We have always been huge fans of Amenra and we are proud to have had the opportunity to interview their guitarist Mathieu Vandekerckhove, the band has been a big inspiration for OBNUBIL from the very beginning. Amenra is for us one of the most prolific bands in the European post metal scene with their unique blend of doom, sludge and post-metal sounds; a unique dark atmosphere and a breathtaking experience at every live show.
OBNUBIL: We have read that your brother played a big role in your history of being a guitarist. Could you tell us more about it?
MATHIEU: That’s correct. I must have been about 14 years old when I tagged along with brother to shows. In my area at the time there used to be quite a big straight edge hardcore scene, called the H8000Crew and he played in a band called Sektor, which was one of the pioneering bands of that scene, together with bands like Blindfold, Congress, Liar, Spineless… When my brother wasn’t at home, I used to sneak into his room and play his guitar. He was very adamant about me not touching his guitar, but I couldn’t control myself. The urge to play the guitar myself was just too big. There were definitely some serious arguments when he found out I was playing.
OBNUBIL: How did you meet Colin and how was Amenra born?
MATHIEU: I met Colin when I was about 16 years old. He was in a band called Spineless at the time and when their guitar player quit, they asked me to join. Spineless went on for a couple of years, but our opinions on what direction to take with the band had grown too far apart and when Spineless was done, Colin, Mondy and me started Amenra. I knew our drummer Bjorn from high school. That was in 1999.
OBNUBIL: You are one of the founders of Amenra. What does the band and the brotherhood of Church of Ra means to you? Did you ever thought about staying together for so long?
MATHIEU: For us Amenra is our life. It means everything to us, from the moment we wake up until we go back to sleep at night. Our strength lies in our brotherhood, which is the key element to us. If we wouldn’t have had this, we wouldn’t be where we are now. This is something we realize all too well and that in turn makes us stronger. We cherish what we have and never forget how we got here. That keeps us with both feed firmly grounded.
OBNUBIL: What’s the biggest difference for you in playing with Amenra and Syndrome? We can notice different sounds and intensity.
MATHIEU: I would describe Amenra as more aggressive and more physical. Five people are responsible for creating the music, Syndrome is a solo effort. I mainly work with loops to layer sounds into soundscapes, intense harmonic layering. In the end both do convey the same general feeling for me and both are a form of meditation.
OBNUBIL: Besides Amenra and Syndrome, you also have other side projects, like Kingdom and Sembler Deah (together with Dehn Sora). How do you manage your time between your personal life and all your projects? We guess most of your time goes to Amenra and Syndrome and there is just a little time left for your other side projects.
MATHIEU: They key to it all is being well organized. To use the time that you have as useful as possible. Time is scarce. And we all have full-time jobs and families to take care of. When there is some downtime for Amenra (and by this I mean when we’re not playing shows, because we keep rehearsing weekly), then there is more time to invest energy in other projects. With Amenra we’re currently writing a new record, to be released some time mid 2017. In September the new Syndrome album “Forever and a day” will be released on cd/vinyl (Consouling Records) and tape (Tartarus Records). Oathbreaker is also releasing a new album in the fall and Wiegedood is in the studio. We also started rehearsing again for Kingdom. Our first show will be at Leperfest in Belgium in August. Most side projects will be touring a lot this fall. There will be a Syndrome/CHVE tour in November as well.
OBNUBIL: Being involved in so many projects, do you have a different creative process for each project?
MATHIEU: I do. As every project involves different people, they all operate differently. It’s really important though to be at the same wavelength with this people and have a solid foundation.
OBNUBIL: When you have a new musical idea, do you have a specific project in mind from the beginning or do you redirect them at the end?
MATHIEU: I usually know from the very start for which project I am writing music, mostly because my set-up is different for the various projects. For instance, what I create for Syndrome I couldn’t technically play with Amenra because I use a very basic guitar set-up for Amenra.
OBNUBIL: We once heard a story about your guitar. Your guitar seems to have gone through everything possible. Damaged, stolen… got a lot of cuts and bruises. As far as we know you still use the same guitar, guess this one has a special meaning to you. What is your actual gear? Do you use the same gear for all your side projects?
