Interview: Damokles

Damokles. (Photo: Kevin Fauske)

It's been a couple of years since we last spoke "on the record," at which time you were recovering from a dark stretch and were active in about seven musical projects at once. It seems like you've been doing well, and that Damokles has sort of settled into being your primary—though not only—musical focus. Generally speaking, how are you/how are things?

I don't mind juggling a bunch of creative projects, each thing has a life of its own with its own timeline regarding the writing process. Not everything happens all at once. But I've boiled it down to Damokles, This Sect, Endtimers, and my electronic solo thing Contrarian being my main things. Plus, of course, the TV/web comedy project ZAP!, which I co-direct and write with my childhood buddy Kenneth Olaf Hjellum. That's where we get our dumb audiovisual jokes out. Kenneth is also deeply involved in every music video Damokles does, he's our dude for that. Damokles has become the most busy band project, that's just how that creative process is. We work fast, and we know instinctively where we want the songs to go, in a very sincere sense.

Still, there are happenings in the other camps. This Sect just turned 20 years old, and had a wild anniversary gig with a bunch of deep tracks being performed for the first time in ages. Contrarian's been getting fun gigs, and since it's just me and my synth gadgets, that's an easy thing to say yes to. Album four released last year, assembling album five now, and a series of live compilations. Also, Endtimers—being a duo with me and Fredrik [Ihler], who lives on and off in Sweden—that process moves at its own pace, yet we've somehow managed to write the majority of album two. Kenneth and me are branching out with doing comic books together, so there's that. Also, there's Sect Appeal Records, a D.I.Y. label I co-run. My mind works better through multitasking, if I had only one project I'd get frustrated real fast.

That dark stretch you mention, I keep a good facade, plus need to keep busy. My mental health is better, but here's the thing: it's an ongoing battle—I'll never be completely well. That in itself is a realization that I'm now fine with. Took me a while to find that internal peace. In my case, it's a perfect storm of nature vs. nurture, so it's hard to tell what came first, the chicken or the egg? Me having bipolar disorder is genetic. My PTSD comes from a fucked up childhood and other life incidents. My chronic untreatable depression and constant existential angst is the bastard child of both nature and nurture. Let's say it like this: I'm done with my past, it can't hurt me. I'm not bitter nor angry and I sleep better at night. I've found healthy coping mechanisms, one of the most important ones is to be real strict about working out on a regular basis—hitting the gym clears my head. Proper sleep is also a biggie, I've been through many insomniac stretches, and that's a fast track for getting into a very grim place. As I said, I'll never be completely cured of these "ailments," but I constantly work on myself to cope better. And, to be honest, I think I'm doing pretty okay. Way better. I'm a dad, and I want for my two teenage boys to have a functioning and protective parent, not a nervous wreck.

A somewhat new realization is that I can't constantly be on. Being a creative workhorse to vent my frustration isn't always the best option. In the past, I've been great at getting projects done, but also pretty great at burning myself out in the process, which was probably a coping mechanism so that I didn't have to deal directly with stuff. But, I also need to learn how to relax. Then, thankfully, the perks of being an ancient nerd show up, so I go on deep dives into video games old and new, comic books, horror movies, specific bands/scenes/labels... Sometimes these deep dives happen with my kids, which is an added bonus that I'm super grateful for. Love tinkering with synthesizers and old video game systems, and lately those two interests have been interconnecting a bit with composing music for Contrarian. When I go into that deep, nerdy geek state, it's very "zen" for me. A nice relaxation to feel.

The new album, Swing, Pendulum, Swing, is so much more diverse that it becomes much harder to classify. Not that that's at all necessary, but it is interesting in its uncommonality. During my most recent listen, for example, I thought "Something's Amiss at the Hive" was a different band until the vocals kicked in. It's such a bizarre-yet-effective fusion of catchy alternative rock—with synths!—and one super succinct fit of borderline black metal. There's just so much going on throughout the material...

Thanks, everything we do is a bizarre mish-mash of our influences and how we're able to convey them, but I can guarantee you that it's never calculated. If it sounds real and heartfelt, it sounds good to us. We're too old to dwell on genre boundaries, plus we want to push each other forward a bit, too, as musicians. We think about the dynamics in our song structures a lot. Even though there may be many layers or components, it all needs to sound unison and coherent as an end product, plus click with the overarching dramaturgy in the lyrics and whatnot. And, coming from a singer's perspective, these other Damokles dudes have real chops. I'm flabberghasted every time we compose, record, or play. How well they perform pushes me to get better at my craft. A good synergy to have.

The overall reception to Swing, Pendulum, Swing seems stronger, too. I've had a couple of people specifically reach out to me about Damokles since my brief write-up a few months ago, which is quite rare these days. Has the band noticed an uptick at all?

