Interview: Smoulder

On the occasion of the Courts of Chaos in Plozévet (Brittany), Anna and Igor had the opportunity to talk at length with Sarah and Shon about their band Smoulder and many other topics. We hope you enjoy reading!

Igor and Anna (Dreamslain)

Sarah: Yeah, we definitely had a goal going in to make it better than the debut and I think we definitely achieved that. I think we kind of expected it would be at least as popular if not more popular than the debut and so far I think it has been. But more importantly, we wanted the music to be more, to be stronger and I think we got that. We put a lot of work into it, we were definitely very deliberate in pretty much all aspects of it. The presentation, like the artwork, and the music itself, the way the songs are placed on the album, the flow of it.

Sarah: A few people have been like ‘oh, it’s faster and I don’t like that’. Well, that’s fair! But I think mostly it’s been quite positive. We definitely had some people who’ve responded to the production in a way that we weren’t really expecting because we intentionally made it so that there’s less… that it sounds more natural. The debut had a more intense production and it sounds more like it’s recorded in a cave, whereas this one was intentionally supposed to be more like a 70s band production because we wanted to record the album all together in a studio and we did that. So we wanted to sound more natural and somehow some people think that this album is more produced than the debut, which I thought was kind of hilarious, because that’s not the case. But you know, it’s all about what everyone hears and feels. So it’s not like any interpretation of our music is wrong. If you think it sounds a certain way then it might sound that way to you. For us I think it sounds more natural and not everybody loved that. But mostly the reviews have been incredibly positive. We got a lot of people giving it ten out of ten and calling it a masterpiece. So that’s really pretty amazing.

Shon: We’ve always been influenced by US power metal and German power metal and I think a bit more of the weirder side of things have gotten a bit of an influence, like Fates Warning

Sarah: … and Scanner.

Shon: Yeah, Scanner, Hypertrace specifically. Also weirder, technical stuff like some technical thrash metal.

Sarah: Yeah, like Mekong Delta and stuff like that.

Shon: And like Coroner, I guess. I guess there’s nothing overtly technical on this album, but that sort of influence has definitely crept in a little bit, I think.

Sarah: I think the strangeness is really what it is though. We really made an effort to make the songs sound unusual and to go into directions that you wouldn’t expect. And I think for a lot of people, we weren’t necessarily a band that sounded – how do I put this – in a normal way. I don’t think the debut sounded the way that people expected, but I think that the songwriting was more traditional and linear. And I think on this album there is way less of that traditional linear style.

Shon: Yeah, we definitely spent more time on the songwriting specifically with more storytelling elements, where the choruses are different each time, subtly different. And sometimes there’s only one chorus in a song or it repeats at a weirder time than you would expect from a normal song structure.

Sarah: So yeah, it’s definitely a focus on not doing anything according to expectation. I like that, because it’s fun for us as songwriters, but it also feels more Byzantine if that makes sense.

Sarah: Yeah, we do too. It’s also what the bands we like, sound like. 

Shon: For me, some of my favorite albums of all time are ones that I didn’t really immediately like as soon as I listened to it. But as I listened to it more and more, you notice things that you didn’t listen to on the first listen and second listen or even the 20th listen. So I think we created a similar sort of atmosphere on this album. We’ve seen a lot of people say that like the first single “The Talisman and the Blade“, they didn’t really like it at first, but then they heard it a few times and they kept on coming back to it and now they’re like…

Sarah: Obsessed!

Shon: Yeah, obsessed.

Sarah: Yeah, so I’m like, hell yeah, listen more!

Sarah: Probably yes. Or like a very weird black metal album.

Shon: You know, a lot of bands say that they don’t want to make the same album twice and I think that’s what our trajectory is.

Sarah: Yeah, but it’s also the idea that a band that endures is one that doesn’t do the same thing over and over. And I mean obviously it’s not like every band or a fan base follows that rule, but the idea of making the same album 20 times makes me nauseous. I don’t want to do that.

Shon: I want the next release, whether it’s an album or an EP or a split, to give a similar reaction to people where they’re like ‘oh, there’s some new element here that wasn’t on the debut’.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s going in a weirder direction.

Shon: Yeah, because I’ve specifically been really getting into more of the weirder side of black metal with bands like Negative Plane and Spirit Possession and Funeral Presence. That’s sort of really unhinged, almost like I mentioned before, a technical thrash influenced style. I really like that. 

Sarah: There’s also the German power metal that’s omnipresent. 

Shon: Yeah, for sure. Like Blind Guardian is my favorite band of all time and “The Talisman and the Blade“, I specifically wrote it in the style of the first like four Blind Guardian albums, which I think is pretty obvious to anyone who’s familiar with those.

Sarah: Yeah, I mean copying bands is never our intention. We’re both die hard heavy metal fanatics. But I don’t think at any point we would ever want anyone to be able to be like ‘oh well, that’s obviously this and that’s obviously that’. And I think we’ve achieved that in a lot of ways.

Shon: Maybe Atlantean Kodex? We’ve we got to play with them in Poland and we’re sharing the stage with them again tonight, which is pretty exciting. 

Sarah: But also for me it’s been Cirith Ungol and Pagan Altar.

Shon: Yeah, we’ve shared the stage with them twice now. Both.

Sarah: Although I don’t think that we really sound like those bands.

Shon: No, I think we would probably sound closer to Atlantean Kodex than those two bands. But even Kodex has like a bigger, more grander sound than we do.

Sarah: Yeah, we’re definitely more aggressive than they are. Yeah, which is fine.

Sarah: Yeah.

