Nicoloas Van Meirhaeghe's (aka Empusae) 17th record 'Lueur' serves an evidence that guitars are not a prerequisite to heavy. More so, this combination of dark ambient, soothing piano passages backed by synth drones and guest vocals of Colin H. Van Eeckhaut is an overpowering catalyst to healing. It was an absolute honour to catch up with maestro Nicolas to chat about 'Lueur', his vision in every sense of the word, the "darkside" and sonic endeavours.
"The idea then came to try to turn this negative aspect of life into something liberating, exorcising and therapeutic... Transcribing the fear of the dark with some light (gloom or "lueur" in French) within."
When I first listened to ‘Lueur’, it resonated deeply with me. I felt the album was about the loss. Loss of a loved one, loss of something important. It felt as a struggle of a man when life is beyond his control. Later you told me about your medical condition. Are you willing to talk about it and explain how it influenced the album?
Yes, you are right. The album is about the slow process of losing my vision. I got diagnosed about 3 years ago with a rare genetic disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa. So far, there is no cure nor remedy for this disease. They can't prognose anything regarding the progression either. In some cases, blindness occurs within a few years, sometimes within a few decades, sometimes it stagnates at a certain stage. So far I mostly suffer from night blindness, loss of contrast and some "blind spots" appearing more often. Of course, at first I was shocked and very depressed for more than a year, trying to accept the twist of life. After this dark period, something happened with my mind. Instead of being depressed in a quest for hope, my mind turned into a new mental state. I got a very intense productive boost. Felt the urge to live more intensely. The idea then came to try to turn this negative aspect of life into something liberating, exorcising and therapeutic. So I started working on a conceptual composition. Transcribing the fear of the dark with some light (gloom or "lueur" in French) within.
"Empusae always has been dark, not always heavy though, because I put a lot of beauty and melancholy in the compositions..."
'Lueur' feels crushingly dark. Do you agree with me?
Yes, definitely. Lueur for myself is very dark and heavy (as in heavy to bear), considering the muse for it. I often hear those exact terms from the audience after I played it live. Empusae always has been dark, not always heavy though, because I put a lot of beauty and melancholy in the compositions, which doesn't really mingle with being heavy. Despite the fact that I was always attracted to the dark side (dark romanticus), I consider myself as a rather positive thinking person. So this infamous darkness we are talking about, for me, is not something negative, it's just a term which can be interpreted in different ways.
"...it's an exorcism which helped me to distance myself from the eye-demon."
How does it feeling playing 'Lueur' live?
I didn't played it so many times so far, only 3 times actually. I can tell you though that each time I play it, I'm overwhelmed with strong emotions, so in a sense it is different as in evolution. If I was to record it again, I wouldn't change a thing. As said before, it's an exorcism which helped me to distance myself from the eye-demon. The great thing here, is that I can play it differently each live performance. So the therapy is one of a long run apparently.
Music can certainly be therapeutic and helping us to cope with everyday routines and challenges. It’s a pretty lame question, but what does music mean to you? I am sure you are not making music for the sake of it.
Listening to music doesn't work as therapy for me. Composing does. At least since a few years, it works like that. In the early years I think I made music for the process of creating, which is very addictive. Later on, after completing an album, I realise the result as well as the process have also a healing effect on many levels. The older I get, the more I notice I need the musical creation to be able to live on, as a steady ritual as part of my life.
"...emotions come and go. From laughter to tears, trance and ritual state, calm and static to wild and headbang."
And you mentioned exorcism few times...
