The Toronto band plays Saturday, October 27 at the Gates of Heaven. (Photo: Völur is, from left to right, Lucas Gadke, Laura C. Gates, and Jimmy Payment. Photo by Victoria J. Polsoni.)
Since 2013, the experimental trio Völur has been exploring the sonic relationship between doom and atmospheric black metal, Nordic folk, and even ambient music. The Toronto-based group, featuring violinist Laura C. Gates, Blood Ceremony bassist Lucas Gadke, and Do Me Say Think drummer Jimmy Payment, released its sophomore LP, Ancestors, on German label Prophecy Productions (also home to blackgaze innovators Alcest) in June of 2017.
Prior to Völur’s short US autumn tour and a stop at the Gates of Heaven synagogue (302 E. Gorham St.) on Saturday, October 27, with local openers Decarabia and Louise Bock, we caught up with Gadke about the origins of the band name (with connections to the anonymously attributed writings of the Norse Poetic Edda), his inclusive composition process, tackling heavy music without the stereotypical electric guitarist, taking uncommon inspiration from Swiss Zäuerli (yodelling), and some ambitious release plans for 2019.
Tone Madison: I need to clear up one thing first: What’s the proper pronunciation of your band name?
Lucas Gadke: It’s Vōl-ər. It’s an old Icelandic word, so I don’t know how to say it in [their tongue], but that’s kind of the pronunciation that I’ve chosen to use.
Tone Madison: Oh! Because of the umlaut over the o, I was putting too much much emphasis on that letter. I was saying like “Vou-Lure” (as if it were somehow French). [laughs] How did you collectively decide on that name?
Lucas Gadke: It comes from an old Norse word [völva], which means like a seeress or woman who can see into the future. And one of the most famous poems from the Poetic Edda, which is where we get a lot of Norse mythology, is called “Voluspa: The Prophecy of the Seeress.” Basically, Odin rides down to the gates of Hell, and resurrects this dead woman and gets her to speak about the history and future of the universe—what’s going to happen towards Ragnarok or Doomsday. And I thought that was a really cool image, obviously. And the idea of these fates who are seeresses. A musical group named after that really appealed to me.
Tone Madison: Is the poem attributed to a specific writer or is it an anonymous part of a general text?
Lucas Gadke: Yeah, it’s in a collection of old Norse poems from the 13th century, and that’s the Poetic Edda, which has verse poems that detail a lot of myths… and it’s thought that’s how we currently know them.
Tone Madison: Shifting to discussion about your latest record, Ancestors, as opposed to 2016’s Disir (pronounced dē-sər), I feel like the chamber folk and drone elements on this new album are little more upfront. And you’re working with even more extended long-form pieces. Has the writing process been as collaborative this time around or has someone taken the lead on the writing?
Lucas Gadke: On Ancestors it was kind of a mix. I would say I generally came up with the outlines for most of the pieces as these conceptual ideas, and then I would collaborate with Laura and Jimmy to fill in the gaps when I didn’t have something. And often I’d intentionally leave something out or leave a part out. [I’d say to myself,] “I want something to go here in between these two sections” to have them come up with something, because I like the collaborative process. But there were some parts that were written out on sheet music, and then there were some things that came up when we were just jamming.
Tone Madison: So, you’re the primary composer in the group… sort of?
Lucas Gadke: At least for now.
Tone Madison: Could you speak about composing “heavy” music without an electric guitar? How does that change the dynamics or harmonics when you’re writing melodies for electric bass and violin?
Lucas Gadke: It wasn’t an intentional choice. It was just by happenstance that Laura and I were friends and wanted to start a band, and those were the instruments we played. We quickly realized that it became this kind of like challenge, because the guitar is so perfectly suited to playing in heavy metal with the perfect range. So, to have two instruments that were on opposite sides of the range of a guitar [electric bass and violin], it makes you have to be really intentional with what you’re playing. You always have to be thinking to get the maximum amount of sonic space. But also because Laura has a six-string electric violin [similar to a guitar], she can go down all the way to an F. She can cover space, and then I can go up [on the bass], and we like to play with those kind of different extremes.
Tone Madison: My other question, along those lines, concerned her use of an acoustic instrument. Or is it electric to achieve certain tones? It does sound like it’s an electric violin at various points on the record.
Lucas Gadke: Oh, yeah. Definitely electric. When we play live, she plays electric. But on the record, there is some acoustic fiddle in there as well.
Tone Madison: I wasn’t aware of the instrumentation of the group as I was listening. By the final track, “Breaker of Famine,” which I think is my favorite of the four pieces. Maybe three minutes in, you have this great bass groove that’s paired with this wistful melody on the violin that perfectly imitates an electric guitar.
Lucas Gadke: We try to bring the bass a little bit out of the background into a bit more intense sound, and ensure that through some heavy gear and pedals, which always help.
Tone Madison: As I discovered that, I was thinking about records that I really like that don’t have a lot of or any electric guitar. I’m a huge fan of the band Kayo Dot, and they have a record called Coyote that was released in 2010. Toby Driver, the main composer, plays an electric bass throughout that record and there’s violin, so I guess there are certain moments on Ancestors that peripherally reminded me of that. So, yeah, your sound is quite versatile and wide-reaching, as you shift between all these elements of dark folk, doom, and atmospheric black metal, but I was wondering if maybe you all share a significant and common musical influence or background.
