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Interview

Cruachan Frontman Keith Fay Discusses Next Album, 70000 Tons Of Metal And Keeping Folk In Folk Metal

Folk metal has become a hugely popular sub-genre over the last fifteen years. Bands like Korpiklaani and Finntroll have experienced commercial success and become regular performers at festivals across Europe. But to truly understand folk metal, one must go back to the roots and see why folk music itself is perhaps just as metal the genre it became fused with. Tales of misery, oppression and violence seem tailor made to be adapted to metal music and yet it wasn't until the nineties that this came to be, when Skyclad released their first album, "The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth." Shortly after this, a young man from Dublin named Keith Fay took this idea and ran with it, embellishing the folk side and becoming a major architect in the sub-genre we love today, with a band of his own named Cruachan.

Fast forward to 2020 and Cruachan are as strong as ever, having finished their acclaimed "blood trilogy" with "Nine Years Of Blood" in 2018 and now looking at recording their next album, as well as performing no less than three sets on this year's 70000 Tons Of Metal cruise. It was on board this floating festival that I had the pleasure of meeting up with Keith Fay to discuss the history of the band, the genesis of folk metal and how it got to its current form. You can watch the interview in full below.

Diamond Oz: As we discussed before we started filming, you played last night/early this morning. You’re one of the hardest working bands on this ship as you’re performing three sets, including one in the pub. What can we expect from that set?

Keith Fay: Well we said to Andy when he asked us to do this, that we’re going to recreate a typical Dublin pub on a Saturday night, where all the tourists go. So it’s going to be all the rebel songs, the drinking songs. “Come Out Ye Black & Tans,” and all that kind of stuff. We’ve done a couple of covers of these throughout our career like “Rocky Road to Dublin” and “Ride On,” that type of thing, so we’re doing the proper acoustic version as they’re meant to be heard. It should be good. We’ve printed out booklets so the crowd can sing along. We’re a bit worried because so many people have said they’re coming along but that Ale & Anchor pub can hold maybe a hundred people and we’re expecting at least a thousand. We’ll see what happens!

Oz: Well right now you’re still promoting the latest album, “Nine Years Of Blood,” which is part of the “Blood trilogy.” Now that the dust has settled, how do you see that album in particular as part of the Cruachan catalogue?

Keith: The “Blood trilogy” was interesting. We did the first one on Candlelight Records from the UK, we see that as kind of a rebirth for the band, it was bringing us into the new era of metal and that kind of thing. We’ve been playing folk metal for twenty seven years but folk metal’s only become popular in the last fifteen years so we needed to do something a little bit fresh, a little bit new and that’s where “Blood on the Black Robe” came from. Then we did “Blood For the Blood God” on Trollzorn Records and “Nine Years Of Blood” on Trollzorn. They’ve been fantastic for us, the likes of playing festivals like this. We didn’t do this type of thing fifteen years ago. But we’ve just signed a new record deal with Despotz Records, the biggest metal label in Sweden so things are going really well for us right now!

Oz: One would assume then that that’s a sign of a new album to come?

Keith: We’ll be working on a new album this year. We hope to have a new album recorded within 2020.

Oz: Lovely. Like you said, folk metal has really blown up over the past fifteen years. To begin with it was just yourselves and Skyclad, maybe Subway To Sally a little bit later on. When you were doing this kind of thing, did you ever think that other people would use their own heritages and put their own spin on it?

Keith: Yeah, I did! I was fifteen years old when I wrote the first Cruachan album and I was listening to black metal, the Norwegian black metal explosion is what gripped me as a young child. Bands like Nocturnus bringing keyboards into death metal, I was just blown away by that. I heard the first Skyclad album and it was a thrash album, but the song, “The Widdershin’s Jig” was on there that’s got violins and it was folk, that had a huge influence on me and I said, “Well why not do this as the main focus of your band? Folk music mixed with heavy metal.” As soon as that first album went out, we got record deal offers from so many big record labels like Century Media. This was back in 1995/96, but like I said I was a kid and we had a manager and I didn’t know what was going on so I just assumed everything he said was legit and accurate. He advised us to turn down the deal with Century Media so we did and ended up breaking up in 1997.

Oz: So that was more on the advice of your manager than an actual band decision?

Keith: Exactly. We were just too young and too naive. We were making something really fresh and original that had never been done in metal but we thought that having a manager is what you’re clearly supposed to do. When we reformed in 1998, I missed it all to not be making music, since then I’ve been the manager, I’ve looked after all the administration stuff and negotiations with record labels and that. I always think it’s interesting to think what could have happened back then if we did sign with Century Media and they did put the money behind us, but when we turned down them down, only a couple of months later they signed Waylander from Northern Ireland and released one album, it didn’t work out, so maybe it would have been the same with us. Who knows?

Oz: It’s all ifs and buts. That’s interesting though, because I read that it was yourselves who found the offer from Century Media insulting.

Keith: The way it is, the offer from Century Media stated clearly that any noise made by my body would be their property, which is kind of crazy. But since then, we’ve had record labels and record deals with similar kinds of clauses in the contract and it’s just a protection thing for the record label. It’s not really that bad. If we could go back in time and see that contract now, I think it would have been kind of standard.

