Band Interview: Satyricon

Matt Albers, Nick Licata

Few subcultures within heavy metal are regarded with as much reverence (or with as much controversy) as Norwegian black metal. After bands like Venom, Bathory, Mercyful Fate, Hellhammer and Celtic Frost began the darkest, most extreme metal subgenre at the time (and arguably still to this day), bands from Norway like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, Gorgoroth, Immortal, and Emperor pushed the boundaries even further, with both their approach to writing and recording, as well as their presence in their own society, abrasively pushing back against their surrounding socio-political/religious spectrum that they vehemently disagreed with.

And then, in 1991, in Oslo, Norway, Satyricon was formed. This band stood out among their black metal peers – and continues to do so – by constantly pushing the boundaries and breaking down the walls of what black metal could do. From forward-thinking, outrageous musicianship, and techniques involving pulling back the extremes and incorporating styles and influences outside of the metal spectrum (which could be considered sacrilegious among purists), Satyricon thoroughly established themselves as a force like none other.

One particular Satyricon album that exemplifies this is 1996’s Nemesis Divina. Regarded as a game changer to the genre that would forever, officially cement Satyricon’s legacy in the black metal history books, the band decided to go against their own tradition, and re-release this seminal record in honor of its 20th anniversary. Not long after this announcement, Satyricon was dealt a blog when vocalist/lead guitarist/front man Sigurd “Satyr” Wongraven announced that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. This has not slowed the black metal powerhouse down at all, however. As we learned from drummer Kjetil-Vidar “Frost” Haraldstad (also of 1349)  Satyricon’s past and present indicate an even stronger future, spearheaded by the 20th anniversary re-release of Nemesis Divina. As well as his own experiences as a musician and stage performer, and even a student of mathematics and science.

Satyricon - NEMESIS DIVINA [1996] album cover art - image courtesy of Napalm Records
Satyricon – NEMESIS DIVINA [1996] album cover art – image courtesy of Napalm Records
I understand that the decision to re-release Nemesis Divina  was a bit against the grain for Satyricon, which doesn’t really go along with re-releases, as an entity. The album is still regarded as a significant cornerstone of black metal. What does this album mean to you, and why is its re-release important to you?

Nemesis Divina has become a symbol of Satyricon’s conquering spirit and is the album that established us as one of the key players in the scene. An album that opened many doors, and that still has a special place in the hearts of many fans. On that ground it felt right to mark the 20th anniversary of the album, and release a premastered and repackaged version of it to bring the album back into focus.

Satyricon is often credited as one of the prime movers of “Medieval metal.” We’ve seen a huge boom of “folk/pagan” or “Viking-themed” metal bands in the past decade or so, that incorporate traditional acoustic instruments and themes of early European culture. Do you feel that Satyricon’s musical style on albums like Nemesis Divina have had an impact on this movement.

It might, but I perceive Nemesis Divina as considerably more intense and aggressive than what signifies the mentioned genre. If anything, I believe our two first albums have had a stronger impact on just that movement. That said – there has always been a lot of folk music tonality and rhythms in Satyricon, and there still is. It is a core quality of the band.

Satyricon is also noted for pushing the boundaries of the black metal genre with different musical elements and writing, and you continue to do so. Do you consciously try to do something a little different with each album, or do different ideas or influences come and go naturally?

We naturally evolve, for this band is born out of a creative spark and a genuine passion for music in general and black metal in particular. Formula based work has no value to us.

The Live at the Opera DVD is pretty amazing. How did the idea of working with a choir come about, whose idea was it, and what was the experience like overall? How long did you have to rehearse with the orchestra before you all felt comfortable to perform live?

