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EMPYRIUM: Stardust Melancholy

Interview with Schwadorf (Markus Stock) by Vera in February 2021

Empyrium stond aan de wieg van het wereldwijd gerespecteerde Prophecy Productions label – dat dit jaar 25 jaar bestaat - en schreef geschiedenis met albums als ‘A Wintersunset…’ (1996) en vooral ‘Songs Of Moors And Misty Fields’ waarop black metal invloeden verenigd werden met sfeervolle ingetogen passages. Vooral de diepgaande melancholie en het ontzag voor de natuur blijkt uit het werk van de Duitse band onder leiding van Schwadorf (Markus Stock, ook befaamd producer) en operazanger Thomas Helm. Toen in 2014 ‘The Turn Of The Tides’ uitkwam en de band ook meer live te zien was, kon men spreken van een heerlijke comeback. Die wordt nu geprolongeerd met het recent verschenen ‘Über Den Sternen’ en dus hadden we weer een gezellig en lang gesprek met Schwadorf.

How are you doing?

Pretty good, thank you. Well, to be honest, the restrictions on the countryside, they make no sense. Like we have those restrictions that you cannot go out after nine o’clock in the evening. It does not make any sense at the countryside, because when I go out of the door, I don’t meet anybody anyway (chuckles). There is nobody out there, but in case the police catches you, you have to pay pretty high fees. That is very weird. But except for that, I think on the countryside it does not have such an impact as in the city.

It has been a long time since the previous album ‘The Turn Of The Tides’ came out in 2014, but during that summer of 2014 the first ideas already came up for new songs, subject of brainstorming at that time, isn’t it?

Yes, it has been a very long process. Actually I think the first rough ideas came into being in 2014 and we really started writing the album in 2016, when we put the first songs together and checked the first ideas together in the studio and from there – from 2016 till 2019 – we worked on the album in an on and off way, not constantly of course. We had different sessions when we met in the studio for a week. This week we always worked on, let’s say, two songs and then the next time we kind of refined those two songs. And then in the very end I decided to rerecord all the drums that we recorded previously, because previously they were recorded in different sessions and the drum sound changed too much I think, between the different sessions and I wanted it not to be like a compilation. I wanted it to be like a cohesive album. It was very hard to rerecord the drums, I have to say, because even if we play with a click-track, we don’t edit our music. It is pretty freely played on the click, so I had to play the drums on pre-recorded music that was pretty free. It was pretty hard to do that, but it was really worth it because I think even the performances were better later when I rerecorded it. And of course we got a cohesive drum sound on the album the second time, which was really worth it. But all in all it was three years of writing on this album.

The title of the album is ‘Über Den Sternen’, that sounds very poetic…

It is, actually it is taken from a very, very famous German poet Friedrich Schiller. He has a very famous piece called ‘Die Raube’ and I was watching this piece in the theatre, together with my wife, when I heard this line, this phrase: ‘Über Den Sternen’ and I thought: ‘oh my God, this is such a perfect title for an Empyrium album’. At that moment – it was maybe in 2016 or 2017 – it was already clear to me that the album would be called ‘Über Den Sternen’. Because it has so many meanings in combination with Empyrium. On one hand it is our relation with German poetry or poetry in general. It is also a kind of translation of the band name, because Empyrium was in de medieval cosmology the fiery sphere. Behind the firmament that we see, there is this fiery sphere, like a sphere that is burning and the stars are just holes in the firmament where the fire of Empyrium is shining through. Of course in that way it is the perfect title for an Empyrium album, because it is kind of the translation of the band name and it has this connection to poetry. To me this album is all about the mysteries of nature, the unsolved mysteries which we will never solve as humans, even if we now have this time when we believe 100% in science, a total, almost religious belief in science which is very much the contrary with my thinking of a nature romantic world that we are living in.

