As a member of Death In June from 1980 to 1984, an occasional collaborator with Current 93, and most importantly with his own project Sol Invictus from 1987 to the present day, Tony Wakeford is one of the founding fathers of the post-industrial musical genre which has come to be known, somewhat problematically, as neo-folk. Classic Sol Invictus albums including Trees In Winter (1990), In The Rain (1995), The Blade (1997) and In A Garden Green (1999) feature an acoustic folk sound, often augmented with rich chamber music textures, and filled with cultural pessimism, romantic melancholy and a peculiarly English exploration of our primordial, and often bloody, pagan heritage. All these albums were released on Tony’s own record label, Tursa, and distributed through the influential but ill-fated World Serpent Distribution.
The period since the collapse of World Serpent in 2004 has been one of retooling and retrenchment for Sol Invictus and Tursa. Sol Invictus has evolved into a five-piece line-up, featuring Tony Wakeford on guitar and vocals, Tony’s wife Renée Rosen on violin, Caroline Jago on bass, Lesley Malone on bodhran and laptop electronics, and Andrew King on vocals an percussion. Andrew is also a solo performer, a scholar of traditional British folk music, and a member, along with Tony Wakeford, of the duo The Triple Tree. This latest incarnation of Sol Invictus made its live premiere at the Water Rats Theatre in London in December 2006, also releasing three tracks on the accompanying souvenir CD A Mythological Prospect Of The Citie Of Londinium.
This interview with Tony Wakeford took place in a pub near his home in Waterloo, London, on 13 April 2008. Also present was the American-Israeli producer and musician Reeve Malka, who now runs the Tursa label alongside Tony, and who is also a member of Orchestra Noir, another of Tony’s many musical projects. We were joined later by Andrew King.
Heathen Harvest: I’d like to begin by asking you about the sense of locale in your work. You live in Waterloo now. Have you always lived in London?
I’ve lived in various parts of London since late 1976, always in south London, apart from a month in Notting Hill.
HH: Do you come from London?
No, my dad comes from Brixton, but I was born in Woking.
HH: Because you sound like a Londoner.
Well, that’s my dad’s influence.
HH: Some Sol Invictus songs have dealt with geographical locales, either in the most general terms, like ‘Death Of The West’, ‘Looking For Europe’ and ‘In Europa’, or songs about England, like ‘English Murder’ or ‘Old London Weeps’ and so on. How important is a sense of geography to your work?
It’s so important that I never even think about it. For me, most art that I appreciate is attached to a specific place and time, and reactions and feelings to that place and time. For good or bad, I’m an English artist, and trying to pretend that I’m American or whatever is a pointless exercise. Being in this place and time is
comes out in everything I do.
HH: You were recently interviewed by sociologist Peter Webb, who has written about the neo-folk subculture. When I talked to Peter about neo-folk, I suggested to him that neo-folk was essentially a punk rock take on the pastoral ideal, because when you go back to the earliest manifestations of the genre, with Death In June and Current 93 and your own work in Sol Invictus, you guys weren’t peasants working the land, you were living in bedsits in London and Freya Aswynn’s basement in Tufnell Park, and the music was about a disgust with the city and a longing for a more rural life. Is that a fair assessment?
I think that’s as valid an outlook on it as anything else. I’ve never even really thought about the reasons for the music’s origins. I think it was one of those sort of things where a group of people, including Douglas P. , David Tibet and myself, all independently moved away from what was supposed to be sort of post-punk or industrial, stepped outside it a bit and moved more into folk music. It seemed to coalesce under this neo-folk title. I’m not for it or against it, really. A lot of neo-folk is just Death In June or Sol by numbers, really. There’s much more interesting music outside neo-folk. But I’ve got no problem if people call me that.
HH: In fact, your musical point zero is situated in punk rock, with the band Crisis, which broke up and then evolved into Death In June, which started out with a post-punk, very Joy Division-influenced sound, and then became more folky.
A lot of that was because before Sol Invictus, I was playing bass in Death In June. But after DIJ, I started learning the guitar, and writing songs for acoustic guitar, which naturally pushes you in the direction of more melodic song structures, with less of a thumping rock feel to them.
HH: Bringing things up to date a bit more, we last talked in the autumn of 2006 [for an interview published in issue 14 of Zero Tolerance magazine], before the Water Rats show. At that point, you were talking about a forthcoming album called Aprilis. This has now been renamed The Cruellest Month, but it still hasn’t been released. What’s happening with that?
