Interview: Svalbard Leader Says New LP Was Worth The “Weight”

Great Britain’s greatest post-hardcore band Svalbard released arguably their greatest album to date late last year: The Weight of the Mask (Nuclear Blast). Now in their 13th year, Svalbard’s potent sound is captured on the new release in all their glory, even more strongly than on their three previous full-lengths.  

Lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist Serena Cherry agreed when New Noise caught up with her around the time of the record’s release. Thanks to the four band members bravely slicing off more material than ever before—making The Weight of the Mask a taut, nine-song affair—Cherry felt a sense of confidence that enabled her to also be more honest than ever before in her lyrics.

Over the course of our candid conversation, Cherry delved deep into the album and its songs, while also keeping an eye on the past and the future. She also revealed that Svalbard have already banked parts of six tunes for future release and plan to tour exhaustively in 2024—perhaps even, finally, across the U.S. We bring you our full interview today ahead of Svalbard stepping out for another U.K. and European swing on Mar. 6.

What are you most proud of with The Weight of the Mask, this fourth album of yours?

My guitar leads. I’m always really pushing myself as a guitarist, not to play faster or treat it like a sport, but just to create melodies that will be able to hit the listener in the heart. And there’s been a few comments complimenting my guitar leads—that’s been really nice to (hear) when it feels like you’ve poured everything into (an album) musically.

Each of your records feels like you’ve poured yourself into them. I’ve been hooked on Svalbard since your first album (2015’s One Day All This Will End). Did you spend time learning to play guitar better or differently during the two-year period you spent writing? How did you develop those guitar leads?

What really influenced my leads this time was, during lockdown, I learned a lot of other people’s songs. I am a self-taught guitar player, so I don’t have much technical prowess in the same way as someone else can when they pick up a guitar and have all these different techniques. What I know (how to play), I figured out for myself. Learning other people’s songs, learning songs by Baroness and In Flames and Children of Bodom, really pushed me out of my comfort zone. Then I took everything I learned from playing their songs and put that into everything I was writing as well.

On a side note, are you a bigger fan of early or late In Flames? Or you not make that distinction?

My favorite In Flames album is (2000’s) Clayman. I like (1997’s) Whoracle as well. Anything post-Clayman is where it starts to trail off a little bit for me.

Coincidentally, Clayman came out on Nuclear Blast—the label to which you’re currently signed. And now they’re back on Nuclear Blast.

Yeah, how cool is that?

How did the Nuclear Blast signing come about?

They approached us, I think, mostly due to the success of our third album, (2020’s) When I Die, Will I Get Better? That (record) received a way bigger response than we were expecting, to be honest with you. It felt like a huge step up, like (we had) reached a lot of new people. They got in touch and arranged a meeting, and their vision for working with us seemed to really fit with what we wanted to do. It was such a no-brainer. I was absolutely delighted, because all my favorite bands are on Nuclear Blast. I’m just happy to be part of that (team). 

Do you feel like the ideas on this record are best suited for that label versus previous albums that you’ve put out?

Definitely. I know this is cliché to say, but I feel like with this fourth album, we’ve really honed in on the musical elements that make us, us. We really trimmed the fat and were quite meticulous with the writing process. Nuclear Blast got us to a much more mature level of songwriting than a couple of albums back. On (One Day), I didn’t really have much confidence to do clean singing. And yet that was (what) got a lot of response on (When I Die)—songs like “Listen to Someone,” which had a lot of my clean singing. So, by the time we (signed) to Nuclear Blast, that was an element that I’d grown into.

Did you guys feel comfortable trimming the fat this time around because Svalbard have more experience and confidence than ever before? Is it also because, originally, the band was your solo project, and now it’s evolved into a team effort where there’s multiple people doing that trimming?

It’s weird to hear it described as evolving from a solo project, because I would say my solo project is how (rhythm guitarist/ vocalist) Liam (Phelan) and I met. That was when we realized we were musically on the same level and when Svalbard was born. (Also,) I have a (black metal) solo project called Noctule.

The core three of us—Liam, Mark (Lilley), and I—started jamming in a room together (in 2011). Everything I did up until that point was just paving the stones that got me into a room with them. So, in terms of the meticulous songwriting approach, I think the key factor is that we’ve toured together for so long. We’ve been together as a band for so long, it enables really honest communication—especially when it comes to writing together.

