Interview: Max ‘Savage’ Birbaum (Lunar Shadow)

A little over a year ago, on a freezing night in Bavaria, I met a set of young lads, and we bonded over ls2peppermint schnapps and power metal. Ever since, I have had the pleasure of watching their growth and evolution as musicians, culminating in their fantastic full length debut. It gives me great pride, diverging somewhat from my more traditional North American posts, to celebrate the imminent release of Lunar Shadow’s Far From Light with a wee chat to the man behind the magic, my good friend, Max ‘Savage’ Birbaum.

You changed your logo. Why?

I wasn’t content with the old logo anymore. It seemed thin to me. Like twigs in winter, I wanted something that looked more professional and especially mysterious, with many small details, because it suits our sound. There are lots of secrets hidden in our music, and I wanted to express that. I have to add, that I explicitly did not want a ‘classical’ Heavy Metal Logo, because they usually bore me. And often look terrible, by the way.

It was like a constant itching at the back of my head. I am quite a perfectionist with my band, and I knew that I would’ve never been fully satisfied, if I kept the old logo. And I knew, that if we change the logo, we have to do it before our debut album. My band mates were skeptical at first, but well, ama et fac quod vis.

My dear friend Karmazid then recommended Raoul from View From The Coffin to me. And after I got the first results I was speechless. He added all my ideas, like the two chalices with fire and the spiderwebs, in such a genius manner, this logo makes perfect sense, there is a certain symmetry in it, that I find extremely comforting. My bandmates were fond of it too, from the first moment they saw it.

I had such a wonderful time reading the reactions of people who complained then, that the new logo was ugly and looked more like a Black Metal Logo. The last point, at least up to a certain point, I can relate to. But this is just another part of my wicked character: I love to irritate people. Confuse them. Take their hands and leave them in the dark.

The itching is gone. It is such a good feeling, to be rid of this.

Your 2015 self-released EP, Triumphator, created ripples throughout the underground, earning impressive accolades in Rock Hard and Deaf Forever magazines. What do you hope for Far From Light?

Releasing your very own music is dangerous, yet exciting. Dangerous, because you get thrown into an arena and the rabble is yelling, they clap and curse you at the same time. Everyone can easily formulate an opinion these days, there are countless so called Metal webzines with absolutely no relevance, yet they write something. You then either gear up, raise your shield, lower your visor, or you tear the armour from your body and joyfully await the shattering blows. I prefer the second option.

But it is also exciting, as it always interests me to hear, what feelings and emotions people might link with the songs I wrote.

Expressing concrete expectations is difficult, because I absolutely don’t know what will happen. On some days I think this album is bloody brilliant, on other days I just shake my head. I guess every artist is glad when his work is appreciated. It’s probably the same with me. If we get some good reviews, if we can give something to some people that becomes dear to them, I will be content. There are some festivals I’d like to play. There are some bands I’d want to play with. With a spiked club we shall force our way forward, no matter what happens.

The album artwork (Expulsion – Moon and Firelight by Thomas Cole) is stunning, and quite poignant, with the bridge towards the light. Very different and more mature than the traditionally ‘metal’ cover for your EP. How did you come by it?

ls1The first thing I usually do when writing music is to find a title for the entire album. Doing this I can already see before my inner sight what atmosphere the songs should have. I cannot quite remember, how I stumbled about this artwork, but I do remember, that I instantly knew that this would be the cover of ‘Far From Light’. We then luckily were able to get the usage rights from the museum in Madrid, where the original painting is located.

I don’t like the word ‘mature’, but I know what you mean. It was clear to me, that this album would not be about swords, barbarians, demons or the devil and the cover had to reflect that. There is a strangeness and melancholy in it and so are the songs.

My thoughts on this one are different, by the way. I do not see a bridge leading towards the light. I see this cavern, that leads us into the other direction, away from light and hope. It is a sanctuary of stone, deep under rock and inhabited by darkness. Open to the sea, where one is free to enter the water and vanish, along with all memory, that ever existed about you.

From ballads to blast-beats, Far From Light encompasses a huge variety of musical styles. What were you listening to the most when you wrote these songs?

There is a lot of variety, I agree.

