Pagan, Apocalyptic Folk, Ethereal, Medieval
Michael Laird, Music Interview, New York
“Blood-lit” is a conjectured quality of light, as it would appear through a quantity of blood in a clear goblet. We utilize a number of obscure musical instruments in order to create specific, unorthodox sounds, the idea is to convey a strong sense of “otherness” for the listener. I try to incorporate certain languages that will create a sense of “distance” or “remoteness” between the listener and the world through music. Latin is certainly good for that.
Mary Vareli: The band was founded by Michael Laird and Susanna Melendez in 1997, what is the story behind the idea and the name?
Michael Laird: The name came from a poet by Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628). The poem is actually a sonnet which contains the lines: “When as man’s life, the light of human lust / In socket of his earthly lanthorn burns / That all his glory unto ashes must / And generations to corruption turns…” Susanna suggested we call the band “Glory Unto Ashes” but I didn’t want to have anything to do with glory, which would have been vainglorious in my opinion. So we called it Unto Ashes. I recorded a song with these words, and released it our second album “Saturn Return.” Susanna sings on the chorus.
Can you inform us about the current core of the band and the role of each member?
ML: Personnel changes from album to album and from concert to concert. At the Wave-Gotik-Treffen in Leipzig (Schauspielhaus, 24 May 2015) it was myself (acoustic guitar, dulcimer, dumbec and percussion, vocals), Paul Ash (keyboards, oud, shawm, dumbec and percussion), and Ericah Hagle (vocals and percussion). Our most recent album “Ghosts Captured” had contributions from about 20 different people.
What is your definition of “blood-lit” music?
ML: I suppose the term “blood-lit” is a conjectured quality of light, as it would appear through a quantity of blood in a clear goblet; or more specifically, the light that would be illuminated and subsequently reflected therein. Our music has been described as such.
Can you tell us a few things about the instruments you use? They seem to play a role in the versatility and difficulty of your style.
ML: We utilize a number of obscure musical instruments in order to create specific, unorthodox sounds, the idea is to convey a strong sense of “otherness” for the listener. These instruments are also useful in exploring, and exploiting, our own musical limitations, thereby greatly assisting our compositions. For instance we have recorded with, and used in live performances, the following: oud, shawm, hurdy-gurdy, viola da gamba, harmonium, hammered dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer, etc.
In what ways has your music changed since your first releases?
ML: The most important element is that now we have little concern for what other people think about our music.
Your covers are very artistic, your collaboration with the amazing artist Madeline von Foerster has added to the mystery of the band.
ML: Yes, Madeline is one of the great artists of our age. You will be hearing much more about her. She now lives in Cologne so we do not see as much of her as we would like.
Who writes lyrics, or selects most of the poems you use (Crowley, Petrarch etc)?
ML: We all do, but mostly it’s my fault.
What is your relationship with the Latin language? A fitting choice for the atmosphere of certain songs.
ML: I try to incorporate certain languages that will create a sense of “distance” or “remoteness” between the listener and the world through music. Latin is certainly good for that. “Quid Vides” (from Moon Oppose Moon) is a prime example. The meaning of the Latin text is almost completely obscure; but if the listener reads the translation into English, he / she finds that the song is all about blindness, drowning, loss of self. The Latin verses are only a few lines long, but so much can be conveyed in this ancient language.
Your topics and attitude of music are fearless, balancing between beauty, melancholy, mysticism and abandonment, loss and pain. Where does your inspiration come from?
ML: Music can be many things to many people, and it comes from many places. For me, the music I make with Unto Ashes explores the tensions between all of the above. I can’t say where the inspirations come from. They just do. Hopefully I can continue to be receptive to these inspirations and to document them in the form of recorded music.
What is the secret of the ritualistic, hypnotic feeling your music has? Pagan Tradition and Western Magical Tradition seem to have a major role.
ML: I am particularly interested in non-Christian spirituality, specifically witchcraft, Voodoo, and Paganism, through which I find continual musical and spiritual inspiration.
