Interview & Live Photos – Erlend Hjelvik (Kvelertak)
Maybe no band embodies the zeitgeist of modern rock listenership than Norway’s Kvelertak. Like a zealous teenager with an attention deficit and the Spotify app, the band draw from various influences and change their sound on a dime mid-song. Their self-titled first album from 2010 sounded like fellow Norwegians Turbonegro decided to record a record with Fenriz from Darkthrone behind the mic. Sometimes they’ll quote sections of well known classic rock songs inside of their own. Think of their approach as retro fetishim meets remix culture with a slight, but always present extreme metal edge.
Most of that metal edge comes from vocalist Erlend Hjelvik. To quote Pusha-T, he don't sing hooks. He screams them in a raspy black metal vocal style. All of his lyrics to date have been in Norwegian, even while most metal bands from Norway sing in English. Where the rest of his band is warm and inviting, Hjelvik is uncompromising, and the juxtaposition of those two opposing sounds is what makes Kvelertak interesting. The approach has paid off for the band: They won a Spellman award, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy, for their 2013 album Meir.
For their latest album, Nattesferd,they drifted further away from their metal roots. They produced the album themselves instead of recording with acclaimed metal and hardcore producer (and Converge guitarist) Kurt Ballou, who sat behind the boards for their self-titled debut and Meir.
Hjelvik sounded antsy on the phone with us on the eve of their US tour in support of Nattesferd. As good as Kvelertak sound on record, they truly shine in a live setting. He made time to discuss the band’s future, what makes a good song, and why some people think he’s in the Illuminati.
You’re currently playing Nattesferd material live for the first time now. How well rehearsed do you feel with that material?
Pretty good. It's not been very long since we actually recorded the album, which we did live. So we had to practice a lot before we went into the studio and then just before this tour we did a few shows in Norway. So it feels very well rehearsed. It just keeps getting better every day that we play on tour together now. Usually you need a tour for it to sit completely.
What happened in the years between releasing Meir in 2013 and now?
We've been touring way too much on each album. After all the touring you need some time off for songwriting. It's been a long process, but it always takes longer than you think. This album was supposed to come out sooner, but then you get offered things like to go on tour with Slayer or Anthrax. You can't say no to that of course. It's pretty important to keep things interesting and fresh. Not even just for ourselves, but also the people who are going to listen to it. I don't think we really think about it too much, we just think it should be that way. I hear [what people] say about a lot of metal bands being heavy for the sake of being heavy I guess, but to us there's different ways to do that.
What makes a good song to you?
To me? [laughs]. There's probably different opinions in the band. It's the sum of all parts, but a good chorus is pretty important, even though we have songs on the album that aren’t really chorus-based. I listen to a lot of progressive rock and black metal. There’s not typical songwriting there. [There’s not a lot of] Verse, chorus, bridge, whatever. I think we try to do about the same. You can't let them know what's around the next corner, but still sound friendly.
Your lyrics are not available on the English language versions of your releases. How do you make music translate across the language barrier?
The only thing I've done so far is written liner notes on the first album. [I explained] what each song was about in English in just a few lines. I've done the same thing on the new record, but I put the Norwegian lyrics in there too. People can knock themselves out. You can translate them if you want, but there's a lot of stuff that doesn't really translate that well. I guess, the way I sing, is pretty rhythmical in format. I think it's music for people who kind of pick up what the words sound like. When we play Russia we have crazy Russian people singing in Norwegian. That's what we come out for.
You did switch things up on this record. Arik Roper painted the cover instead of John Baizley, and you didn’t record with Kurt Ballou this time. Why did you make those decisions?
It's what I said earlier, it's boring to do the same thing over and over again. And also there's studios nearby and most of the band lives in Oslo so it was a lot more convenient. That studio had a big room that we could play live in. We worked with Nick Terry, who engineered record, and he lives in Oslo too. So it fell into place, just to make things easier and the studio is good, so why not?
Kvelertak often quotes and modulates other, sometimes more well known, rock songs. There's the interpolation of "Bring your Daughter to the Slaughter" and Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" on the first record. On Nattesferd the intro to "Svartmesse" quotes "Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks. Is that right?
I was thinking more "Eye of the Tiger" myself, but that's cool.
You know what, my next note is, "or is it ‘Eye of the Tiger’?".
As long as it makes you have fun then it's a good time, in my opinion.
It’s not a common practice. Has there ever been any discussion in the band, about maybe avoiding those references to other songs?
We don't really have conversations like that. If it sounds good we don't really over analyze things. Of course we say "Oh that riff sounds like 'Rocking in the Free World'". There's lots of moments, but we don't take it as like a bad thing when it sounds like something else, as long as it's not exactly like the same thing. I just think it's cool that it makes you think of other good bands.
