Kvelertak: “This isn’t about Vikings, this is the history of the actual place that we are from”

Kvelertak’s Ivar Nickolaisen explains how a mysterious Norwegian folk figure’s violent opposition to the modern world inspired the band’s brilliant new album, Endling…

Kvelertak: “This isn’t about Vikings, this is the history of the actual place that we are from”
Sam Coare
Stian Andersen

Ivar Nickolaisen has never met Helmut Von Botnlaus. Truth be told, says Kvelertak’s frontman, very few people have. The legend of Helmut goes something like this: born at the tail end of World War II to a German soldier father and a local 16-year-old mother, as he grew up Helmut became a pariah in his small hometown in southwest Norway’s Stavanger region, from where Kvelertak themselves hail.

“It was really hard to be the child of a German and a woman who was seen as betraying her country by being with one,” Ivar explains. “A mob forced him to run away and up to the mountains, where he stayed all his life, growing more and more misanthropic, and against the modern world.”

Helmut’s was a name that Ivar kept coming across during long walks through those same mountains. With the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in 2020 putting an immediate cessation to Kvelertak’s touring plans, the 45-year-old spent the global lockdown reconnecting with his childhood – “Going to the mountains with the one friend I had was my escape from school and everything,” he reminisces – and the natural world by trekking and fishing.

It was on these walks that he would meet often interesting, sometimes eccentric characters, who would each tell often interesting, sometimes fantastical stories of local folklore. And with each conversation, it wouldn’t be long until the name of Helmut Von Botnlaus was spoken again. There were those who told tales of his blowing up of electricity pylons and windfarms. Others who spoke of the furious farmers whose sheep he slaughtered under the cover of darkness in order to survive. There was even the teenager who got as close to anyone to meeting him when he stumbled upon a camp he was calling home. No-one is able to say if he’s even still alive.

Ivar has long had a fascination with the history and stories of his region, and it was through his journeys that they came to feed the inspiration for Endling, Kvelertak’s fifth album and second with Ivar behind the mic. The story of Helmut and his worldview plays out across half a dozen of its 10 tracks, most notably Skoggangr, Dogeniktens Kvad and Paranoia 297. Svart September, meanwhile, tells of a factory worker from the region who lost his mind and beat his co-workers to a bloody pulp, while Fedrekult details the religious divides of his hometown, and family and friends torn apart by differing sects that live shoulder to shoulder with each other.

“We didn’t want to write any more about Vikings and all this,” Ivar says. “This is the history of the actual place that we are from.”

You will need a native tongue to take any of this from Endling, of course – even with the presence of English-language liner notes on the album’s physical release giving a helpful contextual overview – though the universal language of music that explodes from the speakers in a maelstrom of riffage equal parts reminiscent of Sabbath, Fucked Up, Mastodon and Cancer Bats is no less a dizzying thrill-ride for the language barrier. Yet it is evident from Ivar’s explanations that, while he grins ear to ear at the unhinged “fun” of the record, these are songs also ingrained with a personal and political depth.

“Helmut’s feelings of being an outsider is something I relate to a lot,” nods the frontman. “His fight for nature and against the capitalists who only care for making money, too. It is a big talking point in Norway right now, which is one of the biggest electricity exporters in Europe. We are tearing down nature to build windfarms, building roads through our mountains, destroying the places that birds and animals live. Helmut has been fighting against all of that, and I can definitely relate. It’s something I feel like fighting for too.”

Fighting is something Ivar is more than used to doing. Though he has only been a permanent fixture in Kvelertak for five years – replacing Erlend Hjelvik in 2018 – his is a story of a punk rock lifer who upon joining the band announced himself as “ just a small rat… pissed off, infectious, and full of pestilence”. When Kerrang! last caught up with him, in 2020, prior to the release of the band’s Splid album, Ivar’s first with the band, he was living in a cabin in the Nordmarka woodland an hour outside Oslo, where overnight temperatures would regularly drop so low as to freeze his hair to the pillow. Even his integration to Kvelertak would not come without a battle, first to win over a doubting corner of the fanbase, and then to survive the infamously tumultuous internal dynamics of an oft-dysfunctional band.

“One day someone’s going to rehab, the next someone’s having a baby they never knew about, the next someone’s disappearing off to a Buddha temple in India,” Ivar shrugs with a smirk. “I know the guys now, and I’ve learned how the dynamic of the band works. I’ve learned to laugh it all off. I know if I leave the room, someone is going to say some shit about me. And that’s fine.”

Recording Endling would be a more stressful experience than normal, Ivar attests, due to the predominantly live nature of its recording – a seismic shift in the band’s usual working dynamic. Where in the past they have predominantly favoured working alongside Converge’s Kurt Ballou at his Massachussettes-based GodCity Studios, Endling instead saw Kvelertak relocate to Bergen, on Norway’s west coast, and hole up in Duper Studios. There, they would work “all day and all night” with a rotating cast of three producers “who could each work until they got sick of us, and then another could come in”.

“Recording live was a difficult way of working as it meant we all had to stay in the room together,” Ivar notes bluntly. “Sometimes, someone would just leave the room without saying anything and not come back for hours. The producers were looking at each other like, ‘What's going on with these guys now?’”

They would be scraps worth enduring, however. Ivar is correct in his assessment that Endling explodes with a rawer energy and more organic sound than any release before it, but more so, it has given life to the stories – life to Helmut Von Botnlaus – that Ivar and his bandmates feared would otherwise be lost.

“Where we come from, no-one writes these stories down, so making this album was important for us to document them and preserve them,” Ivar says. “The world today is moving so fast, and things are changing so quickly, that it's important to know where you come from as a human being. It feels good to just dig into the past and dig into something deeper and something that is going to last forever, actually. It makes you feel connected to the world around you.”

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