Bismarck is a relatively new band and you have just released a really great debut album. Can you give us a short history of how your band was born?
I think we started jamming around four years ago, knowing each other primarily from the local university here in Bergen, and having rather different musical backgrounds and experience. Our singer Torstein completed the line-up around a year later. I think we knew quite early on what we wanted with this band, and some of the tracks on the album actually came out of jam sessions just weeks after we started up. We did, however, spend some time finding a sound that was uniquely ours, which is why it took a couple of years before we released anything and started doing shows.
You are signed to Apollon Records. Is that a local company? And was it easy to get a record deal or did it involve a lot of effort?
Yes, Apollon Records is the record label of the famous Apollon record store which has been around in Bergen since the mid-seventies and is one of the oldest in Norway that’s still running. Apollon Records was releasing records in the early eighties and then went on a several decade long hiatus before starting up again sometime after 2010. Apollon has a great distribution network, is run by dedicated people and has very sane contracts, and it’s also a great advantage to have your record company right down the street. Some months ago we were contacted by their A&R who came across our music and wanted to sign us right away. We had already self-released our album a few months earlier through Bandcamp so the finished product was already there, but we really wanted someone to take over the whole business of promoting and distributing and so on - it’s difficult getting out there and being noticed without a professional support system behind you.
I am not very familiar with the production side of music and I have been wondering what the main differences are between having and not having a label as a band. What is your experience?
Things are different from how they used to be. If you go back 20-30 years, pretty much all you could do was to make crappy demos on your four-track cassette recorder, send them to record labels and hope they would see the potential behind it. If they did they would usually pay up, hook you up with a producer they saw fit and send you off to a fancy studio. Then they would press, distribute and promote your record through their channels, a nearly impossible task for a band alone. There were upsides and downsides to this. If the record company believed in you and invested their money you were fine. If not, you were pretty much helpless, maybe even stuck in a contract you couldn’t get out of. These days it’s actually possible to do it all yourself like we’ve done for the most part with 'URKRAFT', partly because technology has made it possible to make great records without having to rent the most crazy expensive studios - you can even record in the comfort of your own home or rehearsal space - and partly because of the internet. The problem is that because of these opportunities, there is so much music and so many bands, all crying out on social media, making it really hard to get through the noise. You may have a great record, but how do you get people to actually sit down and listen to it? That’s where a label helps you out!
You are from Bergen, which to the entire world is the capital of black metal. How much of this is actually true? I mean, does black metal, and the history it has in your city, have any influence on the daily life of the people of Bergen?
The black metal scene is definitely visible in Bergen and is important to many. It became very obvious during the days of the Hole In The Sky festival, and to a lesser extent now with Beyond The Gates. In a small city like Bergen, when you literally see thousands of extreme metal fans, or “blackpackers” as we call them, from all over the world filling the streets, it’s evident that Bergen is in fact a sort of black metal capital. Unfortunately, for many a disappointed South American, we aren’t living in caves and eating bats for breakfast, but there is a high chance that you will get to see your idols going about doing their daily business. Also, since Bergen is so small, it’s easy to get to know one another, and many of the musicians are involved in lots of other projects outside the black metal genre.
Bismarck has a powerful ring to it, I think it is a very appropriate name for a band that makes heavy, pounding music the way you guys do. I am guessing you either named yourself after the German chancellor or the battleship. Can you tell us why you chose the name Bismarck and what it means to you?
Good question. I think our guitarist came up with that name pretty early on. I wanted to call the band Electron Sea or something like that, and he said “No, no… Bismarck!” and we were all convinced immediately. The name is taken from the chancellor but isn’t meant to be a tribute to him as a person or whatever he did. It’s more how we associate nineteenth century Prussia and that whole “iron and blood” thing with, you know, brutal heaviness, haha! Of course, we are aware there might be some negative connotations to the name as well, with the Nazi battleship and all that, but we’re not the slightest bit political, or even historical for that matter. It’s just pure fantasy, and a fascination with the culture and aesthetics of that era.
The same question for the title of your album: 'Urkraft'. Maybe the answer is obvious, thinking of the massive riffs you are playing, but why did you choose the name Urkraft?
