.:.THIS LIGHT SHALL UNDRESS ALL.:.
An Interview with Jerome Reuter of Rome
It seems difficult to believe, but Rome’s celebrated A Passage to Rhodesia is already approaching two years of existence, and waiting in Trisol’s wings to take its place is Jerome Reuter’s latest effort, a mini-album entitled Coriolan. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Reuter about the new work as well as its predecessor, and along the way he was happy to touch on other subjects from early Rome memories and politics to Léo Ferré and the importance of always moving forward, never backward. While you read the interview, please feel free to listen to this exclusive premiere of a new track from Coriolan, entitled “Broken,” which our friends at Trisol were gracious enough to supply us with. Coriolan will see its release on April 1st.
Heathen Harvest: For your forthcoming new mini-album, “Coriolan,” you have chosen Shakespeare‘s “Coriolanus” as your inspiration. What was it about this tragic Roman general-turned-Volscian that struck you enough to write a mini-album around his story?
Jerome Reuter: What’s not to like? I mean, it has all the necessary ingredients for savvy entertainment. It’s not Shakespeare’s best known effort, obviously, though it resonates the most with me. I came across Coriolanus many years ago—not through my studies in languages or literature, but through Léo Ferré‘s music. Ferré once conducted some of Beethoven‘s work, among which was the Coriolan Ouverture. While I was discovering Ferré—and gorging myself on anything remotely Ferré—I saw this documentary that featured the overture with added spoken words by Léo. It was an extremely dark and moving piece. I was sold. Anyway, Coriolanus has since crossed my path many times, and I just felt like it was time to give in to that urge. To be fair, this mini-album is only loosely based around Shakespeare’s play, but it certainly contains songs inspired by the mood Coriolanus puts me in.
HH: It’s interesting that you bring up Léo Ferré, who is—perhaps even more than his compositional talents—a profoundly fascinating character. He’s a notable twentieth-century anarchist, and in the 1940s, he was corresponding with exiled Spanish anarchists which clearly plays into the same themes that you masterfully explored in “Flowers from Exile.” How deep does your inspiration through Ferré run in the music of Rome, exactly?
JR: I don’t really know how much of an influence he might have been or not, to be honest. But he himself, certainly, as a man and as a musician has been tremendously inspiring. I don’t agree with him in everything and it’s not that I like each and every record he’s made to the same degree, but albums like La Solitude and Et… basta! have been a godsend when I needed them most. He’s the ultimate ‘solitary man’, the quintessential rebel, and opened up a whole new way for me to imagine the free man. It’s him and Burroughs, really. I mean, if I could pick grandfathers… [laughs]
HH: You have mentioned previously that “Rome” is simply the short-form for “Jerome,” but considering the topic of “Coriolan,” is there anything about Rome’s history, culture, or the literature surrounding the city that has guided or deeply inspired you?
JR: I thought I deserved the right to finally do something “Roman” after ten years of avoiding the obvious. Yes, ROME is derived from my first name, indeed, but obviously the historical connotations have always been what made the name interesting. I live quite close to Germany’s oldest city, Trier (called Treveris in Roman times), which is basically a Roman city, and this is still noticeable. Roman history is alive and well still; if you keep your eyes open, that is. There are constant reminders of that empire all around the parts of Europe I call home. Plus, by now, I have also some strong personal ties to today’s city of Roma. I have a few very good friends there and in other parts of Italy, and I’m sure my frequent trips south will inspire something at some point. Roma just has this very weird and violent vibe to it. It’s one of those places where sex and death combine so gracefully. Plus suits, food, and women (not necessarily in that order) of Italian origin are obviously among the finest around.
HH: After such a lengthy effort in “A Passage to Rhodesia,” why have you chosen to go the route of a mini-album this time?
JR: I like the idea of starting out anew with a mini-album. It’s a bit like revisiting Berlin after ten years and ten albums. Coriolan, like Berlin, is made of various tracks of different styles. It’s a new start. I’m not really sure where the road is going to take me; all I know is that I’m not done yet.
