Musk Ox – The Toilet ov Hell Interview
Our brothers to the north, whom I will affectionately refer to as “Canadians,” are a notoriously polite bunch. But deep down, underneath all the viscous syrup-infused blood and constant fear of flying bears, it must be that they are depressed. Not eating a whole pint of ice cream while gently sobbing-kind of depression, either. I’m speaking of the full-blown Chris Farley or homeless type of soul-deadening clinical morosity. Only this kind of malaise could weave melancholy so effortlessly into the hands of so many great acts. However questionable the state of the Canadian psyche, it fosters a penchant for beautifully cathartic music.
Over the years, bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Gris, Woods of Ypres, and Protest the Hero (just to name a handful) have been proudly holding Canada’s beer-fueled torch. You can now add Ottawa, Ontario’s Musk Ox to that esteemed list. An admitted latecomer to the Musk Ox party, I had unknowingly heard its members on other albums, such as Agalloch‘s The Serpent and the Sphere and two glorious Woods of Ypres albums. Ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have been listening to neofolk . . . Oh, how those years were. That being said, my first listen to Musk Ox was soothing sunlight on a barren frostbitten morning.
Musk Ox‘s Woodfall LP was released in June of 2014 to high acclaim. It is comprised of five tracks of atmospheric chamber folk music. Consisting of a scant three members (Nathanael Larochette on classical guitar, Raphael Weinroth-Browne on cello, and Evan Runge on violin), Musk Ox accomplishes the work of a much larger ensemble. At times minimal, yet terrifying, like the waterfowl on the album’s cover; other passages can be expansive and vast as Canada itself.
The music is enveloping, almost cinematic. It’s metal that is, decidedly, not metal. You can hear riffs grinding out of those grandpas’ guitars. The sheer weight of the album is heavier than brilliant metal albums I heard this past year. So, waiting for the reply from Nathanael, I didn’t know whether to expect some forlorn Canadian looking out at bleak frozen tundras, or an archaic minstrel donning furs and a lute. It was neither. Turns out, Nathanael is just a gracious fellow with a knack for composing music which pulls at my heartstrings. Perhaps all Canadians are born with a violin in their hands. What transpired is a wealth of information about the band, past, present, and future:
BLACKBEARD: For those troglodytes who don’t know your music, could you describe Musk Ox?
Nathanael Larochette: Well I wouldn’t necessarily call them troglodytes or else they wouldn’t want to listen to my music haha. For the uninitiated, Musk Ox is an instrumental acoustic project featuring myself on classical guitar, Raphael Weinroth-Browne on cello and Evan Runge on violin. When I started the project I has hugely inspired by the neofolk styling of early Ulver, Empyrium, October Falls, Nest and Tenhi. I then built upon this foundation by adding elements of metal, classical, post and progressive rock to hopefully create a sound unique to Musk Ox. While the early demos and first full-length were firmly rooted in the tradition established by the above mentioned bands, the new full-length Woodfall is a much more technical, progressive and expansive album.
BB: Friends that I’ve let hear your albums, especially Woodfall, always claim that it sounds heavy, despite having no electric guitars, no percussion, and no vocals. What is it about your brand of chamber folk music that resonates so well with the metal enthusiast?
NL: When I became obsessed with metal back in high school, I always loved the short acoustic interludes and riffs that would appear. One of the first ones to really floor me was the intro to Blind Guardian‘s “Time What is Time”. Eventually I discovered Opeth and fell in love with the way they incorporated acoustics into their songs in greater detail. The key word is intention and one of my favorite examples when discussing the acoustic appeal and its relation to metal is the song “Battery” by Metallica. The song begins with a short classical guitar arrangement that they eventually play note-for-note at full volume. When the song starts, there is a heaviness implied in the riff that is fully realized when the band kicks in. I always loved these parts but wanted to hear a full album in this style beyond just interludes. When I discovered the more classically inspired neofolk it was exactly what I was looking for. What I’ve always found interesting about playing this style but not going heavy is that without the release of the riff played distorted, it creates a continued atmosphere of potential heaviness which I believe resonates with the metal crowd. I love it because non-metal fans can still enjoy it without being aware of this reference. I’ve played the same Musk Ox music for people at a retirement home that I did opening for Agalloch and although each audience perceived the music differently, both enjoyed it for their own reasons.
BB: You’ve said you were somewhat late-in-life coming to guitar, so your rise to acclaim was meteoric for someone so new to the instrument. Would you say you had an innate ability? How would you explain your success as a guitar player, composer, and musician?
