A Full Knapsack: An Interview With Borknagar’s Øystein G. Brun
Last time we spoke with Borknagar, it was a meditation on the past. Now, mastermind Øystein G. Brun looks to the future — to the geographical True North.
“True North is a term in navigation — a constant of everything,” says Brun. “There is Polar North which changes based on the time of year and the axis of the Earth’s movement, but True North will always be True North as a constant in the whole of navigation. I find it as a title to cover the whole of our lyrical content, almost like it blankets the whole album. I like the whole sensation of direction as the lyrical content deals with — in deep ways — directions: where to go in life, how to deal with things.”
Direction is what has always moved Borknagar, a band with a clear trajectory from the first notes on The Olden Domain (lest we forget their more blackened debut), an album Brun consistently looks to for inspiration. This time, however, he looks further back. “[When] you look at the first song on the debut and the first song on True North, they are definitely not similar songs in a sense due to different productions, one is twice as old, et cetera, but there are riffs in each which have the same feel, the way they flow… and that is intentional. I love that.”
Whether it is the past or the future which guides Brun, True North shows Borknagar remaining steadfast, true to the sound they pioneered almost twenty-five years ago. The balanced mixture of progressive rock, black metal, and folk metal is a recipe perfected early in their discography and has no need for any flashy updates or new ingredients.
True to form, Borknagar looks to the past with their new lineup, a flashback to earlier times. When Andreas “Vintersorg” Hedlund left the band earlier this year, bassist and former lead vocalist Simen “ICS Vortex” Hestnæs stepped up, returning to his post after a nineteen year break, and he fits beautifully.
“He wanted to catch the old spirit of the music somehow,” says Brun, and the old spirit is brought back anew. It is 1997 again, and Borknagar remain kings. Read the full interview with Øystein G. Brun below.
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It’s always exciting when there’s a new Borknagar album. I wanted to talk about the title True North which is quite a conceit — I was wondering if you could talk a little about that.
Yeah! Good question — you know, we had a long process on the album and we put a lot of heart and soul into the music, the lyrics, and stuff like that. This time around we kind of worked with different dynamics. I mean, the title is kind of the last bit of the puzzle — we had a lot of discussion about it. It was actually Simen’s (ICS Vortex) idea to have this True North title. First we thought it was a little too cocky in a sense, but it has a meaning in navigation. IT gives you a sense of direction and orientation. The Vikings back in the day, if they were lost at sea, they knew where North was by the Polar Star, West, and so on. When I was a kid, I knew if I got lost in the woods, I knew to look to the Polar Star and then would know where to go.
True North is a term in navigation — a constant of everything. There is Polar North which changes based on the time of year and the axis of the Earth’s movement, but True North will always be True North as a constant in the whole of navigation. I find it as a title to cover the whole of our lyrical content, almost like it blankets the whole album. I like the whole sensation of direction as the lyrical content deals with — in deep ways — directions: where to go in life, how to deal with things and stuff like that.
Let’s say the song “Tidal” — it actually deals with moose. I was very inspired by a documentary about moose in Scandinavia. They have been there since the Ice Age, like 12-13,000 years. There was a period, because of different reasons, the moose died out for 2,000 years. Even though the moose left the surface of Scandinavia for a good two thousand years, when they came back they started to wander the same exact route as they had always wandered. Even though the climate changed, water levels changed, and so on, the environment… still, the moose walked the same. For me, that’s what’s truly ideal. The scientists in this documentary don’t know why, but a fact is a fact: the moose walk the same route to this day.
That is an interesting concept, because it transfers back to people, humans. I have a son and I see it in him — things I have never told him or qualities in myself that I wanted him to have, and they appear in him. Why? Probably something genetic in a way, but it is interesting. A little bit of an explanation as to why the True North title: it is about direction, it is about life. Why do you go left, right? Not literally, of course, but in life.
You talk about direction, obviously the band moved in a new direction very recently. There is a lot of change. Simen took over vocals after Andreas [Vintersorg] left. Since then, there is a new drummer, a new guitarist. Did change influence how this album moved?
The band is always moving — we take a step in whatever direction the path leads us. But the changes were natural, in a sense. I knew these changes were coming. When it came to Baard, the previous drummer — amazing guy, amazing drummer, one of the best drummers in the world if not already so — but we knew it was time, he’s basically occupied with drum festivals.
