Persona – The Animal WithinSunday, 12th December 2021
Lots to discuss with symphonic turned modern metal act Persona. Starting out in Tunisia, they released two albums and then moved over to Germany and reformed the band (outside of three core members) before starting up their third album Animal. An album that continues to see the band evolve and transform into something unique and interesting – particularly for those into the modern metal scene. The combination of catchiness with intricate and more progressive vibes, compacted into short and easily digestible bursts. We caught up with vocalist Jelena Dobric and Melik Melek Khelifa to get their thoughts about moving across continents, the band reformation, all the details about Animal, and more!
Dead Rhetoric: How has the reception been for Animal since it was released?
Jelena Dobric: The reception has been really good. Everyone as thought it was the next level, and the production being good. The songs are short, super tight, but they are dynamic and have a lot of stuff inside them.
Melik Melek Khelifa: I think we were a bit afraid, since it is so different from the previous two, that some fans would be disappointed. That it wouldn’t be what they were used to. Most of the critics liked it and the fans have been quite happy.
Dobric: Even the ‘older’ fans, knowing us from our symphonic beginnings, have liked it.
Dead Rhetoric: I think you set that precedent for change when you made Metamorphosis, since it also had some changes from your first album.
Dobric: Yeah, but we didn’t anticipate going so far into modern metal. But when we started writing the songs, we were asking what we were going to do and this is the direction we went.
Dead Rhetoric: Did moving across continents and having to reform the band impact any of that style change?
Khelifa: Before moving to Germany, we asked everyone in Tunisia if they still wanted to be a part of the band so that we could make it work, only our other guitarist, Yosri [Ouada], who lives in Paris right now said he was in. So we knew when we came that we needed a new bass player and drummer, and we got Eike [Nehen] and Simon [Schröder]. We listened to the material we had and the idea we had was to go into a more modern direction.
Dobric: It was totally out of my comfort zone. We experimented a lot, and I said things like, “Oh, this is not for my voice! I can’t do this! This is not my style!” But I just tried it and I didn’t regret it.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s the difference like in terms of the scene? I know there hasn’t been much opportunity since you have moved, but do you feel that the band is looked at differently since you have gone into Europe?
Khelifa: Of course, it’s better for us to be here than in Tunisia. We can have more visibility since we can play more shows so maybe that perspective will play the more that we play live. We can reach a wider audience.
Dobric: When other bands see us, they can see that we maybe can do something in Europe if they like us…rather than having to fly over from Tunisia. Now that we are here, it’s a possibility.
Khelifa: Now that we are in Germany, there are new possibilities for the band.
Dead Rhetoric: So did you move over because of the band, or were there other circumstances?
Khelifa: It was mainly for my work. I am working as a medical doctor, and in Tunisia I wanted to find a job that I really liked that involved research. As a doctor, but still doing research, and I could not find one in Tunisia after looking for like 3-4 years. Then the decision was to learn German, since there were a lot more opportunities for research than in Tunisia. So it was mostly for my work, but there was an advantage for the band to be in Europe instead of Tunisia. Of course, we had to find new band members, but it was mostly related to my job.
Dobric: We didn’t move because of the band, but it turned out to be a good reason since it would be better for the band.
Dead Rhetoric: What are you most proud of accomplishing with Animal?
Dobric: For me, it was going out of my comfort zone and being happy with it. I sang in a number of ways that I hadn’t before, such as the low, raspy vocals. I also paid much more attention to the actual performance. The expression and emotion – there was much more detail than there had been before. The songs are totally different and I’m very happy that it turned out so well and that I could pull it off. I didn’t think I could do it. The other band members and our producer kept urging me to try to do it so I eventually did. I’m very proud [laughs]!
Khelifa: In my case, it’s step up in the production values. We had been producing ourselves and we aren’t producers, we are just musicians. This time we worked with a real producer, so it added something to it. The second thing I am proud of is that we did this during Corona time and it was difficult. We put the lockdown time to good use.
Dead Rhetoric: How are the label prospects looking? Have you found something that fits for the band?
Khelifa: Not really. It’s not disappointing per say, but to me, this is the third album we did on our own. So we wanted to release a single, which was “Alpha” last year. We contacted labels and gave them our information about who we were and the album info. We said we were looking for someone for help with the distribution. We didn’t get any offers.
Dobric: We had a few negotiations, but it was not much.
