It’s a gateway to another realm: interview with Okoi and Fabian of Bölzer

Right after their fantastic gig held in Dürer, Okoi and Fabian have sacrificed almost an hour to have a long conversation about music, about 10-string guitars, and about the forces of nature. Please welcome this interview with Bölzer of Switzerland.

What about the acceptance and feedback of the new material, are you satisfied with them?
OKOI: The album itself isn’t actually out yet, only one song came out. It was originally planned to be released on the 15th through our own store on Bandcamp, but due to a delay of the pressing plans, we just moved it all to the 29th which is the official release date.
So how was the reception of ‘A Shepherd in Wolven Skin’?
OKOI: The reception does seem okay, but we don’t pay too much attention to that, to be honest. We have a lot of other stuff to deal with at the moment like preparations for this tour, so we’ve been very busy, but it seems overriding the positive I guess… but I don’t really know.
There is one question what I always ask from everyone: could you tell me please with your own words, what kind of genré are you playing?
FABIAN: That’s something we don’t really define for ourselves because we have a very big and broad spectrum of influences, and we just draw from those genrés we like.
OKOI: Our music draws from some very staple elements of the extreme metal zone, it’s pretty deeply rooted in. We grew up with listening to heavy music, black and death metal, as well as all of the broad influences as Fabian mentioned before. I don’t like subcategories at all, so we try to refrain from using them ourselves, but it’s obvious that other people need to utilize them as well. If so, then it is an extreme metal band and that’s fine I guess.

You just moved to your own label what you have founded on your own. What’s the reason behind making an own label and moving to there?
OKOI: We wanted to exercise through that independence on all fronts. So that’s something we’ve been doing for a number of years generally, that’s the way how we see the creative process, having a band, and the entire business aspect behind that. You become wiser and if you’re so inclined then you choose to take that path or not, if you have the opportunity to do so. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think a lot of people are interested in that side of the machine. But for us it’s manageable, at least the horizon is foreseeable and it’s a challenge we wanted to undertake regardless.
FABIAN: And also because in the past we always did most of all aspects ourselves anyways. The label basically took care of distribution and logistics, but we were doing all the creative processes, all design.
OKOI: It just seemed logical that would happen at some point, and we felt upon the cusp of releasing Lese Majesty that the time had come to do that.

What about the time management? You are running the band, and you are also running your own label, so how can you manage these things timewise?
OKOI: That remains to be seen, but at least we’ve had the brunt of the hard work behind us at least leading up until this release. So it’s gonna be the same story whenever we choose to release something new. But it was an excessive amount of work regarding the initial restructuring of everything you need… so many things, we don’t need to go into. But we also reissued all of our previous releases as well, so they’re all available.

It’s a horrible amount of work.
OKOI: Yeah, but it feels good at least.
FABIAN: I feel, obviously, it was a big learning curve but now that it feels like we have this machinery going and I think it won’t be that much of a struggle anymore now.
OKOI: Now we can focus on the creative side of things.

Just a questions about timing and stuff like that. Do you have your own families?
OKOI: We don’t have any children, no.

Probably a too private question because I know that your father [Paul Ubana Jones] is also a musician. Had your dad the chance to participate your gigs?
OKOI: Yeah, some of them, one or two in New Zealand, and I think one in Europe. But as you know, they live on the other side of the world, they can’t attend very often. But my father and my mother are fans like Fabian’s parents, they support us wholeheartedly, and they’ve all done a lot to assist us.

So then dad was proud of yourself?
OKOI: Yeah, yeah!

A little bit different question about your guitar. I think that’s a special custom instrument. Would you not mind to tell some details about that, what about tuning and strings and stuff?
OKOI: Yeah sure. The one I’m playing now is a ten string as I’ve always been playing for Bölzer. I used to use BC Rich Bich and I basically played that for a while, but I wanted to use a deeper tuning after some time, and it wasn’t possible with a normal mensure. I had to get a baritone guitar, and after one other custom, which was unsatisfactory, I had to move to this one I have now which I’m pretty happy with. I’m looking at getting some other ones made, which are more suitable for touring weightwise. It’s pretty basic set up really, it’s a standard A-tuning, and the high four strings are doubled as you would with a tall strings, so the lower bass strings are single. And I have the two highs tuned in octaves of one another, and then the other two are unison, so it creates a natural choir effect. Regarding the lower strings, it would make no sense for me to have my bass strings doubled, it is unnecessary.

One of the double strings is a thinner one, and the other one is thicker. Does it have any kind of meaning?
OKOI: One is an octave of the other, so the lower one needs to be thicker otherwise it would be too floppy.

Are you using any kind of special effects, and what about your pedal chain?
OKOI: I split my signal a number of ways into numerous channels, so I’m using three guitar amps or three guitar signals, and then two bass signals as well. And one of them is focused on subsonic frequencies so more around the minus one – minus two octave mark, and the other one is a standard clean signal going to bass amp.

