.:.Å STIGE BLANT STJERNER.:.
An Interview with Vemod
From the early days of the artform, black metal and Norway have been a subject of great interest, fascination, and even hatred or fear from various spheres of the metal world. No matter what your emotions for the genre may be, there is absolutely no way through which one can devalue and ignore the influence that Norway and its elder masterminds from decades back had on this genre through their artistic ferocity and sheer worship of the essence. However, with time, Norway’s spirit and the way it approached black metal have come under much scrutiny and criticism from the underground as it found that that earliest movement which defined the scene has been replaced by a softer and more business-oriented mindset—something which the black metal faithfuls couldn’t tolerate. Yet, if one delves deeper into the underground, one will find majestic individuals still carrying the torch forward. Norway’s Vemod is indeed such an entity among other selected elites that have perfectly channeled the essence of the past to that of today without compromising anything that the genre represents. Here, Abhik Chakraborty interviews the brilliant J. E. Åsli to discuss Vemod and that which is essential to it.
Heathen Harvest: As we begin this interview, let me tell you that it’s a great honour for us to have you here. It seems to me that Vemod stands out as one of the most uncompromising yet always innovative (in terms of sound, imagery, and concept) acts in the present black metal scene. Would you agree with me on this?
J. E. Åsli: As a band, I definitely feel we are both uncompromising and innovative, at least within the frames that we set for ourselves at any given time. We are not afraid to challenge ourselves and try things that may seem unorthodox at first, and then see what it does to the atmosphere we are working with. This is crucial to our process and the way forward. That said, we are not a band to do something new or out of the ordinary just for the sake of it. Like in most things, it is a question of striking the right balance.
In relation to a present black metal scene, well, I will leave that for others to judge. I think none of us spend much time comparing our work or process to that of other bands. We are just very focused on communicating our musical vision in the best possible manner, and we will do it on our own terms. Even if we tend to spend a lot of time thinking things through, reflecting over pretty much every imaginable aspect of the work, there is still a lot of ‘gut feeling’ involved in all decisions we make. This might be one of the reasons for your perception of us as being uncompromising; it really has to feel right, above all else.
HH: If I’m not mistaken, in the past, it has been stated that Vemod has probably distanced itself ‘mentally’ from the whole black metal scene and the mindset that goes with it. That being said, it cannot be denied that the music and the aura surrounding Vemod has a lot to do with the genre and its evolution from the eighties and the early nineties movements to the continuing metamorphosis of the genre today. How much do the great acts of the past like Bathory, Emperor, or Ulver influence Vemod?
JÅ: You are completely right, of course, and we are not trying to hide these rather obvious influences. Some of these bands and records played a crucial role in my early teens and onwards, which is a very formative time for most of us. When I began making music, they were, without a doubt, my main source of inspiration. This has changed, and luckily I have broadened my scope immensely, and my horizons are now constantly expanding. However, that does not necessarily mean that those initial sparks are forgotten or put aside. I still go back to Ulver, Emperor, Darkthrone, and similar acts from time to time, although it may not be as often as it used to. I know that this goes for the other members as well.
For me, in particular, I always seem to end up re-experiencing all of this in the month of December every year. It’s a very introspective and reflective time wherein you sort of reset yourself, seemingly out of instinct, and it is probably part of getting ready for a new year. A lot of these old classics come back to me in this time, and I am somehow able to listen to them as intently and passionately as in my younger years, once again. In this sense, it might be that certain black metal bands and records still fuel some of the creativity manifesting itself in Vemod.
All in all, I do not keep track of where exactly my influences come from at all times. I am careful not to analyze this particular part of the process too much, and I try to let it remain as organic and natural as possible.
HH: Venter på stormene was a spectacular release that was rich with quality and content. I have discussed before with others about the fact that, while Vemod has a certain atmospheric essence, it never lets the atmosphere overwhelm its roots—something most atmospheric black metal bands fail to do today. Going back in time, I feel Burzum’s music always had that atmospheric essence about it, especially in Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and even more so in Filosofem. Yet, one thing that marked Burzum’s early works is that it always had the right blend of elements. The atmosphere was never overwhelming, thereby staying true to what the music was always meant to be in the artist’s mind. While that style has influenced later acts, the artists probably don’t the correct content. Today, Vemod is one of the acts that stand true to that style from the past while offering something new and original to the genre. Would you agree?
JÅ: I must admit, I never thought about it that way, but you may have a point. However, it was not a conscious decision from our side, not letting that atmospheric haze override the rest completely. This might again be a question of balance and feeling, and I think every band has to work their way towards that golden ratio. We are extremely conscious about our atmospheric essence—it is at the very heart of this band. At the same time, we are equally conscious of not taking any shortcuts to get where we want to be—to get the atmosphere we are after.
