interview by: VITRIOL
Mike O’Brien is the man behind the ambient/neoclassical project Melankolia, as well as James the Lesser, and one of the two members of Gil-Galad, a neoclassical project with Tolkien-based thematics, the other member of which is Marc Hoyland. Melankolia has already released two albums, “Nokturnum” (2008) and “Orpheus Down” (2010). With the opportunity of Melankolia’s third release, “III”, that will see the light of day on June 21st on the German label Quartier23, we engage in a sincere conversation with Mike about the pangs of artistic creation, the sources of light that inspire his music and everything inbetween.
First of all my thanks to you Mike, for accepting to do this interview. I hope it provides an opportunity for more of our readers to discover your wonderful music, and to enjoy it as much as I have.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate you taking time to ask questions, as well!
I’m sure you have already been asked this, but what is the inspiration behind the naming of your project?
Sure thing. It’s actually a question I have been asked many times. I suppose I’ve always had sort of a melancholy personality. I enjoy quiet reflection, a hint of sadness, and I have always felt just a bit out of place, even amongst people like me. As far as the name itself, Melankolia is a Finnish translation of the word melancholy. When I first began producing music in 2008, I was still pretty deep into Scandinavian pagan/black metal. So I wanted both something that reflected my love of Scandinavian culture, as well as something that contained deeper meaning and insight into my frame of mind.
I find melancholy to be a somewhat misunderstood cultural concept. It is often perceived as a negative emotion, despite the fact that it is the source of some of the most interesting artistic creations, be it in literature, film, music or any other form of expression. How do you experience that emotion yourself and what is your opinion of it in relation to art?
I confess freely that I struggle with depression. Sometimes it’s pretty linear, and other times it is absolutely crushing. As I’ve said before, we all deal with things like this in our lives. The question is: What will you do with your pain? I choose to write music. The piano, to me, is a personal savior. I can sit at the piano anytime, happy or sad, and create the sounds cape for how I’m feeling that very moment. I suppose the same would be true for any musician and any instrument. I believe that it’s absolutely critical to the creative process to find that there is something just not right with your current situation. Having said that, pain can push you to work harder to find that certain sound that accurately depicts and paints the pictures that mere words cannot. As I’ve continued through the last few albums, I believe the music has grown also, reflecting more personal journeys through the halls of sound. Melancholy is inherently negative, I believe. But again, what will you do with it?
Do you believe a person needs to be essentially unhappy or in a way, uncomfortable in order to create genuine art, as a means for catharsis so to speak, or is there a chance that art can also be created out of a feeling of contentment and happiness?
I believe that both situations are true. I think that it completely depends on the person creating said music. As far as genuine, heartfelt art, I DO believe that there are unhappy emotions that drive and grow the creative process. Gustave Doré is probably my favorite artist. I doubt very much he was a happy-go-lucky guy while he was creating his paintings, etchings, and lithographs. No matter his inward feeling, his outward expression speaks of melancholy, deep sadness, and unmistakable beauty. I truly believe that some artists create to expel the happiness that needs expression, but not in the “dark music” genres. I speak only for myself, but after conversations with other artists, I believe it’s a fair assessment.
Do you have any favourite artists, musicians or writers that provide inspiration for you, and why?
Absolutely. As far as the more “ambient” neo-classical genres go, Burzum was actually the first project that inspired me to begin writing my own music. Sure, the music of Mortiis, Vond, Fata Morgana, Lustmord, Dead Can Dance, Enigma, Aghast, Penitent etc were all wonderful inspirations, but the fact that Varg was writing this kind of music in prison!! I mean, if he can do it with basic set-up and limitations, then I have no excuse! Early Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth, Eternal Tears of Sorrow, Nightwish etc were some of the bands that also influenced me quite a bit. As I have become more involved in the “underground”, some other musicians have come to light that are unbelievably talented. These (in part) would be: Hoyland, Tamerlan, Immundus, Igniis, Heresiarch, Natural Faith Project, Anziegen, Buer, Appalachian Winter, Loell Duinn, Vanity Vania, Ravenhelm, Vorgum, Requiem Nocturne, Ancient Tundra, etc etc etc….really too many to list properly. I find that the “unknown” ones provide the more personal visions….the true love of the music. You can FEEL it, for sure. I do try to read as much as I can. Obviously, Tolkien and George R. R. Martin are favorites. I enjoy Poe quite a bit, as well. Currently reading through the Prose Edda again, as well as Beowulf. It’s always amazing to me how the classics are still relevant and fresh after so long. I suppose the Fantasy genres have always pulled my attention because they evoke through written word what I would like to evoke through music…a deep sense of wonder, enchantment, and ethereal beauty.
