Knights on horseback, medieval garb, English folklore tropes and twin guitar heavy metal – what’s not to like? Well, Lancaster’s Wytch Hazel caught my eye a while back, and checking out a few photoshoots I decided they could only be one of two things – a Baltic or Central European pagan metal band, or an obscure Renaissance christian troupe wandering through Sherwood Forest with swords and lutes. It turns out, in fact, they are closest to the latter. Their early self-produced work is very relaxing seventies heavy metal that moves tonally in the same way as English pieces like Greensleeves, sounds like it was recorded in a dungeon-stroke-lounge, and is all the better for it. In 2016 they knocked out a very self-assured and solid release II: Sojourn which carries on the same underpinning archaic harmonic structures, and yet easily puts them up there with the seventies hard rock greats. We talked with singer, guitarist and main songwriter Colin Hendra about the band, his future plans, and the christian ideas he expresses in the songs.
Hi Colin, can you give us a brief history of the band for new readers?
Hi Scott! Wytch Hazel was formed whilst Josh Winnard and I were at university around 2010/2011. The focus was to start a heavy metal band with early music and folk influences. Josh and I were listening to NWOBHM bands and I think Pagan Altar and Ashbury were probably the closest to what we were thinking for Wytch Hazel. I was also influenced by classic rock music too such as Uriah Heep, UFO, Deep Purple etc. One unusual thing for a Heavy Metal band was that as the songwriter, I was getting into Early Music (which sort of covers Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music). Melodically that’s where I was thinking, but stylistically it had to be a proper Heavy Metal band. Dressing sort of Robin Hood meets Knights Templar became the thing and we stuck with it! We self-released a Demo and an EP between 2011 and 2012. We’ve been signed to Bad Omen Records since 2014 and we’ve released two studio albums with them.
How long have you been playing the guitar? What / who inspired you?
I started playing guitar at 15 so that’s nearly 14 years I’ve been playing now! Drums is my main instrument and I’ve been playing since the age of 6. I also had Piano lessons when I was young but I didn’t really work hard like I did with Drums and Guitar! It makes so much difference if you really want to get better, however I do wish I had just worked harder on my piano playing so I could play more proficiently. I wouldn’t say that I was inspired by a particular guitarist at the beginning, I was always more interested in bands and the songs than the players. Iron Maiden was a big influence and was the main reason I wanted to play Electric Guitar!
Do you share compositional duties in the band, or is it mainly driven by yourself as guitarist? You all seem quite on point to me.
We’re fairly unusual in the sense that I have always been the songwriter for the band. This tends to immediately prompt people to ask why any of the members or past members have not been involved in the song writing! I’ve never said that I’m the only one that can write songs, I just think it’s how it’s panned out for us as a band. You’ve got to remember that once you start a band with a sound and style so specific, it’s difficult for someone else to bring something that a.) Isn’t too stylistically different from the original intention of the band or b.) Sounds like a parody of that style. That said I’ve always been open to it but no-one has come up with any songs so far apart from myself! I mean, I’m writing Early Music inspired Classic Hard Rock with lyrics from the bible! The way the band have described has been along the lines of: “this is your creative project really” and “we’ve got our own specific things going on, people should focus on what they’re best at”.
Who are the rest of the band, and what do they do?
So we’ve got Alex on Guitar, he works at the Power Station and he also does his own Acoustic guitar project. Andy our Bassist has a dayjob and a thrash band called ‘Insurgency’ and Jack makes his living playing Piano/Keyboards or Drums in other bands.
You know how to tastefully place thirds in music, and a thing or two about modes – have you had any formal training, or did you just work it out?
I suppose only as much training as high school and 6th form music. I’ve had piano, guitar and music theory lessons too which has helped a bit. I think placing thirds is partly about knowing the musical scale but partly experimentation too. Sometimes a fourth or fifth interval sounds right, particularly when you think about the notes within the chord behind the guitar or vocal harmony.
It’s been a while since I opened a history book – your music kind of straddles European renaissance and reformation-era English instrumental and vocal music, would you say?
Me too! I’m no history buff, I’m not even that well versed in music history to be honest! I wouldn’t personally be that specific about where the influence comes from. ‘Early music’ covers it in terms the musical periods: Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque. Those periods aren’t called the same thing when we’re talking about world history – they’re specific to music history and their time periods.
The Truth EP you recorded has a very charming vintage ‘room’ sound. I think you captured a decent compromise on new album II:Sojourn for modern ears and lovers of old school….
