Formed in late 2011 from the ashes of Holoscene, Toronto/Northumberland
based musicians Jim Field and Dorian Williamson came together to create
Northumbria and in turn craft sweeping, largely improvised soundscapes.
Using only guitar and bass and recording their work completely live, Northumbria
released their acclaimed self-titled debut in 2012 on Montrealʼs TQA Records,
operated by Eric Quach of Thisquietarmy. Northumbria was recorded across
several sessions in the sanctuary of a 19th century church in Northumberland
County, and the resulting compositions are imbued with the ambience of the
setting as well as a stately grace, something that permeates all their following
work. Live appearances in 2012 included their debut performance at the Suoni
Per Il Popolo Festival in Montreal, as well as shows in New York, Boston and
2013 saw Northumbria issue a remix project – All Days Begin as Night – on Altar
of Waste Records. This release featured new takes on original pieces from their
self-titled debut by peers in the experimental music scene – Theologian and
Aidan Baker among them. A wonderfully received time-lapse video for the track
Black Sea of Trees (directed by Marc Forand) debuted at the Chronos Film
Festival in Los Angeles, and went on to win the Rising Star award fro Best Music
Video at the Canadian International Film Festival.
A well-received split with fellow Torontonians North Atlantic Drift was released in
May 2014 by Polar Seas Recordings. Northumbria have also featured on a
number of online mixtapes, and have curated their own for CVLT Nationʼs Sonic
Cathedrals series. Recently the band performed a live radio set for UK-based
Mantis Radio, operated by Darkfloor Sound. Cathedral Transmissions released
a 16 minute collaboration with Famine titled Blood Orchid, culled from the
sessions for Mantis Radio, with an accompanying video created by Montreal
based artist Dominic F. Marceau.
In November 2014 Belgian label Consouling Sounds released their second
proper full-length Bring Down the Sky. Much of 2014 was spent recording
material for Helluland, their third full-length. This a much more conceptual and
introspective piece, based on the Norse discovery of Baffin Island in Canada.
Helluland marks a very different direction for the band, much more minimalistic
and ambient, but still unmistakably Northumbria in scope and sound. Released
by legendary Dark Ambient label Cryo Chamber, with beautiful artwork and
Mastering by label-head Simon Heath. Followed by the full length album Markland in 2017
Northumbria Interview by Michael Barnett 2018
Michael: Northumbria is a two-member project. Do you both have similar duties within Northumbria, or do your roles shift from song to song?
Dorian: We both have quite similar duties. We always try to create one singular sonic event using bass and guitar. Because it’s improvised, and born in the moment, the interplay between our instruments at the moment of inception sees them acting as one. That’s the goal anyway. The way we approach the various parts changes from song to song. Sometimes it changes based on a new effect patch or set up. Sometimes trying out a different approach to playing our guitars. We’re always experimenting with new ways to make sounds. So often the sound will guide the song in the direction it wants to go. Often before we start experimenting and recording, we’ll talk a bit about the vibe we want to achieve, and which guitars we’d like to use, music key etc… then we’ll start improvising. If the Gods are feeling generous, things begin to coalesce.
Michael: Your first album on Cryo Chamber, Helluland, focuses on an historical event. How important is history in your lives?
Dorian: Both Jim and I are very interested in history of all sorts. But, for the Trilogy, the Norse discovery of Canada inspired us. Obviously it’s very subjective, given that the music is instrumental. But, we really enjoy using it as a source of inspiration. Trying to use sound to evoke that sense of adventure and awe at discovering such a majestic and primordial land.
Michael: Is Northumbria specifically focused on the telling of historical accounts?
Dorian: Yes and no… the music is inspired by the discovery and exploration. But also who was doing the discovering and exploring. The concept is from a Canadian perspective. A kind of nature worship motivates all our music. For the trilogy, we focused in on this particular time and place. Emotion, atmosphere and feel convey the narrative, rather than a conventional storytelling approach.
Michael: Is Markland a continuation of the same styles and themes as Helluland?
Dorian: I hope the music is always evolving. Being in the company of so many great artists on Cryo Chamber and listening to their releases has had a big influence on us. There are moments on Markland, which resemble traditional dark ambient. But, it is a conceptual and a thematic continuation of Helluland. Furthermore, we still made it using only guitars. I think it’s a better sounding record than anything we’ve released to date. We’ve invested in a few new key pieces of gear. These improved the quality of the recording, plus we had the luxury of taking our time. This one’s a bit more varied in tone. There are some dark tracks, and some tonal and melodic ones, like Wonderstrands. We learned a lot from the initial experiments that led to Helluland. These experiences come through. From a story point of view, Markland translates from Old Norse into “The land of the forests” or “forest lands”. The Icelandic Sagas described Helluland as barren and inhospitable. They described Markland as thickly forested with trees. Trees were a resource sorely needed by the Norse living in Greenland at that time. Beautiful, long sandy stretches of beach, called the Wonderstrands, punctuated the land. So there was a kernel of hope and optimism, but also a new set of looming threats and dangers. It’s worth noting that these adventures took place during The Medieval Warm Period. It was a 300 year period when the North Atlantic climate was unusually warm. This allowed for exploration in areas that today are much, much colder. Most scientists agree that it was climate change, the ending of the warm period, that eventually led to the abandonment of the Viking presence in North America. It was also their refusal to adopt the ways and the diet of the indigenous population. The indigenous peoples knew how to survive in a harsher climate. I find this an interesting sub-narrative. It is especially interesting given the climate crisis we’re experiencing now.
