An interview with Stephen Lockhart

An interview with Stephen Lockhart of Studio Emissary, Ascension Festival, Oration Records and Rebirth Of Nefast

If you’re a black metal fan, Stephen Lockhart’s name is one of those you hear more and more often these days. Lockhart was born in Ireland, ninth of nine children, but he actually owes his reputation in the extreme underground to Iceland, where he is the person behind Ascension Festival (formerly Oration Festival), Oration Records, Rebirth Of Nefast, Studio Emissary and who knows how many other things in what one could argue is a life made of 48-hour days. Lockhart is the key figure who was in the studio engineering albums by Svartidauði, Sinmara, Tchornobog, Zhrine, Vástígr, Almyrkvi, Auðn, Inferno, Kaleikr, Helfró and a plethora of others, as well as the curator of a festival who was supposed to bring on stage the likes of Amenra, Dødheimsgard, Hexvessel and Mgła (among the many) a few weeks ago. Until the global covid-19 pandemic hit. Ascension MMXX is now postponed and scheduled for 2021, just like so many other events, from Coachella to the Olympics.

I guess such a decision did not come lightheartedly and brought along consequences. How is this whole situation impacting your work? We read about professional musicians starting crowdfundings on a daily basis now.

Having to cancel the festival was quite frankly, devastating, but in the end, it’s all about perspective. We had to cancel our festival, sure, but there are a lot of people who are going through far worse situations than we are. Our losses are only financial, we can amend that with time. We can’t buy our health on the other hand, so in that sense, we can only be thankful. The entire situation regarding the festival is quite complex as you can imagine, but I can say now with the gift of some foresight, it was 100% the right decision to postpone it until next year. If anything, it was the uncertainty of not knowing how we could and should proceed that was the most difficult aspect to deal with. Would we lose most of our line-up? Would anyone attend or be able to travel? Would we even be able to host (the answer was ‘no’ as it turns out). Then of course, there was the element of public safety and personal responsibility – even if given permission to do so, were we really going to put +500 people from 30+ countries in the same room for three days during a global pandemic?

While researching for this interview I went through the piece published on Bardo Methodology #2, back in 2017. The final part, where you discussed the concept of sentience in nature particularly stayed with me, in light of this quarantine. We are not experiencing any “wildlife triumphs”, but the quality of air is definitely increasing. I am no conspiracy theorist, and I like to think this is mother Earth’s wake. You studied forestry, that’s actually the original reason why you set foot on Icelandic soil in the first place, so what’s your take on this situation?

It’s an interesting idea in essence but in reality, I don’t consider the current situation to be any sort of “balancing of the scales”‘. I don’t mean to diminish the situation, but in the grand scale of things, even with the most dismal forecasts concerning the outcome of this virus, it’s hardly a victory in this perceived man versus nature dilemma, at least when considering that we stand with a population of near 8 billion, with a population increase of over 220,000 a day. What is more profound to consider though, is perhaps the impact on the collective psyche. The deaths will cease eventually and the pollution will go back to being what it was and the canals of Venice will go back to being free of visible aquatic life. But what I’d like to imagine, at least for those of us lucky enough to not be immediately affected in a mortal way, is that this pandemic will provide a certain sense of humility. As in no, nature is not ‘fighting back’, but yes, we are still at the mercy of the natural world, and no amount of money, arrogance, position or power can save us. We’re not invincible and there are fights we cannot win, no matter how iron-willed we like to imagine ourselves.

I am quite confident this situation is by far the worst case scenario you had to deal with, when it comes to Ascension, but looking back are you still satisfied with your decision to keep on organizing such an event, after your initial intention to call it quits with Oration?

Now is perhaps the worst possible time to ask such a question, but generally yes! It’s like a compulsion. We’re fortunate enough to have plenty of other endeavours to keep us busy, but still, there is a sense of emptiness in not having a festival to host this summer. We’re always experimenting and trying new approaches with our festivals, so for that reason alone, it’s been difficult to process – all these ideas that we never had the opportunity to execute and will have to wait a further year to see their outcomes made manifest. When we decided to put an end to Oration, we were probably a little premature in doing so. At the time, we’d recently found out we’d be having another child and envisioned our future as a whirlwind of diapers and no sleep, but it turned out not to be as all consuming as we thought. On top of that, we were just getting a little sick of just how difficult it is to pull off an event of this nature in Iceland. At times it can be quite overwhelming when it feels the odds are constantly stacked against you. The biggest issue being that there simply isn’t enough people in the local black metal scene to fill our events. The scene here is strong and very active, and has grown greatly in the last years, but not so much in terms of local following. Hence, we have to fight tooth and nail to bring in both foreign and local attendees, despite our line-ups arguably outshining many foreign festivals that receive several times the attendance. It can be exhausting, frustrating and very stressful at times, but it’s a challenge I can’t seem to shake. Nothing of worth comes easily. And we want to create the perfect festival, so for now, we can handle some sleepless nights!

