Metal-less Metal and Fake Romance: An Interview with Emptiness
As readers of this prestigious blog may have already noticed, I tend to develop mild musical obsessions from the very first moment I hear certain bands. And, given an opportunity and time (time is an important thing) I try to reach out to said bands and discuss their art for a while. Such is the present case. About a year or so I started listening, and then listening more, to a wonderful album by the name of Nothing but the Whole, that came out in 2014 by a relatively unknown band by the name of Emptiness. Experimental, palpable, and frankly moving black metal, and, most importantly, completely different than anything I had heard from what had become a stale and predictable genre. I told myself "Ron, you remember these guys." Sometimes I talk with myself.
Fast forward to earlier this year, when Emptiness released their latest effort, Not for Music, via Seasons of Mist. I wouldn't be overstating the case when I say that within five seconds of the album's opening track I was well on my way to getting this interview to happen. Everything the was vague, dark, and even poppy about Nothing but the Whole was amplified into a magnus opus of eighties kitsch and black metal in the most original, wonderful, and addictive way. One of the most special albums I've heard in a while, and without a doubt one of the best albums thus far this year (including my personal "song of the year," the mighty and demure "Digging the Sky." An album that, straight out of left field, included the involvement of one Jeordie White, AKA Twiggy Ramirez, of Marlin Manson fame. But more on that in a bit.
Emptiness are a Belgic quartet that has been around for quite a while, and yet has produced relatively few albums in its almost 20 years together. They began as a relatively run-of-the-mill black-metal band, growing more complex and interesting with every release. The watershed moment, for me at least, was their beautiful 2012 album Error. And while slowly drifting away form standard metal since that album, they remain entrenched in their local metal scene as a result of both their ownership of Blackout Studios in Brussels as well as the fact that two of the band's members, frontman Jeremie Bezier and guitarist Olivier Lomer-Wilbers, have been members of black-metal stalwarts Enthroned as of 2011.
The pleasant conversation with Jeremie documented below was conducted a few months ago (again, time is a valuable thing). While shaky communications (thanks Skype) and something of a language barrier threatened to bring us down, we, I think, came out with a very enjoyable and interesting conversation. Enjoy.
Do you remember a moment with an album or artist or song that really changed how you felt about music?
I think my very first memory was a Michael Jackson vinyl that my big brother had, I guess Bad or something like that.
What was it about it that you liked?
It’s hard to say, I was so young. My approach to music today is so different that it’s difficult to imagine what I was thinking. Maybe those grooves. I mean, Michael Jackson is universal, I think that’s the thing with him, that everyone can find something to connect with. But that was the first one. I really connected with my brother, who was listening to a lot of music, my parents as well, and introduced me to things like Pink Floyd and to metal as well, like Iron Maiden and Manowar.
I actually wanted to get to this later, but regarding your new album, Not for Music. Your previous releases were, even though I guess you could say they were “heavier,” there’s always this almost poppy/ dark 80s feel. So do you feel like the non-metal influences still play a significant role in how you think about music today?
Yeah. I mean that whole goth/80s thing, we didn’t really realize we had it on the previous album. I mean, we realized we had it a bit on Nothing But The Whole, but even there it wasn’t by choice or intentionally. We always wanted to do things that were connected to metal, but were not really metal at the same time. We never really liked the kvlt metal albums, we always liked the weirder albums, you know, the ones the fans usually hate. We always liked when the sound of metal albums wasn’t necessarily rough.
Can you think of other bands that are putting out albums that were metal but not really metal, like you say?
Sure. I mean, especially this last album, it wasn’t really inspired by metal at all. I mean we are always connected to metal because we play in all these bands, and we have a recording studio over here, so we are into metal, but it’s not really what I listen to nowadays. I know what’s going on, but it’s not what I listen to. I listen to a lot of pop, a lot of psychedelic rock, a lot of MGMT.
Yeah! It’s a fucked up band but at the same time really catchy, and that’s what I like. Bands that sing tunes but at the same time it’s fucked up. And to me that’s really genius.
Yeah, that double nature, the catchy and the subversive, I guess you could say.
Yeah. Disconnected, in some way. We dream of accomplishing that, making something fucked up and catchy.
I see why you would say that. The new album sounds almost like it’s pop or something like that. Is there a way that you play on people’s expectations? I mean your albums were a lot more metal in the past, so is there a way in which you maybe got bored with the metal scene and wanted to fuck with your audience?
