Borknagar went back to the basics with their new album, True North, which is available now via Century Media (order here). The record is arguably one of the best albums of the year as it requires multiple listens to grasp the variety of dark and honest emotions layered throughout each song. It’s haunting and unbearable in terms of sadness. Mastermind Øystein G. Brun has essentially painted his waking reality touching real-life subjects on the Norwegian progressive/black metal band’s latest effort. We caught up with Øystein to dive a bit deeper on this record, discussed the sadness that struck right when 2016’s Winter Thrice was released, lineup changes, and more.
What was the process like creating True North?
It was a pretty long process. As usual, I start to write, plan, working up some ideas, even during Winter Thrice. I’m continuously making music. I started really early writing, penning down ideas and stuff like that. Then we had a little bit of regrouping and we changed some band members. At some point last year, we sat down, early last year I think it was, and decided to get going with things. We listened to the album material while we had the time and was kind of hearing the lyrical ideas that we had and things like that. Yeah, from that basically we worked all the way through the whole process of recording, producing, and, of course, mixing and mastering the album.
It was definitely intense, I would say. On previous albums, we have done much more time on producing an album. And actually, this time we revamped, I think we started with the drums in November or something, and we actually finished the whole album around early March. So, that’s pretty quick. But, there was also a lot of private issues. I lost my father, actually, the day before the release of Winter Thrice. It was the burial of my father. So, I had a lot of personal things I had to deal with as well. It was a long ride, tough ride, in many ways, but even more so, what can I say, rewarding in the end when we actually have done the album and it’s about to be released. So I’m really stoked and happy about the new album.
You recently recruited guitarist Jostein Thomassen and drummer Bjørn Dugstad Rønnow, did the lineup change delay the recording process?
After Winter Thrice and the whole circle of festivals, a South American tour, a few European tours, we came to a point where we had to realize a few things. We have a new drummer, we have a new guitarist. Also, the whole thing with Andreas (Vintersorg), the former lead vocalist, we kind of expected it to happen. It wasn’t any news to us. I think with Baard, the previous drummer, that was quite obvious for a long time. He was really busy with all kinds of projects. He’s a drummer with a big “D,” in the sense that he’s not satisfied with playing in a band or two. He is also doing a lot of drum shows. He’s a kind of an entertainer. So, we saw this coming and actually discussed this for a long while.
There was no kind of surprise. Same thing, I would say a little bit with Andreas, the previous lead vocalist. He had his injures from the Winter Thrice times. He has never really been into touring and stuff like that. And also, because of this injury, he lost big parts of his hearing in one ear and that puts you down a little bit, being a musician and stuff like that because, obviously, you’re depending on the hearing, especially on stage. And with the guitarist situation, that was more of a personal thing, I guess. But I saw that coming as well. I think we spent time after the Winter Thrice cycle get a little bit back down to earth, and what’s the next step. We had some internal processes and what we agreed on. You might say the creative force within the band, me, Lars (Lazare), and Simen (ICS Vortex). We kind of had an idea that we wanted to step things up, both in terms of studio and life. And with this in mind, we had to make some decisions. Some was tough. It’s never an easy thing to see a band member to go or anything like that because there’s also friendships involved and social relations, but we had to make some changes in order to head out for the plans we accept. So, yeah, that’s basically it.
This marks a brand-new chapter for you guys in a way. Writing-wise, how would you compare the new album to Winter Thrice?
For me, I feel it’s in parts a very natural kind of follow-up to Winter Thrice. We kind of continue where the end of that leads in a sense. At the same time, it’s always been a very important thing for me to take a step further. Always to broaden the horizon; always challenge ourselves musically. So, it’s almost like a backsack where you’re walking out on a journey. The more you walk the fuller your sack gets. The more experience you get, the more things you have seen, the more… in a metaphoric way. I think that for me as a musician, I’ve always had this very clear idea about always moving forward, always climbing another mountain or see new territories or whatever in musical terms, but in doing that, I think it’s kind of even more so important to cling on to those musical roots where we came from, what’s the basis of the balance and all those things. So, the more I kind of walk into this musical journey, the more I kind of… deeper I have to dig into myself in a sense in order to get things out the way I want them and stuff like that. So, yeah, I think it’s definitely a huge lead forward in terms of progression. Taking a step to the side, a step forward and all those things.
