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Theigns & Thralls Founder Kevin Ridley Discusses Self-Titled Debut Album, Recruiting Guest Musicians, Lockdown And More

Folk metal has come a long way since it was first recognised as a genre in the 1990s. While bands like Led Zeppelin were experimenting with folk music, it was the likes of Skyclad and Cruachan who established it as a true sub-genre and over the past ten years or so, its popularity has sky rocketed. As mentioned, Skyclad were arguably the first folk metal band and so it's unsurprising that one of the year's most excited albums in the genre would come from a member of its lineup, as frontman Kevin Ridley introduces the world to Theigns And Thralls.

It was only two weeks ago today that the band released their debut album, an eponymous trek which finds so many instances and events from history that the modern world has barely learned from, if at all. Joining Ridley on this journey are current and ex members of Irish legends Waylander and Cruachan, while an enormous amount of guest musicians from the likes of Korpiklaani, Ensiferum and Celtibeerian were also involved. To find out more about the record, Metal Underground spoke with Kevin Ridley himself, in an interview which you can watch in full below.

Diamond Oz: Obviously people know you from your work with Skyclad. What would you say it is about Theigns And Thralls that gives you more freedom of expression, if at all?

Kevin Ridley: Well, that's one of the things. Most of the songs that I write with Skyclad are co-written of course but obviously on the Theigns And Thralls album, I've written them all. Having said that, some of the songs are adaptations of poems and things like that from the past, which again is one of the things that Theigns And Thralls allows me to do because I have this penchant for history and historical fiction, so I can combine those things to create these new songs, so I'm not trying to fit in with what Skyclad's doing, I've got a free hand to do what I want. I've got to say, one of the things to remember is that when I started Theigns And Thralls, I didn't have a plan or anything, it was the kind of thing that just evolved because of the pandemic.

As you're well aware, we were will sitting with time on our hands in a lockdown situation and I had a few songs, because I'd done a solo album before and I wanted to do another one, because as a musician, you never really stop writing. Some things are suitable for Skyclad and some songs aren't so you end up with some stuff. It was a gradual thing where I said, "I've got this time on my hands, I've got a few songs, what can we do with this?" and kind of built it up from there. Once I got into it, it evolved quite quickly and I kind of found a little niche or a certain area that I thought was productive, so I followed it and got in touch with some friends who I felt could add things to it and then it built up to friends of friends and grew into this project, so I started taking it a bit more seriously once I realised it could turn into an album. We couldn't do anything with Skyclad anyway because I live in another country.

Oz: Yeah and obviously Steve's pretty busy with Satan as well...

Kevin: Yeah and that's another point obviously because Skyclad is one thing but everybody in and around Skyclad does different things, Satan being one of the things so if they're doing an album and tour, then Skyclad can't do anything, which meant I had time on my hands as well, which is another impetus for doing it. I started playing some solo acoustic gigs, which are OK and I enjoy as far as it goes but I thought I wanted something with a bit more oomph.

Basically I just thought about doing it down the pub with a few friends, I wanted to get a drummer and a bass player to give it a bit more impetus than just playing on an acoustic guitar and I was busy doing that and I wanted to play more outside of Skyclad, but then all the shows got cancelled. So I thought I could keep working on these songs while we're waiting for the pandemic to clear up. I didn't think it was going to take two years! Hopefully it looks like we're over the worst of it now. They haven't lifted all the restrictions in Spain yet but it is getting better. I've been to two gigs and Theigns And Thralls started gigging a week ago, and I was at one as well so that's two. They haven't gone but it's getting better.

Oz: Like you say, this is more of a full on thing instead of just you and an acoustic guitar, was that the reason why you wanted to give it a name as opposed to releasing it as a Kevin Ridley solo album?

