by RS Frost
Stephen Lockhart is the driving force behind a multitude of artistic endeavours including ORATION RECORDS, STUDIO EMISSARY, three instalments of the ORATION FESTIVAL, held in Iceland from 2016-2018, and the upcoming successor to the festival, ASCENSION MMXIX, which will be held in Mosfellbær under the Icelandic midnight sun this June. All of these entities are intrinsically linked and work to complement and re-enforce each other within the broader community and industry.
Stephen is also the composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for REBIRTH OF NEFAST and has been responsible for the production of a vast canon of black metal records, playing a large part in building the basis for the Icelandic black metal scene.
I figured the best place to start our conversation is at the beginning, so enquired as to where this long and far-reaching journey began.
- I was born and raised in Ireland. Where in Ireland is another story, as I moved quite frequently. If I had to give an answer, I would say I’m from Dublin, but I've lived all around the south-east, with several years in Wicklow, several in Wexford and quite a few in Kildare as well.
I was actually quite a late bloomer as a musician. Like a lot of people from my generation who went on to listen to more extreme forms of music, I started out listening to more mainstream metal/rock. I didn’t start playing an instrument until I was 16. I'm the youngest of nine children (yes, I was raised an Irish Catholic) and though I would call all my family very musically inclined, I was the first musician in the family. From a creative standpoint, I found that being from a large family provides a wealth of inspiration in terms of musical exposure.
With Studio Emissary, Stephen has had a hand in recording, mixing and mastering upwards of 50 records to date, including Icelandic mainstays SINMARA, SVARTIDAUÐI, ALMYRKVI, ZHRINE, ABOMINOR, KALEIKR and AUÐN, as well as bands from further abroad such as TCHORNOBOG (USA), SLIDHR (Ireland), MORTUUS UMBRA (Israel), INFERNO (Czech Republic), and his own project, Rebirth of Nefast.
How did you come to enter the studio and what made you want to be an engineer?
- It just began out of the need to record my own music. When I started out writing music, I didn’t have much desire to play with other musicians, so the only way I could actually put ideas together was to record them. Over time, and with much practice, my abilities improved to the point that other bands wanted me to record their work. Eventually, I made the decision to dive headfirst into making a profession out of sound engineering, but it was never something I planned from the beginning - my skills developed out of necessity.
Have there been any records that were particularly difficult to put together? Or any that were seemingly effortless?
- The most obvious album that comes to mind would be ‘Tabernaculum’, the Rebirth of Nefast debut - primarily because it is my own project. One would think that recording your own material would somehow be more cost/time effective, but in my case, it's quite the opposite. When working with other bands, there are limits and restrictions as to how much experimentation I can do. Without these restrictions, it's possible to work forever if I feel the need to. It's both a blessing and a curse, but more so a blessing. It's that obsession that pushes projects the extra mile.
Stephen has also had his fair share of stage time, having performed vocals for Rebirth of Nefast at all three editions of Oration Festival as well as playing live guitar for Slidhr since 2015 and bass with Sinmara for three years.
You have also been involved with HAUD MUNDUS, MYRKR and WORMLUST. In what capacity was your involvement with these bands?
- Haud Mundus was a project I had with Joseph Deegan of SLIDHR. I wrote the music and lyrics while Joseph performed vocals and played drums. The original intention was for it to be more straight-forward black metal than where I was headed with Rebirth of Nefast. Shortly before I moved to Iceland in 2008, we recorded nine minutes of drums for nine minutes of music. One year later, those nine minutes were more like 20 minutes, while the material itself had mutated into some kind of progressive version of Slidhr and Rebirth of Nefast. We are both very happy with the result of that material, but we've no idea if we'll ever do something more with this project.
My collaboration with Wormlust directly resulted from my work on the Haud Mundus material. Upon hearing un-released demo versions of the Wormlust material that would make up their part of the 'Oblivio Appositus' release, I suggested to Hafsteinn (Lyngdal) that not only should this material be released as the other half of a split with Haud Mundus, he should also allow me to perform the vocals on it. He agreed, and the end result was the Haud Mundus/Wormlust 'Oblivio Appositus' split. I believe this was also the very first Wormlust release!
