The stories of Orphaned Land

There’s no shortage of things to talk about when you interview Orphaned Land. And that’s just as well, because vocalist Kobi Fahri is an excellent customer in terms of interviews. The man is simply charming and open to discussion in any shape or form.

So we talked about stories. There was of course History itself, which has become inevitable in the band’s music and lyrics – and then there were more specific stories, like Chen Balbus’s, who saw his childhood dream come true when he joined Orphaned Land. Kobi talks about him in glowing terms, praising his skills with the modern tools of music and underlining his massive devotion and involvement, despite his recent arrival. Kobi also mentions the story of Johanna Fakhry, who danced on stage with Orphaned Land at Hellfest 2011 with a Lebanese and an Israeli flag, and thus incurred the wrath of her own country.

The interview below, simply called “Stories”, reminds us that, because of one’s education, of one’s place of rearing, or simply of the way one gathers information on a given subject, one can see History in a very different light.

But because music remains the most important thing, we also talked about the writing and recording of All Is One, the band’s new album, more accessible in order for Orphaned Land to spread their word in a simpler way.

« Everything begins and ends with the wrong education. If the first gift we buy for a kid is a toy gun, and then they start killing people with computers at the age of six… »

Radio Metal: The title of the album, “All Is One”, refers to the fact that, “historically, the Jews and Arabs are brothers, since they’re all descendants of Abraham. But the conflict and the differences are so big that we’ve forgotten that”. Do you think that the biggest problem in the world isn’t hatred of differences, but simply ignorance?

Kobi Farhi (singer): Of course. If I should sum up the cause of the problem in one word, it would be “education”. Everything begins and ends with the wrong education. If the first gift we buy for a kid is a toy gun, and then they start killing people with computers at the age of six… It looks normal to parents, because they’re proud of buying their kid the latest video game. The parents are stupid as well. So yes, it’s a lot of ignorance. We cannot see how having a toy gun can lead to reading about death and people killing each other in newspapers; we don’t see the pattern. I see it clearly, and it’s all about education. It’s all about our ignorance. It’s not in our nature to be ignorant, we’re just raised and educated to be stupid. I’m saying that in our song “Fail”: I’m brainwashed so any liar with any shred of charisma can easily turn himself into my shepherd. That’s what happens: someone with charisma comes and we follow like sheep. The newspapers, the leaders, the priests… At the end of the day, we keep praying and praying, and nothing really changes. So yeah, ignorance is not bliss.

Orphaned Land is a very collaborative band, everyone is writing and contributing. Is the title “All Is One” also a way for you to symbolize how the band works?

Yeah, definitely. It’s how the band works, and it’s how music brings people together more than anything else. In a concert you can see people of all kinds, and they have something in common: they love the band. That doesn’t happen in politics or in other aspects of life. I see the “all is one” concept happen during our concerts in the Middle East, where we have a huge amount of Arab fans, even though the band is Israeli. The symbol on the cover of the album is a dream, a utopia that we have – and actually, the album speaks about the complete opposite. There’s a contradiction between the cover and the name of the album, and what’s really going on. It’s like a dream, and the songs are like a tragic reality. It happens in a way, but only in our concerts, only when we write music. It happens on a very small scale of understanding among people.

But that’s a start, right?

Yeah, it’s something. It’s a movement, it’s dozens of people out of hundreds of millions. It’s a small scratch, but maybe it’s a light at the end of the tunnel. So yeah, it’s cool. I don’t know if it will change in my lifetime, but it’s cool to know people can follow other ways if you show them and educate them.

Matti Svatitzky was replaced by Chen Balbus last year. Apparently Chen had a great role in the writing of this album. How did his contribution change your way of working or your sound?

