INTERVIEW WITH ØYSTEIN G. BRUN BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAHS BY JØRN VEBERG
Following the release of Borknagar’s 10th album in 2016, Winter Thrice, many of the pieces that drove the band’s progressive Viking/folk/black metal for a good portion of the past two decades started falling by the wayside. These included guitarist Jens Ryland, whose association with the band went back as far as 1997, and lead vocalist Andreas “Vintersorg” Hedlund, who understandably bowed out after suffering a near-tragic injury.
Undaunted, guitarist and lone original member Øystein G. Brun rallied the remaining troops and all the motivation that has kept him at the helm of the Borknagar longboat since 1995 in order to change the mood and creative procedurals within the band to make the delivery of album number 11, True North, possible. At once, the latest album is the most diverse, raw, melodic, progressive, symphonic, and stripped-down album in their discography. It’s also an album that heralds a new era of creative output and activity for a band that had become rigidly set in its ways for a good portion of the last 10 years.
We recently caught up with Brun to discuss True North and how studio technology contributed to its creation, as well as Borknagar’s plans for the next steps onward and upward 25 years into the game, but why there won’t be a 25th anniversary celebration.
For a few years, Borknagar had almost become a studio project in which there was distance between members and albums were being pieced together in different stages and locations. I understand that’s changed a bit with True North. What’s the status of the band like these days with regard to structure and how often you’re getting together face-to-face?
It really depends on what phase we’re in with the band. I live in Bergen and the rest of the guys live in Oslo and the area around Oslo, and the last couple of years we have done quite a bit of touring and festivals. So, we don’t see each other each and every day, but a couple of times a month, at least. And then you have all the traveling we do together that comes with playing live. A quite important point regarding the new album is that we focused on that. Back when we did the Winter Thrice album and the couple albums before that, with the digital revolution, everybody had a home studio, which was usually just a computer and a space to jam where you could do some recording. For many albums, we were doing stuff in our own respective studios, sending stuff to each other, bouncing files back and forth and all that. For this album, I’d say we worked much more as a unit, like a band. Everybody was involved in recording drums, in that everyone came by to listen and bounce ideas back and forth, and it was the same process when we did the vocals. I have a professional studio now [Crosound Studio] that’s close to my house, so we just had everybody meet up here and we locked the door for three or four days and it was just us, a microphone, and some beers. And food, of course! That’s the unique thing about this album, at least in the context of the band. It was really inspiring to do things a little more old school. We didn’t rehearse that much, but we sat down all together in the studio and mingled with the ideas. The whole thing was much more entwined, and everybody was more involved in the music and dynamic of a band process while recording. We actually did spend some extra money with traveling days and hotels and whatever. It cost a bit extra, and I had to sacrifice a little bit more in terms of family life, but it was definitely worth it and felt like the right thing to do. And I think it shows through the album, it’s more organic in a sense.
“WE LOCKED THE DOOR FOR THREE OR FOUR DAYS AND IT WAS JUST US, A MICROPHONE, AND SOME BEERS. AND FOOD, OF COURSE!”
Was this methodology partially the result of having to find new members and the new interactions and dynamics within the band?
That’s definitely part of it, but for quite some time the driving force creatively has been me, [bassist/vocalist] Simen [“ICS Vortex” Hestæns] and [keyboardist/vocalist] Lars [Nedland], and we sat down after we did the whole circuit of touring and festivals for Winter Thrice. I had some dark moments in my life where I lost my father and had to deal with that. So, we had a bit of a pause where I needed a couple of months break where I had to take care of everything else but music for a while. From there, the three of us met up in Oslo, gathered the material we had, and tried to find some sort of direction with things. We wanted to get more back to basics, which is also why we have the cover with a photograph this time, which is what we did on the debut album, and the production was from an older mentality, same with the lyrics. We just sat down and said, “Okay, let’s start,” even though we had two vacant spots in the band. And thanks to some luck and networking, we got a hold of these two guys [drummer Bjorn Dugstad Rønnow and guitarist Jostein Thomassen], had some sessions with them in September of last year, and spent some time getting to know them. Things locked in really quick this time around. The guys came really well prepared to the auditions or whatever you want to call it, and they were into the stuff in rehearsals. They may not be names, but they are long-running musicians, have been in bands forever, and have a lot of experience. Everything locked in very naturally and sounded very right with them. Sometimes in life you have to just jump on the wagon, and I feel that I did this time and it worked. I’m really happy with how the whole process went and how the band is now. When the three of us were discussing what we wanted to do in the next few years, one thing we said was that we wanted to take a step up with the amount we were playing live, not just doing more, but doing it more professionally. I like the spirit and mentality of the band now. It was very inspiring to work with a bunch of people where everybody is wholeheartedly into the music and put all their soul and effort into everything and were willing to make whatever sacrifices needed to be made.
