Interview // 2022-02-01
The mighty Borknagar! A powerful and emotional band that introduced me to music with folk elements. They lift my spirits and take me on a journey.
I got the opportunity to chat with Oystein Brun, the founding member about what has been going on with the band. Here is our conversation (he didn't test positive for COVID, thankfully).
How are you today?
OYSTEIN BRUN: Yeah, I am pretty fine. I kinda think maybe I caught a little bit of the flu, so I am not feeling a hundred percent.
That is too bad.
OYSTEIN: I guess corona is lurking around the corner. I guess I have to test myself tomorrow.
That is the unfortunate thing of these times.
OYSTEIN: Yeah, it is pretty crazy, I mean, trying to run a band these days, you know, touring and all that stuff. It's a mess. It's just crazy. We are now, just today actually, discussing the US tour and how to approach that with work visas and everything. So everything is going slow, and of course we have been bleeding a lot of money, so there isn't much left to do fun things. It's complicated, I guess.
I was just going to say, you had a re-release of your debut album, attempts at touring, and I heard you talking about how there will be new material (obviously, you don't know exactly when). So how is the band holding up?
OYSTEIN: We have been out, as they say in Norway, "winter night before." I mean we have been through ups and downs and all these things. We have a long back catalogue we can kind of lean on, in a sense. We released this debut album and did a really nice version of it. And, you know, because of the situation, I got the time to do proper work to do the re-release - to actually do something worth the money for the people, not just buying a reprint or something, but actually buying something with value. So, I really wanted this to be a proper well-done re-release. I got the chance to do that, at least. It's going fine, of course. We are going to survive, and we are going to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We kind of feel our agents and bookers and things are starting to kind of live a little bit again. But you know, there are still a lot of uncertainties we don't really know. We just had to cancel what was supposed to be a festival in Zürich, Switzerland, on the 8th of January. Whatever we did, it just wasn't possible in terms of the situation in Norway. Corona was skyrocketing and all that stuff, so we just had to say, okay, it's just not going to work. So, it is still complicated, but I have a feeling it is getting a little bit back to normal now, so hopefully we will be able to get back on our horses, so to speak, and ride on, in a sense.
The debut album was done in Norwegian. How did you decide to do the rest of the albums in English? Was that hard thing to do?
OYSTEIN: In all honesty, I guess not just we Norwegians, but at least in Norway, we start to learn English at a very early age in schools. We are kind of very used to English. I got to the point when I did the first album when I wanted to make this Norwegian to make an attempt, in a sense. But I came to a point where I didn't feel the Norwegian language, as I knew it, was, in a sense, big enough to scope my lyrical ideas. I didn't feel that I was able to express, even though it was my native language. I even used my own dialect writing those lyrics. I didn't feel that I had all the words I needed, in a sense. In all honesty, to me it was kind of the realization that, in order to reach out there with my lyrics and my music, I just had to use the English language. And of course, before this band I did some death metal, we sung in English and stuff, so in a sense, musically and artistically, it felt natural. It might sound a bit weird, but it did. Because Norwegian, and this is just my opinion, but it is kind of a very poetic language. We are just four million people, in Norway. We are a very small country. The vocabulary is not that big. To me, it felt a little bit small; the language was just small. And there was other reasons for it: I wanted to broaden the horizon and reach farther out, so to speak.
Was there a discussion about the changes and direction of the albums over the years, or did they just get created how they got created?