First of all, he’s from this young generation of computer kids. He knows how to do all these sketches, and how to arrange a pre-production on a computer in ways that I don’t know. I’m a dude from the 90s, I’m an old school guy! I was born in the time of fucked-up TV and cassettes! I’m primitive when it comes to that. We gave Chen some of the new material, and he arranged it into a song, he wrote drums and added some keyboards in it. He really turned the sketches into something amazing, and he did it by himself. He did things we didn’t know how to do. He made everything in Orphaned Land work faster. Now we compose a song, he immediately takes it, and if we have comments – “Change this, put that here, make that longer, add a keyboard here” –, anything I can tell him, he’s doing it so fast that I get it after half an hour. So we’re faster today. And in terms of sketches and pre-production, we did the whole thing as a home production, in his bedroom. That was really fast, and he did some great stuff in there. I could really get a nice picture of the songs, just through his work. So it’s a great contribution, not to mention the fact that he’s a true Orphaned Land spirit. He knows how to write music for the band, and in the new album he even wrote a few songs.

About Chen Balbus: « I believe he’s going to be a very dominant part of this band, at the end of the day. »

Usually, when a new member arrives in a band a few months before the recording of a new album, he only has a small role in the writing process. This wasn’t the case here. Did you push him to contribute that much or did he do it naturally?

Chen was pushing himself from the first moment we knew him. It’s the classic story of a fan who became a member of the band. He used to be a kid who posted YouTube links of our songs. I knew his family, and his older brother was my best friend. But still, I wouldn’t hire someone in the band because I’m friends with their brother. He was recording these videos all the time, and he was playing nice. You could see he liked Orphaned Land very much, he really adored the band. At one point, he became a replacement guitarist. We thought: “If he’s so good and devoted, and if he knows how to play the songs in the smallest details, he can be the replacement guitarist”. Sometimes a guitarist can be sick or cannot go to a show, so he was the replacement. Then, when Matti left the band, it was natural for him to step in. He was always motivated. When he stepped in, he asked me: “How should I write music for Orphaned Land? What is the attitude?” So I explained. He’s always pushing himself to do more. Anything I can ask him, he’ll try to do it and he won’t complain. He’s grateful to be a part of this. I believe he’s going to be a very dominant part of this band, at the end of the day.

The album was recorded in three countries, Turkey, Sweden and Israel. How did that affect the music?

Recording in Sweden was great, because we went to Jens Bogren’s studio. It’s one of the studios that’s doing most of the metal albums of today. It was great to be there. It was the first time we ever recorded outside of Israel. We got a nice budget from Century Media, they really believed in the album – they even brought me here today! It was really great to record in Sweden, it was a nice adventure. When you know that you have the right music, and the right studio, and the right people to give it what it requires, it’s really great. In Israel, we just recorded the things that we had to. We cannot fly a choir of 25 singers anywhere! Also, we can only do the acoustic guitars, the percussions and the flutes in Israel. Then I went to Turkey, because there are these groups of string players there – violin, cello and viola – who play in a way that I just can’t find anywhere else in the world. They play so well, so differently. It’s very Arabian, very Turkish, and they do it perfectly. So I had to fly all the way to Turkey to record these specific people. And I could afford it! That was the great thing!

Are you going to tell me it’s a coincidence if these three countries – Turkey, Sweden and Israel – represent the three monotheist religions in the world?

I only thought about it afterwards! I saw the flags of the countries: the Swedish flag has a cross, the Turkish flag has the crescent of Islam, and of course there’s the Star of David on the flag of Israel. So it was a nice coincidence, with the album cover that we have! We represented everyone in the recording, and it happened just like that!

« With our previous albums, even our fans told me: ‘I had to listen to it ten times to understand what you meant, and then I realized, and I was digging it, and I couldn’t stop listening’ […] [This time] I wanted it to hit people on the first note. »

Why didn’t Shlomit Levi sing on this album?

A few reasons. She’s pregnant with her second child, and she and her whole family are going to move to the United States, to New Jersey. And I also felt there wasn’t much room for female vocals on that album. On the very spot that there was, I needed someone who could sing in Arabic. Mira Awad was perfect for that, because she’s a Palestinian singer. It happened like that, it was probably the end of the way for us and Shlomit.

