When I asked Kristian Eivind Espedal, better known as Gaahl, about his religious views, and whether he’d call himself Pagan, Asatru, or something else, he just laughed and said “I live in my own world”. That sentence sums up much more than just religion when it comes to Gaahl, seeming instead to be applicable to his entire character. Whether he is on stage, meeting fans, or slowly sipping a coffee across the table from me, there always seems to be an abyss separating Gaahl from those around him.
This is not about hostility or elitism. On the contrary, Gaahl has always been very kind and polite to me (this is my second long-form interview with him) and, as far their opinions go, our common friends and acquaintances have nothing but positive things to say about him. So it’s not that he is hostile to social interactions, but rather that he seems to be alien to them. His world is one of introspection and silence, and people can get in the way of that.
And yet, despite how far he might want to be from the spotlight, from being the center of attention, and even from people in general, he will often go out and meet his fans after a show, posing for selfies and signing autographs. He’s also part of a loving relationship which has been going strong for over a decade, and about which he talks with a kind of tenderness that suggests a deep connection with his partner.
There are many facets to Gaahl. As his prior convictions show, there’s no doubt that there is a space within him that is about darkness and rage; at the same time, there’s also a much lighter side, even if it’s normally unseen. That latter side is the one that his fans get to see when he comes out to meet them after a show. Though some might think that this is just the consequence of aging (he says that it might “dull the edges a bit“), he isn’t so sure about that.
“Maybe I was scarier before! [laughs] I don’t know; You also have to remember that back in the days people didn’t know who we were. We didn’t show our face until (I think) 05 or 06, so far less people would recognize us.
The way I look at it is this: Even though it [meeeting with fans] can be a bit limiting for me, it can mean a lot to the people that I meet. It takes me maybe 20 seconds, and it can mean the world to them.”
Gaahl‘s entire creative output is connected with the idea of personal freedom, and so it’s no surprise that he is acutely aware of possible limitations or constraints. He also thinks about these limitations when it comes to his role in heavy metal, not quite seeing himself as part of this community. Even here, where most fans would immediately know who he is, he remains a stranger to their world.
“I’ve never really felt that I’m part of the ‘metal community.’ Most of my friends are not connected to this community at all. I have more friends who work in the restaurant industry than in heavy metal.”
Gaahl‘s mention of restauranteurs is not whimsical. He is a wine connoisseur, and has even assisted some restaurants in the development of their wine lists. This might explain why the last time we met we did so at a (now closed) fancy wine bar in Bergen, Norway. As Gaahl told me about his passion for fine wines, I thought about how I made the right decision not to bring a bottle of wine to this meeting, since I’d certainly underwhelm him with my choice.
Forces of Satan Storm
The line of fans grows steadily outside the venue as Gaahl and I continue our talk. Although it has been raining for hours, with no signs of stopping anytime soon, fans are eagerly waiting for the doors to open. It’s a different crowd from what you would have seen just a few years ago, with younger and younger people in the audience, and with fans wearing so-called battle jackets featuring patches as dissimilar as Emperor and Linkin Park. It’s a new kind of audience for a black metal show, and which highlights the growing popularity of a genre that once prided itself in being underground. Considering how the forefathers of the genre always criticized what they perceived as the softening and the “mainstreamization” of heavy metal and death metal, I asked Kristian how he feels seeing that black metal is not really “underground” anymore.
“First and foremost, my work is a form of self-communication, so the audience really doesn’t matter. When I create, I don’t think about them; I don’t think about the reach. It’s more of a self-contemplation. In any case, you never know who will get something out of what you present, and I find it interesting to see how people connect to my work.
With Trelldom we really wanted to be underground; we didn’t even want to record an album. At first we only rehearsed, and didn’t record at all. It wasn’t easy to record because we lived far away from each other, and since everything was recorded in analog, you needed to be with each other to record. It was only later that it grew into something more. The recordings were actually made rather early, but released much later. Till Minne, for example, was already prepared in 2001, but released in 2007, because I was always either touring or in prison [laughs]”
As someone’s whose artistic career started in 1992, when early Norwegian black metal was picking up momentum, Gaahl has been a part of the black metal scene since its very beginnings. While this has opened many doors for him as an artist, it can also threaten some of the very freedom that he often talks about. An artist’s early work shapes the expectations that people will have about their future output, and some feel limited in what they can continue creating under their own name. We also see this in other areas, such as cinema and literature, where fans are often vociferous about where they want stories to go. Just ask any Star Wars fan about those prequels.
