Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Interview with Joris Boghtdrincker of Heidevolk, Part One

During the Chicago stop of the Paganfest America Part IV tour on April 13th, I interviewed Joris Boghtdrincker of the Dutch metal band Heidevolk. I’ve followed the band’s music since finding their Walhalla Wacht album on the wall at Chicago’s dearly departed Metal Haven record shop in 2008. With two male vocalists singing over a blend of folk music and modern metal, the band has a unique and instantly recognizable sound. They have released four full-length albums that show a deep knowledge of Germanic mythology and history, with a particular focus on the traditions of Gelderland, their home province in the Netherlands.

Joris Boghtdrincker of Heidevolk

Joris has been the band’s main lyricist. On the Heidevolk website, his profile lists Jan de Vries’ Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte as his favorite book. During the set by the Faroese band Týr later in the evening, Joris tracked me down in the crowd to tell me something about the Romanian scholar Mercia Eliade that he’d been trying to think of during the interview. This is not your average heavy metal singer. It was a pleasure to spend some time with this thoughtful and eloquent man and hear him speak quietly and passionately about history, music, mythology and religion.

In a strange turn of events, it was announced May 8th on the Heidevolk website that Joris has left the band. A statement from Joris reads:
After ten great years with Heidevolk, new horizons are beckoning me and I feel it is time for a change. I want to thank all involved in Heidevolk for the good times we had, and I want to wish them all the best in their future endeavours. To all the people I met and had the honour of performing for: it has been a pleasure and I am deeply thankful for all the memories. Wæs þu hæl!
I’m both shocked and saddened by this turn of events. I wish Joris the best as he follows whatever new path he has chosen to follow. I have full faith that he will accomplish great things.

KS – Does Heidevolk mean “heath folk” or “heathen folk”?

JB – The first. Heath folk. So, folk of the heath-land. As you know, the term heathen and pagan derive from the same root, as in the inhabitant [of the countryside]. We started out as a band that only sang about folklore. That was our main source of inspiration. We got together at concerts, and there were six guys that shared similar views of what music should sound like – the music they wanted to make and the inspiration they wanted to voice with their music. We were very like-minded. Most of the other guys had experiences in other bands; I didn’t.

The cover of Heidevolk's first album

KS – This is the first band you sang in?

JB – Yeah. So that’s what got it started. We were trying to come up with a name. It was really a bit silly – writing names on a schoolboard and [saying], “Ah, that sounds silly.” All of a sudden, then, a guy – I don’t know who it was, exactly – said, “We like the outdoors and we are very inspired by the history of our people.” So why not take heath, because that’s a very characteristic landscape, and folk as a reference to the history of our people? Put the two together and you have Heidevolk. It is not heathen folk, necessarily.

KS – You’ve said in interviews that your music is built on a foundation of local history, folklore, myth and nature. This could also serve as a description of current trends in contemporary heathenry, which seems to be moving away from large organizations and towards a more historically oriented and localized practice. What elements of historical heathenry in the Netherlands do you think are uniquely Dutch, as opposed to being common aspects of a Pan-Germanic continuum?

JB – When you look at the history of the Dutch, most of it is comprised of what has been passed on through the sources of Tacitus, and that’s like the earliest references that we have. In general, I think you can say that there are three tribes that built what we now are as a people: the Saxons, the Franks and the Frisians. What I think is unique about the history is the whole interaction between these tribes. It’s difficult to say, because I can imagine very well that this applies to different parts, too. So what makes that unique? Its specific history. I would say the typical things that went on: the wars they had, the political power shifting, Christianity. It’s hard to put into words, I realize. It’s a good question. It makes me think.

Map of the ancient Netherlands, drawn in 1617 by P. Kaerius

KS – So your interest is more tied to the specific tribes in the area, as opposed to a Pan-Germanic or Norse perspective.

JB – I’m very much into the local stuff. We never played the Viking card or the Pan-Germanic card. We do have some songs that have generic themes, but most of our stuff is about local historic events and our personal experiences in nature. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I’m more of that position. It needs to be authentic. It needs to be real. It needs to be tied to local history. That’s what inspires me. It’s been like that ever since we started. It’s been a very personal and a local experience that we’re trying to voice.

