Witherfall on the new album, the gap to pop music and that day at the Capitol

In 2021, we spoke with guitarist Jake and singer Joseph from Witherfall. Jake told us that he would love to be able to release an album every year. Well, that didn’t happen, because three years have passed since the band released the adventurous, and somewhat, vengeful Curse Of Autumn. Finally, they’re back with a new album:  the captivating Sounds Of The Forgotten. A good reason to reach out to the States again, only to find out that time is still not Joseph and Jake’s best friend. Last time, it was Joseph who only joined after Jake’s persistent efforts on Whatsapp. This time, Jake thought we were on Pacific Standard Time. Well, we were not… Therefore, we mostly spoke with Joseph, but that was definitely not a problem since the singer not only brings vocal firework but also speaks his mind freely when discussing the new album, the music industry, and the consequences of an action by Iced Earth‘s mastermind, Jon Schaffer.

Hi Joseph, shall we just kick off?

Well, Jake is coming, but if you have a “me-only” question, I’m good to go!

I have no idea if this question is just for you, but I will go for it anyway: It has been three years since you released Curse Of Autumn. What has that album brought you and your band?

What did Curse of Autumn bring us as a band? Other than headaches, all the pandemic woes and producers storming the Capitol? That didn’t affect us at all! (laughs).

Yeah, of course… that happened as well. We touched on the subject three years ago, but mainly on what Jon brought to the table as your producer. Anyway, Curse Of Autumn did reach the top 20 in metal-minded Germany…

Yeah, it did very well in that regard. And I think that if Jon had not broken into the Capitol building, it would have done even better. I mean, at one point the label was peeling off stickers by hand of all of our vinyls and CDs, because Sony didn’t want his name anywhere. I mean, Jon is still a friend, and I think he’s a good guy at heart. And he’s obviously a legend in the heavy metal music world. But I think the pandemic really got to people. I think it drove people who were a already on edge, over that edge.

That happening hurt us really bad. We weren’t able to use his name for promotion or anything. And I think there was supposed to be some talk of like us touring with Demons & Wizards. There were never any guarantees but if your producer is in those bands and your record does well… But once that all folded, that was off the table.

Yeah, I think I saw that you haven’t played many shows after releasing Curse Of Autumn.

Well, we did play some. We did Rock Power Festival and we headlined a festival in Canada called Hyperspace and a small festival in Texas. We also played with Cynic and Atheist, which was fun. We haven’t toured though. We’ve been doing a lot of festivals and ‘one offs’.

I think it’s difficult for us because we’re not a cheap band. There’s a lot of young, hungry bands and for them, this is kind of their lottery ticket. They’re still able to cram four or five guys into a bus or not even a bus, like a little van to travel the world. Everyone in our group is a professional musician that makes his living playing. So the offers have to be right for us. We can’t bring our guys out on the road until we reach a certain level. That’s hard.

Do you think Sounds of the Forgotten will give you that extra push up the ladder to tour?

Yeah. The business side is doing really well. Sales are going really well. I honestly don’t really know how much the label really brought to the table at all.

Well that was going to be my next question. For Prelude to Sorrow and Curse Of Autumn, you worked with Century Media, a very big label in the metal world. But Sounds Of The Forgotten will be released by Deathwave Records: your own record company that you started with Jake. What prompted you and Jake to take this step and to take matters back into your own hands?

Right, back is the correct word, because we were also doing this in the beginning. None of the labels wanted to partner with us back then. They thought that what we were doing was a little weird. I remember one guy, I won’t name his name, but he’s one of the guys that signed Nevermore. He said that my vocals should sound like, what is the name of that singer? Some deathcore band. And, you know, the record was already finished! And I’m like, well, that’s not what this band is and does. Why would we be like that?

And this was coming from the guy who signed Nevermore with Warrel?

Yes, and that is strange (Joseph also sings for Sanctuary as the successor of Nevermore‘s Warrel Dane, who passed away in 2017).

So DeathWave Records …

look, you spoke to Yasmin to set up this interview, and we worked with her when we were on Century Media (actually, I spoke with Frank but he probably spoke to Yasmin). And we’re just like, let’s hire Yasmin. She does a great job over there. So, you know, there’s no one that Century Media hires that we can’t hire. And the benefit is that we don’t have to work with the people that they hire and we don’t like. That may sound negative, but it’s not. Everyone over in Europe, since we started working with Century Media, like 99% of everyone over there we really liked working with. Like Philip, we obviously love Philip, Stefan Frank, who’s now with Nuclear Blast, we really liked working with him and with Melanie Schmidt. But once Century Media got folded into Sony, it was a lot less flexible. It even got difficult to execute terms in our contract the way that they were supposed to be. Sony just view everyone as basically the same until an issue arises and then you have to go and fix it yourself.

So they just assume everyone has the same contract on the same conditions and they don’t even look at your contract itself?

I don’t even think any of the higher ups have ever seen any of the individual artist contracts.

And so you chose to change things. But some things have stayed the same: your strategy to release a lot of songs from the album before the album is released in an attempt to improve visibility on streaming services. Has working with your own record label given you even more freedom to do so or was Century Media on board as well?

The first time I brought up the waterfall campaigns was for Curse of Autumn, and they kind of went with it. I think we released five singles ahead of release. But in the streaming paradigm, why only release five? What if the waterfall works? Why wouldn’t you just trail them all up until the date of the physical release? One thing I had thought of, and I have to run it by Jake, is to release physical first? Nobody’s ripping CDs into YouTube. For me at least, it’s not really a worry. What if you release the CD and then start dropping digital? It’s not like we’re trying to be in the Billboard Top 100, for which we need those streaming numbers added the first week. People would have to buy physical if they wanted another record. And then you could still benefit by slowly dribbling out the songs digitally and hitting those algorithms every month.

So, you’re looking at physical and digital as two separate markets.

Absolutely. They are two separate markets. That’s even hurt us with tours, because we look like a very tiny band,  when you look at our Spotify numbers (our YouTube is doing better). If you look at those streaming numbers, we look very low middling, but we always chart. We charted at number 83 in the US, even with all the craziness, because our physical numbers are so strong.

As you said, you’re doing okay on YouTube. You put up the video for Where Do I Begin? two months ago. When I checked a week and a half ago, it had 162,000 views on YouTube already. You seem to be getting a lot more views than in the past.

That’s another thing with the… this doesn’t really get talked about. But Century Media have a couple of classic metal bands. There’s a few metal bands in there with vocalists. But 99% of their artists have like dog, barky, yelling vocals, right? Deathcore, metalcore and whatever you want to call it. It sounds like someone’s kicking a dog. But the thing is, they have 2.2 million subscribers. So when we made our deal we thought that if we gave them two videos per record, that was going to help us get fans.

Well, it absolutely hurt us. Because every time we put a video up there, it got shot down in the algorithms. Because most people that subscribe there want to hear the death metal vocals. And when they don’t hear it, they click off. And that shoots you down. It’s a different game. You don’t want people to see or hear you that may not like you online. Because they click away. And then it hurts your views in the algorithm.

In contrast, on our channel, when we put out Insidious, we had 9000 subscribers but we got 175,000 views on that. 260,000 on Ceremony Of Fire in less than four months. That’s my theory as to why those other videos didn’t do well.

You talked about Insidious. That’s one of the songs you released last year. What is the thought process for the release schedule of the songs? Why were Insidious and A Lonely Path the best tracks to put forward in 2023?

Why? We wanted to put the crazy heavy one (Insidious) first. But it’s not that calculated.

But we have had a really hard time getting on the heavy metal radio out here in the US, because of the screamy vocal thing, because it’s very dominated by that. When the new generation thinks of metal, they think of Five Finger Death Punch and Slipknot. They don’t think of Iron Maiden and Queensrÿche. So we knew that that song might have a shot at doing well in this market. And I also wanted to test the real fans and see how far we could stretch their ears. Because we do a lot of that: we stretch people’s ears because we don’t really have a genre that we’re married to.

No, but you usually are called a dark melodic metal band. However there’s a lot more going on. There’s some prog and there’s some Nevermore This Godless Endeavor aggression.

Dark melodic metal was the basis. It’s like when you first put the first splat on the canvas. For Jake and I, it was like King Diamond‘s second through the fourth record. Like Them, Abigail and Conspiracy. And those middle Nevermore records: This Godless Endeavor, Dead Heart…. That was kind of where we were starting from. And then we both really love Queen and classical music and Guns N’ Roses. So we knew we could kind of meander. And that’s kind of why we did this band.

We were in White Wizzard before that. And you were so limited because that’s kind of like… I don’t want to say it’s a cliché band, but you had a world that you were married to. We thought: let’s just do a band where we can do whatever we want. And that’s Witherfall.

You just mentioned Guns N’ Roses. Most recently you put up the video for When It All Falls Away, which has a great haunting melody, by the way. But last time when we spoke, Jake said you would love to do a video in the style of November Rain. The storytelling in When It All Falls Away seems to have the grandeur of that video.

Yeah, it’s definitely… There are open questions as to what’s going on. Yes. Like, for a while, you don’t even know which one of those girls is going to die.

We really got lucky with our friend, our director, Brad. We also bend that guy in many different directions. We shot all the band footage for those videos in the recording studio where we recorded: the church. And then we went different places in Los Angeles to shoot narratives… for each video. So we’ve been in the production process of either the record or the video’s since January 1st of last year.

We started doing drums with Marco Minnemann. I picked up producer Zeuss at the LAX airport on New Year’s Day. After flying in at like four in the morning, hungover. The next day we started tracking the drums. So it’s been a good year. And then we were upstate New York for like a month and a half to record there. After that I went to Zeuss in Massachusetts to do vocals for like three weeks. It was crazy. And we’re still shooting videos. We shot the When It All Falls Away video three days before we released the fucking thing.

That’s quite a pace you’ve got there. The promo sheet says the recording, mixing, mastering has been done in three consecutive months. How do you keep your ears fresh enough to get the music to sound exactly the way you want, for instance if you listen to it in about a year?

The capture, right, the recording, that’s why you need people that are experienced and know what they’re doing, because you’re right, a lot of times we do like 13 hour sessions, six days a week and take one day off. You will get ear fatigue, but you kind of know like what you’re getting into when you use certain gear that’s well maintained.

Having three producers around means that we can alternate a bit. If I leave to go do some administrative stuff or to pick up gear or whatever maybe Zeuss and Jake will continue working. If I come back in the room, my ears are fresh and I can hear like, oh, that part’s wrong. There were a few instances. like when we were starting the drums with Marco for the Aerosmith cover that we did. I had done the arrangement on keyboards and vocals, and then he tracked to that. But when he played it, I think we extended that section.

When you have really talented people around you, you will catch each other.

Let’s go back to When It All Falls Away. Or actually to What Have You Done? When I first saw the tracklist, I thought What Have You Done? could be the follow-up question on the situation in When It All Falls Away. But when I listened to it and to the lyrics, there seems to be a lot more going on than that.

There absolutely is. And, I’m kind of glad Jake isn’t here, because I don’t want him to catch any flack. But yeah, that song is about Jon (Schaffer). I think he just heard the song this week en I don’t know if he put two and two together. I should probably tell him before any of this press comes out.

You have to tell Jon?

Yeah. I mean, when I was working, when I was writing Sanctuary stuff, I had this song that was kind of about Warrel. And I was asking Jon, I don’t know, man, is this like a third rail? Can I write about Warrel and Sanctuary? Would that be weird? And he’s like: brother, you got to do what your heart tells you to do. If you feel like writing that, then write it. So it’s almost like he gave me permission to write about him.

I mean, we write about the things that are going on in our lives. We don’t write about dragons and elves, kings and shit, right? We write about real world experiences and what the fuck is bigger than the pandemic? And Jon fucking, you know, putting a shadow over our record. And over his career. I mean, they were headlining Wacken Open Air! Their deal was massive. And then, I don’t know, I don’t know…

For me there’s no reason why he couldn’t do another Iced Earth record. Like, I mean, look at Tim Lambesis. That guy tried to have his wife killed. And now he’s fucking touring. What Jon did was dumb, I’ll say that. And I don’t agree with his politics, but in the end he didn’t try to kill Nancy Pelosi. You know what I mean? I think it’s a bit more forgivable than hiring a hitman for your wife.

A heavy subject for a song, just as for When It All Falls away which seem to touch on suicide. The song itself however shows a lot of force and resilience, especially in the guitar solos. And that seems something of a theme on the album: setbacks and fighting them.

Yes, that is what we set out to do. The color purple (for the artwork) was an intentional choice too. Not only is it the color of Jake’s favorite guitar, but it’s also the color of royalty. And I think people would act better if they just treated themselves as if there was a standard that they were held up to. Like, you’re not expected to let everything crumble to shit when you, do something stupid or have a bad thought. You’re supposed to stand up straight and get through it. That’s what the album is about. And we’re also angry and disappointed.

The album does seem to have some common ground there with Curse of Autumn, albeit a bit less vindictive.

Yeah, Curse of Autumn was the frustration record. We just wanted to break things. Sounds Of The Forgotten is like when you’ve punched a hole in the wall and now you got to go to Home Depot and get the mud for the plaster.

The promo sheet seems to imply that the album’s title, Sounds Of The Forgotten, also refers to the music itself. You already mentioned King Diamond. Type O Negative is mentioned in the promo sheet as well. Are these forgotten And do you in any way aspire to keep music that was made decades ago alive?

Yeah, it’s kind of what we were talking about. For people that like songs, metal in its current incarnation is never going to be prevalent in the pop culture. Not in any way significant.Yes, maybe you will see some of the imagery in movies because the imagery is iconic, but will not hear the music. You’ll get like a Cannibal Corpse song once every decade in a Jim Carrey movie, but as a novelty.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s, you would go to the mall and buy heavy metal records and shirts and those guys were household names. They were in the pop culture zeitgeist because they were writing songs people could fucking sing. This whole transition to metal now being associated with nothing but screaming and yelling and not melody has really hurt the genre. We have a real problem here with metal radio and a few people’s taste has taken over the definition of metal. If you’re singing, it’s not metal anymore. It’s power metal or whatever.

So they pushed metal too far from the mainstream to interact with the mainstream?

Yes, even when you listen to Metallica – I mean old Metallica – it just sounds like Pavarotti when you compare it to what’s happening now (laughs). I think heavy metal has forgotten its song-oriented roots. Of course, there are some new bands… I’m not saying I’m a real fan of Sleep Token, but that band does try to be melodic and to write songs. So, there are some new groups that I appreciate for what they do. I’m deviating a bit from what I wanted to say, but Sounds Of The Forgotten is about all those types of metal that people seem to forget can also be an influence. Not everyone has to sound like a worse Phil Anselmo. What Phil did was fantastic, but everyone is doing it worse now: let’s do Phil, but with less melody.

I saw Phil play a brilliant concert about a year ago, but let’s be honest, he has lost a bit of melody from his voice as well.

Yeah, it’s quite challenging. Sometimes I switch from rougher stuff to falsetto all of a sudden. To do that, you really need to be in shape. You can’t do what I did last night (laughs): drink vodka and talk to some people I don’t know. It does give me something to write about again, though.

It’s not easy to pinpoint why, but the album seems to have a very natural flow. Even more so than Curse Of Autumn.

We were very precise in determining the order of the songs. We approached it a bit like we did with Nocturnes and Requiems (the debut). Even when writing the songs, we were very aware of how they should transition into each other.

And here’s Jake!

Joseph: Yes, let’s focus on him for a moment!

Jake: My apologies, I thought we were on Pacific Standard Time.

No problem, Jake. We’ve talked about some of the songs and videos, about lyrics and about the album title, so let’s focus a bit more on the music now. You’ve welcomed two new members into the group. Among them is keyboard player Gerry Hirschfeld. Has that addition given you more possibilities?

Jake: Gerry has indeed had a lot of input on the keyboard parts and synths. He’s a very musical guy. Joseph and he have worked a lot on piano pieces to accompany the vocals. There’s a strong melody line in the first verse of What Have You Done? and he did some cool things for When It All Falls Away as well. He also contributed some beautiful piano parts for the chorus of Ceremony Of Fire. We like to use the keys to create ambiance but also as a contrast. We have a lot of classical influences, and you can hear them in these parts.

And then there’s the new drummer, Chris Tsaganeas, but he didn’t play on the album. That is to say, he did some percussion, but he didn’t get to sit behind the drum kit. How did he feel about that?

Joseph (laughing): let me quickly say something about that, Jake. He’s not the first drummer in Witherfall to find out he’s not on the album.

Jake: Chris is a team player. We already had a sort of agreement with Marco Minnemann when he played on Curse Of Autumn that he would do the next one too. Recording in a studio is really a different beast than playing live, especially when you look at how we write and make demos. Someone like Marco can be part of that process, and we can throw thousands of ideas at him, and he’ll nail them all. It’s also a matter of costs, of course: time is literally money when you’re recording. But Chris was fine with it. He knew Marco was already booked for the album, and he has a lot of respect for Marco as a drummer, as we all have, actually.

And then the connection to the distant United States suddenly drops. Re-establishing contact is not easy and definitely won’t happen the same day. Since the interview is already well underway, let’s skip that and ask Frank to thank the gentlemen for the more than pleasant and candid conversation. And for Sounds Of The Forgotten, which comes out on May 31st.