Northern Oak Speak To SonicAbuse

As readers will undoubtedly have seen on these pages different bands take different approaches to their interviews. Where with some bands even the effort of squeezing out a few words is clearly shown to be an irritating process best avoided, other bands take the opportunity to wax lyrical about anything and everything that they can. While a single ‘soundbite’ answer can serve a band (and indeed an interviewer) well at times, it still feels like you’ve actually achieved something more when a band choose to delve deep to provide answers that will sate the appetite of even hardened fans.

Northern Oak belong to the latter category. While we found their record reflected an attention to detail that is sadly absent from many bands on a major label (how many bands spend months recording an album only to palm it off on a group of be suited  minions to have it package and promoted?) this interview highlights not only the band’s desire to communicate with their fans but also it provides valuable insight into the production of a record that has rapidly become one of my favourite releases of recent months.

Hailing from the north of England, certainly Northern Oak’s heritage is a rich one with bands from that beautiful, wild, sometimes forbidding, part of the country including My dying bride, Paradise Lost, Anathema and Old Corpse Road and yet the reason for the out-and-out success of ‘monuments’ is twofold: firstly, the rich lyrical content which references classical literature and poetry in an intelligent and often beautiful manner and secondly the fact that the various members of Northern Oak have twisted and subverted their influences to create an atmosphere that is quite unique. Indeed a magical ambience hangs over the album and one of the most appealing facets of the record was that it recalled those long lost days of childhood when, in the dark of night, a reading lamp used to burn brightly and illicitly from my room while I discovered the works of authors from Dickens to Hugh Walpole which had been left mouldering in the attic following my Grandfather’s unfortunate demise. It is the sheer breadth of the lyrical romanticism with which the work is imbued that makes it such a special album and the musicians have all risen to the challenge of creating a fitting soundtrack that ranges from moments of icy-cold black metal brutality to moments of sweeping pastoral beauty.

I have, however, introduced the band enough. For those of you who have already heard ‘Monuments’, I hope that this interview will serve as a fitting accompaniment to a second listening and for those of you who have yet to experience Northern Oak’s epic grandeur, I hope that this will serve as an introduction into their beautifully crafted world.

 

Your biography states, rather tantalisingly, that you formed “during a wintery excursion to the Peak district” – could you give a little more detail about how Northern Oak came together?

Chris: The band really began way back in late 2005- myself and our first drummer, Dan Loughran, met at university through the Sheffield Uni Rock Society and started having fairly regular jamming sessions for the fun of it.  A couple of weeks down the line, our keyboardist Elliot wandered down to the practice room (which was in my hall of residence) and stuck his head round the door to point out that we were the most black metal-sounding musicians he’d heard playing in there.  He mentioned that he played keyboard, and was a huge fan of early medieval and classical music as well as black metal, and it developed from there!  The ‘wintry excursion’ in question took place in February 2006- me, Dan, Elliot and our first vocalist James Harris (who joined us a few months after Elliot did) went on a camping trip in order to get some inspiration from the incredible beauty of the Peak District, and also for a kind of extended brainstorming session- the band didn’t actually have a name at that point.

We ended up, after a 5 mile walk, pitching our tent in some uncharted forest (with a tree right in front of the tent door) up the hill from Derwent Reservoir- the scenery was amazing, but bitingly cold, and only Dan had been prepared enough to bring a sleeping bag with him!  Suffice it to say, it was a pretty uncomfortable night, but the sun rising over the frost-rimed trees and bathing everything around us in gold the next morning more than made up for the lack of sleep.  During the walk up to our eventual campsite, we settled on the name ‘Northern Oak’ after a suggestion from Elliot, so we consider that trip to be the birthplace of the long-winded beast that this band has become.

You released your first album in 2008 and then ‘Monuments’ in 2010 – how do you feel you’ve developed musically within that period?

