Steffen Kummerer (OBSCURA, THULCANDRA), speaks about the bands origin, its discography and about the planning for 2016.
Hi Steffen, first of all thanks to answers to our interview. Could you please shortly present OBSCURA and THULCANDRA to the one who do not know yet the bands?
The progressive death metal band OBSCURA was founded in 2002 and released four full length records up to this day while THULCANDRA , a black & death metal band founded in 2003, released three records so far. With a decade long international touring and reaching chart positions all over the world, both bands are established and respected within their respective genres.
Let first speak about you Steffen as you are a very talented and active musician. Could you please tell us how did fall into music?
At the age of 9 I visited a boarding school for musical gifted in Southern Germany. During the years at this school I learned to play piano, trained my ear, learned to sing and got toughed in music theory. This was the start and with my basis in classical music learning a new instrument felt easier for me than starting from scratch. As teenager rock, later metal and over the years more and more extreme music fascinated me. At the age of 16 bands such as DEATH, ATHEIST, CYNIC, DISSECTION and EMPEROR made me pick up a guitar and found a band. This band turned into OBSCURA and since then Death metal was the music I preferably played.
When and “why” did you start to play an instrument such guitar? Did you have some influence at this time?
In the beginning songwriting was my main field, playing rhythm guitars and shaping the songs seemed more interesting than wanking off and showing everyone what you can. After the first two years my parents bought a tablature book of “Fire and Ice” by Yngwie Malmsteen as a gift and I went through that record and later on “Surfing with the Alien” by Satriani.
But extreme music attracted me more and especially unique riffing had its share of my influences. Chuck Schuldiner and Paul Masvidal of DEATH/ CYNIC might be the biggest influence up to this day. Musicians with their own voice, their own fingerprint within music are more valuable than someone who shred through the same scale with the same arps over and over again while the only thing that changes is speed.
How was the metal scene in your town, and in Germany when you started to being interest to create your own band, OBSCURA ?
The local metal scene in Landshut, a nice little city an hour north of Munich in Bavaria, Germany, had a few interesting bands to offer: PATH OF DEBRIS, DARK FORTRESS, NONEUCLID, RUSHROOM and many more groups. Everybody knew each other and the bands helped to get the scene moving forward.
As a beginner it was not easy to get some respect in the early days, but the longer the band existed, the more shows we played and the more records we sold people looked up to us at a certain point.
I still work with one of my closest friends to produce OBSCURA and THULCANDRA records – V.Santura, guitarist of DARK FORTRESS, TRIPTYKON & CELTIC FROST. It is a strong bound since more than a decade and the same goes for the other bands and people of our local scene.
What was your aim, back in 2002, when you created OBSCURA? Did you want to “sounds like” some others bands or did you want to create a new music scene and to push some limits?
When we started OBSCURA the members have been 15, 16 and 18 without any aims but founding a band and writing music together. Within the first two years we figured the way we want to go and since then the band grew every year. I know our influences very well and there is nothing to hide or to neglect at all. With “Cosmogenesis” in 2009 we went into one direction and worked out our own sound that blends most in “Akroasis”, our latest record from 2016.
I want to create an own sound, something you point out within a second in a song. Combining new elements such as Fusion or World Music just helps to keep the ideas fresh and interesting. There is a crystal clear vision where this band is going to evolve and we are in the middle of this path.
OBSCURA first album Retribution has been release on 2004 by your own. How did you record this first album? Does the self-release have been a personal choice or just a fact?
“Retribution” was recorded at Mastersound Studio with Alexander Krull (Atrocity/Leave’s Eyes) in Summer 2004. Since we couldn’t find a suitable record label the album was released independently in 2004, got a first re-release in 2006 when we played our first European Tour alongside SUFFOCATION and finally a proper re-release through Relapse Records in 2010.
We recorded the album as a two piece with Jonas Baumgartl on Drums & Cello and myself on Guitars, Bass and Vocals. For the latter V.Santura helped out and recorded a grand part since I just took over vocal duties a few weeks before entering the studio.
Overall it was a great experience, the only part I regret in the history of OBSCURA was the use of an electronic drumset in the studio due to the lack of time.
