AN NCS INTERVIEW: MICHELLE NOCON (BATHSHEBA, DEATH PENALTY, LEVIATHAN SPEAKS)
(We welcome Comrade Aleks back to NCS with this wide-ranging interview of Michelle Nocon, which delves into her participation in Bathsheba, whose new album is out now on Svart Records, as well as her work with Death Penalty and her solo project Leviathan Speaks. All photos by Burning Moon except where noted.)
Doom band Bathsheba is named after a personage of the Hebrew Bible, the woman of complex fate, “daughter of the oath”. What made this Belgian outfit choose it? Have patience my friend, for soon we’ll learn the answer!
The band was formed by members of a few local death and doom bands in 2013, and its lineup has been the same since then. Raf plays bass, Jelle is the drummer, Dwight plays guitars, and Michelle is the vocalist. Michelle also sang in Gaz Jennings’ Death Penalty, so there were at least two reasons to get in contact with her, as Death Penalty has been silent, and Bathsheba released their debut full-length Servus just in February 2017.
Hi Michelle! I don’t know where to start… Death Penalty have been silent for a while, and your other band Bathsheba just released debut full-length, Servus. What is the most active project for you today?
Hello. Well, Death Penalty is the project of Gaz Jennings where I sang on the album. Bathsheba is really my band. We indeed just got our album out, so it’s all very exciting! I also have a solo project called Leviathan Speaks.
Speaking about Bathsheba – you’ve chosen a pretty specific name connected with an Old Testament story. What attracted you in this plot? Is the song “Daughter of the Oath” dedicated to it?
Indeed a dedication! When we were looking for band names we thought that the fact of having a representative for the band would be great. Bathsheba is a monster with many faces, so we were looking for that monster and found her in Bathsheba. She’s somewhat in the background but she’s very versatile, complex, and prominent, as she was the mother of Solomon, seductress of King David, Daughter of the Oath, she was said to be a witch…. There’s a lot of complexity and mystery about her. She did project a whole spectrum of complex realities, and that really appealed strongly to us.
Both of your bands are different: Bathsheba is slow and hypnotic, Death Penalty is dynamic and vivid. Which one has more of Michelle Nocon?
That’s an interesting question! It is true, there are two very extreme different sides in me as a person. The one very wild, nonchalant, expressive, funny… The other one closed, calm, timid, and frustrated. I can surely say I enjoyed doing my thing in Death Penalty, but I feel I am definitely more myself in Bathsheba somehow.
Maybe this is also due to the fact that it works differently. Bathsheba is a group of friends who work together. When we made the album with Death Penalty, Gaz had written all the songs and he then asked me to make vocal lines and lyrics on them. But overall I became more free in my creativity through Bathsheba and Bathsheba has become more personal because of that. I think you can see, hear, and feel more of Michelle in Bathsheba. I can also express myself through other means than vocals and lyrics. I was a bit ‘in charge’ of the artistic side of Bathsheba; artwork, the video for “Demon 13”, pictures, etc. So I really enjoy that, to be able to give more and create a whole atmosphere.
Bathsheba – Demon 13
Does playing in Bathsheba have a therapeutic effect on you? Does it differ when you perform the songs on stage?
It definitely is therapeutic. So many themes in Bathsheba are never spoken of out loud to anyone. I’m kind of closed when it comes to speaking about my emotions or personal life. So it’s in a way quite a challenge to be so personal toward so many people. Of course it’s all very cryptic, so I don’t give away too much of myself somehow. But when something so heavy is inside of you so long, and you write that down, record it, and send it into the world, also with all the artwork and video’s, etc… it’s quite a thing.
And playing live is even more honest, I think. In the studio you need to succeed and there’s people listening to you differently. When you perform it’s the whole experience, I think. You perform your feelings in front of so many people. It’s not just music. It’s something from inside of you. And even though I keep a lot of anger and frustration inside, which I think is felt by the audience when we play live, some pressure definitely comes off. After a gig I’m actually not really approachable or communicative. I try, but… I give so much of myself that I have to calm down and get back to a more normal state of mind. The energy builds up inside me already before I go on stage… It takes much from me.
