Like so many other areas of life, the music industry has been hit hard by the corona pandemic. Martin van Valkenstijn of MOSAIC, however, made a virtue of necessity and got in touch with his label mates OSI AND THE JUPITER, FELLWARDEN and BY THE SPIRITS to create an extensive split with them: „Songs Of Origin And Spirit“. In our detailed interview the four musicians talk about their spirituality, the impact of their origins on their art and the shadowy existence of the split format.
Hello! I’m glad that you all found the time for this interview. How are things going with you at the moment?
Valkenstijn: Hi, Stephan, first of all thanks for the interest in this special project. These are unusual times we are in. They demand a lot from the psyche and you alomost have to reinvent yourself as an artist. Actually, we were in the final stages of preparations for the upcoming MOSAIC album, but the lockdown just prevented the band from getting together again, so I’m currently crawling back into the archives to finish what I left behind. Just like the first lockdown in which this collaboration album was created.
Sean: Very good. Been doing a lot of writing and studying the past few weeks as well as trying to get to the forest as much as possible.
The Watcher: Not too bad, thanks. Still dealing with that lurking, all-pervasive concern/tension that the ongoing Covid scenario causes. Particulaly with respect to the music scene and the live music side of the industry – with each month that rolls inexorably past, the feeling of bleakness and desolation for that fundamental part of this passionate genre only intensified. But it is what is is. I have been keeping busy myself, throwing myself into writing, studio work, other creative outlets which have provided a measure of solace. Oh, and quite a lot of fine whisky as well.
Michal: Hello! Thank you for having us! Currently, I’m working on a few new records and other projects, including BY THE SPIRITS’ new full LP. So, what can I say, I’m pretty busy at the moment.
With „Songs Of Origin And Spirit“ you have teamed up to create an extensive split. How did it come about that you four artists/bands in particular came together instead of, for example, including one song from each band at Eisenwald as it is the case with label samplers?
Valkenstijn: During the first lockdown it became apparent that there would be a surplus of material in the near future. I thought about how to elegantly package this and simply get it out among the people. That’s when the idea of „Songs Of Origin And Spirit“ was born.
Sean: Martin actually got us all together for this split. I was really into the idea after he pitched it to me. I listen to MOSAIC, BY THE SPIRITS, and FELLWARDEN quite often.
The Watcher: It just sort of evolved in a rather over-excited fashion really! My original plan was simply to release a single ‚lockdown‘ atmospheric piece via Eisenwald for free to the fans of the label as a way of providing some sort of gesture to people during a rather strange time. It then evolved into a full EP’s worth of material and then Martin from MOSAIC mentioned he had something similar up his sleeve also. Before we knew it, we were talking excitedly as a four-way producing a collaborative release showcasing different atmospheres of our respective acts. It more or less took on a life of its own in that sense! We’ve all really treated it with seriousness and respect though – all of the expressions therein are very personal, delivered with sincerity and highlight different facets of our primary outlets.
Michal: Actually, this was Martin’s idea and he gathered all of us to create this unique experience. We wanted to create something more than just a label sampler. We wanted this record to be our journey about origin and spirit but presented from four different points of view. We all came from different countries, sometimes completely different musical backgrounds and we all create our visions of music.
In contrast to full-lengths, splits are often overlooked or not treated as similiarly noteworthy releases. What do you think is the reason for that?
Valkenstijn: That is unfortunately true. With a split in the conventional sense one usually associates a 7″ record, a comparatively very high-cost medium and rather a collector and fan item. But in the recent past concept splits and collaboration albums were revived. But they are media with an experimental or avant-garde character, because they are mixed sound carriers that do not necessarily offer the usual fare of an artist, but are enriched with various nuances. This of course requires an open-hearted fanbase. Personally, I wouldn’t be the type of person who would discover a band on such a medium or would like to do so, because you are already looking for something self-contained. And these are, I think, the main points which also complicate the marketing. Because they are definitely aficionado media. Now we have here a very special form of split. Because we are talking about four artists of one label, who probably have a quite similar or even the same fanbase.
Sean: I believe they often get overlooked because those releases are usually in between said bands’ main releases. But on the other hand it also helps bands promote each other’s art together.
The Watcher: I guess with a split, it is harder for each act to truly cement their vision given that they are working with a more limited time-span. And sometimes, splits can just be a bit of a convenient way for an act to throw out some shaky rehearsal recordings or justifiably-mothballed ‚experimentation‘. Now and again though, some splits land and really set the world alight – the classic Emperor/Enslaved split MLP for example which is considered to contain some of both band’s most seminal recordings. The Deathspell Omega/Moonblood LP is another one that has a fearsome reputation. So in my eyes, there is definitely a place in the world for a well-considered split release that unites acts in a common sense of purpose and drive to create something truly meaningful.
Michal: I really like splits. Many bands are trying something different, they take courage to make more experiments on the split records. It’s also very interesting when a split has a specific concept that is presented by different bands/projects. It’s the same with our record, we wanted to focus on one concept and show our different approaches.
What are the similarities that connect your music?
Valkenstijn: The first common denominator is of course our record company Eisenwald. In addition, we four musicians have a similar musical background and lyrically similar pillars, which of course have quite different characteristics due to the different regions we come from, and that’s what makes it so interesting.
Sean: All of the tracks are acoustic driven, with moving atmosphere in their own art as well as similarities as a whole. Martin did a great job placing the order of the songs as well.
The Watcher: A sense of time, place and passion. All of us want to tell stories in our own unique way – to bring the listener into our world and take them with us on a journey which we hope will deliver them some sense of inspiration or wonder. There is a definite diversity in respect of the manner that each of us chooses to do so, however the creative impulse and spiritual drive behind what we do is most certainly aligned. It really does feel like something that was destined to be has been unearthed from what was more or less a ‚chance‘ idea.
Michal: I think the overall atmosphere, focus on nature. We all are orbiting at some point around folk music and folk music is the core of this record.
How well did you know each other before creating the split?
Valkenstijn: The main coomon ground is of course the label. Since I am responsible for the design of the print and social media at Eisenwald, there is always a lively exchange of ideas with each other and so one thing led to another.
Sean: I’ve worked with Martin quite a bit on layout for OSI AND THE JUPITER and was guest on a MOSAIC song off their album “Secret Ambrosian Fire”. I also speak to Michal here and there, he will be guest on a future OSI AND THE JUPITER album.
The Watcher: I have been working with Martin for a few years now – I was aware of his work with both MOSAIC and Alchemyst and he has been providing layout assistance with FELLWARDEN releases since the very beginning. We are quite closely connected in that sense and frequently communicate on various facets of the aesthetics of FELLWARDEN and Eisenwald (I sometimes help with writing PR elements for the label also). So in that sense, we already have something of an understanding of how each other works from a creative collaboration perspective.
I have also been aware of OSI AND THE JUPITER for some time and whilst I have not until this point had any personal contact with Sean, have huge respect for him as a musician and an artist. ‚Uthuling Hyl‘ is a wonderful, hypnotic record so when Martin suggested bringing OSI AND THE JUPITER on board for the collaboration with this split, it made complete sense.
BY THE SPIRITS are a new discovery for me but seem to be another splendid act within the Eisenwald stable. Elegiac, affecting and atmospheric folk-based music, his music sits perfectly within the atmospheres of what we are looking to create here.
Michal: Martin and I had a few occasions to met and we have been in contact for some time now. We’ve done some projects together around BY THE SPIRITS and MOSAIC. Also, I had the pleasure to cooperate and chat with Sean. It was the first time I’ve met The Watcher.
Do you have a closer relationship since working together on „Songs Of Origin And Spirit“?
Valkenstijn: From my side I would say that the relationship is the same as before. But this is based on the facts already mentioned. But I do think that the exchange and networking of the other artists has increased significantly through the project.
Sean: I think it definitely brought us even closer than we were before. It helped me have an even better sight on certain things musically.
The Watcher: Absolutely – there has been a lot of excited discussion about how to present the release, where to take it and whether we might even move towards a physical realisation of the split. Everyone has seemed really motivated by working on this and there’s been a real sense of camaraderie that we have crafted something between the four of us that is quite special. Who knows? It may lead to further interesting collaborations at some point down the road – I certainly wouldn’t rule that out.
Michal: For sure working together on the split helped us to know each other better. It’s always a pleasure to find people who share a similar vision!
Have you discussed in advance how the songs that you are contributing should sound like or be structured? Or were you rather working independently?
Valkenstijn: At the starting point, each musician had already gathered some material. It was then discussed what the general direction should be. The title, for example, was decided together and from then on was the central theme for the release.
