|Tamar Singer and Vlad Shusterman of Cruel Wonders
Photo by Orly Eyal-Levy
Interview with VLAD SHUSTERMAN of GHOST BIKE and CRUEL WONDERS by Dave Wolff
The music you compose for your project Ghost Bike is termed as “ghost rock,” but more informatively described as crossover of post-dubstep, blackgaze and ethereal wave. These subgenres of music are not often heard of. How did you come up with this style and with what instruments did you develop it?
I first started experimenting with what later fleshed out as the GB sound around 2008-9. Prior to that I played guitar, bass, and electronics in a half dozen local bands ranging from goth metal to big beat techno to indie pop and released some Ninja Tune-esque nu-jazz of my own production on obscure local labels, to very little fanfare and deservedly so. Late 2000s and early 2010s saw a huge explosion in both ambient-influenced bass music and shoegaze-influenced black metal (Burial and Alcest are the two epoch-defining names that come to mind, respectively), I was listening to heaps of this stuff back then and wanted to develop something that drew from what I loved best of both genres - on the dubstep side, the irregular polyrhythms and the textural sampling, on the metal side the loud-quiet dynamics and the washed-out guitar tones. I grew up on goth rock and post-punk and naturally that heritage was quite present as well. Religious and ritual music has also been a huge influence, I got into this stuff via Dead Can Dance and Coil and have been collecting and sampling it ever since I first got on the internet. Conceptually, I was always obsessed with death and memory, and having lost a number of loved ones around that time I intended this project to be a sort of makeshift monument to the departed - hence, Ghost Bike.
I started feeding some of my favorite samples of exotic instruments and vocals into the fx chains normally associated with shoegaze and post-rock, playing guitar parts over the resulting ambience and feeding those into processors associated with synth music, running programmed beats through overdriven bass and guitar amps (actually a classic Cocteau Twins technique, as I discovered to much amazement later), and tying it all together with deep melancholic bass reminiscent of the UK dance scene. Naturally, it all had to be done with digital emulations instead of physical gear, out of financial constraints as well as practical reasons. 'You Don't Exist’, first Ghost Bike full-length, was made entirely in this way, I just put it on Bandcamp in May 2010 with very low expectations and somehow it generated quite a hype on the net and got me signed to n5MD, a legendary imprint I deeply admired. n5MD released my 2011 EP 'Time's Carcass’, which was the development of the same sound with more industrial influence and forays into actual verse-chorus songwriting (one of the songs ended up in an indie Hollywood movie which proudly holds the title of one of the worst horror films of the decade on IMDB) and, subsequently, the 2013 LP 'Sun Of The Dead’, which was the most ambitious GB release so far and the only one available in physical format. For 'Sun’ I worked with six different vocalists and blended even more genre elements - neoclassical, hip hop, free jazz and whatnot. It got rave reviews worldwide, brought me some high-profile remix work and still sells to this day, but writing and producing this mammoth of a thing was a very draining experience for me, both professionally and personally. I felt I painted GB into a corner and had to put it on a very long hold.
I was very much into neofolk and funeral doom at the time and wanted to give the proper attention to Cruel Wonders, the folk noir/post-metal project I started developing with my old friend Tamar Singer, a wonderful acoustic guitarist and vocalist who sang on two GB tracks earlier. At the same time I was working on a witch-house/synthpop project with another friend and GB regular Ayala Almog, It never materialized, but much of the stuff I've written for it was used later for the 2018 Ghost Bike comeback album 'Nothing Charms’, which was released independently. It was entirely comprised of hooks and songs and grounded in dreampop and darkwave territory, complete with post-punk drums, gothy guitars and keyboards and my own Andrew Eldrich-esque vocals. This digression went largely unnoticed. (Cruel Wonders’ debut LP was doing great in the meantime, becoming something of a cult classic over a couple of years). I went back to experimenting with the more abstract and wordless side of the Ghost Bike sound, bringing the exoticist and avant-classical elements to the foreground, utilizing the field recordings I've made over the years in various violent events and environments, and taking the guitar almost completely out of the equation in favor of classic synth and drum machine emulations. It resulted in the death dance that is 'Modern Ruins’, ten instrumentals released on the 1st of June 2019.
