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Best known for throwing black, thrash and heavy metal in together with local folk music, after six albums Latvia's Skyforger remain underrated in folk metal. I was fortunate enough to get frontman Peter to talk about history, sincerity, and the state of metal today.
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From your demo releases to Latvian Riflemen and now Kurbads, there seems to be a very strong relationship with Latvian folk music and song structures, even when the lyrics aren't about mythology or pre-Christianity. What are your thoughts on Skyforger's approach to this issue?
It's like this thing we do from the beginning of the band. What we do is just make songs with all the lyrics about things from our Latvian history, mythology, all these things - we were interested, especially myself as the lyrics writer. So I tried to put it there and wanted to inform people about them, even our own people! The youth here don't follow much [about Latvian culture] and are not so interested in our history, so I wanted to spread it somehow and let it be known.
I wasn't interested when I was young because there was this Soviet system here, which was strongly against our national things, and the young people were taught the wrong history and lies - a lot of lies. Until some time, I was in the same boat. I found Vikings and knights, for example, more interesting to me than my own Latvian history, until one day that I found what it really was about. When I first started to read the books, I was obsessed! All the lyrics are to let people know about this, and allow others to also become interested.
This connects to how you've always been interested in Latvian folk music?
Yeah, of course! I think it goes hand in hand. When I started to dig around in history, folk music was there. It was another thing that I started to pick up and listen to. You know, it's all in one - [Skyforger is] like historical stories with folk music, and it all goes together. Especially here when we broke away from the Soviet Union, folk music was on the rise and there were a lot of songs for freedom being sung. There were a lot of folk bands and ancient cultural traditions which people tried to get back into their lives, because they gave us an identity or something (laughs).
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At one point, Fenriz of Darkthrone commented that most folk metal should be deleted. What do you make of this?
(Laughs) I didn't know that! You know, I never think in that way. If people like it, they can do everything! I'm not a judge, but if someone just came and said, "Hey, what you're doing is crap" and walked away, then I [do] not agree. It's the same if someone came and said, "Hey Fenriz, your black metal should be deleted", too. Don't know why he said that.
So what do you think of the current folk metal scene?
I'm not that much into it. Somehow we live aside from the main things going on in Europe, so I'm not too well informed. But of course I have my own thoughts with what I've already seen. One bad thing that I've already said before is that it all became too commercial. But again, I think it happens with every style. And when some new style emerges after some time, a lot of bands start to follow. There are people who want to make a lot of money from it, so it became commercial, especially when fans allowed it and supported it. It was on the rise, but is it still so popular? I don't know. Maybe it's going on a downfall already, this pagan and folk metal.
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Kauja Pie Saules makes references to the Battle of Saule when the heathen Baltic tribes fought against Christian invaders from Northern Europe. In what ways do you find it important to preserve part of the memory of the Baltic pre-Christian past?
Luckily here in Latvia, we don't have this big power of the church, like, for example, in Poland. So the people are more or less free to choose; especially when we grew up in the times of the Soviet Union. People are not so religious, and all these pagan and folk things are here; but of course they're not too strong, too! It's like you can do it and research and go and sing, but it's not like another Christian way. In that way, you must go to church and you must believe in Jesus. But if you are pagan here, you don't need to do any rituals out of obligation. It's not like this, and I feel that what we're doing is to somehow keep these traditions from vanishing and be remembered, especially for the young people to see. Sometimes I feel that our albums are like small books for them to read and to see how it was and what culture we've had and still have.
I'm not trying to revive [pagan traditions] into a living force for people in modern times. You can't live with such rituals today, since we all have different lives compared to the people before. We have these celebrations, for example, like Summer Solstice, but they don't have that anymore particular connection from the past. Someone might try to sing some songs, but mainly it's fire, beer and clichés which remain, while the main idea is already lost. And the people who live in cities don't have fields, cows, pigs or whatnot to make those rituals. It's more like shows; it's become people just getting to see some folk bands, and I don't even think we can bring [the pre-Christian past] back. What we have are just some parts which were recorded, and the old people who already live in the countryside and had some tales to tell; they're already starting to die out.
I think it actually started in the 19th century, when modern civilization started [using] machines; all these traditions started to lose their strength. Maybe there are other ways which we are using even today, but we don't know what their roots are - for example, superstitions, making a toast and drinking beer. It's good to know about [these roots]. It's something I'm interested in, but people today are not.
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There are a lot of new folk metal bands emerging, as well as the tendency to regard folk music as a mere "icing on the cake" to make up for rather mediocre metal. What are your thoughts about bands who are guilty of this?
Maybe at the beginning I was a little bit angry when I saw all of this and how commercial it became. Bands emerged because they saw that folk metal or pagan metal is so popular. They just watched some movies about Vikings and were ready to go out and sing about this. Of course it's bad, but when I think about it, this is how it happens. There are always bands like this that emerge and play music without their heart.