On the production side, on the other hand, is the health emergency having a huge impact on Studio Emissary as well?

As of now, the current pandemic has not affected the operations of Studio Emissary at all, as I work alone at the studio, generally with little contact with anyone else. Even with the lack of a festival this summer, we’re still flat out. As of now, we’ve enough projects to keep us going until the end of the year, with requests coming in all the time. What will happen in the future is anyone’s guess. Most people still haven’t grasped the potentially dire economic repercussions coming their way. The flip side is that economic downturn and the misery that follows often gives birth to profound creativity, so who knows what will happen. As regards the sound engineering industry, perhaps we’ll see a thinning of the herd to some degree, leaving room for more professional services. Or perhaps more likely, this DIY aesthetic will become even more prevalent. Anything at this point is just speculation really, or at best, wishful thinking!

On the opposite side, you stated that you choose your collaborations mainly relying on the human factor: you prefer to work with people you like even if their music is not really your taste, rather than producing kvlt black metal bands you feel you won’t get along with. In case some musician here is looking for a slot at the studio, what were some of the reasons why you dropped collaborations, if you can talk about those.

It never really gets to the stage we’re I’m in the middle of a collaboration and need to pull the plug. At this point in my career, I’m pretty perceptive of the type of personality I’m dealing with when someone makes enquiries about collaboration. I have little patience for arrogance or bad attitudes and generally I can pick up on these kinds of tones quickly. Also, I’m now at the point where I can pick and choose who I can work with to a greater extent. As opposed to when I was starting out, and was more inclined to accept a job just for the experience or out of financial necessity. The irony of the situation is that very often, the more high end your clients get, the easier they become to work with, at least in a professional sense. They know their way around the studio and don’t require constant spoon-feeding – they understand the process. And rather importantly, they’ve accumulated the experience to know that great sounding records don’t get produced on a shoe-string budget. In other words, I no longer need to work with 30 bands a year to make ends meet.

Moving on to Rebirth Of Nefast: would you introduce the project to those who are not familiar with your band? Your only album, Tabernaculum, is now three years old, but you’ve never been rushing on that side. Can you find the time to focus on composing new material? Maybe this quarantine is helping?

Rebirth Of Nefast has been my primary artistic endeavour for the last 15 years. It is basically a solo project, with myself composing, performing (not drums) and producing everything. Beyond that however, I find it difficult to introduce to be honest, as there are so many personal facets to the project that are near impossible to articulate in a vaguely satisfactory manner. I prefer to let my artistic output speak for itself to a large extent, and to leave some things open to interpretation. Black metal as a genre has already been de-mystified enough without me adding to it! Nothing has really slowed down for us due to being in quarantine, if anything, it’s been the opposite. Between the headache of a postponed festival and then all the other projects that got moved forward as a result, there hasn’t been any extra time to dedicate to Rebirth Of Nefast, or much else for that matter. I will say however, that I am always working on it to some degree, whether I’m sitting down to compose and record, or am just going over arrangements in my head, it’s always in the back of my mind.

I’m saying this because you stated that, before releasing any music, you need to feel completely satisfied with your work. Since it took you almost ten years to complete Tabernaculum, it’s pretty clear that no aspect of it was left to chance. Now that there’s some water under the bridge, what are your feelings toward that album? I still love that, for what it’s worth.

I am still extremely proud of this body of work as a whole. I’ve listened to it thousands of times, but still to this day, there are still parts that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. And personally speaking, I believe achieving this kind of emotional impact should be the primary motivation in making art – so in that sense, the album is a complete success. In a more practical sense, sure, there are aspects I’d approach differently now that I’ve a few more years of experience behind me, but that’s only natural I feel, and more to the point, exactly the way it should be. If I still felt the album was perfect four years after completing it, why should I bother doing anything else? From a technical standpoint, there are certainly aspects I would do differently today, but again, that is just standard. It’s all experience and growth. What is most important is to do your absolute best with the knowledge and tools at your disposal at the time – and I can absolutely say I did that, so I’ve zero regrets.

