You gotta love Dutch black metal band Terzij de Horde. This is a band that went out of their way to translate and publish the works of Dutch vitalistic poet Hendrik Marsman, an important catalyst to their overall philosophy as a black metal band. Other than recording an album, why would Terzij de Horde take on such a painstaking task? Moreover, it’s the “why” in all this that truly matters. Obviously, the band cares a great deal about other art and literature that informs their music and their lives. So much in fact that – if possible – they will take it upon themselves to help find a larger audience for it. Louder Than War met up with vocalist Joost Vervoort and bass player Johan van Hattum in Café De Rat, a funky and “vibrant” tavern in downtown Utrecht.
LTW: You both are brainy types: teaching and researching a range of weighty matters. Is Terzij de Horde purely an emotional reaction to things you encounter, or also a cerebral one?
Vervoort: Terzij de Horde is primarily a visceral band, considering all our conversations and references to literature and poetry. We connect the ideas to the music, but it’s mostly energy primarily. The mental and the emotional for me are very much interwoven. So you can get a passionate, direct response to a certain philosophical perspective or historical narrative. But principally, I feel Terzij de Horde is all about energy.
LTW: I stumbled upon this three-part Dutch documentary series called Kwaad Spel [roughly translating as evil game – Ed] This show addresses the ways youth explores the notion of evil when making art. I thought it was curious that Terzij de Horde was chosen to appear in the “music” episode, because this band doesn’t exactly fit the hokey “satanist” profile casual folks seem to fabricate.
Vervoort: Well, we do work with the subject of evil, but not in an archetypal way. I wonder what that documentary would be like had they picked a more straightforwardly Satanic band. Perhaps it would have made more sense. But it was nice that they asked us, it was an interesting experience.
LTW: Terzij de Horde seems very impartial to the idea of moral opposites “good” and “evil”, or any type of metaphysical lore. Listening to the album Self, it appears more like you prefer kind of a humanistic, philosophical approach. It makes me wonder what the “dark” in dark vitalism really stands for…
Vervoort: I would say the “dark” stands for a lot of things. It can stand for an aggressive impulse against restricting overarching structures. For freedom, or the unknown. Or fear, which is very interesting to play what fear means to different people. How to face fear. Basically, anything that isn’t clearly visible or defined is associated with darkness. Those are the associations that come to mind, anyway.
Van Hattum: Humanistic, I would say yes in the sense that we tend to write about darkness that stems from the human mind… as opposed to some greater unknown.
LTW: It’s inspiring to see five individuals in a band so immersed in one very particular interest, namely the dark vitalistic poetry of Hendrik Marsman.
Van Hattum: Marsman was more the starting point of Terzij de Horde actually. Maybe in his basic philosophy, there was a connection we wanted to expand through our band’s name.
Vervoort: Even on Self, the influence of Marsman is there. The album was informed by many, many other things. But of course, it’s clear with the release of the track Wacht / Lex Barbarorum and the translation of Marsman’s poetry, that connection is strong. On the other hand, it would be kind of dull if everything revolved around Marsman’s work.
Van Hattum: Wacht / Lex Barbarorum was just a fairly unique latching-on point for many people. They were like: “It’s a black metal band, but at least they write about something we could relate to.” So all of a sudden you become branded as “that Marsman black metal band”.
Listen to Wacht / Lex Barbarorum
LTW: I assume your initial fascination with his work wasn’t just out of reverence. Was there any scepticism about Marsman’s work as well?
Vervoort: I don’t think there is much to be sceptical about really. What I mean is, Marsman isn’t really presenting his work as this total philosophy you could adhere to, this monolithic “thing”. Some of his earlier work was uniformly vitalistic, maybe in a couple of poems. But most of them address that struggle between a will to life and a will to death. Jaap Goedegebuure, who wrote Marsman’s biography, said to us that it was very likely that Marsman was bipolar, often sinking into periods of depression in his life. And you can really tell. His urge to say yes to life was in combat with nihilistic, destructive impulses….you can’t really be ‘skeptical’ about it, because it’s a very personal struggle.
Van Hattum: The thing is, you can’t be proper vitalist without embracing death at the same time. You can be skeptical if it was all like: “Yay, life is great!”.
Vervoort: The two poems that we used… the second one, Lex Barbarorum, Marsman is saying: Ik erken maar een wet: leven [translation: I acknowledge only one law: life]. It’s an act of will, but he’s doing it in the midst of darkness.
LTW: That actually sounds pretty cosmic, like this inhabited planet floating around the darkness of space.
Van Hattum: Absolutely. I discuss cosmology sometimes with my English class. When you move to a microscopic, mankind is capable of anything, but when you move to a cosmological level, we are shit. How does that make you feel? Ninety percent of my class are like: “I’m nothing.” So that’s a nice place to start. How can you be someone then?
