I can assure you that I feel much happier knowing that everything is well-organised before every review that I have to make. Unfortunately (or fortunately in this case), I only managed to receive the promo of Heaven Shall Burn’s latest album "Antigone" hours before arriving at the London Barfly (Camden Town). There, I had the unique pleasure of interviewing the band’s guitarist and main man Maik Weichert, and also of realising how influential the Mythology of my country still is to artists all over the world.
I really can’t remember when was the last time that I was so ill prepared for an interview, so I think that it will be wiser if I was to let you do most of the talking here. First of all I would like you to present your band, by giving me a short bio.
Maik: The band, as you can see us now, started back in 1996. This is in a way the same line up, as the one from the very beginning. There is no line up changes in Heaven Shall Burn, and that’s something that we’re really proud of. We started by having three guitarists in the band, but even though one of them decided to leave the band shortly after, we decided that we are going to remain a quintet. We are really proud of that really - we’re like five friends playing together, you know? We released our first mini-CD "In Battle" in 1997 with a very small label. I think that we printed something like 1000 copies of it, but we have just managed to re-release it now in 2004. Now, we have just released our new CD "Antigone", which might be quite interesting to you, but we will probably talk about this a little bit later (he knew that I am Greek long be fore the beginning of this interview). Well, before the release of our first Mini-CD and that of "Antigone", we have also released two other full-length albums, "Asunder" (2000) & "Whatever It May Take" (2002), and also two other split CDs. One of them was with a band called Caliban who are really good friends of ours. Thinking about it, you could say that we have a pretty big discography so far. We have also toured in many places like in Southern America, we have played in places like Iceland and Greece and we have made several European tours - we’re pretty much on the road, but we’re also in the University and learning our jobs, so you can say that we still consider this band to be some kind of a hobby. We’re kind of semi-professionals, and that’s cool for us.
I hope that the information I have managed to gather about your band is correct, but this must be your first album with Century Media. How did you end up working for this label?
Maik: They were really keen to release our stuff. Our previous full-length album "Whatever It May Take" (2002) was a huge success in Europe, and Lifeforce records, our old label did a great job promoting it (this is the first time that I hear a musician praising his previous record label!!!). Lifeforce and Century Media always worked together really close - Lifeforce did a lot of licensing stuff for Century Media, so we already knew each other for quite a long time. We have some really close friends working for Century Media, and one day they came up with the idea for us to make a bigger step…to reach the next level as a band. We never really wanted to get far away from the Underground scene, so we were looking for a label that will still make it possible for us to work with Lifeforce for future projects like the release o f an EP or something like that. We accepted the offer that was given to us by Century Media because we could work really close together with Lifeforce…keep one foot in the Underground, and at the same time make that extra step as a band. That’s an opportunity that not every band has. All the other big record labels that have offered us a contract, didn’t have the same approach to things as Century Media, whose philosophy is really cool. We have chosen to work with them instead, and so far we’re really satisfied.
Normally it is the music press’ duty to present and explain the sound that a band has, but in this case I would prefer it if you were the one to describe what Heaven Shall Burn’s music sounds like.
Maik: That’s a really tough question. The very first thing that I always tell people is that we do not see us as great artists or something. We’re not like Cannibal Corpse or Morbid Angel - bands whose members are totally skilled musicians. We do not play huge guitar solos or anything like that. Heaven Shall Burn is all about energy, like punching people’s faces and then screaming lyrics straight in their minds. The music of Heaven Shall Burn is like the missile, and the lyric is the warhead, a fifty-fifty relationship. We want to spread our message, but also the anger and the feelings that we have deep inside. It will be quite easy for you to detect through our music if one of us, or all of us, is pissed off about something! Our music is about aggression and energy, but also about melody. If we need to use the recipe of a moshriff, we use a moshriff - if we need to describe a very sentimental moment, we will use a nice melody. We’re really just trying to carry and describe all of our feelings through our music. To give you a simpler explanation though…it could be described as Aggressive/Melodic Death Metal music. We’re pretty much influenced by the music of At The Gates and Bolt Thrower. Bolt Thrower has always been a huge influence for us. They always had this "no compromise" attitude that we really respect. If you see them live, they’re like a tank that’s ready to roll over you, but they always have these great melodies that are ready to invade your ears. Now lyrics-wise, we’re mostly influenced by bands like Earth Crisis - lyrics that deal with the political and ecological problems of our planet. It is very important for us to be a political band.
Do you think that the Metal audience nowadays is open for bands that carry messages similar to yours?
