The call of Black Metal has a worldwide resonance, and those who answer it are as diverse as humanity gets. Book of Sand’s mastermind and sole member DCRF might be among the most unconventional of them, given his musical path and his approach to the genre. While his 2016 album Occult Anarchist Propaganda gained some traction and a pretty unanimous critical praise, Book of Sand remains confidential ; rarely seen and rarely talked to. DCRF is hardly a misanthrope though, as he very kindly answered my solicitation and did me the honor of a vivid and insightful conversation about his own path, about Black Metal, and about the state of the World.
As a musician, D’s answers reflect his influences and artistic approach : unexpected, even cheeky, but also deeply matured and insightful. As a leftist in Black Metal spaces, DCRF provides something rare, or at least something seldom articulated clearly : he provides hope. Hope for a better, weirder future.
A : First of all, thank you so much for accepting this interview ! You gained a solid reputation in the RABM scene and outside with your 2016 album Occult Anarchist Propaganda but you are pretty rare on interviews. One I have particularly enjoyed is the interview made by Jon Rosenthal on his old blog, which dates back to 10 years ago. I’m honored to have this opportunity to update the records.
DCRF : Thank you for doing it! I’ve been (and am) marginal in the genre, and so interest has waxed and waned.
Book of Sand and Black Metal
The first issue of Book of Sand, How Beautiful to Walk Free, came out in 2010 ; when did you start the project, what were your original motivations ?
I started recording in autumn of 2009. I’d just finished my previous band Light, and I thought that starting a politically-oriented black metal band might be good to do. It was an exciting time for black metal, with a lot of wild ideas and weird sounds, and I thought I could be a part of that. I had a lot of ideas at the time…
It’s true, especially in the US scene ! I think the late 2000s were kind of a golden age for USBM with bands like Agalloch, Ludicra or Cobalt pulling out their masterpieces, Dispirit, Wrlnrd and Krallice… What a day.
I do think that the genre is getting to a good place now, though, and the politics are much better than they were..
It’s been twelve years, you have released ten records and have three upcoming releases if I counted correctly. Seems to me like you always have several albums cooking at any given time, some taking longer than others to mature ; how do you manage to be this prolific ? How does your music work fit with your “regular” daily life ?
I was very prolific from 2009-2012 or so; when one is starting a new artistic project it’s easy to be creative and to find the energy to pursue it. I’ve slowed down considerably in recent years – I’m older and more worn out, partly, but also the ideas I have now are more difficult to realize and take more time and thought. I’ve been feeling greater energy in the last couple years again, though, so I hope I can complete some more things in the relatively near future.
It would be nice if I had more time to spend on music, as I do feel like it’s one of the things I’m here to do; but, I have to make a living and life has other demands, and so I only have so much time to spend on it. I’m working on some new albums currently and am in the early stage of trying to start a new band as well…
While you always made it clear that Book of Sand is a Black Metal band, you have brought very diverse influences to it : folk music, microtonal music, Javanese gamelan, free jazz, even contemporary music techniques. And yet I would not fit Book of Sand into what we generally picture with the “Avantgarde Black Metal” label ; I feel it’s always much more about atmosphere than over-twisted compositions. What is (are ?) your main leitmotiv about the artistic direction of Book of Sand ? Do you actively seek to keep this artistic coherence through all these influences ?
I’m not a virtuosic musician (and I don’t want to be), and am not into flashy or complicated playing. I also don’t like overly polished recordings, and the vibe is always more important to me than the ideas. Black metal has always been weird – Celtic Frost were super strange, Fleurety, Anubi, Lugubrum and so on showed that there’s no single way to do it. I associate most strongly with bands that understand that black metal is limitless as long as the feeling is correct (and that « traditional » riffs and sound are worthless if the feeling isn’t there).
One thing that transpires through your whole discography is that you clearly don’t limit yourself to the stereotypical codes of the Norwegian second wave (trempicking, blast beats, screaming, snowy mood etc) to create music that is still inherently Black Metal. What do you think defines best Black Metal then ?
I don’t know, to me the 2nd wave is as much Fleurety or Sigh as Darkthrone, and even the Norwegian bands didn’t really sound very similar. I only care about the feeling, not about the superficialities of the sound. I think black metal is some combination of a sound, a set of compositional techniques, and a kind of lineage, but to some extent I don’t really care; it’s not so important to be Black Metal as it is to make compelling music.
It’s hard to define, isn’t it?
Some of your albums have a feel of old American country blues to some extent, like The Bees and the Butterflies, Sun Going Down, or The Face of the Waters. Seems to me that Blues plays a direct role in Book of Sand ; how do you relate to Delta Blues, regarding both music and themes ?
See this explanation 14 years ago by Wrnlrd:
« I see ghosts of American music everywhere. I hear Dock Boggs in black metal, the droning banjo, voice like an earthquake. I hear Blind Lemon [Jefferson] pounding his feet on the floor, and I know he is my cousin… I think the essence of black metal is something that goes beyond geography and stylistic tradition, even beyond 1music. »Wrnlrd, on Invisible Oranges
My cultural and sociopolitical background is quite different from both Dock Boggs and Blind Lemon (and, for that matter, I assume from Wrnlrd), but I do think some of the wild and strange feelings are deeper than these things.
It’s funny, this quote reminds me of how Dylan Carlson from Earth considers the essence of his own music, and Rock and Blues music at large. Like an immanent continuum, something bigger than himself, that happens to materialize in different shapes at the hands of different people.
We’re all embedded in culture, right? It’s always a mix of individual ideas and creativity and the larger forms we’re moving within.
More generally speaking is there one, or a couple of artists that are considered outside the Black Metal space, but still are an important influence to your take on Black Metal ?
Everything I’ve listened to has some influence on the way I think about music, I suppose, but at different periods of my life my understanding of music was shaped by many different musicians (as is everyone’s) in many different genres. I don’t listen primarily to black metal and never have, and I don’t think it’s apart from other kinds of music in a meaningful way.
To flip the question, most of the black metal bands that shaped my understanding of the genre were themselves unusual: Dead Raven Choir, Wrnlrd…
You are considered one of the pioneers of the RABM scene, although in 2009-2010 the term “RABM” had only just been coined by a guy on his blogspot. How did you experience RABM becoming an organized scene through the years ? Locally, in Minneapolis or from Internet acquaintances, or both ?
This is an interesting question to me, as I think I’ve generally been at the edge of the scene. Back then bands like Iskra and Panopticon were the big names, maybe today it’s Dawn Ray’d, Spectral Lore, and so on. I’ve had some visibility at times (I was very touched by Spectral Lore covering one of my songs as a first political statement, for example), but I think my music has been too weird and unstable to be very influential. I’m not very connected with the metal scene either locally or on the internet; I do have some friends who play in bands, but most of my friends aren’t metal people.
In some ways I wonder if it’s time to move past the RABM label, but I don’t know. I do see the utility of making our ideology and presence explicit, but it also seems tokenizing and reductive at times. I also don’t know that it’s very compelling to people who aren’t part of it already.
Book of Sand is an inherently political project ; your song titles leave no doubt about the anti-fascist and anarchist politics expressed in your music. Since your last interview in 2012 I think it’s fair to say the world has changed, not for the better… How did you adapt ? How did things change for you on an operational level, regarding your artistic and/or political endeavours ?
A lot has happened, and I honestly don’t know if it’s for the better or not. Environmental collapse is impossible to ignore now, and most of us feel a lot more crunched economically and socially than we did in 2012 – at the same time, though, we’ve seen clear signs that the system is collapsing, and we’re still in some ways in a time of unfamiliar and exciting possibility. It’s reasonable to feel discouraged, but we’re not defeated, and I think we need to try to hold on to this uncertainty in a positive way.
So, I guess I don’t exactly know how to answer this – I’m much more optimistic now than I was in 2012, though. The world and the future seem less secure than they did, and I don’t know which way things are heading.
The state of the Black Metal “scene” looks like it’s shifting a bit towards more explicit political discourse. There is still a lot of chosen ignorance, not wanting to talk politics at all in Black Metal etc etc, but at least it seems harder now for crypto-fascists to go unnoticed and for the general public to look the other way. How do you see this ? Do you think Black Metal can in the end be “reclaimed”, if not by solely leftist spaces, at least by a more politically conscious audience ?
My interpretation is that extreme right-wing views have become so prominent in the larger cultural sphere that it’s no longer particularly edgy or cool to be doing it in the cultural underground (not that it ever was, but you know…)
I think black metal can become whatever we want it to be as long as the feeling is still there (& the feeling, to me, requires a rejection of both gods and masters).
This is an interesting word here. Many interpret the Black Metal essence (whatever that means) as an expression of individualism, being it triumphant or misanthropic. You know, rejecting God through satanism and anti-cosmicism, and rejecting masters by believing in strict individualism, “only the strong will prevail” and other bullshit.
But you seem to offer a more anarchist reading lens of “rejecting gods and masters”, and I understand your views have evolved on this since the beginning of Book of Sand. Can you elaborate a bit on this ? Where do you stand today regarding religion and anarchism ?
I’m not into individualism; I think that we develop meaningful existences through relationships with others, both human and otherwise, and that strong communities (human and ecological) come about through cooperation and diversity. To me anarchism is a belief in true freedom: the freedom to ignore orders without consequence; the freedom to move around and have different social structures as one will (see David Graeber on this)…
At this point I think animism is the way forward, at least for me. Social Darwinism seems to me a misunderstanding of evolution as applying to individuals rather than populations (it’s also very cringe and stupid, obviously). A lot of these tendencies towards misanthropy and such (both in myself and others) are misguided reactions to the truly unacceptable societies we’re living in, but I think our job as artists is to imagine different ways things could be rather than to submit to the logic of the dominant systems.
I’m not interested in religions. I think we should all try to cultivate our own relationships with the spirits.
A lot of the backlash I personally get online regarding not only RABM, but just calling fascists for what they are or discussing politics at all within Black Metal, is tied to how many Black Metal listeners want to perceive themselves. It’s like stating that one of their beloved bands is run by at least very sketchy people is perceived as a personal judgement or attack on their own morality, which triggers an emotional response along those lines : “telling that band I like is racist means that I am racist” combined with “this leftist is judging me but I am not a bad person, I am a good person, therefore leftist bad”.
How do you approach this, if at all ? Is there a way to discuss this with mainly apolitical people without antagonizing them from the start ? (Not talking about explicit right-wingers of course, those can’t be reasoned with anyway)
In general I don’t think it’s productive to see people as beyond redemption (whether apolitical people or explicit right-wingers); maybe there are exceptions but people can change, and realizing any leftist vision that I’d want to see happen will require convincing large amounts of people who aren’t already on board. I don’t know the best way to approach this.
Most of us weren’t born radical, and there’s no reason to think other people can’t get there too.
I think that if left-wing people in black metal want the genre to shift to the left politically they need to start making better music on the whole.
What’s coming next
You just released Seven Candles for an Empty Altar, via Fiadh Productions (US) and Vita Detestabilis Records (EU). This one has been cooking for five years, and the tracks premiered before the full release showed slightly different colors compared to your previous works. Soft Sun on Silent Water for instance, has thick atmospheric Black Metal riffs, you use your voice in an even deeper screeching, and the dense noise layer sounds different ; it feels more electronic and glitchy than before, like you did this with chaotic patterns on modular synths. Am I talking nonsense here ? What can we expect from the album ?
This album does have more synthesizers! I don’t have the means for a modular setup but they’re analog, anyway. There’s also some gamelan, some drum machines, and a lot of saxophones… The biggest shift sonically is that I’ve stopped using reverb and other processing; there aren’t samples or anything, and so everything is plain and as it is.
This album is my attempt at a new start, both musically and thematically; I’m not sure what else to say [laughs] What do you think?
Quite a lot, actually ! I have written a complete review, but one thing I can say is that it was a very easy listen from the first spin for me, but I’m puzzled whether I should describe it as such to my audience… Some of them might feel tricked !
Yeah I have no idea [laughs] The first track seems polarizing.
(ND : dear audience, you have been warned 😃)
You also teased a future album named On The Fifth Day of January My Birthday Shall Be, with a release date yet to be announced, and mentioned that you have been working on it since 2011. I can imagine its shape and compositional process have moved through time ? Will it be a synthesis of everything Book of Sand has been this last decade, or something completely off-track ?
This will be a mix of things I’ve done previously, including with my old band Light, and some new ideas. I hope I can finish it before another 11 years…
Have you ever played live with Book of Sand ? Do you plan to do this in the future ?
I haven’t played live with this band. I’ve thought about it a few times in the past, but it never came together. I’m not opposed to it, but a lot of the music would be very hard to do live, and I’m not sure it’ll happen. If there were enough interest Occult Anarchist Propaganda might be manageable live…
(ND : hello, Roadburn. Might be something to look into)
To open up the music discussion, I am curious to know what are the current bands or artists that you like and/or work with, and that you would recommend to our audience 😊 Especially if you have reccs on the Minneapolis scene – of which I am mostly ignorant ?
I’m not very connected with the local scene! I enjoy some of my friends’ bands, particularly Burning and Disthroned Agony (industrial and ugly punk respectively), and some of the free jazz people here (Milo Fine, Paul Metzger, so on). I’m not super up to date with black metal, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of the stuff I hear coming out from newer bands – I think Fiadh is doing a great job of picking releases.
They are ! Is this new collaboration with Fiadh and Vita Detestabilis helping you find more time / energy / focus or whatever you need to work on new music ? Or is it almost entirely linked to your personal life and circumstances anyway ?
I’ve been working on a PhD for the last few years, which has made it difficult to find enough time for music 😂 I hope to be able to focus more on music soon once that’s done, and have some other bands !
Looking forward to it ! Thank you again for agreeing to this interview, and thank you for this insightful discussion.
Thank you for doing this! It was very interesting to me to do an overview of my recordings – I’ve not been sure how to think of it as a whole as the response has been so varied over the years…
To discover the varied discography of Book of Sand, check out this full retrospective co-written with DCRF himself, published on Invisible Oranges :
Part 1 : Dialogue with Ghosts
Part 2 : That Old Black Magick