Q & A with Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Satanic Church
by J. Bennett, Decibel Magazine
On April 30, 1966, an ex-San Francisco police photographer and carnival organist named Anton Szandor LaVey shaved his head, slung an inverted cross around his neck and announced the formation of the Church of Satan. By 1969, he had authored The Satanic Bible, which featured on its cover the Sigil of Baphomet (a goat’s head in a pentagram encircled by the Hebrew letters of Leviathan), and the ensuing media blitz—complete with black masses, the casting of hexes and untimely celebrity deaths—scared the piss out of housewives and hippies alike. The following year, Vertigo Records put an inverted cross in the gatefold of Black Sabbath’s debut LP, and heavy metal’s love affair with fake Satanism began. Venom, Slayer and Mötley Crüe all pretended to dance with the devil, followed by a veritable legion of Hessian poseurs who continue to bite Satanic imagery at every available opportunity. There is perhaps no greater living authority on this kind of semiotic fraudulence than Peter H. Gilmore. A distinguished veteran of Anton LaVey’s Council of Nine, Gilmore is also a musician who has worked with death metal commandos Acheron (actual Satanists) and fellow COS figurehead and lockgroove enthusiast Boyd Rice of NON. He also released his own CD of symphonic music called Threnody for Humanity, which doubles as the soundtrack for the documentaries Death Scenes 2 and 3. In 2002, LaVey’s mistress Blanche Barton named Gilmore the High Priest of the Church of Satan, and he’s been running Lucifer’s show ever since.
Your administrative assistant said you weren’t available from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. every day. Is that when you perform the black mass or something?
[Laughs] No. That’s usually when I walk my dog. I have a black Chow Chow. Her name is Countessa Bela Lugosi, and she’s just a baby so she needs her walk around the neighborhood. I don’t really perform many black masses anymore, because it’s meant to be a specific blasphemy against Christianity, and for me, the Christian symbols are fairly meaningless. It’s never been an important force in my life, so I don’t really feel the need to stomp on their symbolism. I did one for the BBC years ago, because they wanted something blasphemous for their visuals. And you know, if we have enough members together who really feel that Christianity has been a negative in their life then we could do a traditional black mass to get it out of their system. But the whole point of ritual is to purge yourself of emotions that are hindering you, so it’s not like you’d be running around doing a black mass all the time—that would mean you’re totally obsessed with Christianity. And why would you even be a Satanist at that point?
In addition to you and Anton LaVey, there have been quite a few musicians involved with the Church of Satan: King Diamond, Marilyn Manson, Boyd Rice, Sammy Davis, Jr. What do you think it is about the Church that attracts them?
Well, the old phrase, “the Devil always has the best tunes” is really true. Music is the art that reaches the emotions directly, and Satanism is the only religion that actually embraces the full gamut of human emotion. So it really seems like a natural fit for us and musicians who are expressing all ranges of human experience to say, “Here’s a philosophy I can work with. It welcomes everything that I’m doing. I don’t have to restrict myself—I can plumb the depths or storm the heights.” It can be very satisfying, and it seems to work. Most Satanists, if they’re not musicians themselves, are passionate about music—and all kinds, too. Anything a Satanist finds emotionally satisfying is “Satanic music” to that person. You can’t say, “Oh, heavy metal is Satanic music,” or “classical music written about the Devil is Satanic.” I mean, certainly because some of those things deal directly with the subject and imagery of Satan and Hell and infernal things moves it in that direction. But if the music isn’t emotionally affecting for you, it couldn’t possibly be Satanic.
Many black metal and death metal bands—and their members—take their monikers from The Satanic Bible’s list of “Infernal Names”: Marduk, Behemoth, Leviathan, Samael, Fenriz, Euronymous, etc. And metal music has a long history of incorporating images like the pentagram, the inverted cross and the goat’s head—often in a way that has nothing to do with the Church of Satan’s philosophy. When you see these kinds of misappropriations, do you get annoyed, or do you just laugh?
Well, at this point, I’m tired of it because it’s become a cliché. I mean, how many literally hundreds of bands have done that? There’s always yet another band with a name in script you can’t read—all tangled-looking with a pentagram or a goat’s head. When you first saw that years ago, it was something different and shocking to people. And of course, so much music that young people listen to is intentionally crafted to disturb the older generation. That’s a long tradition—from all the original rock music, to even before that, popular music of any time was upsetting to the older order. Nowadays, waltzes don’t freak anybody out, but the very fact that people danced and touched each other was at one point revolutionary. When that first happened [with metal], it was really interesting, because it developed a kind of graphic language [in conjunction with] the certain kinds of sounds that were used and the lyrical imagery—unfortunately, you couldn’t really hear what the lyrics were. [Laughs] I think it might’ve been a little more powerful if enunciation was valued more. But it didn’t matter, because the parents aren’t going to sit down and listen to the song anyway. They’re just going to see the album cover—like some Ronnie James Dio thing with a big demon on it—and flip out. But that’s what it’s meant for. I mean, go back to the Black Mass LP that Coven did. So much of their music is namby-pamby by today’s standards, but if you look at the imagery of the traditional black mass—and the cut where Coven actually re-enact one—it’s very strong. That totally shocked people—and it still can, actually. The rest of it seems kind of passé. And when younger people do it that kind of thing now, it seems more like a sense of nostalgia than anything groundbreaking.