I think it came up when I was doing the lyrics for the track 'Vril-ya', Vril being a sort of mystical cosmic energy referred to by someone at some point as “Die Kosmische Urkraft”. Urkraft is the same word in Norwegian as in German and is hard to translate to English; it’s a very powerful word that we thought would summarise what we’re trying to invoke with our music. So I guess maybe the answer is as obvious as you suspected.
I also totally love the artwork on the cover of the album. It looks so simple, yet it invites the viewer to stare at it endlessly and partake into the riches it offers. Who comes up with the idea of that and how do you make sure the artist draws it the way you envision it?
That’s the genius of Bergen-based artist Anders Røkkum, who has done all our artwork up until now. He’s a great guy who’s obviously on the same drugs as we are, haha! We dig his work and he digs our music, so that makes it a whole lot easier when collaborating. This time we gave him some photos of European ossuaries and the idea of them being built around an endless cosmic void, and this is what he came up with. Like you say, its strength is its simplicity while still being very rich in detail. You discover new things each time you look at it, which is the same as I want with our music really.
Listening to the album, I hear a lot of strong and powerful vocabulary, the lyrics invoke pretty vivid images that really suit the music. Can you tell us (as elaborate as you like, maybe you don't want to give away too much!) what they are about?
On 'URKRAFT', they’re based around a sort of fictional esoteric eschatology, loosely inspired by those of real esoteric/occult movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They deal with themes like alchemy, divination, prophecies, millenarianism and the end of the world. If it sounds a bit pretentious, it really isn’t. Think of it more like Game of Thrones or something in the sense that it’s inspired by real history, but is actually just fantasy. Some of us have an academic background in religious studies, so we’re history nerds basically and that’s where it all comes from. There’s no deeper meaning or underlying messages, they’re lyrical portrayals of the images that came to me while playing the songs.
'Urkraft' has some spectacular riffs, riffs and repetition that give it a classic doom/stoner feel. There are several things happening that deviate somewhat from that traditional sound, including certain post metal elements and, what struck me as odd, the vocals. Please don't get me wrong, I think they are great and suit the music well, but it took me quite a couple of listening sessions before I got it. What made you decide to combine this kind of music with these vocals?
I think from the very beginning we wanted something a little different from the standard stoner-doom sound. I mean, we started out with just the fuzz pedals and the amps on eleven, but after playing around with delay and reverb pedals, we quickly realized what kind of musical possibilities that offered. So the post metal elements aren’t the result of a conscious decision or anything, it’s just us experimenting. When I started writing the lyrics I wanted them to be sung with these sort of raw, guttural screams from outer space - vocals parallel to what the guitars sounded like when run through crazy amounts of fuzz and never ending reverb. Being able to do clean vocals as well was the sort of bonus we were looking for when we went searching for a vocalist, and when we found Torstein who was able to do like thirty second screams, perfect clean vocals and even throat singing, we couldn’t believe it. We knew we had found something pretty special.
Because 'Urkraft' sounds both so familiar and so fresh, can you tell us what your aim was? To create something new or to take something that was already there and make it your own?
In the very beginning, we tried for a little while to break all the rules, making like 45 minutes of feedback with noise machines on top of it, but at the end of the day you realize just how fucking awesome it is to crank up the amps and play deep and slow on the blues scale. That's a bit too easy, though, and we wanted to bring something different to the table. We’re influenced by all kinds of music so we try to bring that in, even if it’s pretty far from the stoner-doom foundation, like the throat singing and the middle eastern instruments we use on 'URKRAFT'. It amazes me how compatible these things are. But none of it was planned. It’s just how it came out in the end.
Let's go back to image. I mentioned the black metal image of Bergen, and everyone in the metal community knows about things like the church burnings there. Yet I have the feeling none of that really had a big impact on how the rest of the world views metal bands. It feels like this is changing these days, as several bands are either banned from playing in certain venues/boycotted or publicly disgraced (on social media) by people who I think are coming from outside the metal community. How do you feel about bands being inconvenienced because of things individual members once wrote or said?
