It's always the quiet ones you have to watch out for.
Christian Muenzner, much beloved and respected by peers and fans alike, assumes a modest, gentle presence. But, once that guitar is in his hands, he is capable of some of the most brutal and beautiful licks the Metal world drools for. Searing and shredding effortlessly through various studio appearances and bands like Obscura, Spawn of Possession, Necrophagist, and latest success, Alkaloid, over the past 15 years has made him a celebrated giant, even among other giants.
This has been made especially apparent over very recent weeks when he announced his third solo project, "The Fire Within" with his new-ish solo band, Eternity's End. With Alkaloid mates, Hannes Grossmann and Linus Klausenitzer, as well as Ian Parry and Jimmy Pitts, Muenzner started a crowdsourcing campaign on Indiegogo to recoup the heavy independent costs. Within 10 days, the goal has reached nearly 60 percent, with most of the backers vying for a signed copy of the CD and the tablature book of his previous project, "Beyond the Wall of Sleep."
Undeterred by an impoverished industry and a neurological challenge – a musician's nightmare that affects a muscle or group of muscles causing involuntary contractions – Muenzner's passion for his craft is only fueled with greater fervor and continues to be a light of inspiration.
He was very generous to take a moment to discuss those challenges, as well as illustrate an extraordinary view of his extraordinary world.
MM: You describe your latest work as a "blend of 90's European power metal, 80's neoclassical guitar & keyboard wizardry, powerful classic metal vocals, thrashy riffing, progressive elements and a combination of Dio-esque dark, fantasy inspired lyrics and philosophic themes." (In other words, "Geek Metal.") You stated that this style is a passion of yours. Why didn't you form Eternity's End earlier, say, after you left Obscura?
CM: In fact, that's exactly what I did. I left Obscura in June 2014 and that was the exact same time that I formed Eternity's End. I had already started writing some of the songs as early as October/November 2013, while I was still working on my 2nd instrumental solo CD. We had started Alkaloid quite a while earlier, as you probably know already from talking to Hannes [MM interview], so a lot of things were going on at the same time. I always wanted to be in a neoclassical/power metal type of band, but I just didn't have the time for it before with all the other band activities, along with my solo career consuming most of my free time, and it was really difficult to find a singer for that style of music. There have been many attempts at forming that kind of band from my side over the years, but it never worked out due to one reason or another. When things finally started moving, it took quite a while to be finished as I did so many things simultaneously, like releasing and promoting my 2nd solo album and writing and recording for the Alkaloid debut, next to the teaching and session work which are the main source of my income.
The first line up that was intended for Eternity's End was actually quite different than the one that ended up being on the album with a different singer, drummer and keyboardist. Except for Linus, it was all different members. But in the end, it just did not work out because of logistic differences and scheduling conflicts. I'm glad that my friend Mike Abdow (touring guitarist for Fates Warning these days) recommended Ian Parry to me. I can't really imagine the songs with a different singer than Ian anymore now; I think he did a phenomenal job on the album.
MM: Do you feel that one genre of music is more important than another? For yourself, what would that mean and what would that be? What about in the music industry, in general?
"Metal bands just don't get as big as Iron Maiden, AC/DC or Metallica anymore. In fact, not even big enough anymore most of the time that anyone could make a decent living, if at all." --Christian
CM: No, I wouldn't really say so. You should always play the kind of music that feels most honest and real to you as a musician. I have a very varied music taste. I love to play and listen to many different genres. I'm not just a power metal guy or a death metal guy, not even just a Metalhead, as I equally enjoy many other styles like jazz-rock/fusion, classic rock, 80's pop, classical music, etc.
I give 100% to whatever I'm working on at any given time. I mean, I'm well aware that I would be commercially a lot more successful if I did a Necrophagist – Epitaph kind of album again instead of a power metal band, because that's what many people would like to hear me do. But, if I don't feel it, I don't do it just for recognition, as I think you never create your best work if it does not come from the heart.
And in terms of the music industry, I think that's an interesting point. Metal bands just don't get as big as Iron Maiden, AC/DC or Metallica anymore. In fact, not even big enough anymore most of the time that anyone could make a decent living, if at all.
MM: Why do you think that is?
