The Mighty Behemoth

A fascinating interview about God and Satan with Behemoth founder Nergal

Photo by Metal Blade Records

I know you have a book that’s out and all that, and I kind of want to dive into stories inside the book because fans and people in America are not able to read the book yet, because it hasn’t been translated into English. It’s still in Polish. You have a new record, The Satanist, that’s coming out next month. What’s the story behind your life on how you found yourself singing about these beliefs? What is the story, growing up in Poland? How has your upbringing formed your belief system?
I’m from a very typical family. I grew up in a communist country, which later on transformed into a democratic country. I would guess that my upbringing was very typical there. There was nothing extraordinary about it. It was just a typical family with a mom, dad and a brother.

I felt relatively happy in life when I was a teenager. When I was a kid, and then when I was a teenager, I had a good life. It was nothing spectacular. We were pretty average in our school lives, and… It was an ordinary family and an ordinary upbringing.

My parents, they were religious people – especially my mother. My father was a communist. As you know, communism is rooted in atheism. Ideologically speaking, my father wouldn’t (hold) anything against me, me avoiding this whole religious education and going to the classes and stuff.
He was also conformist. He would just do what other people would do. The family wouldn’t speak out. Do you know what I mean?

I’m a logically thinking individual. I don’t really deal with gods.

Going with the “common” because everyone would do it, even though he wouldn’t agree with some of them or his or her ideals and ideologies. He just wanted me to be a regular guy. Obviously, this kind of upbringing wouldn’t stimulate me to go my own way. I had to pave my own way to freedom and to independence, so I did, as you know. Looking at my history, my band and all these rebellious backgrounds, that was added to it (later).

When did you find metal? When did that become a big part of your life?
I believe I was just a kid. My brother would just infect me with heavy metal by playing me some stuff on the cassettes. It was from tapes back then. He would just play me all these classic metal bands like Iron Maiden and Manowar. I believe I was like seven, eight or nine. Around that time I bought my first guitar.

I got infected with metal. Once my brother lost interest in the genre, I gained more interest. My interest grew with time. It was growing bigger and bigger. My passion for that was increasing. Therefore, yeah, I realized I wanted to start doing a band, and so on. I was a kid. I was probably eight or nine.

What were some of your favorite records growing up that influenced you? What can you look back on now that formed the way you write lyrics and about topics?
One of these bands (was called) Kat. It’s an old Polish band. They’re actually still around. It’s not the original line up still, but they’re still around and they’re doing fine.

They were the originators of black metal in Poland, although they didn’t really realize it was metal back then. They say that they were the equivalent of what Venom was for the world metal. “Kat” was the same for Polish metal. They found out a lot with their sound because it sounded like they were recording in a cave. They sang in Polish and it was Roman who was vocalist.

He did some amazing work with the lyrics and very special, extending out vocally.  … I was eight or nine when I came across their debut record, called 666, or the English version of the same record was called Metal and Hell. That was a milestone for me.

Finding out what that was about was discovering a whole new dimension of metal. Although back then I had no interest in all this metaphysical and epistemological topics. I guess it grew the seed in my young system. It made me interested in this later.

A lot of my friends who are Christian who are in these Christian metal bands, I asked them in 2009, “So what was your favorite record of the year?” And they were like, “The new Behemoth record. The best record of the year.” To me, it was very interesting that devout Christians would say their favorite record of the year was a record that totally spoke out against what they believed.

I know. Occasionally I get these emails from Christians or some Catholic. They say, “Hey, I’m a Catholic, but I’m a huge fan of Behemoth.” You are corresponding with me somehow and I don’t deny that I actually embrace it, you know.

I don’t have any personal problems with that whatsoever. It is what is, you know. I would like to think music can communicate with people on some hard-to-define level of communication that opens people up (and they) can share the energy without really arguing over their beliefs or politics.

You know what, I really think (with music) you can go beyond that. You know what I mean? It’s like when it started with me, you know, I’m as far from being Christian as I can be. But somehow, I find myself a huge Johnny Cash fan. At least half of his songs speak about God, you know, and his love and faith. I have no problem with that whatsoever.