In Gaahl‘s case, it was his role in Gorgoroth that gave him worldwide recognition, as well as a certain amount of notoriety. For many, the images of Black Mass Krakow, with “crucified” people on stage, sheep heads, and fire, are probably the first things that come to mind when they hear of Gaahl. And yet, that’s not his only creative output, nor something he plans to limit himself to. He explains that he has never felt that music is a job to him (“If I wanted to be rich I would not be a musician“), so he won’t create things just to meet other people’s expectations, although he acknowledges that those expectations can be a problem.
“One cannot allow himself to be limited by other people. But I do recognize this problem in several elements that may not even necessarily have to do with metal or music. For example, people have a tendency to bring the Gorgoroth story into a concept like Wardruna, or into visual art, because they try to put things into categories. This happens as soon as you are recognized, no matter what kind of genre you’re working on at the moment.”
As I had discussed with him in the past, Wardruna represented the more “pagan” side of Gaahl’s art, placed in a completely different dimension than Gorgoroth/God Seed. Wardruna are part of a new wave of interest in pre-Christian European traditions and folklore, alongside bands like Heilung and Skald, and which Gaahl sees as an expression of people simply being interested in their own origins and histories. Though he remains in excellent terms with the band, he isn’t a part of it any longer.
“My body didn’t want it anymore. They are really great people to work with, and they are doing very well right now. I’m always available to consult, or to help with anything, but I’m no longer a member of the band.”
From the Spear
Although Gaahl‘s musical career started with Trelldom and then continued not just with Gorgoroth and God Seed, but also with Wardruna and Gaahlskagg, this is the first time that his name is truly front and center. Even in Gaahlskagg the name was just the union of his and Skagg‘s name, without any hint of ownership or possession. Now it is Gaahl’s Wyrd. This has made some people theorize that this is Gaahl‘s solo project. He is quick to correct that misconception.
“It wasn’t me who wanted to put my name to it. It was the rest of the band. When we quit God Seed, they wanted to call the band just Gaahl, but I refused. I didn’t want to be limited to just this one single thing. Of course, I can see the necessity of it, because the seed had already been sown, so to speak. I said that maybe we could call it Gaah’s ‘something’, and drop the Gaahl part after a while. We thought that Wyrd made sense around the concept of the band, so we picked that name. But then we found out that there’s already a band called Wyrd… and that’s how we got stuck with Gaahl’s Wyrd.
I don’t want the focus of the band to be on me. It’s a band. After God Seed ended I took a break from metal, and when I reunited with them I knew that we had to be a band, we couldn’t focus on just one person. That was part of the problem that we had before; it’s hard from break from that, and I saw how it constantly created issues.”
Gaahl has good reasons to be wary of bands where one of the members tries to control everything and everyone. A big part of the breakup of the Gaahl-era of Gorgoroth has been blamed on interpersonal difficulties between the members, with different people singling out different individual members as the culprit. The problems with Gorgoroth, as well as the protracted legal battle that followed, seem to have really made a mark on Gaahl, who emphasizes the importance of the band working as a team, moving in the same direction.
“I have a problem when somebody tries to take control. As long as I can do my thing, there are no problems. And if we find problems, all of us have to find solutions.
I have my own plans about where I want to go with things, but at the moment we are not yet a complete band. We are still paving the road and deciding where to go from here. Right now we have session musicians, and it’s very different when you have someone who’s part of the same energy. You have to be able to work socially with each other; I don’t necessarily need to connect and, so to speak, ‘be part of the same world,’ but it’s important that the band is kind of connected.”
Gaahl sounds very passionate as he speaks about his different projects, explaining how everything is connected. Though he acknowledges that his work tends to be mostly about self-communication, he still seems possessed by a truly irresistible creative force, and which pushes him to not just create, but also to share those creations with the world. It’s the paradox that inhabits the soul of every artist, and which forces him to somehow harmonize the inward-facing nature of the creative process, with the desire for recognition.
It was never an option to let the 2015 end of God Seed be also the end of Gaahl’s musical output. When God Seed split, he already knew that he was prepared to continue; only a month after God Seed played their last show, Gaahl announced the first show of Gaahl’s Wyrd, to take place only a few months later. This new bands offers a different perspective on Gaahl’s philosophy, maintaining the core of his all-out war against Judeo-Christian monotheism, but presenting it differently.
“That idea is really present in everything. It’s just that Gaahl’s Wyrd is not so connected to the Trelldom ‘universe’ [laughs] It’s not about throwing spears; it’s about inner development. There are still similar energies; Trelldom was a completely different aura, while still being part of a peaceful space.
Although nobody could listen to Gaahl’s Wyrd and not feel its aggression, Gaahl sees the band as exemplifying a different way to present his ideas. He has always emphasized the need for introspection and personal growth, refusing to preach to this audience. In fact, he still refuses to publish his lyrics, leaving it up to the listeners to decipher what he is saying. He wants to see that effort from those who want to understand his art, much more than he wants to see a choir of fans singing along to him. It’s not that the singing would bother him, it’s just that he wouldn’t necessarily see that as a mark of success.
