‘Raised By Owls’: An Interview With Kvelertak

Toby Cook catches up with the six-headed punk-metal hydra on the eve of the release of second album Meir, to talk writing catchy tracks, black metal and their home country of Norway

"The only complaint we’ve had was from Happy Tom [of Turbonegro]," says Erlend Hjelvik, the impressively bearded front man of Kvelertak, when the Quietus catch up with him and guitarist Vidar Landa on a particularly inclement day in central London. "He was a judge on a Norwegian radio contest that we were on that in 2009 and he told me after the show that ‘you guys have to start writing songs in English if you want to make it outside of Norway’ – luckily we’re not very good at taking advice!"

Luckily indeed. That particular proclamation from Mr. Tom surely has to rank as one of the most misjudged musical gaffes since Sir Alan Sugar declared in 2005(!) that the iPod would "never catch on". When we meet up with them the band are on the verge of releasing their second full length, Meir – their debut for the prestigious Roadrunner Records – and embarking on a largely sold out UK tour. And barely a year after the Turbonegro bassist’s advice, a relentless touring schedule of powerful and almost hypnotically anarchic gigs, coupled with the release of their debut self titled album, gored the six-headed punk-metal hydra into global metal consciousness and saw them become practically every metalhead’s new favourite band.

(It probably didn’t hurt that Converge’s Kurt Ballou handled production duties, whilst Baroness’ John Baizley contributed a typically iconic piece of cover art either.)

History is littered with ‘difficult’ second albums, however – Use Your Illusion I & II, One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back, Piano Man – and whilst the two sixths of the band before us today appear suitably relaxed, although far shyer than their stage personas would ever suggest, it doesn’t take long before the conversation turns to the serious business of Meir and the pressures their rapidly accelerated career path has foisted on them…

Given just how successful the first album was, and how incredibly quickly you guys blew up, did that add any pressure, or did you add any extra pressure on yourselves knowing that people are going to instantly expect greatness?

Erlend Hjelvik (vocals): I don’t think we though too much about it, we just tried to focus on continuing to make music that we liked ourselves – that was really the most important thing…

Vidar Landa (guitar): It all came together pretty naturally, really. First of all we’d been on the road so long with that first album so when we got some time off last summer…

EH: Yeah, that was the main concern, that we wouldn’t have time to make a new album!

VL: Yeah. We really had to slow down our booking agent so we actually had time to write and rehearse new stuff.

In a sense then, having a very narrow window of opportunity to get the album made, rather than having six or eight months to sit around and endlessly tweak stuff – how much do you think that worked in your favour?

EH: We really didn’t have time to over think it, yeah. It was made in pretty short timeframe compared to the last one; we wrote 11 songs and those are the ones that are on the album – it pretty much made itself!

From a UK perspective it appeared that you guys literally came out of nowhere – it was like every metalhead went to bed one night and woke up to hear everyone talking about Kvelertak. Why do you think you developed such a strong and passionate following so quickly?

EH: I don’t know – probably because we brought something new to that table, I guess were actually quite different from a lot of bands in the metal scene…

VL: We have our own approach to heavy music that people seem to like, and plus we’ve done, like… we’ve been on the road a lot and put a lot of focus into playing really good shows…

EH: And we’re not afraid to be catchy!

VL: [laughs] Yeah, we’re pretty shameless about that.

EH: [laughs] We actually don’t mind people liking our band.

I think the first time people started to hear about Kvelertak was when you played the By:Larm festival in 2009, which I hear is kind of like a Norwegian SXSW – just how important was that festival for you guys, and how important is it for the Norwegian music scene in general?

EH: That festival appearance was really important for us…

VL: Yeah, that was how we got booked to play the Roskilde festival, for example, and it’s where a lot of booking agents saw us…

EH: We got a lot of buzz at that festival for some reason – there were a lot of people at our shows, and that was kind of a new thing for us. And it was weird because the year before we sent the same demo and they didn’t want us! Ha ha ha! It was just by chance really that our drummer [Kjetil Gjermundrød] sent in the same demo CD again. But, yeah, we got to play and it went really, really well – so yeah, it was kind of weird.

Speaking of your live shows, the first time I saw you was a couple of years back on the tour with Converge, Kylesa and Gaza and I’ve got to say I think it’s the only gig I’ve ever been to at the Camden Underworld where the first band on virtually filled the room – there were almost as many people that turned out early for you as there were for Converge! How much did that experience, not just in London but throughout your early tours, affect your attitude and outlook towards the band?

