INTERVIEW WITH HENRI SATTLER BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
Even after 11 albums and a history that goes back further than most of you reading this have been alive, God Dethroned’s Henri Sattler is still bright-eyed and bushy tailed about the band he formed as an unruly, Christ hating teenager back in 1991 in the Dutch village of Beilen. It’s the band he still leads—and is still excited about—as a rebellious adult who has failed to conform to whatever the Dutch parallel to the North American “2.5 kids, white picket fence” ideal is, contributing sizable black/death offerings to the metal world in the process. There have been a small handful of brief hiatuses as God Dethroned zeroes in on year 30 of its journey, but these periods of respite have only resulted in a fortification of what the band means to its founding member, creative force, and prolific guiding light.
February 7, 2020 sees the release of Illuminati, the latest firestorm of mellifluously nefarious blackened death metal from the Netherlands veterans. Closing the chapter on The Great War focus of the three previous albums, Illuminati reverts back to the band’s questioning of organized religion, the study of secret societies, an interest in the power of the occult, and is backed by an ever maturing, muscular musical darkness.
We managed to squeeze in some time with vocalist/guitarist Sattler, as he juggled working the new album’s promotional circuit, building instruments and shipping orders at his day job, Serpent King Guitars, and the rest of life’s mundanities so that we could mull over the topics of focus, balance, and perpetual stress.
Does being a guitar luthier impact the pickiness with regard to your sound and tone? Because of your profession, do you find yourself more stressed and obsessed with your sound on record and live?
No, not at all. We build guitars, and they are good guitars. I’ve been playing on my own guitars since the moment I started building them, and they sound good and play well both live and in the studio. They’re just good instruments, and I’m not worried about it at all, no stress.
How long have you been building guitars?
I started at the end of 2011 and got my first orders in spring 2012. And since then, it’s always been busy and it never stops. There are always orders and people are always asking for guitars. We’re a small company, but there’s always interest, so I can’t complain.
How did you learn the craft? Did you do one of those courses where you apprentice with a master luthier?
No, I learned from people who already knew how to build guitars, and a lot of things I learned myself just by doing it. Of course, it was quite difficult in the beginning. It was stressful and it’s not so easy, I found that out, but I never gave up and the quality got better over the years. When something became too difficult, I would just ask somebody, like a luthier who has been building for 30 years, and they would always help me. That helped a lot, otherwise, it would have been a lot more difficult, but I was lucky to get some help here and there.
“IT’S VERY DIFFICULT FOR ME TO DIVIDE MY ENERGY BETWEEN TWO THINGS AT THE SAME TIME.”
So, it’s safe to say you’re always surrounded by music, whether it’s the guitar business or God Dethroned. Has it been a challenge in balancing business and the creative sides of things?
Definitely. When we work on the new album, it’s very hard for me to work on guitars. It’s very difficult for me to divide my energy between two things at the same time. So, the guitar business is always suffering when I’m doing a new album, and that results in me being stressed out about the business. I’m always worried about whether or not I’ve done enough promotion, whether I’m putting enough energy into building. It always makes me wonder if I should choose between the two, but I can’t. I just like to do both. So, it means I’m stressed out a lot, but I enjoy it a lot at the same time. It’s something I’ll keep doing for as long as I can. Probably, eventually when I get older, it’ll be the business only. But maybe not. I don’t know.
You have a new lead guitar player. Was he brought in during the songwriting process?
It was after, actually. We had a lineup since 2015 when we came back together after the three year break and, at first, we were just playing live. Then, the booking agent said, “You need a new album.” So, we did The World Ablaze album and we mainly did weekend shows and festivals. At a certain point, we got an offer to tour with Belphegor and Suffocation. We had just finished recording the new album, Illuminati, and then Mike [Ferguson], the lead guitar player, said he didn’t want to go on tour. So, we had Dave [Meester], the new guitar player, filling in for him. He’s an excellent guitar player and a really nice guy to have on tour. We found out we were going to have the same problem with Mike in the future. This is something we didn’t want to do—to have a lineup on the album but have a different one for live shows—because it means you have to find a good guitar player for the tour, teach him the songs, rehearse a lot, and hope that he’ll be a nice guy on the tour bus. If you have an asshole in the band on tour, it makes touring not so much fun. Dave was working out very well, so we asked if he wanted to stay in the band and said, “Sorry Mike, this is it for you.” Mike understood. Of course, he’s a little disappointed, but you know how it works. So, we’d already recorded the album, but we weren’t finished mixing. Then Dave asked, “Can I do my guitar solos? So at least I have something of my own on the album and I can play my own solos live when the album comes out?” That seemed like a very good idea, so that’s what he did and that’s what you hear on the album now. But all the riffs and melodies, that’s all Mike and me.
