Immortal Guitarist Demonaz Talks 28 Years Of Black Metal Madness
Sometimes there’s real warmth within the most frostbitten of musicians. It’s certainly the case with reinstated Immortal mainman Demonaz. After two decades confined to the songwriting duties and the sidelines with a debilitating case of tendinitis, and his recent acrimonious split with the band’s iconic vocalist Abbath he could be forgiven frustration, impatience, and a touch of agitation. Speaking to K! close to midnight at his house overlooking fjordland on the outskirts of Bergen, however, he’s on welcoming, thoughtful form. “I like good questions,” he laughs. “Some people ask you about your favourite soup!”
Safe to say, we’ve plenty to talk about. Readying the band’s epic ninth LP Northern Chaos Gods, he’s got a fistful of points to prove: that he’s a creative force capable of operating without his long-time partner, that two decades of rust hasn’t impaired that ability as black metal’s riffmaster general, and that he’s got the voice to carry Immortal to the next level.
The secret to getting back on his feet, he explains, was in reconnecting with the solitude that started it all…
Northern Chaos Gods is a chaotic return to form. To what extent is your art still reflective of the rugged Norwegian landscapes?
Every morning I walk to the mountains when everyone else is going to work. The west coast of Norway is really, really nice. When you come away from the ocean a bit on the fjords, you have the mountains climbing right out of the water and then the glaciers on top. It’s something truly unique. There is a lot of rain here, but I really like that. It doesn’t bother me so much. You can stand on top of the mountain and only see nature. That’s really powerful. I love that solitude of nature. That’s what keeps me writing music. It’s what keeps me [living this life]. I’m addicted to it, really. I love those surroundings over which you have no control.
Did you grow up in that sort of rural environment?
Yes. When I was a young boy, my father would always find me in the woods. I’ve always wanted to get away from everyone. I was never depressed, nor did I have social problems, but I was fascinated by [nature and solitude] from a very early age. The first house I grew up in was on its own in the countryside – not many neighbours. But there were woods and swamps. I was fascinated by that. ‘The forest.’ I remember going back to it when I was older, and it wasn’t exactly some great wilderness, but it gave me that fascination from the start. My mother is from the north of Norway. The winters were really hard when we were visiting up there. I loved that. They were dark times, with only a couple of hours’ sunlight a day. And, at the other end of the year, we had the midnight sun, too.
You can hear the harshness, but how does the peace and seclusion factor into black metal songwriting?
The peacefulness is like a mental medicine that allows you to get away from all those disturbances. It also clears your mind gives you time to focus on music alone. You don’t need to worry about crossing the road or the people around. All those riffs and combinations come to the front of your mind. You get a different kind of focus. It’s also good to be away from the guitar. I always try to keep my guitar in a different room to where I’m from. That inspires me to pick it up and write some riffs rather than picking it up to play something I’ve written before.
You’re not exactly gouging out riffs out on the ice, though. How do you take that feel home?
My loft is my composers space. I have a view out onto the city on one side and onto the mountains on the other. The nighttime is the best: when it’s cold and there are no sounds. You can listen to the wind and look at the moon…
Why did you channel your love of the landscape through the fictional realm of ‘Blashyrkh’ rather than just referencing Norway itself?
When we started, there wasn’t a word for this atmosphere. There were keywords like ‘grim’, ‘dark’ and ‘cold’ but I wanted our music to be grim, dark, cold and timeless. In a way I wanted to have this whole universe that people could identify with or understand. It has all those elements that will almost make you freeze when you hear it. So I named it Blashyrkh which means ‘the dark and cold realm’. I [aspired] to give it its own language, too. But then I realised that I’m no Tolkein, I’m [just] a musician… [Laughs] From the start that was the basis to do things. So Blashyrkh stayed. It’s a part of Immortal.
Northern Chaos Gods sees a wholehearted return to that realm. Was Blashyrkh a focal point to help get Immortal back in business?