I think there are 3 main reasons for that. The first is, of course, the downloading culture and state of the record industry; the extreme drop of record sales first through downloading, now through services like Spotify or Youtube. If bands that are considered "big" and who sold millions of copies of one album nowadays only sell between 30,000-40,000 copies, that also means less money to invest in bigger tour productions etc. The bands that come up nowadays, even those who get the biggest media coverage and feedback, hardly sell enough copies to get decent recording or touring advances. And if they don't spend 10 months a year touring in a van it becomes very hard to make a living from it and dedicate all of your time to building up the band.
Even if you do that, it can only get you to a certain point nowadays and will not last for very long, as there are just too many competitors in the field who want a piece of the cake. And that brings me to the 2nd reason: with the advance in technology, it has become a lot easier to record great sounding albums. You don't need to work as a band for years anymore before someone finally signs you and invests in you as a band before you get a chance to record an album.
I think on the one hand, that's also a good thing, as it leads to more freedom and creativity, and creative people can get their vision across without depending on someone else. But that also has the effect that the scene is just over-saturated. When you get a situation where there are more bands than fans around, it becomes much harder to stick out than in the 70's for example, when there were only a handful of bands playing that style of music.
The third reason is another aspect of the internet culture: it is not so dependant on magazines and media coverage anymore which bands make it big, since many musical subcultures are easily able to connect across the world. People are not so easily told anymore by magazines and media what they should listen to, but have much quicker access to anything they want to check out and find out what they really like. In the past, if a band got bigger, made more money, then more money was invested in advertising and further promoting the band, making it even bigger from there.
In fact, I think the current situation leads to a more honest representation what really appeals to people, although I strongly oppose the current culture of free music for everyone and the justification of stealing music from its creators.
I'm quite happy that I can do my teaching job and session work as a main profession and thus just play the kind of music I really want to play, without having to worry about getting "big" or what anyone expects me to do. The way the music business is, it just does not make sense anymore to commit yourself to just a single band 100 percent of the time, tour your ass off and always make the same kind of record in order to get bigger, cause getting bigger just means more Facebook or Youtube likes, but not a bigger income. It still remains a hobby. So, the only thing that makes sense as a musician is to follow your heart and do what makes you happy.
I guess I want to say, if you are in a band like AC/DC or Iron Maiden or something that big, it of course makes sense to just stick to it come what may, even if you would prefer to play jazz-rock or funk, because it's a serious business and not just an artistic devotion. And at a certain time, in the 80's or 90's, that might have still made sense for middle-sized bands, as well. But, nowadays, it would be quite delusional to keep playing a certain sub-genre of music only in order to make it bigger when your heart is not in it anymore. There's no rational reason to keep doing it if it does not bring you joy. I guess that's one of the most important lessons I've learned in the 15 or 16 years I've been playing with serious bands.
MM: You've worked with Linus and Hannes before on other projects, most notably Alkaloid – a very different animal, altogether -- both of them also high caliber talents in their own right. How is it different working with them as a band leader, rather than a peer?
CM: That's a good question and it's quite different indeed! The first recording I did with Linus was the same kind of situation though, as we first recorded together on "Beyond The Wall Of Sleep," even though we had already toured together for more than 2 years in Obscura at that point. I've been playing music with Hannes for almost 13 years now in various different situations. In Necrophagist, we were both sidemen mostly. In Obscura, Hannes had a lot of the creative control, mostly because he just had the biggest creative output at that time, and he's the bandleader and founder of Alkaloid. He has a very unique style of drumming, and even more so as a composer. The stuff he plays on the Eternity's End album or on my second solo album is quite different from what he plays in Alkaloid or on his solo album, as he just sticks close to my original ideas.
But the good thing with players like Hannes and Linus is that they don't really need to be told what to play. Those guys can just play anything and both have great ears and musical understanding. Hannes' drumming on the Eternity's End album sounds as convincing as if he had been a power metal drummer for all of his life, even though it's not his main style of music at all. So yeah, they play quite different stuff on those albums than in the prog-death situations. But, we developed a very good musical chemistry over the years that it just works no matter what kind of album we do.
I already read people joking "oh, yet another band with Linus, Hannes and Chris," but I honestly have to say, they are just the best rhythm section I know. So, when you get the chance to work with the best, there's no reason to change the system.
MM: "Fire Within," according to the crowdsourcing campaign, was "recorded between December 2014 and May 2015…mixed, mastered." So, essentially, the project is finished, yes? You mentioned recouping expenditures as part of the reason for appealing to the public. Could you please provide a little more detail as to what exactly the fans are investing in?
