by Niklas Göransson
A conversation with Norwegian painter and black metal vocalist Gaahl, known mostly for his work with Trelldom and Gorgoroth. He speaks of the cold intensity behind his various artistic expressions, as well as the need for Abrahamic eviction.
– I don’t really think all that much about vocal technique to be honest, I prefer working intuitively. If I can hear the sound in my head, I can do it vocally as well – that’s basically how I operate. Furthermore, those who’ve collaborated with me in TRELLDOM, GORGOROTH, GOD SEED, or any other project know full well how mood-dependant my performance is. If I don’t get into the song, I will not sing it; this applies to studio recordings as well as live shows.
Gaahl mentions that rather than using fixed setlists, an hour or so before a gig he’ll write down whichever songs he feels like performing. This conversation took place in wine cellar and gourmet cuisine establishment Smakateljén on November 17, a few hours before the Stockholm date of the Army of the North Star tour featuring my interviewee’s current musical focus, GAAHL’S WYRD, alongside ENSLAVED and SKOGEN. Ever-inquisitive, I later asked the tour manager to provide me the previous night’s setlist for comparison. As the Norwegians vacated the stage, I could conclude that the most notable difference was Stockholm being treated to three more TRELLDOM songs than Gothenburg. I’m wondering what the current status of this project is; with nine albums in total promised, only three have thus far surfaced. The most recent one, “Til minne…”, came out in 2007.
– There will be six more but when is something I have yet to decide. Let’s just say they are in progress. Our focus was always on the act of music creation rather than its commercial release. However, once a piece has been fully composed I tend to set it aside and move along to the next, so recording is obviously a good idea at this point. With TRELLDOM there’s always been kind of a good flow and, basically, what we’ve done there is record all the core instruments and vocals live in one take… then it becomes very different.
Do you write the music for TRELLDOM?
– Some of it but I also work with… in the past, I’d just sing the melody lines and then get the guitar player to interpret them. Or I’d create the song on keyboard and have it translated into riffs – such was the case with “Slave til en kommende natt” from “Til et annet…” (1998). We’ll see, maybe I’ll do that one tonight.
He did, and with a rather impressive rendition of the demented gurgling which can be heard on the studio version. Gaahl’s stage demeanour is unlike anything else that comes to mind – very few black metal frontmen would likely reap much success by casually strolling around the stage and occasionally pointing at people.
– I’m trying to immerse myself in the state and emotion of the song, a connection partly established through memory. Usually, when I think or create or sing, I have a tendency to move my body outside the rhythm of the music – just to roam around freely. I’m there but I’m not there, in essence. I never write down lyrics, it’s all things I keep in my mind just to remain constantly aware. I can’t just pick them up in a sense and then, ‘Okay, this is how it goes.’ There must be continuous communication. I think that might be the reason why I have to fall into the emotion of the song and let it become an active part of myself. A certain concentration is required as well; that’s where my main focus must be.
There’s certainly a fair bit of immersion in Gaahl’s vocalising. Back in the day, whilst singing the GORGOROTH classic “Profetens Åpenbarelse”, he really did look as if prophesising the slaughter of infants. I’d like to know if his delivery is experienced as some manner of innate flow state he taps into, or more in line with a deliberate theatrical performance.
– People who’ve observed me in this process have told me I approach the roles I select similarly to how an actor prepares himself. Instead of over-explaining a lyric, I remove elements and put in characters to present so you can kind of wash away a lot of it and focus on single words instead. So, there might be a logical theatrical perspective but it’s also the natural flow.
Do you feed off the crowd’s energy?
– In a sense; I feed the crowd energy and then take it back. I try to communicate with the audience, but it has to be me who’s doing the sending. There is of course a connection and I’m not exactly sure how. I don’t need all the answers or to understand everything. I like to allow things to remain just the way they are. Well, almost – smartphone cameras are a nuisance that should be banned, basically. We used to enforce a no-photo policy with GORGOROTH at one point before they became more of an every-man’s equipment. It’s kind of rude towards others in the audience as well. And why on earth would you stand there looking through a screen instead of observing and feeling what’s happening? It’s a strange world.
