Borknagar: Øystein G. Brun finds balance between progress and tradition

Nobody knows for sure whether it is the return of famous bassist/singer ICS Vortex that sparked off Borknagar’s creativity, or if it’s precisely the band’s creativity that drove the man to join it again. Probably a bit of both. Whatever the answer, the Norwegian band is about to release Urd, a most accomplished and rich album. Possibly even the most accomplished and rich album in their career.

We simply had to know more about the genesis of such an album – for this is not the sort of result you get in a snap, from one day to the next. Øystein G. Brun, the band’s founder, guitarist and main composer, told us as much: not only did the band start shaping Urd before its predecessor, Universal, was even recorded, but this album demanded all of his time, 24/7, during six months. For this time, beyond mere composition, Borknagar wanted to polish every single detail, especially the production aspect.

So here we are: Borknagar are back, and they bring with them an album that deserves every scrap of attention you’ve got. Cherry on the cake, this is also a very balanced album, standing somewhere between a desire for progress and a will to keep all the key elements that have made the band’s strength since they started off. The title of the album, Urd, is therefore a tribute to the past – the kind that makes you go forward.

« My biggest concern actually was to over-do things »

Radio Metal : When the return of Vortex in the band was announced last year each of the band members sounded incredibly thrilled and felt over creative. And as a matter of fact Urd is one of the most creative Borknagar release yet, even beyond the vocal work. Has the return of Vortex in itseft actually ignited this creativity?

Øystein G. Brun (guitars): Oh yeah, a big part of it, definitely. We were talking about it for quite a long time but when we realized that we were gonna join forces I think that kind of ignited the creativity and everything got really good. We have a really good atmosphere in the band, a good creative process and everything. There’s also the fact that we did the mix in Fascination Street Studios in Sweden made us think that we had to do this really well, we had the chance to do a great album. So of course getting Vortex back was kind of inspiring. He has done his thing with Dimmu Borgir for many years, so we’ve done our thing and it has been working perfectly and both count, so to speak, but we’ve kind of realized looking back that he has definitely been our missing piece in the puzzle. He’s a great musician both on bass and vocals and everything, I admire his way of working the music and everything. So it felt really good, and I think that kind of shines on the new album actually.

With the announcement of Vortex’s return, the band member’s reaction was so overwhelming that rarely a band has sounded that thrilled. And this has actually put a lot of weight and expectation on this album from the fans. Were you so sure of the greatness of what you were about to accomplish that it was not a problem for you to actually carry that weight?

You know, my biggest concern actually was to over-do things, to do too much vocals and to show this off big-time. So I was like “Okay, let’s not do this cheesy, let’s not do a huge opera-type music” because there is so much potential within the band, not just in Simen, there’s also Andreas [Hedlund, vocals] and Lars [Nedland, synths] who are also great vocalists. It felt so good in many ways, on a personal level, being friends and stuff, but also to start working on music again, and the thing just kind of evolved from there, really. I think everybody really wanted to do the best out of it. You know, this business is basically a rough business in many ways, but when you get this glimmer of light it’s like “Wow, let’s do the best”. There was a very positive feeling, musically it felt so good to start working again and… What more can I say really? It was just really great to write. As I said before, I think the fact that we had fun in the studio actually shines on the album. I worked for six months, day and night, 24/7 since June, almost. I’ve always been working hard with records, but this time I was really “Okay, this has to be good”, we have to kind of meet the expectations of the fans, but also meet the expectations for ourselves.

Your previous album was called Universal, which is a very ambitious title, but in the end the music, although complex, actually doesn’t sound as ambitious and universal than the one heard on your new album Urd. Can we say that at the time of Universal you had somehow overlooked the band’s possibilities that you have managed to unveil with Urd?

