One of the things New York City is known for is the different feel and vibe that every neighborhood has. The city itself shifts cultures and tones between every block and avenue. You grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a section of the city – and I hope no offense is taken by this – that isn’t really known for it’s grim and brutal nature. But there definitely is a dark, seediness to it’s picturesque townhouses and affluent population, maybe even more so than other sections of the city and boroughs. One can walk next to a multi-millionaire while stepping over a number of panhandlers and the less fortunate. Was there a certain point in your life, say school or when you first got into metal, that you started to truly realize how different this city was when compared to the rest of America?
Ilya: Yeah, when I went to college in California. That’s when you get this different perspective and the bubble bursts. All of sudden, the rest of my world wasn’t Jewish and insanely rich. I realized that just because someone comes from a poor family or comes from a less prestigious part of the country, that they could still be the coolest person in the world, which I really liked. I had no idea before that. Everything you said about this part of the city is one hundred percent true. When you grow up here, it’s a bubble. There’s people that never really get any perspective outside of it. They stay in their safe group of friends and places. It’s definitely interesting. It’s not brutal in the typical metal sense. There’s no castles or dark forests here. But it’s brutal in the sense of how unbelievably evil a lot of the people that live here are. Evil in the sense of how much money they have and the ways the use to get it – that’s fucking evil. That itself is pretty inspiring and dark.
When we first spoke about doing this interview, you had mentioned how integral this city has been in shaping your vision for Imperial Triumphant. When did you really start to take this idea, this city, and mold into the concept and music?
Ilya: Around my senior of college, I was reading Rubicon, which is about the last few years of Rome as a republic. In the beginning, it starts off describing Rome, and I realized that Rome is place that was so famous, it was supposed to be glorious. But in reality, it smells like shit. There’s garbage everywhere. It’s dirty. It sounded a lot like New York. So I ended up writing this song (“SPQR”) comparing New York to Rome. How New York is now sort of on this decline as far as what it once was and what it was becoming. It’s falling apart, much like the Roman Empire. So as we started writing more stuff, I was inspired by living here and that idea really took hold.
The song “Metropolis,” I didn’t even really write. It was all literally just all jazz-improv. I wrote a graphic score for it and the idea behind it was to create a feeling of weight that you experience during rush hour in New York. I mean, you know what I’m talking about. When you’re on the train between four and six in the afternoon. Everyone’s in your face. It’s hot. It’s uncomfortable. You have six more stops to go till your home. I wanted to take that feeling and put that into music. There’s this duality in New York City – the great grandeur and prestige glazed over this ugly, dirty reality.
You know, there’re no metal bands that sing about New York City. There’s a million bands in Brooklyn, and I don’t know if any of them are focused on life in New York City. This place is so different than, say, Oslo or somewhere else in Europe. All those Norwegian guys sing about their heritage and surroundings. They’re so environmentally focused. We have none of that. I would have been a poser to sing about great, dark forests, ya know? You’ve gotta sing about what you know.
Again, in regards to New York City, when we first started talking about doing this interview, you had mentioned what a huge role living here has played in terms of influencing the band and yourself. When it comes to the city itself, the actual heartbeat that drives it, where do you stand with it? Is it a love-hate relationship, or something – that since you were born here – is so ingrained in you that you’ve never given a second thought?
Ilya: Both. It’s totally love-hate. There’re absolutely moments where I look at this city and think that this place is beautiful. These buildings are enormous and many were built by humans before we had computers. It’s such a grand spectacle of what mankind can do. But there are definitely times when I feel that this place is so disgusting. The people can be such assholes. You start to think, “Why the fuck am I living here?” You know, you have those people that say that they would never live in New York. It might be a nice place to visit for them, but it’s stressful, the air is dirty. If I grew up in a nice town, with clean air and had the landscape of the country, I might be able to appreciate those things more. But this is all I know. As you said, it’s ingrained in my being.
So let’s talk about the video for “Crushing The Idol.” How influenced were you by growing up here and living in the Upper East Side for this piece?
Ilya: Directly influenced. Of course, I wasn’t one of those kids, but I knew a ton of people that were like that. My little brother is/was sort of living like that. That Upper East Side Gossip Girl, millionaire lifestyle. He has some friends that get into some pretty bad shenanigans. I think it’s super, super dark. It’s real darkness. It’s not worship of Satan or the Old Gods. This is the real thing. Kids that are seventeen or eighteen years old that go out and fuck prostitutes, do drugs and beat people up. That’s a real scariness. I want to make music that’s scary, and let’s be honest; people aren’t scared of the devil anymore. Maybe thirty years ago, when it was pretty taboo. But now? No one really gives a shit. You’ve gotta reach for the boundaries and see what’s truly terrifying to people now.
What was the response from friends and family when they saw “Crushing the Idol?” Also, the four teenagers you guys had in the video, were they personal friends or did you seek them out?
Ilya: Oh, it was fucking hilarious. My brother was there during the shoot and started smoking a joint right before we started shooting. His response to me yelling at him was, “I’m just living the life you’re making a music video about.” It was actually pretty entertaining.
The kids were all from New Jersey and they were all friends before, which is what we wanted. We wanted them to have a friendly dynamic already established. They were all goofing off, trying to be tough and cool. The fake cocaine was powered sugar and they wanted to snort it anyway to show off. But when we brought in the Craigslist prostitute, they just went stiff. The director was looking at them for awhile and saying, “You’ve gotta be more aggressive with her man. Grab her. Act like you’re really into this.”
