INTERVIEW WITH BLACK SUN
(Santiago Salem – Bass, Nicolás Estrada – Drums, Christopher Gruenberg – guitar and Nino Laurenne – producer)
Metal music is a universal phenomenon. There are a lot of great and amazing bands from every part of the world. How many of readers out there are familiar with bands coming from Ecuador ? Black Sun hailing from Ecuador started out in the late ’90s and has released a couple of albums . The group has been working with Finnish producers and well-known metal and rock names. Metal-Rules.Com had to find what’s going on in Black Sun and why they have chosen Finnish producers and musicians to work with them.
Interview by Arto Lehtinen / Pics by Black Sun
Hello, good day what’s up in Ecuador and of course Black Sun ?
Well there’s a lot of things going on, little details in post-production now but all great; Super excited for this interview.
HOW EVERYTHING STARTED
Even though Black Sun has been around since 1999, unfortunately the band is relatively unknown for readers, could you briefly introduce the band and how everything started out in the first place, what original led to forming the band?
Ecuador has a relatively small population and being a tropical country, especially in our city Guayaquil, where everything is warm and sunny, there is even a lesser amount of people who dig Heavy Metal / Hard Rock music. Consequently, it was tough to find people with the same musical roots and preferences. That said, when Chris and Nico met in 1999 after being introduced by a familiar friend between them while talking about general things, the music topic came out, and it happened to be Chris played guitar, and Nico played drums. Both were looking for something bigger, so it made total sense for both to try and start a band together, this was the beginning of Black Sun
As stated Black Sun started out in 1999, which bands and musicians influenced you to start playing in the early stages ?!
Apart from the basic and well-known bands like Judas Priest, Metallica, Iron Maiden there were other “hard to find” bands in Ecuador like Hammerfall, Helloween and Stratovarius to name some.
As far as the name of the band is concerned Black Sun, does it have some kind of symbolic meaning and how did you find it a suitable name for a band ?!
Being from a place where the sun is always up at 12:00 o clock, right in the equator, it seemed fitting. Black Sun can be related to eclipses, but also means a contrast between the light and the dark, between two edges. Here in Ecuador, metal music, even in its most popular form, is considered underground. It doesn’t make much sense, a tropical country, happy music, beach weather all year round is not the common grounds to make Hard Rock or Metal. So in a metaphor, metal here is like a Black Sun. Something rare and certainly a contrast against the popular culture.
Black Sun has released three albums by now. The debut album TYRANT FROM A FOREIGN LAND saw the light of day 2005 and the second one DANCE OF ELDERS was released in 2011, there is a 6-year-gap between the albums, I can’t help asking why? Do you view those albums as important breakers and successful in the Ecuador metal scene for Black Sun and how were them received by metal fans and media?
The first album was recorded in our city and was the first real studio experience for everybody in the band. It can be said it is a very raw and straight forward album, but it carried all the energy and rebellion that comes with being young and growing up. It was exceptionally well received in the Ecuadorian metal scene, reaching the top 20 best-selling albums in Tower Records, which used to be the largest CD store in the country. That said, TFAFL was a great debut and a building block for the band’s future. The hit single ‘Metal Madness’ is still one of the main songs audiences ask for when the band performs live.
DANCE OF ELDERS was an album recorded in Germany, being our first experience recording in a foreign country within a professional environment it was a very humbling and great developing experience. The album took some time to be finalized as we went in to record it without a bass player. During this period, the band underwent several lineup changes, but the first single from this album called ‘Dehumanized’ received very good reviews and generated a fair amount of hype.
THE PUPPETEER was recorded with a new lineup and the band feeling refreshed and with a much more professional approach towards producing a new album, learning from the DANCE OF ELDERS experience, and carrying this growth into THE PUPPETEER . It resulted in the band’s most substantial local and international success (until ‘Still Alive’) bringing in singles ‘Let Me Be’ and ‘Robert The Doll’, both of which hit local radios and international audiences. ‘Let Me Be’ was listed as #15 of Ecuador’s top #100 list in 2017, finishing on top of popular music songs among the likes of Coldplay, The Weekend, Maluma, and others.
How do you view material, sounds and improvements between those albums – What were the biggest improvements and changes since the debut album up to the latest full-length album seen from your standpoint?
As mentioned before, every album has been a learning experience. The band has always learned and gathered knowledge to apply to the next release. It would be hard to describe a single thing, but all in all, it resumes into the experience. A feel of how to make things swifter, more transparent, but more mature as well.
