Finding Calm in the Harsh Storm: An Interview With Threshing Spirit

Jordan Reyes is in constant motion. Not only does he run one of the most exciting labels around, American Dreams (not to mention all its sub-labels), he also finds space for his own work and projects. Until recently, Threshing Spirit was anonymous, ripping through dismal atmospherics and black metal landscapes with force. Now, with Reyes revealed to be the creative force behind the project, he releases his most engaging work to date, The Crucible

Throughout its 30-minute runtime, bleak tones are bent into cathartic shapes. There’s a certain otherworldliness that unfolds as Reyes twists harsh truths and open wounds into something restorative. The Crucible is expansive in scope and surprising in the ways it delivers.

I interviewed Jordan throughout September and dug into our own harsh truths shaped by current realities. The Crucible is out on October 29 via American Decline.

So first, what were your first experiences and exposures to black metal and what was it that interested you early on?

The first black metal I heard was Liturgy. They wouldn’t be considered “trve,” per se, but they had blast beats, shrieked vocals, and icy guitar. When I was in undergrad at Duke, they played at the Coffeehouse there. I went to go see them, and was blown away. This was right after Aesthetica had come out, and Hunter had written the Black Metal Manifesto. Most of my interest in music boils down to an interest in sublimity, chasing that feeling of total immersion or being overwhelmed. Liturgy did that for me. After seeing them, I wanted to know everything  I could about black metal. There was a big moment for black metal around 2011 – the documentary “Until The Light Takes Us” had come out, and outlets like Pitchfork, even, were covering pretty serious black metal, many of whom would not be covered there anymore.

Obviously that was just the tip of the iceberg, and as I got older and underground music became basically my entire life, I found deeper, more obscure, weirder bands that scratched my itches – bands like the weirdo UFO black metal project Ahulabrum, contemporary powerhouse – and dear friend – Pan-Amerikan Native Front, Paysage D’Hiver – who is probably the most influential on my black metal – and more. The subgenre began to resonate with me more and more during quarantine. It’s always trafficked in the language and aesthetic of isolation, which feels more than a little relevant these days.

But at the core, Black metal was a clandestine world, something hidden that lurked beneath the surface, something you needed to have a bit of knowledge and subcultural wisdom to be a part of. It was intimidating at first, especially as a kid who was raised in a hardcore Christian environment, but the music was compulsive, and I wanted to understand it.

And at what point did you think, “I’ve got to start a black metal project”?

I was listening to so much black metal, buying fucking tons of tapes and records from the contemporary underground, becoming obsessed with this new wave of raw black metal. Hearing projects like Black Cilice, Revenant Marquis, and others, had me thinking – man, I would really love to be a part of this, create a character and vibe, and also get back to making extreme music. I had terminated my power electronics project Spring Break at the end of 2019, but have always been a huge extreme music listener. I realized that I could make black metal and keep it super lo-fi, though, which spoke to me since I can’t drum for shit. The first Threshing Spirit releases’ drums were literally me banging my hands on the table, mic’ing that with a vocal mic, then sending it through double max overdrive to make it sound like blast beats. I didn’t want to use drum programming at first, which changed as I found ways to make the drums sound as I wanted – basically using a high pass filter. Then I was talking with my homie Patrick Shiroishi about it, and he had just started his first black metal project, and I was like – “we should do a split!” and after we found a home for that, I was kind of hooked, and recorded like 8 releases in a handful of months.

What made you want to step out of the shadows, so to speak, and let everyone know you were behind Threshing Spirit?

Frankly, I was proud enough of the releases to want to share them. I had put a lot of time and energy into the project, especially this LP. And also Calvin Cushman’s artwork was so damn good. He’s been extremely supportive of my music and endeavors in black metal. Actually I’ve found a ton of support in the black metal community overall – very kind, thoughtful people underneath the hoods.

I mentioned to you once already that I was really surprised, and not in a bad way, at how The Crucible is maybe the prettiest black metal album I’ve ever heard. It really adds to the sprawling, cinematic feel of it. Can you talk a little bit about the narrative inspiration behind The Crucible?

