Why has Behemoth frontman Nergal ditched corpsepaint for an acoustic guitar?

A press shot of Me and that Man

It sounds like the start of an unlikely joke: a Polish Satanist and a British expat walk in into a hotel bar… But then, everything about Me And That Man screams ‘unlikely’, from the two men behind it to the music they make.

You’ll know at least one of those men. Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski has been the singer, guitarist and driving force of Polish extreme metal juggernaut Behemoth for the last 25 years. The person sitting across the table from him in the bar of this painfully hip east London hotel is a different matter. You probably won’t be aware of John Porter – a 60-something West Midlander-turned- Polish resident – unless you’ve followed the Eastern European rock scene closely for the last 40 years.

But this odd couple have made one of the most intriguing records you’ll hear this year. Me And That Man’s debut album, Songs Of Love And Death, takes its cues from the blues and country, from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. For Nergal, at least, it’s not so much a left turn as him suddenly yanking on the handbrake, spinning the car around and tearing off in the opposite direction in a cloud of dust.

“I’ve earned the freedom to do this,” says Nergal, above the on-trend pop music drifting down from the hotel’s speakers. “I’ve earned my credibility. People know that I’m just jumping from flower to flower. I’m trying out new things. I couldn’t have done this 15 years ago – I didn’t have the self-confidence that I have now.”

Me And That Man aren’t Behemoth. They’re not even metal in any recognisable sense of the term. What they are is the sound of one man spreading his dark wings wide.

It’s somewhat odd that it took a Pole and a Brit to make an album of true gothic Americana. The idea of Me And That Man had been brewing in the darker recesses of Nergal’s head for at least a decade. Originally, he envisaged it as a covers band dusting down old country and blues songs, and giving them a black-hearted spin, but couldn’t find the time due to his duties with Behemoth.

Then, two years ago, the itch got too great to leave unscratched. Nergal was aware of John Porter – the Englishman had carved out a successful career in Poland since moving there in the 70s. John’s last album had come out on Mystic Production, Behemoth’s Polish label. In Nergal’s head, he would be the perfect collaborator.

“He called me up,” grins John, “and said [deep mock-Satanic voice], ‘Would you like to meet me?’ I was intrigued, ’cos obviously he’s the enfant terrible of the Polish scene. We met in a Greek restaurant and he said, ‘What do you think about doing something together?’ And here we are.”

Songs Of Love And Death is a meeting of very independent minds – they brought their own ideas to the table, and split the vocals 5050. Nergal freely admits he didn’t anticipate the scale of the challenge. “I had to open up and not be this little shy guy. I was a little scared. I thought, ‘I’d rather just back off and let him do what he does best.’ But then I started breaking in with some choruses: [sings] ‘Whoa-whoa-oh!’ That’s when I thought maybe I could do it.”

Unlike the ornate musical and lyrical concepts that run through Behemoth albums, there’s no underlying theme here beyond a fascination with darkness and death. But that darkness is as much a part of Nergal as the tattoos that adorn his arms. ‘My church is black, my Christ is cold’, he intones on opening track My Church Is Black, like an occult Johnny Cash.

“I never sat down with a pen and a sheet of paper and went, ‘OK, let’s write about this…’” he says. “I just did it. Obviously, it was never going to be funny, happy, mass-appeal music. That darkness is just there.”

On paper, the gulf between Nergal and his current musical partner is vast. Where the Behemoth frontman is the extreme metal rock star incarnate, the Lichfield-born John is a 66-year-old Manchester United supporter with a bone-dry sense of humour. But while the two of them come from completely different places, they’ve managed to find some common ground.

“I don’t like that music at all,” he says, nodding towards Nergal. “But I respect somebody who has strived for more than 20 years to get where he is. Not everybody rips up a Bible onstage and then everyone hears about it. There aren’t many protesting musicians in Poland. It’s good to have someone like Nergal going [rough approximation of extreme metal singing] ‘Yeeearrrrgghhhh!’

Given Nergal’s penchant for provocation, Me And That Man could have been designed purely to test the more blinkered sections of Behemoth’s audience. Or even piss them off.

“It’s not designed to, no,” says Nergal. “But it does the job for sure. The intention was, ‘Hey, let’s get together and play some music.’ Then it started growing: ‘Hey, it would be cool if it looked this way, and when we play live it’s going to be like this.’ But people have this fucking tendency to get irritated and offended.”

“People like to get offended,” adds John. “It’s what the internet was invented for.”

If you want a snapshot of MATM’s aesthetic, then just watch the video for My Church Is Black. A weird, NSFW clip set in a dreamlike Twin Peaks-esque strip club populated by writhing women and corpulent old men, it’s where arty pretension meets earthy provocation.

“Some people think it’s arty, others think it’s disturbing. That’s what I like about it,” says Nergal. “But it’s not there to provoke people. To me, it’s just beauty. Even the fat old man is part of the beauty of the video. But some people will see it as sexist because of the naked women.”