KS – You’ve said that your live show “combines the extremes of the profane with the spiritual” and that “there is a bandwidth between the profane and the spiritual between which all sane people must levitate.” What role do you think the spiritual plays in your writing and performing? How does the spiritual manifest itself for you?

JB – I think for any musician to be inspired, he needs to have some sort of spiritual experience. It doesn’t necessarily mean spirits or ghosts or whatever, but it means an experience that goes beyond things that can be explained logically. That can be emotions. To me, it’s mainly emotions and the impact that an environment or a tale has on me. For instance, the second song we’re going to play tonight is “Ostara.” We have a relatively long piece in that song where there’s no words, but it’s just a rush that you get. That is what we try to put into the music.

Frigg als Ostara by Carl Emil Doepler (1882)

That, I would say, makes up for the spiritual part. It is purely the emotion, the sensation you get. You’re not unfamiliar with our repertoire. We also have songs about drinking, and that is one of the lower pleasures in life. What makes that specific spiritual ceiling? For instance, the character of Wodan, Odin, Ergriffenheit and the whole idea of getting into this war frenzy. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you go mad in your head or you lose all control, but it is that sensation of…

Having said that – ha! As a matter of fact, I believe it is.

KS – I think that’s interesting. When you say emotion and rush, that really is related to the root of Odin’s name – to Wotan.

JB – Wütend.

KS – Exactly. I realized this for myself while I was recording a guitar solo for a project with Hawkwind. The engineer would bring me a shot of French press coffee after each take. After half an hour, the room was red, and my solos kept getting more and more wild. I think that experiences like this are what became culturally understood as possession by Odin.

"This drink – I like it. Another!"

JB – Yeah. It is like that. You want to address that feeling. You want to chain that to some sort of phenomenon, be it an archetype or a… I guess that is it.

We’ve never been too conscious about these things. We know what the gods stand for. We know how they inspire us. But it’s only when outsiders ask us, “So how does it influence you, exactly?” I guess it is exactly that. It is the workings of those forces or those archetypes.

KS – Of the powers.

JB – Yeah.

KS – How do you feel that focusing so much on studying the history and worldview of this past era has affected your own perspective on modern life in the 21st century?

JB – I think human history is all about survival, dealing with the environment you are born in and dealing with the age you are born in. So even though the circumstances aren’t the same as they used to be in a lot of respects, and a lot of older values seem to have disappeared or lost their relevance in modern-day society, I think what to me is most inspirational is this drive to cope with what’s going on and to find a way to survive and to deal with things – and also to become very conscious of the things that inspire you. The things that drive you, basically. What motivates you.

I think a lot of people in this day and age are born just receiving impulses. They are born into a variety of cultures and historical backgrounds, and that’s all fine – but that may be an explanation itself why people start looking at themselves: “So, what makes me unique? What makes my family unique?” I’m not saying that it should be. People can make their own choices about that, but it may explain why people become more conscious about their own background. To me, modern-day society presents a lot of challenges, because you have to deal with so many different patterns of expectation, so many different views, so many impulses from media.

To me, personally, I find it good to know where my roots lie. It’s sort of like a tree. To know where your roots lie makes clear to you how you are balanced in this world. What brought you to this point? What brought my existence into being? That’s what it represents to me.

Following a road between the trees of Gelderland

KS – Reamon (one of Heidevolk’s guitarists) has called you “a walking encyclopedia, especially about Germanic tribes in Holland.”

JB – I wouldn’t go that far. Ha!

KS – What sort of a research process do you do when writing lyrics?

JB – It differs. Sometimes, you want to tell a historical tale, and then I think you should check your facts. Then I do a lot of background research.

I’ve never claimed that what we write is historically correct. We try to make it as much historically correct [as possible], without letting it interfere into the whole creative process. What we do is, we root it in facts, but we do give it our own interpretation, because this is 21st-century people looking at past phenomena.

