Carbon Phrases: An Interview with Hannes Grossmann
It’s not every day you get to interview someone who’s responsible for the top-tier output of an entire genre, but earlier this week I got to chat to Hannes Grossmann; drummer, guitarist and technical death metal mastermind. Even via the usually stifling medium of email, Hannes’ enthusiasm for his craft really stood out. At just 32, Grossmann is a rare combination of youthful dynamism and wisdom beyond his years.
The Early Days; Only Ash Remains
Hannes has sat behind the kit for arguably the landmark releases in modern technical death metal, from Necrophagist’s blistering sophomore Epitaph (2004) to Obscura’s Cosmogenesis (2009), but it wasn't always as easy to pull off as he made it sound back then.
“It wasn’t just a learning curve, it was a vertical cliff!” Hannes told me of his time in Necrophagist. “I was completely overwhelmed by the material and had only five months to learn it – including pushing my blast beat speed from 200bpm to 240bpm”. [I spoke to a drummer friend who confirmed that this feat is probably witchcraft of some kind]. In reality, Hannes told us that he owes it to the context of the recording: “I was driven by some sort of commitment to pushing myself, something only musicians at a young age have - and the sound engineer (we recorded part by part). It was exhausting, but I had the feeling that we were making something great. Retrospectively, that turned out to be true”. As is so often the case in music, nothing is easy – and a helping of persistence and passion go a long way. When asked which record was the hardest to record, Grossmann replied that “Epitaph by Necrophagist was the toughest one, but it was also exciting because it was my first record for a label, so I was especially motivated”. It seems that being thrown in at the deep end can have its advantages.
For someone with so much natural talent, Grossmann has avoided the virtuoso trap and has concentrated on writing legitimate pieces of music with melodic, rhythmic and thematic points of interest. He spoke to me about the restrictions on him as a writer during those formative years: “Necrophagist had a very distinct sound, which was shaped by only using certain musical ingredients. After two years of touring, it became a little one sided to be honest”. Shortly after, Grossmann joined Obscura alongside fellow German Christian Muenzner and was finally able to craft music of his own within the group. Omnivium, Obscura’s third record, bared more of Hannes’ signature songwriting approach - with longer songs, a more progressive slant and an attempt to annex elements outside of conventional ‘metal’ music. Though, in 2014, Grossmann and Muenzner left the band, citing ‘artistic differences’; Hannes talked me through this period with some telling comments. “In the last two years we were extremely restricted by one particular band member, who actually demanded full control over the band without contributing a lot of material himself. One could say that Obscura eventually broke apart because of ego bullshit. I don't want to deal with ego bullshit so I quit. My time is too precious to be wasted by someone who lacks the talent and will to be committed 100%.” Despite all this, he looks back fondly on a time where he “wasn’t restricted by the style or the fan’s expectations” as Obscura led a surge in popularity for technical death metal. “The Obscura records were much more fun to produce [than what came before], because they were mostly my own material, which is always more exciting”
2014 – Present; The Voyager
As time passed, Hannes seemed to be increasingly invested in writing his own material and being involved in all aspects of the creative process – this led to his first full solo release, The Radial Covenant, an honest representation of previous endeavours combined with even more experimentation and progression as hinted at by Omnivium three years prior. “My solo record was a great experience, since I had full artistic control and it was the first record on which I wrote everything - I mean everything (vocal lines, riffs, melodies, even many of the bass lines).” For the album, Hannes recruited a host of guest musicians including Per Nilsson (Scar Symmetry), Jeff Loomis (Ex-Nevermore, Conquering Dystopia) and also Ron Jarzombek, Grossmann’s bandmate in Blotted Science. Hannes described working with the band as “a blast, because both Ron Jarzombek and Alex Webster are two of my favorite musicians”. If you haven’t already heard it, The Animation of Entomology EP is thoroughly worth a listen. Most notably, Grossmann teamed up with Muenzner (Guitar), Morean (Vocals), Tunker (Guitar) and Klausenitzer (Bass) on his solo record for what would become the full line-up for his new band, Alkaloid.
Their debut release The Malkuth Grimoire was released earlier this year and is still in weekly rotation for me. It summarises and perfects a lot of what Hannes has done over the last decade, and begins with a twenty minute, two track assault written solely by the drummer. I asked him about his influences and writing process for these two tracks: “I can't remember the writing process, sorry. Mostly when I have finished writing a song I forget the steps how I did it, haha. Let's put it this way, the word "influences" might indicate other bands, and like every musician, I am influenced by other musicians. But writing a song with the examples of other bands in mind...it doesn't work that way for me. I have studied and listened to a lot of music in my life, so I have built up a musical background or musical memory I can chose from. I call that my 'musical DNA'. So when I write a song it starts with an idea. And that idea leads into other ideas organically, following that musical DNA. Like a novelist shapes his characters, I try to see where the song is going. I never force it into a specific structure. Structure, dynamics, tones and rhythm usually fall in place by itself. You can say that both songs are diverse, but very typical for what I want to express.”
Alkaloid’s debut release also saw the first full length collaboration between Grossmann and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Morean. Since Morean contributed the record’s four-part epic Dyson Sphere, I was keen to know more about how their musical partnership came about and what the process was like. “It was awesome, because he's one of my favorite musicians. I wanted to work with him after hearing Noneuclid's Metatheosis". The album came out last year, but was finished in 2008 already. It's been one of my favorite metal records since then and a major influence to my songwriting for Obscura's album Omnivium. Morean is a classical composer, who writes all kinds of music. It's always an inspiration to work with him.”
I closed out with a couple of questions about the future. Fans of Alkaloid, who missed the crowdfunding campaign last year, will be pleased on the merchandise front: “The LP version of the album is going to be released by Hammerheart records this year. New shirts just arrived at my place, so expect them to be in our shop soon”. And if you enjoyed The Malkuth Grimoire, there’s plenty more where that came from. “ I have many ideas and some songs are pretty much finished. So you can expect the second album pretty soon. From what I can say so far it's going to be a little catchier this time. But who knows how it will turn out finally, haha.”
So there you have it – a retrospective of the career of one of metal’s great drummers (and people – if the openness showed in this interview is anything to go by). Find out more at www.alkaloid-band.com and purchase their debut album at www.alkaloid-band.bandcamp.com/releases
Words: Ben Armstrong & Hannes Grossmann