Smoulder triumphantly burst onto the metal scene last year with the release of their debut album Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring and ever since then, they’ve fully captured the attention of the underground. They landed high spots on both our author team best of 2019 list and the reader’s choice best of 2019 list. It’s no secret why either – Smoulder’s brand of epic heavy metal crossed with crushing doom topped off with grandiose fantasy lyrics makes for an engaging listen to say the least.
Fully intent on striking while the iron is still hot, Smoulder are primed to release a new EP titled Dream Quest Ends in just over a week. In partnership with our friends over at the NWOTHM Full Albums YouTube channel, we have an exclusive track premiere and interview for you all to enjoy ahead of time!
Listen to “Dream Quest Ends” below via NWOTHM Full Albums:
Full album release date: March 13, 2020 via Cruz Del Sur Records
Note: The below interview was transcribed from a conversation.
Panos: Greetings Sarah, thank you for joining us for this interview. It’s been over 10 months since the release of your debut album Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. How satisfied are you with the results and what are you looking forward to in the future?
Sarah: We are thrilled with how everything’s gone. You can’t really predict if things are gonna go well, and I feel that in our case the album went better than we anticipated. Getting attention is hard in an over-saturated scene, so we’re absolutely thrilled, the label is happy with us, and we really want to do more touring, we want to play in Europe and things are coming together for us. Personally I kinda have certain goals- I want the album to be reissued at least five times (laughs), so we are well on our way to that, cause the third press is almost sold out now so everything is going very well!.
Panos: Indeed that’s great! In hindsight, would you have changed anything about the recordings of your first album, now that you have seen the industry from a different perspective?
Sarah: No. It might sound kinda arrogant, but we are very happy about how the album turned out. Everything [turned] out better than we anticipated and we put a lot of work thought about what exactly we want the album to look like, and because we invested in that album and we paid for a good artwork, we paid for good recording engineers, we paid for the mixing and mastering that we wanted and I feel that because we very deliberately and specifically choose the people that we did to work with, we wouldn’t change anything about the album because it’s exactly what we wanted to do. And I feel that the response to that has been so positive that [it] further validated that we made those choices.
Panos: So it looks like you already have a winning team so why change it right?
Sarah: (Laughs) Well music-wise we might add some new things in the future, but it’s funny you know, we have people asking, “would you change anything?” and I am like, “Noo.” (laughs) “Fuck No!” haha.
Panos : And why would you (laughs)? So you decided the follow-up to the album to be an EP. Why did you make that choice instead of releasing a full album?
Sarah: Well, we don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea for bands to do rapidfire releases… Hmm it’s kinda hard to fully articulate it but, the music industry is super over-saturated and I don’t necessarily believe that releasing albums year after year is a good thing. We want to do everything very deliberate. When we finished writing “Times,” which was eight months before the album actually came out, we were still writing and we had stuff that we enjoyed and we knew we wanted to do a EP or a split. We are huge fans of Reverend Bizarre and they released tons of splits and eps and those pieces of music are still being fanatically hunted down by people – myself included- and I like the idea that not everything has to be an album. So we made a standalone EP that thematically and musically works as a cohesive unit.. We want everything that we do to have a unifying theme, both musically and in a graphic design perspective to look like a cohesive package, and for us these three tracks worked as a cohesive package. The cherry on top was when we contacted Michael Wheelan’s estate and they graciously licensed us another two paintings. With “Lore of the Witch World,” I just looked at it and I thought “there are literally lines in songs that correspond to the cover painting.” How perfect is that?! (laughs).
Panos: So you see your future albums also featuring the art of Mr. Wheelan?
Sarah : (Laughs) Yeah!
Panos: It’s like a theme that you’re developing, your album is already getting recognized by the Whelan artwork.
Sarah: Yeah, when you allegorically look at it… I mean, we are obviously inspired by Cirith Ungol – that’s no surprise, no secret, we are huge fans and being the only other band to have this long standing relationship with Michael Whelan is Cirith Ungol, and to know that in my heart, it’s a very nice thing and to add “Oh and Smoulder.” (Laughs)
Panos: So taking into account the business model that you are developing, we see bands like, let’s say Visigoth, who prefer to release their music frequently in EPs, singles and whatnot, as opposed to other bands who prefer to wait for a couple of years to release a full album. In which of these categories would you place Smoulder?