There is this aspect I find extremely fascinating: I talked to some people who worked with you and know you personally and they all said you are an extremely easy going and laid back person, and from the tone of this conversation I have the very same feeling. Rebirth Of Nefast sounds like a totally different side of you, so I wonder what kind of state of mind you are in when working on your band and composing pieces like “Carrion Is A Golden Throne”?

It’s a curious observation, no doubt, but it’s quite difficult to comment on as ultimately, I’ve only my own perspective to draw from. I suppose it could be said that I have different sides, and at times, some sides are more dominant than others. To phrase it rather inarticulately, I suppose you can call Rebirth Of Nefast an outlet for my ‘dark’ side in a sense. It’s worth mentioning though, that none of these facets are fully independent of each other. Perhaps it’s not overtly obvious in conversation, but all sides influence each other and are often present even at just an underlying level. Much like anyone else, I am but the sum of my parts. But that being said, I do tend not to take myself too seriously in most day to day matters, and generally favour a more light-hearted demeanour, but there is no denying that the rather austere approach I take towards Rebirth Of Nefast and other artistic endeavours is always present to some degree, at least when concerning matters I consider to be of importance. As a result, I never find myself needing a particular mindset to compose, as all the components are already there, it’s just a matter of choice where to place focus. It is entirely possible to walk around all day with the perceivably negative subject matter of Rebirth Of Nefast on my mind, but it’s just not something I want to do. There is more horror in the world every minute of every day than any sane mind should be able to handle. You can choose to focus only on this horror and make believe that this is all the world is made up of, but it’s really just not the case. It’s a part of the world surely, but so are so many other positive aspects that I can be grateful for. I choose to focus, as realistically as possible, on the positive elements in my life, because at least for me, I feel they are in abundance.

I also have to say, I’m glad you asked this question, because it so often feels par for the course that black metal musicians feel the need to maintain a veil of seriousness at all costs – a fabricated image of the ultra-articulate intellectual, somehow the walking embodiment of what their band supposedly represents. When in reality, these visages are generally utter nonsense. In my experience, most individuals tend to be pretty relaxed and laid back in person. Sure, you occasionally come across some insufferable try-hards youths or die-hard dinosaurs, but in general, the majority of the musicians I know are not a reflection of their music, at least not in a negative respect.

How did you get in touch with NoEvDia? They are one of the most sought after and highly regarded labels nowadays. How was your experience with them?

We have been collaborating since Ex Nihilio, the Rebirth Of Nefast/Slidhr split in 2008, which was released by End All Life Productions (operated by the same core organisation). Our experience with them has always been positive. They provide the support we need to see our visions made manifest, and more importantly present it with integrity and with emphasis on the art-from first and foremost. This approach is very much aligned with how I want to present my own work, so it’s a good fit.

Related to the previous question and to your comment where you speculated that DIY might become even more prevalent, how important do you consider, in 2020, partnering with a good label, working in a good studio and with a good producer?

The biggest factor that needs to be considered, is what is the end goal – what is the purpose of creating music? Is it to satisfy one’s ego? Is it purely for commercial success? Is it purely for the sake of art? Or somewhere in between? For bands seeking success, be that in the sense that their band becomes their job, that they tour extensively, or simply gain the financial support to create art without limitations, then it’s possible with a variety of approaches, but ultimately, a well produced record, recorded at a professional studio and released by a label that has the means to properly promote and distribute it, will surely increase the likelihood of these goals being made manifest. If on the other hand, a band just wants to make music for the sake of art, then it is often sufficient that they are supported by a label that reinforces their artistic beliefs and ultimately, releases a record that physically represents what was envisioned. The downside of this however, is that the more low key the approach, the more often a budget is lacking to make one’s vision manifest, hence the prevalence of the DIY route in these cases. What I have found in general, is that most bands tend to fall somewhere in the middle, either leaning, slightly one way or the other. For these bands, the modus operandi has become one of DIY as much as possible, while putting limited resources into what might be considered more vital aspects of the production process, be that drum recordings, mixing, mastering etc. This can work quite well in a lot of cases, but in my experience, more often than not, this selectively improvised approach results in a compromised end result.

