Dark Rock in the Sky: Secrets of the Moon’s “Black House” (Michael Zech Interview + Album Premiere)
It’s been interesting finishing up my work on this interview, now well over a month after it was conducted. The exact date, the morning of March 17th, was only a couple days before the city of Los Angeles requested all non-essential services close and if possible continue work from home. My day job was included in those orders, and it’s been a mixed bag since, one that's left me feeling pretty uncertain about what the future really has in store for me. I think it’s fair to say back then I was still pretty optimistic about things turning back to normal in a matter of weeks to maybe only a couple months. I definitely don’t have that outlook now.
While my job was still plowing forward, albeit with hand sanitizer and disinfectant splattered about, the first blow in my social life occurred as the 2020 Decibel Magazine Tour was canceled. I had been looking forward to it for months not only for it’s stacked line-up but because the Santa Ana date fell on my birthday (and a Saturday at that). So, an almost assuredly awesome birthday with friends vanished and within a few days would be replaced with stay-at-home orders by city/county/state officials.
In the time since, events as far off as September have now been postponed or outright canceled which includes a number of metal gatherings domestic and international I had planned. I’ve observed a lot of my friends’ reactions to these postponed/cancelled events on social media and in many ways it reflects those stereotypical seven stages of grief. A whole lot of them still seem to be hovering around denial to anger, while the shift from depression to acceptance seems to be where I’m at now.
All of which I’m also aware seems a bit, well… selfish and egotistical of me. I know that. Really, I do. Expressing angst about a shuttered social life and canceled travel plans really is mince meat compared to the deaths some families are experiencing and then all the pressure “essential” workers are experiencing as they practically walk daily into a battlefield. Perhaps as a way to avoid even looking at my own uncertainty in employment, and even mortality (though thank all the gods I don’t think I’ve directly encountered that yet), keeping in touch with my global network of friends to commiserate over our mutually dashed moments of community has kept me just a bit more sane than I’d be otherwise.
So whether you count yourself relatively lucky these days or have experienced true hardships, keep in mind that community does continue to exist, and for those likely reading this, the extreme music community is ever still a strong source of perseverance.
As much as the Internet age has been a mixed bag of blessings and curses, one valuable asset it’s created has been the means to have digital contact all over the world, including audio and video communication. From a wide assortment of applications people have kept in contact with friends and loved ones, sometimes even rekindling old friendships lost to time and distance or forging brand new ones. For the journalism world, a lot of these platforms have been old hat for a while as the best means to reach subjects halfway around the world and that was certainly the case for me when I skyped Michael Zech (a prolific musician and producer/engineer) in Germany to talk about his band Secret of the Moon’s latest album Black House.
I’ve been a fan of Secret of the Moon going as far back probably to when I heard the track “Miasma” off their 2004 second album Carved in Stigmata Wounds as it appeared in a copy of Terrorizer Magazine’s “Fear Candy” CD compilation accompanying their 121st edition that I picked up in a Galway, Ireland bookshop during a family vacation there. In the time since I've kept up, off and on, with this black metal band turned dark metal, including seeing them live during a college semester abroad at a basement gig in Vienna in late 2006. But 2015’s Sun caught my attention like a brick to the face -- it was a surprising shift in sound toward far more gothic atmospheres and melancholic melodies with clean vocals that really struck out with a devil-may-care passion. It became a top favorite of mine that year, and I eagerly anticipated the band’s next work hoping it would continue on the same trajectory.
This year, with the world in a unique darkness as detailed above, Secrets of the Moon have returned with something even more provocative.
That album, Black House, which we are streaming below in its entirety before tomorrow's release date, will strike listeners as even further removed from the black metal and, dare I say, even heavy metal roots for Secrets of the Moon. This isn’t at all to say this is an album metal fans should avoid; far from that if they have any appreciation whatsoever for music that finds beauty and the sublime in all possible shades of darkness. For myself, I love not only the goth-rock passion abound on the album but also segments of songs like “He is Here” that immediately hit my brain’s memory synapses of classic-era Alice in Chains.
My interview with Zech below details the limitations of genre and band comparisons I can make to describe what I hear on Black House. For the band, such things weren’t explicitly in mind as they instead worked through instinct and collaborative vision to arrive, simply enough, at who they are at this moment in time. Black House is a place where what the listener takes with them inside will greatly reflect their own experience. So crack open the door and wander in as Zech and I discuss the worlds that surround us daily and those that lie within the Black House.
So to start off with, how are you doing? How are you and, as far as you know, your bandmates holding up during this whole global crisis?