MATHIEU: I bought that Gibson Les Paul when I was 18 years old. I had worked during the holidays and was planning to go on a vacation and travel with the money I had. When I saw that guitar in a 2 nd hand shop, I just couldn’t resist buying it. That meant no traveling for me, but I did get to play that guitar for the rest of the summer. We’re 17 years later now and I still play that same guitar. I call it the Black Horse. It is my weapon and together we’ve survived various battle fields. For Syndrome I use a Fender Telecaster as it sounds better clean, also when using an ebow and for Amenra I also play an acoustic guitar sometimes.
OBNUBIL: Is there anything special you use to layer sounds and create darker atmospheres?
MATHIEU: For layering I mainly use a loop station. Aside from that I use an ebow combined with a volume pedal. I also have a Boss delay and a Line 6 delay that I also use as a loop pedal. But the pedals are not what’s important? It’s about being able to translate what you feel into music. Everyone can learn to play the guitar, but not everyone can really tell a story with a guitar. And this has nothing to do with you technical abilities as a guitarist.
OBNUBIL: Amenra has recently released the new album Alive, featuring a mix of live recordings of old and new acoustic renditions, but it also harbors the collaboration with Belgian poet Sofie Verdoodt. What do you feel when you play acoustic? Do you think it maybe connects you on an even deeper emotional level with your audience? How was your collaboration with Sofie?
MATHIEU: Playing acoustically makes me feel a lot more vulnerable. There is a lot more space in the music. Less is more here. But that also makes playing more difficult. Every single movement is audible, even when you just move your chair an inch. We also use a more intimate set-up. Maarten, the previous bassist of Amenra joins us for these shows and Femke does backing vocals and violin on some of the songs. Sofie Verdoodt lives in the same city as Colin and me, so I had met her on a few occasions. She is extremely good with words. The mood and feeling that she creates verbally runs parallel to what we do musically. By doing this cooperation, these parallel lines have crossed.
OBNUBIL: Syndrome will be back with a brand new full album called Forever and a Day, due to be released in September 2016. Can you tell us a little about this new release? Are there any other upcoming releases from any other side projects of yours?
MATHIEU: So, as mentioned before, the album will be released in September 2016 on Consouling Sounds (cd/vinyl) and Tartarus Records (tape). For the cover art I used a bronze statue that my father had created around the time I was born. It’s a statue that has always been in our home and it has always evoked a certain feeling in me. I can’t really name it, but I have always felt that there was something about it. I try to put the feelings I have when looking at the statue into music: pain, salvation tranquility, love… spirituality. Dehn Sora did the lay-out for the new album and he also did some musical additions to the middle part of the song. The lyrics I wrote for someone who is very dear to me. We’ve had some troubled years, but we fought and conquered the obstacles. It’s very personal and I don’t want to go into it too much, as I want everyone to be able to see their own story reflected in the music. We’ve also started rehearsing again with Kingdom. We want to write new music and record, but nothing has been planned yet, so I don’t know when this will see the light of day. We recorded a while ago with Sembler Deah, but we’re letting those recordings sink in for a while before deciding what to do with them exactly. More news on that soon.
OBNUBIL: You've toured all around the world, we assume that you didn’t had a lot of time to see the cities and discover the all the beauty in them, but is there a destination that has particularly caught your attention?
MATHIEU: As you correctly note, we usually only get to see very little of the cities we play, but sometimes we do take a day off and that can be very cool and relaxing. Some cities that have stuck with me are Prague, Berlin, London, Sao Paulo, Moscow… Prague is one of the prettiest cities I have ever seen. It always makes me feel like I’m a tourist on holiday. Berlin is also cool, with its underground vibe and amazing food. When I toured Brazil I played for shows but was in the country for 10 days, so I had lots of time to see things. Muriel and Erick from Labirinto took me out on lots of visits. Brazilian culture really appeals to me. My girlfriend was living in Rio de Janeiro at that time too and she did a video installation on each of the shows there. She operates under the name Nicole Twister and mainly does installations and video art. Moscow was also a great experience. When we left for Russia for the first time, my expectations were rather low, because when our media report on Russia it is very often negatively, but luckily I got the chance to correct my view on this. While we were in Moscow and St. Petersburg our friend Lina gave us a tour of the cities, which was very interesting. I highly recommend visiting Russia. We really didn’t know what to expect before we played there, but lots of people showed up to the shows and they were really into it. I think Russia had some of the wildest crowds we ever played for.
