by Trevor Portz
Extreme metal pioneers Borknagar have just released their long-awaited new epic, the fittingly titled Universal, via Indie Recordings overseas and The End Records in the US. Founder Øystein G. Brun was kind enough to take some time to answer some questions about Borknagar’s creative process, working with new and old members, the current music scene, and a slew of other things. Enjoy this look into one of metal’s most creative minds.
HRH: When writing music, do you write with a specific project in mind, such as Borknagar or Cronian, or do you write the song and figure out where it fits afterwards?
Brun: Writing music for CRONIAN vs. BORKNAGAR is two completely different processes. Even at the stage making the basic riffs I have a different approach in terms of writing. With BORKNGAR I usually start out writing riffs with an acoustic guitar, you might say that the writing is very much guitar-based. When it comes to CRONIAN it is almost the other way around, as I very often start out with keys and I have generally a way more digital approach in terms of programming and so forth.
HRH: How much time is spent arranging/building the songs beforehand; when entering the studio are the songs more or less complete, or is a lot of studio time spent fleshing out ideas and building tracks?
Brun: Well, we are always very well prepared before entering the studio. In the stage of writing and arranging the songs we always make a lot of pre-productions in order to circle in what we want to execute in studio. But of course, being in studio with better equipment and generally a different environment, we always keep an open mind for adjustments, additions and so forth. But in the end of the day we have pretty much staked out the course we want to go before we enter the studio.
HRH: Do you do most of your composing on guitar, or do you use various instruments for writing? Do you build home demos and then present them to the band?
Brun: As mentioned before I basically always use an acoustic guitar when I start to write music for BORKNAGAR, always done that as I regard our music to be guitar based. When things start to shape up in terms of riffs I record and arrange the riffs in my home studio. So when I have something representative going I send the material over to the other guys for their input and so forth.
HRH: Do you tend to write music first and then develop lyrics later, or are songs sometimes written around lyrics?
Brun: Both music and lyrics are something I work (or should I say think) a lot with before actually starting to record anything. Always very important for me to have some sort of mental idea how things should be in terms of a general expression. So you might say that everything evolves from being just some rough ideas on a mental stage, where I stake out the basic lines of the material. I usually write the songs first, but at that point I mostly have a quite clear idea of how the music and lyrics are supposed to interact.
HRH: How detailed are the other players’ parts worked out? Do you score everything, or do the other members have room for creating/changing their parts?
Brun: Even though I write most of the music and lyrics, I would argue that the other guys impact is equally important in order to shape the final result. We always spend a lot of time in the final pre-production stage, where everyone is heavily involved. I try to stimulate the guys to involve and use their musical potential to a full extent, at least that is my intention.
HRH: With so many instrument layers going on, how do you decide what to include on each song? Do you test various instruments playing each part, or are parts written with specific instruments in mind?
Brun: Depends a little bit from song to song. But we usually have our procedure in terms of writing and producing our songs. It’s almost like building a house. As the building raises there are always bits and pieces we want to change, add or even sometimes remove. So in a rather mundane manner we send the material back and forth, trying out different melodies, harmonies and sounds. In the end it is just basically allot of work, dialogue and experimentations till we reach the line satisfaction. The only time I really differ between instruments is when I am working on acoustic parts that usually demand a bit different mindset in terms of writing.
HRH: Though their styles are similar, Asgeir Mickelson and David Kinkade each bring their own personal flavor to Borknagar’s drum seat. How has working with David been different from working with Asgeir?
Brun: Well, one of the reasons why Asgeir quit was the fact that he didn’t really feel comfortable with the musical direction BORKNAGAR were heading for, which is fair enough. I think we both felt that enough was enough as we had the same discussions and disagreements the last couple of years. Dave, on the other hand, is more on the same wavelength and of course that makes the general cooperation much easier and creative. Both guys are brilliant musicians and execute their work in a very professional manner. But I must admit that working with Dave this time around went way smoother than the last couple of albums with Asgeir.
HRH: ICS Vortex returned to do vocals on “My Domain.” How was it working with him after all this time? Did he work with Vintersorg at all? Has there been any consideration for touring/performing with two lead vocalists?
Brun: We really had a great time in studio with Vortex, as he have always been and still is a fantastic vocalist. I am sure he will agree that we had some magic moments during the recording of “My Domain”. Actually, while Vortex did his vocals both I and Vintersorg were in studio engineering and producing the whole thing together with him. So we had a really nice cooperation going that day, the three of us.
No, we have not really considered doing live shows with two lead vocalists, as this studio session was first and foremost a one off thing. But maybe we’ll do a special gig one time, or something like that, who knows….haha..
HRH: How important is the artwork/package? Is it different now knowing how many people will download and not get the physical packaging?
