An Interview With Primordial Vocalist Alan A. Nemtheanga
Band Photo: Primordial (?)
Call it Celtic, folk or black metal; whatever you label Primordial, there is no doubt about the sheer creativity that has come out of the Irish metal band since the early 90’s. The band is one of the few that doesn’t rush out a new album, taking its time to craft each album with attention to details. 2007’s “To The Nameless Dead” was another stellar release from the band and now the band is celebrating the release of their first-ever live DVD, “All Empires Fall.” Vocalist Alan A. Nemtheanga recently spoke to me about the DVD, the pressures that come about from filming a live show, an update on the new album, and the band’s involvement in the re-releasing of past Primordial albums.
Heavytothebone2: Tell me a little bit about the band’s new live DVD, “All Empires Fall,” and the features included on it.
We recorded it about a year ago in Dublin. We have that main show and the four-disc set has the bonus audio of that and a documentary, which is about 90 minutes of the origins of the band and how it started and all that kind of stuff. Then we have one complete bonus show from Germany, a festival called Ragnarök, and then a few songs from Graspop and a few songs from a festival in Norway. That’s the main jest of it; it’s not an eight-disc set of all the same show with different lights and blah, blah, blah. It’s one professionally-filmed show.
Heavytothebone2: Why did the band wait so long to do a live DVD?
That is a very good question. I don’t know, we just never really thought about it. Then we started to work together with my cousin, who runs a small video production company, and we began to formulate the idea of working with him and the people he works with and shooting the show in Dublin. Logistically, it wouldn’t have really been possible to do it abroad in the same manner as we did. We didn’t want one of those free festival-filmed shows. We wanted to do something on our own terms. Thankfully, only in the last couple of years has it been possible to bring that many people to a show in Dublin, which five years ago wouldn’t have been possible.
Heavytothebone2: What’s your favorite performance on the DVD and why?
The Dublin show looks great and I don’t think you’ll see another metal DVD quite like it. None of the people who worked on it were into metal, so it’s free of many of the same visual clichés. It’s filmed in sort of an analog tone…we didn’t want this digital sort of thing. As for the show itself, it’s stressful because you’re very conscious of making mistakes and if something goes wrong and this kind of thing, so it wasn’t necessarily the most enjoyable show. I like the Graspop footage personally quite a bit. We played five days in a row and for some reason, we still had our energy up on the last day and it was really good.
Heavytothebone2: Is there any reason why the band didn’t go further back than 2008 with the bonus material?
There is a bonus show on the extra disc of the very first album, “Imrama,” which is a full show of about half-hour from 1993, ‘94. We didn’t want to cram the whole thing with loads of shaky 1995 camcorder footage and we’re going to keep that for something else. The whole concept and the whole aesthetic of this DVD was based around the last album, except for the documentary, and the documentary had some old footage in it, but we’re going to put a few older things on some other things. It would have made the equilibrium a bit strange.
Heavytothebone2: Let’s go into the documentary for a minute. Can you just go into details in what it entails, how it was recorded, and the whole process behind it?
Well, Primordial is not a ‘Here’s us shoving things up our ass in the backstage drunk and fooling around’ because that’s not really us. When we knew we wanted to do the DVD, we wanted to do a proper documentary. The history of the band is 20 years old, but over 20 years old if you count when the first two guys started. We wanted to approach it not with the usual ‘Here’s three guys sitting in their rehearsal room in front of their backdrop talking for three hours unedited.’ We wanted it to look a bit more like something you might see on TV. The documentary is where we started in the late 80s all the way until now and includes the moments we thought were important and, well, less important.
Heavytothebone2: With a vast catalog of material the band has, what was the process behind choosing the songs for the setlist? Did you do a setlist specifically for the DVD or the one you had been doing for the tour?
It was difficult. By this stage, every song is between 7-10 minutes long and we have six albums to choose from. The show is 110 minutes long, but it was very difficult. A lot of people complained that there wasn’t this song or that song and we deliberately chose three or four songs that no one expected. We played “Fuil Arsa,” the first song from the first album, which we haven’t played in 15 years.
Heavytothebone2: Since you said you were pulling out songs that were really old, how did it feel to be playing these songs for the first time in a decade?
