Heart of Steel: Interviews

Borknagar Guitarist Oystein G. Brun

Interview by Lord of The Wasteland
Promo pics courtesy of Century Media

After an uncharacteristically long wait, Borknagar, Norwayís favorite black/folk/viking/prog/avant-garde metallers, have finally returned with what may be their most ambitious and progressive album to dateóEPIC. While naming a CD this would be career suicide for many who would fall under cries of pretension, Borknagar is able to pull it off without even blinking an eye. For eight years, the band has been surpassing genre boundaries and expectations, while stretching its outer limits under the careful guidance of guitarist ōystein G. Brun. There have been many members come and go from the band, but Borknagar has finally trimmed itself down to a four-piece unit and, according to Brun, secured their best lineup yet.

Brun is a fast talker and absorbing everything he said was not easy, especially with his thick Norwegian accent and the fact he was on a speakerphone. However during the course of our 35 minute chat, he did dispel the myth of what exactly the name ďBorknagarĒ means, as well as expressing his feelings on the black metal scene, offering some hints of what to expect from Borknagar next and also some insight into his other projects.

The new CD from Borknagar, EPIC, is going to be released next month (August 10th) in North America, but I understand that it is already out in Europe?

Yes, it came out about two weeks ago, actually.



Have you read any reviews for it? I looked around and didnít see any online yet.

Reviews have been really great, generally speaking, so far. Of course there are always some people that do not like it, but itís cool. We are totally satisfied.



I have reviewed it and I gave it a 4.5 out of 5.

Oh, thank you!



I think that it is an excellent CD and a logical progression from EMPIRICISM. It seems to me that the band has not only moved forward but looked backward as well. One of the songs on the new CD is called ďQuintessence.Ē Is that something that got left over from the QUINTESSENCE CD or is it just a coincidence that they share the same title?

(Laughs) No, itís not a coincidence. I like to make references to our previous work, both lyrically and musically. We never did a song called ďQuintessenceĒ on the QUINTESSENCE album. It was just an idea or a thought that I wanted to do one album with that title and that concept. It was intentional, though. There is another song on the new album called ďFuture ReminiscenceĒ that is also closely connected to a song from QUINTESSENCE called ďThe Ruins of Future.Ē They both have much the same lyrical concept but with a new perspective, new eyes and new thoughts.



There is an instrumental piece called ďThe Weight of WindĒ on EPIC. There have been instrumentals on other releases as well, but it seems like Borknagar has taken the instrumental to a new level with all the sound effects and the keyboards on this track. It almost has a jazz feel to it. Did you intentionally try to outdo all the previous instrumentals?

Youíre right. On all of the albums we have done, there has been an instrumental piece somewhere. What can I sayÖon the new one, we tried to make people stand up and say, ďHey, what is this?Ē You should really ask Lars [Nedlund, keyboards] what the real idea for the song is because he is the man behind it.



ďRelateĒ has got to be one of the catchiest songs that Borknagar has ever done. Has anyone approached you to do a video for this CD because I think this song would be a great choice?

We have just done a video actually. We recorded it two weeks ago or something like that. Itís just raw clips of me and the other guys but in relation to the lyrics, it suits the concept perfectly. Itís not the traditional metal video with us being evil and on stage playing guitars or anything like that. Itís more like a short movie with a very artistic approach to it.

Do you know when it will be out?

I donít know. I just know itís on the way to Century Media, so they will have it soon and start to distribute it then, so weíll see. There is a short version that is supposed to go on TV and stuff like that. Itís only four minutes or something. We had to kind of chop down the song a little bit, but we do have an original version that will probably be on a DVD or something later.



Do you have plans to put together a DVD?

Yes, but weíre still collecting stuff. Backstage stuff from touring and stuff like that. We have live shows, too, of course. We have some ideas about doing something but weíre still collecting bootlegs from people around the globe and stuff. Weíll make a DVD for people who like to see the history of the band, behind-the-scenes in the studio, touring, shows.



I mentioned the jazz vibe in ďThe Weight of WindĒ earlier and there is also some jazz influences at the beginning of ďThe Inner Ocean Hypothesis.Ē Who is the jazz fan in the band that is bringing all of this to the music of Borknagar?

No one is really a jazz fan. Myself, Iím not a big jazz fan. I like jazz. Jazz is cool, but I think that kind of reflects the general attitude of the band. All of the guys listen to different music. My inspiration comes from music other than metal. I find a lot more influence in classical music than in black metal, for example. We have very open minds and we try to involve as many interesting musical ideas as we can in our music.



