O.S. & D.M.K.: Can you tell us how things began with Xenis Emputae Travelling Band? Did you have any musical projects before that time?
Phil: I’ve been recording music since I was 15 or 16, starting out on an old cassette recorder. Things pretty much veered between Syd Barrett-ish acoustic loner music and noise depending on my mood. I was rather mixed up at that time and I suppose that I recorded music as a kind of therapy. I’m a big believer in the healing and psychological effects of both making and listening to music. Having listened back to some of those tapes recently they’re really, really bad, but the music served it’s purpose at the time!
XETB officially came into being at Men-an-Tol, a curious ancient stone in Cornwall, although I suppose some elements were present in some of the recordings I had made earlier as Xenis Emputae, Princess Head and Fields of Dharma. Men-an-Tol was the real catalyst though... the days spent experiencing the surrounding landscape, with it’s circles and ancient tombs really awoke something within me and fired my imagination.
What are some of your most important musical influences?
Well, I suppose my parents had a big influence on what I listened to – they had a lot of folk and blues records. I think one of my earliest memories is being sat under the table listening to Andy Irvine and Paul Brady singing "Arthur McBride". They also introduced me to Steeleye Span – I loved the atmosphere on albums like Now We Are Six
and Below the Salt
, very dark and 'medieval'.
Outside of folk I was turned on to a whole world of weird music in my teens after randomly purchasing an album by Gong... I’d never heard anything like it before! Reading up on Daevid Allen’s past I got into a lot of 60s psychedelia, mainly of the English variety. Albums like Kaleidoscope’s Faintly Blowing
were really important to me.
More recently I’ve been rather take with Arvo Pärt’s works and methods... I suppose some of the material on A Prism for Annwn
and on the upcoming Pneumatic Consort archive disc may have been influenced by his use of the triad and his tintinnabulation
method – although refracted through local landscapes, my lo-fi equipment, general lack of virtuosity and odd ear for sound and structure.
Some other recent favorites of mine have be Furekaaben, Musica Elettronica Viva, Dreamies, Prima Materia, Luciano Cilio, Metgumbnerbone, Wilburn Burchette, Pyramids, Don Cherry, Heron, Guillaume de Machaut, Alfonso el Sabio, George Crumb, Komitas...
Can you tell us something about one of your other projects ‘The Pneumatic Consort’? What concepts are behind that?
The Pneumatic Consort mainly concentrates on wind instruments. I think that I’ve always been most comfortable playing wind instruments – the fact that they partake of the player’s breath makes them feel to me like very intimate instruments. The elemental sound
of wind instruments existed before mankind – the whistling of wind through a rocky cleft or in the branches of trees, for example. I find the sound of some wind instruments – the flute’s lower notes in particular – to be very suggestive of an intuitive, ‘feminine’ energy. The Greek myth of Apollo and Marsysas was interpreted by some commentators as being an allegory for the triumph of intellect (Apollo’s lyre) over the baser desires (the auolos of Marsysas) – or in other words, the triumph of the ‘masculine’ attribute of rationality. Hildegard von Bingen was kinder to wind instruments, likening the sound of the flute to the breath of the Holy Spirit.
A second Pneumatic Consort album is presently being finished off. It’s Grotto Grove and Shrine
, after a line in one of my favorite Kathleen Raine poems, which evokes a feeling of being in the wrong time – of wandering through a landscape where the sacred wells have long since run dry, but perhaps something of the ancient world still lingers buried there. It contains material recorded over 2005 at some of my favorite local haunts (Ilkley Moor, Barden Fell) as well as during a return to Cornwall to a church where – according to local lore – a funeral for queen of the fairies was alleged to have taken place.
And what about the other one, The Neon Death Slittes?
Oh... the Neon Death Slittes is horrible, sludgy, vaguely rock and roll-ish music. The original intent of the project was to focus on the psychogeography of the city and the use of a series of ‘Zodzoric’ techniques whereby the hierarchies of our civilisation are reduced to symbolic representations and recorded/manipulated as part of a musical project. An example hierarchy would be: city > postcodes > street names > house numbers. The contents of each level could be abstracted into the names and images of the genius loci in order to create a modern urban mythos...
