by Niklas Göransson
Tears blended with blood. N of black metal band Selbst talks about growing up in and finally escaping his home country of Venezuela – how a hard reset was needed to tell the stories of anguish.
– I have this irrepressible urge to constantly create. I’ve always been full of ideas and, at some point, felt within myself an urge to capture them in both musical and lyrical form. I have no interest in changing or fixing anything, nor do I want to ‘save’ anyone. I consider everything and everyone lost, cursed, and damned. I genuinely believe us to be headed straight towards the deepest abyss… and I need to write about it. Just like that.
SELBST was founded a decade ago in N’s home country of Venezuela. He spent the first year of the band’s existence working on the 2011 demo, “Veritas Filia Temporis”.
– Already at an early stage, I tried to avoid becoming dependant on others and instead handle as much as possible on my own. Doing anything in Venezuela was a complete nightmare; it’s a country which has literally been turned to shit by communism. So, for a person like me – who never had any money left over – operating any kind of musical project was very difficult. Paying a studio to record drums, travelling to rehearsals back and forth, buying equipment, etcetera… all of this was highly discouraging and, as time passed, became something of a ‘dream’ to aspire to. Even so, I managed to put out that demo as well as two splits and learned a lot about recording technique in the process. The notion of hiring someone to capture guitar tracks when I can do so on my own, in total solitude, is inconceivable. On those first releases, I suppose I had to pay the price of being a rookie. Still, I must say, I received tremendous help from my friend Simón of The Empty Hall Studio. He was able to achieve exceptionally good mixes, considering that it was a self-recording band from Venezuela.
What can you tell me about the underground scene you received your metal education from?
– The metal scene in Venezuela has always been very small. Nonetheless, there were always gigs, magazines, bars, and lots of bands. Live shows in Venezuela were crazy! They could mosh to just about anything. It’s fun to experience a wild crowd like that, although it can be really annoying when I’m fully captivated by the music playing. It’s far more rewarding watching people behave like beasts when you’re the one on stage! The only thing is that I thought the scene was too conformist. I mean, it was very much about imitating other bands rather than creating something of your own. Where I grew up, in the eastern part of the country, it was very common to be openly asked if I wanted to make music sounding like a certain act; then, later, it turned out that all they aspired to be was a poor copy of that band. For me, this was deeply frustrating; I wanted to find a more personal sound, something of my own.
These days, due to a progressively deteriorating political situation, there isn’t much of a metal scene left in Venezuela. N says that his country’s descent into dire straits began two decades ago and has been on a steady decline ever since. Following what’s become known as the Bolivarian Revolution – named after Simón Bolívar, a prominent figure in the 19th-century Spanish American wars of independence – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela came to power in 1999.
– I grew up watching all the problems created by the communist regime. I remember in particular one day when I was sent out to buy some milk, but had to return home emptyhanded with the fucking excuse that there was none. We didn’t care that much at first; we were supposed to get milk within the next few days. But, little by little, this became increasingly common. No milk, no rice, no bread. That’s how it all started! I would listen to my parents talk about all the things they used to do back when they were young and had started working, comparing it to the current situation. Already back then, I realised that Venezuela was broken beyond repair. Or perhaps more than an exact moment, it was something built up over an extended period of time spent watching everything get gradually worse – economically as well as socially. To give you an idea: imagine you get paid today, after spending the last thirty days planning what to do with that money. But when you finally have it in your hands, you can only do around fifty percent of what you initially expected because everything is suddenly more expensive. Then, the next month, your salary has remained the same but now everything costs twice as much. This is Venezuela…
Over the last decade, the Venezuelan populace has suffered long-term water, food, and medicine shortages as well as electricity blackouts and social unrest. There are many reports of widespread starvation, to the point where residents are forced to hunt cats, dogs, and pigeons just to feed their families.
– I’m not going to claim that I’ve suffered the worst things one can endure in life, because I never reached the level many others did. Most of them have been forced to rummage through garbage heaps just to feed themselves! I was fortunate enough to never run out of the basic necessities, but a man cannot live only to eat… don’t you think? For better or worse, I am a person with certain artistic needs, and it was impossible to find any satisfaction in life among so many issues. Not being able to do something as simple as record a fucking album, or even make music the way I wanted, was tremendously frustrating. I mean, it wasn’t as if I was asking the universe for something impossible! God damn it. The domestic situation with its constant currency devaluations, hyperinflation, security crises, and surreal levels of violence… you can easily get killed in your own home, if someone decides to break in. All this together was complete madness! Also, people see you in a weird way for having long hair. In the meantime, you’re being totally left behind the rest of the world because of shitty socialism. This is just a small, illustrative example of how everything goes to shit right in front of you while you can literally do nothing besides look for a way out.
Was there no sense of hope that the situation might get better?
– I didn’t expect things to magically improve, there was simply no such possibility entertained in my brain. For starters, the opposition is as, or even more, corrupt than the government itself. Everyone sees stealing as a normal shit; they all do it. From the one who has the simplest position in some municipality – and if he does it, I can’t expect anything different from any other fucker with the ability to get away with it. The country is corrupt at its very foundations. You must understand that an entire generation has grown up under the shadows of the murderous Venezuelan socialism. They’ve never seen anything else. And although one never gets used to something like this, we had no choice but to accept it because there were no other options on the table. Ever since childhood, I’ve been programmed to expect only the worst from life, period. This is definitely what made me the fucking pessimistic person I am today. I could never anticipate a good outcome from any situation because something always happened at the last minute, ruining everything. Some shitty fucking economic measure… always a political one, of course, and then bang!
Consequently, it was clear to N from a young age that he had to seek his fortune elsewhere. Little by little, he put together a plan to leave.
