Ashtoreth is a ritual dark ambient artist who focuses his attention to guitar drone and vocals. His latest release, ‘Morana’, has been released on Unexplained Sounds Group. Morana, the Baltic and Slavic goddess, represents the seasonal rites of death and rebirth. Without relying on software or synths Ashtoreth manages to paint a vivid picture of a winter landscape, setting the perfect mood for worship of this deity, ‘Morana’. After hearing this brilliant album, it only made sense to catch up with Ashtoreth and ask him some questions about his latest album as well as his style and techniques used in creating ritual dark ambient music.
Ashtoreth is quite the interesting and diverse project. Your music seems to take you into many different territories. Could you give readers a bit of a short introduction to your music?
Peter Verwimp (P.V.): Well, I founded Ashtoreth in 2010, after having spent time in numerous bands and sound art projects. Founding this solo-project was both a reaction to, as well as a continuation of concepts learned and experienced in the past. On the one hand, I was tired of playing structured music, as most bands do, and wanted to expand my possibilities as a musician and experiment more. This lead me to playing my music in a free form, improvising and experimenting on the spot, allowing a certain flow to the music.
On the other hand, I was searching for a way to put more meaning to those improvisations, because that`s what I thought was lacking from the sound art projects I was doing at that time. And so, by studying and practicing shamanism, I found the meaning I thought was lacking. Shamanism gave me something to tie all my influences and ideas to, a starting point and a source of inspiration. The brilliant thing about shamanism and the reason why it survived for many centuries is in it`s ability to adapt and change with time. It too takes influences from what is around and brings everything together in the personal rituals of the practitioner. So that became the overarching concept for everything I do with Ashtoreth and probably explains why it`s often referred to as ritual ambient/drone.
You have been in many musical projects over the years. Is Ashtoreth now your only active project, or do you still create music in a band(s)?
P.V.: For many years Ashtoreth was my sole active project until some years ago I was contacted by Emptiness, a heavily experimental black metal/doom band from Brussels. They invited me to play the support for their ‘Nothing But The Whole‘ album release in 2014. Afterwards we stayed in touch and when their guitarist left, they contacted me to replace him. I had been impressed by both their music and live performance and also on a personal level we connected very well. So, I didn`t need to think too long about joining them. Especially as they were looking to elaborate on their chosen path of experimentation and overall alienation of the listener by blending different genres such as ambient, post-rock, electronics etc…. I joined them in October 2015 and recorded their new album ‘Not For Music‘,out on Season Of Mist, with them in their own Blackout Studio in Brussels.
The major connection between much of your music seems to be the guitar. Is this your favorite instrument? How long have you been playing?
P.V.: I actually never really thought of it that way, but yes, maybe the guitar is in some way my favorite instrument. Or at least the one that seems most versatile in expressing my musical ideas. I actually started out as a saxophone player, I had been playing that instrument since childhood, though somehow I was always drawn to playing the guitar. So, at the age of 12 I picked up a cheap acoustic guitar and started learning chords. That`s about 30 years ago. The reason I like to use the guitar is that it has so many possibilities in conveying different sorts of sounds and textures. And adding effects to it only enlarges those possibilities, as listeners can clearly hear on the new album. At times the guitar may sound as a real guitar, on other occasions I can make it sound like a synth, a trumpet, a piano… I’ve even developed my own technique in making acoustic guitars sound like a string orchestra (a good example of that can be heard here:
What are some of your greatest influences? Nature, films, the mental condition, or something all-together different from these?
P.V.: There are of course a lot of different influences, be it from literature, science, film, art, other music, philosophy, etc… but for sure nature, in all it`s splendor, is a genuine source of inspiration. I love to spend time in and with nature as much as I can. There is something awe inspiring about the forces of nature and it all neatly ties in with my interest in shamanism and cosmology. To give you some insight into how this works,I remember doing an art residency in Florida, USA, right before recording my first album (‘Itobia‘, live in Paris, released by Pelican Avenue). The residency was located next to the ocean and after having spent almost a month in the proximity of the rhythm of the waves, that very rhythm became the backbone of that recording.
Ashtoreth is described as searching for a shamanistic perspective. Do you have any strict religous foundations to your art, or are you open to any spiritual experiences presented to you?
P.V.: I suppose the latter is more the case, as I believe everything is transient. But being raised Catholic and being a firm believer in free Will, I steer away from the rigid rules of most organized religions. I`m more of a free thinker. On the other hand, I`m very interested in the rituals and ceremonies different religions and cults have. It is in that sense that I create my own ceremonies, taking ideas and influences from many different sources, a more holistic approach I suppose. There certainly is a religious aspect to what I do, but I see it as a deeply personal search and will not impose my beliefs unto others. Wani Yetu, the last track from the new album certainly highlights that, as the vocals could remind the listener of Gregorian chants.
