Leviathan|Lurker of Chalice
by Niklas Göransson
Leviathan and Lurker of Chalice mastermind Jef ‘Wrest’ Whitehead reflects on twenty years marked by death, incarceration, betrayal – but also redemption.
This is an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #8. The same issue also includes conversations with DESTRÖYER 666/BESTIAL WARLUST, AKHLYS, BLACK WITCHERY, CULTES DES GHOULES, THUNDERBOLT, BLACKDEATH, MISÞYRMING, NORDVIS/ARMAGEDDA, MORTUUS, DÖDFÖDD/REVERORUM IB MALACHT, and OFERMOD.
In 2005, things were going reasonably well for Jef Whitehead. Besides the LURKER OF CHALICE album finally being done and plenty of momentum behind LEVIATHAN, he had a budding enterprise at Black Heart Tattoo. Not to mention a decade of sobriety after having struggled with substance abuse in his younger years. However, the summer brought tidings that upended Jef’s entire reality: his girlfriend, Jesse, was diagnosed with brain cancer.
– It was extremely heavy for her – she was terrified. This tumour was as big as a man’s fist and deformed the entire top of her skull; it made her cranium pointed. You know how the surface of your brain is like a loaf of bread split down the middle? The tumour was right in the centre. The surgeons went in there and… it had spread into all the little folds of her brain, so they scraped out what they could. A couple of months later she got an infection, so they had to go back in and get more of it out. And while all this is going on, she’s getting strung out on Norco.
Norco is a medication containing an opioid pain reliever called hydrocodone, as well as acetaminophen which works to reduce fever. It is considered highly addictive.
– Needless to say, her mental state wasn’t the best. It started to be, like… she just wanted to be high, constantly. It was no longer about the pain; she just wanted to numb her mind and not have to think. Now, this was back when you could still work different doctors for pills. So, she was doing a lot of that. Apparently, it’s common for people who have undergone invasive head surgery – where they cut up your skull and get in there – to take their own life. Add to that this constant sense of impending doom of the cancer coming back, even worse this time.
Even if the brain tumour is completely removed, there is still a twenty-four to thirty-two per cent chance that another meningioma will take its place.
– We did what we could to keep an eye on things, but it was always hanging over us. I already told you I’m a selfish motherfucker, but I tried to be the best boyfriend I could. A buddy of mine got married in Hawaii so I took her out there; I wanted to show her, ‘There’s more to all this than what’s happening to you. And you’re going to be okay, as long as you take care of yourself.’ But Jesse was someone who already had a fucked-up childhood, with teenage years full of suicidal adulation. I thought she’d gotten through all that – or at least learned how to keep it at bay. That was actually something we connected over.
In the early summer of 2006, they agreed to take a break from their relationship. On June 6, Jef started recording a new LEVIATHAN record; two days later he’d finished the drums and all strings. Unfortunately, the recording was interrupted by the worst kind of news.
– On June 11, Jesse left. She shot herself. And with that kind of event, life just stops. She had a favourite spot in San Francisco called the Sutro Baths. There’s this tunnel at the beach leading to a spot with rocks in the sea. That’s where we spread her ashes. The following month or so, I kept going out there. I wasn’t really talking to anyone about it because, after a while… what can you even say? People have already heard it all. It wasn’t getting any better. Jesse was a great girl. She was an artist. She was into really cool music. She was funny. And yeah – she’s missed. She is sorely missed, you know? But she couldn’t take it anymore. For a long time, I thought that us taking our break… let’s say, I put a bit too much emphasis on it. But anytime someone you’re romantically involved with at whatever level takes themselves out, you’re gonna feel guilt. After that, I kinda lost my mind for a bit and fell back into narcotics. I overdosed on heroin maybe a month later.
Was it intentional?
– I can’t imagine it wasn’t intentional; I’d already been doing heroin for a week or so, and then I just decided to do a lot of it. So yeah, I guess it was intentional: I tried to leave. I just wanted to… not have that feeling. I was hoping it would stop. All this seems like a lifetime ago, thinking about it now. Anyway, I laid there for about a day and a half – on my stomach, fortunately. There was puke around me, so I would’ve died if I’d passed out on my back. I do remember either having a dream or actually seeing a realm of all-red, with people talking around me. That might just have been in the ambulance, at the hospital, or something like that. But for some reason, everything was red and very cold. So yeah, that happened. Then I was in a coma for a little bit and had to re-learn how to walk.
