I’ve covered Dark Forest before, both when “Dawn Of Infinity” and “The Awakening” were released. The result of those two email-conversations can be read here. Even though Christian Horton is one of those musicians that put a lot of effort into his answers when he does interviews via the internet, I really wanted to speak to him personally this time in an old school phone interview. Christian accepted, and here you can read the result of our hour long chat about past, present and future in the Dark Forest-camp. The main focus however, is the brand new album “Beyond The Veil”, to be released through Cruz Del Sur towards the end of this month.
I remember you saying that in the start of your career you had very few or no allies in the scene. Now that you have built a network with labels, promoters, journalists, fans and bands, do you feel Dark Forest stand stronger?
– The fan base has definitely grown. In the early days, no one knew who we were, we had a very small local following only. In fact, locally we still have a small following. Most of the fans today, are in Europe, although the fan base has grown in the UK as well since those early days. We have made good friends with other bands and are definitely in a stronger position now compared to what we used to be.
Since you started, the UK scene has evolved and grown a little bit bigger, with some new, quite promising acts coming through. Do you think you can profit from this, and do you see a small community forming?
– Its true, there is certainly a stronger scene growing with bands like Seven Sisters, Wytch Hazel and Ascalon to name a few. These are bands that weren’t around when we started out. When we formed, we felt quite alone. We have made a lot of friends in the UK recently, but I still don’t regard ourselves as being completely part of any scene. We just play the music we play. Over the years we have performed with many different bands. We used to play with thrash bands, so it’s nice to be able to play with bands that play more traditional heavy metal here in the UK. That being said, we still see ourselves as outsiders in a way. We’re not trying to recreate the past, as many bands nowadays do. There is nothing wrong with that, but we don’t try to be modern or old, we just play the music that comes to us naturally.
So the fact that you sound a bit different musically compared to these and other British acts because of the folk and medieval influences, might be one of the reasons why you really not feel part of a scene?
– Yeah, I think that’s part of it. One of the bands I just mentioned, Wytch Hazel, have a medieval approach to their music as well. We’re friends, and our singer Josh, used to play guitar for them. They sound very retro, but we don’t consider ourselves to be a retro, throwback band. The folk element, especially the lyrics with all the folklore, is what I think separates us from stereotypical heavy metal. I write the lyrics, about subjects that mean a lot to me and my personal interests. I am very much into folklore and history.
Folklore has always been an important part of the lyrics in Dark Forest, but Christian feels it’s even more of it on “Beyond The Veil”.
– On our first album you had “The Wrekin Giant”, “Fear Dearg” and “The Wizard Of Alderly Edge”, which are all folklore. On “Dawn Of Infinity” you got “Under The Greenwood Tree” which is about Robin Hood, while “The Last Season” off “Awakening” also has very much to do with reconnecting with nature or roots. So it’s not a new thing, it’s always been there, but with this new album we have gone more heavily into that theme.
Speaking about Wytch Hazel, what did you make of their debut album?
– It’s good! It’s definitely got an atmosphere to it. What I like about Wytch Hazel is that they got a lot of integrity. They’re a band that is doing their own thing, they’re not copying anybody. You can hear influences obviously, Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy and things like that, Jethro Tull maybe, but it’s still very unique and very true to themselves. I respect them for that. Their music is not that heavy, but it’s got its own feel.
There are some people claiming there are certain similarities between Dark Forest and Wytch Hazel.
– They were always fans of Dark Forest, used to see us play and watch our gigs. I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything, but yeah, I think we influenced them.
How do you feel that your singer, Josh, has taken the step from backing vocals and guitars in Wytch Hazel to a full blown front man both in the studio as well as on stage?
– It’s was a difficult step for him. Josh has never been a front man before, never really sung, only did some backing vocals in Wytch Hazel. So all was new to him, and we took a risk when we hired him. He sent some recordings, and we were quite impressed, he had a big voice and sounded all right. And we knew him as a friend anyway. So we auditioned him, got him down, as he lived up north, and he did well. It’s been a journey for him to develop his voice and build confidence on stage. If you haven’t done it before, it’s a difficult thing to do, especially if you’re not naturally an outgoing, extrovert person. Josh is quite an introvert guy, but he is getting better all the time with experience. To sing more often and to perform more often, that’s all you really need to do. Compared to the last album, you can hear his voice has developed a lot.
You told me before that you never plan to write for instance a long song or a short track, but rather want to create an atmosphere or to bring forth a lyrical theme. Was this the case this time as well?
– Yeah, it’s always the same. I never start thinking that I want a short, fast and catchy song or a long one. I never work like that. I let it come naturally. Bits of songs come to you over the days, weeks or months. You just see what feels right and let the music go where it wants to go. You don’t try to shape it, or to conform it too much. You let the music speak for itself and almost flow through you. It’s like a gift, and it’s my art form. You have to flow with it and see where it goes.
Is that difficult? To let I flow and not intervene too much?
– It’s the only way I know how to do it. Maybe some other people will find it difficult, but the only experience I have with writing music is doing it this way. It’s just natural for me.
When it comes to the lyrics, they are very much a product of what Christian is reading at the time.
– The things I read about are often quite specific, I always had an interest in folklore, the supernatural and otherworlds and all sort of things. That never changes. I have mentioned before that atmosphere is very important when it comes to the music. It’s very difficult to explain, it just about how certain things make you feel. Right now I am looking out my window where I can see the woods. Every night, when twilight comes in, I look over to the woods. The sky is green and it just has this atmosphere all to itself. Trying to capture things like that in your music, is what it is about. Trying to write something which evokes those feelings, that’s what I want to do. When I hear the intro to the song “On The Edge Of The Twilight” off the new album, I can see the image of the woods in twilight.
Do you spend a lot of time outside, in the nature?
– Yes, I do. I am either in the pub or in the woods. Haha! I love walking in nature, and quite often we get a fire going and sit it in the woods with some beers. I also walk as much as I can during daytime, but I don’t have too much time because of work and everything. I love to go into the countryside.
Christian very much prefers to be outside rather than sitting inside in front of the computer…
– To be honest, I hate social medias. I have Facebook just so I can manage the Dark Forest-page. I don’t own a mobile phone, and my computer is really old. It barely works. I don’t like technology too much, apart from electric guitars, they are okay. When I am walking outside seeing everybody acting like zombies, glued to their phones, I feel a bit sick. They’re almost living the virtual reality. I don’t like the way society and technology is going, and I don’t think it’s doing anything worthwhile for us. In fact, I think it’s taking a lot away. People simply don’t have the same relationships and don’t experience life to its fullest like people used to.
Sounds like you have ideas for the lyrics to a song or two right there?
– Possibly, if it’s done the right way. The closest we’ve been to something like that, is probably “Rise Like Lions” off “The Awakening”. But at the minute I am finished with that, because it easily gets political, and I don’t want to be too political. We’ve done bits in the past and it simply doesn’t feel right. I don’t think politics should have a big say in music. People don’t want that. It’s an escape, an art form, it shouldn’t be laden with politics. Certain music yes, you can have your thrash and hardcore punk band which are very political, that’s okay as the music is very aggressive. With us it’s more of an escape, into the realms of well…whatever you want really.
It comes as no surprise that Christian feels this kind escapism is more important than ever.
– You do make yourself unhappy if you spend too much time with politics and world global issues. I am not saying you should turn away from it or put your head in the sand, but music and art should be an escape from all that. You got all the ugliness of the world, and you need something beautiful to turn to which lifts you up from that. The last thing you want is to be surrounded by a world that is full of chaos, misery and murder, turn to music and find more of the same there. I at least, want something to take me away from all that, and into a more beautiful place.
Cruz Del Sur speaks of this album as very “important” for everyone involved. From your point of view, why is “Beyond The Veil” so important?
– I don’t know how it will be received, people might hate it or love it, but for us personally, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. It sounds a bit cliché, but you just know it when you have made something special. We all had that feeling in the studio. We had a very short time at our disposal, but the days were very long with 16 hour shifts. When we finished, we all knew we had made something very special. I hope the public receive it in the same way and enjoy it too.
16 hours, that sounds like hard work?
– Yeah, it was! Some of the days, me and Pat were recording lead guitars. We had a few breaks of course, but by the end of the day, we couldn’t even see the fretboard. It lost all sense of meaning, and we got completely numb like zombies. One night, Josh was recording the vocals, he was doing okay, but about 8 o’clock in the night, all of a sudden he was on fire. He was doing one takes and simply nailing it. I think it was about a quarter to three in the morning when he finished. The process was tough, but at the same time very rewarding for us. We had seven days in the studio, but we didn’t manage to get the lead guitar finished, so we had to go back for one more day. For the first album we only had three days, “Dawn Of Infinity” was maybe about four or five, so for each album we spent more time, but there was also more music and more layers.
Last time we spoke, I remember you saying you were pretty satisfied with the sound of “The Awakening”. Was there something else you wanted to improve from the last album?
– Yeah, I think it sounded good at the time, at least in comparison to “Dawn Of Infinity”. I thought it was the best sound we had so far, which was true at the time. Ajeet (Gill), our producer and engineer, is more skilled now. He also has better equipment and everything, and definitely made “Beyond The Veil” sound better. When we listen back at “The Awakening” today, it’s still good, but this new one is even better. However, there was nothing we consciously wanted to improve on.
“Beyond The Veil” is quite clearly a massive piece of work, and there is a lot to digest here. I don’t really get how journalists can write a review and publish it on the internet only after a couple of days after they’ve received the promos.
– Haha, yeah…I appreciate you saying that. There is a lot of music to digest, and it does definitely take more than one or two listens to really understand the music. Unfortunately there are a lot of people that own a computer and a CD-player (well a computer only is enough these days). They can listen, and they think they can write, but they don’t really appreciate where we are coming from.
At 70 minutes, is the album perhaps too long?
– Well, the thought crossed my mind, but again, this is how the music turned out. I didn’t want to mess too much with it, and wanted to let the music be as it was. This amount of music was for some reason what felt right this time around. The music comes out of you, and you just have to let it be that way.
I have no problem picturing this album without the instrumental tracks. That would have shortened it by eight minutes or so…
– Well, when you have written a piece of music, you can’t just throw it away. The song comes to you, and you spend time, energy, feelings and emotions to create it. It will be very harsh on yourself to throw it away, because it’s part of your creation. It’s simply something that needs to be there, as it has come out of you. The writing process was quite long this time around. Some of the songs on the album were written before “The Awakening” was released. “The Undying Flame” for instance, was composed about a year before. All these songs that come out of you, they’re all one era. They all got the same sort of stamp, they all belong together, so you can’t leave anything out.
So you never got any leftover songs?
– The last songs I left out of an album, were never finished. You stop them halfway through, as you know they are not up to standard. As well as letting the music flow, you also got to meet the band’s standard. You have to ask questions like: Is this good enough? Can we do better? If I finished writing some of these songs I am talking about, I think I would have to include them. The ones that are only half finished, you don’t discard them all together, you just rework parts of them, take out the bits that don’t work and put new bits in, until they become good songs. So you don’t throw them away completely.
When it comes to your own compositions, do you manage to take on this critical role by yourself, or do you involve the other members?
– All of us are definitely involved. I do a lot of the songwriting, and sometimes you just lose focus or are so zoomed in that you lose all sense. Does this sound good or not? It’s very handy to have the other band members to give you a second opinion. Without them, some of the songs on this album might not as been as good as they turned out in the end.
In many ways, it’s a brave attempt to make such a long album, as it’s a very popular opinion these days that albums should be about 45 minutes. I would be interested to hear your opinion – are there really 70 minutes long albums out there that you love close to each and every second of?
– The funny thing is, I can’t really think of many albums that are that long that I am really into. I understand that it might sound like a contradiction. Haha! Obviously, some of the recent Iron Maiden- albums are very long. A few of those I love, although I don’t know exactly how long they are, for instance “Dance Of Death” or “Brave New World”. Those two albums specifically, I think I love every second of them. They are two of my favorite albums by Iron Maiden.
Even if the songs and arrangements are big and the rather songwriting complex and ambitious, hooks and melodies seem to be very important for you?
– All that I can say again, is that it’s not too conscious. I don’t analyze those kind of things and it’s not too much of a conscious effort to try to balance these factors against each other. Maybe some of it takes place subconsciously? I guess it depends on each song. Some songs might feel like they need a heavy riff or another harmony or something like that.
When you hear a Dark Forest-song, it’s pretty obvious that Christian has other musical loves than heavy metal.
– I love traditional folk music, and a lot of classical music. To be honest, anything that sounds good to my ears. Obviously heavy metal and heavy rock is my preferred genre, but rather than a genre it’s just music itself, melodies and anything that sounds good. It doesn’t have to be of a certain format or genre. A good piece of music is a good piece of music. That’s all that matters. To be honest, I don’t know too many new bands, and again it’s not a deliberate thing, I just don’t happen to listen to too many bands. I listen to the bands I know, and that’s it. I don’t really follow the scene or anything like that. The influences are going less and less from “bands”, nowadays they are more internal, and come from each other as a band.
There are not a lot of bands that combine folk and metal that do it well. In my ears, most of them are unlistenable.
– Well, we’re not specifically trying to combine metal and folk. The new album is not too folky, it’s not folk metal. We’ve only got guitars and drums and bass, we haven’t got extra instruments as these bands have. A lot of the songs on the album are straight forward heavy metal, but I think the types of melodies, the atmosphere and again the lyrics are what contribute the folk element.
Are you familiar with the Swedish band Falconer?
– Yeah, I like them. Good band!
I am asking, cause there are a few moments on the new album when I am reminded a of them.
– Yeah, that’s true. They have probably had an influence of us, since I have been listening to them for years. My fave album is the first one, the one with “Lord Of The Blacksmiths”.
I remember you saying in a previous interview we did that you feel your music has the potential to appeal to all sorts of people, not only the underground heavy metal community. With long songs and long albums, will it be more difficult you think?
– I might have changed my mind a bit since we spoke about it. Haha! I know some people here in the UK that are really not into heavy metal, but still love Dark Forest. But yeah, it will probably always be the heavy metal people that are interested. Like you say, the longer the songs and the longer the albums are, the chance that you will put a lot of people from the mainstream off will probably grow. We don’t care who the people are really. If people enjoy our music, we are happy.
You don’t seem to have too much in common with the underground heavy metal movement?
– Our singer Josh, is the one with the connections, the rest of us don’t really have much to do with the metal scene at all. We live our own lives and still go to some local gigs, but that’s about it. I am not trying to knock other acts, because some of them are great, but they’re all playing the same thing. You know, pretending it is the eighties. We got no interest in that. There is nothing wrong with people doing that of course, and there are certain elements of the eighties bands we love. That being said, with Dark Forest, we don’t try to recreate the past. If everybody do, it will all just die. New stuff will have to come out, otherwise things will stagnate. However, you can still keep it true to the old ways, if you know what I mean.
In the beginning of Dark Forest’s career, the songs were often around the four minute mark. Something has happened, as on the new album (apart from the two short instrumental tracks), the title song is the only one under five minutes. Christian tries to explain…
– I think we’ve grown older. We’ve become better musicians and more experienced songwriters. We were really young when we released the first album, I think I was about 18 or something like that. The guitarist we had then, James, he was even younger, around 16, I think. We didn’t have any experience in writing music, it was all new to us. As you get older, you gain more experience, you get better at your instruments and you find new ways to express yourself through music. I think it’s just a natural progression, but that doesn’t mean that our next album is going to be even longer than “Beyond The Veil”. It could be a very short one too. I am in no control of it, in a way.
When you write a song like the album closer “The Lore Of The Land” which is over 13 minutes long, is it more of a challenge to you compared to writing the songs of a more normal length?
– It takes some working out. You’re writing the riff and get a vocal melody. Sometimes you have to think, because something doesn’t sound right. Something is clashing, or doesn’t fit. You do analyze it as you write it, to make sure it works musically. That the notes don’t clash with each other, but I wouldn’t say it’s too difficult. It takes time more than anything. Time is also letting music come to you. I remember writing a lot of the riffs and melodies to “The Lore Of The Land” when I was at work. I worked it out in my head, came back home and quickly recorded it before I forgot it.
Christian is the main songwriter in Dark Forest, but this time around, both Josh and Patrick (Jenkins, guitar) were more involved than they were in “The Awakening”.
– Patrick did a lot more on this album. He wrote like big, big bulks of songs. He has a big input on this album. For instance, he wrote all the music for the song “The Wild Hunt”, while I contributed the lyrics. That song is a very different one for us, it’s refreshing and good to add something new, rather than having me writing everything all the time. It gets a bit predictable after a while. Josh might write a little melody or a riff and send it to me on the internet. I’ll incorporate that into a song. We already started writing songs for the next album as well.
What about your producer, Ajeet Gill? You have used him for all albums except one, so he must be quite important to you?
– In fact, we had used in on every album, but in the end, we decided to rerecord “Dawn Of Infinity”, with a different person, and wasn’t too happy with the result. It’s a long story. We are very comfortable with Ajeet, he is a great person to work with. He is very calm and relaxed, but still gets the job done. As we get better at songwriting or playing the guitar, he also improves as a producer and engineer. He works with some quite big bands now. We know that if we go with him, we’ll get a good sound. The interesting thing is, that most of the bands he works with are completely different to us. It’s lots of death metal and thrash bands. So it’s a challenge to him to deal with plenty of twin guitars, vocal harmonies and lots of layers.
Did you consider making a full blown concept album this time around?
– You’re right that “Beyond The Veil” is not a complete concept album. There may be one coming in the future, possibly. Every time we make an album, there seems to be a general theme. Not every song has to stick to it, but there are always certain songs with similar themes. I don’t know it’s a word for it, but the album is like a “general concept” album, with a general theme running through.
It seems like you prefer album titles that are open for interpretation, as the one before “Beyond The Veil” was “The Awakening”…
– The titles all do have one specific meaning to me, but of course other people might interpret them differently, and that’s just great. They can put their own meaning to it, and it’s good if you have a title like that as it will have an appeal to lots of different people. To me however, “Beyond The Veil” does have a specific meaning.
And what is it?
– The world beyond this physical, material realm, the afterlife or the world beyond the visible light. In all mythology and folklore, it’s always at twilight, the time when the veil between the two worlds is at its most thin. You might get a glimpse beyond the veil, might be able to see into the other world. That is what the general concept of the album is about. The unseen world, the magical world, the spirits and everything that is not this connected to this boring, physical world.
This is clearly reflected in the cover art to “Beyond The Veil”, an impressive piece of work from the hands of Duncan Storr…What did Christian and the band give him to work with?
– Not much, we did have an idea for the cover art, but Duncan didn’t really follow it. Haha! What he came up with, was pretty much all his own. I had an idea of how I wanted it to look, and explained it to him. It didn’t come out that way, and in retrospect, it’s not a bad thing, as the cover he came up with was better than what I was trying to picture. Things are not what they seem, that was the main idea. You got all these strange things happening, plants coming to life, the tree itself is a spirit…It’s just a sense of the unknown and reality changing. Duncan is a brilliant artist, and his vision and imagination is great. You can’t tell him what to do, you have to let him work and create the thing himself.
Why did you mix in for instance the sound of thunder and birds singing in some of the songs?
– In the song “The Edge Of Twilight”, the sound of the fire and the owl is supposed to be an recreation of when we go into the woods ourselves. The owls are hooting and we sit by the fire. It’s just a fun memory, and the song is about those times and the the atmosphere at twilight. “The Wild Hunt” has some thunder, it might sound typical, but it has got a very specific meaning, as that song is a piece of Scottish folklore about “the unseelie court” which is basically the unholy court. It’s the unholy fairies, the spirits that rise at night and abducts people. They always come with the storm. That’s why there is thunder and rain in the song. It’s a quite a dark piece of folklore. The way Pat wrote the song, is quite operatic, at least to me. When I first heard the music, it sounded like panic stricken, like someone being chased, quite agitated. It reminded me of that sort of stories, people being chased by the spirits, so it fits pretty well.
Christian admits that it took some time working out which songs belonged in which order, but that it ws pretty clear from the start, that the long track, “The Lore Of The Land” would be the album closer.
– Yeah! Because that’s in the old tradition of Iron Maiden, isn’t it? They always had the epic one at the end.
Do you have a favorite long track?
– I really like “And Then There Was Silence” by Blind Guardian, off the “ A Night At The Opera”-album. In terms of Iron Maiden, I enjoy “When The Wild Wind Blows” from “The Final Frontier”. That’s a really good song. Obviously “Stargazer” by Rainbow as well.
You have been confirmed for some quite big festivals in Germany, like Harder Than Steel this autumn as well as Hell Over Hammaburg in March 2017. Not being that close to the underground heavy metal community, how do you act when you are contacted by festivals you might not even have heard of?
– Sometimes I know about the festivals, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have to look into them. We appreciate it either way, being able to play. When I said we’re not that involved in the scene, it’s not like we dislike it. I mean, we are really happy to be embraced by whatever metal scene or community, it’s just that I don’t know some of the bands or some of the festivals. It’s still great fun and nice to be invited to play. An honor really.
Even after having done your fair share of gigs, are you still nervous when you enter the stage for these or similar festivals?
– You’ll never completely get rid of stragefright. It’s only natural, isn’t it? It’s something that will always be there. It doesn’t have to be large festivals either, I get nervous even playing small gigs locally. It’s something you got to live with. I don’t believe anybody that say they haven’t got any nerves on stage. No matter how big the band is, it’s always nerve wrecking, because there is so much focus on you in front of so many people.
The deal Dark Forest signed with Cruz Del Sur back in 2011 was for three albums, with “Beyond The Veil” being the last one. Christian isn’t sure what the future holds, and if the band will continue working with the Italian label.
– We haven’t spoken to Enrico about the situation after this album. Hopefully, the next stage is discussions, but I don’t know if he wants to offer us a new contract or whether new labels will be interested. We need to take it one step at a time, I think. When this album has been released, and the dust settles, we will speak to Enrico and see what we want to do.
Is it a priority for you to continue working with Cruz Del Sur?
– Yeah, we got no reason not to work with them. We have had a very good relationship, so we are more than happy to carry on working together. I hope we can.
You strike me as a talented musician. Do you feel that you get all your creativity out through Dark Forest, or are you still doing the acoustic project Grene Knyght and maybe other projects too?
– At the moment its only Dark Forest. Grene Knyght is kind of gone on hold, since Pat joined Dark Forest, we really haven’t got the time to do much writing. Or, we have written things, maybe something like a year ago, but it’s gone into Dark Forest instead, because Dark Forest is obviously the priority. Grene Knyght has taken a back seat for now, but yeah, there are a few Grene Knyght-tunes on the new Dark Forest-album. We will do something with Grene Knyght sooner or later, I know I have been saying it for a long time, but I will love to release an album. We got a lot of material ready.
So which songs on the new album are Grene Knyght-tracks?
– “The Wild Hunt”, the mid section from that one is one example, but there are also sections that were acoustic with Grene Knyght, but were turned into heavier stuff on “Beyond The Veil”. The solo is also from a Grene Knyght-song, but here it’s done in a heavy metal way. The end of “The Lore Of The Land”, the big, long section with the keyboards coming in, was originally for Grene Knyght too, but we translated it into something heavier as well.
I noticed that you are building a new homepage for the band at the moment. How important is the presence on various social medias for Dark Forest?
– At the moment we haven’t got many social medias. We haven’t got Twitter for instance, but you got to disconnect your own personal biases and see what’s good for the band. We did have a website, and the host disappeared, so we started building a brand new one. I like that, because you are in control of your own outlet then. You’re not relying on some corporate, Google-sponsored social media. Instead, it’s entirely yours. I think that is important, to have that power yourself.