Interview: Mark Healy of Hibernal

Hibernal’s Mark Healy is a creative force in the progressive rock community. He released his newest album “After the Winter” in April 2015, along with a companion series that further delves into the universe he has created in his album. I had the chance to sit down with Mark and talk about his project’s origins, his influences, personal life, and future plans.

How did Hibernal begin?

Hibernal first began in 2012 when I’d come to an impasse on some other creative projects I was working on. I’d been writing songs for several years and had amassed about 50 tracks during that time, and I decided that it would be fun to put them together into some sort of album that I could publish online. I’d also written lyrics for many of the songs, but the problem was that I wasn’t a singer, and my attempts to form a band hadn’t worked, so I kinda hit the wall and didn’t know where to go from there.

I briefly tossed up leaving the songs as instrumentals, but I really wanted to create something engaging, something to draw the listener in. Instrumentals are generally more of a passive experience for me – great as background music, but not necessarily something that grabs my full attention.

I began to mess around adding samples from movies to the instrumentals, and the effect was immediate. It was really exciting to hear the songs when they were given context. I realised there might be copyright issues with using the samples in the songs and that I might run into trouble if I wanted to publish them online, so I ended up discarding that idea as well.

At that point I remembered a short story sitting I had around that I’d written ten years before called ‘Welcome to the Machine’. The story had been accepted by a publisher at the time, but after many months of hard work and editing the deal fell through at the last minute, which left me very disillusioned with writing in general. I’d put the story away and decided that I would never try having it published again.

Over the next few weeks I pared the story down to about 2000 words, selected a bunch of songs I’d written that fit the mood of various parts of the story, and before I knew it I had this weird concept album thing happening which eventually became Hibernal.

How do you find the vocal talent for your albums?

All of my voice actors are sourced online from various sites like voice123.com. I tend to go through and listen to demos on the actors’ profiles and make a shortlist of people I want to audition, then contact each of them and have them read a section of the script. It’s all done online. I’ve never met or spoken to any of the actors who have worked on the albums.

Having never been to Australia, what is the music scene like there? I notice a lot of great progressive rock/metal bands come from there, including your own.

Thanks! The scene here seems to be getting better every year. There’s a lot of local bands emerging who are writing some really great music, and I think many of them are now starting to find an audience, especially outside of Australia. The live scene leaves a bit to be desired in my experience. I’ve gone out to see some really talented bands lately and the turnout is generally underwhelming, especially where prog is concerned. Hopefully it will improve in the near future.

Have you ever played a live concert? If not, do you see yourself performing live in the future, perhaps in more of a play-like setting? I imagine it might be difficult to recreate your sound live.

I’ve never done anything live with Hibernal, although I’ve discussed the possibility with a few local musicians from time to time. As you say, it wouldn’t be easy to transition the albums to a typical live rock gig. I’ve tossed up hiring live voice actors or using samples, creating visuals, etc but there would be a huge amount of work to bring it together. I’d also need to put a band together from scratch, which would be a lot of work in itself. Then, as per my comments on the live scene above, I doubt there would be much of a turnout to see the final product. I imagine after all those months of work we’d probably be playing to about 20 people.

The play-like setting you mentioned is where I really see it working. I could envision a 2 hour production where one album is performed with an expanded script to give the narrative more scope and depth, have a live band playing the music and do a run of shows every night for two to four weeks at a playhouse. I think that would be something really interesting – something that’s not quite a play or a rock show, but something in between.

The universe you created in your discography is much more advanced than Earth is today. What scientific influences helped you in creating this vision of Earth? Are we even on Earth in your albums?

The albums are set on Earth, but not necessarily one that I see in our own future. It’s more of a sandbox to play around with some interesting themes. The world of Replacements is probably the most advanced, one where the synthetics have become almost indistinguishable from humans. I thought that was a really interesting way to look at the boundaries of what makes us human – what are the things about us as people that we could never replicate, no matter how far our technology advanced? In that regard the many AI and robotics advancements that are being made today probably inspired much of that story.

Knowing that you have written the concept behind your albums, what has influenced the story of “After the Winter”? I imagine besides music there are movies and soundtracks that must have impacted you.

After the Winter was actually inspired by one of the first songs I ever wrote, called ‘The Silent Earth’. In creating that song I imagined a world that was totally devoid of life, a very old Earth upon which life was no longer sustainable. There was something very sad and yet beautiful about that imagery. Unfortunately, that scenario doesn’t lend itself well to a narrative, since there’s no characters, so I dialled back the timeline to the point where there were no surviving organic life forms, just machines who had been left behind.