We got to a place with album number four where we were really good at giving each other feedback. We got very good at being able to say, “That riff doesn’t really add anything,” “Maybe the drums need to change there,” “Maybe the vocals shouldn’t be there.” When you’ve got four voices in the room giving that critique, that’s when you’re really trimming the fat. That’s when you’re shaping (a recording) to be the best it can be.

The production sounds more crisp on The Weight of the Mask versus previous Svalbard albums. Does it strike you the same way? If so, was a conscious decision made to create a sound that’s more direct and more scaled down?

It’s an interesting question, because we’ve worked with the same producer every album: Lewis Johns at Ranch (Production House in the U.K.). He’s absolutely fantastic. When you go in (the studio) to record an album, he’ll always say, “Give me some examples of modern production that you really like, that you maybe hear while working with this album.” For The Weight of the Mask, I played him the most recent album by Insomnium (2023’s Anno 1696). It’s my favorite Insomnium record. That album and its clarity with the guitars was a huge benchmark for me. I really love the blend of the guitars in Insomnium and their, as you say, crispness. (After I gave Lewis that reference points, he) took it from there and worked his magic.

You’ve spoken about the honesty of Svalbard. Does that apply to both your studio performances and songwriting? How has that theme been prevalent in your life? Does being honest connect to the record having a motif of a mask and the weight of it, and the burden of pretending somebody you’re not?

There are very few scenarios in which I can truly be myself. Being in the room writing music with my bandmates is one of those few scenarios. That’s perhaps why I treasure (honesty) so much. The Weight of the Mask is referring to a lot of things outside of that: being around family, in my day job or sometimes even around friends.

When you’re really struggling with depression, it can get so dark that you don’t want to let it show. And then there’s also an external pressure. I think society in the last 10 years, we’ve got a lot better at encouraging (mental health treatment) if you don’t feel OK. Words like “depression” and “anxiety” aren’t stigmatized in perhaps the same way that they were. But we’re still not great about talking about the reality of mental illness. It’s something I’ve always felt like pressured to hide. That’s where the album title comes from. 

I’ve had similar struggles. One of the toughest challenges, in my view, is reaching out to friends when you don’t want to bring them down—especially if they’re not acquainted with deep depression themselves. How do you overcome that?

I know exactly where you’re coming from when you say that. It’s something that I experience a lot as well. I tend to find, when I’m in a really dark place mentally, (that) I do isolate myself a bit, which can make it worse. But being around people who don’t understand depression or aren’t able to empathize that much can also make you feel worse. If you’re depressed and reach out to someone who’s never experienced depression, you have this conversation where it’s like talking to someone on the other side of the mirror. And that can be more isolating as well.

I haven’t really found a coping mechanism that works 100 percent for me. My worst coping mechanism (is that) I tend to just make myself incredibly busy. I have a really hectic day job in the games industry, and I just take on all the work I can possibly take on and then make myself very busy with (it). And then (I) end up (being) too busy to have time for people. Then (I) get more isolated, and the cycle continues.

When you take on a lot of work like that, does that leave less room for your musical endeavors?

This year (2023) has been a balancing act. I’m trying to seize every opportunity in the games industry and also have time to pick up my guitar. We’ve just come off a tour, and that was great. That’s probably the longest I’ve been able to spend with my instrument for a really long time, and that felt amazing. It’s not just a case of carving out the time. You could just sit there and go, “Oh well.” But (if you) tell yourself you’re going to play for an hour at 9 p.m. every day … that’s another thing that can stop (if) you (aren’t) in the right mood. You can’t force it when it comes to playing an instrument.

What do you do when you’re on tour and aren’t in the mood to play a show? How do you trick yourself into into getting through it?

That’s a really good question. I think I reach deep down inside and I find that 12-year-old kid in her Slipknot hoodie getting bullied at school, dreaming of being in a band with like-minded people and being able to share that amazing experience of playing live. I remind myself of all those times I went to shows. That’s the one thing I’ve looked forward to for weeks or months, and how much that could mean to other people who are there. That is where you end up drawing your energy from, if the energy doesn’t come naturally that day. 

Love it. That’s a good advice for anyone, really. What you do in the games industry?

