Sunshine, Water, and Electric Guitars: An Interview with Bölzer

Let's begin with some basics: Bölzer is one of the most moving, innovative, and inspiring metal acts in the world today. The other facts that should be probably mentioned is that they are a Swiss metal duo, composed of frontman/guitarist/songwriter KzR (Okoi Jones, son of English-Nigerian folk-blues artist Paul Ubana Jones), and drummer HzR (Fabian Wyrsch), established in 2008. Since then the two have put out a fascinating demo in 2012, and a couple of even more fascinating EPs (here and here) in 2013 and 2014. The EPs, designed as two halves of one conceptual whole, ignited a fire in many a metal heart, perhaps as a result of that elusive quality that makes Bölzer into such a riveting band: the sense of hearing something grow out of the soil, something conceived in a damp cave, and, at the same time, very clearly an artistic artifact, produced by original musical minds. Oh, and the fact that the riff from "Entranced by the Wolfshook" is probably the best riffage singe early 2000s Deathspell Omega.

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This year the duo finally released their first full-length, entitled Hero, and in its relatively short time aboveground has reaped may an accolade (including in my own year-end countdown) and, more importantly, successfully took everything that was already great about the band's music and made it better. That simple. The wider reach, if I may be simplistic, allows the fuller, more complete realization of idea to come to the fore, with the final result being an astounding album that you never get tired of listening to.

Photo: Ester Segarra

Photo: Ester Segarra

Now, before we proceed to the interview itself, there are two other things that I feel compelled to mention: the first is, simply put, Switzerland. I have something of a soft sport for that strange, isolated country that, maybe not unlike Florida at some point in time, manages to be both the most unassuming place on earth as well as a fertile ground for visceral, idiosyncratic metal music. From everything Tom G. Warrior (Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, Triptykon), to one of my all-time favorite bands, Samael, through the somewhat neglected Alastis, and all the way to modern-day trailblazers such as Bölzer, Zeal and Ardor (who I interview here not long ago), and Schammash. Whatever they have in their water, I want it for breakfast.

The other thing worth mentioning, especially in the context of an Israeli interviewer talking to the band (to Okoi, actually) just before they come to play Tel Aviv (supported by local black-metal act Dim Aura), is the set of questions raised at the time concerning the band's alleged ideology. Those questions were raised, among other reasons, as a result of what some saw as the implementation of the wolfsangel in the band's logo, as well as concerns voiced regarding Okoi's swastika tattoo. Now, I could have easily avoided those questions, but I felt compelled to address them, and they are indeed addressed in an open and free manner. That isn't to say that it was all we talked about, since we discussed many other topics as well, in a conversation I found thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating. I hope you feel the same way too. Enjoy.

I thought I’d start at the beginning and ask whether you had a moment with a specific song or album that made you fall in love with music or want to be a musician

To be honest with you I can’t point to one album or an artist or anything. I grew up in a different kind of home. My father’s a musician, and we were all surrounded by all arrays of different music, from classical to blues or jazz and everything. And so, I love a lot of different types of music for different reasons, I can relate to them at different times of my life, and just have a different relationship with them having to do with the emotions they make me feel.

But, when I had already begun to play guitar and everything, it was probably discovering the harsher types of rock and metal, and more of the extreme metal genre. That was quite a fundamental turning point, where I realize that I had an affinity to the atmosphere and the emotions being expressed in that music, so I was trying to mimic, you know, to imitate the riffs on my guitar and mimicking the vocal and what not.

The non-metallic influences, did they co exist with all of this or did they fade to the background?

Yeah, to this day I still listen to a lot of the albums I grew up with, from my dad’s record collection, which probably are not things most metal-heads would listen to. It has a very strong nostalgic value for me.

Like what?

I don’t know, things like some of the first Sinead O'Connor albums, for example, like Marvin Gaye and stuff like that. And just blues and rock and stuff.

You find that Marvin Gaye infiltrates your music now?

[Laughs] What I love about Marvin Gaye is the soulfullness about him. Just this brutal honesty and melancholy and sadness about his tone, and that’s generally what I like in music is this atmosphere of tragedy or romantic vibes and things like that. I mean, yeah, it’s not as if I try and emulate the things, I enjoy about these artists, but I can’t deny their place within my makeup.

