Interview: SPELL

We are of course glad about every interview on our blog. But, and you may forgive me for saying this, there are interviews that are particularly close to my heart. That’s because this blog would never have come into being without the music of some bands. One of these bands is undoubtedly Spell from Canada, who completely enchanted me in 2016 with For None and All. Since 28 October, the fourth Spell album, Tragic Magic, is available, which seamlessly continues the high quality of its predecessors – and even surpasses them in terms of hits. I am extremely happy that Cam Mesmer has agreed to talk to us about this record and many other topics. We are especially proud to announce some big news on our blog today regarding Spell’s future live line-up. So enjoy the read!

Al and Cam.

André: Hi, Cam, great to talk to you again. How are you?

Cam: Hi André! Great to talk to you again, thanks for having me back! I’m doing well, thanks. I’ve been enjoying all the positive press that Tragic Magic is receiving and keeping busy working full time while I’m also a student in graduate school. In the extra time, I’m working on the next Spell album!   

André: That’s a great announcement right away! A few years ago you gave me an interview for a publication about The Devil’s Blood and told me how much you adore this band. Have you already listened to To Hell To Zion by Gott, an EP that features Farida Lemouchi? I think this release is absolutely fantastic.

Cam: I have listened to it! I like it a lot! It’s a fantastic release and Farida’s voice might be better than ever. The Fleetwood Mac cover featuring members of In Solitude is a lot of fun! I’ll only say – for me, it’s very hard to compete with the feeling that I got from the original demo, EP, and first album from The Devil’s Blood. Part of it the situation when I first heard those releases – I was a teenager, freshly exploring the music that would become the most profound to me. In 2009, Al and I traveled to Germany to see The Devil’s Blood perform on their first tour at the Helvete Club in Oberhausen, and it was an absolutely magical experience – I won’t dare cheapen it with an attempted description, but it changed our lives forever. 

André: Tragic Magic is the first Spell album without Graham. I think his departure can be called a caesura in your band history. Was it clear from the beginning that Al will fill this big gap? Or did you think of other solutions? By the way, I would say that Al is doing an outstanding job!

Cam: A caesura, perhaps — however, there hasn’t been a big change in the composition of our songs. It was always predominantly me and Al writing the music. Towards the end, I had a very hard time convincing Graham to learn the songs in time for our recording sessions. That’s when it became clear that he was no longer interested in the project. I have no interest in trying to make someone do something they’re not into. So, before the writing for Tragic Magic began, I told Graham that we intended to complete the album as a duo. Just the brothers, Al and I. This is how the band began – it was just me and Al in the very beginning. Many do not know this, but our original demos (which we released on a cassette tape under the name Stryker) were recorded as a duo, even though Graham was credited on the liner because he had joined the band by that time. For me, it was always very clear that Al could take over lead guitar. I’ve always admired his playing a great deal. I’m very happy with his solos on this album — they always sound to me like they have so much intention behind them, they never noodle around aimlessly, but go exactly where they need to go! 

André: How will you play live gigs in the future? Do you already have a musician in mind to support you?

Cam: We’ve already got two new band members joining us — I’ll announce it here, for the first time: Jeff from Gatekeeper on lead guitar, and Gabriel from Girlfriends & Boyfriends on guitar/synth. Both are close friends of ours and outstanding, professional musicians. We’re incredibly honoured to be playing with both of them, and our live show is sounding far better than it ever has before! Both were featured on Tragic Magic as well – Jeff on piano for A Ruined Garden and Gabriel on synthesizers throughout the album. Rehearsal has been more exciting than ever, and we can’t wait to take this line-up on the road! 

André: Wow, that’s quite an announcement! I can assure you that I will be trying my hardest to see this amazing line-up live – I’m a big fan of Jeff and his bands/projects! But let’s get back to your new album, Tragic Magic. Let’s start with the visuals: Funnily enough, the German black metal band Firtan chose the same artwork. As far as I know, you have communicated with each other about this.

Cam: Yes, we have. It came as a big surprise to both of us. Each band licensed the artwork nearly a year ago, and we had no way of knowing about the other group’s intentions until the albums were announced, at which point production was already well underway and the course could not be changed. It’s funny to me now that both our albums were released within a month of each other! But, the good news is that this strange occurrence allowed us to discover Firtan! They were extremely kind and polite about it, and they’re great musicians as well! I’ve listened to their new album Marter a lot — it’s exciting, multidimensional, melodic black metal!

