Svalbard has long been one of the most exciting bands in the alternative heavy music scene, combining the ferocity of hardcore and black metal with the delicate, atmospheric moods often found in post-rock and shoegaze. The release of their latest album, the powerful and visceral When I Die, Will I Get Better?, was all the motivation we needed to chat with singer/guitarist Serena Cherry, who openly discussed the new record, the depression she went through, the state of the world and how hard it still is to be a woman in a male-dominated society. Below are the brave and brutally honest words of a woman who ought to be heard.
You have recently released a new album called When I Die, Will I Get Better?. It is a pretty strong title – one that suggests an unbearable feeling of sadness and desperation. What was the inspiration behind it?
There are many reasons behind this album title. It’s actually taken from a children’s book about grieving and loss, which I saw in a museum in London one day last year. When I read the title of the book – When I Die, Will I Get Better? –, it immediately struck a chord with me because that question relates to how I feel when I struggle with depression. As if dying is the only cure, the only way to get rid of the dark thoughts and feelings. The only way out. Beyond that, I think it can also be reflective of the religious belief that when you die you go to heaven, you “get better”. People will live their entire lives following sets of rules and restricting their experiences on Earth purely on the basis that they will go to a better place when they die, which I think is a damaging philosophy. The title also relates to how when a celebrity dies, we place them on a pedestal and all of their sins are forgiven; we may suddenly forget any crimes or abuse that person has committed and view them as an angelic god when they’re dead. Finally, it has a sociological meaning in the sense that when sexism, racism, transphobia and homophobia die, we will get better as a society. This relates to the topics we talk about in the lyrics on the album - using our music to raise awareness of all kinds of abuse, with the hope that speaking out will speed up the process of this shit dying in society.
I believe the title is actually perfect for the strange, stressful times we are going through. With this whole pandemic, the fight against racism, police brutality and highly irresponsible politicians like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and so many others, people are fed up, they are feeling tired and restless; in that regard, it can almost be seen as a commentary on how we no longer seem able to cope with our own existence…
Yeah, exactly. I can see that. I think that would link with the overwhelming feeling of loss of control that permeates society at the moment. We have awful leaders, awful police brutality, people refusing to wear masks – everything feels so divided and destructive; and like no matter how hard you fight for good, the bad keeps overpowering at the moment. In that sense, I guess the album title reflects that feeling of helplessness.
Could you explain the deer on the album cover, please? It was one of the first things that caught my attention.
The deer represents the feminist aspects of the album, in the sense that we have songs that talk about women being blamed for what they are wearing, women being attacked in comments online. The deer is an animal that is preyed upon. And in some ways, that’s how it feels to be a woman – living in constant fear of the next attack.
Let's talk about the music now. I feel you have really struck the perfect balance between aggression and melody to create an extremely intense, visceral record, one that sounds big and emotionally dense. I understand that judging it objectively can still be difficult at this point, but how do you think the new album differs from the previous ones? How do you look at your own evolution as a band?
I think the heavy parts are heavier and the soft parts are softer haha! There is definitely more of a shoegaze influence on this album, we were listening to a lot of Alcest at the time of writing. Musically, I grew more confident with my clean singing voice and with writing more complex guitar leads, so they are both much more prominent on this album.
Something I really enjoyed was how the lyrical content made the whole listening experience way more vicious and cathartic. It reminded me of Stage Four by Touché Amoré, in the sense that its intensity doesn't simply come from the sounds one hears – it is also highly emotional. While that has always been the case with Svalbard, would you say this is the most intimate and vulnerable album you have recorded so far?
Yes, we have always been a hard-hitting band lyrically, with songs about abortion and revenge porn on the previous album. But this time the lyrics are a lot more emotive, because I wrote them when I was struggling with depression. That depression tainted everything I did, it was impossible for me to hold back how bad I was feeling, so that feeling seeped into every song. There are also a lot more songs based on personal experiences on this album.
