Xenis Emputae Travelling Band
It is no minor feat to channel the sounds and souls of nature. Phil Legard AKA Xenis Emputae Travelling Band is one of the best I've heard do this. His music is a full of simple organic beauty. He is a master of hiking out to an isolated location and just feeling his environment and translating into music. Hailing from North Yorkshire in England, Legard is at his best when he's making archaic drones. The salt of the earth is his canvas. His recently released CD-R, "The Hieroglpyhic Mountain," on the fabulous Deserted Village label out of Ireland, is one of the best CD-R releases this year. It's an enchanted journey through the lush green hillsides of the UK. His Larkfall label has released a number of Xenis Emputae Travelling Band recordings (including a great mp3 only release available for free). Over the next year, expect Legard's name to become a mainstay. This interview was conducted via email by Brad Rose in October 2004.
PL: Hmm, good question. Compared to most people I started making music rather late in life. When I was 16 my mother was getting back into playing folk music and she bought me a penny-whistle. It's chewed and chipped but I still use it a lot in my music. Around this time I also saw a performance by a noise artist called Dachise which blew me away. A year later, inspired by this noise act, I moved from fumbling my way through “The Irish Washerwoman” on penny-whistle to creating a droning industrial racket using a microphone, Dictaphone and cheap fx unit. I still use all of these tools although they're mainly held together with hope and twine these days.
I was never an angst-ridden teen, preferring to listen to Gong and Steeleye Span instead of grunge or whatever, but I was rather down at the time that I began recording, and found making noise a really cathartic experience, even if no-one else could stand it. After that I just kept going, eventually taking the moniker of Xenis Emputae and self-releasing a few flawed experiments in various styles. I don't know why I continue, I think it's just a compulsion to create. I'm only really happy when I'm making things.
PL: I can vividly recall the birth of XETB in 2001. My partner and I had gone on holiday to Cornwall and decided to do a walk around an area with a large concentration of ancient sites. Our first stop was Men-an-Tol, which is a small clearing with a large donut shaped stone flanked on each side by smaller stones. At one time it was probably the entrance to an ancient tomb. There is an ancient tradition that the stone had some kind of healing properties if people crawled through it, and some families still pass their newborn through it three times. I decided to crawl through it myself and I think that is the moment in which the project began - a sort of birth into a new world. I'd brought a few instruments and a Dictaphone with me and I felt moved to start recording - to try and immerse myself in this ancient landscape and somehow channel its sound. The "Full Moon June" recording was the final outcome, which really represents the project in its newborn "What the heck's happening?!" stage! A lot of New Age-type people say that the ancient stones have the power to profoundly transform people. I would, until recently, have dismissed this as a lot of rubbish, but after considering the path which my life and music has taken over the last few years I think they may be on to something.
PL: I had just finished recording "The Suffolk Workings" and sent it off to a couple of people I knew who ran labels, both of whom pondered releasing it and then decided it was too 'gothic' for their tastes. I'd probably dispute that - melancholic, perhaps, but I think that melancholia plays rather a large part in the English psyche. Anyway, I've always been really shy and after that I decided that I didn't really like to push my music on people - you know, to send it to them expecting them either to release it or write back a tactful critique or whatever. So I created Larkfall as an avenue to release my stuff. The name comes from a few places - I was thinking of Flora Thompson's "Lark Rise to Candleford" and the May Day Song performed in Padstow, which has the lyric "Up flies the kite and down falls the lark". There's also Robert Graves' assertion that the lark flies up to worship the sun, which is an image I really like. Currently the only things on Larkfall are XETB related, but I'd love to put out some stuff by people who work in similar areas.
PL: Gavin Prior was the first of the DV folks to contact me - he got a flyer through Fencing Flatworm Recordings, which was lucky of him since I'm really lazy about distributing flyers. I've only ever made about twenty, I think! He was intrigued by the label of 'psychogeographic ether-folk' and wanted to do some trades. They seem like really nice folks and their music is always pretty sweet. I'm rather excited about the United Bible Studies’ "Sorrowful Mysteries" album, which they seem to have been slaving away at for as long as I've known them!
PL: XETB is about sounding the landscape - drawing from intuition, folklore and the like. The Death Slittes was really a one-off recorded with my partner - someone once described it as a hideous inversion of The White Stripes. It was conceived in conditions that will probably have you worrying for my sanity, but essentially it's about the spirits of the city and urban decay. The name came from the ramblings of a local junky. If XETB's main focus is on nature, then the Death Slittes concentrate on the man-made – forgotten streets, crumbling concrete and twisted metal.
PL: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head there with "channeling nature". To me the landscape is inseparable from the recording for many of the tracks. This is probably less so for listeners since I try and keep sleeve-notes to a minimum, preferring the music to speak for itself.
