Interview with Obscura — “Everything has a certain human touch.”

0
174

German progressive technical death metal giants OBSCURA have finally finished their quadrilogy series and are now releasing the first installment of their new trilogy of albums, “A Valediction.” We talked with frontman Steffen Kummerer about the upcoming release of the album. Read the complete interview here…

Hi Steffen, nice to talk to you. The last time we talked was to promote your show in Helsinki. How has life been treating you since?

Oh well, I remember. We played two times in Finland, so far. One was a one-off show at Tuska festival, I think it was around 2016. The second show happened in 2020, and it was one of the last shows before the entire world went into a lockdown, and I remember the show quite well, it was in a club.

Tavastia, I think.

Tavastia, yes! So, everything went entirely out of plan since then. We all made our way to… well, stay creative, productive, and here we are. We have a new album coming out later this year. So we used the extra time we had to work on a lot of details of the album, put a lot of effort into music video production. We tried to include our fanbase to see a little bit behind the scenes with a full album documentary, which we are just releasing piece-by-piece. So, we have been quite busy. But, well, the mood is perfect and I can’t wait to hit the stage again.

I also noticed that shortly after the tour, your band went through a massive lineup change. Now, you mentioned that the extra time you had went into adding a lot of details, but how big was the new lineup part of creating this album?

Each album is, in the end, the product of all members being included. So each album definitely showcases each member’s strengths. The previous album was a collective effort, as well as the new one. Everybody had his part, but in the end, I’ve been running this band for almost 20 years and I’m showing the directions. In the end, it’s a collective effort. We all work together on the new album and especially on “A Valediction.” I think it felt a little bit easy working together and we simply enjoyed making music because we haven’t had any pressure on top of us. It felt like a reincarnation, a restart from scratch. Since we had many changes besides the lineup, you mentioned, for example, we just finished an album quadrilogy, we started a new trilogy with this new album, we have a new record label, we worked with a different cover artist, and all those decisions have been made for the long term. So it’s like an entirely new chapter for the band. It felt quite fresh working on this. Also the band has existed for quite a long time. If you listen to those eleven songs from scratch, front to end, I think you hear that we simply had joy and fun making music together, and this is what counts.

Do you think that you needed this renewed energy as well?

Kind of. I mean we finished a 10-year long-lasting cycle of four albums and I’m very proud that we finished what we started. So that was quite a challenge but afterwards, it felt also like a relief that you’re simply free to do something entirely new, and as I mentioned, we now have another trilogy started, but the entire framework isn’t that stiff. So I have some broad guidelines and things to follow, but it’s not that stiff and that abstract, as it has been in the past. Maybe it was necessary to simply keep the fun, energy, and the joy of making this kind of strange music instead of becoming a pop artist or something like that. [laughs]

Do you actually regret that you decided to make this quadrilogy in the past?

No, not at all. I’m very proud of the entire album quality since I think this is something unique, and especially in this extreme metal scene, barely anyone did [that] before, and we’ve been that consistent that we finished it with the same producer, the same cover artist, the same concept from front to end. If I’m looking back, each album has its story. Each album contains a snapshot of time, so they also say where we have been or I have been at that time. The first album was released in 2009, so that’s 12 years ago. I’m definitely a different person than 12 years ago, but still, we kept the integrity and all albums – despite the changes – sound like a single band, and that’s something I’m very proud of. We kept the original part of the band alive and still move forward with it. And that’s something… well, you have to work your way up to.

Going back to this new/old lineup, I guess Jeroen and Christian have been part of old-school OBSCURA in the past as well, but how was it for you to start working with David?

David was supposed to help us out as a substitute as a drummer for a certain festival we got offered, I think 2 or 3 years ago. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do the festival then, but we still stayed in touch and have been in contact. Like many other people in the scene, he’s a very down-to-earth person, but he knows what he’s doing. I think his approach in arrangement and also songwriting together in the group was very helpful because he’s is not trying to be, or trying to push his ideas as a priority. It’s always teamwork that matters. When it comes to his abilities as a drummer, I think he’s one of the best drummers in the scene. Overall, he’s extremely… not only fast… performing fast and physical is only one thing, if you just listen to a couple of the songs we’re doing, it’s not only physical but you also need the chops to understand what is going on in terms of not only music theory but also the rhythmic patterns. It’s not the easiest three-chord punk music, I would say.

