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Norwegian Prog Metal Gods Enslaved were Never Satanic, but Always Chaotic

Guitarist Ivar Bjørnson talks Spotify, declines to hail Satan, and looks back on the now-legendary band he helped start at age 13.


Photo by Thor Broedreskift

Since 1991, Norway’s Enslaved has been making some of the most creative and transformative black metal out there. While the band’s lineup and sound have changed over the years, they’ve remained firm and constant in their growth since 2004, with the founding duo of Grutle Kjellson and Ivar Bjørnson remaining intact. This year saw the release of In Times, the band's 13th album, and several high-profile tours—Enslaved have always been a hard-working band, and have turned into veritable road dogs. Come March, they'll celebrate their 25th anniversary with a series of blowout shows in London, and they'd just come off a North American tour with Between the Buried and Me when Noisey gave guitarist Bjørnson a ring.

Bjørnson attributes a great deal of the band's survival and continued success to their porous approach to genre, telling Noisey, "We’re not as bound up in musical identity as the genre-centric mentality. You find traces of it in every genre, you have black and death metal purists. I guess that’s becoming more of a minority of listeners who are identifying themselves by musical 'purity.' The rest of us seem to identify more with the whole exploration of music. It’s more like the 70s when you go to the record store and look for new arrivals and look and see who’s producing what and who’s naming other bands and you find things that are different genres but are related."

Noisey: This tour wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. How did North America treat you this time around?
Ivar Bjørnson
: It’s been great, it’s been a different tour which is exactly what we want: the challenge of playing in front of new people. People are coming up to get our merch and we’re seeing it on our social media. We’ll probably see them on the next round when we’re headlining again. We probably surprised a few of the kids out there.

You see it a lot these days. We come from different genres and different backgrounds, but make this journey that tends to throw us towards more progressive music. Things are upside-down and backwards at times. I think that’s how people relate to music today. If you start out in a certain kind of band and make drastic changes on your way, people aren’t thrown off by it as much as they used to be. There are a lot of things that are problematic with the music scene and the music business now, but the way that music is explored and is experienced now is more positive.

It’s interesting seeing how with the internet people have access to everything and people still love going to the record store, but bands aren’t always benefiting.
Absolutely. It’s different now but it’s the sort of thing we gravitate towards. It’s the process of finding a model where you can agree on how to solve it so that bands can survive. It’s only natural if you have millions of people coming to your music. It makes sense in a monetary society that it would benefit the originator. Right now it’s the service providers who benefit, the people setting up the infrastructure. Now it’s frankly more like a toll road, so to speak. It’s not the people producing things or transporting things that make the money, it’s the people who can block or unblock the availability of them. At some point people get pissed off and start driving off the road through the forest or just refuse to use the road. If hundreds of artists all got together for a common cause it would be harder to object to.

How has your experience with the business side of the industry changed over the decades?
It’s boiled down to really simple things. We avoid having too much nostalgia. I think the problem that a lot of bands who experienced early success in the 90s like we did is that they can’t really get over the fact that if things remained the same, they’d have had a very different life situation these days. They see there’s more people than ever at their gigs, there’s more people listening, but the income isn’t there. I guess we’ve chosen to not worry about how it used to be. If we work a lot more, then we will still be able to get by. It’s an ongoing discussion and consumers are becoming more aware. At some point, they’ll also realize that if our generation are going to have our Stones and our Metallicas, as well as the stronger middle segment, then there need to be some kind of incentive. Otherwise, we’ll just have all these bands where people have day jobs and practice at night and only do small limited tours. We’ll have all these semi-pro bands and people will be dissatisfied with that. Eventually people will tell Spotify that if you’re making ten billion bucks, you should give the artist a real piece of the action.

It’s sad that it’s a demand you have to make instead of an understanding. In the face of all of this, Enslaved has retained a more positive perspective and sound than many of your early peers who reveled in the chaos.
I think we have a constructive purpose. We’re trying to propel ourselves forward with change. One thing’s the money side, the other is bands struggling with connectivity. You used to have magazines and news mostly circulated in rumors. Now if you show up at your local pub and you’re seen drinking a drink from a coconut on a holiday, it’ll be on the internet in the next ten minutes. Nobody believes that you’re living in a cave anymore. Now you get that thing where kids approach you wanting something back for supporting the band. They want to chat and get stuff signed. For us, that’s an opportunity to get to connect with people and establish a loyalty between the band and the listener, whereas I think some of the other bands find that difficult. It’s a classic age gap thing where you want to feel revered or respected like you could do in the early 90s. Enslaved has adapted like a chameleon as we are naturally chaotic, so in chaotic times we appear to be quite organized.

