Interview by Teddie Taylor
Michigan-based Dakhma meld atmospheric black metal, crust and grindcore into a singular, natural entity. Suna Kulto, the trio’s latest EP, is an extensive, fluctuating two-song exploration of extremes rooted in contrast and abrupt disruption. By the end of the first nearly 20-minute track, you’ve experienced anguish, serenity and every emotion that transforms one into the other; Dakhma are, at one moment, refined and the next cataclysmic. We talked to Claire (vocals), Dylan (drums) and Derek (guitar) about the significance of a name, the impact of winter on writing and more.
The use of dakhmas (Zoroastrian towers where dead bodies could be exposed to carrion birds) was dark and barbaric to some, but they were also beautiful and innovative. How do you merge those two concepts in your sound?
Dylan: The idea of a “Dakhma” was really appealing to me. I like it because it kind of acknowledges that death is what gives life meaning and context. There is a tendency for people to want to ignore the fact that we will all die, to bury the notion both figuratively and literally, so I think the name kind of embodies the wholeness of the human experience. The way our music ebbs and flows is in part an extension of our personal lives. We are all capable of experiencing moments of exuberance and euphoria, but these feelings would be meaningless without pain or despair to counter those moments. We are all kind of unstable people and I believe that comes through in our music.
Claire: I think that the main correlation between the ideas behind dakhmas and our sound is it’s always dark and somber like death, but there are moments where I also feel like the sound becomes more hopeful or the guitar is just straight pretty sounding. That’s kind of like the idea of sky burial, where on one hand you have the death of a loved one but on the other their body will help feed wildlife and keep that whole circle of life going. There’s beauty within all sadness. It’s amazing that as humans we can feel so many ranges of emotion and I think that comes out with the way we construct our songs.
What’s the significance of title of the new EP, Suna Kulto?
Dylan: Suna Kulto comes from a language called Esperanto. It was created in the late 1880s by a Polish man named L.L Zamenhof. His goal was to create a language that would be simple to learn so people around the world could easily communicate. The title roughly translates to “Solar Cult” or “Solar Worship.” The name appealed to me because I think it suggests a belief or faith in something real and tangible. The natural world. There is a tendency for people in modern Christianity to view themselves as apart from our planet, to see the planet as something created for us to exploit. I think Claire touches on this in the song “Coins.” So I think the title is a rejection of modern “faith” by supplementing the abstract with something tangible.
Claire: At the time I had just finalized lyrics on “East,” which is a lot about seasonal depression. We were spending a lot of time in cold basements when I had started writing lyrics on “East” and it just seemed to fit with my moods being controlled by our position around the sun.
The band melds so many styles together. Does that come from playing in bands before Dakhma or from the music you all listen to?
Dylan: I personally cut my teeth playing in grindcore and metal bands which have carried over into Dakhma. I believe our diverse musical interests and influences, coupled with our desire to always try and write the best most challenging songs we can, is what drives us.
Derek: It definitely comes from both from the music we listen to and other bands that we have been in. We all collectively listen to (and have played in) a very diverse range of musical styles and I like that to come through in our music. As far as songwriting goes, I’m influenced by post-rock bands from Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Russian Circles to the opposite style of bands like Wolves in the Throne Room, Ash Borer and Weakling. I even find inspiration in pop music.
Just like the instrumentals, your lyrics play a lot with the light and the dark, nature and love and pain and disdain. What inspires your writing?
Claire: The lyrics are just about what is upsetting me at the time. I do a lot of journaling and I write a lot of poetry and when the band sits me down to listen to new songs they are working on, the music always elicits an emotion from me, whether that be sadness, anger, love… Not really ever happiness, though. I’ll take that feeling and look in my journal and see what fits and then just try and make my poems into lyrics. That’s why I feel like they often aren’t cohesive to read because the instrumentals say a lot of what I can’t fit into the song. Nature is a huge inspiration for me. Living in Michigan, where I’m exposed to so many amazing lakes and forests and dunes that need protecting, I am constantly in pain over how much it is being sold off to corporations who destroy the land. I also have borderline personality disorder as well as severe panic attacks, so a lot of lyrics come from therapeutic writing I do when I feel like I’m at war with myself. “Coins” and “Eulogy” specifically are a lot about battling with suicidal thoughts in a conservative capitalistic society, so it really comes full circle in a lot of songs. Also, it’s cold here most of the year and I feel like that’s when we write the most so I tend to be in a really dark mindset when writing lyrics.