EH: Well we were super stoked just to be on that particular tour, it felt pretty humbling…

VL: Yeah, we were prepared to play for like 10 people…

EH: I remember at the first show when I saw Converge at their sound check – that was crazy for me, they really made us raise our game and our performance levels – they’re definitely a band we learned a lot from, just from watching them do what they do every night on stage. Converge are probably one of the craziest bands I know, they’re just super energetic…

VL: They’re like our godfathers.

But you guys have a great reputation all of your own for being an incredibly powerful and energetic live band – it probably sounds like stupid question, but just how important is the live show for you? Do you see yourselves as effectively a live band that makes a record now and then, rather than one that likes to be in the studio all the time?

EH: I think that yeah, we are really more concerned with being a live band than actually making music! I mean, for the first album we must have played over 300 shows in support of it so we really played a lot – and, y’know, we’re always trying to improve ourselves and try to make things better all the time, and getting out and playing shows is for us the best way of doing that.

And tell me about this show you played in Singapore where it ended up finishing the set playing outside the venue, with the whole audience in tow.

EH: [laughing] Yeah, that was genius!

VL: That is one of the highlights of the whole tour for me. We were coming from Australia, where we had done the Soundwaves tour, which is this huge touring festival with some really big bands; big stages, fancy hotels and all that. Anyway, on our way back to Norway we stopped in Singapore to play a show, and we played in this tiny, tiny club – we couldn’t all fit on stage, we just had to stand the whole band in a line in the corner – but it was packed, there was like 100 kids, and it was super hot so during the last song, I don’t really know why, but I just decided to go outside and finish the set out there…

EH: Yeah, and I didn’t know that any of this was even going on as I was just leaving the stage, and wondering if you’d fucked up or something.

VL: Oh yeah, because you were done! It was at the end of ‘Utrydd Dei Svake’ – which is kind of instrumental at the end – so he had left the stage, I went outside, all the other guys followed, and then suddenly everybody was in the street and we’d stopped the traffic.

EH: It was just a really weird but good mood; you can tell that they’re just not used to that kind of stuff in Singapore – I mean, there you can even get a fine for just spitting gum on the streets. But I think they had a blast!

VL: Yeah, we had to take a picture with like every single person who was at the show afterwards.

Incredible – that’s awesome. Now I read somewhere that you describe yourselves, in a live sense, as being like "Burzum sucking The Buzzcocks’ cock"…

EH: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a very old description though, we’re kind of trying to stay away from the black metal thing now. The worst thing for us is when people call us a black metal band, that’s just completely fucking stupid – they obviously don’t know what black metal is if they think that we are a black metal band.

VL: It’s like they hear a blast beat and go "oh yeah, it’s black metal".

EH: We just like to flirt a little bit with it, the same as with every other style we incorporate; punk, rock or metal.

It does seem that Norway is incredibly fertile ground for breeding rock and metal bands – even at the punker end of the spectrum you’ve now got the likes of The Good, The Bad And The Zugly coming through…

EH: Oh yeah, they’re great – I just heard their new album.

What is it about Norway that seems to breed so many great bands? How much does the tour support grant from the government help?

EH: It’s a huge help – we’ve toured with a lot of American bands and I think they almost don’t believe us when we first tell them.

VL: Yeah, that you can have tour support, paid by the government; paid, to tour!

EH: It’s kind of crazy really, but Norway’s a rich country with all that oil money so it’s good that they use it on something culturally important like that.

VL: It’s the same thing they do with sports and stuff – they give a lot of money, generally, to cultural stuff and that’s really good thing.

EH: It would have been impossible… well, not impossible, but it would have been a lot, lot harder to get started if we didn’t get that tour support.

VL: It’s a small country and there’s a pretty small music scene – compared to the States for example, or even the UK – so it definitely helps that bands are able to get support from the state.

EH: There is nothing Norwegians love more than Norwegians who do well outside of Norway! That’s always the thing: if something happens in Norway, then they write a lot of articles about what other articles in other countries are saying about Norway.

Meir artwork

One of the things that brought your first album to the attention of a lot of people was that John Baizley of Baroness produced the artwork – as he has for the new LP. How did he become involved? And given the awful personal problems they’re dealing with still in the wake of the bus crash, was the cover produced in advance?

EH: No, it was produced after. I don’t know why people think that it must’ve been made before… I mean, I can see why people think that, because it was a very serious accident, but I think really it just meant that he had to spend a little bit more time on it. As far as I know he has been recovering really well – we met him in Philadelphia after the last US tour we did, and that was the first day that he was out of his wheelchair, so that was a really great thing to see.

So was it a case where you thought, ‘ok, in a perfect world who would we want to get to do the artwork’?

EH: No, it was actually a bit more random – he emailed us!