NL: Thank you very much! I played violin for 11 years growing up so I think this helped in the sense that I was already familiar with playing music. In a physical sense, the two instruments are very different so I’m not entirely sure if my experience with the violin did help my guitar playing. I wouldn’t say I picked up the guitar easily. I’ve been playing for 12 years now but for the first 2 years I didn’t really take it seriously. Once I got my first acoustic and began finger-picking I really felt I had discovered a style of playing that I could develop. I think this is really important for anyone who wants to explore music. If you can find a unique way of playing or a style that you feel really expresses your identity through the instrument, this will foster creativity and motivation. You have to work at it consistently, which can be tedious, but there really isn’t any other way to improve. When I decided to study guitar seriously back in 2005 I spent a solid year with a university professor working on technique and learning how to read music, which had a big impact on my playing. As I was learning, I was also writing and recording riffs and songs on my computer which I would compile into little EPs. Eventually I had enough material to record a proper album which became the first Musk Ox full-length. When I started taking guitar seriously I wasn’t really sure what I would do with it, but when I realized I wanted to write music, record albums and play shows, setting these intentions gave me a clearer idea of where I wanted to go with music. At the end of the day, anyone is capable, you just have to put the work in and accept that it will take a lifetime to get to where you want to be, and even after all that time, there will still be more to learn. Just don’t forget why you started. Success is a relative thing but I definitely never imagined being where I am now when I started playing.
BB: We know you’re a metalhead, as well, having cited Ulver and Empyrium as great influences. With your tenure in the metal community, are there any new artists or groups you’ve been exposed to and are getting inspiration from?
NL: There is a Russian band called Kauan that I highly recommend. They released an album last year called Pirut which is incredible. It’s a 40 minute song that blends doom metal, folk metal, neofolk, neoclassical and post rock. Another band that has blown me away is the Canadian post black metal band Gris. They released a double album last year called À l’Âme Enflammée, l’Äme Constellée… and it is a masterpiece. Stunning acoustics mixed with black metal atmosphere and post rock expansiveness. Both of these albums have been added to my all-time favorites list. Recently I’ve been listening to a ton of Cloudkicker. That guy is too good.
As for non-metal recommendations, Musk Ox cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne has his own cello/vocal duo project called The Visit which is insane. They currently have two songs on bandcamp and a full album to be released later this year. That guy is ridiculous and has created so much incredible music while completing his Undergraduate and Master’s Degree in music that I can’t wait to hear what he unleashes once he’s out of school and actually has time. Another non-metal artist I would like to recommend is a musician by the name of Nicole Lefebvre who released an absolutely beautiful and haunting solo piano album last year called White Water. I’ve also recently discovered an amazing neofolk band from Iran called Oado who released their debut album Life Era last year.
BB: It’s also easy to draw comparisons to the enigmatic Godspeed You! Black Emperor, fellow Canadians. The similarities in tone and texture I feel, are they real or imagined? Are you a fan?
NL: I absolutely love Godspeed. I have heard that comparison made by others and I am always humbled to hear it as I hold them in high esteem. I saw them in Montreal on their reunion tour in 2011 and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I heard them for the first time in 2006 when a friend played me their Slow Riot for the New Zero Kanada EP on vinyl and it blew my mind. He also introduced me to Mogwai which then kick-started my post rock exploration. At the time, nearly all the neofolk I was listening to consisted of shorter songs, so when I realized I could combine the acoustics of neofolk and expand them into post rock epics, I felt I had stumbled upon a unique combination. This was the catalyst for the first Musk Ox album.
BB: You have said that Musk Ox was named on the spot in the studio. Quoting your website, the majestic musk oxen “perfectly represented an entity that was primal, ancient, and Canadian.” Were there already bands called Star-Nosed Mole or Wood Bison?
NL: Haha, Star-Nosed Mole and Wood Bison are classic bands. Too bad they broke up before releasing anything.
BB: Your recent involvement with American black metal titans Agalloch is well-documented. You also contributed to Canadian legends Woods of Ypres’ Woods IV album (RIP David Gold). How did your involvement with these groups come about? How has it affected the future of Musk Ox?
NL: These two collaborations have had an immense impact on Musk Ox as they’ve helped the band gain greater visibility and legitimacy. I really owe it to Adrian Bromley. He was a metal journalist who wrote for countless zines and sites and was also the editor of Unrestrained! Magazine. I reached out to him for a review when I had just released the first Musk Ox album on CDR and no one knew who I was. After hearing it he reached out and offered to help me re-release the album. Around that time, he put me in touch with David Gold from Woods of Ypres as well as Don Anderson from Agalloch, who gave me a promotional quote for the album. David invited Musk Ox to open for Woods of Ypres in 2009 and at that show I met Jeff Neblock from Vindensang who invited me to perform in Philadelphia with them in 2010. At that show I met John Haughm from Agalloch and after seeing me perform he suggested I open some shows on their upcoming tour. In 2012 Musk Ox opened a few more shows and while helping with merch through the US on that tour they expressed interest in having me compose some interludes. Sadly, Adrian passed away in 2008 just before the re-release came out and David passed away in 2011. They both had a huge impact on the future of Musk Ox so I dedicated Woodfall in part to them. It should also be mentioned that Musk Ox cellist Raphael also contributed a wealth of cello arrangements for the final Woods of Ypres album.
