This interview marks the first article on the site written by Brandon Corsair. You can read some of his other material here.
England’s Lethean started as the solo project of multi-instrumentalist James Ashbey and after a scrapped EP they’re finally set to debut their first album, The Waters of Death, on Italian label and heavy metal powerhouse Cruz Del Sur Music. To get a feel for their music you can read my review of The Waters of Death here, and Marco’s review of it here. As a note before I get into it, at the band’s request this interview was conducted in a cut and paste format. Without further ado, I’ll start the interview here.
Lethean’s The Waters of Death:
You did a couple editions of a fanzine called Cimmerian Shadows dedicated to the spirit of heavy metal. Do you have any plans to restart the zine at any point?
The last issue of Cimmerian Shadows was published in 2012, which is a pretty shameful hiatus I know! I have a few interviews in the bag for a third issue, which were themselves done a few years ago now but I think would still have merit – they are conversations with bands whose histories go back decades, so would hopefully be an interesting read whenever they are printed. It would be nice to build on these and flesh out another full issue, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Cimmerian Shadows was always driven partly by an interest in weird/fantasy fiction and its relationship with heavy metal, so I would definitely try and maintain that theme.
What impetus led to the creation of Lethean?
I was listening to a broad range of archaic, epic sounding heavy metal (things like DARK QUARTERER, QUICKSAND DREAM, FATES WARNING, ADRAMELCH), as well as gloomier bands like PAGAN ALTAR and WARNING, and wanted my own outlet for creating things in those styles. I really liked how those bands seemed to approach each of their songs as an unfolding narrative in terms of structure and lyrics, like you were being taken on a journey. So that’s something we aspire to do with LETHEAN as well.
When did you first start to explore the world of more epic heavy metal bands such as the ones you mentioned?
Hard to pinpoint, I’m sure every metal fan goes through periods of archaeology, digging ever deeper and following clues and recommendations. You could think of it like excavating a vast graveyard – some remains will be clearly marked with grand tombs, others will be the merest fragments of bone, and yet the most fascinating. Only gradually do you realise how big the burial site is, and how much there remains to unearth.
Lethean pays tribute to the past without feeling regressive. Was it difficult to switch to writing this sort of material after years playing in more extreme bands?
I don’t recall any problems switching from the faster, more extreme bands I once played in. In fact I was always into traditional heavy metal first and foremost, which probably played a part in my contributions to those bands too. So LETHEAN became a natural home for ideas that didn’t fit elsewhere.
There was an EP recorded in 2015 featuring members of Wrathblade and Convixion that was never given an official release, and the demo versions that were previously on YouTube seem to have been taken down. Are there any plans to properly show it to the world? Did you have any contact with members of the Greek heavy metal scene before your zine, or do your ties to it go deeper or come from somewhere else?
I would like both the demo and the EP to have their place in LETHEAN’s history, and I’m grateful to those people who helped make both recordings a reality. I have no intention of whitewashing that period, but it’s true that I’ve temporarily taken them offline. The EP had a troubled journey towards a 10” vinyl release which I eventually cancelled as it had become too close to the release of The Waters Of Death, and it felt like a confusing message to release a recording with quite a different identity (different vocals, different tuning) when the album was so imminent. I’d certainly hope to give the EP its time in the sun again somehow. As for the Youtube tracks of the first demo, they were causing some confusion by being embedded in articles concerning the new album (which features a re-recording of the demo song “Time And The Gods”), so for now they’ve been archived.
I formed some good friendships with people in Greece in a number of ways – first from some online contact with Michalis Bakoulas who was making plans to attend a gig I was promoting in London, and later through exchanging fanzines with fellow editors, visiting Athens a few times for festivals, and performing there on two occasions while drumming for DECEPTOR and SOLSTICE. The Greek scene is full of warm and genuine people and its somewhere I always look forward to visiting.
The Greek scene is well known for sharing your love of epic metal, with a tradition for it going back nearly to the beginning. Do you have any particular favorites from the Greek scene (aside from the bands whose members aided you with prior Lethean material) that were an influence on Lethean, or that you’d like to talk about even if they aren’t?
Greek bands have not really been a direct influence on LETHEAN, but it certainly has been a fertile country for metal. One hellenic band who have a great epic sound is DARK NIGHTMARE, their albums are great. I also like the more extreme side of things like VARATHRON, ROTTING CHRIST and DEAD CONGREGATION.
