An afternoon with Enslaved | Aristocrazia Webzine

An afternoon with Enslaved

It’s almost spring in Milan, and three long-time members of the Aristocrazia staff drag themselves to the northern sprawl of the city to meet two artists to whom we owe quite a lot. Enslaved will be playing in town tonight, together with Svalbard and Wayfarer, and we couldn’t pass on the opportunity to meet Ivar Bjørnson and Grutle Kjellson, two of the most influential veterans of the Norwegian black metal scene. Among many things, we had the pleasure to chat with them about getting old, personal beliefs and why you should wear sandals at a photo session.

You’ve been around for over thirty years, throughout your career you created a distinctive sound without becoming repetitive. So, tell us about the recipe.

Grutle: It’s actually pretty simple. The recipe is not to bore ourselves to death by trying to replicate the songs we’ve already written. We have to look ahead and make things interesting for ourselves. The only way to do so is to develop into different territories, be curious and don’t be afraid to be original. If you stick to a formula as a band, I’ll give you ten years maximum, fifteen maybe, and then you’ll just hate what you’re doing. So explore, make it worthwhile and interesting for yourself.

And you still do that? Do you still go out and discover new music and feel the same pleasure as you did when you were younger?

G: Yeah, we’re all music collectors and like to dig into new and old territories, or maybe old territories, exploring different kinds of music scenes, past and present ones.

So what’s your latest discovery?

G: My latest discovery is actually Breton folk music.

That’s pretty niche.

G: Yeah, I think so. I usually get hung up on certain bands for a while. For instance, I had a Beatles hang-up for a year, where I only listened to and bought Beatles albums. Then I moved on to something else, this is kind of how it works for me.

What about you Ivar? What was your latest discovery?

Ivar: I’m more of a person who jumps around and checks out new things, going back and forth. The last one that really got me was the Norwegian death metal band Aeternus. They’ve been around since our time but haven’t kept up, and then they released a new album called The Philosopher that was a really positive surprise. A band that really reinvented itself.
I try to check out what’s happening in different genres. I’m very much into electronic music, ambient, and that kind of stuff. This Italian guy, who used to play in Nine Inch Nails, Andrea Something…

Alessandro Cortini.

I: That’s him, he had a new album out and after that I had to explore, and his entire catalog is fantastic. I usually work like that, then I ask people what they are listening to, they tell me and then I have to listen to that, to understand what it is.

This is not something you take for granted after decades, that you still have the spark that brings you to listen to something new and incorporate them into your ever-growing and ever-changing formula. I mean, there are bands that build their careers around a single album and play it and record it for thirty years.

Gr: That’s true. If you do that for thirty years that’s pretty impressive [general laughter].

Well, we can name a few extreme metal bands that have been doing so.

G: No no no we don’t have to do that [laughter].

But it’s not a negative thing per se, if they are satisfied with that and if they stay consistent, that’s pretty impressive.

True, but sometimes you have to force yourself because it’s easy to feel old and tired.

Do you ever?

I: Every day [laughs], but not as a musician. As a musician, if you feel tempted to just give up and not listen to music anymore, you have to grab yourself by the neck and rediscover something, go to a concert or check out a new band. It’s always a good thing.

You guys are prolific in the studio and energetic on the live side. How do you balance those two aspects and how do they interact on the creative side?

Ivar: Good question. I think we’ve actually reached a point, especially in 2018 or ’19 with all the touring, where we decided to take it a little bit easier. We realized that the world is big, and we’re lucky to go to many places and play for people who want to listen to Enslaved. But you also have to think about the creative spark and everything. Those two years we did Europe, US, Australia…
G: Asia, South America… It got a little too much. Too much traveling, too tiring.
I: We still play concerts of course, but we’ve been spending a lot more time making music and that pays off too.

Do you compose while on tour, or do you keep things separate?

I: Never really done that.
G: We have recorded some stuff on tour with mobile studio setups though, but it was more like cover songs and experimental things, nothing we used in any studio albums.
I: It could happen though, we always have our equipment with us.
G: But it rarely does because there’s still a lot of traveling and as you get older, you need more time to relax and unwind a little bit. So the main focus when we’re on the road is always to be preparing for the gigs.

The next question is a bit trickier.

Is it mathematical?

No.

Trigonometry?

You want to be asked some trigonometry?

No way! [general laughter]

There’s a tendency in music, but also in everyday life, to twist tradition in order to justify some modern ideas. You, on the other hand, bring mythological mysticism and esotericism to a contemporary dimension. What lies behind this approach?

