Northern Rites: An Interview with Norilsk

After returning from tour, Norilsk’s Nicolas Miquelon barely has time to put up his feet and relax before we hit him with an interview request. Although he has nobody but himself—and his bandmate, drummer/fellow renaissance man Nick Richer—to blame for all the attention his band’s been getting. Because Norilsk are a peculiar band. They’re the kind of band whose music demands attention, but promotes curiosity. Without a shred of gimmickry, this blackened sludge-death duo (although they play live as a quartet) have crafted a debut full length that sounds unlike anything else you’ve heard before. In a word, it is tremendous. Coupled with its towering, sprawling nature, The Idea of North is also a deeply layered and thought-provoking record. It’s the kind of album that makes one want to ask questions of those who created it. And so we did.

Norilsk strikes me as a hermetic band. It’s just the two of you doing a lot of the legwork, even beyond just writing and performing the music. For instance, I saw that Nick Richer directed the video for “Nature morte.” Any reason you two like to play it so close to the chest?

It is very much DIY, probably because it was easier to work this way. When we recorded the album, very few people had heard of Norilsk or grasped where it was headed. From my previous experience in bands and blogs, I brought the writing and business side of things to the project. As for Nick Richer, aside from being a great friend and musician, he’s a trained photo- and videographer, and he directed several music videos for local bands. Because we wanted a distinct artistic approach (and visual) to Norilsk, it was natural that we undertook these first steps and sculpted the band’s identity ourselves. It doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t consider the possibility of working with other people in the future (take the “Japetus” video directed by Petr Maur as an example).

I read in an interview that you didn’t want the band name to be a French or an English word. What drew you to choosing an inaccessible and esoteric name?

Our lyrics are mostly in French, with some English. We live in a frontier city between Quebec (Vive le Québec libre) and Ontario (God save the Queen), and have atypical personal backgrounds. We surely wanted to avoid political tags (separatist / federalist), but we also wanted to connect the band’s name with the content. Doom-death is generally anthropocentric (just think about themes of depression, sadness, loss, and solitude), and we constantly use Nordic metaphors. Choosing a human establishment seemed predestined, and no other city seemed more evocative than Norilsk, located above the Arctic Circle, in Siberia.

So your mentioning the anthropocentric nature of doom-death (I agree, but would add “most extreme metal” to your observation) makes me want to know more about where Norilsk, i.e. you and Nick, come from. Could you describe your setting, and, specifically, your writing/rehearsal space? 

Norilsk was born in my old apartment, an early 20th Century working class apartment building, set in a historic district at the heart of Hull (now Gatineau), in the province of Quebec. This place was located only a few hundred meters away from one of the bridges crossing the river and leading to the downtown of Ottawa, Ontario, where the nightlife and most music venues are. The Idea of North was composed in a spare room turned into an office/music room, and fed by late night discussions. It was convenient meeting there because Nick lives out of town, and him and I always attended shows. I since moved into a modest house, still in the same city, and this is where we now have our rehearsal space and where the music is composed. Every jam, there is pizza, pierogies, or something warm coming out of the oven, along with a few icy drinks.

You’re called “doom-death,” but your music rather defies taxonomy, doesn’t it? I definitely hear some Gregor Mackintosh in some of your riffs—the solo in “Planète Heurt” especially, but that’s not you, right?—nor do I think you would ever pass on some tasty Finnish funeral doom. Yet, as expansive and open to interpretation as the doom-death-doom subgenre is, I see Norilsk as an outlier even still. Sorry, I’m just rambling now. But how did you land on that descriptor, exactly? 

We could be rambling on this topic for hours/pages. We feel kinship with doom-death because we grew up and were heavily influenced in our formative years by this 1990’s scene. Many of these bands inspired the creation of Norilsk. However, it’s more the spirit that we carry, because the year is 2016 and we listen and crave many other genres, old and new.

People hear various influences on The Idea of North, including on guest guitarist Martin Marion’s solo on “Planète Heurt.” At the end of the day, whatever our artistic intent is, I know it’s ultimately the reviewers and the fans that will tell us what style we play.