The sound has evolved through every album, and we feel it will continue to grow. Some changes are subtle, and some are more drastic. Drifting between guitar distortion to drum sound and even bass play style. Album after album we will continue to evolve and develop our sound.
WORKING WITH FINNISH METAL MASTERS
Black Sun has worked with the Finnish musicians and producers on a couple of albums. The debut TYRANT FROM A FOREIGN LAND was mixed by Mika Jussila at Finnvox, it seems like you are long time fans of the Finnish bands and rely on the Finnish producers’ knowledge. How did you approach the Finnish producers in the first place?
As soon as we started listening to more European bands, we began to see a pattern that pointed to Finland. Karmila and Jussila were recurring names that featured in a bunch of albums we loved; hence we went for Jussila’s mastering. We could say this was our first venture into professional music production. For the following album, we chose German production and mixing, but for the third (and upcoming fourth) release, we approached Finnish producers. The reason for this depends on each release; there’s a specific reason for each producer and album.
The previous full length album titled THE PUPPETEER was processed at Finnvox in Finland, how did this come about? The former Stradivarius guitarist Timo Tolkki worked on that album, right?
It was actually recorded and processed at Sonic Pump Studios in Helsinki. It was after mixed (finally, we were able to reach Miko Karmila) and mastered at Finnvox. After recording the album, we were still deciding on who would mix it, and Nico and Santi, who were still in Helsinki, decided to pay a visit to Finnvox studios. They were happily received by Mika Jussila, who took them on a private tour around the studio and had a personal conversation regarding his music experience and stories after so many years. This was an extraordinary moment for the band, and through Jussila we were able to get to Karmila for mixing.
Regarding Timo Tolkki, we wrote to some producers to seek interest in who would like to produce our album. Timo was the one we felt closest to regarding musical ideas, and he also suggested Sonic Pump Studios as a possible recording place. He also included Santtu Lehtiniemi as a co-producer and recording engineer who did a great job as well. The result is tangible, THE PUPPETEER.
The second album titled DANCE OF ELDERS was produced by non-Finnish guys, what made you choice to work with other people?
Helloween has always been one of our main and first influences. We were able to arrange the recording sessions for this album at High Gain Studios in Hamburg, Germany, owned by the one and only Kai Hansen. It was also a deciding factor the fact that Chris has German background, and his grandparents still had a house close to Hamburg where the band could use as a headquarters and stay there during this time.
When and how did Nino Laurenne (Thunderstone) step into the picture to work with you?
We met Nino during our stay in Helsinki while recording THE PUPPETEER at Sonic Pump. He wasn’t in Helsinki at the beginning, but during the middle of our session, he arrived came in to greet us. It was the start of an interesting story and a much stronger friendship. By the end of the recordings, we had developed a relationship with Nino, not only based on music but in general, as we were able to chat and discuss many things besides music. He stepped in the second half of the recording session. We were running into obstacles and out of time, but Nino stepped in to help, even though he was not officially part of the production team. He put together a group of people at the studio, and along with Santtu, they helped us finish the recordings on time. Nino also contributed to set up the backup vocals and brought in Pasi Rantanen (backup vocals) and Netta Laurenne (backup vocals and duet in one song) to feature in the album. It was magical to see Nino get together with Timo and work on an album for some crazy weird Ecuadorians! Nino and Timo haven’t seen each other for many years, and it was a special moment to see them, and many others who frequented the studio, get together again.
It also happened to be that the final day of recordings coincided with a Lost Society concert (Nino produced lost Society’s last album), and Nino setup a party van to take all the team from Sonic to Lost Society’s gig. We were part of that group, and we spent a night with all the group, including Timo Tolkki. During those last days in Helsinki, we developed a friendship that; we kept in touch even after we left Finland, and three years later in would unwind into this story.
When working with Nino Laurenne, Timo Tolkki etc., what has been the most eye-opening experience for you, what kind of things have you learnt and have you got good tips from them, for example, how to compose songs etc?
Each one has their own way of working, and you learn different things from each one. Timo was more like a mentor to us, someone who helped us feel more confident about making music that is real and transparent. He pushed us in the right direction to find our own identity. We feel Nino is the perfect follow up after our growth with Timo because Nino brought in a tighter, more professional, and a no-compromise attitude, which has helped us become who we are now.
What’s most impressive about Nino is that he is a real problem solver and has a remarkable way of reading a person, which helps him understand how to make you push for the best performance without reaching a breaking point. He knows how hard and when to push and when to lay back and give you a break. That balance is what makes him special.
DRAMA WHILE RECORDING A NEW OUTPUT
As for the latest upcoming release, the Thunderstone axeman Nino Laurenne was in responsible for the processing of the upcoming release. Did you find him more reliable as well and a logical choice to have him on board with you because of you know him? He has a huge catalogue of bands that he has worked with, did yo decide you did not need to start exploring other options?
After coming back from Finland we already started thinking in our next release. Our former singer, who’s also a recording and mixing enthusiast, embarked on a journey to build his own home project studio.
Even though we loved our experience in Helsinki it is not an easy thing to bring a whole (independent) band and most of our instruments to a far and foreign place. Hence, it made total sense to try and record new material in our own country at our singer’s studio. We knew we had to work with a producer, someone who had enough experience but also hunger to make something along with us.
Now… If you think of it all and review the situation, in summary it means that an Ecuadorian band needed to bring in a foreign Producer into a relatively unknown country and work in a new, but untested studio. From any angle you look at it, it made sense but it also didn’t! The real turning point here was the friendship and experience we had with Nino in Helsinki and the ongoing conversations we continued to have with him. Without that it would’ve been really hard to get someone like Nino to fly to a remote foreign country he’s never been at. So it’s fair to say he also took a chance on us, he believed in us and he had the same hunger we had.
While working and recording the forthcoming output, Black Sun underwent quite radical changes.. As a matter of fact could you shed more light on what exactly happened?
You know, when something breaks usually, there’s more than one exact reason. Often, everyone’s to blame. Instead of pointing fingers and looking for the culprit, we would like to see things in a different, more positive angle. Without too many details, what happened was that we were all (Nino, Chris, Nico, and Santi) moving in one direction, and Chemel was going into a different one. Not necessarily incorrect, just different His heart and attitude were in a different place than ours.
Music is an art and, therefore, subjective. To make something great you must put all your energy into something, but you also have to enjoy it. There has to be a certain level of connection between the whole band to achieve that. Once that is lost, then it’s better to go separate ways. In this case Black Sun continues his way along with Nino and the first results is ‘Still Alive’
Seen from a producer’s point of view ; it must have been an eccentric as well as challenging situation to complete the recording session in the middle of the drama ; how did you manage to carry out the process of the recording of the album to get it completed?
(Nino L) Well, during my 20 years of producing albums and working with so many different kind of people, you can find yourself in the most weirdest situations (good and bad) you can imagine. But this one for sure was one of a kind. There I was, 8000 km from home working with the band who just got departed with their singer. And this basically happened during the second vocal recording day. Basically it took a couple of days to think it all through after which we started to set up a light project studio in Chris’ office and continued recording guitars. At the same time we talked about the future plans and decided to go on without a singer. So it didn’t slow us down at all, just another situation in life you have to deal with.
For a producer, what kind of things and elements did you and the band want to pay more attention to achieve the more than satisfying result than on the previous releases of Black Sun?
(Nino L) To me it’s always about the songs. The first thing I wanted the guys to do was to write better songs and mainly focus on choruses. They kept sending me new versions from the demos and it took a couple of rounds before their ideas started to sound good enough to proceed to the next phase. I really gotta give a big credit to Black Sun guys for being so patient with me! I know it’s not an easy thing to hear someone else saying that their choruses suck :-). I think the guys got even more determined taking all that shit from me. Overall we’ve been on the same page with everything basically all the time during the production, making the best Black Sun release ever.
For the band/ producer : The Finnish metal singers helped you and Black Sun out as you recruited a legion of the Finnish singer from well-known bands. Frankly was it an easy project to lure these people to sing for the release, was everyone ready and eager to lay the vocals for the output?
(Nino L) Actually it was really easy. I told the guys about the situation and what happened to me with the band in the middle of the sessions, so every single one said immediately YES for the idea. I also talked about this cool collaboration between Finland and Ecuador and I think that pretty much nailed it. This only proves that metal musicians around the world really are like one big family.
There are a few songs uploaded to YouTube such as “Still Alive” feat. several Finnish metal names, when releasing a song to youtube, did you want to test the water what kind of feedback you would receive or did you want to remind the people and fans Black Sun is still alive?
