Beauty in Discomfort: A conversation with Dominick Fernow of Prurient and Vatican Shadow

Dominick Fernow Interview

There are many sides to the music of Dominick Fernow. His catalog is extensive, even overwhelming, his most prolific and best-known work being that of Prurient, his 20-plus-year noise/industrial project. Yet just under a decade ago, he started releasing atmospheric industrial techno as Vatican Shadow, incorporating the subtler shades of his body of work into something more nuanced and haunting, even danceable. Though they’re ostensibly from different worlds, the darkness and intensity remains a part of Vatican Shadow’s productions, even if not so obviously.

Fernow’s latest album as Vatican Shadow, Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era, is his first for metal label 20 Buck Spin, but even in its ethereal, fluid intersection of ambient synths and pulsing beats, there’s a heaviness and a darkness that ties back to industrial and, yes, even metal. The album was mastered by Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick, for one, but even at its most accessible, the record harbors an intensity that goes deeper than beat-laden minimalism. It’s disorienting, even unsettling at times, but it’s all part of a thoughtful and meticulous package, one on which Fernow places great importance. Take, for instance, the Desert Storm themes and imagery that permeates Vatican Shadow’s discography, which he’s spent a long time researching—to the point that giving up some of that control for the purposes of marketing doesn’t always sit right with him.

“Something that bothers me in general with Vatican Shadow, like when someone makes flyers for a live set, is that they use any images of war or conflict, and all the images that are used for the project are intentional and not random,” he says. “They’re researched, there’s something behind the choice.”

As Fernow puts forth this next step in his evolution as a producer and a creator, we spoke to him via Skype about luring metalheads to techno, geopolitics, and forming relationships with music in a pre-Internet era.

Treble: So how has this year been for you?

Dominick Fernow: Like everyone else, I’ve had good days and bad days. But I have definitely benefited from having the time to concentrate and experiment again in the studio, instead of rushing to catch a plane or running into a venue at 3 in the morning or something. It’s a welcome amount of headspace to experiment again.

Treble: Persian Pillars of the Gasoline Era is your first record for 20 Buck Spin, which is primarily a metal label. You’ve worked with like-minded labels in the past, like Hydra Head, but not with techno records. It seems like a farther reach, but do you think that there’s maybe more intersection between these audiences than there might seem on the surface?

DF: Well, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’re intentionally going on a crossover mission, which I think has been a big part of [20 Buck Spin owner] Dave [Adelson]’s background on an individual level, and it’s been an agenda on my end for years. I’ve always tried to cross-pollinate and expose people for years to other sides of the coin. What’s important for me is subculture, not necessarily genre. So growing up in Wisconsin, going to raves, pretty much at the same time as going to Milwaukee Metal Fest, there wasn’t much of an explanation needed making the jump between those two spheres. They’re both extreme subcultures in their own way. But I do think that more and more there has been an interest from the metal scene into extreme electronic music. I think one of the main drawbacks is aesthetics. That’s one of the things that I struggled with getting into techno—I liked the music but I didn’t really get into the visual aesthetic. Sandwell District was a turning point to me because it had an industrial presentation but it was pure minimal techno. So it’s breaking down of perceptions of what imagery could be mashed with what sound, I’ve always been drawn to the power of aural and visual association. Noise does that in a way that’s taken to the end of the spectrum, but I don’t see any reason why if you’re a Godflesh fan, you can’t like the techno records that Justin [Broadrick] was sampling as well as Napalm Death at the same time. It makes perfect sense to my mind.

Treble: And Justin mastered this record—what led you to bring him into this project?

DF: For three reasons. For one, he’s just awesome. And he did an incredible mastering job that came out today that we’ve been working out for four years, by this producer, Female, who’s a British producer who was one of the members of Sandwell District. It was a painstaking process, because all of the original masters had been lost, so it was a process of obtaining the best quality copies and then going to a professional studio with a really high-end deal and doing vinyl rips and de-clipping it, and then Justin mastered it from that. Because the only stereo masters that existed were on the vinyl. So it was a really long complicated process, and Justin just brought those fuckin’ things to life that shocked even the creator. It’s unusual for someone that produces that much music to also have that mastering ability, because they’re not the same processes. And it’s, I would say, uncommon for someone to master their own work. Maybe more so in the techno world but less so in the band world. So I felt that he could understand what I was trying to do but I couldn’t achieve on my own partially because there’s so much sampled instrumentation. It has sampled slap bass and stuff like that. Obviously that’s in his wheelhouse. I told him, “I made a bunch of Godflesh ripoff tracks and can you master it?” And he’s like, “man, we’d never use slap bass.” (Laughs) But he killed it. And it’s sort of a disservice to say mastering it, mastering seems like a more passive process. What he did was more active and went track by track through a lot of variants. It was way more involved than just sending it in and waiting a couple weeks and saying “yeah, that sounds bigger and louder, job done.” I also wanted it as a symbolic gesture, to say that electronics can exist in metal. There’s no better example of that than Godflesh.

Treble: You’ve made techno records as Prurient before, and also as Vatican Shadow. Is there a clear distinction between what you did with those records and what you’re doing now?

DF: Definitely. First and foremost is the subject matter. Prurient deals with the interior world and Vatican the exterior world. And there has been a conscious effort since Frozen Niagara Falls with Prurient to leave mostly the beats to Vatican. When I was working on Bermuda Drain and Through the Window, that was before and during the birth of Vatican, so that was experimenting and learning and trying to figure out how to make techno. And we did that, so there wasn’t a need for that to exist in the Prurient world, because it was a training ground and an experiment. With Vatican, it was like, “we can do this now, thanks.” And I have to give credit to Arthur Rizk who produced Frozen Niagara Falls, and I wanted to do for lack of a better word, an organic noise project. I had sticks and stones, literally, and a couple riffs on the guitar, and Arthur sort of nailed it home in a more visceral way. He was saying, “what you’re trying to do is go back to physicality, physical noise.” Hammers on a garage floor, materials being destroyed, TVs being smashed. Wood being cut up with an amplified saw. The physicality of the old early noise. And he was right. So we went from that bedrock of physicality, getting away from reacting against the heavy time spent on MIDI programming and beat programming and stuff like that. It’s kind of a palate cleanser. 

Treble: All of the Vatican Shadow records are thematically tied to Desert Storm in some way, though the new record also references U.S. intervention in Iran. Is there an intended narrative to the way the music is sequenced?

DF: Yes, but the music in and of itself is an environment that can be used in the same way as a literal narrative involving historic events. The way it is mixed, for example, is not traditional. There’s a lot of undermixing, there’s a lot of things that are out of balance. Some things are a little too loud. There is discomfort, and that’s a carryover from noise. It can pierce you, it can create tension, even if people find it relaxing or lush or cinematic, those cliches that are thrown around. While there is a narrative, it’s not a clear one. There’s no point A to point B, there are stops along the road. And that’s as much reflected in the way the music is mixed as the references in the titles and imagery. While the record may deal with Iran, the imagery is from Desert Storm. There’s not a literalism. It’s about taking a familiar story and rearranging the elements, remaking the timeline in the hopes that people will look again. There’s a difference between being told what to think and having people walking away thinking that there’s more. There’s a message, but the message is not necessarily clear, and that’s by design.

Treble: You mentioned that Prurient deals with the internal world and Vatican Shadow the external—is one more personal to you than the other?

DF: I guess you could say that, but they’re both very personal. It’s just using a different story, a different language. Vatican is a familiar story. I just did another interview, where they were asking, “is there anything that’s too taboo?” And I said, “This is not taboo.” This is mainstream stuff. It’s been on every magazine stand and bodega for the past 20 years. It’s mainstream America. So, how can something be personal when it’s this ubiquitous? But again, the impetus behind it is not political. It uses a political story, a political iconography to describe another story. And that’s why when you look at it, it doesn’t add up. The timeline is jumbled. The locations are incorrect. There’s obfuscation. That’s reflected in the way the music is mixed and handled in this record. There’s beauty but there’s discomfort. It’s a report that’s been knocked on the floor and the pages are out of order.

Treble: You mentioned in another interview that your releases can be divided between “research” and “albums.” Is that just a personal distinction, or is it something that’s easy to pick up on as a listener?

DF: I think there’s a couple of clear-cut identifiers to support that statement. One is format. When I release is presented on multiple formats that’s a signifier that this is important or this is an album in the traditional sense of the world. Coming from the noise world, formats are abused in ways that they aren’t in other genres. The disposal of time. The Merzbox is a perfect example. It’s 50 CDs. How do you evaluate that? It destroys your sense of time. But more specifically how I differentiate research and albums is that the releases that are research deal specifically with a limited palette of sounds and a limited subject. And the albums is the result of the research. They do not deal with one sound or subject, they collect and analyze and interpret and recycle the result of the research in hopes of once again getting something out of those processes. But I would say Persian Pillars is very much an album. Partially because of that, it deals with Iran, but the images of Desert Storm, it’s more than Iran. It’s like, how does it relate back to Desert Storm? It’s a precursor.

Treble: You’ve been making releasing records for more than 20 years at this point. What’s the biggest change that you’ve experienced in that time?

DF: The Internet. It’s an obvious statement, but what the internet has done to the world and change specifically to music is unrecognizable. There’s no other answer. That change has been unequivocal and permanent and in my view, for the worse.

Treble: But a lot of people have certainly found your music that way?

DF: Well that’s their problem. (Laughs) Sure, but doesn’t that get into the heart of it all? The process of discovery is now not what it was then. The mentality of “this is all you have” when you’re looking for Bad Brains, and you heard about this crazy band, and you didn’t find “Pay to Cum,” you found the later reggae records, that shattered your perception of what you thought the Bad Brains were gonna sound like. You couldn’t just get another one, you were stuck with it. So you had to try to form an experience. Maybe that isn’t always fun, but it’s a completely different way of forming a relationship with music. It wasn’t just wallowing in the inconvenience, but if you endured and you put in the effort in the underground, you survived all those obstacles, you were rewarded in the end with knowledge, people, places and things. You didn’t go straight to the end product and skip all that context. We now have a destination without a journey. We have the end product without an experience. And I find that very distressing. 

Treble: The bonds you formed with music before the internet was maybe stronger or more intimate…

DF: Sure, but it’s also not an insurance policy or a guarantee. Back then you had no guarantee. You didn’t get a chance to hear a two-second sound clip sample and make an instantaneous judgment about whether you were gonna give this thing a chance and protect yourself of having maybe a bad experience. There are these recycled tapes RR did that were available forever, and were dubbed over preexisting tapes, and they were all the classic noise bands. You’d send ‘em three bucks and you’d get a dub on a New Kids on the Block or Spin Doctors tape, any kind of mass market tape. The lengths would vary. You might end up with some random music on the end, or it might get cut off. That concept of not having a guarantee is part of the fun. That’s gone. Waiting, anticipation is part of the fun. Now everything is an instant tracking number. There are obvious advantages to that on a psychic level, but on a cultural level I think it’s very damaging. No risk, no reward.

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