Sitting down with Ivar Bjornson of Enslaved is always an honor. It feels like no matter what we do we end up forgetting to talk about music and instead delve into his various interests and influences. When it comes to driving forces in metal and all around fascinating people you don't get much better than Ivar, and yet he comes at you with a sense of humility and peace you can't help but to love. This interview was conducted over the summer in a well lit Brooklyn bar over some dark beers and yet we rapidly found ourselves deep in a world of Norse myth. I had just heard the bands new record and was thrilled to sit down with one of the most interesting people I've ever met. Delving into his psyche is always an honor and this interview delved deeper than most.
Check out the video for the new single Storm Son now:
How are you doing?
I'm doing excellent. Hanging out in Brooklyn is awesome. For some reason Norwegians love New York. I think it's just the sensibilities, the beer is good, and even though we always complain about hipster culture is has everything that we really like, ethnic food, microbreweries – that's what we are after! The New York mentality fits the Norwegian model. People seem quite preoccupied but when you get to know each other it becomes heartwarming. Sometimes I think we get confused when we travel to other parts of the US – people are too nice and it can be a bit much. In New York people give you your space.
It's funny you say that because most people view New Yorkers as assholes!
Maybe most Europeans think Norwegians are assholes. Maybe we are the New Yorkers of Europe or vice versa!
I've always been fascinated by your diverse interests – obviously we've talked about history and quantum physics in the past – what are you interested in these days?
I've been working for the last 6 months with Einar from Wardruna for the follow up of Skuggsja, Hugsja. We did another piece about the Norwegian coastal culture. I've been very interested in local history in the municipalities around Bergen. It's been a change of focus, finding old books and talking to people from these places. The main interest has been the places I grew up and lived and what happened there. The parallel in music is when you discover that really simple stuff is very effective. You have to go the route of being overly complex and ambitious before you discover that the real power lies in more simple solutions. I think it's the same on an intellectual basis. If your project is to find where you are from, you investigate cosmic mysteries and find yourself researching grave mounds sitting 100 meters from where you live. Finding identity has defined my last half year.
How has that impacted you personally?
It's been very inspiring. It has put a lot of things in perspective. Especially when we started working with some academics, including an Icelandic professor who has written some fantastic books, especially one called The Black Viking about a historical figure who traveled north in the Viking age and who became a celebrity because of his dark skin. He became a famous viking. It also highlights a lot of the original Norwegian coastal culture which was quite multicultural because people would travel from all over. The 'pure Norwegian' thing is more medieval – it's post black death. Our DNA research suggests we are much more of a melting pot of peoples. That's one thing that expanded my view and proved a lot of things that I thought I had an overview on. It also makes the way that history and Norse mythology is being misused. It makes it a waste of time for right wing people trying to make a point with racial issues when it actually comes from a chaotic mix of ancient peoples. It gives me a sense of pride, not just of the local variety but in humanity and how we populated the coast of Norway. We visited these places and realized that some of these people put their favorite cow, and their children and spent countless days on the ocean and just went ashore, cultivated the land and set up a new place. People say they feel powerless but look at what people are capable of doing! It's quite far from being powerless.
There's a lot to unpack there. First and foremost, are there any cool obscure stories you've uncovered in your research?
One thing I wasn't really aware of that came through is the phenomenon of holy mountains. It's a tradition that faded during the viking age because there were so many new beliefs. We started out with the viking age and wound up in the bronze. They had some beautiful beliefs then. Some of it probably hails from the Egyptians. Some of these ideas must have traveled from the pyramids to the Norwegian coasts. But there was a belief that spirits went into mountains. That's why a lot of houses and monuments are situated so the mountain is in their view so they could stay in touch with their loved ones. People were very spiritual and had poetic beliefs way before the viking age. I had previously thought it was a random mash of goblins and folktales but they really have some sophisticated rituals and beliefs that made their lives easier.
A peculiar but funny thing is that this belief led to some strange conflicts. At one point there was a viking king who was so fond of his mountain so he made a law that you couldn't shit on land. You had to go out to the ocean to what they essentially called the “Poop Rocks” and then some visitor shit in the bushes and there was a total massacre because someone pooped in the wrong place.
I feel like the Norway you grew up in has radically shifted even in the last 15 years. Do you worry about the next generation of Norwegians not being interested in these foundational histories?
I think it's turning back. We are being explored from the outside which I think is positive. We've been a part of it with the music and the academics who care. Many of them quit being academics in protest, including the guy we worked with. He studied philosophy and ethics and his friends asked why they used Greek texts rather than the Norse ones given that we have access to those texts. The metaphors are related to where we live. A lot of people think everything pre-Christianity is childish. With Wardruna and the show Vikings we are seeing a real awakening. So many outsiders and tourists come in and they know stuff locals don't know. They show up and say they are here to see the rune stones and the locals don't know. It's forcing hotel owners and writers to learn. We're realizing we are tourists in our own history. We have to come back to the point where we own it.