Very happy with the feedback thus far! We have most definitely noticed an uptick, and we've got some pretty rad news lined up for 2024 - 2025! We just did a surreal and semi-historic gig at Norway's biggest public library, as the first band ever performing there with live drums. A huge, free all-ages event. Fun to see the reactions from kids and random tourists when confronted with our audiovisual onslaught. Other slightly strange news, too, such as work permits here and there to compose and record. Berlin first!

Damokles live at Deichman Bjørvika library, 2024. (Photo: Luis Benitez Ruiz)

Reading through your track breakdown over at Idioteq, I was most struck by your words regarding "On Being Lazarus":

"The past is the past and that past probably seems tense, but that past is TENSE. It's not here to hurt you anymore, just a construct in your mind. Even though it comes to you in bad dreams and cripples you in everyday life, that fear is after all just basically air. Not even that. It's harmless. Kill that fucker and live a rich and healthy life forever. Come again to see the end..."

I almost disagreed in the sense that while the "past's tense" perhaps should be a harmless nothing, those scars and that fear can do real damage. In my case, I'm not even referring to anything particularly traumatic, just stupid mistakes from the naïveté of youth for which I have a hard time forgiving myself. But this kind of nods back to what you had said about "Don't Forget the Fear," and how fear "does have ways to cripple you." That's an interesting shift in perspective over the course of around 16 minutes of music.

I understand how that can be read as an arrogant quote. Coming from me it is meant as a way to at least try to triumphantly overcome some of your fears, which is not an easy task. That requires a lot of personal work, and it's never the same for anyone. And I'm the last dude to get smart advice from. But, the inherent theme of the past being there to cause damage in the present loses its potency once you stop fearing your past. And I don't have that fear anymore. Some of it sits in my body, and that sucks, but me getting better at rational thinking and healthy coping mechanisms killed that irrational fear of past events. And less nightmares equals better sleep.

Oh, I didn't interpret it as arrogant at all! In so many ways, what you were saying is encouraging and true! I just wish my brain would allow me to believe it and live it, you know? Do you happen to have any insight as to how you came around on just letting go of the past?

Being encouraging, as you pointed out, and somewhat trying to be brave in the process of facing your demons is what I want to convey. Not just front negativity. Nothing constructive about that. Bitterness never helped anyone. I don't want for those years of terrible incidents or choices to rule or poison my life, or anyone else's. I might be an overtly existential weirdo at times, but I live here in the present. The worst parts of my past are—as they should be—dead and gone. I strive to get better at handling my shit, my kids being the biggest motivation. But, also the fact that I'm tired of living in the shackles of crap traumas and a fucked up childhood. I want none of it, never did. Years of therapy and proper medication of course helped along the way. That path is never easy, and never the same for anyone, as previously mentioned. So, I don't judge. Guilt, fear, shame, anger, frustration, loss... Sure, those feelings are there and come to visit at times. Still, they thankfully present themselves to me as irrational to live by. Their visits come in the weirdest ways. Maybe as a smell, or the sudden moves from strangers on the street, perhaps a certain loud sound, or an unexpected phone call potentially bringing doom. These events will still make my heart skip a beat, and make me hyper aware of my surroundings. Sometimes they reappear in dreams. Lyrics come to me often there, I can wake up from a nightmare with sentences and words stuck together with creepy coherence.

I just don't want to re-invite my traumas. My door is shut. I'd rather try to turn them into jigsaw pieces of art. I see my fear, but I've gotten more skilled at recognizing it as my mind trying to play tricks on me. And I don't wanna play. Why invite that in? Through my ordeals, I've somehow taught myself to move on. A part of that came through my constant self-expression in music and other creative outlets. Not easy, but doable. Plus, I choose to not be defeatist. I don't have the luxury of quitting. So, at the inherent bottom of that dark matter I create, I'd say there's a somewhat positive and hopefully encouraging message for those who struggle with their own problems. To quote my old heroes Black Flag: "Rise above, we're gonna rise above!" Let's do it. Or die trying.

I'm not sure how much you want to reveal about this since Swing, Pendulum, Swing has only been out for some months at this point, but Damokles has already demoed an hour's worth of material for a third album called A Trophy Collection—a concept album telling the tale of a fictional serial killer. Having taken an early skim through, I definitely pick up on areas where the palette has expanded even further, but it doesn't strike me as a massive departure in the sense that past listeners shouldn't be shocked, nor required to readjust expectations.

