Interview: MARDUK’s Morgan “Evil” Håkansson on “Serpent Sermon” and jogging to black metal

Twelve albums in on a 22-year-old career and Swedish black metallers Marduk can still be relied upon 100 per cent to stick to the program and deliver a typically iconoclastic tour de force, touching upon all the genre essentials, anti-hymns to send toes curling in the Vatican and throughout Christendom. Serpent Sermon is pound for pound the most scabrous piece of BM orthodoxy that twelve bucks can buy. Here’s what founding member and spokesman, guitarist Morgan “Evil” Håkansson had to say about it.
The music business is rarely that exciting but what happened with Regain?
I don’t know, but it’s like what is happening all over the world with record labels having problems, and when they got into problems they couldn’t really keep up with the pace we were going. We had a gentleman’s agreement with Regain; we never had any paper so we could leave whenever we wanted. When we came to the conclusion that we wanted to leave, they agreed, so we’re still on good terms. We just decided we needed a new plateau for what we were doing. We’ve still got our own label Blooddawn Productions but as for which label we were going to work through, we went round more extreme metal labels than you can imagine and eventually we went with Century Media. They’re one of those labels who have been round for ages, they know what we were doing, and we just felt that they were the best base for a band like us.

Would you agree that Mortuus coming on board was the catalyst for your sound to change a bit?
I don’t know, I mean the vocalist is such a big change. People don’t notice it if it’s a drummer or a bassist but a new vocalist is a big change. We’ve got a vocalist that’s stepped up to the plate of being in the band, being a songwriter—as it should be in a band, everyone all on the same level, like we have right now. We have four people all striving for the same goal. It’s great to have a line-up that is so dedicated to what we are doing.

These days you’re not afraid to drop the tempo a bit.
We always tried to develop and delve deeper into the concept that we are working with. But we are a band who very much enjoys playing fast because the message comes across from playing fast…. So long as it has a meaning to it.

You’ve been going since 1990, it takes a lot of dedication; what keeps you going?
Absolutely, that’s why it’s such a great pleasure to have a line-up like this. When we made this album, Serpent Sermon, everyone took part in the songwriting. Our drummer [Lars Broddesson] has written so much of the material and has grown into the band, our bass player [Magnus Andersson aka Devo] as well. For us, it doesn’t matter who writes what because we all take part in the arrangements and work equally as a band. We’re four guys working for the same goal.

One of the things that you’ve been doing, and I would say since Rom5:12, is placing more emphasis on atmosphere. Has this been a conscious decision?
Yeah, you could be correct. It’s always weird to talk about your albums, and it’s such a cliched thing that when you talk to bands they always say, ‘Oh, this is the best we’ve done’, and maybe this isn’t the best but it’s equal to the best. I’m proud of all of our albums. I always believed that they are pillars that we the band can stand behind. Even if you go back to our earliest albums, I see things that I would do differently now but I still love themm and they represent what we were about in that time period. I believe that they are equally important in that way. But when you’ve just completed an album it’s so fresh in your mind, you’re so dedicated to it. You love it so much but in a way you hate it so much because you’ve heard it so much.

What was the writing and recording process like?

There’s no set pattern to our songwriting. Everybody writes music and we go back into the rehearsal bunker and each of us will bring up our ideas, and exchange them and everyone is open to suggestions, and when someone has a good idea it’s a good idea. If someone wants to change something it’s always for the sake of the band. We all work together. I don’t know if it’s democratic, though. It was a very basic recording; it’s very much a rock album in that respect; it’s got guitar, drums, bass and vocals. And it’s not some big wall of sound, that some bands and ourselves used to have, where you put six to eight guitars all playing together; this is just two guitars.

Does the songs all come from a riff?
Sometimes someone will bring in a whole song, sometimes I’ll have a riff. It’s always different. We never work to a pattern. I can only speak for myself, and sometimes I get inspiration from having just a song-title in my head, and it just comes naturally until the lyrics and music become one. I think it’s important the lyrics are reflected in the music. It’s not like what a lot of bands do; they record an album and then work on putting the lyrics to it. We work very hard to get the lyrics to fit the song to get the spiritual dynamics of it. For me that’s important, to have one thing reflected in the other. And the layout is important, so that the graphics relate to the music too. It takes one third music, one third lyrics and one third graphics to make it work. They should all speak to you; you should get a feel for the lyrics and the music throughout the layout too.

You talk about it being a stripped-down recording, is it important not to over-work it?

We record in a studio owned by our bass player so now we can go in and work 50 hours in a row on it; if we want, we can work day and night, go home for a week and come back in a week with fresh ears. This is great for the dynamics, rather than just having to be finished by a certain time. We only go in when we are in the mood for it. But overall it’s a pretty basic album.In a way, the last three or four albums have had a lot of death themes whereas this one is back to the more diabolical sense of what black metal is really all about

Is there a concept?
The title of the album peaks for the whole lyrical concept. The lyrics will be included so that everybody can make up their own mind; we shouldn’t need to explain it. The title and a lot of the song-titles really explain the whole concept and by reading the lyrics they will speak to everybody differently. They will all see it their own way. That’s what I like. When I am on tour and speak to fans I find out what they think it’s about, and sometimes it is completely different to how I see it. It’s just how the music and lyrics come alive in people’s minds.

Does there come a point where influences come not so much from music, and other bands, as they do from art, politics, etc?
When you are young you listen to a lot of bands and they inspire you but now it is not the music that inspires me. The music comes naturally when you have worked with it for a long time. I can be more inspired by an overall feeling, or just seeing something, a painting, architecture comes alive in my mind, historical happenings, whatever… It’s just a feeling that creates music in my head more than anything else. It’s writing a soundtrack to a happening. Whatever the lyrics are dealing with, it is reflected in the music and it’s the other way around, so you are writing the soundtrack to whatever that is.

Is it political?

We got a lot of people asking about the song-title “M.A.M.O.N.”, and whether it’s got something to do with money or what is going on in the world and it really doesn’t. But you can see the reflection of many things that are going on.

You’ve always been extreme but you’ve never really championed a manifesto in the way other bands do, be it politics or religion.

In a way, sure. I don’t really know why it should bother us what other bands are doing. I feel we are comfortable and dedicated and we are comfortable with our own creation, so I don’t need to reflect on what other bands are doing, or the so-called scene. That’s all like old lady magazines… ‘Oh, he said this. He did that!?’ People are so insecure. But I am proud of what I’m doing and I know where I’m going so I don’t really care what’s going on. I have my own agenda, my own ambitions, so I just follow that. We’re excited just to be making music, to work with a new label. The last few years haven’t been the best so it’s good to have a bigger label backing us up.

Is there any direction you feel you couldn’t take Marduk?
We can do whatever we want, that’s the way I see it. We don’t have any limitations—those are for other people. We’ve never been pinned down to do what others want us to do, in a narrow mind. We always do what we want. I just let the energy flow and it goes in the right direction.

Is black metal still extreme, still an elitist art-form?

Yeah, absolutely. I believe it is for a special few. I think so, and you see who is really dedicated, you can see who, in the long run, is still there.

You’ve been doing this for over 20 years now, do you view the world, music differently?

Of course I feel I’ve changed. I mean it’s a big thing whether you’re 17 or your 39 years old, of course you see things very differently. I still have those same ingrained principled thoughts from back in the day but of course I’ve changed throughout my life. Personally, I feel stronger in body and mind than I have ever done before, and even when I go back to an album like Those of the Unlight, the lyrics will speak to me in a very different way. I had an idea about those lyrics back then, but now they speak to me in a different way and that fascinates me. They mean even more to me right now. That is the magic of music. And that’s the thing I like when it comes to our albums, when we go on tour everybody has a different favourite album. I meet up with people who’ll say that Opus Nocturne is the best thing we’ve done, or it’s the latest album or whatever; everybody has a different favourite and I believe that is a very good sign that you have done something out of the ordinary.

Does the sensationalist obsession with black metal still surprise you?

Some people are stuck in histories that happened a long time ago, ha ha ha! I don’t know, people will always have a sensational interest in some things.

What’s the plan for Marduk now?
We’re trying to reach as many territories as we can before we go back to work on the next album. I don’t think it is going to take three years between this and the next album. I think that is a very good sign for the next one. But right now we’re just very glad to go out on the road and march out and deliver the new material. That’s a healthy sign. When it comes to bands there are a lot of them who are living on one or two things they have done in the past, and making a living off of that. I believe that you are only as good as your latest album. I don’t believe in being sentimental. I’m still proud of the albums we did in the past and we try to play as much as we can when we are on tour but I believe in where we are now.

You’re very passionate about getting to as many countries as possible.You must have seen a lot of strange things in your line of work. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen when on tour?
For sure, a lot of strange things! Ha ha, it’s the whole thing of what is strange. I remember in the mid-90s in Barcelona, always at the same venue, we had a guy who would change into a jogging suit or whatever, and just be running around to the music in the hall—that’s strange. It’s strange playing the same places in ’94 and then seeing the same faces in ’95, then ’96… And I still consider us to be a young band because time flies so fast, but sometimes I’ll meet fans who weren’t even born when the first album came out, like… Man!?

**Serpent Sermon is out now through Century Media. Buy it here**