You did an extremely capable job singing on the pre-album Lethean material. What made you decide to seek out another vocalist for the album instead of handling it yourself?
Thanks for saying so, though I always felt my own efforts on vocals were no more than an expedient way to lay down my ideas without the difficulties of finding a local singer. The Greeks liked my vocals as well though, so I hope they’re not too perturbed by the change. Thumri’s arrival in LETHEAN was more spontaneous than sought out. We had started chatting after I read some interesting articles on her USPM blog, and when the subject of LETHEAN came up it became clear that we shared similar ideas on what we liked about this sort of music. I had been wanting to get the songwriting moving again so eventually we had a few rehearsals. It took a bit of time to settle into the right tuning, but the results sounded promising from the start, and brought a new distinctiveness to the sound.
Thumri’s vocals are very unusual for the genre, as I talked about in my review of your new album. Aside from the tuning did you have any difficulty writing material geared towards her voice?
No difficulty really, in fact it opens up more options as her range is very broad and there are lots of options for harmonies. Sometimes we approached the album songwriting with a vocal idea that Thumri already had, and other times she shaped her vocals around existing riffs. It’s hard to understate the benefit of writing collaboratively rather than on your own, which is one of the strongest arguments for finding a full line-up eventually.
The earlier material felt more aggressive compared to the more mourning, melancholy nature of The Waters of Death. What made you decide to take the band in the direction that you’re working in now?
There was no conscious decision to change the band’s direction, so maybe any change you hear is a natural outcome of switching singer, writing as a duo rather than alone, and any number of other small evolutions that happen over time. Perhaps the somewhat rawer production of the demo also gives it a more aggressive character? Let’s see where we take things next, hopefully we can keep plotting our own course.
How were you able to achieve the wonderful production job on The Waters of Death? Did you produce it yourself or work with an established studio for it? Forgive me if that’s public information that I just missed when I was looking for it.
We worked with a good friend Jamie Elton, who now lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, but is from London originally. I had worked with Jamie before to record the second DECEPTOR EP, and although going to Sweden wasn’t the most practical option, I knew he would understand exactly what we wanted, set a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and know how to get the best out of us and the equipment. It was well worth the journey, he did a great job.
How long did the tracking of the album take? Was it an easier or harder experience compared to past recordings in which more people shared the instrumental load?
I think the instruments took 5-6 days, and then the vocals took about 3 days. It was a lot more taxing instrumentally as I couldn’t just do my drum parts and then sit around eating crisps while everyone else sweated. It also took a bit more planning in terms of what order to do things in, and how to fit everything into the time available (intensified by the approach of our return flight!). As mentioned earlier, it really helped to have someone calm and confident as a producer, and it ended up being a really memorable and successful few days.
Are there any plans to bring Lethean to the stage?
It’s not something we’re working on actively – our location is changeable owing to Thumri’s job as an orthopaedic surgeon, which makes assembling a full line-up and getting ready to perform a bit difficult for the time being. Instead we’re trying to focus on writing more songs so we can follow up the album with something else before too long.
It’s felt like heavy metal and the old way have been getting an increasing amount of support and attention in the last few years, moreso than when you started writing about it. Do you have any theories for why that might be, or what that might mean for both your band and other bands just now debuting?
It does seem that way, but explaining the ebb and flow of trends is anyone’s guess. Some 10 years ago I ran a forum focused on the UK’s thrash metal ‘revival’, but that resurgence seems dead now. We try not to pay much attention to external factors – trying to keep up with musical fashions is a losing battle.
How do you feel about England’s heavy metal scene as it is right now?
We feel pretty detached from anything on a face-to-face level due to our current location on the Welsh border, although we stay in touch with many friends across the country. Special mention should be made of DARK FOREST, who started pursuing this sound over 15 years ago, long before it was in vogue (in fact, it’s a nice feeling to join them as another UK band on the Cruz Del Sur roster). The UK perhaps has a less cohesive metal audience than other places like Germany and Greece, so it might look like there’s more of a traditional heavy metal scene than there actually is. Other bands going strong are WYTCH HAZEL, SEVEN SISTERS, and of course the venerable SOLSTICE, true lords of the wilderness.