The first single on Nattesferd, "1985", sounds like it could have been recorded in 1985. I get the sense that nostalgia is important to Kvelertak, or am I barking up the wrong tree?
No, I think you're right. There's a lot of dance records we've listened to, mostly classic dance from the '70s, '80s, and I guess early '90s. We don't listen to too much to new dance music anymore. I would say of course, there's a couple good new bands, but they’re usually retro bands too. Everything's better before in my opinion. It's important to us to have a lot of dance and story to our albums. Just to put out EP's and that's it, that's pretty boring to us. We like to do things the old fashioned way and that's one of the reasons we recorded live this time too. Make it sound more authentic.
What are some new bands that you're listening to that you could recommend?
I'm listening to a Norwegian band called Tusmørke. They have a new album out now, and in my opinion it's one of the best bands from Norway. The stuff they do is really cool. They have three albums out now. What else? There's a band called Undergrunnen, which means "underground" in Norwegian. They sound like African rock, kind of. Those are the newest bands that I listen to these days. Sheer Mag I really love too.
You say African rock music, I suppose you like Fela Kuti.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. They have a lot of cool shit. I'm still just scratching the surface, but I have a friend who is pretty into it, so he's showing me all these cool bands.
Is there any way that you think that rock music could move forward into the 21st century? Or maybe it shouldn't?
It's a good question. The band that I just said, Sheer Mag, that's one of the most original things I've ever heard. The music is just like Thin Lizzy, but the vocals just do it for me. She sounds like Michael Jackson, in the style of '70s soul singing. It sounds very different from anything I've heard before. I like it when you get nice surprises like that. But then again I don't want people to introduce all kinds of crazy shit into their music either. It doesn't sound good.
Some people say that mixing fun rock and roll with black metal is blasphemous. When the first Kvelertak album came out, I know several black metal fans who wouldn't listen to you just on the principle.
I love it. That kind of stuff is funny to me. When we're at this level of black metal band, people are into our band too. Like the real black metal bands too. So I just think it's funny, to stand for more puritanical than actual guys themselves. I just think it's a little funny.
Now that you guys have won a Spellman award in Norway. Has that changed your life at all? Do people now run up in the street and say "It's the Kvelertak guy!", or no?
Usually I get left alone, but it happens, mostly when I'm out drinking. Has it changed my life getting an award? It definitely made the band bigger. I remember when we got two awards for the first album, we went right back on the charts after being off for a while and stayed there another couple of months. So it's a good thing, and we get the awards for the second album too. We got to perform on the actual awards ceremony on TV.
What are your guys' goals for Kvelertak?
I'm pretty happy already with everything that's happened to us. It's just the beginning, everything's just been going steadily uphill, so I hope it's going to keep doing that for a little while longer. We'll keep the band going as long as it's fun. I think we have at least another album in us, but we'll see how many. As long as it's cool, we'll keep doing it.
Do you have any artistic goals, though? Do you have any goals in terms of expressing yourself through music that you haven't been able to do yet?
Yeah, a few that I can think of. I want to learn how to play guitar properly, that's on my list. Something I want get around to, I'll do it at some point. I just want to learn how to put the riffs down on the actual guitar. I don't really think much about anything else besides Kvelertak nowadays. It takes most of my time.
You have a black metal side project, Djevel, right?
Yeah, I do. We're going to make a new album when we get home from this tour. It's going to be busy, but in that band we only do a few shows a year so it's not too demanding to be a part of. It's just a cool break from everything else I do.
You’ve taken photos in an owl mask, and there have been owls on album covers. There's an owl in the "Bruane Brenn" music video. Why do you use owls in your imagery?
It came about when we needed a cover for the Westcoast Holocaust demo in 2007. It's just like a homemade compilation of the demos we had at that point. We printed it ourselves, we didn't have an album cover. It’s just stuck with us ever since. We milked the shit out of the owl, I would say! It was cool to have as an ongoing thing. It's been great, especially when people associate it with the Illuminati and things like that. That's actually happened. It just makes you want to run with it even more so. Now we have Illuminati marks and stuff like that.
I wasn't aware people associated Kvelertak with the Illuminati.
At one show in Norway there were some crazy people. There were prayers, they were just going on about the triangles and owls and things like that. YouTube links to some crazy… I won't call it documentary.
There's a lot of people who think that Jay-Z and Beyonce are in the Illuminati.
I heard something about Lady Gaga. Her friend got killed or something? For some reason that makes her a part of the Illuminati. It's just crazy nonsense stuff, but I think it's interesting to leave it for song writing purposes.
Has it ever influenced your lyrics or concepts at all?
One lyric is kind of about it. It's about sacrificing children to Moloch. That's the Illuminati lyric on the new album, in the song “Bronsegud”.