Dimmu Borgir and Old Scratch

May 17’s Westword features a profile of Dimmu Borgir, Norway’s premier practitioners of symphonic black metal -- but there’s a lot more mayhem where that came from. Below, find the entire Q&A with Erkekjetter Silenoz, the band’s guitarist, lyric writer and all-around conceptualist. Along the way, he discusses the narrative and protagonist of In Sorte Diaboli, the group’s new CD; his rejection of organized religion; the similarities between Diaboli’s satanic journey and his own; Christian homophobia; the band’s predilection for pitting beautiful and ferocious music against each other; the prospects for a Dimmu Borgir movie; accusations of selling out; the outfit’s rising stateside profile; and his contention that his music’s actually capable of saving lives.

The devil you say…

Westword (Michael Roberts): Would you describe the new disc as a concept album? A rock opera?

Erkekjetter Silenoz: No, not really what people would think of as a concept album. Most people would probably think it’s like sixteen minute long songs with a lot of interludes. But it’s basically just the story lyric-wise that’s different. The music we have on this album, it’s pretty much the way we’ve written music on the other albums. It doesn’t differ that much, really. It’s just a new Dimmu album for us, but I think it’s our most spontaneous sounding album of many years, because we went back to basics in many ways. We were jamming the songs in the practice space like we did in the early days instead of working on songs on the computer and stuff like that. That’s how we wrote this album.

WW: Tell me about the story’s main character…

ES: The story is in the Dark Ages, and the main character works for the local mission. For many years, he feels more and more that this is not him, and over the course of just a few weeks’ time, he experiences a huge spiritual change. He discovers his true bloodline – and he identifies with the bloodlines of the devil. So he kind of turns to that side and finds his own true being or identity, if you want to call it that. He still, of course, works for the church, but he has to be pretty secretive about his newfound identity – and after a while, he thinks the Inquisition is criminal, and basically he just has to suffer because he finds he’s a different person. He’s looked upon as a threat to society. So the symbolism used in the whole story and the lyrics might as well be describing current times. It doesn’t have to be the Dark Ages. But I chose to put the story to the Dark Ages because that’s basically a time in history which had a lot of changes. I’m just fascinated about that time of mankind’s history.

WW: Do you consider the story to be an attack on Christianity? Or is it more about the main character’s own self-discovery?

ES: It’s more about self-discovery in that sense. I think most people – at least our fans – know our stance against religion. It doesn’t have to be Christianity, but as soon as you mention Islam, then you’re looked upon as a racist. But, of course, religion in general, we are against it. But this is more concentrated on this certain person’s self-discovery, and in many ways, it’s also quite personal. You could say in many ways that the lyrics are hidden riddles. When you read the lyrics, there are obvious sentences and less obvious stuff that you would probably recognize later on. I think quite a few people will recognize themselves in some of the situations and some of the words that are portrayed through the story and the lyrics.

WW: In some ways, does the story of the lead character echo your own story?

ES: In some parts, yeah, I guess you could say that. I didn’t really realize that until quite late into the writing process of this album. Especially when I was in the studio when the vocals were put down, probably then it was like, I get to learn my own lyrics more and more. It’s cool in a way, too. But I kind of have camouflaged most of it to keep it less personal for other stuff. But when I look at it now, it’s quite personal in many ways.

WW: Were you raised in an overtly Christian environment? When you discovered your own belief system, did you feel like this character feels?

ES: No, actually, I was raised in a very liberal home. My parents weren’t Christian or anything like that. But I lived in the Bible belt were I come for many years, and I’m still living in the same town. So all the other kids in school were pretty much raised as Christians. For me, as a five year old or six year old kid, being trapped with all the other kids that same age, I went to Sunday school, and even at an early age, I understand that religion is something that’s not good for you. We have a bishop in Norway now who doesn’t tolerate homosexuals and lesbians. We live in 2007 now, not 1607. I guess you can say that part of religion is something I really fucking despise. They make people with different backgrounds and stuff like that feel like they’re not good enough. It’s something that I’ve always really hated about the religious issue.

WW: Do you feel that religions of no matter what type are designed to make believers do certain things and follow a certain set of orders?

ES: Exactly. Because in real life there is no such thing as answers to every question. But for Christians or Muslims, they can just look at their Bible or their Koran and interpret an answer that they’re looking for. They will find it in those books no matter what. But in real life, that’s not how it works. I rely more on common sense than anything else. You have to find your own way, and we all have different sides to our selves, both in the spiritual and the physical world, too. You’ve got to find the balance, and that’s something we should all look more into. And also question things instead of just going by whatever is being told to us.

WW: You mentioned that the music was more spontaneous than it’s been for a while. Did that mean you had to use less orchestration?

ES: Overall, there’s probably less orchestral stuff on this album than [2003’s] Death Cult Armageddon had, but when the orchestral part kicks in, they’re really huge and epic. It’s going to be an album that the fans are going to immediately understand – that this is a new Dimmu album. It really sounds like us, I think. For me, the way I look upon it now, it turned out to be a little darker and heavier than the previous one. It’s generally a really good album. It’s too early to say if this is our best album ever. That’s up to the fans to decide. But we are really happy and satisfied with it, and very proud of it.

