Heavy Plant Crossing: Circle & Richard Dawson Interviewed

One of our favourite hypno rock groups and one of our favourite musicians have collaborated to produce one of the albums of the year, Henki. Jennifer Lucy Allan met them to get the full story

Portrait by Antti Uusimäki

Richard Dawson & Circle are playing Supersonic Festival 2022

"Richard Dawson is now our lead singer," booms Circle’s bear-like founder Jussi Lehtisalo from the screen. He’s talking about Henki, an album-length collaboration between his six-piece Finnish band Circle, and Geordie troubadour Richard Dawson. I had left the question of the future of this collaboration until last. Ordinarily, bands deflect with elusive but essentially flat answers: We’d love to but who knows! Or, Let’s see what happens! But Circle are not an ordinary band, and Richard Dawson is not an ordinary frontman.

Circle typically do things that would cause other bands a shit storm of problems, but they just call it being in Circle. Firstly, they already have a lead singer in bandy-legged Delphic warbler Mika Rättö, but luckily he plays keys too and is fine with the reshuffle (his cosmic crooning can still be heard on Henki).

Secondly, they’re all middle-aged men in spandex, which should pose its own issues for band and audience combined, but over the years it has become a celebratory signature outfit and a liberating sartorial marker that gives them all body confidence and a weirdly convincing rock god flair. (It is much easier to move on stage in spandex than jeans, Lehtisalo says.) Then there are the attempts to essentially ditch their own identity: Circle side project Pharaoh Overlord once released an album called Circle at the same time as Circle released an album called Pharaoh Overlord; Circle once loaned out their name to a band called Falcon for a year, borrowing theirs and making an album, before swapping back at the end of a year-long contract. It often feels as if they want to test how un-Circle they can become before it all explodes in a puff of dry ice, but in doing this, only ever become more Circle than before.

What Circle offer is a whole (Finnish) universe; a spandex-clad safe place. They are a band that defiantly prod the rock band template, doing the work to discover what it still offers in the 21st century, and asking how it can be extended or pulled apart without becoming something else entirely. Their line-up has shifted over the years but this is the least of a fan’s worries when they rarely stick to the same genre from one album to the next.

They’ve called themselves pioneers of the NWOFHM (New Wave Of Finnish Heavy Metal) but it’s debatable whether they’re a metal band at all. Metal is rather more like their native language than any sort of genre they’re committed to. They have recorded folk, soft rock, avant garde, punk, post rock, chugging Kraut-ish jams, jazzy numbers and whatever other subgenres and distortions of rock and metal you can think of, across more than 50 albums since the mid-90s. If these albums are the holy apex of the pyramid, then the supporting layers come in the form of numerous side projects, with the output on Lehtisalo’s Ektro label and its sublabels Full Contact and Ruton Music stretching the base further out. Some projects exist for the space of a single 7" (such as Tractor Pulling) others run parallel to Circle with similar line ups (like Ektroverde). There are also collaborations: with filmmaker Mika Taanila; with the duo Mamiffer, and with recordings made by the late electronic music pioneer Erkki Kurreniemi.

They are as interested in the theatrical aspects of rock and metal – studs and spikes and pyramid poses – as world-ending riffs and world-building concepts. Until Dawson joined, Rättö sang in a made-up language from their fictional kingdom of Meronia. As such, the addition of Dawson is a watershed moment in the band’s history: "I know that we often take big risks. That’s not a weird concept," says Janne Westerlund. "But this time, it was more than usual."

Circle then, are now a seven-piece band boasting one of the finest practising musicians in the UK, Richard Dawson, on lead vocals and guitar, with Lehtisalo on bass and voice; Westerlund on guitar and vocals; Pekka Jääskeläinen and Julius Jääskeläinen on guitar; Tomi Leppänen on drums, and Mika Rättö on keyboard and vocals. Dawson was drafted in as lead singer after just two days of rehearsals, when he was brought up on stage at the summer 2019 edition of Sideways festival in Helskinki. He says he’d turned up to go on stage with his favourite band, thinking he’d pop on for a track or two. After arriving in Finland he discovered that the plan was to have him play the whole show, to 3,000 fans standing on the ice in a Helsinki ice hockey stadium. It was a venue close to Lehtisahlo’s heart, where he’d seen iconic bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Deep Purple play. No pressure then.

"I felt very calm leading up to the show," says Dawson, "although part of that was just tiredness – I slept on the kitchen floor in Janne’s house at one point. Then I remember getting on stage and looking around at Mika, at Janne, and Jussi, and it just suddenly hit me: ‘Oh, my God, this is about to happen.’ Then Tommi hit in with his drums and I just stood there. I didn’t remember single thing. That was a wild feeling, but I stepped up to the mic and hoped something would happen, and it did."

