Interview: Enslaved’s Ivar Bjørnson on the new album ‘Utgard’

Compared to some of their Norwegian black metal contemporaries who continue with the lo-fi sound and Satanic lyrics, Enslaved have been off on their own track for some time, toying with progressive sounds and Norse and Viking themes.

Continuing the evolution is their fifteenth studio album, Utgard. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to speak to one of the two exisiting founders – guitarist Ivar Bjørnson – to get more of the story.

Enslaved is turning 30 next year, so any plans to mark the occasion?

“We have no concrete plans as of yet.  No one seems to know if there will be live shows around, but we’ll do something for sure.  We did a really big one on the 25th anniversary back in 2016, so it might feel a little bit early to go all out on this one. We don’t feel old, so I guess we’re like those people who don’t want to celebrate their birthday too much. We want to keep the focus on the work that’s ahead and not too much on what has happened. But definitely if they allow us out to play shows, we’ll definitely be there and bring some cake.”

Speaking of 2016 – you toured with Aussie band Ne Obliviscaris that year. What was that experience like?

“That was actually the first and only Aussie band that we’ve toured with.  It was a very positive experience. People seem to find some of that progressive element in Enslaved’s music. Not as blatant of course as in Neo, but we’ve toured with quite a lot of different bands. We’ve toured with black metal bands, we’ve toured with sludge bands, stoner rock, progressive metal, and all kinds of stuff. And that was definitely a wonderful, wonderful tour. We love that Aussie take on the world and the humour is quite compatible with the Norwegian one, especially when we discovered that you’re allowed to call people cunt all the time. It’s really a significant moment in history (laughs).”

Yeah – what’s the saying? You call your enemies mate and your mates cunt.  Anyway, back to what you were saying about not feeling old.  You jumped into Enslaved at a very young age?

“Yeah, I was 13 when we started Enslaved.  We already had a band a year ahead of that called Phobia, which is more of a death metal thing.”

And you’re still going strong all these years later. How do you do it?

“I think it’s about letting yourself be inspired and be interested in things outside of just your own little world as a musician or composer or whatever.  For me, it’s not a bad thing to be influenced by other artists; quite the contrary.  I don’t feel like I’m a lesser songwriter for having been massively inspired by music that I like. And the same goes for books, movies and so on and pretty much life in general itself, because music is about conveying your own emotional universe or thoughts on things.

“When it comes to the energy and the aggression, that’s something that is also a natural part of the emotional universe, but I guess it doesn’t really make sense to cultivate it in society. And that could also be a point – we’ve lost some of that connection with those parts of ourselves.  We must not forget that (from an evolutionary perspective), these were also parts of what was necessary to survive and it’s not like you can just shake it off by thinking polite, nice thoughts.  It’s going to be there and some people have healthy outlets in sports, some have it in video games, so it’s sort of an upside down perception that’s put upon us by especially religious people that by just avoiding it, they will sort of go away. I think the contrary is true if you look especially again on religious people (and) how little control they do have over their own use of violence and excessive force. I think they would be better off maybe playing some death metal.”

Maybe we can we can get a few priests into some death metal hey?

“Yeah, good project.”

In one of your recent interviews you spoke fondly of famous psychiatrist Carl Jung. His work is heavy stuff.

“It is. Luckily, (while) there’s some stuff that is a bit hard to access for the layman such as myself, a rather big portion seems to be understandable without having the academic background. The way that he’s cross-sectioning myths and what you could call metaphysical beliefs or even religious beliefs… cross-sectioning that with our rational view on the world has really been an eye opener it seems for a lot of people, including myself. The vastness of what he’s trying to express requires things to be put into metaphors and mythological tales and so on, because you simply cannot put it into everyday language. And I think it makes it extra interesting because it gives me a feeling that music and art is somewhat connected to that; that it’s coming from the same place.”

You mention Jung’s shadow concept quite a bit. What’s your take on it?

“Some people get a little bit scared by that.  They say, ‘So does that mean that instead of locking the gorilla in its cage, (you) throw it out of the cage and make it go on a rampage every now and then?’ No, it’s more about leaving the cage door open and trying to communicate with it so that at times when you do actually need to have that sort of outgoing and stampeding approach to the world, it can be effective. It shouldn’t be hidden away or put down; it’s about finding some kind of peace with yourself and and also having a sense of forgiveness in terms of understanding also why you sometimes react in a way or do something that in the aftermath can feel was not right.  But that’s also part of existence. That might be the shadow side acting out and there’s a reason for it and that can be investigated and found out what is it that I need to express to feel balanced and leveraged in the world.”

That’s a good way to look at it. Starting Enslaved at 13, did you recognise your shadow side before even encountering Jung?

“I think I was in connection with it. I have to say that I don’t feel morally superior in any way… you know, with the black metal scene, some stuff did go wrong, because I think things got out of hand and there was some crimes committed and things like that. And I think one of the reasons that we didn’t get that far, even though being close to the environment, was that we did recognise that this is an expression of something in us that we feel, especially in Norway, with the history of how Norway’s Norse history had been forced out violently by Rome when it came, and there was this very aggressive, hostile vibe in extreme metal towards religion, but I think we we also recognised it as being an outlet. So, a certain amount of self criticism was present also in the early days, which I guess is a good thing in the long run.”

Moving to the album now… what’s the inspiration for Utgard?

“It started some years ago … back to Jung – especially with the shadow concept – it just became more and more interesting in a sense, and more tied into what we were dealing with in our own lyrical universe. And this sort of exploration of the world of the gods; Asgard, or as Jung would refer to, ‘the ego’.  It just really triggered a curiosity about the outside of the wall. And on the last album, the myth of how the wall around Asgard was built with the help of a builder from Utgard and a horse, which ended up being Sleipnir, Odin’s horse. That sort of triggered like, ‘Yes, they’re building a wall against the attacks from Utgard, from the uncontrollable forces – what is there?’ And it just felt like a natural time to turn around 180 degrees and look on the outside, which is I guess the perspective that you’re seeing on the cover, and once that was finished and we’re looking out, there was such a vast landscape and such an inspirational journey to embark on.

“Normally I would be thinking a lot about music and then also in sections thinking about lyrics for the music, but this time, it was just all combined into one big, exciting journey that was going on in my head in parallel as I was writing. And it turned out that the sort of the characters in this concept is the light bearer – the conscious – taking on this journey through Utgard with the shadow, which he needs to have with him because this is where the shadow is. That’s its homeland, so to speak, so you need to have it, but the shadow also depends on the light bearer to shed light on some things from an organised perspective to make sense of it.”

This is all very heavy subject matter. When you’re not wading through that stuff, what returns you to the lighter side of life?

“I’m lucky to have a family at home – kids and wife – and we try to do normal family stuff I guess. I’m trying to be engaged in the activities of the kids. I never got into soccer before the youngest one started her soccer practice – all of a sudden I’m a fan – so that’s a lot of fun. And reading… I love reading and watching series, movies, whatever. It’s just about the good life, I guess. To make as much out of it as you can when you’re not working. I guess that’s also key to it; that you don’t overdo these things.

“I have become better, I think, and it still remains that sort of self critical approach that I do realise that no matter how engaged I feel about it, it’s not going to do either the music or myself any good by just doing that. I need some kind of influence from life itself. It needs to be light and entertaining at the same time to be able to do those things. And that’s also what the whole band is about.  Enslaved is known to be quite goofy. We do spend unnecessarily lots of time just doing silly stuff and that is important to be able to art very seriously for those hours. To sum it up, being a family man is what takes me back to square one every time.”

Utgard is out now via Nuclear Blast

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