SOJOURNER – Atmospheric black metal takes a ’90s trip from New Zealand, Sweden & St Andrews, Scotland Interviews / Music

Sojourner have sprung up from nowhere to unleash a truly beguiling album that harnesses the songwriting prowess lost to the mid to late ’90s period of black metal, while deriving great inspiration from the fresh blood of the atmospheric black metal world to boot. With members spread across the globe from Sweden to Scotland to New Zealand, they are the very definition of a modern day band. I caught up with Mike L (featured image), Chloe and Emilio to discuss a multitude of things from academic studies to influences and Lord Of The Rings. Read on to discover why Sojourner’s Empires Of Ash should be high up on your ‘must buy’ list this year.

From the very beginning of Bound By Blood it is clear to me that your vision of black metal is one that harks back to a period in the ‘90s when song-writing was very much emphasised and ‘catchiness’ was not considered ‘unkult’ or something. I think of bands like Falkenbach, Dawn, Rotting Christ…all different bands but all writing memorable songs, especially in the late ‘90s. What are your thoughts on this?

Mike L.: I really appreciate that comparison because a lot of those bands from around that time are ones that have had a really big influence on my songwriting; bands like Rotting Christ, Dissection, Windir, Septicflesh etc. are all artists that I really have a huge amount of respect for and they’re bands that have shaped a lot of how I approach writing music. I generally prefer to tackle the whole process by writing what I want to hear and not worrying too much about the ‘unkult’ accusations that you’re inevitably going to get. I mean, you do worry when you’re making this kind of stuff that it might not find an audience or that the amount of melody might draw the ire of a lot of the more elitist fans…but the shape of the landscape of black metal, and music in general these days, is such that you just can’t please everyone. All you can do is create what you want to create, music that you are happy to stand behind, and hope for the best. We’ve had a really fantastic response though, which was a huge surprise to us all, and we couldn’t possibly be more thankful to the fans, critics, and our label Avantgarde Music for that support.

Even the ‘harsh’ black metal vocals are incredibly listenable and clear. Was that part of the plan, to make the story behind each song transparent?

Mike L.: The band is as much folk metal as it is atmospheric black metal in my mind, so the clearer production and more straightforward metal approach called for vocals that weren’t buried but were upfront and powerful in the same sort of ’90s/early-’00s style you mentioned before. Musically and vocally I knew we really didn’t want to go down the path of that washy, super-saturated kind of sound where everything loses its definition and punch to some extent. I’m not insulting that sort of style, I love so many bands that do it, but it wasn’t something we wanted to do ourselves. I wanted everything clear and present with a clean mix, or as close to it as we could manage on our budget.

Emilio: Yes. I’ve always been one to like being understood when I do vocals. As much as I like very extreme music that sometimes you don’t know what is going on, I’ve personally always loved being able to go along with lyrics and understand what is being said. Especially with this style of music that we make the lyrics are very important and so I made sure every syllable is understandable and not lost in some attempt to be spit-fire fast.

I read that you are from Dunedin, New Zealand and Malmö, Sweden, but reside in St Andrews, Scotland. As Dunedin is a University City and St Andrews too, it seems logical to assume you are academics. Have you experienced any major differences between the UK and NZ institutions?

Mike W. (bass)

Mike W – bass

Mike L.: Chloe, Mike Wilson (our bassist), and I are all from Dunedin and Emilio is from Malmö. Mike Wilson is still living in Dunedin, and Emilio is still in Sweden, but Chloe and I are living over here in Scotland for a few years. I did my undergraduate degree at Otago University in Dunedin, a place and institution that I absolutely love. I did my degree in History, Classics, and Music before moving in a more Physics-based direction. I did my Master’s degree in Science Communication, which I finished last year with Distinction. My thesis focused on the future of humanity in Space, focusing on the theories and technologies behind colonising Mars, with some of the later chapters looking at the possibilities of interstellar travel and The Fermi Paradox. So that was interesting, I loved the academic life and although I’m working at a games company in Dundee at the moment I would be keen to return to the academic side of things one day. However I personally can’t compare the academic institutions between NZ and the UK since I’ve only studied in NZ.

Chloe: Good guess! I did my undergraduate and Master’s degree in Classics there, and then I got a scholarship at St Andrews so we’ve moved there. The difference between the universities is probably that St. Andrews is about 500 years older than Otago, so all the buildings are beautiful and old and there are ruins scattered around (one of which was the inspiration for the album cover). Probably because of its age, there’s also a lot of pomp and ceremony at St Andrews, whereas Otago has quite a chilled out atmosphere. There are definitely positives to both, and I think I’d struggle to pick a favourite between them.