It’s been stripped down and rebuilt, taking it in a new direction, with a wider group of musicians being involved. I’ve recently signed to the German label Auerbach Tonträger, a subdivision of Prophecy Productions
, which is very exciting for me, and hopefully exciting for them, and we’re not rushing the new album, but we’re roughly planning for it to come out late this year or very early next year, and on the back of that, we’re planning to gradually re-release the Sol Invictus back catalogue.
HH: You’ve given up on the idea of releasing the album in April, then?
Absolutely, yeah. It might even change titles again. Trying to arrange for it to come out in April any year is asking too much! But it should be out by early next year.
HH: And will that be a Tursa release?
It’ll be on Tursa via Prophecy. It’s a Prophecy release, but it’ll have the Tursa imprint on it.
HH: That will be the first studio album since The Devil’s Steed in 2005, so there’s been a fairly substantial hiatus with Sol Invictus. You have the new line-up now. How’s that working out?
The new line-up works very well, on a personal level as well as a musical level. I’m also using a larger pool of collaborating musicians, so I can have different line-ups for different concerts or whatever. They’re not tied to me, I’m not tied to them, it’s a lot more fluid. We’re going to have cello on this album, for the first time in a long time. We’re experimenting with loops and electronics. We’re using a dulcimer for the first time. It’s been a very creative period.
HH: You say you’re drawing on a larger pool of musicians, but you also have a fixed core membership of four other people, so Sol Invictus isn’t so much your solo project anymore, is it?
I think it’s still me working with collaborators. I’m still the songwriter. I’m very open to the ideas of other people, but in the end, with Sol Invictus, I have the last say. It’s my band, and everyone knows that. But it has more of the feel of a band now than it used to, I suppose.
HH: Are there going to be female vocals on the new album? Because in preparing for this interview, I was listening to the albums The Hill Of Crosses (2000) and Thrones (2002), and Sally Doherty’s vocals are really important on those albums.
There may be some, I haven’t really decided yet. I’m working with various singers on various projects, but it’s a question of deciding who fits in best where. There’s an a cappella group in Norway who I’m really interested in, and there are a couple of things that they could chorus on, but it’s all up in the air at the moment, I haven’t decided.
HH: Are they like a Scandinavian folk thing?
They’re called Saffron, they do everything from traditional Scandinavian folk right through to jazz, and they’re really, really good.
HH: Will your new album have any jazz or blues on it, or have you moved out of that phase?
Not really, no. It has much more of a classical atmosphere to it. We’re using flute, percussion, dulcimer, cello and violin.
HH: You said there was going to be loops and electronics as well. Is that going to be more in the vein of ‘In God We Trust’, which had quite a strident industrial sound to it?
Yeah, but it’ll be more on the ambient side of things, not so percussive.
HH: That track seemed like a bold departure for Sol Invictus.
It was built up around something which I accidentally looped, and which worked.
HH: Are you playing bass on the new album, or is anybody?
It’s a mixture of me playing some double bass and some electric bass, and Caroline doing some bass as well.
HH: Just a couple of days ago, I got a MySpace bulletin about a show you’re doing in London in October, with Arcana supporting. Can you tell me about how this show came about?
I’ve been discussing it with Justin Mitchell at Cold Spring Records
off and on for a month or so [Cold Spring organised Sol Invictus’s last London show, and Sol Invictus contributed to last year’s acclaimed Cold Spring dark folk compilation John Barleycorn Reborn]. It was just a question of finding the right venue and the right day. Justin came up with the other bands who are playing.
HH: Have there been many more live shows since the Water Rats show in 2006?
We didn’t play in the UK last year. We played in Italy and Germany, though. We just did two shows in Germany a couple of weeks ago, and we have a date in Holland in August. I’m doing a solo performance with Renée in Germany at the end of May, and The Triple Tree, which is Andrew King and myself, are doing what will hopefully be the first of a monthly residency of Tursa artists at Ryan’s Bar in Stoke Newington on the 29 June. If that goes well, there’ll be a show on the last Sunday of every month, showcasing Tursa groups, or friends of ours.
HH: That seems like a good point at which to ask you more generally about Tursa. Again, last time we talked, I got the impression that Tursa was pretty much on the ropes, with a lot of financial problems. But it seems like there’s been a resurgence in activity from the label, specifically to do with the involvement of Reeve Malka.
