Johanna Sadonis is looking out her Berlin window at the church across the street, but she’s thinking about Satan. Or Lucifer, to be more precise: the fallen angel who called Jesus’ deadbeat dad out on some bullshit and was thus cast unceremoniously from heaven. She’s named her new band after this storied cloven-hooved miscreant, and it’s a fitting moniker for the music they make: Powerful, enigmatic, and oozing a vaguely biblical menace. Like the mere thought of Lucifer himself, the band conjures dark shapes from the ether. Ancient temptations are proffered in exotic landscapes. Unholy pacts are consummated in what we can only assume is blood. Blackness descends—and Satan, laughing, spreads his wings. Anchored by the unstoppable riffery of ex-Cathedral (and current Death Penalty) guitarist Gaz Jennings, the deft battery of Angel Witch drummer Andrew Prestridge and the four-string reckoning of former Ladytron (!) touring bassist Dino Gollnick, Lucifer’s debut full-length, Lucifer I, is exalted skyward by Sadonis’ glamorously witchy wail.
That church, though? It pierces the Berlin firmament impressively. But it shall remain nameless, just in case you’re one of those sweaty creeps who might have developed an unhealthy fixation on Miss Sadonis because of her last band, the Oath. Which could’ve easily happened, given that the Oath’s one-and-done debut was the best metal record that came out last year. Sadly, the band dissolved before doom powerhouse Rise Above released the album. “When the Oath broke up, I took a few days and then I started forming Lucifer in my head,” Sadonis explains. “I had all this energy, all this fire under my ass, all these things I wanted to do with the Oath. But I wasn’t going to hang my head in shame. I decided to take that energy and do something new.”
Noisey: You lived briefly in Los Angeles, which is where I’m calling you from. What was that experience like for you as a German?
Johanna Sadonis: I loved it. I think everyone should at least once in their life go away from where they’re from because it does expand your horizon. Living on the other side of the globe, you kind of get to reinvent your life and start a new life. You feel free from everything that was before. And California is the complete opposite of the mentality in Germany. People are maybe a bit more reserved here and so on, so you have to adapt to a new kind of social language in California. It has up and down sides. I found that it can be at times superficial, but it can also be liberating. I love California. I consider it somewhat my second home, even though I was there for only three years. I miss the ocean dearly. But I missed the four seasons and rain and snow of Europe, so that was one of the main reasons I came back to Berlin.
Did you play any music when you were out here?
I did. I had a friend out there, Rayshele Teige, who worked for Osmose Productions and also founded Century Black, which was a subdivision of Century Media. I’ve known her since the ’90s, from the black metal scene. We met at a festival in Europe, and we stayed friends so I would always go to visit her in L.A. Once I moved there, we both had different musical phases so we wanted to try something else out. We had this band called Informer, which was more of a dark electronic pop band, like Ladytron maybe. We did one album there, actually, and I released it in Berlin when I moved back here in 2008 but nothing ever came of it. It’s not that great. I’m not too proud of it. It was a phase—when you do one thing your whole life you kind of try out others along the way.
Isn’t someone from Ladytron in Lucifer?
Funnily enough, the bass player I have for Lucifer now, Dino Gollnick, used to be a live bass player for Ladytron for many years.
Before you started the Oath, you were singing in death metal and black metal bands.
I started singing in bands very young, like 14 or 15. The first recordings I did, demo cassettes, were death and black metal bands here in Berlin. I was an outcast because I was a girl, so you have to fight your way through it. [Laughs] As a girl among teenage boys, it was a good lesson for life. You can come across some not so easy paths, but you have to just take it with a grain of salt and humor, I guess. But my parents raised me on ’70s rock n’ roll and my brother was a punk, so my natural rebellion was to seek out the harder stuff. When you’re a teenager, you think your parents’ music is boring. Now I listen to their records.
When did you first figure out that you could sing?
The first band I was in, I actually played guitar. But I guess I was too occupied running to shows instead of actually sitting down and practicing so I took the easy way out and became a singer. [Laughs] And also you know the style changed very much over the years because I started out in those death and black metal bands. It was very chic in the ’90s to have a male singer screaming and growling while you had a female doing more high-pitched soprano vocals. So I was kind of a side order, you could say. But that changed over the years because I wanted to go into a more heavy metal/hard rock approach.
Did you ever taking singing lessons?
None at all, no. It’s all self-taught. I’m somebody that listens to music all day long, from the moment I get up. I sing along to anything—when I am alone, of course.
What are some of the first records you remember singing along to as a kid?
My brother made me mix tapes in the ’80s with like the Cure and the Sex Pistols and Public Enemy and whatever else was fashionable then. But when I was in first grade, my mom gave me early rock n’ roll stuff like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and the Shangri-Las. I really loved the Shangri-Las, actually. And then when I was 11 or 12 I started with the Doors. Then came Metallica and Guns’ Roses when I was 13, and those were the first shows that I went to. And then pretty fast came the black metal stuff.
