DRAWING DOWN THE DARK: An interview with Darkthrone cover artist Chadwick St. John
To enter the eldritch world of American fantasy artist Chadwick St. John is to be lead down a particularly spine-tingling and chilling path, deep into those primeval vistas sprung from the most nightmarish of legends, where the sinister branches of enchanted forests drip with dread and nightmarish figures cavort across dusky wastes. The sumptuous Gothic iconography of witches and crows, skulls and graveyards, night terrors and fanged bestial demons, depicted using a combination of swirling brushstrokes, spiky lines of ink and laborious etching, is executed with an exquisite level of detail and is reminiscent of the demented dreamscapes born of the lunatic mind of fairy painter Richard Dadd. Using mostly charcoal and pen for his work, Chadwick’s ominous shades of black and grey craft a smoky phantasmagoria born of the eeriest of imaginings.
Chadwick has recently gained recognition due to his latest collaboration with none other than the majestic Darkthrone. The long-established and much esteemed Norwegian black metal duo have chosen ‘Shepherd of the Deep’, a brilliant work of twisted, pastoral fantasia, to feature as the artwork on their latest acclaimed album ‘Old Star’. A match made in hell, this grim vision of stygian anguish perfectly encapsulates the hoar-frosted sublimity of the music. Although this latest joint venture has afforded Chadwick some long overdue appreciation, he has been plying his trade for a few years now. As a cacophony of Independence Day shotguns and fireworks echoed around him, Dark Matter were treated to an illuminating discussion with the artist about his work, his partnership with Darkthrone and the odd ways certain universal concepts manifest themselves in completely different forms of art.
Although many of his images seem lifted from the dark fables of the past, Chadwick is keen to stress that he doesn’t take his influence directly from folklore. Disturbingly, many of his strangest fancies are sprung from the murkiest corners of his own singularly weird mind. ‘I would say I seldom use elements of folklore specifically… only occasionally, and even then, I take some great liberties as an artist.’ Yet Chadwick acknowledges that certain archetypes, and a sense of a deep-rooted, ancestral memory and culture, might also be at play. ‘I would say much of my art IS folklore and mysticism. Everything we see and touch is, at first, THOUGHT. I am sure there are deep-rooted archaic forms none of us ever escape, and there are instinctual Nordic/Germanic elements that affect my work as well. With mysticism, it is learning to see clearly with crossed eyes.’ Many black metal musicians, who often tap into this rich heritage for inspiration, would agree with these sentiments, and in this the pairing of Chadwick’s art with Darkthrone’s music feels even more fitting.
It was the record company that first alerted Darkthrone to Chadwick’s considerable talents as an artist. ‘I would like to make sure I mention and thank Paul Groundwell who runs Peaceville Records," the artist observes thoughtfully. 'It was Paul who brought my work up again to Darkthrone for the album ‘Old Star’. He was the curator of things here and a most distinguished gentleman.’ In fact, the piece had actually been completed several years before the band decided to use it for their album. ‘The cover artwork ‘Shepherd of the Deep’ was created in 2011. It was sent to Peaceville Records along with other art in 2011. Paul, having such great insight and taste, kept it around for years, and then decided to show it to the fellows of Darkthrone again when art was needed for ‘Old Star’. It was what they were looking for…obviously, it is naturally synergetic with the band!’
‘Old Star’ is not Chadwick’s first collaboration project. ‘I have been around a while - since the 90s. I have created album covers, art for magazines, film storyboards/production design, music, tattoos, occult books, and graphic novels.’ Indeed, other bands within the metal genre have noted the synergy between paganism, folklore and Chadwick’s idiosyncratic style and sought to utilise his art. ‘I think it was Arckanum that was the first band with the connections: art/mysticism, folk/horror, magic and nature, with this style of music…yet it was all coming more from a specific place in folklore and Nordic mythology when we worked together. Some of the illustrations I created for Arckanum were done in the late 1990s, years before they were released.’
However, for Chadwick, Darkthrone stand above the rest; he is a self-confessed uber-fan, avidly following them since their earliest releases. ‘Darkthrone is one of a few bands that have always had a special place in my life. You cannot compare them to anyone else. I like heavy metal music. I grew up on it. Some of us felt the energy early on…the distortion, atmospheres, guitars and drums...the power. I think this generally hits you when you are a child, and only then if you are lucky.’ Indeed, for him Darkthrone have a mystical, transcendental quality which elevates their music into a realm beyond genre. ‘It was unlike anything else, and still is. Goatlord for example - it wasn’t death metal or black metal to me. The album had a feeling of being recorded in a crypt, with the best percussion you will ever hear in a primitive recording. The songwriting is brilliant, strange, somber and aggressive. It is beautiful. Darkthrone have that sacred origin of frequency…they kept it with them like a glowing jewel, and know when and how to give others a glimpse, if they feel like it. They may not even know how or why, but they do.’ The pairing of Darkthrone with his art was clearly meant to be. ‘It was providence. First, they are the only band I have worked with which I have kept on my shelf over half of my life… and I am not much younger than they. I remember the day I heard the albums Goatlord and Transylvanian Hunger for the first time in mid 1990s. The art I did for Darkthrone and this album ‘Old Star’ in particular, was destined to meet up a long time ago. I am sure of that.’