This is one of the aspects, that makes this album so hard to grasp stylistically. When people ask me, what kind of music we play I always answer shortly: ‘Heavy Metal’. And I will always answer this. Yet I crossed some genre barriers here and there. ‘The Hour of Dying’ for example certainly is our hardest song yet, with blast-beats, and except for the vocals it basically sounds like Dissection. On the other hand we have ‘Gone Astray’, our ballad. I love ballads, by the way. And I love the contrast. I will never limit myself by letting the expectations of other people crawl into my head. If you start thinking ‘Does this sound enough like Band X?/ Will people like that? / Will people dislike that?’ and act according to that you are going to fail. Plain simple. And you’re an arse-kissing, despicable dog too.

I do not want to limit myself in any way, musically and thematically. When I walked into our rehearsal room and said to the fellas that I had written a song about a gigantic Kraken they grinned for a second, but they already know me. I just cannot imagine being stuck in a certain lyrical field, only being able to write about swords, fights and ale or Satan, hell and nuns,just because people expect that. I do not disrespect that actually, I do like ale and swords and nuns. It just doesn’t work for Lunar Shadow.

I have absolutely no idea what I listened to back then. The same things I always listen to, I suppose. Depressive music, Judas Priest and CCR. I only can say, that the Christian foundation and concept in ‘The Hour of Dying’ was deeply inspired by Trouble’s ‘The Skull’ and when we started doing the vocals in the studio, I was more than pleased, that some acoustic parts sounded completely like Simon and Garfunkel. I love them, fuck off.

The guitar parts are really quite generous! Is this to try and achieve a certain sound, or is that just the way things sounded in your head?

As mentioned above, I never say to myself – ‘Now I am going to write a doomy Post-Solstice sounding tune with flutes’. It just happens.

This is a dark record, tackling themes of isolation, loss and death. Is this an insight into the mind of the man behind the music?

Of course.

It’s not possible to fully avert that. If you hear the songs and read my lyrics you might catch a small glimpse inside my head. I then would recommend you to quickly abolish that sight and keep moving.

‘Far From Light’ is an album about death. The title is an expression of how I felt when I wrote thesels3 songs. Separated from everything that is good and true – happiness, perspective, joy and love. All my thoughts circled around death, all day, all night. One could say it was almost an obsession. And something went into this album, I cannot describe it. On the very first day of recording our sound engineer felt perfectly fine. After several hours of recording our music he started to feel bad. Later in the evening he, for no particular reason, got high fever and ended up in hospital, we had to postpone the recordings for several weeks. Our singer became sick while recording, our drummer became sick. There is something in it. The stench of death, a fingerprint of decay.

Every song, each in a different way, has to do with the passing of things. There is no hope in this album.

‘Gone Astray’ broke my heart a little. Is there a story behind it?’

‘Gone Astray’ is an attempt of mine to move on, the struggle with love that is lost. It’s about someone who is incredibly dear to me and, as stale as it may sound, sort of a self-therapy. It certainly is the most personal song on this record and writing the lyrics was difficult. I can still hardly listen to it, I had to sometimes leave the room, when we recorded it actually. Do not expect us to play it live ever.

Though it is a sad piece of music, I think that there is also a lot of love in it too. Maybe the only spark of light on this album, but these are only my personal associations with this song.

Generally speaking it is a song about loneliness. And everyone can link their own memories and feelings to it and therefore make this song their own too. One of the many wonderful characteristics of music.

I know that you are a perfectionist when it comes to your music, and that some of these songs have been written for some time. Did this affect the recording process at all?

Certainly. The recording itself were incredibly exhausting to me. These are my songs and therefore I did not only record my own guitar tracks, but also was attending every drum and vocal session, because I wanted things to be done and sound exactly the way I imagined it. Smallest varieties are important, one harmonic, one drum roll, one overdub can lift up an entire song. I felt empty afterwards. Cold and empty, like a cobblestone that rattles in a hollow shell. I did not touch my guitars for almost seven months. And as always I started to hate and disgust my own creation, for during pre-production and mixing I listened to the songs that often. If you would have asked me some months ago, if we will ever record another album I would have said no.

The latter half of the album is lyrically heavily influenced by classic fantasy. I know that you are not only a voracious reader, but also an author in the genre. Do we need to be keeping an eye on the bookshelves as well?

