You are still a young band and aside from the music and the fact that you are from Ghent (Belgium) there is not an awful lot we know about you. Could you give us the story of how you guys met and decided to form a band? And what does Fire Down Below mean?
First of all, thanks for calling us a young band! I know a guitar player who will be very happy with that compliment! Me and Bert, our bass player, go way back. We’ve been playing music together for ages, since we were still in high school. We had been playing everything from punk to grunge, but our riffs were continuously getting slower and heavier. Kevin and Sam also were in other projects, but when the four of us got in a room together for the first time in 2015, it just instantly clicked and we knew we had something really interesting in our hands. We all add our different styles and influences to the music, creating the fuzzed out proggy stoner rock that we now stand for.
We get a lot of questions about our band name. People are always asking us if we are Steven Segal-fans, since there is an action movie of his with the same name. Honestly, when we chose the band name we had really no idea it was also a Steven Segal movie. If we had known that, we would have probably taken a different road. But we just thought it had a cool ring to it. By the time we found out about the movie, it was already too late. We’ve been told there’s also a porn flick with that name, but we haven’t found it yet. A shame really, because that could lead to some interesting projections during our shows.
Your debut album is 'Viper Vixen Goddess Saint'. I have not listened to it but I read a couple of reviews and all of them were praising your work. The title, as well as the song titles, are quite imaginative. I mean when you read them they already kind of start taking you on a journey. How do you come up with these titles?
We want our albums to feel like a whole, not just a random collection of songs. When we have a certain theme in mind, the song titles and the lyrics are then written accordingly. Of course, the album title has to capture the vibe of the album. While ‘Viper Vixen Goddess Saint’ was mostly about driving through the desert to escape from reality, in ‘Hymn of the Cosmic Man’, the protagonist of our story is a man who is sent into space on his own to protect humankind.
To be honest, we had a hard time coming up with a name for the new album. Nothing we could think of was a perfect fit. We were almost done with the mixes when Bert came across an article that compared the creation myths of different cultures. In Hinduism, there are actually several creation stories but one of those is told in the ‘Purusha Sukta’, the ‘hymn of the cosmic man’, a text that is more than 3000 years old. It tells the story of how the gods created the universe out of the parts of the body of a single cosmic being. We thought that fitted so well with the music we had recorded that it was quickly decided that that would have to be the title for the album.
When you wrote and made the album, did you expect people would dig it so much? And what has happened to you as a band since?
Around the end of 2015, when we had a couple of songs ready, we thought "Let’s record an EP". We all had recorded demos with previous projects but that time we felt like we had to do it right, make it the best we could, so at the very least we would have something we could be really proud of. So we started working on that, refining our songs and practicing our asses off. By the time we had found a studio and were ready to record, we actually had enough material for a full album so we decided to just go for it.
When we self-released our debut album in September 2016, we didn’t know what to expect. The only thing we were sure of was that we ourselves were very happy with what we had achieved. We had some cd’s made, uploaded the album to Bandcamp, and started sending out links to reviewers and venues. From day one we got positive reactions from all around the world, it was really overwhelming. So we figured we should contact some labels to see if anyone was interested in releasing the album on vinyl. When Todd from Ripple Music listened to the album and told us he wanted to sign us, we just couldn’t believe it. That was the kickstart the band needed, resulting in playing awesome shows with bands like Monster Magnet, Mothership and Fu Manchu, a second album and us doing crazy shit like giving interviews.
Only two years later Fire Down Below releases 'Hymn Of The Cosmic Man'. Are you just very enthusiastic and inspired or is this band your fulltime job? (If it is not, what kind of jobs do musicians such as you have?)
Ah, how we wish that playing music could be our fulltime job, but alas, the four of us are all bent under the yoke of having to do ‘real’ jobs to make a living. Bert is an editor at a publishing company for school books. Sam is a sales representative for a chemical company. Kevin is a physics teacher. My job is so boring that I’m not going to bother explaining it, but it involves me sitting in front of a computer 8 hours a day. Luckily we have our music in which we can unleash our pent up frustration. It’s not always easy to combine work, family and the band, but it has become a very important piece of our lives, so we are happy to put in the hours.
How much do you feel you have changed as musicians since creating your debut album? And in what ways?
We’ve definitely learned a lot since we dropped our debut album, almost two years ago now. When we wrote and recorded 'VVGS', we were just doing it for ourselves. There was no outside pressure at all, just the four of us trying to make an album we could be proud of. But then things took off like they did, and all of a sudden we had a label and real fans and we were playing some pretty big stages … So we felt like we had to push ourselves to get better at every aspect of the game quickly: technical ability, live performance, songwriting, recording, promotion... And there’s a lot still to learn, we are nowhere near finished yet.