‘Charming’ is a nice way to put it! I think it was more ‘DIY’ and not really knowing what we were doing to be honest! I’m regularly surprised by how many people really like the production on those first two recordings! It’s a matter of taste I suppose. I’ve always tried to make sure the production doesn’t sound too contemporary as I just feel that it wouldn’t age well, whereas a ‘classic’ sounding recording should age much better and it just really goes with the classic rock thing.
I love the II:Sojourn shirt – one of the guys in Smoulder is wearing one. Have you seen many dotted about the internet, or at gigs?
Yeah that’s got to be the coolest design so far, we’ve got Branca Studio to thank for that! We sold quite a few at Pyrenean Warriors Festival last year which was cool. You can get hold of one on our band camp:https://wytchhazel.bandcamp.com/merch/we-will-be-strong-t-shirt
Are you all quite dedicated to music? Are you equipment nerds?
Alex and I (guitarists) are the most equipment nerdy – particularly me. It’s a bit ridiculous really as I have far too much useless nerdy guitar equipment information and not enough useful information! I’m very much dedicated to music, it’s what I want to spend a lot my time doing. I’m quite into valve amps, stompboxes and modifying cheap Chinese guitars to make them sound great!
Do people particularly ask you about the message of the band when you play? You don’t come across as pushy.
People don’t tend to ask on the whole to be honest! One thing I suppose is that it’s technically not the message of ‘the band’ but more my own personal message. If it’s even a message at all, I see it more as my personal creative output. I’m pretty non-confrontational and I just think it would be too impersonal to use the band to broadcast some sort of non-musical message.
Composer John Taverner said ‘even though all religions have to be true (or else they’re all wrong ), you have to be something in this life ( some kind of Christian )’. What kind are you?
Well I don’t think Religious Pluralism makes any sense, which is what Taverner seems to be alluding to. I believe in universal truth. So you can’t have Christianity saying “Jesus is the way the truth and the life, no-one goes to the father except through him” and find it to be as equally true as Buddhism saying “Nirvarna is the primary goal in life through ‘sadhana’”. In the wider sense surely it’s true of Religion vs Secularism: God cannot equally exist and not exist. That has to be the correct logic to me and I think post-modernist philosophy has a lot to answer for.
I know some people who are constantly looking for some kind of ‘hidden truth’, or filling their life with irrelevant details, and they never seem very content to me…. as in the song ‘Save My Life’, were you ever searching for something else before becoming a Christian?
I was definitely looking for something. Despite growing up in a Christian family I actually described myself as an atheist at one point. I think sometimes you go looking for something until you ‘find it’ which is some sort of ‘confirmation bias’ I suppose. The Christian life can most certainly be one of discontent. Surely contentment shouldn’t be our primary goal? Truth is what I am interested in. One day I might feel positive and content and another I’ll feel negative and discontent – has it changed my truth based worldview? It shouldn’t really, I don’t think we should be led by our emotions in that sense. It’s Interesting that you chose ‘Save My Life’ because that song is all about discontentment as a Christian.
What is the song Barrow Hill about?
Barrow Hill is a place that I live near actually. We have the ashes of my Grandfather scattered there and I asked my wife to marry me at the highest point on the hill. The place is nothing special except that it’s a special place to me. The song is essentially about that place!
If I like the aesthetics of the crusades, can I just get away with being ‘culturally Christian’?
Personally I think it’s a no. I think Christianity can be a Religion, a culture or a complete game-changing faith. There’s little to be achieved from empty religious acts or superficial Christianity so I’d say fully take it or fully leave it! God is interested in the heart, that’s what we should be interested I think. The aesthetics of the crusades are cool though!
Do you think people are bothered by the apparent weakness of Christianity these days, and that a rebalance to the more masculine version (such as 19th Century ‘Muscular Christianity’ or even Tolkien and the older CS Lewis) would see it become more popular?
I’m probably not a good person to ask! I’m not sure the superficial aspects of Christianity will somehow ‘win over’ people to the religion. I’m really not a big fan of organised religion anyway so I don’t tend to dwell on whether the church needs a ‘rebrand’. The more pressing issues for the church (in the widest sense of Christianity) are things like integrity, love and kindness. Unfortunately even though there is a lot of that going on in the church, it either goes under-reported or sort of loses its weight when Christians are complete arseholes. The thing to remember I suppose is that when Christians behave badly, it just endorses the whole “we need Jesus” thing. The church is full of broken and ‘sinful’ people, that’s why I’m there, I’m probably one of the worst!
