I was introduced to the cosmic splendour of VEMOD by Reinier Vlemmings of Aurora Infernalis in January 2013. I feel I want to highlight here how Reinier's annual autumnal festival in Arnhem (NL) has been, since its inception, the pulse of underground black metal at its best, consistently featuring the most meaningful of the up-and-coming bands: in short, a true connoisseur. We share a particular fondness for deeply emotional, contemplative, atmospheric Norwegian black metal; exactly what Vemod can be described as. I cannot recommend enough their full length “Venter på Stormene” (2012) on Terratur Possessions, but you also must do yourselves a favour in seeking out their split single and two demos single, the first of which goes back as far as 2004. Vemod is primarily an artistic and spiritual endeavor which happens to be expressed through the boundless language of music. When this is the case, time-space loosens its constraints... Preserving personal and artistic freedom in the truest, most profound, life-enhancing sense, means everything to an artist (and I humbly include myself in this broad sphere), so it is utterly appropriate that this interview with Jan Even Åsli (Vemod, One Tail, One Head) should take many months to materialize.
Your words & lyrics resonate with those unutterable yearnings that forged my heart and soul since memory can recall. People like us, dreamers, are not interested in being the center of attention (our time is often spent looking inwardly) yet, even speaking to a few souls is enough reward for an artist, isn’t it? Have you ever felt vulnerable in sharing, ever had any doubts?
I have had doubts, many times, but never in the moment of creation itself. The expression is formed in some kind of isolated naivety, where there is no doubt or fear. There is just an overwhelming sense of certainty, necessity, urgency - the work has to be done. It is an outburst of honesty. Then, when the ecstasy of the moment has passed, and the work enters a new phase, you realize you have stripped your heart naked for everyone to see. This, of course, makes you extremely vulnerable.
It hurts to be "attacked" at your most personal. This work comes from the very center of my being and that is why it is almost dangerous to let it out, it has this ominous sense of personal risk. This is just part of the deal when you choose to share with the world, to throw yourself out there. Who knows where the path goes? You just go. Those moments you speak of makes it all worth it, and I have experienced enough of that to remain firm in my belief. And to be challenged is course healthy, you grow, you mature, you question yourself and you question your world. At times it is a painful and exhausting process, but most of all it is a rewarding and valuable process.
In the end you go through it all because of the belief that someone out there feels the same way. It is not for everyone, but it is for someone. Someone will connect. And that is powerful.
Overwhelming mystical experiences occur naturally when we are truly at one with Nature, of which our planet is a mind-boggling manifestation: experiencing on a deeper level its multifaceted, contrasting and often ruthless sides, ultimately shows that Nature is beyond (the abstract ethical concepts of) Good and Evil. I personally consider this realization to be a big stepping stone towards spiritual freedom: is this perhaps more easily comprehensible for the Scandinavians, who are more accustomed to the harsher face of nature?
No, I doubt it, although I do not really know. I never lived anywhere else, so it is hard for me to make a comparison. I would think this is like most other places: most Scandinavians, myself included, grow up safely sheltered from nature, and especially its harsher sides. If any, only a very few live close enough to nature for it to make a difference to their worldview. I may be wrong of course.
That said, nature is there for anyone to see if you wish to experience it. I grew up with nature on my doorstep, so I had the choice, I could seek into it if I wanted to. And I did, but my relationship and my experience with nature has been more contemplative and meditative rather than being closely exposed to any of its harsh and brutal realities, if you follow me. As a modern human being you will most likely play the role of distant observer whether you like it or not. I must say I have come far with just that, so I will not complain. It may be enough to have those experiences you speak of, and they can really make a difference in ones life.
It is difficult to say what it means to be truly at one with nature. I think something as simple as just being in or around a natural landscape - seeing, feeling, being - can do wonders to a person. Is it the same as being truly at one with nature? I would not know, but it might provide that space which is so sorely needed in our crowded lives. Overwhelming mystical experiences, whatever they are, do occur, and they grant new perspectives and are capable of transforming lives. We should take good care of them.
In risk of sounding utterly pretentious: music, and the deep experiences related to it, makes me, somehow, feel deeply connected to nature. I cannot explain it properly, but I have thought about many, many times. There is a yearning expressed through music and art, and it often seems to be some kind of quest to establish a connection with the beyond, or a realigning with nature on a deeper level. As modern-day human beings we often feel alienated from nature either we want it or not, but does it have to be that way? We are part of nature too. Some revitalize this union by leaving the urban centers to live in the woods or by the sea, others turn to religion, and again others create art.
