Congratulations with the full length album ‘White Horse Hill’, a true stunner! How do you now look back at the creation of the album?
I don't know really. Sometimes I don't even think about it other than as a completed album. For the majority of the time I have been a member of Solstice, I thought we were going to follow the 'Death's Crown...' mini album with another mini album....simply because it takes us so long to do anything musically that we reckoned committing ourselves to a full length would mean......well, I was going to say that it would take too long between releases...ha....20 years between full length albums is quite some time already, isn't it? We thought it would take forever and a day to get a full length together... but at some stage we realized that we would have enough for a full length. So, since it was recently enough that we started thinking in terms of a full length album, rather than another mini album that, in some ways, it all seems less of a huge journey than I suppose it was. And....we're here now.
You joined the band in 2011. How did you get to know the guys and ended up being involved in Solstice (at that time more or less on hold)?
I had grown up, if you want to put it that way, in this scene in the days before the internet when it was a different beast. The sands were not shifting as quickly as today, not everyone knew everything and everyone so easily, because there wasn't this huge, open playing field like there is today due to the 'net and immediacy’ of everything. I had come to know Solstice through being involved in tape trading, writing to folks all over and especially through becoming friends with people like Alan of Primordial, Brian of Sentinel Records and Darragh of Invictus Productions. So, it was around 1993 that I first became a fan of Solstice and it was around 1999 that I got to know Rich – Solstice came over to Ireland then, played in Dublin with Warning and Primordial. I was sharing a house with Alan and Ciaran of Primordial at the time. Anyway, I never really kept in touch directly, because it was more that myself and Rich knew each other through mutual friends. And then Solstice more or less disappeared at some stage for a long time.
In 2011, I was living in Oslo (I was there for eleven years until 2014) and Solstice were due to play at a thing called Metal Merchants fest.. I remember being very excited about this, but then a week before they pulled out. That was January 2011. They released a statement saying they'd let their singer go, pulled upcoming gigs, but were accepting applicants for a vocalist. At this stage it had been over ten years since I had been in a band, and even though I had no desires to start anything musically, I remember thinking I could put my name forward. So I did. Sent Rich a message, included what they wanted – some samples of me singing, recent photo etc. And from there, we arranged that I would go over to them in March and give it a try.
First thing I remember after the resurrection is the EP ‘Death’s Crown In Victory’. How do you look back at your first ‘official’ recordings with Solstice these days?
Fondly I suppose. I think as a way of reintroducing ourselves to the world, or the part of it that would be interested in Solstice, it served its purpose well. If I am entirely honest about the music I would have to say that 'I Am The Hunter' was never my favourite. I think Rich and Andy would agree, since they were the ones that suggested we drop it from the live set. I know some folks have a fondness for that song and a couple of times have asked me why I am not so keen – it was already more or less finished when I joined the band, and I was just happy then that there was any progression on from the 'New Dark Age' stuff. As the new boy and all that, I was never going to speak above my station back then, or be anything other than super enthusiastic. So I was happy to work on something new, even if I wasn't head over heels in love with the song. I was always confident that I would feel differently about the songs after 'I Am The Hunter', since I was so into everything else Solstice had recorded. When Rich presented the first parts of what would become 'Death's Crown....', which was the first all new song we started on after I joined, I remember being immediately excited and noting that this sounded far more like I would have liked Solstice to.
Anyway, when I look back on it now, I see it as pretty much what it ended up being – a band that was resurrected, or reborn out of their unfortunate slumber that was finding its feet, and hoping to reach a point of some kind of greatness. Now that's not meant to sound egotistical (talking about reaching greatness)... more, that it is what any band should strive towards. And for us, the 'White Horse Hill' album represents what we would have always been aspiring towards since we got to work around 2011. So, looking back, Rich has always had a vision from Solstice since day one. His issue has always been finding the right people. With me, he had someone who was not really a singer (prior to Solstice... like in Arcane Sun... I was a vocalist who would growl/scream as much as sing) and he patiently waited for me to develop, and I think 'Death's Crown...' sounds like someone who was a few years into a progression that's reached the point we are at. I think Andy is the real gem though, if you listen to his solos on 'Death's Crown...'? As good as they are, did you listen to him on, for example, 'Under Waves...' on the album? I just think he sounds like a colossus.
Your vocals on ‘White Horse Hill’ are really amazing, solemn and intense. What about the lyrics? I understand the topics have developed a bit from HP Lovecraft to epic grandness. Can you tell a bit more about the things that inspired you this time when writing lyrics?
HP Lovecraft? Influence on the 'White Horse Hill' lyrics? No. He was a big influence for Rich back in the day I believe, not sure if that would be the case nowadays for him though if he were still writing the lyrics. I'm responsible for nearly all the lyrics on the album, so I think it's OK if I answer for both of us here. I have never read a single line of Lovecraft myself, it's never been something I have even had the slightest bit of interest in, so it's fair to say that influence is not relevant today.
