HELHEIM – Challenges, Memories and Northern Wisdom
On a dark and rainy afternoon in December, I hooked up with Helheim bassist/vocalist V’gandr at one of our favorite joints in Bergen to talk about the band’s latest album, namely "raunijaR", which rules beyond belief. Easily one of the best albums released in 2015. If you have not acquainted yourself with that one yet then I suggest you do so immediately and put it on while reading this rather long conversation between V’gandr and I. It was all very intuitive, which definitely shows in places, but that is all the more reason why I love interviewing this band. As with their music, you never know what to expect or what the outcome will be. Enjoy this one, my fellow Helheim fans.
Let us start by talking a bit about "raunijaR". After all, that is your latest album. Am I even pronouncing the word correctly?
V: Well, it is actually pronounced "raunijasz". That last letter, the capital R, falls somewhere in between an S and a Z. At least that is what I have learned, but I might be wrong.
Oh, okay, cool.
V: That R is an ancient Nordic letter. I am not even 100 % certain myself how to pronounce it, and one does not exactly stumble on recordings of how to pronounce it, ha-ha. At first, I pronounced it exactly like you do, but then I learned that it was pronounced "raunijasz".
What does the word itself connote and mean? There is more than one question here; there are the musical and lyrical aspects of it in relation to "raunijaR", but what does it mean to you on a personal level? You know me; I can hardly ever stick to one question at a time.
V: I am glad you asked, because you know me personally, so you know that there is something there and that the title is important, ha-ha. It has a two-sided effect in a sense. It is one of the very first inscriptions in ancient Nordic ever found. On the tip of a spear no less, hence the cover art of the album.
Are we talking about an archeological discovery?
V: Exactly, and I think it is one of the oldest ancient Nordic objects ever found. It is not a Norse runic inscription, mind you, because that is a more constructed system, but Nordic. Maybe not the oldest but one of them, as far as I know. Somewhere between 200 and 500 A.D I think. Those runes were discovered on the tip of that spear and mean something akin to "challenger". One can then start posing questions; what do they mean by that? Who or what are they challenging with that spear? Is it about challenging one’s enemy? I think the title is a visually beautiful word, and I love the look of it and the font and everything. It is somewhat meaningless to translate it, really, but still, "challenger" is close. Maybe it means that it challenges the enemy, maybe it means that the one throwing the spear challenges himself by throwing it. It is just extremely interesting. We have always challenged ourselves a lot, musically speaking, but on top of that, we have also tried to challenge the listener. We really feel that we have challenged the listener with this record in that we have chosen a slightly different direction this time around, maybe not that much compared to the previous two releases, namely "Åsgards Fall" and "Heiðindómr ok mótgangr", but we have explored the use of clean vocals and so on. We have always challenged ourselves so as not to stagnate. One has to progress at all times, and if one is to be progressive then one has to challenge oneself, but in that process we have also tried to push the boundaries a little and challenge the listener a tad. There is a sense of duality there in the sense that the challenge goes both ways, if that makes sense. It is interesting to see and hear the reactions that we are getting with this new album.
Some would probably assume that the title refers to a challenge of social and cultural norms and conventions as opposed to only musical norms and conventions.
V: Absolutely, because the title does refer to something that operates on many different levels with moral and ethical levels being just two of them. There are many layers, but I would wager that the listener could not know all of them, which is to say that there are probably certain things that only we as writers and composers know about. Nothing is coincidental, if you will. However, the song itself is quite challenging both externally and internally, if that makes sense. There is a method to the madness. It is almost like being a bystander and watching others from an outsider’s perspective. One is primarily challenging oneself simply because one has given up on others.
I find that very interesting. The previous album contained many things revolving around morals and ethics as well as rational thinking and common sense that were right up my alley.
V: "Heiðindómr ok mótgangr" is, in many ways, founded on the Hávamál, and, as you know, the Hávamál is almost like the Ten Commandments. Let us face it; it is basic moral values even though they do differentiate in many ways. If you think about it, the Ten Commandment is not lame as such. One can easily relate the Hávamál to things that are going on today and the outside world. It is all about rational thinking and common sense. One does not even need to reinterpret it. In addition, one does need to be physically involved in a battle or a struggle in order to make use of the Hávamál in everyday life. It can be an internal battle. It is also about looking straight ahead as opposed to up at the sky. One has to take responsibility for one’s own actions. If you are very dependent on others and need the help of others in order to get by then you have essentially failed. Stripped down to its core, it is about being a human and making the right decisions. That piece of work is so rich on issues relating to morality and ethics that it is simply mind-blowing. It is so fundamental and essential to understanding what it is like to be a human.
To be honest with you, the Hávamál is probably the closest thing to religion that I have come across so far, if you catch my drift. It is almost like a philosophy.
V: I know exactly what you mean. It is more akin to a philosophy than a religion. That is also how I view it. Kind of like how one views runes, if you will. It is not about being forgiven or being granted acceptance or devotion from above or from others. It is about how one utilizes the Norse myths and understands them. They are stories focusing on the gods, but those "godly" forces merely symbolize patterns of behavior in a sense. Take for instance how Thor disguises himself as a woman at one point. The transsexual theme is already present in those old myths; a man can present himself as feminine even though he is in truth the exact opposite. Thor is extremely masculine, but he disguises himself as a woman in order to gain victory. Thor simply does the exact opposite in order to win and defeat his opponent. I find it very interesting that that particular theme and motif dates back to and is present in Old Norse culture. Maybe there is something there. Perhaps we Scandinavians and to some extent the Western world have a gene that has evolved since times of old that has resulted in an openness of sorts when it comes to gender issues. Who knows? I find all of that quite interesting.