Gaahl had a fairly eventful evening performing with GORGOROTH in the capital of El Salvador back in November 2004. Despite having been moved to a bigger venue, the show was completely sold out. However, the hordes of black metal maniacs who’d travelled to San Salvador from all over the country refused to take no for an answer. After police and local security had thoroughly lost control of the situation, they called in the special forces: del cuerpo de Proteccion a Personalidades Importantes. When PPI arrived, as GORGOROTH were playing, enraged fans who’d been left without a ticket had booted in the entrance doors and initiated a wild melee with attendees inside.
– The entrance of the original venue we were supposed to play led straight into the hall but they moved it to a bigger place which was more labyrinth-like so you wouldn’t get people just storming straight in. The national guard was there from the moment we arrived so we had fully armed security backstage. We performed the show, probably almost got electrocuted because it was South America where electricity tends to be… unreliable. I think the rioting started while we were performing – I know they began teargassing the audience at some point but this was already towards the end. We didn’t really notice from stage with all the lights in our eyes, it was something we were told about afterwards. They probably thought we stopped prematurely due to all the commotion but GORGOROTH never played longer sets. We were just told to stay in the dressing room and wait there. Walking out, we saw how chaotic it was outside and were kind of shielded with guards all around. Then they drove around for quite a while, making sure no one was following to find out which hotel we were staying at.
Would I be correct in assuming that you are as composed and stoic in violence as you are on stage?
– I’m probably calmer than I am now. But, really, I’m not very violent at all – I actually abhor violence and it’s been a long time since I had to kind of… get into that state.
In previous interviews discussing his past proclivity for amateur dentistry, Gaahl has mentioned that he, when faced with combat situations, acts fully upon emotions. I’m curious if he perceives his pugilistic performance to be carried out similarly to other artistic expressions, such as singing.
– I don’t know how to respond to this. It’s… yeah, I place a great deal of confidence in my own instincts so I kind of just allow that to be in control.
In his younger years, Gaahl served several prison sentences for a variety of incidents he himself refers to as somewhat overstated self-defence. I can’t help but wonder how he found life on the proverbial inside – being locked in a confined space with lots of other restless souls doesn’t sound like an optimum living situation.
– No, it’s best to… my space is best when I’m in my own universe but, by all means, one can adapt for a certain amount of time. But not always. I kind of had to learn… well, I was taught how to socialise in a sense. I’ve actually had mostly tolerable company, I met some good people in there. There’s a lot of martyrs in the sense of sacrificing themselves for others in jail. Much vulnerability and a lot of decent men who have ended up in unfortunate situations because they are not in control of their own selves.
Did you ever get involved in any kind of penitentiary pecking order?
– I didn’t really notice any pecking order. Gangs are usually where you find the weakest people, so when observing people flocking you can immediately conclude yourself to be above them. It’s easy to kind of choose, ‘Okay, this is the head; take him.’ So, it’s fairly simple – more so than one would think. When I first arrived, there were some who didn’t even dare to leave their cells but, of course, eventually, you manage to draw them out of it. I’m lucky enough to have gotten a great deal of respect from the others and also the guards, so I had it very easy. But, then again, I’m insane when I’m insane, so…
It seems to me that despite dressing the part, Gaahl doesn’t find much resonance with metal culture in general; especially its anti-intellectual aspects, eloquently summarised by MORBID’s Dr. Schitz as, ‘Loud music, the beats and the heat and the alcohol and drugs… adrenaline and headbanging – the psychotic denial of death and decay and old age.’ Gaahl strikes me as too calm and calculating to ever completely lose himself in the moment.