G: I think that most of the Norse mysticism and mythology lies a lot closer to human nature than contemporary, especially monotheistic religions, which are based upon rules and a one-god concept that doesn’t interact with us. The ancient myths have a much broader aspect of life.
I: They are actually better suited for modern life and understanding it.
G: I mean, there have always been some worshipping cults, and they have always had an easy appeal to man. Human beings have emotions, feelings, anger, love and hate and all the spectre of feelings.
I: But using traditions as a defense or a conservative platform… People use that in extreme politics, in right-wing politics, but I guess they would use whatever to justify their views. Some days it’s christianity, other day it’s paganism, even environmentalism is being used for right-wing reasoning, which is crazy. But even in the so-called modern society people tend to do that, people use that, I guess, because a lot of it has to do with fear. They go back to whatever seemed to be working or had potent symbolism and hold that as protection against the new, scary reality. It’s not rare to view mythology as a sort of psychological history of mankind. It’s always been a need to have something holy or protective…

And to give an explanation to phenomena that you couldn’t understand otherwise.

I: Exactly, and then we’ve moved away from that, with the industrial age that sort of went down the drain, and now it’s the age of information and people understand that it’s just as scary. It’s a scary clusterfuck. Whatever people don’t understand is just scary. So I don’t know, when people dress up in old costumes and jump around to say it all used to be better before, they don’t really know anything about before, and it probably wasn’t better either.

It was just different. It was no golden age.

G: In such golden age they did not even have toilets [general laughter].

And probably life expectancy in such idolized times was what, forty years?

I: Exactly. But it is understandable, these are scary times to be alive. Things these days tend to be more polarized, because people tend to dehumanize each other and it all comes down to symbols. And when it does, things can get ugly.

This may be pretty personal, so take the question as you wish, but talking about symbols, is there anything that you actually believe in?

There is a moment of complete silence, then Grutle starts chuckling eerily.

I: I have my values, I have a certain way of believing in how things are connected, but it’s like in our lyrics, it is a foggy landscape and I would like people to draw their own conclusions.
G: I agree. It’s about being curious. When Ivar mentions the lyrics, we have an initial meaning when we write them, of course, but it’s always up to interpretation. Those words don’t necessarily represent… No, let’s put it this way: the truth lies in what you read and interpret.

Your words are not manuals

G: Yes. It’s art. And truth is in the eye of the beholder, you know.
I: Even more, there is no truth before you look at it, and then it becomes your truth.
G: That is our truth [chuckles again].

You may have just came up with the lyrics for your next song then.

G: Already used that in a song, sorry [all laugh].

So what kind of plans do you have right now apart from the tour?

G: Easter holidays with our families, hanging out with the kids [laughs]. We have some shows coming up in May, playing the first album as a special show in Belgium and a festival in Switzerland. Then festival summer stuff.
I: Yeah, festival summer stuff, then we might do some more short touring in the autumn, but that’s not announced yet. And of course, write some new music at some point.

Now, if you’re into the idea, it could be fun to hear something you remember about each album, until you get bored, then we’ll just call it a day.

I: Why not? We have to go way back then.
G: Vikingligr Veldi, recorded in Easter 1993. I remember Hellhammer was sent to Bergen as a Deathlike Silence Productions representative, sort of a co-producer, but he mainly was a co-drinker, didn’t do much in the studio. He was partying a lot and we had a good time.

I met him just once, but he never struck me as a corporate, company-representative guy [all laugh].

G: He’s not that kind of guy, no, but we had a great time. That was also the first recording we did at Grieghallen with Pytten, and the funny thing is that back then he was so much younger than what we are now.
I: Are you serious?
G: Oh yeah, he was like 43, 44. He was still a young man, and we were basically kids, you know.
I: Then we went back to the same studio for Frost. I remember we had a lot of ideas by then, how the guitars should sound, the drums should sound.
G: You recorded a solo, do you remember? The guitar setup was in a small toilet.
I: In the bathroom, yeah. With the tiles.
G: Oh, that was for Vikingligr Veldi, but by nighttime we went and borrowed like a timpani drum from the philharmonic orchestra, without telling anyone. We dum duum duuum-ed one song and then we sneaked it back.
I: With Frost we took more control of the production side, the album became quite successful and it led to their first tour. Because of the touring we had to change drummer [Enslaved first drummer was Emperor’s Trym Torson], and it took us a few years before we got to record Eld, in ‘97.
G: We had two tours for Frost, one in Europe and one in the US and Mexico.

I think there was, from that tour, an old video from a concert you held in Varese. How did you end up in Varese as teenagers?

G: Yeah! Uhm, a Belgian agency called Metallizée, for some reason, booked this venue in Varese. I remember there was not even a stage, we basically put our setup on six or seven tables from the cafeteria and used that as a stage. So that was Varese.

Yeah, it still is.

G: Maybe those tables are still there. And we were just a trio, that had to stand on those tables, but we were there with Marduk, and they were five people. It was funny watching them, five guys standing still like statues on some tables and playing their black metal songs.

Did you ever go back?

G: Nonono [laughter].
I: Back to Eld, that was a bit different again, a more progressive album with a different drummer, Harald Helgeson, who was into prog rock. But I think the most surprising turn is how we went from that album to Blodhemn the following year, probably our least proggy album ever.
G: At that point we had the idea of speeding things up. We were touring for Eld in europe, we had another drummer, Dirge Rep, and he was like «Let’s play these songs faster», and we went «Yeah, ok». The funny thing is that we were smoking a lot of weed back then, we were stoned as monkeys and played really fast, it was so ridiculous. Yet we continued down that path when we got to writing songs for Blodhemn and they ended up being raging fury.

Enslaved, Mardraum-era

So you slowed down the smoking but did not slow down the music.

G: …No we didn’t [laughs]. But there are some hardcore black metal fans that like that album, we still like that music. We went to a different studio this time, we went to Sweden to Abyss Studio, with Peter Tägtgren. We stayed there for one more album, too, Mardraum, which again was a lot more progressive.
Ivar: It was one foot on the ship and one on foot ashore. I don’t know if we fell in the water or what, but it was supposed to be a balanced work.
G: I think the album was walking in many directions, maybe too many directions, with perhaps too many loose ends… And we continued with the loose ends on Monumension, I think. That’s Enslaved on acid man [all laugh].

Was it literally?

G: Eeeeeeeeeeeh. For some of us it was. Maybe not me and Ivar.
I: Maybe that was the reason why it was a turning point.
G: Yeah, we started the cleaning up after that. We started to get more focused, and I think that Below The Lights was a very focused album. Back to the three-piece thing again, this time with Arve’s [Isdal, Ice Dale] solos on top of it. Actually after the last day of the recordings, immediately after we recorded the backing vocals our drummer quit and we were suddenly a two-piece, asking ourselves what to do now. Then we called Arve, who played the lead guitar on the album as a guest, and we didn’t even asked him, we told him he had to become a member. «You’re an excellent guitar player, and it’s gonna be you».
Ivar: We went like: «Normally you would get some time to think about it, you could say yes or no, but not now, this is an emergency, you’re in the band».
G: And he: «Uhm, ok». And that was 2002, and he’s still here, so.
I: But we felt the album was strong, so for a couple of weeks we played with Grutle on bass and vocals, Arve on the guitar and I played the drums. I’m not good, but you know, it kept us going.

And it also keeps you out of your comfort zone, I guess.

I: It gave me more respect for drummers. I still cannot believe how stupid you can be to do that willingly, play extreme metal drums. So painful.
G: You know, at that point Ivar was stupid enough to approach me asking: «What about your friend, your fishing buddy, Cato Bekkevold? Can we give him a call and bring him…» And I went «Nonono, I will NOT bring that guy into the band, you would regret it, believe me, you would absolutely hate him».

And he was with you for what, almost twenty years?

G: Fifteen something, yep.
I: I loved him.
G: You were a bit shocked the first couple of months. Especially when you woke up on the floor in an hotel room in… Milwaukee, was it? Cato was sitting on top of you, shitfaced, scratching you under your nose with a Visa. «Hey, you gotta wake up, we need to drink». And I was like… What? Where am I?
I: Yes. One of a kind. And a very good drummer.
G: An excellent drummer, fantastic.
I: And a heart of gold. In his own eccentricity, of course.
G: Probably the most eccentric person I know, by far, but a good-hearted one. And as a drummer, he’s the closest you can get to a metronome, a human drum-machine. Steady, every night, almost no mistakes. He was a huge improvement for us, especially live-wise, he brought us to the next level.

And a good fisherman too? I saw a couple of videos of him fishing on YouTube.

G: Oh yes, but he doesn’t talk, or he spoils the fishing.

I: Back to Below The Lights, it was a turning point for the band, moving towards a more focused sound. This was also the last album with Osmose Productions, with whom we worked from the beginning. At that time we moved on to this new small Norwegian label, Indie Recordings, which at the time was actually called Tabu Recordings. Actually, all the record labels we worked with, Osmose, Indie, Nuclear Blast… We’ve been very lucky to work with them. Take Osmose for example, they’ve always been very open with us, always precise with their payments, when we want to use this song or that song for whatever purpose they’ve always been super cooperative, we still meet them when we’re around. But at some point, you know, they were very focused on this ski-mask, bullet-belt, grindcore black metal kind of thing, while we were running around in flower fields, la la la [sings], so we thought it was probably time to say goodbye and find a new label. After we signed with Tabu, we played Inferno Festival and people were kind of surprised when they saw us live back then, probably thinking «Ok, so this is what Enslaved have been doing lately». I think we sort of fell off people’s radar, then we came back with Isa, with a new lineup, and we took a lot of people by surprise.
I think that my favorite memory from Isa is that Cato set up the photo shoot, came to the photo shoot and forgot to put on shoes, he was wearing sandals. We had to photoshop them. We had Peter Beste coming from the US to take pictures in Oslo…
G: And we had him photoshop Cato’s sandals. Because nobody told him to wear shoes.

At this point the tour manager came to tell us that we were way late and the band had other meetings scheduled, and we promised each other that we would meet again to conclude this Enslaved retrospective.

All pictures are © and used with kind permission of the band.