Who came up with the title for EPIC?

It was me, actually! We had a lot of discussions before we found a title. There were a lot of ideas on the table that went back and forth and stuff. None of those titles really suited the album as a whole. They suited half of the record or some of the songs but nothing was completely right. We wanted something that was essential to what we have been doing for a long time and what the key word for us was at this point and I came up with EPIC. I think it suits the album and sums it up because it is very ďepic.Ē The album goes up and down and itís almost like a musical storyteller. Itís the most obvious title Iíve ever done. There is no magic or big secret behind it.



One thing that I noticed right away was the cover art, which was done once again by your drummer, Asgeir Mickelson. Maybe he might be the better man to ask, but can you explain what is being expressed on the cover?

First of all, I should say that the cover should be seen with the rest of the layout because itís kind of connected as a whole. The cover itself is Asgeirís work and he should probably be the guy answering that, but for me personally, I wanted a cover that had some relationship with previous covers. Maybe the same feeling. Thatís something that I wanted to do. I also wanted the cover to be abstract. I didnít want a comic book type of cover. It does what I wanted and he used this book that is the most obvious symbol of an epic. Itís a combination of a lot of ideas but basically we tried to visualize some of our lyrical ideas and stuff. I think it looks great. Itís quite cool.



I only have the cardboard promo, so there isnít a booklet or anything that was sent along with it, but it does sound interesting. On the back of the promo, there is a photo of the band and is that you with the shaved head???

(Laughs) Thatís me!

Why did you cut your hair!! Was it just time to do it or what?

Yeah, man. You know, Iíve had long hair since I was, like, 14 years old and I always had the idea that the day I started to lose my hair, I would just cut it off and that was the case. Nature has taken its toll (laughs). When I started to lose the hair on top, it wasnít really what I wanted to do but it was the only solution for me.

It must feel strange? You had quite the head of hair before!

Itís quite nice actually! Itís easy to take a shower and stuff (laughs).



Borknagar released five CDs in six years, but this one took almost three years to get finished. Why was there a longer span between the release of EMPIRICISM and EPIC?

There were different reasons actually, but the main reason is that we just needed some time to relax a little bit and find ourselves or whatever. As you said, between 1996 and 2001 we did five albums and several tours and festivals and stuff. It was really intense, at least for me, to be doing that for so many years. The second reason was that the recording turned out much longer than we had expected. Usually we would record an album in three or four months but we ended up using almost a year for EPIC. All in all, it turned out to be three years (laughs)!



Would you say that the extended break benefited the end result?

Yeah, I think so. We needed some time to relax a little bit and have some time in the studio. We actually cancelled two festival gigs last summer because of conflicts with the recording session. For us, the main priority is recording music. That is the basis for everything, so we had to choose between postponing the recording session for awhile and not the doing live shows. We just had to cancel them because we wanted to focus on the recording session. For the next album, we will definitely come up with something faster. Our plan right now is to record the next album next summer and release it next autumn or something.



Oh! So I guess there arenít any major tour plans for EPIC, then, if youíre going to be going back in the studio for its follow-up next summer?

We have never been a big touring band. We are comfortable with the situation of just making music. We are old guys now (laughs)! Of course, we are going to do a few live shows and we would love to go back to North America again someday but right now we are kind of focusing on making music. We are going to be working on the new album as well as making an acoustic album. Personally, I have other musical projects going besides the band.



Can you tell me a little about this acoustic album you are working on?

We have been playing around with it for awhile. When we are in the studio, we will jam around with some old songs and mix in a guitar or a piano or something and then think, ďThis is cool! We should do something like this.Ē The basic plan right now is to make half of the record new acoustic songs and the other half will be acoustic versions of some of our older songs. There will be acoustic guitars, acoustic bass, acoustic drums, violinsÖwhatever. It will be a bit on the sidetrackÖsomething totally different, but I think it would be totally cool to do something like that and maybe show a different side of the band. The idea is not to change the band and just play acoustic music but it would be cool to do something like that for one record.



Would it be something like Opeth did on their last records, DELIVERANCE and DAMNATION?

I heard some people mentioning them, but I havenít heard those albums myself. I canít really say.



I was looking at the bandís official site (www.borknagar.com) and I see that it has been in development since mid-May. Will the new site launch when the CD is released?

Iím not really sure. It should be up soon, though, I think.



There was a little blurb written on there that the new CD might include a surprise. Can you tell me what the ďsurpriseĒ will be?