When I see audiences at black metal gigs fawning over the acts, like they are almost hypnotised, I do wonder whether people are craving all the smoke and mirrors of that kind of Catholic / Orthodox artifice and ritual. How can plain English ‘protestant’ Christianity compete?
Music is a ‘common grace’ I think. It has inherent power much like other art forms and you can see its redeemable goodness wherever you look. People are definitely craving an experience, but if you’re not experiencing a ‘being’ or ‘person’ then it really is just a temporal experience and it’s only really a taste of what it’s like to actually know God. You’d be surprised how hypnotising a ‘protestant’ megachurch worship session can be for people you know!
I met an Anglican girl once who said, ‘the biggest trick the devil ever played was to convince you that he doesn’t exist’. I laughed her off at the time, but it kind of always stayed with me as good advice. What is the devil to you?
For Western society it’s by far the biggest trick. That along with ‘God not existing’ or even a spiritual realm existing whatsoever. You’d get laughed at in a lot of developing nations if you said there is nothing spiritual in this world – they see that stuff daily. I think we have spiritual constipation in this country to be honest. People think we’ve ‘evolved’ or ‘progressed’ and we don’t need God. C.S Lewis described that sort of thing as ‘Chronological snobbery’ – as if to say, people ‘back then’ in the past didn’t really know what they were doing with that whole God/Spirituality thing.
She had a crucifix tattoo on the back of her neck, was very wild at heart, and a massive racist, by the way….
Well we’ve all got our problems! It’s a shame when people feel they need to be racist due to their faith, it’s bizarre really. There’s plenty of non-Christian racists out there too I suppose.
Does any particular secular literature inspire you? Favourite authors?
In all honesty I tend to stick to Spiritual literature the vast majority of the time – and that’s if I’m even reading anything at all! I have far too much interest in faith and spirituality to read anything else. I would probably go for something political/social or something. The last secular thing I remember reading was ‘The Psychopath Test’ by Jon Ronson. Other than that it’s The Bible and Christian books/philosophy books. I’ve always really liked the Narnia Chronicles too – despite being ‘childrens books’ and they’re not technically secular or spiritual I suppose.
Back to music – do you have any other projects or outlets for your composition?
I’ve got a lot of ideas and a lot of plans, just not a huge amount of time to make it all happen! The music for Wytch Hazel is what I’m most interested in and I’ll always prioritise that I think. In terms of the closest side project to be released, that would most likely be my church music project. I’ve started writing a Christian worship album in more of a contemporary style, so as soon as that’s all written and recorded I’ll release that, but who knows how long that will take! I have a wife, two kids and a full-time job so it’s hard to give much time to a secondary project! I’m sure I’ll get there eventually, I carve out as much time as I physically can for writing and recording.
Band members tend to have love / hate relationships – rubbing each other up ‘just the right way’ tends to make good music. Have you ever had a band fight? With fists?
We’ve had a few members come and go, it’s all been really amicable actually apart from one situation that I can think of. We’re pretty tame and easy going most of the time to be honest and I can’t see myself ever being violent with anyone anyway, I’m a pacifist in that sense really. Sorry to disappoint!
How rich, or poor, has music made you?
In one sense I’m not interested in the financial gain of music – If someone told me that I would categorically never make any money from music at all, I wouldn’t really be that upset! It certainly wouldn’t stop me. In another sense, I would much rather generate an income from writing, recording and performing music than any other job out there. I make a small income from the band through royalties but that’s about it so far. I’m positive I can increase that in the future as it’s already on the increase with each year.
Do you see yourself as part of a scene? Are there any other bands our readers should check out?
I’m pretty much out-of-touch and anti-social to be honest! I’m just at a different life stage to a lot of the other people in bands. Most people would put us in the same category as bands like Seven Sisters and Eliminator. It is cool to feel part of something wider, where there is a shared interest and vision for that style of music.
What are the plans for Wytch Hazel, or yourself in general?
So we’ve recently come out of the studio where we were recording our 3rd studio album. It’s all done really it just needs the producers to work their magic! Stay tuned! Primarily my focus is family, that’s where a lot of my energy goes. For Wytch Hazel and my ‘career’ – that’s to keep writing as much quality music as possible!
Colin, thanks so much for answering these questions, I’ll leave the last words to you…
Many thanks for the quality questions Scott, I’ve enjoyed answering these!