It's been relatively okay. I mean, it's kind of weird how everything is empty. I'm sort of in my own bubble, I think. I'm in my recording studio and just working every day, doing whatever I do. So it hasn’t affected me that much so far. The rest of the guys, I think they do home office work so they’re all staying at home. What's kind of disappointing is... I mean it’s understandable but still disappointing, is that pretty much all the shows that any of us have with any of our projects have been canceled, obviously. But yeah, it is what it is. I hope this is going to be over in half a year so we can hopefully tour in the fall or something.
Hopefully, right? Is your region in Germany on lockdown or anything like that?
It's sort of on lockdown. Stores are mostly closed except for grocery stores, gas stations, and drugstores. I think most of the borders are closed. Though there's no curfew or something like that. That's about it. There's no bars. No restaurants. No nothing. So that's kind of weird. That's kind of apocalyptic.
It's the same here in LA. I think the restaurants are doing takeout but other than that everything is shut down.
Pretty much the same here. I had been to LA only two weeks ago and it's such a vibrant city, so I cannot really imagine how it looks right now. It must be super weird.
It is. Anyway let's talk about the band and the new album. This is the longest gap in time between albums for Secrets of the Moon. It's been about five years since your last album Sun came out. What brought about such a longer gap between albums?
It didn't feel so long for us at the beginning. I mean we had been touring for a year to maybe a year and a half before we then kind of started getting to new songwriting. I mean with tracking and playing, we started recording the record like two years ago. Probably around April 2018. That's probably something to add as well, that we had the main recording session back then already. While after that Phil and I just kept working on it for about a year. We recorded it all in my recording studio; we tracked the main stuff down and just kept on fucking around with it adding stuff.
I don't know, I mean we have this privilege that we can do this. We would rather come up with something where we really feel that each section really works for us rather than rush and put it out. Then we also spent a lot of time with the realisation of the visual arts we wanted to accompany. I don't know if you know, but we shot a video clip for each song that is kind of all interconnected to the cover artwork and the lyrics. We wanted it to be very interactive and multimedia accessible. So that took pretty much another half year to get done. I guess there was just a lot of production time on this record.
Speaking of those video accompaniments as we’re speaking the video for "Veronica's Room" already came out. How did the idea for that one develop and specifically how was it working with Metastazis and Dehn Sora?
Metastazis is a very old friend of ours. We've known him for probably longer than 10 years. He did the cover art for Privilegivm as well. Besides being friends, we really admire his art. We basically just contacted a few artists that we thought were capable of realizing our artistic idea for this record and he was really intrigued but he said he couldn't do it alone. He brought up Dehn Sora. That was a guy that we already independently contacted about it because we love his art too. So that just fell into place having both of them on board. With the general concept of it there were I think different reasons. One of them is that it's obviously very important in these times to have a lot of high quality content that you can present on the internet.
I seriously hate to release too much content around a band as that is demystifying, especially low quality stuff to just get people on the internet going on about your work. So I think that this is a very elegant way to get around this obstacle of feeling obligated to have a lot of content for the internet. Other than that we thought it's something that would really fit with this record. It's not really a concept record. The music is not interconnected and nor are the lyrics. But we built a sort of visual concept around it all that makes it really fit, the black house. It could be a surreal place where the whole record actually happens. Each song, each video happens around one sort of surrealistic artifact that reflects the lyrics which then intertwined into the videos. So I like the idea that the black house is this surreal place that surrounds the record. It's become really, literally 3D.
I was gonna ask this a bit later, but what precisely would you say the black house is? Or if that's something to even be answered?
It could be anything. That is sort of... maybe it’s an entrance into different worlds or it’s something that came from another world. Some sphere where our music on this record is happening or that the album creates its own sort of microcosm. I think that this is something that probably everyone should find out for themselves. It's like we want to give an abstract idea, an abstract world to explore. That's all going to be happening and maybe people will get their own twist on it.
The press release for the album mentioned that genre tags like goth rock or post-punk fail to kind of describe the music on Black House.
I agree. I don't like those tags too much.
Is it fair to say in general Secrets of the Moon are trying to transcend genre because with the last album Sun, which is an album I love, it definitely felt like it was going well beyond black metal. With this album it now feels like you're going well beyond even metal.
Possibly, yeah. I guess the more records we do or the longer we work on music, the more, from my point of view, genre restrictions don't really make any sense for me anymore. When I started to listen to black metal or extreme metal this was the epitome of music for me. I thought, "Okay, this is exactly what I want to hear and this is what I'm going to make." Looking back now, it was probably a spark that kind of set something in motion. That;s something I wanted to hear in music, but I can pretty much find it in [all] music now. It's something very personal.
