Pt.2 – Hindsight
With a lot of the seminal black-metal-folk-y albums like Agalloch and Ulver, their artwork is intrinsic to – like you said before Nathanael, when you were walking through the city listening to The Mantle, how the sky sort of connected with you while you were listening to the music – the overall feel of the music, and the album cover represents a lot of that perfectly as well. Listening to Inheritance, I think the cover perfectly encapsulates what you’re going to be hearing. Was there a conscious effort to find the best artwork that represents the songs or was it just by chance?
Nathanael: Yeah, it was sort of both. Obviously, with Musk Ox we don’t have any lyrics, so the artwork is very important in the way that it’s going to give people the visual representation that adds to the music. It was intentional, but also by chance, because we never really discussed it. I had an idea, and I took this photographer to a place literally 5 minutes from my house where there’s this railroad – like, it’s not a Photoshop thing, it’s literally just over here and we took these photos of it and it worked with the concept. At the time, I looked at one of the photos and thought “yeah, this is definitely it!” and then Raph was like, “actually I like this one” and Evan agreed with him. There are always those kinds of surprises. But I still wasn’t sure [about the final photo], until it was sent to me in black and white and that changed everything: I just wanted to keep looking at the image, and it worked so well with the themes. That’s the beauty of making albums though, there are so many surprises. Originally, I had another idea of taking photos, like monuments, around Ottawa – statues and these kinds of things, but then there was this one photo I took that reminded me of those railroad tracks.
Raphael: When we got it in black and white that’s when it really clicked. I remember, we were all still a little bit on the fence. We hadn’t got the thing we needed for the cover, but then that look just seemed to make sense. What I find funny is how a lot of people have described the album as being super dark. I never thought that the album was that dark, but I guess the first half kind of is. But then, I think your album artwork reinforces – like when we were talking about the mix – certain impressions. I think it’s funny because this album cover is a lot like the cover to my other band’s (The Visits) first album, which has this black and white cover and we’re standing in the snow. It was in what looked like a blizzard; everything is white and there’s these bare trees and stuff. It was quite nearby, like where those railroad tracks were shot, so it’s like the same kind of thing – and a lot of people lumped that record in with this sort of black metal stuff that was coming out that year. So a lot of people thought the record was going to be bleak and cold, you know, harsh Canadian winters and black metal. I thought that was funny because it’s totally not what I had in mind, really. So, I think the sound of the record and the look of the cover reinforced that, and in this case it’s sort of the same thing.
We were so far inside it that for us, this mega track [Inheritance Pt.1 – Premonition & Pt.2 – Hindsight] was done and we were more focused on songs like “Ritual” and “Weightless” that were a bit different from what we had done before. But I think it’s clear from the feedback that the standout track for a lot of people is “Hindsight”, and so I think that maybe that track with the artwork and everything sort of embodies how they perceive the record as being this dark and bleak, heavier, Musk Ox – more autumnal and all that kind of stuff. So, it’s cool to see that feedback, because I think it’s just so different from the conversations we had at the time when we finished the record.
Evan: Yeah, I don’t see it as bleak and dark. You know, it’s full of harmonies and layers. There’s a lot going on, there’s a lot happening in the music, and it’s very vibrant. I guess, because it’s slow and it’s drawn out a little bit at the start, people associate that, maybe, with something a little bit bleaker and darker for some reason. To me, it’s kind of like nature; there’s birds over here and butterflies over there. It’s kind of a reflection of nature where sometimes everything is very still. At dawn everything is very still and then suddenly, the sun comes up and there’s a lot of activity. It is very representative of that cycle of nature. So I think that’s the way of seeing where it goes [the album]: slow and expansive at the start, to a lot of activity as it goes on. A lot is happening and then this tenant dies out, so you kind of see this cycle of the day. I think in many ways that’s how I see the music represented.
I don’t want to lump it into being just two things, but it’s like a juxtaposition of beauty mixed with melancholy. I can see what people are getting at when they say it’s “dark”, I wouldn’t say it’s visceral or anything like that, but there is a shade of sadness to it.
Nathanael: Yeah, there’s this kind of cloud but then at the end, the clouds’ part ways. What’s funny is the original idea for the artwork was this very bleak statue juxtaposed against a clear blue sky. I always thought the cover needed to be in full colour. If you’d said, “let’s do black and white cover”, I would’ve been like “no, the first album was like that, this needs to be different”. But the final image just worked.