Very fascinating indeed, not to mention thought provoking. My next question goes back to the new album and the entire creative process revolving around that. I am not merely referring to the practical work, but also all the thought processes, the ideas, the lyrics, and the metaphors that you guys went through and conceived in direct relation to "raunijaR". Was the whole process trying and difficult? The music as complex as yours is not merely composed and created on a whim. You guys paint pictures with your music.
V: Thanks a lot for saying that. The most difficult thing was that H’grimnir and I agreed that there had to be a follow-up to the "Åsgards Fall" story. Shortly after having released that EP, we started discussing how to complete the story, or storyline, if you will. The whole story was not complete yet. We just had to do something more in that vein and I felt that there was something missing. We then wrote the music and lyrics separately and agreed that the music had to represent something along the same lines as parts one and two on the EP. We did not follow a formula as to what had to come first; the lyrics might come first and the music second or vice versa. Nothing was set in stone. Do not forget that we are quite childish, so we had to split everything fifty-fifty, ha-ha. He wrote and composed his part while I wrote and composed my part. At first, we did not know what would end up being the third or fourth part, but when I wrote my part, I was very much aware of the fact that I wanted my part to serve as a follow-up to part two as I wrote that one, ha-ha. I was very upfront about that, ha-ha. The difficult thing was to try to optimize things that we had done previously. We were very pleased with how part one and two turned out back then, and, honestly speaking, I do not think that part three and four are way better than the first two parts as such. We were merely trying to enhance something that we had already done previously, if you catch my drift. What makes part three and four different to the first two parts is that this time around we were singing ourselves using clean vocals, and that was what we put emphasis on as opposed to being obsessed with making these new parts better than the first two. If you listen to part two and three, they are almost similar in terms of style and arrangements and so on.
Exactly, they complement each other beautifully. It is almost as if you have bridged that gap between the "Åsgards Fall" EP and the album by means of part three.
V: Totally, and that was on purpose. Deliberate in every sense of the word. The title track came about quickly. We decided to compose a song that was in the same vein as "Dualitet & Ulver" without sounding too similar to it. "Odr" was the tricky one. I spent a lot of time on that one. It actually stems from the previous album sessions. It was supposed to be on "Heiðindómr ok mótgangr", but it did not fit in and we then tossed it, but I thought to myself that we could simply not throw it away just like that. I then tore it apart and used the parts that I liked. I consider that one my own little baby of sorts. I wanted to do something new with it, and I took it quite far with the violin and piano and so on though I did not compose that part. I simply just forwarded my ideas to the others and H’grimnir knew the best violinists in Norway while Noralf knew a very good piano player. I wanted to transcend a few boundaries and conventions with that one. I knew that it had to be the final track on the album. In the overall perspective, the record was not that difficult to compose and arrange really, but recording it was slightly more difficult, partly because we are damn chaotic as people, so there was very little flow in the process, ha-ha.
We are not merely talking about one person here, but rather a group of people. Frustrations?
V: Yeah, of course. What was frustrating at times was that none of us ever really worked together in the studio on this album, which has never happened before.
Wow, I had no idea.
V: We all worked and recorded in the studio on our own, individually. We were in the studio together when we were working on the guitar sound, but that was about it. Most other things were re-amped. Hrymr recorded the drums using merely a cue-guitar. I recorded the bass with our guitarist, Noralf. He did the recording and I played. He had so much to do with the recordings that I almost feel sorry for him, ha-ha. The same goes for H’grimnir. Our producer, Bjoernar, worked with each of us alone. H’grimnir and Noralf worked alone the same way as I did. Noralf (lead guitars) recorded quite a few takes and then I went into the studio and chose the ones that I liked the most while consulting with Bjoernar on them. Bjoernar and I pretty much handled the mixing of the album. I was also present when the horns and timpani were recorded, so in a way I was there when certain things were happening. Both H’grimnir and I recorded our vocals individually. People were very much on their own, and we then mailed the different mixes to each other. Back and forth they went. Each of us would then offer some input and constructive feedback. The whole process was time-consuming, but also very productive, because we did not fall into that trap where everybody is sitting there in the studio, discussing, arguing, and trying to get his point across. Doing it that way also meant that there were very few compromises. Personally, I really liked working that way despite the frustrations that arose from time to time.
The album certainly sounds coherent and cohesive. Everything is tight. It does not sound like it was merely assembled in the studio, or four members pulling in different directions, if you know what I mean.
V: We rehearsed a lot beforehand, but at the same time, we did not really know where we were going to end up with the material or how everything was going to come out.
That must have been exciting.
V: Absolutely, and it was very inspiring too. A lot of fun really.
I take it that you guys also expected certain things from each other. Like, you expect the others to do their best and come up with something cool.
V: What was inspiring was that you were never sure what the others were going to come up with in the studio. In a way, the music kept renewing itself along the way. For instance, when I listened to some of H’grimnir’s takes for the first time that would inspire me, or Noralf’s solos and leads and so on. It was so cool to walk into the studio not really knowing what to expect and then end up being blown away. It is kind of like a skeleton that you add flesh to, but when it comes to putting clothes on it, there are several different options and combinations and so on. I love not knowing exactly how things are going to turn out. It makes it more interesting, and «raunijaR» is very much a result of approaching things that way and with that mindset.
I find all of this very fascinating. I had no idea that you had gone about recording "raunijaR" that way.
V: Very few people do, ha-ha.
Does this mean that there were very collaborations in terms of writing and arranging songs? Maybe no collaborations at all?
V: We wrote things individually. Hrymr wrote "Helheim 9" and that is his world entirely. Of course, we have given him feedback on the "Helheim" compositions throughout the years, but, in the end, it is his playground, which we love. H’grimnir and I have tried writing songs together, but we do not really have the time to do it that way, and then you kind of go "What’s the point?", because the way we go about it works. He writes his own stuff and I write mine, but our parts always complement each other.