There’s crossover between the desert, my Zen practice, volume, the cosmos, and storytelling. At the center is interconnection, persistence, and scale – I think about the grains of sand in Death Valley and the stars in the sky, and get an unnerving but pleasant feeling of continuity. I’m happy to be a cog.

In September and October 2020, I went through the worst depressive episode of my life, and could not stop thinking about death. I wanted to find spiritual truths, but so many things people sell are snake oil – the only thing that made sense to me was Buddhism, as it doesn’t require the suspense of science nor does it proclaim irrational beliefs. As I became more interested in that, Zen began to have a place in my daily life.

I don’t think I can create music or art without these themes involved. The Crucible is about survival in the face of extreme conditions, but also nods to classic Spaghetti Westerns with its clean guitar intros, outros, and other passages – it’s not unlike the cowboy riding in and out of town at the bookends of a movie. That was intentional. I’ve always loved those kinds of movies – the whole Mexican side of my family is into cowboy/vaquero attire. I’ve got a couple Stetsons and a number of cowboy boots. I grew up watching Clint Eastwood movies like Pale Rider, Unforgiven, and – obviously – the Dollars trilogy with my dad before getting into acid westerns like Jodorowsky. All of those were central signifiers to The Crucible.

There’s also tenuous connections to your last solo record, Sand Like Stardust, especially with some of the desert vibes on the cover and things like that. In what ways did you try to draw these connections to the two records?

From the outset, the themes are very similar – the desert and the cosmos. While The Crucible is less about cowboys and more about desert life and ecosystem, it does use some signifiers from that mythology. It’s about the adaptations life has to make in the desert in order to survive, persevering through the dark dips and lulls. Sonically, outside of the parts where I’m shrieking and playing overdriven guitars, the sonics are not all too different. The instrumentation, too, is similar – guitar, vocals, gentle synthesizer.

When I talked to Calvin Cushman who did the album art about the themes of the record, he set to work immediately, and I couldn’t have come up with such a perfect mix of surrealism if I had wanted! He completely nailed it, and also did listen to both Sand Like Stardust and The Crucible while making it. He could not have been more supportive and excited about the record. It made working on it all that much better.

There’s a quote in the album write-up about finding transcendence in pockets of adversity, something I relate heavily to and have experienced at certain times in my life. When did you first start to realize there was this connection between transcendence and misfortune/adversity/etc? Was it a specific experience or anything? I know, for me, having the realization at a particularly bleak time in my life meant a lot and has done a lot for me since…

Great, great question. I would say that the first experience with this I had was at fifteen, mountaineering through the Elk Mountains in Colorado. It was a group backpacking trip, and at one point we rappelled off a 300 foot cliff – I had never rappelled before, and so you have to begin by just leaning off the back of a cliff, keeping one hand below the carabiner you’re using to create friction. If you hold above, it doesn’t slow your descent. Anyway, so I lean off the cliff, and start jumping down, descending, and all of a sudden I just forget what I’m doing, and let go with my hand below the carabiner. At that point, I start freefalling just straight down – probably 100 to 150 feet. I forget that my hand needs to hold below and with both hands reach up and tighten around the rope, which instead of slowing me down, burns a deep notch into both hands across my palms. About fifty feet from the ground, someone already down yells “Below the carabiner! Below!” Then I remember, and hit the brake, coming to an immediate stop maybe thirty feet away from being dead. Later in that trip, after having summited a 14k foot mountain, we were going to sleep in the middle of a storm – I was filling a nalgene with hot water to keep at the base of my sleeping bag, which would warm me through the night. Lightning touched down not 15 feet from me, and I went completely blind for a couple minutes. Since I was on this tall ass mountain, I needed to sit down lest I wander off a cliff.

Those moments without sight, and those thinking I was about to die were thrilling in a fucked up way – I touched something, you know? Something beyond. I’ve had many experiences like this throughout my life, and am always trying to find more. You can reach it through volume, through creation, through tedium. But there is this necessity to move through to reach the transcendent, the beyond. I don’t think it’s required to be something specifically dangerous or potentially harmful, but that is one way to find magic.

