Earlier this year I wrote a few pieces for the Irish scene special that ran in Metal Hammer, so here’s a reprint of my interview with Cruachan.
Happy Christmas, Broskis.
Blood And Belief
Words: Edwin McFee
Naming themselves after the former capital of the kingdom of Connacht, Dublin-based folk metal torchbearers Cruachan first burst onto the Irish music scene in 1992. Formed by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Keith Fay, the band’s aim was to re-tell stories of Eire’s pagan past and marry traditional instruments such as bodhrans (a handheld drum made from goatskin) and tin whistles with extreme metal sounds. Citing 70s celtic rock band Horslips and British act Skyclad as influences, Cruachan released their debut album Tuatha Na Gael in 1995. Despite suffering from a poor sound, the record’s blood-thirsty tales of figures such as the legendary warrior Cuchulainn (the so-called Hound of Ulster) and former High King Brian Boru suited the aggressive style of playing and the band began to build up a following across Europe.
“For me, putting traditional Irish music beside extreme metal was always a very organic thing to do,” explains Keith. “I have listened to both metal and folk all my life and to me the lines between the two have become very blurred. I think a lot of early metal acts were influenced by folk music (whether they realized it or not I don’t know). I often listen to early Iron Maiden albums and I can hear jig parts all over the place. Stick a violinist playing along with Dave Murray’s guitar licks and you’ve got folk metal right there.”
Over the next decade, Cruachan released four more albums-2000’s The Magic Kingdom, 2002’s Folk-Lore (which was co-produced by Pogues’ frontman Shane McGowan), 2004’s Pagan and ‘06’s break-through record The Morrigan’s Call and they expanded their line-up to include singer Karen Gilligan as the band began to fully explore the folk elements of their music. They also adopted ancient Irish garb such as cloaks, kilts and face-paint for their live shows in an effort to make their performances a truly theatrical experience and visually recreate how those forgotten warriors once looked on the battlefield.
“Wearing those traditional Irish clothes helps us get into character when we play live,” says Keith. “It makes things more interesting for the crowd as well. T-shirts and jeans are boring, so we try to create an epic type of atmosphere. Although I remember playing a show in Moscow once in front of 3000 fans and over the course of 20 minutes my entire costume became self aware and started dismantling itself. Luckily I wasn’t naked underneath and had a pair of Birmingham City FC boxer shorts on.”
As the years passed by, the folk metal scene started to grow as acts from mainland Europe like Turisas took up the baton and ran with it, leaving the Cruachan frontman with decidedly mixed emotions over the direction of where the genre, that he believes he created, was headed.
“Well, I passionately believe Cruachan were the first real folk metal band,” he offers. “We had Skyclad before us using folky bits here and there, but no-one did it like us at the time, so when you see the explosion that has taken place over the years, it is frustrating to think that we have been kind of left behind and we only have ourselves to blame. Now though, we are more driven and focused than ever before to get out there and put our stamp back on what we created.
“Not only that, folk metal today is in danger of becoming a joke and we want to change that,” he continues. “So many bands nowadays are just making happy drinking songs, but there is a lot of darkness in folk music. A lot of Viking metal bands don’t actually have folk music to use, so they employ sea-shanty type sounds instead. For me, there is a sadness and darkness prevalent in folk music and maybe these bands from foreign soil have missed out on this. I dunno, perhaps it’s an Irish thing.”
Speaking of “Irish things,” it might surprise some to learn that for all the band’s success further afield, somewhat strangely Cruachan have always been a bit of a square peg in a round hole when it comes to Eire’s metal scene and Keith has his own thoughts on why some people don’t quite get what they’re about.
“We’ve always found it hard to fit in with the Irish Metal scene on a musical level,” he begins. “We never really had much support at home in the early years, mainly because what we were doing was so ground-breaking and frankly just plain bizarre. Today things are a lot better than they were when we first formed in the early 90s. People may not like our music too much, but they certainly respect what we have achieved.
“I think a lot of people outside Ireland really embraced what we were doing, but at home we were something to be mocked,” he continues. “The folk metal explosion was about ten years away, so we were flying the flag alone in those days. I suppose it was because people in Ireland grew up with folk music. It wasn’t a cool genre to listen to. It was something that your dad had on the radio on a Sunday morning. Luckily that’s not the case everywhere else, where the majority of our fan-base is located.”
Ireland’s loss has been Europe’s gain however and while at home there are some who may see their use of much-loved myths such as the Children Of Lir (a tale about four children who are turned into swans) as a little trite, there are those elsewhere who are experiencing the sound and vision for the first time and are excited by it all.
“Playing live is the only reason I have stuck this over the years,” reflects the frontman. “We have gone through some really rough times with the band where I have questioned why I am doing this, and the answer is-it’s because of the live shows. There is no other feeling like playing live. Seeing a fan in some strange country singing along passionately with lyrics I remember writing in my kitchen in Dublin is…well, it’s hard to describe really.”
This month Cruachan release their sixth slab of wax Blood On The Black Robe and it signals something of a rebirth for the band. Adopting a more aggressive sound, it’s the first new material from the band in five years and sees them re-embrace their more extreme roots in the wake of the departure of co-vocalist Karen Gilligan.
“To be honest I had wanted to get a much harder edge into the music for the last few years, and if you listen to our last couple of albums you can hear that creeping in,” concludes Keith. “When Karen decided to leave we made a decision not to replace her and move forward with the harder stuff. We didn’t plan a complete musical redirection, just a harder and darker approach to folk metal as so many bands (us included) had been making the genre seem like a bit of a joke of late. We are now focused on Cruachan’s rebirth and a rebirth of folk metal in general, which is starting to become stagnant these days. We will try and have another album ready in less than two years and there won’t be any more five year gaps between releases either. We will also try to get to countries we have never played before as well. For example, we have huge support in Latin America, but have never toured there, so this will have to change and that change all starts now.”
Literally a few days after our interview, Cruachan frontman Keith Fay was savagely attacked by a gang outside a club in Dublin’s city centre. Left bloodied and beaten, the musician recounts the events of that fateful evening.
“I was in the city for a night out with my brother, sister and a female friend. We left the club we were in and were walking towards a taxi rank. We passed by a group of between 10-15 youths who started abusing my sister for no reason. My sister was almost laughingly telling them she was old enough to be their mother and how would they like it if someone spoke their mothers like that. They then got a bit more vocal towards her and I stepped up to one of them. I did not touch him in any way, but told him to leave her alone (well, possibly it was a little more colourful than that). None of us expected anything to happen at all.
“I was then hit on the head after that and blacked out. They kicked me repeatedly while I was on the ground. Everyone with me tried to get them away, at which point my sister was thrown to the ground and had her arm broken. Some people saw what happened and ran over to help, so the whole thing only lasted about two minutes until they ran off.
“I’ve been back and forth to the hospital since then and they’ve cost me a fortune in medical costs. I only discovered a week after the incident that the wound on my lip was actually a knife wound. None of us knew this at the time. There have been no arrests yet, but we will wait and see.
“The events won’t put me off heading out in Dublin in the future, but I reckon if this type of situation presents itself again I will just usher myself and my sister quietly away [laughs].”