Enslaved dipped into thousand-year-old Norse mythology to lay the sonic and conceptual foundation of their new album Heimdal, which was named after the Norse god that kept watch for invaders and the Ragnarök from the burning rainbow bridge called Bifrost. Ivar Bjørnson, the band’s co-founder, vocalist, lyricist and composer, states the obvious when describing the sound of the Gjallarhorn that opens the first track on the album: “When you heard this sound, you knew that things were about to change.”
Indeed, times have changed for the 32-year-old band that got started when Bjørnson was just 13 years old. The group utilized the time and isolation during the pandemic to create a “pretty good album” says Bjørnson, although he credits the struggles of Covid for producing a sincere sense of gratitude the band holds for the fans they’ve met on tour since the lockdowns ended. His humility and graciousness for the fans is touching.
Those qualities shine through when he discusses being tapped to create a musical piece in celebration of the 200th anniversary of his native country’s constitution. He talks about being a musician in a community of artists in the modern world. He explains how the mythical history of Norse culture can give us guidance in navigating this new world we now live in. Most of all, Bjørnson comes across as a thoughtful, compassionate and authentic cultural representative, not just for the citizens of Norway, but for all citizens of the music world.
mxdwn: Hi, my name is Ric Leczel. I’m a feature writer with mxdwn.com. I’m here with Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved and I’m really glad that you can share some time with us. How are you?
Ivar Bjørnson: Very good. Thank you. Looking to be a nice day.
mxdwn: Where are you calling in from?
mxdwn: Oh my gosh. So that’s quite a bit ahead of us. I really appreciate you taking the time for us to talk.
IB: My pleasure.
mxdwn: I’ve heard of Enslaved. I wasn’t really a rabid fan, but I’ve spent the last 48-hours really getting into your stuff. You have got quite a collection. This latest album, to be honest with you, as a theme album, I’m really into that. From Rush to Pink Floyd, which you cite as one of your big influences, so the whole theme thing is really cool. Drawing inspiration from familiar myths and creating a modern appreciation for ancient history is a noble calling. How is Norse mythology different from or similar to other ancient civilizations in your mind, and how can understanding these myths help us in the modern world?
IB: Perfect question. That’s what we’re about. It seems you know our understanding of mythologies and mystic knowledge way back is a bit of the history of the mind, the human mind, psychology. We have history books about the wars, you know? Who conquered what and, and so forth. We can see how we’ve developed that thinking as sentient, cognitive beings and that seems to be engraved into the mythologies.
So, thinking from there, Norse mythologies are pretty young in the world perspective, where you have Asian, Indian mythology predating it. African obviously. And you can find traces if you follow the history of it, you will see how mythology appears as the migration periods go forth. And then we’ve been quite interested in that, especially on our album RIITIIR back from 2012, which was a deep dive into that particular fascination of how we’re also connected mythologically or magically if you want things like that.
Ten thousand years ago, just after meeting the horse, that’s when the Homo Sapiens, the human race, started also thinking magically and starting to put all these things that couldn’t be verbalized into stories and storytelling, you know, that’s the great thing that we had. Competitive strains of humanoids in the evolutionary process were stronger, some were even more intelligent, but we had something they didn’t have and that was the ability to gather masses. To join together in societies, smaller ones and then clump together and form bigger ones. And the main glue seems to have been the stories and mythology plays a particularly powerful role in that. The caveman would look at a meteor and he wouldn’t think about a falling rock on fire. He would immediately go to some kind of storytelling about somebody being thrown out of heaven in disgrace.
We have that today in the various devil figures, Lucifer and all that. So, all these natural phenomena and our understanding of the world around us seems to be in that you could tell so many things in these variables, in mythological tales. And they’re open. They are adapted to the human state of mind, which is that we are individuals. That we have different stories behind us, we have different life journeys. So, each of us hearing a story will be inspired or given some insight. Or just enjoy the story in various ways. And I think that is why we are so fond of the format. It adapts to the individual.
