A Conversation with Fen’s The Watcher

 

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Photo Credit: Tom Huskinson

Happy 2020 everyone! I had the distinct honor of being able to interview Fen’s vocalist and lead guitarist The Watcher. He discussed a broad range of topics from the conception of Fen’s new album “The Dead Light” to lessons he has learned over the years, as well as his thoughts on the direction black metal is going as a whole. He spent a lot of time giving detailed answers and brought so much insight into the world of Fen and how they have become one of the premiere acts in the United Kingdom black metal scene today. You can check out their new album “The Dead Light” on the following links below. It is an absolutely wonderful album full of greats ideas and new dynamics musical-wise. I hope you enjoy the interview and feel free to comment below.

Firstly, what was the inspiration and ideas that came to mind in the creation of “The Dead Light”?

“The central drive to create what would eventually become ‘The Dead Light’ occurred almost immediately after we finished recording the previous record, ‘Winter’. For me, once an album is completed, it is like the closing of a chapter – what needs to be said has been said and the focus therefore must be to look forward, to give shape to the next phase of expression that needs to be defined, explored and realized.

 With this in mind, we reflected on what we had achieved with ‘Winter’ – we recognized that it was a sprawling, earthy album that was rooted with a sense of weightiness (both sonically and conceptually). Not only this, it was incredibly lengthy and winding from a compositional perspective, which was again a reflection on the labyrinthine, earthy subjects that the album tackles. Therefore, taking all of this into consideration, we consciously decided we wanted to do something very different and found our gaze wandering skywards. I found myself deliberating on the phenomenon of light travelling across the cosmos from celestial bodies that are unimaginable distances away from us here on earth – celestial bodies that may well have become extinct in the time it has taken for their light to reach our mortal, human eyes.

 This initial consideration really cemented the kernel of the avenue we wanted to explore and it was really this premise that underscores the album and indeed gave birth to the album title, ‘The Dead Light’. This is a very direct reference to the phenomenon outlined above – looking upon a window into the distant past, the light from long-dead entities still travelling through the fathomless void to ultimately deliver to us an image of something that no longer exists. From this central premise, the rest of the ideas for the album began to take shape – principally, mankind’s relationship with the cosmos and how this has impacted on the philosophy, theology and scientific thought since the dawn of civilization.  

 Musically, meanwhile, the decision was made to reflect this conceptual stance by creating material that was crystalline, spectral and sharper. It was also key for us to make the new songs more concise – with ‘Winter’, we felt we had taken our indulgent proggy streak more or less as far as it could go. None of us had any desire to simply make ‘Winter – the sequel’ or try and outdo ourselves on the winding ‘long song’ front as I think it would have crossed the line into over-indulgence. So, we set ourselves a new creative challenge – to say as much as we did before but in less time, to really focus on self-editing and brevity.

 For a band such as ourselves who have been writing very long songs since the very start, writing long songs actually isn’t all that difficult. Indeed, you have the freedom to have all the time in the world to basically let your message unfold and develop – the REAL challenge is keeping it brief, keeping the compositions and arrangements tight. We always want to push ourselves and therefore, this was a challenge we were fully up for attempting!”

What was the recording process like? Did you try anything new or different with the writing of the album compared to past albums?

“This album was recorded at Foel Studios with Chris Fielding (of Skyhammer Productions) overseeing the production/engineering. Foel is a place I’ve known about for some time – it is truly in the wilderness, set deep into the depths of the Welsh Countryside and the perfect place to escape from the multitude of distractions that life insists upon throwing at you. When the opportunity arose to record there, we had to take it! Chris is also someone I have been interested in working with for a while – his record speaks for itself after all – so to record with Chris at Foel was something of a dream arrangement.

 It was a real pleasure to record if I’m honest – the isolated setting made not only for total concentration/focus but also the splendor of the surrounding landscape helped inspire, gave us an additional impetus to really deliver. They were hard, long days, don’t get me wrong – there’s only three of us in the band and we all have to ensure that we put in our ‘A’ game – but they were productive, satisfying days. We spent a lot of time experimenting with effects pedals, different amps/tones etc. to ensure that what was ultimately put down on tape was the optimum expression of the sound we were trying to achieve.

