Going in-depth with German frontman ahead of the band's release of 'Wish To Leave'.
Looking outward to break from routine may be an uncomfortable decision to make, but change can be good and so can the life that awaits afterwards. For LUNAR SHADOW mastermind Max Birbaum, it comes down to reaching out for the things you wish for no matter the cost. It's as the saying goes, if you try and fail congratulations because most people don't even try. This strong desire for abandon the confines of comfort is a prevalent theme throughout his band's forthcoming opus, the wondrous 6-track beauty that is Wish To Leave.
Arriving on March 19th via Cruz Del Sur Music, Wish To Leave is an experience well adorned by a Denis Forkas dream study that pushes audiences towards self-improvement, an achievement fulfilled through post-punk. Though it departs from LUNAR SHADOW's otherwise crushing heavy metal, the record excels at showcasing Birbaum and co.'s musical craftsmanship. Lush guitar melodies and swooning vocals become one with the Robert E. Howard inspired lyricism that drives Birbaum's need for new circumstances. Wish To Leave replaces electrifying sonics for soul and together with the Forkas illustration it pairs with, becomes one of 2021's early year-end contenders.
To prepare for the arrival of Wish To Leave, we talk to Max Birbaum and dissect the conceptual journey that he has so eloquently pioneered:
Lunar Shadow have never taken the easy route when it comes to the visual representation of the music. Whether it be Thomas Cole’s wondrous use of atmosphere on ‘Far From Light’ (2017) or Adam Burke’s flaming intensity on ‘The Smokeless Fires (2019), your album covers have always spoke volumes of the investment you put into your craft. How important do you feel this particular element of a release is in conveying the messages you’ve set forth on the record?
Birbaum: The visual aspects of an album are extremely important, I am almost tempted to say equally important to the music because it’s not only frequencies, tunes, sounds that form an album but also the artwork, the lyrics, and even the photos of the band. I remember years ago when I bought “Awaken the Guardian” (1986) by Fates Warning for the first time. The cover instantly got me, I looked at it and it seemed to prepare me for what was to follow. Space, time, travel, other dimensions, gems, magic, wonder, how awesome! Everything in one artwork. When I then saw the band photos, there's this guy with an open leather jacket, long hair and his name is “Frank X. Aresti”, how cool is that? It adds so much to the mystery of this whole album, and then you start listening to the music and let yourself sink in.
It’s the same with me. This (Fates Warning is just one example, there are several) really made a strong impression on me and I always knew that I wanted to combine the music and the visual aspects of my art. Therefore, right from the beginning, I always invested a lot of time and money into our photos because they are to represent everything this band stands for. Nobody wants to see a bunch of people who lean against a wall, hands in their pockets and dressed as if they just woke up. That’s boring and I often wished bands would understand this a little bit better, how important visual representation is. The same with all those terrible CGI-Digital-Album-Artworks out there.
The promo photos for this release are definitely unique. Going deeper into your visual investment, Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos even played a role in illustrating the 4-page insert of the physical release for ‘The Smokeless Fires’. Again, there’s a meticulous attention to detail when it comes to Lunar Shadow’s presentation. With streaming being the dominant method of consuming music nowadays, do you feel as though some of this detail is lost to those who choose not to engage with the material physically?
Birbaum: Only up to a certain point. I will be honest, I also feel that I am able to be artistic and visual with digital music, because there too I can work with artworks and photos. But it’s true that I usually put some extra-effort into the physical releases, because I’ve got different possibilities and options, things I can do, for instance with the booklets, as you mentioned or posters or other physical extras. Though I must say that this time, all in the spirit of this album, I decided to keep it as simple as possible. There is a relatively “spare” layout, no posters, no extras, no coloured vinyls. Everything is stripped down to its core. Everything is exposed, as it is.
There's beauty in that simplicity. Let's jump into the upcoming ‘Wish To Leave’. Like the predecessor, ‘Wish To Leave’ harnesses from the works of American author Robert E. Howard, except this time, it explores love and the complexity of relationships through an escapist lens. Where’ The Smokeless Fires’ saw passion, ‘Wish To Leave’ sees isolation, focusing a bit more on the self rather than the fire created by relationship. You could say this distinction is even visible in the album covers. What sparked the conceptual approach this time around?
Birbaum: Yes, good point. I sometimes get this strong feeling of being alone, even when I am surrounded by people because at some point, you always return back home, you go to bed, and there is silence everywhere. This whole artwork, with a person that seems to be drowning in splendour, I instinctively saw a strong connection with the atmosphere of the album I had in mind.