The bad thing (as I've mentioned earlier) is that the fans are supporting this. Today, it looks like people aren't much interested in digging deeper. They are happy with the plastic, shiny things they see and say, "Aw, it looks cool!" and just have fun. No, they don't care if this band is really interested in the pagan or folk [aspect] or if they really do it from their heart. Maybe [a] few do, but the masses, I think, are not interested.
That is what opens doors for bands like this. They don't need to already know or research in order to do what they do. They just leap in and say, "These melodies are kind of folky, so let's put them in songs, write lyrics about some Vikings, and we are ready to go!" (laughs) This is how I see it, but we can do nothing about it - just hope that people start to read their lyrics to see who are the bands that are doing it from the heart; and who are the bands that are just in it for the commercial success or fame.
How do you feel that this attitude affects non-Nordic bands who genuinely wish to preserve their own cultures' traditions, through mixing folk music with metal?
It's hard to say, because many times I think people who call these bands "Viking metal", they just call them that way because while they know that this band or that band is different, it may not be so important to these audiences how they describe them. On the other hand, of course, a lot of times there are people who don't care to explore beyond what they know; so they just make it easier to label as Viking metal anyone who has folk melodies or pagan themes with them. Of course, I don't like it! We don't have anything with Vikings, we don't sing about Vikings, we don't like it, but, well, what to do? I won't take it as a big offense if someone called us that. We always try to explain everything that we do sing about, and I hope one day that those people will know.
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Skyforger recorded one album of pure folk songs, Sword Song. Do you feel that making such a record could lead to a step forward for European folk metal?
The thing with this album is that here in Latvia, there are a lot of folk bands who play the same way as we've done on the Sword Song album. We have the songs which we play sometimes around or sing by ourselves, and we did this album because some of our friends just asked me to record these songs so they could hear them at home. We never thought that we'd be doing something like a "step forward" in the pagan metal genre; we just saw it like a side project from Skyforger's main focus, metal.
When you listen to Skyforger, there're always songs like this included on our albums - real folk songs sung by us, without guitars. When you listen to our band and read the lyrics, this album is where you can hear the songs from these times with folk traditions. But I never thought like we are going some steps forward or backwards, or if it's good or bad. It's like if you are interested in [them], you can listen to how Latvian folk songs sound!
I was just really surprised when people listened to this album and even wanted us to make another like it in the future. I don't even know if we want to do that, because like I said, here in Latvia there are a lot of bands who play like this, and they do it much better than we did, as they just play folk music for their whole lives. If people like it, yeah, why not? Then it's good! But I doubt that a trend like this would start, where a [folk metal] band records folk songs. Many well-known bands are not even interested in such things. So I doubt they will ever do something like this! Though it's not bad if metalheads just listened to pure folk songs.
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One criticism of the folk metal genre is that many bands seem to over-romanticize the past, and place more emphasis on pre-Christian history than post-Christian, modern history. As Skyforger seem to avoid this, what are your thoughts about this tendency?
I think it's natural, because pre-Christian times are more epic and heroic and everything - the main things happened there. After Christianity, it mostly was destroyed and went through a downfall, so people don't want to talk about such things. The guys like all these epic battles and the things, and that's why I think they are interested more in this era of pre-Christianity.
Of course, [Skyforger] don't really avoid this - there are a lot of songs about the same things from this era, but it happens to be that for us this history is so difficult. Even when Christianity was here, the people still lived by the pagan traditions and maybe went to church, but they didn't understand a word because all of the priests were Germans. So they would go there because the rulers said to do that, but they still lived by the old traditions up until the 19th century. This is why it seems that we avoid this, because there were a lot of things going on that we want to tell, even after Christianity was settled here.
But I think that my answer to this is that people just like this and over-romanticize it. You know, this is what people like; especially guys! (Laughs)
So it's also like a normal tendency?
Yes, of course it's like a normal tendency - no one wants to sing about how bad everything was and how it got destroyed; especially when the music has this heroic rhythm and pumping and measure chords and songs about epic battles and romantic themes - it fits together!
Some bands like Primordial do use the past to reflect on the present, in order to comment on the downfall of civilizations in history rather than heroic, epic battles.
I think it's good. Of course, the more you know and you get more aspects of this topic, the better. If everyone just sang about one thing, it would get boring very fast, and of course there will be people who just try to look at this and talk about this from a different side and a different light, which I think is just great. So this over-romanticism is easy for people to listen to, and not think too much about things: "Yeah, Vikings were there, drinking beer, everything was fine, conquering countries..." Of course, it's cool if there's a band like Primordial who take it from another point of view, and maybe then people will have to think about how it really was. I think that [Skyforger] also does this, which means we don't only have songs where everything was soooo good!
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Another pattern which emerges in folk metal is the tendency of bands to use heathen themes to frame their anti-Christian or anti-religious sentiments. Why do you think this happens?
I see it like how heavy metal fought against the stigmatic society in the beginning. Religion was one of these things, so I always saw there were a lot of bands who fought in their songs against the Christian religion. There were mainly those who called themselves "Satanists", which possibly grew old with time, so people started to look for a different approach. And they found there was this paganism where its believers fought against the Christians, too, so they use these topics now. Especially because those who are interested, I think they feel somehow offended because the Christians played a big part in destroying the earlier cultures, religions, and mythologies. So when you are interested in all these things, you always see Christianity as a big enemy, for example, and this is why so many try and fight against it in their songs.
