|Grown Below hit hard with their debut 'The Long Now' last year; The band has produced a rich and tense blend of Doom where darkness still lets come some fragile gleams of hope. With guitarist and lyricist Lennart Vanstaen, doom-metal dwelled more than usual upon the conceptual aspect of the music.|
|1) Hello Lennart. Let’s start with a traditional question: can you introduce your first album 'The Long Now' to the readers of doom-metal.com?|
Well, it’s a very complex album to say the least. For us, it has a long history (we had most of the songs in 2010 but the recording process took ages).
Musically, The Long Now is a first product of a band that had taken up its first steps towards a certain atmosphere. We didn’t want to make any specific kind of music, just a combination of everything we love, and by that I mean that we listen to rock, ambient, all kinds of metal, stoner, doom, pop, indie, grunge, trip-hop, minimal, electronica, you name it. So we just wanted to create a musical atmosphere we love, a dark atmosphere, but also silent, beautiful, narrative and slow. There have been many comparisons, but I guess the best I could describe it is: slow, dark, deep, silent, emotive.
Narratively, The Long Now is also a concept album. In short, it is an alternative interpretation of 2012 (the end of the world) as the end of time. Time has always been my kind of abstract thing to write about, and I wanted to integrate some story in the album. We took the idea of time coming to an end, not the world itself. We created a fictional journey into the past, when creatures (the ones who are devoid of age) roamed the earth centuries ago, long before mankind even existed. In 2012, these creatures awake, and by that they bring the concept of time to a stop, creating chaos all over the world. The result is a rip in the earth (the abyss) where all matter falls into. When time eventually stops, there is no past and no future, only the everlasting present (the long now). Here, people do not live, nor are they dead, they are trapped inside time. The idea I had for the concept is a combination of the book/film ‘The Langoliers’ by Stephen King, the actual project ‘The Long Now Foundation’ (a 10.000 year clock for the future) and the fact we live in a world where time is the essence (the western world, that is).
2) One can feel many influences in Grown Below’s music, some really modern elements and some others more typical of the 70’s. Which groups/musicians could you say have helped to shape the band’s sound?
To really answer your question honestly and in full, I’d have to write for an hour and a half, namedropping every single influence of every band member. Because it’s true: one can hear Isis, Cult Of Luna or Katatonia, but these bands are a major influence as well (the ones in the top of my head): Radiohead, Kyuss, Placebo, Black Cobra, Sleep, Pink Floyd, Deftones, Sigur Ros, Stars of the Lid, Queens of the Stone Age, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Black Sabbath, Wolves in the Throne Room, Muse, NIN, Explosions in the Sky…
3) The polished aspect of the compositions and the control that you as musicians show make a big initial impression. Delving into the available literature, we soon find out that Grown Below existed before, under the name Timer. So, let’s turn to the past: tell us a bit more about this previous band, please…
Timer started as a band in 2007. It consisted of five members, including three from the current line-up of Grown Below. We were friends who wanted to play music again (yes, there was some band before that) and we all had something for stoner/grunge. We shared a passion for Kyuss and Alice In Chains, so we started creating songs in that style with our own touch to it, of course. We recorded two albums and then there was a change in the line-up. The drummer left and the current drummer (Johan Heyrman) joined, as we wanted to change our style of music a bit to something darker. After a relatively short period of time, we came up with an album: ‘Yet Here We Stand’. It was our approach of a mixture between the previous style (stoner/grunge) and new influences (postmetal, 70’s rock, doom, even hardcore). We played a great deal of shows and we received good criticism from national press. Our album was humbly successful, but live we didn’t manage to make our reputation true. We played well, but not awesome, and that was a bit of a problem we thought. After a while, Jens decided to leave the band. It was the best for us all, but nevertheless we were stuck with the four of us (and Matthijs didn’t play the guitar back then). So we did some auditions and Nicholas came through as the best guy to bring the second guitar back to Timer. He played a couple of shows with us and recorded ‘The Long Now’ in the studio. Unfortunately, he had other things going on and also left the band. At that point, some of us merely abandoned all hope, knowing it was so difficult to find someone who could relate to us and also was a great guitarist, with the same musical taste. Timer almost fell through, but, at the edge of dawn, we had some good long talks and decided to start over again, with Matthijs picking up the second guitar (and still doing the vocals). It was going to be hard of course, because he wasn’t used to playing the guitar while singing and he didn’t have an amp, effects, or even an appropriate guitar. With all this, the decision fell that we no longer could go on under the name Timer, and after a brainstorm session or two we came up with Grown Below. Then, we went back into another studio to remix and remaster The Long Now for an even better result.
