Interview by Vitaly Menshikov with Colin Masson (multi-instrumentalist, vocalist) and Cathy
Alexander (lead singer, keyboardist and flautist) - the two main masterminds of The Morrigan.
VM:Thank you very much for doing the interview, Cathy and Colin, and welcome to ProgressoR. Also, seizing an opportunity, I'd like to express my delight with your wonderful vocals, Cathy, and I wish you carry on making us fans (including me) happy with your voice and music for years
to come. The first few questions are to you, Colin. Before I ask you to tell a story of The Morrigan, I'd like to forestall it a bit with my suggestions. Two of The Morrigan songs are dedicated to Agincourt (one way or another) while your Hi-Note's label back catalogue contains CD reissues of the bands Agincourt and Ithaca's LPs that were released in 1970 and 1973, respectively. I mention Ithaca because I've heard (more than once) that this is the same band whose original name Agincourt was changed to Ithaca just because the band's new album moved in another musical direction. Owing to these said details my brain immediately evokes the following association. Were you members of Agincourt and Ithaca?
CM: We don't in fact have any connection with the band Agincourt, or Ithaca. The two tracks with Agincourt in the title are also unrelated; the one, that appears on Spirit of the Soup, is an instrumental that I wrote many years ago, whereas the Agincourt carol that appears on the
Wreckers album is a traditional carol, written in the fourteenth century to celebrate the victory of the English at the battle of Agincourt.
VM:Sorry,I see I was wrong. Then here is another question. Had you been involved in some other musical objects-projects back then before you became (two third) part of a band called The Morrigan?
CM: Previous to this, Cathy worked as a solo artist, singing and playing
12-string guitar around folk clubs in the south of England. I played in various bands, none of which ever got as far as recording anything serious, for the record, these included The Gestalt, Big Amongst Sheep,
VM:Let me ask you to tell a story of The Morrigan, from the beginning and up to When you Signed with Hi-Note.
CM: The band began when Cathy answered an advert in a newsagents shop window, put there by guitarist Tom Foad. Bassist Cliff Eastabrook then joined them. After about six months Tom left to pursue other projects, and Cliff approached Colin (me) who then joined. This line up remained the same for four years, during which time the first album Spirit of the Soup was released by the band on cassette only and sold at gigs. In 1988 Arch joined us and has been the band's drummer ever since. This line-up, plus Melanie Byfield, recorded the second album The Morrigan Rides Out. This was initially released on vinyl only - we believe it is now quite a collectors' item! After this, the band recorded a four track EP, on CD,
called War in Paradise. By this time Melanie had left and was replaced by Jon Hayward, who stayed with the band for about 18 months. Shortly after this Cliff left to join a band called Pressgang. After a short
period as a three-piece, the band was joined by Mervyn Baggs on flute and
vocals, and by Dave Lodder on guitar. This brings us up to the recording of Wreckers and signing to Hi-Note.
VM:Can you explain the name of your band? What does it mean - The Morrigan? Frankly, I have no idea about this. To these Russian ears, Morrigan sounds like an English name...
CM: The Morrigan is a Celtic goddess, the goddess of war, death, destruction and pestilence; in fact, altogether, not a very nice entity at all! She is supposed to manifest herself in three guises, those of
the Girl, the Woman, and the Hag. As we were a three-piece band at the time, it seemed humorously apt! She is also known as the great Raven, which, in Celtic mythology flies, flies around battlefields, feeding on the corpses! Originally, I found the name in rather a good children
book "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen" by the author Alan Garner. In this book she is the principal villainess in a tale of sorcery
and derring do, and only found out afterwards, that she was a true mythological figure and that quite a few strange people have an interest in her and, as a result, also in our band. Unfortunately, by that time,
the name had stuck, and remains with us to this day. (Note from Cathy: the rest of us knew the name's significance at the time - don't know why Colin didn't!)
VM:Therewere very long pauses between your first and second albums, as well as between your second and third albums (since the years when they were released (recorded - in respect of your first album) are 1985, 1990, and 1996). Why?
