In the overcrowded black metal scene, Fen stand tall. While many bands have risen and fell in their time, Fen have survived and will continue to do so. Before their brilliant show supporting Winterfylleth at the Metal Recusants 5th birthday party at the Colchester Arts Centre, I sat down with The Watcher to have a chat about their music, playing with Agalloch, black metal, online journalism, using pseudonyms, and their future plans.
Jack: How was your journey here to Colchester?
The Watcher (Vocals/Guitar): It wasn’t too bad, it was a bit crap getting onto M25 as we came off London, but worse going the other way. Once we got on the A2 it was plain sailing.
Jack: You’ve played with Winterfylleth and The King is Blind before, is that correct?
The Watcher: We played with The King is Blind here a year and a half ago. We haven’t actually played a proper gig with Winterfylleth, ever to be properly honest if you. We’ve played on a few festival bills and played Damnation when they played, but we were on different stages so lucky them. But to be honest it’s weird, we’ve been going for the same time but never shared a proper gig bill, so it’s long overdue as we’ve both been going for the same amount of time which is about ten years. I’ve played with them a couple of times in an old band, not with Fen.
Jack: Do you know Terra?
The Watcher: I haven’t heard them but I have heard of them. They’re relatively new aren’t they?
Jack: They’ve been around for two years.
The Watcher: I keep meaning to check them [out], as they’ve been compared to [us] and the ambient and post-black metal scene. I [haven’t] got around to checking them out if I’m honest.
Jack: They have been compared to Wolves in the Throne Room before.
The Watcher: I’ve read the comparison, from what I’ve read they seem to be ticking the right boxes and it’s going to be a treat going to see them this evening.
Jack: The last time you played here was in 2014 with The King is Blind and Jøtnarr. Do you have fond memories of that gig?
The Watcher: Yeah it wasn’t too bad. We were taking a risk as we don’t do that many headline gigs. We were headlining Colchester and not only was it mid-week but it was a Thursday leading into the Bloodstock weekend. We thought “Oh God is anyone going to turn up to this?” I know this was a lovely venue, we’ve always wanted to play here and I’ve wanted to play this for a long time. We took a bit of a risk and I think it paid off. It was reasonably busy and there was more energy in the room than I was expecting beforehand so it was good to play. I’ve known Lee and Steve from The King is Blind for years and we’ve played with the Jøtnarr boys before so there was a lot of comradery on the bill which is the same as this evening.
Jack: Every band that has played this venue has had nothing but good things to say about this venue. What do you like about this venue?
The Watcher: It’s a lovely building isn’t it. It’s a beautiful church, you can feel the history seeping from the stones. It lends a very special ambience to playing it and to be honest the equipment is incredible, I’ve been looking at the lighting rig a minute a go and it’s seriously specked out. The minute Simon (Winterfylleth drummer) hit the kick drum it really sounded incredible. Not only is it a great old building but the technology in it is really good.
Jack: Do you think the fact that the venue is a church adds to the show?
The Watcher: Yeah, I think it adds a bit of spice to the atmosphere and gives it a little bit more sense of occasion rather than a venue, an anonymous new building in the centre of commercial premises or something. It’s definitely unique.
Jack: Tonight is essentially a black metal night, all the bands are quite diverse. Do you think black metal is a genre that can still have its boundaries be pushed?
The Watcher: I think it’s so, I mean I think it’s undeniable really. Since the second wave kicked off in the early ’90s in Scandinavia it’s basically been the preserved precocious teenagers and students trying to… and it’s been accused of pretentiousness at some points. Some bands push it a little bit too far and fall flat on their faces. But I think out of all the extreme metal subgenres, black metal seems to attract artists who are willing to push and willing to experiment, willing to see how far they can go with things. I admire that and think it’s great and has it’s place. Now that it’s matured, people know where it’s limits are set. The black metal and electronica experiments that kicked off in the early 2000s seem to have died which is probably a good thing. But when it’s interesting when you think everything has been done with this genre, something new happens and you think “that was an avenue I didn’t think bands could go down.”
