I was walking through the forest one summer evening, minding my own business, when suddenly, to my great surprise, out of the shadows had emerged the musician/artist Ulf Theodor Schwadorf. He was wearing a suit and tie, a cigarette in his right hand, a strange cane with a handle in the shape of a wood grouse in his left, and appeared to me as lost in reverie as I was that night. As fate would have it, our points crossed right inside the so-called »Sector of Spooky Hills» in the German woodlands, where he accosted me. We shook hands and greeted one another as I offered him to sit down and relax a while before he again resumes his journey. What better time, I thought, to wax poetic on Empyrium and its relations, than in the thick of such a natural setting. And just coincidentally, I had pen and paper in hand to transcribe our conversation. We sat ourselves down by a large oak tree, with the moon peering high overhead through the branches, and began our discussion in the nightly silence.
If anyone were to have a handle on the romantic or »sentimentalist» themes of art, it would likely be the infamous Ulf Theodor Schwadorf, so I began first by quizzing him on some of these views. Are irrationality and sentimentalism, I asked, traits that can be justified through Art exclusively?
»No, actually not,» Schwadorf replied, situating himself on a large rock for a better view of the open sky, »but I guess art must have sentimentalism and irrationality in focus. I guess in »normal» life I am a quite irrational and sentimental person as well, but I am trying, however, to stay with both feet on the ground.»
Taking in mind the »spiritual» nature of Empyrium, I could not help but ask him his views on the great theological contenders, the material and the supernatural. Since Empyrium’s music is to my mind transcendental (on a purely personal level) and mystical in some sense, I’ve been curious of what his own view of mysticism could be. Could mysticism and materialism be reconciled? Can music be the medium for doing so?
»Mysticism is quite mystical,» he burst out with a laugh, »and hard to explain. I’d say it is when thoughts, reminiscences and feelings are triggered by a plain atmosphere or surrounding – by something we cannot grasp nor explain, thus music is something very mystical and is far away from materialism.»
But we use our material ears and minds to process this information?
»As I see it, in times like this, music is often bereft of all mystical character in a way that the artists (materia) are hailed instead of their creation (spirit) and I doubt people want it in another way, because they need materia to look up to, not spirit or genius.»
Ah, so it is in this sense.
Otherwise, it seems that many people have been affected by your statements of »saving the earth» and »killing yourself» as a means to that end, I said. I think what most people don’t realise is that a difference in conservation can in fact be made and has been certainly made before, whether intentional or unintentional. There is an appalling degree of indifference relating to ecology, the environment, to all manners of urgency: a collective atmosphere of indifference, which is actually pretty banal and herd-like in character, in spite of what people like to think. This can be applied to other venues of behaviour as well. Do you agree with what I’m saying? What is your opinion? Can the earth be saved? I pondered these thoughts aloud.
It did not take long for Schwadorf to answer. »That’s just pretty normal I think, because the usual member of »The Herd Club» does not want, and might even not be able, to make up his mind about bigger issues and thus feels indifference about everything that goes beyond his everyday problems. In the long run, the earth cannot be saved, methinks.»
A dark note, but perhaps a realistic one. I took out my old worn copy of Benedetto Croce’s Aesthetic, at this point, and leafed through it for some interesting points that I outlined earlier that day. Croce had said, since we are on topic, that, in his words, »Unless a capacity for thinking be accompanied by a capacity for action, a superior mind exists in torture.» If we were to extend that statement, would you agree that your own art is a way of evading such torture?
»I totally agree with it,» he replied, »and of course my musical involvements are my way to evade this torture.»
The same Italian idealist philosopher Benedetto Croce argued that music is the manifestation of a pure intuition. His aesthetic theory was based on the belief that art, as a form of creativity, is a more revealing criterion than the sciences and that beauty in art depends on the successful translation of a fundamental perception in the mind of the artist. Can such a method be applied towards your own endeavour, your own way of writing music? I look upon Ulf curiously.