Lehitisahlo says it was one of the greatest days ever, Wersterlund says it was one of the best shows the band had ever played. "It was it was so full of excitement, he says. "Full of these uncertainties, which if they happen to fall in the right places can make a really unique concert. It was a gig to remember."

The only dud moment was the pyramid (I get mixed messages about whether this was part of rehearsals). "I messed up the pyramid, they were waiting for me to come and sit on a knee," says Dawson regretfully. "You’ve got to get in that pyramid, that’s a serious business! I was just there giggling – I need to focus more next time."

Their collaboration began after Westerlund got chatting to Dawson, when the former tweeted in praise of the latter’s music. Dawson says he replied "with zero cool, like ‘Oh my gaaawd!’" They then slid into each other’s DMs, traded records, and Dawson contributed backing vocals for ‘So Messed Up’, an incendiary take on the contemporary moment through an a capella chorus, which opens Westerlund’s solo album There’s A Passage.

Around the same time, self-described ‘music maniac’ Lehtisalo (currently in the midst of a yacht rock deep dive) suddenly found himself inundated by recommendations to listen to Dawson, in some sort of unsubtle cosmic messaging. He plucked one from a list in Wire magazine; then Westerlund and other friends got in touch to tell him to listen to this musician they had found: Richard Dawson. Westerlund says for him, Dawson is like Captain Beefheart or John Lee Hooker (Dawson bows his head and tries to be as invisible as impossible as this praise is heaped upon him). "What I mean is that they are one of a kind performers," Westerlund explains. "You don’t really know what to compare it with, but it has this quality that it is familiar, then when you turn a corner there is something totally new [in their work]."

Dawson on the other hand, is ashamed to say he chatted through the whole of the first Circle gig he saw, when he was in his early 20s and trying to impress someone. Afterwards, he heard various Circle albums but it didn’t click until Tower (2007) induced a sort of hallelujah moment, and "within a couple of weeks I had about ten Circle albums," he says. The band became something he shared with his then friend, now partner and Hen Ogledd and Bulbils bandmate Sally Pilkington (with whom he recorded an album a day in the first few weeks of lockdown, and who now have 64 releases under their belt).

Henki is new territory for both acts – for Circle it’s the first time there are lyrics in a real language. For Dawson it’s the first time he’s been in a rock band (at least since his school group Punks In Drublic, anyway). However, while the press release makes excuses for it as a strange turn for both, the resulting album is a perfectly sensible fusion of Dawson’s recent character driven, anthemic songs on Peasant (2017) and 2020 (2019), and what is (in this writers view) Circle’s most stadium-friendly riff-heavy album, Terminal (2017). At the root of the collaboration is not just an admiration for one another’s work, but absolute adoration, along with shared perspectives on music’s value and purpose: "We have an old and very ancient, but simultaneously future outlook," says Dawson. "It’s also really heartfelt, but not afraid to be daft."

The album’s title, Henki, is a nebulous sort of Finnish word that Dawson spotted on a furniture shop, and which it takes Westerlund and Lehtisalo some time to explain. It is both profound and everyday and can be used in a biblical sense, or prosaically. Henki means spirit or ghost – Lehtisalo says the word makes him think of a genie escaping a lamp – but it is also breath. "If your henki stinks, you have bad breath," says Westerlund, laughing. This makes it perfectly pitched for Dawson’s lyric writing, which is brilliant for its command of the acutely mundane and of higher meanings; of the stuff life is made of. ‘Nothing Important’ for example, takes in grief and mortality alongside memories of pedalos and spaghetti hoops.

The song titles came from a comment Westerlund made about how they should work: "I was thinking about how as humans, we tend to make block-like structures while plants grow organically," explains Westerlund. "They have this inner pattern that creates the form. You quite rarely see a plant that is ugly, so the pattern works. My idea was to get this idea structurally into the music, but I was happy when Richard took it to the lyrics."

Each track on Henki is named after a plant. Stupidly, I ask Dawson outright if this is an album about the climate crisis, knowing as soon as the question falls from my mouth that I won’t get a straight answer to such a blunt question. He successfully fails to finish a number of sentences in response, although admits the presence of these concerns, and will say that he had been looking for a way to broach the topic in his songwriting for the last few years. "My other records have been concerned with trying to take different perspectives – to step into other people’s shoes, but also to try and see things from different points in time. [Henki‘s] not really about plants," he says, "but using them as tent pegs affords you a different kind of timescale, one that’s not human. For example, there’s one song from the perspective of a seed. It doesn’t have many lyrics, because I don’t think a seed would have too much to say in English."

This might be an understatement. Plant life began colonising land 500 million years ago, and the first of our human ancestors walked the earth five to seven million years ago. Between the first plants and the first humans, there was enough time for humans to evolve and get to the point we’re at now fifty times over. Put another way: if you take the entirety of our existence on this planet, play it in reverse fifty times, and you’ll just about get back to the first plants. The scale is barely comprehensible. In this way, the human life in the characters that populate Henki offer one notion of time, the plant life that names the songs another, and looming over it all is the unfathomably old earth and its processes. Human civilisation is represented by the jumbled trans-historical architecture on the album’s cover, in the illustration by Iris Priest, which depicts a kingdom that includes Roman aqueducts and Chinese sampan; windmills and geodesic domes; power stations and minarets; riads and igloos. You might read into it that we – and all the people that have ever come before us – are just one henki in the history of the earth.

The album’s gentle opener, ‘Cooksonia’, is a signpost for these perspectives. Cooksonia is an extinct prehistoric land plant that is thought to be the first to have had a stem, and was named after (and is here spoken in the voice of) early 20th Century Australian botanist Isabel Clifton Cookson, with a percussive medieval-ish chug and starry shimmer on the keys tracing the travelogue. ‘Ivy’ on the other hand, draws on the Ancient Greek’s connection between the plant and Dionysus, who was often pictured adorned in its tangled vines. On Henki, this connection is drawn out into in a song that talks of King Midas and the island of Naxos, an allegorical fable about pleasure, greed, and gold. ‘Silene’ is the name for a campion flower, where Dawson speaks as an arctic campion seedling, grown from a fruit buried by a squirrel 32,000 years ago, which lay frozen until excavated by scientists at the beginning of the last decade. One of the more obvious allegorical uses of plants is the track ‘Silphium’, which was a sort of giant fennel used in antiquity as aphrodisiac and birth control, among other things, but that was so prodigiously consumed and not cultivated that it became extinct. ‘Methuselah’ is the name of a 4,853-year-old bristlecone pine tree growing in the mountains of California, thought to be the oldest tree in the world, which itself is named for one of the oldest characters in the Old Testament; ‘Pitcher’ is a carnivorous plant whose hollow tubular throat is filled with digestive fluid. ‘Lily’ is about death, although not without hope and sensitivity. The flower is planted on Buddhist graves and common at Western funerals as symbols of a deceased soul’s return to purity and peace, but here its lyrics recount a ghost story where a nurse sees a ghost, based on Dawson’s mother’s experience when training to be a nurse (the other staff called the ghost Phyllis, and they recognised her as a woman who had died there some years before).

For attentive listeners, the ecological crisis can be found in the contemporary resonances of its stories. The family in ‘Silphium’, for example, are making themselves refugees after the plant they cultivated has become extinct through over-consumption; ‘Methuselah’ died in the great flood that his grandson Noah survived, in a story told in Genesis and The Epic Of Gilgamesh, but once thought to have mythologised a real Black Sea flood; King Midas in ‘Ivy’ is unable to feed himself with all the gold he has created; the campion seed in ‘Silene’ was awoken by melting ice and human interference. Is it too obvious to find themes of resource exploitation, sea level rise, capitalism and melting ice sheets in these stories?

What can be said is that each plant acts as a signpost. This is a sort of Dawson signature – the use of world-building and in-depth research not in a blunt one-to-one relationship between lyrics and intent, but as a way of thinking about things through storytelling. He talks around this as magic. "Music to me is magic," he says, "but it’s everywhere now. It’s used by everyone and it’s misused a lot. It almost feels like it’s a difficult thing to know because music’s so ubiquitous…" he trails off. He says he has been reading Ursula Le Guins’s Earthsea books, where there is a powerful relationship between proper names and magic. In Earthsea, if you know the true Old Speech name for something – often plants and animals – you can communicate with them and control them. Philosophically speaking, LeGuin’s thinking here goes some way to explaining Dawson’s care and specificity with language; his belief in the enchantment of songwriting, and of music as a form of expression that contains the power to effect change in the world, but also the ways in which this power may be neutered or misused.

