Part of what has created the antifacist neofolk and left/folk scene is a group of artists whose antifascist awareness came after they are already embedded in the world of neofolk, then looked to build an alternative to the edgelord Nazi imagery and occultic white nationalism lingering at the edge of that musical world. Autumn Brigade has stood out as one of the rare projects that was built on a stripped down, classical neofolk sound, yet breaking with the political problems that many similarly sounding bands are known for. Their new album Gates of Heaven is a testament to this, a massive step forward for their musical life, but also a time machine to the founding days of neofolk in the mid-1980s.
We talked with CJ Halstead of Autumn Brigade about their new album, how neofolk’s early years influenced their sound, and how they broke away from the scene’s “apoliteic” defense and drew a line in the sand.
How did the new album come together? Is there a theme that binds it?
Well, the new album came together shortly after the release of my demo “Our Love Is Endless.” I received such positive feedback from it, as well as attention from journalists after being featured in the Left/Folk compilations, I decided that Autumn Brigade should keep going as a project. I released a split EP November 2020 with my comrade in tragedy Adam Norvell of Peace Through Decay. I really liked the songs I made for that EP, and I decided “Why stop there? Those songs sound like the beginning of an album!” A year passed, and here we are: “The Gates of Heaven!”
In terms of themes, I explore political upheavals, sadomasochism (BDSM), occultism, personal introspection, and Christian esotericism. Those have become the defining “themes” of Autumn Brigade, if you will.
The cover will really stand out to folks, what is it and why did that image resonate? What was it like working with Jay, our comrade from DEAES and left/folk?
I originally designed a cover for the album based on a statue of Czech national hero and protocommunist Jan Žižka. I was unhappy with the artwork after a while, and made an alternative cover featuring a brutalist statue of soviet soldiers. Once again, I was unhappy with the artwork after a while, and reached out to Jay for help. Jay’s artwork was breathtaking, so I used it for the album. I think it resonates with listeners because it plays with a “martial aesthetic” that has become synonymous with neofolk in a way. It’s refreshing to see a very left-wing take on that aesthetic. Working with Jay is always a treat, they’re always bringing something new to the table that adds so much flavor and depth to my artwork and music, I’m very glad to call them not only a comrade but a friend.
There is a really classic, Western European neofolk sound. That is obviously the best known corner of the genre associated with fascism, and your work stands to break their hold on that scene. Most antifascist neofolk or left/folk bands actually avoid a lot of this corner of the neofolk sound, but you’ve sort of staked your claim on disallowing that history to keep defining the neofolk scene. What’s your relationship like to the rest of the neofolk world, and how does neofolk at large influence your work?
To be frank it’s a very strange relationship. For each bit of praise I get, I get a lot of hate-mail from more “traditional” neofolk fans, it’s quite amusing. I’ve come into contact with “bigger names” in the scene than me, mostly through just sharing my work and having it out there. The person I’ve talked to the most is Tony Cesa of Destroying Angel and OIS. I’ve been sending him song ideas and whatnot and he’s always been the first to give much needed constructive criticism, or offer advice when I’m having writer’s block. I can’t think of anyone else who’s been this helpful, or who has just been the most enthusiastic about where Autumn Brigade has been going outside of the Left/Folk community. While I was at Psycho Las Vegas last year, I had the honor of meeting Nathan Gray of Boysetsfire and Nathan Gray and the Iron Roses. He had been following Autumn Brigade since its inception and was very impressed with my discography thus far. We talked for a long time over coffee, and I got to see his set at The House of Blues. Talking with him about Autumn Brigade was an amazing experience. Showing my music to the doom metal and non neofolk acts I’ve played with as well, like Dee Calhoun from Spiral Grave and Iron Man, Bert Hall of Mangog, Mike D of The Age of Truth, and Tommy from Tribes of Medusa gives me a lot of motivation to keep going forward. And to bring it back to the sound it started with, which a lot of people end up associating with Current 93 and Death in June.
There’s the obvious debate around Douglas P and Death in June that has been going on ad nauseam since the genre’s inception. Is he a nazi, or is he not? Whether Douglas P is a nazi or not, I think the blatant use of fascist imagery in the way he did is rather irresponsible as an artist. You have groups like Laibach and people in the fetish community who use this totalitarian aesthetic to either make a statement about mass media and the music industry being the real fascists in this modern era (such as what Laibach did), or an exploration of the taboo in a safe and consensual environment (such as what my comrades in latex do during sex). I believe in artistic freedom, I really do, but satire is dead. You end up empowering the wrong people when you try to satire something that has already been satirized to death. Even if the whole Nazi thing is a cheap joke or something sexual, the fascist chic is bland and overdone. Be either politically straightforward, or don’t delve into politics at all. Especially in this age.