I remember one time we were hanging out, probably a few years ago now, where you mentioned that you were open to the idea of writing something together with H’grimnir again, but you had no idea whether that would ever come to pass. It is therefore quite interesting to discuss this again now and then learn that you wrote things individually. You have kept true to the tradition, ha-ha.
V: Exactly, ha-ha, and that is the end of that, ha-ha. (I guess….;)
Is there any particular reason that the new album is comprised of five songs? Numerology is quite important in Norse mythology, for instance the number 9.
V: No, the reason that we ended up with five songs primarily had to do with the length of the material. That there are nine "Helheim" parts is no coincidence, of course. These new songs are exclusive, whereas if you look at the "Åsgards Fall" EP you had an edited version of a song that ended up on the following full-length album, you had the re-recorded version of "Jernskogen", and then a couple of new tunes, but you cannot issue and sell that as a full-length album. "raunijaR", on the other hand, is more than 40 minutes long and consists of entirely new material, so we went for those five songs and felt that those were appropriate for a full-length assault. So yeah, there were five songs on the EP and five songs on this new album of ours, but the length of the material dictates that "raunijaR" is a full- length album.
How do you feel about that long line of "Helheim" parts having come to an end, or full circle, if you will? What makes it interesting is that the album opens with that track. That certainly surprised me, and I did not see that coming at all.
V: That was what we were aiming at.
Were you more emotionally invested in "Helheim 9" as opposed to the parts that came before? The vocals sound like they are straight from the heart.
V: I do not think that I have ever before felt as emotional about vocals in general as I have this time around. "Helheim 9" was difficult for me to sing. Hrymr composed and wrote all the melodies and would then hum them to me and he would explain what he had in mind. I wrote the lyrics to it. As I said, it was a difficult thing to pull-off. I am not 100 % sure that I am satisfied with the vocals. I feel that I could or should have been able to come up with something better. Those vocals were one of the first things that were recorded in the studio. I like the song in itself a lot, though. I suggested that perhaps we should open the album with "Helheim 9" to signify that this was the end of the line. Hrymr knew that he had to make a statement, because this was the final one, and previously those parts would often appear halfway through an album. This one was not supposed to serve as an intro or outro, or interlude for that matter. This was to be a proper song, and Hrymr totally agreed. He played almost all the instruments himself, and he recorded almost everything at home. He is extremely talented, and he loves folk-inspired music. I love the atmosphere of the track, and I get goose bumps when the drums enter the picture. When I suggested that we should open the album with the weirdest and most atypical track, the others agreed. People have certainly responded and reacted to it. I love it when people react to stuff like that. It is a way of challenging the listener, which leaves him or her with two options: they can toss the CD and yell "Fuck forever off" or go "Damn, this is interesting, I’ll keep listening". We gambled a bit and it paid off in my opinion. I loathe reactions and opinions that are somewhere in the middle and kind of "neither nor". I hate it when people go "whatever" and seem indifferent. That shit does not interest me at all.
True art provokes strong reactions, be they positive or negative reactions. At least, that is how I feel.
V: I totally agree with you, and that was what we wanted to achieve with "Helheim 9". Whether or not the listener was familiar with our music beforehand, that song would provoke something positive or negative and have them go "What the fuck is this?" Had the song appeared halfway through the album it would have been ignored or simply drowned in-between the heavier songs. By having it appear first, you are forcing people to listen to it. It is somewhat akin to a statement on our part.
I think it serves a purpose. It is awesome that the album opens with a mellow and moody song as opposed to an all-out brutal assault on the senses. I felt that I was immediately sucked into your universe, and it is great that it is a proper song and not merely an interlude. It starts calmly and then intensifies along the way.
V: Some people might go "Is this how Helheim sounds nowadays?", then the drums appear and it all goes folk. Then our friend from Pehr from Alfahanne comes in at one point and people might become even more perplexed due to the vocals. We are throwing people slightly off track while at the same time retaining a sense of something familiar. It is almost a structured and orchestrated lack of balance, ha-ha. Then afterwards the title track comes in, which is a total contrast to "Helheim 9".
The album is dynamic but never predictable. I love it!
V: I read your review and I was quite moved by some of the things that you wrote. I felt very proud.
Thanks, but seriously, it is often quite hard to summarize or put into words how one feels about something so good and majestic. You know me; I am not merely saying that because I am sitting here face to face with you.
V: The review is brilliant. I love reading reviews where one can tell that the journalist or writer in question has actually devoted time and energy to listening to an album. Those who review albums superficially and hardly really "write" anything about it are a waste of time. They tell you nothing and give you absolutely nothing.
How would you sum up your cooperation and teamwork with your producer, Bjoernar, these days? He is such a cool dude. I take it that there are no problems there.
V: Absolutely, we work very well together.
Is he demanding?
V: No, not at all. Sometimes he has a different approach to things than we do in terms of sound, but perhaps that partly comes down to the music being ours and not his, which is to say that our visions may be slightly different to what he is hearing in his head. He knows and respects our sound and expression. He offers feedback and comments and so on, and I push him a lot, ha-ha. I can only speak for myself here, but the sound is very important to me and so Bjoernar and I discuss things like that a lot. He and I often work on stuff like that together when we are recording in the studio. At the end of the day, the decision comes down to us as to how things are going to sound. Everybody offers feedback and then we look at that and see what we can do. I do sense that occasionally I say something to Bjoernar that he may not necessarily agree with, but at the same time, we all know that it is meaningless to sit around and discuss how the instruments are to sound and perhaps how high in the mix certain instruments ought to be and so on. Unless I am completely off the rails mentally speaking, which I tell myself that I am not, we know what we want and we are not afraid to stand our ground. I guess we are guilty of sometimes stating things a bit too explicitly and even overstating them, but that is merely to prove a point or to get our point across. Again, we work very well together and the other members love working with him too. He has been our producer since "The Journeys and the Experiences of Death".