4) What led you to that change your moniker? Your musical or thematic evolution? A change in the composition of the band? What meaning do you give to the combination of these two words: "grown" and "below"?
For the first questions, see the answer above. It was not much of a choice, rather a reason to go on with the four of us and regain our credibility. The meaning of these words are nothing deep: we wanted a name that sounded dark and secret, so we just came up with it. I have to say, it took us quite long to make a final decision, because we had a whole list of possible band names.
5) Once Grown Below fully formed, how did you approach the composition process? Did you use some elements, fragments and demos from the time of Timer or did you scrap everything you had established so far to build on a new ground?
At first, we thought of doing some songs from ‘Yet Here We Stand’ with Grown Below, but we came back to that decision, because we wanted a new start, not an old-semi-start. Of course, technically speaking, we still perform every track of ‘The Long Now’. But that is only because we changed our name during the recording process. So yes, the some of the songs on ‘The Long Now’ are older than it would seem. I think Trojan Horses (They Ride) was written somewhere near the end of 2008. But, we see ‘The Long Now’ as a new album, even though it is pretty old. And we are working on a new one, so eventually, it all adds up.
6) How did you deal with the labels to get a contract? One striking thing is the fact that no demo whatsoever prior to 'The Long Now' (under the name Grown Below, that is) is mentioned in your biography. Was the album already finished before you ever contacted the labels? How did you get in touch with Slow Burn; what was the reason of that choice?
Like I said, the album was already finished more than a year before we made a deal with Slow Burn. We just remixed and remastered it to get a better chance of convincing a label, and Slow Burn was actually very interested right from the start. Their expertise and their honesty in combination with their direct approach, made it easy for us: that’s how we like working. So, it wasn’t much of a difficult choice, we all fell in love with the label, which takes very good care of its bands. Also, Slow Burn answered our ‘demands’ for the album, which was very nice. And we were (and still are) immensely proud with how it all turned out to be.
7) Let’s return to the present, a few months after the release of 'The Long Now'. How do you see that album today? Are you fully satisfied with it or do you see some areas for improvement?
We are all very happy with it – it captures the atmosphere we wanted very nicely, thanks to Filip, who did the remix. But we also really feel the personal struggle of the whole history of this difficult album. We hear the rough recordings underneath as well as every single detail we worked very hard on. I think our drummer is the least satisfied with it (but still: enormously satisfied), because he was not really ready to record every song yet (he had not been long in the band at this point). And of course, we hear some imperfections, but to answer your question correctly: we see our first album as a musical maze of memories, an album with so much in it, we feel almost nostalgic, even though it wasn’t always that fun. ‘The Long Now’ will always be an album with a history and I honestly believe we have never worked any harder musically.
8) I feel the two guitarists to be quite complementary: I'd even say that that kind of complicity only flourishes with time. You are one of those guitarists, your brother is the other one: tell us how you two work together. Did you learn how to play together?
I already mentioned Nicholas, who did the second guitar on the album. But Matthijs did also play the guitar on some tracks on the album. So who you mostly hear on the album is Nicholas and me. We didn’t know each other for that long. But since Matthijs took up the guitar and when we play live now, or rehearse, it feels much more natural. And of course that’s because my brother and me share the same emotions and are quite at the same level. We only play the guitar together for a short period of time, but when we first played, it felt like we never did anything else.
9) As a singer, Matthijs shows a stunning control over his vocal possibilities. Growls, hardcore yells, clear voice, you name it… His voice offers all possible contrasts with the musical content. How do you organize those two aspects, voice and long instrumentals? How do you make them enter an efficient dialogue?
