Secrets of the Moon
by Niklas Göransson
Between albums, Secrets of the Moon frontman Phil Jonas went through both birth and burials, and when the shadows fell he sought liberation in the sun. He reveals whispered secrets and speaks of poems heard from beyond the grave.
An inspection of their Facebook page tells me that SECRETS OF THE MOON nowadays define themselves as an ‘occult metal/rock’ band. Given the sound of the latest album, “Sun” from 2015, this seems like a conscious effort to distance themselves from their black metal roots.
– That attempt started 15 years ago, says guitarist and vocalist Philipp ‘sG’ Jonas, when we printed shirts with the phrase ‘German occult machinery’. I never cared much for categorising our music to be honest. I know there are bands out there that are true and loyal to the manner of how black metal should be conveyed, but we make no claims of being one of them.
Despite having started out as one, they would soon come to learn that the rather strict black metal framework was a bit too stifling for them.
– Even if we’d been anxious to please and desperate to become popular, I would’ve never tried to pretend – that’s doomed to fail miserably. I would go so far as to say that performing black metal on an acceptably devoted spiritual level only feels right at a youthful age, or with the total exclusion of anything earthly and mundane.
Phil says that whatever the reactions of fans might be, there’s no other way of doing it. One simply can’t create genuine music of this kind unless there is complete emotional authenticity behind it.
– I can’t reclaim the surreal days of youth, the energy of “Stronghold of the Inviolables” (debut album, 2001) – this fanatic black metal presence, those days are gone. Neither can SAMAEL or EMPEROR ever bring back their early demo days, when their source of inspiration seemed endless. That’s just my opinion, I know most people think different. What’s your opinion on black metal versus age?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that hearing SAMAEL’s “Ceremony of Opposites” or EMPEROR’s side on the ENSLAVED split for the first time today is highly unlikely to have the impact it did when one was a teenager.
– I wish I could be 10 years of age and experience a band like GHOST, imagine that seen through the eyes of a child.
One thing that occurred to me a while back; Germany is as everyone knows the proverbial hotspot for black and death metal in Europe, with its absolutely massive fan-base. Despite this; there haven’t been any huge German extreme metal bands since the glory days of thrash, which strikes me as slightly odd for a country with that big of an interest.
– I totally agree and the main reason must be that the bands simply weren’t good enough. Or perhaps better said; none of them really stood out to become a leading and inspirational force. I speak in particular about the late nineties and early 2000s, when Germany was a total copy-cat country. Back then, everyone looked up to Scandinavia.
What about now?
– I don’t follow the scene too much nowadays but I think things have changed a bit and there are more and more bands with a true face emerging. That’s good. Other reasons must be cultural and historical backgrounds combined with Germany’s inability to support its own artists.
In press obligations following the 2015 album “Sun”, Phil spoke very candidly about having lost his mother to skin cancer while preparing for the recording.
– It was a conscious decision to be open about it when journalists asked me about the creative process. Many were surprised; I suppose tough metal musicians aren’t supposed to talk about topics like this in public, but I felt the need to explain to fans and media alike the meaning of the record.
Already under pressure from imminent fatherhood, Phil says he did his best to keep it together.
– I maintained calm and focus when everyone around me was crying, keeping in mind that my girlfriend was pregnant. She was carrying our firstborn child; my daughter, who my mother was buying clothes for only weeks before. Proud grandma, I had to focus on this.
How old was she?
– 56. Quite a young age to die, from what was at first nothing but a small melanoma. Things like this rattle your entire outlook on life; how you see yourself, and especially the way you look upon your offspring. It also severed my connection to the fountain of origin, if you know what I mean… I really can’t explain it any better
The heaviest burden to bear was what he describes as an overbearing nihilistic shadow that overcame him.
– Ever since, I’m constantly battling this shadow and it’s not always easy. In the end when all is said and done, life is so fleeting and temporary – such an insignificant task. Nothing you achieve will ever have any resounding meaning, so there’s really not much point to anything. That’s what it feels like.
It was only after the young family had adapted to the new addition that Phil began to realise how much the death of his mother had affected him, and still does. The sorrow and sense of loss morphed with the bliss of fatherhood to form a bittersweet synergy.
