Interview by Jason Guest
Jason: Hi Bruno. Many thanks for taking time out for this interview. To begin, as some of our readers may not have come across The Firstborn before, could you give us a brief history of the band?
Bruno: Hello Jason, thank you for the kind words on your review and for preparing these questions! The Firstborn were founded back in 1995 by myself and a few other chaps, under the name “Firstborn Evil” (we were 16 years old, mind you!) – we gradually evolved into something quite different, hence the name change back in 2000, just before we released our second album From the Past Yet to Come. I’m the sole remaining member from the original line-up, hardly surprising after 17 years in the underground and so many shifts in focus and direction over time.
Jason: How has the band’s sound evolved since its inception?
Bruno: It has evolved alongside the concept, especially over the last few years. In 2005, with The Unclenching of Fists, we began delving into a concept revolving around Buddhist Philosophy, and have remained true to that path ever since. The music shifted towards a more “exotic” aesthetic as a direct result of this, and we have refined our sound in the last few years so as to better convey the sensations depicted in the lyrics.
If you hear our first songs, recorded in the early days, and then our latest album Lions Among Men it’ll hardly sound like the same band, but again I reckon that’s only natural and a result of our growth as both musicians and individuals.
Jason: To what extent does Lions Among Men mark an evolution in the band’s career?
Bruno: I believe it to be a tremendous, albeit subtle, evolution: for the first time we focused on the atmosphere rather than displays of technical proficiency, lessening the contrasts between music and concept to an extent where you can’t dissociate one from the other (or so we hope). This was quite the challenge when we began approaching song writing, since it involved a considerable amount of trial-and-error in order to achieve this harmony between content and form… as a result, we kept pushing back the recording sessions so we could spend more time pre-producing the songs and getting them just right.
Jason: When writing new material, are you consciously seeking to push the band’s sound forward, to keep it evolving?
Bruno: We do try our best not to repeat ourselves, on the other hand we have now reached a point in our career where we there is something of a trademark sound to The Firstborn that we fell we have to preserve… it’s a somewhat delicate balance between innovation and loss of identity. However, there always are new challenges ahead for us, as both composers and musicians, so as long as we feel motivated to keep on pushing boundaries, we will keep on doing new music.
Also, we don’t seek to change and push forward just for the sake of it. There must be a purpose for change, a driving force for the growth… change for the sake of change ends up sounding superficial, and that’s something we try our hardest to avoid.
Jason: How does the band work together to create the songs? Do you discuss ideas about what you want to achieve beforehand or is it more an evolutionary process?
Bruno: There normally is a defined “soundscape” for every song, based on the lyrical concept… so you can consider that the canvas we paint on and add all sorts of layers to. Most songs usually start with a main melody that will define the whole track when we’re finally satisfied with it, and most of the time I try to write in the simplest possible fashion – as I learned over time, if it sounds good with just an acoustic guitar and vocals, then it can only get better with the whole band adding their contributions.
It’s still a very intuitive process, overall, but with some basic guidelines which are the foundations for the whole song structure, mood and atmosphere of the song.
Jason: Could you tell us about the concepts, the themes or the philosophy that underpins the album?
Bruno: This album is based on Mahayana Buddhism. This is a branch of Buddhist Philosophy, also known as “the Great Vehicle”, which encompasses a myriad schools of thought, independent and sometimes even antagonistic. It is, basically, the middle path – that of balance between compassion and wisdom, and one of its main principles is that the bodhisattva (he who is on the path to Enlightenment, to Buddhahood) does so not just for himself, but for the benefit of all sentient beings.
On a personal level, I relate to this immensely, but above all I traced a few parallels between this and our own growth as a band, our sound and aesthetics that I found very interesting and fitting.
Jason: The album title prompts interesting interpretations. Could you tell us about its meaning and how it relates to the album’s lyrics and music?
Bruno: “Lions Among Men” is one of the many names given to the bodhisattvas, for they have conquered the Fear that makes us all cling to the impermanent, the superficial and the material things in life. Personally, I believe we all have the potential to become such “Lions Among Men”, should we abandon the futilities we are constantly being force fed by the media and society in general (especially here in the Western world) and focus on what truly matters and what would really bring us real happiness instead of temporary satisfaction.
Jason: Thematically and musically, what is it for you that differentiates Lions Among Men from your previous efforts? How does Lions Among Men feel in relation to older material?
