Metal Squadron was one of the very first medias to feature Lunar Shadow when the band put out the EP “Triumphator. However, we never got around to do an interview when «Far From Light» was released, so let’s start there. How do Max, guitarist and main man, view this album today, a couple of years after its release?
– I haven’t listened to it for a long time. I still think that’s it’s a good album, with some good songs on it, yet I also see some flaws and the restrictions on this album. It’s important to understand, that my view in this album is unique as I wrote everything and only I know how these songs were supposed to be. There are songs that I still like a lot like “Hadrian Carrying Stones”, “The Hour of Dying” or “The Kraken”, others maybe didn’t quite reach their full potential. There were some things regarding the production that didn’t work out the way I wanted it, for example the bass is almost missing and I’m not very happy with the drum sound at some times. Also I would have liked to vary the vocals a little from time to time, but it wasn’t possible, because Alex was only able to sing mid-range all the time, I would have liked to use some higher screams or something like that.
Yet it’s difficult for me to listen to my own music, it’s like hearing your own voice recorded somewhere. It’s really something unpleasant to me, which is a shame, because I can never really enjoy the music that I create myself. It’s like I sacrifice myself and my vision, so others can listen to it, all except but me.
Listening to that album, it’s easy to hear that things have happened since the release of the EP . Was it mainly forces within yourself or outside factors that made the sound of Lunar Shadow develop to such a degree in a rather short period of time?
– I split up with my former girlfriend in early 2015. Some months later “Triumphator” was released. All the songs were finished already and I don’t remember that I was much influenced by the breakup at that time. It affected me, but only in my subconsciousness. After the release, things went downhill. Rapidly downhill. I could not handle the loss at all. This is quite difficult for me to write, as this was a very dark and frightening time in my life and it’s hard to remember it, but which format could be better for it than yours?
I remember how I tried to kill myself after a concert where I had seen her by chance. I remember that some other time I drove along the German autobahn while it was pouring rain at high speed and I almost lost control of my car and almost crashed into a bridge frontally. My heart was beating after that and then I started laughing, I was laughing in my car about this, I thought it was funny as hell. Few people will understand this, luckily, as I hope not many have to go through this, but I actually didn’t care if I died, I really did not care. I was out of my head completely, at concerts I tried to provoke people and pick up fights, I was very aggressive, things, that are really not typical for me. In this state, most songs of “Far From Light” were written. Darkness, death and a wish to die. “Gone Astray” as a monument for that girl, I still have to leave the room when this one is playing somewhere. So, one could say that definitely there were outside factors involved.
Yet it is also important for me to point out, that for the “Triumphator”-EP I had picked short and catchy tunes intentionally and I already knew that on our first full-length the songs would be longer and more complex. Both these things then formed “Far From Light” and made it what it is.
Just as the music has changed, the visual presentation with the cover art and the logo has also changed, although I understand the logo you created for “Far From Light” is still present on the new album . Is it part of the same process, due to the fact that the musical and the visual side of things are linked together, or are we talking about two different things?
– Musical and visual things are always linked together, both are equally important. Thing is, this whole logo-thing on “The Smokeless Fires” really surprised me because many people thought it’s a new logo, I didn’t even think of that. I was really confused, of course it’s not a new logo. Thing is, the artwork by Adam Burke was meant to be a non-Heavy Metal-cover, because Heavy Metal bores me to death at the moment. I wanted to make sure, that people could not guess the genre from watching the artwork. We then tried all versions, of course there was also one with our normal band logo on it, but for me it didn’t work. It didn’t look good, I felt like the strong centralistic motive, man and woman embraced by these flames needed room to breathe. The big, complex logo would have taken the attention of the viewer away, so I decided to use this very minimalistic, simple font and I still think it was the best decision. There were different opinions regarding this within the band though, I have to say that. When I wrote Adam regarding the new artwork I instantly told him, that I wanted to have an unusual painting. I was and am tired of mountains, swords, warriors, battles, castles and bats. I sent Adam one of my world-famous, terrible sketches and he wove magic as always.
Max is the undisputed leader of Lunar Shadow, writing all the music as well as the lyrics and promoting the band. How does he keep the other members interested and motivated? For many leaders, whether we’re speaking about a band or running a business, “involvement” is a key word.