I think we were still on the same groove back then. When we did Universal what I think was the issue back then, what I’ve been feeling for quite many records actually, was the production. We have always had to compromise on the production because the music we do is quite complicated, there are a lot of layers, a lot of things going on. Sometimes it’s a very demanding job mixing the albums we do. So I think we kind of had the vision for Urd almost already formed even before we did Universal, and with Universal we came a step in the right direction but we didn’t really take the second step. Of course Fascination Street is a fantastic studio, Jens Bogren, the guy who runs it is almost a genius, basically. Nothing more, nothing less, he’s a genius. So I think it was a really good decision for us to do this album in Fascination Street because I think we had to compromise too much in the past, on Universal for example. We didn’t really get close to our visions or how we really wanted it. Of course it was satisfying there and then, I think it’s a good album, it’s a cool album in many ways. To me it’s some sort of first album of our new musical journey, so it’s a good start. It’s a good second debut, so to speak. But I think with the latest album it’s more like we’ve achieved what we wanted to do all along. You know, it’s also a test for us, I think, with production, budgets and stuff like that, to see what we are actually able to do. We also have an endorsement deal with Steinberg, so we have a lot of good equipment and stuff, so I have a studio at home where I can do all my guitars, and do my own editing and stuff like that. Along with this we’ve grown more experienced as producers and engineers, so we took a lot more control on the production this time around. We just recorded the drums in another studio, but the rest of the takes we did were in our own studio so we have total control of everything. As I said before, I was working 24/7 for six months for this album just polishing the music, making it better, changing things, improving things… It’s also a matter of different recording environments. I can sit at home, just relax and when I feel like it I just walk to my studio and do some work, you know. It’s way better, way more focused and practical than traveling to Oslo or whatever to do some recordings during a week-end for example. It makes my time a time I can actually spend on music. I can spend all my time in music now, but before I would spend a lot of my time traveling, finding a place to stay or all the logistical things. So this wasn’t worrying, the whole process was really focused. I feel at this point we are on a good vibe, we have kind of found a formula that we have been looking for for the past three or four years. The next album will be really good as well, I can assure you!

With what you learned production wise, would you be interested in working as a producer for other bands?

Oh yeah, that would be cool. I haven’t really announced myself as a producer or an engineer or anything like that, but of course at some point it would definitely be interesting. When I’m dealing with music in general I’m very honest, so it has to be some sort of music that I can find some value in. I have to like the music basically. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot actually, helping young bands in my local area or whatever, that would be really cool. Because we have done so many albums, so I’ve been in so many studios and we are kind of starting to know the deal, we know how things work in pre-production, and the whole process of recording, mixing and mastering and so on. I’m not sure, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week, but some time in the future I’ll probably do something as a producer. Because that’s also what we did with the new album. Some of the songs were actually written before we released Universal. The songs basic structures and basic riffs were done way before we actually started to record the album, so I spent a lot of time as a producer, I tried to release myself from just being the musician. I tried to have a different perspective, listened to it in a different way and try to think and have the same mindset as a producer. We have never allowed a producer to fuck up our music, we always had an idea of how we want it to sound. We still do, but nowadays we are more skilled and more experienced as both producers and musicians.

« The day I start repeating myself I’ll probably just retire because to me it just doesn’t make sense to copy myself. »

Urd is the name of a norn that symbolises the past. Do you think the past is what guides us toward the future? Is this what actually happened with Borknagar on Urd?

You know, we are always, musically and lyrically, taking a step further. We always want to take a step into the future. But for me it’s very important to keep our roots, our history, what made us what we are. Generally speaking, we are basically nothing without our history. We basically do a lot of our brain work in history, because you have to reflect on things that have already happened. Afterward you can figure out what actually happened and what the best solution is for this problem or whatever. So history is very important for me as a person but also as a musician because I don’t want to loose myself. I mean, we are progressive, but the danger of being progressive is also that you can suddenly just say that you’re in some kind of musical form and that you don’t know where you are anymore, and fans don’t like it, you don’t like it yourself and you’re not really sure of what your doing. So it’s always important for me during the process of writing or lyrics to keep a perspective when it comes to the music at all times, sometimes it’s just to check the anchor, to see if the anchor is still there. Are we still keeping the same elements as we have before? There’s kind of a duality in it, because being progressive is a cool thing and to me it’s crucial. The day I start repeating myself I’ll probably just retire because to me it just doesn’t make sense to copy myself. We have to keep some of our links back to our history and what actually made the band and what we are actually known for and stuff like that. Sometimes you have to be a little bit aware of what you’re doing, and I think we are in a position right now to balance these two elements really well. I’m just happy with the situation. And the title “Urd” is definitely a bit of a reference to that, not just musically but also kind of philosophically about the fact that mankind is basically nothing without its history. You have to have history in order to face the future and stuff like that. So basically it’s an album looking back, not just looking back in a sense of the time line but also in a sense of looking back on where you come from. One idea that struck me a little bit about this whole philosophy that we are dealing with in the lyrics is that a lot of philosophers seem to deal with the stars and the cosmos, they are usually looking up at the sky doing their existential thoughts or whatever. But on this album I really wanted to head back home to earth, more to the micro-cosmos, more to the small things. One idea that kind of thrills me a lot, in the same way as trying to count the stars is that, you know, our DNA structure, what we have in our cells, it’s deriving from the beginning of time. We have bits of pieces in ourselves that actually derives from the beginning of time. That’s some thrilling thought [laughs], that’s the kind of idea that I really like in a philosophical sense, so that’s kind of the point with this new album.