Hopefully it was not too much of a setback for your song to be in a movie that was poorly received. Was the exposure helpful to you and your project in spite of this, or is it something you have forgotten about and moved on from?
I took it quite humorously. It's a great story to tell, seeing that I'm a film school graduate and the only one in my class with IMDB credits - for this thing, no less. Personally, I never understood all the bad hype about that movie. It's great I Know What You Did-on-poppers-and-steroids fun and certainly very impressive on the technical level. It did give me some minor mainstream exposure, but seems like it's largely forgotten now along with its soundtrack. That's show business, I guess.
What was the title of this movie, and what about the qualities you described do you appreciate despite its poor reception?
The movie was titled ‘Muck’ (2015). A bunch of models and a serial killer, sort of torture porn with strong emphasis on porn. It is in no way ‘Salò’ or ‘Martyrs’ or even ‘A Serbian Film’, but the cinematography, lighting, and editing are top-notch professional. The producers also had the song re-mixed and remastered in a high-end studio, on proper soundstage and analog gear, which I could never afford. The song is 'Urnful Of Summer' off of 'Time's Carcass'. It plays over the opening credits. Turned out too squeaky-clean for my liking.
Did your song lose any of its appeal when it was remastered? If you had a hand in working on the remastering, what would you have done with the song?
I don't think it lost any appeal at all. It's still the same song, just with a cleaner, punchier, more radio-friendly mix and more prominent vocals. The comments on Youtube are overwhelmingly positive. I was striving for a less cloudy, more in-your-face sound on 'Nothing Charms' and especially 'Modern Ruins', but such a homesick, nostalgia-laden song as 'Urnful Of Summer' still works better for me with that 'classic' GB digital haze all over. If they let me into that Universal soundstage, I'd probably forget about the song altogether and just drool over the analog compressors and EQs and fx units like a kid in a toy shop. They'd have to call security.
Can a song you have remastered be more polished and retain its digital haziness? What digital equipment can specifically do so? Should high tech equipment vary according to what each band needs, instead of using it for its own sake?
It can, to an extent. Noise filters and surgical EQs work wonders these days, there are many competing developers making jaw-droppingly accurate software emulations of industry-standard studio gear. Some of my personal favorites are actually freeware. The equipment should indeed vary according to each project's needs, in fact that's what music production as a craft bordering on art is all about - not necessarily the best possible sound, but always the right one. In GB's case, however, the line between composition and production is not clearly and easily drawn. What makes the haze is the numerous echo, delay, and modulated reverb plugins, which both rhythmically and harmonically serve as crucial components of the songwriting itself. The effect chain on a guitar or a piano line is just as musical and important as the 'dry' part itself, and the unprocessed drums simply don't hold the propelling power.
Do you draw influence from more obscure genres because you want to create something new and different? Or do your compositions simply come from writing what you feel?
Both. As much as I love some mainstream pop and rock music, from ABBA to Muse, I was always drawn to the underground stuff. As a kid, I played classical piano and used to drew the curtains to listen to the jazz and hard rock tapes my dad used to smuggle into USSR on the way back from his work trips to Europe, in my teens it was old school death metal and hip hop, then I discovered goth and shoegaze, somewhat later I got into electronic music and post-rock. The musical choices were also unwittingly political. I grew up and came of age in very violent and dangerous environments, first the pre-collapse Soviet Ukraine (not too far from Chernobyl actually) and then the 90's intifada-ridden, madly sectarian Israel - as cliché as it sounds, music was the only escape. For all their gory lyrics and violent imagery, metal and rap felt safe and inclusive, while the school and the society at large were everything but. Saccharine commercial radio pop is still to this day associated in my mind with social exclusion and bigoted violence, both street kind and institutional, simply because that's what the perpetrators would always blast in the background. Finding acceptance as a Jewish kid in Ukraine and a "Russian" kid in Israel was hard or next to impossible, so there was also the cultural capital issue - my knowledge of wide underground music was a way of finally belonging somewhere truly cool and cosmopolitan, a haven the "normies" with their laughable radio shit could never dream of reaching.
