Borknagar – Cultivating a Musical Universe

Tuesday, 24th September 2019

A band that has been revered for decades for their unique, progressive take on the black metal genre is that of Borknagar. One could argue that the band’s sound is far from that of black metal in many senses, going with vibes that take many approaches and angles. Yet they always are able to take the Borknagar sound and advance it while keeping it grounded in its essence. Such is the continued case for the band with their soon to be released eleventh album, True North. We talked with mastermind Øystein Brun about its meanings, impact of losing his father, and the band’s already mentioned unique sound below.

Dead Rhetoric: Is there any sort of meaning behind the album title, True North?

Øystein Brun: Definitely, at least we tried to make some points [laughs]. For me, the album title is always something that is done last for us – the last piece of the puzzle so to speak. We even had a discussion about the album title when we did the final mixing of the album. The title should be a spearhead of the album, both lyrically and musically. In a few words, it’s difficult to find that spearhead. All of us all like titles that have different layers, that you can put under different scopes and twist/turn them. I don’t want to make a traffic sign, so to speak. I want something that will hold a little more.

True North, as a fundamental term, comes from navigation. The true north is the constant in navigation, if you get lost at sea. Back in the old days, like the Vikings, they sailed according to the Polar Star [North Star] – if you star the Polar Star, which you usually did in the Northern Hemisphere, you had some notion of where you are heading. When I was a kid, in scouts and things like that, we were also told if we were lost in the woods, to look for the Polar Star.

So for me, the title is the constant in this big wide world that is always changing. In a philosophical sense, we are chasing a future now that is very uncertain. Nobody knows when this crisis will impact the world. In a sense, there’s hasn’t been a generation in a while with uplifting foresight. Maybe get a bigger house or car, or something in my generation – but in talking to my daughter, she sees it being quite black. It’s all based on what they show on the news all the time. So the world is uncertain and floating around, and the world has become much smaller, but much bigger at the same time since every kid has to relate to the whole world through the Internet and things like that.

So True North is something safe that you can grip onto in all of this chaos. I also liked the directional notion of the title, and the lyrical content deals a lot with reality and life. The title track talks about the circle of life and generations. I got the idea from a documentary I was watching about moose in Scandinavia. They walk the same trail that they have since the Ice Age. No one knows how or why they did it. They went extinct in Scandinavia for a few years, but when they came back they began walking the same path. No one knows why, even when the climate and land have changed – they still walk the same route.

I see so many things that my son picks up on that reflect on me, even if I haven’t told him to check it out or encourage him. He has a tendency to find certain things, and it’s the same mentality as me. It’s really interesting how the circle of life works – humans are more advanced than the birds and bees and things like that, but it’s still getting born, having kids, and dying [laughs]. We just do it more advanced, since we have civilizations and all that, but the basics are pretty easy going. So there are always choices in life, even if it’s just going out to have a smoke or go to the toilet, you need to relate to direction.

Dead Rhetoric: What was it like getting ICS Vortex back doing vocals?

Brun: It was been really amazing. It’s been a tough ride doing this album. I’m not getting any younger, and it involves some sacrifice – traveling and being away from home. I also had a bit of a personal crisis when we were releasing Winter Thrice. My father had died, and he was actually buried the day before the release of that album. We tried to just head out and do some touring, so when we landed for this album cycle, I had to deal with it. I had to dig deep and get back on track and deal with my personal things. My mother was alone, and there were practicalities like that to deal with. It was a tough phase. In a sense, we put everything back to zero for a couple of months.

Then we had a couple of songs, the three of us: Simen [Hestnæs – ICS Vortex], Lars [Nedland], and myself, which has been the creative force of the band now for quite some time. So when we started talking about the new album, we worked our way up from there. We came to a point during the production that we had to make some decisions. We wanted to step up in terms of the album and live stuff. The drummer situation, we kind of knew was coming. Our previous drummer was kind of busy with his own band and all kinds of things. He’s an entertainer.

So we saw that coming. Same with Andreas [Hedlund – Vintersorg]. He had a really bad accident before Winter Thrice and we had to delay the album half a year because of that. He never really got back on track, because he lost a big portion of his hearing in one ear. He also got a really nice job in Sweden with lots of responsibility in regards to education. So we came to the point that we had to deal with the drum situation and there was no bad blood there. We are still very good friends. The same thing happened with Andreas – we got to the point of doing vocals and had to have a good open discussion with him. I think he felt kind of relieved. It was a very friendly thing. He’s still a good friend of mine and we have the Cronian project that we will definitely do another album for.