I feel this deep in my bones, but you get at something at the end that, I think, can be a difficult edge to walk. How do you continue searching for that magic, for that feeling, without completely putting yourself over the edge and going too far? Or is that inherent risk part of it?

I have a lot of self-destructive ideas haha, and thankfully I don’t act on most of them. I chased the dragon through drink and drugs when I started to imbibe chemicals around 18, and frankly I did get close to death a number of times – just doing really dumb things. I got sober when I was 23, and have kept that lifestyle, but I am still fascinated by sublimity and extremity. I don’t think magic is necessitated by coming close to death, but it’s certainly one way to do it. I think pushing the limits of your body can be done in relatively safe ways, but I oscillate between wanting to be very safe and taking chances. I used to be into olympic lifting when I was 21-23, but I snapped both of my labra doing max overhead squats – never got surgery, so there are a lot of overhead motions I can’t do like most people. The way I practiced that was controlled, but very dumb, plus no one should be trying to snatch (lifting from floor to above your head in one motion) up a barbell at the max weight unless you’re actually competing – just a useless exercise. I had this idea over the summer that I needed to climb Mount Everest – just an idea – but I do think some mountaineering will be in my future. Would love to climb some 20k mountains – Denali and Kilimanjaro. Eventually something in the Himalayas would be amazing. I’m also training for my first marathon that will happen in November. I had to stop running for a long, long time due to back and knee injuries, but I’m doing all right these days. Already I’m starting to feel like 26 miles doesn’t go far enough, and am thinking to do 50k and 50 mile runs after.

But to get back to your question, infinity goes in two directions – the massively big and the massively small, and like that, I think you can search for it internally as much as you can through an external experience. Some of the things I like to do for those internal experiences are meditation, sensory deprivation tanks, and with my Zen practice, reading and engaging with Buddha ancestors.

There’s also another way that touches both the external and the internal for me, which is the metta prayer, a buddhist prayer of lovingkindness I say before bed every night and before meditation. I repeat “May I be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to me. May no problems come to me. May no difficulty come to me. May I always meet with success. May I also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties, challenges, and failures in life.” Then I move from myself to my wife, using her as the subject of the prayer, then I go to family, then friends, then people indifferent to me, then enemies, even, then all living beings. Before I meditate, I repeat it with seven sets of subjects, but before bed it can go into the dozens, maybe even a hundred repetitions if I take a long time to fall asleep. It’s a great way to send myself off to the land of nod, and a good practice to engage in compassion.

How do you express that feeling in your music?

Pretty much with all of my music under any guise, I am trying to invoke the cosmos and the natural world, which expresses that feeling more than anything I could come up with. In new recordings under my own name, I am using bass guitar, feedback, and orchestrated drone to get there, not to mention lyrics that are pretty much about breaking through to the other side – whatever that other side is. Every practice, tradition, ritual I have is dedicated to that. In my black metal, which is a bit more sparse in instrumentation, I try to create psychedelic, triumphant guitar layers – to me, they signify a liberation of some sort, backgrounded by more repetitive sonic motifs. The pieces I’ve made since The Crucible have been the split with Glass Coffin and a split with Anti-God Hand – both of these feature long Threshing Spirit songs. The Glass Coffin one has an 11 minute song called “Cloaked In Ash,” which is psychedelic and plodding, and the Anti-God Hand track is a full side length track that’s also a bit transcendental. As I move forward, I’m more interested in long, drawn-out black metal songs. I have this idea of the next record to be either one song or two side-length songs. We’ll see what happens. They will be bigger, more orchestrated, heavier.

Back to discovering and listening to a ton of black metal, so this tends to come up every little while, and not just with black metal, but there’s a subset of bands and artists that overtly (and less overtly, actually) promote fascist, white supremacist ideologies. You also have a sub label focused on black metal and extreme music, so clearly you are deep down the rabbit hole with this stuff… first, when you were getting into black metal and buying tons of tapes, etc. did you have any kind of thought process on how to approach, or avoid, that side of the genre? And second, as your knowledge of it has grown, has your thought process or approach to that side of it changed at all?

