I had the great opportunity to conduct a very detailed interview with James Benson, one of the leading forces behind the US progressive black/death metal band Amiensus. The thorough interview covers the band’s history, their new records, the process of writing songs, religious lyrical topics, future concerts, etc. Enjoy!
Thought-Palace: As a beginning, I would like you to introduce yourselves to the audience and the readers. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are, how you came to found Amiensus, and a give a brief overview on the band’s history?
J.B.: Good afternoon from a warm spring day in Minnesota! Amiensus is currently 5 core members, the live performing and writing members, and two studio musicians who join us for recording. I (James Benson) am the founding member of Amiensus, as well as Alec Rozsa (guitarist and multi-instrumentalist), Zachary Morgenthaler (guitars, keys), Todd Farnham (bass) and our newest member who joined us just about 1 year ago, Christopher Piette. Our former full time members who join us for recording still are Aaron McKinney (Vocals, acoustic guitar), and Julia Holter (vocals). I’ve always had to keep this pretty brief in interviews before, but this is something I, as a music lover, have always found extremely interesting when researching bands. Amiensus, which technically began in mid-2010, was previously another band by the name “The Last”, which consisted of James, Alec, Aaron and Zachary. We were teens when that started, and nothing professional was ever released, just albums we made on our own. Our first EP, “The Last EP” was songs written during that time. It was during the summer after my freshman year of college (2010) that we recorded that and had Ken Sorceron (Abigail Williams) mix and master it, which was when we became connected with that group. Around that time, we started gigging with another local group often, and came to know now former member J. Waller (Sarasvati, Adora Vivos). Joe had a lot more experience with recording at this time, and we were starting to understand digital recording much better. We convinced him to at least program drums for us, but he ended up doing a good bit of guitar, vocals, and all the bass on our first full length Restoration, which again Ken Sorceron mixed and mastered. Over the next couple of years this group with the addition of Todd and Julia created our second full length Ascension, but around the time it was releasing, we decided to come out of the studio to start playing live again. A few members decided at this time that Amiensus was going a little further than they had thought it would, and other various reasons, which resulted in a couple of new changes to the lineup. This brought in Matthew Paulazzo (The Zenith Passage, Aegeaon) for a year on drums, who was replaced by his good friend Christopher Piette, whom now has been drumming with us for about a year. In essence, the core group has been playing music together since our early teens. It’s been about a decade of having fun together. We’ve grown as people and musicians over that time quite a bit, but we’ve always been rooted musically together by black metal.
Thought-Palace: Thanks for this detailed description of your band history! This serves as an explanation to me how you achieved these strengths regarding a well-balanced songwriting that I was surprised by. You seem to function as a collective. This is a state most bands don’t reach, I suppose. Can you describe the songwriting process a little? Especially with respect to Ascension and your new record(s)?
J.B.: Thanks! The songwriting process from Ascension to All Paths Lead to Death was a bit different. There were a lot of members involved with Ascension. Some of the tracks had a main writer, and when I describe main song writer, I mean that a certain member wrote most of the guitar parts/structure, and passed it onto other members to have them write their perspective parts. Often with Ascension, we had 5-8 writers on a track, but some tracks were 1-2 main writers, with others pitching in their parts. There was a lot of rewriting of songs on that album, with many arrangements. The recording process spanned almost 8 months as well. Our newest album was quite different, in a more traditional sense, where one main song writer exists per track, with everyone else pitching in their parts. The recording process also only spanned about 3 weeks, with most of the vocals being original takes and written on the spot. We stretched ourselves quite a bit, and as you’ll see, the album is much darker and focused more around our live sound because we’ve been operating as a live band for a year and a half now. This is the first full album we’ve released with live drums as well. Overall, the songwriting won’t reflect a permanent change in our sound, but it was material we needed to get out there to reflect some of our heavier influence.
Thought-Palace: It appears that you have got several people in your band that are able to write great songs. Where does your musical education stem from? Have any of you studied music? Or are all of you self-taught musicians?
J.B.: For the most part, self-taught. Some of us took classes in high school, like band and choir, but received no formal music education outside of that. Christopher actually did major in Drum Performance and graduated with his Bachelors last fall. He’s now a drum teacher. I (James) actually just started this year taking piano lessons, so that I could read sheet music. The others took some lessons as children, but the talent and songwriting was their hardwork and natural talent.
