Genre: neofolk / chamber music
Questions: Skvrn, H.
Hello Nathanaël! How are you? What are you up to lately?
Hello and thank you for taking the time to interview me! I have been hard at work lately finishing my new solo album as well as the second album from my instrumental metal band The Night Watch. They are both sounding great and I am excited to release them. I am also working on writing the new Musk Ox album.
You found Musk Ox in 2005 strongly influenced, as stated on the band’s website, by Ulver, Empyrium, Tenhi and October Falls. Did you have a concrete idea which musical direction you would like to follow from the very beginning? In hindsight, could you tell us what exactly did you take from the works of the above-mentioned artists?
When I first started creating music, I wanted to take the listener away to another world in the way these artists do for me. The way they approached acoustic guitar playing greatly inspired me to start playing the classical guitar. Since these artists were driven more by atmosphere than technicality, I was able to learn their pieces as a beginner guitarist. I used to record cover versions of songs by Empyrium and Ulver which taught me a lot about how they structure and arrange their songs. When it was time to create the first Musk Ox album, I wanted to create music inspired by these artists but I wanted the songs to be longer. At this time I began discovering post rock bands like Mogwai, Mono, and Explosions in the Sky so I wanted to hear what it would sound like to blend these genres. My vision was to create long compositions full of rich acoustic atmospheres that built to climaxes over time.
Beside your liking for Ulver, Empyrium or October Falls, i.e. bands which are somehow tied to the metal scene, and for metal music in general, there are apparently a lot of connections between Musk Ox and metal such as sharing stage with some metal musicians or guest appearances on the albums of some metal bands. Do you see any links between neofolk genre and metal music? Anyway, what kind of metal and what metal bands do you like (except those three)?
There is definitely a connection between neofolk and metal music because lot of metal bands use acoustic guitars in a similar way to how neofolk bands use them. I always refer to the song “Battery” by Metallica when someone asks me how to describe the connection between metal and neofolk. The song begins with some beautiful acoustic playing and when they play the exact same riff distorted with drums it sounds so heavy. I think metalheads recognize that feeling when they here acoustic guitars played in a heavy way. I also believe that a single acoustic guitar can be just as emotionally heavy as a wall of distortion.
I listen to lots of different metal bands. Artists like Agalloch and Opeth were a huge influence on me when I started playing guitar because of the way they used acoustic guitars. I absolutely love the band Kauan. Their last two albums “Pirut” and “Sorni Nai” are amazing. I also highly recommend the Canadian band Gris. They’re last double album “À l’âme enflammée, l’äme constellée…“ is incredible. I also really enjoy a lot of instrumental and progressive metal which was a big influence on the last Musk Ox album “Woodfall” actually. Bands like Scale the Summit, Animals as Leaders, Intervals and Cloudkicker are doing really great work. I’ve recently been listening to the new Dream Theater album which is awesome. I listen to and am inspired by lots of other non-metal stuff as well. There’s so much good music out there!
As for those guest appearances… probably the most notable ones are those on “Woods 4: The Green Album” by Woods of Ypres and “The Serpent & the Sphere” by Agalloch. How did it happened that you appeared on those records? How did you get in touch with the bands?
When I was first mailing out the debut Musk Ox album as a CDR I made contact with Adrian Bromley from Unrestrained! Magazine. He loved the album and offered to review it and help me properly re-release it. He shared my album with David Gold from Woods of Ypres and Don Anderson from Agalloch so it’s thanks to him. After being in touch with David and doing some shows with him, he expressed interest in having me compose an interlude for him. As for Agalloch, I was in touch with Don for a while and then eventually met John Haughm. After seeing me perform he asked me to open some shows for them on their upcoming tour in 2011. While I was doing merch for them during their 2012 North American tour he expressed interest in having me write some interludes for their upcoming album so that’s how it happened.
Especially your contribution to “The Serpent & the Sphere” is quite big since you created three acoustic interludes there. I have to ask – how do you personally like this album in general? Despite loving Agalloch’s previous works, I have to confess that this effort was disappointing for me and I consider it to be the weakest album in their career. Actually, your intermezzos are probably the most interesting songs on the record…
Thank you for the kind words. I personally love the album and think it fits perfectly into their amazing discography. Each of their albums offers something different which I feel is what makes them all so good. I think “The Serpent & The Sphere” was exactly the album they needed to create. After “Marrow of the Spirit” came out they started touring more than they ever had and I feel “The Serpent & The Sphere” really represents Agalloch as the powerful live band that they’ve become over the years. It offers something musically, structurally and sonically which stands alone in their discography while still sounding like Agalloch. I love when bands can do something different with each album while still retaining their sound and I feel they achieved that with this album. I think the reason why many people were hard on that record was because they already had their favorite album in the discography so they likely had certain expectations. “The Mantle” will always be my favorite but I love all their albums for different reasons.