I often feel a sense of longing and melancholy when I listen to your music. That comes down to how I feel when I listen to your music and my interpretation of it. Does it make sense to you if I tie a word such as "longing" to Helheim?
V: You bet! You are totally right. It is almost like a common denominator with respect to our albums. The word longing is a word that I seldom use, but one that is very latent in our lyrics. Very often we are talking about things that once were, or perhaps that we wish that people were able to see things differently, or maybe even that the world looked completely different. Not in any political sense or anything like that, but with respect to how materialistic many people are and how they perceive things and so on. You know me; I am not a materialistic person. It very much comes down to how people perceive things, and «Åsgards Fall» touches on this. It looks at a world that once was, but not necessarily one that reflects reality to every degree. Not that I am a spokesperson for what was thousands of years ago, because obviously I was not alive back then, but one can take or borrow an ancient idea that one believes to be still vital and relevant in order to shed light on things that are happening today. I often use the Norse myths in relation to modern-day phenomena. A representation or a thought process in a sense. By doing so, one can see how fucked up and depraved the modern world is. I love using metaphors, ideas, and mental images like that. Norse mythology has a lot of relevance in terms of how I think and perceive things as well as how I approach things. It also ties in with how longing enters the picture, partly due to values that are now long lost. Not that I want to go back in time as such, because it would not make sense to go back to something that I have never experienced myself. I do not think that it was necessarily better to be a Viking all those years ago, but I do believe that they were more "advanced" in terms of what it means to be a human and what one’s values and ideals are. Some things were more evolved back then, I think. Much of what we know about Norse mythology derives from Snorre (unfortunately), but still, one can notice many things in his writings in terms of how people were, how they acted, what their ideals and values were, and so on. It also stands in contrast to how ridiculous and dumbed-down the man of today is. Instead of building one’s life on one’s own decisions, many go a completely different way about it and allow themselves to be ruled by others. They simply do as others please. One’s happiness ought to be important. There was a sense of self in those days that is missing today. Back then, people reflected on things way more compared to what we do today. Defining oneself was important back then, but difficult at the same time. We are but small, but even though we are small, we do matter. Longing in relation to Helheim is a theme that is very much present on "raunijaR", but often in the context of sorrow, the epic, the majestic, depression, and so on. We approach longing from different angles.
I love that term "the sublime", because it can refer to something terrible and crushing such as the forces of nature, but it can also refer to something majestic, awe-inspiring, and beautiful. To me, some of your songs are definitely sublime. The music and lyrics are often walking that fine line between being uplifting on the one hand and mentally crushing on the other. Not that this interview is about me, but I have a confession to make. Very often when I am listening to your music at home I end up feeling trapped between an idealized past and a utopian future, which results in me ending up feeling lonely. Maybe that sounds a bit strange.
V: The fact that our music makes you reflect on things is very important and it means a lot to me to hear you say that. We could not ask for more. If it moves people then the music has achieved what it is supposed to do, regardless of whether it makes people angry or happy. It is interesting to hear you say that our music illuminates a dividing line between two realities in a way. You put into words many things that I often reflect on myself. I do not try to idealize the past, or the future for that matter, but I am often trying to illustrate luck and lack of luck by means of metaphors and mental images. I do not want to sound or come across as dogmatic, because I am against dogmatism myself, but I want to make people think about and reflect on things. However, when are you telling people what to do and when are you merely suggesting or hinting at things? I do not want to guide people, as they are free to do what they want. Our music and lyrics reflect how we feel about things and how we view certain subjects. I think a lot about what I want to achieve whenever I write lyrics and compose music. How others choose to interpret those ideas has nothing to do with me. I just hope that some people will be able to enter an imaginary world of sorts when they listen to Helheim. I liberate many of my own thoughts by writing about things that I feel, sense, and reflect on. I love that word "longing", because it is something that often rears its head when one writes or composes music. In our daily lives, we are merely a part of something, but some people are more than just a member of society. We are quite blessed to be able to write and record music.
The thing about your music and lyrics is that they can be both inhumanly crushing and extremely uplifting at the same time.
V: I have never viewed them as uplifting, but I think that comes down to me feeling that whenever I write lyrics and music I tie a knot, but a knot that I cannot un-tie myself. That has to do with the way my mind works where it feels like "I am almost there and yet I am not there at all". It is difficult to explain. Take the "Åsgards Fall" songs for instance. The thought behind those is very elitist in a sense. A philosopher would probably wager that those lyrics are very elitist, and they might even seem childish to some, but it is nevertheless very elitist to state that "We are few" and that we are standing above others in a sense. That sounds very elitist no matter how you go about it. One cannot deny that. We are not saying that all others deserve to die or anything like that. We are merely saying that many humans are quite dumb, and if you look at how some people tend to live their lives then they certainly are retarded. In the Western World, many meaningless people surround us. In that sense "We are few", and by few, I do not necessarily refer to those that hold the same opinions as I do. That is what "Åsgards Fall" is about. Think about the title "Åsgards Fall"; it is about the loss of an idealized world as well as the loss of hope. Is there hope? In "Åsgards Fall IV", there is no hope. That stereotypical narrative plot in which there is a hero, a villain, a conflict, and a successful conclusion does not work for me. I cannot write like that. It is too fantasy-like in a sense. It never ends well!
