Svartsot Interview

Mighty Music

Danish folk metallers Svartsot recently released Kumbl, a collection of reworked traditional folk songs. Guitarist Cris Frederiksen fills us in on the new record and other topics.

Chad Bowar: What led to the seven-year gap between albums?
Cris Frederiksen: There are several reasons for it. We were in fact in the process of writing a new album already in 2016-17 that was going even further out on the same progressive tangent as Maledictus Eris and Vældet had started us on. But we didn’t feel it was quite right for us to be doing even more progressive stuff. So, when our bassist at that time decided to concentrate on his other project, our present labelmates Heidra, and stopped in Svartsot, we decided that it might be an apt time to shelve the material. Also, we had to recruit a new bassist and he had to be trained up in the back catalogue for shows. We have been quite active live in the time between releasing Vældet and the start of the pandemic.

As I have been collecting folk songs that appealed to me for years, even before starting Svartsot (and was the material I drew some of my inspiration from for the melodic side to Svartsot’s songs), and we felt that it might be a good idea to explore our roots instead of the proggy tangent, it seemed apt to try to interpret some of the songs I had collected and any ideas the other guys had. It took a couple of years to work on the material from 2018 to 2019, and we had hoped to be able to release the album in 2020 to coincide with our 15th anniversary year. But it didn’t happen as planned, and we first recorded the album in mid-2020. It was mixed and mastered by January 2021, but it still took us a little while to work out how to release it – whether we should release on Nail Records again, as we had with Vældet, or to release it ourselves. Then, in the summer of 2021, Mighty Music contacted us about the possibility of releasing through them. Eventually we worked out an agreement everybody was happy with, and it has been released as soon as possible after signing with Mighty Music in autumn 2021.

Alongside all this, our private lives have been busy. Both Thor (vocals) and Hans-Jørgen (folk instruments) have had children. Thor and Frederik (drums and producer of the album) have completed teacher training and have started careers teaching at schools. And I decided to fulfil my childhood dream of studying archaeology, so I did a bachelor and master’s degree, starting in 2016 and finishing in summer 2021.

How did you decide which folk/medieval songs to record for Kumbl?
I have personally been into folk music for many, many years, as has Hans-Jørgen. So, I had been collecting folk and medieval songs that I personally like since even before we started Svartsot in 2005, as I mentioned before. From my side, I had a lot of different possibilities to choose from. Mainly, I selected songs that I thought would make good folk metal songs, or that I felt would be an interesting challenge to work on. I also threw it open to the other guys, and Hans-Jørgen, Thor and Buje (bassist) came with suggestions. As we already planned to release the album on vinyl this time, we were limited to how many songs we could use, and there several songs that didn’t make the final selection. Had I started on the process now, I might have chosen on a slightly different selection, but that would probably always be the case.

How did you approach putting together the musical arrangements for the songs?
That was pretty individual from song to song, and often depended on how long the original song was. Some of the old folk ballads are really long with 30+ verses. I don’t think many people can be bothered to hear that many verses. So, I first had to select which verses we wanted to use on the longer songs. On the shorter songs I didn’t need to do that step. But still, the verses dictated how the structure of the song should be. I took the main melodies for each song from the originals, so the next phase was to work on the chords to the melodies. Often only the melody has been written down, so I could use the chords to give character and flavor to the material.

Then I wrote new passages for almost all the songs, the character of which depended on which function they would have in the song – if they were to be bridges or alternative versions of the verses, as dictated by the lyrical content of the songs. Otherwise, I selected other folk melodies to splice together with the main melodies. In one case, “Drømte Mig En Drøm,” which is the oldest recorded song from Denmark, being written down in a law script in runes from ca. 1300 CE, there was just one musical phrase and two lines of lyrics to go with it. So, I wrote a whole new song incorporating that one musical phrase as a chorus type of thing, and Thor wrote new lyrics for the song, also incorporating the original lyrics. He also wrote new lyrics for the final part of the last song, “De To Ravne.” The last part of our version is a French folk melody that I spliced into the end of the main song, which is a Scottish folk song called “Twa Corbies” that was translated into Danish about 100 years ago.

