Remembered By A Tone: An Inquiry with Ulver’s Kristoffer Rygg

Posted by on April 28, 2016


When I was in my teens, I loved black metal and I loved snow. Naturally, this meant I loved Ulver, whose debut album Bergtatt blends glacial banshee-screeching thrash with stately neo-folk to recount a fairy tale in an ancient Norwegian dialect. Then I grew up, moved away from a blizzard-friendly climate, and came to like different things. Curiously, Ulver’s development parallels these changes.

In college I found an affinity for Milton and Blake, two completely insane and completely brilliant radical anti-monarchist mystic poets whose work, incredibly, takes a relatively uncontroversial place in the English canon. Ulver seemed to get it — their fourth album is a dramatization of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell — but my peers and professors less so. Blessed with a synesthesia of sound and color, Blake’s vividness seemed more appropriate for a psychedelic concert deep in the forest, not a monotonous lecture hall.

After school, I adjusted to city life after a sheltered childhood in idyllic suburban squalor. I learned how to bike in rush-hour, roll cigarettes on a moving train, and warm up to surly bartenders. Ulver, too, seemed to grow up, delving into glitchy ambient noise and urban-industrial soundscapes on albums like Perdition City. I got a job, and Ulver got commissions — first at a literary festival, then a local chamber orchestra and, more recently, the National Opera in Oslo.

When I got the opportunity to interview Kristoffer Rygg, the band’s formidable baritone vocalist and electronics wizard, I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a normal conversation. I knew I’d have to exercise a lot of restraint, but some enthusiasm still slipped through the cracks — I wanted to know, basically, if they were really capable of what they had done, if it wasn’t all just some cosmic mistake. Just this year, the band released the long-anticipated ATGCLVLSSCAP via House of Mythology, a collection of mostly-new material recorded live, with meticulous studio treatment. More jaw-dropping than the music itself is the sense one gets that they’ve been doing this for decades, even though live performance is relatively rare for them.

I wanted to know if they really belonged in the heroic stature to which awestruck fans often elevated them. Though “Ulver” means “wolves” in Norwegian, it turns out they’re simply human. If anything, that makes their accomplishments all the more impressive.

Diego: Let’s start with the new album. Can I ask what the acronym ‘ATGCLVLSSCAP’ means?
Kristoffer: It’s just the abbreviations for the zodiac signs. The idea was to tie the cyclical and cosmic with the number 12 in a very literal way. So that’s as deep as that goes, conceptually. We just loved the humor of it, the fact that you can’t actually pronounce it at all.

I’ve noticed while going through the rest of your discography that albums from ‘Shadows of the Sun’ onward, the mood is kind of somber or austere, at least very serious. Here in “Nowhere (Sweet Sixteen)” for example, you sound kind of happy? I’m wondering if there was any significant difference in mood during the recording of this album. Were you — I dunno, happier? What was going on?
I guess you could say that’s what happens once the music’s freed from the straightjacket that lyrics can be, you know? When we sit down to write lyrics it starts to become serious business, what can I say? We’re not necessarily gloomy types in everyday life, far from it, but the world is a pretty dark place when you start to think about it, and the music kind of has to follow suit.

You referred to “Nowhere,” that is a pretty old song, and is integrated on this album as a kind of a pastiche almost. We actually debated whether to include it — it was performed very tongue in cheek. The old version is curious enough but this time we just went all-in with this almost 60’s Phil Spector / Ronettes approach. It was [written] a long time ago, so the lyrical content didn’t feel as close this time. I had a bit of a distance to what I was singing, if you know what I mean. Just another instrument. Subconsciously it’s a mellower vibe here overall, but that’s very much in the nature of the music itself, it’s more groove-based, almost dancey in parts. I am not embarrassed to admit we were having fun out there.

I understand that this was cobbled together from jams. I wanted to ask at what point did you all realize you had an album? What was the organic process there?
You’d have to talk to Daniel [O’Sullivan] about that, because he took the recordings back to London after the tour and put in the man hours, actually listening to everything, picking the best bits. It was sort of our idea all along — that’s why we bought this multi-tracking device in the first place. We had it in the back of our minds that it could be a nice way to get the raw data, or source material for an album. It’s not really attempting to be an authentic live music album or anything like that. It’s approached as we would anything, studio-wise, it’s just that the lion’s share of the material comes from these live concerts. It comes with a few technical limitations… especially with regards to the drums and percussion, that’s not tampered much with at all actually.

