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Escape Velocity

Beers, Steers & Fears: ØXN Interviewed
Brian Coney , August 23rd, 2023 08:32

ØXN are the first Irish band to be signed to esteemed national folk label Claddagh in 18 years – they tell Brian Coney about their stormy rise and announce their debut album CYRM

ØXN by Megan Doherty

“In some ways, I feel like it’s a slightly more extreme warping of folk than Lankum is. So for this to have ended up on Claddagh and for Lankum to have ended up on Rough Trade is kind of funny.”

Radie Peat is musing on CYRM, the upcoming album by her new project ØXN. On 27 October, the debut full-length by the Dublin quartet – who are the first new signing on legendary Irish folk label Claddagh in 18 years – sees the Lankum vocalist and multi-instrumentalist craft hexing new work with three heavyweights of the country’s musical underground. At a time when Irish acts like Lankum, Junior Brother and Lisa O’Neill are getting their flowers as some of modern folk’s fiercest subversives, Peat, Katie Kim, Eleanor Myler and John ‘Spud’ Murphy are flipping the script further.

Three months after Lankum strengthened their status as visionary disrupters on False Lankum, ØXN arrived in June with their take on 18th century murder ballad, ‘Love Henry’ (also known by variations like 'Henry Lee'). A devastating meld of accordion, mellotron, synths, bass, drums and vocals, it was still only a taste of the “extreme warping” Radie Peat refers to. Like Lankum’s curveballing of tradition, ØXN’s enchantment stems from uniting four constituent parts that are both intensely history-heeding and forward-looking. On CYRM, the band sublimate a deep folk vernacular via buckled ballads and dark, oil slick-heavy psychedelia that summons Richard Dawson and Sunn O))) every bit as much as it does giallo and Ghost Box.

Lankum may be riding a well-earned wave 23 years after forming but it would be wrong to think Peat’s fellow members in ØXN are anything but absolute equals. On albums like 2022’s Hour Of The Ox, Katie Kim inhabited masterfully stifling space as one of Ireland’s most uncompromising artists. As well as doubling up as Lankum’s all-important producer and front of house engineer, Spud Murphy has produced LPs including Black Midi’s Cavalcade, and plays alongside Myler – herself an exceptional drummer – in Dublin three-piece Percolator. With both Myler and Murphy having worked alongside Katie Kim at various points, it’s not hard to see ØXN as a distillation of Irish DIY music’s broader co-operative scene.

“On paper, it sounds like it should be terrible,” says Radie Peat, speaking alongside Myler and Murphy over Zoom (Katie Kim was unavailable due to personal reasons). “But I think we’ve done something that’s its own thing, which is hard to do. It is its own dramatic world and that was the point from the get-go. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

While the story can be traced further back to a brief side-project between Peat and Kim in 2018 (“I was obsessed with her work and she apparently liked mine too,” says Peat. “We were set up on a musical date for it and played a couple of shows”) the dramatic world in question emerged during a one-off audio-visual event for Nollaig na mBan, the Irish tradition also known as Women’s Christmas, on 6 January 2021. As the U.S. Capitol was being stormed across the water, it proved a wonderfully esoteric evening live-streamed from a candle-lit tower in Dublin's southside. With millennia of superstition and an intuitive sense of dark forces out of sight, Peat, Kim, Myler and Murphy performed a rapt set that, not least looking back, felt a bit like a summoning.

Spud Murphy has long been a sizable cog in Lankum’s dense, often engulfing machine. On CYRM, which was recorded over four days in lockdown but described by Murphy as “very much spread out over the whole Covid experience,” his layered production and musicianship comes into sharp focus. “I’m just very happy how we’ve got it all to sound in the same world even though there’s polar opposites there,” he says. “I have memories of the girls screaming, slapping washing-up gloves together and crumpling bags of Tayto crisps up to make sounds. We were teetering on the verge of doom."

Murphy is being modest. On their trouncing future single, a ten-minute take on murder ballad ‘Cruel Mother,’ his band claw deeper into the land than any Celtic tiger could. It’s there where a mood of revenge takes root as a kind of crushing comeuppance. Starting on sublime sean nós (or unaccompanied) singing by Peat, the song – which has been recorded by the likes of Shirley Collins – is pure-cut luminous dread; standing on fresh ground somewhere between Enya, Neu! and Portishead.

“It was one of the songs that me and Katie chose in 2018 for certain narrative elements that tied everything together,” says Peat. “There’s a strong feminist theme – of female villains and ostracised female characters. I’ve always been drawn to versions of the song because of strong imagery in lines like, 'Seven years a tongue in the warning bell'. It was partially realised when we originally played it but it didn’t fully make sense until Elly and Spud came on board."

