by Niklas Göransson
Memento mori – Steynsberg of Swiss black metal band Wacht is a multidisciplinary artist and writer with an earnest obsession with bone chapels, death, and the concept of time.
– The story of “La mort” is quite ordinary; after recording “Indigen” in 2013, I quickly realised the songs’ potential for being presented in an entirely different musical format. Over the years, I thought about transforming them into acoustic songs or perhaps performing them in some kind of stripped-down version on a mountain top somewhere. However, none of those ideas seemed to satisfy me completely – they’ve all been done before, in one way or another. So, I just went on with other things and buried the idea somewhere in the back of my mind.
Following the 2017 WACHT album, “Korona”, Steynsberg was working on a few piano pieces for his ritual noise project, ATARAH, when realising that this approach could be precisely what he’d been looking for.
– My piano skills are very limited but, somehow, I found a recording process that worked to my satisfaction. After various experiments, I had the idea to work with Evangelion – the singer who’s been performing clean vocals for WACHT since a few years back – on something similar. I asked if he’d be interested in creating a piano-only song with me; he was, and within a matter of days we’d recorded the track “Meis ultim let”. I felt that this intuitive approach brought along a lot of creative potential, so we decided to continue on this path and write more such music. After a few weeks of work, we had material for a full-length album but I still wasn’t completely happy with it. I kept on writing songs and pestering Evangelion with new lyrics until I had the feeling that everything of relevance had been said.
“La mort” was released by Auric Records in December 2019; the leftover songs were included on a bonus EP in the limited box-set version of the album. The lyrics are written in the Engadin dialect of Rumantsch, one of Switzerland’s four national languages. Rumantsch is spoken by the estimated 60,000 people residing in the south-eastern Swiss canton of Grisons.
– The linguistic aspect is highly important in order to understand the album’s history. Had the lyrics been written in a different language, it would’ve changed the way we approached the subject matter. Rumantsch is intrinsically linked to the atmosphere, feelings, images, overall message, and music of WACHT. Without it, “La mort” might’ve been another project with another name and another underlying idea and would probably have come out as a completely different result. In this instance, I decided to create a lyrical framework which places the concept of death – a theme that can be approached in every time, place, or situation – in the mountain region of Switzerland I call home. The people there have a unique manner of approaching things and a rather different way of being Swiss citizens in general. The title “La mort” (‘Death’) is simple but very effective; it summarises everything I have to say about this topic and, at the same time, shows an important part of my personality. Death is a huge part of my life, everything I do and create seems to be somehow related to it.
Prior to the interview, Steynsberg provided some insight into various non-musical ventures he’s involved in – work he doesn’t want connected with his black metal pursuits. And, indeed, all of them appear to be connected to bereavement in some way.
– The attention I dedicate to death-related topics has completely taken over my life. There’s nothing about me which isn’t related to death. Death is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever come across; it’s a concept that, no matter how hard we to try to decipher, humans will never fully comprehend. The only thing you can change is your perception, or how you deal with it. I mean, there are even cultures that don’t regard dead people as dead. Death has a completely different significance for them, yet still they themselves die physically. Every religion revolves around hope and, therefore, ultimately around death. The foundation of life is death and our Western quest to postpone it for as long as possible – yet still knowing there’s no way out – seems ridiculous to me. Surely, I don’t want to die today but, if this were to happen, there’s nothing I can do about it so why be afraid?
As could be expected, these inclinations have drawn him to some strange places. One of his main fixations is with ossuaries, which is a term used for either containers or buildings designed to host human bones.
– Ossuaries found me during one of my photographic journeys some years back. After some digging, no pun intended, their beauty and rich history gripped me immediately and hasn’t let go since. There are several relevant factors if you visit such a site; for me, the starting point was aesthetics. When confronted with human skulls, being a black metal person certainly simplifies things. But that wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to know more. So, I started documenting them, trying to get a mixture of visual beauty and ‘simpler’ shots depicting these places on a more pragmatic level. The rest, to use a cliché, is history.
I must confess my relative ignorance of ossuaries – I was familiar with the term and have visited the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic. Sedlec is a relatively small Roman Catholic chapel adorned with the bones of up to 70,000 people, all arranged in amazingly intricate decorations.
– Sedlec and the catacombs in Paris are probably the starting points for every ossuary fanatic all over the world, but note that you’ll find very little increase in bombast and atmosphere from there; basically, you might’ve started at the very top. Sedlec is a marvellous place that few can compare to. I could – and have – spend hours in there, just gazing at all its beauty and creativity. I can recommend many other places with different qualities, so let me know if you’re travelling within Europe and I’ll direct you to the nearest ossuary. I must point out though: one thing many people, especially within black metal, tend to forget is that these sites are highly religious spaces. They are the final resting place for the bones of Christian ancestors. I always laugh, and feel a bit ashamed, when these ultra anti-religious black metal bands use ossuary images as record covers or inlays. Most of them don’t even know what it is they’re representing. I’ve approached a few such bands, asking why they use Christian iconography for their wannabe satanic ‘cult’ idiocy and every single time the answer was variations of, ‘Well, because it looks cool’. That’s where we are today. Fantastic, isn’t it?
