Häxan – Witchcraft Through The Ages


Posted 4 months ago in Music Features

Cirillo’s

Häxan, the first release from Eorðeslajyr – a project of Simon Bird (synths), Tom Morris (formerly of Turning Down Sex, guitars) and Sam Burton (of Spud Gun, vocals) – was originally conceived as a once-off live score for Benjamin Chirstensen’s 1922 classic silent proto-horror film of the same name. From there, through hundreds of hours holed up in bedrooms, the project metamorphosed into a gargantuan, undulating beast the likes of which we’ve never encountered. Häxan, the record, is in itself staggering both its diversity of sounds – ranging from carefully arranged choral vocals to full-on black metal slabs of sonic terror – and in its unbridled ambition. When consumed alongside Bird’s re-edit of the original film, its disquieting, skin-crawl potency is pushed to even greater hallucinatory peaks. Frankly, the singular nature of their work renders the act of espousing its virtues in print near impossible so we figured we’d be best off just letting the lads talk about it themselves.

 

So, there’s a lot of different elements to what you guys are doing so I suppose we should start with how exactly the collaboration came to be?

Simon: Yeah, the whole thing was basically Tom’s idea. I don’t know when he saw Häxan but I watched it for the first time with Sam, I don’t think he’d seen it either and at this stage there was already talk of doing a soundtrack. All three of us watched the full two-hour version of the film and dissected where we thought the cuts should be. We were going to do it as a Halloween thing but it never went ahead.

Then, a long time after that, I was approached about doing a live soundtrack piece as part of the Dark Light Film Festival. That reminded me of this idea and we decided we were going to do Häxan as part of the festival. We decided we were going to do this 50-minute version of the film with a really ambient, droney soundtrack. I was talking to the folks running the event and it kind of dawned on me that people would be coming and going a lot and there’d be background noise and it just wasn’t going to work. So I told Dark Light that we’d have to pull out since it was going in a different direction from what we originally intended and we kind of decided not to do it there… or do a gig at all.

Sam: We didn’t start actually record anything until December 2014. We laid down the guitar tracks first knowing Tom was going to be moving to New York in July of 2015. Around this time, just before New Year’s, I crashed my bike and busted three of my teeth. I recorded the whole of the vocals of the album missing a bunch of my front teeth.

Simon: He had this big gap in the side of his face. So it was almost like Sam had to spend some time re-learning how to sing. After the crash he had a bit of a lisp, this almost whistling quality…

Sam: …And a denizen of the abyss probably shouldn’t have a lisp if they’re trying to be super menacing! I ended up getting super precious about my vocals too because recorded so much of them alone. I would regularly delete huge chunks of the vocals.

 

Simon: What Sam was doing was super ambitious as well. It wasn’t just a matter of writing some lyrics and laying down a vocal part. He’d send us on a vocal part but then also, say, six harmonies and then there’d be a big crescendo where another seven harmonies come in and then there’s throat singing and stuff like that. He’d regularly send me 16 tracks of vocals and I’d have to try and mix all that into what was already a really dense soundscape of music. That said, Sam was definitely the one telling us to dial it back every now and then. Tom would be pushing it to be more and more experimental, where Sam would be saying “Maybe we should try and make this bit kind of nice,” and I was somewhere in the middle waving back and forth.

Sam: Me and Tom definitely had a view arguments around me going “I can’t sing over your stupid atonal guitar chords!”. Also, We mixed everything in one 50-minute Ableton file. It was just one giant song we were all working on. It was something like 940 something different tracks. It was a bit of a mad way to work on something.

Simon: There’s lots of weird sounds on there too. We recorded zither, there were points where we were all banging on pots and pans and stuff.

Sam: I had great difficulty playing that one trumpet part with three teeth missing but eventually got it after 900 takes.

 

So is live performance something that’s just totally out the window for you guys?

Simon: Well, we obviously couldn’t do anything without Tom and neither of us are moving to New York any time soon. We’d have to enlist a lot of people. Conceivably we’d need at least one or two different guitar plays, several vocalists, extra synths, trumpet, saxophone. The sort of thing you’d need Arts Council funding for.

