Ten Questions, Ten Minutes with Hei'An
I’ve already been singing the praises of Hei’An’s debut album ‘Imago’ elsewhere on JTo, and it’s really great news when founder member Matic says that they’ve also got a lot of things in the pipeline. “We've had a live recording session with a string quartet from the LA Philharmonic at EastWest Studios in Los Angeles not long ago, and that material will be released sometime early next year. We are also booking a lot of shows for 2023 (and even 2024) that will be announced very soon, and are already working on new material for our second record, so we might start working on that by the end of next year, too. So you can expect a lot of cool things from us in the near future!” In the meantime though he was happy to buckle up and dive headlong into ‘Ten Questions, Ten Minutes’...
Q1: As I understand it, Hei’An was originally going to be a solo project, but it morphed into a band. Is that correct, and why did it grow into a full band?
“Yes, Hei'An was originally a one-man project – and that's why Hei'An is still my pseudonym, as well as being the name for the band as a whole now. I've been writing music for many years, ever since the beginning of high school, but most of the songs were written with just an acoustic guitar and my voice over it. I had like forty-plus songs written like that before I decided to actually go and record an album. In the beginning of 2020, when the first Covid lockdown came, I suddenly found myself with a lot of extra time on my hands and I decided it was the perfect chance to do something about those songs, fully arrange them, record and produce them in my bedroom and post them on the internet. At the time, I had little-to-no plans of the project becoming as serious as it is now. Anyway, I came up with the concept for the album, the name, selected the songs that would be featured on it, even wrote a few more, (partially) arranged them, and then I went and recorded and produced a few of those songs in my bedroom. But at the time, I had no real mixing knowledge, so I reached out to my long-time friend Gaj (who is now Hei'An's drummer) and he helped me mix them. But we soon decided that we felt like the material was good enough that it deserved to have a proper band record it, and then play it, so that's why we decided to recruit some more people and form a full band. And, apparently, it was the right choice!
“So Hei'An is me, Matic Blagonic - Hei'An (vocals, guitar, songwriting), Gaj Bostic (drums), Matevž Pocic (guitar) and Peter Smrdel (bass). I graduated from the Conservatory of Music in Ljubljana (classical guitar and classical singing) and Gaj used to be my classmate there (he studied jazz drums, and is actually still continuing his studies in Vienna). We were really close at that time already, we even used to be roommates for a while, so recruiting him was only natural. I also knew Matevž and Peter from the Conservatory of Music in Ljubljana, although we were never close at that time (just because we kind of never hung out, for whatever reason), but I knew they were both phenomenal musicians, and that they both listened to a lot of metal music, so recruiting them was also a no-brainer. We've all become super close now, though. I consider all of them my closest friends, and I believe they feel the same way, so it all worked out really well.”
Q2: And is there a meaning behind Hei’An?
“I actually had a lot of trouble coming up with a name for the band, even back when I was still its only member. I was torn between a lot of different ideas, but none of them really felt right. I then discussed the issue – without necessarily expecting anything to come out of that discussion – with a very special person in my life, actually the most important person in my life, and anyway, they speak Chinese, and they suggested the name Hei'An. I instantly loved the sound of it and the meaning: it means ‘darkness’, but it could also be translated as ‘ominous darkness’, and I really like that translation. I thought it was both catchy and meaningful, and pretty original, so I went with it. The spelling, as far as I understand, is not 100% correct, but I like the way I stylised it as Hei'An, it just felt right, and it still does.”
Q3: What did you set out to achieve when you wrote and recorded ‘Imago’? It’s a truly fabulous album. And do you think you achieved it?