I guess in your genre, there can’t be too many drummers who can handle that.

Yeah, that’s true and David gained a big following over the last decade since I think he barely toured in the past, but he always puts a couple of videos online every now and then. And they gained a big community over the years, so he definitely showed his chops for a long time, and I also figured that he helped as a substitute drummer for other bands. He’s a super professional person, and what is equally important as his musical abilities is that his character is top-notch. If you think about how long you’re hanging out on tour or backstage in general in a band, it’s not only making music, it’s also the social part, and that’s perfect and I’m very happy and in the end, he recorded the album in Graz in Austria, I traveled to follow the recordings and also oversee a little bit how things are running, and he simply executed the entire album in 3 days. It’s hilarious. I’ve never seen something like that before.

That seems incredibly fast, especially considering the complexity of what he has to do.

Yeah, well he was prepared perfectly. And on top of that, we also recorded three playthrough videos, so what you see that’s online on YouTube is exactly what you get. So we literally recorded with a couple of cameras what he was doing while recording the album, it’s hilarious. I’m speechless. [laughs]

I took some time today to watch the episodes of your documentary on YouTube. I noticed in the second video, where you’re shooting the music video for “Solaris,” that that was apparently one of the first times you met as a band physically all together. Do you have any special memories connected to that day?

Well, we have been in the middle of producing music videos. Of course, it was a lot of jobs to take care of, but in general, it was just a nice feeling that you have those four people that are working for more than a year on an album, sitting together and not only having a drink but also have some chats and understand a little bit better how everyone works in terms of personality. It’s an entirely different thing, communicating via Skype, via emails, or any other social media platform. But sitting together one-on-one live is always a different situation and that was definitely something special.

Now, in the episode of the other music video for “A Valediction”… in Hollywood, there’s kind of this rule that you always should avoid filming with animals and children. And I noticed from the fourth episode that you also had some difficulties filming the video with the kid there. So how was that experience?

That was way better than expected. Well, those rules are definitely there, never work with animals or children, because it’s not possible to plan anything. If they say no, then it’s a no. But we dealt I think quite maturely with it and our producer, Mirko Witzki, well… he was quite charming. So we made it happen. But overall, for the band, it was something new because we never worked with actors. Before, we did some kind of acting in the two clips we worked for “Diluvium,” but it was always me in a different role. Working for the first time with somebody external did something new. I like this experience. I’m very keen and interested in music video production and overall video production; that’s something that really interests and attracts me, so I try to get a little bit further with the next productions when it comes to the videos for the band also. So far we released three music videos and there will be a fourth one before the album drops, and we also worked on a fifth one, which is going to be rather a short movie, and I’m not sure if the band is going to be seen at all. So, always something new, always something new.

Five videos is quite a lot for an album cycle. Actually, I don’t think most bands usually release that many. Is that a byproduct because of the pandemic and the fact that you had some extra time?

It was one of the reasons, because we haven’t been sure when we are going to be back on the road. Somehow, we still want to connect with our fanbase and I think the easiest way these days to connect somehow is putting out a professionally-filmed music video. On top of that, we also decided to produce those behind-the-scenes making-of clips and there will be, I think another three or four more released. Another reason is simply the fact that we didn’t know which song could represent this album in its entirety and there are so many different colors and different palettes of musical genres on the record, I think one song wouldn’t do justice to the entire record, so we decided to use four songs that are entirely different from each other. So, maybe it’s a little bit of surprise here and there for some fans.

Yeah, there are a lot of new modern elements in this new album, which is really cool. You mentioned already that this is going to be an installment of a trilogy. What can you tell us about the themes on “A Valediction?”