 We did try some new things with this record – we worked with clicks for the first time ever, primarily to save a bit of time with the final tracking/editing process but also to ensure that the songs were as tight and as sharp as possible. Writing-wise, the songs very much came together as most Fen records do – myself and Grungyn composing most of the material individually in isolation and then bringing songs (or half-formed songs) to the rehearsal room to be worked on as a full band. As ever, some songs can evolve dramatically at this point in the process whereas others remain more or less as originally conceived. Of course, some rehearsal room improvisation/jamming contributed at points but one needs to be very disciplined with this approach – quite often, ‘jamming’ is a lot more enjoyable for the practitioners than it is for the listeners so a high degree of self-editing and awareness is needed! It can sometimes lead to some quite unexpected and welcome outcomes however so it can be a useful tool for composition when used correctly.”

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Photo Credit: Tom Huskinson

In your description of “The Dead Light”, you wanted to focus your efforts to the celestial skies above. What made you want to go in this direction instead?

“As I outlined earlier, if ‘Winter’ was an exploration of earth, death, burial and renewal then our drive with ‘The Dead Light’ was to undertake an approach that, whilst focusing on something that was the conceptual opposite in many respects, still encompassed a great deal of spirituality. Not only this, the fundamental bleakness at the heart of the human condition is a thread that runs through all of our releases so it is no different.

 That said, I’ve always been fascinated by the night sky, the mysteries of the universe and the fundamentals of the cosmos. Yes, most kids like ‘space’, that’s true – it appeals to the seeking, questing mind for a start and ultimately, how can something so vast, unexplored and quintessentially ‘alien’ to our terrestrial existence NOT be fascinating? For me, I’ve always looked at it from a more scientific angle I guess and indeed, did study elements of astrophysics as part of my degree.

 Ultimately, however, it is the vastness, the emptiness and the sheer mystery of the celestial aether that inspired me to explore these themes. In many ways, the depths of the cosmic voids are the ultimate embodiment of true bleakness – for a band that claims to channel a sense of bleakness through music, it only makes perfect sense to embrace such a topic!”

Fen have been in existence for over 12 years now, what lessons have you learned as a musician/artist since then?

“Many. Whilst all of us had band experience prior to Fen being formed, we have learned so, so much about how to conduct ourselves as individuals, musicians and (perhaps most importantly a collective) since Fen was originally conceived. The biggest lesson for me has been on the business side of things – and as crass as it sounds, it is only when people are actually showing a genuine interest in your band (as opposed to just being supported by mates etc.) that this really starts to rear its head. Sadly, as soon as any amount of ‘real’ money enters the equation, you need to have your wits about you – not only this; you need to stay strong, stand your ground and defend your art.

 We were probably guilty in the early days of under-selling ourselves; or perhaps not fully understanding the value of what it is we can bring to (for example) a live event. We are lot more confident now in what we do and what we can achieve – and in how we respect our own art. We will never undersell ourselves now and I think it is important for all bands to do this. As much as we all want to play shows or have albums printed/released, it is important to understand that labels, promoters etc. are all businesses at the end of the day. With this in mind, any discussions relating to gig booking, signings, releases, must be approached for what they are – business negotiations. It is vital to go in to such discussions with your eyes open and that you stand firm about what it is you expect. At the end of the day, if you do not respect your own art, how can you expect anyone else to do so? We’ve definitely learned this the hard way since we started.

 The other thing I have learned is to never rest on your laurels – never lose your edge or become complacent. Always work on improving in all facets of what you do – composition, musicianship, even just, in how you express lyrical concepts or think through your approach to bringing ideas to life. When a band has been going for a long time and has an established fan base, I can imagine that the temptation to sit back and ‘coast along’, getting by with ‘churning stuff out’ can be tempting. Not for me. After all, you are only as good as your last album or gig and the thought of somehow getting lazy or moving backwards terrifies me. It literally keeps me awake at night – and it should. Standards within the extreme metal scene are getting higher and higher – I try to attend as many gigs as I can, to check out new and up-and-coming bands, to see where the bar has been set. I need to be kept on my toes, to be pushed and to feel the continuing drive to excel and exceed previously set standards. And in my view, this should be the approach of any self-respecting artist!”

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What inspires you to come up with your incredible imagery in your lyrics as well as songwriting?

“I’m a bit of a sucker for a powerful metaphor I have to admit! I’m actually not much of a fan of ‘direct’ lyrics really – nor do I feel particularly confident in writing lyrics that express themes and ideas in a way that ISN’T shrouded in metaphor. That’s an important point for me – I am always conscious of trying to ensure that there is an interpretive quality to what we write, that it isn’t just a lecture or some sort of surface-level story. Layers, inference and subtext are absolutely key.

