For Kvelertak, Endling Is Another New Beginning
Things Kvelertak hate: canceled tours, intra-band bickering, audiences' inability to sing along in Norwegian. Things Kvelertak love: the obscure local lore fueling their rad new album.
Kvelertak never got to take their full victory lap for Splid, the album that introduced vocalist Ivar Nikolaisen and drummer Håvard Takle Ohr to the world. Splid found the raucous Norwegian metalpunks faced with the tall task of replacing beloved frontman Erlend Hjelvik, and Nikolaisen slotted in seamlessly, augmenting his self-evidently Kvelertakian shriek with robust, melodic clean vocals. The change worked out. Splid was a critical hit, and something like a best-case scenario for a band integrating a new singer four albums deep. (To wit: It was the third consecutive Kvelertak LP to receive Album Of The Week honors on this very website.) Alas, it was released in February 2020.
“Every show we played, the city closed down the day or two after,” guitarist Vidar Landa says of the band’s ill-fated tour supporting Splid. “The coronavirus was kind of chasing us, and it caught up with us in Munich. They said they were closing the Norwegian border, so it felt like we had to get home in a rush to ever be able to enter our own country again. Everything was so dramatic.”
The next few weeks followed a by-now familiar script. Plans were scuttled, tours were canceled, members settled into the simultaneous terror and boredom of lockdown. What should have been Kvelertak’s first North American tour since 2016 never even got announced. (“It was the same for everyone,” Nikolaisen says, careful not to adopt a woe-is-us stance.) More than anything, it was frustrating not to be able to play Splid on more stages. “We were really ready to do a real world tour this time, with the new lineup and everything,” Landa says. “It all fell through.”
In mid-2020, Landa, Nikolaisen, Ohr, guitarists Bjarte Lund Rolland and Maciek Ofstad, and bassist Marvin Nygaard shifted their attention to writing the next Kvelertak record. Endling, out this Friday, is yet another triumph for a band who have yet to make an album that doesn’t feel like running through a brick wall. Kvelertak like to grind up and recombine elements of NWOBHM, black metal, and hardcore punk, but on Endling, they sound more than ever like a classic rock band. When you play this fast and loose with genre, you can transcend genre entirely. Find me a terrestrial rock radio listener who can hang with Nikolaisen’s screams and all-Norwegian lyrics, and I’ll show you their new favorite album.
We talked to Nikolaisen and Landa about picking up the pieces after Splid, writing and recording Endling, Kvelertak’s infamous in-band conflicts, researching local Norwegian history, and more. Listen to Endling and read our conversation below.
Ivar, the Splid tour was your first chance to sing stuff where you’re on the record, and then you didn’t really get to do that until a little bit later. But in general, did you feel like the change went down well with Kvelertak fans? Did you feel embraced as the new singer?
IVAR NIKOLAISEN: Yeah, but it’s like, people from the punk rock scene, the hardcore scene, they loved it. And some people in the metal scene were like, “I’m not sure.” I mean, I understand. It’s OK for me. It’s impossible that everyone will like it. But it’s been good so far, and right now, it feels like we’re past that thing.
Yeah, it’s been five years now. You’re not really the new guy anymore.
NIKOLAISEN: Five years, yeah.
At what point did you cut your losses on Splid and start thinking about the new record?
VIDAR LANDA: Pretty early on, I would say. Maybe after a month or two, when we realized the festival season wasn’t happening. So, I guess, that summer of 2020, we started talking about it, just to have something to do, to meet up and rehearse and write songs. We started making some studio plans and stuff. But it was a lot of back and forth, because the restrictions were sort of on and off, and sometimes you couldn’t even be more than three people gathering in a room, so it was hard to have a rehearsal. And at that point, people were staying in different cities in Norway as well, and it was hard to travel.
Did you write remotely, or together?
Was remote writing new? Had you always been a “get in the room” kind of band?
