Between Thought and Instinct: An Interview with Enslaved‘s Ivar Bjørnson
Enslaved has been active for over 25 years, formed by guitarist Ivar Bjørnson and bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson in 1991 as a raw black/Viking metal band among the Norwegian second wave. Since that time, the group has taken its place at the forefront of heavy music by nurturing an increasingly progressive and eclectic set of influences. They have developed a sound that is entirely unique and constantly evolving without forsaking the aggressive roots or inspiration from Norse lore. I was able to speak to guitarist Ivar Bjørnson as Enslaved prepared to perform a sold-out gig in Paris. We discussed their newest album, a compilation of two rare EPs titled The Sleeping Gods – Thorn, his thoughts on the band’s history and creative process, and the ongoing celebration of a quarter century of metal with the New York by Norse event on December 9th and 10th.
Jason Kolkey: You have a new release coming out with material from 2010-11. Why is now a good time to make that material more widely available? Was there a particular motivation?
Ivar Bjørnson: Yeah, good question. Why now? The reason why these EPs came out now is a couple of factors. One factor is that they were hugely in demand when they came out in 2011, 2012 – or was it ‘10? I don’t remember. And it was a very limited number. The Sleeping Gods came out via the Scion company over in the U.S. We got a few copies sent over to Europe that we spread amongst our friends. Also, it was handed out like freebies during a tour there, and I guess Scion sent it out to a few stores. But it was quite limited, the physical product.
Then we did this other seven-inch called Thorn, which was more of a…You know, me and a friend who runs a little label called Soulseller Records, which is very underground black metal-oriented, we were talking about the good old days and how it would be cool to do a sort of tribute to that. And I said, I do have ideas and some material on my computer that might not fit into the regular, so to speak, releases with Enslaved. So, how bout we do a limited EP – kind of black and white cover, cardboard – as a tribute to those days? We did, I think, about a thousand copies, and that was sold out the first weekend.
And people have been asking for it, like, “Will these be made available again?” And then people started complaining a little bit that these were showing up on EBay for disastrous amounts – which I thought to be particularly silly with the Scion EP, The Sleeping Gods, that was pressed and given out for free. That didn’t set too well with me – people get something for free at a show and then go sell it for a lot of money afterwards.
And the third thing is that we just started a record label, By Norse Music, which I’m a part of running. And that’s when we figured, okay, I guess that makes sense. If we can do something that’s released by the band, directed to the fans, then we could make these available and give them the treatment that they deserve. Because these are good songs. They are very different, I would say, from what is represented on a normal full-length from Enslaved these days, but they’re still some very strong material, I think.
Between this release and the show you have coming up in New York, this seems like a time when you’re looking backwards over the past 25-plus years of your career. What do you see as one really significant change that has happened over the years in the way you approach composing or recording new music?
I would say that there’s sort of a movement that’s composed of two elements: it’s a widening, or opening, for inspirations, on one side. And the other one is simplification of the production and recording. When we started, we had more of a narrow scope. I would say that we were very influenced by our contemporaries of the early black and death metal scene. You could count the 10, 15 most important bands quite easily for us then.
But the recording thing was, you know, we didn’t have much experience, and also there was not a lot of good producers available in this kind of music. Most of the producers that we met in studios, they were complaining and trying to get us to turn down the distortion or trying to talk you out of screaming and so on because it was like there was something wrong with it. We didn’t meet any proper producers before late in the ‘90s. So, we tried out a lot of things. We added many layers of guitars and experimented with keyboards to make things grandiose and epic and heavy like we wanted it.
But I guess after a while and after being inspired by all kinds of things from jazz to progressive music to electronic music, world music, whatever, I guess we made a full round and realized that the way to make it big is the same way it happens in a live situation or in rehearsal studio. Just keep it as it is, you know? Don’t do dubbed guitars forever, or whatever. Just make sure the first recording you do with the guitars is good enough to stand on its own. Have one guitar on the left side, one on the right side, and drums in the middle, like they’ve done since they started recording stuff in the ‘50s. So that combination of simplification and, at the same time, including a more complex web of inspirations and learning from many other genres is what made us get where we are.
For portions of both the Thorn EP and your last full-length, In Times, there were parts of the recording process where you left the city and went out to woods. What’s that process like, and why is it important for you?
Last thing first. I guess we, as part of this whole simplified recording philosophy or whatever we should call it, were also realizing that some things were working for us in our first years. We did things out of necessity, right? Where now it becomes more of an intellectual thing. Like, we would record things, and then to achieve a certain delay effect or whatever, you’d have to construct it in the studio. You’d have to cut up some tape, glue it together, whatever. Make evil wind sounds from using the ventilation system in the studio and that kind of thing. Or you can just go online and buy the sample, right? You can choose what part of the world you want the wind to be from and so on.