Vervoort: I guess you could say Terzij de Horde explores the problem of that vitalistic impulse, instead of following some kind of philosophy. And it’s as much about success in that endeavor as it is about failure. A lot of the perspectives on our album Self are counter-vitalistic impulses, about being taken over about societal forces, about self- destruction, about suffering and endlessly dragging yourself through life.
Van Hattum: And by exploring those things, show the blood-red silver linings of it…
Vervoort: To show the possibilities of overcoming those challenges. I think Terzij de Horde’s music does that as much as the lyrics. You can feel it’s a very angry energy, right? That rage comes as much from our punk background as from our metal background.
LTW: It’s an interesting dichotomy. Black metal’s nihilistic traits with punk music’s inherent insubordination. Does the rage come from helplessness? Or the eerie comfort of knowing you’re helpless?
Van Hattum: I wouldn’t call it helplessness. I would rather say “getting lost”. We do lose ourselves every now and then. That’s not necessarily a negative emotion.
LTW: Now that you bring that up: metal culture used to be cloistered away, and isolated between all these different factions. Now it feels more like a divide between the purists and iconoclasts.
Van Hattum: Way back, it was actually fairly normal to have punk bands, hard rock bands and metal bands together. Then came this period where everyone was like: “We’ve got OUR scene. Stay in your own scene!” Now it seems to be moving back together again. It’s okay for Converge to perform at Roadburn [held April 14th to 17th this year – Ed.] together with a black metal band, a sludge band and a stoner band.
Vervoort: Even bands with an orthodox black metal image, you’ll find they like a lot more stuff when you just talk to them as people.
LTW: Terzij de Horde seems like a pretty cohesive operation. Is it important to shut out certain influences you enjoy individually to make it that way?
Vervoort: There are plenty of bands that we all like. The band has grown very organically. It’s a mishmash of all the music that we like, but we’ve been doing bit for so long that none of really sounds like any of that. Those individual elements have kind of disappeared.
LTW: The most dumbfounding thing about Terzij’s sound is that it feels like it’s something that growls on regardless. Even when switching from blast beats to slow-paced doom stuff, it never sounds rigid or contrived.
Van Hattum: Over the years we’ve played a lot of shows, so it’s important to keep that flow going. To keep paying attention. Not just the audience, but also attention on yourself. For us, it’s never been about playing a song, pausing to get a drink, and then play another song. We carefully map out how our set will play out, the dynamics…
Vervoort: It’s not much different from writing an album.
LTW: Is that why Self seems structured in different chapters, like inquiries of the meaning of the word “self”?
Vervoort: That’s fair to say. But some songs predate the moment we consciously recognized there was a theme. Johan and I write the lyrics together, and we were talking about what other songs had a similar theme. The interesting challenge for us now is to move beyond that.
LTW: Are there selfish reasons for being in a band? Especially in relation to your lives outside of the band?
Van Hattum: Yeah, definitely.
Vervoort: I think that you find a lot of selfish people in general in bands. There’s always a desire and a drive to express yourself, right? And to offer that expression to the world. That’s already – if not selfish – at least self-centered.
Van Hattum: Yeah, there’s that aspect of needing that cathartic release every now and then. I’d be a disturbed young man if I didn’t have that. I’m a teacher, and that can be a very intense job. All of us in the band have really intense jobs. That takes something out of you. To get all of that out of your system really helps.
Vervoort: It’s not selfish per se, but paying attention to your need to express.
Van Hattum: Well, there have been rehearsals where I was more or less hitting my bass guitar against something and screaming really loud. I’m not the most developed bass player, but the instrument becomes just an extension for what I’m trying to express.
Vervoort: Both Johan and I, because we’re the only ones in the room here, we can only speak for ourselves. I agree, I need this. I have… [bellows out in laughter] a LOT of aggression in me! It needs to come out.
LTW: Were you always aware you needed that cathartic release? Or did something have to go horribly wrong to make you realise this?
Vervoort: Sometimes during performances I – kind of – attack people. But that’s just me being in the moment.
Van Hattum: You get swept away and lost in that visceral emotion. Sometimes things happen. Nothing horrible, at least I hope…
Vervoort: No, that’s been a while.
LTW: I reckon it takes a bit of self-awareness, to realise how it could potentially affect you and the people around you. Especially when you invest a lot of time in being creative in this really intense manner. It’s easy to get swallowed up by that.