To us, it is mainly about conveying the feeling, mainly about conveying the inspiration we get from the things that have been passed on to us. We have very few lyrics that describe historical facts – like, purely, then this happened, then that happened. We always give an interpretation, but it’s like a historical romance. It is what somebody from that time could have thought when, for instance, the latest album was written from the perspective of the Batavi people – but it’s an interpretation, because we can never be sure how they felt. So, it’s just 21st-century people interpreting what happened then, and no claim to the truth, whatsoever.

KS – Are you going to the library and checking books? What’s your process?

JB – Oh, yeah. For instance, for the last CD, we did a lot of background research with a local museum called Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen. It has a large collection of historical finds about the Batavians and the Romans. It was very interesting, because the people that worked there were very helpful and enthusiastic about the whole thing. They helped us come up with ideas: “This is what they used. Maybe you can use that for the artwork.” It was really kind of nice to make that link between young people – semi-young people – being interested in the subject and people that look at it from an academic point of view. That’s always the balance.

The Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen

If you want to look at it from an extreme academic point of view, what we’re doing is not historically correct. Certain musicians have said, “You’re trying to make interpretations of folk music that are not correct.” We never claim to do that. That’s not our ambition. What we do try to do is to make it as solid [as possible] on both sides, and then bring it together in one experience. If that inspires people to look beyond what we’re doing and try to find out more…

I find it very interesting when we get mails, “You sing about this, but wasn’t it supposed to be like that?” It evokes a conversation. It evokes thoughts. I would say, when that happens, I have succeeded – igniting passion in other people.

KS – Reamon was actually a history teacher?

JB – He still is a teacher of history. I think it’s high school.

KS – He does that when you’re not touring?

JB – Yeah. Ha!

KS – It’s funny, what you said about listing dates in songs. As a kid, I had a friend who wrote a school history paper on Alexander the Great, and he got all his information from the song by Iron Maiden. Do you ever wonder if Dutch school kids are using your album notes to do their homework?

JB – I know for a fact that they do. Sometimes, we get emails from other teachers of history that use it. They show a clip or YouTube on the white board, just to ignite the passion – hoping to provoke some thoughts in students. It can be quite boring when you read all the facts. You have to get the feeling behind it.

This picture totally reminds me of drinking Mountain Dew and
playing Dungeons & Dragons in my friend Andy's basement.

We’ve had several teachers of history emailing us. Even though they cannot stand for everything that we stand for, the whole thing of bringing ancient history in a modern way – and in a way that appeals to young people – is very appealing to them. They can use it to make the kids think about what the material that they’re dealing with is about.

That, I think, is one of the greatest fruits of our labor. It has so many branches. Some people just like the music or the sound of the music. Other people get inspired by the things that we sing about, and other people just have a good time. It’s all fine with me. I never had a true vision of imposing thoughts on people. It’s not like that. It’s very interesting to see what people read into the music and what they draw from it – and it differs.

KS – Do you see yourself ever having a second career as an author or educator?

JB – Yeah. As a matter of fact, I do. For now, it’s too much about the passion of making music and the release of the inspiration I get from it. I can see myself in a couple of years, when hopefully I will have calmed down – ha! – try to be a bit more academic about what I’m doing.

To be continued in Part Two.


Jim said...

Thanks for posting this. Very inspiring.


Anonymous said...

Does there exist more classical style Nordic inspired musical groups?

Regards, Olaf Knute

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Well, there's Yngwe Malmsteen, I suppose...

Blogzweden said...

Just bumped into this blog. Good interview. Great blog. More inspired groups? Bathory?

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...


Thanks for the kind words.

I've already interviewed some other musicians you may be interested in. Click the links for Part 1 of each interview series, then click "newer" to continue:

Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson

I recently interviewed Heri Joensen of Týr and Sami Hinkka of Ensiferum. As soon as I've transcribed the recordings, I'll get the text up.


Markus Nicklas said...

the first answer is remarkable to me.
looking at cultures abroad indeed is helpful to me. over and over again I feel that these inspirations are opening me to dig deeper into what is left at home and also to get in touch with was is in front of my nose. I was born in a town which received its name by a note of the royal frankish annals.

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