“I don’t really know why I’ve been talking with all these people lately,” says Jef Whitehead from his studio in northern Oregon. Whitehead is the exceptionally private and talented multi-instrumentalist behind the one-man black metal band Leviathan. Since he started self-releasing Leviathan demos in the late Nineties, Whitehead—or Wrest as he is credited—has chosen a solitary path that steers clear of today’s industry standard of press cycles, live shows, Twitter updates, video teasers, photo ops and tell-all interviews. “To me it takes away from the mystique of the music,” he says. “The whole moniker thing in black metal is very important to me, along with the corpse-paint, feeling dead, creating otherworldly music and making something that’s not like Mel Bay: How to Play Guitar Correctly. I bet some of your readers would hear Leviathan and think, Hey that guy is not the best guitar player. Because I’m not! [laughs] But I ape my way through it.”
In talking with Whitehead it instantly becomes clear that he’s self-effacing and humble when it comes to his craft. He’s quick to flip questions about his own style into deep discussions about his eclectic influences, which range from Van Halen, the Police and Black Flag to Celtic Frost, Immolation, Ved Buens End and Judas Iscariot. But the fact is he just might be the most unique and creative black metal artist operating in America today. As Leviathan, he’s released numerous splits, singles and studio full-lengths, including the recent Scar Sighted. He’s also issued some utterly haunting and beautiful ambient black metal as Lurker of Chalice, and has collaborated with a who’s-who of underground tastemakers including Nachtmystium, Twilight and Sunn O))).
Along with his musical output, Whitehead is also a well known and sought-after tattooer and fine artist, who designs not only his own album artwork but has been commissioned to create pieces for bands like Converge and Today Is the Day. Despite his prolific artistic output, Whitehead’s life has not always been on an upward trajectory. His struggles with alcohol and substance abuse and lapses in sobriety have caused him to languish at times, and descend into a dire self-destructive place. One particularly grim moment occurred in 2011, when he was charged with a litany of counts stemming from an argument with an ex-girlfriend. Ultimately, it came out that the accuser had fabricated many of the charges, and all of them were dropped except domestic battery. Whitehead maintains that even that charge was bogus. While he chooses to not speak about the circumstances surrounding that particular incident, he’s open and candid when it comes to his sobriety.
“I can’t do anything when I’m getting loaded,” admits Whitehead. “I was sober for 11 years, from 1995 to 2006. All of the first part of Leviathan was done in that first sober stretch. I had a lot of anger and sadness and it was my form of therapy, as corny as it sounds. Then things just shit the bed in 2006 and I started a pretty rough seven years. During [2011’s] True Traitor, True Whore I was doing horrible things to myself during that whole thing. And you can hear it. We listened to it the other day and it’s so sloppy.”
It was about two years ago that Whitehead turned a corner and entered into a new, more productive chapter of his life. He moved to Oregon from his longtime home of San Francisco, got clean, and met his girlfriend Stevie Floyd, who also happens to be a pretty serious visual artist, tattooer and guitarist with the bands Dark Castle and Taurus. Together the two have an adorable eight-month-old girl, who, incidentally, is present throughout our interview, quietly observing the proceedings from her baby seat. Whitehead has also softened, if only slightly, his anti-press stance. He has begun to speak with a few outlets, including Guitar World, about the wildly inspired, pummeling and dynamic new record.
Thanks to his regained creative focus, Scar Sighted stands as the most ambitious, focused and fully realized Leviathan record to date. It encompasses the icy viciousness of his early lo-fi four-track black metal releases, dark atmospheric excursions (reminiscent of Whitehead’s side-project Lurker of Chalice), jaw-dropping drumming, and doom, noise, thrash and death-metal guitar departures. Whitehead performs all instruments and voices on Scar Sighted, and weaves a dizzying tapestry with his arrangement of these elements, which were expertly captured by the skillful producer/engineer Billy Anderson.