Sarah: We talked about having another smaller release in the next year or so, because we have a lot of bands we personally really really like and reached out to us and want to do splits, but in terms of album release, what I would prefer personally is to follow the Atlantean Kodex – Eternal Champion kinda style. AK is a great example, they have occasional 7-inch singles, and waited until they had an album that’s cohesive and strong and exactly what they want to release. So I don’t know, both work, Visigoth is a great example of a modern, traditional heavy metal band that’s obviously doing everything right, they do have the benefit of working with a massive label and have probably considerably more money (laughs) and they are touring a lot more than we are- (laughs) so I have nothing but respect for those guys, for what they are doing and the same is for bands like EC or AK. Everybody’s just doing what works for them based on what they were given and that’s the best way to operate a band..
Panos: So let’s focus on the EP now, the name of EP I presume its a reference to HP Lovecraft’s story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”?
Sarah: Yeah you’re right about the reference. I wrote the lyrics to that song. So I am pretty hardcore into hiking, and last year I hiked the Grand Canyon on a solo trip and I did a pretty famous hike that’s beautiful: it’s the Grand Canyon Angelhead Peak to the plateau of the Grand Canyon and it’s pretty hard – around 25 km with a 10,000 foot elevation change. It’s very interesting being in that position alone doing this very intense hike in one of the most beautiful, alien places in the world. During the hike you go through five different ecosystems. When I was at the top it was around -10 Celsius and then at the bottom it was around 30 degrees, so there’s a huge diversity of wildlife and topography. At that time I was reading a combination of different books, including “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, then I started forming the lyrics about the hike itself. I wanted to write an original story because in the last album the only fully original story was “The Shadowy Sisterhood” and I wanted to do more lyrics like that, where we kinda invented our own world. So it’s inspired by some of the language of Lovecraft because he is a very evocative writer that uses a lot of arcane language of which I am a big fan. This year, I was lucky enough to do the hike again while listening to my own song about the Grand Canyon! (laughs)
Panos: How has the songwriting process in the EP changed from your debut album?
Sarah: Incidentally, the tracks that are on the EP were written by Kevin (note: Hester, drummer for Smoulder), and he brought them to the band, and this is exactly how the album worked too. You know the guys like Vincent, or Kevin and Colin would say “here’s a song, lets Smoulderize it.” So part of what made this EP unified is that these were the last tracks from the debut’s songwriting session, and everything from now on it’s going to be newly written, more collaborative because we really enjoy that process.
Panos: The EP also features a cover of Manilla Road’s “Cage of Mirrors”, how did you end up choosing this song?
Sarah: Everybody wanted to do a Manilla Road cover, but Vincent specifically said “Cage of Mirrors” – let’s do this one, we love this track” and he and I rehearsed it. It’s a challenging and unusual song! The standard Manilla Road cover song to do is obviously “Necropolis” because it’s a big, head-banging singalong and very much a crowd pleaser. But I am a big big fan of ‘70s of bands like Budgie and from the ‘60s Jefferson Airplane and I find that the first two Manilla Road albums are my favorite, so when Vincent suggested this strange, psychedelic, progressive and beautiful song I said, “Okay, we are going to try it out” and then when we were rehearsing, we realized it worked really really well!
Panos: Let’s take a look at your lyrics in general for a bit. Like we said before you, you reference books, movies and everything that has a mythological or a fantastical theme. How do you approach these themes, is it a metaphor or an allegory of something or is it a direct reference to the origin of your inspiration?
Sarah: Hmmm I think it’s both. I think that any person that reads a lot, would tell you that allegorically books stand out to you when you can “read between the lines” and understand the themes and to relate to your life or the political, social or cultural sphere. It’s a combination of both these things. I think that any person who “deep reads” would probably say to you the same thing (laughs).
Panos: So where do you find yourself in this allegory with heroic fantasy themes, how do they inspire you as a person?
Sarah: uummm, are you looking for specific examples or..
