When you think about countries where great metal is from, Ireland might be the last place you’d think of. However, Irish heroes PRIMORDIAL have been paying their dues in the (international) underground scene since 1991 with their unique style of folk/black metal. While groundbreaking albums such as A Journey’s End have drawn the adoration of tried and true underground fans, the band’s new monumental album, To the Nameless Dead, seems to have finally broken through to the rest of the metal masses at large. We spoke to vocalist Alan Nemtheanga about the band’s vision and source of inspiration as well as a host of other topics including their love of BATHORY.
APESHIT: How was your show in London last Saturday on February 2, 2008?
Alan: It was sold out so there was near to 600 people there. It was good. We’ve been playing in London on and off for about 15 years but this is the first time, we’ve headlined there before, you could definitely sense a groundswell movement of people towards the band this time as opposed to any other time.
APESHIT: Congrats on the new album! It’s absolutely fantastic! How satisfied are you guys with the final product? Many would say that it’s your finest hour. What do you guys think about that claim?
Alan: We’re satisfied probably more than we have been with any album. The recording process was a tortuous task like it always is. It was relatively quick and relatively painless which is usually the most difficult problem. And the artwork fit in well into the general aesthetic. The studio and engineer, we were all reading off the same page. And also as regards, the label, the general level of the buzz that we’ve been creating in Europe in the last two or three months has been quite substantial.
APESHIT: Tell us about how the recording and production of the new album compares to working with Billy Anderson for The Gathering Wilderness.
Alan: [Laughs] Billy‘s cool. He brings his chaos and he has a certain sense of style that he wants to capture a certain atmosphere and we were willing to run with that because we were trying to capture this more chaotic atmosphere. This time we were a lot more prepared. We were away from the city. We were in the middle of nowhere with less distractions. And we wanted this richer, heavier, more rounded sound, which suited the more epic metal qualities of the songs. We worked very hard on that.
APESHIT: Opening song, “Empire Falls,” is quite a monster of a song and makes quite an entrance for the album. Did you guys intentionally put the song first in order to produce this effect?
Alan: No, we put the songs together in rehearsal. It’s a slow process because we live quite far [apart] and we don’t rehearse often. We don’t rehearse when we don’t have anything to do. PRIMORDIAL doesn’t really exist like some other bands do. It’s more like a loose collective of people sometimes with a common focus. And then the time comes six months before recording when things slowly begin to fall into place and sound like PRIMORDIAL. There’s no grand plan or grand scheme. Only once we’re in the studio in the mixing process do we really think about the track order.
But yeah, you’re right. It’s a fairly colossal metal opening. The first chorus that we’ve ever written. [Laughs]
APESHIT: I think the album’s main theme of nationhood is quite a powerful and timeless theme, and I think that it can be given relevance at any time. Obviously, with today’s world events there are some parallels that can be drawn. Was the theme a result of any particular current events?
Alan: Not particularly. It coincides with my return to study, which included a lot of politics. I was always a political person anyways. But, it coincided an awful lot of reading and reeducation on my behalf, and I became fascinated by the concept of nationhood. Originally, it was from collecting sometimes on tour at old market fairs, maps and things. I became fascinated with the concept of countries. If you look back at the 18th century for example, that doesn’t exist anymore. What happened to those countries? What happened to their folklore, their songs, their heroes, their languages? And that began to inspire me to look at it in a modern context and then mix it in with the concepts of sacrifice and martyrdom about To the Nameless Dead. The people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for what they thought was a greater ideal, for the establishment of that, for the defense of that nation or indeed for the furthering of an empire. So they’re the general topics. It’s a loose concept, but I’m sort of fascinated with how people believe that one particular part of this earth belongs to them.
APESHIT: I just want to talk about your role in the band. Not to subtract from the rest of the band’s contributions, but I think your vocals, lyrics, and presence are a very crucial part of the PRIMORDIAL sound. How do you prepare yourself to record your parts in the studio? Is there a regular ritual that you go through?
Alan: The studio is really not something that I enjoy that much. We recorded and mixed this album, and we were out within 12 or 13 days. Not interested in staying in there longer than 14, 15 days. To me you just lose momentum and the impetus of what you’re doing. It’s a difficult situation to have to summon up inspiration at will. But when you mean what you say and you say what you mean, it shouldn’t be a problem to be able to find some inspiration somewhere. Personally, I’m a bit of a night person, so I like to do my vocals in the dead of the night. It’s always the same thing; light a few candles and try to get some nighttime atmosphere. I don’t like doing it during the morning or during the day. There’s no specific things that I do. You just have to try to get into the songs.
APESHIT: In trying to come up with questions for the new album, the conclusion that we came up with was basically your music speaks for itself. Is it accurate to say that your music is a good reflection of who you guys are as individuals and as a band?
