Jeroen Paul Thesseling of Obscura

Maybe the reason why the bass work sounds a little different than on most metal albums, and death metal albums, is because I [was] working with Pestilence in the early 90s. And I was recording bass for their fourth album, Spheres. And at that time, the metal scene was totally not open-minded at all. We were very much into fusion and jazz, and we had this idea for a different direction and, actually, those guys gave me carte blanche – they gave me all the space I needed to put my own stamp on the album. So bass was, first of all, very audible on the record. But also, it was my first chance in death metal to put my own stamp on a death metal production.

Interview conducted and edited by Bryan Beller
Interview original transcription by Massie Kitagawa

I am doing a sidebar in the article on metal sub-genres. What would you classify Obscura as?

I think it's progressive death metal. That's the best way to describe [it], I think, without getting too complex, because it's technical, but it's also very progressive. So I would say it's not technical death metal, it's more progressive death metal.

But there's plenty of technical stuff going on, that's for sure, especially in your department.

To me it's pretty demanding, because after recording the album, of course you need to play that stuff also live. And my live playing is a little bit different. I think my live lines are a little bit more complex, even more complex, but it has to do with my background. Of course you can ask of me some straight questions but I could maybe tell a little bit about my background?

Yeah, that was the next question – your background and your influences.

Maybe the reason why the bass work sounds a little different than on most metal albums, and death metal albums, is because I [was] working with Pestilence in the early 90s. And I was recording bass for their fourth album, Spheres. And at that time, the metal scene was totally not open-minded at all. We were very much into fusion and jazz, and we had this idea for a different direction and, actually, those guys gave me carte blanche – they gave me all the space I needed to put my own stamp on the album. So bass was, first of all, very audible on the record. But also, it was my first chance in death metal to put my own stamp on a death metal production.

After Pestilence split up, in 1994, I [was] out of the metal scene for a long time. I've been playing flamenco, I have been working in microtonal music, which is very experimental, of course, and [I’ve] also been playing – well, mostly, actually, microtonal music and flamenco music. And later on I got back into Obscura, because they asked me for that.

Who are your bass influences, influences in bassists? Did you go to school?

Yeah, I studied at conservatory in Holland. I studied jazz bass and during my studies I joined Pestilence. But after my studies I was really also – well, actually, during the Pestilence period I was really involved into world music, like Arabic music, Persian music, also Moorish influences, like [unintelligible – Souk?], southern Spain, you know, Arabic music. And this is how I got involved in microtonality.

Actually, what I did after the Pestilence period [was] I developed my own bass guitar. I developed a 72-tone octave bass guitar – very, very small steps between notes. A whole note is divided in twelve steps. This is really very, very theoretical stuff, but in fact what happened is that I got really interested in playing between the twelve Western tones that we use. I've been working with several microtonal systems. That was from '95 to 2000, I think.

[Then] I got involved in flamenco music, I think it was 2003, and from that point on, I only focused on playing fretless bass. And playing fretless bass, why? Because I was really into Arabic stuff, Moorish influences. And, in fact, that period has been very important for my [musical] signature, for creating a kind of, you know, [musical] handwriting, and I can tell now after recording the album with Obscura that there's a lot of microtonal slides and flamenco-oriented stuff in my basslines.

Did you play fretted before fretless?

Yeah, definitely.

So the fretless thing came around in this five-year period, that's the bottom line there?

Yeah, from '95 to, to 2000, that period I've been working with several microtonal systems on a six-string bass, actually the same bass that I still use. They were fretted on my basses, but they were very small steps, much smaller than the twelve notes we use. After that period I really came up with the idea – okay, it's nice to work with systems like this, but it's much more interesting to play fretless. Having the knowledge how microtonal systems sound, gave me more freedom to work with the fretless bass.

Can you contextualize this inside of death metal? How do you make the fretless work inside of death metal?

What I try to do is create a certain flow between drums and guitars. That sounds very, very simple, and it is, in fact, but for me, there is absolutely no reason to go hundred percent with the guitars. So, what you see in old school death metal, the bass is more like an instrument that follows the guitarist. For me that doesn't make sense at all. So what I try to do is I create a certain flow between drums and guitars with my bass arrangements.

And those bass arrangements, for a main part, they come out of my signature. Like, all the stuff that I played with microtonal stuff, and the flamenco stuff and jazz and fusion. I mix it up and I try to come up with my own arrangements, based on the song structure. And, of course, the song structure has priority, but if I feel that it's valuable to add something special there, and there is room for it – like in Obscura, there is a lot of room for me – I would definitely love to add some stuff.