You are stranded on a desert island. Name three albums you would take with you.
Vond – Selvmord
Winglord – The Chosen One
Mortiis – Anden som gjorde Oppror
(I know, I know….but picking just 3 is incredibly difficult!)
You mention in your bandpage that Melankolia is “night music”. Can you explain that further? What is the hour of the day when you feel most inspired to write music yourself?
The term “night music” originated with the completion of the first album, Nokturnum.I envision this music as the end of a day, and/or deep into the night. I feel that this music is for introspection and meditative thought. I guess I wouldn’t expect people to listen to this while driving or working out, etc. I mean, if they want to, that’s fine, too…but it is “designed” for the night hours, the darkness, the dreams. Funnily enough, I find myself at my compositional best early in the mornings. I suppose that’s because by the time I arrive home from work in the evenings, I’m pretty fried, and no good to anyone. I seem to do my best work before sunrise, with editing, mixing, etc coming when it will.
I know you have a deep love and respect for nature and animals. In what way has your relationship to nature affected you as an artist and as a person?
I do. I believe in the sanctity of Nature, and have written several songs in that vein. Let There Be Darkness pt. II, Road of Verdant Praise, and the Wherein Dwells Silence trilogy were all written either in praise of Nature, or in lament over it’s wanton destruction. I feel the same way about animals. Especially cats. We adopt homeless cats, find homes for abandoned litters of kittens, etc. It’s our duty to take care of those weaker and more helpless than us, I believe. Artistically speaking, I believe veneration of Nature plays a distinct role. Many ideas and movements were created first in my mind in the middle of the forest before the first note was ever played. If you haven’t gone out in the forest in a while, or to a river or creek, I encourage you to. Technology is great and all, but the natural world still holds sway with those that will give it audience.
Is there a related experience that you found especially memorable, that you would like to share?
The entire James the Lesser project is based upon the Beauty of Nature. The time spent doing the field/video recordings for that project are among my favorite as an artist.
When did you first decide music was the means of expression for you? Did it happen early in your life, for instance in your childhood, or later on?
I have always loved music. There has always been a connection for me within it. I did take piano lessons when I was a child, but it was very rudimentary stuff…learning the basics. As I got older, I kind of let other bands decide my emotional gatherings with their music. It wasn’t until I was 27 or 28 that I really felt the NEED to create my own journeys. So, I guess you could say that my approach to the idea of self-expression through the music medium has come about through a more mature “view” of life. I am actually glad it worked this way. I mean, it would be nice to be on album # 7 or 8 by now, with 12-14 years of active experience, but I feel I was too immature to create meaningful songs or album concepts in the younger years. I can focus better now, and that makes a lot of difference.
Obviously you play the piano very well. Are there any other instruments that you like to play?
Thanks for that. I have always felt very comfortable behind a piano or keyboard. As far as instrument sounds, I love to use a variety. However, as far as actually playing another instrument with any skill, the answer is really a no. I love to play around with acoustic guitars, especially 12 string varieties, but I’m not skilled with them. I love the string section instruments as well, and use them quite frequently, but only within the confines of the MIDI sequences.
You have set up your own studio, Perpetual Darkness Studios, where besides recording your own music you do video and audio work for other artists for free. What is the philosophy behind this, and how has the studio’s use evolved in the process?
PDS was started about 2 years ago. Originally, I wanted to have a label name for the limited edition re-issue of the first album, Nokturnum, as the label that originally released it had gone out of business, and all original copies were sold out. After accomplishing this concept, I began working on videos for the next album, Orpheus Down. As the plays and exposure increased, I started to make videos for my fellow label-mates and close friends. The idea of the video service for free is one born originally from necessity. Underground musicians don’t typically have tons of extra cash on hand for things like videos. Plus, the videos aren’t really groundbreaking. And so it goes. I do it for the love of the music it promotes, and for the friends and artists that (I feel) deserve it.
As for the studio as a whole, it was important for me to name my work area and set it up in such a way that I could concentrate and work efficiently. I have limited free time, and so focus is extremely important. The studio, in a weird way, helps me accomplish this.
How do you usually write and record music? Take us through the standard process for you (song structuring, equipment and so on).
The setup I have currently has changed very little since I began. Nokturnum was set up in a very basic, primitive way. I used an old computer, running CooEdit Pro, and my trusty Radio Shack keyboard with line-out straight to the sound card to record. Native sounds from the keyboard only. That’s it. Haha. I really didn’t know any better at the time. Orpheus Down began much the same way. About 1/3 of the way through the recording process, I finally got smart and bought a MIDI to USB converter, and upgraded the DAW to Music Creator 5. I recorded both of those albums within a 2 year period (as Nokturnum was more of a demo). I took a break after Orpheus Down. I needed some rest, as well as time to educate myself on the process a bit better. I purchased and learned how to use Reason 4, as well as took some refresher piano theory. So, the end studio setup for III is Keyboard (same one) > MIDI to USB converter > Reason 4. That’s it. Pretty simple, for sure. I will most likely be upgrading again in the near future, though.
