This Friday brings the release of Traces, one of those albums that I’ve already played a lot in the last few weeks. Ash of Ashes have already secured a spot on one of the first positions in my Best of 2022 list. I am especially glad that I had the opportunity to do an in-depth Zoom interview with Skaldir, the founder of the band, who is also solely responsible for the music, last Wednesday. Since we fortunately had a plenty to talk about, the interview is divided into two parts. Have fun reading!
André: Skaldir, fortunately there are concerts and festivals on every corner at the moment. What was your last live experience?
Skaldir: It’s really been ages – that was The Flower Kings in 2019. I haven’t actually been to a concert for over two years – although it’s really possible again now, the dates just rush past me. But I haven’t really internalised it yet. You were in Oberhausen last week, really interesting bands played there. And I asked myself: Why don’t you go there? I didn’t have time there anyway, but it just doesn’t occur to me to go to concerts again. So I really have some catching up to do!
I’m sure there are a few readers who don’t know Ash of Ashes yet. Please tell us a little bit about your band history?
I was in the band Hel from 1997 to 2012. Two years after we broke up, I felt the need to do this kind of music again. I thought I’d do it on my own for now and then see later. Then in 2018 our first album Down the White Waters came out. Our style is epic metal, as it is in your blog name, but there are also folk metal influences as well as some black metal.
Can you relate to the term Viking Metal?
Yes, I don’t mind being called that.
When did you start to be interested in Nordic mythology?
It was around the middle of the 90s, it happened with the discovery of Bathory. Then I also met the Valdr of Hel – he is ten years older than me and was already deeply immersed in this subject. He could tell me a lot about it and he also wrote the lyrics for Hel.
You provide me with a nice keyword: Some months ago, I already spoke in detail with Walter from Crom about Bathory. Now I ask you too: Which Quorthon albums do you like most? My guess is of course the Viking era – but I’m curious what your favourite is…
I think Blood on Ice is very well done. It’s quite an interesting album anyway, because it’s such a latecomer – supposedly Quorthon wrote it before Blood Fire Death, but I don’t know if that’s true. In any case, he held it back then because he thought people weren’t ready for it yet. I find Blood on Ice exciting because it has this concept aspect and it’s half an audio play. You experience a story that totally resonated with me at the time. With Falland Vörandi we later did something similar with Hel – we also integrated a lot of noises and stuff. It’s just a great way to tell a story. After Blood on Ice, I have to mention Hammerheart and Twilight of the Gods – those are my important Bathory albums. I honestly can’t do that much with the stuff that came before that.
Do you go to Scandinavia often?
I’ve been to Sweden and Denmark a few times, and Norway once. I think it’s great there. Scotland is a country that I also consider to be a bit of a part of Scandinavia – although that’s not Scandinavia, of course, but I haven’t been there yet. I’ve also been to Finland, although strictly speaking that’s not Scandinavian either. But it feels like it belongs (laughs).
What do you think of series like Vikings and Last Kingdom?
I don’t know Last Kingdom. I watched Vikings, but I didn’t watch it to the end. I dropped out when Ragnar was dead, I didn’t want to watch it any more. But before that I liked the series a lot.
Let’s move on to Traces: The first thing that catches the eye is of course the wonderful artwork by Christopher Rakkestad. Was this done especially for Traces?
Yes, the artwork was made especially for the album, based on our wishes. He did it extremely well! I can’t paint myself, but I had an idea of how it should look. I had also talked about it with Morten. These two mountains that frame the cover, for example, were very important to me. All in all, the cover should look like our music sounds – or sounds in my ears when I make it. Christopher did an excellent job. I had told him beforehand that I envisioned an epic landscape. Besides, we already had our title, Traces. We didn’t really nail Christopher down, but this path that’s on the cover was very important to us, it should definitely show up. You see something that’s very old, which is a landscape. You can imagine that a lot has happened in it over the millennia – some traces have remained, some traces can no longer be found. That was the basic idea!
What do you think distinguishes Traces from its predecessor Down the White Waters?
