Interview by Ann Marigo
The words “art and music” tend to conjure up lovely, classical images of grace and elegance to a number of people (or modern paintings with rap for some). What often doesn’t come into mind however is the raw chaos of black metal and live ink drawings from the stage.
Yes, you read that right. From the stage. As it happens.
Come to Inferno Festival or even Roadburn and you will find Kim Holm who does exactly that with the blessings of bands and promoters. A cartoonist from Bergen, Norway; Kim’s long love for metal and comics eventually led him to bring the two together in a way that matches the scene’s intensity to paper.
So sit back and relax as I, a budding artist myself, chat one on one with Kim about the artistic process, metal aggression and that increasingly tricky yet vital subject of free speech.
Kim with Mirai and Dr Mikannibal of SIGH (photo taken by Lars Pettersen)
This is kind of an honour for me because I remember when I first saw your ink paintings and how amazed I was. I’ve always been afraid of ink myself, since you can’t correct your mistakes the first time around!
I actually first heard of you when I was doodling at a gig and some people came over to see what I was doing. They told me about this guy in Norway who draws bands at Inferno festival, and said I could be the British version of that (based on the fact that I was drawing everyone around me).
Maybe I’ll try what you’re doing using ink, but I don’t know if you’ll like that or not!
Oh no, no, no – I would love some competition! I’ve been saying that I’m the best in the world at drawing extreme metal bands live because no one else is stupid enough to do it. If anyone joins me, it will mean I’ll have to prove it! Hahaha!
I’ll definitely look into that, provided I can get enough space considering how crowded shows can get at the front.
I’m using these Pentel colour brushes which have a soft ink cartridge, so I don’t need to dip into an ink bottle, but sometimes I’ll stand in the front row while people are headbanging into the back of my head and elbowing me. All while I’m just trying to find the groove in there.
I would recommend being up front because that’s where you can really feel the concert.
Have you ever found yourself even caught in a mosh pit up front, while drawing?
No, not a real mosh pit – that would be hard! Hahaha!
That would be an interesting experience! Trying to draw while everybody behind you makes a mosh pit or a wall of death. I’ve even seen some kids decide to do a mosh pit at a Primordial gig during ‘The Coffin Ships’ because they didn’t know any better!
Well, people express their enjoyment of music in different ways. I’m with the kids on this – you can moshpit to anything, even if it’s out of place!
Going back to your own story, you started what you do now by live sketching at a Rotting Christ show, with the hope that someone would buy you a beer in exchange. The rest is history!
But what did Rotting Christ think of those pictures, if they saw them?
I don’t know if they’ve seen it or not, though they seem to like my stuff. They did think it was fun when I told them this story. My memory is pretty bad as I talk to too many bands, so I can’t remember exactly what one of my favourite bands said to me though they have always been very supportive. Also, “Rituals” has been played many times by me since I continue to like what they do.
It’s an interesting album, since it delves into soundtrack territory. I’ve always thought that there was some kind of connection between making art and listening to movie soundtracks owing to how the latter gives you a dynamic and dramatic atmosphere.
I know many different comic book artists who use either classical music or movie soundtracks when they draw their work. I can see how that works, but personally I use music to get a rhythm going on. I do enjoy having the story and the drama there with the constant movement that you get from a soundtrack, but artistically (for me) I need to find rhythms to latch onto.
When I choose what to listen i.e. for a comic book project, I choose everything based on the types of mood and rhythm required. This way, when I’m in the zone, my hand will actually move along to the music which will add a random element to the art and make it a bit better; I’m a control freak, and latching onto another rhythm is a way for me to create another element of chaos. Without this, it just becomes clinical and stale for me. I don’t want that!
Drawing Church of Misery
Obviously drawing live means it’s literally in front of you (and even behind you with the crowd at the back!)
Again when I draw live, I can even do this when there are shitty sound levels, as long as I hear the drums and the bass. I don’t really need to hear the vocals or guitars or anything else if I can catch onto these areas than everything altogether.
You once talked about how some bands had reacted to your concert drawings, for example Niklas from Shining, who praised one picture and then said “but this one’s shit, that one’s shit, this one’s shit…”
How often do you get this kind of reaction?
People are fascinated by art, so if they see something that they can’t do themselves, it’s therefore good because they’re amazed at another who’s doing it. “Wow, you did that? Wow!” So when they complement my art, they’re actually complimenting my ability to make it rather than whether it works or not.
Most of the times, whether it’s the audience, regular people or bands, they say “Oh, this is excellent”. I appreciate this, but I can’t really take it seriously because they’re just complimenting my ability to do something. Occasionally, you do find people who get something out of it and react to the painting itself rather than the craft behind it, as they understand what I’m doing like Niklas did.
For me, a good night of drawing concerts is when I get two good paintings out of a pile of ten. I can’t look at the rest!
It’s like what Chuck Jones (Looney Tunes) said – “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”
I think that even when you’ve done your hundred thousand crap drawings, and I believe that we all have a level of crap that needs to get out of our system; you get to a level of proficiency in the end. Fifteen years ago if I thought a drawing of mine was terrible, which I usually thought about three days afterwards, I wouldn’t dare show it to anyone because it wasn’t proficient enough to me. Lately, I’m at a level where some days you do good, and some days you do crap, but even the crap is at an adept level. I can show it to people and not have to run out of the room crying while they look at it. Some projects which you put your heart into turn out good, and some others (which you do the same) turn out bad. Not everything is your best work!
Again with a concert drawing, I’m lucky if I get a pile of eight pictures.
You’re also heavily involved with the world of comics, as you’ve mentioned above. The more well-known comics of yours (at least in the music world) is the anthology “Morbid Tales”. How did that come about?
I got to know (fellow cartoonist) Mark Rudolph from when he did the “Art & Story” podcast, then met him briefly during a trip to the US. We’ve kept in touch and he eventually approached me about contributing to some projects… The first was a Mercyful Fate tribute anthology, and the second (a year afterwards) was Celtic Frost. (I have to say that) I’m not a music historian and I’ve always liked metal before I even started going to concerts, but I have very narrow, specific tastes there based on what I first stumbled upon.
I had very little knowledge of Mercyful Fate at the time, though I knew I really didn’t like the vocals while good people like Mark loved them. I took it as a good opportunity to learn to like the band and drew two comics based on some of their songs, which meant listening to Fate all along and I think that turned out pretty well. And I learned to love Mercyful Fate! Haha!
Then later I was asked to contribute to the Celtic Frost book. I had always known and liked them, though I can’t recite lyrics or anything.
I’m game for anything that Mark asks me to do, because he does good shit that I want to be a part of! Both books came out really special and are one of a kind with a variety of different artists and contributing musicians.
When it comes to making a comic inspired by music, how did the process come about for you?
Well, with Mercyful Fate it was the classic method of making comics. I decided that I would base it on the lyrics and choose two songs that had Lovecraftian names like the Mad Arab and Cthulu, so I could break down the lyrics and make the story from there.
The Mad Arab
Thumbnails first then drawing while listening to a whole bunch of other Mercyful Fate songs. This was an okay approach for that project, because the band’s songs tell stories which are a bit silly and allow you to have a bit of fun with them.
With Celtic Frost meanwhile, I wanted to do something else, so I chose a Triptykon song (since I’ve listened to more of them in the last few years) and then just starting drawing something. It seems like a story, but it’s drawn in pretty much the same way that I do the concert drawings. The difference is that instead of trying to capture what happens onstage, I tried to capture how the lyrics and sound made me feel.
I’ve always found that when capturing something inspired by a song, it’s the feeling stirred up that’s one of the trickiest things.
I think that’s the reason why my art works with a lot of metal – in the tools I use and how I use them, there comes an expression that has an affinity with the sounds of a lot of metal. There is aggression in my brush strokes, but it’s not the aggression of political hip hop. There is also a sadness there, and it’s not the sadness of Hank Williams. I would love for it to be, but it’s not and I have actually tried drawing a singer-song writer but it just becomes a half-assed caricature. Metal works for me because there is something kin to my brush strokes. It wouldn’t work if I didn’t like it to begin with, but all my life I’ve identified with metal over other genres and the type of expression that I feel from it.
I love all sorts of different music, but my favourite Tom Waits album is “Bone Machine” because it’s the most metal! My favourite Roots Manuva song is “Evil Rabbit” because again it’s the most metal! I try to find a mix of noise and aggression and emotion from everything that I like, since I started listening to Judas Priest when I was a kid. It’s always been a drive towards finding this feeling in music and art.
Not very surprising that I would be stupid enough to choose black metal, which somehow works!
Marduk at Beyond The Gates 2015
It’s recommended that artists keep a sketchbook handy for any ideas that come around. How often do you do this?
I’m lousy – I can’t keep a sketchbook! If I keep one, it’s just a collection of drawings which I can lose somewhere, whereas if I keep my art in piles of different kinds of paper then I’ll only lose one drawing here and there. The short answer is I never actually do that. I should, but I don’t! I do sketch a lot but it has to be planned or organized, and most of the ideas I come up with are dialogue or for stories. I just record them onto my phone and never listen to them!
At this point I want to now quickly touch on one of your recent projects, a comic for the series DASS. For the non-Norwegians reading this at home, can you explain what this is about?
DASS is a historical figure famous for poetry in Northern Norway as well as his reputation as a mean and awful creature! But there is this other side to him, these myths and legends which say he had a black book with spells from the Devil, and actually rode to Denmark. The DASS book is something which I’m just a tiny part of!
A friend of mine, Jon Jamtli, asked me to draw one of the stories and I drew one with the character in Bergen, fighting against the Black Death and our personification of Black Death, Pesta. I didn’t come up with the story though, I set that project up as a challenge to myself. Whenever friends ask you to do something, they want it done for free so I have to find a way to justify that to myself, so with this one I decided to see how quickly I could draw the pages with so little prepared. There was some sketching and research, but there was a lot more drawing! It was a learning experience!
One thing I always ask people in the metal world, owing to how important it is, is the issue of freedom of expression.
Seeing as how this means that we can tackle all kinds of subjects (like theology in the case of black metal), it’s interesting how we wouldn’t even have comics like Preacher without this right. Last year however, we had many people claiming that freedom of speech – not just over Charlie Hebdo – isn’t without consequences including death. It gives the impression that if you draw something that people don’t like, your life is expendable!
We say “freedom of speech” like it’s one absolute thing and it isn’t. Freedom of speech has always been a fluid thing – a gradient if you like, where we’ve never been at this fully free point and we might not want to be there either. Right now though, I think freedom of speech is definitely under attack strangely from the “progressive left” who should shut the fuck up because free speech and freedom of arguing – even saying unpopular things – is vital to progress! This attack is not a judiciary attack; it’s mostly a social media crowd phenomenon, which can be silencing enough. It’s also under attack from fundamentalists who apparently will kill artists for drawing something they don’t like!
No artist ever should be getting death threats from anyone. Islamic fundamentalists may not be alone in doing this, but they seem to be alone in actually trying to execute them. Then there seems to be the defence squad from the right, who are crying “Freedom of Speech” in many cases where it’s not even about freedom of speech! That’s not currently protected by free speech in the West and never has been.
In Norway we have laws against death threats and you see them being put to different use on Muslims than Neo-Nazis! Haha! If a Neo-Nazi gives you a death threat, it’s not taken as seriously as when a Muslim does it.
That’s what I think about the issue, and I think you have to look at it from a fundamental level and really question what are the ramifications here. If you condemn something in a single instance, how will it look on you when the next instance comes? When many progressives and a lot of artists pussy out and see things case by case by how it makes them feel, that’s not good. On the other hand, I’m not going to align myself with the Right as I have no belief whatsoever that Conservatives will actually protect free speech – they have never done this before!
Freedom of speech is a progressive value that should be progressing and should be fighting out the problem. But hey – what the fuck do I know, I’m a cartoonist!
Also hounding people for something they’ve said twenty years ago… sometimes I myself say something wrong twenty seconds ago, or I’ll say something wrong where I know it’s not good but I did so because I wanted to try and say it just to hear how it sounds and feels to say it. That’s not really something to do with free speech, but wider issues.
Requests from Kim’s Free Art Friday sessions
Occasionally you’ll hear about how freedom of speech doesn’t cover freedom to have bigoted views… I know that there was a lot of anger when Phil Anselmo was recorded doing his now infamous “White Power!” line.
Without actually discussing the details, saying “white power” at a metal show is something stupid to do. I don’t know how honest it was, but I think that there’s something in metal where the genre has always been ideologically conservative while being musically progressive. It was a reaction against the ‘60’s and the hippies.
Somehow, I’m in love with a lot of conservative things despite being very left-leaning politically. By that token, I shouldn’t like all that stuff and just read Alan Moore all day, but that would be boring! I love metal, fantasy and Lovecraft, who was a very conservative asshole and a bit of a dirtbag himself (intellectually), but I really find something in his work to enjoy.
Frank Miller, the very reason why I draw comics, is also very conservative nowadays – though he still does fantastic stuff! I think that a lot of metal who write about metal are kind of like me, in that they come from a progressive standpoint yet are fascinated by the conservative part.
For me, when I find out that I like a lot of art made by people I disagree strongly with, I find this very fascinating and what to figure out the common ground we do and don’t have. I wanna learn and explore!
Though I noticed that some people think that if they like something bad that it therefore reflects badly on them, so they must “fix the issue”. I don’t see how that attitude’s going to work. Sometimes writing about this is important, but most of the time whenever I see someone write back issues like sexism or racism in the metal world, they’re not trying to help others; they’re just trying to save themselves.
However, there are some good people doing interesting stuff about these issues, like Canadian professor Vivek Venkatesh of Grimposium who recently launched a platform against online hate speech in a non-judgmental way from what I’ve seen. Dialogue is better than condemnation; even though the latter seems kind of fun!
Before we wrap up, anything else you want to say?
We talked about freedom of speech earlier. Well, one aspect of free speech that is very little understood is copyright. I like quoting people I normally disagree with when they say something that makes sense to me, so I’m going to quote Milton Creedman here, who said “Copyright is the opposite of freedom of speech”.
Copyright is the right to stop people from using and spreading information by giving exclusivity to artwork and books. What you actually have is the right to penalize people for sharing it illegally, which is very clearly a form of censorship. I don’t think that people quite realise how much effect that this system has in the world today and actually creates a class divide when it comes to art, culture, education and even parts of metal music and technology. When you’re putting your stuff out there with exclusive copyright, in reality you’re contributing to these divides by saying “you poor people, you shouldn’t enjoy my shit!”
We need a better system, and while I don’t have a better system now I am currently realizing all my original art under Creative Commons’ Attributions License. If you like free art and even if you disagree with me about this topic, please check my work out! Also go to my Patreon page to support me, so I can make even more free art!