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Music: Svalbard

Sometimes a band come along who just make you feel like someone has taken a jackhammer to your brain.

Have you ever had that sensation while emotive lyrics are being roared at you, where you can actually feel the emotional weight of them bearing down on you? I have, and I'm a sucker for it. There's something about that moment of shared experience, that click, that instant where you feel like you've stepped inside someone's body, even just for a second, and actually understood exactly the emotion they are writing about, that I just love. It's an effect that doesn't have the same impact without music accompanying the message...and for me, a band are at their best, when the music and the emotion they are trying to convey work in absolute harmony.

I've always been drawn to emotional metal for this reason, that perfect blend of heart-wrenching, heavy-as-lead, but beautiful music, intertwined with a relentless barrage of raw, screamed vocals, results in possibly the rawest form of pure expression imaginable.

However, your archetypal METALZ AS FUCK metal bands (like Lamb Of God, Slayer etc.) don't tend to incorporate that level of raw, personal story telling in their lyrics. Equally, at the other end of the spectrum, metalcore bands can sometimes seem so emotionally charged, that it comes across as disingenuous. can only imagine the feeling of utter miserable-joy that I experienced, when I happened upon a band who are mind-rattlingly heavy and clearly have absolutely no interest whatsoever in creating contrived, fashionably emotional music...but STILL manage to pack some of the rawest emotion I have ever heard into every song....

...that band, is Svalbard.

I wanted to chat to them in the right environment, so being a total baller I flew myself and the guys out to Svalbard (an Archipelago, north of Norway) to check out the northern lights and dive inside their minds. During a particularly righteous husky sled ride, we had this chat...

Have you been to Svalbard before?

Despite not having visited Svalbard before, we've always really related to it. Which probably seems like a strange thing to say - how does a band relate to place? Being a little Archipelago, all on it's own, isolated from everything else - that's kind of how we feel in the music scene. We don't belong to a particular sub-genre, we don't fit most bills easily - we're an icy block in the middle of the ocean, watching trends float past on shallow seas. You could say we put the 'ice' into isolation!

The fascination with Svalbard in particular came from reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I happened to be reading those at the same time the band formed. I felt like our glassy reverb tones would make a fitting soundtrack to the bleak, tundra landscapes of Svalbard - which is the place that provides the setting for most of the Northern Lights story.

I love the sheer rawness of your sound - HOLY SHIT WAS THAT A POLAR BEAR!? Errrm...anyway, where does that come from?

No, it’s too small, I think it’s an Arctic Fox!

Our sound is a cake of many layers, most of them bitter sweet. Our music can be an explosion in the heart, a lump in the throat or a punch in the gut; depending on the song.

We're big advocates for diversity, and we don't necessarily try to directly emulate the bands that influence us. For example, the yearnful feeling of a Dirty Three song may inspire me to pick up my guitar - but the outcome will be completely different (because I am not as talented as Warren Ellis haha!) But ultimately, it's that emotive quality that I search for when I write Svalbard riffs, not for the 'right' notes or the 'correct' tone.

I always find it complimentary when people say they find our music hard to describe / categorize, because all of my favorite bands tend to be like that. I love it when music transcends the barriers of genre. Outside of the box is where the most interesting riffs babies get born!

There is definitely a post-rock / dream pop influence within our heaviness; we're big fans of bands like Alcest, Mew, and Mono. I find their cinematic crescendos so moving!

In general, we all have varied and eclectic music taste, which amalgamates itself into some kind of Swedish Crust Hardcore Post Rock beast.

At the end of the day, we just go with what we love. Whether it’s distortion, delay, clean passages, blast beats, or d -beat – if it feels good to us to play, then it becomes part of our sound. There's nothing more restrictive than expectation, so we try not to impose it upon ourselves when we write music.

That's not to say we just throw any old shit and see what sticks. Our writing process is intense...intensely frustrating, that is! We are very picky about what ideas we keep. We scour over songs with a fine tooth comb, picking out all the bits that can be used. There's a lot of tearing apart and reconstructing. You can't be too precious about your own ideas because if they're not unanimously liked, they will end up on the cutting room floor. It wasn't until we wrote 2 collaboration songs with Pariso that I realised how strict our writing process is. Pariso just jammed and churned out the riffs! Whereas we dwell on our ideas for months sometimes!

Now, I like to think of the metal community as being pretty accepting and open...Serena, you're a frontwoman whose throat makes Vin Diesel sound like he's singing "Walking In The Air" - I'm guessing people are just totally accepting and cool with that. Right?