Well, the theme itself is rather bound to the headline, “A Valediction,” which means farewell or last goodbye, and you can interpret this in entirely different directions. The most obvious part is simply – also regarding the pandemic – that I lost a couple of friends, musicians, and family members during the last one or two years. Some songs are quite obvious; for example, the last song, “Heritage” was written the week that Sean Reinert passed away. We have been in a band, DEATH TO ALL, and he was supposed to perform on our second album, “Cosmogenesis,” back in the day, so we had some connections and others deal with something similar, for example, the bassist of my other band, THULANDRA, just passed away last year, which hit me quite hard and made me think about life and death and everything. Aside from that, I think it’s a little bit too negative if you only write about people that pass away. So, for “A Valediction,” you could also interpret it in the direction of leaving something negative behind you, for example, “Devoured Usurper” and “In Unity” deal with the fact that me and my family escaped from the communist part of Germany before the wall was down, and we left everything behind us in adversity, and even “The Beyond,” they’re rather uplifting, they have a positive attitude and because sometimes if you have a strange relationship, if you have… I don’t know, a weird situation somewhere, you just leave it behind you and just go forward, and it feels like a relief. Well, as I mentioned… uplifting, and therefore “A Valediction” is just the topic, the theme, but compared to the previous albums, it’s a little bit more open, not loose but a little bit more open to interpret and this gives me, as the person writing the lyrics, and the entire band much more options, because we do not have to look into only one mood or one pace. And here you have everything in between: bittersweet, sweet, rocking. You have an old school death metal song, you have some epic parts, you have a death fusion song, some MEGADETH parts, so it’s fun for us. It’s much easier to come up with cool ideas and it feels for the very first time in the career of this band that this is really spontaneous. We took almost 20 years to work in that direction.

That’s actually quite funny considering the genre that you are in, seems like a genre that is strict with boundaries. So it’s really cool that you’re finally stepping out from that framework in a way.

We’ve been narrowminded like that in the past as well. If I compare this album with, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago when we cut out ideas because we thought that okay this is not “metal” enough. Nowadays, we just say okay, let’s use some clean vocals and WHITESNAKE riffing and add some keyboards on it. It’s a completely different attitude and that’s really positive.

“When Stars Collide” was the surprise to me on the record. I really liked it. It was interesting because, as it progressed, it sounded almost like it was coming from a power metal band, so where did those ideas come from originally?

That was entirely spontaneous, because it’s somewhere a mixture… I’m not sure, I hear a lot of CARCASS and WHITESNAKE in it and on top, we had the clean vocals, which were not planned at all. And we, [laughs] that’s actually a nice story, since we had the song written and everything was pre-produced, I recorded guide vocals, went to Sweden to work with Fredrik Nordström, and before we record each song, we sit together and we’ll listen to the pre-production, talk about what kind of vocal style would fit, and I just mentioned like in a sentence, aside from what I wanted to say like “hey, here’s something where SOILWORK would work just perfectly.” And he just said within a second, “by the way, I recorded probably 10 albums with Björn Strid. We could just call him and then you have your SOILWORK sound,” and within 3 days… well, we had the recordings, everything was done and we had Björn Strid on the album. So that was not planned at all, not a single time, but we said okay, let’s go for it. [laughs]

Was he surprised? He gets asked a lot for these guest slots, but I presume this is the first time he got to sing on such a technical song?

Probably. Frederik was calling with him and my Swedish is kind of limited, so I didn’t understand everything, but I’m very proud he’s on the album, because I’m a huge fan of THE NIGHT FLIGHT ORCHESTRA and also of SOILWORK, and I’m very proud that this happened at all. We just thought about how to reproduce it in a live situation and the first and I think best idea is simply to tour together with SOILWORK, so he can sing it by himself. How about that? [laughter]

Yeah, that would be really cool! I thought you were gonna say to tour with THE NIGHT FLIGHT ORCHESTRA and I was already wondering like how is that going to work but it would be so cool as well.

That would be super cool, but I doubt our fans would like that. [laughs] Also, I think the atmosphere and the concerts would be perfect.

Yeah, that is true. [laughs] Now, another song on this record is “Orbital Elements II,” you already released a first part years ago. Did you pick its title, merely because it’s an instrumental song or what’s the story behind that?

Well, that’s a rather long story since “Orbital Elements I” was released on “Cosmogenesis,” which was the first album of this quadrilogy. We have a tradition of putting an instrumental track on every single release, since our very first demo, so with “A Valediction,” we’ve been in a similar situation as with “Cosmogenesis” back in the day. Back then, we just signed our first record deal, we started touring extensively, we had this lineup entirely newly formed, and now we are in a similar situation. Also, we have some people coming back and therefore there are so many connections, it was simply screaming for this title.