CM: The reason, that there is such a long gap between the first two albums, is primarily one of money: Spirit of the Soup was recorded on a four-track cassette based portastudio that we hired for a fortnight
because we could not afford to buy one. Originally it was only sold on cassette, which we made at home on our own cassette players, and then sold at gigs. Understandably, the sound quality was not very
good, and although we did approach some record companies, nobody was interested. Our second album The Morrigan Rides Out was recorded on a sixteen-track machine that belonged to a friend. Unfortunately, it was already 15 years old and had not been very well maintained and was forever breaking down, - as a result the album took nearly a year to record and led to considerable friction in the band. Once it was finished, we found a local businessman who was willing to sponsor the expense of pressing 1000 copies on vinyl, these now change hands for large sums of money as collectors items, but of course, none of the said money comes our way. For Wreckers we were able to buy a secondhand
8 track cassette portastudio from the proceeds of an insurance payoff, resulting from a car accident; once more, the album was originally sold only at gigs as a cassette. It was at this time that Hi-Note originally took an interest, and in a roundabout way this came about because it
was discovered that our original album Spirit of the Soup had been pirated and was being sold on vinyl in Spain to cash in on the
collectors market. The people at Hi-Note said that if they put it out
officially, then the pirates could be closed down, and we would at least see some return on our labours, this eventually led to us getting a
more formal contract and at last resulted in us getting a decent hard disk recording machine as an advance on our next two albums. This more or less brings us up to date.
VM:The band's first effort "Spirit of the Soup" is the most accessible and melodious album you have created, though, at the same time, this is one of the most original, intriguing and touching (wonderful is the word) albums released in the 1980s. "Spirit of the Soup", which, I think had a giant commercial potential exactly at the time it was created (in other words, it was created really in time), should have interested major labels (as unoriginal Neo bands did it), yet it wasn't even released then. Why do you think such strong in all senses albums like "Spirit of the Soup" went unnoticed or underrated from the direction of labels?
CM: You have to remember that at the time Britain was just coming out of the punk era and we were in the middle of the eighties when progressive music and folk rock was regarded by the music press as little better than leprosy.
VM:Obviously, making music hasn't been your day jobs for many years. So what about now that you have a real home-label in the face of Hi-Note?
CM: Concerning the day jobs, I am very much afraid that we will never be full Time musicians. Although Hi-Note have removed some of the financial pressure, it must be remembered That they are a small Specialist company catering to what is in this country a tiny portion of the Market, and the money we get does not even cover our costs. Our albums only sell in hundreds, not thousands. For the record, I work as a gardener, Cathy works as a secretary in the local hospital and we live with our 3 year old son in a 2 bedroom council flat, where we also do most of our recording (as quietly as possible!). Merv is a telephone salesman, and Arch and Dave work in an aircraft factory. Understandably, real life intrudes on the rock star dream and it takes a long time to produce anything like a decent album.
VM:Now you, Cathy, please. Are you happy with the distribution and selling of your CDs released by Hi-Note? And what about the first two The Morrigan albums, one of which was restored and released only after you signed with Hi-Note, and another being just re-released by the label?
CA: The distribution and selling of the albums is jointly done between us and Hi-Note, in that we buy our CDs at cost price as and when we need them, and sell them ourselves, usually at gigs, although we do sometimes get some e-mail orders. I have no idea how many CDs Hi-Note have sold or to whom - we don't ask and they don't tell us. We have a very good relationship with Hi-Note and they have always been and still are most supportive - and if it hadn't been for them the "Morrigan Rides Out" and "Spirit of the Soup" would not have been re-released. So, no complaints whatsoever!
VM:Your music, particularly in the early The Morrigan albums, is almost
entirely based on Irish musical folklore, though you live in England, for all I know. Why have you chosen exactly Irish folk music for your creation?
