This morning in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to get on the phone with Thy Art Is Murder‘s guitarist Andy Marsh, who was also situated in Melbourne. With his ritual of coffee and cigarette underway, we got to delving into the process, inspiration, and meanings behind the band’s fifth studio album Human Target, which releases tomorrow via Human Warfare/Nuclear Blast.
Wondering what the mood was like going into the creation of Human Target, Andy responded straightforwardly about the process, which seemed to orient purely around schedules. “Everyone’s pretty non-fussed about the whole experience. We know we have to make another record, it’s kind of just how it is, so we just go in and make it. It’s the right time.” Working hard to keep the band busy, Andy had spotted that November was clear after touring and it seemed like a good chunk of time, with everyone available (including producer Will Putney), and with enough downtime before further touring happened.
The matter-of-fact approach to the album creation (in contrast to talking with ‘younger’ bands) had me ask if the ‘magic’ had been lost, to which Andy replied “I think the magic’s there, in the record.” Explaining more, he said “I like making the records quickly. It gives the album a timestamp, a sense of urgency. I think that’s essential for the creative process. Otherwise you could procrastinate forever. This way the writing process is almost like a performance. That album could only be written in that month. And if we wrote it a month earlier or later, it’d be a different album. And I like that. And a lot of people wouldn’t like that. They’d want it to be this pre-determined thing, and I don’t think that’s conducive to our creative process. It certainly isn’t to mine.”
Andy is responsible for the lyrics of Thy Art Is Murder, so it was great to have time with him to talk about the new album in more detail. I expressed my appreciation for the album (and music in general) from the lyrical perspective, to which Andy shared that “In the middle is where it gets interesting, lyrically.” With the ‘bangers’, as hits with “some kind of catchy lines” placed earlier in the album, the opportunity was taken to get a bit deeper emotionally and thematically in the middle. “I enjoy that kind of stuff” Andy said.
By way of the ‘bangers’, there’s definite tracks that have a feel of catchiness to them, of which seem to be the singles released so far. I personally spotted these songs by feeling like dancing to them, which was not something I expected to happen in the review of a death metal album. Andy shared “Without talking about selling out or anything like that, because I don’t feel like we do that, I try to write pop songs in death metal that have really catchy phrasing, really catchy lyrics. You know, the lines that are on the back of T-shirts and stuff like that. In the middle, I’m less concerned with doing that and more concerned with just writing the songs and developing the theme and what not.”
Another surprise for me during my review was that the songs didn’t come at me like an impenetrable wall of sound; that there was nuance and shifts of emotion and atmosphere. Andy responded “I think that’s one of our strong suits, as opposed to our contemporaries; the synergy of the music and the lyrics. You have something to say and the music does carry a lot of emotional weight that helps drive the lyric. Where a lot of bands, I feel like they just write words that sound cool and put them with heavy riffs, and the design of the song isn’t all-encompassing. Whereas I’m always thinking ‘How can the lyric better serve the music? How can the music better serve the lyric?’, at all times.”
I’d agree with this being the case, not finding any of the sounds to be jarring against the emotion at all, and it all feeling cohesive throughout Human Target. This ‘music serving the lyric’ was particularly made clear to me in the song “Eternal Suffering”, where at one point the guitar ‘speaks’ on its own, and I expressed that to Andy. “I know exactly the spot you’re thinking of, and it just felt right to kind of leave it a bit empty. Like normally something like that, I’d put a little melodic guitar lead or some background vocals or reverb, but with that I was like ‘You know what? It kind of just suits this song to let it ride out here and give it some space to breathe’.” About “Eternal Suffering”, Andy also added “That’s my favourite song.”
As a song I struggled to understand the meaning of, I jumped at the chance to hear from Andy what it was about. I’d assumed it had to do with environmental concerns, but I was set straight with Andy saying “It’s a love song. It’s a tragedy. Yeah, there’s lots of those.” Seeming to soothe my misunderstanding, Andy shared “Most of the songs we’ve ever done, no one knows what they’re about. Actually. They’re just wrapped up in religious kind of metaphors. Like for the duality of man, like good and evil, but they’re generally about other stuff that no one has picked up on. [laughs]”
Reading lyrics from “Eternal Suffering” (“Chained to each other in misery / Our eternal suffering”, “Grind down upon the bones of what was perfect”), I noted how dramatic it all was for a love song. “It’s pretty dramatic. It’s about the inevitability of dying together,” Andy said. It’s one of many sad themes of Human Target, an album which is also unrelentingly intense and attention-grabbing. I said as much out loud. “Good”, Andy said in response, “I want people to think it’s intense.”
