In a short amount of time Winterfylleth has become an extreme force in black metal. The band formed in 2007 and as good as their debut The Ghost of Heritage was their last and fourth full length The Divination of Antiquity was not only better but strikingly more diverse than any of their other works. Last week the band released their fifth full length The Dark Hereafter and we sat down with guitarist and vocalist Chris Naughton to discuss the band’s new work, their inspirations, and their place within the UK black metal scene. See what he had to say after the jump.
Let’s start with the new album. One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s considerably shorter than your previous full-lengths, which apart from the debut are all over an hour long. The Dark Hereafter clocks in at 40 minutes. Was it a conscious choice to maybe trim the fat a bit and concentrate all creativity on fewer songs, or was it just the way it turned out organically?
Chris Naughton: It’s sort of the way it turned out. First of all, we don’t set out to write a certain amount of material for a new album. We never stop writing music, and we have in fact already finished writing the next album, and we’re currently working on the album after that, which will be an acoustic album. And I still think 40 minutes is pretty long by current industry standards. Lest we forget that Reign in Blood was only 28 minutes long.
So you always think several steps ahead?
We do. As said, we never stop writing. In the case of The Dark Hereafter, we had actually finished the album quite a long time ago and it was originally set to be released this spring, but for several label-related reasons it was rescheduled to the end of September.
To my ears, The Dark Hereafter is not so much a revolution as it is a natural progression of your sound. So a bigger, better Winterfylleth than before. Would you agree with that, or is there something I’ve missed, another way in which this album does something profoundly different than before?
We always try to make small, incremental changes to our music, and we like to push things into some dark corners of our songwriting, but in a way that feels natural for the band. I never understood these bands who feel the need to make a really off-the-wall album in order for people to like them. Just make good music. If you want to do something completely different, you may just as well start another project.
In the case of Winterfylleth I think it’s logical to approach it that way because you’re not on the experimental side of black metal anyway, as in there are no weird samples or circus sounds or any of that.
Exactly who I was thinking about!
I actually like them but you’re right. It’s like with Ulver, who went off the deep end and started making electronic music. I’ve always liked that, but it took a while for people to come around to it and think “ok, so that’s what they’re doing now.”
Speaking of Ulver, I was very surprised and pleasantly so to hear the Ulver cover “Led Astray in the Forest Dark” at the end of the album. Whose idea was it to include that as the album closer?
(laughs) Well, before we get into that, I want to give you the award for being the only journalist in about 15 interviews to actually realise what that song was and didn’t think it was a Winterfylleth song. We have a group e-mail between all the band members, and I was despairing that no one recognised what that was, even though it was on the press release… I thought it would be the black metal equivalent of playing “Run to the Hills” on the album. We initially recorded the song for ourselves, and we tried to do something different with it. And what we did differently is that we sang it in English. We also titled it in English, so maybe that’s where part of the obscurity comes from.
I was glad that you used the correct translation, because bogus translations of that song have been floating around the internet for ages, translating the title as something like Lost in the Forest of Trolls. So where did you get the correct English version from?
No big mystery there. They re-released all of the original albums last year and included all the translations. I think where a lot of the trouble came from is that people originally thought they were translating Norwegian, but the album’s lyrics were in old Danish. So that’s where a lot of the mistakes like “troll forest” came from, while actually in the modern English translation it seems more sinister than that — less about trolls on toadstools or whatever. As for Ulver, they’ve always been a big inspiration for us. I think the more atmospheric, melodic end of black metal was always what we liked, as opposed to the lo-fi, black-and-white variant. We liked the people who mixed folk melodies with black metal in a way that was sincere, and not like cheesy, pagan…
Exactly. So that’s why we did it, as a tribute to those guys. We thought it’d be nice to do a version of it and see how it would turn out. We painstakingly figured that one out, spending ages on getting it right. I think it lives up to the original, and in the end we put it on the record because it is along the same themes as the other songs, and it’s got that airy, melodic vibe.
Another band Winterfylleth has been associated with is Drudkh. You collaborated with Drudkh on multiple occasions, even contributing a Hate Forest cover to your split with them. How does such a collaboration emerge in the modern music scene? Does a label come up with the idea, or is it a result of your own contact with the band?
