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Ciaran O'Hagan Discusses "Kindred Spirits" And Waylander's Storytelling

It is hard to believe that nearly twenty years has passed since brothers Ciaran "Ardchieftain" O'Hagan and his brother Dermot started the pagan band Waylander in Northern Ireland. Through many years of demos and line up changes, Waylander is back with it's fourth album, "Kindred Spirits." The album is in the vein of a heavier pagan metal direction, which the band had shown signs of gravitating towards on their last album.

Another thing that is immediately apparent is the rich storytelling that Waylander is known for. Every album of theirs is not only a bona fide metal experience but an anthropology lesson as well. Vignettes of the Gaelic/Irish history permeate "Kindred Spirits" in the same way they have graced every other release. Chieftain O'Hagan not only sings about the pagan way, but lives it as well. He is involved in many of the traditions that make him and the band distinctly Irish.

Being from Northern Ireland and having a band composed of members on both sides of the divide, it is no wonder that Waylander chooses to focus on the true Irish traditions rather than identifying with the socio-political vagaries and strife that cause dissension. Chieftain was amicable enough to visit with us today and discuss Waylander's direction on the new album "Kindred Spirits" and the relevant tales that have inspired the music of the band.

Sonic: Greetings! As a fan of your storytelling from the previous three albums, I can definitely say that Waylander is not only a fine pagan metal band but a history lesson. Were you and your bandmates avid followers of history, tradition and legends when growing up? They say that the past has valuable lessons on modern day occurences.

Chieftain: I was always drawn to the Folklore and Mythology of my land, ever since I was taken on a family picnic to Emain Macha when I was very young, where the stories of Cú Chulainn and the Red branch Knights send my imagination and curiosity into overdrive. This naturally led on to an interest in History and later Archaeology.

Some of the others are interested in these topics to varying degrees but not many of them would have grown up with it. Studying the old tales and trying to decipher the messages contained within is fascinating to me and this led me toward the Pagan Path which has now become an important part of how i live my life.

Sonic: Waylander and many of your Irish contemporaries such as Mael Mordha without a doubt are some of the best at recounting rich Celtic tradition. The whole Irish region goes back so far in history in terms of culture, even further than some European and South American civilizations. Metal is often best when accompanied by history, as it is a battle hymn of sorts. What would be your take upon this?

Chieftain: Gaelic culture goes back much further than many realise. We have many Cairns and other ancient sites which date back to before the bronze age, indeed, Newgrange is older than the pyramids. The great Bardic tradition has meant that thousands of stories have been passed down through the ages, right down to medieval times when the Christian church in Rome finally reined in the free thinking Celtic church. Luckily many of the old tales were written down by monks but sadly many of them remain untranslated to this day, which to me is criminal.

The old traditions never died out and are as relevant today as in ages past in my opinion. Themes incorporating Warcraft, Honour, Magic and the Old Gods are much more interesting to me than many of the other topics generally covered in the Metal scene. Rather than simply retell stories, I often compare and contrast with modern society, always questioning, always thinking, always seeking answers.

Sonic: The style you have used from your initial two demos to what your current sound has arrived at has been quite a metamorphosis. Waylander went from a simpler metal sound to a sound of ancestral metal fused with native elements such as the jig in "Bru Na Boinne" to a now much more thrashing sound in tracks such as "A Path Well Trodden." It matches your vocals even more on this release. Tell me about your evolution of sound and style.

Chieftain: When we first got together in 1993 most of us were only learning our instruments. Den, for example had never even drummed before. We only got together through boredom, using the band as a means to pass the time. Once we had penned a few songs and played a few gigs we realised that not only were we being appreciated but that we had formed a direction of our own. It was time to take things a little bit more seriously.

When we recorded the debut demo we were restricted by our collective musical abilities at that time but the positive response from the metal underground drove us to improve and expand. The advancement from the 1st to the 2nd demo was the first major step in Waylander's evolution. We felt as a band we had become comfortable on our instruments and the fact that we were doing something different and the fact that the metal underground were heaping praise on the 2nd demo gave us the confidence to play faster and incorporate the extreme Metal influences which most of us had.

Once the record labels came courting us we moved things up another notch which culminated in "Reawakening Pride Once Lost." The 2nd album ended up being an experiment of sorts with the lyrics being based more on spirituality and magic and the music reflected that somewhat, we added more atmosphere as well as a doom/death sound. Once the guitarist Dermot left, the remaining members were always going to move in a heavier, more extreme direction as the dissenting voice was no longer there.

