Interview – Byron Lemley (Numenorean)
When you spend most of your time listening to heavy music, you develop a pretty thick skin to images of violence. There are only so many times you can look at a human body being ripped apart by zombies before it goes from being shocking to being ho-hum. And yet, when I first saw the cover to Numenorean’s debut album, Home, I gasped out loud.
The cover is a photograph of the corpse of a young girl, naked and lacerated. The image would be horrific under any circumstances, but it came as a particular shock given how stirring and melodically consonant Numenorean’s music is.
In the liner notes for Home, the Calgary five-piece make their artistic intentions very clear. “Our album revolves around the idea of ‘loss’ and a longing for something that we as humans will never achieve.” Given how candid the band is about their themes, I was excited to talk to them at length. Singer Byron Lemley was kind enough to answer my questions over the phone about his artistic process, as well as his relationship with metal aesthetics and the thrill of performing live.
First thing’s first, we have to talk about the cover art for the new record. How long did it take you to decide on that particular image to represent the album?
I think the image came into view and focus once most of the album had been completed or at least the central idea of it, and that central idea was just a loss in all its many different forms. Particularly death and loss of innocence were the recurring themes. We had a bunch of different ideas for art and some of them seemed to work but it never reached its full potential until we found this picture of this girl which represented everything we had talked about, everything we had written.
So that’s a found photo?
Yeah, it’s an autopsy photo from a murder that happened in 1970. A father came home and murdered his whole family. We realize it’s a very striking image and somewhat controversial but looking at that image evokes such a strong emotion out of the listener, it almost sets up the journey you’re going to experience with the album. We wanted to break the fourth wall a bit and start the experience before you even dive into the album. I think the album needs to be listened to in its entirety; I think that’s why a lot of people look at it negatively, just seeing it for its surface value instead of experiencing the whole album in its entirety and seeing how everything compiles together to be that whole journey.
In the liner notes that you make it pretty clear that the album does have this thematic through line. Was it the music that inspired the theme or did they both occur simultaneously?
I think they occurred simultaneously because when after my brother and I had put this lineup together we wanted everyone to organically put their thoughts and ideas and emotions into the album. After some time this was the result. We never started out going, “Oh, how can we make this about loss?” or whatever we’re writing about, we just kind of let it take shape and once we knew what kind of shape we had that’s when all the pieces just made sense and came together.
I appreciate that in the liner notes themselves you pretty clearly outline what each of the songs are about and the messages behind the record. Do you worry about the record being misinterpreted? Is that why you put such clear themes in the liner notes itself?
I think yeah, because what we’re trying to do is not an easy literal message. Like we’re not writing an album that says, “Oh, this is the beast within,” like other metal bands. We want to be introspective, we want to really think about things. I think the concept needs to be explained because it can really be lost in translation. It’s not something you can just put into one sentence, so that’s why everything is included so it evokes more thought.
Some people might see a dead body on the album cover and the logo and assume it’s more of a traditional extreme metal record. But then the album itself is pretty and modern sounding. Was that contrast between extreme metal images and the more modern sound intentional?
Yes, but I think that works so well with this album. Something we really gravitate towards are things that are very contradictory. It doesn’t make sense to have this really nihilistic idea about losing innocence and home–meaning the place you want to die, that being the eventual goal–that doesn’t go with this pretty, soaring type of music that is uplifting in some ways. But I think when you mix the two together it works really well especially in contrast to all the screaming. I think there’s only two parts on the album that even have clean singing, the rest is just howls and screaming and I think it’s a very good contrast.
You mention in the liner notes that people often use drugs or sex to stave off an internal sense of unfulfillment . Do you think that music has the same function for you?
Absolutely. It’s an integral part to that whole experience.
So you use music about that loss of innocence to try and stave off the loss of innocence.
Writing about it is the only thing that can keep us in that realm of having innocence and having that pure excitement about what we’re doing. It reminds me of being a child and having that youthfulness. To be honest, the only time I feel great is when we’re writing or we’re doing something with the band, playing and expressing those feelings in real time. That’s the only thing we can do, because if we don’t then we kind of trail off into this hopeless existence.
You mention that the music was more collaboratively written this time around, you brought the full band in to write the music, is that correct?
