Hands up those of you who can name a Metal band from Tunisia….no, I didn’t think I’d be seeing many hands anyway. Carthagods have been together for almost 17 years and now more than ever the band seems determined to put their country on the global Metal map. Assisting their ambitions is a brand new (debut) album not to mention a sense of resilience gained from years spent fighting the odds while honing their craft.
In an effort to find out more, I sent a few questions to guitarist/founding member Tarak Ben Sassi and lead vocalist Mehdi Khema. Here’s what they had to say…..
How did Carthagods get together and what are your memories of your first gig with the band?
Tarak: There were not many metalheads in Tunisia at that time, so those who could play/listen to Metal music were rare. We were a tiny community and we knew each other.
First gig was in 1996. I was just 15 years old and It was really funny cuz we were the only metal band and it was in a public place so I guess people didn’t really appreciate our music and started screaming and asking us to leave…but in the same year we were part of another show and that was the first time we saw 500 metalheads gathered in the same place.
How did you personally discover Metal? What made you want to form a band?
Tarak: I discovered metal in the early 90s when my cousin used to bring me CD’s from the U.S.! The album that made me decide to form a band is the compilation “NATIVITY IN BLACK I” - it was a tribute to Black Sabbath featuring bands as Megadeth , Sepultura , Bruce Dickinson…. At that time I never thought that one day I will play with one of these artists.
Mehdi: It was in the late 90s when I was watching a TV show on a German channel and I saw a live performance of R.A.T.M…and since that day I fell in love with distortion.
Carthagods is preparing its first album....you have been quoted as saying it is ‘a sort of compilation’. Could you explain this? Could you please describe the album’s music?
Tarak: We wrote a lot of music since 2003 but we couldn’t keep ’em all. So me and Mehdi decided to choose the best 2 tracks from the demos of 2005 and 2008 and make a sort of compilation (of course we had to rearrange some of them with the actual line up) and added the new ones to give our fans an idea about our new sound.
Does the album have a title and is there a release date?
Mehdi: Actually we think that it’s the secret of success…it’s a compilation…and since we’re talking about several subjects we preferred to name it CARTHAGODS to make things easier…but we promise that the next album won’t be named CARTHAGODS II.
Tarak: We don’t really have a release date for the moment, but it will be out within the next couple of months.
This is band’s first and only album in the band’s 17 years of existence - how do you feel about finally seeing it released?
Tarak: Oh you can guess that it’s a big moment for us to finally give our fans satisfaction and be able to share our sound with the world after long years of waiting!!
What do the lyrical themes deal with?
Mehdi: As we said the album deals with several themes, especially since it was written in different moods over a long period of time…you’ll find manipulation, slavery, love, hate, death…so we’re not dealing with one special theme…not on this album at least.
The album’s songs weren’t recorded in a single recording session, is that right?
Mehdi: Yes unfortunately we had to manage this a number of times due to various technical problems…for example our producer (Marcel COENEN) is based in Holland and we had to invite him twice to Tunisia for the recording sessions since he didn’t find good conditions for that and of course we had to do some things by ourselves in between…but it’s all good now!
A number of guest musicians contributed to the album. Could you tell me how these collaborations happened?
Tarak: It all began in 2006, when we supported EPICA at their first international metal show in Tunisia. So inviting Mark Jansen (Epica guitarist) on this record was important for us since we shared a big moment in the history of both bands.
Then we got in contact with Marcel COENEN inviting him to guest on our first demo. He liked the music and was really pleased to be part of our project…and today he’s both a performer and a producer in the band.
Regarding Tim RIPPER Owens [vocals - Judas Priest, Yngwie Malmsteen, Beyond Fear] and Ron ‘BumbleFoot’ Thal [guitars - Bumblefoot, Guns ‘N Roses], they were both invited in 2013 to Tunisia as guest stars in our shows and we had a lot fun on stage…so they were excited to help us and appear on the record.
For Zuberoa Aznarez [Diabolus In Musica, Dragonlord] it was totally different - we were looking for a female voice and we were amazed by hers so we asked her to join the project and she liked the song ‘Memories of never ending pains’ very much.
