Very rarely, a band comes along that doesn’t merely entertain me but rather inspires me so profoundly that my entire musical worldview is irreversibly altered. Without even a shred of exaggeration, I can say that Leviathan is one such band. Leviathan’s unique brand of Metal sets them apart as one of the most talented up-and-coming bands to come out of Germany in the last several years. In fact, their latest album, “Beyond The Gates Of Imagination, Pt. 1” was one of my very first picks when I made my “Top 20 best albums of 2011” list. And so it is my great pleasure today to present our readers with an exclusive interview with the band, just a few short months after the release of their latest album.
First of all, I would like to say congratulations on the release of your new album! I can tell a lot of work went into it. For those who are not yet fortunate enough to be acquainted with your music, can you give us some background on the band and how you reached where you are today?
Actually, our story is not too long right now. The band was gathered together around 2007 by our vocalist Jonas Reisenauer. At that time he was searching for musicians that he could start a band with. After we had started with some of the typical cover songs, we quickly began to compose our own songs for the first time. In fact, we have still 8 songs in our backhand from that time that didn't make it onto the "From The Desolate Inside" EP and that later on didn't feel right as our music evolved through the years.
After we finally found a keyboardist, Fabian Gocht, in late 2008, we were ready to play our first live shows at a local band contest in February of 2009. Soon we also came up with the idea to record a CD, which turned out to be the EP I've already mentioned which was recorded in March 2010 and released two months later. After that, when a lot of good reviews reached us we quickly came up with the plan to make a follow-up to the EP, which turned out to be the album "Beyond The Gates Of Imagination Pt.1", which is the reason we're talking here today!
Your EP "From The Desolate Inside" was voted "Demo of the Month" in the German edition of Metal Hammer Magazine. What do you think allowed you to turn around and create this great new album in such a short time after your first EP, and do you feel this schedule limited you in any way?
Well, we are actually very creative in coming up with new musical ideas. By the time we recorded the EP we already had the greater part of "About Fangs And Feathers" written and we had also collected a lot of other ideas for new songs. The other thing that drove us to put out the album so soon, was the fact that we didn't want people to forget about us. We'd had several great reviews on our debut EP, but it is one thing to create a good EP consisting of four songs and another thing to write a 48-minute album that has the ability to really catch people's attention. So we just wanted to show everybody that we are able to do that.
Actually, the schedule turned out to be a little stressful in the end. For example, we were already in the studio when we used a day off to get into the rehearsal room with our drummer Tobias Parke to practice with him the last two songs which were just finished as we were recording the first drum tracks. So all in all it was quite a lot of stress, but if we had to make the decision again I guess we would just do it the same way, because the new album gave us the opportunity to reach a lot of new fans around the world.
You've previously said that the name of your band was chosen because the Leviathan in mythology represents a hybrid made of several different creatures, and that this reflects your approach to music as a band. Do people ever mistake you for the one-man Black Metal band of the same name and if so, do you feel this has affected you at all?
Actually that doesn't happen too often. We didn't even notice this name doubling until one writer here in Germany mentioned it in a review on our debut EP. After all, this Black Metal project is not too well known outside their own scene, so we didn't really face a lot of problems with that up to now.
You played your biggest concert yet at Summer Breeze Open Air festival in 2010, correct? What was that like for you? Would you say you were more intimidated or thrilled?
Yes, that is correct. But actually, the best word to describe it would be "pumped"! When we first took a look at the 5,000 people that stood in front of the stage, we actually got a little bit nervous but this really turned into a lot of motivation for the show very quick. Right before the show, we all got together and Jonas even gave a little motivational speech to get us pumped the right way. And when you finally step out on stage, you are so concentrated on your performance that you really don't notice the size of the audience that much. When we all came together after the set for the final '“goodbye“ to the audience, that was the first time during the show that we realized how many people actually saw us.
What is your approach to playing concerts? Do you try to expand upon the material at all when you play shows?
Since our material is very complex and challenging we don't really try to expand upon the material. Our goal is to get the songs as close to the record version as possible and to transport the energy of the songs to the audience. What we try to do with our shows is to put together something more than just the normal performance that gets delivered by a lot of bands. We try to do more of a concepted show that fits more with the very conceptual approach of our songs. That is sometimes a bit difficult because of our limited budget, but we are trying to incorporate it more into our live concerts.
The overall theme of the album seems to be anchored in a deep concern for the many ills of contemporary society. What do you hope to achieve by bringing attention to some of the questions you are posing?
Well, it's the most natural thing to write about what you are dealing with yourself, so the socially critical aspect of the lyrics is very dear to us because it's the most important frontier that our civilization is facing at the moment. But we try to put all these themes into a more metaphorical content. So all in all we hope that people will deal with the lyrics and think about their meaning for themselves and come up with their own answer to the questions we propose.
This album is at times very cynical and dark, however I get the impression that you are all pretty well-balanced people. There seems to be this assumption that exists amongst the general public and amongst those who aren't Metalheads that people who play or listen to the more extreme kinds of music must be these very dark, scary people. My experience however, is obviously very different. For me, music is like a catharsis; it's empowering. As a listener, I can put on your album and feelings such as anger, fear, and sadness simply melt away. To me, these emotions are not to be avoided, but accepted and experienced as just another aspect of life. Do you feel similarly when you write and play this music?