There are almost no growls on this album, except for the song “Fail”. Did you feel that growls would not fit on the album or are you getting tired of extreme vocals?

Oh no, I really like growls. I felt that the songs on this album were more tragic than angry. I wanted everything on this album to be more accessible and more upfront. I didn’t want to give up the Orphaned Land spirit, but I wanted things to be more upfront. I felt I could express myself with clean vocals in so many ways that I couldn’t in the past if I had the whole album to do it. It turned out that I thought it would be great for this album to do clean vocals. I thought I wouldn’t do growls, but then I wrote “Fail”. I was so angry when I wrote it, I thought I had to add growls. So it will be a surprise if the fans were informed there wouldn’t be any growls. But in the future, I don’t know what we will do. I could be so angry that I could do an album full of growls! I’m not getting tired of growls, because it’s a great way of expression. But I really wanted to use this album to take my clean vocals to the top.

This album shows an epic scale thanks to the impressive work of 25 choir singers and eight classical violin, viola and cello players. Is this an aspect you particularly wanted to develop this time?

We already used the choir on Mabool, and the string players on ORWarriOR, but not in such an epic way and through the whole album. I really like it when music becomes epic and powerful. I think it fits metal, and it fits oriental metal. With this album, since we decided everything had to be more accessible, I guess it meant things had to be a bit softer. The lyrics are more upfront, and you can understand them from the first listening. The names of the songs are shorter, while in the past we could have “Disciples Of The Sacred Oath Part II”! Now it’s just “Brother”, “Fail”, or “Children”. We wanted it to be like that. We’ve been in existence for 22 years, and we’ve been singing about the same topics for 22 years – and nothing has changed! So I had to make it more upfront. As an artist, that’s what I wanted to do. Maybe it’s also softer because some of the songs are a little bit tragic. But if you listen to an Orphaned Land album, there are always various tracks: a very quiet one like “New Jerusalem”, and a very extreme one like “Codeword: Uprising”. This is the same band on the same album: ultra-growling and clean female vocals singing a ballad. That’s Orphaned Land, we can take it anywhere we want. That’s what we wanted to do this time. As long as the spirit is there, I think it’s cool.

Won’t that actually complicate the live performances of these songs?

No, because it was complicated already! (laughs) We don’t have much of a choice but to use playback in some cases, but everyone’s doing it – Turisas, Therion… It’s inevitable. Otherwise we’d have to have fifteen up to forty people on stage. You don’t write an album thinking how it will be in a live situation. But we will make sure to make live performances interesting with the video art that we have. You can always sing a song, and when the violin plays, you can show a video of the violin playing. It’s not a live performance, but it’s a visual element. I think it’s workable, and everybody does that – even Depeche Mode!

« I think metal music is probably the most sincere musical form in the world. »

The songs are catchier and shorter than your previous efforts. Do you think that such an important message needs a simple and attractive music, in order to be heard and understood by as many people as possible?

Yeah. With our previous albums, even our fans told me: “I had to listen to it ten times to understand what you meant, and then I realized, and I was digging it, and I couldn’t stop listening”. So there were probably a lot of people who listened to it twice and thought it was too much, or too complicated, or too complex. So yeah, I wanted it to hit people on the first note. It was important to me because of the messages I have to deliver, of the topics we’re talking about. It’s something we wanted from the beginning, even before we started to compose: we wanted to make something upfront, easy to catch. It’s still multi-layered, some of the songs have 162 channels. But yeah, it was the first intention.

Do you think that these complex and dark themes deserve a lighter music?

I think metal music is probably the most sincere musical form in the world. I judge musicians not by their quality, but by whether I believe them or not. I believe in the majority of metal bands. I don’t think it’s a coincidence if these Israelis in a metal band are the most popular people in the Arab world – more than politicians, authors, poets or peace activists. How is it that the guys from this heavy metal band are the most popular in the Arab world? It’s because metal is very sincere. I hope it answers your question. I guess it’s like that.

