This interview with Ivar Bjornson of Enslaved was done by phone by Andrew Zawislanski on May 19th, 2006.

One of the leaders of the legendary Norwegian black metal scene, Enslaved have always maintained a fiercely unique character. Early distinguishing themselves as Viking metal and the clear heirs to Bathory, Enslaved have consequently gone on to incorporate melodic and progressive elements into their music. Following the release of their ninth full-length album and their fifteenth year anniversary, guitarist and founding member Ivar Bjornson discusses the foundations and future of the band.

Just last weekend the band had a 15th anniversary party/performance in Bergen. How did it go?
Oh, it was just fantastic. We had, I think, the night of our lives. It was in this club in Bergen that is quite famous called The Garage, a place where all the metal bands from Bergen have played. It has been a great hang out place for Enslaved. We had a screen showing clips of Enslaved, from videos and bootlegs. We performed there, stuff from the new album and a lot of old stuff too. And after that we had a big party with lots of Bergen bands, punk bands, hippie bands, metal bands, whatever. All of these bands were playing Enslaved covers. Everyone was very enthusiastic, or drunk I guess, even the owner, so nobody got kicked out (laughs).

And Enslaved has a pretty busy schedule of live performance this year?
Yes, we have a few festivals here in Norway, one in Germany and then the UK tour in September. After the UK tour there’s going to be a European tour, and hopefully a US tour. I know that they’re working very hard on both sides of the water to make that happen.

And you have some very impressive opening acts for the UK tour.
Oh absolutely. We’re headlining and we have Zyklon, the black metal band 1349, and one of the really exciting new Norwegian bands Keep of Kalessin, who have just released a fantastic album this year called “Armada.” Probably four of the best extreme metal bands in Norway.

So moving on to the new album, first of all congratulations on the release of “Ruun” just this month. What would you say are the major changes on the new album?
I think it’s a very solid album in many senses. We are pretty proud of the way the production has turned out. It is the first time we have single-handedly produced an album ourselves. We have been lucky enough to work with really talented producers and co-producers, but this time we felt the need to try it out, and make the production really close to our own hearts, and that turned out very well I think. We went for a very organic sound. We felt with the new line-up very confident on the actual acoustic sound, both live and in the rehearsal room, and we wanted to amplify that and try to remove from where a lot of extreme metal is right now with a lot of replacement sound. For example, in a lot of bands the drums are sounding very different from how they actually sound to begin with, and we wanted to get away from that. And what we lost in clarity I think we have gained in energy and authenticity.

In recent years Enslaved have been referred to as a progressive metal band. Do you think this label is appropriate?
It really depends. Enslaved is a band rooted in extreme metal, influenced by early black and death metal, and along the way we have become very much influenced by different styles such as progressive music from the 70s, and some alternative rock. I think if people want to call it progressive in the sense that it’s trying to incorporate something new and that people think we are exploring something different then it is an accurate term. But I think many times “progressive” is used to label bands whose music is a lot more technical than what we are doing. So we shouldn’t be mixed up with bands that are more classically influenced, that’s not our bag.

I wanted to ask about the lyrics on the new album, because Enslaved seems like a band that takes great care in creating lyrics, often with a philosophical element. How important is the lyrical component in the music for you?
It’s very important, but it’s also definitely the finishing touch on the songs for us. Some bands write the lyrics and then try to put the songs around them, but normally our songs will be completed without even having a name. The working titles for an Enslaved album are quite boring, mostly along the lines of “song1,” “song 2” and so on. But when we start working on the lyrics it’s usually me and Grutle deciding on an album title and there’s usually a concept worked out around the album title and then we set up what kind of lyrics we need to complete the concept. I think it’s important in the sense that lyrics should be well written in a worldly sense. The words and how they’re put together should be musical. But also I think it’s important to add something more. We try to put some personality, try to develop ourselves as lyrical writers. And we try to be critical about the lyrics and discuss them a lot. So we try to offer both, for people who just want music and put the booklet away after briefly reading what the lyrics are about (and you shouldn’t be pressured into reading any meanings), but at the same time we know that in our genre there are people looking for something more in music than just something to listen to while doing the dishes. So we want to have alternatives for people who want to sit down and think about things and have a look at our perspective of the world. People can find things in there but they have to go looking for it.

