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Interview with Serpentine Skies / Steve Belcher

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I have a new album out, it’s called Dissolve, I wrote the songs during a very difficult time in my life. There is some vulnerability here, and true feelings. I wrote the songs as a mixture of love, longing, and loss, and ego negation. I originally intended these songs as an acoustic release, but then took a much heavier shoegaze direction with them, mixed with noise and industrial. The reason why I titled it Dissolve was that it was referring to entropy and the dissolution of boundaries.

We recently spoke to Steve Belcher, Connecticut-based musician whose latest album Dissolve, a volatile mix of black metal, noise, industrial and shoegaze, came out this April.

 

Serpentine Skies - Dissolve (Album Cover)

 

First couple of listens of “Dissolve” gave me an idea that its not the kind of record that tries to please or entertain anyone – its turbulent and chaotic (and sometimes downright violent). You mentioned that initially you wanted it to be an acoustic album – so what prompted the jump to more abrasive sound?

Usually when I write, I write music from a cathartic standpoint, there are of course albums of mine where I wrote songs to distract myself from other problems, and those albums, Lazarus, Imperium are not as honest as this one. I didn’t write the songs specifically to please anyone, they were something that lived in me and I had to get out of me.

The switch from an acoustic album to an electric album largely had to deal with the song “Drown” which was the first song I wrote for this. There were two versions of Drown, one acoustic, which I liked better, and the other was electric, which I also liked, on the album I couldn’t decide which to use, and then had the idea to fuse them together, although in retrospect I would have made the transition much smoother.

My reasoning for why I made this album such an abrasive, violent thing was that this wasn’t the album I really wanted to make initially, but rather came to make as a Plan B, and so it matched my temperament at the time, and right now. There is a large degree of contrast between stark confessions, and anger, rage and heartbreak.

 

During her Teenage Jesus & The Jerks days Lydia Lunch once quipped “If I’ll see one smiling face in the audience I’m stopping the show”. What’s your take on the whole concept of “art as pain” / “art as non-entertainment” – was Serpentine Skies influenced in any way by those ideas?

As I noted above, but will clarify here, I have always been a proponent of the idea of songwriting as therapy. I don’t like to talk about most of my personal feelings with most people, I’m not a very open person. I put things in songs that I wouldn’t say in public. The songs themselves aren’t exactly true or direct with my feelings. It’s a mix of confessions, and symbolism, and sometimes straight up trolling or character acting. They are honest at times as in a sort of honesty with emotions.

 

Serpentine Skies - Imperium (Album Cover)

You mentioned that you had trouble booking shows in Connecticut and people struggling what to make of Serpentine Skies. Was there any positive feedback for the project – either in the form of reviews or people saying something online?

I’ve had a number of people say they liked my art, but I haven’t had that translate into much materially, there are of course a handful of exceptions. For being able to get shows either in Connecticut, or out of Connecticut, part of that difficulty is something I’ve mentioned before and it’s difficult to put it this way, so here it goes. I am not a free person. I can’t just go anywhere I want at any time, I usually need someone to help me, and people are either not aware of that fact, nor have they been very sympathetic to it.

Although sure, if I found a drummer I’d likely have less of a problem traveling to gigs.

 

What are some of your musical influences? What are some non-musical ones?

Early on when I started this project, a lot of my influences on guitar were people like Dylan Carlson of Earth, or Buzz, or Justin Broadrick, or Kevin Shields. Back then I was playing more on the lower strings of the guitar and creating open-tuned drones. Over the course of this project my guitar and bass playing essentially diverged and the bass maintained the drones becoming analogous to Sunn O))) or Lustmord while my rhythm guitar playing moved to the higher treble strings and ghost / noise guitar playing came out of scraping the bottom three strings to produce shadowy whispers or burning rasps.

That latter part didn’t actually come from any particular musician, it came about on my own just on continuing down this evolving path. I’ve had insomnia and sleep paralysis for a long time, and I write a lot of my lyrics from that state of mind, so naturally my guitar playing turned more and more towards recreating those sorts of soundscapes and matching and merging with my vocals or samples to create a spectral haze.

As far as guitarists that have influenced my more abrasive playing, they were more of musicians I listened to after I had started down this path, but they certainly affected me as to make the way I play guitar sound more violent. Big Black and Bauhaus are definite influences, but the big ones for me were stuff like The Birthday Party or Swans.

From the side of production at least, there was a lot of stuff that I listened to while growing up that affected me and how I put stuff together. Really the first band that I got into as a teenager was The Cure, and I wrote a lot of these lyrics and the intro of the title track under the influence of The Cure. Nine Inch Nails was another prominent influence on me, but especially with how I assemble the songs together as an album, I stagger tracks together roughly the same way, and usually pre-plan track order and flow, or even record backing over the entire thing so that all of the tracks cleanly lead into one another. There is a lot of stuff that Alan Moulder produced that has influenced me, stuff like Curve, that definitely mixed shoegaze with industrial way long before I even thought of doing it.

Have A Nice Life was another band that had some influence on me, but mostly into recording stuff myself. The more acoustic and quieter side of this record was more influenced by stuff like Grouper or Chelsea Wolfe, or Elliott Smith, the latter of which was really more of an influence on how I like to finger pick or form melodies and mix vocals.

I’ve heard the comparison to Jandek once before, maybe some people think my voice sounds like that. I can be a bit monotone and off tune at times, though I’ve always thought my voice was softer and higher than this. I usually think of someone like Al Stewart or how Iggy Pop sings on Search And Destroy as how I usually try to sing in rock songs. I did the harsh vocals thing on my last album, but I really have more of a pussycat voice.

 

Serpentine Skies - Spirit Twin

In an interview with Quietus Jute Gyte (aka Adam Kalmbach) said he doesn’t understand why people refer to his music as “ugly”. In his opinion its rather lush and romantic 

Would you say the same about Serpentine Skies? What is your definition of your beauty?

Lush and romantic is exactly how I would describe this album, even if I do think parts of it are ugly, and there are definitely some flaws that I wish I hadn’t rushed into would like to fix. I was trying to write an album full of love songs. For instance the song Dying For You has these dramatic over the top lyrics set beside a wall of guitar. It’s supposed to be a gothic love song, of ruin and longing. I see love in a fatalistic way, even when relationships work out they are not exactly calm or easy.

As for where I see beauty in what I do, it’s largely comes down to an older song of mine on the album Spirit Twin, called Orpheus, it has the lines “I cut out my heart, to wear it on my sleeve” and “I carry a lyre, heavy and wood, affixed with iron,” which means that as songwriter I write lyrics and then sing them from the bottom of my heart, and sacrifice my comfort and peace of mind to do it.

There is a lot of beauty in selflessness. That’s why I titled this album Dissolve, because it’s about letting go of your own ego, and the things you hold on to. Our universe is very slowly dissolving like a sugar cube in a cup of tea, it’s not going to be here forever. I wrote Drown because it was about what it means to fall in love, it means losing yourself in someone else, sometimes losing yourself that way is the only way to find your true self. It’s beauty in not being afraid of anything, taking risks with what you do, telling the truth of what is in your heart.

There is a line from the end of Drown, a reference to a song called L’amour est bleu, sung by Vicky Leandros, it means “Love is blue” and deep as the ocean.


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