Pablo Ursusson is the creative heart of SANGRE DE MUERDAGO, a folk group birthed out of the mysterious romance inherent to his native Galicia, a remote region on the northwestern edge of Spain. Over the years, rotating backing lineups have revolved around him through the band’s album cycles, but Pablo has always remained a calm centre, providing confident voice, gentle guitar, and dancing hurdy-gurdy. The band has steadily grown with each release, touring Europe, North America, and recently even Asia. They’ve recently returned to North America shores for the third time, and are playing a string of dates up and down the west coast.
Ian Campbell (CROOKED MOUTH, HARROW) travelled to Vancouver, BC, to play as a backing member of NIGHT PROFOUND at a concert featuring Sangre De Muerdago, and Oakland California’s LATONA ODOLA. Before the music began, Ian and Pablo sat in the green room talking about folk music, the particularities of Galician music and soon paused so Ian could record it as an interview on behalf of the Covenant group. What followed was talk of language, poetry, DIY ethic, and mistletoe.
We pick up the conversation here:
Ian: We just spoke a bit about Sangre De Muerdago being recognized more abroad before you were accepted at home in Galicia. I’ve watched the band grow, starting off in the neofolk scene, releasing your first album via Brave Mysteries on cassette, and now you’ve grown to the point of touring in Asia. It seems like the band has graduated from its small beginnings into almost a sort of world music group. What are your thoughts on that?
Pablo: I’ve listened to folk music my whole life, and once we got to record the first demo and then the first album, that’s when I got to know that there’s a neofolk scene. I didn’t know about it before, and we definitely don’t come from there. I know that part of our audience is from there, I’ve got to know very beautiful people in that scene too and we’ve made friends with a few very interesting bands. But, the general feeling of our band is being in a sort of no-man’s land, belonging to no scene at all, but at the same time, belonging a little bit to all of them. Our audience is always super diverse and there are people from many different musical backgrounds. Even the musicians who play in Sangre have many musical backgrounds, so it is a nice mixture.
We never had any target. I think when your band plays a specific genre or you are deep into a scene you have things to target. Probably you want your album reviewed in this or that magazine, released on this or that label, or to play at certain places. But, we’ve released albums with such a diverse spectrum of labels, we are signed to nobody, we have a couple of offers on the table from bigger labels, but we like the motion things are going and we are happy. We get to record, play around the world on different continents. Last year we went to Asia, which was a total surprise, but of course we’d do it! I’d say our aspiration is simply to play music and go around the world with it.
Ian: I’ve been amazed watching you guys grow and seeing the things you’ve been able to do with very little outside support. I always wonder “how do they do that?” but it’s just organic, I suppose.
Pablo: Yeah, I’ve been playing music for many, many years in many, many bands, from punk to everything else, and always with a very strong DIY spirit just because we wanted to do things on our own. And, somehow with Sangre it just worked the same way. We just do as much as we can ourselves, and, slowly, things just happen. The band recorded the demo 11 years ago already, which is quite a long time. I’ve never had a band that’s survived this long, or got to release 4 albums. I think the maximum with my other bands has been 2! Then we’ve always moved on to something else. But Sangre became some kind of life-commitment many years ago and I think we’re just not the kind of people who like to sit down and wait for things to happen. We like the make the things happen. If no one is knocking at our door, we open the door and go out. The first time we came to North America nobody knew us.
Absolutely nobody, I’m pretty sure! But, we got invited to the Stella Natura festival, and that was a good excuse to book three weeks of concerts around the west coast of the United States and I did it all myself. I just made contacts, wrote people, and made it happen.
Ian: Before I started recording this conversation we were talking a bit about your homeland of Galicia and Galician folk music. I was wondering about the language itself. Is it a dialect of Spanish?
Pablo: No, not at all, it’s a language of its own. It is one of the four official languages of Spain.
Ian: I’ve heard that under the Franco regime that languages like Basque were actually banned from being spoken-?
Pablo: So it was with Galician as well. The language was very damaged during the dictatorship. Brutally damaged. All the teachers from Galicia were sent to other parts of Spain to teach in Spanish and Castellano. And then they would bring teachers from the south and other parts of the country to teach the Galician kids in Castellano. And all the smaller languages spoken in other areas like Basque, Catalan, or Galician, suffered a lot.
Ian: Folk music and language are very obviously tied together, and it’s interesting to me to see how folk music has been tied in many places to a sort of cultural rebirth, for example the Irish incorporating a lot of Gaelic into their music as a sort of remembering of who they are. I feel like Sangre might be taking part in that sort of phenomena for the Galician language.
Pablo: My reason to speak and sing in Galician is that to sing this music that I write from the depths of my heart, this is the deepest way I can find to feel it is singing Galician. I don’t think I would feel the same way about the songs if I were to sing them in English, or Spanish, for example.
Ian: You’ve had a few songs in English over the years, though.
