Fen interview (11/2016)
|Conducted by:||Bad English|
Bad English: Hi, and thank you for doing this interview with us at Metal Storm. Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your musical background? How did you become a metalhead and what music do you listen to on your own time?
Frank Allain: The simple answer to this question is the Whitesnake album 1987. My father put this on in the car when I was about 12 or 13 years old and it simply blew my world apart. I'd heard NOTHING like it up until that point - the weight of the riffs, the mysteriousness of the keyboards and the power of the vocals. It's a testament to the strength of that record that here I am, nearly a quarter of a century later, yet that record still gets regular rotations on my turntable.
From then on, it's a trajectory that I am sure many people are familiar with - a swift and furious descent into heavier and heavier music. Iron Maiden, W.A.S.P. (they were a HUGE band for me), Machine Head (yes I know but the first album made an impact when it was released), Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, Carcass, Cannibal Corpse, Cradle Of Filth, Emperor. By this point, I was fully immersed. I started playing the guitar around this time as well so both listening to AND playing metal were synonymous to me - one would not exist without the other.
I still listen to a lot of metal on my own time, it must be said - indeed, I have been in a big Manowar phase recently so everything up to (and including) The Triumph Of Steel has been enjoyed. That said, I enjoy lots of different styles of music - '70s prog, shoegaze, goth, classic rock, all sorts of electronic music, ambient. Anything that strikes a chord with me and oozes conviction and integrity is welcome. Blandness, mediocrity and shallowness are unacceptable and there is a surprising amount of this in the metal scene unfortunately.
BE: You go by the pseudonym "The Watcher" in Fen. Is this a reference to the mysterious factions of angels described in the Book of Enoch, a work of Biblical apocrypha, or is there a less extravagant explanation?
FA: It isn't as thought through as that I am afraid! It was simply a concept that made sense to me at the time - I wanted to present my lyrical/aesthetic position as one who observes, describes, seeks even and therefore, a pseudonym that embodied this made sense. There is definitely an observational quality to the lyrics that I write that - steeped in metaphor though they may be - are intended to work from a purely descriptive level also. Nevertheless (and at risk of sounding even more pretentious), the observation - the watching - goes deeper.
BE: The two British black metal bands that stand out to me amongst the other acts out there are Fen and Saor (possibly Winterfylleth as well, but I need to listen to them more). What is your formula for distinguishing yourself?
FA: Sincerity, I believe. It has to be. Right here and now, in 2016, the quest for originality is not about throwing disparate influences into the mix or melding different genres purely for the sake of it. Originality and distinctiveness is driven by the organic forging of your own sound. This can take some bands a while whilst others roar out of the gates and forge their identity very quickly. For me, we just wanted to play some music with real feel, with real honesty. All of us in the original line-up were fatigued by black metal, jaded with the relentless quest for barbarism, discordance and blasphemy which we ourselves had got caught up in. We wanted to hark back to the feeling of the first Ulver album and fuse it with the atmosphere of Fields Of The Nephilim, Slowdive and Isis. You have to remember, at this point in time (2005, 2006) the whole 'post' black metal 'thing' did not exist - here and now in 2016 for many it is seen as a tired cliché but when Fen began, we had no idea that others were also considering a similar approach.
It's heartening that you feel that we are distinctive - we're often labelled as some sort of Agalloch clone band (which is clearly nonsense as anyone who has spent 5 minutes listening to each of us will realise), however we've always written to our own brief and our own drive and will continue to do so.
BE: Your songs are about nature, landscapes, and the seasons, not about St. Ann (if you catch my drift). Why the interest in such atypical themes for black metal?
FA: I'm not sure if these are atypical themes for black metal really - since the early '90s, a number of black metal acts have sidelined traditional Satanic themes in favour of more pastoral, landscape-inspired imagery. Early Ulver again is a classic case but classic acts such as Immortal, Burzum and even Emperor injected their black metal with a heavy sense of landscape.
Ultimately, you can only sing with integrity about things that genuinely inspire you. The area in which I grew up impacted strongly upon my development as an individual, influenced who I became in a very real way. It only makes sense to channel those thoughts through the medium of the music for which I feel the greatest affinity. I've never felt drawn to monotheism of any kind and whilst I can appreciate some of the tenets of LaVeyan Satanic philosophy, it would be deceptive of me to present this as a cornerstone of my musical inspiration. Nevertheless, certain forms of philosophy - particularly existentialism and elements of metaphysics - have played a big part in sculpting my world view and channeling such ruminations through the language, allegory and metaphor of natural landscapes is a big part of how I construct themes for Fen.
