Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Interview with Heri Joensen of Týr, Part Two

Click here for Part One of the interview.

Heri Joensen of Týr

KS – Many of your favorite bands were ones I grew up listening to – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Pink Floyd and Uriah Heep. With Týr, you’ve definitely declared yourself as a group in the modern metal genre. How do you think that listening to prog and glam music from this older period has affected what you write and play today?

HJ – In many cases, I would think that – song-wise and musically – probably the greatest influence on me personally has been Judas Priest. I mean the way they use the guitar and the way put their songs together – not always power chords, but often very, very melodic playing and harmony by two guitars, which is the way I like to do it. I think that definitely comes through.

But then there are other bands, like Uriah Heep. They have so much experimental stuff that we never even tried. They have keyboards, and they also worked with symphonic orchestras and everything. We never went that way. Even though I like to listen to much of it, I can’t really say we took any of it into our music. Maybe some Deep Purple riffing and the heaviness of Black Sabbath and all that.

KS – I think your first two records have more elements from doom metal.

HJ – Yeah. That was actually unintentional. I had a completely different thing in mind, when I wrote the songs. It’s difficult, without having done it before, to see the connection between your original idea and the end result. When I got the album, I thought, “This is not what I had in mind!” With the second one, the process was more transparent to me, so it turned out more like what I want.

The cover of Týr's How Far to Asgaard

KS – The lyrics to “Regin Smiður” and “Gátu Ríma” are traditional Faroese, but based on passages in the Eddas and sagas. “Lokka Táttur” is an interesting case. It’s a late medieval tale of Odin, Hœnir and Loki – the same trio of gods as in the Eddic stories of Thjazi and Andvari – but it’s not based on a known Icelandic source. This type of folklore is often neglected by modern scholars, who tend to fixate on Iceland.

HJ – Yeah. Yes.

KS – I wish I could find a modern English translation of these old Faroese ballads. The only book I’ve found so far is Nora Kershaw’s collection from 1921 [available as a free eBook in The Norse Mythology Online Library].

HJ – I should put you into contact with a professor in Faroes, Poul Vestergaard, who I’ve spoken to about precisely this. There are some quite neglected, rather big stories. The stories also exist in different forms – with the same elements – in the Faroes. It’s not seen anywhere. It’s not wandering stories.

Lighthouse on Kalsoy in the Faroe Islands
Photograph by Alessio Mesiano for National Geographic

KS – Do you feel a responsibility to bring Faroese culture to the outside world?

HJ – If I do, I’m very glad – if I bring it to people’s attention. That was not the idea – ha! – the general idea, to begin with.

I have a different angle. I would be very glad to make Faroese people proud of their own nationality or heritage or culture. With a rock or metal band, you can only represent snippets of mythology or history or nationality. So little actually goes into an album. I can, in the best case, hope to bring the subject to someone’s attention. If you want to study it, you don’t want to do it in our albums. Ha! You can go somewhere else.

KS – “Ólavur Riddararós” tells a tale of a young man and an elf maiden. I’m fascinated by the similarities between Irish and Icelandic elf-belief. Even into the twentieth century, they are somewhat parallel. Is there a distinctive elf tradition in the Faroe Islands?

HJ – Oh, yeah. Yeah. I have to say, I’m not that familiar with it – but I know there it’s there, because my grandmother believed elves existed. She said they went away when a Christian came. Of course, you have light, you can see, “Oh, there’s nothing. After all, the elves must have gone away.” Ha! Even today, I’ve spoken to people who firmly believe in elves. Ha!

Elf-belief isn't rare. Even Icelandic Members of Parliament believe!
Click here to read about an "Elf Kerfuffle in Iceland"

KS – How is Faroese folklore unique and different from that of other Nordic countries? Do you think it has its own flavor?

HJ – I don’t know. It may have. Of course, it comes directly from the same source as the Icelandic people have done – from Norway. I just know about the existence of these beliefs lately, but I actually haven’t looked that deep into it – so I couldn’t really tell you the difference.