How long did that take?
– Oh, only a couple of days. After being hospitalised for about a week and a half I was back on my feet and ready to check out. But they were like, ‘Not so fast, you’re going to the cuckoo ward!’ I was sent to the loony bin for seventy-two hours because I’d just tried to kill myself. They wanted to rehabilitate me enough so I could go sit with the other cuckoo birds. I did that for a while, got out, and then went straight back to doing drugs. Come September or November, I was recording with Daniel again and doing the last guitar overdubs. But my life kind of took a shit at that point. I was fired from Black Heart, so I moved to Oakland and things got even more messed up. I was working but also doing a lot of drugs and barely making any music. I think I wrote one song during that entire episode.
While very little composing was going on, Jef did plenty of writing. The existing words for the half-recorded LEVIATHAN album were all scrapped in favour of those now found on “Massive Conspiracy Against All Life”. The lyrics for “VI-XI-VI” – 6 – 11 – 6 – have never been made available. But if interpreted as a date, the title provides a hint.
– Yes, it’s about Jesse. She took her life on that day. You’re the only person who’s ever figured that one out – that I know of anyway. Nobody has ever said anything. “Massive…” became about death; the death of everything, but mostly all these black metal people who call for death. You will die too, so be careful what you wish for. I also realised I didn’t want to give this to Moribund. The album had become intensely personal, and I didn’t think they were being honest with me. I’ve never done this to make money but at that point, I’d been paid more royalties from tUMULt for one demo compilation than I’d received from Moribund for two albums. I thought, ‘I’m gonna make this one a LURKER record and give it to Battle Kommand.’ I also recall that End All Life were going to have something to do with it.
The second LURKER OF CHALICE album, “Perverse Calculus”, was meant to be released by Battle Kommand – operated by NACHTMYSTIUM frontman Blake Judd – and End All Life, a classic French black metal label that served as preparatory ground for what we now know as NoEvDia.
– I wrote them and expressed interest in joining the NoEvDia ranks. They went, ‘No, that’s not…’ Hmm, I don’t think he outright said, ‘Your stuff isn’t spiritual enough’, but I was told that End All Life would be interested. I also believe The Ajna Offensive had something to do with it. Leading up to the release date, Battle Kommand premiered one of the songs online. However, prior to all this, I’d sent ‘Odin’ of Moribund instrumental rough mixes, so he realised it was the same thing and immediately threatened lawsuits all around.
One of the many clauses in Jef’s Moribund contract stipulated that music written for LEVIATHAN could not be used elsewhere.
– I honestly think his bark is worse than his bite; I doubt he’d been able to handle a global suit against End All Life. Nonetheless, I didn’t want to risk getting any of those guys in trouble. It was just me trying to get out of my contract while still releasing the album. Which, looking back, isn’t necessarily all that honourable – but it’s not as if Moribund were being straight with me either. I had to pay back a bunch of people. Money had already been put into it and I didn’t want to shit on labels I have respect for. If they’ve tried to help me do something and it doesn’t happen, I need to give them a refund.
As part of their severance agreement, Jef had to give Moribund not only “Massive Conspiracy Against All Life” but also “A Silhouette in Splinters” – a 2005 album originally meant to be issued on LP exclusively. Lastly, Jef was prohibited from making music as LEVIATHAN for six months.
– The contract I signed was pretty bananas. But of course, I didn’t quite realise this at the time. I once had someone from a big underground label – one which is also notorious for not being fair to the bands – look at my contract and the guy is like, ‘This is fucked up. You basically signed something which gives you nothing.’ And it’s all on my ignorance, right? It comes down to me being all excited that someone was even interested in releasing my stuff. But also me thinking that I’d be working with an individual who was fair and did what he said he was gonna do and actually compensated his bands for their work. Who might even notify the artist, ‘Hey, I’m going to license your record to someone; I just wanted to let you know, even though you’re not going to see any copies or royalties.’ I just stopped at that point. I was burnt out and didn’t want to give him any more money.