I associate with it very much, but on my terms. My interpretation is my interpretation. It divorces me. Maybe on the way of interpreting a song, something great, something happens that they can actually connect to it even though it looks scary from the side. I don’t know, I’m just guessing here.

I’ve been looking through the lyrics for The Satanist and a lot of your lyrics, even before The Satanist, had very Christian, biblical imagery, but speaking from the other point of view through Satan’s eyes. What kind of books do you read or things do you do that influence the songs you’ve been writing for the last 23 years?
Well, I read the Bible. This has always been very inspirational. Also, when you get a chance to check the booklet for The Satanist, you will see I did not use all these “renowned philosophers and thinkers” that I’m inspired by when I write this dark. I just quote the Bible.

For some people it might be weird that I’m using the Bible as a weapon against dogmas, paradigms and Christian values, but that’s the way it works for me. Inversion is one of the main weapons that I use to express myself, and I think it works great. It’s one of those tools or elements that have always been very present in our art. The Bible is among the most influential books that I’ve read. Ever.

First one has to believe in a God to blame him, right?

Other than that, the books that actually portrayed Satan as an archetype that I consider, myself, very much connected to our nature, to the human nature. Satan does represent values that are key to every freedom loving human being.

It’s been explored in books by T.J. Shelly, William Blake, John Milton. Every time I write a record, I come back to the same books and really study them, for myself.

They’re also a great source of inspiration for me. … It can be anything, really, man. Anything from Colin Wilson, Jean Genet and f-cking George Pastie, Vito Gombrovich, which is a Polish writer, a lot of stuff, man, a lot of sh-t.

Have you read the Bible from cover to cover?
No, I didn’t, actually. I translated. I read it from the start and the end, but I do read it. Occasionally, I just open it up and I get inspired by anything that I may find inspiring. Sometimes I just open it like accidentally somewhere, page number whatever, and I just read it. … It doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very inspiring book. One day I’ll do that, but no.

What are some of the stories, in the Bible, that you have related to the most?
I don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff, man. I can’t really think of one now. There are different stories that I come across along the way that I just found pretty obscure and, in most cases, terrifying. The story about Abraham offering his son to the god – we actually used that element as a metaphor in “Furor Divinus,” which is a song on the new record.

There’s a lot of things like that, just stories that correspond with the Bible. I don’t really take full Bible stories and deal with them. Sometimes I just take a piece here and a piece there, just mix it up and make my own interpretation of stories.

In 2009, you guys came out with your first record on Metal Blade, and it was a huge success. It was at the top of a lot of metal lists of the year. I remember interviewing you in 2009 and you said, “Yeah, we’re going to come back next year. We’re going to tour the U.S.” That didn’t happen because you were diagnosed with leukemia. What was that like for you? I have friends whose mothers have breast cancer or different kinds of bodily diseases. Myself, I have cerebral palsy. A lot of us were terrified Behemoth was going to be over.
Obviously, in a situation like that (which is like a near death experience), they always make you think. They always make you question things. They always make you think it might be your last day on Earth.
Obviously, this kind of mood will make you heavy. It’s a very dark and uncertain moment of life. It’s a very dark place, but I got used to it. When this moment happened (for me), my first reaction, I was terrified when I heard the diagnosis.

I kind of dropped myself back in the shade, but really weak. I just realized that … it is what it is. It can be fatal, but if I approach it with the right attitude and I choose to be a warrior in this battle and I choose not to give up… Because I cherish life. Life has the highest value to me. I just realize how much I want to survive and how much I want to come out alive and how much I want to return to believing again and eventually come back to stage, return with the next record and so on and so on. It’s very natural in that situation. The first reaction was pretty shocking, obviously. I believe I cried for a few minutes. Shortly after, I started to gather as much information as I could, so I know what my enemy is all about.

When you were diagnosed, did you blame God at all?
First one has to believe in a God to blame him, right?

Yeah. A lot of people, even those that don’t believe, they’re like, “If you were real, why the heck would you do this to me?”
Life is life. Sh-t happens. Concerts are part of our life. Death is part of our life. I just embrace it. It is what it is. I don’t really need to invoke God and Odin and f-cking Mickey Mouse. I’m a logically thinking individual. I don’t really deal with gods. I deal with God on an artistic level, and I bring him (in) when I need him and use him as a tool to express myself.