Recording technology has reached the point now where just about anyone can record a wide range of instruments at home to a passable degree with minimal financial investment. These recordings will then be passed onto a mixing engineer that will put it all together and try to compensate for any short-comings in the material they’ve been given to work with. What is generally lacking in this approach is oversight – someone to say ‘you need to record this take again’ or ‘ why don’t you try playing it like this instead of that’. And although this may seem like a minimal compromise, this kind of input adds up and is very often the difference between a good record and great record. On top of that, this DIY culture has also contributed greatly to what is commonly referred to as the ‘fix it in the mix’ approach. This is the process of basically settling for lesser performances with the knowledge that it can be fixed in post-production. While true to a large extent, the end result is never the same. As a rule of thumb, a great sounding record starts with the player – a skilled musician performing well arranged material and impassioned takes, with appropriate sounding, properly tuned instruments – it seems so basic, but it’s so often lacking. The result of the fix it in the mix approach is that players no longer dedicate the same amount of time to their craft, which in turn affects composition. The end result is an ocean of bland, but passable sounding records out there. And this is where I feel the role of a producer is greatly under-appreciated and in a lot of cases, just misunderstood. No matter how good your listening ear is, no matter how competent you feel you are at operating your DAW or how good your latest piece of gear is – there is no substitute for experience, oversight and ultimately, taste – and this is something that technology will never be able to replace. When you’ve worked on dozens or hundreds of records, you develop an approach that just isn’t there with amateur engineers or hobbyists – a feel for records as a whole. The same can be said for mixing and mastering engineers – no matter how good a guitar tone or drum sound you can get, it doesn’t matter if you cannot translate that into a balanced and exciting end result, that fully accentuates emotional impact. Again, algorithms will never be able to account for this.

A lot of interesting hints here. Plenty of examples come to my mind concerning the oversight concept you mentioned. On the one hand I think of Seasons In The Abyss produced by chameleonic Rick Rubin, who’s been able to work with more or less every kind of genre and artist, on the other Metallica’s Black Album and Bob Rock. I’m being deliberately provocative, but in addition to budget, another reason for self-production and just leaving the final mixing to a professional producer might be that bands do not want to have their work touched by anyone else, fearing interference. How is a band supposed to understand what studio and what producer could be the right overseer to their work?

Absolutely, this can be a concern, at least it certainly was the case for me when I started producing my own projects fifteen years ago. But it’s important to note that these are very different times now. It’s never been easier to find out exactly who is responsible for producing your favourite records. Simply put, if a lot of the music you listen to is all produced by the same few individuals, it’s safe to assume they’ll provide a similar outcome for your own band, with the assumption that your band’s style is at least in the same ballpark. Fifteen years ago on the other hand, you actually had to do some amount of research to find out who was producing what – often it came down to actually having to own a physical copy and reading the liner notes (madness, I know). Another element to consider here, is that the mix itself is a hugely important step in the production process. Poor recordings can often be saved by a great mix, but at the same time, great recordings can also be ruined by a poor mix. So if anything, placing the mix in someone else’s hands is just as great, if not greater risk than allowing someone else to track your band.

The proper amount of time to craft music. I think this is the huge problem of the digital era: too many bands releasing albums just because they can, one-man bands releasing digital albums twice a year or more. I know technology gave many musicians chances they couldn’t afford before, but this quickly saturated the market, and the actual percentage of worthy releases is definitely small. What’s your take on this overcrowded metal scene, not only production-wise?

This again goes back to what we discussed earlier: what is the purpose of creating music? What is the point? What is the motivation to rush release two mediocre albums in one year, when you can take your time, and release one great album instead? It is one of my core beliefs that art should be born from a place of integrity, first and foremost. Art shouldn’t be created to sell records, and certainly shouldn’t be created to massage one’s ego. Can the artists you’re referring to say the same? Or do they care to think that far even? It’s a double edged sword. On one hand, it’s great that people are able to produce their own music. I believe that creativity should be encouraged, as it’s a far more noble pursuit than many of the ways people choose to spend their time. Everyone has to start somewhere, no one is just born a great musician or composer. Indeed, the modus operandi we’ve been discussing is very much so how I started out, in the sense that I didn’t trust someone else to produce my projects, so I just learned how to do it myself. So in that sense, the idea that bands should be scorned for contributing to the sea of mediocre releases doesn’t fully sit well with me, though I can understand the temptation, especially when considering the mediocrity often overshadows more worthy projects. But the fact of the matter is that the metal scene is over-crowded.

