BORKNAGAR – More hair
Short intro since the interview is quite a long lecture. I was informed that Borknagar’s guitarist and ‘main brain’ Øystein Brun would sit down with me for an interview, but he brought along Lars Nedland (who’s been doing keyboards and a lot of the vocals for many years now) and it ended up to be a fantastic one hour chat, full of humor and history, starting with a dialogue about somehow broader subjects related to the band and then, the second part is more focused on the upcoming release, Winter Thrice, due to be out on Century media on 22nd of January. Hopefully the lecture will be an enjoyable one.
You’ve been making music for some 20 years now, if not more
Ø.B.: Even more actually. I’ve been making music since I was like 15-16 years old, so it’s like about 25 years I guess since I’ve been writing music.
How does it feel when you think about this number? Do you think it’s anything special or it’s, let’s say, another day in your life?
Ø.B.: In a way it’s a day in the life. It’s kinda integrated in my life, it’s not something that I only do in weekends or so. It is part of my daily life. I guess a kind of routine has evolved in time, and I say this in a positive way. I let the inspiration flow and I just do the things I can do…that’s the way it works basically.
L.N.: But it feels kinda a special when an album has come out because it marks the end of a long journey. You have worked so much, with all the material, the arrangements and all, and it all culminates with the physical copy. For us at least.
Ø.B.: And that’s very important to me in life in general, to have these goals, to reach out for. To me, that’s a very important thing in all aspects of life, job or work or music. It’s always important to have milestones or goals to achieve.
But do you get a break after you achieve the goal or do you just keep on going? Do you get to relax at all?
L.N.: You know, we have families, kids, so music is the relaxing part. The music is the space for ourselves.
Ø.B.: It’s different phases along the process though. Writing the music it’s a part, arranging is an quite big part of the whole thing, then recording then technical stuff and then after we have finished up the mix, we are doing interviews, promotion work, contracts, business stuff. So it’s never really ending.
L.N.: We also have other bands. Øystein has Cronian, I work with Solefald and we keep ourselves busy. For each and every band we have on and off periods, there are short stretches of time when you get to concentrate on other things and then you come back to this or that. In time for a new album or for a tour…
Speaking about influences. Do you recall how or if your musical taste has changed along the years during which you’ve been making music? Do you feel that such changes have influenced your music at all?
Ø.B.: Yea. That’s part of being human I guess. I think it is a bit silly for a musician that says ‘Oh, my big inspiration is only this band or that band’. At least from my perspective, I believe life inspires you, for example driving the kids to school can give me some inputs that I don’t necessarily put into the music, but it’s part of the big picture. I evolve as a person – I hope, and of course my musical taste and my musical reference changes over time. It would be silly that it doesn’t shine through your music.
When I was younger I was more like conservative in terms of music. There were certain styles of music that I was much more into. But being a musician myself for so many years it has been quite important to be able to broaden the musical perspective so I tried to do that. For me, music is a journey. You cannot take the same travel all the time, but you need to broaden the horizons.
Is there something that you, for example, are listening to, but you would have never seen yourself listening to it let’s say 10 years ago?
Ø.B.: No, not really actually.
L.N.: Now he’s listening to Garth Brooks all the time
Ø.B.: Yea, there you go (laughter). Damn you Lars. Don’t give away from the house. You can leave the interview now. But seriously, I’ve always had an open mind towards music, and it is probably more open now than before.
L.N.: I think a lot of those second or third wave black metal bands that come from the same background as we do have always been kind of open minded as to what kind of music they get inspired by. So I think we as band, but also as individuals, draw inspiration from a wide range of musical genres. I was joking with the Garth Brooks stuff but we do listen to some country music. Or to 16 horsepower for example. I don’t think that musicians in our genre limit themselves as much as maybe they used to do in late 80s or early 90s.
I hope you’ll understand what I am trying to ask with the next question. What does it take to make the same music but not the same songs? You have quite a recognisable sound overall
Ø.B.: It has to be a mix of things. Of course, I’ve been around since the start so it has to have my footprint on it. But after a while you kinda establish an own routine. The equipment you use, the guitars you use and stuff like that so it’s a blend of everything.
