If you haven’t yet heard Swedish atmospheric abrasives Stilla… Well, why not? What the hell were you waiting for? (That’s right, you were waiting for Decibel to tell you to listen to Stilla.) With connections to the weird/amazing Bergraven and a half-dozen other regional acts, the quartet has been actively (hyperactively?) writing and recording since 2011, having dropped three full-length albums in just the past three years. Their most recent, Skuggflock, is a brilliant blend of blackened tendencies with extraordinary displays of musicianship and songwriting acumen. It’s a brave and powerful journey, which is unsurprising given that the record shares a home on Nordvis Produktion with Lustre, Nechochwen, Grift, Bhleg and Waldgeflüster. (Think we made any of those up? We’ll leave it to you to find out.)
Decibel had the opportunity to interview bassist Andreas Vidhall and guitarist/keyboardist (and occasional vocalist) Pär Stille about what makes Stilla tick. Check out their thoughts on what drives Stilla forward, and if you’re new to the band, don’t miss the songs embedded throughout the text. We’re here to shout about great metal… and this is pretty damn great.
How did the members of Stilla first meet? What motivated you to all start working on Stilla’s music together?
Andreas Vidhall: I and Pär Stille have known each other since the early years of this century, and we have always shared an adoration for several kinds of music, most specifically the Scandinavian black metal of the 90’s – it is the music closest to our hearts, a ground zero so to speak that we have always returned to. As he was working with Bergraven and I with my projects (death metal and industrial noise mostly), we often discussed creating something together, but it wasn’t until 2011 that we thought up the appropriate vessel- that is, Stilla. We thought of it as both an homage to those magical albums of our youth (read, Norwegian black metal 1991-1998), a continuation and perhaps a development of that era’s sounds and artistic ambitions. Pär and Andreas Pettersson also go back a long time, working together on different projects over the years, Whirling perhaps being the most important for the formation of Stilla as it introduced our drummer Johan Marklund. Recording the first album together was an experiment, but over the course of a week locked up in that old cabin seen on the cover, from the first handshake to the final drinks at the Skellefteå airport, the essence of Stilla came together perfectly.
How does Stilla differ from Bergraven? Is there a difference in the approach to writing or playing music?
Pär Stille: It differs in inspirations. Stilla is about making the music that recreates the feelings I got when I heard the albums that inspired me to make metal music in the first place. Mainly the old Norwegian and Swedish “classics” (which is a terrible word) whose atmosphere and sound I can’t really find today. Bergraven was created more as an output for my personal feelings towards my inner self and the nature and civilization around me. So Stilla is more of a music-for-music’s-sake band, even though we take great inspiration from nature and writers of nature and times of old. Bergraven became very personal and changed direction after the first album and became what some people call progressive and experimental. [These are] not words I would choose because I think that Bergraven’s music is more a reflection of the lyrics in the way that they should represent the feelings and angst within them and therefore they are a bit uneven in time signatures and not so harmonius as the music of Stilla. The next album, which is really soon to be mixed, will prove this for those who has not understood yet. There should be a nerve, a tension that makes the music uncomfortable and angstridden but wrapped in a beautiful gift wrapper with hard knotted strings – a Pandora’s box-esque kind of feeling.
Stilla has been very prolific since the band started. What emotions or musical ideas keep driving the writing and recording process?
PS: When I write music it flows; if it does not flow it will never be any good. I get ideas from everywhere. It could be others’ music, but mostly either theoretic ideas and structures that I have to translate into listenable music. With Stilla there are really tight straps that holds me down on what I can do and what would fit, and that is a blessing and a curse. I want big atmospheres and tones that touch me. Almost like listening to Schnittke’s choir works but with a more harmonious feel to it. Nature isn’t as cruel as Schnittke, and Stilla is a representation of nature and the feelings it creates within. Also space creates this feeling, but since we’re not Nocturnus we try to translate this to a setting we are able to handle lyricwise.
To be really honest much music is created in a partiture writing program with MIDI sound. I write [complete] ideas and then change stuff to be able to [experiment with] what I like the most before doing demos that I send to the rest of the band. Since we now live in four different places in Sweden we don’t get to meet very often, so jamming in the old way is not an option. I am not the dictator in the band but the ideas mostly originate from me and then the others feel and think if we should change things or not.
To answer the question of the driving force it is simple: Relief… Relief from the world and to get into something that makes me comfortable to get on with the more human part of life. All members have other bands and project so I guess this is a very creative bunch of people that make things happen and not just sit around and wait for someone else to make the records they want to hear.
There’s a very cool balance in Stilla’s music between heaviness and creative non-metal elements. Do you feel like the band starts from black metal and discovers other sounds that fit, or is the music more abstract than that and metal just happens to fill in the ideas well?