But these old things kind of make me think about it and realize it has a nerve because there’s this one-to-one relationship between things. What do you want to achieve? Do you want to achieve an atmosphere of a cold, bleak night in the forest? Get a certain eerie atmosphere from a song? Nowadays, it’s easy to get confused and just try and find that sample or whatever, construct the hell out of it. So we figured out, let’s do it like we did it then. Just load up the stuff and drive wherever we need to go to get that atmosphere. And that’s pretty much what we did. It was so inspirational. It really, really made us feel like a trip back in time also.
After this current run of shows in Europe, the next thing you’ve got coming up is this New York by Norse event, which is the second of these 25th anniversary celebrations that you’ve done. Why did you pick London and New York as the sites for these events?
When we started out, when we were a young band, these were places that made us feel particularly welcome when we started touring. And also, it’s places that have been…New York has always been the entry point for us to the U.S., physically, but also, I guess, metaphorically. We’ve met a lot of people there, and it’s a major city where people come and hang out when we have shows. It’s a place where we stay a few extra days on our way in and out, so to speak. We remember playing…we had all these special shows that we did throughout the years. I think we played in ‘95 on our first tour. We came back and played in ‘98 or something with, of all things, Lamb of God opening at some weird…Wetlands, I think it was called, and so on. So, those two cities have just been very special. We got other places, of course, that are significant in our career, but when we had to choose it turned out to be these two.
You’re doing several different things over the course of that event. I believe this is the debut in the U.S. of your darkwave project, Bardspec. You’re also going to be doing some of the Skuggsjá material. So, what are you most looking forward to sharing at this big gathering?
That’s a good question. Very excited to show the Bardspec project. Since I started it, I’ve been joined by Steve [Austin] from Today is the Day, who’s recording guitar tracks as we speak, actually to get ready for it.
Oh, awesome. I had no idea.
So we went from a solo project to a duo already. And then we have Kevin Hufnagel from Gorguts coming to do a guest appearance on a song or two, which is going to be just amazing. You know, I think it would be amazing just to listen to Kevin Hufnagel, just him. So having him, adding that on top of my music is going to be pretty awesome. But I have to say, maybe, we have some special surprises for the audience on the Enslaved night, playing some stuff that we never played in the U.S. before. And that’s gonna be…the old set list is going to have a few surprises that I think are going to make people very excited. It’s fun doing solo stuff, but it’s a little extra with the Enslaved thing, I have to say.
The thing with Kevin is, I think, really interesting, I’m a fan of his work in Gorguts and also in Dysrhythmia, so that was something that caught my eye. Is that something you see building on in the future? Do you see bringing Hufnagel in for future recordings or anything like that?
That’d be fucking awesome. So, I think we’re going to see how it works out. That’s how it started with Steve Austin. We went to Montreal to work on some Enslaved video stuff, and I did a Bardspec appearance there in connection with – are you familiar with Grimposium events? It’s a thing from a university up there, Concordia University in Montreal. They have a department that’s, I guess, working with sociology and cultural expression in song, and they’ve got this professor guy [Vivek Venkatesh] there who’s, to simplify, he’s a professor of extreme metal or whatever. So, they do these panels and tie it into the music.
You mentioned just now that you had some surprises for the Enslaved set, so I’m not going to ask you what those are obviously, but I was wondering what it’s like for you going back to material you recorded when you were very young. When you started the band, you were 13, right?
So, do you still connect with that early, raw black metal material? Does that feel like it was written and recorded by the same guy?
Yeah, definitely. I’m very connected with that. Not only the stuff I recorded myself, but the whole expression… Like every other – relatively – old, grumpy guys, you always think things used to be better, and so on. So, maybe I’m a bit particular on which bands I care to listen to. I still think De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is the ultimate black metal album. Still kind of bummed out nobody can sort of get up there even now. I think there’s too much focus on…Ironically, I think now they misunderstood and think image and that whole shock rock thing were the actual point of that, but it was the other way around. It was just music and art was so encompassing and deep and spiritual and great that the image thing just came as a consequence of that. And nowadays it seems to be the other way around. They might dress up fantastically, have unlimited amounts of blood and fire, and then they’re just waiting for the music to happen, kind of, from that. I’m afraid that doesn’t work. Just my theory, my two cents. But definitely, I do connect to that very, very deeply. It’s a very important part of who I am as a person and as a musician.
Enslaved has diversified so much over the years. Do you see yourself ever going back and doing something that’s more pure black metal or completely abandoning those black metal elements? Or do you think that balance is what defines the band at this point?
