The Owl with Big, Googly Eyes
I N T E R V I E W
The Owl with Big, Googly Eyes: A Q&A with Adam Helliwell of Ceolskog
with Ian Duggan
‘Ceolskog’ is a recording project of Adam Helliwell, who has recently released a new EP titled ‘The Owl with Big, Googly Eyes’; his fifth since 2015. Ceolskog combines heavy metal with traditional folk music, particularly Celtic and Nordic… along with a bit of humour. We had a fascinating chat with Adam about Ceolskog; the new EP, the influence of nature and Scandinavian elements in the project, his previous band ‘IronStein’, and more!
HUP: On one hand your intent with Ceolskog seems serious, and I am really enjoying the songs ‘Rakiura, Glowing Skies’ and ‘Mannen og Kråka (Kråkevisa)’ on this EP. But then you have titles for your EPs and albums like ‘Made In My Bedroom’, ‘A Comfortable Tree Stump’, and now ‘The Owl with Big, Googly Eyes’. Your videos are also full of good humour. Overall, how serious are you about this project, and what are your aspirations for Ceolskog?
Adam: I'm really quite serious about the project, although my dedication to it waxes and wanes. In terms of my aspirations, I'm really not sure what the end goal is. I guess I would like the whole thing to keep growing... like a fungus mould in a damp room. Or maybe more like Entoloma hochstetteri, our native blue mushrooms, since Ceolskog has quite a big New Zealand focus. Dear me, I am digressing already. Anyway, let's just say I have no belief that I will ever be able to quit my full-time job. Ha ha!
Yes, there certainly is a decent injection of humour into the whole thing, which I suspect is a carry-over from my last band, ‘IronStein’; full-blown comedy played a crucial role in our live performances. I do feel that if I'm not making a joke out of the whole thing, at least on a certain level, that I am misleading people by trying to convince them — and perhaps myself — that I am better or more professional than what I truly am. In other words, I try very intentionally not to take myself too seriously, otherwise it feels like false marketing. That could be a self-esteem thing, or perhaps I'm using it as a shield against tall-poppy syndrome. But I actually think we Kiwis tend to have that sort of subtle humour in our approach to serious tasks; a good-natured and dry type of self-deprecation.
HUP: Is your music as Ceolskog influenced by other bands?
Adam: Lots of folk metal bands have been a huge influence on my own brand of said genre. But it is the genre as a whole that has really influenced me, rather than any particular band. And I listen to a lot of them. For example, there is Ensiferum and Korpiklaani from Finland, Tyr from the Faroe Islands, Arkona from Russia, Falkenbach from Germany, Eluveitie from Switzerland, Dalriada from Hungary, and Heidevolk from the Netherlands. The Hu is a folk metal band from Mongolia, and they are making quite a buzz at the moment. Even Alien Weaponry could arguably be called folk metal for certain songs of theirs - and although they're not an influence on me, I do enjoy them. I could go on, but you get the picture. I'd say my brand of folk metal is generally less heavy, with a slight New Zealand flavour.
Besides folk metal, Queen has been a huge influence in the sense that they first proved to me that you don't have to restrict yourself stylistically speaking. Just listen to their song ‘Innuendo’. Of course, I also enjoy the more regular kind of heavy metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Metallica, and also traditional folk music (particularly Irish). I love country music and old cowboy songs, and orchestral or ‘classical’ (specifically the Romantic era) music too. All of those types of music have given me loads of ideas for songs and influenced my music in various ways. But there are too many artists, composers and bands to list here. But, if I had to narrow it down to the four bands/artists that probably have had the biggest influence on me, I'd say the Swedish death metal band Amon Amarth, the one-man metal band Bathory, The Proclaimers (which I guess you could label as ‘Celtic pop’), and finally the late, great, ‘Godfather of New Zealand folk music’, Phil Garland. Quite a mix, I know! [continued below]
HUP: While ‘ceol’ means music in Irish, the ‘skog’ part of your name means ‘forest’ in Norwegian. One of the songs on this EP, ‘Mannen og Kråka (Kråkevisa)’, is a metal rendition of the Scandinavian folk song "Kråkevisa" (or “The Crow Song”). A number of your previous songs are similarly sung in Scandinavian languages. Were you fluent in Scandinavian languages before the Ceolskog project? Do you have Scandinavian ancestry? What has drawn you to this region?
