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ARCTURUS: The Glorious Return of Blackened Avantgarde Echelons

Interview with ICS Vortex of Arcturus by Vera on March 25th 2015

Norwegian Arcturus happened to be one of the echelons of Scandinavian extreme metal bands that started to relish their harshness with other – mostly called progressive – elements. They stood at the cradle of the term ‘avant-garde metal’ and they were soon joined by bands like Solefald, Borknagar and many others. In the nineties and later they released four worldwide praised albums. Their live appearances were scarcely and extravagant, their skills of blending all kinds of elements unlimited and unique. For a long time the recommended live registration ‘Shipwrecked In Oslo’ seemed to be the swansong of the band. For many years we did not hope for new material. But that has changed. Early May 2015, ‘Arcturian’ will be launched at the world, ten years after its illustrious predecessor ‘Sideshow Symphonies’. Main composer Steinar ‘Sverd’ Johnsen is still surrounded by eminent musicians with experience in bands like Borknagar, Ulver, Dimmu Borgir and C(K)ovenant. We talked with lead vocalist Simon Hestnæs alias ICS Vortex and also infamous from Dimmu Borgir, Borknagar and his solo album ‘Storm Seeker’.

When we talked in 2011 at the time of the release of your first solo album ‘Storm Seeker’, you told me Arcturus was in the rehearsal room for preparing gigs and working on new songs. And look what came out of this: ‘Arcturian’…
Indeed, things take some time these days, that’s the problem. We have so many projects and day jobs to take care of. It is not like in the old days, when you can spit out an album every second year. But I guess we are still motivated enough to bring up some discipline for creation.

But finally when it is there, it is something special, something you are not used to every year…
Yeah we just took our time, there was no rush in making this album, you know. We took our time to compose and then it took actually a lot of time before we found time to record it. Finally it is done. Hopefully next round will be a little bit quicker.

I surely hope. Of course there is a huge difference in doing some gigs from time to time with Arcturus and writing new songs. When was actually decided that you should work on new material?
I think that was pretty much the plan all along when we first started rehearsing the old songs. We always thought that a new album was going to be the purpose. We wanted to move on, but did not stress about it and it was a lot of fun, playing the old songs. We have been doing that for many years now, already, so it was time for some new stuff.

We have ten songs now. Are they using some older ideas or did you write them in a rather short amount of time? How did that writing process evolve?
I think I wrote the first song. I already introduced that when we had a band meeting. Sverd, who is the main composer for this album, was pretty quick with it…

At that moment someone called Simen via Skype. ‘Who is that from outer space?’ he jokes. ‘That’s what you get with your cosmic topics in Arcturus’, I reply. And he continues: ‘Yeah we had a lot of ideas for the title of this album and of course I googled everything. We had some great ideas, but they were all taken. Then I googled ‘Arcturian’ and of course it is overtaken, since this is this new age thing, green guys as aliens or whatever. Really silly. It has nothing to do with that of course, it is about the good old fan-base and it is what we call ourselves when just rehearsing, on a friendly basis and tone.

What was the song you have written first and just talked about?
That is ‘Warp’. The click-track and the keyboards are the same as I recorded in my studio. We just used it. It was never meant to be like this, but it works.

It is kind of catchy according to Arcturus norms…
Yeah I guess that is my thing. I am always looking for a catchy riff, like on ‘Storm Seeker’. I do like the proggy stuff, but too much prog is not really my cup of tea. At least the balance should be there.

Is there lyric-wise a theme, except for the fascination for cosmic subjects?
The concept is pretty much the same as it was on ‘Sideshow Symphonies’. I wrote all the lyrics except one, which was done by Knut. It is kind of self-inflicting, without the sentimental overtones.

Am I going mad or is there a Norwegian part in the third song ‘Angst’?
Yeah, that is Norwegian, the last song too actually and that lyric has been with me for years. I think I wrote it in 1997, way back when I was jamming with Arcturus before the ‘La Masquerade Infernale’ sessions. That was written in the period when I used to live in the rehearsal place around Arcturus, Ved Buens Ende and my own Lamented Souls. I was working in Oslo and then going a lot to this Elm Street pub (chuckles) and the rehearsal place was just one block away, so I pretty much lived there.

Those were the days! Coincidence is that I bought the first Arcturus album ‘Aspera Hiems Symfonia’ at a stand from the starting label Prophecy Productions and now you are on that label…
Wow, that’s amazing! I remember I used to listen to Arcturus too of course. I remember being at a friend’s place. He was playing in Beyond Dawn at that time I think; later he became the drummer in Lamented Souls. This was early nineties, because he just received that single ‘My Angel’ which is very old. We were just listening to it and I remember we were drinking chocolate milk, because we were seventeen or so. But we were amazed by it. I was a fan before joining.

