Unto Ashes

DH: As a begin could you please tell me a little bit about you and your artistically development. How did Unto Ashes start out? Which musicians are involved?

Michael Laird: We all come from different places, musically (and geographically). I had some instruction playing drums as a child, but other than that, I am completely self-taught. In college I became interested in sound-recording and experimental music; for awhile I worked in a recording studio. I started making music on my own after listening to Current 93 and Death in June tapes over and over and over! I needed some new music, and I didn't know where to turn! So just decided to make up some of my own. So I got a guitar, played around with it for awhile, and after I had made up some songs I just booked some studio time. I already knew about recording, so it didn't seem like a big deal to me to just go into the studio and make some recordings. It's something we've continued to do for the last seven years or so.

Natalia Lincoln: I studied piano from childhood all the way through music school, graduating from Oberlin with a double degree in piano performance and music history. After Oberlin I composed church music for a while, then, disillusioned with that world, I joined a band called Figurehead in 1995. I played with them for about a year and a half, then Michael asked me to join Unto Ashes, which was a perfect fit for me musically.

Mariko: I started playing the violin when I was 7 and started voice lessons when I was 12. Since then, I have studied voice at numerous places including The Juilliard School and currently, the Manhattan School of Music, both in New York City. There, I obtained a plethora of knowledge about the musical world, which in turn made me appreciate the music we do all the more. However, after all my years of classical training, I wanted to be in a band and expand my musical horizons. Unto Ashes found me in the summer of 2003 and it has been both a spiritually and musically rewarding experience.

DH: Why did you choose the name Unto Ashes? Do you want to express something with the name?

Michael Laird: When I first started playing music I was working with a woman named Suzanna Melendez. She suggested that we call the project "Glory Unto Ashes" (taken from a line of poetry by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke). I knew I didn't want to be involved with anything which professed "Glory" -- anyway "Unto Ashes" is more fatal; it implies ruin and decay. That's what interests me. "Glory" does not interest me.

DH: Can you decribe your music style in your own words?

Michael Laird: Our music is characteristically "American" in that it has absolutely *NO* allegiance to any particular style or nationality; and it freely borrows from a multitude of places and cultures around the world. The music we make is informed by many different elements that are sacred to us, including Melodic Black Metal, Classical, Medieval, Arabic, African, Indian, Apocalyptic Folk, Ethereal, and even Punk Rock. But Unto Ashes music is similar to none of these forms. Furthermore, none of them actually originated in America; yet we possess that particularly "American" audacity to create something which combines elements of many disparate things. I’d like to say that, although Punk Rock originated in England, in my opinion it found its fullest expression in America (through bands like Black Flag, etc.). By "Punk Rock" I'm talking about bands that sing about HATE and DESPAIR and FRUSTRATION -- *not* fashion or cars or girls.

DH: Your new album is called "Empty Into White" and your new single is called "I Cover You With Blood". Can you tell something about the releases. Where did you record the album / single and how long did it take to record it?

Michael Laird: We recorded both records in my studio. We spent about 4 months recording "Empty Into White,” but it took a few years to write and perfect all the songs to our satisfaction. The album was first released by Projekt Records in the U.S. last Summer; then Harald of the German label Kalinkaland approached us about releasing a German version of “Empty Into White,” with new material and a different song order. The response in Germany to the album has been extremely gratifying. Then in December we released a Maxi-CD of “I Cover You With Blood,” again through Projekt. Kalinkaland has been distributing these CDs throughout Germany as promotional material, with great success. We are very grateful for all the positive attention we have received. For one reason, we are huge fans of German art and culture!

Natalia Lincoln: "Empty Into White" was the cauldron for many strains of our musical thinking: Persian dances, war protests disguised as anthems, distorted American folksongs, ultra-chromatic piano salon pieces. "1914" is not only a reference to the gathering storm of World War I, but to the music Erik Satie was composing at that time. There's a feeling of "lateness" to the music on this album, I think; sunset-music, reflecting events long past that cannot be changed, only sung about.

Mariko: “I Cover You With Blood” was actually one of my first recordings with Unto Ashes. I contributed vocals to the new version of “Serve Me”, and was an active part in creating and recording “Palestinalied”, which also appears on the German release of “Empty Into White”. The single actually took a lot of thought and work to put together. We wanted to release something that would seduce people and draw them into our musical world.

DH: On the single there`s a song called "Funeral March for Queen Mary)" which has not been released on the album. Why?

Michael Laird: We originally recorded the song for inclusion on our second CD “Saturn Return,” possibly as the opening track of the album. Sam Rosenthal advised us to make “Morte O Merce” the first song. In the end he was right; so we left “Funeral March for Queen Mary” off of that CD. It seemed appropriate to use it on the Maxi-CD – it just seemed to go really well there. Many people know the song as the theme from “A Clockwork Orange” which is an amazing film. Actually, there are two versions of the song in the film: an incredibly foreboding, menacing synthetic version – and then a really delicate “Renaissance” version played on original instruments. Our version is somewhere in-between.

