SW from Lunar Cult: An Interview

SW, aka Lunar Cult, is a musician from Derby, UK.

Lunar Cult has been called black metal chiptune, and stylistically that makes sense once you hear it. But it's the world-building nature of the project that really draws you in, and we have the opportunity to talk a bit about that in this week's interview.

Weirding: The first track on your most recent album has this really interesting sort of of polyrhythm going on between the main theme played on the keys and the percussion. And there are subtle varieties, arpeggios, and harmonies throughout. I'm interested in the ways that you think about composing and combining sounds.

SW: When I first started making music as Lunar Cult, the songs were almost something I stumbled upon — I’d start off writing melodies and rhythms almost at random, pick out the parts which appealed to me most strongly, and then really began writing the songs from there. But with Death Cannot Contain You, it was done in a much more structured and planned way. I’d sit down to write and think, “OK, I want this song to have a stronger percussive element,” or “I want to try and emphasize melodies playing off each other a bit more on this one”. They didn’t always follow what I originally had planned, as sometimes either what I wanted to do didn’t work or I found a different direction that was more interesting. 

I normally just write a few bars at a time, listen back to it, and try to decide what I think would be a natural continuation from there — both from how it sounds and from how the music looks written down. Musical notation is a form of language after all, and in the same way you can try to work out unfamiliar words in a language you know from a bit of context, I find something similar is true when it comes to writing music. It was also more planned in terms of what key songs were written in, or their BPM. Each song is a different BPM to the one that precedes it, and other than ‘Your Defiance Was Noted’ and ‘They Filled in Their Emptiness With Sorrow,’ each song is in a different key than the preceding song.

That said, there are a few techniques I feel I use fairly often, especially in terms of introducing variations or how I structure songs. They’re nothing too fancy, but help keep my writing anchored, as I’ve found it’s very easy to write music that quickly becomes too complicated — especially when I’m trying to have two different melodies at once. It’s hard to make them gel, and sometimes stripping a song down until you find the core elements of it can be very productive.

I think it’s worth noting here that Death Cannot Contain You actually grew out of another, very different record. After the release of Ageless Defiance, I wanted to try writing more up-tempo chiptune. I was playing around with songs at 180 BPM — it was intense! 

I needed to step back and so I started playing about with slower tracks using different software instruments — which is how I ended up writing dungeon synth almost by accident. The first few of these songs combined chiptune and more traditional dungeon synth sounds. So for example, there’d be a cello line underpinning a song whilst chiptune and synthesized flute melodies played over them. After writing about ten songs like this, I tried re-doing some of them without any chiptune elements — swapping out the chip melodies or the bassline for piano or flute. The results were something I really liked in some instances, but in others the chip melodies were better. So, I almost had a new record done, but the two different types of songs didn’t mesh well together; so, I split them into different records instead.

Weirding: I know what you mean. It’s like sometimes you know you’ve got something that’s really good, but it needs to be put in a different bucket. Teaches you a lot about songwriting, though when you think about it.

SW: I felt I learned a lot about how I like to compose songs from this, and I carried that forward when finishing off what would become Death Cannot Contain You.  

Also, it’s cool that you mention the harmonies and subtle variations. They’re something I feel very conscious of when writing. I’m a big fan of songs that have melodies or harmonies that play off of each other. 

A track like ‘At Least I Can Say I Tried’ by Cex is a huge influence on me because of the way it plays about with melodies and harmonies that weave in-between each other and where there are slight variations of them throughout the track. It makes the song feel interesting and deep, but also gives it an accessible edge. 

Or on the heavier end of things, think about ‘Somewhat Damaged’ by Nine Inch Nails and how the song builds by gradually layering elements and harmony. Hell, almost any NIN song can be held up as an excellent example of how to layer seemingly simple elements into a whole that’s deceptively complex. 

Or to take a totally different example, think of ‘Clash at the Big Bridge’ from the Final Fantasy V soundtrack, with its competing melodies and arpeggios — and the way the emphasis will switch between the bass and treble. That’s something I really like to do. They’re three of my favourite pieces of music and have had a huge impact on how I think about writing. 

The other big influence on Lunar Cult is black metal, especially Darkthrone and Ulver, for many of the bits I think of as leads.

Weirding: Tell me a bit more about that. 

SW: With some of the music I write, the considerations are a little different. Some songs are initially drafted on guitar before I write and record them as chiptune or dungeon synth pieces. And so the consideration is sometimes: “Would this sound rad if played as a raw black metal track?”

I joked recently that the taste test for the new record I’m working on is: “Does this track make me feel like Trent Reznor on the ‘March of the Pigs’ video?” 

It’s about putting less concern on whether the melodies are playing off each other or whatever, and more emphasis on closely controlled violence. Which is a fun thing to try and do when you’re making chiptune and dungeon synth hybrids on an intentionally bare-bones program.

