A few months ago my friend Chris Mapleston emailed some questions to legendary folk band Comus with the hope of using the answers for a zine he was setting up in his adopted home of Japan. Which in itself is just a bit ridiculous really. Considering the band, so unloved and discarded during their heyday should only exist in a world of their own - untraceable and unattainable to anyone born after 1973, remembered by few and fondly by less.
Yet somehow this isn't the case; since reforming in 2008 due to an overwhelming resurgence in popularity Comus have steadily become more and more prolific, almost as active as they were in their heyday - playing gigs and festivals at home and abroad, being featured on radio, in magazines, rehearsing and performing new material, and embracing such 21st century miracles as blogging and myspace. While my friend Chris gets his zine together he's very kindly let me upload the full interview here for now, for which I'm incredibly grateful for as this is a pretty big deal, you know?
-You’re headlining the Equinox festival in London this summer, playing the “First Utterance” album in its entirety. What are your feelings towards the album? Are you surprised that the album has developed such a dedicated fan base?
Roger Wootton (Vocalist/Guitarist): I was amazed at the steady resurgence of interest in First Utterance and to have picked up such a young following. I distanced myself from the album for some time after we split up, because it was so unpopular.
I have reappraised it and are now much more proud of it. I am still perplexed at the difference in reaction to it now. I think it is the complete originality of the whole band sound which we and everyone else find stimulating.
-The failure of First Utterance upon its initial release has been cited to be the result of “poor reviews” and “postal strikes.” At the time had you expected the album to be received better than it was?
RW: Yes, although I was disappointed in it and felt that we performed the material much better live, the negative reaction, even from Dawn, the record company was extremely frustrating. Fans would contact us, saying they could not find any record shop that stocked it and had to order it and Dawn were completely disinterested and seemed to want to bury it. I think at that time, 1970-71, that there was every indication that it would be successful due to audience reaction.
–It always surprises me how young the band were when First Utterance was recorded. Were you all prodigious musical talents?
RW: Not really. I think it was just luck how the particular members fell together. It seemed to be the chemistry amongst the members that made us aspire and be more inspired than playing with anyone else.
Comus circa First Utterance
-First Utterance is undoubtedly the album which the Comus cult has developed around. Do you feel its follow up “To Keep from Crying” has been somewhat neglected?
RW: No, I am ashamed of it. The material wasn’t originally intended for Comus and, because of the atmosphere at the time with glam rock, there was a need to find some way of commercialising ourselves. The problems were increased by the fact that only three of the original members wanted to do it. We regard To Keep from Crying as an artistic failure.
-You played with David Bowie back in the day; does he still keep in touch?
RW: No, we lost touch shortly after the Ziggy Stardust album took off. After he became a star he didn’t want anything to do with most of the people he had associated with before.
-Over the years Comus have been praised by many bands, most notably Opeth, but also groups such as Current 93 and Nurse with Wound. Are you familiar with their work, and if so do you feel any common ground?
RW: Yes, Current 93 got in touch with me in 2000 and David Tibet and I got together a couple of times. I am not familiar with Nurse with Wound, but it was Michael Ackerfeldt of Opeth who was largely responsible for Comus reforming. When Opeth were asked to play the Melloboat Festival in Stockholm in 2008, he stipulated that they would only do it if Comus could be persuaded to reform and play the festival as well. He came to London for the signing of the contract and we met for the first time. Since then he has been an important contact and friend to the band and we are in regular contact by Email. Opeth are constantly touring all over the world.
-Do you listen to any modern folk music? Many bands labeled with the “freak folk” tag from a few years ago seemed to have taken influence from Comus…
RW: I think the members of Comus all have varying tastes. I, myself, mainly listen to modern classical music and follow such composers as John Tavener, Osvaldo Golijov, Arvo Part and John Adams.
-Like Comus, many of the bands playing the Equinox Festival seem to take their influences from pagan and folkloric imagery and iconography. Is this still something you take an interest in?
RW: I have looked at many kinds of mysticism and philosophy throughout the world but am now reacquainting myself with paganism since Comus reformed. I am now immersing myself in all the subject matter and imagery of the original Comus in order to write new material.