NIKOLAISEN: I’ve never sent any files in my whole life. I still haven’t. [Laughs]
LANDA: We got to meet up, so it wasn’t a writing process in that way. The sending ideas back and forth was more that somebody made a demo and sent it over. And I guess we kind of do that normally as well, it’s just that we normally meet a couple of days after or the same day in the rehearsal room. But there was some sending files back and forth. We did a pre-production, as well.
Did you feel like you could take your time with things? Any external pressure to get something out was probably removed, right?
LANDA: Yeah, kind of, but I think there was pressure that you needed some content or material all the time, because nothing was happening. A lot of this is things that I’ve forgotten about, but a lot of the pressure from the label, and from ourselves, was like “What are we gonna do? We’ve got to do something now that we can’t tour.” But we’ve always been an album band. We didn’t want to record one or two songs to have something new to show. So, I’m happy we got to continue focusing on that. And it was nice to have time. There wasn’t any pressure on that. The thing is, if you have too much time, you don’t spend it well anyway. You just postpone things. So, it wasn’t until we had deadlines and we had a studio date that we started finishing things up.
Writing the second album in a row with the same lineup, were there differences between incorporating two new members and already having that relationship existing? Were you more comfortable with what worked well with Ivar’s voice?
NIKOLAISEN: Yeah, I think it was easier for me. It wasn’t that high-pressure. When we recorded Splid, the other album, I remember when [producer] Kurt Ballou was sitting there, and nobody knows how I’m working and stuff like that. And this time, everybody knew me, and I had more confidence in everything. It was easier. I could even just say, “This is good,” or “This is not good, I want to do it again.” And on the last album, I was like, [nervously] “Is this good?” I was looking at everyone. It was easier this time.
LANDA: It was a different way of writing, too. We had done one record before, so we knew what worked and what didn’t. Like for Ivar, it was an “I don’t want to do this, I want to do it this way,” sort of thing, which was great. It also felt like less pressure. I feel with Splid, we had a great time making that album, and it’s great working with Kurt [at God City Studio] in Salem and all, but it was also the album with a new lineup, so it felt like a real statement to put that album out. It was really nice this time that it didn’t feel like we had to prove anything. Just work at our own pace and try to be a little bit experimental again.
At this point, you know which fans are going to come along with you on the ride. You’ve already done the most radical thing you’re gonna do.
You were talking about working with Kurt on Splid. Obviously, you did not work with Kurt on this one. You probably couldn’t even get to America. What did recording look like this time?
LANDA: Very chaotic at times, but also extremely fun, especially in the beginning. We traveled to Bergen, which is a city on the west coast of Norway, where they have a studio with three Norwegian producers [Jørgen Træen, Yngve Sætre, and Iver Sandøy]. They share the same live room and have different studios in that same building. So, they all worked together with us, which was great, because it made us able to work 24 hours a day. We could start the day doing live takes, then continue with fixing guitars and doing overdubs, and when we’re done with that, another producer or engineer came and took over, and then Ivar could start doing vocals. Instead of doing all the drums first, then layer by layer, and vocals at the end, we sort of built the songs together from the beginning, which was a really great way of working. It also kept everyone busy all the time.
NIKOLAISEN: Yeah, it’s always boring to be in the studio the first two weeks if you’re not gonna sing one song. For the drummer, he’s done in three days and then it’s over. But this time, everyone had something to do all the time. And we recorded everything live. We even used some of the vocal tracks from the live recording. We didn’t record anything on click. Everything was recorded live, and sometimes it felt like, “We can just use this, what we recorded live.” And we did sometimes.
LANDA: So that was very different from how we work with Kurt. With him, we always use the click with the drums. And that hasn’t always been Kurt’s idea, but it’s just the way we’ve been working with him, and it’s always felt like a safe way to do it.
NIKOLAISEN: Maybe we’ll do that next time. It’s hard to tell.
LANDA: With traveling to the US, you have three weeks or four weeks or whatever time, and if you’re not done by then, then we need to go home. We can’t finish it up.
Talk about pressure. That’s like real, actual pressure.
