(In this week’s edition of WAXING LYRICAL, Andy Synn presents the results of his interview with Sami and Tanner of long-time NCS favorites Oak Pantheon, whose new EP Sol was released last spring.)
Anyone who’s been a regular reader of NCS for any decent amount of time will undoubtedly recognise the name Oak Pantheon, as we’ve been writing about and supporting the band practically since their inception, and have covered practically everything they’ve released thus far, to a greater or lesser extent.
The one thing we haven’t really had much chance to go into detail about, however, is their latest EP, Sol, which sees them breaking from their established pattern and pursuing a calmer and more contemplative, Neo-folk-influenced sound.
Thankfully I was able to corral guitarist/vocalist Sami Sati and guitarist/backing vocalist Tanner Swenson to participate in this latest edition of Waxing Lyrical, where you’ll find a wide range of information about all stages of the band’s career, including the mindset and process behind their newest and most unusual release.
Tanner: Before I begin, I want to note that working on this article is really the first time I’ve gotten a chance to sit down and reflect on our lyrics and process, so we’ll all be learning together! For a little background, Sami and I have been writing music together for more than a decade now and started working with Sean (Golyer) at the tail end of our time in our previous band, Omega Messiah.
After that band split up, Sami and Sean worked together on a song that eventually ended up on our first EP, “Architect of the Void Pt. 1”, and I ended up helping them program the drums. And after the extreme critical and monetary success of the song (cough…), we decided to make a project out of it and became… Oak Pantheon.
Typically, Sami and I write and demo songs individually, then we choose which ones to pursue and put on the next release. Our lyric writing process generally follows a similar format, with the primary composer taking the reins and the other (as well as Sean) making smaller contributions.
Sami: My start to writing lyrics was realizing that we needed words for a song! They definitely came after the music in our case. I’m excited to be writing for this, as it’s one element of song writing I’ve come to enjoy more over the years, even if it’s still the most challenging part to me.
Tanner: As I’m writing this, I’m finding that my inspiration comes from a few key places:
- Things going on in my life and in the lives of others close to me are an inspiration. For example, “Aspen” was inspired by the sudden death of my wife’s family dog and her feelings immediately following that event.
- Things going on in the news or that I’m reading/watching/listening to give me ideas. An example of that is a recent high-profile arrest related to a cult, which, along with an interest in true crime, inspired the lyrics for an upcoming song.
- Sometimes my worldviews or philosophy lessons sneak their way to the surface. For example, “GodSon” is about the individual futility of fighting for a cause or joining a side, but the overall necessity for both sides to exist to maintain the balance of our society.
- Just as often, I’ll work out one or two vocal melodies during the early stages of song writing and come up with a random, vague line, then try to figure out what the hell makes sense to write about so I don’t have to change that line, dammit!
Unfortunately, lyrics are almost always the last piece of the songwriting puzzle, and the part I dread most. Between raising a family, owning a home, working my real job, and maintaining my Grecian Ideal physique, I hardly have time to wipe my own ass, let alone be bothered with sitting down in a quiet room to let my shallow thoughts spill onto paper. I’m an engineer and I have an engineer’s brain. That is, I can’t help but try to be as clear and concise as possible when writing. I have a very hard time being metaphorical or mysterious with my lyrics, and I usually feel like I’m just delivering my “message” in a really hamfisted and obvious way.
Part of that is just being overly self-critical, but usually just looking at some of my favorite band’s lyrics and thinking, “Hey, those kind of suck, too! And they’re alright!” helps me get over it.
Sami: The process isn’t the same every time, but usually I come up with a song title, then write a song to fit the song title, then write lyrics after a demo for the music has been made.
I try to change up the formula to get new ideas, and “Mirth of the Divine” was the first song where I wrote lyrics while writing the song. I was focusing on getting better at singing while playing guitar at the time so I wanted to essentially write an easier song for that purpose. All of the lyrics to that song were just phrases that came to mind while strumming the guitar without thinking too hard about what it all meant. The end result was a set of lyrics that are without a doubt the most true to who I am, so I’ll definitely use this approach to writing lyrics more in the future.
