One of the more surprising and inventive metal albums of 2007 had to be Dödsvisioner by Swedish outsider Bergraven. Consisting solely of the lone Per Gustaffssons, the album he crafted in almost complete hermetic solitude is in turns violently harsh, beautifully lush, and branches off down many unexpected sonic off-ramps and tributaries. It’s an incredibly personal and idiosyncratic album, but the individuality comes through not as much in lyrics and/or frontmanisms, but in the beautifully controlled sonics of the album. Bergraven creates art that is as much songs as atmospheres, shifting and metamorphosing into different moods, dabbling in different textures/genres, while still keeping an essential dark heaviness.
Gustaffsons–and by extension Bergraven–interests me too because he seems on his way to becoming an iconoclast amongst iconoclasts, or at the very least a Brian Eno of metal. He takes pains to separate himself from any communities or ideologies that currently hold sway over metal’s darker edges and concentrates only on creating sound and keeping complete control over all aspects of Bergraven. Ironically, this approach puts him in the company of a growing number of isolationists, hermits, and depressives who seem intent on pushing black/extreme/what-have-you metal’s boundaries to the limits of expression. With a new album already written, the restless Gustaffssons and his Bergraven is definitely one to watch. Ink 19 spoke to him via email in the dead of winter.
You were in a band or two before Bergraven, weren’t you? It’s interesting to me that you decided to go it alone because for many musicians (and the audience), metal is more of a live and communal experience, whereas you–and a few other like minded musicians (Xasthur, Leviathan come to mind immediately)–seem to be purposely isolating yourself and creating your own way. What made you say “fuck it, I want to do it all by myself?”
Nothing made me say fuck it, there was never an option. I did not know anyone at the time (when I started Bergraven) who was sharing my ideas or was as creative as I was (and still am). I have not been in any well-known band, but I have always played and made my own music. I actually wish for a full-time partner, but I do not have a rehearsal place and my life is not so well planned at the moment so it would be very hard to try to rehearse regularly. I guess it is also the thing you mentioned about metal having a very “come together and bang your head” attitude. Bergraven was never made for that purpose and will never be, not that I refuse to play live, but I want the music to be more of a reflection of the introverted thoughts one might have. At least it is my introverted thoughts that makes me create this music and lyrics. There are enough extroverted bands whose power lies in the collective “bang your head”.
The guitar parts and atmospherics on Dödsvisioner conjured up a variety of moods, besides just, say, hate and war. I caught bits of post-punk, 4AD-style melancholy, and thrash metal. What are some of the influences on your playing?
Uhh here comes the impossible influences question again. It is very hard to explain how I interpret music and its atmosphere. I listen to almost every genre there is, but it seems that I focus on things that most people do not. I will give you an example. If I write here that I like the American band Fleetwood Mac, one might think of all the shitty songs that band have made a career with. BUT, the thing that fascinates me with that band is the way the guitarist Lindsey Buckingham (does not play on their earlier records) expresses himself with the guitar/voice and NOT that I love their, often awful, songs. Just listen to the song “I’m So Afraid” from the live performance The Dance (the album version earlier recorded is horrible even though it has really good lyrics), and try not to be touched by the expression in his vocals and the guitar solo–the man must be possessed by some force! That is the thing I am interested in from a band or musician and, as in this case, it gives me a feeling of darkness and almost frustration towards life and the unknown. With this said, it is pointless for me to start to name drop a thousand bands since I “listen for” the feelings that reflect my thoughts. I do not say that others do not listen with the same purpose, but no one interprets things the same way and that is also why I cannot really try to explain what I like in every band and how they influence me for one reason or another. As a bonus though, I must say that bands and composers like Amebix, Belketre, Coven, Goblin, Angelo Badalamenti, and Basel Kirchin have been played a lot in my apartment lately.
Tell me about the cover art for Dödsvisioner. Where did you find the image? It’s dignified and foreboding at the same time. Do you choose or design the artwork for your albums?
It is a crime scene photograph from 1901 that I found in a book, and I immediately thought it would be perfect for the concept of the album. It is almost as if the dead person on the picture reflects the vision of death there by the doors to “death” and with the man watching death from our world–it is fantastic. He looks as if he is really thinking the way I do about death–the monomaniac curiosity of the things the dead persons know and that I cannot know until I am there, almost envious in his eyes. I have decided how the artwork should look, but I have not made it myself. It is an old friend of mine who did it in conversation with me.
I’m curious about the philosophical underpinnings and lyrics for Dödsvisioner. For that matter, Bergraven seems to be an intensely personal project. What are you trying to communicate in your collected works?
I will never moralize or tell anything important to anyone with Bergraven. The purpose of the music is to get a lyrical and auditory atmosphere out from my thoughts and that cannot be related to any communication with any listener. I do not want a dialogue with the listener or to give him/her any directions about how to feel while listening. In that way I can express myself secretly personal and with a strong atmosphere. If you feel any, you can make out your own personal relation to the music. Each one makes his or her own misery or happiness. As for Dödsvisioner, I was monomaniac about the situation when a person dies and the thin line from a living to a dead person. I am still into this subject a lot but not in a fanatic way. I see darkness and happiness from other visions and that makes me write about some new matters as well. You will never completely understand my lyrics, not only because of the language, but also because they are but fragments from larger texts. Another thing is, how do you define lyrics to be personal or not? They are personal in the way that I have written them and that they have come from my mind, but they have nothing to do with my life outside of Bergraven. By personal lyrics I, as an example, do think more of a drug addict trying to describe his life or if Chris Isaak had actually lived through all his love stories in real life. You cannot see in my lyrics any traces of my reality, and that is why I can not say that my lyrics are personal.