CM: Yes, the album is completely finished. The recordings finished in May, and Per Nilsson finished the mix and master in October 2015. This band and album is completely my brain child and my baby, so to say. I wrote all the music, vocal melodies and lyrics, except for one song called "White Lies" where Ian Parry wrote the lyrics and vocal melodies. It is the realization of my own dream, so I paid all the studio costs out of my own pocket.
I also paid fees not just to Per for the mix and master, but also to the musicians. The recording of an album like that is a big time investment for everyone. It's nothing that you can just do on the side and for free to invest into the dream of someone else -- especially since some of the guys also do session work as a main source of income. When they refuse other offers to work with me on my album, they need to be paid, no matter how good friends you are in real life.
Actually, the costs that I had were quite a bit higher than what I set as goal on the Indiegogo campaign. I'm hoping to re-coup most of it by the time the campaign ends and the album gets released. I'm still planning to work with a label to distribute the album for a wider marketing reach. But, with that style of music and in the current situation of the music industry, no label in the world will pay a recording advance anymore that would allow to re-coup the production costs that I paid from my own pocket, especially if it's a brand new band, no matter who the involved musicians are (and not to mention, most of us built a reputation in a music genre that attracts a quite different fan base for the most part).
"...when people invest into a campaign like that, they are not donating money to the musicians, they are just pre-ordering a product, the same way that they would buy it anywhere else, in the store or at Amazon. The only difference is that a bigger amount of their purchase reaches the musicians, and that it's a bit more personal..." --Christian
But I want to point out, when people invest into a campaign like that, they are not donating money to the musicians, they are just pre-ordering a product, the same way that they would buy it anywhere else, in the store or at Amazon. The only difference is that a bigger amount of their purchase reaches the musicians, and that it's a bit more personal, as they can obtain signed copies of the album, as well as items that will run out soon, like the first press edition of the "Timewarp" CD from 2011, for example.
MM: It is fascinating to see your contributors gravitating straight for the tab book, rather than just a download of the music. This clearly illustrates you are truly a musician's musician. But, do you ever consider the risk of your technical prowess intimidating, or even alienating, your layman fans?
Another great question right there. It's quite flattering for me to see that what I do attracts and inspires a lot of musicians. After all, there's no bigger compliment for a musician than to have been a positive inspiration for others.
However, I never really set out to become a musician's musician. I'm not the greatest guitarist in the world. I don't like comparisions and competition in music and I'm well aware of what I can do as a musician, so there's no false modesty here. [However] I wouldn't stand a chance against the top level technicians and improvisers of today, and I certainly don't want to appeal only to other musicians at all. I guess it's normal that this happens to a certain degree, of course, since the majority of people who listen to instrumental guitar albums like those I did are guitarists themselves, since they seem to be able to connect with that style of music more easily than people who don't play an instrument, who rather connect with a voice, for example.
But I'm not a guitar nerd, [one of those] people who see it more as an olympic discipline or a sport, who only do it to challenge themselves, but lose the bigger picture of the music. I always focus more on the music as a whole; the compositions, even on my instrumental albums, I didn't write songs just to showcase what I can do. Well, maybe I did to a certain degree on the first album. But, on the second one, my focus was clearly on the riffing, the melodies, accessible songstructures and arrangements. The guitar is just my voice and the tip of the iceberg.
So, as much as it's honoring to me that many other guitarists admire what I do, I sometimes get frustrated when I think I wrote a really great song, but the average guitar maniac only cares about that one specific tapping lick that appears in the solo, as that sometimes misses the point of what I'm trying to say. So while the Eternity's End album certainly contains some of the craziest playing I've ever recorded, and there is a lot in there for the guitar fans, I truly hope that it also appeals to the non-musician Metal fans who just want to hear great songs.
"The guitar is just my voice and the tip of the iceberg. "
I rather would like to be remembered as a song writer and for my music itself than just for some specific guitar techniques or YouTube instructional videos. In other words, rather for the art itself than for the tools and mechanics.
But it's great, of course, to have a lot of guitar fans as well as I like to talk technique and theory and pass on information. So, I think everything that I do will be split and appeal to two different groups of people: the guitar maniacs and the music fans. But you certainly will never see me write a song called "The Tapping Ninja", "Monster Sweeper" or "Legatomizer"; my music is not intended to be a showcase for motor skills or gimmicks. Even when I go instrumental, it needs to be on the same level as a composition as when I'm writing for a band situation. My guitar work is just a part of the whole picture.
