“Shadow man” – interview with Attila Csihar of Mayhem.

A true legend of extreme and experimental music. Unbelievable vocalist and, at the same time, performer. A kind of artist that grabs your attention immediately, as soon as enters the stage, and there is no chance for you to stop looking at him. In May he will come to Poland once more.

Attila Csihar on records, during shows, and Attila Csihar during conversation there are two completely different individuals. As an artist he surprises, scares, arouses controversies, relies strongly on nihilism and brutality. Without a shadow of doubt he is one of the greatest vocalists in black metal history, and “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, the album he recorded with Mayhem, is one of the milestones of the genre. Albums the Hungarian recorded with his compatriots from Tormentor share the same importance. When you talk to Attila behind the stage, you meet a nice, peaceful, joyful guy. Ex maths and physics teacher, father of two teenage kids, eager to discover the world, and restless artist. Attila has taken part in lots of projects and collaborations (Void Of Voices, Plasma Pool, Burial Chamber Trio, Sunn O))), Aborym, Keep Of Kalessin, Jarboe, Ulver, among others), and there are others on his agenda. Perhaps we will be lucky to hear new music featuring Attila Csihar before his next visit to Poland with Mayhem, which is going to happen in May as a part of the 5th installment of Asymmetry Festival. In the meantime, we invite you read the transcript of a long and interesting conversation with this super nice Hungarian artist.

My first question is to an artist, who once impersonated the pope on stage with Mayhem. What do you think of pope’s decision to step down from the office? Do you care at all? Do you think the catholic church will benefit from it in any way?

That is really ridiculous. I haven’t heard about anything like this before. Of course I’m not into this religion, but I think it’s pretty interesting. This whole catholic thing is so evil, a mindfuck organization. Who knows what’s gonna happen behind the scenes, but it’s definitely interesting. I can’t really comment, but I’ve heard that something like that previously happened hundreds of years ago. There is some bullshit going on, and I haven’t heard any explanations yet, what was the reason. Anyway, what they gonna say about this, is not gonna be true or entirely true. That’s for sure (laughs).

Attila, I know that you did some touring with Mayhem in the recent weeks. Some of the concerts were special I suppose. I mean, you went to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, and you also took part in an exceptional event called “Barge Of Hell”. What are your impressions from those trips?

Both of the trips were an interesting experiment. To me every show is an experiment, but these were particular, for sure. First of all “Barge Of Hell”. It’s a festival that happened on a boat, which goes from Florida to Bahamas and back . I played on a boat before, but it was one night. And this one was a five-nights trip. There was 30 bands and maybe 1500 people on the boat. Cool things is that you experience a lot together. You hang out with the fans, because there was no VIP area. You eat in the same place, you drink in the same bars. And when you have 30 bands it means that you have about 150 musicians who know each other, one way or another. To me that was a very interesting experience to be at this kind of festival. I could see the other bands playing full shows. I had an opportunity to see some of the bands, enjoy the music myself as a fan. One of the best things for me was to see Possessed. Holy Moses, and stuff like that, was also very interesting. Sodom. We could support old bands and new bands. That was very cool. Real fun to hang out with fans.

With Dubai is totally different thing and maybe it’s more interesting. Because it was the first time Mayhem played in the Middle East. Definitely one of the first bands of this of kind extreme metal that played there. Personally, to me it was very interesting. A lot more important. I like the Middle East area for historical reasons. Sometimes I like to travel to neighbouring areas, like the Mediterranean. Not so classical, as Egypt or Lebanon. Old Mesopotamian areas, Babylonian, Assyrian. Old cultures. They all had an incredible impact. Today’s civilization originates from this area as well. I love this part of the world and it was extra important to me to play there, because it was like a statement. We played in Dubai, but in a way we played in the whole of Arabia. In Dubai there are not many metal fans anyway. It’s a cool city, I can’t deny it. But it’s very metropolitan, very europeanized. Mixture of global influences and lots of business and stuff going on. Fans were coming to see us from Egypt, Iran, Syria, Qatar, not only from the Emirates. There was not so many people, I must say, but I understand why. It’s very tricky and they do not know until the last day if they’ll be able to come. You can be a fan, but you have borders to cross. Emirates is very open-minded country. People are extremely nice. Especially those who are from there. It happened to us that we were banned before from Indonesia, Malaysia. So sometimes they got crazy, too involved in their culture. But these days it looks like things are getting better. There are a lot of good fans. So there was an important thing to us to play there. To meet real metal-heads there. Because it’s all about music, you know? It was fun to hang out with some of those guys. And there was a really great after party. We invited fans to join us.

