Q&A: Matt Eiseman on Tithe’s Grief-Informed Black Metal

Photo: John Malley

Tithe‘s blistering second album Inverse Rapture is many things but is not easy listening. It’s an angry and relentless record with a palpable touch of grief.  Learn a bit more about this album’s creation and the reasons for this are apparent: guitarist/vocalist Matt Eiseman wrote the bulk of Inverse Rapture during and after his mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. The title track is about his mother’s long decline.

Inverse Rapture is not just an album about grief but a full frontal attack on the hypocrisy of religion and humanity’s selfishness. While the music is overwhelming at times, the lyrics are so succinct they invite interpretation; many songs are not much more than a list of words in a narrative framework. Eiseman talked to Decibel about how working through grief led to his best hour as a musician.

Did Tithe start as a result of your relocation to Portland?

The band was the result of leaving the Bay Area. The abbreviated version is that my house in West Oakland got robbed. I had to move out of the house and started looking for other places in the bay to rent. I had this old-school deal and my house was cheap. It was a bad neighborhood but it was cheap. The robbery coincided with the shit hitting the fan with my mom’s Alzheimers. I ended up moving to Portland and not long after that moved my Mom down.

When did you first notice that your mother’s memory was a problem?

I noticed for years that her memory was getting worse. She knew it was worsening and would try to cover it with excuses. It was hard to tell how bad it was over the phone. We knew it was getting worse but it’s a tough decision to take over someone’s life and have them give up their independence. You want to wait as long as possible before you make that decision. When I moved to Portland, my sister and I met with my Mom and her doctor. We decided it wasn’t safe for her to drive and she agreed to give up her car keys. Then we had to figure out something else so she moved.

Was writing music for Tithe a lifeline or a way to process what was happening?

I was going to do Tithe regardless. When I moved, I wanted to keep playing music. We were going to keep Infinite Waste going but that didn’t happen. Tithe is a lifeline for all of my frustrations. It’s not just my Mom; it’s my brain (laughs). “Inverse Rapture” is about the experience with my Mom but that’s just one of the subjects and songs.

How did you take care of your Mom, work, and write music all at once?

The pandemic stopped music dead in its tracks. There was a long break in the music business so that was a big part of it. Tithe is like this cathartic release for me. I felt like I could pursue some of these feelings in the music. I wrote the song “Inverse Rapture” after my Mom passed away. She died when she caught Covid. She was on a slow decline and would have met a similar fate but it would have been prolonged without Covid. Once she had Covid, she was bedridden. A month later, her digestive system shut down.

Some conversations (with my Mom) were chilling because she didn’t remember big things. My brother killed himself in 2010 – he cut his throat with a box cutter. My mom found him in the bathroom. When I visited my mom, she said: “Matt, is Jeff dead?” I told her he had passed away. The blessing in disguise of my Mom passing from Covid is that she remembered everyone’s name the last time I saw her. I know she would have wanted that.

When you start losing your memory, who are you? People talk about the sanctity of life but what happens when someone can’t feed themselves? There’s a lot to think about. I kept telling myself that this is a part of life. I wanted to know I did my best and helped her the best I could.

Was it cathartic to write the song?

Right before I left West Oakland, I found my roommate had shot himself with a shotgun. Music is a way for me to process trauma. Having an outlet is nice; I don’t know what I’d do without it. Art reflects life, and you try to express what you are experiencing. The world is both beautiful and ugly. A lot of my songs are about my misanthropic view of humanity. But it feels somehow healing to sing all of that. Metal is beautiful and ugly simultaneously and something is fulfilling about singing about things that bother you.

Tithe is incredibly in-your-face music and rarely gives you a breather. Is that intentional?

It’s not intentional like “let’s not give people space” but a product of how we make music. I come up with riff ideas, get together with Kevin (Swartz, drums) and piece together the songs. We don’t ever want to repeat stuff. I’m also super hyperactive. Sometimes playing something four times seems like too much. Sometimes I fight against giving things space to breathe.

Inverse Rapture reminds me of Incantation’s Onward To Golgotha and 90s Immolation in that the feel is claustrophobic. Were those albums inspirations?

I’m a fan of those records and I listen to that record. I listen to all the classic brutal death metal. I also have a lot of younger musician friends who turn me on to new stuff so I’m fortunate for that. But I love the classics. It’s hard to say (if there is an influence). I don’t like sounding like a particular band. If I am trying to write a certain style, it always ends up like the polar opposite. It’s more like my stuff honors the music that scratches my itch. We don’t ever want to rip off some other band’s sound. A lot of newer bands are cookie-cutter images of 90s bands. Sometimes I wish they would try to be original, but I like those bands (laughs).

There is nothing wrong with playing a style that sounds great.

We were having this discussion recently and someone said metal now has standards. There are jazz standards and bluegrass standards and blues standards. Now, it’s like, “let’s do the early 90s death metal standards.” Metal has been around for a long time so it’s not surprising. I also listen to old blues and old country and I’m interested to hear different takes on standards.

Tithe’s lyrics are almost like haikus. Many of the lyrics are just single words, and it’s very staccato.

I approach vocals like an instrument – a layer to add to the music. It’s a challenge to find words with the right syllables that sound good and are in cadence with the song. I wasn’t thinking about haikus but layers (laughs).

Where did the name Tithe come from?

It came from our original bass player. We were trying to find a band name. A lot of it was me writing lists. It’s hard finding a band name, and I can’t even remember some of the bad ones. Our bassist mentioned that it would be cool to call a band Tithe. I said, “that is a great name.” We were surprised a band didn’t take it because if you go through the dictionary, three bands have taken each cool word. Having people give ten percent of their income to the church for some fairy tale is pretty dark, yet it’s so common. Some people think tithing is wonderful but I see it as people taking advantage of others.

I grew up in a Catholic family and tithing was what you did if you were a person of faith.

But why should you pay for spiritual teaching?

You should give it away.

Where is all that money going? (laughs).

How did you want Inverse Rapture to evolve from Penance?

I wanted to be more listenable. My main focus is writing hooks that grab your ears. Penance has more of a punk and grind influence. After the pandemic, I had time to think about the next album. I wanted to write darker, evil-sounding music.

Can you tell me about the cover art? It’s one of the best covers I’ve seen in 2023.

The artist is named Abomination Hammer. When we sent the album to labels, we had some art that looked like a tee-shirt design. We didn’t want to spend much money and weren’t sure someone would put the album out. When Profound Lore said they were interested, I knew I needed to find a cover. I was hanging out with some friends and they showed me Abomination Hammer’s art. I thought he was amazing. There was something about it that intrigued me and a certain spirit. He had stuff for sale and I saw this piece and hit him up. The original piece is 5X5 and it’s hanging above my bed.

What’s next for the band?

We’re trying to get in front of more people. We have a bunch of shows on the West Coast and then we are going to the East Coast in September. We want to get to Europe next spring. We want to find a good booking agency to get us in front of more people since there’s only so much we can do for ourselves. I want to play better shows and play for more people.

Has heavy metal helped you survive?

All music has. I listen to classic rock, jazz and old blues. It’s been a part of my life for so many years. A good metal album is like a religious experience.