Amenra’s seventh album ‘De Doorn’ is yet another emotional eruption of sorts. But different and yet familiar. It is the first non-Mass release from a band that has been around for more than two decades, creating and overwhelming. The band from society Amicitia Fortior, seems to be rising to new heights. But why really? And how? What is now the raison d’etre of the Flemish band, with roots in the H8000 scene of yesteryear. A band with perhaps the most coherent oeuvre, with everything always completely in keeping with their image and identity. We search for answers with the enigmatic yet so accessible frontman Colin van Eeckhout during this interview.
Pictures in this article by Justina Lukosiute and Paul Verhagen. Originally published on Never Mind The Hype.
As a person climbing into the pen, you often get a chance to listen to the record in question beforehand. Also in this one, but in addition, an extensive interview by José Carlos Santos with Colin is also provided. The question lingers for a moment whether we’re being steered in one direction with that: “Oh no, I answer all the questions fired at me. That’s the bio actually. Those are often very abstract and very poetic in articulating what is difficult to explain. A lot of imagery is used to explain that, I get that.”
Fine, we can go in all directions so….
This album is different in many ways, but also not. That it is Amenra is indisputable, but the pain feels different on ‘De Doorn’. Colin agrees: “Until Mass IV, the albums were a direct result of traumatic experiences that some of us went through in our lives. During such a period, when we had then cashed in enough, we came together to make an album. In this case, right after the last record, we started writing for some rituals or ceremonies. The first was a commemoration of World War I and reconstruction. It is then searching for hope in all that misery. For that, we were in line. Several fire rituals also followed for which we wrote accompanying music. So the dynamics of communication changed completely.”
“With the Mass albums, the listener witnesses our story, which emphatically focuses on the five of us and our families. Now the viewer became an active part of what was happening. Listeners were addressed themselves, for instance by participating in the fire ritual. The why of that being together that night. That’s the big difference for us. We weren’t aware that we were writing this record. Normally that’s a very conscious process. One of us remarked that we had written enough for an album. That’s when the franc fell with us…” Of course, then follows the process of – what Colin calls – kneading the material into a whole. A unified story, because that’s ‘De Doorn’, but with a different name thus: “We asked ourselves the question ‘is this Mass IIV?’ The answer was no, this is something else and we acted accordingly.”
Believing in quality
Amenra’s process is very hermetic. What the group commits to is right for them. Yet this is a step outside the comfort zone. Was there doubt or conviction? Both, Colin explains: “We were convinced that this documents what Amenra is now. This comes out of us as creators. I was more behind it than with previous albums. But the doubts come when you start releasing the record. The biggest label we’ve ever been with (Relapse, ed.) and we come out with a Flemish-language record… Listeners have known Amenra in English for 20 years. Most won’t understand an iota of this. Then you have doubts anyway and you have to build the confidence that the essence of our music will do its job.”
That confidence in their own choices is typical Amenra, as evidenced by the addition of Caro Tanghe (Oathbreaker) on this record. It fits. Colin agrees: “That’s how we experience it too. We don’t always agree with each other immediately, but we are lucky to know each other so well and to be friends. An idea often requires little argument. If someone throws something on the table, it is soon the case that we agree. If one hesitates, the rest will get them to agree. Dragging Caro in was a natural idea that formed. Lennart had been playing with her in a band for super long. The way she wrote and played was already right, so we asked her. She lived in the States and this was also a perfect time to get together.”
Every person has their own thorns
The story on ‘De Doorn’ is a different one: it revolves around the collective, considering and opening a dialogue, according to Colin. “On the previous record, it’s us fighting things. Here it’s like ‘it’s coming from someone else.’ It’s a voice that feels familiar and draws the listener in. What that story is I can’t pinpoint, it’s a feeling and offers a platform for introspection.” Traditionally from the title to the lyrics, the long-player is full of Christian symbolism, but the subject matter also feels very current and it is a record of the present. “That is certainly true and yet it is a universal story of grief and loss which has been told billions of times in the arts. Not that we had thought of this beforehand, but it revolves around the things that concern us as human beings: your place in the world and how to act properly when things are against us. The essence of questions that come to the fore in human life under pressure. I think people who have never sincerely suffered in their lives will not understand what we are doing. If you have, you may find something in our music. But that’s just my thought.”