You mentioned dancier elements, and I wanted to ask about the track “Cromagnosis,” which is probably my favorite
It’s probably mine too, to be honest.

Fuck yeah!
It’s difficult not to nod your head along.

Absolutely! So when these were coming together, was there any conscious understanding that you guys were doing something different, or was it just business as usual, and only later realizing, “wow, this is something unique.”
The approach to that song, it only had two fixed elements: one is the bass loop that is established quite early on, and the other is where the song breaks and sets off into a different rhythm. Those are the only rehearsed, pre-established elements. But what did you ask specifically again?

In general, when the source material was first being played, was there a conscious understanding that something different was going on? Or did that only happen in post-production?
Uh… We basically thought we sounded like a pretty good band with this kind of setup, you know? And we kind of wanted to see, for ourselves, how far we could take it. These loose ideas, we would sort of repeat them every night, but in very different ways.

You’re generally credited with electronics and vocals, right?
That’s my forte.

So what should audiences assume you’re doing on the instrumental tracks?
Oh. I’m mostly using different soft synths, through space echo, but I also had a MicroBrute — a couple pedals, a sweepable oscillator and some things like that. And I’m also using the mic quite a lot, just making sounds or recording what was going on, and then running that through a loop station, pitching or reversing things and such. Occasionally I add to the percussion as well. So I was a bit jack of all trades really, generally busy making noise, tapping the tempo.

You seem to have gotten used to, since the first album at least, multitracking vocals to create a big choir sound, by yourself
Yeah, I’ve kind of moved away from that in recent years though.

right, so I wanted to ask about that process, and also how on albums such as ‘Wars of the Roses’, for example, you have guest singers. So how did it feel to tone it down a bit in the space you take up in the music, and share the space with other voices, and how did that emerge?
Good question. You know, for a long time we were primarily a studio band. And when the studio is your only playground, and your only sort of reference — in a way, let’s just say I wasn’t too well-versed in keeping it real… It’s just taking whatever opportunities you have, and maybe not realizing at the time, but by fleshing out the room and the spatiality in the music, just because you can, it becomes unnecessarily much sometimes. It took me a few years to realize this. It’s also a natural turning of taste, I would say, more than anything else. Sometimes it’s okay these days that it’s a bit more stark, or naked, human if you will. Even on Wars things started to sound a bit more ‘rock’ again, more unpolished, and I’m cool with that. And sharing space with other musicians is of course no problem. If I have an idea and someone else is better suited to implement that idea then that’s what should be done, you know?

So you guys were a studio band for many years, and if I’m not mistaken your first live performance [in recent years] was… was it when the Mass was commissioned?
No. Well, we did play in ’93, the same year our demo came out, but then we didn’t play live for 15 years. It didn’t really interest me at all. I was always into making albums in a way. But after Shadows we started to talk about it, and we got a great opportunity from a friend of ours, the author Stig Sæterbakken, who was the creative director of a literature festival. He finally talked us into it in 2008, so 2009 was the first year we played live, in a pretty big way. We were in rehearsal for two months or something before that gig, just to bring all the elements together and make it all gel in a live situation. After all that work, we played live maybe five or six times that year, and then we did a few pretty big tours in 2010–11. 2012 was a year of more special concerts, so it’s been on-and-off.

When you first started playing shows, what was it that turned you off of live shows? Were they just rowdy metal bars with a crowd not really paying attention?
I’ve never really thought about that, but when you say it like that, maybe. For me, it’s ultimately about making new music and records. Even this new album is an example of that, I always have my sight towards some endgame. Even live, you know? To me, it feels a bit, what’s the word? ―in vain, to just keep playing the same stuff live, keep putting sounds out into the ether without reeling anything back in.

So when you were recording on the tour, did you feel that audiences were more receptive to completely new material than compared to when the band started?
No. Well, somewhere, people were just going with it, dancing and going a bit mental, but there was some confusion as well I think. People were like, what the hell’s going on? They’re not playing anything we know. This was kind of the kick as well, for us you know, just keeping our nose to the grindstone. There was a sort of pressure of the situation itself, because it’s an unconventional way — maybe not for a jazz band, but for a band like us, coming from a more rock type background. There’s a customary way of doing things, you know, play the “golden oldies” or whatever, and we just didn’t do that.