You touched it a little bit in the former answer, but I think there is a loose concept on the album…

In a way there is a concept. Every song more or less touches the subject of the very romantic idea that nature is a mirror of our souls. Or that a landscape can be a mirror of our souls. We are painting this landscape with the music and the lyrics, but we are actually talking about our own emotions, about ourselves. Basically in every song of the album you can find this concept and a lot of the songs talk about very specific places from the area we live in. Like in the old days we also have some songs about folk tales of the region and again the picture of painting a landscape with music applies to that, because in the old days they were inspired by the landscape when writing these tales. And of course these tales have a message for us. They have not been written for our entertainment, but also as a warning or as a message to people reading it. I think it is very fascinating to find out how the surrounding we live in affects us, even after years and years and generations that is still the same. This is the wonder of nature. When you really connect with your surroundings, it will give back a lot to you.

But so few people are aware of that…

Absolutely, nowadays it is getting worse and worse. I actually believe that mankind think that they are not a part of nature, but they are above it and they can control it to their own merit, but that is ridiculous. It is of course not true, because nature does not care for us and we can certainly not control it. Thinking that we are above nature is a concept I totally do not agree with. We should see ourselves as a part of it, in a way we have to succumb to the rules of nature. We are the ones that has to look at nature and then live our lives accordingly. Like Inuit’s, they have found a life they can live according to their surroundings. People in Africa do it totally different and we in Europe do it totally different. All because people are really influenced by their surroundings and their influences.

In that respect, the virus might be here to diminish the number of people…

I don’t think that nature has a moral, like: ‘this is my revenge’, but of course when there is something wrong in the whole environment, it will take care of it. That’s right. So who knows?

Musically you get more and more accomplished in blending the early harsh style with your acoustic folk area I think. In my opinion the album is the summit of that. Do you agree with that?

Yes thank you. First of all it is nice to hear and on this album you can use the expression that we went full circle. I said in the interviews I did earlier that we would not be able to do this album in 2013, when we released ‘The Turn Of The Tides’, because we were not at that place at that time, to re-appreciate our old style so much, but in the last years it came more and more. These old themes and these old form of expression came back. It really is an amalgamation as you put it, of the acoustic folky era of Empyrium and the early area, yet with the maturity that we have nowadays. You can really feel that we are not 17 or 18 anymore, but 42. You can feel that, but it still has the same emotional impact and the very similar approach to the arrangements and the whole orchestration of the music to put it like that.

Also a bit more grunts, that was not sure before…

Exactly, a lot of these elements came back in a very natural way. We did not force things. We did not have a masterplan to write a song like this or that. It just happened. When we wrote the first song it clicked with us and from there the album took shape during the years. We have always been a little bit inspired by the song we wrote previously and then we also had later sessions with that instrument we use the first time on this album called hammered dulcimer. It was also used with Sun Of The Sleepless. We use this pretty intensively on the album. It replaced a lot of stuff that was previously put on the album with piano and we replaced it with the hammered dulcimer. And it worked really well, because it gives you a new and ethereal, maybe even world music kind of vibe, very magical and very fairytale like. I really like that a lot.

It has a kind of renaissance vibe…

Yes, yes. In the beginning it was actually the very first incarnation of the piano. First it was the hammered dulcimer and it was used in many different cultures. It was used in Germany, in Alpine regions in Austria, but also in the Middle East, as sampor. From this incarnation of the dulcimer, they made the harpsichord which was already like the piano, but sounding like a dulcimer in a way and then came the piano. So it has a lot in common with the piano, also in the way it is played. You don’t have keys, you dig the strings with a stick yourself. It is a very interesting instrument. Very archaic, very ancient. It fits very well in this style of Empyrium nowadays.