Performing Empusae live has always been merely to live and share the strong emotions within, rather than copy/paste the music from the record on stage. I am usually quite nervous the day of the concert but when I'm about to get on stage, there's this feeling of wellbeing. I know some of my artist friends need a certain state of mind before going on stage like anger for instance, or being completely concentrated and focussed. I personally never thought of a particular state of mind needed to get on stage. Everything happens once I am performing. Then several emotions come and go. From laughter to tears, trance and ritual state, calm and static to wild and headbang. Anyway, all sort of emotions concentrate in less than one hour. That's why I usually need at least one hour to get back on my feet, and usually feel a bit dried up, sucked empty, emotionally exhausted and depressed. I noticed within the years, it's getting harder to bear after-performance, which is why I'm usually not very accessible afterwards.
photo: Luc Luyten
"We never really rehearsed together because I wanted the artists to add their own interpretation, rather than executing what I prescribe them do to."
I saw you performing live in Ancienne Belgique in April. There were 8 people on stage. Could you elaborate on contributions of these artists to ‘Lueur’?
The people from AB, BRDCST and Consouling Sounds gave me the opportunity to present Lueur in a conceptual evening. Since the music of the album is multi layered, I really wanted to distribute most instrumentations to friends and artists I adore and respect. Tom De Doncker (live partner from 2000 till now) and Colin H. Van Eeckhout (Amenra, Kingdom, CHVE) both contributed on the album with their vocals, so they were of course indispensable. Then I asked Bart Desmet (BARST) on guitars, Bjorn Lescouhier (Smoking General, Kingdom) on drums, Dehn Sora (Treha Sektori) on percussions, Femke (Amenra acoustic, Barst live) on violin and of course Christel Morvan (Nesisart) for live visuals. We never really rehearsed together (except me with Bart and Femke once) because I wanted the artists to add their own interpretation, rather than executing what I prescribe them do to. The result was a massive live band, consisting of amazing talents, all of them passionate and emotive... an intense symbiosis.
At Ancienne Belgique Christel's visuals turned the gig into a multidisciplinary performance. How important for you are the intersections between aural and visual?
Chris has been doing artwork for several Empusae (and Onus) releases. Since she also is my partner in life, we are both artistically and emotionally bound together. For Lueur, we brought it to a higher level. Since the beginning of the making of, we were in this together. The progress of the musical compositions inspired her with images, symbols and visual scenery. That aspect then influenced the further process of composing. It was a continuous mutual exchange and translation of music and images, with the conceptual thin red line. So came the artwork for the album, the idea of 'genetic braille' which can be found as an embossed details on both vinyl and cd version, as well as a tattoo on my left arm, and also the astonishing live visuals she created for concerts. I said that before in other interviews, but really need to repeat the fact that what she did is genius, visionary and intelligent. She managed to put so many details, symbols, references of the concept that. When we watched the final result together, it literally freaked me out. I had the impression she found a way to crawl into my very soul and unconsciousness and brought them back on screen and paper. So yes, for me, especially since Lueur, the multidisciplinarity is of capital importance for Empusae.
"Tom has been experimenting with his voice for years now, he developed a very unique way to process his voice, which I personally baptised as "Vox Demonii."
Voice manipulations and effects by Tom De Doncker certainly spice up live shows. Tell us more about vocal arrangements. You use your own voice too.
Tom has been experimenting with his voice for years now, he developed a very unique way to process his voice, which I personally baptised as "Vox Demonii". I also asked him on the track "Rutsu" on the album "Sphere from the Woods" and on "Retinae Tenebrae" on "Lueur". And yes, the least you can say is that he spices up the live shows. As for my own vocals, it has started only recently (since my diagnosis actually) to use my voice in music. The first time was on the Split album with Klankdal. There seemed to be a wall against using my voice, which broke down with the manifestation of my eye problems, who knows, as a compensation maybe? Anyway, I'm getting more and more addicted to it. At the moment, I mainly use it as drone chants and chords (in some reviews, described as Gregorian chants), so more as an instrument than being lead vocals with lyrics, but it might evolve into something bigger in the future. The third and most prominent part, is of course Colin's contribution. I was at an early stage of composing 'Guiding Light' when I noticed I missed something crucial. It took me several experimentations to realise what it was, something I couldn't provide myself. It was the screaming of Colin. So I sent him a sketch of the song to see if it inspired him, along with the idea and concept behind the album. He was instantly attracted to it and agreed to work together. From that point on I continued to compose both songs with his contributions in mind and sent him both sketches. I explained how and where in the music I could 'hear' him singing or screaming. He recorded some parts at the Amenra studio and another part at my place. Then I finalised the composition of the album with Tom and Colin's vocals. At first, at least in my mind, their vocals were without words, merely sounds and melodies, but both came up with lyrics based on my stories and the result is just pure art.
