N O   P A R T   O F   I T
Far more important than baking bread is the urge to take dough -beating to the extreme - Otto Muehl

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Interview Series #32: Hawthonn


The NO PART OF IT Interview series was a strain of questions sent to a number of different people between February and March 2019. Each entry was scheduled chronologically to be thrust upon the world on a monthly basis since then. Each individual is introduced informally as if they were being discussed at a bar.  In this particular case, we decided to continue the series after 30 has been scheduled.  

At_Wharf_Chambers, photo by Briony Charvas

Hawthonn is the duo of Layla and Phil Legard.  They both take on an aura of serious, scholarly occult study, and it comes through in their audio work.  Phil Legard is a writer, teacher, lecturer, and academic, generally surrounding matters of the occult and underground music.  I have corresponded with Layla Legard a bit, but have not pryed into any other work on the side (outside of music projects) that she may be doing.  I do know, through her facebook page, that there can be some magnificent fog where they live, and being from America, the area seems to be drenched in mysticism to me. 

 I think I first discovered their album Red Goddess (of this men shall know nothing) on Spotify, as it was recommended to me after listening to Omala.  Both projects I'd eventually recommend to anyone who was asking for artists who can approximate the particular drive and energy put forward by the legendary, metaphysically-driven experimental band COIL.  Incidentally, Hawthonn's self-titled release is inspired by and dedicated to the late Jhonn Balance of COIL.  Not limited to one-dimensional posturing and homages, Hawthonn (and the duo's related output in general), tend to create their tracks to be unmistakably imbued with symbolism.  It's not necessary to know what exactly is going on, the presence of intricate stratification can be felt more than understood within many of Hawthonn's sound-structures.  

While their project's popularity has risen to levels of being included in Netflix's "New Pope" series featuring John Malkovich, and great press in general, the Legards are still releasing physical media (as well as digital only releases) that comes in burlap sacks, CDRs with ornate booklets, and limited lathe cuts that come with "unique toad charm, two badges, and photograph".   Their concept of experimental folk music infused with refined, yet studiously unusual electronics, is unparalleled.  Their presentation of occult concepts is as transparent as it is carefully obscured, and their balance between sophistication and raw intuition, at least to me, is truly remarkable.  

1.  What kinds of things have you been getting into lately?

Layla: Deserted medieval villages! We like having a focus for our projects - somewhere to repeatedly explore. With lockdown limiting our prospects for travel, it was good that there are lots of these sites fairly local to us. They’re unassuming - lumps and bumps in the ground - genuinely esoteric landscape features, and there’s a lot of scope for pushing your own narrative or interpretation: from visualising what it once was, to looking at the hard archaeology. The subtle features are so compelling, the absence of anything much drives you to try and see them by some other means. I think my attraction was due to the current plague-times. People imagine medieval villages becoming deserted due to plague, but researching more if seems like it is often due to the land-owners fucking over the lower classes: clearing the villages for sheep grazing and so on… this goes one well into the industrial revolution, when enclosure acts expel the  final tenant-farmers and push everyone toward the cities. There’s a medieval chapel at Lead, sitting in a sheep field which would once have been a busy manorial village… we’ve been recording some vocals for our new album there. Also we’ve started learning Welsh.

2.  What you do, do you do it as an artist, or is it a hobby? 

Layla: I don’t identify with either of those words. I certainly wouldn’t say I do it for fun… it’s stressful at times, but often cathartic and essential.

Phil: How do you distinguish between an artist and hobbyist? Is it about remuneration? Time spent on work? Self-identification? Drive? Unsuitability to do anything else? On the underground, most people have other jobs since experimental music rarely sells out arenas, and the only alternative - just constantly touring and sleeping on floors most of the year - isn’t too healthy. Artists are everywhere: I like the example of Philip Glass, who was a plumber and a taxi driver when not touring with his ensemble. Did he suddenly become an ‘artist’ when the bucks started rolling in?

3.  How would you describe what you do?

Phil: I dunno. Fleetwood Mac plays Coil? We usually concentrate on trying to make music or sounds that are fairly unique, and we use a lot of imaginative approaches to music - walking landscapes, visualisations, the occasional ritual. We don’t think much about music in terms of sounding like some established genre, or using well-trodden chord progressions etc. 

