Schammasch: in the flames of creation and destruction

After reaching the end of a massive cycle that saw the release of a single album (Sic Lvceat Lvx), a double album (Contradiction), a triple album (Triangle), Schammasch were under a bit of pressure, to put it mildly. For the Swiss band, a new era began in late 2019 with Hearts Of No Light, which was as much about continuity as it was about change. Continuity, because Schammasch has leveraged on one album everything they’ve ever developed musically. And change, because in many ways, the band struck down a conceptual path vastly different from Triangle, tried to « demolish the past » to better rise from the ashes, and revealed never-seen-before facets of their musical personality.

The first album of a diptych (the second is to be released at a later date), Hearts Of No Light offers a darkly pessimistic vision of humanity. It’s also, once again, a remarkable work of art, chock-full of symbols borrowed from Christianity, mythology and esotericism, that transcends genres and encourages the listener to reflect upon him- or herself.

We simply had to ask a few questions to the band’s mastermind, Chris S.R., who now only answers interviews via e-mail, so he has enough time to think. « Compare a jam session to an in depth songwriting phase and imagine the two results and how different they will be. It‘s the same with interviews for me. » An explanation that shows how meticulously attentive and how wary of imprecision the musician is when it comes to his art.

« The leitmotif that the album follows is destruction. It should break down the past, to give space for new things to grow. »

Radio Metal : With Triangle, you came to the end of a six-year cycle that you initiated with your first album Sic Lvceat Lvx. Triangle was a big endeavour, a massive piece of art. Didn’t you feel a little bit lost when it came time to do the follow up to Triangle?

Chris S.R. (guitar & voice) : The writing process started off rather easily, but the deeper it reached, the more difficult it became. Finding direction was indeed a problem, which needed a lot of attention, sacrifice and honesty towards myself.

Did doing the Hermaphrodite EP actually help you to temporise, clear your mind and get a better vision of where Schammasch should go next?

That was one of the reasons this idea came up in the first place, because it could be built up on already existing material, and would therefore be a completely different working process, giving me the chance to start something wholly detached, with a clear head.

Last time we spoke, you told us that you were “planning to work with a different producer” and you were “trying to get in touch with that person.” Ultimately, did you succeed in reaching and working with that person?

I think the person I spoke about back then was a different one than who we ended up working with, since those plans turned out to be a dead end. I can’t say how the production would have turned out with someone different, but it doesn’t matter either, the only thing that matters, in terms of studio work, is that I’m very satisfied with the work of Markus Stock/Klangschmiede Studio-E and we will probably work with him again in the future.

You declared that the end of the production of Hearts Of No Light was very intense. What made it so intense?

Every mixing session gets to a point where some things become a burden, some things have to be let go, some things don’t work out as planned. Casting a record into its final form is always the most difficult part of the whole creation. After months or years of work and preparations, these moments are the moments where the artistic responsibility you have towards your work, towards yourself, become a pinnacle of pain, a whirlwind of madness, in which you start questioning and doubting everything you are doing. Giving birth never comes without pain, or fear of failure.

You once again have several guests on the album: classical pianist Lillian Liu, vocalist Aldrahn and visual artist and musician Dehn Sora. Is the “traditional” band format too limiting for your artistic aspirations?

These collaborations have nothing to do with the band’s line-up, the line-up doesn’t really affect the songwriting. We don’t particularly need external artist contributions, but it’s always interesting to experiment with outside people, they can bring new facets, add new colors, open up different paths to follow.

Can you tell us more on the work with these three external artists that contributed to the album?

It’s been three individual situations, Lillian was the first of the three I approached, way before anything was clear, concerning the new album. I discovered her DsO-piano cover on Youtube and was stunned by the beauty and fluidity of that piece, so I contacted her, to see if she’d be interested in doing something together. Aldrahn I contacted once during the Triangle production, mainly as an old fan, since he mentioned liking our Contradiction record in an interview, and for that I was grateful. So I wrote him, and we had some minor contact over time and met in London once, during their tour with Secrets of the Moon. Him I asked to contribute because I was very curious on what would happen if his brilliant madness would be paired with some of our music. I gave him full lyrical and vocalistic freedom (anything else wouldn’t have made any sense), and was quite speechless when he sent his parts. They gave the track a whole new, unique face and meaning. As for Dehn Sora – we know each other since years already, and he has been a major influence on me as an artist – mainly through his work with Treha Sektori – but I’m an admirer of pretty much anything he does. I think he is one of the most outstanding, most dedicated and most humble artists in the extreme music and art scene nowadays. Anyway, going back to his musical contribution on the album, his contributions had an important impact on last piece and the finale of Hearts Of No Light – which would have been a very different one if not for him. After he sent me his first bits, I rearranged the end part completely, to not interrupt the fluidity and beauty of his parts, and so we developed the piece further, more and more.

« Looking at creativity as a reflection, and art itself as an expression of life and death and everything in-between, how can an artist not constantly change and adapt their creation? « 

You had Valnoir contribute to Triangle and now you have Dehn Sora on Hearts Of No Light. Both of them have one foot in music, one foot in visual art. Is this why you’re attracted to them, because they have a multidimensional artistic vision?

