Here is the English translation of Sam’s interview from the Autumn edition of Germany’s Orkus magazine.
1. How did you come up with the concept of the serpent and trickster characters? Was the idea always connected to the diverse but coherent sound the album now or was this distinct sound developed gradually?
Sam: The idea for the characters evolved before the music. The first time I see the words “The Cleft Serpent” in my journal is December 25, 2019. At that point, it was an idea I’d already thought about for a while. In November 2018 I see the lyric idea, “the serpent string song drives the fighters on” which is almost word for word how the line appeared later in the 4th song “Ares & Hermes.” In 2019, before any lyrics were written, I was thinking of creating a long-form video with these characters — instrumental music and dialog. When the pandemic ruled out making a video with a crew, the dialog evolved into the lyrics.
In the summer of 2020 I worked with Henrik on two tracks for my Tim, where are you now? album (I met Henrik via his Projekt-released Tapestry Flow collaboration with Jarguna). We worked fast by email; I loved the way his strings fit with my electronics; that motivated me and I began songwriting for the album. In November of 2020, I wrote the first lyrics — the title track. I wanted to capture the Serpent’s story so Jon could take a stab at performing the part. We were curious if these songs would mesh with his style (they did!) Writing these songs, I’d visualize the story as a movie, a story, or a graphic novel. There were two people in dynamic in different situations and eras.
As far as the sound, back to the video-concept I had always envisioned an album with less electronics, and more strings. I’d recored a song as a backing track, send to Henrik to record his parts, and hearing what he did I would strip back the less-necessary electronics to make my part minimal. This made it more about the texture and melodies of the cello, viola, and then the presence of the vocals.
2. Serpents have a plethora of symbolism attached. Why was the serpent so fitting for what the album expresses? With the serpent character commenting on the fragility of humans he is separating himself from them but remains inseparable from humanity. And e.g. with the mention of the Times Square bombing (2008) “The Matchmaker” includes a very recent part of human history and words on human nature (“Atrocities to pass the time”). In which ways are the serpent and trickster distinct from humans and humanity and where are overlaps?
Sam: I thought a lot about the storyline of the album, and the backstory of the characters which doesn’t appear in the lyrics. The Serpent is eternal; unlike a Vampire who never dies he exists, then returns to “The Void,” and then exists again in a new life, with memories of his past, what he has done, what he is about to do. I picture that he reawakens deep into a life story; he might awaken in a body at 30 years old — or 50 — when he’s already in relationship with the Trickster. Or about to meet him. Or arriving too late to save him.
I imagine The Serpent was once human. In “Hidden Villa” he sings, “I sold my soul to some serpent, who went slithering by. I think I lost a bet in a past life, that wasn’t a pleasant way to die.” My assumption is he lost a deal with a devil-of-sorts, and was fated to repetition. Though on the other hand maybe we are all fated to repetition, we just aren’t aware of it.
I think The Trickster is human. He’s a recurring character, but each time a new person, just like how we often find ourselves dating people who are a bit similar, and we don’t know why. Sometimes The Trickster is a silly, fun guy. Sometimes he’s slightly sinister. Sometimes he’s far more destructive than The Serpent. It depends on the luck of the draw.
Within these two characters, I can comment on the fragility of humanity, and also the addiction to passion and emotions, which causes so much destruction and pain.
3. “The Matchmaker” does combine lyrics, strings and drums to an especially touching arrangement. How long do you work on such an impactful composition?
Sam: Some songs are really difficult and takes months (or years) to evolve to their finish forms, and some songs come together really fast — “The Matchmaker” was one of the quick-songs, the music sounds very much the same on the first demo and the final version. If I recall, the music was all recorded within a day or two. I had rough lyrics written for the music that became “The Trickster,” but moved them and rewrote them over the music of “The Matchmaker.” I had the idea for quite some time already, so the second draft of the lyrics are pretty much the final version. Some songs have 23 drafts of lyrics before I finally get to what I want to say, while “The Matchmaker” was fast all around.
4. Despite expressed fatigue and the serpent character being introspective and self-aware about the inflicted pain, there is an element of being at the mercy of fate. [Apart from moments like the question if letting the other go or pushing them away will grant freedom (“So Tired Of Our History”)] The opener and the last track frame the album with a reflection on a seemingly inevitable “untrustworthiness”. While “I’m The One Who Loses” includes an attempt at “protesting to the void” it seems that the circle will continue with the void in “The Cleft Serpent” – or is there the possibility of the self-awareness breaking the repetition at some point?
Sam: Yes, you are right. You could see the end of the story going either of these two ways. Did The Serpent figure out the key to ending his repetitive cycle? Or is he going to go back to another loop on the wheel? Saṃsāra is a Sanskrit word related to the concept of rebirth and ‘cyclicality of all life, matter, existence.’ It’s the idea that we keep repeating, until we become enlightened. That was inspiring to the ideas of the album. I didn’t feel obligated to anyone elses’ belief of Saṃsāra though, instead I asked myself, “What if the character knows he’s repeating, is torn by his fate, and wonders how he might get out of that loop?”
