Confronting change & pain en masse.
Words Rohan (@manvsplaylist):
Ahead of the release of AMENRA's seventh studio album, titled De Doorn (landing June 25, 2021), we had the chance to connect with band's founding member, vocalist, and lyricist Colin H. van Eeckhout to gain some of his insights to the new record and everything else that has been going on in the band & beyond:
Thanks for joining us today, Colin. I want to start with just a big picture question to get us rolling: with the onset of the release of a new record, how are you feeling on the way things have come together for this new release?
CHvE: We’re relieved that it’s set in motion, it’s always exciting when the thing gets rolling, when it’s out there, and you get a little feedback on how it’s received. We’re very happy. There’s been a lot of change for this album. In the past, it’s maybe been one little thing, but here, it’s a couple of them together, so you always ask yourself how anything’s gonna turn out.
Were those changes a long time in the making or was it brought about by an end to touring cycles? What was the major impetus for some of these changes?
CHvE: There weren’t any abrupt changes, or necessary changes, nothing that we hadn’t seen coming. As for the change in member, Tim had been playing with us since 2017, he’s been like the official bass player for around the last year or so, and he’s already been playing with us pretty much for 2 years. We asked him to join us while we were creating new stuff and then pretty much after all these years, both parties agreed that it might be a good idea for each to go its own way without having to deal with conflicted agendas all the time. So everybody is happy, and a new member always brings a new energy and a certain drive to get things moving, and to get to be a part of the band. It’s a good energy that also feeds us, its nice to have someone new and enthusiastic in the circle that kind of pulls us into his positive approach. Not only just play songs that have been written decades ago, but also create a new chapter and work towards the future – it definitely inspires.
I understand Lennart was the primary songwriter for this new album.
CHvE: Yes – he was the main writer for this one.
Was it his vision to bring in Caro to sing on these tracks given the way they work together on Oathbreaker? Was this something he had in mind from the outset?
CHvE: Yes it was, they have done a lot together. We always like to have different voices on an album, and I especially like the complementary vocals of male and female on one record, I really like the dynamics of that. In my opinion, you kind of tell a more complete story then, it’s not just testosterone driven, it’s more balanced. As it was in Flemish, it automatically came to us that maybe we should ask Caro to at least do something, and put a stamp on there. It’s an extra force of nature that we have on the album, it’s really nice, it gives it an extra dynamic.
The results are incredible.
CHvE: Yeah – just when you think everything has reached its full potential then Caro comes in and tears it another way. It’s super to have someone on board who can do that!
In choosing to write this album entirely in Flemish, was that something that you had in mind when you began writing, or something that you put into place once you heard the music that was going to lie underneath that?
CHvE: It was pretty much from the beginning that I already knew. I’d already taken the first steps. The first song and the first riffs for this album were pretty much written probably right after Mass VI (2017) came out. We were writing for these commemoration events that we were commissioned for by the Flemish government, to write an event to commemorate the ending of the First World War, and as that was a local thing, that was why I went for the Flemish. I was assuming that there were going to be 90% of the people there that spoke our language, so that’s how it originated. Already on the last album, Mass VI, there’s already Flemish poetry in between some songs, so the seed was already planted and I started seeing the potential in the use of my own mother tongue.
From a non-native speaker’s ears, it really brings about a great vehicle for some fantastic phrasings, punctuations, and patters that take on a strong percussive quality.
CHvE: It’s hard to just judge your own language by the sound, because you can’t disconnect it from the content. So, we were kind of scared about it in the beginning. I know I like certain bands that I can’t understand a word of what they’re saying, and that doesn’t really stop me, but I couldn’t judge the average Amenra follower for example, that has been used to hearing us for the most part singing in English. So, we were sure of ourselves that we had made something truthful and genuine and the timing was there, but it didn’t mean we weren’t anxious to know what people were going to think of it.
You’ve also taken lot of effort into creating an equally poetic English translation of these songs, which can be difficult to impart a translation that reflects both depth of meaning and rhyming qualities.
CHvE: Absolutely! I wouldn’t want someone just go and throw it into Google Translate! It’s already hard enough to try to translate poetry or song lyrics to begin with! Even when they are translated literally they often sound kind of lame. We got them translated by two professionals who are used to translating poetry and then made my own version of it to try and come as close as I possibly could to what was intended, but it was hard!
Do you have a preferred method of creating lyrical concepts? Do they being in a certain language and then evolve or are they usually originally penned in English?