You’ve had the same members for 11 years now and from Isa onward, or even Below the Lights onward, you’ve been more about exploring now that you’ve got a core in place.
Each album is a snapshot in time of our progress. It’s a journey and we have these milestones that materialize where the band is, but there’s still constant movement. The current lineup is what we needed to take that step and go forward. Before, we were more about keeping the ship afloat and corking holes in the hull. That made us incapable of focusing on exploration. It was more about agreeing on how to steer the boat. Now that we have a lineup where everybody immediately found their natural role in the band, we can prioritize experimentation and development.

You seem to be busier than ever. You’re always recording or on the road. You have 25th anniversary shows in a few months. What are your next big plans?
The anniversary shows in London are a really big thing for us. They’re almost sold out already. It’s going to be challenging playing three full sets in three days, but it’ll be very satisfying because these are the songs they’re going to love to hear live, including stuff we haven’t done live. With our catalogue and the song lengths, a lot of time spent on the road is apologizing to the people for songs we can’t play. Like “793” from Eld, which is like seventeen minutes long. There’ll be some time to start writing new stuff already. We have two or three weeks off in January before we start doing shows. We’ll be writing some stuff there. It looks like we are going to South America. Japan looks like it’s going to happen. Many things are going on.

It sounds like your job is still really exciting to you.
When it gets tough, I try to remember I was playing Anthrax and Venom riffs when I was ten on an electric guitar in my room and thinking, “I just have to get a band and go on tour.” I just try to remember that guy when I start complaining about the small space backstage or other silly things.

What will be the most challenging for you about picking up old material for the show in February. Is it hard to switch gears to older songs?
It actually works out really well. There’s one thing before we left is we played a festival called Blekk Metal in Bergen, Norway, which is focused on bands from Norway that were formed between '91 and '94 and we all played material from those years. It’s harder on some muscles to keep up the stamina for the fast stuff. It’s not too different from what we do today. The thing with this lineup is that when we play old songs, it’s like a doubly joyous thing. It’s cool to play the old stuff and a lot of these songs finally come into the light because they’re treated as they should be. There were a lot of good ideas in the old days that sounded cool all raw, but some of the musicality of the actual songs were lost in it. It’s fun working with these good musical arrangements that got lost in youthful eagerness, especially with albums like Blodhemn and Mardraum in the middle there. Parts of the band were fixated on tempo and speed and drowned out some of the more elegant compositions and so on. Having the possibility to do them live now is like a second attempt to get it right. We’ll never rerecord them because we respect them and let them have a life of their own, but it’s good to get rectification and do them some justice.

Given the length of your career, do you still keep up with folks who were in the early black metal community?
No, not so much. We do meet at festivals. We keep bumping into Ihsahn and we sort of relate in the music that we do now, both gravitating towards proggy things, but not so much on a personal level. That tends to be more of the bands that we tour with now and that we met in later years, the more active bands. Not many of the other bands from that time that we sort of came up with are doing the same things we are. A lot of them are either split-up or do the occasional reunion show or are in a different place. I feel we’re a little bit alone in sort of still living and working on the road.

To what would you attribute your longevity?
There are many good reasons. The thing is that I guess we were a lot younger as a band. They hit the difficult 30s before us, when people start realizing they want families and kids. Most important is that it’s hard to keep the motivation up when your original motivation is as flimsy as it was for most of them. So much of their identities were bound up in this super dangerous Satanic thing, which wasn’t really probed or anything. You could do anonymous interviews, do animal sacrifices, and a lot of terrible things. At some point around 28 to 32, it becomes hard to maintain that kind of front. You’re older, you’ve got a family, and you get confronted by it all the time. It gets a bit bothersome when people remind you of what you’ve said and done. I can see that becoming hard to maintain a steady identity in your band when you’ve built so much of it on these teenage desires to be seen or feared. Out of all those people from those days, there are still like maybe one or two percent who still have some philosophic connection to those thoughts today. It’s hard to be a tough guy with a little baby on your arm.

For us it was the other way around, we sort of had to defend ourselves from the black metal world and explain ourselves because we were way too positive to be black metal. We lost a lot of publicity and tours back then that we’re making up for now. Last year we had a thing where a British newspaper wanted to do a weekend feature, four pages on us, but to do it they wanted us to do this thing where we confronted our teenage years as Satanists. We never were Satanists. They wanted us to just say that we were, but we said, "No, we’re not going to go do that, find someone else.” The suggestion that we would be regretful former Satanists was just weird, so we missed this potentially magnificent feature.

What is your biggest hope as you grow with Enslaved? Where would you like to see Enslaved another 25 years from now?
It’d be awesome! It’s vague to figure out what the dream is. It’s all about getting closer to the point where you realize as much of your ambitions and imagery as possible. That means being able to have a stage production and studio sound that brings those things to life. It’s not necessarily that we want to be like Iron Maiden with arena shows, because we’re not that kind of accessible, but to continue developing and to realize more of our ideas would be great. We still have a lot of years left.

Ben Handelman is building with fire on Twitter.