UK post-metal group Svalbard returns this week with their brand new album, When I Die, Will I Get Better? The title itself is a striking question that forces deep introspection, the kind that worms its way into the deepest layers of our mortality. When guitarist and vocalist, Serena Cherry, found the question on the cover of a children's book, it forced her to think of answers to this question. In that search, she found many answers that pertain to different facets of life. Even still, her interpretations do not match that of her fellow guitarist and vocalist, Liam Phelan. Yet, it's a perfect title for an album that is as deep, brilliant, and multi-faceted as the thoughts its name provokes.
Mental health and societal issues have long shaped Svalbard's music. Cherry writes with a certain bluntness that isn't seen from many lyricists and her, Phelan, and their bandmates craft arrangement. Songs like "Throw Your Heart Away" and "Listen to Someone" dive into the darker tiers of depression and other mental illnesses. Meanwhile, "What Was She Wearing" and "The Currency of Beauty" tackle the constant objectification of women and, indirectly, the toll it takes on Cherry mentally. Svalbard also takes on metal media's penchant for reactionary headlines and misused quotes on "Click Bait."
These subject matters are all layered into crystalline compositions rife with hardcore and post-metal ideologies and shoegaze stylings. When I Die, Will I Get Better? is a wonderful coalescence of instrumental experimentation and lyrical terseness that is sharp and incisive in its delivery. It also comes at a most tumultuous time for the band. The recent fallout surrounding Holy Roar Records, their former European home, is the feather in a cap of a roller coaster year for the band's members. However, Svalbard's strength as friends and bandmates weathers any storm in their path. The result is a band at its best, delivering their best songs to date.
Metal Injection sat down with Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan to discuss their new album and the ideas and situations that fueled its lyrics and arrangements. An eight hour time difference meant as my morning coffee ended, their dinner was approaching. Cherry has been working on a solo black metal project recently and stepped away from it to chat. Phelan, in the midst of spending time with his partner, also set aside time to talk.
Listen to an exclusive stream of When I Die, Will I Get Better? now ahead of its release tomorrow. Also, read an in-depth discussion with Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan. Pick up a copy of the record from Translation Loss Records (US), Church Road Records, (Europe), and Tokyo Jupiter Records (Japan).
It's been a tumultuous few weeks in the lead up to this record, but ultimately you all have found a new European home for your record, When I Die, Will I Get Better? in Church Road Records. How have the last few weeks shaped the release and the meaning of this album?
Serena Cherry: That's a really good question. [laughs] Firstly, I want to say thank you for being the first person to get the album title right! The last couple of weeks with the allegations that were made against Alex Fitzpatrick, the owner of Holy Roar [Records], and the allegations being of the nature of sexual abuse—it almost goes without saying it's everything that we stand against in Svalbard and stand against very vocally.
So, the fact that this has happened around the release of this album, an album which is full of songs about questioning this ideology that a woman deserves to be raped because of what she's wearing and questioning the ideology of treating women as trophies or judging them only on their looks. The whole album is sort of about the way we treat women and the aggressive sexualization and possessiveness towards their bodies.
Then for allegations like this to be so close to home and so wrapped up and inextricably linked with the album has been—I mean, basically, I haven't slept for like two weeks because it's such a pain for me as a woman. It's such a painful thing to read about and a painful thing to hear people's stories. We've always been a very, very outwardly feminist band and I take so much flak on Twitter for that. Then this sort of thing happens and it's so close to home. It's very hard to articulate how it's made me feel, but it definitely makes you question everything.
Liam Phelan: I'm still processing the whole thing. As Serena said, we had to remove ourselves from the label because it's something we are completely at odds with. We had to put our words into practice—even though it was two weeks before the release. In some ways, we may have harmed the release, but it was definitely the most important thing to do in this situation.
Cherry: I'd always rather the release was harmed than it came out on Holy Roar Records, to be honest. It’s just not an option anymore after those allegations. I lost all capacity to think in that way, you know what I mean? I wasn't thinking about, “Oh, we’re not going to get views on YouTube or we're not going to sell records…” because, you know, we don't make money from it anyway. So, I'd much rather we stay true to our integrity. We practice what we sing about basically.
I feel like in that situation, it’s the only decision, right? To not sacrifice the entire core of your band for record sales, for clicks, or things of that nature. What have the last two weeks kind of shown you all about yourselves as individuals? It's had to have taken its toll but it all kind of speaks to your collective resiliency.