CHvE: I was used to writing in English and I try to read as many English books as I could to try to broaden my vocabulary. I always wrote in English and started from that pretty much, but the theme or subject matter of Amenra albums is pretty much always the same. Same pattern or atmosphere, so it becomes hard to come up with a new angle to look at the same topic. So, I had the impression that I ran out of my limited vocabulary sometimes. It’s sad, but along the way, I realized that perhaps some things were better said in another language. Like, if the same sentence is translated in several languages, there is always one language that stands out and gives it a more poetic and deeper meaning or it sounds more like what it's intended to be. So, it's interesting to work with those different possibilities. It gives you more to play with, more building blocks.
Visually, you’re renowned for taking an iconic image steeped in or burdened by historic meaning and twisting it slightly to give it new purpose or identity. Religious imagery doesn’t come much more symbolic that the crown of thorns. For you what does this cover art and the album title represent to you?
CHvE: That’s a cool thing - we’ve been using so much religious iconography through the years that people automatically assume that the crown of thorns was the angle that we wanted to use here, but it wasn’t really the case! It was actually the thorn by itself that I was fascinated by. I like the idea of nature growing itself its own weapon, its own natural weapon. Like a flower can protect its own beauty, a plant has a possibility to protect its seeds or its fruit, and I love that idea and that image and the form of all these different thorns. I portrayed that idea on to humans, that humans also can grow their own thorns throughout life to protect themselves from harm and whoever wants to cause them any harm. So each of us has their own type of thorns and also carries on them the wounds and the scars that have been inflicted by another person's thorns throughout their lives. That was the idea that I embraced for this album. From that grew the idea to make a piece of art.
The one that is on this album is the studies for the actual artwork for the different thorn branches that were spray painted in gold. As soon as something is gold, it becomes valuable to a human, it becomes something precious; while as if it’s in its natural color, it’s only a branch, no one sees it for what it is. So, it’s also kind of a metaphor: you have to see things for what they are, everything is valuable, the smallest things can be the most valuable thing in your life. That’s kind of the big idea about the artwork, the image and the title, “The Thorn”.
Conceptually, I understand this album was born of a community experience in 2019 where there was a shedding & honoring of unacknowledged losses. As we stand here in 2021 now, with what the world has gone through, I don’t think there’s ever been a level and scale of human trauma, pain, and impact which is both tangible and unacknowledged as an individual or as a community, as the world is experiencing today.
CHvE: For our generation, for westerners, yeah it’s the wildest thing we have ever encountered, for sure.
So with that said, I’m interested in getting your responses to 2 questions with recognition of that fact. Firstly - how did you view your “role” in those community events in 2019?
CHvE: I am honored I can be part of this. It’s hard to talk about these things without a kind of reverence and I don’t want to sound stuck up, or being full of myself, but they were beautiful, memorable moments. Out here in Flanders where I live in Belgium, there aren’t really those type of moments any more where people come together on the square for an experience. It’s not a carnival or anything, but something archaic, ancient almost, like to gather people around a big fire. We don’t have that type of thing here, we don’t have anything that gets us together or brings us in to a “primal state”. Fire really awakens a certain instinctive feeling in a human, it’s a weird abstract matter to talk about, but people are drawn to fire. It’s beautiful as it is destructive, it’s as healing and warming as it is negative. It’s a very intriguing element, and especially in the light of it being a ritual and the event being spread over a couple of weeks where the sculpture and statue were in the restaurant of the city’s art center. People could come in and put in their notes, and then that thing moved procession-like towards the city park, and people were still running up to it and still asking, “Can I please put another paper in there?!” We were blown away by the fact that people were so positive, so open to it, wanting to be involved in it. That blew our minds. It was a gamble almost, like maybe the thing (statue) would’ve been there for two weeks and there would have been five fuckin' papers in there or whatever, you know??!! You don’t know! Maybe people might’ve thought it’s ridiculous or whatever, but we tried. It turned out that there are actually people who cared about it and that actually have the urge to really get rid of something.
We want to hand them the possibility to actively do something with that thought or that thing that lives inside them, and actively get rid of it physically by burning a dumb piece of paper, but it can mean something or trigger something in getting rid of that negative thing in their life. So, it was fuckin' beautiful to be able to organize those things. You feel it on those evenings. Everyone was silent. There was like a thousand people there and everyone there is just silent and gazing at the flames while we played the score to it. We addressed the fire, we addressed the night, and addressed the people who were there, and we talked about not being afraid of the fire and how we had to burn that solitude and burn that silence. It’s hard to describe, it all sounds a little stupid, but I’m happy I was a part of it. I am thankful that I can be a facilitator in that thing.
