Interview: Ade Mulgrew (Darkest Era)
Nearly a month into 2015 and I’m still hooked on Severance, the sophomore LP by Northern Ireland’s Darkest Era. Several folk-inflected metal albums, Celtic and otherwise, captured the public imagination last year, but I gravitated instantly to this band’s precise and uncanny subgenre blend—which I assessed in my Top Albums of 2014 list as “too fast to be doom, too downcast to be traditional metal, and [they] don’t use enough folk instruments to truly earn that tag either.”
That list caught the eye of the band themselves, and after a few interactions, I reached out to guitarist Ade Mulgrew to talk about the history of Darkest Era, what exactly is going on in the British Isles these days, and what the group’s future intentions are.
It’s funny that you should message me right now. I’m reading an article about Goya’s painting, and it begins with a quote from the poet Seamus Heaney, who was fleeing Northern Ireland during the summer of 1969. I’m reminded of your work in two ways, first in that you play with a lot of light and dark (I mean, look at the title of your first album) and second, that Northern Ireland has a history of violence that seems to show in your music as well, on songs like “A Thousand Screaming Souls” and “Songs of Gods and Men.” Am I barking up the wrong tree in making these connections?
I think context and environment influence all art, whether directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously. In our case it is more of the indirect and subconscious. Basically we grew up after the peace process. While I do remember soldiers on the streets, security checkpoints and occasionally bombs going off, our youth was a time when the vast, vast majority of people just wanted to live in peace. We grew up as the dust and smoke began to clear so to speak, as angry voices fell silent and bridges were built and wounds healed. Our history has shaped us as people. North of the border we’re perhaps a bit more cynical, less laid back and with maybe a darker sense of humor. Perhaps the weariness of a post-conflict area has contributed to the atmosphere of our music, but we are in no way interested in commentating, referencing or directly acknowledging it. If I was a filmmaker for example, the last thing I would want to make a film about would be the conflict here. It has nothing to do with what we want to express.
There’s also, as I alluded to earlier, this long history of great poets and writers from Ireland, both North and South.
Indeed and this has a much more profound influence on the band, in terms of the imagery used in the lyrics for example. Yeats, Joyce, Wilde . . . poetry from this time period interests me in general but Irish poets had a tendency to use the imagery of the country’s climate and landscape to great effect, which is easy to relate to growing up here but also very powerful and lends itself well to a heavy metal context.
Of course metal began in England, but for the past two decades or more it’s seemed that especially the metal espousing folklore and heritages has been coming from Scandinavia. However, recently there’s been these wonderful bands—like you guys and Saor and of course Primordial, though they’ve been at it for some time-—who are coming from the UK. Why is this music having a moment in your part of the world right now, do you think?
I think a lot of it is a case of coincidental timing to be honest, in the case of the UK/Ireland. It has just so happened that ourselves, Primordial, Saor, and Winterfylleth all released albums this year. All have been well-received too, so I guess it gives the impression of something happening, but in reality there probably isn’t a huge amount of bands you could group together like this. Scandinavia on the other hand has just always been punching above its weight in terms of metal output. They have always drawn from their culture, history and mythology, with I guess the most obvious example being Bathory, who ended up influencing generations of Swedish and Norwegian bands. To answer your question; well there are better people than me to comment on this but I think the folk metal explosion which happened eight or nine years ago is declining, and in the fallout perhaps the spotlight is turning to bands who share roots in folklore, a ‘pagan spirit’ for want of a less insipid phrase, but who are taking it in different directions or delivering it in a more emotionally charged way.
On the same line of thinking, do you feel any kinship with those bands? Is there any sort of unified ‘scene’ going on, or do you feel Darkest Era operates in relative isolation?
We’ve crossed paths with most of the bands at some stage, either sharing a stage with Primordial for example, or with Sarah contributing backing vocals to Winterfylleth’s latest album. And there is a musical kinship of course, which anyone can hear. Most of the people involved know each other but I wouldn’t say there is a ‘scene’ like you say. Because of the strong heavy metal element to our sound that some of the other bands don’t have there is an element of isolation; it can be difficult to find the right bands to tour with for example.
Seeing as your music and melodies are Celtic, do you feel more affinity for music from independent Ireland, or more so from other UK bands?
Neither really. We feel more affinity with bands who simply approach their craft in the same way as we do; bands who create music as if their life depends on it, inspired by a desire to make something that has the same fire and emotional impact as the music that made us fall in love with music in the first place. Most of all, bands who take the traditions of pure heavy metal and inject it with their own venom.
Where does the emotionality in your music come from? Is it your surroundings or something internal?
I haven’t pondered very much about where it might come from, but I guess both. Personally speaking, the band is a means of expression, and if I didn’t have anything sincere to express then I wouldn’t bother at all. Our music isn’t contrived. For us the goal is to achieve a pure translation of artistic vision to creative output and when something feels right to us we go with it. More than all else though, I guess it’s because of how close we are to our music, we live and breathe it. This translates to our live show as well; it’s immediately obvious to anyone watching us that there is absolute meaning in what we do. We’ve been through a lot over the years, like most bands, and we have a no-compromise attitude to our music. You’re either with us, or against us.
What was your childhood like? How did you come to be introduced to heavy metal and make it a part of your life in this way.