It took us several years and several lineups to find the right people. "Honour Amongst Chaos" ended up sounding very epic with some exceptionally long songs simply due to the fact that these songs had been around for years and we couldn't resist tinkering and adding to them. Now that we had established a stable line up we could concentrate our collective efforts. Before "Kindred Spirits" was written we agreed that the songs would be more to the point as a whole and that heaviness would be the key word, which i think we have achieved

Waylander - "Echoes of the Sidhe" - Kindred Spirits

Sonic: Instead of recording your new one "Kindred Spirits" in the UK as you had initially planned to do, you ventured over to Wales and went with Stone Circles Studio. How was that experience for you? Enlighten us as to how the recording process went for you.

Chieftain: We were originally meant to record in Foel studio in Wales but unfortunately this fell through due to things beyond our control. We were lucky that we had Stone Circle studio to fall back on. We talked about how we could achieve a better sound, decided we could accomplish that and got stuck into the work. I'm not a big fan of the recording process to be honest, so the process seemed to last an eternity. Everyone just went in when they had their parts to record and at the weekends we'd listen back to chart the progress.

We then got offered a European tour so we had to interrupt the recording process to rehearse with a new guitarist and session bass player for that tour. When we came back we resumed but, yet again, we had an offer we couldn't refuse, as we had the chance to play on the main stage at Hammerfest in Wales, which was a very successful show for us. Finally we finished the recording, many many months after we had begun. It was such a relief, especially as I recorded my vocals while suffering from an ear infection. There was a huge sense of collective relief when we sent off the finished article to be mastered.

Sonic: On every album Waylander has issued, we have come to expect primarily tales of lore such as "Morrigan's Domain," songs on burial grounds, pre-Christian Irish power centers in "Emain Macha" and tracks about Irish gods such as "Anu's Retribution." On "Kindred Spirits," the stories seem to cite and evoke even more specific tales than general paeans of heritage.

Chieftain: Lyrically, "Kindred Spirits" doesn't stray too far from the general subject matter used previously. Obviously I was careful not to simply repeat myself but most of the themes covered would have been touched upon on earlier albums. There has always been political commentary in my lyrics, albeit well disguised, but this time I decided to be more transparent, using the song, "Lámh Dearg" to express our take on some of the contentious issues we, as northerners, come face to face with, repeatedly, in our every day lives.

Sonic: In "Echoes of Sidhe," you allude to similar subject matter as you do in the intermission track "Grave of Giants" - that of the mounds of the Lordly Ones. Do the Tuatha de Danaan, the people of the Milesians, reside there? Supposedly fairies come out of the mounds (as in large male warriors).

Chieftain: The Tuatha De Danann were here a long time before the Milesians came. The Milesians were various European tribes [generally grouped together under the banner, Celtic] who were forced west by the Roman empire. The Tuatha Dé Danann eventually became the Gods of Eireann. I have always had a fascination with the Tuatha De Danann, after all, they were/are reputed to be the Gods of our land with all the magical power and mystery that is associated with divine beings.

Legends say that when the Milesians established their ascendancy, the Tuatha Dé Danann vanished from the eyes of mortal man by establishing their realm in the land itself [another plain of existence so to speak]. Their strongholds were reputed to be in the Sidhe [or fairy mounds] and indeed, in the ancient dwellings at the sacred centres throughout the land. In rural areas, The Fairy Folk[as they became known] were very real to people in Ireland up until a century ago and even today, this respect and awe still exists.

This is the basis for "Echoes of the Sidhe" while "Grave of Giants" is more specific, being about an old site near to where I live which was almost destroyed by the expansion of a quarry. Local people contacted the museums and universities who sent people to deconstruct the site and reassemble it in Botanic park in Belfast. To me it's small consolation, but it is interesting to note that after this happened the quarry had nothing but bad luck, including accidents, machinery breaking down, etc, culminating in the striking of an underground stream which flooded the place and put it out of business.

Sonic: These ancestral mounds are very spiritual in Ireland and are taboo to desecrate, I hear. It is said that if you mess with them or an old tree a curse that sounds like a thousand bees will befall your family. The closest thing we have here in America is native burial sites or lava rocks from sites of ancient Hawaiian kings.

Chieftain: There have been countless stories of misfortune befalling those who have desecrated ancient sites. In a lot of cases this misfortune has turned out to be fatal, something which moves even the most ardent non believer to pause for thought. The Tuatha Dé Danann are beings from a higher plain of existence to humans, indeed, when they take human form they struggle to maintain the illusion. In occult/pagan circles there are several people who have had direct contact with these beings, including people I know and trust, so the 'superstitions' are not as ridiculous as they would seem.

