Wardruna Is Sowing New Seeds and Strengthening Old Roots

Stream "Runaljod" off the Norwegian folk traditionalists' new album, and read an in-depth interview with mastermind Einar Selvik.

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Oct 18 2016, 4:00pm

Over the course of a decade (and three albums), Norwegian folk institution Wardruna has built an astonishing reputation in the global community. Helmed by former Gorgoroth drummer Einar Selvik, the Wardruna has garnered attention that transcends past metallic association. Rather, the music itself is rooted in tradition, from its emphasis on Nordic spiritualism to the instrumentation itself— deer-hide frame drums, Kraviklyra, tagelharpe, mouth harp, goat horn, and various field recordings of Norwegian nature sounds play a huge role in the band's sound.

With music featured on the popular television show Vikings and high profile performances at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo and for two consecutive years at the Faerieworlds Festival in Portland, Oregon, the band's profile is growing rapidly. On October 21, Wardruna will release Runaljod – Ragnarok, the final album in its trilogy devoted to the Elder Futhark runes, via a partnership with By Norse (with whom Noisey has partnered to present the  New York By Norse​ two-day musical and cultural event—a few tickets are still available here​!). 

With the end of an era in the band's career and so much potential on the horizon, Noisey took time to catch up with Einar on a recent afternoon. We discussed everything from natural instruments to the misunderstanding of runes in Western society to his impending performance at the New York by Norse showcase in December. While much ground was covered, Einar maintained a casual demeanor as he shared his thoughts on deep, personal subjects. Listen to the closing track off Runaljod – Ragnarok below and read on for our conversation with Einar.

Noisey: Given that Ragnarok is the third album in your trilogy, what can we look forward to from here on out?
Einar: I'm definitely not ending Wardruna. I can honestly say that in many ways it feels like I just started. Exactly what I'll do now is a bit difficult to say because I haven't really decided. I don't think I want to speak publicly about it, but I can assure you that there are lots of things that I'm hungry to do with Wardruna. There's definitely more to come.

It seems you've ramping up your ambition in terms of performance and travel. Obviously your profile grew with your work on the show Vikings. Do you plan on touring more extensively behind this album?
Probably a bit more. Still, I don't think we'll ever do the traditional touring thing. I really don't want to do that. I don't want to get tired of my own music. I'm very selective on the things I do. It's really important. What I do hope and plan to do in the coming year is to see more of the United States. I know we have a large fan base there. The times we've been over have been really good. I definitely want to do a few more shows in the States next year, hopefully.

That's wonderful. Despite the broad subject matter, the music feels personal, so it makes sense that you want to give meaning to a performance.
I think that where you perform and the setting in which you perform is important. Ever since the start I've been strict on what I will and won't do. It needs to be right. It needs to be under circumstances that are beneficial to the whole artistic expression as well. We want to make it right for the audience and for us. Playing a show is about communication. It goes both ways.  I don't think we're the sort of band that plays all the rock shows. There's just such a huge difference in the feeling of the concert, both for the audience and for us. When we do the shows, we like other artists that have complementing sets. I do understand that we can't always play in the Viking ships, medieval castles, or in the middle of a forest, but still it's an important thing for us to think about.

Space plays a large role in the music itself. You obviously can't bring trees with you to play onstage, but environment is important. How much of this album was recorded outside? How did the album come to be?
Some things are recorded outdoors, like always. I like playing on trees. For this record, on the song "Isa," we used several thousand year old ice that was removed from a glacier and tuned to musical notes. When the ice freezes very slowly it becomes quite dense and you're able to tune it and make instruments from it. We used some of that ice and sampled ourselves playing on it. "Isa" translates to ice and it was important for us to use ice percussion. There are a few other things like that on the record. I think that doing some of the recording in the setting or using sounds that enhance the meaning is what makes it stronger. It gives the music a strong visual quality.

The record feels like a sunrise. Like an awakening to me.
That's a very good word. "Ragnarok" means "twilight of the reigning forces" or "twilight of the gods." Many people relate it to a sort of doomsday, but that's only part of it. It does describe destruction and the end of a cycle but it also represents the beginning of a cycle. I'm very much focused on the beginning, the transformation and what rises from the ashes. It's a set of new beginnings. Awakening is a good description of the album.

Speaking of new beginnings, there's an element of youth through utilization of children's voices in your songs on this record. There's a rich heritage you're trying to convey and this made it feel like you were almost passing something along.
Children are an important part of a new beginning. This is about sowing new seeds and strengthening old roots. Children are an important part of that. Speaking of the songs in question, where I used the voices of children, it comes back to the creative concept of Wardruna. It is about enhancing the song by using sounds and elements that pertain to what the runes mean. "Odal" means "family" and is related to inheritance and heritage, to ancestral feelings of the land. It made sense to use my family and it's my own two children that do the singing on "Odal." It makes it very strong, personally for me. It's a very special thing. On the song "Wunjo," which is the rune for joy. It's a pure emotion. There are no human beings that are more in touch with purity than children. It made sense to use a children's choir there to round the cycle of the runes up.

It makes it a very fulfilling ending. From a Western perspective, we do tend to view Ragnarok in a more apocalyptic context, so you've given hope to a subject often perceived in a dark way.
We see it every year, at least in the temperate zone. Nature dies and it resurrects. There is birth in every death and death in every birth. In the old cycle of thinking, it made very much sense. It's a very natural way of viewing things, more natural than the typical Western way.