Jonas was actually a very good drummer, but the drum edit let it sounds like a drum computer. Well, we learned it the hard way so to say. In the end we made a huge step forward and the album turned out to be pretty successful and sold more than a row of new releases from established act do.
Over the years the group has evolved and one milestone, if we can say so, is the fact that a new drummer Hannes Grossmann (ex-Necrophagist), bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling and the guitarist Christian Muenzner (ex-Necrophagist) joined the band, in 2007, after some departures. Does this new blood totally changed your way to composed songs? May we know so how did you compose a song before, in 2007 and nowadays?
In 2007 the second big lineup change happened and with the mentioned musicians we reached a new height of quality. With the new lineup the old songs sounded pretty much different, although half of the album “Cosmogenesis” was written at this point and we even played two tours with this material you hear on the final release. Songs like “Anticosmic Overload”, “Incarnated”, “Desolate Spheres” or “Noospheres” have been played for two years and changed during that time.
This live experience with the songs helped a lot to improve on the groove, find the right tempos and work on the arrangements.
Back in the days I wrote songs completely alone and recorded everything on a 4-Track Tascam Tape recorder where no editing was possible. Every song had to be recorded from front to end straight in one take. These days I write mostly with a DAW, using ProTools or Cubase, depending on the studio, and write down my notation with GuitarPro or Sibelius. It depends what kind of music for which instrumentation I write.
Speaking about composition, how do you compose the lyrics, what are your inspiration?
Astrophysics, philosophy and religion.
You get signed back in 2009 by Relapse Records for the famous “Cosmogenesis” album. May we know does the “deals” with the label start?
We recorded three songs of the album, “Anticosmic Overload”, “Incarnated” and “Choir of Spirits” and sent those three tracks to a few companies we thought a cooperation might be successful. Relapse was one of the interested parties and sent the best offer.
Also, Relapse showed the most interest in OBSCURA at that time and we decided to work with this company. Signing with Relapse was a good decision, the record label helped us to get a foot into North America and supported us in every way. Up to this day I am grateful for everyone at Relapse Records, past and present, who worked with us.
We will not have the time to speak in details about each album as it will take so long but we will like to get some words about each OBSCURA albums. Could you please describe your “feeling” about each album / demos?
Illegimitation – A first step.
Retribution – Our first experience in a professional studio environment.
Cosmogenesis – The first release with a record label.
Omnivium – Helped to establish the band within the tech death community.
Akroasis – Our break through record and highest chart positions, the most successful album up to date.
Thank ! Let’s jump in 2016 as you just released, few weeks ago, your new album called Akróasis, five years after Omnivium. When did you started to composed it and what was your goal with this album?
In early 2013 the first ideas turned out to become “Sermon of the Seven Suns” which was the first song written for Akroasis. I had a certain vibe of the album in mind that should underline the lyrical idea of “Weltseele”, a concept I have been referring to since around 2011.
The whole album was meant to receive a more open musical aesthetic with a few open guitar lines and more focus on prog metal and rhythm instead of speed and sweeping. The production itself was a very important part to me and the reason why we went to Dreamsound Studios in Munich to get a certain drum production with a huge room and bright natural acoustics. To reach this kind of production I have been in the studio from day one when we built up the drumset to the very last minute of mastering the album at Woodshed Studios.
If we are right your lyrics are based on german philosophy thoughts. What’s about Akróasis ? Is it a concept album which continues what starts with the previous one?
The whole album is based on the third part of a four album lasting concept we started with “Cosmogenesis” in 2009. While “Cosmogenesis” roughly explained shows the creation, the following record “Omnivium” represents evolution and “Akroasis” shows developing consciousness. A fourth album to finish this cycle of life and death will follow soon. All records deal with their represented topic on three levels: astrophysics, religion and philosophy.
Those three entities are spinned within the idea of the “harmony of the world” combined with the idea of a “world soul” (anima muni, or German “Weltseele”).
Swiss professor Hans Kayser wrote a great book I can recommend about the idea of a harmony related existence I adapted for “Akroasis”. The mentioned life cycle basically gets aware of his own existence and each song represents a different stadium from different religious views and philosophical ideas that are linked in between the previous albums.
