Ghosts, murder, talking ravens, what’s not to like? An interview with Grey Malkin
It’s twelve years since the first album by the Hare and the Moon appeared as a very limited run CDr on the intensely prolific psychedelic folk drone micro-label, Reverb Worship. The music was clearly influenced both by traditional music and late 60s and early 70s acid folk, but viewed through a magical, unearthly and slightly sinister lens. This was what would later be called folk horror, but at the time it didn’t really have a name - it simply managed to lull and unsettle the listener all at once. In the decade that followed, further Hare and the Moon releases appeared, but more than this, the man behind the hare mask, known only as Grey Malkin, started popping up everywhere as a collaborator, a guest musician and a shadowy yet tangible presence. You only need to explore his Bandcamp page to get a flavour of his creative abundance – and this selection is far from the whole story. Following the release of his latest album, Revenant by Widow’s Weeds – a collaboration with singer Daughters of Grief, who was part of the final iteration of the Hare and the Moon – we caught up with Grey Malkin to find out about his work, his musical influences and the truth about folk horror…
It feels like you've been incredibly busy over the past year or so, with your name cropping up on so many releases and collaborations. You've worked with Kitchen Cynics, Trappist Afterland, Pefkin, Rowan Amber Mill, United Bible Studies, and Ashtoreth. Whilst your contributions are recognisably yours, you also seem very empathetic, able to tune in and adapt to whoever you happen to be working with. Do you have any thoughts on this?
It has been a full and creative year, despite - or maybe because of - lockdown, and I count myself very fortunate to have worked with such incredible artists and friends. I’m curious myself as to how I might adapt or tune in to the different musicians that I work with: it’s not something I give much thought to – perhaps it’s more instinctive, as I tend to just jump in and begin. I think it definitely helps that I am a fan of the artists themselves prior to working with them, so I have a feel for and greatly enjoy the sound they have developed. Perhaps also that I enjoy a wide range of music and genres, I’ll bet that elements of various things I listen to creep in and inform my contributions, especially as the collaborations tend to cross genres themselves. I also know and have met many of the artists, in some cases long before creating music with them. Alan (Kitchen Cynics) and I regularly (pre-pandemic anyway) go on various walks and charity shop adventures, I meet Adam (Trappist Afterland) whenever he is over from Australia, I see Gayle (Pefkin) at shows or concerts and Andy Sharp (English Heretic) has been up to Scotland to join me for a few excursions to various hidden places.
What do you like the best about working collaboratively? How do you see your role? For instance, on the latest Trappist Afterland collaboration, you play electric guitar, mellotron, keyboards, hammond organ, church organ, bells, percussion, piano, treatments, xylophone, chimes, bodhran and drones. Add to this composing, arranging, production... So are you a 'talented multi-instrumentalist'? A sprinkler of magic? Or someone else completely?
I like the idea of being a sprinkler of magic! I am pretty much a non-musician, as Brian Eno might say. I couldn’t tell you where the notes on a guitar are, or what key something is in, I’m only just starting to work out how to record on a computer as opposed to a physical 8 track with buttons and sliders, it feels like witchcraft! I much prefer the process of conjuring ‘sound’ or a mood rather than anything proficient or technical. What I do enjoy is arranging, embellishing and adorning, I can go full Ennio Morricone on something and add two dozen parts quite happily. And then probably have to strip half of them out. One of the most pleasing aspects about collaborating is just being or feeling attuned to the other artist. Peter (Ashtoreth) and I speak about this, we seem to be consistently on the same wavelength and sending parts backwards and forwards feels seamless, things come together often quickly and effortlessly. At the same time, it’s a good challenge in letting go of some control and my inclination to isolate and go full hermit.
This is probably unfair to ask, but are there any of your recent releases you're particularly excited by - and if so, why?
I’m quite genuinely excited by all of them, though more so for the other artists’ parts and elements rather than mine! One album that I loved being a part of, and which I think flew under the radar a little, was Embertides ‘Between Trees & Starlike’ that I recorded together with Daughters of Grief and David Colohan. It was hugely enjoyable in terms of collating parts and building a lunar landscape of sound out of them. One track simply had David’s vocals, recorded in a telephone box in Hamburg, and it was built it up from scratch with electronics, choral parts and my trusty Microkorg. ‘Between Trees & Starlike’ felt to me a cross between Popol Vuh and Coil, it was inspired by the moon and writings inspired by her. Definite headphone music, it’s intended to be listened to as a suite or a piece, which in the age of Spotify, is probably an anachronism and makes me a bit of a grandad.