So it naturally flew into the direction of having ICS Vortex/Simen step up and took the challenge of doing all the lead vocals, together with Lars, who has also done a big portion of the vocals. In terms of clean vocals, they are pretty much the same, but Simen does the screaming vocals. It was a transition, and we got back on track naturally. It seems the most natural thing that Simen is the frontman of the band. It’s brilliant, and I’ve known him for a long time. Even though he had done Dimmu Borgir and different things, as I have also done some different things as well. When we started working again a few years ago, the magic was back. We went right back to the same place we had left from [2000]. For this album, we just stayed in my personal studio – the three of us locked ourselves in and recorded the vocals. Of course we were drinking some beer and getting tipsy in the evening [laughs].

The whole thing was really wonderful. We got a nice dynamic flow over the whole thing. Because I have the studio now, we got to sit down together with everyone. We could bounce ideas back and forth. With Winter Thrice and Urd, to an extent, we sat in different studios and sent files back and forth. This time we worked closer as a band and it was lovely. Magical, but not in a religious way – the chemistry worked out and made something beautiful.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve had a lot of really good vocalists over the years. Is there something that you think pulls them in, or is it just kind of the way that it has been?

Brun: I kind of question myself about that…it might partly be because the music that we have appeals to a certain person, but I really don’t know. My fundamental ideal about the band has always been, and still is, that I give them a lot of space – everyone, not just the vocals. I write most of the music and produce a lot of things, and from the outside, it might seem that I am steering the whole thing with hard hands and being a bit of a dictator, but absolutely not. I’m like an old hippie almost. I have my ideas, I write a lot of the music – the framework and things like that. Like a black and white drawing, but I give the guys the opportunity to color it with me, in a sense.

For example, the drummer gets a lot of space and I’m open to his ideas and his qualities as a drummer. The same thing has always been with vocalists. I try to pin point the qualities – what are the best aspects of Simen? I want to give him the means to do his best. There’s no point in restraining him. He’s an awesome vocalist so he should shine. There’s a lot of creativity and opportunities for people to shine. Maybe that’s a factor that’s going in? I try to push people to do their best, but also to get their personality into the music. I feel very fortunate to work with these people. I got to work with Garm for a few albums, and he is a brilliant musician. I’m a huge fan of his work. He’s a great friend of mine. The privilege to work with him was fantastic.

Dead Rhetoric: You went towards this a little earlier, but have you noticed any changes in your songwriting as you have gotten older?

Brun: Yeah, I guess so. That’s a bit complicated though, in a sense. I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s just become a part of my life. It’s so integrated. I don’t have a schedule where write down when I am going to write songs. I could be going to a pub and drinking, or I could be going to my studio and just playing some guitar. I’ve tried to keep to being a free-minded spirit. But when you do music for such a long time, your ears get better trained to hear things – you get more experienced. But that represents conformity in a sense – if I am too picky on too much, it might limit me. When I write songs, I try to isolate myself from everyone, and Century Media knows this – we have been signed with them for ages. They know not to bug me when I’m writing music [laughs]. The passion behind it comes from writing music that I love to listen to myself. I have always tried to protect and cherish that flame/spark.

Technology has changed a lot – I have a full blown studio, and back in the day I had a tape track. So things have become easier in one sense, but I need to dig a bit deeper into myself to find that spirit. But it has been working just great so far [laughs].

Dead Rhetoric: What sticks out in your mind as something you are proud of the band accomplishing over the years?

Brun: Lots of things. I never expected this when I started out in 1993-4. Not releasing an album, or going on tour, or making any money on this. It was too far out for me back then. That’s what I’m proud of. I’m in the middle of everything so it’s been difficult to judge. But I’ve always set out to make my own musical universe in a way. I wanted to make a band that sticks out. There’s never been a point to be against something, but I love those bands who could make their own world. Iron Maiden is one of those bands for me. They have a cover, the logo, or that bass sound. The second you put it on, you know its Iron Maiden. If I have succeeded or not, I don’t know for sure, but I’ve always tried to stay a little outside of everything. It seems like we have been able to do that, based on feedback I get from journalists and people like that. I think that people are at least familiar with what we sound like. We have a tone or sound that feels like [Borknagar]. That’s what I’m most proud of actually. I feel that we have succeeded in doing something a little bit outside the rest and unique in a way.