 

Is it nice to be involved in a project that you know from the get-go that live performance isn’t ever going to be a part of?

Simon: Well, it makes you free to do whatever you want. Like there’s bits with 19-part harmonies and 12 layers of guitar, it’s nice to be able to do that without having to worry.

Sam: What we’re working on right now could, quite conceivably, be performed live, which is cool. I’d love to make it as flamboyant and ridiculous as we can in terms of costumes. That’s just another way we could be kind of tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing. It’s fun being relatively meek guys and then to put on corpse paint and hoods and the scream indecipherable demonic gurgling, especially considering most of it was recorded in Simon’s bedroom.

Simon: With my mum trying to work downstairs.

 

Did you make the 50-minute edit of the film before you started soundtracking?

Simon: I did a rough edit. That was just cutting the film down. It was still black and white, it didn’t have any of my visuals I added. We had a conversation from there about doing a psychedelic edit and kind of making it more our own thing. I did a full colou treatment for the whole film, put in additional footage and elongated some scenes. Then we redid all the title cards, made all new translations. That took a long time as well. Everything took a long time! Häxan is dictated a lot by what’s happening in the scene but the music within the scene is kind of free-flowing, it doesn’t strictly follow the action. There’s some scenes where there’s an action on screen and there’s a definite cue, but for the most part it’s kind of ambient soundscapes and such.

Sam: It’s funny because we’re trying to make a soundtrack while, at the same time, trying to not make it too “soundtracky” to point that people can’t listen to it by itself. You want to almost have this symbiotic thing where the film is inspiring you to write something that has a narrative of it’s own that can be listened to totally independently.

 

It’s funny that in the process you’re more trying to create music in conversation with the film as opposed to trying to make music that’ll fit around the film.

Simon: We’re definitely following the film but still trying to go in our own direction.

Sam: Now we’re looking at letting a film guide us in a similar way and maybe not telling people what the film is. We’re playing with the idea of creating this piece of music dictated by an unspecified outside source without the collar on it of being viewed as a soundtrack.

Simon: We don’t want to give too much away. But, the next project will probably just be an album released on its own merit and at some point maybe we’ll tell people what film it syncs up with.

 

There are some copyright issues in relation to releasing your edit of the film too, is that right?

Simon: Basically when we started doing the project, since the film is from 1922, we assumed it wasn’t in copyright. Then I uploaded an early cut of the film to YouTube to show Sam and Tom and it got flagged for copyright and it’s only recently we realised why. Benjamin Christensen died in 1959 and European copyright expires 70 years after the creator’s death so it’s still in copyright for another 13 years, so we don’t really have the rights to screen it which is kind of a bummer. I’ve contacted the rights holders a few times and they said they’d look into it but they’ve yet to get back to me. I don’t really know if they’d care, the whole film is on YouTube anyway. We don’t even really want to monetise it, any earnings from views just go to copyright holder and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sam: The film side of things was never really a commercial venture in anyway. If we’re allowed get it up online for people to see then that’s all we’re after.

Simon: For the moment we’re just being a little cautious about it. We’re very small-time so I don’t think there’s too much danger but in terms of further screenings we kind of just have to err on the side of caution.

 

So, considering the whole process of starting Häxan to getting it ready for release, film edit finished and such, took two-and-half years, are you already well on your way with this new project?

Simon: Well we started it ages ago and we’re almost finished another EP too.

Sam: The fun thing for me is that I hadn’t really worked on too much recorded stuff before. I’ve only really started doing more Spudgun stuff since we started on Häxan. Coming back to this, I’ve become so much less precious and more mercenary about ideas. We learned so much on this project about how stuff should flow and even just basic stuff like, “Don’t try and record it all in one Ableton file”. I feel like we could burn through this new one…

Simon: …but inevitably we won’t.

Häxan by Eordeslajyr is available digitally and on cassette and VHS from eordeslajyr.bandcamp.com

Words: Danny Wilson

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