Kevin: Absolutely yeah. At some point, like I said, I had one of these eureka moments and something clicked and I got into the writing. Somewhere along the line the Theigns And Thralls idea came up and I'm still not sure if it was the song or the title that came first and I thought that it summed up an idea I had to talk about history and draw parallels to the way things are now, so the penny dropped and I thought, "That could be the name of the band and the song and the album!" It helped give a direction as to what else I could do in that vein and some songs clicked together like "Strive" and probably "Drinking." As I said, I had started work on a solo album, most of which I've still got, but I wasn't happy that they felt like a set of songs, so I took them and put them to one side. I thought this project needed a name so that it wouldn't be confused with me doing an acoustic thing. There was no band at that point but I thought if I get some friends together, we could play under a name instead of just The Kevin Ridley Band or whatever.

Oz: Obviously the name basically means masters and servants...

Kevin: Basically yeah. There was this idea in the past that there was a rich man in his castle and a poor man at his gate, that's where it comes from, so the theigns lived in the castle and everybody else was left groveling outside, basically like serfs or slaves. Some people had a lot and most people didn't have very much and I kind of drew a parallel that a thousand years later, it's still pretty much the same. You can see it all over the place. Not to get into the war with the Russians, but trying to confiscate the oligarch's super yachts and all that and it's only a few hundred people in Russia who own like 90% of the wealth.

Oz: As you mentioned, you've got, let's say a few friends together, because there's about twenty five guests on this album. I noticed on the website that there's a few musicians who are listed as de facto members of Theigns And Thralls like John Ryan and Dave Briggs who of course people know from bands like Cruachan and Waylander, will they be able to perform with Theigns And Thralls going forward or it more of a loose collective?

Kevin: As I said before, we started a week ago and they were there. We're doing an album launch in a couple of weeks time, so yes they are a part of the band. It started off slowly, John was there right at the get go really. I talked to him a few years ago when we did a gig in Dublin and Cruachan and Waylander were there and I kept in touch with him and he'd done some stuff with Borknagar, which was when I found out he played cello. So I kept in mind and when I got this going, I asked John if he'd be into playing a bit of cello and violin and he was really up for it.

With other things like the whistle, I did all the demos as far as I could but I don't play whistle or bagpipes or hurdy gurdy, just the guitar and mandola. So I did all the demos but then I needed this traditional stuff added to it and Dave Briggs was one of the guys I remembered from that concert. Even fairly on, I'd give him a couple of tunes then say, "I've got this other one song here. Can I have another one?" Obviously I knew he was in Waylander and it was John Ryan who suggested that he'd like to do some guitar as well.

And the other guys, the bass player Arjon is from The Netherlands and we've been friends for a long time. He's been part of the Skyclad crew since the mid 90s, he's been around a long time and he's one of these guys who's been in a bunch of bands, he plays hundreds of gigs a year. So I mentioned this project and he asked, "Do you want a bass player?" Obviously once the album is done, you have to think about doing it live somehow and so me, Arjon and John got together first and Arjon mentioned that he knew a couple of guys in The Netherlands who might be interested in doing the drums so we started rehearsing there. There's a bit of a strange story about Mike, the drummer, which is that all these bands Arjon used to play in, Mike's dad used to roadie for some of them. Mike's a young guy who got into music by watching Arjon's bands and his dad so he came along and he was really good and full of energy.

Then like I said, Dave agreed to join so we had the five of us, who are kind of the core nucleus of the band. Obviously we can't have fifteen or twenty people that appear on the record, but it would be nice if we could have some guest musicians, for example at the warm up show in The Netherlands, Ilona who played the hurdy gurdy on a couple of tracks, her band supported us so she could come up on stage with us and play the hurdy gurdy. We're looking at doing some gigs with Celtibeerian from Spain, because they added quite a bit to three or four tracks from the album, so we'll drag them up if we're playing in Spain. So we've got the five piece but then maybe there's another couple of guys who could get involved.

Oz: It's kinda funny, I saw Celtibeerian at Leyendas del Rock a few years ago, the same day I finally saw Skyclad.

Kevin: That's where we met them, actually. Their dressing room was next door to us and we got talking there.

Oz: Like you say, there's so many guests on the record, a lot of them appear in the music video, "Drinking," which is a really fun song, even for someone like me who doesn't drink and everyone looks like they're having a blast. Was it difficult to get all these people in the video?

