The Terror Of Stagnation: Gaahl Of Wardruna Interviewed

Dayal Patterson speaks to the enigmatic and iconoclastic Gaahl about the Runes, the difficulties of creativity and why he actually likes open-mindedness

With the majority of its key protagonists operating under pseudonyms and layers of monochromatic face paint – not to mention working within a genre that is inherently esoteric, fiercely independent and often vehemently opposed to mainstream exposure – it’s not surprising that black metal produces very few household names. Indeed, even within the parameters of the wider metal community only a handful of participants have really become anything close to recognisable – Varg Vikernes of Burzum for example, those larger-than-life characters from Immortal and, if we’re pushing the definition of ‘black metal’, perhaps the ever-provocative Dani from Cradle Of Filth.

Vocalist, clothes designer and occasional actor Kristian ‘Gaahl’ Espedal may not be likely to grace the covers of Q, NME, or even Metal Hammer any time soon, but there’s no doubt that his profile has been steadily on the ascent during the last decade. Though undoubtedly best known initially thanks to his turbulent personal life, in recent years the controversies that once surrounded him have been slowly dropping away to reveal one of the more fascinating artists – and eccentric individuals – within the extreme metal scene.

Born in the mid-seventies, and growing up within the isolated Western Norwegian valley that still bears his family’s name, Gaahl first made a name for himself in the mid-nineties within a black metal scene that was still rapidly expanding following a highly influential period of criminal action and landmark album releases. Debuting as the main creative force behind Trelldom (meaning “Slavery”) – a band whose solid but traditional early efforts would be overshadowed by the idiosyncratic excellence of second album Til Et Annet… and third effort Til Minne… – he was later inducted into Gorgoroth, a successful group led by former schoolmate Roger ‘Infernus’ Tiegs, a guitarist who had grown up in the same region as the singer.

Gaahl would find himself increasingly thrust into the spotlight, in part due to the band’s inherently controversial nature (a point highlighted by a now-infamous 2004 show in Poland that shocked the nation’s press and led to lawsuits against the participants) and in part thanks to his own extra-curricular activities, which led to him being jailed on more than one occasion for the use of “extreme violence”, with accusations even being made of ritual torture and blood drinking. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2008 Gaahl announced that he was gay – no small decision for a leading figure within a sub-genre where homophobia is not only relatively common among fans, but where more than one high profile musician has actually been jailed in connection with the deaths of gay men.

The wheels for Gaahl’s eventual departure from Gorgoroth would be set in motion when he and bassist/songwriter Tom ‘King’ Visnes effectively fired Infernus from his own band, the founding member later confirming his ownership of the name in a court judgement that left King and Gaahl temporarily without a band. Initial attempts to create new material together stalled and Gaahl soon announced a departure from black metal, working instead on clothing designs, performing in a national theatre piece entitled Svartediket and even appearing in a relatively high budget Norwegian movie entitled Flukt (“Escape”).

Perhaps more importantly he continued to work with Wardruna, a truly remarkable outfit created by multi-instrumentalist and former Gorgoroth drummer Einar ‘Kvitrafn’ Selvik. Eschewing the frenzied assault of black metal, the project has nonetheless always endeavoured to achieve a similar level of intensity, focussing on immersive and ritualistic folk acoustics, making use of traditional instrumentation and clean sung vocals, and taking all its thematic inspiration from the Elder Futhark, the oldest set of Norse runes. Kvitrafn himself has shown himself to bear the same single-minded determination that is seemingly shared by all those who have passed through Gorgoroth, and speaking to Gaahl – currently holed up in Espedal once more – our conversation soon turns to the relationship between the two men.

With both actively engaged with ancient Norse spirituality (despite being famed as a Satanist, Gaahl is quick to point out that his spiritual beliefs lean rather closer to Paganism) one wonders how two such individualistic characters found consensus on a subject that is so open to interpretation.

“It’s always difficult to talk about this,” Gaahl begins in his quiet tones. “I have, of course, a lot more opinions around the runes than the approach on the album has. There are so many angles to attack, so we just have to decide, ‘Okay, this is the element we want’, and still try to mingle in some of the other aspects – which is usually done lyrically – just to try to bring out the energy. It’s a tricky process, because I don’t like to talk about runes with anyone. It’s so personal, but Einar has an understanding of it which means that I don’t need to over-explain things, a knowledge that allows one to speak very vaguely without crossing personal boundaries.”

Speaking to Einar recently, he expressed that he was always careful to balance what he’d learnt from his academic study of the Elder Futhark with a more intuitive, spiritual understanding of them. As Gaahl explains, his relationship leans rather closer to the latter.