I really wanted Immortal to get back on track. I felt like something was out of hand, you know. I never wanted us to be experimental. I never looked for people to bring their big [ideas] to make this grandiose. I’ve always just wanted to do a better album than the one before but with the same ingredients. You can say, ‘Let’s go back to our roots.’ But the album only comes when you’re writing it, regardless of what’s in the back of your mind. It’s got to come from the guts. Writing the title-track back in 2015, yes, I did feel like I was making the kind of traditional Immortal track I was back on Battles In The North. The big thing here is that I was writing alone. I wasn’t influenced by Abbath this time. This is [purely] my side of the sound, in a way…
Is it true that you had to restart writing this record from scratch when Abbath left?
Yes, that’s right. After All Shall Fall we started to work on another album and we had already done 80 per cent of those songs. Then there was a conflict with him and [a lot of that material ended up] on his solo album. Everything on this album is fresh. I started re-writing around September 2015.
Rewinding a bit, let’s not forget you were struck by tendinitis in 1997 and had to step back as a performer for most of the last two decades…
I never stopped playing the guitar. I’ve always been writing. It was just that I could no longer play at the level required to rehearse for playing live. You’ve got to rehearse a lot. So when I got the tendinitis problems in 1997 I went from rehearsing two or three hours a day to being able to play only half an hour. Even if you’re 100 per cent you can’t play forever. You get tired. The problem with my arm was that need for rest. If I was playing hard one day, I would need to rest the whole next day with my arm numb.
How troubling was that at the time?
It was dark in the beginning. In 1997, that was the reason Abbath took over the guitar. And yet if Immortal was to survive, I had to be there. They couldn’t do that on their own because I was so involved in the writing of music and lyrics – it would just sound different without me. And remember Abbath was a bassist. He didn’t learn guitar from his father. He learned from me. The [big thing] was that one hour a day when they were onstage and I’d have to stand to the side with the sound guy. [The set-up] was strange, but I guess it gave us meaning.
Of course, you remained a great lyricist…
Whenever I listened to a band I was always interested in the lyrics. If they didn’t print the lyrics, I was very disappointed. I like the wholeness. In a way, this is a lifestyle. [With Blashyrkh,] I wanted to put some identity into the Immortal lyrics. I was never interested in writing about politics or religion. Politics were for the punk bands. Religious stuff was for people without anything else in their heads. I really want everything to be an identity: the make-up, the music, the lyrics. I wanted to create this package of something that was different.
So, how did your condition improve?
In 2011, I went to this hospital where a surgeon explained that my muscle was slipped. They never saw that in the x-rays in 1997. They repaired it. They went in at two places in the shoulder and stitched it together. I had to recover for maybe nine months after that. There were three months without touching a guitar – which was a fucking nightmare! But then I recovered about 90 per cent, which was really good. It emphasised that I never lost the technical part of playing, only the [stamina].
Was there ever a possibility of you re-joining the band alongside Abbath?
By 2013, I was beginning to think about coming back. We were discussing it. Unfortunately, there was also a communication problem starting – those disagreements and personal problems…
What was at the heart of that disharmony?
The problems first arose around 2000. By 2003, there was conflict. [Abbath] was uncomfortable with our different opinions about drugs and stuff. The band was done in 2003. But we brought it back in 2007. However, the problems weren’t solved. I really wanted to focus on the music. For me putting Immortal down was never an option. The band had been set down before and it felt like there was no justice in that – no alternative or other option. I thought it would be really bad if All Shall Fall would be the last Immortal album. I always had something better than that in mind. That conflict only came to an end when he left in 2014. For me, Immortal was never dead. I always had the next album in my head. And now that one’s out, I have the next one. I never gave up.
Was it a painful separation?
Maybe it looks different from the outside. But this band has been around for a very long time – since 1990 – and it becomes the cage. In 2003 it was like 15 years since the band started. By 2014, when it ended, we had already been through those problems [many times] before. It was nothing new to us. I was just relieved that it came to an end – that he chose to go another way and I could continue being this. It was the only thing that made sense. I don’t feel bad, or sad. I feel like we were more lost with him than we are without him. I feel like I can stand 110 per cent behind Northern Chaos Gods. I didn’t feel the same with All Shall Fall. Maybe others think that it’s missing something without Abbath – and maybe they should go and listen to his album instead.
Is there any prospect of a reconciliation, or is that door closed?
At the moment, I can’t see that happening. There have already been so many chances. That door was open for a long time. Maybe he doesn’t want it, either. He has his own thing now, too. I hope he found what he was seeking.
How does it feel to be resurrecting the band – with yourself front and centre?
It feels significant. But it took time. We decided to take it step by step. Write. Pre-produce. Enter the studio. We started writing in 2015. Pre-production and rehearsal was finished by the end of 2016. We were in the studio in January 2017. That’s already over a year ago. I said to [drummer] Horgh, ‘Let’s forget about the rest of the world. We have nothing to talk about until we have the new album.’ Now we’ve got to go back to the rehearsal place in mid-July to prepare for the live situation. We could be on tour immediately after the summer if we wanted to, but we want to show that the establishment is back, everything is good, and that we have that internal success. We’ve experienced what it is for a band to have that big outside success while everything inside was bad, before. We’re not going to rush it this time. We’re going to find the right members. We’re going to make it spectacular again.
Any nerves about getting back onstage?
It’ll be the same as with the album. There will be those sceptics asking how we’re going to pull that off. Now that we’ve pulled it off I think we can pull off the next step, too. But it’s not achieved in a day or two…
Did [2011 solo album] March Of The Norse prepare you to assume vocal duties, too?
That was more about heavy metal. I was inspired by Manowar, Bathory’s Hammerheart and God Of Ice. They had something. The songs for the Demonaz album were actually written during our first break around 2006. Then Immortal came back and I had to do them after. It was different. I wasn’t trying to sing in that grim way. There were no fast songs, no blastbeats. When we split with Abbath it just felt like the most natural thing to have me sing. It was a no-brainer that I should sing my lyrics that are already under my skin.
There’s a progression within the current Black Metal scene with acts like Myrkur and Zeal & Ardour pushing the boundaries, but Northern Chaos Gods feels like a reminder of the original black metal savagery. Was that intentional?
That feels like a compliment. I would rather listen to a pop band than a metal band trying to sound like a pop band. A lot of those bands in the beginning called themselves black metal despite having things like choirs and symphonies, synthesisers and [melodic] female vocals. I don’t see the power in that. I see the power in the guitar. That’s why I started playing battle music. The first riff that ever stick with me was when I was 10 years old – The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction. When I heard Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi became my first riffmaster. To me, it’s not a metal band if you don’t have a riffmaster. Immortal is based on riffs. Guitar, drums and vocals are what makes our band. If I can’t make good songs with that, maybe I should quit playing. Nowadays, you see someone with black hair and bullet-belts on it’s hard to tell: they could like emo or gothic music, whatever. For me it feels like some of those bands [fall into that old stereotype of] ‘black metal for girls’ [laughs]. And some of them of those guys are doing that style really well. It’s because it’s not the music I grew up with. When I listen to new music, I analyse it. I’m judging it from that ‘musician’s perspective’, 20 years down the line. It’s for young people to get into it – not us veterans.
So, what’s next for Immortal?
I was actually just playing on my guitar before we started to talk. It’s just sitting on my couch. And I have something I did on it for a new song. I’m always writing. I already have a few new songs for the next Immortal album. I feel freer. The songwriting is easier. And I feel so inspired. But the most important thing is that we have fun internally and that we’re able to continue on without those past problems. It’s important to take it one step at a time. I want to be ready, but I don’t want to be too ready. [Laughs]
Words: Sam Law
Immortal release their new album Northern Chaos Gods on July 6 through Nuclear Blast. You can pre-order it here. Check out the title-track on the stream below.