German folk-rock/folk-metal singer/songwriter and musician Ben Metzner is a busy man of late. His main band Feuerschwanz are gearing up for the arrival of their latest album on New Year’s Eve, and his other project dArtagnan have just released a brand new live cd/Bluray in the form of ‘Feuer & Flamme Live’. We caught up with Ben to talk about both bands and how they have coped with the restrictions in place in Germany, but first off, the small matter of a short break in the UK…
I believe that you are just back from a short break in Cornwall?
Yes, my wife and I, we love it there. I think that we’ve been there seven times over the last few years? We go there surfing, and hiking…and drinking!
If I remember correctly, you’ve also filmed a few videos in Cornwall, both for dArtagnan and Feuerschwanz? ‘Sing mir ein Lied (Skye Boat Song, Theme from Outlander)’ was shot in Tintagel, Cornwall?
Yes, we filmed these on different holidays, not really a holiday, but it was cool filming videos there! The song ‘Farewell’ from dArtagnan was also filmed in Cornwall. Only some parts of it though; we filmed the lonely sailor…the Robinson Crusoe parts, at a beach in Cornwall. And then we returned to Germany and filmed the castle and the maiden parts with Patty Gurdy. Those scenes were filmed at a castle in Germany.
Such a fantastic song, with an incredible video [available here]! Now, you have been very busy of late, Feuerschwanz release a new album on December 31st, but before that, there is the small matter of the new dArtagnan live cd and Bluray, the show that it is taken from was recorded with no audience present?
Yes, it was empty, totally empty…and sad! We weren’t even allowed to let in a reduced capacity of 50 people, it was strictly forbidden so we played in front of the cameramen and tried to act as if there was a crowd there. But, there was a crowd at home, in front of those TV screens, so I tried to imagine people sitting in front of those computers and being at home in lockdown, being grateful for having some entertainment. So once I thought of them, then it was okay…the power of imagination!
How did it feel once you were able to get out and perform again in front of a crowd, albeit a crowd faced with restrictions?
It was great, the first shows back were really great. It was what we were living for, but as you said, those shows were all with restrictions. At some shows, people were not allowed to stand up, and that was really strange because people wanted to stand up and dance, but were not allowed to because the security people were standing around watching everyone. We desperately need the real concerts back. Germany has a federal system so that means that laws and restrictions can be totally different if you go to another city, so there were some concerts in the summer where people could almost act normal, but then there were others that were really stupid and restricted.
Both dArtagnan, and Feuerschwanz play music that encourages fans to have a good time, to sing and dance, and drink! So it must be quite difficult when people cannot get up and dance?
It’s stupid. It’s not what the music was made for. If we had to play in front of a seated crowd for all of our lives then we would write different music. We would write longer songs, maybe more ballads, slower stuff…but this music is made for partying and for dancing, for energy. And that’s the only way to celebrate it properly!
Since we are on the subject, the next Feuerschwanz tour is scheduled for January 2022, are you optimistic that the shows will go ahead?
Mmmmm, I’m really tired of letting my life be controlled so much by this virus. Having my emotional state of mind be controlled. So, I don’t know? A few weeks ago we were really optimistic, but now the numbers in Germany are starting to rise really high again, hopefully, they will go back down again. I have a backup plan; I will fly to the beach, maybe somewhere like Portugal, and write the rest of the next dArtagnan album at the beach! So at least if everything goes wrong, then I have something to look forward to.
That’s a great backup plan to have! Now, earlier you mentioned Patty Gurdy, she has of course performed with dArtagnan on ‘Farewell’, as well as appearing in the live Bluray, you returned the favour by appearing in her video for ‘The Yule Fiddler (Christmas Time Is Coming ‘Round Today)’, where does the connection come from and how did you end up first working together?
That’s a good question, how did it start? Basically, I knew her from her YouTube videos, for years I thought that she sang and played really cool. I didn’t know her personally, and I wanted a guest singer on the album for ‘Farewell’ as the song already existed but without the female vocals. Our producer for Feuerschwanz, Simon Michael, is also the drummer for [German folk metal band] Subway To Sally as well as playing in Patty’s live band. They started before the pandemic hit so the virus has also stopped them from performing before they even began really. He recommended Patty, and it was a case of asking her, and she was really cool with it and she said “Let’s do it!”…she’s really, really nice.
