Reflecting on 25 years of Enslaved with Ivar Bjørnson.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of Norway’s leading extreme metal bands Enslaved. Metal-Exposure talked with founder and guitarist Ivar Bjørnson about the group’s long and successful career.
So, Enslaved’s 25th anniversary, it is a big moment for you guys.
“Yeah it is. We’ve been lucky to have some people around us this time who have forced us to do something about it. When the band turned 15, it was the first time that we had any sort of celebration. We did one show at the local pub with some friends and bands and that was it. We forgot about the 20th anniversary. We tried to celebrate it a bit in the years after, but there is always a show coming or we have to write a new album. We are like those annoying people who don’t want to celebrate. Then we realized it would be fun and there are a lot of people who are following the band. So we could do a lot of fun stuff with this celebration: play some special gigs, get special merchandise and so on. It has never been an important thing for us in the past, but this time I am happy that we’ve tried to do something with it.”
Let’s go back to the pre-Enslaved era. Do you remember when you picked up an instrument for the first time?
“It was around the age of 7 or 8 at home. I had a father who has kind of a hippie. In the weekends he liked to play Bob Dylan. You know, campfire material. There was just something about the atmosphere that I and everybody else reacted to. I wanted to play and luckily he was a very patient guy and got me another guitar. I did simplified versions of the chords that he was playing. I inherited his old guitar and some books. They were very helpful. I didn’t have a teacher and no contact with anyone else who was playing, so I had to do it by the books. That was pretty ideal, since I could spend as much or as little time on it as I wanted. I made a lot of mistakes, but that turned out to be an advantage later.”
So you started with sixties music. How did you get into metal?
“Like anyone else you begin with what is available around you. I would listen to kids cassettes. I loved to hear the stuff they sell at gas stations and what they played at kindergarten. I must have been 5 or 6 when I first had my own idea about music. My granddad noticed that I was really enthusiastic about a Norwegian television show. It was about a family with a little boy of my age and his teenage sister. She was always having this dream about Kiss and they’d cut in a live clip of Kiss. One time when Kiss was in Norway they did an episode where she was dancing with Gene Simmons. I was so impressed by them that my granddad bought me a cassette. It made me realize that you can find the music you want yourself. You didn’t have to sit in front of the TV and radio to be served music.
I continued with Bruce Springsteen and Europe, which has a bit heavy with The Final Countdown and those kind of cheesy songs. Then little accidents started to happen. I bought WASP because it looked cool. It had a bit of a forbidden look. My dad did a big thing when I was 9. He went on a business trip to London and he saw some guys with long hair and it turned out to be a Venom video, 7 Days of Hell. I saw this at home later, at night with their satanic lyrics, blood and smashing the instrument and I just knew that this was the music I needed to get into. After that I searched music myself and listened to the death metal on the radio and so on.”
When did you join a band for the first time?
“It started when I found out that there were kids who were interested in the same music. There wasn’t anyone who was into the same thing. I brought my cassettes so school. Anything, from Antrax to Venom, Wasp. I tried to explain to people that it was good, but you know how hard that can be when they don’t like metal. It wasn’t until I met Trym (ex – Enslaved drummer), who was on holiday in the place where I lived, that I found someone who was into the same music and wanted to start a band. This was at the age of ten I think.”
Ten? That’s pretty early.
“Yeah, when you’re 10 you don’t really think about it. We thought it was just smart and cool. You don’t even notice that you have these really high pitched voices. You can hear it on the rehearsal tapes: a really high 1..2..3..4. That’s the beauty of starting at a young age, you don’t have all the worries of ‘is this good enough’. You think you are the master of the world and it’s a good start.
From being in that band I got discovered by some older guys. That was Grutle (Kjellson – co 0 found of Enslaved). They wanted a guitarist for their death metal band. They would give me some LP’s from Entombed, Morbid Angel, Paradise Lost and Godflesh. That was sort of the music they wanted to play. I was lucky, I had some kind of talent for copying the sound of these bands. That was the band Phobia, we formed it in 1991. I was 11 years old. We did that for about a year before we got tired and started Enslaved.”
In all the times you’ve been playing, the industry has changed and there we changes in the line-up, but has the feeling of walking up that stage and playing changed?
“No and that is the fun part. We’ve lost track on the amount of gigs we’ve played. It must be about 1.200 over 25 years. The feeling is still the same in good and bad. You still get the same good feeling when it sounds good and you can see that the crowd is getting into it. The same nightmarish feeling before you enter the stage is also still present. I still want to turn around and run the other way. The more shaky your legs are, the better the concert is going to be, because you have a lot of endorphins in your body.”
How has the metal scene changed in that time according to you?
“When we entered the metal scene in ‘89 or ’90 it felt like a nuclear desert. It was sort of the funeral after the 80ies metal bands. We were doing something that was over in a sense, since it was all about the grunge and techno. I think that was a good thing. It created this tight net of underground feeling. It was small and we had a pretty good overview of what was going on in the world, with the Norwegian and Swedish black metal bands, the American death metal bands, the Dutch, we were listening to Pestilence a lot in those days. This had its ups and down. There were a lot of totalitarian views. People were a bit militaristic, which is not always good for the art. They still made a lot of interesting music. People were actually doing it because it is art and sacrificed everything for it. We’d go to school and work and wait for the afternoons and weekends to write music, watch shows or write to the magazines. It wasn’t something people did for their career.
