Interview: Psychomanteum

Five to ten years ago, a dark ambient act usually meant some Scandinavian eccentric releasing on Cold Meat Industry. Enter 2011 and the release of Oneironaut, the stunning debut album of an American duo that got them signed to the Canadian powerhouse label Cyclic Law. Globalisation seems to have permeated even our tiny community, although the term may be misleading when referring to these two friends from rural Pennsylvania. This seemingly bizarre set of circumstances has been enough to tickle my interest, so Ive contacted the fellows in question to try and make sense of it. However, theres a twist to this story – I interviewed each member separately, so that they couldnt influence each others answers. The compilation has yielded some interesting results.

The first thing most people notice about Psychomanteum is that it’s a duo, in a scene where most people prefer channelling their own personal visions without the input of others. What is it about Psychomanteum that is different?

Robert: Jakob and I have very similar ideas and goals that we want to achieve with our music. When we create music with Psychomanteum, our work comes together in perfect unison. There is an even distribution of light and darkness, the solemn and the ominous. I understand that most people working in this style of music prefer to create alone so there is no outside interference and personal inspiration cannot be compromised, but when you have two individuals who feed off of each other’s styles and adhere to the same philosophies and overall feeling being materialized, it works and the end results prove to be rather fruitful. With Psychomanteum, I feel we have a great balance of the dark and the light and how they communicate with each other. I am not sure if that makes us different from the rest, but to me, it gives us an essence. Jakob and I share similar backgrounds and visions, so Psychomanteum survives as a duo.

Jakob: For us, working as a duo is just something that works naturally. Since Rob and I share many of the same interests and ideas, it’s as if we are able to work together as a cohesive whole, or two parts of an entire brain, if you will. We noticed very early on in working with each other that when one of us had an idea, the other could complement it with something that made the overall product more complete. As some people know, we do in fact have our own projects where we can channel our individual ideas, but Psychomanteum was something we decided to do in order to feed on each other’s ideas and see just what kinds of emotions and concepts that we could create. As the saying goes, “there’s strength in numbers,” and for us, that number is strongest at two.

I’ve noticed that there’s an age gap between you two, not to mention that you both come from rural Pennsylvania of all places, which is a very strange place to expect a dark ambient act from. What is it about the other person that made you want to do a joint dark ambient project?

Robert: Yes, it is rather unusual for dark ambient to come from rural western Pennsylvania, but if you would ever visit here, it would make a great deal of sense. Life is simple in this area and is absent of all the chaos that surrounds the modern world. It can be rather depressing at times, because everything is so void of modernity and this serves as a perfect conduit for inspiration. It’s also very beautiful at times and I always feel a connection to nature, especially where I grew up. When Jakob and I met for the first time, we talked for hours about music, our personal experiences and views of the world. I had no idea he was so young when we first met, because his overall demeanour matched that of someone in their late 20’s. From our conversations, we noticed we came from similar backgrounds, both personally and musically. We started discussing the possibility of starting a project of our own. The idea to pursue the experimental sounds and ambient aesthetics seemed natural and after we had a few practice sessions, the beginnings of the track Inward Eyes started to come together. Shortly after, we had several listening sessions with close friends and relatives and the response was overwhelming. In the grand scheme of things, it all depends on whether or not the second person involved sees things in the same light.

Jakob: Yes, there is a pretty notable gap in age. Rob and I have birthdays that are about a month apart. This year, I’ll be turning 22 and he’ll be 26, so with all technicalities, there’s almost a 4 year gap. Though this difference is present, it has never affected anything that we’ve done together or how we viewed each other. And yes, rural Pennsylvania is indeed an odd place for something like Psychomanteum to come out of. Around here, the only genres of music that people listen to (for the most part) are country, radio/frat rock, hip hop, R&B and pop, which are all obviously completely different in both sound and content from what we create together. So, in short, the reason that we decided to make music together is because we share a common interest that is so rare in this area. In all honesty, when I met Rob when I was 16, I didn’t really know what dark ambient was. All I knew was that I really liked the ominous and atmospheric intro and outro tracks on most of the death and black metal albums that I listened to. Once we started spending time together and he introduced me to the actual genre and I gained a love for it, it only made sense to create that type of music together.

