Q&A: Dead Neanderthals Team Up (Again) with Skeletonwitch Guitarist Scott Hedrick on ‘Specters’

If Dutch avant noise metal duo Dead Neanderthals were looking to add a little blackened thrash to their chaotic instrumental sonic stew, one might think a collaboration with erstwhile Skeletonwitch guitarist Scott Hedrick would do the trick. Except Dead Neanderthals—Otto Kokke (synthesizers) and René Aquarius (drums)—likely weren’t looking to take things in that direction and Hedrick, as it turns out, is all too happy to go far afield from his day job and meet the pair on their turf. Hedrick collaborated on DN’s 2019 full-length, Ghosts, and he’s back in the fold on their brand-new, Utech Records-issued, Specters, just released on vinyl and digitally August 4. Specters, which offers one long track per side—”Necrology” and “Banishment”—sees the multinational collaboration going in a pulsating, hypnotic droning direction on the former, while getting sludgy and majestic on the latter, both enhanced by Hedrick’s thick sheets of effected guitar work.

So enthralled were we with the trio’s new effort, we rang up all parties via the interhole to get some more intel on Specters and what it’s like to collaborate on freaky free-form music from afar. And if you want to get your own limited edition vinyl copy of Specters, go here or here.

The last album with Scott was called Ghosts and this one is Specters. Is there a connection thematically and, if so, what does it represent?

RENÉ AQUARIUS: This might be a bit of a no-brainer, but the connection of course is that the three of us made this album. It’s weird when somebody (Scott, in our case) is not physically present in the rehearsal space when writing material for these albums. Every time we heard a new version, it was like a ghost added ideas to the mix, hence the title of the first album. As the second one was made in the same vein, and we wanted to make sure that people understood that it was a continuation of our collaboration with Scott, we opted for the connected title Specters.

OTTO KOKKE: And that’s why we also stuck with artist Pierre Schmidt (@dromsjel) for the cover. I don’t think we started off on this second record with the idea in mind that we’d pick up where we left off with Ghosts, although that’s kind of what happened. I think it was more starting from the same place and doing it a second time.

There seems to be an improvised quality to your compositions. Can you—René and Otto—describe how you create these long pieces?

AQUARIUS: Dead Neanderthals are no strangers to improvisation. We have made whole albums based on improvisation. However, as strange as it might seem, these tracks were actually written as long-form tracks. The only constraints we worked with were the limitations of the LP-format

KOKKE: Also, everything is quite repetitive so you’d only get one shot at an idea that’s interesting for 20 minutes.

How do you title these pieces that have no lyrics? Do you start with a title and create around that, or does the title come after the piece is finished?

AQUARIUS: As always, the music comes first. We wanted the titles of the two tracks on Specters, “Necrology” and “Banishment,” to feel connected to the album title. That was our goal and I think we succeeded.

Since the limitations of vinyl, if you want to keep the quality high, restrict you to about 20 minutes per side, do you ever have to edit or pare down your compositions to a suitable length?

KOKKE: The problem is mainly the other way around; having a 15 minute track that is too short for one side and an awkward length to put something next to. So keeping the format in mind does help.

AQUARIUS: Yeah, keeping sides around 20 minutes was intentional. As we knew from the get-go that we were releasing this album on LP, we did not have to edit either of the tracks. Come to think of it, we never edited any of our tracks due to format restrictions. If tracks are too long for any format, we just add a fade-out on one side and a fade-in on the other side. Not much you can do about it unfortunately. Luckily, Bandcamp has helped us in the past with extremely long-form tracks (around 80-minutes) so we could, at the very least, provide fans with full-length digital versions of our tracks without unnecessary interruptions.

Tell me about the process of working with Scott, since he’s halfway around the world. Do you send him just music and let him write his parts, or do you also provide him with direction?

AQUARIUS: Working with somebody on the other side of the world might seem difficult on paper, but not with Scott. We have sent him our raw ideas and gave him all the freedom in the world to make it awesome. For me, that’s the only true way to do a collaboration. If you give (too much) direction, Scott would become ‘just’ a gun-for-hire, and he’s way too talented for that. We need his fresh ideas to make this record something Otto and I couldn’t have done alone. It’s an artistic process and we all need to play a part in it.

