Ritual: Metal master Gaahl on the art of Corpse Paint
You wouldn’t expect the former front man of a band the Norwegian press described as “musical terrorism” to be so soft spoken and reflective, however Gaahl—formerly of black metal pioneers Gorgoroth and now God Seed—isn’t the type to fit into your expectations of what he should be like.
We weren’t sure exactly what to expect when we caught up with him to talk about the phenomenon of Corpse Paint and what it means to him, but what we got was some insight into an art which is both theatrical and practical and a metal maniac who has come to a mature comfort in himself, feeling no need for shock tactics.
There is frequent debate surrounding the origin of corpse paint in metal, from Mayhem to King Diamond and Venom to precursors like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins who donned corpse paint-like makeup as early as the 1950s. What isn’t up for debate anymore is that the style is here to stay. On a call to the grim reaches of Norway, we spoke with Gaahl and got a look at the man behind the paint.
FANGORIA: Where did corpse paint come from in the Norwegian scene?
GAAHL: I guess we were probably inspired by Celtic Frost. It may be different for others.
FANG: A lot of people cite Mayhem as one of the first bands to be doing it. I know it was certainly very meaningful to Dead, the one-time singer of Mayhem. Did you know him at all?
GAAHL: I knew him vaguely. He passed away too early.
FANG: Is there a style to the corpse paint or is it just how you are feeling when you apply it?
GAAHL: I’ve done it so many times now, I’ve kind of fallen into a pattern. I make shadows to enhance the structure of my face.
FANG: Machiavelli says if you can’t be loved, it is better to be feared. You have fans all over who love what you do and your art, but there are also those who are opposed to what you do. Is fear what you want those people to feel and is the corpse paint part of that?
GAAHL: No, I don’t consider them. Probably in the earlier days in Norway it was different. The police were keeping an eye on us, so the paint was a measure of protection. You could have your private life basically. We were kids back then, you know? People had to wonder if it was really you who was just up on stage, they couldn’t recognize you. Instead of having a hundred people surrounding you at the bar it was better to have a smaller group of friends.
FANG: Does it help you become who you need to be when you go out on stage? Do you transform yourself a bit?
GAAHL: I don’t think so because I’m not aware when I’m on stage if I have paint on or not, but it helps me prepare and gather the energy to do the show. When I am on stage though I am not aware of it, I think the songs themselves should be the focus.
FANG: It’s a ritual in a way then, the act of putting it on…
GAAHL: It’s an act of preparation. Although I have performed many times without it but when you put it on every night for two months straight it becomes a way to get your mind ready for the stage.
FANG: I recently interviewed the artist Joe Coleman and we talked a lot about how our society lacks dark gods, how it’s no longer acceptable to have dark gods in our world. As a result we don’t have the right outlets for our own darkness. Can it be said your art is an outlet for your dark impulses? A dark god for our era?
GAAHL: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I’ve always been aware of the dark and light equally. I think everyone is equally light and dark, although the word God, I don’t know about that.