“First of all, thank you so much for all your kind words regarding our ‘Imago’! We are really glad and honoured that you like it so much! Well, in terms of what we wanted to achieve, this evolved a lot with time. At first, I just wanted to finally show the songs I'd been writing for so long to the public, as sort of a cathartic experience. Then, we decided we wanted to make this record the absolute best we can – we took a lot of time to polish the arrangements, to properly record it etc, we spent a lot of money on mixing, mastering, orchestrations etc, just because we wanted to release an album that just wouldn’t have any ‘technical’ issues or headroom. Of course, everybody has their own taste in music, so we know that for each person that will like our record, there will be a lot more people that won’t like it; that's only natural. But that's also subjective – we wanted to make the record objectively (in terms of arrangements, sound, production etc.) the best we possibly could. And of course, with the songs I wrote, I wanted people to understand my message and hopefully make them feel something, maybe make them feel like they are not alone in their struggles. And I believe we've achieved all of it. We've done absolutely everything we could to make the album sound as good as we possibly can at the stage we are currently at, we've put our blood, sweat and tears (quite literally) into it, and a lot of the people who have heard it so far have said that they actually were touched by it. So it's a big personal win for us, and we are all immensely proud of it. But of course, with each personal win, there come new personal goals, and don't worry, we already have new goals we will do our best to achieve in the (near) future!”
Q4: What made you create a concept album? And would you mind quickly explaining the concept? Is it based on any personal experience? (You used the word ‘cathartic’ earlier and I’d like to add that as someone who’s suffered from depression for years I found it very cathartic.)
“First of all, really glad you find the album cathartic! Again, this means we've done something right, so thank you! Anyway, the idea for making a concept album came from the fact that I realised that most of my songs (those that were written up to that point, and that you can hear on the album) had or have recurring themes, like depression, sadness, regret, toxic friendships / relationships, addiction etc, but also hope for something better, a light at the end of the tunnel. So I came up with the idea for the concept: the album takes the listener through different aspects of hell (that's why we have the inscription on the gates of Hell from Dante Alighieri's ‘Divine Comedy’ in the intro for the album), but it's not a biblical hell, but more of an inner hell within myself. It's definitely all based on my own personal experiences, but I like to write my lyrics in a way that don’t reveal too much, so that the listener gets the message of the song, but there’s still enough room for them to paint their own picture. The songs take the listener through different aspects of this hell within, like depression, toxic people, addiction etc, but always with a feeling of hope for something better. Then at the very end of the record, the listener manages to get out of this hell, hopefully grows as a person, finds peace within themselves, and moves on to something better. That's also where our album artwork – the butterfly and the album title (and the title of the final song) come into play. ‘Imago’ is a Latin word, and in biology, it describes the final stage of the development of an insect. So when a caterpillar eventually comes into its final life stage, it becomes a butterfly, which is its ‘imago’ stage. It's a metaphor for rebirth, blossoming into a better version of yourself and finding better things in life. But, as you will notice, the butterfly's wings on the album cover are still damaged and part of one wing is still on fire, which symbolises that any trauma you go through will never be erased as such: it will always stay with you but, hopefully, you can learn from it, live with it and be a better person for it. So yeah, it’s definitely a very personal record for me, and I hope listeners will find it as sincere and cathartic as I have, and as you have.”
Q5: Musically, what’s the core of Hei’An? What makes a great Hei’An song?
“That's a really cool question! Well, I write all of the music, and the other band members then bring some of their own ideas for the arrangements, which – for this record – have also then been shaped by our producers Matej Gobec (who recorded, produced, mixed and mastered the record) and Randy Slaugh (who provided additional programming and orchestrations). I think a good Hei'An song comes from a lot of things – me being honest and sincere when writing the lyrics, trying to come up with music that supports the lyrics emotionally (so even if one only heard an instrumental version, they could still feel the emotion of the lyrics), then coming up with cool arrangements together, and letting the song breathe and evolve naturally; so every idea that is brought to the table (whether it comes from a band member or one of the producers) is taken into consideration, tried out and tested, so we then come up with the ‘perfect’ combination of these ideas to form what you called a ‘great Hei'An song’. So the key elements are sincerity, vulnerability, a lot of thought, self-evaluation and attention to detail, and trust and open-mindedness when it comes to working with other people, so that the music feels like it’s breathing, almost like it’s alive.”
Q6: A few guest musicians help bring the album to life? Were these people you knew? Or people you admired? How did you approach them?
