An interview with Sirenia's Morten Veland
Sirenia are a goth metal rollercoaster ride of unrelenting energy. A kaleidoscopic, ever-evolving treat of styles and genres, their songs are continually shifting into fresh patterns, one minute soaring to giddying heights of operatic melody and synthetic symphony, the next racing along to hard rock and plunging into unforgiving, raw heavy metal. Over the years the band have honed their curious sound into something undefinable and yet uniquely Sirenia. This is through the pure dedication and determination of the man behind the madness, Norwegian metal-head extraordinaire Morten Veland, who built on his success with Tristania to found Sirenia in 2001. Sirenia are currently on their European tour and Dark Matter caught up with their founding member just before he took to the stage in London.
It’s vital to Sirenia that they keep their identity intact, despite the often astonishing changes in texture and style in their music. Composer Veland works hard to bring in fresh, experimental elements while maintaining some kind of consistency, and this is evident in their latest studio album, Arcane Astral Aeons.
"I definitely spend a lot of time finding that perfect balance," Morten elaborates. "I always want to renew myself but at the same time I still want to sound like Sirenia, perhaps a new version of Sirenia. I don’t want us to sound like some completely new band all of a sudden. Fans want to hear new stuff, but at the same time they don’t want the band to become something completely new and different. With nine albums so far, it gets harder and harder to bring something new to the table. We’ve been able to add some brand new electronic elements and a lot of variations and new styles, especially with the vocals - there’s more of the classical singing in this album. Yannis, from Beast in Black also sang a song with us, adding more of a power metal kind of vocal, which was something new. We brought back the violins, which we haven’t had for some albums now, not having used it for a number of years it felt fresh again."
Veland’s infallible passion for black metal also makes its presence felt: "I’ve been into black metal since the 90s and its one of those genres I’ve followed since the beginning. I’ve always been a big fan of those early bands, Emperor, Immortal, Satyricon and there are a lot of black metal elements in my songs."
With such a mosaic of material, it can often feel like a game of spot-the-style, but Veland always manages to find the harmonies out of what, in theory, should sound like discord. "That’s one of the things I enjoy, the whole composition part," he continues. "That’s what I find challenging, trying to make songs that are dynamic and blending all these genres and elements in a good kind of way. It’s a big project and it takes a lot of time, I really enjoy that whole big creative process. In fact, the very definition of Sirenia’s sound can be summarised as diversity, and it’s perhaps this that makes them stand out from the battalions of Gothic metal bands currently charging into the fray. I think one of the things that makes us a little bit different from the genre is the diversity. Pretty much from the very beginning, that was what our musical concept was about, trying to mix elements from all kinds of genres together and blend them into a fusion of metal and rock music. These days there’s a lot of other bands doing that as well but I feel that we were one of the early bands to do this kind of stuff."
With so much wondrous variation, it’s hard to pin down Sirenia’s style, and perhaps this is the whole point. The lyrics and song titles are also open to interpretation, creating a sense of unfathomable mystery that teases the careful listener with a multitude of meaning. 'Arcane Astral Aeons' is a case in point, and challenges the mind with its archaic, baffling sentence constructions, not least the name of the album itself.
Veland adds "The title is kind of indirect, it can pretty much be interpreted in all kinds of directions. I like lyrics and titles that are not really obvious, the kind of stuff you have to think a little about to get real meaning out of them. When I write lyrics I like using different tools, such as elements of numerology, lots of metaphors, some stuff from mythology. I’ve never really liked or felt comfortable explaining the lyrics myself, reviewing or explaining my own work doesn’t make sense to me. One of my favourite artists, Nick Cave once said that he could spend years trying to write the perfect lyric, and he could ruin it all in an interview by saying something stupid that took away all the magic behind the words - I totally agree. You can read interviews with artists about how they wrote the lyric, and in my head, I had a completely different idea of it, and then you can feel disappointed. You never hear great painters, for example, explaining the meaning behind the art. That’s the thing with art, it’s up to the people who see and listen to it to do that."
Veland’s willingness to explore and experiment is perhaps down to his progressive attitude towards music of all genres. He is incredibly open-minded and entirely unsnobbish about what he enjoys during his spare time, and he makes some surprising choices.