I think it’s sort of that that’s keeping it up, yeah. It’s that element, like you don’t know exactly what’s keeping the bike from falling over when you’re on it. It’s something between thought and instinct, or whatever, and I think that’s what Enslaved is built upon. I think going willfully backward, or at the same time abandoning it, would be killing it. But you never know where it takes us. It could be if we go too far into melodic territory, I think it would just spark a natural reaction of regressing, to find that the balance. That seems to be the whole point of it. You can see that in the catalog, also. When we went too much – quote, unquote – in one direction, the next album seems to be trying to correct that in a sense. So it’s a bit of a natural thing going on there.
Is that a push and pull that happens within the band or do you all kind of drift in a particular direction and try to figure out where you want to go next?
Yeah, the last one, I think, definitely. It’s not something I would discuss or anything. It’s just a feeling that developed over the years of some kind of equilibrium, in a sense. It’s not so much a vessel or vehicle that’s going in the traditional north, east, west, south thing on a map, but more of a swarm-like, flow-ish kind of thing where people have ideas. It’ll be one guy in the band trying to pull it in a direction. I’ll be writing the music, so I’ll have sort of the main hand on the wheel for that. And then we’ll sort of go, when a thing works that means we just decide to go in the same direction. But it keeps it sort of exciting too that we keep pushing and pulling. We’ve almost come to the point – we’re not really that big on new-age explanations of natural phenomena, but sometimes we get the feeling that Enslaved has a will on its own, in a sense. That we’re all a part of that consciousness, but that there’s something that’s bigger than our individual wishes and wills, so to speak.
I feel like you’re getting to the answer to this next question in what you just said, but I’m going to ask it straightforwardly anyway. What keeps you interested and excited to keep pursuing Enslaved after all these years?
Definitely a big part of it is that thing we just talked about, that it has a will of its own. That it’s interesting to be a part of the ride, to see where the band takes us more than the other way around. It’s not like we get up in the morning and check the Billboard charts to see, did we break it today? Are we rich now? It’s more of a living, working, being on the road, developing skills as musicians, developing communication skills within the band to build concepts and lyrics, working with yourself to become more…yeah, to do things better, so to speak. To achieve more of the potential. And then everything culminates in the points where every second or third year there’s a recording of a new selection of material, and that will sort of guide our journey for the next three years. So it’s both a sort of passive and active role, I feel, that we have in this project.
The band is sort of an entity that keeps working on itself. We have many people around us now that have a lot of their lives invested in the band, and they have thoughts and ideas and are working: management, our crew for the live things, graphic artists, the label, so on. So it’s this wonderful feeling of being part of something bigger and see where it goes. And at the same time, that individual challenge of trying to be better, I guess. Somehow. Sometimes that turns out to be worse, I guess, because it involves a lot of drinking and traveling. But what can you do?
So, to wrap up here, what’s coming in 2017 for Enslaved and for your other projects as well?
There’s a lot of things going on. I’m gonna go now, after this tour, and write a lot of music. We started working – we started talking at least – with Einar from Wardruna about the next Skuggsjá project, which is gonna be written, I guess, for next year. I’m gonna go in the studio in the end of November to mix that first full-length album for Bardspec. I already got two out of five songs from Steve Austin. I guess he’s up in the studio, mixing that down. And then, next year, there’s gonna be an Enslaved album at some point. I don’t know the dates now, but I guess we’re gonna record before summer. It’s very interesting stuff going on there, the ideas. Not sure where it’s going, but there’s a lot of things going on.
The last couple albums I’ve noticed more emphasis on the keys, with still plenty of heaviness to go along with it. Do those sorts of sounds seem like the way you’re going, or are you not really sure yet?
No idea. It just sounds energetic. But I have no idea what it really is yet. I guess I’m painting something, but my face is kind of stuck in the canvas right now, so I can’t see what’s going on. It seems like fun.
Well, that’s all we really need, right? So, sorry, go on. What else?
And then there’s that eternal dream of getting that second Trinacria album out. It keeps getting bumped back in the queue, but it’s gonna happen. So I’m hoping it’s going to happen next year also. And if there’s any time left then, then it’s going to be me hanging out with my kids.
Yeah, that sounds good. Any last thoughts you’d like to leave people with?
I think it’s a good time to say that, you know, it’s the 25th anniversary. It’s just a few months left of that. In January, it’s just going to be the old logo without all that 25 stuff going on. And I guess people will have had enough of that then. And we’re also looking forward to keep working. The next 25. We made some kind of calculation, I’m estimating somewhere between 35 and 40 more years for the band before it’s over.
That’d be very impressive, especially for the drumming.
Yeah, we might have to get him to have kids, so we can get his son to take over, or something like that.