Interview with Byron Roberts
Bal-Sagoth was conceived by yourself almost twenty years ago: having that in mind, what would you consider to be your personal highlights as a musician, writer and individual? Do you see the band setting more goals to achieve in the medium, long-run?
In truth, when I first came up with the idea for the band all those years ago, I never really expected that I’d still be doing it in 2008! But I’m certainly glad that I am and that the work of Bal-Sagoth has stood the test of time. The very fact that the band has completed its grand hexalogy and that there are so many people out there who appreciate and admire our work, is probably the greatest highlight of all. The release of each album, embodying as they did the culmination of thousands of hours of work, was always a wondrous highlight.
In all honesty, pretty much all the goals I set for the band have been achieved. That’s partly due to the fact that those goals were realistic ones and that it was always important for me to keep Bal-Sagoth as much of an obscure, underground kind of band as possible. Right now, however, one of our goals is to visit the various countries we haven’t previously been to in order to play some shows in those places.
The band’s concept is based upon a myriad of legends, myths and assorted fantasy stories, but do you still remember when you were first drawn to these worlds? Consequently, what motivated you to pursue this passion in your work and, were you still not involved with Music, would you consider fulfilling it in other ways?
Myths and legends have always fascinated me, from a very young age. Reading comic books and watching fantasy and mythology-oriented movies and cartoons as a kid, ignited a passion that has endured throughout my life. It was when I was a teenager that I decided that I would like to combine two of my greatest passions – fantasy/mythology and Metal – and create a band which would act as a platform from which such stories could be told. The concept behind the band is also going to cross over into other forms of media. Bal-Sagoth (the band) is just one facet of the stories. The lyrics of the six albums are reflections of a much larger and more intricate body of work and only a relatively small part of that has thus far been revealed in the lyric booklets. As I originally intended, the chronicles of this baroque fantasy world will ultimately encompass such things as prose short stories, graphic novels, illustrated books and more.
What is the actual meaning of the name Bal-Sagoth and how did you think of it in the first place?
I took the name Bal-Sagoth from a story which was written by my favourite author Robert E. Howard. The story was called The Gods of Bal-Sagoth and was first published in the celebrated pulp magazine Weird Tales, in 1931. The name Bal-Sagoth had always appealed to – and fascinated – me ever since I first read the story many, many years ago and I always intended to use that name for this grand Metal project, as it seemed to mirror the concept and thematic essence which I envisioned for the band perfectly, so that’s, basically, why I called the band Bal-Sagoth.
In comparison with the band’s last trilogy, I still hold the former as my personal favourite (particularly the debut); if you would analyse it today, what would you consider to be the highlights and nadirs of those three chapters (both in musical and technical aspects) and is there one in specific that stands out for you?
The creation of every album has always been beset by conflict and discord and the first three albums were certainly characterised by those factors! Arguments were rife, compromises inevitably had to be made and ideas were diluted, as they always will be – such are the pitfalls inherent in working in a band, for music made by a band is, by its very nature, a horribly collaborative medium. In the early days, there were also technical limitations which were imposed upon us due to the relative limits inherent in analogue recording technology. The pre-digital age certainly had its benefits and its charm, but the advent of digital recording technology certainly makes things easier for bands like us with ideas which are epic in scope. Also, Bal-Sagoth, as I envisioned it from the outset, was always supposed to be a dark, horrifically symphonic Black/Death Metal entity. In certain respects, as far as the actual music is concerned, the first two albums alone best embody that original vision.
You have assorted your stories into specific chapters that eventually molded into what you describe as your Hyperborean Empire saga. At one point, Evola, Guenon and other modern esoteric thinkers, considered Hyperborea to be the Golden Age polar center of civilisation and spirituality: was your primary motivation based upon it?
In the lyrics, Hyperborea is a northern kingdom ruled by the legendary kings of Hyperborea. The nations of Hyperborea and Atlantis have a long-standing ancestral and military rivalry, which on many occasions over the centuries has led to prolonged periods of war between the two countries. The only aspect of Hyperborea which I took from the well-known myth was that it was a fabled, far northern realm – all the rest is entirely a fantasy interpretation. However, it is certainly true that the realms of Hyperborea and Ultima Thule, in my lyrics, represent two boreal cradles of civilisation, where a mythical northern race evolved descended from proto-humans, whose genetic material was modified by non-terrestrial entities many thousands of years before the evolution of man was actually thought to have begun.
Speaking of which, you have set the Multiuniverse as the alternate reality in which your tales are set, being most of its ideas similar (in concept) to those of Lovecraft and Howard (and having a wide range of characters): please elaborate a bit on its genesis, development, inspiration and, ultimately, its gradual complexity of events, people and times.
The world of the lyrics spans countless eons, from the time when non-terrestrial beings first erected cities on the early globe, through the various cataclysms which shaped and reshaped the surface of the planet, and chronicling the evolution of man, all the way to mankind embracing its destiny amongst the stars and establishing off-world colonies and empires. Part of the reason why I established such a far-reaching chronology with the lyrical world, was that I wanted to tell stories based in different eras, ranging from sword and sorcery type tales, through stories set within recorded eras of history and on to more Sci-Fi oriented tales set during the far future. All the stories (with the exception of one or two) are linked in some way and all are part of the same canonical multiverse. Of course, there’s only so much you can fit within the pages of a CD booklet, which is why the stories have also expanded into other formats. The revised A-Z Glossary MK. II, which I will release soon, gives a much more detailed history of the lyrical world than ever before.
Giving the dreamlike scenarios you so often project in your lyrics, how would you hold this rather deep (yet simple) Poe line: “Is that all I see or seem but a dream within a dream?”
