An Interview with Sword Heaven
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

Mark Van Fleet and Aaron Hibbs are Sword Heaven. Independently of Sword Heaven, both Hibbs and Van Fleet are visual artists, heavily involved in the do-it-yourself, outsider happenings around Columbus, Ohio. Sword Heaven is also a manifestation of their visual art, obvious in the graphics adorning the recordings, but mainly through the live show. Hibbs lashes broken cymbals to his ankle with a threadbare rope in a beastly procession around the venue at the beginning of every Sword Heaven show, making his way back to his slave-driver drum set, growling and coughing all the while like Gollum in the cave. Van Fleet stands over a cockpit of knobs and switches while coaxing sound out of an opulent sheet of metal, maybe two-foot by four-foot, processed through who knows how many electronic effects. The slave-driver drums and the sonic cockpit smash together: the sounds of twisting metal, organic scrapings, delayed man-screams and exploding percussion create a new whole, a thing more than the sum of its parts and completely beyond conventional description. Their new record, being mixed right now at Columbus Discount Recording in Columbus, elicits an aural picture of the fight that ensues after the Supreme Toad Wizard and his minions crash the Banquet of the Molemen in the Root Cellar Kingdom. Imagine the sound of the Earth’s crust being ripped wide open to let the brightest ray of the sun reach the deepest depths of the molten core, illuminating all that has been kept in the dark, but casting new shadows where none had been. All the same, Sword Heaven is just two dudes who happen to live within 10 blocks of me. Instead of just meeting halfway, I interviewed Van Fleet via email about their recent travels and the new material.

How was Europe?

Mark Van Fleet: Europe was pretty awesome. Total whirlwind, 14 straight days in five countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany. We played two festivals (Musique Volante in Metz, France, and Pauze Fest in Ghent, Belgium and Utrecht, Netherlands) and booked the tour around those two festivals. Aaron Klamut came with us and ended up being roadie, driver, equipment tech, etc. and he was great. Touring there is different in a lot of ways than touring here, There’s obvious language, technology and direction difficulties, but also because you want to see the sights everywhere you go. Finding pay phones was basically impossible, and when I did, it usually made no sense how to use it. A few take coins, and I found one that took my debit card, but most of them take some kind of weird card that you can get in that particular city somewhere. I bought a Dutch pre-paid phone that worked once, stopped working in French-speaking Belgium and I couldn’t figure out the Dutch instructions. It was a real struggle to find ways to talk to my girlfriend, and I spent more time trying to talk to her than actually talking to her. The hospitality was amazing. The food, drink, etc. was amazing everywhere. The people we met were great. The people who set up the shows were awesome. Most of the shows were good. There were one or two that we didn’t play so great, a few with low turnout, a few where the crowds weren’t really there to see us. The best shows were definitely Brussels, Metz, Geneva, and Leipzig. Venues, stages, crowds, other bands at those shows were the best, and we played pretty well too. Generally I thought we played well at most of the shows. We played a variety of places too, some tiny rooms to a handful of people (Leiden and Tilburg), squats, concert halls (Gent, Utrecht, Lyon), bars, and studios.

Everywhere we went the soundguys were convinced we were going to be way too loud, but in almost every spot, by the end of the night, most of them seemed to actually be into it. Shit costs a lot of money (we rented a mini-van and gear). No trouble at borders, though we did get pulled over in France by customs officials and were searched, but they let us go. Favorite spot was probably Holland overall. Played four shows there, but none of them were the best, just loved the country and the cities we went to. We played a lot of shows with touring American bands. I really liked Indian Jewelry, who we played with in Geneva. That show was great. We didn’t see a lot of really good Euro bands, but we did play with Ludo Mich who was amazing, and this guy, Koonda Hollaa, who was also amazing. That was in Brussels. That show (at a fucked up squat) felt the most like a U.S. noise show in someone’s basement. It was like a four- or five-band bill with a variety of styles, a good turn out, enthusiastic crowd.

It was a cool tour overall. If we ever get to do it again, I think I have a better idea of some places to avoid, and some places to go back to, as well as a better sense of the geography. We’ll play Berlin next time.

What kind of reactions were you expecting and what did they end up being?

MVF: We didn’t really have a good sense of what to expect, and we got a pretty wide range of responses, from very enthusiastic to totally indifferent.