I think Traces is more varied overall. That was also the intention: our first album was supposed to be relatively coherent. For example, I had one and the same keyboard sound throughout, or maybe two – but they were very similar in any case. Of course, that contributed to that “one-piece feeling“ – I thought that was very important for a debut, people hearing the band for the first time and wondering what this band stands for. Now with the second album, of course, people already know a little bit what it’s about. Then you can integrate more variety and more influences from other styles into the songs. In my opinion, the folk metal part is a bit less this time than on the previous album. But that wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened that way. I think we managed to get a lot of variety on Traces through the different tempos. And I think that’s the big difference to the previous album.
Is there a song that is particularly close to your heart?
Yes, “Evermore“ is the most well-rounded track in my opinion. It’s also relatively commercial and catchy – without being banal. And I always think that’s great when I manage to do that. “Under the Midnight Sun“ was actually the first song I wrote before the debut was released. It’s very complex with the two guitars playing something completely different all the time. On their own, each guitar, on some riffs, plays a completely different song – if they listened on their own, it wouldn’t make any sense at all. Only when they play together is it like that – and I know that in this form from Windir, for example, but also from old At the Gates albums. I always liked that very much. I was a bit proud of myself when I managed to do that. That’s why this song is also something special for me.
Of course, the final track, “To Those Long Forgotten“, is also special. Can you say something about this song? It is predestined to end an album…
I would love to say something about it. It’s good that you have already recognised that this is a perfect song to end an album. The version on the album is a bit different from the single version, here the chorus comes again and it fades out into nothingness, into the reverb. At the beginning there is also an intro – and that is always very important to me, that an album has a beginning and an end. As Markus Eck (from Metal Message) once told me so beautifully: an album has a beginning, a playing time and an end! But that’s not always the case, the beautiful records from the past actually always had that. Nowadays that has changed, sometimes it doesn’t matter what the order of the tracks is. I always find that a real pity! If I make an album, then you should also recognise where it starts and where it ends – that was also like that with the last album. “To Those Long Forgotten“ is of course also something special, I could have just mentioned that one too. Of all the songs, it went through the greatest development from the demo stage to the final studio version. When I wrote it, I did the vocals myself first, so Morten would know where to go. It was clear to me that I needed one or two female parts in the song. I then discussed it with Morten. We actually wanted to make it a family story, with two male and two female roles, matching the four verses. But then Morten developed this anti-war theme and he wrote it in such a way that you have a father and mother as the role who mourn their son. In any case, our singers didn’t take over my drafts note for note, but also deviated from them. They put their own thing straight into it. For the part after the second chorus, I originally wanted to have only guitar solos, from four or five different guitarists. Then the singers heard the drafts for the solos – and Rùnahild took that as an opportunity to do something freestyle-like with it, without lyrics at first. This in turn inspired Christopher to do something in this direction as well. So I had two elements that I hadn’t actually planned. But I liked them so much that I thought: Good, then I’ll change it! So now it’s vocals-solo vocals-vocals and then comes the final guitar solo. But that’s just how it has to be, it was such a happy coincidence – that’s why the difference to the demo is relatively huge.
You have actually already answered the following question that I had thought about beforehand. It’s about the creation of Ash of Ashes songs. Is there always the music first and then the lyrics? Or can it be the other way round?
I’m a pretty bad lyricist myself, that’s just not my thing. That’s why the music always comes first. But I don’t allow myself to have vocal tracks without lyrics. Morten always has to go through that. I then sing a mixture of fantasy language and English. When people hear that, they often think it’s already a lyric, but it’s not. Then I play it to Morten and we check out what the song is probably about or could be about. Morten then works through my draft syllable by syllable and makes a real text out of it – that’s quite exciting. Throughout my career, by the way, the music has always come first. One exception was Falland Vörandi, where the lyrics came first – but I only wrote part of that album, the main part came from Valdr. On Das Atmen der Erde, most of it came from me.
I hear Morten can also completely express himself in Ash of Ashes…
Yes, he is a huge part of Ash of Ashes. Without him there wouldn’t have been an album yet. I might have had a few songs, but what good is an album without lyrics? If I had to write the lyrics myself, I would have finished maybe three by now, after four or five years.
In the second part, Skaldir and I will talk among other things in detail about our favourite guitarists – and find out that there are some interesting overlaps…