English extreme metal band Cradle of Filth is many things: gothic, controversial, loved, loathed, theatrical, abrasive, and, perhaps most importantly, long-lived. From their origins in the early 90s as a straightforward black metal act through its evolution into a more fully-orchestrated, divisively grandiose band, the band has alternately drawn ire and acclaim for its use of intense sexual and religious imagery (often used simultaneously), the unique performance and vocal style of frontman Dani Filth, and for having the gall to tinker with the black metal formula and step into its own world.
The band's 11th album, Hammer of the Witches, comes out today, and sets some of the band's recent symphonic leanings to the side in favor of focusing on the renewed twin-guitar attack. We caught up with Filth, in the midst of the European summer festival circuit, to talk about the new record, why some of his choices make metal fans uncomfortable, and how he uses ancient and Middle Ages imagery to examine modern subjects.
AllMusic: Like most of your albums, Hammer of the Witches is very dense. Growing up, did you always have an appreciation for music, movies and other types of art that took some time to fully unpack?
Dani Filth: Yeah, I think so. And for this album, writing it, we approached it pretty much the same as we’ve always approached things, but we have two new guitarists and we’d just come off the back of a co-headline tour with Behemoth where we were playing a lot of our older material that was twin-guitar based and faster. Couple that with the influences that help me write, I take influence from time of year, the people I’m hanging out with, the books I’m constantly reading, movies, that’s where inspiration comes from. We’re very cinematic as a band, I think. For it to be a classic album it has to be, “Well, that’s great,” but it has to be something that warrants repeated listenings.
AllMusic: You mentioned having two new guitarists. Many members have come and gone over the years, how big of a task is it to indoctrinate new players?
Filth: It’s different every time, but we were lucky on this occasion that both guitarists were well versed in the band because of the necessity to undertake the co-headline tour, and we’d been playing a lot of older material as well as newer material, so they had a bigger picture. Also, they were fans of the band prior to that, and the fact that Ashok lives in the same town as Martin [Skaroupka, drums] also helped that relationship.
It can be difficult, but my mind was totally at ease when I received the first full tracks. I usually go on about four, any less than that doesn’t really paint a picture of the whole album, and it’s from those songs that the title came about. How they were writing and the atmosphere in that gave me the idea to go with Hammer of the Witches as a working title, I had spotted the Malleus Maleficarum sitting on my shelf, and it just seemed to work. I always intended to change the title, but thanks to social media and the fact that I posted the working title on there and that I went to the artist and said, “This is the working title,” and both factions just really, really dug it, it just grew from there.
AllMusic: This is your 11th album. Do you have a favorite part of the album cycle at this point?
Filth: It’s a mountain to climb at the beginning. You look forward to it, but there’s always a time when I sit and think, “Right, we have been doing this for 20 years, and I want it to be fresh and exciting, and I don’t really want to be repeating myself, what the hell am I going to write this album about?” Once that hurdle’s over, I love every part of it. Obviously it becomes a bit boring in the studio, obviously as much as you love looking forward to the mix, which is the most creative part, and my favorite of everything, there’s still points where you’re a week into a mix and you’ll listen to the same thing where you’re getting like, “This is overkill now.”
You get used to the turn of cycles as you do with the shifting seasons, you come to appreciate every one that comes up, and then get bored of it. So at the moment I’m really looking forward to the rest of these summer festivals, then I’ll be really looking forward to the onslaught of the world tour, by which point at the end of that I’ll be like, “I can’t wait to go home and start writing.” You look forward to every aspect, I love every aspect, and I’d say mixing is my favorite, but too much of that can be a bad thing.
AllMusic: In the early days, did you think you'd have enough ideas to keep going this long?
Filth:I try and keep abreast of ideas, I make notes so that in the future I might have something to fall back on. When you start a band, you do have a vision of yourself playing on a big stage, you don’t sit there thinking about playing in front of three people at a pub. Whether that dream and that vision holds out for a whole career is another matter. You want to do it, and out of necessity, you do. You get a few doubts as to, “What the hell are we going to write this one about,” but as the process builds and grows, and it’s a 24-hour thing, this is our day job, so you can spend the time on it, and it grows, it’s like building a house. The more the album grows and gets to the next level, the more absorbing it becomes and the more you get into it. It becomes this organic creature.
AllMusic: One of the defining traits of the band has always been your use of archaic vocabulary and imagery. What about that vernacular keeps you coming back to it?
Filth: I think I’ve painted myself into a corner with a lot of things, especially with the whole concept record, I think we’ve done four or five of those thus far. I think it’s nostalgia, almost like a past life, and it’s always sat very well with the band, and I’ve always been very much into the occult and horror movies and reading about exceptional things. I think because of the folklore, superstition, and exploring different religions and everything like that, Cradle of Filth has become synonymous with setting things in a certain time frame, a certain epoch. The same thing applies to this album, I’d say the current theme is a sort of Medieval, Middle Ages type of vibe.
