Septagon – The Chalice of MadnessThursday, 15th April 2021
Rare is the day that a German thrash band will play in a melodic, semi-progressive manner with obvious US influences. That’s what we have here with Septagon – featuring current or ex-members of acts like Lanfear, Atlantean Kodex, Them, and Paradox among others, they’ve been building a slow and steady following for those who love artists like Forbidden, Heathen, Death Angel, and Annihilator. We Only Die Once is the third record from the group – another impressive outing for those who love solid musicianship, killer solos, hook lines for days and vocals that contain melodic components beyond the norm.
We reached out to guitarist/main songwriter Markus Ullrich through Skype, and he happily gave us solid time to discuss the new record, fresh record deal, cover art, his songwriting approach with Septagon and Them, plus loads of discussion on the German metal scene, festivals, and what touring may look like once the pandemic fades away.
Dead Rhetoric: We Only Die Once is the third and latest Septagon album. Where do you see the major differences in this record compared to your previous two you released for Cruz del Sur Music – as you are now a part of the Massacre Records roster?
Markus Ullrich: Yes. The thing is when I started writing the first Septagon record, I wrote the whole music for the first one. At that time there was no band, the only thing was I met Markus Becker at the Keep It True festival in Germany. I’ve known him probably for ten or fifteen years, I knew that he is not only the singer in Atlantean Kodex but that he played in a thrash metal band back in the old days. I talked to him, we had some beer, and I told him I would like to play some old school, technical thrash stuff with melodies, are you interested? He said of course, and then I started writing the record without a band. When we actually had people they just learned the songs and we recorded the album. And then we became a band. So I think the first (album) is still really good. I don’t like the second (album) much because we had some production problems, and it’s not that consistent. The songs are really good, but some of the songs are more regular heavy metal, some more speed metal, some more thrashy. When you listen to that record it’s a little inconsistent.
This time we wanted everything a little more catchy with a much better production, I would say old school without any triggers. A lot of bands do that nowadays, a little bit tighter. As long as I see all the reactions we have right now, most people seem to like it, and they see the same, they are probably right.
I like Enrico, he is a super nice guy but let’s be honest. Most of the bands that are on Cruz del Sur play a totally different kind of music. They are more into that epic style, doom metal and really underground stuff. He’s also a fan of those bands, and he just signed us and was interested in us without really hearing anything we had. He was like ‘there’s the singer in Atlantean Kodex, and another guy who used to play in Lanfear’. He offered us a deal, we were happy with it. There are a few exceptions on his label, Sacred Rage sound different, Pharaoh also. We felt it was time to move on.
Massacre Records are not that far from me, it’s just a twenty-minute drive from me. I know Thomas who does the A+R stuff for a very long time. I lost (interest) in Massacre because they put out a lot of… gothic, black metal stuff. Somehow I felt there was change, as last year they released stuff by Poltergeist, and more the old school vibe, they have Helstar back. One of the guys quit with Massacre so Thomas is the only guy that is responsible for the signings. He loves the old thrash metal stuff, and the future shows that Massacre will be back in the old underground, power and thrash metal scene, and not the stuff they are well known for the last fifteen or twenty years, more of the ‘plastic’ metal thing. It’s back to a roots thing, we released a few records on Massacre with Lanfear back in the day. I asked one of my buddies who plays in Ivanhoe, they are friends, I asked the bass player if he had Thomas’ number, we would be interested coming back. It took thirty minutes, I had an email from Thomas and he said, ‘yeah – come home!’ (laughs).
Dead Rhetoric: What does your latest drummer Daniel Buld bring to the table that makes him unique compared to Jürgen Schrank, who you are familiar with as you previously played together in Lanfear?