HH: When Rome’s journey does reach its inevitable conclusion, where do you foresee your focus being drawn towards? Do you create in any mediums other than music?
JR: Inevitable conclusion? You mean death? I’m not too worried about my focus after that! [laughs] Seriously though, ROME is what I do. I didn’t name it Rome just to watch it fall. I’m not saying I might not quit at some point, but I can’t imagine that right now. There might be some longer pauses, though. As far as other mediums go: no, not really. I’d love to be a writer, but I don’t have the patience for it unfortunately. And none of the other arts ever seem to generate enough enthusiasm to really see it through. I mean, I do about one painting every three years, and then I throw it away if it doesn’t seem like it could be a cover for a record or something. And I am still learning how to do music, really. I’ve released a couple of records, but it’s not like I feel like I’ve achieved anything or that I have gathered enough experience to believe I’m some sort of expert on anything.
HH: Is there already a new full-length in the works? If there is, can you give us some hints as to what theme it surrounds? Will there be any surprises?
JR: The new album is finished and mastered. We still have to come up with some decent artwork. I have actually postponed the release a few times because I wasn’t completely satisfied with how it looked. There’s a theme to it, yes, but it’s not so precise a theme as, say, A Passage to Rhodesia was. To be honest, I don’t think there will be any surprises. I’m sure I’m supposed to tell you now that it’s full of surprises and that it’s the best album ever… Yes, in all honesty, I love this album—mostly because it’s a personal ‘best-of’, in a way. It’s very straightforward. I just wanted to assemble a bunch of good songs rather than focusing on a specific theme and let it dictate what’s on there. For our ten-year anniversary in 2015, the original idea was to release a box set with about a billion bonus tracks and live recordings and whatnot. But, in the end, we decided not to do it because it was just too much work—you know, mastering it all, going through the archives, etc. (I’m horrible when it comes to archiving my own efforts and such. I follow more of a scorched-earth kind of path when it comes to that.) There was just way too much energy and time required to actually make that thing, that I decided to just do a new album with the purpose of making a sort of best-of … of all-new material! [laughs] It’s ridiculous—I know—but I’ve always preferred looking forward instead of spending time with one’s past. Such a box set would have been too obvious a thing too. You’d end up trying to figure out ways to make the thing attractive for people who already have everything ROME. You know, including exclusive tracks to make them spend money, etc. It just felt like ripping people off. Having the albums re-released on vinyl will suffice. In the end, we agreed on doing this Anthology double-vinyl (and a digipak version we sell at a very low price) to accompany the tour. It’s more of a promotional thing to have when visiting new cities, really.
Anyway, the new album stylistically doesn’t hold any surprises, I don’t think. We have actually been playing some of those new songs live for a few years, like ‘Stillwell’ and ‘Skirmishes’. So, people will finally have a proper version to listen to. There will, however, be a real surprise for our Scandinavien fans on there. A friend of mine has agreed to sing a few lines with me on one of the songs.
HH: Ah! Don’t tease us like that. Are you willing to disclose who this special Scandinavian guest will be, or will we just have to remain patient to find out?
JR: I’d love to, but I don’t have the official seal of approval yet, sorry. I should not have mentioned this, I guess.
HH: Speaking of surprises, Trisol has noted that the track “Der Krieg” will contain one for German fans. What are you willing to disclose about this?
JR: I sing in German. Yes, for the first time. It’s really weird to sing in another language than the one I’m used to, but I just needed to do it. Those words came to me in German, and I had to follow through. I don’t know if it’s any good. Actually, that’s one of the good things about these mini-albums: you can fool around a little bit.
HH: All of your works feature a different style at their individual cores, and a Rome fan can be sure that any new album will not be the same as its predecessor. You always seem to be evolving, and this new mini-album seems to have a strong post-punk influence. Is it your listening habits around the time an album is born that decides how it will sound, or do you have a focused style planned going into a subject?