Hans IN T Zandt [drums - Praying Mantis, Mad Max] also was invited to Tunisia to perform with Timo SOMERS and Barend COURBOIS and Mehdi for a Metal Jam night in ‘LE PLUG Rock Bar’ and we kept in touch.
With all these guests and having recorded the album in disparate moments in time, did you encounter any technical difficulties in achieving a balanced sound?
Mehdi: I think that there were a lot difficulties indeed, but Marcel COENEN did a good job and managed everything with us and was always there to assimilate our ideas with his.
Before Cathagods, the only Tunisian Metal band I knew was Myrath. Besides, it seems all active Metal bands are based in the North Eastern Mediterranean coast of the country. Is the Metal scene of Tunisia more widespread?
Mehdi: Unfortunately the metal scene in Tunisia, as any other domain, is active essentially in the eastern north of the country and it’s due to the strategy of the ‘old governments’…but that does not mean that there are no other metal bands in Tunisia…and that’s why we were busy all these years, among others things, in building a local Metal scene and the reason why we had to promote our own shows every time…
Tarak: It's a shame that the Tunisian bands couldn’t make themselves known. We have many great bands, I can mention for example the prog metallers LOST INSEN , Barzakh and many more ..
Is censorship of the arts still a problem in Tunisia?
Tarak: Actually since the ‘revolution’ there’s no official censorship in general but still we gotta deal with society like anywhere in the democratic world.
In Europe and the Western world, the rise of Metal has often been linked to a rebellion against the rigour of Christian ideals (e.g. Black Metal and a lot of the imagery and allusions in Metal). Would you say Carthagods share a similar approach against Islam?
Mehdi: No, we don’t really share this approach against Islam, cuz we think that everybody has the choice of belief, but we are against all forms of fascism wherever it is political or religious…and in the time when we started it was political.
I’m interested in your own experiences of living through the ‘Arab Spring’ and what effect it had on Cathagods and on the Tunisian Metal scene in general.
Tarak: I won’t call it that - it’s more an uprising against a dictatorship and I think that it was a unique moment in the history of Tunisia even if we had to put our [Carthagods’] activities on hold for a couple of years.
What do you remember about performing outside Tunisia for the first time?
Mehdi: Oh! Actually we couldn’t make it because of a variety of reasons. For Dubai [Dubai Metal Fest, in Saudi Arabia] there were some promotion problems. Global East Festival: we had some flights issues due to the political situation. Norway: we couldn’t get a visa to go to Europe on time, since it takes about 40 days.
Now we’re working on a show in Turkey for next May (no visa problems this time!)
Judging from the scarcity of information I was able to find when researching this interview, it seems that Tunisian Metal fans haven’t yet fully embraced the internet as a powerful communications tool. What are your comments on this?
Tarak: You know the country was in bad situation before the uprising - a lot of websites were censured and internet was controlled by the government…hence the reason why people were not active on internet in general but since the uprising they are using internet majorly for political stuff and culture (Metal Music especially) is not one of the priorities of society.
I’d like to ask a few more questions about the new album....why did you choose a ballad for the first Carthagods video?
Mehdi: ‘Memories of never ending pains’ is one the most loved songs that we wrote and the video was made on 2008 so it was just a request from our fans :) !
The album’s artwork looks quite good.....why did you opt for Niklas Sundin to create it?
[Besides playing guitar with Dark Tranquillity and Laethora, Niklas Sundin has done cover artwork for releases by In Flames, Eternal Tears of Sorrow, Arch Enemy, Nightrage, Sentenced, Fragments of Unbecoming and others.]
Tarak: We really love the work of Niklas Sundin, and when we met him on 2013 in Tunsia for a show we talked about it and he was happy to create some artworks for us.
What do Cathagods have planned once the album is released?
Mehdi: We already started writing the second album, and we’re planning some live shows to spread our music to the world, we’re also preparing some videos for the fans and a release party in the end of the next summer.
Thank you for your time in answering these questions. Best wishes for the album!