Indeed, I remember that song of Sun Of The Sleepless…

(excusing) I am just a little bit too obsessed about that instrument in the last three years I think. I bought a used one and then I had to tune it. That was very hard to tune and make my way to it. I practised for three or four weeks on it and then I decided to use it, like a painter has a new paintbrush. This is a part of my arsenal now, you know…

It is fine that you can still discover new things and challenges…

Yes and although the album goes back to the roots at some point, it still does not sound retro. We did not make a copy of former albums. I think it sounds like we sound in 2020 or 2021. It has to blend naivety and maturity. These are two elements that are kind of opposed when you write music. In the beginning you are very naïve when you write, but there is a purity in that naivety that I really like, but it is very hard to bring that back into music when you have matured as a songwriter and as a person. But I always strife to bring that element into the music as well, very pure and maybe sometimes a little kind naïve impact. These days people are so afraid of being kitschy or being corny, that they forget to put anything into the music. Maybe it is perfectly played, but it is soulless. And meaningless to me. Then to me, it is more like a job, a formula. It has gone away from the concept of being a piece of art that touches other people emotionally. You just show how perfect you can do something. Of course, when you mature as a musician, that can happen, but you always have to balance those two parts: the maturity and the childish naivety and find a perfect spot in between those two opposites.

And I think you managed to achieve that on this album…

Ah thank you. That was really something that I wanted for this album, because I think the last album ‘The Turn Of The Tides’ was really mature in many ways. I think this maturity sometimes – like I said – paid off with the loss of this naivety. Or emotion and spontaneity.

What was the first song you have written for this new album?

Oh now I have to think… I think the first two songs we wrote in one session and that was ‘The Archer’ and the beginning of a song, but this song ‘A Lucid Tower…’ changed the most of all the songs during the composition process. From something completely different to what it is now. It really had a lot of incarnations. You know, some songs on the album, like the opener ‘The Three Flames Sapphire’ were written very much in a flow and the way it was written stays forever. But other songs, like ‘A Lucid Tower’ were very different in the beginning and it progressed a lot. We put parts out, we put things in, it progressed when we had the concept of the lyrics, being medieval. It is actually about a castle this song, which is very prominent in the region we live. For me this castle always symbolizes home. You can see it from everywhere in the region and often when we drove home from holidays or concerts or a tour, when I see this castle on the hills, it is always ‘ha, I am home’. It has this medieval theme in relation with the castle. The region around the castle has very enchanting forests we visit very often. This castle always feeds my imagination. You can wonder how it looked 500 years ago or what happened behind those massive walls. There are still the old ways to the castle, because they had no water back then, but there is a spring nearby with water you still can drink. You can still see the old roads where they brought the water from the spring to the castle. Very interesting old details to find out there and this is something that always feeds my imagination. I find it very fascinating that we still have so many places of cultural heritage. Same goes for… that’s why I love old trees for example. I have this obsession also with finding and spotting very old trees and photographing them. That is a great hobby of mine. We have a lot of very, very old trees: oaks and also very old peaches trees. We have one peach forest in this region that is totally enchanted with really old crooked trees. When you are in this forest and it is misty in winter time, it gives so much inspiration to spend time in places that are ancient, when you feel that they are ancient and they are full of memory. An atmosphere that comes forth from centuries ago, not only ten years or so. That is maybe the best expression for it, that these places, castles and forests, they have a memory and you can still feel it. If you listen you can hear them telling stories. That is very inspiring.

One of my questions was: what is ‘The Oaken Throne’ about? I guess it has to do with those forests…

Yes, this is actually a song about the forest in the village I grew up. I don’t know if kids still do that, in the city not I guess, but when we were kids, we often went out in the forest and this was our favourite playground. Or we just walked out in the forest to be alone as young teenagers… to do things in a secret place and for me this is kind of why the song is called ‘The Oaken Throne’, because in this environment, where everything is king or queen, you are your own master and suddenly the chains from society that are brought upon us, are unchained when you are out in the woods, being your true self without any boundaries. This song is about being king on an oaken throne to me.

The title track is really epic, an apotheosis to round off so it seems to me…

Exactly. It is the longest track and I think the most complex arrangement on the whole album. It was actually not the last song, but the second last song we wrote for this album. It kinds of round off the album and also the theme of the song which focuses on the mystery of the night sky, where we all come from and it will always be a mystery for us. This is what I love so much about it, that there are mysteries that cannot be cleared. We will never find the answer on it and I think this is very beautiful. Things that still remain a mystery… And this is what this song is about. It is a glorification of the mystery of the night sky. It is definitely the most epic track of the album, also in length, it is like a journey. It goes from one part into another, sometimes with even hard transitions to make this juxtaposition of the elements, of the beautiful uplifting feeling of looking at the stars, but also the fear it evokes. Because, as I said, it is a mystery that we will never solve and always wondering about. I really love this!

