(We present DJ Jet‘s fascinating interview of Lasota, vocalist and guitarist of the Polish pagan metal band Varmia, whose new album bal Lada (recorded under very unusual conditions, as you will learn) was released on March 12th by M-Theory Audio.)
When forming the band in 2016 what was your mission or vision for this band?
Hi. Well the goal at the time was very simple. I had the album written and it had to be recorded. The concept was to do it live in a makeshift studio to avoid the “usual studio” vibe. So we ended up in an old barn that we rented for two weeks. After that I started to think how to release the album and that it would be great to play these songs live. Everything went together smoothly and people seemed to like it. So we put it out, settled as a band, and started to play the shows.
I always felt that this would be far more than just a single shot “project” (hate this term). Varmia appeared to me as a beast that needs to be fed. So we have been feeding it since 2016 now.
Who is in the band and have you all been in a band prior to Varmia?
Apart from me in the current line up we have drummer Svarrge, who is also my right-hand man, the bass player and backing vocalist Alle, and Piotr, who plays all the ethnical instruments and utilises his voice in live situations also. We all played in many different bands. I played for some time together with Svarrge in a death metal band, Insidius. But other band members started playing together in Varmia.
You utilize slavic instruments like goat horn and the tagelharpa in your compositions. What do you wish these instruments to bring forth in your music?
Not slavic but Baltic to be precise. Of course it’s hard to say for 100% but it seems that the origins of these instruments lay further in the north. So rather Scandinavian than slavic. But dubious history aside, these instruments produce very primal sounds. Very touching and hard to ignore. There is something deeply archaic that resonates with every single listener that we’ve ever met. So we use them as sonic gateways to the deeper trance when listening. We need them to invoke the voice of our ancestors.
What does your lyrical content in your music reflect and what is it inspired by?
It reflects the states of spirit that I feel our ancestors (ancient Prussians) had. Their mindset, their attitude to sacrum and profanum. Their worships, their hate. Their repulsion to the invaders at the time. Their lust for blood and adoration of the cycles of the year. Our lyrics can mean a hundred different things and they are really what the listener is seeing in them. But they originate from my heart, and it is pulsing in unison with the rivers of Warmia.
Now in singing you utilize both clean singing as well as a more growly singing. Why do you use both techniques in your music?
We combine too many musical shades to limit ourselves to just growls. Or only clean singing. Our music is seeded in black metal. And for that side I cannot imagine anything else than vicious, in your face screams from the bottom of the gut. In my version when you hear the vocals in extreme metal you should feel as the singer is spitting fire to your face. But then we have all that legacy of intimidating harmonies in our music. They require the sound to have a pitch, and for that we introduce a white voice. It is an ancient singing technique that was used during the festivals or ceremonies in our territory (but not only there, of course). It is an emotionally “enriched” type of voice that is also called “shouting singing”. You must hear it to appreciate its value. It is a medium to channel this ritualistic vibe. Throat singing is something that we use for that purpose as well.
The band has 3 albums to date, the newest being bal Lada, but what’s interesting about Varmia is the un-traditional, intensive way you go about recording these albums. Explain to us how you went about recording the first 2 albums and what you are looking for in a recording space.
As I mentioned we record our music live. That means the whole band is playing the song that’s being recorded. This is the method that was used back in the days (’60s, ’70s, ’80s) when the studios weren’t capable of recording vast amounts of tracks per instrument and making overdubs easily. So the setup was designed in a way to capture the whole band playing the song and that was almost the final sound.
This scenario requires the band to play the music perfectly. Basically, if one instrument screws the take, then everyone has to do it again. Until they nail it. And that is our mindset when we record as well. This is extremely demanding from each musician. You should practice your shit on your own, then with the whole band, and only then you can think about recording. Kind of the other way around when you look at the studio routines these days. In the digital sound domain you can record one riff until you die.