It was not like the things you see today, with all the marketing and crowdfunding, which makes me feel old, even though I am still pretty young. It was grandiose and a bit pompous for a bunch of kids, but we really believed in it. I think that is a little bit lost now that it is a part of the showbiz. On the other hand, it has a lot of advantages. There are fantastic festivals we can play at, like Wacken Open Air and Hellfest. You don’t have to work as hard as you had to survive. It is possible to be a hard working metal person and have a home and kids whose clothes you can afford. You don’t have to sacrifice your entire life. Like the Mayhem guys, before they became more well known, they lived in huts and ate the corn they stole from the fields.”
If you had to say: ‘this is the secret of Enslaved’, what would it be?
“The secret of Enslaved is moronically easy. It is doing what we really love. We do it because we love music and because we love to play together. That is the only thing we found that has been consistent throughout these years. It makes everything else easier. If something is hard work, it doesn’t matter, because you are still doing it because you love music. Not only your own music. We are influenced by music, we collect music, we explore music. I like to work together with people from other genres and explore other expressions and so on. That’s what it is about. We are just a bunch of music nerds who are able to do it ourselves. This gives you a bit of a healthy balance. I see it even with young bands now. They are so tired of being in a tourbus. They only see the inside of a bus and wish they were home. You have to just imagine all the people who would kill to be on a tourbus in the first place. If you want to be an artist you need to be pretty much prepared to.. suffer for your art. It’s a cliché but pretty true. Let’s say you have to be ready for it at least. Sometimes you’ll be positively surprised and that’s great, but keep that realistic view on it. You do it because you love music, then everything else is secondary.”
Were there ever times you wanted to throw in the towel?
“Yeah I guess around ’98. That was the one time I felt like I had to make a choice. I was 21 years old and the youthful days were over. I started with a bit of studies and at that point it was becoming clear that I could go further into my academic studies but that would mean leaving the band more as a hobby. It was all or nothing. I told the rest of the band that I needed to think for a week or two. It felt like a big decision: if I continued, it would be all I was going to do for the rest of my life. I chose the band, but it felt like a big decision. ”
Enslaved does not necessarily work with concept albums, but since the record Isa there has been a circle featured in the artwork on each album. So could you see the albums as a part of a bigger story?
“I think so. It is an abstract, a messy story. The easiest way to describe it, is as a dialogue with ourselves. Sometimes it is a dialogue with the inner self, with the subconscious and sometimes it’s just conscious dreams that don’t really go anywhere. The impression I get when going through the earlier lyrics and stories and looking at what we do now, is that we put a lot of thought into it, but at the same time we avoid analyzing it too much. Sometimes it’s just things that come to the surface and it doesn’t necessarily make sense at the time. It makes more sense later.”
And the circle in the artwork?
“We are very fascinated by circular thought. It is a very important feature in northern mythology and other pre-monotheistic religions. They keep coming back to the circle of life. I guess in itself it is very important and powerful, even more when contrasting it to the modern, linear monotheistic religion and political way of thinking: ‘you only have one chance in the afterlife’ and so on. The circular way of thinking means that there is always an end, but that end is also a new beginning. It is an infinite sort of thought loop, which leaves more room and freedom. It also symbolizes looking inward, like the third eye in Egyptian mythology or in the eye of Odin, the search for wisdom. Sort of a more esoteric side of humans who, from the cavemen until now, are trying to make sense of things and understanding our own universe.”
Is this circular way of thinking something you implement in your own life?
“I try, more on an abstract level I guess. It’s more of a background sound for the whole thing. I still operate in normal mode like everybody else. I do try to keep it in mind. Especially the view on how change isn’t necessarily good or bad, but more of a natural transition into the new round of the circle to speak. That is something very important for me, not trying to get too stuck in anything and just trying to move forward all the time.”
Talking about moving forward, how will Enslaved continue to challenge itself?
“We will keep working as hard as we can. Doing this 25th anniversary is very healthy. It gives some perspective to the beginning and the end to the life cycle that is Enslaved. At some point we will be too old to make things happen in the physical world from our thoughts and that is what music is really about. There is a finite amount of time and the way to go about it, is to explore every idea, put as much effort in as we can and also try to experience something of life outside of the tourbus. Until now the best solution seems to be that we have to do our own thing. Sometimes it just clicks with the spirit of the time and since Isa that seems to happen more and more, but we are also ready to become more of an underground phenomenon if people decide to focus their attention elsewhere. If it means taking on more work outside of the band, we can still do that. The important thing is to follow that wish. If that means playing for more people, that’s fine. If it means playing for less, that’s also fine.”
What would do say to bands that are aspiring such a career as Enslaved’s?
“Once they’ve started a band and play, they have something that is really wonderful. It is a very cool and flexible vessel of how to express themselves as people. They should dive right into it. It is also important to be clear about having the same ambition: where do you want to go, what do you want to explore. If they have a clear ambition of I want to be a selling band, they should fight for that, but that also means preparing for a lot of disappointment. Not everybody is strong enough to take that. It is a more healthy approach to see what you can do with it artistically. If it makes you feel good, you should be doing it. If it feels more like a pressure thing and it feels like things aren’t moving fast enough and the money becomes a problem within the first few years and albums, you are probably better off having a professional career doing something else I guess.”