Keit Fay: “The band is a big passion of mine, it is something I have done for over thirty years. There was just no possible way to stop. Even if it was just me with a guitar and drums and harmonica, I would keep Cruachan going, no matter what happened”
Ierland heeft altijd een rijke traditie van kunstenaars en schrijvers gehad. Ook in de muziekwereld hebben zij een zekere authenticiteit bewaard die hen doet uitblinken in allerlei disciplines. Cruachan was bijvoorbeeld één van de eerste bands die traditionele folk muziek met extreme metal ging mixen. Ze zijn dan ook al actief sinds begin jaren negentig en dit onder de passionele leiding van multi-instrumentalist Keith Fay. Met hem hadden we een uitgebreid gesprek over de moeilijke jaren die achter ons liggen en hoe dit uiteindelijk geleid heeft tot een topalbum in het genre, getiteld ‘The Living And The Dead’.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 2 april 2023
I reviewed the ‘Blood’ trilogy and before, but last time we spoke was in 2018. ‘Nine Years Of Blood’ came out then. I think you had some triumphs with that release. You could play at 70,000 tons of metal, you could play at Hellfest. You could do 25th anniversary shows in Ireland. So I think these were still the heydays?
Yes, these were definitely good times. We were on the role and we started working on a new album almost straight away and then… well… everybody was in the same boat, but… then covid-19 came along and it just stopped everything, because it was around 2019 when we signed with Despotz Records and it was just another step when things were getting much better. Trollzorn were a great record label, but they were just very limited to Germany and Austria, while Despotz can give us huge support. I mean, I remember getting a message from Omer, the head of Despotz. It was January 2020 and he said: ‘Keith, 2020 will be Cruachan’s year’. I still have that message on my Facebook and we all know how 2020 and 2021 went, it was just a disaster. Well, it was tough, but still we got probably the best album we ever recorded. We just need to get back to where we were and ride the crest of a wave basically.
Yes, but in the meantime you also had to face the departure of many members. Was that due to covid-19 partly or did you face other problems?
It was a mix. Our long time bass player Eric Fletcher left and we brought in Rustam. That happened to be very temporary, he was only here for a year. He didn’t really fit the vibe of the band and when we came back from 70,000 tons of metal we said: Russ, it is not really working, so we are looking for a new bass player and that is when Joe Farrell came in. He is a long time crew member and our drummer Mauro Frison left in 2020. He and his family were moving to Sweden and we tried to find a way so that it would work and he could stay in the band, but we couldn’t rehearse with him, so he planned to leave, but because covid-19 came along here his move was on hold for a long time, so he got to record ‘The Hawthorn’ single with us, but he just wasn’t going to stay in Cruachan. It is a pity, he really wanted to, we didn’t want him to go, but at the end of the day your family has to come first and he went to Sweden. With John Ryan and Kieran on board it was different. Covid-19 gave them the time to reflect and decide what they wanted to do, Kieran just had enough of playing live in bands, he doesn’t play anymore at all. John Ryan – well, they are all still good friends of mine – he just wanted to have more control being the manager of the band and more the leader and he was just never going to have that opportunity with Cruachan, because obviously Keith Fay is the leader, he is the manager. So he thought the time was right for him to move and try other music. He’s got a lot of different projects. There were no fights, no arguments, it was just adult people having conversations and making decisions of what was best for each other. So that left me in a bit of a crazy situation where – in the middle of 2020 – it was just me and Joe Farrell on bass and we couldn’t rehearse of do anything, so when we got to rehearsing and I recruited the new members, I had four people. I had Joe, Audrey, Dave and Tom. Of course Tom came in to replace Mauro on drums, so I got four people to bring pretty much up to speed. I mean, when one new person joins the band, it is tough, it is a lot of work, but four people… well, it was a good thing that covid-19 happened, because nothing else was happening, so everybody could put their heads down and do what they needed to do.
Yes, because in the meantime you had written songs, isn’t it?
Yeah, I pretty much had the album ready in 2020. I needed tweaks, it needed just to be polished, but the whole thing has been put on hold. I had to arrange to be able to bring a live set, a live performance. So the new album had to be put on hold and that is why only last year we got into this finalizing the new album and getting into record it. Yes, it really was a span in the works, but I think I managed to do it well. I think a lot of people may have looked at what was happening and think: this is too much work, maybe Cruachan should call it a day, but I worked too hard and too long. The band is a big passion of mine, it is something I have done for over thirty years. There was just no possible way to stop. Even if it was just me with a guitar and drums and harmonica, I would keep Cruachan going, no matter what happened.
You have made a new album, but on top of that you recruited so many guest appearances. How did you manage to do that?
