Interview with Keenan Oakes of Wildernessking


It is not just dark and light, it is everything in between…

Formed in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010 under the suitably impious moniker Heathens, they would release a couple of fairly average EPs before 2011 arrived accompanied by a name change. And so, in 2012, Wildernessking’s debut album, The Writing of Gods in the Sand appeared and established the band as one to keep a keen eye and ear on. In the years that followed, two EPs and two split releases emerged, the band’s evolution more than evident across all the recordings.

2016 and album number two, Mystical Future, is released. A striking album, it’s as moving as it is touching and as powerful as it is vast. Here, vocalist/bassist Keenan Oakes talks to MR’s Jason Guest about the band, the album, having three different covers for it, and music as a cathartic and fulfilling experience…

Hi Keenan. Thank you very much for taking time out for this interview and congratulations on Mystical Future. It’s an impressive piece of work (reviewed here).

Thanks a lot Jason. We’re glad that you like the album, and appreciate the well-written review. Cheers for the interview.

The band formed in 2010 as Heathens. What drew you together to form a band?

Really, just a love of music and the need to create. We didn’t have any big goals at the time.

You changed the name to Wildernessking in 2011. What prompted this change?

We wanted a name that was more thematic and less limiting, a moniker that truly captured the essence of who we are and the music we make.

By Cathryn Golby (Keenan) (3)For you, how do the two bands differ?

Wildernessking is a natural follow-up to Heathens, an evolution in sound. The two bands are different, both musically and conceptually. But, it’s still the same line-up, so the similarities are definitely present, and those fans who have been with us since the beginning, will pick up on (and have acknowledged) what both bands have in common. We still play some of our Heathens material at shows, so we don’t feel very distant from our initial foray as a group.

Who are the band’s main influences? And how have they impacted on the band’s sound?

It’s difficult to answer that question, as things keep changing as we move forward. I think some of the bands that influenced us initially to start this project would be bands like Immortal, Enslaved, Wolves in the Throne Room, Primordial, Opeth, Mastodon, Cult of Luna, Emperor and a few others. These bands helped to lay a solid foundation and definitely played a role in us crafting and moulding our sound. These days our inspiration is not found in music, as much as it is found in literature, film and everyday life occurrences. Not to say that music isn’t essential to us, I mean, it’s the very reason we do this, but it is not as important in the process of creating as it was in the beginning. There are no references anymore, we’re moving towards something unique and wholly our own.

Where’s the band name Wildernessking originate from? Does it have a specific meaning or significance for the band and its music?

It’s the blending of two words: “Wilderness” and “king”. The name is something that evolves too. What we thought Wildernessking meant in 2011 is very different to what we think Wildernessking means in 2016. We were a nature-oriented band, as we’ve always admired the great outdoors, and the name was a homage, a reverence towards the natural world. It still is, but it’s more than that now. It’s a very personal thing. It’s about the wilderness inside you, and trying to conquer it and make the most of your life.

What did you want to achieve with Mystical Future?

Musically, we wanted to really consolidate our ideas and make a more cohesive and more varied record than the first one. And in doing so, we hoped to appeal to more people and gain some new fans. We try to break new ground with every release, and so far we are happy with what we’ve achieved on all of our releases so far. There’s more ground to still break…

Did you have an idea of how you wanted the album to sound or did each of the tracks and the whole thing take shape as it was being developed?

We had a general idea. Often a song or even an idea can steer the ship in a different direction, but not too far so that it sounds foreign on the album. We knew how we wanted the record to flow, and we knew that it was going to be more dynamic in its scope. Some things just fall into place too, but for the most part it was an intentional process. This was definitely more thought out than The Writing of Gods.

How long were you working on the material?

On and off between January 2012 and September 2013. But the songs were written very spontaneously. ‘White Horses’ was written in two days in January 2012, ‘I Will Go To Your Tomb’ followed in June/July 2012, ‘With Arms Like Wands’ in September/October of 2012, ‘To Transcend’ in early 2013 and ‘If You Leave’ in August/September 2013. It was a very sporadic process, but when we got down to writing, it happened pretty quickly.

Can you tell us about the lyrical themes on the album? And where did you take inspiration from?

Themes include loss, submission, relationships, nostalgia, self-empowerment, and there’s definitely moments of looking ahead, trying to map out a better life for yourself, but ultimately not knowing how things will pan out.

Wildernessking – Mystical Future CD
Wildernessking – Mystical Future CD artwork

You have two different artworks for the CD, Vinyl and Cassette versions of the album. Why so?

It’s something that just sort of happened. We were working with a local artist on cover art for the debut already, when we came across Reuben Sawyer’s work and immediately fell in love with it. So we decided to use both artworks (one for the vinyl and one for the CD version), and ever since, it’s just become a thing of ours. Working with different people allows the music to be interpreted in more than one way, to capture the ever-changing nature of it. It is not just dark and light, it is everything in between.

Three different artists, why did you choose to work with them? And how much direction was given in the design of each?

Wildernessking – Mystical Future Vinyl artwork
Wildernessking – Mystical Future Vinyl artwork

We were planning on doing a shoot with Eckardt Kasselman for a long time. He helped us shoot some of the promos for The Writing of Gods, but we only got around to working with him properly for this album. We shot promos on Noordhoek Beach and at Silvermine Nature Reserve, in our home city. And we just messed around with shooting the scenes of both locations, with and without us in the frame (it was never really our intention to make one of the shots the cover, but we knew that it might be a possibility). We have never used a photograph for cover art before, so that was a big reason for using it too.

The twilight scene on the vinyl cover captures the album quite well. It’s a case of things just working out where that one’s concerned. With regards to the tape art, we used our good friend and frequent collaborator, Rouleaux van der Merwe. He is an amazing designer, and we kind of just let him run with it. With regards to the CD, we gave the artist quite a bit of direction. She’s a good friend of ours and was with us from the very beginning of the Mystical Future process, long before we went into the studio. Again, it’s a case of wanting to work with someone for a long time, and finally getting an opportunity to do so.

How did you come to work with Les Acteurs de l’Ombre Productions for the release of the EP? And do you plan to stay with them for future releases?

They contacted us while we were working on Mystical Future and proposed we work together. We didn’t know in what capacity at the time, but we kept the correspondence going, and eventually chatted about them releasing the CD version of the new album. We are working with them again on a LP version of our two EPs, …And the Night Swept Us Away and The Devil Within. It will be a joint record.

How does the band approach composition? Is it the lyrics or a concept first, or the music or a melody perhaps?

There is no set way when it comes to composition. We could have a riff, a drum beat, a song title or simply just mess around in the rehearsal space. Often, someone will bring in an idea, and we will just build from there. It’s an organic process and we are all heavily involved.

In terms of musical and creative development, how does the band of 2016’s Mystical Future compare to the band of 2012’s The Writing of Gods in the Sand?

Our goals are more aligned now, musically. The Writing of Gods validated our band, and the reaction encouraged us to delve deeper into this world we created. We are still expanding and finding a sound, a sound that we feel we are a lot closer to on Mystical Future. The creative process is easier; we’re on the same page. It’s exciting, we’re growing.

What does the act of making music mean to Wildernessking?

It means everything. It is why we do this. Writing a song is such a beautiful process. It can be momentary; it can be over an extended period of time. The lives we lead affect the music we make. It’s an outpouring and a cathartic and fulfilling experience.

Any plans for shows in support of the album? And will we be seeing you in the UK?

Definitely, to answer both questions. We are doing a local tour here in April, with plans to get to the UK and Europe in the not too distant future.

What would be the ideal setting for a Wildernessking performance?

A small theatre minus the seating, with 100 people capacity and appropriate moving visuals.

What does the future hold for Wildernessking? Is there more music in the works?

There’s always music in the works to be honest. New EP, Levitate, out in April, with some special plans for later in the year. We can’t give away too much right now, in fear of jinxing ourselves.

Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?

Thank you for the thoughtful questions. It’s a pleasure. We are super grateful the support you’ve shown our band and look forward to bringing you more music, and to doing this again at some point. We hope to see you in the UK soon!

By Eckardt Kasselman (Mystical Future Promo) (3)
Wildernessking by Eckardt Kasselman