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"I punched Maniac on the very day I signed Mayhem." (Season of Mist) [Skype interview, 2018]

Mayhem. You don't find that many extreme metal bands that trigger so many images in our imagination. They were at the epicenter of a musical mouvement radical enough to gain full attention in the mainstream media, to the point that their actions are still debated to this day. Even Hollywood had to produce its take on this story, much to Necrobutcher's displeasure. How did the most important Norwegian Black Metal band end up on Season of Mist, a French label that was basically unknown at the time and are still working with them to this day. How can such an unstable band be so stable ? This is what we had to ask to Michael Berberian, founder of the label.

Mayhem circa Chimera

Do you remember how you discovered Mayhem?

Michael Berberian (Season of Mist) : Well, I got into black metal through a bunch of friends who made me discover this music, in 92/93. It was around that time that I also programmed a Samael gig. So it was before the release of De Mysteriis [Dom Sathanas], right in the golden era of tape trading.

Did you get to know Euronymous and Dead?

No, Dead had already died [sic]. I did not have the opportunity to communicate directly with Euronymous, although he travelled once in the south of France, around Marseille, he stayed at Alex's place (Agressor). He stayed with him for a while, and that's why there is a profusion of Deathcrush LPs in the South of France altough it's one of the rarest records in black metal. Euronymous came with a lot of vinyls and the entire Agressor team, Mutilated, the old French death metal bunch was very close to him. I got involved in the scene right after that.

How did you manage to sign Mayhem

When I started releasing records in 1995, I did that in my dorm room. I slept under the boxes. It started getting a bit bigger after three/four years with small releases like ... and OceansBloodthorn, etc. In 1999, when I asked myself the question whether I should do this as my main job or not, I decided to go for it. And then, I knew that I had to try to sign bigger bands. There were two bands I approached at the same time. I remember clearly, I was on my way to Dynamo Open Air by car and I was negociating with both bands. The first one was Nocturnus, the legendary tech death band from Earache records. We released the album Ethereal Tomb, which is unfortunately not really good actually. And the second one was Mayhem. It was a pretty peculiar negotiation since I had released what was then the first French black metal CD ever : Les Blessures de l'Âme by Seth. [EN: Even though they weren't actually out on the market, Les Légions Noires had unleashed their beasts before that.] I had been friends with the band for a while and they went on holiday in Norway. And there, they went to the legendary Elm's Street pub, where everyone was hanging out among the black metal scene at the time. The singer of Seth called me and said, "Necrobutcher is right next to me. ". I instantly told him : "Pass him your phone! ". So he passed his phone to Necrobutcher, even though he hadn't even said hello to him. He told Necrobutcher that someone wanted to talk to him. And so I got Necrobutcher on the phone and I said, "Listen, you don't even know who I am, but I heard you're currently recording a new album. I'm the owner of a French label and I try to get started by all possible means so I'll make you a very simple offer. If you have plane tickets in your mailbox in a couple of days, will you come to Marseille to talk to me? " Then there's this silence, I didn't know if he was about to insult me or just hang up on me. And then a moment that somewhat changes my life happened, since he answered me straight, without saying hello or anything: "I like people who have balls. Do it.". So I sent him the plane tickets, without even making an offer or anything, he just went down to Marseille to meet. I know he got in contact there with Hammerheart, Nuclear Blast, all the labels, everyone wanted Mayhem at the time. I invited him for a meal at the restaurant and I got to discuss with him for an evening and a whole day. And things go well, he likes me, he sees that I'm dying to do launch my label. I was young at the time, about 25 years old and I had just dropped out of university along the way. We started talking about money, and I promised him things that I absolutely didn't have. I didn't even have the very first penny I promised him, but anyway. My idea was that even if I signed Mayhem for too much money, it would kickstart me so much that I would catch up afterwards. This is a little like the economic strategy in haute couture: Dior or Chanel don't earn money organizing their fashion shows, they even lose some, but it allows them to sell perfumes afterwards. I told myself that it would launch the label, and help me get out of the underground, even though it was quite viable at the time. But I always had the idea to be a little bigger, to do things well. In France, there was the golden era of labels like Osmose, Adipocere, Holy Records and they always were a little limited in their growth, either because they did not have quite the organization, or because they did not feel like it. I definitely felt like it, I wanted to do things on an almost industrial level. So it meant signing large bands, seducing them somewhat, and making sacrifices! So I sold something to Jorn [Necrobutcher], who believed me and gave me a chance. He really took a bet, saying « OK, we're going on a label that nobody knows. » Firstly, because the financial offer was good, and then because he really understood that I was betting everything on him. It was a phenomenal gamble for me and I don't know if he had realized that I just didn't have that money. So we made a deal and I had to find cash. So I had to sell everything I owned, everything. I left my apartment to go back to my parents, I sold my car, I sold all my vinyl collection while I owned everything notable in black metal, all the stuff you see at 1500 bucks on ebay today. And I sold them for nothing here and there. I called everyone I knew, like Christian from Adipocère, whom I greet by the way. I told him that I was going to release the new Mayhem album and that he had two choices: he could either pay 40 for it now, or it would be 50 at the release. I got advances around like that, I kept every coin I managed to save at the time. See, I don't come from a rich family, I could not count on my parents, my father was living on welfare and my mother was disabled so it was not propitious at all for me. All the banks slammed their doors to my face, telling me that I was crazy and that it would be a failure. Well, I did it, through trust and thanks to the other French labels that supported me, especially Adipocere, Displeased and a few other. With this and the little distro that I had, I managed to fund the thing somehow.

