Interview from Terrorizer #28 (March 1996). Also appeared in edited form in Dutch magazine Aardshok. Typed up by Rainer.
The Nordic Metal scene was rocked asunder when Varg Vikernes was jailed for the murder of Euronymous of Norwegian Black Metallers MAYHEM, as well as starting church fires. Now serving a 21-year sentence in a Norwegian prison, Varg, alias Count Grishnackh remains the most controversial figure in Black Metal.
Robert C. Sanchez took advantage of visiting hours and went to meet the man behind the music of Burzum.
Ila is not the name of some fascinating Norwegian woman, but rather of a place that no modern Viking hopes to ever have to visit. In fact, the most feared prison in Norway rises up from the original structure of a grim concentration camp from the Second World War. This prison can prison can be found in a normal, quiet country where crimes and murders don't usually give too much work to local newspapers and where, obviously, the deeds of the most famous Count of the 90's were enough to make 'public enemy No.1,' recognised and feared by children and adults and not just by a bunch of Black Metallers.
The atmosphere surrounding ILA (defined by most as the 'trash-can' of Norway) is rather depressing; snowy hills, trees and 'the nothing' all around; the whole ambience is lightened up by a disarming silence.
I shyly enter the building with a certain insecurity: eventually, but not without a strong wish to go back and without starting inside at all. The hospital ambience in the hall distresses me even more; a pathetic and formal examination and then here I am, ready to spend half a day with the person that some consider the genius of extreme music, and others a fake circus phenomenon. Varg Vikernes, alias Count Grishnackh, alias Burzum itself, shows up in a very good mood, excellent physical condition and a surprising dose of sarcasm.
Nowadays ever really talked about your musical roots and evolution, first as a fan and then as a musician; maybe nobody ever really thought of you as a musician at all. When did you start listening to music and do you remember the first bands you listened to?
"I have been listening to music since a very early age, though obviously in a passive way, just absorbing everything my big brother was listening to. In a conscious and active way I started listening to some music only at the age of 9, and my first passion had been Tschiakovsky. But strangely, I lost this growing interest towards music pretty soon again. This kind of 'blackout' lasted until I was 14 years old, and this was the moment when I approached metal music. The first album I ever bought was 'Killers' by Iron Maiden, if I remember well. The Maiden themselves were one of my fave bands at the time! But quite soon, I started to get into more extreme bands and sounds, like Kreator."
Can you identify now within your listening of that time any bands who were actually a strong influence on you then as a musician and composer?
"No, or at least not intentionally. But like everybody I guess, I absorbed a lot of passive influences, and if I think about early Burzum compositions I can name the German band Destruction as a main influence. At least, this was the band that changed my approach towards playing my instrument and the whole playing role completely, though I discovered this band quite late, only in 1991 in fact. But maybe that's the point: I discovered Destruction when I was starting to write songs for Burzum, at a very important moment..."
That's surprising, I thought about other bands, Bathory and Venom for example.
"For sure Bathory were important, but I wouldn't say the same for Venom. I never enjoyed them very much. Still, I have to quote Celtic Frost, but only the 'Morbid Tales' album, since their other LPs don't appeal to my taste like this one. You should know that when both Burzum and Immortal began to play, their main goal was to compose very simple music, disregarding the trends of time, the pseudo Techno-Death Metal bands. Therefore Destruction were a perfect example to follow. Another great influence for us was Bathory's 'Blood, Fire, Death'. They were actually the very first extreme Metal act I used to listen to after the Thrash Metal boom."
Have you ever listened to other musical genres?
"Yes, I do believe that each musical genre suits a particular moment in your life, or at least is bound to your mood in that very moment. Each style can give a certain feeling and emotion connected to it: for example, when I pump iron I absolutely have to listen to some Techno, for the rhythm and adrenalin it unleashes. Anyway, I don't care very much since nowadays I'm not listening to music in massive doses, especially Metal."
On your records you play and record each single instrument yourself. Which is the instrument you love the most, or think is the most representative of Burzum?
"Even if it sounds obvious, it's the guitar. This is by the way the instrument most people learn how to play first. I began to play the drums only in 1991, and I don't even own a drumkit. so I could never rehearse regularly. So drums were always improvised in the studio! Furthermore, when I recorded 'Burzum', I had been playing drums for just three months... moreover, I didn't play them at all between the first and second album!"
Well, in fact, you're not a genius on the skins, but you do show unexplainable coordination skills and training...
"Look, I consider myself an 'air drummer'. I play drums with my imagination 18 hours a day, and even if this seems strange, it helps a lot."
(In fact, Vikernes spends the whole time nervously simulating drums on his own legs or on the table.)
What about keyboards? The seem to play an important role on your latest records.
"Well, honestly, keyboards have always been artificial. I can't play them, and they've always been added with various sequencers."
Being a factotum and doing everything yourself, do you use any particular facilities, like drum-machines or pre-recordings?
"No, all drums are real! I generally record a drum-track, and at the first break I go back and record the guitars. Afterwards, I record the drums again, until the mosaic is complete. It is not so difficult, but its fundamental to enter the studio with all the songs well impressed in your mind, even if you never had a chance to rehearse and listen to them with all the instruments. All in all, it takes a lot of fantasy. For 'Filosofem' only I experienced recording with a click track, and I've had difficulties in keeping steady tempos, as it obviously is hard for me to play on slow riffs without losing the tempo, whereas I have no problem playing fast."
Have you ever studied music? Or are you completely self-taught?
"I am completely self-taught... someone tried to instruct me to play a ludicrous flute at school, but I always refused."
Would you talk about other musical experiences you've had in the past, with Old Funeral and Satanel, for example?
"Satanel was just a few days' project I had with Abbath from Immortal; nothing important really, we played to fight boredom and because we were living close to each other. It was an extreme project anyway! As for Old Funeral, I was just a guest musician. I've never felt part of the band, who used to play a very technical and boring genre, but it was an interesting experience from some aspects, having the chance to play with a real line-up. I also learned quite a lot from the other members of the band."
Don't you think its strange that you took part in recording Mayhem's 'De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas' EP? Did you consider yourself effectively Mayhem's bassplayer at the time?
"Haha! Yes, I recorded the bass on that record, even when after the killing they wanted to to make people believe that the same bass tracks were re-recorded by someone else because the commie rat's parents didn't want me on the record with their own little son. Anyway, I've never been Mayhem's effective bass player, I only helped them out in rehearsing the EP for three weeks before they entered the studio, but then it was logical that I recorded the album as well."
I suppose you dedicate your time to serving different cultural interests, as you always seem to know your subjects, even when you speak on 'serious matters'. Is there any writer or philosopher you could quote as particularly influential on your character?
"Well yes, I used to read a lot. I have always been fascinated by history in particular, religious studies, which is different to 'belief', and philosophy. I can quote Nietzsche, but also a lot of fantasy tales and books. Well, 'fantasy'... it depends on how you see it all. I don't think about it as fiction in absolute terms. In such a context I should quote 'The Lord Of The Rings' by Tolkien..."
Well, it's obvious; everything you wrote is always full of references to that book, isn't it?
"Yes, that book has been a strong influence on me and it's full of important meanings for me, even behind the words themselves. Recently I've been thinking of it more as an encyclopedia than a fantasy book! Tolkien was a professor in Norse mythology, thus the historical references and the figures he used in this book are very precise in the whole fantasy context. It's a bottomless source of study and inspiration for me, starting from the choice of the name of my project itself. 'BURZUM', the supreme and wide darkness, the plural form of 'Burz', the dark. The whole book is rich with concepts that I can easily relate to the religion of Odinism. So it's all kind of linked."
Have you ever been interested in different forms of art besides music and literature?
"I must say I'm not at all interested in any modern form of art, I hate contemporary art, besides a certain kind of Norwegian nationalist and romantic painting with wonderful and sad nature subjects. That's all I'm into right now."