Adam: It actually all began with the song ‘Trollmors Vuggesang’, a lullaby that, with slight variations, is sung all over Scandinavia. A slightly creepy lullaby, or ‘litt skummelt’, as a Norwegian may put it. It was a 2010 Norwegian fantasy/mockumentary film about trolls, ‘Trolljegeren’, or ‘Troll Hunter’, which first brought my attention to the song. It also started my fascination with Scandinavian folklore. At one point in the film, Hans, the lead character, actually sings that very lullaby. A couple of years later, I thought it would be a bit of a novelty to record a metal version of Trollmors Vuggesang, and so I did just that! In regards to all the subsequent Scandinavian-language songs I've recorded, they were all actually suggestions, or requests, by Scandinavians who had enjoyed my version of Trollmors Vuggesang. And I guess I was kind enough to oblige!
As for my ancestry, as far as I am aware, it is mainly English and Scottish. I have been told, by a cousin, who happens to be a country-folk musician, that the part of the family he shares with me has Scandinavian ancestry. I myself have not looked into it, so I'm not sure. That part of my ancestry lies in the English county of Derbyshire, which, sure enough, has a little more Scandinavian DNA than the rest of England, but I doubt that is what he means. As to the language, I know enough to catch a bus or order a pizza… or even find a public toilet… but I couldn't have a proper conversation. If a Norwegian person writes a couple of sentences to me online, to compliment me or correct me or whatever, it can take me a few minutes just to translate it!
HUP: Your music videos for Ceolskog are commonly a mix of you at home playing to camera interspersed with scenes of New Zealand nature. I assume that it is this love of nature that has influenced the lead track, ‘Rakiura, Glowing Skies’? Tell us a little about this song.
Adam: Yes, the outdoors and nature has had a big influence on Ceolskog. I'm an avid hiker, and have always had a layman's interest in zoology, geology, paleontology and ecology. I even considered pursuing a career somewhere in that realm of science, but after I failed every subject in my last year of high school, I decided that might not be such a good idea! Anyway, in 2018 my sisters and I hiked the Rakiura Great Walk, in Stewart Island. It had quite an impact on me, as the place is almost a time capsule that looks into New Zealand's natural past. Tui and Kaka are numerous there, and fly around the main settlement, Oban, like you would see sparrows and blackbirds do here in Hamilton. We even saw dolphins swim by. I'd never seen dolphins before that.
The following year, I read a book called ‘Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand’ by George Gibbs, an entomologist. It seeks to give a basic outline as to why New Zealand's plants and animals are so unique when compared to other countries. Oddly, it was reading the book which inspired me to write about my Rakiura trip, as opposed to the trip itself. The chorus has this line: “Rakiura, glowing skies, remind us how land once was”. Because (besides other off-shore islands acting as wildlife sanctuaries) it's as close as we will get! Actually, another song on that album was inspired by a book I read. I composed “Tyrannosaurus Rex was There to See” after reading a book called “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs”, by an American paleontologist, Stephen L. Brusatte. As you can probably guess, that song concerns the asteroid that brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. [continued below]
HUP: Where have you done your recordings?
Adam: In my bedroom at home! It's a very, very basic set up. Speakers, pre-amp, guitar amp, a microphone, a couple of cables, a PC, and of course Pro Tools. I really don't know what I am doing most of the time; the whole process is all trial and error for me. I am not a technology-savvy sort of person. I like mountains, trees and rivers better!
HUP: I had been waiting for ‘The Owl with Big, Googly Eyes’ to be released as an album, but it seems you changed your mind at some stage and released it an EP. What led to this shortening?
Adam: I was actually feeling a little burned out by the project, and decided I couldn't be bothered recording eight or nine songs for an album. I planned to take a break for 2020 and just concentrate on making hiking videos for my YouTube channel instead. So I just went ahead and released the five songs rather than record any more. Naturally the Covid 19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown made any hiking plans impossible. So instead I actually got back into recording songs! A week or two ago I released a folk metal cover of Phil Garland's song, ‘Wind in the Tussock’, via my YouTube channel. So I guess I am working on a new album now! Or perhaps an EP... [continued below]
HUP: Prior to Ceolskog, you had a band that went under the brilliant name ‘IronStein’. Tell us a bit about this band: was it based in Hamilton, how did it differ from Ceolskog, and what happened to it?
Adam: IronStein was based in Hamilton, and was an attempt to forge a folk metal band here in New Zealand. As far as we were aware, no other folk metal bands were playing at the time in our little country. Between you and me, I hated the name ‘IronStein’, haha! Pete [Leftus], our keyboardist and co-lead singer came up with it. The other guys all liked it, and so it stuck!
