At Bloodstock Open Air 2018, I was able to spend an hour with the Leeds-based progressive black metal Victorian menagerie that is A Forest of Stars. They had just finished their set on the Sophie Lancaster Stage and were riding a wave of adrenaline that placed them in an excitable, energetic, and joyous mood.
Before even beginning the interview, I sat with the band on an unstable picnic bench and talked about everything but music! I was expecting to be sat with The Gentleman (keyboards/pianoforte/percussion) and maybe Mister Curse (vocals), but instead the whole band—all seven members, as well as The Projectionist (the mastermind behind their artwork, videos and album artwork)—arrived. Drinking, crass jokes, z-movie horror talk and general excitable banter ensued before we even started recording. What follows this, painstakingly transcribed, is an interview that The Gentleman—in a choking fit of laughter—described as the “greatest ever.” We talk live performances, the writing process of their new album, lyrical themes, non-metal influences, and more:
You’ve just come off the Sophie Lancaster stage. How was it as shows go?
The Gentleman: It was absolutely fantastic. Slightly surreal, but absolutely fantastic. When you start it, the honest expectation for me when I went on stage was we’re going to do this and there’ll be a few people in the tent mingling about, and that’s alright, but most people are going to be out by the bar or seeing another band and that kind of stuff. But if you looked up again after a few minutes, the whole tent is full and it’s like “Ooooooh, okay.” That was absolutely amazing. It was forty minutes condensed to about thirty seconds, that’s how it felt really.
So you didn’t really expect that number of people. Would you say that because you’d consider yourself as being more of a niche band? You’re not going to draw in the Alestorm numbers for whatever reason.
Titus Lungbutter (bass): Yeah, for not sounding like Alestorm really!
The Gentleman: We were talking about this before, we’re kind of happy with the fact that we don’t really sit into any kind of niche.
(At this point in the interview more members of the band arrived. We were sat on a plastic picnic bench next to portaloos that were being serviced. The bench collapsed mid-way through, so we decided to move away from the noisiness of the toilet extraction into “nature.”)
Mister Curse: We’re not necessarily a festival band, but if there are people here who want to see us, all the better for it. But I wouldn’t expect the droll that Alestorm would get because, well, it’s…
Titus Lungbutter: They’re a party band!
Mister Curse: Yeah. I’m not going to call us cerebral, because that’s fucking pretentious isn’t it, let’s face it, but I’m a miserable sod and I’m quite self-obsessed with all this stuff. I’m very serious about the energy I put in to what I do—I’m sure we all are in our own way, we have a laugh with it as well, of course, because otherwise you’d go mad if you didn’t—but in a festival environment it’s surprising to see so many people turn up to watch us.
Katheryne, Queen of the Ghosts (violin/vocals): Yeah, I was surprised—it wasn’t even raining!
The Gentleman: We were expecting the reason why the tent might be full was because it would be raining, so that was incredibly flattering. As a gig, it was absolutely fantastic. It was bizarre and humbling to see so many.
This is from a personal perspective. A lot of my mates love A Forest of Stars. A lot of people I speak to or see online love A Forest of Stars. Do you think you maybe don’t realize that you’re a lot more popular than you think?
Katheryne: I don’t feel like we’re really popular.
The Projectionist: I think the closest thing to that is when you see people from Mexico who are a fan of A Forest of Stars, or Russia or Italy. That’s way more impressive than it has any right to be.
The Gentleman: We’re so caught up in our own little world of what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. It’s always really, really, really beautiful, and a pleasant surprise, wherever we go that suddenly there are people there.
Lungbutter: It’s flattering when people turn up.
The Gentleman: Exactly, it’s astonishing—we really genuinely don’t know. We’re not trying to underestimate anything. We think we have a grasp of everything and we clearly don’t! We don’t have time to actually think about what we’ve actually created and what it’s doing.
The Projectionist: It caught a lot of people in the band by surprise when we got picked up and continued to be successful.
Katheryne: Because I don’t think we were ever going to play live initially.