“But then it was a woman [video director Olga Czyzykiewicz] who thought up the whole scenario,” John chips in.

“What about the naked men?” Nergal adds.

The video does indeed include male nudity, albeit of a fairly vanilla variety. Nergal himself appears in the flesh at the clip’s climax, though he is shot from behind, in shadow.

“I remember seeing the first cut, and I was, like, ‘No, you’re not showing my butt – just cut it’,” he says. “And then when she darkened the image, it was fine.”

It’s ironic that someone with your reputation should have a problem with showing your arse on screen.

“I don’t know. I’m just telling you my first reaction. I don’t know what’s behind it,” he shrugs. “Maybe I’m just shy little Nergal inside.”

If we’re going to put on a big pretentious hat here, then Nergal’s unclothed appearance in the video could be read as a metaphor for Me And That Man’s relationship with his day job. Where Behemoth are an audio and visual spectacle complete with facepaint, robes and irreligious regalia, his new project’s upcoming shows will find him facing the world stripped of audio-visual theatrics.

“I like that interpretation,” he says, sounding like it has genuinely never occurred to him before. “That’s the whole point of it – to bring something that’s the opposite of what Behemoth brings. Stripped down.”

Are you nervous about facing the world naked? Do you feel vulnerable?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I remember this one Behemoth show we played without all the gear – it got lost somewhere. We just went onstage in sunglasses. It was cool for the people who saw it, but for me, man, it felt super-weird to be standing onstage like that. I felt naked, literally. I couldn’t get the same flow. It was interesting, but I never want to repeat that. I guess this is a different context.”

In truth, Me And That Man shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to anyone who has followed Nergal’s career closely. The closest extreme metal has to a renaissance man, he’s done whatever the hell he wants and damn the reaction – whether that’s joining the judging panel of a Polish TV talent show or opening up his own chain of boutique barbers. It’s not hard to connect this carpe diem approach to his battle with leukemia in 2010.

“That changed my way of life drastically,” he says, suddenly quieter and more serious. “I think more about what I’m doing, why I’m here, where I want to be. I’m way more conscious of what I’m doing. Like drugs – it’s not that I’m not using drugs, occasionally I do, but I’m conscious of playing with danger. I’m more aware of why I’m doing it, why I’m using this tool. But I’m definitely taking good care of myself. And I like that process.”

He says that what he’s doing with Me And That Man is already feeding into the “20 or 30” ideas he has had for new Behemoth songs. “They are very acoustic-orientated, even though they’re going to turn into extreme stuff. You can see the parallels between extreme metal and acoustic, bluesy stuff – maybe slow it down, make some more space there, the worlds are much closer than you may think.”

Both halves of Me And That Man say that, as it stands, the project is a one-off – “We’re not slaves to it,” says Nergal – though that may change should the whim take them again. But if nothing else, it has given Nergal pause to think about his own future.

“I’m 40,” he says. “How long can I make extreme metal music for? Two more decades maybe? At 50, probably yes, if you stay in shape. But at 60? Maybe not. I’m halfway through life, I hope, and I want to focus on things that are meaningful to me. Behemoth is where I come from, and I’m going back there, but this is what I want to put my time and energy into right now.”

Songs Of Love And Death is out on March 24 via Cooking Vinyl

My church is black

The dark congregation of musicians who inspired Me And That Man

Mark Lanegan

Nergal: “He’s the singer with the Screaming Trees, but it’s his solo career that inspired us. His record, Blues Funeral [2012], was one of the albums that helped me to make this music.”

Madrugada

Nergal: “They’re a Norwegian band, they make amazing music – kind of bluesy, alternative rock. Their last record [2008’s self-titled release] is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time.”

Leonard Cohen

Nergal: “Leonard Cohen’s last album just gives me thrills [2016’s You Want It Darker]. The first song, the words he’s singing and the way he’s singing: ‘I’m ready, my lord…’ It’s the ultimate death record.”

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Nergal:Let Love In [1994] and Push The Sky Away [2012] are my favourite albums of his. I saw Nick Cave twice during this period, and got a huge boost of inspiration from him.”

John: “But on our record there’s a bit more of his side-project, Grinderman, which is looser and more guitary than the Bad Seeds.”

Johnny Cash

John: “The records he made when Rick Rubin brought him back are brilliant – American Recordings [1994], The Man Comes Around [2002]. And I still can’t watch the video of him singing [Nine Inch Nails’] Hurt without getting emotional.”

John Porter

Nergal: “Everyone should listen to Helicopter by Porter Band. It’s a classic.”

John: “It was recorded back in 1979. It was hard to get a record out in Poland back then – you had to wait three or four years just to record it, but for some magic reason it didn’t take quite that long.”

Nergal: “I love [2011’s] Back In Town as well.”

John: “That’s my solo electric record. It’s a bit closer to this, but it’s not so tough.”

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