Thought-Palace: Impressive! This leads me to another question: What are your inspirations for doing such music? And, as the lyrics seem to be of importance to you when I look at those of Ascension, who or what is the driving force for the lyrical themes?
J.B.: I’d say that everyone in the band has many driving forces for why they create music, but we have a few in common for why we are doing what we are doing. For one, it’s because how we as friends have grown together and shared experiences, through our love of music. Which ties into the second reason – all of us grew up with a deep love and appreciation for music, whether that comes down to the love of composition, performance, practice, etc. The driving forces behind the lyrical content in Ascension varied. The album has three main writers for the lyrics, though typically there’s input from others on lyrics too. Each song typically had a different concept behind it. I’d say that the album covered philosophy, theology- especially in regards to the books of Genesis and Revelations, and even the dark side of substance abuse.
Thought-Palace: What I consider sort of unusual is the way you deal with these religious topics. So I’m highly interested in what your stance on religion is, particularly on traditional theism, not deism or spiritualism.
J.B.: I can’t speak for everyone in Amiensus in regards to their stances on religion, or traditional theism. Many of us have a background with it, but overall the group is very mixed, and with respect to that, as the main lyricist I don’t purposefully write about specific beliefs I hold. Rather, I intend to write sometimes about certain topics within religions that interest me, instead of my own beliefs, so that the reader may interpret them however they may, because everyone has a different worldview, no matter how close your belief system may be compared to another person’s. I hold that I never intend to influence directly with my lyrics, and I’d rather everyone take their own message from our lyrics. Without trying to sound too pompous or full of myself, I will say that I do have a degree in Biblical Theology (Bachelors in Biblical Studies), besides my main degree. The education both in school and out definitely influences our writing. This new album was written specifically about different concepts of Hell in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which has been a concept I’ve been fascinated with for over a decade. Basically, we’re a mixed bunch, and I do not intend to give my personal beliefs out to the public, through my writing or through interview. Every person needs to do their own research, and I encourage those reading this to always question and seek knowledge. Worldviews can always change over time, due to life experience and research.
Thought-Palace: Thanks for this interesting and illuminative answer. I completely agree with those latter points concerning the necessity for everyone’s personal quest for knowledge and the change of worldviews in time and space (or beings through constant becoming). What simply struck me with several of the lyrics was a certain, sort of uncommon way to deal with those topics. Your answer provides me with a graspable reason for this notion.
As you said you’re rooted in black metal, this uncommon approach appears to be even more interesting to me. A lot of BM bands express themselves using outspoken satanic imagery and utter strong antichristian beliefs. So what is your relation to the black metal scene, and what exactly means black metal for you?
J.B.: I suppose we have an interesting relation to the black metal scene. Locally, we aren’t even considered a black metal band. We are more often asked to play with progressive bands than black metal bands, if we are asked at all. We have a connection because of the Abigail Williams guys, and their guitarist/vocalist Ken Sorceron has mixed and mastered quite a bit of our music, and taken us on tour. Black metal to most of us encompasses a vast array of music. Obviously we take influence from the bands that started it all or were early pioneers of the sound (Mayhem, Emperor, Arcturus), and bands like Agalloch who introduced other genres into their sound as well. I understand it involves a culture, but over time no one is consistent with whatever worldview they say must be attached for a piece of music to be called black metal. For most of us, we recognize this attachment to a set of beliefs, but we don’t associate them with black metal, and rather we listen for the music first typically, and the message second. At least that is my personal opinion, and it hasn’t come in conflict with my band members, some of whom as I mentioned, have been creating music together for nearly a decade now.
Thought-Palace: Okay, I personally wouldn’t want to label you as black metal either, but rather progressive metal with black metal influences. This is also because of the black metal scene here, where you have a lot of somewhat narrow-minded and pseudo-elitist self-proclaimed ‘guardians of the scene’, who would be probably running in circles with contempt when hearing your clean vocal parts.
What is the general reaction to your music? And where do most of your listeners and orders come from?