I asked if the listener experience was something that goes into the creative process for Andy and the band. In response, he said “Not entirely. Whatever kind of comes out of your brain creatively occurs and then I suppose where it comes down to the listener experience, I’m just kind of considering my own experience as a listener. Because I kind of get all these Lego blocks, and then you’ve got to build it into something that you like, and I think I just happen to like digestible song structure. I’m generally just kind of designing the songs with Will in a way that he and I like. We have very similar taste. So it’s like ‘Oh, you know what, it kind of needs this, it needs that’, or he’ll tell me it needs something, or I’ll tell him it needs something and we’ll sit down and we’ll try to bring that to fruition. But the initial building blocks are never kind of thought about. I think the way that creativity kind of works is ideas just kind of come into your head and you take those and you record them or transform the idea in your head onto the guitar, and then you have these blocks. And then it doesn’t really become a deliberate thing until you’re arranging it into a song, because that’s where we kind of apply our brains as opposed to being open to ideas.”
This got us talking about the workings of creativity and how inspiration/ideas can land or not. I’d recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic which talks about ideas being accessible to whoever is open to them (and the ideas also being available elsewhere if someone doesn’t grab them). Andy shared about John Cleese’s lecture on creativity relating to openness also, and the child-like state of play being most conducive to creativity. “No one plays indefinitely aside from children. Slowly that ability leaves our brains and we’re bogged down with life and other things like school or work or social construct. And so he would deliberately set a time where he was to be creative, say it was from 3 until 5pm on Sunday afternoon, and by establishing these boundaries, it made his brain more open to creative thought. So whatever would come into his mind, he would be able to receive that.”
We then spoke about the idea of free will, and how our biochemistry influences how we think and operate. How we have the ability to respond if we notice things, but that our creativity comes from our programming. We talked about meditation and meditative states, how they’re intending for thoughts to be let go, and how Andy sees creativity as the opposite of that process; in taking a thought as it arises and doing something in response to it: “Where did the idea come from. I didn’t do it. I didn’t think of it. It just came into my brain. So I’m just a conduit for those ideas.”
Turning attention back to the album, I was curious about Andy’s perspective as to whether Human Target was more broad, instrumentally-speaking, than other albums in Thy Art Is Murder’s discography. In thinking about it, the question of song selection for tours came to mind for Andy, and how the ‘solid foundation’ of the band’s back catalogue allows them more freedom. “So if we want to branch out and do a few more different songs on the record, that’s okay because we know only a few songs from the record get put on the setlist, and we’ve got a back catalogue. So you know you don’t need to think ‘Oh we need to have a song that’s like “The Purest Strain Of Hate”‘. Like, we don’t, because we’ve got a song called “The Purest Strain Of Hate”. We don’t need that again. So we can put in new ideas that hopefully will become classics again and then normally from the middle of the record onwards, it gets a bit fruity. But this record… I think more dynamic, more open to new ideas, just older, more mature. We put a lot of ambient tones in there, just to establish mood or reinforce mood that maybe the riff doesn’t carry by itself. Plenty of cool little things in there.”
Human Target‘s subject matter is unmistakably dark, I asked if the hope was that the album would spark further conversation about the various topics included. “Absolutely. I think a lot of things that we talk about on the record are not necessarily new ideas, but maybe new ideas for the public discourse.” Sounding like he was bringing up details about the album in front of him, Andy continued “There are a lot of different topics, and they’re relatively new to my attention, so I think they’ll be pretty new to everyone else’s attention.” He then proceeded to go into each song of the album by way of the subject matter.
“”Human Target” is obviously about the organ harvesting in China, which is pretty crazy. There’s a really cool bit on Four Corners that I was watching with my partner, about this genocide that’s happening in China at the moment with the Islamic kind of regional north western Chinese. Where they mix the far east of the Middle East and eastern Europe and south eastern Russia. Where they’re all just nomadic Muslims, historically, have been located there and the borders are formed where they are and some of them are Chinese, some of them are Russian, some of them belong to wherever else in the Middle East, and they want to get rid of them in China. So they’ve set up a whole state, in the north west of China, where they’ve put all these people in prisons and internment camps and then they take their organs. It’s totally wild. No one talks about it.”
