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A Quietus Interview

Before Cease To Exist: Kjetil Nernes On Årabrot And Cancer
Matt Ridout , October 24th, 2014 09:53

Mighty Matt Ridout talks to Kjetil Nernes - Norwegian esoteric gentleman of noise rock - about his brush with a "real and living hell"

Portrait by Pål Laukli

Few noise rock bands have the longevity to last more than a few years, with most burning brightly for a short time before disintegrating spectacularly. In a way it is perhaps an intrinsic feature of a genre that boasts so many diverse characters and creative yet challenging personalities. The sense that when a good thing comes along you must enjoy it while it lasts is prevalent. Haugesund, Norway's Årabrot have been the exception plying their unique brand of metallic noise for over 13 years now. The band's singular determination has seen them surmount many challenges and line-up shifts. However, their greatest challenge came early this year when frontman Kjetil Nernes was diagnosed with throat cancer. With the band cancelling all activities to allow him the time for treatment and recovery, few would have expected Årabrot to be ready to release a new EP and embark on a European tour by the end of the year. We sat down to chat with the enigmatic Norwegian about his diagnosis, treatment and the future of Årabrot.

Can you tell us about your diagnosis with throat cancer earlier this year?

Kjetil Nernes: We had just finished recording [new album] I Modi and were about to embark on a UK tour when I got the news. Basically they called me just about the time when we got on the plane. It was a strange situation but despite the news the tour was great and probably one of the best tours we ever did in the UK.

Did you have any inkling that there was something wrong or was it a complete shock?

KN: I definitely had a feeling of something being not right. It's weird, just some sort of eerie feeling. For a long time I thought it was the hard lifestyle finally getting a hold of me or maybe something of a more occult nature. I thought it was paranoia, similar to hangover nerves. But still, I felt healthy and was in good shape when they called me... being told you are deathly sick is shocking, even when the circumstances are quite surreal.

I guess that's the thing that was so shocking for those of us who do know you quite well, you aren't the stereotypical hard-partying rock guy, you always seem to take very good care of yourself for example.

KN: Well, thanks. I'm not always like that but in general I try to take care of myself. There's a lot of responsibility in leading a band and being in charge on the road. And the stereotypes usually bore me anyways.

Once you were told the diagnosis you quickly began the treatment process. From what I can gather the treatment that you went through was quite invasive?

KN: Yes, I had two types of treatment plus surgery. The first was normal radiation therapy, the second was something called Brachy. The latter felt like sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I had no sleep during those five days. I went through rough treatment every two hours and had a general feeling of being choked inside my own body. All of a sudden you wake up on the other side, as if slowly rising from the bottom of the ocean. It was as close to real physical and psychological hell as you can ever go. So now I can finally write about real hell [laughs].

I must admit I have never heard of Brachy before, could you explain what is involved in the procedure?

KN: No wonder, nobody except doctors would know. It's a great method for getting rid of cancer as they burn specifically and very precisely on the actual tumour. But to be able to do this they had to operate in six tubes through my chin via my tongue and then down my throat. Hence the feeling of being choked, the tubes made living unbearable. I've never been interested in piercing my tongue but there I was with six holes right through it! I'm glad it's all history now.

With the Brachy procedure as well as the surgery on your throat, did you think that there might be a chance that you wouldn't be able to sing anymore? Was this something that you discussed with your specialists at the time, or was it a case of "what will be, will be" and you were just focused on getting healthy?

KN: The doctors were phenomenal and even checked out my music, but they did tell me there was a good chance of my voice being affected by the radiation therapy. Even the surgery could affect the throat and neck in ways that would make singing harder. Fortunately it seems like everything is in order. I felt like my singing has got even better than before on the last few shows! Ha, pretty ironic.

Following such a harrowing treatment, how was your recovery? I understand you headed home to Norway for some recuperation after your treatment in Sweden. At what point did you decide that you were ready to resume work with Årabrot?

KN: Yes, after the treatment in Örebro, Sweden I headed back to my hometown Haugesund and stayed indoors for almost six weeks. I was very determined to get Årabrot back in business as quickly as possible so we had two full days of rehearsals just six weeks after the surgery and treatment. The doctors estimated it would take half a year up to one full year of recovery time. I made it in six weeks.

Were your doctors or loved ones concerned you might be pushing it a bit hard to return back so quickly?

KN: Maybe but anything else was out of the question and I think they noticed that early on.

So do you think your experiences of the past year will have a dramatic impact on the future of Årabrot's music? You mentioned earlier that you have now seen a real hell, have you noticed any difference in the new material you are working on as opposed to before your illness?

KN: I think thematically the experience will have an impact on the upcoming material. The next full-length will be recorded very early next year and already at this point I feel the lyrics and subjects are going to be fierce and dark. In many ways everything that happened this summer feels like war. Some sort of early-Burzum war.

Early Burzum? We aren't talking national socialism here are we?

KN: Ha ha ha! Don't even go there... I'm thinking atmospherically, like the first three or four albums - nothing to do with reclusive Nazi idiocy. You know Haugesund is very close to Bergen [Varg Vikernes' hometown] both in atmosphere and in landscape. Once you go there in the wintertime the old school Burzum atmospherics feels very appropriate. I definitely have some of that in my blood.

Årabrot has been going for 13 years and seen many different line-ups across that time, but always seems to have a consistency and determination. What do you think has kept you motivated to continue the project and do you think that motivation has changed since your battle with illness this year?

KN: Yes, 13-odd years. When we started out we didn't have a clue what we were doing so many of those years were basically learning the basics of being a band. And 13 years is a long time. Some people will always find other interests or lack motivation when you continue for that amount of time, hence the many changes of line-up. My motivation seems to come from deep inside, I'm not sure what it is but I definitely feel like continuing the struggle of being in this band at least another 13 years. After the illness the motivation is even greater!

Portrait by Olle Lundin

So what next from Årabrot - you have just released a new EP, then you plan to record a new LP in the new year, could you tell us a bit about that?

KN: Yes, the I Modi EP we recorded just before the illness last spring is out now via Fysisk Format records. Then in early January we are heading back to record a full-length album with Steve Albini in Chicago. I'm guessing we are looking at a summer 2015 release for that one.

I was just about to ask if you were going to work with Albini again. He has quite a mixed reputation, you seem to enjoy working with him?

KN: Yes, contrary to what rumours say, he's actually very friendly and easy to work with

And this week you've been back in the UK and Europe for some dates in October with Rabbits. A lot of bands try and avoid the UK as it is traditionally a very difficult place to make things work on tour for a smaller band, but Årabrot hasn't. What keeps you coming back here to play?

KN: I think Årabrot's themes and lyrics and maybe even sense of humour fit the English people well. And I think I have some sort of sadomasochistic approach to touring the UK which works fairly well too! We never gave up on the UK and we really enjoy playing here.

Right I think that is pretty much it, unless there is anything you want to add?

KN: You may want to include the irony of releasing an overly erotic album just after recovering from cancer?

[Quietus editor] John Doran did say to me that Karin [Kjetil's girlfriend, Swedish pop singer Karin Park] told him you were going to get through the illness using porn, is this a new direction for Årabrot? Erotica?

KN: Ha ha ha! Did she really say that? The carnal side of Årabrot has always been present but never as hot and clammy as on this release. It's almost like a money shot of an album. There's certainly a short line between birth and death. After the climax of sexual desire there's either love or war - the next Årabrot full-length will show you which.