The mix on this record, it's very, very bass-friendly, which is cool. When I listen to parts – like the melody break in “Choir of Spirits,” and the long solo in the instrumental piece “Orbital Elements,” but even in stuff where you're just doing arpeggios under the guitar solo in “Cosmogenesis” and some of the other really heavy stuff – somehow the bass is just considerably louder and punchier than it is on most metal albums. Is that something that you work on with the band, or is just because of your tone that you think it pops through?

It's not only tone, although I must say that a fretless bass penetrates the guitar sound much easier than a normal bass. It's a totally different sound. And that was actually the first reason for me to play fretless, because I love that particular sound of the instrument. But we made a choice with Obscura, we thought that Obscura somehow needed this. The fretless bass is a trademark for Obscura. And [the] thing is, we decided to have the bass really audible in the mix. And this is something that I think it's very important because, you know, I would never contribute on an album with arrangements like this when I knew that bass is totally inaudible. It doesn't make any sense.

So, you know, why put in a stamp on music if you don't hear the instruments? Then they could better have asked their neighbors to play bass guitar. Know what I mean?

Yes! Well, it's going to be a big topic in the article, too, because there's the historical unfairness, I think, at some level, to the bass in the mix of metal albums, and you see less and less of that nowadays, which is wonderful. Some people have the classic edgy, distorted sound and some people have a warmer sound, like you have, but you just see less of that burial, which is nice.

Yeah, well, actually, Bryan, I think that is a very positive thing. I think that the death metal scene and the whole death metal style, the new style of death metal, changed in a very positive way, also for bassists, because there is more bands, than only Obscura where the bass is loud. Look at Martyr from Canada. Those guys are doing wonderful work. This guy, [Martyr bassist] Francois Mongrain also plays with a very audible sound and it's very fusion, you know, very in the front of the mix. Beautiful, [the] things that he does on bass. And it's not only Martyr, there's more bands. But I think it's a very positive development. You know, at the time that I was working with Pestilence, it would be ridiculous to have a bass that loud in a mix.

I think for bassists there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in death metal where, you know, you have those grunts…so this is very positive, and I think I can add something very interesting – although very important thing – about having an opinion about playing death metal. Death metal is a very interesting style to play. I come from jazz and flamenco, and now, I'm playing in a death metal band. Kind of brutal stuff. But you know what I like about this music, this style? The vocals are kind of monotone, [and] somehow this music gives you a lot of room to play melodic arrangements. Not only for bass guitar, but there is a lot of room for melodic arrangements, because the vocals are monotone. Which is very interesting, because in flamenco music, the bass guitar plays a very important melodic role.

And this is actually what I feel like I can add to a band like Obscura, and maybe also for the next Pestilence album, because I joined Pestilence last year in October again, after fifteen years. I think there's a lot of room for bassists in death metal – sometimes, maybe, not always everybody realizes that.

Real quick, on the gear you're using - is that a Warwick six-string fretless?

Yes. Since 1993 I play exclusively on Warwick six-string thumb neck-through basses, so they have the neck-through construction. And since 2003, exclusively fretless, so I never play fretted basses anymore.

And what about amplification? Did you say you use the [Warwick Jonas] Hellborg rig?

Yeah, for this tour. We're almost done, we have a week to go now, a couple of shows, but for this tour I'm promoting for the very first time the Hellborg amplification line of Warwick, which is a very high-end, very exclusive bass amplification system.

Which cabs are you using with it?

I am using two Club Cabs, I am using two Low Cabs, I am using two 500W Power Amps, and I'm using two Preamps because I play stereo. I'm a stereo player. I started with that in flamenco, in the huge theaters, like those nice theaters where people are really listening for what's going on there, so it's always has been a very interesting effect for me, with the fretless bass and to split it up like left/right. I came up with the idea for the album to do that also, so it's stereo bass, it's very hard to get it right in the mix, it's really hard with stereo signal. But finally after a couple of mixes we succeeded at that.

So I use two preamps and two power amps, and... actually, it's two bass rigs, actually. On the left side I have just the Low Cab, that's the lowest cabinet, and then I put down a Club Cab, with a 500W Power Amp and one Preamp. And actually I double that.

On your approach to the sections that are technical, the sections where you really do have to play fast – what, what's your advice on that? What's your thinking around that stuff?

Umm... You mean the fast parts of Obscura?

Yeah. Or just just advanced technical playing in general.

