.:.BEGUILING DARK FOLK.:.
The Musical Enchantments of Horse Cult
Made up of three members—Joshua McBride, Christine Sorenson, and Amie Beckwith McBride—Horse Cult comes out of Portland, Oregon with an original take on traditional sounds. Blending elements of folk horror with folk music can result in predictable clichés replete with empty incantations and twelve-string guitars—or it can bring forth something more. Horse Cult is nothing if not more. Think of soundtracks that accompany dark fairy tales. Think of music found in arcane rituals. Think of haunted psychedelia, bewitching wyrd folk, and the high-straining melodies that hail from ancient inspiration. Horse Cult is all of that and more.
I decided to interview Horse Cult as a whole rather than ask just one musician to speak for the band; it felt more (there goes that word again) complete this way. Besides, none of them wanted to do it without the others.
Horse Cult were gracious enough to provide us with a pre-release premiere of their track “Blacksmith” from the forthcoming debut, Day Dreams & Night Mares, streaming below. Please feel free to listen while you read:
Heathen Harvest: To start off, the name Horse Cult is haunting and darkly evocative—do you mind giving us the story on the inspiration behind the name?
Amie Beckwith: One night after practice, Christine, Josh, and I were feeling pretty good on whiskey when the idea of Horse Cult dawned—the inspiration being St Olaf’s story of pagan women in Norway worshipping a horse penis. This was, of course, extra amusing through the whiskey filter, but even the next day it was bouncing around in my brain as I became struck with the greater depth of it as a name. Horse Cult, to me, evokes images of witches shape-shifting into Night Mares and traveling through the dark to haunt one’s dreams, nithing poles, Sleipnir enabling his rider to travel to the Underworld, Frey’s steed being used to symbolically bring back Spring… With Frey having major phallic associations, it seems a good guess that the St Olaf story references a spring rite. Then there is the importance of the horse to the ancient Europeans—where we as a band all claim our heritage from. From the British Isles to Scandinavia, and from continental Europe to the Russian Steppes, the horse was a crucial element in the development of these people: our ancestors. There were the obvious physical resources a horse would provide (food, travel, etc.) as well as the horse worship, still evident today in the Uffington White Horse. Even into the Victorian and modern ages, the horse is concurrently a symbol of civilization (things shaped by man’s will) and the idea of a wild, untamable nature—also known as Order and Chaos.
HH: How many different instruments are involved and who plays them?
Joshua McBride: We have a core of instruments that we play and a small arsenal of others that have an important role in our sound. Some are played by one, whilst others are fooled with by all. Amie is voice and haunting fiddle; Christine is voice, faerie flute, and mountain dulcimer; I play six and twelve-string acoustics and mountain dulcimer. Beyond these, we might all play drums, bells, psaltry, chimes, tambourines, cymbals, shaker, vibraslap, cello, thumb cymbal, glockenspiel, and more bells!
HH: The Pacific Northwest is home to any number of dark and folkish influences—from neofolk bands to wyrd Heathenry. Obviously, this is an influence on your work and your style, but does being a Portland band in particular have any direct influence on what Horse Cult is musically, spiritually, or artistically? Or, conversely, do you think environment isn’t an important component to the way you approach creativity?
Christine Sorenson: Living in the Pacific Northwest has a great impact on our music. This region of the world carries a lot of history within the landscape. Like all places of this Earth, the land that people reside on influence how we live, the shelters we build, the music that we sing, the instruments that are created, the spiritual practices we might embrace, even down to the food that we eat. There is an undertone of ancient knowledge in not only our lineage as humans, but also the land that we step foot on, if only we stop and listen.
HH: Besides you three, who has been involved with Horse Cult? Anyone limmering on the horizon for future projects?
JM: Asia Kindred (Solace / Will o’ the Wisp / Noesis / also a collaborator of Sangre de Muerdago) is now with us on harp and percussion. We were also able to get her on a couple of songs on the album. Our friend Heather Blackbird, a collector of folk songs and occasional opener for us at shows, also sings an a cappella Ukrainian traditional on the recording. Coming up at the very end of April, our friend Jason Hovatter (A Minority of One and also a Waldteufel collaborator) is joining us on percussion for our second Wicker Man show. There is talk of Amber Jarvis (Birch Book) playing double flute with Christine at some point.
AB: There have been conversations of bringing in Brigid Niedospial (Lone Elder)’s hammered dulcimer on a tune or two. And my niece is the perfectly creepy little girl voice on our “Ravens Omen.” We are currently working with Ocean (Port of the Sun, Fauna, and Sirenum lyrical collaborator) on a song celebrating the winter solstice. His words that opened this last year’s Cascadian Yule were so moving, they begged to be brought back again on subsequent longest nights. Also, Horse Cult is in the process of procuring the rights from the Church of All Worlds for reproducing “Return of the King,” written and originally sung by their bard, the late Gwydion Pennderwen.
