One of the most vibrant Heavy Metal acts in any genre, Borknagar has thrived for three decades since materializing out of the vast second wave of Black Metal in Norway. Always so much more than any one defining quality, the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Øystein Brun now sees its twelfth studio album entitled Fall; about to be released on February 23, 2024. The man behind the riffs, themes, and grandeur of Borknagar was kind enough to sit down to discuss the new album, the band history, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – Borknagar is about to release Fall, album number twelve spanning a marvelous thirty-year career. How does it feel for you to be able to look back over these three decades and take stock of what you’ve built and what you’re still building?
Øystein Brun – You know what? I’m not sure if I’m even able to grasp it. And it’s kind of insane in one way. I mean, I feel kind of humbled about it. I feel privileged, all those things. And then my wife tells me that, “Hey, you have been working so hard for this through all these years and been doing all sorts of sacrifices and whatnot to get there” kind of thing. But I kind of choose to look at it as a part of my life, and it’s part of my life adventure in a sense. Since I started with the band and stuff, I did make kind of a lifelong commitment to this. This is more than just a professional career or anything like that. For me, it’s kind of a lifestyle in progress.
I’m not really sure if I’m able to grasp everything in a proper way before I’m a bit older. I don’t know. But again, I feel that it’s so rewarding in so many ways. It’s so satisfying in so many ways, and it’s also very humbling in a way. The last couple of years we’ve been traveling a lot. We have been doing quite a lot of touring and festivals all over the place, US and Europe and South America and Latin America, and meeting all the fans. I mean people crying because the music you’ve done means so much for them and stuff. You’re getting gifts from people.
It humbles me because music is so powerful in a sense, and it’s so sometimes a little bit unreal. I’m just basically, I’m a simple guy from the countryside in Norway, playing on my guitar, making some riffs and recording on my computer here, and then all this stuff is happening. It is quite crazy. So, it’s a bit surreal to me, to be honest. I’m not sure if I can grasp everything the proper way, but I have a lot of photos. I have a lot of memories, and one day I’m definitely going to sit down and look back a little bit. Right now, I don’t have time for it, to be honest. You just have to go full-throttle and go on and move on.
And that is what is so mighty and powerful with the whole thing, like that, people meeting each other and it’s fundamentally, I think music is some kind of dialogue in a sense, the universal language. It’s beyond and above politics and backgrounds and religions.
It’s such a powerful universal and unifying language in a sense. I’m quite proud of it actually. I mean because the metal scene and especially the Norwegian scene is kind of known for being kind of freaks and criminals back in the day with church burnings and stuff. But nowadays, growing older, the whole thing has matured a little bit more, at least from my perspective. It’s such a wonderful thing. I mean, I don’t know the whole scene. I have friends when I’m traveling around touring and stuff.
I meet friends that we have been in touch with forever, people I’ve been writing with since back in the early ’90s, for example. And there is so much history. There are so many moments. There is so much networking and the whole thing, it’s really amazing.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, and in Borknagar, you’ve never been shy to use a lot of different people to help you create your vision. But we see now with Fall, we see once more the stable lineup, the same gentlemen. What do you think it is about this particular unit that works so well together?
Øystein Brun – I think we are a bunch of guys that are quite different in so many ways. I mean, if you put us side by side and just look at us as people, we are quite different, but on the flip side of it, we connect, we glue so well on the musical level. It’s one of those things that just happens like that, it’s magic. It’s hard to explain and describe and argue, and it just happens in a way. And when we got Bjorn and Jostein in, Bjorn as a new drummer, that was just before we did True North. They came in around the same time. Exactly the same time actually, because they have been playing together before in another band and stuff. From then on, we have learned to know each other so well on a personal level, of course, because we have traveled a lot together.
We have been around, we have been through ups and downs. We have been traveling for 24 hours without any sleep together. We have been testing out music, we have been playing live in bad conditions with equipment not working, but still kind of pulled it off in a decent way.
So I feel that we have something going now, a chemistry going in the band on a musical level and a personal level that feels unbreakable. It feels like this is some kind of magic. It’s hard to put my finger on this one thing, but there is something musically that just glues so extremely well together, I would say, on this new album.
And I think, I hope that it kind of shines through when people listen to it, that we are really loving what we are doing and we do it with passion all the way. At least that’s my hope with the Fall album, that people hear the excitement, that you hear the passion we are putting into this album and all those things. So yeah, what can I say? Hats off. I’m a lucky bastard being able to be in such a great band.
Cryptic Rock – It is certainly a unique and amazing mix of musicians. Having Lars Nedland and Simen Hestnaes, aka ICS Vortex, among other voices that you’ve gotten to implement on your albums, such as Vintersorg and Kristofer Rygg. And you think of similar bands out of Norway. Enslaved has rough vocals and clean vocals. And then slightly different, but Amorphis has Tommy doing both sets of clean and dark vocals. But with Borknagar, I can’t think of too many other bands that have been able to express their ideas through such amazing and different vocal styles. This eclectic vocal mix has worked so well. How much has that helped you get your vision for your musical ideas out?
