Q&A: Øystein G. Brun’s Borknagar Are Truly North From Here


Norway’s Borknagar are stronger than ever. After 24 years (they’ll be celebrating their silver next year) of free thinking through the vagaries of black, progressive, and death metals, as well as folk music, Borknagar have released their most important album since Empiricism (if you’re a Vintersorg fan) or The Olden Domain (if you’re a Garm fan) in True North. While True North has neither frontmen as frontman–that’s ICS Vortex’s job (and to an extent Lars ‘Lazare’ Nedland’s as well)–it’s a nine-track wonder of snow-capped mountains, dense forests, cold rivers (not lakes, natch), and blustery winds. It’s the kind of album only Borknagar could make, but not the album we, as fans, expected after the majesty of Winter Thrice. True North is actually better: more realized, varied, and downright spiritual.

Decibel has long had an affinity for Borknagar. We’ve supported the Norwegians through ups (you should listen to Universal again) and downs (no U.S. tour for ages!), but there’s no greater time than now to show Borknagar how far they’ve come with True North. From impressive chart entries across the globe (#9 in Norway and #12 on the Billboard Hard Rock Chart) to tour announcements across the board–including a surprise run in the U.S. in spring 2020 on the Devastation On The Nation tour–the Norwegians in their ageless awesomeness are not only inspired but performant. True North has arrived! Prepare to lose yourself in Borknagar once again.

Decibel and Borknagar jarl Øystein G. Brun open up the compass…

Next year will be the 25th birthday of Borknagar. When you formed this band as a 20-year old did you think the course (not so archaic, really) would take you this far? Eleven albums and into your 40s?
Øystein G. Brun: Absolutely not. Back in the day when starting to play around with the ideas about the band I had no goal aside from making music I love myself. At that time, the whole concept of making money, doing big festivals, and traveling around the world was so far off that I wasn’t even thinking thoughts along those lines. But that said, I have always had the belief that genuinely good music can move mountains.

The most notable change between Winter Thrice and True North is the lineup change. Jens, Baard, and, Vintersorg are out. And in are Jostein, Bjørn, with Simen and Lars taking on the vocal responsibilities. How has the lineup change manifested itself in Borknagar, the band and the music?
Øystein G. Brun: Indeed, after Winter Thrice there has been some changes in the camp. Some were tough, others were straight out pragmatic. And even though, as much as appreciate and respect past members, changes had to be done in order to take a step further. Borknagar is now a much more focused, refined, and potent band in all aspects. And I think that shines through on the new album.

Winter Thrice built a lot of excitement around the return of all three Borknagar vocalists. That kind of buzz is hard to do normally. Apart from True North being a new Borknagar album, what will the buzz be?
Øystein G. Brun: Yeah, Winter Thrice was to some extent our own celebration of ourselves. The 10th album, 20 years since we released the first album and so on. So, during the process we figured that we would like to do something special, and that led to the Winter Thrice song with all the vocalists. The stars are not aligned in the same manner this time, but I am fully convinced that True North will make some buzz without any extra topping on the cake. I am pretty sure the share quality of this album will make mountains crumble.

You took the long path to write and record True North. Two years. Was it more process or was it logistics that pushed out the time between to two years?
Øystein G. Brun: Well, various reasons. Personally, I needed a bit space to breathe after an intense period with the production, release, and live support of Winter Thrice. As simple as that. Furthermore, we needed to sort out a few internal issues, which ultimately lead to the change of members mentioned above. But most importantly, at an age of 44 and with pretty decent back catalog in my backpack I don’t want to stress things anymore. When writing and producing songs we allow ourselves to spend the time necessary to achieve what we want musically.

You’ve described True North as “the most diverse, powerful and grandiose album” in Borknagar’s history. Please, explain.
Øystein G. Brun: Yes, I stand behind those words. In fact, I would argue that True North is more diverse than anything we have done before from an objective point of view. There is, in general, more variation and interesting dynamics going on throughout the album, and from song to song. Even though we wanted to preserve a solid consistency throughout the album we worked a lot to make each and every song stick out with an own personality and vibe.

And how would you say True North is different from Winter Thrice?
Øystein G. Brun: Well, that is a tough question. My simple answer is that we have taken a step further into our own musical world and have been pushing our own limits. Still, I think True North is overall a much more refined and focused album. Straighter to the core of things, so to speak. And then obviously, we have all the empirical changes as Mr. Vortex taking the frontman role, Lars doing more vocals in general, new guitarist, and new drummer. All this adds up to a more enriched flavor overall, I would say.

Who was the primary songwriter? Typically, it’s you, Øystein, but I suspect there are more influences from other members (Lars and Simen) creeping into the finished songs.
Øystein G. Brun: Yeah, guess it’s fair to still call me the primary songwriter. Or the grand old man, if you prefer that. But that said, yet another dimension to the production of True North is the fact that we worked much closer as a band with this album. For Winter Thrice we worked more independently in our respective studios sending files back and forth, but with True North we, for the most part, teamed up when recording various bits and pieces. A natural consequence of this was that we had a much more dynamic process where various ideas entwined more. But of course, this is also because Lars wrote three songs to the album and Simen one. All together we had 12-13 songs written for this album, but in the end of the day we landed on nine songs.

