The man behind Prurient—and a raft of other projects well-known in the worlds of electronic and extreme music, including darkwave act Cold Cave—is Dominick Fernow, who is currently opening dates for legendary industrial-metal forefathers Godflesh, making for one of the heaviest double-bills of the year. WW spoke to Fernow about what it's like to tour with one of metal's most important bands, making "religious noise," finding motivation in band T-shirts, and his conflicted feelings about live performance.
Willamette Week: How are you?
Dominick Fernow: Totally exhausted. This tour has only been going for a week, but I have been consecutively on and off the road for the last few months. This one still has about three weeks to go. It's pretty brutal. I wouldn't recommend touring to anyone.
You were playing as Vatican Shadow at the legendary Berghain nightclub in Berlin a few weeks ago. How was Europe?
It's great. That's an exception. Most of touring is pretty bad, but there is a reason why people stand in line for hours to get in there. They really know what they are doing. I am fortunate to play there.
How has touring with Godflesh been so far?
It's been amazing. [Godflesh's] Justin [Broadrick] and Ben [Green] are really incredible guys and even better musicians. It's interesting to see the amount of respect the audience has for Godflesh. It's really encouraging, actually. I don't usually have anything good to say about shows or touring in general, but this particular tour has been eye-opening in the way that a band who has been so singular, and has had this enormous influence and has been so ahead of their time, the audience has finally caught up to what they have been doing for over 20 years. It really is a mixed crowd—metal people, electronic people, industrial, punk, hardcore, whatever. It's like the true amalgamation of all these different subcultures. It's amazing that in the era of the online world of music, where everything is kind of everything, to see how they were combining genres before the infrastructure of music changed so much. They really were a band that broke through so many barriers and brought divergent interests together. I really respect that.
Has this been a kind of an aspirational experience, watching Godflesh play Streetcleaner, which came out 26 years ago, live? Would you want to play Frozen Niagara Falls 30 years from now?
It is an inspiration. I've really started to question the form of performance in general. I don't know what motivates people to get onstage at all, because it is a really strange thing to do. There is a defined area that you literally walk onto, and an audience that is staring at you, and you produce this product that's essentially entirely subjective. People are supposed to get something out of that. It's a very weird thing to do as an art form.
I used to think that I wasn't into theater. "Theatrical" is such a negative term to describe music in a lot of ways, particularly the way the press uses that term with regards to metal. Something theatrical is seen as being in poor taste. I used to strive for some kind of "reality" in the environment of performance, which is kind of by definition artificial. There is an expectation and a set time, and you are supposed to go on and be this thing, or be this person, or whatever it is.
Now I feel that a lot of people—and this isn't even a criticism—are driven by ego. What I mean by that is the desire for adulation, or acceptance, or even in the simplest sense, attention. I have really come to feel that I am not driven by that. I know that is a contradiction as a solo performer. I'm much more interested in the story or the content to come out. I want Prurient to be discussed, and for that to have some sort of meaning rather than myself as a person. In the past I also had the view that theater, or things that were theatrical are somehow worse. Now I'm starting to view it as a more noble enterprise. In a way, the performer is assuming a role, assuming a character, and that becomes more of an archetype. I think that assuming that role is less ego driven then a lot of bands and musicians out there.
I was raised in a really Roman Catholic household. Maybe it's the Catholic guilt, or just the inherent sense of self-hatred that Christianity fosters, but I just don't have the desire to perform live in me. I don't feel the need for, or even the deservance of attention, applause, acceptance, adulation—whatever you want to call it. So seeing Godflesh do it after so long, and seeing how sincere they are, and how much humility they have, I think the reflection of that is mirrored in the audience. The audience has so much time and so much respect and so much patience for them. It's very demanding. It's very overwhelming. Godflesh makes incredibly regimented, obsessive music. It really is like machine music. And I think that there is a suffering that goes with having to aspire to something that's inhuman.
It's very interesting from the audience perspective. When you go to a performance you are there to see someone on stage, to see the musician.
That is something I really have a hard time with. I really can't wrap my head around that.
Why someone would just want to see you in person?
Why someone would want to see anyone?! I don't know. As negative as that sounds, I mean that in its most literal sense. Why? Why do we go and stare at people who create sound? It's just fucking crazy if you think about it in the literal way.
A few years ago I had the revelation that at most live metal shows my feet hurt, I was tired and I wanted to go home.
Right. Maybe it's just because I do it "professionally," but I have a really hard time going to shows in general. I understand perfectly why people don't come.
You were just performing as Vatican Shadow for a while and now you're performing as Prurient. Does each act feel different to you? Is it a different experience?
Yes, they are different. I mean, the motivations are similar, but they're different, primarily because of the vocals. If you remove the voice, it is an entirely different way of dealing with subject matter than if you have a voice dictating the subject matter. Vatican Shadow is dance music at its heart, and there is an intention to create movement. Prurient is physical, and all live performance from me is physical, but it's not necessarily the same thing as dance.
If you're trying to make the audience dance with Vatican Shadow, what're you trying to make or help them do with Prurient?
