Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson Talks Mortality, Musical Evolution, and Varg Vikernes
Listen to "Thurisaz Dreaming" from the Norwegian black metal legends' upcoming thirteenth album.
Ivar Bjørnson was thirteen years old in 1991. That same year, he and bandmate Grutle Kjellson started Enslaved, the band that would become one of Norway's most revered musical exports. Though that’s impressive in and of itself, the most noteworthy thing about the band's nearly twenty-five years of existence is the uncompromising view the now-quintet take towards their craft. It’s not that they’ve avoided changing their sound in all this time; quite the opposite. In fact, Enslaved’s proclivity for sonic evolution has become a kind of trademark expectation. They are also one of the only Norwegian black metal bands with an early 90s birthdate who didn’t dive headfirst into the utter shitstorm of chaos and tragedy that will likely forever underscore that part of the genre’s history. For Ivar and Enslaved, that willingness to let the music do what it does is really all that matters, and it’s that attitude of reverence for their craft that’s garnered the band enough respect to avoid the distractions that too often get paired with this music (as well as legions of devoted fans, and a handful of Norwegian Grammy awards).
In Times (out March 10th via Nuclear Blast) marks the band's thirteenth full-length, and offers an intimate view of where the band is now—and where they're headed. Listen to Noisey's exclusive premiere of the track "Thurisaz Dreaming" below:
Noisey spoke with Ivar about the past, the present, and of course, the future.
Noisey: Looking back to when this started for you guys to where you are now, what’s that path looked like to you?
Ivar Bjørnson: It’s been a long, weird, and wonderful journey. I don’t know where we are in terms of that journey, but it certainly feels like we’re still at the opening parts. These days we feel quite a strong connection with those early days because we keep coming back to recognizing that’s why we feel so motivated and feel so much joy in being in this band. The ambition is still the same as when we first started in those crappy rehearsal rooms back then, and we still have a crappy rehearsal room by the way, but the one ambition was to play music that we enjoyed and would sort of reflect our musical personalities. The other ambition was to try and see how far we could take it and push ourselves in terms of developing as a band and as individual musicians, and that’s what we’re still doing. When you’re measuring success or fulfilling ambitions from parameters that are just controlled by your own self and your feelings, then it’s pretty hard to be disappointed as long as you work. You can be disappointed in yourself by being lazy, and as opposed to having any ambition that depends on how the world views you, and that’s either gonna make you very disappointed or very bored, and you end up being one of those musicians who do two hours of work every week, and the rest of the week doing Playstation, and you end up like a druggie and lose it at the end. For us it’s been smooth sailing in a rocky, bumpy way.
That idea of challenging yourself creatively is something I think has defined Enslaved’s work—you're changing the direction and scope of your music, but still retaining that characteristic sound. How do you see the band challenging itself now almost thirty years later?
The challenge is daring to try and complete the intuitions all the way and trying to paint the big picture and letting the influences blend. For me, I have this theory that the less scared you are of losing your identity then that seems to enforce your identity in a sense. If it’s done without too much thought, and I know that sounds a little bit weird, but if we wanted to try and create something that’s really tender and more like looking at the world with a kind of naivety by the same way that we create these sort of battle things, then we would have to go all in with that and try to be quiet and use different instruments as opposed to what we use to create very loud stuff. That’s the challenge is to let all aspects of the music get to live fully and evolve.
Now, you were thirteen when Enslaved formed. It's interesting to see what effects aging has on extreme artists, since so much of the subject matter concerns mortality. Is that something you see informing Enslaved’s music more so now than in the beginning?
Yes. I would say that death and mortality play a much larger role in Enslaved it seems compared to a lot of other bands that are supposed to be dealing with death. I think maybe it has to do with the fact that being introduced into the band at such a young age, we sort of missed out on some of the in-between things or teenage years to prepare for that seriousness. There’s a sense of urgency in what we do and the concepts. It’s not about rushing. Speaking for myself at least, I think I have a genuine feeling that there’s a very fixed amount of time. There’s a fixed amount of space to create music within, and there’s a fixed amount of time to choose the words that are going with the music and so on. There’s a fixed amount of time to have a jolly good time, too, so it should be about that as much as possible as well.
You were still fairly young in the early 90s when the most controversial moments of Norwegian black metal's past were taking place. You managed to avoid that whole storyline altogether, and it seems like that’s always been a point of distinction for Enslaved.
When it happened, it was very tempting to sort of join in on what was spinning out of control. There was a lot of tension, and there was a lot of drama, and all the characteristics of a closed environment for young, restless, and highly driven young men. Whatever the contexts happened to be it was very specifically Satanic, and some people took it very far. The outcomes were pretty limited in that sense. Maybe it had to do with geographical distance or something, but there was a feeling that there didn’t seem to be an outcome from that whole thing. It was just this very alluring sort of gothic building that you could go into and be a part of something else, and it was mysterious and big and dangerous, but it didn’t really seem to have a way out. That’s just the feeling that we got from it, and I still remember for me at least there being that sense of melancholy already back then seeing people go down that path because now, well, there was one individual who was sticking to his guns for a long time. He’s hanging out in France and doesn’t seem to be doing too well these days, and even he seems to be losing that whole thing. He’s got these very dedicated fans, but he doesn’t seem to be very connected to that either. It was just some kind of game where the more you drew out from that part, the more you sort of spent exploring your own future possibilities in a sense. So some people gained a lot right then and there, and then I think they lost people after that. In the past when you had the festivals and stuff, they would choose the bands with all the controversy and stuff, and now we get to do it.
Catch Enslaved on tour with doom legends Yob and newcomers Ecstatic Vision -
3/5 San Diego, CA @ Brick By Brick
3/6 Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre
3/7 San Francisco, CA @ Slim's
3/9 Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater
3/10 Vancouver BC @ Rickshaw Theatre
3/11 Seattle, WA @ El Corazon
3/13 Salt Lake City, UT @ Bar Deluxe
3/14 Denver, CO @ Summit Music Hall
3/16 Minneapolis, MN @ Mill City Nights
3/17 Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
3/19 Toronto, ON @ Opera House
3/20 Montreal, QC @ Les Foufounes Électriques
3/21 New York, NY @ Gramercy Theatre
3/22 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
3/23 Baltimore, MD @ Baltimore Soundstage
3/24 Boston, MA @ Sinclair
Jonathan Dick is definitely not burning churches on Twitter.