You went from black metal to the Oath. What brought on the change in musical direction?
Well, there were many years in between. You get older and you kind of open your eyes more. I started to dig more into the past. I feel like the older I get, the deeper I go back into musical history. So I think I was returning to the roots of where heavy metal actually came from, and that’s the stuff I listen to now. What happened with the Oath was that my best friend, Vincent Wager—he was the first drummer in the Oath—and I were running club nights in Berlin together. We would talk shit together over drinks about rock and heavy metal. He’s originally from New York, and he had a similar path to me playing in death and black metal bands in Brooklyn. So we were speaking about stuff we were into, and we said, “Why don’t we start our own band?” That was how the Oath came about.
The Oath album was my favorite record that came out last year, but the band broke up before it was even released. That must’ve been hugely disappointing for you.
Yeah, it was devastating.
Were you surprised that the band ended so quickly, or was it obvious at some point that it wouldn’t last?
Let’s say it wasn’t a surprise when it ended. But still I was holding on til the end. I was trying to not have it end that way. But unfortunately I wasn’t the only one to make that decision. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the breakup, but I did not want it to end at the time. But it was also no surprise.
Andy Prestridge from Angel Witch was playing drums in the Oath, and now he’s playing in Lucifer. Was he the first piece of the puzzle when you started the new band?
Yeah, because Andy was disappointed as well. We all wanted the Oath to go do things. And Dino, Lucifer’s bass player, was actually in talks to play with the Oath when the band split up. So they both agreed to do something new with me. Then came the search for the guitar player.
I’m guessing Lee Dorrian from Cathedral and Rise Above hooked you up with Gaz.
Yeah. I met Gaz only one time in person before—when we played the Rise Above anniversary with the Oath in 2012. We had a really nice chat there, but it was Lee who said, “Gaz is shaking crazy riffs out of his sleeve all day long because he plays so much. Why don’t you ask him?” That was really amazing because I loved Cathedral and I think he’s one of the best guitar players of the genre.
How did you decide on the band name? It’s very direct and powerful, but it’s also been used before. And there are a few active bands using the name as well. Did that factor into your decision?
I had the name very fast after first deciding to form a new band. I was carrying it around in my head and heart and thought, “You can’t do that. It’s too blunt. People will be upset about it and talk shit about it.” When Lee asked me what I had in mind for the name, I felt embarrassed telling him. But then I told him and he said, “It’s a great name.” I think so, too, but then I thought there must be a million Lucifers. When I looked I saw that yes, there were some bands in the past, and some smaller ones existing now, but nothing on my radar. Maybe that’s an arrogant thing to say, but so many words are taken by so many bands, you know? And for me, the figure of Lucifer is so beautiful and powerful and the name is so catchy that I had to take it. So I did.
Would you say you have a spiritual relationship with the biblical Lucifer?
I’d say I’m a very spiritual person, and the lyrics in Lucifer are very spiritual. But also the image of Lucifer has been part of rock n’ roll and hard rock and metal for a long time. There are a lot of bands, like Blue Öyster Cult, that aren’t super-spiritual, that play with these kinds of figures. Since the concept for Lucifer is very much ’70s heavy rock, I just thought it was a great thing to use even if you are not through-and-through into the occult. Although I can tell you that when I was 16, I worked after school in an occult bookstore in Berlin. But the Lucifer logo, for example, is very much from Rush. So I use the name Lucifer in a playful manner. Just like the first song on the album, “Abracadabra,” is kind of a playful approach to magic. So it’s not in a way like a band like Watain is practicing—they take it very serious. I do too, but I think hard rock uses these things metaphorically. Like “demons” can be your own demons.
So you’re not a Satanist.
No, I’m not a Satanist. I believe in the duality of things and I think Satanism is very one-sided.
What are you getting out of Lucifer that you didn’t get out of the Oath?
A lot of things. The influences are similar, but the approach is a different one. The similarity is that with both Lucifer and the Oath, everyone involved would say that Black Sabbath is our favorite band. But the Oath was more of a New Wave Of British Heavy Metal thing—or we were leaning towards that, which Lucifer doesn’t do. Lucifer is more of a heavy metal/doom band. Maybe it’s not a good thing to say, but in Lucifer I don’t have to do any compromises. That was part of the difficulty in the Oath: A lot of the things I wanted to do got kind of vetoed by another strong character in the band. I love the Oath; I love that album—and it was at least 50 percent me—but with Lucifer it’s almost completely my brainchild. I sat down and worked out exactly how I wanted it to sound, how I wanted things to look, and how I wanted things to be done. As much I loved the Oath, I’m more passionate about Lucifer. I think I’ve found now exactly what I want to do. So that makes me very happy.
J. Bennett is thrilled that Johanna is back in action. He also enjoys Blue Öyster Cult.