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Publié le 02/09/2009 à 22:17
Édité le 02/09/2009 à 22:17

Interview of Thomas Eriksen, English version

Evrything started when I saw "Metal : A Headbanger's Journey", this truly amazing documentary on metal directed by Sam Dunn. And Thomas Eriksen happened to be one of the people interviewed about Norwegian black metal. A couple of e-mails later, I was in his office, getting some insights about Norway and the black metal scene.

How could you describe the Norwegian society in a few words ?

It's a society full of contradictions because on the one hand you have some very strong ideas about history, which come from rural society in the 19th century, but also from the Vikings. On the other hand, Norway is part of globalisation and has been influenced by a lot of impulses from everywhere. Like every other European society, we live with these contradictions. So people try to find a way between, we might say, change and continuity, or past and future. And it has a True Norwegian Black Metal - Photograph by Peter Bestestrong romantic nationalism, which is very different from the French one and the idea of the republic. It has a very historically rooted national identity, which makes very difficult for Norway to adapt to the present age. There is still a lot of resistance in Norway against the European Union, one of the only European country who doesn't see the point of joining the European Union because of the fear of loosing its independence. As opposed to Sweden and Denmark, which are two of the oldest states in Europe and go back to middle ages, Norway is one of the youngestIt only became independent in 1905, and only a generation from that, the country was occupied by the Germans. So there is a very strong sense of vulnerability. And you can attach this to black metal and its very specific sense of uniqueness and nature worship.

Most of the metal music is about rejecting society, its rules and pressures. When it comes to black metal, musicians tend to express a sort of proud, of nature or history.

It's very strange indeed. I haven't followed that scene very closely but in periods the black metal community was very opposed to Christianity, which symbolises the mainstream in Norwegian culture. You see these extremely pale people with long died hair, dressed in black clothes. And you see those people skiing outside the city, which is very unusual.

What was the ambiance in the late 1990' in Norway ?

I'm not sure if you can explain that by looking at society as such, because it was pretty much the same as everywhere in the world, in western world anyway, with discussion about multiculturalism coming up in a big way and an increase level of legalisation and nationalism.
Back in 1994 it was the Olympic Games, which was in Norway a celebration of nationalism, in a big way. A total misunderstanding of what the Olympics were supposed to be about. They thought it was about celebrating their own country, not about the idea of dialogue between cultures. During the same year, there was a referendum about membership in European Union, so nationalism exploded, in a very frightening way in my opinion.
Regarding the black metal people, there was violence, church burnings, murders, people got killed, others went to jail and so on. I think they saw themselves as a counterculture, a more authentic counterculture, reacting to the decadence and the superficial aspect of Norwegian society.

At that time, there have been trials. One of the most famous is the one of Varg Vikernes. During the all process of justice, do you think that the music, and not only the music, was condemned ?

I think the music played a part here. It's difficult to say exactly what part, but it played a role. There was an association between violent music and violent people. This music was considered as the expression of the brutality of people. But on the other hand some would come out with the idea that people involved in violence weren't able to distinguish between the play acting side of black metal, the Alice Cooper dimension of the music, and reality. Forgetting that you're actually playing a part, a role, as in a theatre, where you could express some of your suppressed emotion. That's the way we use art in western societies. And to most black metal fans that's perfectly something that you can distinguish, between the kind of emotions you can get at a concert, and the way you behave at home. But not for everybody. But the music was clearly part of the general attitude, that this was a dangerous music.

So yes, the music was condemned. I'll tell you something : I sometimes speak with people in the foreign affair ministry, and they're interested in what anthropologists think of Norway's image abroad, how can we improve Norway's reputation in other countries. Whenever I got the chance I tell them : what is the major export of Norwegian culture ? It's not Ibsen, it's not folklore, you know this kind of ridiculous romantic stuff, but it's black metal. Which makes some young people in Italy taking Norwegian at University, in order to be able to understand the lyrics and so on. But that kind of message doesn't go down well, it's not seen as part of the official Norwegian culture. So that's an ambivalence, despite of the fact that some of these bands are really quite famous outside of Norway. Which doesn't really exist here you know, there aren't any Norwegian popstars. It's not like Sweden, which produces popstars al the time.

What is the place of Christianity in the Norwegian society ?

Norway is a very secular country. But 25 years ago, on the Friday of Easter, which was the most sacred of all days, it was illegal to serve alcohol, and it was not allowed to dance. So we still have the notion of the religious origin of Easter. But that's not the way to celebrate now. I go up to the mountains every Easter with my family and there's dancing music, True Norwegian Black Metal - Photograph by Peter Bestehard liquor all around. So I see your point, this is quite secularized. It could a cause of some sort of crisis of identity among black metal people, because they build their identity very much on opposition of Christianity. But when Christianity is no longer making itself followed in the big way, it becomes hard for them because, where is the enemy ? And Christianity has become very welted out. There's a state church which is Lutherans, barely Christian.
So it must be difficult for them. And when they started to burn down churches, it was kind of a self contradicted thing to do, because those people were committed to a certain idea of Viking pride and Norwegian history, and in some case it's blood and race, about the purity and the Arian blood, and that sort of thing. But these churches are the symbol of Norway glorious past, they don't really represent Christianity anymore, they represent a proud part of history.