So wait – the women you used was actually a prostitute from Craigslist? How open was she to the concept and content of the video?
Ilya: She was really super cool. She knew beforehand everything we were going to do. She even offered to go topless. But I wasn’t trying to make a Motley Crüe music video. I didn’t want it to be sexy. I wanted to it be aggressive. In the end, I loved it. It was super fun to make. We had a lot of comments online that said it was lame or that it ripped off someone else, but of course that’s the way it is. When you do something different, it’s going to meet a lot of resistance. Music videos are getting better and better. More narratives and less performance videos. I can guarantee you that we will be doing darker clips in the future.
It’s natural, almost necessary for bands that fall under the banner of “extreme metal” to evolve these days. To mature, delve into and explore their sound. Imperial Triumphant is a prime example of this. You guys moved away from the more traditional corpse-paint, satanic imagery and way of things and into your own nether-realm. What caused this change in your approach to the bands sound and and vision? Even more so, where do you see Imperial Triumphant headed in the future?
Ilya: It was a classic maturing of myself, I guess. While I was in college, I was just listening to the Top 40 of Black Metal. But I started getting into the avant-garde classical stuff, which at first I hated. It’s hard to listen to and get into. But after a while, I realized how dark some of it was. Penderecki and Shostakovich, specifically. They were doing some wild shit that was really scary. Those two really changed the way I looked at music. I also had a mentor, Ulrich Krieger, while in college who showed me Deathspell Omega and Portal, which blew my mind. I realized that I needed to step my shit up, because it was really old-school.
When I left college, I got a new band together under the same name. All top-tier guys who are super-talented. I basically show them what I have written and tell them to come back to me when they have their parts. And it’s been coming out way better that I could have ever expected. I’m trying to be more collaborative than I was in the past. I have people from different backgrounds and different styles of playing. But they all have the same mentality. Make it weird. Make it dark. All I can think about is how I can make this go further. We’re not like Amon Amarth or something like that. I don’t want to make the same record when I sit down. I want to go deeper and darker and see how crazy we can get.
As for the future, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. We just released Abyssal Gods, so there’s a bit of rejuvenating going on. It’s going to be a bit before we have another full length in us but we’re working on a new EP right now. It’s a nice little transition piece from Abyssal Gods and what will be our next piece. I’ve been thinking about making it a more little jazzier, more discordant. Obviously, we can’t really get that much faster. But, the fact that people seemed to really like “Krokodil,” as it’s almost a Doom-piece and really atmospheric. I’d like to try and do something more like that. Really simple riffs and unbelievable dense textures glazed over it. Definitely going to keep shit about New York, as the inspiration never stops coming from here. I’d have to say that I love incorporating other instruments as well. A lot of bands get nervous about putting something on the album that they can’t pull off live.
CVLT Nation Exclusive Video Premiere
IMPERIAL TRIUMPHANT “Krokodil”
Animated by Casey Drogin
You know, I was actually going to ask about you guys playing live. Bands like Deathspell Omega, it would almost seem impossible for them to play a show. Have you had a rough transition in taking the album’s tone and texture into the live setting?
Ilya: It’s going to come out different, you know? I put three or four guitar parts over one section. I can’t play them all. What we can’t play live, I’m focusing on bringing out other live aspects. I want to build huge backdrops of the city. Spotlights coming up. Make it seem like we are playing in New York. Try to build a live show in that sense. There’s a lot of bands that focus on just the music in the live setting, which is great. But I really love bands that go the extra and mile and try to put on a great live show. Whether it be their painting up or doing projections behind them. It makes you want to go see them again.
You’ve cultivated quite a catalog of fellow musical artists that have worked alongside Imperial Triumphant on your previous albums. What I also found most curious, however, was the fact that you split the handling of bass and drums between four people. Erik Malave and Steve Blanco for the bass guitar and drummers Alex Cohen and Kenny Grohowski. From the perspective of the casual fan, this might be a bit mystifying as to the purpose of utilizing different people to fill in rather than have a core band. Was this something you had in mind since the inception of Imperial Triumphant, or did it grow the more you started exploring your vision for what you wanted the band to become? In addition to that, working alongside these (and other fellow artists), how has shaped your own personal feeling towards music and being in a band?
Ilya: The more shows we’ve tried to play, the less people could do them. When we toured with Thantifaxath, Erik couldn’t make the commitment. I didn’t want to postpone it so I went out and found Steve Blanco, who ended up being a monster. It ended up being like the bandleader of a jazz group, where we have a show and I see who can make it. It’s a roster, I guess, which is something I really like. It allows me to take on more work. They’re all great guys and musicians. But I don’t want to sacrifice playing a show because one person can’t make it. For the next record, all the guy’s are going to be playing on the EP. It’s turning out to be really collaborative and weird. They all have different styles and tones and I think that it really shows on this one.
I really like collaborating, man. There are guys out there who are gonna write everything down to the last quarter note. They want it played exactly like that and it’ll probably turn out great. But if you don’t have faith in other people and what they can do, it’s going to come out exactly as you thought. You’ll never get to explore what it could have been. I’ll give you a great example – working with Yoshiko from Bloody Panda. We played a show with her a couple of years ago, and I just ran up to her and said, “I have to work with you. Let’s do something.” I sent her the songs and told her, ” just do your thing, I trust that it’s going to be great.” She sent back absolute chaos and it was great. I loved it. She had her own twist and take on it, which was just awesome. So, I think being in a band, it’s really important to work and collaborate with other people. I mean if not, why not just be in a solo project?
Thanks for the interview!