ThisIsNotAScene finally caught up with James O’Ceallaigh of Altar of Plagues after their blistering set at Damnation Festival 2011. Having subsequently been lost in the venue for a few hours the guitarist/keyboardist was ready to collapse into an arm chair and talk about ignoring reviews, dressing up as a clown, saving the world and the tyranny of misbehaving amps!
You have gone from relative obscurity 5 years ago to being celebrated fresh faces both in the UK and worldwide. How has the journey been?
We just started doing it for ourselves, and it still is for ourselves. We never planned to tour or play live. Then once we got the opportunity to do it, we did. It’s been amazing, playing music we feel very passionately about and people seem to like it, so that means a lot to me. It’s been very good.
While your roots are undoubtedly knotted in black metal soil, your music embraces progressive and ambient soundscapes. How did you your sound develop?
I’ve always been into every type of music that there is, so for me it’s more about the mood and the overall feeling that the music conjures up rather than the style or whether it’s metal or not. I never planned for it to be particularly diverse, it just came out that way, and it feels right. We welcome any sort of sound that fits in with the mood of the song. It basically came from a joint eclectic music taste.
Your experimental sound and the fact you have a legible logo and have left all the theatrical trappings of BM firmly in the pound shop seems to have landed you in the “post BM” camp. Would you agree with this tag?
Not really. It makes sense in that it’s something new that’s come from black metal but I think the word “post” has a lot of negative connotations. It’s quite suggestive; I’d like to think we can’t be pigeon holed as a post- sort of band. We aren’t interested in labelling ourselves and at the end of the day I think genres and labels are there so you can put it on a shelf or know what magazine to put it in. So it doesn’t bother me, but I wouldn’t accept the tag as being true.
So is that what led you to distance yourself from the whole image?
Well, I was never interested in it. I love some old black metal bands, and bands that do it all for the right reasons and their heart and soul is in it, and when they put that corpse paint on, for them it’s a sort of transformation, but for me firstly I don’t feel that I need it as a medium to engage with the music , I also began to find it quite childish and a bit repulsive and people were just doing it for the sake of it and for me that’s just like dressing up as a clown for no reason. That’s why we didn’t do it; it felt like it would be silly.
You have been hailed as Ireland’s response to the Wolves in the Throne Room. Do you agree with this comparison?
I suppose I do. Its timing, we were around at the same time. I’ve no issues with this; we’ve been doing our thing since before we heard of WITTR. It’s interesting in metal because people often feel threatened when they’re compared to something but I find it quite reassuring when there’s a movement doing the same thing at the same time, and we’re both quite successful. It speaks volumes about people and what they’re ready to hear. It’s really interesting that different people on different sides of the planet can start to develop the same sort of ideas and approach to black metal. From what I understand they take a lot from old black metal but stand away from it a lot too and i guess we feel that way. We are very different and have a different purpose and ideologies to our music and I think there’s enough difference that it’s not an insult.
2011 has seen the release of your second studio album Mammal. What has the reception been like?
Pretty good. We were intensely involved with it in the recording and mixing and again with the art work. Then the work is finally done and it feels really great when you can listen to it with the art work and everything it’s amazing, but then it leaves our hands and goes over to the metal label and the shops. I tend to shy away from reviews and stuff, I never pay much attention to them, but the label’s done a really good job and we enjoyed making it so it was a good process.
You have said in the past that your previous album White Tomb represented the earth. Does Mammal represent the human side of the story?
Yeah, Mammal is more human and very personal. It’s the first time I’ve done that, and I’m glad I did. It added a depth of meaning to the music for me. I know we get called that ‘eco black metal’ thing and I don’t agree with that either. For us the music and the lyrics are the same, we don’t plan, they just develop. White Tomb was one thing and Mammal was another, it just developed naturally. I was a little apprehensive about sharing something so personal with people but it seems to be OK.
The album features field recordings and samples of eerie singing. How did you collect these and decide to use them?
I’ve always been interested in field recording and I love the idea that every layer of the album is personal. So there’s no fake synthesiser sounds on it, it’s all 100% from us. I’ve always enjoyed field recording and it felt right to bring it into Altar of Plagues. There’s such a wide variety of stuff. Things like weather patterns. Basically every field recording I can trace to a time and a place. It’s nice for me and the other guys to be able to retain something personal when everyone else gets the album and they have the music and the lyrics and the artwork. There’s still a level of it that we can have for ourselves. The keening, which is a chant performed before a wake in Ireland, its quite old so you don’t hear it any more, its considered quite pagan by Christians at the time, so we were lucky to be able to obtain an original recording of that, it completes the album in a good way.
One of your themes of choice is the environment and how it has been damaged. Is this a matter close to your hearts?
Yes, it’s actually what I do in my non musical life. I’m involved in conservation I’ve done research in various places and work in Ireland too. As a person I’m really concerned with preserving the interesting things the planet has before we destroy it with these places like MacDonald’s and Starbucks or whatever. For one or two that’s a part of the band but overall I don’t think its intentionally a part of the band. I think individuals interests will find their way into the band, and that’s what happened with White Tomb but I don’t think we need to do it again.
How did you enjoy your live performance today?
It was great once we solved the amp problem, it was a disaster. It happens every once in a while, but it’s a real kick in the teeth when something goes wrong with a show. Especially when there are a lot of people and we’re quite excited about playing. We roll with the punches, we don’t want to stand there and look baffled. What makes it very hard for us is that we do get deeper and deeper into the music so it’s like being woken up abruptly when something goes wrong. It’s hard to get back on the horse so to speak but we did and we were really happy with the show.