Ghosts & Goblins: an interview with Fen Walker

Best experienced in the Ghosts & Goblins PDF zine

Please introduce and tell us about yourself

Greetings! My stage name is Wayfarer and I am the musician behind the Dungeon synth/Fantasy Ambient project Fen Walker. I am based in Portland, Oregon, but my heart and mind belong in the wild and majestic realm of the funeral isle of Ur. After a long and unsatisfying decade of trying to make myself a place in the robust Portland metal scene, I found myself with a month of paternity leave for the birth of my third child. Having freshly discovered Dungeon synth for the second time, I decided to use the period during my infant son’s constant napping to write the first Fen Walker album “Hail! O’ Barrow Lands.”

In addition to Fen Walker, I record albums for a variety of other projects including Frost Clad, Spectral Manse and Curse Breaker among others.

Tell us about the story / world building / themes behind your project

When I recorded the first album, I did not intend to create any kind of lore. I wanted it to make an album that was a linear story. Listeners followed a character travelling to different locations, meeting characters and encountering threats. I wanted to leave it up to interpretation as to what was going on within the music. Developed characters and an ongoing plot hadn’t occurred to me yet. It wasn’t until the second Fen Walker album, “The Totem Wilds Call Thy Name” that I started to form the story and it wasn’t until the third album “Sojourns in the Realm of the Undermoon,” that I wrote anything down and included the stories on my Bandcamp page. Most of it is still floating around in my mind and hasn’t seen the page yet, but I’d love to write a book someday, but until then, here is the short version:

The first three Fen Walker albums, known as Saga I, follow a woman who is a shepherd of the dead. She travels over the island continent of Ur and guides lost and lonely spirits to burial sites, mounds or tombs where they can live out the next life in peace and comfort. Proper burial and funerary practices are central to the life of the Urish people, who dedicate their lives to building labyrinthine tomb structures and regularly visiting deceased relatives. All of this is important, because without proper burial, spirits live in a hell of loneliness, never able to pass onto the second death and never able to interact with the people they can see and hear all around them.

Eventually, The Wanderess, as she is known, fails in her duty and grave robbers desecrate the sacred Barrow Lands and steal the treasures from the mounds. Though she is able to get the treasure back, in shame, she exiles herself to the mysterious lands of the north.

Saga II follows the woman’s twin daughters Soja and Woja, who are born in a different continent and travel to Ur to bury their mother who has died. They inadvertently lead the imperious forces of the north to the shore of Ur, where they begin to invade the peaceful continent. The sisters then have to decide to defend the ancestral home of their mother and betray their own king, or help invade it and betray their mother.

A large theme in the Fen Walker story has been tradition and conservation versus technology and change, which is something I think a lot about. I don’t believe either are inherently bad, but there must be a balance between the two. In a way its my own bastardization of Michael Moorcock’s Chaos and Law ideas. Aside from this central theme, there is the classic hero’s journey, the evils of colonialism, redemption, and some cosmic horror element throughout. Most importantly I want the fantasy to shine through, because what Fen Walker is really all about is escapism.

Tell us about the art & design associated with your project

I work very closely with the artist Brendan Elliott for the visuals of Fen Walker. He is really the second member of the band and it’s almost like we have a psychic link. At this point, I don’t even need to communicate my needs that much, he knows where the story is going and is able to create exactly the image I want. I think a large part of Fen Walker’s success lies in the art; it’s a portal into the world I have created. Even folks, who don’t like the music, can still appreciate the paintings and still get a glimpse of Ur and the wonders it holds.

Generally, I’ll have two pieces created for each album. A cover piece that illustrates a major scene from the story, and a landscape or map that can illustrate the interior of the physical media, usually a cassette tape. The art itself is acrylic and painted on a variety of canvases and art boards. Brendan has painted for quite a few Dungeon synth acts, including Guild of Lore, Sombre Arcane, Shrouded Gate, Moss Troll among others.

What are some of your influences (musical and otherwise)?

