I think it’s safe to say that Damned When Dead by Mael Mordha is not just one of the year’s most enthralling releases, but also one of the most passionate, imaginative and epic. With so much drama and history within, they were a band we really had questions to ask and, thankfully singer Rob not just agreed but gave us some thoughtful and informative answers
AN. Thanks for agreeing to the interview, I really appreciate it.
Rob: Thanks for the interest in the band.
AN: I do want to congratulate you on the Damned When Dead album. It is a fantastic and truly excellent piece of music. You should be truly proud of that. Definitely one of my highlights this year, and it has been a good year too. As a bit of silly curiosity to start with, this is the first album that I’ve actually been able to pronounce the title of! Is there any particular reason for the switch to English on this title or just the way the writing went?
Rob: No reason really. The line is a translation from the Irish pronouncement on Diarmuid Mac Murrchadh, king of Leinster and Dublin that was issued when the Annals of the Four Masters was completed in the late 1500s. I think the phrase “Putrid When Living, Damned When Dead” is quite dramatic and strong.
AN: For those who have not yet had the pleasure of hearing your music, to me you have a full on sound that incorporates aspects of that classic Bathory sound, epic doom, heavy metal, folk and pagan metal. It is a huge, dramatic and experienced sound that has certainly grown and matured since the first album too. Did you all come from a similar musical background, or have different people brought different influences to the band? Is there a common root, a place you all start from?
Rob: Everyone, as they joined, has added their own influences to the band sound which is why it has gradually changed since the band’s inception in 1998. Some of our influences overlap, but we all have things that one of us may really like that the rest don’t. The roots of the band come from the Doom/Death Metal that came from the North of England in the early Nineties, but you could argue that trees do not look like their roots.
AN: Do you think much about progressing your sound or is where you are now simply what has come about from writing and playing live and you go wherever it takes you?
Rob: We are always trying to improve ourselves as musicians, so our skills are always improving but life influences each of us, so each new experience slightly colours the way we do things, not just musically, but in general. Each change may be subtle, but when you add up a year’s worth of subtleties then the changes can appear to be quite dramatic.
AN: So as a band you seem to be fascinated with not just the mythology of Eire, and the British Isles, but also actual historical events and context, sometimes woven around with the fantasy roots too. Obviously you’re never going to run out of ideas with such a rich and wild heritage but is there an area or a time of particular love within this that you will keep coming back to?
Rob: Not really. We started with the time of the King Mael Mórdha Mac Murchadh in the 1000s and have slowly mode forward to the late 1100s. You are quite right in saying we will never run out of stuff to write about. There are so many fascinating things that have happened but many of them are either written about in an overly biased manner or have just been ignored. So you will find many obscure topics in our lyrics which may have you running to the Internet or library to check them out, to see whether they are shite or not. Once you go looking, they are not that difficult to find.
AN: Your songs are full of conflict and treachery and war from the historical context. Alliances made and broken for political ends. Do you see this as a way of drawing parallels between past and present, learning lessons so to speak, or is it more a celebration of such a huge depth of history?
Rob: All of the above really. It is possible to draw parallels between aspects of history and the events of the now as we tend to repeat ourselves a lot, do humans. The stories are amazing in their own rights too though without having to dive into the moral of the tale being told. The great thing about the listener/reader is that everyone will have their own view as to what the lyrics are getting at, that’s the wonderful thing about getting our material out into the open, it, in a sense, becomes everyone’s to enjoy and interpret.
AN: Do you draw from books much? As my own knowledge is badly lacking do you have any suggestions for books I might pick up after listening to Mael Mordha and digesting your lyrics, just to broaden my own horizons?
Rob: Quite a lot actually. Medieval Ireland by Michael Richter would be a great place to start.
AN: You also introduced us to the charming lady Bloody Alice of Abergavenny this time around. Apart from being a cracking song, what’s the background on this one as for some reason she really stood out?
Rob: The first group of Normans who arrived here were actually from Wales and have often been referred to as Cambro-Norman. Alice’s man was one of those. In one particular battle he was killed. It was described that her grief was so great she took an axe to the seventy prisoners that his compatriots had taken, and dumped them over the cliff-edge where the old fort they were holed up in was situated. We don’t have too many romantic ditties so we tried to make amends for that this time around.
AN: When you’re so immersed in history and music for the band, does it make the day jobs drag even more? Or are any of you lucky enough to have a job that feeds the soul as much as Mael Mordha must do? Does the music and the lyrics feed in to any other aspects of your non-working lives?
Rob: No. None of us have jobs that are remotely connected to being musicians, which is shit. This is an expensive hobby for us as we don’t earn enough from our music to even fund the band, let alone putting food on the table. The time we have to spend playing, writing, searching and travelling to gigs seriously effects the rest of lives, both working and non-working. It can be very difficult to balance it all, but we manage.
AN: The vocals are of a very distinct and dramatic style and are often described as from an old Irish tradition. Can you tell us something about the roots of this tradition and what it means? I somehow draw parallels with the traditional Irish seanchai tradition that cropped up, for example, with Eddie Lenihan’s recording on the last From The Bogs Of Augushka album.A very distinct and earthy storytelling style.