Yeah, of course. We always try to be a surprising band or something like that, playing with the audience. Not even just between albums but between songs, not to be to repetitive and having as much ideas as possible. But, at the same time, we don’t want to sound experimental. We want to sound like the truth or something. Like something that had already existed, but in a way never did. We like it that people don’t really know where it comes from or what it makes them feel. It’s about questioning.
Questioning what? What is it you want to question?
I think everyone can see their own truth in things, I’m convinced of that. If someone wants to imagine, for example, a Biblical God, everything in that person’s life will propel him to believe that. So everyone creates their own reality with their thinking and their expectations. But all that just goes to say that there are infinite possibilities of truth, of ideas, of revealing the fact that man is not the center of everything. The “thing” is so vast that it doesn’t concern man, we’re just a tiny piece of the whole thing, of the truth. So, I think that’s what we try and create, to make you feel bad. To feel the unknown.
But, bad and good at the same time, no? Because Michael Jackson makes you feel good too, not just bad.
Yeah, that’s true. We tend to think that if it’s bad that it’s more good.
It’s interesting because in metal in general, and I know you’re oriented just toward metal, but in metal in general, and perhaps more so in European metal, the idea of man being insignificant is taken to the kvlt, maybe satanic stuff, and it tends to stagnate. You’re talking about a different kind of feeling, through surprise and perhaps variety.
Yeah. And it’s not just about feeling bad, it’s about trying to catch some real emotions, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but to emote yourself. To convey something about that reality, that’s not a big deal, it’s just the way it is. Yeah, we can see the negative in the human point of view, but the entire situation, I don’t see it as so negative
I got the feeling listening to, even listening to Nothing But the Whole, even with it being heavier, there’s this unusual feeling, especially in metal, that you’re listening to a love song. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah yeah. That’s good to hear.
I had to check the lyrics to see if you’re not talking about love the whole time…
Because it had that kind of vibe, of being very dark and serious, but about love. Maybe even heartbreak.
Yeah. Especially in this last album, but I think it’s true of Nothing But the Whole as well, we tried to have a relaxed vibe, not trying too hard to be black or to be positive, not too hard with the emotions. There’s a part, like you said of romanticism, or fake romanticism on this last album, and there are some lyrics that link to what seems like a female subject. I don’t know if romanticism is the right term, but the male-female relationship in the human mind. We spend so much time thinking about that that I think it’s the destiny of our lives, that we’re just all the time pushed to reproduce. All the rest seems not to matter, just making life. I’m not saying that I identify myself in this, maybe all emotions like love and compassion maybe these are all just tricks to make you reproduce. So the whole of the last album is pretty much just my attempt to address that idea.
Yeah. I think in a way you’re always trying to surprise and to change, use a lot of ideas just to expose ideas as constructs, then you can also show that whatever it is we’re calling now the romantic is also a construct. Something you can play with and fake in order to make art.
Yeah, because it’s a big part of your feelings. And so it’s a good tool.
Another tool to use in order to make something different.
I’d say that.
And did you notice that this gothic or romantic vibe was beginning to take its influence while recording Nothing But the Whole, while you were making the album?
I think only after. It wasn’t…. It’s difficult to remember what we had in mind when we were composing Nothing But the Whole, but for sure we realized that it was something that we liked and that we wanted to push.
So, coming into the recording process of Not for Music, did you have in mind that you wanted to push that further?
Because it’s a pretty radical departure. While the new album feels continuous with the previous ones, it is very very different. Guitars can never appear on whole songs, and then suddenly come up. So, was this a result of this pushing?
It’s true that we wanted the album like a natural evolution, but at the same time what natural evolution means for us now is to continue to do things differently as well, you know? And we’re getting a lot of different reactions. For some people it’s so different they feel like they don’t recognize the band, and the we get the complete opposite. We try always to convey something that’s in our minds, to create something, but in the passage to the other side there’s always something lost.
Yeah, I actually wanted to ask you about that. I read somewhere that when you named your band when you were younger you were actually going for a different meaning. That you didn’t know English that well and you thought you were naming it something different. So, does the fact that you write in English but English isn’t your mother tongue, is that also a tool of making it strange or different for you?