Musically I did take some inspiration from Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “East Hastings”, which features on the movie ‘28 Days Later’ where the protagonist is wandering around the deserted city of London. That song really captures the feeling of ‘the last man left alive’ which I wanted to recreate on AtW.

Is the songwriting process a collaborative effort, or do you primarily write all the instrumentation and lyrics?

I do write the songs and lyrics myself, but my collaborator Rowan Salt often comes in further along the process to offer some ideas and suggestions. For example, he was the one who coined the term ‘White Summer’ in reference to the holocaust that precedes the album, and he also made a lot of great suggestions in regard to the overall tone and feel of the music.

Hibernal After the Winter
Photo by Hibernal (Bandcamp)

Let’s get to know the man behind the band.

Who or what inspired you to play music? Is your family musical as well?

In terms of playing an instrument, I came very late to the party. I was in my mid-twenties when I first picked up a guitar. My only objective at that point was to learn how to play Tool cover songs, so I was very much inspired by Adam Jones.

There’s not a lot of musicians in my family as it turns out, although my wife Nic is quite an accomplished violinist. She’s a much better musician than me and I often hit her up for advice and opinions on various music-related things when I’m creating the albums.

Do you remember the first album you ever bought?

Wow, this is going back a long way! It would have been something on cassette tape. If I had to guess, I think it might have been the Ghostbusters soundtrack. Hey, we all had to start somewhere!

Is there one musician in particular that you would love to collaborate with?

I would say either Steven Wilson, who is not only an incredible songwriter but a great producer as well, and Adam Jones from Tool. Adam has a great flair for visual arts as well as his work on guitar, and I think that would be a great fit considering Hibernal is aimed at evoking mental imagery.

Hibernal has been around for a few years now. What are some of the highs and lows since starting your project?

The first high was that anyone bothered to listen to it! Hibernal really was borne out of an experiment, and I treated the first album as a ‘practice run’ for making a real album. I was flabbergasted and delighted the first time someone told me they thought The Machine was great. A couple of years down the track, I still get a kick out of every sale that comes through and every time someone messages me to tell me they enjoyed what they heard.

There have been plenty of lows. The creation process for each album is a monumental task and it’s easy to become discouraged by the challenges that rear up in front of you on a week to week basis. I rewrote the script for ‘Replacements’ close to fifty times as I tried to find the right balance, for example. It’s very difficult to write a full story in 2500 words whilst at the same time attempting to arrange each segment into a song. I remember almost quitting four or five times during the recording of that album because I couldn’t see how I was going to make it work. I thought I’d become too ambitious and had tried to stretch myself too far, and that the final product was going to be terrible. Somehow I kept going, mainly because I had a vision of something that I thought could be amazing if it became a reality. In that sense it was really only my passion for the project that got me through.

And a couple more before we wrap up.

The album “After the Winter” has a very open-ended conclusion. Are there any future plans of writing more material? Can we expect the next album to pick up where Brant and Arsha left off?

There will not be any more albums following the story of After the Winter, however, you’re absolutely right about the open-ended nature of the story. As it turns out, I have written a trilogy of novels that delve into the themes that are touched upon during the album. The series is called ‘The Silent Earth’. The first novel, ‘After the Winter’, tells the story presented in the album with more characters and much more detail. The second novel, ‘The Seeds of New Earth’, picks up where AtW finishes, detailing Brant and Arsha’s attempts to restore life to the world. I can’t tell you much about book three, ‘The Fires of Yesterday’, without going into spoiler territory. 😉

All three novels are available in paperback and eBook format through Amazon under my author name ‘Mark R. Healy’.

From your own experiences, what advice would you give to aspiring musicians out there?

My advice would be to put your heart into whatever you do. There’s joy and fulfilment to be found in all corners of the musical spectrum, whether it be playing in a cover band or simply sitting in your bedroom writing your own songs, as long as you throw yourself into it and give it everything you’ve got. You won’t get anything out of it by going half way. Also, don’t be afraid to create something that’s odd or different or that doesn’t seem to fit with what everyone else is doing. As long as you love it, there’s a good chance someone else out there will too. I think Hibernal is proof of that.

Thanks Mark for giving up a little of your time to let my readers learn a little about you.

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