Raphael: Yeah, I think it was a simple but effective solution, and the main thing that drew us to it was the connection with the overall album concept and the album title, and the idea of what you’ve inherited and where you’re going and the responsibility that you carry through to the future, regardless of what your past baggage might be. That could be as an individual or as a species, but that’s part of the idea, being on those tracks and being on that road I guess, and not knowing where it goes but knowing where you’ve come from.
Nathanael: Inheritance as a concept, I love it because it represents the past, present and future: you inherit something which paints the present which is this whole cycle. So the album is showing you these tracks and is asking: “do we keep following a path that’s just disintegrating?”
That’s really interesting. So are you getting at the responsibilities we have, like we owe something to the future – is that how you’ve centred the album, thematically?
Nathanael: It’s not that overt. It’s more of a general theme. It’s less like “okay, humans, what do we do?” It’s more like, “take a look around, see for yourself, what do you see?” How do you interpret it? What’s interesting is I have a friend who listened to the record and he got back to me and he said, “I like the record, it feels very social, very human. And I thought that was cool, him saying that, because that was partially the intention, but I had never told him that. So the fact that he was able to get that from it… it’s nice when those kinds of connections happen.
What with the success of the Woodfall in 2014, how come it took so long to write and release Inheritance?
Raphael: Well, we broke up several times.
Raphael: No we didn’t. [laughs]
[laughs] Got me, you got me.
Raphael: So, when we released Woodfall, I was living in a different city, so we would only see each other if we had to do a show or something like that. There are several factors. I would mainly blame it on the fact that I was too busy with different projects, but we were all doing different things. We all released albums in that time; I had two records that came out in 2015 and you know, Nathanael had two records that came out in 2016, obviously, one of them being The Night Watch, so both of you guys had Boundaries that came out that year, and then I had another record that came out in 2017 and I started playing with Leprous and touring with them. I remember, after the first tour I did with them, I got back and I had a couple of months off, but then we were going to go out again for 6 weeks in the States. So I was like, “okay, something has to be done here so that we don’t let this go on forever”. Because I remember, I think in 2015, we had all got together and we had jammed a little bit on some new ideas – there was already guitar written for a couple of the songs, there was a few sketches made, and then we did “Premonition” as a demo. We basically wrote it all together in a day in the same room because we had a grant application, and we were trying to get funding to make another record. So we all got together and just made this thing and recorded it and that was the first version of it.
Nathanael: I remember, I was just accumulating guitar ideas and then I had like a weekend and I just sat down, and I arranged all my guitar parts into the structures that are pretty much on the finished album. So I had all these ideas, and I did these rough drafts, and I sat on that for a bit. I remember me and Evan were living together at the time, and I remember we had jammed a little bit, then me and Raph spent a couple of days working on stuff. So yeah, it was just kind of spread out, but I think the main reason was that Raph was really busy, so it was sporadic, and we did a lot of records in the meantime and that was a part of it.
Raphael: The actual writing process, I don’t think it took that long because it was like, yeah, you had tabbed all of it out. Then I couldn’t get to it until the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, and then I just sat myself down at the keyboard and wrote all the cello and violin and stuff, and I was like, “we need to have something to work on”, because that was the way we had written Woodfall, essentially, and I think we were going into this record not wanting to do it that way. But then, when the guitar is basically written for almost all the record, you kind of have to do it that way. So I think if you’re gonna try to recompose everything like all together as a group, then you have to do it all together as a group. You know, in the same room. You can’t compose one instrument first and then compose the rest later, that’s a strategy for writing that requires you to work on paper. So in early 2018, we basically had the whole record written.
There were some parts like “Weightless”, where I extended the song quite a bit with the ending section and stuff, so, yeah, some things got tweaked; and then when we got together, we spent a bunch of time working on the songs as a group and rehearsing them, and we made some small changes – we actually made quite a few alterations to the arrangements thinking on it. So, yeah, we got together a couple of times, but it was only in the Fall of 2019 that we were able to say, “okay, we’re ready to book the studio and record the album”, and I think that once we got going on that we worked pretty efficiently on the actual tracking. And then there was the pandemic, so we basically ended up mixing the album via video chat for an extended period. Conversely, with the pandemic, it afforded us more time to get more detailed on it. Initially, we had planned to go down to London for like 4 days and try and mix the whole record.
Nathanael: Yeah, the pandemic actually gave us so much time to work on the mix, so I think having that time to just mix it made it much better than it would have been otherwise.
That’s one of the few good things to ever come from the pandemic; there was a lot of bands writing new music, and like you were saying, it afforded you the time to look at the finer details on your stuff.
This taps into my next question. When it comes to writing new music, obviously, your music is quite attuned to nature. Do you work on music in your flat or do you move to a more rural area to get a better feel for your surroundings? Or does it not really matter?