“”New Gods” obviously is kind of new ground, because social media is at its zenith at the moment maybe. People are starting to reject it which is good. Children are using the platforms less and less than people our age, which is encouraging. And how integrated social media is with peoples’ levels of depression. Like depression is at an all-time high globally and social media is one of the biggest contributing factors. Because it disconnects people from one another. There’s no face time, there’s no getting on the phone and calling someone. It’s like ‘Oh, like that photo’. [laughs]”
Kel: “Definitely. It’s disconnection from themselves and who they are.”
Andy: “Absolutely. People take on these aggregate personalities of what they think is optimal, going by what generates the most likes, which is fucking stupid.”
Death Squad Anthem
“”Death Squad Anthem”‘s kind of a generic political riotous kind of song. It references the most recent presidential campaign as well in the lyrics. In the chorus there’s a few different things. Like disrupting people, putting them in prison, fake news and all of that.”
Make America Hate Again
“I’ve covered this one a lot. It’s about the two parties. Both just slandering each other and creating extremists on both sides; democrats and republicans.”
Kel: “I have seen some comments on this. ‘Oh, it’s American politics. Why are you going into it?’. But as an Australian, I kind of feel like Australians should be very aware of what’s going on in the US by way of politics, because it’s going to definitely have an impact on us as well.”
Andy: “Well, I’m not sure if anyone else knows, but sitting on my desk right now is my American passport, cause I’m an American citizen. So naturally I’m going to talk about American politics. I mean it’s where my daughter lives, it’s where I work, it’s where I live part time now, it’s where I used to live full time, it’s the country I grew up in, [laughs] and it’s the country I probably spend the most time in. So it’s only natural. It’s just unfortunate, without trying to talk about myself publicly too much, there’s no way to disseminate that information.”
“”Eternal Suffering” is kind of a love song.” [as above]
“”Welcome Oblivion” is about cancer, inspired by a book called Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Which is the idea that we ascribe a personality to the cancer, that it’s malicious. Like ‘Oh cancer, it’s trying to kill me’. It’s like ‘It’s not trying to do anything. It’s your own body.’ And so my friend Tom Searle, from Architects, who passed away three years ago, he talked about this ulcer in one of his songs before he passed away: “A sickness with no remedy, except the ones inside of me”. The cancer wasn’t something out to get him, it was his own body. And so applying that kind of metaphor in my own thinking onto humanity, and humanity’s relationship to the planet. We don’t really mean to fuck the Earth up, but we kind of just suck. Human nature is inherently bad and selfish and, maybe we should all be forgiven. So it’s kind of an interesting take.”
“”Atonement” is from the perspective of being a woman. I attempted to write a song as if I was a woman that had been sexually assaulted. And I think in my subculture of metal, it’s something that’s not really talked about all that much. I mean obviously the #MeToo movement and everything, all these things are getting talked about on a much wider scale, but I felt a little bit of responsibility to cover it in our sub-genre. There’s a lot of marginalisation. Obviously there’s just fuck all women involved in heavy music. So that’s another way of kind of putting onto it like men trying to remove women from an environment, or just a work place. Whether it’s from the political sphere, the economic sphere, it’s just another social exclusion. So by including it in a death metal song, hopefully we can reach those people that aren’t in reach by other formats like CNN or social media or regular news.”
Voyeurs Into Death
“”Voyeurs Into Death” is about institutionalised prison systems, domestic surveillance, and racism in America. A lot of the black community imprisoned at an astronomically higher rate than white people in America. So I mean we’re taking steps toward equality at the moment. I think most people in states where they have now legalised marijuana, they’re going through and expunging those people from the prison system. Like we’ve got 40,000 black people from the state of Illinois in prison that are just in there for having a bag of weed. But now weed is legal, so should they really be in prison? Which is fucking crazy.”
Eye For An Eye
“”Eye For An Eye” is about the Earth being a vengeful entity. It doesn’t care how bad we’re fucking it up right now. It’s been around for four and a half billion years. It’s like ‘Okay, assholes. [laughs] I’ve seen some shit and yeah, do your worst’. Because what humanity in essence will do is wipe itself out and the planet will go through a period of rebirth that takes millions of years perhaps, depending on how much damage we do to it. But that’s fine. A couple million years is nothing in the grand scheme of four and half billion years. They often reference the time that mankind has been on the Earth as from the start of the planet Earth until now was one whole year, mankind has been around from the last 30 seconds on New Year’s Eve. So it’s like we’re just a tiny insignificant little thing.”
