Oathbreaker Focus on the Pain, the Only Thing That’s Real
With the release of Maelstrøm in 2011, Belgium's Oathbreaker — backed by Deathwish, Inc. — quickly began to rise in the hardcore scene. Though their debut was relatively straightforward (by the band's own admission), Oathbreaker began to evolve with age. Their latest and third LP, Rheia, is their best work yet. Featuring 10 songs and clocking in at just over an hour, it's a complex and challenging record that blends elements of varying genres in a shockingly effective manner.
Not only has Oathbreaker's music grown over the years, but singer Caro Tanghe's approach to lyrics has as well. Rheia is, to date, the band’s most intimate and personal portrait. Derived from her own experiences and pain, the record diverts from Caro’s former style — which featured far more symbolic and poetic passages — into a more clear and concise narrative.
CLRVYNT sat down with Caro towards the end of Oathbreaker's latest U.S. tour, supporting Skeletonwitch and Iron Reagan, in order to talk about the changes that have brought about the band’s new approach, as well as what that will mean for their future.
You’ve been doing a lot of interviews for the record already. Are you getting tired of talking about it?
I have done interviews almost every day, and after the show there are still people who want to talk, and it can be fucking exhausting. We’ve written this record, and you constantly want to talk about it, but sometimes it’s just like, please.
When you're doing press on a new record, you start to repeat the same things over and over, and — even when you believe what you're saying — it can start to feel forced and contrived.
Exactly! It’s the same thing with playing the same set over and over. You feel like a robot. You're not doing it as this fake robotic thing, but it can really feel like that. I really like it when we can switch up the set, but the guys don’t like [it]. They need their routine, but whenever I get into a routine, it makes me feel less real or something. It’s like doing it on automatic pilot.
It goes both ways because people can feel that level of perfection in a good way — like a band totally dialed in — but it can sometimes feel like someone going through the motions.
I get super aware of what I am doing. Every movement I make, I get super aware that I will sometimes kneel down and think, "Damn, I did the same thing yesterday at the same part." It’s so weird, but it's just how a set can be.
There is a sort of this ritualistic aspect to your live performances. It almost feels like a seance.
Definitely. I feel like — especially with our kind of music — it's a total concept thing. Where your ears — as much as your eyes, and as much as the vibe — all have to speak to you. That’s how I feel. I am not super aware of everything I am doing on stage, as far a presence goes, but I feel that visuals and lights — as much as sound — all contribute to a total experience. We are not the band that has sing-along parts or has an audience that participates in what we are doing, so I like it when I am pushing people into a voyeuristic perspective.
Is it something that grew out of an influence from a religious-style seance, or even performative art?
It grew organically. If you see videos of us playing in 2008, it is completely different from what we are doing now. I was 18 then, and we’ve now been a band for eight or nine years. It's something that has grown with us. But it also came from watching other bands play. I love watching Neurosis play, and they don’t have an audience that participates in what they are doing either. They are on stage and performing their thing. It’s completely different from what we are doing, but they and a lot of different bands have influenced me.
I’ve read in past interviews that [2013's] Eros|Anteros came out of the band feeling like they had hit an emotional rock bottom, but that emotion still seems very present in Rheia. It’s a record filled with a lot of pain. Do you still feel like you're in that rock bottom?
Not anymore. We tend to put out records around a concept; it’s not just a random thing. I need to write lyrics around one vibe. Maelstrøm was a sort of downward spiral, where all of us didn’t really care about the band anymore. We recorded the songs just because what else was there to do? It was that kind of vibe. When Jake [Bannon] picked it up and was like, "Hey, I really want to put this out on Deathwish," we realized that we needed to think and take it more serious than we were at the time. Eros was more of a transition, with a lot of darkness and pain. Rheia doesn’t feel as dark and aggressive. There are a lot more clear parts. The overall vibe of the record was not to be in-your-face aggressive and, lyric-wise, I reflected a lot on what was going on in my life. So, it’s definitely still dark, but the overall vibe shouldn’t be.
It’s certainly, in equal strides, your prettiest and most intense record.
Because it is so personal to me, it’s super emotional. I was raised in a really weird way. My dad and mom were super young when they had me and weren’t really around. They just dropped me off with my grandparents and lived their life — got divorced and started new families. My dad drinks a lot and my mom did a lot of drugs, so it was a weird way of growing up, and it turned me into who I am right now. I raised myself, basically. I am just very closed off, and I don’t have a lot of people that I am open to. Our guitar player, Gilles [Demolder] — who is also my boyfriend — grew up with me, and he pushed me to open up. I would tell him little things and he was like, "Whoa, where does this come from? This is shit I don’t know about you and has made you into who you are now." It took me probably a year to talk to him about a lot of things — instead of paying 100 dollars to a psychologist who doesn’t care about what you are saying, he was just like, "Hey, just try and write down what you are saying to me and try and open up." That is something I didn’t do on Maelstrøm and Eros; they are both records that feel, to me, lyric-wise, how a hardcore or metal record should be.
You can really see that, too, because there is a clarity in the lyrics on Rheia. They were much more ambiguous or poetic on the prior records. So, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that the bulk of the record is autobiographical.