This album is even more complex as the previous one. No songs are “easy listening song/radio song” of 3.30min, each song is long and very well composed but one, this “Weltseele”, is quite different. Its starts with an acoustic part, which remembers me OPETH, and length for 15 minutes, with classical instruments as well. How did you reach this performance?
This song has a long history and went through different states since its first version from 2013. Weltseele is based on a five-minute-long song Linus wrote around 2013 we arranged together. When Tom Geldschläger joined the band in late 2014 he brought a few ideas into the composition, divided the piece into two main parts and added a long acoustic intro and middle section which turned out to fit “Weltseele” perfectly.
I brought up the idea to add a string ensemble as priory done in the early days of the band. Since none of us wanted to work with plastic sounds or plugins, we hired Matthias Preisinger, a professional Berlin-based arranger to write the string ensemble based on the primary ideas of the main theme.
“Weltseele” turned into a special song and shows ideas we are working with on the next record.
To be honest this song is kind of UFO, it’s out of the frame. May we know if this song is the start for new project / band or just for the new record ?
This song links “Akroasis” with the next album we are working on right now. Album number four out of this long running concept is based on the apocalypse more or less and will show many orchestral parts. With THULCANDRA and OBSCURA I work with two very successful bands and tour with Death DTA all over the planet, there is no need for a sideproject or anything else.
We will stop to speak about OBSCURA for few questions as we would like to know more about your gears but as well about your second project called THULCANDRA.So let’s start with you gears. May we know what was your gears / setup over the years / for each album and if still used the same one?
Since 2009 I play ENGL amplifiers and use a rack system with a 840/50 amplifier, a 530 preamp and a TC Electronic G-Major2 as effect unit for all productions.
For THULCANDRA I add a combination of an old Marshall JCM 800 and a few compressors or a Peavey 5150 with a few pedals to spice up the rhythm sound. Adding those amps gives more options and a certain “dirty” feel to the mainly clean and sharp sounding ENGL.
For OBSCURA I only use RAN custom guitars, for THULCANDRA an ESP Eclipse with Floyd Rose since the last record. Within liveshows I use Sennheiser wireless systems.
You are a RAN guitar owner and you have as well your own signature. How did this project start and why RAN and not another brand?
In 2003 I got in touch with the company to build a customshop instrument for me which turned out in the first of a row of instruments RAN crafted with my input. A few years later we decided to work together official and announced an endorsement. I am very happy with the instruments and use even the first guitar from 2003 for shows with Death DTA. Back in the days a close friend who got a few instruments from RAN recommended the company so I got in touch and we discussed the whole idea within a few weeks and just 6 months later I got my guitar.
OBSCURA songs are very technical. Are you a self-learner or did you took some lessons?
I am self-taught and just tried lessons twice back in the early days. At that time none of the local teachers had a clue about metal, so I let it go and went through a long road of books to get the knowledge I have right now.
How much time do you spend weekly with your guitar? Do you have any called “routine” ?
With a daily routine of two hours practice it works pretty well, but preparing a tour or recordings take up to six hours a day. In the early days I overplayed a couple of times and had to stop rehearsing for up to two weeks with tendinitis. Whenever the right hand has a cramp I immediately stop playing guitar for the whole day. Reaching high tempos with relaxed playing is the daily goal aside from learning new compositions a bit harmony and theory. Part of the daily routine is also running and physical exercises.
As a guitarist which advice could you provide to a new guitarist which will like to cover your songs?
Rather start playing the songs or problematic parts on a lower tempo and focus on playing clean instead of forcing your abilities to play it fast. Piece by piece you’ll reach the tempo, but then you are tight and confident.
You write as well songbooks, for OBSCURA and as well for DEATH. How does this idea came up ? Does the songbooks have been well welcomed?
All songbooks have been a great success and it seems we hit a nice when we first released “Cosmogenesis” on sheet music a few years ago.
The first edition was sold out within a year and received great feedback. Within the years the books turned out to look way more professional and we hired even a lecturer for sheetmusic only to have a second view on the notation for our new album “Akroasis” before it was released.
I want to improve everywhere.
