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Interviews Mekong Delta

Interview with Ralph "Ralf" Hubert

Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen

Date online: November 16, 2014


German metallers Mekong Delta were founded in 1985 by Ralf Hubert, the owner of now-defunct German label Aaarrg Records. Mekong Delta was originally just a studio project and featured musicians whose names were kept secret. These pseudonyms helped surround the band with mystery. Mekong Delta's debut album saw the light of day in 1987 and employed several, somewhat odd time signatures that put the band's name firmly on the list of worthwhile new German Metal acts.

Six more studio albums were released between 1988 and 1996 underscoring the fact that Mekong Delta was one of the most ambitious and talented German Metal forces of the day. 11 long years passed by before the band's 8th studio album, Lurking Fear, broke the silence in 2007 and started a fruitful new era for these hard-edged German Metallers.

Mekong Delta's 11th studio album, In a Mirror Dark, was released in April 2014 and The Metal Crypt decided to find out more about it by politely asking a few questions about that very album in question plus we inquired about Mekong Delta's past and present. Ralf stepped up and kindly provided some answers.

Luxi: How is it going Ralf?

Ralf: I am fine and am actually working on my vision of animating the songs as 3D-clips (in the future) and I also worked out some orchestral pieces I had. Besides that I did some programming on some special ideas I have.

Luxi: Let's talk about Mekong Delta's 11th studio album titled In a Mirror Darkly, shall we? Firstly, my sincere congratulations for putting together such a strong, intriguing album. I assume you are pleased with the outcome? Could you tell us what the process was to get this album done, from start to finish?

Ralf: I am never satisfied with the result, but this is normal for me after finishing a production. If it ever came to a point where I could say "this is it" I could stop making music. Evolution never stops; just have a look at nature (although regarding that I got my doubts if I look at mankind). Composing is different all the time as you learn - or should learn - with every title you write. See, for me music is not something what starts at point A and stops at B. For me music is an ongoing process that, ideally, starts and never stops and continues to cultivate itself. With this in mind, looking "Inside the Outside of the Inside" for example, you will notice that the song starts somewhere, presents some themes and then starts morphing via changes in harmony, rhythm etc. and eventually finds elements of the original theme at the end in a seemingly different theme, which is actually not the case. The end riffs are based on the original themes.

When starting a new album most of the work is on my side, as I compose the stuff, and this is a process that starts 12-16 month before we finally record an album. First, I sort out the ideas which I think are usable for a new album. As I have tons of ideas written down this takes most of a month. When the ideas are sorted the next thing is to find out where new techniques for the guitar can be used. The selected ideas are passed to Erik and, after he checks out which kind of techniques could be used (or can be invented) on the electrical guitar to realize the riffs, we sit together and discuss whether they match what I was imagining while composing or if I have to go over the theme again. This mostly happens over a year before recording. Then, after the main riffs are clear, Alex gets copies of them so that he can prepare himself for special rhythm patterns. After this, there is a long period where the rest of the group does not hear too much from me. That is the time where I finish the basic songs and it takes 6-8 months. This material is the starting point for a discussion between guitar, bass and drums. The vocals are the last thing to get involved (of course Martin is updated about the production as we go). We take about three months for recording which gives each person the freedom to record when he has time. Fortunately, we have the good fortune to have our own studios in which to record.

Luxi: Mekong Delta have always followed a unique path since the band first came into existence and your latest album, In a Mirror Darkly, does not break this rule. In a Mirror Darkly offers all the elements we've come to expect from Mekong Delta and challenges listeners constantly. What's your secret for coming up with stuff that is this disturbed and brilliant?

Ralf: Maybe the reason can be found in the books of Lovecraft. For me, he is one of the best horror/fantasy authors I had ever read, way above the more popular E.A. Poe. Lovecraft was a genius at describing horrible things, never painting a direct picture, but letting your imagination see more horrible pictures than one could describe. It is hard to explain what I mean but that is how it is for me. When it comes to the point where his work influences my way of composing, I have to mention that he often uses a psychological device called "cognitive dissonance" which roughly means that whatever the reader expects doesn't happen and this often makes the story even more horrifying. To transfer that to music I use an element I call "do the unexpected," especially with harmony and melody signatures.

Luxi: Did you face any obstacles or setbacks during the making of In a Mirror Darkly or was it, if not easy, a pretty smooth process?

Ralf: No, no obstacles. If I feel ready to compose a new album and have the major themes, it flows by itself.

Luxi: You have stated that the concepts on In a Mirror Darkly are sort of a continuation of the themes on Mekong Delta's previous full-length record, Wanderer on the Edge of Time, but they are not quite the same. Could you enlighten us about the exact concepts on In a Mirror Darkly?

Ralf: The whole lyrical concept is quite hard to explain; especially in a foreign language (it would be difficult enough in German). Let's try it this way; "A Mirror Darkly" is the exact opposite of what you would normally do. For example, if you never hurt anyone because that is your way of living, your reflection in a mirror darkly would be that you start beating people up. Or if you live in a democracy, the dark mirror could be fascism. In A Mirror Darkly points to the negative aspects of that what you think is positive. The lyrics pick this up in that way that our protagonist (call him wanderer, violinist or whatever you like) is confronted with several subjects that exemplify this. Do not forget that he still is trying to find out what had happened to the world he is exploring since "Principle of Doubt/Shades of Doom."

Luxi: The press worldwide has always loved Mekong Delta and what you guys have been able to create on all eleven of you albums thus far. How difficult is it to keep this band at such a high level because it seems that everything you touch turns to gold? How do you always find that little creative spark that enables you to amaze people, time and time again?

Ralf: Searching for the ultimate composition. Or to say it in other words; I always try to "boldly go where no man has gone before..." ;)

Luxi: There was a time when people didn't get a new release from Mekong Delta for 11 long years. I am, of course, talking about this huge gap in between Pictures at an Exhibition (released in 1996) and Lurking Fear (released in 2007). Can you tell us what was happening during those years while Mekong Delta was sleeping in its icy tomb?

Ralf: I simply had to take a break to see where I stood. Furthermore, I was also kind of burned out after Pictures... Keep in mind that the preparation of this album took two years. It was like I had to do something different to clear my mind. So I did some other things that I liked; programming hard and software, reading a lot and so on. After two years I got back to composing, but it happens that I liked what I composing for group/orchestra (over the years I composed the cycle "Five Fragments for Group and Orchestra" from which you can hear two songs on the album Lurking Fear; "Allegro Furioso" and "Moderato") but was not satisfied with what came out of that for group/vocals. All this time I had a feeling that I was searching for something that was hidden behind a fog in my mind. It was at the end of 2005 when I found what I was looking for, a combination of all I had done so far. It was a blending of all the different things that had been done before. Suddenly, it was crystal clear what I had been searching for and from that moment on I was able to start with new stuff.

Luxi: As many of us are aware you are the only original member left from the first Mekong Delta album. Have you ever thought of reuniting with some of the original members of Mekong Delta, maybe to play one of your earlier albums at a special gig, just for fun? Or do you see no point in doing that at all?

Ralf: No, never, why? For nostalgic reason? See, I have my own theory concerning line-ups. I feel that a new Mekong Delta album looks for the musicians itself. It was that way all the time; I accidentally met musicians that had the right skills and were able to understand how the compositions should be played. The current is more than perfect and is able to play the old stuff even better and, most importantly, we have a real great chemistry together.

Luxi: Have you kept in touch with any ex-members of Mekong Delta, for one reason or another?

Ralf: No, not really. I am loosely in contact with Uli Kusch (drums) who is the last one I met personally, around 2012. We played in Norway where we spent some hours before the show together having some beers. Regarding the other ones, I do not know where there are or what they are doing at the moment.

Luxi: How much do you miss the old times of Mekong Delta and especially the late 80's era when Mekong Delta started making a name for themselves and getting recognized around the world? What's the best memory from those past days for you personally?

Ralf: To tell the truth, I do not miss that time for a second. A part of my personality is that I do not mourn the past, I prefer to look into the future and what I wish to achieve there. That might be based on the fact that I always make decisions with the best of my knowledge at that time or, as some Indians say, "you have make your decision facing your dead." So I do not regret anything, which implies that I do not miss anything.

Luxi: The members of Mekong Delta used pseudonyms up until 1990. Why did you do something like that, hiding your real names? Playing "hide-and-seek" with people who didn't have a clue who you were or what your real names were was undoubtedly lots of fun, I guess... ;o)

Ralf: Yeah, that was fun. I remember some real funny situations where, as producer, I had to give interviews about working with Mekong Delta and was supposed to talk about the bandleader Björn Eklund (my pseudonym in Mekong Delta at that time). There where more serious reasons behind using pseudonyms. The first reason was that all the band members were under contracts with other companies and if some guy from their record label heard the music of Mekong Delta, he would probably have said "hey, you are not allowed to play there, otherwise we must release the record." That was a common practice at that time. The other point is that I firmly believed at that time that nobody thought a German band could do things like that. So we decided to use fake names and solve the problems that way.

Luxi: If you think of all of Mekong Delta's studio albums which one was the hardest to make?

