Witchery – Painting Strokes of EvilSunday, 10th July 2022
Celebrating 25 years together as a band, Witchery continues to stride forward in their amalgamation of blackened thrash and speed metal with traditional, old-school aspects. Their latest album Nightside is a concept record of demonic nightmares, an unexplainable pregnancy, and escaping the Old Country to the western colonies to discover what happens once the child is born – also traversing versatile tracks in terms of dynamics musically that fit the haunting storyline. There’s a primal sense of purity that runs throughout the entire Witchery discography – making their material lively, fun, and enjoyable for the legions of followers they’ve developed.
We reached out to rhythm guitarist Jensen who was more than happy to enlighten us on the reason for Witchery approaching a concept record for the first time this deep into their career, the special guest spots with members of Mercyful Fate, Carcass, Wolf, and Kvelterak among others, thoughts on being a part of Necropolis and Century Media for labels over the years, handling the modern production tools in a proper fashion while remaining organic and natural as a band on record, plus a little update on The Haunted in the mix.
Dead Rhetoric: Nightside is the eighth Witchery album – and first for the group in five years. Tell us about the songwriting and recording sessions for this effort – and why now was the right time for the band to finally develop a full-fledged concept record?
Jensen: That is a good question! The last one – why now, why not earlier? It all ties together with the pandemic, like for many bands. We usually get together as a band, rehearse, and we hang out. We are all friends, and we have a good time rehearsing, we all love metal and we come up with some cool metal stuff – doesn’t matter if it’s heavy metal, black metal, death metal, and so on. Due to the pandemic and the restrictions, there were no rehearsal places open, and you couldn’t travel to different cities. I ended up writing a lot of the stuff on the computer. That gave me more time, that’s one thing I had to sit and do more elaborate songwriting structures. There was also no time pressure because of the pandemic, there was no point in releasing an album if you can’t tour.
As there was no pressure, the songs were coming along I thought wouldn’t it be good to do a concept album with more time on our hands. That’s what I started to do. I hadn’t thought about this before, but now it seems obvious looking back, it’s a lot harder to write a concept album. Normally you write fourteen songs, and after you record them, you see what turns out good, what will be the first song, the second song, and so on, and maybe these two songs are bonus tracks that go to Japan or something. With a concept album, and you tie them together with the lyrics, the first one needs to go first, and the second one needs to go second. If you are familiar with Kiss albums, The Elder is a concept album. The record company wanted all the songs in a different order, they wanted the catchiest songs first. It’s all jumbled. You can’t create a concept album like that. It took me 50% longer to be like this is the first song on the album, the first lyrics go here. And then you also need the story to progress, the plot, you need drama, things speed up and slow down, more action, dynamics. If you have a lot of action with the lyrics, you need to write a song that also portrays that. Or slower parts of the story can be a heavier song to flesh out the story. I wanted to have an album that has different dynamics.
The best concept album I know is Operation: Mindcrime. Which is an amazing album. It has all those little things. In between a few songs there’s a car that pulls up, the guy says, ‘kill the priest’ and they get Mary. I wanted to have that kind of stuff in between the songs too. It was a lot more work tying everything together, but it was very rewarding in the end.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you have any worries regarding the lyrical content and musical flow of the record when you had the storyline in place? Are there difficult choices to be made to have the diversity and dynamics necessary to keep things engaging song to song while telling a full story?
Jensen: Yes. I’m very interested in how in the creative process, what gives people or myself for that matter, inspiration. I really like instrumental songs. That might be because I’m a guitar player, but if I hear an instrumental track that takes me places, it paints a picture. I want to not only have lyrics that do that, but I also want to have a story with the music. There is a lot of stuff going on with that also.
Dead Rhetoric: How did you decide on the specific guest spots that appear on the record – and what do you enjoy most about allowing these musicians a chance to add their flavor and style to a Witchery album?
Jensen: Well, for the last five or six albums we’ve had Hank Shermann of Mercyful Fate on the album. They are my favorite band of all time – Don’t Break the Oath is a fantastic album, that is number one. I got to see Mercyful Fate last weekend at the Sweden Rock Festival, they went on at exactly midnight and it was amazing. Every chance I get, or every album that we do, I will ask Hank to do a solo on the album. I like the idea of inviting people to participate in the music. We had Jeff Walker do some guest vocals on the album. I play with him in Brujeria, we’ve done many tours together and he’s a really nice guy. My first band opened up for Carcass when they came to Sweden, on the Symphonies of Sickness tour. It was cool to have him on the album because he has a very cool voice. It’s fun to be able to ask your old heroes and your old friends to be on the album, it makes it more personal. It’s just rewarding.
Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us regarding the art theme for Nightside – featuring Andreas Petterson who has been working with the band in some capacity between The Haunted and Witchery for all of the 2000’s? Do you still place great importance on captivating cover art to set the proceedings for what listeners can expect album to album?
Jensen: Yes. The artwork for this album, I had an idea. Basically, the story of the album ends with evil conquering everything. Which is kind of the title track, the last track on the album, is an epic song. I’ve always been a fan of Priest – on the Defenders of the Faith album the album ends with “Heavy Duty” and the title track, it’s a huge epic ending that fades. I love that kind of ending. What you take with you is that in my story, evil conquers. How do you portray in the artwork that evil is everywhere, you can’t escape it? By closing your eyes. If you look at something like into the sun, you close your eyes and see something dark, in a strange hue inside of your eyelids. That’s why this evil church has these sagging towers. That’s why it’s orange and the background is kind of grey. Even if you close your eyes, this is the victor of the story. That was the thought behind the artwork and Andreas did a great job with that.
I want artwork to be important. Because I grew up buying vinyl, and when I was sitting in my bedroom at home, I got my allowance, and I would buy an album. For example, Defenders of the Faith, I would stare at the art for hours, it meant something to me. I go today on Spotify and the album artwork these days is the size of a stamp. I still think it’s important. We’ve seen that vinyl has done a great comeback. It ties everything together. I look in these days of Spotify you have just one song and these playlists – I like the concept of ten songs and an album, it’s a statement of where the band was at that time. If you heard just one song from the band, like “Hole in the Sky” from Black Sabbath – Sabotage, that was a good song, but you want to hear the whole album to hear where they were at that time. Artwork ties together with an album and I think it’s important.
Dead Rhetoric: Prior to joining the Century Media roster with 2006’s Don’t Fear the Reaper album, you spent the early years on Necropolis Records. What have you enjoyed most about the attention each label gave to the band – and where have you seen the shift in their responsibilities in this ever-evolving music industry that exists today?
Jensen: I knew the owner of Necropolis Records right when he started the label. I visited him for vacation back in 1994 in California. He played me a bunch of bands that he thought were cool, and they were. He said he’d love to be able to put this out – and I said I could write something in that style. Something better even, my cocky young self. That’s what we did, we formed Witchery, signed to his label. I got a bunch of friends back home together, formed a band, and wrote the first album. Recorded it in a local studio that usually only records where people go to sing at stag parties, horrible vocals over a karaoke track. They had no idea what to do when we got all our Marshall amps in there and all this gear. The album turned out great, the record company was just starting out. The early days we built the band and the label together. We had 110% backing from Necropolis. Eventually they went away. We went with Century Media- and they have been super supportive. I consider them to be my friends. I have been with them since 2005 with the Haunted. Almost twenty years now, both bands. I really feel that they get behind their bands. No complaints about anything with Witchery concerning either label, they are both very important to the growth and success of the band.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you handle the changes of the industry and what labels responsibilities are like now, considering there can be more power of promotion in the hands of the bands and outside agencies?
Jensen: Like you said, you don’t sell a lot of albums these days and you need to go on tour to make any kind of money. Before there was money to do press tours – they would fly you around to Berlin, Paris, and meet people over the course of a few days. Now it’s all done by Zoom at home – which is nice, I get to be around my dog. There is less money for videos, lower studio budgets. You just need to find new ways of doing things. That’s why you record the drums in a studio but do the guitars at home with your computer, reamp them in studio so you don’t have to book two extra weeks in the studio. Times were tough for labels; things are getting better because of the vinyl sales and people getting more savvy. We don’t have Napster today – they are getting revenues from these streaming services. There is a lot more focus on social media platforms, and if you are good with updating, younger bands it’s just different times.
Dead Rhetoric: What would you say are the highlights of Witchery’s career to date – either specific albums, festival/touring situations, or other events that occurred where you felt you were making a strong impact with your craft and moving up the ranks in terms of respect and developing a stronger following?
Jensen: Witchery was formed one year before The Haunted. When we released the first Haunted album, it came out the same year as the first Witchery album. The Haunted album made a huge splash – back then, the old thrash bands weren’t around so our album came out around the same time as Testament’s The Gathering. We were in this second wave of thrash – and Witchery played a splash of black metal and heavy metal in there, we were the first of that retro-metal. The first album was really important, we didn’t really think much of it. We had a great album with great sounding songs written out of gut intuition out of a love of heavy metal. It’s five guys having a great time. “Reaper” is always in our live set. The first time we got to go to Japan was special of course. I went there with Witchery before I went there with The Haunted. I’d also say Symphony for the Devil is a great album, it’s loaded with great riffs. And this latest album. I’m anxious and curious to hear what people think about it.
