Everything I do, right or wrong, is being determined by my autism
25 years, that's how long Ahráyeph has been around. Or rather: in 1996, the first demo of Crucifire, the predecessor of Ahráyeph, was released. In 2021 the ‘XXV’-E.P. was released by Ahráyeph, which had to celebrate a quarter of a century of music by Raf Ahráyeph – Raf Jansen for the friends. We thought this was a great opportunity to review the most important dates from this ‘prog-goth’ career with Raf. We had many questions, and Raf has always answered extensively and remarkably candidly. So it turned out to be a long, but very interesting interview.
1996-1997: You start playing in the black metal band Ancient Rites. Is that the reason why Crucifire got sidetracked?
2001: Crucifire dies a quiet death, but around the turn of the century you reboot the project. You change the name to Ahráyeph and steer the ship towards gothic rock, without the metal influences. What was your motivation to start over?
Well, it may sound funny, but that first demo played a big part in that. I met the drummer of a band that often had opened for Ancient Rites. He was a fan of the songs on the demo and sang their praises in the presence of friends of mine, who only knew my alt rock project Sole, so they became curious about what I had done prior to that. However, I was too embarrassed about its bad quality to let them listen to it. Eventually, though, it did happen and one of them, one of the biggest fans of The Sisters Of Mercy I’ve known, was of the opinion that Crucifire was where my heart was at more than those alternative songs. That made me think, and after a couple days of brainstorming, I decided he was right and rebooted Crucifire. Still a while later, I changed the name, because I indeed wanted to expel the metal influences present in Crucifire. Not that I suddenly resented metal; I was just looking to conceive a more organic, open sound, with more atmosphere. Besides that, an Australian thrash band who used the same name had come into existence in the interim (they are no longer active). And lastly, I was the only remaining original band member, so it was an easy decision.
2004-2007: You once again become a member of Ancient Rites. You’ve contributed significantly to this band in this period, especially as a song writer on the ‘Rubicon’ album. In 2007 you leave Ancient Rites to concentrate on Ahráyeph. What do you remember about your time in the band?
Oh boy… You got a couple of hours? A lot happened back then, both good and bad. To keep it positive: we’ve played several great gigs. There was the Revoltallo XIII festival in Vigo, Spain, where we played on a mountain which looked out over the bay where the city lay. A beautiful spot, which had a restaurant nearby which was situated under a large rock. Fascinating. The audience was truly amazing that night. I had contracted a twenty-four-hour flu from the air conditioning on the plane and played with a fever, but the audience was so riled up they really pulled me through with their unbridled enthusiasm.
Another high point was of course the album ‘Rubicon’ itself. I’m still immensely proud of that album. It’s true that the music for most of the songs was written by me, but Erik’s songs and ‘Brabantia’, which I co-wrote with Domingo are just as strong. There are no weak songs on that album. And it also contains some of Gunther’s strongest lyrics. I recall that Erik and I went out for a drink one night during the recording process, because we needed a break and during the ride into Krefeld, we agreed that we had a strong album on our hands. This was evidenced later when the invariably positive reviews started coming in. That’s also the reason why I stayed in the band longer than I intended, as after the record was finished, things were said and done to which I took great exception, but I just couldn’t detach myself from those songs. Let’s call it vanity…
2008: it’s finally here: ‘Marooned on Samsara’, Ahráyeph’s debut. I’ve come to understand it was a difficult undertaking, because even though you had a band, you’ve recorded a lot of it by yourself. How happy were you with this album?
I was happy that the album was released and got the opportunity to do so via D-Monic. Contrary to what you often hear, I’ve never had any complaints about the label that released ‘Samsara’. They’ve always treated me fairly and stuck to the contract and the agreements we made. It’s just unfortunate they weren’t able to provide tour support because they weren’t big enough to do that. I’m sure they would have if they could have. That could’ve made a difference.
2008: I’ve only seen you live once, at a gig promoted by Bunkerleute at the Lido (Leuven, BE). You still had a band back then, now you’re doing everything on your own. Is there still a chance you’ll be playing live again with Ahráyeph?