It was typical, and generally very happy and fortunate. There were couple of things that happened that pulled me towards metal. Firstly an uncle of mine used to let me hear AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock when I was about two or three years old, and I loved it. Secondly I watched a lot of Schwarzenegger movies as a kid (and adult!), when I was 8 or so I saw Last Action Hero and the soundtrack had Megadeth, Queensryche, Anthrax, Aerosmith, Tesla, among others. I was also into games and there were a few Iron Maiden songs on a PC game called Carmageddon 2 which I got a few years later. Then when I started going to shows, meeting like minded people . . . it was in my blood and there was no escaping it.
You and Sarah [Weighell, guitarist] have been a guitar duo since at least 2006. How did you two begin playing and composing guitar--I’m willing to bet you didn’t play metal at first, am I right?--and how did Darkest Era as a project come about?
Actually we both started with metal. People sometimes assume we were playing folk music in our youth or something like this but it’s not the case; pretty much the first musical things I learned how to play were rock and metal. I had been playing in cover bands with our singer Krum, but the goal was always to write our own music. We all grew up in a very small, rural area where everyone into rock and everyone who played music knew each other. When it came to starting the band that became Darkest Era, Sarah was just suggested by a mutual friend, and after one jam session that was that really. At that first jam session Sarah wrote a guitar harmony to a melody I had written, and everything clicked instantly. The interplay of our guitar parts is a huge component to our sound and is based on this chemistry as musicians I think--it’s been right there since the beginning. There was no grand design right at the beginning, we wanted to play metal but knew it would take some time to find our identity, I mean at 16 years old you’re still finding your identity as a person never mind as an artist. But real, traditional heavy metal was always the backbone and that has permeated everything since.
You have some older music in the form of two EPs and your work with Nemesis that I haven’t had the chance to hear. Is that stuff available anywhere, because I’m interested in understanding the band’s evolution more.
Yes if you visit http://irish-metal.blogspot.co.uk/ and search you’ll find our first demo and EPs. They are pretty raw, but the transition you can hear between the Nemesis demo and the subsequent Darkest Era EPs is quite staggering, considering the short space of time between the releases.
Your first album, The Last Caress of Light, came out in 2011 on Metal Blade. You’ve moved to Cruz Del Sur and replaced some band members during that time. Why the change in labels and why the seemingly long gap between records?\
We signed to Metal Blade for one album but the further decline of physical sales and the music industry in general meant they ended up dumping about a dozen bands from their roster at the end of 2012. The frustrating thing was that they gave us a figure of sales prior to the release of the album with which they would be happy if we achieved, and we exceed that figure! But circumstances changed over the course of the two-year cycle; they had to make a business decision and we were a very small fish in a large sea. We had already committed to the studio time so we went ahead and recorded Severance in February 2013 anyway, but it took nearly a year to work out a deal with a new label--which ended up being Cruz Del Sur. They have been fantastic so far and we’re very happy to be working with them.
When I wrote about you earlier I mentioned that I get a little Nick Cave and Tom Waits from the music, not in the lyrics, but more in the atmosphere and emotionality. I gather that I wasn’t completely off-base? How does not-metal music come into your thought process?
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of both Tom Waits and Nick Cave, although it’s very rare that either will get mentioned in any review. Each of us in the band listens to a very wide range of music, and some non-metal bands are almost as important to us as metal bands. As I briefly mentioned before, I am primarily attracted to music that has a certain spirit about it; a certain feeling, a fire and a darkness. It doesn’t matter if it’s Nick Cave, Clan of Xymox or Mercyful Fate. The emotional connection is the same. I can honestly say that non-metal sometimes has as big an influence on the music of the band as metal.
One of the things that I like about Darkest Era is not only that you’ve got a woman in the band, but also that you and Sarah form a traditional twin-lead team, and that you as a band have never really used her gender as a selling point, or sexualized her in the promotional photographs, even though she’s been front-and-center. Were those conscious decisions and if so how did you come to them? Also, how did you come to keep putting her in the center—-it works visually with her platinum blond hair as a compositional element, but I was wondering if there’s something deeper at work than aesthetics.
Actually of all the promo shoots we’ve ever done, Sarah is only front and centre in that one photo, in that one shoot--and it was purely for aesthetic variance. We liked the symmetrical look of this photo so we use it a lot, however you’ll also notice we have a photo from this same shoot with Krum in the middle and it we use it often too. We’ve never used her gender as a selling point, and never will.
Seeing as how you use Krum’s clean singing voice, I was wondering if you listen to extreme metal that growls? I worry sometimes that the growls have become too ubiquitous, and have sort of decided to wean myself off them to an extent.
Yes absolutely. Most of us in the band listen to black metal, death metal, etc. to a certain extent. Personally I prefer black metal screams, or death/doom style vocals where the lyrics are decipherable. Extreme vocals are part of the fabric of extreme metal and when it’s to my tastes (Opeth, Watain, Destroyer 666, and My Dying Bride for example) I enjoy it very much. But the kind of metal I enjoy most generally has clean singing . . . I just think it gives a much greater scope than extreme vocals.
Now that Severance is out, are you thinking about a third album, or are you directing your energies elsewhere?
Yes the wheels are slowly beginning to turn now . . . Severance was a transition period for us in many ways, so the next album is an important one for us. Things are starting to come into focus and we feel we have a very special album ahead of us. Other projects are coming to light also but for now we will just say that things are in motion, and I’m very excited about it.
Last but not least, I gotta ask, is there any way that I can see you guys play live in the near future?
Not in the near future I’m afraid, unless you happen to be traveling in Europe. We know that we have a strong following in the US, and our fans there have been extremely supportive. Touring the US is something that all of us really, desperately want to do. But the cost is so high it makes it difficult. If a group of promoters were willing to get together and make it happen then we might have something, but as it stands it won’t be for a while I’m afraid.
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