Was this fascination already there as a child?

Yes, as a child I was super fascinated. I remember a teacher once told us when we were young and in school. He said: the fascinating thing is that you cannot imagine that the universe is never ending, but at the same time you cannot imagine that it ends. Because… what should be there? It is a mystery that we cannot solve and even our brain cannot wrap itself around it. This is great. It was fascinating for me since I was a kid.

And that the universe is always expanding…

Yes, indeed. Like nature. Everything in nature is always in movement and it will never be the same. Every second, every blink of an eye we live is unique, a singular moment. This is the same for the universe that is always expanding. In this second it is not the same as it was a second before. I think it is the nature of all life. We are happy that it all ends at one point, you know, at least in this shape. This is what I believe, but everybody has his own theories of course. I strongly believe that our soul is immortal, but of course our human shape ends at one point and so we have lived one life. It is good that it ends, because if we would be immortal in this shape, it should be terribly boring. Imagine you have all the time in the world to do a new album (chuckles). Maybe in 600 years… (laughs)

Haha everybody should get lazy…

Exactly. It is an artistic principle. You need to feel the urge to be artistic creative and to be creative now, because you have to.

How are things going in the studio? Not too much problems with corona?

At times I could work normally this year and other times it was of course a mess, to say the least. Especially when these were bands from coming outside of Germany, they could not. Just now this Monday I will start with a band which is already postponed for the third time, this production, because they could not come, but they really want to do it with me. So we postponed it another time, but now we said ‘we don’t make a new date, we just wait and then see how it will happen’. It was sometimes rough and sometimes okay when I could compensate a production with a mix that was coming in or a mastering, but sometimes it was a little rough this year. I mean, in the meantime I managed to get through this with the studio so far. Of course I had losses, but some compensations from the state were paid that were okay. But in general it was a hard year. With all the things being postponed, not only in the studio, but also live gigs, you easily loose oversight so much. Normally you can foresee what’s up in a month, but now everything is between things, nobody knows exactly when we can plan something. And of course it is always frustrating when you prepare for something and it does not happen. When we prepare for Empyrium live shows, it is a lot of very hard work, especially when we play new songs. There is always that question of planning, will it be postponed again or shall I start preparations? It is like a purgatory in a way. It is a state of mind where you cannot go one step forward, but you cannot take one step back either. It is really hard, but some conclusions have come to my mind after this year. Like everybody else I have been thinking about things that are important and things that are not so important. This was a very good part of this year. In the end it is just a question of what makes you happy and what does not make you happy. What is really you? What you really feel is something that you need, what you need as a bonus or do to earn money or that you can compensate with something else. There is a lot of thinking going on during this last year of course, when you are in a kind of purgatory situation. It was a very weird year with a lot of things that pissed me off, but on the other hand also good things in a way. You slow down and you could think about things in depth without being interrupted by something. When you have nothing to do, you can ask yourself: what will I do with this time? Will I write new songs? Will I just go out in nature? Spend some time with the family? It is very good to see what are then the important things in your life.

We have the celebration of 25 years of Prophecy Productions this year! From Empyrium as well…

Yeah for Empyrium it is even more. Of course our relationship with Prophecy has been for 25 years. It is crazy when I think about it. This is a quarter of a century since we released our first album and we started off in 27 years in this December with the band. That is really crazy! It doesn’t feel like such a long time for me in a way, on the other hand it feels like a long time. Some memories are still very close to me and others are obviously a long time ago. But we are still content with Prophecy. Just yesterday I had a longer phone call with Martin about some plans for the future and so on. Still everything is in good shape with the label.

Prophecy is working on a book?

Yes, they want to accompany the celebration of this year with people that are with the label for a long time, if they have any anecdotes of the old days and things like that. And I think they want to release this, you know in the festival they always have this art book with it and I think they plan to use this for this art book.

