Dave Donnelly talks with Cruachan‘s Keith Fay ahead of a rare Dublin gig for the band, one of Ireland’s top metal exports. We’ve played parts of Russia I’d never heard of,” laughs Keith Fay, vocalist and guitarist with Dublin folk-influenced black metal act Cruachan ahead of their headlining gig in the Village on Saturday night, with support from Celtachor.
“As far as I know we are the only Irish band from any genre that regularly tour in Russia. In one place we were the first western band to ever play in the town, and the mayor came to honour us. There were 300 people at the gig and they had Cruachan t-shirts, posters, CDs, everything. They even had these perfect-quality bootlegs!”
So popular are the group in eastern Europe that their biggest headlining show to date – in front of roughly 3,000 people – took place thousands of miles away from home in Moscow. “It was such a brilliant experience to see so many people, in such a faraway place, come to see us.
“Hearing them sing every word of our song, looking at people from the stage and actually seeing how emotional they are to be seeing us live – you can’t put it into words. It is what had kept me doing this for almost 20 years. They even have better merchandise for us over there! We saw Cruachan pins, t-shirts, posters and everything. We were reaching in and taking them – we had to steal our own merchandise!”
It has long been a source of frustration for Irish metal bands that they command larger audiences in remote parts of Europe than in their own country, but it’s a particularly bitter pill to swallow for those whose music is so strongly linked to the nation’s cultural heritage. For the guts of 20 years, Cruachan have been at the forefront of the Celtic metal genre, pioneering the fusion of extreme metal with traditional Irish music alongside contemporaries like Waylander and Primordial.
“This is a one-off gig – we only play Ireland once in a blue moon. Our main audience is outside this country, although having said that we have noticed more and more people from here getting into our stuff. We haven’t played Cork in years. We played in Sligo a few years back and it was incredible. Who knows, maybe we need to look at playing more outside Dublin as it is too easy just to arrange a quick one off Dublin gig.”
There are more practical concerns as well. “All of our touring time is based around our holidays from work, so we’ll only have a couple of weeks to spend on tour, so when we have some time off, we’d rather spend it touring South America or Eastern Europe where we have an established fan base than doing small gigs around Ireland.”
Cruachan’s sixth studio album, Blood on the Black Robe, was released early last year on the iconic British label Candlelight Records – the first instalment of a three-record deal for the band. “I knew some people at Candlelight USA way back from when we were with Hammerheart. With the move to a more extreme sound I contacted them and when they heard the ‘I Am Warrior’ demo they were more than happy to offer a three-album deal.
“We had and still have a great relationship with AFM Records and they are a really professional label, but we felt they were more focused on the whole German heavy metal thing so we needed a label that will work for us and promote us all over the world.”
Despite the loss of singer Karen Gilligan following the release of The Morrigan’s Call in 2006, signalling a return to the bleaker, black metal style of earlier records, Blood on the Black Robe has proven a critical and commercial success. “The reception has been great,” says Fay, “the best of any album. We were worried that hardcore fans might not like the fact that Karen is no longer our vocalist but I think we gained more fans than we lost with the more extreme approach. Having said that, we still have female vocals on some songs and more than likely will always have female vocals in the future.”
The past few years has seen a boon in folk-infused metal acts, with younger Irish acts like Darkest Era adding their weight to the muscle of the established acts, but the bulk of the breakout acts emanate from Europe, with Swiss act Eluveitie’s recent appearance in the Billboard charts a recent high-water mark for the genre.
“[Eluveitie vocalist] Chrigel actually emailed me back when he was starting the band telling me how much he loved Cruachan. They’re one of the few bands of that type who have a proper respect for traditional music, but their metal parts aren’t really my cup of tea – it sounds like very generic heavy metal. There’s nothing catchy about it. To be honest, the direction they are all taking was another catalyst to move to a heavier, more extreme style.
“Those sort of groups seem to focus on the whole happy drinking song, folk-type of vibe and, coming from Ireland, I know there is a lot more to folk music than that so I wanted to explore themes of sadness, despair which Irish folk music is full of. As for Viking metal… there is no defined Viking music at all so they opt for these Spongebob-style sea shanties. Yuck.”
Saturday night’s show in the Village marks the end of an era for the band with the departure of bassist John Clohessy, but also the start of something new following the addition of a second guitarist, Kieran Ball. “John always said he’d leave the band when he turned 40 and he wasn’t lying! It will be an emotional gig– a few tears may be shed. We’ll also have Karen back for the night. We always have a female singer when we play live as so many of our songs have female vocals.
“Bringing in a second guitarist is something we should have done a long time ago as we have a lot of guitar on the albums and could never really pull that off live – until now. Well, hopefully – we’ll see on Saturday night how it works!”
Cruachan play the Village on Saturday, April 14th with support from Celtachor.