Thief emerged from the shadows in 2016 with his evocative, unorthodox sound that summoned up delirious journeys through Carcosa and the Asphodel Meadows, experiences unnerving enough to bring even the most level-headed listener down to their knees–all of which raised the question: what is this artist’s modus operandi? El Garaje de Frank met with Los Angeles-based Dylan Neal on Zoom to talk through his new album The 16 Deaths of My Master, dark arts of sampling, Joseba Eskubi’s paintings, evolution of vocal cords, victim mentality, and suffering in life. “Time to buckle your seat belt, Dorothy, cause Kansas is going bye-bye…”
Pictures: Milana Burdette
—Thief’s Facebook page has a brilliant photo of you as a teenager where you are proudly wearing Suffocation T-shirt. What did metal mean to you?
–A lot of people talk about having a crystallising moment when they realised something was for them. I definitely had that with extreme metal and death metal and bands like Suffocation, Death, Cryptopsy, Cephalic Carnage. There is something about the ferocity and power of it. It’s just so foreign and extreme, you know, always having goosebumps, listening the same 30 seconds of maybe a particular track over and over and over cause it was sooo awesome… So, I became really identified as a hardcore metalhead.
—So, it was a real visceral feeling that you got from the music.
—Oh, yeah … uncontrollable feeling of needing to spaz out while I’m listening [demonstrates this by thrashing around in his chair] Even just sitting alone in my room. Looking back, I get religious dancing now. Like being overcome by the spirit.
—You grew up listening Björk, Massive Attack, Ulver, and Aphex Twin as well as Sacred, Gregorian, and Orthodox chant music. I get the first four but the last three—let’s face it—it’s not something you find in every teenager’s record collection. How did you get your hands on that stuff?
—I believe the first time I was using some filesharing service, I don’t remember whether it was Kazaa or Limewire or Soulseek. I was just poking around, and I saw MP3 called Dark Evil Estonian Chant Music. I clicked on it, and it was Arvo Pärt’s … shit, how do you say it…? I’m gonna Google that real quick [types the title and gives the pronunciation best shot]
—Kanon Pokajanen, yeah.
—Oh, do you speak Estonian?
—No, no, it’s just very close to Finnish, which is where I’m from. Anyway, it turned out the evil choral music was Arvo Pärt.
—Yeah, yeah … which I get cause that whole collection of work is very haunting. I was home alone a lot as a kid, so I would put it in the home stereo system, burn it on a disc, and I would crank it up, and oh my God! I remember I would search for more. “What is this Estonian Gothic chant music!” And eventually I found out it was Arvo Pärt, and then went from there exploring that whole world of chant, Gregorian chant, Byzantine chant, all that stuff.
—While you were also listening to Björk and Massive Attack…
—Yeah, yeah… To me, Björk and Arvo Pärt and that early music, they make sense, especially if you listen to track 4 from Björk’s Medúlla. That whole album is just voices, there’s no other instrument. And I think she really shows some of the same qualities there that the voice evokes that you hear in chant music.
—Sure. The same sensibilities but in a different context.
—Yeah, yeah, yeah…
—Looking at your background, playing guitar and being into extreme metal, what prompted you to move towards electronic music in the first place?
—I remember before 2013, when I first started writing Thief-sounding stuff, it was just never as good as I wanted it to be. And I knew pretty soon that I was going to be writing music pretty much alone, and that it’s way easier to do electronic music alone. I also live in a small apartment so it’s easier to do it alone.
—I can see the panels there.
—Yeah, yeah, yeah, my whole place is sound proofed … [pans his laptop camera 360 degrees around the room] There’s carpet on the ceiling, there’s carpet on the wall.
—Cool. Proper DIY…
—It’s easier and there’s something about making it that I really was attracted to. It felt like there was a lot more room for experimentation and originality in the world of electronic music.
—OK, I see. And then that haunting choral music just kind of fit into that context somehow.