Oz: This year’s a special one because it’s the twenty fifth anniversary of the debut. Are there any plans to mark this milestone?

Keith: No, not really. We did that a year and a half ago, we celebrated our twenty fifth anniversary in Dublin and that was awesome. We got Skyclad over to play and it was great to have the two founders of folk metal together on one stage because we’d played with them once or twice before and they’re the nicest guys and I’m such a big fan of Skyclad. The funny thing was when we were on stage I said to the audience, “Anyone with Wikipedia will probably know that this is actually our twenty sixth anniversary but don’t say anything.” We’re not going to do anything to mark “Tuatha Na Gael” except maybe a Facebook post or something like but no big party or anything.

Oz: I think it’s better to mark something like that with new material or something to prove that you’re as strong as you were back then. Last night was interesting because you did the Alestorm cover (“Mexico,”) like you said, somebody had to do it. Was that the sole reason for doing it?

Keith: Yeah, well we’re really good mates with Alestorm, we’ve known for years and Gaz (Gareth Murdock) used to play in Waylander and we played together. Peter we’ve known a long time and the rest of them we’ve got to know just through touring and festivals but I’m a fan of Alestorm. It’s so cool in the black metal world to diss Alestorm; “They’re not cool. They’re not cult,” I think they’re fucking awesome. We saw a lot of people on the Facebook page saying they had to book Alestorm since we’re going to Mexico, so our original plan was to do an acoustic version of “Mexico” in the pub set and then we thought, “That’s going to be kind of difficult to work out, let’s just do it on stage” so that’s where that came from. It had to be done!

Oz: Something that’s been playing on my mind for quite a while now is that Ireland has a very rich heritage in general and probably one of the most well known types of folk music in the world. Nowadays there’s plenty of other bands, moreso from the punk area like Dropkick Murphys, that have taken that kind of music and almost turned it into a gimmick. Does that bother you at all?

Keith: Yeah, it really does piss me off. Not with the Dropkick Murphys. They respect the folk tradition. I know it’s a gimmick for them but so many folk metal bands now; It’s funny and stupid and it’s drinking songs. I know I spoke about Alestorm and you couldn’t pick a bigger example of a funny, jokey band but at least I know the guys and I know they get what they’re doing. In Cruachan, folk music isn’t funny, it’s often quite sad, it’s very dramatic. It’s the written word of the heritage and the history of the people and Ireland has gone through so much turmoil from fighting the Vikings, fighting the English and that kind of thing and that’s where our folk tradition comes from. It’s very sad! There’s a lot of sadness in folk music and we do that.

So when I started folk metal and a folk metal band back in the nineties, I never thought in a million years that it would become this happy, funny thing because that’s not what it’s about, it’s very sad. So to see all these Scandinavian bands, the Viking metal bands and they’re all dancing… Having said that, that’s also an important part of it as well. You need to chill out and relax and have fun and we’ve always done that in Cruachan.

We have our drinking songs as well but to see all these folk metal bands become so popular because they’re funny, drinking and having a laugh… I did not expect it to go that way, I thought it would have gone our way, like early Bathory albums, there’s a lot of folk on there. They’d be the closest to where I thought folk metal was going to go. When Quorthorn was doing this stuff in the late eighties, he got it. Really melancholic type music and acoustic based stuff… That’s where I thought it was going to go but it went the other way and once people are happy, who cares?

Oz: Yeah and I suppose the Viking bands sound a lot happier because they won most of the time.

Keith: Yeah, until they came to Ireland!

Oz: Well, just finally, what’s in store for the rest of the year? You mentioned you want to get to work on the new album but are there any tours in the works?

Keith: Touring is difficult. Most guys in Cruachan have white collar jobs. We’re the most uncool guys you’ll ever meet. I remember Anders, the drummer from Unleashed who’s a very good friend was talking with me one night and he asked “What do you do for a living?” I’m a business continuity consultant, he works for a software company, he’s an accountant… But our drummer works in a record shop! There’s one guy in Cruachan keeping it real!

But for us it’s tough. We were offered a North American tour with Alestorm last year, we couldn’t do it. We were offered another North American tour with Arkona, again we can’t do it. We literally can’t tour for more than two weeks because of vacation and that kind of stuff so we tend to stick to festivals. We’re doing a couple of festivals this year. One in Ukraine, Faine Misto, which is one of the biggest festivals there. We’ve got Wolfzeit festival coming up and a few others that I can’t think of but we need to spent this year writing the new album because we’ve just signed with Despotz Records so we need to get an album out by the end of the year.

So if we keep things quiet this year and get that writing done because it is tough to write when you’re full time employed and we all have families and stuff like that. It’s difficult to keep both worlds balanced. Sometimes we leave work on a Friday afternoon, fly to Siberia and do a concert, then we’re back at work on the Monday morning. Whereas, talking to the guys from Alestorm and it’s a full time job for them, it is easy to do that when they don’t have another job.

Oz: Yeah and I’m sure you get people on Facebook all the time asking why you don’t come to them… And not just you, but Primordial and even Skyclad I would imagine.

Keith. Yeah, if only they knew. Skyclad are enjoying a nice resurgence at the moment but they dipped almost out of recognition and they’re coming back now which is absolutely awesome.

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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