I would think that if you’re surrounded by musical variety and you find yourself attracted to something that you would consider maybe a common core among those influences, maybe that lets you know more about who you are and what like like than what you would like to emulate.

Yeah, precisely.

So, soulfulness, even though it doesn’t usually come up in metal conversations is a big part of certain metal groups or attitudes. Some would call this authenticity.

Yeah, that gets at a dedication to your craft or something like that. What all of that boils down to, as far as earlier influences or things I was subjected to audibly, my father’s music in itself was very important, his voice and how he played. I always admired him as a musician and a person. What I do, we have our similarities, to a degree.

What is a source of anxiety, or pressure?

No, no. He was very happy when I took up the guitar and showed interest in music. There was no pressure, it was more like I put pressure on myself to try and improve myself within my personal realm of expectations, because I knew my father was very talented and I tried to at least do something half of worth.

I guess you’re often pitted as a Swiss band and I suppose the reality is a little more complicated than that. Do you consider yourself to be a Swiss band? To the extent that matters?

It does matter.

The reason why I ask because there’s something interesting about the Swiss metal scene in that it produces very idiosyncratic acts. So can I clump you together with Celtic Frost, Samael, and such?

That’s a very valid question. I was born in Switzerland and I grew up in New Zealand, for most of my life, and I’ve been back in Switzerland for the last ten years. I would say, getting back to the point of idiosyncratic bands and the idea of quality over quantity, I think that was a product of its time. I don’t think that it’s something that would happen anymore.

What I would like to say as well is that I think New Zealand is a similar. I think it often comes down to a certain isolation. I mean, obviously New Zealand is a series of islands, but Switzerland is almost like an island within other countries. And in terms of influences and bands getting their art across the border and getting noticed, I think it’s quite comparable to New Zealand in certain respects. Just the product of the bands and the way they see themselves in their own scene is a very insular thing. At least coming down from my experience of both scenes that’s the way I see it.

I think that if you’d talk to Tom G. Warrior I think he would probably tell you similar points regarding that back in the day. It was all very isolated, and I guess that if you talked to the guys in Norway they would say the same thing.

And this would not be the case necessarily today because of the nature of the new digital culture, which means it’s not as insular as it was before?

Precisely. Well, coming down to a number of factors, like the internet, as well as the superfluity of bands now.

That’s a good segue for me. One of the first things that struck me when I began listening to your music is that you don’t sound like anyone else. And I couldn't really put my finger on it: whether it was the production, or the fact that it was just the two of you, your style of singing. Whatever it was it felt like a return to something that was a little more organic-sounding, more spacious, much less focus on a wall of sound, production wise. Is that a vibe you’re going for?

Absolutely, I’m glad that’s something you could hear. It’s nice to hear that there’s something unique to our sound. I don’t try and be different, I like things to express themselves. I think that if you form an expression and execute it the right way then it tends to be unique to a large degree.

But, yeah. Openness, and organic sound, there are a lot of points that we try to maintain as well, with our own aesthetics. It’s not important to us to not sound like something, or to not sound like this and this, because it wouldn’t even occur to us to do it. I guess that when you’ve been doing it for a while it becomes less and less easy to describe or pinpoint.

Right, I would think that, much like when we discussed that the fact that you like Marvin Gaye doesn’t mean you try to copy Marvin Gaye, and so the other way around would be that the fact that you sound “open” doesn't mean that you intended to sound “open.”

Right, exactly. If we’re talking about open riffs and that perhaps comes from our interest in black metal or death metal and soulful music and bombastic soundscapes, like classical stuff. I think Kurt Cobain’s style of riff writing had a huge impression on me when I was younger as well, and making the most of a bunch of strings and a limited amount of chord changes, but being able to evoke something very particular. I think minimalism in its true form is really a complex art. It’s only mastered by a certain bunch of people, and for me it’s attractive to at least attempt to hone songwriting skills. Because I really enjoy good songwriting, I think it’s a really beautiful thing, but if it goes to fear and becomes claustrophobic and destroyers the artform itself.

But it seems that metal, and music in general, has been engaged in a process of overthinking, where it wasn’t about limiting oneself and doing things with simplicity, but really into this complex stuff, everything kind of collapsing under its own weight. Then your sound isn’t coincidently different because your attempt to whittle down that density and kind of go for something simpler, maybe that’s what people are hearing?

