Black Moth’s new album, Condemned To Hope, is brilliant. With it, the Leeds/London split five-piece have smelted British doom metal traditions into something vibrant yet weighty, borne aloft on a spiders legs’ worth of hooks, taking in everything from grunge to The Cramps via midnight scuffles at the chip shop to undead psychedelic experiences. It’s one of our favourite albums of 2014, which is why we sat down for a lengthy chat with vocalist Harriet Bevan and guitarist Nico Carew to get deep down into the nitty-gritty of Condemned To Hope.
So, Condemned to Hope, it’s your second album with Jim Sclavunos – was it a simple decision to go back and record with him again?
Hariret: The last record we recorded at 2Fly studio in Sheffield with Dave Sanderson as the engineer. This time we decided to keep it local and we did it in Leeds, so we were at Cottage Road studio with Andy Hawkins engineering. So it was… that engineer/producer relationship was really important. Jim and Dave got on extremely well so it was trying a whole new thing he’d never worked with Andy before; Andy’s very legendary in the Leeds scene for having worked with bands like Hawk Eyes…
Nico: …Pigeon Detectives…
Harriet: Haha, yeah! He’s an excellent engineer so it was interesting to bring him on board and the two of them got on brilliantly. We knew we were going to be working with Jim Sclavunos again because we had a fantastic experience the first time, but it was a different set up entirely as we were up in Leeds rather than trekking to Sheffield every day.
What about the slightly different set up, did it change the way you were recording in any way?
Harriet: Because we were in our own homes, it was a lot less stressful not having to get there and back each day. On days we weren’t needed, we were able to be at home and on call, if you see what I mean so we were slightly less under pressure in that way. Andy the engineer was horribly ill the whole time we were recording but we were on a tight time restraint so we powered through. It was the middle of winter, but both albums were recorded in the middle of winter so we’re always freezing our nuts off.
Quite often with bands where the word “riff” is bandied around is a major selling points, the relationship between the vocal and guitar melodies gets lopsided. The guitars get turned up, and everything else is shunted to one side to serve that. On Condemned To Hope I didn’t get any sense of that at all – was that a conscious effort to balance that out throughout the album, or was it just the natural way that Black Moth have settled in?
Nico: I think some songs need the vocals more pronounced, and definitely in some you want that scuzzy dirty feel to it so they come down a touch.
Harriet: Where the main melody is coming from that wasn’t a conscious decision as such. I wish I could say that more of our decisions were conscious. Our writing process is probably a…to put it a “nice” way, organic…and we really do just kind of launch into it and play what we feel. That may well have happened but I think that sometimes you just look for what the stronger melody is when song writing, whether it’s the vocal producing it or the guitars and the rest just supports that. The worst thing you can do is have the two competing ‘cos that’s just messy.
You mentioned your songwriting has an organic dimension to it…so if we’re going to get into “new album cliché” territory then I just want to touch upon how you think you songwriting evolved for this record. It’s an easy thing to look back retrospectively, people can see what’s changed. Before you even went into recording the album did you consciously decide ways you were going to do things differently this time, or was it just…
Harriet: Circumstances, I would say. Yeah, I think it’s a similar situation for all bands really I guess, in that the first album is…usually written over a long period of time where the band is finding their feet and they’re just the songs that have come out of that growing process, whereas album two there tends to be more of a time pressure. You’re suddenly on a roll, you’re working with a label, there’s other interested parties, and you have a studio session booked in so we ended up having to write most of that album in a month rather than casually over a long period of time. We really did, under really quite tense circumstances had to churn it out.
Quite recently there’s been a noticeable trend of Leeds-based music rising to prominence, which seems to contradict the general trends of localised, geographical scenes seeming to have faded from view in recent years. Why do you think Leeds has managed to bring out so many bands in the past five or so years, in a way other bigger sized cities haven’t?