 So, given this, I think evocative – and occasionally unexpected – imagery is a powerful way of driving ambiance within our lyrics. It helps emphasize the drama inherent within the music whilst also (I hope) encouraging the listener to think a little, to start exploring ideas that aren’t initially obvious within the song and to add their own interpretive slant to what is being discussed. It is almost like painting with words in some respects and as I like to think our music/albums are very visual in many ways – after all, we spend a lot of time developing our album artwork/aesthetics – it is fundamental that the lyrics support this approach.

 Ultimately, the best lyrics act alongside the music to drive the listener ever deeper into the material – to truly resonate with what is being said as well as emphasizing or highlighting the drama of the song playing out. When these two elements synchronize harmoniously, that’s when I personally feel that Fen’s art is at its most compelling.

 And as with all of our writing, the inspiration often comes from within – a feeling, a notion, a state of mind that can often be emphasized by situation or circumstance. A bracing walk through the autumnal fens; a splendid hike through the mist-shrouded fells of the lake district; simply sipping a decent whisky at night in solitude can set the fires of inspiration burning!”

I have read in other interviews that Fen was first heavily influenced by Ulver and the Fields of Nephilim do both these bands still resonate with you now after all these years? What other bands have been influencing you as of late?

“Definitely – Fields of the Nephilim in particular are an absolute staple, one of the fundamental bands for me all these years later. There is just something absolutely magical about their first three full-length albums that remains undimmed by the passage of time. Ulver are similarly vital – ‘Bergtatt’ of course laying down the blueprint for this style of black metal nearly a quarter of a century ago!

 As for bands that I’ve been influenced by more recently, it’s hard to say. When I am composing music for Fen, I try to separate myself from what has generally been on my record deck as my goal is (as ever) to write from a ‘pure’ creative perspective, to channel an almost subconscious creative desire to realise the essence of Fen in musical form. And to be honest, I listen to such a wide and diverse selection of music that it wouldn’t always be appropriate – just recently, I’ve had W.A.S.P.’s ‘The Headless Children’ and Pond’s ‘The Weather’ nailed to the turntable which, great as they are, wouldn’t really be massively appropriate to dip into for inspiration!

 I guess one of the big discoveries over the last few years has been finally getting into Yob – a truly unique band with an absolutely unquestionable vision. Instantly recognizable, diverse, heavy (in the ‘right’ way!), excellent riff writing – Mike Scheidt is as close to a genius as we can get in this scene in my eyes. I’d say these guys are a real inspiration to me – forging an utterly distinctive musical path with such elegance and with just three guys to deliver it. Massive respect.

 Alongside this, I’ve been keeping my ears warmed with all sorts of stuff – plenty of 70s Yes, The Chameleons (another great guitarwave band from the 80s who have a massive impact on the shoegaze scene), the first Verve album, The Great Old Ones (excellent French post-black with Lovecraftian themes. It’s a diverse roster indeed and one that I’d like to think all helps inform how Fen ultimately expresses itself.”

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Lately many bands I have been hearing have been focusing on space and the universe is there a reason why metal bands (specifically Fen) have focused on these themes?

“It is a bit of a weird one – many bands have chosen to explore ‘spacey’ themes in the last year or so it has to be said! I’m not sure if it’s a pure coincidence or just simply the result of individuals despairing so deeply with what is taking place here on earth that they feel compelled to look to the heavens for some sort of solace…

 Like I explained earlier, I’ve always been fascinated by cosmological concepts since I was a child and it is something that has followed me as I have got older. I don’t see how it isn’t possible to be fascinated by this, frankly – there are so many avenues for exploration, so many incredible phenomena that lurk within the vastness of the universe (or even the multiverse if we want to go there…) that it strikes me as willful ignorance to simply disregard any consideration of the cosmos. Out there lie the very fundamental secrets and tenets to our existence here on our rather unremarkable planet orbiting a rather unremarkable star – something that may give some substance, meaning or context to the origins of life here.

 And beyond that, there are so many other phenomena we barely comprehend – dark matter, space/time, gravity, singularity – phenomena which underpin the very fabric of everything that surrounds us (after all, lest we forget, all matter we perceive on this planet was essentially born in the heart of a star). How is this NOT utterly compelling? And of course, given the type of characters who are attracted to the extreme metal genre, it’s no surprise that such concepts have so many willing enthusiasts within the scene. It’s an intoxicating mix of darkness, mystery, nihility (if one adheres to the theory that we are truly alone in a freezing, uncaring universe), violence, destruction and ultimately, sheer unknowable vastness. It’s a rich, rich wellspring for the metal mind to draw upon and such themes/concepts are perfectly delivered via the vessel of black metal I think.”