Where did the title come from? True North has a very direct quality to it. There’s no other way than to go true north. Or, in true north lies the answer.
Øystein G. Brun: True North was actually Mr. Vortex’s idea. I must admit that we had a fairly long discussion about the title, considering various ideas. It’s tough to wrap up a whole album in a few words. But in the end of the day we felt True North captured the essence of the album in the best way. To me, an album title should hold various layers of meaning rather than being some sort of traffic sign. Actually True North is a very basic term in the field of navigation/orientation. True north differs slightly from the grid and magnetic north as an example, which are somewhat relative depending on the scope and position of things. True north, on the other hand, is the constant in all this, sort of the baseline for all other directions. If you get completely lost at sea, you would need to find true north in order to pin out your orientation. And so forth. And I guess that is the fundamental idea we want to flag with this album title.

And lyrically, what are songs of True North communicating? Are there holdover themes from Winter Thrice, such as the state of nature, what state the world is in environmentally, etc.?
Øystein G. Brun: Yes, we are definitely carrying on with our lyrical tradition from Winter Thrice. But there are really no direct holdovers, to be quite honest. As with the music we worked a lot tighter as a band, also with the lyrics. As an example, all my lyrics this time around were written together with Lars. Previously, I have been writing with a more philosophical approach and with a less clear meaning. But this time around, I wanted my lyrics to hold more of a direct meaning, story or theme.

What was the studio (or studios) sessions like for True North? I know that there hasn’t been a single defining studio session since Empiricism, due to all members owning or having access to home studios.
Øystein G. Brun: Yes, we have been around in various studios also this time. We recorded the drums at Strand Studio in Oslo and the rest was recorded round and about, hence our respective studios. Lars did all synth recordings in his private studio, Mr. Vortex did the bass in his private studio and so forth. But in the end of the day, the major portion of the recordings where done here at my studio.

So, at your newly built Crosound Studio?
Øystein G. Brun: Yes, as mentioned above a big part of the recordings where done here at my own Crosound Studio. We teamed up here several times, locked ourselves in for a couple of days and did nothing but recording and producing. Well, some food and beers, obviously. But it was intense.
Of natural causes I did most of the engineering and producing as all material went through my studio in order to prepare files and all that. For every step, I did process mixes so that we where able to lean back and get an impression of where all this was heading production wise. So, guess I was in the forefront in terms of engineering and producing, but in the end of the day it was really all about teamwork.

Why did you decide to go back to Jens Bogren for mixing and mastering?
Øystein G. Brun: Because he is the very best in what he does, quite simply. There are a lot of great mixers out there, but in my opinion, Jens is just a head above everyone else when it comes to mixing metal. His way of understanding our music and how he approaches the material given are close to godlike. That coming from a hardcore atheist says a lot, I guess. [Laughs] In terms of improvements, we didn’t have any clear mission except for pushing our musical boundaries. But of course, now having access to a pro studio 24/7 make things easier in terms of high-quality recordings, make process mixes along the line and all that. So, I am pretty sure the material delivered to Jens this time around had quite much better qualities than in the past. And that was, of course, part of my plan, to make sure Jens could spend the time available doing awesome mixing instead of spending a lot of time repairing recording flaws or whatever.

What is the cover trying to convey? There’s an unfiltered quality to it. No funny Photoshop blurs or image blending. It’s just stark.
Øystein G. Brun: This time around we wanted to capture some of the crisp, organic and authentic feel of the debut cover. Something that actually belongs to this world, something you can actually see in real life. The photo was taken by my good friend and photographer Thor Erik Dullum and the picture is of the mighty Årbostadtinden in the north of Norway. Furthermore, I wanted the cover to somewhat reflect the album title. If you are lost at sea, gone astray in a blizzard or about to be choked by a sandstorm–what would you like to see appear in front of you? A safe haven, crisp and clear. That is some of the conceptual idea behind both the cover and album title.

Musically, what do you think fans, long time and new, are in for with True North? There’s so much cool stuff happening. Intensity, frailty, nods back to the debut, yet enough new momentum to feel like this is the next chapter in Borknagar’s story.
Øystein G. Brun: Well, I have always had an idea that a Borknagar album, in a sense, should resemble life in all its facets. Sometimes life is rough, sometimes life is good. To me, life is ultimately an adventure and my goal is quite simply to invite the listener into our musical adventure. And if the music I am doing matters in peoples’ lives, in a good way, that’s the very best feedback I can get.

Is there something you’d like fans to focus on while listening to True North? Maybe a centerpiece, the cover art, the layout, the lyrics to a specific song?
Øystein G. Brun: Hmm… Nah, I would prefer to leave this entirely to the listener to decide. I mean, a profound idea behind the musical universe of Borknagar is to support the free-thinkers’ mentality. One thing I will say though, listen and let your mind fly!

What are Borknagar’s next steps? It seems there’s a bit more pep in the band’s step lately, having performed in the U.S. for the first time in 20 years, with a new lineup, new music…
Øystein G. Brun: You know, being a free-minded adventurer, I intensely hate to plan things in general. I really do. But that said, I guess I need to adapt to the reality as everybody else. For U.S. fans we are excited to be on the Devastation On The Nation Tour with Rotting Christ and Wolfheart. That will be a full month in the U.S., which we haven’t done since 1999. We can’t wait to play songs like “Up North,” “The Fire That Burns,” and “Voices” (and some of our classics) for our fans!

** Borknagar’s True North is out now on Century Media Records. Click HERE to order from Century Media. They’re offering CDs, limited-color LPs, and t-shirt bundles. Join Borknagar… Into the white! Into the nothing…