BREAKING THE EXPECTATIONS RATHER THAN TO FULFILL SOMEONE'S FANTASIES: THE MANIFOLD ART OF DOMINICK FERNOW
Dominick Fernow has influenced many genres — from noise and ambient to techno and dark metal. His music is in equal demand both in sterile spaces of modern art and under the dark vaults of the best world clubs. His discography has long exceeded a hundred releases — different in sound, but forming a single universe, where everything is to some extent permeated with religious symbolism.
Someone knows Fernow thanks to the noise incarnation of Prurient, someone closer to his dark ambient side of Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. In Ash Pool band he performed nihilist black metal, and, of course, it's impossible not to mention Vatican Shadow — an electronic project that has brought Fernow reverence far beyond noise and metal. However, this is not all the artist's creative appearances and collaborations.
Fernow is successful and productive not only in terms of personal creativity. For many years, he has been heading the label Hospital Productions. Hospital started as a small record store in Manhattan, but later grew into an institution combining diverse subcultures and musical factions. Among the label's artists are Ron Morelli, Alessandro Cortini, Silent Servant and others.
In September Dominiсk Fernow presented Vatican Shadow's new full-length album ,“Persian Pillars Of The Gasoline Era”, which was released on metal label 20 Buck Spin, and in early December as Prurient will publish split album with Kelly Moran on his own imprint. We decided to look into the large-scale and exciting solo work of the artist and agreed on an interview with him.
I was sure that you are now and in general live in Berlin. Did you really come back to New York? How did this happen?
I was denied a visa, so I had no choice. But I have no plans to leave New York, a place that I consider my home. I am glad to go back.
I can understand it. You lived in different places — Los Angeles, Florence, Berlin, but, yes, in your interviews invariably called New York home.
Exactly. I wasn't born here, but my mother is from the Bronx, like most of my family, so I always felt a cultural connection. But the main thing is the city itself, which I identify visually, and I still find its physical nature irresistible and inspiring. New York City has also been a starting point for my desire to make music and has had a huge impact on me in this regard.
I thought one of the reasons you moved to Berlin was the Vatican Shadow project. In Europe, it became even more popular than Prurient. Back in NY, will you somehow reconsider your creative priorities? And in general, where are you right now, what is the center of your work?
I rotate projects and musical styles every couple or three years. This is mainly due to external factors — reading and imagery that motivate me to create music.
I rotate projects and musical styles every couple or three years. This is mainly due to external factors - reading and imagery, which motivate me to create music. I can't do everything under one name and always worked on different things that I shared by theme or problem. At the same time I don't necessarily release everything. Many releases are getting old by the time the music is published. Sometimes it can take ten years.
Returning to VS, you recently released a new album. As far as I know, you were inspired by the geopolitical situation in the Middle East to create "Persian Pillars Of The Gasoline Era". Can you tell us more about it? What kind of experience did you want to share with LP?
I mainly focused on Sunni Islam and did not deal with Shiites. The key influence on me has always been “Desert Storm” (note: a multinational operation to liberate Kuwait and defeat the Iraqi army. Part of the Gulf War 1990-1991), because most of the post-9/11 incidents in which the United States involved itself occurred after that operation.
I decided to do something about Iran after the murder of Shahram Amiri earlier this year. He was a nuclear physicist and lived in the USA. He was returned to Iran and hanged there. I tried, but could not find the link between what happened and the “Desert Storm”. Then a friend advised me a book, from which I learned a lot about the 1953 coup d'état in Iran, organized by the CIA. In particular, that the father of General Norman Schwarzkopf took part in that operation (note: head of Operation “Desert Storm”). It struck me, and I wanted to show how those events became the background to “Desert Storm”. This is the subject of recording.
You always explore difficult, provocative and controversial topics — war, fear, death and, of course, religion. Is there a certain edge to all this — the forbidden problems/issues that you will never touch in your work?
Well, of course. In fact, this should not shock anyone, such things need a special approach. And I am very upset when, for example, I come to a club and see that on the flyer of a party some random images related to war, terror, militarism were placed. Everything I do is very specific. It is not an accident, but an intention. But it does not have to be very clear, it cannot be replaced with concrete images. There is always a reference or an important detail, the reason why I chose this or that issue.