Yes, originally, Reeve and I were going to work together purely on a musical thing, but Reeve has a lot of enthusiasm and get-up-and-go, which I lack, and we share a lot in common, so he became a business partner in Tursa. I’m stuck with being identified with a certain genre, whereas Reeve doesn’t have that dubious honour, so there are some interesting artists who he’s brought into the field of vision, and Tursa will be releasing a greater diversity of artists. There are still financial problems, but they are less than they were, and the whole weight of the Sol Invictus thing, I don’t have to worry about so much now, as Prophecy are handling that. I know that back catalogue is in good hands, which has loosened things up a bit, to concentrate on side projects and finding other artists we want to work with.
HH: Reeve, maybe you could answer this question. What’s the current release schedule looking like for Tursa?
The Triple Tree album Ghosts, which is based on the short stories of M.R. James, will be out in the next couple of months. Then we’re doing a promo compilation, a label sampler to showcase the entire Tursa repertoire. I’m getting the bands to submit a track each, then I’m mixing it and we’ll overdub things, and it’ll come with the Tursa stamp of quality! That will be my first production for the label, so it’s very exciting, and we’re want it to highlight the new direction that Tursa is taking.
HH: I know that you, Tony, aren’t so interested in the business end of things, so is it a big relief having someone helping you out with all that?
Yeah, absolutely. At school, in subjects like maths, I just stared out of the window, so it’s good to have someone who’s up on that side of things as well as the artistic side.
HH: Don’t you ever wish you were just signed to a major label and all you had to do was play your guitar and sing and not worry about all this stuff?
Well, I think those days are pretty much gone anyway, for most artists. Yeah, if someone was putting hundreds of thousands of pounds in my bank account, obviously that’d be nice, but the whole thing’s topsy-turvy now. The bands we’re working with on Tursa aren’t tied to us by contracts, they can do whatever they like. There’s a family of groups who can help each other, and in a world of millions of different groups on MySpace, instead of just dissipating, at least Tursa has some kind of a name, and those artists can benefit from that, and we can benefit from their input.
HH: You think it’s useful having a group identity, or a brand?
Yes, when you have an eastern European folk band like Zunroyz, or an avant-garde artist like Susan Matthews
, it’s not easy for people like that to find an audience, so we all help each other out. We had a little show at Bonnington’s in Vauxhall, and there was none of that ‘make the support band have a crap sound’ kind of thing, everyone helped each other out, lent each other equipment, and so on. It would be really nice if we could keep that feeling. I don’t know whether we can or not, musicians being what they are, but so far it’s been very positive.
HH: Just going back to the Sol Invictus back catalogue deal you have with Prophecy, how did that come about?
It started when Martin Koller from Prophecy contacted me, and I’d personally always held Prophecy in quite high regard, which is quite a rarity among record labels. I asked around, and nobody really had a bad thing to say about the label. The worst that anybody said was that they could maybe do a bit more advertising, but there was no question of dishonesty or treating their artists like shit. I’d very slightly worked for them on the Sol Invictus track for the Looking For Europe book and compilation, and I was very pleased when Martin, out of the blue, sent me an email proposing a deal.
HH: Yes, there a lot of bands on Prophecy who I like a lot, such as Empyrium and Dornenriech. But what’s the release schedule for Sol Invictus looking like?
Well, first of all there’s the new studio album, and after that, what Martin is talking about is one reissue every few months, with a common look to the releases, maybe a portrait format digipack, and Martin was proposing a boxed set, so that people can collect the albums and put them in the box.
HH: Do you know in what order they’ll be coming out?
Not for sure yet. Maybe in chronological order, but not necessarily, but all the studio albums will definitely be coming out.
HH: There are a couple of Sol Invictus reissues out at the moment anyway, aren’t there? You have In The Rain on the Russian label Infinite Fog Productions/Eternal Pride Productions, and the Sol Veritas Lux release, which collects the first two Sol Invictus albums, and which was released on Tursa / Dark Vinyl in 2006. So are those albums going to reappear in Prophecy versions?
They’ll come out again, but with extra artwork, some outtakes and remixes. There’s also an album I’ve done with the new line-up, plus Guy Harries from Orchestra Noir, who’s started playing flute with Sol Invictus live, and in the studio as well. That album was recorded live in the studio in London, and that’s going to be an extra bonus album for people who collect the set.
HH: Thinking about the Sol Invictus back catalogue, I was wondering if there were any songs in there which you wouldn’t be interested in playing now, for political or aesthetic as opposed to purely practical reasons?
Yes, ‘Death Of The West’ would be one.
HH: That’s interesting, because Douglas P., who co-wrote it, was still playing that song in his last live performances.
