interview by: Roberto Martinelli
Red. The color of blood, of passion, of fire.
Death. The ultimate silence and stillness.
Norway’s Madder Mortem is about the marriage of these contrasts, according to the group’s singer and lyricist, Agnete Kirkevaag. Kirkevaag and her band have quietly been making record after record of the truest, most emotional doom for years now - quietly in the sense that Madder Mortem has not yet received the attention it so richly deserves. For to behold the sounds and energy found on the band’s latest album, Deadlands, is to experience the pinnacle of that particular flavor of monumental, despondent passion that metal has.
Soaring and crushing, Kirkevaag’s singing turned out to be in fairly sharp contrast to her actual speaking persona, which is nervous and bright. On this particular day, Kirkevaag was getting over a “huge party” following Madder Mortem’s acclaimed performance the day before at Oslo’s Inferno Festival. With her voice cracking from pushing harder on stage, lack of sleep and massive whiskey consumption, making her sound a bit like Katharine Hepburn, the Doom Queen talked about the requisite pain she must go through for her art and how she can’t watch “Twin Peaks” alone.
Maelstrom: So, how does a nice girl from Nord-Odal get into a doom metal band?
Agnete Kirkevaag: Hahaha. Well, it probably started with Metallica and Sepultura. Actually, my auntie bought me and BP (Birger Petter Kirkevaag, Agnete’s brother who plays guitar in the band - Roberto) And Justice for All. We’d been listening to stuff like W.A.S.P. and Guns ‘n’ Roses; the 80s metal, the big hair bands. She just went into some record store and asked for something that was a bit rough.
Maelstrom: Wow. Your aunt sounds pretty cool.
Agnete Kirkevaag: She’s very cool. So she started buying me more tapes, which was also very important.
Maelstrom: I was kind of surprised. I was looking at the list of bands that you like (on Madder Mortem’s website, www.maddermortem.com, which is unbelievably great - Roberto), and a lot of the bands are ones that don’t sing melodically. You have this tremendous melodic voice. When I heard you, the first thing I thought of was Candlemass, even though they’re a lot cheesier than you are. I mean, I love Candlemass, but your music sounds more solid.
Agnete Kirkevaag: I do like them.
Maelstrom: Ok. But it wasn’t on the front. You know what I’m saying? I mean, the bands that you just mentioned now aren’t anything like what you do, other than being metal, obviously.
Agnete Kirkevaag: We had a big discussion about that with Century Media (Madder Mortem’s former label). We were doing the text for the press releases of All Flesh is Grass (the album before Deadlands - Roberto). They wanted us to cite inspirations. And what they actually mean by that is not to cite inspirations, but to mention bands that we think are similar to us.
Maelstrom: For dummy journalists who don’t know what to write.
Agnete Kirkevaag: What we actually did was name influences and inspirations that we don’t sound like, like Faith No More, Darkthrone and Arvo Pärt.
Maelstrom: It’s funny how Pärt comes up a lot in Norwegian metal or metal-related bands. I interviewed Heidi Tveitan, who’s the wife of the guy from Emperor, and she’s all about Pärt.
Agnete Kirkevaag: Well, she’s married to a guy who’s very into classical music. I don’t know why Pärt has gotten so much attention in Norway, but he’s been floating around in the metal world. It really makes sense: it appeals to people who like music with a lot of atmosphere. I also find Pärt pretty scary. It’s unsettling. For people who are into stuff from Cold Meat Industry, it makes sense. What surprises me is that other composers that would fit in with Pärt haven’t had as much popularity. They’d be perfect for the soundtrack of black metal people.
Maelstrom: Do you like Górecki? He’s from Poland.
Agnete Kirkevaag: No, I don’t know him. The stuff I have heard from Poland that I liked is by a guy called Ligeti. He has this cello thing that’s very, very great. And Penderecki also.
Maelstrom: I’m trying to get into him, but it’s more difficult.
