Angela Gossow of Arch Enemy: The Hellbound Interview

Photo by Patrick Ullaeus; courtesy of angelagossow.com

Interview by Jay H. Gorania

The seeds of discontent with religion were planted within Angela Gossow when she was raised in an orthodox Christian household in Germany. As such, the outspoken atheist couldn’t have a better vehicle for her views than the Swedish melodeath band for whom she sings, though the anti religious undercurrent flowing beneath Arch Enemy’s new release, Khaos Legions, was actually inspired by the current revolutionary press for liberation in the Middle East.

Musically, the band has upped the ante in terms of how vicious and epic they sound. Whether one will bang their head with maniacal devotion or chuckle under their breath, there’s no question that the release is shamelessly bold. Just take the the movie-like opening narration, for instance, that’s uttered in a Darth Vader-like voice no less: “From the ashes of a corrupt and dying world, they rise like a Phoenix, a godless entity. They are the Khaos Legions.” You can’t get any more bold than that.

At the tail end of their run on the European metal festival circuit, and just a month prior to their North American tour, Gossow gives Hellbound the low-down on Khaos Legions.

Do you prefer playing at a club in front of hundreds or a couple of thousand people in a more intimate setting, or do you like getting up in front of tens of thousands of people at the larger European summer metal festivals?

Obviously we have awesome festivals in Europe. It’s a huge opportunity for any band to play festivals. You’ve got something like 20 thousand to 60 thousand people, but in reality you only see the first thousand, and it’s two people you communicate with, the one up front and one in the back. The ones all the way back, you can’t even tell what they’re doing. Obviously the energy you’re getting, but it’s just not as intense as if you cram just a thousand people in a club. That’s a lot more intense. A thousand people in front of me, that’s kind of the average we have in the US. There’s, like, between 800 and a thousand people with shows. In Canada or New York, it’s more like 1500 and 2000, and these people are there for us genuinely, and they know all the songs and all the words. They get excited with each and every song you play and that’s a lot more of an intense vibe. We like both. We’re lucky that we’re European made because we can get that European festival overkill each year. We can really take advantage of that, but if I would have to choose between the two, I think I’d rather just play club shows in the long term because it’s more real for a band. But we’re lucky we don’t have to choose.

Whether it’s 1500 people in New York or 30 thousand at a German open air fest, you are playing in front of a lot of people. You’ve done this for years, but is there any point at which you get nervous on stage anymore?

No. I’m drawing a blank. I mean, that only really happens at festivals because you’re also addressing a very anonymous crowd in a way; whereas obviously when you play your own shows you’re addressing hardcore Arch Enemy fans, so it becomes more personal. But no, nothing really. What we do is so intense anyway, musically, I don’t really have time to think about anything. I don’t have time to be nervous. You’re a little bit nervous before the show because, especially with festivals, you never know about the equipment or how the sound is going to be. It’s very difficult getting the audio right in these big outdoor places. And how is the direction going to be at some crossover festivals where it’s not just a metal crowd but also an alternative crowd? So these are the thoughts you have before the show, but once you’re on stage, it’s just go! It’s like a rocket being launched and you don’t have time to think, and you just do the next thing and the next song. And you say, “Hello.” Sometimes I’m just nervous that I didn’t have a good idea, because I don’t say the same thing over and over again. I don’t rehearse my speeches. I’m not one of those people. So sometimes I have really great things to say, and I’m really spontaneous, sometimes I’m just, you know. I just don’t know. I’m drawing a blank.

With you, or the rest of the band, were there any nervous feelings as you began writing Khaos Legions. No one is slacking in your band as far as musicianship, to say the least, so the fans might perceive a certain bar, a certain standard of playing, that needs to be maintained. Was there any pressure to out-do yourselves with the new record?

We’ve been around for far too long, over ten years. We’ve accumulated a very dedicated hardcore fan-base. This kind of liberates you, because we kind of feel nowadays we can pretty much do anything we want, and we don’t have anything to lose because we are in the lucky position that we don’t have any pressure from the label. They never told us what to do from the beginning, and now we’re very established and, well, and we don’t wanna become the next big thing. I think a lot of bands have that pressure because they’re not producing and they can’t really make money on tour. And they really have that pressure that if that next album is not a lot bigger, you’re basically off the market. You’re done.

The current album is extremely varied. It has textures that you didn’t really have before, and at the same time, while it’s a cliche, it really is more brutal than much of what you’ve done in the past. I know you, yourself, have liked classic Morbid Angel and things like that, and it kind of brings a bit of that spirit, musically, to mind.

