May 3, 2010

Interview: Cris Frederiksen from Svartsot

Brutal Tunes


As the second installment of FOLK METAL WEEK, I’ve got Cris Frederiksen, from up-and-coming Danish folk metal band Svartsot. We picked up their first album Ravnenes Saga, on our Europe tour of Epicness, and I’ve become an avid fan, so it’s a real honour to be able to talk about music, folk metal, and mythology with Cris.


Svartsot (photos courtesy of Napalm records)

First, for a bit of background, can you tell us about Svartsot, the music you play and how the band first got together?

Svartsot started in Randers, Denmark, in early 2005. Right from the start we mixed Nordic folk music and metal, but the whistles weren’t added until after a few months. Since then we’ve increased the array of instruments to include mandolins and accordions too. The vocals have always been growled and the lyrics – which are mainly about drinking, fighting and women – have always been in Danish. The themes for the lyrics are usually either taken from history or folklore, or are written into a historic context.

We recorded a couple of demos, Svundne Tider in 2005 and Tvende Ravne in 2006, which brought attention to us from across the world, and ultimately led to us being signed by Napalm Records in 2007. Our debut album, Ravnenes Saga, was recorded and released in 2007 and have just released our second album, Mulmets Viser, also on Napalm Records.

The original line-up was formed of four of us who had previously played together (a couple of us had known each other for a few years) and a mutual friend. As mentioned, a sixth member joined a little later on. Since the beginning we’ve undergone various line-up changes. The latest and most significant occurred at the end of 2008, when four guys quit and one took a break from the band for an indefinite period. The line-up was again fully manned again within a couple months, and has remained unchanged since then.

I’ve always been curious about the origins and the increasing popularity of folk metal throughout Europe. My sources tell me one of the first proper folk metal band was England’s Skyclad. How did the idea spread into Europe and become so popular? WHY do you think folk metal has become so popular in Europe – is it because it appeals to hordes of “dispossessed Vikings” who wish to get in touch with their heritage?

I think that folk music and rock and, later, metal have always had some kind of affinity. Some accredit Bob Dylan as being the originator of folk rock, and thereby also folk metal, as he was the first “folk” musician to use an electric guitar. But folk rock (the originator to folk metal) has certainly existed since the late 60’s/early 70’s when bands like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention arrived on the scene. Later on bands like Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy and Jethro Tull started incorporating folk melodies into their music at some point in their careers. These bands were of course also big on mainland Europe, as they still are.

The folk metal wave started with Skyclad, and even they paid homage to the “old boys” by covering Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald”. But it still took a few years before the wave of folk metal really set in. Generally I think the black metal scene has had a folk streak in it for a long time, and Finntroll were one of the first folk metal bands to make a big impression on the metal scene with a kind of black metal style to their music. Finland has actually provided the scene with many bands. Since then things have just taken off and folk metal has off-shoots all over the world now.

Somehow metal and folk music just seem to gel well. I guess there are many comparisons between the two: for example the raspy, distorted sound of the instruments used (here I’m thinking hurdy gurdies, bagpipes, shawms and fiddles compared to distorted electric guitars), the use of power chords in both styles and powerful drums, and in some ways even a similar ethos.

Maybe this has been a part of the reason for the popularity; that the two styles simply go well together. Maybe also the whole attitude of the style has been a major factor. But to tell you the truth, I don’t really know. Maybe there is an appeal to the hordes of dispossessed Vikings, as you put it – or at least people who wish to be dispossessed Vikings. Personally I’m getting tired of the whole Viking/pagan side of the folk metal scene – it’s become legitimate for any band from anywhere to be “Vikings” and sing about the Nordic gods. What’s wrong with looking at one’s own heritage instead of borrowing from other peoples’ heritage? And something that has been done to death at that!

Many critics say there’s a rush to “cash in” on this Folk Metal trend that’s producing a lot of lackluster bands. What do you think of this?

Seeing as we’re a comparatively new band, we’ve also been accused of jumping on the trend! All I can say is that I’ve personally have played folk music and metal side by side for around twenty years now, and even played with the idea already of combining the two as far back as 1991 or so. I just never had the chance to do it as a band before the precursor to Svartsot.

In general there is a rush on. There are a lot of folk metal bands appearing now, and that has a lot – if not everything – to do with the popularity of the style. Of course there are a lot of really untalented bands amongst them, and only very few good bands – which is the way it should be! The same happens with all styles – heavy metal and thrash in the 80’s, death metal and black metal since then. But the style won’t die out. The better bands will survive and continue when the next trend rolls over the metal scene. That’s how it always goes.

When I brought Ravnenes Saga in Oslo, it had a little sticker on it which said “The Next Generation of Folk Metal.” What do you think is the future of folk metal?

The “The next generation of folk metal” was what Napalm Records were marketing us as back then. I don’t really have a clue about the future of folk metal. I don’t pay very close attention to the new bands coming up. And I haven’t even heard the latest albums by Finntroll or Korpiklaani yet! It’s almost impossible to predict the future if you more or less ignore the present.

How have people reacted to your more “brutal” form of folk metal?

It’s been really mixed. Some say it’s a breath of fresh air for the scene, others can’t stand the vocals. Some have even said that it sounds just like all the other bands! We’ve had really good and really bad reviews. But from what I’ve read in the reviews very few have actually understood what the band or the music is even about! The music normally goes down really well in the live setting though, and we seem to have quite a few fans out there, so it can’t be all bad.

How do you choose the myths and stories you write about in your songs? Do you do research or do the ideas come from visiting old sites, or are they just part of the Danish folk tradition?