Unfortunately not. I like to assume the best of anyone, and not take the defensive stance from the offset; but the grilling I have received as a woman in metal has ground me down to a rather weary point. Makes me wish I had picked folk music instead! People constantly question you, as though you don't deserve to be there or as if you have to prove your worth.

For starters, most of the time, people assume I’m not in the band. When we arrived at a gig in Birmingham, the promoter greeted everyone else and shook their hands – apart from mine. Obviously I’m not capable of being in the band, and therefore don’t deserve a handshake, right? That seems to be the immediate assumption. I clearly just love sitting in a van for hours then carrying in heavy amps for the craic!

On that same tour in Cardiff, before we played, some guy came up and asked me if I was a groupie for Svalbard! I suppose on some lonely nights I kinda am...hahaha! But my point is: no one questions the guys. No one would go up to them and ask them to justify why they are there; so why does it keep happening to me? And they wonder why there are fewer women in metal! Because they can’t be arsed with the constant interrogation, that’s why! It’s hardly a warm welcome is it? Oi love, what the fuck are you doing here?! You must be sleeping with one of the band. It would be lovely to not be treated with suspicion at my own gig.

Unreal. What's the comment that's effected you the most?

The comment that cheesed me off the most was actually an interview question. It read: “Being that the hardcore scene is predominately male dominated have you found that the band has had less success since you are female fronted?” I sent a very long response to this question, establishing that A) I’m not the “front woman” I’m a guitarist who does some of the vocals. And B) it’s not particularly enlightened to highlight one band member’s sex as though it’s some kind of musical set back!

My response to this interview question was a good 5 paragraphs long, I put a lot of thought into how to approach such ignorance. So imagine how angry I felt when the interviewer posted the article, but had deleted that specific question and my response! (Probably because it made him look stupid)

Not only had he had offended me with his ill-assumptive question, but he then robbed me of my right to reply! So I wrote a song about it called Expect Equal Respect. I really didn’t want to write a song about gender issues in music, because I like to live in the hope that people don’t need to be reminded to treat everyone as an equal. But my optimism keeps getting thwarted.

What's wrong with people? Like, I mean for real...why do you think some people say that kind of shit?

I think David Mitchell (the comedian/Guardian writer, not the ‘Cloud Atlas’ author) said it best. He was discussing how his hilarious wife -comedienne Victoria Cohen Mitchell-, gets asked to appear on panel shows like Mock The Week, not because she’s funny, but “to make up the female numbers.”

That kind of ‘forcibly P.C. producer-y’ attitude dismisses all of her talent; the producers only want her there to provide a bit of genetic variation on the show. David concluded that “when you highlight someone’s gender – you reduce them to it” as Victoria wasn’t being seen for her merits, but for her femininity.

This quote captured my experiences in a band perfectly. Sometimes it feels like people don’t notice my creative output or my riffing. They only notice that I’m a girl. They come up and congratulate me after a gig – not on a good set, but on being a girl. They should probably congratulate my mum really, when it was her womb that determined those precious XX chromosomes they love so much.

This got me thinking about how positive discrimination is still discrimination. Mentioning someone’s gender when discussing their band is no more appropriate than highlighting someone’s race or sexual orientation. It’s irrelevant and diminishing to their art. If alternative music is a sanctuary for the alienated, why are we so quick to highlight people’s differences within it? If a person wants to play music, they should simply be referred to as a musician – nothing else.

I don’t think it helps that both guys and girls are so quick to use terms like “Female Fronted!” when advertising bands. When that term is applied on a gig poster, it reads: “Come look at us!” rather than “Come listen to us;” because it is describing a physical feature of the band that is completely unrelated to their sound.

‘Female fronted’ also implies that it’s necessary to have gender-based segregation in music. But this isn’t football! We don’t need a women’s league! We are all together and equal in music, I thought?

It’s almost turning into an ‘us against them’ situation, with misguided events such as “Find The Female Headliner” occurring in London. They claim to be battling against the lack of women on bills of Reading Festival; but maybe battling for BETTER headliners of Reading and Leeds would be a more worthy cause haha! Just like Victoria Cohen on panel shows, I would hate to be asked to play Reading to “make up the female numbers.” That’s equally as bad as hardly any women playing in the first place.

It’s just such a futile battle though - Reading Festival is a fucking mainstream ‘generic guitar music’ festival, of course it isn’t diverse! Of course it isn’t representative! Just let them get on with being a white male cash cow...hmm, how does it produce milk if it’s a boy?! Everyone just needs to start expecting the worst from major corporations!

Oops, I think our snowmobile took a slight detour at Ranty Road there!

