Watain have been on the front lines of black metal for over two decades now, and after one of their customary periods in the shadows after concluding their previous Trident Wolf Eclipse cycle, return to announce their new album with an aggressive new single "The Howling".
To many, Watain are the embodiment of black metal ethos, committing not just in their music but their entire being to offering the kind of subversive alternative and immersive portal to somewhere other that defines this genre’s traditions, but they have also become notorious greeting controversy at many a turn.
Frontman Erik Danielsson is a more thoughtful and soft-spoken mouthpiece than the headlines might suggest, possessing a quiet confidence in his assertions that could be read as more antagonistic without hearing the considered delivery he gives his words.
To talk about 'The Howling' and its upcoming parent record, our conversation also touches on a less conservative musical approach, ideological accusations, and their newly announced US tour with fellow black metal elite, Mayhem.
As the first taste of a new record, what kind of piece is "The Howling" to you when looking at the wider album?
Danielsson - I think this was a pretty natural single choice, in the sense that it can be a standalone song. While I usually prefer albums being listened to as a whole, I think that this has its own spirit and its own strengths which is what I’m looking for when picking an introduction to an album. We always try to think about the fact that people haven’t heard any new material for a long time, and so what would be a cool way to introduce people to the next era of the band. It’s almost impossible to do but I’m really content with the choice actually.
It's an immediately aggressive, melodic but ferocious track which feels familiar to where you have most recently been with Trident Wolf Eclipse. Watain obviously has a very consistent goal and place the music is coming from but compared to how Trident Wolf Eclipse felt like a very different approach almost as response to what you'd done with The Wild Hunt, would it be inaccurate to infer that you're still exploring some of the feelings that you were on the last record with this one?
Danielsson - There is a much broader canvas, I would say. It’s funny that you have that feeling that it is similar to 'Trident', which I have come to think of as quite a standalone album in a way. The very idea of pinpointing music like that is very abstract but what I’m getting at is that the album that is about to come out in April is a completely different story to 'Trident Wolf Eclipse'. 'Trident Wolf Eclipse' was very much an exploration of the most violent, predatory side of ourselves, and musically we were going all in for a traditional barbaric black metal approach, while with the new album we are perhaps more concerned with the entirety of Watain. It’s not as intentionally one-sided which 'Trident Wolf Eclipse' was in a way, which was cool as fuck but at the same time something that you can feel that you’re done with after having done it.
The recording line-up for this album has taken on more of the live line-up of the band, with drummer Håkan Jonsson being absent and the live players being with you. The trio has been so central to Watain since its inception, so in what way did the energies of the new music change with more of a five-piece set-up involved?
Danielsson - What’s important to know here is that we are still writing as the original three-piece, myself, Håkan, and Pelle. I write most of the music myself but Håkan and Pelle are also a part of that process, maybe Håkan even more so. When it comes to writing music, that’s still where things are at, and I think we will always try to keep it that way because we have such a natural flow between us when it comes to composing and creating things together. When it comes to performance, Håkan didn’t see the necessity of him playing the drums on the recording now as Emil has been playing with live since 2014, and he approached us saying that he wanted to give the drumsticks over to Emil in the studio as well as he wants to focus on writing music. That was quite undramatic and not unexpected, and what it led to was that we ended up with the exact same line-up that we have been touring now with since 2014. You of course build up something between you when you perform on stage which is the most intense way of performing together, so we were eager to try that in the studio, and to try and underline that we also went for recording live which is the first time we have done that. None of the instruments were tracked separately, we performed the songs together in one room, which was intense and everything we had hoped for it to be. I just wish we had done that with every album. It’s very effective of course, you get a song done in a day, but it’s also just for the atmosphere and the common force that comes out performing together, to be able to capture that now feels obvious. When you play wild heavy metal music, of course it should be performed that way. That is now how I feel and I don’t really want to do it any other way again.
With Watain being so tied into this sense of chaos and trying to attain some kind of greater individual freedom, how was the creation of an album for you during a period of sudden extreme restriction and existential uncertainty?
Danielsson - I think if anything it contributed a little bit to the general existential side of the album. Not necessarily because of what was actually going on in terms of restrictions and all that, but just that we were given a little bit more time to reflect on things. I think that a general state of change, of turmoil and upheaval, is not going to be something that is going to halt a creative process for us, it’ll be the other way round. It was quite cool to be riding in the midst of a very new worldwide situation. I like change, I like when people are being challenged with new situations. Everyone thinks about death to a certain extent but of course now it’s been a more obvious topic of discussion around the dinner-table worldwide, and I don’t see anything bad in that at all. People need to face the definitive things and the general idea that everything passes, and that that is a very healthy thing to reflect on. Ultimately it intensifies life and where you are right now. That’s an idea that has really found its way into the lyrics of this album, that by facing and acknowledging finitude and death, you come to terms with a number of things and you’re able to live a bit harder and a bit wilder. That’s the path that I’ve chosen and for me, facing the idea of death has been extremely beneficial to be able to live the way I do.
You're such an all or nothing, immerse yourself into the sights and smells type of band that's potentially at odds with the digitalised COVID world. You don't strike as the Zoom type, as much as that's where we find ourselves today.
Danielsson - When it comes to actually getting your hands dirty and doing the work with Watain, I think we’re always looking for a hands-on approach as much as possible. We always preferred to be up and close with the gritty surface of our beings. I’m always a bit sceptical when things are too digitalised without there being a total necessity for it. I have nothing against advances, I see no difference between speaking on Zoom and speaking on the phone, but I always try to be a bit cautious. It’s getting a bit obvious with Nuclear Blast now with the album, who are doing a great job so far but you can of course tell that they are used to working with modern technology and the kids of today, where I am not and will always try to do things the old way. I think that translates into how we do things with Watain and how there is a lot of texture to what we do and it’s not so clinical.
You've always prided yourself on being torchbearers for a very spiritually traditional idea of what black metal is in terms of using it to connect with the beyond, to connect with the devil, and that that principle should stand separate from any changing cultural attitudes or political discourse. With how culture has changed in the last decade or so and these things have really flared up with accusations being thrown at your band on various occasions, is it harder to do what you do without being drawn into specific conversations and placing your band in those kind of cultural contexts?
Danielsson - I wouldn’t say that it’s harder for us, I think that we just stick to our guns, but I think that it’s harder for other people to know how to approach Watain in a more wary approach to art in general. People are getting a little bit more uptight and the climate is difference of course, but I hereby give that problem to everyone else. It’s up to everyone how they take in a band like Watain in any new political landscape or whatever, and I think that people have to make up their own minds. As far as we are concerned, we have never really felt a need to adapt in that sense when it comes to things that are actually being said in our music or how we present ourselves. There has been controversy and there have been articles written about how we approach the gap between black metal and the newer ethical, moral approach to art, that have raised questions for us about how complicated these things are in a mainstream situation for us, but I welcome these kind of discussions. I think they are very good and that it is very important to talk about what is forbidden and what is allowed, what is entertainment and what is something else. I think they are great discussions to have and I would hope for more fruitful conversations like that, and I think that Watain can be definitely be a good ingredient in those kind of discussions because we are quite open in the fact that we constitute some kind of counterpart to what is considered normative or morally correct today. I think that when it comes to the political spectrum, which is usually what these conversations end up being about, the only thing I would ask there is for people to examine Watain a little bit and what we are saying in our lyrics and anywhere else. If they think it’s possible, try to place that on a political left and right scale, and I would be quite surprised if we ended up on the right side of that scale. Ultimately we don’t really deal in those kind of terms and I don’t think you’d find much of what we say or do in that spectrum, but at the same time people do tend to see political elements in things that I have personally considered apolitical. In the end, again I always leave those things to be determined by everyone else. I am not going to tell anyone what to think, and think it’s very important for people to make up their own minds on these kind of things.
On the other hand, ten years or so ago Watain felt almost a little alone in being the most prominent band who were pushing this kind of music onto fresh new listeners, whereas now someone like Behemoth have been able to go out and play with big mainstream bands in arenas, and a band like Ghost who originally have roots in similar musical scenes to you have become the great rock success story of their generation. How do you feel that profile of black metal or of Satanic music in general affects your own mission compared to 10 years ago when you were more isolated in banging that drum in larger metal spaces?
Danielsson - I think that both Behemoth and Ghost are very good examples of entertainment, and they are I think quite open in that as well. Of course that is going to attract a lot of people, and that’s great, that’s what they do. I am quite content with our position in all of this because I think that people maybe want a little more meat on the bones, and that they might turn to Watain instead if they think that Ghost are too poppy, or that Behemoth is too showy or whatever. Everyone fills their own role and sweeps their side of the street. I don’t have anything bad to say about any of these bands, just that we do things a little bit differently and as much as I was ten years ago I am happy about where Watain is at.
Despite the spiritual traditionalism in terms of what black metal is about and the aim you are trying to achieve with it, you have with records like 'Lawless Darkness' and particularly 'The Wild Hunt' been able to show how that goal can be furthered by pushing the boat out to areas that are more expansive and not super traditionalist to black metal musically. With the more ferocious element of Watain being more dominant in recent memory, is that a side of Watain that you are still drawn to and that we may see be represented on this album or in future?
Danielsson - Definitely. As long as we continue writing music, I think we’re always gonna explore the edges of things rather than just sticking to one singular place at all times. It’s almost a must if you’re gonna do this for as long as we have, it’s important to allow yourself to go wherever the fuck you wanna go. You do that because you want to though, not because people hope for it or expect it. You have to go where you feel drawn to as an artist and as a musician, and you can’t make those decisions just based on what you did on the last album. I would say though that on the new album we have definitely gone to places that we have not gone to before and that I am very curious to hear how that will be taken in by people. Maybe over the years I have gone from being a bit uninterested in what people have to say about those kind of twists and turns to becoming interested in that. There’s a reward in seeing the reactions of people and how they deal with unpredictability. It’s maybe not so important in the grand scheme of things but it’s definitely something I’m interested in more now than before.
You've also announced a US tour with Mayhem who have become very frequent touring partners for you by this stage - their history speaks for itself but what makes Mayhem as they exist today a band that you find yourself coming together with so often?
Danielsson - We get along quite well, at least with Attila he is someone I feel we share quite a lot of things with and with him in the band I believe that they still have something to give. Their manager and their front of house guy owns Necromorbus Studio where we record our albums, so our paths cross quite often. We talk quite a lot, I talked to Attila just yesterday about the tour, plus I think from an outside perspective people draw comparisons between the two bands being similar kind of bands from different generations perhaps. While I maybe don’t agree with that to the fullest extent, I still see what people mean by that, and it makes for a pretty cool tour line-up. For the US, it’s a Norwegian and a Swedish band of that calibre which really works.
Watain is confirmed to release their seventh full length studio album, The Agony & Ecstasy Of Watain, April 29th via Nuclear Blast Records. Order the album - HERE. Watch pro-shot footage of the band's recent performance in Chaudronneries de Montreuil in Montreuil-sur-Mer, France ahead of their appearance at Hellfest in June.