Alexander "Giftsvamp" Ostanin, keyboardist, concept creator and lyricist for Russian brutal folk metal band Svartby gave us some great insight on the band, the music, and what it feels like to be lumped into that same old folk metal genre. Great info, great read, great band.
First and foremost, thank you so much for giving us this opportunity. We are grateful for the chance to discuss your music.
Giftsvamp: Hi! It's not very usual to us, to give an interview to the guys from across the ocean :)
You make it a point, via your bio and your Facebook page, to separate yourself from some of the more cliche sub-sects of folk (Viking, Pagan, etc). Throughout your career, have you found that being lumped into the folk movement has had an impact on how people perceive your music?
Giftsvamp: Now, come on! When people see us tagged as folk-metal they expect much of the common folk stuff from our music. And all the trve-folk stuff is indeed dull. When the next “folk”-band you listen to sings about the same old “battle”, “viking”, “axe”, “sword”, “beard” and every boring thing like that, you think that it's not better than power metal cliches with all of their emerald dragon swords of the trve elvish glory of the angel's wing of death of the throne. Same shit. You're just fapping for the other object like hundreds did before you. So we're just happy when this or that band has enough balls, brains and sense of humor to do something unusual. Like Trollfest did – I didn't like much their arabian motives on the latest cd, but they're to be respected for that, it's just incredible. So are we, since Svartby's founded in 2004, we try to invent smth. unusual every time.
The world of "folk metal" is getting crowded and stale, as more and more bands release albums. Somehow, you manage to stand out from the rest. What is it about what you do that makes your sound so unique?
Giftsvamp: It's keyboards I think. I'm always (always) playing solo-parts, and I'm trying to keep the sound not serious. Being a fan of 8-bit and eurodance music (among everything else), I'm always trying to make it bouncy, playful, not true-folkish or true-symphonic. While other guys insist on and promote the hard metal sound, it reminds how several people pull one blanket to each one's side :) The blanket becomes stretched as a string :) So this thin balance makes the point.
The new album, "Elemental Tales," contains so many rich synthesizers, in the form of orchestral instruments, that keep the music light, even when the music around it is so heavy. How did you come across that balance?
Giftsvamp: Well, each member participates in music making process. Someone brings some theme (a pair of riffs or a keyboard tune), and upon it we are building a song slowly, and everyone invents his own parts. When we have arguing, we vote what is to be expelled from the song or what shall we let be.
Can you give us a little insight into the lyrical content, and, in particular, the magical creatures that the songs follow throughout the album?
Giftsvamp: Each Svartby's album is conceptual to some extent. We have the main theme, that is “Svartby”, a mystical imaginary “Black Village” where mischievous and merry creatures dwell. They're playing dirty and evil tricks on human villages (just for lulz), regaining the rights of nature from them (it happens to be a side-effect actually). And every new album is devoted to another magic folk doing so. First one was about witches, second one was about dwarves, and for the third “Elemental Tales” we chose elemental imps. Obviously we have Water, Earth, Air and Fire imps. Wood is more or less classical too, met in few concepts. And we added Mushrooms. Our spoiled generation thinks about psylocybe ones at once, but we mean every mushroom in the forest. As for ourselves, we use only edible ones in our common lifes :)
The song "Sleepy Devils," for one, stands out as a strong track on the album. With clean, acoustic guitars, and a great synth-supplied melody, you have found a great contrast between heavy and light. What is the writing process like for you, and how do you go from an idea to a finished track?
Giftsvamp: Thank you! Well, I've already unveiled few things. The process looks like this: someone brings a cool riff or a keyboard tune. We have many of them in cellars, but song is usually built upon a fresh one. We work in Guitar Pro program, it's the most convenient to change ideas. I have even forgotten the common piano notes, but I fluently play keys on guitar tabs :) So each one adds to the song, we discuss and when everyone is pleased, we learn the song and come with it to rehearsal. There we usually do drums and some necessary changes. And then I write lyrics, working with vocalist.
You are very open with your opposition to ACTA, PIPA, and SOPA. You even offer your music up for free, hoping to spread the music across the world. Why do you think people are so stuck on the "old ways"?
Giftsvamp: It's always a challenge to change your way of thinking. But the world is changing rapidly. Our kids will not know the connection between an audiotape and a pencil (do you?)), they'll scratch their heads when someone mentions “bootable floppy disc” and so on. How can you use the same old rules to the new world? They don't really have new convenient ways of purchasing music, so until they do, free spreading and sharing of information must stay free. Music is information. When you come to the library, it costs you nothing, and thousands of readers can read one and the same copy of a book or watch a movie, but no one pays for it. Society thinks it's ok, but when you download an album to get acquainted with it, you're a criminal. What's the big difference between libraries and music sharing? It's very convenient now to deliver ideas, to share things through the internet, and if you're opposing the progress, you're an idiot.
And while those movements haven't impacted Russia to this point, how do you think they have affected your rise, as a band?
Giftsvamp: They didn't. I've just thought about an idea that every official at the customs can ask me to show my phone and when he finds illegal tracks, he can sue me. Damn it, how can he know, whether I downloaded it from the web or ripped from my own cd? It makes me feel bad when I think about it. So we just want you to have as many Svartby's tracks in your mobile devices as you want. No one can sue you for them, and we support sharing our music.
In that same vein, how do you think your use of social media sites like Facebook has helped to spread your music, your message, and your story?
Giftsvamp: Every social network helps in promotion, it's the most great instrument to share and communicate. Though we deleted our first foreign profile, MySpace, recently :) The site is NOT convenient, it's very clumsy and it makes me sick. We didn't update it and finally got rid of the profile. By now, Facebook (and its Russian equivalent Vk.com) are our main playgrounds :) Well, Last.fm too.
The most interesting aspect of our work is the ability to hear music from all over world, and get insight on how the local scene affects bands. That said, what is the metal world like in Russia in 2012?
Giftsvamp: Lots of bands, and practically every style possible. But it may vary from city to city ) For example, Moscow is most known for its heavy/power, pagan and black metal bands. Our St.Petersburg tends to brutal death/mdm, grindcore, metalcore and scandinavian folk-metal. There are lots of perfect bands, you just only start listening to them in style you like most. The latest trend in Russian metal world is somewhat enormous popularity of stoner rock and groove metal.
Finally, a question of language. Your songs are done in Swedish and English. What led to the decision to use those languages, in particular, on the album? And how important do you think those lyrics are to your popularity in English speaking countries?
Giftsvamp: From the very beginning we sang in Swedish. When we started Svartby, I've been learning Swedish, and when you are excited by anything new, you put it everywhere: your social network status, your mottos, you put some words in you common speech. New band's lyrics were not an exception :) And ton the third album I've just wanted to write lyrics easily, to do some wordplay. My level of Swedish doesn't let to do that yet, it's always a bit an effort. So we did this album in English. I don't know about popularity. We publish translations for all of our Swedish songs at our official homepage, so everyone can get the point. Though it may be easier to sing along now :)
What can we expect from Svartby in the months to come? With a new album out, and an ever-growing fanbase, what comes next?
Giftsvamp: The main goal now is to start playing live. We have few gigs planned for Summer, so we rehearse hard these weeks – moreover, we have new band members, and we can't wait to test their skills on stage :) As for a new release, we must relax a bit and think where to go next.
Thank you again for your time, and your insight. We appreciate your efforts, and we look forward to what is next!
Giftsvamp: Thank you for the interesting questions! It was a real pleasure to answer.