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A Veiled Harvest; An interview with Nathaniel Ritter of Brave Mysteries

When thinking about esoteric and experimental music for the eclectic listener, a growing number of small labels come to mind including the likes of Blackest Rainbow, Paradigms Recordings, and Dark Holler / Hand/Eye.  In 2010, Nathaniel Ritter (Kinit Her / Wreathes / Circulation of Light) and Clay Ruby (Burial Hex, Wormsblood) joined this intriguing surge of new blood by forming the Brave Mysteries label.  While the label’s humble beginnings were seen through the inaugural releases from their own respective projects in Burial Hex’s “Fantasma Di Perarolo” and Kinit Her’s “Divine Names”, they quickly picked up momentum with releases from the likes of MV & EE, Horseback, and, more recently, Sylvester Anfang II, as well as several vinyl offerings from Pwin ▲▲ Teaks, His Electro Blue Voice, and just last month, Rain Drinkers.

Now, with the tape re-release of the debut DIY album from one of the most promising young new neofolk / dark folk artists in Sangre de Muerdago on the horizon as well as a new tape and vinyl LP from one of dark folk’s most hardened veterans in Stone Breath, Brave Mysteries’ future seems destined for a long and fruitful existence.

Heathen Harvest:  Thank you for accepting this interview, Nathaniel.  Can you begin by telling us when the label took form and what led to its creation?  Was it just yourself and Clay Ruby involved or were there others at the time?

Nathaniel Ritter: Thank you, Sage, for this opportunity. Brave Mysteries came into existence, officially, in April of 2010. I believe the label’s creation was an inevitable result of Clay and my paths crossing. We first met in 2008 and, due to our heavily overlapping interests in all areas of culture, inescapably became fast friends and musical collaborators. After having worked together on the Vedic Hymns split LP between Burial Hex and Kinit Her, and traveling to Britain together for the Equinox Festival in 2009, I believe we both knew that we had stumbled upon what would become and continues to be one of our more fruitful artistic partnerships. Naturally, as working on individual tracks and albums became the norm for us, the desire to collaborate on something a bit larger in scale grew. At that time, Clay was beginning to dissolve Skulls of Heaven, his former label and distro in order to focus more of his time on recording music; so it seemed like a no-brainer that I step in and take my turn to turn the label-house gears for a while. This isn’t to say Clay is any less of a part of Brave Mysteries than I, we just serve very different functions and collaborate when it makes sense.

As far as others being involved, there was not anyone else directly involved in the inception of the label; but without the support of local friends like Endless (Earjerk Records) and Troy Schafer (Kinit Her / Rain Drinkers) I would not have had the confidence I did to push the label into the territory we have.

HH:  How exactly did yourself and Clay come to meet in 2008?

NR:  While a lot of experimental music acts have come out of Madison over the past 10 years, it is still a pretty small town. People with anything like an overlapping taste in music are bound to meet each other. We also consecutively held a job slinging classical and world music in a dank basement of one of the oldest record stores in Wisconsin. So we shared a lot of acquaintances from our time there.

HH:  Obviously yourself and Troy Schafer are close due to your partnership in Kinit Her and Wreathes, but what effect did Endless have on you and the label?

NR:  Endless is one of the elder members of The Second Family band, and proprietor of the local Earjerk records. He and Clay have a much longer musical history together than I do with either of them, so his effect on me has been much more recent and completely different than his effect on Clay. His take on the modern cassette label was definitely an inspiration for me; even though, aesthetically, we go quite different routes, mainly in that his releases all have a hand-made aspect. Nearly half of Brave Mysteries’ releases have involved local artists. So, I see Endless as being an inspiration in that he has for a long time strived to bring together some of the more introverted musicians in our area. This, as far as I am concerned, is as good of a reason to recognize someone as influential as any.

HH:  What were the original goals for Brave Mysteries, and how have they changed now that you’ve had a chance to establish yourself?

NR:  Relatively speaking, Brave Mysteries is still in it’s infancy, and I believe our core goals remain unchanged. We strive to publish uniquely accomplished pieces of music with as few restrictions to style as possible. With every release, especially our regular batches of cassettes, we strive for variety in as many senses of the word as possible. We want to showcase music both from very close by and from very far away. To be able to simultaneously publish a collection of jams from our Second Family and albums from artists in Europe and South America is truly exciting.

HH:  With that said, there is indeed already quite a variety of styles on your roster.  Are you open to literally any style/genre of music?  Or must it fit some pre-defined mold, broad as it may be?

NR:  I don’t believe there is any genre of music we would simply not consider because of style. I doubt we’ll be issuing a ghetto-tech tape or a gore-grind LP anytime soon, but you never know.

HH:  What are some basic principles that an artist must exhibit in order to be considered for release on Brave Mysteries?

NR:  We always joke about the only requirement as “bravery” or “being brave.” In all seriousness, though, we do strive to publish artists and artworks that are at least in some regard sticking out their necks, so to speak. While there may be one or two stick-in-the-mud types on our roster, we like to think no one we work with is, in their heart, giving us mediocrity; or wants to preserve any sort of status quo when it comes to music.

HH:  In light of the last question, do you feel that who the person is behind the music and the choices they make should be considered when viewing or listening to their art?  Or do you feel that each alias should be considered its own separate entity?

NR:  I do not believe identity of the artist behind a particular project should be considered, but can or cannot be considered depending on the type of experience the audience wants to have. There are works of art that I find enjoyable, but would probably find less so if I spent much time considering the personality behind the art. Surely, the notion of not blaming an idea for the personality that takes said idea to an unpopular conclusion is familiar to many of your readers. I often feel that I’ve reversed this notion when enjoying some particular artwork, in that I must decide to not blame the art (the idea) for all of the distasteful aspects of the personality that has created it.

In the end, however, we are just as human as the next and personalities are of interest to us. We do care to learn about and understand where our artists are coming from and what ideas they are attempting to espouse.

HH:  What is the most interesting demo that you’ve received but haven’t released, and why?

NR:  We received demos from Scrolls, the Spaghetti-Western Doom brainchild of M.Scott McGahan (Vivimancer/I.N.R.I.) with Robin and Abe (The Rye Wolves) on guitar and bass. They were excellent, and we still hope to release a tape by these guys some day. It hasn’t come out yet only because the album hasn’t been recorded. Here’s hoping!

The Second Family Band (Photo by: Dani Dahlke)

HH:  The label appears to be the “one and done” type, meaning with the exception of Clay’s Burial Hex alias, and your (and Troy Schafer’s) Kinit Her, there aren’t any artists whom have seen a second release through Brave Mysteries.  Is this a coincidence or purposeful, and if the latter, why?

NR:  This is coincidence; we have several releases planned for artists we have worked with in the past. If all goes according to plan, 2012 should see new releases from Lens, The Second Family Band, Horrid Red, Kcrysztof Drakkan (a 2nd Family elder), Rose Croix, and potentially a few others.

HH:  Will you eventually do re-pressings for sold out items such as Rain Drinkers’ “Urthen Web”?

NR:  We are certainly open to the possibility. Right now we are focusing on releasing and promoting as much music as is financially possible for us. It would be a great pleasure to press some of our out of print tapes like “Urthen Web” on vinyl sometime in the future.

HH:  You’ve mentioned that the label name is intended to be both a description and a command.  If you had to pick one release that is a clear or perfect example of that command on your roster, which would it be and why?

NR:  It all depends on how one decides to take or understand that command. If one were to take “brave mysteries” as command to face the mysteries in the “western esoteric” sense, then I would choose a release that feels initiatic to me. Burial Hex’s Book of Delusions LP, especially the trilogy of tracks on the A-Side, is the most directly initiatic in that it takes the listener through several stages and reveals different levels of allegory along the way. So I suppose that LP would be my ultimate choice.

HH:  Can you define the symbology found throughout the website?  Namely the symbol on both sides of the logo, as well as the larger sword surrounded by a wreath at the bottom of the main page.