That chance is definitely still there, but unfortunately, with the times being the way they are, it’s not the right time to start organising that. I’d have to find new musicians to accompany me, organise rehearsals, find a booking agency… As long as the pandemic rolls on and the uncertain times for artists continue, I don’t think it’s the right time to put all of that in motion, even if the desire to play live definitely exists. I’ve not played live for much too long and it’s something I always loved. After my first European tour with Ancient Rites, I knew I was born to be on the road, as exhaustive as it can be. I came back from that tour completely drained, but after just one night’s sleep in my own bed, I was ready and willing to jump back on the tour bus and do another ten days straight. That says it all. I come alive when I’m onstage, even if I don’t talk much or at all between songs. That’s not arrogance: my songs are my way of communicating with the audience, what more do you need to add to that? But I’d really love to do that again. If there are any interested musicians out there: you can always contact me through the band’s official Facebook page.
2013: You get the diagnosis of having Autism Spectrum Disorder. On the one hand, you’re extremely intelligent, on the other you have issues with things that are mere afterthoughts to the average person. Do you think this disorder had an impact on your work with Ahráyeph?
Practically speaking, my A.S.D. has also interfered with Ahráyeph and cost me many an opportunity, because I am, after all, who I am and the disorder is an integral part of my personality, even if I am, obviously, more than just my disorder. I am simply unable to turn it off. It’s always there and that’s often tiring, even for me. And when it comes to interpersonal dynamics, it’s never easy to deal with other people. I’m extremely detailed and hence very verbose (for example: it’s not easy for me to keep my answers to your questions concise, because I want to paint as detailed a picture as possible, which is, of course, impossible), am always striving for perfection and hence am not making it easy on myself as well as others. And at the same time, I have zero tolerance for laziness, manipulative behaviour, and selfishness. When it comes to band dynamics, those were too often the causes for rifts, not just in Ahráyeph, for that matter.
2015: It takes seven years before there’s a follow up to ‘Marooned on Samsara’, a delay caused in part by a serious burn out. Nevertheless, ‘AnimAElegy’ is a real gem. This time you record everything yourself, except for guest musicians on drums and keyboards. Are you still proud of this album?
2016: You release the 'Desert Songs'-E.P., building on the work of Robin Proper-Sheppard - a man who you happen to know personally - and his band The God Machine. Can you elaborate on the inspiration behind the ep?
I wouldn’t say I was building on Robin and his previous band’s work necessarily with this E.P. The God Machine are, as you know, a big influence of mine, but I’ve only borrowed that title, because when I was writing the songs, they evoked a desert like atmosphere in me. My mother, who is by no means a fan, observed a couple of times that I ‘write cinematic music’ and when it comes to ‘Desert Songs’ in particular, I do agree with that assessment. While I was composing, I kept envisioning scenes of big sand dunes, red evening skies with a sun setting on a horizon trembling from the heat, caravans ploughing through the sands, trying to reach an oasis and nightly desert skies lit up by stars and planets.
On the other hand, I was living through that burn out you just mentioned at the time. How I felt back then was described perfectly in the title track of prog metal band Queensrÿche’s fifth album, ‘Promised Land’: ‘Life’s been like dragging feet through sand and never finding a Promised Land’. Queensrÿche may at first glance not be a band you’d listen to as a goth (even if ‘The Mission’ and ‘Suite Sister Mary’ on ‘Operation:Mindcrime’ are early examples of what later would become ‘gothic metal’), but this album has a very dark and sullen vibe. It’s more Pink Floyd than heavy metal, but that makes the album all the better to me, and the title track is really very dark and depressing. Everything being described in it could have come from my own life back then, so that came to mind when I was working on ‘Desert Songs’. Thanks to the image of someone ploughing through sand and not getting anywhere, I got the idea to use that title and write lyrics in the same vein, which was surprisingly easy. I feel they are among my best lyrics, if not my best. The book ‘What Dreams May Come’ was also a source of inspiration. I remain convinced it also was the main inspiration behind Carl McCoy’s lyrics on the Fields of the Nephilim album ‘Elizium’. I had just reread the book and was riffing on the concept of the ‘Summerland’, the dimension in between death and the next reincarnation, so that’s part of it as well.