Yet, it’s important for me to note that the term “Wish To Leave” to me doesn’t imply strong negative feelings, as you might think maybe. To me, it is rather a symbol of change, of leaving old things behind, of working on yourself. I’ve done that a lot in the last years. Always challenge yourself, question yourself, train, read, always forward, towards the person that you want to be with the people surrounding you that you want to have in your life. It means trying not to despair, even if you feel alone at times and lost. There is something, something I want to achieve and someone I want to be, and sometimes you need to leave things behind in order to become that person.
Agreed. Great words of wisdom, Max. In terms of the cover art, you’ve partnered with the talented Denis Forkas, utilizing his ‘Dream of the Twelfth Labour’ (2017) dream study. Visually, what inspired the transition to Denis rather than any other artist? Perhaps a previous cover or work of his?
Birbaum: I have indeed been a fan of his art a few years back and always kept him on the list in my head. I think I noticed him for the first time when he did that artwork for Wolves In The Throne Room ("Thrice Woven", 2017). When I saw his Dream-study “Dream of the Twelfth Labour” (2017), I instantly knew that this had to be the artwork for the new album. I knew it right away and I’m glad it worked out. He was extremely helpful and friendly when it came to licensing the artwork.
As mentioned, the painting wasn’t commissioned. It was rather a licensing of the dream study that found Denis as an adolescent Heracles in search of Cerberus to complete the Twelfth Labour, as if to enter a new reality by unleashing hell upon it. Greek mythology is always interpreted in different ways by the consumer and referenced as applicable, as it should. Where did you find a connection with the painting in relation to the record?
Birbaum: I felt like the person on this artwork (to me personally it’s not necessarily Heracles) is struggling for something, it is reaching out for something and there is nectar or ichor pouring out, or maybe that person is even drowning in petals, in purple flowers. Those were the first impressions and abstract thoughts I personally got from this artwork, it’s different for every person of course. I felt that this person is struggling alone, wanting to leave something old behind, wanting change. You can either reach those things you wish for or you drown and perish in the way. There is no in-between.
Denis Forkas' description of the dream study (source):
"In my dream I am adolescent Heracles having a prophetic dream about the twelfth labour. In search for the putrid Avernus I travel far south. The further I go the thicker the fog gets but there’s no stench to guide me to the entrance – on the contrary, I’m treated to the most exotic flower fragrance. After a while I spot a source of light in the mist and it soon leads me to a lavender field with a decorated crystal coffer towering above it. Inside the coffer there’s an enormous shriveled corpse – its chest being consumed by smokeless fire in complete silence. I realize this is the entrance to Hades I’ve been after and rejoice. Without delay I shatter the coffer and immediately wake up into the darkness of hell – as a naked youth. I remember a woman laughing in front of me. The shock breaks the spell and I wake up again marveling about the idea of unleashing hell upon the world as the only means of entering it."
Interesting. Seeing as the painting proves to be the ideal representation of the themes and concepts you present on ‘Wish To Leave’, did it play any part in the creation of the record or was it a mere coincidence that Denis had a painting in his portfolio where the audiovisual components aligned?
Birbaum: It was a coincidence, as mentioned. I just felt that it had to be this artwork.
It's a hell of a coincidence. Lyrically, your surroundings played a key role in the development of the lyrics on the record, everything from the dark Leipzig alleys to the dirt and broken glass along the sidewalks. Personally, how has the record served as a conduit for reflection?
Birbaum: I feel that the most prominent change in writing lyrics this time was, that for the first time, I allowed things of my everyday life to enter the lyrics for my band. This never happened before in such a way. I always wrote about how I felt about certain things, but this time, I wrote about simple things that actually happened, like sitting in my favourite bar with a special person, there’s Rory Gallagher being played in the background, and we leave as the others continue to drink as the night is getting old. It was a different approach that was really interesting for me. I had a lot of fun doing some of those lyrics. Also, this time the writing process was much more “direct”. Listen to “To Dusk And I Love You”, some of these lines were written shortly after actually seeing someone, I just picked up a pen and noted down ideas, how I felt. I wanted to conserve these moments like that, locked in this song, where they stay fresh and watered.
Incredible how these small interactions found their way into the record, even if subconsciously. Sonically, the record is a huge deviation from ‘The Smokeless Fires’, which can be of course met by some pushback by fans who were drawn in to your previous, more black and power metal leaning approach. Do you feel as though this evolution was necessary in fulfilling your own creative ambitions?