Much like False Lankum closer ‘The Turn,’ on CYRM, ØXN leave their most cranium-razing effort to last. Evoking a parallel netherworld where Trent Reznor got to score Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a 13-minute interpretation of ‘Farmer In The City’ by Scott Walker proves a swarming descent into a maelström. Listening to it, my mind drifts to how lead vocalist Katie Kim’s work has attracted the understandable if obvious “Lynchian” lemma over the years. As a member of ØXN, it’s warranted insomuch as it conjures the same sense of full-blown supernatural catastrophe as the atomic bomb explosion in Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. Inducing the sense that all is not well is one thing, but making music that sounds like tears in the very mantle of the Earth is quite another. And yet, there’s just something in the national psyche which means such intense gravity can only get one so far before it comes at the expense of coming on like a joke. 

“There was a lot of laughing, especially whenever we were deciding how dramatic something would be,” reveals Peat. “We would really go for it, then be like, ‘Jesus, is that too much like? Are we actually going to do that?"

“Thankfully, we share an ethos and trust ourselves enough to know if it’s worthwhile or shite,” adds Myler. “Katie had the closer all figured out so just enjoyed messing around with the end of it. It gets really chaotic and it’s fun to scream your fucking head and try to keep it musical at the same time. Sometimes [when we were recording] I was doing little tippy-taps and enhancing things. Then at other times it was a case of ripping it apart. This was one of those times."

Those “tippy-taps” help guide sublime reprieve throughout CYRM, most potently on their version of British folk standard ‘The Trees They Grow So High’. By way of sparse piano, mellotron, and a sample of a broken escalator in London, it offers disembodied calm within the broader squall. On the last day of recording chance intervened. “There was a storm outside,” reveals Murphy. “The wind howled through the studio so I was sticking gaffa tape on the doors to try to stop it. Then we were like, ‘Fuck it, it kind of sounds cool’ so we embraced it. The next half hour was spent putting mics up to capture the wind. It was like the end of the world outside – a classic Irish January up the hills."

Taking its title from an archaic word for incantation (“it’s used as any kind of enchantment that women use on men to their detriment,” Peat tells me) CYRM (pronounced “sigh-rim”) is rooted in a broader enthusiasm for the occult. Coming a year after Katie Kim’s latest LP Hour Of The Ox which is named after a Japanese curse that is cast in the dead of night – it has the air of justified vengefulness, the sort which hangs heavy on their version of Galway artist Maija Sofia’s ‘The Wife Of Michael Cleary'.

“Choosing that was a case of us thinking about what fits into this imaginary world,” says Peat, reflecting on a widescreen interpretation that speaks to ØXN’s natural reluctance to only reimagine ballads before their time. ‘I had heard the song before, then me and Katie were in the audience when Maija Sofia supported Adrian Crowley. I said I thought the song would be good for us and Katie said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’ Maija is an excellent songwriter and the song fits in perfectly with the theme of ostracised females. It’s also got a kind of fairy villain mythology to it and how it concerns witchery and women’s mental health.”

“It’s got it all,” adds Myler. “It’s also really closely related to ‘Cruel Mother’ and themes like women being executed just for mental illness.”

It’s early days, relatively speaking, but ØXN at their best sound like they’re loosening a space where spectres can pass through. It may pack all the merriment of a moonless night down a rural backroad but CYRM feels a celebration of the backdrop of what makes their scene so special. Creating music this good amid lockdown, a growing housing crisis, the rampant hostelisation of Dublin and the psychic backwash of 700 years of colonialism draws power from a community of spaces and creatives that lift each other up. 

As for the band being Claddagh’s first signing since 2005, it’s much less incongruent than might first meet the eye. Founded by Garech Browne, an heir to the Guinness business, in 1959, the label was created to protect Ireland’s musical heritage. Six decades on, ‘Cruel Mother’ might feel the sonic inverse of The Chieftains’ work on the label but it gets to the heart of an age-old lineage that, in its own way, has always been anomalous and radical. In any case, their debut may be coming out on a traditional institution but the ØXN story has been anything but conventional thus far.

“I’m delighted that it’s ended up on Claddagh,” says Peat. “I grew up with the music of Tommy Peoples and all of that so it’s deeply surreal. Then again, this is a very weird band set-up. We’ve poured loads of work into an album, we’re releasing it on Claddagh and we’ve never played live to anyone. It’s a hilariously backward thing and it’s happened because of the complete absence of friendships and shared experiences. I’m just dying to get people in a room, do it live, then have a pint afterwards. Then we’ll be a real band.”

ØXN's debut album is released by Claddagh on 27 October. The band play launch shows at Dublin's Sugar Club on 31 October and 1 November