Hot off the release of their well-received sixth album, Daemon, Norwegian black metal godfathers Mayhem were ready to take the world by storm—until the coronavirus hit. The band suddenly had to get out of town.
“We had two days of pre-production before we figured out we had to get the fuck out of America before it closed down,” guitarist Morten “Teloch” Iversen said. “As soon as we got home, we got 14 days of quarantine since we’d been abroad.”
Mayhem now has to contend with the economic rut many bands have found themselves in over the past month.
“We’re about $75,000 in debt right now,” Iversen said. “We had tons of merchandise for the tour, which we’re trying to get rid of through our web store. People are buying, but there’s still tons left.”
Norway’s lockdown procedures largely echo the precautions taken worldwide, but Iversen expects stricter regulations in the future.
“So far, we’re allowed to go to stores to buy groceries, but we’re not recommended to do anything else,” he said. “We can also go for hikes or walks if it’s in our neighborhood, but they tell us not to interact with people and keep one meter apart.”
Luckily, no one in Iversen’s immediate circle has tested positive for COVID-19. His main conundrum has become talking about what Mayhem should do during the two months—at minimum—in quarantine. Live streaming a concert is on the table as a possibility, but getting the band members back together is now much more difficult. With more countries closing borders and restricting travel, it’s more difficult when members live in different countries.
“Attila, our vocalist, lives in Hungary and our guitarist lives in [the] Netherlands,” he said. “If we did stream something, we’d have to do the whole fucking show. We can’t sit in our rehearsal space without the theatrics. It’d be fucking weird.”
Black metal’s connection to visual aesthetics and atmosphere leaves little room for downsizing. There won’t be a “Mayhem Unplugged” session anytime soon. Regardless, the costly tour cancelation puts pressure on Mayhem to find alternative income sources.
“It’s not the best time for us. … We have to start looking for plan ‘B,’” Iversen said. “We have some material lying around we could use, like cover songs for instance. It could be the time, because we actually have enough material recorded for a covers album. There are some interesting choices that might piss off some people. We haven’t really talked about it yet. It’s a discussion we need to have very soon.”
Mayhem has no problem with throwing curveballs at its audience, but one that seems to have flown under the radar is the newest guitarist: Charles “Ghul” Hedger—a former member of Cradle of Filth. If Mayhem represents “True Black Metal,” England’s Cradle of Filth has remained the scene’s whipping boy for some time. At first, Iversen himself wasn’t on board with the new recruit.
“If I were in control of the situation, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said, laughing. “I’m not fond of Cradle of Filth. I think it was Attila who pushed for it, because he already knew Guhl from before. He’s is a very talented guitar player, and a cool dude… but Cradle of Filth is just horrible. I was very sceptical at first.”
For many black metal fans, Cradle of Filth crossed with Mayhem might compare to Nikki Sixx signing up with Slayer. Luckily, Hedger rose to the occasion during the Daemon creation process.
“As soon as I started hearing his song sketches for the album, my mind was at ease,” Iverson said. “He proved he is very capable of doing this.”
Given his history with Nordic heavy hitters like 1349 and Gorgoroth, Iverson’s respective credentials made for a much smoother transition when he joined Mayhem’s ranks. The biggest challenge was filling the shoes of long-time guitarist Rune “Blasphemer” Eriksen, he said.
“He’s a very talented player, and had written for Mayhem for a long time,” he said.
As the current lineup settled in with the personalities of drummer Jan “Hellhammer” Blomberg and founding bassist Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, Mayhem’s seminal debut LP, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, turned 25. Releasing Daemon in conjunction with anniversary tours and box-set reissues didn’t detract from its unique aura.
“I can’t hear the similarities between Daemon and De Mysteriis,” Iversen said, citing lineup changes and age difference for Mayhem’s sound contrasts since the debut album. He highlights his work on “Falsified and Hated” as “very atypical for Mayhem.”
Even so, driving Mayhem forward becomes a struggle when the band’s early exploits remain so enduringly controversial. The sordid tale of suicide, murder and church arson resurfaced once more with the release of 2019 biopic Lords of Chaos. All of a sudden, younger metal fans knew about founding guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth’s death at the hands of then-bassist (and Burzum mastermind) Varg Vikernes, as well as the suicide of vocalist Per “Dead” Ohlin.
“We noticed a lot of younger people in the front at concerts, dressed up like they’ve been listening to black metal for the past 10 years,” Iversen said. “Our social media has also experienced a lot of growth since the movie came out. We haven’t noticed an economic difference, but there’s definitely more interest from younger people.”
The image of a wide-eyed high-schooler ordering a bootleg T-shirt of Ohlin’s suicide photo stands in contrast to what Iversen would have for Mayhem in 2020.
“One of my goals when I joined Mayhem was to focus on the music instead of all this bullshit,” he said. “I think we’re going back to the bullshit all the time because the founding members don’t stop talking about it. It’s getting better and better every year, where the music is the main focus.”
Iversen can’t help but feel the historical and cultural significance of a classic song like “Freezing Moon” when he plays it in concert.
“’Freezing Moon’ and De Mysteriis Dom Satanas got me into Mayhem,” he said. “I still remember going out in the rain with my Walkman and listening to that album. It’s very special for me to play in this band and play those songs. I feel I’m channeling the spirit of the old record.”
For all the honor of playing Euronomous’ riffs, there’s a different level of pride when his own songs get over with a crowd.
“We don’t play my songs from the previous album, but now we play four of my songs from the new album,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to see Mayhem fans getting into what I wrote.”
While the band’s future will be impacted in the wake of COVID-19, a passion for writing music will keep Mayhem’s flame alive. The band’s full name, “The One True Mayhem,” comes to mind. The concept of being “true” in black metal traces back to that logo, but Iversen isn’t overly concerned with the implications.
“The reason why Mayhem added ‘True’ to the logo is because so many other bands were called Mayhem at the time,” he said. “It grew from there into its own meaning. We don’t think about it too much, because we know the story behind it.”
The band’s current iteration fixes on licking its wounds and outlasting difficulties, remaining true to itself, not to expectations. Come virus or quarantine, Mayhem is far from finished delivering the devilish metal it ushered into existence.