OYSTEIN: When we gather up either for the studio, touring, or we are just hanging out drinking a beer, we talk music. We talk about the future, the past, and everything in between. I always had this idea about the band that I wanted to let things flow. It kinda derives from a basic idea I had with the band back in the day. I mean, that's why we have the name we have. Even back then I was 18-19 years old and I had a crystal clear vision about establishing and making a band which has no association whatsoever. I wanted to have a name that you couldn't stamp it to a certain style or genre of music or a movie soundtrack or whatever. I just wanted to kind of make my own musical bubble, in a sense. So, for me, this mentality of independence was such an important virtue back then and still is, actually. So, we always try to avoid too much associations, try to make our own musical universe. I want it to happen by instinct or by whatever, just as a flowing stream. It shouldn't be too much planning. Because for me, that is the mode that I feel the most creative, in a sense. When I write songs in my studio here, for example, I don't sit down planning too much. I just sit down with my guitar and start from there. Like, now I am sitting down for two hours and I am writing a new song, and I will have two songs finished in a month. You know, I try to avoid this obstacle. To me, music should be independent from all of this watching the clock and keeping the schedules. To me that is creativity, in a sense, being able to move around as you want, when you want, do what you want, whenever you want, kind of thing. And that is a mentality. Obviously we can't only do that, but I try to cling onto that idea in the band, musically- and creatively-speaking, at least. To make things happen when it happens, in a sense.
So can we expect the same solid lineup of musicians for your next album?
OYSTEIN: Oh yeah. Definitely. I would hope so. Nobody knows what happens tomorrow, basically, but yeah. We have very good chemistry. We are already far into, I wouldn't say production, but writing. We have a bunch of material. Actually, this week I am starting on my second phase of producing my songs a little more and sending it around to the guys. So, we are probably going to start some production in the not-too-distant future, I hope. And we're doing it pretty much the same way we did with the True North album, which was really a cool experience for us. We actually spent quite some money on just being together as a band. I mean, me staying in Oslo because I live in Bergen, and the rest of the guys live in Oslo. We locked ourselves in this studio, for example, when we did the vocals. Some food, some beer, and all of that of course. And then we just stayed there for three or four days or something, doing all the vocals together as a unit. Nothing disturbed us. You know, the studio is in the countryside, so there is nothing flashy going on, or parties going on next door. So, we try to just do the same thing now, and just have a good time, and make a great album.
What are you most proud of musically, and in life?
OYSTEIN: In life, I would have to say my kids of course. I have a son and a daughter, and that is my heart, basically. That is where my heart lies. Musically-speaking, it is kind of hard to single out because it has been such an integrated part of my life. I started underground tape trading, I started my first band in '89-'90, something like that. I have been doing this my whole life, in a sense. It's kind of a natural part of my life. If there is one thing it is more a concept, maybe, or a story, I am proud of. I have been doing this since the very beginning, and I remember the old days. I had the acoustic guitar and I was still living at home with my parents. I was like 18. I started getting into riffs and I was listening to this acoustic guitar because I grew up on the countryside, and I was always very fascinated by nature, obviously, with the concept we have and the lyrics we have. One thing that struck me back then, it kinda sparked the idea that when I was playing the acoustic guitar I got from my parents for Christmas or something like that, I kind of got the same wooden feeling as when I was cutting branches in the woods, or building a hut or whatever in the woods, or whatever we did back then. You know, this wooden, organic feeling of timber. And that was the basic core idea. You know this and together with the idea of making my own musical bubble. And from there things have kinda become what it is now. This whole story line of this small, tiny idea by a kid on a countryside in Norway went from there. And 25-26 years later, it's like my job. It's a huge impact on a lot of people. We have a lot of people working for us and stuff like that. You know that is crazy, and that is something I am very proud of. Because to me, I have never had this idea about being a rock star or famous or money or whatever. I have always had this sensation of creating something from zero, of building something. This studio, I built everything myself, and that is kind of the way I am probably mentally made. But I love to make things from the ground up. If it's a house, cool, let's make a house. If it's music. Building things, I have just loved since I was a kid. The fact that I am sitting here doing this interview, now. I have sold a lot of records, 11 albums, we have been touring all over the place - U.S., Europe, many, many times, and festivals and all that. It's pretty crazy, and of course, I am proud of that. What this tiny little seed of ideas back in the day has actually become. That's kind of an adventure. It's also very humbling, in a sense, because I am also a music-lover, so when I talk with people - fans, journalists - I can kind of relate to this importance of music. To me, music has the same value, it is just that it is different artists. My mothership in music is Pink Floyd, but of course I like a lot of other bands. But Floyd has always been a band that gives me a feeling that nothing else gives me. It gives me some energy that nothing else gives me. It has a very special place in my life, musically speaking. When I am talking with fans, for example, and they have a little bit of the same notion about my music, it's powerful stuff, and of course I am proud, I am humbled. I am everything in between. It's really cool.