(Photo: Andrea Chirulescu)
Could you not argue that it is up to the listener to decide whether your lyrics are uplifting? To phrase it differently, is it not up to each individual to decide whether to cave in or rise to the occasion and fucking triumph, you know? Like Rorschach says in "Watchmen" at one point: "Never compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon". There is not necessarily a happy conclusion in sight, but that does not entail that one ought to give up and simply lie down like some loser. I like that defiant stance.
V: Exactly. I like that line of thinking. Never giving in or caving in. Fighting for what one believes in without compromising. Being defiant. That probably sounds borderline childish and individualistic to some. There is also a sense of safety in being in that situation, because you are able to let off a lot of steam and exorcise aggression. Melancholy and longing have a lot of beauty in them, but they can manifest themselves in different ways. I suppose there is a balance there. Do you go out, bash peoples’ faces in, and confront them instead of sitting at home reflecting on things or the other way around? It is all about balance and never standing still. Longing is an amazing thing in the sense that it can inspire you. One does not need to walk around and look down on others. It is more about this extraordinary thought that one possesses, one that you may not walk around and think about constantly, but it shines through when, for instance, you compose music and write lyrics. Look at all the poetry that has been produced throughout the ages. A lot of that focuses on longing and suppression of one’s feelings and so on. Perhaps one feels that one’s choices in life have been spat on. Maybe one has allowed oneself to be suppressed by others or allowed them to dictate one’s thoughts and actions in a sense.
If you look at all the norms, conventions, and structures in society that we are all part of to some extent, time and time again you see people who have simply not managed to question the rules, patterns, and boundaries imposed on them. It is easier said than done, of course. The stuff you said before made me think about a song off the previous album, the one entitled "Sindighet". Whenever I listen to that one, its melancholy atmosphere forces me to reflect on things, but there is also defiance present that drives me and forces me to act.
V: That is very interesting to hear. You and I are good friends and have known each other for years. We have a lot in common in terms of values and opinions, and there have been many interesting conversations between us throughout the years, so I can totally relate to what you said about "Sindighet»". This is probably a silly example, but some time ago, I would walk Stoltzekleiven in Bergen, and when I did, I would always listen to the "Heiðindómr ok mótgangr" record, not because I am a fan of myself, but primarily because I know the songs so well and secondly, because the lyrics drive me. I reasoned that if the lyrics could not do something so little as to make me walk up that steep mountainside then what was there?! They did and it totally worked. Listening to those words and lyrics motivated me. In that way, I guess you could say that I inspired myself, ha-ha. Being one’s own source of inspiration goes back to what we were discussing before about people reflecting excessively little on what it means to be a human. One does not need to listen to others all the time. You can walk around in the margins of society and follow your own path. One has to live by one’s words. There is a sense of morality in some of my lyrics when it comes to stuff like that. What you mentioned about "Sindighet" is a great example of how some things can drive you. Having said that, the words in that song is Odin’s wisdom and not mine. The idea is from the Hávamál, and what sense it makes!
I am glad that we touched on this. While you listen to it when walking up the mountainside, I often listen to that song when at work and things are really stressful and chaotic, ha-ha.
V: That is brilliant. It means that there are at least two of us in this crappy world we inhabit who have been moved by the Hávamál. You are from Denmark while I am Norwegian, and it just blows my mind how people from Scandinavia and Germany and so on are influenced by their surroundings. Those who deny that fauna and the likes have a major impact on our mentality are fucking wrong. Everything has an impact and everything fulfills a role, but one still has to make one’s own choices, and that is where I think the Hávamál is extremely relevant. The Hávamál is not about being tough, but about being honest.
I think the Hávamál is also quite upfront about how one is supposed to take responsibility for one’s own actions.
V: Absolutely. Honesty as well as responsibility.
It is amazing to think how much your music has inspired me, because it was partly what led me to read the Hávamál. Earlier on, we were talking about music and lyrics provoking strong reactions and your music certainly does just that. No kidding.
V: It is very interesting to hear you say that. You and I have a lot in common, but we already knew that, ha-ha.
Did I tell you that your "Åsgards Fall" EP as well as your new album brings to mind Bathory‘s immortal classic "Twilight of the Gods" in places? That is one of the greatest compliments I can pay you.
V: Wow, that is indeed one of the greatest compliments that you can pay me.
So that particular album is a direct source of inspiration to you?
V: Yes, but Bathory in itself is a major source of inspiration, especially the "Hammerheart" and "Twilight of the Gods" albums. The "Åsgards Fall III" song is extremely influenced by Bathory…more like a blind copy of Bathory actually, ha-ha (V’gandr starts humming the riff while drumming on the table), but those that love Bathory know this and instantly notice stuff like that. It is totally deliberate on our part. That is another way of overstating things a bit to signify that we are not one of those polka-influenced folky so-called pagan bands out there. We fucking love Bathory and that is where we come from. Bathory is our thing. Call our music Viking metal as so many others do, but Bathory is our thing and the "Åsgards Fall" songs are tributes to Bathory and to some extent Celtic Frost. That some people out there can still identity our sound and identity in those "Åsgards Fall" songs even though they point back to the aforementioned bands is great. Personally, I have to say that "Åsgards Fall III" is very indebted to Bathory. Did I tell you that I actually prefer "Hammerheart" to "Twilight of the Gods"? However, "Twilight…" somehow fits much better into what we are doing. If you listen to our music, it definitely sounds as if "Twilight…" is a bigger influence than "Hammerheart" is.
If I had to guess, I would say that "Twilight…" must be your favorite album, ha-ha. I do find it brilliant that you can walk into a record store and buy an album by a band who clearly has its own identity and yet pays tribute to one of the greatest metal albums of all time. I love those references.