But that being said, all the lyrics, metaphors and cross-references and links and hints, connect with what’s going on in the world today, the most obvious one being “Onward Christian Soldiers,” which concerns itself with the Crusades, primarily the First Crusade, because it was the most successful, yet if you read the lyrics, you can draw comparisons to religion today, the fact that hundreds of years have passed since the last Crusade, and we’ve advanced so much technologically, but spiritually, we’re still festering in the same cesspool we always have been, the Muhammadans are still at war with the Christians, it’s still East versus West.
By that account, I think the nostalgia part of it roots Cradle of Filth in this sort of alternative universe that’s very elder, yet draws a lot of comparisons to what’s going on. Especially around the Thornography album, and Cradle to Enslave was another song or EP that was quite based in the modern, but the language wasn’t, it was more florid. I think that’s one of the assets and attributes of Cradle of Filth that people who are fans of the band find endearing, it’s something that works.
AllMusic: A lot of extreme metal bands shy away from sexuality in any way, while you have embraced romantic and sexual themes since the beginning. Do you think that's part of what makes some metal fans uncomfortable with the band?
Filth: It’s always been a very natural thing for Cradle of Filth, and couple that with working with Nigel Wingrove, who did the Principle of Evil Made Flesh cover, then V Empire and contributed toward Dusk and Her Embrace, which was shot with the Ghost Hunter photographer, Simon Marsden, that link and getting into that imagery, I’ve always been comfortable with that.
If you do reference any occult literature or underground organization, most of the time, the female form has been considered the most evil, that’s the reason why they were persecuted during the witch craze, it’s because they actually believed the women, being of the first sin, the original sin, succumb to demons more easily, and that they were thicker, their brain capacity wasn’t there. It was very misogynistic. But if you consider eons of humanity, the female form has always been one very, very closely associated with the dark and evil and the earth. It seemed natural to embrace that, I always found it a little strange when you hear bands that seem to be completely besotted with male chauvinistic imagery, muscles, I always felt that was a little borderline homosexual.
It goes with the territory, especially with the new album, we’re talking about witchcraft. It’s not a conceptual record, but that’s the main theme. So even the nasty pictures, the scenes of torture in the booklet, have these budding flowers, very much like the Italian and Flemish painters of the Middle Ages. The female form has always been attractive to painters trying to find godhood, trying to come up with the ultimate celebration of life.
AllMusic: What's your pre-show ritual? What's your mindset as you get ready to go onstage?
Filth: My mindset is, [panicked] “Shit! Ahh!” We try and keep it really relaxed before we go onstage, we have this little ritual we do where we wish each other a good gig, you have to stare each other out for a little bit, vibe each other up. I just make sure that I vibe myself up during the intro to the set. Prior to that, to the getting together with the whole band, it’s about talking to the engineer and making sure the sound guy and all the cues are set, people know where we’re going to be. I need a two-hour window, that’s when I get in the mindset, relax, listen to music, get ready, put on the makeup and costume, warm up, it’s all those things, it takes two hours. To feel comfortable and be ready, all pistons firing at the moment the clock turns on the hour for your set, you have to have that internal clock going, as well.
AllMusic: In addition to being dense musically, the lyrics also tend to speed by, and there are a lot of them. Are you good at memorization?
Filth: I should tell you the truth, for the new single I had three words written on the back of my hand, which I tried not to look at, they were like cues, prompts, and the fact that I was playing with Devilment earlier on in the day, as well, it can get a little tricky. I’m a singer, so who cares, I can be a bit liberal. If I did ever come up to a bit and have a mind block, I can just scream my way through it, and people don’t care. I was all right this weekend with the Cradle stuff, there were only a few bits, and only I remember them, nobody else will. I’m so passionate about what I do that it’s become a bit of a curse, I replay things in my mind, I remember exactly the word I forgot there, and it becomes a source of worry. To everybody else, they haven’t noticed it.
AllMusic: You've been playing a lot of festivals. Do you look at that as a good time to catch up with friends or do you focus on doing your job?
Filth: After Hellfest, we showered and I was on my way to watch Priest but I got stopped in the bar by Ivan from Five Finger Death Punch and Nick Holmes from Paradise Lost and a bunch of other people I hadn’t seen for ages, so I was just chatting away with Satyricon and some performers that we knew. When we got to Graspop, we got in the day before so we got to see Lacuna Coil and bumped into Epica and Arch Enemy. It’s a bit like that. I was a bit frustrated because after us, Faith No More were on the main stage, but there’s me, packing up and jumping on the tour bus. You try your best.
AllMusic: Have you made any friends you didn't expect?
Filth: There’s been a few people over the years. I was surprised when I went to the Kerrang! Awards and Manson was there, and me and him had a falling out a while back, but last year he apologized to me at a festival, and this time he kept coming over and having a chat and hanging out for a little while. Same with Bullet For My Valentine, I didn’t think I’d get on with them and we hung out, and Rob Halford came over and said hello, off his own back. That makes you feel pretty cool.