“Yes, we brought in a few guest musicians (Oelka from Malorshiga, Joe Buras from Born Of Osiris, Matic Štemberger and Štras from Mrfy), and also a few guests that don’t really feature as such but who helped the arrangements come to life (Adam Fainman, Sara Jeremic and Žiga Smrdel). I knew some of them – Oelka (on ‘Inferno’), Sara (the backing vocals on some of the songs), Žiga (percussion on some of the songs) and Matic (‘Time To Go’) – so I immediately knew when I wanted to include them, and which songs they would be included on, and obviously approaching them wasn't an issue. And they’ve all done an insanely good job! With Adam, who did the spoken parts on the record, we knew we wanted a native English speaker because although I am fairly good at losing my Slovenian accent when I sing in English, you can hear a bit of it come through when I speak, and we wanted to avoid that. Peter, our bass player, knew Adam, and he did a fantastic job on those spoken parts. With Joe Buras, I didn't know him but I’m a fan of Born Of Osiris so it felt like a dream when we had him do a piece in our song ‘Dreamer’. In the part of the song he's featured on, I knew something was missing, but I had a bit of writer's block and just couldn't come up with a cool vocal part for that segment, I just had the lyrics. So I thought, ‘hmm, what if we do a guest slot here?’ Randy then suggested that we should have someone well-known and respected in the metal community to do it, because that might get us more recognition, and he helped connect me with a bunch of people who could help make that happen. We ended up talking to Joe, and he was really excited to do it. He’s such a kind and nice guy, and he absolutely killed it, so it was definitely a great choice to do that, from many points of view. With Štras, we knew we wanted to have a guest on the Slovenian version of ‘Dreamer’ as well, and since Joe is a well-known vocalist, we felt he would be a great choice for ‘Preteklost’. Peter, our bass player, knew Štras personally, and he was super excited to do it, and ended up doing an amazing job as well. So everything came together very naturally, really.”
Q7: Is there one song on the album that sums up the band?
“Well, I would suggest to the listener to listen to the whole album, of course, but a song that would probably sum up the record is ‘Inferno’ – it has nice ambient melodic parts, a big (and melodic) chorus, a lot of clean singing and a lot of growls, some progressive elements, some post-metal or perhaps even post-black metal segments... It pretty much showcases everything that the listener can expect from the other songs on the record. But going forward, I think songs like ‘Can’t Get Out Of My Skin’ or ‘Noises’ are good examples of the vibe we might be going for in the future.”
Q8: And can I ask, as I’m curious, what’s the metal scene like in your country? Is it healthy?
“The metal scene in Slovenia is really vibrant. We have a lot of really cool bands, a lot of metal shows are happening all of the time, and we even have some really cool metal festivals here like the internationally famous MetalDays and also smaller yet equally important festivals like Crna Šagra, Crna Loka, Dirty Skunks Fest, Tolminator etc. So I’d say that the metal scene in Slovenia is pretty healthy and definitely very active and supportive. The only downside I would say is the fact that Slovenia is really small, so even though our metal community is super strong, there aren’t as many potential listeners here as there would be in bigger countries, so it’s pretty much impossible to make a living (or even make any ‘serious money’ at all) playing metal in our country, which then leads to most of our metal bands forever being ‘hobby’ bands. That's why we are trying our best to shoot for other countries as well, because we would like to do this professionally. But despite this one downside, I love the drive and passion our metal community here has. And we do have some bands that have managed to become internationally known as well, like Within Destruction, Noctiferia etc. Anyway – a big shout-out to all Slovenian metalheads, all Slovenian metal bands (no matter how big or small) and all Slovenian metal event organisers! Mad respect to everyone for working their arses off doing what they love!”
Q9: Are you a cat person, or a dog person, and why?
“For me, that's a tough question. I love the playfulness and loyalty of dogs, and also the intelligence and occasional playfulness of cats. But those of us who do have pets, all have dogs, so I’d say we are probably more of a dog-lover band. But we love all animals!”
Q10: If you drove an ice cream van, what tune would it play?
“If I answer as Hei'An, then probably ‘Noises’. It's probably the catchiest song off the record, and I imagine you need a catchy tune to drive more people to your ice cream van. If I answer as Matic, then I guess ‘La Maledizione Di Capitan Findus’ by Nanowar of Steel. They don’t take themselves too seriously, their music is just fun and entertaining, and very catchy, plus the song has a food reference (it's a reference to Capitan Findus fish sticks, not ice cream, but still). So, probably something light-hearted like that!”
© John Tucker December 2022