The Matter And The Sense: An Interview With Milkweed

Patrick Clarke tracks down enigmatic 'slacker trad' duo Milkweed to discuss self-obliteration, the mysterious extinction of North American horses, and their musical interpretation of a 45-year-old academic journal

For Milkweed, there would be no finer achievement than obliteration of the self. This is true in their music, where they take found texts and warp them into a strange kind of lo fi folk, as much as it is in an interview. They refuse to offer any biographical information when we meet in a quiet London pub, and after a brief debate about whether to print their names at all, we settle on using only their first initials, G and R. Briefly, the idea of them speaking entirely in unison as one homogenous entity is floated. “I’ve always thought it would be more convenient to be one person,” says G. “As soon as it’s a legal option for us to have one identity, that would be really grand.”

They’re cryptic people, and it’s hard to tell when they’re joking. “I don’t remember any aspect of my life, so I don’t know what there would be to say,” offers G when I push a little for a slither of biography. “But you can take a pop. Take a long pointy stick at my innards and see what pours out. Among the guts and matter there might be profound, foaming, gangrenous knowledge.” When did Milkweed begin? I ask. “It always was,” she replies.

“I recognise that it makes things difficult for people that aren’t us,” offers R in conciliation, “but there are more interesting things to talk about, you know?” Their anonymity isn’t affected, he insists. “We don’t wear masks, you can come to a show and say hi. We’re not gonna be weird. But in terms of me trying to sound interesting? I’m not a very interesting person.”

They are, for all their elusiveness, personable, and as soon as conversation turns to their work itself they solidify, any nonchalance evaporating to reveal the cerebral musicians underneath. The work in question is Folklore 1979, a cassette release due later this month. Its lyrics are lifted almost entirely wholesale from an issue of The Folklore Society’s academic journal, which they came across when a fan – who, incidentally, makes wands for a living and who they’ve never seen since – dropped a tote bag full of issues round their home. They picked one at random, chopped it up and put it to weird earworm melodies by G, fed it through a meatgrinder of experimental production, and ruthlessly edited it down to just over ten minutes of running time. At times the album evokes experimental hip hop as much as it does folk music, although they outright reject any comparisons. They, for now, have coined the term ‘slacker trad’.

Folklore 1979 follows the same pattern as their last two releases, both of which were also based on found material. 2022’s Myths & Legends Of Wales interprets a 1988 book of the same name by Tony Roberts that they found in a Hertfordshire charity shop. Last year’s The Mound People was based on a text about preserved bronze age human remains by the Danish archaeologist Peter Glob, which they were sent by the Minnesota-based artist (and shipwright) Justin RM Anderson. Their only work to not follow this pattern, a compilation of Christmas carols, has been deleted from the internet. “It seemed best to consciously start destroying things as we went along so that we could move on, and wouldn’t always be tied to them,” says G.

Milkweed’s abiding theory is that any text could potentially serve as folk material. “If you’re open to the idea, then the things you can do become boundless,” says G. After all, why can’t this journal be taken in a similar way to traditional music? Just as folk songs have evolved through successive interpretations and variations, one altered line at a time until the very idea of a ‘definitive’ original has ceased to exist, so too is academia essentially “just many ongoing layers of authorship,” as G puts it. “They’re taking from other books, or things other people are saying or doing, and there are interpreters of their text after that, so it just keeps extrapolating over and over again.”

It’s important, however, that as much as possible they come across the texts they use by chance. In Folklore 1979’s case this was from a random dip into the wand-maker’s tote bags; in its predecessors through the gift of a friend and the shelves of a charity shop. “I don’t want to make a judgement decision as to what is valuable,” G says. “Everything is interesting, and everything has value. If I was always curating things myself, I wouldn’t really learn anything.” They also try to limit extra-textural reading. For the purposes of their music, “everything in the book is gospel, whether or not it’s true,” adds R. In an era in which the truth is becoming more and more of an abstract concept, by removing such concerns entirely Milkweed can delve deeper and undistracted into a single perspective, which in turn leads to work that bristles with purpose, however scratchy and disjointed it might sound.

