Virgin Black – Rowan London

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Virgin Black
Interview with Rowan London: Vocals, piano & keyboard; songwriter

Interview by Chaosankh
Tuesday April 3, 2007
Thanks to Adrian Bromley at The End Records for Coordinating

To begin, let me say that the album is quite impressive. It somehow creates a very dark, atmospheric sound that is gloomy and somber, while at the same time it is somehow soothing. While no one can argue the fact that there is plenty of darkness in the world to go around, where do you specifically draw your inspiration for creating such music?

The music I personally create is purely and simply what is waiting to come out.  I’ve always favoured and embraced dark aesthetics but not out of rebellion or sense of wanting to belong, and well before I even took a glance at music.  In fact the world for myself and subsequently Virgin black was and is quite a lonely place.  Perhaps it’s a cycle of the literally black sheep being isolated and in turn having greater reason to become more of a black sheep?

In the promotional material provided by the record label, they describe your music as something that would appeal to fans of My Dying Bride, Saviour Machine, Moonspell, and also 19th Century Classical music. That last one is somewhat unusual for this genre of music to be compared to; however, when listening to the album it certainly has a very classically styled composition with plenty of subtle, quiet moments that are complimented by louder, heavier moments. My question is what particular composers of classical music are you influenced by? And what would say is special about those composers?

It needs to be said that the classical aspect to the music doesn’t just inhabit the quiet moments, there’s vast dynamics to the classical component itself.  I’m a big fan of Brahms, his intro’s were huge and the second movement in his Requiem is awe inspiring, like Carmina Burana with more than just a hit single.  I find that while I could pass on much of Puccini’s operas, they seem to invariably contain one killer movement that justifies sitting through the rest.

Do you listen to a lot of other gothic/doom music? If so, who are some artists that you respect and enjoy?

I’m right into Shape of Despair at the moment and still loving the Celtic Frost comeback album.  The most anticipated release for 2007 is the new Antimatter album.

I read where you talked about a two year, agonizing process for writing this album. I wonder if you could elaborate on the writing process in a little more detail.  How do you find time to write? When are you most productive? What kind of tools do you use for writing and keeping track of your ideas?

The writing process itself was relatively fluid and stress free considering it was 3 albums worth.  The actualisation of the material was where we entered a world of pain, but try as I might I just can’t faithfully relay why.  Sure there was the matter of securing The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, writing out the full scores ourselves, dealing with the extremely unforgiving classical hierarchy, deaths in the family, countless technological issues etc but it doesn’t come anywhere near to really explaining why and how hell surrounded us.  At the end of the day, I’m glad I was delusional at its beginning because a wiser man wouldn’t have proceeded and gained the end result.

From what I understand, you and Samantha write your respective songs separately and then present them to each other as full compositions. This seems like it can be a difficult process for a band. For example, how do you handle situations where one person presents a composition and the other does not care for it? (If that has ever happened).

Requiem brought a slightly different dynamic to the creative process, borne possibly out of the responsibility that comes with such an established musical tradition and the scope of the project.  In the past we have indeed written completely separately but there’s always been a rather mystical coherence and connection to the point where often situations would arise where for example a piece of music Samantha had written would flow seamlessly into something I had written.  We’ve even had pieces that were able to be played over each other.  It’s also important to take into account the roles we generally operate within.  Samantha is someone who has a strong penchant for detailed pieces of music with the ability to write countless layers.  I, on the other hand tend to focus on the overall picture and give particular attention to structure and context within a song and an album as a whole.  It’s a great balance and goes a long way to explaining the lack of friction.

This current album, Requiem Mezzo Forte, is the second part of a trilogy where each part has a different musical style. The first part, Requiem Pianissimo, is apparently all classical instrumentation, the current album under discussion is a blend of classical instrumentation and full electric instrumentation of the band, and the last part, Requiem Fortissimo, is to be the band’s heaviest work to date. Can you describe how the theme of the entire trilogy progresses with the changing musical styles?

Each is a self-contained requiem-mass which simultaneously contributes to the greater two and a half hour requiem mass.  The first in the series is the most traditional, both in sound and text.  A large portion of the words and all the titles for the movements are from the traditional Latin texts.  As the sound evolves through the three albums, so too do the words towards a less traditional, religious requiem and move more toward a more human, emotional requiem.

Since “Requiem  Mezzo Forte” is actually the second part of the trilogy, what contributed to this album being released first?

It seems to make sense to begin with something vaguely familiar and then explore the extremes.  The obvious option would have been to release them in order but while I would have personally been fine with that, the labels were worried that people may be somewhat “freaked out” or confused by an entirely classical album.

Do you have an exact release schedule set up for the other two parts of the trilogy?

This kind of thing doesn’t come along too often, if ever, so the assumption could be that the labels will probably organise it very carefully.  Perhaps a few months apart?

Requiem“ Mezzo Forte” is my first experience with the band. Can you talk a little bit about the band’s evolution in terms of sound and direction from the first Self-Titled Demo (1995) through your other releases up to present day?