No, not really. I write my lyrics in French. Everything is in French first. And then there’s a big project of translating everything into English. So I have the text, usually before the music, and then we have to adapt it. And of course things change, it would have been the case even if we were writing in English and then had to put those words to music. So I write it down in French just because I want to express myself precisely, without any limits, but then it’s frustrating to have to translate. I know what your next question will be: “Why don’t you sing in French?”
Not really, but you can answer it!
[Laughs] Good. Because we want it to be as if it came from nowhere. Singing in French puts you in a geographical location. We want to be from everywhere. I don’t mean to sound pretentious or something, but trying to be as universal as we can, not even from Earth, do you know what I mean?
And so English is what we’re used to listen to and that would make you ask “Where is this thing coming from?”
I’ll tell why I wasn’t going to ask you why you don’t sing in French. Because everything you’re talking about and how you think about your music, it just made sense that you would try to express yourself in a language that is difficult for you. Because it made me think of Samuel Beckett. He’s an Irish writer from the beginning of the twentieth century, and, despite the fact that he was Irish, sometimes he would write in French and then translate himself into English. So the end result would be kind of a translation of a translation.
Yeah, I can’t say that I really did this on purpose, but I realize that for English-speaking people the sentences, I think they reflect a kind of a way of thinking in French that may be weird for people used to English. I mean, an English guy wouldn’t write the same way and I often hear that it can sound cool for English speakers. But, I often don’t feel very good about it because my pronunciation is pretty bad and the vocals are loud in the mix and I just end up sounding stupid.
I actually think it achieves something that’s very good for what you’re trying to do. Because if you’re taking ideas as showing them to be changeable then when you do that to language itself then it achieves the same effect.
Cool, man. I’ll feel more confident about it.
Yeah, feel good. I mean, feel bad because it’s still hard work…
But it’s work that pays off, is what I guess I’m trying to say. I guess everyone is talking about this, but I assume that every time a relatively unknown band is associated with a relatively known artist it tends to garner attention, but now did the whole Jeordie White thing happen?
He ordered a t-shirt from us through our online store. I was never a Marilyn Manson fan, and I didn’t really know who he was. But I sent the wrong shirt size. Yeah, I’m not really good at sending out the merch.
I guess the other guys will do that now. But still, because of this mistake he sent back an email saying he was on tour at the moment with Manson and that he really wanted to promote us and that he’s a big fan and loves the music. And so then I went to check who he was and made all the connections, coming from a bands that sells millions of albums and sold out tours and all that. And so we started talking and he said he wanted to meet me. So we figured out they were playing at the same time as Enthroned was in Hellfest and we met over there. We were already thinking about the new album, and we asked him if he wanted to be a part of it, maybe help us with the production. We didn’t really know what would come of it, but he was really interested, and we were really lucky to have a good person like that on board for the best reasons and who really loved the music, not really trying to do any kind of business or anything like that.
So the whole experience turned out really well and we took it as a challenge. Knowing that we would have to present our music to big producers over there in L.A., because he also involved Sean Beavan who used to work with Nine Inch Nails and bands like that. We wanted to present the best work possible.
So it was a positive experience?
Yeah, man. It was cool to put in the time to produce it the way we wanted to. We recorded everything by ourselves in our studio over here, Blackout Studios in Brussels, and so we invested a lot in equipment, the pieces that were missing for a while already. But we said “fuck it,” we’ll put in the investment and make it worthwhile for us. And then we took the tracks over to L.A. to present them and stayed a few days with Jeordie, just listening to the songs, adding keyboards, re-thinking the songs, a lot of sound design and trying to make the album sound like a unified whole.
I actually wanted, before I let you go, to ask about one specific song, about “Digging the Sky.” Because the album as a whole, as you said, is made up of a lot of ideas, a lot of surprising turns, and moods, and so on. But it seems that all of that is happening in just that one song, a lot of ideas and changes. Was there a different process relating to that song?
Yes. It was the first song we worked on, and it was with Phil, our previous guitar player who played on Nothing But the Whole, and in the period between the two albums we had a different version of that song than was eventually recorded, but the process was different. We also wanted to have a long song in the middle of the album, kind of slower, and make it sound like an adventure. So, yeah, it’s true that it sounds really different from the rest, and at first, in preparing this new album, we were thinking that we weren't going to use “Digging the Sky.” But then I thought “fuck, if we really want to make things differently then it would be cool to use something that we made in a different way.” So, you were right.