ENSLAVED’S GRUTTLE KJELLSON: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
Since its inception in the late ‘80s, black metal has been one of the most rigid genres in terms of evolution and change. While bands like Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, and Behemoth trumpet the genre through its larger than life, orchestral origins, black metal’s “elite” have gained their notoriety through either a) being a part of the original church-burning generation and altering their sound as little as possible or b) miming the original church-burning generation as closely as possible, right down to the tape hisses and wall of buzz saw guitars. But after nearly two decades of existence and reverence in the metal and music worlds as a whole, many bands have moved away from their restrictive lo-fi roots and come to embrace different influences, resources, and inspirations. The band that has best exemplified this move from their base to the outer limits is Enslaved, one of Norway’s longest running black metal bands. Before American upstarts Nachtmytsium made it cool to melt your Burzum and Pink Floyd records together, Enslaved were dabbling in the dark power of psychedelia on Below the Lights and ISA. Though those who take black metal seriously insist that sticking to their guns has been the key to longevity, its shifts in sounds and ideologies has been what’s kept it alive. Those shifts have been most solidly illustrated by Enslaved, and has resulted in one of the most impressively consistent discographies in metal, right up through their latest genre-bending triumph Vertebrae.
Grutle Kjellson, Enslaved’s bass player and lead vocalist, has been with the band since the beginning. In an interview he was kind enough to grant MetalSucks via phone from his home in Norway, he talks about the importance of looking forward creatively, what influenced Vertebrae, working with longtime bandmate Ivar Bjornson in Enslaved and their experimental metal side project Trinacria, the overall importance of Pink Floyd on his band’s sound, and the fans that only want to hear songs off of their early ‘90s demos at their shows.
Pretty good. Aside from the crazy weather we’re having in Norway, it’s good. In the autumn, it’s pretty crazy. It’s blowing and raining from October to April.
Oh man. No wonder you guys sound the way you do.
Exactly. Exactly. That’s what I keep on telling people. (Laughs)
Does the actual physical environment in Norway have a lot to do with your sound?
I definitely think it has something to do with it. Of course you don’t walk around thinking about it all the time, but I think there’s a huge difference if you have regular seasons, if they’re really clear. The difference in the climate in places like Texas, it’s almost the same all year round. I think, yeah, it does something with your mental health. I’m not saying it’s healthier, but it definitely has a huge impact.
Have you guys been playing new material at the festivals you’ve been playing?
We’ve played one song from the new album called “The Watchers.” We played that song when we played in Austin this year at South by Southwest and we played it a couple times in Russia, and last week or the week before at this music festival in Berlin. We played four new songs there, actually.
How have reactions been to it?
Really great, actually. Especially when we play “The Watcher,” people were totally into it. The first time we played it, people were headbanging and stuff. Kind of got it instantly, which is kind of rare with a new song. People are standing there usually thinking, “What the fuck is this?” When we played those new songs in Berlin, I think most of the people in the audience had already owned the CD. But yeah, they were really into it. Of course, there were a couple of jerks screaming, “Play some songs from the demo tape!” or whatever.
Yeah. Come on, man. At least most of the audience were really enjoying the new stuff.
The last couple albums you guys have done have been really interesting. You guys started off as one of the original old school black metal bands. What brought you to where you are now?
I think we’ve always wanted to explore new territories. I don’t think any of our albums sound the same. So I think, it has to be a natural development all the way. I mean, you can find what people refer to as “progressive influences” already on Eld, I think. But we don’t have any specific goals around in making the album sound progressive or whatever. I mean, we just go in and we like the challenge, we like to challenge ourselves. When we’re working on new material, we like to look forward. We try to not to look back at all on what we have done before.
One of the touchstones of black metal, especially with Darkthrone and a lot of the bands from the last couple of years, is mimicking the style played fifteen to twenty years ago and sort of sticking to that, not looking forward. And then meanwhile there are guys like you and Mayhem and such who are pushing stuff forward. Have you met a lot resistance with that?