Well, it was funny. I reached the point when we were working on the new album and Kim Dylla, who was the former vocalist of GWAR, we met her at 70,000 tons of metal. She filled in on stage, because we have a lot of songs when Karen Gilligan was the vocalist, featuring female vocals, so Kim came in as guest vocalist at 70,000 tons of metal in 2020 – before the world ended – and we just became really good friends. I knew that the new songs had a lot of different atmospheres and a lot of different emotions on them and I knew there would be a role for female vocalist there. Kim wants to be singing all the time, she misses the time with GWAR, she will be our live vocalist as well. That’s when Kim came and who else? Ah yes, during covid-19 we were doing these virtual things because everybody was stuck indoors, so we were wondering: what can we do? So I kept arranging these on line zoom calls that were live on the Facebook page. I had some huge names, like Dimmu Borgir, wrestlers from WWE, many people… just in a little zoom, talking rubbish and having a laugh… I had Vreth from Finntroll and I had Stu from Venom. Sometimes it just kept going on and they could see us getting drunk (chuckles), but Stu from Venom turned to me and he said he wanted to do a guitar solo on our new album. I was a fan of Venom since the eighties, so this was really cool. I thought it was drunk talk, so the next day I sent a mail to Stu: ‘are you serious?’ and he said he really liked the folk stuff, so that is when we got Stu from Venom. It wasn’t intentional to have all these guests, but just opportunities kept presenting themselves. A friend of mine… I am a big fan of Harry Potter and a friend of mine was on the Harry Potter wizard con. It is a convention here in Ireland for all fans of Harry Potter. We bring over special guests and stars that might have been in the movies. Usually it is someone who was in the movie, so one of them was Jon Campling. He has a really cool role in the last movies. We became friends and then I saw he was into music, he is learning to play guitar and sing. So in 2020 I also asked him to do a guest appearance on the album and he was super excited. He went from learning to sing to actually being a singer. I said ‘listen, we can do the autotune, we can do all these effects, we can make you sound good’. But when he actually did the vocal part, we didn’t need any of these. He has become a strong vocalist. He said one thing to me that I thought was really cool. When he heard the finished song, he said: ‘Keith, I feel exactly the same in my environment, hearing my vocal as I watched the Harry Potter movie and see myself on screen for the first time.’ And I thought wow, that is such an amazing thing to say. After that there were a few other guests, the stories are not excited, I sent a mail here and there and the producer’s daughter plays a beautiful brass instrument, so we brought her in. It was just convenient to do so. The Fureys are a very popular Irish folk band. I went to their concerts and I had a conversation with their accordion player and the next thing we know is that he also got a guest spot on the album, so I did not scheduled to have a lot of guests on the album, but it just naturally happened. In the end it is really cool, it is pretty interesting. Maybe people will check out their music, so it was worth doing it.
Is there a theme going on through the album – lyrically – or is it more occasional stories after the ‘Blood’ trilogy?
Well, the last album ‘Nine Years Of Blood’, that was a full concept album. It told the whole story of a really epic war between Ireland and England. I really wanted to tell that story. A lot of people in Europe were probably not familiar with it, because hey… Ireland almost beat England and it is always interested to think ‘hey what would that look like if that happened’. I really enjoyed it, but it is also very restricted. I had to write very specific songs, some maybe less interesting stories, but important to tell the story… so when that album was finished I was so happy to go back to just writing songs about anything I want; obviously within the Cruachan kind of frame. So the first song I wrote was ‘The Queen’. So you can almost hear the continuation from ‘Nine Years Of Blood’, the lyrics are still based on that with Queen Elisabeth… it is an epic story. Again, I got it in my mind: I wanted a lot of songs about this pagan working class of Ireland in this 1600’s and 1700’s. They were very Christian, they were very catholic, but they held on to a lot of their pagan beliefs and a lot of the pagan customs. So I began writing songs like ‘The Changeling’, ‘The Harvest’. You can see them in that kind of time period, when people were afraid of the church, but they are also respecting pagan ways. It was when I was around halfway through the lyrics and the song writing, when I really was impacted and I took a lot of interest in the Irish mother and baby homes story that was in the news. I wouldn’t say it was in the current news, Irish people have known that for many and many years, since the early part of the century, from the 1920’s right up to the 1980’s. Women that were seen as bad or wild or they got pregnant, some parents locked them into these laundries or modern baby homes run by catholic nuns and it turned out that they mistreated a lot of the babies that were born. They were sent to America; they were just plainly murdered and they have found hundreds of dead babies and skeletons. The report was just terrific and it really affected me. So for some songs on the new album, I wrote about this topic. ‘The Crow’, ‘The Hawthorn’ is about it, there is a song called ‘The Children’, there is a song called ‘The Ghost’. It is a shame in recent history, it is a national scandal, it is something Ireland should be very, very ashamed of and I just wanted to pay my homage in honour of those poor children that never had any chance because of the Catholic Church. I gave them some kind of advice on the new Cruachan album. If one or two people show interest and read the story, that is enough for me, my work is done, I have done enough.