Anyway, are there any other interesting collaborations in the works?
I have a collaboration in mind that I am currently developing but I can’t say what it is.
Beside the guest appearances, have you ever regularly played in any metal band? Do you have any plans for eventual metal project?
I actually have a instrumental metal band called The Night Watch which also features Evan Runge, the violinist from Musk Ox. We formed in 2008 just around the time that the first Musk Ox album was self-released. The Night Watch has released one full-length album and we are currently completing our second album. While we are heavily influenced by metal, we are also influenced by the progressive rock bands of the 1970s and the way they explored different genres and styles within their music. Our first album has everything from folk, black, progressive, and post metal elements to jazz, swing, classical and neofolk moments.
Before we get to “Woodfall”, I would like to ask a few questions about the band’s line-up and some other things. At the time of the eponymous debut’s release, you were the sole member of Musk Ox. Why exactly did you decide to expand the line-up? Was it the desire to perform live, or to share your musical ideas with other musicians, and therefore to augment Musk Ox by other instruments as well?
Although I never planned on collaborating with other musicians for Musk Ox, it really happened on its own. When I did the first album I never thought about performing it live. After it was released I started playing with some musicians and we began working on music that sounded like Musk Ox. This music we created eventually ended up on “Woodfall”. When we did out first show it made sense to keep the name, and since the album had just been released, it was perfect timing to start playing live. Being able to perform live as well as share musical ideas with other musicians has had a huge a impact on Musk Ox.
The music of Musk Ox apparently requires a great instrumental skill. How difficult it is to find new bandmates for a project like Musk Ox when someone leaves the band?
I was really lucky because after the first musicians I collaborated with in Musk Ox left in 2009, I met cellist/multi-instrumentalist Raphael Weinroth-Browne because he was working on an album at the same studio where I recorded the debut Musk Ox in 2007. The engineer suggested that we meet but it wasn’t until 2009 that we did. We are both classical musicians who love metal so we understood each other immediately and have been playing together since. I already knew violinist Evan Runge because we were playing in The Night Watch together and had played in another band before that. Both of them are such incredible musicians. I was extremely lucky that I didn’t have to go far to search for them.
When you first welcomed new members in Musk Ox, they played cello and oboe. However, oboe was later replaced with violin. Why? Do you wish to bring oboe back to the sound of Musk Ox in the future?
After the oboe player left, I met a violinist and we started playing together. She was playing the oboe melodies on the violin and they worked well as the range was similar for both instruments. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened that way. I love the sound of the oboe and would love to find a way to incorporate it into something in the future.
Your music is purely instrumental. Have you ever thought about incorporating vocals, or do you find your instruments are “singing” enough?
I actually sang a bit on the debut album but it was mostly chanting and choir style vocals. I am currently very happy with the way our instruments are communicating to listeners but I may one day decide to write lyrics. I can see myself creating a separate project with singing before introducing lyrics to Musk Ox.
It seems to me that you do not perform live with Musk Ox too often… Is that correct? How many concerts do you usually do during a year? Do you intentionally want to preserve the uniqueness of Musk Ox shows, or are there just some regular issues (financial, lack of free time) that make longer touring unfeasible?
Our cellist was living in a different city finishing school for two years so that made it a bit more difficult to do shows. I wouldn’t say that there is any specific reason, we just play shows when opportunities present themselves. We do want to tour eventually but I think we’ll wait until the next album is released. Our cellist recently released the debut album from his cello/voice duo The Visit so he is currently busy promoting that project. The album is called “Through Darkness Into Light” and it is a stunning piece of art.
Anyway, is there any chance of seeing Musk Ox playing in Europe? I know that you performed on our continent once so far – at Wave-Gotik-Treffen Festival 2012 in Germany. Are there any plans of returning to Europe?
There are no set plans at the moment but it is definitely something I am envisioning for the future. I am planning to do some touring in Europe when my new solo album is released. Raphael and The Visit are actually performing at Wave Gotik-Treffen this year!
Alright, let’s finally talk about your latest album “Woodfall” for a while. The record was self-released without contribution of any label. Why did you decide to do it like this? One could guess that there would be some offers from labels to release the second album when the self-titled debut received quite a nice response… Or did you want to release it yourself without involving anyone outside the band?
I did contact some labels before the album was released but no one seemed to be interested so I decided to self-release it. I was contacted by some labels after the album came out but have not signed anything. Now that I see how well “Woodfall” was received, I think it makes sense for us to remain independent. I am always open to considering offers from labels however.