Fen has become one of the premiere black metal bands in the United Kingdom, do you think black metal in the UK is going in a positive direction or has it plateaued? In general, do you think black metal is an evolving genre or has it stagnated?

“You’ve asked two separate questions here really – firstly, has UK black metal plateaued? The answer from me is a resounding ‘no’ – indeed, it has never been healthier to my mind. There are so many new, up-and-coming bands forming at the moment who not only exhibit a real sense of considered definition and quality-control in their music/aesthetics but also demonstrate a real hunger and drive to succeed. The scene here just keeps getting stronger – it’s a far cry from the early days of it just being Cradle of Filth, Hecate Enthroned and Thus Defiled being the sole flag bearers for the genre on the world stage.

 We have some acts from the UK now really cementing international reputations – Winterfylleth, Saor and A Forest Of Stars being the vanguard of those who underpin the quality of what has originated from this isle in the last fifteen years or so. But there are plenty of others who are now making names for themselves – all adopting their own unique take on the genre but being united by a sense of common purpose and a palpable drive to succeed. Notable acts include Aklash (excellently composed atmospheric BM), Wolvencrown (searing melodic BM), Abduction (harsh, nihilistic fury), Necronautical (riff-heavy and symphonic), The Infernal Sea (vivid aesthetics married to snarling old-school sonics), Thy Dying Light (monochromatic lo-fi aggression) – there are plenty of others. I’d urge you to spend some time digging through everything our scene has to offer.

 As for black metal itself stagnating? It’s hard to say – it’s a genre that has traditionally seen so much reinvention and genre cross-pollination that it has almost become synonymous with change and with evolution. What is interesting however is how conservative much of the fan base can be also – and if one were to take a bigger step back, have we REALLY seen any significant evolution in the last 15 or so years? The whole late-90s ‘weirding’ of Norway was clearly a time of real experimentation, however whilst we did get a handful of excellent records out of it, some of it has not aged well at all. The ‘black metal meets electronica’ thing of the early 2000s also has been (rightly) condemned to the dustbin of history, though someone had to give it a try I guess.

 I guess these were all exercises in establishing boundaries. I think what a lot of the ‘over-experimentation’ enabled was to define the parameters within which black metal could experiment and still retain its identity – and it is much more about uniqueness of atmosphere, authenticity and songwriting bravery but crucially, within the confines of the ‘traditional’ trappings of extreme metal. Some of what I consider to be the most forward-thinking acts of the last 10-15 years (Blut aus Nord, Deathspell Omega, The Ruins of Beverast) use the traditional ‘guitar/bass/drums/synth’ tools of the genre yet deploy them in such a way that makes them original and write material that is truly unique. In this, I can only see the genre continuing to evolve in this way, for more brave souls to continue to push at the edge of the compositional envelope.

 However, this is offset by what I can see in the conservatism that currently dominates the black metal mainstream – when bands like Mgla end up becoming one of the biggest outfits in the genre by essentially re-writing the same three-chord song seven times and calling it an album, you can’t help but ask some questions about stagnation creeping in somewhere! But I digress – black metal is an individual thing after all and I’m happy to leave this sort of thing to the festival crowds whilst seeking out those acts who are trying to push themselves and the genre forwards.”

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What are some of your hobbies outside of music, tell us more about The Watcher as a person?

“Well, I’ll keep this relatively brief – I’m a bit enthusiast of craft beer and single malt whisky. Indeed, I think Scottish single-malt pot still whisky is the greatest drink conceived by human beings – it’s no exaggeration to state that it has been a very important part of the Fen creative process. It’s an evocative, invigorating spirit that carries with it a real sense of time, place and landscape. It has therefore accompanied many a late-night writing session – it’s a rare treat to kick back with the guitar, a glass of cask-strength Ardbeg and then look to summon atmospheric inspiration…

 Other than this, I also quite enjoy hiking across country, up hills and mountains and across rugged terrain. Given I live in the city, it’s not easy to get access to such landscape but we generally try and get away to the wilds once or twice a year.

 I also quite enjoy fantasy gaming – role-playing, tabletop/miniature games and card games. Yes, classic geekery and something that is far more prevalent in the black metal scene than many would like to admit. I know a LOT of folk who have rediscovered their love for miniature paining recently – I sadly don’t have the time to dedicate to it that I’d like but I try and reconnect once in a while!”

Has any movies, books or other mediums helped influence the music of Fen?

