Interview with Steven Willems

Since last year “Streams Of Ancient Wisdom” is not just the title of a classic ASPHYX song anymore, but also the name of a fantastic 400 pages, hardcover book about the Dutch Death and Extreme Metal scene from 1985 to 1995. Author Steven Willems shouldn’t be a stranger to readers of our zine, since he not only released his great own fanzine SLEEPLESS back in the good old days, he’s also a regular contributor to Belgium’s ROCK TRIBUNE magazine, writes liner-notes for CD re-releases and tape boxes and often comes up with great interviews for VOICES as well. But since his book is his opus magnum so far, we simply had to get a bit more background information about it from Steven directly. Here’s the result…

Greetings Steven and congratulations to a phenomenal book, which I totally enjoyed reading from start to finish. How has the response been in general so far? You already mentioned to me that a third print run might already be on the way soon, so it seems to sell pretty good, doesn’t it?
“Hi Frank! Thanks for your compliments and your enthusiasm regarding “Streams…”. The response on the book has been really great so far, way better than I expected to be honest. In the beginning, I was pretty sure that I would get some criticism or certain negative remarks, but I must say that I haven’t received any real negative feedback so far. Everybody seems to really enjoy it, especially the people in the Netherlands who seem to be happy that there’s finally a book which covers “their” scene. The sales have also been really good. “Streams…” has been out for about four months now, but I have the feeling that there’s still a sort of “potential audience” out there which could be interested in it and which can be reached. So, I’m still promoting “Streams…” as best as I can.“

In the introduction of the book you mentioned that you started working on “Streams Of Ancient Wisdom” in May 2020, but when exactly did you have the idea for this book and were you ever worried that the whole project might become too massive to get really accomplished?
“I had considered writing a book about the Dutch extreme music scene many years ago, but it was all still rather vague back then and not much more than just a bit toying around with the idea. I also didn’t have any real ideas where or how to start back then. With the outbreak of the global pandemic in March 2020, the whole idea surfaced again since all the things I normally enjoyed doing in my free time suddenly fell apart. One evening, I had a long talk with Wannes Gubbels (PENTACLE) about my idea, and he was immediately so enthusiastic and encouraging that I started working on it in May 2020. I can’t say that I have ever been really worried that the project would become too massive. I immediately set the time frame I wanted to cover – 1985 till 1995 – as this was in my opinion the period in which Death Metal was really having a sort of breakthrough. Death Metal was a new and very interesting genre back then, many bands tried out new things. In the very beginning, the list with bands which I wanted to cover was still rather small. However, this list grew all the time as I added more and more bands which I thought deserved attention and recognition, but I never regarded this as a problem. I also didn’t set a specific deadline in the beginning, so I didn’t really have to hurry.“

You mentioned that all of a sudden you had more time available due to the Corona pandemic… So, would you say that otherwise the book maybe never had turned into reality or would it just have taken you a lot longer to finish it then?
“To be honest, if the whole global pandemic situation wouldn’t have taken place, I don’t think I would have started on putting this book together. I think I would have been way too busy with just just leading my everyday life. The big “advantage” of the pandemic, in a way, was also that everyone was just sitting at home. Most people had a lot of time. Everybody also seemed genuinely happy to have some distraction while doing an interview.“

How much time did you invest upfront in the planning stage of it already? Did you have some sort of masterplan, what sections you wanted to include, which bands you wanted to interview and how much space each feature should become? Or did more and more ideas pop up while you already had started working on it and original ideas got changed for other solutions?
“I’d say that the general and first idea of what I wanted to cover was put together in a couple of evenings. I wanted to cover the most important bands, but I also wanted to feature fanzines, venues, magazines, record companies, journalists and put several cities which played an important role in the spotlight. Cities like Eindhoven, Tilburg and Rotterdam have been very important so they had to be covered. Aardschok and Dynamo Open Air also had to be in there. I must say that I never really thought about the length of the interviews or the length of the chapters in a sense that it would be too long or something. I really like long and in-depth interviews myself, so… The interview with Lex Vogelaar (ORPHANAGE, TARGET, LYCANTROPE) for example is rather long, but I thought it was really interesting and a really cool chat, so I hardly left anything out there. Sometimes, more and more ideas did indeed pop up. For example, when I was working on the chapter about Tilburg, I really wanted to put the venues Batcave and Noorderligt in the spotlight. Corinne Van Den Brand (ACROSTICHON) gave me the contact information of Japi Roelofs who used to work for both venues. My interview with him turned out to be an interesting read, I think. Wannes Gubbels also came up with many cool ideas, and helped me a lot in getting the photo material together. The only thing I struggled with a bit in the very beginning was to find a suitable concept. I first had the idea of elaborating the book by province. Then I got the plan to devote big chapters to certain events (the first demo, the first gig…). However, I ended up going for a chronological order as I thought that way would work best.“

