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Heavy Culture: Moonspell’s Fernando Ribeiro Talks Hermitage, Pandemic, Growing Up in Portugal, and More

"I knew in 2020 I had very few opportunities to feel like an accomplished musician -- it was more about being the family man, the caretaker, the father"

Heavy Culture - Moonspell
Moonspell, via Napalm Records
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    Heavy Culture is a monthly column from journalist Liz Ramanand, focusing on artists of different cultural backgrounds in heavy music as they offer their perspectives on race, society, and more as it intersects with and affects their music. The latest installment of this column features an interview with Moonspell frontman Fernando Ribeiro.

    The year 2020 made most of us embrace our hermit-like ways. Little did Moonspell singer Fernando Ribeiro know that the word Hermitage that he came across in 2017 would be an apt title for the band’s brand new album.

    The new release Hermitage is the veteran Portuguese gothic metal band’s 12th full-length studio album. The LP focuses on topics such as solitude and isolation, but also on community. Heavy Consequence caught up with Ribeiro via Skype in mid-March while he was at home in Portugal. He spoke about the meaning behind Hermitage and how the band recorded the album during the pandemic.

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    Ribeiro also discussed the music scene in Portugal, growing up in an impoverished neighborhood outside of Lisbon, and his upcoming novel.

    Read our interview with Fernando Ribeiro for the latest installment of “Heavy Culture” below, and pick up Moonspell’s new album Hermitage here.

    On life during the pandemic

    It’s like we’re living in dystopia or something. In Portugal, it’s crazy being that we’re a small country and this year started off badly with the pandemic. Even asking “Are you alright?” it’s just bizarre. Nobody’s really alright.

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    We’re slowly starting to get out of the lockdown that was imposed by the government in January. We’re all withering away here at home. But things are alright, just taking care of my kid. He was doing online schooling and it was such a nightmare but school is opening back up. And after April 19, we’ll be able to start playing shows again here in Portugal. It’s still limited capacity but it’s better than nothing.

    On vaccine rollouts and Portugal’s politics

    In Portugal, it’s in stages and right now it’s in the first stage, there’s a lot of politics involved. Even though many other countries are well-advanced, the thing about Portugal is that’s it’s in southern Europe and sometimes things get chaotic with corruption. It didn’t start well, the head of the task force for the vaccinations was fired because he was smuggling vaccines to his family. This small scandal is typical for a small [European] country. But recently it’s more on track. Right now they are vaccinating 100,000 teachers which is good news and a wise decision.

    For healthier people, we don’t know when we’re going to get the vaccine, it’s a bit of a problem for us as a touring band if we need a passport saying we’re vaccinated. But we just have to wait our turn because there’s a lot of people who need vaccines right now. Places like the UK and Israel have vaccinated most of their people, it’s unbelievable.

    On his feelings about in-person shows resuming

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    I feel good about it. Sometimes the discussion is reduced to money, obviously the music industry and the music business and the way Moonspell is involved you take a bit of everything – the author rights, online shopping, the record sales but sometimes the big chunk of it comes from playing live shows and selling merchandise. But it’s not only about the money. It’s also about the lifestyle.

    I have been touring since 1995; I’m not like this but I know some people that get really depressed and devoid of any meaning in life when they are not touring or traveling. But here in Portugal, one of the positive outcomes from the pandemic is that the musicians, the industry and the cultural scene that might usually be competitive have all come together. We created this movement #CultureIsSafe and last year we played four shows, it’s not a lot but it was very important psychologically.

    It was also proof for people who work within live shows that they really know how to organize and there were not any COVID cases reported or connected to the shows. The last show we did in 2020 was in Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal after Lisbon in an arena that holds 2,000 but we had 700 people which was the limit. You feel hopeful because you really feel the love of the fans, to be distanced, wearing a mask, listening to Moonspell, it showed that they just really wanted to be there. Live shows are so important not only for the money it generates but for the good energy it brings.

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    To have these shows you have to organize a community first and everyone worked together, we’re all in the same sinking boat as I say jokingly. And even though the new album is about the hermit age and solitude, it’s also about community. I went to this big demonstration and almost all the musicians in Portugal were there in this big arena and I felt that we had each other’s back and right now we’re fighting for the survival of our scene. It’s a goal for everyone, we all want shows to happen but we want to make sure that it happens safely.

    On the title and meaning of the new album Hermitage

    I wrote it down in my notebook in 2017 and I like words that have a lot of dimension behind it. I went to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. I just thought it was a spectacular word. In 2017 I knew superficially about what and who the hermits were. But then the word started evolving when I was researching. What I was researching ended up being what I liked which is both scary and romantic – there’s something really fascinating about a man or a woman who goes out to fight his or her demons in different contexts. Little did I know, with a lot of the hermits it wasn’t a one-way ticket most of the time they came back to their communities to bring messages of peace, love, light.