Glad you enjoyed the vocals by the way. The best I could hope before doing the album was that they ended up being good enough to be considered up to the standard of everyone else's performance in the band, and especially the quality of the songs. As far as the lyrics, I can't really specify any influences. I have never been into literature beyond a passing interest in some of the classic Irish poets. I suppose some stuff like old Fields Of The Nephilim lyrics will always play some part as a distant influence... simply because the aesthetics of the band made a big impression on me back in the day. What I usually say is that my aim, when it comes to the words, is to be able to say something beautiful using very simple language. I think that is remarkable if someone can manage it.
My impression is that Solstice developed from doom-like songs to more power and energy, a kind of glorious pride and respect for heritage. Sometimes a Primordial like feel in that direction is not so far away when I listen to Solstice. What are your thoughts about that?
Do you mean a Primordial like feel in the spirit of the music? – A pride and respect for heritage? Ahm, I'm not sure I exactly follow you, but I don't think what you're mentioning is something I would be able to disagree with or agree with. Certainly, as far as the musical side of the band... what was once a more doom-like approach, around the time of the first album, was certainly different with the 'Halcyon' mini album of '96. I think by that stage it was clear the band had clearly started to consider themselves as a heavy metal band, rather than a doom band. And I think the same can be said all the way until today. Though I am happy that the past is still represented to some degree, that the old doom sound still appears in my opinion ('Under Waves...' on the album) and best of all, it still influences the aesthetics of the band... which is something I personally like.
Let us shine a light on the sound and recordings. How did you experience the recording process this time? The album and the guitar sound are very organic, warm-hearted, almost bluesy from time to time. Far away from the current ‘wall(r) of sound’ these days. How did you manage to achieve this?
I just think that there was a very clear picture of how it should ideally sound, at least the idea was there of what we wanted sound wise, and especially what we did not want sound wise. It was Andy and Rich who pictured the album and how to construct the sound, or rather to create the situation which was best for us to get an album sounding as we wanted. So – we recorded at Vibrations Studios. The recording studio is the newer area that the Vibrations crew are involved in. The studio was initially a rehearsal spot, always with the plan to expand to a recording studio. We did the 'White Horse Hill' demo recording there in 2014. Anyway, seeing as we have been rehearsing there since they opened around 2012 and know them very well.... the lads were able to discuss the recording and plan it well in advance. The recording schedule was also flexible, so really everything was very much the benefit of two way communications with people we know well.
The real icing on the cake and the magician that pulled it all together is Richard Whittaker – Andy's brother. He mixed the whole thing. He works at a pretty high end studio in London, and is a much sought after studio guy himself. He's the sort of guy we could never afford normally, nor could we even consider using his studio under normal circumstances. However, being that his brother is in the band, he gives us an incredible deal and puts in loads and loads of his own time to get the sort of sound I am sure we could not get with anyone else. He is truly the secret weapon to the album sounding as good as it does.
It is obvious that your love for vinyl and old school attitudes prevail. I applaud that! So are you a group of vinyl aficionados? What about your personal collection?
I'm not. Never have been. I was never a collector. In fact, from when I was a kid I either lost or broke everything... toys.... everything. When I got into buying records, I was never precious about them. I used to lend them to people and forget about them. When I was sixteen, I remember selling records for €4 or €5, so I could buy some beers to drink with friends. I was useless. Rich is different. He had an insane collection of records. All in perfect condition. We're talking thousands at one point I think. He sold a lot over the years, because he is married with three kids and real life responsibilities and the needs of a family meant he had to offload stuff when family life needed a cash injection. He still has quite an extensive collection and has a lot of stuff that would probably be rare – a lot of punk and hardcore stuff from the eighties and that. Not sure about the others though.
Talking about ‘collections’: I remember you as moving spirit of Arcane Sun with their seminal debut album. What happened with that band?
Just slowly fell apart. It was always on the verge of falling apart anyway. Was never a proper band, in that there were five members all chipping in, rehearsing etc. We were essentially three guys – me on vocals, Mark on drums and Fergal on guitars who was the guy that wrote all the music and that. Was always a case of me chasing him (Fergal) to do anything with the band. He remains to this day one of the most talented people I have ever encountered... but was always reluctant for whatever reason. We're good friends nowadays, but he used to resent me, because I was hyper enthusiastic and was always the one hassling him to do all the boring stuff... like rehearse or whatever. We did the first album and went down reasonably well considering the label wasn't the strongest. Tried to do a second and even got it recorded, sort of..... Eventually it got to the point where Fergal just could not be bothered anymore and I gave up chasing him. And that was essentially it. No more band.
Since it was only in 2011 that you joined Solstice: did you keep on being involved in the metal scène all the time?