Yeah, precisely, I think another crucial point to that whole thing is that we’re a duo, and because I’m the only guitarist and we rely on each other to whittle it down, as you said. And if you’re putting too much in then there’s no dynamics. You have to have the right amount of everything.

There’s a certain sense of depth or mythology that you seem to invest your music with. And you mention the notion of cycles quite a bit, the notion of human history as cyclical, and maybe dynamics feeds into that. Is there anything, even unconsciously, you think that you as a writer, is that something you try to emulate, structure-wise?

It’s really a fact that lyrics and music are overly thought out. For me the influence on both areas is primarily an instinctive one, coming from the gut and the mouth. Then, once that foundation is there, there are theoretical moments or contemplations as to what’s been writing. But, it’s not as if everything is planned, there’s a lot of chaos involved. It’s kind of done with chaotic thoughts and imagery. I guess it’s a kind of marriage with natural forces, in a way.

The creative process?

The creative process and the end product. In order to maintain this organic honesty, this certain raw element to it, that it’s not overly polished and it’s not overly clinical, and human.

One would think though, given an interest, in all of European metal at least, in a pre-Judeo-Christian Europe, and maybe even a Fertile-Crescent mythology, then one would think that if you’re interested about a simpler time in history then that philosophy would not be considered “over-thinking it.”

Yeah, I mean there’s obviously a general preoccupation with the ancient structure of things, getting down to basics, like “natural law” or natural forces, as we’ve mentioned before. Not necessarily to try to reassimilate the present with a pre-Christian context or anything like that, there’s simply a fascination for ancient cultures, mythology, stories and imagery. These are all things that I care about very much, but I think that most of the contextual atmosphere that arises within the music, I don’t know if it’s limited to a certain time frame. I kind of would rather that it was more ambiguous, and covers various epochs.

When it retains its ambiguity it gives it a lot more color. But, ambiguity in terms of the context also implies…. I guess there’s an element of cheesiness for me if you try to recreate something which has been. It’s kind of a futile attempt, in my eyes, to boil down something so large and weighty within the context of one song. Or a few songs. So I’d rather view it from a broader perspective.

I was going to ask about this anyway, and this seems like a good enough segue. Would this the way people who are interested in your music, and are interested in the imagery and go beyond the music, would this notion of using intellectual infrastructures and imagery as a mode of creating ambiguity, is that how you would like people to…. Because there was a whole thing about the Wolfsangel and the swastika thing, so I guess what I’m asking is would you consider the use of those symbols, as loaded as they are with meaning, as tools of creating ambiguity?

No, not the symbols. The symbols are finite.

Then what would be the point of using those symbols?

Well, if we’re talking about the Wolfsangel and the swastika, if means there’s no intentional wolfsangel within our logo anyway.

bolzer_logo_300dpi_blackbg

Yeah, well, maybe within central-European lore that one has more meaning, but I think the swastika is more interesting, because it has obviously non-Europeans and it has very definite European resonances

Yeah, obviously.

So where do you see that within the finite-ambiguous paradigm?

Well, regarding the use of the swastika upon myself, it’s not there within our own imagery as a band, I’m more than open to discuss it, the meaning is not ambiguous, the meaning is quite literally solar worship, within an ancient context. And also coming down to its multiple other meanings, there are a number of different meanings the swastika has, it’s not just a solar symbol, it represents chaos, and universal structure, and tied to the psyche of ancient cultures.

But, I guess you wouldn’t be shocked that for certain people it’s clear and finite and unambiguous in a whole other angle completely.

Yes, absolutely. I absolutely respect that, very much so, obviously, it would be stupid of me not to. But, I think, nonetheless, it's very important that people are willing to differentiate and understand where the symbol actually comes from. No one denies that it was used in a hideous context by people with a very malicious agenda, and that’s not something we propagate whatsoever, that should be more than clear. With my personal background it would be absolutely ludicrous to advocate a kind of racist supremacy.

I think it’s kind of important that people would be able to read into a broader historical context regarding the symbol. I mean, they could learn more about its importance in the German period as well if they did, where it came from. It wasn’t just a figment of Goebbels’ or Hitler’s imagination, it was was something that was deeply rooted in European culture, and they chose to use it for certain reasons. I think a lot of people could probably learn from that if they read a little more about it, and then realize that the symbol has been around for literally thousands of years

Yeah, but that’s kind of the tricky duality that art in general, but I would say specifically the European metal scene, is entrenched in, that there’s always going to be a certain amount of suspicion regarding a certain say, I don’t want to say nostalgia, but a referencing of anything that had to do with a pre-Christian Europe. Because that seems to tap into fears that that kind of nostalgia could become dangerous. Metal, as a genre, has always straddled the line on that.