Birbaum: Yes, definitely. Thing is, “Wish To Leave” is an album that I basically didn’t want to do. After “The Smokeless Fires”, I was so burnt out and weary that I was absolutely determined to end the band at this point. I wrote “I Will Lose you” and “To Dusk and I love you” for a solo-project of mine in which I wanted to record all the instruments and even do the vocals, but for several reasons, it didn’t work out at that time and so I said, “Okay, let’s just use these songs for Lunar Shadow, they sound different, sure, but who will be surprised by this anymore?” “Delomelanicon” and “And Silence Screamed” are older songs and I was already writing “Serpents Die” and “The Darkness Between the Stars” at that time, and so I looked at the whole situation and thought, “Fuck! Now I’ve basically got enough material for an album, so let’s just do another album, who cares…"
It sounds different, because I don’t really listen to classic Heavy Metal anymore, or not much. The classics, sure, always have, always will, but I really get out of touch with new releases, because a) there are just too many these days, it’s impossible to listen to everything and b) it doesn’t really interest me anymore. I like to listen to bands like Interpol these days, which to me were some kind of second awakening in the last years. “Turn on the Bright Lights” (2002) really had a huge impact on me and showed me whole new spectrum of music and thus, I just couldn’t write a classic Heavy Metal album. That wouldn’t have worked. It would have been fake, you would have noticed that it’s fake. Lunar Shadow sounds like myself and what I cherish. That’s good for people who like some variety and bad for those who want more classic Lunar-Shadow-Heavy Metal-albums, haha.
I am reaching limits, though. I’m not alone in this band, the other guys got the same rights like everyone else in Lunar Shadow. I am neither a dictator nor a narcissist. I’m the only one who is into this whole Indie Rock thing and if I’d push it on (which would probably happen, as explained above), we’d probably get problems with the musical direction and the ideas of the single members regarding Lunar Shadow. So, we’ll have to see what the future brings for this band. I can’t tell yet.
You’re a completely different entity here and it comes as organic, not forcefully incorporating elements for the sake of doing so. The indie/post-punk approach might not be as far fetched, especially given the strong contemporary standing of both genres. What drove this particular direction? Were there any significant sonic influences?
Birbaum: You know, I too think that it still sounds like Lunar Shadow, and that’s pretty understandable if you think about it because I just got a certain way of writing songs. I can’t just throw everything aboard over night and start doing Hardcore Jazz with trumpets. I can’t turn everything around, so these new elements usually blend in with the classic elements and form something new.
I already mentioned Interpol. When it comes to newer bands, I also like Editors, DIIV, Soviet Soviet, or White Lies and then there’s the classics like The Chameleons (“Script of the Bridge”, 1983), Fields of the Nephilim, or The Sound. This of course shapes my ideas of music when I listen to those a lot: clean or slightly distorted guitars, much reverb, prominent bass.
It's always great to learn of the diverse sound palette that somehow influences a record. ‘Wish To Leave’ is a treat for those looking for something refreshing. Visually, it’s entrancing and sparks curiosity for those looking to dissect the layers among the details. That said, was there ever an album, book, or even movie cover that has had the impact of making you pick it up without having prior knowledge of it?
Birbaum: Of course, it happens all the time. As you noticed I am a very visual person, I even work at the Academy of Fine Arts over here in Leipzig. I handle art every day, paintings, drawings, photography, installations. So, I often for instance buy books when the artwork is intriguing. I mostly buy them second hand and most of the time the contents stood the test, though not always, haha. My apartment is full of books, it’s a bit hysterical sometimes. The same with album covers, though I must say that I don’t buy that much physical music myself anymore these days, only some chosen releases. I’ve changed my approach on this too, I don’t have the same problems anymore to buy digital releases I had some years ago. Surprisingly, I’m not a huge movie-fan or expert, I can’t really explain why.
Where do you feel that ‘Wish To Leave’ stands in the contemporary world, given the constant sociopolitical turmoil we’re subjected to?
Birbaum: That’s a difficult question. I thought about this for some time now and decided to just stick with the thing that came to my mind first, that’s often the best choice: I’d say just treat this album as your way out of all this, at least for 36 minutes. The world we live in is indeed in turmoil, there are political battles, extremists on the rise everywhere, there is a pandemic. Social issues are getting stronger every day. I don’t want to tell you to turn your head and look away, not at all. I just want to offer you some kind of refuge, when you want to get to rest for a little time from the world and its inhabitants.
As someone who sometimes has a longing desire to leave everything behind you, how has music played a role in leveraging some of these feelings, if at all?
Birbaum: I am just thankful, that I’ve got this instrument of expression. I just wouldn’t know what I did if I couldn’t write down my struggles and the things I feel or think. Maybe I’d start abstract painting. Naked. I’m getting good ideas for future releases here at this very moment…
Wish To Leave arrives on March via Cruz Del Sur Music. Order your copy HERE.