There are two major differences between IronStein and Ceolskog. IronStein, being a real life band playing gigs, put a much heavier focus on the live performance and comedic elements. Not only did we have an equal amount of silly to serious songs, we also used to have mock arguments onstage, and perform funny little skits to lead into each song! It was almost like a play with songs, and it was a heck of a lot of fun. In fact, towards the end, comedy was starting to become the main focus, which probably wasn't such a good idea. It began to get a bit messy. We were quite often compared to Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords, although I think Monty Python's Flying Circus had a bigger influence on us than either of those groups!
IronStein also had a pretty strong Christian theme running through a lot of our songs. We weren't a Christian band per se, but we weren't far off. This was quite unusual, as generally, when bands of the folk metal genre touch on spiritual or religious themes, they tend to put the focus on traditional, pre-Christian European beliefs and gods, such as the Norse god Odin/Wotan/Woden. There isn't really much of a religious aspect to Ceolskog. Maybe there should be? I'm curious to see how a song about Christ would go down, considering what is typically associated with the folk metal genre! Funny story: We were turned down twice when we applied for the Parachute Music Festival, because they already had “enough bands playing the same genre”. Oh yes, I'm sure Parachute had hosted loads of folk metal bands! Give me a break.
Along that vein, Ceolskog is a sort of spiritual successor to Ceolskog. Two songs from ‘Made in My Bedroom’, namely ‘Ballad of the Lumberjack’ and ‘Leif Ericson’, were originally IronStein songs. With Ceolskog, there is no live band, so I am totally focused on writing and recording. Getting a song together could be quite difficult in IronStein. We did build up a decent repertoire over the three or four years we played together, but with Ceolskog, I can pump songs out much faster, whenever I feel like doing as such.
IronStein died a slow and gradual death over an entire year. Initially a couple of members moved away (one to the north of Auckland, the other to Wellington). The three of us left behind tried to keep it going with new members, but it never really worked out. It just wasn't the same. But during this time I recorded a song by myself on my computer called ‘We Ride Away’. It was intended to be an IronStein song — I think we even played it at a gig or two — but the other guys admitted to me that they weren't so keen on it. After I recorded it under a new name, I realised that what I wanted to do now was make lots of songs, as I had lots of ideas. One day I just said to the other two, “I'm done with this, I want to do that instead”, and they understood. I think. So the band really just fizzled out. But when I catch up with one of the IronStein guys, we have a good laugh back at the nuttiness of the whole thing! I will really treasure the memories I have from that part of my life.
Ceolskog's songs can be found on Youtube, Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music and more. Note: Bandcamp misses a number of songs, including his cover of Slade's Run Runaway, below, from the new release.
HUP caught up with Raglan-based Folktronica starlet Parabola West ahead of the release of her latest single 'New Moon', out tomorrow, April 24. Drawing inspiration from Celtic & Nordic folk roots, organic instrumentation, and electronica, Parabola West’s music is a lush blend of ethereal and enchanting layers. “‘New Moon’ is inspired by the idea of is a deep and ancient wisdom within each of us, passed down from our ancestors. It’s an invitation to explore that possibility and to reconnect with the natural world.”
Kia ora! For the uninitiated, tell us all about Parabola West.
I'm a singer / songwriter based in Raglan, and I write a piano-driven mix of folk and electronica. I love mixing the sounds of ancient instruments with synthesisers and electronic drums, and there is a lot of Celtic and Norse folk influence in the sounds I tend to use.
What or who has driven you to create your own music?
Music has always been the place where I turned to process my emotions. Growing up some of my main influences were Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Enya, Enigma, Depeche Mode, and New Order. (Although my first vinyl was Sesame Street's Disco album and I still listen to "Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco" pretty regularly.) Around my teenage years I started writing my own songs by putting my poetry to piano, and I found it became a sort of therapy for me.
Have you been in many other bands?
Many years ago I was in a UK-based band called Dreamfield. Our music was described as 'left-field-trip-hop' and we split up just before I moved to New Zealand in 2003. I took a 10 year break from music but I never lost the dream, and in 2014 I released a debut EP of original songs under the name Parabola West. Most people in my life at that time were really surprised because they had no idea I was a musician. Also, they thought the name was weird.
How do Parabola West songs come to be?
Usually a song starts with just the raw emotion or idea, and then a melody and a few words might come to me when I'm walking or driving. By the time I'm sitting at the piano, the song starts pushing its way out. Once I have the basic structure of chords and vocal melody, I'll start building a demo in Pro Tools. That's when it starts taking on shape and dynamic. If after all of that I still like it, I send the session to my producers Andrew & Scott Newth and the recording fun begins!
What are your plans for the next year in terms of releases/tours etc
The rest of this year for me will focus on fundraising and recording, with the goal of releasing my debut album next year and celebrating with a tour. Woo!
Ok, 'pretend promoter' time...if you could organise a show anywhere in the world who would be on the bill, will where would it take place, and what are you drinking?
It's an outdoor show underneath the northern lights on a clear night in Iceland. And since this is my dreamworld, I'm opening for Agnes Obel and Aurora. I'd be drinking mead out of a dainty horn, and planning a co-write with Eivør. Dreams are free!
What is the best gig you've ever ever been to?
I was lucky enough to see Prince perform in New Zealand shortly before he passed. He was incredible and captivating and hilarious and overwhelmingly talented.
What is your favourite Hamilton music memory?
Going out to watch a great night of music at Nivara Lounge and then rescuing a stray kitten from their car park who now rules our household.
'New Moon' is released tomorrow, April 24 and is available from parabolawest.com
R E V I E W
No Sound: A Nivara Lounge Fundraiser
Hamilton Underground Press have released a compilation album in support of Nivara Lounge during the COVID-19 lockdown; ‘No Sound: A Nivara Lounge Fundraiser’. Available via Bandcamp, all sales of this album go directly to Nivara Lounge, and all 25 songs on it have been donated by the artists.
Even ignoring the cause, this is an awesome compilation of music. And I write this as independently as I can, having acted largely just as a cheerleader through this process. The release was compiled by Rob Shirlow over not much more than a week. It features an amazing mix of international, national and local bands – almost all of whom have played the venue. With so many songs and stories within the compilation, I can’t cover all the songs here. So I will cover just some of the highlights and stories behind the contributions, and continue simply in my role as a cheerleader for what is a quite remarkable collection of songs.
Starting with the international contributions, tracks have been provided by Spiral Stairs of Pavement and John Davis, formerly of Folk Implosion. Both have donated what appear to be exclusive mixes of previously released songs. Spiral Stairs, who played at Nivara Lounge in December 2017, contributes ‘No Comparison (MHZ Mix)’, a seemingly exclusive alterative mix of a song that appeared on his ‘Doris and the Daggers’ album from that same year. Similarly, ‘Solo Silhouette’ by John Davis, who played the Lounge in June last year, also appears to be an exclusive; this is an alternative version of his song ‘Silhouette’, which appeared on his 2013 ‘Spare Parts’ album. Both of these, as with many on the album, are simply fantastic songs, and their contributions are exceedingly generous for a couple of musicians from so far away.
Nivara Lounge has provided some good crowds for The Bats on their last two visits to Hamilton, and the band have been very kind in return. The Bats have provided an unreleased song, ‘She’s Down’, which arose from the sessions of their 2011 Free All the Monsters album. If you love The Bats as I do, you will love this song! And The Bats themselves obviously rate the song, stating on social media: “We’ve selected our best unreleased song”. This gesture clearly shows their appreciation of our venue. I think it is worth noting also that the backing vocals for the recording were added to the song only a few nights ago, especially with this compilation in mind. Continuing with the generosity, The Bats frontman Robert Scott has provided a solo effort, ‘State Highway 6’, which is another album highlight.
While most of the rest of the bands on the compilation have played at Nivara Lounge, the first track is a notable exception. This was a track submitted anonymously by ‘r.p.i.l.d.’, and titled ‘I Love Nivara Lounge’; “This is a song about my happy place”, it begins. This song really sums up what Nivara Lounge means to so many people, and it serves as a great compilation opener, to keep our thoughts on what this compilation is really all about; “City park placement, the Tron’s best basement; It pushes all my buttons, but not when I am shut in”. Brilliant stuff. Who is this mysterious musician, and what is r.p.i.l.d.? Well, the following appeared on the Hamilton Music Wiki from an anonymous IP address, that explains at least part of our question:
Former members of Hamilton favourites from the ‘90s, Inchworm, have contributed a couple of songs. Now Japan-based Justin Harris contributes one of the songs from his solo project, Elider; interestingly, the song he contributes, ‘Waterdog’ (from his 2017 ‘Redbird album’), was composed live on the Nivara Lounge stage, way back when it was called JBC. Meanwhile, Scott Brodie and Rob Talsma appear in the UK-based GROK, having contributed an exclusive track “GROK 58 - Modern Hazard”, not released on any of their previous albums. This one starts out as something like Kraftwerk, and ends up somewhere near Sonic Youth. Inchworm appeared together in a sold-out one-off reunion performance in 2016, while the Hamilton version of Grok played at Nivara in 2015.