Mmm hmm. I think when Brandon and I wrote the two song demo, the whole purpose was to find a collective where everyone has their own piece to say and contribute to the same vision and mindset. It was difficult even trying to find those members but we eventually did, and this is the result of it. That was our goal from the whole get go, just to release this demo and find the right guys. We did start writing the demo with some of our really great friends, it just wasn’t gelling like it needed to. So we got rid of them, and then finally found the right members that are in line with all of our thoughts and ideas. We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable and let them put a piece of themselves into the album. I think it turned out for the best, it’s a way better album than I thought it could be and that’s because everyone has given themselves in a part of the music.
When you mention finding people who are in line with your own thoughts and ideals are you talking musically or thematically?
Musically and thematic ideas, and also musically that contrast my ideas as well. My guitarist Roger, we’re so opposite in our styles and how we play [but] we’re pretty much forming into this one guitarist together. He’s so great at pedal work and brings so many atmospheric ideas whereas I’m more riff driven. That’s what we need. I didn’t want to find a guitarist that’s just like me. We’ve become this one tight unit because of these influences. He’s not a big death metal guy while I used to be huge into death metal and those styles clash together and make something very unique I think.
The songwriting is a lot more focused on the album than on the demo; you can tell that that was part of the band’s growth.
It’s very singular I think, Home is very expansive. There are so many different parts that I feel could be expanded even more, which is a great thing to have with a band instead of being typecast into one type of genre, like, “Oh, you’re just a black metal band” or, “Oh, you’re just a post-rock band” or what have you.
Going from the demo to the record, beyond just bringing in the additional members, was there anything on your part that you wanted to do differently?
I wanted to challenge myself, at least musically, and not stay true to what I had started because I knew I was already evolving so much. I think I want that mindset with every release we do. We’ve already started writing our next album and I never want it to be like a
Now that you’re continuing to write new material, do you think it’s going to be as conceptual going forward or do you think that’s something that’s particular to Home?
I think that’s very particular to Home. For three of us in the band this is the first album we’ve written, that’s been recorded, I think it was inevitable for it to be a concept based around loss with everything piling up with all the bullshit that’s happened in our lives but I think going forward we’re going to let it develop more and see where the music goes instead of coming up with an idea like, “Let’s try to be more black metal” or what have you.
Sure, do you have any idea of where it’s heading so far?
Yeah, but we’ll save that for when it comes out.
One more thing is that we’re very much a live band and that’s been our goal forever: expressing everything on the record but in a live setting, which is so much more powerful. We want to be the band that when you hear it live you think, “This is way better than the record could ever do.” So that’s our main goal and idea because I think at heart we’re all performers first; if we had it our way we’d be on the road all the time.
What do you think about your live show improves on the material from the recorded versions?
I think when we’re recording, a lot of it, especially vocally, is so vulnerable and improvised at the time. You take what cuts work. There’s a total difference from slamming back a bottle of whiskey at 4a.m. and trying new stuff in your basement versus being with a live audience and feeding off their energy. We have our setlist but there’s room for improvisation. We want things to go wrong too, because I think that makes us human. If the guitar breaks or you can’t hear any of the drums it puts you in the position where you either have to make it or you don’t, and that’s a position we want because it gives us life. It makes us feel a part of something. We’re not just going up on stage and rehearsing something we’ve done a million times because people like it or they heard it, we want to truly live these songs and feel everything with everything that can go wrong as well. So, that’s why I think our heart’s mostly in going on tour and playing these songs until we don’t feel anymore and then we go on to the next thing.
You mention that having the ability to improvise live is important to you. Does anyone in the band have a background in improvised music or is that just something you wanted to do with this project in particular?
I think for this project the mindset’s always been that we need to have full passion in everything, because if we’re not doing that we’re doing a disservice to the music and it’s not genuine. One person in the band that’s really brought that in is Roger, he’s an actor in Calgary but he’s given it all up because he wants to just follow music and follow his passion. He feels something from that rather than doing the same scene over and over again. So that’s where his heart is and so is ours. It influences everyone in the band to really feel every emotion and every note we play.
Does that include extra-musical things, are you thinking visually? I know you put thought into how the album is presented visually, does the live show have a similar visual element to you?
We don’t use any video or backdrops or anything but visually the best I can describe is that we try to embody everything that the album is more live and we just want to feel and we want people to feel and that’s exactly all we want.