Chris: I think the most obvious difference is that while some elements of the line-up have fluctuated a fair bit (since Tales From Rivelin was released, we’ve had two new vocalists, two new drummers and two new bass players!) myself, Catie and Elliot have been playing together constantly throughout that time, and I think that has definitely given us a much more cohesive approach; each of us had a much better idea, when working on new stuff, what a ‘Northern Oak song’ should entail.  As musicians, I think we all developed quite a lot in that two-year period; doing a lot of gigs helped to keep the standard of musicianship quite high, and I think we all honed our skills outside of Northern Oak in order to apply that improvement to the band.  I know I personally spent a lot of time working on a classical-style videogame soundtrack, which demanded a very different approach to song-writing.  The current line-up has also helped immeasurably; Rich and Wib have brought an absolutely rock-solid rhythm section to the band, and Rich in particular became involved in the song-writing process very quickly.  Also, I think Martin has brought a much more poetic style to the lyrics and overall approach of the band.

Catie – I definitely agree with Chris when he says that we’ve become much more cohesive as a band. Having a steady lineup obviously helps with this, but I think our approach to song writing now is much more integrated, and the ‘folk’ and ‘metal’ elements are more intertwined, whereas before I always felt they were somewhat separated.

Martin – I’d just like to add that I think part of the ‘cohesive’ness that Chris and Catie refer to is that with the evolution of the line-up all of the band are communicating a lot more about the music, how we think it should sound and what our strengths and weaknesses are. I think it’s a key difference that we are now asking what a Northern Oak song is before we start writing rather than assessing it afterwards.

One of the great successes of ‘monuments’ is the diversity of the music found within – does that reflect the wide range of tastes the band members have?

Chris: Definitely!  We’ve all come from very different backgrounds, and I think that certainly shows in (and strengthens) our music.  While we all love the metal to a greater or lesser extent, our collective tastes stretch across the musical spectrum from early music, baroque and classical, through all sorts of English folk, and onwards to pretty much every derivation of the rock and metal genre, as well as a lot of non-rock and metal music.  I think that diversity is very important; to steal the words of Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth (one of my personal heroes): “I don’t see the point of playing in a band and going just one way when you can do everything.”  While I wouldn’t say that we’re as diverse as Opeth, that same philosophy applies; if the story behind one of our songs would best be communicated through something thoroughly minimalistic (as in the introduction to Nivis Canto), that’s the path we’re going to take regardless of whether it ‘sounds like folk metal’ or not.  The ultimate goal with our music is to tell a story, and every good story ebbs and flows between action and calm.

Martin: I’d just like to elaborate on Chris’ point about what ‘sounds like folk metal’. The term seems to generate a lot of preconceptions which often follow along the lines of bands like Korpiklaani and Eluveitie. With the exception of Chris, none of the current line-up listened to folk metal before joining N.O. and so the sounds are brought in by band members from a lot of different reference points. For example Rich is much more influenced by punk bands which I believe really shows in the energy of his playing and Catie brings in English folk tunes which are rarely heard (if at all!) in the folk metal acts of today. As a result our efforts are much more concentrated on what we feel folk metal should sound like rather than what others do. In my case you will never see any lyrics from me about being a warrior enjoying the thrill of battle as I do not feel it is something that needs to be explored as part of N.O.  and there are already great bands capturing that concept.

What specifically would you say that Northern Oaks’ influences are?

Chris: If I had to pin it down to just a few bands/artists, I would probably say Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Agalloch, Opeth, Bellowhead and Eluveitie; that said, every member has their own influences which come out (to a greater or lesser extent) in our song writing.  For example, Rich listens to a lot of (good) indie and some of his favourite artists are Frank Turner, McClusky and Biffy Clyro; but I don’t think you get that kind of vibe from ‘Death In The Marshes’, which is a track written almost entirely by him.

It’s probably easier with Northern Oak to talk about influences that aren’t musical; we’re all heavily influenced by nature and the English countryside, as well as history and the stories that it has given us.  Poetry and literature are also pretty big influences, especially on Martin and myself, and I think that comes across in the concept of ‘Monuments’.

Catie – as well as certain bands and the natural environment, another big influence, certainly for me, is other musicians. By this I don’t mean professional musicians, but all the extremely talented amateur musicians who I’ve had the privilege to play with at folk sessions. Most people tend to think of folk sessions in a pub as something that only happens in Ireland or Scotland, but the English folk scene is fantastic and seems to be growing all the time. The English folk tradition and the people that keep it alive today have been a huge influence on me.