Michael: When did you first meet one another? Was Northumbria an immediate thought or was the idea formed gradually?
Dorian: I’ve know about Jim’s music a lot longer than I’ve known him personally. When I was at sound engineering school in the late 90’s one of our instructors was a huge champion of Rhea’s Obsession, his band at that time. What they were doing really impressed me. The music was an intricate and eclectic mix of gothic, world and ethereal wave. It wasn’t until quite a few years later we actually met. When he was creating solo ambient music as Spacenoiz, our paths permanently crossed. We shared a bill with my old band Holoscene, and what he was doing solo with a guitar absolutely transfixed me. Needless to say it wasn’t long before he was in Holoscene. Sadly, that band didn’t last too much longer, but we planted a seed for the future. After a small hiatus, we reconvened as a duo to take a stab at longer form, improvised music. We both knew right away that we had something we wanted to pursue. We wanted something free from all the conventions of a regular band. We wanted to be free to explore any textures, themes and sounds we chose. It all stems from our friendship, a symbiotic musical relationship and a freedom to do exactly what we want without any expectations.
Michael: Does your love of music spill over into your everyday lives, including your careers?
Dorian: My life is full of music, that’s for sure. Both my parents are classical musicians, so I grew up in a very musical house. In terms of careers, for sure, specifically my love of location and field recordings. I work doing production sound for film and TV. There’s a bit of carry-over into the world of Northumbria. We’re incorporating more and more naturalistic sound elements into our music.
Michael: Do you have any kind of set rituals you like to follow when sitting down to work on music?
Dorian: We live in different cities. So, when we get together it’s usually mostly business, with some much needed catching up as well. We are trying to do a bit more music over the internet together. But at its core, the essence is still born from the moment of playing live together. For us, the ritual is the music itself.
Michael: Would you like to speak a little about your studio-space itself? Any favourite instruments, chairs, or software which you couldn’t live without?
Dorian: I moved out of the city to Northumberland County. So, one of the things that I really wanted was a separate building to build a studio. A place where I could work and be loud at any time. For the first time in my life I have that! It’s not massive, but it’s perfect for what we do. I renovated the little carriage house into a studio, with proper soundproofing. It’s worth noting that a lot of what we do is all tracked at a pretty high volume. Even though it’s mixed in a way that appears subdued. My main bass is a heavily modified Fender Precision. Although I’ve been using an Epiphone Viola recently for bowing. Probably the most crucial pieces of equipment are my 1973 Ampeg SVT and P-bass. It has a tone that really is unmatched, at least for what I like to do. In terms of software, I’ve been a Logic user for many years (too many to count). So it’s still my main platform. Most of the Northumbria recordings are four to 8 tracks anyway, so really we just use it as a recorder. A lot of the effects happen on the front end without too much added in the mix later on. More to create a sense of space. The challenge for us is in finding a way to create sounds that actually sound like they’re outside. Reverb usually implies an interior space. I usually use outdoor impulse responses: a valley, forest canyon, etc. Using these I try to subtly magnify the physicality, and create a more open space.
Michael: What is the most important thing that you hope listeners will take away from your music?
Dorian: I would hope that they feel like we have taken them on a journey, and that they heard and felt things that they haven’t before. And of course I hope they are moved emotionally.
Michael: Is there a certain location you’ve visited, which left a profound effect on you and your music?
Dorian: Traveling in Canada has made a big impact. But also, the landscape that surrounds us locally makes an impact. It’s so massive and endless. You begin to feel the awe as soon as you go North. This giant, all powerful landscape is central to our motivation. It is so threatened and fragile. It’s so heartbreaking to witness that kind of nature pillaged by lawless corporate interests. Especially in the arctic, and remote areas… the exploitation is so extreme! That’s a big part of the imagining that led to this trilogy. When the Norse explored here this land was pure and untouched. It was brutal and unforgiving. And yet it was beautiful. We may never know exactly the extent to which there was contact between the First Nations and the Norse. But, archaeological evidence points to a much longer, and more civil, trade-based relationship.
Michael: On Helluland, you have a track entitled “Song For Freyja”. Do either or both of you follow the old ways? What is the significance to you of Freyja?
Dorian: I do follow the Old Ways in a kind of personal and instinctive way! For myself and for countless others, Freyja does not only symbolize Love, Sex and Fertility. But, she also symbolizes the longing between two lovers forced to be apart. She was frequently separated from her husband, the God Odr. He would often leave to go on distant journeys. That analogy seemed to resonate with the theme of the Norse leaving their families and loved ones for great lengths of time. It resonated with the sorrow that they would have felt. The song puts us in mind of that melancholy and longing.
Michael: Thanks for your time, I’ll leave the last words to you!
Dorian: Thanks to you for giving us this time. Thanks to Simon and all the Cryo Chamber family for their inspiration and support!