Ibaraki is unlike anything you’ve heard before in the world of black metal. It is a black metal project that – while embracing so much that sonically represents the genre – stands as its own creative force. And while Matt Heafy may not be a name you typically associate with black metal, that’s about to change.
Heafy, who is more well-known as the Trivium frontman, has been working on Ibaraki for about a decade. With a love for the genre that began at a young age, Heafy kept Ibaraki in the dark, slowly building upon its material. After years of writing, recording, and connecting with various collaborators, the studio album debut from Ibaraki, Rashomon, is set to release May 6th.
For as much good that has come out of black metal on an artistic level, there has also been great problematic issues riddled throughout its existence. Ibaraki is not only a means for Heafy to pay tribute to a genre that has inspired him so much, but the work itself expands the genre into something of remarkable and positive significance.
In our interview with Matt Heafy, he spoke to discovering black metal and what he loves about the genre. He shares how the collaboration between him and Emperor frontman Ihsahn (who produced Rashomon) came to be, as well as his collaboration with My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way. He touches on much more, but ultimately, he shared with us his hopes of Ibaraki spreading good into the world.
The Pit: How did you get into black metal? What are some black metal bands you enjoy? Are there any that have inspired your work (whether that’s your solo work or with Trivium)?
Matt Heafy: With black metal, the love started early. Everyone knows the Trivium story, but at about 15 years old, there’s a fork in the road where I discovered Napster; I know Napster has got a lot of stigma attached to it, but Napster for me was like what I heard the tape trading days were in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was a place for me and a place where I learned about new bands. At that point, I really only ever knew Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, Testament, Pantera, the American bands, the bands you really get into first.
At the same time, I was listening to Cannibal Corpse’s Bloodthirst and Cradle of Filth’s Dusk In Her Embrace. People started telling me, “This is black metal, this is death metal, this is melodic death metal.” I loved the fact that this genre I had just gotten into, metal, had subgenres, and each subgenre had different things it spawned from. [At this time], I was in this band called Mindscar, and one of [the musicians in that band] showed me Emperial Live Ceremony by Emperor at his parent’s house when we were about 15. It blew my mind. He [turned me onto] Emperor, Dissection, and early stuff like Bathory.
People would always ask me, “Matt, you have always talked about black metal. You have always worn black metal shirts. Where is the black metal influence in Trivium?” And I was like, “Well, it’s more so a genre I’m into.” You can see it more in subtle things, like the minor chords I use at times here and there; you can hear the black metal influence a little bit in Ember To Inferno, there are moments on In Waves, as well as moments in The Sin and the Sentence.
The Pit: How did the collaboration between you and Ihsahn come to be?
MH: I was 18 years old in the UK and I was wearing an [Emperor] Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk shirt on Kerrang! and Metal Hammer covers, and [a representative over at] Emperor’s record label Candlelight, Darren Toms – a guy I’m still good friends with to this day – he would always bring me out stuff as a thank you. Fast forward to 2009, I’m outside of In Flames‘ restaurant, I see a kid wearing an Emperor shirt. [I said,] “Hey would you mind if I took a photo?” I took a picture of the kid and [sent it to Darren]. Darren responds back and said, “Hey I see you’ve been supporting Emperor for all these years, thank you so much. It’s a really cool picture.” I took this as an opportunity, the opportunity being – I had been working on an alias black metal project at that time.
I said, “I understand the guy from Trivium should not be allowed to make a black metal record,” as far as elite metalhead standards; because I used to be one of those elite metalheads. I didn’t like things when I was 16; I didn’t like things that had clean singing, I had super long hair, extra large long-sleeved shirts, cut off camo pants, combat boots, hated anything that was popular. So I knew the guy from Trivium couldn’t make a black metal record – as far as elite standards go. So the idea was to do an alias – one day I’d pull back the curtain and go, “Ha! It was me all along.”
So [eventually, Ihsahn and I connected]. I sent Ihsahn this first song I had, and he responded back, “This is good, sounds like second wave black metal, well done.” That was essentially it. But at this time, he had just realized Eremita; I listened to Eremita and it blew my mind. I was hearing clean singing, saxophone solos, and jazz chords. All that stuff made me more excited than anything that had been sticking to the norms of black metal for a long time. So it made me realize – one of the things I love about black metal when it first started was that it was the answer to metal’s sameness. When metal [was] all sort of doing the same thing, black metal decided to create something different; not to be popular, not to be big – it came out and shocked the whole system.
If you stick then to that sound and tradition though, you end up doing the same thing black metal rebelled against. I rewrote immediately the first piece of music I ever wrote [for the project] after hearing Eremita. It was the song that would become “Kagutsuchi.” I sent that to Ihsahn, and he’s like, “I’ve never heard anything like this. This sounds very different. I hear tech death and black metal, and spaghetti western and gypsy jazz.” I asked him, “Would you be up for producing this?” He said yes and that’s where this record started.