I haven't travelled much, and I think I have this romantic idea of what Norway's like. Apparently my dad had Norwegian in him. You were describing the area you live as a countryside - I live in the country too, in Canada - but what kind of animals do you see often in your area?
OYSTEIN: Unfortunately, not that much actually. But I have a good friend that's coming by the studio often and I have a picture up on Instagram. It's a deer - a quite big one. It started to come by when it was a small one. Just walking down that way and my cat was pretty crazy about trying to run it down or something. But that is a little too ambitious, I guess, from a cat's eye. But now its a big one, and sometimes when I walk from my studio to the house there there is a trail. I can hear it out there in the woods. So, that's one. We have some foxes going back and forth sometimes, checking out things and running over the streets. Of course mice and rats, sometimes. And a lot of birds. Apart from that, it's not much, really, and that is kind of sad. There is wildlife, definitely. I mean, walking in the woods here is like walking in the jungle, especially in the summer or springtime. There is not a lot of big animals, so to speak. The big moose are not really living here in this area. You have to go more North or North-East at least to find those, for example. So it is deer. One morning, I was waking up and there was a horse, but that horse had escaped from a farm nearby.
I am a country girl, so.
In regard to your first experience writing lyrics, how did the lyric writing come to life in you? Did you go straight to writing them, or did you do poems or stories first?
OYSTEIN: No, to be honest. I have always been first and foremost a musician and lyrics has been... not secondary, I can't say that, but music has always been my spearhead of what I am doing, in a sense, so it kind of leads the way. So, I try to drape the whole music with the lyrics I find fitting. So, it is kind of a symbiosis, in a sense, but it is always music first. I also have philosophical ideas about my music, and one of those is that real, genuinely good music should be kind of close to life, in a sense. Honest, close to life. Music is a very human artifact, in a sense. I mean birds don't - as far as we know - listen to music, and cats don't bother much about my music, so to speak. But it's kind of a human artifact, so from the early, early beginning, it has been an important thing to portray, both musically and lyrically, life - and my life, because I am the composer, at least for some of the songs I have done. Whatever is written for those songs should be through my writing. That being said, I am a country boy; I didn't go to kindergarten. I was forced to go to school, actually. I spent all my childhood in the woods and stuff like that, so for me, the most natural thing in the world when doing lyrics, poetry, is to use nature as kind of the seed for everything. Use nature as the framework for my lyrics. My lyrics don't always deal actually about nature. It deals with everything from internal struggles, to maybe a touch of environmental things, and stuff. More kind of descriptive, in a sense. I have always loved to portray nature. If I was a painter, I would probably paint woods and nature, and mountains. I am not the guy, a bohemian dude that is sitting with a cafe latte or something like that, drawing an artsy whatever of a guy sitting on a bench in a park or something like that. I would probably portray mountains, woods, and stuff like that. That's my lyrical scope, in a sense. That being said, there is a lot of different feels and ideas behind the lyrics. True North, for example, has different themes and is based on different ideas. Of course they have some of the same approach, in a sense. That's the way I am being honest, that is the way I am the best at being a lyricist and a musician. That's the backstory, so why not?
A song such as Wild Father's Heart was an emotional outpouring tied to a hard loss for you. Was there is a song on True North, or maybe one that you are working on now, that was hard to get the flow going, but you are liking what's coming?
OYSTEIN: Yeah, sometimes there is. There is always one or two songs on each album that I kind of struggle a little bit with. Let's scroll back to Winter Thrice. I remember the title song of that album - that was a hard nut to crack. And until just before we were supposed to finish the album, I was planning to just scrap that song. I was like, I don't know, that is boring, I will just whatever. But then I got the vocals from Kris and I thought, oh shit, this is going to become something! So that is kind of the irony in it. Sometimes the songs I am kind of struggling with a little bit and kind of feel like I am not sure if this is the right thing, or maybe should just leave it or whatever, that song usually turns out to be something. I am not sure if that is because it kind of forces you into a mode where you have to crack some nuts to make it work, to spend some extra efforts or something like that, but maybe. Also, on True North, one of the songs I really love on that album, personally speaking, is the song Tidal. Of course Wild Father's Heart is also a very important song to me due to my father and all that stuff, but also Tidal was a kind of very important song to me. And I remember I struggled a lot with that song to find the right pace and structure, feel, flow in it, in a sense. But now I think that's one of my favourite songs. I just love the adventurous, journey-like feeling of that song. And that was actually what I wanted with that song. It was a little difficult to climb that mountain, but made it in the end.
So, have you always had a social aspect to doing music?
OYSTEIN: No, not really to be honest. I have always been kind of a loner. In my ideal world I would just make music and that's it. I could easily do that. For me when it comes to it, it is all about music. I don't necessarily need to release. I don't necessarily need to have a career in it. First and foremost is the satisfaction of making something, making music. There is nothing in this world that gives me such a buzz and good feeling as, you know, I made something here - kind of realizing, this is a cool riff, I made something. I can live on that for two weeks in a row. I don't need to eat, sleep, or anything. I am just, wow, that was good. It is kind of very energizing. That is probably a little bit like a drug addict, I guess. Kind of, I need that hit, I need that shot, or whatever you call it. That is where it starts for me; everything else is kind of secondary. I don't need to hang around in pubs or being whatever person. And I have always been a little bit of a loner, not a weirdo kind of thing, but I have never been too into that social thing, to be honest. I grew up around Bergen and I hung around with the black metal scene back in the old days, but I kind of, at some point, I just, ah... It got a little bit too choking in a sense, just need to distance myself a little bit, and I did. I haven't really been into the local scene since the late 90's, to be honest.
I can sense that passion in your music, so that is great!
OYSTEIN: Yeah, I mean loneliness is underappreciated. I mean maybe that's the way I am made or whatever. If I have to stay in a city for too long I kind of get depressive by it. I mean it is too grey, it is too much noise, it's too much blinking lights... I don't know. It gets impersonal. I want to get away. I need space. I need openness. Well, now I have mountains on this side. I can have my own trail up the highest mountains here in the Bergen area. And this side I have a field. I am kind of everything I need.
Myself, I often go to music for different moods, for example, when I am excited or I am upset. Can you give me and example of a song that you might go to for a very specific mood?
OYSTEIN: Yeah, oh man, there's lots. I am an ageing man, so I have been through a lot of music through the years. But the last couple of years, one song, I don't know, it just clicked with me so much. I don't remember exactly, but it's the first song on this Ulver album, Shadow of the Sun. I don't remember just now the title of the song. That is a song that just, I don't know. I mean, it's empowering in one sense, but it's also extremely sad, but it gives me something. It coddles me when I need that, but it also makes me stronger when I need that, if you get my point. It just gives me energy. I think that is to me sometimes maybe I am a weirdo, but sad music can also be very energizing in a sense. It is kind of fighting fire with fire. I don't necessarily need happy music to become a happy person, so to speak. It doesn't really work like that. To me, it's like music is food for our soul, in a sense. That's a song that has actually helped me through a lot of ups and downs. I love that song.
Thanks for meeting with me. I wish you guys the best. I hope this tour pans out for you. You guys are amazing - keep up the good work.
OYSTEIN: Thank you so much. Yeah, let's hope. We will do everything in our power to make this tour happen. It will happen, I am pretty sure. We still have some obstacles to get over and stuff. Again with this corona situation we don't know what will happen tomorrow, really, but it feels safe now. At least I feel like we are over that song, so to speak. Let's hope so.
Awesome. Have a great rest of your day. Take care.
OYSTEIN: Same to you. Take care.
Photography: Jørn Veberg
After interviewing Borknagar, I decided to add the song Into the White to my playlist.
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