Switzerland is not a country that exports many metal bands, but the few that it does, stand out as influential and innovative. SAMAEL is one of those bands. Their history stretches back to the beginnings of extreme metal; they were there at the onset of the second wave of black metal and produced landmark albums like Blood Ritual and Ceremony of Opposites.
The band’s rapid evolution, however, outpaced that of their fans and peers. Incorporating industrial and electronic influences, SAMAEL shed their organic origins in favor of something more mechanical. But the band’s artistic vision never wavered and they continued to grow their creative direction in the face of label struggles and confusion amongst fans. SAMAEL’s latest album, Above, finally brings back elements of the band’s early days–speed and loud guitars–resulting in a meaty black metal album that still incorporates their industrial and orchestral side.
APESHIT spoke with drummer/keyboardist and chief songwriter, Xy, about Above and SAMAEL’s past, present, and future.
APESHIT: Earlier this year, you joined CARCASS and SUFFOCATION, amongst others, on your first U.S. tour since 2003. How was the tour?
Xy: It was really good. We are really happy. We got invited by CARCASS. I think it was like a festival tour, in front of a mixed audience. For us, it’s really good to be able to present SAMAEL to a lot of people who didn’t know the band before.
It’s always good when you can present your music to a new audience. It’s always challenging…so that’s good.
APESHIT: Your new album, Above, has been gotten good press. It’s a strong album that returns to SAMAEL’s old extreme metal roots. Has there been much negativity regarding you’re going back to your old style?
Xy: No, but I think some people who have been following us recently or discovering the band with the latest album, who are a little disappointed. It’s not what they expected. But it’s really a small portion. All in all, it’s been really positive.
APESHIT: Tell us about how you ended up bringing back and incorporating the old aggressive metal style into the industrial sound that SAMAEL has more recently been known for.
Xy: Above was meant to be a project for me and we started to work. I had the idea in the first place and Vorph wanted to join just as we do in SAMAEL. The more we went into the process, the more we felt that it’s not that different from SAMAEL. We just decided that there are few songs that we wanted to play live anyway and that it was a good decision within the band. So yeah, it was a really different album, a different approach. We also wanted to surprise people, and do something unexpected.
APESHIT: One thing that’s really admirable about SAMAEL is that SAMAEL has never bowed to the pressure from fans, media, or your label to keep a certain style. And there has certainly been a lot of noise thrown your way. What kept you guys going strong and never compromising your vision?
Xy: I don’t know. The thing you say is interesting. When people really commend your music and you really don’t want to care, I think it still has an influence, an impact. I think as long as you do something you like and enjoy, and it comes from the heart, it’s fine. We always did what we wanted to do.
Also, the record company, they’re not the kind of record company that is trying to push you. They will try to influence you a little but they cannot impose anything on you.
APESHIT: On Above, did you play live drums or were they programmed?
Xy: Combination. We’ve been using this for the last two or three albums. We record some real drums like cymbals, and programming. The goal is to make a doubt…that you’re not sure if the drums are real or not, which seems to work. [Laughs]
APESHIT: It actually sounds more natural than drummers that play live drums that do some studio stuff to cheat.
Xy: Yeah. That’s cool. With programming I’m trying to reach something in my mind. We’re trying not to program it 100% in order to give it some groove.
APESHIT: It sounds like it was a lot of fun to write Above.
Xy: Yeah, it was fun in a way that we didn’t have something to follow. I just wanted to do something really aggressive. That was the main point. It was pretty easy, straight forward album.
APESHIT: SAMAEL was one of the first bands of the second generation of black metal after bands like VENOM and BATHORY. How did you guys feel about how it took many years for black metal finally catch on when you guys were doing it such a long time ago?
Xy: We always tried to not to be into a kind of scene. When the black metal thing got big, we kind of left it, which might be a mistake. I don’t know. We didn’t want to be labeled, and to be a part of something. People really need to label a band and to say that you sound like this or that.
APESHIT: The media, whether its mainstream music or underground music, have a lot of power to influence people.
Xy: Yeah, that’s true.
APESHIT: Even though you want to believe that this is underground metal and people always stay true to themselves, it’s the same thing as the mainstream. They listen to everything the media says for the most part.