Was there anything done differently in the writing or recording of Illuminati?
Yeah. Actually, many things are always the same with us. Everything comes very spontaneously. We just sit down and start writing songs, but this time we added keyboards on all the songs throughout the whole album, while in the past we had keyboards here and there on certain parts. We decided to put keyboards on all the songs this time, just to see if we could lift up the atmosphere of the songs, and it worked out very well. There are a lot of keyboards, some are in the background, some are in the foreground, but I think it adds something really good and big to the atmosphere of the songs. Vocal-wise, obviously we have my grunts and screams and backing vocals by Jeroen [Pomper], our bass player, but we did clean vocals again for this album and we used a choir type thing using some local musicians who could sing. Also, we have what we like to call “grunt-on-tone,” which is like singing and grunting going at the same time and that adds a lot of atmosphere as well. So, in that aspect, with the vocals and the keyboards, it’s a much more diverse album than ever before.
Was there an adjustment period you had to work through in incorporating those elements?
No, it was just trial and error. We recorded at my house, so we had all the time in the world and no studio deadline. I had a keyboard player at my house for days, and we would just try all kinds of stuff on the songs. If there was something we liked, we would keep it. It was also very spontaneous, and we had a lot of time to try things because there was no studio deadline and we were recording ourselves.
“IT’S ALSO GOOD TO HAVE SOME PRESSURE, BECAUSE UNDER PRESSURE, I’M A LOT MORE CREATIVE THAN WHEN THERE’S NO PRESSURE.”
When recording yourself, do you ever find that you do too much tinkering and end up dragging things out and taking up too much time?
Yeah, I know what you mean (laughs). That’s always the risky side of doing something on your own time. Metal Blade gave us a deadline, and we had to be finished or the album wouldn’t come out. It’s always good to have some kind of deadline and it’s also good to have some pressure, because under pressure, I’m a lot more creative than when there’s no pressure.
Would you say that the pressure you’re feeling comes from not only Metal Blade but also your own creative selves given that you have an extensive back catalog and you’re trying to not repeat yourselves?
It’s mainly the deadlines from Metal Blade that creates the pressure. When we start writing songs, it’s not like we write stuff that we throw away later. We write stuff and we either like it or we don’t. If we don’t, we don’t continue with it. When we write, we write until something is finished and it’s good. So, we have eight songs and an intro on this new album. We wrote just those eight songs. We didn’t write 10 or 12 and throw two or four away. It was just these songs. When we start writing, if it doesn’t feel good immediately, we throw it away immediately.
“THE PEOPLE WE USUALLY WORK WITH ALL OF A SUDDEN DIDN’T DELIVER, AND IT MADE THE ALBUM A LOT BETTER.”
It’s a rule of thumb that many bands try not to have live sound engineers work on studio recordings, but you had two different live sound guys work on Illuminati.
Yeah. One guy [Ortrun Poolman] did the recording of the drums, the other guy [Hugo Alvarstein] did the mastering. The second guy was not supposed to do anything, but it just turned out like that. First of all, we had a mix done in a Dutch studio called Wisseloord Studios, which in our country, is one of the bigger studios. It’s really good, high level and expensive as well. There was a guy working there who had done Rammstein in the past, as well as Manowar and Kreator. We asked him to mix the album, he did, but it didn’t sound good enough. We asked him to do it again, he did, and it was better, but it was still not good enough. So, that’s why we decided to do it ourselves [with Poolman]. Then, we had a mastering session with another guy in the same studio, a guy we had worked with for many years. Actually, he’d been doing our mastering since 1999 or something and always did great stuff, but not this time. It just didn’t sound good. I asked him, “Man, what are you doing? This isn’t how we should sound.” He said, “Okay, I’ll do it again.” He did it again and it still wasn’t good enough. We actually passed Metal Blade’s deadline and I was freaking out, thinking we’d have to accept this as the final master. So, I asked a guy from Norway who did our sound on our previous tour [Alvarstein], because he has a studio and he mastered Chrome Division, the Dimmu Borgir side-project. So, I sent him the mix, he mastered it, and that’s what you hear now, and I really like it a lot. That’s how it turned out that a live sound guy did our mastering. I agree that normally you’d keep those two worlds separate, but in this case it happened like that—the people we usually work with all of a sudden didn’t deliver, and it made the album a lot better.
When did you decide to move away from the World War I theme covered on the last three albums?