JR: Yes, ‘Fragments’ is very post-punk. Even garage, if you ask me. Actually, it’s because my band—I mean ROME, and specifically the way we perform as a full band these days—has a very post-punk/wave sound to it. This is something that is constantly changing. I don’t think the band has ever had the same lineup for more than ten months, to be honest (and we just added Eric to the lineup on lead guitar about three months ago). This is a nice way of capturing the mood as it is right now. That riff on ‘Fragments’ just came up during a rehearsal, so we turned it into a song in the studio while working on other stuff. My listening habits rarely inform a particular record. I’m not saying they never do, but in general, I have a basic idea of what I want to do and where I want to go as far as the general groove of a record goes. Then again, when I’m working in the studio, I’m open to new roads that may open before me while working on it.
HH: Despite not being blatantly political as an artist, you seem to have political interests as a man. Have you ever considered using post-modern issues or current events as a focus for a one-off album? Between the economic crises of the burgeoning capitalist world, the refugee crisis, ISIS, the rise of the right-wing in certain European nations, the growing divide between the poor and the wealthy virtually everywhere, the domination of nature by the industrial world, and the very real possibility of someone like Donald Trump becoming president of the United States, there appears to be a great deal of inspiration around us that people could connect with in a meaningful way.
JR: I don’t feel like I should directly comment on what’s going on in the world. But, yes, my work is a comment nonetheless. We’re not one of those bands pushing a philosophy, like Skrewdriver or Rage Against the Machine. I was always much more into creating, or recreating a particular atmosphere I encountered in books or in other forms of narrative I found genuinely interesting and challenging. I believe ROME attracts people who are interested in ideas—people who are willing to think about ideas of whatever sort. The songs themselves are more about emotions than ideas, obviously, but at the same time, there is this distinctive feeling that the songs are about something—something rooted in the real world. Maybe that’s something that sets ROME apart, I don’t know. It’s not just some random stuff, but ROME has no agenda. I am very aware that political inclinations can change. Sometimes you meet someone whose passions rub off on you. Sometimes it only takes a half-read book to turn your world upside down. Books can do that to you. They can make you rethink everything you held sacred. (Songs can sometimes do that too, actually.) I am no stranger to that; in fact, it has happened many times, and I will continue reading and traveling, so as to go through those kinds of changes again and again. It’s the only healthy way to live for me, and my only advice to people is that they should keep on reading.
HH: I understand that Rome specifically isn’t meant to express a specific political narrative, and indeed your complete avoidance of that mindset has been a crucial part of Rome’s identity for many fans. Still, you’ve managed to—as an individual—gather a bit of a reputation as being left-leaning, which itself is a “breath of fresh air” for many people who have found your work through the chasms of neofolk music. Do you take any pride in your ability to project that sort of stature? Or, perhaps, does it bother you that fans are applying a political image to you that you haven’t outspokenly professed on your own?
JR: The way you put it is very flattering, thank you. I don’t know how much of the assumption is true and I don’t really know what people project to this or not. When you’re at the centre of it, you can’t see it. I mean, I’ve only been honest about not believing there’s any middle ground when it comes to racism and homophobia, for example. And my back-catalog includes many songs that obviously go against the grain in some way. But as you’ve mentioned, I would not like ROME to be seen as a ‘political band’. That tarnishes things. I don’t want to talk about politics all day long, either. ROME does not push a particular philosophy like some bands (not just in the underground) do. My leaning to the left of things—or whatever it is—is not that important, and I don’t think politics should get in the way of making good art. I’m not saying art is by definition apolitical. I have an opinion, and I’m not afraid to voice it, even if that’s considered uncool. I don’t see why I should cloak anything in ambiguity. ROME’s songs certainly stand for something. ‘For’, as opposed to ‘against’. Yes, I’m interested in politics, as I am interested in history and philosophy and my personality and opinions and obsessions and faults influence the artistic outcome for sure, but…
Here’s the thing: I believe music is something communal where bridges are built and divisions are hopefully resolved or at least forgotten for the time of a song. Music is magic. That sounds utterly corny, I know, but I know music to have the power to change people. Not in the way of being reborn in Jesus or whatever, and certainly not in the way of ‘enlightenment’, but in a reaffirmation of being alive—alive among other beings.
