As our loyal Vault Hunter are already well aware, we have a lot of love for New Zealand/international folk-influenced epic/atmospheric black metal outfit Sojourner. I had the chance to talk with Mike Lamb (guitars/piano/keyboards), Chloe Bray (guitars/tin whistle/vocals), and Emilio Crespo (vocals) back in February, shortly before the release of their gorgeous second full-length The Shadowed Road (which you can buy here). Since then, Mike has also been good enough to contribute to our 15th anniversary feature on AFI’s Sing the Sorrow and to pen a guest installment of our ‘A Beginner’s Guide To…’ column on My Dying Bride. So when we heard that Sojourner would be making an appearance at this year’s Dark Troll Festival in Germany, I quickly sent Mike a message that basically said “congrats – don’t suppose you’d want to write about the experience, would you?” Luckily for all of us, he said yes.
And you know, I recently heard that Sojourner will be headlining the second night of the Warhorns Festival in Yorkshire in September…
If you’ve spent most of the thirty years of your life growing up in a country as remote as New Zealand, the metal festival experience in general is about as foreign as the places they are typically held. That’s not to say that New Zealand is a metal wasteland, but when it comes to high-profile live shows, at least until recently, it isn’t exactly a Mecca. There are definitely good shows and local bands to be seen, but nothing on the same scale as the hallowed European metal festivals. So finding yourself and the band that you started on the other side of the world, standing in a castle ruin in the middle of the Germany countryside five minutes before taking the stage at one of these festivals, is quite the experience. But before delving into how Sojourner found ourselves at Dark Troll Festival, a little bit of context…
After spending ten years or so in local bands back home in Dunedin, Chloe and I moved to Scotland in 2015 for her PhD. At the time we were in the middle of writing Sojourner’s debut album Empires of Ash, and although our vocalist was already based in Sweden we never had plans for the band to become a live endeavour. That all changed in 2017 when we were approached by the promoter of Glasgow’s North of the Wall festival (who is now our live booking agent), asking if we’d be interested in a headlining slot for the main festival pre-show alongside Saor. After having a quiet fanboy/fangirl moment at being asked to play alongside one of the bands that influenced us, we decided that we might as well give it a shot. A one-off, exclusive live show that we would never repeat because of the colossal amount of organisation and effort in assembling a band from four different countries.
We had recently acquired a drummer from Italy during the recording of our second album The Shadowed Road, and our bassist was able to find the time and money to make the trek over from New Zealand for the show. We recruited a third guitarist, a flute player, and a keyboardist locally in Scotland for the live lineup and proceeded to spend months practicing individually and in small localised groups before coming together three days before the gig itself to fit in a few actual full-band practices before we took it live. A risky approach, without a doubt, but it was the only way we could make it happen. The North of the Wall pre-show went far more successfully than we had hoped, and despite an incredibly unfortunate technical disaster with the bridge of my guitar (causing my highest string to consistently slip out of tune for half of the set), we received a fantastic reception. That was that, as far as we thought, for Sojourner as a live band for the foreseeable future.
However, around the same time as the North of the Wall show we received an innocuous offer to play at Germany’s ninth incarnation of Dark Troll Festival. In all honesty, we hadn’t heard of the festival prior to receiving the offer, but after some discussion as a band we decided we might as well take it since we were still fresh off the back of the last show, the promoter was exceptionally accommodating, it was a good slot, and it wasn’t going to cost us anything to get there since all expenses were paid. Not to mention the fact that it was an excuse to catch a few of our favourite bands live (Horn, Havukruunu, and Arkona, among others).
So two weeks later, Chloe and I found ourselves standing at Berlin’s Schönefeld airport waiting for our vocalist to land. Our drummer Riccardo and guest bassist Louie (our own bassist Mike Wilson had travelled back New Zealand two days prior) had driven from Italy to the festival grounds in Bornstedt a day earlier, but the remaining three of us were being met at the airport by a shuttle run by the festival. After meeting Emilio, we found our driver holding a ‘Sojourner’ placard in the terminal, and we set off to the festival in what was probably the nicest van I’ve ever been in. I don’t think any of us expected quite such lavish treatment on behalf of the festival; I had pictured something more along the lines of the three of us crammed into a Toyota Starlet doing 130km/h down a Germany highway with guitars on our laps for three hours. I don’t think we realised how high the standard of treatment was going to be, and we weren’t even that high up on the bill.
After three hours of solid travel through the beautiful German countryside we finally arrived in Bornstedt, and we were dropped off at the trailer of our promoters at In Fiction Entertainment. We met with Tobias and Florian, two of the nicest guys we’ve ever met, who ran us through what we had at our disposal in terms of VIP passes and our food and drink tokens, and took us on a quick tour of the grounds. After that we were cut loose to drink in the VIP area and explore at our own pace. Riccardo and Louie had already broken the ice on behalf of the band the night before, so the general introductions with the backstage staff was very easy-going. As we hung around and explored the festival, we spotted quite a few more Sojourner shirts than we had anticipated. It was a weird feeling seeing people that you had never met, in a country you had only just arrived in for the first time, wearing your band’s merchandise. We had gone into it assuming that very few people there would know us, but we were genuinely surprised and deeply honoured to know that we had some fans there already.