I think it's hilarious that people fear anger or hate so much that they start thinking that people who make metal music are scary. Hate or anger are absolutely normal and common feelings that everyone has experienced. The only thing that we do is, instead of trying to push these feelings down, we instead use them to create something. And for me this is the best way of dealing with these emotions, because turning them into music is really like a cleansing experience.
After all, you really don't have to be a depressive person in order to create metal music, which is also a common archetype that a lot of people have. The only thing that we do is to not avoid the dark side of our personallity, but instead use it to turn it into something that people can enjoy or as you said use to deal with their own dark feelings. And for me that is much better than just bottling it up.
As an Atheist myself, I have to ask you guys this question. The lyrical content of the song “Servants of the Nonexistent” seems very critical of religion, and even makes reference to Friedrich Nietzsche's famous quote that “god is dead.” Could you perhaps share some of your own personal philosophies?
The song is not just about religion actually, but every ideology that you can find. It's basically about every situation where someone is referring to an external, man-made thesis when trying to judge things. When you put the quote "god is dead" into this context it is not necessarily an Atheist exclamation, but more of a statement that "the entity that told you what is 'good' and 'bad' has lost its relevance". I think that everybody has the right to believe in what ever feels right for them, which is ironically the complete opposite of what religion tells you. In that case this song is also a good example for why we like to use rather metaphorical content, because that way every listener can connect the story to their own experiences and the story then takes on a personal meaning.
In songs such as “The Scourge We Wield” you take some significant deviations from your earlier material by including some clean female vocals and folk influences. I think it adds a lot of extra flavor to these tracks. When experimenting with different musical concepts, where do you like to begin?
Actually that's a good place to quote our number one rule in the band: "There are no rules!" When we start to write music we don't set any barriers for ourselves; whatever supports the story and the atmosphere of the song is welcome. If it's folk or if it's jazz, we are not afraid to include anything. For example, the chorus to "About Fangs and Feathers" came to me while I was playing acoustic guitar and singing to it, that's why the chorus just naturally got this kind of folk influence to it. With "The Scourge We Wield" it was a little different. For the chorus we had the high vocal melody written but we just couldn't make the sound fit in a way that was pleasing to us. That was when we asked Joy Masala to come and join us in the studio to add her voice to the song.
Unfortunately, when I look at what is popular within music, the creative soul seems to have taken a backseat to profit. In fact, if I were to only go on what is currently available on the radio, I would say that for most people music has long since become a business rather than a passion. In this Internet age where the tools to create music are available to everyone, I have found myself needing to spend days at a time looking for bands that still have that passion. Many of them are from other countries outside the United States and many are also either unsigned or signed to very small labels. What do you think are some of the main reasons for this?
I think one of the main reasons is that music has become so easy to consume with the Internet, iPods, and radio. Earlier, when all these sources weren't available so easily, people would have to play music for themselves instead of just turning on their iPod. Or rather, if you couldn't relate to the music you were able to find, you had to come up with new music that meant something to you personally. Another thing is that today music is mostly about the "lifestyle" it represents. Music is used as something to dance to or to make a movie better, but the music itself is often not the center of attention anymore.
And last but not least, I believe that a big problem is the separation into different scenes, especially in metal music. You have metalcore, deathcore, true metal, or power metal and a band that adopts to one of these scenes is often trying to avoid different influences in order to not disappoint their fans. That is also why we try to avoid classifying our music as any specific genre. We do actually all love a wide range of different music genres, be it classical music, jazz, or melodic death metal. And we try to keep ourselves open to all these influences to be able to mix them together in a way that is new to the listeners.
I would like to take this time to ask you [Reisenauer] about your vocal style. The various extreme vocal styles such as yours are very powerful tools, but it is sometimes difficult for listeners in the mainstream to relate to. What made you decide that this type of singing was something that you wanted to do?
This vocal style actually feels very natural to me because of the topics and feelings our music deals with. I believe that some things are not meant to be said nicely, and that instead you have to scream them from the top of your lungs! And another reason is that I like the sound obviously, it is so nicely twisted if you know what I mean.
In songs like “About Fangs And Feathers” and especially in “Sway Of The Stars” you [Reisenauer] switch back and forth between high and low pitches as you create a dialogue between the characters you've created. What in particular inspired you to use your voice in such a way?
For me the music and the vocals are meant to ineract with each other rather than compete for the attention of the listener. The music itself has a story to tell and the vocals should not overshadow it, so if the music is guiding the listener through the atmosphere of the song the vocals have space to leave the normal form. Another thing is that the idea also fits nicely into the epic, theatrical touch of those songs. The use of the dialogues and different voices creates a certain tension to the vocals and helps to evaluate the story of the songs in a better way.
[Dahs] When I listen to the album I hear many complex elements, but what really makes it stand out to me is the way everything comes together. Would I be correct in supposing that the writing process is very intense? Also, does anything in particular make it especially challenging to shape the kind of songs you wish to create?