Psychomanteum is an ancient Greek word designating a mirror room of sorts, the optical illusions of which were considered a conduit to the spiritual world. Why choose this very name? How does it relate to you personally?

Robert: I was reading through a book dealing with occult after-life beliefs and stumbled across the term psychomanteum. I cannot remember what the book is called now, but after reading about the psychomanteum, it seemed like the perfect name to adopt for our material. There is a mutual interest in the dead and the concept of unseen spiritual worlds between us. We often discuss that everything has an opposite, an antithesis to itself, so in that case, reality must have its opposite. An unreality that exists between the fibres of our own reality, but we don’t possess the abilities to see it. It may be like a second piece of fabric, but we have no way to rip it open and see what’s behind it. We also focus on concepts that we, as a species, are linked to the cosmos, which is a common element in our material.

Jakob: It actually took quite some time to decide on a name for the project. At one point, I’m pretty certain that we were going to title the project Oneironaut and the album would be called Psychomanteum. After some thought, we decided to reverse this because it seemed to fit much better. We decided to take the moniker of Psychomanteum for a few reasons. For one, it was an incredibly interesting concept to us. We are both undeniably very spiritual people, not necessarily in the religious context, but we’ve had many conversations on how we believe the universe is comprised and how it may work, so the concept of a psychomanteum was something that was utterly fascinating to both of us. Another reason would be the fact that the meaning behind it fits very well with the sound that we were creating. Based on the album as a whole, we felt that the overall feel and atmosphere lent itself very well to the whole definition and mythology behind the word.

What is the songwriting process like in Psychomanteum? What do you do when you get an incredible new idea? Do you develop these on your own, or is it collaboration with the other member to the last detail?

Robert: We often times go through rehearsals where we work on an entire track together to, as you said, the very last detail. Other times, we work on tracks separately and show our work to each other and then try and blend our ideas and if it flops or we don’t feel like it is turning in the direction we initially wanted, the track is either scrapped completely or set aside until further inspiration comes along and pushes us to do something with it. As Psychomanteum, all of our songs are completed in collaboration. Recently, we have been working on material together in the same space, so we are both present as a track is being formed.

Jakob: It’s a mixture of both, really. We’re very fortunate to live close to each other, so it’s not difficult to get together a day or two out of the week and work on material if we have a burst of inspiration. All of the songs on Oneironaut were created in both manners. Sometimes we would be together and we would have an idea or concept and build from there, and other times either Rob or I would be alone and record something that we felt was a very strong building block for a song. Then, once we were together, the other would take the idea and expand upon it. It all lends back to the idea of each of us being a half of a whole brain. When the left or right side reaches its potential, the other takes over and brings the song where it needs to be.

According to the album’s notes-and-credits section, Psychomanteum’s debut, “Oneironaut”, took about five years to shape and release in its final form. Why so long?

Robert: It was a long and daunting process for us, actually. We had composed a good majority of the album’s structure in about a two-week span. All the time came from us listening to the results over and over again. Going back and making slight adjustments or completely starting over on a track. We were still learning our software which consisted of Ableton and Adobe Audition at the start of Psychomanteum, so we often recorded tracks too loud and the sound would peak and distort. After a few months of experimenting and getting more comfortable with recording, we were able to create more quality work. Then we experienced computer problems, where we would overload my processor and it would crash. After many trials, we were able to make it work and continue, but then we realized that we didn’t like all of the tracks we initially started with, so we went on a slight hiatus and decided to carefully listen to what we had for a few months. This was around the end of 2008 and that was when we decided to focus on potential artwork ideas. It was after we chose the final artwork pieces, we started to work on finishing Oneironaut and we spent all of 2009 working on it off and on and finally we reached a point where agreed on the album’s completion.