Agnete Kirkevaag: It is difficult. It’s the same kind of scary stuff. We also have a Norwegian composer called Arne Nordheim, who is also very weird. It’s more electronic, actually. It’s good for metal people to open their minds to other stuff.
Maelstrom: How did you train your voice? I imagine you must have done lots of practice throughout your life.
Agnete Kirkevaag: By singing in bands, mostly. I’ve had some classical training, but mostly like taking care of my voice. But then I go and...
Maelstrom: ...drink whiskey!
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah. I smoke a lot, too, which doesn’t really make sense.
Maelstrom: You smoke a lot, too?
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah, I smoke quite a lot, actually. The Opeth (whom Madder Mortem had just finished a six week tour with - Roberto) guys said they’d never seen a band that smokes and eats as much. It was really funny. Probably an important event in my development was when I started with this youth club band, we had a very (unintelligible), so you had to sing very loudly. That’s basically where it comes from. I’m pushing my voice instead of sliding up into this head register, as most girls do. It’s usually the easiest style for girls to do. Men generally sing with their chests. When you do classical stuff, you try to blend these as much as possible. When you sing in the traditional heavy metal style, you push the chest voice up. It’s actually a very big strain on your vocal chords, but you get a lot more power.
Maelstrom: If there’s anything your vocals have, it’s this huge power.
Agnete Kirkevaag: (laugh) It’s getting more and more like a fist.
Maelstrom: I listened to the All Flesh is Grass record recently. It’s totally great, but Deadlands is even better. All that is good about All Flesh is Grass is improved. The melodies are more well-crafted, and you’ve dropped almost all the gruff vocals, which I think don’t fit as well into what you’re doing. Obviously, you think so too.
Agnete Kirkevaag: We do it when it suits it. The development has been good. We’re learning a lot more with every record. Technically, we’re getting better at things like sound. We’re growing together more as a band. For All Flesh is Grass, we had three new members come in a month before we recorded the album. Since then we’ve had the same lineup. We put a lot of focus on the melodies. It’s very concentrated around the vocal melodies. I think we got a lot better at writing songs.
Maelstrom: Yes, I agree. I don’t want this to sound like I don’t think All Flesh is Grass is great, because I really love it, but Deadlands is in a class by itself, for sure.
Agnete Kirkevaag: I think it’s better, too! (Laugh) If I didn’t, then we’d be doing something wrong. That’s very important to me. If we do make an album, it’s supposed to mean that we can do something better than what we did before. If we can’t, then we’ve failed. At least, we have to think so.
Maelstrom: Your sound is SO huge. The production is perfect, and your vocals are so big and crushing. Generally, I don’t read lyrics in metal albums because either I think they’re dumb, or I don’t get it because they’re cryptic and don’t make any sense to me, but the lyrics that you write are just as crushing as your vocals. It seems that this theme that you’ve picked for this new record has really focused your writing. What got into you to write all this?
Agnete Kirkevaag: I think it’s just me being me, or at least a big part of me. One of the reasons the lyrics are better is because I put a lot more focus on it and worked on it quite a lot harder. It was something I really wanted to improve. Also, we have this conceptual idea for the album, which I think is also good for the lyrics because you can make the nine songs better together lyrically, but also musically. There is this idea of the dead lands, which is taking a state of mind that would be easiest described as “rock bottom”: Sitting very quietly in a chair and watching the world crumble around you, and you really don’t have the energy to react to it.
Maelstrom: That’s what comes through.
Agnete Kirkevaag: What I’ve tried to do is project this feeling into a physical landscape, and make a visual representation of this state of mind. That’s the dead lands. I imagine it as a stone desert: cold, very still and very stale - everything is covered with dust, but filthy, filthy dust. A place that is dessicated and crumbling and merging into a part of this dusty filth that covers everything.
Maelstrom: Mostly because of the artwork that you’ve chosen for the record, it makes me think of like a fantasy, Egyptian pyramid building hell.