Serena, I understand this may be a sensitive subject, but could you talk a little about the severe depression you went through last year? What would you say to someone who has never dealt with that pain?
I think the lyrics to our song “Listen to Someone” describe it best: “Days without eating, days without sleeping, days without speaking” – that was what my life was like. I felt so worthless, isolated and helpless... No matter how hard I tried, nothing could break through the black cloud in my mind. All the things I loved to do became meaningless. I would go away and just spend the whole time crying; I would play a cool gig and feel nothing. It felt like life was happening around me and I was stuck in this glass box on my own with nothing but all-consuming despair. I would tell people who have not experienced depression how lucky they are, because I would not wish this pain on anyone.
“The deer is an animal that is preyed upon. And in some ways, that’s how it feels to be a woman - living in constant fear of the next attack”
Depression is still something a lot of people are ashamed to talk about. In your opinion, what can be done to change this scenario? Do you believe that our patriarchal society is also to blame for this? It seems that men in general have a hard time expressing feelings because society has spent decades forcing them to ignore their emotions in a “deal with it and move on” kind of way.
I think things are slowly changing for the better and it’s one area where social media really helps. Having an online space to communicate how you feel and where you can reach out to others has started to normalise the need for emotional support. People can see celebrities tweeting about suffering with anxiety, and that kind of validates those mental health issues and hopefully makes people more aware, less ashamed and more open to discussing them. I think a patriarchal society that misinterprets stoicism for strength has been very damaging, however; for too long it has been expected of men to be quiet about their feelings – as if having emotions is a weakness. There is so much pressure on men to be tough and silent and resilient, it’s an unfair expectation placed heavily upon them and it has definitely contributed to the hostile environment towards mental health issues.
Speaking of toxic masculinity and misogyny, you openly address these issues on songs like “What Was She Wearing” or “The Currency of Beauty”. When you make the decision to discuss them in your lyrics, do you ever stop and wonder if the message is going to resonate with listeners, or is the whole experience purely therapeutic – just something you need to get off your chest?
I simply write about what I care about, what makes me really angry, and I want people who have suffered misogyny to feel less alone when they read my lyrics. I want my words to resonate with all the people who have been treated unfairly and hopefully give them some strength.
You have chosen to distance yourselves from Holy Roar Records after allegations of sexual abuse against its founder Alex Fitzpatrick were made. How crushed and devastated were you when you found this out? Also, how has the partnership with the newly found Church Road Records been so far?
We were deeply disturbed by the allegations and extremely disappointed. It made us want to do more as a band to help victims of sexual abuse, so we decided to donate a portion of all our record sales towards Rape Crisis, because charities that help victims are so important. We love working with Church Road Records, they are amazing people and have been very good to us. They worked so hard to ensure our album was still released on time. Plus they are getting loads of great acts, so we are now sharing a label with some really cool bands, which is awesome. I am super excited for the future of Church Road Records.
“I want my words to resonate with all the people who have been treated unfairly and hopefully give them some strength.”
Life has changed with the pandemic and we all had to adapt to this strange new reality, so how do you see the future of the band, especially when it comes to live gigs? I understand you have rescheduled some of them, but everything remains so uncertain right now. How do you deal with this unpredictability?
It’s very hard right now. Thankfully, we have received lots of support from fans picking up merch from our Bandcamp, which has made a huge difference and enables us to continue doing the band for the foreseeable future. We reschedule as many shows as we can, but obviously we have no idea what will actually happen and not knowing if shows can go ahead is difficult. We want to plan and get out on the road ASAP, but it’s impossible to predict when we will be able to. It makes me really sad because I live for live music and not being able to do it has made life feel kinda pointless, to be honest.
To wrap it up, what have you all been listening to lately? Can you recommend some cool and exciting bands?
I really like the new Inferi EP that came out recently, very atmospheric technical death metal with some black metal bits and excellent guitar work. I also like the latest Lorna Shore album Immortal– it’s deathcore but with orchestral movements and it really works!
When I Die, Will I Get Better? is out now via Church Road Records.