On heavy rotation at Depth HQ since its release two weeks ago, Make Them Suffer‘s How To Survive A Funeral is an album that sticks. Haunting, heavy, and somehow beautiful too, we spoke with vocalist Sean Harmanis to learn a bit more about the Perth band’s fourth album.
Making a strong first impression is the album’s artwork, which appears like a stone or ceramic face surrounded by flowers. It turns out that this death-related image is actually created with talcum powder and some creative lighting. Sean shared that photographer and family friend, Peter Flanagan, created it with him. The two had collaborated on the artwork for “Hollowed Heart”, and the positive reaction to that artwork had inspired them to work together again for How To Survive A Funeral‘s artwork.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. Sean shares, “We tried out a bunch of ideas together, and we were on a pretty tight deadline as well, but none of them were really working or had kind of turned out the way we’d envisioned them.” The finished version that we see is the result of a “last minute idea”. Sean says “We had all these flowers we’d bought for other previous ideas for the artwork. And so we had our friend Sharnee come over, who just happened to be available, and we basically put her in the bath tub and sprinkled talcum powder all over her face and all over the flowers.”
It had appeared as paint or something more solid to me, and Sean shared that this had a lot to do with the lighting setup in the pitch black room. “We’d popped the camera over top of her on a stand and then turned off all the lights in the bathroom, and blocked out any light. The light itself is actually painted on with a slow shutter speed. That’s how we achieved that strange lighting.”
It was the theme of death that inspired the artwork, as well as Make Them Suffer’s penchant for juxtaposition; blending light with dark in unique ways. In Sean’s words: “The whole album has this theme of death that seems to run through the whole album, essentially in terms of the lyrics and the vibe of the songs. We just felt it was that combination of death but also still quite a pretty, beautiful image. I think it’s just that juxtaposition that is a part of our sound, essentially.”
In my review, I’d noticed the recurrent mention of spirit and souls and had wondered if this was deliberate as part of the funeral/death kind of theme. Describing himself as “not very superstitious”, nor one who believes in ghosts or reincarnation (which is what can be implied by the use of those words), Sean explained that he used those words to describe the essence of someone. He says “I definitely do think there’s an essence of someone that can be like a soul, and sometimes ‘soul’ is the only word to describe a certain part of someone. So I do tend to come back to that word quite a bit. I guess the idea of souls and spirits does work within the constraints of the theme of the album.”
Explaining more about the theme, he says “It’s more about death and the complicated emotions that centre around that,” yet also shared that the album title (and therefore the title track) name was one of the last things that happened. Sean shared “I think eight or nine of the songs had been completed before we decided to give the album a title. It was more by accident after writing all the lyrics that we kind of figured out ‘Hey, there seems to be this theme running through everything,’ and that’s when we came up with the album title.”
A 10 Year Old Riff
Talking more specifically about How To Survive A Funeral, we spoke about the album opener, “Step One” and its intention of setting the tone for everything that’s to come after it. In the process, Sean laughed about how the track’s riff that leads into the album has been waiting for “the better part of 10 years” to be used.
Sean shared how guitarist Nick McLernon had initially written it for his previous band, Arturo Chaos (now just called Arturo); “We used to play shows at the local skate park together – my band and Nick’s band – and that was originally a riff for Arturo Chaos. And back then, Make Them Suffer had a much darker kind of more black metal influenced sound, so the clean section never really worked for the Make Them Suffer records. But yeah on this album, we’re adding more of Nick’s guitar flavour to our sound now, and so it was a pretty cool intro. We were just happy to finally use it, I think! [laughs]”
This had me think about “Bones”, a decidedly bouncy track that just feels good to be with. Sean says “The whole song of “Bones” is kind of centred around that one riff with the way we structured the song and everything. We just definitely wanted to arrange the song in a way that made that riff pop.” And indeed it does.
From the start of the album’s creation, the band members had a meeting with producer Drew Fulk, with the questions of ‘What sort of direction do we want the album to take?’ or ‘What sort of album is this going to be?’. Sean shares that “Neither Nick or I could come up with an answer. All of our albums had a very distinctive sound, where I think on this one, every song of the album has a distinctive sound and there’s a lot of points of difference between the songs, a lot of variety. And I think that just came from us having that conversation at the beginning of the recording process and going ‘Look, I don’t think that musically this needs to be constrained to any boundaries or anything like that. It’s just that we’re writing a song and if that sounds good, then we’ll stick with it and it gets used.'”
How To Survive A Funeral‘s catchiness is something that stood out to me. Heavy music doesn’t necessarily always have the little hooks and choruses that implant the songs in one’s mind, such as how pop songs might. I’m not a musician, but it seems like it would be a more difficult feat to form this memorability from the start, where the patience and dedication of heavy music fans tends to fill the gaps. I had these songs in my head from first listen though, and I wondered about the sorcery of sorts that Make Them Suffer had performed to make this so.
It seemed that this was an intentional thing, with Sean sharing that “Having a little bit more catchiness in our songs is something that we’ve been wanting to incorporate a little more.” Where this is often due to the “big choruses” on How To Survive A Funeral, it’s thankfully not where each song’s catchiness lies, which in itself could become a stale or predictable feature.
Sean explains “We have big choruses on this album and we’ve attempted to write essentially very catchy choruses for some songs, but at the same time, I don’t think you can look at each song and say there’s a stand out chorus. We were more focused on creating a moment in each song. It’s just about having memorable moments for us, and I think this album became about that. I think if you pick apart each song, I believe that there is some sort of memorable moment or just some interesting thing that is different and that makes that song stick out compared to the rest. That’s kind of what we were trying to achieve.”