Well, there are some people that claim that, of course, the demo tape is our greatest record. There are some people that really have a fascination or a fetish or really like the first album or the first demo tape. I really don’t see why, but… (laughs) Some people ask me, “Why don’t you play some songs from the first album? Why don’t you sound like you did on the first album?” And I’m always thinking, why the hell do you torture yourself listening to the new music if you don’t like it? We listened to the old stuff and, fuck you! (laughs) It’s pretty simple; it ain’t brain surgery. I’m not listening to something I hate. Not at all. I think that’s strange. Really strange.
[They think] musicians should just play at the fans’ demand. How personal is that? It’s not personal at all. It’s not art anymore if you do it like that. You’re doing this to satisfy yourself as a musician, as an artist. Everything else is completely pointless.
And that stuff has its place, but that’s definitely not what you guys are going for.
It’s pretty simple – we try to make our favorite music, where we stand at the moment. It’s really not more complicated than that.
Yeah, and people are trying to make it more complicated.
Well, musically, I guess you could say we’ve been listening to one or two progressive rock bands.
(Laughs) We’ve been listening to a lot classic and hard rock, too. Old KISS and stuff like that. We’re really enjoying the old Genesis, for instance, Pink Floyd, some Van Der Graaf Generator, Rush… And some extreme metal bands, more or less what we’ve always been listening to since the beginning like Darkthrone, Mayhem, death metal bands like Autopsy, Carcass, Bathory, Celtic Frost. The really good stuff. We’ve also been listening to some crazy progressive stuff, and some jazz. It’s a really big collage. We listen to a lot of crazy music.
Well, I figured you’d have to.
I even listen to the Beach Boys. I think its brilliant. Listen to those vocal harmonies. Listen to the production, the arrangement. It’s completely marvelous.
Do you take anything tangible from the Beach Boys and apply it to Enslaved?
Well, not consciously, but maybe the ideas, the layers, the vocals and vocal harmonies and stuff like that are definitely inspiring. But I don’t think we’ll ever end up sounding like the Beach Boys. (laughs)
Speaking of vocals, for people that have an aversion to black metal, their biggest complaint is the vocals. On Vertebrae, Enslaved do more clean vocals than on any other album. My question is, why not move into the direction of doing only clean vocals? What do you think having raspy black metal vocals adds to Enslaved at this point?
We think it’s very important, the balance. We like the gritty parts and we like the mellow parts. Both are essential to Enslaved. We are still and I think will always be an extreme metal band. I hate to disappoint people that don’t want the change between vocals, but they will always be there, because they are very, very important to the balance. Not everything can be beautiful. You need some harshness.
Where do you think your place is in black metal?
It’s a difficult question to answer without getting pompous. (laughs) I think we’re definitely a part of the extreme metal scene, and definitely are an extreme metal band, although we have gained some fans even from outside metal. We have noise fans, some prog fans, even some jazz fans. Yeah, I think that’s nice. For me, music is music, no matter what genre it is or what you call it, so long as it’s interesting. As long as it’s got the nerve to it, some energy to it, I don’t care what kind of music it is.
Do you think it’s important to include a lot of different and diverse influences in extreme metal now, or do you think people can play straight up extreme metal and still do important things?
I think they can, but all great music has an inspiration source, and if that source is only other extreme metal bands, it becomes really, really boring after a while. When I listen to some metal bands, it’s really easy to hear where they got their inspiration from. To put it this way, I’m not listening to those bands, because the bore the hell out of me. I like the originality, I like the fusions of different types of music. The progressive rock movement, for instance, that’s a fusion of jazz and rock or classical music and rock. Metal music, I don’t know, it’s a fusion of blues and rock, I guess, with some spikes added. (laughs) All great music comes from somewhere, and metal too. Extreme metal, too. You don’t have to sound like early Darkthrone demo tapes. I like Darkthrone; please don’t misunderstand me. They’re one of my favorite bands and some of my favorite friends. That’s just an example.
You guys started out as a primarily Viking metal band, and have turned into more of an esoteric kind of thing. Do you find that writing for Enslaved now, conceptually, comes from the same place that it came from when you were writing about Vikings?
We’ve always been writing about Norse mythology. We still are, actually. We’re using kind of different pictures, different metaphors. But they’re still full of mythological parallels or parallels to certain myths or mythology. And I know that some people find them. I met this guy – and it was really, really surprising – from Australia in Stockholm. And he talked about our lyrics, and I was shocked; I almost became afraid of him because I felt like he had kind of opened up my brain because he understood absolutely everything. It was like tracing: “With this line, you’re tracing to that specific myth.” And I was like, “How the fuck do you know that? Who are you? Are you from this planet? Can you go away? You are freaking me out.” (laughs) And he was. And it was really fascinating, because he listened to everything. And I was like, “This is a bit scary, but yeah, cool. Thank you.” (laughs)
But back to the point of Enslaved being influenced by Norse mythology. We like to use the phrase, “We are inside looking out instead of outside looking in.”
Now your other band (Trinacria)… My question is, why start another band with three members of a band you’re already in?
It was initially not a project. There’s an institution in Norway called the Rikskonsertene, which is a division of the Norwegian Cultural Department, and what they do is different fusions of different types of music, like rock crossover projects and stuff like that. And they wanted to have a mixture band of noise music, and they chose a band called Fe-Mail, a Norwegian duo, and they were searching for an extreme metal band to incorporate with them. They called Ivar, and asked if he’d be interested in that collaboration, and he said yes. Originally, it was just Ivar and those girls, then he called me and said he wanted someone to do the vocals, and I said, “Why not? It sounds interesting.” And we needed another guitar player, and we have extra guitar player in [Enslaved guitarist] Ice Dale, and yeah, he joined up. And we have maybe the best rhythm section in Bergen [Norway] with Iver [Sandoy, Trinacria drummer] and Espen [Lien] on the bass guitar.
The thing I noticed about them the most, considering Enslaved’s progressive leanings and intricate parts, is that Trinacria is really minimalistic.
It is minimalist. It’s almost like drone rock sometimes.
How’s the dynamic in that different from Enslaved?
The difference with just doing the vocals, it’s a bit more theatrical. There’s no communication with the audience. It’s really more dark, and a little bit more art, because we’re using makeup. We look a little crazier, actually. (laughs) It’s more theatrical, and yet more static. It’s more like a performance than an actual band.
You’re in two bands with Ivar, and you’ve been playing with him for how long?
It’s basically what we’ve been doing our whole lives. We have a huge respect for one another. We know what not to do, what not to say. (laughs) It’s like an old marriage, you know? We don’t step on each other’s toes. We hang around each other as much as necessary. But yeah, we have certain unwritten rules. It works really well. He’s become more like a brother than a friend to me. He’s a great friend, but we’re definitely more like brothers.
I take it there’s fighting every now and again…
Actually, we don’t fight or argue; that’s one of those rules. Because it’s very rare that we get to that point, because we know how to avoid it.
And my final question: How many hours a day do you guys spend listening to Pink Floyd?
(laughs) Well, I listened to Floyd a little today, actually. But I listen to at least one Pink Floyd album a week, I guess. At least, maybe more. I’ve been listening to a lot of Saucerful of Secrets, actually. That’s an amazing, amazing album.
What do you guys take from Floyd more than anything else into Enslaved? How important is Pink Floyd to what Enslaved does?
I think the Pink Floyd role has been really overrated, actually. (laughs) In response, it’s not that important. There are bands, for me personally, that are more important bands than Pink Floyd, absolutely. Bands that are equally important like King Crimson, Rush, Genesis, Darkthrone, early Mayhem, Bathory, German thrash metal… but yeah, there are a lot of important bands [to Enslaved].
I guess you can find traces of Pink Floyd inspiration in the kind of long floating elements. For example, the song “Ground” [off of Vertebrae]. David Gilmour, he’s one of the most influential guitar players in the world. No one plays the guitar like that. No one has that strong tone. Marvelous guitar player. Still is, actually.