I reckon people say all these stupid things to women in music, because of positive discrimination and gender being treated like some kind of novelty / battle. If people stop remarking on it, it won’t be so ‘remarkable’ – people can get back to listening with their ears to music, rather than looking at what sex the person behind the song is.

It’s a difficult situation, because I am opinionated and outspoken upon the matter myself – yet I hate it when someone brings it up when describing my band, as if my tits are the only noteworthy thing. (Well, they do sound great on the record) But my stance is not “more women in music to make up the numbers! Yeah female fronted! Us against the guys” It’s simply – EVERYONE IS EQUAL. Stop highlighting trivial differences. Appreciate artists for their output, not for other miscellanious factors of their circumstance.

You strike me as a band that has literally NO interest in the bullshit that comes with being in a band, I'm surprised you even came out to Svalbard to indulge my literary fantasies to be it important to you to be DIY, away from interference from "the industry"?

Ahh, the “Creative Industry” - it’s a bit of an oxymoron, isn’t it? Nothing makes creativity dry up more than demand. I actually fear being in a band like Fall Out Boy. They’ve got management constantly on their back, telling them what to do, when it’s needed, how to dress, who’s standing in the front in the press shot. That pressure tends to chip away at creative energy, which is the reason most fall in love with music in the first place. It must be like having everything you ever wanted but losing your reason for wanting it.

You’re first album becomes a cookie cutter and you’ve got to bake a new batch that’s exactly the same every 2 years – whilst still creating something new and fresh and exciting and not going through the motions - God forbid! You become a slave to product. You have a million middle men in between you and your art, you and your fans. All this, just to play in arenas that look the same every night, where it’s too big and dark to even see the crowd you’re playing to.

That's a career. That's not what we want in Svalbard. Which is exactly why we play the kind of obtuse music that it's near impossible to earn a living from! Music has always been my escape, I love that moment when you have a little explosion of ideas. I would hate to have to taylor those ideas to meet the expectations of a company. Then it becomes work, not passion. I just want to keep music precious. I want to keep it personal. I want my ideas to be free to take whatever form they will. I don't want the spark to give way to the oil of a functioning machine.

When you're all crammed in a little van, trundling round Europe, meeting lovely people who run DIY venues that are often converted squats, who cook for your band and put you up for the night - all for nothing but the love of hardcore; that's when playing music is special. That's when you get to make friendships that last a lifetime. And no one is trying to step on each other, there's none of that competitive bullshit between bands, no cynical marketing 'angles' - just loads of appreciation and support for your honest art in it's rawest form. Everyone within the DIY community is aware of how hard it is to be a DIY band or promoter, so everyone gets treated with the utmost respect. The level of effort and enthusiasm shown through DIY venues and record labels is like nothing else. It's much more magical than money.

Unfortunately, even in the rock world now, it seems you have to dumb yourself down to achieve success. You have to be a bastion of tired cliches like the 'sex, drugs and rock n roll' lifestyle. I fucking hate that bit on the last page of Kerrang! Where they rate a musician based on whether they've trashed a hotel room or puked up beer on stage or whatever. Why is such moronic behavior still celebrated in the rock world?!

If we ever even got to the level where we were sleeping in a hotel (rather than on someones floor) I would be way too grateful to contemplate trashing the place. I mean, how fucking bratty is that behavior! It's like children throwing tantrums. And if that's what the rock world is, then I don't want to be part of it.

At the end of the day, we would rather have music as a form of self expression than as a day job. When you're DIY you can do what ever you want, that freedom is the most valuable thing to us as a band.

When you're not being a face/heart meltingly incredible metal band...what else are you doing?

Well...I must admit I have a really geeky hobby. I'm a theme park enthusiast. I travel all over the world visiting theme parks, riding roller coasters and writing big ol' reports on them. So far, I have ridden 339 different roller coasters across Europe, the USA and Japan. Many times I will make the band stop whilst we're on tour so I can nip into a theme park for a few hours!

I also do art under the name 'Cherry Cats.' I designed our album cover, but my usual style is much more cutesy-Kawaii stuff. I like to design inappropriately sweet gig posters for ridiculously heavy bands!

Liam and Mark are both really into bike riding; Liam also genuiely loves the organisational stuff of being in a band. When he's not playing guitar he's emailing, spreadsheeting, planning tours and taking care of videos / merch designs etc. He would make a great band manager!

Obviously we all have crappy day jobs too!

So there we are! An archived chat with one of the best metal bands on Planet Earth today. Since this article was originally published the guys have played a heap of incredible shows and are putting out there new album: "It's Hard To Have Hope" which is a stunning collection of songs around the central theme of, well, essentially things that really piss the band off (and rightly so). Do not miss it, it drops on May 29th.

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