Sweet Ermengarde’s singer Drew Freeman talks to Nick Awde
Alhambra Live Magazine #008
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— Web: www.sweet-ermengarde.de
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ALHAMBRA LIVE is one of the biggest grassroots music venues in the North West. Based in Morecambe on the sea Promenade, its adaptable spaces (and unique Lake District views) make it a vibrant hub for all-dayers and weekend festivals (Goth, Mod, Ska, Northern Soul…). It is also a hub and home for gothic music with Corrosion club night and the CorrosionFest & Bats in the Attic festivals. For more info, contact Fiona +44 (0)7771 200 873 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Drew Freeman: Near Preston and I’m not a billion miles away from where I grew up. It’s very central to getting to places like Liverpool, Manchester, Yorkshire. The North in general isn’t a bad place to be with cities like Leeds and Liverpool always being healthy for music, especially rock and goth, going back to bands like Paradise Lost, New Model Army and My Dying Bride and the classic bands like Sisters of Mercy. I could go on and name loads, but they’re the ones that spring to mind.
As an English singer in a German band, Sweet Ermengarde, it’s ideal for me location wise – I have easy access to Manchester Airport where I fly out to Dusseldorf. It doesn’t take long, literally an hour, and as soon as I get there, we go to rehearse just outside the city. So it works like any other band, and when I’m not there, they can use my vocals on a track so they can still rehearse as a normal band.
Has our collective experience of remote communication during Lockdown showed bands that this can be an okay way to go?
I think so. Lockdown over the last two years has meant people are working more with each other on computers and over the web, sending song ideas around. It’s been a funny old two years, really bad in some aspects, but then there has been a positive side to it, bringing people together like me and Sweet Ermengarde.
Luxury Stranger’s Simon York told me that the band’s present line-up has been together for five years but really it’s only three years because of the lost Lockdown years. How did 2020-2021 affect you musically in terms of what did and didn’t happen?
When I was in Sometime The Wolf, the band did really well. We went out, did a lot of gigs and we got noticed, people liked the stuff, we put the From Here And Earth album out in 2019 and that year we were headlining. We played the first CorrosionFest, on the weekend in March before everyone got locked down. It was touch and go whether the festival was going to go ahead and it did – and that was our very last gig.
The band after that really didn’t do anything at all for 18 months or so. In between that we had an odd day where we could rehearse just once or twice, and it just took its toll. And not just our band but bands all across the country. After we disbanded I set up All My Thorns which is still ongoing and we have a new album, Further from the Distant Sun – out in October this year.
In between that, me and Lars Kappeler got in contact when the singer Daniel Schweigler left Sweet Ermengarde. A couple of years back we had been talking at Tomorrow’s Ghosts and said that when the time was right we wouldn’t mind doing something together. I was going through a stage between Wolf and All My Thorns and I felt I needed another challenge on top, it seemed the time was right, and that’s how I ended up joining Sweet Ermengarde.
But it wasn’t exactly an overnight decision?
I’ve seen a lot of goth bands up and down the country and there’s only a handful of bands that when I watch them I think to myself wow! It doesn’t mean that the other bands are bad, they’re just not my taste. When I saw Sweet Ermengarde in Leeds for the first time I just thought, yeah musically they’re right up my street, and if there is an opportunity I’ll collaborate on something with them.
When I heard Daniel had gone and they were looking for someone else, me and Lars got in contact, and we started talking about the logistics of it and how it would work with rehearsals, gigs, recording with me being in the UK and them in Germany. Most of that is going to be abroad for me obviously. I said I’m all right to catch flights on a regular basis and we can cover some of the costs here and there through things like merch and doing the gigs, so we’ll give it a go.
And that’s where we are, we’ve given it a go and it works fine. We write songs remotely. Lars sends me an idea, I send him an idea, I’ll do a vocal, I’ll do a melody, and we do things that way. The lads in the band they like it that way as well, everyone’s got their part to play.
Does everyone in the band live in the Dusseldorf area or are they scattered around the place?
Guitarist Jacques Moch, the drummer Mischa Kliege and Lars all live in the area. Guitarist Robin Böhm did live there but has now moved over to Leipzig, so he’s about four hours drive away now.
So Preston might be almost as close in terms of door-to-door travel time to Dusseldorf.