The end result is stunning, an incredible song full of hooks and melodies that are guaranteed to put a smile on the face of the most cynical of cynics regardless of whether or not they can understand German…
One of the other standout songs on the ‘Helden’ edition of the current dArtagnan album ‘Feuer & Flamme’, is ‘Helden’, your German language version of the David Bowie song ‘Heroes’, I have to ask you; what goes through your head when you tackle such an iconic song? That really is a song that means so much to so many…
It wasn’t that easy as Bowie sings so full of expression. If it was any other singer than Bowie, then I would say that it was way over the top, but it’s Bowie…and it works. I had no choice but to sing it my way, I could not imitate him. We arranged it in a folkie way; lots of the uilleann pipes, whistles and violins, and the translation in German…we didn’t do it ourselves, it’s translated from Bowie himself. He lived in Berlin those years, it was recorded in Berlin, and he also wrote the German version, which is funny because it’s really, really bad German! We had many German fans getting mad at us and saying “how could you do that, the translation is so bad”, and I was like “ It’s not from me, it’s from Bowie himself, and he’s not a native speaker so who cares!”…
With regards to the vast array of folk instruments that you play, what was the most difficult for you to master?
The uilleann pipes. They are horrible! It’s a terrible instrument to tune, and also to control because otherwise, it sounds like a dying cat! Really hard to control. There are only a handful of us in Germany playing them, definitely, those folk musicians in Scotland and Ireland are way, way better than us here in Germany! At the minute I’m listening to the Scottish band Mànran and they are so cool.
What was it about the folk metal/rock sound that made you embark down that path with dArtagnan?
For me, it was very organic to play some kind of folk-rock because I was already in Feuerschwanz, so it was already in my musical DNA, and it’s the style of music that I can do best. In those days Feuerschwanz was quite different from what we are today, it was a lot smaller and a lot less metal, the lyrics were cheeky and funny, and I wanted to do something more serious, more dramatic, and also more commercial with more pop appeal…not this super-freaky stuff with super-freaky costumes! But it all developed naturally, dArtagnan became more rock, and Feuerschwanz became way more metal.
For me personally, dArtagnan works on so many levels; it’s great escapism, the songs are really memorable, it must be crucial to you as a songwriter that your songs have so many hooks and melodies that they can strike a chord with a non-German speaker?
Yes, I think that when you write a good melody, it should work without language. I try to write interesting melodies and harmonies with just my piano, and there must be some interesting detail about it, maybe even just the one note that hasn’t been heard before in a particular rhythm or harmony. Most of it is really catchy, but I try and put some small details into it that make it unique. It is of course deeply connected to German lyrics but I try my best to write something that anyone can understand the emotion behind it.
One of your most emotional songs is ‘Solang’ Dein Blut’, which deals with the loss of your mother while you were young, what was it like when you heard that song back for the first time?
I had to get used to the song, I think that I wrote it during one of those stupid, really boring lockdown weeks. I tried to dig really deep into my emotions because I had the time and it was a really calm time. I do a lot of my writing here at my computer and do a lot of pre-recordings and pre-productions, so I had a lot of takes to get used to it until I visited the studio to record the final tracks. It was difficult to record it, and my producer tried to dig even more into my emotions to let it out, but not too much because you have to keep a certain distance from your emotions when you are singing it because otherwise, you would be crying so much that the listener would not understand what you are saying. It’s really hard because you are trying to sing it and there may be a tear and your throat goes tight, so you have to take a breath and say “again”, drink a coffee or maybe a beer, then try again.
It’s a beautiful song that stops you in your tracks; does it translate as ‘As Long As Your Blood’?
Yes, correct, ‘As Long As Your Blood’, as long as your blood runs through my veins…
It is an incredible song. Lastly, Feuerschwanz has just released the title track to the forthcoming new album ‘Memento Mori’, what can we expect from the album once it arrives?
I don’t know if it will be even harder or more metal than the last one, it’s very, very melodic, but still very hard. There are also a few catchy and poppy melodies on there I would say, even some shanty influences. Yeah, it’s cool! Especially the bonus album of cover versions, there are some really crazy versions…
Which track did you pick for the band to cover?
I picked ‘Blinding Lights’ by The Weeknd…
I love the song! I’m not a fan of the dance sound, that’s not my style, but I appreciate the substance of the song; the lyrics, harmonies, melodies, and rhythms. It’s really cool to divide it into pieces and set it back together with new melodic metal parts and with uilleann pipes, violins, and lutes. This one was a lot of fun for me.
‘Feuer & Flamme Live’ is available now through Sony Music Germany, more information here. Feuerschwanz release their latest album ‘Memento Mori’ on New Year’s Eve through Napalm Records, pre-order here.
Interview – Dave
Ben Metzner live photo – credit Stefan Brending (2eight)
All other images credit: Nikolaj Georgiew