Samael are a band all about reinvention, travelling from the frigid climes of second-wave black metal to the grimy claustrophobia of noisy industrial music, in a career spanning over twenty years. But with a strange Cronenberg-esque twist, it seems that Samael’s next great transformation will begin with them climbing into the teleportrix, and end with them turning… back into their chronologically-previous selves?!
We spent an hour or so conversing with Samael’s handsome vocalist and guitar man Vorph, and the demonic (and also quite handsome) producer and mixing-man Russ Russell, having a quick slider-sliding break.
DemPig: Tell us what you’re up to, lads!
Russ Russell: We’re doing the new album. Samael have already recorded it, and they’ve come over to mix it. It’s sounding bloody marvellous!
Vorph: The mixing’s going great, yeah.
DP: Have you worked together before? How are you finding it?
V: This is our first time working with Russ. He’s the perfect guy. What we need on this record is clarity; with so much going on, it can be very hard to hear everything. Russ is making it sound more like a living thing. There’s some dirt, some real things happening.
There’s a few of our albums, maybe, the sound’s too clinical, and it doesn’t come across so well live. Say, Solar Soul or Reign of Light. Hopefully not this time.
R: I haven’t worked with them before. I was recommended to them via Dimmu Borgir. I’m absolutely ecstatic to be working with Samael. They’re a legendary act for me, and among everyone I’ve worked with.
DP: Russ, do you feel a certain pressure to be working with an influential band like Samael?
R: It’s encouraging for me to be asked. They’ve given me the stuff, and I can pull out all my wacky ideas. We’re totally on the same wavelength. I’m pulling all my best tricks out of the bag. Samael trust me, so there’s a natural relationship there. I feel like I’ve known them for years, they’re really cool guys.
They’re totally open to suggestions, and it’s been an easy relationship to build. And I’m taking the opportunity to practise my French.
DP: Over the years, you’ve reinvented yourselves as a band with each album you write. What is the philosophy behind this new record? Is it a continuation of the ‘tribute to roots’ you began with Above?
V: The idea of this record is to do it like it was our first album. Above was supposed to be a separate project with a virtual band, but there was an energy there that we wanted to keep, and some songs that we wanted to play live. Every song has its own personality, we’d say.
We redefine ourselves with every album, and this time we had the idea to make a statement. We took on the best elements we’ve used in the past to make an album that will represent us completely. We’re not trying to make sense with what we’ve done before, we’re starting fresh, starting anew. You can’t be a beginner again, but you can keep the freshness; to start, not at zero, but we wanted to redefine it somehow. I think it has worked out. We’re totally excited about it, and that’s a good sign, whenever you feel excitement to play a song.
R: I’d say this album is kind of a mixture between eras. There’s a very orchestral approach to it, but there’s less of the techno, less synths and less electronic percussion. There’s still a small amount of electronic drums and programming. Xy is a fantastic drummer and programmer. He’s astounding.
It’s allowing me to do everything I want. A lot of times, I’m working on stuff that’s more down the line. With grindcore and death metal, you have more freedom to do what you want; anything goes. It’s quite liberating. I get to do it with a few other bands too. There’s a level of trust you need.
DP: Vorph, give us an overview of your songwriting and development process.
V: Xy is doing all the songwriting by himself. He’s the main or sole composer. I write lyrics, and put the vocal lines on the songs. Even though there’s only the two of us composing things, this is still Samael, a band of four. We tour together, we live together, and it does make a difference. Makro joined the band in 2002, and he definitely brought something back; an excitement that we’d lost. He brought back that freshness, and it does make a lot of difference.
We’ve been working the same way for a long time. That seems to work for us. We’ve been doing this, discussing things together for a long time. We’re on the same page.
DP: Samael are often described as innovators in black metal, or even originators. How do you feel about that?
V: It’s never really been important to us to be labelled as whatever. We were influenced ourselves by Bathory, Venom, Celtic Frost and so on. We’ve incorporated a lot of different elements over the years, and that gives us a different place in the whole scene. We could have stepped back; there were people expecting us to.