Khelifa: It was in the middle of the Corona crisis so I don’t know if some labels were just sitting around ono standby because of it. But we are now in Germany and we can play some shows and we are hoping that by the next time we do an interview you won’t have to ask the same question [laughs]!
Dobric: There are some advantages to it. Whenever we do get any profit, it comes to us – even if we had to invest a lot. What I am dreaming about that we would get from a potential label is that the marketing and management would be covered. That’s the hardest part for me. Otherwise, everything else – maybe there are also good sides to being an independent band.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel that with three albums now, you have kind of hit the idea to the point where you know what Persona is as a band and what you want to continue along with?
Dobric: Maybe. With modern metal, it does come from us, but we are changing with the music too. I don’t think that we are going to go back to something more symphonic, but I think this feels good now. We might go even weirder and more experimental, but still listenable [laughs]. I can see room for more experimentation.
Khelifa: Yeah, I don’t really know where it could go. I have no idea what direction it could take next.
Dead Rhetoric: Does some of that inspiration come from you both having your own music outside of Persona? In terms of wanting to branch out and change?
Khelifa: In my case no, because they are two different sources. One is grunge/alternative and the other is black/death metal. They are two separate environments that never meet in my head.
Dobric: I am always influenced in the way that I write lyrics or how I approach singing tunes. I haven’t written anything for Helenium in ages, so I don’t know if how I approached the new Persona record changed. Persona is something different. It is something I normally wouldn’t do if I was on my own or doing Helenium. Helenium, or whatever I do on my own, is probably more influenced by what I do in Persona.
Dead Rhetoric: With things slowly opening up with live shows, who do you think would be a good band for you to tour with?
Khelifa: I haven’t really thought about it. For us, the best thing would be for us to open up for a bigger band…
Dobric: Like Jinjer!
Khelifa: That’s why the big labels help, because they try to put you with a band that plays the same type of music, so it’s a good opportunity to grow since the fans tend to come for the headliner. Jinjer or Spiritbox would be really cool.
Dobric: Yeah, a bigger band opens up opportunities. If it is a good fit – it doesn’t have to have a female vocalist. It could be another modern metal band. But those two bands would be really ideal. Leprous, but they are more progressive – but they would be awesome to open for!
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you feel Persona is right now – what do you feel are the most important ingredients when you make a song?
Dobric: I would say hooks. That’s what we had in mind with this album. The tunes also need to be very well defined. Everything needs to be very compact, but interesting to listen to. That’s what we look for. It’s not going into parts that are too long or epic or atmospheric. I don’t want to say commercial, since it has a bad connotation and it’s not what we are going for, but we want the listener to feel like it’s cool. We wanted a ballad on this album for example. We want to keep it engaging for the listener.
Dead Rhetoric: I think a lot of bands lose sight of that. They have a lot of really great potential but they have a lot of wasted time – 3-4 minute songs that they expand into 7-10 minute tedious songs. It’s a lot easier for people to listen to with a shorter song.
Dobric: There’s the attention span too! If you don’t grab the listener in the first 30 seconds, they are gone.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the current modern metal scene?
Khelifa: It’s a new genre, a new direction. I’m looking forward to hearing what will come after it. If you go back to like the heavy metal in the ‘80s and look up to modern metal, I am trying to analyze and see what the next trend is. That’s interesting. I’m trying to picture what will happen next, in advance. To try to come up with what is coming up next [laughs].
Dobric: To come up with it and compose it. I’m kidding. But I find these crossovers interesting to listen to. Sometimes it’s a bit over the top, but it’s still interesting. Everything has been written already, so the genres are exhausted and saturated. People are coming up with something new with this modern metal…modern because there are more electronic soundscapes in it. Creativity is going mainstream and people are exploring, and I like that. The standard is not what it used to be five or ten years ago.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your plans for this/next year?
Dobric: We have a concert in January with a band from Berlin. They also play modern metal so we are looking forward to it. It will be a cool opportunity to play. We played two festivals and we have a few more that we are looking forward to next year.
Khelifa: Musically our plans are to play as much as possible. We haven’t been able to because of Corona. We want to support the album since we are now in Germany. For the next album, we want to take the production to the next level and reach a larger audience. We want to get proper marketing and maybe expand things there too.
Dobric: The marketing side is hard to work on, and it’s really difficult. Even if we pay an agent, it’s still not the same as if you have a label behind you. Having a label would really be cool.