I ask further on that title anyway, as it seems to have direct references to Biblical stories. It turns out that I’m wrong, when Colin pulls out about six thorn branches cast in bronze. “During the forming of the plate, I look for an image that is descriptive and can symbolise. In this case, I was obsessed with different types of thorns and branches. This is because I liked how nature had developed a weapon for its creations. Flowers are given weapons to protect their beauty, other plants their seeds and fruits. I transposed that to humans, as we develop our own thorns through our lives. We learn not to trust another and to arm ourselves against suffering. By regularly getting the lid on your nose, you develop those thorns as your own defence mechanism. Similarly, we carry the wounds and scars that another’s thorns inflict on us. Consequently, I had these six branches cast. A branch for each musician on this record, for each one’s own world and frame of reference. Together these form a collective that is the story of ‘De Doorn’.” An opposition, then, between something abject of pain and the sublime of beauty, which is inherent in Amenra’s work. Colin can agree with that: “It’s in everything: darkness and light, death and birth, wound and healing. I believe in some kind of balance and that it’s not a bad thing to seek it. Also in collaboration with other artists and people who cross our path, that everyone always walks away feeling good. For that, keeping balance in mind is very important.”
The power of vulnerability
However, balance is not for everyone, especially those who go for themselves. “Those will run into themselves one day,” Colin believes. “Empathy and solidarity is very important, we always want to share our success with others. That’s why we always dragged people along and involved them in Amenra because we felt they deserved it. There are many more, but you can’t help everyone. Maybe that’s the social assistant in me talking here now.” Colin has become interested in what brings us together anyway, the communal in the magical and folkloric. “That folkloric we got back more often over the years about our performances. Terms like tribal, modern ritual or ceremony, that’s the feeling people have with it. We also wanted to do more with that and the fire rituals are one such expression. In particular, the ritual at a sculpture with slots in it, where people could leave messages of unacknowledged loss that would be burnt during the ritual. Small losses, about which we are told not to be squeamish. That your dog dies, getting older and having to give up physically or mentally starts a grieving process in yourself. We are not allowed to brood over that and yet we have to be able to give a place to it and that is what these rituals are. It was crazy to see how many people left messages. That was incredibly beautiful.”
We are missing something, according to Colin. He no longer sees that communal in Belgium. That’s why this was so transformative and impressive: “We miss those platforms and places to drop our cover. Sometimes you can’t even do that within your own family. I think the cold, distant and closed in society is getting worse. I want to push that away in this way. Religion has its drawbacks, but it also had a function. It was necessary to step out of the everyday for a while. That is why standing around such a fire with two thousand people, holding your mouth, holding your breath and taking it all in is abnormal in our society. And the fact that it succeeds is a sign of that need for togetherness and not being alone in your grief. Such a ritual gives energy, insights and strength to give grief and loss a place. It is something we try to embrace and which I am incredibly proud of. It’s more fulfilling than a good review for a record, honestly. It makes you feel like your time was well spent.”
I suggest to Colin the fact that Amenra is ready for this album, for sharing grief and going through the catharsis with the listener, perhaps heralding a next step in the band’s life. Colin hesitates: “You look at things more from a distance and you get more overview with time. Besides, it is also a fact that not many extreme things happened in our lives, which gave us a chance to look at others more. Whether that’s why we made this record I don’t know, but we follow what feels right. It happens organically and instinctively and without putting a goal on it. It’s now, during all these interviews, that I look for answers to that myself.” Although Colin describes it as organic, everything Amenra does is very deliberate. You don’t catch the band doing frivolities in their career. “No, it has to prove its service to us as human beings. If this is the case, then we believe others will feel the same way. We have learnt that over the years, because in the beginning, we didn’t know anyone would connect with our music. That was never the target.”
