Alvaro Lillo (Watain, Undercroft, Xalpen)
by Niklas Göransson
This is a tale of remarkable fervour and dedication. Growing up under South American military dictatorship, adherence to the emerging metal scene meant accepting death as part of daily life. From guerrilla warfare in urban settings, to remote rainforests seeking shamanic knowledge; a path of scars where journey’s end meant leaving everything behind.
Presenting Alvaro Lillo; a Chilean national who today resides in Germany, primarily known as live bassist for WATAIN, he also plays in UNDERCROFT and XALPEN. We begin this tale in the early eighties, when a neighbour unwittingly laid the groundwork for an obsession that would come to rule his life up until this day.
– He played rock bands in his house and I’d listen from my garden, stuff like DEEP PURPLE, PINK FLOYD; BLACK SABBATH and RAINBOW. Then I met some older guys who introduced me to IRON MAIDEN, VENOM, METALLICA and SLAYER. ‘This is heavy’, they said, ‘it is the shit’. I was also shown the other side of rock – the fast thing with dark lyrics. That’s where I’ve remained ever since, and I don’t regret a single moment.
In these days, Chile was ruled by a military dictatorship with despot Augusto Pinochet at the helm. The educational system enforced school uniforms and mandatory short-cropped hair.
– Military scum as head teachers when they hadn’t even finished school themselves. As a child, you had to follow the rules even if you hated them – it was normal in this war state. You knew that if you didn’t obey, you’d get a bullet in your fucking head. And when you are kid, you don’t want a bullet in your head.
Alvaro says that he believes his generation of satanic metalheads, the second one, to have been the wildest. His predecessors were three or four years older than him.
– When they saw me – an idiot child, they didn’t say ‘fuck off kid, you asshole’ like today. Instead, they gave me tapes to listen to. I’d see someone on the street and say: Cool patch! Back then, not knowing was nothing to be ashamed of, so he’d explain what band it was. ‘Go on and check it out’.
The emerging metal scene would congregate in the mountains, drinking around bonfires.
– The first time, I got drunk with only one beer but that was not the point. It was a lifestyle completely away from all else. The best thing was the philosophy in it, you know, it was much more than drunken guys just listening to shit – they spoke about things; mysticism and metal.
Curious to know what his favourite bands were singing about, Alvaro taught himself English by translating their lyrics.
– Dictionary in my hands, I translated word by word without understanding the meaning of sentences, until the English started to work in my head by itself.
The most brutal music he was able to get his hands on was contemporary thrash metal, which featured a lot of ‘socially conscious’ themes. He really liked the music but once the lyrics had been deciphered he discovered that they didn’t quite resonate with him.
– I was living in a country that was in a state of war, of course these kinds of lyrics were fitting… you felt it, straight away – yet I always knew this wasn’t for me.
He finally struck gold when discovering some old heavy metal with Spanish lyrics.
– Bands speaking of blasphemy and fuck Christianity in my own language – ones that mixed this rage against society with the profane. Lyrics like; ‘We live at night, we die spilling our blood and fuck virgins and decapitate Jesus, we are the lost ones’ … I was like, ‘Yes! This is who I am’.
Who were these bands?
– A few from South America, the rest were Spanish heavy metal bands. ÁNGELES DEL INFIERNO, BARÓN ROJO – this kind of thing, rock’n’roll with fucked up titles like ‘Shadows in the Darkness’, ‘Cursed is your Name’, ‘Beginning of the End’. Read the lyrics – poetry of fucking blasphemy. Much of it sounded silly in Spanish but some had that evil feeling – lyrics like these with dark and aggressive music, it was fantastic.
He stresses that these heretic allures far transcended simple adolescent fascination with socially tabooed topics.
– Living with that hunger and rage, we had no respect for political or religious authority. The blasphemy was real; they were fought every day on the streets and fields, in catacombs and tombs, from the rivers to deserts where great sorcerers still live. It was a time for honesty, at least for myself – if you claimed to worship death, you really did.
Alvaro notes that there were churches burning on southern soil long before they learned about what was going on in Scandinavia.