No, not at all, I think your description sounds incredible and certainly conveys a lot of the emotion and meaning behind those events. Then as a second part to that initial question, with this baggage that we are now that we are all carrying, on a global scale, I wonder whether that changes any type of condition in which your audience is now hearing your new music for the first time?
CHvE: The thing is, what we have lived through now this last year was an enforced solitude, an enforced silence, an enforced absence of human warmth, of friends being close, of pretty much things that are necessary for a human to be intrinsically happy. In a way, all of our albums work around that concept. There is loss of something, there is a sense of mourning, there is a sense of sadness in pretty much all the albums that we’ve done. So now, the timing was right for us. We could’ve saved it 'til the whole pandemic was over. That might’ve been tactical so we could play shows more easily and sell records or whatever. I’m not going to say “it was ideal timing”, but it makes sense. It makes sense lyric wise, even though 80% of the lyrics were already written before all this, but seen in the given context, it all makes more sense. There is a need for that type of music.
I want to talk a little about your own vocal style and your delivery. Can you first describe to me the process of how you “found” your vocal style and when you felt you got comfortable with it?
CHvE: Like every human being that hears their voice recorded, you kinda cringe when you hear it! Still, I always tend to hesitate and I always tend to feel that everybody else is doing a way better job than I am, but I think for a vocalist, it’s important to be able to be sure about yourself. It’s hard if that’s not intrinsically a character trait of yours. Through the years, I slowly but surely grew balls and got persuaded that it was ok, and I just went from there. It’s a very long process, and it’s cool to start off with a screaming voice at 16 years old and then evolve and suddenly there’s other types of vocals and voices growing in your head as you listen to the instrumental songs. You then start trying those things and then hesitate some more and then you keep growing.
Is it possible to articulate the feeling of just screaming your lungs out? It’s something any of us can do anytime we wish, but it’s a release that I feel very few people actually embrace. We can all do that, but so few of us actually do it!
CHvE: I think about that a lot! It’s something unique, especially the way I have different worlds. There’s the world on stage and then you have the world in the studio. In the studio, there is a sense of accomplishment when you realize you have been able to get “the shot” when the moment was right and the delivery was at your best. You were able to do what you wanted. You feel this sense of, accomplishment isn’t the right word, but you feel like you have reached something that was pretty much impossible because luck has to be on your side as well: you’ve got five individuals where all the pieces have to fall together in that moment, and that doesn’t happen a lot, nor does it happen on every record or on every song. If you have a couple of moments like that in there, then you really have a good album, and that’s what you strive for as a musician: those moments where you feel like you may be able to draw a tear from someone’s eye or give them goosebumps, then you realize you’ve touched the magic “thing”!
Then on stage, especially the type of music that we are doing, it can make you feel invincible, and that’s kind of weird! There’s no other thing that I can imagine that does that. Maybe it’s comparable to sports perhaps and winning a competition where you feel you excelled, but it’s still different, I think. In our case, you have volume, you have extreme amounts of volume that creates a sense of power, a force, where you have these five friends of yours that kind of change into a force of nature! It sounds stupid to say it out loud, but it feels that way!!
No, not at all! I can tell you that’s exactly how it feels that way when you’re standing in the crowd and you see and hear your show! I can vouch for that.
CHvE: Then at other times, you can feel during a silent passage with clean sung vocals, you know there are thousands of people in the room, but you can’t hear them. When everybody is holding their breath at the same moment – that is magical! You cannot compare that to anything. It’s unnatural for thousands of humans to be in a room and be dead silent. It’s super unnatural. So, that makes it an experience that is somewhat incomparable to anything else. It’s weird. I’m just thankful: we fall to our knees and throw our hands in the sky realizing that we are lucky to be part of this thing.
Are you getting close to having new tour packages lined up?
CHvE: So, there’s a theoretical tour going on in September / October with the Japanese band Envy, but it’s still unclear if they will even be able to get out here, and then it all depends on what each country decides on being “cultural events”. At the summer, there will be some odd open air things happening here in Belgium, and we’ll take whatever we can just like every other band probably. As things will still be seated and limited capacity (at indoor events), then we only want to play the acoustic songs because they make sense in that setting. The heavy set just doesn’t make sense in that setting, so we want to wait 'til we can do the thing as it should be done. So we’ll see.
We have all had to change the way we experience and engage with live music now over these past 12 months, and to me as a fan it’s opened my eyes to the streaming option. Again, with your own artistic vision, SEEING your band perform is an experience, both live in the room and on screen. Do you think you’ll embrace the world of streaming in any capacity going forward? Do you see a place in “the market” going forward for more live streaming events and shows?