Sarah: All of the images are by Michael Whelan, who’s pretty famous for doing 70s and 80s sword and sorcery book covers. So for the debut, when I found the debut album cover, I was like ‘oh, it’s Mike Whelan!’. Cirith Ungol also uses Michael Whelan. So for that it became more of a question like what Michael Whelan image fits our music, fits us? I feel like with all of the albums, the way that we’ve found them has been like, oh, this image really pops and it’s going to be hard to find the next one because I want pictures of women who are clearly going to fucking murder a dude, more than anything.

Shon: There’s still a few of Michael Whelan pieces that we could probably use. We may also end up just getting an original piece made. It’s hard to say yet.

Sarah: I don’t know. There’s just something we – I don’t know if it’s we or if it’s me – I think often it’s me when it comes to picking the album covers, I mean, I obviously bring them to the rest of the band and be like ‘I think that this is it’. And generally when I say that, everyone’s like ‘holy shit, you’re right!’. But the next album will probably be more of a group, is already more of a group [project].

Shon: Yeah, we’ve already got a folder on our Google Drive with various Michael Whelan images that we think would be cool to use. We started to go through them and we may end up licensing another image that he’s already done previously or we’ll get a new one made. It’s hard to know for sure. Can’t say yet.

Shon: I can’t say that we’ve thought about doing that, but I wouldn’t say it’s it’s out of the question. If there was a situation where multiple of our band members from different lineups were at the same place, then I could see that maybe happening.

Sarah: But yeah, I mean the point of having an international lineup is just so we can play more shows and play with more people. We really like having a collective, having a collective means we get more unusual opportunities. And not only that, but we’ve learned so much playing with every single person that we’ve ever played with. And you know, people are like, ‘oh, how does that work?’ And it’s like, I don’t know. It just does. We make it work, and every person that we play with, we end up recruiting for a specific purpose and learning something from them. And I think for us, I mean, especially for me, Sean has more experience or Vincent has more experience playing live with other musicians that I don’t have. So for me, every show that we play, I collect notes. What works? What doesn’t? What kind of people do we want to perform with and why?

Shon: It’s been a learning experience for me too, because my previous bands that I’ve played live with, I was a bassist, so Smoulder has been the first band where I’ve been playing guitar live and I’ve definitely learned a lot playing with different people, how to interact on stage because from my experience, playing bass is somewhat easier than playing guitar, simply because there’s less strings. But they both have their challenges.

Sarah: We’ve been pretty careful, I think we have to be especially right now post pandemic and I put post pandemic in quotations because the pandemic is not necessarily over. It’s just, we’ve gotten to the point after the pandemic where everybody wants to play and things are, there’s too much, you know? And so you do have to be careful about what shows you accept and what offers make sense. And not only that, about timing, all those things have to be taken into consideration. And I’m really careful about all that stuff because I’m the band manager – put that in quotes because it feels kind of silly to say – you know, there’s a lot of opportunities, but a lot of things end up falling through because I think everybody’s got like very big eyes and very big intentions. But that doesn’t always result in things that work. So you do have to be careful. And not only that, but you don’t want those opportunities to dry up. So you have to be pretty precise and careful about what you play and what you do because it could all get taken away as it was when the pandemic happened. So professionalism is pretty important.

Sarah: I think inclusivity is really important to us, especially for me as a woman. I put up with a lot of shit in the last 20 years as a metal fan and as a woman who’s tried to force her way into a space. So we definitely aim to make our shows and our music feel, I don’t know what the right word is for it, but we want to make our music about a community that we want to be part of, you know? And it’s hard to do that in a way that doesn’t feel too preachy.

Shon: We want people to feel like supporting us. Supporting something that they’re also aligned with.

Sarah: That they’re part of.

Shon: Yeah, that they’re a part of. We think that’s important because you know, we do the same thing with bands that we listen to, we like to support bands that align with our beliefs and who have our best interests in mind. So we like to project that same feeling towards our fans.

Sarah: Yeah.

Sarah: I think we actively work to include marginalized people. For me, I’m a chronically ill woman and there’s been many times over the years that I haven’t felt represented by heavy metal. So I think it’s pretty important to represent the communities that I feel part of. But we do it in a way that I think is pretty subtle and we don’t want to necessarily explicitly always outline how we do that. But yeah, it’s hard to say it in a specific way.

Shon: I think certain people do definitely notice the things we’re doing. It’s hard to contextualize because as like a straight white male, I don’t have the same experiences as Sarah does or other marginalized communities do, who listen to our music. So I’ve definitely been trying to take more notice of those things and be more aware of it in pretty much everything that we do. 

Sarah: I mean, my favorite thing has been, we’ve gotten a lot of messages from women and also from men who have said ‘my daughter, you’re her first metal band‘. And you know, I’ve also heard from a lot of women like ‘I haven’t liked metal for a long time and this has been the first time in a long time that I feel like a band that addresses those issues or represents me in a way that I’ve never felt represented before’. So those things are really cool, and really empowering. Or we had a fan come up to us at Keep it True Rising, which we didn’t play, but we were just attending his band and he was like ‘oh, you guys, you know, I messaged you years ago and told you how my daughter really liked you’. And you know, we ended up doing things like making mix CDs for fans, because I can’t think of any better way to get into heavy metal. So yeah, when we have fans respond in that kind of way, we tend to put a lot of effort into including them because that kind of stuff can create a lifelong connection. And to me, heavy metal is one of the most important things in my entire life. But I’m not going to continue to listen to heavy metal unless it continues to provide that kind of visceral thing for me.

Shon: Yeah, we want to give our fans that same kind of hope that there can be more good in heavy metal and we try to create that image and align ourselves with other bands that are doing the same thing. So we’re just slowly building a more inclusive community.

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