The esoteric side of heavy metal has been around since the very start. The strange, the magical, and the fantastical have driven songwriters to great heights for the genre’s history, and one of the current masters of the weird is here right now to do an interview. The Great Kaiser, aka Derek DiBella, is perhaps best known for his years with Demon Bitch, but is also the driving force behind White Magician, Isenblåst, and more.
There’s a certain sense of magic and the arcane that drives a lot of your music. When did your fascination with that mood start?
You’re born as a clean slate, you learn and observe the world, you’re amazed by nature, technology, and civilization. You’re encouraged to cultivate your imagination, creativity, and individuality, and then suddenly you reach an age where it seems these same things are to be unlearned, suppressed or completely destroyed to find a place in society or to better serve others motivations and goals. To me the only thing that feels like breaking away from all of the constant malaise of life as you’re supposed to live it is music or any other forms of art to keep you in touch with your true feelings and beliefs as a human. As far as I’m concerned, when that is the goal nothing short of arcane magic will suffice. As far as when my fascination started… it started when I felt I needed it to keep the rabid dogs of madness at bay.
Is that same need to stave away madness what drove you to start writing music of your own?
I’m not sure. I suppose it helps maybe… probably more so adds to it. Especially since I’m very much a riff and song scrapper so there’s a lot of madness that goes on with the creative process. The handful of songs I’m recording now have been written between three and six years ago… some parts maybe longer. What drives me to write music is ultimately because it feels like what I should be doing with my free time. Also to make what I want to hear from music which I think is the most cliche thing to say but if it’s true it’s true.
Your earliest credit that I can find for having played on a release was 2010, and now you’re saying that you have upcoming recordings that go back as far as six years ago. When did you start writing music?
I was really more just experimenting with writing before then. I’ve been playing guitar since like 2001 or so. I was very content just learning songs and techniques and building my skills as a guitarist for quite some time. I still struggle to grasp the concept of writing music as there exists a large disconnect between what I like to hear and what I write myself(structurally) and things get so cloudy sometimes that it takes years to realize.
I always want to do what I know I shouldn’t do because it seems to me so many do exactly what they think they should do to try and pander to potential fans, labels, “journalists” and of course our scenes revolving door of trends. In light of all of this I had a serious heart to heart with myself after listening to some previously released and some ‘for my ears only’ material that never made the cut for anything and decided I don’t think I should have to make something terrible just to make a point. But I will if I have to.
Guitar wizardry is less and less common in heavy metal these days, with many of metal’s more technicality-inclined guitarists being drawn to other subgenres. What drove you to be content with those long years of practice, and why do you think you stuck with it and with heavy metal when so many people don’t?
I will always have respect for over ambitious guitar players of all skill levels and of course the gods of old that inspired people to step It up. There’s also an unspoken admiration that guitar players with that mindset share. A mutual recognition. I share this phenomenon with a handful of cherished friends of mine. It was very easy to be content while I was still learning because I love the instrument. I loved playing it and I loved learning new things. Besides, why would I want to write music knowing I had to limit myself to only what I was capable of playing if I hadn’t put in much time learning? If I thought of something or had an idea or vision and I couldn’t execute it I’d be really annoyed.
As far as drive, I wouldn’t even say it’s anything that drove me. It’s just what I loved to do. The same applies to sticking to heavy metal, I don’t do it begrudgingly. It’s just something I love. It was so fun discovering both through playing guitar with friends and perusing record store used CD bins (R.I.P. Record Time, Rock a Billys, The Record Collector). These were my favorite things to do over 10 years ago and nothing has even come close to being that good to me.
Were you already into heavy metal when you started playing guitar? How did you get into this type of music?
Definitely not. Imagine walking into a guitar center and hearing the top ten most played riffs and that’s what I listened to. I just played every song I noticed guitar in on the radio. The only remotely cool thing I can say is that my dad did take me to see the amazing Blue Öyster Cult the year I did start playing (2002) which was very inspirational as a young guitar player.