We’ve been jamming for over three years actually, because the last studio album (Rise of the Tyrant) came out in 2007. The guys just jam everywhere they can: backstage, the tour bus, wherever we sit together. We tour a lot and we always sit together kinda bored, so that’s what we do. We had a huge repertoire of collective material that has been created over a course of three and a half years. We’ve been through rehearsal phases as well, and I guess some of the guys have kind of went through a death metal phase. I’m always in a death metal phase. My favorite bands are Morbid Angel, Carcass and Obituary. I love Behemoth. Probably that’s why we have a little bit more. I’m always pushing, when someone writes a death metal style riff, I’m always pushing for it to be more of that. We demo all the stuff and I keep saying, “This has got to find a place.” If I’d be writing these albums, but unfortunately I suck at any instrument, but i think it would probably be death metal. But that’s just me and I’m one of five people in Arch Enemy. Everybody can put stuff on the table, so that’s why it’s so varied, because everybody is in a different place musically. I think me and Daniel are the most death metal heads. Michael likes death metal too, but he also loves a lot of punk and classic metal. And Chris is definitely more like classic metal and hard rock. So that’s why it’s so varied, because everyone brings stuff in. We don’t just have one songwriter in the band. It’s really a band effort.

Tracks like “No Gods, No Masters” seem indicative of a broad theme involving atheism. How does that fit into the overall scope of the album’s lyrics?

We’re very much pro freedom, and I think having no god in life is the ultimate freedom. There is no all-seeing eye that’s lurking from above the skies and can look into your brain and whatever people believe. You have to find your own…I mean, we all basically know what’s right and wrong. I think in the 21st century, in the year 2011, we do not need to believe in a creator. The world is very magical as it is. You don’t need fairies and ghosts and spirits and gods to it. So yes. ”Cult of Chaos” is another song that deals with atheism. A lot of terror and horrible things happen because of religion. I am quite close to atheism, but if someone wants to believe in religion, cool. But it’s a personal choice. It shouldn’t find it’s way into social decisions. Into politics? Definitely not. It shouldn’t become as oppressive as it still is at the moment.

Sweden is very secular. There is no room for religion in politics. It’s clearly separate. The church is rather small. Sweden is not a Christian [nation], well, I mean they had their own religion. The vikings had their own religion, and obviously Christians have been trying to basically run over the Scandinavian countries with their belief, but they’ve been very resistant actually, the Scandinavian people to it. So originally religion never really got its hook into Scandinavian flesh, so to speak. It’s very refreshing, actually, to live in Scandinavia from that point of view. The church is really not present at all.

It seems like there’s not a typical war theme, but there’s a sense of battle running through the lyrics.

Pretty much every song is about fighting against what’s not right, or fighting for your own personal freedom. So I think the whole revolution theme, just from what’s happening around us, is part of what we made. We’re very close to Syria and Libya and Egypt. It’s just a four hour flight from where we live. Last year, and early on this year, we were in the studio recording this album, so this whole movement of countries trying to liberate themselves from their dictators or oppressive governments has been very influential on this album. It deals a lot with these issues, and then we have a song against animal cruelty. It’s called “Cruelty Without Beauty,” which is also fighting for innocent creatures. So this is kind of like fighting for something that’s right. That’s kind of the thread that runs through a lot of Arch Enemy songs.

That might surprise some people, the people who believe that if one is an atheist, they don’t have any goodness in them. I’m sure you’ve come across that before.

No. Actually I have never heard that, because if you know anything about atheism, it doesn’t mean you exclude any kind of morals, you know? Like I said, I grew up knowing what’s right and wrong. Basically the one and only rule you need is: Don’t do something to somebody else that you don’t want to happen to yourself, and if you don’t want to be hurt or stolen from or cheated or be taken advantage of, then don’t do that to others. It’s very simple. We all know what feels wrong and what’s making us angry or sad or depressed. You just have to listen to your own little voice inside. You know what’s right or wrong. You don’t need a religion for that. Religion says a lot of things that actually make people do the wrong things. Actually, I believe religion is pretty much the root of all evil. It makes people lose sight of what is right or wrong a lot of times.

Here in Texas, many people view atheists as being evil.

You should never judge anything that you don’t know anything about. There’s nobody else taking care of my shit up in the sky. It’s my responsibility, so I accept the responsibility. I see a lot of people just try to get away, not wanting to accept responsibility. “Yea, there’s a lot of bad things happening in the world, but that’s just God’s will.” They’re not even looking at what they can do to make amazing changes of it and make it a better place.

Khaos Legions is out now on Century Media Records.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.