From Metal to Mental: An Interview With Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg (Ulver)
An interview might turn out to be an adventure, even more when you’re dealing with a band that you’ve been following for decades now. While you yourself were growing out of the old clothes, that band was heading towards new shores as well.
Originally a black metal band, Ulver rarely play live, but continue to make genre-defying experimental albums with regularity. The Norwegians have always been following their eponym’s call: as wolves roaming through the forests of meaning, never be pigeonholed for what they are striving to do.
In January they released ATGCLVLSSCAP, an album comprised in pert of improvised interpretations of their older material. Vocalist Kristoffer “Garm” Rygg opened up about that record and the entire history of Ulver for us.
Let’s start with your new album, ATGCLVLSSCAP: I attended the tour in February 2014 and was quite confused when you played these very new songs which would end up on the new album now in the year 2016. The only song I could recognize was the version of “Nowhere / Catastrophe.” What prompted you to play very new songs which were not known to the listeners up to then?
We just had to get out and do these things, for ourselves primarily. To get away, literally and figuratively. And the album is basically the result of going through everything that happened afterward and sort of taking the best bits and pieces and honing them. We did have it in our minds that it would be a nice way to make an album, of course, just to record all these different gigs and then reconstruct it more as a studio album later. Obviously we knew when we went out on tour, that it was an experimental and kind of risky thing to do. And we were also conscious of the fact that some people would be confused by it. But it had to be done in order for this album to be born, I would say, and a few other reasons as well. But it feels good to get this album out because it kind of shows there was a bigger plan with it from the start.
It’s like the other way round: several bands go out and play songs to test them before audiences.
That would be the conventional way of doing it, yes. But we’re a bit backwards. I know a lot of people who think like that, and I can understand why. Obviously we don’t want to disappoint our faithful fans or anything, but it is important that things be interesting for us as well. We played the old songs on previous tours and such, and I guess we all felt we’d done it enough and it was time for something that would be a challenge to ourselves as well as maybe the audience. With the added sort of pressure on us to do it in front of people, that would force us to bring our best game and charge the music in a way couldn’t have happened in the studio. Some gigs were great, others weren’t that great. But that’s the nature of this kind of music. It might be unconventional, particularly in a “rock” context, but to us it felt like the only thing we could do that would feel genuine by then, in a way. We now find ourselves again in the situation of getting several offers to play live, but we turn them all down simply because we have not yet formed an idea of what do to next. We don’t really feel that we have anything to present. So we need to get back into the studio and see if not ideas can be born from that and first then can we bring them out on the road and present them on stage again. We approach the live thing quite the same way as we approach our studio albums to be honest, with a kind of curiosity and an open mind to the atmosphere of the given context – the situation of being there in itself. I guess we simply don’t want Ulver to turn into a karaoke party.
Since you’ve been a studio band for so long, meditations on the method how you would put your more electronic songs on stage, always were to be taken in consideration as well?
True. Which was also what we did on our first tours, 2009 and 2010. That was a set that was sort of looking back at music we’ve made over the last 15 years. That was absolutely great, and we played some amazing venues and places with it, but we couldn’t do this forever you know. We had to do something else eventually. And then we made the Wars of the Roses album. We went out to play that stuff in early 2011, before it hit the shops. Maybe this was also a bit controversial, simply because people didn’t really know the songs. But we felt it was the only natural thing to do, for us, having worked with that album in the time leading up to the tour. It was what was in our blood then, so to speak.
Do you think that Ulver has over the years turned into a band of meanings?
Well, everything has meaning, the things people do, to a larger or lesser extent (laughs). But yes, I’d say we’ve always had a purpose beyond the mere making of music. It’s obviously for the people but in the end it’s equally as much for us. In many ways I see our albums almost as books or novels, they will be there long after we are gone and we will be judged by them, you know.
As for the internal process as a group and the group dynamic there has to be a sense of purpose as well – a reason for us to do it. You know, we didn’t play live for a long time – we approached studio work differently from other people, we approached label and music business and general promotional work, how we presented ourselves quite differently. We’ve always gone about stuff our own way. And we’ve been doing it this way for so long now, so we cannot just start playing by regular music industry standards and public demand. It’s not for us.
The new album is mostly instrumental so I was thinking how hard it was to find song titles for it?
Actually, this time it was fairly simple. Most of these titles were the working titles we had on the road. “Glammer Hammer” for instance was our tour-lingo for “Glamour Box,” as the song with this particular line-up was quite drum-heavy. Hard-hitting. “Moody Stix” is just a rearrangement of “Doom Sticks.”
When writing about bands as yours and others as well, music journalists tend to find a sense in the creations they are to write about, resort to metaphors and then the meaning might …
. . . get lost? Well, that’s just great. Music becoming myth, you know. We do the same. We’re enjoy going allegorical or anagrammatic. It might take some time or effort to see things the first time. But there will always be small things, allusions, hidden beneath what we do. I think most good artists suggest things, I would say. You have to read between the lines. If it’s too obvious or literal, then it’s often something else, it is blatant pop music. That’s not what we’re doing, I think (laughs).