You had a few shows within March and April, in Belgium and France, respectively. How important is the live concert to you as a musician?
P.V.: Playing live is a very important aspect of what I try to achieve with Ashtoreth. First of all, for the sheer pleasure I get out of playing music in a live setting. There`s a certain tension when playing live that works as inspiration. It is both a personal catharsis as it is a means to connect. It allows me to connect to an audience and ride the waves of the moment, and that is always challenging. Playing live also often allows me to travel to different locations on the globe and that`s another thing I love doing. Meeting new people, different cultures…
Do you enjoy working with various other artists to expand on the Ashtoreth sound? Which collaborations have been the most fulfilling to you?
P.V.: Collaborations are an integral part of my praxis. Not necessarily to expand on my sound, but to connect to the viewpoints of others and search for a common ground. Collaborations always bring different ideas to the table and allow for a broader, more holistic view on things. That’s why I’ve worked together with all sorts of people, from different backgrounds and disciplines. Writers, musicians, visual artists, poets, fashion designers… even architects!
And these days the internet greatly contributes to the possibilities of collaborating. I`m currently working with Farid Nahid, for example, a brilliant percussionist from Iran who masters centuries old rhythm patterns and ancient ritual structures. That immediately brings new concepts in and is highly inspiring. It`s hard to say which of the collaborations were most fulfilling as they all taught me new things and brought joy to my life. I’ve recorded a collaborative album and toured with TCH from the UK, worked with fashion designers Pelican Avenue, recently did sound work for writer Tamara E. Williams`, Lapses series, did live performances with the German/Ethiopian visual artist Isabel Tesfazghi (photo), a soundtrack for “Mono“, an art film by Austrian artist Sangam Sharma, a soundtrack for the “Doubleplusungood” feature film by Belgian cineast Marco Laguna, remixes for various bands… and the list goes on. A few weeks ago I recorded a collaborative track with fellow drone brother Stratosphere and at the end March I traveled to Switzerland to work on a project with other sound artists and a group of poets and writers initiated by a radio maker…
Do you have a formal education in music, or have you learned everything on your own through the years? How important do you think a formal music education is to experimental artists?
P.V.: I’ve had a formal education in music that started at a young age. First in classical music and after that I spent some time learning jazz. After that, I was entirely fed up with all the rules that are imposed on musicians. As a counter reaction I did a noise band for some years! There is also a lot of stuff that I taught myself, like playing the guitar and the use of my voice, for example. In retrospect, I think it`s been a good thing that I did enjoy some formal training in music, even if it`s just to know the rules and being able to react against those. But to my belief it is not a necessity for an experimental or any other artist to have had this formal education. I think a lot can be learned by listening to others, reading about sound concepts and most importantly to experiment and follow your own feelings in what sounds right.
Many musicians, especially in the ambient spectrum, have specific rituals they follow when preparing to create music, things such as burning incense, meditation, etc. Are there any important rituals that you follow to open your mind and/or expand your consciousness when creating music?
P.V.: That`s certainly the case. For creating Ashtoreth`s music, the right atmosphere and a sense of place are important elements for creation. In a live setting I will always burn Sage, a herb often used in Shamanic practice, that is said to purify spaces and bring together by means of smoke the spirits of those gathered. Both the smell of the herb and the visual aspect of the smoke allow me to tune in and channel the energies that are present and go about the journey to come. To end a performance /journey I usually burn palo santo, which has a more earthy smell that allows for a return to reality.
I was first introduced to your music on last year’s collaboration with fellow ritual ambient musician, Ruairi O’Baoighill. How was the experience working with him, do you have any plans for collaborations with him in the future?
P.V.: I first met Ruari through the internet. I enjoyed the music and images he posted in various groups on Facebook and started following him. Last year, there was a festival that had booked him for their opening ceremony. After some emailing it was decided that I could join the bill and so we did. We played and recorded the almost 50 minutes long piece ‘Shrine‘ and got to know each other in person. It was a real pleasure working with him, there is definitely a common ground and a mutual appreciation to be found in what we both do, so playing together was easy and came very natural. And also, on a personal level we get along very well, so I can certainly see us working together in the near future. There are some proposals made by abstruse eerie radiance, a new Belgian label, for a split release.
Labels/genres can often be overly specific and pigeon-hole musicians into categories, or limit their sound exploration. With that said, how would you categorizes your sound, or do you prefer to leave it open to any styles or genres that you find appropriate at the time?
P.V.: I mostly leave the categorizations to others, as I don`t want to limit myself creatively. As I mentioned before, the over-arching concept of shamanism allows me to blend in different styles of music. In the Ashtoreth universe there is a place for a lot of different influences, ranging from ambient and drone to folk, post-rock, psychedelia, noise, metal, experimental electronics, industrial…depending on what atmosphere or emotions I want to evoke.