“At first it was daunting to work with Billy, because his résumé contains records that changed my life,” says Whitehead of working with Anderson, whose credits include influential records by bands like Melvins, Neurosis and Sleep. “I like shitty production. I played him a couple examples [of lo-fi black metal] and he was like, ‘Alright.’ Later I found he was actually thinking, Oh my god that’s terrible. [laughs] But working with him was amazing. There’s clarity in the new record, but it’s not Hot Topic bubble gum.”
You’re known for creating some of the most extreme metal out there. But I’m curious about where you started. Did you like Zeppelin and Van Halen like the rest of us? There were three records that my mom had when I was growing up that I first noticed the guitar on: Led Zeppelin III, Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free and Spirit’s self-titled first record. Those left an impression on me, and in particular Randy California’s playing on the Spirit record. There was just something about the sound of the neck pickup and those warm solos. I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was about 13. My mom got me one. I was into punk rock and I would watch videos on MTV trying to figure out those stretchy chords Andy Summers [of the Police] was doing. Then when I figured out the barre chord, I remember the first song I learned was “Hungry Wolf” by X. But at the same time I was also listening to Dio, Ozzy and Van Halen. I was, and am, a huge Van Halen fan.
But even before guitar you were trained as a drummer, right? Did you find that helped make your transition to guitar easier? Yeah, I’m mostly a drummer. My uncle had drums when I was a kid. Drumming has always come a little more naturally to me. I was in jazz band in junior high and high school. Absolutely. I’m way better with my right-hand rhythm playing than the left. Way better at strumming than fretting. It translates to bass too. Actually as far as my comfortableness with my ability to play I’d rank it drums, bass and then guitar.
So you’re growing up in California in the Eighties, playing drums and guitar. You also got into skate culture at the time, right? How was that tied in to your musical upbringing? Yeah, I was balls deep in skateboarding. I was a sponsored amateur. I skated in a couple smaller competitions, and I got second a couple times. Anyway I ended up getting away from a living situation, and I was staying with a friend from high school. We were best friends, and we skated every day. He also had a guitar and we were trying to learn every Tony Iommi riff. Kill ’Em All had just come out, so we were trying to figure all that out, too, very ham-handedly. Then I found Venom and Celtic Frost. I was also way into trying to figure out how to play guitar like [Black Flag’s] Greg Ginn, [Anthony] Bones [Roberts] from Discharge and Rikk Agnew from Christian Death and the Adolescents.
Coming from your punk background, how did discovering bands like Celtic Frost and Venom affect own your own developing style? It definitely upped the aggression for me. Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales and To Mega Therion were way more pissed off. Punk is pissed and fast, but Celtic Frost also had that evil vibe to it. There wasn’t anything really like that. Then I got into weirdo rock.
What do you consider to be weirdo rock? The more abstract stuff. I guess you’d call it post-punk. That angular discordant punk rock style done by people who can play. Guitar players like David Pajo and Duane Denison, or Ash Bowie from Polvo and Nick Sakes from the Dazzling Killmen. Oh and I love Paul Leary from Butthole Surfers, and [Kevin] Geordie [Walker] from Killing Joke. Fire Dances and Revelations were a huge influence on me.
In terms of black metal guitar influences, did the Norwegian movement in the early Nineties mean anything to you? Of course. Snorre Ruch of Thorns, to me, really invented that minor-chord chromatic-progression thing. I’ve asked a bunch of people how he gets that sound and they say it’s direct with a bunch of mids. His songwriting and approach to guitar are perfect to me. And also Carl-Michael Eide of Ved Buens End and Virus. He’s one of my favorite all-around drummers and musicians. But as far as black metal guitar playing I’m more influenced by Andy Harris of Judas Iscariot. That guy’s a genius. Then there’s the death metal stuff, like [Incantation’s] John McEntee and [Immolation’s] Robert Vigna. I’m a huge Immolation fan. And also John Gossard from Weakling and Dispirit. He’s an amazing guitarist who thinks very differently.
