Heathen Harvest: Can you begin by sharing with us the violin became your instrument of choice? And how did the violin and music become so central to your creative expression?
Matt Howden: I started playing music at about 15, guitar and bass, and a little singing, and starting bands. I was really drawn to the sound of the violin, and when a girl at school offered me a violin (when I was 18) that was in her attic I gratefully accepted. It’s the violin I still use. I taught myself, I've never had a lesson. Just practiced 4 hours a day for the first year after leaving school, in a gap year before University.
HH: At what point in your life did you consciously decide to become a “professional” musician and pursue music as a career?
MH: From about the age of 20 I had that in mind. And tried for ten years, and it didn't really seem possible, but stuck at it as I love it, and was driven by a series of shit jobs that I had to do in order to fund just being a musician.
HH: Did you grow up with music in your family? And where you encouraged by your family to pursue this interest?
MH: There was music in the family. Both my sisters took grades and lessons in piano. I preferred going to play football, which was at the same time as the lessons. And I suppose there was a wide range of music in the house (though it was never really a big thing in the household) with my sisters playing The Beatles, Bauhaus and Joy Division, and my father playing classical and old folk records. Books were the main thing really- the house was full of books, wall to wall.
HH: When did you become aware of the neofolk / neoclassical music scene and how did you first become involved?
MH: In 1995. I met Karl Blake in Sheffield, whilst I was playing a gig. He introduced me to Tony Wakeford, who needed some violin on his Cupid and Death album, which I went down to London and did. It was a completely new scene to me, not having heard of any of the bands or labels.
HH: You are widely known partially for your participation with the legendary neofolk band Sol Invictus. Can you discuss how your musical relationship with Tony Wakeford and Sol Invictus began?
MH: After doing the session work for Cupid and Death, Tony mentioned he had a solo gig in Lisbon that he would like me to play too. I wrote some melodies to a rough recording of the songs, went to London and had one rehearsal, and then did the concert.
HH: You currently enjoy a thriving solo career as Matt Howden and Sieben. Did you record solo before establishing these two projects? And what was the motivation that led you to establish Seiben and Matt Howden as solo projects?
MH: I did. There were a few singles and 12", an album that came out, and one that never made it out (though it was the best of the lot) with my bands before Sieben. Nothing much to write home about, I was learning my craft and finding my style. I decided to start Sieben in order to have an outlet with my songs. It was great playing with Sol- seeing lots of people turning up to the concerts, already knowing the music. And imagining how it would feel, and how satisfying it would be if the people were coming to hear my music was what spurred me on to start Sieben. The reason I play solo now is varied- partly because I had spent years trying to organize half-hearted people in bands, partly because I played session with so many bands where I adapted my style to fit their sound and wanted to explore my own, and partly because its so nice to lock my self away and give my full concentration to the music. The new Sieben album (which I'm recording at the moment) is based purely and simply around the violin, violin loops, violin beats-on-the-body and voice. But I have also sent rough mixes to various people to add vocals or instruments for me. This is working out well. I should end up with contributions from Patrick Legas, (Six Comm) Amodali, (Mother Destruction) Carlos Boll (The Mystery School), William and Monica (Faith and the Muse), Simone Salvatori (Spiritual Front), Chris Eckman (The Walkabouts) and also from various bands; Larsen (Italy) Defile Des Ames (Greece) and The Raindogs (Portugal), among others...
HH: Did you ever expect that your work as Sieben and Matt Howden would be so widely accepted and anticipated?
MH: I hoped. But mainly I just put my head down and got on with it. I very nearly gave up music, as it was becoming impossible after a few years to live without any income from it. A friend did the I-Ching for me. Although skeptical I listened, and it basically said 'go away and just get good at what you do, and find a way to say what you want, how you want'. Which I have tried to do. It is beautiful and heart-warming to arrive at a gig in Turin, Lisbon, or Sheffield and find that people have come to listen to my music, and have heard my music before.
HH: You are also known for your involvement with Redroom Studios. Can you explain what Red Room is and how you came about creating it?