I think Prurient has a more emotional goal. The sounds that I use with Prurient are designed to be more personal. You really feel high frequencies in your head, in your eyes, in your teeth, in your ears. You feel the bass more in the body. When you think of a person you don't think of their elbow, their arm or their leg. You think of their face. That kind of connection with sound and body is different between the two projects. It's coming from a basic desire to use my story in an abstract way. I hope that the audience will find some kind of value or commonality in that suffering. Vatican Shadow is using an impersonal story, and in that sense the sound is impersonal in that you feel it in your body.
You mentioned earlier that you grew up in a very Roman Catholic household. Are you religious?
Yes. In fact I would even describe Prurient as "religious noise." Religion is what drives me as an artist throughout all of the different music that I make. In different aspects I deal with a different piece of what the religious organization deals with. I think that one of the values of religion in our current society is that it is one of the only things that incorporates mythology in the modern context. By mythology, I mean the language of symbols, and I think that symbols are really important because they involve abstract thinking. That in itself has value.
What do you mean by "abstract thinking"?
I think that political thinking is uninteresting in general because it deals with the Now. There is a whole other metaphysical world that deals with our psyche. I don't think that it is being dealt with so much anymore. We don't want to deal with it as much in a contemporary context. We are very obsessed with the overt politicization of all aspects of our lives—whether it be art, diet, music, sexuality, economics, etc. That is all important and valid stuff, but there is this metaphysical realm. There is this realm of psychology. You need myth and you need symbols to approach that. I don't really see mythology being incorporated into contemporary society—particularly in music—in any other way without religion. By religion, I don't necessarily mean doctrine. I mean a platform to answer the basic human questions about existence. I think that as an artist I can find value in an abstract, rhetorical and symbolic platform, rather than any kind of application of doctrine or religious practice.
So it is almost more of an emotional or psychological connection than it is something within the doctrines of Roman Catholicism.
I think that in general, religion is just about death. We do everything that we can to hide death from our lives and from society. It's really unhealthy. We have a really hard time facing the horror that existence has forced us into. I think that religion is one of the only platforms that deals with those questions anymore. The rise of the online and digital world has made us obsessed with momentary adulation and acceptance. I think that this is a destructive and sickening thing that we have abused. We are going through the growing pains where the old are still having to hang around in the new. Eventually, it will even out and everyone will have grown up on Instagram. I think everyone will feel a little easier when the Instagram grandmothers are left. Right now we are in this enormous transition. The new world has destroyed the old world. We haven't adapted to those changes yet.
We are in a weird, transitional phase. In 50 years you will have people who grew up entirely on Instagram. Twitter will have been around for a long time.
When Twitter is 500 years old, God help us. I'm glad I'm not going to be around for the Twitter Museum.
One thing that distinguishes you from a lot of other musicians is that you have released music under many different monikers—Prurient, Vatican Shadow, Ash Pool, Christian Cosmos, Exploring Jezebel and Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement—and a whole bunch of other ones.
[Laughs] That sounds really funny in succession.
I think that's only about a third of them, too. You seem to take a more thematic approach to those different projects rather than distinguishing them on traditional grounds of genre. Prurient incorporates a lot of different kinds of electronic and acoustic music, and there is overlap with that and other of your projects. Why do you use so many different names?
To get back to the original statement I made about questioning the form of performance, I'm interested in the story and the content rather than the people, or myself as a person. I feel the need to distinguish content and build a world outside of my individual presence. A lot of these things started anonymously. Vatican Shadow started anonymously. It's not an overt intention for it to be a secret. I just want people to be dealing with the content and the story rather than me as a musician.
When I was growing up, underground music was different from "mainstream" music because it was about everything else. It was folk music. It was, "Where were you from? Who was making it? What do they think? What do they believe? What did they eat? Who are they fucking? Why?" It wasn't, "I turned on the radio, and I heard this song, and I liked the way it sounds, and don't know who made it or what it's even called. I just know the song because it's been played on the radio."
I see music as a multimedia platform: lyrics, imagery, performance, packaging, cover art, etc. I don't see it as just sound. An issue that I have run into many times and have had many arguments about is when people say, "It's the music first." Really, it's the music last. It's not that the music is not important. It's that it isn't important enough unless it's really, really, really exceptional. My monikers are a reflection of me trying to build those individual worlds through the multimedia platform of music outside of myself as a person, character or individual.
Are you into clothes or fashion at all?
What do you like?
I love Rick Owens and all that kind of stuff. But I'm really motivated by band shirts to be honest.
I have a bizarre relationship with band shirts. So many band shirts are ruined by the band's name on it or a detail like the back print.
I know. It's this fascinating thing because I love and hate them.
I made a joke the other day asking should I just replace every shirt in my wardrobe with a different Godflesh shirt. They're one of the only bands that consistently makes nice shirts.
[Laughs] I've been having this argument with Justin [Broadrick] for the last week that there is no shirt for [Godflesh's 1991 EP] Slavestate, and he insists that there is. I've never seen one, or heard about one, or seen anyone with one, or know of anyone with one.
I would love a Slavestate shirt!
I know! I don't want to get too crazy, but keep your eyes peeled in the near future.
SEE IT: Prurient plays Hawthorne Theatre, 5709 SE César E. Chávez Blvd., with Godflesh and Usnea, on Tuesday, Sept. 29. 8:30 pm. $22 advance, $25 day of show. 21+.