Alan: Yeah, completely. You have to make the distinction that PRIMORDIAL is art, it’s not entertainment. And this generally separates us from the majority of metal out there.
Alan: The level of cultural awareness within the band for example is pivotal to the existence of the band. One doesn’t exist without the other. They’re one in the same. We’re five very different individuals, all sometimes pushing in different directions. But we have a common focus and a common goal. In all of our own particular ways, I would consider that we are pushing the ante or going against the grain or willing to step outside the three minute consumer culture that we live in. We don’t subscribe to a particular scene. It is metal of course, but at the same time, the urge the create something timeless is really what drives us.
APESHIT: The pureness and the realness in your music is what a lot of fans connect to and one major reason why they like PRIMORDIAL so much.
Alan: Yeah. We’re never going to be the biggest band, the fastest or the most extreme in any way. But what we did set out to do was to absolutely not compromise for anyone and to create music that was made with absolute honesty, purity…then try to create something…you know, I don’t think you can fake music like this. People can tell. We were never caught up in any particular scene politics. There was never any grand plan or grand scheme. We didn’t sit around thinking, “Oh, here are our grants from the government to buy instruments. What kind of album are we going to buy this week or call in some of our rock star friends to guest on it, blah blah blah.” [It was] never our attitude.
APESHIT: Going back to what you said earlier…I think an important ingredient of the PRIMORDIAL sound is the influence of Irish culture in various different ways. Would you say that its natural and unintentional to incorporate Irish culture into your music?
Alan: Yeah. We try to make everything as natural as possible. When it doesn’t feel natural, we generally don’t do it. We’re not a band that sits around the rehearsal room three nights a week. We didn’t start the band as friends. We became friends. Like I said, there’s no grand scheme like we’ll write this album and then a year later we’ll follow it up with this. We never made any money. We’re not in the cycle of touring, festivals album, touring, festivals, album. We don’t have to do anything. We don’t have any commitments to anything. If we want to finish the band tomorrow, we can do that. The point being that we do things on our own terms in every respect.
Being Irish of course is the first and foremost influence, our culture, our history, our island mentality, what being Irish means to all of us. But at the same time, it’s not exclusive. PRIMORDIAL isn’t as exclusive to people. The concepts and themes are universal so no matter where you’re from, as I say this for the past two months, from Peru to Palestine you should see yourself in the themes of nationhood and martyrdom.
You know some Scandinavian bands they sing in their own language about their own small part in the pantheon of mythologies. They sing in their own language. You pretty much have to make the journey to where they are from. PRIMORDIAL has never been about that. If I use some form of historical context or even a mythological context for a song, it has to have some modern purchase.
APESHIT: The band has its roots early roots in classic black metal, as well as other genres of metal. Through the years your sound has progressed a great deal. Do you still feel musically connected to black metal in spirit or mindset?
Alan: Yeah, absolutely, totally. It’s a music that I felt closest to and still feel closest to. What I would consider orthodox black metal, there’s very little PRIMORDIAL in that. But if you listen to “Traitor’s Gate” or “No Nation on this Earth,” you can still hear there’s black metal. We came from the second wave black metal scene. Our demo was in ’93. Our first rehearsals were around ’91, ’92 in the underground. We paid our debts in that scene as well. But we never turned our backs on it or considered that we outgrew it.
APESHIT: I know that you guys are big BATHORY fans. Even though there are a lot of bands, including yours, that sing the praises of BATHORY, I just don’t feel like Quorthon got the credit that he deserved while he was still alive. What does BATHORY mean to you?
Alan: I think that without BATHORY, PRIMORDIAL would be very very different. I wouldn’t say “wouldn’t exist” because I would imagine that some other band might have attempted to do the same thing. Quorthon was the first person to change completely from album to album but keep a thread between them. But also he sort of in his own way tore up the rule book. He reprinted the blueprint. He showed that you could marry some form of cultural awareness with epic metal music. Before that it had been done in purely in a chest-beating Conan-istic kind of way, like MANOWAR…which I love too. Hammerheart was the first sign that things were getting a bit more serious. Maybe that and SABBAT‘s Dreamweaver were quiet important at the time, and CELTIC FROST as well. But those two bands showed that you can turn an intelligent lyric to these things. We took that and ran with it.
The problem with BATHORY is that he made all his albums, his greatest work, in about seven years and then spent the next 13 or 14 years slowly dismantling his reputation…making albums like Octagon and stuff which is some of the worst metal albums that I’ve ever heard. But he did redeem himself with Nordland I and Nordland II. It was with great sadness when we heard that he had died. It hit home how important he had been.
Maybe it’s not quiet the same in America but if you came to Europe and went to a festival, you’ll always a ton of BATHORY shirts. And BATHORY is held in incredibly high regard over here. I’m not sure what it means in the context of America.
APESHIT: It’s definitely different here. They were never really popular or had a big cult following. It wasn’t until Norwegian black metal got popular here…
Alan: And started name dropping them.
APESHIT: Yeah, you started seeing kids come to shows with BATHORY shirts.
Alan: You can say that for bands like ourselves, ENSLAVED, IMMORTAL, it would be a very different place without BATHORY for sure.
APESHIT: I know that you took part in a BATHORY tribute during the Day of Darkness Festival. Can you tell me what that was like?
Alan: It was quiet emotional. We had more or less one rehearsal. We flew by the skin of our teeth or the seat of our pants or whatever; played five or six songs. It was only four days after he died. It was good. OK, we weren’t able to play songs from Hammerheart but we rattled our way through some of the stuff from Under the Sign of the Black Mark and the first album and stuff. It was cool. I played the bass and sang a bit.
APESHIT: You have done some guest vocal work for other bands, such as MARDUK and DESASTER. Do you ever plan on having guest musicians contribute on future PRIMORDIAL albums?
Alan: It never really seems to finds the space for that. I would have liked to have had Mortuus [MARDUK‘s vocalist] on this album. But what would he sing considering the general linear nature of the lyrics? It would hard to find a place for his voice. I wanted to but we never had anyone come into the studio before. Maybe. I never wanted to be one of these bands that had like a guest solo here and a guest that and guest the other. You can slap a fucking sticker on it saying “Guests…” With DESASTER, they’re more just good friends of ours. I kind of wanted to do more “heavy metal” singing but they wanted the “PRIMORDIAL experience.” [Laughs] That was a bit difficult because I had to record that by myself, whereas with MARDUK, I went to Sweden.
Things like that, if I like the band and feel some form of kinship, it can be interesting, you know? I get a lot of people asking me to do things. It seems like in a certain sort of scene, somebody thinks about a normal voice and go, “Oh, we’ll ask the guy from PRIMORDIAL.” [Laughs] But I was a bit disappointed because I was supposed to sing on the last SECRETS OF THE MOON album. That would’ve been cool but maybe next time.
APESHIT: The band started out in 1987…
Alan: This is a bit of a misnomer. It’s a little bit misleading because the band as you know it didn’t really begin until 1991 but CiÃ¡ran and Paul, the bass player and guitar player respectively, they did start the band in 1987, the end of 1987 as kids. But they were playing DRI, CRYPTIC SLAUGHTER and MISFITS covers and trying to play SLAYER and stuff. They were just learning how to play their instruments. You could say that the band began then, probably it did. But it didn’t really begin to become a real form or shape that you know now until 1991.
APESHIT: So starting in 1991, it’s been a long 17 years. What has it been like to live a significant part of your youth through this band?
Alan: It’s been great. I’ve been in the band longer than I haven’t. I’m 33 this year and I joined the band when I was 16. It’s been a long marriage between me, Paul, and CiÃ¡ran and 11 years with Simon in the band. It’s been great because we’ve all created something that if any one of us died tomorrow should outlive us. We did what we set out to do, which was not to fuckin’ copy anyone and not to compromise for anyone. It’s taken me to an awful lot of countries, and I’ve met people that I would’ve never met or seen. And as well as the fact that when you’re a teenager, every teenage metalhead’s dream is to stand on stage in front of 15,000 or 20,000 people and play your songs. It’s been a long hard struggle with shitty rip off labels here and there. Especially when I consider to be from an underdog country, i.e. not Scandinavia, because the central European scene is just Scandinavian obsessed. When you’re not from one of those countries, you have to work twice as hard and be twice as stubborn sometimes.
APESHIT: I always think that you could make up a band and lie that they’re from Norway and you can get some success on a record label.
Alan: Well, it’s very hard for bands, especially from countries like Portugal, Spain. Okay, Italy has some power metal bands. But Greece has a bit of a scene like the old school like ROTTING CHRIST and VARATHRON. But playing dark music in any of those Mediterranean countries, it’s almost impossible to be taken seriously by German metal fans. They accept MOONSPELL and that’s about it. [Laughs] It’s pretty fucked up really. I saw that when we came to America. The kids who came were very fascinated by the concept that MOONSORROW and THYRFING were Vikings. MOONSORROW are from Finland so they are not Vikings but…
APESHIT: They don’t know the difference. [Laughs]
Alan: With the Celts, they didn’t really know what that is. But they were really excited that there were Scandinavians there. Irish wasn’t quite so exotic. [Laughs] But that’s only natural because the texts of these Norse mythologies is perfectly tailor made for heavy metal and because of all the things that happened there and the great battles they had in the past. It makes sense that people would be excited about it but by the same token, it can be very difficult, as I said, for some bands from less fashionable countries. If you’re from Belgium or Portugal, you can almost forget it.
