Northern Irish pagan metallers Waylander (alongside Darkest Era one of the few bands from that side of the Irish border actively engaged in the genre) release their massive fourth full-lengther, the stunning ‘Kindred Spirits’, on Monday July 16th: so what better time to set down with frontman Ciaran ‘ArdChieftain’ O’Hagan and discuss said release, the band’s past, present and future – and that of the re-emergent Irish metal scene in general? Well, none like the sometime in the relatively recent past, beside a roaring peat fire and while sinking a pint or four of ye olde black stuff…
The new album, ‘Kindred Spirits’, has just dropped: how happy are you with how it’s turned out?
We intended bringing a more aggressive element into this record, as well as being aware that we had to retain enough of our own sound so that everything made sense. We also knew that we needed a bigger and better production, especially in the drum and guitar department. We are pleased that we have achieved all that we had aimed for.
The band has been around for nearly 20 years, but in that time you’ve released just the four albums: why the long timescales between releases?
We have been around for 19 years (this month) and have released two demo tapes and four full length albums. Retaining a steady line-up is key to being consistent in releasing albums at regular intervals, but around the time of ‘The Light the Dark and the Endless Knot’ album in 2001, problems began to arise. Immediately after the release we lost a drummer and the second guitarist – and this trend continued with more regularity than is good for one’s sanity over the following years.
A few times we were close to pulling the plug on everything: at one stage the band consisted of just me and bassist Michael (Proctor). We decided not to give up and went about putting a new line-up together.
The key was getting original drummer Den (Ferran) back in the band around 2006. We slowly and methodically prepared an album’s worth of material, signed with Listenable and got ourselves back in the game.
The new album should have been released a year ago, but problems outside of our control arose, meaning we had to sit tight and be patient. We had intended using a well-known studio in the UK, but when that fell through we decided to record it with Dave (Stone Circles Studios in Wales) again. We took some time off from the recording to take part in the ‘Black Trolls Over Europe’ tour last November and also made a main stage appearance at Hammerfest in Wales in March of this year. We spent the enforced delays refining the new songs and bringing a new guitarist up to speed so we certainly weren’t idle.
In common with many of your contemporaries from the island of Ireland – Primordial, Cruachan and Mael Mordha in particular – as well as a new breed of acts such as Celtachor Corr Mhona, Darkest Era and Brigantia, Irish history and mythology (in its widest context) is at the core of Waylander and your lyrical/musical themes: what are the influences on this album, and particularly on tracks like ‘Echoes Of The Sidhe’ and ‘Twin Fires Of Beltine’?
The Tuatha Dé Danann became the Gods of Ireland, but with the coming of Christianity they became marginalised and even demonized. They became reduced to the status of fairies, yet the belief in them has remained undiminished down through the centuries. The Sidhe are the places where they are meant to dwell, in another dimension, but has been commonly used in reference to this mystical race. ‘Echoes of the Sidhe’ is about the longevity of the belief, and the awe and fear in which the Tuatha Danann are still held.
Twin Fires of Beltine is a celebration of one of the four fire festivals of the pagan calendar, Beltine, which has been replaced by May Day in many places. In Gaelic, the month of May is known as Bealtaine [Beltine being old Irish] and traditionally the first day of may was when the Festival of Beltine was celebrated. It celebrates the first day of summer, the rise of the Sun God and growth in the land. This song is not only based on the tradition but also incorporates a part of the ritual I have been using for many years to mark this important point in the annual turning of the seasons
‘Lamh Dearg’ takes its title from the war cry of the O’Neill clan, and has its roots in the more recent past (i.e. not the traditional story cycles) – and that of Ulster in particular: being from the north, is it important that your material addresses issues a bit closer to home rather than just the wider ‘Celtic’ mythos?
Lamh Dearg originated from a much older legend and was adopted as the symbol of the O’Neill clan. The legend goes that the kingship of Ulster was in dispute, so two rival chieftains agreed to have a swimming/boat race to an island in the middle of Lough Neagh, the winner would be the first man to touch the shore. As the race neared its end, the chieftain who was losing chopped off his hand and hurled it to the shore, thus claiming the victory. The red hand from then on became the symbol for Ulster. In more recent times the Red Hand has become a symbol for both nationalist and unionist, the kind of paradox us in the north have been used to.