I don’t really see myself in a dialogue with God when I f-cking have to deal with a diagnosis. In that sense, I’m not a religious person. That’s actually very weird of you, asking me if I blame God.

On this new record, were there any songs that kind of came out of this time of your diagnosis? Was there a lot of variety?
No, no, no. When I was in the hospital, I wasn’t really thinking of making music. My main concern, my main purpose was to survive. That’s it. I (thought) I could eventually kill some time here and there by playing some chords and maybe learning something new, whatever, f-cking around on the guitar. No, I’ve never done that, actually, even though I was always there. I wouldn’t play at all. I just had a different interest and a different purpose when I was undergoing chemotherapy.

After you got better, what inspired this new record?
I enjoy life. I keep my eyes open. I march proud with my head up, and I draw inspiration from every point and corner I go to. I draw inspiration from every dial of the hand, from every coffee I drink, from every note I hear in my culture, you know what I mean? It can be anything. Anything. So I just go through life and collect experiences and reflections and observations, which eventually transform into the riffs and lyrics, and that’s how the songs start being made.

How long did it take you to write this record? A lot of bands, they’ll write a record – even before they go into the studio – they’ll have it all done. Did you have this record done before you guys went into the studio, or were you still writing when you went into the studio?
Well, we are one of these bands that really takes time. In order to get quality, we must pay a lot of attention to it; we must pay a lot of time and spend a lot of time on this. I know there are bands that f-cking go to the studio, blast a record out, make another product that they can market. They shoot it out, and as fast as they make it, the world forgets about it. We are not like that.

We are the artists that take time and really embrace and celebrate the whole creation process each time on the set. It (takes) months. Long months. … We travel through mountains and valleys in order to make (our albums, and there is) no formula to our songs; one song may take three hours, the other song may take three month. No formula.

When making the records – we really listen to our intuition nowadays. … We would just let our intuition speak up and (limit) the intellectual factor in the creative process so we could have more emotionally driven albums than intellectually driven. You know what I’m trying to say?

The first drafts of the songs were done around mid 2012, I believe. From September, we had tracks of four songs, and then we made another two or three. We held those sessions and then we extended them a few weeks each, and that’s how all the other songs were born. Altogether, I’m guessing three to four months of rehearsing. Then it took us another four months of tracking down, and maybe three weeks of mixing, a few days of mastering. We tried several masters to have it nailed.

Altogether, it takes a while, as you see, and we are one of these bands that really take care of quality, and if it appears to be honest, there’s got to be quality.

You guys just did a new music video, earlier this year. How was that experience for you guys? You guys make these amazing, elaborate videos, especially with the music videos and the singles you guys put out.
It was pretty hard, I’m afraid, but we love the summer, so we were sweating our asses off, bro (laughs)! That’s what it was like.

I’m a big fan of making videos. It takes us a long time. I believe from the start, from when we start talking about it, and just building up the vision, and then writing the script down, and then materializing it, and shooting it, and doing masters and stuff, it’s like three, four, five months. So again, and it’s pretty much same as with the record. It takes forever, really.

But in our case, quality takes forever, and we’re not going to release anything unless we are 100 percent – well, 100 percent is a lot – unless we are happy with the results. Yeah, we were shooting in the middle of the summer, so it was pretty f-cking hot. Three days of shooting. Crazy.

It sounds ultimate. It sounds like something final. It’s the best title I could ever come up with.

Why was “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel” the first single you wanted to premiere from this new record?
Well, because… It could’ve been another song of the record, because they all are so different, and when people ask me, “Why ‘Gabriel,’ is it like a perfect representative for the record?” I say, “No, it’s not.” Any other song would be a perfect representative as much as none of them is representative because the album is very diverse. Every song could be as well. Could be a single, could make it into a video.