– It goes hand in hand. The love for a child is something I’ve never felt before; it’s pure. I’m glad that I’m able to experience this but on the other hand, this nihilistic state within makes me look at her in a very gloomy way sometimes. For the most part, I just try to be a good father.
There was a time only a few years ago when he wasn’t quite as in touch with his emotional self.
– It was as if all sensitive impulses in my body had faded. I was doing a lot of speed and cocaine back then, often home alone – trying to feel happiness, love and passion. At some point my body was fucked and the drugs were giving me less of an effect… yet I wanted to feel, so I did more.
There’s been plenty of discourse about ego dissolving compounds in recent articles so it’s interesting to pay the other end of the spectrum a visit.
– Some of them can be highly beneficial in a creative process, especially when time comes knocking on your tired head. We had a lot of good experiences, the same goes for bad ones.
The main lesson he carried back from his stint in the swamplands of chemical dependency was that drugs can have vastly different effects, depending on whether the consumer is in balance with the self or not.
– There are times when I use them to enjoy myself and have a good time. Taking them to try to feel something is a completely different story, those days are behind me.
Around what album was this going on?
– I guess it was after “Seven Bells” was released (March, 2012). The “Gehenna” EP with CRONE was recorded during this period, I think. My memories from this time are quite blurred.
CRONE is a side-project Phil started with a good friend.
– It’s bearing first fruits now as we’re recording our debut in a few weeks. It’s a concept album that deals with famous suicide cases; I’m extremely proud of the songs and am hoping it will see the light of day sooner rather than later.
Phil says his contributions to the latest album were essentially desperate attempts to plough the emotions raging through him into something palpable; an artistic hybrid of birth and burial.
– I had to make a record – to create, so I sat down and prepared. “Sun” will always feel like a therapy session to me; after all, it is a positive record.
Is the solar more appealing than the lunar as you advance in age?
– Not really, I must say. But when thinking about the positive and bright influence the making of this album had on me, saturated with the presence of death manifest in an agent of skin cancer, there was simply no better title to be chosen.
By the time SECRETS OF THE MOON entered the studio, they had only prepared material for two songs. The rest was more or less concocted on the fly, with the band jamming until they found something that worked and then recorded it.
– We came to the studio with good projections and ideas exchanged beforehand. It was like painting with eight hands, everyone involved knew precisely what colours to dip their brush in. That’s probably why it worked so well, for every stroke our vision became clearer.
What if you had a shitty, creativity-sapping day?
– It might sound cheesy but I can’t seem to have an uninspired day when we’re in the studio; I’m doing what I love the most together with people as inflamed as I am. To record music that will be heard is a magical process, and these chords will be around even when we are not.
To ease matters, SECRETS OF THE MOON also enjoy the privilege of having a studio engineer in the band – guitar player Michael ‘Ar’ Zech.
– His passion makes our cooperation very enthralling. We definitely share the same vision, the difference is that he’s able to put it on tape whereas I am not.
If I were a label manager, the mere mention of relying on improvisational composition would give me heart palpitations.
– Lupus Lounge never questioned our strange ways of working even when we did weirder things in the past, probably because they know that we always deliver in the end. Weirdos do strange things – utilising enhancing creative tools is definitely one of them.
With the music basically writing itself, it’s a bit of a mystery that they seem to take on average three years between albums.
– We tour extensively to support album sales – some of us have families and we live in different cities nowadays; we can’t make a living from the band and there are bills to pay. Another reason is that I sometimes don’t touch my guitar for months, pure antipathy. That thing is responsible for so many good and bad things that happen.
His instrument of choice is a Gibson Les Paul Classic, one that Phil has owned for fifteen years and played hundreds of shows with.
– It’s a long, long road where a lot happens along the way; meeting life-changing people or killing time in some of the world’s worst shitholes… damaging your body and spending too much time in cars, vans and airports. Life on the road is certain to offer the best of days, as well as the most disappointing.
These days, his relationship to touring is rather ambivalent.
– Sometimes I enjoy it, other times it feels like an unwinnable futile task. The main difference today is that we’re able to travel in nightliners, which makes everything more pleasant.
As opposed to minibus tours, which are abysmal when long distances are involved.
– We’re not the type of band that attracts thousands every night so there’s not much of a difference compared to the early years. We’ll be touring with BEHEMOTH and MGŁA in October, our first time supporting a major band.
