Musk Ox: The Hellbound Interview

Musk Ox

I first saw Musk Ox perform in southern Ontario in the late spring of 2009. I was struck by the contrast between ambient acoustic music and a vibe that is perfectly resonate with that of many progressive, folk, and black metal bands. Musk Ox inhabits a place within two different styles of music, and gives us cause to appreciate both and ask questions about the relationship between them. My interactions with Nathanaël Larochette have always been easy due to his being such a friendly and approachable person, and I am thrilled that he took the time to answer my questions.

First off, thank you very much for agreeing to this. This is your first interview with Hellbound, so would you mind introducing yourself and telling readers a little about yourself and your musical projects?

Thank you for taking the time to interview me! My name is Nathanaël Larochette, I live in Ottawa, Ontario and play classical guitar in the instrumental neofolk band Musk Ox. I also play electric guitar in the instrumental/progressive metal band The Night Watch. Aside from that I perform and teach spoken word poetry in schools around Ottawa.

For those not yet familiar with your work, how did a self-professed metal fan begin playing and releasing music that is classified as being neofolk but that is also intended to catch the ears of metal fans?

Basically, Musk Ox began with the idea of taking the acoustic interludes of metal bands but making entire songs out of them. Ever since I got into metal back in high school, there was something I found intriguing about the acoustic interludes and songs performed by metal bands but I always found them to be too short. I can’t put my finger one what it was but there was something that grabbed my attention in those sections I loved the sound of the classical guitars used because they sounded very medieval which appealed to me. I also grew up playing violin so classical music was with me at a very young age.

When you look at a song like “Battery” by Metallica, it starts with this beautiful classical guitar riff which then gets heavy. It’s interesting how a riff like this is pleasant and acoustic but at the same time it carries the weight of an implied heaviness. As a metal fan, this feeling was always there in my riffs, but the songs remained acoustic. I can still remember the first time I heard Blind Guardian’s “Time What is Time”. That opening classical guitar riff blew my mind. When I was in high school I got an electric guitar but it wasn’t until I started finger picking on acoustic guitars that I really felt there was something musically that I could express. I love Power Metal and the songs “A Sailorman’s Hymn” and “Don’t You Cry” by Kamelot were some of the first I learnt. Obviously Opeth had a big influence on me as well because they took the acoustic element of metal to a whole new level. I still remember learning “Benighted”. The first piece that really had an impact on me though was “Mood for a Day” by Yes from the “Fragile” album. I remember learning that piece and performing it at a small coffee house/open mic when I was in university. That night I decided I wanted to leave school and take music more seriously.

You once described your music to me as being “heavy mellow,” a term I thought was great! Which metal groups continue to serve as an influence on your work?

As I mentioned before, Opeth really opened my mind to what was possible with just an acoustic guitar and your fingers, so they remain a huge influence. Agalloch was, and still is a massive influence as well. They have these amazing acoustic interludes that I always wished were longer so that definitely inspired Musk Ox. When I started playing acoustic guitar I would record these really rough covers of acoustic Agalloch riffs.

Regarding recent influence, lately I’ve been really enjoying the instrumental/progressive metal band Scale the Summit. The way they arpeggiate some of their riffs is really reminiscent of how a classical guitarist would finger-pick chords. It’s very fluid which is something I’ve been trying incorporate in my playing. Their note selection has also inspired me to broaden my understand of notes and harmony.

Metal is not the only influence on your work. What other kinds of music or art inspired you to form Musk Ox?

When I first discovered neofolk bands like Empyrium, Ulver, Tenhi and October Falls, that really inspired me. I still have rough covers I recorded of some of their songs when I was just learning to play. Their style of neofolk wasn’t overly technical so as a beginner classical guitarist, I felt inspired rather than discouraged because I knew I make music like that. The first three Musk Ox demos were pretty much me worshipping those bands. However, when I first got into Post Rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Explosions in the Sky, I fell in love with their ability to create these vast atmospheres and huge crescendos. I loved the above mentioned neofolk bands but I always felt their songs were too short so the first Musk Ox record was my attempt and blending the acoustic style of neofolk with the longer arrangements of Post Rock.

