Interview: Kvelertak’s Erlend Hjelvik

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Norway isn’t very grim so long as Kvelertak continue churning out anthems of boozy, blackened rock ‘n’ roll. The band’s ringleader, Erlend Hjelvik, recently answered some of my questions relating to their upcoming release, Meir, and other aspects of their rise to success on the scene. The man who was once described to me by his bandmates as a “modern day pirate” explains how he’s influenced by crappy Norwegian weather, and how he knows that Kurt Ballou’s dog probably isn’t his number one fan.

— Julia Neuman

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How do you feel about your progress over the last few years? Are you surprised by the success?

Yeah, somewhat. But at the same time, we’ve been touring so much since we released the album. We’ve played at least 300 shows. We’ve just gotten a lot better at playing live and handling our instruments. So it feels deserved, I guess. (laughs)

You recently found a new home at Roadrunner. What is it about the label that sealed the deal for you?

Roadrunner’s been at us ever since we played SXSW. One of their representatives saw the show and came up to us afterwards, said they were from Roadrunner and that they were really stoked. We met them a couple times and when we played in New York with Skeletonwitch last year. They just seemed like they really wanted to do it and that’s the most important thing for us. It was the best choice in the end even though we talked to other labels.

Tell me a little bit about the creation of Meir. It seems to be a logical continuation from the first record but it also takes you in new directions. How did the album and songs come together?

It was kind of hectic because like I said earlier, we’d been touring so much for the first one that we kinda had to slow down our booking agent to make time to actually write the songs. We made two songs one year before we recorded just so we could add to the setlist, because we had to play longer and longer shows. With only one album out, that was kind of difficult to do. The rest of it was made last summer in two months. Once we started writing, it didn’t really feel like a difficult record to do.

Do you have any good stories from the recording sessions?

Not really, but I remember that Kurt’s dog took a crap in the studio room while I was doing vocals. Not sure if he was disapproving of what we did in there, but . . . (laughs).

Who in the band does most of the writing?

It’s mostly our guitarist, Bjarte. He makes most of the music. He’ll record some demos at home and bring it to the practice space and everybody just figures it out together when we hash it out. We bring different ideas to the table. Then we record demos and that’s when we figure out the vocals. Sometimes he’ll have an idea of what he wants to vocals to be like, so he has what we call “shoo-bee-doo” vocals where it’s just gibberish, but you get the general gist of it.

What are some of the lyrical themes on the new record?

This time I made a point of staying away from Norse mythology and folklore like on the first album. I just write about things that I think sound cool and make for good song lyrics. Everything from trepanning, drilling a hole in your head, to running away from your bills and the big city. And more spacy stuff like the antichrist coming out of a black hole and down to the earth, to shameless band anthems about ourselves. I just take all those ingredients and run it though the Kvelertak filter.

This was the second time working with Kurt Ballou. What was it like this time compared to the last?

It was definitely a lot easier and chilled out. The first time I just remember being super nervous the first day I was going to do the vocals and I couldn’t really get it right. We’d never been in the studio before that. So it was definitely more fun this time. We felt more confident and all the touring made everything in the studio easier. It definitely felt good.

How do you feel John Baizley’s art fits with the band’s music?

I think it fits great. He got a promo from our tour manager after we played SXSW and a festival in Holland called Eurosonic. He heard the demos and said he really wanted to do artwork for us. We’re fans of Baroness and his artwork so that was easy for us to say yes to. I just send him all the lyrics with translations so he knows what they’re about and can pick out images. He puts everything into the cover. When I saw the new cover I could recognize a lot of stuff from the lyrics. I think it’s a great match.

You’ve stuck with the same producer and album artist and you’re continuing to sing in Norwegian. Is all of this an effort to shape and solidify an identity for the band?

It’s kind of hard to answer because we might not work with the same people on the next one, but we haven’t really thought about that yet. This album just felt like it was going to be a follow-up to the first one and both Kurt and John Baizley really wanted to do it and that’s the most important thing when we work with people. That’s just the way it worked out. It’s just a continuation of the first one. That being said, nothing is written in stone on the third one. I really don’t want the band to become predictable.

What aspects of Norwegian culture, music and climate influence Kvelertak’s music?

Everything to the weather to black metal and Norwegian rock bands. Everything gets thrown into the mix. The place where I live in the southwest of Norway, I live on a coast, and even just the bad weather there gets seeped into some of the lyrics. I guess it was more of a Norwegian theme on the first album than the second. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint everything.

Are there some Norwegian bands outside of black metal that people don’t necessarily know about and have influenced you?

Definitely bands like Turbonegro and Motorpsycho, more on this new album. Bands like Silver, I don’t know if you’ve heard about them. But there’s a really good scene in Norway, a lot of good rock bands.

You have a tremendous amount of energy live. What’s your philosophy on playing shows?

Since the first time we got up on stage, it’s turned into a crazy show. We weren’t that good at playing back then so I think it was more to make up for our musical inabilities. Like the first show, I just ended up naked and rolling around on the floor in glass shards. We don’t really do that anymore though. I kind of have this mentality that people don’t have more fun than the band is having. So we just put all of our energy into it and just get really into the music. We try to be the best live band as possible.