Øystein Brun – I would say it has been crucial to our musical expression, definitely. But I’ve always thought since the very start of the band, I always thought that vocals should be, how to say this, but I want the vocals to be a part of the forest, like a bird in the forest rather than a bird that is flying above the forest, if you get my point.
So for me, I think we succeed extremely well and hats off to Jens Bogren for mixing this album and the amazing job he’s done. But when I listen to the album myself now, he was able to pinpoint and catch all these nuances is beyond me. I don’t understand, but he’s a magician apparently. But I want this notion throughout this album that you’re actually kind of in the nature at the scene in a sense. I wanted the vocals to represent you as the listener walking through the trail. You have been wandering there many times, because maybe you walked there every day, but I wanted to get this approach that the nature always changes.
Every time you walk there, you will see new things, or there is a different bird singing or something like that. There is something different about the forest’s nature each and every time, even though it’s the same path. So that is something I also want to bring into the music in a sense, that each and every time you hear a song or the whole album, you will get a slightly different experience.
You hear some details that you didn’t hear the first time, or if you listen on headphones, you hear something you didn’t hear on the speakers, for example. And that’s where the vocal approach comes in, that they should work as an instrument rather than simply a vocal per se. It should be more complementary rather than a patch on the sound.
I love the way the vocals change, not only from screaming to clean vocals per se, but also there is different intensity of the screaming. There were different screams and effects going on. And also when it’s constantly clean vocals, let’s say for example on the song called “Wild Lingers,” I remember we sat here recording the vocals in my studio and the verses there, Simen is singing and he is singing in a way he has never done before.
We know what people like about Simen’s vocals, and he could have done some typical Simon ICS Vortex vocals there and people would’ve been super satisfied with it, I’m pretty sure about that. But instead, we didn’t choose the safe route all the time, the safe route home.
Sometimes we push ourselves to do a little bit of a challenging route back home. On this one, okay, let’s do something we haven’t done before. And to me that is the core of it, that is what I find interesting. That drives me in music. I mean, the day I start working in circles and repeat myself, I would rather quit and go do something else. But to try not to always take the safe trip back home or to the record company, I think, is what we dare to do. We want to push our boundaries. We want to challenge ourselves a little bit.
And I think that makes the whole thing, the whole adventure, it is for me making music way more interesting. And that is my driving force. My driving force is to try to climb another mountain, see new horizons, do new things, but still, I want to keep my musical legacy in my backpack, if you get my point.
Cryptic Rock – This restless impulse to create has resulted in an amazing discography, and you have done it again because Fall is a beautiful album. Once again, the themes of awe before Nature that have come to define Borknagar are present. The world has changed so much since we at Cryptic Rock last chatted with you in 2019. When you see things that have appeared since then like AI, and you see people just so lost in their devices, as virtual reality advances, and you couple this with young people who don’t even go outside much anymore, let alone have a relationship with Nature. Do you think tech is worsening this trend? Do you think it makes your message and your music about Nature more poignant in the face of this reality?
Øystein Brun – I think it’s with, as with everything in this life, I think there are good sides to it and bad sides to it. I have to be honest. And I also have a daughter, who right now is in university studying computer engineering and programming and all this stuff. So I’ve promised her to be a little bit positive in regards to technology. I don’t want to be this old fart that says, “Everything new is scary,” and, “Back in the days when I was young, then maybe it was real people, and nowadays people,” I think it’s both ways. I think I see a lot of good things in technology and in the smartphone.
I have a smartphone myself and I use it all the time. My world wouldn’t be possible without my smartphone anymore, because I have to deal with things when I’m in airports somewhere in the world. I have to sign a contract or read something. So there are a lot of great things about it. Also, the thing about Spotify and all these services spreading our music from an idealistic point of view, I’m very happy about that, that people are able, by easy means, to listen to my music and get the experience from my music. The flip side of it, of course, is who gets all this money? That’s not the musicians anymore.
And I think that there are good things and bad things about all the facets of this technology thing. I mean, I think some of the goals, we are not a Greenpeace band or anything like that. To me, the whole nature thing and the whole beauty of nature that we kind of circle around is for me, first and foremost, a matter of being honest about stuff, about my music, my expression.
Because this is where I live, this is what I grew up within. If I’m going to express myself as an artist, if I was a painter, I would probably paint mountains and forests and birds and stuff like that. Not a house, not a beach with people and stuff. That’s not my thing. For me, at the end of the day, it’s about honesty and wanting to share something from my life and my experiences and my notions about stuff, what I find exciting, thrilling, beautiful, and even scary and dark and brutal. So for me, this nature thing is about, quite frankly, being honest in my musical expression.
Cryptic Rock – Honesty of expression is something all artists should prioritize. When examining the lyrical themes on the new album, I was interested in “Nordic Anthem”. You’ve had a number of these defining anthems, whether it’s “Frostrite” or “Colossus” or “Ad Noctum” or “The Winterway.” These are often the strongest songs on your albums. This one feels like that, but I feel like more of a sense of defiance and pride around it. Is that correct? Where did the inspiration for that come from?
