Ivar Bjørnson: “This is our tempo, a mammoth climbing up a hillside (chuckles). It takes a while, but we get there.”
Zonet heeft Enslaved onze zomer interessanter gemaakt met het geven van drie concerten onder de noemer ‘Cinematic Summer tour’. Maar er is natuurlijk ook nog de opvolger van ‘E’ welke begin oktober – na enige vertraging – uitgekomen is. De titel is ‘Utgard’ en daarover hadden wij een uitgebreid gesprek met gitarist/componist Ivar Bjørnson vanuit Bergen in Noorwegen.
Vera Matthijssens Ι 12 oktober 2020
With ‘E’, during the touring for that album, you slowly noticed that you were accepted by a broader audience outside the extreme metal scene. How did it feel for you?
Yes it has been really exciting to see, coming from the extreme metal scene which has grown a lot since we started. Since 2010 and onwards I would say, but especially the last few years, a broader audience has been paying attention to Enslaved. It is pretty exciting and it is always fun to present the music to someone new, which is important. The most important reason why I think it is rewarding, is I think that we have done this all on our own terms. The only reason for changing or evolving the band, has been because of our own musical interest. We did not adapted the band to become popular so to speak. But seeing that people are accepting us on our own terms is very cool I have to say.
That’s true, because it went slowly and smoothly into another direction. Not even direction, let’s better speak of additions…
Yes, we like that. This is our tempo, a mammoth climbing up a hillside (chuckles). It takes a while, but we get there.
At the end of 2018 you started writing this new album ‘Utgard’. What kind of mood were you in? What did you feel at that moment?
I felt at that moment very inspired, I have to say. We had a bit trouble previous to that. We changed a bit in the line-up, with Herbrand Larsen exiting the band and Håkon Vinje joining the band and then again on a Russian tour that we did at the end of 2017, the drummer announced that he was going to leave the band in the Summer. The next Summer. So we did have some time to prepare for that. Also we had talked to Iver (Sandøy – new drummer) who had been our co-producer for some years and a very important figure in the Enslaved history. He had already been playing some shows with us, when Cato (Baekkevold – previous drummer) had to go on one of his fishing expeditions and when he accepted to become part of the band, for me it felt like we were really given a new fantastic chance. Okay, it is always a problem when such an important member leaves the band, but now we have the chance to get another new start. So I felt really inspired, I have to say. It felt like one of the early albums, when you just want to be creative and sit with a guitar and work on the ideas. And that is how it has been all the way through it and developed. It has been one of the most invigorating and sort of beautiful feelings that we have had, just perfect.
You hear that on the album. You have those mellow clean parts and then very brutal parts. There is a lot going on in this record…
The group effort is really a keyword and that is my personal theory why the album is as good as it is. It is five guys having a really good time playing together. It is simple and stupid, but I think this is the best recipe you can have. There was loads of inspiration between the guys and also we are very lucky to be who we are. Me and Grutle are kind of the old bulldozers of the band. We know how to play Enslaved stuff and that’s what we do. The three other guys – except from Grutle and me – are super skilled musicians. Like Ice Dale, he has a musical education, he can play any kind of music, like crazy Yngwie Malmsteen solo stuff, but he still has that furious thing. So you can hear it all the time, when someone steps forward, the other one gives him room and steps back. It is a very good dynamic.
One of the important features is also: if you listen to an Enslaved record, it is dense, but it doesn’t give you a feeling of being too multilayered or chock-full.. You feel that the music is still breathing when it comes to you…
That is great to hear. That was our intention. Is when you get to the end of the album you feel: okay, let me hear it again. It is also a funny little thing we discovered right before it was finished. When the album was finished, we heard that the beginning and the end part with the acoustic guitars fit together. The tempo and the melody. You can actually start the album again while listening to the last part of it. It is a sort of circle.
The heathen chants at the beginning are quite impressive too…
Oh thanks. It was the last thing that was made for the album. We were finishing up everything with extra additions and vocals at my place which is a tradition to do the last leads and effects and stuff, and suddenly Iver said: ‘The album should commence with singing. Just that, nothing else. Let’s do some chants to start with’, so we just had acoustic guitars and sang on it. That’s what we did in the middle of the night and the next morning we sent it to the mix.
That’s an exceptional occasion, but I remember you are used to do such special things, because I remember from our former chats that you went into the woods to record some organic sounds and now I found out there was an anvil involved, isn’t it?
