Interview: Enslaved

I just want to say we’re around the halfway point now. What I’d really love is if somebody . . . referred to Enslaved as a band who really took music forward, somewhere. It doesn’t have to all be positive . . . but to make a kind of difference, that would be awesome.

In conversation with me Just a few days before a headline show at the Islington Assembly Hall, Enslaved’s guitarist founder, Ivar Bjørnson, opens up about their latest studio and live endeavours, tells all about the band’s recent line-up change, plus reveals details of his collaborative project with Einar Selvik.

(((O))): What’s the difference between Enslaved as a live project, versus Enslaved as a studio band? It seems the two are quite different nowadays.

Ivar: It functions like the brain hemispheres, to an extent. Let’s start off with the studio, as that’s how every cycle starts. I would say we are very good at planning and being prepared, all the way from compositions, arranging songs, pre-production and in the studio. It’s quite controlled, in a sense – that’s the way it works for us.

Live is much more rough. It’s about letting down your hair, so to speak, and going with the emotional side of the music. That’s at least how I experience it myself. There’s not much room for captivated effort, like there is in the studio. I think that’s why we enjoy both of them so much: doing one of them extensively, which we always do, leaves a bit of a hunger for the other one – you need a balance.

(((O))): The new album, E, has been very well received and has got some great reviews. Tell us about the album from your perspective.

Ivar: It’s a special one – every time you release an album, it should be that way. If you come to do a new album and you don’t feel like that, it’s a very strong signal that you’ve gone past the best-before date of the band. This one has been something really out of the ordinary – we had a line-up change during the process of making the album. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but there has also been a development in the music. I feel we’ve maybe started a new period, where the extreme metal side and the “progressive” side of Enslaved seem to have reached some agreement.

Even though the album is experimental in nature, it might not be so experimental in its method, I would say – it’s more coming to terms with “This is where we want to go”. If In Times was the last album in a row asking questions about “Where do we want to go with the band?”, then E is the album that starts of by answering “This is where we’re at – let’s explore that place”.

(((O))): You mentioned your extreme metal and progressive rock side, and they seem to be working together. If you had to put Enslaved into a pigeon hole in 2017, where would you put them? Does this matter to your fans?

: Maybe it’s an intrinsic artistic trick, that you want to be special, even amongst your peers. I think I have some perspective that means I don’t have a problem with genres; maybe that’s because we have worked on several sides of the table – not journalism, but production, running a record label, management for other artists. I do recognise that if you have a band, you want to reach people and the way people discover you is through a system of classification and recommendation. I’ve seen this thing done to bands – it says “For fans of Opeth”, and then you have a band that are barely past the stage of being able to tune their guitars. That’s going to backfire horribly – you’ll sell a few hundred albums to die-hards, who’ll go for that. But the information flow of today also works as a safety mechanism.

I think it’s fairly balanced; I’d like to say Enslaved are a progressive metal band, but then with E we ran into another problem, that being that the progressive scene isn’t that progressive. So what we’ve done now is kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing – we like to call ourselves “True Norwegian avant garde”, just as a last resort. It’s meant as a bit of a joke – people who know us know we aren’t that pretentious. Running up to this album we’ve been dipping our toes in the progressive scene, with mags like Prog magazine and bands like Opeth referencing us.

For many years we’ve been getting a little bit of shit from the black metal scene saying, “You guys have wimpy vocals.” And we say, “OK, fuck off, listen to something else.” Then we go to the prog scene, and they’re like, “What’s up with the screaming? Sounds like the guy’s swallowing a toothbrush!” We’re like, “Are you actually aware that the word ‘progressive’ has to do with change, and moving forward?!”

(((O))): You’re being criticised by progressive fans for adding new elements to your sound?!

Ivar: Exactly. It’s the ultimate irony and I kinda love it.

(((O))): You’ve recently had a line-up change – Herbrand Larsen has left and been replaced by Håkon Vinje. How has this changed things for you?

Ivar: It’s worked out beautifully. We had a long streak of a non-changing line-up, which was very solid and played very well together. I guess Enslaved are like everyone else: after some years you develop a few bad habits, and those materialised in Herbrand distancing himself both from the creative process and the rest of the band, in terms of the more emotional side, when you’re on the road. Actually, I think it was a much harder strain on the band than we realised until after he left.

We’ve done a few seminars, at festivals, talking to young artists, and we’re often asked, “What’s the number one piece of advice to give to young bands?” It’s the big question. I felt really clever for saying, “Make sure that the ambition in the band is aligned, one hundred percent.” That’s the only advice I could give, and I really didn’t see that happening in my own band, as we got out of sync. He started wishing for us to do less concerts, when the rest of the band were hungry for more; and that created a schism on a personal level, and also affected things on a creative level.

When he (Larsen) left and Håkon came in, it was like one of those toy cars that wind up for a really long time, and then you let them go. It was just such an acceleration in the whole creative side.

(((O))): You had a commission from the Norwegian government that saw you collaborating with Einar Selvik from Wardruna. How did this come about and what’s Einar like to work with?

Ivar: We have a bit of history, back in the earlier 90s, when he was a formative figure in Bergen, on the Norwegian west-coast black metal scene. He played in Gorgoroth and all sorts of projects. And then he went off the map for many years. I heard rumours that he was working on a project that was heavily orientated towards the mythology and runes and I didn’t think too much about that; he moved away and in 2013 I was approached by the committee who was in charge of the cultural programme celebrating the Norwegian constitution – 2014 was the 200th anniversary. They wanted artists who could put a spotlight on the country’s freedom of speech, in relation to the constitution, and they were looking for someone who knew about the history of Norway and the constitution.

Since we were both dealing with the Viking age and so on, we got together in a room and talked about it and so on. We had a lot of common focal points, I think, on Norwegian history and Norwegian identity itself. Then we wrote the concerts, and immediately after going off stage, we agreed “This can’t be the end of it – let’s do an album”. So we’ve been working since then; we’re actually in the process of recording now – he’s in the studio whilst I’m over here on tour. I’m recording in hotel rooms, and that will be a new album for April next year.

He’s a great guy to work with and we have a lot of things in common. That can go two ways when you’re both pretty much writing all the material and making all the decisions in our own bands. It could be a clash, but actually the other thing happened – we’ve got a great understanding for our thinking. It works very well together, we complement each other very well, I think.

(((O))): Let’s fast forward 20 years into the future. How would you like Enslaved to be remembered? What would you like your legacy to be?

Ivar: I just want to say we’re around the halfway point now. What I’d really love is if somebody listened to Enslaved or referred to Enslaved as a band who really took music forward, somewhere. It doesn’t have to all be positive. People can have their own opinion of if we expanded the scope or limited the scope of alternative music; but to make a kind of difference, that would be awesome. And that it be honoured that it was done for music and art itself, and not as a career path. Also, it would be great if we could be remembered as the one band that didn’t throw in the towel when things got tough, and then reappeared a few years after on a comeback tour!

Photo: Christian Misje

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