Voices From The Heathen North: Hexvessel Interviewed

Joseph Burnett discusses magick, ritual and new forms of experimentalism with Hexvessel's Mathew McNerney, whose new album No Holier Temple is a bewitching listen that touches on folk, black metal and jazz

Mathew McNerney is a British singer and musician currently residing in Finland, from whence he has launched his excellent folk-rock outfit Hexvessel. After a solo release in 2011, Dawnbearer, this year has seen the arrival of a stunning second album, No Holier Temple, recorded with a full band of local musicians, and which connects the dots between McNerney’s background in black metal, a touch of jazz and, most importantly, the pagan psychedelic folk scene of late-sixties Britain. With more recordings already locked down, and a potential UK tour on the horizon, The Quietus caught up with Mathew to discuss how he ended up in Finland, the music of Hexvessel, and the importance of pagan religion and magick in his music.

I know you’re a British singer and musician, so how did you come to found Hexvessel over in Finland?

Mathew McNerney: I’ve always had a real love for Finland and used to live in Lapland, just across the border from Finland. I recorded an album there with my past band Code, spending three weeks in the winter up there. When I moved there after getting married, I got really inspired again, by the countryside and the local interest in Paganism. I think Finnish people in general are quite interested in that, and go out into the forests a lot, which reminded me of when I was younger and going camping down in Cornwall. There were places in England I was really interested in, so I got this kind of rebirth of all that stuff [after moving to Finland], as well as making music again. I’d been making music, my own stuff, for a long time, but I never had the courage or the inspiration to put it together, finish it and release the album. Moving to Finland was the catalyst for that.

How did the sound of Hexvessel come together?

MM: I’ve always been really interested in and excited about the fifties and late-sixties English folk, the Canterbury folk scene and things like that. I sort of had this idea to do something very honest and down to earth, in terms of sound. I was interested in taking things back to that kind of sound. I really like the soundtrack to The Wicker Man, that kind of thing, so wanted to get some folk roots in there. So I guess that’s how it happened, and working with the musicians that I worked with on the first Hexvessel album (Dawnbearer) also helped achieve that.

Equally, Finland has produced quite a few good folk bands, such as Tenhi. Do you feel that you’re part of a particular scene?

MM: I think I feel akin to the scene, but more the underground psychedelic scene. I don’t have any relationship with Tenhi or those groups, but I definitely have one with the psychedelic scene, which is really strong right now, bands like Dark Buddha Rising, Circle, Pharaoh Overlord and so on. There’s a really great psychedelic experimental scene in Finland and I feel more a part of that than anything else, but at the same time, what I’m trying to do with Hexvessel is very much out on its own. I know every musician likes to say that, but I do feel we’re very different.

Was folk music always something you wanted to do, or have done?

MM: I think it’s something I’ve brought into my other bands. Before, I’d done some metal bands, that’s my past, and I think I’ve always brought those influences in there, that psychedelic folk. I like that the music at the time wasn’t strictly folk, even though they were doing revival. It was like taking the folk music of the past and doing it in a more psychedelic way, and we’re like that as well. I don’t feel that we’re just doing revival music.

You can definitely hear that on No Holier Temple. You feel the influence of Comus or Current 93, but equally, maybe, European acts like Sergius Golowin or Amon Duul II…

MM: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s something that’s in the Finnish psychedelic scene too. If you listen to bands like Circle, they’re really following along those lines. From the first album to the second one, we’re progressing towards a more kind of psychedelic side, and I think a lot of bands back then did the same thing, it’s kind of like a journey.

What I found interesting about No Holier Temple was the integration of elements that went beyond folk, as you’ve alluded to already, with hints of jazz in the use of trumpet, and psychedelia. Is that a fair reflection?

MM: Yes, definitely. If you want Message to Love, that film about the Isle of Wight Festival, that was, I think, like a musical awakening back then. You had Miles Davis playing in the same arena as the doors, and stuff like that. I think people were expanding their mind, and this is another time of awakening in music, people are really switching on to other things. You get people listening to metal who are now listening to all kinds of avant-garde, weird music, and it’s thanks to all these different bands, like Sunn O))), who have gone out to open and break the genres. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do by bringing in these jazzier elements. It was very normal back [in the late sixties], and I think it’s becoming a bit more normal now. You can mix up without being classed as "experimental". In black metal, when people used to experiment, listeners weren’t ready and so you’d get classed as "experimental black metal". Nowadays, a lot of stuff that would have been classed as experimental is accepted.

There are songs where it seems like there’s a lot going on, but are equally quite open, which to me reflects nature, or the outdoors.

MM: That was really intentional, and it’s good if it comes across that way, because working with the musicians I work with, I wanted to get their personalities into the sound. The guys in the band were as influential and inspirational for the music as anything I was listening to or reading. They’re quite special people, and, as I said, Finnish people seem to be quite close to nature and spend a lot of time in the forest, y’know? I wanted to get some their ethos into the record, and I think that comes across.

