Interview: Serena Cherry of Noctule
Interviewed by Paul Hutchings
Today we are chatting with one of the most exciting musicians in the British music scene. Serena Cherry of Bristol based post-rock/black metal band Svalbard, whose third album 'When I Die, Will I Get Better' drew huge critical acclaim last year. Serena's solo black metal project Noctule is due to release it's debut album in a couple of weeks.
The Razor's Edge: Where to start? We'll talk about Noctule shortly, thats the reason we are here, but I wanted to touch base with Svalbard and the year that you've had. You released the third album which got universally great reviews. Of course you had the massive crisis with Holy Roar Records right on the verge of the album's release. I wondered if there were moments you were sat their thinking "What the hell am I doing? Why am I putting myself through this?"
Serena: Well it was very stressful. It was a very stressful time releasing the third Svalbard album. Everything that happened with Holy Roar really shook us up as a band and it happened so close to our release date. We were the next record set to be released. So it did impact a lot of things like distribution. But in terms of the actions we took and the decision to release with Church Road Records instead. It was an absolute no brainer. There was never a moment of confusion for me, as soon as the allegations were released I knew exactly what we had to do. We had to leave the label immediately and I am very pleased we took that action and proud that all the other bands did as well. It shows a united front against that kind of behaviour.
It was stressful and it was kind of heartbreaking to hear about those things happening, my heart went out to the victims. But there was never really a point where I said "what am I doing?" I knew what to do next.
The Razor's Edge: Obviously Church Road Records got involved and you got the album issued. There was so much love for the album when it came out and was in peoples end of year top tens. Was it a great relief at the end of all that to have such a groundswell of support? It much have made it all worth while for you?
Serena: Absolutely, seeing the reaction that this album has had definitely made everything worth while. Everything we went through, the struggle getting the album released, also it took us over two years to write this album. It took a lot for me both musically and lyrically, I poured my heart and soul into those songs. So to see it get the great reception it received, I'm still blown away by it now! Every now and again I see people still talking about the record, or getting the odd message on Instagram about how a certain song has spoken to someone. That still really really moves me that people liked it so much. That was the cherry on top of the cake for us, finally to get the record out and then to see the reaction that the record had was so worth while.
The Razor’s Edge: What about reading the reviews, do you and the band spend much time pouring over all the reviews. There are so many outlets out there now, back in the day there was only two or three magazines and that was your lot, now of course you are doing interview after interview all the time and hundreds of various blogs etc. Is there a happy medium you can have absorbing what people are saying?
Serena: I think so yeah. I try and make a point of reading every review that anyone writes about any music that I work on. They have taken the trouble to write it, having been a writer - I am ex-Terrorizer and ex-Metal Hammer - I know how much effort and time goes into writing reviews. But I do put my objective hat on when reading them and take it as a good piece of writing and take the good with the bad. Sometimes it is really constructive to hear "oh I would have prefered more of this in the songs" or "I didn't like this aspect". That helps as it means we can take it on board and make the forth album even better. So I do read every review. If it comes through and we are tagged in it on social media or if it's emailed through I read all of them. I think there is a tendency for most humans to let the negative comments stick and dismiss the positive and I try to not let the negativity or criticism stick in my brain harder than the positive ones do.
The Razor’s Edge: I'm going to change tact now, as I know one of your passions is rollercoasters. Yesterday I spent over an hour on Youtube watching various rollercoaster videos. And I was trying to work out what it is attracts, I understand the obvious and I know you're a big fan, but watching these clips and the commentary gets technical, they take about air time, and this and that. I want to know more about how immersed you are in it. Are you into the technical aspects, do you know all the engineers, builders, styles and twists and turns?
Serena: I am a staff member of Coaster Force which is a Youtube channel that has over 1.2 million subscribers. I've been a staff member for them for five years and you have to know you're stuff to have that role. I've been obsessed with roller coasters since I was about twelve years old, theres a website called RCDB, kind of like IMDB, which is Roller Coaster DataBase and thats where you can learn all the names of the different inversions and elements and names of different things that give different forces. Interestingly a lot of the original ways to flip you upside down are named after fighter pilots who did those types of manoeuvres in planes. I am tediously technical about roller coasters, I can name the manufacture, model, layout, the year it was opened, everything.
The Razor’s Edge: So one technical question, when you are riding a wooden roller roaster compared to one not made of wood. Whats the key difference you are looking for.
Serena: I always the difference between a wooden roller coaster and a steel rollercoaster as the difference between listening to something on vinyl and CD. Wooden roller coasters are definitely vinyl, it's rough around the edges but theres a kind of purity to it. It's a more traditional roller coaster experience, it's wild, it's rougher but its not going to flip you upside down fourteen times, it's more conventional in it's nature. A steel coaster is like a CD, very smooth and to the point and it sounds weird to say but convenient as they take up less space. You can do more with a steel coaster in terms of structure and trains and elements. So more versatile I guess.