As far as structure and such, it really all depends. Sometimes I free play to get started. Actually, I do that quite a bit anyway. It’s great stress relief, plus I love to play the piano. A lot of the songs you have heard previously, and will hear on III began this way. Once I have a main “line” for the track, I like to add texture and atmosphere to it. Some songs are kept because I find them beautiful, and others just sort of write themselves. I don’t use sequencers or loops. Everything is played straight through. This results in multiple takes, but I guess it’s how I like to write and record. I really like to create the atmospheres for each track. That’s a very important piece for me.
Besides Melankolia you have two other projects, Gil-Galad and James the Lesser. Can you explain the concept behind them, and give us their background so far?
Absolutely. Gil-Galad is a Tolkien-based neoclassical/soundtrack project that I started with Marc Hoyland about 2 years ago. The music focuses on the stories found in the Silmarillion. We have our own personal projects as well, of course, and so the going has been slow. Especially slow this year. Marc just released his second album, the wonderful Upon the Mountain Vastlands in January of this year, and as you know, my album will release June 21. Now that both of these solo albums are finished, we can at last dive back into finishing the first album in the series, named Quenta Silmarillion. Stay tuned for more news concerning that.
James the Lesser is another solo project of mine. It deals with Nature almost completely. Inspired by the early work of Kettel (especially the album Halt Them), it seeks at once to praise Nature, as well as lament it’s wanton destruction. Based primarily on field recordings with soundtrack overlay, this project is something I do as the mood strikes. If I see or hear an opportunity to create something with it, I do. No schedules, marketing, or strategy with this one! I recently released a 5 track EP entitled Road of Verdant Praise as a free download on my Bandcamp page. Can’t beat free!
Your new album, “III”, will be released on June 21 by Quartier23. Why did you name it with a Roman numeral instead of giving it a title? Does the name bear a special significance?
III has ended up being a concept of sorts, even though it wasn’t originally intended to be. Being the third album, and because of the featured artists, I really wanted to give this one a meaningful, yet simple title. For me, music embodies the mind, spirit, and soul. The three forms of shadow (when considering eclipse) are Penumbra, Umbra, and Antumbra. They represent the progression of darkness. The album is split into 4 parts, actually. Penumbra, Umbra, Antumbra, and Postscript. Penumbra deals with the Formation of the Shadow, Umbra deals with the Growing Darkness, Antumbra deals with the Beauty of Suffering, and Postscript deals with the March of Time, and how it relates to the former 3 stages of mind, spirit, and soul. It represents a journey, another look through the looking glass, as well as the Three Rests, tracks intended for rest and meditation through the Journey. These are the Quies Animi tracks (I-III). So, yes, I suppose the numeral III is important to the overall idea of the album as a whole…on several levels.
“III” strikes me as a very personal album, yet at the same time there is a nostalgic, perhaps even historical resonation to it, such as in “Destiny’s March” or “The Mirror of the Past”. Was your personal heritage or your country’s history in any way a starting point for it? Any other “keys” for its interpretation you would like to share with us?
As far as my country and origin are concerned, I’ll say no. If anything, any historical influence would come from my study of ancient Scandinavian culture. Especially Destiny’s March. It was co-written with Hoyland, who actually resides in Norway. I’ve always really liked the more medieval sounds and structures, and was happy to be able to do a song like this with him. As far as any intentional themes go, there truly weren’t any. The songs were produced based on what I wanted at the time. Each listener can/will determine for themselves what each song, and the work as a whole, means to them.
The artwork for “III” is very beautiful, and from what I understand is closely linked to its concept, in fact there are two separate editions, the limited and regular edition with different artwork each. What is the symbolism behind each of the artworks?
Thank you. I am very pleased with the final outcome of the art, for both editions. I wanted something different, yet intrinsically tied to the other. The explanation of the regular edition is simple enough. We, as humans, have 3 parts, Mind, Body, and Spirit. As explained in the former questions, I feel that these are tied directly to the “shadow-states” of Penumbra, Umbra, and Antumbra. Thus the Vitruvian Man illustration. All life passes through our 3 “filters”, or shades of Darkness, and the end result lies only within Us.
As far as the limited edition artwork, which has heavy use of the art of Gustave Doré, the explanation behind this concept is:
This cover is a striking image, but if one looks closer, they can see Melankolia in metamorphosis.
