Mosh Pit Mishaps and the S-Word: An Interview with Akercocke

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2017, all rights reserved.

As the 20th century whimpered to a close, British extreme metal faction Akercocke roared out the defiant Rape of the Bastard Nazarene. The combination of brutal death and blackened blasphemy twisted minds with bold arrangements that subverted genre expectations. Every two years thereafter, Akercocke released challenging new records that ranged from the skin-peeling assault of The Goat of Mendes to the progressive noir of Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone. But after Antichrist was released in 2007, the Satanic sect descended into silence. While drummer David Gray continued creating new heavy music, vocalist/guitarist Jason Mendonça stepped away altogether.

A decade later, the Ak is back with Renaissance in Extremis. Released from Peaceville Records on August 25th, it pairs the propulsion of extreme metal with challenging artistry and even stronger emotional catharsis. In Alec A. Head’s review in dB #156, he writes, “thrash riffs blend into more proggy, dissonant death metal flourishes and shredding solos, which in turn give way to post-punk-influenced, clean arpeggios.” If that sounds like a lot to juggle without stranding the listener in some musical nebula, you’re not wrong. But Akercocke have never shown interest in being easily definable or passively appreciated. Their songs demand and command attention, rewarding repeat visits to their horned discography.

Below, enjoy an extended conversation from the interview that informed the “Lucifer Rising” Akercocke profile in Decibel‘s October issue. While discussing Renaissance in Extremis, Gray and Mendonça also share their thoughts on mosh pit mishaps, Malaysian chat lines, Donald Trump and the S-word: SATAN.

I understand you just got back from Iceland[‘s Eistnaflug Festival]. How’d that treat you?

David Gray: They treated us really well. It was an unusual festival; it wasn’t a full-on heavy metal affair. But it was fantastic, they had an amazing stage crew.

Jason Mendonça: Such a well-organized festival. Beautiful people, very welcoming and friendly. From a band perspective, it was a delight. What’s not to like?

Do you prefer festivals like that, with an eclectic lineup of talent?

DG: For me personally, any festival where there’s another band I’d actually be interested in watching is what I like the best. There wasn’t really anyone like that on this one. But I must admit, when I get to a festival and I see a band I’m interested in–

JM: It’s a bargain.

DG: So you go to play, but you also get to see Obituary or whomever, you just say yes, that’s a good time.

JM: To get to be a fan as well as a performer, that’s the best cocktail, really.

Did you play any of the new songs there?

JM: We played one new one, “Disappear.” We wheeled that one out. It’s a funny one, it’s a crowd-pleaser. It’s been getting the pits going, which is great to see.

That’s great. Sometimes with new songs, the reaction can be polarizing.

DG: It’s kind of more of a thrash affair to begin with, and when we discussed it we thought it might be a good live opener to get things going. It has the rest of the band’s trademarks, but it sort of begins that way.

JM: It starts with blast beats and goes into thrash. We were thinking of Teutonic thrash, weren’t we? Thinking kind of Holy Moses or Kreator with that riff. It’s really interesting to see that moment when people go from observers to punching each other.

And you have the best vantage point for that, to see the moment where something changes in their eyes.

JM: My girlfriend came to a recent London show, she had never seen the band before. But she didn’t watch the band at all, she was fascinated with the crowd.


The people watching is amazing. Some people take the opportunity to just let go, and you don’t necessarily see their public face.

DG: When we were 15–

JM: What do you mean when we were 15? I’m still kicking off pits now!

DG: Well when you’re a kid you kind of think a bit more like that. Nobody knows who I am, nobody cares, so why not go a bit mental.

JM: Voivod came around recently, and I had that urge to jump into the crowd. But I had the chance to recover and rein myself in.

DG: There’s that Woody Allen moment where you’re like, “I would jump off the stage, but I don’t want to lose my spectacles.”

JM: I don’t want to lose a contact lens!

DG: Then everyone’s cleared out as you’re looking for your change and your car keys.

JM: I went to see a band about 15 years ago, and went into a pit. I got really drunk–

DG: Did you?

JM: A rare thing, I know. But when I woke up the next morning, I realized I lost my phone, and must have lost it in the pit. Well whoever found it must have had friends or relatives in Malaysia, because when I looked at the phone bill there were about 500 pounds of calls to there.

DG: I’d like to think it’s some kind of Malaysian chat line.

I’ve had the chance to listen to the new record a few times now, and I love it. I keep coming back to a few songs – specifically, “A Final Glance Back Before Departing” and “First to Leave the Funeral.” I heard there were some songs that had parts written back in 2005 and 2006, was it?

JM: Whole songs from 2007, from the Antichrist writing sessions. About, 30 or 35% of the album originated from that material.

And has the writing process changed for you all in the past decade?

JM: Well, we used those songs as a kind of foothold to get back into the swing of playing together, to reestablish the connection and remember what it was like to be in a room together, and how those dynamics work. So those songs were perfect for that very purpose. And then [guitarist] Paul [Scanlon] had a wealth of material that he brought to the table. Full-fledged, fully-formed songs. It was very different in that regard. There was less of a group-jam way of pulling stuff together. Of course everyone adds their own individual components, because they write their own parts.

DG: Also, the material that was from right after Antichrist, if we had demoed that material back then, it would have been different from how it was on this album. Nothing that different. But it would have been played with a different feel; the attack would feel different. We took older material and played how we think now.

I understand that you were using the same rehearsal space you’ve always used. Is that still the case?

JM: Since the dawn of the time.

DG: Since we first met when we were 15 years old, we’re still playing in the same room. There’s no time limit, no unloading equipment. It’s our space and it’s a great luxury that we don’t take for granted.

