Einar Selvik writes all the music and lyrics, sings, and plays most of the instruments in the Old Norse band Wardruna. Formerly the drummer in the black metal band Gorgoroth under stage name Kvitrafn, and currently providing his talents to the popular TV show “Vikings,” Selvik chatted with us before his performance in an Oregon forest at Faerieworlds festival to talk about his upcoming album Runaljod – Ragnarok, how he came to be the expert in Norse instruments and songs, and what his next projects might be.
Michelle: You’re at Faerieworld to promote your upcoming new album, the final chapter of the trilogy Runaljod. Can you explain the name and the concept?
Einar: It’s called Runaljod – Ragnarok. To boil it down, the trilogy is inspired by the 24 ancient sound of runes (“Runaljod”). It’s not about making a musical rendition of the Proto-Norse roots, which is both the written language of diverse Scandinavia sound of runes, each carrying their own symbolical. It’s about interpreting these ancient signs and sounds in a contemporary way which in sync both ancient instruments and complimenting sounds, but also with new techniques. So something new with something old, rather than trying to copy the past. I don’t think that would be very interesting. I don’t believe tradition is important just because it’s tradition. It needs to carry the relevance of the past as it relates to the present.
Each of the albums (in the trilogy) feature a set of 8 the sound of runes. The first album is called Runaljod – Gap Var Ginnunga (“Sound of Runes – The Gap of Creation”) the first album is about the tree of life, about its creation.
The second album is called Runaljod – Yggdrasil (“Sound of Runes – The Tree of Life”). This album is about strengthening the tree.
The last album of the trilogy is called Runaljod – Ragnarok (“Sound of Runes – Doom of the Gods”). Ragnarok is very often confused with Armageddon, or the end of the world. But in a Nordic sense, we have more psychic thinking so it’s just as much about the beginning as the end. But I see people commenting, “Oh, Ragnarok is coming.” I think they expect something very dark. When people talk about Ragnarok, they always talk about the wolf devouring the sun and brothers killing brothers and the world’s destruction. But you have to remember that after the ashes settled, it’s about the life it gives. What rises from the ashes. I would say that that is my focus. The whole Ragnarok thing, that is something that actually happened at the end of the last record (Runaljod – Yggdrasil).
M: So this album (Runaljod – Ragnarok) is really about rebirth, as opposed to the end?
E: Yes, mostly it’s about the rise from the ashes, and the transformation of something, of its rebirth. What that “something” is in my music I give room for interpretation for those experiencing it or listening to it. I think that is important in all my music, especially for people who have reborn from the ashes, to give space for them to have their own experience with it and not to bombard them with my thoughts are on what that “something” is. I think this also make it possible for people to connect in a more personal sense. It’s nice to hear that people really do like it and connect with it on a more personal level. I think that’s one of the reasons there is room for that connection.
M: I’m sure the fans that are here to listen to it tonight are looking forward to hearing your music live, performed by the artist himself.
E: It’s something different, of course, which makes it more intense for them to hear it in that space. I think that people who have seen Wardruna live before also see that it’s not a normal concert, there is something more than that, or something else, perhaps. I think that people who don’t go to church, or don’t have a mass, they don’t get to experience that sort of holy, cultic, solemn feeling, and I think a lot of people miss that. Some serious space that is about something bigger than yourself. It doesn’t have to be a spiritual thing, but just remembering being a part of something, a part of nature for instance. And creating that space is basically where it starts, creating that moment where it’s just that, it’s about communicating from the heart, to the heart.
M: Are you excited or nervous about playing new material for people who haven’t heard it before?
E: Excited, yes. And of course it’s a bit, perhaps not quite under the skin performance-wise, but that also makes it, I think, better. We don’t overplay things, or do too many concerts, because we want to keep it fresh. We want to communicate it from our hearts, not on automation. It also adds a sort of nerve to it.
M: I think this implies, between you and the audience, a “once in a lifetime experience” because that experience is over as it’s happening.
E: I think in many ways, all concerts are because they’re each in a different space, in front of a different crowd, which creates a unique experience. Last week we did two concerts in a row in the same venue in Bergen, my hometown, in a 700-year-old medieval hall. We played the same set each night, and they were completely different. It’s fascinating. Your own energy, the energy from the crowd, all create a different space.
M: You do a lot of solo shows. How do you approach performing alone versus with a band?