– In 2015, I travelled to a country I’m not going to mention here and worked illegally for six months, until my tourist visa expired. I had a much better job back in Venezuela but had to leave it to work practically as a slave; I received a far higher payment doing this than what I could get in my own country, employed in an air-conditioned office with benefits, transportation, a legal contract, etcetera. It was an enriching experience that helped me later in life, given everything I learned, but still shit.
Meanwhile, N had managed to record three new SELBST tracks – released on the December 2015 mini-CD “An Ominous Landscape”, courtesy of Romanian label Sun & Moon Records. A few months later, having gathered enough funds to start his new life, N packed his bags and left for Chile.
– Fortunately, I didn’t have to escape on a raft or cross the border by foot, as many do now. In that sense, I’ve been quite fortunate. Had I let more time pass before leaving, the story I’m telling you now would surely have been extremely different; everything became harder in my country over the years since I got out. Some friends here in Chile helped me find a cheap flight and then lent me the money to buy it. When I arrived, another friend welcomed me into his home for a while, until I was able to find a place to live on my own. Very simple accommodation, of course, but this is the way of emigrating: you must start from scratch. It’s not fun, but there are millions of people who’ve been through much worse… believe me, far worse than what I’m saying here.
Did you move straight to Santiago?
– Yes. When emigrating, it is mandatory to look for destinations where one can find work. I hate big cities, yet they are a kind of ‘necessary evil’. At first, I was totally surprised and overwhelmed by circumstances as simple as finding fully stocked supermarkets. I felt really pathetic at those times, haha! It sucks, trust me…it really does suck. But that’s what happens after seeing the things I saw back in Venezuela: when the worst-case-scenario becomes normal everyday reality. However, I’m still on the same continent and the issue of poverty is common in Chile too. There is a marked social gap here, but no full-fledged economic disaster like in my home country.
N is, by his own definition, not an overtly sociable fellow – he prefers spending time in solitude, writing music. As such, moving to a new country and then having to build a social life from the ground up sounds like a veritable nightmare.
– I think I’m a little more sociable these days, compared to when I arrived. At least I don’t feel anxious whenever I’m around strangers. It was a bit difficult for me on certain occasions since I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, both are Latin countries, but it also happens that each nationality has their own peculiarities. When I first got here, I already knew a small group of people from the ‘scene’, thanks to social media. They were very supportive and, above all, curious to know who was behind this – in their own words – ‘only interesting band from Venezuela’. They organised a small gathering to meet me and talk; I recall feeling absolutely terrified as I made my way to this encounter, haha. But they were extremely nice to me and that helped me build confidence faster. Over time, they ended up becoming close friends.
As soon as he’d settled, found employment, and gathered his bearings, N began working on new SELBST material. A self-titled debut album was released by Sun & Moon Records in June 2017. The following year, N put together a live line-up consisting of local musicians – one of which, bass player HL from GATES OF TYRANT, was part of the group who gave him such a warm welcome to Chile.
– I still remember the day he told me that he was at my service, should I ever need a musician. That was remarkable for an outsider like me! In hindsight, considering that I’m a rather lonely person, I had an easy time coming into contact with individuals from the scene here. I credit this to already having been in touch with ‘key players’, so to speak. For example, I’d corresponded and organised some trades with Nicolás Onfray from ANIMUS MORTIS for a few years. Otherwise, I’m not sure how it could ever have gotten to the situation I am today. Everything flowed quite well, and I am genuinely grateful for that.
With some semblance of stability in N’s life, as well as a full line-up, SELBST began performing live and composing new material. The second album, “Relatos de angustia” – which means ‘stories of anguish’– was released by Debemur Morti Productions in August 2020. As per tradition, everything except the drums was self-recorded. One notable difference from before is that N has taken over the vocals, after concluding his lyrics far too personal to leave for someone else.
– Due to certain experiences of a personal nature, I completely ‘emptied’ myself in the writing. I let out the depths of my self-hatred, my pessimism, and my frustration – thus expressing these ‘stories of anguish’ in each of the songs bringing this record to life. Now that it’s been a while since the album came out, I feel as if I created it in the exact same way as I did my demo all those years ago. I didn’t think too much about either the concept or song structures; I have simply improved, or learned, enough to give things more sense without even realising it. I must confess, I’m not an ambitious man in general – at least I don’t consider myself one. Therefore, this album is the natural response to what I needed at the time when it was being composed. Everything fits better, musically speaking, and it has an even flow that makes it more dynamic. I think this is one of the successes of “Relatos de angustia”.
Having read quite a bit of favourable press coverage, it certainly appears to me as if SELBST has got some serious momentum going right now. Simultaneously, as a result of the pandemic, touring is no longer a possibility. They haven’t rehearsed for a full year and now even lost their practice spot. Not quite where N imagined himself to be in the wake of his breakthrough album, I’d wager.
– Yeah, this year has been fucked on all possible levels for everyone. I lost my shitty four-year-old job, for example. It sucks when realising that you are just a number in the place where you dedicate and invest so much of your time. However, this has given me a new perspective on these matters. I’m not a very career-minded person; I’ve only had shitty jobs in my life and not much changed since I got here. This is what has made me think about the issue of possible future tours, whether I should make changes in my life so that one thing does not interfere with the other. It is not impossible, but this will obviously depend a lot on my personal situation. I’ve tried to do whatever I can to keep the momentum going and, considering the circumstances, it has gone fairly well. It’s also possible that if everything continues the way it is now, people will accumulate a kind of desire to see live bands in such a way it becomes much more ‘profitable’ to go on a tour. Who knows, maybe I’m just being too optimistic for a change?