You do have an instrumental track on each album, so I was wondering when you start writing the instrumental tracks, do you instantly know this is going to be an instrumental track? Or is it something that happens at a point in time? What’s the process usually behind these tracks?

It’s just a gut feeling, to be honest. It’s nothing I can control. It just feels right when it’s finished. As I mentioned, we have always the intention to release at least one instrumental track per album and sometimes you just walk around with a couple of ideas and then it’s quite clear and it feels right to have this one as an instrumental, and then we do not even try to add vocal lines or anything, it’s simply clear that this is going to be the instrumental track. We also arrange it that way. For example, here “Orbital Elements II” is made for being performed live, each member has a solo in this instrumental, and it’s exactly the same listing as in the album booklet. So first guitarist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, and then it’s also more or less like a showcase. We also want to translate to the live shows and the entire album had the intention to be able to be performed in a live setting. So when we wrote the songs and also recorded the songs or arranged them, we always had in our head how it would feel on stage for us, but also for the crowd. I think that that helps making everything a little bit more fluid, so we try to prevent arrangements with six different guitars, because they would cause a lot of problems. So “Orbital Elements II” has been simply one part of that.

I also noticed that this was the first time you decided to produce the record outside of Germany. Do you feel like changing the team a little bit gave you this new kind of possibilities?

Yes, first of all working in Sweden was kind of an adventure. I never produced a record outside of Germany, with any band or project I’ve been in, so that was definitely something… well adventurous. In the end, it was really fun and I felt very welcome, not only in the studio but overall in Sweden. That was fantastic. I went there for 10 days recording guitars and vocals and we prepared the mix and master. So it was really cool, but the decision behind this is, as you mentioned, a tiny little shift in the overall band’s sound, but also the visuals and the lyrics. If you compare the previous works to this, I hope it comes through that the human touch is a little bit better to grip. So what I wanted to do is simply to unfold, a little bit, the essence of the band. That’s also the reason why I changed the artist for the cover artwork, so everything has a little bit more of an organic approach. Since Eliran Kantor works with painting and oil, it’s a different style than the previous guy and Frederik Nordström is very famous for his living productions. They are almost three-dimensional. You have a lot of depth, it’s not polished to the max. There are no mistakes on the album but you will not feel it’s like polished. It’s really open. The same goes for the lyrics, which are less abstract than on all the previous albums, so the entire band is like, if you see the big picture of everything, we do also the music videos and the behind-the-scenes material, everything has a certain human touch, and it feels way more organic. This is what I wanted to reach with the entire project and the entire album, “A Valediction.”

I think you succeeded very well in that. You’re even more prominent in your band photos this time around. I remember last time we talked, you had just seen GHOST’s show in Munich, but you were impressed by it. You also mentioned that you’re always in a different mood for music. I was wondering what you have been listening to recently?

THE NIGHT FLIGHT ORCHESTRA and SOILWORK, and MASTODON. What else? Obviously, all the classic music, I mean classic death metal music made in the ’90s, BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME impressed me a lot. It took a long time to understand the band, but a lot of those arty bands that really have their own path is something that really attracts me, for example, also RIVERS OF NIHIL, a band we took on tour years ago. They went into a entirely different direction but very original with their sound. It started as a tech-death band and now they evolved into something entirely new, and this is always interesting. The same goes for GHOST. I saw them twice and I was impressed twice. So fantastic band and yeah, I’m always looking for new music and I’m checking it out, what the labels have to offer here and there. I also check out new underground bands that cross my way, for example, CRYPTIC SHIFT from the UK is really interesting. Super crude and weird, but attractive. [laughs] So it never stops, I’m still looking for new music every now and then.

Yeah, that’s cool and also that you are also checking out the underground scene a little bit. [laughs] I would like to ask you about touring. I’m not sure if you have any concrete plans, if you don’t… I think that’s it for my questions.

Well, every time we play in Finland – so far twice – it was something special and last time, I remember we got some weird black liquorice.

The salty one? Salmiakki?

Yes, that stuff. Never… please never again. [laughter]

Yeah, that stuff’s disgusting. I don’t touch it, they tricked you! [laughter]

Aside from that, it would be a pleasure coming back to Finland. We also have some plans to tour overall, also with a Finnish band. Very soon, so watch out, and have a look at our tour dates!