We're at a stage in our sound now where people kind of expect the unexpected, and that is a good place to be. Yet we have our own vibe, I think. The sum of our parts is what makes it special. We want to push each other and just simply play on each other's strengths, without really thinking that hard about how the end result is going to sound. At the end of each album recording cycle now, we've done a weekend-long "cabin session" where we all bring eclectic synthesizers, half-broken vintage microphones, strange percussive gadgets, and other oddities to bring that last lo-fi flavor of madness to the finished product. At the core, we are all nerds in this band, and we simply love to go that extra mile for a weird, distorted sound. The spirit of the band is very liberating. There's certainly no ego.

As if that weren't enough, insanely, you've already started writing and demoing songs for the fourth album, too—tentatively titled A Human Face. This "return" to more angular forms of post-hardcore/punk still represents an increase in the presence of atmospheric textures and such, continuing to keep things from being able to to be pigeonholed in any straightforward manner.

The "more atmospherics" thing is definitely a focus, and maybe that's my Contrarian project creeping more and more into Damokles, as there's quite the machine park of synths to be tinkered with on late nights. The focus on album four, which will most likely be called A Human Face, is to shift the focus on the psyche a bit. Album one and two were basically me facing the ghosts of my past and inner self. Real tales of life and death. Album three is a fictional tale about a serial killer, presented through juxtaposed snapshots of his inner workings. His full life, basically—from plotting that first kill to being confronted by the parents of his victims in a courtroom. Each song holds a story here. Album four will be an even deeper look inward, deconstructing the collective human psyche—our primitive id, our latent instincts, how we cope with danger, the way we follow reward systems both introverted and extroverted, etc.

I enjoy to sometimes put dogmatic writing rules onto myself, and sometimes it's just nice to get out of my own head, and not deal with personal shit in a creative sense. In my case, that either turns into fiction based on non-fiction (regarding the serial killer album), or non-fiction based on the human condition (as in the case of album four). I'm on a constant research binge once I go into a subject. Being an author and journalist never left me. I wrote a book on the history of capital punishment in Norway, Grim Justis - Svartebok om Dødsstraff i Norge. The research process into that was severely fucked up, so I'm used to digging into those worst, most brutal corners of human history. For a while afterward, I was pondering, "Should I write a serial killer true crime book, since I already covered capital punishment?" Turned into a fictionalized serial killer concept album instead. Oh well. Mission accomplished.

How the hell do you all work so quickly!? Is there any concern of eventually burning out, or getting to the point where there's such a large backlog of material that you might be overly "bored" by those efforts by the time they eventually get released years later?

We could probably work even faster. Not worried about burning out on Damokles. We all have our own separate bands and projects that we can dig into whenever there's some down time. That keeps it interesting for all of us, I think. It's a strength to have as a band, that we're comfortable as a unit but can also diverge into other bands whenever, without jealousy or drama. We cheer on each other in every avenue whenever things go down right, and they sometimes do! Maybe because we started up that way—we've been semi-proficient in other bands before Damokles. And that's a fun thing to witness, as musician friends and creative partners. There's certainly no competition, just the best wishes going around. And to be honest, all our experience and technical expertise just feeds into what we're doing in Damokles. You learn new tricks by being open to other projects.

We've got a big backlog of demos and ideas that can be worked on, at its own pace. We're somehow quite organized in that sense, and we all write plus produce music easily. Our studio facilities are great. Couldn't ask for a more healthy band environment, to be honest. And that includes our related projects, too. We all mostly share the same studio/rehearsal space, and we interconnect easily.

With so many "irons in the fire," and without spoiling the eventual "rad news" you mentioned earlier, is there any estimation of a timeline as to when listeners might begin to hear some of this new material out of the Damokles camp?

We'll start dropping new tunes very soon. Before that, there's some pretty imminent music video action in a creepy abandoned penthouse. Maybe a cover tune or two... Finalizing the mixes for album three in May in Berlin. Super stoked about getting a work permit there from a composer's organization (NOPA [Norwegian Society of Composers]), so expect album three singles and videos to start appearing post-summer, before a late-autumn album release for our fictional serial killer concept album bonanza, A Trophy Collection. We'll be doing the masters yet again with Alan Douches at West West Side Music, he is our go-to guy for that now. I'm currently drawing the artwork for the record—expect gritty, Raymond Pettibon vibes in an angsty comic book format. Also planning some ghastly music video themes to go with the songs.

Beyond that, we're deep into album four sessions as well, as previously stated. Berlin work permit there, too. September. Work permit in Firenze coming up also, for the A Human Face sessions. Dates not finalized, but sometime around autumn. Keeping busy.

Any interested parties: we play weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, baby showers, corpse bonfires, etc. PEACE!

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Swing, Pendulum, Swing is out now on 180-gram red vinyl through Vinter Records. Hear more from Damokles via Bandcamp, Spotify, or Apple Music; and find them on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.