WW: One of the things I liked best about Death Cult was the juxtaposition between beautiful, sweeping orchestration with the most brutal riffs and singing that you could possibly imagine. What is it about that contrast that appeals to you?

ES: I think it comes back to the balance thing. In real life, you need to have a little bit of both to find the gray areas. There’s not only black and white areas. Also, the music we’ve had through the years also portray some of that symbolism that we want to give out to people. It’s important to have aggressive stuff, but also have more melodic and dynamic stuff. I think our trademark has always been about putting all those ingredients into a good mix. I think that’s the best way to describe our music – that we have a lot of diversity and variety. And that’s what appeals to a lot of people, I think.

WW: You mentioned symbolism. Does the heavier music symbolize something specific to you? And does the more melodic music symbolize something different?

ES: Yeah, the darker aspects of the music symbolize the aggressive and intense part of being a human being, and the more melodic part is symbolizing the harmony you also need to live a good life. That’s how I look upon it, anyway. I’m sure a lot of other people have different opinions of it.

WW: Your music is so big and cinematic, and I know you put a lot of effort into your videos. With this album having a story, can you imagine it being a feature film?

ES: It could easily be turned into a script and have a film be made out of. That’s why I also, when I get questions about how the video looks like, I just tell people to look upon the album as a movie, and the video is a good trailer for the movie. It is of course very hard to get the main storyline down to a three and a half minute video, but I think Patrick Ullaeus, who was the director for this video, he did a really good job of that.

WW: If they did make a movie, would you guys like to star in it?

ES: I don’t think we’re really actors at all, but I’d really like to try out. I’ve always been into movies myself, and that’s something I’ve always enjoyed. And also, since I’m the main lyric writer for this band, I know I have capabilities where I could probably work as a bystander in a movie (laughs).

WW: As you guys have gotten more popular, there have been some people who’ve yelled “Sell-out.” Where do you think that comes from? And why do you think some people have reacted that way?

ES: When we started out, nobody had ever heard of us. Everything was very underground – and it’s still underground. But back then, it was something that people were like, “This is mine. No one knows about it.” And as soon as you start selling albums and get a lot of press and media, those people feel, “This is not only mine anymore. It’s everybody else’s now.” I don’t know if jealousy in the right word, but they judge the band from that angle. And we never expected to sell this amount of albums anyway. It’s just a big bonus for us, and if they would actually care to listen to the albums, they’d understand that the music has gotten harder and harder with every album. And if you look at the band name that we have, it’s not really of any commercial value whatsoever. So it’s just a huge contradiction in terms, the way they say it.

WW: And you haven’t exactly softened your lyrical content…

ES: I’m sure the lyrical content has more thought behind it, of course, and the pronounciations are a little bit more camouflaged. But everything in the lyrics can be portrayed as like an attack on religion. So you can’t say that has any commercial value whatsoever.

WW: There were even those kinds of comments when you guys started singing in English. But in some ways, as your music has gotten more accessible, it’s also gotten more subversive, because more people are hearing your message.

ES: That’s true. But we just ignore those types of people who say those things. We don’t make music for them anyway. We make music for ourselves and the fans who like it. We don’t expect everyone to like what we do. But we also know that there’s going to be some new fans. As long as we are satisfied and happy with what we do, then everything after that is out of our hands. When we release an album, it’s out of our hands, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

WW: How have your audiences changed in the States since you started getting MTV2 airplay, and since you appeared on Ozzfest?

ES: In the States, it’s a very growing market for us. Every time we tour here, we seem to be playing bigger places, and the fan base seems to increase by each time. That’s, of course, great. I’m sure the Ozzfest thing was a very smart for us to do exposure-wise, too. It’s been going well for us since then. We haven’t been to the States touring for three years, and we were a bit skeptical that maybe some people had forgotten about us. But five shows into this new tour, it seems that there’s more and more people coming. That’s very good, of course.

WW: You mentioned earlier that you never expected to have the amount of success you have now. Do you see the band ever becoming a mainstream success in the U.S.? Or do you like being outsiders?

ES: I think we’ll always be outsiders. At least that’s how I’ve looked upon this band from the beginning. It would surprise me a lot if this would be the type of music that would sell millions. Then again, you never know. The world is getting more extreme, and the kids probably want more extreme music, too. It could go hand in hand.

WW: A lot of people feel the news of the world is getting worse and worse. Do you see your music as reflecting that?

ES: Yeah, I think so. But I think it’s also safe to say that our music is like an outlet for that as well. There’s so many kids who go through a lot of bullshit when they grow up, and if music can be a good escape for them, that’s something really constructive. Instead of going out and shooting someone else in the back of the head, you put on an album instead. If we can prevent some people from doing that, it would be good, you know?

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts