Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Interview with Oliver of Sonne Hagal

Sonne Hagal is a German neofolk band that put out its first recording in 2000, a 10" record called Sinnreger. Since then, they have released many singles, EPs, and LPs. Their music is astonishing from its lyrics to its orchestration to its precision. The Sonne Hagal Website gives a picture of the band as three silhouettes in a nearly black and white backdrop. This serves the purpose of demonstrating the mystery behind the band. Who is Sonne Hagal? How did their music come to exist?

These were a few of the questions I personally had before beginning this interview. Through the past few months, Oliver and I had started a sort of pen-pal-like correspondence. His first e-mail to me in the vein of an interview was "Well, we may try a step-by-step-interview, but I have to warn you. I am the worst interview partner ever, a grumpy old man, lazy and humourless." I found this to be an unfair self-judgment, as Oliver gave me a lot of really great answers and some recommendations to further my recent neofolk obsession.

As an outsider looking in, the beginning neofolk listener observes a fixation on Runology as well as European History and Mythology. I've learned a lot since becoming interested, though I have merely scratched the surface of neofolk's depths, as one can see after reading any interview with Ian Read (of Fire & Ice). Oliver is also very learned and gave me some good leads on where to continue my search.

In the interview, Oliver also lets slip that he has selected twelve songs for a new album. Unsurprisingly, I'm ecstatic as I'm typing this.

You can check out Sonne Hagal on Facebook and listen to their music on Spotify, or wherever you go to listen to music.

Jordan: When did you start making music?

Oliver: If I remember correctly I got an own guitar by the age of 12. But I found all those strings too annoying to deal with and put the instrument away pretty soon. Later, maybe by the age of 14 or 15 a schoolmate forced me to join his drum lessons during the vacations. He had occupied his father’s garage and built up a full drum set which looked like a mingle-mangle of scrap-metal and fossil drums… Well, those were probably my worst long vacations but along the way I learned to play the full drum set and ended up as a drummer for several punk rock projects in the local leftist and squatter’s scene. Later I rediscovered the guitar and together with our today’s keyboarder and bassist we started what later became Sonne Hagal.

J: When and how did you start Sonne Hagal?

O: It must have been the early nineties or mid-nineties when we changed our musical style totally. So far we had created and performed wildly improvised ritual and hypnotic noise collages and soundscapes. We had one synthesizer, a couple of drums (on which I played with human bones) and a drum computer. When we “rehearsed” we just checked our general concepts and ideas, no real song structures. We just followed each other referring to rhythms and melodies. The things we did couldn’t be repeated one-to-one when we performed in front of an audience. We just went deeper and deeper into the sounds and rhythms. Some of these performances must have been amazingly awful. Others went pretty well, depending on how well we interacted. When we were joined by our bassist and violinist we changed that noise terror into real song structures, repeatable melodies and lyrics. I found it pretty interesting to convey emotions and thoughts with rather “catchy” melodies instead of pure noise. At that time a good friend introduced us to neofolk, which we had never heard of before and we got to know music by Death In June, Sol Invictus, Fire + Ice. Their music strengthened our idea to walk this musical way.

J: How do you guys write lyrics? What do you focus on?

O: There are different ways that lyrics come off. Runic knowledge and Northern Mysteries have always been interesting for us though they are not the only topics we sing about. Sometimes I just come across good poems where more or less well-known poets have written wonderful thoughts and profound things that affect time, love and life in general. If these poems really touch me I try to find a melody that emphasizes, widens or sometimes even hides or thwarts the words. On the other hand I set to music things that have haunted me in dreams (as long as I can remember them) or things that move my heart or mind. Sometimes one single word I hear or read is enough to be inspired for a whole song. Sometimes I collect and rearrange ideas for a longer time until I am satisfied with the lyrics. Basically it’s not a rational process to validate whether the lyrics are good or bad, it’s rather a very subjective impression, the feeling that the verse is “whole” and expresses what I want to say. The feeling, the lyrics “suit me.” It is probably me alone who understands my own lyrics entirely (if at all), because it is in the nature of things that anyone will read, interpret and understand what he wants to understand. And that’s great - I love that certain “wiggle room.” There should be space enough for everyone to find something within the tracks.
J: Runes and Northern mysteries are something that interests me. What would you say to someone curious about them?

O: Well, the Runes and Northern Mysteries are wonderful things. To study and go into them means to search and find your history, your past, or even yourself. I personally see the Runes as a powerful medium to connect independent individuals and free spirits to create a network of people that are fully aware or awake. Children may find exciting stories about ancient gods; adults may see bigger relations between man and nature, between past, present and future. The Northern Mysteries and the Runes contain ancient knowledge and the memories of thousands of people that lived ages ago. Within the Runes we find everything that represents life itself like order and chaos, life and death, energy, emotion and will. However, they still enclose countless secrets and proof our will to go deeper and deeper into these mysteries and reveal one or another secret.

J: Do you think there are any artists who do a particularly good job of representing runes and northern mysteries?

O: There have been a couple of artists and musicians that have impressed and thrilled me. Of course I liked all the more or less obvious references to the Runes by Death In June, Sol Invictus or Fire + Ice. Particularly RĂ»na by Fire + Ice is a masterpiece. But I also liked less well-known artists and their runic influenced tracks such as Rob Crocker and Kate Waterfield. And last but not least, I love listening to Freya Aswynn’s The fruits of Yggdrasil.

J: How do you record music?

O: When we recorded our first 10“ record we hadn’t any professional equipment at all, I didn’t even own a guitar with pickup and had to borrow one for the recording sessions. We recorded on 8-track-analogue-tape. To get simple “special effects” like a distorted voice we used old speakers like those that are used in a doctor’s practice. Then we gave maximum input into those speakers, overrode them and got a distorted effect. The big disadvantage was that those speakers simply broke after two or three uses and we burnt up a lot of those speakers to get a proper result. There was also no way to correct a failed recording as we can do today with digital equipment. We simply had to start anew what was recorded poorly. Usually we start with the guitar tracks as all the music was written on guitar and add all other instruments step by step. We also like long-distance-recordings where we send single tracks to our friends and let them add their ideas and send the recordings back. Today we record digitally in a little recording studio that we built in our bassist’s apartment. Those digital tools offer several possibilities to experiment with sounds and effects to fulfill the ideas we had in mind.

J: Have you been working on new material?

O: Oh yes! Actually we are always working on new material. Once a sound carrier is released we start working on new tracks. But everything happens in slow motion. We all live in different cities and it demands skill to organize rehearsals, appointments for recording and mixing sessions or live shows. Nonetheless we have selected twelve songs for the next album. We’ve recorded the stuff already and recently work on a little “fine-tuning.” The sound of this album is even more organic, hermetic than before. Withdrawn, but with a lot of energy. We think it will be our best music ever!

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