Maik: I think that yes, they are. Things are a lot easier nowadays, I must admit. In the beginning of the 90’s things were easier for bands like ours to express themselves, but during and round the end of that decade things did change. Think for a moment of bands like Suicidal Tendencies, Napalm Death, Kreator or even Obituary. During that ere, all of these bands were referring to the problems of our Eco-system, but through the nineties, all these problems were forgotten. It was all about image bull***t, mass murders and Dragon slayers (laughs). I believe though that the political consciousness in the Metal scene is gradually coming back, and I also believe that it’s really cool that it generally comes from the Metalcore/Hardcore side. It is very cool that this very aggressive music was chosen to present such strong ideas and feelings. Being apolitical is something really dangerous, you know? You see all these fascist Black Metal bands abusing the apolitical attitude of the fans in the Metal scene, to spread their wrong attitude. That’s why I believe that it is really good what’s happening now. Metalheads are also living in this planet, so they should also care a little bit about what’s happening in it. It is also really important not to let people think that you’re trying to become a preacher or something, you know? We are just trying to make people thing about what’s happening. People are getting told what to do every day from all different sides: from their girlfriends, from their parents, from their bosses…we don’t really want to become one of them. We just want people to have fun, but also to make them thing of a few things at the same time.
Doesn’t it disappoint you the fact that the majority of the bands that are enjoying huge success at the moment are mostly image-orientated bands like Slipknot for instance? Why does this happen in your opinion?
Maik: It’s all about commercialism really -a single heartbreak is easier to sell that a problem with the Eco-system (laughs). It is really silly to see thirty year old guys singing about problems with their daddy’s or their girlfriends - all that Pop/Punk bull***t. Take Killswitch Engage for example, one of my favourite bands. I love these guys - they are great guys playing great music, but I think that the lyrics that they wrote in their first albums are far better than they stuff that they write nowadays. Their music is still outstanding, of course, and that makes them still a great band. I am wondering what they would have managed to achieve if that great music was accompanied by good political lyrics. The guys take political step points in every interview they make. I think that they should focus more on that, and not in talking about lost loves, but of course it’s their band and they are quite successful, so…it’s cool.
Well, I think that it is now time to say a few things about the new album, starting by the very interesting choice for a name - "Antigone". How come you chose to use a name that derives from the Ancient Greek Mythology?
Maik: We were trying to find a name for a prototype of a freedom fighter, and believe me when I say that it is very difficult to find a name of a freedom fighter that has not yet been "abused" in one way or another. If you take for instance Karl Marx, or Jeanne D’Arc, these icons have always been abused by some political…you know what I mean? We chose to take a fictional character like Antigone from Sophocles’s drama, whose story impressed me very much. The thing that impressed me the most is the fact that she’s a girl. Most people think that freedom fighters are gloomy nights with a sword in their hands, beating everybody but. Antigone is just a girl who gathers all her strength in order to fight a tyrant King, and that’s really cool (a note: for more info please refer to Sophocles’s tragedy, it is indeed a very interesting book - a work of art!). She is definitely the prototype of a freedom fighter, and what is also impressive is the name itself: Antigone contains the word anti, which has a very cool meaning (note: anti in Greek means "against", so the conclusions are all yours!). There is much good stuff that's taken from Ancient Greek Mythology that apply in people’s thoughts nowadays and that is very impressive (note: he did say all these things, I swear!).
Is "Antigone" a concept album, then?
Maik: There is not a basic concept that the lyrics are based upon, but there are some stories there about freedom fighters, their lives and the way they chose to live them. One thought that I had in my mind while writing these songs was that if all these people decided to dedicate their lives in the fight for freedom, people like the singer from Chile called Victor Jara or Nelson Mandela, it should be at least possible for us today to keep a little bit of a f**k you attitude in our heads, you know? If someone is forcing you to do something that you have always questioned in your life, like trying to impose his authority on you, you should always remember of all those freedom fighters and the sacrifice they made in order for you today to be able to say that exact f**k you. Based on that sacrifice, we should try to become something much better than just a bunch of stupid slaves.
A question that I always try to ask extreme bands with a strong lyrical context. How do you tempt your fans in order to get more involved in the lyrical part of the songs, rather than just enjoy the strong vibe that derives from your music?
Maik: Well, first of all I believe that the names of the songs play a very important role here, and of course the name of the album. If you decide to name your album "Antigone", I want to believe that quite a lot of people will ask themselves: "what is this album all about?" Of course having just the promo in your hands, you are missing the opportunity to study the artwork of the album. Inside that booklet, you can find famous saying from people like Nelson Madela, and I hope that something like that will manage to attract the interest of the people towards the lyrics of the album. If a song is called "The Weapon They Fear", I want to believe that people will try to find out what is the weapon that we’re talking about here. I have to admit that I’m pretty surprised knowing how many people do read our lyrics. In the beginning I didn’t believe that they would have such a great effect on people, but you will not believe how many Metalheads have asked me about the lyrics of the album. Some people find it quite good that we didn’t choose to refer to things like mass murders and things like that (note: is there a hint about a certain band there?).