Vervoort: I’m a big believer in having a counterbalance in your life. We are all very busy with our jobs. That’s intense in an entirely different way. Johan is a teacher and a researcher, I’m a researcher at Oxford University. I have to travel around the world all the time. The other guys are also busy with their jobs. When I read Jaap Goedgebuure’s biography of Marsman, I realised Marsman was eaten up by his inability to write for long periods of time. And I could see that part of that stems from not having anything else. The only thing you have is your art, and nothing else. So when your art fails, there is no other way to get satisfaction in your life. Between 1929 and 1933, he was a lawyer in Utrecht, but he didn’t really enjoy it…
Van Hattum: He couldn’t really hold onto a job or a relationship in his early life.
LTW: Isn’t that because being a poet and writer is a very solitary means of expression, as opposed to being in a heavy metal band?
Vervoort: Yeah, yeah… Johan and I have been talking about this to Jaap [Goedgebuure]. There are some interesting differences between Marsman as a poet and Terzij de Horde as a band. Marsman was creating a language that’s really powerful and energetic. But he created that language in solitude and silence. Whereas Terzij de Horde, musically, is very visceral. You can actually feel the energy that Marsman expresses in his words. That’s great for us, because being in a band is a very tactile, visceral thing. We travel, we play shows and we exhaust ourselves on stage. That’s very different from expressing those things in words, yet never actually doing it.
That sounds terrifying. Fortunately through music, a band like Terzij de Horde can immediately process those feelings and thoughts.
Vervoort: People around Marsman said poetry should be dynamite. And to that he said: “It should not be dynamite, it should be diamond.” That’s interesting, because it explains a lot about him. Because when you read his poetry, it’s so alive and dynamic. But he thought about it as something that would last for ages. It has to be just the right words to be cut as a diamond, forever. We have a completely different approach.
Van Hattum: Well, yeah… but the thing is, we did take a long time to make our record.
Vervoort: [Nods] We still work hard and we’re kind of perfectionists too in a way. But music is just a different medium, and so are live shows. So it is always going to play out more organically.
LTW: How does being a teacher relate to Terzij de Horde’s adage of breaking free from existing structures?
Vervoort: I think both of us see the importance of free expression in both our teachings and the other work we do. [Johan nods in approval] So instructing, (and I feel we share a didactic vision here), or downloading information “for” people doesn’t generally work.
Van Hattum: It has no staying effect. But you really need to ask yourself “why?” when you’re not sure why you’re instructed to do something. Because I’ve got an answer. Then you can either say: I can understand where you’re coming from…or it’s complete bullshit. We are very reluctant to do that. That’s also because I tend to think: why am I doing this?
Vervoort: I’m not sure about you, Johan, but I would have these situations as a student myself. I would ask myself, “why am I learning this, what’s the use of this?” And no one would give me an adequate answer. I would be like: “Okay fuck it then!” And that’s really unfair! I feel like a lot of the work that we have to do with students of all ages, is to teach them to be more critical, self-reliant people who don’t follow the school system. Because this is like a disease that’s being implanted in people: “I have to do what my superiors tell me.” Even at Oxford, you have some very mature MSc students who might try to follow the process very carefully. Maybe that’s how they got to where they are. But in reality this can be very damaging and limiting. One of the things you have to do is look critically at the people you work with. What they’re saying and what they’re telling you to do. You have to question all of this stuff.
Van Hattum: And make sure you truly understand what’s being said yourself.
Vervoort: Fostering critical independent minds is the most important thing you can do with any form of education. I also help policy makers educate themselves and question previous assumptions about the world, so I have to do the same thing you know. They need it. Teaching these people these skills, and at the same training these skills for ourselves, that will make you look twice at things you normally take for granted. And that also relates very well to what Terzij de Horde does on Self. Exploring all these ideas of what self really is, embracing that freedom seeking impulse. Also speaking for all the other people in the band, it’s all the same. It’s all connected for us.
Van Hattum: It’s about making use of your potential, but also making sure that when you do so, you do it fully and consciously.
LTW: That reminds me of what your drummer Richard talked about in the Kwaad Spel documentary. He seemed so grateful that playing Terzij de Horde reshaped his outlook on life after feeling disconnected from his religious upbringing. Has being in this band had a similar impact on the two of you?
Van Hattum: Not in that particular way, but…
Vervoort: I think everyone in Terzij de Horde helps themselves to create a space where we can express ourselves…together. So we’ve all helped each other, right?
Van Hattum: Terzij de Horde is a really “safe” exploratory environment where we can talk about pretty much anything. Besides that being laughed at or joked about, which also happens, the next step already is to talk seriously about it. We have enriched, and still do enrich each others lives.
Vervoort: Terzij de Horde isn’t a separate part of our lives – it is, more like an intense synthesis.
Terzij de Horde will be playing Tilburg’s Roadburn Festival on April 14th. You can order their fantastic album Self here.