Right. So like me, Robin also travels over to rehearse – and when he’s not there they’re able to do it because, like with me, they add him on one of the backing tracks for each song so they can manage without him being there. When I go over, we arrange it so we’re all there together, and we’ll do it over a long weekend. I’ll go out on a Thursday night last thing or a Friday, and then we rehearse straight away that night. We carry on rehearsing on a Saturday and Sunday, and then I get a flight home. It’s quite well planned.
If you think about it, a lot of bands have been working that way for quite a few years now because most musicians have other jobs. They rehearse at the weekends and do the gigs at weekends because that’s the only time the day job will let them
In a strange sort of way, the way I do it with Sweet Ermengarde in Germany doesn’t really feel much different to being in the band back home. Like you said, a lot of people just rehearse one night a week or a couple of times in a month, and then they get together for the gigs at the weekend. In fact, sometimes even the gigs feel like a rehearsal, when you’ve got a couple of smaller gigs leading up to a larger gig and it’s like you’re preparing for that.
But Lockdown has definitely changed the audiences. Since everyone’s been able to get out and go to live gigs, the experience with Covid is still putting a lot of people off – they’re a bit apprehensive about getting out and enjoying themselves the way they used to – and audiences are definitely not up to full strength yet. All My Thorns did one gig this year where the audience that did turn up was under 50. That gig probably cost us the best part of a thousand pounds between the four of us with accommodation, fuel and everything else because we all had to go up separately. I’m not dissing that because I respect everyone that turned up, and everyone’s got their reasons to not to come – and to add to it all, there was an issue over trains and buses that weekend. We were obviously glad to go and yet for a youngish band like All My Thorns who are both starting off and trying to regain a bit of footage in the scene, it can be demoralising.
I’m not sure people understand how much goes into putting a gig on, what it actually costs, what you’ve got to cover. For that particular gig, we had to pay the the lad that came to help us technically, give some of the door money to the band who supported us – like we do, they travel halfway across the country to play these gigs. By the time we had paid everyone, you look at what you’ve got left and you think, god is it worth carrying on? But I suppose that’s the way it is. Sometimes the gigs work, sometimes they don’t.
Sweet Ermengarde being a more established band, how’s the live work going as part of them?
We’ve played quite a few shows now. We were recently out in Bochum where we played the Solar Lodge Convention with Merciful Nuns, Life On Hold, and La Scaltra. After that we played at Café Noir in Leipzig, which was like a goth club. It felt like like an old school gig – a medium-sized room, packed with folk enjoying themselves, lots of smoke, live music, we were close to the crowd. Then we played on the big stage at Castle Party Festival in Poland, which was a fantastic gig for us. Our day was originally Sunday, but Nosferatu dropped out and we were offered their spot on the Saturday, which was a brilliant spot for us, just before six o’clock. We played a strong heavy set and it went down really well. We were chuffed.
Now we’ve got Bats In The Attic in August which we’re really looking forward to. I’ve played there a few times before and it’s a great venue, Alhambra Live has real potential to be a great venue, and not just for goth. The lads are really looking forward to playing in Morecambe because they like playing in the UK. And that’s another point as well, that Sweet Ermengarde are not a band that come across to play here very often.
There does seem to be a bit of an imbalance between attitudes towards gothic music in the UK and Europe, especially Germany where there’s a ladder that allows a band to grow and a circuit that can help the process in terms of gigs and festivals. And yet the talent is the same on both sides of the Channel.
The talent is the same. The UK has some really loyal fans and you see a lot of faces at each gig that you recognise, but it’s very different in Europe. It feels like a younger scene and more buoyant. The bands are quite a mixed bunch, they’re not stuck in the genres. So there might be a dark metal band playing with a goth band, and then after that a band that’s post punk. They mix it up, whereas here we tend to stick within our own genres and sub-genres, the same sort of bands playing with the same sort of bands. There’s not many goth festivals here that’ll mix the metal with the goth or electronic. There’s definitely a difference between Europe and the UK. I don’t know if that’s just because abroad there’s, like I say, a younger crowd, the younger people getting more involved with it, but in the UK it tends to be more of a genre for older folk like myself – a plus-30 thing if you will.
In the UK you’ve got your main goth bands that people are always talking about – your Sisters, the Mission, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Cult – and I’m not saying the Cult are a goth band! – Fields of the Nephilim. The known bands will always pull a crowd, and even I’ll turn out and watch them. But when you put on a group of six or seven talented bands that aren’t so well known, you’d struggle to get 250 people to turn up and that’s on a good day.