Agnete Kirkevaag: The pyramid thing is a very, very good reference. The first lyric and first song we properly finished was “Necropol Lit,” the opener. It sort of pointed us in the right direction, and me lyrically very much. “Necropol” is the city of the dead, in Greek. I think of it as huge stone buildings with rough slabs. A city for dead people is a very cruel irony: putting all that effort into building a town that no one will ever live in. Waste. Doing so much for absolutely nothing.
Maelstrom: How does it make you feel when you’re making or performing this stuff?
Agnete Kirkevaag: It’s a pain. It’s most of all rightness, because it’s true. That’s the most important thing to me. I has to be true so I can sing honestly. It shines through in three seconds if you don’t really mean what you say. But it’s also pain. This theme of catharsis through your music, that’s not really working for me.
Maelstrom: Do you like to feel pain when you do this?
Agnete Kirkevaag: No. But it’s right. It’s necessary. It’s not really a matter of choice. It’s what I do, and the only way I can make it sound and be right. It has to be that intense for me. I want people to get it. It could go in the other direction at some point. If I’d been writing happy stuff, I’d have wanted it to be so. But, I’m not exactly... at least, that part of me is not a happy person. I’m not a sad miser, living depressively. Everybody has layers. I think my social persona is very cheery. I laugh and talk a lot. But that is one part, and it couldn’t exist without the other side. It might be that I’m more in touch with the darker and less pleasant aspects of my personality than most people are.
Maelstrom: If you could sing a duet with anyone, who would it be?
Agnete Kirkevaag: Mike Patton (Faith no More, Fantomas, et al). He’s a big idol for me. I really, really love his voice; and perhaps more, his way of using vocals.
Maelstrom: How would that turn out? If he did his thing and you did your thing, what would that be like?
Agnete Kirkevaag: I think it would be really cool. Some of the stuff he does is very intense. It’s really, really scary. Musically, it would turn out really cool. I don’t do as many strange things as he does. I’m expanding. I’ll probably do more and more strange stuff as the years go by, to keep myself occupied. But I think it would fit well. He does have a very large sort of voice, if you know what I mean, when he sings properly.
Maelstrom: I love that Fantomas The Director’s Cut album. The first track of the “Godfather” thing. That’s so entertaining, funny and cool.
Agnete Kirkevaag: At the same time, some of the record is really... not nice. I think it’s the theme from “Rosemary’s Baby,” the thing at the end really scared me. Do you like Tomahawk?
Maelstrom: You know, I was going to ask you about that. It seems that everyone in Madder Mortem loves that, but I don’t know what it is.
Agnete Kirkevaag: It’s another Mike Patton project. It’s on Ipecac, I think. It’s more straight forward music than Fantomas. It’s very Patton-esque.
Maelstrom: Speaking of side projects, you’re in a couple: Magma and Utburd. Obviously, Magma makes one think of the French prog band.
Agnete Kirkevaag: It’s me and Christian, our cover designer, who played guitar on our very first album - we’re kind of a very happy little family. It’s me and Christian doing very sweet, acoustic songs with Norwegian lyrics from Norwegian poetry. The other thing (and I didn’t know about the French band), Utburd, is a joke. It’s me and some girlfriends of mine who decided to make a girl black metal band. Utburd is the Norwegian word for, if you put a baby into the forest to die, the ghost would be called “utburd.”
Maelstrom: Oh, my god! What a culturally specific thing! (Laugh)
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah (laugh). So, just for fun we wanted to make this website and pretend like we’d recorded lots of demos and have really cool band photos with corpsepaint and lots of cleavage. (Laugh) That way we’d appeal to both Norwegians and Germans, obviously.
Maelstrom: Who are the other girls?
Agnete Kirkevaag: Just friends of mine.
Maelstrom: So, you have no actual recordings?
Agnete Kirkevaag: No, no, no. That would be totally wrong for the project.
Maelstrom: Yeah, totally wrong. Absolutely.