As different parts of the album were recorded in different places, did this provide any problems?

Mike L.: No, no problems at all actually. Chloe and I would record most of the guitars together, along with the rest of the instruments that we were each responsible for, so it was all fairly centralized between us when it came to the music side of things. We shifted all of the recording gear from New Zealand to Scotland with no trouble, so all of that was fairly smooth. Emilio would write and record his vocals once the songs were done, sending the files back for me to mix in, and Mike Wilson did likewise with the bass parts. So all in all it really couldn’t have worked better! Had we had other core musicians separate from where the music was being written, arranged, and recorded it would’ve been a different story but luckily Mike W. and Emilio are really efficient and skilled at what they do. I wouldn’t want to introduce too many more moving parts though, beyond what we’ve got it could get messy.

There are some similarities with your sound and that of the UK’s own Wodensthrone as well as the aforementioned Falkenbach (although slightly less up-tempo). Where would you say your main influences come from?

Mike L.: Personally my main influences for Sojourner are bands like Agalloch, Moonsorrow, Borknagar, Enslaved, Windir, Dissection, The Morningside, Rotting Christ, Septicflesh, Winterfylleth, Drudkh, Mourning Beloveth, Insomnium, Primordial, Nechochwen, Alda, Saor, Panopticon etc. as well as quite a few other non-metal influences that inevitably creep in in various ways. That’s just a small handful though, I could list my favourite bands for days.

Chloe: As a lot of people have guessed, we were influenced a lot by Summoning, Caladan Brood, and Saor, but then there are a lot of other bands which might be less apparent that were just as important. Personally, I felt inspired by Moonsorrow, Borknagar, Nechochwen, Thrawsunblat, Wardruna, Drudkh, and Primordial.

Emilio: It’s nice to hear that people think we similar to bands that we love. I think it is not a negative thing at all and kind of proves that something is being done right. My main influences are what you would expect to be honest… I have many bands and types of music I draw inspiration from but bands like Summoning, Caladan Brood, Elderwind, Gallowbraid, Doom:VS, Saor and Draconian are probably my favourite.

Where did you find Chloe Bray? Her vocals add so much to the atmosphere of the album – often clean vocal parts can feel somewhat forced, but this feels seamless.

Mike L.: Chloe and I are actually married, we met back in the mid-2000s in various bands we were in at the time and we’ve had several bands together since then. Emilio and I started Sojourner after talking about it for a couple of years, so Chloe was instantly my first thought to get in as a writing partner since our writing styles are very complementary. We wrote the album about 50/50 actually, so I couldn’t imagine the band being the same without one of us. She’s also done some guest vocals on my band Lysithea’s last couple of albums, particularly on the songs ‘The Devouring Mists’, ‘The Voidwalker’, and ‘The Lighthouse’ if anyone’s interested. She’s got a fantastic voice and it’s something we’ll definitely make more use of in future.

Chloe (guitars, music)

Chloe – vocals, guitars, tin whistle

A question for Chloe…I see that you have done, or are in the process of working on a PhD in Classics at St Andrews. How have you found your time there? What do you miss about New Zealand and how have Scotland and New Zealand inspired your vocal style and tastes in music?

Chloe: I’m nearly at the end of the first year of PhD, so a couple of years to go yet! I’m really enjoying it so far. My research is on marginal landscapes in ancient Greek literature, or creepy, dangerous places like battlefields or forests and mountains where gods and monsters might show up, so it’s felt pretty appropriate to Sojourner. I do miss New Zealand horribly though, mostly places we used to go a lot like Central Otago and Lake Tekapo where my family used to go camping. I think New Zealand and Scotland are very fantasy-inspiring places, and Scotland’s history makes it particularly mysterious. Both places just make you want to put on a backpack and disappear off on an epic adventure. I love music which feels like it could be the soundtrack to those places.

It’s been 15 years now since the first Lord of the Rings movie was made over in your home country. Do you think this had an influence on you in terms of opting for a pretty epic form of black metal, with folk influences and a grandiose theme?

Chloe: I’ve been totally obsessed with Tolkien since I was about 7, so I think anything artistic I do is probably slightly influenced by the Lord of the Rings even if I didn’t mean it to be. The Shire theme was the first thing I learned on tin whistle. But it is definitely a general, indirect influence on Sojourner rather than a thematic concept.