HH: As difficult as it is to believe, we’re now nearly two years removed from the release of “A Passage to Rhodesia.” Looking back, is there anything surrounding the release that you’ve grown more fond/proud of with time? Likewise, is there anything you regret doing or not doing?
JR: Has it been two years already? I guess I’m getting old. I’ve made my peace with that record just like I’ve done with my other releases. You ponder these things for a long, long time before you set them free. Was it Tom Waits who said releasing an album is like taking your kid to the backyard and shooting it in the head? Something of the sort… In any case, you nurture that kid for a long time, you try to bring it up to be a decent person, and then you open the door and send it out there and you can’t control what happens to it after that. I tried my best to make that album interesting and somewhat coherent. I know that much. But I never revisit those things thinking about what I should have done differently. It’s too late. Nothing ever came from looking back.
HH: What was behind your choice to cleave the album into two very separate yet linked chapters (per disc)?
JR: Maybe the rebirth of vinyl? [laughs] No, I don’t know anymore. I’d have to go listen to it, which I’m not in the mood for, ’cause I’m all about the next album, really.
HH: What is the “House of Stone,” in your own words?
JR: ‘Zimbabwe’ means ‘house of stone’ in Shona. The word is usually applied to chiefs’ houses or graves. The particular house of stone that the name ‘Zimbabwe’ refers to is an ancient ruined city in the country’s Southeast. It was the kingdom’s capital during the Iron Age, so it goes way back. I chose it as the title for the second disc because that disc is obviously somewhat of a journey through that land’s history.
HH: In your lyrics, you often explore historical themes through a first-person context, effectively placing yourself in the role of “storyteller.” Do you sometimes find it difficult to remove yourself from the story you’re trying to express? Do you sometimes find surprising parallels between yourself and the figures (fictional or real) you research?
JR: I guess the parallels are what get me interested in it in the first place, yes. Still, I try to approach it in a somewhat neutral way, and then I try to immerse myself into the thing I’m working on. I don’t want to compare it to method acting in earnest—mostly because I work on various things at the same time—but there’s a little of that, yes. I gorge myself on anything related to that particular subject, hoping that, once I come out of that, my writing will be dripping with the essence of that thing. That’s the theory, anyway. In any case, I never have any trouble removing myself from that world again, because my life is kind of turbulent. But it’s true that for the period I’m working on something like that, I look at the world through the eyes of that particular character.
HH: To close this out, and as a congratulations to you on such a fruitful career in your first decade, can you please tell us about Rome’s two most memorable moments? Has anything particularly special ever happened during a live performance?
JR: Many things come to mind… When you’re still learning the ropes, some situations can seem kind of threatening. There was this festival once in Eastern Europe where, for some reason, a group of aggressive Nazi thugs had decided to attend. They were from some local militia—like, real tough guys you don’t fuck with. They started sieg-heiling halfway through the set of the band playing just before us, and were sort of trying to take over. Once we were up, I had to tell them to leave. I didn’t ask politely, and this was a scary bunch, to be honest. I didn’t know how many people in the audience actually felt the same way. I thought there would be a riot or something, expecting bottles to fly, but it turned out okay. I’ve had much rougher situations in my punk days, but what was memorable about that night was what happened afterwards, because the crowd was really thankful we had done that and there was just this amazing atmosphere afterwards. It’s moments like that, when an audience is really into what you do as a band and are thankful you’re there… It’s basically what keeps us going. It sounds a tad tacky, but to be honest, I wouldn’t make music anymore if it weren’t for these moments. Like the show in San Francisco when the power went out in the whole block and I had to do an acoustic set using the front row’s cell phones as lighting—that was memorable, too. Boy, I was glad my friend Jessica Way let me borrow her acoustic guitar that night.
HH: Thank you for a wonderful interview, Jerome. Please feel free to use this final space to say whatever you feel has been left unsaid.
JR: The things unsaid are what makes life juicy.