V: I love the fact that people like you notice these things and appreciate it, and it is very cool when I occasionally stumble on a review where Bathory is mentioned in relation to our music. However, seldom have I encountered anyone who could pinpoint that particular influence and inspiration from "Twilight of the Gods" that is present in our musical universe. Very few get it. It is done on purpose, to such an extent that I truly want people to know and discover that Bathory influences us. At times, it feels like I am actually screaming in their faces "Listen to this song! This is inspired by Bathory". I guess it is akin to testing our fans and listeners. We love incorporating references to Bathory and things like that in our songs. At least we are honest about it. I would never deny that. If the listener does not notice these references then that is cool too.
That is why it is a tribute. Tributes are supposed to be honest.
V: 100 % honest. If you copy something in order to pay tribute to it then you go all the way.
V: I often say that Bathory is our only source of inspiration apart from black metal as an entity, but Bathory is, in some ways, the only band that I am personally influenced by.
"Twilight of the Gods" is actually 25 years old now.
V: Yeah, I think you are right.
The reason I say that is that you yourself have been doing this stuff for a very long time now. Do you feel old when I put it like that? Ha-ha.
V: Nah, not really, ha-ha.
What really fascinates me is that you guys have actually managed to become better over the years. You sound better now than ever before, which is quite absurd, because how many other bands who are 25 years old have managed or accomplished that? How many nights have you and I not discussed that some of our old heavy metal heroes ought to have thrown in the towel years ago?
V: That is true, but I often forget that we have been doing this for so long. I usually just think that Helheim is a name and that we do what we are supposed to do. I am very content, but I would not say that I/we have peaked yet, because that would result in me going on a downward slope. Maybe things are more thought-through nowadays, but in a way, you might say that we have never given a shit about many things, really. Having said that, it comes down to HOW you do not give a shit about certain things. The way in which we didn’t give a fuck earlier on costs so much more today in a sense. What I mean by that is that there is so much good music out there today and it is so easy to drown and disappear, which we are very aware of. We are just a grain of sand in a desert of music. In a way, that makes it easier for us to just relax, do our own thing, and simply follow our own instincts. Perhaps we are just more relaxed and united now in a sense. Earlier on, we argued a lot more and we would often try to do something in accordance with one or more things that we did not exactly know what was. It is difficult to explain, but the day that we make the perfect album there is no longer any point in continuing. Helheim is our musical playground where we do as we please. If people like that then that is great. This new album was actually the one that I was most unsure about as to whether or not people would like it. I knew that I would like it myself, but I had no idea whether others would be into it. I think that comes down to me feeling that I have invested so many emotions and thoughts in this one, you know.
I presume that there is a pleasant atmosphere internally in the band. Would you say that you are all friends outside of the band, or would you say that music is what is keeping/holding you together?
V: That is a very personal question, ha-ha.
You do not have to answer it if you do not feel like it.
V: Nah, it is cool. A few others have asked us that, but it feels different when you and I are discussing things like that as friends. Anyway, if you take H’grimnir, Hrymr, and I, we have been doing this together since 1992. Do not forget Noralf, because he is very important too, but he appeared later on for musical reasons in a sense. It is extremely difficult to say or tell how life would have been if Helheim had disbanded after, say, four or five albums. Had we still been as close as we are now? We rarely talk together, but I consider them my best friends and some of those closest to me. H’grimnir and I have always had a great relationship, but we do not talk to each other all the time. I could say the same thing about Hrymr. The band is keeping us together in one sense, but if we decided to disband tomorrow, I am certain that we would still stay in touch with each other. Even though we do not talk a lot outside of the band, we have so much history together, and it is more akin to a family in my opinion. They are more like brothers to me as opposed to friends. Having that said, our relationships do not change simply because we are not keeping in constant touch with each other. Of course, we do meet outside of Helheim from time to time as friends.
A close friendship dictates that distance matters very little.
V: I agree. Our music has formed a very solid bond between us, and we have been through so many things together throughout the years that we have strong personal relationships firmly in place. As I said, we do meet outside of music from time to time where we meet primarily as friends.
If I say 1992 or 1993, does that make you nostalgic or sentimental?
V: No, not really. There was a lot of talk about that at the BlekkMetal Event in 2015, and when we had our 20-year anniversary in 2012, but I have to say that I am no longer particularly nostalgic when it comes to the years that have passed.
If we go in the opposite direction and look to the future, I was thinking that you have given life to music that will stay with us and be here long after you have left us.
V: So have you! Ha-ha.
Do you ever think that that is a great accomplishment? Your music has a life of its own now. Many people leave absolutely nothing creative or artistic behind.
V: In one’s darkest hour one tries to think about great things like that, because life is a long line of possibilities, impossibilities, achievements, and so on and so forth. I do feel that we have accomplished a lot with Helheim on an artistic and creative level. I do see what you mean about having created something that attains a life of its own. Do I view it as a legacy? No, not really. I have merely accomplished something that I wanted to accomplish and that means a lot to me. When I am no longer here, then I have no say in things or any perception of what happens to the music and so on. How people perceive what we have accomplished when I am no longer here is of no relevance to me.
(Photo: Andrea Chirulescu)
Some nihilists believe that art is the only thing that makes sense in that art attains a life of its own that is "liberated" from everything else. The author dies in a sense. The work is autonomous.
V: Then that is because they choose to go beyond death and I choose not to do that. When I am dead, I am dead. Nothing matters beyond that. I have a very pragmatic approach to life (after death) in that sense. I am talking about my life here, not anybody else’s. What happens when I am dead is of no relevance to me, which may sound cold and cynical to some, apathetic even, but I cannot deny that I have a very pragmatic approach to life and death. You could throw me in a garbage can when I am dead, ha-ha. I need no burial, no burial stone, no memorial, nothing. What matters is my life while I am alive. That some believe that one ought to leave something behind or to look beyond death is almost religious in a sense, but having said that I hope that some will feel that it sucks when I am no longer here and perhaps say that I was a nice person.
