Darkthrone Iconoclast Fenriz Is a Reluctant Politician
Black metal legend. Radio show host. Music journalist. Heavy metal DJ. Norwegian post office employee. Hiking metal punk. Darkthrone’s Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell is all of these things, but now he can add “local politician” to his CV as well. For reasons that have more to do with the vagaries of Norwegian politics than Fenriz’s desire to participate in them (read: none), our man was recently elected as a substitute member of the town council in Kolbotn, the Oslo suburb in which he makes his home. He’s not sure how to translate his official title into English, but he explains it thusly: “Basically, I have to step in when the usual people who go to the big meetings are sick or something. Then I have to go sit there and feel stupid among the straight people.”
When we speak with him in late June, Fenriz is getting ready to enjoy five weeks off from at least most of his gigs. “It’s holiday season starting tomorrow, so I’ll have a chance to get all the backed-up emails done and so forth. There’s no real holiday anymore with computers and whatnot,” he laments. “I guess everyone is experiencing the same thing.”
Fenriz is considerably more enthusiastic about Darkthrone’s forthcoming 17th (!) album, which he says will probably be called Arctic Thunder. As it turns out, this is the first interview he’s done for said album. In fact, he and Darkthrone vocalist/guitarist Ted “Nocturno Culto” Skjellum have just received the test pressing. “We got the audio files for the mastering many months ago, but then we started arguing about the color of the logo on the front cover, and that actually took a longer time to agree on than recording the whole album,” he reports. “It might actually be delayed because of that very reason. People are always asking me for a release date, but I have no clue. I’m hoping October, though.” [the album will be released October 14 on Peaceville - eds]
How did you decide on the title Arctic Thunder?
It’s the name of an old Norwegian band, so we asked the band members that are now in Red Harvest if we could use it. They never really released anything, I think. I don’t know if Arctic Thunder is official yet, but I just hope no one is snatching it. We’ve been stealing a lot of titles over the years. My lyrics are never stealing anything — it’s just right out of my brain — but when it comes to titles, I’m just always paying respect, it seems. I think we have quite a few albums that have retrospective titles that are about other people’s bands and music. But, you know, I have some original titles, too.
Can you share some of the song titles?
I don’t know if I can! [Laughs] We haven’t really told anyone anything yet. And if I tell it to one person and it gets out, I’m going to have to suspicious of everyone. I have no clue. But “The Wyoming Distance” is one.
How many songs did you record this time?
Eight. No real epic stuff this time, dude. No real long tracks because, as you know, we’re in the same business now and I’m getting so many promos, and I guess it’s totally normal now to have intense Transilvanian Hunger-type black metal stuff, only it can surely last for 17 minutes! [Laughs] There’s been so many promos like that, it’s crazy. I’ve been doing the radio show and, as we all know, radio doesn’t really work with six-, seven- or eight-minute-long tracks. I play those anyway, but when we’re talking over 10 minutes or something, I can’t do it. But it’s beginning to be the norm that bands have tracks that are like 20 minutes now. No matter how good it is, you can’t play it.
So, Darkthrone is going in the opposite direction: shorter songs.
Yeah, the AOR part of our career is kicking in. [Laughs] I don’t mind AOR or anything, man, but what happened was that for the first time in a long time I’m not doing any vocals, because we’re moving into a little bit more serious territory. We’ve had a nice run of the freestyle style that we’ve been enjoying since we got our own studio in 2005. We’ve released five albums that have been totally freestyle. And we’re still doing the freestyle thing — it’s just a bit more somber, maybe. [Laughs] So, Ted is doing all the vocals. And you know, there’s a real difference when you listen to an album that has two vocalists and an album that has just one. I wanted it back to that, but mainly I got a real kick out of an album that’s two years old now. The album is called Mountain and the band is called Anguish, from Sweden. It’s very introverted, so I thought I wanted to go in that direction.
What about Ted’s material?
We don’t hear each other’s material until we meet and record it, but I told him, “Man, I’m doing all this slow heavy metal now”; but he’s got other plans, because he did slow heavy metal for his [Gift of Gods] solo EP, so I was thinking he’d really be wanting to kick out more of those jams. But hell no! [Laughs] He didn’t bring any slow heavy metal to the table, so I’m fighting this slow heavy metal battle alone. But a lot of people who would like the old style to return would probably like the Nocturno Culto songs best, I’m thinking. But no big shockers on our new album. People will just think, “Oh, it’s getting a bit more serious now.”