Do you think the band could have lost itself in its own creativity without having the shadow of its legacy in mind?

Not necessarily. Our band has to be like we are now. That’s the way we work as a musical creature or whatever you want to call it. I’ve seen a lot of bands that have done totally new things for each album, like Ulver for example, a Norwegian ambient band, previously a black metal band, but now they do a more soundtrack-type of ambient music. It’s brilliant and they master it brilliantly, but it’s not every band that’s able to do that, and I think one of the key elements for us is to be consistent, to keep the musical roots of the band. For us that’s really important. That’s how I want the band. Maybe we could do a jazz album next year, and it could be great in the jazz community or whatever, I don’t know. But that’s not interesting for me, because for me music is about honesty, it’s about real stuff. We don’t wrap things up in cotton just to sell more records. We don’t compromise with commercial interest. We do our thing as honestly as possible because I think that as a music writer and composer and being part of the band and all that, the link between us and the fans should be as small as possible. I want the fans to listen to what we really do, what we are really able to do. So for me it’s about honesty, it’s as simple as that, for me history is important. I’m a very nostalgic person, generally speaking I’m always looking back at my childhood and stuff like that. For me it’s a natural way of expressing myself. You know, I grew up on the countryside, far from any city, and the forest and mountains were my playgrounds. That has to come through somehow. That’s why we have all the forest and all that stuff as our musical scenery or lyrical scenery because it’s such an important part of my life. For me it’s about being honest, really.

So do you think that bands like Morbid Angel, who totally changed their music for the last album, are not being honest with their fans?

[Sigh, hesitation] Maybe not, maybe they are. I’m not sure, I don’t really like to speculate about what they are dealing with or about what they’re really thinking. But from my point of view, I just barely listened to the album for two minutes but I was like “What are they doing? What the hell is happening?” but there’s definitely some qualities to it. I don’t know, I really don’t want to speculate about other bands. I mean, if that’s what they wanted to do, I’m fine with it, it’s cool. And for me as a musician, I don’t expect our fans to be our fans for life, I don’t expect to sell a lot of records, I don’t expect to keep the same fan base. We just have to do our thing and hopefully some people will like it and hopefully the fan-base will still like the band. I haven’t really thought much about it, but what they did is really up to them and they can deal with that themselves. For me as a listener of Morbid Angel, it’s a little bit off the track. But at the same time, we have done such things ourselves. For example, one of our previous albums, Epic. It was an album for which we just had a lot of ideas and we did it all the way, with really heavy philosophical lyrics, a long album and complicated songs with complicated arrangements. For us it was kind of for our musical survival, we needed to do that. We had done four albums before that and I think every band that has been working for more than ten years have to do something that is a little bit off the track to challenge themselves, and just to test the borders of your own musical world. There’s also Origin which was an acoustic album, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time. I think it’s a great album in many ways, and I just had to do it as a musician, instinctively, I just wanted to do it. But of course, commercially it’s not a good idea and all that stuff, and we probably lost some fans with that album but we can’t really care too much. Of course we care, but we have to be honest to ourselves as musicians as well. But I think for a band going on ten albums, you need to allow yourself to challenge yourself, that’s very crucial. So maybe that’s what Morbid Angel is doing these days. I don’t know.

When we talked with Vortex last year, when he just rejoined the band, he confessed that he didn’t consider himself as a good singer. He told us he would just consider himself as a bass player in Borknagar and that he thought he would just do some vocal harmonies on the new album. In the end he does much more than that. He sounds like a second singer on the album. Did you have to push him to get him more involved vocal wise on the album?

