Enslaved Guitarist Ivar Bjørnson Talks In Detail About New Album ‘RIITIIR’

By Andrew Bansal

Norwegian progressive black metal band Enslaved completed 20 years of their career last year, and just when you might have thought they had already done everything they could do musically on their 11 studio albums, they have come up with yet another masterpiece, their twelfth album “RIITIIR”. Releasing on September 28th in Europe and October 9th in North America via Nuclear Blast Records, “RIITIIR” has plenty in it that every Enslaved fan can relate to, yet has a lot that’s new and different. Today on September 19th 2012, less than three hours ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at length to guitarist and songwriter Ivar Bjørnson to discuss the making of this album in detail. Enjoy the conversation below, check out the lyric video of the song “Thoughts Like Hammers” from the album, and visit the band’s facebook page for more info.

Your new album is coming out very soon. I’ve always thought that you’ve offered something different on every album of yours, in terms of the musical style. So, when you’re writing, what’s your thought process like? In your own opinion, what leads to a different sound every time?

Well, a lot of the time I’m not even sure what the procedure is, really. We try to keep the band as natural as possible, in terms of writing and making the music that comes to us at the time. It’s not a conscious decision that we have to make something different. If something came out sounding quite similar to the last one but it sounds right, that would be no problem. I think it must have something to do with the way we relate to the albums. We really go all the way in and really live inside of the album while making it, all the way through to the release and the touring. And then the album is sort of .. not a closed chapter, but may be a finished chapter. It feels refreshing to go and try finding a new avenue to explore after that, I guess. May be it’s a way of keeping things interesting for ourselves that we do unconsciously. It definitely works, and I guess that’s also the reason why we feel energized after having done an album and the subsequent tours. At least that’s my personal experience. So when people sometimes come back and are surprised that it’s only been two years since the last album, I sometimes feel that we are even delaying things a little bit. May be if it was the 70s or the 80s and the world was different, we could do an album a year.

That’s a great way of approaching it. I listened to the album a couple of times. There’s quite a bit of the extreme metal feel to it, but I think a large portion of it is also very accessible. Do you think that parts of the album are more accessible to people than ever before, in terms of the ‘easy listening’ part?

Yeah, I think so. I got the overview of the album only when things were written. I spent a lot of energy in the writing process in trying to stay in the ‘landscape’ instead of having this overview. That’s something I tried to delay until the end, and tried to just write the songs and go with the flow as it happened. When we were listening to the first recordings from the rehearsal room during the pre-productions, this was exactly the feeling I got, a little bit like the feeling you get from bands like Rush or Yes. They have the musical story moving ahead on a horizontal level quite effortlessly, that you as a listener seem to follow and it’s catchy in terms of the song structures themselves. But if you listen to it on a vertical level, there’s a lot of layers that you can go in and sort of explore. So, I like that in the listener, to give them a choice of at least two ways of listening to the same music. That gives the album a longevity. I have the same feeling about lyrics. Sometimes you want to read the lyrics for its poetic value and then it’s also cool to read it for whatever meaning there is in it, that can make you go even further into it than the word-by-word and analyze the writing techniques. If you can do that in music also, I think it’s great.

I’m glad you mentioned the vertical part, because I was going to ask you about that. I think there’s more layers to this album. Do you think it’s the kind of album where people would discover more every time they listen to it?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s the feeling we had when working with it, that we wanted to have this approach of putting in those extra layers, without affecting the horizontal story or cut the flow of the music, and that’s the feedback we’re getting. It’s such a great compliment when people can have a different experience when doing the headphone thing and really studying what’s going on, and the next day it would also work for them to put it on a low-volume speaker in the office, listening while working or whatever. If you can have music that can fulfill both those functions, at least for me personally, the album has extra value.

Another interesting is, the debut album “Vikingligr Veldi”, which you put out in 1994 has only 5 tracks, out of which 4 are more than 10-minute long. This one is the only other album, I think, which has so many long songs. There are 4 songs of 9 minutes or more. Even subconsciously, do you think you approached this album in the same way as you did back then?