NR:  Like all formidable esoteric symbols, our logo contains multiple layers of metaphor. This logo contains the symbols of a book and a sword. In the more exoteric layer of metaphor the sword carries a similar meaning as it does in much of Western esotericism, that of the plane of the mind. For the common man, the mind brings frustration and sorrow through an endless chain of fixation. However, in the hands of those who persevere, the sword can become a powerful tool, piercing through the mire that is the veil of the world of appearances. This is the ‘Brave’ in Brave Mysteries. The book in our logo then, in this more mundane layer of symbolism, represents the word ‘Mysteries’.

An inner layer of symbolism reveals the Book as the word and the logos, being defended by a sword, which symbolizes protection and purification. We also use a variation of this motif, which features a sword and wreath, the wreath here symbolizing one who holds a crown of victory or accomplishment.

HH:  How much of a hand do you have in the artwork for your releases?  I know at least the Love Cult artwork was created by you.

NR:  Any of our art that is not credited otherwise is my work. While the Love Cult cover was an original painting, sometimes I’m doing simpler graphic design work using illustrations that are in the public domain, hence I don’t often credit my work, it is just another part of the behind-the-scenes work at the label as far as I’m concerned.

HH:  With your tapes, you take special care in describing the colors for each release (i.e., bone on glass for Bong, tar on spiderweb for Wormsblood).  Is there a specific purpose behind this?

NR:  I feel it adds another layer of imaginative concept behind each release, as small of a thing as it might be. In the end we’re dealing with a commercial, material product here, but the more “magic,” for lack of a better word, we can imbue the process of purchasing the product with, the closer we’ve gotten to achieving what we want to with our label.

HH:  You’ve recently released a new tape from Sylvester Anfang II which is a project that has gained a lot of attention in the free-folk world lately.  How did you come to work with this group?

NR:  That cassette is actually a reissue of two out of print CDr’s originally issued by Clay’s Skulls of Heaven imprint. Burial Hex had a split 7″ with Sylvester Anfang, and provided vocals for several tracks on SAII’s self-titled 2009 LP. Clay has been collaborating with the Funeral Folk fellows for almost five years now; in fact he was member of the live group for one of the performances on the tape we just issued.

HH:  2011 could be seen — rather quickly, considering its only your second year of existence — as Brave Mysteries’ “break out” year, having your releases reach the year-end best of lists of ‘zines such as ours here, Heathen Harvest, as well as The Inarguable, Evening of Light, and even Spin Magazine.  What are your thoughts on this, and are you surprised to be getting so much attention so quickly?

NR:  I don’t feel we’ve gone any further out of our way to garner attention than the next label. I truly believe this is all thanks to the amazing artists whom have lent us their works for release.

HH:  Sure, but the question is what are your thoughts on the attention you’ve been given?  You definitely turned an unusual amount of heads in your second year and I think that deserves talking about.  Was it surprising?  Strange?  Deserving?  Obviously beyond just the music.

NR:  While it seems to have all happened fairly effortlessly, both of us behind the label are thinking about and working on our next step at all time. So, while I feel humbled by all of the support we have gotten thus far, I cannot say it is entirely a surprise. We set out to do something, and we seem to be achieving many of our goals. We have a dialog going with a lot of artists and musicians that live just blocks away from us, and others on the other side of the globe – I think this keeps us engaged in so many ways that it is hard for us to ever really let the label fall by the wayside. If that attitude is consistent, it make sense that our base of support would grow. We are truly grateful for all of that support.

HH:  Rose Croix is a project that came literally out of the blue and maintains an anonymous lineup.  What can you tell us about this group of musicians and how you came to work with them?

NR:  They’re Wisconsinites. Other than that, our tongues are tied.

HH:  You’re going to be releasing some works shortly from the important / influential psych folk project Stone Breath in the near future.  How did you come to work with Timothy and what can we expect from these releases?

NR: Both of us had caught wind of Stone Breath in the early 00’s and became enamored with what we both consider to be one of the few genuine American responses to the crop of neo/psych folk coming out of Britain in the 90’s. Clay and Timothy connected in 2003 when Stone Breath was playing a show in Chicago at a daytime arts festival.  They’ve kept in touch ever since and now that Stone Breath has come out of retirement; it seemed natural for the two of them to collaborate on a release.