APESHIT: Did you guys feel ripped off that the media didn’t give you enough credit for playing this style of music from the start in a way?
Xy: I don’t know about the U.S. but I can talk for Europe. The media were never supporting metal. It’s the kind of music that they want to put aside. The following is really from the people. It’s a scene of its own. Even when we started, it was just a lot of connections. Definitely the media has a lot of influence. I don’t feel that they’re “against” [us] or whatever. It’s fine. I think for metal unless you’re really mainstream, which is not the case for us, you get your name from doing gigs and stuff. I think at this point, unless it’s radio or something, the media has less of an influence.
APESHIT: What will the next album be like? Will it be a continuation of Solar Soul?
Xy: It’s really weird. I had a few songs. As I said, it (Above) was meant to be a project. I really don’t know what I’m going to do next. I would say something in between. I want to bring back an orchestra to bring in the energy. I have a lot of expectations for the next one. I really want to do something strong so we’ll see.
APESHIT: Throughout the band’s history, your sound has taken on quite an evolution. What influenced you guys way back in the era of Passage or Eternal to take a different direction with your sound?
Xy: Eternal was something more experimental. At that point we wanted to try different things. It really stands out. I like it but it’s really different.
Our influences are really everything. We really try to get as wide as possible. I think as a musician you need to be pretty open to listen to different kinds of music. Otherwise, you’re just going to repeat yourself. And you don’t want to copy another metal band.
I like classical stuff and movie soundtracks. The rule is metal so everything comes down to that in the end.
APESHIT: Now, about Era One… It was probably the biggest leap or change in style that you’ve taken from any album up to that point. It was interesting to hear Vorph singing over something different. A lot of people didn’t know what to do with it. What made you guys decide to write that album?
Xy: That album was a really weird period. We were just three in the band without a proper guitarist for the stage. I really see that album as a project…something we just made because we had to do an album. It was more a label decision to make it a SAMAEL album. The funny thing with Above is that I felt that Era One was pretty dark and basic and not metal at all…a very electronic oriented album. Above was probably something we had to do, or at least personally, something I had to do, to make a balance.
APESHIT: It took years for it to finally be released. Was that really frustrating for you?
Xy: No, not really because at the end, we had to two albums - Lesson in Magic [released as a bonus disc with Era One], which was pretty cool. When that album got released, we had already moved on to something else. We had one album released. We had been touring. We don’t really think about that anymore.
APESHIT: Do you think you’ll ever write another album like that again as a side project?
Xy: Yeah, more like that. I wouldn’t mind. It could be interesting to explore something but I want it to be different though. Maybe way more industrial or something. That could be interesting…then more as a side project or something.
APESHIT: I saw you guys back in 1999 when you toured with DIMMU BORGIR and you guys had a full stage show with fire dancers and everything. Since then, you guys haven’t had such a big production on stage in the U.S. Do you guys still have the same type of stage production when you play the rest of the world?
Xy: Yeah, we try. It just depends. We try to do our best with what we can afford. But the fire thing we’re not doing anymore. We try to do projections and stuff. Even here we had some special lights…still try to do something. But we have to adapt. It’s fine. At the end, it’s down to the music.
APESHIT: Do you guys any plans to release a DVD?
Xy: We’ve been discussing this, yeah. We just need one show. We have a lot of bonus material in a way like little gigs we’ve played here and there. But we just need one main gig to be good enough. We’ll see. Our goal is to make the new album next year.
APESHIT: Have you guys ever thought about making a film set to your music? Your music is really trippy. It would be cool if you could make that happen.
Xy: That would be cool. It’s a matter of budget also. It’s what you can afford and what you can do. I wouldn’t mind though.
APESHIT: One last question. Switzerland is not really famous for bands except for two bands – you guys and CELTIC FROST. Was is difficult to come out of Switzerland?
Xy: I think it is. It’s a small country and it doesn’t really help. But I like the scene. There’s not many bands but there’s a few bands, who are pretty original. There’s also YOUNG GUTS. I don’t know if you know them. They use drums, samples, and vocals only. They’ve been around for years. There’s a few things. I think it’s probably better to be part of a big scene. It probably helps more. When we started the band, we mostly played outside like Germany. It’s better to not just focus on your own country but to see Europe as a whole thing.