From the beginning of Enslaved to today the lyrical content has changed somewhat from focusing on mythology to being more abstract. But do you think there is continuity in what you are expressing in these different lyrical styles?
Yeah, I think it’s straight on what you’re saying there. I think we maintained the same aesthetic or lyrical framework, drawing metaphors and images from the mythology, rune mysticism and all that spirituality of pre-Christian Europe. At the same time I think we’ve changed a lot. On the first album there are a lot of descriptive lyrics, where we are retelling mythological elements, sort of describing how we see things in those stories and in that history, but somewhere around “Frost” or “Eld” we started the first experimentations where we were putting some more personal elements into the lyrics. And now I think we are putting our own views and philosophy, if you can call it that, into our lyrics, but we are still using that same framework, still coming back to the Runes and mythological characters. But that’s part of the whole Enslaved expression. It’s definitely turned from us looking at that to where we are now, integrating that on a personal level.

Did you become familiar with Norse mythology while growing up (was it part of the culture) or did you discover it at an older age?
They do tell us something about it in school when you are a kid but sadly pre-Christian beliefs are devalued, told as a story of some freaks in boats going around and setting fire to villages. And it’s mentioned that some of them were actually poets, etc, but it’s still only presented as one or two pages in the whole history. But both Grutle and I were lucky enough to come from families where information was a good thing not a dangerous thing. We come from atheist families and I found in a bookshelf in my home, and I know Grutle did as well, plenty of books about all kinds of non-Christian mysticism, from Buddhism to ancient Egyptian history. And I think we both found Northern mythology very interesting, and that was one of the first things we talked about when we first met and decided to start a band. We felt very close to the black metal scene in terms of music, the level of energy, the rebellion, and the desire to be active and change things. But at the same time we faced the problem that we didn’t have the whole satanic thing (laughs), and that it just wasn’t compatible with who we were. So we needed to find something else that would be very powerful and accompany extreme music. And the mythological themes in fact have a broader scope, in the same way that our music might be reaching more into the melodic and experimental than traditional black metal, I think that the concepts of paganism are also broader than Satanism because it has the aggression and the war lust and the whole instinct thing, but at the same time it also has the more mellow and lighter part.

Two videos have been recorded for the new album (“Path to Vanir” and “Essence”).
Yeah, we recorded the videos in more or less one session, and it was a really great experience. We went as far as we could into the western mountains of Norway by train and then went by snowmobile far into the mountains with the whole production team and everything. So we stayed there for a week and recorded these two videos. The first one, “Path to Vanir” is, let’s say in a positive sense, in the tradition of hard rock and metal videos in that it has the band performing the song along with some actors to illustrate parts of the story that’s going on in the lyrics. And the other song “Essence” is a bit of an experiment where the whole video is really more of an abstract short movie that can also be viewed without the song. There’s very little synchronization between the sound and the picture, but it is trying to visualize the atmosphere from the music and the lyrics. Recording the videos was great. We have a very close cooperation with the guy making the movies. He was also the guy who did the video for “Isa” and also does all of the video recording for our live performances. After working with him for about five years we have a very good understanding of each other. So he involves the band behind the camera and is very good at asking how we want things to be depicted and he is very good at throwing in ideas.

Last year you released a live DVD “Return to Yggdrasil,” although you also had just released a live DVD in 2003, “Live Retaliation.” Is there a reason why you released a second live DVD in such a short time?
I think we feel that return to Yggdrasil is more or less our DVD. It was recorded in our hometown of Bergen and there was a lot more control. “Live Retaliation” turned out quite well, but it was done as part of a production that a Polish company was putting out for bands that were stopping by in Poland. And that DVD was okay, but I think the production could have been better. We wanted to have something to present the band, and we saw that as an opportunity back then. But so many things have changed since “Live Retaliation” that last year while doing the European tour for “Isa” we felt that the new line-up and the new live show were so different that it was definitely time to present to people how Enslaved is now because even though “Live Retaliation” was done so recently, already in 2005 we felt that it was a completely different band.