Layla: A lot of what I do that seems to be most productive is dreaming - the last album, Red Goddess, has a lot of references to mugwort because we were experimenting with dream enhancement and I do have a lot of vivid dreams that seem to hold synchronicities or relevance to work we are doing. My unconscious self has a lot of good ideas and strong images - I like that the dream world is where we can communicate freely with the dead too - during working on the first album which was a tribute to Gef/Jhonn I had so many dreams of meeting with him and talking to him, it felt like we were genuinely communicating with him on some level and all of those dreams fed into the lyrical and musical process. This time round for the new album we have done some ritual visionary work based around moon cycles and some of the tracks have come from those experiences of altered states. 

Phil: Layla did actually suggest that ‘dream pop’ was maybe the closest genre bracket… although we never use pop structures, the ‘dream’ part is certainly accurate.

4.  How would you describe your creative progression over the years, in a brief synopsis?

Layla: For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable just sitting down and directly ‘making some music’, or referring to myself a musician at all. I have always had obsessional interests in places and pilgrimage and music is the ideal way for me to distill that thought and activity into creative process but I suffer from “imposter syndrome” and discomfort with identifying with that label. I needed a lot of abstraction and process to feel at ease with what I’m doing musically, as well as it being a necessary outlet for the things that I’m interested in. I’ve gotten a lot better at just going straight into creating lyrics, sounds and melody over the last couple of years but Hawthonn is always going to be much more than that. I like the process too, even though it means writing new music takes a long time. 

Phil: I think things have come a long way since the first Hawthonn album, particularly in terms of the complexity and quality of our productions - and playing live over 2018-19 also really helped push Layla’s voice into new levels of clarity and confidence. It was also good for me: I absolutely loathed playing shows when I had a solo project, so it has been great to play gigs and find that so many people appreciate what we are doing - we’ve had some real highs particularly supporting Gwenno, who is so immersed in lore, poetry, and language that it is humbling, and playing Listen to the Voice of Fire in Aberystwyth and getting to listen to a rare performance by our hero, Johann W. Light. I’m pretty sure that our new album is going to be a huge improvement on Red Goddess, in terms of performance, production, and everything else.

5.  How would you describe your philosophy?

Layla: I don’t subscribe to any particular philosophy…

Phil: I’m vaguely existentialist or Foucauldian. Depends how I feel that morning.

6.  Do you believe in psychics, magic, ghosts, or gods?  If not, what is your favorite conspiracy theory?  

Layla: Well, our first album was a sincere attempt to engage in some sort of communication with the dead… whatever that might mean. You can’t be academic about these things: if something happens or manifests, and you can interact with it, then it is a reality. I have had lots of uncanny, wyrd experiences, manifestations of ghosts, demons, gods, whatever they may be - I like to keep an open mind.

Phil: I’m pretty fond of the idea of the ‘imaginal’ - but in the sense that we have inner experiences that are powerful and more than ‘mere’ daydream: those profound visions, or vivid images which shock you out of your stupor. I can’t say I believe they reflect any sort spiritual reality (- I am a vocal anti-essentialist and anti-transcendentalist despite my interest in the occult -), but their pursuit is something we’re always interested in, and we often use some ‘magical’ techniques  such as herbal brews, guided meditations, and scrying to gain access to these states. As for conspiracy theories - most of them are junk and fundamentally serve oppressive power structures and help them to demonise their others. But I do remember a time in the 90s when it was all considered wacky counter-cultural fun...

7.  What would you say was your most definitive experience?

Layla: Visiting the Druid’s Circle at Penmaenmawr in my early teens… it gave me a sense of the importance of pilgrimage and place. I don’t know how to describe it - every time you visit you are enriched by these places. Reading the Modern Antiquarian by Julian Cope sparked me starting to visit places of power again in my early 20s, and then getting to work on Almias in 2010 (a project with Phil), which helped me to articulate those feelings musically.

Phil: I’ve talked a lot in older interviews about my own encounter with the holed stone at Men-an-Tol, which seemed to trigger some sort of mystical state, and made me obsess over a landscape which seemed completely enchanted. Although I connect that encounter with becoming a more ‘serious’ musician, I can also think of lots of other moments in the past which led me to that point, particularly as a child: seeing a stunted and wind-blasted hawthorn at Troller’s Gill whose spirit I felt was haunting me, seeing Almscliffe Crag silhouetted against a brooding sky in the back of my mother’s car, and so on, all seemed to foreshadow that experience and the full-tilt obsession with the affective power of landscape.