Oh I have many, many influences. Outside of the Dungeon synth sphere of influence I am inspired by legendary German synthesists Tangerine Dream, their album “Phaedra” is a particular favourite of mine as well as many of their soundtracks. The Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis is one of the great synth albums of all time and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to it. “Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings” by Bo Hannson is probably my greatest inspiration for Fen Walker; it is a tragically overlooked gem of 70’s progressive rock and I hear something new every time I listen to it. Hermit like synthesist Jim Kirkwood has also had a huge impact on me and is another recognized musician who has great power. His music helped introduce the Berlin School style into my own music. Master of Dragon and Castles of Sand are two standouts from his massive back catalogue. 

The Dungeon synth sphere of influence is larger. The feeling of being a part of a community that is constantly creating and sharing music is very exhilarating to me and makes me want to continue writing music even more. Projects and albums I discovered early on that inspired Fen Walker: Torchlight (The Long Quest), Vandalorum (Flagellum Dei), Zandar Zan (Thug Life in Tsargol), Old Sorcery (Strange and Eternal), Utred (Forest), The Path Eternal (Search of True Ascendance). These projects and albums were guides and teachers during my first few albums and are all worth checking out.

Projects and albums I listen to for a regular bump of creative inspiration are: Guild of Lore (Stormhaven), Cernunnos Woods (Awaken the Dark Empire), Sombre Arcane (Realmsong), Scrying Glass (Wyrmhole), Voormithadreth (The Quest for Iranon), Arcanist (Poseidonis), Thangorodrim (Taur Nu Fuin)…and on and on the list goes. Non-musical influences: Beowulf (the Seamus Heaney translation), The Lord of the Rings, H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, the Richard Sharpe novels (by Bernard Cornwell) and so on and so forth.

Tell us about your creative space and process

My recoding space is a giant mess! I like it that way. I have books on every surface, things perched precariously, various functional and non-functional lamps, cables and equipment coiled and piled upon the ground. There is a lot of dust. It’s a mess, but its an organized one, and I’m comfortable in the space. My process is to record very detailed segments of a song, fully layered and mixed, and then get writer’s block. What comes before this beautiful arrangement? What comes after? I don’t know. I forget all about the segment until I rediscover it some weeks later and work on it some more. This usually results in the completion of the song. I have about fifteen partially completed tracks waiting for me to rediscover them and complete them. This used to be unintentional and irritating, until I realized that my ears needed this break. Now I’ll record something and put it away purposely for later exhumation. On occasion. I’ll go to my synthesisers and an entire song will pour out in one session. However, I count this as a happy surprise versus an expectation. I recently release an album for a new project called Frost Clad. The album was recorded in this way and I finished the whole process in about a week. Very rare, but nice.

Songwriting wise, listeners will notice that my music is very dense and complex, whereas most Dungeon synth tends to lean toward a more simple approach. There are a few reasons for this: traditional Dungeon synth came out of the Black Metal scene in the early 90’s and tends to follow in a lo-fi production and stripped down songwriting that leans toward atmosphere. Though I enjoy Black Metal, I come at Dungeon synth with a background in traditional heavy metal and bands like Omen, Manilla Road, Iron Maiden and the like. While I try to capture the atmosphere of Dungeon synth, I want to tell an exciting fantasy story too, and for me, that means robust and detailed songs with harmonies you might find in a heavy metal song!

How does your sense of place affect the way you express yourself?

Fog shrouded hills, trees, moss, mushrooms and waterfalls, all these things help me get into the mindset for recording a song. Luckily, I don’t have to go very far to find these things. Oregon is covered in forests. There are countless parks and hiking trails a short drive from my residence. North is the Columbia river gorge which look rights out of a fantasy novel, the cascade range to the east with its towering mountains and the ocean to the west. All these places I can reach in less than two hours. Being amid old growth trees or by the ocean really sparks my creativity. Often, I’ll search for a sound on my synthesiser to capture something I have seen in nature. ‘The Mist Wreathed Shores of Ur Rising,” for example, was me trying to sonically create the rising cliffs and pine forests on a foggy day at the Oregon coast.