Again, I collaborated with Joseph Deegan in Myrkr. I offered to perform vocals duties on 'Black Illumination' and he said yes. The rest is history as they say, as it was the final Myrkr release. I enjoyed the collaboration thoroughly though. It's unusual for me to perform on a record and only have one task. It was very liberating!
Lastly, I joined Sinmara while I was producing their first album 'Aphotic Womb'. I'd known most of the band for years, so for the first time, I felt like I might actually enjoy the experience of performing live. I wasn't mistaken. I went on to play with them for three years and performed bass on the split with MISÞYRMING and the 'Within the Weaves of Infinity' EP. And, of course, I still produce their records.
Given that you have been involved with extreme music for many years, performing many different roles, I’m curious as to whether there are particular areas of the industry that you find especially motivating or fulfilling?
- There is actually very little I don’t enjoy and find motivating. Though my job title is constantly changing, I am constantly aware of the benefits of the professions I’ve carved out for myself. I make a living by doing what I enjoy doing – that for most would be reward enough in itself. But for me, it’s even more than that – as Ascension, Studio Emissary and Oration Records are all things I’ve built from the ground up, there is also a tremendous personal element to them.
Every achievement is something to look back on and say, “I did that”. No matter how small these achievements may seem to me or anyone else, they are achievements none the less – a sense of accomplishment I personally would never get from pencil pushing or any number of 'regular' jobs. Music is so all-encompassing in basically everything I do, I don’t have much of a frame of reference for what my life would be like without it.
Oration Records is another venture that has seen exponential growth and success over the years, releasing records by Rebirth of Nefast and Mortuus Umbra, amongst others, as well as providing live recordings of the Oration festivals on double LP format.
What led you to start a label in the first place?
- Again, it was out of necessity. The original idea came up in 2007 with Joseph Deegan, though nothing much came of it. With the inception of Oration Festival however, it seemed the ideal time to start releasing my own self-produced music. It just makes sense. When it comes to endeavours I am passionate about, I'm an absolute perfectionist, so being able to have complete creative control down to the very last detail is ideal. Through the studio and record label, I am able to conceive music, produce, and then see it manifest as a physical thing. It also gives us an opportunity to support bands and individuals we admire and respect. It's a labour of love if nothing else.
How did you go about recording and then releasing the Oration live LPs?
- On paper, it’s quite simple. Each set was recorded, then edited, mixed, mastered and sent to press. But that is, very much so, the short answer. In truth, the finer details are a massive workload. Once the sets are recorded, I begin the painstaking task of just setting up each set in one session. This may not sound like much to those who don't work with audio, but imagine having to categorise 14 plus bands, all with different musicians (well, most…), all with different playing styles. It’s quite a process just to get each band to sound like they were even playing at the same gig. It's a lot of clean up, a lot of editing and a gargantuan amount of mixing gymnastics to make every band sound coherent in the context of the whole, but also still sound like themselves. There is quite a bit of 'political' gymnastics as well, with some bands not being able to use certain material because of contractual agreements with their label etc. Again, a lot of work, 250 plus hours, but to us, they are absolutely worth the effort and we're extremely proud of them.
Can we expect to see a wax-cut release of Ascension in the future also?
- We'll have to see. As much as we enjoy doing them, other priorities must take precedent. As it stands now, we're still not even finished with the Oration MMXVIII album. Time will tell...
With the rise in, and explosion of, popularity regarding Icelandic black metal over the past decade, I’m curious if you have noticed any major changes within the black metal community as a whole?
- Yes and no. Like every genre, black metal is subject to trends that come and go. Styles change and develop but people, for the most part, remain the same. I could speculate about how things were different or better at whatever point in time, but it would accomplish nothing. Things are just the way they are and that's absolutely fine. Honour the past, sure, but see it for what it was with open eyes. Take the good with you, learn from the bad and just keep moving. I find there is no need to dwell on these things, as there really is nothing to be gained from doing so.
In my conversation with BST from THE ORDER OF APOLLYON/AOSOTH, he described the Parisian scene as a small handful of individuals who find themselves involved with multiple projects, going on to lay the foundations of a national representation of their applicable genre – in his case, French black metal.