'Hymn Of The Cosmic Man' is clearly a concept album. This is evident when you look at the (amazing!!) artwork and, again, the titles. I also read you had this background story that helped you write this album. You mentioned you left it a little vague on purpose so it would not hinder the songwriting process. Can you, now that the writing is done, tell us more about this background story? What does this abum mean to you?
There is a story behind the album that helps to tie everything together for us, yes, but we never really call it a ‘true’ concept album. I guess it’s a matter of how strict you are with the term. The story we had worked out was first and foremost something to help focus our ideas while we were writing songs and figuring out where we wanted to go with the album, but it’s certainly not a strict, fleshed-out story like Pink Floyd’s 'The Wall' or The Who’s 'Tommy'. But we do want our albums to feel like a whole, not just a random collection of songs. We like to pay attention to building and releasing tension throughout the album, because we think a good album should feel like a good book or a good movie. That’s also why we always ask people to listen to the entire album, to get that experience. But in the end, whether or not you want to call it a concept album doesn’t matter too much to us, as long as you give it a spin or two.
As we mentioned before, the protagonist of the story, our astronaut, is sent into space on his own to protect humankind. The album is about the journey he makes, not only to his destination, but also his personal journey. At first, he is very proud he has been chosen as the saviour of mankind, but along the way, as his communication with earth’s base has failed, he starts having doubts about the mission, and about himself. As the album progresses, we wanted to make sure you can clearly feel the changes he’s going through in his mind up until the dramatic end, where he leaves the safety of his spaceship to float between the stars.
I wrote in my review that it seemed the further we progressed into the album/space the more I got the feeling that you allowed yourselves to experiment with the music and showed a more progressive sound. I like the idea because the deeper into space one gets the weirder things you might encounter. Was this done intentionally?
Actually, yes. The order and the feel of the songs are a way to represent the trip through space and the personal, emotional journey of the astronaut.
Speaking of intentionally, both your albums show some resemblance in the number of songs (seven) and their lengths. Is this part of the Fire Down Below songwriting or is it a coincidence?
In our genre of music, it is not uncommon that the songs are a bit lengthier than what you’re hearing on the radio, but it’s not like we deliberately try to write long songs. We just keep riffing and adding stuff for as long as we see fit. The most important thing to us is that every song stays interesting, whether it takes three minutes or eleven. Our writing process is rather slow, because we keep working on every piece of music until the four of us are 100% happy with it. If even just one of us is not content with a particular piece, we either change it or drop it.
As I mentioned earlier, the artwork for both albums is amazing. I love it. And it fits the music well. It is done by Tom Heye (a.k.a. Stash). How does this process work? Did you go and look for an illustrator or did you already know Stash? And once you find the right guy for the job, how much do you leave up to his own interpretation and how much have you already thought out?
Thanks! We always try to have a fleshed out concept of what we want to see on the artwork before we contact an artist. We didn’t know Tom before we started working on our first album. We found him online and told him that we wanted an album cover featuring the desert, a naked woman with a mammoth’s head, smoke and some cacti. Those who have seen the ‘Viper Vixen Goddess Saint’ artwork know that he delivered just that. Tom turned out to be very easy to work with and he was able to translate our ideas in a catchy image. It was a no brainer to ask him again when we needed the artwork for ‘Hymn of the Cosmic Man’. We gave him our general idea, an astronaut floating through space in the illusion he’s being cradled by a beautiful redheaded astral being and he put it on paper.
The video for 'Saviour Of Man' was animated by Antoon de Grom, who also did an astonishing job, and I want to ask the same question that I asked about the artwork: how does this process work? Creating a video together?
We had decided it was time to make our first music video, but we wanted to do something different, something that would stand out from the millions of rock band videos on YouTube. We explored the idea of having an animated clip made, based on our story and the artwork for the new album. When we had a good sense of the direction we wanted to take, we contacted Antoon De Grom. Antoon is a colleague of Bert who has a background in artwork and animation and has a great taste in music. We explained what we had in mind and he immediately said yes. Then after a few weeks he got back to us with some shots that were way cooler than what we had thought possible. Antoon took our input and then gave it his own interpretation as a visual artist, with stunning results. He put a lot of time and work in that clip, much more than what we had initially agreed on, and we are extremely grateful for that!