“And “Chemical Christ” is about new studies that will be brought to light in the near future regarding the prevalence of psychotropics, particularly in the western world. So anti-depression, anti-anxiety medication, and how it’s systematically been over-prescribed for the western world. To the point where one in two people in the world now are using some form of psychotropic, which is insane.
“So they’re saying that they’ve learnt all this stuff about mental health, and so what they need to do is give more people anti-depressants, more people anti-anxiety medication. But the depression and anxiety diagnoses have increased year on year, ever since they’ve been prescribing people this stuff. So they’ve done double-blind tests that are not funded by the pharmaceutical companies, and they’ve found that most broad spectrum anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications are no more effective than placebo. That’s a fact. 100% fact. It’s basically the luck of the draw.
“All the testing that’s in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], that’s in the diagnostics for mental health issues, all of the statistics and all of those studies were only funded by the pharmaceutical companies making those medications. There was never any third party of study. So the song is kind of about this army of people. And also it’s a little bit offensive, and this is why it goes hand in hand with the song “New Gods”, because social media has really helped to, what I would call hyper-normalise mental health issues. I wouldn’t say ‘normalise’. That’s completely acceptable and desirable. Everyone has issues. But hyper-normalise it to the point where it’s almost celebrated? And everyone’s like ‘I have mental health issues’, ‘You have mental health issues’. No, that’s called life! You need to understand that there are big differences, because what you’re describing, if you are going to hyper-normalise it like this, is people en masse using social media have decided that the normal position for the human brain is that of a depressed and anxious state. Because if more than 50% of the western world are taking psychotropics, then what is normal? Normal is being fucking crazy.
“I don’t have the answer to that. I studied psych at university and I’ve got a few friends that I studied with that have finished their PhDs and are research psychologists. And their studies are nearing completion, that have gone on for the last 15 years about the efficacy of psychotropics and that new wave of study is about to come out to the world in the next five years and I’m very excited to see what the public conversation surrounding those results are.”
Kel: “So ‘sword swallowers’ in the chorus. I did wonder what that meant. Is that like ‘The medicine you’re taking is harming you’?”
Andy: “Well it’s changing you. And that’s one of the other things. All people who take anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication within one year will double their dose, and then usually in another year will double that dose. And so they think that it’s making them better, because they feel an effect. But really did they just feel an effect and if you’ve got someone that’s completely not depressed and you told them ‘You’re depressed. Have this pill. Do you feel any different?’ and they go ‘Yeah I feel totally different’, and it’s like well, is that better? It’s just different. Different doesn’t always mean better. So ‘Sword swallowers / The pills have a way of making us hollower’ is like if everyone’s crazy, and everyone needs as many drugs as the world is currently consuming, what’s it doing to us? Again, I don’t know, but for sure it’s removing some piece of yourself. We haven’t been taking these drugs for long enough to know what the long term side effects are, and that’s why I’m really interested to see this new round of studies that are completely not beholden to financial benefit of the pharmaceutical industry.”
With all of this said, I had to wonder if the craziness of the world around us in general was where Human Target was coming from as a whole; with all of us as prey to a larger machine of society and powers that be in whichever sense we may be affected. Andy said “With this album, it totally was about the individual, and all the records are platforms that I care about like this. But because they’re made in such quick time, the perspective and the point of view that they’re taken from is always slightly different, and I’m not even aware of that until after I finish writing a record.”
The album’s artwork was created by Eliran Kantor, whose dark and powerful imagery instantly expresses the concept of oppressive machinations individuals are under. It was also Eliran who created the artwork for Dear Desolation. Beginning with the lyrics and the music alone, without a title or any sense of an objective overarching theme, Eliran went away and created what we see now as the artwork.
Several weeks after this, Andy had landed on Human Target as the title and shared this with Eliran, saying “The record has this theme of oppression and manipulation of the individual on a wide scale and from all these different angles as well”. Eliran, who had already finished his first sketch of the artwork, said “Perfect. We’re on the same wavelength.”
“And so he sent me the sketch the next morning, with the big wheel crushing humanity, and I thought ‘That’s pretty sick’. The wheel just represents all of those things, you know? The people are the same.” Though there was talk about the wheel being too large in the image, and a zoomed out perspective potentially being better, it was left as is, with Andy saying “The giant gear or the wheel has to take up all of this space because that’s the dominating thing. By way of ratio, it’s dominating, just as it is in life. All of the people underneath it are minimised.”
Human Target releases tomorrow (26th July) and can be pre-ordered here: https://www.thyartismurder.net