INTERVIEW: Paradise Lost’ Gregor Mackintosh discusses new album ‘Obsidian’

Paradise Lost
Photo by: Anne C. Swallow

Dan Volohov talks to Gregor Mackintosh, co-founder and guitarist of Paradise Lost. Gregor speaks about the recent “Obsidian” album and re-arranging cover versions, about his technique of writing songs and the nature of previous “Medusa” album, about love to hardcore and gothic-rock and band’s transition from major-label to the current one – Nuclear Blast.

Starting with the first chords of “Darker Thoughts” I can’t but notice that within “Obsidian” you were much more focused on arrangements. While your previous – “Medusa” was much more focused on the atmosphere. Was it a conscious decision or something you came to as a result?

GM: When I first started to come to write “Obsidian”, I knew, I wanna do the record that would be more varied than “Medusa” – more eclectic and having more different styles in that. But I didn’t really know how I was going to do that, as I approached each song separately, it’s kind of shaped itself into each different form. “Darker Thoughts” was the last song we wrote for the album. Because I was just writing an intro for the record when it turned into the first song. And the first one we wrote as “Fall From Grace” which I think, you kind of tell – because, it’s choruses are one to “Medusa” style. So, I think, going into each song kind of dictated the path we were going.

But at the same time, there are such tracks on the record as “The Devil Embraced” – that united melodic side enhanced by incredibly atmospheric arrangements with your doom-death sounding. Was it hard for you to unite these different elements?

GM: I think, that’s an obvious thing for me to do. When you have 30 years…Lots of different influences. It’s kind of makes it easy to draw all of them. You could have doom-death riff and then, just do some kind of strange atmospheric guitar-parts over the top of that. And then – move on to something different. I like the fact that we got all these different areas where we can draw inspiration from. The song you’ve mentioned – “The Devil Embraced” is a very much slow-doomy song. And there are lots in it – lots of atmospheric parts. Lots of influences on that song. And I like that! It keeps me interested in writing music unlike anything else! If every song I did was a death-doom or just an electronic song or just atmospheric – I’d become bored.

Living in England, prior to the formation of Paradise Lost, you had lots of musical tendencies rising around. Post-punk which slowly evolved into the new wave and gothic-rock; heavy metal with artists like Motorhead of Venom. And obviously pop-music. What, according to your opinion helped you to form your unique sound taking something from all these musical tendencies?

GM: Well, it was a direct result of that kind of atmosphere in the ’80s. Especially [in] the North of England. We used to go to Leeds, where was this night club called “Adam In Eves” – starting with the mid to late ’80s, I used to go to this club and it was where all the metal guys went, it was where all goth people went, it was where punks went. But they didn’t mingle! They reached the separate corners of the club. But all music was like…If the goth-song came – then goths go down the dance floor. If a metal song came – the metal guys would come to the dance floor, etc. I just took all these influenced in. At that time – I was a punk-guy. Later, I was kind of goth. And then – I metaller. So, I kind of took all those influences. And I think, that’s where our sound comes from – mixing all those things.

What were your strongest musical impressions, when you discovered these things?

GM: Well, very early on it was a hardcore-punk. So the early stuff would have been – Discharge, G.B.H, English Dogs and things like that. But then I moved on to stuff like Hellhammer, Celtic Frost. I found out about Candlemass and bands like that. Which led me to Trouble and retrospectively Black Sabbath. But then, at the same time, I was into goth music – like Southern Death Cult and early Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie And The Banshees, early Cure. I kind of jumped between all those things…

Don’t you think it was more or less typical story? Like there was a club – for instance, Eric’s in Liverpool where all the scene was centred.

GM: Yeah, I think every major city in the UK at that time had a club like this, that really dictated the music scene in England, at that time.

How it actually felt when you started getting outside of your mother town? How it was actually, to be in the band like Paradise Lost at the end of the 80’s – all through the ’90s?

GM: It was interesting. Because my family was quite poor. So, we never actually went too far from my town. I have never been to a different country. I have never been to London or anything like that. When we started the band, we, I think, did two shows near where I grew up…Then we went to Liverpool to do a show. Straight after we were in Holland, Belgium and Germany. So, we started travelling around quite early on in our career. I just loved it! ‘Cause, I’ve never seen anything, I’ve never been anywhere.

It was very interesting for me to see how different people behaved. For instance, in Holland, I really liked the laid-back atmosphere of the people. Because, in England, people – especially young people at that time in the 80’s-the early ’90s were kind of arrogant…A little bit. In places like Holland and Belgium, they were laid-back and relaxed. And I kind of liked that. Then, after I started travelling further and further, I used to see all these cultural differences – which is interesting.

Starting with “One Second” you changed your musical accents a little bit. As a result, we got “One Second” and following “Host” – two completely different authentic and different Paradise Lost records. And the first ones where you started taking a part in the production duties – was it just something you started gravitating to at that point or a part of your artistic evolution?

