Dave Hill and Phil Costello channel their inner Saihttam on this wild lampoon of loud rock’s most misunderstood genre
Despite the fact that it’s an exceptionally frigid and windy November night (and well past midnight), the latest Witch Taint show has lured a large and enthusiastic crowd to Mercury Lounge, the legendary rock club in New York City. The band members – all in copious amounts of corpse paint, deadly looking spiked armbands, and lots of leather – certainly look like a typical black metal band. Much of their music also fits that bill, with its screamy vocals, pummeling drums and slashing guitars.
But then Matthias Backwards, the bare-chested lead singer, brushes long black hair out of his face and growls the lyrics to “Are You Ready (to Black Metal)?”: “Beware ye who curse the fucking Taint / Banished you’ll be to a Cradle of Filth concert / Black metal they ain’t!” The crowd laughs and cheers. Needless to say, humor is not something usually on display in the black metal scene (indeed, it is notoriously dark and sometimes literally violent, as when the band Mayhem’s singer killed himself in 1991, then the bass player murdered the guitarist in 1993). But Witch Taint both satirizes and celebrates this most misunderstood and maligned musical genre – and as this adoring audience proves, this approach is attracting fans in ever-increasing numbers.
(Guitarist and co-vocalist Lance “The King of Black Metal” and Matthias Backwards are actually the alter egos of comedians/musicians Dave Hill and Phil Costello, respectively. But as Hill says, “With this band, we’re gonna gradually abandon our real identities. By the time we’re 75, we’ll be Lance and Matthias.” In that spirit, therefore, this telling of their story is Matthias and Lance’s.)
Two weeks after the Mercury Lounge show, Lance and Matthias are in Lance’s living room, admiring his new guitar. “He’s been slowly but surely acquiring a humungous and awesome guitar collection,” Matthias says excitedly. Reluctantly setting the guitar aside, they settle in to talk about the Witch Taint mythology. (Lance’s dog, Lucifuge – who is incredibly adorable despite her fearsome name – participates by bringing everyone toys and being heart-meltingly cuddly).
It all began in 2004 when Lance, bored, sent an email to Saihttam, the managing director of the Norwegian black metal record label Planet Satan Revolution. In that message, Lance describes himself as a 19-year old “King of Black Metal” from Gary, Indiana, and brags that his band, Witch Taint, “is so good you guys will probably get rid of all the other bands on your label just so you can work full-time on a real extreme black metal band.” (Even though, at this point, Witch Taint was but a figment of Lance’s imagination.) Saihttam, chagrined, sent a reply in which he attempts to educate Lance on what “real” black metalness means: “As long as you are dealing with satanic and occult things, belive [sic] in what you are doing, you can do what ever [sic] you want.”
Thus began a series of emails for several months between the two, in which Lance escalates his boasts of his superior black metal status. In return, Saihttam displays a preternatural level of patience as he continues trying to enlighten his young friend – and, eventually, makes some surprising personal admissions, such as the fact that he has “2 kids and a wife, so my life is also dedicated to them besides my music interests… I have grown beyond sacrificing animals and stuff like that.”
Lance says that “the e-mails came from a place of being a fan of metal. I feel like now, black metal is pretty well-known, and even part of pop culture, because of people’s fascination with it. But back then, it wasn’t at all.” He knew he’d hit on something unique that would amuse others, so he had his friend, Jeff Watson, create a website and post the entire hilarious exchange, which is still available online.
VIDEO: Witch Taint: The Black Metal Dialogues (Official Trailer)
By 2017, the emails had generated enough interest to convince Lance to do staged readings of them, where he read his own emails and his longtime friend Matthias Backwards read Saihttam’s (they both dressed the part, complete with corpse paint). They did sold out readings at the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, in 2017 and 2018. For the 2017 show, “In the hotel, we put on all the corpse paint, put on our coats and walked to the theater,” Lance says, amused at the memory of walking through town in that attire. “We get to the theater, and there’s a line down the block!” It was the first sign that something big was starting to happen with their project.
By then, the duo had written three songs based on the emails, sometimes incorporating actual lines from them – in this way, Witch Taint finally became a real musical entity. One such song was “Changes,” which chronicles Saihttam’s counsel to Lance: “I was just like you, consumed with matters of darkness / Now I have a family and a very, very nice apartment / No one can go through life being so grim and extreme / Just try to apply for a mortgage and you’ll see what I mean.” For these songs, Lance played guitar and Matthias sang over a prerecorded backing track.
When a 2018 reading at Brooklyn’s St. Vitus bar was streamed online, Lance says, “20,000 people watched it live, all over the world, so it instantly just went crazy.” Based on that, Witch Taint landed a spot at Wacken Open Air, the biggest metal festival in the world, held annually in Germany. However, at Wacken, they discovered that the email reading part of their show was being overshadowed by their songs. “We would play the music, and the whole place would go crazy,” Lance says. “So we were walking backstage, and we were like, ‘Let’s just be the band.’”
