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Interview with Dirk Serries

img  Tobias Fischer

On 6th April 2012, the final curtain fell on Fear Falls Burning with an upliftingly apocalyptic performance of doom metal anthem "I provoke disorder"at the Paradiso club in Tilburg. And yet, it was as much an exorcism as a celebration. To those in the audience, the final, hypnotic chord cycle could have gone on for hours. But instead of lingering in the moment, FFB mastermind Dirk Serries cut it short, ending the mantra after only a handful of repetitions and releasing the audience into the night. It was a metaphorical moment in many respects. With Disorder of Roots, Serries had managed to release an album which did not present a decline in quality compared to its much lauded, classic predecessor Frenzy of the Absolute. Still, already while writing it, he knew that it would be the end of the journey for the project. So, while looking back on what he achieved with satisfaction, a bitter taste also remained. At the same time, Disorder of Roots, with its visionary drone-jazz-metal sound, did allow Serries to finally make a fresh start. After defeating a serious bout of writer's block, he returned to the studio and recorded what has generally come to be regarded as his most engaging and glorious artistic statement for a very long time. Titled Mounting Among The Waves, There's A Light In Vein. The Burden Of Hope Across Thousands Of Rivers, and described by Serries as a 'symphony', the album is made up of a quartet of emotionally bleeding pieces, all built around the contrast between raw, unpolished riffs and fragile, complex ambient layering. The process of developing the music has become more organic than ever, the tone more affirmative, the cover artwork by Serries's wife Martina, which was originally going to be part of an artful coffeetable book, more personal Depicting a Berlin traffic crossing, it marks Serries's return into the city, his true spiritual home. Behind the mundane lingers a new sense of beauty, one which no longer searches for inspiration outside of itself.

I am curious why you chose this particular cover image. It's very un-mysterious, which makes it a very atypical image for this type of record.
That’s exactly what I wanted. Because for all the abstractness and all the vast landscapes that I've been using over these three decades actually they don’t say that much more about what music is about or provoke any extra emotion. They are beautiful but they don’t have any kind of concept or any kind of extra message to convey to the listener. While I feel that with this album, it is the most down to earth music I have ever made, because it’s so emotional and melancholic. I felt that it just had to have a regular, simple photo. Something recognizable and something that is a part of our lives.

It’s also shot in daylight, which is very interesting.
What fascinates me about the image is that while it is just so ‘every day’, it also has something very timeless about it. It doesn’t look like it was taken in 2010, it could be the 80s. That was fascinating to me as an artist.
I feel it was superficial of me in the past to reference grand natural landscapes as sources of inspiration when in fact I am a city person. I love coming back [from these landscapes] to people and I think this image also expresses this realization.

Is this what's behind your quote that Steve Roach’s music is for the cinema and your is more for TV … because Steve actually lives in these incredibly huge panoramic places?
Yes. It is normal for him to be inspired by his surroundings, but when I went there I think I mistook being overwhelmed by the landscape for inspiration. What I am actually inspired by is the way we live in northern Europe. By that I mean the good and the bad as it can be very frustrating or suffocating living in here. But that also triggers you as a musician to make your music.

Do you think Martina as a photographer, is, like you, moving in a different direction?
I think so, but it was always spontaneous. There was no discussion beforehand with me saying that now I’m doing another Microphonics record I need a cityscape. That wasn’t the case.  When we went to New York for the first time together, she just started taking these pictures and when we got back I started to look at them and it dawned on me that this was what I needed to work with for my own solo albums. And I feel that Martina’s photography has indeed been changing from abstraction and organic qualities to more concrete photography with a little twist.

What did we miss with the coffee table book that did not materialize?
It would have been entitled City In Grey and contained all black and white photos from three cities, New York, Barcelona and Berlin. There were going to be three chapters. It has been abandoned for the moment due to time restrictions surrounding the production and we felt that we wouldn’t be able to vouch for the quality of this production at that time. But I am sure that once we find the right moment, we will do it. 

Is there a concept behind the album title?
I guess the thing with the title is partly about stepping away from the thing of just having the numbers there. I like having the number thing and it will go on, but this time I wanted to have a bit more of a reference to each song. I also felt that people would appreciate it as well. For instance, a lot of people who I’ve spoken to or who have reviewed the album love the second piece, "There's a Light in Vein". Now if that song only had a number it would have meant nothing.

I know that some of these names are intuitive but I am still curious about the title “Burden of Hope”. Why is hope a burden?
(laughs). Most of the time I am not the most positive person on the planet. I have a lot of doom ideas. Not that I am suicidal, but I kind have to watch out for myself so that I don’t end up going into a negative spiral. I could be wrong, but I always feel like society tries to fool us with false hope and that’s why I feel that hope is a burden. Hope is something that you need to have, but most of the time it gives you a dissatisfying outcome I feel.