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    It’s a fascinating topic and it relates to present day. In Japan, the Hikikomori are younger people who cannot take the strain and pressure that grinds everybody down because of work. It’s a question of honor. It’s a question of being a proud clock in the machine of society. There are these people who live like hermits but not in the desert or cave but at home with a Wi-Fi connection. I spent 2017 not only researching the religious aspects of the hermits which are the most celebrated and documented but I also read Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. The need for solitude, to take a break is something very human and something we all feel at a certain point in our lives.

    On recording Hermitage during 2020

    Social distancing wasn’t decreed by law and it’s strange because all of Portugal is 10 million people so it was bizarre just seeing structures without people in the cities. We started demoing in 2017 and it wasn’t at all about a pandemic, it was more an album about the polarization and atomization of the world — we’re all fragments and cannot agree on anything. Especially with social networks it felt like the authenticity was going away, it was about connectivity but there were not enough connections.

    For Moonspell, we do have a process and it relies on us sitting down, when we could sit down, and talk together. It’s about sitting down with the songwriters Ricardo [Amorim] and Pedro [Paixão], for Moonspell, it’s not about jamming in a room and then writing about it. When I sit down with the people who are going to write the music and tell them what it’s going to be about that the start of Moonspell painting the canvas. Giving them this information, the music became more melancholic, less layers and more texture.

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    When the COVID pandemic came we were scheduled to record the album in the UK. We were in anguish sometimes because we would have our suitcases ready and went to the airport and Portugal was blacklisted so we had to just be smart and take a window of opportunity to go to the UK. We couldn’t have the whole band together because of COVID restrictions. Everyone lived through the struggle of cancellations and postponements but I have to say recording was enjoyable, I felt very privileged to be able to even go to the UK and record an album. The studio was in the countryside and it was so isolated and it was perfect to record Hermitage.

    On keeping busy in 2020

    I knew in 2020 I had very few opportunities to feel like an accomplished musician — it was more about being the family man, the caretaker, the father. I wrote a novel, as well, which will be coming out in May about growing up in the suburbs of Lisbon. The suburbs in Europe is different from the suburbs in the U.S. In Portugal, the suburbs are like the slums. Where I grew up construction was clandestine, buildings fell down.

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    So I did a lot of stuff in 2020 including recording an album. I think it was very important mentally to manage your time right. I think boredom is a psychological strain so I try never to feel bored. There’s always a lot to do. It just felt really special to be able to record an album, I take nothing for granted and I think we can always start fresh with every album with everything we do. We have a long history; it’s going to be 30 years of Moonspell in 2022.

    On growing up in Portugal and its music scene and how it influenced his novel

    Between 1924 and 1974, southern Europe was under a right-wing fascist dictatorship. [The music scene] in Portugal in the 1960s and 1970s was non-existent and it’s a shame because there was great music but we couldn’t have concerts and there was a lot of censorship, as well.

    I was born in 1974, the year we started to finally have democracy again and then it was the big boom of the ’80s and music was everywhere even in the slums where I grew up. I lived in a small neighborhood that was quite self-sufficient and it sat just outside of the capital, Lisbon. And it’s where my novel takes place. We all lived together and there was just a kind of magic in the air. There were a lot of characters because anyone who lived in the slums in Portugal were inventive.

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    We had people from the coastline, from the countryside, from the city and all of these people worked in Lisbon. They couldn’t live in Lisbon because it was so expensive to live in the city so they lived around the city in the slums and they brought all of their folklore and stories, their traditions and music so it was a big melting pot. My book is about that but in its darkest forms.

    Music in Portugal was very important, it was free, it was available and it was intensely distributed. Imagine being 15 years old listening to traditional music, a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll with a bit of censorship but you have music in so many formats, tapes, records and then CDs. Where I lived there were three record stores, there are none now, but there was one right in my street and I started hanging out there.

    I listened to everything from Whitesnake to Deep Purple to Black Sabbath and then from there you meet like-minded people and we started listening to heavier stuff like Dio, Maiden, and Metallica and then we graduated to more extreme stuff like Slayer, King Diamond, Bathory and then more underground stuff until we became musicians ourselves.

    On what his parents thought about his career as a musician and his love of metal

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    They didn’t like it at first. In Portugal, it’s more traditional. I can’t blame them at all they were concerned. I didn’t join a band to be rebellious, I think it’s funny in Portugal we enjoyed some success. I would skip school, go to Lisbon and see some shows, and got reprimanded because of it, they didn’t like it. But that period was very important for Portuguese history, they wanted me to study and go to University which I did but not to be a doctor or engineer, which is what they envisioned for me, I studied philosophy. Having a band back then was something that was not acceptable for parents, that has changed, fortunately. I would never blame them because I knew they wanted what was best for me which was to study, get a job and get married and eventually I did all of that.

    Before Moonspell, there was metal in Portugal obviously but we were angry with the scene because they just wanted to be the Portuguese clones of Iron Maiden and Sepultura and we wanted something else, something different, so we made our own band.

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