“There’s no point in making another album unless it’s going to be better than the last one.”
Metal Band PYTHIA made a welcome return to the West Midlands as part of a tasty package with Atrocity and headliners Leaves’ Eyes. Before the gig, at the Institute in Birmingham, Midlands Rocks Paul Quinton joined lead singer Emily Alice Ovenden, guitarist Oz Wright and bassist Mark Harrington to talk about their forthcoming album, the band’s image and how the band approach making a new album.
This is the last date but one of the tour, how’s it gone so far?
EO: It’s gone pretty well. We’re playing a lot of new material and obviously, as this is the first tour Oz has done, we’re just getting back into the swing of it and I think it’s going really well.
You’re second on the bill, sandwiched between a Death metal band and a symphonic metal band, and while I know you don’t like being lumped in with other bands, do you think it’s been a good fit?
EO: We don’t really like being lumped in with anything. I don’t think any band does, but yes, I do think this has been a good sandwich for us.
Do you mind if I ask you something personal? I’ve seen you in various guises, with Pythia,. with the Mediaeval Baebes, with Celtic Legend, you’re a published author. How did you wind up in this particular band?
EO: Well, basically, Marc Dyos, the drummer, approached me six years ago now, ‘Would I be interested in singing in a heavy metal band?’, and I said ‘Yes I definitely would’, and we started writing together with Ross White, which is how it all started.
With all your different roles, how easy do you find it to move from one persona to the next. Is it ever an issue for you?
EO: Not really. I think all of the different personas I have in the various music projects, they’re all part of me, but they become enhanced in whichever project I’m working at the time.
Apart from scheduling, you don’t find any blurring of the edges?
EO: Again, not really, it comes naturally to me. If you do something with honesty, then it’s easy to do it. If you’re trying to pretend to be something you’re not, then I think it becomes a problem.
Pythia have had a line-up change since you last played (supporting Sonata Arctica in 2013). Has that changed the dynamic of the band at all, whether writing or performing?
EO: We’ve mainly been working on our new album, and so we haven’t done much live work, recently. This is the first set of live shows we’ve done in almost a year, because we’ve been working so much on the album, so I think we’re still finding our feet as a unit. But the album is certainly sounding really good.
What’s the schedule for the album?
MH: I think within the next three months, late Spring, finishing touches, really, at this stage. It’s about ready to mix.
Tim (Neale) was a founder member of the band. I assume he was quite significant in the writing process…
EO: Everybody who has ever been in the band has been quite significant in the writing process, because everyone writes their own parts. So now Oz has joined, he’s writing all his parts, everyone takes care of their own business in the band.
MH: I think really the core of the music is Ross and Marc and Emily, they really form the songs, everyone else provides the colour and the flavour top the music.
OW: I wouldn’t say I contributed to the fundamental writing structure of the songs, I just put my own lead guitar parts on. Really I joined the band when all the material had been written. What I’ve done hasn’t changed the song, I’ve just put my own stamp on it.
How difficult is it trying to put your own stamp on someone else’s song compared to something you’ve contributed to from the very start?
OW: It’s quite a nice feeling actually, hearing something that was more or less finished, then working out what I was going to do with it, rather than having to think about, say, let’s change the chorus, whereas I listened to something, thought, ‘That’s how it is’, and all I need to focus on is, say, augmenting it with the guitar solos. It’s just adding to what was already there. Ross is a brilliant rhythm guitar player, so what I was doing was taking the riff and putting a more melodic stamp on it, putting more intricate things over the top of it, which is obviously adding to the overall sound of the song. I wasn’t there when the songs were conceived, so I was just adding to them.
I haven’t heard any of the new material yet, it hasn’t been leaked on to the Net as far as I know, but how far do you feel it’s moved on from what you’ve done before?
EO: I think we’re just consolidating our sound and our identity. We’re taking the Pythia thing and moving it on. There’s no point in making another album unless it’s going to be better than the last one, so obviously that’s what we’re aiming to do.
One thing I do want to ask you about, as the longest standing member of the band here, is the stage costumes. The first time I saw you live, I didn’t know about the stage gear and it really is quite a startling image at first. How did it all develop?
EO: When we started, we did our first few shows in our civvies, so to speak, but after that we realised that our music was so theatrical, we needed more theatrical look. We started with the boys in tunics and me in a particular dress, then it just really developed. We haven’t quite chosen our new look to go with the new album, so it’s a bit of an interim look for this tour.
Is that the intention, to change the image for each album?
EO: Because art work’s really important to us as well, we try and have an artistic vision for the music with each album, which ties everything together.
I’d also like to ask you about your lyrics. Reading them as prose, rather than hearing them sung, my impression is that you write very personal lyrics, but wrap them up in a lot of imagery and metaphor. Is that a fair assumption?
EO: Yes it is. I write very personally, but I give it a fantasy element as well.
Do you write all the lyrics?
EO: I do, yes.
Does it ever happen that others approach you and say ‘I’ve had this great idea for a song lyric, would you put it in your own words.
EO: Occasionally. For instance a song called ‘Ride For Glory’, Ross, when he sent me over his musical idea for the song, has already titled it ‘Ride For Glory’ because to him, that’s what it felt like, so I took that, and I used that for the song. But generally, I don’t like people messing round with my lyrics and giving me too many ideas, because I prefer to write from my heart.
So in your other guises, you have no problem with other people’s lyrics, but for Pythis, you want to put your own stamp on it.
EO: Yes, that was one of the reasons I wanted to be in Pythia in the first place, not to be constrained like I am in the Medieval Baebes, by singing medieval texts in medieval languages. I wanted to have something where I could speak and write in my own voice, I wanted to have that freedom. Although in the Baebes, and in Celtic Legend, I do work on a lot of the words as well, they’re not so much my projects, so it’s not my personal way of expressing myself.
For singers singing lyrics written by others, they say they often have to rearrange words to make them easier to sing. Obviously, writing your own lyrics, you don’t have that problem, but do you ever write something, think ‘Oh my, that’s good’, but then realise that it’s going to be very difficult to sing?
EO: The way we work is that Ross will send over some music, some riffs, and Marc Dyos will have some drums and things, and then I will write the lyrics, the vocal melodies, the vocal harmonies to whatever I’ve been given. Sometimes I cut it up, move it all around, in order to create more of a song. There’s no real set way of doing it in the band, but that’s normally how it works. I tend to write music and lyrics at the same time, I don’t write a poem and then try to shoehorn it into a tune.
Do you accumulate material over time, or do you say to yourself ‘Today, I am going to write’?
EO: I do have a lot of ideas, which keep on my Dictaphone, but generally with Pythia, we just come up with ten songs.
MH- We all come up with riffs and stuff over time and pass them on to Ross.
EO: There’s quite a stringent process to get rid of the shit as we go along. We would never, ever record a song that we weren’t happy with. By the time we actually get to the point of recording and producing, there’s been a lot of energy and a lot of work. We’re not one of those bands that write lots and lots of material.
You’re not a band who might be sitting on a tour bus and all of a sudden someone will say ‘I’ve got an idea for a song’. Do you have writing sessions as a band?
EO: I think all of us tend to write on our own, we’re all quite insular about that. We don’t really jam or anything as a band.
One of the things you’ve done in the past is take some care over Special editions of your albums, almost turn them into mini box sets. Have you made any plans for the new one?
EO: we’re still trying to work that one out at the moment. We might keep this one a bit more simple. We’re going to be focussing a lot more on Europe for this next album. We may have to spend more time over there, we’ll see how that pans out, but we’ve done some vinyl editions of the last two albums and it might be nice to do that again, but we won’t think about that until the record’s finished.
Earlier we spoke about how many different public guises you have, lyricist, member of Pythia, of Celtic Legend, the Medieval Baebes and also a published author, but leaving aside your family life, if you were forced to pick only one of these roles, which would it be?
EO: You know, that’s a really tough question, and ever since I became a mother, I’ve been saying to myself that something’s going to have to give, but actually I don’t want to give up any of those things, each is really important to me on different levels, so right now the thing is to keep hammering away and do all of them. It would be very hard for me to say ‘I don’t want to be in the Medieval Baebes anymore, I don’t want to do Pythia anymore’. All of those things are so important to me.
And you also have another book imminent?
EO: It just came out, it’s called ‘The Goddess Club’.
Are your books informed by the same influences as your lyrics? As I said, you do write very personally in your music.
EO: I think what really turns me on as a write and a lyricist is the idea that we live in one world and there’s another world that’s going on as well, which may be a spiritual world or something like that. All of my ideas, in books or lyrics are based on the moments when those worlds touch each other.
Turning back to Pythia, after the album, what’s the schedule for the rest of the year? You mentioned Europe for example.
EO: We need to work the album when it comes out. We’re looking at dates in the middle of the year; we’ve got a couple of shows lined up in London and some other things in the pipeline.
I hope I haven’t been neglecting Mark and Oz. Were you both in other bands before Pythia?
MH: I was in To-Mera, and I crossed paths with Pythia a few times.
EO: We saw Harrington play with To-Mera as we’d played with then a few times, and we decided we’d like to work with them.
OW: I’ve known Ross and Marc since they were in their first band, when I was in my first band, so we’ve been good friends for a long time. My relationship with Pythia started about three years ago, When Ross couldn’t do a tour. Pythia had a short European tour lined up, so I covered him for that, and when it came to Tim leaving the band last year, they asked me I’d join because I’d worked with them so much before.
So you knew about Pythia before, but when you were invited in, did you ever think ‘Hold on a minute, the costumes’?
EO: ‘Hang about, I’m going to have to dress like an idiot!’
MH: For me, I’m a big fan of bands that are all about music, I’m a big Rush fan, for example, but I also think that if you’re performing music, and certain types of music in particular, performance is a thing a lot of bands understate, so it’s about getting the costumes on and making something visual. That to me makes a lot of sense. I should add, I’m also a Kiss fan!
OW: It doesn’t faze me at all. I knew when I joined that this would be happening, as I said, I’d worked with the band a few years back, so when they asked me to join, I knew how this band works, what they were all about, so it wasn’t an issue.
It strikes me as a somewhat European thing, rather than a British thing, unless you come from a theatrical background.
EO: I think what’s good about having a strong image is sometimes it buys you a bit of audience time, it makes people take a second look at the band. They may not be there to see you, but they will definitely check you out for a little bit longer.
Do you not find it a little bit Marmite, some people will love you, some will be put off.
EO: I think that’s Pythia in a nutshell. People either love you or absolutely hate you. There’s not many who are ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure’. It’s either a real love affair or ‘I can’t stand that band’. I like it that we can inspire quite strong reactions, particularly from journalists. It’s either 1 out of 10 or 10 out of 10. There’s nothing in between.
I saw you play Cryptfest at The Central in Nottingham, and my first thought was well as the presentation was the staging, once you get past the costumes, this is some band. But it’s the costumes that draw you in or repel you, at least to start with.
MH: People will at least try us once!
EO: We just try to play every show like it’s Wembley Arena. We do try and do everything we can. In metal you’re going up against a lot of bands that are really good musicians, and in some cases, quite a lot of money behind them. We know what we’re up against, so we try to do everything to the best possible level.
Pythia’s new album will be out in the Spring.