Has the Church of Satan ever been in a position where it’s been asked to account for metal bands’ misappropriation of Satanic images?
It does happen. People who are ignorant—and the world is full of them, whether it’s intentional or not—will come to us and say, “Well, what about this?” And our response is that if they’re not our members, and they’re not dealing with anything that’s using words from our literature, then it’s just their artistic expression. So we don’t feel responsible for it. Marilyn Manson, of course, has admitted to being a member, and loves playing with all kinds of imagery. But he takes things from horror, surrealism—it’s not meant to be specifically Satanism onstage. What I think happens often is that when we have a member who’s doing something creative, people want to equate what he’s doing onstage with embodying our philosophy, and that really isn’t the case—it’s their own artistic vision. I mean, if you ask Marilyn Manson, “What is Satanism?” he can tell you, but he’s not going say it’s his stage show.
I read somewhere that Anton LaVey hated rock music.
I wouldn’t say that he hated it, but he didn’t really listen to it. It wasn’t his thing. He liked older tunes. He could play classical stuff, though, and whenever I was out [in San Francisco], he’d practice Franz Liszt or [Antonin] Dvorak or something, but he preferred the songs from the ’30s and ’40s. And he really liked it if you could sing them with him. We’d sit around all night long singing songs and he’d sit behind this bank of synthesizers and make all these incredible accompaniments. He felt that so many of the American popular songs of the past really took the lyrics and embodied them in music that was expressive—that certain chord progressions could deal with grief or nostalgia or longing or happiness—instead of making a style and just repeating it. Today, music has so much style happening that I don’t think the shape of the melody or the orchestration really reflects the lyrics. [Laughs] Actually, these days melody is gone from lyrics—it’s all vocal pyrotechnics. But, as a student of music history, things get elaborate to a point, and then suddenly they pull back and get simple again. So the next wave of music is going to have people who sing very simply and straightforward. But we’re still in the super-elaborate phase.
Do you listen to metal at all?
Frankly, it’s not the kind of music that I find particularly stimulating, but I actually worked with a metal band called Acheron for a while. I did introductions to a number of their albums. I’m a composer, and I write symphonic music, so I would do all these bombastic orchestral things, with organ and brass and percussion for an overture or for a piece to open a song.
You also did some work with Boyd Rice and NON.
Oh yeah—he likes to do performance art.
And again, I did this sort of bombastic music that he used on tour in Europe, I think. [Laughs] So yeah, I’ve contributed those things.
Tell me about Threnody for Humanity.
It’s symphonic music that I wrote for Death Scenes 2 and 3, films that were edited and directed by Nick Bougas. I took the original cuts and arranged them in an order that made emotional sense. Some of the music is very dissonant and atonal, but then it sort of segues into more choral stuff, but it’s all symphonic music that I realized on my synthesizers. There’s nothing fake about the death scenes, either—like Faces of Death or something. Most of it is real news footage, often from other countries, because you can’t broadcast that stuff here. I mean, it’s really grim. There’s concentration camp footage and war footage—and footage of the helicopter accident with Vic Morrow when they were filming the Twilight Zone movie—but the images worked really well with the music.
Did you know that there’s been a significant influx of Christianity in heavy music lately?
It’s a little more subtle than that, usually. Nobody’s throwing bibles into the audience.
Stryper was hysterical. I thought it was a fun idea, because it was such a parody. The devil metal guys were out there tearing up bibles, so you might as well have somebody praising Jesus.
Some of the more contemporary black metal bands here in the US seem to have a better understanding of Satanism than their Scandinavian predecessors. Moribund Records even pledges allegiance to the Church of Satan—and you—on their website.
Oh, I know them. He [Moribund boss Odin “Old Goat” Thompson] is a member. A lot of times, members who have labels or are in bands will keep us posted on whatever they’re producing. Alkaline Trio, for example, are very successful these days and are very happy to let people know that two of them are also members of the Church of Satan. So they’re out of the closet.
Do you get the sense that there are a lot of people out there who consider themselves Satanists, but who aren’t members?
What happens is that there are people who don’t really understand The Satanic Bible, but think Satanic imagery is cool and consider themselves Satanists even though we wouldn’t consider them that. They’re often confusing some sort of mixed-up paganism and devil-worship or maybe some Aryan nonsense. But I think we’re the folks who can define it, because Satanism didn’t really exist as a coherent philosophy until Anton LaVey started the Church. So we do feel we have the right to make the definitions. And it’s fine if people read the books and apply the ideas to their lives—we don’t require them to join us. Of course, if they want to participate, there are benefits to being a member…
* Source: Decibel Interview with Magus Gilmore
[Repost from Warlock Bloodfire's journal].