Musk Ox came to fans' attention when they heard the last Agalloch release The Serpent & the Sphere and particularly enjoyed the three interludes on the disc. When they found out that these pieces were composed and performed by Musk Ox guitarist Nathanael Larochette, their curiosity was piqued. The band plays amazing instrumental folk a la earlier Ulver with seas of atmosphere that brings to mind Sigur Ros as well as many other Scandinavian bands. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Murat Batmaz spoke to Larochette about his involvement with Agalloch, his musical style, and his band Musk Ox.
Read on for the full interview.
Can you tell us a little about the background of Musk Ox?
Nathanael: When I was 20, I decided to leave university to pursue a musical path. I didn't have any clear idea of what I would do, I just knew that I loved music and wanted to see what I could create. I've always loved metal but wanted to study classical guitar because I felt this would be a good foundation to build from. Little did I know, 9 years later I'm still writing and performing largely on this instrument. At the time I began studying classical guitar I got heavily into Ulver's second album "Kveldssanger", Empyrium's "Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays", Tenhi's "Kauan" and October Falls' "Tuoni" and "Marras". I began writing and recording short neofolk pieces on my computer which laid the groundwork for what would become Musk Ox.
I understand you've released several demos before your first full-length. Did those demos make it onto your debut or does it consist of new material mostly?
Nathanael: The debut was a mix of demo and new material. When I went into the studio to record the first album, I took my favourite demo pieces, expanded their arrangements and then worked them into longer compositions. If you listen to the demos and then the debut you can hear the evolution of those pieces.
I personally discovered Musk Ox through your involvement with Agalloch. You're playing several interludes on their new album The Serpent & the Sphere. Tell us how this collaboration came to be.
Nathanael: When the first Musk Ox album was released I established contact with Adrian Bromley who was the editor/founder of Unrestrained Magazine. He loved the album and was responsible for re-releasing it. When we were preparing the re-release he ask Don Anderson (Agalloch guitarist) if he would give me a promotional quote supporting the record. From then on I remained in contact with Don and in 2010 I performed in Philadelphia alongside Vindensang, which is where I met John Haughm. After seeing me perform he asked if I would open a few shows for them in 2011. Musk Ox was again asked to open some shows for their 2012 tour, and after those shows I toured with Agalloch through the United States selling their merch. It was then that they mentioned having me on their new album and in winter 2013 I flew to Portland to record my interludes.
Did you express an interest to play on the album or did the Agalloch guys ask you?
Nathanael: They approached me. I never imagined something like this would ever be possible!
How did you write those interludes? Were they pieces you had created before but didn't fit Musk Ox disc or were they specifically written for the Agalloch disc?
Nathanael: Two of the interludes were written specifically for the album while the third was an unused solo piece I had written years ago. I had pretty much abandoned it until I realized it might work as an interlude. I sent it to John and he loved it.
Did they give you a framework to work within or did you compose them freely?
Nathanael: The length of the pieces was the only framework I was given so I wrote four 2-3min interludes and had two others that I thought would fit. Three of them appear on the album, one was pressed as a limited 7" and sold at their CD release show, another was used as a bonus track on the Japanese pressing and the final one wasn't recorded. It's funny because I didn't know anything about the album when I wrote the interludes but they ended up fitting the conceptual and musical theme perfectly.
Looking back, how would you evaluate your contribution to their disc?
Nathanael: I'm very proud of my contributions. To be honest I was pretty nervous in the studio but I think I did a good job overall. I really like the additional sound elements they added as well. I've been a fan of Agalloch since high school so I'm still blown away that I'm actually on one of their albums.
Your playing sounds very different to theirs, which lends the songs character and depth. Also, while different musically, there seems to be a common musical theme running in each piece.
Nathanael: I didn't compose them with the intent of expressing common musical themes but maybe I did without realizing it haha. My main intention was to give them each a unique atmosphere and mood which I feel I accomplished: (serpens caput) is more expansive and atmospheric, Cor Serpentis (the sphere) is more driving and technical while (serpens cauda) is more varied and dynamic.
Apart from the new one, which Agalloch discs do you like the most?
Nathanael: I love all of them but "The Mantle" will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the first Agalloch album I discovered as a teenager and remains one of my favourite albums ever. I actually wrote a review of "The Mantle" over a decade ago and it's still online. I won't say which site it's on though haha.
You've also previously played on Woods of Ypres disc? Are you a fan of black metal?
Nathanael: I love black metal but am rather picky when it comes to which bands I actually listen to. I am more a fan of the newer wave of bands like Wolves in The Throne Room, Liturgy, Deafheaven, and Krallice. There is a Canadian band called Wolven Ancestry who are also great. Their album "Silence of the Boreal" is amazing.
What other black metal bands with a neo-folk influence do you like?
Nathanael: There is a black metal band from Montreal named Gris who released a double album last year called "À l'âme enflammée, l'äme constellée..." and it is a masterpiece. The way they blend black metal atmosphere, epic arrangements, beautiful acoustics and strings is stunning. I can't recommend it enough.