But our goal is not to put more work into the process just for the sake of it. We aim for the result, and the result is the invitation of the listener to immerse in the sound of four people playing together. That is energy and that cannot be faked. It’s either present on the record or not. In our albums you can hear small mistakes in every instrument. But that’s because we’re reaching the maximum of our skills. When you play like this the adrenaline level is beyond measurements.
On our first album Z mar twych we recorded everything at the barn I mentioned. Meaning the band first, and then the vocals after that. On w ciele nie we wanted to extend these boundaries, and after recording the band in that same barn we moved into the forest. And there we recorded vocals. I was never a fan of artificial reverbs and studio trickery when it comes to perception of space in the sound. So I tried to capture the voice with a natural, most unique and intimidating reverberation I knew – the one of the forest. It blended together with the harsh and dirty music that this album serves very naturally. I don’t want to mention how singing and screaming in such an environment opens up your creativity. You enter a different world.
Anyhow, we take a great deal of preparations to do things our way but it’s all worth it.
Which brings us up to your newest record bal Lada. You went out in search of a new place to record this time and found it in an old manor in the Polish countryside. First of all, how the heck did you find this place and what about it appealed to you?
That was a process. To find such a place is really a challenge. It requires so many factors when you want to set up a remote studio. You need electricity, but it has to be distant from civilization. But it must be safe to reside there with expensive equipment for two weeks. It must have something unique when it comes to its acoustics. But it has to be ready to take loud noises and quiet instruments. Not to mention that the owner has to be open to the idea of a bunch of strangers doing strange things in there for some time. And so on…
We searched for this place a good six months before we found it. That manor was a spectacular surprise, and what a place to visit! The acoustics there were perfect for our needs, the environment – even better. Very remote and with great owners who helped us a lot in all that madness. Only negative thing was that there was no running water and we had to take it from the well. But that’s alright. It is in the very beautiful countryside in the north of Poland. Our neighborhood. It was built in the 19th century and has its own history. Dark history. So it all blended together perfectly.
How do you prep yourselves before moving into your recording space to record?
A lot of rehearsing. That was crucial. Other than that, all the logistics regarding the recording and transportation. bal Lada is the first record that I engineered on my own. On Z mar twych and w ciele nie I had at least one engineer to help me with technical stuff, studio setup, mic placements, and tracking into the computer. This time I was on my own, so I had to assemble the list of equipment to be rented, call people, make deals, etc. It was extremely hard when we started there because constantly something was not working right. But we did it eventually.
Also there were a lot of accommodation issues that we had to take care of. I mentioned lack of running water and bathrooms, and sleeping in bunks. Consider that in the end we spent ten days in a ruined manor. When everything was at the location then I had to decide how the band would be placed in the room. It was crucial because the sound bleed between the microphones could kill the mixing stage later on. So I spent like two or three days making a soundcheck of every possible band placement configuration. After that decision, we started to set up our gear.
Also how do you prep yourselves musically before heading to the recording space?
Tons of rehearsals. Individual practicing as well. Basic stuff but intensified.
I assume recording like this would bring many challenges. What were some that you had to deal with?
Oh yes, hell of a lot. First of all you have to accept that this “archaic” recording will be compared to nowadays productions. And nowadays productions are filled with samples, triggers, quad overdubbed guitars (not to mention vocals) and quantized drums. So you need to beat these standards somehow. And it can be done. At least in my opinion. The raw energy that goes with a whole live take is unquestionably far more interesting to the listener than predictable metronome – aligned grooves. So that is the main challenge. Not how to choose the mics, not how to tune drums. But how to extract the essence of the whole record so it will stand its ground when compared to the modern productions. The focus during the tracking was unbelievable. And exciting at the same time.
In watching how the album was made you did some recording inside and outside. What acoustics are you looking for in both places?
When it comes to the vocals on bal Lada we combined two acoustical environments. Some parts I sang in the manor and some of them in the forest (as on w ciele nie). Some of the parts required that feeling of a closed space and some the opposite. When you hear the album it should strike you what’s what. That was the intention.
Did you ever consider recording in a studio?