Sonic: The track "Lamh Dearg" about the red hand of Ulster could be construed in many ways. Do you feel that the legend relates to the Ui Neill clan and the boat race, the tale of two giants or Niall of the nine hostages who severed his hand when his Viking father couldn't choose which son to give his kingdom to?

Chieftain: The story I was brought up with is the one I relate to most, that of the race. The other two stories you mentioned don't appear in the old manuscripts to the best of my knowledge the point I am making in the lyrics is that the symbol of the Red hand is an ancient one and to the native people symbolises Ulster to this day. Paradoxically, the Unionist people also claim the Red Hand as their symbol and even claim Cú Chulainn as one of their heroes.

That's how messed up the conflict in the north is and a lot of that is down to a lack of education and sheer ignorance. There is a small section of unionism which recognises that it's ok to be proud to be from Ulster AND to be Irish, who recognise that the Gaelic language is for everybody not just for republicans. It's this common ground that is the future for a divided society, that which unites us not what divides us.

We are a band made up of members from both sides of the divide here in N.Ireland, yet music has united us. This is nothing new in the Metal scene and we use this as a spark of hope for the future stability of our land. Find enough things to unite the opponents in a conflict and eventually the divisive issues begin to fade and become things of the past. It is a sensitive issue but we thought the time was right to make a stand on the subject.

Sonic: I personally like the "Twin Fires of Beltine" track about the rite of passage from winter to summer on April 30th as per the Celtic god Bile. Do two fires get lit in round and square bases for males and females? Have you been to this rite? They say that the sun lines up perfectly on the stone Cairns between the Taurus constellation and Aldebaran on that date, still to this day.

Chieftain: Yes, the twin fires still burn to celebrate the ascendancy of Lugh and the coming of summer. Yes, I conduct a Beltíne Ritual annually and some of the lyrics from this song are taken from the Ritual I use. As for stellar alignments, well, there are many many sites throughout Ireland which are aligned to the four Fire festivals of the year, as well as the Solstices and equinoxes.

Sonic: I think that many Americans yearn for a rich history and culture to explain where we come from and give us a sense of nationalism and pride, since our history is so divergent and fractured between several cultures. Have you yourself seen this wave of interest in Celtic/pagan tradition?

Chieftain: There are many Druid, neo-Pagan and Celtic groups in America these days, almost too many. Every American I speak to claims some kind of Irish lineage, which I find amusing. I'm sure they are searching for some kind of identity, which is not surprising in a country which has been populated by immigrants on a massive scale. The native peoples of America have a beautiful tradition and way of looking at the world, maybe more Americans should begin paying more attention to that and the world would undoubtedly become a better place.

Waylander - "Bru Na Boinne" - Honour Amongst Chaos

Sonic: I know you get asked to death about the periods of inactivity and changes in members stalling album releases. "Honour Amongst Chaos" only had a couple of the members from its predecessor. But, after the departure of Hugh who went to London, you once again have a second guitarist on "Kindred Spirits" in the form of Tor. You definitely aimed for this more metallic sound with dual axemen, no?

Chieftain: The lineup changes were traumatic in the past but we've become so used to it now, that when Hugh had to leave we weren't that worried. We never rushed to fill the void as we were busy writing the new album anyway but when the Black Trolls tour was confirmed we had to begin a thorough search. As it turned out things just seemed to click into place.

I'd known Tor for many years, he even played in a band with bassist Michael who supported us back in the very early days, so, when he returned from living in America and England we stayed in touch. When the guitar slot became an urgent matter I simply asked Tor, he agreed and we haven't looked back since. We've always wanted twin guitars and for the most part through our history this has been the case. We like our music hard and heavy so it is natural for us, after all, we are a Metal band first and foremost.

Sonic: Drummer Den, who only left briefly during "The Light, the Dark and the Enless Knot" no doubt has further bolstered the sound due to his thrash/death origins. The overall pace on the album is much faster and for a far more sustained period than you have done in the past.

Chieftain: Getting Den back in his rightful place was perhaps the most important element in melding the new lineup together. Michael and I know his style, his strengths and his musical taste so immediately we felt comfortable It didn't take Saul very long to get used to playing with Den either and once that element solidified we had built solid foundations and "Honour Amongst Chaos" came together fairly quickly after that.

We wanted an injection of tempo and extremity on this album. On the last release, the songs were around for so long that we kept adding to them and experimenting with structures and this led to lengthy songs, and at times the epicness was a little bit over the top. For "Kindred Spirits" we wanted to be more to the point, yet still retain the folk elements and the appropriate epic passages.

