Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjornson has spent a good part of the last few years putting together what is sure to be one of the most memorable cultural events to hit New York City this year. The ByNorse series has been described as "a platform for Norwegian Art, Music, literature, film and culture." With an event in London that was reportedly a roaring success Bjornson was excited to inform us that they are planning on taking this all over the world.
Enslaved have always been innovators and Bjornson seems to be pioneering brave new worlds. Beyond that, Ivar Bjornson is always down to shoot the shit and gave us a unique look into his music and mindset.
How the hell are you?
I'm great man. I've been on the road for close to seven weeks. It's a little exhausting but at the same time you are really getting into the groove things and the shows sound great and you meet the fans. I'm feeling good!
I just got off a month long tour and thought I was going to tour – how do you endure touring that long?
It's about self care. There's a lot of truth to that. I don't think you have to go super healthy to survive it, you can still have drinks and have fun but the important thing is keeping your mind on track and not diverging to much from your everyday life. You need to have your projects and work to do with the band. You can't fall into the whole of sleeping off hangovers and then going on stage. It's human nature to have a point to orientate from.
How did you find this model?
Just through lots of tours! I've done over 30 tours since the nineties. I've tried it all. In the old days it was about free beer and booze and partying and then I went the other way and tried to be very sensible but that's too boring. Somewhere in between is good.
It's never occurred to me before but you've spent most of your adult life on the road…
Yeah! It's definitely been a healthy portion of every year since I was 17! It's been what I've been doing since then!
What is it like to go from being a teenager who created a bunch of cool black metal to essentially a cultural ambassador for Norway?
I guess it's pretty much the same ting but what we are doing is perception and maybe we have put more thought into it. I think that comes with not being a teenager. You start contemplating what you are doing. We haven't changed that much, if you spend time with us on the road you will see traces of those teenagers who want to have a good time. It's not all that serious. We really are grateful that so many people have opened their eyes to Enslaved and we come from this strange country where they appreciate extreme art. That's as far as it goes, we aren't thinking about how we can represent the country!
Why do you think Norway appreciates extreme art?
Good question! We are still trying to figure that out. One thing I guess is that there is room for it in the economy. Money is at the root of most things after all! On the other hand it seems to be an important part of the socialist model. Even during the Second World War they suggested to Churchill that they cut the culture budget towards the end of the war since they were out of money and he said “Then there would be no point in there being a war!”
You've said that to me before!
It's one of my favorite quotes! I think it's something that has stuck around because of the after war model. Culture is seen as a thing that can unite us. You have to go pretty far out on the right or left before you find someone who thinks it should be taken away. It's used in so many different things. It's a big part of the school system and elderly homes. They get access to these programs from musicians. It's an integral part of the fabric of society.
Where is the link between Norwegian culture and extreme music?
That's the question! Like so many other things I feel like it happened by accident with the rise of black metal in the early 90s. I don't think anyone thought of it as another exciting cultural expression. It was scary and met by skepticism. I think that's healthy if you look back at what happened with the crimes and all that, of course everyone who committed crimes went to jail and the rest of us were left when the smoke cleared and people saw we had built up a network and were entrepreneurs and were touring seriously. That combined with a sense of not really having anything musically from Norway was weird too. The Swedes for example export a ton of pop culture. They have songwriters who have been dominating the billboard lists since the seventies. Many other countries are famous for their kinds of music and there was a vacuum in Norway. They discovered that these fringe genres were doing well around the world, not just black metal but also experimental electronic music as well as noise and jazz. At some point it was just embraced as what we had got. It was high quality so they took it as it was!
So for you black metal is a logical growth on traditional Norwegian culture?
In a sense it is. There is a sort of difference between what I would call extreme art and black metal itself. The original idea of black metal might not fit into the whole 'adapt to society' kind of things since it's so hostile in its nature. Over the years the things have sort of grown together though. If you're talking about extreme metal rather than black metal there is a natural combination. There have always been weird underground things. When Norway became Christianized in the middle ages the folk music was viewed as the devils music. At some point in the 18th century there were people going to the farmhouses when they were having dances to make sure they weren't using the tritone, the devils step! That kind of stuck with us, it gave the music an alluring quality and got normal sensible people to lose their inhibitions and go a bit nuts. It's been viewed as a bit degenerate, it comes from the spirit of the people so to speak!
Does this relate to your relationship withWardruna?
That's also a natural movement! Einar from Wardruna was a part of the black metal scene in the 90s, I talked to him a little then but in the last few years I really got to know him and find out why he went the way he did. He started with black metal and felt that it was rooted in this devilish and dangerous tradition, it was oppositional towards the monotheistic order of society and the morality that was draped over the whole thing. As it progressed during the nineties and things became more professional… he came from the trve black metal scene with Gorogoth and those guys and he lost interest because things became more of an industrial endeavor than a spiritual one. So he cut loose and worked on Wardruna on his own for four or five years trying to develop the sound and the methods he would use in the music and studying the mythology. I had been sort of halfway following it and was very surprised and shocked with how he developed the link between the folk music and modern interpretations. HE created a ton of new ideas performed on authentic instruments in what we believe to be an authentic way of writing music from those times. Another strike of luck is that we were asked, in connection with the anniversary of the Norwegian constitution, to see if we could write something together and it clicked instantly. We realized we didn't want to just do a commission piece but continue working together.