Weirding: Just as a thought experiment, I often like to think about the conditions under which someone might be listening to my music. Like being in the car or with it on in the background while they are unloading groceries or dealing with kids or maybe accidentally because it just randomly came on after they were listening to something else entirely. I'm interested in what you see as the ideal condition to listen to your music. Like, if we were making a movie and you were the director and in the movie there was going to be a point at which someone listens to Lunar Cult, describe that scene to me.

SW: As cliché as it might sound, Lunar Cult is intended as music for the night – it’s partly why I release music under this particular name. It’s music that’s intended for solitude and contemplation — especially Death Cannot Contain You. It was that sense which helped drive the direction of the album. 

Ideally, someone would be outside when listening to it.

Weirding: Outside?

SW: Walking through woodland or the outskirts of town, trying to find a connection to something bigger than themselves and step away from the real world. I feel like music’s potential to help us both as musicians and listeners to do just that can often be downplayed. 

It’s an almost spiritual thing — expressing something that can’t be done through words. So, I think that if someone was to listen to Death Cannot Contain You in ideal circumstances, it would be like that. Alone, at night. Ideally outside. Connecting with nature. In a bleak state of mind. And ideally in winter. That’s definitely when I’ve found listening to the album to be at its most powerful.

Weirding: Tell me a bit about the iconography in your album art — specifically in the trio of Nocturnal Offerings, Ageless Defiance, and Death Cannot Contain You. There is a consistency not only in visual style, but also in the elements that exist in that visual world. Where does this come from? It works so well, I'd almost like to see it in like a long-form animation. 

SW: This is something that is very deliberate, and as more Lunar Cult records are released, I’m really happy that people are picking up on it. And I was thrilled when Meg, [ed. — Sludgework], who has created the band logo and done all the artwork, said in an interview that the three covers were some of her favorite pieces she’s done when considered as a whole.

Weirding: It’s beautiful work. And it’s certainly provided a sort of cohesion to the albums.

SW: The visual nature of music can be taken for granted by a lot of bands. Generally speaking, the first encounter people have with a band or album will be a visual one, through seeing their album art on Bandcamp or in a record store, or their logo on a shirt, and so on. I used to run my own music blog for several years, and when your inbox is getting dozens, or more, of promos a day — plus everything being promoted on social media — artwork becomes really important in helping a record stand out. 

I wanted something bold and striking, but also something with personality that would help the records stand out. When I released Nocturnal Offerings — which is a black metal-influenced chiptune record — the cover stood out massively in the chiptune section on Bandcamp. This is exactly what I wanted. Art is important in priming the listener. It gives them an idea of what to expect — and for tying in with genre or subculture. 

About half the songs on my chiptune records originally started off as black metal guitar pieces that I don’t have the talent or resources to actually record as metal. I wanted to keep that connection through the art and imagery of the records. Your typical chiptune cover of cat-girls and video game cartridges wouldn’t have suited the records at all — in sound or intention.

The other consideration with the artwork and imagery was something I picked up from an old interview with Metallica, who were asked about Iron Maiden and a supposed rivalry between the two bands in the 80’s. I don’t remember most of their answer, but I remember very strongly Lars Ulrich saying he admired Iron Maiden’s strong visuals — and how important they had been in getting new generations of metal fans to check the band out. 

Obviously from a band like Metallica, they’re probably talking in terms of merchandising — Eddie in his various incarnations has given Iron Maiden massive potential to sell t-shirts, toys, whatever.

Weirding: Gotta pay for new drumsticks.

SW: When I was coming up for ideas for Death Cannot Contain You to send to Meg, I did think: “What could I include that would look good as artwork, but also look sick on a four-sided long-sleeve?”

Haha — maybe one day!

Weirding: But, you’re right. I mean it’s a way to extend the creativity and the vision while also making things maybe stand out more or be more memorable.

SW: For smaller artists it’s an important lesson in terms of making your band more memorable. There’s only so much time people have in the day to listen to music, and whilst I mainly make music for my own enjoyment — both in the act of creation and actually listening to the finished songs — I want others to listen to them too and maybe take on some of the messages. So, I wanted artwork that would stand out and that could be built upon in a world-building sense — with a consistent visual theme and reoccurring symbols. 

When you’re making instrumental music as I do, artwork in a way becomes more important as you can’t rely on lyrics to tell your stories or make your point. You’re reliant on song titles and the imagery in your artwork. 

Weirding: World-building. Elaborate on that.

SW: I wanted Lunar Cult to help people step aside from the real world for a while. That’s also why I wanted that consistency of visuals and recurring motifs — with their references to death and nature, skulls and weaponry. You can see it in the forest scene on Ageless Defiance and the border details on Death Cannot Contain You

Ironically, part of what prompted me to get Death Cannot Contain You finished was the November NaNoWriMo challenge. 

Weirding: Really? That album started as a piece of fiction?