And kind of kind of the same thing with Andreas. He is still one of my best friends, my brother in music — we’ve worked together for years, we will likely do another Cronian album for example. As far as his position in the band, we wanted to move in one direction and he wasn’t able to. Partly due to his very serious injuries and losing hearing in one ear — it is not optimal onstage. Doing live shows has never really been his cup of tea, in a sense. The third reason is that he has a high-end job as an educator and has a responsibility for the whole North of Sweden for education for kids when it comes to programming. He has developed different educational programs and lessons and stuff like that. He wasn’t up for the band we had in front of us. It is sad to see friends go, but, on the other hand, we will always be open publicly as well as in the band: I have goals for the band to progress, and nothing is going to stop me. Even if I have to sit alone on a chair in a pub somewhere and play… I am kind of stubborn on that part. It is not about being cynical — I’ve just always had a plan about music. I am not stopping everything, of course, because… whatever reason, really.
If anything changed, I would face it. Jostein is an amazing guitarist, of course, and Bjørn is an amazing drummer. We just met in September and had a few sessions and they went amazing. The new guys played songs better than the old guys. I actually had to ask Jostein how to play certain riffs [laughs]. They were really prepared, really professional. They were hungry to do this, and they have proven over the months of live shows that they are really prepared. Money aside, live, touring aside, it’s all about the music. It has been really interesting for me to work with them. I am very happy.
I brought up Simen — it had been almost twenty years since he was the lead vocalist for Borknagar. What was it like seeing him shift from backing vocals to that lead position again? Was it like old times or were there new experiences?
That is something we’ve been working on for a long time. As you know or have read, we did some live shows and touring with Pål from Susperia, or ex-Susperia, on vocals. That was to help get the band going, in a sense, because Simen had been talking for a long time to do “grim” vocals, but he didn’t want to do them on album or on stage without it being right. He wanted to catch the old spirit of the music somehow. Grim vocals, I would say, though all types of vocals but especially grim vocals, you have to really deliver. Halfway done grim vocals sound horrible. You have to feel it, you have to feel the nerve in it. Simen had a lot of time to get back to where he is because he hadn’t been singing really for some years, maybe a scream or there, but he hasn’t really been doing very much. We were prepared, kind of cocky about the whole thing.
We were in the studio for three or four days, intensely working 24/7. He was essentially screaming his guts out. I think he delivered on the new album. In lack of a better word, it is passionate, it is angry, emotional, angry. I love it. So yeah, it was quite a long process, actually. For us, or for Simen, he didn’t just want to scream, he wanted to get back to a live scream. It’s serious stuff.
Yeah, that takes a lot of effort, especially to get back to that point after so many years.
It does! And I mean, what he does on the album in terms of clean and grim vocals is quite intense. So, I’m kind of excited about how it will work live. I think it will work okay, especially since he is so focused and professional, especially when he does his warm-ups. It is tough work to do those type of vocals. It is not an easy job, and he is brilliant, man.
It definitely shows. You use the word “intense”, and I think intensity definitely defines True North. When I think of Winter Thrice, I think of a more romantic depiction of Winter, but this really has the ferocity you look for with black metal especially. I think of this equally as a black metal album as it is progressive. Do you feel the same way?
Yes, in a sense. That was also the intent. On Winter Thrice I had an idea — I don’t want to copy and paste myself, but I try to tie some knots between albums to make “red lines” through the whole discography. “Winter Thrice” is a phrase from The Olden Domain: “Autumn Twice, Winter Thrice” or something like that. I love those things, I love operating in that old world, I want to use old ideas — not copied and pasted, of course — but what made that, what fueled that lyrical idea back then. Maybe I should elaborate on that. I’m twice as old now, maybe I should at least use this idea. I love doing that. Winter Thrice, I was looking back to The Olden Domain on that one when writing music. Again, not copying and pasting, but what made that album special and trying to capture some of that magic. With the new album, I did pretty much the same thing with the debut album — when you look at the first song on the debut and the first song on True North, they are definitely not similar songs in a sense due to different productions, one is twice as old, et cetera, but there are riffs in each which have the same feel, the way they flow… and that is intentional. I love that stuff.
And when it comes to the cover, we wanted to get back to the organic — and that is true for both the cover on the debut and the cover for True North. You can go there and see these places. There is a place in Northern Norway, you can go and see that mountain. I guess it’s kind of an idea I had about music — the further I progress and go with music and push myself and the band and everything, the deeper I have to dig into my [laughs] childhood, or youth. I have to look back. It’s like a knapsack: the further you walk up the mountain, the more you need in your knapsack. You’re older, you have more experience in a deeper sense. I need to dig deeper. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, essentially, and I am very protective about it and treat it as my engine — it is sacred. What I put into it — I’ve essentially had no social life for the past half year. It’s challenged a lot. So why do I do it? I have to find this fire that burns for me to do this. It’s a damned lot of work — for the new album I worked 24/7 for six months. It’s crazy, but I protect it. I have always been very honest about my music, what you see is what you get. People have commented on Winter Thrice and True North and it is true honesty. I want to get as close to the listener as possible. There is no big hype or record label telling us what to do or a producer telling me how to write a song. It is all me, and I will protect my music. Call it my friend. It’s…you have to sometimes be a bit cocky and protect it. Sometimes I say no to things because I don’t think it’s right, even if there is a lot of money involved. No, fuck that. Be real. What the listener listens to and buys has to be honest — it will always be my golden mission in a sense.