Is there a Grey Malkin musical prehistory or was the Hare and the Moon your first foray into music? Was there a particular predetermined plan you set out with when you created THATM or was it a case of experimenting and learning on the job? I ask this because to me it appears there is a clear progression in term of a refinement of the THATM sound over the course of the releases.
The Hare & The Moon was the first shaky dive into creating music, aside from being in a few bands or projects at school, most of which included Simon from The Trembling Bells! This was very much making it up as I went along. That’s why the first couple of THATM releases are ‘interestingly’ recorded and the sound and timing is somewhat individual. I didn’t know how to loop or sample, so some of these songs go on for as long as until I fell over, or my arms dropped off; that was their finishing point. I hadn’t a clue and to some extent this is still true. I think those early albums have a certain wonky charm, though I have put a warning on the first one to 'beware of lo-fi spookfolk', as it’s not exactly Dead Can Dance, put it that way. I have thankfully discovered more buttons and dials to press or twist as I have progressed, and Michael Begg (Human Greed/Fovea Hex) has been a huge help in mastering and polishing the various noises I send him.
Can you tell me about your musical influences - what moved, shaped and inspired you? And what's on the Grey Malkin turntable at the moment, old or new?
There are a few perennials that have been with me for what feels like much of my time on earth; Coil, Black Sabbath, Pentangle, Swans, Einsturzende Neubauten, Foetus, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Shirley Collins and Nurse With Wound. That mix of experimentalism, folksong and minimalism has certainly permeated and informed what I do. They have been joined over the years by Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and acres of acid folk like Caedmon, Stone Angel and Comus. Currently (scans an eye over the ‘listening pile’) I am enjoying the BBC Radiophonic Workshop box set, Bauhaus, Wolves In The Throne Room, Franciose Hardy, This Mortal Coil, Catherine Ribeiro, Ruth White and Alice Coltrane.
How did it come about that you first linked up with Roger Linney’s Reverb Worship label? Given the deluge of material you've created or been involved with that he's released over the years, it's tempting to view the relationship as some sort of constant without beginning or end...
Back in ye olde Myspace days I posted some early The Hare & The Moon songs on the little player that used to be on the page, not really intending anything to come of it. To my continuing surprise Roger from Reverb Worship got in touch asking if I had any more songs, as he’d be keen to put out an album. I gathered the ragged bits and pieces I had, quickly assembled the first THATM album and we’ve worked together on pretty much everything ever since. Again, it’s a creative relationship where we share similar tastes and mindset, and so the work comes together fairly quickly and painlessly. I genuinely love the sleeve artwork we come up and I implicitly trust him with my releases, to present them in the best way possible. We also blether all the time about music and recommend albums to each other. It’s striking to think that our partnership is now 11 years old, time is a fickle and slippery creature!
Most of your releases have been short, limited edition runs. Whilst I know Roger has put out subsequent editions of some of the albums and the magic of Bandcamp gives your catalogue a kind of permanence that may not have existed before, what are your thoughts on the almost ephemeral nature of your physical releases? This issue occurred to me when the Widow's Weeds sold out on pre-order almost within minutes of Roger announcing it on social media.
It’s a double-edged sword. I personally like it, the idea of something limited, handmade and therefore truly special that exists only in a moment of time. For the listener to have something where there might only be 50 or so in existence, that’s an idea I especially like and enjoy. It’s also why I often try and include some interesting extras, such as prints, postcards, coins, or totemic objects such as feathers or sheaves of barley; it adds to the concept or feel of a unique event or occasion. It’s been lovely to have some lathe-cut vinyl releases recently too, such as a 7” with Kitchen Cynics and the most recent album with Trappist Afterland. On the other hand, I would like to have a larger run of some albums, just to have that physical presence out there – but I’m not convinced there is the demand and, in the era of streaming and downloads, it’s a financially risky venture. I don’t want to end up like the chap from Crème Brule in The League of Gentlemen, with boxes of Grey Malkin albums under the bed or in every drawer.