Jakob: It took so long for various reasons, both technical and personal. When we first started to record, we had a rather primitive setup. We basically would put sounds into Ableton Live, manipulate and arrange them, and then record them into Adobe Audition. So in reality, once we had each piece arranged how we wanted, they would just be played live and recorded in one shot. Surprisingly, many of the early songs that we created ended up being some of our best and most noted, like “Inward Eyes”, for example. As time went on, we were able to utilize programs such as Cubase and we were able to create sounds more easily with the use of field recording and other instruments. When it came to personal delays, that was a whole other story. I went through what was by far the most difficult period of my life thus far during the recording of “Oneironaut”. For example, when we first started the process of recording our album, I was still in high school and lived about two hours away from Rob, so we could only work on material during the weekends that I would visit. Also, due to domestic problems, I had a very difficult time making it through my senior year of high school, which resulted in me emancipating myself on graduation night, where I moved down to Indiana, PA permanently and had to start a new life for myself. What was perhaps the most daunting obstacle was my father’s battle with cancer. During this period, I spent a lot of time commuting from Indiana, PA to my home town. There were many days when my father fell ill and I had to leave at a moment’s notice. So, dealing with all of these issues created a major road block in the creative process, but as you can see, we prevailed and we are now where we are today.

Oneironaut is yet another ancient Greek word, meaning person who explores dream worlds. Is this what you consider yourself to be?

Robert: In essence, we are all oneironauts, it is just that some people are more in control of their dream states and actually have the ability to consciously travel through them and acquire a sense of self. I admire my dreams, even the ones that have me waking in a trembling state of fear, panic, paranoia or confusion. There is so much power behind those feelings and it is hard for me to just push them aside. The subconscious is a powerful force and a very useful tool for creating, whether it is music, drawings or prose.

Jakob: In a way, yes. Much of our inspiration for the work that we do both with Psychomanteum and our other projects comes from the dreams that we have. I haven’t ever been one to have many good or calming dreams, so what happens within my head while I sleep proves to be a very relevant and vital source of inspiration. Though we both wish we could master the art of lucid dreaming, we haven’t been lucky enough to accomplish it, so what we experience within our own subconscious in the hours of the night are our ways of filling the title of oneironauts.

The aforementioned term is closely associated with lucid dreaming in the modern day and age. Have you ever experimented with anything of the sort?

Robert: I recently came close to a lucid state, but I soon fell out of it as my dream at the time started to become unstable and I awoke. It was also unintentional. I read articles written by those who have experienced the phenomenon and it still interests me. My cousin stated he is a frequent lucid dreamer and has even successfully astrally projected. I haven’t had the chance to talk to him about his experiences.

Jakob: As I said in the previous response, we have of course tried, but I personally haven’t ever accomplished a full experience. Perhaps with further practice or a more developed sense of spiritual maturity, it may one day be a reality.

How do you come up with track titles?

Robert: There are mixed ways in how we determine the tracks’ titles. I read a lot and do research online for particular subjects I’d like to pursue with Psychomanteum. When an idea comes to mind, I talk to Jakob about it and we discuss possibilities with the topics. The majority of the song titles are usually given first prior to working on the music, to serve as a foundation for a track’s sound. However, there are a few instances where a track will come together and remain nameless until we find a core inspiration and it fits. Other times, titles are given right on the spot after a track’s completion.

Jakob: The track titles that I contributed are heavily influenced by – you guessed it – my dreams. Whenever I dream of something profound that I can translate into music for Psychomanteum, or any other project, for that matter, the experience that I undergo most often lends itself to a fitting track title. Also, our track titles come from repetitive listens to songs that we create without titles. I sometimes sit and listen to our material over and over again until my mind creates a situation or space in which I can draw inspiration, thus leading to a track title. 

The artwork for “Oneironaut” was provided by none other than Kati Astraeir, and is an absolutely stunning piece of art. Why do you personally feel that it reflects the album so well?

Robert: We love her hypnotic style and it seemed perfect for her artwork to provide a visual backing to our music. We contacted her and sent a few tracks for her to listen to. Her response was more than positive and agreed to work on original artwork for our album. She used our music as a muse to complete the front cover and the end result was mind-blowing for us. I feel her work reflects the music on “Oneironaut” perfectly. She translated our music into a visual field where the front cover image is an interpretation of the dream traveller, where astral bodies and Earthly roots are jetting from the forehead and crown of the skull. I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

Jakob: Anything that Kati has done is absolutely amazing, in my opinion. Her artwork is so unique that we really couldn’t see using anyone else’s for the album, so when she agreed to produce something for us, we were absolutely ecstatic. Personally, I feel that the artwork that she produced fits the album so well because it is rather complex and layered, just like the atmosphere that we were aiming to convey with our songs – the ever changing and shifting elements of dreams and the mind’s inner workings. For me, I couldn’t imagine having the artwork be any different, because it fits so well with what we had envisioned, so neither Rob or I could have asked for more.