Martin – There are times where influences can be easily pinned down, in the case of ‘The Scarlet Woman’ the lyrics were inspired by some research I did into Aleister Crowley and his obsession with the Whore of Babylon in the book of Revelations. However normally influences come from all aspects of life; the lyrics for In These Hills evolved from a band trip to the Peaks, the pure emotion that Douglas Dunn captures in his poem about his dying wife ‘Thirteen Steps and the Thirteenth of March’ and Heath Ledger’s Joker’s treatise on the nature of Chaos. It was only toward the end of the writing process that I saw how much the lyrics related to Deakin but if you’d told me before hand that I was going to write a poem about the peak district, a man’s wife dying, the Joker and dedicate the whole thing to a Victorian scholar; I’m certain a very different beast would have emerged!

You released ‘monuments’ without label support – what are the advantages/disadvantages of keeping everything in house?

Chris: The biggest benefit was the sheer amount of control that we had over the whole process.  We started the actual recording of ‘Monuments’ in May 2010, once we were fully confident in the songs that we had written- there was no pressure from a label to get it done, and the 6 months or so that it took were taken entirely at our own pace.  We also had control over exactly how everything was recorded, and I was able to mix the songs myself in order to make sure that they sounded exactly as I, and the rest of the band, had imagined them.  The same thing applies to the artwork and layout of the album; we were able to get it looking just as we wanted.  Another advantage is that whenever we make a sale, we know that the vast majority of the money from that is going straight back into our wallets to recoup the costs for the album; we know exactly how many we’ve sold, and I think people are generally more eager to buy something if they feel that the money will benefit the artist directly.  We had an email from one bloke in Portugal who wanted to buy our entire discography in order to support the band!

I would say there are two big disadvantages to releasing the album independently; the first is, as always, money.  Since we’ve funded the album entirely by ourselves, myself and Martin (especially Martin) have racked up some pretty big debts due to the costs of printing, artwork and otherwise.  While we’re fairly confident we’ll recover that debt, it’s still a big gamble, and financial support from a label would remove that fear of throwing money at something with the hope of it paying off in the long run.  The other big disadvantage is, fairly obviously, publicity; when you’re an independent band, it can be very difficult to spread the word about your release without spending large sums of money on that promotion- large sums of money that, due to having spent a lot of money on actually making the album, most bands don’t have!  To a large extent, promoting a release independently seems to be based on the generosity and kindness of people such as yourself, who are willing to devote their own time to letting other people know about the album.

Martin – I would also like to add to the positives the sheer sense of achievement. Its one thing to see a band’s album in the shops mass produced by a label but when you’re holding something that you are proud of, looks professional and is the work of only 6 people there is a definite sense of pride!

How do you develop your songs – is it a case that one band member brings a tune to the group or do you jam out ideas together?

Chris: For the most part, the songs on ‘Monuments’ were written by one band member and brought to practice; in the case of ‘Sun God’s Wrath’, for example, I wrote the whole tune at home, sent it round to people and then we tied it all together in practice and refined it, with Catie and Elliot coming up with their own flute and keyboard parts to go over the guitar, bass and drum parts that had already been written.  However, for a couple of songs we took a much more organic approach; ‘Pavane in G Minor’ came entirely from a jam session at my house which we then finished up in practice, and Catie had a few isolated riffs for ‘Arbor Low’ written but the song itself was pulled together in a practice.  ‘The Scarlet Woman’ was composed by Elliot, but changed quite dramatically from its original form in order to make it feel more cohesive and more dynamic when played live. 

With the new stuff we’re already working on, we’re intending to take more of an organic approach; while I have a few songs written, the intent is to spend more time just jamming out the ideas within those songs in order to make them more collaborative.  That process is helped along dramatically by Rich possessing perfect pitch- I play him a note and he tells Catie exactly what note it is so we can get the chord sequences down quite quickly, and that allows her to come up with dazzlingly good flute parts on the fly.

