Diabolical Intent: Erik Danielsson Of Watain Interviewed
, September 9th, 2013 10:49
Magickal, transcendental and Satanic. Toby Cook talks to Erik Danielsson about raising hell and "murdering" dogs
Society loves a bogeyman. We all love someone we can vilify for espousing views we see as contrary to the current norm. We love someone to heap blame on and demonise; someone to dismiss as simply ‘weird’ or ‘deranged’ without really trying to understand them, and yet we are so often fascinated by them too.
It’s why beatniks, hippies, punks, trade unions, the unemployed and immigrants have all been scapegoated as the cause of various societal ills over the years and it’s why every time you turn on Channel 5 they’re screening yet another documentary about Charles Manson or John Linley Frazier. And it’s why black metal continues to both fascinate and be endlessly caricatured.
There was a time in the early nineties when black metal was genuinely dangerous, when the often misreported stories of murders, suicides and church burnings in Norway brought the scene out of the underground and onto the front pages. And whilst it has always been an ethos, a musical philosophy and cultural identifier as much as it has been a genre classification, with the headline grabbing atrocities of 20 years ago confined to history and with its ideas being realised in evermore diverse and experimental ways by the likes of The Botanist, Spektr or Wardruna, some of that sense of danger has perhaps been lost.
Indeed, even the reporting of the recent arrest on terrorism charges in France of the scene's most widely know bogeyman, Varg Vikernes, saw him portrayed as a rather sad parody of himself.
However, aside from all that, bellowing out of Uppsala, Sweden, came Watain. They revealed themselves to be Satanists; they recorded a demo EP provocatively titled Go Fuck Your Jewish God in 1998 and put on the type of gory yet near transcendental live performance that would make even the most hardened Mayhem fan gag and retch. And, over the course of the last five albums and 13 years they have honed a style of traditional yet expansive black metal that owes as much to Bathory as it does to Pink Floyd. But on top of this they have brought a genuinely palpable sense of danger back to the genre and seen them become arguably black metal's most important group. They are true bogeymen.
They didn’t get to where they are by accident however and to underestimate their commitment and intelligence is to set yourself up for decidedly uncomfortable fall, so it’s with some trepidation that we meet up early one morning in the unlikely setting of London Euston's Ibis hotel with their incredibly articulate and passionately driven vocalist Erik Danielsson.
So the new album is due out next month – to say that it’s a radical departure is perhaps over stating it, but certainly even compared to Lawless Darkness there is certainly, I think, a marked progression – was it always the intention to create something that was so much more expansive and what were some of the challenges?
Erik Danielsson: I never really compare album to album like that, we never have, and I think that one of the most common things that people say when we release a new album is, "Oh yeah, it sounds very different." So with that being said, progression has always been an inevitable part of this band – the whole idea of Watain and our artistic journey, so to speak, has been to go into the unknown, to explore the unknown within yourself, to go deeper and deeper into yourself, and that is something that we are getting better and better at and it’s happening perhaps more radically the older we get and the more we progress as artists.
So that’s why I assume that the leaps between the albums are maybe getting bigger somehow, y’know? I mean, it’s really not something that we think a lot about when we are composing, but now I have to try to analyse it a bit when I’m doing interviews about and I’m doing it interview-to-interview so you’ll have to excuse me if I sound a bit abstract sometimes – but it’s a very interesting journey, going deeper and deeper.
You always seem to be one of these bands that aren’t concerned with the expected cycle of album-tour-album-tour. Your records just seem to ‘appear’ when they’re ready. Why was now the right time to bring out another album?
ED: I think we were on tour with Lawless Darkness for almost three years and [adopts anguished expression and tone] we just couldn’t take it anymooooore! I think at some point we said, ok, touring has been perfect; it’s been very rewarding, very inspiring, but let’s do something with that inspiration now, let’s saddle the steeds and go back home, it’s time to open the treasure bags and see what we’ve acquired during these last few years. And they were pretty interesting treasure bags, y’know, they were… well, you can see what they had in them on the cover of the [new] album actually. So yeah, it was just the right time – I mean, we have always had almost exactly three years between every album recording, although we have done pretty different things in between, but three years is kind of a tradition for us now somehow. And I think this time it was exactly three years to the day between recordings – we started recording Lawless Darkness on the third of January 2010 and we started recording this on the third of January 2013.
It’s interesting that you mention these "bags of treasure" from the tour – listening to the album, although admittedly I’ve only had a few days to digest it before today, to me it sounds, perhaps even more so than with previous albums, that there is almost narrative flow to the record, its seems to move very organically from track to track even with the comparatively unusual tracks like ‘They Rode On’ and ‘Ignem Veni Mittere’. Was that something that was planned – is there a broader concept to the album?
ED: In regards to the order of the songs, that’s always something that we leave entirely open during the recording sessions, or rather I should say that it’s something that we decide along the way during the recording, because we always know, somehow, that in the end we will end up with that kind of natural flow of songs. It’s like a puzzle and you just have t work it out. It’s hard to tell exactly when you’ve arrived at the final point, but when you do, it is... I don’t know... it is very natural and you just know it. But the album is not just a collection of songs. It is in one way, but The Wild Hunt has a very retrospective concept actually. It’s very much about us looking back on this journey that we have been on for these last 15 years and the songs all relate, in one way or another, to very defined experiences and ideas; struggles, trials and tribulations that we have been through during this time. I don’t mean to make it seem like it’s an autobiographical concept, because it isn’t really, it is in a certain sense, but it is still a very lofty and spiritual concept at the same time. It’s a divine idea, The Wild Hunt really. And I found it a really inspiring concept to work with, although the individual songs in themselves we never really paid attention to the concept when we wrote them, it was more something that we realised afterwards.
I’d like to move away from the album a little bit now. I think that despite Watain’s increasingly varied sound you are inarguably still a black metal band; what does the ‘idea’ of black metal mean to you and to Watain these days? To me it seems the scene is in an interesting state of flux right now where you still have these ‘true cult’ black metal bands as well as people like The Botanist and Wardruna.
ED: I don’t know a lot about these ‘new’ bands to be honest – I don’t really keep track of things like that – but to me it’s quite obvious that black metal is more than just a ‘sound’. It’s more than just a way of playing music. And to put it very simply I think that Watain is a very, very good definition of a black metal band. Meaning that our whole anatomy, our bones and our spine all relate to one same source: the Satanic ideal. It is diabolical music with a magikal and transcendental intent. And that to me is very much what defines a black metal band.
I am really pleased that after almost two years of black metal being (on a larger scale) quite misrepresented by the media and by the bands that the media uses to represent black metal with, Watain is in an important position. We are one of the first bands through which many people will actually find out about and start to explore the word of black metal. I can’t say that that is particularly something that we have been striving to do but it is certainly pleasing to me as someone who is deeply, deeply connected to that art form.
It’s interesting that you say that – and I couldn’t agree more when you call it an art form – there is something very unique about black metal, something profound that goes far beyond the music itself. How much does it annoy you that despite this a lot of people are still concerned with the murders, suicides and church burnings in Norway that happened over 20 years ago?
ED: Well, I mean, it was a very important period; it was, and there’s no escaping that. But, I think that for people who want to find out about black metal just on the surface and read a little bit about it, I’m fine with the fact that the first thing they will find out is that it’s an art form where very big buildings were set in fire; where a lot of people went to prison; and where a lot of people died. I think that’s a very good introduction to black metal, and if people dare to dig a little deeper after that they will of course realise pretty quickly that it is far more than that. But I still think that that early period is a good first step to be introduced to black metal, I really do.
One of the things with Watain is that the live show has always appeared to be such an important aspect of what you are about. I mean I saw you at the Underworld in London several years ago and there is incredibly transcendental aspect to your performance, other worldly almost doesn’t seem strong enough a phrase. As your popularity is steadily increasing however, how much are you concerned about being able to maintain that atmosphere in bigger venues, without it just becoming a spectacle?
ED: Y’know, I like to think of our live shows as being a mystical experience, as a celebration of things not of this world; this might sound a bit closed minded, but if an underground video director makes a documentary about shamans in the Amazonian jungle and he releases that on a VHS and a small number of people see it, they will be amazed and maybe take it to a few others. If the same documentary gets shown some years later on the National Geographic channel and a million people see it that will still not change what the documentary is about, it will still be that same holy source. And that’s how I like to look at it, that’s how I think I have to look at it order not to allow for peoples misconceptions to taint it, because that’s what it is, it’s a mystical experience in essence and nothing can really change that.
And to a certain degree is there a positive side to it? Again, I saw you at Bloodstock last year, and the slot that you eventually got, where you came on just s the sun was setting, that was amazing, it really felt like some sort of elemental battle between the darkness and the light. It’s almost like you were bringing nature itself into that mystical experience, which is probably something you wouldn’t be able to if you didn’t have the stature to play big, outdoor festivals?
ED: Yeah, that show was amazing; I really liked playing in the sunset. And also it was a very beautiful thing because it was actually the very last show we did on the Lawless Darkness tour and we ended with ‘Waters Of Ain’ which is a very special song from that album, and as the sun was setting, well, it was just magical; it was really the perfect setting and we’re happy that we’re in a position where we had the opportunity for that to happen.
I’m slightly reluctant to bring this up as I’m sure you’re probably sick of hearing and talking about it, but obviously the whole Nazi thing that got throw at you in the early days, wearing the [Nazi black metal band] Absurd t-shirts giving the Nazi salute – looking back on it now is that something that you slightly regret and want to get away from?