Things are a bit strange around the world in this 21st Century. Do you see the apocalypse coming? If so, how do you think it will happen?
P.V.: For me the word has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it is what most of us think about when they hear the word. Destruction and annihilation of life on the planet with all the chaos and despair an event like that would bring about. In that understanding, we`re probably well underway with the destruction of our environment, the suppression of people and ideas, and the constant waging of war and bloodshed. But, I prefer the other meaning of the word, namely ‘revelations’. Also, in that sense, we are well underway. It seems to me that more truth is revealed these days than ever before and can`t stay hidden anymore. More and more people are becoming conscious about themselves, the world they live in and what is wrong with it. So, my scenario for the apocalypse would be that we all become more aware and rid ourselves as the human collective from all limitations that are currently keeping us in shackles. Maybe that`s the interesting thing we are experiencing now, this dichotomy of the apocalypse, will we choose for total destruction or will we become conscious and start building things up for the better. This choice is personal for each individual, and therein lies the succes or failure of our survival on this planet.
Do you have any literary or film interests which have influenced your musical direction, or just made some sort of great impact on your life in a different area?
P.V.: There are many, but to mention a few: everything by Carlos Castaneda, William S. Burroughs, books on folklore, shamanism and mythology, quantum physics, Marcel Duchamp, Proust, Foucault, Terence McKenna and the archaic revival, movies like Jodorowski‘s “Holy Mountain“, “El Topo” and “Santa Sangre“, David Lynch, Tarkovsky, David Cronenberg, “Kojaaniskatsi“/”Powakatsi” (Francis Ford Coppola), Geoff Lawton and Permaculture, Gilles Deleuze, …
Your latest album, ‘Morana‘, will be releasing on Unexplained Sounds Group in the near future. How has your experience been working with this record label?
P.V.: By the time people will read this, the album will already have been released, both in a digital form via Bandcamp, as well as in a physical form, a CD with a booklet and a collection of cards with artworks by myself, Cesar Naves and Jaime Rguez. And once again, it was the internet that brought us all together. I got to know Raffaele Pezzella from his work as Sonologyst, as well as through the short reviews he would write for music that I posted on the Unexplained Sounds Group page. He then went on to play some of my tracks in his wonderful radio broadcast `The recognition test and soon after he contacted me to co-curate the Belgian experimental music Survey. In doing so we got to know each other much better, and he then asked me to record this full-length album. My experience in working with him has been a great one. Raffaele is a very dedicated, consistent, and highly motivated individual with a genuine love for music. He does everything in his power to bring to light hidden gems of music with a very open mind and a clear focus. He also put me in touch with video artist Cesar Naves and designer Jaime Rguez, who both worked on the design of the cover art. I`m more than thankful for his involvement and his believe in my music!
There is a video for the opening track, ‘Hyberna’. Is this something that you found to be a critical addition to the song, or is it just nicely complementary?
P.V.: Conjuring up images is certainly an integral part of what I want to achieve with Ashtoreth`s music and working with images comes as a logical consequence. Usually I leave that to the listener`s own imagination, but I`ve accompanied some movies with live music in the past (Jodorowsk’s “Holy Mountain” and “El Topo” and “Stalker” by Tarkovski) and that always works very well. In this case, I found it an interesting idea to complement the track with the vision of Cesar Naves, to see how he would translate my sounds into images. I`m very pleased with the end result. He shows us abstracted images of nature, tree canopies, frozen ice crystals, and a mysterious figure that can be seen throughout the video.
Where do you see your sound heading in the near future? Do you plan to try some vastly different soundscapes, or are you slowly honing in on some sort of a perfection within the confines of your current sound?
P.V.: The beauty of playing music is that you`re always learning new ways of expressing yourself and that it`s constantly changing. I have the feeling that for this album I’ve come to a point where I perfected certain abilities within the confines of my own sound. For many years I’ve been struggling with finding a minimalist approach to things and I’m very satisfied with the overall sparseness of this album. That’s something I’ve been working towards since the beginning. So, that also means I’ll have to set some new goals towards the future now. Since working with Farid Nahid, I became more interested in rhythmical patterns and I feel that that is something I will work on further in the near future.
Thank you very much for your time Peter, I will leave the final words to you!
P.V.: Well, first of all I would like to thank you for this interesting conversation. I also want to address my gratitude towards Raffaele Pezzella for all the works he puts into publishing and promoting so much good music. And, in general, to my fellow musicians and artists, keep doing what you do because it matters!!
Photo credits: Stijn De Winter (1st one), Fia Cielen (2nd one)