“You have to pay attention. If you give people shortcuts… then they won’t. Why take a helicopter to the top of a mountain? The way up is what gives the pleasure of getting to the top.”
Carving a Giant
An artist’s creative process is often a unique and solitary endeavor. Some artists need to place themselves in the right frame of mind, and in surroundings that are conducive to give life to their creations. Many artists (whether they are musicians, painters, or writers) speak about the isolation required by their creative process, following the lead of their creativity, instead of trying to force a spark to happen.
“There are always ideas, and I usually try to find a way to express their core, instead of just expressing every single thing that pops into my head.”
Gaahl‘s task in the bands with which he works (and he makes it clear that it’s not “just” Gaahl’s Wyrd) is usually that of crafting the lyrics. The music being in charge of someone else (as it is the case here) can be huge challenge for a lyricist, as it might require him to make drastic changes to his words in order to fit with the music. Precisely for that reason, musicians like Karl Sanders (Nile) craft the lyrics first, and only then create the music. This approach puts the lyrics as the core of the song’s structure, with the music being there to assist in their delivery. Althoug it might seem counterintuitive, that’s not the approach that Gaahl is taking.
“I’ve worked like that in the past, but not here in Gaahl’s Wyrd. When I have the music, there are always elements that I already know that I want to include, but I adapt them to the pace of the music, so I might have to change the phrasing a bit. A lot of things can be told just by the kind of voice that you use. Still, I don’t try to accommodate the music; I don’t work for the music, which can be frustrating for the people I work with [laughs]
On this album [Gaahl’s Wyrd’s GastiR – Ghosts Invited] for example, three songs that I was certain would end up in the album, are not there. I didn’t think that they fit the concept, so I kind of got rid of them. It’s a case of killing your favorites.”
Since he keeps using the word “concept,” I ask him if he wants to clarify exactly what the concept of the album is, and what’s the message that he’s trying to put out there. As it was to be expected, he laughs as he tells me that it’s up the listeners to find it.
The Speech and the Self
A recurring topic for Gaahl is that of freedom, both internal as well as external. Internal growth is fantastic, sure, but it’s of little use in an environment or a society where the consequences of that intellectual exploration are not allowed. He has publicly lamented the current state of black metal, particularly when it comes to the freedom enjoyed by the artists and their fans. While the power of the enemies of early black metal has certainly diminished (religiosity and the influence of Judeo-Christian ideologies are decreasing) new enemies keep popping up. Whereas in the past the accusations surrounding black metal musicians (and even metal fans in general) centered around the idea of murderous Satanic cults, the trend now is to accuse musicians of being Nazi supporters. Bands like Horna, Marduk, Watain, and many others, have all faced significant opposition from leftist groups that have labeled them as Nazis.
“Political correctness is a disease. It kills freedom of speech. When you don’t allow people to speak, that’s when you breed hate. If you prohibit things, and people just end up gathering in the dark, that’s how you end up with extremists.”
Bands like Burzum have been removed from Ebay due to pressure from people who argued that Varg Vikernes‘ politics (and which are not present in his music) should be enough to get his work banned. This after his shameful arrest (and later release) on trumped-up terrorism charges, and a later conviction for speech crimes. The problem here, of course, is that if certain art is banned simply because we dislike what the artist thinks in his own private time, regardless of whether or not it’s evident in their work, then we will have to burn the works of a great number of artists (like Dali, Wagner, Dante, and many others) whose politics and ideas are repulsive to our modern views.
“It’s insanity. Political correctness is insanity. It ostracizes people because they have a different opinion, instead of talking to them and trying to make sense of what they say. There’s always a reason why people think in a certain way.”
As a gay man, Gaahl has little interest in defending Nazi ideas themselves. However, as he had already stated back in our last interview, this has nothing to do with the content of the ideas (which can be repulsive), but rather with the right of people to express them:
“The way the world functions today is extremely Christian, and Christianity is based on scare tactics; they’re the most frightened people there are, and they’re making rules to protect themselves, so they’re denying this freedom. Why shouldn’t a man say that he doesn’t like Jews? Who really has a problem with someone saying that? If you are a Jew and don’t allow people saying that they dislike you or hate you… what kind of a person are you if you don’t let people speak up against you? It’s the same if people talk down on me because I’m gay; Why should I be offended? Why should I even care? I think that they should be allowed to shout whatever they want.”
A relatively recent example of this situation happened in Gaahl‘s own turf, in Bergen, where Blastfest had to be cancelled due to an AntiFA boycott. The problem there was the presence of Peste Noire, a band whose singer, as Gaahl himself acknowledges, does seem to harbor some pretty strong neo-nazi sympathies. In Gaahl‘s view, that’s not enough to justify silencing them.