I guess you are hinting toward the lot of bands that are associated with the ‘atmospheric black metal’ tag, and indeed, there is quite a bit of blandness and outright mediocrity among these. It’s a pity because the term has so much potential. For me, I know for certain that it was the atmospheric, almost mystical component of black metal that brought me to those murky waters in the first place, and also what kept me there up until this day. It is also what I often look for in other kinds of music regardless of genre tropes. Bear in mind, your standard set of melancholic chords with that sad-sounding lead thrown on top it drenched in random reverb, will just not do the trick. It is simply not enough to reach the real depths here. What is needed is actually quite hard to put into words, but this is the somewhat mysterious element that will separate the good from the not-so-good.
HH: On both the Vinterilden cover and the Venter på stormene cover, the aurora borealis has been seen. Do the northern lights symbolize a recurring philosophical standpoint behind Vemod?
JÅ: Not directly, no. However, a link can be made between the aurora—the light that shines when everything seems most dark at the time of midwinter—and a recurring lyrical and even musical theme of the personal darkness associated with loss or longing, contrasted with the spark of love and life needed to overcome. This is a realization that came along the way. The cover art can also be seen as just an aesthetic amplifier of atmosphere, of course.
HH: While thinking about the ambient element in Vemod’s music, one can see its conscious or unconscious connection to the dungeon synth genre that was a part of Norway’s scene in the nineties as well as in other countries like Germany. Were projects like Trolltjern, Wongraven, Mortiis, Depressive Silence, Fata Morgana, Vond, Forgotten Pathways, etc., conscious influences on the music of Vemod? Do you still follow that style of music today, as a new wave of projects in this style has surfaced with acts like TilDetBergensSkyggene, Grimrik, etc.?
JÅ: I cannot say it is a conscious influence, no. I have always enjoyed synths in black metal and related projects (if put to use in a good and constructive way, that is), and certainly that pushed me in a certain direction with my own music. However, I was only made aware of the term ‘dungeon synth’ not so many years ago and then started digging for recordings that fit the moniker. There is a lot of naïve, almost childish charm in that style, which I can appreciate as a listener, at least with a certain ironic distance applied. There is a strong, inherent sense of nostalgia in this kind of music, and that resonates with me.
I am not a follower of this style as such, but I know enough to recognize the names you mention. This is something I can dig into if the mood strikes. And, as I said, with this wave of banality running through so much of so-called dungeon synth, you need to equip some irony to enjoy it. Something that fascinates me is the contrast between the supposed ‘darkness’ and ‘evil’ on one side, and the very childlike fairytale fantasy theme on the other. And if you step back a bit, you can see that this was clearly the case for a lot of early black metal too. A strange mix, but fascinating indeed.
Yet, these are thoughts of a listener. When working to integrate musical influences into your own expression, things work a bit differently. The conscious influences for the synth and ambient work in Vemod is more in the direction of Klaus Schulze, Brian Eno, Robert Rich, and similar artists. For a piece like ‘Altetstempel’, the third track on Venter påstormene, I aimed to reach somewhere in between that and the ‘black metal synth’ of my youth, merging grand soundscapes with a more innocent nostalgic vibe. It ended up as a very meditative piece which I am exceedingly happy with.
HH: While listening to the Vinterilden demo and especially the hymn ‘Bortenfor’, the music and its atmosphere coupled with the cover art have taken me to a place in my mind that probably coincides with Hyperborea. I don’t know if other listeners have felt the same, but I have and it got me thinking of the Indian nationalist polymath ‘Lokmanya’ Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s book The Arctic Home in the Vedas. Both Nietzsche and Pindar would agree that Hyperborea is not a realm that can be reached by land or by the sea, or that can be located geographically. Various mythologies of the ancients, especially those of Indo-European roots, have hinted at this recurring symbol of a primal northern essence within in some cases, or a physical northern ‘urheimat’ in other cases. Do you consider it to be a state of the experience of the being? And is the music of Vemod, in a way, meant as a channel to find this sort of experience within?
JÅ: I am familiar with the idea of Hyperborea, but I have no great knowledge of the references you make. All I can say is that the feeling we convey with this music is highly intuitive and it all forms naturally. What I am trying to say is that the music of Vemod is not meant to be anything other than what it is: the music of Vemod. And from there, the listener can interpret whatever unfolds in many ways. I appreciate these individual interpretations of our music, and they come in greater variations than I could have hoped for. I have my own deeply personal relationship with the music, and indeed, it does bring me to a very special state of mind—an inner landscape of sorts—but it is fundamentally nameless, and so it shall remain. I like the thought of this space unfolding so differently from person to person yet being connected by its evocative power and a sense of the sacred.
In its deepest sense, I would not consider what I feel specifically northern but something universal that anyone could potentially connect to. That is, to me, it is the ultimate power of music. Who you are or where you come from is not important; everyone can access these profound experiences.
HH: Vemod was first brought to life at around 2000, and its first demo, Kringom fjell og skog, was released in 2004. After that, Vemod took a seven-year break before finally releasing Vinterilden and then Venter påstormene in comparatively quick succession. What was the reason behind this dormant period? Was it for you to realize the right sound and concept behind Vemod, or was it for some other reason?