It’s quite possible that there have been similarities in the way the compositions are built up. Absolutely. This time I know for a fact that the song length wasn’t a topic I was thinking much about when I started to write . We’ve done so many things before. I mean, we never had a 20-second song, but we’ve had songs that are more normal in their song length. We worked with more traditional or more conventional song structures, specially on the albums “Isa” and”Ruun”. And then I noticed through discussions with other bands as to how they are relating to it, and whether they are actually writing music in the classical sense. I’m also working with a lot of music outside of the band, and have done some songwriting workshops with young musicians and all that. I’ve noticed that at one point I started to feel a bit bored with the whole concept of worrying about including song lengths and structures as a criteria of music’s quality, and I told myself that for this album I will completely disregard it. I will not look at song lengths or the kind of structure the songs had before they were finished. When the songs were finished, it was interesting in the aftermath to look at the length and structure, but not before that. Everything before that had to just be what the song needed. Whether it turned out to be 2 minutes or 10 minutes, it didn’t matter, but I think most of them eventually turned out as long ones, which takes me back to what you’re saying. It’s very interesting that it might be a way of forcing myself into that free frame of mind that we had in the beginning. I didn’t think about it like that. That’s quite possibly what happened. You try out every consideration, and then you’re back to a 15-year old frame of mind when you don’t really care about stuff like that, and just write! (laughs)

Yeah! Another thing is, your drummer has done a great job playing a variety of parts on the album, the heavier stuff and the slower parts as well. While writing, were you always confident that he would pull it off and play exactly like you imagined it?

Yes, I think that’s exactly what he has done on this album. For me it is a progression from the other ones. I’ve learned a lot about his way of playing and his potential. He is a very ‘musical’ drummer. Of course he has the technique and all that, but he’s very musical and very considerate when it comes to the arrangement of songs. So, going from a perspective where I wrote music from a guitarist’s point of view, I’ve been sort of adding things and now it’s more integrated. I’m already thinking about drum patterns as the guitar riffs are being written. It’s really helpful, and I can notice that the more I’m getting into his frame of mind at the time of writing riffs, the better the final result is.

Yeah, I think that shows on the final product. In terms of the production, I feel it’s quite organic and sounds a lot like what you would sound on stage. Was that something deliberate on your part?

That’s very cool of you to say that, because that’s the intention and it’s something that we’ve worked towards quite consciously since the band had a big turnaround in mid-2004, specially with this new lineup and the drummer. All of a sudden, we had a role reversal between the live and the studio band. Before 2004, we felt that we had the strength in the studio and it was all about trying to reach that level in the live setting. After that, the live band really became a lot better. We’ve toured extensively from 2005 and up till this date. So from “Vertebrae” onwards, the focus has really changed in the studio. Instead of just looking at the album for itself and the songs, we looked at how we can make the recording reflect how the band would play the songs live. We succeeded in that to quite an extent with “Vertebrae” and “Axioma Ethica Odini”, but with this new one we decided to go one step further, so the drums, bass and my guitars are actually recorded live in the studio. We set it up like we would have in the rehearsal room, with the big stage setup with amps and everything, and recorded it. We didn’t realize it when we were doing it how different it would become, but listening to it again in the aftermath really tells us that it was a good choice. It sounds really simple but in the world today, the evolution of the studio technique has really moved musicians away from this perspective. There’s so much focus on flawlessness and hi-tech, hi-fi sound that the big issues are sort of fading. The biggest issue is actually the real quality of the band in how they sound together, and that is lost when you’re sitting on your own with the headphones and recording on top of something. It’s a very subtle difference, but people who listen to music and people who listen to Enslaved, and like how you’re saying it now, if you’re getting a live-like album from the band, it proves that sometimes it’s good to go a step back and let technology be technology, letting the focus be on the band. That’s what makes us better, you know.

Besides your musical thought process that goes on in your head while you’re writing, are there any external things that influence the music you’re writing, like places you visit or other musicians you tour with?

Yes, all the time. Touring with bands and doing festival gigs, listening to music, and doing a lot of work with the band outside of just playing. We’re a band that has almost everything in house. I’m also running the company that our management is working for. So there’s a lot of time to listen to music, and that’s how we keep up to date. I also work with concert production a lot, like the ‘Hole In The Sky’ festival, so you have to keep updated with what’s going on. For me it’s a balancing act of listening to the old favorites from the 70s, the great bands that we all love so much, but also to keep up to date with what’s going on today, both in terms of progressive experimental music but also black metal. Not so much death metal because that’s become almost a sports competition and I’m the last person who would care about how fast they can play. But there are so many wonderful things going on in music. Then you have art. There’s always time when you’re traveling, to go to museums and sometimes you see something really awesome that strikes a note with you to the extent that it influences you to not necessarily recreate it, but you watch a movie or hear an album from somebody else, it inspires you in the sense that you want to do something that will give the same kind of atmosphere. You see movie or hear a track that’s very chilling or dark in its own way, and use your own musical language to not recreate the piece of art itself but to recreate the experience that you get from it. And of course, traveling, seeing and experiencing things is all part of what goes into the music.

