Moonspell: questioning to stay alive

Moonspell are moved by a desire to outdo themselves. But although many bands use this verb in a way that suggests an excess of ambition, this is not the case here. This is not about a more-and-bigger approach, or moving away from the norm at any cost. It is about putting themselves and others into question, in order to avoid repetition and to aim for better dynamics in a song or an album, for the proper use of a sound, an influence or an arrangement. In short, it is about an honest quest for betterment, where emotion is both the means and the end.

Before this new record, Extinct, Moonspell offered us Alpha Noir/Omega White, a double album whose aim was to explore two aspects of the band’s music in a distinct way. We talked with the charming and well-informed Fernando Ribeiro on this exceptional project and the artistic conclusions the band has drawn from it. Maturity is the core theme of this interview, not only from a musical standpoint, but also from a more personal point of view for Fernando, who recently became a father – a big change that is all at once exciting and scary.

Among other subjects, we talked about the theme of the album, broader and more subtle than it seems at first (but then again, Moonspell’s fans are no strangers to subtlety): it is a mix of love, science and philosophy, which Fernando as always been attracted to since his years as a student.

« Our albums are definitely run by some kind of urgency, you know, a story, a challenge, something we want to do, something we want to experiment. »

Radio Metal: The previous album, Alpha Noir/Omega White, separated the more aggressive and darker songs from the more gothic/rock oriented songs. At the time, you said that you needed to split Moonspell in two and to stop facing the problem you had with being sometimes too all over the place musically. Is this something that the band needed to do to move on in your career?

Fernando Ribeiro (vocals): I think so because, you know, sometimes bands take artistic or musical decisions which are probably a little bit hard to comprehend by the fans. But I also think there’s a principle that we would like to always maintain in our music: not to see it as a business, as usual, but to see it as something that can definitely go through different places and expressions. That’s why we do this kind of questioning and progressing with our music, to always have this experimental aspect attached to it. Because there’s no other way of taking your music a little bit further than to experiment and make albums such as Alpha Noir and it’s twin Omega White. So for us, Alpha and Omega were a totally different musical project. We were very excited about putting our foot on the pedal, while still being dark, and playing, especially live, a more aggressive, more metallic sound. But then again, we’ve always been a band that had a different shade and that shade comes from the gothic and the dark wave. So, in the process of going more extreme, we felt a little bit lost or in a logic that is probably not the logic of Moonspell and we questioned that. That’s why Alpha Noir and Omega White were so important. Alpha Noir being the album that continued that more extreme vibe coming from Memorial, and with Omega White we did something that balanced it out. That why when I look at the last albums we did, I feel it’s kind of a closing of a cycle for Moonspell that started more than twenty years ago. I really feel Extinct and its songs don’t suffer from the problem of being all over the place. We tried to make a sound that is very natural, with nice and exuberant arrangements and, obviously, great songs like we always did since we formed as a band, but also not have it overproduced or over-layered but more musical in a way. And I think that breathing this fresh air was very needed for Moonspell and that’s why we did an album so quickly after Alpha Noir and Omega White. We were supposed to still be on tour but our albums are definitely run by some kind of urgency, you know, a story, a challenge, something we want to do, something we want to experiment.

Can we say that Extinct is the result of the Alpha Noir/Omage white experience? Did that made you rethink how the aggressive parts and the softer parts interacted?

I think so. I think that’s actually our style to try to come up with the best solution possible. It’s a part of our challenge as musicians since Under The Moonspell and Wolfheart to always work a little bit with the contrasts. We were never a band that had ten songs that sound the same on the albums. There were always ups and downs; it’s our way to make music. But I think that no band or no man is on an island, so there is a lot of stuff that is actually influencing your directions. Also, the story you want to tell in the album, I think, is a key element in whether you approach the music more aggressively or more melancholically… That has also a lot to do with the fact that we always try to work as much as possible all the aspects of the songs. It’s not like someone does a riff and it’s there for months without being tested with vocals and keyboards… So that kind of flow that we have in Moonspell allows us to have something to say when it’s time for creativity. So I think Extinct might or might not be a result from everything we have experienced as musicians. I think that’s a more mature album also because of its subject. And obviously, you always come from something and, normally, what bands do [is a reaction to their] last album. But we’re not heavily thinking about our discography or how to fit Extinct in our discography, because I think that Moonspell wrote so many albums and even through the experiments we always maintained certain characteristics in our music. One of them is contrast and within this characteristic, there’s a lot to be done, there’s a lot of novelty to be implanted into the music and a lot of stuff that you haven’t tried. I think that bands that have a more definitive style probably have an even better relationship with their crowds ; it’s more of a comfort zone : people like it and they know that in two or three years there’ll be another album with a little bit of progression but maintaining exactly the same features. While for Moonspell and bands like us, it’s much more of an emotional ride, it’s not so consensual, you know. [Within this] dark and gothic metal [genre], we are much more a band that identifies with a certain avant-garde spirit.

