Wardruna’s Einar Selvik talks Viking theatre, respecting other cultures, and the misuse of history and tradition.
Einar Selvik is an icon of Norwegian music, having drummed for Gorgoroth, delivered three incredible drone-folk albums with Wardruna whilst also finding time to provide soundtracks for the History Channel’s Vikings. An exceptionally versatile multi-instrumentalist with a passion for the old Norse ways, Einar has received adulation from both the extreme metal community and the wider world. In 2016, he collaborated with Ivar Bjørnson of Enslaved fame to produce a commemorative work for the bicentenary of Norway’s constitution, under the name Skuggsjá.
Two years on, we’ve been blessed with a second release, this time entitled Hugsjá, meaning “to see with, or within the mind.” The album is a gorgeous combination of traditional and modern instrumentation and melody, with layers of electronics alongside the lyre, goat-horn and fiddle. Both reminiscent and prescient, Hugsjá is a stellar example of engaging with Norwegian culture and history without mythologising or romanticising – a topic both this writer and Einar find equally fascinating.
We firstly want to explore the dynamic between yourself and Ivar. Meetings of minds such as this are more and more common nowadays as the separation between subgenres has diminished, leading to countless new collaborations. What drew you together as musicians, and how does the partnership work when it comes to composition?
We got started on this when we were commissioned by the Norwegian government for the constitutional bicentenary. Of course, we knew each other from the metal scene in Bergen, and beforehand I very much liked Ivar’s stuff and had a great deal of respect for him as a musician, so I was very positive when I was asked to collaborate. You never know how these things will turn out, and the first part (Skuggsjá) had a very clear commission where it was supposed to be a combination of Enslaved and Wardruna, whereas with the second piece, we’ve been more free to start totally new. I guess on a personal level the first time it did work, but we spent a lot of time figuring out the dynamics between us, how both of our massive soundscapes would meld together. We succeeded in terms of the music, but I have to admit it was challenging. On the other hand, it was also very rewarding! When we were asked to write a new piece we were free to take our experience one step further, to explore a more acoustic format.
Yes, out of the two recordings the new one is much more folk-influenced than the first. When you and Ivar write together, is it a process of compromise or do the two of you share the same artistic vision?
Well, we’ve never had any issues in terms of these things. It’s been a very smooth run! Ever since we started, we decided that if one of us wasn’t feeling an idea, we would just drop it. We don’t mix in ego or whatever, we just move on. I definitely feel this last work is more homogenous, the thread through the piece is clearer. Now that we know each other better and Ivar knows my instrumentation, he’s able to write for it and understand what works and what doesn’t. On a personal level, we fit well and we complement each other in a way.
Skuggsjá’s name referred to reflection, when it was commissioned in 2016 one of your conditions was to be able to criticise the constitution that this celebrates. Likewise, this new project refers to a form of inner sight, some kind of mindfulness. Does this critical, evaluative approach come from a place outside of your work as musicians, or was it inspired through your work?
It’s important to dare to open a few doors, especially when it comes to subjects such as history, tradition and culture. Some people don’t understand the value of these concepts, and there are others that use it for very un-constructive purposes, such as those on The Right. The best medicine is knowledge and daring to ask questions, daring to look critically upon yourselves as a nation and a people, and highlight the things that are relevant and that still matter, rather than just using history for empty symbols.
It’s interesting that you mention history here; obviously, Nowegian folklore bears a strong influence on the group, but is Hugsjá a form of retreat from the pressures of modernity, such as the rise of right-wing populism in Norwegian politics, or do you use history to affect or improve your current surroundings and society?
I would definitely say the latter, because it has nothing to do with dreaming oneself back to better times. Maybe some things were better, some things weren’t, they were different for sure – you couldn’t put the old culture into the new one and assume it would work. There are so many things that aren’t relevant anymore, or don’t carry the same value. Take nature for instance, you used to fight it almost as an enemy, to survive.
Like in the way that some black metal focuses on wilderness and survival.
Today, since we’re sort of removed from nature, we can allow ourselves to be romantic. We definitely focus on the things that are still relevant, and the things from the past that we can learn from. Today, I’m allergic to Viking theatre – it’s not about re-enactment at all for me, it’s about sowing new seeds and not forgetting your roots along the way, but you’ve got to look ahead more than behind.
It’s rarely mentioned that the Vikings had an incredible propensity for trade and cultural exchange with other societies as far afield as Byzantine and northern Africa – for many people it’s too easy to just remember the Lindisfarne raids.
You have to remember that the way Lindisfarne was recorded is worthy of critique – it was written by monks in Auchen under Charlemagne, who was also responsible for slaughtering thousands of Danes. The history of Vikings is full of stereotypes, and that’s why I try not to use that word so much. It’s charged with things I feel aren’t constructive.
Viking is a verb, you know – a raider and a traveler, someone who “sails out”. And for me, to describe a whole people and their traditions by using a word that only encompasses a small part of the society is completely wrong, so I much prefer using the term ‘Norse’ for instance, which is a better descriptor and also goes much further back in time. Personally I don’t find the Vikings very interesting – it’s a time where people lost the old ways in many ways. I prefer the times before, the Migration Period and early Iron Age and Bronze Age.
You’ve previously mentioned that respectfulness and not being fearful of others was an important part of Norse culture, do you think this it is important to maintain this outlook in the modern day?
That’s definitely one of the things we should remember from the old tradition, greeting and treating the people around you respectably and honourably. Even your enemies, especially your enemies! Not behaving respectfully toward your enemies would get you killed by your own. Especially today, when we’re often challenged by clashes of culture, I feel we could learn something from this worldview.
Though Hugsjá was commissioned for a specific event (Nordvegen), will there be further releases from the group, and if so, will the same themes continue to dominate the output?
I see the potential of us doing more, just based on the fact we enjoy it very much and other people seem to enjoy it as well, which is a huge bonus. I am quite sure it’ll continue to follow the same conceptual path and to focus on the old Northern traditions.
Hugsjá is out now on By Norse Music. Purchase here.
Words: David Burke