Was it an easy decision to use the old ASPHYX song as the title for the book?
“Actually yes. Cult Never Dies – the company which published “Streams…“ – published a book about the Finnish Death Metal scene in 2020 – “Rotting Ways To Misery“ – which was named after a song by the Finnish band SENTENCED. We thought it would be a cool idea to continue that tradition. When I started looking for a title for the book, ASPHYX was just about the first band that came to mind. ASPHYX is one of the oldest, most famous and most successful Dutch Death Metal bands still active today. It is a band I have always really liked and which still makes great music. One of their oldest songs is ‘Streams Of Ancient Wisdom’, and I thought that title fit the concept of the book perfectly. I regard “streams” as the entirety of the stories and interviews in the book, and “ancient wisdom” as the period highlighted in the book, namely 1985-1995.“

Did you already have a publishing company while you worked on it or did that happen later, when you finally could present most of the planned content? Was Cult Never Dies your number one choice for this project or did you also have other companies in mind that you would have liked to work with, if possible?
“I have known Dayal Patterson – the head of Cult Never Dies – for several years. I interviewed him many years ago when he published his book “Black Metal – Evolution Of The Cult“. Since then, we have had some contact from time to time. I reviewed quite a few books he published over the years, and I sometimes also did interviews with the respective authors. When the first draft of my book was already quite advanced, I started thinking about a possible publisher. I had about three publishers in mind, and Cult Never Dies was right at the top of the list. I sent Dayal an e-mail with the concept of my book, and he was pretty much immediately on board. So I did not look any further for other possible candidates.“

Were you involved in the layout of the pages as well or did you leave that part to Cult Never Dies?
“I would say that Dayal and I worked closely together and decided how to approach everything together. Dayal took care of the layout since I‘m not at all familiar with working with the programme InDesign. He sent me chapters during the layout process which were worked out, and things were then tweaked or other photos were chosen in the process. In the beginning, it was a bit of a search together how the layout would be worked out. I‘m a huge fan of Daniel Ekeroth’s book “Swedish Death Metal“. That book was a sort of an example for me of how “Streams…” had to look… not only in terms of content but also visually. I wanted the layout of “Streams…“ to go in the direction of that book, and I think Dayal succeeded very well in that. In the very beginning, it was a bit of a puzzle how to set the text. At first, the text was placed across the width of the page, but that didn’t work that well. Working in two columns immediately made a big difference. What I personally found extremely important is that the text of the inside pages had be big enough to make the book pleasant to read, with enough white space between the lines. Biographies about Metal bands or books collecting the various issues of old fanzines are published fairly regularly these days. The text in those books is often way too small for me personally to really read it easily, let alone several hundred pages. Since “Streams…“ was going to be published in a fairly large format – 210 x 298 mm – there were fortunately a lot of options in that area as well, so we didn’t have to compromise there.“

It’s really impressive how much interesting background info you had for each of the features, so do you simply have a very good memory or did reading old interviews, checking fanzines, demos, releases and websites unearth all that again?
“I have quite a good memory (laughs). I can often recall details or certain statements from old interviews effortlessly. I also usually remember very well in which issue of a particular magazine or fanzine I should go and look to find an interview with a particular band since I read those publications so often. I can also remember and sort of “reconstruct” most bands’ careers by heart. However, for every “Streams…“ chapter or feature of a particular band, I have dug out their history and background as best I can. A website like Metal Archives and Discogs is just an incredible help if you want to look up the details of certain releases. The online archive of Aardschok also proved to be very useful for checking certain details.“

How many releases of the bands that you interviewed are actually part of your own collection? I mean, do you own all those demos and albums yourself or did you have to check YouTube or other sources as well for some of them?
“To be honest, I don’t have that many demos by Dutch bands as original tapes. I think in total maybe 60-70 demos or so. But I do have many reissues of demo material on vinyl or on CD from bands featured in the book. A lot of old material has been reissued in recent years, think of the reissues of demos of KORSAKOV, MANGLED, DEAD END, INQUISITOR, THANATOS, ACROSTICHON, ALTAR, PENTACLE, MYSTIC CHARM, GOREFEST, SWAZAFIX, THE GATHERING, GUTWRENCH, ASPHYX, BURIAL, POLLUTED INHERITANCE and many more. I also still have many cassettes with copies of demos in good sound quality which I digitised many years ago. Those recordings also sort of form a nice archive all together. And in addition, you can find an awful lot of material to listen to on YouTube these days. I have almost all of the albums by the bands featured in “Streams…“ though, as they are usually not that incredibly difficult to get hold of if you really want to have them.“