2016: With ‘Desert Songs’ you also announce a temporary hiatus to Ahráyeph. You want to concentrate on your metal project, Trans World Tribe, with singer Staci Heaton. The band releases an E.P. and a single in 2016, but fades into obscurity thereafter. What happened?
In short: just like Ness, Staci decided to give priority to her career. She works for the Californian government, where she is part of the environmental and agrarian department. She’s also married (her husband Brian recently co-authored the very first biography on the aforementioned Queensrÿche) and is raising a daughter. That all these things take precedence over a music project is something I completely understand. On the other hand, she’s a very talented singer and it’s a pity I can also no longer work with her. But Trans World Tribe isn’t dead, just hibernating. I don’t yet know when or how, but there will be a follow up. I still have plenty of demos and song ideas lying around to work with, so there’s no shortage of material for the future.
2018: You release the ‘Heavy like the ancient sun’ album, an homage to your deceased friend James Blaast!™. What was your motivation behind that?
James was, without exaggeration, my best friend. Our friendship was completely mutual, something I can’t say of many other people. It’s hard to explain why our friendship was so special… It just clicked from the first moment we met. It was as if we’d known each other our entire lives. That in itself wasn’t obvious, because as everyone who knew him can attest to, James wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with. He was very outspoken and didn’t mince words to the point where if his words had actually been meat, he could provide the whole of Scotland with prime, unminced beef for years. He also had no issues writing off people when he was done with them for whichever reason. Even I butted heads with him a few times because he crossed the line. But contrary to where he’d stick to his guns with other people, he’d always make the effort to make amends and respect my boundaries. He even told me so in no uncertain terms the last time this happened, and he kept that promise until the day he died. That’s the way he was. On the other hand, James was the most loyal friend a person could’ve had. He never thought twice about giving me a Facetime call and if I took too long to do so myself, I’d get a good natured ‘ERSE!’ in my mailbox, signalling it was high time for me to return the favour. Those calls turned into one- or two-hour conversations, sometimes twice that.
He also was very patient with me. If, for example, I had a bad day and kept that from him, he wouldn’t say anything about it, but, almost always successfully, tried to make me laugh, after which he subtly - yes, he could be subtle - let me know he knew something was wrong with me. The man knew how to handle raising my spirits without being intrusive. That’s real friendship. I thought I knew a lot when it came to music, but James, generous as he was in sharing his musical knowledge, taught me a lot more still. His knowledge of music was vast and his love for music even greater. It was all encompassing, especially where it concerned prog rock, goth and metal. The fact that I know Chameleons’ ‘Script Of The Bridge’ is entirely his merit, because this band wasn’t on my radar back in the 80’s.
He also was a graphic designer, something I later became too, in part due to the things I learned from him. I owe my diploma in part to him. He also managed to pass on his love for his hometown, Glasgow, to me. I love that city; I love its mentality and the people who live there and its good and bad aspects. James and I always addressed each other in ‘Weegie’, the Glaswegian accent, which I’ve since made my own, even if my command of it may have waned since I’m unable to talk to James anymore, like we did up until two days before he died. James was my brother from another mother and he and his mum Molly, who died about eighteen months after him, were fantastic people to have known. James also was Ahráyeph’s No.1 fan. It was he who bestowed the ‘prog goth’ label on Ahráyeph. He even came to Belgium to attend Ahráyeph’s very first live gig. His support was unconditional, even if he could be critical when he felt it was needed, which was also something I always appreciated. So why would I not honour his memory in a way he would have found fitting, with music?
2018: You release a reworked version of ‘Marooned on Samsara’ digitally. All songs were re-recorded. Were you that dissatisfied with the original recordings?