Nico: It’s got a really healthy live scene I think. There’s free gigs on all the time, you can just go around at night and bump in to, anything, you can find anything. I don’t know… I’ve not really lived anywhere else either. There’s just a really strong scene, that’s a bit of a shit answer. [Harriet], what do you think?
Harriet: I don’t know why it’s happened but I think there’s a really open mind to the Leeds music scene in a way that I’ve not seen in a lot of other places. In comparison, in London I find the scene – not entirely I wouldn’t want to generalise – but there’s certainly a more competitive element. Whereas in Leeds there’s an all embracing, really supportive feel in that community and it doesn’t have bands trying to outdo each other. Bands are sort of trying to come together without any kind of angle on heaviness or anything really. The music scene is really open. It’s not segregated into hardcore scene, metal scene, shoegaze stuff, you know?
Nico: There’s camaraderie as well, I think if you’re in a Leeds band and you’re at a festival and you see another Leeds band, everyone is open and supportive.
Weirdly that’s kind of like a parallel to what I was going to go on to next which … one of the things I’ve noticed while listening to the lyrics. Somewhat interestingly with Black Moth there isn’t like a central unifying thread to them. If you look at other bands who have a similar – this sounds really wank – sonic palate to you, they tend to stick their mysticism-y kind of doom or satanic doom there’s a central core to their theme going through their music. The obvious one, is Electric Wizard. They’ve got their…
Harriet: Strong Brand right there
And they go with it. But with Condemned To Hope there’s everything from necromancy and weird views on mind expansion, and then you’ve got stuff like ‘Slumber with the Worm’ which seems to be about dead people still being in love with each other, then ‘Tumbleweave’ which has this whole sort of weird, twist of modernity to it. It seems to defy being boxed as “occult doom” or any other little subgenre box.
Harriet: It’s chaos. It’s much more chaotic than that. I think I have a journal where I write down things that interest me over time, really haphazard scraps, but ended up writing most of those lyrics in a month, locked away and driving myself absolutely insane to the point where I look back on those lyrics now and think, my god, what the hell was going on in my head. When I was studying art, I was really interested in collage, and I see my influences like that, in that they all feed in together and do make a haphazard, kind of modern, kind of gothic way. It may sound like it’s about the everyday but then there’s a really kind of weird pagan or some way esoteric element to it.
The only deliberate thing I would say there is that I really do want to write lyrics that are of their time. Songs that are grounded in the present but also taking in influences. I don’t have the same interest in building a mythical picture or…it’s hard to explain. You mention bands like Electric Wizard who have a very clear kind of identity, a kind of B-movie horror style. I want to make something weirder than that, for better or worse. In some respects I wish I could reign in my interests. At one point, I thought about making this a concept album, but because of the way my mind works it was just physically impossible, just full of all sorts of useless information!
When you talk about concepts, was it anything you had a plan for? Or was it just the idea of a concept album that appealed?
Harriet: The idea of a concept album, and I thought it would make it easier to write lyrics, if I’m perfectly honest. I had so many ideas I was like, “why don’t I just pick a theme?” but I don’t actually think I work that way. [Condemned To Hope] has ended up with a sort of theme, but only through just the slogging away at it, and picking away at the details. It’s a long winded painful process. But I think it has arrived with a certain feeling to it. I don’t think it’s been so haphazard that it’s like what’s this, and things jar with each other. I think there is an overarching feel to it.
How would you describe that?
Harriet: It’s grounded in the present it’s very, a lot of it’s very every day, recognisable and familiar, but with an undercurrent of grimness and darkness, which I find more disturbing and more threatening than straight up fantastical horror. Generally when I’m watching movies as well as music and poetry and things there’s something more unsettling about the uncanny, something you can recognise.
If you were to give us an example of that off the album, which would you pick to encapsulate that kind of vibe?