Dead Rhetoric: I would agree. I think that there’s some things that tend to make something identifiable as something that you have done as Borknagar that stands out – whether it’s the vibe of the music or the way that you put the vocal lines into it.

Brun: Yeah, a lot of people talk about it being ‘my way of writing songs’ or ‘my way of playing guitar.’ Which can be a good and a bad thing too. I’m not a lead guitarist, so to speak. I don’t do that stuff. I am not able to play anything else – no Iron Maiden. The only thing was a Metallica cover back in the day. I don’t play anything other than my own music. Some might think that is narrow or whatever, but fuck, I don’t care [laughs]. That’s my style. It’s my way of doing it.

Dead Rhetoric: Playing your own stuff would make you more open – you aren’t trying to imitate anyone else.

Brun: That’s also my point of view as well. But in the local community here, there was a guy who is responsible for cultural education and stuff like that. He called me, and asked if I could do some lessons for kids. I’ve been in the paper due to playing music, but I had to say “Sorry, I can’t play anything.” It’s limiting in that way – I’m not a showoff guitarist, but I can do my stuff. In general, I’m more focused on quality than quantity. Same thing with the speed of a guitarist. Being able to play faster than lightning is impressive, but it’s pretty much the same as looking at someone running for a distance and going it in 9 seconds. It’s impressive of course, but it doesn’t give me anything.

Dead Rhetoric: I’ve seen in other interviews that you are pretty knowledgeable on current events. What bothers you about the world of today?

Brun: There’s a lot of things [laughs]. That’s bold for me to say – we are not a band that has had any political motifs. I’ve always been clear about that. But my personal opinion about art – music is art. It should be kind of pure. But I’ve been involved in local politics before and been a board member of the largest humanist organization in Norway. There’s one song on the new album, “Mount Rapture,” is one time where I had to say something. It’s something that has bugged me for years. We humans are not born with sharp teeth and clothes, but we are born with a huge fucking brain. We have built pyramids and things, and I’m so fucking tired of superstition, religion, and anti-vaxxers. It’s plain stupidity. I’m past that now. I was part of a humanist organization for many years and was involved with debates with religious people of all sorts. I had this professional attitude and respected people’s opinions and beliefs, and of course you should do that. You shouldn’t be bad with people. But I’m tired of superstition and bullshit, let’s leave it in the past where it belongs.

Let’s use our brains and build a nice future for our children. That reflects also into the idea of “my heroes died a long time ago.” What kind of heroes do we have today? What the fuck? We don’t have those adventurous heroes that try to save the world in a positive way. Mankind is so restrained and impaired by stupidity – by superstition, religion, anti-vaccination – all of those things just annoy me [laughs].

The whole thing with this album, it started with my father dying – it gave me a dose of reality. When you have kids, it changes things. There’s euphoria and perspective, but losing a family member – my father was my hero, teacher, and everything – he enjoyed nature and brought me along when I was a kid. This open-mindedness, which I learned from him, and tried to put into the lyrics but also the music. He tried to be very clear, and reality-based. So this release was less mystic and philosophic. It was asking questions rather than saying anything. But with the whole thing with my father, I kind of crash landed down on Earth a little bit. I had the urge with this album to be more direct and be more in-person with both the music and the lyrics. That’s why the lyrics are more straight-forward and in your face. That’s also why we did the cover that way – we wanted something real. You can walk that mountain. It’s here in Norway and you can stand where they took the photographs of it and see the same view. For me, it a bit of a journey into reality in a sense, in terms of music and lyrics.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s planned once the album comes out?

Brun: We had something going for Europe but it doesn’t seem like it will work. But we are going to do all of the festivals next year, and we have some shows coming up in the winter. The good news is that, as we speak, is that we are closing in on a US tour maybe next summer. I can’t promise anything, but we are maybe as close as we have ever been to doing another US tour. We also have a South American tour confirmed for April. We also have a few videos to come for the album as well.

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