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By: Grayson Hale
German dark metal pioneers, Bethlehem, recently unleashed the final chapter of a trilogy that has taken 13 years to complete. Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia is perhaps the band’s best release in years, combining everything from gothic metal to industrial to post-punk touches and even a full-blown return to their depressive black metal roots in one song. Grayson Hale chatted to bassist Jürgen Bartsch about the album trilogy, his near-death experiences and the band’s Facebook troubles…
(((o))): Firstly, I have to congratulate you on the new album, it’s really good. What has the reception been like so far?
JB: Thank you very much. Well it’s polarizing like always. The bigger German metal mags did not like it or maybe did not understand it like always and therefore gave us bad grades. Most alternative E-zines worshipped it to death, which also felt wrong reading to be honest. Other than that the fans love it which still counts the most!
(((o))): Is Guido [Meyer de Voltaire, vocals] back in the band for good or was it just for this album? If not, do you have a new vocalist lined up yet?
JB: Guido basically was hired for the studio trilogy but never was meant as the Bethlehem vocalist in a common sense. This is cos he can’t sing these studio songs live or let’s say he hasn’t the courage to do so. In all the years he just has rehearsed once with us and seriously, this was the biggest crap we ever have seen with a vocalist because obviously one has to practise things like vocals too a lot. He’s pretty lazy and instead is going to waste his talent with his idiot carnival etc. bands. That’s why Alex Schmied is back in the band because we need a real sort of worker for us. And a real shouter too – especially for old school sets – because Guido needs complete control if singing and never could let go of himself.
(((o))): What is the meaning of the album title Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia and why did you choose it?
JB: The album title means “fear of the 666” and is meant as an ironic insight of personal insanity. I’ve chosen this phobia cos on the one hand the 666 is a pure Heavy Metal sort of cliché and on another it’s a serious disease people like for example Ronald Reagan suffered on. He could not sleep in hotel rooms with this number or hotels with such a street number, aero planes, trains etc.
(((o))): I remember reading that this album is the final part of a trilogy. What is the concept behind this trilogy?
JB: I originally have written the concept as a short story at the end of the 90’s when I still was a drug addict. Besides playing in Bethlehem I lived in complete solitude and created my own personal environment known as the “Alexander Welt”. This was a kind of parallel universe populated with all kind of demons. Personal demons. When the wallpaper started to displace another dimension got opened based on beginning insanity caused by drugs or whatever else was the reason for this sick experience. However, part one of that story Schatten aus der Alexander Welt (2001) describes the dimension and the demons. Part two Mein Weg (2004) explains methods and principles to escape this kind of self-chosen insanity. Without a happy end because different methods just forced insanity instead of getting rid of it. Therefore Mein Weg means failure. Part three Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia (2014) just is the ironic insight that one never could get rid of personal demons or a personal hell and instead of fighting it one better should accept it as part of oneself. And should not follow the same old odds like a million other sheep if being completely different. The variety of different musical styles and directions is meant as a soundtrack of being completely different compared to the rest of the world, whereby the lyrics basically are reflecting on each concept theme.
(((o))): I also read about your death experience – could you tell us a little more about that?
JB: Oh really? Well the first death experience happened in my early youth when I still was a sport diver and attacked an octopus with my harpoon. No compressed air harpoon but basically a broomstick with Poseidon’s trident at the one end. There are many ways hunting octopus but I don’t want bore you to death with such information here. Anyway, I wasn’t too careful with attacking this one because it was in a fight with another male octopus and therefore pretty much aggressive (I found out later). My harpoon has caught it between the tentacles and it started crawling up the broomstick to my neoprene neck, which got squeezed by the tentacles hitting the wrong nerve. My legs and arms got numb directly and I drowned in the Portuguese sea. I got re-animated at the beach by a member of the diving club who was a doctor. Fortunately just my heart stopped bumping when I drowned, I wasn’t yet brain-dead.
The second time was shortly after part one of the trilogy got released in 2001 when I got a heart-attack and died at home. While being in what I call the “Alexander Welt”. The heavy drug abuse over years was a little bit too much for my heart, though it still was a pretty young one. I got re-animated by the emergency crew that broke into my house after I obviously managed to call them before I died. Again my heart stopped bumping but this time I was close to brain-death. And it took longer too. They first tried the so called “kiss of life”, then an adrenalin injection (not like in Pulp Fiction, haha!) and then defibrillation, which finally brought me back to life. What a stress this must have been for these guys! Because of my second death experience I overwrote the Mein Weg second trilogy chapter explaining methods to escape the self-chosen downfall. By the way, I have not had a God experience, no astral limbo nor have I seen the tunnel. After death pain got too serious my brain just has switched off like a lamp. It more felt like surgery when the anaesthetic starts working and reality stops from one second to another.
(((o))): What is ‘dark metal’? Seeing as how your sound is so very different now as to what it was on your first album, when the term was coined, do you believe that you still play dark metal?
JB: Yes we are. Like I described it before the sound just was part of a lyrical concept which still is based on those dark metal elements not following a religious meant principle, just like black metal does for example. Dark metal is about personal downfall, private hell or demons which aren’t based on religious aspects. Therefore the trilogy sounds could be described best as a kind of tool just to emphasize the negative terms of something called “dark metal”. Once Nihilist from Seattle/USA has done ‘Dr. Miezo’ from the Mein Weg album with different lyrics “the 11th hour” and screamy vocals, which already made it sound completely different because the music still is what it always was – a darker interpretation of heavy metal.
(((o))): What’s up with the dual Facebook pages? Your official page has a much smaller community now…
JB: Well, this is some kind of a wicked birthday party done by our ex-guitarist [Olaf] Eckhardt. Or some kind of childish “revenge”. Eckhardt has started the Facebook profile in our name a couple of years ago, but never showed any interest in this because he never could identify with Bethlehem in general. That’s why I have taken it over and have built it up to what it was shortly before he got fired. We have no fucking idea why he still is running it, but could imagine this is done to just post some silly statements of a resentful mind who can’t live with the truth: that he no longer is part of the band. Eckhardt was always more interested to gain laurels instead of showing humility into what “band” originally means. And before these laurels completely disappear again for him he has to grapple it still using our band name too. So stupid. Hahaha. We just feel sorrow for all the sheep still grazing where the biggest flock is to be found. Not just a typical Facebook incident isn’t it? Other than that it just covers our back because the new Facebook band profile just would be visited by those die-hard kind of Bethlehem audience, which exclusively is interested in what we’re doing. Instead of giving a thumb up because some thousand other sheep also do. That’s why his childish revenge does not work alright because it gives us the opportunity to communicate with just a smaller circle of people again. Which isn’t too realistic if just one post already reaches some ten thousand people. Other than that we would like to assume that this old band profile is dead anyway cos beside some personal statements of a bitter old man nothing new or actual could be found there!
(((o))): What does the future hold for Bethlehem? I remember reading that you plan to revert back to a more metal-influenced sound. Is this true?
JB: Yeah, I said so, that’s true. But I always said a lot before a new record got recorded. I really should know much better because it always got completely different afterwards. That’s why I should shut the fuck up right? I mean, ok, I already have pre-produced new Bethlehem songs and some of them indeed sound like some raw stuff from the past. But I also have produced songs with melancholic guitar harmonies and atmospheric keyboards that more follow the newer material from the last albums. Perhaps the next long player will become a mixture of old school and new school I reckon. One can never know because Bethlehem is no “drawing board” band constructing songs or so. Things happen automatically. Directly from the “heart and soul”, you know?
(((o))): Do you have a favourite Bethlehem album or one that is particularly special to you?
JB: Can’t say so because I like them all the same. Perhaps I like Sardonischer Untergang im Zeichen irreligiöser Darbietung a little better than the rest because it has finished an elder period and started a new chapter as well.
(((o))): I’ve been very interested to hear how groups perceive their own music – what is the inspiration behind Bethlehem? How do positive and negative emotions interact with each other?
JB: This maybe might sound a bit too easy but music is my main inspiration. Like a kind of drug which brings you to this wonderful place in a wonderful space. Personally I love music. That’s why I’m playing it. Without any limits. I just do what my heart tells me. The lyrical rest is motto. Even if it’s a completely personal one.
(((o))): What does a Bethlehem live show entail? Can we expect to see Bethlehem perform more often?
JB: If people want to see us? Or if we would get booked by somebody? Sure, we’re ready for it because we rehearse a lot again. Now we finally could get rid of this lazy studio line-up which basically needed 10 years to complete something like an already planned studio album trilogy we stepped back to what Bethlehem once was: a live oriented band investing time in the rehearsal room again. Therefore you can’t imagine how glad we are to no longer have to work together with such sleepy heads who more were interested in laurels than into the hard work a band usually means.
(((o))): Thanks for the interview. Any last words?
JB: Don’t know. Since the early days we were always connected to the UK somehow. So, greetings to all of you people, especially to the ones I know personally. Thanks a lot!