A very conspicuous recent development for the band is the vocals Herbrand Larsen. What brought about the decision to add another vocalist?
It happened more or less accidentally. We decided that we wanted to add a keyboard player for the live setting. We’ve had keyboards on the albums since day one, not so much in the foreground like Dimmu Borgir or whatever, but it had been an important part of the sound on the albums. And we had never come across anyone who could play keyboards and be into the whole Enslaved package, and then we got to know Herbrand and discovered that he was a very skilled musician, so we asked him if he could contribute as a session member. And it just came up in a discussion that it could be cool to add some harmonies to Grutle’s clean vocals here and there, and Grutle was just thrilled to find somebody who could do the back-up vocals for him live, because I’ve never been able to sing a single note (laughs). So they tried that and they just discovered that that added a whole new dimension, and Herbrand became a permanent member of the band. And it went from him backing up Grutle live to them actually sitting down and writing out the vocal lines together. And on the title track of the new album Herbrand is handling a lot of the clean vocals himself. It was great to discover that we had a second vocalist in the band, and that it was just a matter of putting up a microphone in front of him.

While holding onto the two core members of the band, Enslaved has had several line-up changes over the years, but the current line-up seems to have been stable for a few albums now. Do you expect it to last for a while?
Yeah, definitely. My only worry is that the drummer is 38 (laughs), but he’s a non-smoker so that’s a good thing. But seriously speaking I think it’s going to last, at least as long as people have the spirit, and right now the spirit is there in abundance. Everyone is agreeing on the direction of the band and that’s basically the core essence. And sometimes it’s easy to see why people have asked if Grutle and I are psychopaths because people are quitting the band all the time. Of course we might be that, but I think the key thing is that we’ve been very uncompromising in experimenting with the band and searching actively for the sound. And sometimes the band can take a different turn than they were hoping for. Like Dirge Rep was playing brilliant drum work on “Blodhemn,” “Mardraum,” “Monumension” and “Below the Lights.” When he joined the band we had a more black metal oriented sound and it developed in a more melodic and experimental direction. And he has a black metal heart and wanted to go back to that. But we still hang out with a lot of the people who used to be in the band. We meet Trym when he’s playing with Zyklon or Emperor, and everything’s great. All the line-up changes have been due to musical decisions, and that’s a good thing. I think that’s why the new line-up is going to last because the three other guys in the band besides me and Grutle are really a big part of brining Enslaved to where it is now.

Do you have any plans for musical projects outside of Enslaved?
Yeah, next year Grutle and I are going to participate in a project where we are cooperating with a noise act from Norway called Female, and that’s going to be great. During the autumn we’re going to write approximately sixty minutes of music. It’s going to be a concert, free production with videos and shit, and that’s going to be touring Norway and maybe some European festivals next year. That’s probably going to resemble more what we did in the early 90s that what we’re doing now. That’s going to be exciting.

Also, in June Enslaved will be performing the music for the Victor Sjorstrom film “Terje Vigen” at the Norwegian film festival. Could you give a little background about the film and how you got the job?
Yeah, about the film first. It’s based on a poem by a Norwegian poet called Henrik Ibsen who is quite famous outside Norway in both Europe and America. He wrote a poem called “Terje Vigen” which is a heroic tale that takes place in the 1800s when there was a conflict that was very important and still very much talked about in Norway. In those days Norway was ruled by the Danish, more or less occupied by Denmark. So Norway was the victim of larger politics, when Denmark got into a trade conflict with England, which was responded to by putting up a blockade of ships going along the Norwegian coast and actually basing their whole action on starving the population. So that led a lot of famine and desperation, and so Ibsen wrote a poem to honor a hero from that era, a guy Terje Vigen, a seaman who spent many many nights rowing in his little wooden boat from Norway to Denmark that must have been something like twelve or thirteen hours rowing each way, and bringing food back to the coast land. And being shot at a lot but managed to escape by some miracle when the English were trying to capture him. So Ibsen wrote this tale about his entire life actually and it’s a very long tale and Sjorstrom made this silent movie in 1917 to visualize the poem. It’s a very dramatic and very dark movie, which I guess all silent movies are because of their whole aesthetic. But this one has some very powerful things in it. It has been put to music a couple of times before by classical composers, but the film festival decided to do something very radical and they actually approached us as we were finishing the mixing “Ruun” because they had heard about the band and knew that we were working with some visual effects at live shows before and they asked to hear some samples of the new album, just the instrumentals. And they heard it and thought it fit perfectly, and we thought that this is something we haven’t done, and we can only learn from it. It’s going to be outdoors, and it’s going to be nice, and strange.

Do you keep up with the extreme metal scene today, particularly with the other classic Norwegian bands?
Yeah, we do all the time. Some of us are involved in concert production. We are definitely active in more ways that just playing in the band. I guess it’s like a family, even though we are not exactly a true black metal band we stay very much in touch with the classic bands, and also the new ones. It’s been a great year for Norwegian extreme metal at least. Darkthrone had a very nice album that came out earlier this year, which I guess surprised some people. Keep of Kalessin, who are going to be on our UK tour, also released a great album, so there are definitely good things happening. There were some years when some people were complaining that the Norwegian scene was stagnating, and that might have been true, but these days it seems like it’s really on the rise. Also I talked to a Canadian fried last week who was telling me about a lot of black metal bands coming out of North America. I haven’t heard too much of that but it was very interesting to hear. He said it was like a new wave of something (laughs) and that’s always exciting. And there’s the Celtic Frost come back which is also very exciting.

The last album “Isa” received the Norwegian Grammy. What do you think about this kind of mainstream success?
I don’t think we ever expected it. When the Norwegian Grammies started to nominate the black metal bands it was quite a surprise for people, but I guess it’s natural also because it’s so close and impossible not to notice what these bands are doing in Norway because they are making a big impact when they are touring or releasing something new. I think it’s great that extreme metal is included. But when you’re winning an award like a Grammy you’re not sure who’s on the jury or whatever the mainstream music industry does to choose the winners. Everything is happening behind closed doors so you’re not too sure why they picked you (laughs). But the nomination process is made up of musical journalists in Norway nominating their favorites, so it was nice to know that press people outside the metal circle were paying attention to the album. So it’s a good thing but it’s still more important how the band is perceived in the actual metal world than in the mainstream, for now at least.

Do you think that black metal is viewed very differently in Norway now than it was ten or fifteen years ago?
Very much. It’s turned around, in that the extreme metal bands are better at communicating what they are trying to do also, are more confident in their musical skills and their musical importance, if I can be a bit pompous, than they used to be. I think they used to get very easily offended at how the mainstream would view them as a bit exotic and a bit dangerous in a way, and I think we came to a point where they recognized that this is quite natural, that the whole expression of extreme metal should be offensive to some degree and you should tolerate some questions from a mainstream radio report that would not be as smart as metal writer would ask. So, coming to terms with that and starting to actually communicate with them to tell them about the roots of extreme metal in a musical context rather than being hostile and in conflict with the mainstream. So that led to the mainstream being more confident in exploration. They would review albums and would try to place it into the wrong musical universe and that led to a better understanding. But it’s still viewed as something out of the ordinary, which it should be, but they’re drawing the lines back to the roots of hard rock and metal from the 70s, so it’s definitely changed a lot. No one could even have imagined the whole thing with the Grammies ten years back.

Those are all the questions I had. I wanted to thank for the interview, and let you have any last words that you wanted to share.
I just want to thank you and everyone in North America for being patient. We haven’t been able to go there with a proper tour for several years. We are waiting now for the opportunity to put on a real show, so that the American shows can have a production as good as the shows in Europe. With the response that “Isa” and now “Ruun” have received in America, we are very grateful that people are being loyal to the band and giving it the boost over there.

Special thanks to Enslaved and to American editor Tony Belcher for walking me through my first interview.

Links of interest:

Tabu Recordings
Candlelight Records USA