(In this post we present Comrade Aleks’ interview with Christian Herzog, guitarist for the German band Shakhtyor.)
That ugly and bulky name Shakhtyor means “Miner” in Russian, but this instrumental post-doom/sludge band is from Germany. The reason for picking such a strange name is that one of this power trio’s members, Christian Herzog (guitars) studied in Saint-Petersburg for a few long months in the ’90s. Shakhtyor released their first self-titled album in 2012, and this record, along with the band’s powerful gigs attracted enough attention to the band that their second work Tunguska (named after the geographical location in Russia where a strange phenomenon, probably the fall of a meteor, took place in 1908) was released by Cyclone Empire both on vinyl and on CD on the 24th of April, 2015.
We discussed Shakhtyor’s new album and the Tunguska event with Chris just a few days ago.
Hail Chris! How are you? What has SHAKHTYOR done since the release of your debut self-titled album in 2012?
Hi Aleks, I am pretty well, thanks. Actually, we did what most bands do. We played a bunch of shows and recorded a new album. However, it took longer than expected. We had already started recording stuff for a second album in early 2013 but then we did not get any further with it. So we decided to play fewer shows in 2014 to write new songs and finally made it to the studio in November.
Do you still get any satisfaction from playing your music live and recording it in studio?
Absolutely! Playing live is still the ultimate experience. It is just great to feel the adrenaline and see people headbanging to the stuff you have been writing and rehearsing for months. It is probably also to some extent related to the overall sound and loudness you only experience when being on stage. Although we play rather loud in our rehearsal room as well, on stage I really feel like being inside our music. Recording itself, on the other hand, is more like hard work, I must say, and it is fairly exhausting. But then, once you have the finished result in your hand, it is amazing.
Is Shakhtyor still a power-trio? Did you ever think about calling someone else to your underground coal pits?
Yes, we still are a power trio and we are very happy with it. From time to time we come to a point where we think a second guitarist or somebody playing synthesizers could be an interesting addition. But then again, well… I guess we still don’t feel as if we needed fresh blood. And then the way we are writing our songs, together as a band, starting with a jam and then arranging and refining stuff, is often already very time-consuming and complicated. And this is although the three of us have a common idea of our sound, know what we want, and what not. I believe it would be a tough task to integrate a fourth person’s ideas and preferences. The good thing about creating music this way is that really everyone in this band completely identifies with the stuff, and that’s the way it ought to be.
Now you have new album Tunguska on Cyclone Empire Records. What did you do to make them believe in the power of your riffs?
Frankly speaking, we did not have to do too much. I think it was never really questioned that they would release another album if we made one. It may have helped that we played a show together with Bodyfarm and December Flower, who are both label-mates, and Martin, the owner of CE, saw us live there for the first time. We played two songs we had written for the new album and our show was a big success, although the majority of the audience was there to see a death metal concert.
Do you already have your copies of the Tunguska vinyl edition?
Yes, we are proud owners of huge piles of this fantastic piece of music, haha.
Do people dig your music better now? I remember that you faced some misunderstanding of the band’s concept — like that situation with band’s name, which someone spelled like WAXTEP. : )
Well, yes and no. We have played many places in Germany, and usually many people at the shows get really excited about our stuff. It seems to be easier to get access to it when we perform it live, because still our sales could be better. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, it is just kind of surprising considering how well our music works live. And as with the first album, reviews varied from black to white. There are some who really appreciate what we do and others who obviously cannot understand it and find it just boring.
The WAXTEP thing is still around. Some say or write it for fun, some just don’t know any better, and it’s always fun to see the possible variations in arranging the letters in SHAKHTYOR, haha.
How did you labour to create such harsh and solid sounds on Tunguska? Did you work in the studio seeing no sunlight for days, or was it a long yet relaxed process?
Haha, no, the Tonmeisterei Studio where we recorded the album is actually a really cozy place, and Role, the owner and engineer, is a really nice guy. It was not relaxed, though. It was the first time in our lives we really had to finish songwriting before a certain deadline as he is well-booked and we had to fix the date for the studio already 9 months in advance. We could also have used twice the time in the studio — we literally finished recording on the last day without having played around too much. Role’s expertise makes a big part of the sound, but we have also massively upgraded and refined our equipment to bring the sound to this point, and we are really very satisfied.
How have you learned about the Tunguska story, and what’s your point of view on the subject?
Actually, I can’t really remember when I first heard about it. Over the years, I have often watched TV documentaries on this topic, read articles and so on, because it really fascinates me. The fact that even more than one hundred years after it happened there is no definite explanation is crazy. And the explanations given are even more crazy.
It is a bit similar to what I see in the novel Solaris — there are things you can see but the human mind is not able to understand them. Mankind usually considers itself as the ultimate result of evolution and claims that we can dominate and explore everything. But we can’t, just look at the sky at night. How could you ever understand, there is a space without boundaries? Or does it have boundaries? But then, what is behind it?