HH: I know that Amie Beckwith has been part of the Portland Heathen/art world for over a decade, being the proprietor of Planet Gallery, a force behind the 2005 Heathen Art Show at Optic Nerve Arts, and a founder and original editor of what many consider the best Heathen journal ever produced, Hex Magazine. Amie, how do you see that things have changed over the last ten years, musically as well as other ways, in Portland?
AB: I’d say the current political climate in Portland is negatively affecting music, the art scene in general, even intellectual discourse (an art form in itself), making these things tend toward being prudish and self-conscious. There was a time when Portland’s art scene was into pushing boundaries, exploring ideas, and getting people to think, whereas it presently seems more concerned with being safe, controlled, and hyper-politically correct. Now, when it is more controversial, it often seems forced and reactionary. Certainly I don’t like to see people’s feelings hurt, but simultaneously don’t think someone being offended is actually harmful to them. This concern should definitely not be a primary filter for art. Moreover, I’d say it is in fact detrimental to the creative process. Politically correct patrolling is the new religious right, similarly using censorship and guilt of our basic humanness as its main weapons. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I developed a natural disdain for external control. Age and experience has only deepened this.
HH: Your track “Silver Bough” sounds as if it were lifted straight from “The Wicker Man.” Did you set out to replicate the Summer Isle sound when you recorded it?
AB: Well, that original Bandcamp version you are talking about was recorded with Garageband on one microphone in our bathroom with a bit of reverb, so it was pretty basic! The tune is a Norwegian traditional, and those were our first original Horse Cult lyrics, attempting a sort of magickal mnemonic. I’d say we succeeded. But we, of course, also take much inspiration from Wicker Man! We host what promises to be an annual Wicker Man/May Day show in Portland.
JM: Thank you for the compliment!
HH: Who writes your material? Do you draw from traditional sources or more recent renderings? Does the material evolve within the band? Does the band evolve as more material is produced?
CS: We all take part in the writing process. It’s a collaboration, with Josh and myself mainly writing the song melodies while Amie writes the lyrics. Our inspirations are mostly drawn from traditional songs, the acoustic sounds of the 70’s folk revival, and the 60s/70s psychedelic rock era. There is always the goal of finding the “love child” of Led Zeppelin and Shirley Collins. I believe that our sound and songwriting are ever-evolving, and we are eagerly anticipating the new sounds of Asia Kindred’s harp in our future songs.
AB: European folk music (especially the dark, haunted traditionals) and its subsequent folk revival is definitely the backbone of our sound. It can get psychedelic, yes, and a bit gothy or industrial from time to time. Asia’s doom harp is a lovely and powerful addition as is her artistic input, which you’ll be able to hear more of on our second album and in our current live performances.
JM: In a variety of ways, different elements become Horse Cult tunes; there’s no set method. We might take words and vocal melodies from a traditional tune and write our own music to it. Or, we may take a traditional song and add original lyrics. Also, we’ve built from the ground up, where an original song was written by myself on guitar with Amie’s lyrics and vocal melody, and then with Christine we further develop it. Likewise, Christine might dream a melody, and then Amie and myself will help flesh it out. Our songs do seem to continually evolve, with recording and playing live in varying situations, facilitating this.
HH: I understand that you just finished recording a new album. Do you mind letting us in on a few of the particulars (name, general ideas, cover art, etc.)? How did it feel to be working with Brian Sinclair (Tyrsson of Waldteufel) as sound manager?
JM: Yes, we are now finishing up the mixing, with the recording due for release in mid-April. It’s so rewarding to document these ideas, and to see them become a complete piece of art. It’s alive! The album is a creation made from visions of love, death, light, memories, deceit, alchemy, the afterworld, wyrd, magick, and jealousy…
AB: …all held together by spider webs.
JM: The name of the album is Day Dreams & Night Mares, with cover art by Jesse Peper (also included as a 9×13” poster inside). I was stunned upon first seeing this artwork. The painting is haunting, symbolic, and darkly psychedelic—mysterious and fitting to the music. He created the piece while listening to Horse Cult.
Having Brian at the desk has been a pleasure. This was our first time working with anyone else for recording. Brian has a good ear and an interest in experimenting with sound. He understands where Horse Cult is coming from musically and aesthetically and was absolutely a perfect fit. Hails Brian!
HH: What do you see as your immediate direction, band-wise? More albums? A tour?