Musically, you’d have to ask Matthijs about this. But what I do know is that Matthijs drives on emotions, just like me. When it became clear he was way better in writing the music (and the rest of the band co-writes/edits the song while rehearsing), Matthijs just began writing all music. He takes his time for it and he puts a lot of emotion in the songs he writes. Sometimes, I can even hear in which period of time a certain song is written, linking it to his personal life. He always has a basic idea first and then starts recording, genuinely adding vocal parts in his mind to track later on in the recording process. So basically, he starts with the music and then everything else exists along the way of the recording.
10) 'The Long Now' conveys strong pessimistic feelings. They are anchored in a climate of modernity: murders, wars, terrorism, natural disasters… a world in ruins that meets its doom. At least this is how I feel the vibes in the album. Does the current context the world lives in influence your music? Do you think that our modern civilization is heading for a fall?
It’s always great and inspiring to hear different theories about the album concepts I come up with. In general, I also drive on emotions, coming from my personal space and life. But I am the sort of person that needs phantasies and unrealities. The idea for The Long Now came from a combination of two things: the book/movie ‘The Langoliers’ by Stephen King, about a group of people who happened to fly through a time rip and get stuck in time; and The Long Now Foundation. Of course there is a third aspect, being all the fuss around 2012 and the end of the world. Like I mentioned, I took the idea from The Langoliers (in the light of modern society, the western time pressure) and altered the end of the world into the end of time. It’s somewhat abstract, but like I said, I like phantasy, but of course every person is a product of the time wherein he or she lives. Answering your last question I can say that I want to see more effort in creating a better environment and even more important: I hope that profits from big companies will not remain a problem. Balance needs to be restored, but I think we’re doing little things already, we just need to keep doing them and give nature the respect she deserves.
11) Would you agree if I said that, in spite of its deep blackness, "The Long Now" holds a gleam of hope which is carried in particular by the intervention of an ethereal female voice in 'The Abyss' and the title track? Which specific feeling did you want those female lines to convey in those two songs?
The female vocals are indeed an indication of ‘hope’, but that is not the only thing that carries the positive note of ‘hope’. We depict the journey as a kind of time travel, and although the outcome is definitely negative, I always try to embody a feeling of comfort, even though it isn’t a necessarily positive one. Sometimes that feeling is hope, sometimes nostalgia, sometimes melancholy. I think people recognize it, it’s a big part of who we are as musicians and as people.
12) How did you get in touch with the two female singers, Arconic (also responsible for the violin) and Stéphanie Van Campenhout? Will you work again together in the future?
Aurore (Arconic) is a personal friend of mine. She was part of my ambient/electronica project Spleen Collective, where she sang and arranged violins and some ideas. We immediately fell in love with each other (not romantically but musically). And so I asked her to work something out for violins on The Abyss and vocal parts on The Long Now. We will definitely work with her in the (near) future. Stéphanie is a friend of Jolan, our bass player. We knew she had the voice that we wanted for a little piece on The Abyss.
13) We were speaking of hope and future: on a personal level, do you think that the contemporary world still holds some fertile seeds that would make optimism and faith in the future possible?
Yes. If you look around then you’ll notice that the world is making an effort in contributing to the environment in a good and ecological way. But it still needs to improve. More and more companies and people are being more ‘green’ and aware, but still, it’s not enough. We need everyone to participate in this matter, because it concerns all of us. Personally, I feel that capitalism was a great thing, but its sources and powers have run out. It’s time for something else. Now.
14) And in a musical sense, do you think that Doom can be combined with Hope?
Of course! What is this nonsense about genres and styles…? Everything is possible. Doom is a word which contains a negative or pessimistic idea, but that doesn’t mean that it should not be hopeful. I want to compare it to nostalgia once again (or melancholy): sometimes, it’s enjoyable and sometimes there is a positive outcome. But on the other hand, it’s not obligatory. I say that whatever music you’re playing or whatever lyrics you’re writing, the big picture must contain an atmosphere that feels right, whatever that may be. If you play grindcore metal and you sing about flowers and dolls, if it works, it works. That is for the band and the listener to decide. We trust our own sense/ears.
15) Let us look at the future prospects for a bit. How do you see the evolution of Grown Below? Are some new compositions already in the pipeline for the next album (which implies that I do hope to hear a second one!)?
