Ends of the Earth, A Q&A With Ruins Mastermind Alex Pope

** For the past four years, Tasmanian black metallers Ruins have been working on their fifth album, Undercurrent. Without the pressures of most bands–writing, recording, touring–frontman Alex Pope, drummer Dave Haley, guitarist Joe Haley, and bassist Kai Summers were afforded time and space to realize their latest black metal vision. Undercurrent spans a solid 44 minutes, during which tracks such as “Shadow of a Former Self”, “Rites of Spring”, “Certainty the Adversary” and the title track rake through traditional black metal tropes as well as places the genre, as a whole, is too narrow-minded to go. Undercurrent is both aggressive, manic, controlled, and message intense. It’s the kind of black metal album that’s undeterred by the weather around it. Read as Decibel and Ruins creative chief Alex Pope get into the thick of what black metal means and what it’s like to be under Down Under.

The press release says Undercurrent is a new beginning for Ruins. What does that mean exactly?
Alex Pope: I guess it is a recapitulation every time we do something. It is with all of our past there as a foundation; so we instantly draw on this as much as any other inspiration, and I think it gives our inspiration momentum really, to re-examine what we are all about. I think that it is just how art works, really. To re-examine your ideas, themes, motivations, techniques, etc. I don’t really try to contrive any particular outcome; yes, there is a definite ending to the work, the finished album is the result, but it can be hard to pin-point beginnings of songs for me, they just sort of start emerging. So, in a way I think I have always written like this, where it is a fluid process, ideas are constantly getting re-examined day in-day out in those formative stages. Perhaps, we have become more capable of the same kind of fluid approach in production as in writing, but of course that means that everything is a lot longer process. I feel like we have ended up with a sonically and thematically diverse thing happening. We just make what we want to hear and this draws from a very wide range of inspiration, but I feel that the result is total black metal, perhaps even more so than our earlier stuff, I think.

There are several standout songs. If you had to choose a particular favorite which one would it be and why?
Alex Pope: Obviously, I am pleased enough with the results of anything we have ever released, or it just wouldn’t be out there. But within the framework of how things are set up at the moment, I think I would have to say that “Faust” I am pretty pleased with. I think this is a good example of Ruins at our best on this track. Or I guess it is more just that a track like this kind of showcases most sides of what Ruins can present. It’s a good summation of what we have to offer sonically, rhythmically, and thematically. In many ways I find this to be one of my most favorite songs personally. I am really pleased with how this one emerged and resolved itself.

You’re categorized as black metal. What is black metal to you?
Alex Pope: I attempt a gesture to the power that is there before Ruins arrives; as did Darkthrone salute to Mayhem, Hellhammer/CelticFrost, Bathory. In many cases I think black metal stagnates where it does not embrace the depth. The vintage of Celtic, Slayer, Bathory. However, the retro black-thrash, proto-black metal, when it’s so old-school and offended by the excesses of later ‘90s black metal, they head so far back in direction they forget that De Mysteriis, Det Som Engang Var, and Under a Funeral Moon ever happened. Personally, I have no real parameters. I don’t want limitations or rules. I just know what I don’t like, I suppose. I will experiment with what I do like. I guess, in essence I have always just tried to highlight the features of the music that I like. I seem to always end up saying the same kind of clichés about this, but I think it’s a good picture of my view on this; I think there are good artists regardless of genre or sub-genre, etc. I am a huge fan of Tom Warrior from Hellhammer to Triptykon, with an unashamed look at Cold Lake and Apollyon Sun along the way. I like this body of work. I worship Darkthrone, from Soulside to “Tundra Leech”. Mayhem, Deathcrush to Esoteric Warfare, and all in between. So, I think these are good examples of sonics, and stylistics, having no real significance in the scheme of what can specifically be seen to be black metal or not.