Ralf: Actually there where two albums which where quite hard to realize, both for different reasons. The first one was The Principle of Doubt because I was not sure where to go on the composing side; there were just too many possibilities.

The second one was Pictures at an Exhibition. I worked for nearly two years on this album. What most people don't know is that there are several orchestral variations of this album by several arrangers. I spent a hell of a long time trying to find the original piano version by Mussorgsky himself. This alone was a bunch of work and then we had to put all the arrangements on paper and it ended up being 200 pages. In the studio it turned out to be very difficult to get it like I wanted, so we experimented a lot with synthesizers and multimedia equipment. There was a point where I said "stop...let's do something else, forget it!" But my friends kept me at it and said, "if you started it, you have to finish it." I was really burned out when the album was completed.

Luxi: In April 2007, you released the first ever Mekong Delta DVD, called Live in Frankfurt 1991. What made you choose Frankfurt as the location of this concert? Was the live footage just of a better quality for this show? It must have made quite a few fans in distant countries like Taiwan or Vietnam or Indonesia happy because they never had an opportunity to see Mekong Delta play live.

Ralf: No, I was simply asked by the fans if I had some video stuff from Mekong Delta, which was better in quality than what could be found on the web. Fortunately, I had some videotapes of key concerts we made (no handy cam at that time) and I got the equipment to push the quality of those old tapes and to prepare it for DVD. After some months of work I was satisfied with the result and the DVD was offered to the fans directly (by the way, you can order all Mekong stuff directly through mekongmerch@zedmedia.de). It was never planned as an official release, this was done by distributors who asked me if they could sell this DVD.

Luxi: Do you have any special plans for 2015? Perhaps a tour, a series of shows at summer metal festivals or maybe a massive Mekong Delta boxed set featuring all 11 studio albums, a special DVD containing of clips from the band's entire history with photo galleries, old interviews, etc.?

Ralf: We are just trying to manage some shows in the second half of 2015. From the composing side I have re-arranged two pieces which I liked very much over the years and played on classical guitar only, "Sevilla" and "Asturias," both from the fantastic Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz and originally composed for piano. This idea came up as I worked on Wanderer... and at first it was planned as the classical add-on Mekong had on most of the albums. As Wanderer... grew, I noticed that both pieces would not fit into the general musical concept of the album, so I put the first drafts on hold but kept them in mind. Besides normal composing, I am also working on an instrumental album which will include the "Suite..." from Vision..., re–arranged and with the orchestra done with all the possibilities of today's technology, which is way beyond the things you could do in the 90's. It's already done from the orchestral side. This album will include "5 Fragments for Group and Orchestra," two pieces you already know from Lurking Fear, "Allegro Furioso" and "Moderato," and the final arrangement of "Sevilla" and "Asturias." The guitars have already been checked out by Erik and the bass is ready to be taped. It is planned to be released in 2015. Beside that I am still working on Into the Heart of Darkness. Yeah, a lot of things are planned...

Luxi: Why do you think Mekong Delta never made it big in the same way countrymen like Kreator, Sodom, Tankard, Destruction and a few others did? Do you believe it had to do with your hard-hitting approach, as you really wanted to sound different from the rest of the pack?

Ralf: That is an interesting question. But where is the point where you can say "you made it?" If I take a look at my sales database, which includes all sales from the first release on, you can see some really interesting things. For example, The Music of Erich Zann or Dances of Death (and Other Walking Shadows) came up to 80.000 and are still selling. Maybe an answer I gaven to a critic in the early 90's is now coming true; "most of the people will understand and like the music of Mekong 2010 or 2020." And another interesting thing is that the pole position is changing all the time. It seems that if one starts listening to Mekong Delta stuff, that person buys all the albums piece by piece. At least we have a spectrum between 20.000 and 80.000, where the older ones are in front as they have been out for such a long time.

Luxi: People often label Mekong Delta as a progressive Thrash Metal act. Do you think that description still fits Mekong Delta, even in the second half of 2014? Or are you against any kind of labeling because it limits musicians' creativity?

Ralf: It is exactly like you said; I am against any kind of labeling because it does limit musicians' ability to be creative and to find something new while exploring new waters in their own bands.

Luxi: Well, Ralf, it was my pleasure to interview you for The Metal Crypt. I want to wish you all the best with your efforts to make Mekong Delta's name one of the most important in the history of the Teutonic Metal scene. The last words are all yours...

Ralf: I would like to thank all our fans who have supported us so much over the years.

Other information about Mekong Delta on this site
Review: Lurking Fear
Review: Wanderer On the Edge Of Time
Review: Wanderer On the Edge Of Time




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