Was it difficult for you to write shorter songs? Did you have to hold back from writing more complicated stuff?

No, it was easier! (laughs) We had a different approach: “let’s find a new verse, a chorus, and a C-part”. It was a completely different way of working compared to the complexity we had in the past. It used to be a big puzzle, where all the pieces need to fit. This time it was way easier.

Following your show at Hellfest 2011, Johanna Fakhry, who was dancing with you with an Israeli and a Lebanese flag, has been considered a criminal in her own country. Do you have any news regarding her situation?

She’s living here in Paris. Actually, she might come to visit any moment now! She’s living and working here, and she’s an active performer. She performed with us in Belgium when we played at PPM Festival. She’s a great soul, she’s an inspiring human being. I know she has difficulties to go back to Lebanon, but it’s forbidden by law to meet Israelis, as if we were the scum of the earth. So she cannot go back to Lebanon, but she lives in Paris, and we keep doing stuff together.

« Orphaned Land is more than just a music band. Every word and every picture is a part of the whole thing and of the message. »

Your fans started an online petition in 2012 to nominate Orphaned Land for the Nobel Peace Prize. How did you react to that?

I was very flattered to see our fans take the time to put up petitions and recommend us. It’s great to see people appreciate your efforts and what you do. But it was also a bit embarrassing. Really, should we be up there with Barack Obama and the European Union? Even if I don’t know what they got the prize for! Barack Obama – why? He got it before he even did anything!

So why not a metal band, after all?!

Right! I won’t say no if they call me. But to be honest, I would rather… It would be great for my ego – yeah, I got the award! But what will it change in the Middle-East? What will it change about this shitty situation, where 70 kilometers above my head, children are dying like flies in Syria? Will it change something? I prefer to have a better Middle-East; I prefer to have peace. I’d rather people were educated in school from their childhood instead of getting toy guns. I’d rather have that than any prize, any money, anything. I don’t need fame, or credit, or rewards. I just need to see the children of this world live in a better place. As simple as that.

Do you think Orphaned Land would be Orphaned Land without this peaceful message? Could Orphaned Land be “just a music band”?

No, I don’t think so. Orphaned Land is more than just a music band. Every word and every picture is a part of the whole thing and of the message. But it’s also great music. I know people who like Orphaned Land and just care about the music. That’s fine! But if you want more, there’s more. If not, it’s cool. It’s like an ice cream shop: you want strawberry, that’s cool, but we have pistachio! I love pistachio ice cream! (laughs)

Last question: I’ve noticed the necklace you wore on the promo pictures and that you’re wearing right now. Is that the symbol from Never-Ending Story?

Yeah, it is, it’s the Aurine. It’s my favorite movie of all time, I’ve seen it so many times. I can’t do it at the moment because I’m very busy, but I’ve always said that one day I would get a big white dog and call him Falkor! (laughs)

I saw the movie again recently with my boyfriend who had never seen it before, and all he could think about were the ugly special effects from the 80s!

I started dating this girl who had never seen the movie either, so one afternoon we watched it together with lots of pop-corn. She liked it a lot. Yeah, there are old-fashioned special effects, but it’s part of the charm. The message is still great, and the music, too! Great music from the 80s!

Have you read the book?

I have started reading it, but I stopped because I was told the rest of the story was much darker than the movie. I wasn’t taught to read many books when I was a kid, so… But I will probably read it one of these days.

Interview conducted face-to-face on May 16th, 2013 by Saff’
Questions sheet: Metal’O Phil & Spaceman
Transcription: Saff’
Introduction: Metal’O Phil

Orphaned Land’s official website: orphaned-land.com

Album All Is One, out since June 24th, 2013 via Century Media Records

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