Jens Nikolai Gräs: “You cannot invent things twice. You always stand on the shoulders of generations and we are situated in a certain era of history, but being a retro band or trying to recreate something that was in the past is not our goal.”
Het was alweer een poos geleden dat we nog zo onder de indruk waren van een debuutalbum, maar het Deense viertal Iotunn slaagt er met ‘Access All Worlds’ in om ons meteen verslaafd te maken aan hun progressieve death metal met persoonlijke toets. Onze laaiend enthousiaste bespreking moest dan ook vergezeld worden van een onderhoudend gesprek. Dat gebeurde met gitarist Jens Nikolai Gräs waarbij we vernemen hoe de band evolueerde van jeugdige dromen tot het superieure niveau dat ze nu bereikt hebben. Een introductie…
Vera Matthijssens Ι 02 april 2021
Let us start at the beginning. You and Jesper are brothers. How did you come in contact with music and metal?
Back in 1992 we moved from our birth place. During the eighties we grew up on a farm in Denmark and in 1992 we moved and the neighbour happened to be a boy of my age, a Dutch boy – actually there’s lots of Dutch farmers in Denmark – so he lived in Denmark and he came by in the summer of 1992 with his parents. He visited me and we listened to Metallica’s ‘Sad But True’ of the ‘Black Album’. I was eight years old at that time and it was the very first time that I encountered with music and metal. It was not about thinking, it was more about gut feeling, I was enchanted by the music, so ever since I was very much fascinated and torn by heavy music. And of course I passed it to my brother as well, so at some point in the nineties, we just had to pick up guitars. Then we started to go to music school in Denmark, we had some great teachers and basically it all started out for us playing classical guitar and then later on it became more electric and learning how to do riffs and lead parts and stuff like that. So we learned to play rock-‘n-roll and heavy music. So that is how it all started. It started in the early nineties and the mid nineties for us.
It took a very long time before we have this debut album ‘Access All Worlds’ now. You have released an EP before of course, Jesper started the band and you came up with the name. Can you tell something about this era?
When talking about the years towards the millennial en the following years, Jesper and I tried out different bands and genres. We did not succeed with anything seriously, because it can be very difficult to have a full line up. Late nineties Jesper and I were really into that sixties and seventies rock and prog rock fans. I think he needed new perspectives and understand his instrument and guitars and his way of writing music from a different angle. So that was the beginning and then he got in contact with our drummer Bjørn and our former singer Benjamin. So these were the three that started out in 2009 as a seventies inspired rock band. Then I joined the band in 2011 and throughout the years from 2011 to 2014, 2015 we tried to make records and we tried to get established and make a platform from where we could start something seriously, but we never really arrived. So I would say that all those years were more about us being curious and discovering things. We just wanted to try out a lot of different stuff. It was a matter of being patient. Believing in the fact that somehow we should arrive where we really could set off from. I remember we had a meeting in the summer of 2013, just when we moved from Jutland to Copenhagen. I said I was into metal seriously, that should be our backbone. From there we could always explore different options and all kinds of expressions, but metal should be the backbone and other genres do not really matter to us. It is all possible. Still to this day we really don’t matter what kind of metal or rock music we play, as long as we like it. That created a new atmosphere in the band. Slowly we started to write the stuff that ended up on the EP and also some of the stuff that is on the album. That is from way back then, 2014 and 2015 I think.
I think you did well by letting it sink and only come out with the final result…
Yes, of course. There is some kind of music that we do not want to express ourselves through. For instance I dare to say that we will never play hip hop, but within the realms of classical guitar, folk or prog or metal we are pretty much open to anything as long as it makes sense to us and we can feel it. We have to be able to connect with it and feel it. We try to be aware of the fact that we are not a band that looks backwards. So being a retro band or trying to recreate something that was in the past is not our goal. We really try to avoid that, but that does not mean that we do not like traditional guitar solos or anything like that. You cannot invent things twice. You always stand on the shoulders of generations and we are situated in a certain era of history. We are inspired by a lot of music that is historic at this moment, so of course we grow out from what’s behind us, but we try to be in the moment and look forward and hopefully we can be in this process that is coming up with something that is fresh. We do not sound like something that is outdated.