You independently released your self-titled debut in 1997. Tell us about this as well as your intimate, faithful preference for Projekt records, concerning USA, so far.
ML: We released our first album “Moon Opposed Moon” ourselves. Sam Rosenthal wanted to sign Unto Ashes to his label, so we re-released the album on Projekt and we’ve continued to work with him ever since. The relationship has been mutually beneficial, based on mutual respect, and the realization of mutual goals. Furthermore, Sam is an honorable person and a good friend.
An impressive number of musicians participated so far in the Unto Ashes, Paul Ash, Kit Messick, Melody Henry, Catherine Bent, and members of Sonne Hagal and so many others!
ML: Yes, we’ve been very lucky in this regard. They are all amazing musicians and good people.
Could you brainstorm some words next to each one of your releases, illustrating the feeling behind and the inspiration?
Moon Oppose Moon (1999 • Projekt [USA])
ML: The first album, which shows many nascent ideas that recur throughout all subsequent Unto Ashes recordings, including medieval musical, neo-classical, and apocalyptic folk. In some instances the songs are very grim; this was not accidental. There was total emotional chaos in the band, and within our respective lives. This is a sense of uncertainty, of immediacy, and vulnerability is reflected in the songs themselves. After this album — or partly because of this album — both Kit Messick and Paul Ash left the band. Some could argue that “Moon Oppose Moon” is the best Unto Ashes album, and that the rest are simply derivative. This is open for debate. Certainly we did not know how it would be received when we released it. We knew that we had something to share, and that the music was very different from other music we had been hearing at the time.
The first responses were very positive, even glowing, which affirmed that what we were doing was worth all the aggravation and emotional energy. Among my favorites: “Der Letzte Ritter” and “This Duration of Emptiness,” both of which were sung by Kit, whose voice is perfect for this songs. Susanna wrote the words to “Conjuration to Lilith” for me to set to music. I wrote “Teach Me How to Drown” for her, because she didn’t know how to swim, and I was drowning.
Saturn Return (2001 • Projekt [USA])
ML: The so-called “sophomoric” album is the curse of many bands, but not ours in my opinion, because Ericah Hagle sings on it. “Saturn Return” marks the beginning of my control over the recording process; someone could argue that the songs on this album (and indeed all subsequent Unto Ashes albums) are “bad,” but I would challenge them to find fault with the quality of the actual recordings. Among my favorites: “Sonnet 87 (When As Man’s Life)” and “They Killed Three Little Maids.” Ericah really shines on “Morte o Merce” (the vocal melody is entirely hers by the way). Natalia Lincoln’s “Invisible” is a truly beautiful song. “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)” was an inspired cover of a phenomenal song by Coil; Louise Landes-Levi actually knew Pasolini and almost went into a trance while recording her Sarangi parts. There is an eerie, shrill whistling sound that goes in and out of the song: this was the sound of a tea kettle on my stove that was boiling over while I was doing the recording. We were honored when John Balance praised the song, and asked for 13 copies of the CD.
Empty Into White (2003 • Projekt [USA] / Kalinkaland [Germany])
ML: Most of the songs were written in 2001-2002. As a NYC resident who watched the World Trade Towers burn and collapse with my own eyes, I was genuinely unsure if the world was going to end or not. My life was one of continual desperation; I wanted to record and release as many songs as I could before another catastrophe occurred. As an album, “Empty Into White” is perhaps “too long,” but it’s certainly not long enough if you believe that it might be the last record you ever release. Among my favorites: “I Cover You with Blood,” “Ah, Sunflower!” and “Witches’ Rune.” Jeremy Alisauskas is all over this album. Melody Henry, who was always mortified by our (now-popular) cover of “Don’t Fear (The Reaper),” is not.
