When Anneke van Giersbergen announced her departure from The Gathering it was a shock – for many fans but for her bandmates as well. But shock doesn’t have to lead to death or paralysis, and in a sense The Gathering had been down this road before. Reinvention is a familiar enterprise for the Dutch alt rockers, who started out as a doomy metal band with male vocals in the early nineties. Van Giersbergen’s entry on lead vocals was merely one shift, the eventual transition from aggression to shoegazing another. Though Anneke was the voice and forward face of The Gathering for well over a decade, her decision to leave meant another change, not the end.
Keyboardist Frank Boeijen: “It wasn’t an easy period for sure… We had to think about it a few days what to do. But we were all pretty sure we wanted to go on. It felt also like a fresh new start in the end, although we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to re-start everything.” The cover art of the band’s new album, The West Pole, represents this period, the “time just after Anneke decided to leave us. Our world was turned up-side down and we were also forced to see things differently.”
Thinking back, Frank characterizes The Gathering’s musical development as “natural”: “It was not that we decided from one day to another to go from metal into alternative music. We also listen to loads of different kinds of music and are not that devoted metal heads anyway.” Anneke’s arrival in The Gathering, in contrast, Frank describes as a “real big change because we went from male vocals to female vocals. Of course things turned out to be very fortunate choosing that direction.”
Despite their temporary lack of vocalist The Gathering didn’t drop into a suspended state, though it’s been three years since their last studio album. In the meantime, for fans there have been reissues and live material, and anticipation about the new vocalist. But from the band’s perspective things kept moving along, never still for long.
Frank: “There is this really great creative vibe (which will never fade I guess). We always feel the urge to write new songs, invent new sounds and melodies. For fans it may seem a long and silent period, but we are always busy with new things.”
The decision to replace Anneke with Silje Wergeland (formerly of Octavia Sperati) was a well-kept secret, not announced until a short time before the release of the band’s new record. Auditions had been open to male and female singers, but Silje quickly emerged as the ideal choice.
Frank: “We got a lot of online auditions via our gmail account, and she stood out right away. When we first met her it was quite clear that she was a very devoted person and puts heart and soul into the music. There was also a good ‘click,’ so to speak. A nice creative chemistry, which is of course kind of necessary.”
The West Pole, like much of The Gathering’s recent music, has been described as guitar-driven and as shoe-gazer, a Radiohead-esque kind of alternative rock. The album has its more insistence moments, with the instrumental intro especially building a sense of tense energy. The record is also very laid back, very familiar stylistically to anyone who’s followed the band over the past several years.
Frank: “If you listen to bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Sonic Youth, or from the later period, Interpol, Dredge, Mogwai, etc., these bands are very guitar orientated and often also categorized as shoegaze. I think the more laid back stuff on our new album refers also to bands like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Air, which have a more dream-pop sound. We always want an album to sound as homogenic as possible, but it has to be also a sonic adventure with a nice balance – guitar driven songs (which are present in quite a number) and the more atmospheric songs. That is also why we released the ep City from Above, containing a few songs that didn’t blend with the other songs on the album.”
Different vocal and instrumental textures weave throughout The West Pole, which features several guest performers, including violin, viola and cello players as well as singers Marcela Bovio (Stream of Passion) and Anne van den Hoogen. Frank explains how the album developed in this particular collaborative way: “We always love to work with guest musicians. It’s a very inspiring way of working. It was soon clear that for the strings we needed the real thing to give some songs a more personal touch. We also wanted to work with more vocalists. In the end Silje did sing on most songs of course, but we are also very happy with the two other guest appearances. I think it gives the album a nice twist.”
The West Pole combines the personal and the poetic, musically as well as lyrically. It’s intimate but also outward looking, contains reflections on relationships but also on nature, the city, and other concerns. Frank describes this as “a ‘soundtrack of our lives’ kind of thing. Silje wrote all the lyrics but we gave her a sort of guideline: an imaginary city. Every song stands for a building area or feeling you have in a city. This way it’s more easy for Silje. Of course Silje and the rest of the band didn’t know each other that well yet, so with this guideline we could have more unity with music and the lyrics.”
Through months of recording, and now touring, getting to know each other has become less of an issue, and Frank reports very good on-stage chemistry. Summer festival dates and a club tour in the Netherlands are keeping The Gathering busy for the rest of the year, with plans to do a European tour in the next, with the band staying focused and pragmatic. “We always try to be as realistic as possible, always try to set clear goals,” says Frank. “After 20 years in the music business we saw a lot of things coming and going. For us making music is fun and inspiring, but its also a job which we try to do as good as possible with both feet on the ground.”
With the band’s 20th anniversary arriving this year, The Gathering is still thinking of a way to celebrate, Frank admits. “No plans yet, although it’s for sure quite an achievement.” As for the longer-term future? “I guess there will be still albums and songs and videos to be recorded. We want to be as creative as possible. That’s what we like to do.”
The West Pole is available now through Season Of Mist.