The Reformed Comus Line Up L-R: Jon Seagrott, Roger Wootton, Andy Hellaby, Bobbie Watson, Glenn Goring, Photo taken from The Wire
-The Comus line-up contains a number of illustrators and designers. Can you tell us a bit more about your work?
RW: I did the drawing for the outside of the gatefold sleeve and a lot of the promotional illustrations and posters. Glenn (Goring, Guitarist/bongo player) did the painting for the inside of the sleeve. I have since begun to return to this style of drawing after many years. I had given up on it because of lack of interest in the UK. Even now I cannot get any illustration work in England outside of Comus. I have returned to the same technique and have so far designed the poster for Melloboat 2008, a Christmas card for the Melloclub in Stockholm, 2008 and the sleeve drawing for the shortly to be released DVD of Comus live at Melloboat. I am currently working on a new T shirt design (Which can now be found here).
-It was only after the release of the “Song to Comus” compilation that the band reunited. How did the decision to get back together come about. And had you ever considered reforming before?
RW: At first, at an emotional reunion at the old manager’s house in 2005 after the rerelease on Song to Comus, we decided that after 35 years it was out of the question – too much water under the bridge – even after Sanctuary had offered us a record deal; but the interest continued to build and we were almost pressurised into reforming in 2007. Until this point we had no idea how popular we had become and it still seems unbelievable considering the lack of interest and negativity we had experienced originally.
Melloboat Festival 2008
-You played the Melloboat Festival in Sweden recently, performing for the first time in 34 years on a boat in Sweden. How did it go?
RW: The gig went very well considering half of us had flu and Bobbie had broken her wrist. The audience were fantastic and very encouraging. Over a hundred had come over from the UK specially to see us and some even flew over from the USA. It was then that we experienced for the first time just how passionate a following we have and decided to stay together and carry on. We played pretty well but over the last 12 months we have got a lot tighter and we have all improved as musicians.
-Has it been hard to relearn Comus’ material, or did it all come flooding back?
RW: It was extremely hard. Trying to relearn the chords from the CD, as nothing was ever written down and trying to find my Comus voice again was a major effort. We all struggled at first finding the rhythms but gradually we got tighter. Most of us were rusty, having not played for a while but gradually it came back.
-My first experience of First Utterance was buying the “Song to Comus” compilation in 2005 and wandering round the caves of Nottingham pubs researching ghost tales for my degree. Every time I listen to the album images from that day spark through my mind. Do you get any similar trips to the past when listening to your work?
RW: Sometimes – we all have our memories – but one of the reasons we were so reluctant to reform was that we had a lot of bad memories of life on the road and did not want to go through it all again. I think though, that the years have created a kind of distance from the music and we are now reassociating with the songs in a new time and reality, knowing that we have a lot of fans.
-How much do the feel the internet has helped ignite the Comus fanbase?
RW: If it were not for the internet Comus would not have reformed. It is largely through file sharing that we now have a global fanbase. When we split up we were unheard of outside Europe.
-Your website tantalizingly reveals that you’re recording new material. Can you shed any light on how it’s shaping up? Will the Malgaard Suite finally see the light of day?
RW: No, the Malgaard Suite is largely forgotten. It was so complex and parts of it did not work very well. We only have one poor sounding recording of it from a gig and we feel it is best left behind. What we wanted to do was to kick back in as we were in the middle of 1971 and what should have been the second album – a continuation from First Utterance and that is what we are doing. The first finished song, ‘Out of the Coma’, will be performed at the Equinox Festival. We are intrigued to see how it will go down. It is very much in the same vain as the songs on First Utterance and we are all working on more.
-Bobbie, on the Colins of Paradise website, among the band’s friends you count artists such as Ital Tek, Venetian Snares and Vladislav Delay. Are you a big electronic music fan? Any chance of this filtering into the new Comus material?
Bobbie Watson (Vocals/Percussion): Jan Jelinek, Burial, and X.A.Cute featuring Mike Ladd, are some of my/our sure favourites (Jon Seagroatt is my husband) - a whole world away from Comus....
-And finally, any plans to take Comus over to Japan?
RW: There was a gig planned for Tokyo but it never came to anything. We look forward to an opportunity to play in Japan.
Comus can be found online at Comusmusic.co.uk.