How I got into heavy metal? Shit. I didn’t have a cool uncle or older brother who gave me an Iron Maiden tape as a child or anything like that. I started playing guitar before I had developed much of a taste in music honestly. I just wanted to play and play better so I tried learning the most difficult things I heard. Naturally I was looking for anything faster or more shredding and eventually I was listening to Yngwie J. Malmsteen and bought a copy of The Very Beast of Dio at Meijer. I sifted through a lot of really bad music like a preteen/teenager would do in a time before overnight Wikipedia metal gurus and Google metal diehards existed. Along the line I figured it out what’s the best the good old fashioned American way.
When in this timeline did you become The Great Kaiser? You go by some variation of that pseudonym in nearly every band that you’ve ever started that I’m aware of.
Only in White Magician, Isenblåst and the Great Kaiser’s White Magician of course. As The Great Kaiser, Lord Kaiser and The Great Kaiser respectively. I would say that came about in 2009 when I was creating the initial concept and songs for White Magician. Kind of just popped up in conversation with my dearest friend Mofang Tengrand.
You’ve known Mr. Mofang, AKA Logon, for some years, alongside the other members of your circle- White Magician, Demon Bitch, Isenblåst, and Great Kaiser’s White Magician all share members to a degree that’s rare to see. How did such a perfectly aligned group of maniacs such as yourself come together?
I have no idea… It’s actually just dumb luck that I’ve been so fortunate in this regard. Brian the Beastmaster (vocals and guitar in Isenblåst, bass in Demon Bitch, and integral and irreplaceable third of the trifecta… also some extra trivia, he recorded DB’s 2012 demo in his basement studio) and I have been friends the longest. Logon and I have been friends for probably about 15 years now. Mars (guitars in Demon Bitch, White Magician and former bass for Isenblåst) and the Drummer Master Commander Sam (Demon Bitch, White Magician, The Great Kaiser’s White Magician as well as various drum mercenary work) were a part of Logon’s separate friend circle that I hadn’t yet penetrated until sometime down the line. So in short there were there three small friendship circles that spilled over into each other. I could probably live for centuries before I meet anyone like any of them again. I really don’t want to live that long, but with a regular consumption of goji berries I know I could if I wanted.
Given the member overlap between the various bands, what determines which riffs go to what band outside of the more obvious ones?
Well it’s really simple in my mind. Isenblåst is stylistically very different so I can usually very easily distinguish which ones are for which band as its so heavily rooted in black metal and death metal from all over the spectrum. These influences are hardly present in the other projects, and if they are its very subtle. Brian and I split writing duties about half and half for Isenblåst.
I write all the riffs/music for White Magician and the Great Kaiser’s White Magician, a few small things change once they’re brought to the band but the songs are generally written in their entirety already or 90% done (sometimes Logon’s ideas make a change in a song… And I can’t say one of the riffs on the new album wasn’t hummed to me by Sam during a rehearsal). From there we just jam until it’s where it needs to be.
For Demon Bitch I have very little to do with the writing process as Mars is the mind behind the music and he fleshes them out with the Drummer Master Commander, I usually get a rough demo with drums guitars and vocals listen to it learn it then everyone puts in their personal touches in from there. The material speaks for itself so they clearly don’t need any help from this old chunk of coal.
So when can we expect more from the projects you do the writing for?
There’s actually quite a bit going on with both White Magician and Isenblåst. You can expect things pretty soon from both.
For White Magician the finishing touches are being put on the debut full length at the moment. I have been traveling back and forth between Detroit and Lansing since last May about every other weekend or so to chip away at it. It’s been a really long process with some pitfalls but also some really great stuff taking place. I’m really eager to share it with the world as I’ve been putting so much work into it for years now. “Antipathy” from the split 10″ with Prelude to Ruiz was actually supposed to be a song on this record, but it turns out with the longer song lengths I tend to favor it wouldn’t have fit time wise. Besides… when Victor proposed the split how could I have resisted doing a split with such dear friends and jerks of the highest order? Anyhow… hopefully I’ll be able to debut a track from it in the near future… of course soon and near are words that exist very much on a sliding scale.
Isenblåst just started tracking guitars for our 2nd full length record. So far I’m really happy with how it’s shaping up. We have our very own Brian manning the recording duties, the Demon Breath Production Studio is currently set up in the basement of the Satan’s Friendship Palace, and on a very nice and sturdy desk I might add. People can expect 8 tracks of highly ambitious black metal insanity. We have a demo version of two of the songs from the upcoming record that has been in circulation on CD and the internet for some time for anyone that’s interested in seeing what’s going on with that.