No, not really, it came very naturally, I would say. It’s a kind of funny thing because when we announced that he was back in the band, there has always been a lot of speculation about who’s the best vocalist, some people are more fans of Vortex, some people don’t like Andreas or the opposite. So there’s a lot of speculation about this, Simen being quite famous because of his past in Dimmu Borgir. But Simen and the other guys, we just reached that point where we said “let’s see where we go with this”, we didn’t really know before. As I said before, the only restriction I had of my own concern was that I didn’t want to over-do it. I wanted it to be tasteful, and I think that’s pretty much the same approach as Simen had back then, and I also think there was mutual respect within the band, between Simen and Andreas. Simen thinks Andreas does a great job, so he wanted to find his place in the band. It was something that just needed to evolve by itself. So I think the whole thing really did go by instinct, it happened really naturally. It kind of evolved on its own. And I think it turned out really perfectly. Andreas doing the main vocals, doing the grim vocals and probably most of the clean vocals, but Simen is still heavily involved. Not just on the vocals. Usually, when people are talking about Simen, it’s about the vocals, but he’s a great bass player as well. The bass lines he did on the album are just fantastic. So his whole presence is really great and it felt so natural. We had expectations, but we didn’t have too many strict rules on how it should be, we didn’t go “O.K. Simen should do 40% of the clean vocals” or something like that [laughs]. We didn’t operate like that. It was more like “let’s see how it ends and what result we get.” It was as simple and as complicated as that.

« I don’t necessarily want to sound like a 70′s rock’ n’ roll or progressive band, but I want to capture some of the magic, the honesty, they had in the music back then. »

Will the vocal complexity be reproducible in the live setting?

We’ll see. Hopefully, we’ll manage to do some of it. Actually, it’s probably more difficult when it comes to guitars, because guitar lines sometimes have four different melodies going, so it’s more complex. But at the same time, I’ve always considered that the live situation and the studio situation are two different worlds. I mean, it’s totally different to do a live show or to rehearse, it’s a different type of work, and being in the studio, it’s also different, you know. So I always thought that it’s not our highest goal or aim to reproduce the album sound on stage. It should sound good of course, the show should be good and of course you should be able to recognize the songs and all that stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the blueprint of the album. Because the live situation is different, maybe you have to underline different elements. Live shows are usually rock concerts [laughs]. And in live rock, often the main focus is on electric guitars, for example. So maybe we focus a bit more on the guitar work in our live shows, so maybe some of the synths for example would be more of a simplified version of the synth lines for example. For me, it’s more about adapting into the environment, more or less, in a good way. I don’t know if a live album from Borknagar necessarily has to sound exactly the same as a studio album. I think an artist like Bob Dylan is a great example of that, he does one version on the album and one version live. Of course, it can be a bit confusing when he’s doing all that stuff but I think we should allow ourselves to think, to react and to adapt to so different environments. So yeah! It’s gonna sound good anyway!

The song The Beauty Of Dead Cities has a strong 70’s feeling. Is this something Vortex brought with him? Because I know he very much likes 70’s rock, which actually influenced some songs on his solo album…

Back in the old days, when he was in the band and we were doing The Archaic Course, he was one of the guys really introducing this 70’s approach into the music, definitely. Since then we have been dealing with that more or less. I mean, in some albums it’s more obvious than in other, but the 70’s feeling has always been a very important element in our music. Because, just thinking of myself, my father had a huge vinyl collection back when I was a small kid and I was listening to all the old good ones like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf and all that music. So the whole vibe of the seventies, the honesty of the music from the seventies, is something I’ve always adored. I really wanted to incorporate it in the music. I don’t necessarily want to sound like a 70’s rock’ n’ roll or progressive band, but I want to capture some of the magic, the honesty, they had in the music back then. And I think that matches very well with Simen’s approach to music. I think it’s somehow a little bit empowered by him getting back in the band of course. But then, the song was written by Lars the synth player, and he’s also very much into progressive music and prog rock from the 70’s. I think it’s a common appreciation of old music, and the honesty of it, and the sort of purity of the music back then. We always try to incorporate that in our music in a smaller or bigger sense, but I kind of agree with you that The Beauty Of Dead Cities is a brilliant… Actually, some people have referred to is as reminding them of the Beatles, and that’s kind of cool. [laughs]

Okay! Do you like the Beatles?

