Your Sunn O))) collaboration Terrestrials had been in the works for a while. How does it feel to finally get it out in the open?
It’s kind of a relief. It feels good. And I think we all feel almost surprised by all the great response. We all had concerns that it could be slightly misconstrued or expected to be something that it’s not, so I’m glad to see that it’s being accepted for what it is. Although the story behind it – the “long time in the making” etcetera – is probably a bit exaggerated. It’s not like this is something we’ve been working on very intently for many years; it’s something that we felt would see the light of day when time was right. We’d just visit it for a day or two, here and there, in between other projects.
I imagine that it’s nice to be able to work without the deadline or expectation of a release date.
Yeah, exactly. There wasn’t label pressure – it was just bros working together when time allows. We always knew that we had that to finish, and that was the vibe between us. But it was becoming a bit of a ghost waiting for us to be able to actually be together and having those days that we needed, because in terms of production time, this was actually done in a matter of weeks, three or so – just scattered over five years or something.
You mentioned that you thought this release may be “misconstrued”; what do you mean by that?
I would say that both of these bands are known for other things than what makes up this album. When you hear those two names – Ulver and Sunn O))) – you might expect the full-blown symphony orchestra and big budgets and a kind of huge dark matter or something like that. A different production setup and a different level of ambition than this basically. To me Terrestrials is a kinda down to earth and relaxed affair compared to some of our respective bands’ other output. Not that it’s not epic, but it’s a kind of soft epic [laughs].
I suppose a lot of people are thinking that this will be “Ulver multiplied by Sunn O)))” or something.
Exactly. Because a lot of the things we have done individually have been quite elaborate or full-blown, from before. That doesn’t go for everything we’ve done – in fact, we’ve been moving away from that in recent years. But a lot of it is quite full-on in a “wall of sound” sense, and Sunn O))) too… Especially something like Monoliths & Dimensions, or Altar – which I guess is the most natural comparison. As I said, we’re positively surprised by the way that people are reacting to Terrestrials. I think we were both expecting a lot more shit than we’ve actually been getting. We kind of expected people not to get this is what I’m trying to say, I think. I’ve seen some negative remarks of course, but overall it’s a really good vibe out there.
What I really enjoy about this record is that you can hear that you’re all playing together in the same space, rather than as part of some remotely co-ordinated exchange.
That was definitely the principle from our side. We didn’t want to complete it over a distance; we wanted to be together and plug those mics and patches in! We also wanted to be able to listen and talk about things in real time, because a lot of this record is very much defined by how it’s mixed – how much reverb do you put on this, etcetera.
I understand that Stephen O’Malley came over to help bring everything together.
Yeah. All the guys are important to the production, of course, but in the end it was Stephen and I that brought it home.
And during that process, was there a desire to stay true to the initial live session at Crystal Canyon that kicked it off?
Definitely. It is still very much what it was back then, the nucleus of it; it just sounds a bit more interesting now, I would say. A bit more produced. We did re-amp some stuff and do some overdubs, to try to dramatise things a bit or whatever, and maybe that’s more down to Ulver’s side, what with the tonality of the trumpet and the violins and those percussive sounds and effects, or the much-debated Polymoog/vocal part in “Eternal Return”. The drums at the end of “Let There Be Light” were also debated a bit, but overall it’s pretty much what it was – just more fleshed out and mixed.
When you refer to that “much debated” section of “Eternal Return”; are you talking about debates within the Sunn O))) / Ulver camp, or critically?
Well, generally. I’ve gathered that some people have problems with that part. It stands out, you know? I think it’s a kind of apt departure, and adds a different space for a while – a more concrete musical space, I would say. But you know. Each to his own.
Personally I really enjoy that section of the track. I guess that there’s a confidence to that vocal style that subverts the expectation of a more reclusive, inhumane metal vocal in this sort of music. Perhaps the stark contrast just throws people off?
That’s an interesting take on it – I never thought about it that way, but maybe that’s it. It is a contrast and it’s meant to be a contrast, you know, but obviously that sits wrong with people who feel that it breaks up the nebulous nature of the music or whatever. I personally think it gives the song gravity, and it would definitely not be the same without it. Interestingly, most reviews typically bring up “Eternal Return” as the highlight of the album, so it’s a bit strange to me. But yeah, I’ve seen some really harsh comments on that section [laughs]. On the other hand I’ve also seen people say it’s the best part of the album, so… That in itself is curious. It says a lot about just how individual music is.
You can’t please anyone – it’s just fucking impossible. It’s not desirable either.
I listened to a podcast the other day where they really hammered that part of the song.
Ah, you probably listened to the same one as I did [laughs]; that’s the one I’m referring to actually. I was kinda laughing when I heard that to be honest; it was almost comical. You have to see these things in context though – obviously that’s from a podcast that usually pertains to noise and more abstract forms; they’re pretty uptight about their “no no’s” I guess. But yeah, I mean come on guys, chill the fuck out! We all have feelings [laughs].
I like how noise holds these associations with breaking boundaries, and so the most controversial act is often to bring it right back round.
Throw in a bit of pop music, yeah.
In terms of your musical relationship with the Sunn O))) guys, am I right in saying that it began when you joined Aethenor?
Well I met Stephen long before that, my friendship with him dates back to the mid 90s before there was any Sunn O))) actually, so that’s an exchange that’s been going on for a while. But Aethenor is probably the “missing link” for many people, yes. We were playing a lot together as Aethenor – Stephen, Daniel (O’Sullivan) and I – around the time when the initial recording for Terrestrials was done. In fact, these recordings were done before Daniel became a part of Ulver, and before Ulver actually played live.
How was the experience of playing the improvised music of Aethenor, given that Ulver hadn’t played live at that point?
Well we’d all played live individually, so we’re not strangers to setting up stuff and making noise. So even though I was a bit green at first, perhaps, playing with Aethenor was not that weird for me actually. But Ulver had been dreading our stage debut for years, because of all the expectation – our first gig at the Literature Festival in Lillehammer ended up being quite the spectacle. There’s a guy who has written a 30-something-page story about his experience going to and seeing that concert – the ambiance of it all. It’s an interesting read and I hope it gets published someday. Anyway, I digress. It was all starting to head in that direction for us anyway – playing live.
Are there any plans to release any further Aethenor material?
We do have some recordings that we want to use, but that’s ultimately up to Dan and his schedule I think – he’s the head honcho in Aethenor, I would say. He’s got all those recordings and has been working on the fifth album a bit. But it’s a similar thing to Terrestrials in that there’s really no pressure. It’s not like it’s a huge band with lots of stuff at stake, or resources… So it has to be on one’s own time and budget.
I love listening to those Aethenor records. En Form For Blå was one of my favourite records of 2011, I think.
Thank you, I’m really happy with that album as well. I think it really captures the essence. Aethenor has always been a project we do for kicks – it has to be when we have the time for it and feel like it, which is a good onset for improvisation I think. But yeah, as I said there is a new Aethenor album that’s kind of halfway there, that Dan’s been working on a bit, but it’s been lying dormant now for a year and a half or something… There was some debate there for a while that I think put a bit of a temporary lid on it [laughs]. And we’re all just too damn preoccupied right now really. Especially Dan; he’s got 50 different projects or something! But yeah, I think there’s at least one more album yet to materialise from that project.
I understand that your tour earlier this year centred on predominantly improvised material?
Not as improvised as Aethenor – we did have a few safety nets by having a couple midi things that we could put in loop, so if someone fucked up we could always put on that [laughs]. We have to have that in Ulver as there are so many potential pitfalls – something that holds it all together. So there was some direction to it, but it was still pretty loose; probably a 70/30 division in favour of improvisation and freedom to do whatever the fuck you want to do on stage. But yeah, we had some underlays.
And how was the tour overall?
It was fun actually. It started a bit sketchy and as a bit of a twist of fate the biggest, most prestigious shows were of course right at the beginning [laughs]. We played in this really nice amphitheatre in Helsinki, where we’ve played some pretty cool shows before. This time we brought a much looser thing and it was all seated and very formal, and obviously that was the first gig so we were kind of on trial. Similar story in Danzig where we played in this huge industrial hall and things could have been better. Then we went to Berlin playing more regular clubs and started to loosen up and get in the groove, and it was pretty killer from there…speaking from our perspective of course, and how it felt on stage.
Were you able to gauge what the audience made of it?
It’s certainly the first time I’ve seen people dancing in front of an Ulver show – literally, just dancing. And there was a lot more girls in the audience this time I noticed, which was also nice to see [laughs]. It was definitely a sort of looser, more rocking energy, which was great.
Yeah, I saw some footage of you guys in Tilburg and it had that relentless, mid-tempo groove behind it.
That was actually a weird one for me, monitoring-wise. Sound check was so good, but when I was on stage I was having severe hearing problems. I was so shook up that I didn’t say anything to the audience throughout the whole show, and was just looking down trying to do my thing – getting my delays sent out on the right tap-tempo or whatever – and I had to concentrate pretty hard just to cruise with it. But apparently it was a good show – everyone else seemed really happy with that one! I was a bit lost, to be honest.
I suppose that’s the thing with improvisation; you can be left out in the wilderness sometimes.
Definitely. That’s the law, and lure of it I’d say. It makes it increasingly fascinating to me. But I also think a lot of improv music is perhaps a bit too concerned with being 100% improvised sometimes. Especially when it comes to records and such… Like, being authentic and all that jazz. That’s of less importance to me. I think it’s good with some combination, whether it’s a minor pre-plan before you go on stage or a bit of post-production after the gig. It’s what you’re going to listen to in the end that counts, you know? At the same time a lot of feeling is definitely lost if you get too caught up in those studio loops. I’ve been thinking a lot about those kinds of things for the past few years actually, in terms of how to record and produce music.
There can often be a quest for purity with improvised music.