OBNUBIL: Following you on Instagram since years we have noticed a liking for black and white photography. Many of the pictures you post have been taken by various other photographers but there are also very interesting pictures taken by yourself. Is photography a hobby of yours? What do you like about photography in black and white? Have you got any other hobbies? We saw a few pictures at skateparks, is skateboarding another?
MATHIEU: Photography is merely a hobby for me. I did buy a Canon 5D recently, so I will apply myself a bit more to it and take it with me to take photos and film when we’re on the road. I use black and white because I think that that conveys feelings in a more powerful way. Maybe I will start using colors later, but I’m not quite there yet. Taking those pictures is also a way of capturing memories for me... Stefaan Temmerman, who did the Amenra photo book, has taught me a lot about photography. At the moment I go skateboarding pretty often with my son and friends. My son is 6 years old now and very much into skateboarding, so that’s a great reason for me to also do it. I also work in a skate shop called SLAM in Ghent. When we were younger, Colin and me used to go skateboarding quite often, but that got put on the back burner as Amenra and other projects started to get busier. Now we’re returning to it.
OBNUBIL: When we think about Amenra, we not just think about your outstanding music, we also think about all the aesthetics that accompanies the band. The detail in your designs, audiovisuals, limited editions... we believe that today all this has a high added value. How important is this for you? Do you consider it an important extra?
MATHIEU: We want everything that we put out there to make sense. So as you point out, not just the music. And we don’t want things to just look cool. There has to be a certain meaning and weight behind it. Everything matters to us. It’s an all-encompassing vision. That’s why we don’t just make music, but also use other media such as books, video, poetry…
OBNUBIL: If our information is correct, you made the video screenplay of Boden - Spijt. Did you also made it for other videos? Can you tell us a little about the artistic process behind Amenra’s videos?
MATHIEU: I’ve done several video’s so far for bands like Oathbreaker, Hessian, Kingdom… You can see them all on the Church of Ra Youtube channel. Usually I come up with an idea, which I present to a band and then we develop that further together. I had nog experience or training for shooting videos, but I had an okay camera and just started experimenting with it. I have also created most of the Amenra visuals. In Amenra we try to do as many things as possible ourselves, because then we can really do things exactly the way we want it. The video for Boden was shot in a place called Palingbeek in Ieper. During WW I the whole area was bombed out. There are still ruins of destroyed houses and bunkers in the forest. We are all born close to that area and it’s the place where our grandparents have fought for our freedom, so it is a location that means a lot to us. I did the screenplay for the video and together with cameraman Sander Vandenbroucke we shot everything in one day. I usually listen a million to a song and then I try to build a story in which everything has its meaning instead of just being a random collection of cool shots.
OBNUBIL: Years ago we bought a book you published with a lot of photographs by Stefaan Temmerman who closely documented the band from 2009 up till 2014. We consider this book as a real must for all your fans and a great insight into what Amenra stands for. The pictures gave us a perfect view into the life on the road and in the band, and the articles and words we read could not explain better the band's philosophy and roots. Who came up with the idea of this book? Could you tell us more about the work behind it?
MATHIEU: Colin came up with the idea to publish the book and together with Stefaan we made a selection of pictures. Stefaan is able to perfectly capture the atmosphere in the band and the atmosphere that surrounds us. He doesn’t just put the focus on shooting the band live, but rather on everything around that. Behind the scene. Mike from Consouling Records wrote the essay that’s in there and Smoke and Dust did the lay-out. I think the book really offers a good insight into what Amenra stands for and who we are. Our lives.
OBNUBIL: Thank you so much for taking your time answering our questions and for giving us more information about you! Is there anything that you would like to say to our readers and to your fans?
MATHIEU: Thank you for taking your time to read this interview. Be yourself and respect others!
Interview done July 2016. Photo taken by Mathieu.
Which of our t-shirts is he wearing in the picture? Do you like it? It is... THIS ONE