BE: I always think that the best black metal acts are those that sing about the nature surrounding the places where they live. Do you agree?
FA: That's probably a bit of a moot point really. Again, as I alluded to earlier, for me enjoyment of an artist stems from the sincerity and thought that they have put into their music - if inspiration from such sources leads to the best music then that's great, however it's hardly an exclusive source for creative excellence.
BE: My favorite songs, in terms of lyrical concepts, are "Our Names Written In Embers" and "A Witness To The Passing Of Aeons." Who is the band's main lyricist?
FA: I generally tend to write most of the lyrics although Grungyn will compose lyrics for songs that he performs lead vocals for such as "Wolf Sun" and "Sentinels". It's interesting you've chosen those two songs - "Embers…" addresses conflict - humankind's ongoing propensity to aggress, to annex, to attempt to appropriate which leads to inevitable conflict. Slaughter, bloodshed and decimation inevitably result from this. Then follows the reflection - counting the costs, outpourings of grief and vows that 'this will never happen again'… vows that are inevitably shattered the next time the trumpets sound and the wheels of the war machine begin to turn once again.
We are creatures with short memories, easily manipulated and doomed by an innate sense of self-aware 'righteousness' to repeat endless, destructive cycles again and again and again. This song embodies the futility of this condition and the crowning sorrow that ultimately, we (as humans ourselves) are trapped within this same cycle, no matter how horribly aware we are of its failings.
"A Witness to the Passing of Aeons" is a more reflective piece - it is about the potential timelessness of consciousness, of how all living matter is derived from the make-up of the earliest stars within the flesh of the still-warm, embryonic cosmos. How that - some day - all of what once constitutes our human make-up is returned to the vastness of the void and that indeed, some nebulous consciousness may remain (though in what form it is of course impossible to speculate).
BE: How do you write lyrics? Do you write them as you would a poem, then simply slot them into the music without changing anything, or do you start with music and then try to write lyrics that fit the melody?
FA: I always write lyrics in 'bursts' when I am feeling particularly inspired. A title may spring to mind or an image within a dream or indeed just a quick line or two and this will act as a catalyst to start building a full piece around. It is rare that I will write lyrics to fit a particular piece of music - normally, the lyrics start as a series of fragments that I will begin to compile into a linked and coherent whole. I'll then normally decide to which piece of music the words will be best suited to (normally through a combination of structure and atmosphere/feeling). This can sometimes result in a bit of hefty editing to make things scan more effectively but generally, it's surprising how few edits are required.
BE: Recently, I was watching a British black metal documentary, and one band (I don't recall which) said, "Norway has nature, forests, fog, but it's not part of the British landscape; we have a more industrial environment." Do you agree with this statement?
FA: Not really. This may apply to where this particular band are based but most civilizations on earth have industrial environments - it is an inevitable consequence of cities and industry. Norway has nature, forests and fog - but it also has cities, factories and train stations. Britain has all of these things too - it just depends on how you choose to present it. We are a fairly self-deprecating nation and have a tendency to downplay things here but we have some incredible landscape in the UK - the rugged Highlands of Scotland, the rearing fells of the Lake District, the bleakness of the moors, the splendor of our many coastal paths, the rolling greenery of the Cotswolds. All of this can inspire and inflame the imagination.
With that in mind, for many black metal acts, a grimy, industrial, urban environment is the perfect inspiration for their art - and for bands such as this, it makes sense to focus on these aspects of your landscape. Britain has plenty of both to go round.
BE: Some say that Fen is black metal, while others say it is post-rock. How would you describe your music?
FA: Well, we're not a full-on post-rock band are we? We have some post-ish moments in our music but I'm not sure we'd ever be mistaken for Explosions In The Sky or Mogwai! As much as we embrace elements of post-rock, I am always happy to describe Fen as quite simply an atmospheric black metal band. If I were pushed, I could argue that there is perhaps more to it than that but then we enter into lengthy discussions on genre specifics which can become tedious.