Let’s talk a bit about your first full-length album, Musk Ox. In the CD you note that the album is dedicated to the memory of the first peoples of Turtle Island. How does this relate to neo-folk’s interest in place as a source of lyrical and musical inspiration?

Lyrical and musical inspiration varies from band to band, but I feel this statement relates to the nature worship side of some neofolk bands, as the early people of this land were to known to respect and revere the land, rather than abuse in the way modern societies do today. The first Musk Ox record was a retreat to, and celebration of the Canadian landscape, and as a man of European descent, I felt it was important to honour those who inhabited this land before we supposedly “discovered” it.

It’s well-known that within neofolk some bands have taken an interest in older cultural symbols from across Europe and beyond, as well as concepts ranging from heathenism to the occult. There’s a broad range of musical and thematic variations within the genre, but at times it’s reduced to the fact that some prominent neofolk bands (Death in June, Sol Invictus, etc.) have been associated with political ideologies such as fascism. Have you ever had to defend or explain your choice of musical genre to anyone?

I’ve never had to defend my style of music to anyone. I call what I play neofolk for a lack of better explanation but the more I learn about this style, the more I realize I don’t really fit into what is traditionally labeled as neofolk. I definitely do not support anything associated with fascism and would never use Musk Ox as a vehicle for any political opinion. For me, I strive to create a musical landscape or world that is reflective, melancholic and transcendent.

Let’s talk about the present and near future. What’s the status on the next full-length album?

After many years, I am proud to say that the new album is nearing completion. All of the instruments are recorded so we are in the editing/mixing stages as I type this. It is epic!

What can we expect from this forthcoming album, musically and structurally?

The new album to me is much more focused, dynamic and technical. Whereas the first record was more of an atmospheric, layered, ambient neofolk album, I’m describing the new album as progressive/chamber/folk. Since the first album was released, Musk Ox has grown beyond a solo project into a band and I couldn’t be happier. As a result, the new album was born from collaboration rather than solo composition.

Musically this album is heavily inspired by a record my guitar teacher lent me years ago called “Music for Egon Scheile” by Rachel’s, which consists of piano, viola and cello. I was very inspired by this album and wanted to incorporate a similar musical approach, so the new record will feature myself on classical guitar, and my bandmates Raphael Weinroth-Browne on cello and Evan Runge on violin. Musically, my guitar playing is much more technical than on the first record. I found my style this time around was more influenced by fingerstyle players such as 12-string guitarist James Blackshaw, than by traditional neofolk guitar playing. To be honest, I’m not sure if people will even consider this a neofolk record.

Structurally, the new album is a one hour piece divided into five lengthy songs. When I was recording the first album I had the idea of making an album that was one long, epic piece, which is exactly what has happened. I basically wanted to make the neofolk equivalent of Green Carnation’s “Light of Day, Day of Darkness”.

Compositionally, Raph and I pretty much wrote the entire record. I basically gave him a whole bunch of instrumental guitar songs and he wrote mind blowing string arrangements for them, refining structures and adding his own guitar parts as well. The first piece however was co-written by former Musk Ox members Angela Schlieauf (oboe) and Rosalind McCanny (cello). The vibe is quite different than the first album so it will be interesting to see how people respond to it. The album will also be dedicated to the memory of Adrian “The Energizer” Bromley and David “Ypres” Gold, both of whom were great supporters of Musk Ox and are sadly no longer with us.

You’ve recently traveled to Europe as Musk Ox for the first time? How was that trip?