Who figured out this guitar setup and this guitar chain setup? That’s your idea to do everything that way?
OKOI: Yeah, for the last eight years or so. It’s not that complicated really, it’s simple compared to a lot of other guitarists. My friend Hanno from Mantar, he’s a gearhead and he’s given me tips a long way to help out. He does something kind of similar but with a completely different tonal range. So yeah, it’s exciting, and you just have to learn from what doesn’t work. It’s…
FABIAN: …an ongoing process…
OKOI: …trial and error.

So it’s more or less a trial-error learning curve for you?
OKOI: Yeah, and I pretty much stuck to my setup as it has been for the last six or seven years like regarding amps, the guitar tone… I use amp distortion solely, I play Orange amp, and I rely on those tones as well, they are quite important.

So you have this single guitar what we have seen on stage?
OKOI: At the moment yes.

What happens if something goes wrong with the strings?
OKOI: It rarely happens if I take care of my strings or I change my strings regularly. I was planning to have two new guitars for this tour, but the luthier failed to deliver, so we had to part aways, which is very unfortunate because I was looking forward to having two ones which would have been my backup.

So at the moment you are playing with no backup on the stage. Are you using any kind of backing tracks or anything like that?
OKOI: Not at all.

But that happens in the case of a mistake?
OKOI: Really bad mistakes you don’t really make. You make little mistakes all the time, but we don’t see ourselves as a … we’re not very technical players and it seems we don’t focus on perfection and technical wizardry or anything like that.

But still, everybody can make mistakes…
OKOI: Oh yeah we make mistakes all the time but they’re usually not grievous mistakes which just allow the song to collapse on itself. You improvise as well if something should go gravely wrong, then you can improvise that noise a little bit. But no way, we wouldn’t never use backing tracks.

Have you ever had the idea to increase the number of band members with a third person either on guitar or anything like that, or you are happy with a duo configuration?
FABIAN: In the past, we thought about it a couple of times…
OKOI: …when we formed…
FABIAN: …when we formed initially we where three pieces here.
OKOI: We tried that for a brief amount of time but it didn’t work out.
FABIAN: We basically need to kick out our bass player because he wasn’t as involved as we were in the project, and played our show as a two piece just because we didn’t find a new bass player in time and the whole formation grew from there.
OKOI: And it really welded us together at the initial performance and we realized okay, we were kind of left in the sticks and we had to make the most of the show, and it worked out fine. We felt pretty great about the atmosphere we created together, so we just continued to build upon that. Initially it was a little more naked than it is now totally because the set-up was much simpler. Whenever people ask me why don’t you get a bassist, then there is a number of reasons. This project has started when we’re only two people and we share a pretty special relationship, a friendship, and an aesthetical understanding regarding music where we want to go with it. So there’s no room for other people at this point to come, that wouldn’t make any sense, I would rather form another band.

Just moving a little bit towards the music and the creative part of the story: do you have any kind of formal musical education?
OKOI: No.

From your dad?
OKOI: He gave me my first guitar and showed me my first chords, and then I took a few classes at school learning folk songs and stuff like that, and then I started to teach myself. Classical guitar is what I used to train… it was quite pretty hard actually on the acoustic guitar for a while with classical pieces, but then I’d lost my discipline. And I was just learning heavy music, Nirvana and Metallica songs, old school stuff, when I was like 15 and 16, so took off from there.
FABIAN: I had some drum lessons as a kid for a couple of years actually…
OKOI: …I mean this guy is like self-taught and what he does metal wise, certainly.
FABIAN: I mean when we started the band, I wasn’t really a metal drummer, I played in hard rock bands before. I did listen to metal for a couple of years but I didn’t play a single blast beat in that project so it was just a evolving with Bölzer.
OKOI: The demo is basically a representation of you teaching yourself that style.
FABIAN: I think you can hear certain aspects of rock drumming in there as well which we’re both very fond of, you know, really simple stripped down measures and focusing on the power of a beat instead of the speed with a technicality.
OKOI: It’s more about having… maintaining some kind of a rhythm.
FABIAN: And I’m still not playing any technical blast beats with my wrists so I use my whole arm because that’s the way I used playing. And at the tempos we play at the moment, it just barely works, but whenever I tried to play faster and more technical stuff, it just doesn’t feel right for this project because I feel it needs that rawness and also loud hits.
OKOI: It wouldn’t work if he was doing highly proficiently trained superfast blast beats… it just wouldn’t match the music. As he was saying it needs that rawness and honesty, and that’s the way I play my guitar as well.
FABIAN: More about the attitude.

I think this attitude was crystal clear when you started, the energy just come through, so considering the complete attitude of the band, I had the same feeling as the band name describes. I can’t translate it to my own language but I can understand more or less the meaning, and that come through exactly.
OKOI: Yeah, you’re very right, you’re on the point there. The name is related to the entire way we execute everything we do.

…like a bulldozer…
OKOI: It has nothing to do with the bulldozer, that’s some ridiculous translation some idiot may have. Obviously lightning is a factor here, as a metaphoric correlation to what we do musically, and our philosophy on things. But there’s a number of different aspects you could apply to the situation: faith, death… any sudden change that makes human being unsafe and puts him out of his place… self reflection, changes, the forces of nature…
FABIAN: …the forces of nature are channeling just raw energy…
OKOI:…absolutely… It’s all very honest and very basic really. We’re into, as Fabian mentioned, the principles of nature and life… we already have too many fantastical themes in the music. It’s more like philosophy, history, aesthetics and stuff.

So those things are inspiring you? That’s where the songs are coming, and that’s where the inspiration is coming from?
OKOI: Sure.

What is your way of making music, how are you creating songs?
OKOI: Because I’m the principal songwriter, I write the lyrics and the music on the guitar, and it’s essential that Fabian and I come together and make the song, otherwise it’s just a naked batch of riffs. So I bring ideas into the rehearsal room, or they are created in the rehearsal room together. Even traveling in a plane or a train, we have some ideas that we later transpose to music, and it’s an ongoing process that usually takes a long time for us. We like to let the creative process have a rhythm on its own and don’t force it. The results were kind of unsatisfactory if we forced it, so usually they sit for a while.

Is the songwriting is an iterative thing for you, a trial-error thing, or everything arises in your mind, and you can have almost ready parts what you can change?
OKOI: It’s everything… it depends on the way you are feeling, your cognitive ability on that day. Sometimes you write something on the spot and you use it as it is, but more often not. As I said before, it’s a process of having a number of ideas and trying them out in a certain context. If they don’t work, try differently, let it sit for a while. It’s a bit difficult to put into short words, it’s a long process. I think everyday life is important to the whole thing anyway, what you experience as a person in between all of those moments of rehearsal or writing, are essential to what happens at the end.

Are your song static, or they are changing with time?
OKOI: Yepp, that’s an interesting question because we feel they change as well sometimes. I mean not totally but there is room for movement.
FABIAN: Definitely, yeah. I feel that we play pretty strictly what is recorded, because the recording marks the moment when you kind of put a song into stone. But afterwards, over the years it definitely changes, but it’s more about nuances, just feelings. The song, as it is, doesn’t really change too much.
OKOI: I guess it changes in the sense that every person changes with time, and you don’t seem like you used to on the demo. So when you play it live 8 or 9 years later, it sounds a bit different.

A private question related to your family and origin. Your father is British-Nigerian, your mother is Swiss and you used to live in New Zealand for a while. Which culture and which nationality you think to be the closest to your personality?
OKOI: I feel at home in a number of places. I feel at home in Europe and Switzerland for obvious reasons as I was born there and I speak the language. I feel at home in New Zealand as well for obvious reasons because I spent half my life there too. But I also like to be in many different places around the world. I enjoy travelling, I enjoy moving and I don’t like being sedentary. I love European history a lot and I have a deep passion for the history of Europe as a whole, but I also have a fascination with my background. I’m very mixed origin and I want, for example, to go to Africa for a while and spend some time there because I think that would be really fascinating for me.

So you haven’t been in Nigeria?
OKOI: No, never, but that’s on my bucket list, it’s on the top of my list.

Two questions left, one is something what you almost answered. So what’s the role of the lightning which is visible on your body as a tattoo, as necklaces, as a band logo and as a logo of your label? What’s the importance of that?
OKOI: I think we touched it briefly because it is strictly related to the band name as well. At least in the Swiss usage of the word, there was a direct analogy between Bölzer and the force, the natural force of lightning, the strike, change, energy being inflicted in a direction or a situation which is unchangeable. And you can take that further as fate or death or life as well. For me it has to do with the element of illumination. The force of lightning is definitely taken on that word for me.

The last and final one, what I always ask: what the music, and the metal music means to you?
OKOI: Music is everything to us… as it is to many people. Music is a language that cannot be spoken, but can be spoken as well, but no one completely masters it. I think it’s a really fascinating and mystical thing. Music is a magical force, it has the ability to move people, to influence people, to change people that nothing else does.
FABIAN: For us it’s also something like a common ground, grow ideas, exchange ideas, grow together as friends and persons.
OKOI: It’s also a game, it’s a gateway to another realm. It allows you to communicate with one and another in a way that nothing else does. Art does the same thing… it’s the same medium, essentially it’s just a different element.
FABIAN: It’s also a constructive release for a lot of things, that you would otherwise just carry with you and that might have a negative impact on you. But through music, it is a big catharsis.
OKOI: Absolutely!
FABIAN: It’s something very healthy…
OKOI: I think it has its primitive but very important role, as you said, it is an outlet venting, but it’s also a source of inspiration, improvement, challenge, enlightenment, growth. I think it shows you your weaknesses and strengths in a different way.

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