"To be able to make the music that I make it’s important to understand the bigger picture. I listen to so much, from classical (Tchaikovsky) to extreme black metal to Gothic rock. I enjoy rock and metal in all their forms, I even like pop, ambient, alternative stuff. That’s how I like to relax at weekends, with a drink, discovering new stuff. For me, it’s impossible to find a favourite artist, but if I really had to choose: Leonard Cohen since I was a little kid."
It’s not just Veland’s pure passion for music of every kind that has made Sirenia what they are. He is keen to point out he’s no lone creative genius; that the other folk who support the band both on and offstage make all the difference. Over the years, there have been some changes to the line-up, but it seems that the current members have forged a strong and stable unit.
"Absolutely, 100%, it’s fixed, it feels really good," the composer agrees. "We’re just trying to enjoy ourselves and have fun, and at the same time work hard too. All these years I’ve been learning things and trying to master this technique of getting better and better compositions, and I feel that the latest album worked really well because of all the great band members, amazing engineers, great studios - all these talented, experienced people."
And Sirenia’s latest classically trained vocalist, Emmanuelle Zoldan, has definitely made a major contribution to the band and really helped them hone their sound with her own diversified skills and interests.
"When Emma did her first album with us, 'Dim Days of Dolor', she joined in the middle of recording and although we didn’t have much time she really adapted to the album and did a fantastic job. She was amazing, she brought a lot of new styles and techniques to our sound that we haven’t used in the past. The new album has seen even more of her shining through. We’re constantly discovering new, cool sides of her, her voice has such range and she shows a lot of diversity as a singer. She studied music for several years, working in the opera, so she has so much experience and knowledge to share."
It’s this pure dedication to their art and sheer unflinching passion that have kept Sirenia a strong presence in a metal scene that has become increasingly crowded since Veland first helped pioneer the genre with Tristania.
"When I formed Tristania in mid 90s it felt like we were a part of something new and we may have added to the genre. But it didn’t work out (shrugs) so I formed Sirenia in 2001. I didn’t want to form a band that was exactly the same as Tristania, so there were some changes, and ever since I’ve been trying to bring new ideas into every album, take each album one step further. Judging by the reactions of the fans, already singing along to the new stuff, they like the new album."
This boundless energy has propelled Sirenia across the globe on several epic tours. In fact, they obviously adore playing live, and with their energetic exuberance on stage combined with their impressive, hard-won technical skill, this is definitely the best way to appreciate their fast-paced melodies.
"It’s been two very busy but exciting years with the European tour, our two American tours and our first tour of China. There’s been a lot of highlights so far. We did the big festival in Germany where we had such a fantastic, great crowd. We’ve played some really different venues, in Eastern Europe we performed in some really old, Soviet style theatres with amazing chandeliers and architecture, like travelling back in time. Latin America has really crazy crowds, they sing along as loudly as if they were at a football match! It just feels really good and exciting to play new songs live, a lot of the new songs are energetic bombastic, upbeat tempos - so they work really well live."
As well as performing their incredible shows, the band also like to take advantage of the perks of travel, enjoying the finest cuisines from around the world, from Greek food to Argentinian steak. And from spending much of their downtime drinking in dimly-lit Camden dive bars, the Dark Matter editorial team can fully get behind a couple of Sirenia’s pleasures in particular.
"Craft brewing is huge in America," Veland notes. "There are crafts beer bars around every corner, and you can taste amazing beers in every city. And as half the band are French, there always needs to be wine…"
With each album usually taking two years to write, Sirenia are nothing if not devoted to their own craft. Veland recognises that there’s always going to be ways to improve in hindsight, but he is incredibly satisfied with his legacy and how far Sirenia have come as a band.
"I’ve been dedicated the whole time and really putting in as much effort as I can into every album. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far. In retrospect, listening to older albums, there’s always things we could have done differently today now the technology would have enabled us. But I feel that every album is representing us musically where we were at that point. It’s like a little history book, this is where we were, this is the kind of music we wanted to make, this is where we were at our technical skills, performance-level. It’s interesting to go back to other albums and see where we were at that time sound-wise, and composition and performance wise. But I wouldn’t change anything, it feels right to leave that old stuff as it is, as a representation of our past."
And just before he went on stage for another spectacular Sirenia tour de force, Veland had a final message: "Cheers to our UK fans, we’re really happy to be back here, will do our best to do a good show tonight!"
It is just this open, cheerful enthusiasm and simple, uncomplicated desire to keep their fans happy that guarantees Sirenia’s continued success and makes them a true joy to experience.
'Arcane Astral Aeons' is out now on Napalm