Panopticon’s Kentucky is one of the finest black metal albums you’ll hear this year. But it’s more than just a black metal album. It is one man’s ode to his home state, a downright joyous fusion of ripping USBM and Appalachian folk/bluegrass traditions, resulting in something that has to be heard to be believed. I contacted Panopticon mastermind and sole member Austin Lunn via e-mail to learn more about the concepts behind Kentucky and the following interrogation ensued…
THKD: What can you tell us about the new album, Kentucky? How did you hit upon the idea of writing an album about your home state’s coal mining tradition? Is it fair to call Kentucky a concept album?
Austin Lunn: Well, coal is a huge issue here. It really divides Kentuckians. And it has become more and more complicated with the introduction of Mountain Top removal sites….because one man’s profit, becomes another man’s poverty. So it sets people against each other in mining effected areas, as well as everywhere else in the state. On top of that, we have a strong union history and labor movement history in general…But all in all the album isn’t just about coal, it is about the state of Kentucky. Coal is certainly a part of it….and I do think it is fair to call it a concept album.
THKD: How did the writing and recording process for Kentucky differ from that of your previous works such as Social Disservices and Collapse? Was there anything specific you were looking to improve upon, experiment with or simply do differently than in the past?
AL: The last two full lengths I have done, “Social Disservices” and “On the Subject of Mortality” are very, very different records. One is a sorrowful lament over one’s own death, a deeply personal record and my favorite I have done, groveling for a chance to see life to the fullest…. and SD is a raging, furious fist fight against exploiting the less fortunate and mentally ill. It was pretty much me just spitting venom about something that was very close to me…getting it out, ya know? Collapse was basically my paranoid dream about “what if…”and was meant to be more of a thought experiment…. and a chance to make the music more expansive and deep, rather than the first full length…which I am not a fan of, by the way. “Kentucky” is different… because it is inspired by joy. I had the idea one day after running as hard as I could up this steep ass hill of in the woods I like to hang out in and when I got to the top, before I could even catch my breath, I turned around and saw the valley below and the expansive hills in the distance, shimmering in pale spring green in the sun… I was just overcome with love for the land I tread. So, we hiked out and headed home so I could immediately start recording. So I guess you could say this record was inspired by joy and love (even though it deals with some horrible topics).
THKD: In addition to black metal, Kentucky incorporates a strong bluegrass/Appalachian folk influence. What originally sparked your interest in traditional music? What are the common threads you’ve found between the two genres and what difficulties did you find in attempting to blend them together?
AL: Well, my extended family has always been involved in country music. And my grandmother used to listen to Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, George Jones and Johnny Cash… I still have some of her LPs, actually. I didn’t really want anything to do with it when I was younger, but when I was about 19 or 20, I started to get really into it. Over the past 10 years, I have just continued to get more and more into it. I guess you can’t escape your roots…no matter how lame you think they are when you are a teenager.
From a technical point of view, I feel like Bluegrass is the death metal of folk. It is shreddy and fast. But also it deals with history and culture. I love history and I love shreddy music, so it made sense for me to learn to play banjo.
As far as blending them, I just generally play what I feel, and if I feel emotionally led to add an acoustic part, I go for it. I love folk metal, but I feel like there are tons of european bands who do the viking metal thing better than I ever could, so I mixed my folk music with it. I feel like that was a little more honest for me.
THKD: When most US black metal bands attempt to incorporate folk/traditional influences into their sound, it is typically European-style folk or neo-folk. Why do you think this is, when American has rich folk music traditions of its own? Is Panopticon in any way a reaction to that?
AL: I love folk metal/viking metal. I think people try their hand at it because it is AWESOME and a lot of fun. I love tons of those bands. Odroerir’s last 2 albums and viking era Bathory are some of my favorite things to listen to. There are TONS of great bands to choose from. But as I said above, I just wanted to keep it honest. Yeh, I love Scandinavian history, but I grew up in the southern region of the united states where it is hot as hell… what the hell do I know about snow and darkness? Like I said, I love that stuff..I even lived in Norway for a few months when I was interning, and have been there a couple times for camping… and I see how it could be VERY inspiring… but I am inspired by this place, plenty.
THKD: You covered the traditional songs “Come All Ye Coal Miners” and “Which Side Are You On?” for Kentucky. How did you discover these particular songs and what made you decide to include them on the album?
