Music and art represent so much more than simple entertainment and expression. In a society that leaves us to fend for ourselves in a kill-or-be-killed wasteland, sometimes it’s all we have. Often times these mediums serve as a vehicle for much higher truths. Truths that can guide one through the labyrinthine corridors of life. Truths that can answer deep questions and reveal hidden natures.
CROOKED MOUTH is the personal folk music of Ian Campbell (HARROW), and the voice of a disillusioned spirit seeking higher meaning in a meaningless world. How do we navigate the world stuck between time, place, and substance? What is at the root of our identity? And what can tradition offer us in the modern world?
In a one-on-one interview with Dylan Atkinson (DSCPLN, Amphisbaena, Rites of thy Degringolade), the two metal guitarists-cum-Canadiana dark folk musicians discuss how the process of discovery deepens by translating a personal, historical journey into music.
Can you give us the origin story on Crooked Mouth?
I actually started it in 2011 when I moved way up north to work at a Fisheries & Oceans [salmon] spawning channel as a maintenance guy. The only thing people do up there in the winter is keep the channels from freezing over, as they are full of salmon eggs. So a lot of breaking ice and plowing snow in minus 40 celsius! I had a lot of free time and brought all my music gear with me. My studio is very portable, so in the evenings I would just write stuff and demo it. A lot of it was based on nature worship almost, because I was living completely alone in nature with only 2 other people in 100 kilometers. In the mornings I would literally talk to the ravens, hear the wolves and linx, watch the full moon in the clear night sky. Some of the riffs were intended for black metal songs, but when transcribed to acoustic guitar I liked it better that way.
The following summer I took a lot of the demo songs, re-recorded them with a few extras, and made the first Crooked Mouth full length. It was very improvisational at that point. I would hit record as see what happens. It wasn’t until I started getting into the traditional stuff that I started doing more structured songs. I always loved folk music from Cascadian black metal side projects, but as I got deeper into folk traditions more and more I really started to appreciate the raw simplicity. Now I see the purity and honesty in that form of music.
There is something so great about a living folk music that we just don’t have anymore. It used to exist in country music: it would explain the entire life cycle of a human being. There is something so profound in that.
It’s really pop music’s job to distract you from the hard truths in life. Meanwhile this music is trying to confront you with these things. Not in a theatrical way that’s trying to shock and offend you – I think it’s trying to deal with real subjects and have some kind of positive outcome. You need songs about reality and hard truths because eventually those things are going to happen to you.
Do you think people are craving something like that. Something more legitimate that the mainstream isn’t offering?
We see that in counter-culture, or not even counter-culture as it’s almost become mainstream for people our age to be disillusioned with the digital and material world. We’re witnessing the death of the baby boomer dream in our generation. I suppose it’s only natural for us to seek things with a more authentic feeling to them. A guide with where we can go in our own lives. People have been through these things before, and maybe we can take some wisdom from them. We don’t really have any societal structure for that anymore. Nothing that serves people to be happy at least. A lot of people don’t even have a family structure. You’re a lone unit.
The title of the album is “Decay”. You live on the West Coast. History is viewed by many as a westward progression and now there literally is no where else to go. Have you thought of it this way?
Absolutely. I often think about where I want to go in my life, and pine for a day when there were unexplored place in the world where a man could make something of himself. The title “Decay” works in the sense of the decay of Western civilization and whatnot. But I was thinking more along a string of my own thoughts that developed over a few years.
I was visiting some friends down in Olympia Washington, and started contemplating some of the place names down there. Olympia? The mountain of the gods. These people had great aspirations for where they were going to live. If you give a place that name, it has to live up to one of the highest ideals that a culture has for a reference point. It got me into the heads of the people that settled this place. I was looking for some kind of counter perception of the modern idea of settler culture as “evil settler white people” trying to kill everything in their path. If we’re being very honest and not judging history by today’s morals, I think the most honest way to judge history is by what was going through those people’s heads themselves. They weren’t necessarily consciously and maliciously thinking they were wiping out indigenous culture, and I’m not at all trying to apologize for that. A lot of these people were farmers oppressed in the places they came from, and out of desperation they decided to leave everything they ever knew. For a place they didn’t even know what looked like, as pictures didn’t even exist. It was a very epic thing they did. They had dreams to build a society on liberty instead of hereditary rights and religious division. So “Decay” is based on how today has completely decayed away from those ideals. We don’t have a narrative on anything aside from produced consumable goods. I say in the title track that if those people could see our times just how disgusted they would be and wonder how things got to this point.