Jack: As you’ve mentioned earlier, Fen have been around for ten years. Did you ever think that you would make it to ten years?
The Watcher: Not at all. To be honest [when] we started we didn’t think we’d ever play any gigs. It was only supposed to be a studio project between myself, the bassist, and drummer at the time. We were all in another band at the time and we got tired of it and we wanted to get together, work on something a bit different. It was purely going to be going to the rehearsal room maybe record a demo and let our hair down by doing something a little bit freer, the other band was a bit more technical and rigorous. This was an opportunity to relax and play something from the heart and it took off a bit. We found out we really enjoyed actually playing music, we enjoy playing if that makes sense as being in a band is a lot of fun at times. If you have told us that in ten years time we would have recorded our fifth album and played Europe, America, and Russia I wouldn’t have believed you to be perfectly honest.
Jack: Are you doing any tenth anniversary shows?
The Watcher: No, it sort of sneaks up on you a bit really. I was only thinking about it recently that “this is actually the tenth year the band has been going” We had a quick talk about it and I think we left it a bit late. It’s May and we can’t announce a 10th anniversary show in October/November. This year has been so busy as well. We had to get a new drummer on board, our other drummer left so we were in the process of recording the album. The first half of the year has been spent rehearsing with the new drummer so we can get some live material to catch and recording the album with our old drummer as that’s his last thing to do. So up until a month and a half ago, the tenth anniversary passed us. There wasn’t enough space in the brain to think about it.
Jack: Agalloch announced yesterday that they had called it a day. Do you have fond memories of the tour?
The Watcher: Definitely. In fact Don Anderson has just put an update on Facebook if anyone is friends with him, read that as I think the Agalloch split is going to run and run. That aside we toured with them in 2013, and it was great. It was a really enjoyable tour, we became very good friends with them to be honest and we speak to them quite regularly. It was a really good tour and we went to some incredible places. It’s sad to see they’re no longer around or at least in this guise, I think John Haughm might be considering continuing it. It’s a shame as we really enjoyed touring with them, I’d love to do it again but I’m not sure if that’s going to happen.
Jack: I actually saw Agalloch once and it was at Bloodstock and it was a weird one as they were playing Bloodstock at 11 in the morning.
The Watcher: That was a weird one.
Jack: Yeah it was the first thing on the Sunday, it’s the final day and everyone was hungover…
The Watcher: Then you’ve got Agalloch in the broad daylight. It doesn’t work for me.
Jack: It was only a 45 minute set and my friend saw them at Islington two days later and it was a two hour set.
The Watcher: We went to that Islington gig and we actually met up with them there. I thought they were really good actually. You’ve got to remember with Agalloch they only started playing live in 2006/2007 and they were a studio band up to that point. Whilst they’re a band with a huge legacy, live-wise relatively speaking they’ve not been playing live for that long and were still holding their craft. When we first played with them in 2008 and you could tell they were still finding their feet live; but when we saw them in Islington they were really really good.
Dom: I think they go down better in a closed venue.
The Watcher: I did feel a bit worried for them playing Bloodstock, Bloodstock’s booking policy is so weird to be honest. Why book Agalloch and put them on opening the main stage on the Sunday, you put them on in the tent!
Dom: I saw them at Maryland Deathfest and they were outside in the parking lot and you couldn’t hear the bass.
The Watcher: With a band like Agalloch there are so many textures and so many different elements, if you’ll be battling against poor sound it will be a very compromised experience. I know that from my experience.
Jack: I know Fen have played outside a few times in your career.
The Watcher: We have yeah.
Jack: Do you like playing outside?
The Watcher: It depends where we play outside. Last weekend we played the Dark Troll Festival in Germany, which was in the grounds of an old fortress. That was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, we played at about half six, the sun was starting to set. I quite like playing outside actually, you don’t get as hot and not quite as sweaty. The only problem is the little unforeseen things like when the sun is shining is so bright I couldn’t see the lights on my pedal boards so I wasn’t sure if they were on or off. But I have no problem playing outside, it makes a nice change sometimes. But generally from an atmosphere perspective, if you have control over it playing indoors it is better in terms of lighting and you have a bit more control over that. If you’re playing outside and the sun is setting or it’s dark, but playing outside in the broad daylight can be a mixed blessing. Every wrinkle and blotch is on clear display.
