Ulver : in depth interview with this remarkable band
LTW boss and Membranes frontman John Robb is captivated by the spell of Ulver – a band with no musical boundaries…
Ulver is the Norwegian word for wolves but that gives you little clue to one of the most remarkable and original bands out there at the moment.
In a 20 year journey the band have made a career out of diversity with their roots in the Norwegian black metal scene before swerving into the darker and danker corners of Norwegian folk musics, then Scandinavian melancholic classical music, electronic, blues and brooding ambient. Somehow they have always made this sound like their own and retained that hypnotic darkness that is at the heart of black metal – a fascinating sub culture of highly intelligent and sometimes quite fucked up individuals who are on a creative overdrive.
Ulver never strayed into the more dangerous and uncomfortable corners of black metal but were part of the initial scene – young kids hanging around at the famous Helvete shop in Oslo that was at the heart of the action. Like punk, black metal was a moment in time, a door opening into a Pandora’s box of possibilities and ideas – for some people it was creative empowerment – a portal to a shape shifting musical world and a journey that took them from music fans in small towns to prime creative forces who created a music with no boundaries like Ulver and for others it was a spiralling route to self destruction.
Ulver are a great example of the stunning creativity unleashed by the form. There doesn’t seem to be any creative barriers that get in their way. A few years ago we saw them live at By:Larm music festival in Oslo and it was quite an experience – a multi media and multi musical event it was a swirl of brilliance and managed to incorporate the challenging ideas of Throbbing Gristle, the dark blues of Nick Cave, Norwegian folk, classical brooding and even touches of black metal into a stunning set.
Never ones to sit on their laurels the band have just released, ‘ATGCLVLSSCAP’ a double album that is entirely different from anything else that they or, for that matter, anyone else has ever done but still sounds like it is somehow from the same band. The album is full of hypnotic grooves and melodic almost ambient music that draws you in with its own swirling power and is one of the year’s best releases so far.
Just how does someone get here? What is this journey that goes from the more extreme ends of metal to this kind of utterly original music that is like a new kind of ambience. Born in 1976, Ulver frontman Kristoffer Rygg details his journey to Louder Than War.
‘When I was very young it was all about hard rock, like you know, in the 80s you had all these big arena rock bands – like the fucking Scorpions (laughs) but also Deep Purple and AC/DC and such bands, and then I got into Dead Kennedys and D.R.I. and that route. Skater music. That’s my generation. By the end of the 80s I was watching late night Headbanger’s Ball on MTV and had discovered thrash like Metallica and Slayer and with that came death metal obviously – which was by ’89? I was constantly looking for more extreme music and the next threshold was when I had started in junior high school and this older guy – this guitar playing thrasher guy who I looked up to – one day he told me about this shop that had opened in old town Oslo [Helvete] and it was this fucking twisted place, totally dark inside and had some serious occult vibes going on.’
Opened in 1991 by proto Norwegian black metal band Mayhem guitarist Euronymous (Øystein Aarseth) the shop was the focal point of a new scene, a new kind of metal that was a step further than death metal – a darker form that had a broader range of influences from classical music, noise and industrial, folk and also the darker end of goth like Pornography era Cure or moodier synth musics – anything with darkness.
The shop’s name came from the Norwegian word for hell and from “Hels Viti,” which means “Hell’s Punishment.” Already key figures in the nascent black metal scene from all over Norway would hang out at the shop shop and in its basement which had black metal crudely sprayed on the wall in tribute to Venom the band whose song the scene was named after. The shop was the spark and the space for the scene to flourish and bands like Mayhem, Emperor, Burzum and Thorns hung out there.
Euronymous, Varg of Burzum and Emperor guitarist Tomas ‘Samoth’ Haugen even lived in the shop at various times. Emperor’s drummer Bård ‘Faust’ Eithun also lived and worked there. The shop’s walls were painted black with the blood red “Helvete” logo on the door. Medieval weapons adorned the walls along with posters of bands, the windows were blackened, the lighting was dim and there was a gloomy ambience enhanced by lit candles.
Entering there as a 15 year old was quite an experience.
