While Watain’s Erik Danielsson is an affable, articulate and charming character, it’s very clear that to him black metal is life and death. For some, that kind of confidence is both disturbing and off-putting. For Danielsson, who grew up and into a scene that at the time was much reviled and demonised, it makes sense that he would have such strong and personal opinions on how black metal and in particular, Watain is viewed. We asked Cheryl Carter to sit down with Danielsson prior to his band’s December show here in London, to ponder those issues at length.
They conducted this interview in the dark. Fitting.
I want to talk a little bit about Lawless Darkness and how you then got to The Wild Hunt. How do you feel both you and the band have evolved since Lawless Darkness up until now with The Wild Hunt?
Lawless Darkness was our fourth album and I think that there is this pattern that I see in a lot of bands (and I don’t usually like patterns but this is an interesting one) where the third album is usually some kind of defining moment for a lot of bands I suppose, which was very much the case with Watain as well. With Sworn to the Dark we found our foundation so to say, and Lawless was a perfecting of what we started on Sworn to the Dark. Lawless was what we at the time thought could be that perfect black metal album…”perfect” is a strange word to use in creative circumstances, but still, something like that. Lawless was a lot about perfecting and refining something that we had found on Sworn and we, as far as we’re concerned we kind of nailed it, that goal, we got to that point and for us that album became very much a perfect representation of a black metal album for us and I think, with that said and done we were very eager, at the same time, to proceed forward which is exactly what happened with The Wild Hunt.
The interesting thing about this band is that over these past fifteen years things, everything has increased in terms of…well everything really. The Wild Hunt was kind of our attempt to try to sum up that increasing feeling, that storm around us is just becoming stronger and stronger and stronger and the album was our way of looking back and try to sum things up until that point. So, with all that being said, we had two quite different approaches to writing those albums and you can hear it; you can feel it.
I think the biggest shock for everyone was ‘They Rode On,’ It was completely unexpected. Was it important for you to do something like that?
Not at all. It didn’t really have anything to do with, you know, intentionally trying to break a pattern or anything like that, but I think that we were very certain at a very early stage of the writing of The Wild Hunt that we were going to just let go of everything and just dig really, really deep into the band and into ourselves and just be completely open with whatever we found there. And, ‘They Rode On’ happened to be one of those things that we found deep within ourselves and we didn’t really see any reason not to use it and it became a very beautiful and very important song to everyone and I understand that people react on it because when you look at it from the outside it seems like this total sidestep but for us it felt so natural somehow to have it there. I mean, you also have to take into consideration that over these last fifteen years that we have been together that the music that we have been listening to has been very much, of course we have been listening to a lot of extreme music, but also on the tour bus we listen more to stuff like Fields of the Nephilim or Nick Cave and stuff like that, so it was nothing really, it was a very natural thing.
I guess for a lot of people, they might not know a lot about you so for a lot of fans it might be.
In this day and age people have quite a shallow relationship to music, and people want something that is quite easy to digest and they are very stressed about taking in…almost, when you’re all of sudden faced with something that is not according to your expectations then things get confusing. For me it was just about getting it out there. I’ve done my part and the reactions are interesting in a way but they don’t really concern me that much. Without trying to sound arrogant, if we start to think about how people react and what people expect then you can lose it, I think.
Your first music video is pretty intense. You’ve never made one before, so why did you choose ‘Outlaw’ for that and what did you want to do with the video?
I cannot really put my finger on why we chose that particular song but I think it had to do with that we knew from the beginning that we wanted to do something very sludgy and filthy and violent with that video, you know?
Yeah, it’s pretty disgusting.
Yeah, it has its moments. But we just wanted to…we started with that idea before we even knew what song to do the video for and we debated back and forth about what song to use and ‘Outlaw’ has a very wide concept. Lyrically it’s very much in essence about freedom. It’s about liberation, it’s about breaking free and that’s quite a vast concept that allows for a lot of variety in a music video so with that song as a base we had a very big palette, so to say, to use.
Was it a bit weird, to film it?
Ah, everything we do with this band is a bit weird, but I think, we were not really prepared for the immensity of the production. We arrived at this place and there’s fucking make-up artists and wardrobe people and camera crew with walkie talkies and we come there and we were just, “what’s going on?” But it was good; I was very inspired while making that video. We had a really good crew of people to work with, very artistic people that could kind of….I think surprisingly enough relate to all the ideas that we wanted to express so yeah, it was…it inspired me lot and now I’m really looking forward to doing something more.
Would you be looking to do something a bit different?
I have so many ideas. One of the first ideas that we had for a video was to actually do one for, ‘They Rode On.’
That would be cool.
Yeah, I have loads of ideas for that.
Can you tell us?
Ummmm. No, haha. It’s a little but too early but if we do that we would do it a little bit more…low budget, try to do it ourselves. I don’t know, that’s something we always like to do with this band, that everything comes from us.
I saw you guys play live at the Metal Hammer awards and you had all the pyro and I also saw you previously at the Underworld which was a completely different kind of experience. I felt like at the Underworld it was really intense and it was really personal as well. How do you tailor your show to where you’re playing?
I like the diversity of it, I guess. I like that fact that we are able to deliver no matter what. It’s, for me, it’s more like these different scenarios are just about where you put your own focus. When we’re doing a full on pyro show with all the trimmings, I have my focus somewhere while if we’re doing a club show and it’s just stage clothes then my focus comes somewhere else and I cannot really say what I prefer. I think whether it’s very much a memorable, important show to me doesn’t necessarily relate to what we have on stage, it’s more about more abstract things that I find it hard to put words to.
Talking about shows, you’ve done just the huge American tour, you’re over now and unfortunately Germany was cancelled but you’ve also just announced Australia as well, with Mayhem. How do you prepare to be away for so long? Mentally and physically, that must be quite tough?
Yeah, but [laughs] I don’t know, I think you have to enter into some kind of reptilian warrior mode and I think luckily no one in this band is very particular about being clean or having comfortable circumstances it’s really not…we don’t live like that in our private lives but it’s not that hard. I’ve been home maybe ten weeks this year so I’m used to being on the road and I have a very nomadic approach to life in general and I don’t really like to settle down so to me the touring scenario is actually kind of perfect and it’s something that I consider almost like a pilgrimage of a sort. It has a very spiritual aspect that I tend to cling to a lot and that’s very, very important to me. I think that’s the way you have to look at it because if I would look at is as just going from town to town and show to show and just performing in front of people then there wouldn’t be anything in it for me. But since I found a spiritual thread that I can constantly cling to on the road…it makes everything else irrelevant.
That leads quite well into the next question actually. Obviously Satan is a very important part of your life, you talked about being spiritual, how did you get into that and how do you translate that into your personal life and the band as well?
I think at quite a young age when things in one’s life start to get outlined. A lot of abstract ideas that you might have had unconsciously as a kid, they start to take definite shape during early adulthood and when I found the Devil in music and art immediately something clicked, all of a sudden a lot of things made sense. For me, it was the tool I chose to work with as a spiritual person and Watain even more so. That kind of made that idea even more defined and concrete and that’s how it’s been since that day and Watain and is very much a tool of exploration, of inner exploration, of spiritual exploration and it’s come to be my primary tool for that really.
Music in general, when it works on a deeper level it’s always played that role of a bridge between the high and the low so to say, I mean, music is never really, or at least the way I see it, is never really meant to be all human; there has to be that other thing in there that kind of makes it come alive. You can call it anything you want, inspiration, a fire, but to me it’s always been that spiritual aspect and we put a lot of emphasis on that in Watain, obviously, it’s the foundation on which we built this band.
Do you spend a lot of time studying different paths and beliefs…do you spend time reading on the bus?
I consider all of life as a study in a way, you know, and that’s how I live, that’s why…that’s what I do. It doesn’t necessarily come down to just reading books and finding out information it happens, at least after a while, much more on an intuitive level I think. The idea of gnosis or religious knowledge is often referred to as something quite abstract and as something that is bestowed on someone that has found a path in life and continues to walk upon that path.
You’ve been a part of the black metal scene back at home, and you’ve just done your big home town show in Uppsala – how do you think that in your time as a musician that the black metal scene has changed? Has it?
There’s two different ways of looking at that. One answer would be that it hasn’t changed a bit for me and another would be that it changed completely, 180 degrees. To me, black metal will always the same thing that it was then, a violent and extremely controversial and extremely severe form of movement in which only very few people could find a place. But, on a larger scale in terms of how other people see this kind of music, things have changed quite a bit because obviously since the arrival of the internet and all of these loathsome things, everything is available to everyone and all of that…all that we all know by now [here I think Erik was referring to the early 90s Norwegian movement]. I think to me, one of the most important things about being initiated into the black metal movement at quite a young age was the fact that it was very sealed off, that it was like an exotic brotherhood that which only a few people could partake. I mean that in the sincerest sense of the word. In Sweden around the area where we grew up it was about life and death. If you had the wrong shirt on at a show or if people didn’t know who you were you were very likely to end up in an ambulance on your way home. People took it very, very seriously and that’s something of course that made a huge impact on us and that’s the approach that we had to it when we started Watain and we cling to that approach and there’s no reason to abandon that just because it’s now something that my mother can read about in the newspapers, it doesn’t really change anything for me.
What is important here is that black metal has been misrepresented and misunderstood for a long time and with a band like Watain now at the forefront of the black metal movement the genre is back somewhere to where it used to be. Which is good, because it’s sad when bands that have no real bond to the actual fundaments of the black metal movement…when there’s no bond to that I don’t think that you should be entitled to represent the genre either. That’s the way I look upon it and now at least if people start to look up black metal on the internet one of the first bands they can read about is Watain and at least we can speak for ourselves, we can represent it in an appropriate manner which is, ha, it’s never really a position I wanted to be in but it’s something that we had to take upon our shoulders.
You were saying earlier about not being super interested in how people see you, but with all the end of year coverage that’s coming out now do you pay attention to where you place on those lists? Is that important for you?
It’s a little bit hard to answer just like that it. I mean of course a part of me is interested in what people think and I don’t really understand that part of myself to be honest and I haven’t really been able to define why it’s there but it’s…to use very big words…I don’t know if you’re a mother…
Imagine if you’ve given birth to a child, try to picture yourself in that situation [I just did, now crying], you have this very close link to your spawn, haha, and you love it because it comes from you and it’s this thing that is above everything else because it comes from you, it’s straight from within you and when people from the outside then…it’s like you put a child on a pedestal for people to watch and see and behold and then all of a sudden they start to have opinions on it. Like, “I don’t like that kids haircut,” “I don’t like its accent, you should teach it to speak better” or ” I don’t like the name of it.” And I’m a bit like, OK, but, it’s my child, I mean, make your own! Haha. I don’t know if that’s an absurd comparison but to me it’s one way of trying to explain the ambivalence I feel towards it because of course we put that child there for everyone to have opinions on but, me on the other hand, I am so sure about what I think about it and I love it with all my heart you know, so of course it becomes a bit awkward when people are saying “you should have done it differently.” This is the only way it could be done, it’s in my DNA.
The Wild Hunt by Watain is out now on Century Media.