Musically, Henki rides the riffs and flourishes of prog rock journeying, the songs structured as mini-suites hovering around a grand lineage of Hawkwind-ish space rock. What’s remarkable is what Dawson’s voice is afforded through the robust backing of a rock band in full flight, and in turn, the decorous structural shifts and axe-wielding meatiness of sound Circle pull off with verve and might, when they have a full narrative to play with. In the eight-minute long ‘Methuselah’ Dawson’s voice reaches higher than ever under the stacked bass and rhythm guitar, before the track fades to afterglow before basically starting again as something else a minute from the end. "I’m really trying to bring out more natural elements of the voice and to get away from cliches of singing," Dawson explains. "Singing is becoming more and more homogenised, and production techniques are too. How do we get away from that and be as plain as possible, while simultaneously doing some really daft things? I remember singing along to Helloween in the car with my dad, ‘Keeper Of The Seven Keys, Part Two’ – "eagle fly free" and all that. There’s this amazing note at the end that I remember singing operatically in the car with my dad. It’s funny, but it’s also a happy memory. When I hit that high note on ‘Methuselah’, I’m trying to do it in a way that is both proper, but also like I’m a kid again."

However, all this talk about lyrics leaves an elephant in the room: What does it mean for a band previously only singing in a made-up language to take on lyrics with a fully populated kingdom that crosses space and time? "It was a very important step for us to take," says Westerlund seriously. "Our vocals have always been one instrument among the others. Mika is such a great singer – he really takes it take it to the centre – but they lift you up in an abstract way. This is totally different. I have this feeling that we have a world inside a world – a universe inside a universe. I haven’t decided whether we are within Richard’s universe, or if it’s the other way around."

The first single from the album was ‘Lily’, the video for which was directed by regular Circle collaborator, the filmmaker Mika Taanila (who appeared with them for SSEENNSSEESS, and for whom Circle recorded the soundtrack to his film Six Day Run). It bears no immediate relevance to the song itself, and is at odds with a track shrouded in ghosts and death. In the video, Dawson loses a game of snooker to new hero of the psychedelic underground Steve Davis. In true Circle style, it was premiered on World Snooker TV – unsurprisingly the first time the snooker channel had carried a music video premiere. Filming in a Dagenham snooker club meant the video’s initial overheads were the cost of occupying six tables for three hours. I ask Dawson if playing snooker with Steve Davis meant he’d not fulfilled not just one dream through this collaboration with Circle, but two, in playing snooker against a UK sporting legend. "I grew up watching Steve Davis," he says, "although Dennis Taylor was my player growing up but I did take one shot at the end – the same shot that he missed in the final against Taylor. I did that shot, and I got it in first time. They missed it on camera though, and of course I couldn’t do it again."

After the festival appearance in 2019 Dawson took a number of trips to Pori and Helsinki in the period before lockdown to record with the band. They took saunas, worked for hours, and every time he entered the room at these sessions, Jussi would sing a line from ‘Two Halves’: "That’s my daaad." Just enough had been recorded when lockdown hit that they could finish the album remotely, although Dawson says he feels there’s a ghost space he hears sometimes where there was room for another track had the situation been different, although he has no regrets. "To me, it feels that this was meant to be – I always felt that in some sense it had already happened," he says. "Sun Ra talked about time being more like a blanket than a line… When I think about a spirit, it seems tied in with things having already occurred; that we’re just moving towards them and through them. It feels like this with the music, but also with knowing these guys and feeling like we were friends straight away. This all feels like henki."

On the back of the album is an illustration of the whole band in an array of costumes – Dawson looks like Henry VIII on a gap year in the Caucasus; Westerlund is clutching a skull and dressed like a young John Dee; everyone basically looks like a character from Blackadder II. As fun as these outfits are, none of them contain spandex. Is this new era going to come with a costume change? Dawson is reluctant to don spangled leggings, but Lehtisalo thinks he is for the turning: "I’m sure that he will," he says, beaming. "Because we all feel stronger when we have the spandex, studs and spikes!"

Lehtisalo also seems quite sure that Dawson is sticking around, has nicknamed him Blizzard Dawson, and says the artist name on the next album (and the next 20, if his dreams are realised) will just be Circle. "30 years ago I read some Carlos Castaneda books, and with this, I feel that I’m still dreaming the whole of this concept," he says, before rolling into an obtuse anecdote about a professional Czech ice hockey player which seems to have something to do with him feeling like a pro who hit his stride later in life. Dawson on the other hand, finds a renewed sense of purpose in his new role in a band. "When you get to a certain age, you begin to question why you continue doing stuff. You hope that it matters, or it means something, or it can be of worth. Spending time with Circle makes me feel that it does matter, and that it is important – even if it’s just important for us. I feel a lot of trust, and know that I’m with good wizards."

Henki is out via Weird World on Friday. Richard Dawson & Circle are playing Supersonic Festival 2022

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