I think that what also impressed a lot of people is the fact that even though you have many similarities with bands like The Haunted, at the same time you manage to sound so different, but we are going to talk about this further along the way.
You asked me what my first impression of the album was. Before listening to the album, and having read all the reviews for the album that referred to you as a mixture of The Haunted and Bolt Thrower I was a bit sceptical, but I was really glad to find out that Heaven Shall Burn are something much more that just another clone of either of those bands. What is your opinion about the things that are said by the music press regarding your similarities with the bands that were just mentioned?
Maik: Both The Haunted and Bolt Thrower are really great bands, and to be on the musical scale, somewhere between those two bands it is something that really flatters us. This is the description that someone else has chosen to give though, I can only tell that we have a lot in common with the attitude that Bolt Thrower has as I already told you.
Bolt Thrower are also not the best musicians, but they grab their instruments and just blow everything away, without any compromise. Same applies with The Haunted: look at the Bjorler brothers for instance.
With an At The Gates reunion they could have made ten times the money that they do now, but they still choose to continue doing what they believe with The Haunted. If you listen to their latest CD "Revolver", you will see that they are not playing it the "safe way" - they are still trying to do new stuff. What I’m trying to say is that we have more in common with the attitude of both these bands, rather than with their music. We are probably the result of a massive cocktail that contains elements from both these bands, but I’m pretty sure that there are some people out there who like both Bolt Thrower and The Haunted and are not that fond of our music.
From things that you said during this interview, am I to assume that you are the only composer in the band?
Maik: Yes, that’s true. I write most of the music for our albums.
Ok, how do the rest of the members contribute to the final result then?
Maik: Well, we always make what I like to call the riff casting (laughs). After I write the riffs for the songs, and while we’re in the rehearsal room, I play those riffs for the guys and normally I can tell pretty fast whether they really like them or not. It is like those silly television super-star castings: the rest of the members are sitting down as if they’re the jury and decide the fate of those riffs. That’s the way that it works out really.
Also with the lyrics: I write all of the lyrics, and sometimes one of the guys will come and say something like "oh yeah, I thought that this part was really touching", or "I heard of that story that I find really inspiring. Why don’t we write lyrics for a song?" I really can depend on the judgement of my band mates. There were times when I wrote some riffs that I felt really enthusiastic about and t hey just didn’t like them. In the beginning I would feel really pis**d off about it, but normally half a year later or something I will realise that this riff was actually crap and that they were right all the way. It seems that we do work very well together, you know?
How and where was the album recorded?
Maik: We recorded "Antigone" in a small, but really cool and upcoming studio in East Germany called "Rap* of Harmony", where we actually our previous full length CDs. We made that decision because we need the time and the inspiration to do that stuff.
We have almost everything ready when we go to the studio, but don’t like to wait to work the typical two, three or four weeks in the studio and be creative while under pressure from 08:00 in the morning to 23:00 at night, you know? That studio is pretty close to where we live, and we can always go there in the evening if we feel like recording something. It took us one and a half month to record this album, and we were in the studio only when we felt like being there really.
It feels really cool and inspiring to have all these great ideas, and to have enough time to listen to them over and over again and make all the necessary decisions, and correct some stuff. It’s not as stressing as going to the Fredman Studios in Sweden for example, where you have a pretty tight schedule that you need to follow. The album was mixed in Denmark by Tue Madsen (The Haunted, Mnemic) who had made quite a good job with many bands lately, the most impressive of which was with "Born From Pain". You can also realise that he was the one who mixed a certain CD, but he is not like Andy Sneap for example, that creates a similar sound for every band that he works with. Tue Madsen is really keen on keeping the original sound of every band that he works with, and he’s doing a great job in my opinion.
As I already told you, we’re not great musicians, so we wouldn’t want to have a sound where you would be able to hear all the instruments clearly. We prefer our sound to be a bit more "muddy" and straight in your face - that what Tue Madsen does, and it’s really honest, aggressive and also very "organic", you know? I believe that he’s a person that will be mentioned quite a lot in the near future.
Don’t ask me the reason why, but I somehow expected the album to be furiously fast, yet you guys chose a different approach. The songs of "Antigone" are mostly mid-tempo, but equally strong and aggressive. Do you believe that Heaven Shall Burn will benefit from such a decision?