Harriet: The two off the top of my head are ‘Tumbleweave’ and ‘Set Yourself Alight’ which are… quite observational things that came from me wandering around Hackney. ‘Tumbleweave’ is a sort of fast food romance, it’s got a grimness to it, and I think ‘Set Yourself Alight’ could be any sort of any kind of couple. The idea of self-immolation and what that could mean to your average couple. It sounds in some respects a very believable scene, but then the chorus is “Set yourself alight / Surrender to the night” – then it suddenly becomes quite pagan and ritualistic. I suppose one of the movies that really inspired me last year was that Sightseers film which is a very sort of grim British horror but it’s funny and unsettling because it’s kind of very familiar. The other thing is that I wanted to bring an element of humour, which I think has come out more in this album, through the scenes being more modern I think.
That’s an interesting juxtaposition. London has got a long tradition of marrying the weirder sort of occultist sort of thing with contemporary culture. Everything from Alastair Crowley onwards has had a very sort of strong attempt to merge the two. Do you see yourself as part of a great British tradition of…domestic occultism…I’m freewheeling a little bit here… or do you see yourselves as using that as a springboard for bouncing you’re actually doing?
Harriet: It certainly felt like something I wanted to try for this album, and it feels right now as a direction and yes there is an element of wanting to be part of that tradition but I wouldn’t want that to tie myself down to that either. I think that I’m always trying to challenge why I’m doing things and try to do something a bit new and different so if I find myself doing something too much of a familiar known quantity then I’d probably push the boundary some more but I think you’re right yeah, there probably is an element of that.
I want to speak very briefly about your involvement with [experimental sound collective] Moon Ra. I only know very tangently bits and bobs about the concept and I wondered if you could talk us through what it is.
Harriet: I’ve only performed with them twice, I joined them in Rome last year I was literally about to start our Black Moth Italian tour, so I went to Rome a few days earlier and met some friends who were doing Moon Ra performance at a festival called Crack in a military fortress, and I thought I was just going along to watch them and Conny Prantera who heads up Moon Ra with Mark Wagner, basically dressed me up in a robe, placed a crown on my head and handed me a microphone. It was very improvisational, they knew what they were doing and I got kind of sucked into it. It’s very kind of immersive, very cultic. I found myself chanting god knows what and really just being involved in it,
There performances are very sporadic and very special and important. They don’t just gig, they don’t just play anything. It’s usually based around an important lunar event. The second performance they did was on new year’s day this year, and that was truly, musically, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever taken part in. It was at the Round Chapel in Clacton and there was over 20 musicians I think, sat there. I’d missed all the rehearsals unfortunately as I’d been recording with Black Moth, so I was really winging it again. There was such a fantastic range of musicians, artists, performers, and healers who take part….just kind of create something together. We sat there for three hours with head dresses on and stuff so I couldn’t even see anyone. I was fully immersed in the sound. The idea is to create something musically that is transcendental it’s all very well saying these things but for me that was a really special performance, I can honestly say, really didn’t know where the three hours had gone. I felt hypnotised. A lot of people who came down said the same thing, there was an incredible energy in the church. It couldn’t be further from Black Moth really I suppose. It’s a very, very different way of making sound, making music. For an experience for New Year’s Day, I found it the most cleansing kind of creatively opening experience that really set me up for the year.
Why do you think music can have that influence? Ostensibly, music is something that entirely exists as a transient thing. It doesn’t exist outside of the moment it was created. Why do you think music can have that power, in a way that other forms of performance artwork can’t?
Nico: It’s the first thing you experience, you hear it in the womb. You don’t need language, it’s vibrations in the air. You can change that and get everyone on the same vibrations.
Harriet: I agree, interestingly I read a study recently that there are people out there who aren’t moved by music and I was really shocked. Obviously everyone has different tastes in music but I thought everybody felt what we feel as music fans, but apparently that’s not the case. I don’t know whether there’s something wrong with them. I don’t think you can take that view.
