Haunting The Chapel No. 8
People hate Burzum. A passing mention of Varg Vikernes’ longstanding one-man black metal project is enough to kick-start a heated debate. (I know, it happened to me in a bar last night. And a few weeks ago on-line. And etc.) The issues here, of course, involve the Right Wing, Nationalistic, Racialist, Odalist, etc., views held by Vikernes and disseminated on his website and in off-line writings. So why listen? And why “sit down” with the man for the following interview?
Personally, I like the music. Belus, his first album in 11 years, is one of the best black metal albums released this year. Yeah, of course, admitting to enjoying Burzum in public raises a number of questions and opens you up for attack. For starters, what are my “responsibilities” as a listener and a consumer? Huge questions, but questions fans of extreme music, art, etc., will inevitably have to face at some point unless they’re willfully keeping their eyes closed. I’ve always tried to unpack and understand things that challenge me and my beliefs. I read difficult books, enjoy difficult art, etc. (When I went to grad school, I focused on and wrote about Dennis Cooper, a gay author who’s received death threats from people who think he’s promoting gay-on-gay violence. People couldn’t understand why I, a straight male, would be so into his writing — a view I always found frustratingly simplistic.)
This summer, as part of my ongoing self-questioning about Burzum, I collaborated with the German artist Kai Althoff on an installation that started, in part, with our discussions about Vikernes and what listening to his music meant about us. We ended up with a 50-page dialog, more questions. To simplify, as we wrote in our statement: “Brandon admires Varg’s music. Kai wants to follow Varg and wonders how it all goes together with Brandon wanting the country to be governed by Barack Obama, while also listening to Varg … And Kai thinks Varg Vikernes would be a man he truly wanted to follow, denying his false conception to love a man in the W R O N G way, which will automatically lead to his self-perception as scum in the eye of Varg.” (The results of our talks became a deeply personal, self-lacerating existential exorcism that’s too complex to unpack here, but there were interesting attempts to break it down in ARTFORUM a couple times and in Art In America.) So, what conclusions did we reach? That’s something I’m still figuring out. One way to get closer to the issue, though, is to interview the man himself.
Vikernes was recently released from prison after serving almost 16 years of a 21-year sentence for burning historic churches and for the 1993 murder of his Mayhem bandmate Øystein Aarseth, aka Euronymous, a catalyst for the early Norwegian black metal scene through his Deathlike Silence Productions record label and Helvete, record shop, etc. (This is shorthand. Folks should do some outside reading on there own because there’s plenty of interpretations. I dug into it fairly deeply in the Believer, a couple of years ago.) Shortly after he got out, rumors of a new album circulated: His seventh full-length, Belus, arrived yesterday.
I jumped at the chance to talk to Vikernes about it, about black metal, and about his politics. He’s only doing interviews via email, which didn’t allow for a full-on discussion, and in some ways plays into his hand as a rhetorician, but I think interesting and important ideas came out in our Q&A. I’m happy I did it. Also: I should thank my friend Drew Daniel (Matmos, Soft Pink Truth, Burzum fan) who suggested and framed a couple of the questions to me. We’ve discussed all of this stuff a number of times, in private, too.
Before digging into the interview, it’s important to have some background on Belus. It’s being described as “an attempt to explore the myths about the ancient indo-aryan solar deity of light and innocence and unveil the oldest roots of European cultural heritage. The album deals with the death of Belus, his somber journey through the realm of death and his magnificent return.” As Varg has written:
My ambition with Belus is to create something I, and hopefully others, can listen to for years without ever growing tired of it, and at the same time share with my audience the experience of getting to know Belus, as he might have been perceived by the ancient Europeans. The combination of lyrics and music makes this a fairy tale different from most others, and should appeal to all those who like transcendental music and love to see different things from a different perspective. If I can make you dream when listening to this album, I believe I have done a good job.
Our discussion, which involves perhaps the most sinister use of a smiley face ever…
STEREOGUM: What’s the noise in “Lukans Renkespill (Introduksjon)”? I’ve read your explanation of the album art, etc., and that you see this as a concept album. If all the songs are connected to the story of Belus, the source of the sound in this introduction is important. It’s the first recorded musical sound people have from you in 11 years.
VARG VIKERNES: It’s the sound of a hammer striking an anvil. Leuke is best known as Hephaistos, Loki or Vulcan; the smith of the gods.
STEREOGUM: Belus is very catchy. More so than anything you’ve done previously. There are a number of subtle hooks. For instance, what’s the whistle-like sound amid the guitars of “Glemselens Elv”? The repeated spoken/chanted phrase in “Kaimadalthas Nedstigning”? I wouldn’t say this is a “pop” album, but for all the brutality, there’s something highly listenable in its layers. Was this your intention?
VARG VIKERNES: You know, Brandon, I make music I like. If it’s “this” or “that,” if it fits a specific category or not, or whatever, does not matter to me. I only want to make music I like, and that I can enjoy myself, and be proud of.
I haven’t heard a whistle-like sound on “Glemselens Elv” myself, but I guess it’s either the humming voice in the background of the vocal parts, or actually the guitars you are hearing.
The repeated phrase in “Kaimadalthas Nedstigning” is – translated – “I travel to the deep of darkness, where everything is dead,” and then “I travel to Kelio (Hel).”
STEREOGUM: There’s a change in the vocal sound on Belus … Is this a result of aging? A reaction to the reception of your past work?
VARG VIKERNES: I never liked the old vocals, so I changed it for Filosofem, and I changed it again for Belus. If I knew how to I would sing like I did on Belus on all the albums. I actually could have, but I didn’t know how to until Belus.
STEREOGUM: After the synthesized albums, what was it like working with a guitar again?
