MetalCast – the ultimate metal show

Myrkgrav interview; extra to Episode 178

30. October, 2010

Myrkgrav produces the kind of metal that evokes an imaginary panorama of Nordic beauty, complete with folkloric figures and local historical dramatis personae; a tuneful journey into another place, like all good music of this ilk. Is this just the heartwarming fancy of a contented rustic, or is it the product of some deeper inner conflict that sometimes claws its way to the surface accompanied by hellish shrieks? I talked with Lars Jensen, composer and creator of Myrkgrav:

Myrkgrav was created in 2003 as a one-man project, and you released the demo Fra Fjellheimen Kaller… in 2004. How was the sound of this demo for you?

Lars: Well that depends, if you would have asked the 17 year-old me how I felt about it at the time, it would have been with ecstatic enthusiasm I’d tell you about it. In hindsight though, I’d have to say it doesn’t sound like much of anything, neither foul nor fish, if you’d like. Bouncing from one genre extreme to the other, I guess you could say it’s relatively audible that it’s the product of a teenager. I can’t for the life of me understand how I managed to land a contract with it, but I’m glad I did and that the music evolved more in direction of what it sounds like today, instead of continuing on the path where for example “Under a thin veil of fog” left off.

The demo is described most usually as folk-tinged black metal. Did you always know that this was the type of music you would like to create?

Lars: That was the only thing I knew how to write at the time, it’s really nothing more spectacular to it than that when all comes to all. Nowadays I have to be honest and say that I don’t really listen to black metal anymore, but the writing musician part of me is lagging behind and there’s still a small influence of BM to be heard. Kind of ironic, when you think of it. The rest of the soundscape has however moved more in direction of folk music and will continue to do so in the time the project is still active, I think. As I picture it, metal and folk music will be the core, but everything around it is subject to change.

The demo was subsequently distributed by Det Germanske Folket Records, and in 2006 you released your first full-length Trollskau, Skrømt og Kølabrenning. This is roughly translated as “Trollish Woods, Wraiths and Coalburning” – how did the subject matter of this album reflect the surroundings and circumstances in which you live?

Lars: The demo was never distributed anywhere, just to be clear on that part – I didn’t and don’t wish for it to be commonly available. Moving on. Back when I only had the instrumental part of the album worked out I didn’t really know where to look for inspiration in terms of lyrics. But when I thought of it, I had always loved digging out old books from my local area and reading stories from daily life back then. They faced such hardship every single day back then, but for them it was of course normal. There’s not a lot of information about such tales in modern popular culture, so I thought it to be perfect for Myrkgrav to blow some dust off of them and give them new life. Now, I live and have always lived where these stories take place, so I have a deeper connection to them than what I can expect others to have, but since Myrkgrav is my personal little project, it really doesn’t matter as long as it gives me some sort of personal gratification. I lucked out and people seem to like my little lyrical niche, but I wouldn’t have changed it even if they didn’t.

On the full-length you worked with “session members” including Espen Hammer on bass guitars and also Benita Eriksdatter for a female voice. Was it difficult involving others in what was originally a personal solo project?

Lars: Absolutely not. I know my own limits in terms of what I simply don’t have the ability to do as a musician, and rather than try to make something half-assed out of it by forcing myself to lay down the tracks, the end result will be far, far better if I allow, encourage, people I know can bring it to another level to take part. I can’t imagine the album without Sindre’s amazing choirs and vocal harmonies, he really took something that stripped down is relatively mediocre (like De to spellemenn) and made it into one of the most played tracks on the record instead. Kudos to him!

Do you style your music and vocals on any particular genre or band as influences, or is this just the sound that naturally comes out from you?

Lars: The latter. I’m one of those people that just can’t gather inspiration from seeing or hearing what others do. It’s gotta come naturally from inside of me, spontaneously and without force. That’s one of the reasons why the second album is taking so long to complete, since I’ve had my share of other issues to attend to that have drained my energy to write or do anything else that is creative. Some people can pick up a guitar or any other instrument and create on-the-fly, but that doesn’t work for me. I know absolutely nothing about musical theory and everything I write is actually art by accident. There’s a certain limit to how many accidents you can have in a given period. 😉

You state on your website that in order to understand how and why we are here today, we must know something about our past; our roots and heritage. Does this describe Myrkgrav and what it means to you?

Lars: Definitely. Now that I have decided what lyrical subject Myrkgrav has, it’s going to be like that until the end. The more I dig in the past of my personal life, the easier I understand why things have come to be like they are now, what to expect and how to face those coming things. It works the same way with the more lighthearted (well, in one sense) stories that are used in the band. It’s easy to say that “everything was better back in the day”, but there’s a little more to it than that. When you’ve gotten yourself acquainted to how things were then and how the world has evolved, at least I gain a sense of appreciation for many of the luxuries we have today as a result of the hard work our ancestors did and that we continue to do in our way now.

More recently you have spoken out about raising awareness of mental health issues, and it may be that this is particularly relevant in the music community. It seems that many creative and musical geniuses also struggle with internal demons that threaten to thwart their creativity. In what way have you personally experienced these things?

