There’s an inherent sadness in the human condition. Life can be great and all but, like Bruce Dickinson once sang, “as soon as you’re born, you’re dying.” Take comfort and refuge in whatever works for you but, when it’s all said and done, we’re really all just decaying sacks of meat in a pot that’s slowly having the temperature cranked up. Bonjour Tristesse, whose name literally means hello sadness, understands how depressing life can get.
Since starting in Germany in 2008, Bonjour Tristesse has released three full-lengths, including this year’s Against Leviathan! The band’s brand of post-black metal deals heavily with the gloomy side of life and can be a great outlet to vent or commiserate with. That the whole thing is the brainchild of one man makes it all the more impressive. I recently chatted with Nathanael of Bonjour Tristesse about the new record and what the future holds for the band.
First off, how did Bonjour Tristesse get started? What made you want to tackle this kind of project?
Nathanael: The band exists for quite some time now. I started writing the first songs for Bonjour Tristesse between 2008 and 2009. At that time I really got into black metal and discovered a whole new world that I wanted to be a part of. I really thought (and still think) that music in general and black metal in particular offer very good ways to deal with all the shit we encounter every day. Sometimes it is hard for me to think about how destructive modern mankind is and I experience emotions like anger, desperation, grief, and hate. Those feelings help, if you want to write black metal. In 2010, the first album was released and I like its songs to this day.
How did you get into metal in the first place and who are some of the bigger influences within the genre on the band?
Nathanael: I learned about metal from friends in high-school. I got from Metallica to In Flames and Dark Tranquility and from Slayer to Darkthrone. I really felt a connection to the intense darkness, Satanic imagery, and depressive atmospheres of black metal and quickly got into more obscure black metal bands from the German underground.
All the bigger black metal bands have influenced me in a way. Ulver, Xasthur, Agalloch, Gorgoroth, WITTR and also bands like Trist, Hypothermia, and Austere were great inspirations for me (and some of them continue to be).
With the band being just you, what kind of benefits and challenges does that present?
Nathanael: I really like to work alone. I can decide when and what to write and there is no pressure from others. For me, it is the best way to just take the guitar and write or record a song, when I feel inspired and am in the mood to do so. I am not the biggest fan of hanging out in a rehearsal space, so I really enjoy closing the curtains, lighting a candle, and getting into the zone all by myself.
What’s your process like for writing the music side of things? Has that changed at all over the years?
Nathanael: It has not changed that much. Of course you get more experienced and you learn to handle your instruments or recording programs better, but in the end it is still similar to how it was in the beginning. I take the guitar, play, and write some melodies. When I have a somewhat good collection of riffs, I arrange the different parts and start to think about the drums. After that I write everything down and record it. In the last steps I add some lead guitars and additional guitar layers. Not that spectacular actually, but for me personally it can be a quite intense process, involving a lot of emotion and dedication.
How do you write the lyrics for the band? What do you turn to for inspiration for the songs?
Nathanael: When I look around me I hate most of the things I see most of the time. To stare at giant concrete buildings in which people waste away, to see thousands of cars passing by or to behold landscapes that were untouched wilderness once, but are now dominated by industrial areas and monotonous fields, makes me sad and angry at the same time. I find solace when I spend time in the woods or when I visit the mountains, but the artificial world that modern man creates is just depressing. So I get a lot of inspiration for lyrics by simply living a life in a late capitalist industrialized society. In addition, personal interactions with humans inspire me, but also movies and books do. The writings of Fredy Perlman, John Zerzan, and Charles Bukowski have been a huge influence over the years. Perlman’s Against His-Story, Against Leviathan from 1983 was the main inspiration for the new record.
The new record, Against Leviathan!, is another totally killer album. What was the writing and recording process like for this one? What was the goal here with album number three and how stoked were you when you heard the final mix?
Nathanael: I wanted to create an album that was heavier and more “intense” than the previous albums. I didn’t want to go further into the post-BM direction of “Your ultimate urban nightmare.“ I wanted to return to classic depressive black metal atmospheres, but with more blast beats, more energy, and mixed with more old school influences and the raw energy of classic black metal bands. I think that went quite well. I was productive enough to write material for two records, which will circle around shared themes and inspirations.
I really appreciate the approach of bands like early Mayhem and early Bathory, who decided that a natural, raw, and sometimes even shitty sound can be part of the concept of distancing themselves from so-called mainstream music and even other metal bands. I think black metal works best when it has a rough, natural atmosphere and sounds raw, instead of super produced. I wanted a sound like that for the new record. It is not a lo-fi record and you can hear everything you want to hear, but it is raw and the sound is deliberately worse than it could have been.
Between the three records, how do you feel you’ve grown and improved as a band and to what do you attribute that growth?
Nathanael: During the years I learned a lot. I met a lot of talented musicians who play in my bands and in other bands we met on the road. When you get older you learn to question things and you can change how you approach the process of songwriting and music in general. Even small details can make a difference. I think I know better than ever what sort of music I want to make and the new albums benefit from that. The band became an ever more important outlet of anger and negativity for me.
I wanted to ask about a few songs on that new album to get the musical/lyrical origin of them. What’s the story behind “Turmoil?” Was it always intended to be the opener?
Nathanael: Yes, it was written to be the opener and I wanted it to hit the mark. I wanted no intro whatsoever and so I decided to start the record with blast beats and walls of guitars. The mood is aggressive and it changes between anger and gloom, between contempt and a hymn of praise for the downfall of man. The first few minutes actually set the tone for the entire record. The lyrics are based on the poems “Notice” and “Hug the Dark” by Charles Bukowski, the title of the latter perfectly describes the core message of the song. We live in a world, which is dying…or better: which is being killed by our very own species and the way we live our lives. This is absurd and somewhat perverse. The song is about this madness we experience every day, the absurd reality of living in a time, which is a literal Hell on earth for a lot of people. We inhabit huge cities, use high-tech communication devices, and consider ourselves “civilized” beings, while we destroy nature, become more and more lonely, and think only of the best for ourselves – which, by the way, will ultimately bring about our own downfall.
How about the origin of the “Nightbringer?”
Nathanael: Nightbringer is a slower track, at least in the beginning. The song deals with the fact that for me the prevailing status quo in modern society is perceived as oppressive and inherently destructive. I didn’t want to simply describe what is wrong about life in industrialized societies. I wanted the song and its lyrics to show the perspective of a person, who is not happy about all the things they can buy and about all the shit they can watch in the TV or on the internet. The song is about someone who decides to change his life, which is experienced as depressing and wrong. “Devil you will call me! Cast me out of your society! And a monster I shall become!” The rest of the song is written from this demon of vengeances point of view, who haunts people and holds them accountable for their atrocities. You may have noticed, that Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was an inspiration for this one.
What about the story behind the title track?
Nathanael: This song was inspired by Fredy Perlman’s masterpiece Against His-Story, Against Leviathan. In this book, he traces the history of the emergence of today’s global civilization, from the beginning of agriculture, to the spread of worldwide trade, to the repressive industrialized societies based on massive inequality we know today. The “Leviathan,” the biblical sea monster, is synonymous with the “state,” following Thomas Hobbes, who in his despicable book from 1651 praises the Leviathan as an omnipresent state apparatus, which supposedly provides security and saves man from the “state of nature,” which is described by Hobbes as cruel and inhuman. Of course not the state of nature, but the status quo in civilized societies is cruel and oppressive – for the natural world and even for the biggest part of humanity. In Perlman’s book, hunter-gatherer communities are described as egalitarian and free groups, living a life of contentment in harmony with nature. Their way of life is characterized by meaning and happiness – this “state of nature” is definitely not defined by cruelty and misery, as suggested by Hobbes. Perlman’s views are supported by a great number of contemporary anthropologists and archaeologists. Inspired by Perlman’s book, “Against Leviathan” is thus to be understood as a declaration of war against industrialized civilization. The song begins furiously, painting a grim picture of reality in modernity. A loss of freedom is lamented as well as the destruction of the formerly predominant tribal communities, which in many places of the world fell and still fall victim to the unquestioned faith in progress. The lyrics of the final part of the song are to be understood metaphorically: The protagonist plunges into the waves of the sea and dives down into the depths to kill a sea monster, the Leviathan. By piercing the monster’s heart he turns into something like an anarchist hunter or warrior, who metaphorically destroys the state, that enslaves all humans and nature alike. The final part of the song turns into something like a battle song, a hymn of resistance. The piece ends with the line “I raise the fist of the primitivist…against all civilized life!”
How about the story behind “Ode to Emptiness?”
Nathanael: In so many ways modern humans are powerless. We can’t control countless aspects of our lives. We lost our connection to nature, to the wilderness around us and within ourselves. I experience moments which are dominated by an intense feeling of hopelessness. In the end a lot of decisions we thought mattered become hollow, empty and meaningless in the face of mass-society and an omnipresent state apparatus, which “civilizes” us, which means degrading us into cogs and wheels supporting the mega-machine, that enslaves us all. Sometimes it is healthy to “kill your hopes and free yourself” from unrealistic expectations. Sometimes it just feels good to let some dreams die. In these moments it makes a lot of sense to sing an ode to emptiness.
What’s your local scene like where you live in Germany? Is there an active one and has it had an effect on the band?
Nathanael: I live in a rural and quite secluded area in Germany. I really like to be able to disappear into the woods when I feel like it. To be far away from humans and the noise of big cities is really important for me. Years ago there was a quite active black metal scene a few towns away, which was quite important for me. Now there is no local metal scene where I live. Nevertheless I enjoy to meet likeminded people when we play shows with Heretoir.
Lastly, what’s next for Bonjour Tristesse? What are your goals for the future of the band?
Nathanael: As i said, I finished another full-length record. I hope to have it released by the end of next year. In the meantime I am working on new songs. You can expect more music from Bonjour Tristesse in the future–and I can already tell you, that it will be more depressive and darker than ever before. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my band and the way I see the world. Die Welt stirbt.
Photo at top provided to Metal Plague by Nathanael.