If we look above us and into the cosmos, things become even more awe-inspiring! Man has observed the sky since the beginnin: planets, stars and cosmic events delivered cryptic messages from gods upon which depended his survival. How terrifying it must have been to witness a solar or lunar eclipse! I guess that watching the northern lights at a very young age must be an overwhelming experience even today: Michel Langevin of Voivod told me how witnessing that spectacular but strange event on his own marked his life in a very strong way. Where does your love for the cosmos stem from?
Good question! I have no idea to be honest, but I was a curious child. I grew up in a literary home, where the shelves were filled with books on all kinds of topics, along with vast amounts of fiction. I was constantly encouraged to learn and explore whatever interested me at any given time, and I am certain that from this I developed a great love for knowledge and mystery alike. I spent a lot of time alone (I never went to kindergarten), and this may have enabled to me to look deeper into myself at a younger age. It certainly gave me a lot of time to ponder and dream, and since I often did this in the nearby forest, I think the line between inner and outer, matter and spirit, was obscured from early on (perhaps it is so for all children). This was where the magic happened. These were the golden moments of my childhood, and somehow I managed to keep a certain hold of this feeling, first and foremost through music and other art forms, but also the pursuit of more scientific knowledge. This is what keeps me going, and I think a love for the cosmos is a fundamental element of this journey.
I had many wonderful experiences with the aurora myself, and I can confirm your suspicion. I remember being afraid of it, actually, as a child. I think we attached some kind of imagined lore to it, which involved having to run away and find shelter from, in order not to get "burned". Or something along those lines. My imagination was rather fantastical in those days. I have had many spellbinding meetings with the wintry fire since then, and especially one in particular points itself out, just a few years ago. It was mid November, and I was up north, visiting my family and working on papers in peace and quiet. I was stepping out in the front yard, just to draw some fresh air before going to sleep, and I saw some faint flashes across the night sky above. I decided to stay outside for a while, to see if I could catch another glimpse of it. Then, as I stood there, looking up, tea in hand, music in mind, the firmament above was slowly and carefully painted before my eyes, with masterful strokes by some invisible hand, forming abstract shapes and figures in gracious icy splendour. Within minutes it changed, from a calming and comforting play of light and shadow to an intense and exhilarating drama, as the sky above began to transform. Slowly, then rapidly, with swirling motions, the light seemed to form a vortex which, with breathtaking intensity, was spinning around itself directly above me. I remember the distinct feeling of the experience, as if I was lightly pulled from the ground and upwards, then sucked into the whirling heavens.
It lasted for only a few minutes, and my feet were of course firmly rooted on the ground the entire time. Still, it was a powerful and awe-inspiring encounter with a fascinating and beautiful natural phenomenon. It was also one of several sources of inspiration for the word "Virvelhimmel" (whirling heaven or sky), which occasionally shows up in Vemod lyrics and other texts I have written, as well as being a very likely title for the next and upcoming Vemod album.
It is deeply human to associate the real world and the metaphysical planes with the abstract concepts of Darkness and Light in an effort to grasp and explain the cosmic cycles of Life & Death, yet the ancient Greeks invented the scientific way of reasoning! Today we still look up to the stars, seeking comfort from their cold silence, longing to return to our “home”, but I personally embrace science as an essential, exciting companion along my spiritual quest: do you use the images of stars and far away galaxies mainly as philosophical metaphors, or are you also fascinated by what they actually are, how they formed and so on?
Oh, yes, absolutely! I love science. Enough to spend eight years fumbling around at university. My mind seems to be better equipped for the humanities, but the natural sciences still remain a source of endless fascination and wonder. I do not always understand everything, far from it to be honest, but that makes it all the more alluring. My knowledge of astronomy is basic at best, but it is one of those things I can nerd my way deeper into if I have a free night to spare, and the right mood is there.
I like to apply both the scientific approach and the emotional approach and I think they are both valid and necessary to grasp the world we live in. I see no reason to let one push away the other. It seems to me like a good idea to make use of the great tools they represent.
The use of stars and cosmic imagery in Vemod is almost obvious, seemingly inescapable, given the nature of the music, the lyrics and the depths we touch upon through the experience. I believe it also enhances the sense of wonder and awe explored in the music. The stars are such vibrant symbols, in their inexhaustible depth and inspirational energy, endlessly layered with myth, magic and mysticism. Philosophical metaphors, perhaps, but just as much catalysts of atmosphere, simply too great and powerful not to make use of.
