Alsarath is one of the most exciting projects that we have covered since starting A Blaze Ansuz, and is an organic expression of the artistic vision that was behind the creation of our project. From Margaret Killjoy, also known from the antifascist black metal projects Nomadic War Machine and Feminazgul, and her co-conspirator Jack, Alsarath is an antifascist neofolk project built from the romantic space of resistance and passion. Their debut EP Come to Daggers brings together a new vision for neofolk that is sparked from a revolutionary space rather than the reaction of nationalism, and is helping to carve out this new antifascist neofolk scene by capturing the genre for our own version of romanticism and folk culture.
I interviewed Jack and Margaret about how Alsarath came together, how their creative process works, and why are open about their antifascism.
How did Alsarath come together? What were the ideas the preceded it?
Jack: The origin story for Alsarath is sort of convoluted: Margaret and I had been scheming about creative projects since basically the minute we met, and we’d started playing around making sort of dark pop music. At the same time, I was writing songs in a doom band in Montreal, which would’ve been my first band, and that band was asked to jump on a bill last-minute with Divide and Dissolve, who I love– but we had broken up the day before. Margaret was staying with me at the time, and she’d written some pretty folkish songs that didn’t fit with the pop project we’d started, and we’d been talking about how it would be cool to start a neofolk project that was explicitly antifascist. So, rather than turn the promoter down, I asked Margaret if she thought we could throw a set together with the stuff she’d been writing, and she said yes, so we started Alsarath and wrote a set in the next ten days so we could play the show.
What does the name mean?
Margaret: I wrote a story a couple years back called “The Free Orcs of Cascadia” about people who start calling themselves orcs and living in abandoned towns during the slow apocalypse of climate change. In that story, one of the holy nights for the community is Alsarath. It’s the last phase of the moon before the new moon, the last little sliver. The new moon is a good time to set new intentions and bring new energy into your life. Alsarath, then, is for letting go. Alsarath is a time of introspection and rejection. It’s a day when you think about all that has not been working for you, that you’d like to be rid of. Either on an individual, relationship, or community level.
This was not Margaret’s first project, how did Feminazgul and Nomadic War Machine inform this new project?
Margaret: Well, Jack will tell you that pretty much whatever genre I write in, I use the same chord progressions and melodies, and they’re not wrong. I like working in a lot of different mediums and genres, because they all inform each other. There are some musical ideas that I can’t get at right in certain forms, so I might abandon a dark pop song and turn it into a metal song, or a neofolk song, or vice versa. But Alsarath is also its own beast entirely because… in most of my projects, I’m the primary songwriter or composer or whatever. Alsarath is one of the first opportunities I’ve had to really collaborate and come up with things more organically, and in some ways more magically.
Jack: I probably wouldn’t have told you that!
How did you integrate folk music traditions into the music? What ancestral traditions inspired you?
Jack: If anything, the lineages that I draw on are medieval European music (particularly English folk songs), and American folk music. I don’t have connections to my own heritage (Ukrainian and Polish) but I have always loved folk music and especially folklore. “Into the Arms of the Moist Mother Earth” started as a cover of The Cutty Wren and then just became… something else. We’re both very much inspired by folklore, but neither of us has particularly strong ties to ancestral heritage, so we draw mostly on universal themes or on mythology we create ourselves.
Take us through the recording. How does the process work? What instruments are you using?
Jack: We write songs collaboratively– usually Margaret will come up with a fragment of a melody or a lyric, and then we’ll spin it out into a song together. Alsarath was initially meant to be Margaret on harp and me on flute, but she didn’t have her harp with her when we started writing songs, so she used piano instead. I was still pining for my doom band and wanted to be able to do something weirder and heavier than just flute would allow, so I added guitar pedals. I like that we can play an acoustic, fairly traditional set, or we can make it noisier, depending on what we want or where we are.
Margaret: I’ve never written songs in quite this way before, and I enjoy it. I know it’s cliche but there’s something organic to our process, and some of what comes out develops subconsciously between us, even lyrics. Yet when things start subconscious, we then spend a decent bit of time talking over the themes, over what we’re trying to say. Over whether the mood of the music or the content of the lyrics fits with our intentions, and then we refine from there.
What is your lyrical inspiration? What is the artistic core of the writing?
Jack: Some of our lyrics are things that Margaret dreamt, others are drawn from folktales, and others are abstractions of things we’ve been preoccupied with– some of the lyrics in Eyes of a Heron, for example, are based on the last words of dead anarchists. In some cases, the songs themselves are spells and the lyrics are meant to invoke something in or for us. We’re telling stories, or we’re singing something into being.
Margaret: I work a lot with my dreams, pretty consciously—no pun intended—at this point. Dreams kind of produce the raw stuff of what I want to create, but the trick is then working them into usable shape, and I’ve been learning a lot about that through this project and through Jack’s influence.
How does your experience as a fantasy writer inform that?
Margaret: It used to bug the piss out of me that I was no good at lyrics. I make my living as a fucking writer, I should be able to write lyrics. Yet for years and years I failed time and time again to write lyrics that were really compelling to me—fortunately, very few of those songs saw the light of day. Turns out though, writing lyrics is just actually its own medium and skill in one doesn’t immediately translate to skill in the other, so I actually had to work at it. I’m still working at it. (As a side note, you know what’s fucked up? John Darnell, the guy from Mountain Goats, also writes really solid fiction. It’s not fair to anyone else that he’s good at both.) Okay that said, just because I have to learn new technical limitations with a new medium doesn’t mean I don’t get a lot out of having written so much fiction. I do. I get themes and ideas that I’ve developed through story (like Alsarath itself) and it’s magical to get to play with them in a different medium.
