A day before their third album was set for release, I talked with Serena Cherry and Liam Phelan of Svalbard. What unfolded was a conversation about the sexism that exists within music publications, sketches of the band members as dogs, the final shows before the Covid lockdown, and the spectacular graphics of video games in 2001. They were incredibly kind, funny, and had a lot of wonderful and important topics to speak about. From one Serena to another (and a Liam), here is that conversation:
MPN: Being a young woman myself – I’m 21 – I’m honestly grateful to see music like this being made. There are a lot of outspoken bands dating back to the 90s with the riot grrl era and there are multitudes of undeniably talented women in music today, but it’s cool to see how raw and just plain spoken your lyrics are. How did you find your voice?
Serena Cherry: I use the band to speak out against sexist things that happen in society. It was like discovering something very liberating for me, very cathartic. I just sort of took that and ran with it. If any shit happened to me, it would become a new Svalbard song.
Liam Phelan: Something I’ve noticed with you, Serena, when you were first starting out, the lyrics were a bit more personal, weren’t they? As we’ve gone along as a band and new situations have presented themselves, it’s sort of become more frustrating to you and therefore fuels the fire. There’s a kind of raw, antagonistic approach to the lyrics.
Serena Cherry: Yeah, that’s true. The more stuff I came across in the music industry – it’s very much attacking from within. Even with a song like “Click Bait,” it’s talking about how women are represented in the metal press and the metal media – we’re using metal music to deliver that message. It’s very much me reacting to all the bullshit that happens to women in music.
MPN: I think that’s really special, and it’s so nice seeing something like that, especially with how… garbage the world is right now. It’s almost comforting in a kind of morbid way, if that makes sense?
Serena Cherry: That was actually the idea for me, to be honest – to write stuff that makes people who’ve experienced this feel less alone. You know what I mean?
MPN: Yeah, absolutely! Were you guys in bands when you were teenagers?
Serena Cherry: Yeah! I was in a black metal band, and then I was in a prog band. Liam and I used to be in a thrash band where I played drums and he played guitar. Liam, do you want to talk about your musical history?
Liam Phelan: I was a teenager a long time ago. Over twenty years ago, Jesus. I started playing in bands when I was 16. I think I was doing my first touring band when I was 22, touring around Europe. That was kind of a death metal/hardcore hybrid thing. Then that finished in 2010, which is when we decided to start Svalbard. Do something a little bit different from my previous bands.
MPN: Did you guys know that you wanted the band to be more politically charged? Did you have an idea of what you wanted the views of the band to be?
Serena Cherry: No, not really. I don’t think we ever set out with a preconceived idea of being a political band or that we were going to be a feminist band. There aren’t that many of them in metal. It’s just something that kind of evolved over time. I think it was definitely spurred on when I wrote “Expect Equal Respect” lyrics on the first album. I realized I can do this. I can make it more topical. I think there is a trope in metal to lean inwards with your lyrics, and just kind of write about how you feel. Not to say that there aren’t political metal bands, obviously Black Sabbath has a song like “War Pigs,” but there’s a lot of obscurification with the poetic, self-indulgent side of metal. As soon as I realized that we didn’t necessarily have to do that, then it sort of liberated me to be a bit more political. But yeah, it was never us sitting down to discuss it.
Liam Phelan: I think it’s just a reaction to what has happened in the last ten years, really. The way the political world has gone and the situations we have found ourselves in, the way Serena’s treating being a more prominent figure in metal now.
Serena Cherry: Yeah, and I would also state that the internet and social media has really risen in the years we’ve been a band. It’s stuff like that, where you can read about problems that trans people receive all over the world. I think the internet has kind of opened up our eyes a bit to just how bad it could be for marginalized groups. That definitely fuels the fire for our lyrics.
MPN: It kind of seems like there’s just an endless stream of negative news nowadays, especially since you can see what’s going on around the world right now.
Serena Cherry: Yeah. It’s hard to have hope.
MPN: It really is!
Liam Phelan: You get bogged down in the negativity. You have to have an outlet. I think that’s one problem with Covid. You can’t go to shows. Playing and just watching a band is such a good outlet for negative energy, and no one has that right now.
MPN: Absolutely. Oh, my gosh. The last show I saw was in October, so it’s going to be a year. What about you guys? What’s the last show you’ve gone to see?
