After two brilliant records and a equally mesmerising collaborative effort on the Vikings soundtrack, Wardruna has made its mark on audiences around the world, bringing the traditional sounds of ancient nordic culture to the forefront of the music scene. Masterminded by Einar Selvik alongside Gaahl (both former members of the infamous Black Metal band Gorgoroth), the Bergen-based project has been making waves with their transcendent, heavily atmospheric compositions rooted in nordic folk traditions. With the release of their third record Ragnarok, the band will be laying the final stone to their trilogy of albums dedicated to the musical interpretation of the Elder Futhark runes. Beyond the mere concept of destruction the title may suggest, Einar is quick to point out that this closing instalment in the Runaljod trilogy symbolises more of a new beginning than the end of all things.
So this third record marks the end of the bands’ conceptual ark dedicated to the runes of the Elder Futhark. How can one characterise this closing chapter conceptually with regards to its predecessors?
Conceptually, the first record is about creation and the second one is about growth. This next record is more about transformation. Musically speaking the record is a natural continuation of the last two records, working on a different set of runes. Every album were dedicated to 8 different runes, so naturally the outcome is different. I think the album has some of the monotonous elements from the first album all the while borrowing elements from the second record in terms of poetry and melodies.
With regards to album title, ‘Ragnarok’ evokes destruction but also the foundation of a new beginning. Did this notion entail a preparation for then next creative endeavours for Wardruna ?
I focussed on making this trilogy of albums stand on its own, no matter what I choose to do in the future. The album definitely has some elements of destruction and the darkness that follows but I would say that it does primarily focus on the new beginning, what rises from the ashes. That is where the focus was. I think that a lot of people tend to misinterpret the concept of Ragnarok and see it as the end of the world. However, in the circular way perspective of the Norse, this is destruction is part of a cycle. It is about the end but it is just as much about the beginning.
For each track you’ve made sure to sonically translate and interpret the symbolism of each rune. What would you say were the most challenging runes to bring to life?
Of course some runes are very clear on what they represent and also have clear sonic elements to them. Some runes are definitely easier to illustrate sonically. Also you have to remember that I not only approach these themes in an intuitive, esoteric way but also in a scholarly way. We actually know very little about these runes of the Elder Futhark. It’s been a very important to me to not just invent things and color them too much by my own personal interpretations but rather to focus on the core of it and give it a direction. From a scholarly perspective, it’s very difficult material to work with. I wanted it to be an honest but also a serious affair from a scholarly aspect. That, of course, has been challenging. I’m not sure if there are any runes in particular I would like to highlight in that sense but of course some runes are more obscure than others.
Given the fact that the album trilogy follows this conceptual framework, has the concept ever presented itself as a constraint during the writing process?
Absolutely, very constrained. The runes are constrained, even though people think that they are very intuitive or that they can mean basically anything. That’s a very modern, new-age thing that has very little to do with the original way of approaching runes, even though it has esoteric sides. They are very constrained and very specific. It’s definitely been very challenging project that has taken me almost 16 years to finish off, but it’s been very interesting.
Were the songs all outlined around the same time or released in a different order than the order in which they were written?
Some of the ideas on this album date back to 15 years ago and some songs are based on sketches that I did back then. My focus was always on the current album I was working on but some of the songs are based on old writings from the very beginning of Wardruna.
Were there any early songs that you felt needed to rework on as time went by and it came time to write and release it on an album?
They weren’t really finished pieces, it was more ideas and parts. If it hadn’t worked out, I would have changed them of course, but what was quite amazing was that when I started piecing things together and started revisiting these ideas, everything fit so well into the song and record. It’s quite an amazing feeling.
With regards to your work on the soundtrack for the Vikings series, how would you say is the main focus when scoring the series as opposed to your work with Wardruna?
The approach is totally different, being that it’s a different “format”. With soundtracks you’re working on specific visuals and you need to speak music in a different way. It’s more direct in some ways and more subtle in others. It’s a different musical approach. Of course you also work with completely different deadlines and timespans.