You weren’t always a solo act. Can you talk about your experience playing in bands? The first band I was in was called Home Brew when I was 15. Then I was in an Eighties metal funk band with slap bass called Gasm. Then it was Gift Horse in 1991. That guitar player, Doug Hilsinger, had a huge influence on me. Most of the stuff I was learning was power chords, and he encouraged me to play all six strings and let chords ring out. He used a lot of delay and he’s the one who influenced me to do volume swells with delay. Watching him play was really amazing.
What influenced you to break out and form Leviathan as a solo project? Did you lose interest in working with other people? No, when we were in Gift Horse I just always had these songs. I wanted to sound like the Melvins and play songs that would break people’s bones. Doug was more into songwriting as a craft, stuff like Polvo and Chavez, and I was more into riffs. He would always tell me to get a four-track. So I eventually got one. I found out about black metal in ’96 or ’97 and I was really influenced by it. I started doing Leviathan and another project called Renfield, which turned into Lurker of Chalice. A lot of it was instrumental. The first Leviathan stuff I did was with a Gibson Sonex, which I traded for a tattoo. But I could never get the pickups screwed in right so it made a shit-ton of noise. And I had this little Peavey combo. Some of that stuff is on the second disc of Verräter, the first thing that I ever put out.
You were programming drums on those early releases right? I had a Roland V-Pro digital drum set, because I lived in San Francisco and we’re all on top of each other. All my neighbors would hear was the thud of the digital drums…and me screaming. [laughs] I would just plug it right in to the Tascam four-track. That’s before I got a Line 6 POD.
What guitars were you playing back then? Tim Lehi, who I [tattooed] with, is an incredible guitar player. Really inspirational. We both fell in love with black metal around the same time. He helped me get my first good guitar, which was a 1995 neck-through Paul Reed Smith. We were super into Today Is the Day, and that’s the kind of guitar Steve Austin played. I miss that guitar. I did everything except Lurker with that guitar. For Lurker I borrowed a 1969 Les Paul from Tim, because I wanted the guitar tones to be heavier. But it’s still direct through a POD and a four-track.
Playing live has never been a part of Leviathan. Why is that? I don’t think that a lot of this music is meant to be played live. I’ve actually never played guitar live in front of people. I’ve played drums a bunch in front of people. It’s not really a fear thing. Because if I was doing Leviathan, unless I sang, it would be a cover band.
You can’t rock the drummer-as-singer move. [laughs] Nah man I can’t do the Night Ranger. Actually one of the first U.S. black metal bands was called Profanatica, and Paul Ledney sang and played drums. He sat really low so you couldn’t even see him. You would just see a tom, an afro and mic stand. But no, I don’t think I could do that.
2008’s Massive Conspiracy Against All Life is the first album where Leviathan’s sound really jumped up in terms of production. Yeah that’s the first album where I had someone actually record it using a program instead of a four-track. That was the first one with real drums on it too. I was still using the Paul Reed Smith. On the following album, True Traitor, I used [engineer/producer] Sanford [Parker’s] Gibson V for most of that. And Scar Sighted is all Stevie’s custom Monson [Morningstar], and my neck-through Gibson Explorer that I used for the clean tones.
You recently got hooked up with your own custom Monson, right? Yeah, Stevie got me one for my birthday in July. It’s called the Redemption and has a maple neck, ebony fingerboard with my “Freezing Moon” inlays and a set of custom Lace Drop & Gain pickups. But yeah they’re beautiful guitars and Brent [Monson] is a super nice guy. I’d like to have him build me another guitar.