‘We just got on the tram one day and went down there and knocked on the door. It was like walking into a fucking crypt! This was in the summer of ’91 and the shop had just opened. For me it was – as I said after a couple of years of being into thrash and death metal and stuff like that – it was all a bit ‘Whoa!’ The shop had an immediate impact – firstly in terms of the mood, the sort of sinister ambience in there. That instantly changed things, not only for me, but for a few kids from my generation. Coming into that shop just soaking up the atmosphere, and buying underground fanzines and reading about taboo stuff, satanic bands supposedly made out of pure evil (laughs). Because of this a lot of these kids started their own bands and, you know, this was all pre-internet and with no limits to imagination and adolescent feelings. These were also the same years in school where you’re first getting into tenets of philosophy or spirituality and often in very self-righteous ways (laughs)… I would say things happen as a result of that.’
Were you surprised to find this shop and this scene in your home town?
‘You mentioned Anders Odden before, and this guided black metal bus tour of Oslo you took – actually, he was in one of the first Norwegian bands to have a record deal, in the UK. It was a sub label of Earache which they signed to, his band, this death metal band called Cadaver. Of course that was a massive thing for us death-metal-soon-to-become-black-metal kids. It was so cool to find out that Norwegian extreme bands existed and then discovering underground demo tapes of other Norwegian bands and realising we can actually make this kind of stuff too and do something as extreme and maybe even more extreme and slightly of our own bent – with a more dark or occult approach – and that’s how the Norwegian black metal scene came about in a way. Death metal kids making a bit of creative revolt against their idols the year before (laughs).’’
In black metal there seems to have been a pretty strict aesthetic about the music and the style even if this was by mistake – I read somewhere that initially the music was recorded so badly but that become an art form in itself and somehow set the template of the sound.
‘Well, that’s sort of true, but I would say it’s also an interpretation of things that happened by default more than design. It’s this sort of postmodern understanding of something that happened more because guys were piss-poor and had limited resources (laughs). These were mostly straight-outta-school guys with their small amps and shitty 4 track recording equipment. That’s the main reason it sounded that way. There was also of course a way of playing black metal. It wasn’t very technically oriented, and focused more on creating a feeling with what little means we had, and as such of course totally overusing effects like the reverb (laughs). It laid the basics to the sound of what people now refer as the Norwegian black metal sound. I could add that a lot of these bands also recorded their debut albums in the same place, in Bergen at the Grieg Hall recording studio which was where Burzum, Mayhem, Immortal and Emperor all went – so there’s quite a prosaic explanation for it as well I guess. I remember visiting Emperor there while they were recording Anthems and I also recorded an album [Borknagar’s Borknagar] there myself. So yeah, this is a combination of a sort of academic interpretation of those early recordings, I think, but there was also a sort of conscious image-building going on at the time, of course.’
The image to outsiders sometimes seemed almost comical, clownish whilst the music was very dark and intense and weird like monochromatic Kiss but serious.
‘Well, it all came from the minds of youth and their die-hard convictions, you know? And when we address it as clownery now it’s easy because we have since become adults. It’s easy to see that in hindsight but at the time it was serious business. It was of course a sort of acknowledged theatricality going on – a mythos – but it was also quite dangerous and there were some criminal tendencies involved.’
You were more creative end of it?
‘I would say ‘yes,’ primarily. But I was kinda sold there too, for a few years, on the machismo aspect as well. There were things that happened that, yeah, that we probably shouldn’t talk about.’
Musically from the first release you had your own sound – with a much clearer production and a melancholy.
‘It’s curious you ask about that as Century Media just re-released that album [Bergtatt] and I was just reading the liner notes here and going back in the time machine! It’s almost bittersweet to me by now, those memories.’
You always had that melancholy in your music.
‘Yes, actually I think that owes a lot to the folk or pagan element that we adopted more heavily than many others at the time, which has in its inherent self this feeling of nostalgia and yearning for the glories of past times. We were young and the gap from the magic and fantasia of childhood wasn’t too far away at the time. I guess that kind of explains why there’s this genuine fervor to it, in the atmosphere that we set out to create – which was as important to us as the musical form. We always put feeling before form I think.’