MM: In an interview with Music Theory for Guitar (no date) you stated that guitar players, especially aspiring beginners, "underestimate" the value of understanding theory when they approach the instrument. If so, then how would you account for the style and influence of someone like Michael Schenker, who has never taken a lesson in his life?
CM: A player like Michael Schenker, whom I admire a lot, and many other great players, might never have taken a music lesson in their life, but they know what they are doing. Even though they might not always be able to name the mode or scale or chord they are playing with academic accuracy, they understand the importance of the notes they are playing and nothing they play sounds like a random scale or arpeggio exercise memorized from tablature and mistaken for music. They know before what they are gonna play, why they are playing it, why it sounds good and what it will sound like. They probably have very good ears and an inherent musical understanding combined with tons and tons of talent.
But believe me, from what I have seen in more than 10 years of teaching, the majority of guitar players who ignore learning the notes on the fretboard, and don't care for learning anything but technique, do NOT sound as good as Michael Schenker. Not to mention they will never ever have the same impact as a player like him.
I'm not saying that everyone needs to be Berklee trained and be able to analyze every John Coltrane standard or Bach Fugue to be able to play or write something that's worth listening to. I was refering to guitar players who only memorize tablature and only practice technique exercises but reject any other form of information, and whose interest never goes beyond the next sweeping or tapping exercise. I often run into players who justify their laziness by pointing out that someone like Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth) also does not know the names of the notes, for example. But that guy is one of the very few who has such good ears and inherent musical understanding that he can write the stuff he writes without needing the knowledge.
"I rather would like to be remembered as a song writer and for my music itself than just for some specific guitar techniques or YouTube instructional videos. In other words, rather for the art itself than for the tools and mechanics."
When players reject theory because of an example like that, they seem to assume they possess the same kind of genius. But, more often than not, their stuff sounds like random painting by numbers and not like something anyone would find worth listening to.They just don't realize it because their ears have not developed to the point that they would be able to tell.
I'm just saying, if you only focus on what you can learn by tablature, but reject everything else, this can work fine if all you want to do is play covers. But, when you want to play your own music, this will become a problem. I've seen many players who had amazing chops, but when they finally started working with bands and writing their own material, it often sounded like stuff an 11-year-old beginner would come up with, and that is very frustrating.
A player like Schenker does definitely not fall into that category, as his playing and music are proof that his interests have always gone way beyond motor skills and robotic memorization.
MM: A few years ago, you were diagnosed with focal dystonia (a/k/a "musician's cramp"). Of course, how are you feeling? How much does this condition affect your work? And please, describe what have you been doing to keep yourself going strong? Is there any advice that you can give to other musicians who may be at risk for this condition?
CM: I could write a whole book on the subject after what I've experienced in the last few years. Nowadays, I'm so used to having it and working with it that it's not really at the forefront of my attention anymore when I write or record music. I had to adapt some playing techniques and fingerings. Through re-training measures, I've been able to restore some of my former ability and I get Botox injections in the flexor muscles of my left hand middle finger every 4-5 months. That, combined with the compensatory techniques I have come up with, makes me feel quite ok with my technique where it is at that point.
It would go beyond the format of this interview to explain what I'm doing in great detail. But, to anyone who is struggling with a condition like that, I recommend looking into fields like learning about body awareness (awareness of movement and tension through Feldenkrais or Alexander technique), body mapping and sensory re-training.
My condition differs a lot from day to day, depending on many factors such as stress levels, if I had a good night's sleep, and on my overall well-being. For example, last fall I had to get prepared for the Alkaloid shows to get the material down for live performing. The material is quite challenging from a technical point of view. I practiced a lot and neglected the re-training quite a bit, and had to go over my symptom-free threshold quite a lot. The shows went really well and I played better than I had in a long time. But, overall, I relapsed a little bit with my dystonia. Because of that, now I have to focus more intensively on the re-training measures again.
The live factor is a completely different situation than when I'm recording in the studio or doing a guitar video, because then I'm by myself and can plan my own schedule. I can just stop and do something else when my condition is not too good at a certain point and continue later, whereas in a live/touring situation you just have to keep going, no matter what. So every show that I do or confirm, there is a certain risk for my condition and I always have to outweigh if it's worth it or not.
I only played like five or six shows last year, and I'm cutting down the live shows a lot. Because of the focal dystonia, I rejected quite a big offer in 2014. I would love to play live more than I do, but I'm not willing to risk my ability to play anymore.