We do, we want to tell the world that after all, we’re ‘Still Alive´ but also it was a way of showing what the band can be from now on. This song, and the upcoming release, will show our true potential. Still Alive is the first step, a new start for the band. We couldn’t think of any better way than with this start filled song
Have the fans been amazed and surprised by these Finnish singers doing the vocals for Black Sun?
Totally! Something like this has been done just a few times before. Tuska anniversary song, for example, and of course Avantasia is probably the only band who does it in every album. But an Ecuadorian band gathering Finnish talents and legends? I mean, what the heck?!
When we announced the guest singers, our fans (and haters too) were in awe. When the song came out, it was even better than expected. Overall we’ve gotten very positive feedback from fans and Media as well.
Do these new songs have the same kind of melodic aspects as on the previous albums or have you explored new and a little bit unknown, unexpected surprises and changes for this forthcoming release? What are the basic elements and parts in the sounds of Black Sun?
It’s hard to point out a specific style. Melodic, yes definitely, but each song has its own vibe and style to it. Riffing, vocal melodies, and mood change from one song to another. They tell a story, and it’s the perfect way to show this transition from the “old” Black Sun to the new, reborn Black Sun.
Black Sun is going to release a video or a movie based on the songs on the upcoming release. How much extra exposure do you have to put to that video/movie making? Releasing videos is an excellent way to promote a band these days to catch the attention and generate interest for sure.
We’re aiming to do something that’s been done just a few times before and only by mega groups and legends. We live in a different time, though, where resources to make videos are available to some degree, and pretty much everyone can shoot a music video with a cellphone and make it look somewhat pro. That results in having tons of musical-video content out there. If you want to stand out, you have to make something really different and extremely professional, for example, Rammstein’s Deutschland video.
We’re not saying we can reach such level; production budgets are incredibly different. Still, we’re certainly making something we can feel proud of and hopefully shake the ground and generate the hype we expect.
As a matter of fact, If I have understand correctly, the video/movie is supposed to have a storyline, linked between songs and the script, or am I mistaken? – Can you reveal about the storyline?
So after we parted ways with our singer, we decide to rewrite all vocal melodies and lyrics. While doing so, the idea that all songs could be somewhat connected creating a concept album was born.
The songs are loosely connected, but when reading them in a specific order, it created a basic timeline. Once that was presented to our film director, it gave the spark to a full story, script, and ambiance, which results in the storyline. We can say it develops in an environment of chaos and rebellion, and the main character goes through a bunch of obstacles before revealing his destiny.
Frankly how did you get an idea to carry out such a huge production and what kind of budget are we talking about?
As mentioned before, it developed through the process of writing the lyrics and melodies for this EP. We always had the idea of making a concept album. Since we were going through a significant change resulting in many vocalists singing in this project, it started to make sense that this EP could be that concept album we always wanted.
It helped that all the songs are different in style, and each one adds a new chapter and feeling to the story.
RECORD LABELS DEAL AND BEING INDEPENDENT
As far as I know, the previous albums have been released on your own or independent label, actually how have you taken care and looked after the promotion and distribution?
Probably that’s the main reason why it took some time for us to get noticed. Being from Ecuador, it’s hard to get access to professional disk pressers, managers, and even much more so international promotion. With time and technology, these resources have become available to some degree and album by album; we have continued to gain exposure. Yet, distribution has remained solely via our webpage and our shows. It’s been tough to say the least, but perseverance, planning ahead with commitment…and big balls… have led us to this point, and we don’t mean to stop. Hell, we’re just starting!
Is every band related thing in terms of promotions based on the DIY attitude or do you have a manager taking care of the promotional things of Black Sun?
We’ve had a manager before, mainly for local shows and promotion. Once we figured we could do it ourselves, and probably more efficiently and transparently, by investing extra time, we decided to move forward with the DIY attitude. It helps that we all distribute the responsibilities based on each member’s time and abilities. However, we’re keen and open to get help from professional international labels.
Have you (been) approached by labels? Frankly would it be an idealistic label for a band like Black Sun? Do you view getting a suitable deal with labels? It is a little bit challenging as there are a huge amount of bands and secondly the record sales have been quite low.
Yes we have, in the past we reached a deal with Rock It Up Records for a special compilation album featuring power metal songs. Currently, and regarding the hype generated by ‘Still Alive’ we have started to talk with a few labels and are in the process for reaching a deal.
Are there any labels in Ecuador or how do the local bands get their music out? Spotify and YouTube ?