“He’s approaching it on an esoteric level, even if he’s paid a lot of attention to the scholars,” he agrees. “My main source of knowledge comes from what runs through me. I’m trying not to be affected by things that are written – I have of course read a lot on this, but I try and approach Wardruna in a more meditative way, approach the runes with feelings rather than logic. It’s still very far out [of academic understanding] – even the names of the runes were only taken from texts written a few hundred years ago – so one can speak extremely loosely on them. Both of us are wise enough to be open, we don’t put any absolutes in them … actually there is not enough knowledge around [the runes] to be certain on anything, you just have to trust your instincts. So we work to get a broader angle on things, rather than narrow it down to the basics.”

Clearly the pair are doing something right. Since Wardruna’s first performance at the Viking Museum in Oslo, the band have built a reputation for their powerful, transcendent live shows and likewise, new album Runaljod – Yggdrasil has been graced with the same high praise as their 2009 debut. Indeed, while the band appear to strive for authenticity, utilising field recordings and using non-musical objects appropriate to the lyrics as instruments (such as torches, stones and trees), the group’s music obviously resonates well beyond the boundaries of those who understand the Old Norse lyrics or even those with an existing interest in Northern European history and spirituality.

“I think it’s quite certain that people wouldn’t need to have any opinions or association with the runes to get something from Wardruna,” Gaahl confirms. “I can enjoy Bach even though it was music created for, well, the church,” he laughs. “I find the same way with Wardruna. One can see it as a musical project; for some of us it is more, but if people see it just as music it’s okay too. I’ve always been very careful about touching these elements, anything that is almost religious to a person should be strictly private I think, so that’s why I didn’t know if I wanted to bring it forth in a way. Now I see that I can take part, but it’s difficult, if I wasn’t able to be a ‘shadow’ in this band I don’t know if I would have been able to go through with it.”

As the vocalist explains, somewhat surprisingly, returning to a central creative role in his other projects is not something he relishes, preferring these days to instead provide a ‘shadowing’, or supporting, role to other artists’ visions. It is seemingly this wariness that stalled his continued creative endeavours with long time writing partner King until last year, when the duo returned with God Seed, a band also featuring Stian ‘Sir’ Kårstad, sometime guitarist of Trelldom.

“It might have turned upside down in a way,” he ponders. “Now I really find it hard to have something to say in a way. I almost want to have everything private. Maybe the upcoming God Seed album will be difficult; I know the concept, and I feel some of the elements, but I’m still a bit approaching it with a shaking hand. The [lyrical] topics that I want to bring into these projects are things that I’ve maybe become too certain on, and I have the lack of approaching it as a child. As soon as I let the things in my head go it rolls on, but to get the first scream out is hard. It’s getting more and more difficult to dare to open my mouth.”

What then of Trelldom, a band which is entirely concerned with Gaahl’s philosophies and beliefs? It’s now six years since the project’s last album, Til Minne…, are we likely to see a follow-up given the deeply personal nature of the project?

“I’m always working on it,” he replies. “There are some issues with it, with the other members – it’s difficult for them to communicate, so I’m kind of working on it on my own. I really hope both of them will come along on the next album, both have qualities that I really appreciate. They fulfil each other in a strange way but they’re very stubborn people…” He pauses and laughs before adding, “Norwegians. People have a lot of opinions.”

Speaking of which, now that he has become something of a public figure what does the vocalist feel about the various strong opinions about him? He is, after all, a somewhat divisive character, vilified in almost as many quarters as he is praised.

“I don’t know how people see me,” he says simply, “there are probably many different opinions. Some might have fallen into the trap of a certain form of media. I think people usually reflect themselves when they judge others.”

Gaahl’s most famous appearance in the media to date undoubtedly remains his interview in Sam Dunn’s popular documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, where the vocalist made a legendarily stony-faced appearance, answering questions with single word replies (“Satan”, “Freedom”) while frostily drinking a glass of wine. How does he feel about being pigeonholed by a minute’s worth of film from a decade ago?

“People refer to that whenever you’re out, so that’s a bit strange,” he replies, “but I don’t regret it, because it’s kind of interesting to see what people focus on. I still stand for what I say there, but it’s narrowed down – I explained to Sam what was behind the words I chose … of course I knew [the footage] would be cut down, but it is what it is. As I’ve tried to explain a million times, in my own thoughts to myself I am not [a Satanist], but, well, to a Christian I am. Satan is still the opponent, one who puts themselves in opposition.”

It’s a position the vocalist clearly enjoys – all the same, there’s no getting away from the fact that his somewhat otherworldly persona has become, for many fans at least, a focus of admiration rather than anything else, a point highlighted by the number of fans who attempt to get an autograph or a photo with him at shows. So how does this unlikely celebrity status suit him?

