Ancient Forest basks in an earthy psychedelic sound that would somehow be at home in both Tolkien's Middle Earth as well as on the streets of San Francisco circa 1965. Kalen Nri Walther, the Missoula-based musician behind the moniker, has been consuming mass quantities of British, Irish and American folk music for at least the last five years, which has greatly influenced his style. His 2011 eponymous album stems from his love for John Fahey and The Incredible String Band, and you can hear that. But with all its imagery of forests and magical journeys and smoke curling from chimneys, it could have been another soundtrack to Rankin and Bass' The Hobbit. There's nothing about hobbits on the album, mind you, but the Middle Earth interpretation doesn't come from thin air. As it turns out, Walther was reading The Hobbit when he wrote that album. The fact that you don't need to know that to get it is why Walther's work is so smart.
"I've always been interested in mythology, and especially that Irish and Norse mythology that Tolkien draws from," he says. "I took an Irish literature class last semester that turned me on to some motifs I was already familiar with in Lord of the Rings. I love Tolkien, but I'm not an expert. I read more Richard Brautigan and Raymond Carver."
On paper, Ancient Forest doesn't necessarily seem like a band that would get noticed among the post-punk, experimental rock or even Americana-influenced bands playing venues around town. But it's got a certain je ne sais quoi, or spong (as the Gaelic say), that makes the band seem more at home with late-night groups at the bars than at an afternoon coffee shop gig. Walther's latest album, Lay the Rent to the Bonnie Broom, has a less acoustic, more guitar-fuzz feel to it, with instrumentation from several of his friends.
"The new one probably shows my interest in mid-'60s bands from San Francisco, like, Jefferson Airplane," Walther says.
Walther was recently accepted to play the final Total Fest, Missoula's most popular and long-running three-day rock festival, which features a whole lot of heavy, sludgy musicianship. And he will play a guest spot opening for electronic noise-pop band Shahs, the VFW's resident band for the month of June.
But the Ancient Forest folk-rock sound meshes even better with the lineup at this weekend's Camp Daze, a three-day festival started last year by Nickolas Hawksley and Kale Huseby, of local band Boys, Andrea Wyman and graphic artist Foster Caffrey. Ancient Forest will play with local favorites like Magpies, FUULS, Eat Strike and J Sherri, as well as out-of-town gems such as Iji, Kithkin and Dragons. Unlike the heavier feel of Total Fest, Camp Daze embraces the lighthearted aesthetic of a weekend camping trip: "It's like a backyard barbecue vibe," Hawksley says.
- photo by Cathrine L .Walters
- The Ancient Forest Band includes, from left, Javier Ryan, Lukas Phelan and Kalen Nri Walther.
Lukas Phelan, current drummer for what they call the Ancient Forest Band (he doesn't play on any of the albums), is also part of the wildly fun band J Sherri. He and Walther work together at Butterfly Herbs, among the wafting tea spices and coffee and the jars of old-timey candy and art nouveau jewelry.
"I like playing in Ancient Forest a lot because they are really good songs, while J Sherri is more of a party," Phelan says one afternoon while sipping coffee with Walther in the little cafe at the back of the shop. "Playing with Kalen, I can focus on musicality. But it's great to be in two different projects like that. They complement each other, but they're both pretty uplifting."
Walther does seem to have that kind of buoying personality: The good faith of Frodo, the Summer-of-Love air of early Jefferson Airplane, the intuition of a hearty balladeer. He came up with the romantic title Lay the Rent to the Bonnie Broom during the not-so-romantic task of pulling weeds for a summer job.
"Bonnie Broom is an old folk motif, especially in [Frances James] Child ballads and songs that come from England, Scotland and Ireland," he says. "There's this line, 'Lay the bent to the bonnie broom,' which is kind of a sexual innuendo, but also referencing springtime rituals. But I was making a pun on it. I was working all last summer pulling brome with my friend Javier [Ryan]. We were doing that to make rent."
Whatever he's doing—weeding, reading Tolkien, studying Irish mythology—it all shows up in his music like subconscious threads in a dream. He seems to surround himself with things that he loves, which then show up in his music—though he doesn't always realize that's what he's doing. For instance, he's currently a student at the University of Montana studying creative writing, music and Irish studies. A random, meandering combination, he admits.
"Well, you're majoring in Ancient Forest," Phelan says.
Walther laughs. "Huh. I guess that's true."
Camp Daze runs Thu., May 28–Sat., May 30, at venues around town, including the ZACC Below, Free Cycles and the VFW. For the festival, The Ancient Forest Band plays Free Cycles Fri., May 29, at 6:30 PM. Visit campdazemusic.com for ticket and festival info. $25 all-access tickets available at Ear Candy. Ancient Forest also plays Shahs' residency at the VFW Thu., June 4, with Shahs, Wet Piss and Love is a Dog from Nebraska at 10 PM. $2.