Mike L.: I remember New Zealand as two very distinct periods: pre-Lord of the Rings and post-Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings being shot in New Zealand transformed the country almost overnight; suddenly it was this place with immense international attention, an epic and mysterious place. I didn’t realize what a beautiful place it was until I saw it through the lens of those movies, which is a ridiculous thing to say, but it was all happening as I was becoming a teenager so it helped me realize that New Zealand really is a special place and not the isolated and disconnected country that it can seem to be when you’re young and living in a place where bands don’t tour and every other place seems a world away. These days I’m really proud of being able to call it home, I love the place and it definitely inspires me in all sorts of ways, including Sojourner.

The mid-part of the album is incredible and very unique… ‘The Pale Host’ and ‘Homeward’ – the atmosphere of the aftermath of the battle is palpable and you can almost feel your own limbs become weary and the call to return home get stronger. Do you think music is stronger with a strong storyline?

Chloe: I think a storyline definitely helps the writing process. At the end of the day the most meaningful story will be that which each listener interprets for themselves, but it’s all the more likely that song can inspire some image or emotion if it was written with a particular intention. I think it helped us structure each song as well as the album as a whole; any good story has peaks and falls and emotive shifts, and we made an effort to write with this in mind.

Emilio (vocals)

Emilio – vocals

Emilio: It really depends on the genre but in our case (along with many other bands) that is a definite yes. You have to have some great story of triumph, sorrow, loss or something of the kind to go along with what you are listening to. It helps that state of being entranced by the music, to metaphorically teleport to another place for the amount of time that the album lasts. It is an experience that I look forward to when I listen to music.

Do you find that certain places and experiences inspire you to write or are you the sort of person who can find inspiration from within? Which places that you have visited have left the strongest impression on your creative self?

Mike L.: Both, I think. Ultimately everybody is a culmination of their experiences, and experiences drive and feed creativity. I think more than anything else our travels have shaped the sort of music we write. Obviously New Zealand is a huge inspiration, we live right near Central Otago and Queenstown, which are just some of the most beautiful places imaginable. We walked the Milford Track before we left, which was some of the most beautiful scenery ever. It’s just an epic country in general! Scotland is another huge inspiration, an ancestral home for both of us and just an absolutely amazing place. Perhaps more than anything else though, at least for me, were our travels through Asia. Chloe and I have spent a lot of time over several different trips travelling throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and China. Between moving from NZ to Scotland we spent several months traveling up through Vietnam and across mainland China, crossing over into Kunming first then winding our way overland to Beijing. There are places in Vietnam and China that are just the most breathtaking, beautiful places you could imagine…places I still think about daily and I’d give anything to go back there. Hiking through Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan or seeing the colossal natural structures in Zhangjiajie are experiences you can’t put into words. Kunming in China is one of my favourite cities in the world, one I’ll definitely be heading back to at some point soon. Angkor Wat and the surrounding complexes in Cambodia are also places that everybody needs to go at least once in their lives. The whole of Vietnam is stunning. I could spend far too long talking about all of this, but Southeast Asia and China are places that have wormed their way so deeply into my heart that I don’t think I’ll ever do anything that isn’t inspired by them again.

Chloe: I find natural landscapes incredibly inspiring; for some reason when I’m in beautiful places I always find myself imagining what sort of mythical situations should belong there in detail and the sort of music that would accompany them. But most of the time I’m not in a position where I can do all my writing at the top of a mountain, so you have to be able to find internal inspiration too, whether it’s in memories or imagination. I read a lot, so that helps. New Zealand is the perfect inspiration, particularly the wilder parts of the South Island. As Mike mentioned, we hiked the Milford Track before we left, and that’s probably the most I’ve ever felt like I was in another world.

Emilio: For sure. I can do it both ways though. I love to go out to nature and just take it all in and immediately become inspired to write and write. But it can also happen out of nowhere for no apparent reason and my pen is put to paper. I don’t have concrete places really, I just go to anything that is full of nature and observe. That’s my biggest inspiration.

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Geoff Birchenall

Geoff Birchenall has been involved in extreme metal journalism since 2008, when he started writing for Zero Tolerance – a publication for which he is now an established Staff Writer. He has also successfully written and published two issues of his own fanzine, Asgard Root. Geoff is Co-Editor of 3RD-EYE.