INTERVIEW: The Historian Himself – Gathering Bones and Summoning Earth Beasts
What do you get when you combine hip-hop, history, biology, palaeontology, art, folk music, sculpture, animation, puppeteering and classic monster movies? You get Brian Engh, better known as The Historian Himself. For around a decade the California native has been making projects driven by ideas, crossing between the multiple mediums he deals in and yielding astonishing results. In 2009 he threw out an album called Earth Beasts Awaken, a rippling, kinetic collection of tracks which dealt with the idea of the Earth being reclaimed by ancient beasts. Since then he’s gradually been putting together video material to accompany it, building monster suits and puppets from found materials to serve that purpose. It’s an incredible project, but it’s far from his only current undertaking. In September he put out an album called Jungle Cat Technique and last week he followed it up with yet another new release: Gather Bones. This new album is more focused on American history (going back almost as far as it reaches), mysticism and death. Generally though, everything Brian does is inherently fascinating, which is why I jumped on the opportunity to speak to him directly.
Beamed over Skype from his home in California, I was met with a humble, passionate, friendly sparring partner, as wary not to ramble as I was eager for him to elaborate. One of the first things I wanted to know was how exactly the music became such an intrinsic part of his work. “I started making music because I wanted to have stuff to go with the visuals that were in my head, even before Earth Beasts. The first time I made music that anyone ever heard was when I was in school for animation, I had an animated project called Valley of the Shadow and the guy that was supposed to do the music and the sound design totally flaked on me. I had played around with making music even since high school, digitally composing stuff, and I was like ‘well I got nothing, and I don’t know anybody else who I think could do this’” he explains. “Part of it is that I’ve always liked music videos, but the way things are now, most of them are performance driven, but not cinematic, and I didn’t know any artists whose work would suit my style, so I just started making things, basically. I didn’t know what to do, so I just made the things. The visual aspect evolved over all the years it took me to get my shit together.”
The visual aspect, particularly on the Earth Beast videos, is nothing short of stunning. There are two out, currently. The first depicts an unwitting soul trudging through the snow, following marks left by a ghoulish, deathly creature called Snow Painter before discovering a prehistoric pterodactyl in a deep cavern, the monster that becomes the centre piece of the story. “The core creature then crystalised the whole album, the idea of this huge, dark, winged pterodactyl demon. It was extinction, it had scars on its wings from some past interaction with humans and that image was really what the album became about. The image just came to me when I was writing a verse and in that moment I knew that the album should revolve around this dark god of extinction, and renewal, they’re one and the same.” He says, a ripple of excitement lilting under his voice. The second video features more creatures rising from the ground, doing battle and feeding on one another as the planet is overwhelmed by a volcanic, fiery curtain of doom, as implied by the first. The two beasts duking it out, Godzilla style, are Finskull and Shellback, and it’s every bit as visceral and thrilling as those wonderful old films.
Of course, there could only ever be one winner, but these kind of projects tend to grow and develop as they’re being made, this was no exception. “I wanted them to feel mythological, but also inspired by natural history, as well as old-school monster movies because that’s kind of our modern mythology,” Brian says. “The other monsters were designed and given stories as we went through the process of making the videos. We realised that we liked the turtle more, it was a little more amicable, but also seemed formidable. There was also the fact that we had limited time to film, so we shot some key points that I knew I could use to cut a fight together, and then whichever suit started falling apart first would be the losing monster. They’re made out of foam, garbage, fabric and hot glue, so I figured whichever monster started structurally failing would both figuratively and literally lose the fight.” Shellback, despite seeming like the less aggressive of the two, ends up winning out, meaning that he will appear in the third film. “The third is going to be about nest making and renewing the volcanic wasteland, basically. My original idea for the third video was to use the track ‘Mowgli’ and immerse the audience in this post-volcanic forest world, a primeval forest that’s reclaimed the ruins for civilisation, and there’s like new humans who are living primitively within that. That’s going to take a long time to do, though.” Brian does also reference another idea for a fourth video, which would bridge that gap. “I know that it will look really cool because it will involve glowing creatures emerging from lava.”
The thing that might strike you about this project is that it doesn’t necessarily sound like it would be mapped around hip-hop music, but it actually fits perfectly. Monster movies have long been an influential force in hip-hop but more than that, it’s more knowledge-focused than any other genre or music. “I think rap particularly appeals to me because it’s aggressive and linguistically ornate in a way that’s unlike any other music. Hip-hop promotes originality, you can write an insane song about whatever you want, as long as there’s something there to hold it together musically and get people excited, you can write a song about literally anything. There’s an emphasis on knowledge, the pursuit of truth and ideas that are solid, the Wu-Tang Clan always talked about street wisdom and dropping science, I love that concept, I love science, honesty, language and pounding drums. Rock, for instance, is more about a feeling, when rock becomes conscious it almost splits off into its own genre, whereas hip-hop is inherently conscious. Somebody once told me that they make ‘intelligent dance music’, does it make you smarter when you listen to it? I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. The arrogance of hip-hop is so overt that it’s somehow less pretentious. It has a sense of humour.”
Brian’s lyrics certainly testify to that ethos, his influences are drawn primarily from the world around us, a rare trait in a lot of modern music and popular culture. “I’m sick of everything modern and post-modern, all that bullshit. It can be used to clever effect, but in ‘Call to Awaken’ there’s a line that goes ‘Fuck your empty cleverness, I’ll unfold these wings scarred with ominous images, even if it means I’m forever branded as your nemesis’. That was the mission statement of the whole album, I don’t care about punch lines, so much of hip-hop is about clever little memorable quips and one-liners. I’m not about that, I want to build worlds, I want to build entire imagination-scapes to explore and also hopefully bring us back to paying attention to the real world.” He says, before apologising for rambling, despite my assurances that I’m encouraging exactly that. “I’m the youngest in my family, I’ve got a fighting spirit, so rap really appealed to me as a kind of verbal combat, I just had to play with that, it was intriguing to me.”
His more recent album, as mentioned, is more concerned with American cultural history, among other things, as it weaves images of religious oppression, ghostly woods, magpie-eyed miners and other similar touchstones in a uniquely Historian sort of way. “Musically, and philosophically it kind of draws from the European roots of American culture and the conflict between that and the traditional culture that’s still in the background like Native American, Latino and even Asian culture, especially here in California. It’s an exploration of mortality, love, war and family. It’s just me trying to dig out all the stuff that’s rattling around inside me, all the things that forge a person which are bigger than a person.”
Like Earth Beasts it came with a compliment of original artwork, with the tantalising suggestion of dedicated video content in the future. “I don’t want to say too much yet, I’ve already promised so much other stuff to these people on the interwebs that needs finishing first, but if you listen to the album there are characters, creatures and settings which run through it, and part of that’s because in my brain the images are very clear. I would definitely like to make videos which explore those worlds, settings and characters more. I want to make videos that have really ornate costumes and creatures, I have ideas of where I want to film around California, but I’ve learned that I can’t say that I’m going to make all of it. Part of my creative process is looking at what’s available to me. ‘Always Was’ was a video that kind of happened serendipitously because the idea had been rattling around in my head, and then I ended up driving all over the state for a family member’s funeral, and I basically rerouted my driving so that I could hit all these locations I wanted to use for it.”
How exactly does that process play out, though? How, with limited time, money and resources, do you create monsters? “It’s different for every monster, since some of them are hand puppets and others are full costumes. The pterodactyl is a kind of a hand-puppet, string-puppet hybrid, for example. They all serve a narrative function, so I look at each one in terms of what it needs to do and how I can achieve that as cheaply as possible, how it can look a certain way and move in a way that’s mapped to human movement. Any practical creature effect is going to be dependent of human movement in some way. Often when I sketch them out I’ll draw the concept as an outline around a human body, often a picture of myself adopting a pose, and from there I figure out what I can attach to where to create a non-human shaped organism,” he explains. “Since I have little to no money they’re made out of stuff I’ve pulled out of dumpsters, like cardboard and upholstery foam, but also wires, fishing lines, string, cheap fabric and different things to texture them like clay or a bit of latex rubber. I’ve also used spackling putty, even hot glue for scales, in that case it was as much about money as time, since it didn’t need to be cast and molded. It’s about using different materials with different functions to achieve all the different things that the monster needs to do on film.”
The side-effect of this amazing approach means that there’s always a sense of improvisation about it. “There’s no manual on how to do it, you just have to know how to look at things and figure out what worked and what didn’t. Even the established creature designers from the 80s and 90s, all of those guys say that you never get to refine it, you get to a rough prototype, and then it’s time to film.” Sadly, it also means that Brian’s beasts have a limited life span. “In the case of my creatures, the Snow Painter in particular is completely destroyed, only pieces of its head are still intact. The show and the trudging up mountains just wrecked it. The Finskull is heavily damaged from battling, Shellback I’ve done a bit of filming with since the last video and I’ve had to do repairs each time. The pterodactyl has held up pretty well, but the wings are bamboo, fabric, paper and paint for texture, so I have to do a lot of repairs on that too.”
Brian’s work is fed by a small, but dedicated fan following on Patreon, all of his music is available for free, and he encourages supporters to pledge so that he can sustain his work with money that has no direct corporate threads (we can get behind that). “I just have to ebb and flow with the universe and make what I can, when I can. What I would really like is to just take an idea to my audience, say how much money I need for it and have that amount just materialise, that would be amazing. That’s kind of my end goal, to have a relationship with my audience such that they know that if they fund me directly I’ll make things better and more consistently.” So where’s he at with Earth Beasts, currently? “No progress has been made since I launched the Patreon campaign, so in the mean time I finished Gather Bones, just to stimulate more support. Basically I’ve taken time away from Earth Beasts to gather resources and put some other things out for people to enjoy. In the last 2 months I’ve put out close to 2 hours of music, with some bonus material on the Patreon. Once I’m finshed with this freelance work I’ll get back to finishing the next monster, Ginko-crest, and there are a bunch of other creatures I want to build as well. Hopefully with that time frame I’ll be filming by spring, which will fit the narrative of the videos perfectly.”
It’s a difficult, unpredictable existence, working in the way Brian does. Progress can be marred by money, time, resources or some sinister cocktail of the three. Almost every creative soul I’ve ever met has had to find ways to map their projects around all the obstacles life tends to throw up. Brian’s ambitions are so loft and so unique that he’s particularly aware of this need. “My life is in a constant state of flux though with juggling freelance work with my own project, and I’m one guy. All the pre-production and the vast majority of the monster fabrication happens alone. My friends are all animators and artists and they’re also busy trying to cobble together an income, so I try and do as much of it by myself as I can because I don’t want to waste people’s time. That way when I do need help, I can just say that I need a few people for like 3 or 4 days of filming and we bang it out as quickly as possible,” he says. “There’s a period of warming back up to any craft. If I haven’t made music in a while, I’ll need to sharpen up the toolset and reintroduce myself to all the minutiae. One of the things I think that’s good about not being a specialist is that if you do have an idea that’s really gnawing at you that you want to put out into the world, and you’ve worked in a bunch of different mediums before, you know that if the idea’s good, it will propel you through all the obstacles. It’s going to stand those tests of time and troubleshooting, and if you’ve tried a bunch of different things it becomes purely about the idea being best.”
Brian is hands down one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever spoken to. His work is varied, potent and relentlessly engaging. He strikes me as the kind of artistic mind that will help to define this new generation of online creativity. Sites like Patreon have enabled people to reach their audience so directly and communicate with them so efficiently, that projects such as Earth Beasts Awaken are only getting more common. Trust me, Brian is well worth keeping an eye on.