"It's all about creating a soundtrack to the imaginary. When listening to all the releases, if you're in the right setting, you might notice it works as a doorway and scenery, as stimuli to your personal imagination and (dark) fantasies."
You have released 17 records in rather different styles…
The styles, music, the concepts evolve but for me Empusae has the same essence as 20 years ago. It's all about creating a soundtrack to the imaginary. When listening to all the releases, if you're in the right setting, you might notice it works as a doorway and scenery, as stimuli to your personal imagination and (dark) fantasies. You also will recognise some similar elements in all compositions, such as nostalgic melodies, dark drones, heavy rhythms with ritual/tribal purpose, combined with deranging sounds and frequencies. Soundwise, it's all about the 'Beauty of Decay' (a very old industrial song gathering those elements).
"I am a very nostalgic person so for me, reaching to the past and trying to make something "post" out of it in my own manner, is very, very satisfying."
Mixing live and electronic, returning to almost “classical” music instruments while also applying technological innovations can certainly feel fresh. Especially, since it is so hard to create something new, be different from others, sound unique...
For me, no, I wouldn't say it is hard to reach, it just takes time and personal experience. I like the idea of returning to classical elements (compositions and instruments) and then re-translating, stirring and mingling that with contemporary technology. I am a very nostalgic person so for me, reaching to the past (even if I wasn't there during those periods) and trying to make something "post" out of it in my own manner, is very, very satisfying.
The designer and visual artist of Empusae Christel Morvan. Photo: Luc Luyten
I noticed that in Belgium you have a tight and strong scene. There is a certain vibe of camaradie, the feeling that you are all friends supporting each other greatly. In your opinion, how come Belgium has so many brilliant projects and people willing to work and support each other? (if I am right about this).
I'm not sure you can say this is something typical Belgian. I've been in the wave/gothic/industrial scene for almost 20 years and what you described just now doesn't really fit in my experience. In my opinion, what you said actually refers to the "family" around Consouling Sounds, Wool-e Tapes/Discs and Silken Tofu. Since I entered the Consouling circle, I exactly experienced your description. I don't know how it all happened, but Mike & Nele from Consouling, Dimitri from Wool-e and Wim from Silken Tofu are exquisite human beings with a great sense of talent and quality, combined with passion for art and music and big hearts. For Consouling Sounds, I think both Mike and Nele, combined with what their label represents and the projects involved, work as a cataclysm for like-minded souls. At least that is my theory about it.
What’s next for Empusae?
I will have some concerts coming up to present Lueur. The most prominent (and confirmed) ones to come will be in Japan (two times Tokyo and Nagoya), as a part of a long awaited voyage for Chris and me, a passion we both share since many years. In November we'll perform at Wroclaw Industrial Festival (with The Young Gods and Nurse With Wound in the line-up), a fantastic art festival (16th edition) in a beautifull Gothic Hall, amazing quality sound and real music lovers, no posers, which makes the atmosphere just about perfect. There are a few other options, which aren't confirmed yet, so I better not mention them to avoid any confusion. I am thinking of making an album, which would be based on realtime recording and loops, which could be reproduced live at 100% but didn't decided yet if it will be under Empusae moniker or as a new project. I have also started some sketches for new songs, but here again, not sure if they will end up as Empusae or as a possible collaboration, because I already have some new victims to harass, who really inspire me at the moment and even willing to do something together. All very exciting!