You’ve worked with a few labels, but even as your opportunities grow, you keep coming back to do releases with friends. Will that pattern hold true for the new Isenblåst and White Magician albums?
I actually have not solidified any release plans for either yet. We’re both currently free agents open to entertaining offers from labels we align with. While I do love working with friends directly I do feel that our exposure is limited due to not having the resources/press/promotion attached to these smaller labels. We’re pushing far forward with both the White Magician and Isenblåst upcoming full lengths and do want them to reach as far as they possibly can. I’ve noticed it’s EXTREMELY hard being recognized as a black metal band in this current climate of metal. Especially if you don’t take much part in the typical worldwide metal scene circle jerk bullshit. Regarding Dystopian Dogs and Austenitized Records, these labels are run by people I know, love and trust 100% so working with them has been very ideal for me and my relationship with both is far from over. In the end I feel it’s gonna be Michigan and Ohio vs. the rest of the world as far as I’m concerned.
Anything you’ve learned to avoid based on past experiences with your bands?
Well I think we have collectively managed to avoid most things in general whether intentional or not. You know… schmoozing, brown nosing, establishing connections, hoarding contacts, networking, social networking, corporate level marketing tactics, nasdaq, dow jones… I can’t deny the importance or effectiveness of these things to the success of a b(r)and, but I can certainly denounce them as artifice for me. Most can smell it from a mile away… but something tells me many may need help removing the clothespin from their nose.
Given that not only your own bands but some of Michigan’s other recent heavy metal bands offer up more unique takes on the genre than a fair amount of what’s gotten traction lately, are there any contemporary bands from outside the region that you feel a particular kinship with?
Let’s see… Well as far as contemporary bands that I believe to be great outside of the magical state of Michigan would include (and may or may not be limited to) Tarot (AUS), Dracula (AUS), Wytch Hazel, Angel Sword, Lunar Shadow, Ancient Seance, Freeways, Hallas, Vulture’s Vengeance, Eternal Champion (not that they really need mention on this particular site), Demontage, Malokarpatan, Abysmal Lord, Prosanctus Inferi and Ominous Resurrection.
What do you think of the current heavy metal scene, and why do you think your bands stand out so much to certain people?
I’d like to think my bands stand out or would stand out to people because we do everything based on feeling. There’s no rationale, no compromises, no considerations given to whether or not it’s what the “consumers” of the current heavy metal scene want to hear. I’ve heard what they want to hear, and frankly I’m not very impressed. Maybe the certain people our bands stand out to share this sentiment and maybe we provide an alternative that some are left craving in this climate where mainstream mentality is flooding an underground music scene and being met with mostly tolerance and encouragement. This is strange to me but hey, what do I know?
As far as how I feel about the current heavy metal scene, it’s great that it seems to be regaining some popularity, on the other side of the coin I think there’s a whole lot of funny stuff going on… so to quote Forrest Gump “That’s all I have to say about that.”
There’s a bit of a lack of non-standard vocalists these days, and while they exist, they seem to exist just a bit more frequently in your bands.
Well I’m no rocket scientist but that seems a whole lot more like a statement than a question to me! What I will say is that myself as a vocalist would be categorized as non remarkable and Logon as a vocalist would be a mixture of non sane and non couth.
Anything else you’d like to talk about, tell readers to listen to, or to look out for?
Well let’s see… obviously keep an eye out for the new full lengths from White Magician and Isenblåst. Demon Bitch may or may not be working on a new record slowly but surely. Also the Dystopian Dogs physical release of Dungeon Beast’s “The Fool” and previous demos (speaking of guitar wizardry) Brainchild of Matt Preston formerly of Borrowed Time featuring a variety of musicians and vocalists.
Anyone who hasn’t picked up the split 10″ between White Magician and Prelude to Ruin or the Screams in Cold Silence 12″ from Isenblåst; pick it up from us directly through bandcamp, Dystopian Dogs or Austenitized records and show support for these Midwest metal powerhouses.
Sharpen your knowledge and understanding of the W-56, Listen to King Crimson, PG era Genesis and Survivor as often as possible, and fuck like a god damn r…
In Magic and Friendship,
Worship the weird and the wonderful, and let heavy metal fill your soul.