Black Air – Exclusive Interview with Blindfolded and Led to the Woods

Blindfolded and Led to the Woods, 2020. Left to right: Nick Smith (bass), Tim Stewart (drums), Stace Fifield (vocals), Ben Atkinson (guitar), Stuart Minchington (guitar). Photo by Shannan Jessica.

Australia has no shortage of world class extreme metal artists – think Portal, The Amenta, Psycroptic, The Berzerker, not to mention a thriving grindcore scene. The first name that comes to mind when you think of New Zealand is Ulcerate. There’s also the distinctive Maori thrash of Alien Weaponry. Now you can add a third name to the list of Kiwi metal bands ready to achieve recognition on the international stage – meet Blindfolded and Led to the Woods (BALTTW).

Like Autarkh, Schammasch and Altarage, the New Zealand quintet play a unique style of dissonant death metal but mix it with the technicality of mathcore. Now in their tenth year of existence and armed with their third album, BALTTW have upped their game. The new music has a sophisticated brutality and complexity that knows when to hold back and when to bludgeon. At the heart of their musical inspiration is their native city of Christchurch and the traumas that ripped through the capital during the making of the latest record, Nightmare Withdrawals. Unpredictable earthquakes prey on the minds of the city’s inhabitants, and 2019 saw the horror of a mosque terrorist attack from a white supremacist. New Zealand is not the quaint backwater of endless green pastures and peaceful living we assume it to be from the (dis)comfort of the British Isles and Europe.

It will surprise many to learn that BALTTW are an independent artist given they’ve supported the likes of Dillinger Escape Plan, Aborted, Cattle Decapitation and Sepultura over the years. If ever there was an artist ready-made for Prosthetic Records or Relapse Records, it’s these New Zealanders, who make it their mission to be the most intense and technically proficient live band on the planet. We caught up with guitarist, Stuart Minchington, to find out more about the band that produced one of the most original albums of 2021.

Above: One half of the BALTTW guitar duo, Stuart Minchington.

Let’s start with the sonic extremity of your latest album, Nightmare Withdrawals. Describing your music is difficult because you don’t fit into any recognisable category. At a stretch, we’d say it sounds like an extreme metal version of Voivod with Dillinger Escape Plan’s chaotic mathcore thrown into the mix. How would you describe your music?

First of all, thank you very much for having us! That is something we get asked often, and it’s funny as we have been described as so many different things now. We find it easy enough to call ourselves ‘progressive death metal’, but it could easily be called many things. We tend to leave the answer up to the listener these days.

Your musical arrangements are complex yet seem spontaneous. Tell us how a typical BALTTW song comes into existence from the first instrumentation to the last rehearsal before pre-production.

I write all our music and present it to the band for them to put their flavour on. The bones and structure of the songs don’t tend to change too much, however, we will flesh out the more progressive or ‘clean’ sections together. Ben is really great at expanding on those, and Nick is a very proficient bass player so will often take my ideas and run with them. Tim’s drumming has a really cool vibe to it, so he does his thing and always makes it better. Lyrics are taken on by both Stace and myself. It’s always interesting to see what happens along the way as it can be unpredictable, especially in the studio.

Yes, your drummer, Tim Stewart, seems to have a telepathic understanding with the two guitarists. How many times when writing one of the songs on Nightmare Withdrawals did the band think, “We’re never gonna get this over the line – it’s too complex”?

He definitely owns things behind the kit! Luckily enough we haven’t hit a song *yet* that hasn’t been too complex. Being a band for eleven years now, we have a pretty good understanding of what each other are capable but also focus a lot on song writing rather than trying to write the most complex music.

Which artists and albums inspired Nightmare Withdrawals?

Depending on what member you ask, this question would be very different. We try to formulate our music with as little inspiration as possible as to not plagiarise anyone else. In saying that, inspiration comes in many forms, and a lot of the writing I do alone is inspired by events in my life. Our city has experienced a lot of trauma during our time as a band, and a lot of that is reflected in our music. I always find inspiration in the memories of one of our collective best friends who was killed in the Christchurch earthquakes. His name was Matti.

