“Everything is permitted.” Considering that's Norwegian experimental collective Ulver's current genre description, hindsight confirms it's no surprise they strayed so dramatically from the black metal that shaped their earliest albums. Following the release of their 13th LP (ATGCLVLSSCAP), vocalist Kristoffer Rygg shares his thoughts on the band’s evolution and his own artistic journey in an interview expanding from issue #140’s “Shadows of the Past."
For ATGCLVLSSCAP, how did your collective develop these songs, and how much relied on improvisation?
Kristoffer Rygg: It’s kind of difficult to be specific, as it depends on which track we are talking about, but I’d say somewhere in the vicinity of half improvised and half pre-established rough ideas. We obviously had some things planned, we'd have one or maybe two riffs to circle around, and we would also have these signals during the jams so we'd sort of know where to go next. So in that sense it’s not absolute ad-libbing. The percussive element was probably the part that was most set. Most of the keys, guitars and the more ephemeral electronic stuff, that's pretty much just winging it.
Did the results surprise you?
KR: Well, it surprised me to hear how well-realized some of the pieces sounded, because Dan [O’Sullivan] had the first stab at these recordings, sort of rummaging through it all. So when he sent them to me they were already in pretty decent shape, which is an unusual kind of luxury for me. But I wasn't too surprised, since I kind of knew we were a solid band and that we had some golden moments out there. Actually it’s a lot more volatile in the improv quartet Dan and I play in with Stephen [O’Malley], called Æthenor.
What are you able to explore or fulfill with Æthenor that you can’t with Ulver?
KR: It’s just a different aesthetic, I would say. Very different players, apart from myself and Dan [O'Sullivan] obviously. We have a drummer [Steve Noble] who's a total jazz maverick, and obviously Stephen [O'Malley] has very different sensibilities with regards to the tone and texture of his guitar and how he plays it. So it’s a quite different feeling. We have a new album coming out this year, actually. It’s built on some older live recordings. All the Æthenor stuff actually is using live material as the raw material. There’s a sound there, within the live improvisational context of that group that’s quite special, almost ectoplasmic, with notes happening that aren’t really notes.
Have you noticed a change in your artistic philosophy since beginning Ulver?
KR: Yes, I guess our overall approach changed quite a lot since we started playing live, and particularly since we made the album Wars of the Roses. Around those days we were part of this studio collective called Crystal Canyon. Through that we had access to many talented people; it wasn’t just two or three or four of us anymore. And those people have sort of moved in the background of the band ever since. The band has sort of functioned more as a collective since Wars, which has enabled us to do quite a lot in the last five years or so. A lot of releases, and different kind of productions, while perhaps leaning a bit more towards traditional rock music and that sort of instrumental set-up, which I personally enjoy. We’ve been playing as a bigger group of people overall, which is actually how [ATGCLVLSSCAP] was born. We'd say, okay let’s go out and play as six, seven people on stage and just see what happens. It’s a lot more flesh on the bone, right there.
Does collaboration energize you?
KR: Definitely. More and more and more as time goes by, I would say. To me it’s the greatest thing really, just experimenting with different musicians, people who might have different sensibilities to your own, and realizing that something new and interesting is happening as a result. It’s a living organism in a way, a band. It functions through how things change, probably more radically with us than other bands, but because we have these sort of revolving doors of people and players coloring the process and all the different projects. But with [the constant members] holding the reins, so to speak, it will always have something in there that feels like Ulver.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was widely recognized as the moment of stylistic departure, although Metamorphosis was a fitting name for the EP a year later. But you established even in the early trilogy that you wouldn’t be easily defined. You even had a folk album.
KR: That's true. On Metamorphosis we were down to two people, just Tore [Ylwizaker] and myself. We’re not really instrumentalists, so we were using the studio as our instrument and sampling and programming things and relying quite heavily on electronics. But it was also a choice; it was a direction we wanted to head in since we were very much into that type of music at the time.
Did you have any trepidation about leaning more towards electronic music?
KR: No. (Laughs) I don’t think we felt we had that much to lose. These were still early days. I might admit to actually being more conscious about those things now with Ulver, saying we can’t do this or can’t do that. But back then I didn’t give a flying fuck – if that’s allowed to say.
Oh, absolutely. We’ll print it in all caps and bold.
KR: (Laughs) That's excellent. I have to sort of transport myself back in time here, but I remember thinking that in a way that it was a pure black metal thing to do. To completely shape-shift and break all the dogmas. Black metal was becoming a prison of sorts. It sounds childish when I say it out loud, but it’s true. We still felt connected to black metal as an idea; more as an idea, actually, than a musical infatuation by 1997. [Black metal] was getting quite big and getting noticed around the world and stuff, but by that time it had lost a lot of its initial draw for me. So to us it felt like the most black metal thing you could do was say, ‘Okay, let’s go make a fucking techno album.’
It kind of reminds me of a William Blake quote, “Those who control their passions do so because their passions are weak enough to be controlled.”
KR: Yeah, spot on. Man, there are so many great quotes from Blake. Lines like “Without contraries is no progression,” or “no bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” I can’t remember them all anymore, I used to know that entire book [The Marriage of Heaven and Hell] by heart.
When you look back at the first trilogy, how do you see them today with this distance?
KR: It’s strange, because they’re so canonized. And I appreciate that and I feel very proud about that. But, it’s probably the music I’ve made that for me personally is the hardest to connect to nowadays. That said, it still blows me away putting Nattens Madrigal on, thinking, ‘Fuck, this is gnarly. Did I make this?’ It’s got that feral drive to it that’s sort of amazing to listen to, even now. But it’s also very distant to me, I have to admit. Also, objectively speaking, from a more technical, engineering standpoint, those old albums are just so full of flaws. But those flaws are what defines them and makes them special too, I guess. The youth of it.
Archaic is a word you've used to describe them before.
KR: They're archaic not only in terms of songwriting, but also in terms of adopting this aesthetic almost as a worldview. We wanted it to be a reality, as in a sort of poetic realism. We would write in this ancient tongue, Dano-Norwegian, and were very conscious when we were taking band photos of not having a modern accessory - like a watch - present. Just totally embracing the illusion we were creating, wanting things to feel as if it could just as well be hundreds of years ago. You have to keep in mind, we were quite young when we made those albums.
During the trilogy you performed as Garm, then adopted Trickster G. before shifting to your full name. What was the signal to move on from those pseudonyms?:
KR: Trickster G. was an extension from Jester Records, a combination of Jester and Loki actually, and also stuff that was going on with Arcturus at the time, which I was still involved with. It was kind of a joke, to be honest. It was making monkey of the sort of gravitas of some of these evil alter-egos in the metal scene. So that was just a bit of a pun. It wasn’t too serious. I think that was around the time we did Perdition City and William Blake - those might have been the only times I used that name, but it’s somehow stuck with me. I always liked to toy around with titles and names, and sort of create these characters and personas, and after a while I got tired of it and decided to just use my own birth name.
And what convinced you to put the name Garm to rest?
KR: It comes from Norse mythology, and it just felt apt to leave that behind when we closed the door on black metal with Nattens Madrigal. It’s just a name, you know, it doesn’t hold any big personal significance to me. It was just sort of something you did in that scene, pick a name.
What are some of the things outside of music that inspire you?
KR: I’m sort of hung up on time; warped time and space. We’re always looking to the future or the past for answers or inspiration. But the sort of hang-up on ancient history is not so strong, I would say.