That’s fine, but it doesn’t represent where I am now. It’s too much like living in the past for me. That’s just how I feel about it. I don’t really plan on playing ‘Looking For Europe’ again either, or any of the ones which are more preachy and ranty, really. I don’t have any urge to be up on a soapbox proclaiming anymore. I prefer the more personal stuff. That’s what I’m better at, really.
HH: Let’s talk some more about your bewildering profusion of other projects. We already mentioned The Triple Tree, and the Ghosts album, which is going to be co-released with Cold Spring. There was also a Triple Tree track on the John Barleycorn Reborn compilation last year. Was that the first Triple Tree release?
Yes it was, and that got a very good reaction, it was played on Radio 6, so that bodes well for the album.
HH: You have your solo album Into The Woods out now on Tursa / Dark Vinyl, and I believe you have another solo album coming out soon, called Not All Of Me Will Die. Can you tell me about that project?
Yes, that’s going to come out on an Israeli label called The Eastern Front
, who I met when I was visiting Israel for a wedding. It’s run by a couple called Ygor and Tanya, who are really nice, and so I’m doing a concept album for them which should be out some time this year. I’m working on it in my spare moments. The album is based on the writings of a Polish poetess called Zuzanna Ginczanka, who was shot just before the end of the Second World War. There’s very little written about her or known about her, but some of her poems survived, and I found them very, very evocative and moving. It seemed fitting for this album to come out on an Israeli label.
HH: So why isn’t it on Tursa?
It’s a long story. The musical side of it was originally done for a Polish chap who lived in Ireland, who asked me to do something for a Polish charity which helps children with serious illnesses, but unfortunately he ran into problems, so the project was put on hold. But because this was a Polish thing, I was looking around for something with a Polish angle, and I was in contact with Tanya and Ygor, and they were very keen on using this work, which seemed fitting, as Zuzanna Ginczanka was Jewish.
HH: OK, you’re also busy with another project, called Grey Force Wakeford, in collaboration with Nick Grey and also Kris Force from Amber Asylum, and which has an album out on Athanor Records. How did you come to be working with Kris Force?
I’ve known Kris on and off for years, and she came over here to do some recording whilst she was on holiday, and I discovered that, independently of me, she knew Nick Grey, who, through the horrors of MySpace, I’d also hooked up with, and so the three of us just started swapping tapes and WAV files. We put it all together and made an album.
HH: So it was basically a sort of musical love triangle?
Yeah, Kris is the meat in our sandwich! Don’t print that!
HH: Ah, c’mon, I’ve got to !
No, she’s a great girl and good to work with. I’ve not met Nick, though. He was based in Montreal, and then in Monaco. I think he’s back in Canada now.
HH: Do you have any plans to work with Matt Howden again, either as Howden Wakeford, or HaWthorn, or in another project?
Well, we’re hoping that when the Tursa nights start, he’s agreed to come done and do one of those nights, and we’re both playing at this Amsterdam festival, so we’ll do a rock-star thing, where he’s going to come on stage for a song! There are no plans to record together again at the moment, because we’re both really, really busy. But we’re certainly still really good friends. I think we might try to play live together again some time. There was talk of me, him and Simone from Spiritual Front
maybe doing something together in Italy, which would be nice. Simone has also agreed to do a Tursa night, incidentally, if that comes together.
HH: And then there’s Orchestra Noir, which is the new incarnation of L’Orchestre Noir, which released a couple of albums in the late 90s. Orchestra Noir has an EP, Affordable Holmes, out on Portuguese label Extremocidente, and there are plans for an album to follow that. How is that project coming along?
Slowly, but it’s very, very promising. There are some brilliant musicians working on that, and the album is basically all there, it’s done. We’re just sorting out some female vocals, and maybe some extra male vocals aside from mine.
HH: Do you have anyone in mind for that?
Yeah, Reeve’s been sticking his nose in there.
I’ve been negotiating with some people, but I can’t talk about that in print yet.
At this point, Andrew King arrives, and he begins by describing the problems he’s having recording the bells at Greenwich, which he wants to use on his upcoming collaborative album with Brownsierra, Thallassocracy.
The track in the middle of the album about the death of Lord Nelson
is unaccompanied vocals, it’s the only unaccompanied track on the album, and it seemed suitable, because the naval college at Greenwich was the centre of the British Empire, essentially, to record the bell that Nelson and the other naval officers would have heard when they were there. So I’ve been trying to get a decent recording of the bells, with permission, but because there are flights going over Greenwich every hour, it’s virtually impossible to get a recording without the noise of aeroplanes on it. Which might just work, but I’d also like to have the option of having some bells without the background noise. So I’ve arranged to go into the tower this Thursday and record them at 11 and 12 o’clock.
HH: Just a suggestion, but maybe you could have the bells with no plane noise at the beginning, and then with plane noise at the end, to symbolise the past and the present.
It’s certainly a possibility, and it may even be better to leave the ambient noise in, as we’ve used field recordings throughout the album, but I’d just like to have the option, and see which one works best.
HH: You also have several albums coming out, I think. Do you know when your new solo album Deus Ignotus will be released?
That’ll be after the Brownsierra album and the Triple Tree album. We were hoping to get it out at the same time, but we’ve had a number of technical problems with the studio we were using, but that’s about 90% finished. It would have been nice to get it done in time for the Wave Gothic Treffen festival in Liepzig, in May, particularly as one of the pieces is a song in alt Deutsch, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible now.
HH: I was wondering whether the balance of power in Sol Invictus has shifted at all, given that you’re now in the band and you’re another songwriter.
I’m not really a songwriter, I do traditional songs, so I don’t think I’m queering Tony’s pitch, so to speak. I don’t think anything’s changed, to be honest.
HH: Well, there are two male vocalists now.
Yes, but people come to a Sol Invictus gig to see Tony. If he wasn’t there, people would be a little bit perturbed, wouldn’t they? But if the rest of us didn’t show up, it wouldn’t matter so much, there’d just be a smaller band sound.
And more money for me!
So I don’t really see a big change there, other than we probably travel a bit better than the old band did.
HH: Is the balance of power more evenly distributed in The Triple Tree, then?
Oh, most definitely, yes! That’s a different thing altogether, and although Tony came up with the idea for the album, I think it’s fair to say that I have contributed quite considerably to it. [general laughter]
HH: So were you both admirers of M.R. James already?
We both know his work inside out. We have slightly different angles on it, but that’s only to be expected. Most of the compositions on Ghosts are Tony’s, but I contributed an awful lot on the vocal front, particularly spoken word, and research as well.
HH: Well, you have a good voice for M.R. James characters – slightly plummy, Oxbridge sounding. It’s a little bit less estuarised than Tony’s, isn’t it? [more general hilarity]
Yes, for representing the memoirs of Mr Abney or something like that, I probably do have a more fitting voice than Tony, that’s the best way of putting it.
HH: Although James’ stories are full of working-class caricatures. Does Tony get to do them?
TW: [in heavily plebeian accent]
Cor yes, guv’nor! Strike a light!
Caricatures is definitely the operative term! And of course they are different types of caricatures. There’ll be the London train driver, and the Mummerset peasant, and so on. But they don’t really figure as major characters in any of the stories.
And as for women…
HH: They hadn’t been invented by then, had they?
Not as far as M.R. James was concerned, anyway.
HH: So how does the songwriting in Sol Invictus work?
My only involvement is with any of the traditional songs. So for example, with ‘Cruel Lincoln’, Tony had some loops and asked me if I had anything that would fit in with that key, and I set a different version of ‘Cruel Lincoln’ to the one which I recorded solo, which I felt fitted with that backing, and that piece grew from there. But I don’t think there’ll be any Sol Invictus lyrics by myself, it’ll be purely traditional folk things.
HH: Andrew, I’d like to get your take on the question I was asking Tony at the beginning, about neo-folk being an urban, punky version of a pastoral ideal.
I can’t talk for anyone else, but speaking for myself, I would say that your description, if you didn’t say ‘punk’, is a fairly good one for the folk revival, full stop. Any of the post-war folk revival singers were people who were part of a commercial popular music scene, who then turned towards doing traditional music, so they weren’t really traditional singers in any way, shape or form. With regard to the neo-folk situation, I suppose in my situation I’ve learned a lot of songs from the traditional sources.
HH: But you’re in an unusual situation in the scene, from having this involvement with trad folk, which people like Tony and David Tibet just didn’t have, initially at least.
Yes, but I think it’s to do with the definition of what constitutes neo-folk, which is a clumsy term anyway, although it works perfectly well for myself. As a convenient label, it’s become the one to hang onto people from a post-industrial background who’ve gone back to doing song, some of which are influenced by traditional music. The term ‘neo-folk’ might more accurately be applied to some of the German and other European bands, because the actual chord structures and so on are much closer to the tradition of campfire, Wandervogel type songs, which we really don’t have an equivalent of in this country, for social and cultural reasons, So anyway, I don’t think the development of neo-folk is a case of people getting bored with what they were doing and looking towards the countryside, I think it’s more of a case of the label being applied after the fact to the work of certain people whose work it seems to be suitable for.