We believe that music has to be changed. Of course we won’t be doing a hip-hop album or a jazz album [chuckles], it’s still Moonspell. But that’s what keeps us alive as a band, the fact that we go to the studio every day – and for Extinct we’ve been over two months in the studio – and that novelty that excites us. It’s not like a job where we receive a sort of order from, I don’t know, the fans that bought Night Eternal or Alpha Noir and they write to us and say: “Well, I want heavy guitar here and double bass there, and I want you to sing more…” It’s not like this. It’s a totally free process where we associate our ideas. And obviously, all the albums that we have done as Moonspell have shaped us as musicians. But also most of the band is already forty, so I think that we definitely can’t avoid having these new approaches that you mention. And it’s not like the first albums when nobody knew us. There’s now a big repertoire to be compared with and sometimes that might be a problem for the band, but I think that if Extinct gets a fair chance, if people listen to it… Some of them are actually reacting really, really positively. My impression so far from what the people are saying about the album is that a lot of people missed the more melodic Moonspell. So you never know! Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. But there’s still a long way for Extinct to go to see if we were right or wrong. Musically, I think we were right because that’s what we wanted to do. And now, it’s a totally different part of the process that unfortunately or fortunately doesn’t depend on us but on the people that are going to connect with album.

« When Peter Steele died, for me, it felt like it was much more than just a physical death. […] I talk about extinction because it’s a permanent death. There won’t be anyone else from the species to carry the torch. So when I came up with the word “extinct” »

Extinct features orchestrations and choirs that sound greater than ever. How did you achieve this result?

First, we tried a different approach. We’re not being picky saying: “Oh, we’re going to do everything different from all the other bands.” There are great bands that we love and look up to. But also, I think that nowadays, there’s something that I’m very sensitive to. It seems that especially the gothic and the dark metal, with few exceptions, fell into a logic and this logic is probably “the beauty versus the beast”, with some girl screaming and some guy growling, Pro Tooled orchestrations, staccato guitars… We toured with a lot of bands and we saw that this is a common feature for all those bands. And I said that, well, it can be definitely done differently and on an even darker and unexpected form. So, that’s why we always search for new ideas. When it comes to orchestrations, I think that most people in metal will for sure use the more western like orchestras, the more film-like orchestras, and they will always invest on their music through more Wagnerian arrangements that sound really big and powerful, but sometimes they sound a little bit all the same as well [chuckles]. We wanted something a little bit different with the orchestrations. Especially on these two songs: “Breathe (Until We Are No More)” and “Medusalem”. We actually went as far as working with real musicians – obviously, that’s real strings – but we didn’t turn ourselves towards Prague or a German orchestra. No, we hired a small orchestra from Turkey and they have recorded their parts in Istanbul and Tel Aviv, in Israel. It’s seven violins, three violas and one cello. We were so happy with the results! For us, to be able to reach an orchestral dimension, it’s the highlight of Extinct. It will sound different when people will hear: it’s more middle-eastern-like, in a way it’s more mysterious. I think they did a terrific job and it fits so well into Moonspell. To work with a proper orchestra and real strings is also something that we tried for the first time. We wanted to do this for quite a long time but it seems that we could never find the right people or the right budget [chuckles]. This time around I think we lucked out with this orchestra, they are great and I hope that one day they can join us on stage because they are quite unbelievable players. The way they play, the way they put their hands on the instruments, the way… Everything is so different and they sound so fresh and natural that we definitely wanted to have these elements on our album.

Do you think that your music was begging for this extra grandeur?

If you can add a little grandeur, I think that’s never a problem for the music [laughs]. Obviously we don’t like over the top arrangements. Sometimes it works but for Moonspell, it wouldn’t work if we just drowned our music in this kind of arrangements. It works because it’s spread throughout the album and we definitely were very picky with the songs. “Medusalem” was a little obvious because we had all these oriental scales already, so we wanted to reinforce that, but with “Breathe”, we just sent the song and they kind of wrote their own arrangements and interpreted it in their own way, and for me it’s even better because they have more freedom. Whatever you can do to grow up musically and when you have a chance of collaborating with such great musicians from such a different culture than where we come from, I think the result is definitely worth the investment. And our music definitely needed something a little bit more real when it comes to this aspect than just the keyboards. We’re a band from the nineties, so the keyboards are very important and we still got them but I think that, when you grow as musicians, you also start having interests in other forms of music that can actually help yours to be a little bit more grandiose, as you say. I understand what you say and it’s quite a funny expression, but sometimes, yeah, we had parts in Moonspell songs that could have been much bigger if we had these guys. But now we know them and in the future, for sure, they will still be working with us on a few songs.

The main theme of the album is extinction. What motivated you to address this specific subject and how did you choose to address it?

Actually, I wasn’t even thinking about making an album called Extinct. I was much more looking for a word that could describe the feeling that I had when I was faced with certain situations in my personal life and not only as a Moonspell musician. One example I can give to you is when Peter Steele from Type O Negative died. We were obviously huge fans and they were a huge inspiration for us. Right after we began with Wolfheart and Irreligious, we toured with Type O Negative when they had October Rust, and we developed a very cool friendship. We toured together a couple of more times before he died and when he died, for me, it felt like it was much more than just a physical death. I knew exactly that we would have the Type O records and the legacy to hold on to, but what happened to Peter Steele and some other people, not only musicians, was a kind of extinction – in his case it was more of a self-destructive one. I talk about extinction because it’s a permanent death. There won’t be anyone else from the species to carry the torch. So when I came up with the word “extinct”. I could apply it to many, many things that happened. Not only the death of friends but also sometimes you just come back to your old school, your old neighborhood or the bar where you first had a few beers or first played a live show and you realize it’s now just a parking lot, and it’s very scary that all of our memories and everything that was alive before were just buried in concrete. When I came up with this, I immediately started reading about extinction. I also started to consult some authors and professors, and they will also appear in the documentary about the album. These people work on the field; it’s not something you can do from an office in the university. Whenever they lose a species, even if it’s a small species or not from the animal kingdom but from the flora, they feel it exactly like – and I wanted to capture that emotion on the record – a permanent loss to them. Not only the species is totally gone but these people feel the loss. Even though they study science, they still have these emotions and understanding that we will be deprived of that presence forever, and nothing really is going to replace it. And I think that Extinct is mostly about these emotions, these black walls where you can never come back from once you crossed them.

« Love is always something that is present in Moonspell’s lyrics because it’s a very human emotion and it’s probably the emotion that has the more dimensions, black holes, doors, twists and turns… »

In the chorus of the title song, there’s this line: “The taste of your lips before we go extinct.” Would you say that love is the one thing that people remember when facing death?

Maybe, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve seen people dying but I never was involved in near death experiences. I think there’s a lot of stuff that might go through your mind. But also to talk about extinction and death, you obviously have to be alive and you always have to witness these phenomenons yourself. So you’re a kind of witness, you don’t know what’s going on. You just observe. You don’t participate to the death. So, I think that love is always something that is present in Moonspell’s lyrics because it’s a very human emotion and it’s probably the emotion that has the more dimensions, black holes, doors, twists and turns… For me it’s the most interesting emotion, especially when things do not go right. It’s what really keeps you tied to a person when everything in your body and your soul tells you otherwise. Love is that mystery that sometimes I celebrate with my lyrics and sometimes I criticize it [chuckles]… I just go with what love shows us. So I think that there’s a particular link that I hope people will discover by themselves on these lyrics about extinction. On the lyrics of Extinct there’s – let’s say – the micro and the macro. The micro is more me telling a story that happened to me and the macro thing is all the biotic extinction that happen. And when I say “the taste of your lips before we go extinct”, it can mean just exactly a last kiss and that’s what I was thinking about.

On the limited edition of the album there’s a documentary that brings some scientific contexts to the album. Did you want this record to be a fully documented project with concrete elements and information about this theme?

First and foremost, I want our message to be as clear as possible. And, as it’s not like an album about pirates or Vikings [chuckles], it’s probably a little bit harder for people to get what the hell we’re talking about… Obviously, I believe a lot in the intelligence of the Moonspell fans, so I’ll never write about pirates because I would be offending them. And they want strong concepts and that’s what we like to do as well, so it’s a kind of marriage between us and our fans. What we really like to do, is to present our records each time as a more and more complete object. And we like to have many arts associated to our music, not just the lyrics but also the visuals. There’s always a big demand for bonuses, otherwise if you don’t give a bonus people will just rip it off [chuckles] from the internet, and obviously Moonspell has had interesting bonuses in the past but they were much more by the book, you know, it was like the live at the Wacken… Omega White was an interesting bonus because it was a full length album… But this time around I was thinking about what to do and I always wanted to make something on video, a documentary for Moonspell. Obviously we cannot make now a full movie of what happened since the beginning of the band, that’s a way bigger project. First we thought about just buying some Go Pro [laughs] and shoot ourselves but I don’t want to fall in the mistake [of thinking] that nowadays everybody is a good photographer, or a good writer, or a good journalist, or a good director, just because they have a Go Pro and some technology to do better than what they did ten years ago. So instead of investing into material and computers and whatnot, I just called up a friend that directed our video clip for “White Skies” from Omega White and we invested in human value. So, he was with us all the time and captured all the moments really well.

What started to be a twenty or thirty minute small making of documentary turned into a full movie of eighty minutes called Road To Extinction. Of course, when Victor, our director, progressed into these ideas, immediately I thought about helping him out with a kind of plot that could make it interesting. So there are three main parts in the movie. First there’s the making of in the studio, which doesn’t just show the technical aspect but also all the atmosphere of the studio both in Portugal and Sweden. Then there’s the everyday life of Moonspell, especially as a Portuguese band going in foreign countries, like in Sweden, to go recording. I think that’s good for people to know this because many people still live under the impression that bands check in at the hotel, have a French chef that cooks for them [chuckles], drink wine… It’s another thing… And then we’re also focusing on the subject of extinction on a more scientific approach. We invited a couple of professors and authors to speak about extinction and the fights they are involved in. There is Melanie Challenger, a great author that made a book called On Extinction: How We Became Estranged From Nature, and it’s one of my main inspiration for the lyrics. But there is also professor Fransesco Petrucci-Fonseca from The Wolf Group in Portugal which fights for the preservation of the Iberian wolf. I think it gives it definitely a deeper meaning and a different perspective. I’m very proud about the documentary. I think it also shows people how the album was done and what the real concept behind it is. They’ll definitely tap into it and discover much more about the album through the documentary.

« I believe a lot in the intelligence of the Moonspell fans, so I’ll never write about pirates because I would be offending them. »

I’ve read that you’re a father since April 2012, so how do you balance the strong pessimism of such theme and the hope that goes with having a child?

I love being a father. I love my kid. But it’s not all good news [laughs]… Having kids is a full blown compromise. It’s something that no band, no wife, no brother, no sister and no best friend can prepare you to, you know. The love and the responsibility of taking care [of your kids] allow you to have the best moments of your life but also to have moments that are very dark, pessimistic and sad. So, fatherhood is not a walk in the park. The good parts are the visible side and the invisible side, a lot of it is contained in the lyrics of Extinct: all the dark feelings that fatherhood brings along. A lot of people are afraid to speak about it because they are afraid to be seen as child haters [chuckles]… But no, just like any love, the love for a son is complex and full of a whole range of emotions, but [at the same time] much more intense, much more extreme. You start caring about if you do the right thing and questioning if being in a band and spending so much time abroad is the right thing. The hardest realization that you have is how much of an egoist you are. When you have a kid, it’s a wakeup call. I thought that I was generous, that I was good with people, that people liked me, that I had a great sense of sacrifice to be in a band and wake up in the morning to go to a show and travel a lot… I mean, that’s a piece of cake compared to having a kid [laughs]. So it definitely changed me and we try to balance it as much as we can with lots of trial and error, as well. I’ve had really bad night with my kid being sick and not sleeping, but also these amazing mornings going into the nice streets and parks of Portugal. But believe me, it’s something that definitely I’m still learning how to cope with, with such intense feelings. Even though I love music, the band, my family and whatnot, a kid is definitely a game-changer.

Several parts on the album feature a strong oriental vibe. Do you have a special relationship with oriental music and what does this oriental vibe symbolizes within the concept of the album?

Well, you know, especially with what happened just recently in Paris, I hope people don’t jump into conclusions and don’t get the wrong impression. One thing is terrorism and that’s all sad, painful and something that has to be regretted as probably just the human race hitting the bottom. Another thing is the culture of the middle-east which first was a very, very big influence for our country, Portugal. In our history, many tribes have been here in the early days of our nation and the Arabic culture was very big in Portugal and Spain, and they left us with incredible music and literature. And incredible teachings too because while in Europe we were living the middle ages, burning people and being extreme, the Islam was living its golden age. Nowadays, in 2015, it’s exactly the opposite: they are back in the middle age and we are, with all the flaws of western civilizations, trying to progress and live in peace, especially in Europe. But, like I said, one thing is what the mullahs tell stupid people to do and the other thing is their culture which definitely is overwhelming and fascinating for us, and a true inspiration since we did Under The Moonspell which already had this major influence from Arabic music, subjects and culture. This time around we just expanded it a little bit. I think it sounds really great with our music. And the fact that we actually worked with the orchestra but also with Yossi Sassi, ex-Orphaned Land, [who plays solo bouzouki on “Medusalem”] and a friend of ours called Mahafsoun, she’s a gothic belly dancer from Canada, although she’s originally from Iran, just spiced it up and definitely created these mysterious feelings. The One Thousand And One Nights type of mystery that we don’t see much in gothic and metal, or at least not so expanded. So I think it’s a really cool feature to discover on Extinct.

You introduced the new album’s announcement with the Nietzsche’s « without music, life would be a mistake. » What do you put behind these words?

You know, Nietzsche was a philosopher but he tried very much to be a musician but he wasn’t just good enough [chuckles], that’s why he got this with Wagner for instance. [There aren’t so many] piano recordings of Nietzsche’s compositions but, you know, he wrote some score. So he had this profound relationship with music, which he found to be a very, very complete art and a very sinuous art; he said, and I agree, that it’s a very sensual thing, even though it can be tough. And obviously he was a philosopher and understood the philosophical side of music and the meanings behind it, like Wagner’s the glorification of power, for instance. Nietzsche got that, and he said that the essential quality of the music is something that the civilized man can’t go without – and even non-civilized men -; there’s music everywhere. And I quite agree that music penetrates differently through people, sometimes it’s even a question of life or death. You don’t see that with plastic art, movies or TV series… Music is something that really touches the right buttons in people, whether it be for entertainment or as a deeper and more cultural expressions. And I think that without this energy and power, people who don’t care about music are losing a full world of escape, fantasy, emotion… I studied philosophy at the university, I was no Nietzsche [chuckles] but I studied his words, but also I had a band and when the band started touring, I had a choice to make. And even though I loved to study philosophy and I was almost becoming a teacher myself, I chose music, to tour with Moonspell and expand my career as a vocalist and lyric writer. I didn’t have any rational reason to do that, I just had a strong appeal with music. So we felt it was a good sentence to announce the new album. And I also remember it was posted on the international music day (October 1st), and people who like music will for sure get the meaning. For instance, they go to our page everyday searching for news about our music and that’s, in a way, very flattering.

Do you think that someday you’ll go back to philosophy or maybe finish your studies to become a teacher?

When I studied there, there were a lot people that did that, like older people, as old as I am now. With the kid and the band, I don’t see that happening right now or in the near future but I have to say that I wouldn’t mind. If it wasn’t philosophy, maybe it would be literature because it’s not that I want to be a professor but it’s something that I’d like to [have with me] until the end. At that time it wasn’t possible, physically, to be at the university. So, eventually, I’ll be back to university but let’s see what happens.

You’re going to tour soon together with Septicflesh. As we can hear similar darkness, melodies and orchestrations, although they are more extreme, and being a dark metal band from the south of Europe, do you feel close to them?

We are great friends and we started off in the scene at the same time, and then they had this period where they split and then came back together. Seth also makes our cover artworks, like our last one. When they came back with Communion we were also releasing Night Eternal and we toured together already at that time, and we found out that we had so much in common by the fact that we are from south Europe and always on the news for wrong reasons, that we owe money to Germany [laughs] and to the world. We felt this great connection also because the scene is dominated by bands from the UK, Scandinavia and the US and, nothing against these bands, but it’s good to be a part of a tour where there’s a band from Portugal and a band from Greece, and then hopefully all the local bands from all around the countries in the cities that we’re going to play. Musically, I don’t think that we are that close, especially now with the new album I think they are much more a death metal symphonic band than us. But they also deal with their stuff on a deeper way and it’s a very emotional band as well as a great live band. I couldn’t think of a better touring band right now for us than Scepticflesh. We’re going to tour Europe, with a bunch of dates in France, and we’re also probably going to travel together to North America and tour over there.

Interview conducted by phone 29th, january 2015 by Philippe Sliwa.
Retranscription, traduction and questions: Nicolas Gricourt.

Moonspell official Facebook page: www.facebook.com/moonspellband.

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