Last week, I spoke with Alexander Otto (in beanie hat in the photo above), vocalist of the German melo-death band Words of Farewell, and was surprised to find out that the band has never played outside Germany and is actually kind of underground even in Europe. With their intricate, progressive, and melodic but also hard-hitting compositions, they deserve more attention. We talked in depth about the band’s new album, A Quiet World, which was released in the US on January 20. Alex shared a great deal about the themes behind the album, as well as divulging that the band already has more songs recorded, which might be released not too far in the future. He also delved into some thought-provoking topics such as what makes music “progressive,” how album artwork influences our perception of music, and the fate of communication in our modern world.
Shockwave Magazine: So, you guys have your new album, A Quiet World, that’ll be out on the 20th in the US and is already out in Europe. So I just wanted to say congrats on that.
Alexander Otto: Thank you.
Was there anything you wanted to share about the album, first of all?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that so far the feedback we’ve gotten on the European market, or the German market specifically, was very good, so we’re very content with the outcome of the album and the recipients’ feedback so far, and I hope that this will continue in the US, and that this interview of course will spark some interest in listeners and that they will like what they hear.
You guys seem to have a decent following in Europe, in Germany in particular. How about your US fan base?
Well, I guess so far there’s a little bit of reluctance, due to the marketing. Our US fan base isn’t that big–yet. That’s simply because we can’t play concerts over in the US, because of costs. So far we’ve only played in Germany — we haven’t ventured beyond the borders yet — and I guess that’s one of the reasons why in the US we have a real underground status. So a couple people know us, and really, really like us, and do some promotion with their peers, and we’ve got some really hardcore fans over in the US, but we haven’t had major success in the sense that we’ve got a very broad fan base yet. But we hope that gradually our fans in the US will of course increase and at some point we might be able to get over the pond and play for you guys. So, here’s hoping to that, that it works out.
Yeah, definitely. Here’s hoping to that. I would definitely like to see you guys over here. I didn’t realize that you guys had only played in Germany, and that you hadn’t really gotten around Europe yet. Is that also due to the costs?
I guess it might have something to do with the fact that we might seem a little bigger than we actually are. So, I’m not quite sure if promoters outside of Germany are aware of us and if they think it’s a worthwhile venture to actually book us, because that is also a cost thing, of course, so they have to determine whether we can draw enough folks to the concert that it’ll make up for the cost of inviting us. And I’m not quite sure if it’s simply because there’s nobody that’s willing to spend the money or if we’re not that well known outside of Germany yet. We kind of wonder about that and so far we haven’t gotten any clues about whether the one assumption or the other is correct. But we’re still gathering intel. When it comes down to playing concerts, it’s always a matter of what people you know and how well you know them and I guess that’s one thing we still lack a little bit. We don’t have what you would call here in Germany “vitamin B,” hah, which is basically like, you simply gotta know the right people to get anywhere. So in this regard we apparently don’t know the right people–yet. But hopefully that’ll change in the near future.
Yeah. I didn’t realize that, about you guys being kind of underground even in Europe.
But that’s a good thing, though. Like, maybe we appear a bit bigger than we are, and whenever people approach us, they’re like, yeah, these guys are totally normal and down-to-earth and I always thought they were a little bit bigger and a major thing. And often people realize we’re just regular guys, and I think that’s something that’s very beneficial when it comes to fan and band contact. So I don’t even think it’s really a bad thing.
Yeah, that can be a good thing. So, let’s talk about the actual sound of the album. With your three albums, there’s been an evolution toward a more progressive sound and a more crunchy, aggressive guitar sound. With your first album Immersion, you guys started out with a very melancholy, atmospheric sound, and now it’s getting more progressive and aggressive–but still has those melancholy and melodic moments. So, can you talk a bit about how this evolution in your sound has happened?
Yeah, I’m not quite sure, because this is a thing, like, how you perceive your own work and how others perceive your work. Because there’s always a thing, like, what cultural clues are used to read a text, in a sense, or music. I would agree that when we set out with Immersion, it was a little bit more melancholic, but I think that also has something to do with the artwork, because if you look at the artwork [for Immersion], it’s very somber, it’s very moody. And if you look at the new artwork, it’s a little more progressive, because it’s futuristic, and it looks a little bit like cyberpunk, which was intended. And that kind of translates into, if you look at that and then listen to the music, that sort of cultural intertextual reference influences the way you perceive the music.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that we’ve become more progressive, though, because songs like “Vagrant Story,” for example, on Immersion, were already pretty progressive, if you consider chord progressions and odd meters and such things to be progressive. Because it’s always a semantic question of whether you think this or that is actually progressive or not. This is something we could probably debate about for hours. But, looking at A Quiet World, what has happened, what I think has happened at least, is that the music got a little bit more varied. Simply, there’s a little bit more classic metal in there, couple of riffs that wouldn’t have been on Immersion, simply because of lineup changes. Immersion was pretty much written by Erik [Gaßmus, guitarist], like 80% or 90% or something, and the new records, The Black Wild Yonder and A Quiet World, also feature compositions by other members of the band, who happen to be a little bit more into progressive and classic metal and rock music, and I guess that influenced the sound a little bit. Also the production of course, which has changed.