Yeah, I’m trying to say that it was an opening track, and it seems to, with an opening track, I decided that it’s quite special, and it’s really unheard of that the band would (make their) first video (one) of the opening song, so yeah. It was very refreshing, making this decision, so, according to our initial plan, we will be opening our set list with Gabriel as well. This whole thing makes sense to me a lot, but let’s see how it works in practice.

You guys have The Satanist coming out next month, but as I’ve read you guys are celebrating a 10-year anniversary with Demigod. Have you guys planned anything to do? Because I know with some bands, they’ll do a 10-year anniversary tour and they’ll play that record front to back. Are you guys planning anything like that, or are you guys going to play a lot more off of Demigod when you guys tour, along with new stuff from The Satanist?
Well, man, with all these anniversaries and sh-t like that, let us wait until the moment we completely run out of ideas. Then we’ll be celebrating every anniversary and doing a tour and f-cking splitting up and reuniting and doing all this sh-t and crap that other bands do. We don’t do that. We have f-cking plenty of ideas for The Satanist.

That’s very interesting to me. I know there are tons of fans that like it. Do you just not see any purpose in doing any of that kind of stuff, like it’s just a waste of time?
Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know, man, maybe they just want to make some extra cash on top of – I don’t know. I don’t know, man. I focus on my own career and myself and I don’t really focus on other bands and stuff. I let everyone take responsibility for their own actions.

Yeah, but how do you guys think you progressed in the 10 years from Demigod now to The Satanist?
How we what?

Have progressed, like as musicians, as people…
We definitely increased our skills and we are better technicians, but what matters most to me is that I will definitely listen to my intuition more than I did back then, when I was doing Demigod. I’m definitely way more aware of what I’m doing these days, and I know where I’m heading. There’s less hesitation because I’m a much more conscious human being. It basically makes Behemoth more mature.

What is (the band’s) plan for The Satanist? You guys were here in America two years ago. Are you guys planning another world tour to support this new record?
Yeah, I think we’re starting next month, man, and we’ll be touring pretty much the world, pretty much all of 2014. We’re going to slow down a little bit, but we’ll be very active in 2015. I don’t really see us entering the studio any earlier than 2016, and that’s it.

Were have been some of your favorite places to play in America?
Well, there are some cities I’m particularly fond of, like New York. It’s always good to be there. L.A. is fun, too, but L.A. is all about the party, really. It’s rather artificial in many ways.

New York reminds me of some of the European capitals, but it’s just f-cking bigger and it’s super intense. There are lots of places (in New York) I would love to go. Sometimes I go there on tour and then stay another week or so just to hang out and enjoy my life there. It’s actually one of my favorite places to visit in the world.

I’ve seen a lot of metal shows in the U.S., and the attendance has dwindled a little bit. (As Europeans), do you think that you all appreciate metal more than Americans?
We are in this position where we actually feel like we’re really strongly supported by both continents. It’s not just me trying to be nice to Americans. Touring Europe is a bit easier, I guess, because it’s closer. Travel anywhere – it’s two or three hours and you’re there.

America is special to us and still one of the biggest, maybe the biggest, market for us, and it’s definitely the place we sell the most records. Each market has its differences, and each market is ruled with different rules.

You guys have been a band since the early ’90s. How have you guys lasted this long?
Over 20 years, I know. If you feel something a lot and you have so much passion for that, you can really go forever and you can get really successful eventually. You need some love as well. You need some good people around you, and you can eventually become really successful. I guess determination … and the will to do what you love doing and a lot of passion is the key to the success.

If you didn’t have Behemoth, what would you do? What kind of career would you have?
It’s hard to say. I don’t know. It would be something connected to art. I don’t know. I do some writing here and there. I think I might be quite effective in writing something. I don’t know if it’d be a novel, but I don’t know, maybe. Maybe writing. I don’t know.

I want to end with (the music). Why did you name it that? How did you come about that theme of The Satanist?
For the title?

Well, it sounds ultimate. It sounds like something final. It’s the best f-cking title I could ever come up with, and it’s just brilliant in its simplicity. At the same time, it could be anything you want. It’s multidimensional. … It deals with the archetype that’s always been treasured in our art. If you combine all these elements, it just sounds like a perfect f-cking title, so why not?

Behemoth was posted on February 3, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by .