Aside from the story of how Christianity came into Latvia from Germanic priests (addressed by the albums Semigalls' Warchant and The Battle of Saule), is this an issue which holds any interest to you in the band?
We saw Christianity as the guilty one, in some ways, of what happened here. They were working hard to destroy our culture and traditions, so, of course, we can't avoid this topic in our songs. As well, we see religion like some plague of humanity which politicians just want to brainwash other people with and keep them obeying all these rules. Christianity served a big part here; we just wrote some songs about this to let the people know how it was.
Even so many times when I had a discussion about Christianity and so many related issues with Christians – [I] asked if they really knows about how their religion was made, and how it was powered by the Roman Empire and was already in position from the beginning to keep kings high and other people low, to make them obey the rules the kings made and all this political crap. I think most of the time fanatical Christians don't even know how it was started. They just talk about one side, but never listen. It's like talking to a wall! They did so much damage here, and we can't ignore this topic. But in the songs, we don't use our own attitudes. We mostly take on the attitude of those who lived here in Latvia many years ago, and how they fought against Christianity and all those things.
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Do you have any thoughts on bands who look at post-Christianized history and don't follow the 'tradition' of anti-religious sentiments, even using folk metal to promote religion? I understand that Holy Blood from the Ukraine call their music "Christian unblack metal", but also refer to themselves as folk metal.
I've never heard about such things (laughs). It's very strange. How can there be a pagan Christian band, when Christianity fought against it? I cannot really talk about these bands and what their intentions are, but it looks like to me that it's the same with the Christians. There are many things today which are keeping the interest of young people, so they try to use these things to make them pay attention to Christianity and make it seem more appealing.
Today in modern society and the times we're living in, [Christianity is] losing power. Now people are more educated and start to think for themselves, but the church sees this and tries to use every tool to make people pay attention with Christian metal bands. For example, this pagan Christian band you've mentioned - in my view, they're just one of those tools! I can't believe that people take it seriously, being Christian and singing about pagan things and mixing it all together! Christians tried to exterminate heathenism and saw pagans as their enemies. So I think it's just a pose and nothing more. I doubt these bands will get much support and ever become too serious.
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Whereas European folk metal bands tend to offer an upbeat, bouncy representation of mythology and folklore, Latvian mythology and stories as shown through Skyforger's music seem to be mainly dark and sombre. Would you say that Latvian folktales and myths have dark nature on their own?
No, of course not. There are a lot of happy stories, like everywhere else. I think that for the English people, it's the same, that there are loads of horrible and dark stories as well as more pleasant stories.
From the beginning we've always liked the dark atmosphere and themes, so we try to include them in our music. But for other bands, the happy manner is there it's because it sells. If you catch up with people and they just want fun, these bands are offering it to them. When we started playing back in 1990, most bands had a dark atmosphere, as metal was an evil and grim art at time. But today, it's somehow changed. People don't want to dig deeper. They just want to have fun, and these bands are offering them an easy way. Of course, there are some bands who like what they do, and maybe they just like this side of folk tales by themselves. But I think it's because people just want fun and don't want to learn something or read something. They just want to jump in, have fun, drink, and then go home to wait for another day!
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Considering how Skyforger haven't taken the path to becoming as commercially popular, where do Skyforger see themselves in the folk metal scene say, ten years from now?
I don't know! (laughs) I think our music is not for the big masses, so it will always remain the same. As long as we still have power over our interests and have ideas, we'll always play. It's hard to say how it will be in ten years!
But I doubt that we'll become far more famous or popular, because we're from Latvia, a small land which is from the far side of everything that's going on in the metal scene. If we were from a big country with many million[s of] people, that would be different. But being from where we are, it's not so easy, and I doubt we'll become as famous and requested by foreign fan base. We'll be there for those people who like our music, which may not be that many. But anyway, we're happy if they listen to our songs!
But to add something serious, too, I think we'll continue to do this, because the one thing is that people still don't know about the Baltic countries and Baltic people - Lithuanians, Latvians, Prussians, etc. We have this idea to spread it and let others know. So I think we'll continue to work in the same way that we're working now. This idea's still here and we'll work on it, as long as we've got good material and good songs coming out!
What about in the bigger picture - the general metal scene?
Iin the big picture, it seems like metal music is becoming degraded. It's like a stagnation. Nothing new has been going on for years, with the same thing being played again and again from various sites. Somehow I have this feeling that people are starting to become bored and need something new. I just don't know what it is!
Metal today is not what it was. Today, it's like pop music, an almost commercial movement, and you can't scare anyone anymore with corpsepaint or zombies or whatever bands used to use to shock the mainstream. It's everywhere. Toung children listen to these bands and don't see them as the scary, loud bands that they were before. It's changed and is almost wearing out. I think that something new must come in and change this, but it's in the misty future.
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