That was quite easy because I was only going to make a trilogy about World War I, so I knew it was only going to be three albums. To tell you the truth, I was happy to be finished, because World War I happened in the trenches, mainly, and not really anywhere else. It was a war of attrition in the trenches. For the first album, I had plenty of ideas and plenty of documentation to go through to write lyrics—it was perfect. For the second album, I noticed it got a little bit more difficult. But for the third album, there was nothing left. I’d already written songs about all the big events and it was really hard to think of lyrics for the third album. I was happy to be able to move away from that topic.
Did you have a backlog of thematic material because you’d been focusing on World War I for so long? Was it easier to write lyrics for Illuminati?
It was a relief, for sure, but it wasn’t easier. We went back to our religious themes and Freemasonry and the Illuminati. I always find it hard to write lyrics, to be honest. I always try to do some research so I look like I know what I’m talking about only to find out the Illuminati is really a secret society because we know nothing about it. But what I could find about it, I used in my lyrics. For example, a song called “Broken Halo,” the second song on the new album, I didn’t know what to write. I was listening to the music with pen and paper in hand and all of a sudden I had this opening line, “Set fire to the Garden of Eden,” and then I was stuck and couldn’t come up with anything. So, then I thought, let’s see what Google says. So, I typed the line into Google and one of the results was a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, an old Dutch painter from medieval times, called The Garden of Earthly Delights, and what you see in this painting is the Garden of Eden, but there’s all kinds of sexual activity going on in there. That was kind of funny. I had my opening line and the painting, and I started writing the rest of the song’s lyrics just by looking at the painting. I guess that’s not a common way of writing lyrics to a song, but it worked well for me and it turned out really great. I think I will always struggle with lyrics. I try to do something good, but English is not my mother tongue and that makes it difficult.
“MOVING AWAY FROM THE WAR THEME AND HAVING LYRICS THAT ARE A BIT DARKER AND BIT MORE TOWARDS THE OCCULT SIDE, WE MAY HAVE CHANGED SOMETHING IN THE MUSIC AS WELL”
As you’ve moved away from the World War I theme, there’s been a musical change. The new material is darker and more sinister without so much of the militaristic, anthemic, or martial sound of the past three albums. Agree/disagree?
I don’t know. No one has described it to me in the way you have. What people tell me so far is that they really like the album and think it’s one of the best we’ve done. I don’t know if they’re saying that just to be polite, but I don’t think so. Everyone has said that the song “Gabriel” is a great because of the whole atmosphere in the song. It starts with a melody that’s almost too happy for death metal and then the song turns into some kind of gothic feel. That’s what people tell me, and they mean that in a positive way. I didn’t expect that. I like the song a lot, of course, but I didn’t expect people to pick up on it so much. But I guess moving away from the war theme and having lyrics that are a bit darker and bit more towards the occult side, we may have changed something in the music as well, but it wasn’t planned like that. I know that some songs are a lot darker than the ones from the previous albums, but there wasn’t a master plan. We always try to do something different and not repeat ourselves, so that’s probably the main reason things might sound different this time.
Have you done much road work aside from the tour with Belphegor and Suffocation?
Well, in the past we did lots and lots of touring. When I quit in 2012, I had some personal issues to deal with, so that’s the reason we stopped, but up to then, we toured a lot. After then, I had my guitar company, I took a break for three years, and [when we came back] we decided to not tour so much, just do the bigger things like the festivals and well paid weekend shows. But touring is also great, and we got the offer for the Belphegor/Suffocation tour and that was our first tour since 2010. It was amazing and a really, really good tour.
So, that tour contributed to lighting a fire under you as well?
Oh yeah, definitely! And then we were supposed to tour with Malevolent Creation, but they canceled like six weeks before the tour. Our next tour is going to be with Obscura, from Germany. That’s going to be in February, a week after the album release and we’re going to try and keep on touring, do another European tour before the summer, then summer festivals, and another tour after the summer. We have plans to go to South America and we’re talking to a guy in the US about booking a tour.
Have you had a discussion about how or whether to do things differently so you don’t get burnt out this time around?
I don’t know. It’s difficult to say. It was always something I always liked, and the reason I quit wasn’t because of touring, but because I needed some time to get my life back in order. After that, I wanted to take it easy and not overdo it, just see where things led to. If we get a good offer and we like the bands, we’ll do it. I don’t mind touring at all. In fact, I like touring. I just have to make sure my guitar business doesn’t go down the drain. That would suck. When you have a new album out and you want to achieve something, you have to tour. You can’t just stay at home. There are a lot of festivals in Europe. You can play a festival every weekend and obviously you reach a lot of people like that, but touring is still very important because you go to places where there are no festivals and that’s important to do.