Colin touched on it briefly; the record is Flemish-speaking. The first time I heard Amenra in their own language was the Zjef Vanuytsel cover Het Dorp during the Acoustic Alive shows. This is an important song for Colin: “Thanks to that song, this record is in Flemish. Our generation hasn’t produced much credible stuff in its own language. Often it’s flat, poppy and with little depth. We used our own language occasionally, but also French and German. That cover changed my outlook on it. It started with a friend asking me to do a song for a film. We brainstormed about it and he suggested Zjef Vanuytsel. Then I started writing in Dutch and developed an affinity. I could go deeper than with other languages thanks to a larger vocabulary. More thorough I think.” The rituals he mentioned also provided a great opportunity to experiment with this. It gave the band a direct line to their audience in their own language. “It comes in heavier than the same lyrics in English. I want to explore that further, but whether that would be the next record already we’ll see. We’re not looking too far into the future…” Indeed, that’s also something Amenra is facing now, people who think the Mass series has come to an end with this. Nonsense according to Colin: “That hasn’t been said. But that will come when it comes. We’re not going to shout 2027 because it fits into the strategic timeline. That’s not how it works for us.”
Amenra is the Church of Ra and it is a collective of people looking and working in the same direction. That’s why band members’ ‘projects’ don’t feel like stand-alone affairs. They are islands within the spheres of Amenra, at least that’s how it feels from the outside. “Yes, some people don’t like to hear that, but I feel the same way. You see riffs that don’t fit into Amenra and therefore are cast in a different mould. But also, one guitarist takes a riff from another into a project. It’s nice to see that there are projects that kind of hang on to us and then stand as a house in another genre. That creates an entourage of people who are doing well. That stimulates, inspires, everyone asks each other’s opinions and helps each other. And that’s very cool to see.” Of all the projects, CHVE feels to me as the most directly connected to Amenra. There’s plenty going on with that too, says Colin: “Well, from me it never has to be so much of a big deal. Things happen all the time. I recently did a ritual with a friend who has a workshop for unrecognised loss called Beyond the Spoken. Together we do rituals one-on-one and the latest one was the loss of the embrace which has everything to do with the pandemic. I also recorded some for Grauzone…”
“Oh, I’m also working on an opera, where I’m playing with CHVE. That’s with a soprano, a double bass known as Innerwoud and we’re playing in Rotterdam in August.” I ask Colin what he actually listens, reads and watches himself. Surely he has to find inspiration somewhere between all the doing? He gets that question very often seemingly… “I always have to disappoint then, because I hardly read. I am too restless for that. For me, inspiration mainly comes from doing. For example that bronze casting, you are doing something and see bronze lying around and an idea comes into your head. I listen a lot to the Irish folk band Lankum and the new 7″ by Broeder Dieleman. I recorded a Dutch-language record with that a fortnight ago; CHVE and Broeder Dieleman. Apart from that, I listen to music that we are working on or that I need to do something on. I meet up with people a lot… But films, books, directors… Unfortunately.”
What is Colin’s relationship actually like with his own music and to himself as an artist? We don’t want to start talking about the hang-ups, but as an artist he is someone who goes beyond many others to a point where you can only find similarity in performance art. Does he see a separation between the person and the work? At this, he has to laugh a little: “No, I am just. Identity forms around what you do and make. With us, it is so closely linked to that bond we have had for half our lives. We live in service of that band, get inspired, travel, all for that… But I don’t mind that, it just adds up. I don’t keep up an act, it takes no effort.”
But what is that band then? Why is it such a monolithic thing that we can understand a priori, but cannot interpret? The accompanying press photo shows it nicely; the band in the foreground with behind them a pyramid-shaped mountain of rubble jutting towards the sky. The spot is near Kortrijk. Colin thinks for a moment: “We see it as building our fortress. We build that and everything is very clear to us. Every decision we make is right or wrong within that thing, but what that thing is is hard to pinpoint. There are people who understand very quickly what we do and what it is about, without having to be interpreted. There are also people to whom the whole thing passes by, who find it just a boring thing. That is also allowed. The why it’s right or just not, I don’t know. It’s a feeling. It’s an experiential kind of music and everything we do, how it looks and how we send it to people, that has to stand like a house.”
“When we started this band, we knew we didn’t want to be just a band. After 20 years, I can only conclude that we are getting closer and closer to the one goal we set for ourselves. And that is to form a gesamtkunstwerk, where there is no stick between us. The longer that lasts, the harder it becomes, the harder it is to get that down.”