If you don’t mind me asking, do you think everyone was expecting to hear Bergtatt in full?
I don’t think they were expecting that, then I’d need a different band, but they were probably expecting to hear things they knew, which from our point of view is something we already did. It wasn’t necessary to do that again — which again, might be unconventional, I don’t know. But we did have this ambition, and we were enjoying it too, as a band. I think that’s a very important aspect of this; it was quite cleansing or cathartic to us as a group.

I imagine enjoying what you’re doing is the essential part of the dynamic?
Of course. I guess it is for most people. Well, I guess a lot of bands actually enjoy playing the same shit over and over again, but even Lemmy tired of playing “Ace of Spades” you know… He kept playing it though, it was a requirement. They always had to play “Ace of Spades.”

This takes me to two related questions… but you mention how it’s more acceptable for a jazz band to play new material. So first, do you think there’s a disconnect between how Ulver perceives themselves, in terms of what unit you present, versus what people expect? And second, how has that changed from say, ’93 when you were ostensibly a metal band, did you see yourselves back then recording in an Opera hall 20 years later, having a Mass commissioned, that kind of thing?
No, of course not, but in a way we always felt a bit like exotic birds, in any scene, you know? We are different now than we used to be, naturally. Back then we were well into our metal, and were on good terms with the other bands who were around at the time, but we were into a lot of other things as well, things that were maybe not on average black metal Joe’s radar… Of course I wouldn’t have imagined Messe coming together, or playing the National Opera. But having that prospect presented to me, I think it would have agreed with me, even in ’93. We always knew we were cut out for more than metal I guess you could say.

I was also curious about that. What was the physical scene like in ’93? How was the reception, especially when you started experimenting with new genres? Was there animosity? The generally accepted narrative is that when William Blake came out, suddenly you guys weren’t metal anymore. What was the experience for you guys to be outsiders in what is often perceived as a dogmatic scene?
Thing is, we weren’t really outsiders. We were very much around and part of that scene while the groundwork was still being laid, albums and sounds that are now considered classic Norwegian black metal. We may have been a year after the very early bands, of course, but when we were rehearsing Bergtatt there wasn’t more than a handful albums that had come out. It wasn’t like the big brothers were pointing their fingers at us, if that’s what you’re asking. Outside of Oslo and Norway, a few years later, there was probably a bigger division, but I think it’s safe to say that by ’97 or whatever, things were generally coming apart anyway. We just didn’t care anymore. It might sound conceited, I don’t know, but I remember we felt like Nattens Madrigal was our parting gift, and that it was time to leave the circus with all the goth people who were hopping on the band wagon en masse by that point. By 1996, when we recorded Nattens Madrigal, the thing had already started to become pretty trendy, and you had a thousand new bands popping up doing exactly the same thing. It had lost a lot of its initial reason for being, at least in my opinion. We were generally pretty preoccupied making [William Blake] throughout ’97, it was released in early ’98. Black metal was trendy as fuck by then, and we were very much over it, just keen to pursue things we found interesting, and without being too apologetic about it — which is quite black metal in itself. Most of the guys from our days in the scene knew our attitude, and most of them accepted and respected it I think. I might add, there’s this perception now that a lot of these black metal originals were sort of hardcore genre purists, which is not true. Some of those guys were total music freaks and would listen to lots of different stuff. They didn’t just sit around listening to Celtic Frost all day long.

You definitely have diverse influences here, so I wanted to address that more broadly… you mentioned playing the literature festival, and you’ve recorded film scores. Is there a general consensus about what your non-musical influences are? Are there film directors or writers who inspire the band’s aesthetic in a very direct way?
I’m sure there are, but right off the bat I’m hard-pressed to come up with anyone. Obviously David Lynch, such a fucking total cliché to say, but around the turn of the millennium we were quite heavy into that.

I definitely hear a lot of Twin Peaks in ‘Shadows of the Sun.’
Maybe more in Perdition City, which has that haunted jazz noir thing going on. But yeah, we certainly weren’t alone in having a penchant for that stuff in those days. A lot of things were informed by movies that came out around that time, like Lost Highway. It’s something we try to avoid these days actually. I could probably name writers and directors for you, but I don’t know that it would be accurate — sometimes your favorite works aren’t what directly influences your own art. I mean, I love Jodorowsky, but I don’t feel that there’s too much Holy Mountain in Ulver’s universe, if you know what I mean.