ED: No, no, it’s definitely not something that we regret, it’s the misconception of other people and the lack of intellect and childish approach that people have to it that is debatable and a bit sad. But we are who we are and it’s other peoples problem if they don’t want to understand it. It’s like this: when you all of a sudden reach a bigger audience, who are not used to the devil being a big part of a band, they understand that there is something wrong with this band. They understand that there is something very dark and disturbing at the heart of this band, and they try to find that devil in Watain and they try to understand. And I think that what a lot of people do is that they go for the only evil that they know; the only devil that they know, which in Western society is very much the Third Reich and everything that happened there. And it’s a bit laughable to me how people can take such an easy way out, I mean c’mon, dig a little deeper and you’ll understand that we would be amongst the first in line to get shot in the Third Reich; what we want is chaos, anarchy and disorder and for the world to go up in flames. What Hitler wanted was a nice little paradise for Aryan fuck-heads to flourish in, where law and order would be the common denominator of society. So it’s a bit ridiculous to me, and, y’know, people just have to think a little bit deeper if they want to concern me with what they think.
You mention Satanism, which is obviously something which is very important to you personally as well as the band. Is there a sense that with the band you’re... I don’t want to say ‘trying to bring Satanism into the mainstream’ but is there a part of you that is actively wanting to bring this ethos to a larger audience?
ED: Well I think that for me the reasons why Watain exist and the reasons why we write our music and the reasons why our lyrics are about what they are about is that we have a way of viewing the world that could be considered religious. This is the reason why the live show has become, like I was saying, like a mystical or religious experience. It's also the reason why people are fascinated by this band. But, I have always felt extremely uncomfortable in the role of being some kind of spokesperson for religion – I’m a spokesperson for Watain and Watain in essence is a diabolical tool. But again, we never had on our agenda to convert people to our beliefs. It doesn’t happen that way.
Religion and experiences of religion is something that happens on a much, much more profound level that experiencing a piece of art, although that in itself can be a very important step towards a mystical experience. In essence the only thing that I ask people to understand about Watain, other than appreciating the music that they hopefully like, is that if they want to and if they feel the need to there is the possibility to dig beneath the surface of Watain where you will find a lot more things. But that’s up to each individual listener to do that.
It’s interesting that you put it like that because I think a lot of people have, or think they have, only half an idea about Satanism and assume it to be this sort of Anton LaVey ‘non-religious religion’. Again, how much does that misconception annoy you? Because really it almost couldn’t be further away from ‘actual’ Satanism, if you like.
ED: Yeah, there is a sense of frustration in that regard, of course, but at the same time it’s something that you kind of have to learn to live with, y’know? Because if you’re making music that you know will reach thousands and thousands of people, whilst still being completely aware of that maybe only two or three percent of the audience will actually be able to directly relate to where the music comes from. I always say that when it comes to the religious aspect of Watain, the best way to understand that and to experience that is to actually come to the shows; read the lyrics and open your hearts by listening to our music, and you might get the certain sensation of where we come from.
You said in an interview once “life is shit, and Watain is a reflection of that”. Surely in one sense life must be pretty good for Watain at the moment? I mean, why keep going if it isn’t?
ED: Watain is the world that we have built for ourselves in order to not be a part of the world of common man, and in that sense I can say that I’m very grateful for the position that I’m in. But the fact remains, we have built an island in a sea that is equal to a cesspool of excrement and all too often we have to take our rowing boats out into that sea. So I still consider life very much as a struggle and the path towards liberation and true freedom… true freedom beyond illusion is still a path of suffering, it’s a battle and it goes on every day both internally and externally.
And just finally: One of the things I both love and loath about the internet is that if you spend enough time and look hard enough about any particular topic you can find almost any story on that subject that you could possibly hope to think of… So, is there any truth to the story that in the early days of Watain you used to buy homeless peoples dogs off of them to use in your sacrifices?
ED: Well let me put it like this: people like to talk a lot, especially about things that they know that they themselves would never, ever have the capacity to be a part of. Watain is a band that is seemingly very interesting for people to make up stories about. Let the kids play, let them have their fun because that’s all the fun they have in their little lives. So they can bullshit away, its fine.
I guess people always have that need to create some sort of bogeyman to vilify what they don’t fully understand?
DE: Well I mean, there’s a reason for those rumours, of course, for every rumour about Watain there is always something that it derives from. But like I said, it’s like a fucking tea party for all the senile little old ladies sometimes – people want a little bit of drama in their lives. A lot of people live a very insipid and pointless life and they need a little bit of drama; Watain provides that drama for them I guess.
The Wild Hunt is out now on Century Media