Q&A: Scott Conner (Xasthur) on “infinite” music, Jerry Garcia and road life

Photo: Ashley Taylor

Scott Conner left a permanent imprint on American black metal, much like fellow one-man black metal artist Jef Whitehead of Leviathan. Xasthur‘s album Telepathic With The Deceased is regarded as a classic of the genre. Like most musical polymaths, however, Conner never intended to stay in one musical place. He grew bored of black metal and gravitated back to the acoustic guitar he shelved years earlier.  Conner then walked away from the (metaphysical) basement and took to the road performing “doomgrass” – a highly original take on an American art form. Since then he has gone on epic cross county tours, written a wealth of unpublished songs and discovered that he feels far more at home fingerpicking a guitar than in the often insular world of black metal. Conner talked to Decibel about his musical path and plans for a new Xasthur album.

You are best known for your one black metal music. Were you always interested in bluegrass and music that is much different aesthetically?
I’ve always been into other kinds of music. I just didn’t pay attention to that side of myself because I was busy collecting every black metal record and caught up in the whole black metal thing. So I didn’t really think about it as much as I would have liked to. I learned how to play acoustic and how to fingerpick years ago before I even knew what black metal was. But I put that style on the back burner for years. I later realized that (acoustic style) had many musical possibilities. I never run out of ideas playing acoustic, but I do run out of ideas with black metal. When you aren’t explicitly playing a genre, you don’t run out of ideas but when you stick to a style, the ideas do run out.

You weren’t doing any black metal shows at all. Now you perform frequently.
That was one of the significant changes. After years of playing black metal, I’d write it, rehearse it, record it and never play it again. I did that for years because I had no intentions or even possibilities of playing live. There were people who offered to learn the Xasthur material in a weekend and play it live, but that would just make it sloppy. It would not be a representation or set the mood. I never had any intentions of playing black metal live. But when I started with acoustic, I would write everything out and then play it over and over again, so it was like I intended to play live.

Did you feel pigeonholed by black metal music? I saw you in the Vice One Man Metal documentary. Now that I’ve seen you in other contexts and talked to you it seems like a one-sided portrayal that rushed to a conclusion.
It did pigeonhole me. Back then I had a hard time explaining both what I was doing and wanted to do. I think part of that was by design. I didn’t explain myself well. I refuse to watch that interview.

You were identified as this person who didn’t interact with others and sat in your house making music. You’ve gone completely in another direction: always on the road and meeting people. A traveling musician’s life is about social interaction.
When I watched that documentary once, it was like they portrayed me as some kind of freak. But that’s not who I am. I can go on the road and talk to people. I should be able to talk to other musicians because I am a musician. It actually hasn’t been that hard because I got a taste of touring with Sunn O))) back in about 2005. So it was like: why can’t I do this now if I’ve done it before? Getting to play a good show is something I enjoy.  I enjoy meeting other musicians and people who want to talk about music. It’s an environment I don’t have at home. In my day-to-day life, I don’t know many people who talk about music or play music. When I do shows that’s where I get to meet people. I like being in that environment because that’s the environment that’s inside of me.

A lot of old bluegrass and blues players did what you are doing…spent their life on the road like a troubadour.
It’s not that hard to make the road your home. It’s a routine that you can fall into very quickly. Some people make the worst of it, and some people make the best of it.

You mentioned ideas come to you more quickly with the acoustic than with black metal. Has that continued since you changed directions?
I don’t feel stuck at all. I’m not trying to stick to a certain form. I’m playing whatever comes to me. It’s my take on a specific style of music that barely fits in a category. Every time something comes to my mind I just write.

A lot of people think of roots music as mostly upbeat and performed in a major pentatonic scale. But you’ve explored a lot of different sounds and textures.
John Fahey was a big influence, as was Jerry Garcia. They both inspired me. They allowed me to see a lot of possibilities just because they could do so much with their approach. It gave me the same idea; many things can come out of personal choices. I learned a few of their songs and started to do my own thing once I got the hang of it. The Grateful Dead has all sorts of songs in their catalog. They’re pretty infinite. They play all kinds of music rolled into one. They don’t have a limit. They could and would turn a reggae into their own thing. It’s reasons like that I really like them.

What is your writing and practice routine like since you’ve gone in a different direction?
When I write, one of the things I try to do is fit together things that wouldn’t fit together naturally. From one chord and riff to the next I feel like I can make things go together. Any time I get the feeling, I can make something new out of it. I could probably write a few songs tonight. Honestly, it’s all about when it comes to me. I’ve written about 60 to 70 songs in the past few years. I don’t need too many more to keep up with.

Do you work when you get off the road?
I can’t fit anything else into my life. I make music as much as I can and just scrape by. I’m trying to be on the road most of the time. I enjoy it, and I hate being home and I enjoy the travel. We were just out for five weeks with Wino this summer and got back the day before yesterday. I hope to do it again. I feel like it might take a while for this type of music to get through to people but I know it can. I will keep doing it up to that point.

Where are those 60 songs going and what’s in the pipeline?
We are supposed to record this month, and it’s my first time getting to do that. The record should be out early next year. I will try to make the best and most audible album I can make and not leave anything out. Then maybe I’ll have the right to tour more often if that’s gone.

What have you learned about yourself since you’ve spent more time on the road?
Now, I don’t know. I think a lot has been just keeping my composure – not get too excited or too miserable. I try to get enough sleep (laughs). I also need to multitask; that’s part of it. I’m usually not like that, but the road forces you to do it.

Did all of these experiences solidify the reasons you left black metal?
I realized that a lot of people say their black metal is different. But if you really want to do something different start playing jazz. The only way not to be different is to do something altogether different. I have this theory about only playing black keys and only playing in white keys. If you only play in one or the other, you will hit a wall. Some people have come (to shows) because of the connection to black metal, and others have come just because they like music. I understand that familiarity helps. I do believe that lots of black metal fans are looking for something different. But I think it’s hard to find. Supposedly, they like technical music, and I try to do that. Supposedly, they want stuff that is dark and dark subject matter. I think there are things in this music that will appeal to them and if they are looking for something different I can provide it.