A good line, indeed. Certainly, how do we know that what we perceive to be reality isn’t simply some multidimensional illusionary plane? And how many differing facets of so-called reality are there? There are many universes, existing simultaneously and the spaces between those universes perhaps hold the key to some staggering universal truth. These are things to ponder, but not too deeply lest we lose our tenuous hold on sanity.
The artwork and layout of the albums must be as significant as your music and lyrics, so each time you embark on their creation, how’s the process like from the start? Do you happen to have any background in Design or Painting?
The artwork and booklet layout is, indeed, vitally important to me and it’s something which I draft out in concept form from the very outset of an album. Because I have a background in Illustration, I always sketch out ideas in advance and present them to the artists, be it cover layout ideas, character sketches, etc. I am very fortunate to have such a talented collaborator as Martin Hanford, whose fantastic paintings and illustrations capture the essence of the lyrical world perfectly.
Martin and I are currently working on some comics/graphic novels set within the lyrical world, which should hopefully be complete soon.
The booklets have never featured a human image (either from the band or from a model), something that could be seen as intentional and hardly a coincidence: should it be regarded as a furthering of the evasion propelled by the written and aural dream worlds that Bal-Sagoth sets to achieve?
Yes, I have always tried to keep mundane, commonplace imagery out of the album booklets. That’s one of the reasons (for instance) why such things as live photos have never appeared in the booklets. Bal-Sagoth is a band all about escapism and the realms beyond, so each and every picture associated with the albums should ideally reflect that in some way.
Musically, Bal-Sagoth has been a massive mix of styles and approaches rooted in the more extreme Metal channels: when were you (and the other members) drawn to Metal in the first place and, initially, what did fire you in terms of creativity and compromise (feel free to address any personal preferences and works)?
Well, I was first drawn to Metal with bands like Slayer, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Bathory, Sabbat, Celtic Frost, etc. Then the progression to acts like Morbid Angel, Deicide, Emperor, etc. was a natural step. The other guys in the band like similar bands to me, but they didn’t discover the more extreme bands until a later date. During the earliest rehearsals, I took a tape of Black Metal bands such as Emperor for Jonny and Chris to listen to and they were blown away! Jonny’s musical tastes are much more diverse than mine. He likes things such as The Police, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Aha, Opus 3 and all that kind of stuff, as well as things like Napalm Death and Autopsy. Chris is also a big fan of Metallica and Slayer. One area where we all converge is classical music and epic film soundtracks, which we all admire. I suppose having such a wide-ranging array of influences in the band has all contributed to our unique sound.
Much like other artists, Bal-Sagoth also had its share of setbacks with the former Cacophonous label, but strangely (yet positively), it has been working with Nuclear Blast ever since; being the record industry in such a turmoil, do you fear that even a reasonably large independent label might be facing the repercussions of this condition? If so, would this be enough for you to reconsider your future, or would you continue creatively as a unit, regardless?
The music industry is, indeed, in a state of transition and the advent of new ways of storing, sharing and listening to music over the last decade or so has had a massive effect on the business. We as a band lose a great deal of money due to piracy and if you’re a band like us who doesn’t do this as a job, it can certainly make things difficult to continue. We’ve never made a living from the band, we’re just too “minority appeal” and “niche market” for that and, to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I never intended Bal-Sagoth to be embraced by the mainstream. It was always supposed to be a mysterious, obscure entity appreciated by a select few… the archetypal cult band. We have not yet decided whether Bal-Sagoth will continue in the music industry. Many factors would have to be right for us to make further albums. But I’m not saying it will never happen. In truth, I hate almost every aspect of this business, as I’ve seen the very worst side of it over the years. It will be interesting to see how the industry adapts and what changes will have to be made to the way it operates.
How do you look upon playing live and, considering all aspects involved in that concept, have your experiences been mostly positive or negative? Even if you’re not known to venture in extensive tours (either in Europe or overseas), you have already played with a great deal of renowned artists: do you have any good memories from past performances?
It is very difficult to recreate this material accurately in the live environment. The music of Bal-Sagoth is so multi-layered, multi-faceted and intricate that there is really no way in which we can genuinely translate the songs live to a truly satisfactory extent. Additionally, I have always felt that when a band plays live, some of the magic and the mystique which is contained on an album is generally lost. No matter how good the show is, the very act of playing live demystifies the band and brings them back down to a mundane and earthly level, such are the limitations of the technology and the very medium itself. To truly do justice to the Bal-Sagoth songs, we would require a gigantic stage presentation, including multiple pyrotechnics, lasers, snow and fog machines, a cast of extras, several keyboard players and, ideally, a live orchestra. Perhaps one day the funds would become available to mount such an ambitious presentation, but realistically, that is highly unlikely. Every show we do, we, basically, play for the die-hard Bal-Sagoth fans, but every gig is inevitably a compromise, which may often do more harm than good to this band’s legend. That’s, basically, why we don’t play live very often. But, on the other side of the coin, it is of course great to play to those die-hard fans, visit new countries and meet our supporters during our expeditions.
What are you aiming for in the near future and can we expect you to be involved in any other projects other than Bal-Sagoth (and not necessarily music-driven)?
I, personally, will never be involved in any other musical project. Bal-Sagoth is my creation and I will helm it exclusively until the end (whenever that end may be). Jonny and Chris may do other musical projects in the future; in fact, I would be very surprised if they didn’t, because their skills should not be limited to just one band. Bal-Sagoth won’t last forever, so one day everyone will simply have to move on and leave the legend glorious and untainted. But until that day… Bal-Sagoth lives on, our six albums are available to all and we hope to visit your country soon.
Thanks for the interview and greetings to all our supporters reading this! Blodu Ok Jarna!