It is. I am not going to say that there are not parts in songs where I am a little bit creative with language, of course. But before, I didn’t know how to express myself as much as I did on this record. I would just put in a lot of nice-sounding words and just see what people would think when they would read them; there was multiple layers of explanations, and everyone could find something in it for themselves. But it wasn’t, "This is how I feel."
The symbolism is almost a way of shielding yourself.
Yeah, exactly. Like I said, when we started Oathbreaker, I was 18, and the first record came out in 2011. It's been a natural process of opening up. I wasn’t ready to talk about things in the first record, and wasn’t really in the second record. And, I am not really now, but I think I did. [Laughs] Sometimes it's really comforting to play them live.
And in hardcore and punk, you have the ability to connect with people who feel very much like you and have no outlet. So, they get to read your lyrics and realize they're not alone.
And that’s why I like it, too. I am proud of opening up and writing all this shit down, but it is very much putting myself out there.
And now strangers are going to be coming up to you to talk about it.
Well, in some way, you are doing it as a self-help thing; like, I am going to write all this shit down because it will help me. But at the same time, people will listen to and read it, [and] are going to come up to you. I had people on this tour that have told me that they had just lost their wife to cancer, and that they were really helped by what I wrote. It's really hard sometimes.
I can imagine. It’s not the typical conversation you have at a march table after a set, when you're already spent.
Definitely. I really appreciate people coming up to me and saying that, but, yeah, it’s really hard.
You choose to write lyrics in English. Is this an attempt to reach more people?
Obviously, my first language is Dutch, but it's a really weird language. I never thought about singing in Dutch because it just sounds really weird. English is a lot more poetic, but it is harder for me. We also don’t really have an audience in Belgium. It’s weird and closed off. For instance, we haven’t headlined a show in our hometown in six years. There is a very, very underground scene and really big, mainstream, 2-4,000 capacity rooms with barely anything in between. It makes it really hard for our band to play in the type of venue that fits the crowd that would come out. And, in the same way, they don’t really know about us. Belgians don’t really care. They will watch American bands come through and be super excited, but they don’t really care about what happens in their own country. There is a really good scene, don’t get me wrong, and some bands get the appreciation they deserve — like Amenra — but you have to get picked up by mainstream press to have an appreciation in your own country. This is a very different way of approaching it than anywhere else in the world, basically.
Your latest tour package — Skeletonwitch, Iron Reagan and Homewrecker — was very interesting because you're very much the odd one out. How was the reaction? I mean, certainly, Oathbreaker have aspects that appeal to metal, but I never really know how to categorize you — and I'm not sure it’s that important to be able to.
No, I don’t either. I hate when people box things in a certain genre. When you box something, it limits whatever can happen afterwards or during. I don’t know — it’s been interesting, and being the odd one out was a good thing, but it could have gone entirely wrong, too. I really liked touring with Iron Reagan because it's so different. We are like the band that you get hypnotized to, and then you can party afterwards to Iron Reagan. It was a very weird mix that I was very skeptical about at first. But it was really, really good.
To get back to the album, in taking on concepts for each record, what was the idea of choosing Rheia as a figure for the entire record?
We tried to find a through-line for the record, and it is really just a coincidence that it is, again, something that comes from Greek philosophy, but the idea behind all of the lyrics was the fact that I always took care of everyone around me and myself, but there was never someone taking care of me, or caring for me. That’s basically what Rheia is. She is the mother of gods, but she is not really a god. She is just someone who is there in Greek mythology and mothered like 10 gods or something, but she is not really anyone.
Yeah, she is even written about less than a lot of the figures, which is weird because she is so …
Yes, because she is so crucial. And I wouldn’t compare myself to a god, obviously [laughs], but just the idea of having that fit the record really well.
There is also reoccurring imagery throughout of self-harm, body harm and the frailty of bodies — especially the idea of skin. What was it about these physical manifestations of pain that attracted you?
I really love the form of skin as being something super bare, naked and honest. This record is basically that: the most honest thing we could write. The purest form of anything would be bare skin to me.
Speaking of purity, there is a part in the end of “Second Son of R” that I really love where you just begin screaming, no discernible words or lyrics — at least I don’t think so. It’s very natural and intense way of depicting an emotion without spelling it out. It’s a long part, too, so I am curious at what point did that idea come to you?
It was weird. During the writing of this record, I think we knew the elements — that there was clean vocals and there was screaming vocals, and we knew I could do both. But there wasn’t a connection, and I felt like there had to be a way to connect them. I tried screaming in between in a really high pitch. We tried so many takes on that particular song — not just in the recording studio, because we demoed this record probably 30 times. We tried so many different things, and all of the aggression that was in that song I tried to let go at the end of it. And I had never done that before. In the studio, that was the first take, and then I was done. I knew in my head how it had to sound, and I was just like, "Let’s just do this." [Laughs]
A lot of the record seems to be about pushing boundaries and comfort zones. You have a ways to go before you have to start thinking about it, but as you look to the future, to keep pushing and growing, is it a concern regarding where you go from here?
Absolutely. I feel like a first record can be whatever, a second record just has to be better than the first, and the third one has to be the one. I hope this one is that, but I definitely feel like pushing boundaries on Rheia opens up so much possibilities for the next record. I don’t know what the next Oathbreaker is going to sound like, but, to me, it can be anything. It’s a good feeling that it is possible to do anything.