I agree with you one-hundred percent that that’s a fact, that there’s a certain resurgence of interest in pagan Europe. But, why is that? It’s because the European context has been stigmatized since World War II. If you look at any other context outside of Europe and they’re propagating their ancient culture, there are no negative connotations there, it was only regarding the European realm because of this stigma that was imposed upon ancient European practice basically regarding the Nazi’s deeper interests within ancient Europe and Germanic culture. I think that it would be absolutely blind and very sad if that was seen as a positive thing to banish your past and your history because of one group of people that chose to practice abhorrent things.

I think that it’s very interesting, looking at the European context of metal and then looking at the American context, there are certain bands, and you’re apparently clumped with those bands, but the whole idea of what has come to be known as “hipster metal.”

[Laughs]

And the notion of “hipster metal” as over-intellectualized, perhaps bourgeois, maybe not the struggling artist’s art form but the comfortable artist’s. In the American context bands that are considered “hipster metal” are bands blamed for taking elements of extreme metal and aestheticizing them, whereas in the European context it’s the other side of the spectrum, a much more traditional point of entry.

That’s an interesting point. Well admittedly, Ron, I don’t bear a very high regard American agenda, regarding art and all this stuff. I really don’t. For me there’s too much policing-cowboy rubbish, redneck mentality.

Policing in what way?

I mean, these are American figments, in a way, this fascination with hipsterdom. I don’t know even know what it is. We come from a completely different sphere. But, obviously the Americans are very comfortable with limiting itself and making it very…. They like categorization in order for people to understand. It comes down to a very limited historical scope.

So this is not just a cultural policing but also what shapes their bands, how they are?

Yeah, I don’t know. But of all of these bands that as you’ve been saying are over intellectualized or “comfortable artists”…. I really don’t see how we fit into that.

Yeah, I was kind of surprised to hear you were characterized in that way.

I think it was just a momentary description that someone had used for us, regarding the so-called “hype” or something. Because a lot of music got into our music within a short period of time, that’s another reason to label something as “hipster.” You know, “hipster” is something we shit on and on those kinds of opinions. I just do what I do, if people like it, then great. It’s not as if we’re reliant on they’re saying that we’re worthy or something.

The new album sound like a much more complex, much more realized version of your artistic vision. Was that what it was intended to be, as a full-length album, as a kind of broader canvas?

Um, I don’t know, it just came out the way it did, I guess. I was definitely trying to push our boundaries a little. I was pushing myself during the writing process to make I was, I don’t know, kind of venturing into deeper reaches of my heart. You get older and there are things that you do differently.

Photo: Eisa.ch

Photo: Eisa.ch

Are there things you felt you got out of the way, in a way?

Yeah, cleaning singing, for instance. It was something that I was interested in for a while, and I think it works within that context quite well. So, I’m happy with that, and that was something that I kind of feel like I want to use in the future, maybe not necessarily only for Bölzer but perhaps other projects. Using the clean voice, not exactly like it is there, but not just only growling and screaming the whole time.

As an attempt to gain dynamics in vocals as well?

It’s just a different sphere of expression. I mean, there are different emotions there, you know? A completely different atmosphere, and you can paint a different canvas with it.

Does having expressed certain things or realized them in the EPs helped you move further?

Yeah, for sure. It’s always like that. I mean, I don’t burn all my bridges behind me. I like to do that, but I don’t do it all the time. I guess you move forward and instinctually leaves certain aspects of what you did behind. There are some avenues that you don’t need to walk down again. But I think there’s a general train of thought or expression that’s always present within your own style.

I know you talked about the fact that the new album has a structure, one having to do with mythology and certain cycles. I know it’s not a concept album, as such, but what was the intention behind the structure?

