A defining feature of the neofolk scene and the genres surrounding it is the revolving door of musicians, based in the shifting sands of collaboration. This has been the power of the scene of experimental neofolk, dark folk, ambient, and otherwise bands we have been covering recently, working out new musical terrain together. A Stick and A Stone has been one of these projects that we have been watching for a long time, and with their upcoming release we thought it was a perfect moment to sit down with them and talk about how this incredible project came together, how folk music draws inspiration, and how they are existing in the new antifascist world.
How did this project come together, and how did the relationship form with your collaborators?
Elliott: I formed A Stick And A Stone in 2007 as a solo project, though frequently collaborating with a wide range of guest musicians. When I started playing with drummers in 2013, and first with Dani in Philly, I got a taste of what it was like to have more participatory collaborators, because writing rhythmically was foreign to me, and I couldn’t play those songs solo.
I met Myles in Portland through playing shows together, and in 2015, I started working with him on recording viola for The Long Lost Art of Getting Lost. (Oddly enough, after a year of playing together, we found out that both of our estranged dads also coincidentally play in a jazz band together back in Philly!)
Soon after, I met violist/vocalist Maria through working on the Black Lives Matter-inspired recording project of our mutual friend Sina. Then, we met violinist/cellist Stelleaux through a queer classifieds post that Myles made. Suddenly this magical string trio was formed, and when we all started practicing and performing together, something clicked. Four years later, they’re all somehow still putting up with me (mostly, hahah).
I also still love playing with guest musicians, and hope to find more drummers to work with soon.
How does your music and lyrical writing process work? Does it come together in collaboration, or is it very solitary?
Elliott: Mostly pretty solitary, though I always welcome input in fleshing things out. I write best when I am alone and in motion, with very little distraction. These days, this often looks like walking in the woods and belting at the top of my lungs when I think no one is around, then hiding behind a tree when I see other humans approaching, hahah. Back in Philly, I didn’t have any nearby woods to walk in, so I wrote by singing while I rode my bike through the streets late at night.
Unless I’m playing piano or bass when lyrics come through, I usually start with the vocals. The lyrics unfold simultaneously with the vocal melodies, the same way that the cadence of speech comes through naturally when you’re in a conversation. Most of my songs are some sort of conversation, even if just a conversation I’m having with myself.
The instrumental arrangements I write often start off as vocal harmonies, then later get transferred to whichever instruments fit the part. I used to notate my ideas on sheet music, but I’ve been spoiled with collaborators who can mostly learn everything by ear.
What folk traditions do you draw on for inspiration?
Elliott: Melodically, I’m definitely influenced by the Jewish traditional music I grew up immersed in, and still listen to. Some of my first experiences on stage as a child involved singing Hebrew songs at religious gatherings. (My religious upbringing is really complicated, though, so I’m not going to unpack that can-of-worms here!)
I’m also largely inspired by the droning harmonies of traditional Balkan choral music, which I was first introduced to while singing in a protest choir, then got to know more deeply when I later formed an acapella Balkan trio. I was fascinated by the ways the lower harmonies seem to move up and down throughout the scale, but when you look at the sheet music, it’s all just one note.
Myles: Interesting — I’m part Lithuanian, and something that struck me recently was learning about the Lithuanian dainos vocal tradition of Sutartinės, which are these very layered old cannon melodies chanted on top of each other in groups. The vocal intervals are alternately dissonant and harmonic, depending on where they intersect. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of recording my viola parts knows how much I love creating a similar wall of sound.
I also crawled out of a major depression once by impulsively joining a Georgian polyphonic choir that rehearsed in a friend’s house who had been singing the music since she was a child. In Baltimore, I played in a Gamelan group that raised money for tsunami relief performing inside the embassy of Indonesia in Washington DC.
A current bandmate of mine who’s involved in radical Jewish music preservation in Philly was nice enough to teach me some Klezmer music this year. I’m really grateful for all these experiences.
Paganism, particularly heathenry, immediately jumps out in the music, largely from the art and the instrumentation. How present is that in the music for you?
Elliott: This depends on how you define Paganism. I don’t worship any gods or goddesses, and I actually don’t know much about Heathenry. I do know that the word pagan originally came from the Latin word ‘paganus’ which meant rural, rustic, or ‘of the countryside.’ To me, this speaks to the relationship of pagans with plant and animal spirits, the animist nature of paganism. I’m an animist in the sense that I experience everything as alive in some way. Not just plants and animals, but all material existence, everything.