Martin: As far as I’m concerned, I don’t normally start writing lyrics until after at least two practices have been spent on a song. For, as Chris says, the songs can change dramatically from their inception, so I use this time to brainstorm concepts and do any relevant research for an idea. After which it’s a case of working out what sounds best where and getting an appropriate rhythm without damaging the content of the words.

How long did it take to write ‘Monuments’?

Chris: Some of the songs have been kicking around since fairly shortly after ‘Tales From Rivelin’ was released; I wrote ‘Silvan Lullaby’ back in late 2008, and it’s remained almost exactly the same ever since.  Since we didn’t have the luxury of taking a long break in order to write the album (due to being pretty busy with work, university and gig commitments), almost all of the songs on the album have been played live at some point before they were recorded for the album; as such, I would say it’s taken about two years to write!  The process was slowed even further by the line-up troubles that we had, since adding new members to the band obviously meant a period of re-training to get the new guys up to speed with the rest of us.

When trying to tie everything together with a concept did you find that you had to abandon some ideas for the sake of the overall feel of the album?

Chris: The concept for the album actually came about shortly before we’d started the recording process; we felt that there was a common thread linking all of the songs, we just didn’t know what it was.  Elliot had suggested that the album could comprise the last writings of a dying man reflecting on his life and his beliefs, and my own interest in history and Martin’s interest in the Victorians led to us considering whether that man should have lived in the Victorian era.  After that, it was fairly straightforward- Martin came across a few of George Eadon Deakin’s works in a book, and we decided to explore the poet’s tortured life in greater detail with the album.

As such, we didn’t really have to abandon any ideas; due to the lyrical slant that Martin takes, all of the songs are philosophical in nature, so it felt right that they would all be drawn from the varying interests of a Victorian polymath, someone with a passionate interest in history, mythology and the world around him.  At the same time, the nihilistic side of Martin’s lyrics supported what we could find out about Deakin’s way of thinking, and so we didn’t have to moderate that at all.

How long did it take to record ‘Monuments’ and where did you record?

Chris: We started recording the drum tracks for the album in May 2010, at the University of Sheffield’s ‘Soundhouse’- a pretty fancy studio that the Music postgraduates get to play around in.  Thanks to a friend of mine being a Music postgraduate, we booked in there, and recorded all the drum tracks for the album in one day, 9 to 5- Wib was absolutely on fire, and you can hear that on the album!  The drums for every song are perfect, and he did all but two of them in one take!

After that, I took the drum tracks home to play with them a bit and a couple of weeks later we recorded the bass guitar at Rich’s house using my laptop and a Line 6 Toneport UX8; we just DI’ed the bass into that and recorded it direct.  I started recording the electric guitar with my setup and my amp mic’ed up a week or two later, but that didn’t produce the kind of guitar sound that we really wanted, and it was a pretty arduous process.  The result of that was that I booked some time at a studio to get the distorted guitars recorded, and in the meantime I borrowed some (incredible) microphones from one friend and an acoustic guitar from another friend in order to get the clean parts recorded.  They were all done at my house- the mics were so sensitive I was worried they might pick up traffic noise outside!

The distorted guitars were done in a five-hour time slot on August 2nd at Hellfire Studios in Birmingham and engineered/recorded by the excellent Ajeet Gill; the guitar sound is absolutely incredible, and I’m really happy with how it ended up sounding.  For the keyboards, we recorded at my house again- that took a while because Elliot was living in London, and we needed to organise the recording around when he could travel up to Sheffield.  We managed to get most of his parts done, except the parts for ‘The Scarlet Woman’, and then started doing the flutes and vocals.

This is the point in the process where we got really lucky- Catie is also in a salsa band (and has been since before she joined Northern Oak) called Cuatro de Diciembre, and their singer is a gentleman called Loo Yen Yeo who has an incredible recording set-up, as well as a huge array of top quality microphones.  He’s the friend who lent me the microphones to record the acoustic guitar with, and he’s also an incredibly knowledgeable guy, so I was more than happy to get his help!  His microphone suggestions and general recording know-how made the flutes, recorders and the vocals sound stunning.  We did those over about three or four weekend/evening sessions, spaced over a couple of weeks; before the last of those, we got the final bits of Elliot’s keyboard recording done at mine as well.