“Who becomes the fascist if you deny other people’s right to speak? That’s basically it. The AntiFa are more fascist than the fascists, because they are not investigating their claims. They want to believe things are in a certain way; they want to make an enemy; they are not trying to understand. Lack of communication is what kills anti-fascism.
I don’t go up and question people’s beliefs. I do think that a venue has the right to say that they don’t want a certain band; but to make a worldwide ban is just ridiculous.”
Bans also result in a paradoxical result for those seeking the cancellations. Gaahl explains how, when they affected him and his bands, “In the end it’s just good publicity.” This makes sense, since although these boycotts might prevent a musician from giving a specific concert, they might also shine a spotlight on an otherwise unknown band, and transform them into household names. In fact, Gaahl admits that, just like me, he didn’t even know that Peste Noire existed until they were removed from Blastfest.
Determining how a a musician’s private life and opinions should influence our enjoyment of their music and performances is difficult. Musicians like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly have brought this issue into the mainstream, as the despicable acts allegedly committed by both men have certainly affected the enjoyment that some people can get from their music. A similar situation happened in the metal world back in 2014, when Emperor toured with Bård “Faust” Eithun, their original drummer. Since Faust had been convicted of the 1992 murder of Magne Andreassen, a Norwegian gay man, some argued that it was highly inappropriate to honor him by allowing him to be a part of headlining shows in massive festivals.
In Gaahl‘s view, Faust is not the same person he was when committed that despicable crime. In fact, when Gaahl‘s homosexuality was made public, he was there to offer his support.
“He was the first. I didn’t even know that it was in the newspapers, and then I got a message from him. People change. Most of them, at least… some people are frozen in time and space [laughs]
But should a man like Faust, a convicted killer, be allowed to perform?
“Absolutely. We should chase for freedom.”
Prosperity and Beauty
As if his musical endeavors were not enough, Gaahl and his partner recently opened Galleri Fjalar, an art gallery in Bergen. Although sometimes he exhibits his own works there, the main purpose of the gallery is to showcase other people’s art. Despite his own connections to the heavy metal world, however, he doesn’t want the gallery to be perceived just as a place for metal-adjacent works.
“I hate ‘metal art.’ And one of the problems of being involved with the gallery is that people think that I’m interested in all of this metal-related stuff. Don’t come to me with a painting of a pentagram or of skulls. I hate all of that. It’s one of the problems of putting people into little groups; they imagine that everything that is connected to this has to look a certain way, or be a certain way, and to me that’s the most boring form of expression. The kind of thing that you find in shirts, merchandise, and in album covers. I despise it [laughs]”
Although I have a not negligible amount of T-shirts featuring skulls and pentagrams (including a Gorgoroth shirt, I might add) I don’t entirely disagree with Gaahl. In my case, more than the aesthetics of it all, it’s that most of the symbolism in metal has become meaningless. People will come to shows dressed up in what basically amounts to uniforms, as if buying an H&M t-shirt with a pentagram on it was, in and of itself, an act of rebellion. They lack any meaning, and are just purchased in order to look “tough”, even when nobody thinks that wearing a t-shirt with a skull on it actually makes you look tough. It certainly used to have a deeper meaning, at least in the sense that you could actually get in trouble if you were perceived as Satanist or something like that (though Gaahl quips that they didn’t look any better back then, and laughs at my description of my old shirts). Now it’s just an accessory.
“Used as a part of a concept it’s fine, but when it’s used just as a visual it’s not interesting. It’s just not for me. They don’t do anything for me. It’s just using something that you’ve seen others use.”
As our conversation winds down, I mention that I saw on his Instagram (managed by his partner Robin) that they had been together for 11 years. Before I have time to congratulate him, he corrects me with truly enviable accuracy:
“11 years, 6 months, and 2 days“
Although they seem to be complete opposites (when I met Robin I was surprised at how outgoing and cheerful he seemed to be) it’s clear that they’ve achieved the kind of collaboration and understanding that only love and mutual respect can really foster. They function in their own way, working around Gaahl’s long tours and his own internal solitude.
“We don’t need to be hanging from each other all the time. We can handle the distance.”
After spending such a long time with Robin, I wonder whether Gaahl has ever considered raising a family. He surprises me when he tells me that he has taken care of foster kids in the past, and that his paternal instincts are alive and kicking.
“I think I’d go grey very quickly. I’m a patient person, but I’m also the worrying kind. I would be very overprotective. And that’s not good [laughs]”
Gaahl‘s Wyrd debut album, GastiR: Ghosts Invited is out now under Season of Mist Records.
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Top Photo: Jorn Veberg