It is not really difficult for me to explain the reasons that led me to conduct this interview with Keith Fay, axeman and vocalist of the Irish Folk Metal outfit Cruachan. Apart from being one of the friendliest and most down to earth musicians that I have ever met, Keith is also the main composer behind The Morrigan's Call one of the band's best efforts to date. If you are interested to find out the extent of the problems that some bands have to go through in order to simply release their work, then read this interview.
Hi Keith. In our last interview together, a couple of years ago, we were talking about the numerous problems that Cruachan had to put up with regarding record labels, and it looks like this time was not an exception? Take us through this long and painful journey, which luckily ended up with the release of your latest effort?
Keith: "We always had a strange time on Hammerheart records. We had difficulty receiving statements of sales etc. and have never received a single cent of royalty payments, despite the CD selling all over the world; so we just did not feel too confident about them. Eventually they started having their own difficulties and we decided it was time to go. I don't know if they went bankrupt or what but it was not a good time for me personally. Black Lotus in Greece pretty much snapped us up in 2005. They agreed to pay our recommended recording budget and everything was really great! When we finished the studio work on "The Morrigan's Call" there was an outstanding payment of 12,000 Euro. The studio sent the invoice to Black Lotus and waited. After a few weeks the studio started to contact me asking me where their payment was; Black Lotus told me there was some small difficulties but nothing to worry about. Eventually the studio got very pissed off and were threatening to bring me to court. It was a very bad time for me and as I went through the same thing when "Pagan" was recorded, I had to make a decision. Hammerheart hadn't wanted to pay because the production was so bad! And, now this!
Anyway, after a few weeks of telling the studio that it will all be ok, I got a call from Black Lotus saying they are closing their doors temporarily and cannot pay any outstanding debts. I was pretty f*cked and very worried! Where was I going to get 12,000 Euro to pay the studio? I guaranteed the studio that we will have a new label in a few weeks, but, meanwhile they were telling us to take out bank loans etc. It really was a bad time for Cruachan! We sent the new album to a few record labels; we came very close to signing with Nuclear Blast. Around the time that Nuclear Blast were telling us they might pass, Jochen from AFM rang me on my mobile. I remember at the time I didn't hear the name of the record label when Jochen spoke to me, I thought it was just a small label so I sounded very un-interested. I was like ".....yeah, well we're talking to Nuclear Blast so I don't really think you have anything to offer us that would beat them?" ....... Jochen on the other line was saying "Actually!!.....we do!............"
"The Morrigan's Call" is released two years after your previous effort "Pagan", and to me it sounds more mature and coherent. Now, you have always complained in the past about not being given enough time and funds to record an album according to your ideal standards, so the question here is: how close does this new album come in your evaluation scale?
Keith: "It is certainly close, closer than any other album but it's still not there. It is difficult to record an album when most of the band has full time jobs so I shouldn't really complain; we are managing quite well regardless. We used four weeks to record "The Morrigan's Call" mainly because that was the most time I could possibly take off work."
The most striking problem with regards to "Pagan" was its relatively weak production, and I was happy to see that this is not the case with "The Morrigan's Call". Do you believe that it has something to do with you returning to the familiar surroundings of Sun Studios (Dublin)?
Keith: "Yes, I do, although "Tuatha Na Gael" was also recorded there which has a bad production too....but that was recorded in in only four days so that's not surprising. "Pagan" was just a nightmare, the studio was terrible and the producer was questionable. Sun Studios is a great studio but the main reason for the improved production values is solely due to Gail Leibling."
Another thing that I remember from our previous interview was you having the intention of recording this album in Germany with a well-known metal producer? What made you change your decision and use Gail Liebling instead, and how would you compare his style and contribution to the recording process with that of Al Cowen's, the person who handled production duties on "Pagan"?
Keith: "Ooooh....what a way to make the point that Gail is not a well-know metal producer in your eyes, ha ha! We chose Gail because he does our live sound on tour in Europe; he knows the band and knows the way we work. He is also a producer in Holland and has worked with a lot of Dutch bands including a lot of metal bands. That was the reason why we chose him. We listened to the production quality of the album he produced for Callenish Circle and decided he knows his metal."
How much time did it take you to prepare the songs that put together "The Morrigan's Call"? Are Cruachan one of these bands that continue working on their songs while the recording process takes place, or were you well prepared before entering Sun Studios?