The first 10,000 copies of the album will have included with the CD a fifteen or sixteen minute documentary from the studio. It is just us filming each other playing our instruments and recording the album in general. Itís just something fun for the fans. Itís not a big thing but some people might find it interesting anyway.



You are also two members shorter on this record than you were on EMPIRICISM, with Tyr [bass] and Jens F. Ryland [guitar] having left the band. Are they still playing music or have they moved on to other bands?

Jens is not doing music at all. I think Tyr is just fed up with the whole music business. I donít know what he is up to these days. He is doing something totally differentórunning a firm or something like that. I think he is still playing bass and stuff but he is not in a band at this moment.



Besides the drums, Asgeir also played the bass tracks on EPIC. Have you decided who will be playing bass and second guitar for your live shows yet?

We havenít done it so far. Weíre just relaxing right now and doing a shitload of interviews with the media as well as working on new material so we havenít got to that point, but of course we will need a bass player and also a second guitarist for the live shows. We have some ideas but no official things going on yet.



Was Asgeir a bass player before he was a drummer?

No, but he had been playing guitar before he played drums. He is a gifted musician. He managed to adapt to playing bass quite fast and I think the results are quite cool!



Yeah, youíd never know it was someone who wasnít a regular bass player at all.

He definitely knows what heís doing. Heís a killer bass player!



Asgeir, Lars and Vintersorg [vocals] all have several other bands that they play in. How do you keep Borknagar as a priority for them?

We have Lars with Solefald and Vintersorg with his band but none of the bands are really that big that they demand all their time. When we are recording a Borknagar album, that is the main focus of all the guys. Of course before we actually record, we have to write the songs and rehearse and there are different times of the year where guys spend more time on different things. Right now, for example, Iím working a lot on a symphony. We are not so busy with Borknagar that we donít have time to do other things.



You mentioned this symphony project that you are working on. Do you find it just as easy to get into the mindset to write classical music as you do with metal?

Itís basically the same thing. I mean writing music is writing music, but the symphony is much more complex and just takes more time. I just do this from time to time and then I have evenings off, but it takes a lot of time. There are 24 different tracks at a time with violins and stuff, so it is complicated and takes time but it is the same basic structure, I think. Itís just like building a house, really. If you have one melody, you just add another brick and so on (laughs). Itís fun and itís been cool to be working in a different way. I have a little mini keyboard that Iím working on. In the band, Iím working more on guitar to make music but with this symphonic stuff, Iím more using the keys.



Has Vintersorg written most of the lyrics for EPIC?

Iíve done about half of the lyrics on this album and Vintersorg has done three, I think, and Lars has done three.



Where do you get your lyrical inspiration from?

I really donít know. Iím not the type of guy that can just point my finger at one thing and say thatís it. Itís everything from music, movies and books to daily life. Itís a combination of everything for me personally. Lyrically, Iíve always had a very philosophical approach. Iíve always been wondering about things and reading about science, so itís very natural to do those types of lyrics.



Vintersorg has really given an exceptional vocal performance on this record. The one song that stood out for me was ďSealed Chambers of Electricity.Ē He has a black metal shriek, a death metal roar, clean vocals, whispered vocalsÖhe really does it all on that one song!

Yeah, I mean thatís the cool thing about him is that he is so multi-dimensional when it comes to the vocals. He is able to do whatever you want him to do. As you said, he has the clean vocals, the screamed vocals and that other stuff and whatís cool is he isnít just doing it in the studio but he can do it live, as well. That is quite amazing, I think.



How did the two of you meet and end up working together?

It goes back several years, I think. He wrote me and said he was fan of the band and stuff and we just had contact via mail. Sometimes he would call me or send me some CDs, but he was a fan of the band already. It was quite a coincidence that he came to visit me just a few weeks after our previous vocalist, Simen [Hetnaes, former vocalist/bassist; now ICS Vortex in Dimmu Borgir], had quit the band. Vintersorg had no intention to join the band but we drank a beer together and kind of listened to music and stuff. We same to the point where we have the same ideas and decided that we had to work together.



Between when Simen left the band and Vintersorg joined, was there ever anyone else considered to fill the empty vocalist position?

We had some demos and we had contact with people and did some auditions and stuff like that but at the end of the day, it wasnít necessary.



Borknagar has had many members come and go over the years. Why do you think that is?

Iíve wondered that myself, but I really donít know. Iím not a dictator who kicks people out just because ofÖwhatever. I like to think that Iím a pretty diplomatic and democratic guy, so I donít think itís my fault. Itís different situations with each lineup change. For example with Simen, he enjoyed Dimmu Borgir and they became quite a big band and felt that they needed him more than we could allow if he should continue with both bands. He had to make a choice and he did. Musically speaking, there has been a long way to go. The current lineup is very good and very unique. We have a good friendship and very good musical chemistry. I think it was all worth it to get where we are today. Of course when someone leaves, it always brings problems. Cancelled tours and stuff because someone leaves can be very frustrating.



So is the current lineup the best that you have had since beginning the band?

Yeah, I think so. We are all good friends and have the same ideas. It is also very important that we all have the same goals for music. Before we had some guys that wanted to tour for a whole year and some guys that didnít want to tour at all and things like that. Now we are very dynamic as a band. We donít force each other on to the road. We just kind of do what we want musically. Itís very relaxing.



There is a lot of speculation and rumor about where the name Borknagar came from. Can you tell me the real story behind the name?

It was ten years since I came up with the name. It was back in 1994, actually. It doesnít mean anything. It may sound like a northern mythology name but the idea when I came up with the name was inspired by an old fairy tale that I heard once. It was about a guy who climbed up a mountain called Loch Nagar in Scotland. Thatís really it. I just changed Loch Nagar around a little bit (laughs).

(Laughs) I read somewhere that it is actually Ragnarok and you just shuffled the letters around and added a ďBĒ in front!

(Laughs) Really?? Iíve seen some funny things in different forums with people discussing the name. ďIf you turn the letters all backwards, you getÖblah blah blah.Ē The truth is that there is no meaning.



On every Borknagar CD, there is a bird on the actual disc itself. What does that represent? Is it some kind of a mascot for the band?

You mean the dragon?

Oh, itís a dragon?

Yes. Itís actually a file that I found back in í94 or í95. It has been our mascot for a long time. Back in í95, I wanted to have more than just a logo. I actually have that tattooed on my arm! Itís stuck with me (laughs).



When you listen to the early Borknagar CDs, are you quite critical of the sound or the songwriting, especially since the band has changed so much from the first CD?

No, not really. I tend to look at the albums realistically. You have to look at them from the time they were actually made. I was ten years younger than I am now when we did the first record and I was not the musician that I am today. For the time, I think most of the album is really good. Iím very satisfied with it. Hypothetically speaking, if I had done the album these days, I would not be too satisfied with it, but for the time, I think itís great.


Where do you see Borknagar going on the next album?

Well, we always try to progress a little bit but we try to keep the music to the core of the band. I donít want to do a sudden change and just do something totally different because thatís not our way of doing it. With each album we do, we have a different focus, a different perspective but itís really hard for me to say right now. Itís always more difficult to say how it will be until we get to the actual recording session. I will say that I think the next album will be a little bit darker in the general approach of it.



Will you ever take Borknagar to a death metal sound that you did when you were in the band Molested, or is that something that will be left in the past?

I donít think we will play death metal, butÖwell, maybe! Not at this point but maybe five years from now? I donít know. I would love to do something with death metal because I have been a big fan of it since I was a tiny boy.



Many people consider Borknagar to be a black metal bandóI donít personally except for maybe your first albumóbut where do you think black metal is going? Do you think it has run its course with the whole church burning thing and controversy that first got it noticed? Is there a way for it to progress beyond that?

For me, itís almost like two divisions. There are the black metal bands in Norway that are still doing the old stuff like Bathory-type of music. The hardcore, cult metal type of stuff. Then you have another division that is bands like Solefald and us doing more progressive, experimental music. I donít want to say that the second division with the progressive stuff is better. There are a lot of creative bands with great musicians in Norway.



Which bands do you think are helping to move it forwardóbesides yourselves (laughs)?

(Laughs) A band like Solefald is definitely one of the bands who really stretches the borders of the music. Jorn [H. Svaeren] from Ulver, who really donít have any black metal at all in their music at all anymore, is one of those guys who has been a pioneer when it comes to trying new stuff.



Thanks very much for calling today, ōystein. It was a pleasure to finally get to speak with you. I believe this the first time Metal Rules has got the chance to interview you!

Same to you. Thank you very much.

Good luck with the CD. I canít wait to hear some of the other projects that you mentioned, as well. They sound very interesting.

Thank you. Take care!

Official Band Site:

Thanks to Heather at Century Media for
setting up the interview and for the promo.