Door Xavier Kruth

07 maart 2024
I link the strength I have had to go up and down the tens of thousands of steps, to confront the heat and the hustle and bustle of the crowds, more and more directly with the nature spirit Ganriki.

Empusae has a new album out. And as usual, it’s a masterpiece. ‘Pilgrimage to Ganriki’ tells about a journey to the Ganriki shrine in Japan. Ganriki is the god of the eye in Shintoism, and mastermind Nicolas Van Meirhaeghe visited the shrine because he has been suffering from a rare eye disease for a number of years: retinis pigmentosa. The visit touched him deeply, and he felt it necessary to share these feelings with us in music form. But let’s listen to what the master himself has to say about it.

Your new album ‘Pilgrimage to Ganriki’ is about a pilgrimage to the Ganriki shrine – one of the Shinto shrines in Kyoto, Japan – that you undertook. Maybe you should start by explaining what that shrine actually represents and why you wanted to visit it?

The Shinto shrine is part of the sacred mountain of Inari. The mountain itself is a stronghold with many gods or nature spirits – called Kami in Shinto – who descend from the three peaks of the mountain. The Ganriki Shrine is one of the shrines that you can find on the way to the top of the mountain.

Not much is known about this shrine in question. Shintoism does not contain official scriptures like other religions. Ganriki could be translated as ‘god of the eye’, and is a magnet for Japanese people hoping for healing, rehabilitation and health of the eyes. Even in Japan this Kami is little known.

My partner Christel Morvan – also known as Nesisart – discovered the scarce information about this on the internet years ago. On our last visit to Japan, last spring, we planned this visit without much belief that it would be worth it. But with my current eye disease, we figured we have nothing to lose. Mount Inari itself is a beautiful place, well known for its ten thousand Toriis – traditional Japanese gates that give access to a shrine –, many shrines and temples.

The record tells the story of your journey. First and foremost, let me express my great admiration for this beautiful album. I hear a lot of oriental sounds and instruments. How did you approach that? Are they original instruments or have you worked with digital sounds and samples? Did you have an idea of the structure of the record before you started composing?

The sounds and instruments are both my own, sometimes homemade, instruments, and virtual instruments from Japan. I absolutely had to process this intense experience into music. I have been guided by my feelings and by what it has done to my mind. The intention was not to create a finished product with a narrative structure. It was mainly intended as a personal tribute to Ganriki-san, and to record the experience of the pilgrimage in a composition, as it were, just as someone else would keep a diary, so as not to let it be lost.

You speak of a ‘epiphany’ that you had when you had traveled the road to the shrine. You do add that the revelation is the result of the journey and not of the god. How important was the spiritual and mystical dimension of the trip for you?

It is very ambiguous for me and I am still not sure whether it is the journey itself, the emotions and overcoming of all the obstacles I have encountered, that has given me the epiphany, or the Kami itself. I honestly think it's a combination of both.

I link the strength I have had to go up and down the tens of thousands of steps, to confront the heat and the hustle and bustle of the crowds, more and more directly with this nature spirit. The moment of prayer at the shrine touched me deeply and effectively changed something. It resulted in a click in my head. It is an inexpressible experience that is still evolving to this day and from which I draw ceaselessly.

It is the most important – and only! – mystical experience I have ever had.

In a previous interview – following your 2017 masterpiece ‘Lueur’ – you told us about your disease, retinitis pigmentosa, which is slowly making you blind. Were you able to visit the shrine despite your reduced vision?

It was a serious challenge. I also wasn’t aware that it would be so trying. Despite the guidance of Christel and my white cane, going up and down stairs – especially without a handrail and with many people in front of, next to and behind me in two directions – remains something very complicated. What started as a tourist hike evolved into a hellish ordeal. But with every step towards Ganriki-san, I felt more strength and self-confidence, much to the surprise of Christel, who could not really understand what was happening to me. I started to experience it as a pilgrimage and a challenge, things that I previously avoided because they were too confrontational.

How has your disease evolved since the release of ‘Lueur’? Does retinitis pigmentosa hinder your ability to compose music or perform?

During the period of ‘Lueur’, my disability was mainly night blindness and reduced contrast vision. Meanwhile, these aspects have worsened and were supplemented by new symptoms such as tunnel vision, loss of depth and myopia. In the studio I remain inventive in order to be able to compose with numerous adjustments. This gives me new techniques for creating that I would otherwise never have come up with.

Performaning is more complicated. I used to play percussion with various projects such as Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio, Tzolk'in, Triarii and In Slaughter Natives. Unfortunately, I had to stop these collaborations. As Empusae, I have not completely given up yet, but it is not easy to ask for the necessary conditions and adjustments from concert organizations and venues. I currently continue to look for ways to make it possible. The biggest problem is not the moment of the performance itself, but the hours and days before it, the travelling, getting to and from the venue, and the hours I have to spend in dark spaces in the presence of other people. Social events are very difficult and confrontational in these times.