Jack: Carrion Skies has been out for two years, are you happy with the response?
The Watcher: I’m happy with how the album turned out but it didn’t really seem to get so much of a response one way or another. I mean we got reviews for it, we really seemed to put all in to that. That was the first album we did in at a professional studio as everything we did prior that was self-recorded. We thought “right we’re going to push the boat out and record with Greg Chandler at Priory Studios,” we really honed the material [and] thought this was going to be our statement album and I stand by that. It was a harder, heavier record than what we put out recently. We wanted it to be a really metal record, it sounds kind of boneheaded but it was at that point where Alcest were becoming a total shoegaze band, and a lot of the post-black metal scene were shedding their ties and going “ah metal is for kids, we’re deeper than that”. We nearly went down that road, we got kind of swept up in that and were listening to early ’80s guitar wave. We were genuinely thinking of doing an acoustic album and a totally clean record. But then we stepped back and had a word with ourselves, “hang on a minute we’re a metal band, I enjoy playing heavy metal. I want to write a heavy metal record, what the hell am I doing trying to pretend we can do a Cocteau Twins record”. It was just going to be a rubbish bunch of metal bozos pretending to be shoegazers, it wasn’t going to work. So we really put the brakes on and stepped back from the edge of what I think would have been a bit of a dangerous precipice. We were like “no, we were going to do a metal record”. I was really pleased with how it turned out, as I said it got positive reviews and got good feedback but it didn’t really kick us on. If I’m perfectly honest, I would have hoped for it to have done better than it did. But you never know how things are going to pan out in this business, some records are hits and some are not and there’s no point trying to second guess where people are going. You’ve got to put out what you believe in and if people buy into that, that’s fine and if not, then never mind.
Jack: Are you working on any new material?
The Watcher: We just finished recording the fifth album actually, we finished that in April. We won’t be playing anything from that tonight because obviously we’ve got a new drummer and he’s only just learnt the old material. We don’t need to move on yet and no one would have heard any of it so there’s no point playing a new song. So that’s completed it might come out later this year but I’d prefer it comes out at the start of next year. We needed to record it as our old drummer was leaving and obviously he’d been in the band for five years so and helped shape this material so it was only fair he’d get the opportunity to record it. It was all perfectly amicable as he was moving away so this was his final farewell to the band. So we recorded it earlier than would have been ideal, and it’s down to when ourselves and the label decide to release it.
Jack: How different will the next album be to Carrion Skies?
The Watcher: It’s quite an indulgent record I think is how to describe it, it’s very long. Originally, we were going to make it a double album but we didn’t have time. But it’s very long and quite proggy at the risk of sounding a bit pretentious. It’s a conceptual piece and all the tracks flow into each other, so it could theoretically be one long song. We nearly put it out as one track but one seventy-five minute track is just going piss everyone off and that’s a disaster. But it is designed to flow, each piece flows into the next piece. I think Carrion Skies was very much our metal record, this is still quite a metal album but we’ve bought more ambience into the picture. There’s a bit more ambience, a bit more intricacy there’s some more notey riffs and things like that. I’m too close to be honest to assess it objectively and I’ve only just finished tracking and listening to it so it might be an absolute pile of shit for all I know. [Laughs] But when you’re too close to your own material it’s very difficult to sit back and assess it. I’d like to say it’s very much us and when we get back it’s very much us. Conceptually it goes back to the roots of the band, back to Fen atmospherics and talking about landscapes and metaphors for stuff that’s going on within. I’m pleased with it, it’s pretty mammoth. We recorded with Jaime Gomez, who recorded the last Primordial album, I’ve known him for years and years and we thought “let’s go and push it even further this time”. He’s a very good engineer and he gets a very good sound but he’s not cheap, so we had to pull the stops out for him. The bank account is looking rather empty at the moment.
Jack: Is it hard fitting in the band with day jobs?
The Watcher: It always is and as we get older, all of us in the band are in our mid-thirties and the pressures of real life, they only increase. If it was hard 15 years ago it’s even harder now but you find the time for it. You get home from work you’ve got a couple of hours to write some songs, you got the weekend to rehearse. You can fit it in but it is challenging but it is what drives you. I don’t live for work, I live to create music and work is a means to an end and funds what I want to do which is playing gigs and writing and recording albums. It does require a lot of sacrifices, you miss people’s birthdays and I don’t see enough of my family or relatives, you have to make sacrifices and you only have a finite time and energy and you have to turn ’round and say no to things depending on your priorities. A lot of peers are saying “I can’t justify making these sacrifices anymore,” a lot of people my age are turning ’round saying “I need a normal life now, I can’t keep putting things out and missing out on this, that and the other.” It is a sacrifice and it can be tough, but it is what I do and without it I’d be shambling about doing sod all, watching TV and waiting to die.
Dom: Watching Eastenders?
The Watcher: Let’s not go that far.
Jack: Tonight is Metal Recusants’ 5th birthday party. Is there still room for online journalism in this day and age?
The Watcher: It’s strange, I think it is, and I think there’s room for it. We now live in the era of Web 2.0 so every[one] is a critic, everyone will brag about stuff on their Facebook page and all this kind of stuff. I think it is more important than ever because people need to sift through the noise. It sounds arrogant to an extent but to get through to the opinions that matter, some people’s opinion are a lot more relevant and structured than someone else’s. I write for a couple of online webzines myself, I think it’s good. As they say in the internet age, the noble pursuit of journalism can be perceived watered down a little bit but I think it’s still relevant. I lament the demise of print media really, it’s a shame there aren’t more printed magazines and what we do have out there is rather watered down unfortunately. I do think it’s relevant and I support anyone who is doing that.
Jack: Awesome, thanks for that. Finally, to wrap up I’ve always wanted to know this with your band: why do you use stage names and where did this come from?
The Watcher: [Laughs] It’s just part of what makes black metal cool, isn’t it? Let’s get it to down to brass tacks, when I picked up an Immortal album or an Emperor or Darkthrone album in 1995, I was like “who the hell are these guys, what the hell is this?” It’s exciting, I don’t want to pick up a CD and see some corpse-painted guy crouched over a gravestone where it says on the album “vocals by Steve Brown”. It kills the atmosphere, it’s all part of it. When we started the band we were like “should we use our own names?” and I was like “no, pseudonyms are one of the defining features of black metal” and they always have been and I’m sticking with that. We don’t wear corpse paint or ascribe to the traditional trapping of black metal at all. But I think a pseudonym is good and it creates an atmosphere. I think when you step on stage or you step into the recording studio you are channeling something else and it’s not just you recording doing a normal thing, you are trying to evoke something here. For music that thrives on atmosphere I think that’s an important thing.
Jack: A lot of black metal bands are scrapping corpse paint. Why do you think corpse paint is dying out?
The Watcher: I don’t know if it is. I think in the late ’90s early 2000s when people decided classic black metal wasn’t cool, they were going to wear Armani shades and suits and write songs about Calvin Klein and all that kind of stuff and I think that’s when it died out. You go to places like Nidrosian Black Mass and those sort of festivals and a lot of these bands, if not having full old-school corpse point, definitely an element of make up, haunted make up and hoods, hoods are everywhere at the moment.
To be honest I think we’re actually going through the second wave of theatrics, if you look at a band like Cult of Fire. To be honest I think it’s getting a bit too much, I think a lot of these bands spent a lot of time sewing their costumes up and lighting candles in front of the stage than they do actually practicing. I think actually in this era of live black metal rituals, I think the theatrics and make up seems to be making its way back. It’s not something we’d do, we’ll just wear Converse and t-shirts and get on stage. I can’t be dealing with that, I have enough to worry about with effects pedals and amps than worrying about my hood getting in the way or about corpse paint dripping onto my guitar. It’s not for me.
Jack: Well that is all. Thanks so much for your time and I look forward to seeing you on stage.
The Watcher: No problem, cheers, thanks for the interview.