Øystein Brun – I think by the core, it comes from, you know, I’ve always, I’m the son of an old hippie, which was kind of what we can say, defined as a “free thinker.” I’ve never been religious, my family wasn’t religious, but I’ve always been very stimulated to find my own path in life, in all facets of life. The way you think about politics, the way you think about religion, the way you approach people around you and stuff like that.
And this was a notion when I started the band back in the early days, that I wanted my band, not necessarily to be a free thinker band, but a free musical band in a sense, kind of, what can I say, adapt this freethinking ideology over to the musical aspect of things. And also, of course, lyrically. So for me, it has always been basically that’s always my intent with the music that our music should be beyond and above, or aside from all these mundane politics and religions and all that stuff, I don’t want to deal with that in my music because that is for journalists, that’s for news readers, that’s for newspapers. That’s not my business in a sense.
But sometimes, of course, we need, I don’t know, to take some stance. And on “Nordic Anthem,” I don’t know if “pride” is the right word, but I would definitely say that this is kind of this song where we quite clearly kind of reject this kind of dogmatic way of thinking, religious thinking, political thinking. We show the finger a little bit to this, what I sometimes think is a locked mind. I honestly believe, I don’t, honestly don’t bother too much what people believe in, whether it’s God or not, or what kind of God and that stuff, but on a personal level.
I still believe that religious thinking in general is extremely deadly and dangerous, because humans are equipped with an enormous brain, and we should use it. We should think. So, for me, this “Nordic Anthem” thing is first and foremost a kind of statement about loosening yourself from these chains of already thought, yeah, already kind of settled ideas and already defined all kinds of ideas, constructions we humans deal with throughout our lives.
Free yourself from this and move forward, lean forward into the future and be open-minded. I have to say that this song was written by Lars, and also the lyrics were written by Lars so I can’t say a hundred percent what this is based on, but that this is my way of interpreting it. And of course, I know him very well, so I know that this is along the lines. He would say pretty much the same thing.
It’s a song that in a quite strong symbolic way, I would say, analytical way, kind of rejects all the chains of conservatism, of locked minds, of already thought thinking and all that stuff. It’s about freeing yourself and that is very much along the lines of the rest of the album. “Summits” is also a song that, of course, the scope of it is the brutal force of nature, and the water falling, and the water that falls is one of the most powerful forces we have in nature by, yeah, because at times it will grind up everything and everything will be sand and stuff like that.
“Summits” is also about climbing your own kind of personal summit or peak or whatever, finding your ultimate potential in life and stuff like that. It is very classic thematic, I would say. But even so, it’s kind of refreshing to put it into a more natural context sometimes. At least that’s my way of dealing with it.
Cryptic Rock – To go with these enriching lyrical themes, a lot of beautifully constructed guitar leads and solos are present throughout the album. Is that you and Jostein trading off, or is it more one or the other?
Øystein Brun – I have to give some credit to Jostein on this one, because he has done the most, let’s say, 70% of the leads and solos. I’m more the guy who is doing the backbone of things. I’m doing all the acoustics, the clean guitars, and I’m doing the big chords and my kind of signature way of playing guitar and stuff like that.
But all the leads, all the nice details and all the things going on, that’s hats off to Jostein. He’s just an incredible guitarist. He has such a tone, he has such an approach to music, and he has this ability that I love so much to kind of incorporate different kinds of musical styles without being a typical style, if you get my point.
Cryptic Rock – The combination of the two of you makes for some incredible results. Seeing as Fall is your first album since the lockdowns of 2020, after going through that dark time of zero touring possibilities, do you appreciate touring more here on the other side of it?
Øystein Brun – Oh yeah, definitely. To me, that has been a thing about actually maturing as a musician, I think, because I have to be honest about it, like 10 years ago, 15 years ago, I didn’t like touring. That wasn’t my cup of tea. I was like, yeah, I could do it, sure, if somebody paid me for it. But I was like, “Yeah, I’d rather stay home and make some music,” and I don’t want too much traveling. And there is a kind of, with touring especially, not the same with festivals, but touring is like, you spend a month on the road, let’s say, and 24 hours every day or 23 hours every day. You kind of wait and wait. I want to go out and see the world, because I think that’s… yeah, that’s my point that through years, I more and more appreciate the traveling side of it, seeing the world, meeting people, and eventually also, I’ve seen the fans in the ice from the stage, how they react to the music.
I meet fans, people, I get so emotional about it, I have to admit that the last 10 years I’ve kind of learned to appreciate it in a totally different way. I’m much more positive and I think in a way, it is such a privilege to be able to do this. Traveling around, playing your music, actually making a living from it, and meeting all these people all around the place, and some people I know from before and some new people. And it’s some of the beauty with the whole thing I’m doing. So that part, that kind of perspective, the band has become way more important to me. And of course, the rest of the band for these last couple of albums.