IVAR BJORNSEN (ENSLAVED) / JANUARY 2017
I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Ivar Bjornson, founder of the band Enslaved. His musical works play out a saga of Norse gods, darkness, and quiet philosophy.
Enslaved's music is so unique. The lyrics are simply brilliant, the music is amazing in composition. I believe your life plays out in your music. It starts out as classic Norwegian Black Metal but evolves into something I feel is largely experimental, progressive metal with a tinge of black metal for good measure.
** As a 12 year old you started out playing death metal in a band called Phobia. What made you decide to turn to black metal? What were you listening to at that time that made you lean in that direction?Ivar: What came first was me and Grutle realizing Phobia was going nowhere. It was not that we had an urge to be rock-stars as soon as possible or anything. It was our dream to have a band that could develop and experiment that made us realize we had to move on. When that decision was made, it was easy to lean more towards the Black Metal sound: as we were listening to Mayhem, Darkthrone, Master's Hammer, Rotting Christ and some others from the proto-Black Metal scene around the world.
** You started Enslaved with your friend Grutle Kjellison at age 13, he was 17, which I find amazing. Who had the idea first to start the band, you or him?
Ivar: I do believe it was my idea, since I was the songwriter - he was the one behind Phobia, but I was the driving force for steering the new band towards the sound of the bands I just mentioned in the previous answer.
** I'm curious what was in your headspace at that young age. Kids at that age are hanging out with friends, riding bikes, playing video games, playing with frogs, you on the other hand were saying "I'm going to record my next album"! How did the band fit in with school? What about girlfriends, how did they feel about it? Was your life different from the average kid? How did being in a popular band affect your youth?
Ivar: The band fit quite nicely with school - I grew up in a village with nothing else to do, so there was enough time for both. Barely. So I would spend all my time outside school on music. I guess that was the difference from the others - a lot less play and more practising, writing letters and making music and lyrics. I still did the other stuff too, but it was second priority. What mates, family and girls would think about it wasn't that important - it was in my DNA. And still is. People who get involved with me gets involved in this whole universe.
** YGGDRASILL..I think it's important for people to know about and hear this part of your work. Weren't you 15 when this first demo of yours came out? It's in the vein of classic Norwegian Black Metal like Mayhem and Immortal. Why were you calling yourself Daimonion? I noticed on the demo the word "Chainsaw". Does this mean guitar? The music coming from Yggdrasill is so advanced sounding; you can tell the person is serious about music; you'd never guess it's coming from someone so young. Who were you counting as your influences around this time? Have you or will you consider re-releasing this demo?Ivar: Yeah around 15, I think. Why Daimonion? Why not? No better explanation. We were at the start of the career, and artist names were used by a lot of the bands we were inspired by. "Chainsaw" was guitar, yes - inspired by the lingo of older Black Metal bands like Venom and Hellhammer. My main influences at the time of the demo was Mayhem (The "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas"-advance tapes), Darkthrone, Bathory, Celtic Frost and Master's Hammer. We have re-released the demo on vinyl and CD through Peaveville; just a few years back. Should be able to find them still!
These next two questions may seem boring, but I'd really like to go over your music and have you comment on it in some way.
** The lyrics in the your first few albums deal with Norse mythology. HORDANES LAND is classic Norwegian black Viking metal. In VIKINGLIGR VELDI, the lyrics are spiritual. Midgards Elder is amazing and Norvegr is beautiful. The album FROST has a heavier element to it. A powerful album, I still hear Norwegian black metal and some effects but they have a different sound to them, a heavier sound. ELD is similar to Frost and Vikingligr Veldi. In BLOODHEMN the lyrics seem to get stronger. These albums were all made and recorded by the time you were 21. Wow! What was it about Norse mythology that fascinated you as a child? Do you perhaps have Viking ancestors?
Ivar: it is hard to pinpoint exactly when and where it started. I would ascribe to my parents' collection of book on various belief systems dating to before the universal religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), and the books on the Norse mythology and history just resounded with something within. As easy as that! And it has grown with me ever since. About ancestry, I am not sure, but I would think most of ethnic Norwegians have some relative or relatives from the Viking era.
