Tuesday, June 18, 2013

INTERVIEW WITH JORIS BOGHTDRINCKER OF HEIDEVOLK, Part Three

Golden Age of Leather: The Non-Viking Heidevolk Look
KS – In the new promotional photographs on your website, instead of Viking clothes, it all looks like Motörhead’s Ace of Spades with the motorcycle jackets and black shirts. Are you moving towards becoming a more straight metal band and less of a folk metal band?

JB – Nah. I don’t think so. I can understand why you think that.

We’ve been doing the whole tunic thing for a long while now. The topic that we sang on Batavi is the earliest stuff that we ever sang about. It would be a bit weird to us to run around in bearskins. I’m deliberately making a statement here, but this is our interpretation: “I’m dressed like this when I’m not at work. I walk around like this.” The way you see us in that booklet is the way you could walk into us on the streets of Arnhem.

We made it clear, this was a 21st-century interpretation of a 1st-century historical event. Take it for what it is. Not so much portraying the image on stage. You have to listen to the music, you have to read the lyrics to understand what we’re about. The way we stand on stage and the way we present ourselves in the booklet is the way we are now.

It’s hard to predict, but folk is just a very big part of what inspires us – even though we made not have had the folk sound on the last album. I can never see us turn into a purely heavy metal band. That will never happen.

The cover of Heidevolk's Wodan Heerst
KS – A lot of the bands on this scene go back pretty far. Ensiferum started nearly twenty years ago, in 1995. Do you think the folk metal thing is coming to an end, and you’re all going in a new direction?

JB – It could be. In Europe, there are precious few bands that manage to give an original twist to this sort of music. There’s Negură Bunget from Romania, there’s Dordeduh – but they never started out as typical folk or pagan bands. What they do have is this authentic inspiration from their region, from their history – and not as much molded into the classic Thor’s hammer, kilt-wearing band. Ha!

I think, maybe, it will die out. That could be. Or, if it doesn’t die out, it’ll take on a different form. The whole standard Viking thing on stage, Viking-themed stuff – it’s getting old. You have to come up with a new form of interpreting, a new form of presenting that. There are several bands that can just play the Viking card, and I’m sure we all know who those bands are. That’s okay. They built that reputation, and why not stick with it?

I think, for this scene – if you can call it that – to stay healthy, to stay relevant, musically relevant and conceptually relevant, it needs to find different ways of expressing itself. That’s what I find really interesting. Which bands are now evolving? Which bands are deepening their style? My preference is that you come up with totally new stuff, instead of going over it again and again. And there we have Ragnarök, and there we have the Braveheart sound sample again. Yeah.

Rockin' in the USA: Heidevolk on Tour
KS – Some bands in this genre are getting more and more complicated compositionally as they go on. Your new record, however, got rid of the other instruments and is more of a straight rock album.

JB – I think there was a lot of energy and force that needed go out, to be voiced. That’s when you don’t start bothering about composition as much as the feeling. You come up with logical, maybe even cliché sort of stuff. Again, proven things. They are not cliché because of nothing; it’s because they work. But it’s not like we consciously made a decision, “Okay, we have to come up with a more standard form of making music.” It’s just the way it turned out.

We’ve never been too conscious about having to make it complicated or having to add a new twist to it. It just happens, or it doesn’t happen. On this album, I guess it was a bit less experimental than, let’s say, on the first or the second album. When you look at song structures of the first album, when we listened to that, we were like, “Whoa! That was new.” Ha!

KS – Heri Joensen from Týr was just showing me on his laptop how he composes everybody’s parts. He even writes the guitar solos. It’s completely composed. For me, the excitement of performing music is improvising new things.

JB – Exactly.

Flaming Youth: Heidevolk Live
Photograph by Marcel Hakvoort
KS – If I tried to solo over one of Heri’s songs, I’d be lost in two seconds. When you have a simpler structure, though, you’re more free to improvise. When you play live, are your guitarists improvising, or are they playing the solos exactly like the recordings?

JB – It differs. Certain things are a bit loose, and sometimes they just try to stick as close as possible to what they did on the record. For me, personally, I’m all for improvisation and the moment. But I’m not sure if everybody in our band is that comfortable with that.

KS – Are the solos always so-and-so long and so many bars?

JB – I believe most of it is like that, yeah. I think we have precious few exceptions. My personal idea would be just go with the flow and go with the feeling at the moment. There are certain limitations of what you can do.

The point you just made, I find very interesting. The more basic the music gets, the more fertile of a soil it becomes to improvise. You can really add your own twist to it, then, or come up with new stuff. The way Heri writes music, it’s very “then, then, then,” and “then, then, then,” all the layers.

With us, we used to have way more time. We used to study and not be as busy with our girlfriends and our work, so you could put more time and effort in it. As time progresses, you have to become very efficient with the time you get to spend with your band – which, at times, can put some pressure on the whole creative thing. You have to, within a certain time frame, come up with some new stuff. We never set deadlines that we couldn’t make, so far. It feels like we’re never going to make it, but then we make it. I think the pressure you get from that can also bring out some creative stuff. If there’s positive pressure, it can bring out good stuff.

If it were up to me, we could do with a bit more improvisation – a bit more feeling. It used to be different. It used to be a more, yeah, go with the flow. This is an interesting question, because it raises thoughts.

Map of Batavi & other Germanic tribes
KS – Let’s talk a little bit more about Batavi, the new Heidevolk album. For readers who are unfamiliar with the history of the Batavi tribe, can you explain who these people were?