I’m glad you brought up ‘Perdition City.’ I notice a wide variety of influences there too — you mention the noir jazz aspect, but also urban glitch stuff, but it’s all very cohesive. If there’s anything that strikes me about your more experimental albums, the influences all fall together naturally and feel deeply-rooted. So I’m wondering, are there childhood influences? What were the big milestones for you growing up that you feel are still informing your work?
It might sound funny, but since I grew up in the ’80s, it’s probably the pop culture of the ’80s, you know? Kate Bush and Talk Talk and even the big soppy ballads like Cars’ “Drive,” or Frankie’s “The Power of Love.” Those tunes made a big impression on me as a kid they and they still choke me up, no matter how lame that sounds. I’m sure I’ve brought with me lots of that stuff, at least as a singer. The sort of pathos of ‘80s pop music. But I guess you have to see this more as chapters, the more experimental things obviously come from the ’90s when I was getting older and actively sought out music as opposed to letting it just wash over me, as it did in the ’80s. The first metal things we did were maybe also more thematically connected. It definitely carried with it a lot of things from childhood, not necessarily related to music, but things like mystical memories of nature, skiing trips with my father, hauling ass through miles and miles of snow and winter, finally arriving at our old log cottage where my mother would have the fire going and read me scary stories later at night or whatever… So a lot of it came from those kind of things I would say. It was all quite romantic, and it felt natural to get away from that later, adapting to the urban decay of Oslo whilst coming of age you know?

I should mention I asked a childhood friend whowe used to listen to Bergtatt a lot together. We grew up in a part of the country where snow is very infrequent, one or two months out of the year, and we’d always listen to the album when it snowed.
That’s pretty cool. How old are you?

I’m 23. So yeah, by then we were listening to old-timey music, if you will.
That album was made in 1994… You were what, one, two? It was released early ’95.

Yeah, I was two.
So yeah, that’s old time music for you. That’s so weird.

Does natural scenery inform your work? You mentioned the urban decay in ‘Perdition City,’ so I imagine it’s not always nature, or the forest…
Well, you have to keep in mind, when we made those records I wasn’t more than 17 or 18 years old myself, and I was hardly getting into clubs. By the time we made Perdition City, I was a regular night-owl in downtown Oslo, drinking and doing blow instead of going to the mountains with my childhood friends smoking joints and invoking the trolls. So there’s a change of scenery happening in real time there as well. A decadence that entered the picture. It definitely has a lot to do with the shifting of the landscapes in the soundscapes, so to speak. It sounds weird when I say it, but you know, it’s all nature. Everything’s nature, in a way. If it’s this sort of man-made zoo that the city is, or the untouched dewy mountain tops, it’s always there, and it has a kind of temper that we carry with us, even if we don’t want to. It’s with us, and it defines our culture.

You probably saw the press sheet that was written about the new album — it describes not a “return to roots,” but a union of all the disparate styles you’ve experimented with over the past decades. Did it feel like that as it came together, that you were looking back at the changes in your life reflected in music, and bringing them together?
I think that’s putting a lot of conscious definition on something that’s a lot more intuitive. But it’s also kind of true, it is sort of tangibly picking things from our past and tapping into that in a more playful way. But it’s not something that was formulated too much in advance, because it does come from, as I said, more intuitive processes. And our instrumental setup as well, it would be very different if we didn’t have Anders on percussion for example, or this new drummer, Ivar.

I want to jump to another subject: some people reading this interview won’t realize you’re a very busy man, you do a lot of collaborations. Aside from having been in Borknagar, you work with Stephen O’Malley, and you guys did an album with Sunn O))) a few years ago. First of all, are you extremely busy in the day-to-day with different projects, and do you bring different aspects of yourself to different projects, or is it 100% you in the same degree?
Yeah I guess, you have to adapt to any group aesthetic, you know? So for Æthenor, it’s obviously very different than, well you mentioned Borknagar — I did a guest thing with them recently, but that’s a band that I walked out of in ’97, so that’s a while ago. Certainly there are things that would feel very much in its place in Ulver that wouldn’t in Æthenor and vice versa. And speaking about the collaboration with Sunn O))), there would be things there that would be either too much us or too much them, I guess, so we had to find a sort of middle ground. Or a new ground. That’s a new group in itself, really, so it goes back to what I was saying before — the actual setup, the instrumental setup and the different players in the group, has much stronger bearing on what actually comes out than one would think.