Do you think there are bands that are similar to Ruins sonically and spiritually? If so, which bands?
Alex Pope: I will say right now that we aren’t really trying to speak for anyone else, and I wouldn’t like to assume that much about anyone else’s content, or intent. I really just wouldn’t want to try and name any names here sorry. Anyway… To try to discuss the spiritual side. In some ways we are a kind of an apocalyptic band. I feel we embody the necessity of the destruction, and oneness with it, a detachment from it, whilst embracing it… so, it is aggressive and violent and dark, and primal, and this is a quality that we share with many bands of many styles. It is also inspiring and uplifting in its way. So, this obviously can represent struggle or triumph for those who want it to symbolize that. Spiritually speaking, you can say we are a nature worshiping band, but our view of this is obscure, my view of nature and time, it is probably just my own appropriation of some Shamanic, or Taoist ideas, or something, who knows? This band is my church, I guess? It is my way of dealing with my spiritual side; the ‘other’, the ‘dreaming’, the ‘psyche’. I enjoy the presentation of the seductive Satan. As a result of the spiritual void, I suppose I was always open for some stimulation in that area, so I think I learned quite a lot as a younger person about a variety of religious ideas and different cultures. Christians should feel I was dealing with the devil already. And I can appreciate that societally. I am a secular Christian, really, even though regarding religion, I was raised with no spirituality. My family never attended any kind of church. I am not Christened, none of it. But of course this is/was a Christian society, and the West is at war with Islam (sort of); so I guess societally I am at best/worst a secular Christian.

Does location, meaning Tasmania, translate to anything with Ruins? How you approach music, what you’re exposed to, change or differing of viewpoint?
Alex Pope: Well, it is a small population down here, so it is not really a big scene. Our biggest names internationally would be Psycroptic, and Striborg; so that’s a pretty polarized view, but actually speaks volumes about the diversity across the spectrum.  There were very few people interested in really heavy music when I was growing up. I suppose things are very different these days. There has always been great stuff coming from Tasmania, for a long time now. A wide variety of extreme and unhindered expression, Départe, back to Striborg, Throes, Thrall, and Mekigah along the way. People probably have a certain idea of what they imagine it to be like in Australia. They probably think about the Outback and the desert, and heat. Tasmania is not like that of course. It is a very mild climate compared to most places for sure, but it’s certainly nothing like the Outback down here. We are close to Antarctic. I live to the south of the capital city at the foot of a mountain. The whole of our island’s southwest is basically untouchable forest wilderness. There are probably a lot of inspirations coming from environment and geography. We are isolated and we have a small population. I love the isolation, reclusion. Tasmania is a really beautiful and mysterious, isolated place. I have removed myself from many distractions living in my part of the world. This absolutely affects my music, all these things focus my concentration and attention to the moods I like to capture, or the moods I need to summon to capture my music. So there are many things about the landscape that inspire, let alone that reclusion through isolation that probably encourages the creativity in the first place. I am not saying that I would not be an artist making music if I was raised or lived in some other environment, but it is fair to assume the material would come out differently. On this level, everything, absolutely everything that we perceive; it’s all influencing in one way or another, what we are and what we do. Mostly our expression just comes down to what we are experiencing at the time during writing and production and whatever. Or, sometimes maybe it is some feeling we are trying to focus, that reflects the lyrics.

How much of your previous bands has influenced or informed the way you write for Ruins?
Alex Pope: Well, Ruins is my primary musical concern, I guess, and like we have discussed, all things have influence on some level. I have recently been playing guitar for another band called Pure. I do some experimental stuff called Ruiner and the Threshold Forms, that is kind of showcased in Ruins more atmospheric, psychedelic passages, the interludes, the intros, and outros… Threshold Forms makes experimental stuff that can be mined by Ruins. I have done a stack of different stuff over the years, but for some time now Ruins is the only thing I really write for or work for or whatever. Dave likes to be busy and push his abilities as a drummer in different directions, by playing with a lot of different bands. They are all cool bands in totally different ways I suppose, so he gets to really enjoy diversity in his work. Dave is a master. He has been waiting for this album a long time. We finished tracking the original drum parts for this album three years ago. [Laughs] Ruins is a place where Dave can capture some very different sides to himself, than he is able to present through Psycroptic or many other bands he has worked with.