Sean: It was talked about but it was still supposed to be our art musically.
The Watcher: I don’t believe there was any initial consultation or discussion in respect of the writing of anything on the split – at least, there wasn’t in my case. It was very much a manifestation of some atmospheric, instrumental ideas that I had been working on for a period of time that I really felt the need to develop further as they showed considerable potential. FELLWARDEN for me has always represented more of a soundtrack-type atmosphere to me as opposed to a traditional extreme metal band – I’m really looking to tell stories and the music more often than not is a vessel for achieving this, a delivery mechanism for enveloping the listener in the atmosphere of these tales.
As I mentioned earlier, the original intention was for me to just provide one song to Eisenwald as a thank-you to our supporters and also to pave the way for the forthcoming full-length. After speaking with Martin, it became clear I was not alone in my thinking as he was also crafting some unique pieces during the lockdown. This set fuel to the fire for me and I spent some time extending/developing the pieces and taking even further the layered, atmospheric approach I had been pursuing. So for me, these are pieces that were fundamentally crafted in isolation but were nevertheless inspired, honed and evolved as a result of a collective sense of purpose.
Michal: We were not putting any pressure on any of us in any field. We had known about the concept and the focus around folk music. The rest was up to every band.
Let’s talk a bit more about the topic of the split: What does the term „origin“ mean to you personally?
Valkenstijn: Origin and homeland have always been central themes in MOSAIC and form an almost immeasurable source of inspiration. It is the memories, stories and nature that shape you. No one can deny their roots, they are omnipresent – sometimes more, sometimes less. Personally, it is important to me not just to retell the „old“ in a stupid way, but to bring it closer to today’s generation, enriched with my own modern impressions. It is simply important that history, culture and tradition are not forgotten.
Sean: The conjuration of art through nature and folklore that moves the soul and takes you home.
The Watcher: Origin for me is a summary of the strands, tenets and experiences that make each of us who we are. The fundamental but nevertheless slowly-evolving building blocks of our identity. I don’t want this to be interpreted as a simple ‚where I come from‘-type statement as this is an incredibly simplistic way to interpret such an idea – of course, where (and what) we consider to be home is important in shaping us, forming our mindset and outlook. Nevertheless, for me, the concept of origin is something deeper – it’s a sense of spiritual nourishment and belonging, a resonance with the soul that comes with being truly affected or enlightment. It’s forged in those revelatory moments we can sense ourselves shifting, evolving, achieving wisdom. That hard-to-describe sensation of cresting a mountain peak and seeing the world subtley anew; of taking a step into a new phase of awareness courtesy of some well-reasoned philosophical arguments; the simple act of creating something which brings true satisfaction to oneself. All of these things feed into our identity and add to the growing origins of our present self.
Michal: For me, it means the origin of my music and the overall concept of BY THE SPIRITS. My music was always focused around nature, especially the mountains and forests. The story I’m trying to tell with these songs is actually the story of BY THE SPIRITS. One of the lyrics is the oldest text ever written with purpose for BY THE SPIRITS, it was appearing here and there but was never used as lyrics for the song. In terms of this split „origin” means the origin of my music, how it did came to life and what was inspiring me the most.
You all come from different places – the USA, Great Britain, Germany and Poland. In which way is your different origin reflected in your art?
Valkenstijn: All contributions evoke their own images in the listeners. Which is why the different regions are already very distinct and different from each other. Thus, from Americana and bluegrass, to epic soundscapes, to typical folk songs and minimalist sound constructions, almost the entire range of our niche can be found on the split.
Sean: I have a lot of Americana folk influences from music as well of some from all over the world. The songs I contributed were supposed to reflect that musically and spiritually.
The Watcher: Of course, it would be remiss to completely ignore the geographical and cultural influences of our surroundings on our identities and origins and these are of course drawn on significantly with the songs we have presented on this release. I can’t speak on behalf of the others but the four songs I have produced pay homage to a journey across England’s most impressive landscapes whilst also acting as a metaphor for life itself – for is not all life a journey that will eventually end? I haven’t made any conscious efforts to reference some sort of ‚UK sound‘ in the songs – rather, to take the feelings that manifest in oneself when immersed in this wilderness and channel it through a sonic medium that most effectively embodies these sensations. It is music for wanderers – for seekers, explorers and those who find true solace in striding out into the wilds. As Martin succinctly put it.