CHvE: I am pretty sure there is, but the only downside is that it’s not really nice for a musician to make them. They kind of suck to make, you feel like you’re acting. It feels you’re just trying to do something, not really doing it you know, if that makes sense. A viewer probably doesn’t realize that much, actually, because you don’t see the artificial making of it. Music and concerts are very much a human contact induced “thing”. There is definitely a certain energy, the atmosphere in the room, the silences that are shared by everyone there, it does something to the moment. Would I sign up to do these things every month? Preferably not, but there is a future for this kind of stuff! For example, if we have a special event planned that can only take a thousand people, we’d be able to film it and stream it so that someone that lives in Indonesia or Japan can at least see it as well.
I do think bands should try to make it more interesting that just a camera aimed at the stage to give it that kind of different experience. In our case, you’re able to at least see us more in “daylight” or in another setting that is different, experience-wise. I am pretty sure it will live on, it will find its way into the normal concert world. I think it will make it almost like the “globalization” of concerts.
I had a chance to see you a couple of times on the 2 most recent US tours you did together with Neurosis & Converge. Those will go down as some of the heaviest live experiences I’ve ever had! Can you give me an example of a lesson or point of inspiration that you took from each band during those tours?
CHvE: Of course! Even before touring with them, they have been inspiring us way before we have come to know them. When I look at Converge for example, they are one of the very first ones that started mixing up a personal emotional type of music with a heavier and harsher sound. You had the lyrics of Jake that were beautiful and that were really beautifully written and really thought through, and he was a prolific artist and he decided on how every album would look and feel and they really had a strong identity, and they were driven! They gave it 100% on stage and that inspired us, definitely, along the way when we were 20 years old! Then you had Neurosis – they said it themselves in one of their lines or mottos: “Strength and Vision”. That sums it up for me! That is also what is important for us, it's something they have handed out to us. Their motto has also become ours and they have inspired us so so much. They have shown us the true capacity and feral possibilities of music: you’re able to create a BEAST! You’re able to create something that builds a force inside you, and a strength, that’s the kind of band that can make you feel invincible. If you go running and you put Neurosis in, you’re gonna go twice as hard and run twice as long! That’s the stuff that inspires us.
I remember them telling me, I can’t recall if it was Steve or Scott talking to me about how they get testimonies or letters with peoples’ stories. There was this military guy who got both his legs blown off by a landmine or something and then he mailed them and said, “Your music gave me the power to rehabilitate, and to gather my courage to get over this and learn to walk again." I mean, shit, that is probably THE biggest reward and the foremost most beautiful compliment that you can get of someone, that your music can mean so much to someone at some point! So, they’re friendship when they’re on the road has meant so much, they are friends and that is beautiful to see, how 50 year-ols can still be the same as they were as 17 year-olds forming the band. It was amazing to be on that bill for us, it was nuts! Both bands inspiring us, and without either one of them we wouldn’t be what we are now! Then, to get recognition from those people and to be seen as peers by them kind of blows your mind as a fan of them!
You’ve recently signed to Relapse Records, and I’m sure seeking to increase your exposure to US audiences was a major consideration for you. Is that something that you’re most excited about with the new home at Relapse?
CHvE: Yeah definitely! When you’re from Europe, it’s like you’re on an island in a way. You can be huge here and unknown somewhere else! It’s interesting because as we are really working with a very universal kind of music, the essence of the thing is very humanistic, I mean very simple actually in a way, it’s pretty much everyone’s story that we’re telling in a simplistic way. So, it’s core human feelings that we address. I’m pretty sure that wherever we play, it will appeal to some people, there’s an audience for this everywhere. So I’d like to, it’s a matter of giving people the opportunity to hear it and I feel not everyone has been given the opportunity to hear it – yet! It doesn’t really matter if they connect with it or not, but I want to give them the opportunity. If it can mean something to someone, then I would like that person to have had the opportunity and for that indeed working with Relapse and with the experience and know-how with their team, it’s very nice for us to have that back up. People who bust their balls for 40 hours a week, everyone with his own specialty, if you have a question they’re there to help you out. It’s really awesome to have a team like that on our side!
Well, we're looking forward to the new album landing and hopefully seeing you back out again here in the States some time in the near future. Thanks for your time talking today and all the best for you and the band with what lies ahead.
CHvE: Absolutely - we'll see you back out there as soon as we can!
De Doorn arrives on June 25th via Relapse Records. Order your copy HERE.