Yeah, okay, this is [a] very, very interesting question. You know, personally, I think that technical approach is very, very important for bassists, nowadays; however, I must say that the new generation [of] bassists in death metal, and I'm talking about the younger generation, much younger than I am…what I see a lot, and what I also receive by emails, [are] a lot of questions, all about technical approach. And personally I feel that, for me, it's not the most important factor. Not at all. Because of course it's important to be able to totally be above your instrument, and handle your instrument. You have to do it, you know, like having all the technical approach, that's very important...

But we were talking about arrangements, like trying to do something different between guitars and drums, and trying to create something very special which makes sense between the layers. And this is one important thing, arrangements, but also, what about tone? Bass tone?

The problem is if you play really, really fast, if I would play triplets [at] 235 B.P.M., with two fingers – it is possible – but, you know, if it comes to tone, your tone disappears more and more the faster you play. So this is actually why my opinion is [what it is] about technical approach: It's very important to have it to get the best out of your instrument, but for me it's not the most important thing at all on a bass guitar.

How old are you?

I am 38.

You are Dutch, right?

Yes. I'm from Amsterdam.

Okay. I think the last question I have - talk a little bit about the solo in "Orbital Elements."

Well, there's a lot of people who bring this up, that solo, and actually I'm a little surprised, because for me it's just a very short piece that I wanted to fill up with something. But yeah, you can really taste the Moorish influences, out of the flamenco world. It's a little, little microtonal, you know, it's a little between the keys, I think.

That solo was recorded within, I think, eight minutes, or maybe even less. I think I played it once and then I think – I came up with it, I didn't have it in mind, at all. I was in [the] studio, and I was just thinking, what could I do there, what can I play here, and within five minutes I came up with something. And so we just recorded it. It was actually not hard to play, but after listening to it again, then I thought – wow, yeah. I was, I was really happy with it, it sounded good, it fit well in the song, and of course that's most important.

Right now you're touring, can you give me a little bit of background on who you're touring with, and how long it's going and everything like that?

Well, with Obscura we started with a new lineup because Obscura already existed for a couple of years. But I joined the band [in] late 2007, together with Hannes Grossmann. Hannes Grossmann played before with Necrophagist. After I joined – actually [it was] early 2008 – Christian Muenzner, also from Necrophagist – he left Necrophagist I think in 2006 or 2007 – but he joined also, so the lineup changed 75%, and then actually we recorded this demo – it's still on my website, I think – just to see if there would be interest. We didn't expect anything at all, looking for a label. And we're thinking about releasing an album. And from that point, it went really fast. We got this deal with Relapse, we recorded the album, and I was in touch with [Cannibal Corpse bassist] Alex Webster. We were both very enthusiastic about the idea to tour together, Cannibal Corpse and Obscura.

In April 2009 we did a U.S. tour for one month together, good venues, that was really successful. I feel that the American market is the main market for Obscura. Afterwards Obscura did also a European tour with Cannibal Corpse, and now we are doing a European tour, one month long, with the Black Dahlia Murder.

Do you have plans for touring in the spring, [or] in the summer?

Well, actually, what we're going to do is play festivals in Europe this summer. We will play at the Inferno Festival, in Norway, that's April 2. Hellfest, in France, that's June 20...I will also be touring with Pestilence in May and June, in the U.S.

Okay. Perfect.

Maybe there's one little detail, what's interesting to mention because, you know, we were talking about the bass guitar of a metal production, if you take it a little bit broader.

I can say that that if you [listen to] ‘80s metal, bass guitar was already very in front of [the] mix. Like, if you listen to Iron Maiden, Steve Harris, it's very important. But somehow instruments disappeared in the sound, in the production. And especially in death metal, you know? It was just, like, there was nothing, you didn't hear any bass at all. So actually what I wanted to explain [to] you is that I think it is a very positive development that the bass guitar, for me, really came back into metal again. I'm very happy with that. And I'm sure that a lot of bassists will be happy with that, too.

Yeah, and that's really what this article is about. It's really about the reemergence of not just metal – because metal is so huge right now; there's always a market for it, but it's not always this hot and big – but that bass is hot in metal right now, it just is. You just see all these players coming up and it's not like you would think about when you think about metal bass.

Yeah, well, it's like, we have got so much attention also with this album, it's incredible, we never expected it, but of course we are very happy with it. But I can assure you, Bryan, and you can put that in the interview as well, that I am still working every day, I'm working very hard to develop my signature better and better, because I'm still not satisfied. There needs to be much more Arabic influences in my signature, and somehow I know I will succeed, but I'm not satisfied yet, so I need some more time to work on it.

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