Of course, there are those who spit on the very idea of us being labelled as black metal due to the fact that we do not directly embrace Satanic themes. In such a case I would say, fine, we are an atmospheric extreme metal band - but we sound very much like a black metal band!
BE: Have you ever played in Skaldic Curse, or is that just an internet rumor?
FA: I was a founding member of Skaldic Curse and was in the band right up until its demise in around 2009 - 2010. I'm still proud of what we achieved with that band - particularly on our final record Devourer which I still think is an excellent assault of aggressive, technical black metal - but we never really managed to get our themes and aesthetics properly worked out which is unfortunate. Black metal needs to be about more than just music - imagery and concepts are an intrinsic aspect of what makes an act compelling, of underlining the sincerity/conviction I have alluded to earlier as being an essential aspect of art.
You never know, the time may be right at some point in the future to revisit some of that material but with most of the individuals involved now very immersed in doing their own things, it wouldn't be for some time I fear.
BE: Are you still a member of Virophage? What is the current status of the band?
FA: Yes indeed, the band is still active although we are taking a hiatus from live work for a while. Since Havenless and I are in both Virophage and Fen now, it will take some planning for us to work on material for both bands. Nevertheless, a number of ideas have been simmering for a second Virophage full-length and it is something we are hoping to pick up during 2017. There is no rush, no need to force these things - as inspiration strikes, material will be forged.
BE: I was looking for information on Demagogue, but the band seems to have no social media presence, aside from an old Myspace page. Is the band still alive?
FA: Demagogue ceased to be some time ago. It was a good experience for me and helped me develop as a frontman, however by the end, I think each member was pulling in different directions. Again, I think the two albums we recorded were impressive for self-recorded releases and there's some excellent material in there - again, we just never really nailed our aesthetics down. I think we were also guilty of genre-hopping too much - if we had stuck to a template of semi-technical death/thrash, we may have found more focus.
BE: De Arma is an interesting project you have with Swedish musicians Andreas Petterson and Johan Marklund. Has that band been working on anything lately? In 2015, some sample demoes from an upcoming album were posted, but there haven't been any major updates since then. What is the current status of that album and the band? Is there any other news from the De Arma camp?
FA: There has been sporadic work on a second album over the last three years, however I couldn't tell you with any concrete conviction as to when album number 2 will be coming out. De Arma is very much Andreas's baby - he writes all of the music and very much steers the direction of the project. Seven songs were written and demoed and I had worked out maybe 70-80% of the vocal patterns, however I believe Andreas wishes to change some stuff so I am waiting for his updates on this really!
Again, there is no rush - the debut only came out in 2013 and each of us has a number of projects going on so I would imagine it could take a little while to be completed. Nevertheless, I think the songs for the second album are strong and for me, I think I have developed as a vocalist considerably since the first record so would be keen to embrace the challenge of getting the follow-up recorded and released.
BE: Where was the album Lost, Alien & Forlorn written? How did you compose the music? I assume the three of you made use of the magic that the internet can offer.
FA: I honestly couldn't answer this as Andreas (with perhaps some assistance from Johan) composed all of the music on the record. It was up to me to put words and vocal patterns to the music provided which was a new challenge for me - I have never worked that way before so it was something very different. With the songs completely locked down and recorded, it was at times stressful to work around this - I couldn't turn around and say 'hey guys, can we cut this bit down a little? How about playing that riff one more time so I can develop a vocal line?' - but it forced me to be creative, to work to a brief and it was satisfying in that sense.
BE: Have you ever have been to Sweden?
FA: We visited Sweden on our tour with Agalloch in 2013 - we played shows in Umeå and Göteborg. That's it really - we didn't get much time to explore and so I would dearly like to go back there before long and spend more time in the country.
BE: This is a silly question, but if you were stuck somewhere in north Sweden for a whole winter when the blizzards beasts are raging and it's -30¤ all the time, would you be able to compose good music?
FA: I would like to think so - as long as my hands weren't so cold that I wouldn't be able to pick up the guitar! I can imagine such a scenario being quite inspirational actually - an environment that is different, challenging and unique can motivate in unusual ways, can get the flames of creativity burning even brighter. I was on holiday in the fells of Cumbria a couple of months ago and took my acoustic guitar with me with this express purpose. In the end, I didn't get a lot of time to write but still managed to put together the bones of a new song, composed under the twilit shadows of the trees and the looming mounds of the distant mountains.