I think ‘Lueur’ from 2017 was also the first album for which your life partner Christel Morvan or Nesisart had designed the cover. She has been making all the artwork for your work since then. How does that work, such a collaboration in a couple? Does Christel work completely independently based on your music, or is there a kind of dialogue in which you give her instructions?

Christel has been creating artwork for Empusae since the 2012 album ‘Symbiosis’. There is no fixed way of working. Sometimes I give her an idea of what I had thought of as a cover. Other times I give her carte blanche and she lets herself be inspired by the music. Other times she is inspired by the titles or concept of the record, such as with ‘Lueur’ or ‘Pilgrimage to Ganriki’.

I am currently writing a new record based on images she made around her own concept. Her images and my music can no longer be separated. Both influence each other around the Empusae project. She visualizes what I write down in music and vice versa. She is my vision and also represents my compositions.

On ‘Iter in Tenebris’ from 2019, Nesisart designed works of art that can move through augmented reality, if you view them with the right app on your smartphone. How did you come up with that idea? Do you feel like it helped sell the physical record on vinyl and CD because people were interested in the art that accompanied it?

Christel is very familiar with this technology and has published several works in this style in books and at exhibitions. She of course came up with the idea of illustrating the demons and the cover of the record in augmented reality.

The question remains whether it has contributed much to sales. It is mainly the label that deals with this, but I do know of many people who bought the CD and limited edition vinyl just for that reason. The people who saw the animation at the merch stand at performances were usually very impressed and literally and figuratively sold, as it were. (Laughs)

You presented ‘Iter in tenebris’ as a sequel to ‘Lueur’. What did you mean by that? Will there be a further sequel to these two albums?

‘Lueur’ was a way to deal with a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa. ‘Iter in Tenebris’ had the same concept, but expanded the pantheon of demons to include three other demons I had to contend with. Both records were therapeutic. There is no plan to make it a trilogy, because to my knowledge there are no other demons I live with anymore. But, never say never... right?

I'm glad I was able to buy a CD of ‘Iter in tenebris’, because I believe the album is almost sold out. I hear that you are also having difficulty finding a label to release your music, including the release of ‘Pilgrimage to Ganriki’. How do you view the decline of physical discs?

I have no trouble finding a label at all. I was contacted by the label Les Nouvelles Propagandes, and by another label from the US, to release ‘Pilgrimage to Ganriki’ on CD. I originally wasn't going to even release that record digitally, but I later decided to do so on bandcamp. So I was even less looking for a label to physically release it. But Jean-Yves was so impressed by my story in combination with the music that he really wanted to release it on his label.

You have often described Empusae as a ‘soundtrack for the imagination’. Do you feel you still fit that definition? Was that thought there from the beginning, or did it come about gradually?

It is certainly the case for most records. With ‘Lueur’, ‘Iter in Tenebris’ and ‘Pilgrimage to Ganriki’, there is of course a more personal link. But I would still describe most music the same way. There will even be music released as a ‘real’ soundtrack for films and games in the future. So that goes a step further than the ‘imaginary’.

Do you have any more plans for Empusae in the near future?

There will be a lot of new work coming out this year and next year. In addition to film music and music for games, various collaborations will also be released on CD. I can’t reveal anything about that yet. Everything depends on the timelines of the labels involved. But little by little, projects will be unveiled.


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Over Xavier Kruth

Xavier Kruth bekeerde zich al op jonge leeftijd tot het gothicdom. Toen hij begon te puberen, moest hij lang zagen om een zwarte broek te mogen hebben. Toen hij tegenover zijn moeder argumenteerde dat hij gewoon om een zwarte broek vroeg, niet om zijn haar omhoog te doen in alle richtingen, repliceerde ze dat als hij nu een zwarte broek zou krijgen, hij daarna toch zijn haar torenhoog omhoog zou doen. Xavier was versteld over de telepathische vermogens van zijn moeder. Hij leerde destijds ook gitaar spelen, en sinds 2006 speelt hij in donkere kroegen met zijn melancholische kleinkunstliedjes in verschillende talen. In 2011 vervoegde Xavier het team van Dark Entries. In Dark Entries las hij ook dat The Marchesa Casati (gothic rock) een gitarist zocht, en zo kon hij een paar keer met de groep optreden. Later speelde hij bij Kinderen van Moeder Aarde (sjamanische folk) en werkte samen met Gert (kleinpunk). En het belangrijkste van al: in 2020 bracht hij samen met Dark Entries-collega Gerry Croon de plaat ‘Puin van dromen’ uit onder de naam Winterstille.

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