The idea of writing a Death tablature book came from Eric Greif, former manager of Chuck Schuldiner and still working for the Schuldiner family. I haven’t seen the final book at this point, but what I saw so far was very nice and the usual high quality Relapse Records release. I have been in touch with most of the former DEATH members either per mail or directly within several Death DTA tours to have even the small details confirmed.
To whom do you recommend this songbooks, meaning which experience should have already the guitarist in order to being able to play at least few songs?
Depending on the album and the skill of the guitarist. Some songs are pretty demanding on a technical side, but with practice and discipline you can manage all compositions. The band evolved as a whole but also the single band members, so I would recommend to start with “Cosmogenesis”, then “Omnivium” and in the end “Akroasis” the most demanding record up to date. Sometimes the rhythm guitars need more work than the leads which seems uncommon.
Let’s jump to your second project, THULCANDRA. How does the band started?
THULCANDRA was meant to be the opposite to OBSCURA, being founded as a tribute band to the early 90ies death and black metal scene from Scandinavia. Bands like EUCHARSIT, VINTERLAND, SACRAMENTUM, DISSECTION and UNANIMATED had a huge impact to us in the early days.
THULCANDRA was a full band and not one of those project groups – we rehearsed regularly, wrote material and released three full length records through Napalm Records that gained wide recognition within the underground scene. The band is well established and we get more offers to play live than ever.
Musically, there are worlds in between both bands and I try to separate the groups as much as possible.
A first demo called “Perishness Around Us” has been recorded back in 2005 but it has not been release cause of Jürgen Zintz suicide. The first album, Fallen Angel Dominion has been released in 2010. Did you planned to release it before or did you had no more time or energy cause of OBSCURA?
With Jürgen Zintz the first songs for the album have been written and we recorded the mentioned demo “Perishness Around Us” in a small studio in my hometown. We haven’t been satisfied with the recordings and actually never mixed the four songs.
When Jürgen committed suicide the band was on rest for a few years while I pushed OBSCURA and helped out friends playing live guitars for Festering Saliva, Helfahrt and Black Horizons. During that time Sebastian Ludwig and Tobias Ludwig joined THULCANDRA and together we finished the work on “Fallen Angel’s Dominion” which then was released in 2010.
Just a year later in 2011 “Under A Frozen Sun” saw the light of day and in 2015 we recorded “Ascension Lost”, our most successful record up to date.
Both bands, OBSCURA and THULCANDRA , are important to me and I love writing music and perform live with both groups.
While OBSCURA became an international touring act, THULCANDRA keeps a more exclusive existence and the band plays rather a few special shows than touring every now and then.
It’s obvious that the first album is a kind of “tribute” to DISSECTION. How far have you been inspired by Jon Nödtveidt ?
The band was meant to be a tribute to the entire scene I mentioned above, not only one band. People tend to add the Necrolord artworks with old school Swedish Death and Black metal and have a simple formula that ends in a tribute band for DISSECTION. I love the early albums and demos, but groups as MÖRK GRYNING, GATES OF ISHTAR and many more had their share of THULCANDRA as well.
How do you compose a song for THULCANDRA? Does the process is different comparing to OBSCURA?
All THULCANDRA compositions are based on riffs while OBSCURA has a more complex attitude to write material.
The Somberlain appears as well on Fallen Angel Dominion, what a nice homage. What does this song means to you, is the best from DISSECTION?
The album “The Somberlain” in it’s entirely means a lot to me – combining heavy metal with black and death metal and great arrangements. In my opinion this was their best and most innovative work back in the days. On the first two albums we covered DISSECTION and UNANIMATED but since then vowed to record or play anything but our own music on purpose.
THULCANDRA albums have been released by Napalm Records. Why did you choose this Austrian label?
Napalm Records supported the band very well so far. We are able to record our music in professional studios, get budget for video clips and get the chance to promote the records worldwide.
As you did it before to OSBCURA, could you please described your “feeling” about each albums / demos?