We stuck to our guns and kept on. You can spoil yourself for the real fundamentalists in the metal scene, but that doesn’t really matter to me. There’s enough people who like what we do.
The main idea is always to keep it interesting to us. It can become routine, and then the fun is no longer there. We never found the bands we wanted to listen to, so each album is an album that has a reason to be there. You feel the need to come with something new. There’s a need for us to feel the need for it, if you like.
It isn’t just like we have to get a record out. We don’t have a record company. If we feel that it’s time for a new album, then we go and do it.
DP: Over your career, you’ve gone from a fairly pure second-wave black metal sound to a more industrial, electronic place. Explain to us the thought process behind an evolution like that.
V: You don’t really think about your evolution. You just start with one song, then another, and so on. You don’t know what you’ve got until the album is finished, so there’s no real limit, as long as you’re coming up with songs that you like. We never censor ourselves to make it fit with a template somehow.
DP: Do you think incorporating those influences has alienated fans over the years?
V: I think our evolution is accepted by some of our fans. We’ve been known to go to some unknown territories, and there’s some experimentation on this album. It’s a mix between redefining the songs we have, and experimenting for the future.
DP: Would you say it’s stood in the way of wider acclaim and success?
V: Whenever you can do what you want to do, this is a success. We can do headlining shows in Europe and America. We have total freedom on everything. We’re doing it on our own terms.
DP: You’ve been known to revisit your older work in the past; you’ve issued new recordings, reinterpretations and remixes. Do you have any plans in this direction?
V: We don’t know about re-recordings, we never find the time. It could be something that we’ll do at some time. We have a new single, Antigod, out in November, and we’ve re-recorded Into the Pentagram from our first album for that. It’s funny, because you can see exactly where the band stands by listening to that song. This version sounds a lot more industrial. At the same time, it’s more massive. It’s a different type of darkness from how it was before.
Back in the day, we didn’t really know how to do it. It was difficult until we got a lot more confident in what we were doing.
DP: Do you consider the re-recordings definitive?
V: Every version of a song is definitive until there’s another one. The ‘95 version of Into the Pentagram was frustrating, it killed the vibe of the song.
DP: When I think of black metal, I tend to think of Scandinavian countries rather than the Alps or muesli. How much of a metal scene is there in Switzerland?
V: There are some big bands coming out of there: Celtic Frost, Triptykon and so on. But it’s a small country, and it’s not a country with a rock or metal tradition, because probably, it’s not an option for a lot of people to do that for a living. I made sacrifices when I decided to be in a band for a living. You don’t make as much money as you could have, but you live the life you dreamed of.
In any country, in any scene, there’ll be five bands you’ve heard of and hundreds of bands who make the whole thing live. We’ve never considered ourselves a Swiss band. Our influences have been American and English.
DP: You came over to mix, so I guess the songs were more or less complete when you arrived. Have you been adding any tweaks, Russ?
R: We’ve made a few changes to the finished recordings, added a few extra keyboards and stuff, but they were pretty much sorted.
DP: Can you get specific for us?
R: We’re using a lot of vocal effects. I love going crazy with those. We’ve been listening to the new Killing Joke, and we love the strong vocals. We’ve tried a lot of new vocal tricks, layering up different vocals, and ended up with a really thick sound.
DP: Vorph, you’ve described Samael as a ‘spiritual journey’ in the past, and there have been some distinctly eastern ideas in the last few records. Can you expand on this for us?
V: I love eastern kinds of sounds. There’s not so much of that on this album, maybe just on one song. It’s not totally conscious, we just love those kind of sounds, those melodies. There’s a secret, a mystery to them. It’s not part of our musical calendar, it just came to us later on. Music’s got to help you let your mind travel.
DP: What’s the next step in your journey?
V: This album is the next step for Samael. We’re heading to a new level in our life. We’re going to cover the whole thing and leave the past behind. It will need a couple of years to see what difference this album made to the band. That’s the feeling we have, and we’re really excited about it.
Samael’s new single Antigod is released 19th November on Nuclear Blast. The new album is expected next March.
A Decade in Hell, a box set containing Samael’s entire Century Media catalogue, is released on 22nd November.