L.N.: As a band you develop a brand and that brand is everything concerning the band – the sound, the tone combinations that you use. Øystein has been the central person for the band for all those years. I’ve been in the band since 99 and other people came and went. But the things I write for Borknagar is clearly influenced by the style and the basic genre that Borknagar is and that’s why what I write together with Øystein and what we arrange together is different from what I do with my other projects. So I think Borknagar as an entity has become something that isn’t basically just the idea that one person – Øystein – has had about the band. It is an idea that has been adopted by everyone that listens to our music. They expect to have a certain sound, a certain style delivered to them when they put a Borknagar album on. It’s quite an organic, natural process to come to that point because when Øystein presents the basic structures for the songs and we start to work with the arrangements and recordings, it flows really easily and it just ends up being that Borknagar stamp, soundwise, but not the same stuff we did over again.
But, on the other hand, you’ve been through so many band changes – let’s not go into details, they can probably be found online. But even at this moment, I think you guys are quite split, both in Norway and internationally
L.N.: Yea, I live in Oslo
Ø.B.: I live in bergen, on the West coast. We have Andreas who lives in the North of Sweden, so yea, we are split in few places, but mainly Scandinavia.
Øystein G. Brun
How does that work out?
Ø.B.: You know, we are living in a digital age.
L.N. Haven’t you heard about THE Internet? It’s a new trend.
Ø.B.: Like we said, most of us have family and kids, so I actually find this in a way more efficient and creative. I have my own studio, Lars has his own and most guys have enough equipment to do the needed stuff at home. So I spend the time I dedicate to music on daily basis more creatively in the studio and I can send the results to the other guys instead of like the early days when we had to meet up in a rehearsal room in Oslo and I had to travel and live on someone’s couch somewhere, and drinking beer and the usual. So I guess it’s the digital revolution that made it easier for us to be a band today. It’s no problem for us.
L.N.: It’s funny because in Norway there are more bands than there are musicians. Every musician has like 15 bands so what the digital age has done for us is that it made it possible for us to do this kind of thing, while still maintaining a normal life. Families, kids, usual jobs that pay us and we have to make all these work together. That’s why working in the way that we do works really well. And I think a lot of bands are doing the same these days. We’re using the time efficiently.
I know a lot of bands are still treasuring the idea of rehearsing together, but then again I am thinking it is mainly the new bands, that are just starting to play together
L.N.: You need to get to know the interaction that you have in a band. You would have a hard time if in a new band you’d be rehearsing at home and then when you make an album and haven’t really rehearsed together, you realise that there’s no chemistry between you because you’ve never been standing together in a rehearsing room. But if you’ve been through that you have that basic understanding on how the rest of the band members work, how they would react to things that you do. After that you can do both – you can do the digital thing, which is the efficient one, and of course we rehearse as well. Especially when we go out on tour or have a gig at a festival or so. We do rehearse together.
L.N.: We’re no longer in the rehearsal room just for the sake of meeting in Oslo and drinking beer in the rehearsal room. That used to be a big part of what we used to do – meet, rehearse some songs and then discuss how we’re gonna be rock stars and we’d drink beer afterwards. But we’re maybe too old for that stuff now.
You actually have quite a young band member right now (Baard Kolstad). How does that chemistry work out?
Ø.B.: It’s a long story but back in the days when we were doing the previous album, I think, we were asked by Century Media or the management of Metallica to do a cover song, I don’t remember the name now…
L.N.: It was one of the terrible ones from the ‘Black’ album. I hate that.