—Yeah, yeah, yeah … it was the only way that I could find a way to fit that in cause it sounds cheesy with heavy guitars, a little too late Dimmu Borgir, too symphonic. And another thing was, I would listen to hip-hop or DJ Shadow, and these guys are always sampling jazz records or blues records or stuff that they might’ve grown up with, and I’m like, “I have literal Gregorian chant records. Why the hell don’t I sample that…?”
—That’s right. Good question. Why not?
—That was my familiar territory. Yeah, electronic music was so boundless. I was like, I can do something that sounds different this way.
—Over there on the West Coast there’s no shortage of established labels who are into trip hop, industrial and EBM. Two of my favourites are Felte Records, they’ve done Public Memory and Odonis Odonis…
—I love Public Memory.
—And then another one is Dais. Do you know them? HIDE and ADULT…
—Yeah, they have Drab Majesty, right?
—That’s the one. And then Dune Altar, of course, who put out your excellent track Desire last year, which was like a prelude to your new album. So, my question is, what does Prophecy Productions have that the other labels don’t?
—Right. [laughing out loud] Well, if I’m totally honest, in the beginning Prophecy said “yes.” Now, knowing Prophecy, I think they’re great and preferable because Martin the owner is very into giving the artist a long leash and willing to go the extra mile with the packaging and having a great product. Kayo Dot was signing with them, they’ve got some classic, awesome bands, like Silencer and Bethlehem. I felt I could be as weird as I wanted to be. Because as much as I like some of the bands on Felte, I don’t know if I wanted to go totally Sun Ra, if they would be cool with that, you know.
—Quite a lot of pros and not very many cons.
—None really. I would say the pros of those other labels are that being American-based they have some more American contacts. I think there’s even some social validation being one of those labels because the name has a reputation.
—Which is important. The credibility.
—Moving on to your ethos. I have a quote here that I really like. It’s from a Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. He said, “A good composer does not imitate. He steals.” What do you think he meant by that?
—Right, right. You literally emulate, not even emulate … you take things from other composers and use it; you pass it off as your own. I think at first, you definitely do that to a point where you just sound like the other artist. When I was learning how to sing, I would just tryna sound like Maynard Keenan or Dax Riggs. And I think eventually doing that helps you find your own voice, like standing on the shoulders of giants. And I’d take a bit farther. I’m literally gonna steal it and put it into my music cause I don’t get samples cleared [laughing] And that’s just funny to me.
—Speaking of which, as you said, samples play a pivotal role in your music but what you’re clearly big on vocal samples.
—Orthodox choral compositions, Gregorian chants, you’ve got some Tuvan throat singing in there, even some soundbites and snippets of dialogue from movies. What fascinates you the most about human voice?
—It’s the purest sounding instrument. There’s something about especially a trained singer. There is a primalness to it, I mean, these are the same vocal cords that used to howl to another pack, or hoot from a tree because there’s a leopard approaching. And this is getting really cerebral but…
—Now using this same muscle in a way to make art or to convey a meaning or an emotion is both amazing and also the same. Sometimes, when I’m listening back to a track, I think about how that adds a story and a feel to everything. And then voices can sound so alien and haunting. A throat is like a fretless guitar neck, there are no steps, it’s just glissando the whole time [making gentle sounds of sirens]
–Like you have in Arabic singing.
—Yeah, yeah. There’s a feel that comes with that. It’s also easier to use a sample if you have the right stuff because choral music just has voices. You don’t have to wait for a break or something.
—Yeah, pure and simple. I’ve always liked your voice. It has a distinct, rich timbre that is somewhere between Chris Corner, Trent Reznor, and Dave Gahan.
—Thank you, yeah.
—Also, your vocal technique is very versatile. Singing and rhythmic delivery were already there on Map of Lost Keys. What’s new is this growling and screaming that reminds of the mid-to-late 90s Jonathan Davis.