I also made things a lot easier for myself by mixing the album as we went along, instead of just getting everything recorded and then sitting down to the mammoth task of balancing all 12 tracks in one big lump.  Instead, I constantly tweaked things and tried out new ideas throughout the recording process, so that the end result is a product of lots of feedback from the rest of the band and the other people who helped with the recording.

I think you’ll also see, from the (incredibly long-winded and probably quite boring) paragraphs above why we put a little note in the dedications saying that we’d like to thank the people who “made the raising of these Monuments possible”; this album is really a hugely collaborative effort, and if it hadn’t been for the selfless assistance of everybody who helped us record it, it certainly wouldn’t exist as it does now!

With Northern Oak the classical elements and metal elements seem to be perfectly balanced so that one doesn’t overpower the other – was that a difficult balance to achieve at first?

Chris: I personally think that the material on our first album shows how difficult we found the balance at first; to me, it seems quite disjointed at times, as though we hadn’t got the hang of transitions and were just mashing together two completely disparate sections (usually a classical-sounding section and a metal section) without too much care or attention given to how they flowed together.  To some extent, that was also due to just getting the hang of being in a band and writing music that’s intended to be played live (as evidenced by the fact that Maiden now sounds a lot smoother whenever we play it, and has become one of our most popular live songs!)  but I think we also needed more time working together on songs to explore how we could combine the different elements of our sound.


With ‘Monuments’ and the new material, I think we paid a lot more attention to making sure that the songs flowed smoothly and that the classical-sounding elements and the folk elements were more thoroughly integrated into the rest of the music, so that it wouldn’t be a case of ‘metal section-folk section-classical bit-metal section’.  Instead, we went for a combination of those parts; for example, in the verses of ‘Sun God’s Wrath’, where the drums are blasting and the guitar’s playing a fairly black metal-sounding riff, but there are some strings and a jaunty, folk-sounding flute melody laid on top of that.  To an extent, the way the album’s mixed also helps that balance, I reckon- because I tried pretty hard to avoid burying any of the instruments in the mix, you can listen for the individual parts or just appreciate the overall result.

Lyrically ‘Monuments’ is fantastic, covering philosophy and the life and interests of George Eadon Deakin – who writes the lyrics and how long does it take for them to develop from basic ideas into the form that we see on the album?

Chris: Martin writes the lyrics, so I’ll let him answer this one first!

Martin: With other forms of literature, such as poetry, it is often the writer which decides the structure of the words; but with lyrics I find the structure is dictated by the music. At the simplest level; there’s no point writing an epic if you run out of music a quarter of the way through! So I always wait for the song structure to be properly decided before I can understand what my boundaries are for the lyrics. I use this time instead to develop a concept and research, which will carry on for some time until my mind reaches some sort of tipping point and I spend an hour or two redrafting lyrics until I have something I can develop in a practice. As for the content, storytelling is a key aspect of all the lyrics but the most important thing I have learnt from writing poetry is that if you really want to inspire the reader/listener you need to show, not tell them. If you wanted to know the story of Gawain and the Green Knight you would go out and get an adaption. If I told you an accurate history in 5 minutes it would be a dull set of lyrics. What I wanted to do was show you the story and I felt the best way to do that was to capture what was running through Gawain’s mind as he heads to what he believes is his doom. I try my best to put you in his place and feel as he does. I leave it up to you to decide whether I achieved my aims or not!

Did any of you, perhaps, study English language or literature or did your interest in Deakin develop elsewhere?

