Enslaved Interview with Ivar Bjørnson: Embracing the Opposite, Becoming Whole, and Sampling 16 Varieties of Sierra Nevada in a Single Sitting
I was the last in line for phoners during Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjørnson‘s recent weekend press day to discuss his band’s latest album, Axioma Ethica Odini (review here), and as such, I expected that by the time he got around to me, he’d probably want little more than to go get a sandwich, go to the bathroom, or at very least, talk about anything other than Enslaved, the record, touring or any of it. It was a thrill to find out how mistaken I was.
Axioma Ethica Odini, rich in its sound, complex in its execution and boasting moments of unparalleled progressive extremity, is quickly becoming one of my favorite albums of this very diverse year. It is Enslaved‘s 11th and follows 2008′s Vertebrae, which I felt was held back by its production, and in particular by the mixing job of Joe Barresi (Tool‘s 10,000 Days, Queens of the Stone Age, Clutch, etc.). Though he was quick to correct my impression, Bjørnson noted as well the less than ideal sound of that album, and as Axioma Ethica Odini was recorded by the band themselves in the home and professional studios owned by the five members of Enslaved — Bjørnson, fellow founder bassist/vocalist Grutle Kjellson, lead guitarist Arve “Ice Dale” Isdal, keyboardist/vocalist Herbrand Larsen and drummer Cato Bekkevold — and mixed by Jens Bogren at Fascination Street in Sweden, one can imagine some change in approach was intended.
Whatever they did, it worked. On the cusp of their 20th year, Enslaved triumph with Axioma Ethica Odini in a way I don’t know if they ever have before. Sure, their oldest material is heralded as being centrally influential among the Viking and black metal sets, but from where I’m sitting (not there, basically), their even more important work began with the incorporation of prog elements on 2001′s Monumension and was built on for subsequent offerings, Below the Lights (2003), Isa (2004), Ruun (2006) and even the aforementioned Vertebrae, which given different production might have even surpassed its landmark predecessors.
Not that I’d do any better — or get past “hello” — in his native language, but there were some parts of the interview I couldn’t quite make out in the transcribing process, and a crappy phone line didn’t help, but I did the best I could to put together the most complete Enslaved interview possible. In the Q&A that follows the jump, Bjørnson discusses the Axioma Ethica Odini recording process, writing during the summer, Enslaved‘s four-show stint at Roadburn this year, and much more.
Was there a reason you wanted to record this album in your hometown, your own studios, on your own like that?
Yeah. The main idea was, boiled down to a very simple thing, we wanted to create more of the sound and energy from the live setting. Put more of it into the album. It’s pretty similar. It’s been pretty similar, but we wanted it to be really two sides of the same thing, and to be able to explain that is very hard. We’ve been wanting to do more of the recording ourselves, but we had to acknowledge that our technical abilities weren’t up to the task of recording an album on that level. Now, I’ve had my own studio for a few years, and Ice Dale and Herbrand run a professional studio when they’re not playing in Enslaved and have recorded a bunch of albums in the last few years. Now we’ve arrived at the point where we felt we’re good enough to do it ourselves to see if that would take us closer. It was an experiment and it really turned out well. It’s the easiest recording we’ve had, in that we didn’t have to keep an eye on the watch all the time. No engineers getting calls from their wives, having to go home early. On the other hand, it was also the hardest, because there’s nobody to turn to and say, “There’s a weird noise on one of the channels, what’s going on?” You had to fix all of that yourself. Definitely a learning process.
I would imagine it must have been strange or at least interesting to have to listen to the recordings on that level. In a mixing process you listen for things, but to have the band’s ears be the ears responsible ultimately for the album must have been different.
Absolutely. I’m not sure if that’s gonna be the way it happens on the next album. You never know, but that’s now an option. As long as we can go somewhere and have someone really good for the mixing, then it will be a good solution to do that. That’s when the fresh air and the second opinion is really valued. When you’ve been listening to the songs for such a long time that it would be a bit crazy if we mixed it ourselves. But that’s an option, if we record.
The mix was something I wanted to ask you about, because it sounds so much different than Vertebrae. It has a much fuller sound, and you can hear a little less compression in the guitars. Is that something you wanted on purpose?
I think at the point where we can to the mix, things were already a little bit more energetic because there’s really a lot more thunder and fire in the guitars than on Vertebrae. It’s different material, so it’s going to sound differently, and then Joe Barresi and Jens Bogren are two very different people. Jens has basically been doing death metal, black metal, extreme metal, for his entire career, where Joe comes from the classic rock, from the time before he’s been famous, he was recording in the ‘80s and has a really organic feel to what he’s doing. I think it’s a little bit more metal-ish, the whole philosophy of Jens’ mixing. He’s really pushing the envelope. He’s really adding some extra strength to it, where I think Joe is thinking about a lot about recreating the instruments and how the band sounds, while Jens is a little more liberal, perhaps, in achieving the balance. The difference would have been much smaller if they had been handed the same kind of recording. I have to say that. One of the things Joe did was try and get more out of the guitars. They were actually a little bit weak, weakly recorded, in that way. Sometimes I think some people joined in a calling down of his mix, but actually what I think he did was try to add a little bit of beef to it. You can’t blame anyone. Actually, we could blame somebody, but we decided to just do something different this time and record it ourselves.