There’s height enough in the room so that each one with their differences can relate to it. As opposed to the more political religions that came after that are more about controlling you. And saying that the square figures have to go into square holes. And sometimes there will be a round figure and how the hell do you get through the square hole?
mxdwn: What you just talked about is what I like to write about. That we’re all individuals with our own story. But as soon as we tell those stories to our audience, it becomes their story because they have one like it or it fits into their own story. I’m going to follow that up because you just mentioned Lucifer and I read a quote that you have said that you “were always chaotic, but never satanic.” And I think that’s important in today’s age. So that’s a big red line. How do you differentiate between chaotic and satanic? Because some people would say that Satan spawns chaos. How do you walk that line?
IB: I’m going to steal a quote here from Peter Carroll, a writer, who described it as you have a gorilla in a cage. The Christian will never let him out of the cage. The Satanist will never let him back into the cage. And then chaos, you know the chaotic philosopher, he’ll leave the cage door open and let the gorilla decide for himself.
mxdwn: I totally love that. Which is free will, which is what God talks about, right?
IB: Exactly it is free will, but that the concept of free will is also a thing that is very central in all mythologies. And in these stories because it does tell, it’s very misunderstood, as I experienced it, with Aleister Crowley, with (his concept of) True Will, things seem to be taken as sort of free ticket to go puke in your neighbors’ shoes or smash in his windows, whatever, but you’re missing the point.
If free will is to exist, it will never reach 100% because it can only be reached if you also respect other peoples’ possibility of acting on their free will. So, it says, it’s a good parallel to what they’re talking about and I read an interesting study now where they find out like that, athletes who are aiming at 80 to 85% (performance) when they’re competing, will actually achieve more than the ones that are going for 100%. And that’s maybe, it could be a thing about free will too. It’s disappointing for some, if they think you’re all this nature, God is dead, blah, blah. But it’s not about free pass, let’s go out and be destructive. You can be destructive, but the minute you start limiting other people’s potential you are constraining free will as the total sum of free will. And that’s going against the whole principle, I would say.
mxdwn: I kind of feel the same way and I write about a lot of that. Rush and Devo, have been speaking about free will as an option, and if you don’t make a choice, you still made a choice and that what you say is if you choose your free will over somebody else’s, you’ve just oppressed them.
IB: Yes, so if you want to live a life free of suppression that needs to go both ways, it can’t be a monologue.
mxdwn: I was listening to the first song on the album with that foghorn or whatever those sounds are. But it’s such an inviting opening because it’s not heavy metal, it’s a different sound and you’ve incorporated this atmosphere into a song and especially if you watch the video, but if you just listen to it in headphones and it’s going in and out of your ears, that’s a really powerful feeling.
IB: It is. To be honest, this is the horn that’s heard on the intro of the album, that’s sort of opening the whole thing. And it’s very closely connected to the title Heimdall. That’s how he’s depicted, and he is an older God speaking about other civilizations. He was there when the Vikings sort of arrived on the scene. I guess like they did with a lot of other local deities and by the indigenous people of Norway, these armies, they incorporated what was there already. I guess like every mythology or religion has done. You build on what’s there already.
mxdwn: To kind of bring the population aboard.
IB: Yeah, exactly. And this bronze horn, it was played by Eilif (Gundersen), who is the live bronze horn player from the band Wardruna out of Norway and they’ve they actually made a replica. It’s been found, it’s 5000 years old, from Bronze Age in Denmark and they made a replica.
These fantastic instruments were placed on peaks and high points. And you had trusted members of the tribe who would be there and these were used for the uttermost urgent situations. Whether it was stemming from nature or other humans or unknowns coming into your territory and so on. There was something about that sound, and just imagining, because it can be heard – it’s built to be carried over very vast distances.
mxdwn: It’s like a foghorn.