I Cover You With Blood (EP) (2003 • Projekt [USA] / Kalinkaland [Germany])
ML: This 6-song EP marks the first appearance of Sarah Newman (now Qntal and Estampie); Sarah and Natalia harmonize well on “Palestinalied,” a song I didn’t know until I heard Qntal’s version of it. I’m happy with our synthesizer arrangement of Purcell’s “Funeral March for Queen Mary.” I also like “Exeunt Omnia” on account of Natalia’s amazing, impromptu keyboard part which she recorded spontaneously in one take.
Grave Blessings (2005 • Projekt [USA] / Kalinkaland [Germany])
ML: Sarah is the principal vocalist here, and her voice is very fine, particularly on “The Drowning Man” which came out really well (I had recorded the basic tracks for this song on a 4-track cassette years earlier). I wrote and recorded the music for “Winter Born” not in the winter but in the heat of the summer, in a tiny studio near Times Square, NYC. This song has vocal arrangements by me, Sarah, and Natalia, and I feel is one of our best collaborative efforts (the other being “Occupying Force”). “Emptiness” is a nice song, although some people think it’s depressing. I like “Fruhling” because of Natalia’s immense keyboards towards the end, and Sarah’s unbridled, exuberant vocals. “Tortured by Rose Flowers” was written for a girl called Rose who never knew.
Songs For A Widow (2006 • Projekt [USA] / Pandaimonium [Germany])
ML: This one features two versions of Covenant’s “One World One Sky,” both with hurdy-gurdy tracks by Melissa Kalcanos. The first one is an instrumental and (as intended) sounds like a funeral procession; the second is as fast as the original but is wildly Pagan sounding. I got a letter from Covenant who said they really liked the way it turned out, which was very gratifying. This album has the least amount of cohesion, with wildly disparate sounding songs ranging from synth-pop (Natalia’s “Intacta Sum”) to black metal (“You Will Never Know” – again, Rose never knew). “The Snow Leopard” was written in honor of Michael Cashmore who is a beautiful person. In my opinion “Occupying Force” is one of the finest Unto Ashes songs ever recorded. I wrote the music and recorded the backing voices, then worked with Sarah to create a vocal melody. We took one of Natalia’s poems and set it to music; the resulting collaboration is one of my favorites.
The Blood Of My Lady (2009 • Projekt [USA])
ML: I was experiencing a lot of personal problems after our European tour in 2006, and basically moved out of NYC to get away from everyone and everything. I didn’t know if I would be making music with anyone I used to know, including Natalia and Sarah. I’m very happy that they both ended up moving to Germany (independently) and thriving. Some might have called “The Blood of My Lady” a solo-album, but in fact I worked with a number of different musicians on it, including Sonne Hagal, and Of the Wand and the Moon, as well as Catherine Bent, who played cello on all previous Unto Ashes releases. “The Blood of My Lady” is probably the most lonely, hollow sounding Unto Ashes album of all. More than one reviewer declared it Album of the Year for 2009, but for me it’s practically unlistenable, because I know what I was going through at the time. But there are several songs that I think are very good, for instance “I Will Lead You Down” (again Catherine Bent on cello) and Sonne Hagal’s “Who Has Seen the Wind.” I wrote the lyrics to “The Blood of My Lady” and sent them to Kim Larsen. We ended creating two different songs, and I put both of them on the album (hence: Part I and Part II). I like his version quite a bit. I’m told that he plays it frequently at Of the Wand and the Moon concerts. “The Tomb of Your Remains” is a cello version of a composition by Kassia (d. 867 A.D.) who is the earliest known female composer. She is very little known today (I first heard of her through the Kronos Quartet). I had been thinking about trying to make a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Fly on the Windscreen” for years. I like the ways this version turned out, although it could never compare to the excellent menace and malice of the original.
