Interview: Svalbard’s Serena Cherry on It’s Hard to Have Hope

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We listen to hardcore for the urgency. It’s the kind of physical music that inspires and demands you to get off your ass and take action in a personal sense and in regards to the world around you. Historically, the genre has played well to the socially conscious punks and metal heads filling out basements the world over. If you’re anything like me, these last few years of socio-political batshit-insanity have forced you cling to this stuff like never before. On their 2015 debut One Day All this Will End, Svalbard followed in the tradition set in motion by the likes of Dead Kennedys and Crass by taking anything that could be considered a hinderance to human rights and tearing it to pieces. With the aid of sharp writing and ferocious playing, sprawling and luminescent hardcore refused to stand by as the world burnedNow, with their sophomore effort, It’s Hard to Have Hope, Svalbard have only become grander, angrier, and even more liberating.

These Bristol, UK thrashers have immersed themselves in the hardcore ethos, but their sound is more than that. On It’s Hard to Have Hope they have equal footing in the worlds of crust punk and d-beat. A sense of catharsis is made even stronger through the use of climatic post-rock swells that bring to mind the searching builds and releases of Explosions In the Sky. Vocalist and guitarist Serena Cherry cuts straight through the shimmering, pounding instrumentals with ethereal cleans and imposing screams and howls. Lyrically, It’s Hard to Have Hope is confrontational and straight-forward. Cherry dismisses any kind of figurative language and roars out rallying cries necessary for the issues she and the rest of the band are up against.

The raved up “Revenge Porn” demands laws be put in place to defend the victims of, well, revenge porn. On “Feminazi” she puts it bluntly: “Feminists and fascists are not the same thing/ standing up for your rights doesn’t make you right wing”. The thought is later followed with “How dare you insult us of for being vigilant/ how dare you insult us for trying to make a difference”. No injustice is too small for Svalbard as they make time to rip through unpaid internships. “For the Sake of the Breed” sheds light on cruel breeding practices and empathizes with dogs stuck in shelters. The album is by no means an easy listen and Svalbard are absolutely right. In a world that feels like it’s eating itself alive, it is hard to have hope. But with bands like this out there, it becomes a little easier. 

Serena Cherry provided us with some insight into It’s Hard to Have Hope. 

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Blocland: Let’s start with this title, It’s Hard to Have Hope. Is that statement indicative of Svalbard’s collective attitude going into crafting this record?

Serena Cherry: “It’s Hard To Have Hope” is actually a lyric from the final track on the album “Try Not To Die Until You’re Dead” – which is a song about incapacitating illness. It’s the only personal song on the album, I wrote it when I had fallen seriously ill last year. I really struggled to record the vocals on that song as singing the lyrics made me break down in tears. It’s hard to have hope when you can no longer eat or sleep and your body can’t function properly anymore. That’s the original context of the album title.

However outside of that specific song, we all felt that the phrase surmised both the personal and the political outlook of the band. It’s hard to have hope under a lying, right-wing government. It’s hard to have hope when you’re poor. It’s hard to have hope when you are treated unfairly due your gender. It’s a title that encapsulates both our frustration and our fighting spirit – we are essentially acknowledging how difficult life’s challenges can be, but refusing to give up the fight for change. Refusing to be defeated into utter hopelessness.

Blocland: These songs almost exclusively cover social and political ground. Is this the kind of content that naturally comes out during the writing process or do you have to work to get into that mindset?

Cherry: I took a much more simplified approach to lyrics writing this time. Whatever pissed me off that day, I wrote about it. And I tried to write about those topics in a way that would be 100% clear to anyone, no hiding behind poetic words or metaphors. Once I adopted this approach of just essentially focusing on one target per song then venting all my rage towards it, the lyrics came so quickly and naturally this time. I find I can’t really switch off my socio-political side, so it felt like the lyrical content was just bubbling away inside me, waiting to be released! It was an extremely cathartic process, as I didn’t really sit there refining my words or trying to write something that sounds mysterious.

Blocland: From an emotional standpoint, are Svalbard songs difficult to perform? Or is there something empowering about blasting these songs and shouting down ignorance and abusers?

Cherry: You know when someone is shitty to you and you think of all these great comebacks five hours after it happened? And you wish for another opportunity to give them a piece of your mind? Singing these songs onstage feels like that second chance to get my own back at all the perpetrators of injustice I’ve witnessed. It’s a chance to dress down anyone who thinks it’s okay to use the word “feminazi”, or anyone who thinks it’s okay to employ unpaid interns. As someone who is quite shy in real life, playing these songs on stage is very much an empowering way to get my message across, to show how pissed off I am.

When we first played “Feminazi” live I nearly blew my voice out, because I felt so invested in the indignance expressed in the lyrics. There’s also been cases where we’ve played “Unpaid Intern” live, whilst knowing there are people in the crowd who employ unpaid interns. I hope that song made them feel uncomfortable and maybe even think twice about their exploitative, classist actions. There’s some songs we won’t play live though, like “How Do We Stop It?” Which is a personal account of sexual abuse at a festival. It would be too upsetting for me to scream those words on stage in front of people, to keep telling this horrific story on stage every night. That song will have to exist only as an album track because it still makes me feel so vulnerable.

Blocland: Something that stuck out to me immediately is how direct the lyrics on these songs are. Did you ever try to include more figurative language or does that kind of writing get in the way of these kinds of political and societal messages?