You’ve recently returned from tour. Was this a Canadian tour, or did you go abroad for any dates?

It was a humble Canadian tour. 8,036 km to be exact, which is the equivalent of going from Moscow to Spain, and back. Previous attempts to tour Europe didn’t work for various reasons, therefore we saw a Canadian tour as an opportunity to consolidate our fanbase and expand our network. I think having this tour under our belt will help us plan a tour abroad, which is something we would love to do should the opportunity arise.

Photo credit: Ghost Monkey Productions
Photo credit: Ghost Monkey Productions

Any highlights from the tour? Like, what city or town had the best turn out? Where were you treated the best? 

We planned this tour around the Black Mourning Light Festival, in Edmonton, and I will say, it did not disappoint. Being a 66% black metal and 33% doom festival, I think it helped us to stand out while reaching our target audience. This is one of the few times we had repetitive circle pits, and were connected with so many fans. It also provided the opportunity to meet promoters, bloggers, labels, and publicists who we’ve worked with for years, yet never met in person nor played before them. The Festival also organizes ‘The Mourning After’, which is a brunch for the bands and VIP tickets holders—hands down one the best ways to treat touring bands. Another highlight of the tour was in Ottawa, our hometown, as we had our finale show supporting the mighty High On Fire in front of a packed house.

That’s incredible you had “repetitive circle pits” at the fest. Is it mostly just head-banging at your shows? Because, I mean take a song like “Throa” for example. That’s got a whopper of a breakdown in it. What’s the crowd reaction you’re used to seeing at Norilsk shows?

I find most people attending doom or black metal shows to be generally contemplative. Our fastest/grooviest songs, like “Throa” or “La liberté aux ailes brisées”, can get different degrees of headbanging, but people generally stay in their personal space and focus on what’s happening on stage. I also think when the beat changes (faster, slower), when we start headbanging, or when we do the odd time-signature punches (“Planète Heurt”), it throws people off guard and catches their attention–which is a good thing.

Any bummers out there on the road?

Getting a cold is always a bummer, same with venues and promoters cancelling gigs. But these are things which we have little control over and, aside from this, I try to look at everything as a learning experience.

When you go out on tour, is it just you and Nick, or are other musicians involved for live performances? 

Norilsk’s music is written to be played live with two guitars, bass and drums. We always have two live guitarists when we play a gig, as Nick plays the drums and I am more comfortable playing bass and screaming. For the Doom Over the Great White North tour, our live musicians were Chris Humeniuk and Thomas Hansen, both from the Ottawa death metal band Fumigation.

Are these the guys draped in burgundy robes from the promo pic? Is the statement here that while they’re live musicians, they’re really just, like, utilitarian pieces? 

It was our original intent to have them wear hoods, as in the promotional picture you refer to. The idea was to have them look anonymous while constant figures of the live act, especially considering we had a certain turnover of live guitarists in the last year and a half. We tried the hoods live, but the energy was different as the guys stood still, and we ended up trading the hoodies for a good heavy head swing of hair (haha).  

Have you ever played as a duo before? How was it?

We did jam as a duo a few times, but never performed live as such. I think we could perform as a duo only if we selected the more simple songs, and I added an arsenal of amps and pedals. It would absolutely be interesting, but it’s not in the short terms plans.

Ghost monkey productions
Ghost monkey productions

On your demo, you covered Voivod. On The Idea of North, you covered Philippe Lafontaine. Quite a range there! How do you choose your covers?

All of our covers were selected and arranged in a different context, and served a purpose. The Voivod song “Negatron” was meant to be a display of our Norilsk identity on the introductory EP, and our own tribute to one of the most important Canadian metal bands. A bonus track on the album CD, the Lafontaine cover, on the other hand, was a tongue-in-cheek (almost self-mocking) rendering of what our music can do, as we turned something joyful and light into something completely vicious and grim. The translated title (Heart of the Wolf) can be seen as a parody reference to so many gothic and black metal titles. More recently, we were invited by someone who grew up in Norilsk, Russia, to take part in an international metal tribute album to the goth pop diva Mylène Farmer, entitled “Trois décennies”. This time around, given the nature of the project, we tried to stick as closely as possible to the original song, except for the black metal vocals and our heavy sound.