It has always been important to deal with subject matter which is local for us. ‘Lamh Dearg’ is quite a political song in many ways and from reading the lyrics you can find out where we stand on the subject (obviously, being a music site, and your interviewer being from Belfast, this is a discussion we’re not really going to get into here, apart from saying we agree with Waylander’s sentiments on the hijacking of the Red Hand…)
In the middle of the album, there’s a beautiful interlude in ‘Grave Of Giants’; can you tell us about that and the significance of the recitation?
It was decided that an atmospheric folk based interlude was required to break up the album a bit. ‘Grave of Giants’ is about an old court tomb which used to be located near to where I live. A quarry was started in the vicinity and as it expanded, the Giant’s Grave was found to be in the way, so it’s days were numbered. Fortunately, some locals contacted Queens University and the Ulster Museum, who, in turn, sent people down to dismantle the Giant’s Grave. It can now be seen in Botanic Gardens in Belfast, outside the Museum (a place your interviewer knows extremely well indeed, although he must admit to not having paid overly much attention to the relic in the past…). Within a short time, the quarry ran into difficulties, people were injured, machinery broke down etc. Finally, they hit an underground spring and the quarry was flooded, thus ending it as a viable business. There are countless stories of misfortune befalling those who mess with ancient sites in Ireland. I would like to think that they are true, and if not, they should be…
Can you briefly talk us through the other tracks I haven’t already mentioned? I’m particularly intrigued by the penultimate track, ‘Erdath’ – it’s about a shaman, if I’m correct?
I found a reference to Erdath while doing some research into how Christianity came to Ireland. Erdath was a druidic belief in the end of days or something almost as catastrophic. In many ways it is similar to the christian notion of Armageddon. To me, it is a warning to respect and revere the natural elements, because, despite the technological advances made by mankind, we are still slaves to Mother Nature.
Part of the druid beliefs was that, by gathering knowledge on everything, they could rebuild a society if they managed to survive Erdath, which is why they were often triads, or groups of three druids who each were to become professors of a certain field or fields of expertise.
‘Of Fear and Fury’ is a continuation of the psychology of battle theme, how survival instinct often overrides all pre-conceived notions of noble cause as the elemental forces of fear and fury battle for control as one dances with death. ‘Quest for Immortality’ is a semi-serious daydream about how to deal with a world population who seem intent on killing the planet we live on. Needless to say, mercy is not an option
‘A Path Well Trodden’ is about the trials and tribulations of following the pagan spiritual path in this modern age and is based more on personal experience than anything else. ‘Kindred Spirits’ calls upon all like-minded individuals, be they practicing pagan or not, to unite and celebrate their ethos and what can be learned from their unique ancient cultures and philosophies. It calls for a coming together of all earth based beliefs, where reverence for the land takes precedence over all egotistical notions of power and wealth.
How important is it to you that the ancient tales that you retell in your songs are not forgotten?
My hope is that all the characters referenced in my lyrics will inspire people to do some research into the subject matter. It is an inspiration to me when I receive emails thanking me for pointing them in the right direction. I’ve even met people who cursed me for turning them into Celtic mythology addicts. It is important to keep these tales alive: they are inspirational and contain many lessons which aren’t immediately apparent.
Do you see the band as carrying on the Gaelic tradition of verbal story-telling, except through the medium of heavy metal?
In a word, yes. Although I rarely simply retell a story, my lyrics are like the index at the beginning of a book pointing people toward the places they can read these stories for themselves. Then they can agree or disagree with my interpretations.
You use traditional instruments, both on your recordings and live: how important are these to the overall Waylander sound and is their use a reflection of the old story-telling tradition, where drums and whistles would have used to add dramatic effect to the narrations?
Nothing quite as profound I’m afraid, not initially anyway. We were inspired by Horslips, a band from the 70’s, who mixed rock music with traditional sounds and instruments, and as we developed we found that we needed another instrument to aid the traditional metal backdrop. We were a one guitar band at the time and surprisingly we found it easier to find a trad player than a second guitarist. As time moved on it became a part of us.
Your use of traditional instruments, and the subject matter of the majority of your songs, has led to you being variously described as ‘folk’ and ‘pagan’ metal: have you any preference in relation to what epithet is attached to your musical style?