The attitude hasn’t really changed much at all.  I remember saying that our releases change in accordance with our resources and that’s particularly true for Requiem.  I’m proud of everything that we’ve done along the way and we’re still periodically including songs from the demo and our E.P. in our live sets.  Our first album, Sombre Romantic dramatically changed the landscape for Virgin Black.  At the time it was very ambitious and quite a feat to pull off as an independent band, but paid great rewards as we were signed to our two labels on the strength of it.  The key times for us have all been when we’ve attempted something that should have been out of our reach, the demo as an extremely young band only completely formed for two weeks prior to recording, Sombre Romantic as an unsigned band with no outside support, and Requiem as the completely “out of control” concept that it was.

How has the response been so far from those who have heard the new record?

Actually, as much as we were incredulous that we’d actually pulled this off and overjoyed with the result, we didn’t expect people to really care.  More than any other release, we did this for ourselves and it’s been quite strange to have people proclaiming that it will be the big breakthrough albums for us.  If ever there was a band with humble expectations, it was us, but so far its exceeded even the elitist, self-indulgent part of my psyche’s expectations.

You were fortunate enough to be accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the trilogy. From what I read on their website, they have performed with such notable classical artists as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Andrea Bocelli, among others. Can you share some of that experience? Was it harder to work with musicians like this who are outside the realm of normal rock and metal composition?

It was often quite bizarre and as much a step in time as a cultural curiosity.  I couldn’t believe the number of people we dealt with that didn’t have CD players and generally hadn’t had much of a departure at all from the days of yore.  That said, we couldn’t have asked for more respect than we were given, not by default though I might add.  Had we not written the scores perfectly and also written something deemed as artistically credible they would have been unforgiving at best and ruthless at worst.  Our conductor was amazing both for his belief in the music and the way he commanded every player’s full attention for the actual recording and was really quite intimidating.  The recording of Requiem was the best and worst experience of my life; the highs and lows and implementing the orchestra was a huge part of that.

Were any of the recording sessions with or without the orchestra filmed?
If so are their plans to release any recordings like this as part of future releases?

Unfortunately there are some rather strict union regulations on filming the orchestra so the down side is that we don’t have footage, the upside is that it means the performance was all the more special as it was performed only to an audience of two. Greatest day of my life.

On your website, I saw a video for “Our Wings Are Burning” off of Elegant…and Dying. Are there any current plans to shoot a video for any of the songs from the trilogy?

There have been some wild ideas thrown around for Requiem videos but as yet there is nothing to declare.

I was sorry to hear that your father passed away during the recording of this trilogy. Did this make continuing the recording process harder, or did the recording actually help in the healing process?

I don’t know about healing but it played a role in magnifying the significance and potency of our requiem as a funeral mass.  In actual fact, two band members fathers’ lives were cut short during the recording of Requiem.

The music on this recording is massive in its scope, and from what I read on your myspace page, you have plans for this to be your most in-depth touring schedule ever, covering most of Europe and much of the U.S. How do you plan to recreate what you have crafted on the record? Will you have some classical performers along with you, or will you be using electronics to present the classical elements?

I believe that a live performance’s number one attribute needs to be potency, and faithfully recreating the recorded material sometimes needs to take a “back seat”. 
Sure I have grand visions, or maybe delusions about performing it in its entirety with an orchestra but at the same time I wouldn’t like to spend too much time away from being a vaguely “normal” meal band and displaying the intensity that comes with that.  Throughout the whole requiem there are examples of interpreting music in different ways, so we’ve had plenty of practice with what’s required to re-configure a piece and tailor it to its intended end.

What has your touring experience been like up to this point in your career? Do you have any special moments that you can describe? Or have you had any touring nightmares on the road?

Sometimes “tour” and “nightmare” are the same words but there really is something about a live experience.  Often one reflects on a tour within the context of the company that was kept.  Antimatter, Agalloch, Opeth, Nazxul and Cathedral have been some of the bands that have had personalities complimentary to ours.  There is a dark side though and we’ve seen the beast, but the trials and tribulations always end up sounding trivial in retrospect.

How difficult has it been navigating the business side of your musical endeavours to this point?

There’s the saying, “you have to spend money to make money”.  Well, we say, “you have to spend money to make music”.  In all honesty, it’s best to let the music industry crush you and then rise from the dust and do it for purely artistic reasons, so just get it over and done with.

What can you possibly do to surpass this current project on future recordings?

After Requiem, Virgin Black will enter a fourth phase and I’m not sure that it will be relevant to attempt to surpass Requiem but rather to create something valuable and worthwhile.  I consider the demo and Trance E.P. to be our first phase, Sombre Romantic and Elegant…and dying our second and the Requiem series our third.  We already have some embryonic songs for the post Requiem album and its sounding like an interesting development.

And lastly, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. I wanted to congratulate you on completing this trilogy and wish you luck in the months ahead as you begin to expose your audience to it. Is there anything you would like to leave our readers with?

Genuinely appreciate your time.  For those who want to know more, here are some details, website: & myspace

Official VIRGIN BLACK website:

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