– There’s plenty of metal I really appreciate but also a lot of things about it I never understood – headbanging being one of them. It’s more the energies that I… I try to just flow on emotions, which admittedly doesn’t sound very metal. The spectacle aspect never held much appeal, it’s always been more the sound of it… so, yeah, I guess it’s only the music. Nor have I paid much attention to its aesthetics; I really don’t get this fascination with skulls and so on. I’m very focused on visual art in general but not in a metal context.
Gaahl is also a painter and operates an art gallery back home in Bergen. I read that his style could be described as ‘post-impressionism’ and – as a result of my cultural ignorance – was initially enraged, believing this to be some variation of so-called modern art. Fortunately, search engine fact-checking soothed my nerves again.
– Luckily, there’s plenty of difference. I’m generally not a fan of what the academies allow to be called art these days; I don’t understand art that wants to reflect society. Anything that’s created in the now is supposedly modern but what’s spewed out from there is usually… you don’t go to school to become an artist, but that’s kind of what’s art-schools have turned into. They don’t invite artists, they invite people, ‘Ah, I can become an artist, let me educate myself into this.’ That’s not how it’s done, none of the true greats ever went to art-school – it’s something you must be born into.
Do you see any connection between the ongoing Western abandonment of spirituality for materialism and the contemporary state of its art and architecture?
-I don’t know how I observe such things, I might be living in a different space. There’s so many variations and Europe still has huge differences from place to place. But by all means, there are certain things that are extremely materialistic but there’s still quite a lot of individualism around from place to place. But I don’t pay much attention to all the things that disturb me; I have a tendency to instead focus on what I enjoy so I’m probably not the right man to answer this question.
Gaahl has previously stated that he finds people who use drugs other than alcohol to be ‘parasites’ and similar. Now, given his professed interest in Nordic shamanism, I’m assuming he’s familiar with the Völva: the female shamans of the ancient north. There is anthropological evidence incriminating them of having been in possession of various psychoactive vegetation – cannabis and black henbane for instance – so I’m curious if they are also to be dismissed as derelict low-lives.
– Yes. No, not really. I’m actually quite liberal in allowing people to do whatever they want – it’s only when they lose ownership of themselves it becomes a problem. So, that ‘parasite’ remark was probably taken a bit out of context and made to sound harsher than it might initially have been said. Well, it’s also possible that I said it hard as well, depends entirely on the interviewer. Many of my friends are into these things but… I’m not a curious person, I’ve never been curious by nature. I’ve never even held a lit cigarette. I’m too… I’m already out there. Maybe that’s the reason.
Have you ever experienced ego dissolution, through for instance meditation or a trance state?
– You never know, I’m so many that I… yeah, I’m probably always scattered but you don’t only need one ego; you can invite many. The ego has to be there – it’s not necessarily a negative but can of course turn into one. Without a certain centre, you allow your will to be controlled by external things so I think the ego is a necessity.
Would you say black metal has had a formative role in the development of your person?
– I’ve shaped black metal and, in that sense, I might also have shaped myself. But by all means, there’s no way of telling what would’ve happened if one hadn’t undergone the black metal experience – that’s just the way things turned out. It’s more of the personal interactions and, of course, playing in bands; spend a lot of time around chaotic beings and it’s likely to rub off on you. I don’t think it’s the black metal itself that’s done that though. I was never very active with socialising so it’s… I’m better at doing that nowadays but I’ve kind of always kept my distance, so it’s unlikely to have affected me all that much. But of course, there’s been quite a lot of insanity around all these shows and countries that I’ve seen and all this. The path of black metal might have broadened my perspective of things but that could’ve happened anyway.
In many European and South American countries, 90s black metal shows were often quite violent and featured hostilities towards suspected ‘posers’. If one looked wimpy or, heavens forbid, had short hair – wearing a MAYHEM or DARKTHRONE shirt at a mid-90s Stockholm gig would be unwise, seeing as how it would likely be forcibly confiscated. It might sound ridiculous now, more than twenty years later, but it was very much part of what made black metal feel dangerous, intimidating, and real. Strangely, given the nation’s musical legacy, I don’t recall hearing anything like this about Norway.