– I respected all of these acts. The Christian scum thought themselves untouchable in those days, but we brought them terror.
At the time, metal of any kind was a pretty fringe occurrence in Chile – the big thing was Latin rock.
– I hated it. Those who played this music looked like rockers and sometimes people could say things like ‘You look like the guy from’ … I don’t know, shit band called LOS PRISIONEROS. Then fight, straight away.
In their perpetual hunt for new music, the young metalheads would skulk around the one record shop that dealt with anything heavier than this Latin rock.
– I went there to just watch and listen the whole day. Albums playing all the time – we stayed outside the store and when we heard something interesting, we’d go in to ask what it was.
The prospects of buying a record on your own were laughable at best, so the friends would pool funds.
– ‘Okay – this weekend it’s yours, next weekend it’s mine’. Vinyl gets fucked up real easy so it was fight every Saturday; ‘Who scratched the shit!?‘
The same was done with zines, which would usually pass through at least twenty sets of hands. These publications were the literature equivalent to South American bootlegs.
– Someone got hold of an American or European magazine, like Metal Hammer – from this they made their own fanzine, often hand-written. Translating the shit, usually the entire issue, they copied it in a machine and then sold it cheap.
With ‘cheap’, he means that it only took about four of them to share the cost.
– We’d sit reading it together the whole day and then imagine idiotic things, realising there was another world beyond the Andes Mountains.
Alvaro decided that he must visit these unexplored pastures one day, but knew he had to learn the ways of the world before attempting to tread them.
– The first metal concert I went to was a madhouse; everyone behaving like an aggressive animal in trance, jumping all over the place. Without proper amplifiers it sounded like shit but people were ecstatic. That’s metal, a battlefield. You didn’t go there to kill nobody but we felt like we were in a war, smashing everyone.
As riotous as the thrashing could get, it was the trip to and from the gigs that bore the real peril.
– You’d never know if you’d actually reach the venue, if you did you’d absolutely explode with happiness. Once the show was over you took a big, deep breath; ‘Okay, now comes the way home’, which was even more dangerous. Before each concert I’d say goodbye to my family, not knowing if I was coming back alive or not. The principle was to fight against this shit and set ourselves free.
One might assume that the threat came from some manner of street crime, but it was instead the Carabineros de Chile – the national law enforcement agency.
– It was the fucking police, at any time you could be shot in the street. We were into violent music and they called us enemies of society, the police had to fuck us up. So we fucked the police. Forget church and shit … well, even if I was once able to watch the beautiful flames of a neighbouring church burning down. The police, they were the real bastards.
The local neighbourhood constabulary were the worst of the lot.
– They’d arrest us for no reason and we’d end up in the police station, standing like an asshole. One of my neighbours died in there, from a gas bomb thrown into his cell.
However, the young metalheads refused to break or back down.
– We fought them everywhere – threw Molotov cocktails, put needles and shit under their cars. Our neighbour’s car was also fucked up but the target was the police. I once saw a cop burn to death inside a tank. Sometimes we would meet, smoke weed and make petrol bombs… then go on the back of the police station and throw them. It was total war.
Needless to say, this was a hobby not entirely without hazard.
– Had they caught us doing that they would’ve shot us right there – friends of mine died that way. I was once hit by a rubber bullet, hurt for a fucking month; big purple spot.
Alvaro describes his upbringing as fairly normal for the time being, coming from a working class family. The ones who had it really rough were the poor, who lived in ghettos. This squalor would become his haven, a refuge from harassment.
– There was ‘freedom’; police didn’t dare behave like assholes because of all the seriously bad people.
Instead of harassing small pockets of metalheads, the police assigned to those areas would have their hands full with the general populace.
– Tanks, bombs, shootings, persecution and so on. Despite this, most of the time I felt safer there than in the middle of town. It was good for perspective to see the reality of Pinochet’s rule; an entirely different picture from the lies and bullshit fed to the people by the TV. I saw the real damage that traitors brought to a country they’d sworn to serve.
The massive wealth gap between the country’s social classes had polarised Chilean society, the metal scene being no exception.