Do you mean that Norwegian only adopted the symbols of Christianity ?

No, Christianity was powerful and people were Christian. And there are still pockets of fundamentalist Christianity around, especially along the coast. Really old fashion people, who don't even have TV. They are like fundamentalist Muslims. And they are obsessed with sex. That's a problem with Christians and Muslims, they can't think of anything but sex, and how to prevent people from having sex. So you have that as well. But it's a cultural minority, you don't find those people in the cities, Oslo, Bergen and so on. Faithful Christians have become a cultural minority. For example, the Great Cathedral in Trondheim which was also a symbol of the grandeur of the past, is considered as a cultural symbol, not a religious one.
Secularization happened very fast since the end of World War 2. Christianity was still quite powerful in the 50' and 60'. I went to school in the 70', and you had this sort of preaching. We were supposed to be Lutheran Christians. This changed around the late 1980', where that kind of thing became impossible because of an ethnic minority who was not Christian and because a large number of Norwegians didn't actually care about religion.

In what extent the Norwegian press played a role during the late 1990', about black metal and satanism ?

Around Satanism, black metal and so on there was some kind of moral panic, which was quite amusing because there was two places in the world where you have these ideas about Satanism and there were rumours about sacrificed babies, of courses associated with black metal or death metal. But there was no evidence anywhere, no baby missing. This idea of bloody pagan rituals, associated with a subculture, created a moral panic, but totally undocumented. And that kind of moral panic lasted for a couple of years and then disappeared because there was no substance to it.

Did the tabloids build up the opinion ?

Absolutely. France is such a civilized country compared to that : France Soir is not like that. We have kind of the same thing like The Sun or The Daily Miror, a sensationalist press. They played an important part in building this opinion, but the speed of the information is quite fast. And a lot of Norwegians hardly remember the obsession with Satanism and black metal of the 1990'.

Take a random Norwegian person. What would be his or her reaction to black metal now ?

That's an interesting question. You know I play in a band, we play soul music in a big band. And we have a rehearse room in a building where there are several bands, most of them are probably 30 years younger than us. And most of them play some kind of extreme hard rock, or death metal, or something like that. So we hear them, they play very loud, they scream. Sometimes I talk to them when we meet in the corridors. I use to joke and say : "so you're going to burn churches ? ". And they answer : "no we play in churches we are Christians". So you have also that kind of attitude. But for an average person, black metal would seem very aggressive at once.

Would they feel this aggressive music as an aggression ?

No, probably not. You know there was a TV comedian who made fun of these people in the 1990', a character called the Baron Blood, with a lot of make up and so on. And he said like "you know, I am some times afraid of looking to myself in a mirror because I get scared". You have also that kind of cartoon attitude. And it's certainly why most people see black metal as largely harmless now, that it's a musical subculture.
And if you take a look at this sociologically, it's very interesting to see. I have a colleague, who's much more knowledgeable than me, he's also a musician and an anthropologist. He studied the eastern part of Oslo, the place where you find working classes, and there were quite a few people into black metal in the 1990. And he said that these people were the smartest kids, the brightest kids. But with a very strong need to rebel. But what do you rebel against in this permissive liberal society ? That's a problem. So maybe a generation ago, they would have become hippies, Maoists. And 10 years later they might have become punks and so on. But the only sort of niche that was open to them, which have not been occupied by the big brotVarg VIkernes, late 1990s.hers and the parents before, was Satanism and black metal. So that's how they found this subculture identity.

Do you think that a Christian black metal band is a contradiction in itself ?

You know as Christian people always use to say, "we mustn't let the devil have all the good music". So that was the justification for Christian rock. Because rock was a sort of sexual music, a dangerous thing for Christians. But then they realised that if you want to appeal to young people you need that. So yes Christian rock in a sense is a contradiction because Christians are really afraid of sexuality. And even with death metal. If you look at the history of the genre, you'll find some strong ideologies, antichristian really often. And the symbolism is also very strong, through album covers but also through band names. . But that's the way of postmodernism anyway.
But then again, it's mostly like jazz, which was associated with black culture. But there was a lot of white jazz too, and probably with racists musicians at the time. In this kind of society there is a lot of mixtures which are possible. Very surprising things which are possible. Muslims into black metal, I'm sure it exists too.

Now that black metal is represented at the equivalent of the Grammy Awards here in Norway, do you think that black metal lost its ability to shock?

No, I think they are quite good in this county at keeping a subculture image, in fact a bit too good some times. Because most of ordinary Norwegians are hardly aware of the existence of this scene. There is a sort of gothic, dark sub-genre of rock music which is highly accomplished at a technical level. I mean listen to the albums, these musicians are truly incredible ! And it's not very well known. It's a subculture, and one of the most bounded one.

Do you think that Norwegian Black Metal would have been so famous if there was not all that violence ?

It's a very interesting question. A sort of thesis question (laughs). I don't think that they saw it that way at the moment, because some of them were truly dedicated to evil, or what they saw as evil. I'm not a specialist but I can tell that some of these bands are very good, but there is something very unpleasant. This sort of Germanic ideology, not necessarily explicit.

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