Yes, crazy story. Me and Iver were working on the song in the studio and I said to Iver: we should have this effect with the sound of an anvil here. ‘Jettegryta’ is about those holes you can find in the ground in Scandinavia. Perfect circles in the rock. Sometimes ten metres down. Which is caused by the glaciers movements 15.000 years ago. Back in the Viking times, the people – they did not know so much about glaciers obviously – so they had these mythological explanations for everything. These holes in the ground were made by the giants. In Norse mythology these were the first creatures. Before humans came along, there were giants. So in mythology is said that the giants made these holes. Some thought they made the holes to preserve food, and some thought these were gateways to other dimensions and back to where they came from, which is Utgard. And I imagined these giants working, to build these tunnels and I wanted the sound of the anvil and then we presented this idea to Grutle. Still I thought it was a bit crazy, but he promptly said: ‘oh don’t worry, my neighbour where I live, he collects anvils.’ We thought this was just the craziest thing we ever heard. So we asked the guy: ‘Can we come over and try some of your anvils?’ He is a big Enslaved fan, so he collects everything of Enslaved… and anvils (chuckles). That was fun! A lot more fun than just a sample that you buy on internet.
In this respect you recently visited giant’s cauldron in Vardetangen, the most western point of Norway. Can you tell something about this experience?
Yes, that was fantastic. Now that we are in lockdown, we are limited. It is not so strict anymore, we can go where we want to, but in Norway. For some time we have been very busy with the album, without any time for something else. So me and family decided to take some time off and get away from Bergen. Instead of going to Sweden or England or something like that, like we usually do in the Summer, we decided to go somewhere close and we just went to this point northwest of Bergen. Small place and my wife is very good in doing research for interesting trips. She found this path that we could walk along the coastline. That leads to the most western point. Just beside this path, there was this giant ‘jettegryta’, so this has to mean something. I shared it also on the social media to show people. Pretty funny to see it in real life. What is on the album, appearing in the real world also.
And in nature you can always discover new things…
Exactly! There is so much more going on there than you can imagine, but I think this is a moment in the world today, when more and more people – young and old – start to realize this and start to cherish this fascination with nature and our heritage.
Isn’t that a trend in Norway, because you have much more possibilities to withdraw yourself from a kind of city life?
Yes, that is true. We are very lucky and privileged to have that opportunity. We have like one big city, which is Oslo. Bergen is a city, but it is just a big village. If you see all those places in Europe, Asia, and the US, of course it is very hard for people. Just to go there you have to travel long distances, just to find a piece of forest to walk in . So yes, we are definitely humble to have this opportunity.
For the video clip of ‘Jettygryta’ you went to Iceland. Please tell me everything about that?
We were talking about the video for ‘Jettegryta’ and – as I said – it was a phenomenon from the folklore. If you read about Norse mythology and Utgard, how it is described with those giant holes to another world, it is pretty much how Iceland looks. The windy, flat wastelands with these rocks along the plates… A really hard, rough landscape. Also raw and untouched. You can drive and drive for hours without seeing anything. No people. If there is few people in Norway, even less in Iceland. So we said: let’s go and try to make a video, a movie, that looks like the concept. Nature is all we need. Perfect!
Have you been to Iceland before?
Yes, I have been there once with my wife as a present, back in 2008 I think it was… Actually, also quite special, only few weeks before this financial crisis. I remember we thought it was so strange and special, this little place where we were travelling around on the countryside, but when we went into Reykjavik, everything was so enormous and big and there were so many new cars and everything… It looked like a capitalist commercial you know. It didn’t really make sense, it did not fit with the rest of the landscape. And then we came home and watched the news a couple of weeks after and everything crashed. Later I have been back a few times. I played at Eistnaflug festival which is on the southeast side. A big opposite to Reykjavik. Long drive there from the airport and going there is just fantastic. The video director who did the video for ‘Jettegryta’ (Gaui H) later came to Bergen to do an ‘Homebound’ video in Bergen. So we had a little bit of Iceland coming to Bergen. We hope to go back there. My wife heirs that, so she can buy another trip for us (chuckles).
Coming back to the main theme of the album: Utgard. I looked it up and it says it was like a stronghold of the giants in Norse mythology. Can you tell something more about that?
It is outside of Asgard, the place that most people know because that is where the Gods are, inside. But Utgard is the home, the stronghold of the giants. It is an area which is not described in detail, because it is quite unknown. Even Odin, the highest God himself, does not go into Utgard, because it is a lot of risk, with these primeval giants. They don’t have necessary the same respect for the gods as the gods for the giants, you know. So he sends his ravens – as you can see on the cover – to see and report what is going on in Utgard. Because there is a constant sort of rivalry or tension between the giants and the gods. On the album, we are using this as a metaphor for the human mind in a sense, this constant struggle between order and chaos. Between one thing to be safe and doing what is known and on the other side the desire for the unknown. The hunger to discover what is inside, what is in the darkness, you know… That is the concept of ‘Utgard’, of willingly stepping into that and hopefully through that process learning something new about yourself and the universe you are living in.
All aspects had to align for creating this, even the weather was suitable during this creation… the album is mostly recorded in wintertime when darkness reigns…
It all came together. It was perfect. From the first day of recording in Bergen when the darkness increased till the end of the mix when we were in Sweden in December, just before Christmas. Also over there dark and snowing, frosty, and we just realized we are now living in a world around us that is exactly like the landscape we are trying to describe in the music and the lyrics. So it became really strong.
Yeah, it is like a sign of the Gods!
I think so, yes!
Last Thursday (30/7) I watched the first part of the Cinematic Summer tour, an initiative of Enslaved to offer special on line gigs and it was amazing. Can you go deeper into this initiative?
The whole thing started very early after the corona situation. I think it was one or two weeks after the lockdown started in Norway early March. I got contacted by this festival in Bergen who wanted to do a virtual festival. It was music from all genres and there was one metal band and luckily for us, that was Enslaved. We play at April 1st. We had never done anything like this before, but instantly we felt: this is a good thing. It is really good that we can connect with the audience in a sense. And even though it was an empty room we played to, it felt like we were connected with the people watching. After the show, when we turned on the phones, and went on line, it just exploded. From all over the world, our fans and people sent messages, they watched it and they were so happy to have like an hour of normality. An hour of normal experience in all these craziness. They watched a metal gig, you know… Then we just decided: okay, we have to do more of this. How can we do this? We contacted young, talented people in Bergen who were familiar with video and streaming and so on, talked with them and the people around us, like our management in Switzerland, the record label… everybody was like ‘YES! Let’s get together and see what we can do.’ Out of this we built this Cinematic Summer tour. We have two more shows coming. The next one is called ‘Below The Lights’, playing the whole album, which is very exciting to do that. It is going to be great. The first show was ‘Chronicles of the Northbound’ in cooperation with Roadburn festival – as you mentioned last Thursday. So many people sent photos of themselves, being at home in their room, watching the concert. All those texting… it is almost like being on a festival again, I have to say. That’s our motto: we have to make the best from every situation and this is definitely the best thing we can do now. The third one will happen from a little bit different location. We are going out of Bergen into a big hall, where there used to be ship industry or something like this, but it is now empty. We are going to go there with the same team, but we wanted to change a little bit of the scenery. Every concert should be different, different mood, and also it should fit with the festivals we are working together with. The last one is from Summer Breeze and this is the release show. It is going to be half the new album played live and then the rest trying to connect with the people on line. We might do some Q&A with the fans. Something like that. We like to have a little bit of a dialogue after those shows and meet the people and hear what they think about this.
What struck me: the synthesizers at the beginning of ‘Urjotun’. They reminded me of Tangerine Dream…
Hey, thank you. You are the first one to say that! That is fantastic. I love Tangerine Dream so much, especially ‘Phaedra’, ‘Ricochet’ and ‘Cyclone’ I listened to a lot and yes, you can hear it at many places in Enslaved. Especially there. Outside of Enslaved, I also work with electronic music, inspired by bands like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and so on. One of my dearest instruments is a Moog (specifies it – Vera), it is a sequencer that I love to work with and finally now, I had an idea for a song where I could use this. It really worked well and it is going to be used more.
Enslaved has been around for thirty years. Are there plans to celebrate this ?
We will do something. We did a lot on the 25th anniversary. We are a little bit weary of doing too much of these celebrations. It just feels unnatural to do so much celebrations of years for the fans. I don’t know what it is, it might be superstition, but it feels like it is taking away the focus from the work if it is too much, but I also learned that it is important. It is important to take that time and look back. Playing those old songs is also inspiring for new things we are doing. Yes, definitely, there will be something, but not too much. A little bit. Hopefully it will be a celebration on the stages somewhere and not at home.
Are there still plans with Einar Selvik (Wardruna)?
Oh yes. We were talking about that a few weeks ago. I think quite early next year. Now his new Wardruna album has been postponed, but once that is finally out, we will start working on the next project, for sure. We just decided it is too much fun working together to not keep on doing it, so yeah… I don’t know when it is going to be out or when we are going to do something, but we’ll definitely start next year.
To occlude some thoughts and words about the mythical artwork…
It is the artist’s representation of our ideas of Utgard. This is how he enriched it after talking with us on the album. For me it is really strong: the symbol of Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn, which is thought and memory… it is such a strong metaphor. Even though Odin himself does not take the risk to go into this territory because of the volatile creatures living there, it is also very important to have some intelligence of what is happening there. So he sends the ravens and this might also be a metaphor for the human mind. We need our thoughts and memories to grow deeper into ourselves. And it is a beautiful representation I think.
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