Bruno: It feels a whole lot more organic, to begin with… both in composition and overall sound, we managed to capture all the dynamics we intended to and that is immensely rewarding. The songs are longer, darker and much more expressive, and for the first time I truly believe we managed to channel through the music that which is being expressed in the lyrics.
Jason: Did you set yourself any specific goals when writing Lions Among Men? Do you feel that you achieved them?
Bruno: The main goal was to enhance the atmosphere in our music, to make it one of the foremost characteristics of this album… looking back, it was quite a gamble, given it would depend on so many variables that were somewhat out of our direct control that it might have come out all wrong. Thankfully it wasn’t the case, our sound engineer André Tavares did a great job recording and mixing the album, perfectly capturing the music as we intended it to sound, and that allowed the music the necessary room to breathe.
Jason: What aspects of Tibetan culture and the Buddhist religion inspire you to make music?
Bruno: Buddhist Philosophy is very inspiring for me even on a personal level, and it’s only normal that inspiration is reflected in the music I make… I particularly like the cross-references between Buddhist tradition and Western science, and how they very often end up reaching the same conclusions through entirely different paths – and with a few centuries in between to get there, but that’s a minor detail.
In the past, especially with our album The Unclenching of Fists, we took a lot from Tibetan culture – that album was inspired by the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan “Book of the Dead”. The more liturgical and metaphysical aspects of Tibetan Buddhism were easier to adapt to our sound back then, which was still evolving from our extreme Metal background into what it eventually became.
Jason: How does it inform the music?
Bruno: It is the foundation for the band’s music and aesthetics, and it influences even our choice of scales, instruments and even vocal styles, these days. For instance, since we based Lions Among Men on the Mahayana tradition (which is deeply rooted in India and Nepal) the choice of instruments and scales to use was focused on that particular area. The Unclenching of Fists, fundamentally inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, featured a lot of Tibetan instruments and so forth. These are slight details the majority of listeners would never find out for themselves, but it’s important to us that there is a certain amount of integrity and respect for these cultures in what we do.
Jason: Do you have any favourite tracks, parts, or moments on the album?
Bruno: My favourite songs are always changing, above all I love the album and I think it works as a whole… there are obviously sections I’m particularly proud of on a personal level, such as the singing in “Eight Flashing Lances” and “Nothing Attained, Nothing Spoken”, and on the other hand I love the instrumental “Sounds Liberated as Mantra”, which I began fiddling with some five years ago and finally found its way into an album of ours.
Jason: You were originally called The Firstborn Evil – a name befitting your early leanings towards the black metal aesthetic – and removed the ‘Evil’ as your perspective on man’s nature changed. What was it that initiated this change in perspective?
Bruno: Well, first and foremost, our own growth as individuals – as I said, we were 16/17 years old when we first started the band and shock-value was an important factor in choosing the band’s name and image… over the next few years, we quickly grew tired of that association and it simply fit our music and approach less and less with each release.
In 2000, having just recorded our second album From the Past Yet to Come, we were going over the album and it just didn’t make sense any longer, so that record was already released as “The Firstborn”, even though we were still “Firstborn Evil” when we entered the studio – so it’s the exact moment of transition, the coming of age, so to speak.
Jason: Do you find it – or have you ever found it – difficult to reconcile your perspective/beliefs with the state of the world, given humanity’s propensity for such things as capitalist exploitation and the atrocities of war?
Bruno: I won’t lie, it is probably much harder to be an adept of Buddhism in the West than it is in Asia… not only is one constantly bombarded with news of such atrocities and injustices all over the globe, but also one’s senses are constantly assaulted with the lure of the superfluous, which stimulates greed, envy and so forth. I’m not going Miss Congeniality here and wish for “world peace” like it could happen in the blink of an eye, for it is in our nature to do harm as much as it is to do good, but these negative aspects are also a product of the society we live in.
Jason: Do you think Buddhist/Tibetan philosophy is more relevant today than it may have been in the past?
Bruno: Definitely, especially in the West, that is why so many people are actively looking into Buddhism and other Oriental schools of thought, given the superficiality of modern life that leaves nothing but a void inside, a want for more – more of what? Most will never even know, spending their lives buying trinkets to fill those gaps.
Call it “spirituality” or whatever you will, but many find comfort in the simple truths of Buddhism and that helps a lot of people in the process of re-evaluating their lives and their priorities. Granted, often the first approaches are veiled in new-age mysticism and many never get past that point, but even in such cases, misguided as they may be, I think people find a way that changes their whole outlook on life.
Jason: What would you say is the difference between music that proclaims itself to be Satanic, pagan, or occult, that fiercely promotes individuality and free will, and music based on Buddhist beliefs? Are they two sides of the same coin?
Bruno: If there is something that would define Buddhism is the multiplicity of traditions within it. That is one of the aspects that pleasantly surprised me, at first. There is no “right” or “wrong” way, but rather a path for everyone – it is up to the individual to find his own way. I believe this is as much “free will” as you can get… obviously some people will feel more comfortable following the paths of others, but that is a choice, not a prerequisite.
Jason: Do you think music is a suitable form for the expression of such beliefs?
Bruno: It is as appropriate a vehicle as any other… or even more than many, perhaps. I like to think of it as the process of creating a mandala – you laboriously craft an intricate and delicate work of art, only to destroy it and start over when you’re finished. I establish a parallel to what we do as musicians, spending months, even years, preparing these songs which are only fleeting memories for most people, regardless of studio recordings and whatnot. This is particularly apparent when performing live, when you put everything into a song that a few minutes later is already being replaced in the audience’s minds by another, and then another, and so forth.
Jason: The artwork for the album is very striking. Can you tell us about it, what it represents, and how it relates to the music?
Bruno: The album cover depicts a golden lotus flower, in reference to the opening lines in the album:
“Sitting atop a lotus pedestal,
The body is the colour of gold.
A splendour which is peerless,
Shining around a hundred worlds.”
It’s very stylised and as such open for interpretation, and we like to keep our aesthetics that way, so that people have to fill in the gaps on their own, and therefore contribute themselves to their own experience with the album. This also applies to the lyrics, for instance, which are often deliberately vague so that the listener will read into them however he chooses.
Jason: Who’s the artist? How did you come to choose to work with them? And how much direction did you give them?
Bruno: The artist is Pedro Daniel, of Phobos Anomaly Design. He has been working with us for over ten years in all our designs, and by now he has full creative autonomy. His artwork for 2008’s The Noble Search still amazes me, and he has again outdone himself with this album.
Jason: What’s your opinion of the internet and its impact on music?
Bruno: It’s an issue with so many shades of grey that I truly don’t know where I stand on this. I believe that through platforms like Bandcamp musicians can make the most of the internet and really use it for promoting themselves and reaching out to their fans without the need for a middleman… and that is fascinating, it empowers both the bands and their audience once again.
The downside is piracy, which helped bring down the superfluous music “industry” but also crippled many an interesting label which helped a lot of people find new and interesting bands. How many of us won’t recall buying albums out of the blue just because a label we loved and blindly trusted on decided to release it?
There is no right or wrong here, the internet is a formidable tool but it is human nature that determines what we do with it, therefore the problem isn’t in the web, but in people’s priorities.
Jason: What’s next for the band? Do you have any goals in mind for future recordings?
Bruno: Well, with this album only just released it’s too early to think about a future recording, we bid our time writing and preparing each album and that tends to take its toll in our creativity for a while… normally, only after a good few months promoting the album and playing those songs live do we start to feel an urge to compose new music, and it’ll probably be the case once again.
Jason: Will you be touring in support of Lions Among Men. If so, will you be coming to the UK?
Bruno: Touring is in our plans, yes – but it’s always very difficult to bring about, not only because an underground Buddhist Metal band from Portugal isn’t exactly a sure bet for promoters, but also because our own lives aren’t as simple as they used to be, with families, careers and so forth to consider. Still, we are actively looking into it together with our booking agent in order to play live as much as possible, in as many places as we can. The UK is always in our plans, but for some reason it never seems to materialise… so if any promoters are reading this, do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jason: Again, thanks for taking time out for this interview. Is there anything you’d like to say to our readers?
Bruno: Thank you for preparing such an in-depth interview and for all your support. I would just like to add that our last three albums, including Lions Among Men, are available for high-quality download at our Bandcamp page – the best part: you name the price! You can get the albums for free or you can choose to support the band, but now there’s no excuse for not listening to our music if you’re curious about it.
“As trees bear fruit, may these words bear the fruit of a good karma.”
- And you can read Jason’s review of Lions Among Men here