I used to do rituals with some activist pagan communities (of the Reclaiming tradition, mostly). I was originally drawn to paganism because it is a Mystery tradition. After leaving the fundamentalist religion I was raised in, I became a devoted agnostic, as a path of striving to embrace the unknown and let go of the urge to explain or define everything. Over time, though, I have started to feel weird about the religious conviction and Eurocentrism I’ve encountered in many pagan spaces.
These days, I feel most at home in “Jewitch” circles, and still practice what some might refer to as witchcraft, though the increasing commodification of “witchy-ness” has left me seeking other language for my practices.
Myles: I am not a pagan, or religious at all for that matter. I feel no void of faith there, personally. I do have distant relatives on the Lithuanian side who practiced elements of Romuva. I’m wary of a lot of elements of paganism and heathenry for the same reasons Elliott described.
There is a mention of witch hunting in your tracks, is that a theme that plays in the music?
Elliott: I wrote Witch Hunter when I was thinking about the commonalities between witch burnings and modern-day police repression. Though that’s the only song that directly alludes to what we think of as witch hunting, a lot of the issues confronted in my music have roots in the same imperialist ideologies that fueled witch hunting. (Silvia Federici’s work, particularly Caliban and the Witch, probably makes these connections better than I can explain here.)
How does antifascism inform the project? How does the climate crisis play into your work?
Elliott: Well, we currently live under a fascist regime. There is a very small oligarchy of the mega-rich who own and control everything, including armies of cops and military forces to keep it that way. We live in a post-apocalyptic era; the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples and cultures was, and is, an apocalypse. Climate crisis, already underway, is inextricably linked to fascist colonization, and so much knowledge on how to live with the land has been burned and destroyed.
These are crushingly devastating times to be alive in.
I write music as a means to get through these dark times. Not just to survive them, but to grieve them, to heal through them, to keep building the strength to protect what is left of land and culture. Grieving all that has been lost to fascist colonization is necessary to move forward and keep fighting it, and there is very little room for grief in a capitalist system that profits off of every form of distraction possible.
One of the radical potentials I see of dark, emotionally heavy music is that it can make space for such mourning. It can de-stigmatize openness around death, or the emotions we’re supposed to hide in order to uphold the status quo. It can be a rebellion against the pressure to put on a happy face and pretend this is all ok, just business as usual.
That said, I’m not trying to get stuck being bogged down by this shit, either. I also write music to honor and uplift what I hold sacred, what I love fiercely, what I am fighting to hold together and defend. This is especially apparent in our upcoming album, Versatile, which we’re releasing this summer.
Why is it important to be publicly an antifascist band?
Elliott: In this white supremacist culture, it’s important for all white people, whether in a band or not, to be publicly and outspokenly anti-racist. Put simply, silence is compliance.
In the context of the music scene, this is particularly important because there are unfortunately a lot of crypto-fascist bands who are very discreet and covert about it, and we want to do everything we can to separate ourselves from them. Our violist Maria’s other band, Aradia, whose art and merch is now adorned with anti-fascist symbols, were inspired to make their values more explicitly identifiable after cancelling a performance when they discovered that another band on the bill were crypto-fascists.
Aside from visibly representing ourselves as anti-fascists, it is also important for us to actively engage in anti-racist organizing and resistance. Many of us who play in A Stick And A Stone also work with various grassroots activist groups, such as Critical Resistance, an organization working to dismantle the prison industrial complex, which is one of the main tools that the current fascist regime uses to control us.
I’m going to include viola collaborator Myles for the rest of these questions because he’s had more encounters with the neofolk scene than I have.
Myles: We’re culturally nearing a boiling point where being apathetic and not having some solid position against fascism is becoming less and less of an option for anyone sharing this planet, given the extremity of some people’s increasingly “proud” negative racist misogynist politics.
Have you experienced any far-right or racist attitudes in the neofolk scene?
Elliott: This is an interesting question because we actually have never referred to our music as neofolk or considered ourselves to be a part of the neofolk scene. To me, ‘neo-folk’ has always been primarily associated with neo-nazism. That said, some people have classified our music as neofolk because bands in that genre tend to use somewhat similar instrumentation and minor-key tonalities as us, though often hold vastly different values.
I do want to note that we are a band of mostly white people, usually performing to audiences of mostly white people, and wherever you have a group of white people, you’re inevitably going to confront racist attitudes. Whether they’re outright bigots or well-meaning liberals, no white person is completely immune to racial ignorance. We all have ongoing work to do to unlearn colonialist mentalities, and it’s our responsibility as white people to educate and challenge each other.