IB: Yeah. When you heard this sound, you knew that things were about to change. It was not simply, you know, there’s a bear tumbling into the area. It’s like there’s an actual, other tribe, it could be 10,000 migrants coming up from the south or from the east or wherever. And it’s, it’s just so incredibly human that we’re able to build these sophisticated instruments to alert, to notify. And that’s what we wanted and that’s what this concept is about. I really like that you used the word inviting. That’s what we wanted to do. You don’t know what’s out there. Is it danger? Is it hope? You don’t know, but there’s something around the bend. Are you willing to go there and see what it is?
mxdwn: So, then that just pops in my head that that’s so intentional that that’s your signal to the listener, whoever this listener is that just found you, that you know, it’s not danger. It’s not success. Hey, something’s going to happen. I like that. The imagery of Heimdall is very rich: a burning Rainbow Bridge, emerald tooth, a golden-maned horse, the creator of social classes. Were these images and stories a part of your childhood? It feels like it is and how this project reconnected you to the home and now you’re this ambassador for the country. You’ve been recognized by the government. I mean, it’s not like a heavy metal dude usually gets that.
IB: We’re quite fortunate. It was a troublesome birth you could say about this movement with the Norwegian, like extreme metal scene. And it’s kind of weird when we started out, we were like the odd cousin of black metal. We came from the same sort of movement. But we had this, again with the gorilla, you know, as we left the cage open and let him roam free sometimes. But also, sometimes he needs to be calmed down and there’s a lot of, I guess, there’s darkness, there’s aggression.
It’s all that’s connected to metal, but there’s also a lot of room for tenderness and for dynamics. And we really believed in that. And we still stand by that, that there’s a lot of things in the dark part of art. That’s really, we believe it to be necessary. One thing is, is connecting with these inner parts of ourselves that’s being so heavily suppressed because they’re uncomfortable in a sense, what with blood, war all this. But it’s still part of the construction of the human.
There’s bloodlust. There’s a war lust and all that stuff. So, there’s these ways of integrating that into an existence that still allow us to function together. And I think that it was recognized after a while that this is an art form. Of course, you had some I don’t want to call them bad apples. I guess I must do that, but I can’t think of any other cliches with, you know, bad eggs, whatever. Like in the rap scene or whatever that they were shooting each other and then you have some people that are focusing mainly on the music.
I guess that was the same with black metal. And that some people think maybe video games could be a better parallel. I think it’s good for a lot of kids to play video games, even though it’s, you know, first, what do you call it? First person shooter. All that stuff because you can release something, right? And of course, it can happen if you have people who have latent states, in their mind or some kind of mental illness that gets triggered by being exposed to this kind of violence and I guess that’s the same thing could happen in music. And if you delve into this whole black metal scene, of course, some people can go off and actually do things and then I guess the worst things happened back then.
It took a while and then we’re a small country and we have a (social democracy). That’s a good thing about social democracy. At least I’m not going to go into politics, but it seems to be the Scandinavian model recognizes that it can be healthy to have parts of society which are not happy with the way society are. So, we’re really lucky to have a government that is actually supporting people doing art that is very heavily critical of the government. And I think that’s one of the things that I’m proud of when it comes to Norway. You can debate the oil. And you can debate the whaling that we used to do in the 70s and all that stuff, but the openness to criticism is, at least, very healthy like this. I think it releases a lot of steam.
When it comes to how I feel about it personally, I don’t really care too much. I’m proud of being a Norwegian. But in the sense that that’s my history. And that makes me recognize and have an understanding why other people would be proud of where they’re from. And we recognize that immediately on our first tour in ’95, we went to Mexico and were met with all these people. They couldn’t speak English. We couldn’t speak Spanish. We’re exchanging Thor’s hammers and Aztec jewelry. There was an understanding there, right? This is our culture, welcome.
mxdwn: That’s so cool.
IB: And that’s what it’s about – cultural awareness for me. And that’s why I feel really proud to be here, an ambassador of my culture, which is Norwegian.
mxdwn: I’ve read a bunch of your interviews and listened to you and how you talk about that deeper understanding of mythology, culture and existence in general is very existentialistic. You’ve spoken about cultural identities and you just did without putting down another one. But you held your own identity and your own culture up as something to be proud of. I’ve heard you say that you’re not a cultural missionary, which I think is a great term. You got to have a song that’s called Cultural Missionary.
IB: Cultural representative is better, I think.
mxdwn: I like how you said that because it seems contradictory in the current political environment that one’s identity is the only thing that’s important. That’s about as close to a political statement that I’ve heard you say about the culture wars is we should all be proud of our own culture.
IB: Exactly and be comfortable within it because.
mxdwn: Why is that so politically controversial to say that?
IB: I think people have an affair of bringing all the stuff in. It’s like you don’t want to talk about yourself. Classical interview situation, more like in a job situation, right. And then it’s very divided between talking about yourself and then you’re supposed to say all the good stuff. And then they say like, say three negative things about yourself. You’re supposed to say these three things that are actually bragging also. I’m not good enough accepting praise, right? Which is just another way of saying I’m a genius, yeah.
mxdwn: Humble bragging, right?
IB: Exactly. And I think that’s the problem with the culture thing, that you’re not bringing (everything in). In Norse culture, there’s a big thing you mentioned, Heimdall being the inventor of the social classes. That’s something interesting about Norse mythology. Like, how do you relate to the Thrall? Of slaves being a big part of the Norse culture. That’s something I try to think about. And what about women’s roles in all this and how it’s being used today and all that? You have got to discuss those things also.
I think that’s the culture wars today are about people who just, it’s not really about culture, it’s about the strife for some kind of individual victory or something? I have no idea. I think people are feeling that they’re not being seen and I think that’s because they don’t feel that they belong, that they are real members, that they belong to a culture. So, these culture wars are being fought about, and fought between, a bunch of people that are missing a connection. It’s pretty random which side I end up on. They just want to be seen in a sense.
mxdwn: It’s kind of where people say that they’ve kind of always stood where they’ve stood and events have shifted around them and they find themselves in a different tribe now and they’re like, well, wait a minute, what happened?
IB: I think we all just need to dial back a little bit. And just like take it a little bit easier. And give it another look. It won’t be as fractional as we thought to begin with.
mxdwn: That makes me think of something I heard you talk about; somebody asked you the classic what was the challenge and the surprise that you had in the making of this album. You talked about the challenge being building on pillars of old black metal but in a new way and how that takes a long time. And then you said the surprise was when you stepped back and saw how good the band had become. That’s a strong sense of self-awareness. Is that something that you’ve always had or is that something that you had to go through this grind and then step back and surprise yourself by how good it became?
IB: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good description. Because you can talk about being open and then sort of like developing all the way and then creating something new. But I think, especially for this album and this period of time in the band, and especially going back and playing older albums, had a big effect on us. And sort of realizing that you could be as progressive as you want, but you have to find some kind of way to also incorporate the entire story.
This technical mastering that comes with experience and time and all that, but there’s a lot to be learned from the early days and especially being inspired by that and realizing the honesty And in the position where you’re lacking experience. I think that’s the most valuable lesson I’ve had so far in these 32 years in the band is the last couple of years realizing that you begin and then you try and learn from those who’ve done it before, in a sense. But at some point, you have to look backwards and start and try and to unlearn in a sense, or learn backwards, to learn again how it is to be spontaneous in a sense. Yeah, it’s the bicycling thing all over again. Find that balance about being aware of what you’re doing, but also to learn how to not think about it.
mxdwn: When I read something that I wrote, a few years ago, sometimes it makes you feel a little uncomfortable because you’re like God, was I really that honest? Was I that naïve that I just threw it all out there? And that’s kind of refreshing the older you get to be that naïve, isn’t it?
mxdwn: So, is that what we are looking for? The fountain of youth is really that innocence and that naivete.
IB: Yes, and then finding the right form of mixing them together like the experience but daring to go backwards and then being sort of not knowing at the same time.
mxdwn: Well, for you, you’re looking at when you started at 13 years old, I mean that’s a lot of honesty. Thirteen-year-olds say whatever they want.
IB: Yeah, it’s pretty weird. It is pretty weird.
mxdwn: What you talked about in a lot of your interviews is how you were being 15 again and how that opened up some new doors for you?
IB: Exactly! Because the 15-year-old tapped into a lot of things that you sort of get a little bit scared of when you, if you don’t want to go there, you don’t have to eat that. You want to use cleverness or whatever experience professionally and sort of like distance yourself a little bit too. But yeah, 15-year-old that’s a pretty bold idea that really deserves just looking at and I think it’s easy to fall into the trap to disregard it because sometimes it’s clumsy.
mxdwn: That’s a good word because some of the efforts I look at in my past, I’m like, oh, that’s a great word for it. It’s not bad or good. It’s just kind of clumsy. I think that’s very well said.
mxdwn: That leads me into this. I write a lot about the beauty of struggle and the creative process because I think it helps and I love that you speak to that fact that overcoming failure is part of the process, not something to be avoided. Did COVID create any struggles for you?
IB: I guess it did. But maybe on the personal level it created some challenges for us that’s been so dependent on this juggernaut existence. We’re touring constantly and all and moving in and out of projects. And then, boom, you’re in your living room for more than a month, for the first time since I was 16. And there’s some questions that were asked there. For us, I would say that COVID might be part of why the new album sounds, for me at least, as good as it does. Because we verbalized it quite well. We learned that when things are, when you meet new situations like going back to the whole digital revolution or whatever, we talked about it like “OK guys, we’re not making money out of our music anymore. How do we feel about that?” And we all felt like whatever, we’re still going to do it. Let’s just do some more work outside of the band.
I guess some bands went into that. And sort of like didn’t really express or have that talk about how it felt and then people start dropping off right before tours and stuff because they feel cheated or whatever. And I guess the same with COVID. We were like this is going to be challenging so what do we do? So, we decided to go full throttle. And invested a lot into this whole thing about keeping connection open with the people listening to the music. It was really important, and we just came back from this US or Canada tour in April, and we met a lot of people who expressed what we thought was happening – that there is someone out there receiving. That was our theory. Now we met them.
mxdwn: That’s so cool.
IB: And they talked about hardships and at these concerts with bands that kept going. That meant a lot.
mxdwn: As a takeaway, do you consider yourself a movement leader or a thought influencer? I mean, like you just said, people came to you and shared their story because you had such an impact on them. I think that’s a very deep human connection.
IB: I think I have some kind of role, but I feel that I’m a member of a community. And then we have various [other members], you know, the musician is there. You have architects, you have carpenters, you have farmers. And you have musicians. And of course, the culture will change from time to time. During the Renaissance the artists would be elevated to some kind of divine status. I don’t really believe in that stuff. It’s a craft and then we come from a scene where we were all just fans of extreme metal. Some of us were in bands, some are collectors of music, some are concert goers in various degrees of intensity. Some started writing magazines. Some turned out to be excellent graphic artists. Some started record labels. So yeah, I still feel very comfortable in that sort of underground.
Even though it’s more of part of what we say, like “the normal music business” now, I still feel like we did in the beginning, in the underground. And, for me, meeting a fan or a listener who’s been into the band from there or there. I think sometimes I’m equally in awe when someone tells the story, you know how they follow music. How they discover things. It doesn’t really matter if it was last year or was 32 years ago. Yeah, I really like the thought of a community.
mxdwn: That’s what I do. I write and I have a community that reads the words that I write and it’s refreshing to hear someone in your position with the fame and all the celebrity that goes with being a rock star but to really kind of have that connection to the innocence of it. I really appreciate how you draw that line between black metal and Satanic metal and don’t put it down and kind of let everyone live. I just think that’s really refreshing. Anything you want to just follow up on?
IB: I want to say thanks for a great thing to you, man. It’s a bit different and I really like that. Great talk.
mxdwn: Thank you.
IB: I hope you come out to the show once we can continue.