The first Stone Breath work we are publishing is a cassette entitled ‘Twist of Thorn’ which features new original tunes, the traditional “Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier”, and three Black Happy Day covers.

Further down the road is an LP entitled ‘Spear of Flame, Horse of Air,’ which will, optimistically, be released by the end of the Summer.

HH:  Do you feel Stone Breath’s unique imagery, both lyrically and literally, matches your personal view of what Brave Mysteries represents on several levels?

NR:  Stone Breath at times can be highly esoteric and personal, while at other times seemingly expounding very universal notions, albeit in a fairly mystical fashion. Their catalog also serves as an aggregate of original works, arrangements of traditional tunes, and covers of other band’s songs. In both of these senses, Stone Breath operates in a similar fashion to Brave Mysteries. This is the case in that our catalog of releases features highly personal works that come directly from us, as artists, and have been painstakingly composed in every aspect, while our catalog also features works that are from other artists that we have selected in an attempt to express ourselves in some small way, through their work.

HH:  Have sales mirrored the acclaim that Brave Mysteries has achieved this year?

NR:  Like everyone else trying to keep afloat in this over-saturated “underground” and dealing with a failing economy, we’re seeing pretty slow growth. However, I am thankful that we are growing at all. Labels of our size come and go every day.

Clay Ruby & Nathaniel Ritter (Performing as Burial Hex @ The Mopery, Chicago, February 2010)

HH:  What led to the label opening a new section dedicated to digital releases?  Which of your digital releases has done the best thus far?

NR:  I have seen a lot of bands and labels, for example Rain Drinkers, selling enough through bandcamp that I thought it would be a worthy endeavor. It is nice to make available some of our more treasured local releases to a wider audience. All three releases have sold equally.

HH:  What is the label’s stance on digital downloading?  Do you support new music streaming platforms such as Spotify?

NR:  If by support you mean allow them to carry/stream our music, no. However, I really don’t know much at all about these platforms other than that I’ve been disappointed by the sound quality when using any of them. Listening to MP3s is one thing for me, but the digital degradation of fidelity from a stream just isn’t tolerable. To my ears, the hiss of a tape or dust on a record is preferable to what is currently available via streaming media.

HH:  You’ve released three LP’s this year in addition to your normal slew of tape offerings.  Is the vinyl format something that you’ll be continuing in the future?

NR:  Yes, we just released our fourth LP, Rain Drinkers’ Yesodic Helices.

Towards the end of Spring, we’ll see Devotion (Dani Dahlke & Troy Schafer of Wreathes, Rain Drinkers, etc.) release their debut LP with us, alongside Stone Breath’s.

HH:  With vinyl, the catalog numbers have numbered MYST003-MYST005.  What are the original two MYST catalog numbers designated for?

NR:  MYST001 and 002 were very limited edition T-shirts for Burial Hex and Kinit Her respectively.

HH:  If there was one artist that you had to pick as a “dream release” — that is, the one project you’d most like to release music by, but may not have the chance to — who would it be?

NR:  If this is a living or dead, completely theoretical, kind of question – Coil. I don’t think there is any other act that quite epitomizes the overlap between the interests of Clay and I. The way Coil worked also really ties into what we’ve already discussed about Stone Breath’s work lining up with our “ideals” or what have you. It is that careful balance (no pun intended) between highly personal work and bringing in external influences and collaborators to create a whole that is simultaneously impenetrable on one level, and completely universal on another.

HH:  Finally, what’s on the slate to be Brave Mysteries’ first releases in 2012?

NR:  Our first batch of cassettes for the year featuring Emme Ya, Lightning Path, Baldruin, URNA, and Eolomea was released just recently. We should be seeing the release of a remastered cassette reissue of Sangre de Muerdago’s self-released debut  alongside Stone Breath’s ‘Twist of Thorn’ tape in the next month. After that, tapes from Phurpa, Elisha Morningstar, Vradiazei, Die Urpf Lanz, and many more.

Stone Breath’s Upcoming “Twist of Thorn” Cassette Cover

Interview by Sage.