– In the late eighties and early nineties there was a class war in metal. We were raised like a pack of wild street dogs; far from the nice houses, in the real terror that was my country at the time. These people from safe upbringings had no right calling themselves metalheads, they were terrified of the real ones – those who walked fearless in the dangerous parts of town.
The upper class metalheads would generally not have a good time mingling with the common man.
– We’d find them at parties and concerts, mummy boys we called them – confiscating their brand new t-shirt, tearing off patches. ‘Ah, you listen music? We take your fucking Walkman. Go home pussy! This is metal; it’s for people with balls – not you faggots. ‘
And so the bourgeois headbangers began cursing the proletariat.
– ‘These low class motherfuckers, they steal from us.’ Lots of fights, the scene became segregated; these guys played in their own places and the rest somewhere else. We’d meet outside the rock shop and then go to their concerts to fight and to kill – destroy the venue or whatever man, people died doing wild shit.
Alvaro recalls how a Colombian metal band was invited to play Chile in the mid-eighties.
– Of course they weren’t paid and had to stay behind and work at a construction site to buy their tickets back home.
The first foreign ‘evil metal band’ to come to Chile were Brazilian legends VULCANO, in 1987.
– Some crazy fuckers started burning the wooden floor. It wasn’t enough to hit each other and scream like beasts – they had to set a fire in the middle of the venue. The Brazilian motherfuckers got scared and asked if they should end their set; ‘Stop and we kill you’. They kept playing.
1993 saw the first European appearance when German thrash metal act KREATOR came to Chile. At this point, football hooliganism had made its way into the scene.
– The whole audience was divided by two teams, singing football chants. I was pretty into that myself so I was happy to be there to fight; we lit up bengal torches inside the venue and started throwing shit.
This was before the headlining act had even taken the stage, and their entrance did little to calm the raging sea of violence.
– Imagine, listening to KREATOR play while fighting the enemy hooligans. Bullet belts flying everywhere, people jumping constantly – not a calm moment during that gig. One guy threw a stick on the maricón Petrozza: ‘Ah’, he screamed and picked it up, ‘we will stop to play!’
Frontman Mille Petrozza’s warning was largely unproductive, since barely a soul from the target audience spoke a word of English. Instead, many of them misinterpreted his agitated oration as approval.
– Everyone was like, ‘YEAH!’ … and started throwing even more. He dropped the stick and left the stage.
Perhaps having been advised that a premature finale could potentially turn an unruly situation into complete disaster, he returned shortly thereafter.
– ‘We will play the last songs but stop throwing things’, he said in the microphone. ‘YEAH!’ They continued playing and we kept smashing each other.
This little skirmish would prove to be a mere precursor to the real battle, once the show was over the police had turned up in force.
– Cars, tanks, bombs – combat zone. There was a little ticket kiosk outside, it ended up in the middle of the street ten blocks away.
It wasn’t only the highborn and the police that were the enemy.
– You couldn’t mix styles because somebody would die. I’ve been to some concerts with a mix of punks and metalheads … oh man – people stabbed, one guy lost an eye, cracked heads.
Were you never injured yourself?
– Not really. I mean, I was stabbed once and my ear broke when I was hit in the head, but many from my side got really fucked up. My friend Careloco almost died when running from the police, they fired a machinegun after him. He tripped and fell in the same moment bullets hit the wall, insane.
The Pinochet era was a time of perpetual turmoil.
– That’s what I grew up with, as kids we watched all this shit. It was an everyday ritual, keeping blankets and sheets in the bathtub with water and salt. You had to be ready, when the police came, their teargas always followed so you covered the windows. It was normal.
At the height of civil strife, he was even unable to enjoy the safety of his own home.
– The façade of my apartment was full of bullet holes. I lived on the fifth floor and I’d see the protests and riots below – then people running down the street when the police opened fire.
You saw people die?
– Many times. I remember them, left lying around on the pavement as the police came. Then you had to move away from the window because they might shoot you through it.
Alvaro himself is a seasoned rioter.
– Sure, I was there but it wasn’t political – only against the fucking police. To me, this was simple anarchy.