JÅ: It was very much the former. We worked on and off during those years, but we kept changing, as individuals and as musicians, and so that ever-present gut instinct quite clearly said ‘wait’. I remember working on various material throughout most of that time, even being extremely pleased with some of it, but still something held back. It might have been a mix between a natural maturation process that took place and the rather naive idea that the music would just reach its true form by itself with time. No matter what it was, I am certain it was a very important time for Vemod, and what we learned made us who we are today. In hindsight, it seems that Venter på stormene came out at the perfect time, and it became what we wanted it to be and a great deal more. It made a wonderful setting for things to come.
I have now learned that music, like life, is a process, and that it will never be finished in the sense of some ultimate, final form. A piece of music demands a conscious decision from its makers to be carved out of time and sculpted for timelessness. Some are closer than others, but even then, time cannot be conquered, and the piece will continue to change and grow in the minds and hearts of listeners throughout. Bearing this in mind, I can appreciate the process even more, and it makes it easier to follow your feeling.
HH: How important are live rituals for Vemod? Do you feel that you can adequately channel the essence of Vemod into the souls of the audience in a live setting?
JÅ: They are very important, and I absolutely feel that the live performance brings about an equally essential experience as a record might; it is just different. The atmosphere becomes very tangible in a live setting—you can almost touch it—and there are many other factors influencing the outcome. There is also a strong sense of urgency because you know that this will only happen once, and this is your chance. You have to work with the circumstances at any given time. As a band, we make sure to do everything we can to prepare and cultivate the appropriate atmosphere. If the organizers and the audience do the same, chances are we are all in for something special.
HH: Next I would like to come to the subject of the hymn ‘Vi er natten’ that Vemod contributed to Heathen Harvest‘s 2012 online compilation Samhainwork 1. Being a follower of Heathen Harvest and Vemod, it was brilliant for me to see you there, but more remarkable was the brilliance of the experience that I had when I first heard the song. A truly majestic experience indeed! And it also surprised me. Can we expect Vemod to travel in this direction in the future?
JÅ: First of all, thank you for the kind words! It was a great chance for us to do something a bit different, so we did. We would have done it anyway, sooner or later, but the request from Heathen Harvest pushed us into it. Also, the process was different; the creation of the piece was very intuitive and quicker than usual, and we let some influences through that are perhaps usually kept more in the background. For some, the sound was a surprise, I guess, but not so much for those who know us and our tastes better.
Well, you can certainly expect Vemod to travel further into non-metal territory in the future. How exactly that will sound is hard to say, because there are many paths we can take, and we are eager to try a lot of different things. ‘Vi er natten’ sounds the way it does because of those particular influences we drew on, and those particular circumstances we were in. It might turn out quite different next time we do something ‘out of the ordinary’. We are also working to integrate some of these fresh elements into our ‘main sound’, but we will have to wait and see how it turns out. It is a journey, and it does not really have an end.
HH: Can we expect Vemod to visit new lands like India, for example, in the future if the proper opportunity comes? Also, do you think that Vemod’s essence can pervade cultural differences and appeal to everyone’s sense of being?
JÅ: I sure hope so! As I said earlier, I feel there is a core to the music that goes beyond these differences, so that should not pose any problems. It is only interesting to see how our music is perceived and experienced further from home. In that sense, I would go wherever there is a strong enough wish for Vemod to perform. However, for any such ventures, there are certain practicalities to be taken into account, so how far we can go in this regard is yet to be seen. I love to travel, and of course I love music, so to combine the two suits me perfectly. That said, we are quite selective with our performances, and we do not automatically accept every offer that comes our way. This is something we will continue to practice because we do feel that certain circumstances are needed to nurture the atmospheres we are working with. This has proven to be a successful approach since most of our performances so far have been wondrous experiences for all of us. We hope to follow up on the standard we have set for ourselves in this regard.
HH: What are the future plans for Vemod? What experiences lie ahead for you and your followers?
JÅ: A lot of music, I hope. I think there are a lot of possibilities and interesting new musical landscapes to be explored. As the composer for Vemod, I can certainly say there is a lot of material waiting to be given shape and form. We all have high hopes for the times to come and we are excited to get on to these future works, whatever they may turn out to be.
This year, we are mainly working on our upcoming full-length album. I cannot say when it will be recorded and certainly not when it will be released, but it should be worth the wait. I am extremely excited to make this album happen—the whole band is. There are talks of a few selected live appearances, as usual, and I am glad to see the offers we get tend to be a bit out of the ordinary in terms of location, purpose, atmosphere, and so on—a very promising development, indeed.
HH: Finally, as we have come to the end of this interview, I would like to thank you for your time and interest, as well as for giving us a chance to experience Vemod from a deeper perspective. The last words are yours.
JÅ: Thank you, good sir, for giving Vemod space between these pages—much obliged. I hope it could shed some light on things for anyone who may be interested in our music. All the best to you. And to everyone, be well!