Eternal Return: Alasdair Roberts (with Luke Fowler)

Alasdair Roberts & Luke Fowler, Under no Enchantment (But my Own), 2009. Produced by Drag City taken from the 2009 album Spoils. Film and original sound recorded on location around Glasgow and Callander on a Bolex 16mm camera and Hard Disk recorder with MS Sennheiser microphones. Transfered to digital medium for editing and distrubtion.

"Q: In the U.S., "folk music" still has the connotation of being a populist kind of thing, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie – plainspoken songs about the working class, simple melodies, straightforward lyrics, etc. But in the folk music of Ireland/England/Scotland, there seems to be more surrealism/symbolism, and I definitely feel like your songs reflect this. Where do you think these surrealistic leanings come from? I have a theory – the Book of Revelations – but I'm interested in your thoughts on the subject.

A: I suppose that kind of surrealism/symbolism in the British music has always been there in things like nonsense and topsy-turvy songs and riddling traditions which go back centuries. Often the old ballads seem like symbolist texts in a way, but they're more complex and polyvalent than that. The Revelations thing... I suppose that when I was writing the songs I was spending too much time alone reading things like that, also the Book of Ezekiel, as well as Jungian stuff, particularly "Seven Sermons to the Dead" and Emma Jung's book on the grail legend, Gnostic texts, "The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz" as well as a lot of mythological stuff – The Irish Tain (Cattle Raid of Cooley in Colm Toibin's splendid translation) and the Welsh Four Branches of the Mabinogi (in Sioned Davies recent great translation), as well as the Grimm stories, traditional Scottish folk tales from the late Duncan Williamson and Robert Graves' collections of Greek myths ... and a book of mediaeval Gaelic poetry in translation called "Songbook of the Pillagers" and Alexander Carmichael's "Carmina Gadelica", all things which will have continuing interest for me... and listening to a lot of Scottish, English, Irish traditional singers and songs, at the same time trying to absorb and explore some of my German heritage by listening to Wagner and reading Thomas Mann and Goethe und so weiter ... all of which influences seeped into the songs to some extent ... although it's hardly Wagner, haha!!! I'd just come back from tour in the States and was rediscovering my Scottishness and Europeanness, I suppose. At the moment, I'm beginning to explore Scottish Gaelic song and music a lot more and am hoping to learn the language eventually, which I feel I should have done years ago.

There are some amazing singers in this land. The idea of "the great unveiling" in one song I suppose is a reference to some idea of imminent revelation; these do seem like dark and turmoiled times. It's hard to comprehend the vastness and purpose of the cosmos and one's place in it, the point of one's endeavours in whatever field. I don't subscribe to any particular belief system but I suppose some of these songs are interrogations of faith and so on... the idea that there might be some innate religiosity to which certain people are predisposed... (I don't subscribe to any particular faith but I wonder whether one day that might change in some great unveiling) and the idea of the "Celtic"... not wanting to sound too pompous about it. The first song has specifically Jungian references to the "sermons seven" and mandalas... it's like a quest song against conflict and towards individuation. I know a lot of people with strong political or religious convictions whose musical and artistic practice is guided by that – in some ways I envy that kind of certitude, but I suppose my thing is always about flexibility, multiplicity, confusion wanting to reflect the turmoil of reality... always trying to remember that the oar in the ocean is a winnowing fan on dry land.

Was traditional music something you grew up singing/playing, or did it come to you later in life? What was it that made you fall in love with this kind of music? What were some of your early experiences with the genre – performers, recordings?

