INTERVIEW WITH ERLEND HJELVIK BY KEVIN STEWART-PANKO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY TOM LUND
Erlend Hjelvik first came into the public eye in 2007 as the energetic frontman of Norwegian blackened hardcore punk act Kvelertak. The band quickly and surprisingly conquered their homeland before spreading their reach throughout the world over the course of the three critically lauded, fan favorite, peer respected, and owl obsessed albums.
In 2018, Hjelvik quietly cut ties with the band he was a co-founding member of and after a spell of downtime has returned with Welcome to Hel, the debut album by his eponymously named project. To say Erlend cut ties with Kvelertak is a bit of an understatement, though. Throughout his time spent under the Outburn spotlight, he reluctantly mentioned his previous outfit, mostly choosing to refer to them as “my old/former band” when forced into a corner, and shied away from discussing why he left in the first place. In all honesty, however, a large part of why we’re talking about Hjelvik—the band and the man—is because of that former band.
Kvelertak provided Erlend the confidence to delve into a solo project, and the caustic shriek of his vocals is instantly recognizable and powerfully incendiary, even if his voice is standing front and center before a more traditionally heavy metal sound swimming in Viking themes and references. Try as one might, it’s difficult to deny your past even as you’re making bold steps forward.
Help me out with the timeline here. You left Kvelertak in 2018, but did you leave without a plan?
Yeah, I left in the late summer of 2018 and I left without a plan. The solo thing had been a fantasy I had in the back of my head for probably five years, but I didn’t have any clear plans when I left my old band. After I left, I took a couple of months off where I decompressed and didn’t do anything, really. I did some work on the house and listened to music. Then, I started getting inspired again and started writing music in early 2019. About six months later, I had written the entire album.
If you had the idea for a solo project for that long, is what you had in mind similar to what ultimately turned out?
I didn’t have it fleshed out in my mind and I didn’t think I’d be writing everything myself, so that was a pleasant surprise for myself that I was able to do that. I didn’t know I would call it Hjelvik either. I just had it in the back of my mind that it would be cool to do something on my own at some point. I just didn’t know how, so I’m happy with how it shaped up.
“I JUST HAD IT IN THE BACK OF MY MIND THAT IT WOULD BE COOL TO DO SOMETHING ON MY OWN AT SOME POINT.”
I’m not sure what your contributions in Kvelertak were like, but was writing songs by yourself something that was completely new to you?
Yeah, I’ve been a part of writing songs, but I’d never really written music totally by myself. It was mostly collaborative, except for the lyrics and vocals, which I would do on my own. But I can say I was present for a lot of the songwriting in Kvelertak, so it’s not like I didn’t know what to do. But I would say this was the first time in a long time I was writing everything by myself.
Was it difficult?
No, it was surprisingly easy once I got over the barrier of learning how to record stuff using recording software. After I got past that barrier, I started writing. The first song I wrote that I was happy with was “Kveldulv,” which is the eighth song on the album. Then, I wrote another one, “North Tsar,” which I was also really happy with, and that’s probably when I figured out I could write the whole album myself. It was a lot of fun and I liked how it turned out.
“I FIGURED OUT I COULD WRITE THE WHOLE ALBUM MYSELF. IT WAS A LOT OF FUN”
Are the people who are in the band now the same people who were part of the recording process?
Yeah, I pretty much had the whole album done before I got in touch with anyone. The first guy I got in touch with was Rob Steinway. I sent him the demos I had so he could send them back to me with the “proper” guitar playing, I guess you’d call it, because my skills are a little limited when it comes to guitar playing. We sent emails back and forth and got things fleshed out before hitting the studio. The drums were done the same way. Then, we met up in the studio and just practiced for two days to figure out the tempos and stuff like that before recording. We recorded the whole thing in three weeks.
Did bringing the other guys on board make a huge difference? How elevated is the album in comparison to the demos?
I wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference and it’s not like they wrote anything. It’s all the same music. I did the demos with rudimentary drums, bass, and guitar, but I did have it all figured out.
“TWO GUYS IN THE BAND ARE FRENCH AND WE JUST HAD A NORWEGIAN JOIN THE BAND, SO IT’S AN INTERNATIONAL GROUP.”
How did you end up recording in Portland?
My wife is American and we have a place close to Portland, so that’s the main reason I chose to record there and I wanted someone from the area. I knew about Rob from his band Skelator, which I like. They’re like an 80s heavy metal band, so that’s how I found him and luckily he was on board straight away. Two guys in the band are French and we just had a Norwegian join the band, so it’s an international group.
