Svalbard, photo Tim Birkbeck

On September 25th Svalbard will release their third album called When I Die, Will I Get Better? Recently Holy Roar Records collapsed after several allegations of sexual harassment made against the owner of the label. This incident threatened to postpone the release of Svalbard’s album, however a new label was quickly found. Church Road Records will release their new record on the scheduled day as planned. NMTH-editor Pieter has a chat with guitarist/singer Serena Cherry about being a feminist metal band, their new musical direction, kaassouflés and De Efteling. 

By Pieter Sloot

“I’m really relieved and super happy about working with Church Road Records. We didn’t think we would be able to get the album out on time. It’s been extremely stressful because we have been e-mailing nonstop for two weeks. Everything was completely uncertain”, Serena says during a surprisingly stable Skype call. “We feel really relieved and lucky.”

The new album kicks off with a bombastic and emotional journey called Open Wound. “When we write, we don’t have a pre-conceptualized idea of how a song is going to sound like. This song started when Liam (guitar/vocals) came up with the intro part and eventually it took a long time to write. When it was finished, we noticed it was more atmospheric than our other material. This wasn’t a goal beforehand, but we are very glad it turned out this way.” 

Lyrically every song is specifically about one topic. “I have a degree in sociology and I tend to describe my writing as ‘microsociology’, because I’ll take one specific thing that happened in society and then I expand that to it’s wider implications”, Serena tells. “For example, there is a song called What Was She Wearing?, which was inspired by the Superbowl. When J.Lo and Shakira performed during the Halftime Show, everyone derided them for being too scantily clad. After the event I started thinking  about the implications of this attitude towards women in general. It got me digging deeper into the culture of victim shaming where people blame victims of assaults for what they were wearing.  This essentially became the foundation of the song.”

The song Click Bait is about the way the media describes women in metal. “Metal Hammer released an article called ‘Metal’s most interesting voices are all female’, or something like that. My issue with this article is the fact they talk a lot about women’s voices, but none of the women were actually interviewed! They didn’t get a say, it was just some guy writing what he thinks about women in metal. It put Myrkur, Nightwish, Babymetal and us in the same category, while we’re all completely different artists. The main issue in this song is not just about Metal Hammer. A lot of media portray a kind of gender war going on, but it’s not us versus them. It makes no sense to put gender before music like that, even though their intentions might be in the right place.”

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“Silent Restraint is about feeling trapped and isolated by your own mental health. It’s the feeling of struggling to communicate. Even though there are people around you who tell you that you can talk to them, the depression silences you. This is one of the more personal and emotional songs about being stuck and isolated.”

Svalbard, photo Tim Birkbeck

Serena wrote the lyrics for Svalbard’s previous album, It’s Hard To Have Hope, very literally so everyone can understand the message. “I continued writing in that style 50/50. When I sing about political topics I try to make the lyrics as clear as possible. While writing this album, I was very emotional and that really affected my lyrics. This made it very personal, a bit more emotive and a bit less objective. The more emotional lyrics tend to be a bit more metaphoric.”

She states that having such emotional lyrics does have a downside. “It’s really difficult to perform those songs live. For example, when we perform the song Revenge Porn, I will often well up in tears because I am so overcome by the meaning of the words. Doing that on a stage for so many people is difficult. It’s like opening your diary in front of everyone. However, it’s really worth it. I have had a lot of people talk to me saying that they struggled with things and our songs make them feel less alone. It’s worth the rawness of the exposure.”

Svalbard’s songs which contain the beforementioned ‘microsociological’ lyrics, often have a feminist message. Serena mentions it’s really hard being a woman in a band in a scene as male dominated as metal. “On a yearly basis, I contemplate quitting”, she says calmly. “It’s simply too hard sometimes, taking so much shit.  “We played this show in Germany where we had to stop the show because someone was taking photos up my skirt. Often I receive a load of abuse online after talking about representation of women in metal at festivals. There are countless responses of people who simply deny the existence of sexism. They say: ‘Women are represented, the reason you’re not playing these festivals is because you are not good enough’. It doesn’t work like that! If that is the case: Why is Five Finger Death Punch still playing so many shows?!” 

