January 21, 2016 Interview – Jens Ryland of Borknagar
A well-oiled machine has many moving parts, each one integral to the overall function of the device. For Bergen, Norway’s blackened innovators Borknagar, a high-functioning, creatively rich unit making music since 1995, there have been many such pieces contributing energy to its life force. As all in Nature is cyclical, so too have similar patterns existed within Borknagar’s talented ranks. Those who have partaken in the journey usually, in the end, find their way back into the fold. In the case of Guitarist Jens Ryland, he has the unique distinction of spending more time in Borknagar than virtually anyone except its driven founder Øystein Brun. Lending skill, flourish, loyalty, and depth to a tapestry of sound nearly unrivaled in Extreme Metal’s vast canon, we had the good fortune to chat with Ryland about new album Winter Thrice, the process of its making, the inspiration behind its grandeur, as well as a bit about what drove the man down the lifelong path of playing this music to begin with.
CrypticRock .com – You have been involved as a guitarist in Borknagar since 1997, in that time, contributing to all studio albums but one. What has this journey been like for you personally? Did you ever think that Borknagar would become and remain so meaningful to so many fans the world over?
Jens Ryland – Can you imagine being twenty-three years old and having a wannabe musician in your stomach? Then, one Summer day in 1997, I get a phone call from Øystein (Brun: founding guitarist/main composer) saying, “What are you doing in September? We are going on tour with Borknagar and I need a second guitarist.” We wound up not going on tour until that January, but that is how it happened. Now, I have to honestly admit that, in 2003, I had to leave, or I tried to leave, because I felt burnt out, and Øystein wanted to make Borknagar a studio band only. He and the other guys didn’t want to bother with the live format, because they couldn’t make it work. Nobody expected that to kind of last, and apparently we had made enough of an impact by then to not be able to just put it away and let it die. So that’s kind of why I was pulled back in. It was only a year or so before Asgeir Mickelson (drums 1999-2008) called me and said, “We had a festival offer. Can you come play with us?” I said, “Can’t you bring in a second guitarist?” He said, “Oh, you already know all the songs.” That happened three times in the period in which I tried to quit, so eventually I came back for good, and here we are.
CrypticRock.com – Well, fans are all very glad you came back and continued making music together. Now, you have a new album coming out. Winter Thrice is set for release on the 22nd of January, 2016. What was the writing and recording process like for the album? How much input do you all have, and how long did it take to compile enough material to enter the studio?
Jens Ryland – Øystein does most of the writing. This time, Lars (Lars Nedland a.k.a. Lazare: keyboards) contributed with one song. It kind of collided with Vortex’ (Simon Hestnæs a.k.a. ICS Vortex; bass guitar, vocals) obligations to Arcturus, so he could not participate in the writing. Øystein, at any given time, has greater than an album’s worth of material on hand to record. It’s mostly down to a mindset, where he decides that now he wants to make another album. He sits down and pulls out his ideas and we start mixing them up together and we get more inspired. We write new riffs and stuff. This time he sent us a pre-recorded demo, pre-production almost, with guitars, sample drums, and a bit of keyboarding, and even some low tones, bass, on the keyboards too. He’s done that . . . this is probably the third album he’s done that with.
A long time ago we would go out to the rehearsal studio and he would show me the riffs, the old fashion way. So the demo, the pre-production, is handed out, and people start adding to it, and that’s more or less how it goes. He has ideas. He tells me he wants a guitar melody here, or to double his stuff there, or do straight two string chords here and there. I don’t actually contribute that much to the pre-production stuff. We learned a lot last time at Fascination Street Studio (home studio of producer Jens Bogren, located in Örebro, Sweden) which has kind of influenced us heavily this time around on recording techniques and focus. That has been a difference this time. Since we knew we were going to get a clean production, there’s been a lot of focus on the high quality recording. We have deliberately over-produced tracks so I know at least two of my solos have been cut away on the final master. This time that didn’t surprise me.