It strikes me that you may have a slightly complicated relationship with folk music. Whilst it has never been far away from your work, to the extent that there are times when it seems as if your music has been stalked by the ghosts of traditional song and ballads, particularly during the Hare and the Moon period, I don't particularly identify you as a folk musician. What are your thoughts on this?
I think that’s probably true, and folk music does divides me. There are certain folk artists and bands I absolutely adore like Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Pentangle, The Incredible String Band, Sourdeline, certainly a lot of the acid folk groups – but I also can’t be doing with more modern ‘traditional’ folk. I prefer when there is an element of strangeness or experimentation involved, some odd corners to be found. Mainstream folk I find quite dull: my apathy towards it maybe stems from growing up in the Highlands of Scotland where there is an abundance of very neutered and shortbread tin ‘traditional music’. There is often also an emphasis on musical virtuosity, which I’m not keen on. I think my take on being a folk musician or folk music in general is also skewed because I found my way into the genre in a more roundabout and leftfield manner, via listening to latter day Swans and things like that. I have a particular obsession with traditional ballads, however, and return to them again and again for source material. Ghosts, murder, talking ravens, what’s not to like?
You have an association with the world of folk horror, via both your music and your writing for the Folk Horror Revival series. Whilst I think it's fairly easy to identify the folk horror aesthetic in film - starting with the triumvirate of Witchfinder General, the Wicker Man and Blood on Satan's Claw - and in fiction, from M. R. James' ghost stories to Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home, I'm not sure it's quite so easy to put a finger on it as a musical aesthetic. What does it mean to you? 'Releases I play on' is not the answer I'm looking for, by the way…
For me, a sense of uncanny or ‘folk horror’ is something that has to be genuine and unforced; an undercurrent that is inherent as a natural element or process of the music, whether it’s by absorption of influences, inclination or by default. There wasn’t really a term like ‘folk horror’ back in 2009 when I started, outside of some cinematic discussion, and I’m aware that this term has since grown exponentially to incorporate literature, music, TV and theatre. Whilst it may be a useful descriptor, I am wary of things that go out of their way to be ‘folk horror’ or to meet some pre-defined criteria. I worry this is a wee bit contrived – a personal opinion, but I found ‘Midsommar’, the film, bothered me in this way. Whereas ‘The Wicker Man’ was just what it was – it wasn’t attempting to fit into a box or prescriptive genre. Along these lines, I think the music that resonates with a sense of the eerie or ‘folk horror’ is that which doesn’t deliberately set out to do this – so perhaps bands as disparate as Black Sabbath, Comus, Stone Angel, Midwinter, Mr Fox - as well as some BBC Radiophonic Workshop material. Something that is intrinsically unsettling, or where there are a couple of elements that just tip matters into being odd or strangely shaped, in a ‘that doesn’t quite belong there’ manner. I've attempted to put together an 'uncanny playlist' for this interview, with some examples that I think best exemplify my thinking on this area, as well as obviously containing some groovy tunes.
You've always maintained a degree of anonymity (though presumably some of the people you've worked with would recognise you in the street). Can you talk a little about this? Is it to avoid distracting listeners from the music? Or do you simply enjoy creating an aura of mystery?
It’s both a personal preference as I am a very shy and private individual, and also because I find it unnecessary. I dislike social media and find it distracts from music or art, there’s no mystery, instead personality overshadows or dictates matters. That can of course be a part of the package for some, but it’s not for me. I never intended to be called Grey Malkin or be perceived a giant hare either, these things are almost accidental - so these personas can have an uncontrollable life of their own anyway!
Widows Weeds has just been released, and it's a very powerful and beautiful album, encompassing psych folk, modern classical, spoken word, post-industrial music and electronica. Can you tell us more about this album, the concept behind it and your collaborators?