He was 19 years old in 1990, when Pinochet’s 17 year reign came to an end.
– At first; ‘Military shit is over, now it will be democracy’. I didn’t even know what that was, but if it meant no military it sounded fine by me. Nothing changed of course, not even to this day – it’s all a mask of neo-liberal piece of shit.
Alvaro claims it was those who in the days of old had their clenched fists raised the highest that now have their hands deep in the people’s pockets.
– It’s all a dirty fucking lie. The most corrupt people today were the ones crying in Pinochet times; the communist party or whatever. Now, they are the greedy swine – unbelievable. I really want to go shoot them one by one.
Vote with a bullet?
– Corrupt politicians must be executed in a public place, in front of everyone. If you don’t take these people and decapitate them before the whole population they will keep doing the same, this is how the human animal learns.
There was a period in his youth where he did hold an interest in politics.
– The massive distance between social classes in Chile always freaked me out. I’m not from either low or high class but I have friends from both. Once you get to know all sides you understand that this great divide is a shit created by politics to make people fight each other for no reason. That’s when I lost interest and stepped aside.
Alvaro adds that prior this realisation, he’d been unable to find any parties representing his interests.
– I always got lost because I have crazy thoughts and didn’t fit in anywhere. Then I understood that I need to think more cleverly; what is politics and where will it lead me? I realised it’s all a big, dirty shit.
Politics left behind, matters of the spirit became an increasingly bigger part of his life.
– As far back as I can remember, I’ve always felt connected to other planes in one way or another. First, you need to connect with the spirit and then develop it as you think is best.
He says that he learned a lot from the arcane lore of the indigenous population that reside in southern Chile.
– I felt an immediate attraction to the power in the energies shamans spoke of. I became obsessed with it, gathering wisdom about spiritual ideas until I came to understand the interrelations of different magical realms.
Residing in an urban environment, far from the shamans of the rainforests – Alvaro relied on books to further his esoteric studies.
– It was very difficult to find teachers to guide my way. As time went by I lost interest in the mundane world and grew more serious about these things. Music was an important tool to bridge the arcane with real life and visions from psychedelic states would intensify my hunger for the dark secrets hidden beyond.
As part of his learning, he studied brujeria – which is the sorcery of the Americas.
– Brujeria is common in remote areas of certain parts of South America, the countryside and in the mountains. It’s extremely important to have proper guidance before going anywhere near this. I once visited the house of a real brujo and I can tell you, the amount of energy there was incredible.
Despite beholding the inexplicable, he thought it prudent to keep his observations to himself.
– For example, I never questioned why daylight wouldn’t penetrate the windows of a certain part of his house. Not the room we were in, but I could see it from where I was sitting. I have witnessed many strange things like this, situations that would break the mind of a normal person.
You mentioned shamanism before; do you have any experience in the healing arts?
– It’s a different connection. Curanderos (native plant healers), or machis, are highly respected within their communities, their work is with nature – travelling beyond and inside the human body, taking different shapes and forms. They believe it’s their duty to grant fortune and goodwill to others, for this you must leave the filth of the modern world behind; become one with the soul of organic entities and cross into dimensions sealed off to most people.
Among the old-school Chilean metal scene we find the likes of ATOMIC AGGRESSOR, WARPATH, NECROSIS, PENTAGRAM, BLOODY CROSS and DEATH YELL. While he appreciated the music, Alvaro got the impression that most of them were devoid of spiritual authenticity.
– Even if the band name was cool, very diabolical, you’d meet them and see; ‘No, I don’t believe you are fucking devil worshipper, I think you are a fucking cock-sucker’.
I presume they were not part of the local heavy metal arsonist guerrilla?
– No, he scoffs, never. They were crying and refused to play in some places because of the bad people.
People like Alvaro, lest we forget.
– Exactly, he exclaims with his maniacal laughter, and every time I meet them I treated them like shit. When I got older and started playing in bands, I often had to share stage with them so I put most of that aside – with some exceptions.
His journey as a musician began as somewhat of an emergency solution.