There is a lot of passion there — I really appreciate that, especially given how long I’ve been listening to your music. It’s nice to hear there are no holds barred and it is all of you in this music
That is something I am really real and honest about — what I’m doing. It’s easy to be caught up in the commercial thing to sell records and fame and fortune. I’ve never been into it for that, but there really isn’t fame and fortune in this, come on. For me it’s always been passion, though there is probably a better word. I’ve always cherished and protected it. I think that you can do all kinds of illustration and calculations in a commercial sense, but I think at the end of the day the good music, the really good music, it’s about what feels right. If it doesn’t feel right, then that’s wrong anyway. I’ve always believed in genuine shit. If it’s punk rock, hip-hop, so long as it’s real and genuine in a sense.
Is this something you’ve felt across Borknagar’s 24 years or is this something you’ve discovered?
I’ve had pretty much the same approach across it. I’ve been in this business so long, I’ve seen people come and people go, bands come and bands go. It’s all about making the music I love, the music I’d listen to. I’ve been clinging onto that idea. That is what I want to do — don’t come in and try to coerce me into doing something else or change my style. That will fuck up my whole passion for the music. It wouldn’t stop me, but it would affect it. I’ve had this idea since day one. When I started the band I just played around with my acoustic guitar, I had this idea. I wanted my own musical bubble, my own musical universe. There were a few bands around, but I wanted my own. I love how my friends had their own musical globes around them. The music, the cover art. You have a whole story. You make a whole package, a universe. At the same time, I’m making my own universe independently. I wanted a name which doesn’t define me or doesn’t bind me to something — I could do whatever I wanted. I wanted a name like Yes or Genesis. There are a lot of bands who have names which limit their creativity or can their creativity because they are so bound to death metal or black metal, whatever. I wanted to avoid it, because to me the idea of the free spirit is so important to me. I still have the same idea as I did back then, but it is more refined now. I’m twice as old, after all, so I’ve expanded and added more to it to make it more convincing. I’ve made my own world now, and the basic idea has followed me the whole way.
For me, and in each album, I would want each to contain everything from my whole musical history up to that point. Try to bring the whole knapsack that I bring on this journey. I want to climb another mountain, in a sense. I have a big knapsack [laughs]. That’s why when you listen to True North, you will find a lot of new stuff, but also everything else we’ve ever done. Not a specific lyric or drum beat, but you will find pieces of the old days. It is a long album, it is a lot of variation, work, ups and downs, different songs. We are getting older and making new albums is getting much more complicated, so the fight gets tougher and tougher in a sense. There is so much you have to put into a new record. I am 44 now and… yeah. It’s all complicated, but it is a huge passion I have in life and I have to draw the line. My wife, for example, will find me having a bad day and say “hey, come on. Take your feelings as make a song.” And it works! I’ve been doing this, and some days it might be a pain in the ass. The whole thing. I could just lean back. I have a house, I have a family. I have a good life. I can just take it easy… but to thrive, to live, I have to make music. It’s kind of a double thing. But I would say at the end of the day it is about the probability of life and the probability of death. In my point of view it is about the passion of music and, of course, touring, and making friends, and so on. At the end of the whole story I’m rambling about, I do this because I love doing it.
You started the band in 1995, so it’s been around for a long time at this point: what is the most important lesson you’ve learned over the years
Good question, good question. Like I said, my knapsack is big now. I’ve done a lot of wrongs. One thing I’ve learned while working with young people — mixing and mastering their works — one thing I’ve learned in the music business: you have to be passionate. You have to love what you do, of course, but you have to be willing to sacrifice and walk the extra mile. That is the main difference. People come and people go, bands come and bands go. The difference between those who make it in the long run are those who put in the extra effort and those who walk the extra mile. You have to work one more hour, one more night just to get it to where you want. I think that’s what I’ve learned with doing music — you have to push yourself a little further, maybe a little further than everyone else.
True North releases September 27th via Century Media Records.