This interview originally appeared in The Thin Air’s summer 2022 print edition
It’s spring in Leitrim. The sky is full of birdsong, trees and plants are coming back to life, and Willie Stewart has been mixing cement. Alongside his partner, the sound artist Natalia Beylis, he’s converting his backyard and old stone outbuildings into what he describes as a “future habitat for creative explorations”.
The pair’s life revolves around these explorations, which they frequently let out into the world via shared and respective projects. Both are members of the experimental psych band Woven Skull, and have a wide array of solo releases and collaborations available on Bandcamp, usually focusing on minimal instrumental music, field recordings and sound collage. As performers, both take an improvisational stance, be that through live cassette manipulations or instrumental fuckery – Stewart recently took part in a musical performance at the National Concert Hall, where his role was “sawing a log percussively on stage”. Stewart is also a filmmaker, whose works include Ludo is Fantastic, a documentary about Belgian surrealist, painter, sculpture, filmmaker and performance artist Ludo Mich.
Accompanied as ever by their trusty pooch Rooster Cogburn – named after John Wayne’s character in True Grit – Stewart and Beylis hope their backyard project will eventually include three residential cabins, three studios, a geodesic dome for recording, an editing suite for sound and film, as well as a multi-purpose studio and venue/screening room/workshop. In brief, they’ve been busy.
Remarkably, Stewart has found the time to launch a new label at the same time. (He and Beylis run a few between them). Nyahh Records is described as a “home for sound collectors, noise makers and music builders” and has so far released a collection of abstract sound collages from Roscommon multidisciplinary artist Noel Molloy, as well as a number of physical reissues of works by Beylis and cellist Eimear Reidy.
With the debut solo album from Lankum’s Ian Lynch, aka One Leg One Eye, .... And Take The Black Worm With Me, set to arrive this week, we caught up with Stewart to get the lowdown on the label, his vision for its evolution, and the real meaning of the word “Nyahh”.
What was your thinking behind launching Nyahh Records? What are the specific aims you have for it and how do you see it as being different from your former label, Hypnagogic Tapes?
“I love record collecting and running a record label. I started Nyahh Records because I kept hearing new music in Ireland that I was really excited about and wanted to work with, and that I thought deserved to reach more people. I find the quality of what’s coming out in Ireland right now to be amazing and I want to help to highlight it. The idea to stop Hypnagogic Tapes and start this new label was so I could start a new project with a more Irish-based focus (for now). The new label has given me the opportunity to start with a clean slate, fresh vision and a new aesthetic.
I’ve seen people classifying the “Nyahh” as representing the “soul” or “lift” in music. The label’s Bandcamp description includes a quote from Sean Nós singer Joe Heaney in reference to its meaning. It seems like the “Nyahh” is an almost unclassifiable thing that is heard in folk singing around the world, but which exists between “words and the language”. Even the word it’s derived from in Irish appears to be lost in time. What does “Nyahh” represent to you, and how do you feel it’s representative of what you’re doing with the label?
“The word Nyahh really resonated with me for a few reasons. When I first heard it, it seemed to come from a very ancient place and yes, for me, it’s a word to describe the soul of something: the spirit, the drone, the rawness and the richness that is in music and sound. I like that the Nyahh is unclassifiable. That’s how I would like the releases on the label to be as well: unclassifiable.
“I am also a bit obsessed with Bob Quinn’s Atlantean films where he traces the connections between North African and Irish culture. I feel like the Nyahh is a huge part of that connection. The similarities in Sean Nós and North African Amazigh music are undeniable. It’s all so focused on drones. The world’s first sound is the drone. It’s the first sound we hear when we’re in the womb. It’s a very exciting concept to me that the drone is such a huge part of the Irish (un)conscience. It’s in our folk music, traditional music and obviously in Sean Nós singing. Humanity in general seems to connect so much with drones. It’s in so many cultures and used for many different reasons like ceremony or meditation. I think everyone knows what the Nyahh is; they just might not know the word.”
The releases on the label all seem to focus on small sounds in their rawest state. Natalia Beylis’ Love-In-A-Mist, Edible is based on variants of one melody, Noel Molloy stitches crackly sounds into mad compositions, your own Let’s Explore the Floor Tom… well, it explores the floor tom. What is it about music made using minute, minimal sounds, often embellished with the noises of the surrounding space, that appeals to you?
“So far, everything I have put out has been self-recorded by the artists. The releases have all been field recordings rather than studio recordings. The equipment that has been used (handheld zoom recorders and cassette tape recorders) automatically picks up the surrounding space. While I don’t plan to make this something essential for all future releases, I do love field recordings. I have always loved the way that the sounds come through on raw, noisy lo-fi punk 7 inches, harsh noise tapes and old folk records. I want the work I put out on Nyahh to have a bit of grit and a bit of life in it. Our lives are full of sounds, so why not keep them in?
“I’m definitely into using the bare minimum when it comes to my own music, like on the Let’s Explore the Floor Tom. When I started playing in Woven Skull I made the decision to only play a floor tom and cymbal. I wanted to create as many variations as possible with one drum and push it as far as it could go while still sounding large. This suited the very loud, repetitive, trancey music we were trying to create. Maybe the Nyahh made me do it.”
Noel Molloy’s ‘Selected Audio Work 1983 – 1999’ was the first original release on the label. Can you tell us a bit about how that came to be?
Noel is actually my friend Nollaig’s dad. I was researching material for a release I am doing of experimental sounds and music from Ireland from the 1970s to the 1990s when I first came across him. (The more I dig into weird old Ireland, the more stuff I’m unearthing. If you or your mum or grandmother has any experimental recordings from the 70s to the 90s, please get in touch!). I had heard that Nollaig’s parents were artists, so I asked if either of them had any audio work in the vaults. Turns out Noel has kept an amazing archive of all his work: visual art, performance art and sound art. But seeing as he is more of a performance artist, he hadn’t really thought of the audio recordings as standalone work. I originally asked Noel for a single track for the compilation and he sent me 30 years worth of recordings to choose from. I was like… ‘This should really come out into the world’. I love Noel’s audio work because it was made to accompany very fluxus style performances that were often in strange venues such as community centres, schools, banks and town squares.
Can you tell us about the release from James King and Peter O’Doherty, Oxs?
“James King is a hero of mine. He’s nearly 80 and still doing spontaneous performance art and ‘happenings’ on the streets of Derry. After retiring as a lecturer in theatre studies, James began his career as a performance artist and sound poet. I was playing at a small festival in a church in Falcarragh the first time I came across him. He performed one of his sound poetry pieces by candlelight and my mind was blown! We have booked James a few times for our festival, Hunters Moon, and I released a split tape with him and Ali Robertson of Usurper on Hypnagogic Tapes. James also sang with Woven Skull once at the ‘Velvet Underfleadh’ in Derry.
“Peter O’Doherty is a composer and sound artist from Derry. ‘He makes work for and with human performers, computers and objects’. Peter also puts on experimental gigs in Derry and the surrounding area under the name Derry Sound Factory. Two amazing artists several generations apart. A perfect collaboration.”
You’ve got the debut solo album from Lankum’s Ian Lynch, aka One Leg One Eye, coming out this week. Can you tell us how you two came to working together on the release and what you think is special about it?
“Myself and Ian have known of each other and have known each other since we were about 15. We were both playing in bands in the punk scene in Dublin. So I’ve seen Ian go from playing in heavy bands to playing in Lankum, and then I’ve seen Lankum go from a very traditional folk music into what now is something much heavier, atmospheric and very original.
“As much as Ian loves trad, folk and singers, I think the heavier side of music has always been bubbling around in the back of his mind. This record was a chance for him to embrace his darker and heavier side and I feel like this record is very personal for him. The title alone – …And Take The Black Worm With Me – says a lot about how he was feeling creatively during lockdown in 2021. This was a chance for him to stop travelling and touring and playing these big Lankum shows and start discovering heavy music again and pushing himself in the realms of noise and drone music.
“When I first heard the recordings the first thing I thought was, ‘Wow… This is an accumulation of everything that Ian has done in his entire musical life woven into one album. Street ballads and all!’. The record came about because The Department Of Energy had asked Ian to contribute a piece of music to a DDR show/compilation they were organising. The song was a pretty rough, lo-fi and noisy piece. I heard it and got on to him straight away and we started talking about a possible album. At the time he hadn’t thought about creating more music in that style or doing any more recording, but he began work on it straight away. The end result is a very dense, textured and well thought out collection of songs.”
What plans do you have for Nyahh in future?
“A tape by new noise dance duo Dream Girls. A tape by solo noise artist Ice Bear. A second album (this time on vinyl) by Natalia Beylis and Eimear Reidy. A compilation CD of experimental sounds and music from Ireland 1970’s – 1990’. And finally, an album by my friend Mohammad Syfkhan, which will be recordings of his own unique take on Syrian folk.
.... And Take The Black Worm With Me arrives this Thursday (27th October). Buy it from Bandcamp.
Photography: Stuart Hayes