How did you end up composing dark ambient in the first place? What has your musical development been like so far, both as a musician and as a listener?

Robert: I admire the ability this music has to transform a space and is also very emotional for me. It serves as a perfect outlet for thoughts I feel I cannot present in a written form very well. It’s also like painting with sounds and textures. The ability to create so much from so little is a very satisfying experience. My musical development has been an ongoing metamorphosis ever since I can remember. I have always taken an interest in recorded sound. When I was young, I always had a tape recorder on me and would record anything and everything I could whether it was my own voice or the banging of pots and pans. Then when my parents bought our first computer back in 2000, I used the sound recorder program to distort sounds and pitch-shift them down into a muddy mess of static. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I thought these sounds were cool. I grew up listening to post-industrial groups like Skinny Puppy and Project Pitchfork and metal bands like Testament, Sepultura and Type O Negative. When artists would combine both of these styles together, I loved it. One of my favourite records was Front Line Assembly’s “Millennium”. I would come home from school and blast it as loud as it would go in my room. I was also an avid horror fan, reading a lot of horror novels and watching films, so an interest in soundtracks sparked. When I realized I could transform sounds to make them sound like demons, I thought it was the coolest thing as a kid. As I got older, I took an interest in guitar and started playing at the age of 15. Eventually, my tastes matured and with the help of my brother, I discovered the music of Raison d’Etre, Gridlock, Lustmord and Yen Pox. To make this story short, that was the starting point of where I am now. This is the style that I have been leading up to in my musical life and it feels perfect.

Jakob: I started to work with Rob and with dark ambient shortly after I was fully introduced to the genre. It was just so different from anything that I had heard before that the immense intrigue that I had for it just hurled me into creating something that I had never done before. Finding a new creative outlet was a natural high of sorts for me. When I say it was different, I mean really different. Growing up, I was strictly into metal, mainly death and black metal, so when I heard dark ambient for the first time, I realized that a lot of the same atmospheres were there, but they were portrayed in completely different ways, so in a sense, not only was it something new, it was a sort of challenge for me to see if I could transpose my normal ways of expression into something completely new. From a listener’s standpoint, I still love to listen to metal and other forms of music that I listened to previously, but ambient as a whole has made a major invasion into my collection and daily listening routine.

What projects, dark ambient or otherwise, are you currently involved in aside from Psychomanteum?

Robert: I am currently involved in a project called Adeona with a good friend of mine, Romain L., who released works under the name Abandoned Place and March of Heroes. He contacted me after hearing “Oneironaut” and loved the work we were doing. I sent him a few rough demo tracks and we have been working together ever since. I also venture into the dark ambient field on my own under the name Apócrýphos. I have a few tracks recorded and the feedback has been good so far. I am continuing work on this project sporadically, when I have time and patience.

Jakob: As of now, aside from Psychomanteum, I have two other solo projects that I work on during times of inspiration. The first is titled Sumornost, and this project is one that I visit to release feelings of sadness. I started composing music under this title as a way to deal with the struggle and death of my father. On days that I felt so sad and alone without him, I would translate those feelings into songs. Thankfully, releasing my sadness and loneliness this way has been a very effective and helpful form of therapy for me. The other project that I work under is called Agonija, and it is the complete opposite of what I do with Sumornost. This project goes back to the subject of dreams, but not uplifting or mesmerising at all. My inspiration for this project comes from a series of reoccurring nightmares that I have been plagued with from when I was young and also new ones that have emerged as I grew older.

What’s been spinning in your player lately? Anything you’d recommend in particular?

