Øystein Brun (Borknagar) interviewed

OK, ICS Vortex had a cameo on “My Domain”. He’s now returned as a full-time co-vocalist. What’s the story there? I gather a lot of old-time Borknagar fans now feel it’s time for Garm to step back into the fold. Universes colliding and all that. Øystein Brun: Well, wish I could reveal an enigmatic story here, but everything evolved in a really mundane manner to be quite frank. Since the spit about 12 years ago, Vortex has been a good friend of the band. Back then we split because of practical reasons—not musical reasons, personal conflicts or whatever. So you might say that Vortex has been lurking in the shadows of the band all this time. During the recording of our acoustic album, “Origin”, we came across and discussed my plans to return back to the core sound of Borknagar after the release of the acoustic effort. Vortex reminded me about an old tune that we prepared for the The Archaic Course recording session, but due to different reasons, never recorded. Vortex always loved that song, so we started to talk vaguely about recording that one for the Universal session with him doing the vocals. From there, things just evolved. I made an updated pre-production of the song, and he came to studio to record the vocals. At least from my point of view, there was some magic in the air and I think the result turned out really great. Later, Borknagar got an offer to do a supposedly attractive tour in South America. Vintersorg was not able to join for that tour, and Vortex offered us to do that tour as a kind of retro-thingy, doing mostly songs from his era. The SA offer turned out to be more or less a ‘scam’, so we had to pull out. But from that point on, Vortex was involved in the band more than just being a side-kick, so bits and pieces of the universe collided along the line. Well, actually Garm joined us onstage during our Inferno Festival show. I think it was a great and emotional moment for all of us. It was such a blast to have all the three vocalists onstage at the same time.

You recently replaced drummer David Kinkade with drummer Baard Kolstad on a recommendation from Vortex. How did that play out?
Øystein Brun: Well, we saw that the cooperation with David Kinkade was about to come to an end. And we started to discuss how to deal with it, and Vortex told us about this extremely talented youngster that he came across earlier the year. As far as I know, Vortex did some engineering for Baard and his previous band. He was amazed by the talents of these dudes, so we kept an eye on Baard for a few months before we started to talk with him.

The two of them recorded a cover for “Don’t Tread on Me”. One of the bonus tracks for Urd is a cover of “My Friend of Misery”. Was Kolstad’s involvement hinged on a Metallica ‘black album’ cover? I’m kidding, but there has to be some connection.
Øystein Brun: Well, the story behind these Metallica covers goes as follows; Metal Hammer Germany in cooperation with the Metallica management wanted to release a tribute album with cover songs to celebrate the 20 years since the ‘black album’ was released. Borknagar and ICS Vortex were asked to do one song each. They wanted Borknagar to do “My Friend of Misery” and ICS Vortex to do “Don’t Tread on Me”. At that point in time, we were actually recording drums for Urd and had already hired the studio for a couple of weeks. So we just tracked one additional song on drums and then Vortex hired Baard to do the drums for his version over a weekend or so in-between. Reportedly Baard just came to studio, sat down and recorded the song in one take. Remember Vortex and I talked on the phone, and he just told me that this is the perfect Borknagar drummer. And so it became. Baard’s involvement in the band didn’t really stand or fall on this session, but it definitely gave the whole process a spark and made the decision easier.

How was writing Urd different from Universal? Urd feels a lot more natural in comparison.
Øystein Brun: Fundamentally I don’t see a very big difference in writing Universal compared to Urd. The framework for the songs of Universal and Urd pretty much derives from the same writing mode—or should I say, creative era. But we took a much more firm grip of the production ourselves this time around. For instance, I upgraded my home studio just before starting the production with the intention to do more of the ‘dirty’ work myself—like editing, cross fades and so on. Also the majority of the recordings. This made the whole process way more dynamic and relaxed I would argue. We didn’t need to rush anything; we had both the time needed and technical resources to work the material into perfection—in a relaxed environment—at least from our perspective. This also empowered our creative outlets throughout the process by sending samples back and forth, trying out new ideas and so forth. Looking back, I think we managed to find a perfect symbiosis of writing and producing. But the most crucial point is the fact that we got Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios to do the mix. Jens really understood our musical visions in a way that nobody have done before him and he definitely managed to turn a piece of coal into a diamond.

Century Media premiered Urd with the song “Roots” (on the Deciblog, natch). Was that the first song you wanted people to hear or was that more a label decision? I think it’s the most ‘Borknagar’ from a collective sense.
Øystein Brun: Actually we made the decision together with Century Media. Due to the diverse nature of our music, I always find it a bit difficult to make decisions like this. But we came to the conclusion that “Roots” was the song that pretty much had everything and therefore would be the best song to present the album—as a teaser. I think it worked pretty well and the response on the song was really overwhelming.