While LEVIATHAN was on hiatus, US black metal ‘supergroup’ TWILIGHT sprung back into action. The band’s core – Jef, Blake Judd, and KRIEG’s Neil Jameson – remained, but Tim Lehi of DRAUGAR and Malefic of XASTHUR were no longer part of the project. Unlike the 2005 debut, the second album, “Monument to Time End”, was recorded with all members gathered in one place: Chicago’s Volume Studios in February and March of 2009.
– The second TWILIGHT record was Blake’s doing, of course. He was still dealing with Greg from Southern Lord back then. I remember they were trying to get Josh Homme from QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE on that record. Blake was always trying to surround himself with people who had some industry clout. Aaron Turner from ISIS was on there, but a lot of his stuff got mixed out. Rob Lowe, or Lichens – who also does stuff with OM – performed on it too. He came in and worked on three tracks and knocked it out in like an hour. Very, very talented guy; not really into the whole black metal thing though. But one big plus for me was recording with Sanford Parker, because he excels at what he does and has since become a good friend.
Sanford Parker is both a musician and a studio engineer. Besides acting as producer on “Monument to Time End”, he also played the keyboards – the same position he had in NACHTMYSTIUM.
– Sanford did all the Moog stuff on there. All those weird spaceship sounds you hear – that’s him. And then Blake added Stavros Giannopoulos from ATLAS MOTH, his little homie who drove him around and got him stoned all the time. But Stavros isn’t a black metal guy at all. Not my favourite record, I must say – it was drifting away from what I felt TWILIGHT should’ve been. Blake had been touring a lot and was getting tired of black metal. Just listen to “Addicts”: he’s clearly trying to do something that reaches a broader crowd.
Speaking of which, in January 2010 Jef returned to Volume Studios to play drums on NACHTMYSTIUM’s fifth album, “Addicts – Black Meddle Pt. II”.
– That was the first time I worked with Will Lindsay from Indiana – an amazing musician who was in WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM and ANATOMY OF HABIT. They call him The Ringer. He’s like a first-rate Jake: very, very, good. He and I wrote one of the songs on there because, at that point, Blake could no longer compose full records. He had other people write his material and then got paid for it. The time around “Addicts” was also the beginning of him and the heroin.
While there was still no LEVIATHAN activity, Jef stayed busy as a musician. The very next month, he performed bass, percussion, and keyboards on KRIEG’s “The Isolationist”, which was also recorded at Volume Studios.
– I was going through some shit in Oakland, so I missed the first day. We finished the bass pretty fast, but altogether it took a day and a half because I had to play drums on a couple of parts. I remember that some of the material was Neil and Sanford trying to recreate Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible soundtrack… visually, audibly – all of it. Have you heard it? It’s very cooked and unsettling. I think one of the tracks is called “Stress”: it has that boom-boom noise from when they’re at Club Rectum. And then it’s got kind of a keyboard run which sounds like a computer processing something. I have that soundtrack on my phone.
Jef’s 2010 remained turbulent, but nothing compared to what lay in store. The fall of that year saw the start of what by all accounts must’ve been an utter nightmare.
– The witch – is that who we’re talking about? Well, she’s not really a witch; I shouldn’t give her that much. Anyway, I met a girl. At the time she was dating some big-deal tattooer but wanted me to tattoo her, so she made an appointment and came to Oakland. We, you know… whatever happened, happened. But as it turns out, this young lady is quite the drinker, right? She likes her tequila. And next thing I know, I’m drinking right along with her. I have alcoholism in my family, and that’s when I truly got started with the liquor. It was also the beginning of a very tumultuous relationship.
In the coming November, Jef was heading to Europe to do a series of guest tattoo spots in different countries. He invited his new girlfriend along with him.