That huge fascination for the cosmic vastness, the universe and stellar subjects and so on… where does that come from?
Taking a name from the stars in Latin was always interesting. It has always been a part of the backdrop, the scenery of the music and what you may paint as pictures inside your head while listening to it when you do not go too deep into the lyrics. I always liked that and I think it is cool to build on that, although my lyrics are on another angle I still hear the elements of that in the music. I get associations to those things. It is not about star travelling or wormholes or anything like that. It is more down to earth, but I still use metaphors in that genre to blend it in there. I have read a lot of books, especially at a later age too, in despite of my primal black metal base (laughs), I was reading books about chaos theory and stuff like that. Perhaps I did not carefully grasped a lot, but I still read it and it was just fascinating. It is so big. I was doing drugs at that time (grins) and I had so many bad trips about black holes and just really got into it emotionally, in the end that was a cool time.

Yes, of course because drugs and alcohol make your emotions stronger. When you have negative tendencies, they get even worse…
Exactly, it is not a very good medicine, but very fascinating, for sure.

Don’t you know the Carl Sagan series ‘Cosmos’?
(thinks) Yeah right, I do remember that, but it was earlier, the eighties or even the seventies. Yeah we have it. I think Tangerine Dream did the opening melody for it. I remember the jingle tune and that program. I am a huge Tangerine Dream fan.

Talking about the recording process: there was a kind of tendency to go back to real drums, real strings and spontaneous guitar solos… How did you experience that?
Well, Magne, as we call him, the guitar player, is a very organic person, also in so many other ways. But also Hellhammer I think has grown tired of his quick drums. That is a great thing, because I am not a fan of that. I am much more a fan of the more natural sounding old school type of drums. He still has his piccolos, it is still there, which I don’t like, but it sounds okay on this album I think. And we also used a huge gong, it has the size of a man. Knut almost died when we put it in the studio (laughs) because of the icy roads. They managed to bring it in anyways and that created a lot of deep frequencies in the background. It creates a great atmosphere. You cannot hear it if you do not listen to it up straight, but it creates a live atmosphere. We have other string instruments as well. I do not know them all, because this is other person’s input, those who are into those kinds of weird instruments. We have of course the violin, which is present in almost every song, and even though it does not always sound like a violin, it still gives an organic feel to the album. And of course the other stuff, which is quite the opposite: a friend of ours who has been adding some newer stuff, mostly synths. He is twenty-one and listening to this dubstep scène. They make all their sounds from scratch. I really like the way they fuck up the basic notes and just smear the bass frequencies and make the sound really ugly and great in my opinion. I am an old school fan of computer Commodore 64, the old sound of computers with 8bits stuff. The last song ‘Bane’ got a little taste of that. I am not an expert in it, but our young friend Twistex is really good at it, he knows what he is doing, so it was really cool to work with him and learn a little bit about that section.

There were indeed sounds I could not define, for instance in the rather experimental ‘Demon’. I might call it a kind of ambient feel, but maybe that’s wrong…
Yeah that is Twistex in a real cool arrangement in that. It was basically a piano tune and he turned it around to be this ambient/dubstep-ish arrangement, also Knut did a lot of programming there. I think also on the first song ‘The Arcturian Sign’ there is this huge bass frequency noise that’s coming. You think it is a keyboard and of course it has been processed, but it is actually an old tuba (laughs), unbelievable, isn’t it? That is really weird, they went through a lot of the library of synthetic sounds, but they could not find one that was spot on. So they recorded an old tuba and then just processed it. Of course it is a blend, it is not that organic anymore… but that’s the way we like to experiment with sounds.

As Arcturus is made up of long time friends and you all know them for years, I’d like to hear you sketch their main characteristics we might not know… let us start with Steinar ‘Sverd’ Johnsen…
(thinks) Well, he is very handy, I’ll give that to him. He just finished building his own cabin up in the mountains. He has done everything: electricity, put in water pipes, all that by himself. He installed a little studio inside this cabin: Soundproof… I am looking forward to go there, I have just seen the pictures of the work process until now. So he is a super handy guy. He is into mechanics, he repairs airplanes. He has been doing that since I met him. He is very responsible and he is also a pilot for this hang-ladder stuff. You jump from a mountain and then you have, not a parachute, but this wing for floating around. When we have a road trip, he is always talking about the clouds. He says: look at that cloud over there, there you can go and fly upwards because the winds are upwards and he can read the landscape in many cool ways. He is used to find the right positions when he gets out with his wing to fly for miles and miles. That must be a mighty feeling. He always tries to seduce me to join him, but I think of all the people falling down (laughs). I do not think I would dare actually. Yeah, that’s Sverd. He’s got some cool sides that not many people know about him and of course he is a genius composer as well.
Knut (Magne Valle)… how shall I put it? He is not a city boy. He grew up on a farm and when he was just fifteen or so he jumped down into the silo where all the shit is, because one of the calves had fallen in. He just jumped in and rescued it. That is typical Knut and he is also super handy. He built the studio where we recorded ‘Arcturian’ in. It is an old family place, the site has been in the family since the thirteenth century or something. It was an old mill and he repaired it. It was a wreck, but now it is unique. He is super handy, he built it up from pretty much scratch and he has been running his festival there for thirteen years. That’s what he is busy with. Of course he has his studio that has been running for twenty years professionally.
Skoll is super handy with bikes, also mechanics. He just loves riding American cars and motorcycles, however not American motorcycles. He has been talking about a Harley for twenty years but he never got one. He is always riding a MotoGuzzi and he is probably one of the most musical guys I know. Ever since I played with him in Ved Buens Ende, which is a long time ago, we just get along very well. I know him since the mid nineties.

