‘I met people who had broken people’s necks without a second thought‘ – MacDara Conroy talks influences, mindsets and obsessions with the clandestine Dragged Into Sunlight
Aggression, hatred, loneliness, isolation, depression: these topics comprise the modus operandi of extreme metal quartet Dragged Into Sunlight. Over the course of two albums, Hatred For Mankind (Mordgrimm, 2009) and Widowmaker (Prosthetic, 2012), the clandestine British combo – believed to be veterans of the UK’s underground metal scene – have developed a crushing sound grounded in death, black and doom metal, but not resting comfortably in any of those genres. It’s the work of a band searching for new ways to express themselves; the blackened riffage of their first album and the doom-laden patience of the three-part Widowmaker representing two different roots of a collective experience that has more tendrils yet to send forth.
As much as their music is remarkable, their anonymity is as big a talking point. The members are only identifiable by single-letter appellations. In photos they appear with faces hidden by balaclavas, almost like a guerrilla unit. On stage they perform with their backs to the audience, a stance some might take as an expression of disdain. But Dragged Into Sunlight don’t want to be misinterpreted. Their actions, they explain, are taken to underline the divide between the music they make and the people they are – an idea increasingly under threat in a world where, as the vocalist known as T puts it himself, “nothing’s really secret anymore”.
Such matters also threaten to overshadow the band’s more interesting aspects, from their use of different forms of musical intensity – extreme metal harshness, the emotive swell of post-rock – to the unsettling vocal samples of serial killers giving their own warped but shockingly honest take on the state of things. It’s a heady brew that takes inspiration from the darkest areas of sound and the mind to produce work of undeniable power.
Ahead of their Dublin show on May 24th preceeding a UK tour, Dragged Into Sunlight’s surprisingly affable vocalist talked to MacDara Conroy about the influences, mindsets and obsessions that drive the band.
Widowmaker is an incredible record, taking in everything from the harshness of black metal to the slow-building crescendos of Mogwai. How did it come about? We wanted to draw on a lot of influences that weren’t explored on Hatred For Mankind. We’d taken the opportunity with Hatred to write something that’s more extreme than anything else, so for Widowmaker we wanted to write something that’s heavier than anything else. And heavy and extreme are two very different things. Something can be extreme without being heavy; I find artists like Chelsea Wolfe quite extreme in the way they approach things. So when we broached that topic, it was a case of what we were looking at when we’re looking at something that’s heavy, and the guys said ‘Mogwai is heavy’, ‘Mudhoney is heavy’, ‘Ramesses are heavy’. We all had a different interpretation of ‘heavy’, really.
So when it comes to writing something that’s heavier than anything else, we drew on such a vast plain, more than Hatred did. That was mainly honed in on extreme bands like Anaal Nathrakh, Darkthrone, Incantation, Suffocation, Eyehategod, whereas Widowmaker ranged everywhere from all those bands to people you wouldn’t really think were heavy as such but they’re quite heavy to listen to, and intense – dISEMBOWELMENT were a huge influence in terms of the way they approached things, their music just consumes you. When you draw on all those different pieces and it all starts mixing together, you end up with such a mass of influence that it becomes this sound of its own that’s heavier than anything else, and that’s Widowmaker.
Are you taking a similar approach, but with different influences, for the new material you’re working on? Well, we see Widowmaker as a different root for Dragged Into Sunlight as a collective – it’s not like one band with one sound, it’s a name with several different arms – and our next record is really drawn on noise. It’s a collaboration with Gnaw Their Tongues and it involves people like Nate Hall [of US Christmas] and Baroness. It’s got a lot of collaborators involved. We’ve come together to basically write a brilliant noise record. We were sick of run-of-the-mill YouTube videos with kids stomping pedals, and we really wanted to put something together that summarised all of our influences in noise. But we’ve also started work on new material that’s more in the direction of Hatred For Mankind. At the same time there’s more material that’s more in the direction of Widowmaker. It’s most likely those roots will keep on furthering themselves with a recognisable sound; each will have their own follow-ups.
Will you be airing new songs on the road with this upcoming tour? It’s looks like we’re going to do material from Hatred For Mankind. We’ve never played our favourite track off that record, ‘Lashed to the Grinder and Stoned to Death’, because we’d never rehearsed it. There’s still other songs off Hatred that we’ve never played live, so we decided to do that for this tour, to give that record a send-off and give the UK and Ireland something a bit different to what America and Europe has had.
Going back to the new noise record – will you be splitting between more studio-based music that you won’t be playing live, and more material in the vein of Hatred For Mankind for the live shows? Yeah – we’ve never played our 2008 tape Terminal Aggressor live because it’s very suited to a studio setting, it’s very suited to the tape format. We don’t even want it to come out on vinyl. Live, we may look at it, but we like keeping our live and our studio music separate if we can. I think Widowmaker and Hatred For Mankind are more suited for a live setting, and eventually we will come to play Widowmaker live, it’s just a matter of when we do that. And we still feel there’s a lot of potential in Hatred For Mankind that we still haven’t explored yet. We’ll take the opportunity throughout the rest of this year to finish off that record and show people what it’s like in a live setting.