He smiles. »I am getting a fan of these Croce citations. I again totally agree with it. I often realise that there’s no way to control the way inspiration comes in and the general outcome of the music and the lyrics – the whole concept – just grew without having control on it, so it must be very intuitive. I also totally agree that true beauty in art can only be reached when the artist’s character, his whole way of thinking and feeling, is reflected in his works – that is what makes art so pure thus magical and mystical.»
And indeed he was right, I thought, as I continued to pen his words onto my notepad, the mystical is, if anything, a personal transfiguration, or a personal transcendence – mystical if only that one person’s experience can never be entirely similar to another. It is a matter made further tangible by the integrity of an artist’s fundamental perception, and the more fidelity it holds to one’s self, the more it approaches that ideal of true beauty.
We sat quiet for a few moments at this point simply watching the squirrels and raccoons race around before our eyes. I began to drift and think back of what I felt when hearing some of Empyrium’s music for the first time; all of the emotions and elaborate pictures that it painted in my mind. It is difficult to disagree that there is a kind of tragedy in its tones, a restless unease, a longing. I wondered if depression could have contributed a part of it in any way. What did Schwadorf think of the matter? Is »depression» always, as it is widely understood, an illness? And can music then be a form of psychiatric therapy for that illness?
»Depression is an illness,» Schwadorf related in a confident tone, »a mental dysfunction that is something totally different than being melancholic. Most people seem to mix up the two all too often.»
I nod and agree. There is a fine difference between experiencing depression and experiencing the great wonder that is tragedy and melancholia. The ancient Greeks understood it well, both in their plays and their performances. Another fact that separates modern culture from a truly advanced culture, I think.
»Especially in the last years,» he continues, »I learnt a lot about it. I had a depression of my own and have been in touch with a couple of depressed people, and it seems that it is very hard to control and that there’s no real therapy for it. But music could do well as a vent, getting out a lot of negative emotions and channelling them into something positive, which might help it but not cure it.»
So it is said, and so it is written. But could nostalgia play a relation in this? It seems to play some kind of conspicuous role in Empyrium’s music, if I am not mistaken. Do you feel that feelings for some past milieu are vital to channel as a musician of this type of music? Can it be that you yearn for some different, »better» era, or is it preferential to live in the present in your mind?
»Nostalgia,» he told me, »plays a dominant role in Empyrium of course, which the title of our next album Weiland (»In times of yore») upholds. I get very nostalgic at times pondering over olde fairytale volumes or gazing at their illustrations – or just being out in a grande landscape and fantasizing into the olde realm of folklore. I try to transcend into those times (unreal times I might add, because the times actually never were like in fairytales) and atmosphere to gather inspirations and the right feel for Empyrium’s compositions. But in real life I am very much aware that I have to nail my feet to the ground, and times have never been as easy and comfortable as today. I sort of live in two worlds if you want…»
So there is a careful balance between reality and fantasy at work here, a worldly wisdom mixed with an unworldly inspiration, a fact that has led poor Schwadorf to undergo severe pain by nailing his feet into the ground. Yet we have been speaking chiefly of musical projects thus far. Is there any other medium through which you engage in creatively or would like to in the future? For instance, have you considered writing a book of poetry as Karsten Hamre of Penitent has done, or render some of your ideas to film, maybe as a video for Empyrium’s music as the »ideal accompaniment»?
»I am interested and fascinated by a lot of different forms of art and have tried and will try to involve myself more into them as well. A couple of years ago I tried painting too, but I gave it up when I realised that my talent was not enough to really express something with it. I am into photography a lot and have a library of thousand of nature photos at home – some of them have been used for Sun Of The Sleepless and Empyrium too. I have also thought a lot about writing down the fairytales, myths and sagas of the region I have been born and releasing it in form of a book, plus have serious plans to involve myself in film music in the future.»
