October 13, 2017 Interview – Vorph of Samael
They began before the first throes of what we know of as black metal burned its darkness into our senses, taking cues from the style’s elder gods such as Venom, Possessed, and Hellhammer. They called themselves Samael, and out of the snow-clad nation of Switzerland, they very quickly showed the world that the only rules they would follow were the ones they chose for themselves. Their malicious, hypnotic take on Black Metal had no sooner stormed the underground before it shed its own skin, molting into an industrial, at times tribal-sounding apogee with 1996’s sterling Passage album. The transformation would continue, bringing the darkness of their Satanic origins along with it. At times electronic, at times a hybrid, the creative work of brothers Xy and Vorph has held Samael aloft for three decades.
Recently, we were fortunate enough to reach behind the stars and make contact with the aforementioned Vorph, he whose massive growl has caressed every single Samael album from day one, for a chat about new album Hegemony, and perhaps reveal a few of the secrets hidden by the shadow of their muse . . .
CrypticRock.com – This year, 2017, marks 30 years since the formation of the band Samael. When you started it, did you ever think this band would become your life’s work?
Vorph – Well, somehow yes actually, because once we started to do music together with my brother, we didn’t want to do anything else. We had no idea if it would be this band Samael, or something else. That was our mindset when we started out. I couldn’t have told you what the evolution of the band would be or where we would be 30 years from when we began.
CrypticRock.com – It is cool that you were open-minded about where the journey might take you. On Friday October 13th Samael release their 11th studio album Hegemony. Can you share little bit about what the writing and recording process was like for this album?
Vorph – Yeah, I mean we kept the same formula somehow. He (Xy) did all the music and I took care of the lyrics and my vocal lines. It took us a while to do the album, last one we put out was Lux Mundi in 2011. There was quite a lot happening. We started working on it very early on and we were almost ready by 2013. We had the songs, the structure was already there. We recorded the demo versions and all of that. But then Xy got a fortunate opportunity to compose some music for the city we come from. They gave him a budget, and for the first time in his life he could work with a real orchestra. It took him over a year and a half to compose the music and record it.
That was a dream for Xy and we all support him to do this, but that kind of cut the whole process right in between. We had to come back after and work on the songs. The good thing was we had some distance from the songs and we could look at it and see those songs because you could point to where the weaknesses are. Also Xy had this experience of working with a real orchestra so, for the arrangements for the keyboard, you had more orchestral parts than were in the songs originally.
And then we had a lineup change, our bass player Chris (Masmiseim) left to pursue a career as a light engineer He was doing that for many years but he couldn’t actually do both. And then Drop joined the band, so that was a big change for us. We then decided to do some shows around Ceremony of Opposites (1994), we did four shows in Canada and one in Switzerland. It gave us a chance to have a synergy within the band with the new lineup. And we did that, we started to get propositions from festivals all over Europe, and even the Maryland Deathfest. That took us two years, playing here and there. we were still working on the songs. Until last summer, actually, we finally sat down and said we are going to record this now. And we recorded, mixed it, went into negotiations with labels to release it until we signed with Napalm Records. The whole process took six years. The time goes by so fast.
CrypticRock.com – Interesting that you brought up performing Ceremony of Opposites while shaping the rest of Hegemony. The new album exhibits a lot of the fury and style of that one and its follow-up Passage. Has the spirit from those days been reawakened, and if so, was that deliberate?
Vorph – The core of the songs were already finished by the time we started touring Ceremony of Opposites. Maybe the vocals on Hegemony, when we performed Ceremony I pushed harder on the vocals, and maybe in the studio I pushed the vocal harder on the recording. Actually, I think that’s it.
CrypticRock.com – Having followed Samael’s lyrics very closely, its obvious that in the early days, the themes revolved around some very dark topics, providing arguably the roots of dark, depressive, and suicidal black metal. You probably, inadvertently laid the groundwork for that genre, with the misanthropic content.
By Passage the lyrics reflected the Satanic position of self reliance, being one’s own god (eg. “My Own Savior”). By 1999’s Eternal the lyrics were becoming downright uplifting (eg. “I”). This continued through 2004’s Reign of Light and up to the present day. Can you enlighten us as to why you think your lyrics shifted so smoothly from darkness to light?