Perishness Around Us (2005) – a first step with a pretty clear direction
Fallen Angel’s Dominion (2010) – a classic debut album and the release that established the band
Under A Frozen Sun (2011) – our break through record that showed our own way to compose
Ascension Lost (2015) – the third record, and the step out of a mirror of influences to our very own identity
You are the producer for THULCANDRA and you have been in charge as well of the art and lyrical concepts since the start of the band. Do you have the feeling to have more “freedom” with THULCANDRA? Is it a place where you can experience more?
With THULCANDRA and OBSCURA I have the same “freedom” to do what I want, there is no difference. For both bands I am in charge for art, lyrics and a grand parts of the music. 14 years ago I founded OBSCURA , 13 years ago THULCANDRA .
OBSCURA got some songbooks, do you plan to release as well a THULCANDRA song book?
While OBSCURA shows a lot of technicality, THULCANDRA does not have the following within the music nerd scene and a songbook for the band would not see the success as the books for OBSCURA or DEATH show. We get messages here and then about a possible book and but I don’t think it is going to happen at the moment.
Ok, so let’s do the last part of this interview which is about Klangfabrik Landshut and your live experience. Klangfabrik Landshut has been used in order to record and produce THULCANDRA Ascension Lost album. Is it your own “private” studio or is it a studio open to some others band? When does this project started?
Klangfabrik Landshut was the studio I built up at a University in Southern Germany where I worked as a laboratory engineer for some years. Right now the studio will be rebuilt on another location and a bigger facility to record and produce bands on a higher level. I am not producing or recording other bands at all and I am not interested in doing that in the future.
You had some very intensive tour experience with over 160 gigs a year! You have been with bands such SUFFOCATION, DEATH DTA, CHILDREN OF BODOM and many others. Does this experience bring you new ideas, meaning for the composition, by example to compose some songs which are more “live” focus than some others?
Sometimes it has some input on writing as well. When we have been on tour with Children of Bodom and THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER I figured the extremely fast songs do not sound very clean and the audience get tired after the second high speed song. With “Akroasis” we kept the compositions a tiny bit slower and put more focus on the rhythm section and worked out a broad diversity of odd times.
Another great live experience is your performance into DEATH. How does this journey started? Is it planned to join DTA once again?
In 2012 I got the offer to join DEATH DTA for the first “Death to All” tour in the United States, sharing the stage with all former DEATH members.
While Charles Elliot covered the first half of the bands discography I was supposed to join for the after Human period of DEATH . Unfortunately, getting a work permission for the USA prevents many musicians to tour in North America these days and so it happened that I was forced to stay in Germany.
Since then I have been in touch with DEATH and management over the years and have been part of many tours in Europe and South America. We just supported DEATH DTA on a European tour and it was a pleasure sharing the stage with friends once again. I am sure it was not the last time.
As we speak about the future, what are you plan for 2016? You will tour again but does some works on new materials are planned?
At the moment we are writing a new THULCANDRA record and start sharing ideas of our following OBSCURA release. In Summer a festival tour for OBSCURA is booked, followed by a Latin America tour and an extensive headlining EU tour in the second half. Watch out, the lineup is incredible.
All OBSCURA and THULCANDRA albums have been added on Youtube which is a great way to discover your songs. What do you think about the music industry and people stating that the streaming is killing the business?
The music business is an always changing market with many opportunities and a lot of fallout at the same time. Streaming overall seems to be good idea and from a technical point of view easy to share music to the wide mass.
Unfortunately, the musicians barely see anything from those played songs. If you just see PORTISHEAD have been streamed 34 million times through Spotify and got 2500$ – something is wrong on the business side. Kids sometimes see music as a free, non-valuable, product they are not supposed to pay a single cent for. Compared to the 80ies or 90ies the level of quality to consume music went back to stone age. When files got more and more compressed, with a big wave when mp3s got involved, a whole generation started to listen to music on bad devices. Barely anyone listens to music on a good sound system these days – so are the expectations of the listeners.
In my modest opinion the industry will find a way to get more value into the music again. During the last years P2P downloading / sharing got severely restricted and so I am optimistic there will be found a way to get musicians, labels and staff from the industry paid somehow.
Well, that’s it! Thank you for this interview. Do you want to share a last word for our readers?
Thank you very much for the 9-lage-long interview and great questions. Thank you supporting OBSCURA and THULCANDRA.