Genre-defying The Black Heart Rebellion are making history here with the release of absolutely flawless records like Har Nevo, from 2013, and, recently released, People, when you see the smoke, do not think it is fields they’re burning. Give a listen to these records, no matter what kind of music you usually listen to – that’s an order! We talked with drummer Tim Bryon and vocalist Pieter Uyttenhove. A brief but insightful interview with one of the most intriguing bands of the last few years.
By the time Har Nevo came out you said it was an album about an intense period of change. Har Nevo seems to be a record focused on what’s to come, the near future. It also seems to be the journey of someone with a lot of questions. The new record, it seems to me, was written from a slightly different place. In a way it looks like the natural continuation of Har Nevo – musically and lyrically.
Tim Bryon (drummer): By the time it we wrote Har Nevo, we were caught at a crossroads. We had done some really cool things in the past, on a trip that people described as ‘screamo’ or ‘post-metal’. We toured Europe, Japan, made the soundtrack for a theatre play, played shows in smelly basements and established clubs. We were feeling really blessed to have had the chance to do all those things with a punk band, but the question “what’s next” hit us harder than we expected. It wasn’t until we sat down and had some long conversations about the bigger picture, the content and the form of the band, that the future became clearer. This search became one of the underlying themes in Har Nevo and was, off course, filled with questions about choice and consequence. People, when you see the smoke, … is indeed the natural continuation of Har Nevo, but the way it came into being was radically different. After playing live shows for a year or so, we started writing at full speed and with a clear goal: to explore more of the ‘experiments’ that were in Har Nevo, pushing things further to some extreme in order to create a better version of what we did before. Some people disapproved of those changes, but we also received a lot of appreciation for the new direction. Touring with Har Nevo gave us the right energy to take it a step further and let bolder influences infiltrate in People, when you see the smoke, …
Did you have any well-defined goal with this record – and that could be something technical or creative?
Pieter Uyttenhove (vocalist): We tried to make an album that sounded as pure as possible, at least for us. When recording Har Nevo we were, maybe, afraid to completely break with our musical past. With the new album we just did what seemed right for us, without asking any further questions. I think we also knew much more about how the final result would sound like. The songs from the Har Nevo paved the way for the new record. We took some of the ideas that were the essence of Har Nevo, and started to rethink them and make them more pure and direct.
“When we take everything for granted there is not much left to be passionate about. Most of the lyrics of the new album focus on that idea. I think it’s important to see everything in the right perspective and context, always.”
Being in a constant search – self-improvement, maybe – and the idea of not so much an escape but finding a way of belonging / finding home seem to be major concerns of yours.
Pieter: It’s not so much the idea of belonging somewhere that intrigues me, but mostly the self-knowledge and self-criticism that follows the urge to have all that that is supposed to make us happy. When we take everything for granted there is not much left to be passionate about. Most of the lyrics of the new album focus on that idea. I think it’s important to see everything in the right perspective and context, always. One day a certain idea, feeling or person can bring you comfort, whereas the next day you question if it is actually the right thing to do. And this has nothing to do with a sort of indecision or a lack of will, but mostly with being honest to yourself and to those around you.
Percussion has been playing a major role ever since Har Nevo came out. With this new album you seem to take that even further. The sound is not so “all over the place”, but instead full of little subtleties. While a lot of bands seem to rely on walls of reverbed guitars and synths to create ambiance, making things denser, you guys go the other way around and have kind of stripped down your sound, using percussion to bring atmosphere to your work. Was that deliberate?
Tim: The walls of reverbed guitars and pounding drums were omnipresent in the ‘old’ TBHR. Any jam in the rehearsal room would end in a post-rock-apocalypse. We still adore some of the bands that have done groundbreaking work there, but since Har Nevo we also feel that TBHR (at least for the moment) needs a new approach. Searching for inspiration in the writing process, we started gathering influences that create the same kind of ‘impact’ but not in the established way rock bands usually do it. It is a very risky exercise not to lose your identity, idolizing those influences or even copying them. We’re aware of these dangers and try to counter them by selecting carefully what kind of instrument or atmosphere we need to reach that point. Percussion is a very interesting medium because it has been used for ages and almost in all cultures to invoke overwhelming or entrancing ambience. I find it hard to understand why in the west we’ve simplified the possibilities to a point where everybody’s using the same gear and playing in the same way. I think since Har Nevo we’re trying to question this kind of ‘agreement’ and on People, when you see the smoke, … we made improvements. It took some courage to strip down and step out of the agreement of how percussion should sound in a rock band, but it’s also liberating. We discovered that percussion can carry much more emotion if you play it like an instrument instead of a rhythm box.
“The feeling on stage, when everything is actually going great, is more satisfying than spending hours in a studio I think, because that’s the moment the songs really bloom and have their impact – not only on the audience, but, definitely, also on us.”
You collaborated in the setting of a theater play back in the day. Listening to Har Nevo I felt like there was a big influence from that in the way you project your voice. The way you shout out the words, especially when it is a question. Does that make sense to you?
Pieter: I’m not sure if there is such a direct influence, but for sure the cooperation with the theater company broadened our approach on how to write music. For me a good song exists out of two parts: the main part is, always, a story that’s being told, or a feeling or emotion that’s being evoked. The other part is the way in which story, feeling or emotion is brought, I mean with what instruments, melodies, rhythms etc. The theater play thought us a lot about that and made us question how that ‘storytelling’ can take place, which factors can help delivering the story in the best way possible.
Something I noticed – and enjoyed – is the fact that you try to bring that experimental and less “controlled” environment to the live set. When I saw you in Lisbon you had all these objects that one of you would hit against something and make… well, noises. To be completely honest I felt like you were still trying to figure out what you were doing with that, but still I appreciated the effort and the overall experience of your live set.
Tim: What you’ve seen was not an experiment. [laughs] Uncontrolled sounds are indeed becoming an increasingly important part of our music, maybe even more in the future.
“Searching for inspiration in the writing process, we started gathering influences that create the same kind of ‘impact’ but not in the established way rock bands usually do it. It is a very risky exercise not to lose your identity, idolizing those influences or even copying them.”
To keep it brief and end it here: how different is the recording mindset from the live one? Do you like to record an album that you can take to the stage, or is it two different worlds for you?
Pieter: I think the big difference is: when recording in the studio we have a lot more control over what is happening. When recording, we can create the perfect sound, take an after take, we can manipulate everything until we have achieved what we had in mind. On the other hand, our music has room for some coincidences, some ‘magic of the moment’. I think it is important to find the right line between those two approaches. Of course we try to find the sound that fits best with the songs we have written, but there also has to be a natural vibe, some live feeling in the recordings. When performing live you cannot just endlessly fix the amps or drums to have that specific sound, therefore the live environment [during the recording] is very important for us if we want to have a good concert. The feeling on stage, when everything is actually going great, is more satisfying than spending hours in a studio I think, because that’s the moment the songs really bloom and have their impact – not only on the audience, but, definitely, also on us.