It was strange trying to figure out what we were playing (laughs) and going back and listening and saying ‘Why the fuck did we put this riff in here? This doesn’t fit at all. It’s completely in a different timing and just an odd way we put songs together.’ We’re not one of those bands that think anything negative about where we started from; we’re proud of it all. It was enjoyable playing the songs with such definition we have now, with a bit more muscle and maybe a bit faster. We have a full rehearsal film as well professionally for the DVD which we might put in something as well. There’s lots of funny stuff in that trying to figure out what it is that we’re playing. A lot of songs didn’t make the live set from 1994-1995.
Heavytothebone2: Looking back, what’s the one thing that sticks out to you about the band’s earlier albums?
I suppose it is a youthful exuberance, the impetuosity of youth and energy and the dedication and commitment. Also naivety; we really didn’t understand very much at all about recording, about instruments, about anything. The fact that we made an album that to me still sounds like it has lots of energy in it is a testament to the conviction we had as kids. When I listen to it, there are some things that make me smile because they are a bit daft, but that’s one of the things…that sort of naivety is one of the great charms of the traditional metal that I love, that 80s metal, because nobody was second-guessing themselves like a lot of modern metal does.
Heavytothebone2: You mentioned that the show filmed for the DVD wasn’t as enjoyable because there was so much pressure on you. Could you describe a little bit about the pressure you had trying to nail the performance?
Yeah sure. It was mainly produced by me and my cousin, which means that we were in there the day before checking the lights. We hired the gear and me and him were in there since the morning and then we realized that the gear company had sent some stuff that didn’t work. During the first song, I recognized that the light guy had just not listened to my instructions and done something completely different. There are lots of different things that you are worrying about. The rest of the band was worried, but because I’m usually at the production end of these things, I worried a bit more. Yeah, there are loads of worries, like what happens if the head blows on the amp? We did have a problem like that. At the start of “The Coffin Ships,” one of the guitars wouldn’t work. What can you do? We’re not machines, so we just have to roll with these things.
Heavytothebone2: How do you maintain a certain mindset when you have all these elements around you that could go wrong?
You have to have confidence in your own ability and hoping that you’re going to be able to improvise around anything that could go wrong. You trust in the fact that you’ve been doing this for 20 years and that you’re going to be able to find your way around these problems.
Heavytothebone2: Did you have to go back and re-edit anything for the live show or is this how it actually came out?
No, we didn’t re-edit things. We had one problem with one of the tracks of guitar on “Coffin Ships,” which was some sort of strange anomaly with the desk at the time. It took us a while and we had to send the hard drive across to get it. I don’t know all this technical crap, but we had to get it extracted. But we didn’t change anything, we didn’t re-film anything, we didn’t switch anything. There’s mistakes and everything in there. There’s lines of singing I forgot, one or two, and a bit of guitar fuck-ups, but that’s the way we play.
Heavytothebone2: How do you feel about bands that go back and re-record music for the live DVD?
Well, bands have been doing this forever…going back and re-dubbing bits because they made mistakes. It’s just not our style. We never claimed to be the tightest or most professional band in the world. We don’t cheat in the studio. We don’t cut and paste. In fact, the first seven takes are usually the first takes that are on the album, with the drums, the bass, and some of the rhythm. We approached it the same way live. I’m not going to go back and re-dub vocals. I mean, if I sing a bit out-of-tune, it’s out-of-tune.
Heavytothebone2: Is there any update on the new album?
Yeah, we’re going to record it in June. We’re getting past the halfway-done stage on the songs. We have about seven or eight songs, some nearly finished and some only just started. It’s going to be recorded in June and out in September or October, I think.
Heavytothebone2: Could you briefly describe what the new material sounds like? It is similar to “To The Nameless Dead” or an evolution of the band’s sound?
It’s still the Primordial sound. Once we record an album, we generally tend to do nothing for about a year-and-a-half as it regards to songwriting. We’re not getting into each others ears, we’re not forcing rehearsals twice a week going, ‘Does anybody have any riffs?’ If nobody has any riffs, we don’t do anything. So when we come back to start jamming new songs, we have a bit of new energy again. It’s like, ‘Oh, I remember why we enjoy this.’ And everybody comes in and goes, ‘Well, I have an idea, I have an idea, I love to do this.’ We don’t really have a work ethic and I think this kind of helps us when it comes to creativity because you can’t force creativity.