Honestly though, inspiration can strike at any time - on the journey to work, falling asleep in bed - so it's not an exact science.
BE: I ask all these questions because Lost, Alien & Forlorn sounds a bit Scandinavian to me, not British. Do you have any particular sense of that?
FA: This is probably because it was composed by Scandinavians! Interestingly, I know Andreas was looking to British shoegaze/goth bands for inspiration (Slowdive, The Cure etc.), however it's interesting to sense that his intrinsic Swedishness still shines through despite this.
BE: Now let's go to the slow doom (and thank you to Kostas from Pantheist for setting this up). How do you know Kostas? Where did you meet him?
FA: I've known Kostas for many years - I can't quite remember the exact time but it was probably around 11, 12 years ago when a mutual friend of ours joined Pantheist to play the drums. They used to rehearse near us so we would occasionally cross paths in the rehearsal room corridors. Since then, our paths have crossed in a musical sense more than once - I actually played bass for them at a show in 2009 and guitar at a gig in 2013 so we have a bit of history there! I think we both have a lot of respect for each other as musicians and as people who have steered musical entities through a number of evolutions & challenges whilst never losing sight of the 'essence' of the band.
BE: How did you come to join Pantheist?
FA: As I said, I actually played a couple of shows on a session basis. I think Kostas had been wanting to expand the line-up to a two-guitar format for some time now so when this decision was made, I guess I was an obvious choice being both familiar with some of the material and also familiar as a person. At first, I was a little reluctant as I had so much on my plate when he first asked - however, at the start of last year I sat in on some rehearsals and heard the new material they had been composing with their new guitar player Valter. It seemed to be a return to more crushing, atmospheric doom metal material which interested me more than the proggier directions they had been exploring so I was happy to step on board.
BE: How hard is it to play black metal and then turn to slow doom?
FA: It's fine really - it requires a different approach (and thicker strings!) but the essence of guitar playing remains unchanged. I guess the biggest challenge is 'pulling back' - in Fen we only have one guitar and no keyboards so I am always looking to fill out the sound with big chords, banks of effects and usually using two amps at once. In Pantheist, the goal is to utilize space - minimalism even - and accompany/accentuate the other guitar, the bass, the keyboards rather than dominate the sonic space with a wall of sound. It's a different way to work for sure but it is quite refreshing to be able to utilize single notes and 'fit in' to an ensemble as opposed to trying to be the ensemble!
BE: What will your involvement be on the new Pantheist album? Maybe the band will turn to blackened doom?
FA: Well, most of it was written prior to me joining so my influence on this newest material is likely to be fairly minimal. I have contributed a couple of ideas to the newest songs but the bulk of the composition has been carried out by Valter and Kostas. It's a very positive step forward in my opinion - probably the darkest material yet composed by Pantheist, at once both crushing, grandiose and laced with a sense of cosmic rage and despair. There are some blackened atmospherics in there as well I guess and even some proper old-school death metal at points - it's all coherent though, it all fits into the overall sonic aesthetic.
BE: Have you thought about asking Kostas to do some guest work with Fen?
FA: It was considered when we lost our second keyboard player - indeed, we did ask him if he would be interested in joining full-time - however, he did not have the time to commit to this. Nevertheless, it's something I've thought about - perhaps in terms of contributing to an atmospheric interlude/intro/outro, so who knows?
BE: Fen has been without a keyboardist for a few years now. Have you not found a satisfactory replacement, or was this a creative decision to move away from that sound?
FA: A bit of both - at first, the natural decision was to look for a new keyboard player, however after a while, this begun to prove a little difficult. If I'm honest though, my heart wasn't really in it. I was already feeling the pull to move away from using synths, to try and replicate ambiences with guitars, bass and voice. I spoke to Grungyn and said 'look, we can do this - let's dig deep and build layers with our instruments, really set ourselves a new challenge'.
So we did - we went out and massively expanded our pedalboards and spent some time really pushing ourselves to deliver a full, enveloping sound. This felt far more satisfying to me and whilst there are a couple of early songs which did suffer without the synths ("A Witness To The Passing Of Aeons" being one), most of the material translated absolutely fine to our new approach. I always argue that restriction breeds innovation - some bands have six, seven guys onstage and still sound empty - whereas for us, it's about the challenge. Three guys - sound massive. Go.
