Even to those outside the fertile Norwegian underground, Darkthrone are a household name. In the early 90s Gylve Nagell and Ted Skjellum (a.k.a. Fenriz and Nocturno Culto) created a handful of albums that helped define black metal’s second wave and decades and many, many albums on, they’re still one of the most recognisable and recognisable voices in the heavy universe. Of course, Fenriz is becoming just as notable nowadays for his work in plugging everyone from Beastmilk to Sarcofago, but that’s not the point today – no, Darkthrone have a new album, Arctic Thunder, out and it’s a piercing collection of heavy metal righteousness that isn’t just admirable, it’s downright essential in the world today. With that in mind, we quizzed Fenriz on all things metal and he rose to the challenge.
Arctic Thunder feels like a really strong but natural progression from The Underground Resistance. Did the writing of it come from a similar place/process?
Well, kind of. It differs but not monumentally. What I did feel seeing The Underground Resistance in hindsight was that we couldn’t top it; we were well pleased. But when I came back from that camping trip and saw the photo, I started pondering like “This will be our album cover” and then “Whoa, I can finally use that Arctic Thunder title,” and then slowly but surely I understood that the photo really was begging for us doing a more sombre album, a more diecast one; there should be a sense of wholeness to it. Hence, I sacrificed my urge of singing, sacrificed my longings of the beautiful speed metal style (typically Sweden 1982-1985) that I did here and there and especially on the previous album and just switched to an old fave that I was doing in the beginning of Darkthrone in 1988, SLOW HEAVY METAL. Only after all these years, I can do that style and riffs more efficiently and drum better to it than I could back then. My songs are 1, 3, 5 and 8 on the album, by the way.
What are you and Ted like in the studio? Are you quite precise and perfectionists, or are you more focused on capturing a sense of immediacy?
Immediacy is everything to me. It happens that I get a riff and make a song and I say to Ted “Can we record now” and he says no we can’t. And the other way around, I imagine. Then I scrap the track. I only want fresh meat when we go to record for real. [laughs] I just saw a front cover of Terrrorizer where we are quoted, “We believe in mistakes – and keeping them.” That says a lot. So when people go “Darkthrone are so punk”, well, it’s not punk on our last two albums but we mostly had that punk attitude when recording; we meet up, don’t know each other’s songs at all, quickly learn a song and very quickly record it.
The old clichéd influences question – if you dig Arctic Thunder, what albums should you be hunting down?
I do digress and elaborate: I can’t speak for Ted here, I imagine that he always just makes music from his own head, inspired by himself, sitting down with his guitar and making it, but that would be pure guesswork on my end. Me, on the other hand, I had a vision for this album, Arctic Thunder, that I would make Darkthrone a bit more introverted this time. Why? Since we finally got our own studio again (thanks to Ted’s initiative back in 2005) we’ve been making a lot of freestyle records; many of the songs having lots of glint in their eyes. However, our last album shaved away some of the many styles we play and was a bit more serious but still incorporating heaps of different styles. We were very pleased with The Underground Resistance and personally I was wondering how to top it. So years went by and I felt the same way. That album was some kind of mammoth for us and it was hard to deal with the fact that we would either have to kill that mammoth or go around it. The latter was chosen (talking again about my own take on making new songs here) and I opted to shave away some more styles, leaving my usual knack for writing speed metal songs in the way of the Swedish 1983-1985 style behind. So what was there for me to make? SLOW HEAVY METAL. When I slowly decided to try for another album (back in the middle of 2015) I had 4 albums in mind. This doesn’t mean that I will sit down and listen to the albums and try to copy anything, but it’s more like a road map. Or after hearing music my whole life I choose away all of those thousands of albums and songs I do not want my inspiration to latch on to – instead creating a vision of a direction that I do want to delve into. Four albums were Dream Death – Journey Into Mystery (1987 New Renaissance Records), Sacrilege – Within The Prophecy (1987 Under One Flag), Black Sabbath – Mob Rules (1981 Warner Bros.) and Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus (1986 Black Dragon Records). After all the songs were recorded and I was given a copy of the recorded album from Ted, I discovered that there were, for instance, nothing in my songs that reminded me of Candlemass so you can see that I am not exactly working like a robot or anything. However there were riffs on my songs that had the feel of the other three albums, and also some Iron Maiden, some Hellhammer, some early Exodus and some Autopsy and some Necrophagia 1987 style and so on. A riff will typically come like striking lightning into my brain and then I will have to hum it until I reach my guitar or I will have to record it on my phone. From there I will typically play that riff and start to make other riffs that will fit. Who knows how I make that process work and what inspires me but it is just me and that guitar and all the music I ever heard (and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot) and what I choose away and that little tiny speck that I decide to keep. I will tell you a secret here – what I am really trying to write is what I would have written in 1988 if 1: I had the writing skills and drum experience back then and 2: if we didn’t go into more death metal territory, which we did in late 1988/early 1989. What I am writing is THE REAL ORIGINAL DARKTHRONE MUSIC, back to the real roots. It always says in biographies about us online that we started out as a death metal band but listening to our first demo it is clear to everyone that we did not, we had all sorts of inspirations that were way older than that.
It’s usually said that a band needs to tour in order to continue its existence, especially financially. Given that Darkthrone aren’t in this camp, do you find it difficult to keep the band moving, recording and releasing?