Things are changing. France has DEATHSPELL OMEGA. There’s absolutely nothing coming from Norway that could match that in black metal terms in 2008. It’s so complicated, dark, and dense. It makes most things seem trivial. [Laughs]
APESHIT: You have alluded to the present era as being the latter period of the band through some of the announcements that you’ve made on your website. Does that mean that you foresee the end to the band in the not too distant future?
Alan: I don’t know. I’d imagine that it would happen at some stage. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to happen now. But this album more than any other, perhaps we begun to feel a little bit of pressure to follow it up because this album in Europe got the best press of any album in the last probably 10 or 15 years. That’s no exaggeration. In every major metal magazine, it was like “1” in the soundcheck and full marks. Quite how you follow that up, I don’t really know. Before, we always existed on the fringes of the scene. We had people love the band and stuff. But now we’ve kind of come in from the fringes of the scene to take, I don’t say center stage, but somewhere a little bit nearer. It’s gratifying. It means we can play better shows; get better slots at festivals; and have the potential to play better tours. But I’m not quite sure where we go after this. We try not to worry about things like that. Realistically, we’ve been doing this since we were 15, 16 years old and now all between 30 and 36. There’s no reason why you can’t be doing this when you’re 40, but I don’t know. When we made one album, I would have never thought that we’d make six. Making six, you’re closer to 10 than to making one so I don’t know.
APESHIT: You guys have only played the U.S. once. Are the possibilities that you guys will come over here again for at least a festival?
Alan: Yeah, we tried to come over for this Chicago Powerfest. We had a lot of sponsors and stuff but it just worked out that the days that we’re on meant that the band had to take four days off of work. This is the unfortunate and rather boring consequence of reaching some sort of commercial peak when you’re in your 30’s than in your 20’s because you have responsibilities. You just can’t fuck off for four days to play one festival that you’re not getting paid for. [Laughs]
There’s been talk and stuff but in all honesty, the sales are not that great in America. I don’t know what’s going on in America. I think small chain shops are finding it very very hard to succeed in America at the moment. And also because Metal Blade doesn’t trade, we’re maybe missing out on some of the mailorder that we’d otherwise be on. But they don’t need to because they have AS I LAY DYING and UNEARTH. It’s hard to sell CDs in America, and it’s also hard to tour there because the distances are so great. But we definitely want to try something like say several dates on one coast and fly in to several dates on the other. The sort of the middle of the country seems like a difficult part of the country to get into to be honest. But I know that my friends in DESTROYER 666 were over there for a week. They flew around and thought it was great.
APESHIT: I was pleasantly surprised that they were able to make it over.
Alan: Yeah. They didn’t have any problems. That’s maybe some form of example that maybe we can do the same thing.
APESHIT: What are your immediate plans outside the shows that are already scheduled? Is there a possibility of recording a DVD or anything like that?
Alan: We’ve talked about that. We’re supposed to record a DVD in Dublin three weeks ago but we had somebody…we basically have a sixth member of the band that helps out when anybody can’t play a particular stringed instrument. And our bass player had to have his appendix out three days before the show. Not the very rock ‘n roll reason but it stopped him from playing the show, so of course you can’t film. It’s not the “real” band. So we’re on the line that maybe we can film one of these festival shows for some kind of DVD and put it on the flip side of a proper club show, which is probably where we excel. Playing huge stages is something that we’re only getting used to now in the last couple of years in Europe.
APESHIT: I don’t want to dwell on a negative but it’s no secret that you guys have had problems with former labels (Cacophonous, Misanthropy, Hammerheart). How has been being on Metal Blade Records been different or are some things the same by reason of just being in a metal label?
Alan: No, it has been completely different being on Metal Blade. I had good friends there from before we signed there and half the people that work in the European office are musicians so they understand that. They just have an honest straight up attitude. They don’t bullshit you saying that we’re going to get you this and it never happens. They’re straight up. You can go out and have a drink with them, and you can also be dead straight up about what you’re doing with the band. They don’t put pressure on us. You probably didn’t get much of the digibook [of To the Nameless Dead] in America.
APESHIT: No, not at all.
Alan: It looks amazing. For the first time I was able to recreate my vision of what the band should be.
Yeah, they don’t put any demands or pressure on us. Things are maybe a little bit more difficult in the U.S. because most of the bands that are on Metal Blade in the U.S. are metalcore. Europe is a little bit different where it doesn’t matter what label you’re on as much as it does in America.
It’s all positive on my end for the first time ever. It’s not that I’m difficult, but it’s an uncomfortable mixture when business and artists who generally don’t know how to add numbers up [mix].