Michal: Before BY THE SPIRITS was born I spent countless hours in the mountains of Lower Silesia, especially one mountain – Ślęża. This is the place where a lot of lyrics and melodies were written. This place has something magical, there’s some kind of energy that inspires me a lot. What I can say is that without this place probably there would have been no BY THE SPIRITS. Or at least not in this form.
There is also a spiritual element in all your music. How did your interest in spirituality begin?
Valkenstijn: „Spirituality“ is of course a very big word, especially in this day and age. I think that you first of all live. Until the „I“ is shaken by something. This can be resignation or loss, through whose impulse one begins to question life and oneself intensively. It was the same with me. Anything further on this does not have to be discussed here.
Sean: I’ve always been spiritual since childhood. Nature has a good way of connecting the dots in life and it’s a life long learning experience.
The Watcher: I don’t think it’s ever not been there if I’m honest – it’s just been a question of recognising and acknowledging its importance in what I create. It really is a manifestation of the creative impulse – of inspiration, motivation, the need to express and the drive to give voice to something internal. Ultimately, the concept of spirituality is unique to each individual – it is a personal, subjective thing after all – and as I said earlier, it isn’t something that I pursue in an ‚active‘ sense. Rather, it is something that sits behind all that I do and think – a background ‚energy‘ that permeates everything, that ebbs and flows throughout each aspect of my existence.
It really is a question of recognising this, of being cognisant of those nebulous energies within the world which transcends the mundane and the material. Ultimately, it is difficult to discuss this without sounding like a rather pretentious individual but I do strongly feel it is embracing that awareness of the concept that there is more to human existence than simple biological survival. I’m not speaking of religion or the occult or anything so defined, more a matter of channeling aspects of our being that can bring heightened awareness, empathy and ultimately improve the depth of understanding of all that we perceive.
Michal: It’s hard to tell when my interest in spirituality began. I was always fascinated with forests, mountains, and nature overall. It was slowly growing inside of me and then appeared as BY THE SPIRITS.
How does your spirituality manifest itself in your everyday life?
Valkenstijn: Definitely, if only very subtly. I reflect almost everything I experience and evaluate it. A lot of things are simply breathed away or ignored, as it becomes apparent that it is hitting the mind, and who wants that? I focus on the positive moments and moments of creativity, because these are essential for me.
Sean: I have my rituals I do certain times a year as well as day too day. I try and meditate at least for 5 minutes a day to declutter my mind. Reading is very good to do as much as you can even if it’s just a few pages when you had a very busy day. I also believe order and chaos work hand and hand. Without one you can’t have the other and with one there is always some lingering of the other. Nature works in mysterious ways.
The Watcher: As I mentioned above, it isn’t something that I engage with in a ‚direct‘ fashion if that makes sense – you won’t find me practicing rituals after lights out or anything like that! For me, it is more of a philosophical credo that manifests itself in a way of thinking, of looking at what surrounds me and striving to live by a deeper set of principles. Ultimately, to set higher standards of thinking for oneself and to not rest on one’s mental laurels. It’s not easy – I live in the city and we are surrounded by distractions, the material, deliberate attempts to block us as individuals from channeling our energies into something purposeful or constructive.
I mean, don’t get me wrong – I am not striving to live like a monk, bereft of life’s temptations and the easy appeal of superficial sense-satisfaction. I enjoy malt whisky too much for such a lifestyle! Indeed, I accept that moments of indulgence are important for maintaining balance. It is more a question of acknowledging this and of balancing this with meaning, with purpose and with focus. Not shying back from asking the awkward questions, challenging accepted or received patterns of wisdom and always probing deeper into those matters that require further inquiry.
Michal: I don’t have any daily practice, I don’t pray to any specific deities, sometimes I use them as symbols or metaphors. My spirituality appears in my daily life as a respect for nature. I do meditate sometimes, light some candles, burn incense.
For many people spirituality doesn’t matter at all. Do you see a problem with that?
Valkenstijn: Not really. In the end, everyone has to decide that for themselves. There are two sides to everything. Everyone is „spiritual“ – consciously or unconsciously. The question is just how to show this or whether it is even possible. Personally, I prefer to do this for myself and in isolation – and I don’t want to use external impulses or be surrounded by them. However, I find people who have to tell everyone how spiritual they are very disconcerting in the long run, and I actually wonder of what value that would be – or whether the highest insight is to show others how much insight and wisdom one has. You cannot project this universally on every person, because everybody has their own views, impressions and understanding of life. But as I said, everyone can do what they want. However, I put my own empirical experience above any teaching. That does not mean, however, that one cannot be inspired. Nevertheless, the own experiences and not blunt following pave the way through the many different truths of this world.