I work for PC Gamer and GamesRadar, two outlets for games journalists. I’m a social media editor, so I basically write shit on (X) about games and make memes and videos.

Is it fun or stressful?

I love it. It’s really fun. It’s also really time consuming.

I bet. Social media never turns off, does it?

Exactly. It becomes very difficult to switch off.

When I Die was one of my favorite 10 records of 2020. I’d been acquainted with your music before, but that one really hit home for me. Your new one is going to be on my top 10 for 2023 too. What was the germ of this fourth record? You started writing it right after COVID, right?

We started writing this album pretty much straight after we’d recorded When I Die. Some of these songs, like “Lights Out,” we’ve had since 2019. We were trying to get it on the third album but couldn’t quite piece it together effectively. It was one of those songs that we tore apart and reconstructed and tore apart over and over and over again.

Because we are a band that writes collaboratively, we (like to get) all in the same room and jam. That’s usually how the songs take shape. COVID and lockdown really put a delay on us being able to get together because some of us live in different cities as well. We couldn’t travel, we couldn’t hang out for months. It definitely slowed the prices down. But (when) we could get together, we were writing very intensely for quite a long period of time. This is the longest amount of time we’ve ever spent on an album. It (took) at least about two and a half years to write it.

I can see why you would hold off slapping “Faking It,” the Weight of the Mask opener, toward the end of a record. That performance is so strong, so hooky, it almost has to be a first track on a record. It grabs you like no other one of your songs ever has, in my opinion. Was that the thinking that you had too, like it was going to be a real good jumping-off point for the next album?

Yeah, definitely. I remember when we went to record it as well, Lewis was like, “That’s the opening track of this album.” There’s a lot of things, when it comes to track order and or what should be a single, all these decisions where something should go on an album, people in the band tend to have loads of conflicting opinions on. But “Faking It,” that was the unanimous one. Everyone was like, “OK, that is a single, that is track one of the album, that’s an opener.” I think it works really well. It sets the tone. It’s probably one of the more high-energy tracks that we’ve written, really. It’s really fun to play live as well. 

Do you anticipate that touring is gonna be most of what you’ll be doing in 2024? Or are you gonna balance that with work too?

The plan is to tour as much as possible (in 2024) and to play in countries that we’ve not yet played in.

What will some of those countries be?

Well, hopefully, the States. At the moment, it’s just the financial side (that needs managing,) with the visas being as expensive as they are. We are working on how and if we can afford to do that. Same with Canada and Mexico. We’d love to go back to Japan as well, because we had a really great time when we played there in 2019. (There are) loads of places we wanna go. The rest of the guys in the band are really excited about Australia. I’m really scared of spiders, so I made them promise me that I will have 100 percent spider protection at all times, or I’m not getting on that plane.

Are they going to circle around you to stave off the spiders? What’s the plan to protect yourself?

I was thinking maybe I need a hazmat suit, but spiders can still get in that because they can squeeze into anything. Maybe I need to be surrounded, sort of a bodyguard scenario, and (my band mates) can remove (the spiders) as soon as they get near me.

For you, the only thing scarier than the thought of a spider being on your body must be the thought of one getting into a suit that you can’t get out of quickly.

Yeah, definitely. That sounds like hell.

You’ve had different members of the band come and go over the years. Do you feel like this is the most comfortable configuration of Svalbard’s lineup far? Matt Francis has joined since the last record, on bass, right?

Every band has their one (instrument) that is a bit rocky in terms of dedicated members. Ours has been bass. It feels like we’ve had millions of different bass players by now. Matt is now, officially, the longest-running bass player we’ve had, because he joined in 2020. That’s a good three years. We should get him cake or something, because that’s an achievement. It’s working really well at the moment, and we’ve had a really nice time with him (on tour). I’m hopeful maybe he’s the one.

Just watch out he doesn’t explode on you like all those Spinal Tap drummers did.

That’s what it feels like, yeah. We have the bass equivalent of Spinal Tap drummers. (They) explode into a pile of goo.

How’s the reception of your new material on in concert so far?

Oh my gosh. I could not believe the reaction. We’ve put quite a few new songs in the set, and people in the crowd already know all the words. (The new) songs were getting the biggest cheers, the biggest reactions and circle pits. (The crowd reception is) absolutely more than I ever could have dreamed. I always feel like, when you release an album on release day, it’s cool and everything, but it really truly feels like you have released an album when you play those new songs live for the first time. That’s when they’re truly born.