Nathanael: I think we’re lucky in Ottawa because Ottawa has so much beautiful green space. If I walk one way from my house, there’s a giant river. There are actually two rivers in Ottawa, with a third one coming in from Quebec, and there’s a provincial park that’s like a 15-minute drive. In this regard, we’re really fortunate to be surrounded by nature. I go for a bike ride and there’s like a giant canal or I’ll see two or three waterfalls. So, that’s always kind of been an influence there, but with this music, I think with the first record and the demos, it was very nature-centric, kind of like what Raph was saying about that cello album: it’s like a world without humans – that sort of influenced those earlier works.
They were these isolated experiences with nature. And then Woodfall was sort of like humanity and nature meeting. With this new record, the idea was… it’s a very human album. I think with a lot of, I guess, nature folk it’s very much about focusing on nature. And I love that kind of music, but it didn’t seem right this time to make that kind of record. For me it was to make a trilogy, and it starts in nature and then it ends more with human nature. In terms of composing in nature, we’re very lucky in Ottawa to be so close to nature, so we can get out there pretty easily and get that inspiration whenever we want it.
Raphael: Yeah, we did record the album in the country, in the woods, so I mean that was kind of the atmosphere and we were in a nice space to do this last one. When we were working on Woodfall, I remember I would do these kind of writing sessions. I would write for a few hours and then I would go on a long bike ride in the woods, and I would come back and do it all over again. I think that was kind of playing into the vibes too – you know, like immersing yourself in the atmosphere.
Nathanael: As Raph was saying, we did record it [Inheritance] in the woods, but it was only a 20-minute drive and it was in this wooden workshop, so yeah, that definitely changed it, because Woodfall was recorded in a basement in the city. So, the nature influence is always there. It’s less about separating it and more about integrating it.
Raph, what are the differences in playing with Musk Ox as opposed to a conventional band like Leprous?
Raphael: Yeah, it’s a different approach. I mean, obviously if you’re playing in a rock band setting then you’re listening for different things. Basically, I would say that both bands operate completely differently. With Musk Ox, the way we operate, we’ve known each other for a very long time and we’re quite informal about the way we get together and work on stuff. I think we’ve taken our time quite a bit to sort of let things marinate and gradually develop our sound, and sort of do things in their right time in terms of the way we perform. Obviously, it’s like chamber music, so we’re kind of just listening to each other at a very close distance, and we haven’t used, for example, in-ear monitors at any point – although we were talking about it. With Leprous, it’s like every show I’ve done with them except for maybe one, it was done with in-ear monitors and to a click. You know, so you’re adjusting your own mix for what you want to hear during the show, so I think the way you listen is very different in that context. For example, with that stage set up, the only stage sound is the drums, everything else is coming up to the PA – there’s no monitors on stage. So yeah, that does affect the way you play together.
I remember we did one show, this was on the last tour we did, it was in a small shop in Madrid and it was like the only time we had ever done an unplugged thing, or at least that I had done it with those guys, and I remember it’s kind of funny because it was a big shift from what we had been doing during the tour, but to me it was like “oh, this is really familiar” and kind of easy in a way, because I’m used to doing these small shows, and it’s kind of how I came up is, like, you know, playing in intimate spaces often, completely unplugged. So, I think that those aspects are really different. It should be said that the role I play is different too, because in terms of composing music, I do a lot more in Musk Ox, and in Leprous it’s like I’m involved creatively, but in a different way, and a lot of that comes down to specific parts, or where the studio arrangements must be converted into something live – and how do I interpret that, and how do I change it to suit the live setting, and what do I do with the pedals and effects to get them to fit into the sound? So those things are different, too, in terms of creative involvement and responsibility within the bands.
I would say in Musk Ox for example, I do more rhythmic stuff, you know, I’m more involved in playing things that are a part of this sort of rhythmic framework, and with Leprous, I don’t do much of that, really, it’s more melodic. It’s more like traditional string lines when we’re all playing together, and then there’s a lot of moments where I’ve done more improvisation, like solo improvisation, before the set or after, before the encore and in between pieces. So it’s like, those are really the two extremes I think: the very scripted playing, almost more classical, and then completely improvising. Then with Musk Ox, it’s like what we’re doing is written, but I think it’s in between those two.
You guys are three albums in as Musk Ox. What accomplishments are you most proud of and where do you feel there’s room for improvements?
