Interview with Fós: Irish Trad Music meets Doom Metal
Fós is the project of Dublin-based musician Fionn Murray. He combines elements of traditional Irish music with drone/doom metal and electronica. I sat down with Fionn to discuss his debut EP Rinné mé iarraidh, and to talk about what it means to be an Irish musical artist.
Oisín: So Fionn, what is Rinne mé iarraidh?
Fionn: Rinne mé iarraidh is a four-song EP that I wrote and arranged in collaboration with accomplished sean-nós singer Orla Cadden Patel. Together, the musical project is called Fós, the Irish word for ‘still’. The idea was to combine sean-nós singing with drone metal in the style of Sunn O))) or Boris. I also incorporated elements of ambient electronic music, akin to 90s Warp Records artists, as well as modern artists such as Moderat and Jesper Kyd. So it’s a fusion of those three styles.
O: What made this combination of traditional Irish and more modern alternative genres occur to you?
F: Well, I think the first time I heard sean-nós music being performed live, I was visiting the Gaeltacht as a teenager. I heard this man singing in a big open room with lots of natural reverb, it was such a powerful atmospheric performance. At the time I was going through my sort of ‘metalhead’ phase, so I was listening to a lot of experimental metal like Sunn O))) and Bloody Panda, along with ambient artists like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. It occurred to me while I was listening to the sean-nós and these other genres – what do these styles have in common? And I suppose a big thing is that, these genres have less of an emphasis on rhythm, in favour of an emphasis on melody and atmosphere. So in some ways sean-nós seemed like a natural match, because there’s almost no emphasis on rhythm at all: it’s very much about the mood and the atmosphere of the performance. It’s an odd one as well, because sean-nós is traditionally unaccompanied or a capella, so the idea of having sean-nós singing with accompaniment might seem iconoclastic. I just thought it might be an interesting experiment, so that was that was the genesis of the project.
O: Have you ever worked with traditional Irish music before?
F: When I was in primary school, I had a teacher in third class who was a gas character. He was from Kerry, and the whole year he was teaching us we learned nothing except the Irish language and trad music. He neglected to teach us any other subjects for the duration, and he coerced half of the class into taking up trad instruments. By the end of the year, maybe seven people had been cajoled into buying accordions. I already played the violin, and so he got me to learn the jigs and reels. That was my first exposure to traditional music performing. I never learned how to sing sean-nós, so that was completely alien to me until I was 16.
O: You said already that sean-nós is much more about vibes and atmosphere than rhythm. I’ve listened to the E.P. and there’s percussion there but there’s not any strong sense of beat. Is that something that’s common to both sean-nós and doom metal?
F: Yes well, there are different flavours of doom metal, and what we call drone metal was invented by a band called Earth in the 1980s. Doom metal tends to be very slow and not rhythmically driven, so drone metal just drives that to the upper edges. Songs can go on for 10 or 20 minutes. Oftentimes there’s almost no drumming at all, or if there are drums, they wouldn’t be following a meter, it’ll just be cacophonous rhythms. That’s the first thing that occurred to me when I listened to the two things. In both of these genres, sean-nós and drone metal, there’s no steady meter. When I was arranging the songs I didn’t use a click track, it was all free rhythm.
O: Are there any other things they have in common? Because I know like you’ve said that sean-nós is normally unaccompanied but drones do play a huge role in other traditional Irish music.
F: Yeah so, certainly that’s true of the uilleann pipes, which is the most obvious example of traditional Irish music that uses drones. As far as similarities, they would tend to have a similar mood, in that ambient music and drone metal are often very melancholic. Traditionally doom metal tends to be very depressing, miserable, that kind of vibe to it. Sean-nós could be said to have evolved from keening, which is the style of traditional singing that was performed at Irish funerals, and there’s a genre of doom metal which is called like “funeral doom metal” and it’s meant to project a depressing miserable vibe. So the mood and the atmosphere of doom metal was a very natural fit for sean-nós, because again, it is a very depressing kind of creepy, unnerving, otherworldly sound.
O: So who is the singer that you collaborated with?
F: Well I had the idea for the project years ago, shortly after I first heard a sean-nós singer, but I sat on the idea for a long time because I had other musical projects going on and I was busy with college. Then last year I thought it was time to give it a go. I put out an open call on Facebook saying that I’m looking for sean-nós singers, preferably ones who can sing as Gaeilge, and then Orla got in touch with me and said that she used to do a lot of sean-nós when she was younger but hadn’t done it for years, but she’d be happy to do some recording. So, I invited her up to the Trackmix studio in Blanch, which is where a lot of Irish metal bands record. It was interesting, because the whole recording and creative process was very different from a traditional metal album. Usually with a metal album you write the song, then you go into the studio to record the drums, then the bass, then the guitar and lastly the vocals. Whereas in this case, it was completely backwards: we recorded Orla singing four existing sean-nós songs first, and then I built all the arrangements around the vocal tracks, so it was the exact opposite of how it usually works.