Mariko: I’m very glad that we decided to release “Funeral March for Queen Mary”. Henry Purcell is absolutely wonderful.

DH: "Empty Into White" is your third record. Since your first release had there been changes in your music? Tell us something about the process writing a song?

Natalia Lincoln: Much of the change in our music is due to the changes in our lineup. When I joined Unto Ashes we had six musicians; now we have three. Also, I didn't sing on the first album at all, but now we do much more close-harmony work using my backup vocals. Working as a trio lends itself to much less musical overkill, more economy in instrumentation, but without losing a characteristic lushness. As for songwriting, we go about it in the usual way: one or more of us has an idea, we bring it in varying stages of development to the others in the group, they add their voices and instruments as well as comments about the structure or harmony, etc., and a piece is forged from that crucible.

Michael Laird: I would like to believe that as musicians we have matured a lot; but it’s more important to know that we’ve matured as people who are working together to achieve mutual goals. Being asked to perform in Germany has always been a goal of ours. This year it seems like it will happen at the Wave Gotik Treffen in Leipzig. We’re currently in discussion with the festival organizers. Also we’re discussing a tour through Germany in the Fall. This would be a great thrill for us.

Mariko: The important thing is that we are able to compose our music cooperatively. We all respect each other’s musical and artistic talents and utilize them to their fullest potential. It is very stimulating and inspiring to write and play music with such talented people.

DH: What do you want to express with the lyrics? How important are the lyrics for you? Tell us something about the topics of your songs.

Natalia Lincoln: People have noticed frequent themes of death in our lyrics; death and raw emotional states. We seek to explore the extremes of experience, to taste the strangeness of life and the obscurity of death. Many of our songs are in foreign languages, not just to veil our meaning but to draw listeners into a world that simultaneously is and is not their own.

Michael Laird: The lyrics are obviously of tremendous importance to us – we labor on them, we suffer for them... making them exactly right... it can be very difficult. Each song is different. Overall our lyrics seem to be about conflict, and the struggle for resolution – either musical or emotional. Many of our songs are allegories for something else: for instance “drowning” does not necessarily imply being submerged in water, and not being able to swim – it might imply being trapped in a hopeless relationship, and not knowing how to break free. “Blindness” is another topic of interest – though it might not have anything to do with eyesight, i.e. being visually impaired. If you hear someone singing about blindness in an Unto Ashes song, chances are that they’re singing about being emotionally impaired.

DH: How important is your work as musicans for yourselfs?

Michael Laird: Music is extremely important to me – to all of us in the band. It’s pretty much what we live for! It’s like breathing: if we aren’t playing music – or if we’re not actively listening to music – we’re not really alive.

Natalia Lincoln: True. Life without music would be dead and wooden. Music is love, a basic drive, a hunger almost.

Mariko: Music has and always will be my lifeblood. I’ve found myself in such a state of depression and internal death if I cannot play music for a certain amount of time. Without it, I slowly and painfully decay and die.

DH: Do you play concerts in Germany and how does a Unto Ashes gig look like?

Michael Laird: As I mentioned, we’re actually negotiating some concerts in Germany for the Summer and Fall. Each show is different; but the main element involves a very high degree of emotional intensity and tension.

Natalia Lincoln: You can expect exotic instruments and much movement by the band from one instrument to another. Also, we are not terribly talkative.

Mariko: We enjoy creating a sort of unearthly atmosphere when we play, which is why we don’t usually talk as much as other bands do. However, we do understand the importance of the communication with audiences. We just reach them in a different way.

DH: Are there further projects for the future planned (new releases, sampler contributions, ...)?

Michael Laird: We’ve just moved our recording studio to a new location, which is very exciting for us. From there we will be recording new songs which will appear on our next album. We already have some songs written, and we even have agreed upon a title for the album.... so in that regard it’s basically already done! Just kidding – we have a lot of work to do, but it’s the kind of work we love, so that’s not really an issue. If we’re alive and breathing we’re probably going to be recording at some point very soon!

DH: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

Michael Laird: We’re very gratified by all the attention we’ve received from the German press and German fans – more grateful that you can possibly know. And if you have enjoyed “Empty Into White” we invite you to check out our other releases: “Moon Oppose Moon” and “Saturn Return” – both of them have German language songs that we’re very happy with – we hope you will enjoy them also! And we hope to see many of you in Germany, either at the WGT Leipzig or when we tour through Germany in Fall – please check our website www.UntoAshes.com for tour dates and all the latest developments.

DH: Thank you very much for this interview and go on having fun and success with Unto Ashes.

Interview: Andreas Ohle