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Fenriz on the inner workings of Darkthrone and the making of Old Star

on June 03, 2019, 11:10am

There are few black metal band’s with the legacy and cred of Norway’s Darkthrone. Formed as a death metal project in the late ’80s, the band transformed into a pioneering force in the Norwegian black metal scene, spearheading the genre’s second wave of bands alongside Mayhem, Burzum, Immortal, and others.

Throughout their lengthy career, the band has never wavered from its sincere and organic vision of heavy metal, channeling the entire history of the genre into their art. True representatives of the underground, the band never partook in the church burnings or gimmicks of their contemporaries, existing purely and definitively for the music and the metal community that ardently consumes it.

Darthrone’s two members — drummer / multi-instrumentalist Fenriz and singer / multi-instrumentalist Ted “Nocturno Culto” Skjellum — have both been going strong in the band for more than 30 years, operating as a duo for 25 years now.

With Darkthrone recently releasing their 18th album, Old Star, we interviewed Fenriz over email about the new album, the band’s creative process, musical inspirations, and life as purveyors of black metal.

On each of the two members’ musical influences for their respective songs on Old Star

Ted never says anything about inspiration on his songs, it seems he is just playing the guitar and making riffs inspired by himself. I’m getting there too, that whole “Hardship of the SCOUTS” (haha) I made in one hour on the front porch strumming my guitar which I had just bicycled home from the Bomb Shelter late summer last year after Ted had been around to pick up some 100 vinyls I gave him. Oh happy day. Guitar in hand on my bike as I have no guitar case or anything. I have some vague leading stars of where I want to end up, but if I did have very direct influences, they either end up sounding like something else or sometimes I end up where I want, but I might not be thinking it worked out as well as I wanted for various reasons. I think both of us ended up writing several riffs for Old Star that could have been on Epicus Doomicus Metallicus [by Candlemass] and we are more and more comfortable with that as some sort of major ingredient, but I have a creeping (death) feeling that it is not what others hear. I don’t even want much feedback other than I get from long standing partners in the metal scene and the little feedbacks I got on my “Hardship of the Scots” song seem to be all over the place in what they hear even in that first riff.

On the riff crafting, heavy metal influences, and recording of the single “Hardship of the Scots”

Some said AC/DC, which was very clever, but I kind of know what kind of guitar sound Ted has, so if we wanted to sound like AC/DC we would also have had way less of a guitar wall. I was thinking it sounded like Ratt Invasion of Your Privacy-era or something from Ozzy’s The Ultimate Sin, but I, in all honesty, just made that riff. Then I just made the second riff where it felt natural to have some doomier part and lo and behold, it is a mix of a trad doom riff and perhaps doom/death. Next riff after the break I was thinking Infernö’s killer mid riff on “Thrash Metal Dogs of Hell” or some slower Exodus from Bonded By Blood (the latter album being a major influence and leading star anyway, atleast the slower riffs on it, SLOW THRASH) but ended up being played fashionably sirup-y, so it ended up sounding like…well nothing like the aforementioned, but maybe more metal than thrash. Then the final riff which, when I made it, made me think of some Enslaved stuff, but when I think of it now, it has the rhythm of some 1988-1990 Bathory and today was the first time I thought about that…so…

I’ve also got an involuntary [Iron] Maiden riff, which I didn’t hear sounding like Maiden until I heard the song recorded for the first time. What happens is we record, and then Ted is off with the music files, and I am left with no recording of it to listen to. FOR MONTHS. I also write the lyrics beforehand these days which means Ted controls what song will have what title, so when the recording finally reach my ears, it’s as surprising as when y’all hear it for the first time. Aaaanyway, there’s a riff that is inspired by Lifeless Dark, killer new band, which again is inspired by Bolt Thrower’s inspirational source Sacrilege, I reckon. Which is often a source of inspiration because of several awesome riffs they have that, again, are inspired by Metallica. I am talking ’80s here, of course.

