An Interview with Connor Sanders of Northern Extremity Promotions and Wyrdstaef.
Jorvik: An ancient city which can wear many masks from modern tourist centre, through Dickensian Christmas timewarp to Viking and Roman settlement. This time of year though it is the rich, deep Norse roots which are in ascendance. Any enthusiastic reader of sagas should know its pivotal role in, say, the life of great Icelandic hero Eghill Skallagrimsson and it has happily taken Erik Bloodaxe to its bosom. Add in a list of names now popularised with one degree of accuracy or another in the TV series Vikings and it’s a city that should be on the must-visit list of any Norse and Anglo-Saxon intrigued metalhead.
Mid February though, when the Viking Festival is in full swing is the perfect time. And now with a new two day festival, Rúnagaderung: The Runic Gathering offered to feed your mind and spirit you really need to do it.
To explain further we conducted an in depth interview with the extremely busy Connor Sanders, of Northern Extremity Promotions and of the band Wyrdstaef. Dive in and prepare to book your tickets.
AN: Hail Connor, thanks for somehow finding the time to chat to us. I would have thought you’d be run off your feet about now with a new two day festival on the horizon!
CS: Hey there! It’s my pleasure entirely. It’s been an incredibly busy few weeks, but I’m glad for the opportunity to talk to you!
AN: So, Runagaderung. A two day festival in historic York, or at this time of the year more Jorvik as it takes place bang in the midst of the annual Viking Festival. Apart from being a great idea so all Nordic inspired metalheads can get out and see some of the activities in the incredible city as well as get their musical enrichment; why now and what was the original inspiration? How long have you been wanting to do this?
CS: I’ve put on concerts at the last two Jorvik Viking Festivals, and they have always been a great success. This year, I wanted to expand a little and do things a little differently, and I had been toying with the idea of having a whole weekend dedicated to music and education for the past year or so at least. I’m not one to sit around doing nothing, so if I have an urge to do something, generally I will go out of my way to make sure that thing happens.
I think that there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period, but there is also a lot of great music, both metal and otherwise that is based around this fascinating period of history. As I’ve fostered a love for both music and history over my time on this planet, running an event combining both aspects appealed to me massively.
AN: How do you see Runagaderung fitting in to the overall Jorvik experience? Symbiotic perhaps? Assuming all goes as well as we hope, how would you like to see it develop or are you not wanting to think that far forward yet?
CS: I’m hoping to offer something a little different for fans of folk and metal music. Obviously, this year we’re mixing things up a little by separating the two days by their genres. I have chosen to do this as it meant that people who were only interested in the folk side of the festival could come on the Friday, and those wanting to get their fix of metal could choose to only come on the Saturday, or simply come along for the entire weekend.
For the past two years the events I’ve put on have been part of the official Jorvik Viking Festival Fringe Event programme, which means that we are effectively affiliated with the Jorvik Centre. As I currently work there, in the future I would like to increase the emphasis placed upon the musical aspect of the Jorvik Viking Festival itself and continue to expand the scale of Rúnagaderung.
This year we have a guest speaker from the University of York in to give a presentation on Viking music, and a medieval drama group coming in to perform genuine historical songs from that period – so I’m looking to expand Rúnagaderung into much more than just a musical festival. But, we’ll see how it goes this year and make any necessary adjustments for next year.
AN: With the lineup, particularly the ambient, folk and neo folk day, one of the sponsors being Descended From Odin who are a company with a very defined Nordic and ecological spirit and the presence of The Lords Of Misrule who are a medieval drama group there seems to be a real ethos of offering to broaden attendees knowledge should they so wish but still surrounding them with fine music and entertainment. Where does this desire to share come from? What would you hope the audience can take away besides experiencing some great music? Are any other things planned that are a little different from the norm?
CS: Like I said, I really want this event to be a different from your average weekend metal gig, hence why I’ve decided to broaden out the musical scope of the event a little.
A lot of people who listen to metal music seem to be branching out musically and listening to bands like Wardruna, Heilung, Danheim, and other neo-folk music. Neo-folk bands are more and more frequently appearing higher on the line-ups for metal festivals, and more and more neo-folk gigs seem to be populated by people resplendent in patch jackets. I feel like it is a shame that in the U.K metalheads (sometimes) turn up to underground extreme metal gigs and support their local scene, but as of yet there doesn’t seem to be as much demand for the underground neo-folk scene. I aim to change this, and with Rúnagaderung I’m hoping to bolster the U.K folk and neo-folk scene a little, giving the artists who create music the opportunity to play to a wider audience than what they might usually expect.