MH: Redroom is my home studio. Nothing flashy or mega-expensive, but some nice simple equipment, and a beautiful space in which to create music. I keep stuff simple, just a nice mic, a valve preamp, and not too many tracks. I don't have plug-ins or many electronics. I work simply and try and let the music do the talking.
HH: Can you tell us some of the artists who have used the services and facilities at the Red Room?
MH: Sol Invictus, The Mystery School, While Angels Watch, and others have recorded albums here. Other people have sent me mixes for me to add strings, or to remix tracks for them; The Blue Hour, Cello, Chris Eckman from The Walkabouts, and many more. I've also done music for dance companies, documentaries, and short films. Plus all my Sieben and neo-classical MH work. And many local bands too.
HH: You recently released another in a series of co authored releases tilted Hawthorn – The Murky Brine. What brought about this series of collaborations between Tony Wakeford and yourself?
MH: I left Sol to pursue Sieben, as it is my main work. Tony and I are good friends and like working together, so a new project seemed the best idea. We come together with Hawthorn on equal terms, him bringing his Sol sound, me my Sieben, and the mix works well.
HH: Does working on such projects as Hawthorn and The Murky Brine offer a more collaborative environment for you two musicians to function within than say Sol Invictus?
MH: Yes and no. Sol is Tony's work, and though I came up with my own ideas, own melodies and also produced three of the albums, the final say was his. I am always happy for that to be the case- I play with and produce lots of bands, and I always aim to give just what their sound requires, not come with my own agenda. With haWthorn the final say is ours- though we have never ever once disagreed. Its simple- if one of us doesn't like something then we don't use it.
HH: You are well known amidst neofolk fans for lending your talent and collaboration to other bands both large and upcoming. Can you discuss how you come about such collaborations such as your recent work with Harvest Rain?
MH: they asked me. I liked the music, so agreed to do it for a very small payment. It’s sad but true these days, but I have to say no to bands sometimes. I love playing music, but I'm a working musician, and I need to make some sort of living from it- otherwise I wouldn't be able to devote all my time to it. That’s how I've got reasonably good at what I do. So I do work with bands who can pay now (shock horror!) or who I really like the stuff (and do it for nothing) or turn stuff down because sometimes there is just too much 'Matt Howden' around... ;-)
HH: Some of your musical work is very thematic such as Sex and Wildflowers which explored the connection between flowers and human sexuality and more recently The Murky Brine which has the ocean as a recurring theme. Can you discuss how you come about choosing such a theme and explain what the creative process is like when you begin to develop the work?
MH: With Sex and Wildflowers it was a long process that grew gradually. I love to draw themes together and make an album that works as a whole- its just how my mind works, and how I work best. The English wildflower names are so beautiful, and their texture so rich, that it gradually occurred to me over time to draw together the themes of language, sexuality, and nature. With The Murky Brine it was simpler- I like the sound of the sea, and wrote some songs I could put sea sounds on...!
HH: Sex and Wildflowers was originally composed as a live solo performance for violin. You are known for using the violin in innovative and unconventional ways. When did you begin exploring the boundaries of conventional violin music?
MH: When I got myself a loop pedal. Brilliant. I can layer harmonies, make beats using the body of the violin, make bass parts by playing the bass part double-speed and then shifting it down an octave (and consequently half-speed) and it was exhilarating! And it freed me up to be able to do live concerts without needing to sort out getting a band places, or with masses of equipment, and without using any form of backing tape. The results have been startling- the concerts have been amazing since I started to play live like this- people can see the songs growing in front of them. I still have people looking around occasionally trying to spot where I have put the machine for the playback of pre-recorded stuff, and then see it dawn on them that I'm doing it all live. Makes me smile, that.
HH: Creating music around violin “loops” has been very much a part of your music recently. Can you discuss how you have developed this compositional technique?
MH: Sex and Wildflowers was more or less all based around loops that I could play live. I wrote the songs using the loops, and worked through them constantly, honing the technique, and the individual parts of the song. When I recorded the album I added some other instruments, snare, cymbals, electric bass, viola etc. With the new Sieben album "Ogham - Inside the Night,” I'm only using the violin loops themselves, and it really is a progression. I'm getting just the sound I want. the only thing lacking is the 90hz bass drum sound, so I have my friend Jason White playing Cajon (imagine a wooden box you can sit on, with strings and bells taped inside that you can play like a beat-box) to add that dimension. And it works so well.
