What does it mean to build an anti-colonial dark folk sound in the heart of a colonial empire?
Byssus is a two piece, Burl Wood and Taylore, using their guitar and accordion to paint a dark melody that is equally sun drenched and spiked from the cold of the woods. There is an incredible simplicity to Byssus that also hails to the synthesis that their music provides, equal parts folk melody, singer-songwriter storytelling, and the dark hum of an accordion.
We interviewed Byssus about their history, how anti-colonialism drives their music, and what antifascism means to this ghost of a neofolk genre (which they may or may not really be a part of).
How did Byssus come together? Was this your first project?
Prior to the formation of Byssus, we played in a similar project called Inle Elni. We picked up some of the most resonant threads and wove them into a new incarnation, with similar themes of grief, celebration, and resilience. We have been members of many different music projects and musical communities throughout the years across genres and subgenres: folk (traditional, dark folk, and folk punk) hardcore, crust, etc…
What does the name Byssus mean?
Byssus is the name of a type of traditional weaving that uses gold threads from the mussel species Pinna nobilis, which involves maintaining a relationship with the mussel sea beds and diving hundreds of times to collect sea silk for a single woven piece. There is only one known remaining byssus weaver in the Mediterranean that continues this art. In a recent interview she spoke to the impossibility of this practice being commodified. It is not scalable and it is not practical. The art of byssus weaving is a beautiful example of devotion to deep connections with other species, and with the sea, which involves slow, painstaking care, and a refusal to be alienated from ones creations.
How do you write songs? Where do the lyrics come from?
Most often, we will independently bring ideas to one another, stories with melody in an almost complete song-form, and then invite new layers and directions from one another, resulting in an ultimately co-created song.
Taylore: The lyrics to many of the songs I’ve brought to the project emerge from states of grief and wonder, and often involve some kind of invocation or invitation. They are songs for healing, courage, defiance, and steadfastness in a simultaneously horrifying and beautiful world. I’ve used song-writing to bolster my own discouraged spirit, to collect fragmented parts of myself and tie them back into the natural world, and to share the strength I found in that deeply personal process.
Burl: I start most songs on the piano or guitar, and often write words later that layer over the main melody. For this album, a lot of the lyrics were inspired by anthropological works about mutualistic species networks of survival and the possibilities revealed by acknowledging that the earth is not made up of individualist competing species, but made possible only through the ingenious relationships between living beings. Our forgetfulness of these intrinsic ties (often obfuscated by imperial propaganda) is something that has been termed as our “amnesia”, whereby the cultural memory of these sacred and vital relations to one another is either immediately lost because of our forced severance from the land, or systematically written out of history through what we are taught. I guess a lot of the words in these songs were informed through a deep listening to the landscape and what has happened here, and how life finds a way in the midst of disaster.
What instruments are you working with? There is a strong guitar core, but you seem to layer sounds, how does that usually come together?
Resonator guitar is present in all songs, accordion most. Songs begin with and are either led by guitar or by accordion, and we very much center our voices. We’ve both been involved with very vocally driven projects in the past including choirs. The most ecstatic part of crafting and playing the songs is harmony. The droning and bass is held in most of our songs by the accordion, played in a fashion unlike the jaunty or bouncing stylings of accordion, more like an organ. We usually bring a series of parts (often without a clear chorus-verse song structure) to one another and then accompany and support the core with harmony and complimentary melodies.
There is a strong sense of anti-colonialism in your work, how does that inform the music?
Our songs are written from the relentless grief and terror that results from disconnection and also from the desire to be woven into deeper relationship with the natural world. It all starts with a recognition of the story of the land, and the ongoing effort to displace people from it. We write from occupied Ohlone territory, where many waves of colonization have brought dramatic and horrific assaults to the Indigenous communities that have been living here since time immemorial. Despite this, there are incredible and resilient efforts on the part of native peoples to protect and restore their cultures, traditions, and the land. We believe that knowing this ever-unfolding story, what has happened and is happening, and how that shapes everything around and inside us, as well as contributing to a culture of solidarity and responsibility is integral to our work as musicians, story-tellers, inhabitants of this place. Empire is insidious, the experience of dispossession, disconnection, and disenchantment is what we are trying to undo.
There is also a persistence to survive in the face of ecological collapse, how does this spirit inspire the music?
We turn toward the wisdom and creativity of other species and the bonds between them (both obvious and subtle) that are enduring this time of ecological devastation and loss. We also believe that through turning toward grief, rage, and wonder we find hidden reserves of strength and the motivation to keep moving.