We chose to work with them because both of them are outstanding and very diverse artists.

Last time we spoke, you also told us that “there’s going to be probably one core element which is going to be totally new to the band, which is going to change a lot in [y]our sound.” Now, listening to the album, there definitely are new elements, but I’m not sure what this core element would be. Can you explain to us what you meant at that time?

I spoke of the collaboration with Lillian Liu, that core element was supposed to be the use of the piano. The idea was to give much more space to her parts, actually building up some of the material on them, which, even though some parts were created that way, didn’t work out as planned, for various reasons. But as it always is with creating art, some things work out, some things don’t, or some things work within a different parameter of their original idea. You work with what you have, and try to make the pieces fit as well as possible, and sometimes you have to let go of things, in order not to create obstacles.

Three songs on the album are very atmosphere and ambience oriented: “Winds That Pierce The Silence”, “A Bridge Ablaze” and “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss”. How much are these a direct consequence of your experience creating The Supernal Clear Light Of The Void, the third part of Triangle?

There is surely a lot of these experiences within “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss”, not so much in the other mentioned pieces though. Those were rather based on Lillian’s contributions, especially “A Bridge Ablaze”.

“A Paradigm Of Beauty” will probably be the biggest surprise for the fans, with it’s gothic vibe in the vein of Sisters Of Mercy but also a band like The Devil’s Blood. What was the thought process that led to such a song?

There wasn’t much of a thought process going on during its creation, it was a guiding, thoughtless inspiration that created it. But without my love for The Devil’s Blood, this song would never have happened. There is a huge difference between the two mentioned bands. I don’t know The Sisters Of Mercy all that well to be honest (I also don’t really feel that there is a major post-punk vibe going on on that song, even though I like some bands of that genre), but I feel quite close to music of The Devil’s Blood in some ways, of course.

This song also contains the most melodic and catchy vocals you ever did. Is this something you always had in you or did that song require a learning process, vocally?

I could have never done something like this some years ago. It was the biggest challenge so far, when it comes to vocals, and was only possible through the vocal experimentations on Triangle and Hermaphrodite. My vocal abilities grew a lot on doing “Metanoia” and “Do Not Open Your Eyes” live so many times over the last couple of years. And I have no doubt that “A Paradigm…” will have a similar effect over the coming years.

More generally, what does that mean in terms of learning process, whether it be technical or compositional, to explore new grounds with each new album? Is it the composition that pushes you to learn to use new tools and elements, or is it the new tools and elements you’ve learned that push you to take advantage of them in new compositions?

That’s hard to tell, and maybe too much of an analytical view. A lot of things happen for me, by just following the creative flow, without thinking about them all too much. I generally try to do what feels natural.

Hearts Of No Light is definitely your most heterogeneous album. With Triangle you had compartmentalized your music in three distinct approaches on three discs. Here, to the contrary, you’re mixing different approaches in a single disc. Did you want to break down the last remaining barriers that might have subsisted on Triangle?

The leitmotif that the album follows is destruction. It should break down the past, to give space for new things to grow.

« The human consciousness is a deeply impressive development of nature, all the more interesting the fact that the ultimate result of that consciousness is so destructive. »

On the other hand, what would be the commonality, the red line, musically, between three very different tracks like « Ego Sum Omega”, “A Paradigm Of Beauty” and “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss”?

They simply show three different faces of the band. Even though all three pieces are very different, seen from a musical viewpoint, it’s always obvious that it is Schammasch.

There are some bands who are known for a very specific form of music and who actually can’t get away from those because of the automatic backlash they would get from the fans. Do you think it’s necessary for you to challenge your fans and not let them get used to one specific style or approach, in order to gain your freedom and build a fanbase that actually looks forward to be surprised from album to album rather than expecting more of the same?

Counter-question: looking at creativity as a reflection, and art itself as an expression of life and death and everything in-between, how can an artist not constantly change and adapt their creation? That’s at least my view on what art is, and based on this idea we try to create it. I wouldn’t want to pay attention what outside people would need, want, expect or don’t expect from Schammasch, when it comes to writing music. The only voice I listen to in that context is my artistic instinct.

Hearts Of No Light is the first part of a two-part concept, but the second part will come out at a later time. On one hand, it seems like you can’t help but make multi-discs concepts, on the other you obviously don’t want to reproduce the same scheme as you previously did. So how did this two-part concept come about?

Mainly through two very different musical urges, one being the destructive, furious and sinister one side, the other one being the reflective, peaceful, serene side. The material I had written, up to the point where that decision was made, inherited too much of both sides, it wouldn’t have made sense trying to combine them. What did make sense though, was to use the destructiveness as a way of tearing down remnants of the past and becoming free of them, in order to create a purer fertile ground for the constructive side.

The artwork represents an angel with a trumpet, reminding of the seven trumpets that are sounded to cue apocalyptic events, with flames in the background. As you seem to be dealing a lot with man destructing its own life conditions and environment, do you feel like humanity is currently descending into hell (“Katabasis”) or close to a form of apocalypse?