But, the good thing is that this whole dystonia experience made me a better overall musician. I embraced music as a whole on a much deeper level. Whereas, before the FD, I would just practice Paul Gilbert licks all day. I'm not so worried about that anymore nowadays and put a lot more emphasis on songwriting, arrangements, phrasing, vocal melodies, etc. And I actually think that my solos became a lot better.
In fact, every record I did since Cosmogenesis I already had the FD, and I honestly think that my playing sounds a lot better on the last two or three albums I did than on all the older ones -- musically, but also technically, and in terms of the lines I can play. I just try not to focus on what I could do when I was younger and can not do anymore. Instead, I focus on the positive things.
Maybe I will not be able to play that one particular Shawn Lane string skipping lick anymore, that I could play back in the day. But, I can write way better songs, riffs, melodies and solos now than I could before the dystonia. And although I could play some things I can not play anymore, there is more stuff that I can play nowadays that I could not play pre-FD, because I developed new and additional techniques.
To players at risk of developing a condition like that, I can say prevention is always better than having to find a remedy when it's too late. Don't overpractice, take rests, never play through the pain, never ignore what your body tries to tell you. Try to move healthy and relaxed. Do not only focus on what your fingers are doing, focus on all the micro-movements included in anything you play, way back to your shoulder blade and neck muscles. Don't just practice through constant, mindless repetition. When you can't play something, observe why you can't play it, what you need to change in your movement or what you need to practice isolated. Practice mindful, not mindless.
I think nowadays one hour of guitar practice is way more effective for me than eight hours of non-stop playing were when I was 15.
MM: What are your priorities in your life and career at this time?
CM: My main focus in my life is music, as it has been for a long time. But, not anymore in the sense that I need to try to make it as big as I can or to take the world by storm. I'm not looking into things like becoming the next guitar player for Megadeth or Ozzy. I'm also not interested anymore in touring five months a year just so that more people talk about it. I just want to be able to continue making my own music, fulfill my musical visions, and get better as a player and writer.
"I just want to be able to continue making my own music, fulfill my musical visions, and get better as a player and writer. "
I'll keep working to improve the condition of my fretting hand as I did for the past few years, I'll try to make it an even bigger priority for this year though. I'm quite content where things are with my teaching job and the session recordings I do, and I have a faithful and supportive fan base that allows me to keep doing what I do creatively. I lead a simple, but happy private life, and feel quite stable where I am. I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to do the things I do.
MM: There is a very good indication that the Eternity's End project will be a commercial success. Alkaloid, however, has also made a very large footprint. What will you do if it comes down to making a choice if one band's demands are higher than the others, say, a touring opportunity for one band conflicts with another, for example?
CM: I have not really thought about that in depth to be honest. But I doubt that it will become a problem, as neither Alkaloid nor Eternity's End are intended to be full time touring bands. Alkaloid will never do the five months touring thing, and neither will Eternity's End. Live shows are intended with both bands, but rather specific and selective events. Since everything is always planned a long time in advance, it is possible to outrule most of the potential scheduling conflicts. Normally my rule is, what is being confirmed first is set in stone, no matter what other offer comes up after that, and every band needs to respect that. We handle it the same way with other bands in Alkaloid, as everyone has other bands, projects, and session commitments going on.
In the very unlikely event of two important show offers conflicting, it is always possible to work with subs for specific shows. But, since none of the bands are going to do the full-time touring thing, I'm not really worried that it will become a problem.
MM: Please tell us what you have planned once the crowdsourcing campaign is over? What would you like to see for 2016?
CM: The album will be released in late March. Of course, I would love to see positive feedback, good reviews, and a good marketing campaign with interviews etc. to get the name out there. I hope we will be able to play some cool live shows with Eternity's End in 2016. I could imagine that album being well recieved in Japan, for example, as they are crazy about the Yngwie/Symphony X thing, and I would love to go there again.
We will most probably start the recordings of the second Alkaloid album in 2016; the writing has already begun. And we're planning a very exciting fusion project which will include guitarist Danny Tunker (Alkaloid/Aborted) and myself, as well as Eternity's End keyboardist Jimmy Pitts, Erlend Caspersen (Spawn Of Possession) on bass and Jon Doman (drummer for Greg Howe and Vitalij Kuprij) on drums. We're in the demoing phase right now and I am very excited about this. No double bass or blasts, no neo-classicisms, but tons of cool grooves, swinging lines and exciting chord changes.
So, there is a lot on the horizon for me to look forward to. Creating new music is my absolute favorite part about being a musician.
Track pre-release: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvGqZChceds