By David E. Gehlke
Behind an embarrassment of riches for vocalists and a genre-defying, wholly consistent catalog, Norway's BORKNAGAR head into their 12th studio album, "Fall", with little left to prove. But talk to founding member and guitarist Øystein G. Brun, and you will hear something different. Averse to trends and steadfast in his commitment to exploring the furthest reaches of epic, atmospheric extreme metal, Brun sees every BORKNAGAR album as a new journey. It's this tunnel-visioned focus and embrace of the significant talents of his bandmates, particularly vocalist/keyboardist Lars A. Nedland and vocalist/bassist Simen "ICS Vortex" Hestnæs that has enabled Brun and BORKNAGAR to hit 30 years as a unit in full stride.
Nature has long been a key lyrical thread for BORKNAGAR and is addressed throughout "Fall", particularly the notion that Mother Nature will have the last laugh. The impact of climate change is felt even in Brun's Norway, a topic that he admits brings a sense of dread and pessimism from his teenage and young adult offspring. But with winter now having its way with the northeastern corridor of the United States and in full bloom in Scandinavia, BLABBERMOUTH.NET found it appropriate to catch up with Brun.
Blabbermouth: Lars's role seems to grow with each album. Aside from him being the second-longest tenured member of BORKNAGAR behind you, can you speak to his importance to the band?
Øystein: "We have been working together for such a long time. I think he joined the band in 1999 or 2000, just after we did the first U.S. tour with EMPEROR. His first album was 'Quintessence', which came out in 2000. We have a long career together. I've always had this philosophy in my band that I want to utilize all the goods we have available. I try to stimulate and give room for every member of the band to make their footprint on the music and do the best that they can. It would be stupid of me not to use their abilities when I'm privileged to have two great vocalists. Of course, we have to use them. It's the way we run the band. We try to maximize the potential of the band."
Blabbermouth: I think people finally started to realize what a good songwriter Lars is after he did "Voices" on "True North".
Øystein: "I totally agree. I remember before we did that album, we had some demos. Everybody in the band was, 'Yes! This is going to be great.' It's such a simple song, but it's so universally cool. We got some cool and weird responses. A lot of people liked it. I talked with another journalist a few weeks ago, and he mentioned, 'My father is a Roman Catholic priest. He listened to that song non-stop for two years.' I was like, 'Okay!' [Laughs] It's definitely a song that broadened our fanbase. It's one of those songs that is just cool. You have to have a lot of ill will not to like it." [Laughs]
Blabbermouth: You've always had tremendous vocalists in BORKNAGAR, going all the way back to Garm (Kristoffer Rygg). Now you have Lars and Simen doing them. Is it hard to figure out who will handle certain parts?
Øystein: "Not really. The whole thing is a process. We don't tend to plan too much. Of course, we do our demos and share initial ideas. At least I try to let things evolve by instinct or natural causes. It's not that I sit and plan the songs: 'This is a song for Simen' or 'This is only for Lars.' We start with the music. The music is always the most important thing. That's the starting point, the actual song and compositions. Then, we add lyrics and vocals. In this case, we tend to follow our instincts. For the last two albums, we've been sitting in my studio here doing the vocals with a microphone over in the corner. We lock ourselves in for three or four days, reading the lyrics and listening to the songs. We do what we feel fits the songs the best. Sometimes we switch, like, 'Lars, try it.' Then, it's 'Simen, you try something.' It's spontaneous, in the moment. I tend to mention process a lot, but I'm a process guy. I love the process of stuff. I love the process of making albums. Back in the day, when 'Lord Of The Rings' came out and, everybody went to the cinemas. I was like, 'Sure, I'm going to watch it.' But I enjoyed the documentary behind it, like how it was made. I found it way more interesting. My wife was like, 'Hey, why do you watch this stuff?' I said, 'That's the coolest thing about it.' A lot of things happen at the moment. We intentionally let it do so. We don't plan too much. Of course, we have our mental maps. I have my way of doing outlines and some kind of idea on what kind of song it should be, but it's very broad strokes. Then, we get into the process and sit with the microphone, lyrics and music. We're like, 'Okay. What's next? Let's do something.' Sometimes, Simen has already prepared a theme: 'This is my theme. I have to do something here. I planned the melody.' In other places, it's 'I don't know what to do here. Maybe we should do this and that.'"
Blabbermouth: Were you always into "singers" before BORKNAGAR?