LANDA: Yeah. So we always knew when we came to Bergen, that even if we don’t finish some stuff, or if there’s something we’re not happy with, it’s not impossible for us to go back a month later and fix it. Plus, the world is shut down, so nobody is waiting for this album. That was very different from previous recordings.
You guys were all in there together, all the time, while you were working on this. Something you’ve talked about in interviews is the yelling, the fighting, and the intra-band conflict in Kvelertak. But now you’ve had this lineup in place for a few years, and you’ve been around each other a ton. How’s everything feeling, relationship-wise?
NIKOLAISEN: Not so good. Not so good, but it works out. We have ups and downs. But it’s like, I guess this is how most bands who have been traveling, having this as a job, I think it’s like that for most bands who tried to make a living out of it. Because you have to stay around each other all the time. You have all these personal issues that comes up. We did stay in the studio, but we still had a little bit of distance to each other. In the beginning, everyone was like “Yeah!” It’s always like that. After a week, it’s like, “Ah, this is impossible.”
Is there a creative benefit to that? Does that conflict help you get a fire burning?
NIKOLAISEN: I don’t think so. It is not a good thing. I think it would be so much better if this was not a problem.
LANDA: Yeah, we would probably be a better and bigger band if we didn’t have all these internal issues. I try to find good things about it, but I don’t know if I’m just lying to myself. On this album, there is so much tension at times that you can sort of hear it. It’s out of control sometimes, and that’s definitely how it felt in the studio. It kind of keeps us on the lookout, because it feels like everything can be ruined pretty easy. I wish it wasn’t like that, because it’s exhausting.
NIKOLAISEN: To be honest, I wish everything was flower power. But if you’re not in the discussion, and you can just look at it from the outside, and just look at the drummer yelling at some other band member, that’s fantastic! It’s not boring, at least.
A signature part of the band’s sound is the way that you blend all these conflicting styles. Do you feel like that’s related to the interpersonal stuff? Is there somebody who always wants a black metal part, and you all yell at them?
LANDA: No, it’s more personal issues, or just the way we deal with each other. We’re surprisingly often agreeing on a lot of the creative stuff. I think it gets to this boiling point in the studio, because I often feel like in rehearsal room we’re on the same page. Then we go to the studio and everybody knows that whatever happens here, that’s the way it’s going to stay.
LANDA: So every little decision is going to be there. It’s hard to be diplomatic if you really want something to be a certain way. So people get a bit crazy at that point.
NIKOLAISEN: We know that there’s no way back.
Does the end product of the record end up feeling like a compromise of different people’s views? Can you hear parts that are like, “I got my way on this one, but I didn’t get my way on this one”?
LANDA: No, luckily enough, I don’t think you can hear that. Or at least, I can’t. But I think being in a band will always be a bit of compromise. And sometimes it’s not even a compromise. It’s just being a band.
NIKOLAISEN: Yeah. It’s not a solo project.
On Splid, you had a couple of songs in English. That was the first time you had done that. But on this record, you’re back to singing entirely in Norwegian. What went into that decision?
LANDA: Couldn’t write English lyrics.
NIKOLAISEN: Nope. Too hard. [Laughs] And also, because we had Troy Sanders singing on one song [on Splid], we just couldn’t tell him to sing in Norwegian.
LANDA: I thought [that song] was great. We tried to write some stuff in English for this album, too. With Splid, it felt natural. We had just been on tour with Mastodon, and we had this part we wanted Troy to do, and it was a great way to try out some English stuff. And it went really well. It was fun to tour and play those songs outside of Norway.
NIKOLAISEN: Finally, someone knows what we’re singing. Someone can sing along, because normally, they just sing along to the riffs, not the lyrics.
Even in Norway? You don’t get people singing along in Norwegian?