I’ve always been impressed with your writing volume and quality. I don’t recall many bands releasing new albums every year, especially in the ‘90s. Of course, you’ve had breaks in-between since then. What do you attribute to your songwriting inspiration?
Øystein Brun: Thanks for the compliment, sir! My short answer is: I don’t know. My cheesy answer is: the genuine passion for making music. The black metal answer: trips to the forests and hiking the mountains. Well, they are all true in some sense, but in all honesty, I am not really able to pinpoint any specific source of inspiration. I have been doing this for quite some years now, and making music has become a highly integrated and important part of my life. I find life in general as the source of inspiration, and to me, life is some sort of travel where the crucial “mission” is to broaden my horizon towards all facets of life—it’s all about taking a step further. Likewise with our music. I think this pretty much goes for the rest of the crew as well.

I hear you’re a big Alan Parson’s Project fan. Most metal fans might be familiar with “Eye in the Sky” or “Sirius”, but what are your favorite Parson’s tunes?
Øystein Brun: Well yeah, I have my Alan Parson’s Project-period pretty much every single month… [Laughs] One of my absolute favorite tunes of all time is actually “Some Other Time” from the I, Robot album—I have already booked that one for my burial. Other favorite songs are: “The Raven” from the debut album Tales of Mystery and Imagination, “In the Lap of the Gods” from the album Pyramid, “Silence and I “ from the album Eye in the Sky—just to mention a few. From my point of view, APP is one of the most underrated bands around. They have done so much great music over the years. But I must admit that their first 4-5 albums are the best, some of the ‘newer’ stuff doesn’t knock me out as much as the debut for example.

If there’s a lyrical center to Urd what would it be?
Øystein Brun: The lyrical core of the band is about portraying nature and advocating a poetic perspective on reality– without going new-age by any means. Each album has a different angle and approach. On Universal, we had a very outward perspective on things—dealing with the universal laws of nature, cosmic coherence(s) and so forth. With Urd, we wanted to turn the face back down to earth and burst into the soil, head first, so to speak. Lately, I have read a lot of the work of recently late Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. Back in the ’50s, he was one of the driving forces behind the ‘deep ecology movement’. He professed a very important message—or should I say, challenge towards the superior Christian worldview back then, where mankind is the ruler of the earth. He contributed to change the general consensus and get people to realize that mankind is a part of nature in the same manner as every single creature. Every creature, every species are mutually connected and mutually depending on each other—and Arne Naess advocated that we should respect and take care of nature with this in mind. We are all deriving from the very first living cell and therefore spread out in different evolutionary branches. There is something grandiose and poetic about this—and this is something we wanted to portray.

I like that you’re exploring the fact that if we go back far enough, we’ll find out we’re all connected. It’s both mythological and future-sci. How’d you come to this conclusion?
Øystein Brun: I guess it would be a bit too ‘cocky’ of me to argue that this is my conclusion. First and foremost, this is basic evolutionary biology. My take on all this is that I urge to portray this in a poetic way. The magnitude of reality is from my perspective way more grandiose than all religions together—and that is what we want to portray without going totally ‘National Geographic’ on the theme… [Laughs] That aside, in philosophy—and in religions for that sake—we are very often looking to the sky when pondering about existential questions—where do we come from, heavenly father and so forth. I agree that it is jaw dropping to lay on the grass counting stars, but I find it equally overwhelming to turn the head around and follow our earthly and evolutionary roots to the very origin—so to speak.

Urd is one of three Norns. She represents the past. How is Urd, as a collection of songs, connected to Borknagar’s past?
Øystein Brun: Well, there is a lot of layers to the title Urd. From my point of view, an album title should be able to hold a lot of different meanings as well as being some sort of thematic glue. First and foremost, we wanted this time around to have an Old Norwegian title in order to anchor the album to our musical and lyrical origin– but also geographically. In northern mythology, Urd represents the past, while Verdande represents the present and Skuld represents the future. Together they weave the lifeline of every child born. Obviously we find the link to the past appealing, as we are a bunch of nostalgia trippers. But also when pondering about this, I find these Norns to be a very interesting analogy towards the DNA-molecule. Often, when you break down mythologies to modern discourse, you often find a lot of great wisdom therein. So the whole concept of Urd pretty much covers the very essence of the band—nature, life/death, man vs. nature and so forth.

Can we expect follow-up concept albums based on Verdande and Skuld?
Øystein Brun: Maybe, maybe not. Have to admit that I have got this question a lot of times. But still, we haven’t really made any thoughts about it yet, to be quite frank. Thematically, Urd stands on its own feet, so we are not tied-up to follow this path. And on the other hand, we don’t like to be too predictable, mostly for our own dear autonomy. We want the ‘concept’ of the next album to evolve together with the music—to sum up things, an album title is always one of the last things we nail before delivering the master.