Some songs are good, I think the band was great musical-wise, definitely. They were really one of the big composers of their time. The musical skills that these dudes had was really great, of course. I admire some of the songs they’ve done. I’m not a huge fan, I can’t say so, but it’s a cool band, definitely.

The band’s music has reached with Urd a strong level of richness and complexity. Does that leave any room for improvement or evolution for the future?

I hope so! [laughs] Yeah. You know, I’ve had the same thing with every album, I was like “Okay, what’s next?” I’m basically very happy with each album we have done. That’s some of the excitement of being in a band and making albums. I’m pretty sure that we’re gonna outdo ourselves on the next album. I’ve already started to write some material and I’m pretty sure it’ll be really great. So that’s a bit of the challenge towards ourselves. So yes, I think the next album will be as great as this one, definitely.

Last October, David Kinkale has left Borknagar for Soulfly. This is surprising since, according to some of his statement earlier last year, just as the other band members, he seemed very motivated creatively by Borknagar and he actually moved to Norway to concentrate on the band. Do you think that the money he could make with Soulfly won over his creative ambition? And I’m not saying this in any pejorative way because I understand it is becoming harder and harder for musicians to make a living nowadays…

No, you know, it was kind of complicated, and there are things I don’t really want to talk too much about, it’s more like a personal thing. But of course, first and foremost, there is a cultural difference between Norwegians and Americans, in how we relate to things and in how we speak or even think. It’s a different culture. The real truth is that we kicked him out from the band because he couldn’t cope with it anymore. It turned out impossible to work as a band, having a US drummer in the band, it just came to a point were it wasn’t working the way we wanted it to work. He tried to move to Norway, but he had a lot of immigration problems and… You know, it’s a long story, but it didn’t work out at the end of the day because of all the political stuff going on. If he had been a European, it would’ve been much easier. But at the end of the day, things turned out to be so difficult, both working as a band but also just for him to come to Norway and stay in Norway. So the whole thing just turned out more or less hopeless, and it’s nothing personal really, but at some point we had to face reality and say “okay, this is what we have and we can’t work like this”. So it was a friendly decision basically and a mutual understanding I think. When he got involved in Soulfly we thought “okay, let’s just cut the line now.” So it wasn’t that he started getting involved with Soulfly and got more and more involved and quit the band, that’s not exactly how things happened. But it’s turned out really too difficult for us to continue. But he’s a great dude and we wish him the best of luck in the future with Soulfly.

Have you already found a replacement for David?

Oh yeah!

Who is he?

We haven’t really announced it yet, but it’s not secret, really. He’s a young and extremely talented drummer from Norway. We’ve been keeping an eye on him for a few months now. He actually did the drums on ICS Vortex and he did a cover version of a Metallica song for Metal Hammer last year in September or something. The guy who plays drums in this song is the new drummer for Borknagar, his name is Baard Kolstad. He’s quite much younger than us but still, he is a brilliant musician and he has a playing style that’s unique. He’s definitely gonna be a star in the world of drumming. So we’ve been talking with him, and he’s motivated and dedicated and everything, so it feels good.

Have you ever thought of getting Asgeir Mickelsson back in the band at some point?

No. When he split in the band back in… I don’t know… some years ago… I think it was mutual when we said “okay, this is really it”. Because we had too different musical ideas and musical tastes and all that stuff. We just came to a point where it was really it. He’s still a good friend and I still talk with him, there’s no problem at all, and he’s helping us out with vocals and everything on the new album. So there’s no problem and it’s not a big deal, really, but we just came to a point where we realized we don’t share the same musical goals or ideas or wishes or whatever you want to call it. And I don’t want to compromise, none of us want to compromise so Asgeir and I were basically arguing quite a lot because I didn’t want to do this and that, and he didn’t want to do something either. That’s how reality is and we just have to cope with it. He’s a good friend, but it’s not an option really.

Interview conducted on february, 20th, 2012 by phone
Transcription : Stan

Borknagar‘s website : www.borknagar.com
Album : Urd, out on march, 26th, 2012

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