The Icelandic black metal community seems to carry quite similar characteristics and I would be very interested to hear your take on this.
- I think this is pretty much a phenomena everywhere there are prolific scenes - and it makes a lot of sense. In many scenes, you may find a varying degree of scale and technical proficiency, but artistically, you'll find most scenes are comprised of a handful of visionaries who are the driving force. That being said, however, it is important to remember that a scene is only as strong as the sum of its parts. And everyone who plays a part deserves credit, whether you go to shows, buy merch, play in a no-name band, whatever - it all counts. Without this, all the visionaries would be playing concerts to empty rooms as one man bands - and who wants that?
Ascension MMXIX is the first festival under this moniker, and is the spiritual successor of the Oration trilogy of events. This year’s undertaking will see a multitude of top-tier acts performing from all over the world, including a number of Icelandic representatives of course, and will also host exhibition-style displays by various visual artists, including VOID REVELATIONS and DEHN SORA.
Can you give any insight into how Ascension will differ from the Oration festivals?
- Our aim with the festival this year was to provide a much more all-encompassing experience than that of our previous festivals. One of the reasons for choosing the venue we did was because it allows us to present a vast array of presentations and services without the restrictive nature of a small bar that holds 300 people. With Ascension, attendees have the opportunity to unwind and relax in the unlikely event they may want to skip a set here or there. They can sit, drink, eat and get some fresh air all without having to leave the venue grounds. We are planning on an intense experience, absolutely, but we also want attendees to take it at their own pace.
The inclusion of artists seems to be a fitting addition to the festival. What led to this development?
- We're extremely focused on how we present our festival in terms of aesthetics. In other words, we don't consider this festival to be just a three-day concert with some great bands; we consider the entire event an artistic expression as a whole. I fail to think of many festivals that have the same approach - not only are we having Woda i Pustka produce his fantastic trailers for the festival, we also compose and record the soundtracks for them. And, of course, we commission long-time collaborator Joseph Deegan to do all of our custom art pieces. With all this in mind, it is only natural that Dehn Sora and Void Revelations would be perfect additions to the festival proceedings.
Originally, the closing act for the festival was Mgła, who cancelled their appearance a few weeks before the event. How did this news land on your end? I’m assuming this sent you and the other organisers into a mild state of panic?
- Needless to say, it was very disappointing news, especially at such a late stage. But there was nothing to be done about it. There was no ill intent on anyone’s behalf, the only thing to do was to move past it and go about finding a suitable act to stand in their place.
This closing slot was quickly filled by Swiss duo BÖLZER. How did you decide on, and manage to secure, a replacement in such a short amount of time?
- We'd been in contact with Bözler since the first Oration Festival in 2016 but somehow never managed to book them due to scheduling issues. This year, in particular, we made a special effort to book them but again it appeared impossible as they were unable to confirm in time for our final announcements deadline. When news of the Mgła cancellation hit us however, I immediately checked on them again and by sheer luck, they were actually available and ready to perform. It was a real silver lining - we not only managed to find a suitable replacement at short notice for one of our headliners, but we also managed to book a band we had wanted in the first place!
With your fourth festival just around the corner and an immense body of work behind you, in both studio and live settings, what is it that keeps you motivated and able to continue putting so much of yourself into this underground and extreme corner of the world?
- A restless mind and the sheer determination to get the things I set my mind on. That, and the need to push boundaries – not to satisfy some kind of futile rebellious nature, but out of curiosity, to see what would happen if I did this or that a certain way.
Though I can never say anything with total certainty regarding the future, I can say that I could never imagine my life without music in some form being a core element of my existence. First and foremost, I enjoy what I do. It is work, make no mistake, but it is also one of my main interests in life. Every new venture and experiment is exciting because I want to see what will come of it. I want to see a vision executed. And the feeling of executing a vision and having it meet or exceed expectations is massively invigorating and inspiring.
Thank you for your time and insight into your work. I now invite you to offer any closing sentiments you may have.
- Thank you sincerely for the opportunity, it’s been a pleasure!