Cherry: I'd say we’ve actually become better at communicating as a band. During COVID we've been in different cities and we're obviously not practicing as much and we’re just not as in contact with each other as we have been in the past. I think that also comes into play with things like we don't have any shows coming up. So, we don't really have those end goals. But then a situation like this, we've all kind of banded together and supported each other. The group chat has been a lot more active because of it and that's actually really nice to feel like we're all on the same page again, even if it is all on the same page against some really dreadful allegations.
And I've learned that I just can't deal with it. I'm so hypersensitive towards this stuff, anything to do with sexual abuse or women being harassed and stuff like that because I've experienced harassment myself and it just really was incredibly triggering. As I said before, I haven't slept for like two weeks and just couldn’t—you know, when you have nervous energy and there's nothing you can do to get rid of it? I felt so awful about everything that happened. It’s almost like ‘guilty by association’ being a band that was on this label.
I've definitely learned it's good to have the support of your bandmates around you during these difficult moments and that when push comes to shove, we can all really be there for each other.
Phelan: I agree.
The cause of the uncertainty in your album release and the allegations around Holy Roar Records highlights a problem in the music industry as a whole, which is abuse in many forms. While the circumstances surrounding Holy Roar are around one individual's sexual abuse, the music industry struggles with abuse of power in many forms. There are unreasonable, entangling contracts for bands. There are instances of attempts to silence accusations from people on labels. Musicians and figureheads use their status to things they want or feel they're entitled to how to spell words, music, combat these things that happen in the music industry.
Cherry: It's weird. It's like we're using the music industry to shout about everything that's wrong within the music industry. [laughs] It's attacking the beast from within the belly, I guess. I think that's the reason why the lyrics are so direct. That's a reason why the song titles often are blunt. As a lyricist, I want to make it abundantly clear that we're not just sort of wearing a badge of feminism because it might aid us. It's basically just the Testament song, “Practice What You Preach.” We are the living embodiment of that.
I would say it's definitely like a kind of speaking out from within, like sort of saying, “Hey, look, this is a fucking cesspool. Let's sort of let's really make use of the noise of metal to make noise about these problems.” I think a large part of it is because they're desired industries.
It's not the same as in my day job where I just turn up and I get paid and that's that. You’re not considered lucky to have a job in retail, whereas you are considered lucky to have a job in music or the film industry or the fashion industry. Then, in that way, they become exploitative industries because it becomes: what will you do to obtain these roles? How far can we push people? What can we get away with? People are so willing to do anything for these more desirable jobs. And I think that's something that needs to be brought into question.
Phelan: A lot of these jobs start with internships don’t they? That's the only way into them is because you have to work for free to even go for in the first place. You have to be ok with being exploited from the start.
There are many instances in popular media lately, especially over the last handful of years, with this increased transparency in these industries. Thinking music, even stepping outside of heavy metal, the allegations and situation with Ryan Adams. Or if you go into movies with Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K.—it's these people who, as you said, have this power and they begin to exploit it for their own gain. They also see situations to potentially exploit someone who's in a lesser position than them.
Obviously, it can be very difficult to be in that position and think, “I would act in the right manner.” But what needs to happen if it's caught or seen by the people involved or people around that to mitigate those situations?
Cherry: I think for me personally, there needs to be a larger kind of responsibility on all parts, that it's just not acceptable behavior anymore, that kind of locker room talk and viewing women as conquests and everything about obtaining a woman in a sexual way.
It starts like a really young age, doesn't it? Sort of like secondary school. It becomes a prevalent discourse that it's all about obtaining the women that you want and things like that. I think as soon as we change that way of talking about women, then people can question themselves and their desires and where that actually comes from. Then hopefully that will change because I think it's really difficult to call people out.
Imagine if Louis C.K. had asked me to watch him wank in his office. It's incredibly difficult to put yourself under that pressure and spotlight to be able to say, “This person, this hugely powerful, influential person who is adored by millions of people, did this kind of thing.” And you end up with a real case of like shooting the messenger of, you know, the person who speaks out becomes tarnished and challenged.
You get met with a lot of, “Oh, you're just saying it for attention…” So I think one thing that really needs to happen is to change the way that we talk about women in general from a really early age, but then also to change the nature in which people speak out about these things to make it a safer way to do those things rather than just sort of opening yourself up to a lot of doubt and abuse and accusations of your own.
There's a lot of people that say, “Oh, they're calling out celebrities! These girls are only doing it for their own fame! They're only doing it to make a name for themselves!”
Women can make a name for themselves without having to resort to this. The fact that people use that as an excuse in itself is so fucking sexist.