If you want to share something about your other bands, like The Vision Bleak, Sun Of The Sleepless or Noekk, maybe we can also mention that in the interview…

Yes of course, for example with Noekk we will be releasing a new album later this year. It is already done, completely ready and we are releasing this later this year. With The Vision Bleak I am right now starting to work more regularly on new songs as well. It is a little bit hard to get back into it now, The Vision Bleak, because I don’t want… I really want to come up with The Vision Bleak with something that sounds a bit fresh again to us. After the last album I knew it would be hard to surpass… the last album of The Vision Bleak was a bit like ‘Weiland’ of Empyrium to me. It was a kind of conclusion of this style of The Vision Bleak I think. I honestly don’t think that we can do it better than on this album. So my plan is really to do something a bit different with The Vision Bleak. But of course, sometimes you really plan to do something different and then you start writing songs and they are great and they still sound like The Vision Bleak, you know? You cannot help it, this is just the way you write, but at least I have the plan to make this band The Vision Bleak 2.0 when we come back after these long years. I think it was already 2016 when we had the last one. So it is about time to make a new one, but – like I said – the first ideas, parts and riffs and small arrangements are here now, so maybe I think we can finish the album this year and release it in 2022. That is a kind of realistic plan. And with Sun Of The Sleepless right now I don’t have a plan, because we just finished Empyrium, now it is time for a new The Vision Bleak album and I think after The Vision Bleak is done, maybe start writing a new SOTS album. Then again an Empyrium album (hilarity of both). It still makes sense to me to have these different projects. They are all different. The Vision Bleak is very different from Empyrium. SOTS en Empyrium have some similarities, but in SOTS I am doing everything on my own. With Empyrium Thomas is in there as well and it kinds of gives it a different dynamic of course when you work with somebody else. These three bands are still very essential, these three outlets.

What can you tell about the making of the video clip?

A video clip for ‘The Three Flames Sapphire’ was just released this morning. Tomorrow it will be official announced. It is really good, I am really content with it. I did it with the same guy who did the video clip for the last Sun Of The Sleepless song ‘The Lure Of Nyght’. We had different plans first how to do this, but of course because of the current situation we had to adapt and we found a perfect way that he could do it on himself, without me being there. We talked a lot on the phone and exchanged ideas and photographs and I could even film in the region here and sent it to him and he could incorporate it. It is a very beautiful and well made video. It is for the first song on the album and that leans back most to the old Empyrium I think, even though it is more complex as well. It really has this old vibe and the video is totally perfect Empyrium pictures. It fits so well together. I am really happy about that.

The last thing we should cover is the artwork from Fursy Teyssier, very beautiful again… How is he doing and can you tell something more specific about the artwork?

Of course we already planned before that Fursy would be doing it, because he is also a member of the live band of Empyrium, he is a long time friend of mine and he knows so well what this band is about. So it was clear that he would do it, but still this album cover – as simple as it is – was not an easy task. Because with the theme of the album and the idea we had for the cover, we see this young boy with a stick in the firmament and creating the stars, letting the fire of Empyrium come to the earth. That is more or less the concept of the artwork. We had many ideas and exchanged these ideas, but always when he made some sketches he was uncertain and I was uncertain too. It was telling too much already, you know. We wanted it to be more subtle and more simple, but still with an emotional impact. It was harder to do than it looks like, because it is such a simple cover artwork. When we had the final artwork that we both agreed on, I think it only took one hour for Fursy to do the artwork completed. It was just a matter of finding the right approach, the moment it clicks. Sometimes you have to be patient for this to happen. Sometimes it goes very easy, sometimes it will come later but it always comes.This is very fairytale like and this is what we really wanted and it is also very different than our previous artworks I really like as well. It is different, but it has similar things on it, like trees. It kinds of fits into the discography, but it is also a little bit new. It has a very fairytale like or folkloristic aura or atmosphere.

Geplaatst door Vera op vrijdag 16 april 2021 - 20:04:41
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