With the trilogy now completed, do you feel more compelled to stay within a conceptually defined framework or would you consider opening the project up to more “free compositions”?
I like conceptual albums. I like to tell a story that is not only limited to one song, so I think no matter what I do I’ll try to do concept albums. I like the format, painting with long strokes as you would say. On the other hand I don’t know, there are no rules. It depends, I have a lot of things I want to do in the future with Wardruna. We’ll see how it turns out. I haven’t decided yet.
Do you feel like the Norwegian and Scandinavian culture nowadays is giving its Nordic Spiritual roots the place and relevance it deserves?
Well what makes something deserve a place and relevance? I would say that if it has relevance these things will come naturally. I think a lot of people are searching in their roots these days, in the history that stretches beyond the grasp of the centralised monotheistic religions. People want to come back to the roots and I think a lot of people want to feel some sort of connection to nature and stuff like that. I think it’s a very natural reaction to what’s happening in the world. In that sense I also can understand why people find the Nordic tradition interesting as well. The fact is that we were left alone here in the north almost 1000 years longer than the rest of Europe, so these traditions got to develop for a longer time than for other places in Europe. I guess that’s what makes the interest for Norse traditions interesting, for other people in the world as well. It’s a complicated question. I don’t have a very “romantic” relationship to the past. It’s not about the thought that eve thing was so much better back in the day, because I don’t think it was. Some things were better and other weren’t. It’s not about reenacting the past or to try to be Vikings again or whatever. It’s more about collecting and remembering some things from the past in a new way that is relevant to the contemporary human, because some of these things are just as relevant today, perhaps even more because we’re in need of it. At the same time there are also things from the old culture and the old mythology that simply isn’t important anymore. It’s simply a different world.
And this idea of drawing these relevant elements into a modern context is found in Wardruna I presume.
Yeah, one of the most important criteria is that it carries relevance, that you are able to connect to it. That is why I think people are able to connect to the music of Wardruna in a personal sense. I think it does carry relevance today. Also, when I write music I try to build and keep an open space for the listener to be able to connect with it.
Back in June I interviewed this South-Korean band called Jambinai who use traditional instruments and elements from traditional Korean music. Their guitarist, who actually named your records as being some of his favorite albums, mentioned also the idea of bringing Korean traditional music and reinstating its relevance in a modern rock context alongside electric instruments. With Wardruna, do you see a certain responsibility to stay within certain historical accuracy or do you merely draw upon the sounds of ancient nordic traditions?
I would say it’s both. I happen to also be a proper history nerd, although not formally I am a scholar of these things. I study a lot and these things are important to me. With that being said, it’s not necessarily important to be “authentic”. Like I said, it’s not about “reenacting”. However, the elements I weave into it are definitely based on something authentic. Some of these instruments I use are solely limited in terms of what you can do on it, whatever you do on them will sound authentic. I write poetry where I try to follow the old patterns and and qualities that they encompass. Those indeed have a historical and authentic base but making authentic or historical music is not what I do. I make something new with something old, but I still try to build on solid grounds. I take liberties when it makes sense. I’m making music for the contemporary listener and all that comes with it. In many cases, a lot of the musical elements, if you go back far enough in time, are quite universal. Some of these very old elements still live on in modern music nowadays as well, like the rhythms and the tones. In terms of what this Korean band is doing, if I pull my perspective towards Norway as well, it was of course one of my motivations for starting Wardruna in the first place; the poor state of how we teach our youth about the old culture, how we oversimplify it and don’t take it seriously when it really is. It is complicated and unavailable because it is so complicated. So to make a relevant and understandable way into it is definitely part of my motivation as well!
I want to preface this next question by saying that I’m not looking to sensationalise or provoke in any way. Some notable figures in the Norwegian Black metal scene still express their opposition to the Christianisation of Scandinavia and the treatment of Norse Religions by Christians. Do you personally feel like this sentiment is relevant today? What place do you see for Christianity in Norwegian history and culture and its relationship to Norse Religions?