SW: I started it with good intentions, with a story planned out. But after a few days and a few thousand words, I realized I wasn’t having fun at all. I’d write a bit, but after 30 minutes at my PC I’d be back on my music-writing programs instead. So, in that sense, Lunar Cult is opening up the stories and worlds I don’t think I’ll ever write about in other ways. They may just exist at present as concepts and ideas rather than anything too concrete, but I think there’s starting to be enough there — at least visually — that the world of Lunar Cult is beginning to be fleshed out.

As an aside, I did consider including a short story as a PDF with Death Cannot Contain You. I do consider the album to be one that tells a story — almost as a concept album. But in the end, I decided I wanted to leave said story vague instead and let listeners put it together themselves if they wanted to. I can already be quite direct in my political leanings when it comes to Lunar Cult – hence the recurring anti-fascist symbolism and song titles like ‘Bleeps and Bloops Against Bigotry’. I didn’t want to beat the listener over the head with a narrative story too, especially when the actual details of said story are less important than the emotional arc. I think it is quite clear on Death Cannot Contain You — even if the song titles aren’t taken into consideration. 

Defiance, defeat, resurgence, victory.

I don’t want to give the impression that all of this is part of some well-thought-out plan or something though. Initially, the logo and Nocturnal Offerings artwork came about from thinking about what kind of logos and art I like. And I didn’t expect Lunar Cult to last this long. But one thing I really want to underline is how vital Meg has been to this. She’s a superb artist with a distinct style, who is brilliant to work with. Her art has played a big part in Lunar Cult becoming what it is now.

Weirding: All this talk of visuals has got me thinking back to some of the first music images I remember as a kid. Like I clearly remember watching the KISS made-for-television movie. And I remember being scared of Alice Cooper. And I’ve got the image of a poster of Never Mind the Bullocks hanging in a surf shop at the beach seared in my mind. I'm interested: What music related images do you recall when you dig back deep into your memory?

SW: The first time I can recall linking music and images is with the Deep Purple song ‘Black Night’, from when I was about 3 years old. To my very young mind, I heard it not as ‘Black Night’, but ‘Black Knight’ — so I thought the song was about some warrior who was off fighting dragons or whatever but who was wanting to be back home. 

Weirding: That’s actually a better song idea.

SW: After that I can vaguely recall the imagery of Britpop from my youth, which tried to present itself as being more grounded and real than the pop bands of the time. And I also remember being super, super ill as a child and watching Bon Jovi videos on VH1 in that kind of haze where you're not sure if what you're seeing is real or just part of being sick.

It's fun that you mention being scared as a kid of Alice Cooper. I can remember seeing the videos for David Bowie's ‘Little Wonder’ and RATM's ‘Bulls on Parade’ when I would have been about twelve. I did not understand them at all — either musically or visually. I'm not sure if they scared me, but they definitely made me feel incredibly uneasy and disquieted. 

It's fun to think back on that, because I think maybe it set me up for seeing through the nu-metal bands that would embrace theatre for doing just that — playing a part. Slipknot, Mudvayne, Coal Chamber — they all seemed like some sort of edgy pantomime even when I was fifteen. I think the bands knew that too, even if they might deny it. It's part of why I found black metal so absurd when I first encountered it around the same time — you mean these people are serious? Sure, Cradle of Filth were in on the joke — which is part of why I liked them so much — but Mayhem, Emperor? With their corpse paint and stage names? 

They just seemed dumb. 

Especially when my dad saw me with an issue of Kerrang! that had Dimmu Borgir on the cover. A moment of Satanic panic.

Weirding: As a writer, could you invent songs that never really exist except in the fiction of the story? I'm very interested in the sort of parallel world we can create like this.

SW: Oh, absolutely. One of the fundamentals of writing good fiction is the world-building. Sometimes that's fairly easy if you're writing contemporary fiction, as you root your story in the real world. But with sci-fi or fantasy it's maybe a more involved process. I always suspect that the best fiction has a lot of world-building that you never see in the final product. And that can include references to other forms of art and writing — including music. 

To take a well-known example, think of all the poems and songs in The Lord of the Rings. Now consider how many probably only existed in Tolkien's notes and drafts. Those songs absolutely exist in the setting, but we'll never get to experience them.

The question also brings up another interesting point. When you take a song, what is the definitive version of it? After all, we all hear slightly different things even when listening to the same song. Differences based on our environment, the speakers being used, our mood, and so on…

And then to think of remasters, edits, and that thing Kanye West did where he released an album digitally and then updated it. Like a programmer would update a piece of software. 

It's a fun thought experiment, but also a little scary if you get carried away with it — the song you listen to now could sound different tomorrow. And so it only exists during the moment in which you hear it.


SW is Lunar Cult

Twitter: @Lunar_Cult

Bandcamp / Site: https://lunarcult.bandcamp.com/

Recent release: Death Cannot Contain You

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