For the bands to come out of the early 90's Norwegian black metal fray, it is a surprise to no one that Enslaved has not only lasted 20 years, but has been the most stable. Without the jail-time, band member infamy, and media scrutiny of their contemporaries, Enslaved has been able to focus on the music, effortlessly transitioning out of their Viking era into the progressive, spacey metal outfit they are today. Since 2004's excellent Isa, Ensalved has been on a hot streak that is nowhere near burning out, with last year's Axioma Ethica Odini further elevating the band's career, all the while giving us another dose of expertly-crafted Norwegian metal.
As part of their 20th anniversary celebration, the band recently embarked on their first headlining jaunt in North America with the very-mighty Alcest and Junius in tow. Blistering was able to track down founding member/guitarist/primary songwriter Ivar Bjornson for a backstage chat, focusing on the tour, the previous 20 years, and what's next for a band that is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down...
Blistering.com: This is your 20th anniversary tour and the first time you’ve headlined the States. Any nerves that come along with it?
Ivar Bjornson: No, not nervous. It’s cool to be able to play a longer set, that’s the main thing. These days, you never know how things will work with turnout and everyone is on the road all the time…good live bands and bad live bands and reunion bands, or whatever. For us, we do some stuff beside the band, so it’s not out of necessity that we tour. We’re a bit picky. It has to be the right time and the right gig, but we’ve been really lucky with support tours. Opeth was natural, but Dimmu [Borgir] was a little weird. We’ve tricked a lot of kids into black metal for Enslaved, so we figured we’d trick those kids back into the 70’s [laughs].
Blistering.com: You’ve done so much hard work from the last three albums. At the end of the 90’s, you came over a few times but weren’t at the level you are now. Do you think a tour like this is the result of all the work you’ve put in?
Bjornson: It is the benefit of a long, steady process. We’re not exactly an overnight sensation. People don’t know us from song or one album. We have a lot of fun with that on the Facebook page, people being into so many different eras. We keep on being surprised and astonished of the combinations sometimes that people have three favorite albums…that’s really cool. I’d like to think the majority of people that go to the shows like the majority of the songs.
Blistering.com: Compare touring now, to when you first came over in the mid-90’s.
Bjornson: It was 1995. It was a bit crazy and for once, our relationship to alcohol was like then, we had to use it as a painkiller, to use it as a pain medication [laughs]. Now, we can have recreational use of it. I remember one stretch we were driving around in a van that had only three seats, so two drivers and the guy doing the backline for the tour. So it was the three of us in the back with the gear. The window and the hatch didn’t open and it was a heat wave, people were dying in Texas. There were signs on the highway like, “Don’t leave your car.” It was so hot. We bought vodka and tried to consume it and stay awake before the gigs.
Blistering.com: With the setlist, you have to have a tough time with it. Does everyone come in with their favorites and you pick from there?
Bjornson: First we take the safe ones, like the ones that all five think we have to do, like “Isa” or stuff from the new one. We try to be democratic. Then we try to represent everything. A few years back we focused on the Eld era, then we did the entire album at festivals in 2006, so now we don’t have to do that. Then we talked about introducing some new stuff like stuff off The Sleeping Gods EP since it was released only for the States. We do try to keep a finger on the pulse like on our Facebook. If you asked people on the Facebook, you’ll get a list of all our songs [laughs]. We’ve been surprised and I’m happy to say that some of the songs we’ve included have come from there. That would be boring if people felt if the set-list came entirely from ourselves.
Blistering.com: We’re about a year removed Axioma and it did really well in terms of critical reception. How does it stack up next to Vertebrae?
Bjornson: It’s definitely more or less hand-in-hand with Vertebrae. It’s much heavier in the sense, but Vertebrae made sense when it came. When Axioma came out, it made Vertebrae seem even more introverted and mellow. The whole thing of Vertebrae coming before it, made Axioma more brutal. I think it’s hardest album we’ve done.
Blistering.com: Back to the 20 years thing. You’ve been through a lot, including the drama in the early 90’s surrounding the Norwegian scene, so have you done a lot of looking back?
Bjornson: Yeah, nostalgia is a good thing. We’re not sentimental, but we’re definitely nostalgic. It can be inspiring to go back and listen to your old stuff. Axioma was inspired by some of the old songwriting techniques we had. Sometimes just doing it…going from one part of the song to another, you like to get complicated because you can. Then you listen to the old stuff, we stopped with one guitar and got back in. And it works.
Blistering.com: Any plans for special shows in Norway to celebrate this?
Bjornson: Yeah, we have something planned for late November. What it looks like now, we’re going to a concert for the kids in Bergen, like free admittance. We’re going to start off with that, doing a short set. We have some friends who are going at baking cake who are working on a Viking ship cake [laughs]. They’re working on a clever way to construct one.
Blistering.com: Have you already started to think about the next album?
Bjornson: Oh yeah, we have 20 minutes already. It sounds like it’s going to be an extension from Axioma, but may not be as hard. There are certain forces in the band that…that like a lot of the weirdness that came to the surface with the 70’s prog stuff. Not mentioning any names like some certain old singers [referring to singer/bass player Grutle Kjellson] that keep getting more and more into obscure middle-Eastern prog. Then you have Herbrand [Larsen, keyboards], the clean singer, who likes his stuff to be accessible.
Blistering.com: And you have to appease all of them.
Bjornson: [laughs] I think on the surface, I think I do everything free-willed, but I do wish to have the band function and like to play the songs. I do notice that our songs are written more and more specific singers and instrumentalists.
Blistering.com: I think that’s something we’ve talked about before, that you’ll write something, give it to the guys and let them put their own stamp on it. That has to be a challenge since you have no idea what they’re going to come up with.
Bjornson: Absolutely. The best thing is when the opposite happens.
Blistering.com: Are you going to lock yourself in a cabin in the woods again to write the album?
Bjornson: Oh yeah, that’s already happened. The songwriting started this summer with exactly that, with a couple weeks in the Swedish forest. I would have done it in Norway, but the phone communications are too well-built, there’s a phone connection everywhere. You have to go the Swedish countryside now.