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!
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]
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]
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]
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.