On October 5th 2017, we had a talk with Samael’s frontman, Vorph Alack. In this great conversation, he discusses their latest album, the six year gap between albums, the differences between drum machines and drummers and the last 30 years of Samael.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us! How are things in your world?
I’m good, I’m good! And you?
Busy times here, but I’m good!
You are not in bed, right? *laughs*
*laughs* No, I’m not in bed.
Since I’m over an hour late for this interview, I thought maybe he’s sleeping. Okay, cool then!
Yes, all good, no worries! You’re about to release your next album, “Hegemony”! What is it about?
Correct. Well, it would be hard for me to just describe the album generally, you know? Because I think it’s more an album constructed song by song. It’s just a collection of songs, perhaps. That’s the best way to describe it. To me, they all have their own personality. We actually worked a lot on them. We went back a few time, over every song on the album. They grew a bit with us. There are different topics. One of them, which actually touches two songs.. We have one song called “Rite of Renewal” and one called “Land of the Living”, and I think that somehow, lyric wise, they are a little bit similar. They both deal with this kind of circle in life, this idea of rebirth, restart, you know? That’s the only thing that I can think of, those two are kind of similar. That’s why they’re not one after the other on the album, but the rest are pretty much all different, from one to the next I think.
I actually caught a few similarities between a couple of songs as well.
Okay, tell me!
In “Hegemony” there’s the lyric “The Earth is our country”. In “Samael” there’s the lyric “This whole world is our country”.
Really? Well, okay, you’re right!
Yeah. In “Red Planet” you sing “There are no borders”.
Well yeah, there’s this idea. The idea that the world is not only the political world with borders, and people split from each other. There’s also perhaps an idea of a bigger communion, as a bigger meaning to be a human being. Maybe there is something of this in a few songs as well. You are right.
It immediately stuck out to me. It’s an idea I’ve always been interested in. If you truly are a free species, why do you need a passport?
Correct. I think that today, more than any time before in the human history, we know we belong to the same planet, and we know there’s only one so far that we can live on. There’s an idea of connection. We understand that when something wrong happens somewhere, we will feel the repercussion of this at some other point. Before, maybe it was not so clear. Maybe it was more partitioned. Things happened there, but it has nothing to do with us? It has to do with us as well. We are not responsible for everything of course, we can only deal with things we have direct control over, but yeah. Things that happen somewhere can somehow affect us all.
Yes, technologies confronts us with these ripples a lot faster these days. We all live along with what happened in Vegas, for instance.
So. Thirty years of Samael! How does that feel?
Damn *laughs*. It feels alright actually, it feels alright. I don’t think too much about the past, I don’t feel old, as a band. Somehow it’s just a hazard of the calendar that the new album happened to be released on the 30th anniversary. That was not something we planned, but I like this idea. I like the idea that instead of going for a nostalgic thing, we actually come with something new. I think this is the best way to celebrate that life is moving forward. That’s my way to look at it.
To show that you are still moving forward is indeed the best way to celebrate. I like that. In your press release that came with the album, it said that you had 30 years of constant musical evolution. I totally agree there. Over 100 original songs composed and recorded, and nearly a thousand concerts given over the globe. That’s quite a resume!
Yeah! It’s just numbers, eh? *laughs* Behind these numbers there are stories, you know? It’s one thing to say a hundred something songs written, but they all have their story. So it’s more than numbers. But well, I didn’t know that actually you were in possession of this thing. I’ve seen this when we were doing the promotion, but I did not know the label handed it out. Sometimes people like numbers. It’s flashy, it’s easy to understand, but it is a bit soulless.
Absolutely. And yet, I did some math on them *laughs*. Nearly a thousand concerts, that’s like 33 a year.
Which is not so much, right? That’s true. But lately we have not played that much. In the early years we just had a few shows each year. Then we started to tour a lot more. I think during “Ceremony of Opposites” and “Above” were the two albums we toured the most for, but that was around 100 concerts per year. This was the most we did, so compared to certain bands, it’s not that much.
I am actually more interested in the stories that go behind these numbers. *laughs*
What are your favorite memories so far, recording music with Samael?
Well, you know, it’s always the same, but different! *laughs*. Because being in the studio… Well actually, one other thing which is very different today than it used to be twenty years ago. I remember for example “Ceremony of Opposites”, which we recorded in Hagen, Germany. We recorded the whole album and mixed it, in 10 days. So it was recorded in 9 days and we used the last day to mix the whole album. At that time, there was no way back. You did the best you can and then this was over. Nowadays you can go back forever. That’s why it took so long sometimes, to do an album. There’s never an end to it, until you decide it. You work a lot with computers, you’ve got like thousands of tracks somehow with all the versions you are not going to use, and there’s a moment you just have to say stop. Stop, let’s finish the song like this, because it’s a never ending thing. You have to somehow put yourself to the limit. Before, the limit was bad. You were in the studio and they had a budget and you could not stay there forever, so you had to finish it in time. There were no additional days. They would never say okay, you can have one more day. That costs money and record companies would not invest money in you like that. So that would be a big difference.
So in a way technology made it harder, because it took away your limitations then.
Somehow, yeah! You know, this is interesting. I had this question a few times. Was it easier before, to be a new band than now? I have no idea, because we are not a new band now. But somehow I think it’s kind of the same. Before, we didn’t have access to all the tools that are available today to distribute the music, so we were basically just trading tapes, sending tapes to fans so that they would make a little article and people would order the tape. And you would send flyers, hoping that they would reach some people. It was somehow more difficult, but on the other hand, there were less bands. So once you had a few articles here and there, and you finally had your album out, your name was spread somehow. And people would remember it. Nowadays it’s easier to get your name out all over the place, but you will be forgotten the next week perhaps. I think somehow it’s the same, yet different.
There’s definitely a lot more music these days. Metal is everywhere as well.
Going back to the album, the artwork, what does it signify to you?
Well that’s interesting, because you asked what it signifies to me. And that’s interesting. This is a friend of us that did the cover. He already did the ones for “Lux Mundi”, “Solar Soul” and “Above”. The last three albums, it was the same guy who did those covers. And this is his choice, and he has his own explanation for it. And I have mine. For me, when I saw it the first time, I liked it. I felt, this eye in this pyramid, to me it’s kind of this symbol of domination, control, hegemony. Which fits with the title. But there’s this also this lightning that’s kind of attacking it, and I like the dynamic of this sort of rebellion. There are both sides in it, and I like this dynamic.The first time I saw it I thought, this is good. This is interesting.
It’s a very powerful image. It reminded me of two things. The first is the symbol on the dollar bill, and the second is the symbol for the illuminati, which also uses an eye. Both deal with world domination as well you could say.
So it fits! Thanks!
It fits *laughs* Absolutely. The first song you released through a lyric video, was “Angel of Wrath”. Why did you choose that song to be the first track?
I like that one. For a long time we’ve wanted to write a song with the title “Samael”. I knew the title, but I did not know what to write about, so we never did it, and this time I thought well, what is Samael to me? I had the question a few times, so I had to think about it. I came to the conclusion that this is somehow the energy and the connection we have within us in the band, and on a larger scale, when you’re playing live, the connection with the people. This has a name for me, you know? As a member of this band, we call it Samael. That’s when I finally had the subject, and I loved it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to write about the mythological origin of the word, but in general it is actually dealing with that. It is more where the Samael word came from originally. So, it had a deeper meaning to me. On the other side, I like the song because you can tell it’s a Samael song I think. There’s something very typical about it. I thought someday it will be great to play this live, and that’s why we started with that one.
I also really like the lyrics in it. “We don't need any religion We are strong and we are legion”. It’s got this feeling of Metal unity to it!
Well, we’re a Metal band, right? So… *laughs*. It’s also something, it’s not like we all feel the same, but anywhere you go, I don’t need someone come to me and say “I’m a Metalhead”. I just know it. Straight away. And vice versa. And this is something, it’s like a secret society somehow, you know? *laughs*. We know each other. We see each other.
Absolutely. The first official video you released, was for “Black Supremacy”. What can you tell us about what is going on in this video?
Well, we decided that song should be released before the album, because Napalm Records chose “Red Planet”. They liked the song. And I mean, I like every song on the album, so they could have picked any of them and I would have agreed, but they chose that one. And then we had like two mid tempo songs, kind of heavy. And we wanted to show another side of the album. Something more aggressive, and I think this is the fastest song on the album and I thought we should go with this one. I also like the lyrics. I was trying to make the ultimate song about the color black, that was kind of the goal.
Is there some deeper meaning as well, like black being used as a reference to race?
It has nothing to do with race, the song itself. But yeah, I know it kind of raises a few eyebrows and some people felt that they should talk about it, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing that racism is something that people talk about, because it is a reality. It infests many layers of society, not just the working class. At every stature you find some people that will sometimes tell you something that doesn’t feel right. At least, not to me. And if our song opens some discussion, fine, but that was not the goal. The goal for this song was precisely to have a song about the color black.
The color, indeed. I actually read the lyric and it was fully clear to me, but I had to ask the question. Because if you put the word “supremacy” with the word “black”, and throw the word “power” somewhere in there as well, people are going to ask questions *laughs*. I thought let’s have you clear some possible confusion.
Well yes, it’s the supreme song about the color black. That’s the whole idea, but yeah.
In the video you’re being covered with a *lot* of black.
Yes, never enough!
Could you even get it off, after the shoot? *laughs*
*Laughs* Yeah, I had a couple of shower sessions, back to back.
Songwriting wise, where it comes to the new album, how did the writing process look and did you do anything different than with other albums?
No, it was pretty much similar. I mean, Xytras did the music again, all by himself, and I wrote the lyrics and worked on my vocal line. Then we had some adjustments to the vocal line after I did it, but basically we did it in the same way. The difference will be, when you work on a project, I don’t know if we talked about that, when you work on a project in the city we come from, you work with a full orchestra for the first time, so you spend like a year composing music and recording it. So probably this kind of process had an influence on the songs. We had almost all the songs finished before we took the break for a year to do this. Then we came back to the songs, so somehow it was already old material. So, you want to refresh it and give them a second breath. You probably use some of the experience of arranging for the full orchestra, when he was working his keyboard part. Maybe it’s a little bit more orchestral, due to that. Other than that, it was pretty much the same way we did the five, six, seven previous albums.
Your well tested method.
Yeah. Well, we always work like this, but we also talk together about the songs, with the rest of the band. That also had an influence, but basically they hear the song, the first version, which is like a demo version, and then we can still correct things. We add a break here or there. It’s often small details, but the sum of small details will probably make a difference in the end.
Yeah. This is the first album with your new bass player, ex-Sybreed guitarist Thomas “Drop” Betrisey.
In what way put his stamp on the album?
Well, on the composition, he didn’t, because when he joined the band, the songs were already written. Actually, he had more of an input about the mix. See, we went to Sweden to mix a couple of songs to start, and then the rest we did through the internet, so we came back to Switzerland, and every song, when we had the first mix, we would check them with Drop and he would give us advice here and there. He’s actually mixing a lot of bands. He works in a studio as well, he’s producing bands sometimes, so he has an ear that is fresh. That was important. I think he made a difference on quite a few songs.
So he does have his inbring there.
Yeah, yeah sure. I mean, he did not compose, but maybe in the future that will be nice. He will be more involved. Marco as well. Our guitar player is also a songwriter, you know? He had his own band before, they played Doom/Death Metal stuff, but he has some different ideas and that would be interesting. Maybe Xytras could actually produce it, or… I don’t know in which way we could do it, but we’ll see next time. This time Xytras did it all.
Over the last 30 years, Samael has been a constant evolution of sound, but what would you say is the core of the Samael sound, what has always been there?
That’s difficult to say. One of the things we were trying with the previous album, “Lux Mundi”, was actually to find this core. I think we started up to find our own way between “Ceremony of Opposites” and “Passage”. On Ceremony we had the keyboard in every song, so that opened doors for us. That made the whole atmosphere wider and more interesting somehow, and with Passage, with the switch from the drum to the drum computer, it added a little bit more of an industrial, electronic sound as well. All this mixed together was kind of our thing. Then we tried to develop this further, and I think we always kind of went all over the place, you know? Since then, we’ve tried to find the center again. Trying to focus a little bit toward the essential, and I think we succeeded in doing that with “Lux Mundi”. So it’s probably which represents us the best. And this one is actually just built upon that. We used that as a base and we built upon it. This is the version 2.0.
Yeah. This is where you go, from your roots. The way up.
Up, or further, or somewhere else. There is a movement somewhere.
The last few years, you did a lot of looking back. In 2015 you played “Ceremony of Opposites” live and in May this year (2017) you did WAR, which stands for Worship and Ritual, the first two albums, also live. How was it to revisit these early days of your career?
Well these were two different experiences. “Ceremony of Opposites” was really interesting, because that’s the one where Drop joined the band, so we had the chance to revisit this old material with him. So it went a little bit back in our history and worked on the synergy of the band somehow. Also, that album was actually recorded with a drum back in the day, so as we played with a drum machine, we had to program everything. That changed things a bit. Also, at the time I was the sole guitar player and now we have two. So we could add a bit of harmony with the guitar here and there. It wasn’t a drastic change in the songs, but we kind of worked them out a bit. It was different. And for the thing you mentioned, Worship and Ritual, that was more something on the side. It’s kind of a different band, really. It’s a different setup, it’s a different approach. It was with a drum, like a normal setup. Drum, bass, guitar, vocals, that’s it. Which is cool too. But this is like something different. That’s why we did not want to call it Samael. We wanted to make a separation. Those were our roots, but it’s not what we are about today. It would be too confusing, especially for people who discovered us later on. People that discovered us with “Solar Soul” or even before. Those are songs would not be played, so it wouldn’t be fair for them to come to a concert and notice we did not play any songs that they know. At least, when choosing this Worship and Ritual, we made it clear what it’s all about, just the first two albums. If you don’t like it, don’t come. If you want to see it, let’s do it! We only did two shows for this, we don’t have big plans there. We might do it again, but right now we’re very much focussed on the new album. That’s the idea.
I’d love to see it. You should swing by some big festivals next summer!
Well as I said, we might play it again from time to time, I don’t know. There’s no rush. This old material is going to be there, right? *laughs* It doesn’t move. So if we’ve got some time at some point, yeah. Why not. I enjoy doing it. I had fun, and it brings back a lot of memories to my mind, and that was the best thing.
In what way would you say that your own stage experience these days is different from the old kind of stage experience, with Worship and Ritual?
Well, playing with drums, the difference is the organic thing. I’ve noticed that when we were doing the rehearsal for it, it’s not about missing, but when something is not exactly there, you might turn to the drummer and think, is it you? Or, you know, was it the right way to do it? You know what I mean. I mean, if there’s a question somehow, it’s the human things that might have gone astray or something like that. When you play with a drum machine, this is merciless. You that if there is a mistake, this is you. It’s always you. There is no way you can turn to the drummer and blink an eye, thinking, was it you? No. This is always you. It’s a different approach, really. I remember when we started playing with a drum machine, that was kind of difficult. I was used to having this more relaxed thing. If you play this one time too much, then you play it two times too much and it’s okay. The song could move a little bit. It was more free. With a drum machine, the frame is closed. There is no way around it. But then you think about it beforehand, you know? You have all the freedom in the world to decide how the frame is going to be, but once it’s there, it's there, and it’s not going to move. And I like that too. It are two different experiences.
Somehow I’m thinking about the Terminator movies now. Machines don’t make mistakes *laughs*
Yeah! True *laughs*. Well they don’t make mistakes, but sometimes they have problems. We’ve had technical problems a few times with that setup, and then you see how much you depend on machines. That’s another thing.
This album is the first album you release since “Lux Mundi”, six years ago. What did your lives look like in the last six years?
Well, we briefly touched the subject when I told you that Xytras worked on this side project, so that was one of the reasons. We started to get the songs ready, then he did the project and we stopped for a year. Then we came back to the songs, we had the lineup change we talked about and then the last two years we pretty much used them to work a bit on the album, but mainly we did a festival here and there around the “Ceremony of Opposites” album. We did a few small tours, like in Canada, in Russia, Poland. The rest was just one shot things, a festival here and there.
So you could say that even though it looks like a six years break, you were working very hard!
I don’t know if very hard is the word. We were working *laughs*. Because we took our time. Especially, as we talked about before, with the technology these days, you can come back to the songs over and over again. Last year, last summer, we decided we have to finish this, we set a deadline, which was when we booked the mix. Once we decided to go to Sweden at this precise day to mix the album, we had the album finished by then. That was the moment we knew, okay, now there is no way around it. We had to focus on this and finish this, and not take one billion other possibilities, you know?
Yeah. Some say that art is never finished, but if you don’t end in time…
True, yeah. But at some point you have to decide to let it go. You have to accept that.
Indeed. Otherwise you end up with dinosaurs in your Star Wars movie. Yeah.
In 2016 you also did some guest vocals for Rotting Christ. How did that come about?
True. I almost forgot about that! We met with Sakis in Norway at a festival, and he told me about a project that he had to do this thing with a Charles Baudelaire poem. I thought well, let’s try it. I didn’t know what he had in mind with the music. He said if you’re okay with it, I’ll send you the song, and you try something! I was interested to try this. I already knew the poem, and at the time I really worshipped him. We actually thought about eventually covering this, having this as a song, but I remember we knew <indistinguishable>, she actually did it in her own way. She had this very weird greek accent and that gave the song a darkness that was so cool. I thought, if I do it in French, correct, it won’t surpass that, it wouldn’t be worth it. But once Sakis actually sent me the music, I thought well, maybe I can do something a little bit more progressive. Start with a bit more speaking vocal and go up. I am happy I tried that. Actually, I recorded the whole poem, but they didn’t use the whole thing in the end. They actually used it differently, so it’s not the whole thing that I did. They just used a part of it. But it was cool!
It sounds like a fun project to work on.
It was fun, yeah. They are really nice people, the guys from Rotting Christ.
It’s not something you do that often, guest appearances?
No, but I did a few. Not many. I did something with Sentenced back in the day, but that was connected with Waldemar. He was producing them and he came with the idea somehow, that maybe I could do a few choruses here and there, so I did that on the “Down” album. I also did something with “Flowing Tears”, a band from Germany that doesn’t exist anymore. Their guitar player now plays for Powerwolf. That’s about it. Well, and something with a friend of mine, but that was a different project. More like electronic stuff. I did one song with him. That’s it. So, not a lot but I did a few.
Some people say that if you do guest appearances in other people’s projects, it gives you new eyes into your own projects as well. Is that something you experience as well?
Not on the guest appearances I did, really. Maybe a bit with the electronic stuff, but we already did some electronic stuff with Xytras on different projects, so I already had this experience. I couldn’t say that, no. It didn’t work for me at least. Not on those occasions.
You just put your own soul into other projects as well then.
Yeah, you try to understand what they want with the song and see if you can connect with it, one way or another, yeah.
This last year you did a lot of festival tours. How do you like it to play festivals?
It’s enjoyable! It is very enjoyable. I mean, I love playing clubs as well. Usually when you play clubs, it will be more or less your own people coming to the show, so the connection is easier to make. They know the songs, and you both know why you are there . On festivals, this is a bit different. There are of course a few people that know your material and are there to see you, but there are a lot of people there that came because they are curious. Some may just have heard the name of the band, some may know just one or two songs, some may even never have heard about us. It is more challenging somehow, but I kind of like that. It’s a mix between two. I could not tell you which I prefer. I like both, for different reasons.
You already explained a bit that you have a framework you need to operate within, with your drum computer. Festivals usually come with a set of limitations on the artist. Is it difficult for you to play your kind of music in a festival setting?
It’s not more difficult than for another band I suppose. You know, the setup is a bit different, but usually on festivals these days you have time to setup your stuff. It’s just, usually you don’t really have a soundcheck, so you have to check it a little bit, and the first song is pretty much the soundcheck *laughs*. But that’s the same thing for every band. Unless you’re using a lot of backtrack, but that’s not our case. Usually the first song suffers a bit because of that.
I saw the flyer for the California Deathfest, and it uses your old logo! Is that on purpose, or did they use the wrong file?
*laughs* No, actually they used it, because on that festival we will be playing the “Ceremony of Opposites” album in entirety once again. We already did it in America, we did it on the other Death festival, in Maryland, Baltimore last year. This time we’re doing it in California, but as we are headliner, we are going to play a little bit more, so we’re also going to present the new album. We’re going to play at least 3 songs of the new album and some other songs. First we play the whole Ceremony album, and then some other material.
So when we see the old logo, we can be pretty sure that you play a lot of old stuff?
That’s kind of the idea, yeah, but that was not our decision. They wanted to use it, and we’re fine with that.
It was nice to see it on the poster. A little recognition there. What did trigger the logo change by the way?
Well, it kind of changed a bit with the music, a bit with ourselves. We had the one you mentioned, which was slightly different, but pretty much the same on the first three albums. I like it, I mean, it looks like roots. It’s kind of difficult to determine everything that’s going on there. Then we used something different for the mini album “Rebellion”, which was more like a trunk. It’s more like the later logo, easier to read. Then for almost 20 years, we did not have a logo. We just used like a normal font and that was it. And just recently, before the album actually, I think we used this logo, the one we use now for like two or three years. That was a little before Drop joined the band. I thought it fits. It fits with our approach of music. Square, massive, yeah. I wouldn’t say minimalist, but we tried to get rid of what we consider not essential to the music.
I like how simplistic it is. Absolutely. Tour wise, what is next year (2018) going to look like?
I actually don’t know! I know we’re going to do this cruise festival once again in Florida, 70,000 tons of Metal. We did it twice already. This is booked and confirmed. We have a few festivals in the summer that are booked, but they’re not being announced yet. But tour? I don’t know. It would be nice to do a tour before the summer, but at this moment we don’t have anything booked yet so I suppose that if nothing is booked until January, then it will be even later, but we are looking through options at the moment.
So no big plans for an anniversary tour yet!
I don’t think so. If we do a tour, it will be around the new album. Of course we also always play some of our old material, because that makes sense. It’s what the people know, and it’s important to have a mix, to keep the dynamics flowing throughout a concert. But no plans in the sense of a 30th anniversary, that’s not in the loop right now.
I get it. Looking forward, very important. Talking of looking forward, where it comes to new material, which new song are you looking forward the most to play live?
We already played three so far. We played “Rite of Renewal”. That was the first, we already played it last year a few times. I like that one, it’s more guitar oriented and a little bit more technical guitar wise than a lot of songs we had in the past. I had the feeling I improved my playing a little bit by playing that one *laughs*. We played “Angel of Wrath”, and we played “Black Supremacy” only once on a festival in Italy, but we’re going to keep on playing that one on the following dates. Then, I don’t know. Of course the opening track, I mean I am looking forward to play that one. We haven’t played it yet. I’d love to see how the Samael song works live as well.
I think the fans will love that one!
Yeah. Well that’s kind of the song for them and for us. As I said, that’s about the connection, so let’s see if that works *laughs*.
The song that brings us all together.
Kind of, yeah!
That leaves me one last question, and that’s always, do you have any last words for our readers?
Well, we discussed this. We have a new album out next week, so I hope they find a little bit of time to check it out, at least a few songs, and hopefully they like it. I think, if people have liked what we have done in the last 10 years, they are probably going to like this. I think it goes in kind of the same direction, but a little bit further, hopefully. So yeah. Check the new album!
I’m sure they’ll love it! I know I did.
Ah thank you, I’m glad to hear that.
Thank you very much for your time, and I hope to see you out there on the road!
It was a pleasure, and that would be cool!