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Returning to the Source; an Interview with Stefan Otto of Nebelung

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.:.RETURNING TO THE SOURCE.:.

An Interview with Stefan Otto

by Patrick Bertlein

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Heathen Harvest: Palingenesis means renewal, or rebirth. Is this new album a rebirth of not only your music, but also who you are as a person?

Stefan Otto: The term “Palingenesis” and its various meanings all have a strong connection to the album, and what it means to us individually and to us as a band. Starting with the latter, the term refers to the long process in which the album came into being. After the release of its predecessor, Vigil, it got more and more quiet around the band. The inmost flame that had always inspired Nebelung seemed to enter a state of transformation, without revealing its final shape. Somehow the impetus behind Nebelung seemed to dwindle away on our personal and spiritual paths to maturity, and the first notes to what would later become Palingenesis were written in a time where it was all but clear where they would lead us, and if they were a part of Nebelung at all.

Looking back at it now, I think this situation has been extremely fruitful for us, for it allowed us to work on the album without any self-imposed constraints or expectations, and finally led to a reincarnation of Nebelung into a new musical body. On a personal level, the years in which the album was written and recorded were a time in which I was running through a long period of transformation myself, facing the ghosts of my past that had haunted me since my earliest childhood. Somehow the shadows I was confronted with in these recent years, and the attempt to accept and reintegrate them into my own self, led to a new paradigm–a kind of spiritual renewal. Of course, this paradigmatic change also led to a different view of our own music, and, as a result, to a different musical approach.

- Nebelung - Stefan Otto | Katharina Hoffmann | Thomas List

– Nebelung –
Stefan Otto | Katharina Hoffmann | Thomas List

HH: “Palingenesis” is quite the departure from previous works. It seems more thoughtful, in sharp contrast to the strong, dare I say catchy, song-writing of previous works. Why such a change in sound? Do you consider the older material to be vastly different from “Palingenesis”? Do you see yourself reflected in the music of Nebelung, the older material and the younger you being more traditional song-writing, and the newer material and the older you being more quiet and contemplative?

SO: I definitely see the contrast between our older and our newer work, even more so in the way I view our older releases now as some kind of trilogy that came to an end with Vigil, though I didn’t realize it at the time. If I try to relate myself to this old or the new Nebelung, I would say that, in fact, I have always been more the new Nebelung, though prior to the work on our new album I just didn’t know how to access this part of myself. Somehow I didn’t even know it existed. I always felt the old Nebelung reflected something that wasn’t completely me, but to which I had a very strong relationship. The feeling I have now playing the old songs can somehow be compared to the attempt of invoking the souls of your ancestors, trying to become their vessel and medium. It is something related to your own history, and thus to the dimension of time, while the new album seems to be more related to the core of my own being, to the part of my self, out of time and out of place, which touches upon the transcendental.

HH: The video for “Mittwinter” is clearly a journey into the self, a Shamanic exploration in some ways. Do you practice a lot of meditation? Do you care to share any experiences you have had during meditation, or is the video the sharing of this? Have you done a lot of studies on the impact of meditation and transcendental experiences? Or instead, is merely going out into Nature alone a metaphysical journey?

SO: The longing for a state of mind void of words and all superficial imagery has been a strong desire in my life for many years, though I never really followed any particular path or specific practices. It has been many years that at times I could find this emptiness in nature. To me these moments had always been very fruitful, giving me the strength to keep on going. These moments in nature are also the moments from which Nebelung drew its primary inspiration. Somehow we always tried to reproduce this feeling, capture it in music and verses. As this feeling was by experience mainly connected to nature, also the imagery we used to recreate this feeling upon were elemental or naturalistic. With the new album we wanted to take a first step in disconnecting this feeling from nature, and trace it back to where it actually resides, back to the subconscious.