How did the pandemic affect the process?
As I mentioned, the arranging and writing process was done mainly in 2018-19. The recording of the album started with drums in March 2020, so just at the start of the pandemic, and the rest of the parts at various times throughout the summer months. Partly due to the pandemic, but also because of the decision to have Frederik record, mix and master the album at his home studio before he got started renting proper studio space, we couldn’t do what we previously have done when recording an album. Normally, we have booked a studio for a period of about a month, and I have personally been there during most of the recording sessions, so that I could assist with any suggestions – there is always room for some degree of experimenting whilst at the studio.

But this time recording mainly took place on various weekends and with just Frederik and the person recording being able to be present. The only exception was when we recorded whistles, re-amping and recording choral parts, which were all done in our practice room, and where several of us were present. I had no idea of how progress was going until after each session Frederik would send snippets and half-finished versions. So, I had to let go of my control freak side this time, and I am in no way disappointed with the result! Especially Thor has really experimented with vocals on this album and has done a really good job.

How did you come to sign with Mighty Music?
We’ve been in contact with Mighty Music and their parent concern, Target Group, for years, as Target did distribution in Denmark for the first three albums. And Michael Andersen, the owner, is a known vocalist on the Danish metal scene. He’d been in contact with us regarding various projects and whatever at times throughout the years and had actually suggested working together a few years ago. We weren’t looking for a label at that time, however, and nothing came of it then. Then through a project called Metal Aid 2021 – a two-day festival in Denmark as a substitute for Copenhell being postponed for the second year in a row that Michael and Target arranged for June 2021 – Michael and I ended up discussing the subject of working together to release this album. After a period of discussing the matter, we eventually agreed on terms that we all were happy with. And thus, we signed a deal with them. We have been really happy with the whole process so far, and I think Mighty Music are happy too, from what they have told me.

What are your goals and expectations for the album?
Most of us in Svartsot are not at all young anymore. The only one without his own family with children etc. is Frederik, who is also the youngest. We have jobs and bills to pay, mouths to feed, and don’t do this in hope of making it into a career. We do it because we want to. Thus, we have released the album because we wanted to release an album, not because we expect it to do anything for our careers, as such. Apart from maybe Frederik, who isn’t quite as bound as us others and who is now very involved in both playing and in recording and producing, so it has been an important project for him. But even then, I don’t think he has specific goals or expectations for the album. Of course, we want it to do well! We’ve still put a lot of work into this, so it is always rewarding for an album to be well received by the fans. But we’re not counting on being able to quit our day jobs because of it.

How was the video shoot for “Liden Kirsten”?
Interesting. We’ve only done one official music video before, as our first label didn’t think it was worth while giving us proper budgets for anything or even promoting our releases properly. The last video was for a song from Vældet, and we just decided to do that. Which means we don’t much to compare to for the experience. Last time, we did a day filming the narrative parts and then recorded the band parts together on the second day. This time we recorded the playing parts – individually – on the first day and the narrative and vocals parts on the second day. So, with the exception of the parts where Thor or Steffan (the antihero in the video and our soundguy in real life) are in the shot with Michele (Liden Kirsten), we were all filmed individually.

The choice of filming us separately wasn’t due to the pandemic, but because Dines Karlsen (video producer) and Rune Fonvig (cinematography) had ideas of putting it together in such a way that it required individual clips of us. And we think they did a really good job on the video! Like the album, the video was actually ready way before the release. I think we filmed it back in May last year. But as I mentioned, it took a while to work out how to release everything.

How important are videos in the promotion process these days?
I don’t really know. I don’t follow what other bands are doing, but we decided already before signing with Mighty Music that we would put out three singles before the release and that we would do a music video for one and a lyric video for another. I don’t really know why we decided to do it this way, it just seemed like a logical thing to do for us.

How much attention do you pay to reviews?
Mighty Music’s PR guy has been really good at sending reviews and links to us, and many have reached out to us via Facebook or Instagram with links to other reviews. So, we have read a lot of reviews of this album. There have been a lot of really very positive responses, and a few not so positive reviews. I think the reviews meant more for me on our first album back in 2007, but over our now five album long career, I’ve seen all kinds of reviews, from extremely positive to utter shite. So, for me, I read them, but I am not beaten down by a bad review, most often because it is painfully obvious that the reviewer doesn’t understand the album, concept, band and/or genre and certainly hasn’t spent time reading the press release, looking into the material, or spent time listening. Which I understand – they don’t have much time to listen to each album, maybe don’t even listen to the whole album, and if they don’t get it the first time they hear it, they don’t have the time or the will to go back and listen again.