Because it does seem to be quite a complicated set to perform at times. You haven’t just got a verse, chorus, slam, verse again. There’s a lot of choreographing in terms of structuring yourselves live.
The Gentleman: We started as a band that were like “we want to create our first album and that’s it.” It was never meant to be played live, it was just meant to be the initial core of four people creating an album for the love of creating an album and nothing else. Weirdly, out of that came everything, which we weren’t expecting. From that, we gained band members so we could do it live, so we’re always massively humbly grateful for the fact that we’re able to be this way. And so with the arrangements of songs, the way we record each album is the way we recorded our first album—we try to mimic that every time.
We’ve had to become more professional about it and less alcoholic! Oh man, the amount we drunk on that first album when nobody cared. We weren’t signed, we weren’t anything. We were just creating an album and that was the best because we were so beautifully pissed and it was great. Now, of course you’ve got to do a bit more DUH DUH DUH. You’re given a massive advance to do this and make it right. So you’ve got to do and you’ve got to hand it in at this time. There’s a lot of it lost, unfortunately. From album to album, we’ve always done it as: we demo and record the album first then we figure out how to play it live which is totally the wrong way to do things. It’s just how we’ve ended up in our cycle of working it and we’ve never broken out of that cycle of things. We do everything the wrong way round. That’s probably more because it’s so fricking complicated with so many people.
Katheryne: We’ll all write little bits separately then bring it all together.
So now you’re on that difficult fifth album—some might call it your Black album. Did you see yourself being at this stage?
Mister Curse: Every single one is its own thing. I think maybe the second one was a bit of a jolt for me personally, just because you didn’t know if you were going to do it in the first place. So it was even a bit of a surprise coming to the second one. I’m always surprised if I can dredge some more inspiration up, personally. It isn’t a matter of how many albums it is, I don’t even consider that. I like to focus on the fact that we have done more records, but it’s unimportant that we’ve done this many, or not that many, or whatever. It’s more the fact that we’re still doing it and we’re all still grinning at each other. We’re a family and we do what we do. That’s my three pennies, or whatever the hell!
My impressions of the new album is that it’s a lot darker than previous albums, but there’s much more of a balance or contrast. For example, clean vocals balanced against some really quite dark sounding instrumentation and lyrics. The staggeringly beautiful third track of the album, “Tombward Bound,” was really, really emotional all around. Is that something you aimed for?
Katheryne: We’d like it to be really as dark as possible but I think it came naturally, really. We don’t plan any of it. It just evolves.
The Gentleman: That song is me and Wight-Barrow [guitars]. Half a song I had written and half a song Wight-Barrow had written and we smashed the two things together. When you’re talking about the darkness, that was… when I wrote all that stuff, and with Katheryne’s vocals (“Can you hear me, can you feel me?”). When I write a song, I use temp lyrics for Mister Curse to then put his stuff over, but with “Tombward Bound,” it was different. It was like a desperate shout into the void, of just like “fuck everything, nothing matters, I’m lost and in the middle of nowhere—nothing.” And that’s literally what I wanted to convey. That’s how I felt at the time, that’s how I was writing, and with everything I wrote for that album. It’s like a core inside of me that’s screaming out and it had to be heard and had to be shouted. But I knew that it was untouchable and impossible for anyone to touch. Trying to translate that into a song, I had to do that, an internal screaming that had to be touched. Katheryne did a fantastic job of translating that and everybody else as well with all the shit they’re doing. It was really passionate.
That’s the one song I keep going back to, keep replaying over and over again. The way it builds and builds and then Mister Curse shouts “I may not be the lord of the dance, you ridiculous cunts.”
The Gentleman: It’s genius! And that’s the release! The point is, the first half of the song is my song and the second half Wight-Barrow’s, and he created the most beautiful, harsh, fantastic melodic part that adds on top. And Curse’s wordings on top absolutely sell it, totally.
So Curse, the track’s there instrumentally. Do you ad-lib over the top or do you think really carefully about it?
Mister Curse: No, it’s not. If I’m completely honest, I write myself in my own time, outside of everything. There may well be times where I will listen to the riffs and try to form at least a coda to follow the rhythm to start something. More often than not I write shit out in streams of consciousness, but once everybody’s demoed things together I will try—especially for the more melodic vocal sections—to write for that. A lot of the time, I’ll write a whole load of shit and I’ll pick specific bits that might fit and I make them fit. Or we’ll talk about it and fit what we think should go. I’ve been remarkably lucky over the course of five albums plus, and one for The Waterwitch as well, to write streams and streams of consciousness. It’s not a sixth sense, it’s guess work and luck, but you know what should go where. It becomes immediately obvious when it comes to recording. I’ll pick paragraphs out of things that I’ve written as full songs and then re-form them into something else.
To do no disservice to the band at all, I could just read through the lyrics as poetry. The half-rhymes, the wordplay, the twists.
Katheryne: Curse, you are like a poet basically!
There’s one song from the last album, “Virtus Sola Invicta.”
Mister Curse: Bravery alone is invincible.
The half-rhymes in that work so well rhythmically on top of the music.
The Projectionist: A shambolic frolic in Shambhala!
Mister Curse: The thing about the play was the inner earth and the inner self, as well. You’ve got people trying to seek some kind of alternative to the day-to-day grind that we all go through. I love the idea of there being something a little more esoteric to life, whether there is or isn’t. Now I’m sure there is. I know there is. It’s always the question of is there or isn’t there anything, something, that’s a little bit more interesting than the nine-to-five. The general process of consume and die kind of stuff. Trying to look everywhere but finding nothing.
Black metal is the underlay of your sound, or progressive metal?
Katheryne: That was the idea at first, we were going to be a black metal band.
The Gentleman: But it just kind of developed.
Katheryne: We all like different kinds of music, and we all brought that to the band.
That leads to what I want to ask. Can we go around and can you give me one band/performer, metal or non-metal, that has really shaped the way you approach music? And also, maybe, one outside influence.
The Gentleman: Stuff like Tangerine Dream is one of the biggest influences I can think of. Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter and all that kind of stuff. They bring such amazing darkness and texture to what they do. I really, really am a huge fan of that kind of stuff and bringing to everything we try to do.
Katheryne: Type O Negative—we all love them. I love their Gothic imagery and I love old-school horror films and the imagery from that. Suspiria I really like.
The Gentleman: Yeah, and the Dennis Wheatley stuff. The Devil Rides Out, classic Hammer Horror.
Lungbutter: I like a hell of a lot of stuff, Frank Zappa and things like that. I think all of us like very similar music but we like a lot of different stuff. We’ve all got different influences and that kind of works.
Mister Curse: It makes us what we are. The fact that there’s so much disparate stuff that meets in the middle somewhere. It makes a real difference to what we do.
The Resurrectionist (drums): I wouldn’t pick a band necessarily, but thinking about something specific I’d think about when we wrote some of the new songs I watched the film Kill List. The atmosphere evoked from that film and from the music alongside, it actually spurred me creatively a lot more than the music I was listening to at the time.
Mister Curse: Mostly it’s personal shit. It sounds bloody clichéd but it’s crap that’s going on. It’s the music that kicks me through it. If there’s going to be a couple of bands, as far as non-extreme, Jethro Tull‘s a massive one. The Legendary Pink Dots are a massive one—not enough people in this country know about and should. Devil Doll is a huge influence. Simon and Garfunkel! Fuck, Rich Walker from Solstice will hate that, he fucking hates them. They’ve been a massive influence just on the pure mix of the vocals, the way they interplay between each other. A non-musical influence? William Blake.
Katheryne: I like Kate Bush!
The Gentleman: Oh yeah, we love Kate Bush! Fucking love Kate Bush!
I’d like to thank the band for their heartwarming passion, humor, and fierce individualism. A Forest of Stars‘ fifth album, Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes, will be released September 28th.