VL: Their [Baroness’] tour manager had gotten a promo/demo of the album and they played it in their bus and John Baizley really liked it; that was whilst we were actually at the studios with Kurt [Ballou, Converge]. He sent us an email saying that he had heard the demos, and if he could do any artwork for us then that is something he’d really like to do – which we were obviously just blown away by, because we’re big fans of his band and his art.

EH: So that was a really easy one to sort out! Buts that’s another thing, like, he was a guy we really wanted to ask at the time but we were sure that he’d say no, so it was a great coincidence for us.

And now you’ve got a cover for the new record with birds shitting all over it!

EH: [laughs] Yeah, it’s a little more grim this time – that was kind of the point. He sent us the cover and was like "I think this is the cover that you guys need right now", so that’s what he made.

A lot of your artwork, t-shirts and so on often feature that owl motif, but that doesn’t appear so much with this record?

EH: Well, it’s actually printed on the CD face now – it’s hidden!

Is there a particular story behind the use of the owl?

EH: I wish there was a deep, significant meaning behind the use of it but…

VL: Erlend was raised by owls.

EH: [Laughs] Yeah, I wish it was something like that! But no, it’s pretty random too; we had made a couple of demos, back in the day, and just wanted to put them out on like, a homemade CDR, with covers that we’d done ourselves to give to friends…

VL: I think that is in about 2006…

EH: It was our bass player Marvin [Nygaard]’s idea to use an owl, I don’t know why, so our guitarist made the cover – that was for West Coast Holocaust – and yeah, it just wound up becoming our mascot; people just seem to dig it.

So none of you have subsequently bought a pet owl or gotten into falconry?

EH: [laughts] No, but our guitarist Maciek [Ofstad] has a pet parrot in his apartment now though… Well, I think it might be his roommate’s.

Lyrically, as I understand it, on the first album you dealt a lot with Norse mythology, but on the new LP you’ve moved away from that?

EH: Yeah, that’s right. I’m not an expert on Norse mythology, we’re not Enslaved or anything, I just happened to be reading about it a lot at the time I was writing the lyrics for the first album. What I do generally when I write lyrics is that I write about things that sound bad ass to me, and that I think would make good song lyrics. So yeah, I stayed away from it this time, just so I wouldn’t have to write lyrics about Norse mythology every time we make a new album, so it’s a little different this time. I suppose you could say that the lyrics on this album are more inspired by Blue Öyster Cult, Monster Magnet and black metal – it’s that kind of mix and then I run it through the Kvelertak grinder.

The song ‘Nekrokosmos’, for example, that to me paints this picture of some sort of celestial vortex spewing death and destruction…

EH: Yeah, that song is about, like, an antichrist kind of figure that comes down from outer space, out of a black hole, and comes down to earth and destroys everything.

Awesome. And how much inspiration do you draw from your environment, musically and lyrically – because you guys don’t live in Oslo at the moment, do you?

EH: Well, actually, everybody else does except me – I live by the coast in south western Norway. But yeah, I wish I could say that I was more influenced by it… Well, that’s not true really – the weather there is pretty shitty, very rainy, and there’s not a lot you can see most of the time, so that’s actually made its way into a few of the lyrics. But it’s more that I use the weather just to set the mood. It’s like when I walk in the rain and it’s dark and you can hear the ocean – you kind of start to think and I often then get images in my head and start to think of ideas for song lyrics.

Often it’s said that Oslo is supposed to be the ugliest capital city in Europe. Is that really the case? Why?

EH: It’s not really ugly, but I guess…

VL: I think it’s the fact that when you arrive in Oslo at the central station there are just tons of junkies shooting heroin in the streets – that’s almost literally the first thing you see!

EH: It definitely feels more urban than any other city in Norway by quite a long way, I suppose.

VL: And winter is really cold and really long, but apart from that I really enjoy living there.

EH: I guess that’s the ugly thing about it, that there are really a lot of junkies and beggars…

VL: We have a lot of junkies in Norway…

EH: Yeah but they all seem to flock to Oslo and hang out at the train station, so it’s like that the first thing you see, a guy throwing up with a needle in his arm.

VL: The war on drugs – yay! – very successful.

And I thought it was grim where I lived in Peckham in South London!

EH: It’s pretty weird, Norway is this country where you always hear abroad that ‘it’s one of the best places to live in Europe’ and all that kind of stuff, and then when you arrive that is the first thing you see.

Obviously that’s why it’s so good – everybody’s got loads of money to spend of skag, right?

EH: [laugh] Yeah, the best place to live if you love heroin…

I’m surprised that Hank from Turbonegro hasn’t been down there waving his book of Scientology bollocks in their faces trying to convert them.

EH: Actually he has been up to some stuff like that!

Kvelertak’s new album, Meir, is out on March 25th via Roadrunner records.

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