Heavytothebone2: Has that been the way that the band has written songs since the beginning?
Always the same since 1991. It’s been exactly the same. We probably rehearse even less than we did then. You know, we never set out to be the biggest band or to make a living from it or anything like this. We’re not really a professional band; we’re somewhere in-between. We don’t do anything because of any deadline or any pressure and we don’t have to make an album to go on tour. We don’t have to do anything, so we do it kind of on our own terms and when it’s ready, it’s ready. I think the people who like the band know that you’re not going to get an album every year. It just doesn’t work like that. That’s just always been our attitude.
Heavytothebone2: In this day and age where bands have to go out and tour all the time to support themselves, does the band feel any pressure to have to do that kind of stuff?
No. We know when we make an album, we have to go out on tour. We enjoy going on tour and we look forward to it. It gets harder as you get older, for sure. I know some bands are stuck in the rut of every year they have to make an album and they have to go on tour and do festivals; it’s their income.
In one way, I’m sort of envious of some bands that play music professionally because they do have the time to devote to writing songs. Don’t forget, when you hear a Primordial album, you have to take into context that some bands, like Satyricon, are professional and can sit around and spend months and months writing songs. We have to fit an hour of songwriting in-around work, families, kids: all these things. It might only be two or three hours a week you get to jam.
So in a way, I’m slightly envious of them at times, but on the other hand, there’s no pressure on us. We don’t have to be creative. It just comes when it comes. I do feel sorry for some bands that have been going for x amount of years and it’s the law of diminishing returns; they have to make a new album, they have to go on tour. Do you really need 11 or 12 albums by certain death metal bands? I’m not so sure.
Heavytothebone2: Metal Blade is re-releasing the band’s earlier works all throughout the past year. What involvement does the band have in the re-issues?
Oh, it’s all on our terms. We own them; it’s more of like a licensing. Basically, unscrupulous labels and people from the past have been continuing to press a thousand here, a thousand there, and we never received anything for them. We finally managed to get all the old rights back, but I wouldn’t ask people who have the originals to buy the new ones. We haven’t remixed them and we haven’t fucked about with the sound that much, but they all come in a nice box with a bonus disc of interesting stuff, especially “Spirit The Earth Aflame” that’s coming out now actually has unreleased songs that nobody’s ever heard before.
We try to make the package interesting for people, especially for people who are 15, 16, 17 getting into this whole pagan metal thing. Maybe it’s important for “Imrama” to be there so they can go, ‘All right. This is one of the originators of this scene or whatever.’ Not that I particularly feel we completely belong to it.
Heavytothebone2: How do you go about deciding what bonus material to put into the re-releases?
Just rooting through the old tapes, the old discs, listening to stuff. Some people complained that the bonus live disc on “A Journey’s End” didn’t sound that great, but it was recorded on a tape recorder (laughs) in a venue in Portugal and what do you want? It’s 1997 or 1998. People used to hearing all this digital modern stuff forget that the old tape-trading days in the late 80’s, early 90’s was the standard and that’s where this disc is from. You kind of expect modern production values on things that were recorded on a tape recorder in the corner of the rehearsal room in 1994, but I think for people who are really into the band, they are interesting material.
They aren’t things that you listen to all the time, but for example, on the bonus disc of “A Journey’s End,” you hear songs that ended up on “Journey’s End” and “Spirit The Earth Aflame” played in a different…the names are different, the lyrics are different, the structures are different, which to me would be interesting if you were really into a band.
Heavytothebone2: If you could tour with one band, past or present, who would it be and why?
Black Sabbath or Bathory, but that’s not going to happen. I don’t know; any of those bands that were sort of at the beginning of the rock/metal scene from the 70's and 80's when you were still (playing) stadiums and the drugs were good (laughs). I’m thankful that we’ve generally been on tour with lots of great bands and cool people. It’s been rare that we’ve been on tour with people who turned out to be difficult.
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