Liam Phelan: Alcest in March?
Serena Cherry: The last show I saw was Anathema. They played here in London in March. They just announced they’ve split up, so it turned out to be their last ever show. I’m quite pleased I got to see their last ever show.
MPN: That’s really special.
Serena Cherry: Yeah, and it was great, so I’m happy I managed to get that one in there before lockdown.
MPN: Can I ask about the album artwork?
Serena Cherry: Yeah, sure!
MPN: What was the inspiration for it?
Serena Cherry: It wasn’t something we immediately sat down and went – the artist who drew it is a guy who works in the studio we practice in. He’s called Steven Kingscote. He doesn’t have any social media. We stumbled across him as an artist because he used to draw silly pictures of us as dogs.
MPN: Oh, I love that.
Serena Cherry: Yeah, he’s great! He’s a really talented artist. He did the artwork for It’s Hard To Have Hope as well, and with that album I just sent him a load of pictures from the manga series Berserk because I really liked the way the artist draws trees in that manga and just told him to do something similar. With this album, we didn’t have a specific sense of direction for the artwork, so we bounced around loads of different ideas and this is actually the final one of sort of five different ideas we had. Initially, it was just the horns and then it was horns being torn off a creature, and eventually we settled on the deer itself and the background of autumnal colors. It’s all representative of a woman being preyed upon; that feeling of walking home late at night and you don’t feel safe and you feel like you could be attacked at any moment. I was thinking about how that relates to animals who are prey, so that’s what the deer represents. The colors are autumnal to represent that feeling of change, which I definitely think is a thread that runs throughout that album. There are songs that are crying for social change, and there are songs about going through personal change; your perspective that changes when going through a really bad bout of mental illness, for example, or your perspective changes when you find love again. Yeah, it all kind of ties in with the themes that run through the album.
Liam Phelan: I can show you the picture that made us choose him as an artist, if you want.
MPN: I would love that!
Liam Phelan: Alright, it’s me as a dog.
I am then shown a drawing of Liam as a wonderfully creative and detailed dog.
MPN: That’s so funny to me! That’s beautiful! It’s super well done.
Liam Phelan: Yeah, he did this and we were like, “you’re quite good at this, aren’t you?” We dragged him into our world. He’s a really nice guy. He’s very talented, but he needs to be more driven, right?
Serena Cherry: I think he just needs to believe in himself a bit more.
Liam Phelan: Lack of confidence.
MPN: Hopefully this helps him out then. I’m sure a lot of people will see [the album’s] artwork.
Serena Cherry: A lot of people have commented already that they really like the artwork, so I’m going to feed all this back to him and we’ll see more from him in the future.
MPN: Yeah! Can I ask you about the lyrics to “Listen to Someone?”
Serena Cherry: Of course!
MPN: I can’t recall which article it was, but you were talking about how it’s not really fair to put it on people that are struggling with mental illness to be the ones to reach out; you need someone to be there for you. Can you talk about that?
Serena Cherry: Yeah, exactly! I think my mentality where that song comes from is that we need to be a bit more understanding. There’s this sentiment that you see a lot on social media of “If you’re struggling, talk to someone,” and people urging people to speak up. Friends posting “if anyone is suffering, you can always talk to me.” I understand that it comes from a good place of people wanting to support each other, but it places all the onus on the person who is struggling. What I wanted to get across is that when you are struggling with depression, you can’t reach out sometimes because it’s so debilitating and it becomes the hardest thing to do to talk to someone. I think it’s all very good saying, “if you need someone to talk to, let me know,” but if you’re going to say stuff like that, you need to be prepared to hear about what it’s like to truly suffer with depression. You need to be okay with hearing about suicidal thoughts, for example, or the darkest depths you go through, or even just the nothingness. There’s a lot of times when you feel so fragile when you’re depressed anyway, but then you take that huge leap to try and talk to someone and then they just tell you, “oh, cheer up. It’s not that bad,” or “put on some makeup and go shopping,” or “why don’t you keep yourself busy?” It’s like, that’s not actually listening to someone. Throwing advice at people isn’t listening to someone. Sometimes all you need to do is sit there and go, “oh, yeah, that sounds really awful.” All you need to do is affirm that what they’re going through sounds like hell. You don’t need to try to be the solution to the problem. You’re bypassing the problem by not listening to that person when they’re speaking about it. I just wanted to get across that it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t matter how busy you are; depression doesn’t go away when you’re busy. Instead of saying “you can talk to me,” it needs to be “I will listen to you.”
MPN: Absolutely. There needs to be a bit more empathy in the world, it seems.
Serena Cherry: Yeah, definitely.
MPN: There’s another song I wanted to try to dive into with the lyrics and that was “What Was She Wearing?” Can you tell me about that one?
Serena Cherry: Yeah! That was actually inspired by two things. One of those was the Super Bowl halftime show. Shakira and J-Lo obviously did this fantastic performance and then it felt like all of the press and all of the social media wanted to comment on how they were dressed “badly,” or that they were dressed like sluts. They got so devalued over their outfits, and all of their talent and hard work and achievements of two women with really long, successful careers in entertainment were just being diminished to “oh, they showed too much skin.” You know what I mean?
MPN: Yeah, absolutely!
Serena Cherry: That happened the same week a politician called Tracy Brabin wore an off-the-shoulder dress in parliament and people were calling her a “tramp” and a “slut.” I was just like – it’s a bit like that scene in Mean Girls where Tina Fey is going, “you need to stop using these words because it makes it okay for others to use these words!” We need to stop shaming women based on their outfits. Again, I like to describe my lyric writing as micro-sociological because it will take one single incident like a Super Bowl halftime show or a labour MP wearing an off-the-shoulder dress and expound on that the wider implications of how this feeds into rape culture in our society and by having these front page headlines saying “Shakira and J-Lo are disgusting and they’re such a bad example for wearing a skimpy outfit.” – you’re feeding into this idea that it is okay to demean a woman or rape her because of what she’s wearing; it’s an invitation for sex, which it isn’t. That was what that song was inspired by.
MPN: How dare they be confident with themselves, right?
Serena Cherry: Oh, yeah, exactly! Put it away!
Liam Phelan: Whenever police deal with rape accusations, one of the first questions they would ask is “what was she wearing,” wouldn’t it?
Liam Phelan: As if it’s going to cast doubt on whether the consent was actually there or not.
MPN: Yes, yes! I don’t know if this is in the same vein, but I remember in high school one of my friends got sent home from an exam – from an exam – because her shoulder straps weren’t wide enough. We could see her shoulders, so she had to be sent home.
Serena Cherry: Oh, my god!
MPN: Isn’t that awful?
Serena Cherry: That’s crazy!
Liam Phelan: They thought someone was going to be too distracted by her shoulders?
MPN: Because shoulders are so distracting.
Liam Phelan: So, we still live in the Victorian Era, don’t we?
MPN: Right! Up to the neck you have to have everything covered.
Serena Cherry: No ankles can show.
Liam Phelan: They’re far too good-looking.
MPN: Can we talk about the song “Click Bait?”
Serena Cherry: Yes, my favorite song!
MPN: What was the inspiration for the lyrics here?
Serena Cherry: It’s about the way that women are written about in the metal press, and it’s specifically a reply to an article that was written for a different online publication. I don’t know if you’ve noticed the same thing, but there seems to be a difference in the way that women are written about in the metal online press than the way guys are. If we’re written about we’ll always be described as “female-fronted” or something about my gender in the article headline. There will always be something about me being a woman. I feel like I’m more known for being a woman in metal than I am known for being a guitarist in metal or a vocalist in metal. It feels like it’s putting way too much emphasis on gender over the actual musicianship. There was one article where it feels like certain publications know that the presence of women in metal is a provocative topic, so they write their headlines in a way that will generate comments by making it sound like a gender war. There was an article featuring Svalbard that basically said, “women are doing just as good as boys and they’re here to take the crown from the boys,” making it sound like the presence of women in metal is a threat to guys everywhere. In the lyrics it’s not “us vs. them.” It’s not like the girl is coming to steal a guy’s job in metal. We’re not against each other, but I feel like the metal publications write about it as if there is some kind of level of competition between the sexes in metal to stoke the comments because they know that there’s a lot of misogynists out there in their fan base who are gonna say some shitty things. They want them to do that because they want seven hundred comments on their piece because it gets more clicks, more hits, more ad revenue. I feel like women in some way have sort of become the fodder for these metal publications to basically start a war in the comments based on our gender. The chorus is just me saying “fuck off!” I’m just so sick of it. I want us to be written about as a band, not have these articles where it’s comparing me to Myrkur when our bands are two completely different things. The only thing we have in common is that we’re both women. I’m so sick of that lazy journalism.
