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INTERVIEW: Ulver
Anastasia Gorelova , May 21st, 2014 10:04

With the Norwegian arch-experimentalists currently in the middle of a prolific creative highpoint, the group's Kristoffer Rygg tells us why "the music business is never as romantic as it sounds"

Musical experiments can be like science experiments: there is always an element of uncertainty, sometimes chance, hope for a new discovery, and the end result can be a hit or a miss. The Norwegian band Ulver has been endlessly and rather successfully experimenting throughout their 20-year career, first with musical genres, from black metal to electronic ambient and classical, then with writing music for film, and even recording a soundtrack for a theatre production.

Kristoffer Rygg, Ulver's frontman, says the band is determined to continue looking for new ideas and collaborations that will keep them creative and push boundaries of musical expression. I met with Rygg in Oslo a day after seeing Demons 2014 – a play based on an almost eponymous novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky for which Ulver composed a dark and spacious soundtrack founded on thudding drum rhythms and soft piano melodies. We spoke about possible ideas for projects and upcoming releases, which apparently may include a live album, a new covers album, a radio theatre release and another soundtrack.

We also discussed the recent Sunn O))) collaboration, Terrestrials, and talked about influences, inspirations, personal favourites, and the music scene in Norway. Rygg de-romanticised the music- and film-making business, pointing out at how much time is spent on talks, lunches, and "dressing things up" instead of the actual work on the project. But he made one thing certain - Ulver are a band of action. And despite the cancellation of the shows in Russia and the U.S., we can expect a spate of new releases in the near future.

You've been very productive in the last few years, releasing three Ulver albums and one collaboration with Sunn O))). The band has also performed quite a few live shows and participated in a theatre collaboration. What is next? 

Kristoffer Rygg: You know, I would say collaboration has been the most inspiring thing to me in the last years actually, and I believe that in that dialogue, or exchange, with people from other backgrounds, different ideas or sensibilities is where the magic happens. Not always, obviously, but most of the time I would say it helps take things to places we could not arrive at on our own.

Such is an example of this music or the recent album we have just released with Sunn O)))… Terrestrials. It is a very different thing because we were doing it with those guys. There are obviously a lot of people out there that I would love to work with. But at the same time I am not usually the one to reach out to people. I sort of wait for people to come to me.

I would like to work more with film, definitely. But when you work with film, you are really working in the capacity of paid musician to make that film work; 'do as you're told'. I would say that with this (theatre) project though, we have been given a lot of trust from Runar (Hodne, stage director) to make the music we best see fit, which has been great because we had a few very weird experiences in the past where we have come up with some music for certain sequences in a film or whatever that we think is absolutely amazing, only for some bullheaded fucker to come and say, "No, no, this is rubbish". So we had to start all over again and make something that we don't like, or agree with, which can be very frustrating of course.

What is the biggest challenge in writing music for film and how do you go about it?

KR: That world can be too much of a game of compromise and clashing of the egos for my liking. It is obviously good that people have an opinion, but with certain film industry types, I just think they sometimes approach things a bit backwards. I have had supervisors who think a rough idea is exactly how it will sound when finished and discard stuff we have spent a lot of time and energy on just on a whim, and definitely without any understanding or respect for our processes. Such is life, of course, but I would say some of those guys are more about talking and discussing, having lunches and meetings, going back and forth until there simply is no more time, or money, left. And as it happens you just end up with some sketch that was not that interesting anyway. Not that it is supposed to be all the time. Sometimes it is just supposed to substantiate some mood or something. But it is fucking frustrating the logistics of commercial filmmaking. To many cooks spoil the broth, I would say.

Fair enough, but let's go back to Ulver. Are we to expect a new release soon and what is it going to sound like?

KR: We are staying creative. We just recently did 12 concerts around Europe where we used some bits and ends from our catalogue, but that we sort of incorporated into the gig, or used as basis. But it was essentially improvisation. And after five or six gigs we kind of kept returning to the things that we enjoyed playing the most. And we recorded most of those gigs, so there is likely going to be a lot of that live material on our next album. I don't know how true to the actual live performances it will be, but it will probably be a combination of post production and trying to retain what was cool about those live moments.

I think we have a few things to work with for now. We have the theatre music, obviously, it might become a sort of a radio theatre thing, released in a cooperation with the National Theatre, if it becomes a release at all. That is not set in stone yet. But the actors and the theatre people are all very positive, so we will definitely be working with some of this material that we just made for that.

I think we will more or less take this year - I don't think we'll be booking anymore concerts in summer, maybe one or two… There was talk about doing a new Messe show with orchestra in Italy in September. But you know, I think it is a good time to prioritize studio work and just finish these different projects and then something new always comes along. Whenever I hope for some peace and quiet, that it is time to start writing my novel or something, some interesting offer always comes up. It is great, of course, but sometimes it can pull me back in.

