover art and picked up a pen and tried to do the same.

When you speak of your family, it's obvious the relationship is a very strong one. You're also closely involved with a teen outreach center and in helping homeless youth in the Portland area. Can you please talk about how and when you began in this line of work and how have the people that you work with and their stories affected you personally?

Yes, family is very important to me. Not just biological family and ancestry but the conceptual 'family' of allies that I've drawn around me over the years. I am fiercely loyal by nature and do what ever is necessary for my family and friends. I began working with homeless kids shortly after I arrived in Portland about 12 years ago. Ironically I arrived in Portland on a freight train and, not knowing anyone, slept in parks until I could find a house for myself! I did a few stints at porn shops and bars before landing a job at a local shelter that works with young people under the age of 21. I've been working with the same non-profit on and off for many years and currently oversee two highly acclaimed street outreach programs. I go under bridges and into squats and camps and talk to runaways and young people living on the streets. The mayor's office knows me as the 'death metal social worker' and I'm something of an anomaly in the field. I keep my art and personal life very separate from my work with the homeless but I don't necessarily see these aspects of my life as mutually exclusive or contradictory. I don't believe in living as a stereotype and I will always follow my interests and instincts to their illogical conclusions. Regarding your question about how this work has affected me personally, I've lost a lot of people over the years to murder, suicide, and overdoses and it would be foolish to deny that this has not taken some emotional toll. Just recently I was hit hard by the unexpected death of a former client who had transitioned indoors and was doing well by all accounts. More than anything I've seen first hand the stupidity and ugliness of real life violence. It is always the lowest common denominator. I also work long hours every week and this has impacted my artistic output. If I am not a prolific artist it is only due to the limitations of the 24hour day and the human requirement of occasional sleep.

Defining question posed by some Swedish guy: Is a skull more interesting than a naked woman?

A naked woman will always be more profoundly interesting than a skull. However, I would probably enjoy drawing a skull much more. Especially if the skull has horns! As for Ingmar Bergman, Seventh Seal is a fine film but I most admire his later films of the 60's such as Persona, Shame, Hour of the Wolf, and Virgin Spring. Virgin Spring is a beautiful meditation on innocence and revenge that predates Last House On The Left by some twelve years. And the opening line of the movie is an invocation of Odin. Very highly recommended. Hail to Ingmar Bergman!

What's the appeal of ballpoint to you?

Ballpoint is a very direct medium. No mixing, no fancy supplies, and no false pretense. And yet it requires a strict discipline and rigorous technique. There is also no erasing and I enjoy the prolonged concentration of working slowly and carefully. It was never planned, but I am pleased to look back and see how far I have advanced with such a simple and profane tool.

Do you think some people look at your drawings and see it as waste of your talent? Do you ever draw "nice" things?

I really can't concern myself with what people think about my art. I am only concerned with self-mastery and self-overcoming. I intend to trust my own instincts of evolution and not the opinions of others. There are probably chumps talking shit about my art on the Internet and others who think I could 'make it' if I would only focus on more 'serious' aesthetic concerns. The fact is, I'm hardwired to follow my own interests - not the dictates of populist fashion, 'scenes', or commercial trends. And I have the empty wallet to prove it!

When did you first start Destroying Angels? What were your main influences and goals?

I think I published the first issue of Destroying Angels in May 1998. I had a stack of old Sleep Chamber fliers that I wanted to print and an unpublished conversation with Joe Coleman that I threw together. At the time I was watching print zines disappear quickly and I wanted to keep that aspect of D.I.Y. culture and underground art thriving. Along the way I have learned more than I ever imagined and have been rewarded with lasting friendships. Since working on a zine requires much less prolonged concentration than working on a drawing, Destroying Angels has also served as a relaxing creative outlet in between art projects. My main influences were probably art zines like Blatch and Black Market from the 80's, Malefact in the 90's, and music magazines like Seconds and the short-lived but stylish Descent. I see Destroying Angels as part of a tradition of true fanzines, publications created by fans that are totally obsessed with their subject matter. At some point during the 90's zines lost their fan-aticism and deteriorated into smug outlets for whining and complaining. In hindsight this was just the death rattle of print zines and the problem has reached epidemic proportions with the advent of Myspace, message boards, and overnight web zines, but I don't waste my time and energy on things I don't wholeheartedly enjoy.

Do you think it's worth trying to shock people?

No, it's never worth "trying" to shock people. But when art inadvertently shocks people, it's probably a good sign. There is an element of surprise in much of my work that I like to think rewards viewers for paying attention to the details, but I hope my art has a deeper emotional effect than mere shock. I'm not some miserable tortured artist. I draw this stuff because it's what I enjoy. As an underground artist I've clearly traded commercial success for total creative freedom, so I wield that freedom like a fucking sword! Shock value always panders to the lowest common denominator and usually betrays a lack of depth and substance. As much as I enjoy loading my drawings with jokes and surprises, what is ultimately important for me is the fearless and uncompromising charting of the unconscious. Personal vision and discipline always trumps cheap shock value.

It also seems strange at first how something that many people find repulsive and offensive is for others actually comforting, and then how much that applies to both metal and horror...

Yeah, nothing creates more anxiety for me than music that is meant to be "calming"! It's also interesting to think that what is shocking for one generation often becomes harmless novelty for successive generations. For instance, I'm sure that parents today would be thrilled if their kids were reading pre-Comic Code Authority pulps. At least they would actually be reading. But back in the 50's, parents were literally burning horror comics on community pyres! The counter-culture comix of the late 60's and early 70's that sprouted in the wake of those burnings were shocking by the standards of their day too, but were soon eclipsed by hardcore porn and gore films of the late 70's. Alice Cooper and The Stooges were pretty shocking in their day too but, compared to most contemporary death and black metal, that stuff sounds like happy disco today! The devil apparently works in very mysterious ways.

Do you ever throw anything away?

The hollow corpses of my enemies.