Ø.B.: We usually don’t do such stuff, but being so big we thought it would be good for us, an interlude for the process of making the new album. While doing that Simen was maybe in the studio recording some stuff and I think Baard was present in the studio playing drums for ICS Vortex. And he just showed how brilliant he is as he came in and did the drums in one take and that’s it, he left. So that’s where everything started to boil. Plus, the previous drummer we had was kinda on his way out at that time. I think I called him and asked if he was interested and it was very appealing to him. At that time he didn’t really play in any big band either. We had a first rehearsal and he blew us away. You know, we are used to new drummers in general asking all the time ‘how is that song going?’ But he was like ‘Bang’. Let’s go! Everything was perfectly done.
L.N.: We could have just brought him and do a gig.
Ø.B.: We actually were the ones who had to rehearse since he knew everything perfectly. (laughter) That was just amazing. He is also a great guy, with a good spirit and focus and he is very serious. He’s lovely to be around and great to work with.
L.N.: He is. Really mature to be 11 too. (laughter)
It’s good he stays behind the drumkit during the concerts else the contrast would be too big
L.N.: It’s funny on band pictures because he doesn’t look like he’s 40 like the rest of us. Oh, did I say 40? I meant 30.
Let’s now talk about this fantastic new album, or well, at least that’s what I’ve heard. I personally only heard the video song so far and have no clue what the rest sounds like
L.N.: It’s German techno
One of the comments that drew my attention in a review is how fantastic the production on the album actually is. So what did you do to get such good praise regarding the production?
Ø.B.: Just being awesome. (laughter) First of all we mixed the album in Fascination Street Studios
Is it the first time you work with them?
Ø.B.: No, second time. We were really happy with the result the first time and we used pretty much the same routine and setup as the previous time. This time we kinda knew what the potential was so we were working accordingly. The previous time we didn’t know what to expect, how he was working and how he’d understand music or how he can pinpoint the main aspects of the music. For me that was kind of releasing in a creating way because I realized he could do all these in a great way. We have a lot of arrangements, a lot of guitars used – on this album I probably recorded like 8 or 10 guitars on each song almost. So it has always been an issue on previous albums. It’s not that I haven’t been satisfied, but it hasn’t really been, you know…so I think he’s a magician and a genius in terms of doing sounds. He was able to pinpoint the nerve of the music, he managed to get things out in a proper way.
It also helps that we have been doing this for a while. I did all the guitar recordings at home in my own studio and I do all the editing, so I prepared most of the files and such so everything was well prepared when we sent all the material to the studio. But most importantly is that he is just brilliant with sound and the mix is fantastic.
So it’s a matter of mix since nothing was recorded in the studio, everything was done individually, files sent and he did the…
Ø.B.: Yea, so we did all the recordings ourselves. It was only the drums we had to record in a professional studio where you have the acoustics and the room and everything. But other than that, guitars, synth, vocals, they are all done in our private studios. Mine or Lars and so on.
What’s the amount of work behind an album with 10 guitars per song? Can this be estimated?
Ø.B.: It is hard to estimate. I am always writing music and I’m always around guitars so I never had a stop and start on the production, so to speak. The machinery probably starts with Century Media saying ‘Ok, this is the deadline’ and then we have to work towards this. I don’t really remember but I would say I used from one to two months to write the basic sketches for the songs, the main lines. Then we used a little more time to produce the songs, to send the files back and forth between everyone in the band, trying out different ideas, vocals, synths and so on. I never counted the hours, it’s probably thousands of hours behind this production, but we must have used anything between half a year and a full year
L.N.: When you have your own studio, like we do, it happens without keeping track of it. You don’t start at date X and record two weeks and then you are done. You get to do other stuff in between, you get one week in which you work a lot and then maybe four weeks with nothing done and so on. Altogether you don’t a lot more time now than when we used in the early days when we were entering the studio and started recording and not stop until the album was done. But now it’s spread out on a much wider period of time because we can go back and forth all the time and you also have to make things work around your ordinary family life.
Should I assume that this style of working adds to the creativity or is it more destructive because it somehow makes you more lazy?