When we first heard the Urd (2012) mix on the last album, I was thrown off because there was so much missing. But this time, we knew he was going to cut certain parts. Some parts we had two vocalists doubling up, and so something has to go, either the guitar melody line or the vocalists. Sometimes we had too much vocal going on, so some guitar parts had to go. We were prepared this time for that. We just threw in ideas and sent it all over to Fascination Street Studios and let him (Jens Bogren) have his way with it.
CrypticRock.com – Thematically, Borknagar’s lyrics have always revolved around ideas of man’s relationship with Nature, the elements, and themes from mythology. Winter Thrice certainly appears to continue these themes. However, are there any concepts going on lyrically within this album that differ from prior ones?
Jens Ryland – No. It’s more about the ‘in between the lines’ thing. The strength of Nature being the individuality and the strength to think for one’s self and not be a sheep in the big picture. It’s kind of that whole same story seen in between the lines. It’s that revolt of Nature. “Erodent” (title of the sixth track on new album Winter Thrice) isn’t a very coincidental term in this setting. So it has the same kind of theme, I would say, as you would find throughout our history.
CrypticRock.com – That is a very appealing viewpoint to have in this kind of music. You can only hear about the Christian Satan so many times before the realization dawns that it does not really apply to your life. This lyrical slant of Borknagar has therefore always been a major strength. At the very inception of Borknagar, Øystein Brun stepped away from traditional Black Metal to explore these themes, both lyrically and musically. You and the other band members have thrown in with this philosophy. Do you think that you are trying to open people’s eyes to appreciate these things and look at them as the true forces of creation? This is not to say that you are trying to turn your fans into atheists, per se, but how important is it for you to have the fans absorb the message in the lyrics?
Jens Ryland – We don’t see that struggle as an ‘us vs. them’ kind of battle. We don’t see it as a battle where you need to pick an enemy to make a statement. I will call us more of an educated form of rebellion towards the sheep mentality which eventually becomes religion. You need to figure out yourself about your strengths and gain a bit of trust in yourself before you can step away from all that, which is evidently linked to the strengths of Nature. But we don’t go all the way like the Pagan stuff, where Nature is looked at as some entity, or godly deity. The same with Ihsahn (Vegard Sverre Tveitan, main composer of defunct Norwegian black metal band Emperor), I had this talk with him last Summer. The issue hasn’t changed. You don’t get anywhere by burning churches or tipping over gravestones or doing that youthful rebellion, physical rebellion bullshit. As you said yourself, there’s only so many times you can hear about Satan and all that stuff until you get bored of it anyway. So it’s more about the scientific approach, educated approach, and that’s the idea with Borknagar.
Crypticrock.com – The poetry and intellectualism combine for a timeless listening and reading experience, one which has not wavered over the course of your career. Speaking of the path of your musical endeavors, what are some of your musical influences? Who are your favorite guitarists or other types of musicians? Also, what kind of music do you listen to when you are away from Borknagar?
Jens Ryland – The music thing goes in periods for me. Sometimes I go all the way back into my collection, the shit I had on vinyl back at my parents’ place, and sometimes I listen to some new guys’ stuff. I experiment a lot and I tend to go back to my favorites a lot. I have to admit that over this past year, I can’t really let go of Gary Moore (1952 – 2011; guitarist / Thin Lizzy). He was my first entry to playing guitar. He is very high on my list. I can’t let go of the Devin Townsend Project. He is the best ever Pop guy you could imagine. He is amazing. I saw him last time he was here in Oslo and I was just flabbergasted. (Laughs)….I have a long time relationship with Iron Maiden and these big bands like Dream Theater. I really enjoy looking into more niche stuff as well. There is one Mastodon album I keep going back to, but I can’t get my head around their other stuff. I like Spiritual Beggars as well, and I always have a trace of some songs from Judas Priest, Whitesnake, from my ’80s and ’90s stuff. I even brought out Pyromania (1983) by Def Leppard to listen to in my car this past Summer. When Leprous released their latest album, I was listening to that a lot. They’re also very entertaining live. They’re a great band.