Robert: I recently acquired copies of Sephiroth’s two albums and have been listening to Cathedron extensively. Aside from the usual Cyclic Law artists, who are usually in regular rotation, I have been listening to a lot of harsher material lately. Staalkracht’s “A Means To An End” and Ex.Order’s “War Within Breath” are excellent releases. I’m also revisiting some classics in my collection, like Tyranny’s “Tides Of Awakening”. I listen to a lot music ranging from various styles, but I feel the atmospheres relate to one another. I like my music dark, moody, intense and visionary. I recommend it all.

Jakob: There have been many things spinning in my player lately, as always. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Inner Vision Laboratory’s new album “Perpetua” in particular. That along with Raison D’Etre’s “When The Earth Dissolves In Ashes”. Also, I’ve been listening to many of the artists that really made an impact on me when I first started listening to ambient heavily, for nostalgic reasons, these being Svartsinn, Northaunt, Desiderii Marginis and Sinke Dûs. When it comes to metal, though, I recently took out my copy of Nightly Gale’s “Imprints”. That album, to me, is truly unique and is quite an experience to listen to.

Imagine that someone completely unfamiliar with the dark ambient genre asks for one album that you feel depicts the entire genre best. What do you recommend?

Robert: I would have to recommend Raison d’Etre’s “Within the Depths of Silence and Phormations”. I feel this album embodies the dark ambient style in perfect harmony where you have the blend of majesty, melancholy and darkness. This is an absolute classic and essential listening for anyone wanting to pursue the dark ambient aesthetic. This was also a benchmark album for me, so it will always be my first recommendation.

Jakob: It’s funny you ask this, because I actually get put in this situation quite often. Most of the people in the department that I’m working for at the university that I attend know Rob and I and know that we successfully released “Oneironaut”, so quite a few people have asked me what type of music it is. I respond by saying that it’s dark ambient and they just kind of look at me as if I have three heads. I’ve tried several different explanations as to what the genre is, but I never seem to explain it correctly. Either that or the people that I’m talking to haven’t ever heard anything remotely close dark ambient or ambient in general. Anyhow, as opposed to recommending a specific artist, I usually recommend different labels, such as Cold Meat Industry, Cyclic Law, Loki Foundation and a few others so that if desired, the person asking can do some research on their own, because sometimes one person’s definition of a genre is a little different than someone else’s. If I had to give just one album, however, I would most likely say Raison D’Etre’s “In Sadness, Silence and Solitude”, because this was the first ambient album that I really got into, and it holds a special place in my heart.

Vinyl, CD or digital?

Robert: I like the nice, warm tones of a vinyl record and I can appreciate them, but my format of choice is the compact disc. Simply because I like being able to take my music with me when I go places without sacrificing quality with the detrimental effects of digital conversion. I still carry a CD packet loaded with discs from my collection, so when I am on the road or out in nature, I can listen to them there. I sometimes utilize my phone as an mp3 player for convenience purposes, but more often I use a good old fashioned CD walkman. I do understand the convenience of digital releases, as they can reach more people, but in the end, I prefer music to have physicality. 

Jakob: So far, we’ve released material on CD and digital, but no vinyl yet. I prefer to release material on CD, because I love collecting them and they hold a special place in my heart, but I wouldn’t be opposed to releasing something on vinyl someday!

Coming from Serbia, I couldn’t help but notice that, interestingly enough, both of you have Slavonic surnames. Care to share some details about your origins and roots? Does it all play any role in your life and personality?

Robert: I know and embrace my European heritage and am proud of where my family’s roots originate from. This might have shaped my open views and taste in music at a young age, but I can’t say for sure as I never really paid much attention to my heritage growing up. My mother’s maiden name was Olsen and her grandparents came from Oslo, Norway back in the late 1800’s and settled in Superior, Wisconsin. My father’s side is predominately Polish and Austrian. There might be more Slavonic mixings in that pot, but those are the ones I know of and are the most discussed at family gatherings. But like most of the American populace, we are filthy mutts. I do feel I lack the typical American mindset and I like to open myself up to different cultures. I feel a lot of Americans like to shut out the rest of the world and this land is the one and only. There is much to discover outside our borders and it’s the narrow-mindedness and ignorance that displeases me the most about some people. This isn’t the greatest country in the world, either. These are also views I hear a lot being from western Pennsylvania, so I am hoping my previous statements don’t reflect ignorance.