What is The Idea of the North to you? The meaning behind the title, I mean. 

The idea of North is something abstract, an inspiration we are aiming towards. I borrowed the title from pianist Glenn Gould, who coined the expression in a brilliant radio documentary where he interviewed various people about their personal experience of the North. Many people see our album to the first degree: cold, grim, Nordic, vast, beautiful, or drenched in solitude. These are indeed the metaphors I am using, but I tried to distance myself from the general stereotypes so often used in metal by adding other depths and meanings. To go back to your question about the title of the album, the North is something elusive, something more of a concept and that we will never fully be able to grasp; at least for 99.9% of us, even for those living in the cities that we call the Great White North – except maybe for the courageous citizens of Norilsk.

Can you tell us a little bit about the recording process for the full length?

We recorded the drums at Pebbles Studio in Ottawa, and all the other instruments at Studio En-Phase in Montreal. Because we had talked about the drum patterns, but never jammed all the songs together prior to recording, there was some necessary improvisation in the studio. Nick Richer is great at feeling a song and trying different approaches. When he recorded the drums, I was standing behind a glass window, only giving him cues and telling him where the music changes, and he would interpret it his own way, like a bluesman. I then recorded each instrument separately, and Nick joined me for the backing vocals. We kept many ‘first takes’ with their imperfections to keep the organic energy and a certain ‘sludginess’ on the album. While this recording process represents a certain dose of risk, I think it overall adds character to this album.

Recording The Idea of North was a little like a walk in the dark. Nick and I had each recorded other albums with other bands, in various studios and with different methods. While we knew how we were to record this album, we didn’t quite know if it would suit the purpose of this project and be successful – both from a performance and a recording technique point of view.

How much does the final product sound like what you wanted it to?

As a first album, we didn’t know 100% what to expect as a product – something heavy and organic, probably not too polished, and that was about it. It was mixed by Mike Bond (@Produced by Bond), who also recorded the drums. I think there was an equal part of us saying “we want it to sound large and deep”, and him playing around with the textures. The recording and production ended up better than we expected, which allowed us to push the album and band further. Looking ahead, The Idea of North will be an important reference point upon entering the studio for the next album, as it will provide us with a benchmark to continue exploring the Norilsk sound.

How does Norilsk live differ from The Idea of North?

Music wise, certain songs have been adapted for the live experience: for example, we changed the rhythm section in the solo of “Planète Heurt” to bring things up a little bit, and we extended other parts to allow for a bit of extra guitar jamming and drone effect (“Potsdam Glo”, “La liberté…”). We focus a lot on the energy and presence of the songs when we play them live, which I think sheds a different light on Norilsk.

Are you playing any new songs live yet?

We don’t. Our songs are relatively long, and playing a 30 or 45 minute set means we only have time to play 4 or 6 songs. Because the tour was about promoting The Idea of North, and because most people haven’t seen us live before, we played a selection of songs from this album exclusively, most often in the order they appear on the album.

Have you started working on any material?

We have enough material written for a new full length album, and more. There are some lyrics to complete and arrangements to do here and there, but we plan working on this over the cold months, before hitting the studio. The Idea of North‘s material was written in 2011-12, and only released in 2015 (CD, cassette) and 2016 (vinyl), because we shopped for labels and worked with their release plans. As a result, a lot of new material got written in the meantime.

Thank you, Nicolas, for the excellent correspondence.

Thank you and Decibel magazine for this interview. We will unveil a new music video for the song “Throa” very soon, stay tuned. Norilsk merch can be purchased via War On Music Records, Sunmask Records, Hypnotic Dirge Records, and Dwyer Records.