Pablo: Yes! Only 2. “Haunted Glow,” from the demo [and re-recorded on Deixademe Morrer no Bosque]. That was a song written by Jorge, who was a founding member of the band, who passed away in 2009. He wrote that song, and he wrote it in English. We don’t have to force things to be in a certain way. Same as it happened with the other song, “Paths of Mannaz.” It just happened that I wrote those lyrics one day, not necessarily thinking that it was going to be a Sangre song. Those lyrics came to me in English. I’ve spoken English for many years, my wife is German, we speak a lot of English. It became my main language for a long time. So those lyrics just came naturally in that language and I didn’t want to force them or translate them. And I liked the piece and thought it would be good for Sangre even though it was written in English. No other reason than that.
Ian: So it could potentially happen again in the future?
Pablo: Absolutely! It hasn’t happened since then, but of course it could. Sometimes I even think of writing a song in German because I’ve lived in Germany for six and a half years. But, when we talk about it, it always winds up as more of some kind of a joke!
Ian: This question relates a little bit to language too; the name of the band, Sangre De Muerdago, meaning Blood of the Mistletoe. I know about the Mistletoe’s connection to Nordic myth, being the plant that can kill Baldur, the invincible god of light. Is there a mythic connection in Galicia? The name to me can conjure many images, and I’m wondering if there’s a specific one for you.
Pablo: I’d say it is a compound of different things that brought us to that name. We really wanted to have the name of the plant in the band’s name because of all the mythology and also the medicinal side of the plant, the Druidic tradition, and so on. And, also the singularity of the band itself, often in the folklore it is considered a plant in-between worlds, between earth and sky, because of never having roots on the ground, always being a parasite plant living on other plants. It’s been said the mistletoe stands between realms.
Ian: It certainly fits with your idea of not belonging to any one musical world…
Pablo: Somehow, I never thought of that, good point!
The plant appears in many traditions. In the Druidic tradition the mistletoe is one of the most sacred plants. They gather it only with little golden sickles, and it can never touch the ground. It has many different medicinal properties. And also, the druids only gather the mistletoe from oaks, and not when it grows on other trees. They consider the Oak to be the king of the woods, so the mistletoe is the crown of the king. And they are collecting that crown.
When we recorded the demo is when we baptised the band. We had it very clear that we wanted the word Muerdago in the band’s name, and we ended up with Sangre De Muerdago.
Ian: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was the process of adapting poems by national poets. The new album has the song “Longa Noite de Pedra,” which I know is adapted, and you’ve had several other songs that have taken inspiration from Galician poets. This would seem like a very daunting task to me. Do you find it to be difficult?
Pablo: Well, each song has a different story. I’ve adapted 3 poems into our songs. The first one was by a poetess called Rosalía de Castro (Sangre adapted her work into the song “A Xustiza Pola Man” from the Braided Paths split with NOVEMTHREE). She is quite a literary and historical figure in Galicia. She lived in the 1800s and was a one-of-a-kind woman. A very independent, strong writer, and at the same time she had such roots in Galician history and the way in which she describes things.
That poem is really visceral. It is a story of the vengeance of a mother who loses her children because of social injustice. She loses her children because some powerful people kick her and her children from their house and they end up living in the woods and roaming around, and in the wintertime the kids die from hunger and cold. Then the mother takes vengeance. It’s an incredible poem, it gives you goose bumps. I had always wanted to write a song for this poem. And one day it happened.
The story of the second one, “Longa Noite De Pedra,” happened because the poet, Celso Emilio Ferreiro, is just such an incredible writer. He’s one of the main writers you read in school when you’re studying Galician literature, language, history, and such. It happened that a couple of years ago that I came back to one of his books I had read while I was in school. I’ve turned 40 this year, so of course you perceive everything in a very different way. When I read his poetry 30 years later I was very touched and I could somehow relate to him and the way he wrote about the land itself; the woods and the stones, and the collective folklore, and all the myth and mysticism that we all carry in our hearts through growing up in that part of the world. There’s a very specific feeling in the air in Galicia. We have some words that don’t exist in any other language. So there’s that. That thing. He can turn it into visuals in this magisterial way.
Same story with the third one. Manuel Maria is unbelievable. I can picture my Galicia in Maria and Ferreiro’s words very, very strongly. And the stories are very different. Ferreiro’s is a story of suffering and the death of human freedom, and the Maria’s is just the most incredible love poem I’ve ever read.
Actually the song (“O Amor”) is just an extract of the poem. I love those words so much that somehow I wanted to put them into a song. And its not something I force and think “I want to adapt a poem,” it just happens sometimes.
[We hear Latona Odola begin to play inside the venue]
Ian: That seems like a good ending point, I think they’re playing now, should we go watch?
Pablo: I’d love to!
Sangre De Muerdago is touring the world promoting their new album, Noite, which is available on multiple formats, and comes highly recommended.