HH: Throughout the music of Sieben, Howden / Wakeford and Sol Invictus there are numerous references to various myths and legends. Often times these references are specific to Northern European mythology. Do you have personal spiritual beliefs that involve these myths?
MH: I am attracted to their richness, their tapestry, their hope, and their desire to know and understand.
HH: An often time a certain degree of militancy is accompanies music that makes reference to the Northern traditions. Yet In your own music the element of aggression and resistance seems only a minor part of the bigger picture. What has directed your music away from the hardness and militancy that defines so much of the neofolk genre?
MH: A desire for richness and fullness in my music. I can't stand the political implications of some of that scene, or the baseness of the music sometimes. Sometimes its great, and I love martial music and the power it has, but I want to paint in other colours too.
HH: You make regular appearances around neofolk festivals abroad every year. By now you must have a very good insight into the still burgeoning neofolk music scene. What insights can you share as an insider and artist in this community? Do you find that the majority of artists are still scraping by or is there a good living to be made?
MH: I don't think there are many people, and certainly not artists, who are making a good living. There are lovely people in this scene though, it’s always a pleasure. The music industry is dying, certainly in terms of traditional CD sales etc. people copy music- to me that's fine in one sense, I just want people to hear and appreciate my music. But on the other hand I would urge people who love a certain artist whose music they have been copied, to go out and buy the real album, and go find other work by that artist and buy that. That way the artists can carry on doing what they do.
HH: Do you find the scene competitive or cooperative?
HH: In your experience does Europe have the largest number of fans and how does the USA compare?
MH: I’ve only done one tour of The States, along the west Coast. And that was with Sol. I found the people really nice, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable. I'd love to do some Sieben dates in The States. Europe varies- Germany has a much bigger audience for neo-folk, than say Spain or France. But wherever I go the audiences have been fantastic. It just means you can't play as often in the countries such as Denmark or Portugal where there is only a small base of interest in neo-folk and similar music.
HH: Do you feel as if the neofolk scene is commercializing during its growth or do you see it remaining true to its humble roots?
MH: I don't know. I just do what I do, and am grateful that there are people out there who like what I do.
HH: With so many collaborations and opportunities to assist other musicians is there anyone out there that you would like to work with but have not had the opportunity yet?
MH: Tom Waits. Nick Cave.
HH: Can you give us a glimpse into the future and let us know what to be watching for in the musical pipeline from Matt Howden?
MH: I've just this month released my neo-classical Voyager album, and a kind-of best-of with remixes, new tracks, and unheard mixes from my last six albums. And now I'm working on Ogham - Inside the Night, my new Sieben album. Can't express how proud I am of what I’ve done so far, it will put anything else I have done before in the shade.
HH: You work quite often with other bands like Hekate. Do you find that the neofolk community is fairly embracing of diversity?
MH: Yes, in some respects.
HH: And lastly would you like to share anything in parting?
MH: I have nothing wise to hand. Here's the words from the first Ogham track on the new album:
Ogham the sun
The lines of power withdrawn the night page white to notch what we are in dot to dot of star Taulas to the sun we end where we’ve begun the light stone white we Ogham score ratchet the returning sun the sun divine sprang a single word the sun divine to light our way the sun divine sprang a single word the sun divine to light our way from gort the rays down to suckle ailm leaf from the fern sail root dair the rising shoot from sail grazed beast to colled for the feast from the belly to the voice to the sky we implore the sun divine sprang a single word the sun divine to guide our hand the sun divine sprang a single word the sun divine to guide our hand from fearful night to overwrite the mess of stars their spás their empty page hewn to mesh a face form driseg fears into fochlac stone and with our entreat supplant the blank of night with the sun divine sprang a single word the sun divine to light our way the sun divine sprang a single word the sun divine to guide our hand.