Cherry: Recently, a reviewer criticized my lyrics for not “being metaphorical enough.” I felt that this reviewer had completely missed the point of what I am trying to do. I didn’t want to beat around the bush, I didn’t want the lyrics to be vague or open to interpretation. It would have been far easier to write lyrics in a poetic way because that allows you to hide behind ambiguity, it makes you artistically safe. But I deliberately avoided metaphors for the sake of getting across a clear, concise message. When you read the words, you will have no doubt on how I feel about abortion rights, puppy farms or sexual assault. So many metal bands hide their messages behind unnecessary big words and dark poetry, and in that, they fail to harness the aggressive power of the music. I think when writing about sociopolitical issues, the direct way is both the bravest and the best.

Blocland: All of the songs on It’s Hard to Have Hope could’ve been used as the album’s climax. Was building massive, cathartic tracks always the goal in mind or did it happen organically?

Cherry: We never start writing a song with a set idea of how we want it to sound, or where we want it to go. We like creative freedom. We like to explore musically, so most of our songs are built through jamming out ideas together and seeing which ones really strike us in the heart. That’s all there is to it. We all bring riffs to the table and then we work on the ones that have the most feeling. I could never imagine sitting down and planning out a huge melodic section at the end, you can’t really plan ahead for cathartic impact! We just let the ideas all build and unfold together until they form something emotive.

Blocland: The album ends on “IOREK” which sounds like it would fit in on something like Explosions In the Sky’s The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. Ending an album like this on such a calming note was an interesting choice. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Cherry: It’s becoming a bit of a tradition for Svalbard to have a post-rock closing song at the end of an album. We also did it with “Lily”, the instrumental closer on our debut album. The idea behind it is that we’ve kind of…. ran out of words. It’s a track where we just let the music speak. Because the music represents the hope that we are striving for. It’s the calm after the storm.

Blocland: I’m taken aback by the amount of empathy found on such an intense record. Do you see extreme music as an affective tool for those without a voice?

Cherry: Yeah, 100%. I see extreme music as a place to give a voice to the voiceless. It’s such a visceral form of music, so full of aggression and anger, that it becomes incredibly empowering when utilized by those who feel unheard in everyday life. It can be a very powerful way to get your message across, or offer great release from the things that get you down.

Blocland: As a lifelong animal lover, “For the Sake of the Breed” hits me differently than the rest of the album. Can you tell us a little bit about what drew you to that subject matter?

Cherry: Whenever I walk past a pure-bred, brachycephalic dog and hear it struggling to breathe, I feel sick. I feel so sad that it’s come to this level of deliberately breeding unhealthy dogs as fashion accessories. Are we as humans so vain that an animal must suffer because we want it to look wrinkled and “cute” just for us? The crazy thing is, people will pay thousands of pounds to a private dog breeder just to obtain a Pug or any kind of dog with a squashed face. But they won’t go to a dog shelter and rescue a dog in need. So millions of unwanted, unloved mongrels suffer without a home, whilst people buy into this fucked-up fixation with purebred dogs that are unhealthy and can’t even run around like a normal dog would. What does this attitude towards animals say about us? It’s something I don’t think I will ever understand about humans. Why are dogs in shelters seen as less desirable?

Blocland: I find myself thinking about “How Do We Stop It?” often. Do you have any suggestions for what those of us involved in punk and metal scenes can do to create and maintain positive and open spaces?

Cherry: For big metal festivals and arena shows, I think some kind of small red glowstick should be given out, that people can wave when they are in trouble in the crowd. Like an emergency light. A large part of the problem is that when you are in such a huge crowd, you get lost and it’s easy for peoples actions to go unseen and become inconsequential. If we had a way of communicating to security above the loud music and the crowd then they would be able to get involved and help more. Plus, just knowing that people have a way of showing security guards that they are in trouble, might put idiots off from attempting to grope someone in the crowd. It might make the perpetrators think twice about committing such actions, if they know there is a greater chance of being caught. Also, I think it would be extremely helpful if bands all had the courage and conviction to call any inappropriate behavior out when they see it happening from the stage.

Blocland: It’s apparent that It’s Hard to Have Hope covers a lot of things you all care about deeply, but what’s the main takeaway you’d like listeners to leave the album with?

Cherry: As much as I care about our subject matters, I never want to instruct anyone on how to listen to our album. If people want to sit there and read every word in the lyric book and think about these issues, then that’s amazing; but it’s not essential. You don’t have to care about politics or even agree with what we are singing about to enjoy the music. There’s many different layers to Svalbard, people will take away whatever they want to, you can’t really control or advise people on how to consume a record. I just hope they don’t hate it!

 

It’s Hard to Have Hope is out now on Holy Roar and Translation Loss.

  • DFrye

    Fucking awesome man. Think I’m gonna listen to more Svalbard. Band owns.

    • lobster man

      Thanks man! Ya know something? I’m thinking you’re right. This band just might own.

  • mjhk75

    Great job lobster. I can’t believe I didn’t even know this band existed a couple of months ago! Never heard the debut, gonna have to rectify that ASAP.

    • lobster man

      Thanks man! This band ought to be the biggest band in hardcore if I have anything to say about it.

  • Saul Wright

    100% agree about how in songwriting, the direct way is both “the bravest and the best.” I believe Woody Guthrie said any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.

    • lobster man

      Hey if Woody said it it must be right.

      • Saul Wright

        It’s probably apocryphal, haha. But I talk about that quote a lot. That fearless brazenness is one of the reasons I love and respect country music so much.

        • lobster man

          In some ways I think it’s harder to be direct and get to the heart of things than use flowery language.

          • Saul Wright

            It’s so much harder!

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