Then comes the signature episode. The chronology is as follows: Necrobutcher came to Marseille and accepted my offer. Several phone calls later, we agreed on the amounts. And I had to sign the contract with them at their first concert in France by giving them a part of the advance. It was in 1999, Fred Chouesne (Garmonbozia) was organizing his first festival in France. (link) The bill was : Mayhem, Nile, Cryptopsy, Vader, Enslaved, and others, a hell of a line-up, which almost looked like a gifted drummers contest, a fucking good festival ! So I went to Rennes. Keep in mind Garmonbozia was barely starting shows at the time, we were in a Formula 1 motels, not a four-star palace at all ! And that's where we signed the contract, a few hours before their gig. And this concert was the first test, I truly began to understand what I got involved in after that. All the bands played and it went really well. Now it was Mayhem's turn. Maniac was completely drunk on stage with his knives, he came pretty close to wounding people in the audience. They ended their set in absolute provocative mode with a Dead Kennedys cover [EN: It was actually "No Feelings" by the Sex Pistols]. And there, Maniac returned backstage with his knives, he wasn't just in a daze, he was way beyond that ! Then he started breaking stuff and throwing it on the walls. At one point, he grabbed a sort of big jar of jam and failed to throw it on the electric switchboard. At that point, I started shouting at him like  "Stop, you're gonna short-circuit the whole building! Don't be stupid.'' There was broken glass everywhere on the floor, the guy was in his underpants out of the shower and got himself a huge shard of glass in the foot. There was blood everywhere, he wiped the blood with his hand, he looked at it, looked at me and wiped his hand full of blood on my face !! So I did what I had to do, i got up and punched him in the face. So you sign a band one day and three hours later, you're forced to punch the singer ! Then I remembered that Hellhammer and the others were there, watching what was going on. Hellhammer, big guy, who at the time was even more muscular than today, we're talking something that happened twenty years ago, he was at the height of his physical form. He walked to me and said ''You've just earned our respect!'' And he left the room. There you have it, that's the signature of Mayhem: blood on my face, got on a fight and a member of the band who didn't defend his singer, but instead told me that I did what was needed!
Then comes the retrieval of the master in 2000. I went to Sweden to give them the biggest part of the advance, because Mayhem wanted to be paid cash and they did not want to be paid in Norway and get caught by customs. So I handed them a big case of cash in Gothenburg and they gave me the Grand Declaration of War master that I immediately listened. The A side was normal, and the B side was the big surprise, with all the fairly adventurous industrial / techno elements. I fell in love with it immediately, because in addition to being a metalhead, I have a big goth / indus background and I have always been connected with art. And I was very happy to have an album that was going to be a challenge artistically speaking, from the start, my first big album was a risky album. Mayhem left with the money and managed to bury it in the forest, to be able to recover it little by little by car afterwards, without being nailed by the customs. They did it the Mayhem way, as usual, in a very punk fashion. At the time, I don't even know if you could travel with so much money in Europe, even with Schengen. It was very risky, it was the first time in my life that I saw so much cash with my own eyes, at the time. Anyway, it was quite fun overall and this signing completely put our career out there. We made a lot of mistakes afterwards, we are all human, but it was an absolutely beautiful kickoff.

