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By: Raymond Westland

One of the more anticipated releases of this year is Arcturian by Norwegian avant-garde metal outfit Arcturus. It’s their first release after going on hiatus almost a decade ago. Enough reason for Raymond Westland to catch up with vocalist and lyricist Simen Hestnæs (ICS Vortex) to discuss all the ins and outs regarding the new Arcturus record, the band’s fascination for Vaudevillian artifacts and tons more.

(((o))): This is your first tour with Arcturus since you guys went on hiatus back in 2007. How are things going so far?

Simen: Yeah, it’s the first Arcturus tour in almost a decade. We’ve done a couple of gigs prior to this tour. It’s fun and we’re having a ball. It’s good to be back on stage with the rest of the guys. It’s all good and really inspiring. As long as it’s going to be like this, we continue. If it becomes a drag or we start hating each other or when it starts to feel like a job, we’ll quit again.

(((o))): Can you take us through the time you guys called it a day in 2007 up to the present day?

Simen: At the last show in Melbourne, Australia, we had a little chat backstage. The band spirit wasn’t that high anymore and we didn’t have the stomach anymore to go back in the studio and do another album. There weren’t any gigs booked for quite a while so I said to the guys that this would be a good time to take an extended break. The rest of the band agreed on this and we had some problems with the second guitarist as well during the tour. With this mind I told the crowd later that evening that this would be the last Arcturus gig ever, which was a lie of course (laughs). That would be a little too drastic, because Arcturus is a band that deserves to grow and prosper. So seen in that light I wanted to be a little dramatic and bombastic about it, to prevent people from nagging us with questions about a new album and whatnot. Right now, people are excited again about us touring and having a new album out. Business-wise it was a smart thing to play the comeback card. It wasn’t a lie either, because it took us a good ten years before we reformed again. Basically I called the guys again for a meeting. We talked about the old days and some possible future prospects. We all had time to spare from family obligations, day jobs and other bands, so a couple of beers later we decided to give Arcturus another go. When we got back to the old rehearsal space and we went through some of the older songs the magic was still there. At first we decided to take things slowly, play a couple of gigs and determine whether we were still hungry enough to do another album. It took a lot time and hard work, but yet here we are on tour and a new album (laughs).

(((o))): Recording Arcturian was quite a laidback experience. What happened?

Simen: Well, we decided not to rush things and to give the material time to breath and mature. For me it was really nice to enter the studio a weekend at a time and to experiment with a lot of different moods and to go back and forth on the ideas we had. Sometimes the pre production was almost like a party. It took me three to four hours to actually get to the studio. So I basically entered the studio at Friday evening, so naturally I wanted a beer, well more like a couple of them (laughs). Then we went for the red wine and whisky afterwards and record music from three to seven AM. Then sleep for a couple of hours, grinding away in the studio again. It was good fun, but really tiring at the same time. The last song on the album was the result of a session at seven in the morning. I was wondering what kind of vocals to put on the song and suddenly inspiration struck. It wasn’t perfectly recorded, but it really had the intensity we were looking for. That was the thing we were striving for. A lot of pieces on the album are actually first or second takes.

(((o))): Arcturian does contain a lot of elements from the previous albums, but also has a couple of new things to offer. To which extent was this the result of a well thought out approach versus a spontaneous affair?

Simen: I don’t know really. We didn’t sit down and come up with a grand plan or anything. I had one song ready which I presented to the rest of the guys. There were some other songs in various states of completion. Some of them made it to the album and other ones didn’t. There was one older song, which didn’t make the Sideshow Symphonies album lying around from the time my predecessor was in the band. Back then the band didn’t do much in terms of recording, but they did play a couple of gigs. He didn’t like the song and it was never presented to me on the early demo tapes. When I heard the main riff I was simply floored. It’s turned into the second song on the album, called ‘Crashland’. Knut had two additional songs ready and Sven wrote another five or six songs. We didn’t really rehearse the songs beforehand, because we live all spread out from the rehearsal space. Most of the songs were written by one guy and Jan (drummer) did his jazz club stuff and Hugh filled it up with his bass lines, so the songs changed a couple of times before they there were recorded in their present form. To me they sound more jam-based and because we know each other so well we didn’t need to rehearse much, unlike we did in the old days. I’m just happy how the songs turned out and that we had the time to really let the material sink in and to have fun while writing and recording them.