The video to “Mittwinter” mirrors a meditative journey with a specific goal. The goal of the journey is of a Jungian kind, unveiling a lost part of your self, which had been split off by continuous repression. Although the topic isn’t necessarily, the images used in the video are connected to shamanism. I myself have never been on a shamanistic journey–I’m not very gifted when it comes to visualizing things or letting myself go–but I know the imagery, and I somehow know the logic of my subconscious.

HH: It would seem that the natural world in Germany significantly impacts your music. How entwined is your existence with nature, and what role does this play in the creation of your music?

SO: In our everyday world everything you might touch with your senses can be categorized with ease, and rarely are we looking at the things the way they truly are, but the way we want them to be. Slowly but steadily we’re losing the ability to wonder, to see things for their true and unconditional existence. When outside in nature, it is sometimes hard to let go of this automatic and unconscious categorization, and you can spend hours in nature walking around blind to the beauty around you.

At times though, and at rare moments, this beauty suddenly takes possession of you and you find yourself in speechless awe before the secrets and beauty of nature. I already said how those rare moments of speechless emptiness influenced us and our music. This perception of nature, and how nature in general tends to touch me, was deeply influenced by the literature of the German Romantic period, which I read excessively prior to the beginning of my studies at university. At this peak of my sentimentalism, it was especially the works of Novalis, and among these the novel Henry of Ofterdingen with its concept of the self and its eternal progress to a higher, unifying totality of man and nature, that had a strong impact on me.

Through many a rugged, thorny pass,
With tattered robe, the minstrel wends;
He toils through flood and deep morass,
Yet none a helping hand extends.
Now lone and pathless, overflows
With bitter plaint his wearied heart;
Trembling beneath his lute he goes,
And vanquished by a deeper smart.

Excerpt from Henry of Ofterdingen

HH: Being that your name is an old German word for autumn, do you enjoy other seasons such as spring? Or is it only the colder months that you appreciate?

SO: Nebelung actually is an old name for November. To me this word is some kind of chiffre–in the way this last term was shaped and used by Novalis–that opens up a whole world of imagination, containing the German word for fog in it, and resembling the name of the German national epic of the Nibelungen. Besides this,  the name which was chosen as November usually is the month–at least in these latitudes–that comes with a strong change in weather and temperature, and reveals once again nature’s omnipotence, that we in our modern air-conditioned concrete-walled houses tend to forget so easily. I can’t tell you which season I enjoy the most, but I definitely like the colours of autumn and long and snowy winters.

HH: What is the plant or tree featured as the artwork for “Palingenesis”? Why did you choose this particular flora as a representation of your art?

Palingenesis

Palingenesis

SO: To be honest, I don’t know the name of the plant myself either, and it isn’t important. What matters is the degree of abstraction in the artwork while picturing a complete natural motive, the change in the viewing angle, composed with macro shots with only little depth of focus (thanks to Sphæra Satvrni Art for providing the superb pictures to us). In a direct comparison to the wide-angle photography of the artwork of our former releases, it is this change of perspective which is pictorial for the inner transformation. What initially seemed to be old and known–a plant by the wayside–suddenly, under the influence of the transformed paradigm, looks unknown and new.

HH: A particular sadness exists in songs such as “Wandlung”, a reflective nostalgic kind of longing, recognition of the past, melancholy over how life turned out. Being that this song title could best be translated into “change”, is this idea of accepting that the past is what it is, and life turned out the way that it has, and all any of us can possibly do is accept the life we have?

SO: “Wandlung” is another word for metamorphosis, which has been the initial title of the song. In the development of the album, it marks a kind of turning point if you will. Where Palingenesis is a journey into the inner self, it is at “Wandlung” where the core of this self is discovered. The core is pure, unimaginable, nameless emptiness. Entering the condition of emptiness is the foundation for spiritual renewal, with the mind held in a state of pure and silent innerlichkeit (or inwardness, the title of the final track), void of all imagery, and open to the world around you.

Where one might think that the philosophy behind this thought is of a Buddhist nature, I actually first got in touch with it through the work of the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. Meister Eckhart taught that one may only find God by emptying his self from all imagery and longing, in order to find the soul spark residing in the very heart of your soul, the spark which comes from, directly leads to, and will make you one with God. As this came to be interpreted as Pantheism, he was later accused of heresy.

The acceptance of how life turns out is a part of this transformation process, though the goal of the process goes far beyond. Once the emptiness inside of you is discovered, all attachment and longing becomes relative, and with it the whole concept of an individual personality.

HH: What are your thoughts on various individuals calling this album dark, depressing, or any other adjectives that denote sadness? Is this due to many individuals confusing introspection with loneliness, or silence with darkness?

SO: Personally, I think that Palingenesis is a more open album compared to our former releases, in the sense that the images it invokes depend more upon the listener than the music itself. Somehow we wanted to create an archetypal atmosphere, unlinked to a specific cultural or natural imagery. As an effect, and when this approach worked out, the feelings invoked by the music are of an entirely personal nature, and different for every individual listener, depending on his cultural and biographical background. To many people, including myself, the calm and focused feeling of melancholy and darkness can be some kind of entrance to the inner worlds, and I can understand, when people perceive it as melancholy when feeling moved. It is not wrong, it is maybe just a sign of inexperience in active works on the subconscious.

HH: Is melancholy a prerequisite for understanding the transient nature of existence, or can an individual find acceptance in, for example, a Buddhist state of mind where the philosophy is to recognize this transience, without attachment to suffering?

SO: Also here, melancholy can be an important prerequisite for the recognition of this transient nature, for it usually comes about with calmness, self-reflection and an acceptance of the moment, which are also qualities of the Buddhist mind. Personally, I think that the truths of Buddhism can also be recognized by using logic, while the images provided by Buddhism definitely help in keeping one focused.

HH: Various philosophers and mystics have spoken of the estranged life from today’s world, renouncing family and friends and being a solitary hermit where the individual can fully engross themselves in things that you speak of as well, nature and silence. What are your thoughts on this ascetic way of life?

SO: I sometimes get the feeling, that this praise of the eremitic life is just the flip-side of the coin of the big modern myth of individual fulfillment. The economic globalization and the continuing estrangement from religion, state and family refer the individual back to himself as the only instance allowing for identification. This praise of individualism, of aligning life with each person’s individual beliefs and confessions, is a phenomenon that’s pretty symptomatic for our western society, for it is perfectly tailored for the consumer market. However you might value that, but shouldn’t it be your goal to find peace within yourself no matter who or where you are, and no matter what you are doing?

I found myself pretty often suspending my own happiness into the future, and telling me when this and this has happened, I will be truly happy or resting within me. But life is happening now and here, and with the right mindset, accepting the current situation as it is, accepting yourself as you are, you can make your own life a lot more peaceful. You and your needs are not important, and trying to grasp this thought every day anew might actually have a more positive effect than spending a year in the forests.

HH: Why did it take so long for this album to come out, and what have you been doing in the meantime?

SO: Before the work on the new album, Nebelung had somehow come to a point from which I could not proceed any further. I felt that somehow everything I wanted to say with Nebelung had been said with our previous albums. Though we continued in playing one or two shows every now and then, Nebelung to me somehow was a project of the past, and I couldn’t imagine any possible way where to go now with the language and imagery we had created with Nebelung, and I could relate to this language and imagery less and less. The new imagery still had to be discovered, and due to its complexity it revealed itself not all at once, but slowly one piece after another, with long periods of silence and fruitless efforts in between. Basically we just gave the album all the time it needed to come into existence, and however long it took, I’m happy we did so.

HH: Do you consider “Palingenesis” a monumental achievement, or is it in your eyes on par with past albums? Was it the natural, and linear, transformation of your sound, or a radical departure?

SO: I feel the album is more mature, and–speaking about the pure quantity of recorded sound-tracks–I think it actually contains more music than all of our previous albums summed up together. This is also true for the time we spent working on it. Additionally it is also the first album, where every single step of the recording, mixing and mastering process was completely performed by us, or actually mainly by Thomas, who achieved an incredible result with the overall sound and atmosphere of the album. Regarding all the time, work and blood that was put into the album, and the utter importance of this time for my own personal development, I somehow–from my personal view–consider the album a meaningful musical monument, an opus of spiritual quality, which carries and reflects the transformation process of my own personality. Thus it stands on its own, and to me the only connection to our previous work is the musicians who performed the album, and of course their own typical musical handwriting.

HH: Your appreciation for Ulver is fairly obvious and has been commented on before. How important do you consider “Kveldssanger” in relation to music as a whole, and your personal life? Would it be ranked as the most important album ever?

SO: No, I definitely wouldn’t rank it that high. There was a time though, in which this album was of a tremendous importance for me; a time–let’s call it the “post-pubertal” stage–when I spent nights alone in my dimly lit bedroom, reading fin de siècle literature, drinking red wine, and listening to this and a few other albums of the same ambient quality, like Nighttime Nightrhymes by :Of the Wand and the Moon:, Turn Loose the Swans by My Dying Bride, and Within the Realm of a Dying Sun by Dead Can Dance. How utterly pathetic!

Since that time, my musical focus has changed and deepened many times, and other records took Kveldssangers’ place–records that grew more important than Kveldssanger had ever been. But as that period also was the time in which Thomas and I were most active in doing acoustic music together, it fundamentally formed our style, and thus it is the record the influence of which can still and most be felt in our music.

HH: What other musical projects are you in? Are these albums easily accessible, or due to being more personal projects are you not that interested in promoting them?

SO: Currently there’s just one other project that I’m in at this time, a drone duo called Owwl, creating soundscapes born from contrasting instrumentation. While my bandmate is shaping amplified guitar feedback through an ever-changing array of analogue effect modules, I play–in a very minimal way–an old and beautiful pump organ, built in 1884 by the Estey Organ company in Brattleboro, Vermont. Strange as it sounds, the two instruments tend to complement each other in a completely unexpected way.

HH: You are now signed to Temple of Torturous, how did this come about?

SO: With the disappearance of Eis & Licht, we had the opportunity to start from a clean slate. The importance of Eis & Licht in neofolk music had quickly established Nebelung as a neofolk-formation, though we had never felt a strong connection to this scene or scenes in general. Temple of Torturous was first mentioned by Fyrnd from Fyrnask. The fact that this label was mainly connected to black metal was something I didn’t feel as a flaw, as it gave us the opportunity to break away from the limits of the genre we had been attached to before.

HH: What was Fyrnd’s role on the album? Is he more of a guest musician? How did this come about?

SO: Fyrnd is a close friend of mine, and despite our rather different musical approaches, we tend to influence each other quite a lot. We started to meet quite frequently in the time when the album was more or less finished, but was still quite unpolished and needed some grains of salt here and there. At this point, Fyrnd threw in some compositional ideas, and in the end contributed with his voice and help in percussion.

HH: Why is the album almost completely instrumental? Do you think that at times words take away from feeling? Is the mighty word at times our downfall? Perhaps you already answered this in an interview with Decibel. I know part of this was answered in your interview with Metalnews.de, but for the American audiences maybe you can reply about this again.

SO: The decision to go without lyrics is based on how the album developed conceptually. Simply put, the music itself just didn’t demand any lyrics. In the few lyrical parts the album involves now, the spoken words merely serve as additional instrumentation, which was also the reason for the decision to put them into another language (Norwegian). With Palingenesis, we wanted to go deeper than we have gone before, so we tried to take on a deeper approach, leaving the insufficient medium of language behind, sparing the conscious, and trying to let the music take a direct and unaltered way to the subconscious. Whatever would arise from there would now be void of a specific cultural imagery, and would be individual for every listener.

Nebelung | Temple of Torturous

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