Do you really believe that the nature surrounding you is a strong influence on you Norwegians?
"Definitely, yes. At some moments of the year here everything is dark for most of the day, and it's so cold you can't even put your nose outside the window, so you can imagine... And even this big fascination we have towards forests, believe me, is really spontaneous and just obvious, despite the fact that some of my compatriots are ruining it all abusing this subject with their Black Metal bands..."
"Indeed, yes. Anyway, I strongly recommend you to try and take a walk in the middle of a winter night in a forest all alone, and you will understand what I mean: it actually speaks."
Did you get any specific or strong religious education from your family?
"Absolutely not. Christmas itself has been celebrated with different meaning, our pagan and Viking one, not as a Christian ritual. It actually is the celebration of the Sun, or better the Sun wheel; in other words the Swastika itself, though some people misunderstand that symbol."
Do you define yourself as an Odinist?
"Personally, I define myself as a Norwegian, and this says it all. But it's not a matter I could explain and cut in a minute, so... But more or less, really superficially speaking, a Norwegian is a pagan worshipping Odin. We are not anyway too anyway too distant from other European's conceptions and versions of paganism, like Greek or Roman ones; it's just that we use different icons, symbols and figures."
I'd observe that it's not so easy to be a pagan in the artificial plastic light of today's society.
"Right, I'm really disappointed. Each time I listen to the media, I understand they're doing everything to destroy what we're believing in. Our faith, our ideals."
Is it true that you legally changed your name from Kristian to Varg?
"Yes, I couldn't stand that. First of all, with the first 'K' which means Christ and 'Christian'... the word 'Varg' has a great meaning for me. I could speak about this matter for an hour, anyway briefly, if you make a diagram of this word, you'll see that it's the combination of the vertical and horizontal of the words 'Amor' (the strongest feeling), 'Roma' (the centre of the world) and 'Grav' (grave). Besides, 'Varg' derives from an archaic Nordic language and means wolf."
In an old letter, you told me that you had the intention to make Burzum a real band with a proper line-up, gigs and so on.
"Yes, it was an idea. But I immediately gave it up because I realised that Burzum is too personal a thing to be ruined by other people and by the ridiculous and depressing concert atmosphere."
Do you have any particular expectations for your new album, 'Filosofem'?
"No, it's an album recorded two years ago. I have not even listened to the final mix. But yes, I hope people will like it as well, although this isn't my problem, but the label's and I've never recorded albums looking toward sales perspectives.."
Do you have any chance to enjoy your success in a material way?
"No, obviously not. I haven't been allowed to read music magazines for ages. Concerning financial things.. royalties... I can't own any goods, as they will be confiscated since I have a debt with the Norwegian government for millions of pounds, for they say I burnt some churches."
"Sure, they have no evidence on that!"
I'd say the greatest difference between Filosofem and your other work is the vocals. You've come up with a hell of a sound on this!
"Ha! I asked Pytten [the producer] to give me the worst microphone he had, and he gave me a pair of bad headphones... this is the secret!"
Can we consider the long electronic/ambient song featured on the album as a taster for the next album? I heard you've already recorded a new album in prison, a totally electronic one...
"Yes, it was recorded with a Portastudio recorder and a sound module synth during my stay in Bergen prison. You can't consider this song an advance theme from my next album, because the new songs are very different."
Still concerning prison-works, I heard you've written a book which is going to be published in some way. What can you tell us about this?
"I started writing this book after my imprisonment. They did everything possible to stop the writing process, but they didn't succeed! They took away my paper and tried to stop those people who were going to receive them outside the jail. Anyway, nothing will stop me and the whole book will be published, though of course distributed through underground channels. The contents are various: flashbacks on my story, but above all some necessary explanations for people about several different subjects."
Finally, it seems like a sign of destiny that you recorded all your albums in such a short space of time. Did you have any bad omens?
"Probably, yes. I felt I wouldn't be a free man for long. I even thought that maybe I wouldn't stay alive for too long."