BE: Do you have any difficulty performing live as a trio?
FA: As I said above, the restriction forces us to dig deep, to always give 100%. With just the three of us trying to deliver this stuff, there is nowhere to hide, no passengers. I saw the band Elder the other night and that was just three guys onstage, making this massive, intricate sound - every member was completely dedicated to his role and absolutely delivering it.
I'd like to thing we may be able to do something similar in Fen. It doesn't make life easy for us - I have to leap around the place sometimes, switching channels on two amps, maintaining a bank of effects, all whilst performing - but if a band isn't putting their absolute all into a performance, why should anyone pay to see that? As much as it is a challenge and as much as we probably could make life a little easier for ourselves, I like to feel that the effort we put in is not only worth it but palpable from the audience. Too many bands look as if they are either sleepwalking through a performance or are throwing out meaningless shapes for the sake of it - not us. It is always honest.
BE: I like Fen's artwork; I find it interesting. Who creates it?
FA: Grungyn (our bass player and additional vocalist) does all of the artwork for the albums. I'm glad you like it - as a founding member and someone who intrinsically understands the concepts/aesthetics of the band, his imagery captures the atmosphere we are trying to channel perfectly.
BE: Have you ever thought about writing lyrics or liner notes in Middle/Old English just to piss people off? I'm a rare person who thinks that British accents, even Glaswegian ones, are both awesome and easy, so anything to exacerbate the language's appeal would be cool to me.
FA: Hmmm, I'm not sure that'd really be appropriate to us - that's sailing a little too close to the 'English Heritage' concept for me and that's not really what we are about. I am not an academic student of history so I don't know Middle/Old English myself - therefore, to do something like this would require a lot of effort and would not ultimately be an 'honest' expression of what Fen represents. Nevertheless, for those bands for whom it is appropriate, I can see this being an interesting and unique idea.
BE: Last question. Britain, together with the USA, is the birthplace of metal. In the old days, there were lads with long hair, jeans, and leather jackets crowding around. What does it look like now? Are there still old school, long-haired metalheads out there in the streets?
FA: Yes, for sure - we keep hearing about the 'hipsters' on the metal scene diluting the 'essence' of heavy metal but this is an unfounded fear. There are still plenty of old-school characters in their battle vests, leather, tight jeans and faded t-shirts at gigs and at the metal bars in London. It is quite amusing - I went to the 'Live Evil' festival in London last year and there were 21, 22 year old guys running around with tight jeans, high-tops, sleeveless denim and 'trash 'taches' (i.e. the sort of wispy top-lip decoration oft-featuring in band photos of German thrash bands from the mid-'80s). I mean, these guys weren't even born when the imagery of metal was being defined yet 30 years later were fully embracing it.
With that in mind, I think there is no danger of the traditional metal 'look' dying out - yes, certain shows and bars will see a proliferation of guys with massive beards, short hair and chequed shirts in attendance, vaping as if their lives depend upon it but this is just another sub-genre/sub-look of the scene. If the music is heavy, convincing and the people both playing it and observing it believe in it, then I am fine with that. A poser is a poser, whether he's sipping a craft IPA in brogues and a flannel shirt whilst nodding sagely to Deafheaven or flailing around in a leather jacket and a Praying Mantis t-shirt whilst swigging Skol Super at an Enforcer show.
BE: Now for the actual last question. We all know what football team Kostas supports. The internet tells me you're from London, so if I say The Den, would I be correctly identifying the place where you hang around, or is Millwall not your cup of tea?
FA: Yikes, The Den! That's firmly in South London territory I am afraid - as a long-standing North Londoner, my affiliation lies firmly that side. That said, the plastic frilliness of Arsenal I have no time for (predominantly because on home game days, my journey to work/rehearsal/anywhere becomes a nightmare) - my loyalties lie with the grass-roots, old-school mentality of Barnet FC. Unfortunately, since they moved ground to somewhere about seven miles AWAY from Barnet, it is nearly impossible for me to get down there to watch them play. It's probably for the best though, it looks like another season of lower-mid table/near relegation mediocrity beckons so I'm not missing a lot.
BE: This time, the truly real last question. Do you have any last words to our readers?
FA: I think I've said more than enough now! Thanks for the interview and hopefully people will enjoy our new album when it finally sees the light of day in early 2017.
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