Burials Foretold (2012 • Projekt [USA])
ML: With the release of this album some reviewers pronounced that “Unto Ashes is back.” An argument could certainly be made in support of this statement: Ericah Hagle sings lead vocals (brilliantly) on two cover songs: “Runnin’ With the Devil” (Van Halen) and “Kathy’s Song” (Apoptygma Berzerk. I like both of them, but I prefer the former whereas Ericah prefers the latter. I like “Pilzentanz” because of the infectious bagpipe riff by Natalia’s husband Donald. I think Natalia’s eerie background vocals on “She Binds Away the Night” are unsurpassable. Natalia also supplied some blistering keyboards on “Night is Coming Soon” and “Piper’s Song.” Many years ago Natalia and I had joked about who could write the most depressing song. This was our idea of having fun (pretty funny right?). Anyway, one of the proposed “song titles” we bantered around was “I Remember Happiness.” One day I thought I might be up to the challenge to do something about it, and this was the result. I like Catherine Bent’s cello parts on this song, as always. K. McClain wrote lyrics for four of the songs, and they’re all great; it’s incredible that she doesn’t think she’s any good as a lyricist. I think she’s very gifted in this regard. Many years ago I recorded a crude version of the song “Worms’-Meat” and gave cassette copies to a few friends, some of whom may have enjoyed it, but I’m sure most were quickly discarded.
Ghosts Captured (CDr, Album + 7xFile) ( 2014 • Projekt [USA])
ML: On the one hand, this is a covers album; on the other hand, it is a document of some 15 years of work and development of the band and all its participants. There are 18 songs on the CD, plus 7 songs available for free download. So why release an album of 25 songs, when we could realistically release *two* albums of 12 or 13 songs each? For one thing, most of the tracks are new, or are remixes of earlier versions. I like challenges, and I thought this would be a good one; and who knows, it might even be fun. I’ve arranged and recorded a lot of covers over the years. Some of these were released on completely obscure, now rare compilation CDs. Suffice it to say that I was wary of doing anything with “The Needle and the Damage Done” (Neil Young) but I think our version came out suitably depressing. I had long thought about trying to make an pseudo-Arabic version of “Tainted” (Lycia); no one believed I could do it, but I think I proved them wrong. I am very fond of our version of “Heartland” (Sisters of Mercy) which I had also thought about for years. I like how the thing turns into a “soccer stadium chant” towards the end. One of my favorites is “The Him” from the first New Order album. I called up Jeremy Alisauskas and asked him to play guitar on this song, as well as “Cavity: First Communion” (Christian Death) and also “Ostia” (Coil). I’m really glad I did, because they’re all so much better for it. Jeremy also plays the guitar riff at the end of “Don’t Fear (The Reaper)” which is so excellent. The nephew of one of the guys in Blue Oyster Cult told me that they didn’t like it because it was “too depressing.”
An uncompromising attitude is apparent in your work, not much talking in concerts and low social media profile. Am I wrong?
ML: This is correct; we have a lot of other things to do, and self-aggrandizing is not one of them. We like to play live though, if and when the time and place is right. Performing keeps you honest, and makes you a better musician. However, we are no longer playing live just for the sake of self-promotion.
I totally agree with the phrase you use “We will celebrate, with such fierce dancing, the death of your institutions”, can you tell us more about it?
ML: I can’t remember where I first read it, but I was impressed by the power and defiance of such a damning phrase. It turns out to be a line from a 60’s poem by the American author Richard Krech entitled “Mythology for the People’s Liberation” (which sounds very 60’s indeed).
Who directs your impressive live shows? Masks, all kinds of organs, audience participating etc. Their unpredictability is a notable success!!
ML: Thank you. I would say that most everything we do onstage is fairly spontaneous, and so the live shows are fairly unpredictable even for us.
You will participate in 2015 WGT, this is very good news!
ML: Yes, our concert at the Schauspielhaus, Leipzig on 24 May 2015 was very well received; in fact, it couldn’t have been more perfect for us. The venue, the audience, the sound and lighting crew, the organizers; everyone and everything was aligned and we were very blessed.
Any plans for a future release?
ML: Our last CD consisted of 18-songs, plus 7 additional songs available for free download. This was a huge effort for me, emotionally and physically. I am not inclined to start thinking about a new one right yet, but I have recorded a demo of a song that I am very happy about.
Thank you very much!
ML: Thank you for your kind words and continued support of our music.
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