Did Grand Declaratinon of War sell well from the beginning?

The album worked quite well. It got a lot of flak at the time because it was very adventurous. We have a new version of the album coming out on 7th December, with a complete remix / remaster and when I listen to it, I think that it hasn't really aged, compared to the rest. De Mysteriis dom Sathanas is timeless but I think that Deathcrush has aged and Chimera has aged a little bit too. This is not the case for Grand Declaration of War, which for me is the album that represents Maniac in all his madness, while Ordo ad Chao is centered on Blasphemer and Attila and Chimera is really a Blasphemer release with its cold, clinical side. Grand Declaration is all about this kind of crazy general taking over Mayhem. It's a beautiful album.

Still, many people were skeptical about Mayhem playing without Euronymous.

[Sigh] You know, we still get those people telling us that "Mayhem died after Dead", "Mayhem died with Euronymous". I'll just say that Blasphemer has been Mayhem's best guitarist, fair and simple, there's no doubt. When they hired this kid, because he was a kid when he joined the band, I think he was the only one who could replace Euronymous, who had written De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, an album that will go down in history, just like Nevermind The Bollocks or the first Lou Reed LP. This album is the icon of an era, it is untouchable. Who knows what he would have written after that! The trilogy of albums with Blasphemer and the madness that surrounds this band, this kind of punk side like "we never do anything nice, we do everything as we want, we will be a band that will reinvent itself with each album. We'll take five years to put out each record and it will sound differently, we don't do it like Marduk !'' See what I mean ? Even without Euronymous, it's still a fucking interesting band artistically speaking. On stage, there were times when they were pathetic and others when they were great, they always had frontmen with incredible charisma. I was talking about it with Jorn [Necrobutcher] the other day, Mayhem is bigger than the sum of its individual members. There is some kind of a mystical aura around them, which means that when you join the band, you feel a kind of pressure to be even crazier than you were before. I think the live line-up they have now is perhaps the best they ever had. We're waiting for Teloch's first real album, when he'll really be able to let go and be himself. I'm curious to hear that, to see if there will really be a Mayhem Version III. You have Mayhem I which in a way invented black metal with De Mysteriis dom Sathanas. The second Mayhem with Blasphemer gives birth to Grand Declaration of War and Ordo ad Chao, two fucking artistic statements. Then there's the third version where we feel that the band really still has something to give, but we're waiting for the masterpiece and we didn't get it yet. I think they are working on it as we speak, I can't wait.

So is Grand Declaration of War Mayhem's biggest commercial success on Season of Mist?

Yes, because it came out at a time when we were at the end of the CD golden age. It is more accessible than Ordo [ad Chao] and Chimera is a much colder album, despite having very good tracks! So yes, it was a big success, I think even maybe the biggest success in the history of the label because at the time, CD sales were incredibly bigger. Today, we would have to add the digital figures to get a solid basis for comparison. And I saw Mayhem playing in front of 80 people when we released Ordo ad Chao, when they really were at their lowest in terms of popularity. Today, the phoenix has risen from the ashes and fills big venues again. So I followed them during these twenty years, signing Mayhem is still the moment when we knew that Season would be our job for the rest of our lives. It allowed us to sign a lot of other bands after that, even though we had a kind of « empty » period after Mayhem for six to eight years, when we signed Carpathian ForestMacabre, smaller acts should I say. Unfortunately, it gave us a black metal label image that still sticks to our skin to this day even though it's not true. And after that,  we had a revival at the end of the 2000s / beginning of the 2010s when we signed CynicDillinger Escape Plan, Kylesa, the Morbid Angel disaster, Saint Vitus, Solstafir, Watain... We signed groups from all walks of life and we try to give this color to Season: it's a label that has black metal roots which stll promotes Destroyer 666, Revenge, Mayhem or Watain, but we also do much more artistic things like Solstafir, Crippled Black Phoenix, Esben and The Witch, Mark Deutrom... If Nuclear Blast and Napalm, and I don't say that as a diss, are the Hollywood of metal, we try to be Sundance, the ones who will take the most chances artistically on what we sign, we try to be like Profound Lore but on a larger scale.