Over the past twenty years, it has been written about almost every day in every newspaper in the world. This is not a taboo, but commerce, mainstream! The internal goal of my project is to take the story, which, as it seems to me, was dehumanized by the media, and make it human again. This can only be achieved by presenting a familiar narrative in an unfamiliar way. But I take a great risk by doing so. There are many people who do not understand what I am trying to achieve, as well as those who interpret my work incorrectly. This is a risk that I, as an artist, understand and accept.Of course, everything does not always work out, but I get feedback from the direct participants of events - veterans, anti-war activists, journalists, from people who have lost relatives ... from a variety of sources, from those who found something in my work. If it was not for this feedback, I would have to reconsider my attitude.
Of course, everything does not always work out, but I get feedback from the direct participants of events — veterans, anti-war activists, journalists, from people who have lost relatives ... from a variety of sources, from those who found something in my work. If it was not for this feedback, I would have to reconsider my attitude.
"Persian Pillars Of The Gasoline Era" was released on metal label 20 Buck Spin. Tell us, please, how your cooperation has developed.
I became friends with Dave of 20 Buck Spin. It turned out that he is also interested in modern geopolitics. But, most importantly, he heads a metal label. Since I grew up on death metal, I've never seen a big difference between electronic and metal music in a cultural context. Dave and I thought it would be great to release a fully electronic album on 20 Buck Spin and thus try to build a bridge, to make a crossover — to combine the issues with a cinematic feeling, less dancing, more Iran-oriented, in a sense to imitate the approach of the metal band, but from the position of techno.
It seems to me that from the musical point of view, this work is particularly influenced by Bryn Jones aka Muslimgauze.
Always! I'm still a big fan of him, although there is a difference between our approaches. He took a very firm position, while my work is based on uncertainty. And in this sense, there is a deviation from what Muslimgauze has done, although without a doubt I am inspired by it. He was the main man in the game mixing ambient, noise, drum-n-bass, jungle, drone... I want to say that he was ahead of time as he created his own musical genre.
To work on the new VS album you involved Justin Broadrick, another of your favorite artists. Justin was mastering the record, but this is not your first collaboration with him. However, sharing the creative process with someone else, even a musician/artist you deeply respect, can be quite difficult. Didn't you and Justin have any disagreements or controversial situations while working on the new album?
Not at all. The difficulty was mainly that we didn't expect how resource-intensive my nervous mixing work would be — a lot of adjustments had to be made. But Justin is amazing, a hero whose influence I have felt since childhood. And he is also one of the few people with whom I was not really disappointed to meet. He surpassed all expectations and turned out to be a great guy.
I generally believe that music is by its nature a collaborative work, be it a collaboration in a band, between a performer and an audience, or between a label and an artist. This is an important part that distinguishes it from more closed visual art, makes it a unique art form and multimedia platform. So for me partnership is not a problem, I like it. A difficult moment here is to ask yourself "Why? Why do you do it? What do you want to achieve?". Because you appeal to each other for a certain identity that has already been formed. In other words, how can you find something new by preserving what you were originally attracted to, and interacting with it. This is what the сhallenge is all about — keeping the identity, but also creating new things.
In previous interviews you have noted that you identify yourself as an artist, not a musician. And in your opinion, what are the main differences between these two ways of expression and thinking?
Monikers are one of the main differences. There are artists who work under aliases, but this is a very rare phenomenon in the world of visual art. Usually names given to people at birth appear there.
The idea of "band name" entails a certain expectation. Of course, not always, but at least if you are a member of a band, there is a name behind you that presents something. And I think music is a complex phenomenon. It's not just sounds, images, performance or geographic location, but also merchandising — all together. It is a complete multimedia platform. Visual art, on the other hand, is mostly focused on one medium. Besides, as I said earlier, music always implies some kind of collaboration, even if you are a solo artist.
I also find the art world rather conservative. I don't know why it happens, because in its essence it is one of the most radical things where a person can be involved. It's a complicated industry where it is difficult to earn a living. It is one of the most personal and, at the same time, easily destroyed and devalued ways to spend time. But in contemporary art I see a rather ordinary, boring, dry and dull way of expression. There is little bit of darkness, but a lot of fear and censorship, which is quite ironic for such a radical field. In music, the scale is wider — you need to visit as many rooms as possible to stay honest.
Talking about irony and conservatism in art. It seems to me that no matter what difficult topics you have touched in your projects, there is always a certain DIY spirit in them and there is space for irony. Is it true?
I think so. Although many people don't really understand my sense of humor, so I'm glad you could see it. But this is a risk that I take.