Agnete Kirkevaag: It’s supposed to be all hype. What we plan to do is write about an extremely underground and very rare demo that we did. It would be recorded out in the woods, so that you can really get the atmosphere and also hear, like, the power generator going in the background. (Chuckle) Then we want to try to get a live gig at like, the Inferno Festival, just for laughs. Black metal needs a good kick in the ass now and then to keep it serious, I think.
Maelstrom: I want to give you a couple bands, and I want you to give me your thoughts. The Gathering.
Agnete Kirkevaag: She’s a really good singer.
Maelstrom: Your softer parts remind me of her, but your range is much bigger than hers.
Agnete Kirkevaag: She also uses the pushing the chest voice upwards style. I think she has an amazingly good control. I haven’t really been following them. I like the Mandylion album a lot. I have years and years at a time when I don’t go out and check out new music because my head is so full of my own.
Maelstrom: The Third and the Mortal.
Agnete Kirkevaag: Oh, one of my favorites.
Maelstrom: You know, they’re one of my favorites, too. Painting on Glass is one of my favorites ever. I don’t know how you feel about their recent album, Memoirs, but I was so disappointed. I mean, it’s a good record, but it’s Portishead! They had an original sound and traded it in for somebody else’s.
Agnete Kirkevaag: I really love Memoirs. I haven’t connected with Portishead, but I can see what you mean. My opinion of that record is greatly colored by the fact that I first heard the songs live. I was totally surprised because the record has had zero publicity in Norway. But the concert totally blew me off my feet. So I went and bought the record. So my connection with the record is with the concert. But I’d say my favorite is also Painting on Glass. I love the singer.
Maelstrom: A lot of people seem to think that Kari Rueslåtten is the best. I think that record is nice, but Painting on Glass for sure is my favorite.
Agnete Kirkevaag: I think “nice” is a good word. The first records are good - and this is a very unpopular opinion to have in Norway, especially because there are many Kari fans around - she has a very nice voice and sings very well, but I think Ann-Mari Edvardsen (who sings on Painting on Glass) has a lot more personality. It’s much more my thing. I like that a lot better than this sort of pretty style.
Maelstrom: She’s a lot more mature sounding. Rueslåtten’s style is a lot like bubble gum.
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah!
Maelstrom: I saw that the photography on your Mercury album is by Runhild Grammelsæter!
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah.
Maelstrom: Who is like, the biggest cult figure if you like doom, since she was the vocalist on Thorr’s Hammer. (She’s also on the new Sunn. Read about it in the interview in this issue - Roberto).
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah, I’ve heard about it.
Maelstrom: You’ve never heard it?!?!?!
Agnete Kirkevaag: No, are you crazy?
Maelstrom: You have heard it, right?
Agnete Kirkevaag: No, no, no. I was looking through stuff about it on the web. Some interview with her somewhere popped up. She’s definitely not a part of any metal scene anymore.
Maelstrom: Do you know what her vocals are like?
Agnete Kirkevaag: No.
Maelstrom: They’re the most brutal, growled, guttural vocals ever. They totally kill just about every male vocalist of this style.
Agnete Kirkevaag: That’s cool. That’s very cool.
Maelstrom: It’s AMAZING.
Agnete Kirkevaag: She’s a nice girl.
Maelstrom: How did you get in contact with her?
Agnete Kirkevaag: Through Misanthropy (Records). She was hired to do photography for other bands.
Maelstrom: You’re an accountant. I know that’s totally not exciting, but I think it’s pretty cool you put that up there on your site, right out in the open, ‘cause it’s just about the least metal job you can think of.
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah, it is. That’s actually what kills me nowadays. Just imagine the feeling of getting back from six weeks of touring Europe with Opeth on Friday, and going back to accounting on Monday.
Maelstrom: Do your co-workers know about your musical career, and what do they think of it?