Michelle, you write lyrics for both bands. How do your themes differ in the songs of Bathsheba and Death Penalty?
Death Penalty’s lyrics are a bit more concrete. They are about betrayal, aggression, love… things anyone can find here on earth somehow. Sometimes they are also a bit more cheeky and playful in a way. The lyrics for Bathsheba touch a more profound part of feelings. They are about more complex and deeper feelings and heavier themes that are maybe not for everyone. They are also even more personal somehow because it’s something that really cuts deep within me. So it was scary in a way to tell that part and let it go into the world.
I mean, everyone has been in love, everyone has been betrayed or angry. But to express something that is so deep within you and so immensely heavy… it took much of me somehow. Also, in a way the lyrics with Bathsheba are more abstract. Because a big part of them are about the shapelessness of sorrow. How to be crushed under that shapeless monster, wondering if that is all what you are here. So it also has an esoteric and spiritual depth where you wonder what’s there. What’s the purpose of all the suffering and how does the soul react after all the things you went through and the choices you’ve made.
How would you sum up Bathsheba’s message? Your lyrics sound very personal but from the outside some could see Bathsheba as another “occult doom band with a lady on vocals”. Though you don’t sing (at least with direct words) about summoning of the devil and sacrificing innocence on the altar…
I don’t really think we carry out a message, maybe that sounds strange. I think it’s rather an expression of what 4 different people have inside. And it’s maybe a bit more personal to me somehow because I write the lyrics also, etc. But to me at least it’s more about myself or our process than about what people can get out of it. That may sound very selfish somehow but that is how it is.
I don’t think any of us make music for someone else, we do this for ourselves. And we do this quite indifferent to what people make of it. Of course we are glad people like it, because if no one wants to hear it then you don’t have all these awesome gigs. So we are grateful, but we do what we feel we must do for ourselves. And that makes it even more special when people still like it then.
Of course, people come in all sizes and some will find it another boring female-fronted doom band, and that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to have their opinion. Others will like it. And some others will really understand it fully. I would rather have 100 fans who really truly get it, than 100,000 people who come see us because, I don’t know… they find it popular or they have the sweets for our drummer or whatever….
Servus is a multi-layered album. You have saxophone, some avant-garde themes, and a pretty lot of everything in your material. Did you limit yourselves during its recording?
Yes and no. I think the point of the record was to express what’s there, indifferent to anything really. Indifferent to what people might think, indifferent to a genre… So in that way it wasn’t limited. But you find that you are somewhat limited as a person. Limited in your own abilities, limited in practical things like time, or limited in creativity, you have fears or shame, etc. I found myself as freely as I could be for this album, but still too limited to get out everything I want for the future. So I hope that I can grow and become less limited with everything I do.
I believe I am quite free when compared to the ‘norms of society’, even in an artistic alternative, and musical scene. And this is what I want in life, to become myself even more and more, free of limits that are given to us by society or by ourselves or anything really. That to me is the beauty of music, it should be limitless. No one can tell you what you can make musically or not, and that freedom is so immensely precious.
Death Penalty – Immortal by Your Hand
Returning to Death Penalty… What did you want to gain with Death Penalty, and why has there been no news from the band?
Well, I was just surprisingly messaged by Lee and Gaz if I wanted to sing on Gaz’ album. So I was lucky to be on that ride really. I know Gaz had written shitloads of music he couldn’t use for Cathedral and he was still writing so many new things he wanted to use, so he really wanted to get an album out. It’s truly amazing how he can just make up such great riffs without any effort! That guy has such creativity and skill… It’s very unusual!
He said he always ‘had something’ with my voice since he heard it when Weight of Light came out on Rise Above Records. So he thought he’d give it a try and ask me because he thought I would not be interested! And that was that. The second album was as good as finished in 2014 but things are sometimes complicated and life gets in the way. Meanwhile, I was busy with Bathsheba and Gaz with Lucifer, so time passes quickly.
