Nature Morte – dead nature, the death of nature, nature and death. Nature Morte was the name of a series of events whose themes are continued to be explored further in Sudenmarja Zine, and where Hexvessel performed several times. So, it is hard to imagine a more fitting artist than Hexvessel to open this first issue of Sudenmarja. Few other contemporary Finnish artists can capture the mysteries of Nature, the deadly impact of mankind on the living sphere and the call of the wilderness as concretely as Hexvessel does in their work and in the whole aura surrounding the band. The name of their latest album “When We Are Death” makes this connection to death even clearer. But in nature nothing ever really dies, does it? The prey nourishes the predator and scavengers, withered plants decompose back to earth and give life to the next generation, fallen trees become a home for whole ecosystems. Through snowfall in spring I made my way to Mat McNerney of Hexvessel, meaning to discuss death, science and mysticism over a cup of dandelion coffee, but ended up talking about life and birth – maybe because of a new life sitting at the same table, for whom taking control of the surrounding world is more interesting than our heavy-minded conversations. –P.S.H.

(Abridged version of an article originally published in Finnish in print in Sudenmarja Zine I)

To start with the latest album “When We Are Death”, I’ve been thinking a lot about why it is not called “When We Are Dead”, and because I know you like to discuss these apocalyptic themes, I was wondering if it was a reference to the famous Oppenheimer quote: “I am become Death”, where he cites the Bhagavad Gita?

“I guess that quote has become so much part of popular culture that it’s almost written in the language. That’s why I felt like it was a concept everybody would be able to get a hold of. And then it’s also like the Buddhist Book of the Dead, the whole Buddhist mentality about preparing yourself for death so that you become one with death, you are death – your whole life becomes about that, about stripping yourself of worldly baggage, so that you are comfortable with the state of dying.

“We have these British children’s books called “Now We Are Six” and “When We Are Five” (by A.A. Milne, ed. note). We wanted to have this naive, almost children’s story feel about it. Death is so stigmatized, and when the album wasn’t very dark, of course I had in mind all these positive, light titles, but I felt they didn’t represent the contradiction in the music where you would have these very happy moments but with very deep lyrics. I wanted to be able in the title to prepare people for what was coming in the work. If it had a very light, very pop title, people might be a bit betrayed when they listen to the music, so I wanted them to realise already that okay, this is going to be a deep album, “When We Are Death” – this is about preparing yourself for death, but there’s also a really positive side to it, there’s a really light side in this children’s story feel of it.”


So it’s more about a personal preparation for death, because I was thinking maybe it was a reference to mankind becoming “the destroyer of worlds”, like the quote continues?

“It can also be a little bit about that, but I meant it more – it’s kind of a spiritual title, it’s a Buddhist thing or a Pagan thing, when you are one with the Universe, when you are one with this life cycle, when you are in a state of perfection, you’re in that sort of enlightened state that the Buddhists are always trying to attain. It was really a spiritual reference rather than an apocalyptic thing.”


There is often this natural connection in Hexvessel’s work, and if you think about Nature, in nature things don’t really die – or when something dies it always gives birth to something else, so I was wondering, is this also an album about life or birth?

“Yeah, it is, it’s a really positive, life-affirming record for me. And I think also us doing the gardening here and looking at nature… If you start to become a gardener – something being from the city I haven’t really delved into as much before I moved to Finland – you’re very aware of the life-and-death-cycle, and it’s a very important part of the next year, the next spring, the next growth, the next harvest. I think that as people withdraw from the land and go into the cities, as they are in most countries now, they lose that sense of that importance, and of course death becomes this very stigmatized, weird, abstract thing that you can’t connect with that destroys peoples lives, when it shouldn’t be like that. Looking through history, ancient Egyptians and things like that, it’s obviously always been a very celebrated thing and we seem to have lost touch with that. That’s maybe a bit what it was about.”


Do you have any ideas on how we could find again this positive connection with death?

“I’m as guilty as anybody else, I’m not taking the discussion from “this is what people should do” – it’s not a guidebook. It’s more about opening a discussion and trying to create some music which would lead you into that questioning mind – to open it up. My thinking around it was that it is a really easy way to start getting into Paganism, it’s easier to understand the concept of Paganism, because that’s basically it. The religion just reflected a way of living and vice-versa – they are very connected – and helped people to live that way or just understand that okay, the season’s coming to an end now, this is the thing we do there to represent what’s happening, so your life becomes about living one with the land.

“I think if you start opening that way of thinking and you start living – we don’t live in the middle of the forest or anything, you don’t have to do that, but I think you can have small steps towards that. And I’m not saying living in the countryside or having a garden or anything like that is really the thing either, because of course living in a city can also be very environmentally sound because you have a lot of people in the same place, it’s very good that there’s shared electricity, shared heating. All of that stuff is very good, communal living basically, but I think the thing that we’ve lost is that sort of spiritual sense.

