The crust and post-metal underground has always been the least media friendly in the vast metal world: no resounding press announcements, no big festivals, no band finding its way to the mainstream press for murder, arson or cross-shaped dog food. And yet, today this is one of the most active and vital environments in the extreme scene, both in Italy and internationally.
Alex CF knows a thing or two about it, having been part of it for almost two decades, participating in some of its most interesting projects. Bristol-born, Alex is an illustrator, writer and sculptor, as well as singer and lyricist, and in every project he embarks on he instills a huge ideological load. Since his debut behind the mic of Fall Of Efrafa, cult sludge/crust combo of the ‘00s, he never hid his profound aversion to the far right and discriminatory ideologies, so much that the very music by that band was a long concept dedicated to Richard Adams’s Watership Down and its allegories. The following artistic leg, Light Bearer, addressed theological confutation — Light Bearer, from the Latin Lux Ferre, Lucifer — and, after that, even more complex and ambitious projects came.
I reached out to him for a chat, and Alex proved to be the kindest type of person, willing to answer every question. This is how we tried to sum up his artistic path.
I’d like to start from the beginning: where does your nickname originate from? Is that a reference to the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), of which chronic fatigue was a symptom in 2001. I lost my job as a graphic designer as I was so unwell, and began to draw comics as a means to cope with the condition, I could be bed ridden for up to four days a week, and drawing was a way to feel useful and to exorcise various demons. My comics were analogies of dealing with a debilitating syndrome, and I wrote under the pseudonym of “chronic fatigue” — which I abbreviated to “CF” and eventually Alex CF, as a way to acknowledge the course my life had taken. Eventually I was unwell for about seven years, and although I am much better now, I am still affected by “ME”, days where psychological exhaustion can lead to pain and fatigue.
You stated several times along the way that bands are just a pastime, you were clear on this even before starting this interview, but you’ve been active on the musical scene for over fifteen years now with several projects that were praised internationally, how did that start?
It began many years before in a conversation with my friend Steve, who would eventually become the guitarist in Fall Of Efrafa, I used to travel with him during my “ME” years when he was on tour, and I would sell my comics at the merch table. He was reading Watership Down and we discussed the opening quotations that Adams placed as foreshadowing to the events in the book. I remember remarking that we should start a band based on the political allegories in the book, and many years later we did! It was also a fortuitous friendship with Neil, George and Mikey, passionate nerds one and all, who entertained these flights of fancy. We bonded over our love of music and literature. Fall Of Efrafa was more or a less a byproduct of that. I think that’s the reality of a successful band, that your efforts are passion made into a constructive end result. I loved this concept of paying homage to beloved things, that I would try to revisit with bands after Fall Of Efrafa, with less success. Eventually, love letters to favourite books gave way to writing concepts based on my own stories, and then eventually the stories becoming entirely separate from music, and me becoming an author!
You partially answered this already, but where did the idea of a concept band about Adams’s Watership Down originally come from, apart from those conversations with Steve? And was Fall Of Efrafa initially intended to last for those three albums only?
I have a passion for mythology and fantasy, especially animal mythology, pagan/nature worship. It’s this visceral, earthy magic of something rooted in the world, made of tangible things that you can build fantastical ideas around. Watership Down was perhaps the least fantastical of any of these books, although in doing so Richard Adams created a wholly believable culture, and religion for the rabbits, and the hardships under the heel of the fascist leader General Woundwort. It was that mixture of natural lore and a fight against oppression that made for the perfect concept for a crust band! As for three albums — that was decided in the last days of recording our first album Owsla — we originally had “Beyond The Veil”, the first track on Elil written yet not finessed, and for a brief moment it was to appear on Owsla. Wisely Steve, Neil and George said no, and I suggested that with the advent of a second album we would continue this story, but as Owsla was a conclusion (I never thought we would last longer than one album) I would run the story backwards with Inle, our final album, being the beginning. We made the albums cyclical, with a passage of cello bookending the three records. The rise and fall of a civilisation, never learning from past mistakes. When we were recording Inle, I had written ideas for a fourth album called Zorn — in Lapine meaning “destruction” — that would have seen the end and rebirth of the system. By the end of recording we had decided enough was enough and we added the cello to signify the completion. In hindsight I wish we had taken a hiatus, but the band has and will always be steeped in a lot of emotion and heartache and joy, an itch I will never stop scratching.
After Fall Of Efrafa was put to rest you couldn’t stay away from music very long. Light Bearer was the next leg of your musical journey, other projects that followed, Morrow and Archivist. The former being «violin & cello driven emo crust from London», the latter an international band involving you and several friends of yours from Austria and Germany with a very melodic, post-rock approach. Would you introduce both bands to people who only know you by your past experiences?
After Fall Of Efrafa ended there was definitely a desire to create something new, but in hindsight, I think it was loss. I was very sad, there was a lot of heartache after losing such an important part of my life. In the following years I was involved in a few bands, Light Bearer, Momentum, and secured friendships and musical relationships that outlasted those bands, most notably Gerfried, who I went on to share Carnist, Archivist and Morrow. Archivist is an indie/shoegaze/metal band, that ended its current form after five years and three albums, an ambitious undertaking of creating a trinity of records, shared between three, then two countries, sharing main vocals with my friend Anna. The band was based in Vienna, with Matthias, Steff and Hannes. Despite the huge distance it worked, and we had some wonderful experiences, and played a lot of shows. This band shares a story with our other band, Morrow, in which Gerfried also plays guitar. Morrow is the sonic continuation of the sound I loved in Fall Of Efrafa, but Dave, the main song writer has incorporated his own take on the genre, and we’ve enticed friends from all over the world to join the main core of Jose, Liam, Kelly, Gerfried, Dave and Alastair. The two stories intersect at the end of the respective trilogies, and also links to another music project called Anopheli which I shared with Brian and Josh. So over 7 records we played out this epic science fiction story, with incredible music by my lovely friends.
Since the beginning, with Owsla, and all your other albums to follow, your music has been released via Alerta Antifascista. How did you first cross path with Timo Nehmtow, the man behind the label, and how did your cooperation start?
When we finished Owsla, we looked on the back of our favourite emocrust records to find labels that might like what we had made, Timo was one of the first to respond, and alongside a number of labels, would co-release Owsla. Soon we would meet him, and become firm friends, but beyond the band, Timo and I share a lot of characteristics, we recognise ourselves in each other and that was very useful when responding to one another and dealing with emotional and mental health issues. He has been incredibly supportive of everything I do in and outside bands, making various book and art projects possible, investing huge amounts of money. He is a wonderful, caring, thoughtful man, an incredible father to his child, and a friend who goes out of his way to make others feel comfortable and taken care of. I am sure I drive him mad with my neurosis but I think at this point our efforts are entirely reciprocal, we support one another’s projects. I hope Alerta Antifascista survives all the bullshit the universe throws at it. Timo has supported the DIY scene and so many bands exist because of him. He’s a wonderful human!
I was first drawn to your bands thanks to your art, years ago at some crust concert where a distro had several AA releases. I am an avid comic reader and love figurative arts so I cannot help but ask: as a designer and illustrator dealing with animals, what authors influenced you along the way? Do you happen to know David Petersen’s Mouse Guard?
My biggest influence was Brian Froud. He created the natural history of the planet Thra, the world in which The Dark Crystal takes place. I was shown his illustrated book, The World Of The Dark Crystal when I was 7 years old, and it became a goal of mine to one day create something wholly engrossing. I am not sure I have achieved this yet, but it’s fun to try! It was this level of detail; the depth in which he created ecosystems, societies and culture of make believe species that I was so drawn to. Yes I have read Mouse Guard, this is a little more anthropomorphic than the animals in my world but it’s an incredible work of art regardless.
Going back a bit, you mentioned becoming an author. You have two books out now, or better one out and one in re-press, The Orata and Seek The Throat From Which We Sing. Would you spend a few words on those? Also, it’s animal mythology, do you think you may ever turn your prose works into music just like you did with Watership Down?
In the years after Fall Of Efrafa ended I tried once or twice to entice my fellow band mates to maybe revisit the project; in fact the lyrics I wrote for Zorn became something else, something more complex and after two failed attempts I realised that perhaps instead of trying to restart that project, I would take those ideas to make something new. Initially this was a few long walks and talks with Steve, where we discussed my desire to write my own mythology – that actually began with the idea of using the story as the basis for a new musical project. In the years after, that fell by the wayside, and it took me four years to realise and write Seek The Throat From Which We Sing, a far larger task than I ever imagined! I actually incorporated some of those lyrics into the book, so there is a little facet of Fall Of Efrafa within it. In this time I found the same passion as I had found in writing lyrics, and so this became my main focus — to create my own animal mythology. The books are about animal cultures; separate from human influence, beyond that which we inflict on them, how they live in the shadow of us, their own beliefs, magic, religious struggles, wars and prophecy. The first book soon became the beginning of a saga that will continue in Wretched Is The Husk, and whilst I wrote these books, I also drew a lot to help realise the characters. By the time I was finished I had created enough work for a companion book, a visual encyclopedia. The Orata is that book, a large hardbound fully illustrated bible of that animal mythology. And yes, there will be a musical project based on this in the future.
A totally different subject now: when I discovered your museum I really was astonished: the life’s work of Crypto-naturalist, Fringe Zoologist and Xeno -Archeologist Thomas Merrylin, of which you are the curator. A private collection of fantastic specimens rooted in the Victorian age which can be seen here. How did you start such a project and what are your plans with such imaginative materials?
The collection was thrust upon me in 2006 and became my life’s work for 13 years. My goal was to one day open a permanent exhibit but this was never to be. I am currently writing a book about the collection, detailing the eponymous Merrylin and his diaries.
After this ton of words there is still something we haven’t covered yet: Animal Allies. Once again, a project you run directly which involves animals. Damn, you really know how to keep yourself busy. Would you talk about this initiative?
I started this angry animal rights clothing project as a means to make… angry animal rights clothing and to donate some money to various charities. I’ve done this since 2013 and donated a bunch of money to awesome people like The Hunt Sabs, who go out of their way to stop blood sports, and animal sanctuaries and organisations. It quietly ticks away in the background, and a huge shout out to Mikee and crew at Vinosangre Screen Printing for their tireless help!
I’ll move to a more personal sphere. You usually present yourself as a very pessimistic person, but your words show an incredible enthusiasm and driving force for every project you embark on, even in such hopeless times. Most notably, you’re a fervent believer of the DIY approach, and I guess this both when it comes to music and in other aspects of life. I read in one of your older interviews that you believed in sustainability and non-intensive agriculture as the only way for mankind to survive itself. Do you care to expand on this a bit?
I wouldn’t consider myself a pessimist. I can be misanthropic, and I am an introvert, but I am also a hopeful person. I want humans to learn from our mistakes, to progress beyond our petty foibles. I want the world to be healthier, for my niece and nephew. I want them to have all the chances I had. DIY has always been something immensely important to me, I feel that punk needs that fertile ground of cooperation and sharing the load. I guess there are many interconnections between my experiences as a member of a band, seeing just how much can be achieved when people work together and all the social spaces, venues, organisations, activists, to help stand up to fascism, hatred and intolerance, those who donate their time and money and effort to help others, and how DIY punk was perhaps an inspiration for a lot of progressive grass roots groups. And creativity — I have met so many incredible artists and musicians who inspire me.
A glance at current events: this pandemic is forcing us to rethink more or less our very society from its foundation: health before productivity, National borders lose every bit of significance (if they ever had any in the first place)… And yet weeks pass, people die, lose their jobs and are confined in their small lodgings and governments, those very institutions supposedly built to care and provide for their people, still don’t have a clue. What’s your take on this whole situation? Moreover, you publicly posted on your social profiles that Covid-19 had a major impact on you and your activities.
Life has changed for us all and how it has impacted my life is almost certainly the same for all self employed or freelance workers, I won’t romanticise it in any way, it’s been tough, but nowhere near as tough as it is for those who are on the frontline, support workers, hospital staff, who are exposing themselves to this illness every day. It draws attention to the need for governments to realise just how important public access and national health services are, but the severity of pandemics, and how they are exacerbated by climate change and our interactions with nature. Without being hyperbolic, and being fully aware this is a virus and not a bacteria, we are creating anti biotic resistant diseases through intensive farming, we are not being sympathetic to how infectious diseases will take advantage of our activities. We must find a way to be more symbiotic with the world, more aware of how ecosystems work and by removing ourselves from ecosystems, in our arrogance we forget just how vital they are to our own survival. It will only get worse if we don’t. Disaster capitalism and corner cutting, strip mining and caring little for anyone is the result of right wing governments who pander to nationalism and anti immigration sentiment to win elections. This cynical, short-sightedness will backfire — you can’t profit if there is no one left to sell to.
In a more hopeful light, I have seen so much cooperation and love between people, and friends. It has shown just how important those relationships are, and also a huge shout out to everyone who has supported my work, and all those who keep creating and supporting independent creators!