How much time do you spend in Norway versus the US? Are you a part-time American citizen these days?
No, but we’re planning on moving there. Obviously, there are a lot of things going on in the world that are getting in the way of that these days (laughs). We’re staying in Norway now because it’s convenient for rolling out the band and the music, and we have some things to take care of here as well, but at some point in the future we’ll relocate to America.
Was it always your intent to use the Viking theme for the project from the start?
It’s been something that’s always been fascinating to me, especially when it comes to writing metal lyrics. I wrote about Norse mythology and used the imagery a lot on the first Kvelertak album and a couple of songs after on the other albums, but it was more on a superficial level. Over the last couple of years my interest has been reignited in it and I’ve been diving a lot more into books and reading and getting inspired to write lyrics. I can definitely say I’m more knowledgeable now than I was in my early 20s when writing Norse mythology lyrics. It’s also a nice challenge for me to write in English because it’s not like everything is easily translatable. It forces you to think about things from a different perspective and sometimes that brings up good ideas too.
“I’VE BEEN DIVING A LOT MORE INTO BOOKS AND READING AND GETTING INSPIRED TO WRITE LYRICS. I CAN DEFINITELY SAY I’M MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE NOW”
But the most important question that needs to be asked is whether or not Hjelvik will be making use of owl imagery?
(laughs) No, I’m finished with the owls (laughs). The owls served their purpose when I was in my old band and I was wearing a stuffed owl on my head for many years. It’s time to move on to something new.
Your bio says something about plans for an elaborate stage show. Obviously, that hasn’t happened yet, but what do you have planned and what’s part of your vision?
I just want to deliver a really classic heavy metal show, like something you might see in the 80s. That’s my ultimate vision. I’d like to have lots of pyro and smoke and that kind of stuff. I just want to deliver really memorable shows.
How did you end up hooking up with Nuclear Blast?
They came into the picture a little while after the album was recorded. We recorded it in September and October last year, and it was finished mixing and mastering around the end of the year. We talked to Nuclear Blast earlier this year and then the Coronavirus happened while we were talking to them, so it made everything take longer. But I’m happy with the way things turned out though. I would have been bummed out if I put the album out earlier this year and then the pandemic hit and we weren’t able to do anything. I feel pretty good about having a late release date this year, and hopefully the gap between the album dropping and being able to play shows won’t be too big.
Having recorded the album before being signed to a label, did you have a plan before Nuclear Blast came into the picture?
The plan was to always sign with a big label. Nuclear Blast was on top of the list and luckily they were into doing it.
“IT FEELS A LOT BETTER BEING IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT. YOU DO THINGS THE WAY YOU WANT TO”
Having done the band thing with Kvelertak and now your solo project, what have been the differences and what’s been easy or difficult?
I wouldn’t say anything has been difficult. For me, it was a lot more difficult being in a band where you don’t have total control and you’re just going with the current. It feels a lot better being in the driver’s seat. You do things the way you want to, and if there’s a mistake, then you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself, which I also think is a good thing. So, it’s been great. It was different recording the album. Before, I would only come in to do my vocal parts and wouldn’t really be around for the rest. I like being there from start to finish, even though it’s a lot more work. I’m a lot happier deciding things and I feel good about the outcome doing things this way.
Was it difficult to organize and pull off the video you did for “North Tsar”?
The scariest thing about that was ordering plane tickets because we shot it in Poland. We did the video back in June and Norway was locked down for a while, and when we flew out from Norway, it was the first day they had opened up the borders. We were actually on the first international flight coming into Poland and there was a Polish news team filming when we landed there, which was kind of weird (laughs). Other than that, there weren’t any problems shooting the video.
With all the time on your hands and no touring or live shows, how have you been spending your lockdown time?
I haven’t really noticed there has been a lockdown just because there’s so much to do from home. Well, I guess if there wasn’t a lockdown, things would be different in terms of promoting this. I’d probably be flying somewhere to do interviews, so not being able to do that kind of sucks, and also not being able to tour right away. It’s like a blessing and a curse because we get more time to focus on putting out the release well, and it would be stressful if we had to focus on touring in the midst of all this. We had to do everything from scratch. It’s a new band and it takes time to get everything together. So, it actually feels good to get to do it in stages. Now, I can get the music out and we’re going to build a practice space in the basement of my house, which is the next big project. We’ll get that set up and focus on touring after that.