Maybe a harkening to the past? Norway to people in UK seems like country at the top of its game – a rich place… Where does the darkness come from? The weather? The long winter nights?
‘Well, to some extent I think it’s in nature and the isolation one can sometimes feel up here. But for me it comes from art to be honest, from the literature and paintings and from music and things like that. It might sound pretentious but the glory of that compared to the nineties urban generation of irony that was also happening at the time, that detached snotty coolness… I hated that and it called for a response, the return of the fucking berserks you know (laughs). A more Stoic stance to all the modern life bullshit, I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.’
Where you looking for an emotional music to match this inner melancholia
‘Absolutely. We were taking things from the old folklore, stuff straight out of the Poetic Edda and such, applying it to a more contemporary form.‘
What I like is that melancholy and symphonic, sweeping, dark melodic nature that you had from the beginning?
‘By the time we got our first deal and started to rehearse the first album [Bergtatt] and actually record it, we had gotten to know most of the older guys. All the bands back then were part of a pretty small scene, and we were all aware of each other and conscious of what other bands were up to, so it was very important to have a strong identity marker as well. In order to matter in this scene you had to be original and bring your own ideas to the table, you know? And that’s exactly what we set out to do I think. We decided to go for a more foresty and melodic form and I guess maybe some of the guys felt our early releases were too pretty or whatever, but a lot of them approved as well. It was a bigger diversion when we did the second one which was totally acoustic – bonfire music!’
That was a hell of a swerve – the first of many! Were you always contrary?
‘Yeah man, I have a punk rocker built-in. I think you might be right – there is a little bit of let’s just do the opposite of what everyone else does. An element of ‘fuck you and your rules!’ I see the same in my 13-year-old son these days, so it’s coming back to bite me in the ass (laughs).’
It’s a brave record to make. Was there any trepidation?
‘Not really. We did what we did without apology – apology is not part of a black metal line of thinking. In terms of embracing it as an ideology of, you know, individualism and all that, it made total sense to us. I knew it would rub some dudes the wrong way, of course, but shit will always rub people the wrong way. Who cares? Who are they, right?’
Interestingly no matter how far you move from template you somehow retains the atmosphere and the edge like on current record.
‘You can’t get away from the bloodlines. That stuff will always be there, your childhood and the adolescent identity thing. Tastes change and music and life and art take different turns as you grow older but the heart that beats beneath is still the same in so many ways. The heart doesn’t really change. In my opinion our darkest album is actually Shadows of the Sun from 2007. To me that is our ultimate dark-album if there ever was one. It has this sort of de facto nihilistic thing going on as opposed to the more fantastical make-believe dark of black metal. Musically it’s not black metal, but it still carries some of those emotional strains. It’s more introvert and it’s not an aggressive form. It’s not an angered, or accusing darkness; it’s a soft-spoken ‘surrender all hope’…’
I read an interview where Diamanda Galás gets mentioned as a key influence and her gig in Oslo in the early nineties being a key gig in the scene with people collapsing at the intensity and darkness of it. It points that already the black metal scene was incorporating lots of other influences.
‘Ah yes, she is fantastic! Hekate incarnate! I actually bought her first 12″ around that time, it was her first EP – The Litanies of Satan. It was Euronymous who sold it, in Helvete, he told me you should take this home and turn off all the lights and listen to this… That was actually part of the appeal of the black metal thing to me. It was never just about fuzz guitars for me. It was a place to find dark matter, so to speak. There was a lot of love of early synthesizer music too, and prog music and just plain weird stuff going on down there. Things like The Residents could often be heard on the stereo in that shop. And going back to Diamanda Galás, there’s obviously a lot of death and despair in her sort of, uh, worldview. Just this over-the-top hysterical and bat shit crazy aspect to her, of course we loved that.’
Would you say that sometimes Ulver are closer to Swans, Neubauten and that end of things than metal?
