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Language of Embers: An Interview with Arktau Eos

Arktau Eos

Arktau Eos

.:.LANGUAGE OF EMBERS.:.

An Interview with Arktau Eos

by Simon Mernagh

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Questions of sincerity and authenticity in music plague artists like a chronic disease: Does this mournful singer mean what she says? Does this political band practice what they preach? Are this lot really devil worshippers? It seems that the importance attached to such doubts intensifies the further obscure or ‘niche’ the music genre is as listeners take the virtuous intentions of the artist for granted once the prospect of making significant money from their art decreases.

One need not doubt Arktau Eos’s artistic intentions in this respect. Since 2005, the elusive Finnish trio have released five albums worth of challenging yet highly rewarding ritual ambient. They strive for a certain unnameable purity, drawing inspiration from the devotional music of various faiths and spiritual persuasions in pursuit of a philosophical, artistic candour that is otherwise unachievable in contemporary music. In our world of egregiously commercialised entertainment, Arktau Eos feels almost nomadic.

Their recorded output, while edifying, is but one string to Arktau Eos’s creative bow. Ritual music is named after the physical process of ceremony, and the Finnish group emphasise the significance of the live setting. Using a variety of unorthodox, regularly homemade instrumentation, the band builds on their musical exploration by performing the rites and formal customs of religious traditions, favouring one-off performances instead of traditional tours.

Following a pair of these performances at Roadburn 2016, Antti L. addresses the status of ritual music, the concept of authenticity, and more. Welcome to Arktau Eos’s first live interview in seven years.

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Heathen Harvest: Thank you very much for this opportunity. Arktau Eos is a very popular project among both the staff and readership of Heathen Harvest Periodical.

Antti L.: Thank you. It’s good to hear, and we appreciate the support. Our live interview policy seems to be doing one every seven years, and only with someone called ‘Simon’. The last ‘Simon’ was in 2009 at Equinox Festival in London.

Arktau Eos | Credit: Costin Chioreanu

Arktau Eos | Credit: Costin Chioreanu

HH: We’re here in Tilburg for Roadburn 2016 where Arktau Eos are playing two separate shows: a collaborative effort with members of Hexvessel, and a more traditional solo ritual. How challenging is it for you as a ritual ambient group to incorporate elements from another act, especially one that deals more in psychedelic, melodic folk? Your individual styles appear to be uneasy bedfellows at first glance.

AL: You are correct that it is stylistically different. On the other hand, we have never set any concrete borders to what we can do, and for a number of years already we haven’t really thought of our music as being ‘ambient’ or this or that. If pressed, we can go along with ‘archaic elemental music’. It’s more of an extension of what we do outside of music, so it can take on many different manifestations according to the needs of time, place, and our current state of mind. As such, it is not as far-fetched as it initially sounds. Although, every time we work with a greater number of people, a greater number of compromises have to be made. We choose our battles wisely, but it is always interesting to try some new territory. I have to commend Hexvessel for their brave suggestion of collaboration. Kindred spirits sought and found mutual ground, and power arising therefrom was successfully harnessed. Outside reactions are secondary in importance, if that.

Arktau Eos | Credit: Costin Chioreanu

Arktau Eos | Credit: Costin Chioreanu

HH: Speaking of collaborations, would you like to work with other groups besides Hexvessel? How about, for example, another ritual group like Phurpa?

AL: I could see us playing a gig or doing a performance with a number of bands, but we limit the amount of collaborations we do as a principle. We do so because, as years have passed, we have learned of the necessity of maintaining artistic control. The other Antti (A.I.H.) has expanded his workshop and label facilities; we can practically do everything ourselves, excluding the pressing of the CDs. So, when we work in such a close circle, it becomes difficult to incorporate outsiders in—not because we wouldn’t like them as people, but because it takes some time to learn the rules of the circle and by direct experience gain the understanding of what we do. At this point, we work very intuitively and don’t need to communicate with others except for practical details. For instance, when A.I.H. makes a simple gesture in a ritual setting, however impromptu that setting may be in a recording session or live, I sense almost instantly what is going on—maybe an elemental gate being opened, or a familiar spirit welcomed, and so forth. To bring someone into our circle is not impossible, but it certainly is time-consuming. Since you specifically mention Phurpa, they are one of the more compelling of our contemporaries out there. Their dedication is well-respected within Arktau Eos.

HH: You mention an ‘inner circle’. Would this include the famed Helixes Collective?

AL: Yes. The Helixes Collective is a group of close friends and collaborators from different musical projects. Some remain anonymous, but it is mostly focused around the region of Oulu in the north of Finland. With a couple of exceptions, most of the people are from the area, though this once again springs mostly from practical necessity as we must know one another to be able to work together.

HH: Barring yourselves and Halo Manash, none of the members of the collective have been active in recent years. Can we anticipate any future performances, live or on record, from the other acts?

AL: Certainly. For example, Aeoga—one of the oldest groups in the collective—are already active in Finland and have played some gigs in the past few years. Perhaps they are flying under the radar at the moment, but I would expect to see more activity on that front, yes.

Arktau Eos | Credit: Kim Sølve

Arktau Eos | Credit: Kim Sølve

HH: Great news! Returning to yourselves, what can you tell us about your spiritual influences?  Are there particular rituals across religions or authors that you draw particular inspiration from?

AL: Yes, but that has to be qualified. When we first started the group, we made it our modus operandi to avoid relying too heavily on any particular cultic mindset or single religion. We aim to reach beyond them, towards symbols and currents which are more primordial—the radices of power, if you will. Of course, we can then bear resemblance to more specialised expressions of religiosity, but that is something which follows rather than a starting point.

HH: You seem to have a deep interest in Eastern spirituality, especially esoteric Buddhism. Of late, Western artists have been gravitating towards the East for musical and aesthetic influences more than ever. What, in your opinion, is the reason for this shift? Would you say that it comes as a quest for deeper spiritual questions, which are generally left unanswered in what has become a highly capitalist and technologically advanced Western society, or due to a general interest in the mystical aura which appears exotic to us Westerners?

Arktau Eos | Credit: Maija Lahtinen

Arktau Eos | Credit: Maija Lahtinen

AL: Esoteric Buddhism has been an ongoing influence on several members over the years, but one cannot say that it is in any way dominant in our music or aesthetics. Studying it has been rewarding, but we cannot claim to incorporate a tradition so vast and ancient into our relatively small sphere of activity. Mutually recognisable parts may enter our work from roots unknown, but claiming to be representative of Tibetan or any other current of Buddhism would be preposterous on our part.

In regards to the West’s interpretation of Eastern spirituality, it is a thing with many faces. We could have a whole discussion on it. But in brief, it can be seen as a rebellion against the rampant materialism we are experiencing in our age, which is good. Throughout the ages, people have gravitated towards the exotic other simply because it is interesting or unfamiliar, but that can become very superficial. This is another reason why, from wherever we draw our influences, we never claim to be directly representative of a particular spiritual practice or faith: we try to avoid these surface-level, imagined, easily digestible concepts, or muddle-headed cultural appropriation. Bridge-building has to happen naturally, or that recognition of common underlying structures, which I mentioned before. A lot of what we do is fundamentally wordless, or soundless, and only manifests itself in our music.

HH: You had what has become a particularly legendary performance at Stella Natura that people still talk about today.  How would you describe your experience in that event?  From a performer’s perspective, has anything been able to match it yet?

AL: Stella Natura was a very special festival for a number of reasons, not least for its location up in the High Sierra. But it is not a competition between venues. That’s why we still take on offers of doing these less unorthodox gigs, if we believe we can bring something new to them. So, we would prefer venues such as Stella Natura, or if someone could offer us a monastery in Italy or something. But comparing places with one another does not make sense, as each is unique and we are adaptable as a band. That said, Stella Natura was certainly a highlight. Funkenflug in the Austrian Alps was another remarkable event.

Arktau Eos @ Stella Natura | Credit: Hana Lee

Arktau Eos @ Stella Natura | Credit: Hana Lee

HH: Given our current surroundings at Tilburg, what place do you think a sincere project like Arktau Eos has in one of the biggest, most widely recognizable festivals today like Roadburn?  Arktau Eos seemed tailor-made to an intimate setting like Stella Natura, whereas this is quite the opposite. Without comparing the two venues, how do you adapt to more ‘mainstream’ settings?

AL: Well you have to use more volume to drown out the clinking of bottles and idle conversations, to help those people with short attention spans [laughs]. You cannot do too much there, so playing locations other than our preferred intimate settings is sometimes a gamble, but this time we felt like rolling the dice. It is far from ideal, but as I said, we are adaptable. Perhaps there are a couple of people in the audience who will seek us out in a more secretive location in the future. It’s like an entry-level ticket.

HH: Tell us a bit about your homemade instrumentation. Without prying too far, are any of said instruments more important to you in the studio versus their importance in a live setting?

AL: In the live setting, we are limited in what we can bring along, so our performances must be constructed with that limitation in mind. We think of it as simply another guideline with which we choose to work with. Of course, when working alone at home, we don’t have to worry about carrying equipment around; we can spontaneously work with any number of instruments, and we have gathered plenty over the years, but we no longer feel the need to hoard new ones as we try to concentrate on the specific sounds that resonate the right way. We are growing more subtle in our sonic output, which is an evolution from the total onslaught of our first record.

Arktau Eos | Credit: LV

Arktau Eos | Credit: LV

HH: In terms of recorded output and also live performances to a lesser extent, you’ve grown somewhat silent since joining forces with Svart Records.  What have you been up to since 2012, and what lies just over the horizon for Arktau Eos?

AL: We’ve been silent from the outside, but we have kept busy with matters not ready for public consumption just yet. Another album is looming over the horizon at the moment. But, as a group, we are not tied to the normal or traditional album cycle, since we are not primarily musical. We have no set dates and only shoot for something new when it feels right. For instance, we wanted to unveil the re-release of Mirrorion in time for Roadburn, but that was just a coincidence as we happened to be nearing the end of that process around the same time. It will be available on the Aural Hypnox webstore soon. In terms of releasing new music, it is not dictated by our egos or fantasies.

HH: What was behind the decision to leave behind your own Aural Hypnox in favour of Svart?  Has this new collaboration proven fruitful for you?

AL: That was somewhat temporary. We are definitely going to be working with Aural Hypnox in the future, now that the label is active once again. We collaborated with Svart during a period when Hypnox was dormant, and are thankful for their help. Moving on with Aural Hypnox is down to the fact that we need to be able to tamper with every aspect of the production ourselves, ensuring that everything bearing our name meets our high standards and ideals of artisanal presentation. So, Aural Hypnox will certainly be our occupancy from now on, particularly since the label is expanding into producing art prints, t-shirts, silk-screening, and so on. Not every release has to be musical, in fact. Our working capabilities have increased tenfold during our period of production silence.

HH: Do you have an opinion on the state of spiritual, ritual, or sacred music in general?  It seems to have become more of a skin-deep trend for many artists today rather than an imperative, niche pursuit as it is for artists like yourselves. One could point towards litanies of rock and metal acts who write catchy pop songs about rituals and the like, though the insincerity is palpable.

AL: Yeah, well, it’s pop music, plain and simple, however fancy the decoration. There is no real difference between those songs and Jerry Lee Lewis singing about ‘Great Balls of Fire’ in terms of spiritual content. If I want to listen to real ritual or sacred music, I have to go back in time to the old, pioneering ritual bands, or ancient Byzantine chants, or sacred Tibetan music. Music that has not changed in essence for centuries but remains ever rejuvenating. I am completely sure that new and upcoming groups who share our burning passion for sincere ritual music exist, and I look forward to discovering them. But as you say, it remains very rare to taste real authenticity in contemporary music. Although good things are often rare by nature, so perhaps that’s the way it should be. Seek and ye shall find.

HH: Finally, one question about you that arises frequently among our readership pertains to the core distinctions between Arktau Eos and Halo Manash, and what makes each project unique. Could you explain that for us?

AL: [long pause] Well, I won’t make any guesses as to where we are at this point, but in the beginning, the division was built on Arktau Eos being more ceremonial, focussing on the great Western tradition, whereas Halo Manash was concerned with more earth-based, elemental, shamanic concepts. But those things have blurred over time, and I don’t think any of us from either group worry about this too much. We have established our firm guidelines so long ago that we don’t fuss over how either band is received in relation to the other. One intuitively knows which material is Arktau Eos or Halo Manash, and their characters are moreover defined by the individuality of the members, or how they colour the sources from which we draw to be more exact.

HH: That’s it! Thank you very much again for your time. Do you have any final thoughts to share with our readers?

AL: Thank you for listening. If anyone wants to find us or get in touch, we’re out there. Send a message to the ether, and we may be in a receptive mood. Or try lighting a candle.

Arktau Eos

Svart Records | Aural Hypnox