Our sponsorship from Descended from Odin is most welcome, they’re truly a fantastic clothing company with a noble ethos and a genuine interest in the early medieval period. They approached me a few months back offering me the chance to work alongside them, and after talking with them a great deal, I was more than happy to do so. They use only natural or recycled materials, hand craft a lot of their stock and never use plastic packaging. To have the opportunity to work with this inspirational group of people, especially considering our shared vision and passion for history is truly a blessing. Ten percent of all their profits go towards various charities focused entirely on environmental work, such as cleaning plastic from the ocean and raising awareness of climate change, something which I am passionate about myself. Our connection to the natural world and each other gives us our strength; and looking after and preserving our planet for future generations is something that any self-respecting human should care about. They’ve even offered all people attending Runagaderung a 10% discount on their wares by using the discount code RUNAGADERUNG on their website.
Likewise, The Lords of Misrule were founded about forty years ago by postgraduate students at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York, there being no medieval theatre in York’s amateur drama scene at the time. Lords has continued to operate since then, performing three plays every year, and participating in other local events where there is a need for a medieval theatre group, such as the York Mystery Plays in 2018. They are a mix of York postgrads and alumni – but are by no means exclusively – medievalists. The Lords’ repertoire also includes sixteenth-and seventeenth-century material, not just medieval, as well as original plays based on medieval texts. The aim is to make medieval (and Renaissance) theatre accessible to a modern audience, by bringing out the spirit of the plays. The Lords musicians have the same goal: while they use a mix of medieval and not-so-medieval instruments, they accompany the Lords’ plays with (broadly) period-appropriate songs, both obscure and better-known.
As a student of history with a passion for teaching, I wanted to make Rúnagaderung an event where one can take away more than just memories of good music. As we book our event to coincide with the annual Jorvik Viking Festival, I feel like it is important to try and provide an educational aspect if possible, hence why we have teamed up with various members of the University to provide a variety of bands, speakers and performances. Whilst it is still early days for the Runic Gathering right now, I hope to be able to expand this event over the coming years to become a staple of the annual festival.
AN: Just to crystallize your answers to the previous question, would you care to share a little of your own background. Musician and promoter, yes, but what drives these? You have a background in Medieval History I believe, but how deep does your love of such things go? Do you have a spiritual aspect to all this? How much is it entwined with your everyday life? Where did your musical journey start?
CS: I studied for my undergraduate degree in History at the University of York, followed by a Masters in Medieval History (with specialisations in Anglo-Saxon and Viking history in England) at the Centre for Medieval Studies. I have also been involved in the Midlands based living history group the Thegns of Mercia since the age of eighteen, encouraging the celebration and public appreciation of English history from the Migration period through to the end of the Viking Age (449 – 1066AD) through research and re-constructive archaeology. My love for history is an all-consuming hobby, passion and profession. I work at the Jorvik Viking Centre as a costumed interpreter, teaching both schoolchildren and members of the public about the period, and I plan on beginning my career as a secondary school teacher within the year. Though I do consider myself spiritual, I tend to avoid talking about specifics because it can so easily be misconstrued in the current climate – but I have a vested academic interest in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking Age, and draw a lot of my worldview and inspiration from pre-Christian European belief systems. As such, I try to embrace Anglo-Saxon paganism as much as possible and combine that with Indo-European and Proto-Germanic ideology. Because of the sudden popularity of the Viking period because of the History Channel’s TV series, I try to avoid the term Norse Pagan which many people like to throw around these days because of the associations with Brosatruar (look them up for a good laugh) and because a lot of the written Norse material was influenced by later Christian writers. I have a small altar to Woden at home, and generally try and live in a way that makes me proud.
My musical journey started way back when I was thirteen years old and first got into black metal. A few friends and I jammed some tracks on an old drumkit and guitar in my best friends loft, placing a single Guitar Hero mic in the centre of the room plugged into a shitty ancient laptop and recorded something crazy like twelve tracks in an entire day. Thankfully, very little trace of this embarrassing period remains on the internet, but you might be able to get me drunk enough to talk about it further at some point.
AN: Northern Extremity Promotions have garnered a fine reputation since its inception for putting on many varied gigs and all dayers supporting the underground and extreme scenes. What actually made you want to fulfil probably one of the most thankless roles there has to be in the music scene, that of the promoter?
CS: Ahh, thank you. Well, I’m not promoting extreme metal for the copious riches that it brings me haha. For me it was a case of just wanting to do a little something that people could enjoy on a weekend. I initially started about three years ago with the University of York’s Metal Society, but since then developed it into Northern Extremity Promotions. Rúnagaderung is going to be the thirtieth show that I’ve booked over these last few years. There used to be a promotion company called Jorvik Underground that put on fantastic grind, black and death metal nights in York, but when they had to stop hosting gigs (noise complaints from neighbours, unfortunately) on I decided that I didn’t want to see the York scene disappear and started booking and promoting them myself. It’s been great fun but has been proven itself stressful at times – so I’m now starting to expand my Northern Extremity team, so I no longer do all of the work. It’s allowed me to meet fantastic musicians and people from all over the world, and I’m not likely to stop any time soon.
AN: For those who have never been to York for a gig and are wondering about the venue, can you tell them a little about The Fulford Arms and the remarkable place it has carved out on the area’s music scene in general?
CS: The Fulford Arms is a lovely, intimate venue and has recently celebrated its fifth birthday, and has been the home of Northern Extremity gigs for three of those years. It has gone from strength to strength and in my opinion, remains the absolute best small venue in the city. Since The Duchess, a local music venue, closed a few years ago, (to make way for luxury apartments, obviously) The Fulford Arms has been one of a few candles in the darkness for live music in York. Regularly putting on live events and club nights that cover an eclectic range of genres, from extreme metal all the way to soft rock and indie folk, the owners of the venue, Christopher Sherrington and Christopher Tuke, deserve the biggest round of applause from all music lovers in the city.
AN: Right, back the music. You’ve tried to bring together bands whose main common root is music that springs from an historical aspect – be it Nordic history and myth, English folklore, occultism or a more alternative take on recorded history. Of the bands I know, this i from a genuine interest and attachment to their chosen theme. Why do you think metal fans and musicians in particular seem to cleave so strongly to this idea of history being something to explore?
CS: Our history is what defines us. Without our history, traditions and cultures, what are we? A homogenous, globalised mass? Our earliest human ancestors gathered around the flames of their campfires, under the shelter of a cavern mouth or a canopy of leaves and with their words wove great tales and stories of times long since gone by.
One thing to bear in mind is that across the world, storytelling has been for the longest time, synonymous with song, chant, music or epic poetry. Accompanied by the rhythm of the drum and the movement of dancers, storytellers worldwide inspired the imagination and passed down their verses and tales to subsequent generations. If you look at any society that stays close to its indigenous roots, whether that be the Sami of Scandinavia, the Native Americans of the Great Plains, innumerable African traditions ranging from Ethiopia to Uganda, to Central Asia, South East Asia and beyond, every culture in history has at some point passed down a form of oral tradition through the medium of music. Albert Lord, in his work The Singer of Tales, goes into much more depth on the traditions of oral storytelling, music and verse than I can go into here, and I very much recommend his work to anyone who is interested in how stories are passed down in a pre-literate society. Though music has obviously changed vastly since our first Palaeolithic ancestors emerged into a brave new world nearly 200,000 years ago, the function remains the same. Music is not just a combination of chords, rhythms and words, it is a integral part of the human spirit, and if for the entirety of human pre-history and a great deal of history it has been used to pass down tales that excite, terrify, inspire wonder and awe, forcing us to envision a world before our own time that our ancestors called their own, why would it not do the same now?
AN: Apart from ‘well they got about a bit’, why do you believe that the Nordic/Viking influence rides so high in metal as a whole?
CS: Going back to my answer to the previous question, I think it can be boiled down to a few things. Firstly, Vikings are cool. They’re popular in mainstream media at present, and this has brought a lot more people into the fold. They’re seen, regardless of how historically accurate it is, as the great Other, in a time where Western European society is becoming firmly Christian, Vikings and pagan subject matter is something that is antagonistic to the nature of that society. Now that Christianity is now one of the largest and most widespread religious beliefs on the planet and given the amount that heavy metal in general thrives off and prides itself on being somewhat outside of the norm, with anti-Christian ideals and rebellious music, people want to identify with the scary, mysterious outsiders with their multitude of Gods and a ferocious reputation. I also think it has a lot to do with people wanting to express appreciation or interest for history in their own way. People are drawn towards this sort of thing – it provides alternative narratives and role models for a new generation.
However, I don’t think it matters particularly why individuals are drawn towards taking their inspiration from the Viking Age and the early medieval period. History is a well of knowledge that we are all entitled to draw from, and I’m sure that they would be able to elucidate their own reasons behind it much better than I would be able to.
AN: You’ll also be on stage during the festival with Wyrdstaef. Now I was one of the lucky people who saw their first performance at Warhorns last year and it’s fair to say I wasn’t the only one who had to pick their jaw up from the floor, but for everyone else…Paleo-metal?!? How did this come up as the basis for a band and how did you come together with other people who could see what a great idea it actually was? Can you give us a rundown of the members?
CS: I’ve always been intensely interested in pre-history and the mystery that surrounds the origins of humanity. Something about their brutal existence appeals to me on a spiritual level, there is something intensely human about it, in my opinion. In a world surrounded by electric lights, pollution and degradation, I feel a longing deep inside for a more natural existence. The mystery that surrounds our earliest ancestors, those brave, nomadic hunter gatherers whose cunning, strength and stamina allowed them to invent the first stone tools, hunt the megafauna of the Pleistocene epoch and spread out from their homeland in Africa to colonise every single landmass on this planet is simply fascinating. People think of cave-men and conjure up an image of idiotic, subhuman people called Grug and Ugg, traipsing about with a wooden club and collecting rocks, but the truth could not be further from that. It was in these formative periods of human history that we see the development of complex ritual systems, music, beliefs, art, language, tools, societies, domestication, jewellery, and many other things that today we think of as modern. In this period we co-existed with other species of humans: Neanderthals and homo-erectus walked the Earth at the same time as our ancestors. How did interactions between these groups influence us and our DNA? How did our earliest nomadic societies come to exist? What trials and tribulations did they face? What nameless gods and goddesses did they worship? It sets the imagination aflame in a way that simply cannot be done with recorded history, and so in Wyrdstæf we attempt to create something both simultaneously ancient and new.
As for the band members, I couldn’t possibly ask for better brothers in arms. Jeremy (Bass) and I went to University together, and we lived together for several years before forming the band. For a few years, Wyrdstæf was merely a name until 2017 where we actively started recruiting members, and after a bit of trial, error and experimentation with sound, emerged with our current line-up. The first to join was my good friend Shayan (Guitars) of the black metal band Trivax. Hailing from Iran and moving to England to pursue his musical ambitions, he appreciated the vision that I had for Wyrdstæf and wanted to try something that in his own words, was ‘completely different to anything I [he] had worked on before’and was intrigued by what he could create. Secondly, Matt (Drums) is another friend of mine whom I had interacted with a lot in his previous bands, came forward wanting to explore new territories musically. Then came Jon (Ancient Instruments), whose old band I had previously booked, and who I introduced to Anglo-Saxon and Viking Living History and re-enactment. After he showed me a few videos of him covering a Wardruna song, I knew that Wyrdstæf needed this element of ancient music in it and immediately asked him to join the band, which as it turns out was what he wanted to do anyway. Finally, Ian (Soundscapes) was someone I knew from my hometown of Tamworth; we once started a drone band together many years ago which, after moving to York for University, we never really did anything with. Remembering his aptitude for creating harrowing music, I asked him to be a part of the project and since then he has been instrumental in creating the organic, tribalistic backdrop to our aural assault. Since we finalised this line-up, I think that we have all fed off the energy that we put into the band and learned a lot from each other.
AN: When can we expect some recorded music from you?
CS: Soon! We are looking to get into the studio later this year, but I don’t want to and cannot give exact dates as we want everything to be perfect when we go into the studio. As Shayan has said before, Wyrdstæf paints something ancient and that is something that you really feel during the live shows – it is a vision into the rawest and purest face of emotions; rage and anger definitely, but also desperation and melancholy – especially when you look at the concepts for the album. We want to make sure we can translate that effectively into the recordings.
My sincere thanks to Connor for his generous, intriguing and thoughtful responses at a very hectic time. It is a fascinating insight.
So you lot; there it is, all laid out. Metal, music, pure enjoyment and a well of education and enrichment simply placed there to dip into as you feel the need, the urge or the curiosity rise. All in a UK city, easily accessible and with so much going on outside too that your only decision is when you sleep! Get up to York and revel in what promises to be a unique experience.