Pan’s People: Blood Ceremony Interviewed

With her fourth album out this month Blood Ceremony's Alia O'Brien talks to Louise Brown about how the occult rock coven is taking over and how her PHD in ethnomusicology challenged her to travel down new musical paths

Blood Ceremony portraits by Ester Segarra

Gather round all you witches and wyrd folk. All you lords and ladies of misrule. Toronto’s Blood Ceremony are offering their fourth album of esoteric exaltations and welcome you to worship ‘The Devil’s Widow’.

Since Blood Ceremony appeared in 2006, bands that delve into the mysteries and myths of the underworld have become ten-a-penny. You cannot move for rock bands citing ’60s cult vixen Jinx Dawson or Graham Bond’s Holy Magick as inspiration alongside the holy trinity of Sabbath, Purple and Zeppelin. Signing to London’s Rise Above Records for 2008’s self-titled debut, where they joined kin Witchcraft and Electric Wizard to weave a doom-laden tribute to occult horror films and arcane arts, Blood Ceremony summoned the ancient gods with enchantress and piper at the gates of dawn, Alia O’Brien as high priestess.

With latest album Lord Of Misrule released this month, the band have dared to gaze even further into the void, with Alia casting her song-writing hand to 60s pop, with songs like ‘Loreley’ and ‘Flower Phantoms’ sounding like Phil Spector producing a soundtrack to a psychedelic Lynch film. Alongside the Sabbathian expectations of Rogue’s Lot, Lord Of Misrule journeys through folk rock (‘Half Moon Street’), what could be a Child ballad (‘The Weird Of Finistere’), and ‘Stairway To Heaven’-esque might (‘Things Present, Things Past’). With Liam Watson of the resolutely analogue studio, Toerag, at the helm, the band have created musical magic and as Alia, tells tQ, she couldn’t be more proud.

Lord Of Misrule is a triumph and confirms Liam Watson as some modern day music wizard, but hang on, you almost didn’t work with him, right?

Alia O’Brien: We did a demo with a producer that we worked with on The Eldritch Dark [2013] and also the single where we covered Iron Claw’s ‘Loving You’ [2014]. We really loved working with him, he’s a great producer but after doing the demo we realised that we maybe needed to go in a bit of a different direction on this album. We were all sitting around, having beers and we all said ‘What about Toerag? We know we’re going to get the sounds we want working with Liam.’ It was a far-fetched idea at the time but Lee [Dorrian, Rise Above honcho] made it happen. I think the song-writing for this album demanded a very particular type of production that we just didn’t see in the demo.

How does a band from Toronto get to know about an analogue freak in the depths of Hackney so much that they’re prepared to fly half-way around the world to work with him?

AO: I’m sure many people know that he did White Stripes’ Elephant. He won a Grammy for that, so obviously he has a reputation for having a very unique recording process and sound, but the stuff I’d heard of his was more like the Electric Wizard stuff that he recorded. I know that Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats did some recording with him too, so it was more through our peers who recorded with him. We’re very impressed by the work he did with those artists. We wanted to have our album sound like that.

We wanted to do it all to tape if possible, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, one that he’s obviously very good at piecing together. There are some interesting constraints not unlike the ones that any band recording in the early to mid-’60s would have had to deal with, which requires a McGyver-esque creativity in the studio, so I think it brought out the best and weirdest in us.

There are some moments of pure ’60s pop/soul on this album, for example the song ‘Loreley’, that are just magic, was that Liam’s influence?

AO: I’m glad you like ‘Loreley’, it’s a weird pop song. ‘Loreley’ and ‘Flower Phantoms’, I wrote the music for those and had them clearly arranged when I brought them to the band. I just wanted to write a couple of weird pop songs. I think it keeps it interesting to have a mixture of riff-based songs and some more chordal pop numbers. It keeps things fresh and maybe keeps the listener interested, and also keeps the listener guessing.

I was listening to a lot of Harry Nilsson and it’s my little tribute to his song, ‘One’. Just the opening quarter notes on the electric piano. I also wanted to write something that was a little bit lower in terms of my vocal range. I wanted to get a more haunting quality. I almost wanted my voice to sound like a man’s; perhaps like I was one of The Beatles or The Kinks. I thought that writing for a range that is almost uncomfortably low for myself, at least in the verses would be an interesting exercise in capturing a varied vocal sound, because when you’re listening to the same person singing every song on an album it’s nice to hear them explore different timbres and tones.

‘Flower Phantoms’ was actually sounding a bit more garage rock, it was a fusion of Motown, Northern soul and gritty garage rock. He said "There’s too much going on here, let’s make this starker." It’s very atypical of us and that was how Liam shaped the song. The keyboard part really got pared down quite significantly. I was doing a lot of baroque pop-esque noodling and he said, "Keep it simple", and I’m really happy that he made those calls because it sounds really stark and open and haunting. We fully trusted him.

‘The Weird Of Finistere’ sounds like it could be a traditional folk song, or one of the Child ballads, did you write that?

AO: Actually that song was interesting. Sean [Kennedy, guitars] wrote it ages ago. We were considering putting it on Living With The Ancients [2011], that’s how long it’s been on the back-burner. But I’m really glad we waited. It’s weird how you’ll plan out an album and you might have a song that hasn’t quite fully congealed yet so it doesn’t make it and it just happened with that song. It didn’t make it onto Living With The Ancients, it didn’t make it onto The Eldritch Dark, but I’m so glad we recorded it with Liam because I thought he really made that track into something fantastic and haunting and very special.