And now the focus is a little bit more on how we can make a well-balanced album, because we didn’t really think about that when we released Immersion. We just thought, oh we have these great songs, and we put them on the album, and after we received feedback, and we might think, “Oh, that douche just had a bad day” or something, and then after a while it starts to sink in and you start to think about how to approach a certain album. And, when we did the song selection for A Quiet World, we always thought about, okay, we need maybe a fast song here, and a little quick-paced thing here, and then something a little downtempo maybe here, and then it kind of arranged itself because we had a broad selection of songs. Actually, we recorded, I think, 15 songs for the album? But only eight or nine made it onto the album, and then we just selected the songs that we thought gave the best experience on the album. Doesn’t necessarily mean that the other songs are better or worse than the ones that made it onto the album, just that we wanted to deliver the best experience, and so we took into account that maybe we have something for the proggish people here, and then a little more classic, some classic melo-death or melodic metal parts, for example in “Zero Temperance,” and something a little more classic in “Momentary Life,” and so on and so on. We tried to intricately put the puzzle pieces where they fit the best.
And, somehow, we got a little more progressive. Maybe also because we got fed up with writing music that simply, kinda, is easy to play and easy to write. Erik has a tendency to change things, whenever he comes across a chord progression that’s too simple, it’s like, man, this is what people expect, maybe we’ll just throw a jazz chord in there, just to throw people off a little bit, but not too much so that they get put off by the music, but like, that’s a nifty little twist. And he has a lot of little things that most people who aren’t into music theory wouldn’t even recognize, I guess. So many people listen to music and think like, “Yeah, this is cool, I can’t quite put my finger on what is weird or different about that sort of fill,” for example. And those little things are hard to play, but easy to listen to.
So, that was a very long answer.
Yeah, but it was very thorough, and it answered several questions at once, other questions I was going to ask. I wanted to ask more about the cover art — you said that it was cyberpunk influenced. When I saw it, actually, I immediately thought of the anime movie Ghost in the Shell — I don’t know if you know it, but that’s what I thought of.
It came to mind with the futuristic woman looking at the cityscape. And it also made me wonder if there was a concept or a story behind the album?
Actually, most of the albums have a core of songs, lyric-wise, that are somewhat connected by a theme. But there’s no storyline or overarching plot or anything like that on the album.
The cover was basically our way to get a visual anchor to the music we create so that, as I mentioned before, looking at the artwork gives you a sort of frame of reference, like the movie that plays in your head when you listen to the music. It is of course influenced a little bit by all the cyberpunk stuff that, I guess, most artists know already. Ghost in the Shell was part of it. The design was done by Stanis W. Decker. Usually I do the art design myself, like the art direction of the albums, like I did for Immersion and for The Black Wild Yonder — thus they ended up being black and white and rather dire. [chuckles] This time, I was also coming up with a couple of ideas, and the people at AFM and also my band buddies were like, nah, nothing really hits the spot. And then I was running out of time. And so we gave it to the professional hands of Stanis, and I directed him into the area that I wanted to have, which was cyberpunk, of course, simply because I thought that, listening to a lot of progressive and melodic death metal bands, this is something, as a visual anchor, that would work very well with, for example, our keyboards, as opposed to like classic melo-death. So we could emphasize a little bit visually what the music sounds like. So futuristic was good.
Also the topics of the different songs kind of point at what the cover is about, which I’ll explain in a bit. But, since you said Ghost in the Shell, which is also one of my favorite movies — and the remake will be horrible, I think… We could talk about that for ages as well, but I basically told Stanis, like, I want to have Japanese characters in there. I don’t know if many people know this, but I actually studied Japanese in university and I’ve been there a couple times, and have been a fan of the whole anime and manga scene for about 15 years, 20 years maybe, and have a huge collection. The song “Riven” on our last album was inspired by a manga called Blame! So basically for me, this was like every cliché and everything put 100% into the artwork so people would get everything they were looking for when it comes to science fiction and cyberpunk, because I really like that.
And coming back to the topic of the lyrics, some of them, like the title A Quiet World is actually a reference to everything in our postmodern society that is left unsaid. So, everything that we carry around and do not utter because we fear that it might have consequences, say, your political beliefs, your sexual desires, your dreams. In a society that’s built on a mutual consensus, a lot of people don’t have the courage to talk about their fears, for example, because they don’t want to seem weak, or their sexual orientation and all those social issues that everyone carries around. They build up a quiet world where a lot is said and done, like, you go outside, you hear the politicians talk, you hear friends talk, but they’re not talking about what is actually relevant, what is on their mind, ‘cause they fear that they might be put off by what the other party has to say. So we have a paradox. The world gets louder and noisier, and social media and all those different options give us more means of communication, but the actual important communication gets less and less and less. And that’s basically what the album is concerned with.
And I thought the cyberpunk cover artwork kind of shows in what direction this might be going, because the person on the cover is actually detached from all the noise that happening around her, and all that interaction and busy city life, and she’s like, you know, in her own little world, thinking about all those things that are actually important, rather than indulging in all that meaningless chatter. Yeah, that’s basically the idea behind the cover artwork. [chuckles] Again, very long answer. Sorry.
No, that’s fine, ‘cause I was going to ask more about that anyway. So now you explained it. And I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to, kind of feeling detached from the world and from other people.
And you might also want to read some of the lyrics, ‘cause you might be able to relate to those as well. I take pride in spending a lot of time on writing the lyrics, so, you might get a little bit more into the album if you actually spend some time checking those out.
Yeah, definitely. I’m a writer, so lyrics are super important to me. I love reading the lyrics to songs and my favorite bands are ones where I connect with the lyrics as well as the music.
Same with me.
Okay, so getting back to the questions – you said you had recorded 15 songs before making the album. Do you have any plans for the songs that didn’t make it on the album?
We have various options. I’m not quite sure actually — maybe it was only 14, because I know that one was intended to be two songs, but then they were merged. Not quite sure if it’s 14 or 15 — I’m not quite sure anymore. We had an idea, because we had so much good material — actually we had even more, but we only recorded 15 songs. We also had a lot of other songs, because usually we write everything on paper or in Guitar Pro, and so we have all the notes, and before we even start recording anything, we have stacked a lot of different songs and ideas, and most of them are finalized before we even hit the studio and play them for the first time. So we have a lot of other material as well.
But concerning the songs that aren’t on the album, we originally intended to release an EP with like three, four songs, maybe a cover song, sometime this year or next year. I’m not quite sure whether AFM Records is interested in that, because releasing EPs is always a little bit– like, you get five songs or something, and rolling the promotion machinery for only five songs can be, well, not very cost-effective. So I’m not quite sure if we’ll put them aside for now, maybe release them later on, or maybe in a “Best Of,” but the original idea was to make an EP, like, a year, year and a half after the release of the album.
If people would request it, that’s the thing. We’re not quite sure if in the online days, people still get into EPs. I personally like that, because you get little bits and pieces of music more frequently, rather than getting an album every three years. I’d prefer to get five songs a year or something from a band, so I get new material constantly.
The pressure, also– You get like three, four albums, let’s say, in a month, and then you listen to them, and you don’t really appreciate the whole album because you have all this other music and all these other CDs, and you kind of have to split your time listening to various different albums, because each album is always like 50 minutes long. If you get little bits and pieces, like five songs, you can still compose, like, how would you say it… You start out with something fast paced, and you go into something slower — you still can create a sense of tension, a thin red line that goes through the album. Like, one song isn’t enough to have sort of, to tell a story, but if you have five songs, that’s enough; if you have ten songs, it might be a little bit too much for people, because you don’t always have 50 minutes to listen to it. That’s basically what I meant.
Yeah, that makes sense. Though I think, actually, with all the digital ways of getting music, YouTube and Bandcamp and stuff, the length is maybe less relevant now. I’m just happy to get new music.
Yeah, there’s a middle ground, I think. If you get only two songs or something, yeah, it’s kind of interesting, but you can’t do much in two songs, like the atmosphere doesn’t build up in two songs — depending on the length of course. But if you have ten songs… As an artist, you always struggle for people’s attention. And if you have like five songs, like, the arc of tension, or the bow of suspense or however you would call it, can be meticulously crafted without taking away too much time. So if you have like 25 minutes, that can be a good experience for the listener, and you can provide that on a more frequent basis than you can a whole album.
And then you hold onto people’s attention longer in the long term if you release something every year or so, instead of every three years.
Exactly. So, yeah, you might be getting to hear the songs that weren’t on the album, hopefully, somewhere down the line.
Cool, that is something I look forward to. So, we should probably wrap up here, but one more question: what’s next for Words of Farewell?
Well I guess, the next step would be, first of all, we always gotta have new material, so writing songs is always the next step, after a release, but also at times during the release and before the release. And we should probably get more into getting better connections to play more concerts. So far this year we have scheduled, I think, five or six concerts. That’s just too few. And I guess we have to look more into marketing ourselves, so we’re able to achieve a broader audience base and get the promoters to actually book us. That’s I guess the next step we should be working on. And also, I think, trying to get onto a couple festivals this summer. We’ve had no luck so far with that though. But I guess those are the next steps we have to take in promoting ourselves and the album, of course.
Well, I wish you luck with getting onto the festivals and getting connections and more marketing. Oh, and I did want to say, ‘cause I saw on Facebook that you guys had played at Ruhrpott Metal Meeting [a large indoor metal festival] in Germany, so I wanted to say congrats on that.
Yeah, it was quite nice. Actually, I was on the tour bus of Saxon. [chuckles]
Yeah, that was quite nice. Actually, they were like my heroes when I was younger, like when I was listening to regular heavy metal. Like when I was ten years old, those were like the gods for me. And I still listen to them today, so it was actually quite awesome to meet Biff Byford.
That’s also one of the advantages if you get to play at such shows, you don’t just get to meet a lot of fans and interact with them, but you also maybe get to meet some of your idols.
Yeah, that’s really cool. Well, thank you so much for talking with me and sharing all this stuff with Shockwave.
Thank you for having me.