No, not at all. It is not for us anymore. Once you touch this world “beyond” the studio, then you don’t want to get back there. It simply doesn’t make any sense. At least not for Varmia’s music.
So tell us about bal Lada — what are the songs about?
They correspond with the album title and its explanation. Also the cover art is a reflection of the songs. It’s always hard to answer that question. I intend to write the lyrics in a poetic manner. So they are kind of open to interpretation. There’s something about the writing process that I don’t fully comprehend to be honest. Like shots of inspiration… Hard to describe. But however you approach these lyrics you will find praising of the elemental forces and embracing the cycles of life and death in them. There is an English translation to each song in the CD version of the album, and I strongly encourage everybody to give it a try.
What is the mixing and mastering process like after recording in the way you do?
Well it’s a good question ’cause it’s not the usual mixing and mastering. When you start a production like this, you must hear the final version in your head already. Otherwise you will end up totally confused and won’t know how to approach the final stage. There are so many problems during tracking a loud metal band playing live in one room that we could make a separate interview for that. But my point is that mixing starts with the recording and recording starts with the composing. That’s the only way to go in the case of Varmia.
Since this time I was tracking the whole record myself I put a lot of time into giving all the sounds a character as we recorded them. So no “fixing later” here. I can tell you a little secret weapon that we use when recording and that is an old ’80s analog D&R Orion recording desk. I’ve owned it for some time now and revealed its potential. Having all that I aimed to get as final a sound during the recording as I could get. Meaning – less work in mixing. Just small polishing and not screwing what we already have.
But of course these things never go as planned and the mixing was very complicated and took a lot of missed shots. But when I eventually had it, I knew it right away. From that moment the record started to have its own sovereign sound. And after that it was only polishing.
Tell us a little about the cover art?
It is designed and made by Piotr, who played all the ethnic instruments on the record. He spent a lot of time crafting it and in our opinion he eventually nailed it. It depicts a ritualistic dance of deity-like creatures. They are heading to take part in a ritual that is taking place somewhere in the woods. They are going to take place in Lada’s ball. This cover binds the ritualistic atmosphere of the whole record. I especially like the element of souls living in the trees which is a belief taken directly from our ancestor’s cult. The ancient Prussian’s one.
Have you ever entertained the idea of recording an album in English?
I did that with some other bands. But it isn’t my thing anymore. English is so easy to use as a coverage for a non-native English band. Lack of merit, lack of message. They can be veiled by some “usual” metal words. We’ve gotten so used to how it sounds that one can even sometimes guess the next words. And I’m talking about it with some experience in that. When I started to write in Polish it felt like I became naked in front of the microphone. It feels like you’re serving yourself instead of just your voice to the listener. I cannot go backwards from that. And I’m constantly trying to find new means to translate my lyrics the best I can.
Has the pandemic affected the band in any way, including in a mental way in how you all perceive things now?
I think we don’t allow ourselves to feel diminished by the pandemic and all the closures. I’d say we even try to boost the tempo. So things are happening behind the scenes as we speak and I think we will be very fertile in the future. But who knows, maybe we just keep running straight ahead like a coyote from the cartoons. And maybe if we don’t stop or look down, we will make it to the other side… If that doesn’t sound mental then it means we’re still ok.
So what plans does the band have for the rest of the year.
Releasing and promoting bal Lada is our main focus. It gets out on March 12th via M-Theory Audio, so make sure you don’t miss it! We are a part of a rescheduled Heathen Heroes tour that is co-headlined by Tyr and Arkona. It’s supposed to take place in September this year. If it comes to fruition then we will visit Scandinavia, Belgium, Netherlands, France, and Germany for two weeks. So fingers crossed, still.
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us today and thank you for putting all this effort into making such wonderful and unique albums for us to enjoy. We wish you all the best!
Thanks for that statement and for the interview. I’m glad that this hard work translates into an emotional response. In the end that’s all that matters!
TO STREAM AND BUY BAL LADA:
Cool interview. Much thanks <3
Varmia are a good outfit. Always interesting to see what will come out next from the boys.