The entire record, with the exclusion of the intro and outro, are a time capsule; the first two songs were written and recorded in 2011, the next one in 2012, 2014, and the last two tracks were recorded in 2017/2018.
*While speaking to working with Ihsahn, Heafy also discussed the problematic issues throughout black metal’s history*
MH: [Overtime, I came to discover these other aspects to black metal, these things that to] me, as everything I stand for in Trivium and in life, things that are vastly against what I believe in life. So then I started saying, “Well a genre I’ve loved my whole life has so many things that I don’t love about it. That I despise about the genre, that are not okay with me.” Like I’m fine with the Satanism for show; no one’s really Satanist, and if they are really Satanist, that is cool. The feuds – give or take – it made the genre what it is… but when you get into the bigotry, the racism, the extreme subsects and factions of the genre, that’s the stuff I want nothing to do. That’s the stuff I had my blinders on as a kid.
So I said to myself, this is no longer “just a black metal album.” And I’m not demeaning the genre that I’ve loved for so many years – although, it does have problems. This Ibaraki album is rooted from black metal, but has grown into something else.
The Pit: Can you speak to your decision to explore Japanese folklore and religion through the lens of black metal?
MH: What’s interesting is, there was another divergent point. We had most of the songs written, and I said to Ihsahn at a point, “I wish I was Scandinavian.” He asked why is that, and I said, “I’d love to be able to write about Thor battling Jörmungandr during Ragnarök.”
Ihsahn said, “That has been done,” and [he also encouraged me to explore my own heritage]. It blew my mind, I was like you’re right. I have the Japanese storm god on my back battling a dragon – it’s essentially the same story as Jörmungandr, but the Japanese version. I’ve had all these Japanese stories on me and in me that I’ve always known and wanted to learn more about. So when he said that, I went from having no lyrics essentially in 8-10 years, to all of a sudden having all the lyrics written within 3-5 days. I tapped into writing about actual gods and monsters from the Shinto religion, from Japanese folklore, to making my own stories that exist in the Japanese world.
The Pit: Along with all the fantastical and folklore elements that you explore on the album, you are also touching upon very serious topics taking place in our world. As a writer, what is the creative process in weaving in those more fantastical elements to speak to the more heavier things on this record? Such as you exploring the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes and bigotry taking place in the world.
MH: That became a big thing as well. When I decided that this thing should be Japanese influenced, that was when all the anti-Asian sentiment was happening. I do feel like as far as me being half-Japanese – or having Japanese friends – I didn’t have Japanese friends who dealt with that firsthand. However, my Chinese friends did. My Korean friends did. My friends in different states dealt with it more than maybe me being in this pretty open-minded bubble of Orlando.
[My hope is that] Ibaraki can show the cultures and folklores of Japan in the hopes of exposing people to something maybe they didn’t know. And they can say, “Wow I love these stories, I would love to learn more about these Japanese stories.” Then my hope and my goal is that in turn, it makes them want to go, “You know, I want to learn about the Chinese mythologies and religions, and Korea, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa.” And all around the world, to really learn about everything; I hope that it inspires open-mindedness. From this record I’m also making a kids book that delves further into that goal.
[Regarding this album and the children’s book, I hope they both inspire people to learn more] about the people we share this plant with. That is an incredibly non-black metal concept; black metal has always been very secular, like this is extreme… it keeps creating subsects of more extreme sub-underground levels that are getting smaller and smaller. It’s almost losing the plot of the music all together. So the idea of this being an extreme metal record… Through Trivium and Ibaraki, I say some pretty negative stuff, but I feel like I’m a happy person. I’m not perfectly balanced. I always tell people I’m not perfect, I know I seem happy; the things that I do take a lot of work and to feel good in life takes a lot of work. One of those things that I do is put the negative energy into the music. So with Trivium… Me putting pen to paper and getting that out, that message out, the songs don’t have the light at the end of the tunnel necessarily, but the light at the end of the tunnel is the fact that I was able to make the song. A song like “Departure,” a song written about suicidal thoughts, putting that into a song allows me to get that out and hopefully save other people. Same with “Gunshot” – I’ve talked to multiple people who have said they’ve had childhoods filled with domestic violence and “Gunshot,” the song, saved their life.
I hope that this record inspires even just a couple people to say, “You know what, the stories in Japan are cool, what else is there?” There’s a lot of good stuff that happened in Japan and there’s bad stuff that happened in Japan. There’s bad stuff that happened to Japanese people in America; the interment camps, that stuff is very briefly covered in history in school. There’s a lot we gotta learn; there’s a lot we can learn from our mistakes.
The best way to address the things in life is to put it into music and put it into song.
The Pit: Can you speak to how the collaboration with My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way came to be? What was the conversation like around his vocal performance?