– For my 17th birthday my grandmother wanted to give me a good present, so I told her I’d like to have a motorbike. My father found out; ‘If you buy this motherfucker a motorcycle he will die on the first day and I will never forgive you’. She came to me and said ‘Your dad won’t allow me to do shit, but here – have the money. Buy whatever you want, but no bike’.
Alvaro invested most of the considerable pile of cash in treating himself to a relaxing weekend in the mountains, lubricated by bountiful quantities of intoxicants of varying legal stature.
– I came back to the city and thought: I need something to show my grandmother. One of our neighbours repaired TVs, radios and things like that, I went to him. He built his own amplifiers and guitars, so that’s what I bought.
His first ensemble was a band founded with class-mates in school.
– We tried calling ourselves BASTARDS, terrible music. Thinking we played thrash or speed metal, in reality it was extremely bad punk with three chords in every song. One hour of bullshit rehearsal, more like improvised alcoholism – ‘Ah, we made a great song!’
In 1992 he moved to another city and ended up the bass player of death metal profanity EXECRATOR.
– We practised in the room of our friend’s house. Our first drum kit had two carbon cylinders as kick drums with wooden twin pedals, the snare we’d bought in a flea market and lead bowls became our cymbals; imagine the sound. Many friends would come to enjoy our rehearsals, ending always with some kind of crime or abuse on the streets.
After five years, two demos and one EP, vocalist Jaime Parada left the band.
– Very crazy guy, good friend of mine. In the beginning, he really pushed me to stay focused and helped forming the role of music in my life.
Alvaro assumes a melodramatic pose as he haughtily narrates Parada’s resignation speech:
– ‘My life is fucked up – work, money and all those things. I think I’m of no use to the band anymore. EXECRATOR is all I love in this world, it’s like my baby. But I step aside knowing you will all do a very good job. Don’t search for a singer, Alvaro – now you must sing the shit. I can’t continue, always I will fuck it up.’
Alas, the recipients of the impassioned soliloquy were men of steel with iron hearts who remained unmoved by his plight.
– We didn’t really listen to his honest friend-words, deciding he was a pussy we kicked and hit him – then told him to fuck off. I took the leading of the shit – we recorded two albums and played many shows.
Still holding on to his dreams of seeing what lay beyond the Andes, Alvaro started scheming plans of relocating to Europe.
– In my crazy head … this was 1998, I said to the rest of EXECRATOR that we should go on tour in Europe and then stay there. Everyone went wild and agreed to the plan, but only a week later one of the guys said he couldn’t do the tour, talking about his girlfriend and other idiotic things.
This upset Alvaro to the extent that he took drastic measures.
– For the first time in our life we plan something good and everyone wimps out. I grabbed my amplifier and bass, told them to fuck off and left – that’s how you split up a band.
Disenchanted and seeking a change of scenery, he moved to the south of the country with his girlfriend at the time
– It was good for a while but soon the urge to play returned. My girlfriend said that I would never find anyone to play with in that town, that I must move back to Santiago to do that.
He rang his brother requesting help and then found himself with a bittersweet offer, demanding tough choices.
– Look what I was on the way to do! Cut my hair and turn into a …
He takes a moment to gather himself.
… person working at IBM. My stupidity had reached very high levels.
Alvaro swallowed his pride, accepted and agreed to meet his brother in Santiago.
– He promised to introduce me to his friend who was boss of the shit, saying they might hire me. Instantly, everything became grey.
Then why did you accept?
– It was fucking good money, why else? I can’t work as a postman all my life.
I must confess to some difficulty envisioning Señor Lillo carrying out his duties as an employee of the postal service.
– Shit money but no one cared about my hair, tattoos or black t-shirt. The best was that I didn’t have a bicycle so I had to deliver walking; very shit but the only choice, except maybe in some factory.
He recalls applying for a job in a Chinese warehouse, only to find that now also his facial hair worked against him.
– ‘You must shave’, he decrees with an extravagant Asian accent, ‘only old people with knowledge have beard. You are young and idiot’.
Come the weekend of destiny, Alvaro still hadn’t trimmed his mane.