The Razor’s Edge: When you are on tour are you always on the look out for a park you can get to?
Serena: Well, my normal day to day life before COVID was on the road with Svalbard or I was traveling for Coaster Force making content for them. There were lots of times when on tour where I made them overlap and I always try to make us stop off at one theme park, but they are not as into it as me so I don't think they get much out of it to be honest.
The Razor’s Edge: Thank you for that digression, I wanted to through in some other stuff rather than just the music.
Serena: I appreciate that.
The Razor’s Edge: Let's talk about the new project. Noctule is the name of the project, Wretched Abyss is the album, it's a fabulous piece of atmospheric black metal. You were in a black metal band a while ago, so tell me about your black metal roots.
Serena: When I was about 16 I got a four track and I started writing my own black metal and programming my own drums and I wrote three different E.P.'s by myself. A couple of years into that I decided to build a live band around these E.P.s I was making, so I recruited some band members. I had to pay people to be in bands with me back then as I was a little socially awkward, hired the drummer from a death metal band and paid him £50 to play the show.
The Razor’s Edge: £50 to play the show, £75 if he wore corpse paint was it?
Serena: [laughs] Yeah basically. Our first ever show was supporting Gallhammer, the Japanese black metal band which was awesome, a great first show to have. We managed to play with some of my favourite black metal bands over the years. But like all bands when you are young, everyone pulls in different directions and I got sick of going through so many different band members, so I went back to doing it just me in my bedroom.
The black metal never stopped but it simmered down and then Svalbard I have always put that element into the music. The blackened stuff in Svalbard is the stuff I contribute to the music. I always found I had way more ideas than I could cram into a Svalbard album, so I started working on them in lockdown and doing it by myself, going back to my musical roots.
The Razor’s Edge: Was it always the plan, with Svalbard taking off as they were, it this something you've had on the back burning waiting for an opportunity to bring back out?
Serena: Definitely, I have always been writing black metal riffs throughout the years with Svalbard. But I've been so busy touring and holding down a job and doing all these other things it's hard to sit down and record a solo album at the same time. One of the silver linings of covid was finally having the time to make this album, which I have really appreciated. Lockdown was the perfect opportunity for me.
The Razor’s Edge: I'm going to sound like an old fart now, it's based on Skyrim which I have no idea what it's about. Can you explain to me the story of the album and themes that run through 'Wretched Abyss'?
Serena: Skyrim is an Elder Scrolls game, the fifth Elder Scrolls game, an RPG and one of my favourite games of all time. It's very Nordic mythology inspired, all the areas of the game look mountainous, snowy or forresty with lots of wolves in the game. The story lines are quite dark, there are loads of different quest lines in the game, it's huge. There is kind of a Lovercraftian element to the 'Wretched Abyss' story lines and the imagery of that is all sorts of tentacles and things.
When lockdown started I thought now's the time to start gaming more, so I was gaming and writing black metal riffs and it clicked in my head that these two things are super related, Skyrim is a really black metal game so I decided to theme the music I was writing to the game.
The Razor’s Edge: So tell me about the video you shot in the Gryphon in Bristol. I have to congratulate you because it doesn't look anything like the normal Gryphon. You managed to make it about six times bigger in the video! I know what it looks like and normally if you have more than ten people in there, the band are shoe-horned into the corner. So it's a great little video, loads of atmospheric effects, tell me more about that. The bands that are playing in it, did you have to pay them or are they part of the set up? [laughs]
Serena: They are my house mates. I am very lucky to live with a bunch of great metal heads and musicians. The guy on guitar, Matt, he produced, mixed and mastered the album. He is very much part of Noctule, he contributed some riffs here and there as well, he's been my right hand man in the whole project. He also works at The Gryphon, so thats how that came to be. I have always gone to The Gryphon, I used to put on shows there ten years ago and I'm a big fan of the pub. With Matt working there and we needed a space to film the video it made perfect sense.
To make it look different we got loads and load of black material all over the walls in the live room, then the space we are playing in is so much further forward than if we were a band playing a live show as obviously we didn't have an audience, so it looks so much bigger than it normally does.
The Razor’s Edge: It works really well!
Obviously it's a departure and different from Svalbards sound. Do you think there will be people who listen to Svalbard who say "ah it's Serena Cherry's band, I'll give that a listen". Do you think you are going to gain some fans from Svalbard and turn a few people who might get turned onto black metal who aren't normally into it?
Serena: Hopefully, I'd like to think it has some cross over appeal. For black metal this album is very melodic and if people like the melodic element of Svalbard then they might like this one. It's very much my way of writing melodies. If they like the parts that I've written in Svalbard, the atmospheric bits then they'll like Noctule, because it's like that times ten.
The Razor’s Edge: You've got quite a range of vocal styles in both the bands. The black metal sound you scream like hell in in certain parts of the black metal elements. Do you do anything to protect your vocal chords, are you precious about it or does it come from deep down?
Serena: I've become more precious about it the older I get. My voice doesn't heal quite like it used to. The biggest thing I found made a difference for doing harsh vocals was going swimming regularly. If you go swimming once or twice a week it gives you a control of your lungs. It enables you to go at 90% all the time rather than 100% and blow your voice out. Thats been the biggest revelation for me.
The Razor’s Edge: Well your a bit buggered for that at the moment!
Serena: I know and I realise it's not very black metal "oh how do you do your vocals?"... well I go swimming. [laughs]
The Razor’s Edge: You've been added to Incineration Fest which has a line up that people would sell kidneys to get a ticket for. You must be happy about that.
Serena: That is a dream come true for me, some of the bands! Emporer and Akercocke, these are bands that influenced me when I was 15 to pick up a guitar and now I get to play at a festival with them. It's so cool. At the moment it's hard to know how to build up a live band when we are in lockdown and we can't rehearse so it's planning ahead and figure out how we can get to a pint when we are going to smash that show.
The Razor's Edge: Talking of festivals, it would be rude not to mention that you are on the Bloodstock line up, sandwiched between Lost Society and Acid Reign, so you are in the middle of a thrash sandwich. How are you looking forward to that?
Serena: Bloodstock, thats my absolute bucket list festival to play. I used to be in a prog band as well and that's how I met Liam and we formed Svalbard together. My prog band entered Metal 2 The Masses and we got through to the final, so to be finally be playing Bloodstock and to be on the main stage, it seems surreal to me and that is THE festival I am most excited for this year. It's a big moment for me I'm excited but also really nervous sandwiched between those two thrash bands.
The Razor's Edge: Whats the Communication been like with the festival? Have they kept in touch, obviously they are under massive pressure and we don't really know what will finally happen. How have they been with you/ Has Vicky been in touch?
Serena: They've been really good, keeping us up to date with all their decisions, making sure we know as soon as they know what they are doing. This is the tricky thing, everyone is playing by ear, just because they are staff of the festival it doesn't mean they know how covid is going to play out and more than we are. The communication has been great and I just can't wait to play it.
The Razor’s Edge: Being a British band you are more of a shoe-in as there is some doubt about whether the overseas bands will be able to travel. Is there anyone on the line up you would be desperate to see?
Serena: On the day we are playing, Devin Townsend has his 'By Request' set which I am really looking forward to, Unleash The Archers I am a big fan of and I really like Night Flight Orchestra as well. I just want to go and dance around, that'll be fun. There are loads I am forgetting, if I had the line up in front of me I'd be like this band, this band and this band. I really like Mercyful Fate, I have a King Diamond tattoo, so I would have been down the front for them.
The Razor’s Edge: The line up is really stella so like everyone else we just hope it will go ahead.
Serena: I am right in thinking Dimmu are playing it now?
The Razor’s Edge: Yeah Dimmu are playing it as main support to Kreator after Paradise Lost on the Saturday.
Serena: Amazing such a great line up.
The Razor’s Edge: Last year you were a guest on Gavin's podcast on Damnation Vs. That got a huge amount of attention with your very honest appraisal of some of the situations you've experienced in heavy music. There was a ripple around that with people discussing it. It's been a few months since that interview now, whats your view on where things are? Did you get a lot of reaction from that podcast?
Serena: In a way because I've always been so outspoken on feminism in metal and up until recently I was writing a PHD on the subject. Doing something like that podcast and seeing all the retweets and comments, in the last few years thats sort of become second nature to me. It's interesting because I do feel quite conflicted in the sense of 'positive discrimination is still discrimination', stop sort of fetishising women. Svalbard are on this playlist called "Heavy Queens" on spotify and all the other bands are Evanescence, Within Temptation and Nightwish, nothing wrong with that, Nightwish are one of my favourite bands but Svalbard sound like none of those bands. I just kind of you wouldn't be doing this if it was "guy bands", you wouldn't put Alter Bridge and a load of softer bands on a playlist and add Svalbard if I wasn't in the band. So it just seems like we are still being treated differently. But at the same time I'm seeing loads of great bands on the rise with women in them, like Pupil Slicer I was checking out today. So it's great to see the representation of women growing in metal but it's more about how the press are handling that that still needs to be addressed.
The Razor’s Edge: I used to write for Powerplay up until THAT article at the beginning of the year - or late last year - at which point I hung up my typewriter and couldn't go on with that kind of article that came out. The fact that the editor of the magazine made a crass apology and then decided to ignore it all in the next issue.
I know you were one of the people that commented on the facebook page of Powerplay, for me I couldn't look my wife in the eye and say I was going to carry on writing for them, you obviously felt moved enough to comment on social media during the outcry. What was your view on the whole incident as it sort of bubbled but then dropped again.
Serena: I think it was incredibly detrimental I think it would have been great had they taken this idea, doing these fantasy bands and threaded the women who were featured in "Clitoris Allsorts" throughout the other bands. You could have Becky Baldwin on bass in one of the other great band line ups they had. The segregation made it sound like women need their own special line up because they are not up to scratch to play among the men. It is separation. And the title they gave it as-well just being diminished to your body parts, where a title like that wasn't given to any guy bands. It is blatant unfair treatment, and the apology wasn't really an apology and it seemed to get people very defensive.
And the worst thing to come out of this was that was probably a huge boost for Powerplay, their hit rate would have gone up, I bet people visiting their website and social media went up. So they benefited off of being offensive and sexist, so you can kind of see why they declined to apologise and declined to mention it in the next issue.
The Razor’s Edge: The interesting thing was the editor contacted me after I said I wasn't going to write for them anymore and asked me to write a piece about why I decided not to work for them any more, and the next day he wrote to me again and said don't worry we've decided not to run that.
So even the opportunity to write about it from a white males point of view, which is why I was offended by it, was flatted and battened down and it was really frustrating for me as I really wanted to counter some of the comments and "oh it was just a bit of fun" and all the rest of it.
Serena: I think thats a real shame, it would have been really powerful to have an ex-staff member, a white male, taking a stand against it. Thats what we need to see more of at the moment. I always see these tweets "oh Serena Cheery she's always moaning about something" and it gets viewed that women are the ones nagging. So if we can have the guys saying "no this wrong" that really strengthen the argument.
The Razor’s Edge: Final point on that, the message when we get back to gigs is a very basic one. Respect everyone, don't be a dick, go there for the music and don't look at anything else.
Serena: Exactly. Just listen with your ears.
The Razor’s Edge: I want to move onto another subject now which is your health and you've been very open with your depression and everything you've struggled with. I was going to ask how are you now and how is your depression. Of course this is a challenging time for people with depression with everything going on people are struggling with it. How are you in terms of your depression, I know it's not an easy question to answer and it may be a bit of a clumsy way of asking, but how are things with you?
Serena: It's actually the nicest way that someone has asked me so I really appreciate that. If I am totally honest with you I was ok with lockdown one and two, I focused on writing Noctule and everything. But lockdown three that has really, the only way I can describe it is someone has come in and turned off the lights. I have had some weeks where I have been crying uncontrollably and really unable to do the basic functions. My sleep, I've had to go to the doctors about that as I was averaging one or two hours a night. It's hard to describe it but I think it's that feeling that everything you do and that you live for is kind of irrelevant and unnecessary which is a horrible feeling to have. Shows will get cancelled, theme park stuff that content doesn't need to be made, it's all decretive as it were and it makes you fee; a bit low about your life choice.
I am quite shy and socially awkward, so being in a band is guaranteed social interaction for me and band practice once a week is guaranteed that I get to hang out with people and do some stuff and not having that has been tough. I know it's been hard for everyone, I was fighting and I'm not going to lie and from December I have sort of lost the fight and just dragging myself through it waiting for it to be over.
The Razor’s Edge: Does the interviewing and social media interaction and stuff help or hinder? You've got to part of this as part of the album promotion. Does speaking to someone through a little screen help you?
Serena: It's a weird one, I crave face to face interaction. I'm really craving something that feels a bit more real and impactful and immersive than looking at a screen. As part of my job I spend the day staring at a screen then you turn that off and turn your laptop on and spend your evening staring at a screen again. That lack of definition is really starting to wear me down. In terms of doing press and interviews its a weird on, I love meeting other writers and I love seeing the amount of effort and research people put into the questions and their pieces. That really blows my mind that people would take that much interest in some silly music I've made. Sometimes I've found it hard in the sense that you might see a piece in a bigger magazine and it hasn't taken the narrative that fits your life or whats in your head. It's basically like someone is holding up a distorted mirror to you, and you think "Is that me? Is that my life? Is that what I sound like?" And obviously it's been written in a certain way and quotes edited and picked and chose to construct where the writer wants to go with the piece. I understand that but at the same time it is like you feel a bit detected from yourself because of the representation thats not in your own control.
The Razor’s Edge: Well fingers crossed that the lockdown ends soon and we can get some social interaction as I'd much prefer to have been doing this in The Gryphon with a pint and some noisy fucker making a racket upstairs!