Steynsberg adds that another point of fascination is how ossuaries can serve as mirrors of their society’s definition of death. Merely by looking to the way it was built and how it’s been maintained since, he explains, one can gain significant insight into the moral views of certain times.
– For example, an ossuary housing a pile of bones in the midst of trash and dirt paints a very different picture from that of, for example, the ossuary in Kutná Hora. Of course, Sedlec has become a historical site, a museum, and a source of income. Still, visitors are asked to behave and, sometimes, people are even told to leave if their attire is inappropriate – ‘Satanists’, as the guards called some goths one time I was there. After all, for the locals, Sedlec is a church. The skeletal remains belong to their forebears and visitors are expected to respect this. Also, another fascinating fact one tends to forget is that every single bone in such a room has a lifetime of stories to tell. Each and every one of them had issues, felt happiness, horrors, love, grief and many other things. It’s overwhelming to see a wall of several thousand skulls that belonged to people who lived right there five hundred years earlier, in times which have almost been forgotten. Ossuaries are great reminders of our life, death, past, future, and uncountable other things; they show us what will be. Or, as it says in the first ossuary I visited several years ago, ‘Was wir sind, das werdet Ihr. Was Ihr seid, das waren wir.’
St. Peter Mistail, Alvaschein, Switzerland: the inscription can be found on a wooden sign surrounded by craniums and various other skeletal remains, it translates to, ‘What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.’ A so-called memento mori, an artistic reminder that our time here on Earth is limited. As it happens, time is another one of Steynsberg’s fascinations, to the extent where he writes books about it. Whilst intimately connected with death – since that’s where it always leads – he also regards time as a foundation for human spirituality.
– Time – as we perceive it – is based on the cycles of the sun, the seasons, and tides. Or, better said, our Western perception of time is founded on those cycles. There’s a reason why ‘our’ days consist of twenty-four hours and years of 365 days. Of course, those exact numbers are man-made inventions but, in the end, I suppose many religions base their traditions, rituals, and beliefs on these cycles. Ancient monuments such as the pyramids are said to have been based on the solar movements. Thinking about this, time seems to be an important factor in history, albeit always leading to certain death. So, developing a fascination revolving around it seemed natural to me.
You also have a particular penchant for the actual keeping of time, correct?
– Indeed. My interest in watches began a few years back when my grandfather wanted to give me a last gift that would remind me of him after he passed away. Although it’s a beautiful watch, I didn’t think much about the significance of his intention back then. Turns out, he was right: every time I checked the time on that watch, I thought of him. I still do today, even with different watches. The one he gave me has held a central place in my collection ever since – right next to newer, better, and more expensive pieces. Price is not important here, what makes a watch unique and invaluable is the memories.
This episode somehow triggered another one of Steynsberg’s manias; he began informing himself about watchmaking history and took an active interest in the industry.
– In an age when carrying a cell phone is the norm, many regard watches as something outdated and archaic. Others dismiss them as toys for rich people to show off their status to other rich people. That might very well be the case but, if you peek behind the curtain of hedonism, there is so much more to them. I remember something Elon Musk said in an interview a few years back, that people expect an expensive watch to be precise over all things but, no matter how much money you spend, you’ll still have to ‘accept a certain amount of fuckery’, as he put it. That’s because there are no digital components in these watches. There is no computer or battery in a mechanical watch. I believe there’s some kind of über-capitalistic ‘counterculture’ vibe going on in this market. A return from digital to mechanical. People with crazy amounts of money spend ridiculous sums to escape the very system that’s responsible for their wealth.
You really are utterly captivated by this stuff?
– Yes. The world of watches is a universe for itself – and confined to itself – and bears an incredible potential for inspiration. There’s a crazy amount of skill plied into this small piece of art on your wrist. Some of them contain incredibly complex mathematical concepts used for much more than just displaying time. Others are simply perfect creations of geniuses. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Atmos, for example, is a clock that could theoretically run for several hundred years without an active power source or the necessity of being wound. Imagine that, it runs solely on temperature fluctuations in the surrounding environment. Place one in your home and it can be left untouched for ten generations, yet still work. When time transforms into something that overcomes a human lifespan, many things are put in perspective. The attention to detail in watchmaking is unbelievable. I’ve met people who dedicate over three months to hand-painting one single dial, or others who spend weeks manually carving beautiful figures into cases of solid gold. That’s not really something you see every day. I remember a discussion I had with a watchmaker in Geneva, he told me that everything they do could be achieved by machines at a fraction of the cost. However, they take pride in being able to do this by hand, with a know-how amassed over centuries. He told me that, after all, the watchmaking industry is a multi-billion-dollar business based on a product which is completely unnecessary. So, it wouldn’t make sense to sell cheap or inferior watches.