I’m a huge music collector. You have these bands like Celtic Frost, they released Cold Lake and you wonder what’s going on, Judas Priest releases Turbo and you wonder what’s going on, Black Sabbath puts out Technical Ecstasy. I think that Witchery has put out high quality album to album. Our lows are pretty high, without trying to wave our own flag too much. We are a consistent band.
Dead Rhetoric: How does it feel to have a new bassist with Victor Brandt in the fold – as I’d imagine its quite different to replace a noted veteran like Sharlee D’Angelo? What does Victor bring to the table with his playing, personality, and work ethic that differs from Sharlee?
Jensen: Sharlee was one of the founding members, and he’s probably my best friend. He’s also in Arch Enemy, and they may be the hardest working band in metal the last ten years, always on tour apart from the pandemic. He’s been busy when we’ve had live shows, so Victor actually stood in for him the first time ten years ago. He’s done a lot of shows – he did the last tour we did in Australia. Sharlee said he was always going to be busy, so why not give Victor the cred and spotlight that he deserves. Take him in the band, he was eager to join – he’s also a part of Dimmu Borgir now. And of course, he played with Entombed, so he’s a seasoned musician as well.
They look alike on stage. A lot of people didn’t even know Sharlee hadn’t even been there at the shows. He’s a great guy on stage, it feels great to have Victor in the band.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s been mentioned in a previous Witchery interview from Distorted Sound magazine that Witchery prefers to keep your production and tones sounding raw and dangerous – as you’ve had interest fatigue with today’s ‘perfect production’ releases in metal. How do you maintain that organic nature and intensity while doing your best to navigate the modern tools of technology available to musicians and producers these days?
Jensen: First of all, you get musicians who know how to play. A lot of times I feel that people correct too many things. I think that comes from insecurity maybe. I’d much rather have DaVinci, or Rembrandt paint the Mona Lisa than a computer that does it like a photograph. It’s in the mistakes where you develop personality. If Bon Scott does a little ‘eh…eh’ in a song, that’s what I want to hear. Because that’s Bon Scott. I don’t want them to have him sing the chorus to “Let There Be Rock” and copy and paste it everywhere. This is an intense part, like “Reign in Blood” the band speeds up, and then slows down and gets heavier, you can feel the emotions in the song. If everything is just streamlined, the exact BPM’s, there’s nothing to surprise you or catch your interest. Getting people together that know how to play, understand that, rehearse a lot – I think the most important thing is that you record live in the studio.
You can play the song three or four times, and then you choose one. You might need to fix small pieces but keep the main things together. Don’t do the drums first along to a click track, and then do the bass. It’s too clinical and sterile. You cut away on the bass, nothing can interfere with each other, you hear every small drum hit on the tom every time. Music isn’t every piece on its own – it’s everything together. You don’t look at only the red colors in a painting – you look at everything. That’s what I want in music as well. Everything is a part of everything.
Dead Rhetoric: Now that the world is slowly getting back to a level of normalcy after two plus years surviving a pandemic, where do you think the major changes will take place with humanity, socialization, and the importance of entertainment in that picture?
Jensen: I might be pessimistic, but I don’t think humanity will learn anything. Do we really learn anything from our mistakes? Hopefully we’ve seen the worst of the pandemic. They say it’s going to be with us for many years or develop into a common cold. I think people want to go back to normal – they want packed, sweaty clubs. We want packed, sweaty clubs. We want to be able to shake hands with everyone after the shows. I want the world to be safe, if that’s the correct word. People should be able to enjoy everyone’s company, just like we have.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Witchery and your other related bands over the next year or so?
Jensen: There are a lot of shows lined up. Let’s put it this way – there have been festivals that have been put on hold for two years or so, and they just moved the same bill from year to year. And those bands are touring on three-year-old albums. The floodgates will open. There will be so many new albums, it’s really hard to get festival dates this year. We have a few- we have Hellfest coming up for Witchery. But then getting on tours, it’s the same thing with festival slots. So many bigger name bands are going on tour, and we have less clubs today than before, they had to close, less places to play. We survived the pandemic, we will do a few shows, and maybe in a year or two things will be back to normal. That’s the same thing with The Haunted. We have a few festival dates – we are 80% done with writing the new album. That will be something we record this fall.