AL: These are old union songs…they are really well-known protest songs, written in the 30’s. I’m not much of a singer, so I just drank a bit of booze and sang from the heart. I think those songs deserve the honesty, even if it is flawed. They are powerful songs that gave the strength needed to those union workers back in the 30’s.
THKD: Would you ever consider doing an entire album of straight bluegrass/folk material? I read on your Facebook page that you were playing a solo set of “sad bastard music” this month…
AL: Hahaha. Yeah. I play gigs some times. Mostly some Townes Van Zandt, Cash and Blaze Foley covers… as well as a few originals. My originals are total sad bastard music. Like I said, I’m not much of a singer, but I like to think I am getting better. I love to write songs/lyrics/poetry about things that are important to me… so it makes sense to set it to some folk songs, rather than just screaming all the time… Although screaming does feel good. Maybe one day I will release some songs. Who knows!
THKD: You’re obviously very in touch with your surroundings and environment, as well as the history and traditions of your region. Why do you think so many people have gotten away from this kind of awareness and relationship with their surroundings?
AL: I think the schools don’t promote it. American history classes in public schools dumb down our history a lot as to not shame the state, in my opinion. So a lot people just are not aware of the history and folklore in their region. On top of that, I actually GO to these places , see it, feel the soil under my feet, learn about it…. rather than sitting on my ass all day playing video games . I just don’t have much interest in that. Bek ( my wife) and I have a bit of wanderlust, so we like to ramble and see things while we can.
THKD: Kentucky features a variety of samples, which is fairly unusual for black metal. Where did these samples come from, and how do they enhance the album?
AL: They came from some documentaries about the union struggles, mountain top removal in West Virginia and Kentucky, and lots of samples of public events I found digging on YouTube. I think they are important because this is a generation that hardly buys albums and thus misses out on the liner notes. So I include samples so people will still understand what I am trying to say, because they certainly won’t understand my screaming like I’m having my ass beat by a staircase.
THKD: When did you first realize that black metal could be used as a vehicle to tackle social issues? Was it difficult to come around to this realization, considering the lyrical themes and overall aesthetics typical to the genre, such as Satanism, death, etc?
AL: I use the term “black metal” to describe what I do very loosely. Panopticon is essentially a metal band. But most people would say “black metal” so I go with that. It certainly isn’t “frosty”, “grim” or “cult” or any of the cheesy buzzwords people kick around. I love old black metal and tons of newer bands, but I am not out to do that. I am out to find my own voice and do my own thing. In all honesty, I think music, in general, can be used to convey a message. I just happen the like the sound, and am a big fan of black metal (and death metal, prog metal, folk metal, doom, classic metal…as well as countless other genres). So this is how it came out.
THKD: What is it about metal that makes it effective protest music? Is the limited appeal of a style such as black metal a hindrance to conveying a message of protest? Can black metal be a constructive/positive force for change?
AL: I think MUSIC can be a constructive force. I’m not out to re define a genre or say “me too” or what ever. In all honesty, I didn’t think anyone would ever give a shit about my music, so I just did what made me happy and wrote about things that I care about.
THKD: Will you be playing live or doing any touring in support of Kentucky? What would the ultimate Panopticon live experience entail?
AL: I seriously doubt Panopticon will ever be a live thing. It is a solo project… but if it were ever going to happen, I have some friends I would call on, but logistically, it doesn’t seem probable. Some times I daydream about it, but I don’t think there is a big demand for it. Who knows!
THKD: What does the rest of 2012 have in store for yourself and Panopticon? Are you working on any other projects or new material, or will you focus solely on promoting Kentucky?
AL: Well, Seidr, my doom band, is finishing up our new album. I am doing some splits with Panopticon, and will start writing the next album. This one is going to have some pretty huge changes I think. I’m always evolving as a musician and learning new things. The next full length I want to do is going to be pretty intense and weird.
THKD: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?
AL: I want to thank everyone who I have met and shared a brew with over the years, every email, letter and ” Hey what’s up” I have gotten. Communication is life affirming. It gives value to our lives, and I am truly grateful for everything the folks who listen to my work do for me. Thanks so much. Let’s revel in the intensity of our enjoyment, and take life for all it is worth…rather than sitting behind a glowing computer screen slagging people off we will never meet.
I would also like to thank you for your excellent questions. I haven’t been doing interviews unless my labels ask me… and one of the reasons is because I always get the same questions, and I don’t really have anything new to say I haven’t said before. You threw me some thoughtful questions and I really appreciate that. I really appreciate your time as well.