In the Icelandic sagas, they often talk about memory and legacy as well as honor and shame.
V: Friends die, foes die, but one thing that never dies is memory.
Do any of those things pertain to your philosophy of life?
V: Yes, but that is because it all ties in with what you do and how you act WHILE you are alive. If people mentioned me or talked about me after I had died and said, for instance, "He was a nice person" then that is a memory or a legacy in a sense as opposed to being cherished for my music or something like that. The former has to do with me as a person. That is what it is all about. Music means nothing with respect to that. It is easy to take things out of context here. Just because I compose music that does not entail that I ought to be remembered for that, if you know what I mean. The words of Odin and the Hávamál are relevant here as well. If I died shortly after this meeting of ours, then maybe you would think to yourself "That was a damn shame, he was a really cool dude and I really liked him. He was a good human being", which means that I have a good/positive legacy, but if you thought, "I am glad we got rid of that asshole" then my legacy and the memory of me is less than impressive, ha-ha. Maybe to some the music would be extremely important in terms of being remembered by others.
I can see why the boundaries might become blurry to some.
V: People are more than welcome to disagree with me when it comes to stuff like this. To me, one’s legacy is very much about those closest and the pride that one has achieved in life.
There are many ways to approach things like that.
V: Absolutely. It comes down to the individual.
Going back to the lyrics, whenever you and I have talked about them in private you have always mentioned how important they are to you, but I have also felt that you are very much about creating a…well, that German term "gesamtkunstwerk" comes to mind. Whenever you guys have conceived an album, every aspect of it enhances the other and everything is connected and related.
V: Totally, I am 100 % about that! Without that, there is nothing! That might seem pretentious to some. I do not consider myself pretentious as a person, but Helheim is so extremely important to me. Months can pass where I do not write or compose anything, but Helheim is such a large part of my existence that it simply fulfills and plays a major role in my life. I never force things through. I only write when I feel inspired. I sometimes feel almost useless if I am not inspired or creative, but when lightning strikes I want to make sure that everything attains personal value to us as opposed to us merely "producing" something. I think I speak for the others when I say that if we do not feel like writing anything then nothing materializes. That does not mean that we are more important than others are. Helheim is important to me and so I only write stuff when I feel inspired and in a creative mood. The artwork, the lyrics, the band pictures, and the music are all extremely important.
There is hardly anything wrong with giving it 100 %. Why do something half-assed?
V: As you said, it is 100 % or nothing. In retrospect, one might view things differently. When we were at the BlekkMetal event, there was this Q&A that I was a part of along with Grutle and Ivar from Enslaved. The one who posed the questions asked me something along the lines of "What does that mean?" and "What do you mean by that?" in relation to lyrics, and that paralyzed me slightly and I felt a bit uneasy, because how can I possibly answer those questions? If I look at lyrics that I have written I may think to myself "Why did I write that?" or "What was the purpose of writing that?", but then that ties in with my personal life story and how things in my life have evolved over time. Nowadays I can only presume or guess what I meant by certain things that I wrote in the past because you change and progress as a person. Everything becomes a memory upon a memory. Everything that you hear from others is a memory of theirs and so on and so forth. In ten years, it might well be very difficult for me to talk about "raunijaR" because you never stand still. It might be difficult to relate to the lyrics in ten years’ time, you know. Like, how am I supposed to relate to "Jormundgand»"? It is strange how that works. Am I getting off topic?
No, not at all. Apart from Helheim, you are also a member of Taake and you guys tour a lot, so I guess my next question revolves around whether or not those two bands are fulfilling enough to you as a person and as a musician? Do they cover your needs?
V: Yes, I feel very "complete" and content playing in those two bands. Playing with Taake is very important to me. It is a way for me to channel my more demonic side into something constructive. I also love traveling, performing on stage, delivering a good show, and so on. I have always had that drive to do something. Earlier on there was Aeternus, Deathcon, and Cult of Catharsis. Nowadays I have my solo project, which is one of the most personal and intense things that I have ever worked on.
The last time you visited us you played us a few sketches and raw demos and so on, and I was blown away. Even though they were just sketches, there were some brilliant moments.
V: Awesome! I will keep things close to my heart for the time being, but all will be revealed in due time. The project is so close to my heart that it literally scares me. That thing we talked about regarding one’s legacy and so on, I feel confident that when I am lying on my deathbed I can think to myself "You did it!", because this thing that I am working on now is very ambitious.
Speaking of all these side projects, whatever happened to that Ravengod vinyl release? We spoke about that the last time we did an interview for Eternal Terror Live. You fucking told me that it would be out on vinyl. I have been more than patient with you, ha-ha.
V: Ha-ha, I know, but you will have to ask Hoest (Taake) about that. He is the one who is going to release it. I have no idea when it will be released.
The idea lives, so to say.
V: Absolutely, but he is a busy guy. He definitely wants to release it. It is merely a matter of time, I think. It will be fun to get it out there.
It is almost like a black metal relic in a sense. It is from 1996 after all.
V: Yeah, ha-ha.
Maybe all the gin and tonics we had the last time around had something to do with it, but you seemed unclear about who were members of the band back then.
V: That was probably because I confused it with another project we had back then and some rehearsals that we did, which was kind of like a pre-Deathcon thing. With Ravengod, there were only three of us: Hoest, a guy named Bjarte, and myself. We only recorded those four songs and then that was it. I do not really recall many specific things about that recording session. I do remember that Hoest wanted to put the first scream on the recording, ha-ha. This was years ago, mind you. It is but a memory now.