“I’m a very private person,” he says. “I don’t follow things happening around me when I’m not there but of course I have to choose carefully where I go if I go out, I have to choose the right places not to be surrounded by people who … want too much of you, basically. I try to approach people with a healthy mind, but it always takes some of the energy. In general I like privacy. Last time I even enjoyed being social was with senior citizens in England, chatting in a pub. It sounds very dull and boring but I like the British sense of humour and sarcasm. It is a bit more lively than things in Norway, which are often very serious.”

It’s probably fair to say that Gaahl himself has something of a reputation for humourlessness. For those who have spent time in conversation with him that might seem strange, because there are not many interviewees (particularly in the black metal scene) who laugh as frequently during conversation.

“Well sometimes comedians are the most serious people,” he replies. “I guess I’m quite serious … it’s not easy to get me on a roll. It’s very easy and comfortable to talk to you, but not all interviews are like this. As you saw from the Sam Dunn interview – there was not much room for humour.”

Speaking of a lack of humour, one wonders how the singer views his time within Gorgoroth, a band that has been built on a militant Satanic ethos since it began in 1992. Given that the band had already made its name with a trilogy of classic albums before Gaahl joined, was he able to make his role as creative as he wanted, or was he acting as another shadow?

“Well a very visual shadow in any case,” he replies with a laugh. “But there was a lot of creative elements also. When I first was contacted by Infernus in 1997 I never said yes to participate, I came along to help on a tour… and got stuck. We were a threesome for some time, but then it became more and more a twosome. Live it was a threesome, but in the studio it was more of a duo. But it was a delicious war. A lot of good frustration. It was enjoyable, lovely chaos.”

Indeed, given the conflict and distance inherent to the collective character of the Gaahl/King/Infernus(/Kvitrafn) line-up of Gorgoroth (which was noticeable even back in 2005, Infernus admitting to this writer that he actually had little or no idea of what his bandmates’ tastes in music were), it’s perhaps strange that Gaahl is shying away from offering his input now that he’s in a more ‘healthy’ setting.

“I’m always afraid of repeating myself, I’m terrified of stagnation,” he laughs. “I kind of automatically put chains on myself, unnecessarily. I put rules on me that I’m not supposed to have. It’s like when you’ve been taught something – I don’t like the idea that I’m going through a learning process. I would like to approach things as if it’s the first time. That’s my preference with any kind of art; to approach it with a spark of the moment, so that it’s almost improvisation. But sadly one ties oneself down with technique, things become a habit rather than being a pure creative source. You draw patterns rather than free lines.”

With that in mind is Gaahl glad that he ended his hiatus from black metal and returned to the scene from whence he first emerged?

“I’m on and off, always,” he sighs. “Sometimes I’m in the mood for things, sometimes not. I’m a bit too indecisive – I really enjoy a lot of the energy within metal but then again the next day I might feel I don’t have anything to contribute. Me and King have kind of always had in the back of our heads that we should do something again. He’s always been kind of trying to get me to get started again, so when we finally got to an agreement we decided, okay, we have to turn it into something which is not just ‘King and Gaahl’. So we found the other members and turned it what it is now. I’m quite pleased with the outcome, lyrically and content-wise, with pushing myself over the threshold. I’m also enjoying playing live. That was probably the thing that surprised me most, [because of] the constant repetition. You become stuck with something that you’ve finished with on a personal level.”

A more one-off project, though one that proved equally demanding in terms of commitment, was Gaahl’s aforementioned role in last year’s movie, Flukt. In it he depicts a ruthless archer in an enjoyable and beautifully shot escape/revenge film that plays out a tiny bit like a medieval European version of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

“The premier happened while we were working in the studio with God Seed so I was not following how it was responded to,” he explains. “But in Cannes I think they sold it to fifty other countries, so it’s out there somewhere. I was of course playing a bad guy. We are villains kidnapping this 19-year-old girl. She escapes and we are tracking her down, so rather… simple action. Running around the forest shooting, or trying to shoot, people with a bow and arrow. It was an enjoyable process.”

One would presume that having to portray a character as a director envisions it and sticking to a pre-written script would suit Gaahl’s current disposition and approach to creative work. As he explains though, it wasn’t as if he had no control over what he was doing within the movie.

“You bring in your stubbornness and create your own character,” he says earnestly. “You decide how it is and you can’t change that during the movie, you have to think, ‘This is how I am’, and I’m stubborn enough to get into arguments with the director because I think, ‘This is not how the character is’. So you’re not in control but you have your stubbornness to bring some kind of certainty to what you do. I don’t care too much about the outcome, the only thing I care about is that the director is happy with it.”

So is acting something he could see himself continuing with on a more full time basis if the opportunity arose?