There’s a certain wave of people contemplating “What would my ancestors think about how I’m living right now?” The questionable state of affairs is beyond deniability. Is that important and how does that change things?
I try not to be too judgemental about the average person just trying to live their life. Not everyone can have the experience that could open their eyes to these ideas. Maybe it’s better to live a life of enjoyment? I try not to wallow in a mentality of “humans are such scum”, as it doesn’t really help me personally.
Describe the name Crooked Mouth? When did you make that decision?
It’s a direct translation of my last name Campbell, which was two Gaelic words “Caim Beul”. In my mind, the Crooked Mouth thing actually goes back to my Grade 8 English teacher. He was a huge nerd like me, lent me Dungeons and Dragons books, got the class to draw characters and comics. In role call he blurted out that “Your last name means Crooked Mouth!” and it just stuck with me all these years.
Thinking about Decay’s album cover, there is an old photo on the front and the back is you standing in front of a power station. Is that a conscious old vs. new theme already?
I hadn’t thought of it that way. That back photo is from my hometown Squamish, BC where I grew up for a lot of my formative years. The 2nd half of the album is based around a disillusionment I had living in Squamish. At first I was really in love with that town, but over the time I lived there it got the creeping influence of the city and the culture really changed. I saw this happen. So the song “Farewell to Brackendale”: is the neighbourhood I lived in, and is based on me uprooting and moving to the big city.
Starting a new life is in contrast to an overall historical theme?
The whole album is based on that! It’s supposed to start with my ancestors coming over from Scotland, and bring that idea of adventure coming from a place like Europe to a new land. Then contrast that with my own lust for going somewhere unexplored. I was trying to bring that sort of archetype into the modern world. The personal vs. the historical.
Let’s go back to the cover, where did you find this picture?
It was in a book on logging called “The Loggers” that my grandpa owned. It must have been a popular set of books at one point. It was at my parents’ house and I decided to read through it one day. The image of the logger that high up on the tree doesn’t even do the original picture justice. It has a lot of layers of metaphor to me. How on one level it obviously speaks to environmental destruction (a theme in all my music), and on another level it is a tiny man literally against the forces of nature. The last head being cut off of everything natural and growing, the last bits are being taken away.
Tell me more about Kilburn Campbell. I love the long, ballad style. Who was he?
He was my grandfather. He was born in Saskatchewan after the family had been a couple generations in Canada, and that song is his experience in WWII where he was a frontline artillery soldier. After the war he was so disillusioned with humanity and shell shocked. He then moved to BC and took up being a logger to get as far away from people as possible. Starting anew.
Live we’ve seen you play the full ballad, but I also wanted to ask about another song I’ve seen you play called “Here Comes The Navvies”, which sounds so familiar like a traditional. Do I know this? Is it a traditional? But it’s not a traditional is it?
Not in the sense of it being very, VERY old. It’s actually from the 60’s from The Ian Campbell Folk band. That worked out well …
So it’s Ian Campbell covering Ian Campbell?
I guess so, hahaha! He was one of the main singers involved in the English Folk Revival back then, and he was very highly regarded in that scene. But a lot of people have no idea who he is. I’ll often play music at an Irish/British folk music session here in town. One of the leaders is from Birmingham and I was talking to him about that song. And he responded “Oh! I remember Ian Campbell. I used to see him play in the pub every Saturday night in Birmingham”.
For a sound that I feel is really rooted in traditional music, we can’t even really call you “neofolk” anymore. Although you don’t necessarily do a lot of folk traditionals and write more your own stuff.
I love playing old songs for sure. It’s hard to believe that all the best old traditional songs don’t already have the definitive version. Even in a neofolk context in this scene, multiple bands have done it already. But what can I really add to the tradition at this point? During my ambient performances I’ll do “I Lay Stretched At Your Grave”, but even then there are perfect versions by Dead Can Dance and Witch-Hunt (Blood Axis and In Gowan Ring) that are really great. I have to feel like I’m adding something to the song to be able to play it like that. I did “Here Comes the Navvies” because many don’t know who the old Ian Campbell is and hopefully I can expose him to more listeners at the very least. Often I get my fill of playing traditionals playing with the English/Irish jam at this old Irish music store. We go around the room and everyone names a tune: If you know it you play it and if you don’t you don’t. There’s a lexicon of old music that everyone there knows.
You grew up in multiple rural small places, and specifically Squamish has such a strong presence in your music. What effect does that place have on you?