I’d prefer ‘pagan metal’ but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter: there’s no point in getting upset with what label is hung around your neck when you can’t do anything about it. People in general like to classify things but what all the sub genres have in common is metal. I find it amusing that it is mainly the people who don’t listen to metal who don’t pigeon hole us, to them we’re simply a noisy metal band, and I tend to agree with them!
Scandinavian and Finnish bands have recently come to the fore, partly because of their extensive use of their respective Viking and Varangian heritages and story cycles to great effect: even though the likes of yourselves and Primordial, in particular, pre-date the emergence of ‘Viking metal’ (for want of a better generic description) do you feel that their Irish counterparts have got some catching up to do, and is it Ireland’s time in this regard?
There are a number of reasons for why the Scandinavian bands are so numerous. There is no stigma there about playing metal for a start… they learn guitar or drums in school, which is great in my opinion, and simple geographic location. In Ireland, we are at the extreme western fringes of Europe, on an island, it costs us a lot of money just to get ourselves to mainland Europe, so touring is difficult. They also have had some well-established record labels over there, not to mention the fact that the whole Viking thing is considered cool.
I do believe that we in Ireland have the quality, bands like Primordial, Cruachan, Mael Mordha, Darkest Era etc. Give me quality over quantity any day.
Do you think the subject matter of your songs – and particular the fact that you’re bringing them up to date by using extreme music to retell the ancient stories – has any parallels with what is happening in Ireland (and the world in general) today?
Well, my lyrics constantly compare and contrast ancient times to modern and I’ve found over the years that bands like us awaken the ancient pagan spirits which lies within us all. Cultural awareness has exploded over the last 20 years or so in the metal scene and in a general sense. There are always those who take things too far and become too right wing about it but they are in the minority and I find that they aren’t the brightest people in the world.
Are there any subjects you haven’t tackled to date, any stories you haven’t yet retold, that you’d like to do or are considering for the future?
I have always mulled over whether I should retell the Tain or not. It is the “most epic of tales and I’m guessing that many have expected us to do this, especially as we come from the area where the tale is set. We have discussed doing An Tain Bó Cuailnge as a concept album but it is a huge undertaking. We would have to do it justice and set our standards very high. Maybe we will, as every time I visit Emain Macha [which is often] a voice keeps asking me why I haven’t set this story to music yet…
Now that ‘Kindred Spirits’ is out, you’ll obviously be backing its release up with live dates, etc.: can you shed some light on touring plans, and especially for the UK and Ireland?
Our album launch show is in the town we rehearse in, Lurgan on August 18th. It’s a pub gig, limited to 130 tickets, so it will be an intimate experience. We wanted to give something back to the area we come from. It would have been easy to simply have it in Belfast like we always have but bucking the trend can be a healthy thing. We have chosen two local bands, Katabolisis and Lucid Nightmare, as support acts and this is our way of saying thank you to those who have travelled to see us over the years.
We also are playing The Pint, in Dublin on October 6th, a show which is being organised by Into the Void Records, which is THE metal shop in Dublin. Celtachor, Thy Worshipper and Sliocht are supporting so it is definitely a pagan-themed night. It’s been a while since we last played Dublin so we’re looking forward to it a lot.
I am working on other shows at the moment, but don’t want to say until they are 100 per cent definite. I am talking with some people over in the UK, so I’d guess we’ll be over there before the end of the year with a bit of luck.
Finally, the island of Ireland, as a whole, is producing some incredible music at the moment: what other bands do you admire and would recommend to a non-Irish audience looking to explore the scene here further?
Apart from the well known bands like Primordial, Cruachan, Mael Mordha, Altar of Plagues, Mourning Beloveth, Abaddon Incarnate, Sirrocco, Darkest Era, etc., there are many others making waves this side of the world, like Brigantia, Celtachor, Katabolisis, etc. To be honest I don’t keep my finger on the pulse of the Irish scene quite as much as I used to. If I ever get around to getting my PC fixed I intend remedying this…
Thanks for your time. All the best for the album, and we look forward to catching up with a live show pretty soon… In the meantime, sláinte agus táinte!
Go raibh míle maith agat mo chara. Adh mór