Hyperbole is an important part of the performance in the context of a specific issue. The way you interact with your audience is important. For example, with people in the club's dark space. They may in principle not know who you are. It is also about breaking expectations. People feel and see energy and form an opinion. And if you manage to break the initial perception, you will give the audience some experience. Of course, it does not always work. Sometimes you look like a real idiot, because the satisfaction of others' fantasies is the way to nowhere. Fantasies are good as long as they live in the imagination. They'd better not become part of the physical world. So I prefer to break expectations rather than fulfill someone's fantasies.
With this approach, do you leave space for dialogue with the audience? Is this a two-way interaction?
Yes, but this communication does not have to be clearly defined. There is a big difference between dictating to someone how and what to think about, and giving food for thought. So, I never wanted to dictate anything to anyone. I do not have a message that I am trying to impose. I just want people to leave after the performance, thinking about what the experience was like for them — positive or negative.
Your discography is impressive — under different names you have released over a hundred releases. How do you manage not to repeat or copy yourself?
Well, I think it's my fault if I steal from myself. However, I am driven by a specific problem, and if there are any overlapping areas, of course, you can see them. But it doesn't really matter, because everything I'm working on is in some form related to religion. And there is always this connection, to try to avoid it is a useless exercise. Therefore, I think that coincidences and even repetitions are quite normal things, they are just variations of one subject.
The only thing I try to do, at least with Prurient, is to use brand new equipment and instruments while creating major albums. This may be a boring answer, but it is. I try to force changes in the studio. After all, when you work with something you don't know, there's a struggle.
So within Prurient it's your, let's say, producer's challenge — using new instruments?
Yes, but it is also a сhallenge that supports individuality, your voice. Like the situation with collaborations, there is also the question of how you initially attract and keep attention to your person — create a feeling of something new, while working with the same problems. But that's what fun is all about — not knowing what will happen next.
I know how important you place the subcultural aspect in music. But it's time for playlists, social networks and AI, and our behavior has changed a lot. Do you think it's possible to preserve this unique ability of music to define the way people live and think — how we dress, with whom we communicate, what we believe in, etc.? And what role can independent labels like Hospital Productions play in this?
I think it is not easy. And you're absolutely right - we've never been the same before the transition to the digital world. But the best thing we can do and what we are trying to achieve in our showcases and festivals is to bring people together in one room and transform the reality around them through the integrity of the artist, visualization, merchandise. This may seem like something insignificant, but in fact it is very important, since it is physically tangible - people, things and places. And I think that's the only way to overcome the social media factor and let the audience feel part of what we do.
If a post about the event appears in social networks, it will be supported by a physical source. As a result, those who have not been to the party will have a feeling of some secret. People who have been, on the other hand, can watch online some other events and also feel part of them, because there is this integrity and continuity. That's why I'm sure that the physical form is still important. Today, however, much more needs to be done to get far less in return.
And how do you think we should protect all this — continuity, community — from a wide audience? Let's say, should the underground remain underground in order to preserve that very subcultural value?
Difficult question. On the one hand, you need new people to keep all this alive. I came from a time when you couldn't miss an opportunity to go on tour with a group that is cooler than you if you suddenly get such an offer. By expanding your audience, you kept spreading the art, it was your responsibility. But on the other hand, in our age this approach entails an increasing risk of being destroyed, because from now on you can't say: "Well, this is not for me. I will try to go in some other direction". Today, because of the Internet, quick access to information and its distribution, the attitude is as follows: "I do not like it, so I will stop. This should not exist at all!". And there's a big difference, it's a cultural change, and I don't think we'll turn back as a society. It's scary because it leads us back to colonialism and Christian messianism. That's how we move towards substituting some cultural ideas for others. It's a kind of intrahistory and quite dangerous consequences.
I literally have one question left. Since we all turned out to be hostages of the new COVID-reality, I cannot ignore it. Could you please tell me what the lockdown turned out to be for you — has it become a productive period or, on the contrary, did it negatively affect the creative process?
Very differently. I can't add anything original to the experience that most people have — both good and bad days happen. But what I am satisfied with is that in my creative process there was a place for experiments. I was able to experiment with materials, colors, images again. I got the opportunity to let go of things and come back to them later. Just taking the time and slowing down is a big breakthrough that happened during the lockdown.
It was unpleasant to watch the situation in the DJ world, how many people just unstuck and fell into despair. How many people create music just to play it live? This is a sad reality, in which everyone has to earn a living. At the same time, there is nothing behind the music itself but performances. By definition, it's commercial music, and there's nothing wrong with it, but let's call things by their names.