Panos: I am looking about Sarah’s perception of the fantasy themes. Do you picture yourself as the protagonist in those stories ( Sarah laughs) or you are just telling the stories like, let’s say a modern bard? ( Lots of laughter)
Sarah: Haha I think both. Interestingly enough, and this is kind of an allegorical tie-in, I am also a music journalist, and a lot of the times when I am writing about music or when I am interviewing artists about their music, I try a lot to relate a lot to my own physical experience with their intention, so I think it’s a combination of the two. Growing up I was a hardcore reader, totally a nerd who got picked on a lot, and a lot of the time my social circle was me, reading books and getting really into literature. So very early, books about people who overcome struggle resonate with me, mostly because I have chronic illness, and there was some family situation that resulted to me getting bullied quite a bit, and so books like “The Giver” and “The Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Little Women” and of course – because I am in that generation – “Harry Potter.” were special to me. I was reading all these books when I was really young, like Grade One and onwards and I think there is a very common saying about readers tending to be very empathetic, because the more you read the more you’re able to understand a character’s struggle, and a character could be any person in the world.s a result of being this bullied kid who had medical issues, I really related to that. Now when I tell my own stories with Smoulder, I both tell my own stories and the stories of the people I surround myself with and also allegorically referencing current events and trying to be not too hyper literal about that because I also want the people who are listening to our music to be able to do the same.
Panos: And I think that your bandmates share the same idea. Vincent wrote the lyrics for “Voyage of the Sunchaser” Do you guys all read books and say “ok that’s a great book let’s write some lyrics about that?”
Sarah: (laughs) Vincent and I do that all the time. We started the band like…god it’s six or seven years ago now, so when the band started, we started trading books and we are still doing that right now, he’s reading an Isaac Asimov’s book and the next book he is going to read is “Slaughterhouse-Five” which is one of my favorite books. Right now I am reading “The Man in the High Castle” which he just finished reading, so yeah: if a book really resonates with us personally, we reach out to each other and give each other books. We are both pretty hardcore readers so it tends to be like that really often.
Panos: So you were part of the music industry for a long time now. How much has your perception of the industry changed now that you are publishing your own music?
Sarah: Oh God haha (laughs). The music industry is horrible to bands, horribly predatory. I’ve worked in the music industry for 15 years and in every single facet: working as a writer, an editor, a photographer, a publisher, a show promoter, in a record label, I’ve worked with a performance writers association, as a booking agent, and basically having this really weird subsection of knowledge has made me realize that there are so many ways in which people take advantage of artists who don’t know any better because they don’t have the business history to understand how they are being ripped off. So I think with Smoulder, I tend to be very protective in terms of what our rights look like and how things work out. And I make sure that everything is collected in writing and that has really fundamentally changed our lives in terms of the success of the band. We’ve been able to negotiate for ourselves a space where we are being properly paid for our work. And that’s a very very rare position for artists to find themselves in. Like, I was allegorically looking at the situation that Dragged Into Sunlight is in right now with their record label and I think about a band of that size, who is undoubtedly much much bigger than Smoulder, to find out that they weren’t paid for albums that were shipped world widely is just shocking. And it’s not an unusual circumstance, and it really sucks. So a lot of what I’ve been doing with Smoulder, or when I am advising other bands, is telling them over and over and over, you need to negotiate contracts, you need to collect all of your details, you need a spreadsheet of what’s going on with your band, you need to track where your money is going because it is very easy for young artists who just want exposure to believe that other people aren’t ripping them off, when they officially are.
Panos: Do you think that’s intentional? Like bad people are in this business or is it due to the lack of professionalism ?
Sarah: Both, but also it’s due to the fact that the music industry has changed fundamentally very much in the last 10-15 years. I think that everyone who worked in the industry knows what was going on and like in the ‘70s, in the ‘80s but into the ‘90s there was way more money there was way more purchasing of physical product, and as a result the music industry became so much topdown, to the result that the last person who got paid was the artist. Take Noise Records for example…
Panos: Oh wow thats a huge topic..
Sarah: (laughs) yeah! But if you read the Noise Records’ book, you read about the fact some of the albums they were releasing, they were pressing more than 100,000 copies of like a Voivod album. And I think about that now and there is no way that’s happening anymore. You can imagine how fundamentally all of the money has shifted. If the labels aren’t making any money, then the artists -really- aren’t making any money and it puts everybody in this terrible position. And it’s part of the reason why the cost of touring has changed so much too. Because the larger artists are asking for ridiculously high performance fees, because they are not getting paid as much for their physical music. So that puts strain on every single person and once again that results in the artists being the people who are getting paid the least, while working hardest.
Panos: Since you mentioned touring, Smoulder has a number of gigs coming up, four shows in Greece, then Texas for Hell’s Heroes Festival before going back to Europe for Headbanger’s Open Air. Sounds like a pretty packed up year!
Sarah: Haha yeah!
Panos: How can a band keep up with a packed touring schedule? I mean it’s not like it was in the 80s when a band could just leave their home and go touring. How easy is it to travel around the world to play festivals?
Sarah: It’s not easy… It’s a lot of work.. Again, we are in this really remarkable position because we are very careful with the contracts and we are making some money from our music, and that money is going directly back into the band. And my goal for the band was always “let’s break even” cause this is like a pipedream for most people. So because of that and because all five members of the band have partners and careers and animals that we take care of, we don’t want to do extensive touring. And I know this is a huge privilege! We try to be very careful about the invitations that we accept because when you say no, you get a lot more offers, and not only that, we don’t want to pay out of our own pocket over and over just to play festivals internationally. That said, we are going to be playing more gigs than what has been announced so far this year, and we’ll be doing the same next year, but again, we are being careful because there is only so much time off any of us is getting and we are all working very hard in our respective jobs, so sometimes we just need time off to lie on our couch like sloths and do nothing (laughs).
Panos: Yeah but how easy is it to do that in the North American region? In Europe for example there are tons of festivals either big or small but always with the proper billing. What about Canada and the US?
Sarah: Yeah you’re right. It’s a lot harder for North American bands than European fans might realize. Both the USA and Canada are so big and the population comparatively to Europe is so sparse it has really changed what it’s like for us. And this is the reason why so many North American bands are attempting to break out in Europe , because they recognize intrinsically their music has more value in Europe and touring there is better, but then it’s like “ OK here’s the cost you need to get five people flown to Europe”. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other kind of a problem that you just do your best to deal with (laughs). There is no easy way to deal with that.
Panos: What is the endgame for Smoulder, when would you say that you’re satisfied with the results of your music endeavors?
Sarah: (laughs) I think that implies an endpoint and we don’t have an end point. I wanna tour in Europe supporting a headliner artist that we really love, and then we want to move up to a headlining status. So maybe that’s the next step, and when we achieve that we will have another goal on top of that. I feel that any person who is very goal-oriented tends to not have a single goal, they have a rolling series of goals so I think for us it’s going to be like: Touring Europe, releasing a second album, doing a headlining tour at some point and then seeing where we can go from there. I’d really love to be a festival headliner at some point so.. (laughs).
Panos: Well we see festivals like Keep It True or Up the Hammers, that sign older bands to headline their shows. How far do you think we are from the changing of the guard, where new bands will replace the established bands from the ‘80s?
Sarah: I don’t think we are that far out to be honest. The fact that Up the Hammers just selected Atlantean Kodex to headline the warm up show, I think that’s very symptomatic of what’s to come. You can’t perform forever and as much as we want to, a lot of our older musical heroes are not doing particularly well, like Neil Peart passed away, Ozzy Osbourne was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Touring is extremely hard on your body and exhausting and there has to be people to replace the old guard eventually and to kind of “keep the torch high”, you know. I feel that maybe in the next ten years we will see a lot more of the bands that are around now, moving up to the festival line-ups. I think the best way of putting this is that heavy metal will never die, and we all have to get used to the fact that new bands will replace the old and it’s gonna be awesome.
Panos : Thank you very much for your time Sarah, any closing words for the readers of Ride into Glory?
Sarah: Thanks to everyone at Ride into Glory for the continuing support. Thanks to everyone who has bought, listened or talked about our music, its helping us be a real entity and to make more music and…buy our new EP “Dream Quest Ends” out on March 13th by Cruz del Sur Records and come to see us in Greece, US and Germany in the next months! Love metal, hate fascism!