E: In terms of comparing it to a full Wardruna show, it’s easier (to perform solo) in many ways because I only need my own voice and my instruments. So it’s more stressful, especially when traveling, so on many levels is easier to perform by myself, especially on the festival side. It’s also very challenging because it’s a very vulnerable, naked, musical expression. Because it is just your voice and a little plinky-plunk harp (laughs). You can’t hide anywhere, it’s straight and very direct. That’s the main difference, but it’s also very good because it’s very honest. In solo shows, I talk and engage, but in a Wardruna show there’s little talking, you only talk through the music. In solo shows, I can prepare people for what I’m about to sing about, and that adds an important element to the experience. Makes me glad I’m doing it.
M: I saw you perform a special midnight solo show in Oslo during Øya Festival in 2015, and I appreciated your commentary, your explanations of what the songs were about and the ancient instruments you used to create the music. It provided context for me.
E: And context is really important. Especially in a setting like that, which was basically a concert for industry professionals. There were no Wardruna fans there who know the context already. So it made it even more important to put it into context.
M: Tell me about your writing music for the TV show “Vikings,” how that experience has been, how that all came to be, etc.
E: When I first heard about the show — of course I have a lot of friends in historical scoring in Norway, but also people who are into historical re-enactments — I was very interested in being part of the series. I heard about the show, but Norway didn’t want anything to do with the series for political reasons. They changed the politics because of that, because everyone thought it was stupid for Norway to not be involved, because it would be so good for tourism. Also, it was sort of reclaiming a part of our heritage. So now (in season two), a lot of the mountain shots in the show are actually in Norway. When Norway finally changed their politics, I tried to get in touch (with producers of the show) because of course I wanted to be part of it, but I never got through, never got a response. But then a couple of months before (season two) premiered, the production contacted me. They had come across Wardruna on their own because, I think, they sort of struggled a bit in the first season music-wise because it’s sort of a hybrid between a very modern, distorted, sum of custumal things and also some Icelandic things. So for the first season they licensed seven songs, or something. They were really happy with us.
Before they started the second season I was contacted again by the production and asked if I would be interested in working with the main composer of the show, the Canadian Trevor Morris. I thought that would be a very cool thing to do. I had done some work on TV and film production before, and I really like to make visual music. It comes naturally to me, I think. So we did that and we both agreed, yeah we’ll try it, and see how it goes. We really found a good tone and enjoyed it, and we’re still working together. And also they continue to use a lot of Wardruna music. In the last two seasons, whenever you hear anyone sing — funeral songs, or drunken songs, stuff like that — that’s my work. I think it’s a very interesting project to be a part of. I know a lot of people criticize the show for not being historically correct, but you have to remember that this is an entertainment show. It’s not meant to be for history nerds like myself. But in spite of that, I think they deserve credit. It’s a huge step in the right direction in terms of wanting to present a truer image or to get rid of stereotypes. I think they do a lot of the stuff right.
M: How did you become an expert in Norse music? To be able to contribute your knowledge and skills to the show and to produce the music you make?
E: As a child, I was interested in Norse history — or, maybe, I wasn’t that interested, but I had people around me who were very interested, and they told me the stories of what happened in early medieval times, which created some images in my youth. I then became really interested and I had people pointing me in the right direction so I could skip all that confusing bullshit in the literature that you find so often. I was lucky in that sense. In terms of the instrumentation, I think it grew out of the need — and also the lack of — anybody digging with both hands into these things, rather just on a lyrical level. I have a strong vision of how an instrument should sound, and I’ve sort of been hunting it ever since I discovered this about myself. It’s an ongoing thing. I’m still searching.
M: Did you have any instruments created especially for this trilogy?
E: Yes, we’ve made some reconstructions from some 3,000-year-old, huge, lur sets. We’re going to display them later tonight. They always come in pairs, and they’re quite interesting. That would be the most prominent instrument that will be heard tonight.
M: So, the trilogy is over. What comes next?
E: I can’t really say, other than to say that some people say, “Oh, then Wardruna is over.” I don’t where that came from! I personally feel like I just started. There is definitely more in the pipeline. There are a lot of things I want to do still.
M: But you haven’t chosen what yet?
E: There are many, many things from the past that I want to explore, to address, and I love working with concepts that stretch beyond separate songs. I doubt it will be another trilogy, but working on conceptual albums is definitely my preferred course. I do want to try and create an album that is more on the acoustic landscape instrumentation, and also the solo expression. Although many people might think that that’s easy, but to capture the energy of live solo expression, it’s really hard actually.
Pre-order Runaljod – Ragnarok, out October 21, 2016, and experience the sound of runes yourself.