This is a great question. When I got into black metal in like 2011, major outlets like Pitchfork and Stereogum were still covering a lot of dodgy – some straight up NSBM, even – artists – Burzum, Satanic Warmaster, Absurd – and the mysterious guy hardcore scene was also trying really hard to be as sketchy, filthy as possible without crossing the line. Tons of bands got in trouble for this – a number of which are now on big indie labels and have issued apologies/recantations of earlier behaviors. That’s not a dig on them – everyone’s growing up, everyone’s learning. But you play stupid games, win stupid prizes. Personally, when I was getting into the stuff, I never knew there was anything called NSBM – I didn’t know anyone who had those sorts of beliefs or thought it was cool to lean into it. I thought people were trying to be “evil” in the sense of horror movies, not in the sense of glorifying inequality.

Well, eventually you start to realize like…wait a minute, this shit is real or in the case that it’s not real, it still is actualizing real shit – some kid is seeing it and thinking it’s okay. It’s strange – like I wonder if anyone or any outlet introduced more kids to NSBM than Pitchfork circa 2010? But at the time, the zeitgeist said it was more beneficial to get the props for working with “difficult” art, and now it’s more beneficial to not, so a lot of folks who were curating those spaces have a lot of soul searching to do, and I think in a lot of cases it’s being done – in others, it’s just a cosmetic absolution because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

So, yes, unfortunately I did realize that some bands I was into were made by bad, or at least stupid, people, and then have subsequently sold those records, but luckily it never has affected anything I’ve released. I talk to all the artists on ADEC about qualities the label embodies and how I don’t have any time for this NSBM shit or predatory behavior, and I have absolutely no problem pulling a release in case I come across something nefarious.

There’s an increasing knowledge and awareness in the black metal community that that stuff is lame, too, or at least features a massive cognitive disconnect – like seriously, someone professing how elite, dangerous, and self-reliant they are, and then you find out they’re working at 7-eleven or Whole Foods because they get *great* benefits. Or like someone makes “uncompromising” black metal but can’t use their real name in the project because their in-laws might find out – come the fuck on…that’s the epitome of compromise, and – even worse – embarrassing. I just can’t deal with the second-hand embarrassment of listening to an act that takes their edginess that seriously in the least serious subgenre of music.

What’s next for American Decline?

I just submitted tapes for the next batch, which will be Anti-God Hand’s X, a split between Katabasilisk and Kneipgeist, the debut from Canada melodic black metal band Kingsrot, and our first power electronics release Bulletin by Terence Hannum’s Axebreaker project. I’ve also got a bunch of LPs in production right now at the plant – the second LP from Void Wraith, a mysterious entity from the Pacific Northwest, a split between Hellgoat and Glass Coffin, the new Glass Coffin LP. We’re also reissuing Anti-God Hand’s Wretch on wax, and I’ve got a split with Anti-God Hand that I need to submit to the plant soon, too.

What are you looking forward to most in the next year?

Honestly, I’m doing fewer releases across all the labels – I think I did like 60 all in this year, and that was too much. I definitely wore myself out to a degree that is not sustainable, and I’m looking forward to not being run quite so ragged next year, and focus on my own creative work a bit more. I’ve mostly finished my next LP under my own name, which is almost doom metal – it’s just a massive, droney album that’s all about heaviness in every context. I’m about done tracking, and soon it’s going to be mixed. It’ll be the first album of mine that I don’t mix myself, and I’m very grateful for that. Mariusz Lewandowski did the artwork, and it’s so fucking incredible. I cannot wait to share it. It’s my best work ever, and I’m eager to get deep in the packaging zone with it, too.

Also, I just started painting, and I LOVE it, so I cannot wait to get further enmeshed into that practice. I’ve realized that I can enjoy music profoundly while painting, more so than if I’m doing mailorder or some other tedious task, even. So it’s a win all around!

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