The flesh inexorably grows old, but our soul is a flame that must be fed for as long as we breathe, and Music is an inexhaustible banquet! For some it is just mere entertainment, for many it is part of a sexual ritual that eventually extinguishes itself, however, for some Music is an ocean where a spiritual journey keeps unfolding, unpredictably and endlessly. How are preparing yourself for a life that will demand more and more attention from you as time goes on, through responsibilities such as establishing a family, work, social duties and so on?
Wow. Well, I guess this is the question I should be asking myself right now, and not being confronted with it in a Vemod interview, ha! I wish I had a straight-forward and concrete answer to this, that I could unravel my grand and utterly genius master plan for the future and share it with you right here and now. Unfortunately, I do not have such a plan.
I have never had a career in sight, I have simply followed my heart, to whatever extent possible. (Cliché, yes, I know.) At times feeling somehow guilty for doing so. Most of us feel the pressure at some point, the expectations of the surroundings of living a life of normalcy and conformity, and it is not always so easy to resist. I have often wavered, and still do, but then again, there are many ways to lead a good life, and who am I to know which the best is? Quite possible, there is no way to tell, and maybe there is no such thing as the best way.
I just know that I want to fill my days with music and art to the best of my ability. I am not always very successful, so this is something of a process, a goal or a motivation, to see the art in the small things, every day. It seems if one manages to do this, all the other duties and responsibilities will be easier to handle. On the other hand, I know that one should not take anything for granted, and that everyone may face difficulties and burdens seemingly so heavy you give up on all dreams one might have. Such times are tough, and they come to you no matter what, but it is precisely then when you will need those dreams and that art the most. It is so hopelessly difficult when you are in the middle of it, but so inexpressibly rewarding when you come out on the other side.
At the end of the day, maybe it is best not to plan too carefully anyway. I make no predictions. The future is a mystery to me, and in a way I like it that way.
In another interview you mention welcoming “economical ruin” as a possible consequence of pursuing your goal with Vemod, which is spiritual in nature. Can you see yourself remaining true to your inner “child” in your adulthood, continuously marveling at the manifold paths in front of you?
Well, even though that was said with a touch of irony, there is always a balance between fear and curiosity towards the future. Through times of distress, Vemod has functioned as a retreat to regain clarity and a sense of essence, a sort of haven in the midst of whatever emotional turmoil might be raging. I feel quite certain it will continue to be, as music in general, really. In addition to this, there is also the purely positive, explorative and creative side of it, which is often spontaneous and free-flowing, and that is equally important. They are degrees of the same essence, so I believe the music covers the whole spectrum of life.
My point is that I absolutely see myself marveling at everything ahead, mostly because there is really no choice. It is too central to the life experience to ignore or leave out, and it will find a way, whatever happens. I know there will be times both good and bad, but still, I cannot really wait to delve deeper into music and life.
“To Raise Among the Stars”! When I listened to Vemod and saw its physical dimension on stage, for some reason I imagined you came from the more sparsely inhabited north of your country, and I was right (Jan was born in Namsos, nearly 200Km north of Trondheim, aka Nidaros). You have a vision and a depth of perception that is not easy to develop if you grow up in a large city: although one can gaze at the sky from a window or take a walk in the park, light pollution mostly veils the spectacle of the firmament. Humans are not yet fully adapted to urban life, and our consequent neurosis is palpable. The thought that some urban people live their lives without having any meaningful relationship with nature, busy as they are to make money and have a career, is truly unconceivable… What is your relationship with the wilder side of Norway, and the modern world?
Well, as everyone else, I grew up highly domesticated, but still it was not completely urbanized. As a child, nearby forests served as the ultimate playgrounds, as a teenager they were sorely needed havens and hideouts when times were tough. As a result I have close emotional ties with nature. Growing into adulthood it has remained a sanctuary of utmost importance: a place to seek comfort and calm in times of difficulty and hardship. Some time alone out here, away from everything, even if only for a short time, letting silence sink in, is therapy like no other.
The modern world? Well, happens to be the world we all live in, and while it surely has problematic aspects, which it has had through all times, it has a wealth of wondrous and wonderful ones too, which I am determined to explore and make the best of. I do not subscribe to this conservative, traditionalist, anti-modern view that seems to be trending these days, and it does not make sense to me to blame "modernity" for every problem in our world, while seeking comfort in some highly romanticized, utopian "past" (such constructs are often used to legitimize questionable views and attitudes as well).