To be honest, nowadays we're not even really thinking about what genre this or that song or record could become. We just come up with ideas that mean a lot to us and then we see where it goes. We just don't want to use any restrictions. I mean the guitar sound on this record was actually something that kind of happened when we set up the guitar tone as like, “Well, actually, that is the guitar tone this record should have.” It would have been probably a lot heavier if we had used a different tone. Just as much so on Sun it was decided during the production process that we would use that much clean vocals because we felt at some point the songs required that. I think I like to be inspired and make instinctive decisions during the production process, to get to something that feels new and fresh to us.
As the engineer and producer for Secrets of the Moon how was it getting to work on this album in that capacity in your own studio?
It gets really crazy at times because of course I really obsess over it at some points. I have my personal regiments now to not over obsess on stuff and I give myself breaks. I made that mistake at the beginning a lot where I would obsess over projects and then realize that I didn't really make it any better at some point. In a way it gives you a lot of freedom and it's amazing because you can really design your own record on a sonic level. If you would work with someone else, even if that person would be great to work with, you are giving that part away. Which can be a great thing too, to have this objective user. Yeah, it's very schizophrenic to be the producer and the artist. I'm trying to separate these two personalities, somehow.
You've been in the band now for about 11 years and this is your third album with Secrets of the Moon. How do you view your place within the band in terms of it developing or shifting since you initially joined?
I never really thought about that. I think from the beginning there was this really strong creative chemistry between Phil and I. We knew each other before, from like casual meetings or something, and I then joined them right before a tour. I just went to practice and it was immediately magic when we played together. By now Phil and I work really close together. It’s gotten closer with each album I think, but already on Seven Bells he gave me a lot of freedom on it. I wrote material on Seven Bells as much as I did material for Black House or Sun. It's just this really unpredictable creative chemistry that we’ve had from the beginning.
Speaking of working with people, you had a number of musical guests on this new album. In particular you had Jarboe perform on it. What was it like to have her participate and work with you?
Unfortunately we didn't work directly with her. She recorded her parts over there and sent it on the Internet. We gave her all the freedom to do what she wanted. I mean it was actually almost overdue that she ended up on a record of ours. We’ve been friends for about ten years, she and us as the band. We toured with Jarboe in I think 2010 or 2009 and we always stayed in touch, so it was a very spontaneous decision actually to ask her. It was the midsection of the title track, we actually tried to build up a huge instrumental passage there and somehow it didn't go anywhere. It didn't really make it better and we thought, “What could we do with this passage?” I was like, "Okay, lets just ask Jarboe to do something on it.” What she came up with is pretty unique and I'm really stoked about it.
Would you say that the band, or you in particular, have an affinity for her work, whether solo or in Swans?
Oh yeah. We love Swans and we also really love her solo works. I think it's the way how Swans but also Jarboe's solo stuff approaches music. How they approach it sonically is a huge, huge inspiration for us.
The original bassist, Lars Plegge rejoined the band in 2016. Even though you're not an original member, how's it been having him back in the band, whether on stage or in the studio?
That's a great story actually. Lars was one of the first people that heard Sun, like we sent it to him personally. He would always visit at shows and we’d meet casually. He has always been a friend of ours. So he was one of the first people we sent Sun to because we really had a huge respect for his judgment. After hearing it he wrote us back and said he was really blown away by that record. At that time that gave us, I think, a lot of confidence about Sun. We really didn't know what the fuck we'd done. So when our last bassist from that time left [Marta Lledo, 2011 to 2016], we sort of thought it would be a logical step to ask Lars if he wanted to rejoin and he did. I think it's a great story that the Sun album, at that time, being the farthest away musically from the origin of the band was actually the kind of record that brought Lars back. Working with him is really nice as well. He’s a good friend and he also doesn't try to reclaim the band. He is very humble working with us now.
That’s definitely better than probably what a lot of people experience with former band members coming back.
Yeah. Certainly right now he really loves what we do with the band these days, which gives us a good feeling about inviting him back.
Last question here. The first single you released, "Veronica's Room," was stated in your social media to be based on a play by Ira Levin. Without going too much into the plot of that play, how did that story come to inspire a song on the album?
To be very vague, it’s about being trapped. I guess that song is about being trapped, in whichever way that might happen for someone. Obviously it's not a song directly about that play. The lyrics are more using metaphors from the play and they’re really twisted lyrics. So I guess maybe everyone who's interested can find some really twisted course in them.
Black House releases tomorrow via Prophecy Productions.