– When we made plans to go, I was told she had money. But once we arrived in Europe, she had none at all which meant I paid for everything. My only pleasant memory from that entire trip is when we were in Aachen, Germany. I found out that VERDUNKELN, the new band of Gnarl – who used to be in NAGELFAR – were playing. NAGELFAR are a huge fucking deal to me. I went to see them and discovered that Alexander from THE RUINS OF BEVERAST, who was also in NAGELFAR, played second guitar. Then I met Sven from Ván Records who used to be their bassist. Great night. I’m still friends with many of the people we met in Europe, but there were some incidents. We’d constantly get into these crazy arguments. It’s alcohol, right?
By late November, the pair arrived in Barcelona, Spain, where Jef had several tattoo appointments waiting.
– I was so over it by then. I’d already tried to get rid of her a couple of times but she’s a good talker and knows how to throw the juice at you. And she won her way back into my audience several times – until I was just like, ‘Get the fuck away!’ I brought her to a cab and said, ‘Go home now. Have your daddy fly you back; I no longer care. I’m working here this week. I can’t do this anymore.’ But she freaked out, grabbed a cop, and claimed I was doing this and that to her.
As a result, Jef had to spend his first seventy-two hours in Barcelona locked up in jail before the matter was resolved. One would think that this little performance sealed the deal, so to speak.
– Mm. I returned to America and went to Chicago and… she met me there. Don’t ask me how, but she kept talking her way back into the fold. I’d already been warned about her too, because at every job she had before – at various tattoo shops – her hand was always in the till. And sure enough, she stole from me too. She was a prolific pathological liar and would make up shit that didn’t even matter. Sometimes she would lie just to be talking; it was crazy. Anyway, we were at Blake’s house one night and got into an argument, and she went, ‘I’m calling the cops!’ and started banging her head against the wall, right in front of everyone. I looked at Blake. ‘See, dude? I don’t know what to do.’ He just went, ‘Get out of my house!’ I guess Stavros took her in or whatever.
This incident is mentioned in an interview with Blake Judd and Sanford Parker, conducted by No Clean Singing when NACHTMYSTIUM played Detroit in May 2011.
– One night, we were staying in a Chicago tattoo shop owned by two people I’d just met. This couple, who are now really dear friends of mine, were right upstairs. I was passed out in the back at four o’clock in the morning when she woke me up to start a fight. And I’m, like, ‘I’m done with you, for real this time. Get outta here!’ Then she pulled up… there was a pistol in one of the drawers and she started waving this Beretta around, so I got it out of her hands and threw it in the garbage can. Then she grabbed a pair of scissors, yelling, ‘I’m going to kill myself!’ She’d pulled some of this fake suicidal shit before, in DC. I came from behind and managed to get the scissors out of her hand, but she’d already cut herself a couple of times.
Had you started realising the gravity of the situation by then?
– We’d been drinking that day, but I still had enough clarity to be, like, ‘What are you doing, man? We are guests right now. We’re not at your house. We’re not at my house. And you’re yelling and this is not fucking cool. You already did this all through Europe.’ After I got the scissors away from her, she pretended to faint. I just muttered ‘Fuck you’, left her on the floor, and went into the back room. I could see her, sorta, from where I’d laid down on the couch. I started falling asleep again. Fifteen or so minutes later, I heard her rumbling around out there. After a while, she came in and started yelling at me, ‘Get up!’ I grabbed her bag – ‘You have to go now’ – and put it outside. And then I put her outside. This was in January and the snow was falling but I didn’t care. Fifteen minutes later, the cops burst into the shop; suddenly, I had three automatic weapons pointed at me. And I’m hammered. Like, ‘What the fuck’? Literally.
At 4:45 am on January 9, Jef was arrested and hauled into a holding tank to sleep it off.
– I woke up to the news that I was under arrest for criminal sexual assault and kidnapping. There were two detectives asking me all kinds of shit – if our sex was kinky and so on. ‘You assaulted that girl!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Eh, no?’ They’re like, ‘Well, we found some of your tattoo stuff inside her.’ She had inserted ink caps, which are about the size of your thumbnail, into her vagina and then told them I did it. They also blew up some DNA findings. And it’s like, ‘She was my girlfriend; we were having sex, so it’s not unthinkable that my DNA would be on her.’