Is it challenging to create this kind of music working apart from each other?

KOKKE: Well, having other people in on making a record, especially at a distance means we don’t have to come up with everything ourselves. Just leave some space, send it over and get something great back and repeat. So that actually makes it easier. The process is a bit more involved and spread out over time but I wouldn’t qualify that as a challenge.

Scott, what is your process like when you receive music from Otto and René? Do you ever send them ideas of your own for them to work with?

SCOTT HEDRICK: I’m a Dead Neanderthals fan, so it’s like Christmas when I receive music from them! I mean, it’s a rather fucked-up and dark, repetitive Christmas, but I’m here for it. Due to its lumbering, repetitive nature, their music makes a wonderful canvas. There’s quite a bit of space to work with. On the very first listen of anything they send me, I’m holding a guitar or sitting at a keyboard and I’m improvising. A composer and friend that I frequently work with lives by the maxim “First thought, best thought,” and it’s wild how much that bears out.

I tend to be a maximalist, so after I’ve added my first idea, born out of improv and inspo, I go back and assess and start adding more layers. Far, far too many layers. [Laughs] But then I send it back to René and Otto, and they start peeling back the layers. Through this editing process they hone in on the essence of the track and provide feedback and ask my opinion. Sometimes they ask me to try new things, or maybe just tweak or re-record some elements. It can be a lengthy back and forth but I also find the process fun and exciting.

We go through many rounds of submission, editing and discussion before we arrive at the final recording. And then they go into White Noise Studio, owned by their good friend and collaborator Marlon Wolterink. At White Noise they work on the mix and master, checking in with me to get my two cents if they’re making any big decisions. Up to this point, I have not sent them ideas of my own to start a new track. As a fan of Dead Neanderthals, I want them to lay down that foundation that is uniquely them. There’s something about the two of them in a room that instantly reads “Dead Neanderthals” to me, and I [want] to hear that first and then respond musically. But now that we’ve been friends and collaborators for a bit, I would feel completely comfortable presenting an idea and working the other way around.

Have you been able to perform live together?

AQUARIUS: Almost! We were invited to perform Ghosts in full at Roadburn Festival 2020, but unfortunately that edition was cancelled for obvious reasons. Touring would probably be difficult as we all have pretty stacked working schedules, but we would love to do a set together at some special occasion. In any case it would be great to hang out again!

HEDRICK: It’s still going to happen, for sure! It’s just a matter of time and place.

What does Scott’s extensive experience in the metal world bring to Dead Neanderthals?

AQUARIUS: Loads of stories! Every time we talk (in real life or through Zoom), Scott drops anecdotes of famous metal people he met, worked with or toured with. I actually can’t get enough of it.

And, Scott, what does creating music that’s different from your previous work with Skeletonwitch offer you creatively? Has it opened new vistas, so to speak?

HEDRICK: During the last bit of touring that Skeletonwitch did, I was admittedly getting burnt out. It’s never a good feeling when you have the privilege of traveling the world, playing music for a living and you’re becoming increasingly unhappy. We can certainly argue what constitutes a “living” but it’s not lost on me how damn lucky I was to travel the world and play music. When I was starting to care less and less about doing that, and becoming grumpy and taking it out on those around me, I realized it was time for a break and perhaps a change of direction.

I’m a pretty big fan of what we’ve collectively decided to call minimalist composition, as well as free jazz and, obviously, metal. To my ears, a lot of Dead Neanderthals’ work exists at the nexus of these styles. So it was an itch I was very much ready to scratch. Every note of Skeletonwitch is plotted out and you really have to be paying attention to what’s coming up next or you’ll be left in the dust. With Dead Neanderthals, the playing/recording is more akin to meditating. I find it relaxing and recharging. I welcome the repetition with open arms. I don’t know if I would say that it has opened “new vistas,” so to speak, but collaborating with René and Otto, as well as my film and video game work, has really helped me press the “reset button,” if you will. I’m really starting to miss the guys and the music of Skeletonwitch. All of this time working on other projects has me excited to finish writing the next Skeletonwitch record as well. I’m not burnt out anymore. I’m fucking excited, and I’ve got a whole new skill set at my disposal.