Interview: Lunatic Soul
'Fractured' is not only about loss and an attempt to reconcile yourself to it. It's also about what has happened to us, that we keep creating divisions between us. We live in the times of Trump, Brexit, the Catalan secession in Spain. We are locking ourselves up in our enclaves, we're building walls and standing on opposite sides of a barricade, we're fighting each other.
Riverside’s Mariusz Duda is no stranger to writing with great sensitivity about dark topics, but with his other musical project Lunatic Soul, Duda has produced five albums that shine a light into the deepest recesses of our fears: about death, loneliness, suicide and – on Lunatic Soul’s new album Fractured – about our disintegrating relationships with ourselves and each other. Dave Cooper caught up with Lunatic Soul’s lynchpin to talk about hope in the face of darkness.
E&D: Fractured is clearly a very personal record even by Lunatic Soul standards. So the first question I have to ask is: just how cathartic is the process of making such personal statements via your work as Lunatic Soul?
Mariusz: Lunatic Soul has always been connected with death. The first two albums are about a journey to the underworld, Walking on a Flashlight Beam is about sadness, depression and suicide. In the case of the new album, I didn’t have to come up with any new ideas, life had written the script for me. But I thought that, because there had been such a lot of misfortunes, it was time to make an album which would not describe what’s happening on the other side, but one which would suggest how to cope with someone’s passing. I wanted it to have a positive undertone and inspire to overcome fear. Which is why the main character is not someone on the edge of death but someone who wants to survive.
E&D: You’ve used electronic elements in increasingly bold ways on the Lunatic Soul records, and in that respect Fractured feels almost like a logical conclusion. Have you always had an affinity with electronica that perhaps wasn’t explored within Riverside? What sparked your original interest in the use of electronics in this way?
Mariusz: I grew up listening to electronic music. All the experiments with it within Riverside and Lunatic Soul are directly related to the music of my childhood. Electronica is in my music DNA, and keyboards were my first instrument. What you can hear on the new album is mainly connected with replacing oriental elements, which are not present on Fractured. And because it’s Lunatic Soul, not Riverside, I could allow myself to use electronics to a much greater extent than before.
E&D: Whilst Fractured is a very personal record, it also addresses your concerns about society as a whole, about the way that we seem increasingly divided from each other – whether by technology or by ideology. It’s certainly feels true that from a political and humanitarian point of view things are pretty dark at the moment. Can you tell us a little about your feelings on this and how they informed the album?
Mariusz: Fractured is not only about loss and an attempt to reconcile yourself to it. It’s also about what has happened to us that we keep creating divisions between us. We live in the times of Trump, Brexit, the Catalan secession in Spain. We are locking ourselves up in our enclaves, we’re building walls and standing on opposite sides of a barricade, we’re fighting each other. The Internet and social media gradually restrict our choices which divides us into those who agree to it and those who still want to be free.
E&D: The opening track ‘Blood On The Tightrope’ seems to suggest that we’re all walking on that tightrope every day, doing our best not to fall from it – what lies below? Despair? Acceptance of things best fought against?
Mariusz: You know, I’m referring here mainly to the indecisiveness, which many of us feel. And to the fact that in a lot of situations you have only two choices. Some people are flailing their arms in life as if they were trying to balance on a tightrope. And when they are flailing, they’re convinced that they’re doing something, that they’re moving forward. But the truth is, they’re standing in the same place. And when they are forced to make a decision, it turns out that they cannot take a step to the side, they have to either go forward, or retrace their steps, go back to where they came from, and wait for another opportunity. Usually, it takes something really serious, like the death of a relative or a serious illness, to redefine all the previous values and priorities, and make you break through the indecisiveness. Recently, the increasingly tense political situation makes a lot of people, who had previously been perfectly happy to stay at home, go out to the streets. It turns out that, ironically, we stop being indecisive, we stop to flail about or grumble when something in our life becomes “fractured”.
E&D: ‘Anymore’ in particular is clearly an extremely personal song with very pointed lyrics. How difficult is it to not only write but release material this personal? Do you worry about how much of yourself you reveal to your listeners? How much is too much? And how much of a toll does writing of this kind take on you? It surely can’t be easy!
