Q&A: Nader Sadek on sharing his own skin for “LIVING FLESH” & more
Let’s just say Nader Sadek possesses a considerably more expansive view of what constitutes a “special edition” than most: The brilliant, endlessly inventive Egyptian multimedia artist/death metal architect known for devising the ghoulish stage art employed by extreme music luminaries such as Mayhem and Sunn O))) recently had strips of his own skin surgically removed and tanned to create the packaging for a unique copy of the supremely brutal LIVING FLESH, a live CD/DVD capturing a rare 2011 performance by the eponymous death metal supergroup to which Sadek serves as a kind of artistic director amidst current and former members of Cryptopsy, Morbid Angel, Behemoth, Vader and Mayhem.
“Animal cast silicone shrouds the case which holds a signed test pressing as well as a wrapped LP,” the press release notes, “while his embossed, self-extracted leather functions as the crest.”
As he prepared to display his real-life Necronomicon on Monday night (April 22) from 6-8 p.m. at Santos Party House in New York City alongside a screening of surgical procedure footage—a trailer can be viewed here—Sadek graciously took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to chat with FANGORIA about (literally) sacrificing a piece of himself to the heavy metal gods.
FANGORIA: Can you talk a little about the origins of this project?
NADER SADEK: I wanted to do a special edition that was genuinely special, not just printing different artwork or making one slight modification to the packaging…When I first had the idea to bind the record in human leather, I wasn’t really thinking of myself—I thought maybe there was a way to get skin from a university medical lab or something. But morally that just seemed like a bad idea. It wouldn’t be fair for the person I would take it from. So what about my own flesh? I thought, “I’m alive and it will heal, and it will be very stressful, but so is making any piece of true art.” … In the past, they used flesh to bind Bibles, but they had cadavers, so it was easy to be generous with how much they used whereas with me it was pretty…limited.
FANG: How traumatic was the surgery?
SADEK: It wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be. I did it in a very respected hospital in Egypt with a very respected doctor. It was really fast. My leg was anesthetized, but I was actually conscious, so I watched [the operation] and we filmed it as well. As soon as they took [the skin] they wrapped my leg in Vaseline gauze and then pressure gauze—just layers of it. The first night after the anesthetic wore off, that was the only time it was so painful that I couldn’t sleep. The whole night in my room I had to have my leg hanging. Something about blood flow. So it was a little hard to coordinate that and I kind of had to do it by myself, too, because I didn’t really want to tell too many people what I was up to.
FANG: What did the doctor say when you first approached him? Was that an awkward conversation?
SADEK: He wasn’t all that freaked out, actually—that was one of the things that surprised me about this whole process. I thought it would be the type of thing where I’d have to work really hard to convince someone to do it. But this doctor was just kind of like, “Oh, that’s weird. Sounds cool.” That’s it? “Yeah, when do you want to start?” During the surgery I was watching him and it looked like he was kind of having fun—something different, maybe. I guess for him grafting skin probably is not a big deal. The other interesting thing is he seemed to really come to care about the project. Right before I went under the knife, he realized if he made the strips the thickness we had originally discussed, the skin would probably never tan properly. So he went deeper, but was also very careful to not go so deep that it ended up worse than a third degree burn, which I might never quite heal from.
FANG: What about the crew at the tannery? Were they as blasé?
SADEK: That’s actually a pretty funny story. Those guys wouldn’t have ever understood what I was trying to do at all. I mean, this was a very religious, pious, family owned tannery outside of Cairo. The doctor definitely thought the project was weird, don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t something that was going to stop him from participating. At the tannery, though, I felt like we had to lie a little bit. So we went there and threw the names of all these crazy animals out to keep them from getting suspicious. At one point I was like, “It’s a hedgehog”—I just wanted to come up with an animal there was no way they’d tanned before in Egypt, you know? [Laughs] Finally, the tannery guy says, “Look is it human skin or something?” And my friend who was with me just said, “Yeah”—which totally made me cringe. But the tannery guy says, “Well, obviously it’s for science, isn’t it?”
SADEK: Right! Yeah, of course! Actually, my friend said, “What did you think? We were going to make a wallet out of it?” [Laughs.] So the guy says, “Well, if it’s for science then I can totally support it and I’ll do it for free,” which was great. And it is for science to my mind. I believe that art is science and the other way around. So it wasn’t really a lie, even if it wasn’t the science he assumed it was.
FANG: Though there has been a flourishing of heavy metal in that region over the last several years, there is still a well-publicized fear of/hostility to the genre. Do you ever worry a project like this might garner you the wrong kind of attention back in Egypt?
SADEK: Not really. It seems to me even with whatever publicity this gets it will still be very much under the radar. There is so much stuff happening over there right now, I don’t think anyone is going to notice what an artist is doing in New York.
FANG: Did growing up in that sort of cultural milieu make the full-blown transgressive-ness of death metal more appealing to you?
SADEK: For me, I was already struggling with ideas of being agnostic or atheist. There was only one other friend of mine who was totally atheist. In Egypt there’s a mosque every couple kilometers. It’s just ingrained in the culture and so it was definitely cool to have a Deicide album that’s totally against all the religious stuff you’re surrounded by; to be able to listen to this thing that’s blasphemous and insane and the extreme opposite in every possible way was liberating. It felt good…
…When I lived in Egypt I had really long black hair, a goatee, was always wearing a Deicide or Morbid Angel T-shirt, and I was obviously extremely intimidating to people on the street. I’d hail a cab and they wouldn’t stop. Or I’d walk down a street and just watch the crowd open up to let me pass. It was really bizarre sometimes. When I came to New York I did a project related to that experience called FACELESS where I dressed as a veiled woman and walked around Times Square. It wasn’t that intense—crowds didn’t open up—but it still was extremely awkward and I definitely felt intimidating to those around me. The pieces I did based on that [comprised] my first show in New York [in 2007] and also featured my first collaboration with metal musicians [e.g., Alex Skolnick (Testament), Trym (Emperor), Ralph Santolla (Obituary, Deicide), and others—.ed]. So that influence and juxtaposition has been a part of my work for a long time now.
FANG: Is it exciting for you creatively to be able to intertwine this long-standing love of extreme music with your art, then?
SADEK: It’s a package. They’re both art. That’s how I’ve always approached it. As for why I chose to focus on art first…it came down to, What am I capable of? And I’m not capable of making music, personally. I’ve written things where I was able to explain an idea to someone that was then turned into a song. I can create some melodies. But it’s not like a skilled medium for me. I grew up drawing a lot. If I had been practicing playing guitar, maybe it would have been different, but I didn’t have a guitar and this was the given path, basically. Even so, I always thought about incorporating music and as soon as I was at a point I could make it happen I took the opportunity.
FANG: As a longtime death metal fan, it must then be pretty satisfying to you personally to have such seminal figures from the scene performing on LIVING FLESH, yes?
SADEK: Absolutely, and especially because those were my first choices and no one turned it down. Rune [Erikson; Aura Noir, Av Inferni] and Flo [Mournier; Cryptopsy] discovered that they had such an intense chemistry—that was shocking to all of us. Those two are the ultimate combination musically, and its even stranger—or maybe it makes too much sense?—that they are very different people on a personal level. I really don’t think those two have anything in common [laughs].