Interview: Niklas Kvarforth (Shining)
Photo by Ester Segarra
I first listened to shining in the basement office of Bazillion Points Books in the spring of 2008. Ian Christie and I were making idle chitchat as I proved myself an incompetent intern, and eventually I sought some listener recommendations from him. At the time, I was in the deepest throes of my Opeth addiction (Watershed had yet to come out and rough-up my fandom) and made a stupid request that Christie play me something that amounted to “Opeth, but meaner” to paraphrase my past self. The record he played me was Halmstad by Swedish depressive black metal band Shining.
The older I get the more I find requests like the one I made less-than-useful, as often what draws someone to a band, much like what draws someone to another human being, is rooted in the memory and context of interacting with that band as much as anything essential about the band itself. However, that time asking the question produced results: Shining stuck with me. I purchased the group’s back catalog, and have found myself uniformly excited for every Shining album since, despite the group’s up-and-down songwriting output, shifting lineup and at times questionable history. The consistency and the problematic rumors of violence and indignation all lead back to one man, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Niklas Kvarforth.
Extreme music, art that counts among its virtues a unique ability to express the darker side of human existence, attracts extreme people. Kvarforth is that sort of extreme person. While Invisible Oranges does not encourage suicide, it is valuable to have music that addresses the issues of self-termination and mental illness frankly, and Kvarforth has been doing so for two decades. In conversation, Kvarforth came across as considered and intelligent, willing to frankly address, if not the controversy that follow him, then at least the sadistic and expressionist intent that fuels his always-remarkable art.
IX is in some ways your most progressive album. I hear songs in this that I have never heard from you before, such as the almost Middle Eastern guitar lead in “Inga Broar Kvar Att Branna.” Do you set out to find new songs before you write the album, or do all these new influences creep in organically?
I am, as every real artist should be, always following my heart when creating or composing. I never really sit down and think about what others might think of my work nor do I make any conscious decisions on how my “style” develops between each album. This is the key ingredient to all true art in my opinion, and should I ever have to make changes according to what say a label thinks or what our fan base wants then I’ve lost my integrity. Obviously there are many who distanced themselves from us when my music started to evolve into something other than what I did on the debut album for example, but on the other hand, with each step there are legions of others who show interest instead. All in all, there certainly isn't a plan that is being followed by Shining, and as the darkness is present everywhere and in everything, a few flirts with completely different genres of music is unavoidable.
You have a very distinctive voice; I can tell it’s you singing or screaming right away. And yet it feels like a lot of singers are beginning to sound all the same. What do you think of metal vocalists right now? Also, is there anything special that you do with your voice that you think others do not?
Same rules apply here I would say. I don’t try to sound this way or that way but rather speak from the very depths of my soul and therefore obviously my “style” ends up sounding unique. I find it weird and awfully sad that this technique doesn’t apply to most others. I mean, what is the point of doing something if one doesn’t do it wholeheartedly? Anyway, thank you for the compliment. Of the contemporary vocalists that intrigue me, obviously they are few, but not many are rooted in metal-music. But to keep the list short, and metal-related, I would say Attila Csihar, Gaahl, Hoest, Aldrahn and a handful of others always manage to impress me with each new recording they take part in.
Beginning on your last album and continuing now, for example on “Manniskotakens Vagglosa Rum,” the guitars are taking a more pronounced, fierce place in the music. Where did that newer emphasis on guitar come from?
Cool that you mention that song as that was the first one that was written for the album, and ironically, not by me, but by Euge Valovirta. Shining has always had a very unique blend of guitarists and in the past Huss has been the main reason for that, however, when Euge joined a few years back things really started to get weird. I like to consider Huss as the the bluesy guy while Euge came in totally unexpectedly directly off the Sunset Strip. And this duo is unquestionably a powerhouse, as neither of them are even remotely into the extreme metal genres and therefore their contribution is via a completely different approach to my material. In the past I put a lot of emphasis on the bass, being the main driving instrument in my music, but with such superb brilliance to my disposal, how could I resist?
Your clean singing has always been unique, but on IX, for example in the intro to “Framtidsutsikter,” your voice has taken on sort of an oldies vibe, almost in a late-60’s RnB-Rock vein. It’s not very ‘metal.’ Is there any cleanly sung or non-metal music that particularly inspires you? What non-metal music have you been listening to?
As I've said many times before, I’ve never been that much of a metal guy. And I find it extremely flattering that you compare some of my work to that of late 60’s RnB stuff and such, which is more in the line with what I personally listen to. I don’t want to get into too obscure realms so I'll try to keep it short. The last couple of albums that have made it into my very small collection of vinyls is the third album by Laleh, The Petra Marklund debut and the new Thåström. Other than that I listen to, and obviously draw inspiration from the likes of Kent, Depeche Mode, Screamin Jay Hawkins, Sopor Aeternus, Alice In Chains, Devil Doll and Guns N’Roses. These are, however, a small fraction of what probably inspires me as I’ve come to notice lately that basically everything I listen to, be it at home or while travelling, ends up inspiring me in one way or another, no matter what genre or artist. I seem to have this ability to find a darkness, even if unintentional, in almost everything that crosses my path.
There’s been some Swedish bands who address similar topics as you who have achieved a lot of critical acclaim, but don’t address the subject in such an overt way—for example Tribulation and In Solitude both have suicidal and depressive lyrics, but it’s all very cryptic. You, on the other hand, make your subject very clear. What do you think of this trend of depressive bands from Sweden?