“It’s very good for us to know who we are, our place in the world, that kind of thing that I think that modern religion, when you think of Christianity and things like that, sort of stripped people of intentionally because it makes it much easier for them to rid you of your worldly possessions and all your other things, and to make you belong to that religion. Whereas I think Paganism isn’t really a religion, it’s really just a way of living. We dubbed it Paganism because it’s not one of the modern religions. It’s more like a conversation, small doorways into that way of living, I’m not sort of suggesting to regress back to…”


Back to Nature?

“…Back to Nature a hundred percent. But I think it would be good if that became more important to us. I read this book “The Masque of Africa” by Sir Vidia Naipaul, he’s a writer who does travel books about living in different parts of the world, he did this book about Africa and he said when the missionaries went in, they basically stopped those people, those tribes giving a shit about the countryside around them, because they taught them that “The spirits aren’t in the trees, don’t worry about that, you’ve just got one God, come to church”. So then the people were like, we don’t have any reason to give a shit about those trees anymore, we don’t need to give a shit about the land around us because it’s not important anymore, that’s not something to be respected anymore, we are the important ones – that’s sort of what that religion teaches you. And that actually destroyed their relation to their surroundings and made it so much easier for companies to come in and exploit those areas. They totally changed their lifestyle because of spirituality. And that’s the sort of thing that is really wrong, that you upturn the balance between Nature versus Man.”

I remember you saying somewhere – I’m quoting out of memory because I couldn’t find this quote anymore – that you believe in the mystery of Nature as explained by science and you have also made a lot of scientific references in your works to for example Carl Sagan. Science can also strip the spirits from the trees how do you reconcile between this mystical side and the scientific side of Nature?

“That’s a really difficult thing, we have this kind of argument quite a lot in bands where you have some people who are very science side and some people who are very spiritual side. It’s really difficult to get those two sides to meet, because someone who sort of believes very much in science just won’t listen, and the other way around. There was this really beautiful science and philosophy program about these Christian monks who run a scientific observatory where they look at the planets and everything, they do really great scientific work, but there are always these conversations in the scientific community that they’re Christians, and they’re looking back at the beginning of the Universe through their telescope and trying to figure out things that happened around the Big Bang. But they don’t feel that their religion has anything to do with looking at things scientifically, because the conclusion might on one hand be scientific and on the other hand it might be a religious one. It doesn’t separate from the facts of things, so a Christian might believe those things are there because of God, but it doesn’t stop him from looking at those things.

“That’s a good example of being able to separate between the two. I feel that science only enhances the mystery of things rather than stripping it away, because the more you know, the more magical it becomes. Science in itself is a pursuit of knowledge, therefore it’s never going to end, it’s a neverending thing, and that’s why I think it’s very exciting. So that’s the kind of argument I would have with, say my parents who are Christian – they would say, “But science always changes it’s mind” – but that’s exactly why it’s interesting, that’s exactly why it’s so mysterious. It’s always shifting, you’re always going to discover something new – discovery itself is written into science, mystery itself is written in there, because you’re going to find the answers. And that’s what’s interesting about mystery – that there is an answer, if there isn’t one – ever – then it’s like, I don’t know… For me it’s really exciting looking at those things like astronomy in that way, it’s so much bigger than us that it becomes even more exciting the more you know about it.”


If you think about Nature or for example the forest, do you feel this mystical connection with Nature, can you feel for example that there are spirits in the forest, or is it more like a poetic image for you?

“I definitely have a spiritual connection with Nature. It may have to do with both nature and nurture for me, because I was brought up like a Catholic, so at a young age I already believed in all these mystical, unexplainable things – the parables and the miracles of Catholicism – so my mind was open to that when I started to get out to the nature. I was brought up in the city, so going out to nature meant freedom for me, it meant freedom from this religious structure, and also freedom from my family. I was in the scout group and we used to go on these long trips that, you know, when you’re a kid two weeks camping in nature is forever, it’s like a year in your mind. It was really magical. That sort of set it up in my mind already that I was open to it, receptive to the idea that Nature could hold these magical things.”


You kind of answered this question already, but what kind of environment did you grow up in, did you always have this connection with nature or is it something that you found later in life?

“I think it’s a combination, I definitely got it when I was young and it was going to the farm that my father grew up at and my uncle owned, we used to go there for summer holidays. There it was also this sense of freedom, I’d go there and I would be superfree, which I wasn’t when I grew up in London. You couldn’t play on the streets, you couldn’t go out late at night, there it was a safe society and a place where you could roam free.