After a rant about Five Finger Death Punch, we continue to talk about the changing attitude regarding women in metal. “Having been in a band for nearly ten years, I have noticed some improvements over the years. Attitudes are slowly starting to evolve and women are being represented in a more equal fashion. Compared to ten years ago there are way more women in bands and on tour playing festivals. This is great because it forces people to take women more seriously and it challenges the stereotypical beliefs that women can’t play metal. A decade ago, I even struggled to name bands with one or more women in them, so it’s a very encouraging change to see.”

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After talking about how great Employed to Serve is, we continue the interview. I ask Serena – partly because she studied sociology – what people can do to improve gender equality in metal. “This is something I think about a lot. First of all I think forced representation is bad, for example the 50/50 pledges for festivals bills. This is positive discrimination and it reinforces the idea that these bands are ‘bad and just there because they have women playing in them’. I’d like to see a more organic process, but for this a change in attitude is essential; women need to feel safe and welcome. When I came into the scene, people questioned me because I was wearing a Morbid Angel shirt. They doubted if I was really into the music or if I was just wearing it to impress a guy. Every woman in metal that I know, has a story like this.”

Justine Jones from Church Road Records with three Vinyl variants of the new Svalbard

With this third album the band takes a step into a new direction discovering sounds they haven’t used before. “We have allowed ourselves to be softer in certain places and to go even heavier in others. The members of Svalbard all have very diverse musical influences. “Our drummer is a grindcore lover and Liam, the other guitarist, is more into melodic crust. Bandwise I personally love a lot of post-metal, like Alcest and Mono, and black metal. But most of all, and this is going to sound weird, I listen to soundtracks. For example I’m really inspired by the soundtracks of games like Skyrim and Final Fantasy. They have particular emotions embedded in them and while writing my guitar leads, those are the feelings I look for. I am a self-taught guitar player and I don’t know anything about music theory… I think those influences in the music are just a result of playing Skyrim for six hours straight”, she mentions smiling. 

Touching on the topic of soundtracks we have reached another big passion of Serena: roller coasters! “The composer for Efteling, René Merkelbach, is another really big musical influence of mine. De Efteling is also my favourite theme park. Oh, this is a great topic to talk about”, she says with a beaming smile. “The great thing about De Efteling is that it doesn’t sugarcoat fairy tales like they do in Disney movies or cartoons; when you go into the fairy tale forest, it’s actually quite dark. For example, The Little Match Girl is pretty heavy and bleak in some places and I like that. The atmosphere in the park and the way they use rides to tell a story, is fantastic. During my travels across the world I’ve ridden 636 different roller coasters and there’s no place quite like De Efteling. I do also really love Walibi Holland, especially because of their Halloween event.”

“Roller coasters to me are three-dimensional art. A lot of people think the experience of a roller coaster lasts less than a minute, but it’s also walking in the park, looking at the structures and hearing the music. They all have their own theme or a story as well, so it’s a great form of escapism. Art forms like architecture and painting can only be looked at, but you can actually ride a roller coaster, so it becomes a really immersive experience. People often think I’m mad when I talk about it, hahaha! 

Next year Svalbard will, hopefully, tour Europe along with The Ocean, pg.lost and Hypno5e. “I’m so excited for the tour, even though it feels strange making plans now. Also I’m really excited to go back on the road because of kaassouflés! Oh… by the way; next year I’ll be releasing a solo black metal album and it will be quite atmospheric and progressive. It’s no nineties Norwegian black metal but it isn’t blackgaze either… So if Skyrim had a black metal soundtrack, I suppose it would sound like that.”

When I Die, Will It Get Better? will be released on the 25th of September by Church Road Records, pre-orders are available.


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