Agnete Kirkevaag: They find it extremely fascinating and they don’t get any of it. They either ask, “do you sacrifice children?” or, “do you do your own songs, then?” They either have this fantastic vision of something really grand, like total 80s rock ‘n’ roll luxury hotels and thousands of screaming fans, or ask me if we write our own songs. You should see their faces when I try to explain something like headbanging. “Yeah, you basically bob your head like this. It’s very correct for the style.” They go, “ohhh....ok.” I came back with my first tattoo, and it was like, “ooh-la-la. This is strange.”
Maelstrom: Naturally, “Twin Peaks” is amongst your favorite things.
Agnete Kirkevaag: Well, Lynch in total, basically. I love “Twin Peaks,” but I can’t watch it alone. It scares the hell out of me.
Maelstrom: There’s a part in episode - I can’t remember, like, 11 (?) - the part when we clearly find out that Leland Palmer is Killer Bob, and he kills Maddie.
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah,
Maelstrom: That part, when you see him laughing, and his face changes, that freaked me out for three months. (Laugh)
Agnete Kirkevaag: You remember that one scene where he comes climbing across the coffee table toward the couch, and it’s filmed really fast? (Chilled breathing) I nearly pee my pants every time. If I do see this alone, I have to crawl underneath a blanket and put my head under there and lie very still and hope nobody finds me. I have this fear remaining from childhood, a fear of the dark.
Maelstrom: Wow, the doom queen is afraid of this stuff. That’s a revelation.
Agnete Kirkevaag: Actually, it’s a very important factor. I think it might be the same kind of over-active imagination, intense thought processes, and being too impressionable that lead me to make music in the way I do. It’s not like I think things are there, but that I imagine things that <could> be there.
Maelstrom: That’s a great reason to be in a band and write songs.
Agnete Kirkevaag: (laugh)
Maelstrom: Although your English is perfect, you’re not a native English speaker. However, you write all your Madder Mortem lyrics in English. Is that ever a pain?
Agnete Kirkevaag: I think it in English. I am trying to do some Norwegian lyrics, because I’d like to do at least one song in Norwegian. It’s so much more difficult.
Maelstrom: Wow! Why?
Agnete Kirkevaag: English is the traditional language for any kind of rock music. The good thing is, people understand it. How many speak Norwegian? Four million and then some.
Maelstrom: And most of them don’t get headbanging.
Agnete Kirkevaag: No. (laugh) Exactly. English is a much bigger language, not in terms of how many people speak it, but in the amount of words. So many more words exist than in Norwegian.
Maelstrom: Yeah, but you guys have words like “utburd.” (Laugh)
Agnete Kirkevaag: Yeah, but this huge amount of words in English are words used to describe stuff, like adverbs. It’s much easier to find a very specific word that goes well with the feeling of the lyric. Norwegian is much harsher. But that means whatever you write is so much stronger. The thing about English is that it’s much easier to camouflage stuff. Norwegian feels very, very naked. It’s my mother tongue, and the way I write in Norwegian is very direct. I take a lot of inspiration from the way they wrote songs back in the Viking days. I do a lot of alliterations; Madder Mortem is a good example. Norwegian being a strict language with a lot of consonants, if you sing in it, it gives it a lot of rhythm.
Maelstrom: It worked for Darkthrone. What does the title “All Flesh is Grass” mean?
Agnete Kirkevaag: It’s a Bible quote. I put a lot of my own meaning into it. “All flesh is grass, and all goodliness is like a flower in the field.” I think it originally is talking about how good is uncommon. But what I put into it is a focus that it’s all irrelevant. If you know what you want and it’s important, all the rest is irrelevant. It’s also like the feeling of sitting on a mountaintop and looking down on everything, like a festival or something. From a very high altitude, it would look like grass - human grass. It’s also a bit about how we’re not important. We’re all little pieces of grass. We’re born; we die; we don’t leave our mark upon anything. Except that we fertilize the ground.
Maelstrom: And, in some cases, leave us with some really cool records.
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