Were there times when you felt that the band could have gone completely off the rails or even split? I was also going to ask you if there ever were tensions with you, but you somehow already answered, since on the very first day, you had to punch Maniac!

Yeah, I have to say he was really drunk as Maniac is not someone I could normally punch without getting punched myself. Of course,I had arguments with every member of the band, for one reason or another. But there has never been a moment when the connection almost got cut between them and us. There were times when they had very big offers and I said, "Do it! Go ahead, you can't refuse that!" But the offer was so good that obviously, the label imploded along the way, it was sold and ceased to exist so it was indeed a stratagem. And that's why we ended up being together for twenty years. There have been ups and downs but in general, I think the relationship between Mayhem and me is based on respect and honesty. They tested me dozens of times, they saw that they had been paid and they know they can trust me. There is this sentence in English that says "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't." I think I've become the devil they know. They may consider a label as a necessary evil but they know we are the ones they can trust the most. Regarding tensions within the band, there have always been some, always. Mayhem is a band that naturally dysfunctions. It's a band where you always have fights, where you have strong individualities. Yes, there was the moment when they fired Maniac for his alcohol problems and it was very bad. Yes, Jorn Necrobutcher is unbearable sometimes. Yes, Hellhammer has his vices and his attitude, he just does not care about anything. Yes, at one point, Blasphemer could not take it anymore, he stopped communicating with everybody and you can feel it on Ordo ad Chao, these were musicians that hated each other. They could not have done it with a good vibe in the band. I think that dysfunction is at the heart of Mayhem's story, it has never been a long calm river and it may never be. That being said, today, the band is the most functional than ever but it remains still a hell of a mess compared with other big guns that we have, which are super organized entities.

Mayhem circa Grand Declaration of War

Personally, I think Blasphemer is a genius. When I interviewed him last year, he told me he had written Grand Declaration of War in his head, during long walks in Olso. Bands all have their way of working but I have never heard of anyone writing music this way, even more for an album like Grand Declaration of War.

That doesn't surprise me. You know, he's a very good guitarist, a great artist but he has a flaw. It's someone I love so I've been lugging his projects for years: we did Ava Inferi and now Earth Electric. And each time he comes to me and says : "I bring you an album and that's it, I'm going to do a mainstream thing, you'll see, it'll be rock, it'll be good and catchy." And every time, it's super complicated ! I think it's someone who is so complex in his head that when he has to write things like Ordo ad Chao or Grand Declaration of War, that is what comes naturally to him. When he has to come up with riffs in 4/4 to tap your foot to, it's not him, he can't do it. That's what I've been trying to explain him for a while, and that's why Ava Inferi and Earth Electric don't do well... Because he doesn't have this kind of rythm&blues fiber somehow, he couldn't write a Motörhead song, see what I mean ? In Aura Noir, he is helped, it is a team work.

And by his own admission, it's not really his band.

That's also true. In fact, Blasphemer was born to write complex negative riffs and in that context he sounds like himself and no one else. And that's why I insisted and immediately helped his idea for Vltimas. This project started when he told me "Ten years after Ordo ad Chao and the end of my career with Mayhem, I would like to write an extreme album again." He had touched it a bit with Nader Sadek but again, it was not his band, it was directed, commissioned. He told me he wanted to do it with Flo [Mounier of Cryptopsy fame]. I knew David Vincent from Morbid Angel and he did too, they wanted to work together. I pushed all the pieces a little bit and aligned the stars for that to happen. I trusted them and gave them a budget. And the Vltimas album we're going to put out is ... [Sigh] Well, it's dynamite. It really is. I can't wait for the world to listen to it because it's fucking good. So I'm very happy to have supported him and yes, he is meant to write stuff like that, not Earth Electric. But hey, I had several tough discussions with him about that, that's how it is.