“Movies – not really. I enjoy watching films but much more as an escape or a distraction – a way of ‘switching off’ if you will – than as a genuinely artistic pursuit. I guess there’s only so much space in one’s brain and we all need our vices or ways to unwind. So film isn’t something for me that I take inspiration from in Fen.

 Books are a different matter I suppose. Again, I read a lot of escapist fantasy literature to relax, however I also spend a lot of time reading philosophical works also and some of thinking therein really helps with giving form and voice to the lyrics/concepts we like to express with our albums. It’s not something I have the mental energy to dig into all the time but when I can, I do dig into works by many of the existential and metaphysical writers in an attempt to try and add some structure/meaning/sense to my own worldview. Key writers include Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, Russel – I have also dabbled in the works of Neiztche and Sartre but found these perhaps a little TOO opaque, though some of the key themes definitely resonated.

 Whilst the above are not directly referenced or drawn from as inspirational sources, they have been key in helping shape my thinking and my worldview – almost sitting behind what I do in Fen as some sort of inspirational ‘background radiation’ supporting the concepts and ideas we look to explore in our music.

 For ‘The Dead Light’, I have also drawn upon some of the more philosophical/outlandish theories that can crop up at the fringes of astrophysical considerations. Again, this has also been supported by some key writings that deal with the wider implications of a number of scientific theories – Tipler’s ‘The Physics of Immortality’ and Deutch’s ‘The Fabric Of Reality’ are intriguing reads, even if occasionally being a little questionable from a strictly scientific viewpoint. Nevertheless, these are fascinating subjects and any cursory read into metaphysics, astrophysical phenomena and transhumanism is sure to get the inspiration circuits firing.”

Reading more about your background you have your hand in many other musical projects, which ones are you focusing on as of late? Which projects should our readers focus on?

“At the moment, I think it is fair to say that I am only really involved in two ‘active’ musical outlets currently – Fen is of course one of these and the other is what is predominantly a solo outing, ‘Fellwarden’. The latter is an expressive outlet I commenced in around 2014 to give voice to a more sweeping, epic black metal sound that I had been yearning to undertake for some time. Havenless – who has been drumming in Fen since around 2016 – provides the drums for this and I was actually working with him in Fellwarden prior to his involvement with Fen.

 We have just completed work on the second Fellwarden full-length – the debut ‘Oathbearer’ came out in 2017 – and we started work more or less straight away after this so it’s taken a while to come together. That is understandable though as I’ve really pushed the material further on this record – more epic, more layers, a more ‘widescreen’ approach to the compositions. It also really digs deeper into the themes of the project, taking huge inspiration from the rearing landscapes of the Cumbrian fells of North Western England. I think it sounds great myself and I’m really looking forward to it finally seeing the light of day!

 This said, there are other possible things bubbling away – indeed, there has been talk that the long-awaited second De Arma record may finally see completion in 2020 – amongst other things. I guess you could say I like to keep busy!”

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Photo Credit: Stefan Raduta

Fen has done many shows and tours over the years, specifically which ones stood out to you most?

“In terms of individual shows, we have been quite lucky in some respects as we have had opportunities to play at some incredible venues in front of some amazing crowds. Prophecy Fest last year at Balver Hohle in Germany was one of these – the setting was absolutely mind-blowing, awe-inspiring and atmospheric. It was an absolute honour to play. Our set at Summer Sonnewald in Austria back in 2011 was also something special – playing on an Austrian mountainside as night descended and beacon pyres were set aflame in celebration was something else. And our show in Moscow in 2014 was also awesome – we didn’t know what to expect but the venue was great and the audience absolutely reveled in it. Playing in the US in 2012 was a rare treat also, we had a great time. All of these will live with me until my final day but there have been plenty of other great live experiences along the way also.

Tour-wise, the month we spent in Europe with Agalloch in 2013 was an incredible experience. A great bunch of guys for sure and we had such a good time with them – we also played some pretty cool shows along the way as well which helped!”

If you could describe the music of Fen to someone who may not be familiar with the sound how would you describe it?

“Man, I get asked this now and then (normally by curious ‘normal’ people) and it’s so difficult to accurately sum up to the uninitiated I fear! I guess it would be along the lines of ‘atmospheric yet furiously raging metal music, shot through with palpable sorrow and a sense of the ethereal’. Is that pretentious enough do you think?”

Finally, do you have any parting words for our readers?

“Thanks for taking the time to read this and for checking out our music!”

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Bandcamp: https://fenuk.bandcamp.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fenofficial

Spotify: https://spoti.fi/2rZmcCq

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/FenBandUK

 

 

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