This is in my opinion the easiest example to show us we are limited in our mental capacities and there is so much more we have been trying to understand for centuries. We try to reverse-engineer the human brain but it just does not work. We try to understand and limit the impact of our civilization on nature by setting up incredible computer simulations, trying to predict how climate will change, but hey, it could be that even a small stone thrown into the water has an influence on something. We will never find the “big formula” behind everything.
SHAKHTYOR – Solaris
You have a track “Solaris” named after the film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (and based on the sci-fi novel with the same title written by Stanislav Lem). You used speech samples from the Russian movie — why didn’t you take samples from the American remake of 2002?
Well, I haven’t watched the American remake yet, and I heard it is not so good. Tarkovsky’s version really touched me, it has a unique atmosphere and is so intense. It is often criticized as being lengthy or boring – a bit like some people see our music, haha. The samples we picked have in very few words what I see as the essence of the story. This was my idea behind it, but as most of the people listening to our music do not speak Russian, it is just a piece of atmosphere added to to the song’s dramaturgy. And of course it suits our name well to have some Russian snippets on the album again.
How do you see your own progress on Tunguska as a song-writer?
As I mentioned before, none of us has ever been in the situation before where he really had to finish writing songs within a certain schedule. This was a challenge and it was not easy. However, we tried to make things a bit different from our first album. We had some ideas about what we could change, and although we still just start jamming and pick the best parts, we talked a lot more about how the song should develop before starting serious work on it. On the first album we just let it flow and followed our spontaneous ideas. Both approaches have their pros and cons, so I would not say we go this or the other way on the next album.
Has the attitude toward Russia changed radically in German society over the last two years?
I think so, yes. Although I don’t know if it is the attitude toward Russia as a country or mainly toward the politics. In fact, the fear of war which was in our subconscious over the years of the cold war has to some extent returned now. Suddenly people have become aware that eternal peace in Europe was just a sweet dream and that it might just be over pretty soon. It is interesting to see, that this only happened after the crisis in Crimea and Ukraine had escalated and not already when the conflict in South Ossetia and Abchasia turned into war.
I must say, and I know I am not alone with this opinion, that I could not say this side (Ukraine, EU) or the other side (Russia) is guilty in these conflicts in Ukraine. There are very controversal discussions about this in Germany. But this “headline” Novorossija is frightening many people as it suggests that Donbass and Crimea are not the end but just the beginning of a war. You could definitely endlessly argue, if EU’s politics are less aggressive only because they are not raising territorial claims. Anyhow, I see a huge difference between putting countries under political or economical pressure and supporting or fighting a war. And this is actually how Russia’s politics currently are perceived and what has completely changed the feelings of the majority about Russia.
Please tell us the story of one of songs from this album.
“Solaris” was the last song we finished for the album, and after all the heavy shit we had written so far, we wanted one song to be more relaxed and spacey yet having a good groove. We started to work with what we had recorded a couple of weeks before during a jam session, and after a few rehearsals I started thinking about a topic and pretty quickly Solaris came to my mind — the depressive silence and solitude in Tarkovsky’s movie, the energy Kelvin has in the beginning when he is trying to cope with the situation.
I had to think about the pictures of the ocean and the sculptures being created by it that Lem describes in his novel, and the despair of the people being exposed to something their minds cannot grab. This is, roughly, what I see in these different parts of the song. We have just released a video where we try to deliver pictures to illustrate these motives. It was a great coincidence that we had picked this song for a video, as for a good number of people it is the favorite track on the album.
With which bands do people usually compare Shakhtyor?
Well, those writers giving popular examples as a guideline to the reader often name Neurosis and Cult of Luna, and I guess that makes sense, although our stuff is of course not as elaborate as their music. However, I cannot remember anybody ever saying we sound like this or that band in particular, and this really satisfies me. Over the years, I have played in several bands who just wanted to sound like certain great bands from their genre and I am really sick of that. I’d rather do something which is more or less unique and nobody listening to it instead of trying to be a clone.
What was your favorite book when you went to school?
Как закалялась сталь. Haha, no, I read this much later, mainly because my cousins from eastern Germany had always complained they had to read it, and I must say, it is a good read from the historical point of view. What I read when I went to school is in fact not very exciting as many kids love to read it at the age of 17-18, but I really loved Hermann Hesse and mainly Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). I must admit I do not remember much of it, but it was a book I really got lost in.
Chris, that’s all for today – thank you for your answers. As Shakhtyor is an instrumental band… do you have something important to say to our readers?
Stay curious and keep exploring. And this does not only refer to music, but to the world in general. And it also involves trying to understand other cultures, people, and nations.