You’ve expressed being unhappy with the final result of your last record, True Traitor, True Whore. Were there specific things you wanted to correct when you began work on Scar Sighted? Well, I was sober this time, and I wanted to put some thrashy, for lack of a better word, stuff on there. Stevie’s from Florida, so there’s a lot of death metal being played in our studio. I’m not exactly sure what tuning is on her Monson guitar, but it’s a longer scale and has baritone strings so it’s a lot deeper. I played through a Peavey Triple X Atlas Custom and a Hovercraft Dwarvenaut and a 2x12 1x15 cabinet. But basically it’s the same as I’ve always done: try and make a record that I didn’t hate.
Is isolation still critical to your process? It’s a huge part. With Lurker, and most of Leviathan, I was completely alone. I have a family now and things change. Stevie is totally supportive, but with our work and living situation there hasn’t been a lot of music making in the last couple months. But isolation has a giant effect on me when I’m making music. Just having people in the room when you’re working changes everything for me. It’s like, “Perform!” I’ve kinda gotten over that. But I’m still the guy who goes into the music store to try a guitar and I’m like, “Um, I’ll just buy it.” Because I don’t want to play in front of people. [laughs] It’s like that [HBO sketch comedy series] Mr. Show guitar lesson scene, “Wait, wait. No, wait, wait. No, wait.” [laughs] Seriously.
Your songs exhibit great dynamics and restraint, which really help elevate the chaotic parts when they arrive. Does that composition style come natural to you? I’m not a patient person, but I work at trying to find that patience. [laughs] A lot of that is from listening to stuff like [Polish composer Krzysztof] Penderecki, but also stuff like Caspar Brötzmann’s Mute Massaker record. But dynamics are huge for me. And trying to figure them out is really hard, but really fun.
Another cool technique that you employ in the middle of “The Smoke of their Torment” is when you’re thrashing and then throw in an exaggerated rake of one chord. Yeah the drag. That’s all influenced by Carl-Michael Eide. That’s listening to [Ved Buens Ende’s] Written in Waters over and over again.
You’ll also mix things up by adding acoustic passages, such as in “Dawn Vibration” and “Within Thrall.” Stevie has a plug-in Chet Atkins nylon-string classical guitar that I used. Now I have a nice Takamine acoustic, but I didn’t have it when I was recording.
“Gardens of Coprolite” has some amazing drum sections. Do you typically find yourself writing drums or guitars first? A lot of Leviathan begins with me playing drums and then writing guitar parts over it afterward. But I do have guitar riffs and then try and figure out a beat under it. That song is definitely drums first and then figuring the rest out later.
I’m curious about the creepy sound on “A Veil Is Lifted.” Is that a harpsichord plug-in? Oh man, that’s an auto-harp that was in the studio. I tried it out and it wasn’t in tune but it sounded really cool. I knew I wanted to put it somewhere because it’s super creepy.
Between your art and musical output you seem to be in a pretty productive period of your life. Now that Scar Sighted is out what’s next? We have a stack of Leviathan demos. Hopefully we’re gonna do four or five vinyl releases of just demos. I might just call it Wrest. Because it’s Renfield, Lurker and some demos that ended up on Twilight. And Stevie and I are gonna do a record as Devout too. We’re also building a recording studio at our new house. We hope to have a spot where we can wake up and go play in our boxers. Well, she doesn’t wear boxers. [laughs]
Will the studio be only for personal use, or do you plan to open it up to other musicians that want to record? Open to friends and associates, and to have a place that Billy [Anderson] would want to work. And maybe Sanford would come out here from Chicago. Billy got us a mixing board, and we want to get a bunch of gear, guitars and drum sets for people to use. We want to build a comfortable setup with a kitchen, bathroom, shower and hopefully a place for bands to stay too. I mean, do bands even get label support anymore? So that’s why I’d tell your readers to support underground amp builders and guitar makers. Find somebody you can work with that fits well. And listen to more than one kind of music. Even if you only like death metal…
Listen to Van Halen. Well, listen to Van Halen regardless. Even if you’re a hip-hop techno guy listen to fucking Van Halen!