Chillout out of Pain
An Interview with My Sleeping Karma
Dave Wyndorf, singer of Monster Magnet, said that "My Sleeping Karma is art." Maybe that’s the point.
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Started in 2005 by bassist Matthias "Matte" Vandeven, guitarist Seppi, drummer Steffen Weigand, and keyboardist Norman Mehren, and with 5 studio albums already under their belt, My Sleeping Karma are a force to be reckoned with in the stoner world.
They are a German band that plays a hypnotic form of stoner rock influenced by the aesthetics sounds of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It sounds bizarre, I know, but it's pretty damn good. And if their positive reviews and well-attended concerts are anything to go by, I'm clearly not alone in that assessment.
Although they pride themselves in being a rather "positive" band, the last couple of years really put that positivity to the test. Facing COVID restrictions, catastrophic health news for one of the band members, and even personal tragedies, the band nevertheless got together and created a fantastic new album, Atma, to be released next week by Napalm Records.
I met with Matte Vandeven to discuss the process and tragedies that lead to Atma, and to try to understand more about this fascinating band. You can watch our chat below, or read the transcript (edited for clarity) under the video.
JS: The last couple of years (with COVID, etc.) were a huge challenge for bands. How was it for you?
Matte: We have a difficult two and a half years behind us. It was difficult for everyone working in the music business, whether be it bands or promoters, and even for the fans. For My Sleeping Karma it was an especially difficult time because, on top of everything, our drummer (Steffen Weigand) was diagnosed with Cancer. Then COVID came in and made our lives even more difficult.
These last two and a half years were a long and dark process and, honestly, we didn't even know if this album would ever see the light of day. We are happy that Atma will be finally released next week and will hopefully be close a chapter of this rather depressive period.
JS: Before we discuss Atma, as well as those difficulties, I want to run something by you. One of the interesting things for me about My Sleeping Karma is that whenever I try to get people to listen to it, I have a hard time explaining exactly what it is. How would you describe your band and your sound?
Matte: Well, that's a difficult question, having been playing in this band for 18 years! [laughs] We like to describe it a little bit as hypnotic rock that tries to deliver an open-mind spirit in the music.
I think that putting My Sleeping Karma in one category or another is really difficult. For sure, it belongs to the stoner rock family, but it’s much more than just the typical Black Sabbath clichés. Honestly, I don't know if there actually needs to be a description for that.
Dave Wyndorf, singer of Monster Magnet, said back in 2012, when we did the Spine of God tour with them, that "My Sleeping Karma is art." Maybe that’s the point. I don't want to categorize our music, and it's difficult to really explain it to somebody else. You can try "Hypnotic Chillout Rock " if you really need to have a name for it, but we are trying to create open-minded music that gives everyone the freedom to listen to it in any situation.
JS: What you were trying to do when you started My Sleeping Karma in 2006?
Matte: To make a long story short, everything in My Sleeping Karma has happened organically for us. We were not sitting in a band meeting saying things like "OK, let's call the band this, and then let's add some of that Hindu and Buddhist things".
We had kind of a "normal" stoner band before, and Seppi and I started a side project more in this direction of hypnotic, chillout rock. So we had that sound, and we had some ideas. Then we stopped that old stoner band and took Steffen as our drummer into My Sleeping Karma, and added some "soundboards" as we call it, and that created this new sound (also new for us) of My Sleeping Karma.
JS: How did the name My Sleeping Karma came up?
Matte: It just came to me. We were sitting together in the studio, either rehearsing or recording our first few songs, and we didn't have a band name yet. It somehow popped up in my head. I think I wanted to have something with three words in it, so I said to them what about "My Sleeping Karma"? And they were like "Yeah, okay, why not?" And that's it. It was pretty simple.
JS: Except for your for two of your albums, your debut and the third one that it just means “three” in Sanskrit, all of your releases have been named after concepts from Hinduism and Buddhism. “Satya,” which means truth, “Soma”, the Hindu God of the moon, “Moksha”, which means emancipation, and now Atma, which refers to the soul or to the self. Also, many of your songs and visuals have references to these religions. What attracted you to that topic?
I think that we love the open mind of these religions, and that everything is in flow and feels organic and natural. We are all non-religious people, but I think our music fits pretty well with the "style" of these religions. It's more about the positive vibe that exists around these religions that attracted us, and which fits perfectly with My Sleeping Karma.
I don't know if in the next album there automatically needs to be a Ganesha or something like that on it. That's something we decide at the very end. But, for example, this time with Atma it was clear. After Soma and Moksha, Atma is really the next step, the consequence of the other two albums, so we wanted to have it exactly in that way.
We decided to put Ganesha on the front cover because we had this this idea about how small the world is in the hands of something much bigger than us. It was to show how we are small pieces in the universe as individuals.
JS: I read somewhere that you said that you wanted my Sleeping Karma to be kind of an alternative to this “overloaded and high speed society.” Most rock bands are not trying to relax their audience, so I thought that was interesting.
Matte: I think we've always had a bit of a different point of view. I mean, who says that songs should only be three and a half or 4 minutes long? It's the radios, also saying that you can only have success when you have the right format for your song.
We were always thinking differently. I mean, first of all, we never thought that anybody would be interested in listening to My Sleeping Karma. It was music we created for us. Luckily, and thankfully, we got a little bit bigger than we expected, of course.
I think that the music we are creating, and that we wanted to create, wanted to breath and have the time to develop. Nowadays everything in the world is Fast, fast, fast. Nobody has time for anything. And I think that's not the way how we want to write our songs. Some riffs need the time to develop and to unfold the energy and power behind them. It wouldn't work if we simplify it and don't repeat a a riff maybe 16 times, like we do, and just do it four times. Then it's just almost meaningless.
We are not a band that can create four minute or five minute long songs. We tried, we said "let's write a hit and do it fast"… But then it wasn't My Sleeping Karma anymore.
JS: Atma is your sixth studio album, the seventh overall. If I’m not mistaken, you started writing this album back 2017, and you even thought that maybe it wouldn’t see the light of day. Tell me a bit about how Atma finally came together.
Matte: It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it. In 2019 we had the chance to play at Hellfest in France, which was one of our biggest concerts ever. On the way back, Steffen, our drummer, received a call about the result of some blood tests, saying that they were not really good and that he should come and see a doctor. A few days later came a bad cancer diagnosis, recommending immediate treatment.
At first we didn't understand. It was kind of a surreal thing where you see that somebody is healthy, your best friend with whom you are having a great time, and then three days later there seems to be an emergency. It all developed in a bad way and we had to cancel the fall tour 2019, and we used the Christmas break to understand what was happening and to see in which direction that cancer thing was going. But then came Corona and the lockdown, and we barely had a chance to meet.
Everything was already in a pretty negative place. Summer of 2020 opened up for some "Corona concerts", those "social distancing concerts," and we were invited to play a few shows. It was the first time we could meet after the lockdowns, since before it had been forbidden to meet and to rehearse as a band. Besides rehearsing, we were also starting to play with those first ideas from back in 2017 and 2018 for the new album… but they didn't feel right, so we erased them all and decided that we needed to start over after the summer concerts.
In the fall of 2020 we started writing the new album again. We made some progress, and then bad news came for Steffen again. His blood tests were bad. So then it was another winter, in 2021, with lockdowns and everything. In the spring things opened up after Easter, and there were again some Corona shows, as in previous years. We got the band together, the people came to our shows and we still had this good vibe and felt that there was a good energy still in the band, even with all the bad circumstances.
In the fall of 2021 we decided to start working on this new album again. "We have started twice already, so let's listen to the songs" And we thought that it was shit. So we we erased it all again and started over. Then a call came with very bad news for Steffen.
The whole thing gave Steffen, who also produced the album, the mental strength to say "I don't know where this all leads, with the cancer and all, but I want this album now. We need to do this". We worked like maniacs day and night producing this album, we came together for every rehearsal possible, and started to write it in a flow; in about six weeks we had it pretty much ready to record.
The fact that Atma is coming out now is something we can’t really believe.
JS: How is Steffen right now?
At the moment things are going pretty well, he’s undergoing chemotherapy. We hope that it won't be like that the last few times when those bad cells came back resistant against the medication, We hope he's found a treatment that can control them and that works.
For us, at the moment, every concert we play, and we have played quite a few in the last couple of months, is a gift, because we didn't expect to come back on stage at all.
And that Atma comes out right now is also a big gift for us.
JS: I've had friends who have had this disease; I lost my dad to cancer as well. I know that beyond how it affects the victim, which is obviously enormously, it also affects its environment. And obviously, you are a close friend of Steffen, so I imagine that this was a very emotionally difficult period for you as well. I mean, it's horrible.
Matte: It's horrible. I think I've played with Steffen for 23 years now; him on drums, me on bass. We are good friends outside of the band so yeah, it's horrible.
And I don't want to start with my own private life, which pretty much crashed during the last 2 and a half years... You can't get much lower than this. So I hope we have created a turning point to stay positive and look positively at the future… but there's a very dark period behind us all.
JS: I am sorry to say it in these terms but… darkness often plays a tremendous role in creativity. I was recently working on an interview I did with an Iranian musician who spent a year in solitary confinement for his music. And he told me that although it was horrible, it was torture, it was terrible, etc., "they gave me this power to create something new." I think that we notice that darkness and power in Atma; in fact, your label says that it is your most powerful and “darkest” album. Would you would you agree with that characterization?
Matte: Sometimes labels need to simplify things to a single point, you know? What is "dark"? For some people a a darker white is already "dark". And a black is "dark, dark dark".
Let's say that it's something in between. Of course, we got power out of it as well, because we developed power with all the negative circumstances around. We also felt like "Wow, we've been holding together as a band for 18 years" And we wanted to go for it.
We knew we could make it and we could use that darkness for creativity. I think that it might have also helped to speed up the process. It gave us a kind of flow as well, a positive flow with all the bad circumstances around it. This was also a chance that we took. We didn't turn away and said like, "oh, now everything is so dark and everybody's life is fucking shit, so let's leave the band because it just creates more difficulties and makes us deal with more conflict."
People in bad times might go to a band rehearsal and just crack open a beer and see that everybody's in good mood. It wasn't like that for us. Everybody was coming depressed from life and from all the the bad things around… but when we played together we felt like we had something in our music, so after rehearsal we all felt better. It gave us a positive energy, and we went home with a smile, saying "hey, this is the right thing to do." That gave us some positive energy.
I think My Sleeping Karma is a positive band, and we always have this positive vibe in our music. I think that it's also there on Atma, but these "traumas" that we have had are also easier to hear in this album than on the previous ones.
I think that Atma is, if you want to call it that, our "deepest" album, and for sure the most emotional one, because that's how we created the music, coming from very emotional moments. I don't know if we could have written this album without the circumstances surrounding each of us.
JS: Besides being in My Sleeping Karma, you also have a more "boring" job, as part of Sound Liberation, a booking company that works with this genre of music. Has it been very difficult to combine the two?
Matte: My Sleeping Karma is on our Sound of Liberation roster, but we are not pushing it at all, because we don't have time to play. It's always a big thing when we can actually do a concert, because Seppi, our guitar player, has three little kids, Norman, our keyboard player, lives 200 kilometers away… and I was married in France, like 500 kilometers away from the rest, so it was always like a big machine that needs to get in motion in order for us to go on tour.
JS: As I mentioned, Sound of Liberation specializes in this type of stoner rock and psychedelic music. How do you see the state of that scene in Europe? Because there seem to be more and more bands coming out.
Matte: It's hard for me to describe it; 18 years ago it was a super small scene here in Germany, with maybe two or three record labels, and a few people organizing live events. You basically had to go out with your band in a van, even bringing your own P.A. system. I think back then nobody really knew who would listen to that kind of music.
Now, many years later, you see bands able to do European tours and more and more people coming to shows. That feels good, because the scene was really small. It's still small now, but it's growing organically.
For us, the older generation, it's nice to see young kids listening not only to hip hop anymore, so that now they also have some cool heavy rock songs or stoner songs on their most favorite playlists. It's quite nice.
It was quite nice to see that big metal festivals like Hellfest and others started showing this kind of bands, and people loved it. It's just nice to see people with a Slayer back patch, and next to it a small My Sleeping Karma button or sticker.
Maybe, and this is just my feeling, it’s also that in metal, I mean, how much bloodier, faster, and growlier can you get? So then it helps people when people walk into a show at a festival and Fu Manchu playing with their surfer outfit, vans, normal jeans, and just being “cool” in another way.
JS: Before I let you go, what are the immediate plans of My Sleeping Karma?
Matte: We are blessed to play a few nice festivals like the metal festival Alcatraz… which we are looking forward to, because we are all old metalheads in the band. We grew up with metal bands, so it's always nice for us to hang out on bigger metal festivals checking out the headliners on the main stages.
Afterwards we fly to Portugal to a scene festival called Sonic Blast. We haven't made too many plans in terms of touring because of the health situation in the band, but we were able to confirm a few more concerts and hopefully, when times are getting better for all of us with Corona, the COVID situation, and health wise, hopefully we can have a normal European tour sometime in 2023.
JS: Matte, thank you so much for your time. All the best to you and Steffen, of course. I wish you all the very best.
Matte: Thank you very much for your time and hello to everybody listening or reading this one. Be safe.
Keep your good karma!