Basically all of our lyrics are about drinking, fighting and women! We just find suitable passages from history or tales from folklore that can be adapted to our purposes. Occasionally we write new stories and set them in a historical past. In a way it’s a continuation on the normal themes from folk song, but maybe presented in a slightly different way. All of the themes for the folklore/historical themed tracks are researched. In essence we just want to write good songs with good stories. It’s certainly not about conveying any messages or ethics.


Svartsot (Napalm Records)

I’m a whistle-player myself, and I’ve been wondering what’s it like playing with a whistle in a traditional metal setting? How on earth do you make sure the audience hears him? How do people react when they see a whistle player with a metal band?

It’s not really something we consciously think about, as it’s just a part of the band. For me, folk metal is about the folk instruments as much as it’s about the other elements. On the first album the whistles more or less just doubled the lead guitar, but they have become even more integrated on the new album, and we’ve added more mandolin and even accordion.

The audibility of the whistles in the live setting is the soundman’s job! I’ve got no idea about that side of it, but I know there’s a fine balance between audibility and feedback when it comes to whistles. We’ve been lucky on a few occasions and had soundmen who could work the whistles, but we’ve also had many who just didn’t have a clue! The right microphone is also very important.

People who come to folk metal shows in general expect to see the “weird” instruments, so that’s not a problem. We very rarely play shows with no other folk metal bands on the bill, and the past few times that we have were all shows with Svartsot headlining them. Remembering back to the first shows, it always seemed that our reputation preceded us, so no one seemed surprised. Of course we meet people on occasions who don’t like the whistles. But it’s up to them if they want to stand and listen to us or go to the bar.

I read you’ve been confirmed for Wacken Open Air – congratulations! Wacken is the best festival I’ve ever attended – it’s very special. How did that came about?

Thanks. Our booking agent got us the job… No matter how it came about we’re really looking forward to it!

I’m looking forward to the new release, Mulmets Viser, which was released in Europe this week (although in lowly NZ it won’t arrive in stores till … ever). Can you tell us about the new album, how is it different from Ravnenes Saga?

The new album is very much a continuation from the old album on the one hand, but also quite different at the same time. We wanted this album to be more folk music inspired, yet heavier, and I think we managed to do this.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve used more mandolin and introduced some accordion too, and have actually less whistle on this album than on Ravnenes Saga. The guitar work is generally heavier, and there are more harmonies between the lead instruments on Mulmets Viser.

We also chose a different producer; this time we went to Lasse Lammert (known for his work with Alestorm) in Lübeck, Germany. He managed to get a more organic, natural and yet rawer sound than we had on Ravnenes Saga, and I feel it really fits the music and the band in general. All in all I feel the band and the material has developed and matured since the debut.

What advice would you give to anyone else wanting to start a folk metal band?

An in-depth knowledge of both folk music and metal is essential. If you don’t understand the styles you’re trying to play and write in it is gonna sound fake. Everything else that you do with the music, the lyrics, etc. is a question of taste, technique and ability.

What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you because of Svartsot?

That’s difficult to say! There have been several things, kinda like milestones I guess, but I don’t know if I’d set any of them above the others. Getting signed, recording, playing a couple Paganfest shows, being booked for Wacken etc. But I suppose it just comes down to being able to play in the band is really the best thing about it.

What is the next step for Svartsot?

We’re really starting to get busy now. I’m writing new material that we’re gonna start working on as a band very soon. Then we’ve got some jobs coming up with Negură Bunget and the Napalm Records 15th anniversary at Metalfest Austria. Then we have the show at Wacken Open Air. There should hopefully be some touring towards the end of the year too. So basically writing and playing.

What was the first album you ever brought? Your first metal album?

I can’t actually remember! I’ve been listening to metal for over 20 years now, since I was 8-9 years of age or something! I remember getting Iron Maiden’s Killers on vinyl for Christmas once, and I remember buying Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration and Megadeth’s Killing is My Business on vinyl, but I know had I bought several albums before then. I’d have to look all my old cassettes out to tell you that, I think …

Can you name your top five metal albums?

That’s a pretty difficult question to answer as there are so many albums and individual tracks that I could name that have been important for me. The list below is based on the albums that really grabbed my attention when I heard them for the first time. I wouldn’t necessarily say that they have been more influential on me than other bands or albums, but are certainly amongst my influences.

    1. Opeth – Orchid
    2. Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time
    3. Bathory – Nordland
    4. Ulver – Bergtatt
    5. Dissection – Storm of the Light’s Bane

What bands and albums have you heard recently that have stood out to you?

I hardly listen to music any more – I just don’t seem to be able to find the time. I can’t actually remember when I last bought an album even! But I can mention this one Danish band in particular who supported us recently, called Huldre, who I thought did a really good job. I don’t think they’ve even recorded a proper demo yet.

What was your best ever live music experience?

Again, it’s difficult for me to answer that, as there have been many really cool experiences. The most recent ones was playing the two Paganfest extended shows we did, as it was a real honour for us to be able to play those shows (we got called in at the last minute, as Equilibrium had to cancel two shows). But I could name many other shows too.

Who or what inspires you?

Lots of things – everything and anything can inspire me! The music is in me the whole time, and any number of things could trigger something off. It could be watching my children or just walking down the road, or being in some place with a specific atmosphere, or just reading a book. It’s pretty random really, but I often feel inspired to write something at a time when I can’t just reach for my guitar!

Thanks very much to Cris and the team at Napalm for setting this up. It’s always interesting to learn about folk metal from the musicians who are writing and performing it.

Don’t forget to check out Svartsot’s new album, Mulmets Viser, available worldwide from Napalm Records.

Raise Your Horns! \m/

2 Comments on “Interview: Cris Frederiksen from Svartsot

May 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Nice interview… I loved Ravnenes Saga, and while Mulmets Viser isn’t as good an album, it has its moments. These guys are pretty great, though.

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