I can’t see the future, because I have no special gift, haha. But I can gladly say that we have already finished some tracks for the upcoming album, yes. On youtube you can find some live videos from new songs. We are probably going to finish two or maybe three songs before we head to the studio. We aim for November. The album has got a title as well, it will be called ‘The Other Sight’ and it will continue the storyline of its ancestor, ‘The Long Now’. Maybe we’re doing a split with another band to kill time between this moment and early 2013 (when we hope the album will be ready), but nothing is certain. Slow Burn Records already signed up for the new album, though. I hope you find this good news!
16) Will you work in the same studio again, with the same people (for production, mix, artwork…)?
We will not record in the same studio. Recordings are uncertain, but the mix (and master perhaps) will be done by Filip De Bot, who did the final remix of ‘The Long Now’. We’re not sure about artwork, we have to think about that. But I can assure you and our fans we will do everything to make it sound at least as good as ‘The Long Now’, perhaps even better.
17) Past, present, future…these lead us to Grown Below's central theme: time. Vast subject, covering science, philosophy and theology. How would you explain, in a few lines, your personal understanding of that concept within Grown Below?
That is a hard question. I think if I wanted to explain this and really think about it a long time, I could write half a book. Let’s just put it this way: time is a subject that has interested me all my life, it covers the past (memories, nostalgia), the present (the weird thing of ‘now’, which is over as soon as you’ve said it, even sooner, so incomprehensible) and the future (mysterious). These three things are so philosophically challenging to write about, this in combination with the fact that the era we live in revolves around the concept of time, make it a perfect thing to write about. I like to write poetically as well, and the abstract yet simple understanding of time is perfect for this.
18) Time, space, cosmos…several concepts closely linked with each other and which can be as intriguing as these ambient parts one can find in your album (Minaco II – Nebula, Malklara). From your point of view, what meaning do these ambient passages have in the process?
The ambient parts take the listener to another place to breathe and to float for a short period of time. To be at ease in between the monolithic songs. Narratively though, Minaco II – Nebula is the downward trip into the abyss, in which the protagonist falls. The nebula (sort of time dust) that surrounds him takes him to the other side of the abyss, which of course is called ‘The Long Now’ and where time does not exist. Malklara is the question at the end of the album. You can feel whatever you like to imagine.
19) The lyrics are written in the form of simple sentences, sometimes just single words, which emphasises the weight of each one. At the same time, an air of mystery is emerging, leaving the listener's mind free to interpret. Tell me more about the way you write your lyrics…
Thanks very much, I think you’ve really said it right. I dislike using fancy words all the time, I am all about simplicity. Not sure why. I guess simple words can explain more because they sound more honest or something. And less vague. I like to pose simple ideas with simple words, and still create some mystery and space for multi-interpretation. I can’t really explain how I write my lyrics, it just… happens. I listen to the music that Matthijs has written in the rough mix, I listen and feel the mood/emotions and then I try to write sentence per sentence. Then I have all these sentences and loose words, which are feelings that I had listening to the song. Then I try to make something more linear of it all, most of the time it works fine. Sometimes I have to start over a phrase or a chorus, but that seldom happens. It’s really all about emotions and touching the listener with the right tone to the right words. That is why Radiohead is my favorite band: they excess in creating a perfect blend of music and lyrics. If you hear a song and you are touched in your very inner soul, because you honestly think that these exact words, combined with those exact tones and that vocal melody form the most perfect feeling you can possibly imagine on that very moment, then you can speak of a really good song, in my opinion. A story behind it is merely informative and is only in some cases a real extra value. A song without a ‘story’ isn’t a bad song, necessarily. But of course, I like concept albums a lot, otherwise we wouldn’t have made one!
20) Thanks for the time you've spent answering my questions. Any last things to add?
Thank you for the thorough interview. It was a pleasure answering these great questions. I hope many people will read it, of course ;) and that it leads to our world domination!!! Haha. No really, thanks a lot and we hope that some good can come from it. And to our fans (or potential new ones): thank you very much for your support and we hope we can meet you once and play wherever you live. Thank you.
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