Besides listening to Anguish, what made you want to go in a more serious and somber direction?
Well, we actually kinda did that on the previous album. We brought more metal to the plate. There’s even more metal now, and the other inspirations have been cut out. But I want to assure you that the decision to have only Nocturno Culto vocals is based on this Anguish band. But not any of the material — none of the music or riffs or anything.
What did Ted say when you told him you thought it would be better if he did all the vocals?
He said, “Do I have to do more lyrics, then?” [Laughs] I was like, “No, man — I can write five.”
What can you tell us about the lyrics you wrote?
I never really talk about the lyrics. When I do the lyrics, I’m in the zone and I can’t explain that zone. That’ll just freak me out. And I’m never returning to the zone. I’m never like, “I wonder what the zone was like when I did Soulside Journey and I tried to be a necromancer.” [Laughs] I’ll never get to that mood again. Never. But for those who care, they’ll be good lyrics. No bullshit, man.
Do you tend to write lyrics fairly quickly, or is it a long process?
Both, but we had a period of trying to do more songwriting as opposed to the riff-o-rama of the metal world. Songwriting is more from rock 'n’ roll, where it’s not really that based on riffs, per se. But now I’m back to the old days, just writing lyrics because I have no control over how Ted sings them anyway. So, if Ted does vocals, I can write anything because he just takes the material home and does it. There’s no communication about where I want vocals or anything like that. He’s totally got his vocal cords free to do what he wants. Sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. But people outside the Darkthrone cabin, they think, of course, that everything is set in stone, right? But it’s not. So, I’m finally coming to terms with this idea that when you release the music, it’s no longer yours. [Laughs]
Has it always been like that? You don’t give Ted any vocal direction for your lyrics?
Yeah. For the first album, we never even rehearsed with vocals. And now we rehearse a song like one time before we start recording. For some songs along the way, I have given him my ideas for where or how to do some vocals. For instance on “In the Shadow of the Horns,” which is one of our more known songs, I probably coached him through the verse and refrain on that one. Apart from that, it’s just been tiny specks of coaching. But that’s the only one I can think of, and that was a long time ago — the summer of ’91, man. Goddamn 25 years ago right now.
In the past, you’ve talked about having songs ready to go for Darkthrone albums, but you’ll end up scrapping them before you meet up with Ted to record because you want to use the newest material possible. Did you end up scrapping many this time around?
Yup, I’ve done that when the pauses in between recording sessions are too long. This time, we fetched all the equipment from the rehearsal place we’ve had the last 10 years and moved it up here because I moved back to Kolbotn. So, now we’re using the same rehearsal place now that we used in ’88 and ’89. It’s a bunker/bomb shelter place and it’s magical for us because it’s got the same smell it did back then. That was in August, and then we made the first session for late September. So, we had six weeks to write. I wrote two and he did two. Usually we only do one each [per session], but this time we wanted to move faster. But between that session and the time we finished the last album was three years, so there were many great ideas — not full songs — scrapped. Maybe between two and four songs altogether? But I’m not crying any tears over that. You’ve got to move on. You can’t sulk — not because of that. [Laughs] But I can sulk because of other stuff.
So, there’s something about the spontaneity that’s important to you.
It’s the freshness. I really can’t stand mulling songs over. I really like the part where I make the riff and decide what to do with it — the part where I’m making the song, basically. Then I want to record it fast as hell. When I started recording on my own with Isengard stuff, it was always like that. I could use quite a bit of time on making the songs and getting them right in my head, but when that was done, I never wanted to do many takes. I get bored very easy. Impatience is one of my middle names, and Reluctance is one of the others. The Lord of Reluctancy. Try to get me to DJ sometime. [Laughs] It’s impossible. And I’m pissed off when I finally say yes. It’s horrible.
You’re not DJing at the bars anymore?
No, I find DJing metal is becoming more and more of a nuisance. Sometimes it’s nice to do it — maybe three or four times a year. It really moves in waves. Like, for example, in September and October, I know I’ll be drenched in interviews. This is the first one I’m doing for the new album, but I’m thinking I gotta not do what I did last time, which was 104 interviews. Which really kills me. I wrote them down and everything. This time I think I gotta take it down to 70. So, I don’t want to have anything on my calendar from September 'til December because I know that’s going to be all interviews.