But all that rubbish aside, NDS is really just a goodtime boogie band! I don’t really record that much NDS material since I tend to go deaf when doing it...
Do you work with guest musicians for your recordings?
For XETB I almost always work alone. I find that in the presence of others I can’t get the same freedom of experiencing a landscape in the same way. An exception was my partner singing the version of "A Lyke Wake Dirge" on New Etheric Muse
. Also a recent trip out to Barden Moor with my friend Rhid (who plays in a band called Lanterns) resulted in a track for the forthcoming Pneumatic Consort album, which we recorded in a spectacularly beautiful and overgrown wood on the edge of a cliff.
When did you first become aware of the interaction between man and nature/landscape? How would you define your relation to nature?
Well, I suppose my first deep awareness was in 2001, while visiting the prehistoric stones of Cornwall... before that time I suppose I was more interested in the heavens – space, astronomy, astrology, and so on.
I’m afraid that I’ve really no idea at present how to define my relation to nature! I remember reading something years ago on the sleevenotes of an old Shirley Collins LP to the effect that a lot of people involved with the folk revival at that time didn’t take a holistic approach to the English tradition, but Shirley Collins did – this includes understanding the ‘horror of nature’ that runs through a lot of the English folk music and lore. I wouldn’t say that I dwell on horror at all (exactly the opposite!) but I think that natural cycles of creation and destruction as well as a sense of isolation, timelessness (being away from many of the temporal cues of town and city) and also the also freedom that one gets when out alone play some part in my relation to nature...
You mentioned in another interview that you were interested in the Hermetic tradition. What kind of research have you been doing about it, and does it play a role in your music? For example, we get the feeling that Alchemy plays an important thematic role on at least a few releases.
Well, I find the attitudes and doctrines of the Hermetic tradition very inspiring – especially their concept of a universe in which all things are linked through systems of correspondence, sympathy and antipathy. Initially the discussions of genius loci and tutelar deities in Agrippa's Occult Philosophy
were quite influential on my thought...
My main area of interest is Dee’s Hieroglyphic Monad
. It’s often interpreted as an alchemical work, but I think it’s clear from the letter that prefaces it that Dee profoundly believed it to be a pictorial key to all arts and sciences. Both the symbol and the cosmological and numerological discussions within the work are a joy to play with and interpret. In his letter to Maximilian which prefaces the work, Dee discusses the hidden properties of the symbol, saying that "justly may the musician be struck with wonder when here he will perceive inexplicable, celestial harmonies without any movement and sound.
" Although how the Monad can be related to music is still vague to me. Although mathematical and numerological devices like the tetrakys are discussed in his work (which naturally leads one on to a consideration of the harmonic series) further explorations with the pictoral side of the work haven’t been that illuminating. For example, the cross of the monad can be interpreted as being two lines of four units – or two tetrachords – but these kind of observations don’t really lead anywhere at present!
I suppose that The Pyrognomic Glass
has some alchemical influences due to the subject of the tracks (dew) and the things I was reading at the time. The titles of the 'lens' series came from an interest in the early use of optics as part of 'natural magic' (the precursor of modern science). The Selenographic Lens
relates to a device used to project writing on the moon alluded to by Agrippa. The Pyrognomic Glass
is the 'burning glass' discussed in Porta's Natural Magick
– the use of the rays of the sun as a form of ignition had fascinated various 'proto-scientific' authors since the record of Archimedes' burning mirrors. Finally, A Prism for Annwn
comes from reading an old spiritualist book by Arthur Findlay in which there is a diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum containing within it not only visible light, x-rays and the like but also the invisible 'spirit' world. It amused me to conceive of a prism that would not only divide the spectrum of visible light, but also somehow bring an invisible, parallel reality into focus...
Regarding universal correspondences I've recently become very interested in the church modes as they were related to seven modes of 'ethos', and thus to the seven Ptolemaic spheres by some medieval authors. I feel that the music of these modes has a lot in common with English folk music and I've been pleasing myself with monophonic or drone-accompanied improvisations with a different mode each day... usually on a small 2 octave psaltery, but occasionally on the harmonium... or banjo!