Jef’s arrest resulted in a fair bit of regrettable news coverage. The Chicago Sun-Times published a widely circulated story stating that ‘a tattoo artist raped his girlfriend using tattoo tools’. One learns that Jef attacked the victim with a pair of scissors before rendering her unconscious by ‘banging her head against a wall’. Upon waking up again, she barely had time to discover that she’d been sexually assaulted before being knocked out again and then unceremoniously dumped outside on the street. While similar reports were causing a huge stir in both the metal scene and the tattoo world, Jef was being held on a $350,000 bail.
– I had to spend six months in jail. Thankfully, Stavros hooked me up with really good legal representation. I mean, I paid for it, but he got me the contact. It took a while for them to reduce my bail enough for me to afford it. Then I had to sell a lot of my personal belongings – I sold the bass I used for all the old LEVIATHAN demos, along with a bunch of other shit I didn’t want to get rid of. Some people even donated money to help get me out. Once I was released, I had a really hard time staying sober. Everyone drinks in Chicago, there are lots of substances and stuff like that. I just could not stay sober. They were gonna give me sixty years, so I would’ve died in prison.
Incredibly, somewhere in this haze, Jef gathered his bearings enough to not only write but also record a new LEVIATHAN album.
– I had to find something to occupy my mind with besides just getting loaded. I needed some kind of output other than tattooing and painting. That one track I wrote during my drug-addled psychosis in Oakland a few years earlier turned into “Her Circle Is the Noose”. I had already intended to redo “Shed this Skin” and “Blood Red and True”, but neither of them came out as good as the originals. Just listen to the record yourself! It’s garbage. Those songs aren’t good. Nor are they really ‘black metal’ – and I’m making quotation marks now – besides “Shed this Skin” and part of the second track.
“True Traitor, True Whore” was recorded with Sanford Parker at Engine Studios. Jef has previously implied that he was not in optimum shape around this time.
– Oh my goodness, no. There again, I missed the first day because I was out of my mind on something. Sanford had as much patience with me as he could muster. We started off recording for a week, during which I tracked all the drums plus some guitar and bass – just so we had something to show Profound Lore. The next session, I did all the strings and vocals before coming back a third time for some overdubs and mixing. And each time I was taking different substances. For that entire process, I was under the influence of everything I could get my hands on. Not a high point in the LEVIATHAN catalogue, nor a shiny moment in my life.
The fifth LEVIATHAN album – the first new material in three years – was released by Profound Lore in November 2011. Jef has been very critical of this record; however, seen as a time capsule it is perfect in every aspect. A tighter and more disciplined performance would’ve detracted from the oppressive, desperate, and anguished atmosphere.
– What can I say? Sanford polished it into a really good turd. Sound-wise, the album is great – he put flange on the drums in some parts – but it’s not focused. A lot of the material was written right there on the spot, without much afterthought. I mean, one of the drum patterns is a straight-up KILLING JOKE beat from “Fire Dances”. I tried to do some harmonies, but they sounded terrible. It’s bad. And the art is lazy; it’s my left hand. Rather silly, I know.
The lyrics have not been published – which might actually be for the best, considering how much outrage the song titles stirred up. “True Traitor, True Whore” contains compositions such as “Her Circle Is the Noose”, “Every Orifice Yawning Her Price”, and “Harlot Rises (Mesmerised Again)”. Also, Jef didn’t help matters by giving a few peculiar interviews.
– “True Traitor, True Whore” is not about my Jane Doe. The titles have a lot to do with women, but the lyrics are more related to the Whore of Babylon and Lilith and Eve than to… that person. I refuse to even speak her name. And unfortunately, for one of the interviews during the press cycle, I was very, very drunk and being a real smartass. I made a bunch of remarkably stupid comments. I can’t really describe the headspace I was in before the sentencing, but it was crazy. I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. I also had to go to court once a month; it was a wild time.
This was an excerpt from the full article, which is twice as long and published in Bardo Methodology #8. The same issue also includes conversations with DESTRÖYER 666/BESTIAL WARLUST, AKHLYS, BLACK WITCHERY, CULTES DES GHOULES, THUNDERBOLT, BLACKDEATH, MISÞYRMING, NORDVIS/ARMAGEDDA, MORTUUS, DÖDFÖDD/REVERORUM IB MALACHT, and OFERMOD.