There’s certain art forms that don’t do it for me, that leave me cold and I guess that’s the same with people. Music is a lot more generally populous in its attitude. It’s about bringing people together, for the most part whether it’s tribally or much more further reaching. The fine art world is quite elitist in comparison for example…the visual art world. Music is something that has been ingrained in us since mankind began. It’s just something we’ve always done for pleasure. We’ve always had songs, and it does bring people together. I think it’s something more raw than…something purely intellectual.
To pull it back to something a little less metaphysical, let’s talk about Roger Dean for a bit. How did collaborating with him for the album come about?
Harriet: It was, we could never have planned for it… we didn’t think in a million years that it would actually come off…
Nico: I can’t remember if we found out after we recorded.
Harriet: We did! The album possibly would have been out earlier if it wasn’t for the artwork. Once we realised that Roger was up for doing specially commissioned artwork, we thought well, it takes as long as it takes. It’s such a great opportunity, he’s a really brilliant artist. Our label [New Heavy Sounds] got in touch with him and I went down to Brighton to meet him and his daughter Freya for lunch. We just had a really good conversation about everything, life and music and the vinyl product and fetishism of the physical in music and really kind of hit it off. He liked the first album. So he agreed to do it, but that meant we had to slow down the release process. It wasn’t part of the original plan but as soon as it became an option it was something that we considerably worked around.
Did you give Roger any direction, how did the actual artwork come together as it were?
Harriet: Well, there was just the initial philosophical conversation that we had in the café, but also I gave him all the lyrics, and a list of keywords, about some of the things going on in the record, and that’s all he had to go away with and interestingly he worked with those, and came up with something that works brilliantly with Condemned To Hope as a title, and basically he did his own thing with it. What he’s done is instantly recognisable as World War One soldiers marching into battle or marching into the abyss… you don’t know where they’re going but there just nameless, faceless little figures and that really just.
I was amazed when I saw it. We didn’t see much work in progress, it was a surprise for us … I was blown away because he interpreted it in his own way and created something really quite special. There’s no World War One or World War Two imagery in my lyrics, but actually nothing to me speaks more of being condemned to hope than those kind of nameless faceless figures marching into oblivion. I think that what he did was perfect.
The actual title itself, Condemned To Hope, has an internal contradiction and at the same time, contains a commentary on duality. Is that why it became the lead idea?
Harriet: It’s a strong idea. It not only sounds quite succinct and powerful but it’s instantly makes you wonder what that means, there’s many different interpretations to it. But it’s sort of thought provoking…which sounds horrible.
It’s an ambiguous expression which I think does perfectly represent the album itself because of that kind of, is that a negative thing or a positive thing, to be condemned to hope? Or what’s it saying, is it saying we’re all doomed because we’re on this pendulum between hope and despair, and it’s just the human condition? Or is it illuminating that, saying we don’t have to be in that position, and hope isn’t necessarily the virtue that we see it as, or is there more solace to be found in the present.
OK, time for my final question and it’s a cheap and lazy one. Who is the titular Undead King of Rock’N’Roll in track 3?
Harriet: People keep asking me that. He really is just a character there never really was a particular rock star in mind. To be it was just … one of the things that dawned on me this year was that I have always worshipped rock and roll as my religion almost, I’ve put my faith and everything I’ve got into the rock and roll lifestyle, whatever that means. There is a big part of me that, it’s my world and I love it but like any kind of belief system, if you dedicate your life to it so much, you become a caricature of becoming a rock and roll dude bottle of Jack Daniels in your hand, getting wasted all the time. I suddenly though, there’s a whole world out there, and maybe to be obsessed with being a rock musician without having a broader perspective on life can actually wind up with.. you see a lot of those characters floating around, that were in a band that almost made it big and still think they’re kind of a big rock star but really they’re just kind of desperate for any kind of media attention. I guess kind of like a Pete Docherty kind of character if you did want a name for it. It certainly wasn’t directed at him as a person!
Condemned To Hope by Black Moth is out now on New Heavy Sounds. It is an excellent record. Go and buy it. The band start their first full UK tour since the release of their new album next Friday – check their official website for full tour dates.