Some dream to see Mayhem in a "Maiden" line-up, whith three guitarists and the return of Blasphemer, maybe just for a concert or a tour. Could it happen?

It's not planned at all but it almost happened. Mayhem did a concert in Oslo where they invited many former members like Maniac or Mannheim. It couldn't happen with Blasphemer. There are still a lot of broken bridges between him and Necrobutcher, him and Hellhammer. Never say never, I think it could happen someday. Similarly, I did not think they would play with Maniac again but they did last year for this concert in Oslo and for another one in Sweden. I think Attila already had commitments with Sunn o))). For the first time he could not do it so they took Maniac and he was very good both times. But I would say that for now, Mayhem are working on their next album and Blasphemer is working on Vltimas, which I think will take off well. They do not need it. If one day, they need it, maybe it will happen but it is not the case for now.

You previously stated that Season of Mist releases a remixed and remastered version of Grand Declaration of War. Who got the idea first ?

I did. Because the engineer did not want to do it, same for Hellhammer and Necrobutcher. Again I pushed all the pieces a bit, because it's a long-term job with them. I searched and found the masters, we had them "cooked", a restoration process for analog tapes. There are firms specialized in this for masters of classical music from the sixties. Basically there's a problem with the glue, which deteriorates the magnetic tape, so you have to cook the tape at a certain temperature in a controlled atmosphere with a certain humidity for hours, to melt the glue and quickly perform a digital transfer right after that. It is a risky operation that can completely damage the tape or it can go well. We did it with Jaime Gomez-Arellano (studio engineer for Ulver, Solstafir, Paradise Lost...). Necrobutcher was the least enthusiastic about this project. When I told Hellhammer that we were going to rework the drum sound, he was interested but wanted to do it himself. So we sent him to work with Jaime and it went very well. They spent two days fixing everything! There were a lot mishaps on the recording of this album, double triggers everywhere, it just wasn't the same level of technology. At the time, they did the drums with ADAT, which has a terrible sound. So basically, Jaime and Hellhammer went full Sherlock Holmes to study every hit on the drums and found a sound that satisfied everybody. We made a kind of compromise on the sound, which makes it good while keeping the original atmosphere, but giving a more organic side to the drums, less plastic. And Necrobutcher, over time, came to accept the idea, when I showed him artworks. I told him that his album was 20 years old, that even Pink Floyd and the Beatles remastered their albums. It's not a bad thing, it's not going to hurt your credibility, you're not committing a crime. The other three members found the project interesting. I provided the artwork, we had to pay three artists before finding one on which everybody agreed, which is this kind of Christ in a Leonardo da Vinci style, which is in front of the ruins of Christianity, a very esoteric piece, a bit religious, something Mayhem had never done before, with that kind of dead dove in his arms. I know that people haven't reacted well to this new artwork at the beginning, I find it fabulous. It looks like a medieval piece from the Quattrocento! It's Glyn Smyth, known to have worked on the SubRosa artworks, who did that. I think this guy is really, really talented. In short, the album no longer has this Duracell rabbit side that I could not stand anymore, the album revives, got modernized. And you see, this album could come out today, with this sound, and it would still be good.

And what was Blasphemer's feeling about the project, knowing that he composed the album?

He agreed from the start when I mentioned the idea. He was like : "Yes, yes! Thank you, we will finally be able to redo this drum sound! We will correct that! ". Maniac was enthusiastic but said he would not rerecord any vocals, saying he could not do better than his original performance. So we had to completely recover the original vocal parts. For the rest, it's basically fixing the drum parts, for guitars, you should talk with Gomez-Arellano, but I don't think there is any change.

What was your best Mayhem concert and when did you see them for the last time?