Chris: I studied both English language and literature at college, and really enjoyed both subjects, although my preference was for literature; I was brought up in a house with lots of books in it, so I’ve been reading almost constantly since I was about 5 years old.  It became a bit of a theme- I’d be sitting on the stairs attempting to tie my shoelaces while reading a book.  I think the interest in history that I mentioned earlier links into an interest in English literature; there are so many incredible English writers from before the 20th century (Shakespeare, Tennyson, Milton, Blake, to name just a few) who have shaped the way we view the world, and there’s something about early modern literature (especially of the Romantic movement) that I really enjoy.  I think it’s down to the dichotomy between longing for the bucolic past and that idealised vision of medieval life, and anxiously looking at the steaming, grotesque industrial present; a lot of Romantic poets seemed incredibly ill-at-ease over what the Industrial Revolution would do to this country, and their fears seem to be borne out by later works from the Victorian period, which have an overwhelmingly repressive feel to them, often brought about by the cramped and smog-choked nature of their lives.  Deakin is a perfect example of a Victorian scholar who rebelled against this repressive society; his works evoke the dark, gas-lit streets of post-industrial Sheffield, but they also display a lot more naked emotion than we expect from literature of that period.

Martin: In secondary school I was very music into Classics and History which has clearly affected the way I’ve looked at life. With the formers dramatic mythology that screaming of greater things and the almighty power of fate and the latter focusing on all the vile intricacies and unstoppable machinations of human nature.

Who developed the stunning artwork for the album?

Chris: The portrait on the front cover of the album was done by Travis Smith, the artist who’s responsible for the artwork on every Opeth album since Still Life.  Suffice it to say, I’m incredibly happy that we were able to work with Travis; he took a very, very rough, pencil-sketch that I did after discussions with Martin over what we wanted and transformed it into a supremely eye-catching and unsettling piece of artwork.  The style of the portrait was intended to imitate the works of Francis Bacon, in particular his painting Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which is a pretty nightmarish piece.  In keeping with the concept of the album while also imitating the style of that picture, we decided on an antique-looking portrait photo of Deakin (the picture isn’t of the man himself, unfortunately; Travis simply found a suitable-looking image from his collection!) with roots and branches sprouting from his mouth and eyes.  This displays, visually, the way that Deakin’s soul seemed to rot and die after the death of his wife, providing food for the plants that are bursting out of his orifices.  It also provides the cover with a certain black irony- Deakin was staunch in his love for and admiration of the grandeur of nature, and yet upon his death, that same nature is using him for sustenance.

The rest of the artwork was all done by me- I’d had the idea for a book-style layout a while ago, well before we actually started working on ‘Monuments’ in any way, and put down a few ideas (like the parchment pages inside the booklet).  When the rest of the band decided to run with the book idea, I was able to just update and adapt those ideas for the end result.  I am incredibly happy with how it’s turned out- although, with that said, if we manage to get onto a record label which specialises in big, fancy limited editions, I’ll be pushing to get a special version of the album done which is actually a real book!

Where do you see Northern Oak going next? Can we expect another album in the next year or so or are you busy playing live?

Chris: We’ve started working on new songs already in order to keep expanding our repertoire, develop our song-writing processes even further and to prevent us from stagnating by just playing the songs from Monuments over and over again! However, our focus for this year is to concentrate on gigging more extensively to support Monuments (we’re hoping to get on the bill for Bloodstock 2011 this year, so please head to the Bloodstock forums to show your support for us!), but we’ll see how things go.  We’ve a couple of grand plans in the works, but most of them are still very much in the planning stages!

Any final words?

Chris: I’d just like to be incredibly clichéd and thank everybody who’s supported us and helped us get this far- it’s always amazing when you get positive feedback for something, and the amount of ridiculously positive feedback we’ve been getting for ‘Monuments’ has left me absolutely astounded that we’ve somehow managed to create something that other people enjoy so much.  While we knew that we really liked the songs, it’s always impossible to tell whether other people are going to like them, since they won’t be as inherently familiar with the material as we are.  It’s mostly just a massive relief to know that we haven’t wasted several years of effort!  To sum up, anyway- thank you very much for the great review and the interview questions.  I’ve really enjoyed answering them, and I hope we’re not too boring!

Martin: A massive thank you to everyone that has helped us get this far and continue to support us now. We look forward to seeing you at the shows and if you want to get in touch with us, whether it to be about collaborating on project, putting some shows together or even just to talk then we’d love to hear from you.

You can read more about the remarkable Northern Oak at their official website here.

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