Interview With guitarist Christos Antoniou
By Peter Atkinson
Promo photos and album cover from Prosthetic Records
Photos of Christos Antoniou and Septicflesh live by Peter Atkinson
Opening night of a North American club tour co-headlined by a pair of European underground symphonic death metal bands. What could possibly go wrong? For Greece’s Septicflesh, the June 22 kickoff of their “Conquerors of the World” tour with Italy’s Fleshgod Apocalypse turned into something of a comedy of errors – as guitarist Christos Antoniou explains below. Yet the band were able to shrug it off and put on a stripped down but rather pummeling set at Springfield, Va.’s, Empire Club despite most of their equipment and “armor” still being somewhere in transit.
And they weren’t the only band on the bill with problems. Despite having the least distance to travel, Pennsylvania’s Black Crown Initiate – who earned a spot on the tour after Italy’s Hour of Penance ran into a visa snag and dropped out – missed the first two dates when their van broke down. Canada’s Necronomicon didn’t play in Springfield either because of unspecified “technical issues.”
Nevertheless, Antoniou was in reasonably good spirits when we spoke in the back lounge of the band’s bus in the Empire parking lot a few hours before Septicflesh went onstage. As the mud/shaving cream/chocolate sauce-splattered hijinx of “Wipeout” played almost silently on the TV above us – everyone else was watching the U.S.-Portugal World Cup match in the front – the dread-locked guitarist spoke about Septicflesh’s ambitious, heavily orchestrated new album Titan, their unique history and backgrounds (Antinou has Bachelors and Masters degrees in classical music from the London College of Music; his brother, bassist/singer Spiros ”Seth” Antoniou, aka Seth Siro Anton, is an accomplished artist who has created album covers for dozens of bands; and second guitarist/clean vocalist/lyricist Sotiris Vayenas is a banker who rarely performs live with the band) and the “show must go on” mentality that is put to the test on days like this.
It looked pretty chaotic outside on my way to the bus.
Christos Antoniou: Yeah, we have major problems. We don’t have our backline today. It got delayed somehow in Madrid, in Spain. It seems that we are going to have our equipment at the Gramercy Theater in New York on Tuesday [June 24]. Tomorrow we have a day off. Good, works for us, and hopefully … So we’re trying to make the best of the situation and get everything sorted out, so things are a little crazy right now.
What will that mean as far as your show tonight,
Christos: We cannot do many things today, but we will play. The most important thing is to play. Without our costumes, without our sound, but we will do our best. We have to play, there’s no other way. The orchestration is not a problem, the problem is with Fotis [Benardo]‘s drums. He doesn’t have his drums, his pedals. The leads will be a little rough, because we don’t have our effects and it will be a little bit strange without our usual sound, but we will survive.
Are you and Fleshgod sharing a backline?
Christos: No, they have their own, which is good because today we will use Fleshgod Apocalypse’s backline and it should sound pretty good. Just a little different than we are used to. We had many issues today, many issues, but it’s the first day of the tour, it works like that the majority of the time and you get used to it. You learn how to handle these situations. As I said, the most important thing is to play.
At least you made it, which can be a problem for foreign bands here. Hour of Penance had to drop of the bill. Did you have any issues with your visas?
Christos: No, no. We have been many in the states and we make sure the paperwork is taken care of well in advance. I don’t know what happened with them, maybe they didn’t make the application for the visas fast enough to get them in time.
Well, hopefully things will go well for you tonight and when you get your equipment you can look back on this laugh and have a good story to tell.
Christos: (Laughs) Yes, we will. We’ll do our best. People paid for tickets to see us and we have to respect that and play. Whatever it takes, we will play.
You mentioned you will have the orchestration. Do you use sound files on an iPod or iPad or something?
Christos: Laptops. Thankfully, we have our laptops and the guitars we brought with us, outside of the equipment that was being shipped. We had six items to be shipped, they were the other guitars, costumes, backdrops, banners, racks and drums. The good thing was we didn’t have the laptops inside with them, that was one positive sign for today.
You guys played some festivals in Europe just before this, correct?
Christos: Yes. In fact, we did Hellfest and immediately after our performance, at 1 o’clock at night, we flew to the U.S. So you can understand how difficult it was yesterday when we got here and found out the equipment was not there. The good thing was we went to Washington, D.C., and we had 12 hours to rest in a hotel and sort out where our stuff was and how we were going to get it. It would have been a nightmare if we had had to just come right here.
This time it’s not about the jet lag, it’s about our performance at Hellfest and flying immediately right after that. That’s when stuff gets lost, and that’s what happened to us this time. One month ago, we did Australia. That is the worst thing for jet lag. It’s 25 hours to go from Athens. But once you get past that, it’s easy.