Of course, but there’s the vanity aspect as well I think. Like, “it has to be a fucking Zoom recording, front of house, no edits and straight to vinyl.” A lot of the time that would have been great if you were at the actual gig, probably, but there’s just so much of that jazz noise out there in shops and shelves, collecting dust. I kinda like the crossbreed thing – at least for my own recorded output. A bit of sphinx in the mix [laughs].
I’ve always enjoyed the paradox of recorded improvised music, which exists to capture the spirit of the moment and is subsequently played over and over again.
Yeah, that’s a good point. And speaking of paradox; theoretically speaking, there’s no such thing as an “authentic” live recording; it all depends on where you’re standing in the room and how it’s recorded. If you record it acoustically outside of the desk, it’ll be distorted by the space. If it’s multi-tracked you may have to re-apply the effects or whatever the sound guy was doing. The authentic live-recording doesn’t exist. Not really. It will always be an approximation.
On the subject of recording, I wanted to turn to the most recent Ulver release, Messe I.X – VI.X. How was the experience of recording with an orchestra? The production feels pleasantly disorientating at points.
It’s approached from a “rock” production angle, but that was by necessity; we didn’t have the means to record it as classical music usually is done, so we just had to seize the opportunity and do the best we could with what we got out of those rehearsals and the concert itself, on stage. So it became a bit more cut and paste afterwards than I would have preferred. Actually we played it in concert at the Teatro Regio in Parma in November last year, where we also brought Pamelia Kurstin along to play theremin in certain sections. It was a really well realised gig and the orchestra was pretty amazing. Italians, you know? We multi-tracked that one too, so we plan to put that together as another live document, and as I’m listening to it now it might very well turn out better than the actual album. But Messe is also a live album, at least in part, because it’s rooted in live performance and then treated afterwards.
Despite that, I still listen to it and wonder how you pull it off live.
Well, it’s a huge project and requires a lot of resources. First and foremost we need an orchestra – which is no small feat in itself – and then we need a few days in rehearsal. We have a conductor with us too, who is the same guy that wrote out the scores for us (Martin Romberg). So it’s a big production; we’re kinda just marionettes doing the occasional stab live, in the end, but it’s really about how the orchestra performs and if everyone can hear what’s going on properly. It’s an emergency if a click track is out of order, or if the cue for one guy is off. So it’s definitely a different ballpark to the gigs we did in February.
There’s always an atmosphere “anything can happen” when listening to Ulver. Is that reflected in a very liberal exchange of ideas during the composition process?
That’s difficult to answer for me actually. It might sound easy but…[pause]…I don’t know how to answer this. We have a way to make music… A kind of aesthetic. And there’s an element of trying to get away from that – the self-imposed confines and clichés – challenging your own taste a bit, wavering between the more artsy inclinations and that but also more…[pause] dare I say commercial considerations? I always liked the thought of Ulver being pop music, in a way, or having that kind of appeal. But it is as you say, nowadays that’s an aspect that seems to throw certain people off. Either way, I don’t know what’s tied to what, who and how, you know? It’s just impossible to delineate.
This is why I enjoy interviewing people really; it’s often unrealistic to expect someone to articulate something that expects purely as an abstract process.
Yeah, because it’s all instinctual when it all comes down to it. The smallest things can have the biggest impact. That’s why it’s music and not a master’s degree, you know? I sometimes say “it’s only music” when I need to remind myself or others. Sometimes it sounds good after ten years sometimes it really doesn’t [laughs]. It is still a total mystery to me how music works.
I see that Ulver are currently working on a theatrical soundtrack to Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” too?
We had to leave that at 95% before we left for tour in February. That will be one of our next projects to try to lay it all out and get an overview. They just had their last performance last Monday, so it’s been going for a couple of months. We recorded their last two shows and to try and catch the ambience of the set and the stage, along with close mics on the actors. That’ll definitely manifest in one way or another; perhaps we’ll use only some of the dialogue, which is obviously quite relevant to the overall mood of that stuff, or throw in some of the music that was not actually used in the play…it’s a bit early to say. I think I’ll have to go some rounds with the director and the playwright as well, and have their input. So that’s a project for summer, or maybe autumn.
How is the experience of working in the theatre context?
Amazing. The National Theatre is such a gorgeous place. And all of those people are so colorful and inclusive. We’ve worked a bit with film before, and within the mechanisms and logistics of commercial filmmaking, and I have to be honest with you: working with theatre was a hell of a lot more thankful and freer. We were given so much more trust in our opinions and feelings, it was great. Almost unusual. It’s quite trying too though; they perform it differently every night, and the sound guy might make a few different choices as to how he cues the music and even which music he uses. It’s a bit looser and more “live”. More animated.
So what else is coming up next?
Well there’s this Parma live in concert thing that I think will be the first to turn into something, and then there’s the recordings of the gigs in February that Dan has for the time being, in London. He’s going to be the first one to have a stab at that, so he’ll probably put something together and send it to us and then we’ll probably do some stuff and then we’ll all get together later I reckon. So yeah, I suppose we have three potential album projects on our hands, so there will be quite a lot of studio work in the coming months.
Ulver’s website – http://www.jester-records.com/ulver
Terrestrials on Bandcamp – http://sunnulversl.bandcamp.com