And the octopus from many bands: Hellhammer?
Well, his history is pretty much known I guess. It is just Hellhammer… fuck. He is a gentleman, you know, he really is. He is a gentleman until he starts drinking a lot of fine whiskey and then sometimes the monster comes out. But he is a special soul.

What are your hobbies and preferences besides music?
Besides music there is not really that much. Of course there is my family. I have two kids and it takes most of my time to hang out with them and doing my day job. That’s a lot of work right there, but I am really enjoying it. I have been playing too much ‘Battlefield’ for the last couple of years. I try not too, but I guess I am addicted. I have to have something which is not so healthy hehe. I guess it just relaxes me in a way. It is a love/hate thing. I can sit a day and just play Battlefield, no problem, only that particular game and when I was in Dimmu Borgir I filled my days with it as well. Not very productive. It is a game you need internet for, you play it with 64 other players and try to kill each other; good fun.

What are the plans with your own solo project ICS Vortex?
The plan is to make another album. That being said, I am not going to stress anything, because I am so happy that we can go pretty hard with Arcturus now. So that is what I want to do now. I think I have six or seven songs for the next ICS Vortex album and about two/three hundred riffs on my computer for other songs, so all the material is there somewhere, but I do not want to stress because this has to be a work of love, as the last one, as the Arcturus album is and especially production-wise too I am not in a hurry to bring it out. I know the material is good, I know I am not going to make any money from this. I am just having fun with the music while doing it and taking it as a hobby and hopefully we can move quicker with Arcturus and taking that seriously from now on. And of course there is Borknagar as well. I really do not have time for it now…

But Öystein will write most of the material, he is the main-man in Borknagar, isn’t he?
Yes, that is what I said to him. For this album I am not going to write anything. I am going to keep my songs for the ICS Vortex album, because that has more priority for me. I actually even don’t have time to play and record the bass, because there is so much stuff happening every day, all the time. Yesterday my youngest kid was puking all over, you just cannot sit down and write music or play the bass or anything, you just have to be present. But Öystein will understand, we know each other pretty good. He has been my best friend forever, it feels like homecoming when we meet.

These things are necessary in life as well. I think your oldest band Lamented Souls is also based on old friendships, isn’t it?
Yes it is, but I am sorry to say… we had plans to start it up again, we did one concert and then everything went on hiatus again. There was always someone who could not make it to rehearsals. Now it is pretty much dead. I just met the bass player and he told me he just got a kid, it is three months old. So that’s going to take another twenty years before the record is out (laughs). It is all written and it is bound to come out sooner or later, but it is going to be later for sure. I would be surprised if anything is going to happen with Lamented Souls within the next ten years. I am sorry to say.

Well, if that is the situation, you better realize and accept it, everything comes to an end some day…

But Arcturus will soon be playing much more gigs than ever before, let us focus on that…
Yeah we had a little European tour and a little run after the last album, but we are going to do the utmost now to promote ‘Arcturian’ for Prophecy Productions and for ourselves of course. We are going to get the ball rolling and hopefully expand the fan base. In May we start with a European tour with Vulture Industries and several gigs for Summer are planned. We will take one step at a time and see where it will lead us.

How did you actually ended up at Prophecy Productions as new label?
Well, they made an offer and they seemed to want to prioritize us the way we want to be a priority, for every label. That is the most important thing. Nowadays I think a record is going to be a hot potato for one month and then people move on. Record sales and promotion is just dead. The market is so difficult these days, also for the people to promote: there’s so many bands as well. It is just a huge factory, producing all the time. We are rather slow (laughs), ten years since the last album. We do not want to be blown away after a month.

Thumbs up for that and see you on the road!
Yeah Vera, have a nice evening still and great to talk to you again…

Geplaatst door Vera op zondag 10 mei 2015 - 09:53:19
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