Thank you! The album has been in the pipeline for quite a while; whilst The Hare & The Moon was in its dying gasps our last few songs were sung by Daughters of Grief, a vocalist and a friend who lived near to me at the time. Things were moving in a more electronic direction and I’d hung up my mandolin; it felt right to emerge as a new entity, hence Widow’s Weeds. This also renewed my desire to make music which at the time was pretty much as dead as the previous project. During the last couple of years, we’ve recorded various songs for compilations, namely those on the ‘A Year In The Country’ series, and for author Tom Cox’s excellent ‘Help The Witch’ compilation. Although the members of Widow’s Weeds are geographically apart at the moment, the creation of the album itself recently gathered momentum, incorporating some of these scattered compilation tracks and latter day The Hare & The Moon songs, as well as new recordings. An artist, Hidden Velvet, joined us to manage the artwork and visuals of the project, providing us with splendid, striking and haunting sleeve art. If there is an overarching concept for Widow’s Weeds, it is that of the ghost story. ‘Revenant’ is a haunted house of an album, most songs deal with the supernatural or folklore as a theme. It's also without a doubt one of the albums I'm most proud of.
Finally, do you have any further musical adventures in the pipeline for 2021?
At the moment, I’m working on a couple of singles with Andy Sharp (English Heretic) based on some expeditions we had in Scotland a couple of summers ago and focusing on the occult or hidden aspects of these. A second single with Kitchen Cynics will also feature a couple of ghost stories set to music, much like our ‘Babby’s Ghost/An Encounter by Moonlight’ 7” from last year. A third in the trilogy of albums with Ashtoreth (following ‘Pilgrim’ and ‘Hermit') will be released as ‘Heretic’ in the next few weeks. A second Embertides album is also underway. Finally, an album with Ruairi O’Baoighill of the Cursed Monk record label is being scheduled and I hope to continue with taking part in United Bible Studies as well as Amanda Votta’s The Floating World - a new album is also imminent. It certainly keeps me out of mischief.
We asked Grey if he would be kind enough to put together a folk horror playlist to accompany this interview. With the caveats - discussed above - about the usefulness of folk horror as an overarching term to describe the music included, we've called it 'Grey Malkin's Field Guide to the Uncanny'. below, he tells us why he has chosen each of the tracks.
1. Black Sabbath ‘Under the Sun’. With my reservations about fitting music or art into a ‘defined’ or recent ‘genre’ that probably didn’t exist at the time that most of these pieces were created, I’ve described this playlist as ‘uncanny’ rather than ‘folk horror’. To me, Black Sabbath are folk music, they tell stories, they reflect contemporary anxieties and there is a pleasing repetitive and minimal aspect to their music, at least initially in their early years. ‘Under the Sun’ is a favourite of mine, it veers from dark, sinister sludge to what can only be described as some kind of occult jig. Very pleasing!
2. Steeleye Span ‘Long Lankin’. A cassette of ‘The Best of Steeleye Span’ was probably my first taste of folk music when I was very young indeed, and it was like another world; one of witches, creatures from folklore and, of course, ‘All Around My Hat’. I know that some of their work isn’t as critically revered as say, Pentangle, but I find they have quite a sharp gothic and dissonant edge at times (listen to the guitar in ‘Cam Ye O’er Frae France’) and, well, a bit like Alan Partridge, I just like them. ‘Long Lankin ’is one of my favourite traditional ballads, it’s truly unsettling and tells of a man (or ghoul, over the years the protagonist has taken on a more supernatural form) who commits foul murder after creeping in through a window. We are warned to ‘beware of Long Lankin’, who ‘lives amongst the moss’. Genuinely chilling.
3. Trees ‘The Garden of Jane Delawney’. Another ghost story set to song. Singer Celia Humphris recently passed which was tremendously sad, their music has had a huge impact upon me and I always harboured a wish to contact her to see if we could work together. She was also curiously known as the voice of the London Underground who warns us to ‘mind the step’.
4. Coil ‘The Dreamer Is Still Asleep’. I always return to Coil, and persistently this song. The veil is thin in this one, to my mind it’s one of a number of moments where they transcend mere sound or music and the whole experience becomes transportive in an inner sense, connecting to something ‘other’, ancient and buried within.