Nathanael: I think just having done the records that we’ve done and having been around for as long as we’ve been around is one. I think there are certain moments that I’m proud of. I mean, we’ve only ever done one show in Europe and that was in Germany at the Wave Gothic Festival (WGT) in Leipzig, and we opened for Wardruna. So, that was a special moment that I look back on and think “oh, wow!” And that was before Wardruna really became as popular as they are now. I don’t know, being able to make this music and have people interested in it, I think that’s something we’re proud of. As for improvements, playing live more, maybe, and improving on our live activity, I guess, like hopefully doing some tours and finding a way to reach the fans that are listening to us.
Raphael: Yeah, I would say making this last record for me feels like the culmination of everything we’ve been working on together, and it feels like all those years working very gradually have kind of paid off in that way, where we have something that really represents the work that we’ve done collectively. And yeah, speaking of this sort of longevity, being able to keep a band together for a long time and to keep the same line-up and have everyone still be on board, that’s very challenging, you know? I think people take that for granted sometimes, but it is really hard. As adults with different lives and stuff, things can pull you in different directions, but to be able to keep it going and to feel like we still have something to say is nice. But on the same token, being able to perform live more, I mean, I really hope that we can do that in the future and get out there more and share music from all the albums in a live context and act a little bit more like a professional band in that sense. We’ve mostly existed as a band that puts out music and has played a few sporadic shows, but we haven’t really pushed it, like we’ve not really pushed our potential or stretched ourselves that much. It’s sort of like sitting on the couch all day. It’s kind of like, “come on, let’s push ourselves a little bit and go to the edge a little bit more”. I would like to see that in the future. Obviously, you know, you must have some moderation because those types of things can break bands too, but that’s also what brings bands to the next level and going past what you think is possible and doing things that other bands aren’t willing to do.
Evan: Yeah, I think we’ve only played 20 live shows.
Is it just down to getting you all together in order to do live shows, or is there more to it?
Raphael: Well, we just haven’t pushed that hard for it. We haven’t been going “right, we need to book a tour really”. Some bands really pound the pavement and take all the offers, whereas I think that we’ve been more selective and done things that were convenient for us. The truth is, being in a band is not convenient; you’re gonna have to put up with a lot of shit, so you have to get out there and lose some money and play some shitty venues and play for nobody, and that’s just part of it. You can’t just have the gravy, you’re gonna have a lot of shit, but because we’ve never really been forced in any way to do it, we just haven’t. Again, I’m just talking about the things that we could improve on. I think it’s important to be aware of that stuff. We’ve never been signed to a label, so there hasn’t been any pressure to release a record at a certain time, you know, our fans have been very patient for the latest one, and so on and so forth.
Nathanael: Also with playing live shows it’s like, going to the States is not easy. It’s not easy in terms of touring; it takes a certain amount of organisation, visas and all these kinds of things, and also, I think if we were a band and we were based in Europe, we probably would have already done tons of tours because there’s so many more places to play. In terms of Canada it’s like, Montreal. We’ve played Toronto. After Toronto, you know, you’re gonna drive for like 24 hours to get to Winnipeg. Touring Canada is, especially with the kind of music that we make, the infrastructure in Canada, there’s a lot of folk festivals and stuff and we don’t really fit in with that.
So, if we were based in Europe, probably, we would have done a ton of shows because there’s way more opportunities for this kind of music, and in these kinds of places. So you know, we’ve got to do some cool shows and some cool opening spots, we’ve toured with Agalloch and we’ve opened for them on some different tours and stuff, so that’s been great. But yeah, I think geography is a factor as well, because there’s just not that many places around us, I guess.
Raphael: Well, yeah, people don’t really tour Canada, unless they’re folk artists in general. Like, how often do you see a cross Canada tour, especially in one run, it’s almost impossible, financially in particular. Theoretically, though, we could have done it because we can play a lot of smaller places and the advantages of having a configuration like this is, we could play house concerts and make a lot of money that way. But the States thing is pretty crappy for Canadian artists, and I think it plays a big part in why you don’t see more Canadian groups at a small-to-mid-sized level in the music industry. You know, you can drive less than two hours and get to the states from here, but we need visas that cost us like $600 each, and there’s always paperwork and all this kind of stuff. And your first US tour, you’re most definitely going to lose money, so it kind of disincentivises you from going out there and doing it. Whereas if we could go and do one-off shows without visas, then it would be a very different story, because there are a lot of places that are in relatively close driving distances.
I suppose if you’re causing enough waves, which is what you guys seem to be doing with your albums, you’ll probably end up getting more opportunities or getting asked to do more live shows. You’re inadvertently building up your own sort of thing anyway, aren’t you?
Nathanael: Yeah, and I’ve seen that with bands like Agalloch where for the first ten years of their life, they did a few supporting tours, but they weren’t able, financially, to do their own. And then once they became more independent, they started releasing these amazing records every four years pretty much, and there was this huge fanbase just waiting for touring to happen. Or Empyrium; they didn’t play live shows for the first 20 years of their life and now they do all these big theatres across Europe. But for me, when I got into music, I just wanted to make amazing albums. My mentality – and I’m not saying it’s the right mentality – was that I just wanted to make a bunch of albums that would be so good they would create an audience, with the understanding it would take some time to make those good records. I think, in terms of money invested, I haven’t really invested much in touring, it’s mostly been on making albums. However, I do know that had Covid not happened, we probably would have booked some things in the States and in Europe, so…
I’ll be there at a UK show if it ever happens.
Raphael: Yeah, we could easily do a UK tour and have way more dates and good cities than we would in Canada. The UK has a much better music industry there, so yeah, I know that we have a lot of folks over there that would want to see us, which is amazing. So yeah, I would welcome it.
I think as well, like you’ve already said, Europe seems much more receptive to this kind of style. It’s probably down to the sound’s heritage, but I certainly think you’d be a great success over here.
Raphael: Europeans just like music more. I mean, I hate to say it so bluntly, but it’s true, and governments just fund the arts more. In Canada, it takes a lot to convince the government to provide certain subsidies and certain funding for things, and to convince them that musicians need this fee, instead of just thinking “oh, can’t they just play for a really small honorarium, or for nothing at all?” And that comes from having certain values and unfortunately, we have the bad end of the stick with that. However, that shouldn’t be a reason to make excuses either. That just happens to be where we live, and you know, we still have to make good music and we still have to have an impact regardless of that.
Now that you’ve made one of the best albums of 2021, what are your plans going forward as Musk Ox?
Nathanael: Make the best album of 2022! Or rather 2032! [laughs]
Raphael: Yeah, we’re already preparing our FaceApp-ed band picture where we all have big, long Gray beards. [laughs]
Nathanael: It’s funny because I used to read ‘this album was five years in the making’ and you’re like “whoa!” and then I remember reading ‘this album is almost 20 years in the making!’ and it’s like “really?” It reaches a point where it’s no longer impressive, and I don’t want it to be like that. [laugh] I think moving forward when we can play shows we want to do that, but I think finishing this record feels like we have a clean slate now. We really felt like we had unfinished business with Woodfall; that was a big record, but it was a big reach – we were kind of just going for it. So, we knew we could take that approach to the next level with Inheritance, and I feel like we don’t need to do another record like that again. So there’s a clean slate now, where we can move forwards. I’d love for the three of us to get in a room together where there’s no paper or scoring, and whatever we write is in the moment – maybe a record of shorter songs, like ten short pieces that we all created together. Definitely for me, I’m always excited about making new music.
Raphael: I think we’re kind of in a place now where we’re more interested in embracing spontaneity as opposed to trying to calculate everything and have it all planned out, because so many of the good things that happen in the creative process come by chance. But it’s more about following intuition and being open to those things. And I think that over time we’ve learned to listen to that more, within the kind of super-detailed stuff that we do. Our chemistry as a group has grown and our ability to communicate and work together as a team, making music that’s cohesive, all that stuff has gotten better. We’ve talked a lot about whatever the next project is going to be and that it’ll probably involve something that’s more in the moment, I guess; it’ll probably be a pretty big departure from the last record, but you can’t say right now. We haven’t written a single note for it yet. What do you think Evan?
Evan: I think we should move to Europe and become famous.
Sounds good. [laughs]
Nathanael: I do have my friend’s passport, so…
Evan: No, I’m looking forward to spending time away in a weekend retreat, somewhere in a cabin, and just writing music from scratch, I think that would be nice, personally. I mean, who knows – like what we were saying, who knows what the new music is going to sound like, but it will be fun to experiment and see what happens. Let the creative process happen in the moment. If nothing else, it’ll be nice to just get together because we’ve been very isolated. So we hope to get together and make new music and get into that vibe again. So, we’ll see what life brings from there.
Nathanel: I think we want to do some live videos in the studio, since we can’t really perform live it would be nice to film some videos of us playing these songs, so that people can actually see it.
Oh, that would be cool. Well thanks a lot guys, it was lovely talking to you. As I say, Inheritance is a wonderful album and I’m really glad you’ve brought it out and it’s managed to land on my lap.
Raphael: Thanks so much for having us.
Nathanael: Thanks for the support!
It’s been a pleasure.
Inheritance is out now via bandcamp, where you can listen to and purchase their other works.