In the Bleak Midwinter / Interview with Cristina Scabbia
There’s no denying that Lacuna Coil are a class act. The band name itself is an example of this, a lyrical moniker that manages to be mysterious enough to intrigue you when you first hear it, but memorable enough that you can ask for it when you hit your local music emporium. “It’s something we created in ’97 when we signed to Century Media,” explains vocalist Cristina Scabbia. “Our original name was Ethereal, but we discovered there were several other bands with that name, and Lacuna Coil seemed to suit us. Its half Italian, half English – Lacuna’s an Italian word from the Latin meaning lack of memory or emptiness. lt’s rather difficult to translate.” Cristina herself is another example of Lacuna Coil’s stylishness, an enchanting Milanese chanteuse who’s won numerous’sexiest woman in rock’type awards without becoming a prima donna or letting it turn her admirably level head.
Lacuna Coil are one of a generation of European acts who emerged in the late 90s, and began blending harsh metallic elements with lush female vocals to create a distinctive new sound. While some critics have talked of this as a goth metal bandwagon, in most cases the hybrid seems to have been authentically organic- ‘We were originally all old friends who hung out and drank together,” Cristina explains. ‘The other guys were already playing together, and asked me if I’d sing a few choruses for them. It went well, I went out on tour with them, and they asked me to join as a full member. We did originally have problems with some members for a series of reasons. Part of it was musical direction – they wanted to take a softer, more mainstream rock direction, while the rest of us wanted to stay metal and keep the heavier sound. I don’t think they were really ready for the toughness of touring either. Some guys dropped out so the rest of us decided we couldn’t continue like that and recruited the current line-up which is now very stable.”
There’s a definite yin and yang aspect to the marriage of grinding metal and soaring female vocals typical of gothic metal. Many such bands began with traditional death metal, surely one of music’s most undeniably masculine genres, before adding the haunting feminine vocal elements. Cristina, however, is reluctant to see Lacuna Coil’s musical dynamic in quite such one-dimensional, black-and-white terms of interplay between the sexes. “I like the way I can bring more passion to our sound,” she observes. “I dislike the ‘beauty versus the beast’ descriptions. [Male Lacuna vocalist] Andrea does a lot more than just growl, and I can be quite aggressive vocally, especially live. People who come to a Lacuna Coil concert expecting me to be all angelic and sweet can get quite a surprise!”
Mention Lacuna Coil’s Italian hometown of Milan and most people think of either football or fashion. Cristina’s passion for local soccer heroes AC Milan is evidence that she’s not just the porcelain princess she might at first appear, and I suggest that Lacuna Coil’s acute visual sense – reflected by their eye-catching costumes on stage and in photo shoots – might imply an oblique connection with the city’s other famous export. Lacuna Coil certainly seem to put a bit more imagination and effort into what they wear as a band than many of their rivals. “Thats cool,” she responds. “When I think about fashion, I think of it as a kind of art. Just following trends set by other people is vulgar. It is something that relates to us as a band – we don’t wear the cliched studs and leather all the time. While the music has to be at least 80 per cent of the show, people come to a gig to see rock stars on stage, something exciting and passionate.”
“Passionate” is a word that crops up frequently in our conversation. Italian’s have traditionally been lovers rather than fighters, and the stereotypical Latin is a creature of passion. is this hot Mediterranean blood a component in Lacuna Coil’s dark romanticism?
“We are more open and willing to show our feelings,” Cristina observes of her Italian countrymen, “so we might appear more passionate, but I think people are the same everywhere. We have cold Italians too.” Lacuna Coil are one of a growing number of European bands bucking the trend and occasionally abandoning English in favour of writing in their native tongues. Is this a liberating development for them, and is it one we’ll see more of in the future?
“Italian is our first language, so we are better songwriters in Italian,” Cristina replies. “But in English it’s easier to find better meanings in simpler words. Perhaps it’s because I’m Italian, but English sounds very musical to my ears.” The Band are taking a brief break from touring the US when we speak just before their storming Hammer sponsored Xmas gig at London’s Astoria. In general over the past decade in the UK, we’ve been importing a lot more of our music from America than mainland Europe, which is a shame in this writer’s opinion, and the arrival of European acts like Lacuna Coil has brought welcome fresh sounds and ideas to the British metal scene. I ask Cristina about her experiences of cultural difference in the global metal culture: “In the US it seems like many of the bands sound just the same, so you’ll get somebody like say Nickelback, and you’ll get a whole bunch of other bands who sound like them. It probably has something to do with seeing the same music over and over everyday on MTV. In Europe we seem to have a lot of different styles to draw on for influence, from goth to power metal. In the UK you still seem to have a real 70s style – with the bellbottoms and big hair. If a video comes on and they’re dressed like that, you’ll always find out afterwards that they were English.”
One US import frequently compared to Lacuna Coil is Evanescence, some even going as far as to dismiss the Americans as mere cheap copies of the Italian originals. “You have to feel good when a band who’ve sold millions of records credit you as an influence, but we come from different worlds,” Cristina insists diplomatically. “Lacuna Coil still belong to the underground, while Evanescence are more of a music business band. I really don’t think we have that much in common, except that we both have female singers and people seem to focus on that.”
Certainly, when Evanescence appeared on the scene, the sheer abruptness of their rise from Arkansas obscurity to the top of the billboard charts, via a high profile place on the soundtrack of the summer blockbuster Daredevil, had many cynics dismissing the band as industry-hyped or even manufactured, and singer Amy Lee as little more than an alternative Britney Spears restyled to be goth-friendly, served with a side order of Linkin Park-style rap-rock. The promotional muscle of big label backing comes at a price, and the marketing men can make demands that put real pressures on a band. Some saw cracks appearing as early as the release of their single ‘My Immortal’and the accompanying video in early December, which some observers said betrayed the increasing unhappiness of guitarist Ben Moody, who co-founded the band with Lee. The fact that Moody and Lee are the band’s core, supplemented by hired guns, makes his dissatisfaction more ominous for Evanescence. According to MTV, in the video, “Moody looks sullen and withdrawn. His shoulders sag and his head slumps forward as he delicately plays piano. Later, he sadly picks up his jacket as if he’s about to leave. And when the song kicks into balladic rock mode, the band is shot performing in one room while Moody is in another, with only his piano for companionship.”
Evanescence seem to lack the organic chemistry that contributed to Lacuna Coil evolving as a band. Their meteoric rise may have spared them a few years in rock’s school of hard knocks, and makes Lacuna Coil’s progress look sedate by comparison, but such artificially rapid progress can take its toll on a band, as the Americans have perhaps discovered.
From the original gothic diva Siouxsie Sioux, via the likes of the supercilious Sisters of Mercy singer Andrew Eldritch, many of goth’s most popular performers have made a public point of disowning the ‘goth’ tag, fearful the pigeonhole will limit their audiences to eye-liner aficionados, and hence their mainstream commercial potential. Evanescence’s Amy Lee has continued the tradition, insisting the band be referred to by the vaguer ‘dark rock’ tag. But Cristina’s less dismissive: “We do have a strong gothic element – that whole melancholic thing – and we love the gothic image,” she says. “It’s very classy somehow. But we aren’t just a goth band: we’re also a rock band, a metal band.” Over the past decade or so, no doubt sick of being rejected by so many of their guitar-wielding idols, many goths have been distancing themselves from rock, preferring to adopt dance-friendly club tunes or the synth-pop sounds that’ve seen a widespread revival of late. The perpetually petulant Sisters of Mercy have been abandoned by most goths as the Gods of the genre’s 80s golden age, in favour of Depeche Mode.
It’s a passion Cristina shares, doing her credibility no harm in goth circles in the process. Though for those of us who remember them as somewhat nerdy New Romantics, its a little difficult to see Depeche Mode as forefathers of the goth scene. “It’s very difficult to put in words – its all about sensations,” she explains of the British quartet’s dark appeal. “The power of Depeche Mode is in the very strong, and at the same time simple, song structures, combined with killer choruses. They’ve also got very distinctive vocals – David Gahan’s got a wonderful voice thats not quite like anyone else. The music creates a great atmosphere that’s both really, really sad but energising: a blend of positive and negative” – which could equally be applied to Lacuna Coil, that atmospheric, melancholy melange of positive and negative elements encapsulating much of the Italian band’s appeal. For all of which, Lacuna Coil don’t seem like sad or negative people – indeed Cristina herself comes across as the very embodiment of upbeat, down-to-earth vivacity. “We’re very positive people,” she agrees, “but music’s more interesting when it comes from a negative mood somehow – it’s almost like that’s when your feelings explode. When you’re sad you become more quiet and thoughtful, while happiness makes you want to go out with your friends, drink, and have a good time rather than write music There is a strange pleasure in being miserable – sadness can reveal truths that happiness doesn’t.” So, if everybodys in a good mood when it comes down to writing the next album, then you could be in serious trouble I suggest. “Yes,” laughs the worryingly happy sounding singer.
“Music is sort of like a diary for us,” she explains. “While we write it for ourselves, people can read it and try and guess what it means to us, or find their own meanings in it. We are not teachers or philosophers here to teach lessons of some kind or tell people how to live their lives, we simply make music” I ask how they’re progressing with filling more pages in the next chapter of this musical diary. “We’ve got some stuff down,” Cristina tells me, “but it’s far from finished material and needs a lot of work still. We’re always touring right now and we aren’t the kind of band that writes while on tour. It’s pretty heavy stuff, but we don’t want to lose the balance with the melancholic moments. Fast changes aren’t natural for a band – you can’t grow up in a day.” Advice that might make sense to Amy Lee, as a few weeks after the release of “My Immortal”, Ben Moody lived up to both his surname and the subtext of the video, got his coat and left Evanescence in the middle of their European tour.
Written by Gavin Baddeley.
Originally Published in Metal Hammer Magazine Feb 04