Myles: While trying to find a home for the previous A Stick And A Stone release, Elliott and I dropped an offer from a European record label when we found out they were also pressing Death in June recordings. More specifically, although I don’t consider any bands I’ve played in to be neofolk, I have had the misfortune of problematic people from the neofolk subculture lampreying onto some my bands, mainly my old chamber group Disemballerina.
Like A Stick And A Stone, we were made up of all queer people, but at one point magnetized this fringe population of embarassing Nordic-pagan folk-music enthusiasts with closeted racist politics.
On more than one occasion, a band I was in got asked to play private events, only to later learn, with great disgust, that we had inadvertently shared the room with random attendees who wrote for alt-right publications and hosted holocaust-denier author events. We got the fuck out of that whole scene pretty fast, burned some bridges with sketchy people and eventually, after some friends reported alt-right book tabling at the neofolk festival Stella Natura, reached a point where we wouldn’t play with any band under the “neo folk” banner whatsoever, just to be safe.
As a disclaimer, I have plenty of friends who are involved in that subculture who aren’t alt-right racist garbage bags, I know they exist. We just weren’t taking our chances. The patriarchy and homophobia we encountered being a part of metal scene is bad enough.
What is next for you?
Elliott: After we finish releasing our next album Versatile, I have enough songs written for two new E.P.’s that I’m looking forward to record. One will be an acapella album akin to Björk’s Medulla. The other will be louder, with doom-inspired bass riffs, drum collaborations, and of course, more string arrangements.]
Myles: I’m about to move to New York for my boyfriend. I’m excited for A Stick And A Stone’s new record! I built a glass harp for this one and really love the lyrics on this new album.
Elliott: Thanks, Myles!
Are there any bands, or antifascist neofolk bands, we should be checking out?
Elliott: I don’t know of any neofolk, but I can recommend some anti-fascist folk music.
(Of course, since it is Euro-centeric to use the term ‘folk’ only in reference to European folk music, I’m using ‘Folk’ in its true definition here, to mean any traditional cultural music that is played by the common people, that is accessible and speaks from the people’s experience.)
Some folk-inspired musicians at the top of my list include the Turkish revolutionary psych-folk-rock of Selda Bağcan (especially Selda 1976), who was imprisoned three times due to the radical political nature of her music. Or Miriam Makeba, who used her music to raise awareness about apartheid and, after being exiled from South Africa, became active in the US civil rights and Black Power movements. Both of these singers have really powerful vocals. As a vocalist primarily, I’m always seeking out vocal inspirations of any genre.
Other examples include Syrian protest singer Samih Choukeir, or the anti-colonial music collective Tinariwen, whose cassette tapes were used to pass tactical communications between scattered Tuareg independence fighters. The list goes on… Our cellist on the new record, Sei Harris, runs a show of non-European music on Freeform Radio under the moniker DJ Mock Duck, which could be another resource for finding other anti-fascist folk musicians from across the globe.
I also want to highlight the music of a couple of our fellow anti-fascist transgender musician friends who died this year: Nia of Displaced who was sent frequent death threats from alt-right bigots, and Dani Summers. I actually met Dani on the street at a counter-demonstration to a march organized by an alt-right group. We were both walking with canes that day, and he came up to me, saying, “Hey! Us anti-fascist cripples gotta stick together!”
Myles: I play viola now in a two piece band called Forgotten Bottom. We’re named after a Philadelphia neighborhood and are inspired by working in the city shelter system here, the extremely depressing level of gentrification happening in my home city, and the opiod crisis that has killed many people I love. We have a tape coming out this summer.
I’m also in an A/V improv project called Ominous Cloud Ensemble, which has a rotating lineup of musicians, currently and perhaps most proudly including members of Sun Ra Arkestra.
Apart from that, some current bands I like a lot: Jupiter Blue, Leya, Ala Muerte, Ooloi, Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Persephone (dc), Show me the body, Las Sucias, Elizabeth Colour Wheel, Eartheater, Du.0, Darsombra, Lurch and Holler, Rectrix, Moodie Black, The Dreebs, Like A Villain, Ariadne, Solarized, Blew Velvet, Dolphin Midwives, Madam Data, Human Beast, Irreversible Entanglements, Dream Crusher, Burning Axis, Møllehøj, Mal Devisa, Caspar Sonnett, Daes, B.L.A.C.K.I.E, Hermit High Priestess… I’ll stop.