Kristian Larsen Tells Us Why Manticora Will Always Be A Concept Album Band

Manticora's new album arrives on August 28th as the second part of a sweeping story arc that began with 2018's To Kill To Live To Kill, and is titled, appropriately, To Live To Kill To Live. This is not the first time the Prog-Thrash Metal band have taken on a big concept and stretched it out across a double album. Witness The Black Circus which was released with meticulous attention to detail and had critical success. But the two new albums are based on a horror novel that the band's Lars F. Larsen wrote and published in 2018, which makes the whole project that much more distinctive.

Guitarist Kristian Larsen kindly spoke with Tower's PULSE! about the development of the double-album and the band's thoughts on their past and their future, and also shared his excitement that the two-part project is the first of Manticora's works to ever be released on vinyl.

Hannah Means-Shannon: What’s the idea behind the outfit worn by Lars in the new promo material, the suit and the hood? Is it a blood-spatter suit, basically?

Kristian Larsen: Yes, it is actually. It’s one of the main characters in the book and on the two albums.

HMS: Presumably the antagonist? [Laughs]

KL: Yes, it is. It’s supposed to be scary.

HMS: Because you worked on the two albums together, does that mean the new album has been complete for some time now.

KL: Yes, both albums were created together in three years. The songs on the first album were more finished than the ones coming out this time, but it was a matter of small details. All the demos were made, the entire concept, and both albums were done at the same time.

It was on purpose because we wanted to have the same feeling to the music for both albums. The problem is that if you wait a few years and stop writing the new material, things can happen. As musicians, you might say, “I don’t like this kind of music anymore.” It was important for us to stay in the concept and make all the songs at one time. So, yes, they’ve been ready for a while now.

HMS: That is an incredibly smart decision that I haven’t heard anyone comment on before. It makes total sense that over a period of years, any band’s sound might shift as they try new things, and then a two-part album might not fit together correctly anymore. Did you come to that conclusion because you previously worked on a two-album set with The Black Circus?

KL: Not really, because we did the same thing for The Black Circus albums and made all the songs at the same time then, too. We had some discussions in the band back then because some other band had done the same thing, but too many things had happened in their band, including a change of lineup, and it meant that the two albums were completely different, since it had made a huge impact on Part 2.

To me, it’s very important that if you sit down and make a two-album concept album, they should not be too different. It was important on The Black Circus albums, but it’s especially important on these two, since there’s a lot of new material there.

HMS: Wonderful. What are some of the core sound ideas that you had on this double project?

KL: Actually, we never thought about sound. It was more talking about the style and approach in the music. It was more about what direction we wanted to take. We never talked about how it was going to sound. The thing was, we had so many things going on, and when we did finally sit down and talk about sound and production, we said, “Actually, we aren’t intelligent enough to talk about sound. We just create the music, deliver it, play in the studio and hope for the best.”

HMS: [Laughs] I disagree that you were not intelligent enough to do it, but I understand. What about the mood and tone of the project?

KL: Yes, definitely mood, and tone, and approach have been a big thing for us. Every part on the guitar is thought of in a special way. That’s the difficult thing about doing a concept album, especially two like this time, is to create the music in a way that you can feel the history, in the riffing, in the drums, in the instruments that we put on. Definitely the tone and the approach are important, saying, “This is a hard-hitting track; This is a soft track; This is an evil track.” All these moods have been well-thought-out in each song. That’s very important to us.

HMS: It seems like a Modern Metal Opera in the arc of the two parts, and I know that it all comes from a book that was written at the beginning of this process. When I look at the story, I can tell that the basic aspects of the story are kind of universal and could be set in any time. But in the video for “Eaten By The Beasts”, for instance, we can see that things are going on in modern times.  Why was it important to make it modern, too?

KL: Well, actually, that’s because in the book there are a lot of stories set in the present, going on in modern times. The thing is, we have story elements from 1200 and 1400 in Korea and Japan, and we have stories going on in present times, so it can be difficult for us to bring it all together.

“Eaten By The Beasts” is a very modern story, and it could happen tomorrow, so we needed to put it on a stage that people can relate to. Also, it would be almost impossible, with our budget, to create videos for stories going on in Ancient Korea or Japan. So it made sense that we took one of the present stories and made a video for that.

HMS: The video definitely has a lot of impact. If people think these kinds of things couldn’t happen in modern day, they’re wrong, and the video will remind them of that.

How was building The Black Circus any different for you from building this two-parter? Were there things you feel you changed up or learned from?

KL: Both Black Circus albums were written in a rehearsal room, with us standing in front of each other, trying a lot of things, discarding a lot of things. So it was the old-fashioned way. We’d write a song there, and when we were satisfied, we moved to the next song. So we started from scratch, tried out different tones, different riffs, different parts.