GM: Em…Again, I have to say – a little bit of both. At the time, we were writing “One Second”, the reason I became involved in the production side of things – because, that’s when production and recording became more affordable to a home musician. To use the computer rather than do it with a cassette recorder. Before that, it was just studios which no-one could afford to go to. You had to do a record, to go on tour. It kind of led to me doing that. But also, we were kind of bored. We’ve done “Icon” and “Draconian Times” – back to back. We’ve been touring with them constantly. So, we haven’t really been home, for the best part – for three or four years. We just kind of burnt out. And got bored doing the same kind of thing. We just wanted to do something different.

That’s what excited me at that time. It was trying different sounds and coming up with different ways of writing songs. I think it’s a very similar feel. I think you still can tell that it’s our record – it’s just a totally different way. We just approached it with different sounds and, I suppose, dynamics, making it moodier or more law-key and things like that. The main reason really was to keep what we were doing exciting and interesting. Because doing a record like “Draconian Times” we could king of got bored of it, very quickly, I think.

And how much the process has changed for you from there? There’s obviously a typical band-type-of-interaction presented early on – within every band. But as soon as you’d get deeper exploring the nature of the sounds and all the musical layers it would affect the logic of the process. How much it’d changed for you at that point?

GM: It didn’t change who wrote the songs. From early on in the band, it was basically me and Nick, the vocalist. When we first started, we tried to get people to write things and they just weren’t interested. They just were more interested in playing live. And we were the guys who used to tape-trade and try to get the band further. The difference between, when we got to “One Second” in songwriting from previously was: before “One Second” it was all cassette recorder.

So, all you’d do is record riffs and then play all of them. And record melodies over then and see what happened. When “One Second” came along, I had more things to work with – I had a few different keyboards. Different samples. Better recording equipment. Computers were just coming out. You could use Omega. I think it was Omega at that time, you used recording on to the computer. It was kind of basic stuff, but it was exciting, I guess. It was just something different.

At that point, in the late ’90s, you moved from Music For Nations to EMI – passing through this major-label-type-of-experience. You’ve always been speaking about it as about not the best time for the band. How do you feel now, working with Nuclear Blast, which is obviously an indie-label? 

GM: Yeah, being on a major label has its plusses and minuses. When we were writing, recording and touring the “Host” album – it was really great time, purely because we could do anything we wanted. We were very indulgent, very self-indulgent. But at the same time, it was maybe “too self-indulgent” – the label said: “Just do what you want!”. That can have problems as well. You don’t realize until later on that there was a problem. Afterwards when you think: “These people don’t really know what the band was about. Or any of the scene we were in…” – and it’s kind of drifted away from us. Like a ship without a radar.

It took us a while to understand what happened there and get that back. And I think, it was with the help of labels like Century Media or Nuclear Blast. We kind of realized that we aren’t in a niche. We’re not a pop-band. We’re not a mainstream band. So we needed people around us, who work with us. To understand what our music is and the scenes we were in. Because, if you’d look at European festivals – something like M’era Luna which is very goth. And then you got metal-festivals. And then – these mixes festivals. That’s when we feel comfortable. It took us a while after being on EMI to get back to this comfort zone.

Prior to the release of “Medusa,” Nick noticed that the idea behind the record was to keep it dark and heavy. When you work on something, is it important for you to have a certain kind of basic concept? Even on the musical level.

GM: I like to start with at least a small outline idea of what we think we’re going to do. With “Medusa” it was a very-very straight-forward thing. We just said: “We want to do a very stripped-back doom-metal record, basically. So, there was no huge scope for the album. Just something very stripped-back, bare and raw. With “Obsidian” – it was the opposite. We wanted something very varied, that would change from track to track. So, we took each song somewhere else. And that the only real outline plan we have. We don’t sit around thinking: “It has to sound like that!” – we just have a small outline plan. And then, start off with it and thing would dictate how we’d go with it.

We try not to be too precious about songs we write getting good songs, leaving them and then – move on to next. Go back to those songs and see if we could make them better. We usually have four or five different versions of each song at any given time. More goth-ish version, more metal, more laid-back version, more orchestral-type-version. We try all these things out.

Even though “Obsidian” united different elements of your songwriting – it’s the record with a specific mood. It’s romantic. Of course, gothic. Sometimes writers tend to fix their mood and emotions within their writing. It’s not all about writing a sad song when you’re feeling loneliness or if you’re depressed. But important for you to put those emotional tonalities getting a feel of the compositional structure?

GM: That’s all it’s about to me! When I listen to other band’s music, I don’t really listen to the music – I listen and try to get myself to a certain state of mind and to come to images in my head. So, I kind of like to do the same when I’m writing music. I want to make songs or sections of songs or crescendos of songs that conjure up images in peoples’ heads, and maybe pictures. Or let’s say “mood”. Like a smell or taste. That’s what I think about. I’ve never had a think about it as about basic music. It’s all about something deeper.