Why are non Norwegians attracted to Norwegian culture?
It's one of the closest original pre-monotheistic religions in terms of timeline. Rome left the north alone for so long compared to other places which really made a big difference. It's more familiar and not as odd and strange as Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology. It also relates to the world today. We love interactivity and globalization but the more you do that the more the desire for something real appeals. We are built to believe in something that is big and holy. We are naturally attracted to things like that. I think even people who only believe in science treat it as a religion in a sense. The CERN reactor is their pyramid. It's mystical and magical what's happening in there also! I think it's built in us to keep us from going made. We have such analytic minds that at some point we look up into the sky and realizing how minuscule we are and how meaningless everything is. We try to find elevated places that some of us find in music. This pre-Christian thing here you are not judged but get advice gives you a sensation of being a part of something bigger.
So after all of this – you have a new record coming out! How have these experiences impacted the new record? It's so far removed from your past stuff…
I'm starting to realize that now that the album has been done for a while. The last few years, especially the last year has been full of existential inputs and thoughts. Talking about holy spaces – I think the music is becoming more of that. It's important on a life or death level and become more direct in a sense from what we think and feel. It all started way before – last year. We were in Brooklyn and we had a laptop and a PC and we were just around and a good chunk of the album was written then, it set the tone. All of the seriousness and philosophizing was added after. I've never been so unsure about how an album would turn out as this time. But in the past few weeks I've started to come to terms with what it is.
A lot of it borders on revolutionary, there are bluesy riffs for example – where does that come from?
It comes from the same place but all of this moving around with electronic music one day, historical music and then back to metal has had a positive effect in the sense that at some point the barriers were sort of removed. We're not really aware of the context anymore. It's all about conveying something, an emotion. It just happens. It's a less conscious relationship to the music being made but in a positive sense. It feels like things are more subconscious in their development. That's where it's coming from anyway. Going through the consciousness is hard because you don't want it funneled to much. It can take away the edge. It gets to a place where it's more like a flow. I think that's what we want for Enslaved, the sound of subconsciousness.
So is that how despite the fact that so much is represented here it still feels like one thing? Was that a conscious goal setting out or a reflection of the subconscious?
I think it reflects how me and the other guys experience music. It's one thing. It's the same as language. It's various languages and dialects coming together for essentially the same thing. It's the same with music. But it takes being emotionally involved in so many genres to be able to unify them in one musical personality. I think before I separated it more and I would have to transfer it between genres. Now it's just music.
At By Norse you said to me that you felt like you were at the halfway point of Enslaved… after having taken a huge leap like you did with E how do you think the band will evolve?
I think it will be more like this with the development. What I love about physics is that on the quantum level you can do an experiment and get the same result but the empirical results can be different. Quantum particles don't act like normal particles. They don't operate in the same way. I think that's how our path is going. Three albums from now we could still be elaborating on what we are doing or there could be an urgent change. It's hard to say. It makes it hard for Enslaved in a sense because of the lack of analysis and conscious relationship to what comes out. We could see one song as a certain number of extra streams or reactions. It wouldn't be selling out but we would be being more selective. That would limit Enslaved though. We give the entity of Enslaved totally free reign. If we want to make an album that is inaccessible and hard and noisy we can do that.
Do you feel tied to Darkthrone in your sense of freedom?
I definitely feel that. We are far away from them in terms of what we do now but there is a love between the two bands because we have the recipe for success and disaster and we keep not caring.
You could go release a straight black metal record and no one would be too surprised, and Darkthrone could do something like E and no one would be surprised either!
I think that's a good parallel given how far apart we are. It's the same philosophy, treating the band as a separate entity. It has to live its life on its own. If you force it it curls up and dies. There are a lot of success stories of bands that curl up and die. It's a way of making a living but not a way of making art.
To shift towards the end – Enslaved has always been this entity apart – do you try to reflect that philosophy in your various side projects or do you feel like those side projects have different viewpoints?
I don't really try to make them anything other than they are. It's the same point of view. It's making something. I used to think it was for myself, but we do that also. The starting point of is Enslaved is that we liked a lot of different things but there was room to combine things. We wanted to make our dream record out of it. But no matter how pompous and silly it sounds, and it does, but music and art is a function of life. In the same way that you have thought and cells correcting within the human body I think art is the driving force of society. I think that's where I've been put, to do that. It's more hit and miss if it's a commercial success or an artistic success. Sometimes it's both. Wardruna is an example of this too. Even if it would make him more money to take a tiny step to the left he wouldn't do it because he does art for arts sake. It's a relaxed place to be in.