There is a large line through the whole thing, I would say. And I think the whole musical foundation of the band, the history of the band, so to speak, is still heavily involved in the music even though it’s new songs, new album. I think, yeah, there is even more so in Winter Thrice, the element from the old days. Actually, this album… in Winter Thrice, I was kind of taking it a little bit back to the main album. For instance, there was some phrases going on from The Olden Domain. Winter Thrice, it’s a phrase from one of the songs in The Olden Domain. If you look closely on the Winter Thrice cover, you’ll actually find The Olden Domain cover in it and stuff like that. I love doing that, kind of tying the knots between the albums, the musical history of the band so to speak. And the new album, we were thinking of going back to the debut album. In fact, that’s why we have the cover as a photo. I like bringing everything together. In the context of the history that we have.
The album feels very dark, but there’s a variety of different emotions happening at once. You mentioned earlier that your father died right when Winter Thrice was released, and I wanted to know the connection between the experience and the song “Wild Father’s Heart?”
It’s spot on actually. The whole thing with my father is, of course, private but it was in my life, in my family. It was very dramatic. I mean, half a year before he died, he was a very healthy man. Strong. All of a sudden, he got sick. And actually, we didn’t know yet of what was wrong with him. They did all kinds of research and tests but they didn’t find anything wrong except for the fact that his body stopped producing red blood cells which, obviously, you need to get air and oxygen into the body. He was quite pale and weak like in September 15, I think it was. From that to till he died on January 13th, it was intense.
I felt sometimes being in a movie or something. Like a thriller movie where you try to find the solution. I remember I even called some doctors in the U.S. actually. We were desperate, we didn’t know what was happening. He was just fading away, dying. And that was tough. We always had a very good relationship. We learned so much. The scope of nature and this mentality is something that he brought to me. And of course, losing your father is just plain brutal. I’m a big guy, I can solve most things in the world. I built my own house, I built my own studio, I released a lot of records. But that didn’t help him, I tried, but there was no chance in hell. So, he died, and the whole process of this going on… I was bouncing back and forth from home and of course with my family, and the hospital, in intensive. My only way to see him out at that point was to sit down and make some music. “Wild Father’s Heart” is actually that song. That’s the song I kind of just, after being in the hospital all day, I was just sitting down, writing that song in a sense. The lyrics and all the stuff.
So, yeah, that’s a very personal song to me. It’s very emotional to me, and talking about it now, three years after, it’s heavy stuff. It’s a very special song to me and I’ve done it, of course, when you see the cover, there was a memorial to him. But it’s more like I try to cherish the free spirit that he learned to live. The free spirit, the natural way of looking at the world. The love for nature. So, it’s kind of a musical homage, I would say, to that kind of mentality. In honor of my father. So it’s very emotional, and as you said, the album is dark at times. Yes it is. Because, for me, music in a sense should be a reflection of the life. Not just my life but life in general and life goes up, life goes down. Life is good, life is not so good at times and I think, to be honest, my expression of music, I think that’s in a sense a necessity. When writing this album, it’s probably one of the darkest times of my life, I would say.
The darkest song I felt from the entire album is the “Wild Father’s Heart.” And darkness doesn’t always mean heavy ruthless, but there’s some extra emotion to that song that I instantly picked up on and now, with you explaining everything, it makes complete sense.