How can anyone not? One just needs to look around. We are blindly stumbling downward with an ever-increasing speed, conjuring uncontrollable forces of absolutely devastating effect, and we praise them as mankind’s biggest achievements, while everything around us is burning.

In the press release they mention the “promethean spirit” of Schammasch, rightly so as the fire (purifying or destructive) is very present in Hearts Of No Light. Prometheus, just like the element of fire, can be seen in both ways, positive and negative. Do you think, just like Prometheus, humans have this ambivalence, that they can do good but their tendency to play God is what will provoke their demise?

I’d say that, seen from an evolutionary point of view, the human being, or the human consciousness is a deeply impressive development of nature, all the more interesting the fact that the ultimate result of that consciousness is so destructive. Seen in the grander scheme, mankind will just be another example of the eternal cycle of creation and destruction, and within the cosmic vastness it won’t have made the slightest difference. We are nothing more than shadows and stardust.

Triangle was developing a hopeful spiritual concept. The idea behind Hearts Of No Light, on the contrary, feels very dark and negative. Is there something that has changed in you for you to take this pessimistic outlook this time and go from the supernal light all the way back to the abyss?

Everyone and everything is bound to constant change. Triangle was written with a completely different mind-set than Hearts Of No Light, of course, following a completely different end. Triangle needed a counterpart at some point, I think Hearts Of No Light fulfils that role.

In The Supernal Clear Light Of The Void, you’re describing a “spiritual momentum where the ego is completely gone and you’re basically floating into the light and in the united energy of the void” and you said that you didn’t “see that as something that can be reached during human life”. If we assume that there’s an ego behind a heart, Hearts Of No Light seems to sort of tackle an opposite view. Do you think that we’re condemned to darkness as long as we’re alive?

Hearts Of No Light isn’t trying to state any kind of conceptualised overall idea, it’s much less theoretical, much more narrative than Triangle. To some darkness is light, to some light is darkness. I think we (‘we’ as in modern society) are mainly condemned to live in blindness, which is just another word for darkness.

« Art nowadays takes a role of one of the last surviving descendants of individual freedom. « 

This idea of the ego and its dissolution is also present in “Ego Sum Omega”, so it seems to be very central to your philosophy. So can you further explain what is the ego to you?

The ego is many things, but in this context it is the blindness and ignorance within the human mind towards the insignificance of itself. The rejection of truth for the sake of comfort and justification, or ultimately reason.

Qadmon is a figure in Kabbalah. What does he symbolize for you?

Adam Qadmon is the archetype of the first man. To me, it is a symbol of the potential of the human being, or more adequately the extension of that potential resulting in a state of divinity. “Qadmon’s Heir” is a reference to the lost and wasted potential in modern humanity.

Overall, the album seems to be dealing with a descending motion, but more than a real descent into hell, could we see this album more as a descent into the depth of the human mind or psychology?

Isn’t that the real descent into hell?

As I previously mentioned, we can easily draw a parallel between the ambient nature of the last song, “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss”, and the last disc on Triangle. So if we put that track in perspective with Triangle, what does this abyss represent?

The other side of the coin.

“A Paradigm Of Beauty” is about the artistic muse. Where does art stand in this pessimistic outlook on men and in this apocalyptic world you’re depicting?

“A Paradigm Of Beauty” is a praise to the divine spirit of creativity, the purest form of love that it can be, and it acts as a counterpart towards the negative picture that is raised towards creative obsession, within the surrounding songs. I think art nowadays takes a role of one of the last surviving descendants of individual freedom.

You’re once again using Christian symbols (the angel with a trumpet, the apocalypse), just like on Triangle you’ve been using the symbol of the holy trinity. What is your history with Christianism?

I had quite a “typical” modern western standard upbringing, where religion played a role, on a surface level at least. As a child I had a strong belief in the idea of god, how it is given in Christianity. Considering that, I probably inherited a lot of these ideas and images, and even if I have a very different view on them now, it still seems to make the most sense sometimes, to use them in order to reflect some aspects of my nowadays ideas and views. Whatever opinion one has on any religious symbolism, rarely can anyone doubt their impressive element, and neither are they not a reflection of the human mind, life or spirit.

Some of the lyrics in the booklet are actually printed in reverse. And more generally, you’re using a lot of obscuring esoteric symbols and imagery. What’s the purpose?

These sections are printed in reverse because they all share a certain kind of vibe, to me they are somewhat unconscious voices in the dark. Things like that happen out of pure instinct. I didn’t think about it while doing it, I just followed my instincts. Elements like that always fulfil a purpose, and that purpose is mostly based on the will to create something vivid and organic, something that resonates on all levels, where the important aspects reflect each other on different stages. On a second thought, these things also are a great way to stir up intrigue and confusion in the listener, and, through that, becoming a message of the overall fact, that none of these words are anything else but expressions of momentary ideas, interpretations or experiences, altogether creating a moving stream of life and death, and chaos in between. They are anything but final truth.

Interview conducted by email the 8th of February 2020 by Nicolas Gricourt.

Schammasch official website: https://schammasch.com/.

Buy the album Hearts Of No Light.

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