—Uh-huh [smirking and nodding]
—How did it feel to scream your head off?
—God, I’ve wanted to do that for so long…! I could just never fit it into a track. I would do it live sometimes. We would often open with Frost Breath, the second track [off Map of Lost Keys]
—That’s a brilliant track. I love it.
—I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. And Map of Lost Keys was heavy, but it wasn’t that heavy throughout. Frost Breath was one of those tracks. It was so much fun to scream, you know, another level of intensity.
—Definitely. Samples aside, I would say your other trademarks are intricate drum patterns and menacing basslines. You can go from these muscular, heavy grooves and the 1970s drum breaks all the way to glitchy, IDM-style beats. What’s your approach to percussion and the low end?
—Drum patterns are usually very improv and me fucking around with either the drum pad or just working with the drum notes until a happy accident happens. And the shifting drumbeats from John Bonham breakbeat to something more like IDM, crazy, heady Autechre, it’s just totally driven by where the track wants to take it. I’m a big fan of linear beats where two notes never hit at the same time.
—Sounds quite intuitive.
—Yeah, absolutely. Bass-wise I’m almost always running my shitty Fender P Bass through a Big Muff fuzz pedal or using a few Eurorack modules and sending them through controlled feedback to get a squelchy kind of buzzy bass. Doing it a little too much and then backing off a little with a filter – having this really heavy bottom, which to me has very much like hip-hop bottom, almost, beat feel.
—Yeah, I think it works perfectly. OK, let’s go to your new album, The 16 Deaths of My Master. The press release tells me, “90% of it was recorded in your apartment and 10% in a cabin in the woods.” We’ll get to that cabin in a minute… But first, what was the sound you had in mind?
—I really wanted to capture more of the live energy that I had experienced in 2019 when we were touring for Map of Lost Keys. I play with a drummer (Robert Chiang) and a bassist (Chris Hackman), so we work a lot of the songs. It’s the same song but it’s got a different feel, and we are often playing things way heavier, way louder. It’s a lot more aggressive and intense. I wanted this sort of heavy, almost spastic feeling to be pretty common on the album, and so I started to write around that idea.
—Your set up sounds quite flexible in that you have real instruments as well software instruments. How has the set up served you in the process?
—There are limitations and especially using hardware synths whether it’s analogue or digital. Prophet 6 is analogue, I’ve got some Arturia analogue stuff, I’ve got a couple of rows of Eurorack modular synths that are mostly analogue. Pretty much in all those except the Prophet there’s no saving presets, it’s wherever the knobs are, it’s what sound you’re going to get, and so it forces me to commit to something early on as opposed to using a software synth where three months after I wrote the bassline I can still tweak anything, and I can get lost in that forever.
—Yeah, true, true.
—Yeah. My synthesist knowledge isn’t that great, probably intermediate at best, so the learning process affords a lot of happy mistakes.
—Nothing like a human error somewhere there.
—Now, about that 10%. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only who’s interested in hearing about the cabin.
—Honestly, it was to go to a place where I could work superhard, unhindered, and undistracted. I took time off work and I loaded up most of my essential gear into my car and rented this cabin out in the woods here in the Northeast and just set up a shop for four days. It was a big cabin, too big for me. It was two stories, and… It was really, really beautiful. But as soon as I got there, there was a massive heatwave.
—Yeah, triple-digit Fahrenheit and there was no air conditioning in the cabin.
—I couldn’t record on the bottom floor where it was a lot cooler cause it was way too echoey, it was all wood. I was just sweating the whole time in my underwear. Not cool and mystical. It really was difficult.
—That’s really rock’n’roll.
—Yeah, absolutely. Oh my God, I’d be sweating my tits off… I’d go outside and have a cigarette and it’s just as hot out there and it doesn’t feel better and just going back and forth. But I’d do that from 10am till 3am every day – mixing, mixing, mixing. Most of the screaming was done there too, cause it was hard to let loose and scream in my apartment at 9pm.
