An Interview with Anders Bjorler

An interview with Anders Björler

December 4th, 2013, I headed to Gothenberg, Sweden. I decided to take the train. It’s an easy form of travel in Sweden, relaxed, and easy to navigate. I woke up feeling a little under the weather,  and was a bit worried the travel wouldn’t do well for me. I’m a piss poor traveler. My weak immune system deals poorly with recycled air.  I slept most of the ride, read Game of Thrones the rest. My questions were already prepped, so it would be nothing more than brushing up once I got to the hotel.

The hotel is decidedly Swedish. The bed is small, with a mattress pad. The hotel is a bit off the main roads, tucked into apartment buildings. Still, it’s fairly nice, especially for the price. Worth the 500 meter walk from Central Station.

Before going to meet Anders, I brushed up on my metal. I listened to some At The Gates and The Haunted. I jotted down some specific lyrics I might be interested in asking about. Really, I already knew the gist—folk influences, social and political themes in the music, asking about the significance of the use of various calendars in his new album Antikythera.

It’s hard to distill nearly three hours of continuous conversation. I had decided to forgo recording the interview and had decided on a more narrative syle of write up instead of a transcript. Because, for me, this experience wasn’t about the exactitude of the answers, nor my memory.

We met at a Starbucks in Central Station. I was sipping an Americano to warm my hands. Sweden gets damn chilly when the sun sets, and it sets damnedly early.  Of course it was a Starbucks Americano, so it tasted terribly. I saw Anders through the door, he came in and we shook hands. Then the talking began.
He asked me about my project, what I do. I asked him about music he liked. The first music he mentioned was Prokofiev.  Then Shostacovich. Next Penderecki, specifically Symphony 3. Anders mentioned he loved the Russian aesthetic, so melancholy and dark. I talked about all the classical musicians that liked metal, admittedly for similar reasons, as well as the great playing.

Next Anders asked me if I was looking into folk music. I mentioned I was, and that I was interested in folk influences. As my guess and “preliminary research” showed, it is indeed an influence for some metal groups. The ones I thought of particularly (In Flames and At The Gates) it definitely was. Anders grandfather played violin and folk music was a part of his life. I’d heard as much in interviews, but it doesn’t mean it actually goes into the music.

But it’s definitely there. If you listen to his latest album you can hear it most clearly. The similar melodies, the melodic minor scales. You can also hear guys like Esbjorn Svensson, Prokofiev, and all his work in metal music. Anders told me that influences come from all over, from everything he hears, so he can’t pin down any while he’s working. There are major influences, like folk tunes and classical music that are apparent, and which he admits to listening to on a regular basis.

I asked about the title of his album, Antikythera and the relationship of the song titles. Most of the songs are based on different types of calendars; the Callipic Cycle, the Saros Cycle, and Lunar and Solar eclipse. There’s one titled “223” which is how many gears one device had. The connection to the music? It’s a title, nothing more. Anders told me he had watched a documentary on the Antikythera mechanism and thought it was really interesting. To keep all the songs tied together, he picked different names of calendars. The material itself wasn’t worked out with the title specifically in mind. It may be fun to see if there are some odd occurrences, moments when the amount of years in a cycle correspond to some musical moment. Is there something about the numbers 76, 18, and 54 subconsciously in the music? I highly doubt it, but some musical scholars will spend their time mapping it. I, for one, will take Anders at his word, and accept the music for what it is without dissecting subconscious compositional methods.

The music he worked out in a short time—the general form and ideas were put together in two weeks. I joked that before the Fulbright began, I never could have believed it possible to put together 40 minutes of music in a couple weeks, but when you have time. And time is what Anders has, devoting it to working on music, making documentaries, and having beers with a random American wanting to ask him questions.
We later talked about the general attitude toward folk music. Anders told me that most everyone hears the music at some point. It’s taught in schools, but then promptly forgotten. The general populous tends to like the latest pop from America…or slightly older than the latest. Folk is as niche in Sweden as most everyone else, but there’s at least a general awareness.

We talked a bit about folk music in America. How there’s folk music from later immigrants, music from Ireland, Sweden, Italy, and Poland. And how there are distinctly American folk, like spirituals, American hymns (I thought of shape note hymns and American prayer books), and even loosely jazz. But I told him how so much of that isn’t attached to the everyday culture of the “majority” of Americans, the white middle and upper class. That when they hear folk, it’s Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, the newer folk music. Even older collectors, like Charles Seeger or Alan Lomax aren’t as well known. It’s not that these people aren’t completely unknown, but compared to Sweden where if I bring up the Epistles of Fredman, songs by Carl Michael Bellman from the late 18th century, it’s at least known. Of course it may help that there’s a Bellman beer which prints the epistles on the back. The beer itself isn't all that good, but the mass produced beers of Sweden aren't all that good...

And, of course, lyrics had to come up. With groups like Coven, with Jinx Dawson saying that she was a Satanist and meant the words. Then Black Sabbath and later the new wave of British metal and groups like Slayer where the lyrics were more about obliquely about social norms, fighting against perceived ills, and rebellion. There was a punk aspect to the lyrics. It was less about the paganism of Norway, though the imagery was always there.

Same with the Swedish metal scene. They wanted to speak, be heard, and protest…something. I asked about what they protested, and Anders talked about a combination of having the freedom to choose and being socialist. They didn’t want to system of ownership inherent in Capitalism, something which was spreading in Sweden at the time. And yet, they wanted the ability to choose their own path, something that the social system in Sweden somewhat prevents. Everyone should be equal in Sweden, share the wealth and opportunities. Some people, especially younger generations, seem to rail against this. They want the freedom, the opportunity. Metal music expresses this, in its abstract way. There’s often talk of fighting imperialism, being forced into horrible situations, and general melancholy and unhappiness. The longer I’m in Sweden, the more I understand…It’s not just the winters that can cause this issue (though they are cold and dark).

Of course, I contrasted this with life in America. What so many young Swedes see as opportunity in America is a false conception. We talked about the level of capitalism, quipped about how the current conservative Swedish government is still more left than the farthest left group in America.

What about all the “devil talk.” It’s just that, talk, symbolism for other things. Anders told me about how secular Sweden is. He group in a secular household, and didn’t care one way or another about religion. If there was a message regarding that in the lyrics, it was a message of “look at all the world is learning! Open your eyes and accept all that’s happening.” Less a condemnation, and more a “C’mon guys, the world is a big place.” He contrasted this to Norway, which seemed to be a more religious country. There was more open rebellion against Christendom then, but they were more driven by Paganism—as Varg Vikernes put it, “They (the Christians) desecrated our graves, our burial mounds, so its revenge.” It’s a long time to hold a grudge, but, for some, that can happen.

Metal has a link then with personal rebellion and expression. It’s a very personal form of expression, as most music is. It reminded me of punk music, but instead of straight forward speeches there is complicated symbolism. Instead of raucous cacophony there is intense virtuosity. The message can get more obscured, with the vocal styles and the poetry, but it is there…at least in The Haunted and At The Gates, and with some of the groups Anders is more familiar with.

The concert environments themselves seemed different though. I recounted for Anders my experience in a metal club in Stockholm with a trash band. Everyone was so happy. The people in the mosh pit were smiling. Crowd surfing was happening with laughing. After an encore, the bass play dove into the audience and was carried all the way to the merch table by the two largest men in the club. They dropped the bass play, everyone full of laughter and smiles. I compared this to  in America, when I’d go to a pop metal group, like Bullet for My Valentine, and see a mosh pit where people came out bloody. When going to OzzFest (which Anders played in 2005 with The Haunted) and seeing the outfield destroyed at then Deer Creek Music Center. He told me he saw the same thing happen when he went on tour with The Haunted. I asked about if he saw a difference in the scenes between American, Sweden, and Norway. He said it seemed more laid back in Sweden.

And, of course, it came to the Norwegian Black Metal guys…or rather, guy. Anders described the whole thing as more of a fluke, a few guys that took things way too far. Of course everything was really tied to one band, Mayhem, and really around one iconic figure, Varg Vikernes. Is it so much of the negative hype really tied to this one group? Of course there are tales of Ozzy Osbourn and the bat, the displays put on by GWAR, and other extreme metal bands, but it seems the death metal scene in Sweden wasn’t into that. Instead, they let their music do the talking, with political lyrics.

We went back to talking about folk music. Since I started drafting this, Anders has been so kind as to send me links to tons of Swedish folk music, both traditional and new takes. I’ve listened to a few as I type, but I’ll have to give it a more concerted listening. I can hear the influence of the melodies, the sad melancholic tunes that Anders described. The simple melodies, the layering of voices; now that I’m becoming aware of the music, the sounds are becoming more identifiable. It’s interesting how this heritage can become part of the culture.

This was a meeting of two musicians, both passionate about what they do. We connected over beer (I had one too many), spoke of many things, and I learned more about Swedish culture and the connections to death metal in three hours than I had from watching and reading all the interviews online, and going to the concerts. And what I learned that was most important?

That metal, like all music, is a deeply personal way of communication. Even composers who are modernists, use stochastics, chance, or improvisation, or ignore all “programmatic” ideas of their pieces are still trying to communicate something they find deep about their existence. This may be the Duvel talking, but I found it invigorating. You never know what will happen when you meet a stranger for beer. This time I walked away a wiser and better man.

Thank you Anders Björler for taking the time to meet with me.

Also, a special thanks to Johan Lundgren. He sent out the email to Anders and got this rolling. Also, his pickups are more than a little amazing and famous. If you’ve heard Meshuggah, you’ve heard his pickups. http://www.lundgren.se/

And a special thanks to Björn Juhl, who put me in contact with Johan. His pedals are also well known, under the moniker of BJFe designs. Check out some here http://www.bearfootfx.com/

And these aren’t ads, they really are thank yous! Moving across the Atlantic, setting myself up in Stockholm, and getting things rolling has been a crazy enterprise! Without Björn Juhl and Johan Lundgren, this wouldn’t have happened.

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