Cherry: I think it makes a real impact when another guy challenges a guy's behavior because they just seem to be more listened to because then it's not, “Oh, stupid women moaning on…” If a guy who is also another guy is telling you, “Actually, that's not what I think…” It does have more power to make people rethink their actions.
One example I can come back to is when Sam Carter from Architects called out a guy groping a lady when they were playing a show. That seemed to have way more weight and power to it and made a lot of guys I know realize just how wrong it is from a guy saying it was wrong rather than all the women I know say, “Yeah, I get groped at shows and it sucks.” It took a guy saying it for more people to stand up and take pay attention and take it more seriously.
That situation that you mention does kind of bring up an interesting dichotomy too. Men and women in the music industry and industries at large have their own angles to this issue. I think both of you discussing this emphasizes and shows this dichotomy itself. It's the matter of people not believing women for what they say creates this whole mountain to climb—to have these allegations and taken seriously.
Then from the men's perspective, you have to break that notion of “it's one of the guys.” It's using the power that you have in that situation. Unfortunately, there's still that shift in power but being able to use that power to really try to make some positive change and help women out in these situations is huge.
Shifting gears, I wanted to ask now that you're with Church Road Records, which is Justine and Sam—who used to be at Holy Roar as well. Where was the decision to stick with them for the album release in Europe versus self-releasing or going anywhere else?
Cherry: We've worked more with Justine over the last four years on Holy Roar than we have with Alex. Alex was very much kind of the silent overseer of everything. Justine was the one we'd be emailing back and forth about all the day to day stuff of being a band on a label. So, we had a really good working relationship with her already. Then just from discussing with her when all of this imploded, I think the fact that she immediately walked away from the label was really—it's COVID! It's really hard to get a job at the moment.
I mean, what stance is that? That's so powerful. That is such a strong move on her part and the rest of the guys on Holy Roar. I think that really showed me that they were on the same page as us in terms of ethics and morals. Then, discussing with them their plans for Church Road and the fact that she was so hardworking to make sure the detriment to this whole situation caused the album was minimal.
It just made me really happy. It’s not like I didn't have faith in her before, but I've got triple faith now in her. So, to me, it was a no brainer. It seemed like the absolute best option to go with someone who really cared about us as a band and understood us already as a band.
Phelan:I completely agree. It was a complete no brainer. She’s already put in all the hard work on the album. To take that away from her with two weeks to go would be ridiculous. We were a team already and for all of us to step away from the label, it makes sense for us to continue as a team going forward.
Absolutely. It's just different branding almost at this point, from what it sounds like when she had all the work already. She's got her own name now—her own brand.
Moving into the record itself. The title of your new album shares the name with a very morbid children's book. I read in a recent interview, Serena, you talked about how the title really stuck with you not only as someone who's living with depression but for other parallels that can be drawn in mourning losses and religion. Would you both be willing to expand on what the album title means to you personally?
Phelan: Yeah, well, to be honest, Serena is the one who deals with the album title and the lyrics, so that’s her side of the “business.”
Cherry: [laughs] Well, does the album title mean anything to you?!
Phelan: [laughs] Well, of course, it does! I mean, full disclosure, when Serena said she wanted to call the album that I said, “Hmm. Let me think.” [laughs]
But I think it is a great title. For me, coming from a very Catholic background, a lot of my family believe in life after death and the way they live their lives now is very much about thinking of an afterlife. I'm kind of slightly—I’d say realistic, not pessimistic. I think you can live your life the way you want to while still being a decent person and trying not to impact negatively on other people without having to think about anything happening as a reward afterwards. Life itself is a reward. That’s what I take away from it as the title. Its life-affirming.
Cherry: It's one of those phrases where every time I say it and hear it, it makes me wince with how raw and how blunt it is. I remember stumbling across that book and—you know, when something shocks you and it makes you laugh? It was like that. I just kept thinking back to when I die, will I get better?
Then the more I thought about it, the more I kind of applied it to other things. I think it definitely struck a chord with me immediately in terms of coping with depression and feeling like death is a relief from mental illness or an option for escape from that kind of thing.
I feel that ties in with “Listen to Someone,” because when I say that, I realize I'm saying something really scary. The album title almost is about that same thing. Some people need to be prepared to actually hear about the sort of darkest depths of depression and the places your mind goes to, rather than saying, “Oh, yeah, you can talk to someone…” but they can't deal with people who actually genuinely talking about what your brain goes through when you're struggling with a bout of depression.