I believe us Swedes have a pretty different relationship with loneliness and melancholy in general. We’re often subjected to these things at a very early stage in our lives and just like the Finns for example, we thrive in the misery of others. Although, we probably thrive on the misery of the Finns in a much grander scale than they could in relation to us. Also, depression, anxiety and self-destructive behaviour are all, oddly, still very taboo in our country and there aren’t any real institutions left that deal with such matters. We’re living in a Prozac nation you know, where the state seems to believe problems can be solved by pills. Shining, and the idea of Shining, has always been to force feed the listener with these ideas and concepts, working as a weapon directed against the listeners themselves and that probably differentiates us from most who are a bit more “humane” than ourselves. But to be honest with you, I haven’t heard a single note by Tribulation and I’ve only heard a few songs by In Solitude so I cannot really comment on the differences between the three of us. However, if there is a trend you speak off, I wouldn’t know, as we started out two decades ago and seldom keep updated with the current ins and outs of society.
You’re the last original member of Shining, and you don’t play any instruments live, and yet the band’s tone and style has remained pretty consistent, there have been no stark departures. How do you keep Shining so consistent?
Simply because I have written about 99% of all music and lyrics since inception. Yes, the music may have evolved and gone through hell and back at times, but the sinister atmosphere and the main intent will always remain the same no matter what, and therefore I guess this consistency you speak of is inevitable.
It appears to me that Shining stands to gain a lot by expanding in the US. You’ve toured with Watain, who do well here, and I also know that there’s a whole lot of Opeth fans here who do not like that band’s new direction and are in the mood for something mixing light and dark—I’ve made some of them listen to Shining with good results. Why have you not done more in the US before now, and are there plans to expand here in the future?
Well, there are quite a lot of reasons why we haven’t been able to tour the US yet. First of all, there have been some members who have had problems with authorities in the past and there are thousands of rumours circulating online that none of us would be able to enter the country, which is totally and completely wrong. Then, we’ve had enormous problems with previous booking agents of ours who have tried to stop us from growing outside of Europe, and even inside of Europe for that matter, but that’s also fixed now as we’re currently working with a new agent and record label who are very keen to bring us over. You can expect that we’ll start touring the States as soon as a good offer has been made. And if that doesn't happen we’ll surely find a solution with some festival over there. Actually, yesterday I was informed that there is also this gross misconception amongst the US media that we would be anti-Semitic, which is also not true, as I’ve always considered all life, no matter what colour or origin, disgusting. But this is also probably one of those things based on nasty little rumours and misconceptions about Shining in general. Hopefully, we’ll be able to convince the people over there that these are indeed only rumours and nothing more.
There was a promotional photograph of you on the last album cycle, which featured you in a bride’s veil, sipping wine. That struck me as immediately interesting. I’ve never seen a black metal photograph like it. I was wondering where the idea for that photo came from and what you think of it?
I remember we were in need of some promotional photos for the release of the 8 ½ compilation album that Dark Essence Records put out in 2013, and I met up with this photographer and spent a few days with her in Stockholm. The pictures you are referring to were taken on the bed of her hotel room. She had these different coloured bridal veils in her luggage which I tore up and had on and around me while I was drinking some very fine Amarone she’d also brought from Italy. The whole photo-session was kind of fucked up and unfortunately most of the pictures didn’t quite turn out the way I wanted. So yeah, don’t know what to say really, but I am not particularly fond of them although I do like the fact that they differ quite a lot from what’s usually out there.
In a related question: what is your relationship with masculinity? Your music videos have featured you with no shirt on, very masculine, but that photo, as well as a lot of the album covers as well as the music itself can be quite delicate and feminine, in the classic sense. More than as a person does your art say anything as a man?
My relationship with masculinity? Well, I’m a man and I enjoy listening to Danzig before smashing someone’s head in. Nah, seriously, gender issues have never been interesting to me. Obviously, I myself get turned on by what people would consider feminine things, such as a woman’s legs, and feet clothed in nylon stockings or even a nice pair of heels but when it comes to my art, it’s impossible for me to think in those patterns you suggest. Shining has always been, and will always remain, unearthly. Detached from any humanitarian category.
Your music is about depression and suicidal thoughts. Has anyone ever clarified that these are reflections of thoughts you’ve had in your life? And if they are thoughts that you have, have you ever seriously considered entering a program? I understand that many people consider treatment and then decline it for whatever reason.
I’ve been institutionalized from time to time, and am still forced to swallow some medicine to be able to function amongst others. Also, as you've probably noticed every now and then, I've self-medicated too, with mixed results of course. You see, because my art is what it is, obviously I have to understand what I am writing about, and more importantly, experience these things as well, otherwise, Shining would be nothing more than a Dungeons & Dragons band. If I am supposed to lead our listeners into a state of these very real psychological torments, I obviously have to experience them and experiment with it beforehand. It’s like a friend of mine once said: How can someone write a love-poem without ever having experienced love? Pretty much the same goes for my relationship, and sadly other “imagined” relationships, with these subjects.
A related question: do you ever worry that if your life were to become somehow pain-free or idyllic that Shining would come to an end?
My life is pretty idyllic right now actually. I have what I want and need in life and also manage to live off my band, but no, trust me, several of my psychological obstacles are incurable, so I don’t think I will ever experience a full day in my life without pain. Shining would, however, come to an end if I one day started to rethink my choices, but on the other hand, it’s way past that at this stage. No turning back.
What is the force that drives you, as an artist and a person?
The will to recreate my own horrors and subject these unto others.