I have heard of Ireland being catholic and not allowing abortion, but on this scale?…
It is awful. It is not like any government in modern Ireland is hiding this. We are not shying away. It is in the open, we are actually knowing that this happened. It is so recent that the last one of these houses, these mother and baby homes, the last one was shot down as recently as 1993. I was a teenager then. It is unbelievable that it was so recent and so terrific.
Living on an island implicates having your own rules and culture, but does it feel positive or negative for you?
That’s a question I have never been asked. Wow, I never think about it. I think this time we are alive, because the world has become so small, and we are so well connected, it is not something I think about, but definitely when I was younger I remember the adults around me, my parents were self-confided, like my dad never owned a passport. He never travelled outside of Ireland, so he lived his whole life on an island. Having said that there’s a lot of cultural things that I probably accept as being normal, take like for instance Irish folk music. All throughout Europe there has been folk music revivals, taking place over the last 20 or 30 years when folk music was normal and very popular and almost mainstream. In Ireland that never happened, because folk music never died away. It has always been a part of our culture, a part of the consciousness of the country and this never needed a revival. It’s never needed to be revived. Now that you mention it, maybe it is because of the island status. We were so well protected from the modern trends of music, so that folk music never died. Having said that, we are also right in the middle of the United States and England, so we have an X factor kind of culture going on with music as well, but that might be the reason why folk music has been so popular: we were insulated as an island nation.
But I think it has benefits as well.
Yes definitely, but we also have problems. We like to compare ourselves with Iceland. We are neighbours and I can remember the 1980’s when there were shopping trips for people from Iceland to come to Dublin and do some shopping around Christmas and then go back to Iceland. Iceland has a very different history though. When you look at Ireland, we have been part of the British Empire up until 1922. We became a republic in 1940. So we have only been an independent modern island for 70 years. So it is a really unique history that we have.
In 2022 you went into the studio. Was it a studio you already went before or was it a new experience for you?
It was the very same studio we have gone for the last four albums. It is not so much the studio, it is the producer Michael Richards. The experience of working with Michael is so relaxed. He knows exactly what he is doing, he has never had the reputation of being the main guy to go for rock or heavy metal in Ireland, but he knows what he is doing. You can argue that maybe he doesn’t understand folk music so well, but I have always been happy with what he was doing with the folk parts in our music. We went there for ‘Blood On The Black Robe’ about twelve years ago and it has become or ‘to go place’, because Michael knows we will always go to him, he is very happy to let us come in. We work with him on singles, on demos, we are always very happy to go back to him. Even if we agree a budget and the record label agrees a budget, he will always give a little wink and say: ‘don’t worry’. We agreed for three weeks recording with the record label and that’s all that the budget is. If the album would be made, it would be made exactly the way we wanted it. If we need a few hours or days more, he will do it for free. He is just such a cool guy to work with. Maybe we have become lazy. When we signed with Despotz Records, they asked us: ‘do you want to go to Germany or do you want to go to the Netherlands?’ And we were like: ‘Absolutely not’, because the studio was ten minutes from where we live, so we preferred an element of comfort as well.’