It’s taken us some time to get familiar with ‘Lashed to the Grinder’ because we haven’t played it since recording, and when we recorded in 2008 it was a completely different mindset for us. I think it’s brought us back into that mindset by playing those songs, revisiting and relearning them. It’s the right mindset, the mindset we needed as a collective to move forward, to bring back that aggression and hatred and intensity that maybe isn’t as obvious on Widowmaker.
You’ve talked about your records representing different roots and exploring different influences, and revisiting your older material. In doing that, do you find it’s a challenge to confront yourselves with your own expectations? You’re right in that they are our own expectations, not anyone else’s expectations, but I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. It comes very naturally to us. What doesn’t come as naturally to us or to anyone is that personality change between completely different roots. To just swap like that is almost schizophrenic, it takes a lot out of us. But to be honest all it takes is the right people in the right room, and before you know it, the mindset’s back.
We’ve just finished another song that we’re aiming to put on the follow-up to Hatred. We needed to test ourselves; it was a question of ‘We want to write extreme stuff again – how did we do it the first time?’ And it comes very naturally. But it’s like you say, your own expectations. You hesitate about it, because it’s a world away from what you’ve done most recently. But once you get into the flow of things… It’s just the daunting feeling of knowing you have to make that adjustment, like Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, but once you make it, it comes very naturally.
The band members live quite far apart, so it’s often months before you get together as a unit. Is that when the writing and recording happens? Or are you always contributing ideas between yourselves remotely? It depends on what we’re working on. The new record has been about everyone throwing in ideas, Nate sending things overseas that he’s recorded on his dictaphone and various members adding to it at different times, and it goes off to Mories [of Gnaw Their Tongues], and back to us, and back to Mories, and eventually you end up with this huge fucking void of brutality, a real solid noise release that everyone’s touched up and added to that little bit more each time it’s passed to different hands.
Widowmaker for the most part was written individually. Everyone at that point was very far apart in terms of geographical proximity – we’d be looking at at least 300 miles between each member – so to even contemplate writing as a band would have been impossible. But we’re not ones to push ourselves and say ‘Hey, let’s send recordings to each other’ because I think it takes away from the music. So for us it was: write your individual parts, and let’s see if they match up. And to be honest, the first two times we tried to do it, it really didn’t happen. Then in October of 2011, it all fell into place. Everyone’s mindset was very similar in that point of time and we nailed it in one day, pretty much. But it was done individually, rather than everyone sending tracks to each other; that seemed like a cop-out for us. It’s either all or nothing. Either you do it in solitude, and you put your own creativity into your part, and then you mould it together at the end, or you come together as a band and you sit in a room and you write a record like a band would normally do.
I think the way we did write Widowmaker, it adds to that feeling of loneliness and dread and depression, the fact that we were all actually on our own and hugely depressed. You can’t replicate that. The lyrics and the vocals were written independently from anyone else – sitting in a big city, very much on my own – and when the music came together the words fitted perfectly.
How does your anonymity on stage and in the press make things more suitable for you? It makes things easier. I mean there’s always people who say ‘Why do you maintain the anonymity?’ They fear a Ghost-esque trick, perhaps. To us it’s like, we could go out and dress up as skull priests or whatever, but that’s not what we’re doing. We do what we do because it allows us to continue doing what we’re doing. None of us could do it if magazines published our faces; it would inhibit our freedom too much in terms of our positions that we have to hold down, and where we are in life. I think if certain members were to be seen doing what we do, it wouldn’t look too great for them on the outside. And I think also, we prefer our privacy, we’re very private people. We’ve all been in those bands where we’ve been recognised for being in that band and we didn’t want to be recognised for that. We just wanted people to listen to the music on its own, independently of any image.
You could say that Dragged Into Sunlight has an image of its own just by being anonymous, but we don’t play on that. It’s not about dressing up: we wear cheap balaclavas. We turn our backs to the audience because we’re playing for each other, just like we make music for each other. And we give our audience a completely blank canvas to work with. They’re just hearing the music and they’re seeing people’s backs. There’s no one gurning at the cameras. No one’s beating their chest about it. For us it’s about making the music, it’s about living our lives how we want to live them, without any association with extreme music – we don’t want to merge the two. What we do is for pleasure, we’re not a full-time touring band, we have no intentions to become one, we just want to continue doing something we love. We don’t expect any rewards – the reward itself is to be able to continue making extreme records, and as long as we can do that without disturbance or other interference, we’re happy. The moment this band stops being fun is the moment we stop doing it, so we ask people to respect our privacy.
