Our band’s drum-tech has been my secretary for two years now [laugh]. When I found out that a politician’s secretary needs to be a very careful person with a strong attention to detail, I immediately thought of our drum-tech. I’ve never seen anyone with such a strong attention to detail. He didn’t know anything about politics, but he was a meticulous guy. He’s perfect!
Amidst the intensity of Chthonic’s unique strain of extreme metal lies a sense of grandeur and sensibility transcending stylistic and cultural borders. As longstanding ambassadors of oriental heavy metal, the Taiwanese quintet have made their mark on the genre through their blending of symphonic black metal and melodic death metal with traditional Taiwanese instrumentation and melodies, their greatest strength coming from the passion and pride with which they present their nation’s cruelly unsung culture and history. Twenty-three years in, the band’s career continues to soar to new heights, carried by critical success and an unwavering sense of ambition. Battlefields of Asura marks the band’s eighth studio album and a majestic return five years after 2013’s Bú-Tik.
The album also marks the first full-length opus since vocalist and band leader Freddy Lim’s exceptional emergence as an influential politician. As both the vocalist of one of East-Asia’s most successful metal bands and a central figure in Taiwan’s political arena, the forty-two-year-old has recently found himself leading a double life unlike any other after founding his own political party and being elected into Parliament. However, Freddy’s devotion to political affairs as a congressman has done little to undermine the man’s musical passion, whose precious free time has been recently spent in planning a surprise club concert announcement to celebrate the album release. Honored by the opportunity and humbled by the frontman’s down to earth kindness, we got a chance to catch up with Freddy to talk about Battlefields of Asura, the band’s history as well as his newfound career in politics.
E&D: As with your previous records, Battlefields of Asura is a concept record, more specifically a prequel to the “Souls Reposed” story ark which started with Seediq Bale (2005). Can you tell us a little more about the album’s concept?
Freddy: To keep things short, our concept albums have been following a main character called Tsing-Guan, who is a medium with the ability to travel to heavens and hells, find the book of Life and Death and rewrite History. Our previous albums revolve around him and his friends. Battlefields of Asura tells the story of how Tsing-Guan got his powers form the Gods and Goddesses. It takes place before Tsing-Guan was born and it talks about how the divine powers gathered and possessed him. He is also an embodiment of the God Asura.
Almost each song on this new album represents a God or a Goddess and tells the stories and ideas behind each of them. The last song ‘Millennia’s Faith Undone’ is about how all of these powers gather together and give power to Tsing-Guan.
E&D: The title of the album also carries a double meaning as well. The Taiwanese 政治 also translates to “harsh battlefields”, thus relating the concept to the different struggles we face on a day to day life. Can you tell us a little more about this side of the concept?
Freddy: You’re right, the characters 政治 translate to ‘Harsh Battlefields’. Nowadays we in Eastern Asia use the term to describe the battles of the gods but we also use it as a metaphor for the fights we lead in modern days. We think it’s a good title for the story concept but also for all of the values and ideas behind each song. I have been through a lot of things in the past five years, namely with my involvement in the political arena, which has brought up a lot of deep emotions within me. During the songwriting process, I focused on how to write the ideas of each God and Goddess but I’ve also had many reflections and felt a lot of connections with all of these values and ideas I was writing about.
E&D: Have these reflections affected your relationship between yourself as a songwriter and the character of Tsing-Guan? Do you identify with or “embody” the character more, whether it be in the lyrics you write about or even through your performing them onstage?
Freddy: [Amused laugh] I didn’t really think about it in this way. During the songwriting process, I was putting in a lot of my own emotions into the songs, but I didn’t really think about my personal connection with Tsing-Guan too much. On previous albums I would write songs to describe the story but on this record I was trying to describe the story with my own emotions. So I guess you’re right in a way, I naturally found connections with the main character. I was writing about the superpowers that Tsing-Guan got from each God and Goddess, but I was also writing about what each of these stories inspire in me.
What the stories of Gods and Goddesses inspire in me most likely relate to what I’m doing at the present moment, whether they deal with compassion, patience, courage, the bravery to face the unknown, facing regret… I felt strongly connected to all of these stories. I think it’s because I need all of these values to support me.
E&D: During these five years since the release of Bú-Tik, the band recorded an acoustic album as well as a Soundtrack album. What have you learned from writing, arranging and performing these new forms of compositions and has it affected Battlefields of Asura.
Freddy: I think we learned some things from producing the acoustic album, namely how to better blend the melodies between the modern instruments and the traditional instruments. When we were re-arranging the acoustic songs we basically took all of the sections apart and tried to reorganize them, which made us think about what we can do to improve the relationship between modern and traditional instrumentation. On Battlefields of Asura it’s harder to separate the individual instruments from the whole. On previous albums I can always find some traditional instruments that were a little bit too much or “deliberate”, but on this album I don’t categorize the instruments as much, they all work together perfectly as one. We also learned things from the soundtrack album as well because we tried to use many pieces of melodies from different songs and rearranged them into the soundtrack of the movie. After making these two albums, we learned how to make our material work better with different instruments.
E&D: I couldn’t help but catch a very grand operatic feel to the songs, perhaps more so than on any of your previous records. Can you tell us a little more about the influences and the overall atmosphere you had in mind when writing the album? What sort of material did you start from?
Freddy: I always started with keyboards or pianos. In Taiwan, all of these Gods and Goddesses are well known stories that have been adapted into traditional operas and movies already, so there were many ideas and influences that I inevitably found myself influenced by. It was quite easy and natural for me to collect all of the materials and find the right way to connect them to each other. Everyone in Taiwan knows about these Gods and most people have read about them or watched a movie about them, so there was a lot to be inspired by. After Bú-Tik, I had started to accumulate some materials but we were not sure what the concept of the album was going to be. We just collected musical ideas and we gathered a lot during that time. In early 2017 when we decided on the concept, I started to organize these ideas naturally and started writing more material to complete tracks.