Rob: The roots of the Sean Nós (or old style) of singing goes back to when the Gaelic Order was still in existence in Ireland (this started to die out in the 1600s but still survived in some shape or form into the 1800’s). Songs were sung to commemorate the life, or death, of a noted leader or figure of the local tribe. Genealogies, historical events, mythologies, were also sung. Basically any poetry from the period, or before it was but to music. The tune defined the verse and how it was constructed. There were set tunes for each of the above mentioned events, but the words would be changed to suit the actual circumstances. Many of these tunes were recorded by antiquarians before being lost, some were passed on through the generations and made it to the 20th century when they were recorded by machine. The changes between the tunes through the centuries was minimal and so some historians and musicologists believe that they date back 1500 years and more.
Eddie Lenihan is a genius, a very unappreciated genius, who has collected thousands of stories from the older people of Ireland. What he tells at his shows are only a tiny fraction of what he has recorded. He used have a ten minute slot on RTÉ when I was growing up so many people my age would be quite familiar with him. I got to meet him once and see him perform. There are not many musicians who could create the atmosphere he does just by telling his stories.
AN: You have a knack of having superb covers for your albums too. Proper, vivid paintings which suit the music so well and the ever present black bull. For the uninitiated can you tell us the background to this Black Bull image and its context for Mael Mordha as it is, I understand, all bound up to the themes and times the band explore.
Rob: Vasilis has done amazing work for us since the first album, but I think he excelled this time. The base of the cross seen in the picture is a drawing of the base of the actual cross at the grave of Diarmuid Mac Murchadh. He then managed to marry the historical, mythological and the band together to create the album artwork which can be seen in the centre of the booklet. The Minotaur came about by accident really. Vasilis had done some sketches for the artwork for the first album of which one was a Minotaur with some knotwork on his horns and some woad designs painted on his body. It just felt right that he should represent the band spirit, but also some aspects of Manannán crept in there too.
AN: You really do seem to have been getting out and about recently. How was Bloodstock for you? Not having caught you live yet (something I intend to put right at Warhorns) but having seen photos and videos, you bring a real visual aspect to your shows, too. What should I expect from you live? What do you get out of it that makes the travel and the crap hotels and hard floors worthwhile?
Rob: Bloodstock was great. We had played at the last indoor version of Bloodstock in 2006 so it was good to get back to it again. The crowd response was great and I think we made a few new fans there which makes it all worthwhile.
Live, well that’s what we’ve always done best. It can be intense for both us and the audience. Each show is like a battle with the audience as the prize. If we win them over, then the energy flowing between the stage and crowd and visa versa, is impossible to beat.
AN: You seem to be able (and willing) to play with a whole range of bands and bills. Is this something you embrace as a kind of philosophy of not being in a pigeonhole as your sound has a broad appeal without any sacrifice of intensity, or is it simply a practical way to play live as often as you can? A bit of both maybe?
Rob: People love pigeons don’t they? We’ve been accused of being everything from Black, Death, Doom, Heavy, Folk, Pagan(whatever that is), True (see Pagan comment), Viking, Celtic, Epic, Battle, Thrash etc. etc. etc. People seem to have been very annoyed over the years that they can’t put us into one of their neat little categories. We do our thing. People can get what they want from it. I don’t know where all this anility came from but I wish it would fuck off back there and leave musicians to make music.
AN: Do you actually feel part of a particular genre scene or more a wider Irish family? There seem to be a lot of links between hugely varied Irish bands both on and off record.
Rob: It makes sense that we should feel some sort of affinity to our fellow Irish bands seeing as we have a very small scene here and so by us all supporting each other there may be a chance that we will survive. As regards a style of music. I’m not sure about that. I mean Abaddon Incarnate play completely different music to Cruachan who are totally different to Mourning Beloveth but they are all Irish. We have ploughed our own (lonely) furrow for a long time hoping that the stopped clock will be right twice (although we’d settle for once at this stage).
AN: You have your album launch gig at the end of September, so what’s after that? Will the UK get to see you soon again? Is there a Damned When Dead tour in the offing or selected gigs?
Rob: We have a brace of gigs with our friends Primordial at the end of November in Greece which we are looking forward to and another brace in the south of Ireland just before Christmas but no plans to play in the U.K. until next year again. No news on an actual tour either but watch this space.
AN: Finally, though, to coin a phrase from the native Americans, “memory lives in places”. If I was going to organise a holiday in Ireland based around Mael Mordha’s music and the places it has songs based on, where should I take in?
Rob: Mainly the areas to the south of Dublin along the east coast. Damned When Dead would take in quite a lot of places abroad too though as Diarmuid Mac Murchadh had to travel from Wexford (South East Ireland) to Wales, England and North West France in order to find Henry II for help in finding an army to retake his kingdom. In Ireland, for this album though, Ferns, Wexford Town and Bannow in Co. Wexford, Waterford and Dublin Cities would be the most prominent.
AN: Thank you so much for your time, but also for the great album. I really hope it takes you places.
Rob: Sorry about the late reply. Good, well thought out questions. I hope the album takes us places too !!
Thanks again to Rob for his time and some fascinating and informative responses. Since this interview I have of course seen the band live at Warhorns (check the review on this site) and all I can say is that live they are extraordinary, evocative and intense with a huge presence. Please, go see them and enjoy metal at its richest, no pigeonhole required.
I also think this is an opportune moment to remind you how much sacrifice is involved in being a touring band. As fans we are so fortunate to have bands who we know create this marvellous music through love and passion even though there is no money to be made at it. The least we owe to them is to buy their music if we like it, turn up when they play locally and we have the money for a night out and maybe forego just a pint, maybe two, and spend it at their merchandise stall on a badge or a patch or a keyring or a shirt. Show them all a bit of love, eh? It’s what they do for us.
(Interview by Gizmo)