Jakob: Of course! My last name is of Croatian descent. Growing up, my father made it very evident that we were Croatian and he was very proud of it. I’m not too sure if we did anything during holidays that was particularly Croatian, but I have very fond memories of roasting whole lambs over an open fire and eating mass amounts of pogacha… I have an addiction to it, but sadly, I haven’t been able to find any bakeries in the area that make it. I wasn’t ever taught much of the language, either, which frustrates me a bit, because I love learning new languages and I highly value the skill of being multi-lingual, so for now… Govorim malo hrvatski.

Here’s your chance to speak your heart out – is there anything about the other member that annoys you to hell? Something he says or does?

Robert: Haha! Well, the reason our friendship is so strong is that there honestly isn’t too much that annoys me about Jakob. He is one of the greatest people I have ever met and would do anything for his friends or family, even if it harms him in any way. We actually used to share an apartment together back when I graduated college and about after a year, I picked up on certain mannerisms that annoyed me to no end. They were trivial little nuisances, but everybody has them. It’s all a part of human behaviour and despite being open-minded and understanding, the ego shows itself once in awhile… Much to my discontent.

Jakob: To be honest, no. And I’m not saying that to kiss any asses, haha! I don’t have a problem with telling people what annoys me or speaking up when I feel I’ve been wronged. So far, I have no complaints! Not to be mushy, but Rob is indeed my best friend and I view him as my brother.

What do you think the future holds for you, both personally and as a member of Psychomanteum?

Robert: I think the future holds great things to come. We just saw the release of our second chapter in Psychomanteum’s evolution with The Unreality of Time split with Rasalhague, Taphephobia and our good friend in Coghweel. I’d like to extend a warm thank you to Steven Williams of Kalpamantra, who have been supporting us ever since the dawn of Oneironaut and he is the mastermind behind this split album. We are also working on a few collaborations with other artists, which is very exciting. I’m not disclosing who we are working with at this time, but rest assured, interesting music is in the making. We would also like to make an official Psychomanteum site, whether it be a blog or an official website of some kind where we can assemble all things related to Psychomanteum to one point. Jakob and I are also thinking of ways to tackle the live setting. Personally, I’m not one for looping pre-recorded sounds, as that doesn’t seem very enthralling, so I’d like to acquire a set up to make the sounds ourselves live and feed them through processors. The only pre-recorded sounds we would probably use is old field recordings we created for the “Oneironaut” album, as I think people would like to hear that material live in some form. So to go back to the first statement, the future holds endless possibilities; it just depends on where you want to take those possibilities. We feel strongly about our work with Psychomanteum and things have only just begun.

Jakob: I feel that the future holds a lot of promise, both personally and for Psychomanteum. Right now, I’m completing my internship before my last year of university. Once I’ve completed my undergraduate studies I’m planning on going for my master’s degree, and from there, who knows… Maybe a doctorate? That decision will come in time, though. Granted, all of the things that I’ve been involved in over the past couple of years have had me feeling a bit run down, but I know they will all be worthwhile in the end. As for Psychomanteum, we’re constantly working with new ideas and our well of inspiration never seems to run dry. We have a few collaborations in the works as of now, and those will more than likely be announced within the next few months. Also, the four way split that we participated in, called “The Unreality of Time”, which is being released on Kalpamantra, is set to be available at any time now, so a new release is always exciting. All in all, everything is looking up.

Finally, what’s the one thing you’d like to be remembered for as an artist?

Robert: This is a difficult question as I’m not personally seeking remembrance of any kind, but if there is one thing, I would like to simply be remembered as being an artist associated with the rise of a new generation of artists carrying the same passion for this kind of art. We may be young, but age is just a number and it’s rendered meaningless if the passion and dedication is the strongest of all.

Jakob: For me personally, I would just like to be remembered as someone who could produce an album, or even just a song that could reach someone on more than just a listening or hearing level. I have always felt that it is easier to convey my thoughts and emotions through music as opposed to words, so if someone can listen to something that I’ve been a part of and truly feel the emotion, I’m happy and ultimately satisfied.

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