‘Well, that might be, if you say so (laughs). Maybe less so back in the early to mid nineties, of course, then it was mainly about the metal. But the simple truth is that as we grew older we developed more and more love for other types of music – like those bands you just mentioned. Actually I went to a reading Michael Gira held at the Norwegian Student Society back then, when he first released his book. Anyway, as the nineties sort of went on we had discovered so much other stuff that ultimately appealed to us more, I would say. And we wanted to incorporate those things into our music, which is a process we started with the Blake album. Around that time the black metal thing was getting more and more commercialized by the day, and lots of scenesters got involved and started to emulate things and it was all becoming a bit of a fashion show, taking away a lot of the original mystique, which is what drew me to it in the first place. But that’s something that happens to all scenes I think. Illusions shatter.’
This diversity was thrillingly on display when I saw you play By:Larm.
‘I saw that review you did. It was a bit of an ambivalent concert for us but I’m glad you enjoyed it. I just remember it was a big compromise doing the whole… well, that sort of thing. We normally wouldn’t do a music industry event thing but we had a management at the time who coaxed us into doing that and I remember it was a bit of weird angry energy going on that day, but there is no need to get into that. I’m glad you liked it though.’
The show was really diverse.
‘We were changing our live presentation around the time. We were experimenting with some new video stuff at that particular gig, which we probably only used at that gig.’
It reminded me early eighties industrial bands with their multi media video backdrops and a lot of the content was quite disturbing.
‘There was a bit of Throbbing Gristle going on, no doubt, a puking audience is the best audience! (laughs)’
The music was a brilliant cross between dislocated blues, classical and electronic and it was mesmerising. It was hard to place it and at that point you had already been working with an orchestra.
‘No, we’d worked with small ensembles and obviously midi programming symphonic bits and such. I was in another band in the 90s called Arcturus where we used a quartet for an album we did with that band [La Masquerade Infernale]. We became good friends with that quartet which was called the Oslo Session Quartet and so we worked closely with them with Ulver for the aforementioned Shadows of the Sun. They got a bit more creatively involved in that album which has an overall symphonic mood to it. But our first actual working with a big orchestra was for Messe in 2012.’
Did working with the symphony change the way you make the music?
‘Well, it kind of has to. When we were approached to do that commission [Messe I.X–VI.X], we decided that it should be a classical album, or a neoclassical album I guess is what it is. So what we did was to go and listen to loads of classical music to sort of wrap our heads around how to write something like that and what would be ideal for that kind of instrumentation in a way. With the arrangements we got help with that because we can’t really score for full orchestras. We don’t really read music, so we would just write the music on our synths and with midi. We then got help from a guy called Martin Romberg, a Norwegian composer – he would score it out and tell us what would and wouldn’t work and say change this and suggest alternates and such, and that really helped us pull it all off basically.‘
You were writing the strings parts on keyboards?
‘Yeah, that’s what we did and then when we got the actual instruments in place we would drop most of the electric strings out. It was there as a demo to show the musicians what to play, but we kept the electronic stuff that was more abstract and the samples and that stuff and the result is a synthesis of those two worlds.‘
Kinda like 21st century electronic matching 18th century classical – an interesting fusion of future and past?
‘Yes, I guess that’s what it is… a rather gothic affair (laughs).’
Do the strings capture a darkness that the guitars can’t get?
‘Yes and no, it wasn’t that conscious to start with. It was an opportunity that presented itself that we thought would be interesting. Things happen by chance sometimes of course. And if if it seems interesting we will jump at the opportunity and we will try and adapt to what it is and what we like about it. With this project it was about what we could do with something like real string sections and brass and this sort of classical music we have been into – Arvo Pärt and Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs. It’s also touching on Stravinsky and those kind of things… It just didn’t make sense for that particular project to go in a rock direction. It was kind of like a case study for us.’
‘With all the musical changes, does it matter to maintain the essence of Ulver in that sound?
‘It’s not something I think too much about to be honest. Ulver is just a name and the rest is a big long journey, a process of process. When I look back at things we have made since, I would say since 1998’s Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, there are common denominators I think, things that we’ve done that tend to revolve around similar kind of themes and feelings, musically and lyrically. There are some clues scattered throughout the catalogue I would say.’