Mariusz: We live in the times of image culture, the culture of internet videos. Unless there’s a naked picture on the cover, unless the clip is offensive or literal enough, nobody cares about how personal the lyrics are. I am not afraid of “baring my soul” because only about 20% of my listeners actually read and interpret the lyrics. The rest focus mainly on music. It’s a bit sad but true. Usually, I try not to go beyond the pale. This time, the album is very personal but there is nothing that my fans haven’t seen or don’t know about. So I didn’t have any reason to worry that I am revealing too much of myself. But that’s also the reason why I could create a universal story, which might somehow be able to help someone else. Just like it has definitely helped me.
E&D: ‘Crumbling Teeth And The Owl Eyes’ is a staggeringly emotive piece of work. In it, you talk about the solace that can be found in our children when the world seems especially bleak, but also about our fear for our children’s future being especially powerful. Is this something that you find preoccupies you? The idea that people worry about bringing a child into a world as dark as this one sometimes is seems to be a universal theme.
Mariusz: Well, there are the parents who want their children to grow up as quickly as possible. And there are those who want them to be children for as long as possible. A child’s sleep can be a good remedy for the adults riddled by nightmares. Being in the presence of a sleeping child, whose dreams are still free from constant falling into the abyss, can help you get through the night. It has definitely had a therapeutic effect on me.
E&D: ‘Red Light Escape’ addresses the idea that addictions can provide an escape from darkness, or a crutch by which it can be endured, but at a price – addictions can become prisons of their own. There’s some really vivid imagery here, it feels nightmarish. What served as inspiration for this track?
Mariusz: People cope with a loss in many different ways, they try many different things to survive when faced with a tragedy. I imagined someone who had managed to break an addiction some time before but the pain experienced after a loss was so strong that he decided to use the old habit to deal with it, to try to forget and erase whatever bad things happened to him. And that return to the addiction turned out to be the lesser evil, it was less destructive than the loss. It’s scary to think that this is the reality for many people every day. They are still fighting their pain…
E&D: ‘A Thousand Shards Of Heaven’ is very powerful. It also feels very hopeful, in that it describes a sense that, as you put it, “sorrow turns into strength“, although in the song the protagonist has yet to reach that place. As Kate Bush said, “just being alive, it can really hurt.” Is this ultimately the central idea of the album, that the time it takes to find some peace within yourself after some cataclysmic event can really take a toll, but that the alternative is not to endure it and surrender to the darkness?
Mariusz: In extreme situations that shake us to the core and change our lives, there are only two choices. One is to fight in order to survive, and the other – to give up and let go. On Fractured we’re definitely fighting, giving up is not an option, but there is still the problem of the passing time. In ‘A Thousand Shards of Heaven’ I’m talking about drawing strength from weakness, from what we’ve lost. Something that is destructive can always be turned into something that will give us and others strength in the future. It’s easier for artists who can use their work, pictures, music, books, to that end… Some of them are able to use all of their misfortunes and turn them into something really valuable.
E&D: Can I ask specifically about the inspiration for ‘Battlefield’? It’s extremely powerful. It sounds to me as though you’re talking quite literally about the human cost to those holding the darkness at bay. There’s that phrase: “If you look into the abyss too long, in the end the abyss will look into you.” Is there a parallel here to how we condemn our servicemen to lives ultimately consumed by the terrible things they’ve seen and experienced?
Mariusz: Here, in contrast to ‘A Thousand Shards of Heaven’, I’m suggesting that it’s better to destroy some of our memories, delete them, kill them off. If you want to move forward, you have to be like a soldier with a bayonet walking on a battlefield, killing off the wounded enemies. Before their scary, begging eyes burn out your soul, you have to get rid of your weaknesses. Otherwise, you can’t leave your past behind, you can’t get off your knees and move forward.