CA: I wouldn't say that our music is (or was) mostly based on Irish folklore, although I agree that a large number of jigs and reels have found their way into it. These aren't all Irish by any means, they might
sound similar, but there are Scottish, Welsh, Early English and Breton tunes in our set. We do live in England, but music with a Celtic influence is very popular here in a non-mainstream kind of way. Like
many other genres, including Progressive, it's very much an esoteric niche. One thing I should perhaps point out about us is that we didn't "choose" to do exactly anything! What happened with the original
threesome, Cliff, Colin and myself, came out of all our respective musical backgrounds; we never sat down and said, "Right, we are going to play Progressive music with strong Folk overtones"!! My own musical background was decidedly Classical and I only picked up on the Irish/Celtic stuff by going round folk clubs as a solo performer in the late seventies, early eighties. Cliff's background was Heavy
Rock; Colin's a fusion of Progressive Rock and Classical Music; although he did have an interest in Folk, so I was pushing at an open door! Arch, our drummer has a completely Rock-based background and, as far as I know, he had never played any folk at all before the joined the Morrigan. Dave, our other guitarist/ bass player, played in Heavy Rock bands; he is a big Progressive Music fan and likewise had never played any Folk. Mervyn, the flautist/vocalist, does have a Classical background and used to
sing in a "Barber Shop Quartet", using close vocal harmonies, but even
he had been singing in a Rock band before joining The Morrigan! I guess the bottom line is, we'll have a go at anything if we feel
comfortable doing it.
VM:On the latest albums the music of The Morrigan represents the same blend of Folk music and Classic Progressive Rock, though the structures typical for the latter genre, play a really prominent part in the band's most recent works, as opposed to the early period. Was the movement towards a more progressive sound conscious or did it happen as if by itself?
CA: The move towards a more progressive sound began to happen all by itself without any conscious effort to push it in that direction. The seeds were always there, but the advent of Dave and Merv meant that we worked in a slightly different way. It is definitely me that drags the
sound kicking and screaming back into the folk bracket when it threatens to get too pretentious! I am very aware that our particular fusion of Folk and Rock is unusual, (despite efforts to liken us to Steeleye Span or Fairport Convention) and if we were to go all one way, or all the other, that special balance would be lost.
VM:Since when The Morrigan play live? Do you still play live?
CA: Yes we definitely play live! About once a week! We've played live since we formed in 1984 and, by the way, Colin was with us in our "Airport Convenience" days! We've played Glastonbury festival twice, numerous other festivals, folk clubs, pubs, parties, Arts Centers,
Theatres etc - but sadly, we have never found anyone willing to promote gigs for us abroad, especially in Europe where our brand of music goes down a lot better than it does over here! Ah well, someday...!
VM:Is there a fan base of The Morrigan in the UK? In other countries? Do you know how large it is?
CA: There is a fan base of The Morrigan but very small - we are not well known, although better known than we were a few years ago, so it's going in the right direction. Hinotemusic.com/Morrigan is our website address which gives information about the band; has photos of live performances etc.
VM:Is there an album that you like more than the others in The Morrigan
Discography? If so, why?
CA: My personal favourite out of all The Morrigan albums is "Masque" because I feel that with that album we really reached our full potential and the Folk / Progressive Rock fusion was spot on. It seems to appeal to most people. I still feel that we can do as well with the one we are currently recording, but it is proving a long project; hopefully it will soon be finished.
VM:I wish you to finish it as soon as possible, as I've lately became one of your Best fans (at least I hope so). Please tell me, Cathy, are there the musicians in the band who have a special musical training?
CA: All of us are self-taught instrument-wise, apart from Merv, who had flute Lessons and sang as a Chorister in Salisbury Cathedral Choir as a child. I have had classical singing Training and passed Numerous examinations when I was still at school.
VM:Whatkind of music do you like to listen to? Can you name some of your favourite performers?
CA: I listen to all sorts from Genesis to Deep Purple to The Flower Kings to Sibelius to George Gershwin. Since seeing them at Whitchurch Festival in England last year I am a big fan of Celtus. Female vocalists I admire are, amongst others, June Tabor on the folk side and Annie Lennox from the more mainstream genre. Both have superb voices and know how to use them dramatically; believe me, these two things don't always go together!
VM:I believe you, of course (especially since I am not a vocalist). Well, finally, what's next on the band agenda and what are your general plans concerning The Morrigan's further activity?
CA: The plan of action is, we carry on carrying on! First priority is to finish the new album. Then we want to record a live album. We would like to play in Europe and hope that by raising our profile a bit during the next few years we can make that happen.
VM:Thanks a lot for the interview you've done for our site, Cathy and Colin. See you again on pages of the Acid Dragon magazine in a few months.