In every aspect of their aesthetic approach, from their sound to their performance and even to their physical appearance, Swedish black metal band Watain have aspired to a level of commitment and authenticity that few bands can match. It's one thing to sing about blasphemy and Satanic themes; it's entirely another to openly live as Theistic Satanists and attempt to embody the horror of those themes. Their live performances are infamously decadent and intense, often featuring animal bones and skulls, offal, and blood on stage; the band members often perform smeared in gore and reek of putrefaction.
While Watain push themselves ever further in terms of performativity, their fifth studio album, The Wild Hunt, is likewise a move forward, building on the gelid, acidic black metal of 2010's Lawless Darkness. Named after a song by Von, the deeply influential black metal band who were arguably the first in America, they have always harkened back to the bleak filth of the genre's earliest days. Now, with The Wild Hunt, they are beginning to excavate newer, and occasionally more melodic, veins of musical ore. Drawing on a much broader sonic palate, with elements of blackened folk, symphonic grandness, and even moments of brooding gothic sensibility, this is unquestionably their most experimental and divisive effort. Between this and the fact that The Wild Hunt is the first of their records to employ clean singing, the band has earned some detractors, who prefer the snarling, blasted simplicity of their previous aesthetic, but in choosing to work with a more extensive, and no less sinister musical palate, Watain continue to challenge themselves as well as their listeners to plumb ever more abyssal depths.
I'm going to begin by asking you a question about the band Von, your namesake. They have suddenly become active again after years of dormancy and finally released their second full length, Dark Gods: Seven Billion Slaves. How do you feel about their return to activity?
Erik Danielsson: It's quite a complex situation. I mean, let's let's put it like this: Von was a band in the mid-'90s that really changed my life, and I think all of the band members [of Watain's] lives, because of how primal it was, because of how genuine it was, because of how different it was. With all that in mind, it's very strange to see a difference in the band. There are always bands that change a lot over the years, and though they meant very much to you at a specific point in time, perhaps they mean a lot less to you now.
I intentionally avoided actually checking out any of the new stuff because I their old stuff means so much to me and, like I said, it was a kind of a life-altering experience hearing that album so many years ago. I've kind of avoided it for the sake of keeping that distance.
You want to keep the memory intact and remember Von the way they were when they first influenced you so deeply.
I think that makes a lot of sense, especially since Watain has always been so much about authenticity, which you have been pursuing aesthetically for your entire career. Speaking of authenticity, how do you think that The Wild Hunt is the next evolution in Watain's pursuit of genuine musical expression?
The motivation for doing things, to grow, has always been this: we've always been from this — how to say — subculture, and it's always come from within. It's never been about how we are perceived from the outside or what people were expecting us to do. Our music has always come very much from the inside, and with The Wild Hunt, perhaps even more so. Let's put it like this: it's always been our goal to have a kind of translation of what we have felt and what we have experienced in ourselves. That's always been our goal, and after doing something for fifteen years, you escalate. Part of this is just skill, when you come to learn your craft better. Therefore with The Wild Hunt, it seems perhaps the most well-translated version of what has always been going on inside of our world.
We have become more fluent in the language that we have chosen to to express ourselves with in Watain. We've therefore become very extremely intimate with the nature of Watain and its image. There's still so much left in between what goes on inside of us and what actually comes out, but there's a lot less in between now than ever before. That's also why we change and become more diverse, that's how the world of Watain really is.
It's interesting that you say you feel there is less of a gap between the internal feeling you are trying to get at and the external expression, because there is a distinct difference between your last record, Lawless Darkness, and The Wild Hunt. Lawless Darkness sounded like it was being dragged out of you, not necessarily that it was forced, but that the the process of creation was painful or challenging. Whereas The Wild Hunt has a different kind of ease.
It sounds like it came out easier compared to Lawless?
Yea, I think so.
From from an outside perspective perhaps that's how it seems, but to me The Wild Hunt was by far the most painstaking fucking thing I've done in my whole life.
It was written during a very turbulent and strange time, and it took a lot of courage in order to have it come out the way it did. I think Lawless came much more — I wouldn't say more naturally, because all of these processes are organic, they're all natural occurrences. I would definitely say The Wild Hunt was far more complex, and the strangest to create out of all of our records.
I think a better way to say what I am trying to get at is that The Wild Hunt has a confidence to it, as though it is the closest translation to what you felt inside during the period of its creation.
Yes. To me, making an album that is more of a direct translation of what is really going on inside of you, I think that is natural, and a more complex thing to achieve than doing something that [is] more artificial or constructed. It's more challenging in the sense that it is not as defined, and it just took a lot of more introspective reasoning. It also really forced us to get to know ourselves in a quite severe way. It's very much a record of the place that I am [at] in my life, and writing is very much an ever ongoing process of going deeper and deeper into yourself and that that's exactly what happened here on this album.
In order to accomplish that you would have to be very honest with yourselves as people and artists, to the point of not having any illusions about yourselves, if you're going to write from a place of honesty like that.
As the person responsible for the lyrics of all of Watain's music, and the conceptual core of the band, how do you go about your writing process? How do you prepare yourself to write and how do those lyrics and concepts manifest?
It's kind of hard to say. That whole process is still quite abstract to me but but it's of course interesting, and it's something that I get asked a lot, and I ask myself a lot as well. I wonder what's really going on. I think that what is important to understand is it's never a matter of painting the same picture over and over again, using the same techniques; it's always new. Especially on an album like The Wild Hunt, which has very individual characteristics, at least from my perspective. That goes for the way that each song was created; each one had quite a different way that it was composed. Take a song like "They Rode On," for example. It was written over one night; lyrics, music, everything. While something like "Holocaust Dawn" was written — well, we started writing that song as one of the first songs for the album and it was actually the last one that we finished in the studio. Really!