Sonic: The tin whistle player, Dave, originally played guitar for Runecaster and joined you on the third album. Does he ever get the desire to pick up the guitar or he has enough work cut out for him to constantly harmonize on the whistle?

Chieftain: Dave plays with his side project band and when one of the guitarists can't make rehearsal he stands in for them so he's getting plenty of guitar practice.

Sonic: Your official album launch was at Lurgan in the middle of August, but I notice that the official release in Ireland isn't until the 6th of October over at the Pint in Dublin. Why is that?

Chieftain: "Kindred Spirits" was released in Europe on July. We decided to play a local album launch rather than the predictable Belfast or Dublin launches which every other band does It is a small venue, no stage, and it brought us back to our roots, playing in pubs and trying to get noticed! It was an intimate show where we played for over 95 minutes, which was our longest set ever and although it was hard work at times, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

We had planned no more gigs until October due to the simple fact that some of us had holidays to take, places to go, people to see, etc. Sometimes it is difficult accommodating 6 members in a band. Our Dublin show is now an afternoon all ages show which is great as we've never really played all ages shows before. It will be an amazing day I'm sure. We get to headline a great lineup of bands, then after a quick change we can head off to another venue to watch the amazing Voivod in action.

Sonic: I read in an interview that you plan on possibly doing an epic undertaking on the Tain Bo Cuailnge tale of the cattle raid of Cooley. That would be a massive project. Would you arrange it like the two books that are out on the subject? Or, would you start with the magical Dunn Bull, head over to Queen Medb's armies in Cruachan and onto the supernatural figure of Lugh. That would be a double album - ha!

Chieftain: I've been toying with the idea of doing a concept album of the epic, An Tain Bó Cuailgne, for many years. It would be a huge undertaking, both musically and lyrically and would be putting huge pressure upon us to do the concept justice, We would have to set the bar higher than ever before, much higher. So, I don't know when we will do it but it will happen sooner or later. We've discussed the idea, albeit briefly, on several occasions and out of this we mentioned the possibility of writing two albums at once, the Tain and another unrelated album.

No decisions have been made yet as we want to make sure the current live set is flawless before we even consider writing new material. When we eventually begin writing ' An Tain,' it won't simply be a case of retelling the story, but interpreting the meanings and exploring the themes within that story and putting the music to it that we deem appropriate. It will be a challenge, undoubtedly, but one I am very much looking forward to.

Sonic: With "Kindred Spirits" being your second release for Listenable Records, what has your experience with them settled into?

Chieftain: Well, we know them and they know us which helps in terms of getting honest answers from each other. Due to the financial crisis the music business is in from a Label perspective, it can often be exasperating due to financial constraints, though, in saying that, this applies to all labels, big or small, and is something we're not naive enough to understand. At the end of the day, Listenable signed us when we needed a Record Label and we're appreciative of that. Ideally I'd like better distribution from the Label but all bands would like their situations to be better I suppose.

Sonic: Before the release of this album, Waylander spent time on the tour/festival circuit, ranging from the Welsh Hammerfest to the Black Trolls Over Europe tour. Any memorable stories or interesting happenstances you would like to share with us from your time on the road?

Chieftain: I have a tour report from Black Trolls over Europe on our website and I don't really want to add any more stories in order to protect the innocent. I had to edit my original version or I would have been killed, haha! Hammerfest was a great weekend, it was relaxing yet fun. Before we left I had been off the drink for 3 months and off the smokes for a few days, you can guess what happened next.

Our show on the main stage on the Friday was a memorable one.There was a huge crowd and we were well received so we went off for a few well earned drinks, even Dave, who just doesn't drink, joined in. It was a long and messy night where we even managed to pick up some strays who ended up staying with us for the weekend. Saul invented a vile cocktail he named LiliBo, which was Buckfast Tonic wine [google it] and Lilt and actually tasted considerably less vile than it sounds.

Drinking all day Saturday certainly made watching the bands an interesting experience with Hell's theatrical performance being particularly mind blowing. It was another messy night but as luck would have it, the next day we realised that a real Ale Festival was on in the local town, and as we had several hours to kill before we went for the Ferry, we thought it would be rude not to imbibe several pints. Strangely, there were no real wild stories to tell about our 3rd visit to Pontins holiday camp, none that we could make public anyway, but, considering how insane our previous two visits were, it is probably just as well.

sonictherapy's avatar

Vicky Willis has been a freelance journalist and former college radio disc jockey for almost twenty years. She has been contributing to Metalunderground.com since 2010.

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