One big source of inspiration comes from stories, whether that be film, books, comics, or video games. Ok, mostly it’s comics and video games. Mixed into all of that are my philosophical views on life. Often writing lyrics is also a moment for me to vent. Songs like “We Will Tear Down the Gods” and “Pavor Nocturnis” are largely self-absorbed explorations of depression and self-pity, and overcoming those struggles. The entirety of Sol was essentially me (very quietly) shouting about how humankind is bringing about its own end. Lastly, I try and walk around outside while writing lyrics to get some sort of inspiration from nature. Granted, that’s been a bit of a different experience in recent years due to living right in the middle of the city.
My favorite genre of music when I was younger was power metal, and as a result I enjoy trying to tell some sort of story in lyrics. That’s one aspect I think I could get better at, but at the end of the day what sounds good with the music is more important than a cohesive narrative. Sometimes leaving the lyrics a bit vague also lets the listener create their own story as well, so I try and steer in that direction whenever possible.
So one thing I want to make clear before you read anything else: if you have your own interpretations of our lyrics that’s different from our own, that’s perfectly fine. Music in the instrumental form is a very abstract art that explains things that you just can’t say in words. Sometimes there are no words that could ever fit a particular passage of music, and it’s important to me to clarify that what you get from our music is more important than what you get from our words.
Sami: This line from “Exercises in Futility I” by Mgla is one of my favourites of all-time:
There is something about the rigid posture of a proper, authentic blind.
As if extended arms reached to pass his blindness onto others.
No other line has stuck with me quite as long as that one has.
It’s full of fantastic imagery, and I’d be willing to bet it’s the band’s favorite line as well since it’s on the damn album cover.
It reminds me a lot of the phrase “misery loves company” in the sense that people are often all too willing to subject others to the things that blinded them in life. Addicts get other people addicted, people with hateful views will indoctrinate others into their worldview, and so on.
I’m also a big fan of “Eagle Fly Free” by Helloween, though it’s hard to pick a specific line from this song:
People are in big confusion
They don’t like their constitutions
Every day, they draw conclusions
And they’re still prepared for war
The lyrics meant so much to me when I was younger that I still remember attempting to draw them all out in a metal font on a poster along with a drawing of an Eagle when I was younger. Let’s just say I stuck to music and not drawing.
Tanner: I would say that my lyric-writing process has developed the least relative to all other aspects related to music. Writing is a totally different artform, and it is one I don’t practice outside of writing lyrics. By nature, I obsess much more over the composition, pacing, and instrumentation of our songs than the words. In fact, I have always had a hard time remembering lyrics, even from some of my all-time favorite songs/albums/artists. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. That said, I am proud of a lot of my lyrics and only cringe sometimes when listening through our back catalogue.
Sami: Early on the writing process was definitely much more focused on finding “Metal” sounding words or phrases and cramming it all together. But recently with Sol, I’ve tried to come up with one central theme and tie everything together within the song. With the lyrics on that release, I was particularly fond of repeating phrases slightly differently each time. It seems to drive the point home a bit more, especially if there’s an idea I really want to get across in the song.
Tanner: As far as older songs, it might be interesting to dissect “It” off the album From a Whisper.
I wrote most of the song well before Oak Pantheon existed and always had the idea to base it off of the Stephen King book that I had recently finished reading. However I never finished writing lyrics based on that theme and the song collected dust for a few years. I brought it to the table when we started thinking about From a Whisper, but I didn’t want to make the song directly related to the book, so I took the concept of a singular monster and ended up writing about manipulation and herd mentality. The following lyrics paint a fairly literal picture of a crowd forming around a crater that opens in the earth, from which some sort of creature emerges. The crowd is mesmerized and submits to the creature:
Dark clouds roll in
A curtain of mist masks a sky that’s falling down
A violent tremor
Shakes the ground beneath
Expands and contracts as it crumbles from within
Two tattered claws, dark shrouded head
A shapeless form drags Itself from the crater
We assemble around It and we hear Its praise
It says we’re unique just like everybody else
I’m realizing now that manipulation is a theme that I’ve explored a number of times, such as “Climb” off of the album In Pieces and the aforementioned to-be-released song about cults.
Sami: For an older song from me, why not go with the first Oak Pantheon song, “Architect of the Void”?
I know exactly where my headspace was with this song. It was written when I was still an edgy teenager, had a very nihilistic outlook on life, and resented God. And… not much has really changed on that subject as I’ve gotten older. At the time I really wanted to write a song about a character going on a journey to kill a God.
Part I focuses on why the character wants to kill “The Architect”, and Part II is the actual confrontation itself. The Architect is meant to be the leader and creator in a pantheon of gods.