I read that with your ‘Terrestrials’ album with Sunn O))),  it was very important to you guys to record it all together in the same room. Is that important for you guys in every collaboration?
It’s not necessary but it’s ideal. I guess it’s being a bit old-fashioned about things, as opposed to what’s going on now, where it’s so easy to just send files to some guy in Australia who can record something at home, then you’ll get something back within the hour. It’s very convenient that that can happen, but it’s never entirely the same as being with a group of people feeding off each other in the same space. I would have to say it’s the ideal way to work together making music, but it’s not always the most convenient of course. Regarding Sunn O))), it was sort of understood that we should just take it easy and finish it with both bands present, or at least representatives from each band. It had to do with mutual respect.

I want to end with a few big-picture questions, if that’s okay. You mentioned at the outset simply not giving a fuck if what you were doing was correct in other people’s eyes, and that seems very consistent. There doesn’t seem to be a record in your discography that wasn’t exactly what Ulver wanted to do. I’m wondering
There’s no other way, man.

Ha, exactly. I’m just wondering, if you were to give advice to someone starting out today, who might have some doubts about keeping their eyes on the prize, in terms of focusing on authenticity and ignoring the whims of the crowd? I imagine it’s not simple to stay true to yourself, so what are some lessons you learned?
Well, it’s certainly easy to get too ambitious and caught up in the wrong thing, I think. I see it a lot in younger musicians, just being too concerned with being “in” with the right people or whatever. But it’s as you say, winds [whims] blow all the time. And from where I stand a lot of people are just wrong anyway. If you just do what you do long enough, eventually the wind will blow your way. Sometimes I’ll be kinda baffled by how “out” we are sometimes, with the general zeitgeist, and at other times we’ll tap into it almost unknowingly, so I try not to worry too much about all that. I think it’s just ultimately kind of a waste of everyone’s time. And I’d rather just be making music and writing things that I feel strongly about, regardless of what the rest of the world is up to. There’s this great quote from John Cleese actually, who once said “Nothing will stop you from being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.” I think there is a lot of truth to that, and also to the idea that you can only really judge the quality of an album after, say, ten years. In Ulver, we have a way of doing things, and it’s very much our way and we are going to keep doing it exactly that way. We could try to adapt to other people’s way, of course, but it’s not going to work. It’s not going to have…

If you’re not feeling it in your heart, it’s just not going to come out great?
Yes. Sounds lame, but I think it’s true. Well, there are of course plenty of people who produce music from a cynical, speculative perspective and brainwash the fucking legions with it, but… It would just feel like a waste of time to me because I wouldn’t be invested in it.

So when you were commissioned to do a mass, was it just coincidence that
We weren’t commissioned to do a mass, we were commissioned to write music for an orchestra, with no other directive than that they wanted it to “sound Ulver.” It was our idea — not to make a mass per se, but to toy around a bit with the traditions of requiem and liturgy and so on. Coming from our, uh, dark metal background, and the sort of classical music we’ve been listening a lot to throughout the years, stuff like Arvo Pärt or John Tavener — yeah, of course we went for a self-styled mass of sorts.

Final question, perhaps even with less clear of an answer… We talked about how everything is nature, even the grimiest of cities, and how the different trajectories of the band have reflected that. To me, that’s the big takeaway from the canon, that no matter what album of yours we listen to, it’s very clear that it’s organic human beings making it, and we’re all living beings, with cells and…
A lot of pain, man. A lot of lived life. Some readers think our lyrics are simple or banal, but I don’t think they are. They are trying to address some very core, or basic human concerns, without so much make-up. We actually take pride in that. Not being very occult… More down to earth.

How would you want to be remembered? What would you want the — maybe not the history books, but people in the future, to say “oh I’m really glad Ulver did this”? Do you even have that kind of fantasy every now and then?
I think we all do, at least at some point, you do start to think about legacy. Is it ok to go now, have I made a mark on the world? I guess… It’s hard to say…

Well, I certainly don’t know for myself. If you don’t know, that’s a very legitimate answer.
Well, you like the idea, which I imagine is similar to an author, you want to make an emotion live on. That doesn’t have to be so specific, but you know, just being remembered by an emotion or by a tangent, by a tone. The echo of the sounds we made.

There are worse things to be remembered by, I’m sure. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk!
No problem, man.