Well, it is actually a concept album. The number nine, and the number three, the number three is very important going back to numerology within the context of fates and creation. There are nine songs there, there are three intervals where the fates are present within the narrative. And the narrative being of a hero or a champion, who is an unnamed figure, a male figure. I deals basically with the hero’s plight, his journey, in a very loosely based heroic cycle. It doesn’t adhere to classic heroic structure, say like Greek, saga, or something like that, but it just pulls loosely from a lot of heroic stories.

Within it, on the secondary level, I guess I was trying to tie in that ambiguity game. It’s relevant to a modern context, in that what I was trying to ignite there, or just my own feelings regarding feeling inspired by an ideal, by a person who has a dream, drive, the sense of overcoming one’s self in the interest of personal betterment. Those were the foundational concepts behind the album.

You say it could be applicable to modern times, meaning that you feel this is a story of possible significance to our day and age. So, it’s not a very heroic age…

Yeah, that’s the idea. It’s nothing to do with politics or money, and power, and structure, and things like that. It has to do with retaining some sense of worth and place and seeing where you are in this whole shithole. I’m not very fond of the system in the modern age and what’s going on nowadays.

Any specific part, of the whole thing?

The reliance on a monetary structure to empower, the limits of power and how it grips people. War waged for monetary gain. I think those are despicable things that most people probably don’t agree with, but…. I just don’t like the fact that there’s no…. No one seems to believe in anything anymore, apart from the latest gadgets and fashion, all of those superfluous human adorations. I think there are many more valuable factors growing out of the ground, and things we can learn from the animal kingdom or from a tree, or from looking at the sky at night. I don’t know. There’s so much more going on than an iPhone.

So, I have this to ask: Do you perceive yourself to be a believing person? Do you consider yourself to be a dreamer?

Yeah, well I would like to think that I have an element of activism to  me as well, when it’s right, when it’s correct to engage in activism and to express your opinion in the hopes of changing something. But, yeah of course I’m a dreamer, I don’t just shut off and function. I belong to that group of discontent, perhaps, of wanting something else.

Do you see that as a drive behind your artistic process? That discontent and trying to think of something new?

Yeah, not necessarily anger, I see my music and my mindset as generally being a creative one, a positive one. I don’t want to simply propagate violence and destruction of the things that I despise, I’d rather sort of see it as build up the cultural power, and win the other with positive, constructive energy. And it’s an moment of escapism for me, as well. A tool for putting your emotions to a constructive purpose.

It’s that double thing of while doing something you get to be in that other place, and once you’re done with it then you in some way adding to the counter energy of whatever it is you’re opposing.

Yeah. There have been a number of artists I think that have proclaimed the importance of art in terms of fleeing the modern predicament, or fleeing the predicament of society and other people. I think that’s been something that’s omnipresent throughout human existence. But, yeah, it bears even more importance nowadays, I think, when things are so chaotic and fucked up that it’s a portal to something else, and that’s a good thing. I mean, people exercising their creativity within something that doesn’t harm anyone else, just allows them to perhaps ruminate on their existence and their place within things, and escape, or either at least gain or regain their energy in order to tackle their everyday plight. Then, I think it’s a positive thing, I mean, it’s great, it should be propagated.

Yeah. And maybe going back full circle to my first question, I know you didn’t give a definite answer, so I’ll give one for myself: when you’re a kid that’s also sometimes a period of plight in your life, when you’re trying to kind of figure out who you are, so listening to something that you feel connected to and you feel voices your concerns…. I mean, there’s a parallel there. As an artist you get to speak out and express who you are, not bogged down by reality, and somewhere out there there’s a 13-year-old kid who’s listening to that and saying: “Fuck yeah, I don’t need to be bogged down by reality either” and it’s an ongoing cycle of writing and listening that you would hope perpetuates itself.

Yeah, for sure, of course. That’s the beauty of music, and literature, and art itself, that romantic relationship that exists between someone who chooses to create and me something, no matter how small or humble, if it’s seen or sounds experienced by someone else who can who can relate to it then it automatically becomes a process of sharing something, you know? And it doesn’t cost anything, it’s free, it’s like the nice things in life. Like sunshine, drinking water, or whatever.

And it’s as basic as those things.

Yeah, for sure. And it’s a very primal thing, that exchange. I think that there’s magic in that realization that you’re escaping to that place where those primal luxuries exist, it’s a nice place to be in, I like returning to that all the time. I don’t think it’s something you can give up if you have it in your blood. If you have a calling to do that, then it’s something that will follow you forever.

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