Vorph – Well, probably because we change as individuals, that could be part of the reason. Certainly at the time we recorded Ceremony of Opposites I was not in my best days. We all go through periods like that, and that’s another thing to leave behind. You don’t know what’s coming. It was a scary time, I would say. Probably I didn’t want to move forward. Part of it is that the music itself pushed me to take steps in my life. Without the music I don’t know what I would have become. Probably, music saved my life somehow.
But I like, actually, your view on the lyrical evolution. I really follow you and I really agree with what you say. The idea to give hope, to try and take the people up a little bit, I think this is dangerous, and I like it. Instead of telling the people ‘you have no life, there is no hope. Just kill yourself!’ This is exactly what the people in power want you to do, to get rid of you because you are useless for them. So I thought maybe it was a dangerous thing to give hope to the people, and if it’s dangerous I like it.
CrypticRock.com – That is certainly a positive message cloaked in sonic darkness. Such lyrics as ‘Rebel angels fly while other people walk’ (Above, 2009), reflect that sentiment perfectly. Such a great line, a good solid lyric. Musically, you have always been a band who unapologetically pushes forward. To refer to Above, that was the fastest, most unrelenting material you have released. It became more nuanced on 2011’s Lux Mundi, but the new album Hegemony, you can feel a lot of “Jupiterian Vibe” (Passage), that era. After 30 years of history, are you as artists looking for a particular realm of sound that best represents you and your brother, or is each album cycle a representation of where you are at that moment?
Vorph – It’s a bit of both. I think with Lux Mundi we found what we wanted to do. I think before that we were still searching. With Lux Mundi, we found something. I pretty much got the feeling that (with that album) we created the base upon which we built Hegemony. For me Hegemony is the next level for us, it is pretty much based on that album only to connect things we did in the past, I think is the thing that corresponded the most to us.
You mentioned Above. That came from somewhere else. We had those songs for a long time, they were written just after Passage. We were considering doing a side project that we never actually did. We were always mixing and recording two or three songs for it here and there. We thought maybe its not worth pushing this further. It took until 2009 when we had some time and we decided to release it as a Samael album. When it was finished we thought it would be fun and nobody would expect us to do that at this point.
Commercially speaking, it was probably not the best idea. (laughs) The label at the time, Nuclear Blast, thought we would confuse the people a little bit. They were not behind the project. I don’t regret that actually, because songs like “The Truth Is Marching On,” without that a song like ‘Black Supremacy’ would maybe not have been possible. Even though it was a bit shaky and a bit weird to have Above out in the catalogue, I thought well it brings something new onto the table for us in the long term.
CrypticRock.com – Always keeping the fan base on its toes, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all. In your mind, being a veteran band, you see other tenured bands go through it. Iron Maiden goes through it. Everyone goes through it. Do you ever feel pressure to please the old fan base that clamors for Blood Ritual or Ceremony of Opposites etc. or do you just not think about it?
Vorph – Its not that we don’t’ think about it. I think there is a time for everything somehow. For example years ago we took “Baphomet’s Throne” out of our set and we didn’t play it for almost ten years. We knew people were expecting us to play that one but we felt we had enough interesting things to present that we didn’t have to rely on that one. And then I remember Mas and I watching old videos, we were already playing with the drum machine, but we saw that song and said ‘oh man, that’s pretty good.’ It sounds really good, we tried it, and we haven’t taken it out since. I know this is a pleaser for the people, because they know it. Its one we must play somehow. And actually I don’t mind, because you know you’re going to share a good moment when you throw this song in the set. So this is good fun.
CrypticRock.com – Samael strikes a good balance between the old and the new, and it seems like you’ve brought your own fan base with you through the years and the stylistic and thematic changes within the band. You mentioned brand new song “Black Supremacy” before. Not sure if you’re aware, but when you look at the comments in the video, there has been a little bit of an uproar coming from some unenlightened ‘PC police’ with keyboards regarding your use of black paint on your face and skin in the video. Could you shed some light on the inspiration behind the video, its meaning, just to set the record straight?
Vorph – It is so simple, you will be disappointed. (laughs) I wanted to write a song about the color black and that was it. We’ve had songs with black in the title before, but at some point I wanted to do the ultimate song that just dedicates itself to that color. I mean, we dress in black almost every day. Its not like I can’t wear something else but this is always my color of choice. If I had a choice between three different colors I always end up with this. Or sometimes I might try red, but generally speaking its going to be black all the way through. So this is how the idea started. Now, “Black Supremacy,” I knew there was something provocative in that, I understood that. But I thought well, all the more interesting. So you know, I tried to put everything that I felt was pertinent.