What does Dungeon synth (and/or related genres) mean to you?

Initially, I wasn’t ready for Dungeon synth. At the time I was discovering all that metal had to offer and I didn’t want to hear long-form synth songs. I wanted faster and heavier metal. A few years ago, I was fatigued with metal, and music in general. I was tired of playing drums and guitar. I was tired of heavy music and the effort that went into multi-tracking drums and layering guitars and vocals. And then, after all that, releasing the fruits of my labour to zero interest from anyone. Bandcamp published an article on Dungeon synth and after exploring some of the projects, I felt my love of music totally renew. It had a fantasy atmosphere I loved, a black metal aesthetic, foreboding, mystery and a DIY punk attitude. Later, when I started producing Fen Walker songs, I found it was something that I could create with ease and focus on developing emotional and evocative weight rather than fretting about microphone positions on a drum kit.

How would you describe the Dungeon synth community?

The community is one of the great parts of being involved in Dungeon synth. We admire each other’s work, we cheer each other on during live streams, we discuss nerdy stuff, we support each other’s ventures. Sometimes it gets dysfunctional, there are arguments and dramas that occur, but what music scene doesn’t have that?

The scene is largely social media based. There are several Facebook groups where we post music and talk about Dungeon synth. Scrolling through the pages you might see ads from the various labels (Out of Season, Dungeons Deep, Ancient Meadow, Lamp & Dagger, to name a few), people presenting their new music for the first time, occasional debates, and all variety of Dungeony content.

Another large part of the community is the live streams, which are presented on Twitch. Northeast Dungeon Siege (or NEDS) has been organizing these shows and has put in a huge amount of effort in getting everything together. Shane and Josh from Sombre Arcane are the two responsible for starting NEDS, with Tirith recently becoming the third member of the team. NEDS happens once a year with the most recent being a massive three-night streaming event that I was privileged to be a part of. Next year, with Covid on its way out, I’m hoping NEDS will be a live event.

Lastly, you can’t talk about the community and not mention The Dungeon synth Archives on YouTube. The person, or people, behind the DSA are mysterious, I don’t know if anyone know who they are, but they have been posting an album or so a week for years now. When someone is new to the scene and looking for good releases the DSA is usually immediately mentioned. Each album posted gets a large number of views and exposure, this helps lots of people get their projects off the ground. I personally owe a lot to the DSA for regularly supporting Fen Walker over the years.

Tell us about your gaming habits: video games, RPG, tabletop, other? Past & present.

I am an on and off again gamer. I do love them, but with three kids, it’s hard to use up what little free time I have on games rather than music. I was HUGE into games as a kid. I will always have a soft spot of early 90’s shooters, Heretic and Hexen being my favourites, those games had incredible atmosphere, and music that I still listen to today. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 took up an insane amount of my childhood and has one of the greatest soundtracks ever made. Same goes for Diablo II, once I start a game of it, I play it obsessively until it’s completed. I still play these games. I suppose you could call me a retro gamer.

I have a regular Tuesday night Call of Cthulhu session that I run. In addition to the myriad, other tabletop games I play with my wife and friends. The jewel of my game collection is the original edition of Hero Quest that I found recently. I found this classic board game once before as a child in a second hand store for $4. Slowly the pieces were lost and the board damaged. It would probably be accurate to say that Hero Quest was my introduction to the world of fantasy, and I am forever grateful for it and it’s been very nostalgic playing through it again.

If you could step through a portal to any realm of fantasy, where would it be?

I always find this question difficult, because I have a habit of weighing the dangers of whatever fantasy world I would wish to inhabit. They are all full of monsters and my weak modern-day self wouldn’t last long I imagine. I will have to pick Morrowind though. I spent many an hour as a teenager exploring the island of Vvardenfell, it would be pretty cool to explore it in real life. Could I bring a rifle to take care of all those damn Cliff Racers?

Fenwalker Bandcamp

Brendan Elliott Instagram

Northeast Dungeon Siege Facebook

The Dungeon synth Archive YouTube

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s