Lars: I could explain in detail, but instead I’ll just say that I have what is called avoidant anxious personality disorder. Google it! Anyhow, it did indeed cripple my life for some years and made it difficult for me to function within the borders of society. A lot of people who suffer from such issues get all rebellious and feel like the system is all wrong and go against it even harder, which will probably just make matters worse in the end. I speak from experience, haha. Realising and admitting to yourself that you have a serious issue and need to take a strong grip on yourself to do some kind of paradigm shift is incredibly hard; and then actually going and doing those things. Thus that took most if not all of my attention and energy for a while, and continues to do so (albeit fortunately in smaller amounts) in order to stay on the right track. Therefor there hasn’t been much time for Myrkgrav the past few years, sadly.

Where do you find strength from when these things threaten to overwhelm you?

Lars: Tough question. I suppose the “correct” answer would be that you find it in yourself to separate inner turmoil from hard facts about how things are not really that dangerous in reality and it’s only your own twisted and out-of-perspective perception that makes problems appear more difficult to overcome. But it doesn’t work that way, everyone who has experienced it first-hand will know. As my problems have mainly evolved from being isolated and passive towards my abilities or lack thereof to master things, I’d have to say that the only thing that has worked for me is to get out of the house and try to do some kind of assignment which would contribute to a feeling of self-fulfillment, no matter how small compared to the fulfillment-scale of “regular folk” it might be. Here’s the catch though. Before you find out how get yourself out of that kind of evil circle, there’s a big chance that you might feel like the only and very thing you have to do in order to get better, is the last thing you would imagine doing and which feels the most threatening! In my case it was taking part in ordinary work and the social part surrounding you when you have a day job. I imagined that if I’d begin working all my spare-time would somehow magically disappear and I wouldn’t have the time to do anything of what I wanted. Man, how wrong I was. Turns out, that once I got so far that I started working, the free time I have feels much more rewarding and I get much more done during those hours than I did during whole weeks and months back when I didn’t have anything to go to every day. Ironic, isn’t it. 🙂

What would be your advice to others who may find themselves facing these kind of all-encompassing issues?

Lars: Inform yourself what possible professional help is available where you live, and don’t be afraid to give it a chance! Chances are you won’t be able to cope with your issues without knowing a few basic things about how they work, which is where the professionals enter, hopefully with some good advice for your specific situation. And be vary about doctors like Dr. Daniel Becker who just prescribe drugs right away without having you give conventional therapy a shot. In a lot of cases medication is needed to give you the right start boost needed, but there are also many examples where it will only numb you down and bury the issues deeper than before, so that they one day will come back and bite you in the ass. Also, don’t listen to that voice telling you “I can’t do this and I don’t feel like doing that, it’s much better if I just continue doing what I have done for a while now until the bad things pass.” That road leads nowhere.

Earlier this year you posted up a new pre-production track “Soterudsvarten” (old Norwegian slang for the Devil) on your myspace from an upcoming album. The first thing that strikes a listener is the compelling violin work and the familiar “group” vocals of the choral parts. Are you enlisting more musicians to take part in this project? How difficult is it to work with others on something like this when at the same time trying to battle your own demons?

Lars: There are indeed a few more people taking part in the recording of the new album. While I handle composition, guitars, drum programming, screams and a lot of choir vocals myself, I’ve hired amongst others well-known folk musician Olav Mjelva to arrange and record Hardanger fiddle and Erlend (Quadrivium, ex-Nattsol) to come up with groovy bass lines. I’m also working on finding a singer to do lead vocals of the clean variety, as I’m not exactly much of a songbird myself. While taking in new musicians in the project demands some delegation, the people I work with tend to be pretty professional in their ways and how they go about the cards they’re dealt. In other words it’s more of a relief than a burden to let others do those parts, and hearing what they bring to the table always makes me as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve.

Speaking as someone who also suffers from similar issues, I find music extremely therapeutic in dealing with my feelings and inner turmoil. What role has music played in your life and in working through your own problems?

Lars: I’m glad to hear you feel that way about my humble work. It might come as a surprise that music has played little to no role in my life in that manner. People who only know me as a musician tend to think that most of what I do revolves around music; when that couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t really listen to a lot of music, and when I do it doesn’t affect the way I feel in any way. Don’t really know how it came to be that way, but it’s just the way things are and I’m pretty content like that. I think I must be the only young adult in the world who doesn’t own an iPod or other mp3 player of some kind, haha!

Finally, I would just like to say a great thank you to you Lars for being strong enough to share these things on your website and with us today. I hope that we all can gain strength and learn from your example, and together work for a greater understanding and awareness of such mental health issues in the world we live in. I hope that all those who suffer will take heart from your words, and learn that they are not alone.

Thank you once again.

Lars: No, thank YOU for providing me with the opportunity to further spread this important message to those who might be in a dark place right now! As I have previously stated, if I can contribute to nudging someone in the right direction through speaking openly about how I have gone about my issues, then I have accomplished much more than I ever could have through music alone.

Si Smith
October 2010