From the top of this tower I’ve watched it for so long
Aeons corrupted as the world rots away…
After the obnoxiously happy intro, the first verse is about said character standing from atop a tower and looking at what he perceives to be a bleak and hopeless world that is slowly becoming worse. The blame is placed entirely on The Architect, who is meant to be portrayed as a sneaky bastard who hides in shame.
You reform the clouds to show a glimpse of heaven
You’ll show no mercy, architect of the void.
I wanted to add this line to show that The Architect is capable of creating beauty as well as horror in the world. But only for a moment, as if done intentionally to make the suffering in life seem that much worse in comparison.
I will journey past the stars to find you
I know you will be there waiting
And thus, the character ventures forth to find The Architect and confront him. To ask him all the questions that aren’t answered in religious texts, or wisdom passed down from generations. This line is what the entire song is about at its core. Regardless of whether you’re religious, agnostic, atheist, christian, pagan, or what-have-you, I think many of us have had moments where we desperately wanted to speak to a creator and figure out just for certain what the hell is going on.
In Part 2 the character figures out a way to reach the heavens. And… he never knows if he reaches The Architect. He never has his questions answered.
Such a feeble thing is man
In the mercy of a god
The wisdom we’ve repressed
No reason comes to mind
Since the character loses in his confrontation with The Architect before it even starts, he’s now forced to recognize how powerless he is in the grand scope of existence and how some of what he wants to know may be inherent human knowledge repressed by outside forces.
I’ve been longing… for what, I don’t know
A grim solitude dismantles my soul
I want everything, the world and the sun
To know how it was made and why!?
After some sounds of earth and an interlude, the final verse is meant to be a moment of reflection. More of a post-mortem reflection on what I meant, but the anger expressed at The Architect by this character symbolizes how it’s easier to blame your problems on outside forces than blaming them on yourself, but when confronting those outside forces they often turn out to not be the cause of grief.
I won’t say what the audio clip is from this track, but as a hint: the last two lines are a direct quote from the source.
Tanner: As far as more recent songs, I think “GodSon” off of the album In Pieces is kind of interesting. The general theme of the song is balance. My frame of mind when writing was that, for any major issue, there will always be two sides, and neither side will ever be fully happy, so both sides will always be fighting.
As an individual, I tend to have trouble forming decisive opinions because I can typically rationalize each point of view, especially if the issue doesn’t directly or strongly affect me. The lyrics suggest that, to the individual, it’s futile to join a cause because there is no winning. However, there is a necessary balance held in equilibrium by the two opposite forces pushing against each other that doesn’t allow the solution to fall too far to one side.
Detractors say the cause is futile
We’ll never stop their evil ways
But we must tip the scales of justice
In equilibrium it stays
As I was writing the description of the lyrics above, I realized that the lyrics are more likely a reflection on my own indecisiveness, rather than a broad social commentary. In fact, I tend to write lyrics through the eyes of some first-person character, so maybe some of my other lyrics are also a reflection of some part of me on a subconscious level.
Sami: “Falling” is another song that talks about the subject of Gods, but this time I had a much clearer goal in mind. The goal was to express my combined atheistic and agnostic beliefs using pagan imagery.
Did you really think there were any gods…
Other than Death and I?
Did you really think there were any gods…
Other than Sol and I?
The only godly forces that I believe in are life and death, as they are the only things I can confirm with my own senses. Life being personified by the Sun in this case.
Originally, I wanted this EP to be more about nature having consciousness of its own, and actively trying to kill humanity. Sort of in the same way that someone’s immune system would attempt to kill a parasite or disease. That didn’t entirely make it in as originally planned, but the imagery of the sun flying at the earth was one element of that that stayed in.
A godless world
With senseless greed
A smell of smog in the air
It’s never enough
The middle section of the song is pointing out all the things that are bringing about the destruction of humankind. I was hesitant about keeping this section in as it still feels a bit preachy to me. The only disclaimer I can add is that I don’t exclude myself from these human behaviours.
Sami: As noted before, these are just my interpretations of the lyrics I’ve written. I know I’ve had few of my favourite songs ruined by an artist awkwardly explaining the exact specific meaning of their work, and I’m hoping that if you enjoy making up your own stories or connecting songs in ways they relate to your own life that this doesn’t detract from that. I always love reading other people’s interpretations of songs, so please feel free to comment on this article about what any particular song may mean to you.
Tanner: And thanks again to NCS for all the continued support and interest in what we have to say!