Do you live in the now or do you often plan ahead in terms of your musical endeavors and life in general?
V: That is a tricky question. I am very much about living in the now. Day by day and week by week almost, this can be tiresome at times. Of course, I do reflect on the future and things that I would like to achieve, but I have never been one of those persons who said, "When I reach that age I want to achieve this" and "When I reach that age I want to achieve that". I see people around me who have been married and bought houses and so on, but then again; how does one want to define oneself? Why please others or compromise if that entails that one is not honest with respect to what one truly wants. There is a lot of outside pressure at times, but I am what I am and I try to do things my way. Now and again, it feels like an inner war, but other people’s opinions matter very little when it comes to how one is to live one’s life. Again, I do reflect on the future, especially now that I am studying again, but whenever I think about the future, there is always that thought that I have to perform and play music. My demon is that I have to play music. Without music, I feel that I have no life as such in the sense that I cannot express myself properly.
That sounds like a blessing and a curse to me.
V: Yes, in many ways it is. To me it is definitely both. I think about this quite often. Not daily, but more than once every week. It feels like a curse from time to time.
Is that a deep unexpressed fear in some ways?
V: Yes, definitely, a very deep-seated one. I loathe the idea of not performing music. I have no idea what to do with myself if I cannot play music any longer. I know that inevitably the day will come when I cannot do this anymore, but hopefully that will be the day when I feel satisfied and fulfilled and not before that, if that makes sense. You must understand that I am always hungry for more. Extremely hungry. I have to do this. This is what I do. This is what I know, and let me tell you; I have sacrificed a lot for this. Again, it comes down to that thing about being honest towards yourself. I could have been in a completely different place today if I had not chosen music, and trust me, many people have had all kinds of ideas about where I ought to be, but music is what I want and what I desire. It is not always easy to follow the path that one has set for oneself.
People are often like that. They think they have all the answers and know how others ought to live. There is only one person who knows what works for you, and that is you. People have so many misplaced expectations.
V: Yes, I try to approach it like that too, but at the same time, it can be quite hard to be so bold headed and to follow a less than "viable" financial path. It is a struggle at times, but at the same time, it feels right. Maybe someday things will change, or maybe in ten years, I will have a different outlook on certain things, but for now this is how it is, ha-ha. I have to stand by that.
Some musicians never listen to their own stuff once they are done recording an album or once the album has been released. Are you one of those who are haunted by your own sense of perfection?
V: Hmmm, tricky question. While mixing "raunijaR" I became fed up with it. I had to distance myself from it. I think that was because I was so absorbed by it for so long. However, that has never happened before. I have rarely listened to it since it was released. I have no idea why I suddenly felt like that about our new album, but «raunijaR» goes so deep and gets under my skin and so I just had to distance myself from it for a little while. Not that I hated it or anything while mixing it, but there were times where…put it this way, if it had been a person I would have punched that person in the face.
You did mention that you were not completely satisfied with your own clean vocals in "Helheim 9". Do I sense a bit of self-criticism?
V: Yeah, I do have my doubts about my vocals in that song, especially in the beginning, but the vocals get better when I start chanting about the runes. Those runes are very important and form a riddle. I will not divulge what they are about and what they signify, but there is a link to Bathory there, actually. Whoever solves that riddle is on to something. To get back to your question, I like the chanting parts and so on, but the clean vocals at the beginning, that very first verse, is something that I have to learn to live with. The others were satisfied though, and given that we are a democracy, it was agreed that those clean vocals were usable. I had to succumb to the will of the others, ha-ha. I hope that Hrymr will not take offense at me saying this though, but that is how I feel about those clean vocals. I was very pleased with everything else apart from "Åsgards Fall III" where those borderline spoken word vocals enter the picture. It sounded corny at first. There was no melody to them. I felt very ambivalent while recording them, but then Bjoernar offered some very good advice and comforted me, so everything worked out in the end. I am very proud of H’grimnir’s vocals in "Åsgards Fall IV". They give me the chills and inspire me. I love it when we inspire each other. Thumbs up to him for writing that killer tune and topping it off with brilliant vocals.
If you are out walking in the mountains on a cold and misty day all by yourself, does that serve as a source of inspiration to you?
V: It has been a while since I walked in the mountains alone, but even though Norwegian nature is very often associated with Norwegian black metal, I must admit that I am quite boring in the sense that nature does not inspire me to write new tunes for Helheim. Those songs come from elsewhere. Having said that, I love being surrounded by nature and I do find it majestic and beautiful. I feel a sense of pride when I look at the mountains and the forests and so on. I guess you could say that nature is a part of me because I am surrounded by it. There is one sentence on the new album that was directly inspired by nature, more specifically a mountain that I drove past in the northern part of Norway. I noted them down the minute I saw that mountain. It is truly majestic and all grey while there are these thin white lines that run down it that look like veins.
What about National Romantic art then? That is very important to me as it truly speaks to me on an emotional level. Gude, Tidemand, Kittelsen, the German landscape painters, and so on.
V: Of course, I grew up with that stuff. I have seen many of those works of art and found them captivating. Look at how black metal utilized many of those things; Kittelsen is a great example of that (just think of think Burzum). Those illustrations and paintings say more than a thousand words. Then there is also the literature that was produced before 1900 with Wergeland and those guys, which is interesting. You also have Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger, one of the great Danish writers. That story about the golden horns with its references to runic inscriptions and ancient Scandinavian history is great. I do not know a whole lot about literature dating from the Romantic era, but there is a certain nerve and mood within it that is inspiring. National Romantic art is definitely important. There is also that sense of longing present in a lot of that stuff, which ties in with what we discussed about longing in relation to Helheim’s music earlier on today.