Ghost Bike was conceived as a project about defiance in the face of loss - loss of people, loss of home, loss of love, loss of cherished material things, loss of identity, loss of physical safety. These are very dark and complex notions that simply cannot be tackled adequately within the very limited conventions of commercial-minded mainstream music. I turned to post-dubstep and blackgaze for main inspiration because of the pain and nostalgia and yet fragile hope inherently present in both, but compositionally and texturally I did try to make something rooted in my own aesthetic views and my life experience. Is it truly new and different in my favorite Nabokov definition, as in "an African who dreams up snow"? For all the positive feedback, I doubt it. Ironically, it was back in my 20s when I obsessed over originality yet churned out very generic jazztronica. It was only when I gave up on trying to be unique at all costs that I found my own sound. Loss can be also a positive thing. There is the loss of shackles.
When most people listen to Ghost Bike on social media, are they immediately aware of how different your various influences make your project sound? Are your listeners responding to that your sound hasn’t been tried before?
It's rare that I get feedback on social media, but it does usually comment on the idiosyncrasy of my sound in some way or another. Some even call it unique, much to my puzzlement. People are mostly interested in the stories and hidden meanings behind the music - for instance, why a love song for Norway (a threnody for the victims of the Utøya massacre), what is a time's carcass anyway (Karl Marx's metaphor for human alienation), why Ray Bradbury's voice (because he just passed away and I always adored his writing) or what is the Russian dialogue interspersed throughout Sun Of The Dead (a statement of faith sampled from a Soviet fantasy film that deeply moved me as a child). Most of the reviews make a point of my knack for blending numerous unrelated influences and genres together in a seemingly organic and effortless fashion, which is always the best compliment. My long-term ambition for GB was always for it to grow into a 'post-everything' project, like a compressed memory of musical human experience, a vast graveyard of musical culture.
How long had you known Tamar Singer before you began working with her? What inspired you two to begin collaborating and sharing ideas to compose songs with?
We've been close friends for what seems like forever, since age sixteen or so. Went to the same film school together. Been through incredibly hard times together, tons of mutual friends, an extended family basically. Musically, Tamar is a bit of a late bloomer - she only started playing and singing professionally around that time, and I wanted to play guitar for the actual riffs and solos again, as opposed to washes and textural shadings as I've always used it in GB. Our musical tastes rarely match, but we've always been great at just tuning into each other and jamming (which we started doing seriously around 2012) - throwing some chords together, picking a poetry book from the shelf, finding the right vocal melody, working some lead guitar around that, giving the song a rough structure, etc. This is how we wrote the bulk of Cruel Wonders material - basically over drinks with two guitars and a bunch of ready-made lyrics. We are recording our second release right now, and it's still as fresh and exciting and fun as when we first started jamming.
Did your and Tamar’s experiences at film school prepare you as musicians in any way? Are there efforts to compose songs for GB and Cruel Wonders so they resonate as indie films?
Tamar is a professional film editor and made quite a few music videos since graduation, including one for CW and one for GB. Film school was great fun, but my screenwriting career never took off as much as I hoped back then, and today I'm quite happy it didn't. I do love good film music and learned heaps from my favorite soundtracks (French noir to Lynch's Dune to Jim Jarmusch) as regards use of space and dynamics and tension. 'Modern Ruins' was intended as an entirely cinematic work, a background score to the slow loss of the world as we know it. Some of the reviews for 'You Don't Exist' and 'Sun Of The Dead' described those as soundtracks to a life story. Well-chosen visuals are a very important part of Cruel Wonders' aesthetic, but we always used well-known pieces of classic poetry for lyrics, so I've always considered CW more of a literary rather than film-ready project. Invisible Oranges did describe our debut as 'oddball cinematic neofolk' though, it was a huge compliment coming from such a revered publication.
How many Cruel Wonders releases have you and Tamar collaborated on together? How has your work matured since the first songs on you wrote and composed?
So far, we only released an LP and a Sol Invictus cover for Tony Wakeford's thirty year tribute compilation. We are recording our second release right now, a longish EP based on the biblical Book of Lamentations. Destruction of Jerusalem is a theme that resonates with us both. We learned a lot from working on our debut (which took almost four years to write and produce), musically and personally. For all the ecstatic response, 'Gentle Doom' suffered from certain cluttering and lack of focus, so we go to great lengths to ensure our new stuff is as focused and crisp as possible. The songs are longer and less linear, yet the arrangements and hopefully the production are more effective and lean. We work together better than ever before.
