ASHTAR are a duo from Basel consisting of Nadine and Marko Lehtinen. Before they formed ASHTAR in 2013, Nadine played in Shever while Marko played in Phased. In ASHTAR Nadine writes all the lyrics and handles most of the vocals. In the studio the duo play all the instruments themselves. In their live formation, ASHTAR are a quartet with two onstage guest guitarists. We talk about their sophomore album Kaikuja that they have just released.
Hello ASHTAR, your debut album “Ilmasaari“ was released in 2015 with great reviews all over. How do you feel about it five years later?
Marko: We still like it – the songs, the arrangements, the atmosphere and the earthy sound. We had no experience in arranging and recording songs as a duo before we started Ashtar, but the debut album worked out perfectly that way. Nadine and I played all the instruments ourselves, as we did when we recorded „Kaikuja“ now. We still play four of the six songs of „Ilmasaari“ live. And they still feel good.
On May 15th you released your sophomore album “Kaikuja“. What has been the evolution in these five years?
Marko: I think our music hasn’t changed that much. It’s still a mix of Black Metal, Doom and Sludge with some moments of Shoegaze, Post Metal, Space Rock and Grunge. But of course we hope that „Kaikuja“ doesn’t sound like „Ilmasaari“, part two.
Nadine: I have evolved as a musician and gained more self-confidence in these five years, even if we didn’t have too much time to rehearse due to familiar reasons. I assume you can hear this evolution on „Kaikuja“.
Apart of Ashtar, what other projects have you developed or participated on in the last years?
Nadine: In 2016 I contributed some vocals to an international Extreme Metal project called Wastes. It was initiated and mostly composed by a French friend of mine who is or was active in bands like Mourning Dawn, Inborn Suffering and Funeralium. Then I have an all-female Horror Punk project coming up this year, but I can’t tell more about this at the moment.
Marko: Apart from that we haven’t had too much time for side projects. When „Ilmasaari“ was released in 2015, Nadine and I were alone. Now we have two children. So it was difficult to rehearse and play live in the last five years while having two small kids at home. But somehow we managed to keep Ashtar alive. Now the kids are getting older and „Kaikuja“ is out. Ashtar’s future looks bright!
When did you start composing “Kaikuja”?
Marko: About two years ago. Though it’s been five years since “Ilmasaari“, the process of songwriting itself wasn’t that long.
Nadine: I would say it was even shorter than on “Ilmasaari”.
Ashtar is a duo, formed by the two of you, Nadine and Marko Lehtinen. Is it easier to write an album with only two onboard?
Marko: Yes and no. On one hand it’s easier to be just a duo, because you don’t have to argue about everything with four or five people. It makes decisions easier and there are less discussions. There is less tension as well. On the other hand you have to work out everything alone. We are responsible for eveything and when we’re running out of creativity and ideas, there is nobody to help us. It’s just the two of us.
Nadine is in charge of the lyrics. Any specific subjet in “Kaikuja“ or do you touch several matters?
Nadine: There is one main topic in my lyrics – the nature. As a female force, as something that just exists, with no further question or reason. And then there are the mostly dreaming creatures connected to her. Lost in her or fearing her. Often my lyrics remain fragmentary – like the knowledge of the old nature religion. „Bloodstones” is a good example for it. It’s about the healing power of words and spells. Only witches know the right words to dive into the magic of nature, to get all wounds healed, be it physical or emotional. With my lyrics, I want to evoke a certain picture and create a certain atmosphere. I don’t want to tell a story.
Dark passages and some riffs take us into the realm of the occult metal, in which land do you feel more as yourselves musically speaking?
Nadine: In the land of dreams, to be honest. And I need mountains and forests.
Very suggestive. The album comprises of five songs, one of them long over the ten minutes. Is this on purpose or did things flow naturally that way?
Nadine: We never think about the length of a song when we are composing. But a three-minute-song is rather atypical in our section of extreme music. So yes, I would say it’s more or less a natural thing.
Any special song on the album for you?
Marko: Every song has its own character but my favourite is probably „Between Furious Clouds“. Its hypnotic feel reminds me of bands like Dark Buddha Rising. And I like the beat. The song begins in 5/4, the second part is in 7/8. Some of these rhythms rise from my early prog influences.
Nadine: I love every song on „Kaikuja” but I have a special bond to „Bloodstones” because I had a deeply spiritual experience during the recording of the lead guitars.
I would say this album shows a more diversified Ashtar than your debut. What do you think?
Marko: That’s true. But we never planned to do a particularly diversified album. It just happened.
I love the cover artwork with that air of mystic meditation and dark prophecy. What is the symbolism in it?
Marko: It was created by the Indonesian artist Amunra, the name is „The Night Queen”. The figure on the front seems to look back to something cataclysmic or reflecting about something staggering to come. Maybe she’s just resting after a battle won or a task fulfilled. Or she might be listening to the voices of other creatures out there. However, the atmosphere of the picture relates to the album title „Kaikuja” which means „Echoes” in Finnish.
We don’t have that much access to bands in Switzerland. How prolific is the Metal scene in Basilea?
Marko: We have some great Metal bands in Basel like Schammasch, Zatokrev or Cold Cell. But the scene is quite small of course because the city itself is small. We all know and support each other. So the atmopshere in the scene is great. Fredy Rotter of Zatokrev for example was our live guitarist for some years. And he released the CD version of „Ilmasaari“ on his label Czar of Crickets.
Although you are a two members band, for the live shows you get some more people on stage. Any chance to see the studio band grow in the future?
Marko: We play our gigs with two guest guitarists, while Nadine plays the bass and I play the drums. We already thought about taking them with us to the studio when we started to record „Kaikuja“ but in the end we managed to write, arrange and play everything on our own. So we felt there was no necessity to get more people involved in the creative process. But we’re open for that. It’s possible that Ashtar will enter the studio as a four piece the next time.
We are living hard times everywhere. How are you dealing with the Covid-19?
Marko: As a band it’s a bit frustrating to release the first album in five years in times of lockdown. We have no idea when we can play live again to promote the album at the moment. But well, what can you do?
Nadine: I think in these times we can learn a lot about ourselves and about the society in general. I’m not sure if it’s utopian but I really hope that the impact Corona has on all of us will change something in the general thinking and behavour. Personally, what I miss the most are the real, physical contacts with other people, and of course the live music.
I hope you are right Nadine, because if we wait for the politicians nothing is gonna ever change. Any plans for the future or just waiting until the end of the storm?
Nadine: If there would be no plans, we could as well stop doing what we do. But we are passionate musicians. So we’re looking for gigs and will soon begin to write new songs for a third album. Thank you very much.