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Matthew Kiichi Heafy: “We May All Have Different Backdrops, But We Are All Incredibly Similar”

Jack Rogers
Jack Rogers 24 May 2022 at 16.56

"This project has helped to unpack these things, learn more about myself, and be comfortable with me and my upbringing"

A project over a decade in the making, IBARAKI is so much more than a musical endeavour for Matt Heafy. 

A way for him to celebrate his love of black metal as much as his deep-rooted Japanese culture, his debut album 'Rashomon' is as expansive in its storytelling as it is in its sentimentality, and the journey has had a lasting effect on Kiichi's mental and emotional wellbeing. It is beautiful, brutal and boundless, all of the things that creativity should always be.

We sat down to talk through the roots of the project, what it represents and what it has taught him...

How does it feel to be at a place where this long-awaited project is now out in the world?
"Typically with things that I do, I do them much quicker than I have with this. That's not to say that I speed things up, but with Trivium and IBARAKI, I cannot sit down and say, 'I am going to write now'. It just doesn't work. It's about catching lightning in the bottle. This record, in particular, is that it is a time capsule in the truest form. The first full second, which is 'Kagutsuchi', was the first thing I tracked in full, and that was in 2011. To now be at a point where they are out is pretty amazing, and seeing how far it has come over the years is amazing. 

"It is a love letter in the sense that I love so many things about black metal, but there are also so many things that I don't love about black metal. As a kid, I had the blinders up, and now looking at it as an adult and learning more, I'm like, 'Oh wow, this was involved in the genre as well?' Now I can rewrite those things and take them and make them differently. That's something that's important to me."

So, where would you say your relationship with the genre started?
"I first got into black metal when I was 15. I met a local musician called Richard Brown, who is one of the best musicians I have ever met, and he was the one who introduced me to it. I think the first Emperor thing I saw was 'Imperial Live Ceremony', and watching that VHS, I just thought they were amazing. I have always gravitated towards the second wave more than the first. The first wave is cool, but it is also too rootsy and raw for me. But Emperor always stuck out because all of the albums were so different. So fast-forward to 2005, and I was wearing Emperor shirts on every magazine cover I was on. I ended up befriending Darren Toms from Candlelight Records, who then started to send me loads of different records and patches and shirts of all the black metal bands they had. 

Then in 2010, I saw a kid wearing an Emporer shirt outside of In Flames' burger bar in Sweden. I sent the photo over to Ihsahn to say how cool it was seeing the younger generation supporting the band as well, and he took that as a chance to thank me for the years of support as well. We had never met up until this point, but that's when I told him I was working on this alias black metal project. At the time, I would never show myself as doing it because elite black metal kids, as I had been myself, wouldn't accept the guy from Trivium doing that. But I showed him, and he was like, 'Yeah, it sounds like black metal'. He started to teach me that the same rebellion that took place at the start of the genre needed to happen again for it to progress. That's how the project started to take shape for me, and Ihsahn went from being a hero into a mentor."

It's really interesting to think of how the writing has shifted over the years for you. An album rarely has that much change in life and taste sewn into it in such a way…
"You can hear the shift, which I love. That's a lot within the playing and things creeping into my psyche throughout. It's been liberating in a lot of ways. With Trivium, we have always made what we wanted to make, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it is four brains coming together to make something. With this, I have been able to make whatever I wanted to make. On a selfish level, I wasn't bothered by what people would think when this came out. I would love to know what my friends and peers would think, but I wasn't looking to appease those who would say that I couldn't do it.

"Whilst we were doing this, there was a moment when we were seeing a lot of anti-Asian sentiment in the world, especially in America. They are still happening here as well, which is just awful. So I saw this album as a chance to show off what my culture is in the hopes of making people wonder about the different stories of not just Japan but also China and Korea, and the Philippines. I wanted it to be a way to branch out and show that we may have different food and different backdrops that we live in, but we are all incredibly similar. We all want to enjoy this life, have a good time and be who we want to be."

Was there anything that, whilst learning about all of this thing for yourself, surprised or shocked you? And did that contribute to what you then put on the record?
"There are things that have always been there, but I have just found myself peeling back the layers and looking further in. The same with black metal as a genre. I started by thinking it's the greatest thing in the world, but then I began to unpack the different things deeper. So sadism for fun is fine, but the nasty racism doesn't need to be there.

"But I have always been haunted by having the middle name Kiichii. I've always loved it, but I have an Uncle Kiichii who killed himself. He was a police officer in Japan, and suicide has always been at a high rate. My Mum is from Hiroshima, and my dad is a marine, and there is a significant connection between Hiroshima and the American military. I have always felt like I was never Asian enough to be with the Asian kids and white enough to be with the white kids. There have always been these things that have been a part of my life. This project has helped to unpack these things, learn more about myself, and be comfortable with me and my upbringing. It's incredibly gratifying to make something that feels that way. And it's made me want to keep on digging even further."

Does it make you wonder what you would have felt like if you had done this searching earlier on in your life? Of course, it's so freeing to do it now, but have you considered the person and the artist you would have been if you had been in the place at a younger age?
"Absolutely, but I think a lot has to do with how I have had to reframe my life and how I look at it. Rather than thinking of what could have been, I focused on just being the best Matt Heafy I could be right now. But that's something that came only after having kids. So I have wondered and thought of what could have been if I had pondered these things before. But then I'm not enjoying what I am doing in the present moment. So, we need those moments in life, but we also need to understand that what is happening right now is also as important."

We have to talk about Gerard Way, of course. Because the performance he gives is out of this world. Where did that come from, and how did it feel to find such a connection with him in terms of what you were creating?
"This is the perfect example of how black metal now needs to be the opposite of what it was before to progress. And what is more opposite than the guy from Trivium and the guy from My Chemical Romance on a black metal record? That's more shocking than anything. My Chemical Romance has been one of my favourite bands of all time, and Gerard has been one of my favourite musicians, creators, and humans. We have been pen pals over the years, checking in every six months casually. There was a day when he asked me about tremolo picking for black metal, asking how you did it, and I made him a tutorial video. We spoke about black metal more, and then it developed from there. What I love about the lyrics of 'Rōnin' is that they reflect a lot of the issues that I have found in black metal that I want to rewrite. I feel it is then symbolic having us both on the track because of that. And his performance is just absolutely unbelievable. I knew it would be great, because everything he does is great, but it totally blew me away. I hope it has blown away everybody else who has heard it. To show his versatility in a way that nobody has heard him do before, that's just remarkable."

Bringing such sentiment into the world and representing tolerance and understanding in so many different ways, musically and emotionally, is so important right now...
"I think it's so cool how the barriers are coming down. The elitism of things is just not fun these days. I want more people to be able to enjoy this music and these things with me and for people to see what is possible when we share it. There is no right or wrong answer to any of this. It's all about doing what makes you feel good. That's been the driving force with everything that I do, and it's for everyone who wants to treat people the way they deserve to be treated."

What would you say is the thing that you are most proud of within this project? The thing you are happiest with that you now have as a part of your legacy?
"I would say that it's less pride and more comforting and relieving. It's knowing about how my brain works and why things happen in certain ways now more than I did. The world can seem pretty grim, but it's about looking at how you can make yourself happy and how you help other people make things better."

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