By David E. Gehlke
One of the most visible and enduring "true" black metal bands, Sweden's WATAIN have carved their own path while adhering to the core tenants originally carved out by BATHORY, MAYHEM and VENOM. Their brazen, if not unrelenting sound has hardly wavered since their 2000 "Rabid Death's Curse" debut, but new elements continue to enter the fray, as heard on their latest studio album, "The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain". It is the band's most dynamic and varied offering since 2007's breakout "Sworn To The Dark", heralding both extremity and atmosphere.
The promotional cycle for the new album took an immediate hit when the band was denied working visas to tour the United States this spring with MAYHEM and MIDNIGHT. According to frontman and founding member Erik Danielsson, the denied visas were only a minor blip that offered the band the opportunity to divert its attention elsewhere, namely, new album promotion, proving that what doesn't kill WATAIN, only makes them stronger.
Blabbermouth: Can you share the disappointment of not being able to do the MAYHEM and MIDNIGHT tour in the States?
Erik: "Yeah, it's kind of fucked. Well, no, it's royally fucked. But, we tend to face these kinds of situations because they're certainly not the first setback we've had as a band. I think we take a bit of pride in how we handle them. We've never been the kind of band that just gives in to misery and whining or whatever. We war on. There's something to that that ultimately leads to something good as well in the band. You really have to use your full capacity and regroup fast and re-plan fast. It's war. But we're good. It's not like we don't have shit to do at home. We're very busy with the album release with a ton of stuff. Now we have more time for that. But it's horrible at the same time. It's freaking me out, but it is what it is."
Blabbermouth: Does this make you more determined to come back to the States, or does it discourage you?
Erik: "It's not a question. We're still waiting to hear back from the embassy. They're not telling us anything. That's unusual. We've been on time for working visas eight times in a row without a problem. This whole situation is very unusual. We think we know what's going on. We just hope they realize that they fucked up because I think that's actually what has happened. They won't have any reason to deny us working visas. No matter what they find or search for or what their idea is, they won't find anything. We're just waiting to hear back, get our fucking passports back with visas in them and proceed as usual. We will reschedule the dates for early next year as soon as that happens. It has to be in a few weeks now. Plus, we have the Psycho Las Vegas festival [in August]. That's where things are right now. These are strange times and WATAIN is a strange band. The U.S.A. border control is a strange affair in itself. When I talk to Americans about it, I get this feeling that…I don't read anything about the people in America that are into these kinds of flaws in the system. I don't draw a line between Americans and the system that governs the border there. I just think it's a fucked system and I love touring the States."
Blabbermouth: "The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain" captures an atmosphere and maybe even a well-roundedness that you haven't had since "Casus Lucifieri" or "Sworn To The Dark". Was it clear from the beginning that this would be this kind of WATAIN album?
Erik: "I think the idea was to, for the first time since 'Lawless Darkness' to not really have a specific intention that where the album was going to go musically or thematically. We were eager to write, arrange and compose music that we all felt extremely strong about. Both 'The Wild Hunt' and 'Trident Wolf Eclipse' were experimental. We had a pretty defined idea about both of those albums. Although they are very different from one another, creatively, we were specific about where we wanted to go. That was cool; I liked working like that. Now, we abandoned that completely and just went for — how can I put it? The most genuine we could get ourselves to be as composers and artists. That's something that I think the experimentation of the two past albums allowed for. You have to get to know yourself and you also have to ultimately find out what your favorite way of working is to get where you want to go. After seven albums, this being our seventh album, we've arrived at the place where we know our arsenal and our skill level, where it's at now. We know more about what we want and how to reach that sense of urgency and acuteness that has to be prevalent in this type of music. At the same time, I think so many bands, unfortunately, lose that after a while, for all kinds of reasons. I think it was a matter of proving that wouldn't be the case for us. To be honest, I look at it as a combination of what we've been trying to do all this time."
Blabbermouth: You share some history with THE DEVIL's BLOOD since (deceased guitarist) Selim (Lemouchi) was a live member of WATAIN. How did Farida (Lemouchi, Selim's sister) enter the picture on "We Remain"?
Erik: "We go back, of course, to THE DEVIL's BLOOD days. Our relationship with Farida has always intensified since Selim passed away. We have a strong friendship bond and a strong artistic bond. We had been talking for a long time about doing something. We actually have been playing music together, but we never recorded anything. This song, 'We Remain', the seeds to that song were sown on the 2012 Decibel tour we did with IN SOLITUDE and BEHEMOTH. That's when I wrote the majority of the lyrics. It felt pretty great to finally have this kind of perfect place for Farida to step in and have this collaboration. It's nice that it goes back to when there was such a strong, vibrant connection between us and THE DEVIL's BLOOD, but also IN SOLITUDE, so it's great Gottfrid [Åhman] from IN SOLITUDE is playing the guitar solo on the song. There's a homage to that era, in a way, which relates to the song's concept, which is a meditation on the past on how myths are created and our place in those myths and how they are transformed and maybe romanticized and forgotten over time. There's a lot to be said about that song."