Ullrich: Jürgen is not only our ex-drummer, he’s also my best friend. We were together since kindergarten, so we have known each other for all those years. There was always a little bit of stress, he always had a lot of work to do, and he wasn’t too happy. I was the guy who always wanted to move on, I wrote five new songs, and he was like ‘yeah, a lot of work to do’. He’s not the guy who likes to play a lot of gigs, he was ready to quit and we looked for a drummer for a good three or four months. And then Alex our bass player told me about a drummer, Daniel Buld, who is not in the area but lives one and a half hours from here. I know that’s nothing for distance in the states, but in Germany that’s like a vacation (laughs). I always have to tell my American friends this. They will ask how far is it – I will say you have to drive three to four hours, and they will say that is nothing (laughs).
Dead Rhetoric: Yes, I would travel three to four hours for a show, out of state…
Ullrich: I would do that maybe once a year (laughs). There is a gig and I would have to drive three hours? Oh sorry, I can’t make it. (laughs). If it’s a weekend and a hotel, if I really want to see the band. So Daniel is one and a half hours away, but he seemed to be interested. He played in Paradox, the German thrash band. That was some years ago. He liked the music, he is a super nice guy. He seemed a little bit stressed, ask me again in three or four months. We had one drummer who wanted to do it, but we had to wait four or five weeks for a rehearsal with him, so we looked back to Daniel. Daniel was in, we met, hung out, rehearsed and he is an easy-going guy. I don’t need stress in the band, we are more or less friends, we don’t see each other that often, at least not all in Septagon. We are friends, I don’t want to play in a band with assholes, it’s not only important that the guy can play his instrument but is not an asshole, and if he likes beer that is also okay.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us a little bit behind the song “Ekke Nekkepenn”, a North German legendary figure as a merman who plays tricks on seafarers and residents of North Frisian Islands?
Ullrich: You read that? That’s all I know. When Markus came up with “Ekke Nekkepenn” I thought it was just a working title, put on some words. What’s that? I really thought it was a working title until the end until he said, no – it’s a song. I Googled it, it’s a Frisian thing, in the Northern part of Germany and we are in the Southern part of Germany, it’s six hours, incredibly far. He read the tale, and thought it was super funny. What he did, it’s from the 19th century, the poem sounds weird as it’s in old German and he tried to do the chorus like that in English, so the weird English you hear in the chorus is how they would do that in the 19th century. ‘A wedding I will make’. It’s like Rumpelstiltskin from Brothers Grimm. It’s more or less the same, but under water. We call them fish heads. I am sure they copied the Brothers Grimm tale and made up their own thing. It’s catchier to sing “Ekke Nekkepenn” in a song than probably Rumpelstiltskin.
Dead Rhetoric: As a speed/thrash act, you inject your material with a bit more intricacy and progression than the normal straight-ahead acts. What are some of the trademarks or aspects you like to put across when it comes to Septagon and the songwriting and style?
Ullrich: The thing is, there are a lot of thrash bands out there, and we have our influences that lie deep in the 80’s and early 90’s. When it comes to thrash metal, I’m definitely a US guy. I know that we had a lot of German thrash bands in the 80’s, and I am still a big Kreator fan, I think they are by far the best of the well-known bands, we have had other great stuff like Paradox, Vendetta, or Deathrow. But I always was more into the Bay Area scene, Forbidden, Heathen, the usual suspects, Mordred their debut when it came out. The Americans have a little bit more technique-wise, the German guys were really raw. Guitar-wise it’s more interesting, and that’s where the idea to form Septagon comes from. We are listening to the technical stuff but there’s still a lot of melody, and that’s what I always liked in my thrash metal.
Nowadays people will tell me Septagon is not really thrash metal because you use a singer, he’s too clean. So I’m like, okay- Death Angel are not a thrash metal band, Forbidden, what about Flotsam & Jetsam or Heathen? What’s with them? The younger guys who listen to blackened thrash, they don’t know anybody who is able to sing. I can listen to it, but it’s not the music I want to play. Now with the new album, Becker sings a little more aggressive at some points, a lot of people like us and didn’t realize we exist before this album. The reaction is good from the fans, the reviews are one thing – but it doesn’t mean anything if you have just good reviews, I’ve had good reviews for over twenty-five years and I still don’t make money. There are more fans who appreciate the new stuff, they accept that we are kind of thrash, or melodic speed metal with thrash influences, whatever. I don’t really care.
Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell me about the Markus Vesper artwork this time around? I really enjoyed the picture and the color scheme involved…
Ullrich: That was the first time when I had the idea for a cover. When we had the title We Only Die Once, which is obviously a play on You Only Live Twice thing, I thought it would be interesting to have something like the Black Sabbath / Headless Cross on the cover, with some people who are dead, different people so you look and it doesn’t matter who you are and what you do, you are going to die anyways. That was the idea to show ghosts on the cover, and I told him I wanted a color scheme that reminds me of the Romero classic zombie films. We had red on the first cover, the next one was green. I wanted piss yellow to be honest, but the rest of the band said no. Nobody has that, so let’s do the Dawn of the Dead thing. The heavens should have that vibe, he did his own interpretation. The ghosts were green at first, we had to make them white. We did some posters for the limited vinyl, it looks really good.
Dead Rhetoric: You are also a part of the international metal group Them. How do you balance out your work between the two acts, and discuss your approach when it comes to songwriting and performances that may things distinct for each band?
Ullrich: Not really. Them, we work super professional. That is the good thing, if you work with American musicians, they are more into it. In Germany, everything is all about ‘oh I don’t have enough time, I have to go to work, I am very poor and I have to drive one and a half hours’. When it comes to Them and Septagon, there’s not a problem because with Septagon we wouldn’t be able to do a tour, because the guys have to work all the time. I’m self-employed so I would be able to do that, but the other guys have families and jobs, so we can do weekend shows and festival shows. We had one festival show scheduled with Septagon and Them, but then Septagon couldn’t play because Markus was ill. The gig thing is not a problem, of course it’s not even an issue right now, but when things come back to normal its not a problem.
The working thing is not a big deal. When I start writing songs, I write songs for one album. I listen to it, this could be Them, Lanfear, or Septagon. I call it my album mode. When we discuss a new album, it suddenly flows so I am only writing songs for one album. It’s possible that I write some songs for one band and other songs for the other band, but it’s always for a certain record. So that means I wrote three songs for the fourth Septagon record last year in August, and then I started writing the new Them record in December and finished it two weeks ago, I already wrote all of my songs for the next Them record. That’s not really a problem, I have time. A lot of people ask me how I manage the time. I don’t know, I just do it, don’t talk all the time. I do my stuff, a lot of people talk and you wait and wait. Do it, do it now. We have a plan and we work. We know exactly what happens when we start recording the new Them album in January, we have to finish in June and it will come out in October 2022.
Dead Rhetoric: So in that case you don’t deposit a bank of riffs and sort through them album to album, project to project?
Ullrich: I don’t collect riffs in that way, I collect ideas for an intro or for a chorus. I usually only have ideas for an intro. If you viewed my smartphone, you would find the most ridiculous ideas – intros in D, and then C, 45 minutes of that. I have some ideas, but it’s always for a certain song. I work on one song at a time. It’s very focused and it can be frustrating. You have a great intro and a great verse, but the chorus doesn’t fit, the right speed. It’s no matter if I sleep or I am awake, I make music in my head and it takes me days and sometimes I have thirty to forty choruses, I record them and I throw them away. It’s annoying for my wife and my dog, but that’s how I work. When I am in a process of writing a new record I am in my album mode, I am on another planet or multi-verse. Everything happens in my head, and I want to stop it but it’s not possible until the song is done. Usually I find a song, I’m happy, I mix it down, I send it to the guys, and everything starts again.
Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the major differences in your approach to heavy metal or the guitar today compared to say your twenties and thirties?
Ullrich: It’s not that different. It’s easier because I think in my twenties I had a tape recorder to record some ideas and that’s it. Nowadays I can do demos in my home studio and the demos sound almost like a finished product. I can record my guitars, program drums not to show what they have to play but what they could play with a good sound. I’m not the guy who tells other people how to play their instruments. I have a drummer because he is better in drumming than I am. It’s really easy nowadays to write songs because you can record them and it already sounds really good. Back in the days of tape, you had to figure out how to explain how this could sound good. You don’t need the vision to know what I mean. The approach is that I’m a better musician and I know how something works and if it works. Back in the days a riff would be cool, this is a nice chorus, there’s some timing issues, I don’t care. Now it’s more structured, but not that different.