Do you mean that Gaz composed it whole, or did you manage to record something in the studio?
When Gaz contacted me he had 18 songs completely ready. So I worked on the ones that spoke to me the most. Sometimes singing on parts where I shouldn’t sing, but Gaz somehow liked it because he thought it was awkward and then he changed the structures a bit more suited to my vocal lines. And that was that really. So within 3 months or so we recorded a ‘demo’ of all the songs we recorded in the studio. He recorded the guitars and programmed basic drums at his place and I the vocals at my place. And with that material we went into the studio and recorded the album there.
Death Penalty’s debut was something that people accepted with real enthusiasm. How do you see the strong sides of this material?
Yeah, everyone was very enthusiastic about it and that was great! Even though the album is kind of… maybe ‘too versatile’ somehow. Like it’s somehow a bit of this and a bit of that and can lack consistency in a way. But we stuck to it because we loved the songs, and brought it out like that.
What was your most vivid experience of being in Death Penalty?
The most vivid experience was probably being able to discover that other side of yourself, doing something you aren’t used to, and with that, building up a friendship with an awesome and humble musician. One of the highlights for me was Doom Over London. It was a great gig, well-organized by awesome people and we were amongst friends, we delivered a good show and had a great time.
What are your plans for Death Penalty’s sophomore album? I saw that Gaz left Lucifer, does it mean that he can spend more time on the band?
I have no idea truly. Gaz didn’t put Death Penalty on hold because of Lucifer, or he didn’t join Lucifer to put Death Penalty on hold. So for now I think it will be quiet still.
What drove you to gather Bathsheba? What was your vision of the band when you started it?
I knew Jelle from the tour we did together in 2008 I believe. Grandmagus, Sardonis (Jelle was the drummer), and Serpentcult (I was the singer). At the end of 2013 he send me an email saying he wanted to start a band with a Pallbearer and Wounded Kings vibe and a friend of his was the guitarist. I was immediately enthusiastic thinking of working with him. Jelle and me always got along well, he’s a super-kind and a fun person and I love his natural talent and how he gives himself in what he does. Even though I wanted a slightly different musical approach.
I’m not really that much into most doom. And I always wanted to start a sludge black metal thing or an avant-garde thing. But I had to try this! So they sent me one song, ‘The Sleepless Gods’, I made the vocal line and it just worked. Then I knew Raf well since we were friends, and he was interested in doing it. So there was definitely some sort of ‘vision’ to start with, but you see how things grow, and we all think it’s best to let things grow naturally and evolve as freely as possible.
Why did you leave Serpentcult?
To put it short, I felt I had told my story. We somehow grew apart, musically and as individuals as well, and I didn’t really feel that I could contribute anything to the music they were doing. So it was only the right thing to leave.
You sing in different manners in all of your bands. Was it difficult for you to switch from one to another way of singing when you performed in Death Penalty and Bathsheba?
Not at all. It was exactly that which I liked. I guess that’s why the vocals in Bathsheba are more versatile nowadays. I want to express fully what I feel. So sometimes it’s a soft whisper, another time it’s a monotonous chant, another time it could be an angry scream. It’s again this thing were I don’t want to limit myself and I want to experience myself and keep inventing things and discovering possibilities.
I also somehow have a love for weird music or weird vocals and I think it’s something that speaks to me because it’s also inside of me. I don’t always like the conventional stuff. I like edges, I like weirdness or rawness. I like it in people as well. When you see someone, who they really are, how beautiful this realness is to me, imperfections… I also love that in music, when it sounds difficult to listen to and it’s not what you expect, or weird rhythms that somehow feel ‘wrong’ or difficult to listen to.
What influenced Bathsheba when you worked out this gloom mesmerizing sound?