The other bands that you’ve cited so far in our conversation, I believe they all have disproportionately high amounts of clean vocals. Does using clean vocals drive home your lyrics, and are they why audiences are able to sing along?

Music is a language in itself, with the lyrics on top. I’m a big believer in ultimate clarity. (That’s) the editor in me coming through, making things as clear and concise as possible. It’s really important for me that our lyrics have that power of resonance, and that anyone can read them and know exactly what I’m talking about. And if they relate to it, then they hopefully feel less alone. That’s (what) I really prioritize with our lyrics.

In terms of delivery, it’s interesting … sometimes I love it when you’re listening to a band and the person is screaming so intensely that it just sounds like a demonic noise. You can’t even pick out the words. Obviously, that’s a really common criticism of metal from outsiders: “You can’t hear the lyrics.” I think you can. It’s an acquired ear. Like, you build up that ear to be able to understand what a metal vocalist is saying. With the delivery of the lyrics on The Weight of the Mask, you can pick out what I’m saying. Sometimes, I would actually say, my scream is perhaps more clear than my cleans because my cleans are so soft. I’m not, you know, Christina Aguilera. I do not have that ability to belt things out. I wish I did. I always try and make it the words as audible as possible.

That’s cool. Have you noticed a greater number of women coming to your shows over the course of the 12 years you’ve had this band?

It makes me so happy to see more women at our shows, and also more women that we share stages with. There was a time 10 years ago where we would play an all-day festival, and I would be the only woman on the stage. When we get to pick our support bands, we always pick bands with women in them, and now we are spoiled with choices. We just took Bones of Minerva from Spain on tour with us, and that was absolutely incredible, getting to watch them every night. They’re really inspiring women. Yeah, I feel like things have gotten so much better for women, both in (terms of) the audience and as musicians in the metal world.

That’s awesome. You’ve mentioned festivals a couple of times. Which one in Europe do you like playing the most and which ones do you have your eye on for 2024?

Hellfest was absolutely incredible. That’s the most obvious answer, but it’s true. I’ve played at quite a few metal festivals, and I’ve also visited (countries) a lot just to go to the festivals as a fan. Hellfest really is above and beyond anything else you can expect. They say it’s “Metal Disneyland,” and it really lives up to that expectation. There’s so much to see and do. The sound is incredible. The guest experience … you’re really looked after. You’re never struggling to find water or somewhere to sit down or somewhere cold to chill out. Playing there (in 2023) was a dream come true.

I would love to play Wacken (Open Air) in Germany because I’ve been there many times as a fan but never played it. Getting to play Inferno (Metal) Festival in Norway (in 2022) was another dream come true, because that’s one that I’ve been visiting since I was a teenager. I really love that festival. We went on after Arcturus, who were one of my favorite bands.

How many more singles do you think you’re going to squeeze out from The Weight of the Mask? Or do you not look at it in that way, given the day and age in which we’re living?

We have one more song that we’re going to do a video for (“To Wilt Beneath the Weight”). We actually shot the video for it fairly recently, and I’m really excited to see it.

Last question: Did you wind up with a lot of material on the cutting-room floor from this recording that might pave the way for the next one, the fifth album?

Absolutely. I’d say we have about like six songs’ worth of bits and pieces. When something is on the cutting-room floor with Svalbard, it’s not gone forever. It’s just that it’s something that’s not working right now. But we can revisit it, we can come back to it at another time. It’s never gone for good. But also, I wrote this riff that I really love, that’s heavily inspired by Ghost’s latest album, Impera. That riff is now the opening track of my second solo album. Really excited to have that one released in the wild in the future as well.

Yes, how is the next Nocturne album shaping up?

It’s been a bit of a nightmare. I’m having trouble with the production side and programming the drums. I’m in that stage at the moment where I’m overthinking everything. But I am also really excited to be making it.

Can’t wait to hear it. I hope you give yourself plenty of breaks. Thank you for making music that’s captivated me as a fan in addition to as a writer.

Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate how in-depth your questions were. Thank you.

Order The Weight of the Mask from Nuclear Blast. Follow Svalbard on Instagram and X.

Photo by Justin Reich

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