MH: For me, the three guest I have on this record, they are three people I have always been very captivated by. Three very prolific artists who are well-read. With My Chem, I was able to meet Gerard Way on Big Day Out in 2006. We were the only metal band on that run and they were the headliners. The promoter said, “Hey I’m good friends with both of you, I think you should all meet.”
I asked Gerard about specific notes he was hitting on songs off Black Parade, because I love Black Parade, I love Three Cheers. Actually, the video style they went into on the final record [Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys] inspired Trivium even. I was like, “Wow, these are little movies.” I looked at My Chem and Rammstein and I was like, “Look at the video style they do, let’s do that too.” So we started doing that on In Waves. So I got along incredible with Gerard; I got along well with his brothers while we talked about [the video game series] Final Fantasy. We stayed in touch as pen pals over the years with Gerard.
There was a year when [he reached out to me for some assistance, so after sending him what he needed], I took that chance to go, “I’ve been working on this black metal record for years.” We talked about black metal, we talked about the things we like, don’t like, and would like to see in it. I said, “How about you guest on this?” He said he’d love to and he jumped right on it.
His screaming is just as fantastic as Nergal and Ihsahn’s on this. I feel like I’m the most lackluster screamer in comparison to these three other greats. He has never recorded screaming like that in his life… it’s friggin incredible. He nailed it. When Ihsahn and I heard his voice, we were like, “This is something special.” Gerard was very happy about the record.
The Pit: Along with working with Gerard Way, Ihsahn, and Nergal of Behemoth, you also cite the late chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain as an influence for this record. Can you speak a little as to how Bourdain has influenced you?
MH: When I was in kindergarten, I remember walking up to a conversation of all these kids, and I jumped into this conversation about “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” I said “Oh white rice and salmon like the rest of you.” And everyone was like, “Wait what, disgusting, what are you talking about?” I was like that’s what I’ve always eaten. I started realizing at that moment [what I grew up eating is different than what others grew up eating].
Years later as touring would come along – through the person who would become my wife Ashley and my manager Justin – they would be like “Hey check out this cool restaurant.” I never really thought of things that way. I grew up eating incredible food; my mom is an incredible cook, who makes amazing Japanese, American, and Italian food. But I never really realized cause it was always under my nose, it needed to be pointed out. So through Ashley and Justin, and reading Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential and watching his show… I sort of realized he would go to these countries and learn about these countries through eating the food that people in that country grew up eating. [Food that was tied to] childhood memories, or nostalgic memories, or fun memories. You could learn more about someone through sharing a meal with them than anything else in the world in my opinion. You could also learn more about a country in that way. So Bourdain thankfully got me really excited about traveling all over the world; he even got me into jiu-jitsu.
I have always felt an open-mindedness to food leads to an open-mindedness to everything. [Traveling and trying all kinds of different foods] showed me that there is so much more to life than just sticking to the same – what is familiar and is in front of your face. That truly is thanks to Bourdain’s influence. He’s one of my heroes who I was never able to meet and that’s one of my biggest regrets in life. I can’t believe he is gone. A big part of who I am is thanks to Bourdain; he was the Metallica of food for me. When people think of me and Trivium, they do think of food, and that is thanks to Bourdain.
The Pit: Given how personal Ibaraki and Rashomon are to you – given your creative work in subverting the conventions of black metal, and the subjects you are exploring on the album – what have you come out of this experience learning or discovering as a person?
MH: I’ve always struggled with a couple thoughts. I’ve always felt I wasn’t Asian enough, wasn’t “yellow” enough to hang out with the Asian kids. That I wasn’t white enough to hang out with the white kids. With Trivium, when we first started out, we were always too metal for the hardcore kids, too hardcore for the metal kids. I always felt like I didn’t fit in. I don’t know if this is just through Ibaraki or from all happening coincidentally around the time of Ibaraki – but we came out swinging at 18/19 years old and I would beat myself up and look at bands who started after us, who hadn’t put in as much time, who were bigger than us all of a sudden. I would be like, “Why aren’t we playing this venue that that band is playing? Why aren’t we doing what that band is doing?” I would always just run in these spirals and these circles…[And I found myself] thinking about competition.
I think it was around having kids, being able to do this Ibaraki record, jiu-jitsu, streaming, all these things tied up together that helped me refocus. I still have to remind myself of this still daily. It’s not just a cure. But when I shifted my mindset to be, “I need to be the best Matt Heafy for all the Matt Heafy things in the world,” that shifted my priorities to a much better place. A much healthier place.
…While I was doing Ibaraki, losing my voice, streaming, doing jiu-jitsu, having kids, all those things wrapped up into one – I’ve learned more about myself.
We at The Pit would like to thank Matt Heafy for his time in talking with us! You can pre-order the debut studio album from Ibaraki, Rashomon, now. The record arrives May 6th.
Words by: Michael Pementel