Ragnarok & Roll: Einar Selvik Of Wardruna Interviewed

Einar Selvik talks to Lara Cetinich Cory about the life-cycle and processes of creating Wardruna’s Runaljod Trilogy

Portrait by Espen Winther

Wardruna are a Norwegian music group founded in 2002 by ex-Gorgoroth members drummer Einar Selvik (Kvitrafn) and vocalist Kristian Espedal (Gaahl), as well as Lindy Fay Hella. Dedicated to creating musical interpretations of the rune alphabet of Elder Futhark, Wardruna utilise historical instruments like the kraviklyra, tongue horn, flutes and dreielire, also incorporating the recording of noise made by trees, fire, water and bones. Guided by the runic tradition, various outdoor locations and certain dates are also respected not only for recordings but live performances.

Over time Wardruna became more Selvik’s project, developing the live shows, which culminated in a very special performance alongside the 1100 year old Gokstad ship in Norway’s Viking Museum. In 2014 Selvik also collaborated with Trevor Morris to create the music for television series Vikings and later that year Espedal left the group on amicable terms.

While the music might have elements of ritual, Selvik is not trying to make magic nor is he romanticising the past. What he seeks is a much simpler and deeper pursuit. With the Runaljod trilogy, Einar Selvik’s intention is to create meaning and connect with his listeners in a climate where music has lost its commonplace divinity.

If it’s true that the runes are largely misunderstood, and the instruments Selvik uses haven’t been heard for centuries, how can we gauge the authenticity of Wardruna? Classical scholar Richard Buxton believes that the most important element of myth is its plurality. He writes of the Greeks: "There was no single, canonical, orthodox version of a given tale… each teller remade tradition according to the requirements of the particular social and artistic context."

Selvik’s use of his culture’s music and poetry, words and tradition is dependable; not only because he is something of a scholar on the topic, but because he interprets the legacy of the runes with the only measure he can ever rely on; his own truth.

While Wardruna might be worlds apart from the black metal of Selvik’s earlier musical career, to label it as world or folk music would be a mistake. Wardruna represents something more ancient and mysterious with their live shows becoming the stuff of legend. Recently Selvik announced a European follow up to their sell-out 2016 world tour beginning at France’s Hellfest Festival in June. For details of the autumn tour visit the Wardruna website.

What were your early passions and influences?

Einar Selvik: The earliest influences would be the drums. I was very much obsessed with drums as a small child. Got my first set when I was three, a little set. I got my first proper set when I was eight, and that was to become the motor of my interests. My older siblings listened to metal and my father listened to classical music, both of those were influences. And from an early age I was fascinated by Norwegian and Scandinavian folk and traditional music.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

ES: My approach is a bit unconventional because it kind of turns things around. With this trilogy for instance, the goal is to interpret something as much as possible on its own premise. Using relevant sounds, instruments, recording in relevant spaces, on specific dates; these parameters almost made me the instrument.

I made a promise to myself at a very early stage that I wasn’t going to try and force something into a specific shape. It’s a process where I allow the songs to go where they want to go and much like Wardruna; it doesn’t really fit into any kind of genre.

What were your main compositional and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

ES: Wardruna was definitely a DIY project from the start. It was the first time I ever recorded music. Over the 15-year course of this project, I would say the biggest challenges were learning the trade, because I never learned it from anyone. I am completely self-taught.

Learning to play the instruments was a challenge. How do you learn an instrument no one has played in hundreds of years? The ones that are used today, I was adamant not to hear anyone else play that instrument. I want to approach them as a child and on the basis of each instrument. I wanted my voice to come through, not someone else’s.

My experience is that if I give one of these instruments to a folk musician, he will play folk music on it, and I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to express something that is much older.

A lot of these instruments are very sparse in some ways but when you listen to them they have a very grandiose potential to them and that is part of how I envisioned the music. But how do you get these instruments to sound this way? Achieving that through the production process was not easy. These instruments almost have a will of their own, they are much more challenging than modern instruments.

I feel that the latest album is the best one, the most balanced. It has a sound that is much closer to how I originally envisioned it. I have more resources and experience this time around. I spent seven years on the first record and most of the time was spent finding the palette, the combinations of how to make it work together. So the second and third albums were definitely easier in that sense.

Photograph by Ole J Brye

Tell us about your studio and your recording methods.

ES: I write most of my music when I’m out walking… that is my most important creative space. I’ve lived in many different places and been in many kinds of life circumstances over the last 15 years. People would be surprised if they knew how shitty my recording situation has been over the years. It took a lot of work to make the music sound ok. Sometimes it was a small room, or being part of a studio fellowship. But now I have a small building next to my house with my own studio. Having space where you can’t be heard is more important than not being able to hear. If you can’t be heard you feel more free when you work.

What are currently some of the most important tools or instruments you’re using?

ES: The one that I’ve been using most lately is a lyre. I have a Norwegian version. It’s perfect for accompanying singing. I do a lot of solo acoustic shows and I’m very much attached to this instrument right now.

Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity?

ES: Wardruna is a combination of old and new. I use historical instruments and new and electronic instruments and tools. I use drones and samples to build these huge sounds. I don’t know if there are any specific tools I use or wish to name, but in general there are lots of different aspects that shape the work. Electronics are much more intuitive these days, much more than 10-15 years ago. Sometimes just a sound can trigger words or melodies. I don’t have a romantic notion about the past; with Wardruna I wanted to create something new using something old.

Can you tell us about a piece that’s particularly dear to you?

ES: Take a song like ‘Helvegan’ (final track on Yggdrasil), it’s a song which in many ways encompasses a lot of what Wardruna is about. In my culture we had songs for everything, and that’s lost now. There were songs for when people were born, when they died, when they sowed the field, baked bread and they’re gone now mostly. So this song is about death and dying, crossing over and letting go and behind it is the question, "Who will sing [for] me when I die?"

I think we need these songs today. One of the reasons people connect to Wardruna in such a personal way and to that song in particular is because there is a need for these songs and for that kind of connection to the nameless. Call it nature, god whatever. That song means a lot to me, and to others.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

ES: I have very few rules when I work. When I play live there is very little room for improvising. We play the compositions the way we decide upon in the studio.

I can’t write or read music. I am self-taught and never learned formally. It can be a curse sometimes but I think it’s more difficult for those who need the music to read from than for those who play by ear.

Of course we are always influenced by outside elements, but I’m working with material that’s much older than anything I can hear today. When you look at the poetry you can tell by the meter and rhythm that it’s very, very old.

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

ES: In regards to live shows, space is very important to me. Space and context should complement the music in some way; you gain so much from it. It enhances the dialogue between audience and performer. I’m very much aware of this when choosing venues. I say no to 90% of booking offers. Somehow I feel the venue needs to make sense.

In the long run, you have to have patience and integrity and a plan. You can’t compromise your vision. I’m a bit of a control freak, brutal when it comes to my art because I believe it’s the best way of doing it, for me. My stubbornness has given us the chance to play in some amazing places that [most people] never would have been allowed to play in.

If I don’t put a value on my work, then nobody else is going to.

Listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?

ES: My music demands something of the listener, it is demanding music. I think that’s a good thing. I’m not chiselling anything in stone or serving you any truths. Even to native Norwegian speakers, my lyrics are veiled. I’m asking questions.

Music should be demanding for the listener. You can gain more out of it that way. I always try to leave space in the music for the listener to have their own experience of it, so it’s not bombarded with only one meaning.

Ragnarok is out now on By Norse Music. Wardruna tour Europe this Autumn

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