Keith: "We had a few bits and pieces of songs at the start of 2005 but the main work began in the summer of 2005. We began rehearsals then and had the studio booked for early 2006. We always have the guts of the songs ready for the studio but when we get to the studio we go to town on them totally. We can never fully rehearse all the instruments that end up on a finished Cruachan song so we have a lot of fun trying different stuff out and in some cases completely re-writing parts of the songs. "The Very Wild Rover" for example, was more or less written completely in the studio; the song that we'd been rehearsing before recording was certainly not the same song that ended up on the CD."
As the main song writer, you are the ideal person to answer this question: What was the inspiration behind the creation of this album, and what were your main influences, apart from the obvious Sabbat / Skyclad ones that are quite audible in songs like "The Brown Bull of Cooley" and "CuChulainn"?
Keith: "I can see why you would think that "Brown Bull" is influenced by Skyclad but in all honesty I try not to let myself be influenced by any musical styles. It is very easy to answer this and talk about drawing inspiration from many weird and wonderful things and making myself sound ethereal or mystical, but the truth is I simply write music because I enjoy doing it. I enjoy composing heavy metal riffs and folk tunes, that is all the inspiration I need."
You have also mentioned in the past that you had to drop a couple of your favourite songs during the "Pagan" sessions, due to time pressure. Did any of them manage to find their way into "The Morrigan's Call", and if yes, which are they and how well did they blend in with the compositions that you began working with later on?
Keith: "Well, yes, "Ungoliant" is the one song that made it on to "The Morrigan's Call". I believe it fits well on the album, actually! There are also parts of songs that I had in my head at the time of writing "Pagan" that never made it on to any of the "Pagan" tracks but were used later on "Morrigan's, but you'll have to find them yourself."
You have many times described yourself as an 'emotional nut'? With that comment in mind, am I to assume that "The Great Hunger" is the one song from the new album that comes closest to your heart?
Keith: "Yes, I think the lyrics in that song are very emotional. I wrote that as if I was there and experiencing the sheer horror that these people had to endure. I have a daughter myself so I imagined what I would do and of course any father's natural action would be to care for their children. I could have written a much grander tale and mentioned the numbers of people dead but I wanted to make it a much more personal song, telling the story from one person's eyes."
The great Irish famine is a delicate historical issue that has inspired many of your countrymen in the past, yet some people have already questioned your decision to write a song like "Coffin Ships", only a year after Primordial presented a similarly-titled composition on their last album? Have you any comments to make with regards to this issue?
Keith: "There is no issue; Primordial wrote a song called "Coffin Ships"! We wrote a song called "The Great Hunger". The instrumental part that leads into "The Great Hunger", we called "The Coffin Ships". It would really annoy me to think that people had a problem with that! Bands can have songs of the same name, it has happened many times in the past. The Coffin Ships are an important part of the history of the famine and in my opinion this instrumental could not be called anything else. In short, I don't really care who has a song with the same name and I'm sure Alan, my friend in Primordial, feels exactly the same."
Which is the one song from "The Morrigan's Call" that gave you most grief during the recording process, and what is the most rewarding thing about bringing a song to life?
Keith: "Ah, very easy question to answer - "Diarmuid And Grainne"! This was a nightmare to record. When I wrote this song and rehearsed it, it was always with just the metal parts, the folk stuff that you hear was all happening in my head. When we got to the studio it was a huge risk and I was seriously concerned that it wouldn't work out. Eventually we got it together; then we had a nightmare with the vocals. As you can see, I sometimes write very long songs and this song is one of my longer ones. The part in the middle where the electric stuff drops out and there is fast traditional part was meant to have the vocals singing along with the tune, but this sounded ridiculous. We spent hours coming up with the vocal part you hear now.
The most rewarding part is in the studio when you hear the crude songs that you have been rehearsing sound more and more polished."
Tell us a few things about the lyrics to the new album. It looks like this is another lyrically varied effort, instead of just the concept album about CuChulainn that we all kind of expected? What made you change your opinion?
Keith: "Our main theme is and always has been Celtic Mythology but as you said yourself, with the last few albums we have not been afraid to delve into different subjects. I think it is important to keep people interested, so the odd song about something different is a good thing."
Your infatuation with the "Lord Of The Rings" is present in every Cruachan release, and that is quite expectable for a band whose first name was Minas Tirith? How well do you think that lyrics such as the ones you wrote for "Shelob" co-exist with the more historically-orientated ones of "Wolfe Tone"?