Talking of the artwork, I was reading the piece that came out in the press release, and watched the vide of its making. It seems that you worked very closely with Grutle Kjellson and the artist Truls Espedal. I was curious to know, how much time do you give to the artist after you give him the ideas and let him work on his own?

He’s really free in terms of how much time he needs. The more time he needs, the earlier we would start the process. This time it was something like one-and-a-half months. He’s taken shorter and longer in the past, but it’s really up to him in terms of what he needs. The main thing in that is, it’s basically about deciding what visual language to go with. For example on this album, he wanted to go in a different direction in terms of the color. He went a bit lighter than what we had, so we agreed with him on that, and his visual associations of the lyrical and perceptual direction was to do with hands for some reason. You can’t question his judgements, you know, because he’s the artist (laughs). So we agreed on that and then he just goes off the charts and then comes back with a phone call saying it’s finished, and then we get the picture. He’s quite known in Norway, and let’s just say that … it’s a bit expensive because we buy his paintings. So if it turns out that we don’t like it as the album cover, at least we have a nice painting for the wall! But every time he comes back it fits perfectly. It’s a big risk, but that’s part of the charm, you know. It’s the same balancing act as recording live or playing a concert. It’s probably going to go well, but there is a chance of not, and I like that.

The album will be out everywhere very soon, and I’m sure you’ll be getting ready to tour. There was a question asked to the fans on the Enslaved facebook page, as to what bands they would like Enslaved to tour with. That’s cool, but do you think you’ll be willing to give serious thought into the responses or is it just for fun?

No, we definitely want to do some serious work on that. As I mentioned, we do all the work relating to the band by ourselves, and this is a project that might be small enough to work in a spreadsheet or we might have to get somebody involved into putting it in a database, which will depend on the kind of responses we get. It will be very interesting to see the sort of combination that people would like. Of course some of the people are answering for fun also. They’re thinking of unlikely and spectacular combinations, but I think it’s going to give us a little hint of what our audience would see as a good night out, what would make it enjoyable, what kind of contrast they would like, and that’s very important because at the end of the day when we’re going out there and giving a concert, we’re asking people to give some money to have an experience. That experience is definitely worth making as good as possible, so if there is a direction in the answers they are giving, and if we can trace some clear pattern from that thread, we will definitely see how we can fulfill that.

That’s great to know. Talking of touring, I wanted to ask you about a place where you don’t get to go often. You’ve played two shows in India, in 2007 and 2010. What memories do you have from those shows?

It was extremely cool, but I think the 2007 show was quite a bit different from the more recent one. 2007 was really collared by the fact that we were not only going to a country we hadn’t been to before, but also to a continent we hadn’t been to before, and also in terms of ‘metal mythology’ it was really a new place to go into. It was different also that the focus on our first time was meeting not only the fans but meeting India as a new culture for us, and the metal people down there. We spent a lot of time traveling around. We went to the Taj Mahal, and we had time to go to a club to spend an evening or two with local metalheads, and stuff like that. Whereas the other show in 2010 was more like touring. We would get in there late, wake up next morning, do the show and travel to the next city. It was perhaps on a higher level, production-wise. There were bands like Meshuggah on the same festival. The experience in 2007 will always be one of the most special ones in the entire Enslaved history, to put it quite simply. 2010 was better may be as a touring band because the conditions were better and starting to get used to productions, and the crowd was bigger and really into the music. So yes, both were really good memories but quite different, strangely enough.

That’s very cool. Final question I have for you is, last year was the 20th anniversary of the band, and there was an Enslaved tribute album called “Önd – A Tribute“, done by 20 bands who recorded one song each and put out this album. What did you think of that?

It’s totally fantastic. I got contacted from the French guys who were doing the album when they were starting, and already I thought it was an immense honor and a big surprise that they were doing this. But now that they’ve got the final result, it’s just beyond any expectation I had for anything like that. It’s 2 full CDs with so many bands, and they are playing music from our entire career. It’s everything from traditional early 90s sounding black metal, some death metal interpretations, some hard rock and heavy metal, stuff that’s not even metal but more like rock, and contemporary stuff, experimental stuff, noise .. it seems to have everything in it, and that’s something so humbling. We’re a band that have gone in many directions throughout our career, and this tribute is really reflecting that, as they’ve done so many different interpretations of Enslaved. And the bands are from all over the place, so yeah, we still need may be a year or two to understand how great it is. Right now it seems a little bit unreal.

Related: ‘RIITIIR’ album review