Ø.B.: It is not destructive at all. Having a studio makes me feel quite privileged. In a creative process, I can lean back a couple of days and spend all the time it takes to achieve a certain goal and to achieve our musical wishes. And also this is our 10th album, we have been around for 20 years so we don’t really need to rush anything – eventhough the record companies might not always agree with this. For me this is kinda precious – making music, to me, it’s a kind of craftsmanship so the more I am able to make it the way I want it to be, the more positive it is to me.
L.N.: I think what Øystein said it’s the positive aspect of it. You have time to work with the things that you want to work with and you don’t have to rush and take your time to fulfill the idea that you’ve started out with. But on the other hand, you don’t have that same drive that we used to have when we went into the studio, that push saying ‘Ok, I have to do this perfectly NOW’ because this is the last chance to do it. You surely get something positive from that push as well, you get an intensity that might not occur the same way when you work with time at your leisure. But I think the positive aspects of the way we work has much more to say than the negative aspects of it.
Ø.B.: Since music is a big passion of mine, so for me it’s like a life rewarding thing but I think…and now I forgot my idea
L.N.: That’s because we’re getting old (laughter)
Ø.B.: Damn, it was a really good one.
L.N.: We should have had Baard with us now. He’s the only one in the band without Alzheimer’s.
Ø.B.: My point was actually that to we expect or well, hope, fans will buy the album. Knowing that I had the time, the possibility to do my very best, is to me a matter of dignity as I can honestly say to those who buy the album that this is the best I could do, it is something I really worked on. What you are buying now, is something I really put my heart into.
That’s a good point. So, what’s the three times a winter all about then?
Ø.B.: Basically it is referring to this Fimbulvetr ("Mighty Winter") which is like an indication of Ragnarock according to Northern mythology. It’s a kind of sign from nature that the end of times is closing in. It’s quite dark. I’ve done a couple of interviews actually and people have asked me if it has something to do with things going on, wars, immigration and so on. No, it’s not really, we are not a political band. To me it’s more a personal thing, a philosophical thing, it’s more like a circle of life, rise and fall, death and birth. But there are layers to the title, so there are important aspects with titles, music and lyrics. For me at least I’d rather ask the questions than giving the answers. I personally like music that has a bit of mysticism and that you have to understand on your own terms. That’s the kind of attitude we have in general. So Winter thrice has, in my perspective, different layers of understanding.
L.N.: Besides we’re in Norway where we had -11 degrees today, so…we will have -14 or so next week, so nature is preparing for the Borknagar release.
At least on the song you used for the video, The Rhymes of the Mountain, there are a lot of vocalists. How do you split the vocal tasks among so many people? How do you find ‘work’ for everybody?
Ø.B.: It’s a natural part of the process really. It’s not that anyone sits down and says ‘We’re gonna do A,B,A,B and so on’. It’s more like ‘Let’s start somewhere, let’s try something’. Very often Andreas starts with some clean vocals that become the basic stuff and then we pass the song back and forth, lars adds some vocals, Simen does some new ones and so on. It’s a part of the whole process, we don’t have a plan set before we record the song and take turns that have been well decided in advance.
L.N.: A lot of it happens quite organic. We get the songs and we listen to the preproductions, the drums and the guitars and then come up with ideas. Sometimes we go in our studios and we work on the same parts or sometimes we try to say one is doing vocals there and the other one somewhere else and see what works best. It’s really never been a problem, it sorts of fixes itself at the end.
Ø.B.: I think that because the whole evolution of the equipment and access to the technology today, things are different. In the early days I was more like the guitarist making songs and playing the guitar during recording and we could push this guy during the mix to get something like this or like that. But nowadays I don’t feel like only a guitarist or songwriter, I also feel like the producer. And it’s not just me, but the whole band have this producer scope on things. And so we are able to shape things easier.
L.N.: We have the possibility to test things out and that’s one of the advantages of having our own studios and being able to send things back and forth. You can see what the other guys think about an idea you had and even if it doesn’t really work, but maybe it sparks an idea with one of the other guys and then they come up with something based on what you did. It adds to the finished product in that it is built brick by brick and you are able to take away bricks and replace with new ones.
Ø.B.: I would say it’s almost like a scientific method.