There have been some labels in the past, but none of them has been able to survive over time. There is the presence of international labels via their region’s division, for example, Sony Music Latin America, but those labels aren’t looking to add any hard rock/metal to their catalogue.
Hence, most bands use digital distributors to get their music into Spotify, Apple Music, etc. YouTube has always been a great way to promote and expose your music, but as mentioned before, it is easy to get lost in between the noise of so much stuff being put out there. Some of it it’s actually pretty good too, but without a bunch of money on promo is hard to get noticed.
SCENE IN ECUADOR / THE FOLLOWING IN ECUADOR
Black Sun is rather an unknown name outside Ecuador, As far as I know you have gained the good following in your home country, what kind of following do you have? I have seen some videos you have played at some outdoor festival and some other gig where the audience went totally ballistic!
You’ve certainly done your homework! The local scene is relatively small but is kept alive by small gigs almost every weekend. It’s essential to keep in mind Ecuador is a small but diverse country, with beaches on the coastline, the Galapagos Islands, mountains and volcanoes in the highlands, and the tropical rainforest on the eastern side of the country. That said, it creates a very diverse audience as well regarding music styles, not necessarily exclusive from one another.
That said, there’s always a couple of big festivals that gather up a fair amount of bands and some festivals even mix styles. It’s a bit weird, but at the same festival, one day, you’ll have a salsa band and the next day (sometimes the same day) a death metal band! What we can say is that the audience is unforgiving but also very passionate.
How’s the music club scene in Ecuador and what about the turnout at shows and gigs? Do you have good venues, clubs and other places there for all kinds of bands to perform?
It’s actually very limited. There are many places where you can pull a gig, yet most clubs have space and technical limitations; hence, and it’s hard to put a show with all the bells and whistles. Somehow though you make it through and wait/work for the opportunity to play in a big fest or an international artist comes in, and you get the chance to become the support act, for example, we opened up for Judas Priest and Kreator. These kinds of events are where you make it or break it with the locals because they’re eager to listen to the big bands, and usually, they see the support band as an obstacle between them and the headliner. However, if you show what you’re made of by performing to the level (in all aspects), you can survive and earn their respect. Usually when you can do that it elevates you to a higher level within the scene
What kind of metal and bands are the most popular in Ecuador and do these big names play there?
Most of our local bands tend to sing in Spanish and have a thrash-metal approach. The aggressive/extreme metal is most welcomed and could be said it is the standard here. However, that’s not the main focus for international bands. We’ve gotten a very diverse lineup of shows like Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Arch Enemy, Helloween, and even Sonata Arctica have played here, but usually, they only come once because it’s such a small scene that a second coming might not sell enough. That sums up the story of our scene.
Have you ever considered leaving your home country and relocating for example to Europe for better gig opportunities and push the band forward?
Not really, we have a life and families down here, and we love our country. We prefer to plan ahead and work for those opportunities. A European tour can and will be scheduled. Also, we live in a connected world, and it’s not that hard to fly into anywhere, annoying maybe, but it can be done. IF we get a call to play a big show tomorrow, we’ll make it happen!
What are your plans for playing outside of Ecuador in 2020 – by the way have you played in Peru, Colombia and Brazil ?
We will be performing an Ecuadorian tour where we’ll have Netta Laurenne accompanying us as the lead singer for that tour; that will happen in May 2020. After that, it will depend on what could open up after the release of the EP and Movie and what possible deals we can get with labels and booking agents. We can advance that we already have plans for 2021 with a string of shows in Europe and certainly Finland.
About past foreign gigs, we’ve played all over Central America, including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador in a tour as a support act for Firewind on 2018. That same year we were invited to headline a gig in NYC on October 2019.
Would it be a dream-come-true feeling for you to share the stage with these Finnish bands such as Thunderstone, Battle Beast etc altogether?
That’s to say the least! Of course it would be, even though it already feels like a dream to be able to make music and share the passion with so many talented artists in one song. To be able to share the stage would be the completion of that feeling but probably the beginning of more. We certainly like to set our limits as high as possible.
Thanks so much for your time, all the best to Black Sun. If you have anything to add, feel free to do so now…
Thank you, Arto! We sincerely appreciate your time and the opportunity to tell our story. We also want to thank Tony, Noora, Mr. Lordi, Asim, Jukka, Netta, Pasi, Elias for their humbleness and positive energy, as well as being part of such a special moment for Black Sun. And last but not least, big thanks to Nino Laurenne; without his help, this would’ve not been possible.
The official BLACK SUN sites