It was fairly small, but not totally podunk. The thing that changed everything was the Winter Olympics in 2010 in Whistler [which was only half an hour away]. It brought in all the big-box stores and literally put Squamish on the map for people from the city that never knew what it was. Money starts flowing, the yuppies start moving in as they do, and now all you see there is moms in yoga pants pushing their strollers going back to their condos. Squamish used to be a logging town, extremely blue collar. The kind of place where when you walked down the street people greeted each other and said “hi”. Originally I fell in love with this blue-collar, friendly place, and everything changed.
The hand of the city keeps creeping farther and farther in. People who can’t afford to live in the big city any more bring their attitudes and problems to these outer communities. It’s getting to the point where someone like me doesn’t know where to go anymore. I can’t stay here unless I want to just spin my wheels my whole life. The rat race has gotten into every corner.
You talk about your family and history on this album quite a bit, and you name the band after your own name. Does music come from your family? Did you learn music from your folks?
Oddly enough, recently I found out after my grandfather on my other, non-Campbell side passed away, that he used to play accordion all his life. Then I really thought about it, all my cousins and family on that side are all musical just like me. At his funeral there were photos of him playing accordion surrounded by others with guitars and other instruments. If there is a musical gene then it comes from him.
This question is an interesting one, because both my parents are kind of the black sheep of their families. My mother had this adventurous spirit that moved her out of her small town. My dad has had a falling out with his big family of brothers. They were almost like exiles from their immediate family, and they raised me apart from all that drama. So I never really had a family upbringing that wasn’t just my mom and dad. In that way I think the impetus of this album and the exploration of ancestral themes is me trying to find some idea of where I do come from. Trying to root myself.
Doesn’t that come full circle right back to music providing some kind of sign posts for living? Looking for something to push you in the right direction and not seeing anything in your immediate vicinity.
Exactly. My family has been cut off from multiple points of our lineage over the past hundreds of years.
How do you feel about our fledgling little dark folk, neo folk, and similar scenes going on right now? Is there anything in the Pacific Northwest going on? How do we as Canadians fit into this whole thing?
A lot of guys on the west coast are less concerned with exposing their music to a large amount of people. It’s a lot more insular. A lot of them are content to just play the fests that happen there, release things on smaller labels, or just do things DYI. It seems like maybe our group of people (Crooked Mouth, Night Profound, DSCPLN, etc.) are a bit more ambitious to make a bigger mark. We travel to play places and seek to bring our music elsewhere. Not that I mean to degrade anyone who doesn’t share that ambition.
With “Decay” I really wanted to make something that had some kind of Canadian specific flair to it. In the way that King Dude and the like have the Americana vibe. I mean “Canadiana” isn’t really a thing you can put your finger on, so it’s not as easy to represent that sonically. I tried to do it more thematically. But at the same time I’m not singing about maple leaves or hockey! I suppose you have to dig a little deeper to see where I’m coming from. Some people will be able to decipher it.
It makes sense! We’re not going to sing about “Europa” or try to sing songs like Johnny Cash. So you look around as a Canadian, we’ve been around for 150 years so there must be something to sing about. What is it? There’s the struggle with what are going to do with Canadian-ness …
From what I gather it’s always been there. Taking Canadian literature classes in university it’s all you ever talked about … What Does It Mean To Be Canadian? Basically the only solid answers anyone will ever give you is what we are NOT. We aren’t American. We aren’t this and that. What are we …?
You can’t define something negatively and if you spend all your time thinking about it you won’t spend any time doing. What is it about our culture? Here we are existing, but what are the components of that. Are we unaware of ourselves? The Americans seem pretty keenly aware. But then again nothing has really existed like our society. Are we Britain’s poor cousin?
As Canadian neofolk: What are we going to sing about? The Americans don’t have to think about how they’re going to make an American sounding neofolk band. There is a full tradition to reference, even down to a basic guitar playing pattern. Boom, chicka, boom … American.
America seems to always have had a strong sense of who they are as a whole, by the American Revolution. It binds them together and defines their identity in opposition to the British Empire. I went to Montreal for the first time recently, it felt like being in a different country. Might as well have been in Europe. The idea that there is ONE Canada at all isn’t really true. There are the Maritimes, the Prairies’ cowboy culture, Quebec is completely different. These are places with more of a tradition to draw from. We’re also a mosaic of separate cultures allowed to exist and practice old traditions, who all settled in different parts of the country. So to try to define a unified Canadian identity by traditional means just isn’t possible.
Since this interview took place almost a full year since the publishing date, Crooked Mouth has released the highly championed Forget Not tape on Les Fleur du Mal Productions. Currently he is finishing up on a split release with DSCPLN and working on material for another full length album.
Photography credits: Ilana Hamilton Photograph & Factotum Photography
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