It's very different how they come about.
That does make a lot of sense, as each individual song has its own character, so it stands to reason it would also have its own compositional process as well.
Yeah, definitely. And that's also, I think, why there is so much in terms of dynamics and differences on on this album, because it has all come from our separate ways of working. The songs obviously also refer to quite different, complex kinds of experiences.
So each song on The Wild Hunt has a very distinctive character because of that process. There is a sense of unity to the album, but the songs themselves sound like individual compositions; they have their own sort of integrity and internal structure as well.
Thank you. I wouldn't say it was something we were aiming for, but I think it was something that we realized pretty early, that this was the way it was going to become. It was a very open and organic process the whole thing, and we allowed for all the doors to be pretty much open and come what may.
That's actually a beautiful image: opening all the doors and the windows to compose, I like that. Now, I have a question about that writing philosophy, because one core element of your aesthetic has to do with authenticity, and allowing the creative process to happen very naturally. At the same time, there has to be some control exercised over that process, and some deliberate shaping of the record. In another recent interview, you stated that you wanted The Wild Hunt to be different; you wanted to change what people expected from you, or perhaps not meet those expectations. You wanted to push yourselves in very specific directions. So, could you talk about how you balance that tension between what you want to do, how you're controlling and directing your creative process, while also letting go an allowing things to happen naturally?
That's a very good question [laughs]! I wouldn't say that it had anything to do with not wanting to meet people's expectations, or intentionally going against people's expectations. It's more like we're about not taking into consideration any of these expectations. I've noticed your vision gets kind of blurred for the wrong reasons right when you do. After fifteen years, it becomes even more important to hold up to the walls and not to let anything apart from yourself actually speak. When it comes to intentionally perhaps working in different directions compared to those you have worked with before, yes that that was kind of an approach that we had to do when were composing. That wasn't because we necessarily wanted to do something different, but rather, we just understood that it was going to become a very different album. We were dead set on opening up even more, allowing a broader spectrum of emotion to shine through into the music this time. Lawless Darkness is very much focused on quite a limited spectrum of emotions, a very strong spectrum of emotions indeed, but still quite limited. For me, that was a very inspiring way of working because it gets me very focused and I know exactly what the record is. Whereas for The Wild Hunt, we were dead set on just allowing all the wildness and all those exquisite, weird things that exist in our world and that have come to life during these past years to come out. We wanted all of that to be expressed. We wanted a really rich and organic record here so I guess that that was perhaps the biggest difference: we were very open to allowing everything to come through.
I think you just made a very important distinction between defying expectations and just not counting them at all.
Now, as practicing Theistic Satanists, you position yourselves as representatives of The Adversary, as defined by religion and popular culture. Do you find that your creative expressions also reflect that identity of The Adversary and the position of being adversarial, going against the way that most people think and move in the world? Do you thrive on that constant sense of challenge or that constant sense of being the adversary?
How to say. For me, the adversarial idea is something that comes before artistic expression. It comes before my interest in music. It is something that is very fundamental in our being and has been for pretty much as long as I can remember. It's a very natural part of me, to choose "the other" and to base my choices on "the other." For me, facing opposition and and facing adversity has always been a sign of that I'm on the right path. As diffuse as that may sound, it's the best way I can put it. Obviously having that kind of outlook on life, and on things in general, it will naturally reflect in what you do as an artist. That is why Watain does not sound like a happy camper, giggly surfer guy, you know!
That's why it sounds quite sinister and violent and destructive. It's a natural outcome. It's really just us expressing what's in ourselves, and that naturally also comes with the art, expressing those emotions it becomes apparent and it becomes a very natural consequence of our work. Rock music in general and especially metal is something that has always, for me at least, been countercurrent — I don't know if that's a word — it's always been something that represented the antithesis of the status quo. Rock music has always played a role in my life as a kind of rebellious process within the status quo. I think eventually it becomes an enemy of the world and enemy of society, and that's the role that this kind of music has always played for me. It is a natural balance that reflects what I am.
So from your perspective, this entire genre of music should be going against the dominant culture and it should therefore be uncomfortable. Would you say that the best manifestations or the best versions of heavy metal are always those things that are somehow "against?"
Yeah. That's very important for sure.
I do wonder about the extremity of your stage shows, and a lot of the elaborate, ritual complexity that you bring to a live setting. As well, there is a lot of ghastliness to your performances, and many grotesque objects that you bring on stage with you. I wonder if it is ever hard for you physically to be continually exposed to things that are disgusting and unhealthy. Do your performances take a physical toll on you?
Yes they do, absolutely. Even if we wouldn't have had any of those things on stage, it would still take a strong physical toll because what happens on stage to me, although I can't really put words into it, is something that is quite extreme, not only emotionally and spiritually, but also physically. The things that we use on stage are about putting your mind and your body as well in a situation where you are not comfortable anymore, where you cannot lean back to comfort, where you are actually entering into a state of constant antagonism, in position relative to your surroundings. While that at the same time, you enter into a process of transformation, where the things that we use on stage that that would normally perhaps seem repulsive or repugnant, those things actually become something quite beautiful and very empowering. It is an environment that pleases the demonic self much more than the human self, and that's a very important distinguishment [sic]. That is singular in a concert scenario, because that's a place and an environment where a lot of your human ego and your human body steps aside, and has to step aside in order for something much more powerful and primal to come through. Those things that we use on stage in that kind of extreme environment, that physical environment, is really just another step in that direction. It's a way of of easing the process of transformation. I hope that makes sense.
All of these things are quite complex and I do my best to kind of translate it.