When you’re first in a band and writing songs for an album, you usually have every detail worked out and nailed down before recording. As time goes on for pretty much all bands, things get looser and bands are known to go into the studio less and less prepared. When you think about what happened with True North, where were you on the preparedness scale?
Well, I always like to be prepared with whatever I’m supposed to be doing in life, and the same thing goes with the studio. It’s not like we’re the kind of band that will rent a studio for a month and make music in the studio. That’s not my cup of tea. I need the solitude and my way of writing songs, and I’m unable to write songs if I have someone looking over my shoulder or something like that. So, I’d say the way of writing has been very constant. Of course, I’m much better at it now and I have a professional studio with tons more tools available than what I had back in the day, and that makes life easier. For example, the EverTune system for my guitar means I never have to tune my guitar. It’s small things like this that makes life easier. To put that a little bit differently, it makes the creative process less stressful and I can spend more of my time being creative instead of fighting with equipment problems or whatever. But in terms of recording, I have my studio and I was able to write and record in it before we went off to Sweden and Jens Bogren’s studio [Fascination Street] for the mixing and mastering. But, I did everything for the recording here except for the drums because I don’t have a drum room at my studio. We did the drums in Oslo, some bits and pieces of vocals at Lars’ home studio, and we did some stuff at Simen’s studio, and the majority of the rest, including steps like editing, producing, and arrangements, were done at this desk I’m sitting at now. That’s how we did it and how we have done it for quite some time now. One thing about the technical side, it’s always been my intention since day one to be as close to the listener as possible. For me, my music is very honest and I want people to know that what we’re presenting is what we really wanted to do. So, I want to avoid too much distance between me and the listener, which is why I’ve worked to establish my own studio, to be able to have a hand on the steering wheel in terms of production and recording and all that.
Do you record other bands at your studio?
I have recorded a couple bands, but for external projects I mainly do mixing and mastering. That’s kind of what I’ve landed on. I don’t really have the space on my property for drums, so to do that isn’t really an option, but I do have really nice equipment for recording vocals and guitars and stuff. But, as we talked about earlier, everybody has a computer with a sound card and is able to do pretty decent recordings. These days a lot of bands, especially the ones that don’t have big labels or big budgets behind them, do a lot of stuff themselves, send it over to me, and I do whatever is necessary to make it sound good. But, I’m not rushing or stressing it. First and foremost, I have my own band and, to be honest, I’m not too ambitious about making this my living at this point. I’m more about helping bands get better sounds or push their sound up. Maybe that’s a little idealistic, but I am very passionate about it. I listen to a lot of music and start most of my days here in the studio drinking coffee and listening to the latest metal songs on Spotify or whatever, and there are a lot of great bands and great musicians, but a lot of the production isn’t that good. Some of that, of course, comes down to personal taste, but some of it comes down to good sound being expensive sometimes. For me, doing external productions is great fun. I love to make something that doesn’t sound that good sound good.
“TRUE NORTH REPRESENTS A CONSTANT AMID ALL THAT CHAOS.”
What’s the significance or story behind the title of the new album, True North?
For me, the album title is the spearhead of the album, but the album title is always the last thing we do (laughs). We even had a big discussion at the studio in Sweden when we were finishing off the last steps of the mixing about what we should call it. True North was actually an idea that Simen had, and I really liked its original meaning in reference to navigation. True north is a constant in direction. If you get lost at sea or something or your GPS or Google Maps is down and you don’t know where you are, you can find true north for direction. Back in the day, the Vikings used it when sailing and at night they would always keep an eye on the polar star, which was their directional constant. For me, it’s a constant in this wild world. It’s not us being political or environmental or anything like that, but everyone is aware that the world is changing fast. The world has become a tiny place, but it’s still oh so big. For example, my kids now have access to all the information about everything. Also, nobody knows how this climate crisis is going to dawn on us at the end of the day, and true north represents a constant amid all that chaos. I guess we all have it. I have a ground zero in my living room—my couch. When I’m on tour or am traveling, I’m always thinking, “It would be nice to get back to my corner of the sofa.” (laughs)
Is the Årbostadtinden mountain on the album cover a true north or northern most location in relation to you?
I guess in theory it could be true north depending on what side you stand on, but it’s actually a mountain from northern Norway. Apart from that, it’s coincidental. The photographer of that picture, Thor Erik Dullum, I love his eye for nature and he does a lot of postcard type pictures. He has an openness and width to his pictures that I really love. I was scrolling through his photos a few months before we started to work on the album layouts and stuff, and based on an idea we had from the very beginning of this album where we wanted to have a cover that was something real, authentic, and organic, I stumbled upon this picture, which is actually a small piece of a bigger picture, and loved it and how it related to the title and lyrics. A lot of the lyrics use mountains, nature, and scenery in the imagery and probably the best thing I can say about the cover is that it just felt right. It’s powerful, beautiful, romantic, and open, but mountains can also represent real, serious danger, especially this one. If you try to walk on this mountain in the wintertime, you will die. Also, when it comes to direction, a lot of the lyrics on the album deal with choices in life and choices that need to be made. It could be something as simple as whether to go to the toilet or to go visit a mountain (laughs). Life is filled with choices, and if you think about it, choice is like gravity, it’s always just there.