On that note, there's a certain Western influence that I'm curious about. In striving to preserve your heritage in a nation that is decidedly Christian, is Wardruna's message fringe or representative of a growing trend in your society?
First, I have to say that luckily we are starting to step away from the church. It's about time. Also, the terms of religious freedom are quite good here. Although we are Christian on paper, I think that oil and money are the only gods in modern society. On the bright side, there is a range of people searching for their roots. Because we lose contact with nature and our connectedness to the planet, people seek it out when they get disillusioned. There is this counter-movement where people seek their roots and find good materials. The quality of what we teach our children is getting better in terms of conveying our old heritage. I think the Old Norse culture has suffered quite a bit, at least in Norway, after World War II where the Nazis stole a lot of symbolism from us. It contaminated the meaning and poisoned it. We are slowly reclaiming our history and our culture. It is a very stigmatized and stereotyped part of our culture. When your history and cultural heritage is portrayed through the eyes of British and German Christian medieval monks, it doesn't really give you a nuanced picture of the times. These old inaccuracies are finally becoming understood and cleansed from the religious and political motifs.

I'd been wondering how the misinterpretation of runes and misuse by white supremacists has impacted your cultural roots.
They made a very small, political symbol out of it. They limited it to something to justify their own political means. It's stupid and has nothing to do with the old traditions. It is fundamentally misplaced.

Speaking about breaking away from Christianity, you broke into music by playing in bands that espoused seemingly Satanic views in reaction to Christianity in the 1990s. Do you feel this was a necessary stance to break down barriers to get in touch with your cultural roots? How did it play into your current life?
First, I have to say that initially the whole "Satanic" approach was mainly created by the media. Not that it was invented by them. Still, they said it in the beginning and then people started to do Satanic things. In the beginning it wasn't about Satanism, it was about resistance and being against Christianity and that form of religion. You can say a lot about what happened in the 90s. Looking in retrospect, it did have really good impact in terms of religious freedom. There were important boundaries that needed to be moved. I do believe that the turbulent period had some positive effects on society in general.

Before we move on, I have one more question about modern Norwegian culture. I recently read that the government approved a culling of the wolf population. As somebody with strong ties to nature, I imagine you have a nuanced understanding of this issue.
The debate in Norway on these matters seems to have lost all reason. I have truly not felt more ashamed of being a human citizen of Norway. The wolf was basically extinct in Norway. I understand that there were problems with reintroducing wolves, but in any case it's a man-made problem. I don't think that killing most of the population again is a good solution. It's never a good solution. It's a slaughter, basically. Nature needs predators. If you don't have predators, you get stupid and sick animals. It's important to have the food chain keeping us in check. They're complaining about sheep being killed, but it's a ridiculously low number of sheep being killed by wolves each year. Right after they decided to do this, the news said that we had too much sheep meat so now we have to start exporting it. It just makes me really sad and ashamed of being part of a country that does something as stupid as this. People have lost their way. Environmental cases are not sexy enough for politicians. I would say they are not custodians of anything other than their own careers and the amount of money in our national bank account. You can't start messing with these things. The extinction of Norwegian wolves in the first place caused other species to go extinct. Certain conditions need to be met. I'm not saying this was right, but killing the wolf population seems stupid.

On a more positive note, I wanted to ask about By Norse​. You started this label with Ivar (Bjørnson, from Enslaved) and Simon Füllemann. What prompted you to start this platform for Norwegian art and music?
It started with the collaboration I did with Ivar (Skuggsja) which led to the release of a record and us creating this festival in London where we took over for a couple of days. The festival was called London By Norse. I've always been a DIY kind of person and Wardruna always had that mentality. There's always been a dream to handle a release ourselves and to work with other selected projects that fit the profile. My contract with my previous label was up and a lot of good offers were on the table. When it comes to my art, I am very much a control freak. I don't want to give away control over how my art is displayed and what I have to do. I want to decide it for myself. I don't want to be driven by corporate thinking and people handling money. Signing with a label means they'll take control of certain things. As luck had it, the timing of everything fell into place. We took a chance and went for it. So far it's working out really well. We're very excited about the whole thing, especially looking toward the future.

So far you've released art by Enslaved and Wardruna exclusively. I know you're open to other Norwegian art and music. Is there anything on the horizon?
I think it's important to get something going and get things up and running first. After that, we're definitely aiming to open up to external artists. At the moment, our focus is on getting things solidified. We want to have the resources to make it do what it needs. I don't think we'll ever find a lot of bands. I think it's a matter of finding projects that we know we can do a really good job on. When you handle somebody's art, it's a deep responsibility and one that I take quite seriously.

You're coordinating New York by Norse this December. You've got a lot planned for that, including two performances. You're performing a solo set, not as a Wardruna performance. What do you have in mind?
It's something I've been doing more and more. We're planning to do a combined talk about my approach to historical music and a demonstration of some of the instruments, including the performance of some fully acoustic Wardruna material. It's a completely different thing but is still very much Wardruna. It will be my very first performance in New York, so I'm very excited about that. Also, we are considering doing some of the Skuggsja material in an acoustic form as well, so it will be an exciting opportunity to share our art and culture with new audiences.

​Ben Handelman is looking North on Twitter​.