The line from “Coins,” “I don’t understand how you can claim to be a spiritual man. If you believe that God created the land, why wouldn’t you protect it with everything you have?” is followed by a Biblical quote from Jeremiah 2:7. Could you elaborate on the meaning of that?
Claire: That song is a lot about the frustration I have with mainstream conservatives. It’s about the hypocrisy of not protecting something that you believe God made and, instead, profiting off of destroying it. The quote from Jeremiah is, “I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable,” and I feel like that pretty much sums up how I feel about the human impact on the planet. I don’t believe in God in the traditional sense – I just was stuck in Catholic school for 8 years and the Bible is a pretty brutal book to grow up on, so some stuff sticks with you.
Did you ever or do you think you’ll ever add a bassist to the lineup?
Claire: Dylan and I had played in a previous band together right before Dakhma started. Our friend John was the bassist in that band (Diane Rehm) and Dylan and him had been in another band together before that called D.S.S., so it was very natural to have John in another band with us. John eventually decided to go back to school in Detroit and that’s about 2.5 hours from Grand Rapids. At this time we were really trying to practice multiple times a week and get our feet off the ground with touring and our schedules just stopped clicking. John is doing a lot of awesome stuff in the Detroit music scene right now and booked our last Detroit show for us. Currently we are working with a second guitarist. We had gone on a tour with his band at the time (Old Soul) and really liked the kid so when Old Soul broke up we snagged him. We haven’t gotten to play any shows with him yet but I’m already really excited about the stuff we are writing now with him involved.
Derek: We’ve been writing new material for a full length album and I found myself being limited creatively by being the only guitarist. We approached Jimmy about playing with us and were very happy that he was into the idea.
Dylan: He has a strange set up but I think it will be very interesting and complementary to our writing/playing style. We are all really excited to have him in the band!
You were just in New Orleans and played at Burn the Throne. Everyone else was from the South, so how did that come to happen?
Derek: We’ve played with Barghest a couple times and they are an amazing band (and also amazing people), so when we found out that Troy and Dallas were putting together Burn the Throne we immediately asked if we could play and planned a tour around it. We were all stoked to be a part of the fest and all the bands that played were awesome.
This is a relatively young project still, but you’ve changed a lot over the years. There is definitely a more melodic, ambient atmosphere on Suna Kulto than there was on the first release (plus the songs are 6 times longer). Where do you see yourselves heading in the future?
Claire: Suna Kulto was a really fun experiment. We weren’t writing with any bass in mind and things just got weird. I love those songs and I was listening to a lot of stuff like Deafheaven at the time, so I liked messing around with more sustained screaming and less crusty stuff. I love how much you can do with a long song. It really keeps people on edge not knowing if it’s done or if it’s a new song or what. A lot of times people will start clapping during a song thinking it’s over but then there’s like 7 more minutes left and a billion more blast beats and it’s fun to just take the audience by surprise over and over. I don’t think we can write as long of songs in the future though because the sheer amount of time it takes to get through practice just isn’t conducive to the time we have in our practice spaces. Every time we go into the studio, though, we get more confident and I’m excited to finish the next couple songs we have been working on.
Suna Kulto was released on vinyl by Halo of Flies in January. Do you have any touring or recording plans for 2017 yet?
Claire: We’ll definitely be touring and recording. I don’t feel like we ever really stop writing music. There’s always a new song to work on. I’d love to get over to the west coast because at this point it’s the only area we haven’t gone to yet as a band. I’d like to hit up some east coast spots again soon. We had some dates booked in Montreal and Toronto at the end of 2015, but got denied at the border crossing due to some legal stuff, so once that’s all passed we’re definitely trying to get out of the country!