Satyricon band lineup (NEMESIS DIVINA-era) [left to right]: Kjetil-Vidar "Frost" Haraldstad (drums), Sigurd "Satyr" Wongraven (vocals, lead guitar, bass guitar), Ted "Kveldulv/Nocturno Culto" Skjellum (rhythm guitar) - image courtesy of Napalm Records
Satyricon band lineup (NEMESIS DIVINA-era) [left to right]: Kjetil-Vidar “Frost” Haraldstad (drums), Sigurd “Satyr” Wongraven (vocals, lead guitar, bass guitar), Ted “Kveldulv/Nocturno Culto” Skjellum (rhythm guitar) – image courtesy of Napalm Records
We performed with the Opera chorus for the first time in early 2012, at a special event that we were invited to participate at, and did the song “To the Mountains.” It sounded so great that we afterwards felt we should do a full show with the choir, an idea that also appealed strongly to the singers in the choir, their conductor, and the composer of the arrangements. Eventually idea turned into plan, plan turned into actual preparations, and at last the show at the Opera happened. It was an absolutely fantastic and very rewarding experience – never has Satyricon sounded so grand and majestic as at that show. And needless to say, it was highly stimulating and motivating for us. For the choir also, as it turned out. Making the arrangements for that full show was a huge project, but the rehearsals with the choir went on for just some days. The conductor made sure that the band and the choir quickly became synchronized.

In a recent interview, Satyr stated that he, “regretted wasting time touring small clubs and bars in the Midwest.” As a Midwestern media outlet ourselves [we’re based in St. Louis, MO], what have you noticed or observed about the fans or music communities in the different areas that you have frequented?

Satyr’s point with his statement was that we have done more than our share of performances at places where the band doesn’t really belong. Tour organizers tend to put up shows according to what a typical touring route looks like or other practical circumstances, without regard for whether or not it actually makes sense for each respective touring band. And so the result is that the band end up playing shows at clubs that offer no proper technical and functional facilities, in front of very small audiences that hardly pay attention. It’s all fine to do a few shows like that, especially early in your career, but at a certain point you want to move on from that. We never play shows half heartedly, no matter the circumstance, and we want every show to be a magnificent experience for the band and the crowd. When the conditions work fundamentally against that, it just drains the energy out of us. We don’t see playing live as a duty, but as something to be enjoyed. We find that we have dedicated and great fans all over the world – but that doesn’t mean that it makes sense to put up shows with Satyricon at random places in the middle of nowhere. We play black metal after all, not pub rock.

I read – on a not-so-reliable source – that you studied at a mathematics college in Oslo, Norway. Is this true? If so, what are you studying or what did you study there? If not, do you have any idea where this rumor may have come from?

I did study mathematics and science at the University in Oslo for a short while, and somewhat later I went through an IT education at the college. I used to be very interested in science and chemistry when I was younger, and had plans of becoming a scientist, but ended up following a quite different course, as my involvement in music still meant more to me.

Do you still do any live performances where you breathe fire or cut yourself like you did in Until The Light Takes Us? How are you able to do that, where did that concept come from, and does it represent anything?

Satyricon band logo - image courtesy of Napalm records
Satyricon band logo – image courtesy of Napalm records

I still do fire breathing with 1349, but performance art was something I was involved in for just a short period of time quite long ago. At the time, alternative types of expression held a certain fascination on my part, and it was a field I found it exciting to investigate. However, I eventually concluded that the whole meta-business connected to black metal didn’t feel entirely right, and so I turned my full focus on musical work again. That’s the way it’s going to stay.

I understand that there is a new Satyricon studio album, and a cover album from Satyricon in the works. Can you share anything about either project and when we may be able to expect their release(s)?

The new studio album is truly what counts for us now – that cover album is a project that we will return to when our own album is done. The creative process is producing results day by day – new themes, new solutions, improvements, developments… We really have made a lot of material since we began, but we are getting closer to the point of recording now and have gotten a rather clear idea of what is going to end up on the album and what will not. It’s talk about very diverse material; creative, spirited, vital and driven. I truly feel that this material is taking Satyricon a huge step forward. We expect to start recording this fall, and to release the album next year.

Thanks to “Frost” for taking the time to participate in our interview, and once again, thanks to Jon Freeman of Freeman Productions for the opportunity! The 20th anniversary re-release of Nemesis Divina is available now through Napalm Records.

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