Cris Frederiksen from Svartsot
Interview by Theis Rytoft Nielsen
Picture provided by Svartsot’s gallery
Svartsot is a Danish metal band that plays folk metal merged with death and black elements and is signed by Napalm Records. Their first album was highly praised around Europe earning the description “The new wave of folk metal” along with Swiss Eluveitie. Their whole style is based on the Viking Age as they dress up in clothes related to that period. Along with that, the texts are about Nordic tales and mythology.
Cris Frederiksen is currently the only active original Svartsot member left in the band. Four members decided to part with the band in December 2008.
Hey Cris! I hope you are in high spirits and ready to answer some questions to give Svartsot’s fans a view into the past, present and future of the band?
Hey Theis! Yes, I am.
Let us start out with “Ravnenes Saga” which was the debut album. Before you actually recorded the CD, you got a few demos published. How was the time when the band was trying to do well and get a deal with a recording label?
Yeah, we did two demos before Ravnenes Saga: Svundne Tider from 2005 and Tvende Ravne from 2006. It seems like a long time ago, as so much has happened since then!
For us the whole thing was pretty easy in many ways. I think the biggest problem was getting jobs. Many venues in Denmark don’t really want to book metal bands – especially not smaller bands that haven’t got much of a name. We were lucky enough to get to play with some bigger Danish bands and a couple of one day festivals in our hometown, which certainly helped to get the name out.
We also participated in a battle of the bands type competition here in Denmark back in 2006, which we won. That was quite funny really, as we only entered for a laugh. We didn’t expect to get through the first round! We also had the chance to record the second demo with Jacob Bredahl. That also brought us to more peoples’ attention.
But people seemed to like what we do, and that encouraged us a lot. We sent copies of the first demo out to labels, but didn’t get any offers at all. We hadn’t got around to sending the second one out before we got contacted by Napalm Records. So for us, it couldn’t have been easier!
Svartsot was formed in 2005 and short time thereafter got 2 demos published, followed by a full-time album. Before the album came out you suddenly got a call from Napalm Records! Can you tell more about the first experience with Napalm Records?
One of the A&R people had heard our stuff on MySpace and wrote to us with a few questions. When I saw the email for the first time, I thought “What have we done now?” as the topic was “Svartsot vs. Napalm”. I thought that we’d inadvertently stolen a riff from a Napalm band or something!
After a few more mails I was called up by the A&R manager and the label boss. We spoke for quite a while, and then the negotiations really got underway. That took a couple months, and eventually we had something we could agree on. We got a budget and then we had to record the album, which we did.
How was it to get such a quick breakthrough at the crowded folk metal scene, where a lot of bands are competing to sell their albums?
On a local plan it was relatively easy, as there were, and still are, almost no other folk metal bands in Denmark. But the international scene has got quite a lot of bands. I never really thought about it other than that things were going relatively fast – sometimes almost too fast. I remember thinking “People must like what we do!”, but that was about it really. But I still feel that we have to work hard even now to continue giving it 150%, and to write better songs. It’s certainly not something I take for granted.
You guys were being described as “The new wave of folk metal” along with Eluveitie. Did it give you the chills to get such a label before the reviews of “Ravnenes Saga” showed up?
I remember seeing that description and thinking “So that’s what they’re calling it”. I felt kind of privileged that we were considered something new and not just one of the others. But yeah, it did kind of give the chills at the same time.
A lot of reviews compared you to Korpiklaani in terms of sound and expression on the album. Which metal bands are you getting inspiration from?
Good question! Personally, I’ve been listening to and playing metal since I was a lad. I have listened to so many different bands in that time, and many of them have influenced my style in some way. I can’t really put names to many of the influences, as they’re just there somewhere. We also got compared to Amon Amarth, but I think the Swedish death metal scene in general has been a big influence for me. And Iron Maiden, of course. But I listen to everything from 70’s rock (especially Jethro Tull) to black metal, and folk music too. I have played folk music for almost as long as I’ve played metal. Combining the two styles is something I’ve played around with for a long time before Svartsot.
Many people have noticed how you dress up as Vikings or similar to how you dressed in the Viking Age. Do you have a special interest in Norse mythology or that particular historical period?
The stage clothes came about early on, after Svartsot’s first ever concert in March 2005. We were watching a video of it that my wife had filmed, and we just thought that it looked stupid. We were playing folk metal with lyrics about folklore and mythology and we were wearing normal clothes. For the shows to be more special we need an extra visual side of it too. So it was a case of filling the bands concept out with something more than we had before then. I still have many more ideas in that vein too, but it’s a case of finding time and money to put those into action.
With regards to an interest in history and Nordic mythology, well they are some of the themes the band is based on! Personally I find that stuff fascinating. I’ve always been interested in history and cultural history, folklore and mythology. So having a chance to write that stuff into the lyrics was a bonus for me! But being an interest is where it stops. I’m not a “weekend Viking” anymore – I got bored with that – and I’m not Asatro. To my knowledge, no one in the band, past or present, is or ever has been Asatro. We’ve been given that label by some, and I don’t really know why. The references to the old gods in the lyrics are generally in passing. They are sometimes mentioned, but the songs are not directly about them!
It seemed like you, as a band, were riding a wave and performed a lot of concerts in the aftermath of the album, where you for example toured with Hollenthon, Alestorm and Faroese Tyr. Did you learn some useful tricks from any of those guys?
I wouldn’t really call it riding a wave, as we were trying hard to promote the album and get out and play as much as possible. The tour really came a year too late. We never managed to get on a tour to promote the album at the time of the release. We had played shows with Týr and Alestorm before the tour, and knew them quite well. You learn a few things here and there every time you go out playing, so we did here too. But it’s not always “interesting” stuff – it’s often technical tricks and tips about equipment!
By the end of 2008 lighting stroke and hit the fans of Svartsot: 4 members left the band without any special notice. Was it something that had been under way for a long time?
Yeah, it was. Looking back it had been under way for about half a year. Some people were getting stressed and falling out over small things, other people seemed to be losing interest in the band. We had been on the verge of splitting a couple times before the four guys left. It was kind of a relief when it happened, as the problems that had been there were solved, but new problems arose. Like where do you find 4-5 musicians to replace those who had left!
Seeing the incident from the outside, it seems there has been a lot of turbulence about the departure with incoming concerts already in March and no updates at the Svartsot homepage. Can you give the fans your view on that?
One of the guys who left had the ownership of the band’s homepage domain. He was also responsible for the homepage. When the four of them left, they decided that I should be denied access to the domain, the band’s e-mail account and the band’s MySpace. It took about a week for me to get access to the e-mail account and MySpace and over a month to get the ownership of the domain. But I hadn’t got access to the necessary files for updating the homepage. The new line-up decided that it was best to make a new homepage from scratch, and the work on that is almost finished now. The new homepage should be up and running before too long.
So I only had the possibility of keeping the news updated through the blog on our MySpace, and that’s what I’ve done. From there it has spread to various webzines and sites like Metal Archives. It wasn’t optimal, and news items got spread slowly throughout that period. But with a new homepage coming soon, things should be a lot easier in the future.
You showed yourself capable of taking action with drive and in 2 months you compiled a new Svartsot. How did you manage to do that?
With a stroke of good luck! I didn’t actually think that it would be possible back at the beginning of the year. To start with I contacted everybody I could think of – but without any luck there. Then, when I had gained access to the MySpace, I wrote a blog about looking for new musicians for the band. That got put out on various webzines, and people started contacting me.
The first one of the new line-up to contact me was Danni (Jeff) Jelsgaard, who also plays drums in Illnath. He’d seen an article about the situation on one of the Danish webzines, and was interested, as he is a fan of the band. He knew Cliff Nemanim, who is a pretty good guitarist to say the least, and who was looking for a band at the time. So Jeff put me into contact with him. James Atkin, who used to play in FeverFew, had just moved to Denmark from England with his wife, who is Danish. He saw on the band’s homepage that four of the guys had left, and decided to contact me and ask if he could be considered for the bassist slot.
Hans-Jørgen Martinus Hansen had filled in on whistles for Stewart Lewis on the tour. When Stewart announced that he was going to take a longer break from the band, we asked Hans-Jørgen if he’d like to step in. Then the four members left. I contacted him and asked him if he was still interested, and he was. He plays many other instruments besides the whistles and that’s something we’re going to explore in the future.
We auditioned a couple of vocalists, but nothing really turned up there. With just three weeks left before the first show, I was at a show where Jeff’s other band were playing along with four or five other bands. The first band up was a comparatively young band called Disintergrated. I had never heard of them before, but their vocalist, Thor Bager, seemed like just the guy we needed. I was really impressed with his style on the stage. I mentioned it to Jeff, and we spoke with him after the show. Thor didn’t really know Svartsot that well, but was interested. So we lined up a couple rehearsal weekends with Thor before the show. And he just fitted in, and worked really hard to learn all the material.
All of the guys have shown themselves to be really talented musicians, and extremely quick to learn the material. I feel privileged to be able to work with guys like them.
Can you describe your feelings in the period where you, along with Stewart Lewis, who is currently taking a break, were the only ones left in the band?
It was pretty strange. It was a relief that the small arguments that were taking place the whole time were over, because they were really dragging all of us down. But bigger arguments were also starting to take place, because there were so many things that needed sorting out. Some of the guys were pretty cool about it; I think they felt relieved too. We could speak with each other without any bad feelings about what had happened. But there was a lot of tension between some of the others and myself. I don’t have much to do with any of them anymore, but occasionally talk with one or two of them if I meet them.
It was also a very stressful time, and a time when I felt very uncertain about what was going to happen with the band; if Svartsot was even going to survive at all. In the beginning I was quite prepared to scrap Svartsot and start another band – or at least change the name – to kind of make a clear break with the others. But Napalm Records thought that would be a bad idea.
I went backwards and forwards between optimism and pessimism, but the aim was clear from the start. I was not going to throw the towel in. I love doing Svartsot, I love the music – otherwise I wouldn’t have done it at all. I still had so many ideas and so much material ready. Before the four guys left we had enough material written for another album, but I had to scrap half of it, as some of the guys who’d left had co-written it. That was quite painful. I had put a lot of work into it, but I’d rather scrap the stuff than have problems with any of them further down the line.
Stewart was a pillar of strength for me in that period. He was always prepared to listen, and always had a sensible suggestion or comment. But that’s the way Stewart is! I don’t know how he felt, as he kept that to himself. Stewart’s not a grumbler – he’d rather see the positive things in a situation than the negative.
But as time went on, and possible candidates for the band started contacting me, things started looking up. It became a challenge as we had the shows booked already, and I didn’t want to have to cancel them. When the line-up was more or less complete, I was feeling very positive about the way things were going, and when Thor joined I was very much relieved. We now have a strong line-up of extremely competent musicians. Okay, we need more time in the rehearsal room to get as tight as possible. But the right vibe is there, and I’m looking very much forward to the future.
Your first concert as a new band was in Slagelse, Denmark on the 6. March 2009. I was among the audience and became really impressed with your performance. Did you guys in the band consider the show a success and were you satisfied afterwards? Did you drink a lot of beer to celebrate?
Thanks! It’s good to hear that you enjoyed it!
I know that some of the guys were really nervous before that show – Jeff has told me that he didn’t sleep at all the night before the show! It meant a lot to them that the show should be a success. They had some pretty big shoes to fill, and expectations were high. And they didn’t want to let me down – which they didn’t! I myself was hoping for the best, but half expecting the worst. The line-up had only been completed two weeks before that show with the addition of Thor, so we’d had very little time to practice together as a whole band. As I mentioned earlier, Thor didn’t really even know the music that well before he said he’d like to try out!
We made some mistakes every now and again. I could see on the faces of the people down front that they could hear the mistakes, but they were very understanding about it. It’s good to know that the fans are really backing us up on this one. It was natural that we were going to make a few mistakes. You can practice and prepare yourself as much as you like in the rehearsal room, but as soon as you hit the stage it’s a completely different world. We hadn’t had that much time to prepare ourselves either, so it’s a credit to the competence of the new guys.
Putting the mistakes aside, we were very pleased with the way the show went. I spoke with a few of the audience afterwards, and they said that they had been a little sceptical before, but were convinced that Svartsot are back after hearing us. That means a lot to us. So, all in all, we considered the show a success, but are well aware of the fact that there are things that could have been better. But that’s the way it should be too. You need that drive to do better for each time, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much point in it.
And whether we drank a lot of beer afterwards? Well, we ran out of beer backstage!
During the show you had some problems with your equipment. To be more specific, it seemed like it was the drums and during that time your new front singer said some words to the crowd. Being new in the band and maybe also to the scene, he had some troubles making a variation in his sentences and to mention new topics. Have you considered if there should be more people from the band sharing the speaking to the audience or was it merely beginners fear?
Yeah, Jeff’s pedal kept jumping off the kick drum. He even had to disappear backstage at one point to fetch a drum key! Thor didn’t realize this the first time, and was about to announce the next song. So he was taken by surprise there.
Thor’s other band is quite a new band, and I don’t really know if they get that many jobs. I don’t think he was expecting that type of technical hitch either, so he was probably not that prepared for on-stage banter. But then again I’ve seen vocalists in relatively well known bands almost come to a complete halt when something unexpected happens. It’s something he’ll get better at talking his way around with more live experience.
With regards to others from the band sharing the speaking, I’m not really a fan of that sort of thing. I’ve seen bands where for example the guitarist talks so much that the vocalist can’t get a word in edgeways. That sort of thing irritates me. Or a conversation between two members of the band – that’s the sort of thing old men do in their two-man-orchestras at weddings and stuff. Not cool and certainly not metal! Okay, it doesn’t have to be as extreme as those two examples, but for me the vocalist is the “mouth piece” of the band, at least on stage.
How do you see your own role in Svartsot in the future being the last original member?
It’ll continue in the same sort of way as it was before. I was responsible for much of the material on the first album, both music and lyrics. Besides that, I stood for much of the contact with the record label, the international booking agent, doing interviews and promotional stuff, and a large percentage of the contact with fans. I now also have contact with the Danish booking agent, and a larger deal of the administration of the band’s MySpace. I also do most of the coordinating of the internal stuff in the band. The new guys have been very good in helping out with stuff and setting new initiatives into operation – Hans-Jørgen and James especially.
With regards to writing duties, I certainly haven’t taken a back seat. I have written enough music for an album now, but would like to do a few more tracks, so that we can choose the very best tracks for the next album. Hans-Jørgen has come with some ideas for musical themes, and these will almost certainly be incorporated in some of the new tracks. James is an excellent lyricist, so he has taken over much of those duties. Unfortunately, he can’t speak much Danish as yet, so I have been translating the lyrics he has written. But I also have written a deal of the lyrics for the new material myself.
At the concert in Slagelse you played a new track! What are your thoughts about a new album from Svartsot? – Will you try to experiment more with your style? And above all, will you still make the album in Danish?
Yeah, we actually played two new tracks in Slagelse, and have added two more new tracks to the set since then. As mentioned before, we’re well under way with material for a new album. I can’t say when it’ll come out yet, as it’s far too early to speculate about that kind of thing. There are a few formalities that have to be sorted out before we can even book studio time. But we’re hoping to be able to enter the studio around the end of the summer/beginning of the autumn.
Style wise, it’s still going to be the same brand of folk metal, but maybe a little more mature this time around. It’s difficult to say exactly how it’ll sound, as we haven’t started arranging the stuff yet. But it won’t sound 100% the same as the first album, as the new guys aren’t clones of the ones who left. I have also asked them to bring as much of their own personal sound and style to their parts as possible. I feel that is quite important, as they are talented musicians, and that’s something that should be heard. But one thing I know we will be exploring is the use of more varied acoustic instruments that are more typical for folk music. There will also be more harmonies and counterpoints between the folk instruments and the guitars than on Ravnenes Saga, where many of the guitar melodies were merely dubbed by the whistles. That’s something I have been very conscientiously aware of whilst writing the new material.
With regards to lyrical content, we have continued exploring the historic and folkloric side of things. There are so many different topics to cover in those sources that we haven’t run out yet. And yes, all lyrics will still be in Danish. That is one of the basic elements in Svartsot and will never be played around with.
Cris, thank you so much for your time to share some points of view with the whole metal community. If you have any last words for all the metal heads out there then it is time to grab your axe and scream them out.
Just that people should stay true to themselves and stand up for what they believe in. Other than that, we’ll see you at the bar. The next round is yours!