JB – The Batavian people were a tribe that came from Hessen in modern-day Germany, and they made their way up to what is now the Netherlands. There’s still some debate whether they traveled there by their own free will, or they were moved there. They ended up in what is now our region, Gelderland, and there they encountered the Roman Empire.

That’s a very interesting setting. On one hand, you have all these Germanic tribes that didn’t get along amongst themselves, either. On the other front, there was this huge, massive empire trying to expand its borders. They then were faced with the decision, what do you do? Do you stay autonomous, or do you become a buffer state and enjoy the benefits of being exempt from paying taxes – just providing soldiers for the Roman army?

Over the course of history, the Dutch have been looking at this tribe as being the founding fathers of the nation. I wouldn’t go that far, but they seem to have gotten that role. The Batavians were looked at as the forefathers of what later on became the Dutch people. Not a very scientific point of view, but still very interesting how they inspired the nation up until now, basically.

What do they mean to me? Well, I was born in the city that was sort of the epicenter of the Batavian revolt. I was born in a small village close to a big town, so we always had this feeling – we are small and they are big, and they’re against us, and they want us to join their city, or they want to expand at our cost. So the whole metaphor of Batavians fighting Romans has been present in my youth, the village identifying itself with the Batavians. And the Romans – when you go to Nijmegen, it takes pride in being a Roman city. There’s not that much propaganda for Batavian history, for some reason, which I find a bit strange.

I guess that ignited that spark for me, to find out more about the history. They are seen as the progenitors of what we are now as a nation. And to me, personally, I very much like the metaphor of the small tribe standing up to the big tribe.

The cover of Heidevolk's Batavi
KS – Can you explain the story behind the mask on the album cover?

JB – This is a mask that was used in the Roman army. The symbolism behind this was that the Batavians used that mask. They were very proficient horsemen, so this is a cavalry mask. This is actually used by the Batavians and the Romans.

The symbolism behind this is that, when they joined forces with the Romans, they took on the Roman protection and they also fought for Rome – yet they veiled their own identity. When they revolted, they cast off their mask, and they showed their true face. That’s an element you see there, too, with the blood. In the background, you see the soil, which is clay soil, and that is very typical of the area where all of this took place – the fertile, rich clay grounds of the Betuwe, an area that is most likely named after the Batavi people. We put that symbolism into one picture.

KS – So this is the mask after it’s been thrown on the ground.

JB – Yeah. But it can also be seen as the blood that was spilled by both the Romans and by the Batavians in the name of Rome. I find it a fascinating story, even though the revolt was not successful. Daring to stand up against Rome, that in itself. Ha!

Funeral marker for Indus, a member of
the Batavi who served in Emperor Nero's
imperial guard in in the 1st century CE
KS – Since this album focuses in such detail on one subject, did you do a different type of research than you had done for previous recordings?

JB – Yeah, I guess so, because what we tried to do is create a Gesamtkunstwerk, so it had to be intertwined. What you do want to know, you want to check your facts. You want to make sure that one thing follows in a logical way after another. That made it different, because you wanted to know the whole story. We had to have a moment where it starts, where it ends. Then you had to chop that story into chapters, and those chapters needed focus.

In that way, it was a really big challenge to dig up as much about the different things we sing about – the different chapters – whereas on previous albums, you could just take it one subject at a time. In the end, you could even shift the songs around, because there was no linear thing in the whole story. But now we had to focus: “Okay, so this is how it starts. This is how it has to sound like. Like a start, a beginning.” And in the end, it sort of fades away, and it takes a retrospective feeling: “What did we just do?”

So both composition-wise and conceptually-wise, you had to really focus on what was going on, and “Where are we in the story now? What are we trying to do? Are we still on the same page as the story?” Quite an interesting exercise, especially because we have not been known for focusing. Ha! There are six front men in this band. But it was a very good exercise. You needed to pull together and to have a point, like a dot on the horizon – that’s where we’re going to go – and you had to set out a course. We’ve never done that.

It was very interesting to see, and I’m not really sure we’re if going to do that again in that form. It can also be very narrowing, constricting. Certain people weren’t very comfortable with that. Some people just like to write whatever they want, whenever they come up with it. That was a change with this album.

Joris and Mark onstage in New York, April 2013
Photograph by Eric Hanson
KS – I’ve been trying to think of an example of a band with two frontmen that didn’t also play instruments. The members of The Who all sang, for example, but they also played. You never sang in a band before Heidevolk. Had Mark been in other bands?

JB – Yeah.

KS – It seems like it would be very psychologically different to stand next to another singer like this.

JB – Yeah. One of the bands we were inspired by musically is Isengard from Norway, and they have a lot of vocals that are combined so that the harmony part, we all felt that that was very nice. Just each individual knew that record and said, “Well, that’s fantastic.” I discovered I had a voice, and Mark has fantastic voice. He’s a way better singer than I am. So then we just gave it a try, you know, “Maybe we can do that.” There used to be a band in the Netherlands called Grimm, and they also were inspired by Isengard. It was two frontmen, but they also were playing guitar – so not just the singing thing.

I thought it was a challenge. I was completely new to band dynamics, so it never bothered me that we were sort of like the first, or one of few that did that. We just did it, and we weren’t bothered by any knowledge. Ha!

KS – That’s more than the questions I had. I appreciate you taking the time.

JB – Thanks for taking an interest in our band. I must say, for a spoken interview – this was pretty painless!

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