Kevin: It was another one of these things that kind of crept up. There wasn't a big plan to get all these people involved but I saw other videos online, like lockdown videos, so I thought, "Why don't we try and do this with the video?" So I kind of added bits to it and I thought it would be nice if everybody who's on the album could join in and do a little video and I managed to get most of the people, though not everyone due to commitments or logistics, but I think I got fifteen or sixteen of them. Celtibeerian again were great and they had to go out of their way a bit because they don't live together so they got together for a rehearsal and did their video. I think it was a while after that Dave Briggs took part, I think he was building a studio or something at the time.

Like you said, it's a fun song, some of the record has quite a party atmosphere to it and so they all joined in to make it a bit of an anthem, if you like. Some of them are drinkers, some of them drank non-alcoholic beer, or a cup of tea, but it seemed to me that when I came across that lyric, it would be a really nice fit for gigs and that kind of thing. It seems to work and it seems to fit the mood really well.

Oz: Yeah, it's a fun song that gets stuck in your head and it's got over twenty thousand views on YouTube now.

Kevin: It's starting to pick up steam, yeah. Because I had most of the people involved, I wanted to make that the first thing that people could hear from the album, just to give everyone an idea of what was coming. We'll start to look at Spotify and all the rest of it soon but I think YouTube is really handy for that. It's good, audio/visual works better than just listening to a song on Spotify, you get more of an idea about the people involved and all of that.

Oz: It works well from a marketing standpoint as well because people will see musicians from bands they know too. The artwork for the album is very interesting, you look at it and you know it's going to be somewhat folk related. How well do you think the art represents the music?

Kevin: Well, as I said before, me being interested in history and historical fiction, a few years ago I was looking around at various symbols from alchemy and medieval sorts of things. I've got a file on them on the computer, so often I'll put links to research and that in this folder. So I had all these symbols in the back of my head and then during the pandemic, that was one of the symbols because of the black death and everything. A friend of mine, Renato, who lives in Brazil and has worked with Skyclad before, he posted this Dr. Death video online and I thought, "Wow that's really good." So I contacted him and explained that I've got this project that's got an Anglo-Saxon, medieval thing about it and basically, could I use it? And he said that he'd do one especially for me, so we used that as a template and added some more symbols and stuff.

We had these ideas with the font being a medieval thing with this big ampersand and he was right on the wavelength, so we just clicked again and he started to send me pictures. One of the things I asked him for was to break it down so that each of the songs has its own symbol and we can do lots of things with it. For example, we could project each image on stage, so obviously "Drinking" is the goblet and there's a crown for "Theigns And Thralls," as well as griffins and the all seeing eye and all sorts of things, so we can use this imagery for merchandising. We've had half an eye on the vinyl and he's sent us a mock up of it and it looks fantastic, so that'll be another thing soon to get a vinyl release, once anybody's got some time to press vinyl. I'd love to put it out as a vinyl as well so that people can appreciate the artwork.

Oz: Just finally then, as you said when you started the project, you had no idea where it was going to go, it just kind of snowballed, so how far do you see Theigns And Thralls going in the future? Do you think this could be a more permanent thing to do while Skyclad is inactive?

Kevin: Absolutely, yeah. As I said before, if you look at Satan, they're doing really well, the guys just put out an album, which I think is the fourth album they've put out now and obviously, the pandemic has stopped a lot of stuff but they've been touring in Japan and America which is fantastic, but while that's been happening, I've had lots of free time. So to coordinate things a bit, I would love to do the same sort of idea. Obviously it depends on if people want to see us! We're already starting to look at touring, festivals, stuff like that and we're working in advance because Skyclad has some things coming up over the Summer. I think there's enough time and enough space in the year to be able to do both, so yes I'd love it to be a permanent thing. Believe it not, I'm already working on the follow up with the band. We're up and running now so I'm really excited to see where we can go now. It's very promising, I think.

Diamond Oz's avatar

Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com since 2007 and a metal fan since 2001, going as far as to travel to other countries and continents for metal gigs.

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