You think? Our job is going to work. On our day jobs. We don’t have to do any of this, we are just honouring the ways of old metal and people can take it or leave it. Beautiful, innit? But I always thought that what made the old bands bad (80s metal) was that they stopped listening to a lot of other bands, peers, underground, and just started focusing on their own careers. Hence they lost track. I have always been very adamant to that whole “listening to others bands” thing and therefore I know what is happening and also where not to go. I don’t go where there are many others, I always figure out what is happening and I instinctively (it seems) go to the next place or the previous place where people left but I know there is a hole and nature hates a vacuum. Feel me?
“I always figure out what is happening and I instinctively (it seems) go to the next place or the previous place where people left but I know there is a hole and nature hates a vacuum.”
You’ve said that you and Ted usually have to coincide with one another in terms of wanting to write and record– if one isn’t into it, it gets scrapped until you’re both ready. With that in mind, how the fuck are Darkthrone still so prolific?
Holy shit, I just touched base with all of this above, didn’t I? [laughs] I thank you for the kind words but I do believe I explained this above here in some way or I can’t describe it at all. It helps that I listen to so much metal and it helps the way we record. For this album we put the amp in front of the drum kit and we play real loud and hard on the drums. Doesn’t matter that the guitar leaks into the drums and vice versa, the sound is hard and we don’t have the means to do much with it afterwards. There is only mixing of levels and then the mastering (done by Jack Control of World Burns To Death in Texas). And that’s it. This means it won’t sound very controlled at all, it’s not “professional” but at least it’s fresh. People seem to like it. We must be one of the biggest underground bands or something – it’s a strange position to be in. We never thought we’d be bigger than, say, Thanatos!
You’ve got a hell of a back catalogue behind you. What albums hold the strongest personal connection to you and are there any that seem alien in hindsight?
The alien one would be that concept album we did on Sigourney Weaver. Well, when I researched for our 3lp best of box with our book called Black Death And Beyond I decided to rate all our albums. I already rate all the stuff I listen through (it’s over 1000 promos a year) for my radio show and DJ’ing and making comps and playlists. And so I rated all our albums and what came up statically was that our best albums were under a funeral moon and the cult is alive. Now, I tend to like songs or riffs the most but as a whole I’d say under a funeral moon is my fave.
You’ve not just championed metal over the years, but also Norwegian and Scandinavian metal in particular. How do you feel Norway’s contributions to metal have stood up against those of their European and US counterparts?
Nah man, I just champion what I like. In the 80s that was a lot of South American stuff, but I get promos from around the world; you can just check the lists of my Radio Fenriz show to figure out statistically what countries get most air time. I’d say it’s Sweden and USA these days but I didn’t go in and check the statistics. It’s nothing I champion, it’s just the result of what I hear and what gets played. Simple but I don’t have the time to check those statistics. Every country seems to have its heyday, Germany in particular had 84-86 along with many others but if you think about it there wasn’t a lot of great German metal in the 90s (or any other country but that’s another story). And so it goes on. However Sweden and USA always delivered. Norway has certain styles but they don’t deliver much on all styles. Statistically I don’t get a lot of promos from Norway anyway, you should ask someone else because when I joined the international underground in ‘87 it meant just that – international. As metal is. I don’t have a strong Norwegian focus at all. Black Viper is the new best upcoming band from here, and Black Magic is the best, we all know that. And they keep on delivering, Jon is quite the talent.
Actually, what does ‘heavy metal’ mean to you anyway? Is it a sound, an attitude or something else entirely?
Easy. Put on the first Metal Church album. A-side. There you have it. HM means to me eternally many recordings and styles but you’d be smart to take my initial advice here. “Beyond the Black” and “Gods of Wrath”. There you have it. (Man, that must be my best answer ever in an interview.)
You were involved heavily with the Until The Light Takes Us documentary. Do you feel that film helped clear up a lot of the misconceptions of what you and others within the black metal scene were trying to do in the 90s, and did it change how you yourself were perceived?
I never saw it.
What prompted you to start your “Band of the Week” blog? It’s been really well received and some of the bands you’ve covered in it have gone on to do some impressive things, so how proud are you of what you’ve created there?
I was on other sites where music was being shared and with all my musicalinput and the sudden discovery of In Solitude’s first album, I knew I had to do more. I already had a huge following, why not give something to those people? Same with Radio Fenriz, as Darkthrone had amassed a huge following of enthusiastic and involved people on our Facebook. We only got like 260,000 but those people aren’t sleepers, I can tell ya that.
There’s a weird obsession with musical purity amongst certain parts of the black metal community. Does it offer a sense of freedom that, no matter what you create, it’s going to piss someone off since you’re not rehashing Under A Funeral Moon?
People can do what they want but if they fail to understand that early players of black metal had a variety of styles back to the 60s to feed on, then they are not like us. That’s all I can say. I was always the one to leave a band if I didn’t like it no more anyway – always made sense that people only liked certain of our albums anyway.
You said that you went through a bit of a self-destructive period in the 90s. Did coming out the other side of that alive change how you thought about what you were doing with Darkthrone?
Not at all, I’d say. Fuck my mind, it really tried to destroy me but “I” won. And Darkthrone remains.
Anyhow, cheers once again, I really appreciate your time. If you have any last words for the mag, just shout them out here.
Don’t forget to listen to Malokarpatan.