– No, I actually think it’s always been kind of… of course, youngsters have a tendency to be less patient than the elderly but I have a feeling that it’s always been kind of liberal. Certainly, internal wars have always been waged but outsiders were never attacked in that sense. Everything has just been individual aggression or personal issues – there’s never been this herd mentality, and why should it? Black metal is supposed to be about the individual, not the flock. The flock is the opposite of… if I can use the word Satan.
You use that term as some manner of metaphor for personal liberation?
– Yeah, the opposite of those who just follow others without thinking about their own path. I rarely use it but it’s convenient in English. Individualism is a more important, or correct, word.
There is a meme which has been going around for a few years, featuring a quote from one of Gaahl’s previous media appearances: ‘We have to remove every trace of Christianity and the Semitic roots.’ As a fellow resident of a mostly secular Scandinavia, I’m somewhat perplexed as to why anyone in this day and age feels any need to be ’anti-Christian’. Regardless of ideology, identifying Christianity as one of the foremost concerns when surveying contemporary Swedish society would, quite frankly, require a fair degree of imagination.
– We’ve managed to change quite a lot during the last twenty years but, basically, it’s still a plague as long as things like… take circumcision for instance, they still allow it because there’s a religious connection. In my book, that’s molestation. If you want to get circumcised, by all means go right ahead but don’t do it to a kid. It should be illegal regardless of the child’s gender. But because it’s practiced in monotheistic religions, they lack the guts to stand up to it. That’s the effect, so religion is still an issue and Christianity allows for it to keep being a problem. Most Norwegians still think of their country as a Christian nation, because you kind of get thrown into the church from birth if not actively… well, we finally separated church and state now but it took many, many years to attain religious freedom. Asatru was illegal in Norway until 1996.
Illegal might not be the correct term. As far as I could determine, 1996 was the first time Norwegian authorities officially recognised an Asatru association as a religious congregation.
– That’s telling – first of all how scared they are of our origins, so Christianity is definitely still a danger. I have a couple of kids I’ve taken care of and if you read their school-books it even says, like, ‘We think that…’ – note how they’re teaching kids this narrative of, ‘Okay, this is how we think.’ There’s still a lot of traces that need to be wiped out. But of course, it’s not as insane as it used to be. Scandinavians can never truly be Christians anyway, it’s just a few insane ones running about. But they have a lot of traces of madness and allow for and support things they’d normally go against; look at America, the most Christian country in the world, how they harass non-Christians. It’s something that would never have happened if they’d gotten rid of religion, so it’s definitely still dangerous. Russia has a more liberal element to religion than other countries but they might be dangerous as long as there’s religion in the seat because it can force a lot of ill. I trust Russia way more than the US anyway, so…
I’m ignorant as to the state of things in Norway but the national Swedish church is currently – from the likely perspective of any traditional evangelist – acting far more ‘anti-Christian’ than anyone wearing a bullet belt. Not only is the Swedish Archbishop female, but a left-wing lesbian to boot; she regards herself as ‘the daughter of enlightenment and reformation’ and is hell-bent on modernising the clergy. She doesn’t believe in the virgin birth but recognises Muhammed as a true prophet, which is terribly confusing since his divinations denounce all other faiths as false. In 2017, she announced her designs for a more ‘inclusive’ ecclesial language, which is why the Almighty shall henceforth be referred to only with gender neutral pronouns during sermon. Needless to say, as a non-member of said church I hail all this with utmost mirth but were I an actual Bible believer there would surely be no doubt that the entire congregation had been seized by the Devil himself.
– Oh yes, there’s a lot of this in Norway. They’re so very light-handed in their approach to things that are foreign. That’s what I mean with Christianity being dangerous, because it feeds that mindset. As a general rule, I advise you to not trust anyone who allows others to die for them.