Urban life has its positive sides, surely. What makes it problematic in the long run is of course the noise, pollution, the mindless speed and stress. Certain situational circumstances made me unable to travel much before my bands became active live entities, so I am only now beginning to form an impression of the life in the bigger city (as you may know, our biggest cities in Norway can barely be termed big cities at all by an international standard). I do not feel I can judge it too harshly when I know so little about it, although I am naturally drawn to rural and less crowded environments.
The older I grow I also seem to be more and more drawn to music that cultivates calm and clarity, and as such can serve as an antidote to the destructive distractions (stress, noise, etc) we are so often exposed to living our lives. I would like to work towards implementing more of the feeling being in nature gives into the music I create. I am very grateful to those artists that are capable of doing that. I feel that has potential to be a stepping stone to establishing a meaningful relationship, as you put with, with nature, and with your fellow human beings and the world as well.
As artists, we recognize that “feeling” is something that has a fleeting degree of intensity but it is an intrinsic part of our essence: at times it seems to desert us but when it flares back, it’s the most beautiful, mind-blowing, enriching experience! If we let the flame burn, it can take us anywhere... When creativity is in free-flowing mode, the feeling that art “creates itself” is staggering. As vessels we have a great responsibility to make it manifest in the best possible way: finding the balance between capturing the purity of emotion through an instinctive thought/act, and the subsequent filing-work aimed at making it as true to its intended meaning as possible, is a complex task. Do you approach it with preoccupation and intensity or with a serene and laid back attitude?
How wonderfully put! I very much feel the same way. I have been obsessed with the "concept" of feeling since I read about it in an interview with Ted of Darkthrone in some zine in the late nineties. I was around twelve years old (way too young) and thought: "Yes, that's it!" I have contemplated what you describe above ever since. The mystery of it deepens as for every year that passes by, but so does its beauty. What is this sensation that no word can accurately describe? Where does it come from, and what does it really represent? Well, part of its wondrous quality is the fact that it goes beyond language. We can only hint at what it is in a conversation. Through music, however, it can be communicated, and even understood at an abstract level. Music can even make us feel at one with it, for brief moments and or for longer periods of time, when we let ourselves immerse completely and surrender to its power. Those are rare and precious experiences, and it surely is a driving force for me. The feeling drives me, guides me, and all other artists, towards that which is hidden beyond. It enriches music as it enriches life. It is a gift beyond comprehension.
Do I approach it with intensity or serenity? Well, a bit of both. It demands both, I think. It is like inspiration - it will come easier to you if you actually work, rather than sit around and wait for it. At the same time you cannot force it or bend its will - one must cooperate, be one with the flow, and then it often comes naturally. You know, all the things I have learned in life, demanded work, effort and time. Music being the prime example, I guess. I am a horrible musician, and I struggled long and hard to gain the skills I needed to do the things I wanted to do, but I did it. And with this work, inspiration came along, eventually.
The fact that northern people are “cold” is a commonplace stereotype: you often refer to the concept of “fire”, which seems to be part of your “being”. You are a creature who welcomes and embraces opposites, therefore this openness is perhaps one of the elements that makes you feel separate from the more one-sided stance of black metal, which focuses on the dark side? I see BM as one of the most fertile grounds for boundless spiritual and philosophical research because I do not see any separation in the opposite, but not many share my views on this regard.
Yes. I am often put off by displays of narrow-mindedness, even if these philosophies are elaborate and articulate. A lot of the attitudes held in (extreme) metal culture are often such that I cannot always relate to them, but it is not a homogeneous "movement", and there are a lot of very interesting and even constructive approaches to be found as well. That is how it always is, everywhere.
I see what you mean, just look at Dødsengel for example - boundless indeed. They transcend all genre specifics yet everyone agrees on their black metallic essence. Personally I like to focus more on "music" rather than "black metal", so the questions about what black metal is or can be become irrelevant to me. You are completely right, though, but I think it goes for music at large: it is an infinite arena for all kinds explorative journeys. You just have to use it the right way. It is a matter of honest intention and establishing a bridge between worlds.
Outside Norway there is a widespread understanding that “true black metal” is about Satanism. Those who were there at the very beginning have always gone out of their ways to explain that Satanism wasn’t in the picture at all when it all started. So what is it exactly that encapsulates BM for you, given that the Nidrosian collective declared its mission to restore black metal to its former, truer meaning?
Referring to my answer above, I am certainly not the right person to ask. I have an outsider perspective when it comes to these topics, and while the discoursive movements back and forth are interesting to behold and observe, they are not very important to me personally. I can only speak for myself, of course.