Something I find a little more surprising is that you are also doing a project with Kevin Hufnagel…
Yes! He is guesting on my solo project BardSpec in New York. The project itself had been dormany for many years. I can trace it back to the mid nineties. Like I mentioned with the dark ambient music, especially the stuff that comes from the furthest northern part of Norway. Some people call it 'Arctic ambient' and it fascinated me since it had the same atmosphere that I found in some of my favorite extreme metal. It was repetitive and hypnotic but there was really no time for it. I just developed the demos and they started to get good around 2010-2011. I had a whole album around 2014 when Einar and I were asked to curate Roadburn. We were talking with the guy from Roadburn and he's looking at the things we programmed and whatnot and he said “The only thing missing is a dark ambient project” I was really surprised at that point but I realized the reason I had never sent the demos were around was because I had no knowledge of where I should pitch them around. I didn't know if metalheads were liked it. So I sent the Roadburn guys my demo tape and it was booked right away. Now we've done a couple shows and are going back to Roadburn as well as New York. BardSpec was put on the bill and then the guys from Grimposium, who are good friends with the Gorguts guys, so they said that Hufnagel should do something with us! I learned my lesson to b open about who could be into this kind of music so I sent Kevin the demos and he instantly said he would be into it. It will be between planned and improvised. I'm sending him live sessions so he can make out how it's going to be and he will make his thing off that. He's the kin of musician who can improvise off of that. It's very exciting and I feel honored to be a part of this. Those guys are the amazing guitarists and writers, it's exotic to me and a different side of the metal world that I have a new like and respect for.
It feels very serendipitous how everything has worked out or almost blessed…do you feel a sense of destiny?
Kind of. I have hard time with the idea of destiny. I lean more towards… not luck but the absence of bad luck, it's where you can set up your path through things in a way that will avoid what people call bad luck and negativity. It's not so much about faith or being blessed or chosen but more of a sensible way of being open for the opportunities so that when they present themselves you have already been ready for them for a while.
How do you do that?
I'm no scholar but an expression that resonates with me is what they would call the meditative approach to going through life. It's not about setting up huge rituals and harvesting luck or that kind of thing. It's more about an instantaneous sort of absolute openness to whatever is coming along rather than going and searching for things you have a faith that you will find them. You can't really put it into words! It's not optimism, it's realism too… Whatever happens it happens!
Does any of that tie back to traditional Scandinavian pagan cultures?
Some of it does that. It's not about who you pray to or lean on but keeping going. It's like the principles of quantum physics, you will never find out what the thing is because the study of it will affect the thing itself just by using the microscope to look at the smallest pieces will push them around. I think that's what they are saying with the runes. If that's your approach you will see them from a different side every time and they will become harder to understand. That shouldn't discourage someone from studying it but it's the process that's learning, not being frustrated because you're not going to see the final answer.
Something that really stuck out to me in one of the interviews you did for this is that you referred to this as the halfway point of Enslaved's career – do you feel like Enslaved has twenty five years left in it?
I have all sorts of calculations for that! The first time I was asked that question, “Will we see you in another twenty five years” I kind of laughed it off, but the scientist in me tried to figure out what would be realistic. I think that's a good approximation though – I would say 25-30 more years is doable, it reaches what makes sense. We are at the half life now!
How does it feel to be halfway through?
It feels fucking amazing! The way up to this point is so long in a sense and filled with experiences and images and emotions it's amazing but it's also filled with mistakes and not regret but things we wouldn't do again. It's a mirroring of what we have done. It doesn't look like a black future at all!
I know people traveling from all over the US to go to By Norse, do you think you will be bringing it back or to new markets?
We just started in March this year in London and it's already gained such a fantastic niche. It miraculously found its place right away in the world of metal and alternative music and it was so quick that I couldn't think of it as anything else other than continuing for a long time. Our goal is for it to go to every corner of the world. It's the same with old Norse mythology,it's a geographical coincidence that that's our mythology, but it's represented in other mythologies all over the world in terms of different zeitgeists. It's the same with By Norse the idea is to be a cross section for what we see as exciting Norwegian culture. We started out with music and visual arts but we are already talking to people in the game industry in Norway. That's a different cultural expression. We are talking with tattoo artists too, people who do traditional viking tattoos. We do stuff that looks like authentic wood work too. We want to bring those guys out. The New York By Norse is pretty modest in size but we wanted to use the contacts we had to find the best places. I think going to different cities and countries, wherever there is a sensible government that will allow us to do something like that we will try to do it.
What attracts people all over the world to Norwegian culture?
It really has grown over the years – it's become huge in the last five years. While fifteen years ago if you asked someone on the street about Norse mythology and vikings they would talk about Manowar type stuff or guys playing the accordion with silly helmets. The world has changed a lot though. Things that musicians and films were hinting at back then about clashes of civilizations are actually going on now. People feel drawn into power structures all over the world. That stuff isn't just between extremists anymore, it's in the streets and in the schools. A lot of the innocence and the belief and the idea that things can be normal is gone. The 2008 crash was just another example of this. They realized that people are ruthless and will do ruthless shit for their own gain like every religious city had to face that, but now the financial institutions did too. In those times people have to look for things that are a bit more true. It's not to make a gain for whoever wrote it. It was based on some values that were held in common with the monotheistic religions. But it's without all the political crap hidden in it.
To head towards the end – what is the most important thing Scandinavian culture has taught you?
A sense of responsibility for your own faith. That you have parameters and guidance for how to behave. You are responsible for yourself. There is no fallback. You can't expect forgiveness, you need to be on it the entire time if you want to achieve whatever you set out to achieve!
Find tickets for ByNorse here.