– I think it has much to do with the way that I and the others see the band. To us it’s a hobby, something we invest some free time and a some more money into. None of us ever formulated certain goals or achievements. “I want to tour through Europe!”. “I want to play in the USA!”. We all have our lives, each of his own, we work, we have partners and other activities. There is a piece of everyone’s heart in Lunar Shadow, yet only a piece. My heart for instance also belongs to my books. To my household plants, to walking in the woods, the sun, summer and wine, moss and fire.
Max confirms that he has the last word on decisions regarding Lunar Shadow.
– Yet everyone is always involved. I keep the guys updated and informed about everything, all designs for merchandise are discussed among all members, I communicate a lot with them about album news, the whole manufacturing process, updates regarding interviews or magazines. To be fair, I can’t think of anything else at this moment. Fact is, I never really asked myself the question you are asking me. I always said to the others “You can do whatever you like, form other bands or projects if you want, no problem!”. Robert is still singing with Orbiter, Sven is playing Bass in Koile besides Lunar Shadow. I can’t tell, maybe all of us are just content with the way things are? I cannot recall one single time that anyone said “Hey, I’d like to be the one talking to the label!” or “I’d like to write more songs or lyrics!”, it has always been the way it is now still.
The most notable change is probably in the vocal department, as singer Alex Vornam left the band last year to be replaced with the rather unknown Robert Rôttig. Let’s speak about Alex first, if I remember right, there wasn’t much information given, other than the fact that he was no longer part of the band.
-The departure of Alex Vornam is a topic, on which I decided to not go into detail. There were certain issues between Alex and the rest of the band. I can understand, that our fans are curious and eager to hear concrete reasons, but I feel like this is our business and personally I don’t hold any grudges against him, he was an important part of the band and will stay part of Lunar Shadow with one EP and one album.
That being said, the vocals were a point of criticism for some people in the past, someone labelling them as the weak point. Was the change of singer actually you looking to upgrade to a better singer, or one you felt suited the new material better?
– I did not intend to “upgrade” the vocals. It was planned to record “The Smokeless Fires” with Alex Vornam, but it never happened. We simply were a band without a vocalist out of sudden. And to be honest, I had absolutely no Plan B or any idea what to do next. I had no idea at all. Finding a suitable singer these days is extremely difficult. Especially since you also need someone, who fits into the band as a human being. Robert has a vocal range, that is wider than Alex’ voice. In the past I indeed sometimes felt, that the vocals didn’t reach quite the same level as the instruments on our previous releases. It was very liberating to work with Robert now, because it allowed us to do things regarding the vocals, that simply weren’t possible before.
It seems like you knew Robert from before, and as it didn’t take you too long to announce him as the new singer, it’s easy to think that he was the first and only one you asked to join the band.
– Robert was a friend of the other guys actually, I knew who he was, but we never conversed before. I only knew, that he was the singer of Orbiter”, a seventies hard rock band from our region. And most importantly: that he had the reputation of being a damn good singer. So I asked the others if they could get me into contact with Robert. He was the second singer I asked. As mentioned before, I had no idea where to start. We posted a flyer on Facebook, but that didn’t bring any results. When we were supporting Visigoth in Marburg I was blown away by the second support band. They’re called Pangea and their singer Dennis was absolutely awesome. He is also singer of The Giant’s Vault and I can only recommend you guys to listen to it. Totally strange and powerful vocals, obscure and warm. I instantly asked him, if he wanted to join us for a rehearsal. Unfortunately Dennis was already occupied with several bands and several children haha.
Max says he never had any idea what the new singer in Lunar Shadow should sound like.
– I remember that I once said to the guys: “If we find someone who sounds like Andrew fucking Eldritch, let’s try it? Who gives a fuck anyways?”. So, I then got into contact with Robert and he was quite careful at first, because he didn’t know Lunar Shadow. After he listened to our stuff and found out, that we play rock music for sexual lions, he joined us for a rehearsal. We played ‘Hadrian Carrying Stones’ and ‘Metalian’ and after we did that several times, all of us knew, that Robert was the right choice for us. His vocals blended into those songs perfectly, those classics suddenly sounded fresh, fierce and dangerous. I then asked him to join us and he did. Ever since Robert has been extremely motivated, he learned our complete set in two weeks or so and was welcomed with open arms. As the others already were friends with him, there also never were problems on the personal sector.
“The Smokeless Fires” was written before Robert entered the band. Did you or he have to make adjustments to vocal lines and melodies or other stuff before or during the time you spent in the studio?
– Not really, because I seldom write vocal lines while I write the songs, for some I’ve already got ideas set in my mind, others just happen at the studio. I’m a bit, a tiny bit, of a singer myself and when we’re recording, I usually sing the songs to Robert and he records it in that manner. At first we had problems, because Robert and I had never worked together in the studio. Robert had actually never worked in a professional studio before or recorded vocals in that way. My voice is much deeper and without noticing it at first Robert instinctively tried to imitate my voice, which didn’t work out as you can imagine, because it was too deep for him. But once we found out we could get rid of this problem and everything worked.
I read somewhere that “Roses” was the last song written for the album, and that this track replaced not only one, but two other songs that were intended for “The Smokeless Fires”.
– The two songs, that were replaced are called “And Silence Screamed” and “The Sower of Thunder”. Both tracks are six-seven years old and sound like the classic, old Lunar Shadow. I always wanted to integrate some post-punk elements into my music. In the last two years or so I realized, that I am moving away from heavy metal a little bit. Most new bands aren’t interesting to me, I don’t go to festivals anymore. There are many elements of the heavy metal scene I don’t like, some old, some new and I don’t see myself as a part of that scene. These days I mostly listen to stuff like Wovenhand, Killing Joke, Chameleons, Pink Turns Blue or Christian Death. And when I finished “Roses”, I instantly loved it and decided, that I wanted this one to be one the album. It was fresh, new. ‘Roses’ is the portal, the song of passage.
If we ever continue with Lunar Shadow it will probably go into that direction. Also for the first time I wanted to write a song, that is actually catchy. Interesting, isn’t it? Often “catchy” is associated with something very negative. But why, don’t we all want a song, that we remember and want to listen to again and again and again? I thought a lot about that and gave it a try. I like it a lot, it’s one of my favourites of this album.
Even though this is the direction Lunar Shadow will continue to develop in, Max is careful to not move too far away from the core of the band.
– I myself never liked bands that drastically changed their style at some point, I always thought it would have been more adequate to just rename or form a new band. I don’t want to do the same mistake. But the future is uncertain.
While “Roses” is a new tune, there are also songs here with a lot of years on their back. With the songs in questions, did you have to work a lot on them to bring the up to the standards and the musical expression of Lunar Shadow anno 2019?
-I didn’t have to work on them at all, they all stood the test of time, otherwise I wouldn’t have recorded them. “Red Nails” is the oldest one I think, it was originally called “Quoth the Raven”, talking of Poe. Often these older songs are constructs of many of my songs, like a Frankenstein-monster, the middle-part is from another song definitely, that was in the same tempo and tuning but I don’t recall the title. The same with “Laurelindórenan”, I only added the last part with the fadeout, the other parts were all long finished. In the future I would work different, it’s not really the kind of sound I would like to do anymore.
One thing I really like about “The Smokeless Fires” is how different the songs are from each other, and how much identity each one of them carries. Was it part of Max’ ambition to make such a diverse album?
– Let’s put it that way, it’s incredibly boring to record the same album over and over again, I see no point in doing that. It was obvious to me, that I wanted to try some new things, the piano, blast beats, clean guitars with lot of reverb. To me songs that are a little bit diverse make an album more interesting indeed. It’s something you of course shouldn’t carry to extremes, like a didgeridoo-crust song next to a psych-improvisation that lasts 23 minutes, yet I always find it refreshing on an album, when suddenly there is some sort of cut, the tempo is reduced, instruments get a bit more quiet, something to relax to and think about, before everything around you is in motion again and the force splits your head.
The extremes of this albums are really far from each other. On one side you have the piano, which is new to your sound, and used on several occasions throughout the album, and on the other hand you have more of the influence from melodic Swedish black/death metal. Was it something you had in mind during the creative process, to take your sound even further in both in the “mellow” and more extreme direction?
– The piano was interesting, I am a huge fan of Chopin and Mahler and therefore wanted to integrate that instrument in our sound. Our drummer Jörn is a piano builder and we were able to record the piano parts at his working place on a concerto piano that costs 65.000 euros. First, a piano has this wonderful, dreamlike sound. Something distant and primordial, something so aesthetic and noble. Yet it is also a question of contrast to me, because contrasts are important. The piano slows things down, it’s not a typical instrument used in heavy metal. To use it in the songs was really interesting for me. Regarding the black metal parts, the album is certainly a little bit faster this time, maybe I was angry or just listening too much to Sacramentum, I can’t tell. But those parts had become something like our trademark and I wanted to expand our sound a little to the extreme metal sector, that is true.
It seems like quite a brave move to “Pretend” after “Roses” on the album as this really slows the pace of the album considerably, although order is soon established with the fast “Laurelindórenan”. Did you spend a lot of time figuring out the running order of the songs? What was important to you in that manner?
– It didn’t take long at all to be honest. “Catch Fire” was always supposed to be the opener, “Roses” as our radio-superhit needed to be in the front a little and the ballad on Lunar Shadow albums is always track four, it’s written like that in the Book of Skelos as follows:
“Ye tunes that ring from the cosmos and reach for one’s heart
Shan’t open an album from the start
As Skelos wrote in ancient lore
Ballads must be number four!”
The B-side then contains the long tracks, which are a bit more progressive and challenging. By the way, it worked out pretty brilliant, because both sides of the vinyl are by incident almost exactly of the same length. There’s only a difference of two seconds.
“Pretend” is probably the song I am struggling most to come with terms with. What does Max see as this song’s main qualities both as a stand alone track as well as part of the album?
– I’ve heard that from some people already. It’s the most personal song of this album and maybe the most important one to me. I wanted to write about my mental illness. I suffer from Dysthymia, which is a form of a chronic depression. Although I am in therapy for several years already it is and sadly always will be a part of myself. I wake up with this every day, I cannot make it disappear, though sometimes I wished I could. “Fade away, oh fade away!”, just leave me alone, it sometimes makes me want to scream. Not being able to be “normal”. Not being able to do the same things as others, having to find excuses, having to justify.
I moved to Leipzig two years ago and it was one of the best decisions I ever made, I found a new home here, I like my work, my studies, I found great friends here. Overall I’m better than I was for years, but this illness comes back to me when I don’t expect it. When my defences aren’t up. “I have laid down my armour, I have no sword at my side”, Pat Walker would say. There are days I cannot leave my apartment. There are days I think about death a lot. I wanted to put all of this into form and structure, clad into the thin gown of a piano. I wanted to write about this struggle. About winning and about losing, who can say?
You have already said that “The Smokeless Fires” is not a typical heavy metal-record. Are you concerned that the usual Cruz Del Sur-customers and readers of Metal Squadron will not find it relevant?
So called true metal fans can be really narrow minded, did you make this album with the idea to provoke someone in mind?
– “Provoke” is the wrong word, I didn’t want to provoke anyone intentionally. The truth is, that I simply don’t care. I will do what I want to do anyways, so why listen to true metal fans? I’m not stupid, of course I knew, that “Roses” might confuse some people, that “Pretend” won’t be liked by many. The artwork was intended to not be a classic Heavy Metal cover, I left away the logo for stylistic reasons. If this upsets people, let them be upset. What is the sound of wind to lightning? See, that was provoking!
There is not a song titled “The Smokeless Fires”, so why is this title fitting for the album as a whole?
– “The Smokeless Fires” are our passions. The things that drive us one, deep within ourselves. All the love, hate, ambition, sorrow, joy and despair. That’s what all the songs on this album are about, in one way or another. It’s up to you to find out in which ways.
It seems like you have a different approach to the lyrics this time, and I understand that “passion” is a keyword for the lyrics. Was it more demanding for you as a writer to create these lyrics which seems more personal and introvert than most of the stuff on “Far From Light”?
– I would only partly agree, as the songwriter I don’t see that many differences in comparison to our other releases. There is still a song about Tolkien, there are even two songs about Robert E. Howard. “Catch Fire” has a even more primitive aspect, as it deals with one thing only, and that is sex.
Yet songs like “Roses” or “Pretend” are always harder to write, I re-write those personal songs a lot, because I am often not satisfied with the results. I’m a little bit annoying when it comes to that, I always want to find the one perfect word, description, line. Yet sometimes landscapes open in my mind without me doing anything. Vistas of corn and green meadows. ‘Hawk of the Hills’ is a good example, I really like the lyrics on this one and they were written on one rainy evening.
I know from before that you are what most people would call a perfectionist, with quite an eye for details. Which part is most demanding for you personally, the songwriting or the time spent in studio recording an album?
– The songwriting is actually no problem at all. I can take my time, work on the songs whenever I want to. It’s interesting to write something, let it rest over night and listen to it again the next day.
Recording is hell. This time we tried everything to make it as comfortable for me as possible, it was obvious that we would record in Leipzig, where I live so that everything was near. My dear friend Max, with whom we recorded everything and who also did the mix lives close to me, shouldn’t have been a problem. But again it was very, very stressful. It’s my own fault up to a certain extent, you are of course right, I am an perfectionist. I can’t change that, if something on a take is wrong in my ears it has to be done again. Thing is, as on “Far From Light” too already, I attended all the vocal and almost all drum sessions again. When we recorded the drums we only had several days to do so, we all live apart and the guys were sacrificing their vacations for the recordings. One day of recording is usually between ten and twelve hours, and ten hours of just drums, I did this for one day and then said to Jörn the next day “Listen, record the tracks, I know you can do it, I’ll drop by later this day.” I couldn’t attend all the sessions, it was too much. I was feeling that I was about to collapse, I started to hate everything Lunar Shadow-related again, with every album I feel like I seem to burn out more, I put everything I have into this, but I am not able to get anything back from it.
Vocal sessions were also very exhausting and tough. I was working besides those studio times, I went to university, there were exams ahead, all my days were just stress, over a distance of three months.
Yet one thing is different compared to “Far From Light”: I can still listen to all these songs from “The Smokeless Fires” and I still do these days. There is not one thing about this album where I say: “This could’ve been better!” or “Ah, this part isn’t that good!”. I am 100% confident with what we did. And that’s an incredibly rare thing for me to say! I really like this album, but it is hard for me to feel emotions like pride or fulfilment. Maybe I’m just tired. After “Far From Light”, I didn’t play guitar for seven months, I think this time it’ll take longer.
Lunar Shadow recently performed in London alongside some truly excellent acts like Dark Forest and Vultures Vengeance, but in the wake of this show, you announced that you might not play outside Germany ever again. Did anything happen on this trip that made you concerned about travelling abroad again? I understand that you are not fond of travelling, but Germany too is huge country, and you will probably have to travel over some distance to do gigs there as well?
– We all treated London as for what it was: a funny curiosity. The gig was wonderful, splendidly organized, both Dark Forest (best active HM band, I mean that!) and Vultures Vengeance are beyond awesome and good friends. But there are certain problems. You ever asked yourself why we don’t play much? For reasons:
I spoke about my mental illness above. Travelling and playing abroad isn’t just something, that makes me a little nervous. It throws me off track completely. One week before London I wasn’t able to sleep anymore. When you don’t sleep anymore, your body will fail you after some time. I couldn’t go to work anymore, I rarely went to university. There were days I couldn’t even leave the house. Some days before the flight to London I asked my dear friend Daniel Kanzler of Turbokill if he would play the gig for me. Imagine this, I was so done mentally that I wanted to find a fucking replacement! Unfortunately Dan was recording himself that weekend.
Again, this time I tried to make everything as comfortable as possible, Lufthansa flights, cozy apartment for my own, first class trains. I can’t share apartments with other people, that just doesn’t work for me. Hell, I lost a lot of money playing that concert, believe me.
I tried to pay close attention this time to my thoughts, how I feel on such trips. One thing was as always, sadly: I don’t really enjoy playing live. You see, it’s hard to explain. I don’t have stagefright. That’s not my problem, everything around it is my problem, the travelling, unknown places, being away from home, airports, train stations. And when I’m on stage I play our set, I see the fans, that’s a nice thing, but I rarely feel anything. Usually I think: “Well, I’m glad when this is over!” most of the time while playing. So why keep this band going? I was at this point so often in the last months! Why keep Lunar Shadow going, I hate recording, I don’t want to tour, I don’t really want to play live, why all the stress? Why all this sorrow? Also more of philosophical questions like, do I “have” to play live? Do I owe this to our fans? Am I supposed to die one day in service of music? A martyr? Is that it?
The result of this trip to me was, that I enjoyed seeing all those people. Friends, fans, watch both bands. But the negative things outweighed this.
I will be honest, after London it was clear to me, that we would never play live again. Nowhere, also not in Germany. Then, I was home for one day I was asked to play a certain, well-known festival next year. It was like a hint of fate. A punch in the face of Max Birbaum “Don’t stop playing live yet, asshole!”. I agreed to do it. It’s quite close to my home. But we get other offers, also from abroad. And I fear that I have to decline them, because I don’t feel able to do this. I am sorry for our fans in other countries and I hope they understand my issues and reasons, at least a little. Maybe some day things will be different. I will always check all the offers we get and believe me when I say, that I think a lot about all of them and whether it’s possible or not.