I can relate to your approach where technique becomes redundant in pursuing feeling and emotion in their deepest, most genuine form, and with both One Tail One Head and Vemod you can freely apply this artistic philosophy. Yet, Vemod is clearly the ideal vessel to embark on all sorts of creative adventures: do you see yourself soon needing to widen and refine your technical skills further in order to be able to be more expressive, or your plan is to allow yourself complete freedom by “going with the flow”, so to speak?
A bit of both, perhaps? I have never been a technical musician and most likely I never will be either. However, I do need certain skills to be able to communicate my dreams in music. Ideally, I would like to work towards a point where music is an all-encompassing craft, melting all these seemingly divided elements into one. An open gate. I have realized that creating such an environment will require work, and lots of it.
With that as an overarching goal, there are many skills I would like to attain, or improve in various ways. Lately I have been developing an interest in different aspects of the production, and find myself doing research in many directions. Perhaps as a result of always having been dependent on the skills of others, which can be limiting at times. Also, the vast landscapes of sound modification and sound design absolutely fascinates me, and would very much like to do some deeper exploration there. My approach to music and composition is very textural, as can already be heard on 'Venter på stormene', so I have much to learn and gain from those fields. It is the totality of the various elements combined that matters to me, so the single lines themselves are just there to support the whole, and that makes technique for the sake of technique rather redundant.
When it comes to the actual playing of instruments, I expand when I need to. My skills have been basic all along, but I feel I always made the best out of it. And along the way, with all the projects, there has been so much rehearsing, and of course you develop, even if it is not a conscious act. It is bound to happen when you simply play, and spend time with your instrument. However, it feels like I am drawn to experiment with other instruments, rather than just improve my guitar playing. It is important to me to keep the enthusiasm of exploration and expansion.
In the end it is all emotion and atmosphere. Again, honest intention is the most important, everything else will follow naturally.
Vemod’s live rituals contrast greatly with OTOH by presenting on stage the intellectual, nobler side of man, while the latter represents powerfully our primordial, feral state. At Prague Death Mass you seemed to achieve a far higher level of abandonment during the Vemod performance, showing a very intense connection with the music: how scary and energizing is it to face a crowd with something so intimate, something you have been accustomed to interiorize for such a long time?
The experience is both horrifying and ecstatic at the same time, as most profound experiences are. My belief in this music is so strong that the work always has my full attention, fueling it with intention. I think that goes for the other members as well. We deliver our part. But in live performances there are other factors at play. There is a synergy created between music, band, audience, and also space, time, mood and atmosphere, and all of it matters and contributes to the whole of the experience. The sum can definitely be greater than its parts, but it is a collective effort and again, intention from many directions is needed.
That said, there are many ways to achieve magic. There is no one way, no "correct" or "best". I believe perfection is fiction, so I am very open to the various ways that these events play out. I like to observe how the endless combinations of the different elements change the feeling of the whole. It is a fascinating process. The desired levels of intensity will always be reached, simply by being attentive to the work and present in the moment.
The Key is a powerful symbol: it’s baffling how many different portals it can open… Do you think that Vemod in its performance art aspect is already affecting its own creative future?
I think the live dimension and how it all unfolded did introduce some change in the way I think about Vemod, but it is more of an expansion than a change as such. It made me think in broader terms, and it gave a whole new arena to creatively express ourselves in. I think that creative energy will feed back into the craft itself eventually, although exactly how it will play out is still unknown to me. As I said, I like it that way.
After a year with these selected live events, I feel the Vemodian universe to be enriched and deepened by the experience, and I am looking forward to new endevours. We are already working on some new projects, quite different from what we have done so far. Time will tell what shall manifest.
A curiosity: your live drummer is Cameron Warrack, of Canadian duo Sortilegia. Logistically not the easiest choice, but worth it from what I saw! It makes sense that, alongside your creative companion E. Blix, you chose to hook up with someone on the other side of the world: no space-time barriers with Vemod…
Except from the mentioned distance, Cameron is truly perfect for us. He is rock bottom solid, energetic and powerful, yet there is an almost meditative quality to his performance, which I find to be rare and precious. And of course he is a good friend, so it adds to the collective spirit as well which is just as important as anything else. We owe him a great deal.
Perhaps it really does make sense. No space-time barriers.
Photos featuring VEMOD and OTOH taken at Aurora Infernalis V, Prague Death Mass II and Caledonian Darkness Pt.1