Extreme metal appears to be moving towards an emphasis on dissonant chords and atonal sounds, and BALTTW are right at the forefront of this alongside Portal, Autarkh, Schammasch, Altarage and Wode. Your fellow New Zealanders, Ulcerate, are also big into this sonic experimentation. Where do you see this type of music heading in the future?

It blows my mind being in the same list as heavyweights like you mentioned. I think metal as a whole is evolving into something far greater. I feel like it is being taken more and more seriously around the world, and it’s an exciting time (apart from Covid and travel restrictions of course). Bands don’t seem so scared to do something different now or express themselves in certain ways as maybe they did a decade ago. As we see people care less and less about elitism in scenes, I think we will see genres continue to evolve and flourish. Bring it on!

Let’s talk about your lyrics. The words to the song, ‘…And You Will Try to Speak’, are terrifying: “You are not meant to see me/ For I am not for your eyes/ But you’re wealthy aren’t you?/ For misery is the world’s only true currency/ And at that moment/ Of your absolute realisation/ You will try to speak/ I will wash your mouth out with rope.” What is this song about?

To put it simply, suicide and depression. We have horrible suicide statistics in NZ, and everyone has been touched by it in one way or another. It’s not an easy subject to talk about with all the stigma around it, but this song I think dealt with that feeling of hopelessness and absolute despair, whether that be from a victim’s point of view, or maybe that of a loved one. How did they feel at the time? Maybe if we can talk about it more freely, we can begin to break down some of these barriers.

The press release for Nightmare Withdrawals says the album is ‘fuelled by trauma’, but it’s clear you also have a sinister sense of humour. Tell us more about the emotions and experiences that inspired your music for this record.

We love what we do, and at the end of the day we are five best mates playing tunes we love together. Our humour will always shine through in some way. So much happened during the process of this record, we would be here all day. Our city’s earthquakes, as mentioned, are always on my mind – we even had another last night. Just a smaller one, however it tends to make those feelings of grief come flooding back, for me anyway. Not long ago we also had a terrorist attack here. You never expect that to happen in a city like this, as the cliché goes, but it really was a horrific thing to happen. All this coupled with our personal lives, and I guess it makes for an interesting musical journey.

It’s not all smiles in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Nile legend, Karl Sanders, appears on the song, ‘Atop the Wings of a Magpie’. How easy was it to arrange this collaboration?

Again, mind blowing. Nile is my all-time favourite death metal band. We were all set to tour with them (dream come true), but Covid hit right on that. That was it, goodbye tour. We managed to get in contact with Karl and started the conversation from there. He was keen to hear the track and ended up loving it, so away he went. Smashed his vocals out and boom, we had Karl on a track. It was amazing to Zoom chat with him and hang out a bit, something I will never ever forget or take for granted. That tour will happen one day!

You seem to release new music on a three-year cycle since your debut EP in 2011. How many times have members of the band been on the verge of quitting so they can concentrate on a professional work career?

The band is so entrenched in our lives now, I don’t think quitting is an option. We have always found ways to work around things and will continue to do so. We are lucky to have such like-minded and dedicated members. We are only on this earth for a fleeting moment so may as well do the things we love (while maintaining some sort of normal life behind the scenes).

You’ve supported some legendary bands in your ten-year career to date – Revocation, Cryptopsy, Aborted, Psycroptic, Sepultura, Dillinger Escape Plan and Cattle Decapitation. That’s an impressive list. But what do you need to do to emancipate beyond being the band that support all the big extreme metal names passing through New Zealand? Would a record deal be the answer?

We are definitely interested in label representation as we have been independent for so long. A part of us feels maybe we have reached as far as we can go independently. On the other hand, the industry is so complicated, so we are cautious about our movements. Our goal is to tour the world ASAP. So, Covid permitting, here’s hoping. We are definitely excited for the future of BALTTW, that’s for sure.

Final question: What are the five things you want to achieve with BALTTW over the next five years?

1. Continue to make music that’s true to ourselves and that represents who we are.

2. Record a few more albums!

3. Tour the world, really get out there on the road.

4. Sign a record deal (?) if it’s the right one!

5. Continue striving to be the absolute best live band we can be.

*** Blindfolded and Led to the Woods self-released Nightmare Withdrawals on 26 March 2021. You can read the original SBR review here.