JM: We’ve been very lucky through the years, we just plug in and play.

Is there anything on the walls, posters looking down at you while you rehearse?

DG: There was a poster of the film Tony: London Serial Killer, but It’s gone. I noticed recently it’s not there, and have no idea where it is. There’s also a small picture of Anton Valet, who’s sort of a cartoon homage to Anton LaVey. He’s the only one who watches us while we rehearse.

JM: Anton Valet; it’s the secret day job of a Satanist.

Jason, I know you had mentioned you were restructuring priorities, which included self-care and focusing on family. When did you realize music was something you wanted, needed, or missed?

JM: It was a very weird and slow process, because I wasn’t doing anything creative for years. But some dudes I know asked if I’d play with them for a benefit gig. So I thought, fuck it, why not? It could be a giggle. I rehearsed with these dudes twice before a show in London. And I thought, christ, you know what? I really enjoy doing this. I had kind of forgotten, which might sound absurd, but my head was in such a different space prior to that. So that was definitely a leg-up moment before discussing with David about putting the project back together and rebooting Akercocke.

David, was there ever a moment where you doubted the project would rekindle?

DG: Because I’m stupid, I always had this naive kind of attitude. We both agreed in private that Antichrist wasn’t the last chapter of the Akercocke story. It just doesn’t scan that way. So both of us had in our minds that there would be another Akercocke album, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the previous version. I wasn’t ready to stop playing heavy metal when Akercocke finished, so I carried on and always will. To me, music gives me this validation, in a very personal way. If I don’t have music I don’t exist, in a lot of ways. So I had always hoped that there would be something to happen to Jason on his own path that would steer him back to some musical expression that we could both call Akercocke. But it ended up being something that stems from words that go unspoken than it does Antichrist.

Jason, you’ve mentioned before that Antichrist felt a little derivative to you at the time. How did you make sure you avoided that feeling while writing this album?

JM: From my perspective, where Antichrist started to feel a bit repetitious, was with the straight down the line death metal stuff. Which is great, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it was never my intention that we should necessarily do that. Because there are so many others already doing that, who do it better, frankly. That didn’t fill me with much inspiration at the time. So I think it was only logical that our raison d’être that Dave, Paul, and I have shared is to play music that amuses us and excites as at players, that we get off on in the rehearsal room. It’s only logical that this next one can be another step forward.

I loved the album title when you announced it, and here we are in 2017, and the world is even more fucked up. It made me think of an interview I had seen from [Nolan Live on BBC Belfast], I think it was in 2007, and everyone was just yelling over each other. You were both there trying to have a conversation, drinking a glass of red wine. Sadly, that has become the standard for televised discourse in the states.

JM: Isn’t that funny? Don’t even get me started. Who’s that fucking clown in the White House? What is that all about? This strange Twitter, pop politics. Everyone has picked up on this world populism, which really annoys me. There’s been a populist element in politics for the past 15 years, certainly through the [Tony] Blair years here. With all respects to the good people of the United States of America, British politics – despite having a completely different system – allowed itself to be infected by a certain populist, media-driven approach driven by soundbites and spin doctors, that has sucked out a lot of the well-intentioned, believable, convincing characters from the game on both sides of the ponder, and left us with charlatans who aren’t worth fucking pissing on, frankly. But coming back to heavy metal, it embodies so much catharsis and escapism, and it’s great that no matter what’s going on in the chaos around the world, and all these dreadful and depressing things going around us, we can still childishly retreat to our embryonic cell and play fucking escapist heavy metal and put a smile on our faces.

I remember during that [BBC] interview you discussed what Satanism means to you, which is basically individualism and freedom of expression. Do you think a decade later those values are in a worse place across the world?

JM: I think so, but it’s very difficult to gauge, isn’t it? Oppressive regimes are nothing but control mechanisms driven by political motives or by religious control mechanisms. They’ve always existed, so it’s difficult to decide if the tide of fanaticism is any greater or less than it was ten years ago. The media works at such a speed, that it may just be that we get to hear about things a lot more readily. But certainly, the current reportage on all angles of fanaticism, people who are aligned along all points of the political spectrum, doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence for the well being of humanity.

Looking at all the blogs carrying stories about your re-emergence, so many tend to focus on something I considered a footnote, which is your suits, your image.

JM: How funny is that? I can’t believe it struck a chord with people to the point they’d be upset.

I guess people were holding on to that a little more dearly than you were?

DG: Yeah, I’d say so. We hadn’t really seriously consider returning to suits, just like we didn’t seriously consider writing more riffs that sound like Suffocation. That’s what we did before, and that’s great. Just we’re in a different head-space. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just different.

JM: You don’t want to be a parody of yourself, do you? I find so many other opportunities to do that with idiotic behavior.

In the past you’ve talked about the “Hammer horror” version of Satanism that so many people are familiar with. Lyrically, on this record, you’ve talked about the themes being more positive. There’s a lot about inaction versus moving forward. To me, that still embodies the Satanic spirit of self-reliance and self-preservation.

JM: I don’t know. I think it’s important to rely on yourself when you can, but it’s also important to realize when you need the help of others, which comes from a different place. But things I have branded as Satanic in the past, like what you mentioned earlier – individuality and freedom of expression – you can take away the S-word and those two notions and concepts are still extremely valid. So I don’t make much bones about framing things with the S-word anymore. I just try to focus on what’s good, and what’s worth conveying.

Order Renaissance in Extremis from Peaceville Records HERE. Follow Akercocke on Facebook for tour dates so you can contribute your own mosh pit mishaps to their live shows.

Photo by Tina Korhonen © 2017, all rights reserved.