To me, the album actually sounds triumphant because each of the pieces starts out with a very raw, almost aggressive guitar line or distorted elements but it always ends in a very uplifting mood.
I completely agree with that. I can’t say it was all deliberate. It just sort of came out of me from when I started playing the first lines. I knew I had to turn the songs around towards the ends, still building it up but making shift a bit by adding more harmonic or melancholic elements in contrast to the more distorted ones at the beginnings. Again, I think there is a huge duality between sadness and happiness. I feel they are interconnected. I truly believe that sadness can be a form of happiness and happiness can be a form of sadness. When I play these songs live, I very much feel that way. I feel melancholic; I feel drained which I didn’t have in previous years. Previously I would feel drained from concentrating technically, but with this album I feel drained emotionally due to the fact the music has a very emotional effect even on me. It somehow does something to me. Not to be overly intellectual about it it, but I think because this is such a personal album, that is why it moves me so much.

Do you feel like now you’ve recorded the final Fear Falls Burning album, that a weight has been taken off your shoulders?
Absolutely. To be frank, although I’m still very proud of the two last Fear Falls Burning records, a couple of the Vidna Obmana albums and even the first Microphonics album, this is the first album in 29 years that I am 200% satisfied with. From the moment I finished the last Fear Fall Burning album, I came into a writers block and didn’t know where to take Microphonics. I even went to the studio where I recorded the first Microphonics album and it didn’t do anything. It felt like I was repeating myself and not covering any new ground within the realm of Microphonics. At the same time though, strangely enough, I felt liberated as well because I felt that FFB had ended really beautifully as had Vidna Obmana. This was finally a moment in time that I could feel confident to work on something under my own name, on something that was personal to me. I almost felt that when I was working under a pseudonym or an alter ego like FFB or VO; it was a making me a bit schizophrenic about it, even though it was always me and I was constantly motivating myself to try new things, find new sounds to create different sorts of fusions. It made me realise that it wasn’t really me, or it wasn’t personal. It became an uncontrolled organism, a different entity.
From the moment, FFB was closed as a project and I started working under my own name, it felt like that was the time I could do something that was really me. I will be completely open with and completely naked with the full intention of displaying my emotions through the music I want to actually share with people.

On the downside, it also took me almost a full year to come up with the final vision and the focus to know what to do with Microphonics from now on.  But that just makes the satisfaction so much bigger and more intense for me now. I really had to struggle before I arrived at the exact combination of tones and the overall atmosphere of the new album.

You said that at the time of FFB that you weren’t that involved with the ambient scene but that your interest had shifted towards metal. Interestingly, the new album sounds precisely at the cusp between the two.
With FFB it was definitely like that. As you know, the whole thing started out very minimal with one guitar and real time looping. Due to the good reception I got with the first FFB album, I suddenly got in touch with all these new musicians who gave me the opportunity to work with them. But then again, due to the fact that I had to feed my appetite as a musician and experiment a bit more, it also started to limit my possibilities as a solo musician because more and more other people started to become involved with FFB and it started to become almost like a band project. And it moved more and more towards metal in my own eyes.

But at a certain point I also realized that this couldn’t go on. There had to be a conclusion because there was no purpose behind me having a band because I wanted to remain a solo musician. Because I had already done Frenzy of the Absolute at that time, there wasn’t a way back, so I knew I needed to do another album to conclude it and that finally came back under my own name in order to actually push the limit, make it more personal but also combine all the ingredients I'd learned with FFB and VO. That really helped me a lot to make the new Microphonics album.

Therefore, you will hear that the new Microphonics album has a little more dissonance and distortion when compared with the debut. The first album is very mellow and ambient-like, but I think those were just sketches. From the moment all alter egos were finished with, I felt that I could easily try something a little different with Microphonics while staying true to the original concept of being one guitarist making this music.

So these changes happened after you broke your writers block, around 2011.
Yes that was early 2011. The strange fact was that originally Microphonics was going to be a project that involved one guitar and real time looping, but I felt that at the time I was trying to write the 2nd album, I was limiting myself. So when I went back to the studio and setup with the one guitar and the pedals it was as if there was no progression, no change, no step up the ladder in terms of the concept of Microphonics. So I just deleted the recordings, took some time off and by accident found some really mad digital effects on my pro tools system. Because I was playing around by plugging my guitar directly into the mixing board and going into the computer that way, I accidentally discovered a new way to create sound and color the guitar sound and that was in fact the beginning of writing the new album. From the moment I started to combine the digital with the original analogue setup, that’s when it all started to come together. I knew I had to add a little bit more to the technical process and that made me write the album immediately from zero to the end. 

Interestingly, the added bonus I got from playing in the digital domain was to free me from looping. About 80% of this new album is played live with multi-tracking but there is hardly any looping going on at all. I mean, I am still using the concept of looping, but playing it real time. Using the concept of looping in real time gives you the ability to actually edit small details in the performance you are playing where the loop doesn’t allow you to do that. A loop just goes on and on but now I can bring in some really intuitive things on the spot.

Would you say that this new technique allows you more control to determine the direction in which the piece is going in the moment?
Definitely. The first Microphonics performances were indeed created with the same single looping device from which the loops are feed back into each other over and over again creating may different layers, notes and timbres. It was like looping with an old reel to reel tape machine in that the loops mutate over time rather than just repeating say a four bar phrase over and over. So that means you have to be very attentive when listening to what is coming back to you. This makes things very difficult because you don’t know how the looping device is going to react.  With the new setup I only loop one line and the rest is played live. It makes the music much more airy and spacey.