I think Jelle was influenced by Black Sabbath, Wounded Kings, while Dwight was influenced by Pallbearer, and Raf found more influence in Entombed. And I found most influence from life and death I think. I like some singers but I can’t really say I’m influenced much in what I do, at least not intentionally. The only person who influenced me, well it was actually a song called ‘Drift’ from Fear of God. A good friend of mine shared it with me saying, ‘You’ll dig this’, because he knows I like weird singing, and yeah… Dawn Crosby… That song made sure that something inside of me broke free somehow. All that frustration and sorrow, how to get it out. Not with the mind or technical skills but with the heart. So I opened my heart and this came out.
Jeremy Bézier recorded, mixed, and mastered Servus. How was it to work with him?
Truly amazing! We worked with him for the 10-inch and we were all so happy with that, we had no doubt going back for the full album. But when we recorded the full-length, it was even better. For me, I can never relax in the studio, never feel at ease, never want to try something new… but he changed that. He was very professional and great. He motivated us to try things and really pushed us to a higher level.
It was the first time that I really saw how important it is to have a good studio, a good producer, and someone who really gets it. His input really made a huge difference on the album. I also love the sound, it’s thick and heavy but it’s personal. Also the vocals… it’s the first time in my life that I can listen to myself. He really understood it and he made it even better.
Photo by Frederic Cardinaels, retouched by Olivier Lomer
Michelle, you also have another specific project – Leviathan Speaks. What is it?
Yes indeed. Well, it started as an ‘ambient black metal project’, just vocals. Nowadays I’m making more somewhat ambient triphop with some noise here and there. The main thing for me is that it can go anywhere. I like to just keep it as free as possible. Anything can happen. People used to describe it as a mix of Diamanda Galas and Coil, and now it has more of a Beck, Merzbow, Gazelle Twin, and Massive Attack flow. But yeah let the river choose it’s flow. J
What is its lyrical concept? The songs have a very ominous, apocalyptic vibe.
Leviathan Speaks is my own project where I do everything. So it’s the most personal thing I do. Because I’m involved in everything. I make every choice. It’s very selfish, that’s why I chose to take a picture of myself as the album cover and shirt design.
I like that it’s an extreme other part of me where the ego is very upfront. I make all the music, with all the possibilities and limitations I have. It’s even more personal because the lyrics are more earthly somehow and less cryptic, even though they still are susceptible to interpretation. I don’t like to tell it directly, or I find it uncomfortable to do so.
This is really therapeutic to me as well. I record all at home, so there’s no fear or pressure one might experience when in the studio. It’s low-fi, very honest, sometimes with mistakes ,etc. But that’s the whole thing. It has to be good but mostly it has to be pure. Many of the vocal lines are improvised so I capture that moment. And I can’t do that again, I can’t repeat that. The lyrics are mainly about how I stand in life, how I see people around me or how I experience reality.
What is very upfront in the lyrics to me is the confrontation with myself. Things inside me that aren’t pretty or good at all. You know, like things that you keep inside, because they are too ugly to tell. Everyone has it and it’s inevitably there somehow. But I accept it and it’s what it is. It’s not always pretty to tell but it’s very honest, and I always had some crush on darkness so it has a bit of an addicting effect on me. I don’t fight against it, it’s a part of me and I accept it.
What are your plans for playing live with Bathsheba, Death Penalty, and Leviathan Speaks in 2017?
No plans for Death Penalty.
For Bathsheba we will do some great gigs and festivals! What I already can announce is our release at the Botanique in Brussels 30 March. It will be a double one since Emptiness will release their new album as headliner. We play on Roadburn in the Netherlands, Rodeofest in Belgium, Dragonfest in the UK. We will play with Saint Vitus in the Netherlands, we will play at Leperfest in Belgium, Into The Void in the Netherlands… and we will announce some cool new shows soon, too!
For Leviathan Speaks I wasn’t supposed to go live with it but I got such a cool offer that I can’t refuse. So I might do some exclusive live gigs in the future. Soon I can announce that live gig, so definitely keep an eye on the page if you want to be there!
That should probably be Ieperfest, not Leperfest 🙂