E&D: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read that your mother is a singer in a traditional oriental orchestra. Would it be fair to say that she influenced your approach to writing and singing?
Freddy: She’s not really a professional, but I think she sings opera quite well. Maybe you’re right. It’s hard to say, because I’ve been influenced by so many different things, whether it be by my mother or my grandmother. My grandmother enjoyed Taiwanese opera a lot so I spent most of my evenings watching Taiwanese operas on TV with her when I was in kindergarten and elementary school. So I guess I’ve been influenced a lot by traditional music from my grandma’s interest.
E&D: It is particularly interesting to hear how Chthonic’s discography gradually evolved to openly embrace traditional Taiwanese sounds. Were these influences something that you rediscovered or simply something you carried in you yet didn’t “dare” to mix with metal?
Freddy: [Laugh] I think it’s somehow related to growing older [Laugh]. You gradually discover more things deeper within your heart, things that touch you. I can remember a time after Mirror of Retribution (2009) when I discovered that there were a lot of Taiwanese Operas uploaded on YouTube and that I could sing most of the main themes. I knew the melodies well. After that, I started to remember how much I enjoyed watching them with my Grandma when I was young. I had forgotten about it. I also started to realize where I had gotten some of the Taiwanese-styled melodies from on Relentless Recurrence, Seediq Bale and Mirror of Retribution. These melodies were deeply engrained inside of me; I just didn’t find out about it until then. After that, I started to dig deeper inside myself and found a lot more material naturally.
E&D: I’ve read and heard several interviews in which you stress the fact that you do not consider Chthonic as being a political band, that you keep your career as a musician and a politician and activist separate. However, the main theme of all of your albums deal with Taiwan’s history, which I understand is somewhat taboo, with a lot of it being covered by the Kuomintang government. Would it not be fair to consider this an act of political resistance?
Freddy: [Laugh] I think it’s fair for critics to analyze our music. However, our guitarist Jesse and I write most of the songs and we always work on the songs together, but we never talk about political issues. The truth is that when we are writing something and when we are discussing the concept of the albums, we never talk about political issues nor what we want to convey behind our songs. What we do talk about is what kind of stories and intentions can inspire us to metal that carries big emotions. We go for stories that carry very heavy emotions that can let us express our anger, sadness and other intense emotions.
E&D: Has your life as a metal musician caused you to encounter prejudice in your political career?
Freddy: I think that before I decided to run for parliament, most of the ordinary Taiwanese people already knew about the band, whether they listen to metal or not. Most of the general public see Chthonic as pioneers for using local elements to write about Taiwanese stories in rock music. Most of the people – especially young people – see us in a positive light. However, when I decided to run for Parliament, my Conservative opponent started to criticize me over my hair, my tattoo, my lyrics or how I perform on stage. They tried to find ways to attack me for being a metalhead, but I don’t think it worked, most people didn’t take the criticism seriously. Although my opponent has been in Parliament for five terms (which amounts to twenty years), he only embarrassed himself by attacking metal music.
E&D: That’s interesting to hear. I’m half French, and while we do have a big metal scene in France and one of the biggest metal festivals in the world, the metal scene still suffers from prejudice from politicians who have tried to cancel Hellfest, stating that the festival attracts dangerous extremists.
Freddy: Since you’ve raised the question, I think that might be because rock music in Taiwan started to emerge with the democratic movement in the mid to late nineties. Many rock artists and indie artists have been working with social movements since that time, so these artists have never been considered in a bad light. Then again, if Taiwan becomes a long-established democratic nation in the future, people might not see rock music in the same way anymore.
E&D: I’ve heard that you have a David Bowie poster in your office. What does he represent for you as a public figure, as a musician and a music fan?
Freddy: I’m just a fan of his music [laugh]. I like his songs a lot and I play a lot of his songs. I also force my staff to listen to him a lot [laugh]. Actually, more than half of my staff in my office are from the music industry, so we talk about music a lot. Some of the staff I recruited graduated from Law School but worked in the music industry. Our band’s drum-tech has been my secretary for two years now [laugh]. When I found out that a politician’s secretary needs to be a very careful person with a strong attention to detail, I immediately thought of our drum-tech. I’ve never seen anyone with such a strong attention to detail. He didn’t know anything about politics, but he was a meticulous guy. He’s perfect!
E&D: Can we expect some upcoming tour dates; given that you are now an elected congressman?
Freddy: I don’t think we can tour to promote this album, but we’ve agreed to play some festivals in Taiwan and abroad. Speaking of which, we just decided to play this next Wednesday on October 10th. We decided that once we find some space in my schedule we’ll just randomly announce a club show. This week I just found out that I might be available on Wednesday, so I told the band to book a club. We’ll make the announcement on Tuesday to make sure that there won’t be any last minute changes in my schedule. These kinds of events might happen in Taiwan for Taiwanese fans, but these cannot happen anywhere else [laugh]. The title of the show will be something like “I’m available tomorrow motherfucker!” [laugh].
E&D: Finishing off: can you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
Freddy: Since we talked about David Bowie, I’ll pick Heathen by David Bowie. Film-wise, I want to pick an episode of Rocky, but not the first one [laugh]. I’ll go with Rocky II. My favorite book is a Taiwanese book called Modern History of Taiwanese in 400 Years. It’s a book that has been banned in Taiwan for a long time. The people who were found reading this book would be arrested. This might be the only left-wing Taiwanese History book. It’s not an easy book, but it always inspires me a lot every time I read it.
Special thanks to Freddy Lim and to Kelly Walsh for making this interview possible.