Yeah, and I totally agree with you. Some people have asked me, “do you still use scream vocals?” And yeah, sure. For me, for example, scream vocals it’s not about being evil or satanic necessarily. It’s more about the wide message, more about fear. It’s an emotion rather than being just black or black metal or stuff like that. And the same thing goes for a lot of elements. “Wild Father’s Heart” is a very powerful song as well. When writing that song, I wanted it to be because my father was powerful, his being and personality. A lot of people writing sad songs is like keeping it calm, down to earth, just acoustic guitar for example and stuff like that. Yeah, with me, I wanted to add some dimension to it. I mean, it’s a poem, the greatness of all in a sense. There’s loads of ways of doing that. Being aggressive doesn’t necessarily mean playing harsh. I think that’s the beauty with music, that you can deal with musical elements, disconnect it a little bit from the common of staff notes of what music should be.
I agree. I was curious, with the two new members in Borknagar, do you ever get re-inspired whether writing music or performing live with new people?
Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, all the songs were written before the new guys came into the band. That’s a fact, but still we gave them a lot of room, space to do their things. With my philosophy, I always want all of the guys to their best and also to be able to put their prints on the album. We spent a lot of time in the studio for the drum work for example, and he was having some ideas. Yeah, just try it! And let’s see how it goes. And some of the ideas were amazing. So, yeah, let’s keep that. And the same for the guitarist, I mean, all the songs written had basic arrangements already and everything was pretty much done but still, let’s try something. Do you want to do something? What’s your qualities, let’s try it out. And, it’s very inspiring in the musical sense, and of course in terms of life, it’s all very inspiring to get some, what can I say, new spirit to the band a little bit. Fresh audience to the band. I think that was some of the reasons also.
We had to, between these two albums, we had to stick the thing in the ground a little bit and what are we doing? What’s the next step and who is with us and who is not? And one thing I can say is that, for me, I’ve always done this for music because I love the passion of making music. And for me that’s the most important criteria, I would say, in terms of being a member in the band. Of course, it’s also large shows, there is money, no money, and a lot of things going on. It’s a business gig as well. But first and foremost, my own rule is that you have to put your heart into the music. If not, then not interested, sorry. You can be a good guitarist and whatever, but it doesn’t help if you’re not able to put your spirit into the music. And, music is dedication. And yeah, those guys really delivered both tactically as well as performing. They were really professional and attitude and really put their heart into the music. And that’s something, for me as well, it’s very inspiring. I’ve been doing this for 25 years at least, so it’s… one of those things is very good to keep moving on.
Do you guys have any touring plans for later this year? Any plans on coming to North America?
Yeah, we are working with our agent in South America and North America and actually, as we speak, it seems like we pretty much have settled our South American tour hopefully in April of next year. But nothing has been confirmed. We are trying to get something going in the summer of next year for the U.S but I cannot promise anything. It’s tough to get a tour up and going in the U.S but it seems like we have something going. Hopefully, next summer we can do something in the US.
That would be awesome.
Yeah. We have done so many European tours but, it gets kind of boring at some point. We really miss going back to the U.S. and South America is always really close too. So that’s something we are trying to do..
Is there anything else that you wanted to say or add about the album?
Let’s just hope that the people who have enjoyed our previous albums will check it out. And it’s probably old school in many ways. It’s a heavy album with a lot of things going on. I definitely will think that some people will like it, at least those that have listened to our previous stuff. So, check it out.
I thought it was a very powerful album. I also lost my father and picked up on that raw dark emotion instantly. I think a lot of people will be able to connect with True North, especially those who have experienced a significant loss of a loved one in their life.
Yeah, it almost gave me chills when you say so because, yeah, that’s what I tried to do. Basically. You know, just the fact of losing my father… you know what it means. I mean, it means so much. It means everything from emotional stuff. It does mean a lot of practical things. My mother is alone. I’m the next one in line. There’s a lot of things going on in your mind when you lose your father. He was young though. I mean, he was just 65 years. It was brutal and all of that. So, I really tried to bring all of those emotions into the song. If I succeed, I don’t know but I tried.
You definitely succeeded.
Thank you, thank you.
Borknagar have premiered the music video for the song “Voices” check out the clip below: