Thrash Hits

September 22nd, 2010

Interview: Enslaved – Grutle Kjellson & Ivar Bjørnson on Axioma Ethica Odini

We don’t expect you to know what Axioma Ethica Odini means other than the title of Enslaved‘s new album so we sent Amit Sharma to meet their lead singer and guitarist to discuss everything about their 11th studio album.

The new album is called Axioma Ethica Odini. Can tell us more about the concept behind the title, music and artwork?

Grutle: Well there were actually two titles – it was supposed to be called Axioma with the end of title as Ethica Odini.

Ivar: Axioma was one of the ideas I had for a title, it was from the basic form of Axiom in Latin, meaning self-evident truth. The whole process of natural universal truth, scientific truth contrasting to what Enslaved is doing which is very much about man-made truth. The starting point would be that everything is going on inside our heads…

Grutle: The words Ethica Odini are the Latin translation of an Old Norse poem called Hávamál (Haavamaal) from 1655 I think, it can be translated into The Ethics Of Odin. It became a 3-word title actually by coincidence, Ethica Odini was supposed to be a sub-title, but the artist painted the words in a row. We saw at it and felt it looked better.

Ivar: It made sense. Scientific truths vs. Man-Made Truths.

Enslaved Axioma Ethica Odini 2010 nuclear blast album cover artwork thrash hits

Grutle: And also, the poem and Ethica Odini are our biggest axiom. Old ethics, old wisdom, old advice on how to interact oneself with nature and other human beings. The common spirituality, so to speak. It’s kind of a fist in the face of monotheistic thinking. We feel that a lot of the old thoughts written down in that poem are very much translatable to modern day life in 2010, and we have lost a lot of that type of reasonable thinking along the way through enduring centuries of monotheism. Fans can find their own interpretations of the lyrics, look at it as poetry to go with the music or try to find the initial meaning, but they might not always succeed in doing so. It’s kind of a three-layered thing.

Ivar: Maybe even try breaking it down and putting together all the letters in random order?

Grutle: Play it on vinyl backwards. You may discover who killed John F Kennedy and what is the weight of the biggest polar bear in the world. I remember Judas Priest got sued for having some backwards message on one of their albums… they played it backwards in court and heard something like, “Go kill yourselves”. People were doing things like that with weird backwards messages like, “Mummy, I want caramels.” In the end., the judge just sat there and said, “OK, lets just have another cup of tea.”

Truls Espedal has been responsible for all Enslaved cover art since 2001’s Monumension. How did you become aware of his work?

Grutle: He was a friend of my ex-girlfriends and she would talk about this artist doing some great stuff. It was when I was living in Trondheim, the gothic capital of Norway. So I was aware of the guy and his work before I met him. When I did meet him, in the pub, we started to talk about music and art. I kinda told him as a joke, “Ah, you should do the next Enslaved cover.” Then he called me a couple of days later. I was a bit like, “Yeah… I vaguely remember that.” That led to his work on Monumension and we have stuck with him ever since. It’s becoming more and more mutual in our thinking. Our conceptual meetings used to take five hours, nowadays half an hour! Very mutual and good symbiosis.

What is the usual writing process for an Enslaved album?

Ivar: Normally it starts off with me, I’ll come up with some riffs and do some pre-production – a rough sketch – and then hand it over to everyone. Then Grutle and Herbrand [Larsen – keyboards, backing vocals] start to work out vocal arrangements on top of those riffs and that’s when the whole feedback / change process starts. Sometimes they need a bit more space for the vocals, sometimes there’s too much space and we’ll make it more narrow and sometimes it’s fine like it is… When it gets to our drummer he might want to change things. Me and Ice Dale, our other guitarist, will work on our voicings. At some point everyone will have worked on something, and we will start gluing it together.

Grutle: Our drummer Cato will often say after hearing the sketch, “That doesn’t sound like drums. It’s programmed drums – it doesn’t sound like a drummer.” We’ll say, “Well, it isn’t.”

Ivar: He’s a bit sceptical towards the programmed drums, but my demo programming is getting better… closer and closer. Especially when recording the new album. He was really pleased that the initial ideas were adapted to his playing style… from ’79 with lots of aggression. Playing with a drummer from the pre-trigger technology years makes a lot of difference. You can hear it in the way these guys play, we saw Autopsy live – you can notice when a guy started playing in a band before triggers were invented. They really have to punch their way through the PA, as opposed to just turning up the trigger signal. Now it is like they are just scratching the drums.

Grutle: Actually he played with triggers for a couple of years and it sounded ridiculous cos he just hit so hard the fucking drums were overdriven (makes distorted noise). So in the end he didn’t bother with triggers anymore.

Given the success of Vertebrae, it’s interesting you didn’t get Joe Barresi to mix the new album and went with Jens Bogren. Were there any particular reasons behind this?

Ivar: It was good old fashioned chaos! We set out to work with Joe, though it wasn’t really agreed 100%. But we made quite a quick turnaround, started writing in May 2009 during the Opeth tour and things started going really fast. We had a cancellation of a tour, so instead we had two or three months in the rehearsal room and things developed quite quickly. I guess it’s the same as fishing… you can’t wait too long after you fish it out ’til you serve it! We started to get in a hurry and that’s when our worlds collided. Joe’s got such an upward growing popularity.

Grutle : He wanted to do it, but maybe it was his manager overbooking him.

Ivar: So we heard he might be able to do it after doing this and that, but that was not compatible with us. We had booked the dates and that’s the way it had to happen. So we liked the sound of the Opeth album before last, but we really liked the last one. Ghost Reveries was good but Watershed was excellent. Grutle and Mikael are good friends.

Grutle: So I got in touch and said, “Do you think Jens Bogren would be up for the next Enslaved album?” And he was like, “Yeah. Don’t think about anyone else. Just call him. Book the studio. He’s your man – no doubt.” Mikael likes the band, he’s a good friend.

Isa is considered to be a great turning point in Enslaved’s career due to the inclusion of keyboards for a more progressive sound. Do you still see yourselves as a Viking Metal band?

Grutle: We never really saw ourselves as true [tr00! – Ed] Black Metal. We used the term Viking Metal early in our career to separate ourselves from at the Norwegian idea of Black Metal – which was any kind of Metal with Satanic lyrics. We never took part in any Satanic stuff or had any Satanic influences, our concepts and thoughts were more based on Norse mythology. We came with a silly name – ‘Viking Metal’ – we should never have done that, we regret that of course. We didn’t know what we were talking about and the initial idea was not to make people play silly folk music and wear fur.

Ivar: Medieval Music, mind you – which has nothing to do with Vikings. They are playing Christian Medieval Music.

Grutle: So yeah. Sorry about that! We didn’t mean to. We stopped calling ourselves Viking Metal a long while ago. People still call us Viking Metal, Black Metal, Death Metal, whatever. Genres are nothing interesting – what the fuck is that. I like Music – all of us Music lovers don’t just like specific genres. If the Music is energetic, atmospheric or gives you something, it doesn’t matter whether if it is Pop or Jazz or Metal or Rock n Roll. On the other hand, people need something to discuss on the forums. What is Black Metal? I don’t know…(evil voice) Primitive. Norse. Music. [laughs]

How does it feel to be doing European and American tours with other Norwegian bands (Dimmu Borgir, Sahg, Blood Red Throne) that sound so different to Enslaved?

Ivar: That’s cool thing about the Norwegian packages – we all sound different. It is definitely a sign of quality or at least it being interesting. All of these bands come from the same period, in a sense. Even Sahg, the newer band, all of the guys come from that same period. The bands sound different but yet there’s the same vibe in there – that’s the kind of thing I’d like to see myself. That’s why I go to Roadburn Festival in Holland, for instance, to see bands seemingly worlds apart but there’s always a little bit of a connection.

Grutle: And of course, all of these bands are Norwegian so it’s easy to interact with them, we know everybody from years back. There’s no pressure, no stress, all of us get along. Its not difficult, we’re old friends.

The Armageddon Concerto performance with Shining at this year’s Roadburn Festival was something quite revolutionary for a headline set. How did it all come about?

Grutle: Well it started in 2007, we were requested to perform the concert at a Jazz Festival in July 2008 in a small town called Molde in the North Western part of Norway.

Ivar: They wanted something modern or should I say cutting edge from the jazz scene combined with something totally outside. Shining were an obvious choice as a few of those guys have backgrounds in Jazz and are even still in the Jazz scene.

Grutle: It’s like they still think in Jazz terms but closing in on Metal. They wanted an experimental jazz band fusion experience with one of the bigger Metal acts.

Ivar: So writing was a challenge. Enslaved is a band that is traditional in a Metal sense, as in it is all planned. You got to Enslaved concerts, see the same song 14 times, you would probably hear a bit of variation from night to night but the content would be the same – chorus, verse and all that. Then sometimes, you’ll have a band that might jam a bit, we talked about Opeth, they’re one of the few extreme metal bands that might do that…

Grutle: Remember they played ‘Summer Of 69’ in Toronto? [hums riff] Just the first minute of it. 3000 people were singing along and got caught red handed. Mikael was like, “Just kidding,” and the crowd pretended they were kidding too.

Ivar: And Shining being a total opposite. They have an idea of a song, but they improvise everything. So writing 90 minutes together was quite a challenge. We would be like, “Is this song three minutes or ten?” How do you get 10 people playing that together? I would say that was one of the periods Enslaved really had to go home and study hard! When they finally transcribed what they were actually doing and what they wanted us to do, a lot of that stuff was way beyond anything we had done in 16 or 17 years together. We had to go home, old school, sit down with the tab and rehearse.

Is it something you’ve ever considered taking out on the road, or was it just a one-off for Roadburn?

Grutle: It was supposed to be a one-off. But then there was a second-off at Roadburn.

Ivar: I think we buried it at the Roadburn show you know. When we played we had feeds from the volcano, that was wonderful – all the ashes. The middle piece of the Armageddon is actually called ‘Ashes’ – I don’t think we could ever get another full experience like that. The perfect closure and The Giants said that was enough. Quits. Those people in the room and the band on stage, we were all quote unquote ‘Victims of the Volcano’.

Are you still involved in promoting within the Bergen Music Scene?

Ivar: Yeah Im working with the Hole In The Sky Festival. I’m also involved in a company that does management, I don’t do it directly but I’m involved. We work with newer, younger bands, consulting and advising on everything on how to create a firm for your band – your economics, songwriting credits – everything like that.

Your last three albums have won Spellemann awards (Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy), how does it feel to gain that kind of recognition in your home country?

Grutle: Recognition is always nice, we’d be lying if we didn’t appreciate that of course. Extreme Metal in Norway has become a huge statement in Norwegian Music. Around 2003/2004 it became impossible even for the Norwegian tabloid press to ignore it. In the 90s they were just writing about murders, arson, and stuff like that – music was of no interest at all. Suddenly the fan base grew and they were forced to recognise it. They were forced to listen to the albums and thought, “Actually, this is kinda good!” The biggest musical exports from Norway are Electronica and Metal, except A-Ha, of course. Metallers have forced themselves into the musical society of Norway; it just became impossible for them to ignore the genre. We’re quite big in Norway, we might not get headlines but we’re almost there you know? It’s us, Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, Immortal – all doing well at the moment. It feels weird in the sense that we were once looked on as either Satanic murderers or Bikers that would shoot each other, but now it’s musical recognition we are getting, which is great because that’s what we’ve been doing all along.

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Axioma Ethica Odini by Enslaved is released on 27 September 2010 and will be very, very metal.

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