** Your music has not always centered around these things. I feel MARDRAUM, FROM BEYOND THE WITHIN is the starting point that your music starts deviating away from Norwegian black metal and the lyrics deviate away from Norse mythology. I hear a slight Black Sabbathy sound, some dark, heavy classic rock sounds, and more lead guitar. In MONUMENSION, the lyrics take on a personal note, the music has changed as well. In BELOW THE LIGHTS there are some progressive elements, and I felt you were experimenting with the music. I love The Dead Stare. The lyrics mention darkness. I really liked ISA. The music was smooth, dark, ambient, progressive, modern and the lyrics to Neogenesis are amazing. RUUN was heavy, progressive. The song Fusion and Sense Of Earth is awesome. VERTEBRAE was experimental, progressive, out there, spacey, kind of Rush / Pink Floyd sounding. AXIOMA ETHICA ODINI.. another turning point? Sounds heavier , I really like this album. RIITIIR is not as heavy as AXIOMA ETHICA ODINI but heavier than VERTEBRAE. IN TIMES is similar to RIITIIR. The first part of SLEEPING GODS - THORN is definitely heavier and darker! Some ambient, but I feel this album is more solid.Ivar: Yeah it has been quite the journey, both in music and lyrics. But I would claim that there's a pretty solid red line through it all - with variations in perspective and approach. Part of what makes being in Enslaved exciting for more than 25 years. And it seems it is what makes it exciting to follow the band. It is very interesting to hear about the perceptions - like you just did!
** Why did your music and lyrics for these albums deviate away from your original themes of Norse mythology and Viking Black Metal? Was there a phase or time in your life at the writing of these albums where you were in a dark place perhaps?
Ivar: I would not say it is that much of a "1:1" relationship between our (me and Grutle write the lyrics about half each) lives and minds. Our "civilian" lives is not that interesting in this scope. Of course experiences and our inner lives influence music and lyrics, but any literal interpretation or connections kind of kills the mystery, no?
** What would you say got you started in music? What introduced you to the music that got you focused on the early style of Norweigian black Viking metal you were playing when you first started wth Yggdrasill? Why did you lean towards Viking black metal rather than Satanic black metal?
Ivar: What got me started was, as for so many other Norwegian youngsters, Kiss! I listened by default to kiddy music kindergarten etc, and always loved music my parents tell me. Then Kiss appeared on Norwegian television and we collected Kiss-cards that came with the candy-bags in the stores. My grandpa took notice and bought me a "Dynasty"-cassette. This whole thing made me realize I wanted to be in a band!
I was very awestruck by the "Black Metal sound", but the ideology was not that appealing as I was already knee-deep in fascination for the Norse Mythology and the accompanying esoteric side of it. I would have felt wrong to deal in lyrics and concepts we did not believe in, so it had to give way to something we did believe strongly in.
** It would seem as you grew older, you would have gotten interested in other things or maybe changed the band around or even the name. What has kept you keeping this band going for most of your life?
Ivar: The love for the music that I write for this band, and how the others help me realize the visions through how we sound together. Then there is the backbone we just talked about: the Norse tapestry that has continuously developed; from mythology and history into philosophy, rune-mysticism, rune-magic, psychology, philosophy and so on. It never gets boring, on the contrary.
** What was it like growing up in the music industry?
Ivar: It was easier before haha. Well, an advantage is experience and having witnessed changes - this perhaps gives me a better understanding of how things are as they are now. On the other hand, I might not have recognized the best deals and strategies when I was 15, you know. An older person would perhaps have taken longer to think things through. It is hard to say what weighs the most: the advantages of youthful enthusiasm and an early start, or starting when you are more experienced on a personal level. I like to think that all that happened was for the best - I am sure happy about how things turned out!
** How did you learn how to play the guitar?
Ivar: As mentioned, I wanted nothing more than to make music and start a band. Meaning I needed to play something. You know, we played the recorder at school, but the guitar was the big dream. During weekends my father would play classic songs and sing a bit, and I kept asking to join him. At 8 they got a second acoustic guitar so I could start accompany him with simplified chords. I brought the guitar to my room and started to teach myself this and that, and the rest is history, as they say!
** You were nominated for a Norwegian Grammy for Album of the Year for 2001, 2003, 2012, and 2015. You WON a Norwegian Grammy for Album of the Year in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010. You were also nominated for the Alarmprisen Album of the Year in 2001, 2003, and you WON the Alarmprisen Album of the Year in 2004. Also, winner of the Bergensprisen Album of the Year in 2004 and 2008, and received the Honorary Award from The Norwegian Artist & Songwriter Association in 2011. That is just simply amazing. How do you feel about that?Ivar: I am very humbled by all that wonderful recognition we have received over the years. It does not change anything in real life - you know, an inflated ego doesn't write better songs or perform better in a group of musicians - but it feels good and it means there are people out there really appreciating your efforts, and that is great motivation to take along!
** In 2014, the Norwegian government commissioned you and Einar Selvik (Wardruna) to create some music for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution which is amazing and very fitting considering your love of the history and culture of your country. The piece was titled Skuggsja. It was turned into a full length album. It's so beautiful and haunting. How were you approached for this? What made you decide to accept their offer to write the music?