There is the fascination with some groups with forests or so-called untouched nature. The thing is there is no untouched nature on planet Earth. It’s already contextualized in a way.
Exactly. Nature is everything. The city is nature. It’s a zoo actually (laughs). We are nature, humans are nature, we are all animals. Nature informs us and we in turn inform nature. Everything informs everything.
When you mention the urban space, your album Perdition City leaned into this field. It featured cold and precise beats. Yet now with your new album, you ventured more into krautrockish sounds.
You’re not the first to point this out. What can I say about that? There’s been a fair bit of listening to music from that era within the band, the sort of early ’70s German music, synthesized or otherwise, krautrock. Kraftwerk, Can, Neu!, Amon Düül, they are bands we’ve been listening to for a long time. We’re not really trying to copy them but tap into that vibe somehow. I guess it’s more in the way those bands actually played. A lot of this is based on repetition, you know, and the music of those bands is quite repetitive, it’s this ‘dadüdadüdada’ thing that just goes on and on. We sort of stole that, definitely.
On the other hand, you throw in some of your influences as well, the more epic sounds.
Yes it’s stealing from and referencing our own catalogue as well actually. We’re toying about with our own music, or pieces from it, old samples that Tore [Ylwizaker, keyboards] had on his Mac and stuff, you know, which was suitable to jam on top of. So it’s a rather playful thing, nodding in a few different musical directions. It’s grown naturally because it is born in a situation where we were using a more organic instrumental rock music set-up and just locking into a groove or a simple theme or such. Such a setting doesn’t really allow for intricate electronic arrangements à la Blood Inside for instance. You cannot improvise this kind of very studio-construed album. Too many shifts and breaks and odd time-signatures. That’s the reason why this music came out like this. More droney, more mantra, more groove. It might be quite pragmatic explanations as to why it turned out sounding krautrock after all.
So you didn’t put too much symbolism in these tunes?
I wouldn’t say it is not tapping into heavy things or feelings. Take Side C for instance, which is actually alluding to events of the Second World War, but in other parts it is quite soaring, free . . . transcendent, to use a rather pretentious word. We didn’t revolve around words so much with this, but in a song like Ecclesiastes there are some quite big melancholic truths we are sort of dropping. So there is a solemn aspect to it, which is kind of unavoidable with us (laughs). We didn’t try not to convey any serious subject matter, if that’s what you are asking, but primarily this one is about music of course. The ecstasy of just playing together, as a group. This album’s a bit like Zen to us, I guess.
Do you think it is essential to have attended the tour back in 2014 to fully appreciate the music on the album?
Not at all, but it might add to the listening. You might see better where it comes from. But in many ways, this album is probably more for the ones who weren’t there.
Now for something slightly different: Could you imagine tapping into soul music as well? I am asking because I heard the Prince cover version you once did, and considering the musical styles you’ve already come across, it might be possible?
As a singer, I could. I don’t really see the other guys getting into that though, so no soul music. It’s a broad genre though, soul music, isn’t it? Any music has got soul in it, so to speak. Except maybe Rammstein. However, I don’t see us making a soul album anytime soon. The Prince cover version we did was actually done more as a favor. I remember Prince from growing up in the eighties, of course. He’s an artist I respect, but I’ve never had a big personal affinity to this music. We sort of took the soul of his tune and made a darker, a more gothic version of Prince.
Do you think that you turned more into a mental band? From metal to mental. I’m not saying a crazy band but more reflexive to the core.
That’s a good heading man, you should use that. Actually, I was just up the mountains this weekend to write lyrics with Jørn [H. Sværen, multi-instrumentalist]. We want to write the lyrics before we write the music for the next album. It’s part of this thinking that it would be interesting to layer the music around the voice and words rather than the other way round. I guess, that goes a long way of verifying what you asked about. We often do put the mental imagery – the thématique – before the form of the music. Sometimes we don’t. But it is an important aspect to us. Sometimes it is more important than the music itself, definitely. But it depends. This new album is obviously very musically-driven. For me, I have a foot in each camp: sitting in the studio and just talking about sound and technologies, tubes and tapes, reverbs and compressors and such. The other half is really books, googling and writing and thinking.
You quoted some poets on your former releases.
Yes, I appreciate a good source.
Having myself grown up on metal sounds, it still builds an integral part of how I perceive musical worlds. So the question if you ever missed the harsh sound from your past in today’s Ulver sound, is important, at least for me. Have you missed these harsh sounds?