Why did it take so long to write and produce Cruel Wonders’ debut “Gentle Doom”? Was it more of a musical or personal challenge to complete the album the way you both wanted to?
Both, along with logistical issues. I still live in Jerusalem and Tamar moved to Tel Aviv long ago, which is an hour's drive away but still counts, given our irregular hour day jobs. Our musical tastes were quite different at that time, which led to some differences, naturally. I was pushing for prominent rhythm based on orchestral and ethnic percussion loops, classic neofolk style, and Tamar wanted to keep the percussion minimal, if any at all. When it comes to layering channels and parts and effects, we both have a not always healthy tendency for somewhat overdoing it, which had to be kept in constant check during the mixing stage. We did reach optimal compromises in the end, I think. The faint, antique vinyl sound of 'Gentle Doom' is often commended as working to the album's charm and advantage.
Did the following albums you and Tamar worked on take as long to develop musically and lyrically?
The four long songs comprising the new EP took about a year of bi-weekly sessions to write and arrange, and now we are midway into the recording process. It definitely goes faster and smoother now, with all the 'Gentle Doom' experience under our belts. We hope to release it later this year.
What are the biggest differences between the EP and the previous album, in terms of your songwriting and recording experience?
Compositionally, we gave up the conventional verse-chorus structure in favor of non-linear, free-flowing, almost prog rock-like sequencing of themes and ideas to suit the biblical storytelling and atmosphere. Bass guitar is a new and quite prominent part of the sound (we used horn-like synth bass on 'Gentle Doom'), I always enjoyed playing it and it brings a great deal of color and harmonic depth to the arrangements. We also opted for much more realistic drum programming this time, as opposed to Gentle Doom's folksy percussion loops. I better stop here, anything more should come with a strong spoiler alert.
What about the Book of Lamentations resonated with you and Tamar to the point where you wanted to base a concept album on it? Was this biblical chapter chosen after an extensive search for inspiration?
After the release of 'Gentle Doom' in March 2017, we didn't have much time for new material. We mostly had to rehearse a lot, as we became somewhat of a go-to opening act for any big name in the genre that happened to play in Israel - ROME, Spiritual Front, Roma Amor, etc. When we finally went back to jamming and writing, we felt like we've exhausted the whole Western-canon-poetry-as-lyrics concept, it worked great for one album but would feel like a shtick if continued. The still-wordless new songs were coming out quite epic, even apocalyptic in scope, and the Old Testament came up as an immediate textual option. We both grew up in Jerusalem, with its unique atmosphere of maddening fervor and strife that still somehow feels cozy and homey, a city on the constant brink of sectarian war yet with the most laid-back bars and idyllic public parks I've ever encountered. Jeremiah is the most poetic and touching of all biblical prophets and his Book of Lamentations on the destruction of Jerusalem by Emperor Titus' troops was a natural choice. The text has exactly the wistful, resigned, post-apocalyptic quality we were looking for, and the new English translations preserve the original Hebrew sing-song intonation quite perfectly.
In what ways does the translation capture the post-apocalyptic feel of the original text?
We tried the King James version first, obviously, but it had this almost comically metal vocabulary and cadence to it - and we're not Behemoth or Morbid Angel to pull it off with a straight face. Then we happened upon the New Standard and New International renditions, which were both truer to the original text and wonderfully down-to-earth in their tone. For all the divine wrath and fire, bodies in the streets and crying infants among the ruins, Jeremiah wrote in the everyday colloquial Hebrew of his time, and the sober, matter-of-fact Modern English translation makes his descriptions all the more vivid.
Speaking of other metal bands, are there bands you’ve listened to who channel more thought into their lyrics? Making them less stereotypical and more profound?
Listing all the metal lyricists I admire, from J. R. Hayes to Dani Filth to Ice T to David Vincent to Famine to Till Lindemann to Thomas Lindberg, would probably take up another interview. My all-time favorite is undoubtedly Aaron Stainthorpe of My Dying Bride. Especially his early stuff which is inimitably rich, vivid, and wildly inventive, like Marlowe on a hit of 90's MDMA. His later, more subdued writing is also profoundly poetic and touching. To me, he is the Nick Cave of metal - which I'm quite sure he would take as a compliment.
“Turn Loose The Swans” is still my favorite album from MDB, twenty five years after its release. What are your thoughts on Aaron Stainthorpe’s work on that album? Do you think it still holds up after all this time?
It's a breathtaking, timeless piece of art, and it was revolutionary for the time with its' use of clean vocals and ambience. Everything about TLTS is incredible - the writing, the guitar work, the vocals, the drums (those head-spinning rolls!), Stainthorpe's poetry and cover art, and of course Martin Powell's tasteful keyboards and violin. The production is huge and the chamber reverb is perfect. I love nearly all of MDB's discography, but TLTS is definitely my favorite, with "The Angel And The Dark River" coming close second. I still remember the lyrics to both by heart. Used to scratch them on walls as a teenager.
Tamar has also come out with a series of solo releases. In what ways does her solo material differ from your projects with her?
Both of Tamar's other releases so far - a solo EP under the name of Zeresh, and especially Necromishka, a joint project with her husband, a prominent noise artist recording as Kadaver - are way more experimental than Cruel Wonders. Zeresh is rooted in acoustic folk, yet electronically processed to the point it veers into dark ambient territory, while Necromishka is nearly indescribable, drone ambient meets musique concrète with flashes of folk and harsh noise. I find both brilliant, otherworldly and gorgeous. CW on the other hand, with its sweeping riffs, strong vocal melodies and laconic rhythm, was always intended to be as accessible as it could be without slipping into mainstream folk-rock format. For all the brainy and dark subject matter, we just want to write memorable songs.
How have your dual projects and Tamar’s solo projects been received inside and outside of your native Israel so far? In which countries have you found listeners who understand the statements you and she are making?
GB never got much recognition in Israel, nor did I expect it to. As a rule, Israelis are very conservative and scene-oriented listeners, they tend to stick to whatever they happened upon socially in their teens and early 20s, and GB's sound ('Nothing Charms' digression aside) is both too contemporary and too hard to peg onto any easily recognizable genre or scene to identify with. GB is known mostly among post-rock and ambient electronica enthusiasts in the US (not surprising, seeing n5MD is based out of Oakland, CA), UK and post-Soviet countries, though most heartfelt fan mail and feedback is usually coming from Greece, Mexico, South Korea, etc. Cruel Wonders and Zeresh have been luckier locally, as there is a small but very devoted fanbase for dark folk and related music here in Israel. Both seem quite well-loved in the neofolk and doom metal community across Europe, North America, and especially Russia - probably owing to our use of texts by some of the most revered Russian poets of the 20th century.
Are there bands in Israel who have helped support Cruel Wonders and Zeresh from the beginning? How much of a fan base is there? Enough for local venues and overseas zines and distros to take notice of?
The underground music scene here in general is very compact and centered mainly around Southern Tel Aviv. Everyone knows each other, and if you want to play live there's never a shortage of bands to share a bill with. We usually did so with our friends Opioids (metal-ish post-punk), Agnivolok (Israel's first internationally renowned dark folk artist), Von Helix (synthpunk), Obsidian Tide (prog death metal), or Kadaver. CW was and still is in a unique position of practically the only active neofolk act in Israel besides Agnivolok (who is only active sporadically), and Zeresh enjoys the same fanbase. Due to financial reasons, most venues here have no choice but diversify - metal mini-fest tonight, rap battle tomorrow, techno sets over the weekend, etc., and the bands/artists usually organize and promote the events themselves. Unlike, say, Berlin, most people here stick to their own scene though. Bandcamp Daily did a great feature about the Tel Aviv underground scene recently, even though it concentrated mostly on the currently hyped indie rock and EDM acts.
How many reliable independent labels exist in Israel at present? Would you and Tamar rather be signed at home or in another country? Or would it depend on the label?