Then some Hellhammer-style riffs and just some very slow and heavy heavy metal riffs that I quickly turn into slow thrash a la what Metallica does on the Ride the Lightning album. Slow Metallica was always in the front seat of my inspirations since the early days, but in mid-1989, that kind of influence was more or less left out as we wanted to pursue something else, partly cuz of saturation of the style and also cuz we couldn’t swing it at the time. Perhaps due to lack of proper soundscape; however, we had that soundscape on this album, so luckily it happened now. Even a slow death doom riff that Dag Nilsen might make back in 1990, I made for this album, but again, didn’t hear that until I got the songs back after some months. And so it goes. I have several riffs for another album now, all various ’80s slow heavy metal if I remember correctly, but if we record them, they might give me ideas of what they sound like to me when that time comes. What they will sound like to y’all is another story…

On the collaboration of ideas during the writing process, compositional approach, and jamming

We have NEVER jammed. It’s not that kind of band. It’s more of a project, and after A Blaze in the Northern Sky was recorded in summer 1991, I just told Ted and Zephyrous that from now on, we make songs on our own and no one could dispute them, like a total trust. No collaboration at all since then, except for the last song on Sardonic Wrath, which we had to go back and write in a hurry because the album wasn’t long enough (hahahah). It’s just making riffs and putting them together for me. And I reckon it’s the same for Ted. Any texting is about when to begin another album process, meaning setting up arrangements to record. And then slowly how much material we have (so as to not end up in that Sardonic Wrath situation again) and kind of what tempos and how many riffs each song has. Maybe. I mean, when we meet to record, we haven’t heard a second of each other’s material.

On Chadwick St. John’s artwork for Old Star

The album cover was lying around from a contest we had when we replaced some back catalogue covers like 10 years ago. It was also the third choice, as I was opting for more primitive art. But we couldn’t find the people that had entried those artworks. Then Paul [Halmshaw] at Peaceville opted for Chadwicks’ entry which was certainly among those we liked, but I had to think my way around it cuz it’s not a celestial cover. BUT WAIT, it is foresty, and with a branch-and-root vibe to it, and the sun created those, so OK THEN, and now it seems to fit like a glove with the music and especially Ted’s black metal riffs on Old Star. A very good match, it is (Yoda style).

On the technical aspects of recording, demoing, and Darkthrone’s Necrohell 2 Studios

We just invested in a very expensive MINI studio back in 2004. We can lug that thing around semi easily, so we can record anywhere really. We still have to engineer ourselves with a little/lot of help from friends to make it happen. We need electricity and a place to be left alone, but if it becomes to difficult (we live far apart), we might have to go to a regular studio again so we don’t use all the energy on un-music related stuff. It won’t matter much; it’s the riffs that come into my head and the ones I chose from those that will end up in the songs — that is the real deal here. As far as cutting demos, the albums are more like demos if you ask me. My ideal situation would be like in 1993/1994 for Darkthrone, where I had all the equipment set up in my living room and also the Necrohell Studio where I could record immediately after I made a song. Like Jay Reatard did. But those days are long gone, 25 years ago now. SULK.

On the archiving of riffs and deciding which ones make it into a song

I have an archive for the next album already, as I had for Old Star. What happens is when studio time comes closer, I tend to take out the guitar to make some fresher stuff; ideally I like to record something I JUST made. So many many of the riffs I had in my archive for Old Star were not used. Perhaps I use them later. Anyway, it feels good to have an archive of strong riffs, very good crutches. I can change stuff in the very last minute. I go to the archive while Ted does additional guitars in the “studio” and tries out some stuff, re-learn a riff and BOOM, I can suddenly make an additional riff which makes me not need to look more in the archive, spur of the moment thing. Ultimately, it’s the strong long riffs that seem to work best, but I don’t want to chain myself to ONLY making those, gonna need some dynamics.