Why is antifascism so central to your musical space?
Margaret: On a surface level, antifascism doesn’t have a lot to do with what we write about. Like we don’t (yet) sing about drowning nazis in the black ocean and we don’t (yet) sing about those who have fallen, knife in hand, willing to tear apart those who seek their destruction. Well, okay we touch on it a little bit. The politics of our music I think is overt but not as overt as say, if we were a punk band or something maybe. When we sing about the beauty of decay and rot, it’s not meant to be a counter to fascism, but it is anyway. Because (and Jack can explain this concept better than me) the beauty of decay is something that fights against stasis, against forcing the same status quo to always be the status quo. But we call ourselves antifascist very explicitly, and often describe our music as “antifascist neofolk and noise” because the neofolk scene has some… problems. And it seems to me that someone listening to our music should not have to fucking wrack their brain trying to figure out what side of shit we’re on. In fact, knowing what side we’re on probably offers crucial context to better understand what we’re doing. It, ideally, makes the spells more effective.
Jack: The short answer is that it’s central to our musical space because it’s central to both of our lives. I mean, we know that this is a scene that has made a lot of space for fascism. We knew it was necessary to state that explicitly in order for this project to exist. But beyond that, antifascism is like, the bare fucking minimum. It shouldn’t even need to be said, but it does. We know what we stand in opposition to. I am constantly annoyed that I feel like I have to investigate every band I listen to, especially in particular genres but really across the board, to see what their politics are, and I’m constantly annoyed by the “for the riffs” argument– that a band’s politics don’t or shouldn’t matter if their music is good. I don’t want to engage with the artistic products of people who would see me or the people I’m in solidarity with destroyed. Neither of us is interested in being apolitical. Our politics inform everything we do, so of course they inform our lyrics, even if there’s layers of abstraction there. I don’t think we need to be singing explicitly about hating nazis, but I do think it’s important to make it clear that we hate them. We also aren’t throwing “antifascist” around casually– it is not just an adjective that describes our band, and it is not the summation of what we believe.
What role do antifascist neofolk artists have in fighting back against the far-right?
Jack: If you’re gonna exist in this genre and you aren’t a nazi or a sympathizer, you have to say so. That’s the world we live in. You say it so that the far-right doesn’t get to claim this thing for their own. I firmly believe that if you have a platform and you aren’t using it to stand for something, you’re wasting it. There’s a definite sense that “neofolk” just means far-right, but there’s nothing inherently far-right about it– the very idea of folk is one that despises authority, that ought to reject totalitarianism and dictatorial power, but those things have managed to ride in on the coattails of nationalism. There’s something so incredibly intellectually lazy and lacking in nuance and boring about conflating “steeped in or celebratory of a folk tradition” with “the folk from whom this tradition comes are better than all other folk.”
Margaret: It took me a long time to really appreciate the role that art has in revolution, even though I’ve been interested in both, and their intersection, for a long time. Like Jack has pointed out, antifascism isn’t a flavor we’re adding to our music, it’s the background we come from as activists. And I think it’s easy to kind of overstate the importance of the arts, but it’s also easy to lose sight of why they’re important too. Art, perhaps especially music, and perhaps especially folk the way Jack is talking about it, creates culture. The subcultures we participate in sustain us through the fight, but there’s also the larger, overarching culture and there’s a war, an intentional war, being waged by the Right to influence that culture towards values that lead to oppression. It behooves us to fight fascism on every front, including but certainly not limited to the cultural front.
Why do you think the left needs romantic music of its own? Why don’t we abandon romanticism?
Margaret: Because I’m a fucking romantic. It’s obnoxious. I cry all the time and… okay hear me out… when the riders of Rohan crest the hill to see the beseiged city of Gondor. The city that abandoned them in their own hour of need. They scream “death, death, death” and “a red day, a blood day” and they fucking ride off to what they assume is their doom and I fucking cry every time I see it. Because some shit deserves to be romanticized. When something is necessary, like solidarity, let it be beautiful too. Fuck living life ironically, let’s be earnest. Etc. etc.
Jack: There’s this thing where we only talk about “romanticizing” in the negative sense of idealizing something, making it out to be better than it is, but if we’re talking about romanticism as in an artistic movement that recognizes intense emotion as an authentic source of experience– in that case, you can frankly pry my intense emotions from my cold dead hands. The left needs songs that can stir up passion, can pull things up out of the depths of cultural memory or shared experience, can talk about terror and horror and awe– we need them more than the right does. We need to believe in a better world and fight for it with everything we have. Yes, we should be wary of individualism, and yes, we should be able to apply reason– but you can’t tell me you want to live in a world without passion, without awe, without the sublime. I certainly don’t want to.
What other bands do you recommend for antifascist neofolk fans?
Jack: I’m likelier to be listening to music that falls outside of neofolk, like Vile Creature or Ragana, but I always recommend Sangre de Muerdago, and Hawthonn is just a staggeringly good project that is deeply magical in a way we aspire to be.
Margaret: Is it cheeky to just say every version of Irish folk songs and Bella Ciao you can get your hands on? Because that’s what I do. And yeah I learned about Sangre de Muerdago through this magazine and sure love it.
Jack: oh, and Unwoman, who does such an amazing job of playing music outside the usual anarchist styles.
What’s coming next for Alsarath?
Margaret: Well hopefully they’ll open the border and we’ll write a full length. Jack is Montreal, and I’m stuck here in North Carolina.
Jack: Yeah, hopefully someday we’ll be able to be in the same space again! And then we can write more music. We were planning to tour this summer and then everything got cancelled forever– but it’s definitely something we want to do as soon as we can. We’d like to make a music video, too.