My father Alan was a guitarist and singer – he had a duo with a guy called Dougie MacLean. They toured a lot in Europe in the seventies and my folks also ran a booking agency in Germany for a while. One of my earliest influences guitar-wise and vocally was an English singer called Nic Jones – a beautiful guitar style and voice. I think like a lot of people of my generation there's a complex relation to ideas of "tradition" – a respect for it and at the same time a slight repulsion towards aspects of it – the awareness of the wideness and complexity of music-making which goes on, the sheer overwhelming amount of music being made which could give potential influence ... which some days makes one forlorn but other days give one certainty that whatever one does is of some kind of worth. I suppose that on the record the first song in some ways explores the idea of "eternal return" – I was reading Mircea Eliade on the subject, and Nietzsche Nietzsche obviously wrote about it – I became obsessed with the idea and the various ways in which it could be configured. There's obviously the classic image of the ouroubouros serpent ouroubouros serpent ... but I was also think about it in terms of the myth of progress – when what we think of as progress is actually destruction. Like Kekule's ring, Benzene. And the fact that I personally constantly return to Song as a form of "expression" or creation rather than, say, improvisation or composition. This extends into another theme of the record in the song about Ned Ludd, the idea that "technology" is an emancipatory force.

Everywhere I go I hear amazing musicians from all kinds of fields, which is a challenge to one to improve ... but it also makes me wonder about how to make music which is in some way unique and interesting without relying on virtuosity, and this is where The Shaggs, say, give me hope – I suppose this time my way of trying to do it was by writing a bunch of "syncretic"songs with a lot of words in them and trying to have them arranged and structured in new ways.

Listening to Spoils for the first few times, I pictured the songs being set in the distant past, but on closer inspection, it seems that they could be set in the present day, or even in the future. Do you see these songs as having a specific time-period setting or are they meant to be more timeless in that regard?

I suppose it comes back to one configuration of the idea of "eternal return" – of history repeating. War and pestilence have always been and will always be – the Crusaders of yore have their parallels in the present day and in the distant past. War and wrongness have always and will ever be ... as will love, kindness and altruism, one likes to believe. There are some very specific contemporary references on the record – "empty browsers" being a prominent one – but for some reason in the songs I'm always drawn back to something more elemental and organic ... the "natural world." But a song like "So Bored Was I" there's a reference to a very specific contemporary piece of psychological research I'd read about, the idea of the "dark triad" of personality types which meet in the Alpha Male – narcissism, sociopathy and Machiavellianism, which I kind of conflated with the idea of the Three Ages of Man singing together. Anyway, I don't have a specific time period in mind – more like when I sing the songs I'm closing my eyes and mentally navigating a physical landscape and very much associate certain songs with specific experiences and individuals ... in some ways a few of them are autobiographical, in a veiled, symbolic kind of way.

The band interplay on Spoils is great-- what do you look for in your musical accompanists? Is being immersed in folk/trad music a requirement?

Immersion in traditional/folk music is not a requirement at all ... the players on Spoils come from a very wide array of musical backgrounds. In some ways this was my thought about the record being "syncretic" – that in its arrangements and personnel it would yoke together many possibly contradictory standpoints and belief systems ... for example by having Alex, a drummer extremely knowledgeable about and well versed in free improvisation playing with Gordon, who has studied lute, baroque guitar and theorbo and normally interprets the historical repertoires of those instruments ... completely different musical backgrounds. I actually met Gordon in an airport – he let me skip the queue – I doubt we'd have worked together if it hadn't been for that chance meeting. And David McGuinness who did the viol arrangements and played harpsichord and harmonium is a musical savant and virtuoso all round. There are too many players to mention but it was such an honour that all these talents were interested in the record project and gave their time and effort for the songs.

There are so many wonderful and strange words and phrases on this record – "desacralised," "Encrusted with amethyst and topaz and beryl," "The shackled harper," "bilious and saturnine," "Sterile rams and simulacrum," etc. Where do you get these phrases – are they borrowed from old texts or are they of your own invention? What is it that you love about this archaic-sounding language?

Sometimes I do pilfer words from whatever I'm reading - see the list I've already given... and a lot of poetry and so on which I've read. Before I was really into music I think I was more into language - if I hadn't gone into music I might've done something like historical or comparative linguistics. Maybe I still will. I'm particularly fascinated by the Nostratic hypothesis ... language in general, but I've never been that focused on one language in particular apart from English (though I was raised with a bit of German at first)."

(from an interview from 2009 with Tyler Wilcox on Junkmedia)