Curious as to how this ‘moment’ is created, I asked as to how this works, to which Sean shared that the moments tend to be a “detour from the rest of the vibe of the song.” He explains “Whether it’s a riff or a chorus that sticks out compared to the rest of the song, or it’s just a moment or whatever, I think our main goal in that sense – in order to make some moments more memorable – we wanted some of these changes to be quite jarring and to stick out, so that it really pops in the song and catches the listener off guard. I think in the past a lot of our songs have been very flowy. They just flow from one riff to the other, or from one section to another. Which is awesome, and I do love songs like that, don’t get me wrong, but that’s how we kind of shook things up a bit on this record.”
Where jarring can be done in heavy music without immediate memorability, I feel that Make Them Suffer have found a sweet spot with their songs. There’s still a flowing thread that can be followed from end to end, with the moments that Sean mentioned adding to this and having the songs stick in the listener’s mind. I expressed that I wouldn’t be surprised if other bands try to emulate this, because it works brilliantly.
This kind of mimicry is something that Sean appreciates more than general opinions, where the band’s own enjoyment of what they create is central, as well as what other bands have to say. He says “It’s always nice when you do a tour with a band and they’re kind of like “Oh man, I’ve been listening to you for ages. You’re one of my favourite bands,” and stuff like that. It’s always great hearing it from other musicians and other people that you can see are working hard to make their music as good as possible. That’s rad. I hope it has that sort of impact on people, it’d be awesome.”
“That’s Just Life”
As a standout track of How To Survive A Funeral for me, I’ve had “That’s Just Life” playing pretty much on repeat since my review. This is no sychophantic exaggeration, it’s literally my most-listened song on Spotify over the last month. The song somehow forms a bit of an anthem of acceptance in the current chaos of COVID-19 and the extended impacts from it. But interestingly, it wasn’t a song that was very popular at all during the process of creating the album.
Sean spoke in a way that had “That’s Just Life” seem like the awkward sibling of these album songs while working with Drew on it. He says “We felt it started off so well, but toward the end of the writing process, I think we were just sitting on it for too long and weren’t sure if we were happy with it. By the end of it, it was kind of like one of those songs where it took an extra day or two, probably longer than it should have, to write that particular song. So by the end of it we were kind of unsure about the song. And even by the time we got all the mixes back and were listening to the album, a couple months ago, I think no one really felt as if that was a stand-out track.”
It was the positive reception to the song that had Sean return to it and appreciate it more. He remembers how during the recording process Drew said about the track, “Right, now that the worst song on the album is out of the way, can we start?”. Ouch! Sean described the toughness of having perspective on songs during recording and writing sessions, saying “It’s tough to have a good perspective, I think. You’re very close to it.”
“That’s Just Life” is clearly optimistic, and its placement on the end of the album resulted in me writing this in my review, despite the dark themes before it: “The song (and therefore the album as a whole) peters out into a wry smile of possibility in the new, and it feels decidedly great to me.”
The optimism was “very intentional” according to Sean. He explains “We wrote that song with the intention of it being the last track of the album. We have this component to our sound that we sometimes utilise that we like to call ‘bittersweet’, where it’s in tracks like “Ether” and the title track, “How To Survive A Funeral”.
“It’s just the choice of melodies that kind of evoke that bittersweet feeling; where it’s super nice and dreamy, but at the same time there’s a bit of darkness to it. I think that we kind of wanted to end the album that way. I feel like that’s the kind of feeling of the end, where it’s kind of positive, but also mysterious in a way, with a little bit of uncertainty or something like that.”
They’ve absolutely nailed it with this, as this is exactly how it feels. Sean adds “It’s basically saying ‘It’s not all doom and gloom’. A funeral is just the basic theme of the album, but you can also have a positive outlook on these ideas, you just have to switch your way of thinking about it. I feel like the last track on our previous album, Worlds Apart, did the opposite in the sense that it was a bright, bittersweet album and the very last track on that was dark and sad. It’s nice to go out on a brighter note I think, on this record.”
It’s interestingly almost like art reflecting reality in a way that couldn’t be predicted; where COVID-19 impacts and adjusted release dates have truly led to Make Them Suffer needing to find optimism in challenging circumstances. On these hurdles, Sean takes the perspective that you can’t worry about things outside your control, saying “That almost in a way goes hand in hand with the sentiment of the lyrics in that song as well.”
He adds “That’s kind of what lyrics are, right? Even if I’m talking about royal blood and kingdoms in parts of it, really it’s just talking about emotions. And maybe during the album recording process I was feeling that way about something in particular as well; like ‘Don’t worry about change, and things are out of your control, just go with the flow and things will work out’. That’s just the nature of life, right?”
“How To Survive A Funeral”
I lastly spoke about the lump in the throat that the lyric “None of us knew we cared ’til you’re gone” delivered so sweetly in the title track, “How To Survive A Funeral”. Seeming specifically meaningful, I finished our interview asking Sean if there were particular lines/lyrics that stood out to him in this way.
Talking about the same song, Sean shared “Well initially the chorus lyric of “How To Survive A Funeral” was going to be the final lyric of that song; ‘And everyone came in colours’. And given that it’s on the title track of the album and the album’s obviously talking about soneone’s passing and having not been very close to this person or even maybe we didn’t get on so well… So I like the idea of taking a dark situation like that and then turning it into ‘Everyone came in colours’. Well, we turned the funeral into a party and we celebrated your life more than your death, you know? So I like that flip and that perfectly summarises the vibe of the album I think.”
With their light and dark combination of vocalists, a sense of bounce in songs of sacrifice, and ending an album about death on a high note, it’s clear that Make Them Suffer have perfected the art of juxtaposition and bittersweetness in their music.
Listen to/buy How To Survive A Funeral now: https://grysclrec.lnk.to/makethemsuffer[Image of Make Them Suffer @ Unify Gathering 2020 by Liam Davidson]