There are 3 separate entities/iterations displayed here. These represent the three “stages” of development for this project. They also paint the true reality of the Journey:
First Stage – The Beaten Horse
This figure of the dead and wasted horse is a picture of the early days of Melankolia. Indeed, I literally “beat a dead horse” with incessant promotion, “friend” adding, and other selfish behaviors. I started out at a full gallop, never looking before making what could be a major decision. Thus, the ill-fated joining with the label Beneath the Fog (now defunct). I saw myself as a champion steed, when in reality, I was only a child, just learning how to walk. Blind with ambition and unrealistic hope, I charged forth, only to become obsessed, and then discouraged. The death of that Self was the only way that growth could continue.
Second Stage – The Conquered King
The visage of the conquered king stands in relative contrast to that of the eviscerated horse. Again, the path that was, and was not, and was left behind transcends into a second, newer path. While not “better” than the first, some growth happened, and the way out of the woods seemed a bit more reachable. The king (self-crowned) has lost his authority and his royal blessing. The crown rolls away down the hill, and is lost among the brambles that separate Fantasy and Reality. His body, crushed and twisted, represents the struggle to remain relevant (even in one’s own mind). So was created the second album, a full-length that saw one foot still on the old path, and the other foot planted on a new Way. This, too, was not the final answer, and the king that crowned himself fell as the horse before him.
Third Stage – New Day Rising
A man sits on a towering warhorse. He gazes mournfully at the past, mirrored in the wasted creatures before him. This man is older…wiser. He has realized the error of past ways, and looks shrewdly into the future. He expects nothing, and assumes the same. His work is his, not swayed by the wants of others. A more confident figure, he endeavors to blaze a path all his own…not to be turned aside by anyone. His horse, head bowed into the wind, stands resolutely…stout of heart against the Unknown.
In this album you collaborate with an impressive number of very good artists such as Immundus, Karsten Hamre, Hoyland, Appalachian Winter, Loell Duinn, Buer, Mortiis. How did these collaborations come about, and are there any other occasions where you have collaborated with them?
Since the inception of this project, I have made some good friendships with other musicians. I have been quite fortunate in this regard. Every featured artist on this album is there for a reason. Two of my biggest inspirations and influences (Mortiis and Karsten Hamre) were very generous with both their input and their professionalism. Immundus, Hoyland, and I are on the same label (Quartier 23), and so I had gotten to know them over the past 2-3 years or so. These guys really gave it there all with their tracks. I know it can’t be easy to try and add to what I sent them, as I have a weird composition structure. Marc is used to dealing with me from our work in Gil-Galad, so it was a very natural endeavor, at least for me. Bruno and I have now collaborated on 2 songs; he on my album, and I on his. There is a lot of give and take with every relationship here. Dan from Appalachian Winter is a good friend of mine. He’s only a phone call away if I ever have a question, and was more than happy to help with vocals. Matt from Buer is another friend from the States. I’m real happy that he was able to help, both with vocals and guitars. Finally, Loell Duinn. There is nothing so spectacular as Olja’s voice, Alen’s guitars, and Patrik and Iv on backing keys and flutes, respectively. Goran on drums as well. This incredible band is from Croatia, and our relationship has been one of mutual respect, fondness, and friendship for nearly 2 years now. Altogether a fantastic experience!
What are your future plans for Melankolia, as well as your other projects?
Melankolia will officially go on break following the release of III. That doesn’t mean I’ll quit writing and producing; I’ll just do it less publicly for a while. In the meantime, I will continue to seek label support for James the Lesser and Gil-Galad, while continuing to work with Marc Hoyland on the latter. We really hope to have a solid album to present late this year, or early next. Music is a driving force in my life, and I don’t see that ending any time soon.
Completing an artistic effort is very much like going through a phase of self-transformation, painful yet at the same time rewarding. Exposing it to the world is the inevitable next step. How do you feel at this point, while your third album is about to be released? In what way has this experience changed you?
I feel pretty confident, to be honest. I struggled a lot with feelings of inadequacy on the first two albums, but this one is different. I feel I’ve put my best work to date down on this album, and I am quite looking forward to the reaction. Add to that the opportunities now open for me to play live, and I feel I’ve taken this project to the next logical level. This album was indeed a labor of love. Nearly two years have gone into it’s concept, structure, and final result. Worth every minute!
Thank you again for answering my questions! Is there a message you would like to send out, or anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks to you for giving me some thoughtful questions, and for working hard on this interview. Thanks to all those who have supported my various projects, and a HUGE thank you to the artists who were so kind as to provide their immense talent and time for this endeavor. I will never forget.