In the initial recordings I saw my role as a receiver, picking up memories, emotions and sounds which had been crystallized in some kind of spiritual ether which surrounded the place at which I was recording. More and more I realize that some kind of 'spiritual' aura about the place, the genius loci, does effect me deeply but also that I play a large part myself in the process of fashioning those forces and impulses into a 'primitive English music'. The only problem is that sometimes the sound of the environment – be it silence or birdsong and water - is so profound that I cannot bring myself to break it, which is one of the reasons I'm quite a slow worker. I often just end up with tapes of birdsong! The whole project has been really interesting - especially insofar as I've built up a highly personal inner map of my surroundings, full of anecdotes about things seen, people met, folklore and so on.
It's not just the physical environment that I draw inspiration from; in some cases it's a particular piece of folklore associated with a location or even an astrological alignment (e.g. "Shine Abroad Brightly" on "Lords of The Green Grass"). Often intuitions and associations will move me, for example being alone by a stream in a quiet forest led me to feel a certain kinship with the ancient Welsh poet Myrddin and ad-lib some of his poetry - a case of possession, perhaps! Actually 'possession' would probably be quite close to the mark - I hardly have any memory of recording any of the music and I'm sure that many musicians have similar experiences. I often find myself in some kind of 'no-mind' state or some kind of lucid state in which images come fleetingly, images which are often incorporated into the music to some degree, for example the short monologue about the King of Swords on "The Suffolk Workings". It's quite a shamanic mode of working, perhaps?
PL: Well, I've never really thought about it. Almost without exception my pieces usually start off quietly, a few tentative notes, from which everything else naturally develops. I do a lot of overdubs on the things I've recorded - either in the field or at home. I suppose that most of the recordings I make follow the usual format of buildup-climax-comedown. I think this is mainly due to the method of my working - I'm not sure if it could be done any other way.
PL: I've been studying John Dee's "The Hieroglyphic Monad" for the last couple of years and have become quite obsessed with it. I'm also very fond of wordplay such as anagrams, puns, similar-sounding words and so on. I realized that the Gaelic word for Mountain is "Monadh", which got me to thinking of the similarity between the Greek "Monas" (unity) and the Latin "Mons" (mountain). It seems to me in alchemical engravings that the mountain is symbolic of the monad - the primal unity from which all things are generated.
PL: Although history and lore play a large part in the music I think a great deal of influence comes from environmental factors. For example, the church at Kirklington. I first visited it on a bitter autumn day with Andy Sharp and we recorded an as-yet-unreleased track on the mourner's bench. There was a real sense of something powerful in the air as the sun set over the fields. I don't think I'm the first to have a hunch that the church was built on an even older sacred site. I returned there in spring to record some of The Hieroglyphic Mountain - a different atmosphere. The ravens seemed placid, less vocal and foreboding and shortly after I arrived a passing rain cloud cleansed the area, bringing with it that fresh feeling that seems to follow showers. It felt quite magical, as though the atmosphere had changed profoundly, but in a way I can't articulate. This kind of thing is obviously happening around us all the time, it's by no means rare - I suppose you just have to have your eyes open at the time.
There are a lot of places I keep returning to - I'm fascinated with that whole Wharfedale area and in particular with the spirit of Verbeia, described by William Camden in 1607 as "the Nymph or Goddesse of Wherf". Whenever I cross the River Wharf I take the time to mentally greet her.
PL: It would have to be Mulfra Quoit, which I visited during the birth of the project. It's the remains of a megalithic tomb. As I arrived a storm was gathering, so I took shelter inside the tomb. The atmosphere was really tangible - it really felt as if something were beginning to manifest itself. It felt very much like some kind of M.R. James story - I was half expecting the spirit on an ancient tribal lord to materialize!
PL: Wales! I'm really drawn to Wales - the countryside looks so dramatic and I'm really enamoured with literature such as the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Mabinogion. There are some beautiful-looking stone circles on the barren hillsides and I'm desperate to tread the valleys. Hopefully I'll get there in the next couple of years.
PL: I'm putting a lot of time into working on a monograph on the subject of dew in religion, folklore, folksong, alchemy and magic. Hopefully it's going to be a nicely bound limited edition, which will coincide with a XETB performance at a dew-pond, the location of which I'm keeping quiet about for the time being. I'm also taking submissions for a small publication called "The Geomantic Intelligencer", for which I'd like articles, photos, art, poetry inspired by lore and landscape. I'd be really pleased to hear from anyone who'd like to contribute. The next Larkfall release will hopefully be from the 'folk-concrete' duo of myself and Andy Sharp called The Lychgate Seers, recorded on the trail of the notorious 'witch-finder general', Matthew Hopkins.
PL: Thanks for posing these questions - it's been nice to do a bit of reflecting on my music, I really appreciate it.
One last thing that's been on my mind, indulge me if you will, is that if the wreckers of ancient civilization such as Tarmac get their way and vandalize our ancestors’ landscape for the sake of a few bags of gravel (as they are doing at the Thornborough henges) there may not be much to enjoy in the future. So, it's a bitter note to end on, but I'd like to quote Purcell - "Fight, and record yourselves in druid song!"
-- Brad Rose (5 July, 2005)