5. There are several motives like “the spin of the wheel” (“So Tired Of Our History”) that pick up themes from “To touch the milky way” and with the mention of the “milky way” the title track and opener already directly alludes to the previous release. Why did you decide to incorporate the end and last track of “To touch the milky way” in the middle of the “The Cleft Serpent” story? Did you discover new facets in this track while arranging it for the new release?
Sam: I’ve always imagined The Cleft Serpent album picking up right as the story in Black Tape For A Blue Girl’s 2018 album To touch the milky way ends. In that title track / final track, the character is looking up at the stars contemplating the meaning of existence, as he dies of battle wounds. As The Cleft Serpent opens, the camera pulls back and we I imagine the Serpent standing over the dying Trickster, then he’s pulled back to the Void where he waits in limbo, It is there that he sings the first song which tells the listener about his story. For me, the final track on Milky Way is the conceptual first track of this album. They absolutely tie together.
As far as why the new recording of “To touch the milky way” is track 5 on Serpent – originally the instrumental “Alabaster, Stortorget 1520” was in that spot (it’s now on the instrumental disc.) I decided to re-record “Milky way” as a bonus for the Kickstarter backers. After Henrik & Jon recorded their parts I realized, “this is too good to leave off the album.” Thematically, in the narrative flow it follows “Ares & Hermes” after Hermes has been left dead on the battlefield (another fallen soldier, like the end of the Milky Way album). His contemplation of life and eternity is a good fit for that spot. In the lyric-book I have designated that some of the lines are The Serpent speaking, and some are the Trickster.
In the digital booklet is a lovely image by graphic artist Andy Radbourne with a Samurai holding a fallen foe. That, to me, captures the dynamic between the Serpent and the Trickster. Are they partners? Are they enemies? Do they love each other and yet often work towards each other’s destruction? And also sometimes they have a good life where they save each other.
I picture a narrative flows through all of the tracks — they are all connected. After “Milky Way” is “So Tired Of Our History.” The Serpent is fed up with the repetition, fed up doing the things he is destined to do. Hermes/The Trickster’s death inspires him to wonder if there’s a way out. Then, in the next track “The Matchmaker,” he finds the Trickster, cannot awaken him, and goes on to do something really destructive. The conflict is sometimes person to person, and sometimes person to all of humanity.
6. An older Tracklist lists the third song as “Hidden Villa, Florence 1827” instead of “Hidden Villa, Florence 1453”. What caused this change?
Sam: The Kickstarter campaign raised funds to create the five formats (2CD, LP, MiniDisc, Cassette & Digital). The highest tier executive producers are “The Medici.” I created unannounced premiums for the first two Medici. One got to pick an event in history, I’d learn about it and then find a song title within that story; that is how I came up with the title “The Ghost Of Monte Cassino Abbey.” The other got to pick the date for “Hidden Villa,” so long as it was within the era of The Medici. 1827 was my temporary date. And 1453 was the final date picked by the supporter.
I really enjoy that track. The lyrics are written in a melodramatic style, I could imagine Marc Almond singing that song. It has his story-telling style.
6a. With the repetitive nature of the characters conflict there is a certain timelessness to their story. While “timeless” has a more “tragic” connotation in this context, it is an expression of praise when applied to a composition. Do you consider it a compliment when your work is called “timeless”?
Sam: Oh yes, that’s a nice thing for you to say. I don’t think my music falls into the traditional “Goth Rock from the 90s” sound. It’s not of a specific era. The Cleft Serpent is focussed on Henrik’s beautiful and sad strings and Jon’s dramatic vocals… It doesn’t have a definitive era, so “Timeless” is wonderful.
7. You are in contact with the UK-based comic artist Andy Radbourne. Do you have plans to create a full graphic novel?
Sam: It would be fantasic to create a graphic novel of The Cleft Serpent, yes! I asked Andy to create images of possible scenes between the two characters, “I call them “Other Serpent Stories” as many are not in the lyrics. Andy & I discussed my ideas, what the Void might look like, how I imagine The Serpent and Trickster interpersonally, etc. Then he incorporated that with what he imagined; they turned out really beautiful. I am printing art cards of the two panels he created for the Kickstarter backers, and they’ll also be available from the Blacktape bandcamp page.
7b. Are there certain themes that can be expressed better through this visual medium? What aspects do you think can be transported solely through the music?
Sam: Andy transports us through time with his pen. When I was thinking about the album cover (and the original video concept), I realized it would be a lot of effort, budget and time, to shoot images that captured the different eras in the lyrics. Plus the pandemic made it hard to work with other people. I saw Andy’s art on Instagram, I asked him if he’d like to get involved with The Cleft Serpent. A fortuitous connection made by the internet. That’s similar to how I found Michael Aul who did the two-headed Serpent design. Jon liked his work and suggested I contact Michael on Instagram. He knew my band and was happy to get involved in this project.
I’ve written a novel, I’ve made videos, and I write lyrics for the music. Each has a strong point for storytelling. Lyrics allow for poetry and subtlety and word-play, I don’t have to come right out and be direct.
What can best be expressed through the visual medium is seeing the era, seeing how the characters interact with each other. I would love to be the show-runner on The Cleft Serpent TV Series. I’ve imagined how that would look… For today, we have an album, and the companion instrument album. I am so pleased with how it turned out. Jon and Henrik so perfectly captured my songs.
Thanks for the interview, Martina.