The whole songwriting process is actually very complex and it's very rare that we get together in the rehearsal room to just jam some ideas together. Nearly everything is first written and composed by writing it down in a tablature program. What makes the process so complex is the fact that in our music all the components and instruments interact with each other.
The drums have to work hand in hand with the accents of the orchestrations, and the guitar melodies and riffs have to fit with the harmonies of the orchestra. All these single instruments that we have to make work with each other make the songwriting very challenging, but it's worth it because the wide range of instruments give the songs a certain depth that would be impossible to achieve with just guitars, drums, and bass.
You [Dahs] are quite an adept guitar player, and yet you have said previously that many of your solos are improvised. How would you describe this balance?
Actually I don't believe that our solos are that technical or at least we don't try to make them sound that way. But for me, practicing guitar and improving on my technical abilities is the most important thing as a guitar player, because these abilities enable you to really put the right atmosphere and emotion you want into an improvised solo. For us it's important to not have a solo in a song just to show off what you are able to do. A solo should support the story and the atmosphere that the song creates.
That's also why there are songs on the album that include two solos or others such as "The Scourge We Wield" that don't even have a solo at all. About the improvisation, I guess it's the best way to get your feelings right on tape. Actually, every solo on the record is spur-of-the-moment; we just do a few improvisational runs that are recorded and in the end you choose the one that fits best.
I find it incredible that you are all able to find the time to be involved in jobs or in school while also being heavily involved in a band. For example, I know that in addition to playing bass guitar you [Heinz] also do graphic design and that you have created all of the album art so far. Can you please describe your relationship to art and music? Does one influence the other?
In the case of our band art and music go together very closely. We want to create a full product for the listener. That starts with the music and the lyrical concept of the record and that influences directly the artwork of the CD, because we want it to work hand in hand with the music. Another thing that is important to us is the vanguard appearance of our band. We believe that nowadays you have to offer a full package of music and artwork in order to create an identity. And the vanguard approach for us is a way to get a little bit away from the standard metal covers and shirts.
In the more extreme genres of metal, I tend to hear a greater focus on speed than on complexity. Some bands even opt for drum-machines over live drums in order to sound faster and therefore more “brutal.” However, you [Parke] have a much more diverse style of drumming that feels more natural and soulful. How does it feel to create these rhythms?
It's actually interesting that the drumming does feel that natural to you, because in fact the basic outlines for the drums are already written when the songs are arranged. Jonas mostly writes them down with all the rest of the instruments and when we finally play the song I do take that outline and add some personal touches to them, but it's rarely that a drumbeat is created out of a jam or a certain emotional situation. Probably the reason why you are feeling that these drumbeats sound very natural is that we do not see the drums as a simple tool with which to set the groove.
Drums are just as important to the song as the vocals or the guitars are, so we also put a lot of work into them to make them interact with all the other instruments in a perfect way. Most of the drumbeats are therefore not just the foundation of everything, it's more like they are also following the way that the music goes. You can also hear which song is being played by only listening to the drums, which is probably something that you wouldn't be able to do with a lot of other bands.
[Gocht] I am very impressed by the way orchestral elements are incorporated into your music. Not many bands are willing to go beyond the simple novelty of an added keyboardist. It's relatively easy to play keyboard notes and samples in a disjointed way and to simply layer it over the music, but it is much rarer to incorporate it in a way that is organic and creative. Can you talk for a bit about how you approach these elements?
Well, I believe that the orchestral elements and keyboards add just as much to the song as every other instrument. It's very important to us that the orchestra feels like it naturally evolves. For example, sometimes the orchestra may take over a guitar melody that was used early in the song to create a close connection between all of the different parts of the song. Then again, at another time it might go in a completely different direction and add new musical themes to the song in order to create a greater depth to the sound. If you use an orchestra or a keyboard in the right way it is able to create a certain atmosphere and emotional depth that you wouldn't be able to create by simply using guitars, drums and bass.
What can we expect for Part 2 of the record? Are there any specific themes you are hoping to elaborate upon?
Well actually "Part 2" is going to be the final conclusion to the story that was opened with the first three acts of the concept in "Part 1". It would have been on the same album, but unfortunately a CD offers only 72 minutes of music if you produce it rather than just burn it, without facing a loss of quality. But I don't want to talk about it too much right now, because it should still be a surprise!
You won't have to wait too long for it though, because the studio is booked for March 2012 and we hope to be able to release "Part 2" around September again. If it will be a full album or just an EP will depend on the final playing time of the record. But probably it's going to be an EP because we don't want to follow the trend of labeling a 30 minute record a full album, even though it is since "Reign In Blood" Slayer-approved to do so.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you great success in the future, and I hope to one day be able to see you tour in the United States. Are there any last words you would like to share with your fans?
Thank you very, very much for the interview and we hope that we'll be able to come to the United States as soon as possible. And to everybody who has bought our CDs in the past and who has supported us, we want to say thank you very much, because you all help us to continue to create our music for you!