You know what's really interesting as well another publication has done a piece on this and they've taken the narrative that I was depressed in 2019, but now I’m better. It's actually completely against what the songs are about. They said, “I started going to jiujitsu and now I'm fine!” It's literally what they say. I thought that was really interesting that people still want this idea of a movie ending to things. They want it to be, “I was sad and I've written an album about being sad, but don't worry guys, I’m not anymore!” Depression doesn't work like that and I think the album title serves as a little reminder of that.
That is really unfortunate about the publication. When I got the album and saw the title, and then in prepping for this, looking it up, and then seeing the book that it comes from, I said, “Oh my goodness gracious, this is heavy.” It really forces some introspection no matter the severity of what people deal with—depression, sadness, anxiety—these internal battles we fight. It really kind of forces some deep thought. Does this all go away at some point?
Cherry: You know, I still haven't been able to bring myself to read the book.
I found it on Amazon. There are only used copies out there. I don't think it got a second publication. There might not be a second edition out there.
The title of the record, again, kind of naturally weaves its way into the subject matter of the album, as you stated, and many of the songs do touch on mental illness to some degree or other. Some of the songs are pretty overt in addressing these and other songs seem to approach it through certain things that affect your mental health like relationships and the double standards and objectification of women. For you both, how does either writing lyrics or constructing the arrangements throughout the album help you with the things that you face on a daily basis?
Cherry: I'm going to be really honest and say when I was at my absolute lowest last year, nothing helped and that was when I knew how bad it was. Normally from my day to day life, you're always fighting these battles and you always have bad internal thoughts. But things like going to band practice, playing guitar, writing some songs together would always offer me escape. I’d become really focused on one thing, stop thinking about everything else for a while.
That was always kind of just a form of relief to me. But then I knew it got really bad in 2019 when we were still writing this album and I just wasn't there mentally at all. Riffs were still happening and things, but I wasn't immersed in the writing of it anymore. When it gets up there, there's not really anything you can do. The only metaphor I can think is you're in a car and your mental illness is at the wheel and you're sat in the back staring out the window going, “I've got no idea where this is going anymore.”
Lyrically it’s kind the opposite in the sense of I'm a selfish creator. I don't sit there and preconceive an idea and think about how it's going to affect other people or what other people want or expect me to do. I just vomit out whatever it is that's inside of me and clean it up into a song. So lyrically, it was very cathartic because I would go to write a song about the objectification of women, but then the despair comes through on each one.
I think especially even on “Click Bait,” there’s that bit where I say, “I'm sick of being a stick for misogynistic bears to poke.” There's definitely an exasperation in the lyrics that maybe wasn't there before and that was from dealing with depression at the same time as dealing with all the shit in the world.
Phelan: The other thing was the juxtaposition of points in this album. We were living together when most of this album was written. When Serena was at her darkest point, I was actually experiencing some real jubilant happiness. So, we were kind of at odds with each other. I was coming up with riffs and ideas that were probably coming from a place of joy and love and Serena's lyrics were coming from a place of complete despair and lacking in hope.
I think there were points that were quite difficult because we had a different outlook on how stuff was happening, and we were in different places emotionally.
Cherry: I think you almost hear clashing on the record. What was really weird was some of the prettiest riffs I've ever written, like the lead on “Listen to Someone,” is one of my favorites—that was written when I was really sad. I look back and I go, “How did I even do that?” I think it was it was the sad brain behind the steering wheel, he was doing all the work.
Sometimes you can't explain what comes out when you're in that mental state. There is definitely that kind of tension on the album between where Liam was coming from creatively and where I was, but maybe that's what gives it an edge.
How did you two living together—whether it's through the music you wrote or just life itself—help find some stability?
Cherry: It was probably us not living together anymore that did that! [laughs]
Phelan: [laughs] Yeah, we definitely had some tense moments writing this album
Cherry: Liam’s vegan and I cooked a sausage in his pan.
Phelan: You don’t mess with a vegan person’s pan!
Cherry: I think as the months went on, it became very clear we're very different people and we were really different places in our lives at the time. It was probably quite grating. I think we get on better now that he's moved to London and we have 100 miles between us now.
Phelan: Sometimes we’re a little bit like brother and sister aren’t we?
Again, I think it speaks to a collective resiliency. This situation where Liam letting Serena live with you speaks to a kind of bond. Other bands when they get put in situations that bond gets tested. In some cases, it breaks.
Phelan: We’ve managed almost ten years now of arguments and falling outs, and some really, really good times.
Families argue! It happens!
Cherry: That's a really nice way of putting it—to talk about strengthening the bond. That's the best way to look at it.