NIKOLAISEN: In Norway, it works, but outside of Norway, everybody only knows all the riffs. I was so pissed off. [Laughs] So then, OK, we’re gonna do two songs in English and they’ll finally sing along to the lyrics. But it’s easier for us to do something really good in Norwegian. If we do it in English, it’s a lot of work for us. We need help from someone. What we’re doing now, we do it not only in Norwegian, [but in] a special dialect from a certain part of Norway, in the southwest of Norway. Nobody in the whole world is doing this thing we’re doing. So then, it’s going to be more unique. That’s one thing that makes us feel more comfortable with doing it in Norwegian. I’m not saying that we’re not gonna do anything in English later, but it’s much more work, and I’m afraid we’re just going end up sounding like someone else. Doing this in Norwegian, in this dialect, makes us even more unique.
LANDA: Yeah, absolutely. And that was one of the things with the lyrical material on this album. It’s based on very local, traditional Norwegian stuff. It was also really hard to translate. If you’re singing a song about the world today, or the US election, or war…
NIKOLAISEN: Or about a girlfriend.
LANDA: Or about a girlfriend. [Laughs]
NIKOLAISEN: You can do this in English. But when we did this [album], I don’t even know if these words exist in English.
LANDA: And even when you try to translate and find those words, when you find the words that are most similar, it doesn’t have the same ring to it. So that was a point. I think it’s good to be honest with yourself, that if it sounds good and it works out, then it’s cool to do it. And it felt like that doing a song with Troy, for example. On this album, what we tried felt fake.
NIKOLAISEN: I think we had three or four songs in English, but it wasn’t cool. And then we started to get a red thread. [Note: This is a common Scandinavian expression for a unifying idea or theme.] Doing everything together, all the lyrics fit together. One song in English wouldn’t work.
You brought up the local histories and the local stories that you’re talking about. I couldn’t even Google them. You put a couple of references in the press notes — Rasmus Vardal was one. I tried to look that up and couldn’t find anything. Are these obscure stories, even for Norwegians?
NIKOLAISEN: Yeah. Really obscure, even for Norwegians. We found them in some really obscure books that were maybe only printed in 200 copies. Stuff like that. People we met who are 95 years old now, and they won’t be here in 10 years, who told us their stories. And there’s also this sect in Norway, in the southwest of Norway. Three churches right beside each other. They have almost the same theology, but there’s little differences, and they have different churchyards, or graveyards. Not many people know this in Norway, and it’s so cool to sing the stories about this place, because it hasn’t been done before.
LANDA: It hasn’t been done before, and there’s so much material that fits very well with heavy metal music. And after spending so much time looking at the old Sagas and all the Viking stuff… If we look 20 years back, it wasn’t taught that much in schools in Norway, the Viking stuff, so I understand the fascination the early metal bands had with that. But now, especially the last 10 to 15 years, it’s all over the place.
NIKOLAISEN: It’s like the black metal bands from Norway. They all had names after The Lord Of The Rings. It’s not so cool anymore. But back then, it was super scary. Before the movies. I feel that chapter is over now, because it’s been done so many times, and it’s been done really well. We have to do something else.
It’s kind of got an oral history component. Is there an element to it where it gives you some kind of pride in your homeland? Or maybe pride’s not the right word, but does it feel important to you to tell these stories?
NIKOLAISEN: It’s not good news for our homeland, what we’re singing. I think it’s pretty cool, but it’s not something to be proud of. It’s just weird stuff.
LANDA: I think it’s more the concept of trying to do something that nobody else can do. If you’re going to write about something or create something… It’s our fifth album. It feels more important, when we’re allowed and able to do this, to at least make an effort to do something original, more than just looking in the same old books and copying things that have already been done. At least, that felt like the intention or the inspiration behind going into these stories.
Is it frustrating for you if people call Kvelertak a Viking band, or associate you with Viking imagery?
LANDA: Not at all. That’s our fault, in many ways, isn’t it? I have no problem with that at all. But I think we have to do something else, to keep ourselves interested. It’s been interesting to us, traveling around and meeting people, and going into the national library, and talking to folk musicians. I’ve learned so much in these last two years. It’s become an interest, researching these things.
NIKOLAISEN: Yeah, absolutely.
LANDA: Ivar’s been going up to these caves and places that nobody has been or even knows about.
Endling is out 9/8 on Prosthetic.