Jens Bogren has a reputation for being a taskmaster and a perfectionist. What did he bring to Borknagar on Urd?
Øystein Brun: Man, I can’t praise Jen Bogren’s work enough. For us, doing fairly complex music, it has always been such a battle to get a suitable production that gives enough space for the dynamics in spite of the fact that there is a massive flow of instruments—basically all the time. Jens Bogren quite simply deciphered our code, like nobody before him. It sounds massive and powerful, at the same time he managed to get the dynamics to work perfectly. The sound picture is so big and airy that you almost can play soccer therein, but at the same time, the sounds are distinct and powerful. I really don’t know how he did it, as he did most of the work before we entered the studio. But I have a theory that he has an almost inhuman mental capacity to keep tracking all details. Every single note or even audio wave on the album was tweaked with a purpose and meaning—nothing was done by coincidence or a laid-back attitude. So the only thing we could do was to lean back and enjoy. Jens Bogren for president!

During the recording, mixing and mastering phases were you careful to not over-perfect Borknagar? What I’m saying is this: Too much perfection can, in fact, make a record sound sterile or lifeless.
Øystein Brun: Yep, you nailed it! Over the years I have become increasingly focused on finding the delicate balance between perfection and plain cheesiness in terms of production. As mentioned, we did a lot of the recordings and editing ourselves this time around, and we could easily have overdone things—getting the material to sound extremely sharp, snappy and tight. That is no problem if you have a few hours of experience with Cubase or Pro Tools. But once that balloon bursts, you kill some of the feeling in the music, and it is mentally very difficult to take a step back. So we always keep this in mind when working—90% precision and then leave the remaining 10% for the X-factor, the capture of the moment or whatever. The best lenses in the world are grinded/polished by a human hand because of the human irregularity in the movement.

Borknagar’s never been a dedicated touring outfit. Why is that?
Øystein Brun: In all honesty, the core activity of Borknagar is and has always been about creating music. It may sound harsh, but everything else is secondary. We are not the typical band that releases an album to make our way onto a tour or whatever. But one should not forget that we did quite extensive touring in the late ’90s. We did a US tour with Emperor in ‘99, we did two European tours with In Flames and Cradle of Filth respectively, we did an Eastern Europe tour and several small tours in Norway over a period of relatively few years. And don’t forget all the festivals we have done throughout the years. But sure, we are not a dedicated touring band today per say. But that might change, who knows.

I’m sure from a business point of view you understand touring and merchandise sales are the lifelines to bands these days. Is Borknagar a business or something else entirely?
Øystein Brun: Yeah, tell me about it… [Laughs] I think relatively few bands, at least within the metal scene, start out as a business enterprise. In the beginning, it was all about idealism and pure passion for the music we were creating. In the beginning of the ’90s, I was literally breathing, eating and drinking music. Money and business was not really of any crucial interest—as long as we could go to a studio and record albums. When we signed our first deal, we were basically just happy that we could go to a studio and the record company paid the studio bills—we got our PD’s and free travels. This said and several tours done, we pretty much came to a crossroad in early 2000. I was expecting my first kid and this naturally forces you to think about things in a bigger picture. And what really started to bother me and the rest of the guys at that time was the fact that we up until then didn’t earn a single dime, not a single one. Economically, we had been pissing our pants so many times. Economically, things didn’t make sense anymore as we had empirical reasons to believe that there is money floating around in the undercurrents of the band—we sold fairly well, several albums released and so forth. I remember we got an offer to do a quite big tour with a big band after the release of Empiricism. So we set the bars a bit higher and demanded that somebody (the agent or the label) should guarantee us that we did not return after the tour to yet another economic hangover. We were not demanding shitloads of money, but just enough to pay our actual bills at home. Nobody wanted to provide us with some sort of economic security, and I was pretty much like: “OK then, fuck that”. I think this made us reconcile with and empower our initial philosophy that music comes first, everything else is secondary—and this is something we basically have adapted to ever since and have established our daily profession and income elsewhere. But actually, I think this is one of the reasons why we are still going strong as a musical collective. Our existence as a band is not depending on sales, and we don’t need to make a chart breaker or tour the world in order to get ends to meet and meals on the table the next year. Of course, we try to cope with the business side of things the best we can as we are definitely not anti-commercial. But doing music for a living is granted to the very few, and we don’t strive for it anymore. Nowadays, I would love to do some more touring, but we have to adapt to reality: we are not 19-years old anymore and we have responsibilities that make touring for months at a time a logistical nightmare. But again, things might change.

** Borknagar’s new album, Urd, is out now on Century Media Records. Order it HERE and get a free Viking drinking helmet. Actually, no, you won’t. You’ll just get killer music with a deep message. Or massage, depending on how you use the CD.