8.  Do you have any side projects that I am not aware of? If not, what is something you'd like people to know about you, that you don't think anyone would ever ask?

Laya: Sulis Noctis, with our darling friend (and mastering engineer) Gregg Hermetech, which is dark folk music - a lot straighter than Hawthonn. I’m doing vocals on a few other collaborative projects, but can’t say much at the moment!

Phil: It’s not musical, but Scarlet Imprint recently published ‘An Excellent Booke of the Arte of Magicke’, co-written with Al Cummins. It transcribes and provides commentary on the demonic magical workings of the brutal Elizabethan bastard Sir Humphrey Gilbert, it was quite a lengthy project, begun in around 2011, so good to see it finally out there! We’ve also been working with a site called the Old Corpse Way, with our friend Graham (who has a project called Bore Hole). We’ve put out a few tracks recorded there as part of commissions (from The Quietus/Aerial Festival and one from Goldsmith Uni’s Fringe and Underground Music Group). Hopefully we might bring all our work together to do some sort of split release in the future.

9.  Would you care to name any theoretical "desert island" records, or at least releases that you think are approaching your concept of "perfect"? 

Layla: Coil’s Astral Disaster - that’s a perfect record. The Duellists’ English Hurdy Gurdy Music, and maybe throw in some 1970s tapes of Gaelic psalmody.

Phil: Although I have lots of records, this kind of question just makes my mind go blank… I guess if I was on a desert island, and I happened to also have a record player, I’d choose something that would keep my spirits up. Maybe I’d listen to Pere Ubu’s Modern Dance, while haplessly trying to catch fish and suffering from heatstroke...

10.  What is the earliest childhood memory you can recall?  

Layla: Being pushed in a pram down Balaam’s Lane, Mossgate, to look at the horses, and my mum showing me catkins in the hedges, and around the same age collecting frogspawn to put in our pond.

Phil: Looking out at the fields that were behind my parents’ house, watching a tractor milling about. It’s a housing estate now, but I like that I can legitimately wax lyrical about “when it were all fields, lad”.

11.  Are you able to appreciate other peoples' creative work regardless of their personal shortcomings or inherent flaws?  To what extent? 

Layla:  It depends on the person, the flaws, and also whether the art is worth validating those flaws or shortcomings for. I don’t really have any energy or time for domestic abusers, misogynists or fascists. 

Phil: I think it helps if people aren’t bellends to begin with. There’s nothing more annoying than having ‘that friend’ who makes you wince every time they open their mouth because you know they are about to say something meaninglessly ‘provocative’. I’d really had enough of that schtick by the early 2000s - who wants to share a platform with their bitter, racist, emotional button-pushing uncle? Sorry for stereotyping the uncles out there, hah! Fortunately we know enough decent people now that it’s rarely an issue...

12.  Do you have any heroes or heroines?  Who are they?

Layla: Neil Campbell - he’s lovely, and incredibly productive - while maintaining a high level of quality in his work. Everything he puts out is gold!

Phil: John Godbert - such a character, and a great artist… the ideal role-model for my own later years. I also mentioned Johann Wlight, who makes the most sublime music - even though it disappears the moment you take your attention off it. And do we even have to mention another John, or should I say Jhonn?

Layla: Oh of course, Jhonn and Peter! Hildegard von Bingen too - fellow migraineur. 

Phil: Laurie Spiegel, too. Beyond her music, I love her writing, and how introspective she can be about music and technology.

13.  What would you like to have on your epitaph?  Or what is your favorite quote?   

Layla: I visited Highgate Cemetery years ago and saw Patrick Caulfield’s grave, which has DEAD written in negative space which was delightful. I thought it was a spectacular monument to death-positivity and acceptance. I love the pre-Victorian trends for memento mori funereal art - particularly in Scottish kirkyards where they have rows of carved skulls and bones decorating the gravestones and the more honest epitaphs - I was what you were, you will be what I am. I think culturally we have become detached from the realities of death and mourning is often far removed, sanitised and euphemistic - “fell asleep” instead of dead. Seeing the crises around the world in death care related to Covid though - we are seeing our mortality more clearly now. The corpses piling up do not lie. 

Phil: I’m not ready to accept my mortality… Hmm, I think that’s what I’d have written on my epitaph.

No comments: