Interview with guitarist Ivar Bjørnson
By Peter Atkinson
Of the bands that emerged during the turbulent birth of Norwegian black metal in the early ‘90s, arguably none have been as productive, consistent or diverse as Haugesund-born/Bergen-based Enslaved. Rather than revel in the controversy or “true Norwegian black metal” purist sentiments of some of their brothers in arms, Enslaved have honed their craft since 1991 with a steady stream albums that grew ever-more experimental – especially after 1998’s furious Blodhemn – and continued to break new ground – for instance, touring in the North America for the first time in 1995, when Norwegian black metal still was mostly just a sinister curiosity here.
Over time, as Enslaved’s lineup solidified – its roster since 2004 has been founding guitar Ivar Bjørnson and bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson, guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen and drummer Cato Bekkevold – the band’s music metamorphosed into something far more progressive than mere black metal. More recently, the band seem to have found a happy medium between prog-rock atmosphere and breadth and extreme metal ferocity and power.
Along the way, they have become something of a national treasure in their home country, scoring a number of “album of the year” awards – including four Spellemannprisen, or Norwegian Grammys. Last year, along with Norse-folk act Wardruna, they were commissioned to compose a special musical work to mark the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution.
Enslaved’s 13th studio full-length, In Times, will be issued on March 10. It is perhaps the most listener friendly work the band have done, albeit still a challenging one, as it mixes inviting grooves and melodies with epic scale, dramatic about-faces, the omnipresent harsh counterpoint of Kjellson’s feral growl and occasional forays into traditional Norwegian folk music and the like. The band will launch the album with a North American tour kicking off March 5 in San Diego, with Yob and Ecstatic Vision in tow, that leads up to a residence at the four-day Roadburn Festival in Holland in early April featuring several unique performances.
After apologetically chiming in late for our originally scheduled interview time via Skype, Bjørnson rang back at the end of his slate to discuss Enslaved’s new album and tour, the Roadburn Festival for which he was invited to curate, the band’s long career and how they continue to challenge themselves after nearly a quarter-century of extreme metal radicalism.
I appreciate your circling back and taking care of this after the other interviews. I know it’s late for you.
Ivar Bjørnson: Yeah, no problem. It’s about a half-hour before midnight, which is pretty metal (laughs).
First off, since we’re finally getting our first real brutal blast of winter in D.C. today, how has the winter been in Norway?
Bjørnson: It’s the usual ups and downs, especially Bergen, which is a confusing place in terms of weather. We’ve had a long period of time where things have been totally opposite from day to day, you have tons of snow when you go to sleep and the next morning it will be pretty mild and raining, and that will freeze again, so then you fall around on that for a few days and then back to snow. It’s absolutely impossible to plan anything with weather like that and the kids get sick all the time.
Have you been home pretty much the whole time? What have you been doing to keep yourself busy since the new album was finished?
Bjørnson: It’s been pretty much about promoting the album and getting ready for its release. Time has been spent at home, we’ve had the occasional pop out where we do a promo day over in London or wherever, but a lot of it has been mentally preparing for lots of touring.
There’s also the Roadburn Festival that you were selected to curate a day for with Einar [“Kvitrafn” Selvik, ex-drummer of Gorgoroth] of Wardruna, what has that involved?
Bjørnson: It’s been a learning process. What we do is you get told an amount of minutes or slots that are made available – Roadburn is the kind of festival where they don’t do like 25- or 30-minute sets for the smaller bands, every set is like from 50 minutes up to one and a half hours, some headliners will do two or three hours even. It’s all about the music experience and they want bands to do special things. So we get to pick who we would like to fill those slots.
And then there is the money thing, which is of course not necessarily our responsibility, when we have an idea for a band we’ll talk to the Roadburn people and they will let us know whether it is something we can get done within the budget. Then, after we make the invitations to the bands, they will get in touch with their agents and go over the terms.
We get to do all the fun stuff, we get to talk directly to the artists. If we don’t have the contacts, the Roadburn guys will help us to get in touch, we’ll send them mail and see if they are interested in doing something like that. Luckily for us, all of the bands we asked were interested in doing it.
Roadburn then takes over and does the hard stuff. At that time, it’s a pretty self-developing situation, when the band accepts the invitation for most agents their main concern is to just make it happen. People leave that whole dog-eat-dog business that we’re used to from day to day with all the summer festivals a little bit to rest because Roadburn is so special, it’s the one place that has this artistic main focus. Everything works out. There hasn’t been any single hiccup in terms of planning and everybody has been so supportive.
That’s got to be a pretty big honor, they only pick one or two people a year to do this?
Bjørnson: It’s fantastic, it’s totally fantastic. I remember last year how I thought it was great that Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth was curating. I thought it would be so great to do it someday, but that that was just probably a dream and then a year later I got the question if I could do it, so I was super, super happy.
The bill you guys have put together is all over the map, like the festival is noted for, but given your backgrounds you could have gone full, old school “True Norwegian Black Metal” if you really wanted to.
Bjørnson: Yeah (laughs). But that would be I guess a little bit boring in terms of artistic expression. We tried to cover as many genres as possible. Me and Einar were totally into collecting bands from any type of genre. When they hand you the keys to kingdom, so to speak, like they did, you want to make the most of the opportunity and really see what you can get away with (laughs).
As part of the day you curated [April 10], Enslaved is going to be doing a “House of the Northern Gods” show, what will that entail?
Bjørnson: We are lucky to work with a very talented Romanian visual artist [Costin Chioreanu] who works with video. So what we will do is set up a concert set list with songs that are descriptive of or based on Northern gods. The concept is to have this house where a selection of these gods are seen in the light from a psychological perspective, especially Carl Jung’s theories on archetypes, how they are representing certain common parts or different roles in the psyche. What we’re trying to do is give a walk through or an atmospheric snapshot of an imagined house like that, or a human’s psyche perhaps.
[That same day Enslaved and Wardruna also will perform Skuggsjá, the piece Bjørnson and Selvik wrote for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution. According to its Facebook site, “Skuggsjá is a work that not only contextualizes harder music’s role in the democracy in Norway in 2014, but also pull threads from ancient musical history and to the harder music’s position as perhaps Norway’s most important cultural export.”]
Will the other set the band will be playing [on April 11] be a more traditional set, or do you have something special planned for that as well?
Bjørnson: We’re going to try to make it a special set as we can. It will be a little bit more traditional. At that time, the album’s going to be out, so we’re going to present that. The thing we’re going to try to do that is special for that set is have a bunch of guests who are at the festival because there are so many cool bands and friends of ours who are at there for the weekend. So we’re going to try and exploit that a little bit and have people come up onstage and have some fun with us.
You, yourself, will be debuting your ambient project, BardSpec, at Roadburn, what can you tell me about that, is it something relatively new or have you been kicking it around for a while?
Bjørnson: It’s been around for such a long time. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to unleash it, if you could say that (laughs) about an ambient project. It had to have some kind of natural start up.
It was a bit of a weird moment when I was talking to the Roadburn guy [promoter/artistic director Walter Hoeijmakers]. We were discussing how we wanted as many genres as possible present at this curated day and we were going through the kinds of stuff we had and it was quite a collection. And then he said something like “My only personal wish is that we could have something like an ambient band, maybe at one of the smaller stages.”
I didn’t realize that would be part of a metal festival like Roadburn, so I said “when you say ambient, what do you mean by that? Are we talking some kind of doom variation or sub-genre like that?”
And he said, “no, it’s ambient, it’s kind of electronic,” and he mentioned a couple references like Biosphere and so on.
And I said, “well, that’s what I’m doing with my own project and I’ve never found the setting to get it started.”
And he said, “well, perfect, there we have it.”
It was a weird situation, but it worked out.
The tour you will be doing of the states next month seems like Roadburn in a microcosm since Yob, who are more of a doom/stoner band, and Ecstatic Vision, who I guess are like Hawkwind or something, will be opening. Was that the idea, to do something where you’re not just going out with other metal bands?
Bjørnson: Yeah, that’s how we’ve working. We have an excellent working relationship with our agent, Nick Storch, and the reason why we started working with him is he had the same kind of vision for us as we wanted ourselves. We want that Roadburn kind of experience where people see a show and they don’t just see micro-variations on the same theme but something is that is a full night of bands who have their own sort of expression. And I think it’s been great.
We went out a couple years ago, the show opened with Junius [it originally was supposed to be Ghost, who were just bursting onto the scene], an American band, and then it went in to Alcest and then Enslaved, and lots of ground was covered by all three bands. And also the audience gets a real sense of something happening during the night.
So I really like that kind of thinking. He sent a lot a list of possible suggestions for opening bands and especially me and Grutle were pretty enthusiastic when we saw Yob on there. So we said if there was any way that this can happen we’ll sell a few of our teeth to make that happen (laughs).
With your new album, it’s a little bit closer match stylistically to Yob than one might think, since the songs are all so epic and long on In Times, eight minutes-plus or more?
Bjørnson: Our songs are still pretty short compared with what those guys are doing.
True. Yob’s new album has four songs, whereas yours has six and your longest song [the title track at 10:45] still isn’t as long as the shortest track on theirs [the 11:22 “Nothing To Win”]. But relatively speaking?
Bjørnson: Hopefully we will all be able to find a way to do sound checks without having to do entire songs, because that’s going to kill the crew. I know it’s going to be a great tour when I’m already thinking that we’re going to be out there every night, someone from the band, checking out the other bands from the side of the stage or from the audience. That’s the kind of tour I really like, when you feel a bit like you did when you went see your favorite band as a kid, but it’s going to be that way every night for a month. So it’s great.
Still, as epic as the songs were on In Times, they’re also quite catchy. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a “progressive” feel to it. At least that’s my impression.
Bjørnson: Yes, that’s my feeling too. It’s high energy, but the songs are very to the point. They are pretty immediate in their outer or surface form and then there’s a lot of things going on beneath it, some subtext. And I’m pretty happy with that sort of mixed message, that we can have a thing where you can feel an attraction for the song at first listen, if nothing else just get the impression that there’s stuff happening here, that makes you want to go back and dig more into it.
Definitely it’s the sort of album where they more you listen the more you can pick out the nuances, you can discover something new every time.
Bjørnson: I’m glad that you said that. That’s what we are hoping people will do. Of course, everybody has to experience it like they do themselves, but it’s the way I listen to music myself, I really enjoy that. I like the bands that give an immediate atmosphere that pulls you in, but at the same time you can choose yourself if you want to listen to it as just an entertaining thing or you could put on your headset or play it through really good speakers and investigate what’s going on beneath the surface.
Has Enslaved managed to carve a niche for itself in the states, have you been making progress here or do you still feel more like a curiosity?
Bjørnson: On no, it’s absolutely happening, there is clear development for us. In terms of shows, it’s more of an evenly distributed thing where we can do several solid weeks, it’s not only New York and L.A. and then you do a bunch of horrible shows in between, like the situation was in the ’90s. It’s pretty well received all over the place and record sales are better than they have ever been, and also you can see it terms of digital sales, that things are going really well.
It’s happening. It’s been a long journey. We’ve put in a few working hours since the first tour in ’95, so it’s good to see that it has had results.
I remember a tour diary blog post from a long time ago where someone in the band was describing a show in the states that was either in a pizza parlor or a laundromat. I guess things can only get better after something like that?
Bjørnson: Actually we’ve done both of those, a pizza place and the laundry place, somewhere called Sudsy’s or something like that [actually, Sudsy Malone’s the now-defunct “Rock ‘n Roll Laundry & Bar” in Cincinnati]. Weird times, man.
Next year will mark the 25th year of Enslaved, have you thought ahead about what you might do to celebrate that milestone? Or is that something you’ll talk about at the end of the year, after you’ve had a chance to support In Times?
Bjørnson: Yeah, we’re going to put together some concrete plans. Right now, the main theme is that we’re at least committed that we’re actually going to have a 25th anniversary, to do something special. We sort of spaced out and forgot the whole thing when we turned 20 and we have to realize that it’s not just about the band, it’s about our fans as well.
On a personal level, if it’s my birthday I have a tendency to think “why on earth should I make a spectacle of that, it’s one more year, that’s great, but who has the time for stuff like that?” But you have to remember that there are people around you who like to celebrate and I think we should think like that, in terms of the band. There’s people who have followed the band for many years and it would be cool to do something special to acknowledge that.
We’re playing with the idea that maybe we could do not necessarily a long tour but in selected venues or places, stay there for a few days and do shows with full albums. Something like that would be cool.
I can’t imagine when you were getting started you thought you’d be doing this for 25 years. Maybe you were hoping you would, but I doubt anyone saw any real career prospects in Norwegian black metal back in the day?
Bjørnson: To be honest, next week was about all we focused on back then. But in one way we did sort of predict it, because the thought we had when we started the band was “this is fucking great, let’s do this for the rest of our lives.” We’ve actually come a long way in doing that because we’ve spent, or wasted, our entire youth on it and parts of our adult life, so why not just keep going? As long as we have some sort of functioning brain, I guess we can continue to do music.
It feels like it’s a band that’s in real motion. It takes a bit of a mental exercise to regard yourself as a legacy band or be described as having this position in the history of this or that. For us, it’s still the same feeling for the band as it was in the early years. Actually, I guess we’ve come full circle in terms of the older we get the more similar to the early days things feel like.
Really? How is that?
Bjørnson: Speaking of the way that we work with music, we’ve been like everybody else. Toward the end of the ’90s there was this fascination with technology, with triggers and shit and all about improving performance, especially in terms of metal drums. Some death metal guys are still stuck there I guess and still think it’s cool to play as fast as possible on the bass drums using all the technologies available (laughs).
And then there is working with music in the home studio and demoing and spending more time like that than in the rehearsal room, and I think we’ve found a good combination. We still use the computers for demoing and stuff like that, but that’s about it. We found that the way we sound the best is spending time in the rehearsal room. We try to make that time special and really try out the ideas there.
If I am working on a demo here and I am wondering how it would be if we change this or that, instead of slicing it up with the little scissor tool in my software, you call up the guys and have a rehearsal day and try various solutions there and get back to that. It’s the little sort of ripples that you create by adding that human element throughout the process, I think it pays off in the end.
And also to be less concerned about how a new album is going to do in terms of sales and ticket sales and all that stuff, and just focus on the music. We have good people around us who can deal with that. There’s a reason that we’re musicians and it’s not necessarily that we’re marketing geniuses. We just leave that to other people and focus on what makes the stage performance and the songs the best that we can.
One thing you guys haven’t done is beat yourself up touring. You do 30 to 50 shows a year instead of 200 like some bands, has that been another way you’ve been able to sustain the band this long?
Bjørnson: Exactly. It’s a key element. Sometimes we have to use a little bit of psychological cunning on ourselves, do a little bit of trickery to make it remain like it’s a hobby even though, in reality, it is what pays for the mortgages or new shoes for the babies or whatever, and try to keep the focus that you’re doing it because you want to do it. And that whole thing about being selective, I’m not saying we spend a lot of time saying no to stuff, but we’re a band that I guess people now are used to a certain pickiness.
There has to be something interesting in it, and I’m not just talking about the financials. We were talking about this tour with Yob before, that’s obviously something that has a significance to it. We want to do stuff where there should be at least a little chance that the audience would think they’re seeing something spectacular.
The moment it becomes just another run around the block to make ends meet, there’s no point. You’ve got to keep that little bit of that creative excitement and calling something a job is not necessarily what sparks creativity.