Folk Horror Gave Hollow Hand and Spencer Cullum an Identity

The folk songwriters talk Wicker Man, Midsommar, why Europe is creepier than the US, and more.

Max Kinghorn-Mills is the Brighton-based artist behind the psych-pop project Hollow Hand and the tape label COSMIC OCEAN; Spencer Cullum is a London-born, Nashville-based folk singer-songwriter. The new Hollow Hand record, Your Own Adventure, is out this Friday on Curation Records, so to celebrate, the two friends hopped on a Zoom call to dig into the ways folk horror films have influenced their music, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Max Kinghorn-Mills: Just to reiterate, [we’re talking about,] how does folk horror inspire and influence our creativity?

Spencer Cullum: Our folkie music. 

Max: Yeah. I mean, yours is pretty clear — that new song has got a sound like it could be on some kind of a ‘70s folk horror [soundtrack]. 

Spencer: Yeah, I think so, especially the new stuff. And your stuff as well — definitely your videos. Even our videos, we want to look like a folk horror video, and I think that’s happening now with more even people that aren’t in the sort of British folk vein. There’s even people over here [in the US] that are kind of doing it.

Max: Is there? 

Spencer: There’s a songwriter called Andrew Combs, who’s a very sort of Texas singer-songwriter. He’s really good. He’s done a video recently and it looked like The Witch, you know? And I think because of those newer films — I don’t think there’s what we were talking about, like Penda’s Fen and Robin Redbreast and all those weird, obscure ones that are not as popular. But because of The Witch, The Lighthouse, Midsommar — that’s becoming massive, ain’t it? 

Max: Yes. It’s funny, while I was trying to work out what would we talk about here, I realized that growing up I was always attracted to this imagery, iconography, aesthetic way before I knew that it was a genre. Even as a kid, I was fascinated with woodland stuff and Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and like, and like, did you ever see that Robin Hood Clannad thing? “The Hooded Man”?

Spencer: No, I never saw that. 

Max: It was this series [from the] ‘80s, I think, and really great. It’s an adaptation of the Robin Hood story. [The] music and ambient and New Age stuff, it kind of attracted and I didn’t realize until probably the last ten years that it was getting very popular. I think Wicker Man is probably the first one.

Spencer: I think so too. That was my one. The soundtrack, as well, of Wicker Man

Max: Paul Giovanni, Magnet.

Spencer:  Yeah. Listening to that soundtrack got me into sort of a more quintessential English sound, like that Third Ear Band was really similar to that.

Max: Definitely. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about. The Wicker Man soundtrack has gone down as a sort of obscure, legendary thing — I’ve seen lots of bands covering “Willow’s Song.” Definitely that album is held in high regard, I’d say. And the way that sound though — like I was watching Penda’s Fen and realizing there’s so much silence in it.

Spencer: Yes.

Max: It’s really quite aggressively quiet at points, and you realize, Wow, it’s a bit confusing. There should be something else happening here. And birdsong is constantly being played at, against silence. And I know in the nightmare scenes, there was absolute silence, and then when when he went out into any situation, all you could hear was birds. And it’s kind of disorienting, isn’t it?

Spencer: Yeah. We’ve had the assignment this weekend of watching Penda’s Fen and Robin Redbreast, and I’ve noticed the theme of loneliness and isolation is in all of these folk horror films. I’ve been reading those Weird Walks books and the idea of, there’s these pagans tribes that you’re meant to find terrifying, but the most terrifying part of it is that isolation of the main character, like the policeman in Wicker Man.

Max: Yeah.

Spencer: And then the woman in Robin Redbreast, she’s on her own in the cottage. That’s the most frightening bit, then a pagan cult [arrives].

Max: There’s this book by this guy called Adam Scovell [Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange] and he talks about the folk horror chain — it’s these four points, and it’s exactly what you’re saying. The first is the rural location — often it’s nature, and we’ve already mentioned it’s a European thing. Apart from, like, new America, that sort of time, you don’t really find it.

Spencer: Like New England, when the settlers came. But it’s definitely more of a European thing.

Max: Definitely, something going back, it’s ingrained in the European stuff. So, rural location. Then it leads to isolated groups, and that’s where it’s sort of like a nightmare — you’re living through [the protagonists’] vision, and they always feel trapped and confused. Something’s happening around them and at first they’re dismissive, and then eventually it starts to become more and more clear that something’s really pretty messed up here, but no one believes them. 

Then it usually leads to, he says, skewed morals or beliefs. So you start to notice that they do things differently, and maybe it doesn’t fit with your usually Christian values. And then it leads to the final thing, which is violent supernatural happenings. It doesn’t always have to be supernatural, but something violent happens as a result of those previous three.

I never really was attracted to the sorts of slasher horror things. The best of these films quite often happen in in broad daylight. 

Spencer: Yes.

Max: There’s there’s no escape. It’s like you’re looking it straight in the eye and the weirdness is right there in front of you in plain clothes. There’s no hidden weapons, you can see all of it. And that’s definitely part of it.

Spencer: Like Wicker Man — they’re burning him in broad daylight.

Max: When I saw that, I just like, Wow. I’d never seen anything like that before in a horror film. Some people would consider Texas Chainsaw or the original one.

Spencer: Really? I guess it would be. I’ve lived over here in America for 11 years now, and I’m starting to think that because it still feels like a new country — this sounds so stupid and dumb, but it feels not as scary. It’s so old in Europe, that over in America, it’s almost like I’m dismissive of folk horror here. Because it’s kind of like, Oh, you know, ghosts don’t exist because it’s not that old. [Laughs.] But in England — oh, there’s definitely ghosts.

Max: [Laughs.] You walk down any street in London and there’s an atmosphere. You look at all the old buildings and the kinds of weird ritualistic… There’s a lot of energy. I’m not particularly into the supernatural stuff, but if there’s ever energy, you’re gonna get it in these cities in England.

Spencer: Definitely. Texas Chainsaw Massacre could be that, because it’s like a cult of fucked up people that are just murderers. There’s nothing [supernatural].

Max: That’s the trope, isn’t it? People who are just having a little journey, and they get caught up into a mess that they can’t get out of. And it does it does sort of resemble a bit of a ritualistic thing in the same way that True Detective does, actually.

Spencer: That’s true, yeah.

Max: And, if you remember, it’s all broad daylight. It’s hot, it’s sweltering.

Spencer: Doe folk horror have to be pagan? Or is it any religion? Because Texas Chainsaw Massacre — I know there’s rituals, but it doesn’t feel like a religion.

Max: No, it’s something else.

 I mean, the ones that we’re talking about: it’s nostalgic, and more than that, it’s looking back in time to the old gods before Christianity. I think any new religion has to demonize the previous one and make devils, right? So that’s why the great god Pan and all of these nature gods are made to be more sinister than they actually are, probably, in in history. They’re not really going to murder you in the woods, but Christianity is the one that’s in control.

Spencer: That’s true.

Max: It’s the Puritan thing: “you shouldn’t be doing this, you’re all wrong, you should be doing it the Christian way.” Iit gets political, really, I guess.

Spencer: Yeah. I mean, what you said about nostalgia — I think that’s what got me into doing folk music. I had a nostalgia for England living here, because I don’t have roots here yet. I do have roots — I have a house and a wife and dogs and my home is here, but I was missing my roots. And I think the folk music spoke to me. Same with you, I’m sure. It feels grounded with that, you know? Even with folk horror…

Max: Yeah, because a lot of it’s the English countryside. For me, the [new] album — I read this book Electric Eden. It’s really great, about the history of folk, and it actually nods a little bit towards some of those films. And for me, Bright Phoebus, the Watersons album, there’s a song on there called “The Scarecrow.” Do you know that one?

Spencer: Oh, yeah. It is a fantastic song.

Max: Yeah, it’s so great. And I remember when I was about 19 and getting into the whole history of the music that we’re interested in now, and there was this compilation — I still can’t find it — it was called I Smell the Blood of an Englishman. Someone had made it, like a little WinZip, but it was kind of famous on the internet in Blogspot times. That was full of stuff like that — Peter Bellamy and Briggs and stuff. It was all the things that both of us definitely love. And that “Scarecrow” song, I remember, really scared me. It’s got this atmosphere — I checked the lyrics out again today, and he’s talking about tying a newborn to a stake. And some of it’s kind of ambiguous, but it’s all to do with the crops and harvest and sacrifice and stuff, and that’s definitely folk horror.

Spencer: Yeah. I’m sure there’s a Fairport Convention song similar to that — old songs that were covered and made electric. 

Max: Tradition is passed down, isn’t it? It’s refusing to forget about the old ways. All of those artists — I’m a huge fan of the Watersons and Nic Jones and Martin Carthy, and even the Incredible String Band. But they’re actually mainly singing about positivity and things, it’s all good. You’re not going to find them talking about sacrifices, as far as I know.

Spencer: Sacrificing a baby, yeah.

Max: But it all fits together. The sound they all produce, it’s always been there for me growing up with my dad and mum putting on those records. That’s part of the huge attraction to it. So The Wicker Man does such a good job of placing that sound in a scene. When I had it on VHS and it would all sound warbly and weird, it really attracted me to it.

The guitar on the first track on your last album makes me think of that warbling guitar. How did you record that, by the way?

Spencer: I can’t remember now. It was all to tape, and it might have been an old tape or we might have used a plug-in. I can remember we had a really old tape because I couldn’t afford new tape on a budget. [Laughs.] 

Max: So you brought that to the studio to use?

Spencer: Yeah. And the whole sort of thing was, I definitely had been listening to Magnet.

Max: Cool. 

Spencer: And there was another song — it might have been like Third Ear Band. There’s like this drum, and it sounds like a weird sort of alto sax.

Max: It kind of sounds medieval, doesn’t it? Yes, It’s like. And that really appeals to me. I’ve always loved, like, King Arthur.

Spencer: [Laughs.] Me too. Also, I feel like when you’re influenced by folk horror and all folk music, you’re OK to sing about nature and birds and being afraid of it, and then also embracing it. I think that kind of goes hand-in-hand. I think when you dive down into that, you don’t feel as stupid singing about it. 

Max: Yeah, it’s like a tradition, a path that’s already been walked that you can join. So that you feel at home in that character then?

Spencer: Definitely. I don’t feel at home singing a country song. I’ve been playing steel guitar and it’s great — I love playing the pedal steel guitar. But lyrically, I couldn’t. When I first came to Nashville, they were like, “You should do co-writes!” And me going to a co-write and someone’s talking about meeting a girl at a bar, or a pickup truck, or “I’ve been drinking on Friday and hanging out with my boys” — I, as an Englishman, have a real hard time connecting with that.

Max: Yeah. When I think back to having this Wicker Man VHS, when I was, let’s say, stepping out and inviting something else into to my repertoire — it was that stuff, and then the main thing was Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd. What you’re saying reminded me of Syd Barrett and feeling the Englishness of that, and Robyn Hitchcock as well. It’s a direct lineage there — “Piper at the Gates is Dawn” is literally referencing Wind in the Willows

Spencer: You couldn’t get an American band singing about nuns, you know. [Laughs.]

Max: That’s true, isn’t it? And at that time, I was first taking a lot of mushrooms and getting in touch with that. Piper at the Gates of Dawn became this magical, truly magical thing, and it still is now. It’s lodged in my psyche and it represents me finding something bigger and my mind expanding — it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. And so the “piper at the gates of dawn” is referring to the great god Pan, this chapter [of Wind in the Willows]. It all makes sense to me that he was interested in that as well. I think I know where he’s coming from, that world.

Spencer: Those old fables. With folk music as well as folk horror, there’s a cathartic sort of randomness about it. It feels not structured. And I think with their records, there’s an experimental psychedelic experiment sort of…

Max: Yeah. They can be psychedelic just by default. A Field in England is a very psychedelic folk horror sort of film. And then there’s another one by the same director, Ben Wheatley, called [In the Earth].

Spencer: Yeah, I know the one. That’s amazing. It’s like a science experiment or something  like that, ain’t it? 

Max: Yeah, a very messed up science experiment. I had it on the projector and remember all the audio design stuff was insane. It was taking me somewhere that I’ve been maybe in my head before, around the same age. That one is very psychedelic. I like it when they embrace that [in a way that’s] a bit more of a modern thing.

Spencer: It’s always the heavy sort of psychedelic trip where they’re kind of holding onto the ground for dear life, grasping into the moss.

Max: It’s extremely earthy, all of it. If you superimpose it into a modern environment, it’s like it longs to get back to the nature and the garden and awaken it.

Spencer: Yeah. I wasn’t brought up in a religious background, and I’m not religious, but I find that is the closest thing to having a religious experience, having a sort of mushroom, finding earth, nature… Because it is terrifying, you know? Because it’s so spectacular to behold. It’s like, there’s our god

Max: I think that might be a thread between us both, which is sparking our interest. And maybe a lot of people who I’m interested in their books — maybe there’s a theme there, that they’ve all been to somewhere else. 

Spencer: It could be, yeah. It’s similar to when you’re kind of lost and you don’t know your identity. Maybe that’s why we’ve kind of gravitated towards listening to that music, because it kind of gave us an identity, you know? 

Max: Yeah, definitely. It’s a religious experience and it’s a surrender — only when you truly let go of that and your ego, that’s when you really connect with it.

Spencer: Yeah. We was chatting the other day about difference between folk and prog, and obviously prog music was influenced by that. But I don’t know, it almost feels kind of like… it sold out really quickly, and it became really sort of anal retentive, and about showing off, I guess. But every great prog [band], it’s always like the first record was great because they were really interested in folk and traditional music. 

Max: Which bands are you thinking of?

Spencer: I guess Yes. Genesis. It was influenced by that, then it just went off into a spiral that I don’t think was as cool.

Max: It’s a funny one, isn’t it? So it’s a strange place, prog.

Spencer: [Laughs.] Yeah, because it feels silly. I mean, I love the Roger Dean artwork, and the Led Zeppelin Song Remains the Same, but it feels so silly. Why does folk music not feel as silly? They have the same sort of artwork, but it doesn’t feel as stupid. I feel like I’m getting older, and me playing folk music is like growing old gracefully. But if I was playing prog music, you’d be like, “Oh, man.”

Max: [Laughs.] Obviously it could be an escapist thing, right? Well, I guess it all is. That kind of segues into — so, in the beginning of the lockdown, I was listening to lots of dark ambient projects, and in the Weird Walks that you were talking about, there’s the whole dungeon synth thing. And so I started this Cosmic Ocean tapes thing as a result of no one that I knew wanted to listen to that, no one knew about it. It was purely me in my room putting it on and being like, OK, I can really get into this in the same way that I can watch these folk horror films by myself. And maybe it’s even best to be by yourself.

Dungeon synth comes from black metal, really — there’s this sort of tradition in these black metal albums of the ‘90s and where they have the opening track, this instrumental, primitive sounding maybe Casio keyboard, maybe MIDI. And it sounds sort of rudely basic, and it will introduce the scene for the rest of the record 

Spencer: I need to hear this.

Max: I also distribute this dungeon synth zine — there’s about eight or so copies, and it’s made in Poland. It is so interesting. They talk about Enya and Clannad and stuff, and Dead Can Dance. It’s basically nature worship, a lot of this stuff, and a lot of it is talking about the same sorts of gods and things in the woods. It’s like trying to get back to something primitive and non-Christian. Any sort of organized religion is trying to wipe out the old ways — and, you know, they could get extremely political, those guys, in the ‘90s, with church burnings and things. So I feel like there’s this sort of slightly unexplored link there between good folk horror and dungeon synth, which I’m endeavoring to work toward.

Spencer: I’m trying to imagine dungeon synth. Now I need to go down a rabbit hole with this.

Max: Again, it’s pretty European. I mean, it was a ‘90s thing, but I think there’s a big renaissance at the moment. Lockdown was when I sort of was aware of it coming back, and now it’s gone to America. Most of the people that I put out, and most of the people that buy it, are actually mainly in America, which is interesting. There’s a guy, actually, called Chaucerian Myth, and he’s from America and he makes these specific albums based on Chaucer stories. I mean, it’s incredible. It’s so niche. It feels like they’re my people, and they’re probably your people, too.

Spencer: This is brilliant.

I’ve been really enjoying catching up, because Penda’s Fen I saw years and years ago, and then I only remembered it until when you mentioned it. I like how all of these folk horror films, we got into — not The Wicker Man, [but] the ones that are all screenplays that were adapted by the BBC or whatever, the budget is kind of… like Robin Redbreast feels like a weird Matt Berry sort of show. [Laughs.]

Max: Oh, yeah, that guy’s great. Well, it’s the Play for Today, isn’t it? That’s what the series is. Working without the distraction of CGI, maybe that’s part of the beauty of it. Because in a way, when I watched Midsommar — I loved it, but it was a bit over the top. And that’s probably the same with music. 

Spencer: Midsommar is prog.

Max: Definitely. Wicker Man is Bright Phoebus.

Spencer: [Laughs.] Yeah. And The Lighthouse — I think that’s a folk horror film. That was unbelievable. That was my favorite out of all of the new sort of folk horror. Well, I don’t know — I liked Midsommar. It was good, even though it was the Yes, Close to the Edge of film.

Max: Definitely. Or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Spencer: So when’s your record coming out? 

Max: My full LP is out on the third of March, on Curation Records. It has an accompanying zine, covering things like stone circles and Avebury and Stonehenge and dungeon synth. I’ve just had this extra article someone’s contributed about seasonal recipes for herbology. So it’s very folky, very pagan, very folk horror. When’s your album coming out and what’s the name?

Spencer: It’s coming out April on Full Time Hobby, and it’s called Volume 2. What I’m going to do is, I think I might do just three records, 1, 2, and 3, and then retire and maybe be a carpenter somewhere. 

Max: That’s very folky. [Laughs.]

(Photo Credit: left, Holly Macve; right, Angelina Castillo)

Hollow Hand is the project of the Brighton-based artist Max Kinghorn-Mills. His latest record, Your Own Adventure, is out March 2023. 

(Photo Credit: Holly Macve)