“Woodfall” was released seven years after “Musk Ox”. There is written on your website that you completed the material for “Woodfall” in 2011 and started with the recordings in early 2012. Why did it take so long – more than two years – until the album was actually released?
The album was recorded throughout 2012 and was mastered in 2013. In 2013 we released the debut album from The Night Watch so my energy was focused there. During 2013 we finished the album layout for “Woodfall” and I recorded the interludes for Agalloch at the end of that year. Since I was appearing on the new Agalloch album in 2014, I thought it would be good to wait until that album was out before I released “Woodfall”. The timing was right.
When we mentioned the website… I really like that Musk Ox’s official site is often updated, nicely designed, and that it fits in the band’s spirit. However, this seems to be an exception nowadays because most underground bands have abandoned the concept of their own website and focus mostly on social networks. What do you think is the reason so many bands are on Facebook, Twitter etc. and do not use own websites anymore? Why did you decide to keep this, let’s say, “old fashioned” online presentation for Musk Ox beside profiles on Facebook and Bandcamp? Do you think that it is still important to have own website?
I think it’s important to have a proper band website because so many people only focus on Facebook or Twitter, etc. so it does make it special. However, with so many great social media tools available, many bands are doing fine without one. It can also be expensive to design a proper website. There are many different ways to promote music depending on who you ask, I just knew I wanted to have a website for Musk Ox.
Do you consider Musk Ox to be a regular band, or rather your personal project? How much are the other members involved in the songwriting process? Were there any distinctive differences between creation of the debut album and “Woodfall”?
When I started Musk Ox it was definitely a personal project but since working with Raphael and Evan I consider it a band. While the first album was entirely written and recorded by me (except for the guests on “Lullaby for Ghosts”), “Woodfall” was an deeply collaborative project. The first piece “Earthrise” was written with the original cello and oboe player while the rest of the album was a collaboration between myself and Raphael. I basically gave him the songs and structures and he created the string arrangements as well adding some guitar parts. Raphael is such and amazing musician and person so I fully trusted his input. I knew his participation would take the album to another level.
Recently, you announced the re-release of “Woodfall” on both tape and LP. When should we expect both versions to be available? Will be there any differences between those re-editions and the original CD release?
There won’t be any bonus material on these formats. The cassette is currently available on the bandcamp page thanks to Into the Night Records who helped put it all together and the LP will be available sometime this year.
Anyway, do you plan to make any re-editions of “Musk Ox” as well? I know there already was one re-release of “Musk Ox” on CD with different artwork but what about LP or MC?
I do plan on re-releasing the debut album as a special edition with the early EPs. My first EP was released ten years ago in 2006 so the timing is right to properly release this material.
“Woodfall” was originally made available as a standard CD and a limited edition. If I understand it correctly, the only difference between those two versions is that the limited one is hand-numbered and signed… is that right? Wouldn’t it be better to make the limited version as a digipack or something like that? Anyway, there are 300 copies of the limited edition – how many of them are still available?
Correct, the only difference is that one version is signed and hand-numbered. I wanted to make this version of the album for collectors but I didn’t have the budget to make digipaks as well. There are currently about 70 left.
Some time ago, you announced that “writing sessions for the new album have begun”. How has the work moved forward so far? Are there any complete songs written already? Do you have any idea when the album could be released?
We have completed one song and the rest are still being developed. I have a clear idea of the atmosphere of each piece and I have enough riffs to work with, we just need to spend time exploring and arranging. I would ideally like to release the album either late this year or early next year but I am patient and don’t mind taking the time needed to get it right.
The music and the whole presentation of Musk Ox feels like it is strongly influenced by nature. However, you come from Ottawa which is quite big city, and big cities usually do not belong among places devoted to nature. Is it complicated for you to get away from the daily routine, leave the city and spend some time miles away in the countryside? Or do you live somewhere in a suburb with nature around?
Ottawa is actually quite a small city surrounded by nature. There is a large river a short walk from my house and a large provincial park a short drive away. I grew up in small towns surrounded by nature and close to the ocean so staying close to nature is important to me. I’m thankful that there is so much nature accessible to me in this city.
So far, we have been talking about Musk Ox only. However, what about all musk oxen? Is it possible to ordinarily meet these majestic creatures in the wilderness? Have you ever met a musk ox in person?
I have not had the chance to meet a Musk Ox yet but hopefully one day I will get to travel to the Canadian arctic and see one. They are such fascinating and mysterious creatures.
Thank you very much for your time and for your answers!
Thank you for all of your great, in-depth questions and for continuing to support Musk Ox. Stay tuned for more music!