Steynsberg says that those who are drawn to such watches expect excellence and durability lasting over generations, which will be reliably found by selecting reputable brands.
– That was very inspiring for me; I try to achieve the same with everything I do, but on a different level. Oddly, most people seem to be satisfied with averages – mediocre music, generic designs, standard quality – as long as they don’t have to spend much money and time on their art and can drown their brain with beer by the end of the week. My approach is the opposite way around: horrendous costs, endless hours of annoying detail-work, failure, endless discussions with collaborators, having to start over and over again… none of which particularly bothers me as long as I’m able to push my work to the point where I’m fully satisfied with the result. For example, the last fifteen years I’ve been losing big money in all my musical ventures, but I’d never consider releasing inferior quality simply to reduce costs. The “Indigen” LP set us back around fifty Swiss Francs per piece in production, whereas we sell it for forty… which is, in my opinion, still way too expensive. This might tell you something about my work ethics and general relation to bands signing to major labels, doing big tours, and generally trying to live off black metal.
It’s amusing to note that Steynsberg himself seems almost unencumbered by the limitations of time. Now that I’ve been made aware of quite a few of his creative ventures – books, websites, research projects, photography, and so forth – all on top of a regular job and several bands, I’m starting to think he must have either a maniacal drive and self-discipline or an inexhaustible supply of amphetamines.
– Haha, it appears to be that way, doesn’t it? Many people tell me the same but, strangely enough, it doesn’t seem like this to me. Even with all my projects and activities, I still find myself bored and most of my time is spent doing nothing in particular. For example, I sleep over nine hours per day and generally dedicate evenings to watching some stupid series on my computer. Anyway, I suppose it must be the first alternative since I lead a drug free life. I’m generally not opposed to the use of substances but, frankly, I was never really interested in any kind of stimulants besides the usual beer and energy drink routine. Being obsessively creative seems to be my drug of choice. Regarding my productivity, there might be two factors leading to such a result. First of all, I am terribly annoying when it comes to pushing through my ideas, which leads to a ‘do it right, do it immediately, or fuck you’ atmosphere. Secondly, I’ve found a collaborator who fits my working routine perfectly. Having someone who understands and supports you is a great help for dealing with all the struggles holding you back, believe me. I live after the principle that anything is possible. What sets a person apart is the willingness to achieve something and – more importantly – to lose other things along the way. I have happily lost many things because of it, but I have no regrets. Many friendships have been crushed by my way of dealing with creative ideas as well as my stubborn insistence to achieve more than we’re supposed to.
What’s the creative drive to keep going?
– The notion of freedom. Freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the freedom to hate whatever I want. Let’s be honest, a society that bases its life goals on materialistic conquest, or the amount of beers available in the fridge, is worth nothing and certainly doesn’t rely on anything resembling freedom in any way. We’re trapped in our existence and no matter what we try, the walls of our mental confines won’t yield. This system relies on our lack of hope to ever escape it. Life here in Switzerland might seem great for everyone as we have money, clean streets, and no necessity of violence at all. However, I think the focus on physical wealth blinds us to other things. Even if we appear to shit in golden toilets, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all is well. I perceive existence as a state within a confined space. That space, let’s call it a room, might be furnished for better or worse – depending on random factors like the country you were born into or the wealth your family accumulated over the years. In the end, we find ourselves in square cages with bleak walls and no windows. We’re kept distracted by momentary tokens of free will and the advertised freedom to do certain things, but we are also permanently reminded of how fast this can be revoked.
Even if people could figure out that they are trapped in a room, he says, there’s no guarantee they’d actually lift a finger to take a peek outside.
– How can North Koreans know about their situation if they have no possibility to gaze out of their predefined rooms? How do we even know that our internet isn’t as censored as the one they have in China? How can we know if there’s more than what we perceive? How do we know that our government isn’t fucking us with fake bullshit? And, most importantly, how can ‘we’ propagate ‘our’ system of beliefs to be superior to others? This is a discussion I’ve tried to engage in many times. Lots of people who’ve been made aware of this seem to think it’s not so bad and that we, in our privileged position, shouldn’t be complaining. They bow their heads and ask themselves ‘How much time has passed, how much longer will this last?’ – all the while knowing that something is fundamentally wrong. In my humble opinion, the problem isn’t that people don’t have the chance; the real issue is that they simply don’t want to wake up to anything different than the view they’re used to seeing every day. They instinctively know about certain faults of the system, yet their lives are too good to do something about it. They might lose their TV privileges in the aforementioned room-metaphor, or something like that. In the end, the result is an obedient mind that’s too spoiled to even raise a single idea or adversarial thought. Just think about the current corona situation: where is our freedom now? Social distancing is not a prevention to get rid of a stupid virus, it is a proven practice of a ‘system’ to keep the energy of creativity within acceptable boundaries. This is a very basic thought in any manual on how to oppress free will and the notion of any kind of insubordination in a political sense. Think about it.