Coming back on a sad thing – if I can ask that – it goes a bit deep. In 2020 your father died and the song ‘The Reaper’ should be written for him…
Yes, my dad passed away in May 2020. It was a horrible thing, I’ll always remember the date, because he died on May the 5th and I am a fan of Star Wars, so May 4th was always something different before, I’ll never forget the date. The song that I wrote about him is called ‘The Reaper’ and it was written almost two years – I would say one year – before he died, because I wrote the song mainly due to frustration. When my mother died, a year and four months before my dad, I wrote a beautiful song about my mother after she died, but I am still not able to put it into music, maybe in the future I will do. The song for my father is just so different, because he was alive when I wrote it. I wrote it out of frustration and anger, because he was such a funny man. He liked his few of Guinness’s in the pub, people liked to be in his company, but in the last few years of his life, he just became very introverted and very isolated. He wouldn’t go out and he wasn’t particularly ill or sick, no, he did have some illnesses, probably with his lungs and a few other issues, but he – in my opinion – allowed to get worse and worse and worse. He didn’t listen to the advice of his doctors, he didn’t take care of himself, he didn’t eat correctly and I felt frustration and that is why I wrote that song. And then maybe a year or two years after I wrote that, he died during covid-19. He didn’t get covid-19, but covid-19 had definitely something to do with his passing, because there were plans to bring him to a rest house, which is kind of a medical area where you are more comfortable. They check you, but you have time to just relax and be treated well, but that got cancelled. That had to be cancelled when covid-19 came, covid-19 just stopped anything like that. My sister was his primary care – she didn’t live in the house as my brother did – but she was with him during many days of the week in the house, covid-19 came along and that changed her having a conversation outside the garden, to even open the window. Even myself, I bring my kids and I saw my dad every weekend into the house, we had a cup of tea… that changed into just phone calls. I remember only three or four days before he died, my sister said: ‘just go and take a look at dad, he doesn’t seem right’. I remember arguing with my sister because there was no point in going there and getting angry… If covid-19 wasn’t there, we would have been there all the time, he would have gone to a rest house, he may have died or he might not have died, it didn’t help the situation. So he did, he passed away in May 2020. Then I went back to that song and I remember looking at the lyrics. I looked at the lyrics many months after he died and I thought: ‘Jesus, these are angry. This is not a tribute to my dad. This is not an homage. It is a real criticism of a man that is not taking care of himself.’ I thought to myself: well, I just forget about it, but then I decided: ‘no, it is what it is, it is a snapshot of how I felt back then’. I feel very different now. I love my dad, I’d give anything to have a point and have a conversation with him. It is a tribute to my dad, if not in the lyrics, then in the music of that song. The middle section of ‘The Reaper’ is possibly one of the most beautiful classical pieces I have ever written. I am so proud of it! That is the dedication. The song, the lyrics, the anger… they are what they are, but the dedication to my father is the beautiful orchestral piece in the middle. I feel very happy, I feel very proud of that song. I think it is one of the greatest songs I have ever written. We will have a music video for that in maybe two weeks and that was tough as well Vera, because I thought: ‘how the hell will I do a video of this? This is a private song.’ So I just went the complete opposite way. The video is like battles between Celtic warriors and Vikings. There is a kind of middle section where I play the kind of head, the chieftain of the Celts. I get killed and there is a funeral scene with me. It is almost like an echo, it is like a poetic rhyme to the song for my dad. For me personally it works, people who see the video will probably see cool battle with swords and shields and that’s great, that’s fine, that’s all it needs to be, I have seen the video and it definitely works, but I couldn’t do a video any other way, with pictures of my dad or something like that…
‘The Hawthorn’ was released as video pretty long before the album…
We went to Trackmix Studios to record that and the plan was that we would just go straight on to the album, but covid-19 just messed everything up, so when we finally went to do the album, one thing we noticed was that ‘The Hawthorn’ was recorded in 2020 and it sounds different. The bass sound is different, the drums they sound different, thus if this came on the album it would just be too obviously that it was recorded two years previously. So we re-recorded the entire song, the only original thing that remains from the original thing that remained is the vocals. It is exactly the same song, we did not change anything, but it was recorded in April 2022 recording session. The vocals from me and Kim are the same, but one big difference you will hear is the violin, because we have a new violin player. She is incredible. She is playing violin since she is four years old and she teaches music, so you will definitely hear the difference. All respect for John Ryan, he is a great player, but Audrey is just on another level. I can’t believe how lucky we are to have her in the band.
I also like that your brother John Fay is still present, he will be forever bounded with Cruachan I think…
Absolutely. It is funny. Since John left the band, me and John have become much more better friends and much better brothers than when he was in the band. When he was in the band we had arguments and we fought, it just didn’t work, but when he is not in the band, we have actually become friends. We go drinking with each other, we spend time together, so I keep him involved as much as I can without him being in the band (that’s not going to happen). By the way he is in the music video for ‘The Reaper’ as well. It is obvious, John has worked on the ‘Vikings’ TV show, ‘Game Of Thrones’, he has been in ‘The Northman’ movie… he works full time as a kind of background actor, so it made sense. My brother has all this experience, let him just get straight into that video. He’ll be more natural in that role than in Cruachan. He is a Celt in the video, he is sick of playing Vikings since the TV show (laughs).
What are your plans for the near future? Are there any concerts in the pipeline?
It is really difficult to find festivals this year. Most festivals we have been talking to were cancelled during the last two years and postponed. So 2023 is the first time these festivals are probably performing with the line-up they had in 2020/2021/2022. I approached some festivals and they said: ‘yeah maybe in 2024, but this year we have the line-up that we have cancelled for the last two years, so it is really hard. Even across Europe. We have now some festivals in France and Ireland, we should have a small few club dates in Europe towards the end of the Summer 2023 to promote the album and another Vikings’ festival is confirmed towards the end of the year, but we are still hoping for a few more. The record is coming out, the record label is behind us, it is getting fantastic reviews and we are really hungry to play it live, so we expect that will store up the interest that is needed to get back.