JM: Mixing, recording, rehearing, playing out, and writing. We already have some new material written that will be on our next album. At the end of April, we embark on a small two-week tour spanning from Seattle, Washington to Oakland, California with our new album. Following in June, during the summer solstice, we will be playing our second year at the Thirst for Light festival here in Cascadia at the beautiful Red Hawk Avalon. We would love to journey abroad too, as the path takes us.
AB: We are now hosting shows at the Arbor Web—our practice space and sound studio. It is an intimate backyard venue, best equipped for fully acoustic and lightly amplified music and speaking engagements. Hosting events we’d like to see in Portland can be rough if a loud bar won’t work, but there are not necessarily funds for renting a space either.
HH: Life has a way of making deep impressions on artistic types of people—musicians for example—that subsequently influence everything else they do, for better or for worse. Has any impression—or impressions—influenced Horse Cult in that way?
JM: When traveling through Ireland, Amie and I watched a lot of traditional musicians. Not difficult to do, of course, as traditional music is played in pubs all over the place there. There were times when someone would start singing a song and the pub would go quiet, or maybe eventually join in. There was a reverence not as much for the singer, I think, but for the song, and to themselves and their place, their land, their history. It made me cry. It was completely fucking meaningful.
AB: Yes, the Ireland trip was awe-inspiring. I was ultimately moved by the people, the landscape, and ancient structures. We had some amazing experiences in the stone age forts.
CS: Growing up on the Northwest Coast with the giant redwood trees; being alone with nature; classical music and acoustic instruments. But the deepest impression for me was when I started listening to the Norwegian folk band, Folque, through their self-titled EP. I had not played any instruments, or played with anyone, for years prior. The inspiration I found from this music gave me the will to want to play music again, and so it began. And here we are.
HH: There is a euphoric, otherworldly quality to your music—to what do you ascribe this?
AB: I think it has much to do with the vocal harmonies. Christine is very talented in conjuring many of these. They are lovely yet dissident. When we sing, it is not her and I, but more duel aspects of the worlds and psyche we are representing. There is also a duality within the vocals where Christine’s are ethereal, against mine which can be quite human. This gives the impression of the Unseen World making its presence known on the physical plane—the way a witch would use powers beyond her own flesh. And then there is Josh’s guitar and dulcimer playing, that can sparkle one moment and be shadowed the next. Lots of dark versus light in the vocals and the instrumentation, like rays of sun breaking through storm clouds or a thick forest canopy. Our mutual interest in hidden realms, elevated or psychedelic experiences, and the leaning toward supernatural themes, comes through in the music.
JM: Amie and Christine’s voices work so well together. The melodies and their harmonies take me away. Combined with the hypnotic music, it resonates with some folks. On one level, it seems as though the music speaks through us; as though it is and it exists somewhere else. Beautiful, haunting, and magickal are all feelings we aspire towards in our music and we are aware of it in its raw form. The studio has also brought that out on the Day Dreams & Night Mares recordings where we were able to manipulate and add elements to further the unearthly sense and feeling. It worked out nicely.
HH: If music is divinely inspired, what spirituality inspires Horse Cult—both as a whole and as individual band mates?
AB: Absolutely this project is divinely inspired. We are not creating Horse Cult but more Horse Cult is creating itself through us, as Josh touched on in the previous answer. Attempting to be a conduit for these timeless themes, which have passed down as oral traditions or ancestral memory, is a humbling but worthy endeavor. Hopefully it’s clear by our work that the story of our folk deeply inspires Horse Cult.
CS: My personal spirituality resides with nature. There is nothing more impressive than the crash of waves on the shore, the wind blowing through the trees, stepping foot in a cold mountain stream that will soon reach the ocean, or listening to the birds sing. There are only tranquil thoughts while being a child in nature.
HH: I feel sound and music to be integral elements of my spirituality. Music is inseparable from my religion.
AB: I have a deep resonance with the symbols and deities of my ancestors and the spiritual paths they traveled. Runes, the ogham alphabet, reading natural omen, experience with nature spirits, psychedelic experience, creating my life through will, fairy tales, myths and legends, elemental systems, Victorian Occultism, dream interpretation, alchemy, esoteric Christianity, tarot, psychology and archetypes, numerology, mundane Magick like cooking and caring for loved ones, Seidr, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life … these are some things I can get excited about. I am primarily a solo practitioner but find Horse Cult an exception.
HH: And here we are at the final question: Is there anything you would like to add?
AB: Thank you, Heathen Harvest, for hosting this interview, and Juleigh, for such thoughtful questions. Much appreciation for the work you do!