Did the Hellfest show go OK?
Christos: Yes. Hellfest was special moment for us because we had also the release of the album. And everything went really well. It was one of the biggest shows we’ve done, I think it was like 12,000 people. It was very special.
And Titan comes out here Tuesday, so you get to do it all over again. Perfect timing.
Christos: Yes, yes. It’s a good opportunity for the CD, for the fans. It’s special too for us, because like you said, we get to do twice. We were in discussion with the labels about it, and we decided that the best thing to do was to go on tour immediately, even though the people don’t know the songs yet. But it’s a good opportunity to start with this tour and we will come again to the the U.S. in the fall, definitely, it is in our plans.
Obviously it’s too early to judge the audience response to Titan, but the press I’ve seen so far has be quite favorable?
Christos: We have done four covers. We did the biggest magazine in Norway, Scream, we have done Metal Hammer in Greece, we have done Hard Rock in France, we are going to have the Metallion cover in France, we did Pařát Magazine in the Czech Republic, in Belgium we had album of the month, in Rock Hard in France we had album of the month. I think in Aardshock in Holland we had album of the month. In the biggest magazines we are quite active, I would say. This shows that [2011's] The Great Mass, which was our most successful album, will be passed.
The band’s been around for quite a while, so to still be growing has to be gratifying?
Christos: To be honest, the band started in 2008, when we regrouped with the lineup we have now for Communion. When we split up in 2003, this was do to circumstances like I was studying composition in England, my brother was studying fine arts in Athens, all this doesn’t let you tour as much as you can, because the touring is the most important, you know. So, at the point, we couldn’t go on.
Not many people know of our older albums, either, because we could not support them. Maybe the last one before we split, Sumerian Demons. So for that sake, we are quite a new band, and we are also quite a new band because we didn’t tour. Now we are fresh. Although we have toured a lot since 2008, we don’t have the tours on our back from before, so we are not tired of the road. All that lost time, we recovered really fast over the last six years.
Who knows, maybe if you hadn’t taken that break you wouldn’t be here now?
Christos: It depends. We might be bigger (laughs), or not. You cannot predict. Life is like that, you know. I had to study classical music, so maybe the music would not be the same if I had not studied at the time. If my brother had not been studying fine arts, it would not be the same, the covers, or our visual work. All of that has an importance now.
The important thing is to tour and have good albums. It’s a chain, if you don’t tour your albums won’t do good and if you don’t have good albums, even if you tour you’re not succeeding in anything. You have to focus on the creation of your albums and to tour, this is what I would say is the secret. We create everything from scratch now. We are like a factory. We do everything by ourselves. And that makes us stronger as a band.
You worked again this time with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra on Titan?
Christos: Yes. I have worked with them many times. I worked with them three times with Septicflesh, I have also another band Chaostar that have worked with the Philharmonic. I have done also some other projects with classical music with them. It is, how do you say, the team works really well.
You might think classical musicians would turn up their nose at metal, but they don’t seem to have a problem working with metal bands?
Christos: I think they’ve worked with Rhapsody of Fire and probably Dimmu Borgir [they actually performed with the band at Wacken in 2012]. They don’t care who is behind the music. We had some fans in the percussion section, but usually they don’t know if you are a metal guy or a soundtrack guy or a guy who composed for documentaries or video games. They care only about what they see in the score and do their jobs and finish.
Although it sounds cold, what’s most important is their interpretation. They are so professional and they are recording every day. And you have to act really serious when you are there and be very organized, because you are spending a lot of money. And if you waste your time for things that will cost you a fortune, you are going to fuck it up. It could be a big problem.
That is the reason why you have to be as detailed as much as you can with the scores to give them the right guidance. You have to be real careful and focused on the recording sessions, because they don’t record that many hours. They record four hours each session.
Since you studied classical music, do you play piano or violin or something other than guitar?
Christos: I was playing electric guitar since I was 15, but I had to learn piano in order to enter the university. It was a compulsory instrument because the piano is a polyphonic instrument, you have to know it in order to study composition. It was something you could not avoid. This helped me a lot, I’m not a great pianist or a great guitarist, but I know enough in order to compose.
In order to compose classical music you have to study. Of course James Hetfield doesn’t have to study music, you know (laughs), or most people in metal bands. When you have this luxury, you have to use it. I studied composition not only to compose or orchestrate for Septicflesh, I studied because it’s my life, it’s my passion.
I’m now composing a small opera that will be performed in September in Athens. It’s something I would not be able have done if I was not studying classical music. You have to study in order to compose and orchestra, firstly, classical concert music and then the others.
What classical composers really inspire you?