But first, they’d been invited to perform in Oslo, Norway – though even bold Lance hesitated before doing a show where they were poking fun at black metal in the very place where that genre began. “That’s when we were like, this is the true test, because it’s going to the belly of the beast of all the shit we’re making fun of,” Lance says. Matthias adds: “Not to mention, specific bands that we made fun of that lived in the vicinity. So we were kind of in fear for our lives a little bit!” That may not have been an unfounded concern, considering some of the things that have happened in the scene, especially the aforementioned Mayhem incidents.
VIDEO: Witch Taint at Saint Vitus Bar June 29, 2019
“In the original e-mails, I’m naming all the key players in Norwegian black metal,” Lance says. “Fenriz from Darkthrone was mentioned. He’s a really well-known guy in Norway.” Fenriz is, in fact, one of the most influential musicians in the black metal genre, and he did indeed come to the Witch Taint performance – where he sat in the front row. Both Lance and Matthias admit it made them jittery to put on a show making fun of black metal while one of its leading figures watched from just a few feet away. “What is said about him in the dialogues is incredibly funny, it was not mean or offensive, but you just never know,” says Matthias. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous about anyone who’s been in the audience before.”
Happily, their fears of angering Fenriz were unfounded, says Lance: “He came out for beers afterwards, and he said, ‘Oh, I really liked it. But it seems like you’re really protective of my feelings – why?’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t want to offend you.’ He said, ‘I’ve been making fun of black metal for 20 years – longer than anybody!’”
“Fenriz said that he’s seen every black metal joke you can make over the years, but he’d never seen it done like Witch Taint does,” Matthias says. “He said that we have a really original approach, and that was pretty cool to hear.” Thereby blessed by Fenriz, Lance and Matthias felt empowered: it was time to bring Witch Taint fully to life.
They returned to America and put together a complete band, then started playing actual concerts. They also made a video for the song “Are You Ready (to Black Metal)?” and unleashed it on YouTube. (Sample lyrics: “To me, it’s barefaced to walk around without corpse paint / Even if you’re doing fucking laundry.”)
They’ve also recorded a full-length album, Sons of Midwestern Darkness, which will be released this upcoming spring via Tee Pee Records. On songs like “We Are Your New Gods,” “Viking Heaven,” and “Death to Death Metal,” Witch Taint prove that their black metal chops – and sense of humor – are in fine form. (Even Lucifuge got involved: “She rips a few bark solos, which is, in a way, her own lyrics that she contributed,” Matthias says. Her barking is particularly prominent during the guitar solo on “Death to Death Metal.”) The album perfectly satirizes the scene – but it’s also an extremely skilled demonstration of the genre.
“There’s been a lot of musical comedy done, but I think this has a unique edge – another dimension that I haven’t seen before. And that’s why it’s been so fun to do it,” Matthias says, adding that his role in Witch Taint is “an homage [to Saihttam],” particularly the startling sweetness he sometimes displays in contrast to Lance’s brash bravado. “In my mind, I really hold Saihttam up on a pedestal,” Matthias says. “I can tell he’s actually a really good guy.”
Interestingly, even though Saihttam has been such a catalyst for Witch Taint, they’ve never actually met him – and in fact, nobody’s sure if he’s even aware of what he’s inspired. But, Lance says, “He might know by now. The sound guy for a lot of black metal bands in Oslo has been telling everyone about Witch Taint. So word is spreading around the scene there. Hopefully, if Saihttam does know about it by now, he has a sense of humor about it.” But Lance says he’s not sure he’d even want to meet Saihttam, at this point, because “Matthias brought the guy to life. I like his version – I don’t want to have that ruined by actually meeting the real guy from the emails.”
Next up, the band will shoot a video for their album’s first single, “Sons of Satan.” In it, they plan to highlight the type of urban blight that exists in places like Witch Taint’s hometown of Gary, Indiana. As Matthias excitedly puts it, they hope the video will be full of “burned out buildings and abandoned factories – the perfect infernal, grim locations!”
They also plan to do more shows – the next one will be at St. Vitus in Brooklyn on December 17. Judging by the recent Mercury Lounge concert, Witch Taint can expect to see a large and diverse audience. This pleases Matthias, who hopes that it’s a sign of even more adoration to come: “I would love to appeal to a wide audience.” Lance agrees, adding, “It’s for the whole family. 2020 is the Year of the Taint!”
VIDEO: Witch Taint “Are You Ready (to Black Metal) [Demo Version]”
Witch Taint will play St. Vitus in Brooklyn, New York, on December 17 (along with Cloud Rat and The Injected Jam).