I know you don’t go to many live shows, either, but have you seen anything good in the last year or so?
Oh yeah. I go more than I used to because I’m writing for this magazine [Sweden’s Close-Up] now. When I go to a show, I can deduct it from the tax and everything if I don’t get on the guest list or whatnot. There was a festival here in the middle of Norway last September, and I wrote about that for the magazine. What else did I see lately? I saw Steelwing and Lethal Steel, which are two of the bands that had releases last year that I bought on vinyl. I bought 44 vinyls from last year. This year it’s lower, man. I don’t know if you see the same, but I get about 1,000 [digital] promos, and so far I’ve only bought six on vinyl from this year. And we’re half through 2016 already. So, a slow year.
You keep track of exactly how many interviews you do and how many records you buy. What else do you keep track of?
You have to have a system. If you do a radio show, you have to be really systematic so you don’t play the same stuff. I got systems out my ass — for everything — but especially when it comes to music. You can’t be cool about it anymore. If you cross the line of having four or five hundred promos, you have to have some kind of system or else you’re really screwed.
Are you enjoying being a music journalist?
I’m not enjoying it at all. I’m always thinking of quitting. I don’t really enjoy reviewing albums, either. Maybe one every two months — and always something I like. I don’t like to slag bands. I like to slag styles and production values, but I don’t like to slag directly this and that band. There’s so much great stuff out there, so you can send people to that. But you have to have a system, because I’m hearing a lot of crap out there to get to the good parts.
How do you convince yourself to keep doing it if you’re always thinking of quitting?
Well, I haven’t been doing the writing for that many years. I’m just seeing how it feels, how it sits with me from day to day. But basically, other people’s bands — not my own band — have been my main priority since I got into the scene in ’86, when I was 15. So, I reckon it’s in my blood. It’s like my day job: I’m always thinking of a plan to retire early, but [...] I can’t quit because I’ve been doing it since I was an adolescent. I mean, I’m not gonna quit eating, even though I’m suddenly tired of some foods, you know? It’s just that interval of my life.
You’ve been doing a radio show for the last year and a half as well. How did you get into that?
When I was at around 500 promos a year, I started doing The Band of the Week [blog]. But then I said yes to the cloud that people can send to for the magazine I write for, which is an additional 500 a year. Believe me, this is an accurate number. I’m writing everything down and making notes. And then, of course, I have to do something with everything I’m listening to because I’m realizing there’s so much great stuff out there.
I was stuck at work listening to music, writing notes and rating shit when two radio shows for metal here in Norway got canceled. I was on them frequently, but I didn’t want to quit doing radio. I enjoy it, and it’s good to promote other people’s bands through radio. So, now I do it on my own with a shoestring budget, totally DIY. I think the microphone I use cost like 300 bucks. It makes me sound even more like a Donald Duck nasal kind of dude. I hate how my voice sounds, but I like doing it this way because on professional radio everyone sounds like Frank Zappa. I sound like a total dork, man, but I don’t give a shit because the songs are great. [Laughs] It’s a public service, because I put 40 hours into each show and there’s no income whatsoever.
You put 40 hours into each show?
Yeah, because I have to listen to so many promos to get 10 or 12 songs for each show. Into that goes 30 or 40 promos, so I have to listen to those and mark which songs are really good for radio. And then there’s the actual recording. And then NTS Radio [based in London] wanted my show, which is annoying because after you record a show you really want feedback, but now I can’t get it at once because I have to wait for them to air it, and by then I’m already working on the next show. [Laughs] But I’ll get used to that. And I can do it sober, drunk or whatever. Who’s gonna come down on me?
What are some of your current favorites?
Hexvessel. Their new album is fantastic. It’s proto-metal now, and not so forest-y anymore. So, I’m thinking that’s gonna be the album of the year. And the new Virus album is great. Vulture from Germany had a great EP out, and Black Viper from here in Norway, and a thrash band from Chile called Ripper — they have the best thrash album out so far this year. And I’ve heard quite a lot of thrash. It’s my main style since I was in adolescence, so I’m really choosy about thrash. I bought a couple more … I should go up and check the vinyl. Oh yeah! The new Blood Ceremony.
That’s my favorite so far this year.
Great! I’ve been liking that band on and off before, but I was sold on the new album from the first second. The band went to England to record, and there was something special there.
They recorded in an all-analog studio.