[sigh] The craziest? See the Necrobutcher interview given for the documentary A Headbanger's Journey? It was when they played Wacken in 2004, that concert. Maniac played with his knives and playing with his pigs heads. He tried to throw and plant the knife on the stage ground, but the blade bounced and he got his hand cut open, really deeply. Blood started to spill pretty bad on stage and instead of doing what you and I would have done: stopping and running quickly to the hospital to get stitched, he ended the show like that. And that drove him crazy. He was losing blood, it both irritated and excited him. And then, the whole band felt that something was happening, probably the most vicious Mayhem concert I've ever seen. After their set, Maniac fainted, as he had lost too much blood. It was Gunnar Sauermann (former journalist now working at Wacken) who drove him to the hospital. He got sewed, came back and got fucked up. What the hell ?? Necrobutcher got angry, out of his mind, because they all were in a daze. And he did this interview with Sam Dunn where he insulted everybody! I was sitting there right out of the frame, you can see Blasphemer sitting next to him, holding his head, like "Damn, but what the fuck is he doing? ". But Blasphemer was losing it too, he was no longer able to speak. And I was there, in fits of laughter, thinking to myself : "Damn, it's fantastic! This will become legendary. ". They also had done a some of quiz test just before. They were playing against Satyricon and Mayhem had won because a journalist had spun them the answers in advance. Satyr was enraged ! That day was insane : drugs galore, girls everywhere, Maniac who came back from the hospital and took five shots of Jack to "disinfect".

The last time I saw Mayhem must have been for the Decibel Fest in Philadelphia and I saw them again shortly afterwards at the end of the De Mysteriis tour in Holland. Mayhem is a band that is now working on stage, they work well. Before that, it could be crazy one day and terrible the next day. Nowadays, it is a more qualitative band globally.

In all this long collaboration with Mayhem, are there one or several things that make you proud?

Well in my life, I had the chance to sign what was my favorite black metal band, Mayhem. And I was also able to sign my favorite death metal band, Morbid Angel, although I'm very aware that I did not get a classic. And I had the privilege of signing my second favorite goth band, Christian Death. I was able to work with stars of my personal taste in the three musical genres that defined my existence. So that's an absolute pride. Having Mayhem for twenty years trains a man! You get more magnitude, you learn to say no, how to cope with bullshit, conflicts, lots of stuff. And now that we're a label that managed to dig its hole, I somewhat think I could have never done it without the Mayhem experience. It was my training on the job, an insane poker strike, but winning !

Finally, I guess you could tell us funny stories about Mayhem for hours. Do you have one for us?

I spent a day with Maniac when he told me all the bullshit they did back then. It goes to impossible levels, stratospheric levels. [sigh] There is this one time where I was not present, Maniac told me the story. This was on the day before they did the Mediolanum Capta Est live album. There was Roberto of Avantgarde Music who made them taste grappa, saying "You Norwegians don't know how to drink, we will make you  have a taste of that! ". And Maniac didn't get it and poured himself water-sized glasses and drank them down like that. And the other dude, instead of calming him, said, ''Get another drink!'' And Maniac gets incredibly drunk. Maniac would have to tell you that in detail because I was laughing over it, but after a while, he started to feel really drunk. So much that he couldn't find the door of the restaurant. So he went through the bay window by breaking it, and then the guys from the restaurant were running after him, while Roberto tried to calm them down. There, he took a taxi to his hotel, which was on the other side of the street, he just had to cross. So the Italian taxi went like "Boy, I'm gonna drive you around the city! ". The taxi drove him all around the city to finish on the sidewalk facing the restaurant. Maniac then went up to his hotel where he shared a room with Blasphemer. Blasphemer was in the room with one or two chicks and told him to fuck off! So he stole another room, took a shower and went to bed. Except he had forgotten to undress to take his shower. The next day he went down for breakfast, and the hotel staff told him that he was fired from the hotel because he had pissed in his bed. And he tried to justify himself by saying "No, I just took a shower dressed! ". In my opinion, there must have been vomit all over the room and they thought he had pissed in the bed. Anyway, on the day he had to do the Mediolanum Capta Est concert, he got fired from the hotel because he had a normal Mayhem party the day before. He crossed a bay window, went around the city drunk in a taxi and is thrown out from his hotel. And there are hundreds of anecdotes like that, largely enough to write a book. It's not Mötley Crue level, but honestly, I've got to know them all in this scene: the Emperors, the Gorgoroths, etc. But no other band in the scene has had so much shit happening to them. They got Molotoves thrown at them, this band is beyond belief, man !

Neredude (Décembre 2018)

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