Besides the cycle of existence playing out in his immediate family, Phil also lost close friend and bass player of five years; Marianne ‘LSK’ Séjourné.
– My memories of her are still surprisingly clear, he says, if I concentrate I hear the sound of her voice – I remember the way she smelled, how she looked.
He describes her as a woman constantly on the run, never staying in one place for too long.
– We’d play 60 shows in a row and then she’d disappear for six months. Sometimes she’d live at my place and the next moment she’d turn up in Norway or the Dominican Republic. A free, sinister spirit.
Séjourné was notorious for having ‘very little attachment to material things’, as someone recently put it to me – meaning, she kept forgetting her earthly possessions everywhere.
– Oh yes. She’d always be leaving her gear around without really giving a shit. Once, when we played some miserable place in Frankfurt, she left the venue with her equipment and asked some random guy outside to keep an eye on it. Then she disappeared.
Upon her return shortly thereafter, the supposed watcher told her that ‘some black guy’ had taken it.
– She totally freaked out. Fortunately, it was our tour manager at the time – who is black, and this finally taught her a lesson.
While LSK handled the bass on 2009 album “Privilegivm”, she did not play on “Seven Bells” – but was kept on as part of the live setting.
– We fought a lot. Due to her condition she was very unstable, which is not beneficial when you want a band to function creatively. She did appear on “Seven Bells” though; listen closely and you’ll hear her voice at the 03:33 minute mark on every track, whispering a word. Add all the words together and you’ll get a sentence – ideas like this were very typical of her.
Missing her artistic input in the studio, they had made plans to involve her in the band again.
– She wasn’t necessarily going to play bass, we wanted her to have a much wider scope in terms of performing sounds both on and off-stage.
On October 24, 2013, Marianne Séjourné ended her own life.
You’d just completed a tour cycle together, did you notice anything out of the ordinary?
– No. By the time I realised that something was horribly wrong, it was way too late – before that I’d just put her behaviour down to simply Marianne being herself.
Phil recalls the last time he met her, at a festival in Germany.
– We had great conversations over several hours, she was in one of her high-phases – without drugs, I should add. She even called me later that night, and we kept talking. Actually, recalling this now it feels like she knew what was about to happen. I know she was afraid of the next darkness.
Séjourné graces the latest album not only in spirit, but also voice.
– Ar and Marianne were in the studio one day, to work on intros for upcoming shows. They recorded this poem she’d written but never used.
The verses in question are featured on the opening track, “No More Colours”.
– I remember first hearing it again while we were working on the album, I had shivers running down my spine. We discussed extensively whether we should use it or not – I’m pretty sure we made the right decision, she would have loved it.
Translation by David Fitt.
You lost yourself on the way
Your faith led you to your ruin
Stop controlling your fate
Your fear reflects your ignorance
And the misery of your pitiful existence
Let the Light blind you
Let Darkness reach you
Let the Voices enter your flesh
You need to lose your convictions to access the Divine
Let the Light reach you
During my preparation research, I came across both promo sheets and reviews calling SECRETS OF THE MOON’s recent output ‘cinematic’ and ‘psychedelic’.
– Always strange to read reviews or promo sheets, I can’t find this psychedelic approach in our sound at all. Probably because our music sounds real and offensive, at least to my ears. Psychedelic music is connected to dreamlike and pending scenarios, to dizziness. That’s not what this band is about.
Phil is far more comfortable with the cinematographical comparison.
– Movies and soundtracks are a big inspiration to me. I always found the Lynch–Badalementi collaboration highly fascinating.
Angelo Badalamenti composed the score for David Lynch productions such as Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway.
– Lars von Trier’s Antichrist also had a huge influence on our song “The Three Beggars (Satan’s Church)”, the closing track on “Seven Bells”.
That film would have a huge influence on anyone with male genitalia.
– I worked on a visual performance of “Sun” recently, we performed the entire record with projections in the background. It was only a first step but it showed me how thrilling this mixture is.
Looking back at your career, what are the strongest memories?
– Thanks for calling this a ‘career’. I must say that I’m not the kind of person who likes to glance back on things. Someday when all this is over, I’ll probably start watching amateurish live videos on YouTube to refresh my memory – but for now, I try my best to steer clear of that.