Besides inspiration from folklore related to recording locations, you also use some concepts of your own in your songs, such ‘the Prince Occidental’ and ‘the King of Swords’. What kind of figures are these?
Often these figures are imagined – daydreamed images that appear in the mind’s eye while making the initial recordings. The Prince Occidental and the King of Swords are son and father – the western portion of the skies being associated with the element of air and by extension the Sword suit of the tarot. I don’t want to get too heavily mystical here, but they are analagous to Amenadiel and Malgaras, a pair of tutelary 'spirits' in Trithemius' enigmatic work Steganographia
. Whether Trithemius' work is cryptographic, magical or curious hybrid in nature is still undecided – it’s a very curious, enigmatic work... but the vision of a world haunted by hierarchies of aerial intelligences associated with the divisions of the skies and also with certain geographic locations inspires me. The influence can also be found on the "Water Invocation" track on the split with Jani Hellén, in which the syllables of the name Hydriel (Trithemius' aquatic spirit) were used as the basis of the track.
Another daydreamed figure is the Landless Lord, a wanderer whose message is change. Often when he pops up in my music a radical change in my personal life occurs shortly afterwards...!
The standard interview question: How’s your book about dew coming along?
It was suffering from an overabundance of sources, so I’ve trimmed these down and re-organised all my material into three heads – natural (and alchemical), magical and religious. Of course, folk customs and the festivals of some countries regarding dew often span the three categories, but things are slowly coming together.
Are you mainly interested in exploring British locations for your music, or would you be interested in visiting other areas in Europe or the World?
Well, one of the main concerns of XETB over the last few years has been to concentrate on the folklore of the immediately surrounding areas... although trips to other areas would be interesting – particularly the fens and bogs of Denmark as discussed in P.V. Glob's classic The Bog People
In your interview with Storing webzine, you retold the folk tale ‘The Dead Moon’. Could you tell us another one of your favourites?
Tales of underworld journeys have always interested me – tales and legends such as those of Orpheus, Ossian, Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, the Arthurian Spoils of Annwn
and Thomas the Rhymer. One tale I’m particularly fond of is that of King Herla. The tale was first recorded in the 12th century, in Walter Map's De Nugis Curialium
(Courtier’s Trifles). Herla was a legendary king of the Britons – I’ll refrain from re-telling the story here, but you can read a translation online (you can read the translation here
There are lots of interesting things about the story, such as the instruction that Herla cannot dismount from his horse until the dog he was given 'leaps forward'. Did Herla condemn himself and his men to eternal wandering by accepting gifts from the fairies, such as the dog? Or perhaps the instructon about the leaping dog is some kind of (allegorical) underworld logic, or mysterious taboo – such as the instruction to Orpheus not to look back while leading Euridice from the underworld. In England, the wild hunt was sometimes called the Herlething – possibly deriving from Herla's name. There's also a geograhpical reference in the story to the hunt descending into the River Wye at Hereford – which might be interesting to check out sometime.
Are there any special things you would like to do with XETB in the future, like performances in special places or collaborations with particular people?
I’d certainly like to do some kind of collaborations with Johann Wlight and Jani Hellén – both of whom I’ve done split releases with and some of whose music really resonates with some of my own musical ideals... I ran into Tara Burke of Fursaxa last year and she did an amazing concert – I’d love to collaborate with her, but have been remarkably tardy with actually getting in touch about it.
I’d like to get to Scotland to the Eildon Hills, where Thomas the Rhymer met the fairy queen... and also to Wales to some remote stone circles.
What’s in the works for the near future?
Coming up soon is the Pneumatic Consort archive disc on Larkfall and a XETB tape entitled Gamaaea
on Beyond Repair Records. There’s also the Reynardine compilation, which features English Heretic, Far Black Furlong, Mike Seed, Lanterns, Remora, ThrouRoof, Jani Hellén, Violence Beyond the Snowline, él-g and a few other folks.
There’s talk with Rhid from Lanterns about recording some vocal only albums in various caves around Yorkshire, which could be interesting if it works out!
Thanks for doing this interview!