The trip was great! We performed at the Wave-Gotik Festival in Leipzg, Germany which is the world’s largest gothic festival. It was really fun, almost everyone attending was dressed in dark gothic/medieval. It’s a really big festival consisting of many different styles ranging from metal, to electro, to neofolk, to industrial. We had the chance to perform in a really nice seated auditorium with great sound. We also got to open for the Norwegian world/folk band Wardruna who were absolutely incredible. Gaahl (ex- Gorogroth singer) does vocals in Wardruna so we got to meet him which was surreal. I was also really happy to have the chance to meet the members of the amazing neofolk band Neun Welten, who I had been I touch with over the years. They were kind enough to lend us a cello as well as a guitar, as mine was broken on the way there. It’s ok though, I got a refund from the airline and bought a nicer guitar!

You just played some shows with Portland’s Agalloch. How did they go?

The shows were amazing and the crowds were incredible. I played a solo show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, two full band shows with the trio, and a show in Brooklyn, New York with the Evan the violinist. Last time I opened for Agalloch I played three solo shows and the reaction was overwhelming so I felt that people would respond really positively this time with the full line-up present. Even though I believed it would go well the reactions from the crowds exceeded all expectations. We had an amazing time and it was a great opportunity to promote the new record as well. I feel really grateful for the continuing support Agalloch has given to Musk Ox.

Do you have any other projects that have been keeping you busy that you would like to mention here? If so, do they differ at all from your work in Musk Ox?

My other main project is an instrumental/progressive metal band called The Night Watch which consists of myself on electric guitar, Evan (from Musk Ox) on violin, as well as my friends Dan Mollema (drums/percussion) and Matt Cowan (fretless/bass). We just finished our debut album which took us over 3 years to make but I am so happy with it. The style is quite eclectic. It’s a blend of styles from prog rock, to jazz, to swing, to classical, to black/progressive/doom/folk metal with some post rock thrown in the mix. It’s very cinematic and varied. I’m curious to hear what people will think of it. To answer your question, I guess the main difference would be that it’s a louder band than Musk Ox. However, there are some riffs from the first Musk Ox record which snuck into one of the songs and were made metal. This would relate back to my earlier comment about Metallica’s “Battery” and the art of implied heaviness. Being a dedicated metal fan for so many years, I feel really happy to be able to contribute a record to this style of music which has given me so much.

What have been some highlights of your musical career so far?

Opening for Agalloch, performing ‘Isle of Summer’ with [Agalloch guitarist] Don Anderson, and being invited to perform ‘In the Shadow if our Pale Companion’ with Agalloch on this recent tour. Other highlights have included sharing the stage with Mick Barr from Krallice, Kevin Hufnagel (Dysrhythmia/Gorguts) performing “Sur Une Infinie Route de Terre” with me, being selected to contribute a song to Prophecy Productions’ “Whom the Moon a Nightsong Sings” Compilation alongside Empyrium, Tenhi, Ulver, October Falls and a host of other amazing bands, and performing at Wave-Gotik in Leipzig, Germany. I never imagined all of this would happen when I bought my first classical guitar and started recording rough demos and riffs on my little mp3 player so I am very grateful.

Where can people find more about your bands and musical projects?

For now, the Musk Ox facebook page has all the most up-to-date information regarding shows and album info. In terms of hearing our music, there are still songs on the Musk Ox myspace page, although I know no one uses myspace anymore. When the new album is released I plan to launch a proper website as well as a bandcamp page. There is a lot on youtube as well if you type in “musk ox folk”. As for The Night Watch, we only have our myspace page but will hopefully be launching a proper website/bandcamp when the album is ready. The opening song to the new record can be heard on the myspace page.

What are some of your favourite releases so far, metal or otherwise, of 2012?

I am quite obsessive compulsive when it comes to keeping track of new releases so this is my list so far:
Agalloch – Faustian Echoes
Anathema – Weather Systems
Storm Corrosion – s/t
Anglagard – Viljans Oga
If These Trees Could Talk – Red Forest
Sigur Ros – Valtari
Paper Beat Scissors – s/t

Anything else would you like to mention that I haven’t brought up?

I just want to say thanks to you and everyone at Hellbound for the support. I’d also like to thank every who has a supported Musk Ox in any way, shape or form. I never imagined it would go this far so I look forward to seeing where it goes from here. Thank you everyone, I can’t wait to share the new album with you.