I was always the kind of guy that was really into the song itself. I’m not a guitarist that writes a song and writes the riffs but I don’t care what everyone else does. I like a good hook line, a good chorus, and that is different within Septagon to other thrash bands. When the song is called “Fuck Off and Die” and the guy screams that line four times, that’s not a chorus to me. The chorus is the most important part of the song. That is what I try to do. I try to see the whole thing and twenty years back I probably wasn’t able to do that. I had written only ten songs, not one hundred and fifty like I have now. It’s easier to know what works and what doesn’t.
Dead Rhetoric: What goals do you set for Septagon – and what are some of the challenges that you face in trying to establish more of a presence and foothold in a scene that has more bands and product than ever?
Ullrich: I’m pretty realistic. We are not in our early twenties. The thing we want to achieve is to make good albums and play some nice shows and to grow as musicians, grow as a band, and probably get more fans. The days are gone where you would say that’s the breakthrough album, because you don’t sell records nowadays. To be honest, I knew that the third record is probably our best one, the production is really good, the songs are catchy. There will be more people who like that, it sounds more consistent. Even our ex-drummer was like ‘I’m not in the band anymore and you record your best album, so what’s up?’ (laughs). He thinks we will get more fans from this. We have a lot of pre-orders when we announced the album, and we have a lot of hits on YouTube. There would be 4,000, 5,000, 10,000 – woah, 20,000. What’s up? We had four times the pre-orders than we had for the last two records.
I was quite surprised, and I think that’s more than I expect for the whole album. Expectations are low, if things happen great, if not, I’m not frustrated. I am working on another record, just because I have to.
Dead Rhetoric: In another recent interview you did for another website, you mention that tours in today’s scene work differently than they did in the old days. Where do you see the differences in the live market scene – as I’d imagine the longer festival season has changed things up for many artists when trying to set up proper touring situations?
Ullrich: Yes. I don’t know if you’ve ever visited Germany during the festival season. The thing is, most American guys think we in Germany live in a kind of metal paradise, and obviously that’s not true. There are a lot of festivals, and that also means the club scene more and more died. Why would you visit a show to see a band if the same band plays on Wacken with fifty bands, or one hundred other bands? And then the next thing is, there is a festival in Germany from early May up until late September, every weekend. Probably two or three, some of them are small, with 150 people at an open air, or others with 900, 10,000 to 50,000 people. A lot of festivals, and that means in the end the club scene died. Then we have festivals like Keep It True, it’s an hour from me. I’m there every year. A lot of American bands play there, and they are amazed. Nobody knows us in our home country, and then we come to Germany and there are 2,000 fans who celebrate us like we are Metallica. That’s super amazing. What they don’t know is, the 2,000 fans are all of them (laughs). That’s all the fans in Europe that are interested in that kind of music, maybe 3,000 with some weird Greek guys, and other Southern European fans. Let’s say an American band released a demo in 1984, and a full-length in 1986, then you could be an almost headliner at KIT. The same band would do a club tour, yeah there would be ten people probably. And the same ten people every day! (laughs).
It probably looks good, and you would definitely enjoy that festival. It looks like 1981, because one of my friends Matt Johnsen from Pharaoh, he is a super nerd. He always comes to Keep It True, we drink a lot of beer, and he’s always like it looks like 1981. Where are all those people during the year? That’s the next thing, they think every German metal guy looks like that – no. We don’t. I don’t know if they live in a cellar and only come out once a year, that’s not the scene. It’s something like the paradise people want to see, but it’s not a fact. Metal is pretty big in Germany, but the club scene is dead because of all those festivals.
