Spiritual Black Dimensions (Nuclear Blast)
An interview with guitarist Astennu
by Scott Hefflon
You’ve finally got some down-time between tours: tell me about your last tour.
In early March we went on a two month tour with Dark Funeral all over Europe. It went really well and both bands got a good response. After a few days off, we did a lot of the summer festivals, and now we’re home relaxing, writing songs and getting caught up on promotional stuff.
Can you write songs like yours when you’re on the road?
We can come up with the ideas and a few of the parts, but it’d be really hard to put this shit together on the road. Even though we have a lot of spare time – we only play about an hour a day or whatever – but there are interviews to do, and all sorts of things to do when you get to a venue. And you’re worried about the show, stressing out about something, or a piece of equipment is broken so you have to run to a shop… If you get the time, you might work on some riffs, but it’s really nice to come home, relax, and get together to work on new ideas properly.
It seems acquiring a certain mood is very necessary to the composition.
It even depends on the rehearsal room – what it looks like, what it feels like, if there’s not the right atmosphere, it’s all going down the drain.
What’s your favorite rehearsal space like?
It’s set up like a show, because we like playing live and it feels very comfortable to us. It’s very dark, we have a little of a light show perhaps…
How about in the studio?
Sometimes it feels like a hospital, you know? But you do what you have to do. I just kick everyone out. When Shagrath is doing his vocals, sometimes he has the lights off or some candles lit… It really comes down to whatever the individual wants. When one of us is in the studio, the rest of us are out. We trust whatever that person wants to play.
Each band member has worked out their own rituals?
Of course. Especially before playing live, each of us has stupid things we do to get ready. For me, I have to put black tape around my boots. Just once around each. If I forget, I’ll freak out. Halfway through a song I’ll stamp my foot and the guitar technician will run over and put tape around my boot. Ahhh… Just these silly little things… Same thing with the make-up: when these guys are done with their make-up, I’ll know what their mood is. A lot of people choose one design of face paint and they stick to it, but I think it’s better to bring whatever your feelings are at the time out. But whatever it takes to get you into the mood, into character, for the show.
My Dad used to call my outfits my costume, but it represents your alter-ego, who you are and what you want to project, and you don’t feel whole without it.
If you didn’t have that to express yourself, you might chose more harmful ways. It’s an outlet and it helps to get you into your space, your creative place. You’re not being someone you’re not, you’re bringing yourself into full being.
Does your stage persona have idiosyncrasies you normally don’t have?
Sure, like the tape. I don’t give a fuck about any other time, but on stage, it’s necessary to the character. The character starts about ten minutes before he has to play, and he stays in the whole time he’s on stage. He’s used to playing with that stuff on him, and those things around him.
How far removed are your stage personas from your everyday, walk to the store to get milk, selves?
Totally different. I think it’s strange because we’ve toured with a lot of bands and seen a lot of bands, and we’re one of the most chilled out bands until half an hour before we hit the stage. We’ll be headlining some Gothic festival, and we’ll get up and get off the bus in shorts or whatever, none of that bullshit necro stuff, and everyone else is all dressed up beautifully at 10 in the morning. We chill out all day ’til we get dressed to go onstage. We’re very comfortable being ourselves and what we want to be. You need to be yourself as much as you can, but when you get on stage, it’s a different thing.
I relate stage personas, in their most dangerous sense, to Alice Cooper. Before he got control, his onstage antics spilled over into his personal life until there was little of him left. He became the stage character he’d created.
In black metal, you can have it as a lifestyle without being stupid about it. It can be everything, and your life can revolve around it, but you need to have the split between your house and the stage.
You guys aren’t very old, 21 or 22: tell me about your earlier days on stage.
When we started, we played our first Dynamo, we were 18 and 19. There were other young metal bands there, but a year later we didn’t hear of them again. We were very lucky, and it must’ve been like, “Oh, it’s those same black metal guys again,” but after a few years, the bigger bands saw that we were still there and told us we were doing it the right way. A lot of young bands do it the wrong way, by not showing respect. It’s a big step going from playing a European club tour to playing the festivals and headlining. I’ve seen lots of bands who’ve opened for us, and years later, I still see them opening for other bands. It might not be because of their music, they’ve just gone about things the wrong way.
What’s the right way?
Well, many black metal bands don’t seem to respect bands that don’t play black metal. If you play with Soulfly, Max Cavalera – or any of the guys that’ve been around for a long time – has worked at his shit to get where he is, and you have to show him respect. Then you work hard and you be yourself, and people see that you’re young and you’re not being a prick, you’re trying to make it work. You have to appreciate where you are at any given time. When people go from being friends to being in a band, something seems to happen in their brains… I don’t know, I guess I’m just lucky to be in a band with guys who, once we get off tour, we do the same things we’ve always done. We’ve all kept our heads about us, I think.
The numbers pretty much show that you’re the best-selling black metal band, well, ever, and if you can keep your heads on straight…
We have a thing in the band that if any of us starts to act like a dickhead, someone’ll punch him in the head. If you ever think you’ve made it, you’ll stop working hard. That’s not what it’s about. You work hard because you want to do it and get better, not because you want to sell more or be more popular.
You’ve recently had some line-up changes, right?
Yes, we have two new members since the album. We changed drummers and bass players. We kicked out Tjodalv, our drummer, and we’re using the now-ex-drummer of Cradle of Filth, Nicholas. We’ve been friends with them for some time and we’ve played a lot together, and he wasn’t happy playing with Cradle anymore. I think he’s one of the best drummers out there, he came over and jammed with us, and everything worked out. Tjodalv had trouble remembering the songs and he had other commitments. We were touring pretty hard and we couldn’t risk him holding us back, and we knew a drummer who was killer and wanted to play with us. Our bassist, Nagash, is in Covenant like I was, and he decided to just stay in Covenant, and I decided to quit Covenant and just play in Dimmu. And we got Simen (from Borknagar and Arcturus), who sings the clean vocals on the new album, playing bass for us now. They were changes that needed to be made, and we’ve all been together for some time, but all split at the right time, for the right reasons, and under the right terms. We have a policy in the band that we don’t love our friends for who we want them to be, they have to be who they want to be. If you can’t tell your friends what’s going down, there’s something wrong.
Do you hang out with your band members as friends when you’re not on tour?
Yeah, sure. Not so much when we’re on break, especially right after being together 24 hours a day, seeing each other naked, living on the same small bus. But we hang out at least a couple times a week, go out and party, but we see each other almost everyday for business, because it’s been very busy lately.
You mentioned partying… I know some figures in the black metal scene don’t indulge in drugs or alcohol, yet others enjoy drinking and occasional use of various substances. What’s Dimmu’s thing?
When we’re on the road, I don’t think any of us really drink. When we first started, we were fucked up every night, of course, because it was all new to us. But we have it down to having our crew and our managers, and everyone’s into being there and playing the shows. Drugs don’t really come into it. We may smoke every now and then, but it’s nothing, really. Your body’ll break down after a while, and you might think you’re playing better and having fun, but you’re probably fucking up.
What about when you write the songs? Does it help to achieve altered states of mind, so to speak?
Yes and no, mostly no. But we smoke a lot in the studio. You’re just sitting there before they push the record button, and you know exactly what you’re going to play. It’s all worked out. But if I’m all wasted, I might start playing and feel something totally different and just go with it. If it sounds bad, I just do it again the way I’d planned, but I think it’s cool to see what can happen if you let it go. There’s stuff on Spiritual… that I made up on the spot because I thought the atmosphere was right. Most of the changes turned out for the better. But that only works after you have pretty much everything worked out, to see where else you can expand the idea. Lots of the leads and layered melodies come about that way.
I like the addition of Simen’s vocals. His clean vocals really fill out the songs he’s on.
Yeah, and it’s great that he’s in the band full-time now. He’s still in Borknagar on the US tour with Emperor because we have the month off, and Nicholas, our new drummer, is playing with them because they don’t have a drummer. So he’s sitting in while we’re taking a break. In Norway, that happens all the time. When you need a musician, everyone goes to their friends because we’re all professional musicians and can learn the songs from a tape or something. Everyone fills in and helps each other out.
Do you get along with the guys in Emperor?
Yeah, for sure. We’ve done a lot of stuff together, and they’re one of the bands I’m very respectful of. They’re cool guys and they’re very serious about doing what they’re doing. Their live show is killer, and they’re very into playing the music live. A few years ago, a lot of bands didn’t think playing live and having good production was cool, so I think it’s great that a few bands are doing it, because it pulls the whole scene up. It’s good to see the bands who started it, the best in the scene, leading it to the next level.