J.B.: It’s definitely hard to say what our general reaction is. I think it’s ever changing with each release we do. Our first album was received very well, and our second was too. We had probably the best response with our split called Gathering back in 2013 with our close friends and fellow Minnesotan’s Oak Pantheon, with our track “Arise”. About a year ago, the music streaming service Spotify added us to their “Atmospheric Black Metal” playlist, which featured songs from just Restoration, despite Ascension having come out just a few months prior. It definitely had a very positive impact, but it seemed like the new influx of fans preferred our first album over the second, despite what we thought was a huge jump in production quality and songwriting. The new album will be interesting, we are starting to see some feedback from press who have received promos, with statements comparing our sound before as “Agalloch-lite”, and this album as more “Dark Funeral-ish”. While we continue to make statements that this is just an EP, and not reflective of our future releases (though you’ll still get a little bit more black metal focused tracks I suspect) we did write this album with the intention playing it live. We have never done that before, because even prior to Ascension we had never really considered playing live. Speaking of Spotify, there’s a nifty feature that tells you where the top 5 places a band has followers from. They are currently Finland, Sweden, Turkey, Mexico and Poland. I’d wager that overall, we have a pretty European based fan base. In comparison, on our bandcamp where we run merchandise, I’d say its split about 50% US and 50% Europe+elsewhere. I ship everything on my own (I apologize to those who have to wait on me sometimes!) and I’d say the top country outside of the US where I end up shipping to is definitely Germany, with a few countries in Europe like the UK, Sweden and France coming in a close second. I’ve never taken exact count, but I believe I’ve shipped to at least 25 countries, and pretty much every continent (excluding the frozen one nobody lives in).
Thought-Palace: I think that with your European-based label Apathia Records the amount of listeners from this part of the world will increase even more. Are you considering giving concerts outside the US some day? Or is this out of reach due to scheduling and financial issues? And what is the importance of gigs to you, in general?
J.B.: Touring Europe is definitely an interest of ours and we have been talking with a few festivals about the logistics of coming over. Just have to get the timing down. It mostly concerns the costs. Being a smaller band, we just need to have expenses covered. We aren’t concerned about coming back with stacks of cash or anything. I’d say the importance of gigs varies from member to member, but it definitely skyrocketed after we played our first tour. At this time we have only about 3 more shows booked in 2017. Which is alright for us, because every time we practice, it requires our drummer to drive 4.5 hours one way, and our bassist 1.5 hrs. Prior to this we were a recording band, and I think we are feeling like it’s time to continue writing full length #3 at this time instead of focusing on gigging too far out right now. We’ve definitely been offered some killer tours by some bands on big labels this year, but it wasn’t the right timing. If I named them you’d know them right away. I’d assume that more people are interested in seeing us put out more music than playing live at this time, and due to that, we can’t yet stress playing live over producing more music.
Thought-Palace: Thanks for the answer, I completely understand and I’m definitely one of those that prefer a new album over touring. But good to hear that there is a chance you might come around here for a gig one day!
Can you describe a little what awaits the listener with “All Paths Lead to Death”? And maybe give a little hint what album #3 will sound like?
Are there any plans of incorporating more classical instruments into you music? E.g., instead of keyboards?
J.B.: I don’t want to ruin anyone’s perception if they haven’t listened to the EP when they are reading this, but if you haven’t heard Amiensus before, this is our take on incorporating several elements of black metal into 5 songs. To those who already know of us and have listened to anything of ours prior: We wrote this album to play it live for you, and to match the intensity of our live set, and I promise it will be scorching. Following this album, #3 has some elements of Restoration and Ascension, with some more progressive pieces. Overall thus far it’s easy to say it’s already more diverse musically like most of our full lengths. To answer your question, no plans yet to include live violin or oud like on Restoration, but that’s only because we haven’t made it too far into fleshing out these new songs yet.
Thought-Palace: Great, the prospect of such an album #3 sounds fantastic. I’ll be eagerly awaiting this.
My question catalog is empty now, and I don’t want to strain the readers’ attention spans any further.
Thank you very much for this great and interesting interview!
Is there anything you have in mind and want to share that we haven’t covered yet?
J.B.: That was probably the most thorough interview I’ve ever done for the band.
Just want to let everyone reading know, I appreciate the support you’ve given Amiensus over the years. We’re just a few normal guys who enjoy writing and playing music together. If you ever feel like reaching out to discuss music or just have a conversation, we’re always willing to have a chat with fellow music lovers. We hope to see you in the future out on the road!