And now in the digital age, it’s never been easier to emulate other bands. It changes with the wind, but you can clearly see phases and trends coming and going, bands using the same artists, photographers, producers – packaging themselves to appeal specifically to certain labels etc. I just can’t understand this approach. Generally, the mere insinuation that something I’m working on might be compared to something else, is cause for me to completely re-assess a concept. I find the challenge of trying to create something different, new, or unusual to be motivation in itself. I don’t succeed always of course, as outside influence happens unconsciously, no matter how hard I try to fight it. But the opposite of this – consciously trying to emulate other bands – it just feels pointless.

We mailed for weeks and we haven’t even started discussing Oration Records yet: would you introduce the label and discuss what kind of projects and bands you cooperate with? And, if there is any, what kind of criteria do you base your choice upon when it comes to signing this or that band?

Oration as a label is first and foremost a means to support bands and artists that we believe in. In every endeavour we undertake, we value artistic integrity above all else and this is no exception with Oration. Our criteria is rather simple really – we need to like the material and aesthetic, we need to feel a connection with the artists personally and need to believe in their artistic approach as a whole. Our motivation for the label is not to find the next Watain or Behemoth and line our pockets, it is to release art that we can stand behind. The concept of this being a business is secondary to artistic output. The premise that every band is a product that is either sellable or not, is an idea that we refuse to participate in. If a band is popular, but we don’t believe they’ve artistic merit, we won’t collaborate with them. If a band has artistic merit, but are professionally or personally incompatible, we won’t collaborate with them. If all boxes are checked, but something just doesn’t feel right, we will not collaborate with them. It doesn’t matter if a band has potential to sell 10,000 records, it’s irrelevant.

This approach may seem a little on the extreme side but that’s just fine. It’s a very good filter for the type of bands we want to collaborate with. No band we work with are under the illusion that their releases are going to be reviewed by 100 publications, or end up on sampler CD. What they are aware of, is that their releases will be made manifest as they envisioned, by an organisation that genuinely wants to support and elevate their work. We believe that true art should be sought out, and not spoon fed. If it weren’t for the real world reality of needing to cover production costs, we’d probably just put out releases and not even announce them. But alas, we are functioning in a world where listeners no longer have the patience to listen past a 30 second intro, let alone check up on a label they follow, hence we retain a reluctant level of visibility.

So many bands today are looking for a label and want their album to be released tomorrow, maybe even today, only because it’s too late to have it out by yesterday. Eventually, many potentially interesting acts fall under the radar because they’ve been hasty and signed contracts at ridiculous conditions, maybe with a hundred printed copies and no promotion at all, and nine out of ten end up disappointed with the final result. Since you deal with the whole chain of the metal world, what do you think is the right way for a band to be “noticed” in 2020?

That’s a very difficult question to answer. Again, the bigger question is why does a band want to get noticed? What is the end goal? Because the end goal will determine the means. Today, it feels quite apparent that just about everything is flavour of the month. Long established bands release new albums, often to much acclaim, yet are still overshadowed by something else in a matter of weeks. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of this ‘overcrowding’ we’ve been discussing, the decline in people’s attention spans, or something else entirely, but in any case, it appears nothing really leaves a lasting impact. So what is one to do? If the end goal is to take your band as far as it can go, then it’s as I mentioned above – follow the formula and tick the boxes. And network. Time and time again, I see bands that are far from special artistically, but skilled at self promotion, over-take bands that are head and shoulders above them. Though I’ve little respect for this approach, it does actually work. I rather find that creating for the sake of art generally speaks for itself in the end. It is the integrity that goes creating something for the sake of itself, rather than an end goal, that actually leads to great art. If one is consistent in that, who knows, perhaps ‘success’ is possible by following both approaches. But personally, I would rather have a sparse, but consistent catalog of releases I can fully stand behind, than have what is commonly referred to as success after having to compromise my integrity.

Last one, I promise: your future projects worth mentioning?

There are several new Icelandic bands that I am currently working with that are bound to leave a mark, but none that I am at liberty to name as of now. Then we have new ‘Inferno’, Nexion and Tchornobog on the way. And of course, the debut Prison Of Mirrors’ album is due for release any day now!

Official links:
Ascension Festival website and Facebook
Studio Emissary website and Facebook
Oration Records website, Facebook and Bandcamp
The Rebirth Of Nefast Facebook and Bandcamp

Header picture is © Void Revelations, all the other pictures are © Woda I Pustka