E&D: For all the hope expressed in ‘A Thousand Shards Of Heaven’, the closing track, ‘Moving On’, seems to accept that as a species we have already failed to some degree. The lyric works on two levels: as a commentary on a single broken relationship, and as a more general depiction of our increasingly entrenched social divisions in the world at large. Is the only way to escape from that failure to walk away from it? Do we need to experience something truly shattering to wake ourselves up and build something more positive?
Mariusz: There is nothing worse than being in a relationship when one person blames the other for their own failures. A lack of acceptance makes us blame each other for our own mistakes. It’s toxic and destructive. We live in such relationships, we live in such societies. Societies that await a miracle, passively observing changes. Many people are buried under obligations in their own micro worlds and are not able to feel truly alive or take control over their lives. Some will rebel, some will take care of themselves and make the most of their lives. Some can’t stand being passive any longer and start going out to the streets. ‘Moving On’ is mostly about breaking with passiveness, with giving in to others who take control over us.
E&D: Have you ever considered taking Lunatic Soul on the road, or assembling a band to perform any of the Lunatic Soul material? With five albums under your belt now, you could assemble one hell of a set list…
Mariusz: One more album, one more chapter, and I will complete the whole book. That’s when I will definitely play at least a few concerts with this project. You can take my word for it.
E&D: Lunatic Soul feels like a project that could go almost anywhere, musically speaking. That has to feel pretty special. Is there anywhere you’d like to go with Lunatic Soul, musically, that you haven’t yet managed to do
Mariusz: I am an aesthete. I usually take care to keep a given project within a defined music style. If I ever release something under my name, I will stop paying attention to that but for now I try to make the foundations unchanged and the style recognisable in spite of the lack of a clear music genre. I think I have a few more ideas to create an original mixture. Fractured has helped me go farther than usual.
E&D: There’s a lot of space in the Lunatic Soul records, a distinctive steady building of intensity within tracks and across the records as a whole. Do you feel sometimes the message can get lost in the medium if things become too cluttered with ideas?
Mariusz: If you do everything, you don’t really do anything. If you want to be an artist who is stylistically all over the place and does all music genres, you’re not really interesting. Quite the opposite, you’re boring because you’re like a shelf full of records. If your music is cluttered and packed with a billion ideas, you become a modern babble on everything. A bit of space and restraint goes a long way.
E&D: There’s continual debate about what the term “prog” actually describes. There certainly seems to be a movement to widen the definition of what constitutes “progressive” music, away from the perception that it describes a fairly narrow style of music. How do you feel about it? And do you feel that it applies as much to Lunatic Soul as it does to Riverside?
Mariusz: Progressive rock is a term coined in the 70s. Ten years ago I still thought that the new Prog was interesting. I don’t any more. The modern prog resembles a chaotic Spotify playlist. It turns out that the farther you are from that genre, the more interesting music you’re making. Riverside plays rock, Lunatic Soul is on the edge of ambient, electronica, oriental music and soundtrack. For me, the farther it is from progressive rock, the better. I just want to play good songs, sometimes longer and more developed, sometimes shorter, but most of all just songs spiced up with different kinds of sound.
E&D: With Riverside increasingly feted by the progressive rock community, do you ever wonder if there might be some resistance, stylistically speaking, to Lunatic Soul’s music?
Mariusz: I hope so. But I know from experience that the farther I run away from progressive style, the more I get rewarded and glorified by the progressive community. It’s a closed circle! [Laughs]
E&D: What’s your creative process like for Lunatic Soul? Do you deliberately embark on a period of writing for the Lunatic Soul albums, or do you accumulate ideas that “feel” like Lunatic Soul material over a longer period of time
Mariusz: No matter if I work on a new Riverside, Lunatic Soul, or project Z album, I always start from a blank sheet of paper, then I come up with the theme, the colour, the cover, the title and finally I compose the music. There have been very few exceptions when some tracks composed for album X ended up on album Y. I always do everything in the moment. And once I’ve finished an album, I don’t go back to it but start making another one.
E&D: Speaking of inspiration, you’ve mentioned previously that you watch a “massive amount” of movies. Are they a particularly rich source of inspiration for you? What would be your Desert Island movie?
Mariusz: Today? For instance Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.