5. Pefkin ‘Celestial Navigations’. I find Gayle Brogan’s work equally transporting, but in a way that conjures particular landscapes, weather, seasons, and nature in a way that few other artists are able to. It is work deeply immersed in the natural world, and at times therefore reflects a certain and relevant darkness or iciness that comes along with this. Gayle’s work with Burd Ellen is also highly recommended and equally spellbinding and liminal. I have been very fortunate to work with her on a number of releases, particularly with our project with Stephen Stannard, Meadowsilver. We also share a love of holloways.
6. Mellow Candle ‘Sheep Season’. There are many artists or bands that are collected under the ‘acid folk’ banner that I absolutely love and that I could have included - from Sourdeline to Caedmon, Mr Fox to Comus (who are probably the band I would say the folk horror label most definitely, albeit retrospectively, applies, they are a terrifying listen). Mellow Candle are one of the most otherworldly of these acts and ‘Sheep Season’ just sounds like nothing else, still. The band were so young when recording this (the vocalists Alison O’Donnell and Clodagh Simonds were only 16 and 15 respectively), this really embodies the sense of an absolutely natural and unforced performance that is inherently haunting, there is nothing contrived about it at all. Working with Alison over the last few years has definitely been both a musical and life highlight of mine.
7. Forest ‘Graveyard’. This notion of being uncontrived and genuine also holds with Forest, another wyrd/acid/psych group that often seemed to connect to something deeply pagan and unearthly, in amongst more conventional fare. It’s this ‘accidental’ or ‘incidental’ touching upon an eeriness or uncanniness that I find the most ‘real’ and therefore the most pleasingly unsettling. ‘Graveyard’ is timeless, earthy, and filled with ghosts.
8. The Moomins (Graham Millar & Steve Shill) ‘Midwinter Rites’. This is a demented and suggestively murderous short piece that was created for the Moomins children’s TV show. I enjoy its incongruity – just what or who are the Moomins sacrificing up there in their icy wastes, who or what are they praying to? I have a real affection for the work of Tove Jansson and visited some of her artworks whilst in Helsinki, she was an incredible soul.
9. Shirley Collins – Awake, Awake/ The Split Ash Tree/ May Carol/Southover. What can you say, or indeed additionally say, about Shirley Collins? I could listen to her on an endless loop till the end of my days. There is just again something timeless about her work, it has the same feel to me as an old book of Border Ballads; it’s a record of tales, folklore and of times that have passed yet still hold resonance. Curiously, as much as I adore her early work, I turn most of all to her ‘comeback album’, ‘Lodestar’, that she recorded at the age of 81 after decades of being unable to sing due to dysphonia. Uncompromising, tender and at times musically harsh and skeletal, there is an honesty running throughout. This opening suite in particular appeals to my love of creating a distinct mood and atmosphere - it ably does so with forays into instrumental hurdy gurdy passages in amongst more traditional elements. Shirley sounds regal yet intimate, authoritative yet vulnerable, it’s just perfection. I actually first met Gayle Brogan and Alan (Kitchen Cynics) at a Shirley Collins concert in Glasgow, we had seats right next to each other – one of those moments when the universe guides your hand!
10. Scott Walker & Sunn O))) ‘Brando’. I am a huge fan of Scott’s earlier torch songs and Brel influenced work, these are some of the most beautifully sad songs ever recorded. However, his albums post ‘Tilt’ I find entire new worlds in, albeit frightening and disorientating ones. ‘The Drift’ is, I think, a masterpiece and the perfect aural embodiment of a nightmare. It says something about ‘The Drift’ and ‘Bish Bosch’ that his work with Sunn O))) is an easier listen!
11. Swans 'The Eyes of Nature'. Like Coil, Swans are a band that have travelled with me as I have gone through life. I find something to enjoy in all their various eras and styles, but there is something properly majestic and OTT about the ‘White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity/Love of Life’ years and ‘Eyes of Nature’ is a prime example; relentless, brutal and yet filled with an unexpected beauty.
12. Luboš Fišer ‘The Magic Yard’. It might be a symptom of getting old, but I tend to have perennial favourites in film as well as music that I cling to and return to again and again. ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘The Innocents’, ‘The Haunting’ and ‘Valerie And Her Week of Wonders’ are constants. Fišer’s soundtrack is part fairy tale, part horror soundtrack with portions of musique concrète, avant garde experimentalism and pastoral folk. Not unlike the film itself!