Actually I think it was our mutual idea with them. I got in touch with Roman Saenko, who’s the main guy behind all of those bands. At the time he was doing a band called Blood of Kingu, who were on the same label as Winterfylleth (Candlelight). We got talking, and over the years we got to know each other. We were talking about projects we’d like to do together, one of which was a compilation album on Season of Mist with bands performing folk songs from their home countries in their own way.
One and All, Together, For Home?
Exactly, which is actually a lyric from a Winterfylleth song! So that was one idea we had. The other was a cover version of a Hate Forest song, ‘The Gates’, when we did our third album, The Threnody of Triumph. We initially did it for ourselves again, and I sent it to Roman to see what he would think of it, and he ended up really liking it. He told me they were actually thinking of doing something with their influences, so that’s how the split came to be. They had three relatively short tracks of bands they were into when they were getting started, and we had the cover of “The Gates”, which is really long, so it felt right to do it on the side of a 12″ each. This was cool, because I think they’d never trusted another band to do a split before, although of course by now they’ve done it more often.
With you mentioning them as an influence, are you heavily into the Slavic sound? Because I do notice a lot of similarity between the way you approach black metal and the way Eastern European bands have been doing it for a long time. Not just in sound but also in structure.
Undoubtedly there is some influence there, I wouldn’t deny that. It definitely had an influence on the way we write our songs. But what we’ve done is that we took that and brought in some of our other influences, bring in some of the folk tradition from the UK, and try to turn that into something that is our own. I think what we’ve done more than what any other band has done, with the exception of Bathory, is getting really deep into the vocal stuff. So, layered choral vocals, sung choruses — things that are usually handled with keyboards. We’ve tried to replace that part as much as possible on our albums with vocal harmonies that we could also do live, bringing back some of the Gregorian monk chant-type stuff from early music. That’s what tends to make the music more of our own than just a culmination of our metal influences. Regarding structure, I’ve always liked music that flows, and never quite got why some other bands feel the need to twist and turn in music all the time. A band like Opeth, which I like, are especially guilty of this, in particular on their oft-praised early albums. It’s sort of stop-starty in a sense that an idea shoots off here and an idea shoots off there. These ideas on their own are good, but I’ve always found it really disjointed. I prefer it when music flows and moves from one place to the next with ease. And I probably credit that to bands like Bolt Thrower, even though they’re not really black metal. They’ve already had a sense of flowing and movement in their material. I can really hear that influence in our own music. And that mixes with the Slavic style of playing, and our internal style. Together, that makes us what we are.
Actually one of my questions was whether we could expect more of the acoustic/folk material that’s been present in modest amounts on some of your albums and the compilation album with Drudkh, like an EP or a full-length. But you mentioned earlier you are currently writing an acoustic album.
Correct. To expand on that a bit, there’s always been an undercurrent of us writing those type of songs, so I don’t think it’s beyond the limits of what Winterfylleth’s audience is used to. In fact, if you took all the acoustic songs from our previous material and put them together, there’s probably enough material to make an album. So for us to do this, it just emerges from a desire to challenge ourselves a little bit. It’s always good to be versatile in what you write, but rather than doing an electronic album we wanted to do something that is Winterfylleth, that explores those same atmospheres, emotions and themes, but in a different manner. Particularly Nick Wallwork, who is the bass player of our band (which is hilarious, because he’s probably the best guitar player of the band as well), has written a lot of great material on the acoustic guitar. So we’ve had ideas like this floating around for years, so we decided we should make an album out of it. And then Dan Capp came into the band, who has a project called Wolcensmen that plays acoustic, folky music in a very different way than Winterfylleth does, but it just felt it was the right thing to do together, because we were all in that frame of mind.
Is the album going to consist of just your own material, or are you planning to do some traditional songs as well?
At the moment we only have original material. At the latest count we’ve had about 14 or 15 songs written. I think we’re just going to exhaust all of our ideas and pick the best songs from our own ideas. There wasn’t really a desire to do traditional stuff, because we’ve done that already on the folk compilation.
In my experience Britain, despite naming the genre through Venom, has been a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to black metal. But now we have Winterfylleth and White Medal getting a fair share of attention, and tons of more obscure but also noteworthy projects such as the now defunct Ashes, with which you were also briefly involved. Is it accurate to say British black metal is flourishing as of late?