“So yeah, I think that set it up, a place where you can be free also means a place where your imagination can run wild. You asked the question is it a poetic thing or is it a thing that I really see and feel, but I think those things shouldn’t be so separated, because part of that ritual is, part of that whole thing is what’s going on inside you. Like music for example, you have those receptors in you that hear the music, if you didn’t have them you wouldn’t hear it, so you wouldn’t feel the things you feel, it’s sort of like a physical thing. Imagination is almost the necessary end to a physical reaction, you have this unexplainable feeling that happens when you’re in the nature and you sort of add your imagery to it. And it might be a spirit in the tree or whatever, that’s a representation of this unexplainable feeling that happens. And everybody talks about that, that sort of unexplainable feeling. I think that’s the thing that keeps people going back, people like explorers and people who are very into the nature and live with it, I think that’s the thing that keeps them going, that feeling of enrichment. It’s the same with music, why you keep listening, why would you keep listening if you find one album that does that thing for you, why would you keep going for another one and another one – because you keep trying to get that feeling back. In that way I feel like it’s a very necessary part of who we are, and if you haven’t experienced it you’re missing a sense, it’s like another sense like smelling and touching.”

The new album turned out a bit lighter and a more positive than the previous ones. Did you want to create now a work that would be somehow uplifting or elevational?

 “Yeah, and I think that ultimately that’s what music should be. And I think I’m there now. I never understood it – I really thought that music that had these negative journeys in it was about being negative and about sending you to a really negative place. But I look back on the records that are good like that, like the Darkthrone and Burzum records – I think they are records that send you to a place to dream. They’re much grander than that – they’re not meant to be dragging you down. I think those records where I think that’s been the intention are just really bad, because I don’t think that’s the end journey of music. I think it has to be in some way about positive effect – the effect itself is positive.”


Also if you’re always talking about negative things, or if you take for example Pentti Linkola’s (Finnish radical deep ecological philosopher, ed. note) philosophy where he discusses these things like that the only hope for mankind is a drastic decrease in population, it’s sort of disempowering for people because it leaves them with no hope.

 “I read this really good book called “Feral” by George Monbiot – he’s a guy that Radiohead write about a lot, they really like his work, he writes for the Guardian – he’s really amazing because he said that “Okay, let’s just get real”, all those people hoping for some massive nuclear detonation that will rid the world of all these people, it’s never going to happen – if you look at the scientific fact, you would need such a scale of destruction that it’s just simply impossible to get rid of enough people that you would reset things back to some kind of golden age. It’s just not going to happen.

“People – we’re a little bit vermin-like, we will survive, it will take quite a lot to get rid of the amount of people you would need. There has to be another way of thinking – it can’t be about “everyone should just die”, that’s a very teenage reaction towards overpopulation. Like people saying, “I don’t want to have kids because of overpopulation” is like, well, you obviously don’t understand overpopulation. We’re not in danger of overpopulating the world by having a few kids up here in empty Finland where the population rates are decreasing. In fact it would probably be a good thing if people had kids just to stabilize and balance and make sure the country survives because this is a good country with good values. You’ve got to think about trying to put the right people into the planet who can further the human kind.

“George Monbiot was talking about how we have to think about rewilding the land in a way that – he was saying we human beings don’t have longer than a hundred years that we can conceive of. We are just short-term thinkers, we can’t conceive of things being long-term. He used the example of nature laws – the protection of certain areas of land – it’s only based on recent history, so it’s like these are moors, they have always been moors, so they have to stay moors, like these rolling, empty landscapes. They haven’t always been moors, they have been forests, they’ve been jungles – in Northern European terms these have been dense jungles – but that’s because those laws came into place when laws were created, when there was civilization enough to make laws. He looked at trees which show signs that they’ve evolved from having elephants break them – and he was like, elephants, in Britain? He said that’s the kind of thinking you have to come to, because that’s ambitious thinking. Sheep, for example, they’re not natural to Britain, but people think that sheep should always be there because sheep represent the countryside, yet sheep destroy the land – utterly. If you were to try to rewild the land you should get rid of the sheep for hundreds of years to put the land back to the way it should be enough that it would generate a better ecology.

“The things he talks about as well as the whole thing about tourism, people don’t realise how much money comes from nature tourism, it’s like huge, huge industry that’s just totally misunderstood. Local communities think short-term, they’re like, we’ll put a golf course here, this will bring rich people to come and spend money – but if you’re thinking about the small group of rich people who goes and uses that golf course versus the thousands or millions of people that would come if it’s a forest and use it, it’s just a different way of thinking. I found that really inspirational, because it’s so easy to listen to Pentti Linkola – who I think is doing a good job of smashing people in the face with his rhetoric, but it’s also really alienating because you’re not going to get normal people to listen to you.  That’s just as crazy as listening to some of those right-wing black metal guys – it’s just not realistic. I really like that somebody has an idea or he represents a whole way of thinking that’s much more ambitious about nature. You could live in harmony – you don’t need to abandon the city, but you could take some of the nature into the city, and try to rewild your empty spaces, so that they become back to the way they should be.”

