Noisey

Being a Hardcore Band in 2020 Means 'No Job and No Hope' – But At Least You Can Scream About It

Bristol three-piece Svalbard say there's power in shouting about things you hate.
October 16, 2020, 8:15am
Svalbard interview 2020
Photo: Tim Birkbeck
Heavy Britain is a rock column that looks into some of the heaviest bands in the UK.

Hardcore band Svalbard are the kind of Bristolians that would rather shout “fuck off!” repeatedly down a microphone than sell you a smudge stick.

Since 2011, the three-piece punk crew have released three albums and destroyed stages across the UK and Europe alongside bands such as La Dispute and Comeback Kid. Their cult following and masssive sound has taken them to Arctangent and Roadburn in the Netherlands.

Their new album When I Die, Will I Get Better? is a bold, vitriolic and progressive hardcore album. One review online describes it as “dark and cold… but well worth it”. Oh, wait… That’s a TripAdvisor review of somebody’s holiday to the remote area of Svalbard in Norway. My mistake.

Anyway, When I Die… has the impassioned hardcore of Modern Life Is War, the rabid d-beat of Tragedy, and some spacious post-rock for added transcendence. The songs are supercharged by the incandescent screams of Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan on shared guitar and vocal duties. This fury, paired with delicate and intermittent ethereal singing, make When I Die… a dynamic, intense record.

The album was due to be released on British label Holy Roar Records (once home to Gallows and Rolo Tomassi) but after serious allegations of rape and sexual assault against label boss Alex Fitzpatrick, the band cut all ties with them and joined Church Road Records for this release.

I spoke with Serena about Bristol, discrimination, the internet and tabletop gaming, for the latest edition of Heavy Britain, VICE’s column about heavy music from across the UK.

VICE: Hi Serena! I hope you’re feeling alright today. Can you please tell me about the heavy music scene(s) in Bristol when you were growing up and how it was for you. Did you forge any of your ethos and outlook from the punk/hardcore/metal scenes in Bristol?
Serena: I started going to more underground metal gigs in Bristol when I was quite young… too young to be legally in the bars where the shows were! [laughs]. I used to go to these shows on my own because I didn't know anyone who was interested in watching local death or black metal. At the time, the scene was a bit of an impenetrable fortress. The only time people would speak to me at shows would be to question my "metal credentials" and why I was wearing certain band shirts. No one took me seriously for a long time.

I remember a nasty older goth lady called Carol - yeah Carol, I'm gonna fucking call you out by name, you absolute witch - saying I was only at an Amputated show “because I wanted to fuck them all." I was 15 years old at the time, I didn't want to fuck anyone! I just liked the chuggy riffs and double kick! What a disgusting accusation on her part.

But yeah, my presence was met with this weird, judgmental attitude and I was constantly being asked to prove myself. Later on, I played drums in the crust, d-beat band This Ends Here which meant hanging around at more punk and hardcore shows and that scene was even fucking worse! [laughs]. God, I hated it so much. The whole thing is centred around getting fucked up on booze and drugs and virtue signalling. The music is an afterthought. The guys in this scene were super aggressive and used to make me feel very uncomfortable. So yeah, while I've been present in heavy music scenes within Bristol, I've never felt like a part of any of them. Thankfully, the metal scene here does seem to be a bit nicer nowadays.

Damn, that’s rough. I heard that you’re well into power metal so I thought you might’ve come through the metal scene.
Yes, I am a metalhead. I used to play in a black metal band. I adore power metal and the only reason I don't play in a power metal band is because I'm not musically proficient enough! [laughs]

What’s the best thing about British heavy music scene right now?
The best thing about the UK scene now is all the amazingly talented women within it. I find it hard to use the word scene for this as I think all the band’s sound different in their own rights, and I wouldn't want to describe a gender as a scene. But I love turning up for shows and seeing loads of kick-ass women on the stage, from Ithaca to ETS to Witchsorrow to Monolithian to Venom Prison to Rolo Tomassi. Representation of women in heavy music is blossoming within the UK.

Great bands right there. What else have you seen change in the British heavy music scene?
So… right, I swear black metal wasn't fashionable 10 years ago! It was like the least cool, least acceptable thing. No one was interested in chatting about the new Gehenna record. But now it's like the hot flavour! Now it's seen as a good thing if you have black metal influence.

As much as I'm all for genres growing and changing, I feel that with stuff like Black Gaze and bands like Deafheaven, a key ingredient of black metal has been lost. It doesn't have the ugliness, the rawness, the defiant and deliberate lack of commercial appeal which is integral to black metal. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy some bands who fall into the Black Gaze genre, like Alcest, and I guess people would argue that Svalbard ourselves have a Black Gaze influence; but it definitely has been an unexpected twist on an outsider art for me. To see cool, trendy people wearing black metal shirts… I did not see that one coming!

I blame Sports Direct. Tell me about your new album  can you talk about what themes you address on it and the ideas that went into making the music and writing the lyrics?

I take a micro-sociological approach toward lyrics writing, focussing on one seemingly small incident and extrapolating from that the wider implications of an unjust society. For example, ”What Was She Wearing” was written about the Labour MP Tracey Brabin, who was slut shamed and ridiculed for wearing an off the shoulder dress to parliament. The same week, Shakira and J. Lo were heavily criticised for their outfits at their fabulous Super Bowl halftime show. This was when it hit me that we still live in society that will judge and discriminate against women based on something as irrelevant as their clothing. The wider implications from this feed into rape culture – the horrifying notion that how a woman is dressed plays a part in why she has been sexually assaulted.

The rest of the album includes songs about the emotional grey area of domestic abuse. There’s a song about how women in music are written about in the press, a song about the dehumanisation of dating apps and about how we need to really listen to people when they open up about mental illness.

Musically we just write all the music together in a room. It took us two years to write. I find it funny that my guitar leads are definitely the prettiest leads I've written on this album, yet the whole lyrical aspect is as dark and depressing as it gets.

Interesting contrast. How was it releasing it during the pandemic?
Well, it's an extremely difficult time to be a band right now and we are all struggling to figure out what we can do in these different times. We have based our whole lives on touring as much as possible and now that is a very uncertain area. Personally, I am at a point where I desperately need more stability. I always worked zero hours temp jobs to be able to tour and now I have lost my job due to COVID. I feel like I need to prioritise getting on my feet again before we even think about the future of the band, to be depressingly honest with you! On the flip side, we are really amazed by the response the album has received – that has been the silver lining of this year for me, and I am really touched that people seem to love it so much.

I read that the title of this new record is a reference to feelings of depression and despair, but also the way that celebrities are wrongly idolised and mythologised after their death. Why do you think we do that? And why do you think it’s unhealthy to do so? 
Once a celebrity dies, they cannot let you down with their actions anymore. That blind belief in something pure is something we all need to help us get through our lives. It's a safe form of hero worship.

Your faith in a dead celebrity will never be challenged. We revere living celebrities a disproportionate amount, elevating them into godlike status, so when they eventually pass away they become untouchable. It's unhealthy to do this because we are placing an overemphasis on an unachievable bastion of human perfection as opposed to learning to accept and tolerate and understand that people - celebrities and non - can be good and bad people at the same time.

I agree. On your song “Click Bait” you sing about divisive, falsified articles and media manipulation. If we zoom out a bit, do you think the internet has made the world and our lives better, worse, or neither?
I love the internet. One of my favourite things to come from the internet and social media is the sharing of niche humour - the memes! Remember life before memes? Wasn't it tedious! Now you can have super obscure Simpsons references crossed with other cultures that feel like they were designed especially just for you to make you laugh. In this sense, the internet makes me feel less alone. A lot of the opportunities I've had in life - travelling the world riding rollercoasters as a staff member of CoasterForce, for example - have only been possible thanks to online forums, where like-minded people can meet and share their passions.

Online abuse is a small price to pay for something that makes my life a million times better. I think I've definitely got better at selecting how I use social media though. I have stopped following things that make me feel inadequate…

Good for you. You had to switch labels following the allegations made against the boss of Holy Roar Records. How did you find a new home for the album?
When Justine Jones left her Label Manager job at Holy Roar Records in light at the allegations made against Alex Fitzpatrick, it was extremely reassuring to see that we were morally all on the same page. We were therefore delighted when she announced she would be starting Church Road Records with her husband Sammy. We have had the pleasure of working closely with Justine for many years now and felt she truly understands us as a band, so it was a no brainer really! Church Road Records worked so hard to ensure the album release could remain on schedule and have been incredibly supportive throughout this unprecedented process. I'd rather not comment any further on the Holy Roar situation, we just want to send our full support and stand in solidarity with the victims.

Okay. I noticed you were wearing a Tabletop Tactics t-shirt in a press shot. I once wrote an article about tabletop gaming for VICE. Are you a tabletop gamer? What do you enjoy about it and what have you been playing recently?
Yes! I play [Warhammer] 40K, Space Wolves. Like most tabletop gamers, I love the painting the most! [laughs]. I am also a big fan of watching battle reports, hence the Tabletop Tactics shirt - their battle reports on YouTube are so fun and well produced! I am also a big fan of Magic: The Gathering. I play Modern in local tournaments with a mean green and black elf deck. I've attended the UK Games Expo at the NEC and Warhammer Fest, I love the atmosphere of a big gaming event. I think the thing I like most about it is the fantasy imagery, the immersive lore and that feeling of being mentally absorbed in a game.

Awesome. Lastly, what does it mean to you to make heavy music in Britain in 2020?
Making heavy music in Britain in 2020 means you have no job, no money and no hope at the moment! [laughs] Our politicians have decided to label musicians as unskilled and tell us we need to retrain, which is so demoralising it's unreal. Britain seems to hold this attitude that the creative arts should only ever be a hobby and to pursue a career in them is childish - a dream you need to grown out of. The best thing about being in a heavy band is screaming about how much I hate all this stuff!

@Jak_TH

When I Die, Will I Get Better? is out now on Church Road Records.