PS: An absolutley relevant question! But I think you are wrong from the beginning. I don’t make music for Stilla out of any ready made form or have some deep thoughts about what it should represent. I only DO IT. I don’t think there are “metal elements” or “non metal elements” any more and there has never been for me except for those bands who are possessed by their music being METAL. That is really not the case with Stilla. I mean the demo of Ulver and records by Manowar or Girlschool have not too much in common, right? I have always listened to a great variety of music but with Stilla I want the feeling that I almost can’t find in any other modern band but that I can find in ohh sooo many records from the 90’s. And then you have the aspect of influence from nature. Nature isn’t one thing, it is a variety of things but still that old nature. An Iron Maiden (the boring 80’s band and not the amazing band from the 60’s) record is ONE thing and is expected to be mostly ONE thing. I can absolutely appreciate that when I listen to some bands but diversity and nuances is nothing but essential for making the Stilla-feeling. Black metal is mainly a satanic thing to me and since neither I or nobody else in the band, I think, could label themselves satanic that is not a good term for labeling what we do. The swedish term “svartmetall” (which translates as the same thing) is more of just black for the sake of black in the opposite of white and metal for the inheritance we have from old black metal bands. It is only semantic but has some point to be understood If you want to grasp the holistic perspective. I would rather be associated with Aghast (the norwegian duo that is) rather than Venom if that is understandable.
How did you originally start working with Nordvis?
AV: Given that Andreas Pettersson was the vocalist of Stilla, and we recorded in his studio at his home, no other breathing entity involved in the production of the album at all, it was a most logical step to release the album through his label, Nordvis. That way we kept, and have since kept, every step of the process, from the first riffs to the physical release in our hands, within the band (with a few exceptions; the vinyl of Ensamhetens Andar, and the mastering and cover artwork of Skuggflock, and a few pieces of lyrics that might or might not be borrowed from long dead authors and poets…).
Was the recording of your new album any different from your previous experiences making records?
AV: For all three albums so far, we have worked according to the same procedure: with the material mostly prepared in advance (music written by Pär Stille and debated and reshaped within the band), we have sequestered ourselves for a week or so in said late 19th century cabin where Andreas built his studio to develop and record the material. Given that we live in separate parts of a large country (the distance between my home and the studio being equivalent to that between Berlin and Rome), we only get the whole band together when it is time to record. No band practice, no waste of time: we work, we drink, we venture into the deep dark forest, we work some more. Since the studio is so far up north and the third album was recorded in early December 2014, we only had two-three hours of daylight, the sun never rising above the tree line, which added to the sensation of being completely shut out of the world, in our own cosmos so to speak.
I cannot recall any specific occurances during the studio session, besides practical issues with malfunctioning gear that always occur; trolls creeping into the studio at night wrecking amplifiers and such…
How important is it that you practice and become more proficient with your instruments? Do you feel that the band’s musicality has developed over time? If so, what specifically have you worked on?
AV: From my perspective as a bass player, technical proficiency is not a goal in itself: the only object is to perfect the songs as needed. Sometimes this demands me to perform physically difficult riffs and melodies, but more often the challenge is to not play too much. To choose the tones that become MUSIC in a proper sense is a question of listening and using ones experience as a musician, rather than heaping a barrage of intricate melodies and whatnot without actually communicating anything beyond, “Look what I can play!” With the leanings of Stilla, this is always a gamble, as the riffs often leave plenty of room for the bass to run amok and overplay constantly, without sense or taste. That is of course also a form of instrumental proficiency that demands practice and conscious effort, but it comes from another place than the simple technicality most often associated with your question.
PS: To be a virtuoso has nothing to do with being creative and/or make good music. I despise those who think so. Some of my favorite records are played by totally unskilled performance (heck, some of them not even human!).
As a dumb American, I’m interested to know about the lyrical content of your songs.
AV: The lyrics, this time penned by me and Pär (with some, let’s say influence from certain deceased authors), range over a variety of subjects, somehow vaguely connected. I will only give a handful “code words” or phrases: the silent depths of space, the spirits of those drowned in lakes, the end of the universe and what comes after, haunting nightmares, the desolation of nature bereft of human presence, the yearning for spiritual silence, the horrifying realization of the nature of cosmos. Ask the other members and they will give you different answers; our lyrics are responses to inner visions or sensations, so it is difficult to pin them down to certain topics. My approximations are mine only, whoever reads them will form their own idea, hopefully – and those of you not versed in Scandinavian languages will have to make do with the music…
PS: There are no dumb Americans in this context, it is just that we take inspiration from what is around our corners rather than some Americans corners. If you wrote songs from the feelings you get out of reading Harper Lee or Charles Bukowski that would be the exact same thing.
After you finish an album, what is your relationship to that music? Are you exhausted and glad to be finished, or are you excited and still engaged by the new music?
AV: Again, from my personal perspective, it is a bit of both. After working with an album, having the songs and lyrics floating in your head every waking hour (and often in your dreams as well), it is a release to deliver and be rid off it, letting it go and not being able to influence or change it anymore. I think any artist or creator would say the same. After some time however it pleasurable to return to it, taking pride in something you were an indispensable part in creating. With the gap in time between recording and releasing this third album, it is quite weird to return to something I, in this case, more or less left behind over a year and a half ago (other than supporting the mixing process, working with song titles and layout etc), and consider it as something brand new, as it appears to the general audience outside of the band.
Are you planning to play this music in a live setting?
AV: This question has come up, within the band and from the outside. All I can say at this moment is that we are not planning any live performances, but it is not a complete impossibility should the stars be in their right position etc etc. Right now we are spread across the country, the closest distance between two of us at 100 miles (from me to our vocalist, 1000 miles), so there are obviously some logistical obstacles to overcome for us to even consider rehearsing a live performance.