To be honest it took me quite a while before I started to really appreciate 'Hymn Of The Cosmic Man'. Once I DID get into it it became an amazing ride. I notice this more often with good music: it takes time to be fully appreciated. Do you have an explanation for this?
Maybe it’s because there is a lot going on at times and you need to hear the songs more than once to work out all the layers in the music and hear every little detail. There’s a lot to be discovered on the album, but if you put in the time and effort to find it, it will be rewarding. Or maybe it’s because it is hard to put a genre on our music so you don’t really know what you’re in for. It’s not "pure" stoner rock, it’s not post-rock, it’s not grunge, it’s not doom, it’s not prog rock … and even between the songs on one album there’s a lot of variation. If you put ‘Saviour of Man’ next to ‘Nebula’ next to ‘Adrift in a Sea of Stars’… That’s just what we like to do, we love working with contrasts and exploring different sounds and different moods. But we do believe that it all makes sense if you look at the album as a whole.
And can you name three albums of different bands/musicians that you initially did not like that much but have now grown on you in a massive way?
Kevin must be about the biggest Tool fan I’ve ever met. His guitar playing is largely influenced by Adam Jones, and in reviews of our music, there are often references to Tool. I was very surprised when he told me that, at first, he didn’t like the ‘Lateralus’ album all that much when it came out. Today, it’s probably his favourite album of all time. Bert once told me that he didn’t get why everyone was so crazy about Black Sabbath. It probably had to do with the recording quality and the difference with "modern" audio mixing and mastering, but one day he texted me "Dude, I totally get Black Sabbath now!" and he bought their first four albums that same day. I myself, being a singer, often have problems listening to all instrumental bands. Most of the times, although the bands play great riffs, after a while I tend to get bored or frustrated because I hear a killer vocal line in my head that would fit the music perfectly, but it just never comes. So when Bert first introduced me to Bongripper, I had my doubts, but they turned out to be one of the few all instrumental bands that can keep me fascinated for the duration of an entire album.
All in all I think 'Hymn Of The Cosmic Man' is more than just a great album. The build up, from 'Red Giant' all the way through to the mighty climax of 'Adrift In A Sea Of Stars' shows a perfect balance in emotion and musical styles, and I cannot help but wonder if you already have some ideas for a follow-up?
That’s exactly what we were aiming for, so we take that as a big compliment, thank you! We haven’t really begun writing the next album, but there are always ideas floating around, crazy things we would like to try, new sounds to explore ... Nothing has been decided yet, but it probably won’t be too long before we get into writing mode again and the whole process starts over.
You guys are no strangers to touring and performing. When I look at the pictures and videos of you live you seem to be having a lot of fun onstage. What does performing mean to you? How does it make you feel, before you get on the stage, during and after?
We love playing live, no doubt about that. I think that we have been making real good progress as a live band over the last two years. We are now feeling at ease on bigger stages. We did a mini-tour in March that ended with supporting Fu Manchu at Het Depot in Leuven and that was one of our best performances to date. Playing live is about inviting the public to go on a trip with us and losing ourselves in the music together. It’s always really intense, it takes some time to catch our breath after a show.
I have been to quite a couple of shows and almost always the crowd reacts very tame towards the first few bands playing that evening. I almost feel guilty when I start banging my head. How do you deal with crowds that respond like this?
A lot of people probably don’t realize how much they, as the audience, can add to a performance by giving back some energy to the band. But even when you’re having a tough crowd, there are always a few people like you, banging their head, so you start by focusing on those and try to win the others over one by one. So you shouldn’t feel guilty at all, you’re helping out the band! Maybe we’re lucky, but we seem to get decent reactions from the crowd at most of our shows.
There are some shows planned for this year, all of them in Belgium. Is there any chance you will be touring the rest of Europe as well?
Yeah, that is actually one of the first things on our agenda. We have been playing in Belgium a lot and we’ve crossed the border to The Netherlands quite a few times, but now we have to take our music further into Europe. We’re planning a short tour into Germany soon, and we’ve also set our sights onto France, England and Spain/Portugal.
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. If there is anything else you want to tell our readers, feel free to do so!
You’re more than welcome, thanks for having us! The last two years have been amazing for us, and we’d like to take the opportunity to thank a bunch of people. Todd and Pope at Ripple Music of course, Tim at Much Luv Studio, Tom at Stash ... Essentially we’re just extremely grateful to anyone who has been part of our journey: fans, reviewers, bookers, all the bands we’ve played with, our families for putting up with us. Thank you!