Lucas Gadke: Jimmy’s on the post-rock side of things, having come from Do Me Say Think. And then Laura was involved in that world for a very long time, and still is. And she grew up loving post-rock and whatnot. That’s kind of their musical connection. It’s never really been my thing; I have nothing against it, but it’s not my number-one. So, I feel like there’s the post-rock side, but Laura’s also a big heavy metal fan, and so am I. And we’re both folk fans. Laura and I are both heavy metal and folk, and then Jimmy and Laura are post-rock, and that’s where it all meets.
Tone Madison: Have you all studied professionally or are you self-taught, or maybe some of each?
Lucas Gadke: Laura and I actually met at music school in Toronto. Jimmy’s mostly self-taught, but he’s been playing since he was like 16 years old. So, he’s well-trained at this point. Laura and I did a contemporary music/jazz program here in Toronto at Humber College.
Tone Madison: The other part of that question pertains to musical or band comparisons, which I touched on earlier. Maybe you can throw out some of your own, but the Norwegian group Wardruna jumped out at me with the sort of roots in choral/chant and some of the percussion (especially the bells) and kind of the style of composition and atmospheric production. And there’s probably some Ulver in there as well. Do you feel all those are valid, or do you have specific influences in mind as you’re writing?
Lucas Gadke: Definitely. There’s a whole myriad. Laura, I know, is a big fan of Wardruna. And I know that we’re both big fans of the early Ulver records [like Bergatt, Kveldssanger, and Nattens Madrigal]. You’re like the first guy to get that.
Tone Madison: Well, thank you.
Lucas Gadke: Where Wardruna’s coming from… We’re also pulling from a lot of the same places. Especially when you’re talking about those bells. My idea behind that came from this great ethnographic UNESCO record I have that catalogues this yodelling style in a region called Appenzell in Switzerland. And they call it Zäuerli music. They have these giant cowbells that they’ll ring before and after these pieces, which are just these voices drifting around really beautifully. And they’ll just shake these massive noisy cowbells. That was just my idea behind that. And I’m sure a group like Wardruna is interested in ethnic music as well. That’s where a lot of those ideas come from.
Tone Madison: I’d like to wrap things up with a couple questions, the first related to the show upcoming at Gates of Heaven in terms of either recreating or straying from the sound of the studio recording. Particularly with some of the overdubs and… do I hear keyboards on the record, too?
Lucas Gadke: Yeah. We put some organ on it. There are keyboards but also some full-on organ. Unfortunately, at this point, we’re only able to do a trio thing, so it’ll just be the three of us going on. Sort of stripped-down, but we made sure we’re able to play every piece live, so there was nothing that could only be done in studio.
Tone Madison: So, you’re pretty music sticking to that sound on the recording minus the organ-keyboard sounds. Are you trying out any new material on this tour?
Lucas Gadke: Yeah. There’s a couple of new songs that we’ve been playing live for a little bit, and I’ll be stoked to hear reactions to those.
Tone Madison: Do you think it’s significantly different from what you’ve been doing or a natural evolution?
Lucas Gadke: The newest stuff tends to have a bit more improvisation in it, which is kind of the direction we’re heading in. We like to play around with different combination of styles as we go, and right now we’re feeling a bit more free-form experimentation, but still within these larger song forms.
Tone Madison: It sounds like that’s coming from a jazz school of composition, to maybe generalize.
Lucas Gadke: Yeah, definitely some of that in there, for sure.
Tone Madison: Lastly, what do you foresee in the future of Völur, either in the short or long term? I know you’re member of Blood Ceremony, who I’ve been familiar with for awhile. I actually bought your 2011 record, Living With The Ancients, for my dad and affectionately described it to him as “Black Sabbath meets King Crimson.” He really enjoyed it. And Jimmy, as you mentioned, plays with Do Me Say Think, who put out a record last year. So, you have other commitments.
Lucas Gadke: They won a JUNO for that, which is like the Canadian Grammy.
Tone Madison: Oh, for Stubborn Persistent Illusions? Congrats. That’s fantastic.
Lucas Gadke: For us, there are a couple recordings in the can waiting to come down the pike. They’ll be announced in a little bit of time. Next year we’re going to try to get back down to the States and play a couple festivals. That’s in the works. And then try to get over to Europe; that’s the next big thing. We also released a single a couple years ago, and it was a collaboration between a local singer-songwriter. We’re planning on doing a few more collaborations on singles, and that’s what’s going on for us in 2019.
Tone Madison: The single you’re talking about is the “Breaker Of Oaths” acetate?
Lucas Gadke: Ah, no, it was actually very quietly released. There were only 75 copies as kind of an experiment for us… a cassette-only release. So, we’ll re-release that one and then bring out a couple more.
Tone Madison: That’s ambitious. And it’s not limiting yourself to one thing. It’s kind of testing the waters, especially if you’re releasing a single at a time.
Lucas Gadke: Yeah, for sure. We’re trying to go with different sounds. The one that I’m working on next, I have a friend who plays the tanbur, which is an Iranian [fretted string] instrument, so we’ve been playing around with some of that. So, there’s probably going to be a kind of Persian/doom crossover.