I watched the Siren documentary from Chris Jericho. You probably saw the guy Frank Headbanger, the guy who brought them over, the grey-haired guy. He lives ten minutes from me, he’s a good friend of mine. You watch the documentary as an American and you probably think, my God – Siren are really big in Germany. No, they aren’t. It’s one festival. I’m really happy that a band like Siren has the chance to do a festival like this, I saw the show and it was really great to see that. Watching the documentary, now the people see that the people think they are really, really big in Germany. They are able to play two or three festivals where the people are the same every year. Headbangers Open Air is another festival they play, more in southern Germany, unbelievable six hours from me. It’s vacation for me.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you look back at the career of Lanfear given all of the years, time, records, and live shows you put under your belt? What would you consider some of the highlights and learning experiences you gained?
Ullrich: Not to rely on others! (laughs) Lanfear was a band with five friends, we still are. We released seven albums in twenty-five years, which is not really that much. We played some nice shows, one was the ProgPower USA festival in Atlanta, we played one or two tours. We played the Bang Your Head festival in southern Germany. I think we released a bunch of really good records. It was obvious from the beginning that we definitely played the wrong kind of music. That’s even more underground – melodic, progressive US-influenced power metal that’s too progressive. I never thought we were progressive, we played the wrong kind of music to be successful in any way. Obviously we didn’t do that much – I wrote ten new songs, and it would take the band four years to learn them. That was pretty boring. We never made it not only because we were at the wrong time and at the wrong place, but the band also was lazy.
We had great times, we are buddies. We had way more beers than rehearsals. I’m happy that I finally made the decision that you can play in more than one band. I’m happy that I can release albums and write songs and know that they will be out in a year or so and not in four years. There is somebody who says if we have time to play a show here and there, and someone says I don’t know. What did you expect? That we would be able to headline Wacken or something (laughs)? At least it’s a show – that’s more the vibe in Lanfear. If you want to make it as a band, even if there are one or two guys that write the songs and arrange everything, the other guys at least should go with the flow and work. And Lanfear was more like a family where people either do stuff – or they don’t. Our singer Nuno has health issues. He was not able to produce antibodies, so that was always a problem. If there is anything new, a flu, he always had it. There were a lot of shows we had to cancel, sometimes the day before a show. And I had two or three new Lanfear tracks that we wanted to record with another lineup, just a project, an EP – and that didn’t work. I gave them away for free to Ivanhoe, so they may be on the next Ivanhoe record, I don’t know.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your interests, hobbies, or passions when you have the free time to pursue them away from music?
Ullrich: I think music is almost everything in my life. When I don’t play guitar or write songs I’m usually listening to music. I was a fanatic CD collector and switched to vinyl some years ago and sold a lot of my CD’s. Music is a big part of my life. I’m into movies, I read a lot of books. I walk the dog, so there’s not really much. I’m not into sports, I don’t like to watch them or play them (laughs). I think it’s enough, music, books, movies, and shows. Usually my evenings end on Netflix, Troy from Them gave me access to his Plex account – I have to find something new. He’s an old school horror movie fan that I can find some 80’s films to re-watch.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the next twelve to eighteen months shaping up for Septagon, Them, or any other musical activities you may have in the pipeline?
Ullrich: There is the vaccine thing in Germany. We are super structured, and sometimes that’s the problem. When the pandemic started last March, we were pretty good. But now, our well-structured Germany, the guy who is responsible for the vaccine, he’s a tool. It takes ages until everyone gets their vaccine. We have a population of 82 million people, and 12 million are now vaccinated. Almost all the people over 80 years of age. It will take four to six more months until the next show in Germany. I would be happy to be wrong. We had some plans with Septagon, we had some festivals all in 2022 now. We wanted to have a release show, we can’t do that. I’ll probably write some more songs and hope to play some shows by the end of the year. It’s not that much of problem because we are used to that writing process.
We wanted to tour with a new Them record, last November, but that wasn’t possible. We wanted to do it in the spring, nope. We have a chance to probably do a support show with a bigger tour in early 2022. We will release a new album after that, or a tour EP as we have some songs left. Nobody knows anything right now. A lot of clubs don’t exist anymore. I think there will be really big tour packages with a lot of bands because there are not enough locations and not enough time for all the bands. As soon as everything moves on, I think everything also will be very different.