Black metal, and I guess metal in general, has actually come to the point where it’s so socially accepted in Norway it’s almost comical. You have black metal bands performing in schools for 10 year old’s. The last Hole In The Sky festival was officially opened by the mayor of Bergen, who’s from the Conservative party. In general, Norwegians have been very forgiving towards the black metal scene as a whole, even the individuals actually involved in the church arsons. No one would think less of you for playing or listening to black metal these days. It certainly didn't use to be like that back in the 90s. You could be threatened or beaten up for just wearing black clothes and a metal t-shirt. But being offensive was kind of the whole point back then and the deliberate artistic purpose for many. In time, all this weathered off and stopped being shocking, like with so many things. Now, all of a sudden, things are offensive again but for different reasons. The people who're offended are not the conservative churchgoers this time, they’re people who’re supposed to be liberal. I think the general idea with them is that they’re fine with the anti-Christian message of black metal, because they interpret that to be about anti-establishment, you know, kicking upwards or whatever. But if you’re anti-Muslim too or flirting with fascism or nationalism, like black metal always has, then it's not fine. They miss the whole idea, though. Obviously, black metal has never been about social justice or staying within the boundaries of political correctness. To the contrary of course, it’s about pushing those limits. It’s an extreme art form which is supposed to provoke you. You don't have to support the church burnings and the murders that went on two decades ago (apparently, they’re not agitated by that anyway), but you should support freedom of speech, especially in the context of art.
And what is your opinion on the resulting witch hunt?
The same people who claim to be oppressed, or at least fighting on behalf of the oppressed, are doing exactly what some of the most oppressive regimes in the world are doing: Censoring art and freedom of speech, claiming it’s offensive. Threatening or actually physically attack people, based on nothing more than mere accusations. Those who're being accused are not even allowed to explain themselves or tell the accusers that they got it all wrong. It seems to me like this crazy, polarized world we live in acts like a drug to people on both sides, feeling the need to “get up and fight” for what they believe in. There’s obviously no place for provocative artists in a world like this. These artists used to be the people who made you stop and think, question what you believe in, and you would appreciate that even if you didn’t agree with them. People don’t want that anymore apparently.
Times are changing in many ways. I do not know how old you guys are, but I am pretty sure you grew up with cassette tapes, vinyl and/or cd's. Now there is also digital. What is your preferred music medium and why?
We do embrace digital because we’re introduced to so much awesome music all the time, new and old. Could you imagine twenty years ago that you would have access to pretty much every noteworthy recording ever made, wherever you are, and practically for free? That being said, we do love vinyl for all the things that it is - there’s something magic about music coming from a vinyl disc through a needle, being amplified and then coming out of your speakers, combined with the whole ritual of making it happen - it’s just a whole other experience.
There are several ways to look at the digital development that is currently still going on. Some people say it is a bad thing because up and coming, and less well-known bands stop making money, and others say it is a good thing because without money involved only those bands will be left that make music for music's sake. What do you think about all this?
I don’t think anyone, ever, started playing in our genre for the money, but yeah, it would be nice if recording artists could be more properly compensated when there’s so much money and time involved in making a good record. However, there’s still plenty of money to be made, seeing some of Norway’s recent pop artists having international breakthroughs on a scale they could only dream of before the digital revolution. These opportunities exist for niche musicians as well to a lesser extent: they can reach an enormous audience through the Internet and social media alone and, not being limited to the record company’s promotion budget, they can sell records and merchandise easily all over the world and so on. Besides, who’s actually complaining? Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I don’t know any serious recording artist who have actually given up music because record sales have gone down. They adapt and find other ways. Sure, you hear Gene Simmons and Lars Ulrich whining, but who the hell cares about them? People with a true passion will always carry on. I will say, though, that everyone should support the bands they’re listening to, whether it’s buying their stuff, going to their concerts or whatever. It’s the right thing to do and it will benefit the lives of the artists that enrich your life so much with their music.
Finally, I want to thank you for your time and, of course, for this great album. I read on Facebook that you have a lot of stuff happening. Before we sign off, can you perhaps tell us a little bit about this stuff?
Well, I’m reluctant to say because so many things haven’t been confirmed yet. Let’s just say you might get an opportunity to see us play live and there will be more music coming out sooner than you think. Thanks for the interview and for the compliments. It’s our pleasure.