In the section “External Perspectives” a lot of international musicians talk about the Netherlands, its underground scene, the clubs and the bands… Did you get those quotes while you interviewed those bands for the magazine Rock Tribune or have some of them also been contacted exclusively for your book?
“It‘s bit of both (laughs). I contacted a lot of musicians via Facebook, explaining the concept of the book to them, and asking them if they could write a piece about their perspective of the Dutch scene. I am thinking of Jeff Becerra (POSSESSED), Remo ‘Brögi’ Broggi (MESSIAH), Henry Veggian (REVENANT), Paul Speckmann (MASTER) and Alex Colin-Tocquaine (AGGRESSOR), among others. I had interviewed almost all of them before for Rock Tribune, so the contact we had before made all that easier. However, I also interviewed quite a few musicians exclusively for the book such as Mille Petrozza (KREATOR), Karl Willetts (BOLT THROWER, MEMORIAM), Peter Wiwczarek (VADER) and Paul Mazurkiewicz (CANNIBAL CORPSE). Nuclear Blast promoter Jaap Wagemaker has also been very helpful in contacting musicians from quite a few Nuclear Blast bands such as Ross Dolan (IMMOLATION), Terrance Hobbs (SUFFOCATION), Tomi Koivusaari (AMORPHIS, ABHORRENCE), Ivar Bjørnson (ENSLAVED), Gregor Mackintosh (PARADISE LOST), Andrew ‘Andy’ Craighan (MY DYING BRIDE) and Karl Sanders (NILE).“

Did you listen to each band’s early releases once again in order to prepare yourself for the interviews?
“Oh yes, definitely! It had been quite a while sometimes since I dug out some of those older releases, so I really sort of re-discovered some of them again. Especially more obscure bands like ETERNAL NIGHTMARE, SOLSTICE and AWAKENING for example.“

By the way: did you conduct the interviews via email, telephone, Skype or in person? Or was it a mixture of all that?
“It was a mixture. I’d say that most of the interviews were done via Skype or over the phone, but there are also quite a few which came together through exchanging e-mails.“

Did you focus on the book exclusively while you were working on it or did you still do interviews for Rock Tribune during that period as well?
“I still did interviews for Rock Tribune as well. As I said earlier, all the things I normally did in my free time like visiting friends and going to gigs, festivals, record fairs and flea markets fell apart when the pandemic rose. I had a lot of free time on my hands which I had to fill in another way. So that wasn’t really a problem.“

The book is entirely written in English. You are from Belgium and all the featured bands are from the Netherlands (and partly also from Belgium). So, have all interviews been conducted in your native tongue and afterwards you translated them into english? If so, weren’t you worried that statements could easily be falsified by a translation? Did someone proofread the results?
“All the interviews with Dutch bands have indeed been conducted in my native tongue, Dutch. I first wrote everything out in Dutch, and I translated everything in English later on. I really put a lot of effort into taking care of the translation, and I think I managed to do it quite well. I’ve been doing interviews for almost 30 years in the meantime. I won’t say that my English is absolutely perfect, but I do have quite a bit of experience, I think. Most of the interviews I do are done with foreign bands, and are therefore done in English but published in Dutch. That’s like the other way around, but in the end it’s also sort of the same way of working. Dayal of Cult Never Dies and a colleague of his also proofread everything. They still made a few corrections here and there, but they also told me that the drafts I sent to him were really good so…“

Would you still have continued to work on the book if you wouldn’t have been able to interview the most important bands of the Dutch scene for some reason? I mean, the book obviously would have been incomplete without names like ASPHYX, PESTILENCE, GOREFEST, THANATOS etc.
“I never thought that interviews with the bigger Dutch Death Metal bands would ever become a problem. I often pick the more “classic” Death Metal bands for Rock Tribune when they have made a new album. Bands like ASPHYX, PESTILENCE, GOREFEST and THANATOS are all bands I really appreciate and have interviewed several times in the past. I’d say that I also have quite a good relationship with all those bands. We sometimes exchange a message with each other via e-mail or Facebook. At festivals like Eindhoven Metal Meeting, Netherlands Deathfest or other underground festivals, you often run into each other as well, which is always nice.“