Literature is one of my few, huge passions, indeed. So it is not a surprise, that some of my favourite writers get featured a little on the album. ‘Cimmeria’ is of course inspired by Robert E. Howard’s writings, which I adore. The land of darkness and the night, a raw, cold region, full of sharp rocks and barren vales. I tried to catch the atmosphere, and I guess it worked quite well.

‘Earendil (Gone Are The Days)’ is about Tolkien’s seafarer, who crossed the ocean in his white ship to beg to the gods for aid against the shadow of Morgoth. It’s a short, acoustic piece and one of the ‘oldest’ songs on the album, if I remember correctly.

‘The Kraken’ finally is a perverted version of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s same-titled poem. He is one of my favourite poets, his words hold sheer power and force, yet they seem fragile like a blossom sometimes.

And no, the bookshelves remain empty. I do not write prose anymore, only some poems from time to time, for my own pleasure.

I believe that the ‘Annihilation of Bavaria’ gig at Castle Theuern with Atlantean Kodex was only your second ever live performance. Can you describe the experience of playing such an intimate venue to an audience of the most devoted epic metal fans?

I will forever be thankful for this, to Manuel and the other Kodex-pilgrims. As you said, they were only our second and third live appearances. Looking back, I am absolutely not satisfied with our performances, but what does it matter. I do not use this word often, but it was an unforgettable experience. This Bavarian castle, the food, the beer. Everyone was extremely relaxed and friendly to us, lots of friends showed up and supported us. Not only, that we got to play with Atlantean Kodex, who I have loved since the very beginning, but also with our brothers of Dark Forest, who are among my favourite bands of this cursed century. When we launched our intro on the second day and people yelled ‘Max, Max, Max’ instead of ‘Lunar Shadow, Lunar Shadow’ I felt absolutely euphoric, confused and like a German-rural redneck version of Yngwie Malmsteen. Unfortunately I had forgotten my white ankle-boots.

And last but not least we met there, didn’t we? A wonderful friendship emerged out of this, and several others also.

Good memories.

Tell me, just how does a young lad living in rural Germany get into heavy metal? Where did it start?

All (of course) started with Judas Priest. I cannot remember when exactly it was, but I must have been 10 or 11. I had bought the ‘Painkiller’ album, I think, because it was praised a lot and called ‘an immortal classic’ in several magazines I had read. And when this drum intro of Scott Travis started, I was shocked. I didn’t even know that you could do such things with a drum-kit. And then there is the second verse. Halford is screaming his lungs out – ‘A saviour comes from off the skies in answer to their pleas’. There is thunder, Kkkkkrrrrrrr and Glenn (who is still my #1 musical idol) lets his guitar scream WaaaUuuuuUUUUUUu. I had goosebumps everywhere, all along my arms. I couldn’t sleep that night, because I was so excited. That’s how it all started. I slowly plunged deeper into the chromium-plated hell that is Heavy Metal. And it’s the best place to be, my only true solace in this world.

Your live performances have thus far been few and far between. Do you think that will change following the release of Far From Light? Dare I hope for an excursion to our fair island?

Ah, the classic! Let’s put it this way: I do listen to all concert proposals we get. It’s just, due to my wicked personality, that I do not feel the strong urge to play live much. I just don’t want it, I absolutely don’t want to tour, I can’t explain it properly. Guess people have just to accept that.

Also I only want to play concerts, that have certain matching parameters. Firstly, to be honest, I’m only interested in playing shows with bands, that I’m a fan of. The genre isn’t even that important, but I don’t want to play with Skull Fist-Clone Band #7204, I’d then rather drink some beers at home and talk to my dogs. At festivals it’s important to me, that the whole ‘attitude’ is right, no carousels and costume-wearing wankers. Made by fans for fans, you know. Third possibility is, if I know the organizer of a concert and then I might think about it too, but let’s put it straight, my position concerning live gigs is a little limiting. I know, that in the Heavy Metal scene nowadays, the only way to get proper attention is play, play, play. But what does it all matter in the end? Shadows are spreading and there is absolutely no sense in any form of action.

And Albion? Organize something, ha. Get us over there. Get Solstice, Dark Forest and Seven Sisters, and we shall haunt Sheffield.

Merci beaucoup,

Temous edax rerum

All shall fade

M.

Far From Light will be released on 10/03/17 by Cruz Del Sur Music, with pre-orders commencing 07/02/17.


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