Interview – Leila Abdul-Rauf of Vastum: ”Many incels falsely believe the song is an anthem written in their honor”

”…and have no clue the song was written by a woman.”


Best album of 2019? Could very well be Vastum’s Orificial Purge. Bara Metal contacted  singer and guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf and spoke about almost everything from two word titles and bitter misogynists to the eroticism of eating yourself. Oh, and usual music stuff as well, like the pain of scheduling rehearsals and her best sounding board.

When I read interviews with you, you seem to be the hub of Vastum. Without Leila – no Vastum. Is that so?

– Dan, Luca and I are the only members who’ve been in the band since the beginning. Shelby has also become crucial to the songwriting process since our third album Hole Below. However, I can’t imagine Vastum existing without Dan and me, but stranger things have happened I guess. We’re fortunate to keep attracting talented members after people leave the band. Despite our other priorities, we are committed to keeping the band alive and do as much as we can with what little time we have.

So, it has been four years since your last album. Are you surprised that Vastum still exists? 

– It is a bit surprising to me that we’ve managed to keep it together for almost ten years, but we seem to come out of each record stronger than before. And four years goes by more quickly than you think!

– In that time, collectively, we’ve toured and recorded with the following projects in addition to Vastum: Necrot, Acephalix, Ulthar, Extremity, Ionophore, Cardinal Wyrm, Fyrhtu, my solo project, and that’s not an exhaustive list. Dan began a PhD program. Needless to say, we’ve been extremely busy. Although once we have the time to begin writing a new Vastum record, things usually happen pretty quickly.

And what does Vastum actually do to you that you cannot do with your other bands? Why do you need Vastum?

– Vastum is a vehicle for my aggression in a way that none of my other projects are, lyrically, performatively and in songwriting. The energy of our live shows surpasses that of any metal band I’ve ever played with; it can be addictive.

How often do you meet each others to rehearse all of you together? I mean, going to the cinema with two friends takes like months to plan when you no longer is a teenager.

– Scheduling rehearsals is the most challenging part of being in this band, and most of the time the five of us can’t all be there because we’re all so busy. We rehearse together only about a month to a few weeks before we are about to play live. I’ll practice on my own as often as I can to the recordings before a show.

– Much of our writing happens separately, but when we’re working on new material, Shelby, Chad and I will often together just the three of us to learn the material first before we play through it as a full band. Dan and I meet separately to work on dividing up lyrics before recording.

Yes, you are two singers in Vastum. How much do you, Leila, sing – in percentage?

– I would say it’s roughly 60 % Dan and 40 % me doing vocals on each record. And it can be hard to tell who’s singing to the non-discerning ear. Dan and I split the vocals a bit more evenly on Orifical Purge, and made more of an effort to have both of our voices on all of the songs. I think having a more even distribution of Dan’s and my vocals makes for a more interesting listen.

A lot of your songs include spoken parts – is that kind of Vastum’s thing? 

– All of the spoken vocals are Dan’s. I see these vocals as part of Dan’s signature which contribute to evoking a dark, cavernous, all-enveloping atmosphere. There is something significant in the sound of an isolated spoken voice; it speaks to the introspection of many of the lyrics.

On this album you sing about the first and second wound. What two wounds?

– Dan wrote all of the lyrics for both Dispossessed in Rapture (First Wound) and I on the Knife (Second Wound). In Dan’s words: “Both songs riff on a line from Bataille about life as a wound. Sometimes Dispossessed in Rapture sounds like it’s about sexual abuse and perversion, while at others times it sounds like the narration of mystical experience. I on the Knife is partly written as if from a dissociative trance in which someone commands themselves to mutilate their own body. These sound like personal experiences – and maybe they are in ways – but I’m more interested in how they evoke ecstatic, often violent psychic states and how the narration of those states could double as something like demiurgic myths.”

At least four bands have made songs about autophagia this year so far. My question: How come you did a song about autophagia – I had never heard of it until these songs showed up.

– This is a striking coincidence that I only very recently discovered months after having written the lyrics to this song that there are so many death metal bands writing on this topic. When I came up with the idea, it wasn’t meant to be entirely literal, even though I like using literal imagery in the lyrics. Literally or psychically speaking, the act of eating yourself is the ultimate erotic act – you are simultaneously merging with yourself and making yourself disappear.

I have a follow up question to that. I have sometimes read descriptions of your lyrics as being about sex. I think the word eroticism is a much better term. Would it be more correct to say that most of your lyrics are about eroticism from a negative, and sometimes a positive, side – but mostly a dark side?

– Sex and eroticism are related but not the same thing. Dan could give a better psychoanalytic definition and distinction of sex vs eroticism, but eroticism transcends the sex act itself and can be associated with any act if it triggers feelings of sexual desire. Our lyrics mostly indulge in the dark and violent aspects of desire. Defining it in positive versus negative terms isn’t relevant to us.

Still on this topic – I thought Incel was about the hating women, until I read the lyrics; It is simply a song about aching for sex and caress. With all the terror acts done by incels today – would Incel have another kind of text in 2019, about the act of killing and hating women and being bitter?

– I wrote the lyrics to Incel in 2012, having never heard of the underground right wing internet community even though I heard, years later, it was quite active at the time. Now many incels falsely believe this is an anthem written in their honor, that Vastum is identifying with them, and have no clue the song was written by a woman. For me, the song was simply evoking the pain of involuntary celibacy, and violence to the self; I had absolutely no intention of identifying with a particular group of people, and I am probably the antithesis of anything they would want to identify with.

Okay. Your new album has a two words title. Like all of your albums. Was this deliberate from the very start? Or did it just happen and you discovered it like three albums into your career?

– Having two word album titles which are also song titles was never deliberate on our part. It just kind of stuck after the third album, and more or less became a template that works well for our aesthetic. Who knows, maybe the fifth album will have a different syntax just to change things up! We’re not too attached to the two word template.

Musicwise – How do you actually know the difference between a riff that passes through the filter, and one who you discard?

– For me, if I start with a riff that doesn’t go anywhere after many months of working on it, I’ll usually abandon it in favor of something else. I don’t have piles of unrecorded songs lying around; everything I write gets used.  I find that the more quickly a full song comes together, the stronger of a song it usually is.

And who is your best sounding board?

My bandmates, especially Dan, are my best sounding board – I appreciate how very supportive they are of my writing, and of course they know Vastum’s sound better than anybody. My partner Nathan too, is an especially tough critic. If he likes something I’ve written, then I know I’ve succeeded!

Finally, what do you prefer? Playing solo in Matteuskyrkan in Göteborg, or playing with Vastum at Kill-Town in Denmark?

– I love both! They are opposite experiences that I crave equally. The violent energy of a Vastum show is electrifying, but the experience of playing an intimate ambient set in a church with visuals is just as powerful; to be able to put people into a trance from my compositions and improvisations is a magical thing.

Göteborg just happens to be my hometown, although I live in Malmö. How come you ended up playing in Matteuskyrkan in Göteborg? That sounds truly odd to me!

– My friend Peter Johansson, drummer of the Swedish death metal band Bastard Grave, helped book a short tour for me through Scandinavia in October 2018 and drove us on the tour. His friend connected me with the wonderful Farsot Records folks in Gothenburg. Even though they have their own venue where they usually book, this was the very first show they booked at the Matteuskyrkan, a beautiful church near the center of town. It was the perfect venue and atmosphere for my ambient solo project, where I performed with my partner Nathan Verrill. We played every kind of venue you can think of on this tour, but this venue and Dunkers Kulturhus, an established arts and culture center in Helsingborg, were my favorites.


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