Blabbermouth: It must be sad for you that WATAIN is the only band left standing out of that trifecta.
Erik: "Yeah, but we also existed before those bands, even ten years before them, almost. There's that, but there's definitely a sense of melancholy. That kinship was very special that we had. It's the same thing when I think about DISSECTION. The same thing there, but earlier on. I think the sadness or the melancholy just underlines the nobility of those bonds and their importance and relevance. You always miss great things when they don't exist anymore. That's also why it was so cool to have both Gottfrid and Farida on that song. It felt great."
Blabbermouth: Was the new album a more collaborative process now that some of your live guys took part in the recording?
Erik: "I think it might have freshened things up a little bit, to put it bluntly. I think it's always great to find new ways of working. While I was the main composer on every album, it was very rewarding to take the material, the demo material, into our rehearsal place with a full lineup as opposed to how we did it in the past when it was me, Hakan [Jonsson, drums] and Pelle [Forsberg, guitar] in the rehearsal room. That was cool. It was a very direct way of working with the material. Still, we also ended up taking that into the studio as well since the album was also recorded live in one-takes with all the instruments together. That was a big thing for us. There's definitely a sense of elevation in the creative process. It's refreshing, but it's also the directness of it all, that it's not this meticulous, cut-and-paste album. It's more like you're hearing straightaway how it's going. That's also how we realized we wanted to do the recording live. It just sounded so good when we rehearsed. We didn't rehearse throughout the entire pandemic. It would be a shame if we wouldn't have ended up doing it another way. I think more bands should try that, to be honest. I think there's a lot to be gained from it, both for the bands themselves and for the listener because what you present to the listener is far more genuine and sincere than tracking instrument by instrument in a very structured, organized way. This record required everyone to be on the same page and was able to have the songs be a communal effort. That urgency that comes out of it, I really believe it can be heard on the recording."
Blabbermouth: You released the "Corona Mortis" demo in the summer of 2020. How else did you stay busy during the pandemic?
Erik: "We didn't have any problems staying busy. [Laughs] We rehearsed a lot and frequently. We also took a pretty big step and a lot of us moved to the same little village in the woods outside of Uppsala. Since late 2020, we have all lived in very close proximity to each other out in the outskirts of a rural area. We did that and that move was quite time-consuming. It was a very pretty big deal for all of us. We put out the 'Corona Mortis' tape and did a photobook collaboration with an American photographer, Tom Bejgrowicz, called 'Fire At Will', that we did as a mail-order from one of our houses out here. That worked well. It was cool to communicate directly with people who wanted to support the band during the pandemic. We decided to do the photobook the same way. Those two projects took up quite some time. But, mainly, we've been writing and rehearsing the new material. WATAIN is what we do. We don't do anything else. We live a bit differently than most people. Out here, we live a bit 'off the grid,' I guess you could call it."
Blabbermouth: Being "off the grid" is something many people no doubt envy.
Erik: "I hope that envy turns into inspiration for a lot of people. I will always encourage those kinds of thought patterns. [Laughs]"
Blabbermouth: How much does being off-the-grid help when writing, then?
Erik: "I would definitely say that it doesn't hinder anything. It's definitely not bad for the creative process. Then, there is this pretty important point on how we look at WATAIN as separate from whatever circumstances we have around us and whatever is happening in the world, like on a mundane plane, we've always thought of our work in WATAIN is something that had to do with something else other than that, something that came from another place than the material world that we live in. That being said, I always think that a suitable environment is good for creativity, no matter what kind of creativity we work with. My point is that I think this album would have turned out quite similar no matter what our living situation was like, but it was perhaps made a bit more pleasurable and with a bit more sense of freedom and liberation throughout the process just being able to be away from people and focus on what we're doing."
Blabbermouth: These are obviously some pretty dark times. Do they at all reinforce WATAIN's lyrical views?
Erik: "I don't know…I think it might make the points that I might be trying to make come across in WATAIN a bit more contemporary. Maybe more people now have their minds on the topics that I usually write about, like death and mortality and turmoil and transgressions. That's good, I guess. It feels maybe even more relevant than before when we talk about these things when times are turbulent and dark, absolutely. I don't think it affects how I write about them. It probably affects how people relate to them. That's good. I am more interested in communication now, I think, than I have been before with WATAIN. I find it more rewarding now to think about communication between the band and the people who experience the band's work. With that in mind, yeah, absolutely, it's the right time to release an album like this because it deals a lot with the subjects we all have it hand and are living with."