There’s some brilliant songwriting out there. You’re seeing it – too late – in some of the bands that recently have decided to pack it in. Like The Last Cry, it seems a shame that those lads are packing it in because they’ve got a strong, loyal following, but you can only stretch so far. No matter what talent you have at the moment, unless you are one of those big names you’re always going to struggle to get folk to come out.
I don’t know if it’s being held back by nostalgia for those classic bands, like it’s what we did when we were in our late teens or early twenties going to watch all those bands when they were playing smaller venues. When we play a smaller venue it takes me back to all that. I feel, “Oh yeah I used to go and watch like Neph or whatever when they were playing in venues like this.” But you don’t really see any new bands on their way up anymore in the UK, no matter how good they are. They never seem to cut through to gain that massive following. I could name loads of bands especially one from the North West – Auger, who are a cracking group and I’d like to think they could be up there with the very very best. I don’t know if it’s just a sign of the times, maybe there’s an over-abundance in music now, maybe when we all latched on to those bands that are classic now, there weren’t as many bands around.
But up until, say, the noughties and the corporate takeover of music with things like Britpop, the live music scene across the nation was vibrant because all the genres were crossing over – and everyone shared the information on releases and gigs every week via a national music press, the envy of the world. There were also radio TV programmes national AND local – no one else in the world had anything like that either. Insanely, the digital age hasn’t replaced that centralised exchange of information and opinions.
We all used to watch things like Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube didn’t we? We were all fascinated the new bands that came through by reading NME and so on. Sometimes we used to source bands just through the way they looked or from the record cover or a write-up, and you got into bands like that. You went to your local record shop and you bought a record by them and sometimes it was hit and miss. Sometimes you bought them and they were shit, and other times you bought them and they were fantastic and you became a loyal fan to the band.
It’s hard to put your finger on this modern day band thing of not gaining traction. Why bands aren’t climbing up to become iconic like the Rammsteins of this world.
We’ve talked about finding audiences and connecting with them live, but recording is important too. It’s unlikely that every band can be like the Sisters or Nephilim and get away with not releasing songs, can they?
I do think people need to release songs. Everyone harps on about Nephilim not releasing anything and that’s down to Carl McCoy, and Carl’s his own person, he has his own reasons for doing that. But looking at it, is it a clever thing to keep people hanging on waiting for new material that might never come? Or does it work against you at some point? Everyone still harps on about they can’t wait to hear new stuff from Sisters of Mercy and it’s been decades now, but they’ve got so many new songs that they don’t release but just do them live. Andrew Eldritch says he has no intention of releasing them, which seems a shame because they’re really good songs, it’d be good to hear them on record.
But they’ve obviously got their own reasons for not releasing them. Maybe it’s to get people to their shows. Maybe the money for them is at the live shows and the merchandise side of things. For newer bands like us, it’s the same thing – to enjoy a good gig and sell a lot of merchandise, that’s where our money is really because the fees for playing aren’t huge.
Getting back to the recording side of things, if you can’t put an album out, then put two or three songs out on an EP. It’ll keep the interest in there, because if you don’t, after two or three years people start forgetting about you. At least, that’s where I see it.
With me joining Sweet Ermengarde, just to get the ball rolling we did the rework of ’A Promise to Fulfill’, which is one of the band’s classic songs. We did that as a 2021 version with my voice on it along with a cover of Hüsker Dü’s ’Standing by the Sea’ that’s radically different to the original, we did it in a way that was definitely Sweet Ermengarde. That has got people interested in what we’re doing, and it’s made people aware that we’re also well into writing a new album. So I think it’s important that you do release new work.
Coming into an already established band like Sweet Ermengarde, do you instantly bring in your writing voice, or do you diplomatically stay out of it and wait until you’re asked?
We’ve hit the ground running and the writing process is working out really well. Obviously Lars is the main driver of things, while every member of the band plays their own part in the writing of the songs. We can have four or five ideas and we jam them out at rehearsal, then I’ll try to home in a melody or a vocal line on top of it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it sounds like a strangled chicken and we’ll stop and try something else.
How does it work with inspiration for lyrics and the two languages fitting in?
