Thursday, October 25, 2012

interview - Woven Skull

Based in Leitrim for some time now, Woven Skull are one act that won't have to travel far for this weekend's Hunters Moon festival in Carrick-on-Shannon. Consisting of a core trio (but collaborative and open-ended), they deal in dark, mantric, acoustic-based jams and hypnotic ambient drones. Utilising field recordings (such as frogs mating in a pond), unorthodox instruments and above all a sense of spontaneity, the sound they create is at times wild and elemental, at other times quietly evocative and hypnotic; but always rich with possibility.

2012 has seen them release the excellent Moods Of The Hill People cassette on the Fort Evil Fruit label,  while further releases are available on their Bandcamp : Tenunan Tengkorak - which makes prominent use of Balinese Gamelan - and One Of Three, the first of a three-album set; each of which will feature tracks recorded, chosen and mixed by one of the three members. One Of Three is Natalia Beylis’ turn, and it’s her interviewed here ahead of the band’s appearance at the Hunters Moon festival.

First off, could you tell us a little about who the core members of the band are and how you came to meet/form the band? How long have you been based in Leitrim?

There are three of us that form the core of Woven Skull.  In our live set, that is made up of guitar (Aonghus), floor tom (Willie) and mandola (me), with other musical and not so musical objects banged around.  Willie and I met half a lifetime ago playing seven inches on a jukebox in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Aonghus I've known for long enough that I can't remember how or where from anymore.  We were all friends first and then the band came after. I wanted to start a band that was in my mind like a repetitive, droney, dark medieval rock band.  I had this idea where I'd play the same riff for as long as possible and get other people to create sounds around that.  It started there anyway.  Willie and I moved to Leitrim about six years ago, and that's mostly where Woven Skull has had its music base for the three or so years of its existence.

Is there an overarching theme or aesthetic with your records or a common thread that ties them together?

Our aesthetic has no planning and no plan.  We just get together and record and see what happens.  The aesthetic that comes out in the music and recordings is just how the three of us mix together in whatever space we’re inhabiting at the time.  We do have a collection of unusual junk in our music room which might sometimes influence us unbeknownst to ourselves; like cheap-o Halloween and Mardi Gras masks, pictures cut out of old National Geographics, abandoned art projects and discarded kids toys.

Field recordings are a prominent element of your sound. Do you find your surroundings have inspired your music/sound significantly? Would you say that the recordings are uniquely of- their-place?

We spend a lot of time in the music room in our house and since our house is set in the middle of woods it means there's no isolation from nature.  We might be in the middle of a track and then next thing I know one of the goats has escaped out of her field and has gotten into the house, and is in the living room munching away on some papers.  Or I'll listen back to something we've recorded and in the background you can hear the cats having a scrap outside the window.  Sometimes I'll go a few days and realize that aside from Willie's voice, the only other live sounds I've heard are the cows in the next field kicking off with something akin to an Albert Ayler horn section, or the drone of the cats purring as they sleep on top of my head, or the buzz of the wasps in the nest in the driveway.  

The nature sounds and field recordings weren't a planned or intentional part of the band but they fit well for the moment.  I just like the idea of whoever is listening to the music and sounds to be able to hear as much of the place in which they were created as possible.  I'd love to travel around and record music in places as I go along.  If I could do that then I'd able to look back and know for sure whether our current recordings are uniquely of their current place or if there's something else that connects them to us.

How do you generally approach recording? Improvisation and background ambience are obviously important. Is their much editing involved?

This is forever different.  We’ve recorded in the woods and in churches, by rivers and in abandoned houses.  Some of the recordings have been pre-pIanned and written specifically with a release in mind.  That’s the way Moods of the Hill People was done.  This meant a minimal amount of time editing (which is the most boring part of it for me).  Some of our recordings are improvised and then edited and mixed with other sounds I’ve recorded at different times.  This is what I did with One Of Three; I mixed music we’d recorded with nature sounds and other sounds I added to it along the way.  

Most often someone will have an idea and then we’ll start playing with the basic structure of the idea in mind and see where it takes us.  We’ll often end up recording for several hours straight without ever coming back to the same idea.  I just record everything we do and then try and get back through it all eventually.   I really like playing with Woven Skull and want to keep doing it for a long time.  Always mixing things up keeps the music we’re making interesting to play.

There’s a healthy number of experimental musicians based in Ireland who emphasise imperfection, a sense of place and physicality, unique, outside-the-box venues for gigs and performances; in many ways it’s a notable contrast to ‘clean’ digital music, or to the traditional gig circuit. Do you think that there’s a good community here in terms of musicians or acts along those lines? Do you collaborate with other musicians, or draw inspiration or influence from any?

I'm not originally from here and one of the things I like most of all in Ireland is the weirdness of the people I spend my time around.  So much of the art, writing and music is infused with a surreal darkness twisted with humor.  I love it.  In terms of experimental musicians in the country, it seems to me that in Ireland, like in the States (and other places for all I know), there are different groups of experimental people.  There are those that get recognized by grant-giving bodies and given well-paid gigs in museums and Arts Centres and then there's the others who congregate illegally in underground car parks and under canal bridges.   I like canal bridges.

Woven Skull collaborates with everyone.  If we're having band practice and you happen to call by, you'll find yourself playing a bowl of chimes into a microphone before you've even had time to pop open a beer.  We want everyone in our musical family, whether they’ve ever played music before or it’s their first time.  Lately we take Dave Colohan with us on all our outings.  Woven Skull and Raising Holy Sparks meld really well.   We’ve been really lucky to get some awesome people playing live with us over the years.

With Woven Skull there’s a compelling mixture of traditional influences and more experimental tendencies. What would be your own background musically? Any particular influences that led you to your current path?

My family is Ukrainian which means my earliest music influences are the 60s Russian synth-pop of my parents’ youth and Soviet children's folk songs that my parents sang with off-key nostalgia.  I don't know if there's any of that in Woven Skull but since moving to Ireland I have gotten into playing and listening to a lot of trad, and in terms of rhythms, structures and harmonies, that's in there for sure.  Aonghus used to hang out in my kitchen when he was 17 or so and sometimes I'd come home to him making a shit ton of noise with pedals by the sink, so I guess he's always had those tendencies.

More than by music, it seems a lot of our influences are the sounds around us mixed with bargains to be had at charity shops and car boot sales.  The majority of Willie's non-floor-tom set up has all been found and bought at the local junk market affectionately referred to by locals as “The Apocalypto Market” because it’s like a market you’d come across in that book The Road : broken junk that can’t seem to have much purpose.   For me, I like the things that cross my path.   My neighbor - who is a blacksmith - brought me over a sheet of metal recently and that's my main inspiration at the moment.

What’s next on the agenda, is there a new record on the way?

We made a video recently which was really fun so I think we’ll probably make a few more of those before the year is out.  The second two albums in the ‘One of Three’ set are almost done and we’ve got a tape coming out in the UK soon which is quite exciting!  Also, we were really lucky to get to spend a few days with Jorge from Core of the Coalman and get a lot of stuff recorded with him which will eventually get waded through.  We’ve also all got other musical projects on the go all the time so it means that we don’t always have all the time in the world for Woven Skull.

Woven Skull play Hunters Moon festival in Carrick-on-Shannon (Oct26-28)