These two new albums were made in an office building, actually. They were recorded on a computer, all the drums were programmed in the beginning, and all the demo songs were made in my tiny studio in a basement. One of the biggest things we’ve done differently, aside from tracking on a computer, is that instead of meeting two or three times during a week, we met on weekends.

We’d meet up Friday afternoon and start talking about what kind of song we’d do that day. We had a whiteboard with all the songs on it, and said, “Okay, this one is going to be “Eaten by the Beasts”’. The lyrics were already written, and we’d split up. The rule was that we could not meet up again for an hour. The only thing we would agree on first was a tempo: “This one is going to be 180 beats per minute. It’s a fast track or it’s a slow track.”

Then we’d meet up again in an hour with ideas. Some of them were slow, some of them were happy, some of them were aggressive. Then we started recording everything and programming drums. It was like a puzzle that we started to put together. Some weekends we managed to create one or two whole songs. That was extremely effective instead of meeting up on a Tuesday after work, being tired, and looking at each other and saying, “I have nothing.” This was very efficient and we ended up making a lot of songs in a short time.

HMS: That’s amazing! I know many bands that would just not have worked for. You’ve worked together for a while and know each other pretty well, so the end result of the brainstorming session is not too far apart to be useful.

KL: Yes, exactly. Well, sometimes we’d have 15 different ideas, and maybe only two survived by evening. But then we had Saturday, too. The important thing for us was that we were together the entire weekend. No one could go back home. Our main focus was to create at least one track from start to finish. It wouldn’t have to be final, but the skeleton had to be there for the whole track. It was an interesting process. Some tracks were written very quickly, but some took several weekends. Sometimes all the parts wouldn’t fit together.

HMS: Did you like that process enough that you will continue to use it in the future? Is that your new method?

KL: Yes, definitely.

HMS: Well, it’s not new, it’s been four years, I guess!

After this giant project, are you ready to work on something less-concept driven, or are you going to keep writing these stories and coming up with these larger projects?

KL: As we speak, I’m really tired, since it’s been a huge project. I’m done with music for a while, but we actually had a meeting a few weeks ago about new projects. And we all agreed that Manticora, from now on, will always be a concept band. We all agree that the third dimension in making music is having a good story behind it. Because if the audience only listens, they will have two dimensions, but if they read and experience this third dimension, I think that the art form in itself becomes much bigger.

Some songs become bigger, very evil, or very sad, and that’s been very important for us, especially on these two albums. In future, we will always have a story behind the songs. There will always be a concept that gives extra spice to the final artwork. We will always be a concept band from now on.

HMS: That’s great to hear. I like that answer.

When you performed and toured in 2018 for the first album, were there elements of the design and presentation that tie in with the storytelling? How important is the audiovisual to you? I’m sure that plans for 2020 live performance are paused.

KL: Well, as we were talking about the new artwork, we had our lead singer, Lars, coming on stage in that suit, with the sword, so it was important for us to have this opening, especially on the first album. Some of the songs on that album are this guy performing his deeds. We needed to have that on stage because he’s a huge figure in the story, so he was a big part of our live performance in 2018.

On the new album, this pandemic has set back everything, so now all our live ideas are currently on hold. The entire stage act is all on hold. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We have a few gigs in Denmark planned, but it’s going to be a very small crowd, and they have to sit down to experience it. So it’ll be very different for us.

HMS: That’s quite a contrast, to have a Metal crowd sit down quietly in their seats, but on the other hand, I’m sure people would be happy to have any show at all to go to right now!

KL: Yes, exactly. The entire industry is bleeding at the moment. These are strange times and the music industry is being hit hard. It’s part of the game to be together and be packed in, in small room or a large room. It’s really sad for us, and it’s a hard blow for the entire industry.

HMS: It definitely is.  

I heard online that 2012 was a very big year for Manticora and that was the same year that you performed at the Wacken Open Air Festival. I heard that more writing started happening after that, with more concepts coming in. Why was that such an important time for the band?

KL: I think what happened in 2012 is that we finally hit the bigger stages. Manticora had always been a warm-up act for other bands. We had been touring for many years as an opening band, and that was great for us. But in 2012, we actually stood on the big stages more than we had ever done before.

We had a huge explosion, and our name was being mentioned among other big bands. People started talking about Manticora even when we weren’t on tour. That gave us a sense that maybe we should do this in a more concentrated way. We saw a glimpse of the future.

Manticora has always been a band doing it for the fun of it, and we’ve always had fun doing it. We’ve never been controlled by a record label, for instance. We’ve always said “no” to things that we didn’t want to do. But in 2012, we saw that we could start deciding what we wanted to do. We played a lot of bigger concerts, and we, as a band, started looking further ahead. We wondered what our next move should be.

Before that, we’d ask, “Should we do another album?” “Uhhhh…yeah, okay.” But in 2012, we started saying, “Okay, let’s do this!” We had a plan for the first time.

HMS: Thank you for explaining that. That makes a lot of sense.

The band uses storytelling elements, and you want people to read and see the visual aspect, as well as experiencing the music. Why, for you, is the music the most important element, then? You could go make movies, or just write books. What are the benefits of telling these stories with music as the main artform and others just added to it?

KL: As an artist, I’ve always been very connected to music. In a dark room, I can listen to music, and in my mind, I can see an entire scene unfold. It can be an instrument, or a special tone, or noise. Music has always been the ignition for me, as an artist, because if I close my eyes, a screen will appear in my head. It’s never been the other way around. If I see something on TV without music, I almost feel blind. I need the music to tell me what is happening. It’s easy for me to take music as the first step.

Sometimes if I’m sitting around in my studio, playing around with instruments, making noise, things just happen. Sometimes four hours have passed, but I don’t know what time it is, and I’ve created something that could be set in Japan or Korea. It all started with one instrument, and I could see the fields, the sunset, everything. It all started with one tone on a weird instrument. That’s how I do it, and that’s why music is the first step for me as an artist.

When the music has been created, it’s very hard for us to match pictures to it. It feels so much a part of us. The artwork for this album has been very difficult, especially for the guy making it for us. He made a ton of artwork, and we’d say, “Nah, it’s not really that color. That spider is too small.” The music is the first step for me as an artist, and for the others, I know.

HMS: It reminds me of what you said earlier about how expansive the idea for the story can be, so much that it would be difficult to capture it in a video, even with a large budget. The music is bigger compared to these other artforms.

KL: Yes, definitely. I was asked in an interview, “When will the movie come out?” And I said, “Well, never.” I’m still caught up in the music and they are ten steps ahead of me.

HMS: I honestly hadn’t thought of that. Maybe since there’s a book, they assumed there would be a screenplay?

KL: Yeah, probably.

HMS: What sort of things do you do outside of music to keep you from getting burned out on creating albums or touring?

KL: First of all, I work 8 hours a day doing other stuff. I’m employed and work 9 to 5 every day, so it’s easy for me to relax when I get home and do music. The other thing is that I have my family, and we have this huge place in the countryside with fields and a huge forest. I love just walking around doing small stuff, with plants, and the horses, taking a dip in the lake.

That’s what I do to actually run away from the music, because it can be a curse to be always making music. It’s a curse that I love, but it can haunt me sometimes. Then it’s very nice to have the place I live with my wife and my kids, and it’s nice to be doing something from 9 to 5 that has nothing to do with music.

HMS: That helps explain how Manticora has kept going for a fairly long time now, by having some balance there. Because if you just did that every day, you might feel that you have to step back from it.

KL: Yes, and all of us in the band have 9 to 5 jobs. Every time we meet, it’s like doing football or tennis, but someday we do want to take a whole year out and just make music to see what will happen. But we’ll need to raise some more money first. It would be great, though.

HMS: Has it been difficult to do touring while holding down other jobs? Have employers been understanding about that?

KL: All my employers have been understanding about that, but I’ve said in my job interviews, “Please bear in mind that I’m a musician, and I need to take time off.” All of my employers have agreed to that. I’ve told them, “Look, I know there are rules, but I’m a musician and sometimes I’m away for three weeks.” And my employers have said, “You do that. No problem.”

HMS: That’s so great.

Have you ever been to a Tower Records?

KL: I think I went to one in New York.

HMS: Yep, that sounds right. Well, we have a motto, “No Music, No Life” and also, “Know Music, Know Life”, and we like to ask musicians which they prefer and what it means to them.

KL: I like “No Music, No Life” because, as I said, I’m creating music in my head all the time, every day. So if I had no music, I would have no life today. If it was taken away from me right now, I don’t know what I would do.

HMS: Is there anything fans should look out for online from Manticora?

KL: Firstly, there will be another video before the release of the new album. It’s not done yet, but it will probably be a lyric video with art from the album. Maybe some of us will be in the video, but it’s still a work in progress.

The other thing is that this is the first Manticora album to be released on vinyl.

HMS: Yes! Wonderful.

KL: So that’s a new thing, fans should check us out on vinyl.

We’re also going to do a live session through Facebook where fans can join a group, ask us questions, and chat with us. We haven’t decided when that will be, but probably after the release of the album. We will a pick a time when international fans can join in. Watch our Facebook page for more information on that.

 

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