Are you conscious in balancing the influences of the band, between the more extreme and progressive sides? Does that come up when you’re putting the songs together?
Not really on a conscious level. It happens, but what I do try to do is these little reality checks from time to time to make sure the stuff being written… We keep repeating that Enslaved is without laws and boundaries and all that until we’re blue in the face, we still do have some things that make it right for Enslaved. To go all acoustic and flute-y, Jethro Tull-ish, running around the forest for an entire album, would be doing an injustice to the name Enslaved. I’m open to doing all kinds of music that I would like to do in other projects and like that. So yes and no. We try to keep things as natural as possible, but there is always checks and balances in the backs of our minds, making sure we don’t lose focus and go nuts. Conservative liberals, in a musical sense.
You get a tension and release on a lot of the songs on Axioma Ethica Odini. The material goes somewhere, and you get a payoff. In terms of structuring the songs, how important is the chorus to you?
For me personally, sometimes it happens once or twice in an album that I get eager to do a structured song with a verse and a chorus and all of that. I think the singers are much more aware of that, with the whole balancing verses and chorus and all that stuff. I leave it to them, and it happens quite often in the band that we have to have little discussions in the rehearsal room just to agree on what is the chorus. We’ve had to make some compromises that in a song we will have two choruses. We will have one chorus and then the other. So it’s full of choruses, which a good thing, because the thing you feel is the most intense and uplifting is normally the chorus. But it works. The first time we really tried working in those formulas was the Isa album, and I was a bit skeptical, really. There is a reason why it’s being used so widely, all the time. It’s because it works.
You mentioned before having an idea of what Enslaved sounds like and using that as a base for building on and experimenting with. Do you ever think of Enslaved as influencing itself? I remember a couple years back Darkthrone talked about being influenced by Darkthrone. Is Enslaved influenced by Enslaved?
Absolutely. That’s when you start to realize how important the age thing becomes for a band. And working with projects and being active like Enslaved are all the time. I would say that yeah, it’s a source of inspiration, because the music was different then, and you go back and look at how you solved different decisions and all that stuff. I guess, yeah, the band is approaching 20 years now and the things we recorded 10, 15, 17 years back – so many things have happened in our lives that, if you go back and listen, it’s almost like some other band that you hear. In a sense, I would say we’re inspired by Enslaved. And Darkthrone (laughs).
Tell me about how the studio experience has changed. It seems like recording yourselves would be the culmination, but what have you been able to learn from the previous 10 albums that you were able to take and record this one?
The simple things. I couldn’t sit down and write a book of recording techniques. I would say it would be a fairly large booklet by now (laughs). It has to be good from the moment the band starts tracking it. I don’t get why people still think things are going to be corrected in the mix or even themselves out in the mastering and all that stuff. From the second you enter the door, everything – every cymbal, every guitar, everything – has to be really good on its own. That’s just moving problems. It’s easy to think, “Well, it’s almost good, I guess we can tweak the frequencies and if that doesn’t work, we’ll move the guitars forward in the mastering by pumping the mid-ends,” and all that stuff. That’s really just creating bigger problems for yourself. That was a really big focus this time. That’s a little bit of what happened on Vertebrae. The guitars didn’t get spiky enough for our tastes, and it was one of those things where we weren’t entirely happy with the way it was miked and everything, and we got this thing that it would be very easy to tweak in the mix. And when a guy like Joe Barresi says that there’s not enough to pull out of it, then you definitely have proved it. It’s very human to try and move ahead, but the unsexy part of recording is lying on the floor and moving microphones one inch at a time, one millimeter. You want to get in the control room, crank up the amps and start recording cool riffs and that stuff. But that’s an important thing. And then, I think the focus changed so much over the last 10 years. The producer fitting still has a lot to do with it. Joe is old school. He started a studio in the ‘70s. There’s no phones, there’s no internet, no crap like that, and that’s totally fucked up these days. You go in the studio and the cell phones are ringing all day, and the mentioned wives and girlfriends, and we are pissed off because the last time, the engineer stayed late and now is leaving half an hour before the day ends during your album. Things like that totally fuck up the atmosphere. I still believe that recording sessions should be magical and in a really secluded place to try and create something. That was just so great this time. They would leave the studio at night and I would go in there, leave my phone and computer at home, and just lock the door and record during the night. That really reminded me of how we used to do stuff. Social media and cell phones are really bad things for creating an album.
Both Axioma Ethici Odini and Vertebrae were recorded in the wintertime. Is there something specific you like about recording during the winter, or is that just the way it worked out timing-wise?
It’s actually a really good observation, as we’re stuck in this pattern. The music is normally being made in the summer, and I start handing around the demos of the songs in September, because in June and July – between the festival gigs – that’s when I tend to take my portable studio and just go somewhere, a cabin or wherever, and stay in the woods and write stuff. That’s why we rehearse and arrange things and record after the New Year. I think Ruun was the exact same way. I remember almost crashing driving the drum kit over the mountain, on the eighth of January or something like that. Maybe it’s about time to record something… though it’s pretty fitting for a Norwegian metal band to be recording in the winter, I guess.
In terms of adding effects and flourishes to the songs, are those things you hear in your head beforehand or studio experiments?
There’s one or two things we end up adding in the studio that wasn’t planned before. We have these little sessions to just sit down and listen through things. Rehearsal tapes and stuff like that. We’re pretty organized, so there will be an extensive list of where and what should be tried. So where know where we want to do stuff and have a direction of what we want to do there, but then we can have a pretty long list of stuff we want to try out. “Should we try some noise here?” “Should we try some tape echo?” “Maybe some samples?” We’re pretty efficient in the experimentation. I guess that’s sticking with us from the early albums, when we had a really, really strict deadline. It’s definitely an advantage to have these plans for working in the studio.
Was there a specific reason you decided to end the album with “Night Sight” and “Lightening?”
It’s always really cool to set up the order of songs. We always have nice discussions, interesting discussions, about that. We wanted the album to begin with the most immediate, intense, in-your-face songs. That’s the side A, I think, and using a tranisition – which is the “Axioma” song – going into “Giants,” which is the most different song, then concluding the album with the proggy sounds. It just felt natural to do it that way, to have the most challenging or experimental songs coming after the more expected ones. Putting them up front and perhaps creating a more familiar opening. We had some theories that sounded pretty good and I think it works. It’s a nice structure for the album.
I wanted to ask about “Giants.” It’s a real standout on the album. Was there a doom influence there?
Yeah, doom’s a really big thing, at least when it comes to me and Grutle. When we played Roadburn in 2008, we already had tickets to go down there and be in the audience. Then Celtic Frost cancelled, we got booked as the replacement. So that was weird, going from the tourist thing to headlining the festival (laughs). It was cool. We listen to a lot of that. Earth. They’re really a different end of the spectrum, but they’ve really found a way to convey these enormous energies in the low frequencies, the low tempos, it’s all about restraint. So yeah, that’s definitely an influence. When “Giants” came, at least in the beginning of the song, it’s a weird mix of being inspired by Black Sabbath and Voivod at the same time. It’s that whole affection we have for that musical genre.
How was your Roadburn experience this year?
It was fantastic. We did four different Enslaved-related concerts. The first day, we did a normal Enslaved concert, so to speak, and the next day, Tom G. Warrior from Celtic Frost/Triptykon was curating, so he had our other project, Trinacria, which is more post-rocky – no. I’m confused about the genres. What do you call Neurosis?
Yes. A noise, post-metal kind of thing. Then I have an instrumental project called Dream of an Opium Eater, which is more or less pure doom, with horror movies on the screen behind us. And then we ended the festival by doing a concert together with the Norwegian Shining, a composition we wrote a few years back called Armageddon Concerto. It was only supposed to be done once, at this jazz festival in Norway, but we decided to pick it up and do it again at Roadburn. It was really intense. It was called the Armageddon Concerto, and on the big screen, we showed the live feed of the volcano eruptions in Iceland. It had a very nice “last day on earth” feel to it.
You mentioned Trinacria. Are you going to do another Trinacria album?
Absolutely. We don’t know exactly when. The whole thing at Roadburn. We were probably the last people in Norway who got ahold of a bus. Right there and then after the show, we decided, “Okay, let’s just skip saying we’re probably going to do more with this, let’s just decide we are going to do more.” I think we’re probably going to start writing this winter and maybe record next summer.
Ah, changing it up a bit to get those positive sunny vibes.
Yeah, it could be that I don’t really like hanging out on sunny beaches or being the cool dude walking around town in sunglasses. That’s a good time for me to drink beer and write songs.
I remember seeing you guys in the States for Vertebrae at SXSW. Is there anything you’re looking forward to for the upcoming US run?
We try to always do as much as we can on these tours and if there’s anything special in the town we’re at, see it, or maybe someone made some scientific discovery there, found some new apple or whatever. To put it mildly, I’m a beer enthusiast, so if there’s a brewery in the town we’re coming to, I’ll get in a taxi and go there, do the tours and of course buy a lot of souvenirs from the brewery and sample beers. Last time we were in California, I went to the Sierra Nevada brewery, me and the merch guy were actually the only people on the tour. We had three employees showing us the entire brewery. Everybody there were big dudes, like myself, beer bellies and long beards. It was a really good atmosphere. We ended the whole thing by sampling all 16 kinds of beer. It was a lot of coffee drinking before that night’s show, but it went fine (laughs).
Tags: Enslaved, Norway, Nuclear Blast