Fernando Ribeiro is the singer of Portuguese metal band Moonspell, a band known for its catchy riffs and melodies, as well as its interesting lyrics that often delve into history, the Occult, and the darker side of life.
In December 2019 the band visited Finland once again for a sold-out tour, and I had a chance to interview Mr. Ribeiro. The topics included history, the inspirations behind his lyrics, and the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, the devastating disaster that gave Moonspell’s concept album 1755 its idea.
Your latest album is a concept album dealing with the 1755 tragedy in Lisbon. Why this topic?
For me it was pretty obvious this choice. The great disaster of 1755 contains the true story of the darkness that obliterated our capitol on the All Saints Day 1755, yet another symbolic trump of this event; of the hope that allowed people and leaders, at least some of them, to rebuild the city but also to rethink the country into a more modern shape where the Crown and the Cross had less of a negative impact on the folk’s life and finally because it’s one of the most intriguing and bloody pages of the 800 + years of Portuguese History, one of the most eventful of all nations in the world.
The tragedy had a big impact on philosophers and their thinking at the time, and probably made a lot of other people question the existence of God too. Even Voltaire himself used it as an example in his writings. How did studying the 1755 event and writing about it affect your own ideas about religion and atheism?
A lot of the Illuminism theories and exploitations were very affected by Lisbon’s Earthquake. One of the “hottest” subjects at the time was the theodicy or the rational investigation of a certain God’s will. The figure of a God who provides and protects, thus the common expression of God as Providence, which was very popular between scholars and religious people. People were not educated enough to question God’s wisdom and the motto “whatever is, is right” was adopted massively.
Nevertheless the works of Voltaire, Espinoza and Kant, to mention a few, were already concerned in discussing further the existence or not of a divine plan for humanity. When the disaster struck Lisbon, the conversation changed and people had no option but to be, let’s say, more secular. After all, the new houses, a lot of them at least, were built using the consecrated but fallen walls of churches and convents and just the fact people were practical about it, or not burying all the dead according to Catholic rule, was very evident of a game change.
I used at large Voltaire’s poem about the great disaster of Lisbon but also researched other fonts like Kant (one of the seismology precursors) or the nuncios reports about what happened in Lisbon that were sent to the Vatican. Some say it was the beginning of modern atheism but I don’t know abut that. The Age of Light didn’t include a blind faith in God but Philosophers weren’t stupid as well to come up with such an argument of God sent punishment to Lisbon. They were more pulling towards a natural explanation of the facts while taking the chance to theorize about God on a second plan.
How widely known is the event in your native land of Portugal? Is it still discussed and studied widely?
In High School, it’s obligatory to learn about 1755 and its great figure Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the minister and Marquis of Pombal who led Lisbon’s reconstruction. Having said that and besides the fact it’s subject of matter in school and later, in my case, in the academic program of Philosophy, I must say 1755 is not on the cultural radar of people. Besides the odd song, theatrical reference or textbook, there is nothing as substantial about it as our album that is entirely devoted to the disaster and its consequences. Portuguese people couldn’t care less about their own History and culture and everything after the Discoveries is profoundly unknown in Portugal. Curiously enough there will be an earthquake museum opening in 2020 and there was, with the tourist rise, some places which brought it back to Lisbon background story, But it’s marginal for a reason: tourists don’t want to visit a city which falls between heavily dangerous rifts and tectonic agitation. It doesn’t sell as much as Fado or the Sun.
Before 1755, you released the album Extinct. What are your thoughts on the climate crisis and mankind’s response to it? Will our species survive?
I used to be way more alarmist before and was probably a bit ahead on the fact that human factor and carelessness was helping to unbalance our ecosystem and draining our resources. Night Eternal (2008) was already about it, more than ten years ago.
Unfortunately like anything else climate change became a problem of the white and rich only. Everything virtuous on that discussion fell between the fake apocalypse of Al Gore documentaries and newfound climate heroin Great Thunberg. Awareness might be great but stupid awareness will always be stupid to start with. So, I did my research and ended up finding the great work of Bjorn Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus, a think-tank composed by statisticians and scientists which was really an eye opener in what comes to a more rational and believable analysis of climate crisis by the scope of cost-benefit and real issues which are not really what’s debated these days. It’s not the waters that are rising, it was men who built in the sandy dunes as you can see, for example, in Portugal.
Extinct was much more a symbol of annihilation of our own intelligence in favor of commodity and all those animals extinct are nothing more for people than images on a screen. Our daily behavior and attitude contrast hopelessly with our demands for a better world and if we don’t survive it’s maybe for the best but who will tell the story then? For me it all came to the point of absurd with politicians who approved hurtful environment laws posing for magazines with water on their toes or students striking, not going to classes, neglecting the only weapon we have against anything: education.
My Moonspell fandom began in the 1990s with the album Irreligious (1996). What are your memories of writing that album like? What kinds of things were happening in your life when you were creating the lyrics?
I had a very fine time in 1995, 1996 trying to grow up a bit as a lyric writer reading great books like Suskind’s Perfume but also stuff like Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet. I guess my spleen and boredom with the satanic world and the copy paste of Eliphas Levi and second hand vampire stories was starting to show.
Nothing was really happening with my personal life other than being absolutely broke, trying to get out of my parents’s home, studying and working and being ripped off by Germans.
The song “Awake” (one of my favorites) uses a sample of Aleister Crowley reading aloud his poem “The Poet”. How does the sample (and the poem) tie into the lyrics of the song?
Awake is probably a cross between my philosophical naivety of a world that needs awakening and my ties to classical horror literature, especially Edgar Allan Poe, who rose the dead and played destiny with them. It has a hopeful connotation of warning that all is dying even, the dead, and a poetic undertow punctuated by the Crowley speech originally recorded on wax cylinders. At the time it was also more of a sound effect, a vintage voice over acoustic to help with the mood of the song.
I have also changed my “admiration” about Crowley, an author who is quite poor compared with the Philosophers, but a great actor and performer more than the true magician I believed he was when I was 22 years old. Also Crowley took a beating from many occult bands and he would revolve in his astral grave could he witness the result of his indiscriminate use by black metal bands.
Having said that I love his poetry and I am translating most of them into Portuguese so I can publish his public domain verses on my book label one of these days.
Have your lyrical themes changed a lot over the years? Do you write about different kinds of things now than in, say, the 1990s or 00s?
I surely hope so. Many times I resourced to “old school” themes and metaphors but my writing, I guess, has a disillusioned, apocalyptic and broken soul and heart about it which still represents me in a way. I was not impervious to the passage of time and I love words and literature too much to be stuck in a corner writing about the same subjects.
Lyrics for me are a map to my readings, feelings and shortcomings and I do not walk at all on a straight line and I couldn’t care less about being congruent. I don’t adorn our songs with onomatopoeia but hopefully with meaning. Next album will be very personal for me.
What kinds of things inspire your creative work?
Books and life. I don’t know any other sources of inspiration to be completely honest. I don’t even know if my work is creative or just a hurtful expression of frustration and ill-disposition like a beautiful fart or a crazy ode.
What’s next for Moonspell? New album on the way?
Same old fight and yes a new album either for 2020 or 2021. We’ll see.
And finally, my standards questions for all my guests:
Fernando Ribeiro’s top 3 films?
THE ELEPHANT MAN – DAVID LYNCH
FAUST – F.W. MURNAU
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST – MARTIN SCORSESE
Top 3 books?
ZORBA, THE GREEK – NIKOS KAZANTSAKIS
THE KINDLY ONES – JONATHAN LITTELL
AMERICAN PASTORAL – PHLIP ROTH