Also, I put breaks in my songs now, which is good for the linear style and the effectiveness for making breakthrough-riffs, which I think metal needs. If everyone is happy just being able to string riffs together in one set tempo…well, let’s just say enough people can do that and if they do, they get signed. I’m opting for more primitive vibes and ’80s underground linear stuff than that these days. Want some tempo changes ‘n shit. Wasn’t always like that with me, but I’m back where I started — though with a bit more skill and stronger soundscape now.

On linear song structures — a Darkthrone signature

The linear thing is ALWAYS something I strictly take from my ’80s underground background, and if you think it’s a more modern thing, maybe you are thinking about that whole “let’s make songs that are 19 minutes long” craze that has been happening in the death/black or black scene in the latest times? I chalk that up to the fact that it seems to be easier to make those kind of songs now because of cheaper studios or something. Back in the ’80s, I just think it happened a lot cuz of the trend with thrash metal instrumentals or a general dissent from normal songwriting from a lot of the underground bands including Darkthrone at the time. Sorry, not trying to be a smartass here, but when I make linear stuff, I just think of the ’80s immediately.

On integrating personal feelings, themes, and philosophy into metal

I don’t feel that I put personal feeling INTO THE RIFFS, and I wouldn’t want to make movie music either — that’s not really metal in my book. I am more a preservationist perhaps, JUST MAKING METAL, I guess. Feeling rather traditional these days, and also very comfortable in the style I am doing now, the riff styles of Arctic Thunder and Old Star.

On creative privacy and Darkthrone’s disregard for touring and playing live

I think I’ve made too much of a profile of myself, but I still want to spread what I believe is strong and cool metal, like I try to now with that “FENRIZ METAL” Spotify list. But I was always into one-way communication, too, and I emphasize on that more than ever. I got burnt out in 1996, and I don’t want to revisit that, getting older means I gotta take it easy and stay private. I hope people don’t take it the wrong way that I can’t be reached. I got a friend in Dan Lilker [Nuclear Assault, Anthrax, S.O.D.] and I liked when he talked about retiring, and in one way, I retired already at a young age from live playing and then I have retired from social media and DJ’ing now. But along the way, I re-entered the underground back in 2005, and then I made the radio show and what not — seems I have an ace up my sleeve from time to time when it comes to spreading MUSIC, at least. But logically, I’d better take it slow. Ted is also inspirational in disappearing quite a bit, no need to stick one’s neck out all the time. Wanting to just chill and listen to Tejas and Deguello by ZZ Top is and has been a huge priority the last years. Sunblock and sunglasses and drinks, man.

I think we are as mainstream as a band with underground attitude can be. Some days I feel overground, some days I feel underground. We are lucky to have a patient and strong team around us from Peaceville and Snapper and Razamataz and friends are helping in our personal lives.

On the chances of a Darkthrone tour or live appearance

We will be touring Guadeloupe extensively in all of 2020 playing a cover of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings”.

On the recent adaptation of Lords of Chaos and the depiction of the Norwegian black metal scene in film

I’m not a curious person, so I haven’t even seen Until the Light Takes Us [the black metal documentary heavily featuring Fenriz], and furthermore, it would of course be super awkward to see something that oneself has been a major part of. And old timers have deserved the right to not get into awkwardness. Really.

I see this metal thing as a very WITHIN THE BRAIN thing, as with music altogether, and when for some it is entertainment to see documentaries and movies about music, for those that were actually there, it will feel awkward no matter what anyone might tell you after a premiere of said entertainment. At least that’s what I reckon.

On the future of Darkthrone beyond Old Star and the ideal hopes for the band in coming years

Well, [my] main hope is new generations of metal heads that really like the various ’80s styles, and they will also understand where ’80s metal comes from by going back in time to it’s inspirations, and thus, Darkthrone would also be interesting to those people. That would be great. Thank you for a great interview, please link to my FENRIZ METAL playlist here, which will be added to always, as a document of METAL. Thank you so much.

Our thanks to Fenriz for taking the time to answer our questions. Darkthrone’s Old Star is available now via Peaceville Records at this location.

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