Our album is dedicated to the resilient interspecies entanglements that defy the logic of empire by their very existence. This is where we draw strength and inspiration. We learn about interdependence, mutual aid, solidarity, seasons, cycles, and larger time and it helps us understand what is needed to outlast and dispel the global industrial society of alienation, extraction, and domination.
Why is it important to be an openly antifascist band?
Colonialism, nationalism, fascism, racism and the industrial growth societies that requires them to keep growing, effect everything, all of us, all species, restricting migration patterns, destroying habitat, while disrupting traditional ties between people and their ancestral land and driving police violence and murder on the border and in the cities. We live in a country that was built through genocide, slavery, and ecocide. The white supremacist and neo-fascist ideologies that have always festered below the surface or behind the smoke mirrors of politics, have been emboldened as of late, and to outwardly express opposition to them, to refuse them at every turn and in every form, shouldn’t even be a question, when their creeping tentacles are searching for whatever population, whatever subculture will let them take hold and strangle any life worth living out of existence.
How does antifascism inform your music?
We need beacons of strength and solidarity. We need art and music made in defiance of fascism and empire. We need art in celebration of life and the legacy of resistance the precedes us and will live after us. These sentiments imbue everything we do. What feels important is telling the stories that have brought us here and what realities are possible when we are connected to each other, dreaming something else into existence.
Have you experienced white supremacy in the neofolk music scene?
Taylore: I wouldn’t necessarily call our project “neofolk.” But in terms of the overlapping dark folk, neofolk, black metal, doom, and punk scenes, I have witnessed at times a disturbing tendency to reject any sense of social responsibility. Beyond complacency, people sometimes adopt an attitude of hipster anti-morality, which is fucking dumb, and very obviously stems from both benefiting through and having distance from the very real and violent consequences of racism and white supremacy. I think when people begin to flirt with ideologies of a crypto-fascist sort or anything with racist over or undertones, or are producing nothing other than masturbatory shock-value experiences, then it is undeniable that white supremacy is at play. I’m unimpressed with and uninspired by the edgelords out there, which isn’t to say that music and art can’t be brutally provocative and interesting but it’s pretty obvious when people aren’t being sincere and performances are not connected to anything real or meaningful.
I think people can create music that is inspiring and moves people to lead deeper lives and they don’t always have to have the same political identity, subcultural references, or alignment with a particular scene. We don’t have to deliver identical tropes but I do want to know what people are about. I haven’t felt the need in general to pigeon hole this music project with a genre. My music has personally been influenced by punk (and the ethos that comes with it,) crust, metal, Eastern European polyphonic music, Americana, and heavily by the experimental/chamber/post-rock bands like A Silver Mount Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Not to mention all the misfits and freaks with their lovely spirits that I have played with throughout the years.
Ao to sum it all up, I just want to know what drives people and if a part of that isn’t liberation for all peoples and the earth then, well…that’s pretty pathetic and uninspiring.
What can fans and musicians do to stand up to fascism in the scene?
Don’t be a hipster edgelord. Give a shit about the people and land around you and participate in the struggles for liberation that exist everywhere. Live a big, beautiful, engaged, and defiant life, and don’t settle for anything else…don’t be seduced by false power or cling to statuses, don’t buy into the illusion of hollow belonging offered by insular scenes. To participate in the old and ever-unfolding story of resistance to empire, civilization (whatever you call this thing we are undoing) will inevitably involve acting in solidarity with those who suffer the most at the hands of it. Make being a part of this story your everyday goal and you will see where things need to be rooted out, inside and outside yourself, then root them out, however slow, and painstaking that process is. Write and share music that inspires resistance and fierce love and make your whole life about bringing something better into being, you’ll have to fight for it, so find the people who are down for that.
What’s coming up for the band? Any tours or releases in the works?
Another album in the works. A West Coast tour (this summer.) A Violin (we hope, we are looking.)
What bands do you recommend for antifascist neofolk fans?
There are too many dear, sweet people out there to name…really.
Along the lines of dark folk projects, we really appreciate Sangre de Muerdago, Latona Odola, Organelle, and Vradiazei.
Ragana (Oakland, sludge/punk) and Divide and Dissolve (Melbourne doom/drone) aren’t folk at all but are excellent and not shy about their ideas. And so is Thou (Baton Rouge, doom).
Taylore: I’m pretty excited about Vouna, a black metal/doom band from Olympia with members of some of the bands listed above.
I also gotta say. I got records by Ludicra (Another Great Love Song) and A Silver Mount Zion (This is Our Punk Rock) when I was 17 and it changed my world forever. So I recommend them, just cause.
Burl: Lankum (anarchic-folk/traditional) out of Dublin, Ireland, the Warsaw Village Band (traditional choir-esque) from Poland, and the Cranberries (obviously).