It doesn’t really matter if it’s all-analog, I’m thinking. We don’t record in analog, but we record in an analog way. We have no filters; we do nothing with the sound after we record. We can put some treble and bass, but that’s it. [Laughs] We also record the drums and guitars at the same time, so the guitars will leak into the drum track and the other way around. It’s very primitive. We’re basically doing demos in the '80s style. People that know us wouldn’t be shocked if they saw our recording sessions, but I’m sure other people would think we are total Stone Age characters. [Laughs] It lacks of finesse.
I feel like that’s part of the attraction.
Yeah, I’m not saying other people should do it that way. [Laughs] The less people doing it, the better for us, because we like cornering our own little market. But I guess every band is saying that.
You mentioned earlier that you guys moved back into the old Darkthrone rehearsal bunker last year.
Yeah, it’s like a whole new start. It’s not really a rehearsal space, because we don’t really rehearse. But it’s only 200 meters away, dude.
Do you go down there often to practice drums on your own?
Fuck that, man. [Laughs] I don’t really enjoy rehearsing. I enjoy making. It’s been a long time since I rehearsed on any drums — at least 20 years. Also, I didn’t have an amplifier for about 20 years. If I want to make a riff, I just make it with no amplifier.
What was it like the first time you walked back into that bunker after all these years?
Awesome, of course. It’s still got the same smell, the same lamps — it’s as nasty as ever. But the guy who is the sort of janitor there had taken down the Chet Atkins Me and My Guitar poster that we always remembered from when we were kids. We were never really into any upheaval or anything, and that poster was hanging in there when we first moved in. It was always a reference point for us. We never pulled it down or fucked around with it because it was so distant from what we were playing. I mean, we used to warm up with “Hell Awaits” by Slayer because it was pretty cold down there. We never knew how that Chet Atkins album sounded, but I actually listened a little to it recently. And I printed out the Chet Atkins album cover and put it back down there. So, we’ll tour the new album if people just say, “Come play here … we’ve got a Chet Atkins Me and My Guitar poster …” [Laughs]
And it’s an actual bomb shelter?
Yeah. Now, there’s more people rehearsing there — more drum kits set up and stuff. We couldn’t do that in '88/'89 because there was the Cold War going on and every bomb shelter had to be totally clear. So, every time we rehearsed, we had to carry all the equipment down, set everything up, and then disassemble everything and carry it out when we were done. When we got the record deal in 1990, we got a new rehearsal space so we wouldn’t have to do that anymore — and then the Cold War ended maybe six months later. [Laughs] So, that was stupid.
What is life like in Kolbotn these days?
Nowadays, I’m the neighbor that really takes care of the lawn. But now I’m in the local papers because I got voted in as a politician — involuntarily, I might add. So, I’ve got some support, I guess. But Kolbotn is a tiny place, maybe 9,000 people.
You got voted in involuntarily? Couldn’t you just decline the position?
No, if you get voted in, you have to stay in that position for four years. And then you can pull out. But I’m used to these sort of long-term commitments. [Laughs] Basically, they called and asked if I wanted to be on the list [of backup representatives]. I said yeah, thinking I would be like 18th on the list and I wouldn’t really have to do anything. They just need a list to be able to … well, it’s hard to talk local politics in another language. My campaign was a picture of me holding my cat saying, “Please don’t vote for me.” But people just went nuts. After the election, the boss called me and told me I was a representative. I wasn’t too pleased, and I’m not too pleased about it. It’s boring. There’s not a lot of money in that, either, I can tell you!
So, you’re on the town council, basically.
Yep, that’s it. I’m a local politician. But Norway is very small, so when you’re a local politician, you’re local, man. [Laughs] I’m a pillar of my community.
Did your cat get voted in with you? Is she obligated to go to meetings as well?
Aw … no, she’d really hate that. That would be impossible, like a Blackadder episode or something.
What’s your cat’s name?
I don’t know exactly how you would call it in English — it’s like “Peanut Butter,” I guess. But we didn’t name her. In Norway, there’s really strict rules for pets. That means you can’t really get the pet when they’re super small. You have to wait three months so they can get used to their mother and various things. By that time, they have a name. So, now I’m outside yelling “Peanut Butter!” all the time. That was pretty weird for the neighbors to hear before they knew I was calling for the cat.
That’s a great image.
As time goes on, you get closer and closer to Larry David, I’m thinking. For me, when I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s like looking into a crystal ball.