Describe the compositional process behind a Bergraven song. Is it challenging composing, playing, and then layering this intense sort of music, basically in a vacuum? Are you a perfectionist in constructing the Bergraven sound?
When I make a song it is always started with some lyrical idea. I write a text from my thoughts, which later turns out rewritten to be the lyrics, and then while reading it over and over, I start to make the audio parts. After that I record one guitar and add some drum machine patterns just to have something to “jam” with while writing the 2nd guitar. Strangely the 2nd guitar then almost always turns out to be the 1st guitar, replacing the first 1st guitar, and I add a second 2nd guitar and then a 3rd followed by some bass lines and vocal arrangements. I am not sure if you follow me here, but then again I write my music alone and do not need to explain the riffs to anyone before it is absolutely ready. With this method I have created several different riffs from the same “1st” riff, but changed beyond recognition. There is no given Bergraven sound, but when I feel a certain way about something I have created, I know that belongs to Bergraven and not any other project. I would not say that I am a perfectionist–I hate bands playing too tight–but with Bergraven I want it solid and floating if I am not seeking the opposite effect just for a feeling or something.
How much of a role, if any, does improvisation play in your music? It sounds very precise and purposeful on album.
There are some parts of Dödsvisioner that are completely improvised, mostly bass lines, and in a way you can say that the riffs are built from improvisation. but only to a point where I am satisfied and that is more of “jamming out the riffs” I guess. Some material already written for a fourth record is only composed on sheets of music and with my harmonic knowledge, or unknowledge I would like to call it, since I know the “rules” only to be able to go against them. Improvised music can be fantastic but not when the strength in the music IS the improvisation. I mostly think of crazy jazz music that never goes anywhere and has no beginning or end. Sure it has some purpose and gives some strange feelings, but I guess I am not that free musically yet to appreciate it.
You’re obviously a pretty eclectic musician, given the range of instruments that you play on the album. What was it about black metal or extreme metal in general that seemed like the ideal outlet for you?
Black metal is a Satanic thing in my eyes, and since I am not a Satanist, I do not want to call my music black metal. I like the dynamics between over distorted guitars and very very clean guitars but my highest priority is to make atmospheric music no matter what “genre” it sounds like. There is, though, a perfect outlet for frustration in extreme metal, I think, and that makes some of my music perfect for the extremely frustrated lyrics I write. I am not actually an eclectic musician, I play guitar, bass, and sing on the album and that is nothing exceptional for me.
What is your earliest memory of music?
I remember when I was only a couple of years old sitting and listening to the Swedish composer Ralph Lundsten’s nature symphonies and looking at photographs of old Swedish castles and buildings. My father was very into photography at that time and he also played records while showing the pictures. That is something that has been stuck in my mind since then; he is a secret thinker and that has also made some impression on me. When I grew a little bit older I started to search in my parents’ record collections and got stuck with music like Vangelis, Queen, and Mountain. After that I started collecting records myself and started buying a lot of different things. My grandpa was a folk musician and he often played some tunes for me when I was a kid which had that old eerie feeling only an old man with a violin can create. Even though he played in a major key, it got somewhat sad. I started playing guitar and piano before I went to school, and almost immodestly wrote my own songs, and that spirit is still going strong.
What motivates you to create music? Do you find yourself working on music every day?
If I could I would work with music and lyrics every day. I think about it every day though and get ideas and write lyrics or texts about it. It is my mind that motivates me the most, but also desolate nature and strange feelings coming from… I do not know where actually and that is probably a part of it to. There is not any perfect band, concerning atmosphere and attitude for my taste up to this day and that is also a motivation. I am not saying that my music is perfect, not even for myself, but while listening to my music I can at least not blame anyone else for not making the right arrangements and atmospheres. Aghast were pretty damn close to a perfect band, but as with everything good they are now not active, at least not that I know of. I have to go to work as everyone does and that does take a lot of time which has a negative effect on the amount of time I get to work with Bergraven and my other ideas. But, I try to work as effectively and actively as possible.
Any thoughts to working in soundtrack music or collaborative work in the future? Or even side projects under another name?
I would really like to add moving pictures to my music or vice versa. It would be fantastic to get someone to interpret my music and lyrics in some kind of art outside of music. I have some other projects and bands going on with other names, but since nothing is decided about them, I would like to keep them secret for now. The latest official thing I did outside of Bergraven is a live performance with the Swedish death metal band Nominon on the 1st of December in Stockholm and that was a fantastic thing. They were one person short and asked me for help since it is the same drummer as I used for the recording of Dödsvisioner. Some really good death metal songs were played that more of the old-school style which I like more than all the new silly speed competitions many death metal bands want to win.
You’ve already started work on the next album. Would you update us about the progress on that front?
I have also finished the next album–at least the writing process of it all. I am trying to decide when it will be recorded at the moment and I hope that it will be early next year. I am writing music now for other projects and I also rehearse a lot on my own to make the next record as good as it can be. I am also trying to decide everything concerning the layout and all the things around the release. I hope it will be a new journey into the unknown and the things that cause one’s mind to wander off in thought.