It’s a complicated question, the first reason being that it’s often oversimplified. First off, the general thought that war is about religion is very often wrong, and it was very often wrong for the Norwegian Christianisation. It was about centralising power, at least for Norway. If you boil it down, it was about getting church law appointed. We actually had quite a democratic rule in Norway with decentralised power, it was divided through the lands. Getting church law would allow the Christians to get rid of the old families and the more democratic rule. It basically meant one god, one king and one big sack of money. Power and money was the intention and religion was the means. A monotheistic universal religion such as Christianity is very well adapted for power politics. Norse religions or what you call per definition “ethnic religions” are more locally based, they can vary from valley to valley and they don’t rely as much on dogmas. It was set by the traditions, the landscape and the people living there. Whether or not something belongs somewhere or not is an irrelevant discussion. I think that monotheistic belief systems that are so politically and economically motivated (and always have been) are not a good thing at all. Faith and politics do not belong together. It’s a personal matter and should be so. I think the question is much bigger than simply whether something belongs in the history or not. I don’t think salvation religions and monotheistic universal religions are good. I’m not a big fan of them. I recently did a project called Skuggsjá where we addressed some of the things in Norwegian history. The piece basically talks quite a bit about the transition period between the pagan time and the christian times. I would say that what we focus on is how history told by the victors but that the truth matters. You’ll find that history is dictated out of political or religious motives. Even though we know better today a lot of these “histories” are allowed to live as truths, and that I find very provoking. We need to address truths when it comes to history. We need to teach history in a way that is removed from political or religious motives. That is basically my point.
Given the misinformation one can find on the subject of runes in english publications since the birth of the new-age movement, what would you recommend the curious minds out there that may want to learn more about the runes and the nordic traditions you talk about?
The modern rune lore is indeed a combination of many things and many different esoteric traditions such as Kabbalah, astrology, Tarot and whatnot all mixed together. It vaguely resembles the original esoteric usage of the runes. I think it’s important to find out how we know what we think we know about the runes. Studying the history of nordic religions and what the sources are is an important aspect I think. Reading the Edda poetry, you’ll find some information to study these things. These are runic poems and they are very important to know not only about the rune’s phonetic value but also its symbolic value. I think a lot of people want to study the runes and they very often jump over to the esoteric, mystical side of it. I think one of the original rune magic was very often about words and poetry, learning the rules of writing with them is probably a good entry point. For english-speaking people I would recommend books by Raymond Ian Page, he gives good interpretations of these poems. There’s also this book by Lars Magnar Enoksen called The History of Runic Lore. I actually sell it on my own webpage. It’s a very good gateway to the actual sources.
To finish off, could you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
(laugh) I really suck at these things. I listen so little to music these days. I’m standing in my studio now. I have a bookshelf full of my favorite books, picking one is hard. I don’t really read prose literature, I mostly read academia. I think I’ll go with one of the most important books or dissertations on the art of Sejd, it’s an ancient northern magical tradition. The book is by a swedish guy called Dag Strömbäck and the book is called Sejd. It’s a very old book and probably very limited, being that it’s in Swedish. Sorry about that! (laugh).
In terms of movies and series I really like the series Carnivàle. It’s an HBO series from about 10 years ago.
In terms of my music, this is of course very narrow, my favorite traditional Norwegian folk “albums”. is Skjoldmøyslaget (Battle of the Shield Maidens). It’s a collection of old traditional hardanger fiddle tunes from a valley called Setesdal. The place is sort of a historical pocket in Norway where for some reason a lot of old things survived.
Interview by Robin Ono
A huge thank you goes out to Einar and to the staff at Him Media, without which this interview would not have been possible!
Be sure to keep up with Wardruna’s latest news and releases on their official website and social media pages.