—I wondered about that. Your neighbours wouldn’t have appreciated that at all.
—No. And I had already pissed them off enough by refusing to wear headphones a lot of the times. So, both in respect to them and not wanting to get the police called, and also, I knew I was holding back because of that. In the woods I had neighbours, but they were pretty far away.
—They are not going to hear it.
—No. There was this huge window on the second floor that was just 10 feet away from where the woods started, and so at 2am I was screaming my head off and having to be in the woods. It was super black metal.
—Excellent. You’ve picked a striking artwork by Bilbao-based artist Joseba Eskubi for the album cover. What is it about the painting that resonates with you?
–At first, I was going through … he is prolific, he has so many paintings…
—So much stuff on his website.
—Yeah, oh yeah… I mean, impressive. I was saving a few pictures and then I saw that one. To me it matches Thief, but also the record, it’s both beautiful but violent at the same time. There is a very Francis Bacon like violence being inflicted upon the painting with these long, almost gorish brush strokes. And I found out that it is actually a 16th century Dutch painting; a dorky guy playing a lute and another person playing a flute. And he bought this poster from the museum in the Netherlands, and he painted over it. —Ah, I see… —And I was like, “My God, that’s Thief!” That’s exactly the same thing I do with vocal samples. I take this thing that exists, and I deface it, really. I can’t believe how serendipitous that is.
—That’s brilliant. OK, time to thicken the plot a little. You are currently in the residential training at a Zen Buddhist centre. What was your motivation for doing that?
—I had always been interested in like meditation and consciousness. And in 2007-2008, I was having these awful panic episodes, intense, debilitating anxiety and panic attacks and so I was seeing this therapist who was a long-time Hindu practitioner. And somehow I found out he was an avid meditator, and I would pick his brain a lot about that. I was reading about Buddhism and what it says about suffering, and I was in this place of great suffering. So, I started meditating and I really, really got into it more and more and more. And at one point I was, like: “I wanna at least for a couple of years be something like a monastic.” I had dropped out of school a while ago, I had lost my job, and my music at the time, nothing was established, and I was: “Fuck it. Nothing is really happening so I’m just gonna do this.”
—I’m glad you took the opportunity. The next question is a little bit tongue in cheek. I wanted to see if you’ve made any progress. Here’s a famous koan for you. “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
—[gives it a quick think, then raises his right fist in front of the camera] That’s the answer.
—That’s a definite pass. From Zen we can smoothly move on to the album’s main themes. The first half is a hedonistic roller-coaster ride, the second one is the slow-burning comedown and the final reckoning. And to me, that is where you really get down to business, starting from Victim Stage Left, where this whingey, gutless character in a hammy melodrama pretends to be hurt. What’s your take on victim mentality?
—Yeah, yeah. That’s right on the nose. That’s it. I’m of two minds. Sometimes you get a sense your ego or your story is hurt, and I get that it’s painful, but you’re not really stabbed, so suck it up. But on that track there is a side of it where the suck it up mentality is also not healthy if someone is really suffering from something in ways we don’t really understand whether something is triggered from a childhood thing or there is a mental health thing like disorder. Suck it up is just sweeping it under the rug.
—It’s quite brutal.
—Yeah, yeah. But your interpretation of Victim Stage Help is right. There is this Shakespearean sort of wailing going on. And the sample that follows is a commentary on all of that.
—Oh, the rain…
—It’s from a vinyl What You Do with Kids on a Rainy Day in a Classroom and it’s telling all these kids: hey, it’s raining, but you’re gonna put on your clothes, you’re gonna button it up, and you’re gonna go to breakfast, you’re gonna suck it up and get back to life.
—I love the woman’s accent and the way she speaks. —You’re right… It’s very sweet and motherly but also very direct and uncompromising. Like you would imagine talking to a child that you love, but you also know, you need to do this thing. Stop crying, you’ll feel better, I promise.