Black metal fans are of course eager for the new Mayhem studio album. It’s been some time since the magnificent “Ordo Ad Chao” was released. Could you please tell me how far did you go with writing process? Which direction will you go this time? Maybe you know some titles or number of songs, tentative release date of your new effort?

It is in the process and we are in progress for a while now. It takes a little bit longer, because there were some changes in the line-up. It is a complex thing in the case of band like Mayhem. We know how we should work, how we function in the best way. We are not the band that must release albums every year or fulfil people’s expectations. We put a lot of effort in it and we have to feel comfortable about what we do. And also we play a lot of shows, I think more than we have ever played. We don’t prefer any of our records. Sometimes we focus more on the past, sometimes we focus on more recent stuff. So, we don’t need a new album so much. But at the same time we need it for ourselves. Right now we feel more comfortable and confident to do that. I personally have lots of ideas. I also have other bands too, Mayhem being the main one. So, I’ve been composing lyrics right now and the guys are also coming up with some ideas. We shared some of these ideas in Hungary last autumn. And we started together to record demos. That happened like last October, November. Later we went on tour. Right now we are going back to the process. It might take some time, because we are very self-critical. But there is already some very good stuff, very interesting. I don’t really like to say any name yet, because it is still shaping up. So, I won’t tell you the exact title of the record. I have different ideas. There are couple of themes that I like. I’m going into metaphysical direction, so-called dark energy, dark matter, out of space and time, but affecting the material world. I’m talking about official science here. I thought it was very inspiring. That’s another interesting thing, which is always a part of our music. Mayhem’s music on “Ordo Ad Chao”, and also on other records, is always multi-dimensional. There is also a very spiritual aspect to it. But it always has to connect to the material world, because it is part of our common reality. I don’t like very personal views. I prefer to research. My lyrics always reflect the state of my research, my interests in life. And it is changing these days. I have thoughts and I’m really fascinated by changes (laughs). It was a time I was setting up directions and that was one of those. Somehow there is this connection to scientific things and there is also science fiction. But they were always part of my lyrics. In older days and in other bands too.

Current Mayhem guitar player is Telloch, formerly of 1349 and Gorgoroth, among others. However at some point there were rumours that you asked Snorre Ruch of Thorns to work with you. Were those rumours true? Did you really ask Snorre? Or is there no truth in it at all?

Without a shadow of doubt Snorre is an old friend of ours. And our fan through the years. It was one of the ideas, because he was involved before. I will probably ask his opinion about the album (laughs). But it’s not really decided and it’s not looking like he will be involved. Snorre is living up North with his family, so I don’t think he would like to join any band and go on tour, as far as I understand. He composes his own music, has his own visions. But we are always in contact.

As you have announced on Tormentor’s Facebook profile, you’ve discovered plenty of new material of this magnificent band. Taking this into account, could you tell me, when the vinyl reissues of “Anno Domini” and “The Seventh Day Of Doom” are going to be finally available?

That’s very interesting topic. It’s an idea that came to me and inspired my friend, Jonas Svensson, a Swedish guy. He is an old time friend and total Tormentor fan from back of the days. He is also been working for Mayhem, did a lot of artwork for shows, like backdrops, sidedrops. Through the years we had this idea, that maybe it is time to put together Tormentor stuff from old times, with more photos, more interesting stuff. Make it a proper release like it should be back then on vinyl. It was his idea, actually. I’m happy to say that we got the old members involved who are still my friends. We put together as much as we could find. We found the old artwork. Our drummer Zsoltar Machat was a painter and he did the old artwork. We discovered a lot of old photos. So, there is gonna be a special insert with all Tormentor members involved, not only me, sharing their perspective on the band. It is gonna be beautiful booklet, also a poster, lots of pictures. It will be kind of jubilee release, saluting all those years, telling everything about those days, what they meant, which is almost everything (laughs). Because that’s how we started. This is gonna be a limited edition. Probably there is gonna be another one. You know, we are not a big label (laughs). It is our present for the fans. But not the main project. That’s why it takes some time. I’m happy to say that the vinyl pressing will be done from old master tapes, which have been remastered very carefully. I think the sound will be very nice. Both releases are pressed in Germany, where the best quality vinyl pressing company in Europe today is located. We are very careful with the details. There is just the booklet which is now missing. I think it’s gonna take a few more weeks. But I think we are at the very end of the process. A lot of people are interested in it, which is very cool. There will be also some patches. It’s gonna be very nice. Release date is coming. 90 per cent of work is done and that is the big thing. And the other recordings that we have also found, are rehearsals, some old live tapes.