Sweet Ermengarde have always had German singers in the past with Daniel Schweigler and original singer Kuba Achtelik. It’s been German singers that sing in the English tongue, which is very common. I don’t know if it’s because of the way German works, but sometimes I’ve thought that were too many words in there on some songs, maybe more than I’d have squeezed in. I like to give songs room, a bit of space. But it’s not been any different to joining an English band because obviously Sweet Ermengarde sing in English.
But does the fact of being a German band bring its own style? A cultural or language undertow that that transcends the language of the lyrics?
There’s definitely something there. There’s a moodiness, a broodiness about all the Sweet Ermengarde songs that comes from their German spirit. There’s not many songs with a major key and a big happy pick-up sound, the sound lends itself to darker lyrics. Which works for me – I write about life experiences, and I write about my dreams, mysterious worlds that I’ve created, mythology, anything that pulls at my heart strings.
’Dark’ being the common language.
[laughs] It’s definitely dark.
On the UK scene though, there’s a lot of other stuff that’s not quite common to all at the moment…
I do feel the goth scene in the UK is a little fractured at the minute. I do feel there’s a lot of infighting, where bands that won’t play with other bands. People will be nice to your face and then behind your back call you not fit to burn. That’s the same in a lot of other areas of music, but a little bit of unity all around in the goth scene would be a good thing right now.
Any ideas for how that fracturedness could be circumvented and how that unity could be worked towards?
People can make opinions up of bands and other musicians without actually getting to know them. Because of that opinion, because they’ve heard this about them or that about them, people won’t put them on at a venue. But if you actually met them… I see it all the time: “That band, they’re all wankers, they’re this, they’re that”, and I think to myself well I’ve met them and they’re really good blokes. They’re decent with me, maybe you just caught them on a bad night, maybe you’ve never met them, but don’t let it stick, give people a chance.
One thing is that some bands get jealous if another band manages to play a better venue than them. There’s no need for that. Be happy for them and if your time comes, then your time comes. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. You only get asked to play places if you’re half decent. You have to live up to that, the other band has to live up to that too. If a band goes on and they’re a shambles, then that reflects on them for the next gig, doesn’t it? So they have to be pretty good to be in the position to get asked to play a better venue. We should all be chuffed for those bands, celebrate it and be inspired, but to be honest there’s not much…
[laughs] There’s not much love pretty much. In fact there’s a lot of love gone from the goth scene. The metal scene always seems to be a bit happier, as I’ve found. Not necessarily Sweet Ermengarde. but All My Thorns and Sometime The Wolf are bands that can mix the genres. We can play rock festivals with really heavy bands and we can play goth festivals as well. It’s being heavy in the sound on the guitars, not as traditional as a lot of goth bands. And that’s how I’ve found that the metal festivals are much happier. Now I’m not saying, “why don’t you go and play metal festivals if you’re not happy with the goth scene?” I love the goth scene but sometimes there’s a bit of un-unity, shall we say.
That idea of bringing in new blood would help – new attitudes, new audiences, new energy…
There’s a lot of new bands that come into the scene and then quickly disappear. There’s not many that thrive for a long time now. Give it a crack for a few years and then they pack in for their own reasons. It only lasted three years for us in Sometime The Wolf – but I do feel Lockdown played a massive part in that, it wasn’t a normal two years and all that put a lot of pressure on everyone. So, we were a new band, we only lasted a few years, and it was brilliant while it lasted. But Lockdown has played a massive part in a lot of bands falling away and not carrying on.
On the other hand, out of that isolated period came you joining Sweet Ermengarde.
I like to stay busy anyway and I felt it was a good time. I’m not getting any younger, I’m not going to disguise that – I’m over 50 now, I’m 51. What’s interesting is that I left music alone for a long time. I was in a goth band in the 90s and we were success in our own area, if you will. But in 1996 I fell out of love with playing live music and I just left it alone – and of course I also went off and had kids, who’ve grown up now.
And then in 2015, some of the old band, we met up and went for a night out to watch a gig and we all said, oh why don’t we get it back together? I’ve been involved in music ever since. I’d missed it and I’ve come back to what I really love in the end – and because I’d given it that break and never thought it would come back around again, that’s why I appreciate it far more than I would’ve done if I’d stayed in it. Hence wanting the the challenge of being part of Sweet Ermengarde!
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