L.N.: It’s the science of Bork.
The title of the next album?
L.N.: Can we verb Borknagar? To Bork? We are borking?
Ø.B.: We’re one of those bands who is borking a lot.
L.N.: Yea. Shouldn’t bork at the wrong tree.
But how is it for the soundguy to have 4 main vocalists? I don’t think you have many songs like that, but say you’d ever play this one live with full lineup?
Ø.B.: Rob got his hands full. But with 4 vocalists it’s almost like stress testing. You know, we usually have just 3 vocalists, so that’s a totally different setup. He just adds another one. But we have our regular sound guy who is a friend and a fan and I think we are in safe hands with him.
Which was the most challenging song on the album?
Ø.B.: Depends on who you ask. Honestly there haven’t been any big big challenges…
L.N.: Yea. We always have discussions, at least me and Øystein. But it’s always good clean discussions, there’s no negativity involved and such discussions always make the end result better. We bring together different opinions on how things should be done or how they should sound and it makes us really aware of what is important to us in each and every song. In 99% of those discussions we land on the same result as to what we want to achieve with the songs. There’s always discussions on small things, if the drums are too loud on this part of vocals should be a bit tuned differently here or there, but these are just small details and they don’t matter when you see the whole huge picture of the album. So there’s no really any problematic songs.
What about the songs with a multitude of guitars?
Ø.B.: The whole guitar side of things is quite complex with lots of harmonies, melodies, acoustic guitars, clean guitars. And even if there are not ten all the time, there’s usually at least 8 of mine. I have both sides, left and right, two clean guitars and I have two more clean guitars on top of that during the melody. Then I have probably two rhythm guitars and then I usually also have two lead or melody guitars, so basically 8 guitars. And that’s just mine. And then you have Jens who also have some, but not that much. There’s no place left.
But with vocals this time around we produced quite hard. There’s a lot of vocals we haven’t used. And the same thing with guitars. We never use all the stuff we record. So the end phase when recording it’s a process of cutting it down, finding the core of the music and what’s needed to keep the spirit of the music.
L.N.: In 30 years you’ll get Winter Thrice, the lost tapes.
That might be valuable. How easy is it to give up a part that you’ve composed but it turns out you decide not to use it? Or you got used to this process by now and are no longer clinging on to such things?
Ø.B.: It was harder before actually. In the early days I had written the outlines of a song and it had to be like this no matter what. Back then it was kind of a statement. You had done it and it should stay like this and we shouldn’t compromise. We don’t compromise now either, but, like I said, we have the producer perspective on the music so I learned to be able to accept that maybe it’s too much to have the chorus four times for two minutes. Maybe we should shorten it a bit.
L.N.: It’s the same thing with music as it is with cinema. When you’re a director you learn in film school than you’re gonna have to kill your darlings. Sometimes you have to cut something that you really love in order to get all the other stuff to work the way it should.
Ø.B.: But the funny things I noticed as a tendency that very often the songs about which I say ‘hmmm, this isn’t good enough, it doesn’t really…well’…those are the songs that usually turn out the best. It’s maybe because we spend some extra effort on it and try to save it. It’s very often that the riffs or arrangements that don’t really ‘jump on you’ the first time are the ones that end up standing out. It’s not the ones that knock you to the floor, but the ones that are more subtle.
What’s the album cover about?
L.N.: It’s about a Brazilian trying to picture Northern Heritage.
Ø.B.: It is done by this talented Brazilian guy, Marcelo Vasco. He is a brilliant guy and he is a good friend of mine. and he also did the latest Slayer cover for example. I love working with him. He’s a brilliant dude and he’s able to work out fantastic ideas just based on some simple keyboards or a subtitle or a couple of riffs. Just based on some small pinpoints and he is making something grand out of it. We are a bit of a complex band, we don’t do traffic signs as album art. So it’s rather abstract. I want the cover to have the depth of the music, the complexity and the fierceness (if that’s something) of the music and the right vibe of things. It also has some symbols spread among it, for example on this album I wanted to have some kickbacks to the previous albums, being our 10th release. So on the cover if you look very close you would find elements from previous albums. To me it’s more important that it’s visually interesting and something to really look at. I remember my childhood when I bought the LPs and how I was watching the cover all day while listening to music. I want to give the buyer that kind of experience that you can watch it and always find new things, it should be a visual experience rather than a traffic sign. It shouldn’t be too obvious in my opinion. That’s how I like it really.