Depending on how close you look, I think it’s very much flourishing at the moment, and I’m really pleased with that. Back when Winterfylleth got started about 10 years ago, there was barely any black metal coming from the UK other than a handful of early bands, like Cradle of Filth, who by their own admission were much more influenced by the Scandinavian second wave. They probably fit into that scene more if we’re talking about the way these bands sounded rather than their location. I do think that since then, Winterfylleth and a handful of other bands have made the UK much more prolific: projects like Wodensthrone, Forefather, Fen, A Forest of Stars ignited or re-ignited an interest in UK black metal. With our collective bands growing and spreading our influences, I do think there is now a stage for UK black metal bands to come through and be taken seriously. It’s good that there’s more bands coming through.
So why has it taken this long? Why isn’t black metal something typically British? I’m asking because I once heard a professor — whose name currently escapes me — theorize that the British have too much of a sense of humor to take the allegedly humorless black metal style seriously. Though I must add that in my opinion this is a bit unfair because Britain is not the only nation with a sense of humor, and there are certainly bands out there that take the piss and still write great black metal.
I have met a lot of those academics, and sometimes I like what they do, while at other times their opinions should be taken with a pinch of salt. They’ve got to keep publishing to keep their place, so they sometimes end up rationalizing things that may not need to be rationalized. I’m not sure if it has something to do with a sense of humor. Perhaps it has more to do with our media often being very negative about being British, saying that our flags should be considered symbols of hatred, or things to be scorned. Maybe that’s chipped away at people’s sense of pride, sense of culture, and national identity. Meanwhile, a lot of the black metal I’ve done is about the expression of music through culture, and aspects of folklore and history. Those early bands never really did that, and it was much more about evil, Satan and nihilism, whereas now it has more to do with history, culture and heritage, and how they impact people’s lives in the world. I hope that this is why we are where we are, because people have gotten more socially and culturally aware. There’s been some huge political changes around the world, and particularly in the UK over the past couple of years. Things are becoming more polarized, which is causing damaged and has helped lots of crazy concepts into the world, like safe spaces and all this kind of stuff. And I wonder, is this regressive or progressive? I tend to think that it’s the former. I think we’re losing sight of ourselves in some way, and having a knowledge of history and where you come from, and relating the knowledge of our ancestors to the struggles of the present is a really positive way to look at who you are. I think that bands like ourselves have risen above the pack in some ways, because we’ve never been afraid to stand behind that, whereas others hid from it in fear of being called racist, xenophobic, etc. It is important to resist those accusations, because it is very damaging if the idea creeps into our psyche that we should be ashamed of who we are and where we come from. The fact that we’ve been able to put out our music for the past 10 years does show that there’s people out there who feel the same way, and are glad that they now have someone representing them. And of course there are now loads of bands popping up with a similar approach, which is good because we have such a rich history that there’s space for everyone to explore it in their own way.
The Divination of Antiquity received a huge amount of praise in the press and I think it succeeded in introducing you to a new audience. High praise comes with high expectations. Did this flash through your mind at all when creating the album? Like “oh my God I hope this doesn’t get torn apart by a bunch of pedantic reviewers”?
Luckily not. If I were worried about what 50-60 journalists thought about our album, that could make me a very shallow individual. The way I view it is that we write music that we, the members of the band, like. We write riffs that we get excited about, and we try to be self-critical to a point where we make sure we do something great. We’ve all heard bands go off the deep end and release rubbish albums. We’re musicians, but we’re also listeners of music, analysts of music, and we do feel bands should listen to other bands. For example (not to call them out because they’re one of my favorites), I love the band Isis (from the US). They released a few amazing albums, and then they did an album called In the Absence of Truth, which is probably the worst album in their discography. And then they came back, did another album and it sounded great again. So you should be cautious about these things and write albums that live up to your own discography; you owe it to yourself. You have got to know, as a band, when you’re doing something that isn’t great. Like Bolt Thrower, who in 2005 put out an amazing album called Those Once Loyal, tried to follow it up with another album but realised it didn’t measure up, so they cancelled the release. I like it when bands show that kind of integrity, and I hope — whether people agree with me or not — that we also have integrity as a band, as we try not to put anything out that doesn’t measure up to our own fandom of music. To come back to your original point, I like it when other people like our music, but if someone who’s a journalist hates it, I won’t lose any sleep about it. Not everyone likes the same stuff, and it’d be a pretty boring place if they did.
Many thanks to Chris Naughton for his time.