Was it a smooth recording process, and was the album easy to put together?

MM: Yeah, I think so, because it was very natural. Before, I was very young, and didn’t have total control over what happened, but where we rehearsed [for No Holier Temple], I really had a feeling of where it could go, and I owe a lot to the musicians, because they were able to take my ideas in the ways we discussed. We would jam a lot together, so things feel like they follow natural rhythms. It felt really organic and so nice to record live and follow our hearts with it.

How do you go about writing the lyrics? Was it a natural process or did you work a lot on researching the themes you were approaching?

MM: On this album it was really natural. I was relying on experiences and things we’d discussed in rituals or just in being together as a band. All the themes feel very natural, I don’t feel it’s in any way contrived. I’m not trying to get something across, I’m getting it out there and can feel very proud of those lyrics. There’s no bullshit there, it was a case of beating away the chaff and getting to the wheat, the core of it. I try to keep things really simple. People who are interested in my lyrics have always thought they were quite poetic but over-the-top, using a lot of words; but I’m really trying to strip things down and just get to the basics of trying to create something interesting and that people can relate to. I’m quite interested in songwriting in general. When I’m listening to music, I think it’s quite important that there’s a song there, and a message.

The album feels like a meditation on old religion and magick, which you’ve mentioned are things that interest you – are you a practitioner of either?

MM: Well, yeah… I was brought up a Catholic, so I know about organised religion. I’ve always been interested in the occult and magick. I don’t know how much you can say about practising magick, because I think it’s something that’s very personal and very subjective and I think this album is about that. It’s about "When does magick become objective? When does religion become an objective thing? What does it mean to be holy?" It’s all connected with nature and how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. It’s definitely the theme of the album, and I believe that we’re creating and practising magick all the time. If you study a lot of magick, you realise that there’s a red line that goes through all types of magick and it’s all about willpower and about what you will decide to turn into reality. It’s a subjective thing that becomes objective. A dream you dream together becomes reality, and I think that’s the power of magick. It’s something I’ve been exploring with the band as well, this idea of belief and the natural things.

Nature being something that was central to pagan religions, of course…

MM: Absolutely! I believe it’s very important to associate God and deities with the natural world, because it means you create the natural world as holy. Natural things are what feed us, and keep us going, so we need to worship them and keep our relationship with the earth in balance. We need to treat it with respect. It doesn’t matter if you believe gods are these beings or not, what’s important is that you do believe that nature is sacred. That’s also the theme of this album: putting the godhead back into nature and worshipping it.

In a way, could you not therefore tie the music of Hexvessel back into the tradition of protest folk? Is your music political?

MM: The album is about that. Every track has its own story, so we’re not preaching, and not every track is about nature, but when you put everything together, it’s a celebration and a discourse on these matters, everything can be tied back into our relationship with our ancient understanding of who we are and the planet. No Holier Temple isn’t a concept album, but everything revolves around that discourse around holiness. I think it’s very important that people get that back again and that’s why I’m sort of associating with that period around the late-sixties. The whole feeling back then was the same, and we need to get that back a bit. There’s a lot of retro revival going on, but there’s nobody doing it with heart or standing for something. I think everybody should believe in this stuff.

I was also interested by references to the female figure in nature that comes out of the album, something that reflects the pagan attitudes instead of monotheistic religious ones.

MM: Yes, and you can reflect on the band members we have as well. It’s no mistake that we have a good balance and I don’t see why there aren’t more bands like that. I think it’s kind of a shame when bands do try to address that, they put the women to the front and present them in a sexual way, and we don’t do that in the band. It’s very revolutionary [to look at women as central to holiness], because we could redress the balance and have a different way of acting as a culture and as people if we put the female back as the apex of our religious thought. On a Freudian level, it would just make much more sense.

Given how we’ve discussed how dense and varied the album is, how do you go about reproducing the songs from No Holier Temple live?

MM: We’ve been playing the songs from the album for quite a while, from when I first started playing live with the band. The album was almost a recreation of how we play live, which was an important thing for me. We’ve had an idea of performance in mind the whole time, and you only really get the band once you see us live, I think. I’ve always wanted live performance to be a sort of life-changing experience and the most important thing when it comes to playing music. It should be like a mass, or a ritual. The recording is just a reminder of that, in a way.

What are your future plans? Will you be bringing Hexvessel to the UK?

MM: We’d really like to go to England and play lots of different places. We’d like to come and do a proper tour. We’ll do our best to do a proper UK tour, because it’s not all about London. We’ve already recorded another album. We’ve got to produce it and get it together, but I expect that to come out in spring or autumn next year, depending on the time we get between playing live. I’m really inspired by this line-up!

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