“The problem is it takes a lot of time that might have been used for creation. When you make a movie you are tied down to a contract that can pull you in whenever. You are not as free an artist as you are within music, because in music if I want to quit, I can quit. It’s not like that with a movie or a play, it’s not only my own decisions anymore. The way I see it is that I could be replaced in Wardruna if needed. Hopefully it won’t come to that decision, but if it came to playing the States… well, I doubt I could play the States for legal reasons, so we have to keep an open mind. I see myself as something that could be changed in God Seed as well, but I don’t think the others would agree.”

In an interview a few years ago King complained to me that on some days Gaahl would come into the studio, spend the whole day staring into space and then go home having not recorded anything, simply because he could not find the right inspiration. With that in mind does the singer see himself as a difficult person to work with?

“I’m trying not to be. What it demands from others is patience. I’m difficult to work with if patience is not something people can handle. I never like to reveal things while I’m working on a project, so I kind of leave the band completely in the dark – it’s a challenge for me, but probably a huge challenge for them as well, to not know what is happening. And my struggle with myself is too big to talk about. It’s a constant war. [It’s difficult for people] to understand my way of working. I need a lot of space around me, a lot of solitude. Sometimes I don’t even get solitude from myself. If I have too many ideas, I think that all the ideas are wrong and have to come down to one idea. Usually there are way too many ideas accessible and as long as there is more than one route to a solution then all the solutions are wrong. I don’t enjoy the creative [process] but I end up liking the result. It’s a war zone around myself when I’m creating, that’s why I don’t bring people in. I need to stay away from people when I’m creating and luckily [partner] Robin doesn’t mind me staying away for three months. I’m wise enough to withdraw.”

Indeed, during this current period of creativity – which has seen Gaahl return to his drawing and painting after a one year break – he has returned to Espedal to once again work in solitude, leaving Robin in Bergen. It is now almost five years since the two began seeing one another (“He’s turning 23 now so it’s a huge part of his life,” Gaahl ponders), an event which coincided with Gaahl coming out publically. In that time Gaahl’s sexuality has been much discussed, to the extent that he even picked up an award as ‘Gay person of the year’ at the Bergen Gay Gala. Generally speaking, how has the reaction been by the extreme metal scene?

“I don’t pay too much attention,” he says in matter-of-fact tones, “but it is more of a positive. I’ve always found the metal scene very liberal, in every sense. I’ve enjoyed being on stage for people who enjoy what [we] do rather than being there for political reasons. We played in Poland recently and we had not played since the 2004 Krakow show and then a lot of fans were doing Sieg Heils -you found that a lot in 2004 in Eastern Europe – but this time there were people in drag and so on, so there was a huge gap from what it used to be. I liked the development, it seems more open minded.”

Open mindedness isn’t necessarily a trait that defines the black metal scene – in fact, the godfather of the genre Euronymous specifically spoke against it (though certainly not, it should be pointed out, in relation to sexuality) – and intolerance to some extent remains a key dynamic within the movement.

“I can see it because I had my right wing time back in my youth and not necessarily because…,” he pauses briefly, “well, it was more due to the surroundings where I lived, so you [aimed] the hate against what disturbed you, basically. I didn’t necessarily have a full blown view on the topic. And I like the idea that people should have weird opinions as well, everything needs to evolve in a certain way and it needs to go through a process where it can grow. If everything was at peace in the beginning there would not be any growth, and we also need to have things we don’t necessarily agree with. Everything needs to be in motion. I’m afraid of stagnation, and introspection would be stagnation.”

It’s a compelling position, but one that seems likely to bring increasing pressure to Gaahl’s own creative process as the years go on. As it happens, the singer has himself been analysing the mental hurdles that have increasingly hampered his artistic drive in recent years.

“I’ve been roaming around looking at how I painted over the years,” he says thoughtfully, “and I noticed that the most creative part is in my mid-twenties. So I hope that by looking at these I might be able to turn around a bit and dare to be creative, instead of thinking always, ‘Oh this isn’t correct.’ I enjoy when spring comes, as it does now, I am always surprised how green it is and in winter too, in half a year, I will be surprised by the ice. I would like my own creative approach to have that same element of surprise, to be surprised by myself. Especially I think I’m the worst possible age at the moment. I think one starts to loosen up around sixty, if you look at artists they often peak around sixty again, so there is probably this pattern.” He laughs once more before concluding, “I think when you’re older you realise you have everything wrong and loosen up… I look forward to being seventy.”

Gaahl, King, Infernus, Gorgoroth and Trelldom are all featured in Dayal Patterson’s upcoming tome on the history of black metal, Black Metal: Evolution Of The Cult, released by Feral House in November 2013

Wardruna play their debut UK concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Thursday October 24, with special guests Steindór Andersen and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson

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