And then you also have the elements of the tree which is in many cultures the symbol of life, and you have the same in the Norse mythology. Then you have the fire which is in contrast with the wood and so on. The basic intention was the visually underline the music and the lyrics in all its diversity.s
The video that you made seems to be a mix of cozy and some very very cold parts…
L.N.: Since we’re talking about the album cover. You have the warmth in the middle of the cover and you have the coldness on the edges. You can say that about the video as well. They are interlinked. The warmth is in the center surrounded by the cold.
Who came with the idea of the video?
Ø.B.: Jens, our second guitarist, was the guy who initiated the whole process and what we should do. He started to do some research in terms of film team and facilities and this Midgard historical center. But, like I said, we usually work by bouncing ideas. So I remember I talked with Jens about the video and, since in general the bottom line of the band in music and maybe in everything is the contrast of life – black, white, cold, warm, etc – so I really wanted to nail this also in the video in order to have this contrast. I think the music is more appealing if you have these dynamics, the contrast going in all directions, it gives a lot more personality to it. In the end Jens got in contact with this museum and the guy who was running the place is a fan of the band so that made it quite easy.
L.N.: It is the same place where Midgardsblot festival is located, outside Horten. There used to be viking settlements there. It’s a replica of one of the halls that used to stand there way back in the days. Beautiful place. Absolutely stunning.
Ø.B.: We had a day when we sat and filmed the video by the fireplace and everything, and then the filming team went somewhere South of Dovre in the mountains and had this drone flying and filming around. Actually the recording company even asked ‘so, where did you buy this footage from?’
L.N.: Even people from Discovery were amazed by the images from the video and are interested in filming there after watching it.
Probably a lot of people are interested in Garm’s appearance on the album and what are the future perspectives
Ø.B.: Since we have this 20 years anniversary going now and this 10th album, so our idea was to in a way celebrate our selves with this album and do something special. So I sent him a message, since we stayed good friends and I’ve always been a fan of his music. And Garm called me back and we had a nice long chat about the good old times. And he was really into the idea. He went to a studio in Oslo and actually recorded way more than we initially agreed upon. But at the end of day he did a full song as main vocals and some substantial vocals on the song ‘Terminus’. And it was a brilliant experience to be able to work with him again. He’s so professional and so focused, delivers in a great manner. And that’s what we have done and there’s no further more prospect.
Any live appearances planned?
Ø.B.: We haven’t really asked. not sure.
But are there any live plans at all? I think I saw your name on some upcoming festivals…
L.N.: Yea, we have quite a few festivals this summer. There have been some discussions about some live playing this spring after the album is out but nothing is set yet.
If I remember correctly, I saw you last year with Pål (Athera) on vocals, right?
Ø.B.: We had to do that. Andreas was involved in quite a bad accident and he was seriously injured and even if he’s mostly recovered now, he still has big problems with one of his ears and that makes it hard for him to fly. We were all supposed to meet up for the video, but he had to miss it because of this. He wasn’t eager before to play much live, but we don’t think it is possible for him the way the things are now.
L.N.: He lives all the way North in Sweden and I wouldn’t want to drive my car all the way from there to Wacken, to put it like that.
Ø.B.: So we’ll have to see about that and so far, for quite a while now, Pål has been our vocalist and will most likely sing with us this year as well. And he’s another brilliant guy to work with. I was a bit worried before, about how people would react or even how it would be for us. But most feedback is very positive and Pål is able to project the sound and feeling of Borknagar.
L.N.: He also brings some more hair to the mix.