Øystein: "To be honest, not really. [Laughs] I've always been fascinated by music. My father was an old hippie. He had a huge collection of LPs, so I grew up listening to LED ZEPPELIN and URIAH HEEP. But I wasn't into vocals more than guitar riffing or acoustic guitars. When I was a teenager and started my first band, I was more into guitar riffs, like the style of riffing and how to express yourself through the guitar. The reason why I started the band was because I got an acoustic guitar from my parents. It may sound weird, but I played the guitar and listened to the resonance and its wooden sound. In hindsight, I think it's connected to my childhood. I always lived in the countryside. I'm kind of a bushman in Norway. [Laughs] When I was a kid, I didn't go to kindergarten. We were always in the forests with a knife, making bows. This acoustic sound reminds me of the sound of a forest. If you smack a knife into a branch or a tree, you get a little bit of the same kind of sound. I'm not sure if it makes sense, but that is something that has been there for me."
Blabbermouth: You stated often that you would listen to previous BORKNAGAR albums before writing a new one. Do you still do that?
Øystein: "I still do! From the beginning, I wanted to make my musical universe. I envisioned my music as some kind of journey that starts at one place and ends at another. Every album is a journey. Let's call them another mountain to climb or hike to walk in a symbolic sense. It makes sense to me that on this journey, I want to bring my backpack with all the goods we have already accumulated, like the signature, the flavors and the mentality of the band. I still want to have it in my backpack, but I want to push another mountain. I want to expand. Finding this balance between clinging to our musical roots and legacy but also being able to expand and move forward and progress has always been a very important notion for me. That is what makes music interesting to me. If I suddenly find myself copying or repeating myself or walking in circles, that doesn't make sense. I would quit, I think. I'm pretty sure I would. The passion and excitement of making music is to push and move forward. That's the philosophy I've always had with music. I've always wanted to make music that resembles life. Music is such a human artifact. I mean, my cat doesn't bother about music; the trees don't care. It's a very human thing listening to music."
Blabbermouth: "Nordic Anthem" from the new album is a good example of trying new things.
Øystein: "The same with 'The Wild Lingers', which is the second to last song on the album. It's a very important song to me. It's personal. I tend to have that on every album where one song is my 'lovechild.' We knew that if we walked the safe route with this one and we could have done it and people would be happy, but we wanted the challenge. Simen's initial idea was to do vocals he'd never done before. It might land on the wrong side and some people might not like it. That's a clue for us after doing it for so long. We need to take the dangerous path sometimes and not always the safe route, but also challenge the listener to push the borders. We always try to do challenging things. We don't try to force it, but I also never wanted us to fall into a musical frame."
Blabbermouth: It's like if we go back to the mid or late '90s, everyone was trying to tag BORKNAGAR as black metal and you weren't having any of it.
Øystein: "From day one, that was my sole intention. It's the reason why we have a name that doesn't mean anything. It's also why I never used corpse paint or anything else other than my real name. It's also part of my bigger quest that I believe in honest music. It sounds cheesy, but I want to do music that comes from the heart. Real stuff. People buy our records knowing that it is us. It's not forced. We don't jump on any trends. I have never compromised in relation to commercial interests. Back in the day, Century Media was frustrated, but I didn't care. Now, they're like, 'Let him do whatever he wants to do.' [Laughs] That notion of musical freedom has been very important to me. Obviously, we're not going to do a jazz album, but the notion that I can do it is very important to me."
Blabbermouth: Nature has always been a regular theme for BORKNAGAR, and it's present throughout the new album. Do you have any take on what's happening to the planet?
Øystein: "I have kids. My daughter is 21. What saddens me, to be quite honest, is that it seems like her generation, and I also have a boy, who is 17. We talk about this stuff. What saddens me is that when I was growing up in the early '80s, everything was like, 'It's going to be better one day. There will be better jobs since technology will be better.' It was, 'Everything is going to be better.' You have this notion of improvement and progression. When I talk with my kids, their outlook on the future is not that positive. Of course, I can't get into their brains and see what they are thinking, but what I hear is that they have a much darker outlook on the future. I remember back in the '80s, I went with my parents to parades that were against nuclear weapons during the Cold War. I've been through all of that. I think some of the threats we are facing today in 2024 are some things we cannot wish away. It's real — climate change. We notice here in my area. I've grown up here. I've lived almost my entire life here. We see the changes. There are huge changes. Dramatic changes. There is no way around it. Back in the '80s, there were possible scenarios and 'what if?' and all that stuff. We were all a little bit scared, but everything was okay. Now we have our reality in front of us that it's of a different caliber. It's more real."
Blabbermouth: On a more positive note, this year marks the 25th anniversary of your first North American tour when you supported EMPEROR. Are there any specific recollections?
Øystein: "I have such good memories of that time. Everything was exciting, like traveling to the U.S. When we were supposed to fly to the U.S., out of sheer luck, our first flight was in first class. We were watching movies and feeling like rock stars, but I remember that it was a tough tour. There were different conditions back then. We drove around across the U.S. in a van that had no air conditioning and there was a heat wave. It was heavy. I'm not sure if I would physically be able to do such a tour today. It was tough — little sleep. We were sick at times. It was rough, but all that said, in so many ways, it was a glorious tour. We were young and out in the world."