Attila, you spend a lot of time touring. And when you are not on tour you stay in Budapest. In numerous interviews you said that nature is your very important source of inspiration. Does that mean, that you have to leave Budapest to compose new music or write new lyrics or you can find a creative spark in the town as well? Are there places in Hungary, Norway or other countries where you feel a constant flow of inspiration?

Occasionally it happens that inspiration is not related to any specific place. I still live in Budapest, because I was born here and my family is here. It is a nice city and I still love it. However I could live anywhere I want in Europe. But I’m here. I can still write my lyrics here, I do my reading, and of course I have my family life here with my two teenage kids. It is very cool today that because of the internet it is not so important where you are. Of course, I travel a lot and I remember some of my lyrics were written in special places like in Japan at the gates of the Emperor’s Palace. I was sitting down there, in a very meditative mood, surrounded by very good atmosphere. I remember it was for the album “6°Fskyquake”, which I did with Stephen O’Malley, very good modern artist. Some of the lyrics I wrote in Egypt and other countries. Sometimes when I’m on tour I just study places by myself.

You are without a doubt very versatile artist and you worked with many musicians from around the world. And you always try not to have limits as far as artistic creation goes. Considering this, may I draw an assumption that you wouldn’t decline invitation to collaborate from Lady GaGa if only musical direction was acceptable to you? Or this limitless creation does involve only underground artists, not mainstream ones?

That’s a good question. For me, I’d like to have collaborations with people who made great impact on me. So far someone like Lady GaGa is not really that artist. Maybe in some time she will make an impact on me. First of all, I don’t know her personally. And I don’t know too much about her stuff. Of course, it could be changed. Maybe she is cool. I read and heard some cool things about her, but they don’t really matter to me at the moment. As for co-operations with other artists, I would be interested for instance in working with Diamanda Galas who has huge influence on me. I was so honoured that I could open for her show not so long ago in Copenhagen. I also had little conversation with her and she was really, really nice to me. As you see, it’s different. If she would ask me, I wouldn’t hesitate (laughs).

Speaking of collaborations, Balazs Pandi, who will also be playing on Asymmetry Festival, recently revealed that he works on new music and you and also Merzbow are involved. Could you tell me anything more about this project? What it is going to be musically?

It also happens thanks to this new levels of communication. As you know, I like to do collaborations when I feel inspiration. Of course, with right people. Balazs has great knowledge of music and is a great drummer too. I’ve met with Merzbow for the first time, great noise artists from Japan, when I toured there with Sunn O))). He came to our Tokyo show and played part of it together with us. Later we met in Oslo, we played a show together. I opened for him with my solo project Void Of Voices. Balazs asked me about this idea of working together. Of course I said “yes”. So, that might happen soon. But I don’t know, because Stephen O’Malley also asked me to do something with Merzbow. However, we’ve met, we hung out. This is definitely gonna be an experiment. It is more about personalities and a vibe, I guess. This is one of my plans for the future.

I’ve seen you live a couple of times and if you ask me, you have a great acting talent. Haven’t you thought about focusing more on acting? I know that you have already gathered some experiences of that kind in Hungary, but haven’t you received more offers as an actor?

First of all, thank you very much (laughs). But not really. Actually, there is a guy from Italy, who asked me if I could participate in a kind of zombie horror movie. It could be interesting. There is a whole different artistic meaning to this kind of idea. I’d love to try it. I definitely do not feel like big actor. It’s not so very, very far from music where you are on stage and you also acting. You know, sometimes artists like actors like to try themselves in music, and vice versa. But I’m not too crazy about that, I’m not pushing anything. I did some very small roles and I liked it (laughs). Also working as a part of the crew of film production was very interesting to me. You can learn so much from it.

Are you talking about working on Tony Scott’s movie “Spy Game”?

Yeah. That was a really, really nice experience.

How did you get the job, actually?

It was thanks to my ex-wife Nora, she was working there too. She got this offer somehow that they were looking for someone and let me know. For me, it was the first time, but she was also working on movies like “Die Hard”. I have to thank her for this opportunity.

On the Asymmetry Festival website we have announced a competition “What question would you like to ask Attila Csihar”. And we chose two winners. Here is the first one – is your mother proud of her son’s musical career? Has she ever attended Mayhem’s show?

I think she is proud by now. As far as the relation with kids, my parents always loved me and supported me in life with their entire hearts. But of course, there was a time when they didn’t understand me at all, because the choices I have made were totally different from their expectations. It’s strange, because I started playing music when I was a kid, teenager, and they thought it was just teenage fantasy (laughs). But it remained with me and my parents have found it really bizarre. They didn’t support that, but as long as I was OK with other aspects of life, it was OK with them. Sometimes hard for them. Actually, my mother came to see my solo show, VoV show. Wait a minute… She came to one Mayhem show! When I wasn’t even in the band, just before I’ve joined them. She brought my son down to the show and she left before the show started (laughs). My mother is cool. Of course, she is an older woman now, but luckily she’s all right. By now she is proud of me, however I don’t think my parents really understood what this whole thing is. But who did anyway? (laughs).

And the second one of winning questions – how do people in Hungary perceive you? Are you recognized in your home country as, for example, Behemoth’s Nergal is in Poland, or you remain underground figure?

You know, I like to remain a little bit in a shadow. And I don’t need that kind of publicity. I have my friends, and people who know my music, and that is enough for me. I prefer when people don’t really recognize me. That’s when I feel more comfortable in life. I’m not too much in the media. However, sometimes some papers write about me, but they like very controversial comments, not really anything about my music. Of course, in heavy metal scene I’m respected and I’m thankful for that. But it’s nothing like, for instance, Nergal’s popularity in Poland. By the way I’m very happy for him. In Norway I was more popular, at some point. Of course Mayhem is very popular. Often perceived as public enemy band. And it didn’t change that much, even though the whole world is changing. For me it isn’t so important to be in the media.

Vader will be also playing on Asymmetry Festival. The band celebrates their 30th anniversary this year. Once they covered Mayhem’s “Freezing Moon”. If they asked you to perform this tune with you as a guest at the event, would you consider to do it?

Well, me and the band would have to think about it, look at the schedule. I’m not against it, but it would have to fit to the whole thing. I like experiments, but I also like to have interest in it. It’s not like I’m not interested, but in general. If they have their show the other day than ours, it would be more likely. Normally we are very busy before the show. If we have a little bit of free time, we would like to chill out. To play the show it’s not only what people see. There are lot of preparations, technical issues, soundcheck, some press. Anyway, it’s a complex thing. For now, I’m not saying “no” (laughs).

I envy you for lots of things Attila, two of them are being good at maths and physics. In present times people who have great skills in those fields can earn a lot of money working in banks or financial institutions. Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe it would be better and easier to you to reduce your involvement in art and get well-paid job in other field or it was never an option?

That’s very interesting and important question that causes a confusion, not to me, but also to any other artist. Playing music, being an artist is extremely important, but is never guaranteed that you will be able to survive doing it. Look at Van Gogh, I think he never sold any picture in his entire life. And now he is considered one of the most important painters. Artist’s life is full of suffering and sacrifices and people often don’t realize it. It refers to music too. I mean, you can learn music in school, but you cannot learn in music school how to express emotions through notes. Something like this comes from life experience. Those two things have to come together somehow. Of course, it differs. In pop music people can get into it from various shows, competitions. But going back to your question, yes, it came through my mind many times. What should I do? How to survive? However, I can imagine that I have steady job and then comes an offer to do a tour. What can you do? What kind of job do you have to have that allows you to be away for a week or more? I think, very, very few bosses would respect that. At certain point you would have to give up. I must say I’m very lucky, because now I can survive from music. But that took me like 25 years. And I’m not talking about being rich, I’m talking about surviving on a very, very average level. However, I’m very thankful for that, because I don’t have to sell my soul, I don’t have any boss who tells me what to do. We never had a manager. I’m certainly lucky, but as I said it took me a long time to be one. Of course, I worked as a maths and physics teacher before and it was interesting thing to pass knowledge. But it is not really the knowledge that you would like to pass (laughs). And that was a bit controversial and problematic. But I think there is no job that isn’t controversial. Music is also a tough job. You have to sacrifice something sometimes, but it’s worth it.

Thank you very much Attila for this conversation and see you in Wroclaw!

Interviewer: Leslaw Dutkowski