It is strange, because you started from Jesper’s idea with space rock, but you don’t sound like this at all…
(laughs) No, but it has been a long journey. In some way you could say that the process of making this album has been going on for ten years.
One of the things that really kept you busy was engaging a singer. And he is coming from the Faroe Islands, Jón Aldará.from Barren Earth and Hamferø. How did you manage to do that?
Yes. When Jesper and I and Bjørn decided to move on with Iotunn, we knew that we needed a singer who could do all kinds of vocal styles and also is a great lyricist. Great performer too. And the name that was always popping up was Jòn, because we are huge fans of him and we love Hamferð, so that was kind of a no brainer for us. We have tried out some different things, because we had to find our own feat and we really had to find self-confidence again, because sometimes when you are struggling to get forward, you are questioning everything. Like: will he even be interested in doing this with us? Stuff like that. So we hesitated a bit. But all the time we knew that he would be the ideal singer for us. Jesper had talked a couple of times with him and they had a real good chemistry, so at last, in March 2018, Jesper sent three demos to Jón. He sent the last three tracks of the album and actually he replied: ‘This is exactly my taste of music.’ (laughs). I would like to go forward with this, so it is a ‘yes’.
I would say until this day, him wanting to be a part of Iotunn, that is the highlight of the career of Iotunn so far. So he came to Copenhagen in the Summer of 2018 and we discussed paints and pictures and perspectives. So we agreed that the next time he would be In Denmark, we would work an entire weekend and see if we would work on a musical level. And he came in the end of November and he brought his laptop. He just started writing lyrics and drew around vocal ideas. And we immediately jumped into what would become ‘Voyage Of The Garganey I’. That was the first song we worked on and we knew that it would definitely work.
That’s a kind of magic that suddenly appears!
This is very special. He is very inspiring to work with, it is the right balance to work with. He is very kind and there is a lot of atmosphere. We are very relaxed when we work together, but at the same time ideas just flow around and come in a very rapid pace. On a creative level, it just continuously creative explosions! On a personal level, everything is very calm. So it is the perfect work flow.
I can understand, because he comes across as a very calm person, but very Nordic self-confident…
Yeah yeah, he is very self-confident. He is very honest with his work. He always speaks of his mind and he is really making the creative atmosphere in the band more easygoing and focused.
You came up with the name Iotunn… do you have any affinity with mythology? Because the Iotunn theme on this album is more into space…
Yes, the band name and the album title and the theme of the lyrics are two separate things I would say. To begin with. The band name should stand for itself and the band name should be able to restore for any kind of theme, no matter what record the band name has labelled. It is a band name I found in an old Norse dictionary in 2015 which was the time when we were recording the EP and I remember songs like ‘Safe Across The Endless Night’ and ‘The Weaver System’. We were very far progressed with writing the guitar parts of those songs at that time. We had the impression of total chaos in these songs, but at the same time there was a kind of Nordic DNA in the songs. All the time, it connected the songs. So finding a band name that was derived from old Norse made sense to us. That’s why we decided it, but I did not know that we would find anything that satisfies us. And then we stumbled upon Iotunn. In the band we are interested in a lot of things and certainly history and religion and philosophy and stuff like that. We liked to have a band name referring to the giants of Nordic mythology. For us the band name is not like we are proclaiming that we are a Viking band or that we are using the Nordic mythology as ground perspective of life. It is certainly inspiring and very interesting. Iotunn itself means ‘giant’, so that in itself has a very mastodon-like feel to it that we like and it is reflected in our sound, but in a creative sense, metaphorical speaking, we think that Iotunn exactly represents what we are about, because the giants, the Iotunns, in Nordic mythology, you can always count on them creating chaos. Whether it is in the creation or during history. Look at the Apocalypse, Ragnarök, they always create chaos, and in a creative sense that is how we see ourselves. We are not ordered and we do not feel that we belong to certain boxes or categorisations. We like to go freely into the craziest processes and just make chaos reign within there. That is what the band name – firstly – means to us. There should be no rules when we work out music. Only chaos supreme and then – in the after process – when we have to finalize songs and arrangements – we hopefully come to something unique and personal.