After Arcane Sun fell apart, I had no desire to start a band again. I was so invested in that band emotionally, and it was such a chore most of the time that, when it was all gone and I'd given up on it. I had no interest in doing it all again. I did a couple of recordings over the years – a project with a friend here who played in Wreck Of The Hesperus.... it was sort of a mixture between doom/rock/prog called The Pale Fall. Did one recording only. Recorded a few songs with a friend in Oslo that was sort of dark pop music. Just did it in his home studio, never released it apart from uploading a couple of songs to Youtube. We called it Pieta. Nobody ever heard it. I recorded vocals for a then unreleased Void Of Silence song in 2009 (I think) with a view to doing more if they liked it... but they went with another guy. That was it really. I went into promoting gigs instead. Brought a lot of death and black metal bands, plus stuff like Anathema, Opeth, Paradise Lost over to Ireland from 1999 until I left for Norway in 2003. Arranged a Kreator tour of Ireland and the UK in 2002. Stuff like that. Was always involved doing something. Contributed to Imhotep mag/website a good bit in the few years leading up to joining Solstice. Plus I was travelling a lot to gigs and festivals in those years.....
One of my favourites is ‘For All Days, And For None’. Can you go deeper into some details about that song, musically and lyric-wise?
Yeah, that song's kind of got a special place for me. Basically it came about almost by accident. I always wrote, not lyrics... because I wasn't writing lyrics when there was no band for me to write them for.... but ever since I was a kid., I enjoyed writing. I never became a musician of any kind, so my only creative outlet was through words. So through all the years I wrote short passages, prose... whatever you want to call it. Just for myself. I had tried for years to write something about a very specific topic of immense value to me, and for years I hadn't managed to come up with anything that I thought was good enough. I'd had dozens of attempts and partial attempts.
Eventually around late 2011/early 2012 after spending an entire night locked into a moment or feeling, I finally wrote something I was happy with... and that was 'For All Days...'. Now, at this point I was not writing any lyrics or anything for Solstice and had no intentions to, so this was entirely something just for me and I never thought it would have any other purpose than sit on my hard drive. Then around 2014, late in the year..... at this point I had started contributing lyrics in Solstice... .it turned out that I had this set of words I had not planned on using for Solstice, and Rich had some music he didn't expect to end up being a Solstice song – I can't remember how it came up but we both realized we had something that we didn't think we'd ever use in the band. I never would have used the words unless it was something I thought fit their mood and when I heard what Rich had, I thought they two would sit together well. So it started from there. That seems like a long, convoluted answer...but that's pretty much it. The words themselves to the song are quite straightforward in feeling, if less so in their presentation. It's basically about penance, and its weight being almost unbearable... but acknowledging it couldn't be any other way.
Why the title ‘White Horse Hill’? Any particular meaning of that hill for you or the band?
Remember you said you thought we shared, like a pride and respect for heritage with Primordial? Well, this could well be a point to support that theory. The site of the White Horse Hill is almost like a monument that is a reminder of a past no one can explain properly, it could also be a sign that there are things greater than we can understand through our dissection of the past and of all those who've passed through time before us. It's bigger than time or than man because it can't be explained in terms of history or people.
Another thing that distinguishes itself from the majority of releases: the artwork. Can you tell a bit more about it? Who’s the artist?
The artist's name is Chris Smith, and he is a fucking gem. A lot of folks have made mention of the art and the fact that it stands out. I would agree, I mean it's not a revolution in the heavy metal aesthetic, but it's just got that otherworldly, atypical something about it. Rich came across some of his work a good while back and immediately got in touch with him and since he had the whole visual concept for 'White Horse Hill' built in his mind a long time ago, he commissioned Chris for four pieces of art some time ago. The four pieces are the three that are exclusive to 'White Horse Hill' and the piece he did for 'Death's Crown Is Victory'. He may have even gotten Chris to do more pieces, I'm not sure. I tend not to remember this sort of stuff!!!!
I noticed that Solstice plays live again. What are the plans for the near future playing live? How did you experience the first times on stage again?
My first gig with Solstice was kind of weird, was a big gig... in Dublin, supporting Primordial. Maybe around 500 – 600 people when we played. It was OK, as far as my performance, all things considered. It's weird, some gigs I feel really good and can lock into the moment well. Other times, I feel incredibly self conscious and tense, so that will mean I'm not at my best. I'm working on it though. However, now that the album has been done.... what I want to do is play live as much as possible. Hopefully this happens!
What can you unveil about the next album. It is announced already for 2019 or is this a joke?
I don't think it was intended as a joke, as far as I know. The first I heard about it was when someone asked me in an interview.... I think it's about as likely as Obituary's 'Cause Of Death' line up reuniting – and in case anyone missed it, Frank Watkins unfortunately died… so…
Anyways, I hope we do not have to wait too long for the next new songs, since the ones on ‘White Horse Hill’ taste for more…
I would advise you not to hold your breath. Things move very slowly in this band!
Haha, yes indeed. If there is anything you’d like to add, please feel free to do so…
Thank you very much for the questions and the interest in the band. Come check us out at No Compromise Fest in Belgium at the end of September. Hail Satan and eat your greens!