"Part of Satyricon's identity is to be on the move. It's not really about reinventing the wheel. It's more about constant progress." So says Sigurd Wongraven, A.K.A. Satyr, the guitarist, vocalist and mastermind behind the revered black metal institution that burst out of Norway in 1991 alongside fellow second-wave giants Emperor, Immortal and Burzum. True to his band's ethos of constant progress, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2015, Satyr was told he'd likely need surgery to remove it; instead, he summoned longtime Satyricon drummer Frost (known to his mother as Kjetil-Vidar Haraldstad) and began work on the band's ninth and latest album, Deep Calleth Upon Deep.
"People told me, 'Isn't it better to just do the surgery and go from there?'" Satyr recalls. "But look, this isn't like having surgery on an ankle or something. It's brain surgery. The recovery process is a little bit more than a week or two, you know? So I decided to just move on with my life and not make any hasty decisions — and enjoy this musical ride that I'm on."
In the interview below, Satyr discusses the new album, the finer points of American Psycho and the future of Satyricon.
YOU'VE SAID THIS ALBUM IS A NEW BEGINNING FOR SATYRICON. HOW SO?
SATYR It wasn't so long ago that I had a health scare that made me think, "Wow, that's it. I can't do this anymore, I guess." Even when I found out it wasn't so bad and I could still do this, you never know what's around the next corner. It's important to realize what a privilege it is to make a record. At times I felt like this could be the last record that we do.
BUT YOU DON'T FEEL THAT WAY ANYMORE?
No, no. But as a human being, you never know. I love playing, and I feel fine. I'm in good shape and I live a normal life. On the other hand, I had a neurosurgeon say to me, "Even though you feel fine now, the chances are that you'll get worse and eventually have to have brain surgery. There's always the chance that you could do miraculously much better, but that would be hope more than science." That kind of message, that sucks. [Laughs] That makes you think, "Let's have fun while we still can."
BUT YOU STILL HAVE A BRAIN TUMOR. WHAT'S THE CURRENT PROGNOSIS?
Well, I don't have cancer — it's benign — so that's good. It's just not good to have stuff in there that's not supposed to be there. To be honest with you, it's tougher mentally than physically. Let's say my arm starts shaking or something like that — it's not painful, but it's a disturbing experience because you don't understand what's going on with your body. Even if my neurosurgeon has told me that it's very common. You have all these thoughts about, "What would I do if that happens while I was playing the intro to 'The Pentagram Burns' onstage?" I wouldn't like that. But for the most part, I feel pretty good.
THE NEW ALBUM TITLE, DEEP CALLETH UPON DEEP, SEEMS TO BE REACHING OUT FOR A KIND OF COMMUNION WITH THE LISTENER. IS THAT RIGHT?
100 percent. I was reading something in the Old Testament that made me think that to do anything truly great in life, you're gonna have to dig deep. I'm not a movie guy, but to watch an hour-and-10-minute movie compared to a three-hour movie … They have a different nature. The first might be simple entertainment, but the second is gonna ask you to dig deeper. It's the same way with … Have you read American Psycho?
YES. FANTASTIC BOOK.
Yes, but I remember reading it when I was 19 or 20 years old, and there were all these really, really detailed descriptions about everything. I remember thinking, "Oh God — enough." I was so bored with how the author went to great lengths to describe every little thing that Patrick Bateman was doing. I thought, "Where is this book going?" It was so thick and taking forever to get to the point. But I decided to stay with it because people had told me it was really good. Then it dawned upon me that what he was doing was building a character and shaping a universe. That's why it was so extensive and goes on for hundreds of pages. That buildup was very demanding, but it's there for a reason. Without it, the book would never be the same.
YOU MENTIONED THE OLD TESTAMENT EARLIER. HOW OFTEN DO YOU READ THE BIBLE?
Oh, that's rare. It was a coincidence, actually. I was reading an article somewhere about how religious texts are understood in the cultural context of the person interpreting the text. Meaning, a specific part of the Bible would be interpreted by a Spanish Catholic bishop in the year 1682 differently than a German Protestant priest in 1993. They belong to different countries, different churches, a different day and age. This article gave examples from the Old Testament, so I decided to read some more from the Bible itself to see how I would interpret it. And I can tell you that as a Norwegian black-metal musician in 2017, I interpreted it very differently than these other people! [Laughs] But that's where I saw a line that I changed slightly to make the album title: "Deep calleth upon deep."
THE COVER OF THE ALBUM IS AN OBSCURE 1898 DRAWING BY THE NORWEGIAN ARTIST EDVARD MUNCH. HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO LAND SUCH A KILLER PIECE BY ONE OF SCANDINAVIA'S MASTERS?
That was a really fantastic opportunity that I didn't expect at all. I reached out to a designer who I had worked with in the past, but he had moved away from the world of graphic design more into the world of art. During our first phone call, we were talking about the emotional and intellectual content of the record and he mentioned that he had just worked with the Munch Museum on two really big book projects. He said the collection of obscure Edvard Munch stuff is insane — stuff that the world outside of art experts hasn't seen. Then he asked if I'd want to see if something could be done. [Laughs] And of course I said, "Who wouldn't?"
I started going through the stuff, and when I saw [the image that became the cover] I just said, "That's it!" It just stood out and said to me, "Here I am. I'm your cover." And it fits the album title so well. Even if Munch drew it in 1898, it looks like it was commissioned for this record. It's funny because our social media admin guy told me that when he posted the cover, the amount of likes and shares was basically a new record for us. He said the majority of the comments were positive, but that the people who didn't like it really hated it. But then the people who liked it were basically having a go at the people who hated it. I thought it was interesting that an illustration that's 119 years old would stir up people's emotions like that.
IT'S BEEN FOUR YEARS SINCE THE LAST SATYRICON ALBUM, BUT IT'S NOT UNUSUAL FOR YOU GUYS TO GO FOUR OR EVEN FIVE YEARS BETWEEN RECORDS. DO YOU FEEL LIKE THAT'S THE PROPER GESTATION PERIOD?
It's funny that you would ask me that because about five minutes before this interview, I was on my rowing machine listening to the record and I thought about how much work went into some of these details. Then I thought about these bands that put out a record every year or every other year, and I don't know how they do it. Surely you can do that every once in a while, but to do it frequently? That I don't understand. I think you need a little more time. Sometimes it's just practical things that take time — a long touring cycle, perhaps — but for the most part, it's just getting your previous effort out of your body so there's room for something new.
WAS THIS RECORD MORE DIFFICULT TO MAKE THAN PREVIOUS ONES?
It was a hard-fought battle, but eventually we made it. There were some parts where I couldn't for the world explain to Frost what I needed from him, and he didn't understand where I wanted him to go. So we basically brought in a drum coach to be like a middleman. He functioned as a catalyst between us. We all put in a lot of 16-hour days, but eventually it became the album we wanted it to be.
WHAT HAPPENED, EXACTLY?
Working with Frost, I'd sometimes say, "That doesn't do it for me." And he'd say, "Well, what is it that you want?" And I'd say, "Well, I can tell you why I don't like it: It's 2016. By the time the record comes out, it'll be 2017. But that sounds like something you could've done in 2008." He'd say, "Well, I think it works just fine." And I'd say, "I'm not looking for fine. I want something that makes you say, 'Fuck yeah — this is good!'"
YOU AND FROST HAVE BEEN PLAYING TOGETHER FOR A LONG TIME NOW. HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
I still like him a lot. [Laughs] I'm really glad that I met this guy in November 1992. There's always been a great deal of mutual respect, and I think that's the most important reason why we've been able to work together as well as we have. He's often misunderstood — people think he's introverted and I'm extroverted. But it really depends on the situation. To many people's surprise, he's a lot more emotional than I am when it comes to music. I sometimes tell him, "Don't get so carried away!" We are very different, him and I — but he's a really great, really loyal guy. He's a great musician who I've had the pleasure of working with for many, many years. And as a drummer, he's a lot better at understanding the bigger picture than he was in his twenties.
YOU'RE NINE ALBUMS AND MORE THAN 25 YEARS INTO YOUR CAREER AT THIS POINT. DO YOU THINK OF SATYRICON DIFFERENTLY TODAY THAN YOU DID BACK IN THE EARLY NINETIES?
Strangely, I think it's the same to a large degree. It's a privilege to be a part of this. Both of us look upon Satyricon as an institution that's more important than the individuals who make the band. Satyricon is to us larger than life, and that's how we've always seen it.