CrypticRock.com – Wow, that is a nice wide array of music right there. Pulling down many influences into your repertoire, you’ve managed to help create one of the most unique bands in the Heavy Metal world. It is certainly difficult to pigeonhole Borknagar into any one genre. From a composing standpoint, over the years, was there an effort to do this or was it by accident that you evolved as such?
Jens Ryland – I think it was kind of on purpose to not be one of the ‘true’ Black Metal bands in that genre. The whole idea was to play with the music and be able to kind of do whatever we want, and mold it however we want. I think that was the intention when the name Borknagar was created. The whole idea of a fantasy name is because it wouldn’t limit us in any way creatively. Over the years, we have gone through many processes. Several times we thought about changing our logo like Dimmu Borgir did, to not portray us as some kind of hardcore Black Metal band. And then we kind of changed it a little to make it readable and then we said, no we want the old logo. Because that is our trademark. Don’t mess with the logo! We enjoy being that band where you can’t really tell what we are when you look at us. Some people think we are douchebag winos, we’re not true enough, and all that bullshit. And some say we are scary Norwegians who eat kids for breakfast (laughs). I laugh equally at everybody. I feel that if I can manage to confuse people, I think it’s cool. You’re not supposed to look at Borknagar and figure out instantly what it is.
CrypticRock.com – Borknagar is one of those bands where when you go back and listen to the albums, you can find something new you had not noticed before, even fifteen years later, and that is a beautiful thing. So this Norwegian Metal scene from whence you come, which has bred so many amazing talents, was so tight back in the ‘90s at the dawn of the scene. Would you say it is still that way today?
Jens Ryland – It hasn’t changed that much. I see a lot of new constellations coming up with the old guys playing with guys they haven’t played with before. For instance, bringing in Baard (Kolstad: drums 2012-present) when we had many very skilled applicants for a new drummer. We said we wanted to try a new guy. Let’s not bring in yet another 40 year old to play with us. We have enough 40 year olds in the band (laughs). But it was a little different back in the 90’s, I suppose. I only experienced the later part of the decade, but I can tell you I don’t think I missed out on anything.
CrypticRock.com – Well, the beginning years of the scene were a little bit tumultuous, to say the least. As far as tour plans for Winter Thrice, is there any talk of touring the United States? Also, what parts of the world are you,s an artist, excited to reach that you have not had the chance to visit? Any chance that Garm will come along for any of it?
Jens Ryland – I don’t think you’ll see Garm with us, from what I know now. But with us, it’s like, let’s not close that door. Because I know better. So I’m not going to carve it in stone that it’s not going to happen. I can tell you that we just received this afternoon a proposal for a European tour, which has been in the planning stages for a few months. So that will be in April. The U.S. has been off the drawing board for a while now for several reasons, mostly financial. The currency exchange, but that has suddenly changed. I have to admit that I am now talking to American agents, so there is a big ambition to come back. This time, it has support from within the band. This has been an issue for us in the past. Partly why I left in 2003 was because half the band didn’t want to tour. But this time, we have support from all in the band. It has to be scheduled, as we are not professional musicians.
We all have families, and careers, and ridiculous schedules to figure out. So let’s see if we can make it happen. On my ‘want to go’ dream, for the past two years we have been receiving offers from all over the world. At this point, I really want to go to South America, because we have so much support down there. I want to see Mexico City, I want to do Chile, and it’s not so long ago since we were offered a complete tour of Brazil. We have an offer also for a tour in Australia, which would be awesome. I’m hoping I can persuade the guys to do that. I’ve also been working towards China for about fifteen years. I have contacts with festival promoters in India, which has fast become a crazy possible destination. Then there’s only one place left, and that’s Africa. I have a festival down in South Africa, which people I know have been to. If I could go there, I would feel complete.
CrypticRock.com – Here is hoping you get to do it all, Jens. CrypticRock.com all areas of music as well as Horror and Sci-fi films. Are you into these types of films, and if so, what are some of your favorites?
Jens Ryland – I am afraid I have to admit that these films are not my thing. It tends to get funny to me rather than scary.