"It’s fulfilling to see the things we have made affect people in the way that they have"
Photo: Stefan Temmerman
AMENRA have just released their new album 'De Doorn' via Relapse Records.
As well as being the band's first for the label, it is also their first in their discography to not be titled 'Mass', and there is a good reason for that. Where in the past the band would draw solely on personal experience and use their compositions and live shows to expel that, this time around they wrote with the wider world, and the events that it has been through, in mind.
Via a series of emotional and awe-inspiring gatherings attended by thousands, the band pieced together the pieces of music that would eventually make up 'De Doorn'. The result is an album that deals in remembrance as much as retribution. It's emotional, but in a way that can be expressed through a shared understanding of the things we all have to go through in life. It's heavy, harrowing but ultimately hopeful, and that is a feeling that has often not featured in the AMENRA anatomy.
We sat down with vocalist Colin H. Van Eeckhout to look back on those gatherings, the creation of the music to soundtrack them and find out what the experiences taught him and the band...
Where did the process of putting ‘De Doorn’ together really begin?
"The first notes and lyrics that we wrote for this album came around in about 2018. It was pretty quickly after the release of ‘Mass VI’ that we started working on it, but it was for a series of shows that we were set to play in the form of rituals. For each of these events, we set about writing specific music. We knew what would happen on each of these nights, and I knew that around 90% of the people there would be Flemish. So that’s how we went in the direction we have gone on this record.
"The way we wrote it is completely different to how we wrote music before. Before, it was a completely blank canvas where we wrote about our shit, which was incredibly traumatising. We then invited and allowed outsiders to bear witness to those stories. With this release, it shifted completely, as we were writing in the function of these gatherings and having large groups of people in front of us with a purpose. The music was there to help commemorate something bigger.
"We never realised that we were writing an album, just because everything we were doing was in function of something else. Then after we had done these gatherings, that’s when we realised we had a collection of songs that made up an album."
It’s fascinating to be in a position where you aren’t even considering how something you are making fits into the band and what you do with it. You’re experiencing life and people and stories in a truly natural way…
"It was incredibly liberating to be able to work this way. We were focusing so much on writing a credible piece of music that could represent the occasion of each evening, and that’s it. We weren’t writing our first album on Relapse Records. That’s where the shift is as well. If we had started writing this record where we were aware that it would be our first for the label, it would have been different. It’s so good that we didn’t have that influencing us. Like, it wouldn’t have made sense to make a Flemish album on our debut for our biggest label yet. But for us, it made sense because of what purpose it was serving. We are Flemish, we are playing for Flemish people, and that’s why it felt so right. But it does come down to not realising what we were doing. We were able to detach ourselves from all expectations that we would usually have to consider. We weren’t considering the side effects."
Tell us a bit about our memories of these gatherings then. What sticks in your mind about what you experienced whilst playing these songs to those particular crowds?
“They were very different. They felt like they were significant moments within the band’s lifeline. The one that sticks out is the one we had in the Citadelpark in Ghent. It was a free concert with a lot of promotion around it in the city. The promotion wasn't in terms of there being a metal band playing either. It was based on the fact that the ritual taking place would give people the opportunity to burn the memories of their unacknowledged losses. It was communicated where people would be able to go to find the bronze statue which would be at the centre of the fire would be. They could go there and write things on pieces of paper that had haunted them, and they wanted to get rid of them and put them into the statue. Then when it came to the actual performance, that was when those things would be burned.
“First off, we didn’t know if people were going to put things in there and whether people cared about something like that. But they did. A lot of people did it, all sorts of people. Up until the last moment, before it was set alight, there were still kids running up to it and sticking more things in there. It was beautiful to see that we had created a platform for which there was a demand. In our culture, we don’t really have moments like this often. In Austria and other parts of Northern Europe, it is still customary to have moments of solidarity in drawing away evil spirits. So it was amazing for us to be a part of that sort of thing with our own culture. There were about 2000 people there, old classmates, 70-year old neighbours, metalheads, all different kinds of people. To be a part of something like that is so special. They are remarkable. Then when you have all of those people standing in silence, gazing into the fire, you really feel like you are a part of something. And everybody realised that they may never be a part of something like that in our country ever again.
“So the fire was built about 10-metres high, built around that huge bronze statue. You weren’t able to see it until all of the wood had burned away. Then it is stood there all burning red hot, and it doesn’t get much more magic than that. The whole event made us feel like we were doing a good thing."
To cross that bridge where you are playing your music not to fans of your band but ordinary people, and they are absorbing what you are playing to them, that’s a whole different experience. It focuses so much more on the connection to humanity and music…
"We had that in mind when we were writing as well. For someone who doesn’t know the band, they hear a song like ‘Voor Immer’ that has this long and slow build-up before it fucking explodes, and they are just overwhelmed by it. They don’t know what has hit them. That’s such a genuine dynamic and a truly wild piece of magic. You really can’t describe it. Then having people coming up to you and saying how amazing it was when they have no link to you or your music whatsoever, that’s so cool. It makes you realise you hit the sweet spot of humanity."
When you have gone into the writing process before, it’s because you have wanted to exorcise something from deep inside of you. But when it comes down to this, something that is not just about your experience but about absolutely everybody’s at the same time, how does that make you feel?
"Because this wasn’t solely about ourselves anymore, we were able to keep a distance. We could take a step back, oversee what is happening and let it become that collective of stories rather than just the one. It is all of our stories that we are all of a sudden telling, and that makes the whole thing different. Though we still work with the same essence as we always have. We have the same start points as we have always had. We talk about how life can be harsh at times and how there has to be a place to allow you to go from one place to another mentally. So all of that is still the same as it has ever been, but the tone of the communication is what has shifted. But like with all of our albums, it’s fulfilling to see the things we have made affect people in the way that they have."
Art is a selfish endeavour and always has been, but when you see how it resonates with others is the actual moment when you realise just how powerful the thing you have created can be…
"It’s been nice to see how that has expanded over the years. You start with one conversation or one email from someone, and then you start to get more and more of those, and you realise, ‘Shit, this is moving something’. You can feel it happening. It’s that movement that has always given us purpose."
You’ve been on that journey for a long time now, two decades, in fact. How does it feel right now, with the things you have been able to do, with how things were initially?
"It’s weird to look back so far. The good thing is that it feels like we are now starting to arrive where we always wanted to be. We never wanted to be a musical band solely. We always wanted to cross boundaries, mean something, and use the medium of music to its full extent. That’s what our music was intended for in the first place. It’s now cool to see how we have got there. With all of the artistic disciplines we have followed and how we have pushed in ways that have brought more people together. It makes you proud more than anything. The fact that we still get along is another thing as well! The older we get, the more thankful we are. When we were young, we didn’t truly realise just how lucky we were to find each other when we were 20 years old. Now we’re here, and we’re still enjoying doing this, and people still appreciate us doing it. It’s a privilege, and we embrace every moment."
Finally, could you explain what the thorn, the image that holds together and defines this album, means to you and the band?
"It’s always a hard thing to find imagery that fits in with an album. But for this one, because we had the bronze statues as the centrepiece of the gatherings, that’s why we went with the bronze for the thorns on the cover. The idea was that as we were telling everybody’s stories this time instead of just ours, I became obsessed with nature’s creation of thorn branches and the different kinds you can find. There are so many different types, and I love the idea that nature has created an organic weapon as a means to protect itself from harm. A flower can preserve its beauty. A plant can save its seeds. I then transposed that idea onto us as human beings. We, as people, also grow our own thorns to protect ourselves from outside harm. We all have our type of thorn that it typical for each individual. We also carry around wounds that other’s people’s thorns have inflicted. So that’s why I had six different thorn branches cast in iron, each different to represent the six people involved in creating the album. We all put our different experiences into the mix, and that is how it became ‘De Doorn’. It symbolises everyone. It is the very essence of humanity."