Brun: Yeah, the whole business has changed a lot due to this whole downloading issue so in order to draw some attention and sell some records it is crucial to have a nice package. This time around we really wanted to make the best possible out of it. Not primarily to sell records, but to make sure the fans get a killer package for their money. We spent a lot of time working on the visuals this time around. With Century Media there were always a lot of limitations in terms of what we could do when it came to formats and such. But Indie Recordings supported us 100% and granted us the opportunity to do 4 different version of the album. Both the LP and BOX version of the album are really a nice piece of candy, but it costs us a fortune to print them, so most likely we’ll lose money doing all these versions. So this was not a commercial incitement, more a matter of general quality of the package. A wrapping the album deserves.
HRH: How do you feel about downloading vs. purchasing actual cds? Since mp3s create a compressed, lower-quality sound, do you feel like people who get the mp3s aren’t actually hearing the songs the way they were intended?
Brun: I guess I am a bit old school in terms of cd vs. downloading. From my point of view it is crucial to have the complete work in my hands, including cover, lyrics and lay-out, in order to enjoy the music in a full extent. The ipod generation tends to consume music like fast food; I am more the type of guy who likes to spend time preparing a tasty and nutritious meal. Some of the mp3 files out there with high resolution sound totally ok, I am more negative towards streaming, Spotify and stuff like that because that usually sucks big time sound wise. Due to the internet I also think a lot of people are listing to music via the PC and usually the speaker on a PC really sounds like shit. That worries me a bit, because I think people sometimes get wrong impression of the music, production and so forth.
Also one of my concerns is the fact that I think an album should be listened as a whole. I mean, who is really reading just the third chapter in a book or just watching the mid section of a movie. Seems like there is a tendency (hence: ipod generation) to shuffle songs around, out of context and not enjoy the album as a whole.
HRH: What bands past and present do you consider to influence your writing? Do you listen primarily to metal and classical, or are there other styles you enjoy?
Brun: Well, I basically like to explore all kinds of music- sometimes I even listen to music I don’t like that much just to know what I certainly don’t want to do. Obviously I listen to allot of metal and classical music, but also some folk music and even some jazz. But the last couple of years I have listened a lot to dark and/or progressive rock. Some of my big faves currently are Porcupine Three, Woven Hand and so forth.
HRH: How does Vintersorg retain such smooth clean vocals while spending so much time (both in Borknagar and side projects) screaming his brains out?
Brun: Well, I really don’t know but it is certainly amazing sometimes when he switches from screaming vocals to clean vocals in a second. I guess he is used to it as he has done it for so many years now. I am pretty sure he is fully aware of his limitations and how to treat his voice in order to keep up. But as far as I know he has no specific trick I can reveal….
HRH: Is there any chance the band will make its way to the US?
Brun: Looking into something right now, both for the US and Europe. We don’t have any specific plans, but it would be really great to do something in the US. The US tour we did with EMPEROR back in 1999 is certainly one of our highlights in out career; we had a really nice time in spite of the fact that it was damn hot all over the place….haha…
HRH: You originally worked in technical death metal in Molested. Have you ever considered/desired returning to this style of extreme music?
Brun: Yeah, I considered that many times as I have always been a huge death metal fan. I actually started out as a death metal musician, back when I was like 14-15 years old. But on the other side I have kind of closed that chapter in my life, simply because I just want to be a fan and nothing but a fan.
HRH: As the driving force behind the band, do you feel that Borknagar could exist if you decided to move on?
Brun: I don’t want to be cocky here, but I think they would have a hard time going on with BORKNAGAR without me. I founded the band, been there all the way and still make most of the music/lyrics. On the other hand, BORKNAGAR is more than just a band for me, it is part of my life in so many ways. Bottom line is the fact that BORKNAGAR will be around in one or another form or shape as long as I am able to do music, as I cannot just retire from life…haha…
HRH: Any secret bands you love? Would Øystein ever be caught driving down the road singing along to “Don’t Stop Believin’”?
Brun: Haha…..well, I love some of the work that the Norwegian pop group A-HA has done. Certainly not everything, but songs like “Hunting high and low” and “The sun always shines on TV” are truly well written compositions, some of the best coming from Norway. Apart from that I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of….haha….
The second question- absolutely no!
HRH: Where do you see Borknagar going from here, and extreme music in general?
Brun: Well, I am right now writing material for the next album and so far it feels really good. This time around I am more familiar with “the new line-up’s” potential and of course I keep that in mind when writing. So we will definitely be around in the future and hopefully slightly visible in the scene as well.
When it comes to extreme music in general, I really don’t know. But the scene seems healthy due to the enormous amounts of bands popping up everywhere. I definitely regard that as a positive thing but the old grumpy bastard I am, I kind of miss the good old times when the only way to success was good music and bloody hard work.
–Answered by Øystein G. Brun, February 2010