But then you must ask why a reviewer, who blatantly doesn’t understand what he/she is listening to or what they are writing about, reviews that particular album. However, it has given me something to laugh about on several occasions. The many positive reviews have been fun to read, but even then, some of the reviewers are writing a review about what they think they are listening to, when it is painfully obvious that they haven’t read the press release. That has given me occasion to laugh too. So yeah, I read them, but they don’t influence me like they did back on the first album.

Describe your first post pandemic live show.
We played a few during the lulls in the pandemic. They were mainly seating only shows, which to be truthful was a bit shit for everybody. We like to involve the audience at our shows, and the energy of the audience gives us energy. When the audience is forced to sit down and we have to keep asking them to stay seated, it is a bit lame for everybody. We played two shows at the end of last year where seating wasn’t needed, and they were a breath of fresh air for us and the audience. But the first completely restriction free shows have not yet taken place.

What are your upcoming tour plans?
We have several shows in Denmark through the first half of the year, but only one show booked for outside of Denmark. That is the Lid Ar Morrigan festival in France in May, which has also been postponed two years now. Now that there seems to be the first proper big lull in the pandemic (I’m not expecting we’re fully over this yet), we are hoping to start getting shows outside of Denmark booked for as soon as we can. But probably no actual tour before next year, at a guess.

Do you think things like live concert streams that people did during the pandemic will continue? It seems like a good way to reach fans in places you’re not able to travel to.
I don’t know. We never did one, and it isn’t something we are interested in. While I understand the point you’re making, it isn’t something our shows are suited to. We have done a couple live streams at shows before, but that was something the tour or festival arrangers had decided on. It isn’t something we personally had a say in. Actually, whenever we have been offered to have our shows filmed in more recent years, we have declined. For us, half of the show is the atmosphere of actually being there, the heat of other people and the stench of spilled beer and sweat. Unless some one makes scratch-and-sniff internet, you’re not going to get the full show experience sitting at home. As I said earlier, I’m getting old, and I remember the good old days when bands were releasing VHS tapes of live shows, and it just didn’t have the same atmosphere as being at the show. I’ve never been a fan of that. But if that’s what people really want, then I’m sure there are many bands who will oblige. Just don’t count on Svartsot being one of them.

I understand you’re studying archaeology. What led you to that field?
I finished my master’s degree in medieval and early modern period archaeology last year and am currently working as a field archaeologist here in Denmark. I have always been deeply interested in the past and especially what we can learn from past times’ material culture. This kind of also fits with what we do in Svartsot, taking the ideas and melodies of past times and reinterpreting them. Archaeology is just a more serious, scientific and professional way of studying the past and interpreting it.

What are some of your other non-musical interests?
Personally: history, medieval archaeology and past crafts, especially iron working in the Middle Ages. The history and archaeology – alongside folk music, folklore and folk traditions – is also where I find inspiration for the music. Good food is also an interest of mine, especially strong, spicy food. Pretty much all of us in the band are quite into a speciality and craft beers. We’re also almost all family fathers, so our wives/girlfriends, children and family life take a big role in our free time. Individually, the other guys have different hobbies and interests such as Magic The Gathering, old game consoles, other musical projects, etc.

What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
I hardly ever listen to music of any kind! So, there is actually nothing on my musical rotation at all at the moment. I mostly hear music when I’m with the band. And the other guys all come from very different musical interests, so I get to hear a lot of varied stuff with them. But not much of the music around just now interests that much, to be honest. I’m slowly preparing to start writing some new material, and during periods of writing I try not to listen to other people’s music at all, as I would prefer to find the inspiration from myself rather than inadvertently writing the folk metal version of “Tainted Love” or something else equally as unfortunate. If I do decide to listen to some metal or heavy music of some kind for some reason, it is either a song I haven’t heard for years and suddenly remember (I had a period of listening to “More Than A Feeling” by Boston almost on repeat a few months ago), or it will be a classic album like Orchid by Opeth, The Jester Race by In Flames, or even some old Jethro Tull, Iron Maiden or something.

Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
We just hope the people will like the album! It is out now – so go check it out!

(interview published 3/7/2022)

Watch Svartsot – “Liden Kirsten” Video


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