To be honest Autumn Brigade began as a joke made between a friend and I about Douglas P being a secret communist, and Autumn Brigade’s original symbolism and aesthetics came as sort of a situationist’s exercise in détournement (a subversion of images and spectacles that enforce the system, sort of like culture jamming). Everyone I speak to who loves neofolk says their first exposure was Death in June, however they want something without the cryptically fascist imagery, or something they can listen to without it being a guilty pleasure. You have Current 93, Chelsea Wolfe, Sonne Hagal, among others, whose sound was influential. But that still doesn’t change the fact that underground music; especially black metal and neofolk, have a nazi problem. Trying to find “safe artists” is one thing, but it doesn’t do much when the fascists are showing up to shows. It’s rather unfortunate that the underground is such a contested space, but what do you do? You contest the space even more. You push back.
How does the growing militancy of the fight against fascism affect your tone?
I try to convey a sense of urgency in the themes of my work, especially when I am dealing with antifascist themes. We are running out of time, and our comrades are divided. We must come together in order to meet the multitude of challenges that meet us before we lose our rights to exist and the planet we call home.
What advice do you give to other bands deep in the neofolk scene about standing up against white nationalism?
Don’t give up. Keep your chin up, and keep up the fight. You may be dismayed, you may want to give up, but don’t. This is our fight, and we must march together. You are fighting not only for you and your comrades, but for future generations to come. March on, and remember Our Love is Endless!
Tell me about the song Partizan!: what are the lyrics about, how did the last two years of antiracist protests impact it, and what is the audio that is layered underneath the track?
The song came to me while doing some reading about the Yugoslav partizan brigades under Josip Broz Tito during the second world war. Historians regard them as possibly the most effective brigades in their resistance against Nazism. While I was in Italy before the pandemic, I talked to comrades of mine who were immigrants from that area who talked to me about Tito and his partizans. You could say I’ve had an infatuation with resistance of that caliber since. I would say that I hope that songs like this become a rallying cry for a new world, “Do you hear the people cry?” We’ve been demanding justice, freedom, and equality for eons. I want my songs to inspire people to act, especially those who have been silent in the past.
The liner notes talk about who you hurt and who you hate. How is this idea of trauma, responsibility, and harm prevalent in your work?
When you are hurt, you hurt others. My music and my art is introspective in this way. I’ve dealt with a lot in my youth, being bullied to the point of attempting suicide, sexually abused, emotionally manipulated. I’ve hurt others by repressing it, by buying into an idea of masculinity sold to me since I was young, that men have to be these stoic monoliths of physical and sexual prowess. It hurts more when you have to repress the fact that you are bisexual not out of the fear of what your family will say (they are some of the most supportive and loving people on the planet), but for what others will say. I bought into this culture, and I hurt a lot of people by being just as emotionally manipulative and verbally abusive as people were to me. I am deeply ashamed by that, and I want to learn from it and grow so that I can do better.
Autumn Brigade is a self help project just as it is a cry for help. I want to reach the people I have hurt to tell them that I am sorry, that I am learning from my mistakes, that I am moving forward while holding myself accountable for my actions. I want them to be healed by my music as well. I want them to feel something peaceful, something calm, something that makes them dance, something that makes them smile.
I also want my music to be a message to my abusers, and to those who believed them when I came out against them: I am here, I am strong, and you will not defeat me.
Trauma is a very painful and strange thing, especially when we’re trying to overcome it. We end up hurting others as much as we have hurt ourselves, either intentionally and unintentionally. When you’ve been made aware of what you are doing is toxic, you should make amends, apologies, and change yourself. Actions speak louder than words. Be better, be strong, and know that you are loved.
What influence did your exploration of Eastern Orthodoxy have on the new album?
That is an excellent question! Eastern Orthodoxy influences me in a multitude of ways. I am a very spiritual person, in my own practices I incorporate Orthodoxy, Germanic Paganism, and elements of magick. I don’t know what you would call that. The establishment of the church would call it “heresy.” That being said, I discovered the Eastern Church a while ago through my readings into different faiths. I stumbled across the writings and wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, who was canonized as a Saint by the Patriarch of Constantinople in 2013. His writings were full of beauty and wisdom beyond words. I have felt him speak to me ever since. I plan to write many songs about him.
I also discovered the zine “Death to the World” started by Justin Marler after he left Sleep to become a monk in Alaska. I can’t say that I was moved, or agree with, all of the articles written by the monks who continue to run that zine, however a lot of them had a huge impact on my spiritual practices. I also had off and on conversations with Marler. He is a lovely man!
While on the album, I referenced Saints from the west (my last track is a reference to Saint Francis of Assisi), the title track was written with my spiritual practices in mind, as well as how they shape my political thought. “The Gates of Heaven” is simultaneously an anthem for a new generation of activists, as well as a prayer for our success, and our safety. Future songs will explore my meditations in the wisdom of the east in more depth.