“IT’S POWERFUL, BEAUTIFUL, ROMANTIC, AND OPEN, BUT MOUNTAINS CAN ALSO REPRESENT REAL, SERIOUS DANGER”
Has the Årbostadtinden been affected by climate change, or have you noticed anything different about the climate in the area around you?
I’m not sure about the mountain on the cover. The north of Norway is a pretty different climate from where I live in Bergen, which is further south and west and close to the sea. But in this area you have the classic steep mountains and the big fjords, which tourists come all year round to see, and what we see is that the terrain and the weather is becoming much more brutal. Nowadays, there’s a big problem in my area with avalanches, whether it’s snow, mud, rocks, or whatever. They fall down from the mountains, crush houses and cars, and just recently some people were killed. I’ve lived in this area since I was a kid and, for example, when I was a kid in the wintertime, it was completely normal for us to ski to school. Nowadays, for my kids, who are living in the same area and going to the same school I went to, skiing isn’t even a thing because there is no snow anymore. So, I can see it, from my own time as a kid to my own kids now, that the world around where we are living is changing so much and all of a sudden. The Vikings, going back to the Bronze Age, built houses here in the area, which were placed to avoid and withstand the elements and weather and things like avalanches. They survived generations and generations, but not anymore. Houses that have been standing in the same spot for a thousand years—and there are a lot in this area—get fucked up by avalanches and weather in a way they never used to. If you go a little bit more north, you have Norway’s biggest glacier, which I love to be near because the air and water is so fresh and there’s really a special feeling there. I usually go there once a year as it takes about five hours or so to drive to. You can see each year that the glacier is shrinking, bits of ice break off, fall into the sea and melt. And it’s also really dangerous now to get too close to the glacier compared to just 10 years ago. In my area, the change is obvious. For people who deny those things, it’s like, “Okay, you do that,” but you can see and feel it.
With [former vocalist] Andreas “Vintersorg” Hedlund having written lyrics exclusively for the albums he sang on, did him not being in the band pose a challenge for you in writing lyrics for True North?
I mean, it’s always a challenge to write lyrics (laughs), but I’d say yes and no. When the three of us started out on this album, we just went for it, and at that point we didn’t know what the situation with Andreas was going to be. The only thing I knew we had to have a discussion about was doing more live work because he’s not into it so much. He loves being in the studio and making albums, but playing live was never his cup of tea. He was also struggling with injuries he suffered during the recording of the previous album where he fell down, hit his head quite badly, and was in a coma for a couple of days. At that point we didn’t know if he was ever going to be awake again. But, he got back and recovered quite nicely, but he still has small problems here and there. So, when we set sail on this album, we started and when we got to the point where we had to do vocals, we had a discussion with Andreas about what we wanted to do and our plan and asked him to think about if he could or wanted to be a part of it. He wasn’t, really. So, we decided to part, but there was absolutely no bad blood. At that point, we were pretty close to being done writing the album. We had the framework ready and the ideas for lyrics ready, so it wasn’t really too much of a problem.
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Borknagar. Do you have any special shows, releases, or re-issues planned?
If you ask anyone around me, they know I’m not a big celebration guy. I like to keep things low key, but I’d say, “Kind of, yes.” (laughs) Like I said before, we want to step things up a little bit, so now we’re in the process of getting tours happening in South America and we’re working on getting something happening in the US for next summer. So, for me, that’s the best way of celebrating things—traveling around, playing music, and doing more than we had done in the past. We don’t have any plans for special shows or releases. Commercially speaking, maybe that’s a good idea, but I don’t know. When we did Winter Thrice, it was the 10th album and also 20 years since I met Kris [Kristoffer Rygg], the band’s former vocalist. I found a picture of us in a studio or something and thought that the stars had aligned and that we needed to do something special to celebrate this. And really, our way of celebrating was to do the song “Winter Thrice” with him as a guest vocalist. The celebration was more through the music, if you get my point. As a listener and fan myself, I would imagine that’s a cooler way of doing things rather than another version of the same album or something.
You’ve mentioned repeatedly the plan to play live more often. Has that been a more recent development?
Yeah, definitely. When I say we wanted to take a step up, that’s it. There are many sides to that, but back in the day, I wasn’t too eager on playing live for a number of reasons. Now, things are a little bit easier. We still will never get rich from playing music, but economically it’s easier. Also making it easier is that my kids are bigger now, so they don’t need me to babysit them anymore, and the same goes for the rest of the guys. We are in a situation now where most of us are in our early 40s and it’s easier to do it, it’s more practical and more economically stable. So, yeah, we had a plan and that was what we agreed to with this album cycle.