Other songs on the album include (semi-) locals The Scones’ ‘Ode to The Mountains’, the strongest track off their wonderful 2017 ‘The Greasy EP’, while Matthew Bannister, a.k.a. ‘One Man Bannister’ contributes a laid-back poppy number, the appropriately titled ‘Splendid Isolation’; it was likely written with Dunedin in mind, but certainly works well at this time. Another highlight is the Broadcast State track, ‘Abide’; their appearance on this compilation represents the release of their first ever song as a band, and certainly leaves me wanting to hear more. Bitter Defeat contribute ‘Superior Avoidance Tactics’. Bitter Defeat were booked in to record their debut EP on what ended up being the first weekend of the lockdown, so this song is one of their earlier released demo tracks, featuring only compilation organiser ‘Rob Shirlow’ without his extended band. CnC provides a point of difference to the rest of the album, with an awesome hip hop track, ‘Ko Wai Au’, which helps represent the breadth of music that can (usually) be heard at Nivara Lounge. Tracks are also contributed by Sora Shima (the excellent ‘Calor Humano’), Rumpus Room, ORBJKS, Glass Shards, The Recently Deceived and Rubine.
A number of out-of-towners also contribute songs, many of whom played at Hamilton Underground Press events, others not, including Wellington’s The Fatalities, Auckland’s Carb On Carb and REPAIRS, Tauranga’s Flogging a Dead One Horse Town, Oamaru’s The Trendees and Masterton’s Pencarrow.
Many of these bands may be more-or-less familiar to many listeners, so as with any good compilation, this release also provides an opportunity to experience some new music. And it is all yours for a $10 minimum donation! So, if you are able during this time, support our local venue, and listen to some great music, by grabbing this compilation from Bandcamp!
Always A Lizard
I N T E R V I E W
Always a Lizard: An Interview with Gwyn Morgan of Lizard
with Ian Duggan
Lizard formed in Hamilton in 1993, and were active — on-and-off — until 2012. Lizard are currently remastering and re-releasing the bulk of their back-catalogue digitally. They are also jamming again, and working on new material. We talked to Gwyn Morgan, bass player and vocalist from Lizard, about how they formed, their influences, and which of their songs he feels have most stood the test of time!
HUP: Tell me briefly about Lizard; when did you form, how would you describe Lizard’s music, and who were your biggest influences?
Gwyn: Lizard formed in 1994. Keith [Wright: vocals, guitar] and I were good friends but in different bands. Both of our band’s split up. So we started a new project with a few other friends and started writing new music. My brother Rod [guitar, vocals] joined later that year and Mark Brightwell on drums when Th’ Clap finished. That was the line-up for the ‘Rumours’ EP.
Our music covers a wide range of styles as Keith, Rod and I all write and sing. Reggae, funk, rock and punk all featured through our music. Our influences are Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ramones, Dead Kennedy’s, Fishbone, Suicidal Tendencies, and Infectious Grooves, but also Van Halen and Black Sabbath, and we evolved into a surf punk and funk band.
HUP: You are re-releasing your early album and EPs online. What are the releases, and when were they originally released? What has made you release then online at this stage?
Gwyn: Our first EP ‘Rumours’ was released in 1996, our first album ‘Dave - Once A Lizard, Always A Lizard’ was released in 1998 and our second EP ‘ZFS’ (Zesty Fruit Slice) was released in 2011.
No Lizard releases have ever been released digitally. In October 2018 my brother Rod and I released our ‘Morgan Brothers Band’ EP ‘Kin’ digitally through DRM. That went really well and it led to Rod, Keith and I agreeing to remaster and re-release the Lizard back catalogue.
DRM are great to work with, and after ‘Kin’ was released we had a lot of people asking where they could get our Lizard albums.
HUP: How do you think the songs have stood the test of time? Are there any songs you are still particularly proud of?
Gwyn: I think the songs are still great. Because we have a variety of styles it works well.
‘Rumours’ is a great song off our first EP and really got Lizard our start. ‘Chocolate Fish’, ‘Boris’ and ‘Take Me Away’ off the Dave... album got a tonne of airplay, and that album sold over 3000 CDs. Off ZFS ‘Never Seem The Wiser’ is a great track.
HUP: For people that haven’t head Lizard before, what three songs from these releases would you recommend someone have a listen to, and why?
Gwyn: ‘Rumours’, ‘Boris’ and ‘Chocolate Fish’.
HUP: Where online can people find the releases?
Gwyn: Spotify, iTunes, YouTube and 30 other streaming or download platforms.