Your music has an almost ironic element, of taking some of the classically problematic elements in some neofolk bands and them flipping it on its head, making it antifascist instead. How are you playing with those elements found in neofolk and reframing them from an antifascist perspective?
As stated previously, the whole band started as a Situationist Prank. I like to stir the pot, and it’s amusing to me to see some of the messages I get in response. The mask, the camo, the hammer and sickle that I dawned on album art and on stage, getting people riled up is fun. It’s even better when you’re upsetting the right people! I also like to take the whole homoerotic and sadomasochistic elements that were present since the genre started, and just run with it until I’m out of breath. Not only because it angers people, but because I’m a bisexual man who is in the fetish community. Representation at its finest!
What was your songwriting process for this album, both lyrically and musically? How has this evolved since your last album?
The songs on “The Gates of Heaven” are more “fleshed out” than on “Our Love is Endless.” I sat down to think about each song more, about what I wanted to say with each song, how I wanted to say it, and how I thought it should sound. I would record tracks once I had everything plotted out, if I liked it, it was off to the mastering process! If I didn’t, I would sit on it until I listened to it later when I had more ideas on what the song needed. There’s more instrumentation, a better sound quality than on “Our Love is Endless,” and a more diverse use of instruments and genre exploration on this album compared to the last. Some songs came through the typical song writing process, others came almost from a higher power through dreams or just sudden jolts of inspiration. I feel some sort of higher power speaking to me whenever I make music, a power that is good, a feeling that makes me be at peace with the world, and something that tells me to keep going. I try to convey this in my music.
What bands have been most influential in writing this album? What new bands have you had your eyes on?
“The Gates of Heaven” was influenced by the sound of classic neofolk bands like Current 93, Spiritual Front, Sonne Hagal, and Chelsea Wolfe. I discovered Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio recently, and I have since fallen in love with their music, as they explore a lot of the same things I do. Dee Calhoun has released solo work, very dark and gritty americana. It’s beautiful in its texture and its emotions. I hope to open for him more in future shows.
“Death Rides a Panzer” is one of the most striking songs of the album, probably one of your shifts from earlier work. Walk me through how you built this, where the influence came from, and how it breaks people’s expectations around martial industrial? How is it, for example, an antifascist song?
I listen to a lot of death industrial and power electronics. A lot of it is very dark and foreboding not just in its subject matter, but also in its sound. I wanted to invoke those same feelings for just one track. Just one. I want people to be motivated to fight fascism, because the song explores in its sound what will happen when they take power. Death doesn’t ride a Panzer anymore, nowadays it marches in the streets. It’s up to us to stop it, and sometimes a “what if they took power” is enough to motivate people to fight this very real threat. I sampled nebelwerfers being shot, clips from the Soviet War Movie “Come and See”, a long with sounds of people screaming. All overlayed with synths and drums.
I’m interested in how you’re expanding the genre you’re integrating, not just taking influence but really reclaiming them as your own. You have taken the musical styles most associated with the far-right and taken on a decidedly antifascist perspective, refusing to let any style of music be owned by fascists. Now you are pushing even further on this. How has martial industrial and apocalyptic folk started to emerge in your work?
The “joke” that started Autumn Brigade lost its charm, if you ask me. I want to carve an aesthetic unique to me, unique to who I am, and what I want to explore with my music. I want to incorporate Dark Americana, as well as more post punk and industrial elements, something to give it a warm, but sensual allure to it. Since I relocated to New York, I’ve had other influences as well. The music up here has a darker feel to it, as well as the kink community up here too. Exploring myself in both of those scenes has influenced me greatly, and I hope to capture it in later releases!
What role has the growing antifascist neofolk community had in your work? How can we build more IRL relationships coming out of the pandemic?
I want to create the soundtrack for the revolution, help bludgeon into shape an insurrection to dance to. Talking with my comrades from Ulvesang, Peace Through Decay, The Anxiety of Abraham, and others has given me so much hope and inspiration. The best thing one can do to make lasting relationships from this mess we call the pandemic, is to talk with one another, to let them know that we have each other, even when we feel entirely alone, to let them know that Our Love Is Endless.
What’s next for you?
I hope to release more music in the future, as well as play more live shows with my comrades. I’m rehearsing with my comrades in New York, so that when Autumn Brigade returns to the stage, we will take the world by storm!
I also want to explore other genres as well. I would love to do bluegrass or industrial, perhaps even black metal if I can get everything I need together and in order. I hope that this will happen soon, and I hope to craft a new world from notes and melodies.
Autumn Brigade is featured on the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, as well as on the various collections released by left/folk, some in collaboration with A Blaze Ansuz. Make sure to pick up their album from their Bandcamp, and add our playlist linked below.