Ivar: The people behind the celebrations had the presence of mind to hire people within the scene to help work out the details. These people helped with the input on who could be the right people for this; and as you mention Einar and me are known for a special interest in the historical and cultural aspects of Norway. They asked us to sit down for a meeting, which sounded great in itself - since Einar moved from Bergen some years before, and I would love to catch up. Turns out we both got very inspired immediately. We were given full freedom - all they asked was that we addressed Norwegian identity through a historical point of view. We demanded freedom to be critical of whatever national icons and "truths" we wanted, and were given exactly that.
** Why do you keep your music rooted in black metal?
Ivar: It is not based on any rationale; it is simply what it "is". It is the music that wants to be written in and for Enslaved. It is just what happens. When we want to introduce some rock into the mix, we do - when a bit of prog wants in there, that's what happens. Music without limits!
** You also play keyboard in some of your albums. When did you learn to play the keyboard?
Ivar: Pretty much at the same time as guitar. For me it was about writing music and creating something, not about being a specialist on any instruments. I played some piano first (we had one at school and one at home), and then I got a tiny synthesizer at 9 I think. I got a "real" keyboard at 11, and that was the one we used for "Hordanes Land", for instance.
** You were largely responsible for keyboard duties on all of your albums. Why did Herbrand Larsen take over keyboard duties starting with the album ISA all the way up to your most current album?
Ivar: As the years went by, it annoyed me more and more that we did not have keys live - and also that there was a, perhaps subconscious, reduced amount of keyboard parts being written for the albums since it was not a "real part" of the line-up; more an "extra thing" I did. So we tried out a few guys as session musicians, but Herbrand was by far the best. Therefore he was asked to join as a full member in 2003!
** How about some guitar talk!
- What's your current favorite guitar brand that you use most often when playing?
Ivar: Jackson! I love my soloist, Broderick signature model!
- What amps have you had, what have you thought of them and what lead you to what you have now!
Ivar: I have used a Peavey 6505+ for 20 years now, and still love that for my rhythm parts. I have also started using a Fractal AX8 so I can bring more amps with me on the road for the clean and effect parts!
- What brand of pickups for your guitar do you use the most and why?
Ivar: I like the DiMarzio CB6s and also I like the P-90 "soap bar" mics a lot!
- Do you think a Tremolo bar damages the guitar and strings? Have you ever used one?
Ivar: I have them one a few of my guitars, but use them very lightly - I find the crazy space-monkey on crack - tremolo solos silly. So I guess my guitars and string are surviving!
- Have you ever had strings break right in the middle of a performance?
Ivar: Oh yes. Out of 12-1300 gigs throughout my life there's been a few. I won't depress myself by counting. But it is becoming more and more seldom!
** What is your best and worst tour/show memory.
Ivar: The best was probably when I learned that my wife was expecting our first child during opening weekend of the tour in London (she was with us tour managing). It became a very special tour, sort of the last tour in that part of my life. Weird and beautiful.
The worst was definitely being called up on the tour bus about a death in close family. We decided to finish, according to the wishes of the rest of my family, and it was a rough few days before the tour was over.
** What do you do when on some downtime from playing music? Any hobbies, favorite books, movies, or foods?
Ivar: There's basically never any downtime, but I have to simply make some here and there. That involves doing stuff with my family - then it is about what the kids enjoys doing. When they're happy, I am happy, you know? If there's an occasional day with no kids and no music I love cooking and partying with friends and family. I try to read and watch sci-fi whenever I have the chance; at night, flights, airports. If I had time for a real hobby I would split it between going hiking in the mountains and building miniature models. I think.
** In a December post from the Enslaved Facebook page you mention new lineup changes. Can you fill us in on this? You also mentioned a new album. Will be there be a 2017 release? At the end of the post you call yourself Papa Bjornson. Is it a nickname and if so how did you aquire that nickname? Why the name I Peerson on the IN TIMES album?
Ivar: Yes, Herbrand Larsen quit in December, he simply retired and wants to stay in Bergen at home and not be an active musician anymore. We thank him for his efforts and move on - we're really close to getting a great replacement for him confirmed, though. Very exciting times! I do think there will be some great news about a new album, shortly - but that is all I can give you right now! Papa Bjørnson was more of a joke on something I heard: that James Hetfield calls himself Papa Hetfield in his end of year letters to their fan club. Haha. Also I am the only dad in Enslaved so far! Peersen is my legal last name, so it is mentioned on albums for rights purposes, but I don't use it as an artist.
** Thank you Ivar for this interview! I wish you continued success and adventure in your future musical endeavors.
Ivar: Thank you!