Your latest album, Messe I.X-VI.X is basically a proper classical music record fused with some light electronics and vocals. It almost has some Stravinsky vibe in it.

KR: I'd say, it has more of Terry Riley and those kind of guys in it, as it is more about holding back and repeating patterns. It is also about toying with religious feelings. I would therefore also mention composers like Arvo Part and even Sir John Tavener. Not that they directly inspired Messe…, but it is stuff that we have been listening to for many, many years and that we appreciate the beauty of. The spirituality and sanctity of that kind of music appeals to me greatly.

What are the difficulties and prospects of using orchestra in modern pop music?

KR: In my opinion it works in very elaborate pop music and some rock as well, like Spiritualized. In metal and music that is already very over the top and dramatic I often find that it doesn't work. It is like gilding the lily, blending two genres that are already so fleshed out in a way.

That is not the route we took with Messe…, we actually tried to keep our own contributions quite on a low side, keeping it to occasional electronic sounds and, you know, keep most of the rock stuff out of the picture. We wrote music for the orchestra, our work was done already there. Even though they are obviously playing most of the instruments, these are our compositions. I think we basically tried to approach it more as dilettante composers… being fully aware of that. It is some sort of amalgamation between actual classic music, more like modern classical stuff, perhaps, crossed with a sort of pop or electronic approach.

On a wider scale of things, who or what else influenced your music a lot?

KR: I would say Coil are our most long-standing influence, in more ways than musical. The fascination with them was always more intangible than being strictly about music or whatever. We did eventually get to work with Ian [Johnstone, artist] and Stephen [Thrower], who played on our album [Wars Of The Roses, but this was after the death of both John [Balance] and Sleazy who we met in passing a few times. It's very sad, and a bit of a regret, I would say, that it never happened but at the time it would probably have entailed a bit of cajolery and such, and as I did not know them very well it was not something I was comfortable pursuing. Too many people in music do that, go after the credibility of others to sustain their own.

What about your collaboration with Sunn O)))? In general, reviews have been positive, but some say they expected more from this release.

KR: I think it has been interpreted by the press and a few other people as a much more ambitious release than it actually is. But yeah, it basically stems from one jam we had many years ago and a few visitations after where we did some overdubs and put our heads together to kind of find the sound. I like the vibe of the record a lot, and I think it is exactly what it is supposed to be. We ultimately thought it was too good not to share with people.

But yeah, in the capacity of being these two bands working together, I think some people, especially the negative ones, were expecting this monumental thing rooted in a big budget and years and years of honing the material, which is kind of far from the truth, and kind of unfair. Of course, if we had 20k and went to London and stayed in a fancy studio together for a month, it would be a very different record. The guys who were hoping for something like that would then likely get that. But yeah, this album is not that. It is a few moments and movements in between things, I would say. A slow sunrise as we like to call it. 

It's not like we've been working on it continually for five years or anything. The initial recording session was less than 24 hours, about eight to ten hours. Then it has been lying for a long time and then we'd pick it up for a day or two and then we put it back for another year, you know. Then Stephen [O'Malley, of Sunn O)))] would be back in Oslo and we would have a stab at it again. We just thought that there was no rush and someday would get it mixed and we finally did.

The music business is never as romantic as it sounds. It's usual to dress things up a bit in our world I guess, to get noticed or whatever. But both Stephen and I are getting a bit tired of the all that romanticised, arcane bullshit. I think what we do stands on its own merit just fine without all that. There is no reason to mythologise things further. Obviously a good press release is nice, but you know, sometimes, when you put something like this out there, it just sort of takes on these epic proportions. It's a bit silly sometimes.

Out of all the records you produced in the last more than 20 years, what is your personal favourite?

KR: Right now, it's our covers album [Childhood's End from 2012]. It is a total 70s classic rock production but playing 60s tunes, fucking class A songs. I am very proud of that album actually.

I am considering doing a volume two. One of my big obsessions for many years now has been this 60s garage psych stuff, old records. I am like a kid when it comes to collecting obscure vinyl from strange bands with weird-ass names and even more curious looking record covers.

How about Norwegian music in general? The country has always been famous for its black metal scene, and now the electronic scene seems to be picking up as well. What is your take on that?

KR: Some of the people within our circle of friends, who we have recruited to work with us in the last few years, play in some really cool bands I would say, like Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O and King Midas, or the legendary When.

There is some very, very good Norwegian rock or pop music, by any international standards, but it seems that if it is not metal, or experimental, jazz or otherwise a bit navel-gazing stuff [laughs] most of it just doesn't seem to find any footing outside of Norway. A lot of the things that would be released here on Universal Music or Virgin or whatever and that would do very well on a national level… you know even some second-rate generic black metal band would outsell them because the genre is so popular internationally and has label support in Germany and England and so forth. So it is a bit of a problem with Norwegian music as I see it. I can't speak so much for the electronic scene but I know that some of that Bergen techno stuff has done quite well internationally.

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