– I thought to first meet with my brother and hoped to find some kind of soft way. I was on the way to Santiago when I called a friend – manager of UNDERCROFT at the time, and asked if I could stay at his place. I explained the situation to him over the phone. He was surprised, but this was pretty normal back then. Most metalheads changed and left everything behind – no more black shirts, no more hair; only work.
Our conversation gets side-tracked into a phenomenon the new millennium brought with it; a substantial number of long-time deserters attempting to slither back into the fold.
– Already having big kids, house, dog, car and fat wives they don’t fuck anymore, they now come back to the metal scene.
Alvaro is completely unburdened by troublesome nostalgic qualms.
– Didn’t you disappear twenty years ago? Doing the right capitalistic thing – the very one you were against, you fell straight into it. Here you are now, back as if nothing happened and calling yourself old-school? Shut your mouth and enjoy what you have instead. It is shit.
A few bands from that era have also taken up arms again, which agitates Alvaro to no end.
– Split up in the eighties because they were weak, now they are fat faggots who want to come out and play. ‘We are old-school metal’, fuck you man – fuck you. Like the reunion of PENTAGRAM, I really hate this. They buried the band because it was full of wimps and everyone in the scene hated them, then switched name and started playing pussy metal music. Now, twenty years later, they come raising the flag of ancient death metal? Fuck you, no way.
One reunion that’s spared his fury is BLOODY CROSS, widely regarded as Chiles first black metal band and active from 1986 until 2001 when their original guitar player and vocalist Disciple of Nema perished in a car wreck.
– He died with his boots on and ten years later the band wants to reunite as a tribute to him, because he was a great guy. Back then no one cared about BLOODY CROSS; everyone said they were alcoholic motherfuckers who couldn’t play. I thought they were real, hungry metal men.
We return to his apex crossroad – Alvaro arrived at his friend the manager’s place and began drinking.
– I explained that I was sick of this. Every time I’d apply for a job, they would take one look at me; ‘Fuck off, cut your hair – you listen to the devil music? Are you communist?’ I had to go see my brother the next day, and try to fix this.
Though largely defeated, as they say – hope is the last thing that dies in man.
– Maybe there was a way, perhaps they weren’t so strict. Or maybe I had to cut my hair and after a year they wouldn’t care, so I could grow it again.
Though sympathetic to his cause, his friend urged him to try out for UNDERCROFT instead. As it happened, they had just fired both vocalist and bass player.
– It was only Pablo (Cortés, drums) and Claudio (Illanes, guitars) left, he said they’d been writing songs and wanted to record a new album soon. He called them and they were rehearsing that day, so we went there. They practised in a steel container.
– Guess. I listened to the songs they’d already written and loved them. We started jamming, continued drinking and decided to become a trio – three motherfuckers, we would record the album!
Needless to say, this called for a celebration in dignified metal fashion.
– I got so fucked up that I couldn’t meet with my brother the next day. Instead I called him the day after, apologised and explained myself. He said, ‘your irresponsibility makes me doubt if I can help you get this job’, so I told him to fuck off and went to rehearsal.
He returned south and shared the wonderful news with his girlfriend.
– I told her that everything was shit; I was so depressed at the thought of this job, with that kind of people. I also mentioned telling my brother to fuck off and that I was now the bass player and vocalist of UNDERCROFT.
The celebrations were mellower this time around. It was only a week later when Alvaro headed back to Santiago, and ‘lived in that container for a month’.
– While we recorded “Danza Macabra” (2000), my friend the manager came with an idea for the next; he contacted Swedish producer Daniel Bergstrand (Dugout Productions studio) in Uppsala. ‘You must go there and record in Europe, fuck this shit and make a good step. Finally you have a real band where nobody is a pussy motherfucker.’
The trio agreed, and to Alvaro it felt as if finally crossing the threshold on which EXECRATOR had stumbled.
– We played a long tour through Chile and Bolivia to save up money. When we got back we booked our tickets and I sold all belongings besides my bass guitar.
And so UNDERCROFT packed their bags, bid families and girlfriends goodbye and embarked on a one-way trip to Europe, where they reside to this day. Alas, to delve into that piece of history would best fit the proverbial ’story for another day’.