You've recently released your second full-length album, Woodfall. Tell us about how you wrote the songs for it?
Nathanael: Woodfall was composed over a long period of time. It began back in 2008 when I began working with an oboe player and different cellist. We spent that entire summer working on a piece that wasn't originally meant to be a Musk Ox composition but ended up fitting perfectly with the spirit and sound of the band. That piece became "Earthrise", the first song on Woodfall. One year later I started working with a brilliant cellist/composer/multi-instrumentalist named Rapahel Weinroth-Browne and we immediately connected and began performing and discussing the next record. When I finally felt like I had enough material, I gave Raph the guitar parts for four long pieces and he began composing cello and violin arrangements as well as some guitar parts. This was around 2010/2011. Once the entire piece was complete, we entered the studio in early 2012 and spent a year recording it.
From what I understand, there is also some violin and cello on the album. How do you think did their inclusion affect the songs and direction of the band?
Nathanael: Their inclusion really pushed the band's sound both dynamically and compositionally. Raph and Evan are both incredible musicians so working with them has helped raise Musk Ox to a level I couldn't have reached on my own. I am eternally grateful for their contributions.
Are you still the sole writer or do you write collectively?
Nathanael: Other than a few guest solos, I was the sole writer of the first three demos, the first full-length and the compilation appearances. As I mentioned before, the first song on the new album was composed by two former Musk Ox members and for the rest of the album, I wrote the main song structures and Raph did all the string arrangements and some additional guitar parts. I'm hoping to do more collective writing for upcoming material.
If a listener likes Musk Ox, what other neo-folk bands are they likely to enjoy?
Nathanael: The first Musk Ox record was heavily inspired by Ulver's "Kveldssanger" and Empyrium's "Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays" so if anyone is looking to explore the original influences, that is the best place to start. Every Tenhi album is also mandatory listening. They remain one of my all-time favourite bands. For the new record however, the influences expanded beyond neofolk so I highly encourage anyone to explore Rachel's "Music for Egon Schiele", James Blackshaw "Litany of Echoes" and "The Glass Bead Game", Jozef Van Wissem "It is All That is Made" and Brethren of the Free Spirit "The Wolf Also Shall Dwell With the Lamb". There is also an amazing classical guitarist named Dusan Bogdanovic that really inspired me. His album "Mysterious Habitats" is unreal.
People seem to compare your band to Empyrium, Tenhi, older Ulver, and October Falls. Do you agree with that?
Nathanael: Absolutely! These bands laid the groundwork for what Musk Ox has become, but I feel we have built something unique upon this foundation with Woodfall.
These are all European bands, though, while you guys are Canadian. Don Anderson once said that your music presents a North American landscape. What do you think of that?
Nathanael: From the beginning I always wanted to present Musk Ox as a uniquely Canadian project, so I've always loved Don's description. Canada is incredibly vast and beautiful so I wanted the music and song lengths to reflect this as well.
How do you view post-rock bands like Sigur Ros and Mogwai and what is their role in your musical signature?
Nathanael: Sigur Ros and Mogwai had an immense impact on Musk Ox. When I recorded the first album my idea was to take the epic song lengths, arrangements and climax/resolutions of these post-rock bands and see what they would sound like in a neofolk context. I always loved the classic neofolk albums I mentioned but felt like the songs were too short. I always wanted more time to completely lose myself in them so I decided to experiment with this idea. The 14min song "Waldpoesie" from Empyrium's "Weiland" was the closest I had come to that.
Are you going to continue writing albums in this vein in the future or is it possible for you to venture into atmospheric black metal territory?
Nathanael: We're definitely open to exploring new elements and expanding the Musk Ox sound in the future. There are no solid plans at the moment so we'll have to see!
Sea of Tranquility is primarily a website for progressive music. Are you into the genre?
Nathanael: Absolutely! I love progressive music that explores new boundaries by blending unique elements into a creative whole. This has always been my goal with music so Musk Ox to me has always been a progressive band. I had never heard a project mix the acoustics of neofolk, the expansiveness of post-rock with the heavy mood metal so I decided to try it myself. I feel like on the new album Musk Ox has progressed even further as Woodfall is a one-hour piece divided into five longer songs. I have always enjoyed music that can take me on a journey so that is what I hope listeners experience with Musk Ox and The Night Watch, the other band I play in alongside Evan on violin.
What are some recent releases you've picked up and enjoyed?
Nathanael: There is a Russian band named Kauan who released an album last year called "Pirut" and it is unbelievable. That and the Gris album I mentioned earlier are two of the best albums I've heard recently and will remain all-time favourites. Lately I've been really enjoying a Swedish band named Necromonkey which is a collaboration between Mattias Olsen (ex-Anglagard) and David Lundberg (Gosta Berlings Saga). They have two albums out and both are fantastic. I had never heard of Gosta Berlings Saga until now so I've been really liking them as well. There is an amazing progressive rock/metal band from our hometown of Ottawa called The Kindred who just released their debut full-length "Life in Lucidity" which is incredible. I've also been listening to an amazing solo piano album called "White Water" by Nicole Lefebvre which I highly recommend.