ARCTURUS – An after-lunch chat with Sverd and Vortex

Band:Arcturus
Line-up:

  • ICS Vortex: vocals
  • Steinar Sverd Johnsen: keyboards
  • Knut M. Valle: guitar
  • Hugh S. Mingay: bass
  • Hellhammer: drums

Arcturus were in Italy for a short but intense mini-tour (together with Shores Of Null, Párodos and Shadowthrone), so we took the opportunity to recall their entire career – which spans almost three decades – with a monograph divided in two parts (one and two). A few hours before the gig at the Slaughter Club in Paderno Dugnano (Milan), we also had the chance to engage a nice and relaxed conversation with keyboardist Steinar Sverd Johnsen and vocalist ICS Vortex, right after a typical lasagne-based Italian meal. But apart from lasagne we ask the guys what’s cooking, considering the forthcoming Arcturus pearl anniversary. Steinar speaking: «Yeah, thirty years… It’s a lot of time… I think a new album is the best way to celebrate it. I’m not sure if it will be ready next year because this winter we were pretty busy working with the pre-Arcturus band». Mortem – consisting of Steinar, Marius Vold, Hellhammer and the newcomer Tor Stavenes (1349) – reunited in January 2018 after a long hiatus and now they are ready for a killer comeback: «The release of the new material is coming closer as well as some live shows. There are no confirmations yet, but I think the Mortem album will be out in August. We signed a contract with Peaceville, it’s not official yet, it will be made public in the next few weeks», says Steinar, smiling.

Arcturus were quite prolific during the first segment of their career but at some point things just physiologically slowed down. When you’re younger you spend more time with your bandmates, so it’s easier to share and discuss ideas. Vortex has his opinion on this: «Look at every other band and you’ll see that their first albums came out close together, that’s just the way it is». Sometimes a record label imposes a schedule and you’re pushed to record an album because of contractual obligations, in situations like these the rush can be lethal to inspiration: «When you don’t have time to do things coherently and the record label is breathing down your neck… Perhaps you can make an album every second year… it will just sound a little forced, maybe?» Vortex goes on until sarcasm takes over: «It’s better to wait for inspiration, a pretty good example is the latest album by Dimmu Borgir: it took ten years to make and it’s FANTAAASTIC!» Life is not just about making music, sometimes you need to take a break and fly away, literally: «You know, some people just sit the whole life and push out albums, write music all the time but for me there are so many different things in life», says Steinar. That is how we learn he is an avid hang-glider flyer, a passion he began to nurture soon after The Sham Mirrors (2002, Ad Astra Enterprises) was released. The keyboardist says he’s been to Bassano del Grappa several times and that he spent years travelling around driving his car and flying his glider, but that’s not all: he also built his own cabin, all by himself: «Apart from all this, I work full-time as a mechanic and you know: family, kids, a lot of stuff going on». Steinar is a very active and bright-eyed person, and it’s a real pleasure to talk with him about the creative process behind the earliest Arcturus’ works and the way they decided to go far beyond the limits of black metal: «We didn’t decide anything in particular, it was all natural. After Aspera Hiems Symfonia Carl Tidemann, the prog guitarist, Knut [Valle, Ed.] and I matched very well together and we almost lived together for a while. We created our own style very naturally, without knowing where to go, without making any plans».

To plumb the depths of such a long and eclectic career is not as easy as it may sound. Speaking of regrets and of things gone wrong both Steinar and Vortex recall some of the situations occurred during the production of Sideshow Symphonies (2005, Season Of Mist); Vortex is blunt: «I can’t listen to Sideshow Symphonies, I can’t because it’s shit». And he really clears the air about a few things: «I mean, the songs are so ridiculously good: the lyrics, the riffs, all perfect, but the recording process was stupid… I recorded the vocals during the night and they were mixed during the day, I wasn’t even present… there was no failsafe, no going back…» As said, a record label can play a huge (negative, in this particular case) role, too: «We worked in a hurry because we had a budget to keep to for the record label, they gave us a lot of money to do that record but they did a shitty job. So unprofessional». Steinar adds his memory about some technical problems: «Yeah, we gave them a master and then they remastered it again and again, we don’t really know why… there were some issues, some clicks between songs…» As the contract with Season Of Mist is resolved Arcturus make their comeback after a four years break, finding a good interlocutor in Prophecy Productions, at last; Steinar appears satisfied: «After some contractual issues now with Prophecy things are going well, we are finally able to work with less pressure».

Studio life can be frustrating but touring life can be difficult as well: long road trips are exhausting and setbacks can be just behind every corner. The guys seem to have found the perfect alchemy to enjoy their time together while travelling around, as Steinar says:«I like the touring life, but I can’t be on tour for a whole year mainly because of my family, so short tours like this are good». Vortex makes his point about the life on the road: «The touring life is not easy, as some people seem to think, a lot of crap can come out with people you’re going to work with…» As Knut Valle enters the room we ask about the worst situations they have faced while touring, Knut laughs out loud; Vortex continues: «You know, lack of information, bad communication, promoters and organizers treat you like a small kid…» Vortex is not small at all, to be honest, and he goes on speaking of power play dynamics and the fact that quite often you don’t get the insight of what’s actually happening on the organizational side: «Yeah I really hate that. And of course, too much smoking, too much drinking, too much drugs might be a problem but, you know…» Knut adds the lack of sleep to the never-ending list of concerns. Later, during the live show, we learn he was not feeling well in the past hours, but the smile on his face is indelible. While on stage, you forget about fatigue if everything works fine and the crowd gives you the perfect vibes. The venue for tonight is the Slaughter Club in Paderno Dugnano, not too far from Milan but still a bit isolated, since it’s not served by public transport, but Vortex is not worried at all: «I don’t care if we play downtown or in the suburbs. I would much rather play in a place like this where the sound is just fantastic, everything works perfectly, instead of a shitty small club where the PA [power amplifier, Ed.] is broken. I was really inspired these nights and I’m sure tonight will be great as well». And so it was.

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