It’s hard to convey in words just how special the atmosphere of a walled castle ruin teeming with enthusiastic and passionate metal fans is. There was an overwhelmingly friendly and relaxed vibe to the entire place, with fans of all types of metal congregating to enjoy a diverse array of music over three days. While we explored the various food stalls and merch booths throughout the grounds, we heard the first band beginning their soundcheck in the background. Over the next few hours we sat together and watched several bands that were new to all of us perform excellent sets, as we met and hung out with a multitude of new friends over the course of the day. One particular highlight was a German fan packing a portable shoulder-slung barrel of honey mead made by an 80-year old woman in his village. The recurring theme among the people that we spoke to seemed to be that Dark Troll was an almost religious pilgrimage for metal fans from across Germany, travelling there every year for what proved to be a festival unlike any other.
As our 6:30pm set crept closer, we took our guitars to the backstage area and began to warm up an hour before. Even the backstage area was dripping with atmosphere, featuring beautiful historical decorations and paintings in the old cabin-like room. By the time it was our turn to take the stage, it was early-evening and the sun was just beginning to go down, lending a dream-like atmosphere to the castle grounds as we ran through our set. We were genuinely surprised by the turnout; the concert area was packed when we came out and before we were finished our first song there were no visible gaps in the audience. As we ran through our 50 minute set we saw various people in the audience getting into it with their heads back and eyes closed, others were headbanging, and a few people were even singing along to almost every word. It was, without a doubt, one of the most humbling experiences we could have had as such a small band so far from home.
Once we took the obligatory on-stage shot to mark the occasion, we wrapped up and went backstage, took a few photos with a couple of journalists, then headed off to the VIP area to put our instruments away and grab a couple of post-show drinks. Afterwards we went back up to the castle grounds and spent a while hanging around, talking to people, and eating at the excellent food stalls for the couple of hours. Just before 9pm we set off to the Silence Magazine booth for a signing session we had agreed to do, feeling slightly apprehensive that we would just be sitting by ourselves for fifteen minutes with nobody actually interested in meeting us…but that proved to be an unfounded concern. We spent the next 45 minutes or so (going well over our allotted time, which the Silence staff graciously let us do) signing various pieces of merch, clothing, and cards and feeling slightly overwhelmed that people had made the effort to come and meet us. Some fans had even brought merch tothe festival for us to sign. As with our set, the whole experience was incredibly special for us, and spoke to the passion and sincerity of the fans that come to festivals like Dark Troll. After the signing session was over we managed to catch the rest of an amazing set by Firtan, one of our highlights of the festival, before packing it in a while later because we were all so tired from travelling.
Emilio had to catch a flight the following morning, but Chloe, Riccardo, Louie, and myself hung around for the entirety of Friday. We spent the day drinking and meeting new friends, including three excellent and incredibly drunk German guys who taught Chloe and I to say some phrases that I’m 99% sure weren’t as inoffensive as they promised us they were. We saw some fantastic sets by Crimfall, Dynfari, and Ereb Altor, but the highlights of the day for me personally were finally getting to see two of my favourite bands, Havukruunu and Horn. Havukruunu put on a fantastic set and we had a chance to chat with them quickly at their signing table session, but Horn in particular put on one of the greatest shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. I’ve been a huge fan for several years, but they still managed to blow away my lofty expectations with an entrancing and engaging hour that saw out the second day of the festival. We made our way back to the hotel soon after Horn finished, and saw Riccardo and Louie off as they drove the 10 hours back to Italy at 4am so Louie could work on Saturday evening.
Sadly we were unable to see the final day of the festival, much to our disappointment, as we missed several bands that I would have loved to see (particularly Arkona, Shade Empire, and Illdisposed). Chloe and I took the shuttle back to Schönefeld with Dynfari, and were back to normality by that afternoon. It was jarring, and a little depressing, to return to the normal world of life in Dundee after what was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. As a first European festival experience, at least for Chloe and myself (the others had been to plenty before), it was something that sold us on just how special the European festival atmosphere is…though I have trouble believing that the unique atmosphere of Dark Troll is something that you could find in many other places due to the stunningly beautiful location. All of us will be returning to Dark Troll as fans every year that we can from now on, and we will definitely be returning in a live-playing capacity to Germany and any European festivals that we can in the future. Every band should try to experience a European festival show at least once, and although I feel like we may have been spoiled by our first one being as unique as Dark Troll, it’s an experience that is a world apart from a standard club show. We were honoured to be able to take part in Dark Troll, and we can’t wait to get back to Europe in 2019.