Coming to London must have had other constraints, we presume you stayed in a hotel, but we doubt it was The Ritz. Was there added pressure once you made the decision to not record at home in Toronto?

AO: We stayed in a hostel near the studio. It actually used to be a nunnery, which was great for us because it had the feel of the set of a Hammer horror film. It had a lot of the old decor and furnishings from when it was a nunnery. The other thing that happened was I got sick and lost my voice. In addition to having that two-week strict timeline, with a lot of money being spent, I missed two days of doing the bed tracks. I was so stressed out and so worried I wouldn’t get my voice back in time to start doing vocals. The funny thing is that happened to us when we went away to Chicago to record Living With The Ancients, so I think someone’s cursed me.

Are there added benefits to recording under pressure though, it really captures that moment in time, don’t you think?

AO: Totally. It becomes your full-time job and you’re so focussed on the songs and on being in that studio mindset so in a sense it’s exhausting. We were initially planning to take a long time, do the recording over weekends, and there’s a certain benefit to taking your time because you can listen to something, it sits with you, you might decide you want to do something differently. I guess the problem is, I mean we’ve all seen the Metallica documentary! I like the idea of an album being representative of where a band is at a specific moment in time. And that’s what all our albums have been. They’ve all been recorded in the same way and for better or for worse, there are things I would like to change but I think that will always be the case. Being in that very focussed zone, living together, eating together, getting up every morning, going into the studio together, staying there nine hours every day, it really makes this album representative of Blood Ceremony Autumn 2015.

Now the album is recorded, it’s got to come out and this is where things leave your control. A band like Blood Ceremony is so steeped in the doom metal world, but with influences from Steeleye Span and Motown you could so easily be embraced by so many other music worlds. There is nothing to say that a fan of Lana Del Rey or Chelsea Wolfe couldn’t love Lord Of Misrule, does it frustrate you that you seem to pegged to one genre?

AO: I love Lana Del Rey and Chelsea Wolfe. I think, there are a number of factors. It might be the way we’re marketed. Being embedded in the world of metal might make our music off-putting to anyone who hasn’t heard it. If you see the photos of us where I’m holding a dagger and I look like Vampira, and you see the name Blood Ceremony, you’re probably not going to imagine what we sound like. Perhaps the way we’ve chosen to represent ourselves could also limit our appeal to certain listeners.

I always want to reach as many people as possible but I think most important to us is just be able to keep putting out music that we’re very proud of. I think world takeover may not be possible [LAUGHS] and it’s hard to know what will cause a song or a music video to start to circulate widely, so I suppose we will always hope that one of our songs will make the rounds and break through to new pockets of music fans.

Blood Ceremony also blazed a trail for the many bands in the doom rock universe that have taken your lead in delving into the dark arts and singing paeans to Pan and the ancient ways. Back when you started there was only really The Devil’s Blood, who tragically are no more. Now though there are so many bands with female singers following in the shadows of Grace Slick, Jinx Dawson and Stevie Nicks, why do you think this style of music has been so prolific of late?

AO: Isn’t it awesome and empowering? It’s nice to feel like we’re taking over in a way [LAUGHS]. It’s weird, it’s got to be a combination of factors. I could lay out all sorts of socio-political reasons that I think embracing themes of mysticism and magic might be appealing to our generation but I think we live in this hyper-digital, hyper-compartmentalised, hyper-rational automated age and so the occult seems like the ultimate escape from that, the ultimate foil to our realities. I feel there is something to be said about why this is popular now, but that being said, we’ve been a band for ten years so it’s been interesting to have been there early on when there weren’t a lot of people doing this and now to see a global scene emerge where people are all looking back to the same musical eras, drawing influences from similar artists, being inspired by similar films and works of literature and ideas and mythological tales. It’s very interesting to see this really balloon and become a genre. And then to see a band like Ghost win a Grammy and be on the Colbert Report, it’s all very surreal and incredible. It’s funny and it’s great, because we had our inspirations in the early days too, we were looking to Electric Wizard and Witchcraft. I think it’s great when people draw influence from currently active acts and honour their sources of inspiration.

Last time we spoke you were doing a masters, is Blood Ceremony now your full-time focus?

AO: I was doing my masters in ethnomusicology, the anthropological study of music and I’m now going my PHD on the sonic geography of sounds amongst Muslim groups in the Toronto area. I’m interested in things like silence and the voice, who gets to use their voice, where and when? It keeps me grounded and takes me outside the realm of music and sound I’m familiar with. In a way my research and my studies keep it real and help me get outside of myself and my own tastes, which I think is really healthy and which was maybe part of a motivating force for me to write some songs that were not necessarily proto-typical Blood Ceremony songs for this album.

Sounds incredible, yet you’ve found time to tour. You’re heading to Europe next month, is that right?

AO: It’s weirdly soon. How the time flies. We’re doing a pretty short tour actually, which is good and bad. We won’t make as much money obviously but we’ll be able to enjoy ourselves and not get too tuckered out. We’re doing some club dates and then we finish up at Desertfest in London. It will be the triumphant conclusion to our first Lord Of Misrule tour.

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