KS – The Norse mythology that is familiar to us today is mostly from the Eddas, which were written down in Iceland long after the conversion to Christianity. As a Faroese person, what sort of personal relationship do you feel with the Icelandic material?

HJ – If you compare it to – for example – Saxo in Denmark, it’s not the same at all. I guess you have to grant the Icelanders that it is probably mostly their version that everyone has today. But I still feel at home with it.

We have not nearly as much, but we have some ballads that are based on mythology, also. I think you have to give that to the Icelanders. It’s theirs, in a way.

Týr in costume: see below for Heri's views on Viking re-enactment

KS – Americans tend to be less familiar with Saxo’s History of the Danes, which presents very different versions of the Norse myths. Because of the special Faroese relationship to Denmark, do children in the Faroe Islands read Saxo in school?

HS – No, we don’t. I had never heard of Saxo until I was twenty-five or so. I was in Denmark then, so I read them.

KS – Did you read the Eddas in school?

HJ – No. We had some parts. What did we have in school? I had Faroese history, like the Icelandic saga on the history of the Faroes. That we read, most of it. Then we had mythology, just the main stories. I remember particularly the one with the Fenris wolf and Týr. Sort of a general overview. It’s not like we actually read the Eddas. This was like third or fourth grade, so…

KS – Some of your lyrics – like “Hail to the Hammer,” “The Rune” and “Dreams” – have a great sense of longing for and connection to the distant past. How do you feel about Viking re-enactment and the desire to return to those times? How would you describe your emotional connection to this history?

HJ – I don’t do any re-enactment. I find it a little bit silly. I wouldn’t want to go back to those times, because I’m one thousand percent sure that we’re a lot better off today.

KS – We have eyeglasses.

HJ – Ha! Yes, for example! And fake teeth, some of us.

Heri Joensen (center, in Viking helmet) with Viking re-enactors
in video for Týr's "Regin Smiður" from the Eric the Red album

I don’t know. I find the history quite fascinating. I’m fairly sure one automatically glorifies it beyond reason. That’s just the way. You don’t have think further back than your great-grandparents, and you probably already glorified that beyond reason.

There’s also something about coming from such an isolated community. Some people came there twelve hundred years ago, and you’re still there. Probably not that much happened in between. It’s a pretty clean history, in a way. I guess if you’re a country like Switzerland, it’s hard to keep up with what happened when, because so much different crap happened all the time.

The simplicity of Faroes history, I think, makes it a bit fascinating. It’s a very straight line – long, long into the past. Of course, every one has it – it just goes in more crooked ways. Maybe that’s unjustified fascination, but that’s how I feel, at least.

KS – Do you have the ability – like the Icelanders – to trace your family history directly back?

HJ – No. We don’t have that good annals. Not nearly. I think, recently, everything has been digitalized. You can trace your family to the 1600s. You could also before, but it was not digitalized, so you had to go rummaging through papers written in very bad handwriting by priests who were very unqualified – and probably sent to the Faroes because they were unfit to be priests in Denmark, which was typical.

My mother went to genealogy studies. She made a family tree that goes back to, I don’t know, early 1500s – and I could see that my family’s been living in the same place for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years.

KS – The same town?

HJ – The same town? Ha! A village – like three houses. Call that a town if you like. Ha!

The Faroe Islands village of Lamba, where Heri grew up

KS – I’m interested in your compositional process. When you’re writing an original song, how do you go about it? Do you do it on paper, on the piano, on the computer?

HJ – I used to do it in handwriting. I had a little paper, and I’d write the melody on. Then I’d put the chords on. Through the chords, I would get some sort of riff. Then I’d add the bass or whatever.

KS – So you’d actually write it out.

HJ – Yeah. I used to. Now I work on the computer. I use a program called Guitar Pro. It’s an old program. I could show you right now. I’ll be right back!

[gets laptop]

I have to finish some music here. I have this nice program. So here, I put in a traditional melody. That’s the chorus of it. And I harmonize it into four voices.

KS – Do you enter it with a keyboard?

HJ – No. I just put it in here, by shortcuts. I have the melody for the verse over here. I make a chord progression to that. I don’t actually write down the chord progression anywhere. I just harmonize the guitar to fit this chord progression.

KS – So you do it more contrapuntally than with chords.

HJ – Yeah. So then you have a riff, and you can just leave out the melody. You still have the riff based on the melody, which is what this part before the melody comes in here is. I had two rhythm parts here, and I made one of the rhythm parts into a melody. Here, you have the faster drums and the rhythm part – and the other part, played more like a melody than a rhythm.

So that goes down again to the rhythm playing, when the melody comes in. You see here? We’re back to the rhythm guitar, and here comes the singing melody.

KS – The voice.

HJ – Yeah. At the end of that comes the chorus again. So that’s mainly how I work.

Terji Skibenæs, Heri Joensen Kári Streymoy, and Gunnar H. Thomsen
Týr plays Paganfest in Chicago - April 13, 2013

KS – How do you teach the other band members their parts? Do you print out parts for the band?

HJ – I send these tabs to them, and they can play it back. Here, you want to listen to it?

[plays demo]

You can hear. If you’re the bass player, for example, you can just put “solo” on the bass and listen to that – and you can have a metronome playing at the same time, so you know where you are and what you gotta do. This is a really easy program if you write songs, and you want other musicians to learn it.

KS – Do you work out all the vocal harmonies yourself, or do the band members come up with their own lines?

HJ – We all sing on the recordings.

Heri Joensen, Kári Streymoy, and Gunnar H. Thomsen harmonize
Týr plays Paganfest in Chicago - April 13, 2013

KS – Is everything through-composed, or is there any element of improvisation in the studio or on stage?

HJ – Not really. I don’t improvise. I write the melody in the program…

KS – The actual guitar solos?

HJ – Yeah. Then I practice them, and then I record them. I’m not sure about Terji. Maybe he improvises a little bit, every now and then. But once it’s recorded, he plays it the same every time. There’s no jam element to this. It’s all pretty fixed.

KS – The solos are always the same length?

HJ – Yes, they are.

KS – How do you find the traditional Faroese ballads? Is this music still performed by everyday Faroese, or is something that you have to research and pull from academic sources?

HJ – Everyday people. There are some people who, of course, know more about them – and have become academics, in a way, about them. It’s still a very communal thing. There are some people who are more enthusiastic about it than others, but anyone is free to learn one and write the appropriate arrangements.

KS – Do you learn them from recordings, or do you just know them from growing up?

HJ – I’ve known some from growing up. You just hear them so many times that it’s hard not to know them. Others, I know the melody, and I get the texts. Learning the melody is really easy; learning the texts is extremely hard. I’ve memorized some texts from paper – and also some from recordings.

Recently, there have been some CD releases by a Faroese label of old recordings. I think the oldest recording I’ve heard is from 1902. A German scholar was traveling around, recording on wax cylinders. These are preserved in a museum in Berlin, somewhere. Someone went there and got permission to put it on CD and release it in the Faroes.

Faroe Islands stamp featuring a scene from "Ormurin Langi"
("The Long Serpent"), a ballad written in the 19th century
and covered by Týr on the How Far to Asgaard album

KS – The Faroese ballad tradition seems similar in some ways to the Icelandic rímur tradition. Can you explain a bit about the history of kvæði, the Faroese ballads? How old are they?

HJ – Some of them definitely go really far back. Most of them… That’s hard to say. You can see by some of the styles of the melodies that they’re pre-modern. No one who knew anything about music theory was ever involved with some. You can see that from the melody, I think. Also – by that means – you can sort out those that are definitely modern. Like, if it is a clean Ionian melody, it’s probably not very old. Then you have these Dorians that are mixed with harmonic minor and all sorts of stuff.

How old they are precisely is very difficult to tell, because there are no written or recorded resources. The text and melody, you can’t say how tightly bound they are. You may have a text that’s from the Viking Ages, but then you have a melody. When did that come in? Did it come with this history? I think it’s impossible to tell. I like to think some of the melodies were around all the way back then. Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to tell.

To be concluded in Part Three.

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