Liam Phelan: What was the one recently with a photo – Paramore, but different?
Serena Cherry: Yeah, someone was trying to compare us to Paramore.
MPN: Excuse me, how?
Serena Cherry: I mean, you know, me and Hayley Williams are both women. I mean, that is just such a strong similarity.
MPN: It’s not even a pie chart, it’s just a circle at that point.
Liam Phelan: I wrote a tweet after that saying, “I wish people would stop comparing me to Hayley Williams – Liam.”
MPN: I like that. That’s funny.
A pause for giggling.
MPN: Alright, can you guys talk to me about the newly formed label?
Liam Phelan: Yeah, so basically it’s Justine who was label manager at Holy Roar. Her, Sam, and Will all quit at the same time that we left the label. For a couple of days we were trying to figure out what to do with the record – two weeks or three weeks away from release. Everything was made. Stock was made already. Some were shipped out to distributors already. We just had to make a decision on what to do because obviously we weren’t going to work with Holy Roar anymore; there was no way that was going to happen. We discussed with Justine the possibilities – her husband Sammy already had a little distro called Church Road Records set up. I think in the space of a few days of talking, we set up as a proper label. I was in the office restickering stock so that it said Church Road Records instead of Holy Roar. It was all being very, very quickly done. We’ve been working with her for four years now, so it just made sense to continue our relationship with her. Also, we had Translation Loss [Records] releasing in the states, and Tokyo Jupiter [Records] releasing in Japan. It made sense to delay it to kind of keep everything on track. The solution kind of lends itself to us, with Justine leaving Holy Roar and setting up a new label. It just made sense.
MPN: It’s cool that you guys could keep someone from that still, especially someone you’ve worked so closely with. That’s really nice.
Liam Phelan: Yeah, we’ve toured with her band as well before, so we’re pretty close-knit with them. It just makes sense. It’s nice to work with people that you’re friendly with. The less you treat it like a business, the more fun it is for everyone.
MPN: Definitely. For a final question, can I just ask you to tell me something positive?
Serena Cherry: Oh!
MPN: If anything!
Serena Cherry: I know, “woe is me.” Um, well, I leveled up to a level 18 Argonian in Skyrim.
MPN: Look at you go! That’s awesome!
Serena Cherry: It’s not compared to most players, but it’s good for me.
MPN: You’re getting there though.
Liam Phelan: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
MPN: Not a video game fan?
Liam Phelan: Well, I know of Skyrim. I don’t know anything about it though.
Liam Phelan: The last game I played was probably Silent Hill 2.
MPN: I mean, that counts.
Liam Phelan: Yeah, it’s got some good graphics. Scary. Um, positive. The last song on the album is pretty positive. All of my sections of music were written for my partner, well, like, in regards to my partner. Serena’s parts were written as an ode to her partner. It’s kind of the joy of celebrating love and, you know, newfound happiness.
MPN: That’s really sweet.
Liam Phelan: It’s at the end of an album that is very bitter and raw.
MPN: A nice closing of it.
Serena Cherry: I thought of something positive that’s maybe not 100% relevant – I just nearly finished recording my solo black metal record.
MPN: When is this released?
Serena Cherry: Next year.
MPN: That’s exciting! Is it going to be on the same label?
Serena Cherry: I cannot say yet.
Serena Cherry: But yeah, I’m really excited with it and it’s very euphoric black metal. It’s progressive. It’s the one good thing to come from Covid and lockdown for me – finding the time to do a solo record. I’m pleased.
MPN: Aw, that’s really cool. I’m glad you got something creative out of such a dark time too.
Serena Cherry: It was nice to be able to utilize the time.
MPN: Well, I’m sure you guys are very tired and very excited for tomorrow. Thank you so much for talking with me!
Serena Cherry: Thanks! Thanks for the great questions. Your last question really struck me. I think that was a good one.
MPN: Aw, thank you guys so much! And thank you for such a beautiful, kick-ass record. It’s really special! See ya!