I was, actually. In the interim, my knowledge of music production had improved exponentially, and I also had better tools to implement them. I’m speaking in particular of the speakers I was using, the right studio speakers, which are different from hi fi speakers, make a huge difference. It’s something I learned empirically. All of a sudden, I didn’t have to work as hard to get a good mix, because I had a clearer sonic picture to work from. Additionally, the CD version of the album was sold out and no longer available. This made me feel it was the right time to re-record it and right a few wrongs. On top of that, I had a run in on Youtube with an American publishing company who, as part of my deal with D-Monic, had gotten their hands on the rights to my songs for the duration of the contract. I was warned I had no right to publish my own songs on the platform. Even though the rights reverted back to me after three years and I once again retained full ownership to the songs, I felt it prudent to re-record the album and re-register the songs, so I would keep the author- and publishing rights, so things like that would never happen to me again. People seldom realise it, but there’s a lot of administration involved when it comes to making music professionally, and if you’re not careful, there can be big consequences.
2020: You announce the ‘Heaven No. 7’-E.P. as an inbetween release to make up for the long wait for the next album. I do like it, and was especially impressed by the profound lyrics. Can you tell me how you handle writing lyrics for Ahráyeph?
Ooff, that’s a question that often gets asked, just like ‘how do you write your songs?’, and for which there is no simple answer, really. As I’ve already mentioned, my lyrics deal with my own experiences and observations. I would, however, like to write something from a different perspective down the line, even something fictional and I already have come up with a few ideas, which may even be used for Trans World Tribe, but in Ahráyeph, I mainly am addressing my own life and emotions, not least because, as I mentioned before, Ahráyeph is my outlet and therapy.
Something I do try to avoid, is to become political in my songs. I did make an exception to that rule during the repulsive Trump era and the events of January 6th. That’s how the song ‘Superspreaders’ ended up on ‘Heaven No.7’. The man is Roman emperor Nero incarnate and you can take that literally. Anyone going through the effort of checking out the Wikipedia page on that emperor can’t get around the often shocking similarities. Only, Nero didn’t have social media to spout his poison. But other than that, you shouldn’t expect any politically inspired songs from me, except if there would be a neo nazi and fascist takeover in this country and in Europe. That must be resisted by any means, even musical ones.
What’s always been really important to me where Ahráyeph’s lyrics are concerned, is that they work. I have a very allegorical and metaphorical style of writing, often laced with references to other songs, authors and metaphysics. That’s not just due to my literary and musical influences, but also to me not being good at writing ‘direct’ lyrics, in which I express myself in a more explicit manner, like, for instance, Robin Proper-Sheppard. If I write like that, it ends up in clichés and schmaltz and it ends up sounding fake. Whereas when he does it, I instantly believe what he’s singing. I once told him I consider him an impressionistic writer, both in the God Machine and in Sophia. It’s a craft and he possesses that craft, I don’t. Furthermore, I just don’t want to be a copy of anyone else. I’ve searched long and hard to find my own literary ‘voice’, another reason why that Crucifire demo makes me break out in hives of shame, because those lyrics were, for the most part, really bad, with a few nuggets here and there. The irony of it all is that, right after I finished that demo, I did start finding that unique literary voice to express myself through. It still wasn’t easy, but at least I found the right angle to express myself in my very own way.
2021: The ‘XXV’-E.P. is supposed to celebrate 25 years of Ahráyeph. It contains three songs, a Depeche Mode cover among them. How important was it for you to celebrate this symbolic anniversary?
A little, haha. Twenty-five years is a milestone, and it doesn’t suck to emphasise that, does it? It doesn’t really feel like twenty-five years to me and to be honest, it’s not as if I’ve had it on my mind for this entire year. It’s just that by the end of last Summer, I looked back on my career and realised it’s been twenty-five years since Jo, Peter, David, Raf, Geert and I got together in that rehearsal shack to become a band and work on songs together. That made it easy for me to couple the release of the ‘XXV’ E.P. with it. Also gave me an easy title, haha.
2021: You release the single ‘Bloodletting’ with the promise to release a song from the next record each month. That didn’t prove feasible, but we’d love to hear about the new album you’ve been announcing for a while…