—Totally. It’s not the voice of a helicopter or lawnmower parent, it’s very stern but loving. They are few and far between, those mothers, I tell you.
—Moving on to songwriting. You’re not exactly a verse-chorus-bridge kind of guy. What we have are these graphic, unsettling scenes put together with catchy hooks and killer riffs. Could you tell us about the process?
—Sure. Scorpion Mother is a pretty basic song structure, it’s very verse-chorus-verse-chorus -ish. Cannibalism, which is the opposite in structure to Scorpion Mother, there’s no verse, there’s no chorus, it’s just this evolving piece. For that one I actually did have an idea before I sat down and did anything. I’m like, “Oooh, I really wanna do this thing where there’s a screeching cello or a double bass, and it’s playing the notes, and it gets faster, and it slows down.” I would just sit down in front of the mic and just say words and phrases until something would evolve. I’m just gonna keep saying “cannibalism” over and over. I don’t know if that’s coherent at all…
—Sure. You have a structure, but it never overruns your instinct. That double bass in Cannibalism is just gorgeous. A lull, a calm before the storm… Which brings us to the main theme. It already started on Map of Lost Keys where the last two last lines are “I’m just scared, love me.” The new album expands on that. Crestfaller, for example, spells it out: “These songs are about lonely nights.” What made you tackle that theme now?
—You’re right on the money. I knew at the end of Map of Lost Keys that I wanted to signal what was gonna be the next album. And when I started writing, I didn’t want to be as obscure and opaque as on the last two albums. And there was a couple of things going on during a writing sprint that I was doing that were really difficult emotional shifts I was having to make in my personal life, and they were some of the earlier tracks I wrote. I just didn’t have the patience to obscure any of those emotions. To me, all the Gothic monsters and creatures are just emotional manifestations. They’re all projections of the mind and the psyche. A vampire to me is like a narcissist, very charming but sucks your blood. A Frankenstein to me is like a projected lover. I make up creatures and things, keep it Thief.
—Yeah, you’ve definitely managed to do that. I don’t know very many writers who would just pluck their ideas out of thin air. There is always this question of how you channel personal experiences into something. Some people are brave enough to bring them into their writing unfiltered, some use symbolism to express them. Your songs have a good balance between those two, I think.
—Yeah, I never wanna hopefully go too hard either way. If you’re too explanatory, no-one can make the experience their own.
—If you’re too obscure, they won’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
—Yeah, yeah… If you create an image, you have to somehow let it breathe so that people can relate to it.
—OK, last one. Until now, much of your music has been quite nihilistic and bleak. Séance for Eight Oscillators, your beautifully resigned post-rock finale, is a clear exception. First you sing “Let’s establish a baseline: suffering / Let’s establish a direction: degrading / Let’s establish a reason: nothing,” but then you conclude, “yet the flower on the mountain blooms.” The ultimate question then, is: when the odds are stacked against us, why do we still choose to carry on living?
—[long silence] I don’t know.
—The flower doesn’t give a toss about the cold, uncaring world around it; it just lives. That’s what you are saying with the image, aren’t you?
—Precisely that. There’s a Japanese saying, “Nothing in the cicadas’ cry suggests that they are about to die.” The flower doesn’t know or care if it’s living or dying. I was reading James Joyce’s Ulysses during when I was writing, and on the last page he calls his wife his mountain flower and the main character’s wife gives this life affirming, resounding “Yes,” which was very impactful for me, and I think that’s where the imagery came from. Sometimes, when I’m in the thick of it, I might feel like completely giving up, but I know in my head it’s just this story I’m telling myself, the values I’m placing on it, whatever core beliefs are being challenged. For other people, I have no idea. I have a great respect for people who continue on and find joy in things, like the flower blooming.
The 16 Deaths of My Master is out now.