André: Can you appreciate some black metal? Or is that rather a genre you don’t like that much?

Cam: We love black metal. Particularly for Al, that was his mainstay growing up. Most recently, we love Reveal! – it’s so strange and fresh sounding. Black metal seems to be a genre with very few inhibitions these days, and I have great respect for that. It’s managed to stay relevant that way, whereas heavy metal recently risks narrowing itself into obsolescence. In terms of the classics, Bathory of course is a huge influence. We also love Mutilation, Katharsis, Master’s Hammer, Emperor, Immortal… and I’m going to include King Diamond here, too! 

André: What’s up with the title Tragic Magic? Would you like to tell our readers something about this?

Cam: When I refer to “magic“, I’m thinking of forces that influence us and direct our lives that we cannot understand or control. Music is one example of this — scientifically, it’s just vibrations in the air, yet it can totally change our perspective. Hearing one song at the right time can change your life forever. We have no rational way of explaining the power that it holds, but this power leads to both greatness and tragedy. For myself, I know I’ve thrown away many opportunities in life due to my obsession with music. I know many others who are finding themselves suddenly in the middle of their lives, without any money saved, family or adult job prospects because they’ve devoted their lives entirely to music. How many others have aged themselves on tour, or destroyed their hearing. I believe that there’s always an element of tragedy within magic. There’s a sacrifice that must be paid, and this has always been the case. Faust knows this well, as does Dorian Grey. 

André: Looking at the tracklist of Tragic Magic, the first thing I noticed is that the first seven songs are all under the four-minute mark. Did you consciously decide to write compact numbers this time?

Cam: Absolutely. Who has time for waffling around? The last thing I want to hear is some self-indulgent noodling. Sure, there’s space for atmosphere in many types of music, but if you’re trying to write a banger then get to the point! We worked extremely hard – and painfully – to cut away everything extra on this album. We wanted nothing other than the essential, only the elements that are structurally integral to the song. This was the style and ethic we wanted for this album.  

André: I think “Fatal Breath“ is a great opener that has enormous hit qualities despite its complexity. The chorus is 80s sugar (as are other numbers, like “Fever Dream“). Do you also particularly like this number?

Cam: Thank you! I do enjoy this song and I’m very excited to play it live. The song is about the final severing of generational ties with the passing of my last grandparent. Until recently, all I had to do was pick up the phone and I could hear what life was like in the 1920’s. Now, that direct connection is lost to me forever. That feels very significant, because now anyone can choose to interpret the events of history however they want, without many people who were really there left to tell us what it was really like. It got me thinking about how lost at sea we really are, amongst the tides of history. It’s so easy to think we have a good grasp on what happened when and the overall direction that our society is taking, within a historical context, but the truth is, I think, that we have no idea. We’re adrift without a rudder. Listen to your elders and learn what you can, while you have a chance! 

André: Do you actually like Depeche Mode? I can’t help but think of that band all the time during the chorus of “Ultraviolet“….

Cam: Sure, of course! Depeche Mode are a legendary hit factory. They were never a specific point of reference when we were writing Tragic Magic, but we respect them a great deal and I always enjoy hearing their moody synth pop. We appreciate all kinds of music. If you’re just sticking to one or two genres, you’re making a terrible mistake. 

André: Would you agree with me when I say that “Sarcophagus“ is a track that is stylistically quite different from previous Spell compositions? I like it a lot and believe that you show a new facet with it again…. and that’s not only because of the vocals….

Cam: Interesting that you’d say that! For me, Sarcophagus was the song on this album that felt the most ‘typical’ to Spell.

André: It’s always nice to see how differently we perceive music, haha!

Cam: It felt like a flashback to The Full Moon Sessions — the style of riffing that I’ve been doing since highschool, it’s what I always fall back on. But, I’m very happy to have Al singing on it! I think his singing is great, and he’ll certainly be featured on more songs in the future! I’ve always enjoyed bands that have more than one voice – Kiss, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, etc.  

André: “Watcher of the Seas“ begins with the lines “I wandered through the forest deep/On an island alone with my dreams/Ancient paths led me through the trees“. These are lyrics that stand for the escapism that I associate with you. Is it particularly important to you to send listeners on a journey that distracts them from their everyday worries? 