Sean: Not at all, everyone should have the free will to believe what they would like to and carve their own path.
The Watcher: Yes, but what can you do? Modern culture is designed to cauterise spiritual thought and individualism on the altar of worship to monotheism or demagogues; to encourage mental laziness whilst fetishising hard physical work that serves only to benefit those at the top; to paint any who dare to challenge or question this hegemonic way of thinking as crackpots, dellusional or dangerous. You only have to look at the state of the world around us to see the paths down which a less spiritual society will doubtless head. A lot of people seem fine with it – revelling in surface-level materialism as the world sinks into little more than a blasted playground for the resource-appropriating elite. But many are not fine – impoverished, starving, displaced, exploited, persecuted. How can this be altered without a wholesale shift in outlook from the very top of the food chain?
But as I said earlier, for me it is a personal thing – is is MY outlook and MY approach that I can control and is of the most importance to me. I am past the point now of seeking to influence, to change the entrenched views of others. If somehow I end up inspiring others to question their outlook then that I guess is a positive thing but it isn’t something I have the energy to actively pursue.
Michal: I would say it’s everyone’s choice of course. I’m not here to judge anyone, people have their reasons. I can speak for myself and what I know is that without the spiritual aspect my life wouldn’t be the same. I’m very happy with the role of spirituality and spiritual practice in my life. We live in a world that we have created in such a way that the spiritual aspect may seem irrelevant. The question is whether someone feels happy with the way they live. Or maybe these are just appearances of happiness. Or maybe someone feels unhappy, but for some reason, he is stuck in this system and is unable to focus his attention on things that could make him happy, because all his energy is devoured by the struggle to survive, an attempt to secure the possibility of survival.
Coming back to your split again: You’ve only released it digitally so far. Why did you decide not to release it physically and is a physical release still a possibility?
Valkenstijn: Yes, the basic idea was to make it quickly accessible. The reactions have been surprisingly positive. Whether a physical version will still be released remains to be seen. There are ideas, but none of them is ready for serious discussion.
Sean: Physical release is being talked about.
The Watcher: As said previously, it was only originally intended to be a limited release for Eisenwald supporters as a ‚thank you‘ from the artists for their support and to give something back to people during the worst days of the pandemic. With this in mind, we wanted to ensure it was released relatively swiftly and made readily accessible – hence, the additional time and expense of putting together an actual physical manifestation of the release was not something we could originally consider. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t want to rule out a physical version – if there is enough demand for it, it is certainly something we could look at. I mean, it is a long release – over 80 minutes in total! – so it would be something of an undertaking and a commitment. But who knows? It could become a totemic piece of history, born during unprecedented times and if enough people express an interest in a physical manifestation of this work, I am sure it can be explored.
Michal: The initial idea was to release it exclusively for Bandcamp Friday, as for those days Bandcamp is sharing its revenue. We thought that this would be the best moment to share something special and donate this money to the charity of every artist’s choice. From time to time we are back to the discussion about the physical release, so I think sooner or later this split will appear as CD, vinyl or other formats.
Do you consider working together again in the future?
Valkenstijn: Definitely. Not necessarily in exactly this constellation. But there are already further projects by the four artists.
Sean: Absolutely, it was a fun experience as well as a learning experience.
The Watcher: Quite possibly. It has been a unique project for all of us and it’s generated a palpable sense of camaraderie. I certainly wouldn’t rule out further collaborations in the future if the right inspiration strikes.
Michal: Of course! I really like the idea of sharing my vision with other artists. No matter if in the form of songs written together, covering each other or making own songs with common concepts/ideas. Some collaborations were made recently, to be revealed at the right time.
Thanks a lot for your time. Would you like to say a few last words to the readers?
Valkenstijn: Thanks for your support and interest these days. You keep our culture alive.
Sean: Thank you and best of health to all readers.
The Watcher: Thanks to you all for your ongoing support and we hope this music brings some solace and inspiration during these bleak times.
Michal: Thank you for the interview, it was a pleasure! Don’t forget to praise the forests!