I put away my book on Croce for now and shuffle through some of the other literature in the bag I carry. I ask Schwadorf now, outside of the poets that have influenced his lyrics, what are some other prose writers that he admires?
»I am not really a bookworm I have to say. Of course if something interests me a lot I will sit down and read, but I have never really been into 1,200 page stories for example. I am into folklore research a lot and can highly recommend the works of Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould who did a lot of research on mythical and paranormal phenomena of Scotland. His works are a splendid cross between tradition, atmosphere and scientific backgrounds, which make them an enjoyable and enlightening read.»
Is there any other book that you recommend reading, perhaps to the people that admire your musical material?
»I read quite a bit from and about the famous philosophers such as Nietzsche, LaVey and Spengler and got myself into it as well. Read a lot of biographical stuff about Kittelsen lately, too.»
He hands me a copy of Kittelsen’s The Black Death and again we’re left pondering on the future.
My thoughts drift back to the band as I leaf through its pages. I wonder, what were some of the details surrounding Andreas’ sudden departure? Will he be affiliated in any way with Empyrium in the future?
»Andreas’ departure has been everything but sudden – actually I played with the thought of him leaving the band in the Songs of Moors and Misty Fields period, because his involvement got quite minimal. I don’t want to wash dirty clothes in the public now, but I realised I have been a too modest bloke in the past giving the impression to the public that Andreas is very important for Empyrium, which he never really was after A Wintersunset… was released. I am saying this because I have got a lot of e-mails lately asking how the future of Empyrium will look without Andreas and I want to make clear that there’s no real problem since I have always been doing approximately everything, even played the synthesiser on some parts of …Moors…»
Such was the fate of Andreas. But what of the new band member, Thomas Helm. How did you get in touch with him?
This is easy enough for Ulf to answer. »I worked in a very shitty firm before I opened up my own studio and, like destiny wanted it, Thomas worked there as well, so we got in touch and things went on from there.»
So much for Thomas.
Some people may remember Empyrium’s inclusion in the On the Brink of Infinity compilation from Chthonic Streams some time ago – a tasteful piece of music that we are told is exclusive to it only. It was a track very much in the tradition of Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays and a good meter to judge Empyrium’s talent. How does Ulf feel about being included in such a collection for the first time?
»It has been a charming feeling to start to get attention outside the tiring metal milieu as well, so I have very positive feelings when it comes to the compilation. I have been aware of many bands featured thereon and especially Derek’s own project, Dream Into Dust, is quite excellent stuff I must say.»
Were you familiar with any of the other bands featured on it and do you think you’ll appear on any more collections in the future?
»Compilations with a proper concept and good bands are a great thing and I would like to see us on some more in the future too.»
Examining what I have written thus far, I ask Ulf a different question. Now that you are fairly secured as an important part of a musical subculture, has your reception changed at all in your day-to-day activities? Do you find that people know of your talents in advance or are most unenlightened until you tell them yourself? Do you even tell them? Or do you prefer matters to remain clandestine concerning these actions?
»Like I said, I am a really modest character. I am fully aware of my talents but I am not the kind of guy telling everybody what a great man I am. I rather let interested people find it out themselves, so I really prefer to remain silent about my activities as long as I am not asked to tell something about them.»
Does Ulf ever picture himself leaving Prophecy Productions to advance to another label under the same moniker in the future?
»No,» he abruptly responds, demonstrating the commitment that is at the center of his musical personality. If anything did happen to Prophecy, this would probably spell certain doom for Empyrium and his other projects. Or would it?
The sun is slowly starting to rise from the west and the texture of the sky begins to alter to an orange hue. There are already birds gathering to sing once more, and the forest trees seem to be signalling the birth of another sunrise as lazy lights start streaming in through their branches.
It is time again to resume the journey. And Schwadorf agrees. We both get ready to depart again.
The dawn arrives as morning mist blankets the hills. We shake hands, I gather my things and we both disappear into the remote distance.