My impression was that the pieces were governed by a basic riff but that things were happening underneath that layer, not on top of it.
That’s correct but also, the principle is different. When you have a loop or a motif that returns, then you are interacting with the repetitions by, for example, adding notes to create the sound. But with the new technique, it is an interaction with musical ideas layered in real time which almost gives the feel of five or six guitarists interacting with each other at the same time.

I think you mentioned at the time when FFB started that one of the reasons you wanted to close the VO chapter was because this fine-tuning of tiny details was basically taking away the pleasure of making music. How was that for this album?
This time it was totally different, because the songs were always so strong in my opinion. With VO, I had to do so much tweaking because the recordings weren’t as good, so a lot of the fine-tuning was corrective whereas this time I made sure that the recording was good. With this record the time was taken up mainly with fine-tuning the balance between the different motives and sounds. That was the nature of the process I was going through. Overall though, it was a pretty fluid and less stressful experience. Again, with this album this is only one guitar, or one element. Even when one guitar sounds different from another across parts, they are still both guitars and the sound is interconnected. Whereas with VO, there were many different elements such a percussive elements, flute, synths, voices and it was all these different elements that made it so difficult to make it work. With this, it’s all pretty connected so it was much easier.

Why did you use the word ‘symphony’ for it when describing it in the press release? Is it because all the pieces flow together in a very organic way?
This has been a very, very important album for me personally. As you know, I am very emotionally attached to my music so whenever I go for something I go in really deep into the ceremony or the ritual of the music. Even with VO and FFB. At the end of VO I had a burn out for four months. I couldn’t do anything, I was so drained. With FFB, it was the same, so I always have gone deep into the process of making my albums. But this time it felt like I went that much further but at the same time it also gave me so much more back which I didn’t experience in the times before. So for me, when I was listening back to the album when it was finished, it sounded so perfect in the way that everything came together. It  sounded so beautiful to my ears that the word symphony just came into my head.

On listening to this album for the first time I was struck by how it drew me in. When I reached "There's a Light in Vein”, I found myself having to stop what I was doing to give my full attention to the music.
It's funny you should say that, because from a lot of the reviews for this album and also the email feedback I am receiving about it, most people are saying that they are engaging with this album emotionally much more than they ever have with any of my previous works. I think that is a huge difference for me.

Do you think this approach will yield more albums?
I think so. There are other ideas that I’d like to play with, still in the same vein of course – I won't add drums added or anything like that, the concept will still only be me, no guest musicians etc. But the ideas are expanding. What I’ve created on this latest album will definitely feed me for the next album as well. It will be a heavy album to make because leveling this album will be very tough for me personally, but I am already writing new songs and one of them is already getting played live in a very minimal form of course. It’s a good sign for the next album.

What’s also strange is how this new album has affected my drive to make new music. Because I am so satisfied with how this album turned out, I am quite happy to keep playing it live for a while longer and I don’t feel any particular rush to go back into the studio just yet so I think it might be another two years before I am ready to record the next album. This is partially because I am do not want to drain myself again and also I think it’s a much healthier environment as a musician to take my time to learn from the experience of playing live so that this may play a part in the creation of the new album.

It’s funny that when the Internet was first becoming this new way of distributing music, so many artists were releasing a new album every month simply because it was possible. Now, it seems as though more and more musicians are realising that it's more satisfying to make that one big statement and then stand behind it for like two years before moving onto something else.
Yes, even though it is still very tempting to get all these offers to release more and more work through various channels, it is really good to say no because there is only so much as a human you can deal with. You just can’t cope with all this information at the same time. At a certain point it’s enough, your buffer is empty.  It may sound like a cliché, and maybe it’s because I am getting older, but I feel it is really important to take in this moment after having created the album. For the first time in 30 years of creating music I feel like I can rest and enjoy it.

By Tobias Fischer

Transcribed by Justin Cetinich

Dirk Serries Discography
As Microphonics:
Microphonics I-V (Tonefloat) 2008    
Microphonics VI (Tonefloat) 2009    
Microphonics VII (Tonefloat) 2009    
Microphonics XIV (Tonefloat) 2010    
Microphonics XII (Tonefloat) 2010    
Microphonics XIX (Tonefloat) 2011    
Low Volume Music/ w. Steve Roach (Projekt) 2012    
Microphonics XX (Tonefloat) 2012    
Microphonics XXI-XXV: Mounting Among The Waves, There's A Light In Vein. The Burden Of Hope Across Thousands Of Rivers (Tonefloat) 2013

Recommended Dirk Serries interviews & articles on the web:
Interview with Dirk Serries by Underground Webzine Kogaionon about the new micophonics album and a variety of topics.
An in-depth portrait by kindamuzik (Dutch only).
Extremely expansive interview with Dirk Serries about his entire career on Evening of Light.
Interview and sound excerpts on Dutch national radio (Dutch only).

Dirk Serries / Microphonics