(((o))): It was actually quite surprising to see Arcturian be released on a relatively small record label like Prophecy Productions, instead of on a bigger label like Nuclear Blast or Century Media, considering the hype surrounding the Arcturus reunion. How did that come about?

Simen: It was actually funny to hear all these rumours about Nuclear Blast and Century Media offering us a ridiculous amount of money, which couldn’t be further from the truth, so thank you dear internet trolls for stirring up this hype (laughs). Seriously, what I like about Prophecy is their caring attitude towards the artists and the products they release. It’s the total opposite way what most other companies tend to do nowadays. They pour a lot of money in the production and the packaging to make it look as good as possible, so people will actually buy them instead of downloading them. I really respect that. Of course, from a business point of view I find such an approach gutsy. They really respect us as a band and they’re very down to earth people and the communication is really good. I feel they offered us a fair deal and a good royalty deal percentage-wise and they really wanted us to be on their label. They made us a better offer than the other labels involved, so it felt right to sign with Prophecy and we’re very lucky to be with them.

(((o))): Talking about the artwork and the packaging, it’s really elaborate and tastefully done. Who created the whole thing and how does it represent the overall feel and atmosphere of Arcturian?

Simen: The artist (Costin Chioreanu) is a big Arcturus fan first and foremost and he knew Mark, our manager. They did some work prior so when we were in the early stages of reforming he designed all the gig posters for the reunion tour and he did that for free. He really wanted to be a part of this. One of first designs is the banner we still use on our official Facebook Page. He really managed to nail it, it’s instantly recognisable as Arcturus with the ship rudder or steering wheel or whatever you want to call it. It was just perfect. So we continued to work together and by the time the album came up he wanted again to do the artwork for free. However, Prophecy paid us a nice advance, so we actually had some budget to create something special and to pay him properly. He was really into the whole project, so we decided to give him free creative rein. The first few sketches for the artwork were good, but I felt he could do better, so I pushed him a bit to step up his game and to really blow my mind. He was really pressed for time, but he managed to deliver nonetheless. He’s really humble and down to earth guy and we love working with him and he did a stunning job with the album cover in my mind.

(((o))): Another big part of the overall Arcturus experience are the clothes and the general vaudevillian madness surrounding the band. Where does it stem from?

Simen: It’s not as deep as one may suspect. The interest grew when we were looking for cloths for Sideshow Symphonies sessions. We had some modern imagery in mind at first, so we got to this place where they rent out costumes for the Norwegian State Television for all these epic Viking productions and that’s where we found all the weird stuff (laughs). Everyone had a lot of fun picking out their items because it was so over the top. Everyone else was going for the sad-look-in-the-camera thing and we wanted to do something totally opposite. We wanted to do something funny instead of looking depressed. That was pretty much it, it just was just our dress up party. It really worked well for as. As for the alien stuff it’s been a part of the Arcturus imagery ever since the Sham Mirrors era. Arcturus has always been an outsider band in so many ways, so we can play the wild card thing and no one will be surprised by that. That’s what I like about it. The alien stuff allows us to create a little creative distance. My lyrics are really down to earth and I use a lot of metaphors to describe a lot of experiences that happened in my early twenties and thirties. I’m still digesting that and I think many people do who’ve been through a lot. I tried a lot of different narcotics back then which had its effects of course and so did my friends. Some of them didn’t survive it and some of them did. This really ties in with the rise and fall theme of the new album. Writing about those experiences is interesting to me still. I could write about my family life nowadays, but it wouldn’t be so cool (laughs).

(((o))): You have a very distinctive vocal style and so has Garm, your predecessor. How do you make his vocal parts your own?

Simen: I do my best, you know. When the guys asked me to join back in 2003 I flatly refused them, mostly because Garm’s vocal style is so unique. I was fearing for issues when I would take over from him, like what happened with so many bands in the past, like Iron Maiden for instance or with Black Sabbath when Ronnie James Dio took over from Ozzy. Dio was a fantastic vocalist but he really didn’t cut it for me as a fan. So I could totally relate to that, but after hearing the first demo tapes I decided to give it a go. I immediately had a feel of the topics and how the melody lines should be like. Of course, a lot of Internet trolls give me a lot of flak for that, but fuck that. I was a huge fan of the early Arcturus material. I vividly remember sitting with a friend who was massively into tape trading and he showed me some Arcturus material and I was simply stunned by the musicality and the originality of the music. I listened to ‘Morax’ and ‘My Angel’ time and time again, because the atmosphere was that good. I bought each subsequent release and I marvelled at the production and the level of guitar playing. I took part in the sessions for La Masquerade Infernale back in 1996 where I sung vocals on ‘The Chaos Path’. I was at their rehearsal place a lot and we jammed for a bit and Knut came up with this idea for what later would be ‘The Chaos Path’ and he wanted me to sing vocals over it. It was actually meant for a project outside Arcturus. As time progressed Garm didn’t seem to be very interested in the band anymore, so I was approached to step in. Luckily Garm changed his mind and he decided to do the album after all. I’m glad he did, because I think La Masquerade wouldn’t be so good if I would have sung on it. The album has a timeless quality to it I think. Garm is actually doing vocals on the new Borknagar album by the way (laughs).

(((o))): Talking of which, what can people expect from the upcoming Borknagar album?

More of the same, I think. Oystein (guitarist/main composer) did all the tracks this time around or perhaps Lars (Nedland – keyboards) contributed one track as well. It’s going to be instantly recognisable as Borknagar. The mixing will be handled by Jens Bogren, the guy known from Opeth and Katatonia amongst others. I’ve first heard his production style when listening to Katatonia’s Viva Emptiness album. I was just amazed by the production quality. The songs are really good, I really like that album. Jens is going to handle the final mixing, so that should be good. I haven’t heard the pre-productions. I told the Borknagar guys that I would concentrate on Arcturus first. I was supposed to play bass, but now the bassist from Leprous is filling in for me. I don’t mind. I’ll go to the studio and lay down my vocal parts once the current tour with Arcturus wraps up. It will be at Garm’s place, which is only five minutes away from my house. I don’t know how much stuff I will do, but I’m sure it will be doubling vocal stuff, overdubs and whatnot. It worked really well on the previous Borknagar album (laughs).

(((o))): Finally, what’s the latest on Lamented Souls and a possible second solo album?

Simen: Unfortunately, the time wasn’t there for Lamented Souls, so I put that one out of my system. It really sucks, but something had to go. The other guys were involved in other projects as well, so it didn’t work out. Album number six is already written, it just needs some lyrics. We can record the album when we feel like it, there’s no stress or anything. As for a new solo album I have six songs ready and a 100 riffs on my computer, but there’s no timetable releasing that album either. I don’t care whether it will be released in five or ten years. Borknagar and Arcturus are my priority bands right now. As long as the vibe within Arcturus is good we’ll see how long this will last. The writing process for Arcturian was really inspiring and I’m a fan of all the guys involved. They’re such good musicians and it’s great to be part of that. It reminds me of the best part of being in Dimmu Borgir when Mustis and Nick Barker were still aboard. It’s really inspiring to be on stage with such talented musicians. It’s always touching to be a part of that and it makes me really proud to be a part of that.

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