Lyrically, where is Ruins coming from on Undercurrent?
Alex Pope: Following the riffs tumbling out, and finding their ways together; then either concepts, or themes, or direct lyrics, or at least ideas for sourcing lyrics, they all sort of come together as well. More specific sets of things seem to find their way together and become groups of connected ideas. But I don’t set out to do something particular, just do what comes and then decide if it fits in to the framework of what we feel Ruins to be or not. We are interested in presenting a kind of warrior’s view, and sometimes a sorcerer’s view. By this I mean a more mystical description of the world than most people can tolerate, let alone try to comprehend. To me, this is a more meaningful experience of life. Also it is the language of art for me, the language of art, and music, and film; if this is not the language, then it is not art essentially, just product. Alongside the presentation of this kind of view of the world, I would say that we are trying to express a kind of contempt for many things to do with the view of humanity as it is right now, and living in the society we do. Contempt for the common rational view of the world, I suppose. We try to undermine our own arrogance. The smug, and entitled idiot kind of character that is basically expected of a properly socialized person. Or, the weakened victim mentality, that is seemingly the only alternative. We are trying to offer a different feeling, a different concept, different world than that, create a different world than that to be able to express ourselves at least. It is an abstraction, but I always use this for my own self investigation, and maybe self-documentation in some way, doing music and art in general; particularly when considering lyrical stuff, it is always through a lens of some self-analysis for me, but also leaving it sort of open enough, and just kind of conceptual, (detached)-philosophical enough, that there is room for others to bring their reality, and their view of things, to the somewhat loose concepts we present. We sort of infer stuff with lyrics. So, on the other side of this we suggest feeling and mood through the music. I sort of encourage the internal dialogue to recede with those kind of trance-psych sort of parts in the music, that is what that dynamic represents for me, the shutting out all the words and thoughts, and trying to induce that meditative state.

What is the Undercurrent? Undercurrent of what?
Alex Pope: I guess with Undercurrent you can take a direct view of what the word means. It is interesting even in literal meaning but should probably be taken as metaphor… in which case it’s wide open. It’s the kind of word that obviously has those very broad metaphoric overtones, for a variety of reasons, so I guess given the realm of music people would think of some sort of satanic undercurrent? So, that is multi-layered and wide open. It plays on different interpretations at every level. Something in some way spiritually, sexually, politically, corrupted or something?  Of course, having just been speaking of the meditative place, we could actually be talking about a very peaceful undercurrent within (or tapped into at large), a universal peace? It is a cool contrarian word I suppose, if it is inner peace it is external war, and if it is all calm on the surface level then perhaps turmoil is within. Obviously the word has an occult feeling. It seems to represent the same feeling or concept, of that which is hidden or disguised from us. What view you may take can still go any which way, just the idea of using the word undercurrent inspires conspiratorial, paranoid feeling I think. Sets an arena for conspiracy, highlights the corruptible nature of power, maybe the corrupted power of nature?

Are you looking to expose Ruins outside of Tasmania and Australia? I know you’ve done tours of Australasia, but any chances of the band hitting Europe or the states?
Alex Pope: I have been content with being just a recording project in the past. We eventually evolved into a group that is capable of performing live. We don’t do a lot of live performance with Ruins. We are capable and equipped to do live shows, but it’s difficult for us to do more than occasional shows around Australia. It’s been a matter of our lifestyles making it difficult for us to get away for more than a few days at a time. I am in two minds about live performance really, when we do it I enjoy, but we are just as happy to return to the studio unit at any time. And as I said, it is just a day to day for me to be writing and recording. It is just lifestyle circumstances make it difficult for us to look at much in the way of international touring. Even though we have the potential, and in some ways we have the desire, we definitely have the right people around to make these things happen if we were willing and able. I see it as two different things in a way. Live performance is just a small part to me. Live helps promote of course, but just personally, I am just as comfortable to just write and record this music and exist in my own little world down here. I don’t feel like I am missing some huge opportunities to not tour overseas. Of course it will reach more and further. I have done tours in the past, and Dave and Joe still do with their other bands. So it is just that in our case, Ruins is not really set up like that. We don’t play particularly standard stuff, and likewise we don’t really operate like most bands. I have said this before but it is basically our reality that we are almost in between a regular working band like Psycroptic, and a one-man bedroom (cave) black metal band like Striborg! We aren’t set up like most bands. We are comfortable in our situation, and we carry on either way. Most of my favorite bands I have never seen live, and I probably never will.

** Ruins’ new album, Undercurrent, is out now on Listenable Records. It’s available HERE on CD, LP and HERE digitally.