VARG VIKERNES: It was great. I am first and foremost a guitarist after all. I have to say, though, that I made Dauði Baldrs on the guitars as well, and I never really stopped playing the guitars.
STEREOGUM: On the record, did you try applying the Belus myth to your life personally? A reference to your freedom? To contemporary Norwegian culture? Culture in general?
VARG VIKERNES: I understand how you want to read more into this, but I think you should try to appreciate the album for what it is instead. Belus is about the death and rebirth of a European solar deity. The song titles refer to the mythological events, the lyrics to the pre-mythological traditions.
STEREOGUM: You’ve said you’re not interested in the contemporary Norwegian black metal scene (outside of Darkthrone). Or black metal in general: “Black metal is not a label I use for my music any longer.” Why not? What should it be labeled instead?
VARG VIKERNES: My main problem with Norwegian Black Metal is that almost all the bands from 1992-1993 are made up of rats, who ratted each other out and blamed me for everything that went wrong in the scene. I really don’t want to be associated with them in any way. I should stress that neither the guys in Darkthrone nor the guys in Mayhem ratted anybody out, but pretty much everyone else did. Emperor. Enslaved. Immortal. Hades Almighty et cetera. These guys are fucking rats, or they play in bands with rats – which is not much better!
Further, I really don’t want to be associated with the low-brow Black Metal genre. If you want to know what I mean when I say that just have a look at an Immortal video on YouTube or something. It’s so dumb I don’t know what to say, really, and it’s so ridicules we can barely tell the difference between the real stuff and the parodies.
STEREOGUM: What are you listening to at this point?
VARG VIKERNES: The Cure, Depeche Mode, Das Ich (Die Propheten), Goethes Erben, New Order, Tchaikovsky (Swan Lake and The Nutcracker in particular) and other classical music, balalaika, old German and Soviet marches, Lillebjørn Nilsen, Dead Can Dance (Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun). Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
STEREOGUM: You wrote that you didn’t expect the original Belus title “The White God” to cause such a ruckus. I’m surprised. It was a smart move to change it — allowing people to focus more on the music, etc. — but I assume you must have at least had an inkling that people would think it was a race-based “white.” No? Do you see your books and other writings as being separate from Burzum?
VARG VIKERNES: The original working title was Baldurs Tlbakekomst (The Return of Baldur), by the way, and Den Hvite Guden (The White God) too was just a working title. I have said and written a lot of things much worse than that over the years, so to speak, and nobody said anything about it, so I was surprised when all of a sudden an innocent working title like that caused such a ruckus. Why? Why now?
My books have nothing to do with Burzum.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re not a fan of [the book] Lords Of Chaos. Are you happy with how [the documentary] Until The Light Takes Us turned out? Related to this: Has anyone from the Lords Of Chaos film contacted you?
VARG VIKERNES: Sorry, but I haven’t seen Until The Light Takes Us yet, so I can say very little about it. I have never heard from anyone from the Lords Of Chaos film production. I tried to contact them myself twice, to ask them what they were doing and to tell them I disapprove of what they did, but they never responded.
STEREOGUM: A lot’s happened in black metal over the past couple of decades, especially in the last handful of years. It’s fascinating to me — all the hybrids and shifts. American black metal, for instance, has a higher/more respectable profile. And has developed a more unique sound. A ways back I interviewed one of the bigger of the American bands Wolves In The Throne Room — a good group, and one clearly influenced on a sonic level by Burzum. I asked them: “In our last interview you talked about listening to Filosofem while working the fields. No black metal musicians have really spoken up much about Varg’s release from prison. What are your thoughts?” Their drummer Aaron Weaver’s response:
My feeling is that people are interested in an idealized image of Burzum, which is only tenuously connected to the man. Burzum’s post-Filosofem recorded output reveals a man of limited musical ability, and his mystical-Nazi writing seem paranoid and off-base. It seems like he is just another wingnut spouting off about Jewish conspiracies. People who create powerful and revolutionary art in their teens and early twenties rarely sustain any relevance. ..
What are your thoughts on this sort of opinion? Especially that last sentence.
VARG VIKERNES: I couldn’t care less about what they do or say. I haven’t even heard about them before, and I wouldn’t have heard about them either if they hadn’t said things like that about me. What do they know anyway? Belus is better and more relevant than anything I have ever done before, and that just proves how little they know — and I am sure he will regret ever having said such a thing when he realizes this.
STEREOGUM: How do you feel about having gay fans? Black fans? Jewish fans? Christian fans? Do you feel that you’ve failed to transmit your message properly if people who aren’t from your white/Nordic/heterosexual/pagan demographic feel something in the music that isn’t tied to shared membership in that demographic? Does it mean the music has failed to transmit its message properly?
VARG VIKERNES: And what is my message? When did Burzum ever address political/racial matters? I don’t think Burzum has ever even addressed religious matters, other than describing different European myths. Burzum is not a political or religious band, or even an anti-religious band. Burzum is music; art if you like, and the interpretation of art lies in the eye of the beholder. I might be Nordic, heterosexual and have a Pagan ideology myself, but why would I expect the fans of my music to be just like me?
I am a narrow-minded ultra-conservative anti-religious misanthropic and arrogant bigot, alright, and I have a problem with just about everything and everyone in this world, but I am not demented, and if those who are not like me are able to enjoy my music that is all fine by me. Be a Christian-born black gay feminist converted to Judaism for all I care, or worse; a Muslim. Just stay off my lawn… :-)
Oh, and I may add that I have a problem with most Nordic heterosexuals with a Pagan ideology as well.
Belus is out via Byelobog Productions. Here’s the previously mentioned “Kaimadalthas Nedstigning.”