O: Who are some Irish artists that you admire?
F: An obvious predecessor for Fós is a band called From the Bogs of Aughiska. They started off as an ambient drone noise project; they were part of the metal scene, but they weren’t really playing metal. They didn’t use guitars or anything at the outset, and their first album is a really powerful piece of ambient noise. They have an interesting piece called “Aos Si”, where they took samples of the old Irish storytellers, seannachaí, talking about encounters they’d had with the fairy folk. So it’s men talking about “I was asleep one night when I heard the Banshee at my window”, and they used that as the vocal parts of an ambient piece with synths and stuff. I found that whole album really fascinating and distinctive.
Another band I want to mention is Altar of Plagues. When they were recording their second album, I think the drummer was doing a master’s in Irish history in UCD. And while he was studying, he came across this really old wax cylinder recording, like a hundred-year-old recording of an Irish woman keening at a funeral. He showed it to the band members and they thought it was really cool, so they incorporated it into one of their songs. It was called “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean”. So again, it’s like a doom metal song which is bookended by the sample of this woman keening.
O: Is there an Irish pop sound or an Irish rock sound right now or throughout popular music in the 20th century?
F: To me when I listen to Thin Lizzy, everything about them sounds unmistakably Irish. The rhythms sound Irish, the lyrics sound Irish. Like in “Dancing in the Moonlight” when he talks about missing his last bus and stuff, to me that just sounds so emblematic of a certain time and place growing up in Dublin. And certain guitar parts in Thin Lizzy, they don’t sound overtly ‘diddly-aye’, but they have a certain ‘jiggy’ rhythmic character to them. Another obvious one would be Sultans of Ping FC. I can’t imagine them being from anywhere but Ireland. It’s one thing that annoys me about a lot of Irish artists is that the vocalists often make a seemingly conscious effort to ape an American vocal style. If you listen to any Irish pop punk bands, they all would use that nasally American style. On the one hand that’s an artistic choice, but I also think that there’s no sense in hiding or being ashamed of your national identity. Although I’m not saying that you have to be singing about Guinness.
O: Yes because there’s the other side of it as well; the opposite end of the spectrum which is stage Irishness.
F: Yeah like with Crystal Swing or whatever they’re called. You can take it too far in the opposite direction. You don’t have to be super patriotic, but neither should you try to cover up your national identity and I don’t see why if you’re an Irish band, you’d want to sound like an American band, because we’re inundated with American bands. You’d probably stand out a lot more if you didn’t try to pretend to be American.
O: So we’ve talked about a lot of ways that music can sound ‘Irish’. Since you do some production as well, would you say there’s an Irish production sound? Is there a difference between the way Enya sounds and the way an American pop singer would sound?
F: I think if you listen to artists like Enya and Clannad, you can hear a lot of natural-sounding reverb on the vocals. That’s not unique to Irish artists by any stretch, but I think that’s designed to lend the vocals a kind of mystical, atmospheric quality, which reminds me again of the first time I heard sean-nós performed, in a big room with lots of natural reverb. And I think if you listen to a lot of Irish music, for example, the Pogues it often has this rough-and-ready quality. It’s not polished, it’s meant to sound like a bunch of lads in a room who have a few drinks in them.
O: That’s interesting because “Fairytale of New York” is world-famous and is played all the time, but it doesn’t sound that polished or highly produced.
F: Yeah I was talking to an engineer a couple years ago, and she was interning in a studio where they had a trad band come in. She met with the band and she was chatting with them, and she says to them “okay so we’re going to set up the bodhrán player over here, and the uilleann pipes player over here and we’ll have this mic…” and then the band just said, “never mind all that, we’ll do that”. So the producers left them in the studio, and they come back eight hours later and the band had just figured it out. So it has that kind of everyman quality. I suppose in some ways you could say that U2 are the exact opposite of that, because they’re studio nerds that spend hours and hours poring over every guitar tone. But I think that’s part of what makes very Irish music sound Irish, that it has that unpolished, “warts-and-all” quality. I was really insistent on not using Auto-Tune on the vocals in Rinne mé iarraidh for this reason.
O: I know you work on a variety of projects of different genres. When you’re composing, do you make a conscious effort to sound Irish?
F: Well, when I was working on Fós I was thinking, “this singer is singing sean-nós songs as Gaeilge, so that’s about as Irish as you can get”. So when I was arranging the instrumentals, there wasn’t a conscious effort for them to sound Irish. The only time that I remember making a conscious effort to sound Irish was when I was playing with a band called Suzaku Avenue, a kind of metalcore band. We had a song called “Ben Bulben”, the name of a mountain in Sligo. Some of the lyrics were in Irish, and there are certain passages where I deliberately employed jig type rhythms and chord patterns. So that was the only time I’ve made a conscious effort to sound Irish, as opposed to it just happening naturally.
The debut EP from Fós, Rinne mé iarraidh is out now on Bandcamp.