I refer to black cross, black square, I was referring to the painter Malevich, (Kazimir Malevich 1878-1935, Russian geometric abstract artist) who is the first guy to paint a black square and say this is my painting. (Black Square, 1915) He’s been cult for so many years. The first time I saw it at an exhibition, even though I knew about the painting, I was so impressed. There is something so radical about it. I threw this reference in the song because it was important to me. But, its all about black. Nothing more. Of course, I understand that some people want to check stuff and say things, well, this is in their head, really.
Once we do a song, once the people got the song, this is their song. They’re going to understand what they want. They’re going to connect anyway they want. We don’t have the same experience. We all connect differently to things, such as books, movies, a song, they are going to see what they want to see in it. If these people want to see a racist thing in it, well, I mean, either way, they are probably not so sure themselves about where they stand, or they want to be the moral police or something. Either way, fuck them.
CrypticRock.com – Absolutely agree with that last sentiment. That is the main point, absolutely. People can make it so hard on musicians with this type of lack of understanding. Getting back to music, particularly your origins, is it true you and Xy’s parents were musicians? Is that how you got started playing?
Vorph – My father was playing in a cover band, he didn’t record professionally but he was a guitar player.
CrypticRock.com – That is pretty cool. Who were your main influences that got you playing heavy music?
Vorph – For me the band that actually started everything out was Venom. But prior to that I was already a metalhead. My first concert, Xy and I, our father drove us to the Iron Maiden concert on the Piece of Mind Tour, with Michael Schenker opening. That was a fucking great experience. And you know, we lived this together, and that probably planted a seed in us that said this is what we are going to do. And then for me, at that time I was listening to Hard Rock and Metal and then I discovered Punk.
Then when Venom came on the market they were everything I was into in one band. They had the attitude. They were Punk with long hair, somehow, they were Metal guys too and they had this darkness that I was really attracted to. Then, of course, there were some other bands that were influenced by Venom, Celtic Frost, and Bathory, and then Possessed from the states. Their first album was very influential for us at the beginning.
I think we found our sound around Ceremony of Opposites and Passage. This is when Xy started doing the music less narrow minded, with a larger spectrum to explore, it was richer and more interesting. I was focusing on the lyrics and going deeper. I think that works for us, that’s a good way to work and we haven’t changed since then. Even the new album, I did the lyrics and we did the vocal lines together.
CrypticRock.com – Well, it is a formula that, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Do you think we will see any departures from the Samael template such as Era One or the Xytras classical interpretation of the album Passage?
Vorph – I don’t know. Era One was one thing that I was a little bit disgusted about. This was supposed to be a side project, we wanted to try something more electronic, and it got released as a Samael album. It confused the people, and we didn’t intend on becoming a totally electronic band. We are a Metal band and our guideline is Metal. But we were with a record company and not on good terms, but anyway. I do love Electronic music and maybe one day we will try something like that again, but it will be separate from Samael.
CrypticRock.com – At the time, it did not feel like many fans were confused. Whether it was the remixes on the 1998 Exodus EP, or Passage and Eternal, open-minded fans recognized the electronic influence in Samael’s music.
Vorph – Well some promoters in Europe got worried at the time that we would go up and play only Electronic music. Of course, we would not have done that. It is difficult when you have to try and justify yourself, you know, that was tough at the time.
CrypticRock.com – Some people do not understand what bands go through, that these reactions can make life difficult. Our last question is pertaining to film, particularly Horror and Sci-Fi genres. Which, if any such films, are you into personally?
Vorph – I’ve been to a couple of Horror and Sci-Fi fests here in Switzerland. I’ve seen some weird stuff, especially Asian Horror. The title Sick Nurses (2007) comes to mind, that was a weird one. I remember that. It was really, really something. The movie called Feed (2017), the story behind that one was this guy actually was feeding obese people until they died and then had sexual relations with them. I saw that just before going to dinner break, and the other ones who saw it probably just drank something. They couldn’t eat anything! (laughs) A big one I saw when I was young was The Exorcist (1973). Big fan of that one. I saw it when I was around 15, and then I played it to everyone who came to my place. I think I’ve seen it 20 times. That’s a cult one. I haven’t seen anything new though, what with getting wrapped up in the new album.