Christos: Igor Stravinsky. “The Rite of Spring,” when I heard that when I was younger I said “wow, I have to be a composer.” This masterpiece changed my life. I have some other influences, [Ignacy Jan] Paderewski, [Iannis] Xenakis and also some influences from film composers like Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer, many influences. But I try to filter them in my own way in order to not create something that sounds copycat or replica.
How do you fit into the overall compositional structure of Septicflesh, as a guitar player, do you also write “metal” parts?
Christos: Well, in my case, and for Septicflesh’s case, I am responsible for the orchestra, and sometimes I bring them ideas and the guys add the metal parts on top of that. We work like that. Either we build in the orchestra template or I orchestrate or add things on top of their metal parts.
With Titan, was the band looking for a logical progression from the last album, or to completely outdo it?
Christos: Always we aim for something new. We try to experiment in order to not copy our previous album, because to copy Communion it will be Communion No. 2, but thankfully and hopefully we did not do that. The Great Mass is not Communion No. 2 and it seems also that Titan is not The Great Mass No. 2.
We had some concerns about how we would try something new, but our intention was to refresh our sound. To create something totally different, that was our vision. Our vision was to make more of a guitar-driven album, more than our previous ones, a more dark album and that is the reason some lyrical and melodic parts we set them aside in order to not create any conflict with the dark character.
We added some new elements, like the student choir, some unusual instruments like theremin on “Confessions of A Serial Killer.” We try always to create something new. Of course, we didn’t invent the wheel, but we try to always expand our music world and we have this luxury with the orchestra that we can use it as a big weapon for us. It seems the orchestra is the fifth member, it is a big weapon for Septicflesh.
Do you see in the future maybe scaling back the orchestration and stripping down the sound, or will that always be a big part of it?
Christos: I cannot see at the moment any future without the orchestra for Septicflesh. It looks like we will go together until the end (laughs). And always, we will search for something new. Because we don’t have to hire an orchestrator or arranger, this gives us another character in the orchestration. I have some other ideas to create something, to have some other orchestration, some other new elements that will give again a fresh sound.
Have Septicflesh been able to do any shows with a full orchestra yet?
Christos: No, no. Of course we would like to, and we had some offers in Athens, but we didn’t feel that it was something serious. These things, you need a big budget, in order to rehearse with an orchestra, to hire a big concert hall. Because we have had such a big orchestra on our albums, such big sections, huge string section, huge brass section, percussion, it’s better to do it with something big – not big to impress, but big for a wall of sound. I would not do something with less, with an ensemble or just strings. Of course, if Kronos Quartet would come and play with Septicflesh, it would be much better than playing with an orchestra (laughs), but that is something that is not feasible at the moment.
This tour with Fleshgod Apocalypse would seem to be about the perfect match for you guys?
Christos: We are the most active bands in symphonic metal music. It’s good because I think the package is strong, we are good friends with each other. This plays an important role because a tour is better like that. I think it will be a cool tour. As I was saying, the first days are always a little bit untidy and problematic and once we get past today we hope everything will be fine.
You mentioned before that you felt the band really started when you got back together in 2008. Next year would be the 25th anniversary if you went by your original start date, are you entertaining the notion of doing some sort of 25th anniversary thing anyway?
Christos: I don’t think so. As I said, we don’t feel like the band is 25 years old, so it’s not in our blood to create something for the 25 years. I don’t know if the labels have any other ideas, but it’s not in our plan. The labels will ask for something, but our focus is Titan, we will not have time to focus on anything else. Although the labels can do what they want, we take the final decision and it’s not in our plans to create something from the past.
Now Season of Mist has the reissues, which is very good, because we can expand our audience and our fan base can listen to the past of Septicflesh, which is important, it’s not that we regret anything. We didn’t tour because the circumstance was not to tour at that time. Now, I would say, I would separate it into two periods: from the beginning to our break, and from the break. The comeback.
Your other guitar player still doesn’t tour with you?
Christos: Sotiris, he’s not able, unfortunately, to tour with us because of his work. His work at a bank does not give him that many options to go on the road. He writes lyrics and records with us, as always, but we have used session guitarist onstage for a long time. We have Dinos playing with us now. It’s very rare on and a very special occasion that Sotiris is able to play with us.
I don’t know what would be a tougher job, playing in a death metal band or being a banker in Greece with the way the economy has been there.
Christos: Yes, yes. Both are very tough. The economy has gotten better in Greece, I can tell you that, which is good. We all work outside of the band, but we are different because we are more in the art area. I’m a composer and I have studio with Fotis, we record other albums there. I compose, Fotis is working with many students with his drums, my brother is working with the artworks.
We are very realistic. We know it is almost impossible to make a living just with the band, so we are working on other things. And doing that allows us to keep the band going, which for now is the most important thing. Without doing the other things, we wouldn’t be here where we are now.