Hexvessel shows are often described as rituals, and I know this ritual thing is something that just about anybody nowadays is describing their shows as rituals, but I think in Hexvessel live shows you can find this real ritual or communal aspect but how do you feel about that?

 “It’s hard because live shows have become so much part of what you do with music, and then you see so many live shows and so many bands calling their things rituals and so many bands trying to get to that place, because it’s like that enlightening experience that you keep wanting to get people to experience. I’m a bit tired of reading that shows are rituals but of course it’s something I strive for to get more and more from the shows and to get more and more with the whole way we approach the show. It’s so easy especially on a tour, where you get to the venue, you set up the stuff and then you just go on stage and you’ve forgotten to talk with the band and have a get-together, listen to the right music together and have a small ritual before you go on stage. Having the incense that we use – and then when we started to talk about how we wanted the shows to be more like that we were having our own ritual and everybody else was taking part in it – then things got really really interesting on stage as well as between us. That’s just something we’d like to do more and more that’s never like a finished process.

“I’m always in awe of a band that can manage it like Swans, where you go and you really feel like this is some religious kind of thing they’re like throwing out of themselves, and you imagine they just go home or back to the hotel and collapse in a pool of sweat, it’s like an exorcism. I’d love our shows to be more like that. If people get that feeling when they come and see us it’s really good, but it’s not like I imagine it’s a foregone conclusion. I think sometimes you can tell when the band is not feeling it and we’re not always feeling it all the time either because some situations are just horrible, you know like the people who are running the place are not nice, they have not gone through the trouble to do anything there, it’s just a horrible bar and you’re playing this music which is meant to be representing these greater things, that’s really horrible. But even at those times I’ve still had people coming and saying they’ve got something out of it. Maybe it’s just because it’s written into the music in that way, but it’s definitely something I would like to do more, I think people should do more. Shows should be more like events, special events. We had that idea as well when we moved to Finland and we were going to shows in Helsinki, and there wasn’t so much going on right then in psychedelic rock. We were thinking it would be really good to do those and we tried to do those kind of events and we did a club night and stuff, but we didn’t really manage, it was so much work to put on all these grand things, and then of course me being a musician I figured that I’m just spending way too much time on other peoples events that I wanted to do my own. But I really admire anyone who does that where they put on these shows that create a better atmosphere for the bands, that’s just good for everyone.”


How about your personal life, what kind of place does ritual have in your personal life? You talked about Paganism, are you a person that does for example pagan ritual?

 “We do them – we did them before he was born and not so much now that he’s been born because life just got totally turned on it’s head. But it’s definitely something we have been doing and will do, especially now when he’s getting old enough to understand. I think the thing about our feeling about Paganism is that it’s much more about wanting to inject a certain sort of spiritualism into life without feeling that it’s religious, without feeling that it’s some sort of modern religion – it’s just about that thing I talked about, about those effects that it has… They talked about this Sami drum that plays, it has a note, and the note that it’s in triggers – the changes in people’s brains when they hear it in a ceremony can show up on a brain imaging scan. I think that’s really interesting, those changes that take place when you do a ritual and you get that feeling – I’m sure it’s the same, you would be able to see those brain changes, and whether it’s imaginary or real, I think that something is happening to you. I think that’s really important, especially when it’s timed in with changes in seasons. With him growing up that he has some magic in life… I think that’s the thing about being an atheist – of course, we are too, just because we’re doing these pagan rituals doesn’t mean that I actually believe in things that don’t exist, it’s very much a sort of holistic practice that’s about well-being and creating mystery and embracing mystery of life.”


It’s also a lot about connecting with your past, isn’t it?

 “Sam Harris said that – he’s like this cornerstone of atheism in these books that he writes – he said in the book “End of Faith” that imagine how magical the world gets without religion, then imagine how crazy it gets. It’s not about, like, “oh, religion makes the world so insane with all these insane ideas about creatures that don’t exist and stupid miracles that never happened”, if you take that away and you actually just look at what actually is here, then it’s amazing. That’s what I think our form of Paganism – or call it whatever you want – is, it’s just celebrating the magic of life, and putting that spin on it that life, it’s magical, it should be celebrated. Even if you don’t believe there’s really anything that happens when you die or anything like that, it doesn’t really matter. The scientific fact is that your body doesn’t leave this dimension, your body stays and rots or burns and goes into the atmosphere, those chemicals go around again, whether you like it or not reincarnation in that way is just a fact.”

Pauli Samuli Huttunen

Writer and Visual Artist at Sudenmarja.
To bring to light the hidden things of darkness.