Attempting to classify an act like ULVER, let alone describe their sprawling sonic spectrum, has never been an easy task, and the past few years haven’t helped. From the haunting classical compositions of Messe VI-XII and Childhood’s End’s faithful takes on the gems of ‘60s psychedelia to the understated bliss of their collaboration with Sunn O))), they are one of the most unpredictable and constantly surprising bands to exist within the underground. In February 2014, they took this even further with a dozen largely improvised concerts spread throughout Europe which have now been chopped, edited and reformed across twelve tracks in ATGCLVLSSCAP, their 12th album (depending on how you look at it). Founder Kristoffer Rygg talked us through the finer details of this immersive and ambitious project.
Congratulations on the new album. I won’t even attempt to pronounce it.
It doesn’t roll so easily off the tongue, does it?
Not quite. What were you referring to it as? Wasn’t it just something like 12?
Well yeah, we were toying a bit with that number for a few reasons. Not that it was a serious concept or anything, we just found it a bit curious that things started to revolve around the dozen. The number of concerts that have found their way into this album is twelve, it’s twelve tracks and, depending on how liberal your view of full-length albums is, it’s also sort of our 12th album. We got a bit OCD about that and started Googling all sorts of stuff and came across this mnemonic by which to remember the signs of the zodiac – All The Great Constellations Live Very Long Since Stars Can’t Alter Physics – which we thought was quite hilarious but probably too far out [laughs] so we went with the abbreviations instead. It’s a bit of humour going on too of course… a numerological nonsense. [laughs]
How was the experience of those shows? Apart from your shows with Æthenor, was that your first time working live with so much improvisation?
In the context on Ulver, it was. As you mentioned, I have had some previous experience with it as does Dan (O’Sullivan) as we both play together in Æthenor. The two of us had done that and as Ulver a lot of the things we have made in the past actually often start that way for us too – just jamming, locking into a groove or allowing musical themes to find themselves in a way, by just playing together. It’s not total improv in the sense that we had nothing – we had some of those bass grooves, or on a track like “Moody Stix” we’d just kind of rock out on top of old samples, you know, so there were some basic underlays there, but the length of things and how it happened each night was very open and loose – semi-improvised is probably a more accurate way to describe this album.
Was it a smooth process or was there much variation from night to night?
That’s the nature of that game, isn’t it? It’s quite dynamic, how it all goes. The story is that we did this once before. The first time was before the tour, in the fall of 2013, at the Øya festival’s nightclub concept at a club called Blå, in Oslo, and that was our first time doing it. That was pretty great, I would say. It took us quite by surprise actually, how well it gelled for a first attempt, so naturally we figured “let’s do this”, and take it to select cities. We went in maybe a bit too cocky so those first couple gigs, I would say, were trying. A lot of nervous energy going on. We were struggling a bit to find our feet with it, but I remember distinctly when we came to Berlin it seemed to crystallize and the individual perception or experience may have varied a bit from player to player on the following gigs, but overall I would say it was blissfully free of disaster from there on out.
How was the editing and the post-production? There must have been a huge amount of material to get through there.
Yeah definitely, let’s say we had roughly 20 hours of 24-track recordings, so that’s a bit to digest, but to be honest you’d have to ask Daniel about all that because we did the sadistic thing and put him to the task of going through it all [laughs], so he’s the one who made the principal choices for this album, deciding that we were going to use this from that gig and that from that gig and he worked quite a bit on it before he sent it over to us. We got involved a bit later and with a less fatigued mind than usual [laughs] so it’s all win-win in that sense for the overall energy of the project, but yeah, I didn’t dig through all the gig-recordings myself. Thank you Dan! [laughs] Seriously, I have to say there’s a level of trust in him and his abilities here, you know. We knew he would do a good job with this material, basically.
From that point of view or you pleased with the outcome and how cohesive it sounds? It sounds like an actual album rather than a series of excerpts.
We wanted it to feel like an album, but born a different way. It was tough, considering the volume of raw material and the fact that there’s quite a lot of different music to take from. So it had to be approached a bit piece by piece. It didn’t really make sense to go all in a rock direction or all in a more droney, synthy one either – it’s a bit of both, or more things that we were tapping into while out there. In that sense, it probably could have been more stylistically cohesive, but I think it’s an interesting sort of revolving trip nonetheless.
The whole project seemed on paper like a brave one, but you guys have always seemed like huge risk-takers.
We just do what makes sense to us, you know, what feels interesting to do.
Is there much forethought in this or is it largely an intuitive process for you?
It depends on what the project is, but I would say it’s a dance between the two, generally speaking. The playing itself is usually quite intuitive but we do tend to think out things in advance as well or at least have a sort of view towards a result, be a bit project-oriented, if you will.
Being able to change and adapt so much, do you feel that you are constantly in the process of learning within Ulver?
Yeah, of course. 100%. As you grow older you change and you acquire new interests. And you might lose some interests too, you know. And you’ll meet and play with new people and that obviously informs you and opens up new possibilities. In terms of studio and technology, new and exciting things happen all the time as well, so it’s sort of a linear curve going somewhere, I don’t know where. Well, the grave ultimately. [laughs]
Was that the same mindset you had back with the William Blake album and the Metamorphosis EP?
I don’t think I envisioned Ulver still playing in 2015 to be honest. At that time, it wasn’t established that we were in it for the long haul, so that sort of just happened. We got lucky, I guess. We did okay as young men and that made it possible for us to continue making music and set up our own studio and such. We occasionally did side-jobs here and there, when the chips were down, but we generally didn’t have to look for other ways to earn our keep. Then, as the catalogue grew, and we grew with it, the more it made sense to stick to our guns and keep on truckin’.
“As you grow older you change and you acquire new interests. And you might lose some interests too, you know. And you’ll meet and play with new people and that obviously informs you and opens up new possibilities.”
I imagined things really changed for the band with Dan coming in all those years ago.
Well, yeah, of course. But it’s not so singular. Things were changing overall.
Is there anything in particular that you felt he brought to your collective that was missing?
Not that we were really missing anything but things do tend to stagnate if there’s no infusion of fresh blood and when Dan joined, him and I had been together a lot in the context of Æthenor, and we had become really close through that. He’s a gifted instrumentalist who can pick up anything and play it, you know, and at first we sort of enlisted him to help us make it all come together live. Dan’s like three musicians in one body basically. [laughs] That was why he came into the fold at first but then that worked so well, and we were having such good times together, so it kind of felt right to put a title on it. He’s been instrumental in the live-aspect of Ulver – and later also on our albums, of course. There’s still the geographical obstacle, though, as he’s in London and we’re here in Oslo, so we still hang around in our studio and work on a regular basis like we used to, but now we also have this extra guy in London, you know. Overall it makes the band stronger, more capable and multifaceted as I see it. I might add that we have actually functioned more like a collective of people the last five years or so. Guys like Anders (Møller) and Ole Alex (Halstensgård) are also worth mentioning in this respect as they’ve also been very important these last years.
I was just wanting to check on some of the other work that Ulver has coming up. First up, your work on the production for the Norwegian National Theatre, of Dostoevsky’s Demons. How did that come about and what’s happening with it?
Well, the director’s an old friend of ours and a fan of the band basically. Nothing’s happening with it at the moment – it’s a similar situation actually. We haven’t got 20 hours but we certainly have 3 or 4 hours of stuff that we made for those guys lying about and we haven’t really mustered the will to put it all up there and start the editing. We’ve also been preoccupied with another live document, from Parma with an orchestra, which has been a nightmare to get mixed, so we’re all quite eager to make some new music by this point. So I guess Dostoevsky will stay in the archives for now and maybe in a year or two it could become a sort of archival release or document – we imagine something a la Neubauten’s Faust musik – but it would as I said, take some time to go through everything and edit and mix it properly, lay the actor’s voices atop and basically put it in a shape suitable for a listen-to-it-at-home type situation. We sort of need to restructure the entire dramaturgy of it.
Did you approach the writing for that in a similar way to your soundtrack work in the past, like Lyckantropen Themes?
Not exactly. The soundtrack thing is quite closely linked to real-time, in a way. You have to find tempos and stay on grids and simultaneously hit the cues and such in a bit of a disciplinary way whereas the thing we did with the National Theatre was to make a lot of different music trying to touch on the moods of the thing in a quite loose way and then the director and the sound guy at the theatre would choose which backgrounds they liked, or that worked in rehearsal, and use it rather freely. It’s a bit different, more ‘jazz’ in its approach, but in terms of trying to capture a mood, it’s obviously the same.
I’d heard you say that you were wanting to do a second part to Childhood’s End as well. Have you have any further thoughts on that?
I think that’s just something I said because I enjoyed making that record so much. It’s sort of a personal love affair for me, the sound of the ‘60s, the Summer of Love and that kind of thing, and it was a really nice process too, just getting so heavily into playing those tunes and then doing it live at Roadburn. It was just a great time for us, really, so it’s a nice thought to do a Volume II, but it takes a lot of time too. It’s a big production job that one actually – it wasn’t done in a matter of weeks [laughs], so for the time being I think that album will have to suffice in the covers album department.
That Roadburn show was one of my highlights that year but it seemed to really polarise people – it was a real love-hate thing.
It usually is with us! [laughs]
Can I take it you’re quite used to those reactions?
I didn’t notice to be honest. I was having too much fun and to us it felt real tight and the vibes were just great. I noticed a few after, as you say, polarised reviews, but that’s all good and healthy I would say. There’s the obvious factor, of course, that a lot of the Roadburn ‘regulars’ are more tuned into the‘70s thing – Black Sabbath doom and gloom, and stoner and sludge rock, which are sort of modern variants of the same thing. We thought it would be interesting to do homage to something else in that context, that predates it, but yeah, maybe the music itself just didn’t sit too well with some of the more gloomy types, you know? Too much flower power. [laughs]
“We wanted it to feel like an album, but born a different way. It was tough, considering the volume of raw material and the fact that there’s quite a lot of different music to take from. So it had to be approached a bit piece by piece.”
The final future thing was that you are repressing Perdition City with Metamorphosis. How was it revisiting that material, particularly Metamorphosis? Was there much treatment of it?
I haven’t really revisited it as such – but it’s been remastered for vinyl so that’s always nice, kind of forces me to listen to the old stuff in a more involved way. Things have obviously happened with technology since those things were made so it’s always good to hear it again with a bit more carefully added production sheen on top. But there’s no remixing or anything, it’s a straight up reissue with a new 2015 remaster for vinyl. Test presses sound really good now I think. The first press we had to reject. That’s when we decided to do it properly, remaster and do a double vinyl, which in turn gave us an extra side on which we decided to put Metamorphosis, as a bonus. As far as the music goes, it’s what can I say… Electronic? I think Perdition City has some pretty strong characteristics overall, that resonate with that era. The IDM and trip-hop thing was pretty strong at the time so it’s got that as well as that Lynchian noir, haunted, city-by-night jazzy vibe that bands like Bohren & Der Club of Gore do so well now. It’s got a few of those ingredients going for it and I still think it makes for a solid soundscape. I remember well the times… when we made that stuff, sort of pre-millennium urbanoia going on you know [laughs], it was pretty intense. Maybe not all of it has stood the test of time though. Metamorphosis… that first song [laughs], our only time going for full-on breakbeat techno.
You recently produced Myrkur’s debut album. How was the experience of working with Amalie, who by her own admission was heavily influenced by your earlier work?
Ah, my little sis, I call her that now. [laughs] Amalie and I became close friends through that and it was great project to be involved with, and kind of an honourable thing for me really, since she is so outspoken about her love of that stuff. Sometimes though, because she’s so heavily into those early things and also contemporary music in a similar landscape – things that I haven’t really paid much attention to for a long time – sometimes the ‘generation gap’ thing would happen, you know, where she would maybe expect me to feel certain things that I felt a lot stronger 20 years ago [laughs], but that also made the process kind of an interesting challenge… I kind of had to invoke a younger, more metal-me [laughs], and cool things happened as a result of that I think. I really hope I was able to help her make the album she envisioned. I see the album is kind of killing it out there, reaping awards and stuff, so I am very happy for her.
Going back to the zodiac album, much of it seems to carry a very positive feeling. Did you get that vibe yourself and was it intentional?
Not specifically aiming for it but I guess it’s in the nature of the music itself. It becomes what it becomes, in a way, without us forcing or willing it too much in this or that direction. We just rehearsed a couple days before we went on that tour to keep it kind of loose and open to interpretation. A lot of it is based on repetition and groove. It’s quite rhythm-oriented, almost dancey in parts. We’ve visited some dark places in our past, both personally and musically, so it just made sense this time to go for a bit of ecstasy. [laughs] But we’re using some heavy lines though, from the Old Testament, towards the end, and there’s also that piece called “D-Day Drone”. I had some radio stock footage from the Normandy landings in the second World War, on my iPad which we used, so it’s not that it’s not touching on serious matter or anything, but musically, yeah, it’s a bit frisky. [laughs]
It’s getting harder and harder to pin Ulver down, which is always fun from a writer’s point of view.
Yeah, good luck with that. [laughs] They all have their individual appeal to me, these tracks. “Moody Stix”, with that one we were obviously toying a bit around with the Residents, that kind of slapstick vibe, that track is a bit circus and strange – the track that we play on top, “Doom Sticks”, is off an EP that we did about 12 years ago called A Quick Fix of Melancholy. Then there’s “Cromagnosis”, that was always so great playing – this stomping, dummm dumm… paleolithic rocker anthem. [laughs] Then there’s “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)”, which is a bit tongue-in-cheek from our side. It’s a bit more for the fans of the old stuff really, an olden goldie, and almost added as a bit of a pastiche. But I like it. Especially that cheesy ‘60s girl-pop stuff going on in the last half [laughs]
There’s also a bit of Tangerine Dream and Coil, who I know are huge influences on the band.
Yeah, they have been for well over 20 years now. It’s probably not too much of it here, but I guess it always seeps in somehow? The German school obviously informs this album, I would say both the more electronic stuff, like you said, Tangerine Dream and of course Kraftwerk, but also the proper Krautrock bands – Can, Faust, Amon Düül. It’s actually played in a lot of German cities too you know; we would be rolling in towards Cologne, and we would blast these kind of bands in the van and amp ourselves up for the night’s gig. So yeah, that’s a pretty massive influence on this album I would say.
How does touring feel to you now in comparison to those early shows? They seemed like one-off events in the beginning.
To start with, yes. We didn’t really know that we would be doing it until we actually pulled it off at the literature festival in Lillehammer in 2009. We owe a lot of the reason why we are doing live things now to Stig (Sæterbakken, RIP) who initiated that. He was on us year after year and really pulled out all the big guns to make it happen, and finally we succumbed, it was a nerve-shattering prospect for us. But it did go fairly well and we had sort of decided by then that if that concert went well we should do it again. Otherwise, it’s a lot of work and preparation just to play one gig, you know. So, that was really the ‘trial by fire’ moment for us and when it was over I guess we all just sort of relieved and thought, “Okay, we can do this now.” And so we did. We booked a pretty big tour not too long after. Now we’re a bit more acclimatised to it, of course, but it always comes with a bit of ambivalence for us. It’s not something we love unconditionally, as some bands do. It comes with a lot of stress, I would say, but for that moment when a gig is going well, somewhere in the world, it’s worth it, as most bands will tell you. It can be quite cathartic.