BB: One of your other projects, The Night Watch, is more inherently metal. Melding elements from funk and jazz to the familiar neofolk of Musk Ox, the result is one of the more eclectic progressive acts around. Is this still an ongoing project, despite the demands of Musk Ox?
NL: Both bands are ongoing and The Night Watch has actually been more active live than Musk Ox recently. I currently live in a house with two of my bandmates so aside from performing live we are currently completing the writing of our second full-length. Raphael, the cellist in Musk Ox has been in school for the past 6 years so this has allowed both bands appropriate space. As both bands progress so will the demands of each but I don’t mind. I’m grateful to be able to explore different musical avenues through each band. I am incredibly proud of The Night Watch and our debut album and feel very strongly about the potential for our upcoming material. The path that Musk Ox has traveled has been strange and unexpected and The Night Watch is no different. Both bands are very dear to my heart so I hope to continue releasing and performing music with them for a long time.
BB: For our nerdiest readers, is The Night Watch a reference to: Terry Pratchett; Sergei Lukyanenko; Rembrandt; Tegan & Sara; Kenny Loggins? Or is it something more obscure or simply innocuous?
NL: I’m surprised you didn’t mention George R.R. Martin, that’s the one people usually assume. In fact, all are incorrect. It’s actually a King Crimson reference to a song off Starless and Bible Black.
BB: There have been many line-up changes since the solo acoustic days pre-Musk Ox. Currently, Musk Ox features Evan Runge on violin and Raphael Weinroth-Browne on cello. Are there any plans for additional musicians or instruments in Musk Ox’s future, or will you stay a trio?
NL: I’ve never had any preconceived ideas of what Musk Ox would become. It’s a constantly evolving beast so I’m open to what the future holds for the music. If my bandmates and I feel the need to incorporate other instruments then we’ll explore what that has to offer.
BB: Woodfall was released mid-June of 2014; is it too early to fantasize about a new Musk Ox album or, perhaps, a lengthy tour through North America?
NL: We are planning on writing the new album this year. Woodfall to us is quite old so we are eager to explore new Musk Ox music. We would love to do a lengthy tour of North America but have no concrete plans as of yet. Touring is part of the vision so once Raphael is out of school and we have time to properly work out the logistics of such an endeavor, we will make it happen.
BB: As you probably know, end-of-the-year lists are a huge (detestable) phenomena in the metal community. Toilet ov Hell is no different. Would you care to give us a top 10 list from your favorite 2014 albums?
NL: I personally love compiling year-end lists. However, I’m going to cheat on this one as I’ve compiled two lists: a best of instrumental and non-instrumental. Also, my instrumental has eleven albums…
Best of Instrumental 2014
Toumani Diabate – Toumani & Sidiki
Ishraqiyun – Perichoresis
Badbadnotgood – III
Chris Letchford – Lightbox
Trioscapes – Digital Dream Sequence
Animals as Leaders – The Joy of Motion
Cloudkicker – Live With Intronaut
Cloudkicker – Little Histories
This Will Destroy You – Another Language
Nicole Lefebvre – White WaterOado – Life Era
Best of Non-Instrumental 2014
Devin Townsend – Casualties of Cool
Devin Townsend – Sky Blue
Devin Townsend – Dark Matters
At The Gates – At War With Reality
Agalloch – The Serpent & the Sphere
Empyrium – The Turn of the Tides
Nordic Giants – Dismantle Suns/Builds Seas EPs
Cynic – Kindly Bent to Free Us
The Kindred – Life in Lucidity
Intervals – A Voice Within
BB: Personally, and I think speaking for a hefty portion of our community, Woodfall was a triumph for Musk Ox. We are greatly appreciative of your time and candor in answering some questions. It’s the start of a brand new year (Happy New Years!). Is there anything we should know or that you would like to add? Final words? Star Trek or Taylor Swift references?
NL: Thank you so much for the kind words and for taking the time to interview me. Indeed a new year is upon us so please follow Musk Ox on bandcamp, Facebook and through our official website as well as The Night Watch for upcoming show and release info. As I’m not familiar with Taylor Swift enough to reference her, I’ll go with Star Trek. My girlfriend was watching a bunch of The Next Generation recently and she saw the episode where Captain Picard gets abducted by the Borg. I told her that when I was a kid I had the Captain Picard/Borg action figure. It was awesome…there’s your reference 🙂
I have to say, Nathanael seems like a class act. I can only wish he, and the other members of Musk Ox the best. Lastly, I will have to pay my respects to the veritable Christian Molenaar for being the catalyst to my fascination with Musk Ox. Also, to my brother @and_triage for help with the questions. If you enjoy the music, then buy the album and support Musk Ox.