How did you manage to locate all the people that you interviewed for the book? I mean, some of them aren’t involved in the Metal scene any longer, have moved to other countries or whatever… Was it mainly through social media or did you also get contact phone numbers or email addresses from other bands / people that were involved in the scene at that time?
“Facebook was obviously a big help, that’s where almost everyone can be found these days. But there were indeed also a lot of people like, for instance, Frank Faase (SEMPITERNAL DEATHREIGN), Eric Schut (CASTLE), Cronald (NECRO SCHIZMA) who cannot be found on social media. It then came down to old contact addresses and contacting old record companies, ex – band members or people you think might be able to help you along the way. Ewald Provoost of the fanzine MASTER OF BRUTALITY was not to be found on social media. Nobody had heard from him in years. I wrote him a letter and sent it to his old contact address, and it turned out that he still lived there (laughs). There is hardly anyone I wanted to cover who I didn’t find. I also wanted to do an interview with Harry Wijering of the Harrow studio. I contacted him, and I got a kind message back from him saying that he‘s retired and living on the island of Bonaire these days. However, he wished me good luck with the book. I also wanted to devote a chapter in the book to the club Scum in Katwijk since that venue was so important at the time. I contacted several people for that and also tried contacting them through their website and their Facebook page, but unfortunately I never got a response. That’s about the only thing that comes to my mind that didn’t work out. I was sometimes quite surprised to see how smoothly everything came together for certain interviews. For instance, I thought it would be very difficult to talk to people like Henk Westbroek (the former frontman of the Dutch Rock band HET GOEDE DOEL who hosted the radio show VARA’s Vuurwerk at the time) and Rob Trommelen (the big boss of MOJO who used to run the booking agency Background Agency). But all that came together incredibly smoothly.“

If you go through the book you quickly notice that the Netherlands gave birth to quite a lot of Doom / Death Metal bands, a lot of them also with keyboards and / or female vocals. As far as I know there is no other country with so many bands of that kind, so how do you explain that? Would you say that “Always…”, the debut album from THE GATHERING, had a lot to do with that maybe?
“That’s an interesting question (laughs). I think that “Always…“ definitely played a big part in all that. There are a lot of bands out there who are obviously very inspired by that album. I think a band like PHLEBOTOMIZED also did something in that genre which was pretty unique back then and influential. There used to be a recording studio in the Netherlands – the Beaufort recording studio – which was very popular in the 90s and kind of the perfect place to record this kind of music with lots of keyboards. Many bands in that genre recorded there, like for example SAD WHISPERINGS, CALLENISH CIRCLE, CASTLE, ETHERIAL WINDS, EVISCERATION, VOYAGE and THE GATHERING. I also think that an album like “Gothic“ (PARADISE LOST) left an incredibly big mark on the Dutch extreme music scene. I mean, there are really many Dutch underground bands which covered songs from that album back in the days.“

You have focused on the years 1985 to 1995 in the book exclusively, which means there have been a lot more bands in the Netherlands that became very important in the underground, especially in the Black Metal scene, which you didn’t cover at all… Could you imagine writing a follow-up sometime maybe, which continues where “Streams Of Ancient Wisdom” ended?
“To be honest, no, not really. I think the underground scene and the whole approach changed a lot around 1995. It was a period where Death Metal was really not that popular anymore, and Black Metal really took over for many people. I’m also not that familiar with the Dutch bands which started out around 1995 or a little later. Regarding Black Metal, I didn’t cover any Dutch Black Metal bands in the book because I hardly know anything about that scene. I never really followed that scene very closely. I know someone in Belgium who’s been writing a book about the Dutch Black Metal scene for several years now. I don’t know what the current status of his book is, but he’s a far better person to cover that scene than me.“

It seems that whenever there’s talk about underrated bands from the Netherlands the names SEMPITERNAL DEATHREIGN and SILENXCE get mentioned in your book the most. Do you share this opinion or are there any bands that you personally consider equally or even more underrated?
“I tend to agree there. I think “The Spooky Gloom“ – the debut album of SEMPITERNAL DEATHREIGN – is still an outstanding and incredibly heavy album. I was quite surprised when Frank Faase told me in his interview that they only did a handful of shows with the band throughout their career. I always thought it was much more. It’s really a pity that they didn’t record any more material. I must confess that I wasn’t really familiar with the material of INFERNO / SILENXCE before I started working on the book. That band really was a discovery for me… incredibly tight, fast and heavy. It’s really unbelievable that they never made a “real” album. There’s a pretty cool YouTube channel called Underground Tube – The Fourth Crusade which offers many recordings of old shows in often pretty good sound quality. The shows of INFERNO and SILENXCE which you can find there are really good and very intense. SILENXCE is still around, I hope to be able to catch them live somewhere in the Netherlands later on this year.“

The incredible cover artwork of the book was created by Richard Schouten, who’s also the guitar player in ACROSTICHON… Apart from zombie-like Metalheads, he even included the best known cliches that are related to the Netherlands, like tulips and windmills, which is just great… Did you know him personally before already or did you just contact him, because of all the great artwork he had already done in general, but also for other bands?
“I really love the drawings of Richard Schouten. I have been following his work on his Facebook page for quite some time, and I sometimes send him a compliment when he publishes a new drawing or a new painting. He once made a drawing of an owl which just can’t be described in words, I think that one is really just phenomenal. Richard also makes more “atmospheric horror” related work sometimes, and since he also plays guitar in the Death Metal band ACROSTICHON, he seemed like the perfect guy to make the artwork for the book. I was really delighted when he was immediately enthusiastic when I contacted him for the book. If you enter the term “typically Dutch” in Google, the search results are vast and green meadows, tulips and windmills. So, as far as I was concerned, those elements definitely had to be on the front cover. However, I also wanted a few zombie-like Metal fans in the best AUTOPSY tradition. And that’s what the cover artwork ended up being.”

Did Richard come up with the idea for the cover completely on his own or did you exchange ideas before he actually started working on it?
“We exchanged the general idea beforehand. Richard sent me a first sketch afterwards which was just perfect to me. And so, he started to work out all the details a bit later.“

What I also found very interesting is the fact that Metal musicians are mainly known for drinking alcohol and smoking weed, but in the book a lot of them are praising “Chocomel”, which is a cocoa drink. Do you have any explanation for that? Have you ever drunk that yourself?
“I was quite surprised by that as well (laughs). Especially American bands seem to really adore that drink. I’m familiar with it and I also drank it, but you know, it’s just a regular cocoa drink to me.”

Now that “Streams Of Ancient Wisdom” is finally finished and out for a while, have you ever thought about another project like that maybe?
“There are a few bands out there who I think it would be fun to write a biography of. I spontaneously think of one of my favourites, which is VOIVOD. No biography of that band has been published yet, and I think you could make a very fascinating and entertaining story of their history. But since an extensive documentary of that band is in the making – “We Are Connected” – I wonder if that would really make sense as a lot of work would creep into that. Over the past few months, I have been working on interviews for a few tape-boxes which Denny from Darkness Shall Rise has released or will release, including a box of VENOM, DESTRUCTION and ULVER. I did very in-depth interviews with Schmier, Mike, Olly and Harry for the DESTRUCTION box which was very cool to do. There are a few more tape-boxes planned in the near future for which I am currently preparing interviews, I’m rather busy with that. So, apart from my monthly writing work for Rock Tribune, I have more than enough to do (laughs).”

Okay Steven, we’ve finally reached the end. Thanks for taking the time and all the best for you and the book. Keep up the great work. I’ll leave the closing words up to you.
“I’ve been contributing reviews and interviews to the website of VOICES FROM THE DARKSIDE for quite a few years in the meantime. But I can’t deny that it’s a very special feeling to get featured here on VOICES with you interviewing me (laughs). I still have all the printed issues of VOICES FROM THE DARKSIDE which you published back in the day. I read them all so many times, and all together they’re just incredible as a source of inspiration and information. I think I told you this already several times throughout the years, but I always thought that VOICES was just the best fanzine there has ever been. It‘s definitely an example for me of how interviews should be done and how a zine should look like. It took me a couple of issues back in the days before I really found my way to approach things when I made my first steps with my fanzine SLEEPLESS, and VOICES was definitely the biggest inspiration for that. It’s somehow funny… I’ve never spoken to you, nor have I ever met you, and still we’ve been in touch with each other for over 27 years now, and I regard you as a good friend.”

“Streams Of Ancient Wisdom – The History Of Dutch Death And Extreme Metal” can be ordered in Europe via Consouling Sounds and in the UK via Cult Never Dies.

Frank Stöver

Leave a Reply