I'm not aware of any prominent independent labels at this time. Indie labels are struggling for existence all over the world, and the cultural climate has been particularly unkind to them here. Back in the 2000s microlabels were a huge thing in Israel, every other kid basically ran one out of his bedroom and released CDrs of whatever jams his friends would come up with - the vast majority of it ranged from embarrassing to plainly unlistenable. Of course there were gems in that heap, but not many. The label craze just died out, and Bandcamp was the last nail in the proverbial coffin. There is 999 Cuts, an imprint Tamar and Michael started to release Zeresh and Necromishka on CD. We are not actively seeking a record deal for Cruel Wonders now, though offers are always welcome. I don't care much for the physical format and gave away my 1000-odd CD collection a long time ago to clear space for books.
Are yearly metal festivals held in Tel Aviv? If so are the turnouts consistently large each year? How often does a band from Israel have to perform festivals held abroad?
There is a huge increase in internationally celebrated acts coming to Tel Aviv lately, in any genre imaginable. Thankfully, concert promotion seems to have taken the place of the indie label trend of the 2000s. We certainly need less labels and more promoters. The amount of great artists I've seen locally in the last decade is staggering: straight out of my head I can mention Agalloch, VNV Nation, Alcest, Death In June, Bell Witch, Ben Frost, Wovenhand, ROME, Russian rap legends Krovostok, Slowdive, Enslaved, Lydia Lynch, The Soft Moon... Many of the events are organized by our friends Topheth Prophet, Andrew DNS, Dybbuk, and Un-Titled Productions. Full-blown festival, however, is not the most viable option in Israel, so the usual format is a marathon gig with a big-name headliner supported by a couple of local acts and perhaps a less-known band from abroad as well. Most of the events do exceedingly well for such a small market. As to playing abroad, depends on the band and the demand. Big name popular bands from Israel, such as Orphaned Land and Betzefer, are perennial staples on the metal festival circuit.
How do you intend to promote your future releases? Will they be exclusively on streaming formats or will you also press CD copies to distribute independently?
The tried-and-true way, I suppose - sending promos to writers and curators and just letting the music speak for itself. Neither me nor Tamar are much for the gimmicky promotion strategies prevalent these days in the industry. I'm a big fan of both Ghost and Drab Majesty, but costumes and larger-than-life characters... not in our case. We'll probably press a couple hundred CDs of the upcoming EP ourselves and sell those on Bandcamp, along with the last remaining copies of 'Gentle Doom'. Ghost Bike's post-'Sun Of The Dead' work is available as pay-what-you-want streaming and download only, and I'm quite happy with it this way, unless it gets picked up at some point by another label of n5MD's caliber.
Would you prefer seeing more bands that place work above image, or at least on the same level? Both have their place, but some bands are mostly or all about looks. How much would you want this to change?
I'd rather not see music and image as an either/or dichotomy. In both Ghost and Drab Majesty's case, the image and the concept are as thought-out and enjoyable as the music itself. Many other beloved bands and artists immediately spring to mind, from Bowie and Prince to Brujeria and Batushka - hell, black metal in general. On the contrary, I hope we'll see more image-conscious bands that explore and incorporate various cultural and aesthetic traditions. One of my favorite things about metal in particular was always the wildly eclectic, intellectually curious and multicultural streak in it - you can find a band based on any aesthetic or concept or period in human history, as long as it's dark and challenging. In both Ghost Bike and Cruel Wonders' case, however, the imagery is consciously kept sparse and laconic in order to keep the music evocative and use the power of suggestion.
How well known would you want to see your bands and other Israeli bands become overseas? And how would you and Tamar want to be remembered for their contributions to underground music?
Well, vanity is in human nature, isn't it? Of course I'd love to see both mine and my friends' work get as wide recognition as possible, but I'm also aware of how playlists are getting longer and attention spans shorter these days. It's ironic, but small community of friends and concert-goers aside, we are both much better known abroad. I'm far better known in Israel for my literary translation work and my satirical social media posts rather than both Cruel Wonders and Ghost Bike. In all our projects and incarnations we just want to make impressive, passionate music that resonates and, hopefully, stays with the listener. In the end it all boils down to songwriting. For all the apparent 'otherness' of Ghost Bike's musical language, my true pride is that I somehow managed to write a few memorable pieces and songs that use its' peculiarities and techniques to tell stories and express feelings that simply couldn't be told and expressed otherwise.