Cam: Interesting that you’d have that impression — in fact, I feel very strongly the opposite! I avoid writing escapist lyrics for Spell and I dislike escapism as a lyrical theme. I find it very difficult to enjoy bands that write these types of lyrics, and many otherwise excellent bands are ruined for me this way. I have no interest in dragons or warriors. It feels to me like a total cop-out, like you have absolutely nothing to say and no experiences to draw from. All of my recent lyrics are about personal experiences, or the most pressing concerns in my life. Tragic Magic includes songs about the death of a family member, the Altzheimers’ disease which runs in my family and that I will likely eventually fall prey to, the (seemingly) sudden loss of my youth and the dreams that have been lost with it, and other personal topics. Watcher of the Seas is about an experience I had while hiking on a remote island, but more broadly, it’s about my connection to the land that is my home. The whole thing is true, except for the very last line, which is metaphorical. I believe that we each have a responsibility to write about the things that affect us most profoundly, so that others facing similar feelings might have something to identify with, to find some kind of catharsis in a common humanity. Without this, how can we share our experiences and learn from or help one another? So many of the classic bands wrote about real things that were meaningful to them – Sabbath, Priest, Purple – and I’m not saying it’s gotta be serious all the time, even the Beatles’ Good Day Sunshine conveys a feeling that I can identify with! I’ve always loved Cauldron because of how personal and relatable their lyrics are, and I respect the new band Sonja for the same reason. I think it’s a terrible shame that meaningless lyrics have become synonymous with heavy metal these days, and it’s one of the reasons why so many outsiders scoff at our genre. 

[Note André: At this point, it is interesting to note that The Metal Archives also associate Spell solely with occultism when it comes to lyrical themes. Following Cam’s remarks, it is worth reading the lyrics again from a different perspective.]

André: A completely different topic: How many concerts have you attended as a fan this year? And where were you last? In general, is there a band that has really impressed you live lately?

Cam: Things have been a little slow this year because many of the music venues in Vancouver didn’t survive the pandemic, but a few new spaces have opened up and I’ve really been enjoying going to shows again! I think I tend to underestimate how many shows I go to, because I could hardly think of any at first, but when I look back at the last month I’ve been at shows nearly every week. Some particularly memorable ones I’ve seen recently were Nyx Division, a goth band from Portland, and Poison Ruin, a punk band from Philadelphia. Both incredible music and phenomenal performances!  

André: The year is coming to an end, so you can already look back a bit: Which albums released in 2022 did you particularly enjoy? 

Cam: I’m not big for ‘best of the year’ lists because I can never remember when anything came out. But recently, I’ve absolutely been enjoying the new Sonja album. What a cutting debut! This is heavy metal at its sharpest and most relevant. I’ve also loved Zetra, who released a bunch of singles this year. Such a cool, fresh sound! I’m also going to mention Second Sun here even though they don’t have an album this year, because they’re so amazing and never get enough love. It’s the most honest kind of heavy rock music I can imagine. 

[Note André: I also enjoyed the Sonja album very much. Here you can find my review and my interview with Melissa Moore.]

André: Finally, do you have an insider tip from your home country that our readers and we should definitely check out?

Cam: Sure – some of my favourite Canadian bands right now are Freeways, Kontact, Manacle, Poltergeist — also, Blood Ceremony will have a new album out soon! Not metal, but I’ll also mention Girlfriends & Boyfriends, a fantastic local goth/post punk band. I liked their newest album Fallacy of Fairness so much I poached their synth player, Gabriel, for the new Spell line-up! Oh, and our dear pals Gatekeeper also have a new album coming out soon — I’ve heard it, and it blows their previous catalogue away! Finally, I’ll also mention that Al & I also have a death metal band called Reversed, and we’ll have our first full-length album coming out quite soon as well! 

André: Cam, thank you very much for the interview. You have once again impressively proven how many new insights one can gain when talking to the artists who wrote the albums you like so much. I wish you and Al all the best for the future – and hope, as I said, to see you live again soon. The last time, at Hell over Hammaburg, was way too long ago…

Cam: Thanks for having me! It’s been a real pleasure to chat! TO THE DEATH!

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