How did the Europe thing happen anyway?

MVF: Well, we got an email out of the blue from a French promoter who had been asked to choose an act for the festival in Metz, and he said if we would play it, he would also do a show for us in Paris at the club he helps run. Because the festival was publicly funded, he was able to offer us enough money to pay for plane tickets. We had been talking about trying to go to Europe around the same time he was offering, so it was a no-brainer. But without this offer, it would not have been possible for us financially. I’m not sure how he heard us, but he’s booked a lot of shows, including bands that we are friendly with. The record on Load has been pretty widely available as well, relatively speaking, and we’ve had some small run CDR and cassette releases on a few European labels.

I booked the rest of the tour using contacts that I got from other Europeans and other bands and friends who have toured Europe. Ben, who runs Load, was also very helpful, and in some cases, I just contacted the venues directly that I knew booked underground music. It was very similar to booking a tour here in the U.S. a lot of emailing and asking around. I started the process a lot sooner than you would here, though. It was weird not really having much sense of what any of the places were like or much of a sense of the geography of Europe in general. I had never been to any of the cities we played. I made an effort to keep the drives short.

Were there any pleasant surprises or total disasters?

MVF: Lots of pleasant surprises. Utrecht in Holland, for example, is like a total fairy tale European city. So is Ghent. Some of the best shows were in places where we had no real expectations, like the shows in Brussels, Geneva and Leipzig. The biggest pleasant surprise was how hospitable the promoters were. Not only would they make awesome dinners for us every night, but the beer was always basically as much as you could drink, and they usually showed up the next morning with breakfast. Having a car in Europe (we rented a mini-van that we filled almost entirely with gear) was actually pretty convenient. I’d heard driving and parking in Europe sucks, but it didn’t seem so bad. Aaron Klamut drove the whole time, though, so it might be better to get his take on it. Driving on the autobahn at 200 kph is pretty wild. If you are going to tour Europe, get the GPS at the rental place. That saved our ass and paid for itself many times.

As for total disasters, the only show that we didn’t play so great was Amsterdam, which was a bit of a bummer because it was on election night with Lightning Bolt, and the place was packed with probably 200 to 300 people. Later on in the tour, I cracked something inside the four-track cassette recorder I have in my set up, and it wouldn’t work. But the soundguy in Ghent fixed it, so that was a disaster averted, and I’ll take this opportunity to thank him again. We played a handful of pretty small towns, and those shows were okay, but were pretty sparsely attended. We kind of expected that, though. I booked those shows mostly to keep our driving distances short or to get a show on a date when I couldn’t get anything else. We’ll probably skip those towns if we get back over to Europe again.

How did you meet Aaron? What was the original concept of Sword Heaven and how has it evolved over the past couple of years?

MVF: Sword Heaven is like a rock band extension of Noumena, which was Aaron’s “performance noise” project with Mike Shiflet and Chad Shepherd. Those two also played with us in the early days of Sword Heaven. I was always blown away by Aaron’s intensity in Noumena. It usually involved falling down and breaking things while yelling really loudly. When we started, we wanted to make something heavy and we were interested in the same kinds of things like old industrial music/noise and experimental stuff. Noumena is still occasionally active as a solo thing for Aaron.

I think the biggest change happened when Sword Heaven became a duo, sometime around early 2005, and Aaron started using triggered samples on his drums. He had been making these insane computer samples and was composing with them as a solo thing, and then he brought that to Sword Heaven to fill out the sound at the same time that Mike and Chad stopped playing with us. I think that is when we really came into our own.

You guys make a very visceral, primitive sound, but you both use some pretty high-tech gear and some low-tech stuff to accomplish that. Not that you should be using mammoth bones and yak hides on laptops, but is that juxtaposition of primitive and technological an intentional thing?

MVF: Kind of. It’s not so much intentional, but I recognize that it is true and is maybe something people find interesting about the band.

Any new stuff coming out? Will we see a Sword Heaven Live on the Van Fleet Yacht DVD in the coming year?

MVF: We recorded material for a new album in October before we left for the tour. It’s the material we’ve basically been playing for the last year, which needs to get mixed. We have a lot of demos, live recordings, etc. that may or may not get released. If computer video technology was not constantly being finicky or hard to access, a live DVD could be made from footage I have. Maybe someday.