Maik: Yes, and you know, that is the Bolt Thrower influence in the band’s music I suppose. There are no Grind parts in the Bolt Thrower LPs you know (laughs). We are coming from the Metalcore scene, and if you manage to have a slow, pumping riff in your songs you will see how the kids will find it much easier to sing the lyrics and take part in what’s happening. Our music must not be a train that is passing by through the people - people should have the chance to jump on that train and make the trip. That is much easier if you have mid-tempo songs I guess.
Let’s talk now about a thing that managed to create confusion to many people, myself included. You have chosen to use two outros! Why did you do that? Is it another symbolic thing that we should be aware of?
Maik: Well, we had two outro’s and they were both so very cool, that we couldn’t decide which one to use and which one to drop. Well, of course it is really difficult to call outro a piece of music that’s located somewhere in the middle of the album (laughs) - I would probably call it betweentro or something like that (laughs).
One of the funniest things that I read about this choice of yours, was that some journalist claimed that "Antigone" sounds like a short album that has a bonus EP attached to it (I laugh).
Maik: (laughs), that’s amazing, but there is no such thing as a "border" between the first outro and the rest of the album. I never thought of that thing to be honest - that’s a very interesting point of view indeed.
Which is your favourite song from the album - the one that better represents the idea behind the creation of "Antigone"?
Maik: I think that this song would be "The Only Truth", because it has everything that’s considered to be the trademark of Heaven Shall Burn’s music. Yes, I think that this is the song that I would choose, even for a single - instead we used "The Weapon They Fear" for that purpose, because we wanted to make a strong political statement with it. This song is about a Chilean singer called Victor Jara.
What about the use of Violin and the Piano in some of the compositions? How did you come up with that idea?
Maik: You mean the piano in the songs, or the intros?
Maik: We used those instruments in our songs because we are huge My Dying Bride fans. The album "The Angel and The Dark River" is one of my favourite albums of all times. The piano theme in "Numbing The Pain" can be considered as my tribute to My Dying Bride…but it also sounds a bit like Dark Tranquillity…anyway. People seem to like it - it is a cool contrast to the heavy guitars that are general presented in "Antigone". I love the Piano, and I cannot understand why most of the bands insist on using keyboards instead. A melancholic piano theme gives a totally different dimension to the music. The outros of the album were composed by a guy from Iceland that actually does soundtracks for movies - he composed this music especially for our CD, and I’m really proud of that. This is a tot ally different approach to our music, but I think that we will continue to work with this guy in the future. You will find such elements in our next CD.
"Antigone" has been released almost six months now. What has been the reaction so far?
Maik: The reaction? Great! Even though it was released at the same month with the new albums from Fear Factory and Killswitch Engage it has received a warm welcome. So far everybody in Century Media is either hugging me or smiling at me, so I guess that this is a really good sign (laughs). With that album we have managed to reach out to a lot of new fans, especially from the Metal scene. I am really proud about that, and I also like the fact that we are being discovered by many people who have only heard of our name previously. We have managed to tear down the wall between Metal and Metalcore music. We want to reach more into the Metal scene.
What sort of people should I expect to see today in the audience?
Maik: I have no idea. I don’t know about England. Talking about continental Europe, there are more Metal people coming to our shows. We have played festivals like Wacken where you see only Metal people, but we also have pure Hardcore fans. Hardcore fans can listen to Metal music easily - Metalheads on the other hand are not so open to Hardcore Music. That is changing rapidly though. You have bands like Hatebreed that are opening many concerts in Europe nowadays, and people like them a lot. Bands like God Forbid and Shadows Fall are doing everything the can to tear down the walls. Young music fans do not care about choosing a special category anymore- they can easily listen to both Judas Priest and Sick Of It All for instance.
Ok, today you’re playing in the Barfly in London. What’s next?
Maik: - then we will have a day off, which we will probably spend in some pleasure holiday park in Germany somewhere, riding roller coasters (laughs). Then we will continue our tour with few more gigs in Germany, with some more dates in Finland and the Benelux along the way. After that, the tour will be over and we will all get back to the rehearsal room to prepare songs for the new album…ah, we also have a few exams to give in the University that I have forgotten all about (laughs). We will hopefully manage to come back to the UK for some more shows, because we only did two this time. We are lucky to be receiving e-mails by people from Scotland who insist that we should go up there to play for them, and that’s great!
Maik, thank you very much for doing this interview with Get Ready to Rock - the last words are yours.
Maik: Thank you for the interest in our music. I hope that you will listen and like "Antigone", and I will probably see you all on tour.
Interview © 2004