No. I know a lot of people will disagree with me on this one but I think our best work is by far after we left metal behind. I’m quite confident that history will prove that in a way. I obviously acknowledge that the metal records we made as youngsters have a great affinity or personal value for people who also grew up with them. And it does the same for me. I’ll turn nostalgic from time to time and go down to my basement to dig out the old demo tapes, you know. They sound absolutely rubbish but they hold such strong affinity with me because they are synonymous with my memories of youth. Dark mysterious times. I guess that’s a purpose music generally serves. It connects you to who you are and our memories and such, and it actually makes it pretty damn difficult being objective about it.
However, I don’t miss screaming my guts out. If I miss the old days, I’ll put on some old metal music, like any other fan. It’s not really what I want to do artistically with music anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time, truth be told. I feel very proud of those albums though, that has to be said. Every time I put on Nattens Madrigal, I think: “Holy fuck! Did I make this?” This is some gnarly stuff. But it’s also part of something – and someone – I was a long time ago. It’s important to keep in mind that life is a journey. On this journey a lot of people and things change. The more conventional thing would be to start a new band, find new people and change the name. Go for a new identity, as people do. I simply decided to stick with the name. Sort of growing up in public, almost.
You printed a similar statement on your Metamorphosis EP.
That’s true. Around that time, it was sort of irking us much more how we were perceived. It was very difficult for us to see that an album like that, which turned into pure electronic music was still being put into the metal shelves (laughs). It was not very easy for us to cross-over. People put it on and went like “WTF, where’s my metal!” But I guess if you don’t play by the common music industry standards you’ll meet some challenges.
Some other bands like Katatonia or Anathema who left the metal music circuit, faced similar difficulties. Mostly they attracted metal fans to their concerts and were still marketed in a metal context.
It’s a hard shackle to break (laughs). I actually had this conversation with the Anathema guys when they were here, like a year ago. We talked a bit about this actually. They don’t feel like they are a metal band anymore, but they are still largely categorized as metal, and sort of marketed in a metal context. I don’t think we are equally as much as the bands you mention, but yeah, I can relate to their frustration. It’s just general society, you know, that has this need to put things in boxes. When you start to think outside the box, it’s a problem. One cannot get too desperate about it though, because then it gets too apparent, like “oh, so these guys want to become post-rock stars now.” My attitude is, we just keep on trucking and do our thing and people will eventually realize. When we play a gig, there will still be quite a few metal people there, of course. But there will also be different types of people as well. After all these years, I would say it’s a strange congregation of people who are listening to Ulver out there. Couldn’t ask for more than that really. I’m easy.
You can be punk without actually playing punk music. Do you think this applies to black metal as well? That you can be black metal without resorting to the sound of black metal?
Yeah, I do actually. That was actually one of the main tenets in early black metal: It didn’t really matter what it was because black metal was sort of defined by its ‘spirituality’ or ‘essence.’ It sounds a bit silly when I say it out loud now, but the idea was that the sincerity of emotion in the music was what made it black metal, the feelings it conveyed. It wasn’t a particularly set form or rules as to how to play black metal. A lot of black metal guys would listen to stuff like Diamanda Galás or Merzbow and take inspiration from that, you know. Quite a few of the things we’ve done after leaving the form of heavy metal, it’s still kind of black metal in a way, liberally speaking. It’s dark. It comes from the same heart but the form is something else.
The album that began your metamorphosis was The Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It could be seen as satanic. The quotation of John Milton’s Satan for instance.
I would rather not label it as satanic. It’s a quite mystical, personal text and it’s certainly turning some core elements of classic theology upside down. In that sense it’s maybe heretical, but not satanic. I’d say it’s Gnostic actually. That was something that interested us as well, you know, coming from a school of thinking more like negations within christian traditions. Satanism couldn’t be without christianity, as any educated person would say, so obviously that was interesting to us at the time. Still is. It is a fantastic text.
In my opinion, you altered some of Blake’s verses into a specific pronunciation and pace.
That’s pretty amazing to think about, so thank you for saying that. I mean, it’s true, these old things wouldn’t survive if you didn’t have younger ambassadors bringing it out and into the consciousness of the new generations, propel it onwards. That’s how it is.
The newest album is named after the zodiacal signs. Did you flesh out the 12 astrological characters in different configurations on the record?
Uh, basically it’s a poetic way of saying 12. It also refers to the trippy, spaced-out character of the record and the music itself. It seemed apt with an astral metaphor. But without getting too much into it, let’s just say it’s a creative way to say 12. It’s not a concept album. Let’s leave it at that. I don’t want to get into magnets beneath the pillow and silver in the water discussions here.
Can you already tell about the next studio album? You went into the more analogue direction and psychedelic stuff – will the next record turn out to be more electronic again?
I would imagine a bit more electronics, but that’s just my educated guess. It will probably be a synthesis though. When working in the studio it tends to become more electronic, simply because it’s easier and more efficient. At the same time, I really like recording big drums and horns and acoustic sounds. Maybe it’s a bit too early to start speculating though, before we’re actually in the process.