Interview: Enslaved

Heimdal can be simply looked upon as some sort of teacher... some kind of power that always stops you and gives you advice. Advice both to step into chaos and to step back from chaos. To try to navigate you. So he’s evident in all layers of life – both in the individual consciousness and your surroundings.

Shortly before their headlining show at the Islington Assembly Hall kicked off, Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjørnson – the backbone of Enslaved from day one – chatted with Joe Norman from Echoes and Dust, while Taile Rose Eigeland photographed the interview. Grutle and Ivar confirmed their reputation as black metal’s friendliest and funniest duo, patiently answer my questions, and jovially bantering with each other. Ivar fielded most general questions about the band, thoughtfully puffing on his vape, while Grutle chipped in on more specific questions about individual songs and themes. Celebrating the one-year anniversary of Enslaved’s latest album Heimdal, the show coincided with the release of that album’s deluxe version. The release features a collaboration with Jo Quail (the London-based, virtuoso cellist) on two tracks and Jo joined Enslaved on-stage later that evening to perform them together. My conversation with Grutle and Ivar covered the ancient origins of the Heimdal figure, some of the more positive creative experiences to emerge from the pandemic, and the idiosyncrasies of Norwegian fusion cuisine.  

E&D: Welcome to back to London! I hear that you prefer the Indian food in London to at home in Bergen. Have you found any good Indian food here in Islington tonight? 

Grutle: Yeah, I went down the street. 

Ivar: The weird thing about the Indian food in Norway is that it’s not really Indian food – because Norwegians are still farmers. No matter how hard we try to be urban dwellers, we’re still really farmers. I read this thing from an Indian restaurant owner in Norway. In the late 70s when they started opening Indian restaurants in Norway, all the Norwegians started complaining that there’s no sauce. No gravy. Because that is a thing with Indian dishes, there’s not really a lot of sauce. A lot of the Norwegian people were feeling cheated: they’re like, “Hey! How can this be good food if there’s no sauce?!”  

Grutle: No potatoes!  

Ivar: So they got fed up and said, “What the fuck?” and just added a bunch of sauce. So they invented a bunch of Norwegian versions of the dishes to get them to shut the fuck up. So coming to the UK, we can actually taste real Indian food…without the sauce.  

E&D: I see you’re playing Glasgow soon; I’ve always had really good Indian food there, too. 

Grutle: When we go there, we usually get the haggis.  

E&D: Good choice! So, we’re here tonight celebrating the release of the deluxe version of Heimdal. I’ve been listening to those new versions. I didn’t think it was possible to improve on that record, because it really is exceptional…  

Ivar: Thank you. 

E&D: …but those new versions are amazing. Please could you tell us a bit about the deluxe versions and how they came to be? 

Ivar: It’s all by accident – as all good things are, I guess. This week, Heimdal was one year old and we’re so happy about this album. You know, it’s such a proud moment for us. So, we were doing the release party and wanted to invite some guests. I really think, you know what, whatever’s going good for Enslaved, you could attribute that to having really great people around us. Whether it’s the management booking, the people in the studio, all the musicians, and so on.  

So let’s celebrate: we invited a bunch of people to play with us on that release party and then Jo Quail was there. She was a good…how do you say?…like a joker? We didn’t really know how that would turn out, but I’ve been a fan of hers for quite some years. She’d released an album, an EP on the label that I’m involved in: By Norse Music. And I just got really curious like, How would that sound? Which is, like, how we make our music. Like, How would that sound? You don’t really know if it’s gonna be good or whatever, but let’s find out. Sometime I met her and asked “Would you be up for doing something with us?” And she was all game. Then it sounded a lot better than the best expectations. So after that show…this can’t be the end of it. So we asked, “Would you be up for recording your parts in the UK, in your own studio?” And she did, and here we are. All fumbling and accidents.  

E&D: We’re spoiled with Jo Quail here in London. She’s a brilliant musician and I’m very lucky that I get to see her often. She brings a lot to those tracks; there’s parts where I feel like she’s adding a kind of expansiveness, then others where she’s following the melody or picking up on some of the melodies that are already there. Is that fair, would you say? 

Ivar: Absolutely. Yeah, she’s not afraid to be simplistic, nor is she afraid to be expansive. I feel that that is the connection between us. Now we have this urge to just make the most of the music. And sometimes that can be to really delve into cliches. And sometimes that could be, you know, diving into the unexpected. And she really got that attitude…that’s the kind of musicians we admire. You don’t have to do technicality just to be technical. Sometimes it’s—so what?—being easy, simple.  

E&D: You’re talking about experimenting, trying things out. So, going back a bit to the Otherwordly Big Band Experience [Enslaved filmed an epic concert film, in collaboration with Norwegian prog-psych band Shaman Elephant, performing Enslaved songs, in 2021]. I watched all of the streaming shows that you that you guys did over COVID and I was wondering, did that experience of playing with the big band, that collaboration, change the way that wrote your own music afterwards? Did that feed into the material that you released afterwards?  

Grutle: It opened a couple of doors, I would say. For instance, we saw the opportunity to add something else to the soundscape, like bringing Jo Quail into it. I would say the Big Band Experience was kind of an eye opener in that way, in that manner. So it was definitely something we brought further with us; absolutely.  

 

E&D: Obviously we’re all very pleased to be back and seeing you guys live again. I was watching those shows and obviously it was the closest thing anyone could get to seeing you guys live. But I felt like you guys really went for it and that those concert films were not just a thing that happened. They were…this is a proper movie; this is a different kind of experience that I would want to exist anyway, even if COVID hadn’t been around. Are there more Enslaved films in the pipeline? Is that something you would want to do again?  

Grutle: Is there another pandemic coming? 

[Everyone laughs] 

E&D: No insider info, I’m afraid!  

Grutle: It was a good opportunity to stay alive as a band during the pandemic –

Ivar: and as people! 

Grutle: Of course! What annoyed me was…there were thousands of artists making these living room concerts with bad production, and charged money. This was not the way to do it. I get the idea, but it was a bit cheesy.  

Ivar: It was a bit sad…respectless.  

Grutle:…yeah, so we figured if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it in a proper way. And we got invited to play this festival [Verftet Online Festival 2020]. They recorded that and it ended up being the first stream we did. It became one of the records [The Rise of Ymir]. It was weird to interact with nobody but ourselves. We sensed that there was something there that we enjoyed; that we thought we could actually take a step further. And so we did. We spent a lot of time in rehearsals – let alone the recordings. We also kept a lot of people employed, like the local backline companies and the film crew. We felt that we were actually doing something nice for both ourselves and the fans and the local music business. Lights, sound guys.  

Ivar: It also kind of levelled the playing field in a sense.  

Grutle: Exactly. 

Ivar: Because, when you’re coming through a screen, you know how, no matter how boring or nerdy that is, from a digital performance, we were able to show off our abilities as musicians. There might not be this hype around us as the most crazy, sexy, satanic…whatever the fuck. But it goes back into the roots of what extreme metal is. It didn’t used to be a competition about being the most dangerous, sexy guy at the school yard. There was an element of art to it and that levelled the playing field for it.  

Grutle: I think that actually helped us become a better live band because we were forced to interact with something, interact with the other band members –  

Ivar:and with our own insanity!  

Grutle: Exactly! and get some feedback, some feedback energy exchange with the other band members. And thus we actually learned something crucial from it. 

Ivar: [in a sweet voice] It glued us together.  

Grutle: That’s one way to look at it! Yeah, I think it helped us to be a better live band…although [laughing] it was never a live performance! Well, in one way it was. But I remember when we did the first show within the Pandemic to a crowd, to a seated crowd of like two hundred people….I felt that was more weird than doing the streaming concerts. Because people were sitting there like a fucking church or something. It was really, really stiff. It was more dynamic when we actually did the streaming shows.  

E&D: I can imagine. I didn’t see you guys at seated shows, but I saw some little seated shows in London and that was a weird experience.  

Grutle: That was harder actually.  

E&D: So, coming back to Heimdal again, you have discussed a different song-writing approach that you adopted this time. You began with the concept and then wrote in response to that. Could you tell us how that shaped the record? Do you think it would have turned out quite differentlybeen a different kind of album if you used your older technique?  

Ivar: I think it would have been less complex. The thing about having the concept, having those discussions with Grutle while I was writing that album, was that it kept demanding such a depth to it. I’ve never spent such an amount of time or energy on anything in my life before. Just having that concept – writing the song ‘Heimdal’ with the idea of how to portray the entity Heimdal, both in the sense of Norse mythology but also as a sort of archetype in psychological terms – just demanded so much writing, in such minute detail. And also it’s really wonderful, you know, album number 16… 

E&D: ...that’s impressive!  

Ivar: …that was really inspiring.  

E&D: This might be a silly question. The Norse myths are so much a part of your culture, in your band and in your art. You live with this stuff. But do you still consult sources and do research when you’re writing your albums? Or do you not need to?  

Ivar: Yeah [gestures at Grutle] I consult him all the time! [Laughs] 

Grutle: Yeah, when we started digging into the character, the entity, we found that this was not just a Norse Mythology thing. It goes way beyond. Heimdal is a figure that appears in several European mythologies, not only the Norse. The figure – or maybe an earlier version of Heimdal – has been around ever since the Bronze Age, at least. Maybe even before that; but we don’t know that for sure. There are rock carvings that almost 100% solidify the fact that he was actually present also in the Bronze Age. Then you can add like 2,500 years to the Heimdal saga. I was bothering a lot of scholars and archaeologists to find a thesis on the theory, trying to glue together the pieces. So it was a really really interesting journey. An absolutely perfect backdrop to make the soundtrack after. Both the stories in the lyrics and the music, let alone the actual arrangements on the recordings. All that’s in the back of your mind. It was a really fascinating process.  

E&D: It sounds it. I didn’t realise Heimdal was so old or spread so widely. 

Grutle: Very old; we don’t know how old it is. It was incorporated into the Norse pantheon, the mythology, because that came later than Heimdal and Ullr, and probably Thor as well.  It’s more complex than just Norse mythology. It’s been there, maybe since the ice caves disappeared! One of the most solid entities of Northern Europe.  

E&D: That’s amazing. In the lyrics to the song ‘Heimdal’ you describe him as “the cloaked king-maker”, “hunter”, “navigator of time”. Do you have a personal relationship with that figure? I’m wondering what he means to you personally and is that reflected in the album?  

Grutle: Well Heimdal can be simply looked upon as some sort of teacher… some kind of power that always stops you and gives you advice. Advice both to step into chaos and to step back from chaos. To try to navigate you. So he’s evident in all layers of life—both in the individual consciousness and your surroundings. The outer consciousness, the dreams, everything. Kind of, the guideline for life.  

E&D: That’s a great concept. A bit like being on the edge of the mosh pit, stepping into chaos! 

Grutle: Heimdal tells you to go for it!  

Ivar: Go for it! [Laughs]  

Grutle: Usually ‘go for it’ is the best solution. [Everybody laughs] 

Ivar: Always… 

Grutle: Like opening the door, you know? 

E&D: I’ve just got one more question. You’ve achieved so much in 16 albums. What’s next for Enslaved? What would you like to achieve in the future? 

Ivar: Hah...phew… 

Grutle: Tough question.  

Ivar: We’d just like to continue with what we’re doing because we’re really enjoying it. Keep trying to record albums that push the limits of our abilities to compose and perform as musicians. And, with the live show, convey as much as possible of the power that we feel is in our music and in our lyrics.  

E&D: Great answer. Well, long may it continue!  

Ivar: Oh, we’ll continue!  

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