And I think that’s why I do all these things. Sometimes successfully. Sometimes – not. But that’s why I do it. I try to paint a picture of something. Whatever I’m thinking on at a time, I’m thinking about: “How can I covert this type of mood into a section of a song ?” – and it’s all about light and shade. When people do an only heavy album it’s heavy in relation to what came before or what was after it. So you need that light and shade to determine what mood it creates.

Paradise Lost
Photo by: Anne C. Swallow

I’ve always been thinking that some of the cover songs you recorded in the late 90’s-early 2000 have played important role in your development of a composer. In a sense that you’re learning to transfer the energetics, rearranging the parts and re-transferring the atmosphere in a different way. And your choice of songs always been amazing: Dead Can Dance, Everything But The Girl, Bronski Beat, Spear of Destiny. How different was your work on these songs from point of view of creative processes and how important is it for your artistic evolution?

GM: With cover versions – it’s quite satirical. When you approach the cover. When you do cover the song, you kind of listen to the original again. It kind of destroys the original song for you which is sad. So I don’t really like to do the covers. But when you are to do a cover, when you choose covers – like, Spear of Destiny’s “Never Take Me Alive”. It was a song I listened to throughout my teenage years. I just thought it was a great atmospheric song. With good highs and laws. It was quite pompous. And I thought it was the song band like Paradise Lost could do justice to. With something like “Xavier” by Dead Can Dance, I didn’t know how to approach that first. I tried lots of different versions and found that the best way to do it was to change the time-signature. So, the original is 3\4 and we changed it to 4\4. And then, messed around with different arrangements.

With Bronski Beat, it was much more straight forward. I just kind chose the tempo and messed around with lots of different sounds. It’s more about sounds with that one. I think they all are successful in their own way. But we changed them to make them different enough from the original. So, it’s not just like exercising. I think a lot of cover-versions are pointless. And I really don’t want to do that doing covers. I really don’t want to do something that seems to be like the originals. But just with guitars. It makes everything a little bit pointless to me.

To a certain degree, I believe that “Obsidian” became a reflection of your past. Musically. Lyrically. Conceptually. With lots of questioning. Even looking at the cover, we can sort out some symbolic elements you put together. What made you look back within this record?

GM: I think it could be just the time we’re in our lives. Within the time we’re living in, we felt very reflective, very introspective on our way. And I think, it shows within this record. It’s just more thoughtful than “Medusa”. And much more thoughtful than the album previously. It’s quite a thoughtful record. It’s like looking back to our lives – without trying to re-create anything. But looking back fondly. With a touch of melancholy – the thing, that we may be missed. Or could be different. Or even looking forward and thinking of the fact that history repeats itself. I think it’s a very introspective record. We were just thinking about your life and in general what it was like. The people you’ve met and the things you did, how it affected you.

We don’t believe in regret…I don’t believe many people do – it’s a bit pointless. But on the other side, looking back at your life is certainly something I like to do. Just reflective, really. And I think we did that on that record, obviously. Hopefully not trying to cover old ground. It’s more like thinking fondly on past and then put it into a context of now, I guess.

While writing the record, Nick and you basically started with short parts putting the lyrics just after the music was written. How did it come together within this methodology and how different is it from your typical songwriting practices?

GM: We’ve changed the way we write songs about 3-4 years ago. So it’s a very rounded style of songwriting which is very quick to do – very short. Very short. A few seconds long pieces of music. And I give them to Nick. Then he does lots of different vocal styles – 5-6-7 different vocal styles and gives it back to me. I strip everything away. Start building like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture. You don’t know what jigsaw you’re building. And it’s very intuitive. It’s a kind of interesting way to write songs. You can come up with very interesting results. Things you wouldn’t have thought if you would have done the normal way of working. So I think, “Obsidian” can really tell that. Because, some of the progressions within the songs are good representations – the songs like “The Devil Embraced”.

Because you see it just being built almost like a pyramid. It’s being built up brick-by-brick. Sometimes, you pull a brick out, put it somewhere else. And you don’t particularly mind of it. It’s a very intuitive way to write. A very enjoyable way to write. It makes it interesting to do. And it also means that you have all this material left over. When there are different versions of each song. Like I said earlier, with “Obsidian” on my hard drive are lots of different versions of the whole album. That sound very different.

How hard it can be to tie dynamics, tension with moodiness which is basically what Paradise Lost is. But what helps you doing this?

GM: Personally, because I’m writing the music, I think these are just my guitar melody-lines I play over the top. Because, whatever comes on top, a song is a song. And when you play over the top is kind of like the thread that alters it all together. For instance: I could be doing some kind of melody part. And the music behind can change COMPLETELY. It can go very bare and stripped back. But I’m continuing to play the same theme. And then, you kind of tie it together. So yeah, I would say, whatever I’m doing on the top – atmospheric guitar melody-line or lead line, it’s all about tying it all together. That’s the common thread, I think.

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The 25th-anniversary reissue of ‘Draconian Times’ is released on 4th December via Music For Nations.

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