Keith: "Good question! We have a lot of historically accurate and controversial songs that can be quite deep and heavy at times. It's nice to have the few fantasy songs there as well as an escape. Also, Tolkien-esque lyrics are pure metal! There are a lot of metal bands today that write about Tolkien and it can be a really great thing to loose yourself in."
Your extended notes in the booklet of the new album indicate a need / intention to spreading the knowledge of your country's history and mythology to your audience? Is Cruachan's music simply the vehicle that enables you to achieve that goal, or are music and lyrics equally important to the members of this band?
Keith: "I think the music comes first, but I also believe that the lyrics are very important either way. When I write a song, it's usually about a subject that I'm fully knowledgeable in. As a result there may be bits of the story left out that I feel may not be necessary in the song, call it artistic license, if you will; but however it comes out and if that causes some lyrics to become vague or maybe not tell the full story, I have always made the point of adding liner notes to flesh the stories out and give background information as to what is happening in the lyrics or why these things are happening.
Do you believe that the nature of Cruachan's music is such that it will naturally attract some and put off others? Which are the elements in your latest release that will apply to the typical Cruachan fan and which are those that will be more appealing to the average metal supporter?
Keith: Yes, we have always had people that absolutely love what we do and we have had people that really hate us and cannot understand why we want to incorporate folk music into our stuff? This can also affect reviews; hand our CD to a reviewer who only listens to Death Metal and we will be guaranteed a cynical or nasty review. I think a typical Cruachan fan will like everything on "Morrigan's Call.
There were times during the writing process when I actually asked myself what a die-hard Cruachan fan would want to hear on this. This is probably why we have become slightly heavier over the last few albums - a lot of fans wanted a bit more edge in our songs. But, I guess average metal supporters will like the parts where the folk stuff stops, and the riffs begin, which isn't too often, actually.
John Howe's illustration for Pagan was, by general acclaim, the best one ever featured on a Cruachan cover, yet you decided to hand the artistic duties for the new album to your brother? Any specific reason why?
Keith: Well, I have to disagree with you there! I have heard the opposite; most people prefer my brothers' style of painting and were delighted to see that he has returned to paint another fantastic cover. John Howe was just a one off opportunity that we took; he is a nice guy, amazing artist and a fan of the band, so we went with him. But, my brother was always going to be back painting after that.
Talking about your brother; John appears once again as a guest musician on the new album, performing the vast majority of the traditional Irish instruments? Is he going to play a supporting role in the band from now on?
Keith: Well, since John left he has always been involved in some way. He was also a guest musician on the Pagan album. Recently he has actually started touring with us again, he came out with us on our last tour of Russia and the fans were blown away because we never made any announcement about this, he just walked right out on stage!!!
How important is the contribution of the remaining members of the band in the creation process? I definitely believe that The Morrigan's Call would not have sounded the same without Karen Gilligan's contribution, for instance? Are you happy with the musicians that surround you?
Keith: Totally. I agree, Karen's voice is an important part of Cruachan's sound and always will be. Although I am the main song writer, the others do help out in a lot of ways, including composing.... As you can see on the CD, John Ryan has written two songs with me. And they will also tell me when I am writing crap; there have been many times in the past when I've gotten really pissed off because they will flat out not allow me to use certain parts in a song.....!
What are the band's current touring plans? Are you guys coming over to England? I would love to see another great performance like the one you did at the Bloodstock Festival back in 2004; which was, according to you, the band's first on British soil?
Keith: We have a few festivals lined up in Germany and in Ireland for the summer. We're also talking to new management companies so there should be some announcements on our website soon. We can never tour for a very long time as we all have day jobs, mortgages, children etc. and as a result we are restricted to using holidays from work for touring. But, we may be back in the UK this year? There is talk of us supporting a very prolific band on a UK tour, but you'll have to wait and see!
Keith, if you were given complete artistic and economic freedom to record the perfect Cruachan album, how would that ended up sounding?
Keith: It would have an 80's cartoon 'Transformers' theme at the beginning, then I would have Michael Jackson sing the Birmingham City F.C. anthem "Keep Right On"..... Then, I'd finish it with Tom Jones singing excerpts from various Dark Throne songs.
What is your vision regarding the band's future? Are we to expect many more Cruachan albums in the future?
Keith: Well, we'll keep going until we can go no more. We are nearly 14 years into this and I certainly have no plans to give it up, even with all the crap that the band has gone through over the years! We'll just keep going on and on!
Thank you for doing this interview. The last words are yours........?
Keith: Thanks a mil for taking the time to listen to my ramblings!! See you all on tour..........probably!
Interview © December 2006 John Stefanis
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