It’s the same group so instinctively you can’t help the DNA still being in there!
‘Exactly. It’s what we talked about before, the bloodlines – there is still a 17-year-old black metal kid in here somewhere feeling much the same way about a lot of things, but it’s a lot of life that’s been had since the beginning as well (laughs). It’s been 20-plus years now and things obviously change.’
With the new album – is there the same thought process for each album or was it a case that this time it was a series of happy accidents that you run with?
‘For this new one it’s a bit of both because, what did you say, the happy accidents! Yeah, they were definitely part of the premeditation. There was a notion that it could very well become an album down the line. We sort of counted on these (laughs) happy accidents, uh happening, but there was a premeditation in there in that we bought recording equipment before we went out on that tour. We knew it could be of potentially good use to us, whatever happened, so in that sense it’s thought out… We had a plan!’
Did you record he whole of this album live?
‘More or less, but there are some overdubs here and there. The album is a hybrid. Most of the things that were happening were of an improvisational nature to start. We had laid down some foundations that we could manoeuvre around and to us that basically means repetition and groove – those were the two things that we decided that we needed so that if anyone fucked it up we’d still have the drive going. There were musical denominators too, things that we liked to listen to together and we decided that lets try and keep it in this musical landscape. We rehearsed only for a few days and every time we rehearsed it would sound a bit different. We didn’t record the rehearsals because we kind of knew we would be harder pressed in front of an actual audience and be working harder so we just figured ‘fuck it, lets just track it all live,’ which we did and the rest is, as they say, history.’
And the mix was done separately by sending the parts to Daniel O’Sullivan to finish in London.
‘Well, that’s a slight misconception, it was actually the other way around. The story is that Dan took the drives with him at the end of the tour. We didn’t touch it for a long time as obviously the music was in London, and then I started thinking about it and called Dan up and said ‘listen why don’t you pull all that stuff out and do something with it, see where it leads?’ Which he did. So a lot of the man hours in that respect are thanks to Dan. He made many of the executive decisions and got things together into presentable shape before he sent it over to us. Then we added some chops and tweaks of our own and laid down the final mixes in Oslo, mainly Anders Møller and myself.’
It’s an interesting way of working – live for the edge and then in someone else’s editing in suite…
‘It’s a lovely way of making an album actually. People used to do that stuff a lot more before – guys like Frank Zappa or even Led Zeppelin, lots of bands back in the 70s used to do track their stuff all the time, live and in rehearsal, and maybe the drum track from a particular gig would then make its way onto an album? Sometimes it’s difficult to get that same feeling or urgency in a studio situation because obviously there is no real urgency in the studio.’
Are you taking ‘ATGCLVLSSCAP’ out on tour?
‘We are not. We talked about but it would be a bit strange simply because these are sort of honed live recordings that weren’t very well rehearsed to begin with, and to go now and re-rehearse or re-enact it, something that’s been born that way would feel weird to me. For the time being we are in no rush to go out and play live again to be honest. I’m actually going to Tore’s place tomorrow to start a new tracking session to get some new ideas down and see how that goes. I think the general feeling now is that we should have a new proper studio album made before we head back onto the stage. We’ve got some ideas cooking. And when we get back on the stage chances are it will be something very different again.’
So we may never get to see this record live?
‘Well, it’s already been played live, before you got whiff of it (laughs). We might do similar things again, of course, but I don’t think it will be rehearsed versions of these exact same songs. I don’t know, we might be tapping into the same musical aesthetic in the future but right now the focus is, as I said, to make some new music again. It will take us the rest of this year I reckon to make this album, which we already have sort of a thematic outline for – it’s loosely about the assassination of Julius Caesar! We are toying with a lot of curious, quite concrete references and have some lyrics already written, but we haven’t made too much music for it yet. I think it’s a nice way to do it this time, write all the lyrics first which is bit opposite to what we have done before – which is usually writing the lyrics last and putting them on top of existing sounds.’
Whatever they do Ulver will do the unexpected but it will still transfix you with its ideas and brilliance…