Darkthrone’s Fenriz describes the new album as ‘BLACK OLD HEAVY METAL, with slow thrash, classic doom and slow death metal’, but Chadwick’s influences are even more eclectic and diverse and he struggles to pin down where exactly where the metal meets his vision. ‘It’s hard to say how music influences the art. I am a musician as well, so it is another part of me. How am I affected? I am not sure, but music has always been in my life, even though, at times it may be extremely limited…classical music, soundtracks, 80s metal, old blues, industrial, Spanish guitar and more. When finishing the art ‘Shepherd of the Deep’ I do remember listening to Darkthrone’s ‘Goatlord’ album in particular, (which is the greatest ‘death metal’ album I ever heard, or listened to…if you contain it in a genre…I do not). I also felt strongly about ‘Ravishing Grimness’ and ‘Total Death’ in addition to their known classics.’ He is deeply honored to have been part of the overall experience for listeners of the album. ‘On the ‘Old Star’ album, Darkthrone have surpassed any limitations anyone could ever put on them…again. It is a master work from beginning to end…the writing, mixing, mastering, production, and performance…everything was perfect on this album, even the promotion. What a bold idea, and great pleasure it was for me to see Darkthrone and Peaceville use my art the way they did…insisting you stare at it for the full length of their ‘Duke of Gloat’ and ‘Hardship of the Scots’ videos.’
As for the concepts and story behind the macabre scene depicted in ‘Shepherd of the Deep’, Chadwick’s insistence that the art both speaks for itself and is open to interpretation is typical of the artistic temperament. ‘There is more than enough context and explanation in the title alone, as well as keys in the details of the art…and certainly the song titles and lyrics. When you listen to this beautiful album, stare at the artwork as well. The main idea behind the art is both obvious, as well as a veiled vessel of expression. I think the album ‘Old Star’ is as well…open to each person on their own journey. The art really does work with this album like magic.’
The process of creating his art is a kind of sorcery in itself. When it comes to the materials he uses for his artwork, there are no limits; his intricate, grey-toned masterpieces are conjured with a diverse range of mediums including ink, charcoal, dirt, ash, fire and smoke. For ‘Shepherd of the Deep’, he used pen, brush, ink, water and Bristol board. Even more impressive, the wizardry he crafts has grown organically without any formal training or reliance on particular artistic methods or techniques - although it has taken a great deal of excruciatingly hard work and dedication to perfect his style. ‘I don’t know about following anything at all really. I only continued on from a child, drawing fantasy and horror, eventually focusing on pen and ink. I loved monsters, wizards, ninjas and heavy metal and I kept focused on my style as it is now, somewhat, from the age of 13. I never went to art school, college, or anything beyond the norm. I honestly struggled through regular school. I never tried to mimic others styles, nor cared to. I am a self-taught artist, but I never learned to teach, so, I am likely a horrible teacher! I allowed myself a slow, sometimes agonising process of development in many areas of life. I have suffered for my art.’
The album cover is reflective of Chadwick’s own unique and original style and yet it also feels distinctly Darkthrone - perfectly expressing the essence of their music. However, this symbiosis is purely happy coincidence and Chadwick did not adapt or amend his style to suit the band. ‘To me, it is a matter of the substance and energy which I share with the band. I cannot help but to be true to my style, as I have no other choice. You must have care for what you do, why you are doing it, and to NOT care about what other people think. However, I am grateful for all those who support me. I am sure Darkthrone and Peaceville not only see this in the art, but feel this themselves.’ At the end of the day, Chadwick is truly grateful for the band’s use of his art in our morally bankrupt times. ‘What Darkthrone and Peaceville did with my art…pairing it with the best metal we all could ask for in this new age of cheap technology, mind control and empty souls, is honorable and rewarding beyond my expectations. They went all in for me, in every way, and they did not have to. This is the most impacting album I have heard from any metal band in long time.’ As for what’s next, Chadwick is teasingly elusive. ‘There is always something happening. As usual, I can’t give much detail at all on any projects too early. I hope to mention something soon. I am happy there are people that love and understand this music, and care about my art.’ His last thoughts? ‘Do, think and create the things you desire to see, hear and feel in life now, and again when you wake up after you die.’