“I literally don’t consider that I’ve written songs at all. It doesn’t feel that way,” says G. Her bandmate agrees: “Sometimes people refer to the fact that we ‘wrote’ it, but I feel like we just put it into a different format.” There are, nevertheless, some elements of personal decision that cannot be avoided, most notably their choices as to which parts of the journal to use. For Folklore 1979 G spent months poring through it, taking phrases that stuck out for their inherent poetry and setting them to little pieces of melody. All the while R was gathering incidental field recordings on his phone and considering production techniques, “how the music sounds and the minutiae of frequencies,” as he puts it. “Although recently I’ve realised that the things I want out of a record are quite strange. What I think is a full mix has a low end that’s crispy and muddy.” There are countless hours of material that have been whittled down into Folklore 1979’s 11-minute running time (or 22 if you include the cassette-only B-side), but the severity of their editing process, says G, was necessary to capture something “that felt true to my experience of the text.”

When it came to recording, however, they took the opposite approach, making only snap decisions and embracing any mistakes. “I’ll spend ages thinking about panning and the aural experience, but then we’ll just do it, all in one day,” says R. Their music constantly interrupts itself, jumping from one idea to another mid-flow and then back to the start, flitting between sparse grooves and dense clutters of sound. “I think if you’re going to record something it should be like taking a photo. You have just three minutes in which you did this activity, so it should reflect that,” R says. “I was recording once and a snare drum fell over. That’s on mic, so that’s in the record. You’re recording a vocal and the fire alarm goes off? It seems crazy to me that you would get rid of that.” While making Myths And Legends Of Wales, which they recorded under a bridge, you can quite literally hear the duo pausing to allow a train to pass them overhead, starting up again as soon as it’s out of earshot.

“In country songwriting you always have, say, 16 lines without a word out of place, and you can get that in two ways,” R says. “You can either pore over it for months and months, or you can just get in and out as quick as you can.” When taken separately, sides A and B of the release also emphasise the album’s extremes. The first side “was in development and the thought process for about a year,” says G, while the second, a lengthy banjo piece from R interspliced with offcuts from G’s experimentations, “was all done in one afternoon.” For all their desire to be considered one entity, it reflects the divides in Milkweed, too. R prefers the immediacy of side B, but G prefers the depth of side A. “I think if you put effort and time into something it will acquire value,” she says. And yet, they both concede, one can’t exist without the other. “When I listen to side B it’s like, ‘Now the whole thing makes sense to me,’" says R.

There are just over 450 actual words contained on the first side of Folklore 1979. It’s a tiny fraction of the thousands contained in the original journal. Yet, once completed, it can act like a portal into millions more words in turn. G’s face betrays an obvious sense of glee when I inform her that I’ve found my own copy of the text from which Folklore 1979 is sourced, and subsequently embarked on a Wikipedia rabbit hole that lasted long into the night before our conversation, sparked by a part of the essay ‘The Legend Of The Pacing White Mustang’ that references the mysterious way in which horses went extinct in North America at the end of the last ice age while still thriving in the Old World. “It’s a jumping off point for thought,” G says. It in turn makes her think of a theme discussed in the text that they used for The Mound People, and their migration from Central Asia due to their mastery of horses.

And yet, for all the ways the record reaches outwards, backwards and forwards, for all its textual and extra-textural depths, it is ephemerality that ultimately defines it. "We are the products of everything we’ve ever been through, and we are the interpreters,” G concedes, and Folklore 1979 is an interpretation that will become more and more anachronistic as language evolves, perspectives change, and new research emerges. This, however, is exactly the point. “The worth of folklore study is that it always has to be renewed by a new interpretation,” G continues. It has to be totally redone because it’s the product of its time, with misunderstanding, mistranslation, and a lot of manipulation to serve the views and purposes of that time.” Before long, Milkweed’s take on this 45-year-old text will be dated, she says, “and that’s wonderful! I’m obsessed with this one idea, that medieval European writers didn’t value original writing. They had this notion of the matter and the sense, that you’re always working off source material, working off the matter, but the sense is just your interpretation. I think that’s beautiful.”

Milkweed’s new album Folklore 1979 is released on 28 February via Broadside Hacks

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