And I think as well, we live in a world where nothing’s really secret anymore, everyone knows everything about anyone else. I think that takes away from a lot of things – you can judge someone based on ancillary matters – but we want people to judge Dragged Into Sunlight for the music, for what we create, not for who’s in it or how we look. At the end of the day, we do it for ourselves. Even if there’s two people standing there, we’re still putting 200 per cent in – how many bands can say that if there’s only two people there, they’re still putting it all in? For us, we’re ritualistic, we play to each other, and as long as every member is giving their all, we’re going to have a fucking good time.
You don’t feel your anonymity has backfired, in terms of people being more determined to look behind the curtain? There are people out there who think it’s absolutely necessary to know everything, they want to know about everyone involved in the band. But the people who truly understand what we’re trying to do, they understand the type of people we are and they respect our privacy. They realise it’s not about selling an image to people – it is what it is. You don’t have to look behind everything; sometimes what’s behind the curtain is far worse than what you’re seeing. If people make their own interpretation of what they’re listening to, that works a lot better for us as a band, and it should work a lot better for the listener. They should just take what they’re hearing and interpret it in their own manner and reflect in their own lives, just like we’re doing in our own lives. We don’t need to be connected.
I wanted to pick up on the balaclavas you wear. You’ve said before in interviews that they’re not symbolic of anything. But has anyone ever communicated to you any different? I bring it up because the balaclava would be a more loaded symbol here in Ireland, with its paramilitary connotations. No one’s ever brought that up to us. But it’s the same as people who say ‘You’ve got a symbol on your shirt that has connotations with NSBM’ or something like that. People have thrown those accusations around – even balaclavas were associated with that kind of music. For us, it’s not about that. If we had a political agenda, we’d say so. It’s very much cards on the table with Dragged Into Sunlight. We’re very clear about our agenda and our agenda is music. Politics stay completely out of it. It just started with cheap balaclavas and it ends with cheap balaclavas.
Politics, religion – they’re completely separate from music, as far as we’re concerned. Bands who do delve into those subjects for their music, I think they’re cheapening those two things. People who want to communicate messages via politics, they’re the people on podiums, the people who spend their lives writing academically in books. They’re not musicians who write 10 lines and think it’s going to change the world. If you’re going to start merging specialist fields together, you’re making a very sweeping generalisation. You’re only going to end up annoying people who spend their lives reading about these subjects and dedicating theses to them, and they don’t want to hear your 10-line summary.
For us, the lyrics are very personal, the music is very personal, we’re not trying to delve into areas that we don’t specialise in. We’re writing down our personal thoughts and feelings, which centre around aggression, hatred, loneliness, isolation, depression. We’re not channelling some third-party agenda.
Speaking of the themes in your music, obsession comes across as a theme to me in what you’ve done so far – from your own obsession in researching for the vocal samples of serial killers that you use on the records; the serial killers’ own obsessions… We’re very big fans of true crime, and just generally the minds of these people. And it can’t just be any sample, it has to be one where we think ‘Wow, that’s fucked up’ – that it’s another human being, and to communicate as they do, you think ‘There’s someone out there who exists, who did that’.
It’s a common theme that we all had growing up and in different bands, and we shared stories among ourselves. We’d meet up and someone would say ‘Did you hear about that guy who killed 20 people in California?’ and someone would go on the internet or get a book out to find out what he did. And it culminated with a couple of us working in Texas, actually living out there, in 2006, and one of us – myself in particular – worked on death row. Meeting those people face to face, I wanted to convey what I saw, which was loneliness and depression and isolation and hatred and aggression, and those themes were like nothing else you’ve ever felt. And the only way to communicate that was to use their voices, to let them say it. They say it better than I could ever say it.
It isn’t about dunking a sample there because it fits. Yes, it needs to fit and it needs to sound right, but it’s more about what’s being said and the impact it has on the listener. When you realise those people really exist, and when you’re in the same room as them, you realise it’s another human being. And to hear another human being to talk about life and death like that, unless you’ve experienced it first hand, is very difficult to convey.
In a way they’re representing the dark side of all of us. That’s it, yeah. There are people out there who have killed hundreds of people, one after the next, for the fun of killing. But to meet those people, you would never suspect… While I was in Texas I met people who had broken people’s necks without a second thought, for the fun of it or for money, or just because they wanted to, because they wanted to experience what it felt like. And yes, any one of us could do that. In the street you could just lose it for no reason whatsoever and decide you’re going to kill someone. And there are plenty of killers out there who have done that. They’re obviously behind bars now, but I think it represents that every member of society has the potential to do that.
There’s nothing, absolutely nothing besides a norm that stops you breaking out of that mould. And these are people who’ve broken out of the mould. They’re often very unique individuals to meet personally, their minds are very intriguing. For Dragged Into Sunlight as a collective, we particularly look at interesting individuals, and some of the most interesting and smart people in the world are people who’ve challenged that norm of society and just broken out and unleashed absolute chaos, for no reason other than to experience what absolute chaos was like.
Dragged Into Sunlight play The Pint on Eden Quay on Friday 24 May with support from Wound Upon Wound, From The Bogs Of Aughiska and Rites. Tickets are €15 on the door or from Tickets.ie, Sound Cellar and Into The Void.